by Dark Matter Staff
It was midnight now, and a cold fog had taken hold
Dr. Foster, who was stuck in the thick of it and seemingly adrift, shifted impatiently upon his uncomfortable seat inside the tiny rowboat and cursed the way it rocked so terribly beneath him. He brought a cigarette to his lips and lit it with a trembling hand. “Do you even know where we are?” he asked. His voice was desperate, and this, upon immediate reflection, embarrassed him. He took a drag of the smoke and peppered the ash into the water.
Dr. Parsons grunted as he pulled back on the heavy oars. “Put that damned thing out.” He emphasized the word “damned” for reasons that to Foster seemed petty.
Dr. Foster shot his colleague a wounded look. “I smoke when I’m nervous, okay.” He took a deliberate drag just to stick it to his surly critic but choked when he caught a sudden movement in the water. Gripping the side of the boat with his free hand while still elevating the glowing cigarette above the splashing water with his other, he coughed violently in the direction of Dr. Parsons. This was not on purpose, but as far as Parsons was concerned, it might as well have been.
“Dammit, Foster!” Parsons exclaimed, turning his head to avoid the indignity.
“Did you see that?” exclaimed Foster, pointing at the water with his trembling cigarette. “Something down there was moving!”
Dr. Parsons slapped the indulgence from his colleague’s hand, embers flying as the smoke pin-wheeled into the void. “All I see is an idiot!” said Parsons. He pushed Foster backwards onto his seat before the excitable young moron could capsize the small vessel with his flailing. “Now grab the lantern and hold it here!”
Dr. Foster unhooked the glowing lantern from the stern and held it up to reveal Dr. Parsons’ old face glaring back at him.
“Not there,” Parsons growled. “Here!” He snatched the lantern from Foster’s weak, ineffective grip, and dangled it over the side of the boat to illuminate the suspect water.
“Have you taken the medicine recently?” Dr. Parsons asked.
Dr. Foster shrugged. “Yeah,” he said, sounding unsure. His eyes were probing the illuminated water for danger.
“Did you? Or didn’t you?” said Parsons. He demanded clarification.
“I don’t know! Like…twenty minutes ago or something. I took half a dose when we got here and another half when we boarded the boat.”
Dr. Parsons fished a small vial of black liquid from his coat pocket and held it out for Dr. Foster to take.
“Here,” he ordered. “Take another one.”
“I don’t want to take another one if I just took one twenty minutes ago,” said Foster.
“Take it!” Dr. Parsons shoved the black vial into Dr. Foster’s chest.
Dr. Foster swatted the old man’s hand away. “Are you crazy! I’ll overdose!”
“You would,” agreed Dr. Parsons, “if I thought your last dose was twenty minutes ago.”
“I’m not lying, you old lunatic.”
“No,” agreed Parsons. “You’re not. You’re just mistaken. Now take the dose.” He shoved the vial into Foster’s chest again.
Foster felt the chill of cold objective truth rush up his spine. A bit baffled, and completely terrified, he cautiously accepted the vial.
“What do you mean?”
“If not twenty minutes, then how long have we been on the boat?”
Parsons moved the lantern to search another area of the water.
“Two hours,” he finally answered.
Foster’s heart sank. “You’re sure?” he asked.
The old man just nodded soberly.
“Okay then,” said Foster, sounding every bit dismayed. “I guess it’s bottoms up.” He removed the cork from the vial, but before ingesting the foul-smelling liquid, he paused. “But what if you’re the one who’s wrong? What if you’re the one that needs to take this?”
Parsons slunk away from the gunwale and took a careful seat inside the boat. He spoke calmly, but Foster could tell the old man was unsettled. “I know what my nightmares look like, and what’s in the water right there is nothing I’ve ever dreamed up.”
Foster suddenly felt nauseous. He moved to peer carefully over the side of the boat and into the water.
“Don’t, you idiot!” Parsons shouted.
Foster, realizing that Parsons was right, settled back into his seat. He exhaled slowly in an effort to calm himself. “What does it look like?” he asked. “Wait! Never mind. Don’t tell me. I’ll take your word for it. The nightmare is mine.” He raised the vial of medicine in a mock-cheers to Parsons and shot it back like it were a nip of cheap whiskey.
Parsons used the lantern to inspect the water where the creature had been. It was gone.
“You have a very disturbed mind,” said Parsons.
“I’m afraid of water,” Foster said in defense. “Do you have any idea the anxiety I’m experiencing right now just being out here? And thanks to you, I can’t even calm myself with a smoke.”
Parsons sighed. He removed a fresh cigarette from his pocket and handed it to Foster. “Here. Just keep it away from me, okay.”
Foster nodded his agreement and graciously accepted the gift. He pointed at Parsons’ pocket with the tobacco-end of the cigarette. “I thought you didn’t like manifesting things unless it was absolutely necessary to do so.”
Parsons hung the lantern upon the bow and grabbed the oars. “I find it absolutely necessary that I keep you from driving me nuts,” he said in retort.
Foster accepted the remark with a knowing shrug and happily lit the cigarette upon his lips. “So, what do you know about this Dr. Atwater? Is he really as weird as they say?”
Parsons snorted. “Dr. Atwater is the strangest man I’ve ever met in my life. But I think that goes without saying. I mean, look around you, Foster. What kind of man do you think lives in a place like this?”
“A troubled one,” Foster said, mumbling over the cigarette still perched upon his lips. He took a drag from the cigarette and blew the smoke out over the water. “They say he went all cuckoo after his wife died.”
Parsons labored again with the oars. He grunted with each methodical stroke. “Who’s ‘they?’” he groaned.
Foster shrugged. “You know…other doctors in the field. Other quantum psychoanalysts.”
Parsons acknowledged the rumors with a healthy bit of skepticism. “I’m sure that was part of it,” he agreed. He pulled on the oars and grunted. “But I knew him before his wife’s passing, and he was odd even then. To be honest, I think her death only amplified the crazy that was already there.”
“And now he lives here,” said Foster
“And now he lives here,” Parsons affirmed.
Foster huffed. “Talk about losing yourself in your work.”
“No,” Parsons disagreed. “This isn’t work anymore.” He scanned his foggy surroundings with a morbid curiosity. “This is obsession.”
Foster agreed half-heartedly. “Yeah, but the engineers that used to be assigned to his projects say he’s actually quite brilliant. According to them, he made significant strides in the areas of psycho-subjectivity before his funding was cut. They said he was this close to solving the Tarot Problem.”
“Oh, I have no doubt he’s brilliant,” said Parsons. “I knew the man, remember. But I’m also quite sure that he’s dangerous. Dr. Atwater may seem normal at times, Foster, but don’t be fooled. It doesn’t take much for him to become completely unhinged.”
“It’s a good thing they sent two PhDs to apprehend him then,” Foster chided.
“Well it’s not like they can send the police,” Parsons countered.
“Yeah,” Foster mumbled. “That’s what concerns me.” He flicked the dying cigarette into the fog. “Looks like we’re here.”
Parsons turned around to see what Foster saw. Roughly a quarter mile out, the fog had grown light enough to reveal the rocky coastline and jagged pines of the mysterious island they aimed to find. A few hundred feet from the water, nestled amid the moonlit evergreens, was a crumbling old manor house. The house was dark save for a single lighted window on the second floor, and in that window, stood the rigid silhouette of a man.
“Who wants to knock?” Foster asked. “Should you knock? Or should I?”
“Don’t be an idiot!” Parsons scolded. He grabbed the brass knocker upon the door and used it to knock once, twice, three times upon the oak.
A few moments later, the door creaked open to reveal a balding man in his middle age dressed sharply in a butler’s uniform. He greeted the pair with suspicion.
“We’re here to see Dr. Atwater,” said Parsons.
Foster bowed to the butler like a moron.
“Dr. Atwater is not home at the moment,” said the butler.
“Oh,” said Parsons, feigning surprise. “Well, we can wait.” And without being invited, he pushed his way past the butler and into the grand foyer.
Foster, meanwhile, waited for the butler to go in pursuit of Parsons before he, too, slipped inside and quietly closed the door behind him.
“I’ll have you know that this is private property,” said the butler to Parsons. “You have no right to be here.”
“Neither of those statements is true,” argued Parsons. “But I wouldn’t expect you to know any better seeing as how you’re just a figment of Dr. Atwater’s imagination.” He pointed to a stone fireplace. “Is there any way we can light this? It’s quite dark in here.”
The butler snapped his gloved fingers and a fire burst to life inside the hearth. It crackled peacefully and emitted a pleasant warmth. The butler then spoke sternly to the rude intruder. “And I’ll have you know that I’m not a figment of anyone’s imagination, Dr. Parsons. But I wouldn’t expect you to know any better. You’ve always been quite senile.”
“He’s right,” said Dr. Foster. He was standing just inside the doorway with an open manila folder in his hands that he had manifested after entering. He pointed to a paper contained within the folder. “Says right here. Dr. Alan Merriweather. Age fifty-three. Employed by Lotus Technologies from 2096-2099. Terminated in the fall of that year. Bachelor’s degree from Stanford. Master’s degree from Boston University. PhD in Quantum Psychoanalysis. Fellowship at M.I.T. Professor at Yale.” Foster looked up from a photograph of Merriweather in order to address his partner directly. “Guy’s legit, Parsons.”
“I know who he is,” Parsons grumbled. “I didn’t recognize him at first, but that’s Alan Merriweather all right. We shared a lab at M.I.T. What are you doing here, you old fraud? I thought you were banned from quantum psychoanalytics after you went off the deep end.”
“He went off the deep end?” Foster chimed, sounding more than a bit surprised. He went back through the stack of notes in the folder. He hadn’t seen anything about a psychotic break the first time through. Maybe it was only a minor one and he had skimmed over it by accident.
Dr. Merriweather the butler just glared at Dr. Parsons the research scientist as if daring him to say any more.
“He did, indeed,” said Parsons. “He called the Dean of Yale a deep-state sympathizer with…what were the words you used? Oh yes! A deep-state sympathizer with a hatred for all things white, male, and sane.”
“Slanderous gossip,” Merriweather calmly protested. “I never said any of that. And it’s never been proven that I did. The only reason the powers-that-be upheld the claims was so that they could fire me without violating my tenure.”
“There were emails,” said Parsons bluntly. “Lots of them. And of all the offensive things he wrote in those emails, accusing the dean of being a racist oligarch was no doubt the least offensive of the bunch.”
“Well, was the dean racist?” Foster asked. He was genuinely curious.
“Dammit, Foster!” Parsons exclaimed. “Will you just shut up already! Go smoke a cigarette outside or something!”
Merriweather grinned. “I see they finally matched you with your intellectual equal, Dr. Foster. Or is he your superior?”
“What are you doing here, Merriweather?” Parsons snapped. “And why are you dressed as a damn butler? And where’s Dr. Atwater? I know he’s here somewhere, so quit it with the lies.”
“Good evening, Dr. Parsons,” said a voice from the staircase. The three men in the foyer paused and turned their attention to the shadowy silhouette standing upon the lowest landing of the stairs. “I must admit,” the shadow continued, “I never expected to see you here. I’m still not entirely convinced you’re real. I’ve been having more hallucinations than normal, so I wouldn’t be surprised. I think the sleep deprivation is finally starting to take its toll. Are you real, Dr. Parsons?”
“He’s real,” Merriweather answered.
“But are you real, Dr. Merriweather?” the shadow asked.
“Oh, come now, Dr. Atwater,” an annoyed Merriweather scoffed. “Let us not play this game again.”
“I don’t see anything in the case files about Dr. Merriweather experiencing a psychotic break,” Foster announced from behind his manila folder. “I see now that he was dismissed from Yale, but no official reason was given.”
“Exactly,” said Merriweather smugly, as if this was all the evidence he needed to absolve himself of any wrongdoing.
The shadow stepped down from the stairs and walked into the light of the fire to reveal a man much younger than Foster was expecting. Dr. Atwater was in his early forties, but he looked closer to thirty-five, like Foster. Only the grey hair at his temples hinted at his true age. He was dressed in red satin pajamas, and he wore a pair of black suede slippers upon his feet. “Let’s go to the parlor,” he said. “We can talk more comfortably in there.” He nodded at a dark hallway to his right. “This way,” he instructed. “Follow me.”
A modest fire crackled in the parlor’s stone hearth while the three scientists sat and drank, and the butler, also a scientist at one point, stood and dutifully served them.
Foster raised a glass to Merriweather and shook it to show that it was empty. Merriweather grabbed the bottle of brandy from off the drink cart and poured Foster another drink. It was already Foster’s third drink of the evening, and they’d only been sitting in the parlor for a little more than thirty minutes.
“Isn’t it weird,” Foster blurted. “Isn’t it weird that we can still get drunk in these places. Like…you would think that wouldn’t be a thing.” He swirled the burgundy liquid inside his glass and studied it with a philosophical eye. After a few more spins, he let the liquid settle and then took another swig of the booze.
“This man actually works for Lotus Technologies?” Dr. Atwater asked. His disbelieving eyes were affixed on the young idiot. “Are you certain he’s not the janitor?”
“As a man who used to work as a janitor during undergrad, I take offense to that,” said Foster.
“I hate to admit it,” said Parsons, “But he’s actually rather bright. I would never trust him to run a study, but his paper on the latent effects of prolonged exposure to virtual environments is actually quite good. It’s still the most cited article on the topic, even if most of the citations aim to debunk.”
“Don’t they always,” said Atwater with a grin. He sipped his tonic water mindfully. He stared into the fire to think, and it was during this time that he decided to finally break from the pleasantries. “Why have you come here?” he asked.
“You know why,” Parsons replied. He set his unfinished glass of chardonnay down upon the coffee table. He wouldn’t be needing it any longer.
“I’ve broken no laws,” said Atwater.
“Not that the government knows of,” said Parsons.
“But we’re not here in the name of the law,” said a slightly inebriated Foster. His face had turned ruddy from the booze. “We’re here because you’ve violated the terms of service on your user agreement, and we’ve been tasked with taking you home.”
Atwater guffawed. “That’s preposterous! Lotus Technologies has never once evicted a user for violating their terms of service. In fact, I’ve never even heard of them sending warnings. And people violate the terms of service all the damned time! So, what’s this really about? Hmm? Are they afraid of what I’m learning down here? Are they afraid of what I might expose if I publish?”
Dr. Parsons refused to dignify Atwater’s wild delusions of grandeur. “They’re afraid of the ethics violations they would face should they allow you to continue what you’re doing. They’re afraid of lawsuits. They’re afraid of being bankrupted and shut down.”
The face of Dr. Atwater contorted to appear as though he’d been mortally wounded by Parsons’ words. “Nonsense!” he exclaimed. “My studies are entirely inoffensive. Tell me, Dr. Parsons: Since when did trying to solve for differentials in subjective experiences become a crime?”
“We both know you’re not just solving for differentials.”
“Why now then?” Atwater prodded. “Why after all this time is Lotus just now taking action? I’ve been down here for what? Three years? Four?”
“It’s been seven actually,” Parsons said matter-of-factly. “But that’s beside the point. Fact is, no one at Lotus truly gives a shit about you or what you’re doing down here on your own dime. But that all changed a few weeks ago when a private investigator phoned a friend on the Board of Directors and tipped him off to some things. Now suddenly the Board’s problem is everyone’s problem. Trust me, Atwater, you’re not the only one who’s pissed off about this whole situation. Do you think I want to be here? Do you think Foster does? Do you think the engineers back at Home Office want to pull an all-nighter while we dick around down here trying to convince you to leave quietly?”
Dr. Atwater slumped down into his chair and pouted. He stared stoically into the fire. “So, go home then. Don’t make this your problem if you don’t have to.”
Parsons sighed. “You know I don’t have that choice.”
Atwater’s eyes narrowed. “Why’d they even send you? Why didn’t they just unplug me? Or shut down the construct? I didn’t ask you to come here and play nice.”
“They can’t just unplug you because that would be murder,” said Parsons. His tone said something more like, You know all this, so stop playing dumb.
Atwater fumed. “I’m on the verge of quite possibly the biggest breakthrough in our field since the scientific validation of dual-mind theory and the invention of mind-flow rerouting, and you want me to just walk away? To just walk away and what?” And then without warning, he leaned forward in his chair and started shouting at the fireplace. “Let the God-fucking-damned Board of God-fucking-damned Directors take my work? Not a God damned fucking chance!” He snatched his glass of tonic water from the table and hurled it into the fire. The glass exploded inside the hearth.
Foster had ducked down into his chair to protect himself from any flying glass, but Parsons barely flinched.
“Three people have died in this construct since you took over here, Atwater” Parsons explained. “Three! Lotus can write off one death as an accident; pay the fine; settle out of court. Two deaths? Okay, that’s getting a bit more suspicious, but nothing a good team of lawyers can’t handle, especially when the victim was an addict with multiple prior convictions. But three? And the third victim is the nephew of a Congressman? Be reasonable, Atwater. Did you really think that they wouldn’t come for you eventually?”
“That boy was an idiot, and his death was no fault of my own. None of them were. Merriweather can attest.”
“It’s true,” said Merriweather. “The boy was an idiot. He was a legacy at his father’s alma mater, for God’s sake. He couldn’t possibly have graduated on his own merits. In hindsight, I should never have hired him on as a research assistant, but good help has been hard to find these days.”
“Why are you doing the hiring?” a confused Foster asked. “Aren’t you the butler now?”
Merriweather glowered at the young scientist.
“Mr. Merriweather serves multiple roles,” said Atwater.
Parsons leaned back in his chair. “The Board is willing to cut you a good deal,” he said. “If you agree to come with us tonight. If you leave peacefully, they’ll make sure all this goes away forever. They’ll shut the private investigator up with some hush money, and they’ll tell the Feds to get bent. But they’re only willing to do all that if you agree to play ball.”
“I thought I made myself quite clear already,” said Atwater. “I’m not leaving. The Board can kiss my ass. Merriweather! Show our guests to the door.”
Foster quickly moved to down the last of his brandy, but Merriweather stopped the glass with his hand and then took it from a defeated-looking Foster. He helped Foster up by his collar and shoved him in the direction of the door. “That way!” he commanded.
Parsons, meanwhile, rose slowly to his feet, but instead of heading to the door with Foster, he turned and looked down at the seated Atwater, who was breathing fast and heavy as he continued to stare furiously into the fire. “At least let us stay the night,” Parsons pled politely. “We can’t be unplugged until the morning. The Station Chief already went home for the night and you know the boys in engineering won’t let us out of here until they get the Stat-Chief’s signature on the request forms. And don’t say they should just page the Stat-Chief. The man is a bastard. He’ll make it hell for everyone involved if they ring his phone at this hour.”
Atwater said nothing in response. He just stared soberly into the fire.
Parsons frowned. “Are you really going to make us sleep out in the boat? Foster can’t even see the ocean without wanting to shit his damned self.”
To everyone’s surprise, that’s when Merriweather chimed in with his own two cents, which to Atwater, was barely worth a penny. “Actually, Sir, it might not be a bad idea for them to stay the night. Perhaps if we extend them this courtesy now, they’ll be more willing to do us a favor come morning. What say you, Dr. Parsons? Dr. Foster?”
“No!” Atwater shouted. “They leave now! That’s my decision, and my decision is final! Why does everyone feel they have the right to question me this evening? Assholes! All of you!” And with that, he got up from his chair and stormed out of the room. “And bring me my damned medicine!” he shouted from down the hall.
Dr. Merriweather the butler escorted Drs. Parsons and Foster to the front door of the manor house, but instead of opening the door and directing the two men to vacate the premises, he instead stopped the men and held a gloved finger to his lips to signal for them to keep quiet.
“Dr. Atwater would be furious if he found out we were talking like this,” he whispered. “But when he gets this way—gets, shall we say, a bit wound up—he tends not to think things all the way through. That’s when I sometimes step in. And from where I stand, I see no reason why we all can’t cut a deal that will work out nicely for everyone. I mean really, Dr. Parsons, Dr. Foster. You’re scientists, for God’s sake, not repo men. Since when does the defense of a dissertation qualify you to do their dirty work? It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit. And it’s one of the many reasons why I left Lotus in ’99.”
“Fired,” Foster said flatly.
“You were fired from Lotus in ’99. It said so in your file.” The brandy was still strong on his breath.
“Yes,” said a befuddled Merriweather. “Technically. But I was on my way out already. They only fired me to save face.”
“Ah,” said Foster. He was not trying to be condescending, but that’s exactly how it came across.
Merriweather closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Anyway,” he continued, “I think it would be best if you both spent the night here, inside the quiet comfort of House Atwater.”
Parsons narrowed a skeptical eye. “And in return?” he asked.
“You go back and tell that know-nothing Board of Directors that you found no wrongdoing here. That the accusations against Dr. Atwater are all lies, and that he has broken no terms of service. Tell them that upon further review, you recommend they leave Dr. Atwater be, for he’s not causing any harm here, and evicting him would be more trouble than it’s worth. Tell them that it is your professional belief that the deaths were all accidents, and that any allegations that say otherwise would be quickly proven false. And if they’re still not convinced, tell them that Dr. Atwater has threatened to file a civil suit should they continue with the forceful eviction from this property, to which he is more than legally entitled. And furthermore, that it will be during the discovery phase of this lawsuit that attorneys will conveniently find some very incriminating evidence involving multiple members of the Board and their close relatives.”
Parsons was quick to point out a flaw in Merriweather’s plan. “And what’s to stop us from taking your deal, heading home tomorrow, and then telling the Board the exact opposite of what you just proposed?”
Merriweather smiled wryly. “One day at a time, Dr. Parsons. One day at a time.”
“I think we should take the deal,” said Foster.
“Smart young man,” said Merriweather with a grin. “Are you certain he’s not your superior, Dr. Parsons?”
Parsons glared at Merriweather. “We’ll take the deal,” he said flatly.
“Excellent,” said Merriweather. “Let’s go quietly then. We don’t want Dr. Atwater to learn of what we’re doing. That would be good for no one, least of all me.”
Dr. Foster leaned against the open bedroom window in a pair of borrowed satin pajamas and nervously smoked his cigarette. When not taking a drag from the cigarette, he held it outside the window so as not to allow the room to fill with smoke. He didn’t want Dr. Atwater to happen by his room and be alerted by a strong smell coming from inside.
He was taking one last drag when a soft knocking came upon his door and caused him to jump with heart-stopping fright. He quickly tossed the still-smoldering butt out into the yard and quietly closed the window shut. He then made himself small beside a large mahogany wardrobe so as to keep out of sight should someone open the bedroom door to inspect.
The door slowly creaked open.
“Foster?” a voice whispered. “It’s me. Parsons.”
Foster cautiously leaned out from his hiding place beside the wardrobe. The room was dark, so he couldn’t quite make out Parsons’ features, but he had already recognized the voice and that was good enough for him. He stepped out from his hiding spot and motioned nervously for Parsons to close the door behind him. “What do you want?” Foster whispered.
“We need to talk,” whispered Parsons.
“About what?” Foster whispered back.
“About our plan!” Parsons whispered. “About how we’re going to convince Atwater to leave.”
Even in the dark, Parsons could tell that Foster looked confused. “What? I thought we were heading home tomorrow. Our deal with Merriweather–”
“Oh, come now, Foster!” Parsons quietly harangued. “You didn’t think I was being serious, did you? I only agreed with Merriweather’s proposition in order to buy us some more time.”
“Oh,” said Foster, sounding more than a bit disappointed. “I really thought we were going home tomorrow.”
“We still can,” whispered Parsons. “If we accomplish what we need to tonight. Come morning, Atwater will have no choice but to follow our every command.”
“I don’t think I like this,” whispered Foster.
“Too bad,” whispered Parsons. “You chose to work in industry, Foster. If you wanted the easy life, you should have gone into academia and worked your way towards tenure.”
“Well, it just so happens that I have a friend quite high up at Princeton,” Foster sniped back. “So maybe I’ll just phone her up when we get home and see if I can’t get a job by next semester. It won’t pay as much, but who cares? Merriweather is right. This line of work is bullshit.”
Parsons had no desire to argue. “Get dressed,” he whispered. “And meet me downstairs in the foyer in ten minutes. Oh! And don’t forget your medicine.” And without providing any further explanation, he took to the door and left.
Twenty minutes later, Foster descended into the foyer to find Parsons pacing nervously about a medieval suit of armor that was on display beside the extinguished stone hearth. Upon seeing Foster, Parsons stopped his pacing and hurriedly motioned for Foster to come his way. Foster quickly checked the room for prying eyes, then darted across the unlit entryway to join his colleague next to the twelfth century battlements.
“You’re late,” whispered Parsons.
“You’re lucky I’m even here,” Foster whispered in retort. He then cut right to the point. “So, what are we doing?” He nervously scanned the room for spies.
Dr. Parsons manifested a manila folder in his hand and held it out in front of Foster’s wandering eyes so as to draw the man’s attention back to the task at hand. “Follow me,” he said. He led Foster down the east hallway to an unlocked study and the two men went inside. Parsons gently closed the door behind them and then lit a nearby lamp.
“The only way we’re going to convince Atwater to come back with us is if we can prove he was at least partially responsible for those deaths. And if not all three, then at least the Senator’s nephew.”
“Congressman,” said Foster.
“He was a Congressman’s nephew.”
“Whatever!” snapped Parsons. “If we can nail him for the death of the Congressman’s nephew, he would be foolish not to take the Board’s deal.”
“Okay,” said Foster. “So how do you plan to do that?”
Parsons held up the folder again. “After Merriweather showed me to my room, I decided to look back through Atwater’s case file to see if there was something I had been missing.” He opened the folder and flipped through the papers in search of a certain page. Upon finding it, he walked over to Foster and held the folder open in a way that allowed both men to see the documents inside. He pointed to a specific section of the text. “It’s not much, but it turns out that it is exactly what I was looking for. This is from three years ago, roughly fourteen months before the first casualty. Allow me to read it for you.”
Parsons took the folder back, cleared his throat, and read the section aloud.
“‘Lotus Technologies refutes Dr. Atwater’s claims that the company took deliberate action to degrade the quality of his construct in hopes that he would self-vacate the space. In accordance with the contract Dr. Atwater signed on December 6, 2098, he agreed to the expressly stated possibility that degradation of his construct could occur, and that in the event that degradation did occur, he would have no right to file claim. Lotus Technologies is not responsible for system degradation due to subjective incompetence, interference, or incapacity, and is only responsible for system degradation of the objective experience if said degradation occurs within the initial eighteen months of occupancy, or within the twenty-four month extended warranty purchased upon signing.’” Foster then pointed to the bottom of the page. “And then there’s a footnote. It says, ‘In accordance with Section 5.14 of the Lotus Terms of Service, under heading Limitation of Liability.’”
Dr. Foster sighed. He wished dearly to be back in bed. “I don’t understand. What’s this have to do with anything? I thought the whole violation of the terms of service thing was just a bit. Some bullshit we’d say to get him to give up.”
Parsons was more than happy to explain. “It was. And that’s why the terms of service complaint documented here is not what interests me. I’m interested in what the terms of service complaint was referencing. At first, I thought nothing of it. I just assumed Dr. Atwater was fed up with the way this place has generally gone to shit.”
Foster eyed the cobwebs, the peeling wallpaper, the patches of black mold. “That’s an understatement.”
“But!” Parsons continued. “Atwater was actually being much more specific than that.” He flipped back a few pages and pointed to a number of specific lines in the notes. “On three different instances, he specifically references his wet lab as the space most suffering from degradation. And over here, he references decaying plates of assays–dozens of them.”
Parsons flipped to the back of the case files to reveal a floorplan of Atwater’s house. “According to the official floorplan filed with Lotus, this house doesn’t have a wet lab. I mean, sure, maybe one of these rooms can serve as a simple research lab, but not a wet lab, and not a lab that would run the large number of assays Dr. Atwater claims to be working with here.”
A rush of adrenaline slapped Foster awake. “You’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, are you? I mean, I get it, Atwater’s crazy, but he’s not that crazy. And besides, do you really think he could create a subjective subspace even if he wanted to? The concept is barely theoretical. And if, by some chance, someone, somewhere, somehow succeeded at creating something like this, you and I both know they didn’t live long enough to report their findings.”
“Exactly!” said Parsons. “I think that’s how the three lab assistants all died. Atwater was using them as guinea pigs to test the integrity of his subspaces.”
Foster shook his head vigorously. “No. No way. The v-space industry pours millions of dollars into subspace R&D every year, and they can’t even get a subjective construct to hold for more than a micro-second. Think about it, Parsons. The brightest collection of minds in the damn field can’t stabilize the subjective coefficient long enough for lightning to strike, and somehow Atwater, all by himself, has been subject testing for almost two years. No way.”
Parsons pressed his young colleague. “Yes, but Atwater did claim to be on the verge of a generational breakthrough. Maybe he was telling the truth.”
“But it still doesn’t make sense. Atwater is a quantum psychoanalyst, not a computer engineer. He wouldn’t know the first thing about solving for the subjective coefficient, or what to do with the solution if he did. I’m sorry, Parsons, but I’ve got to say it, this is ridiculous, and I think you need to go back to bed. We both do. We’ll get some sleep, and in the morning we’ll head home. We’ll tell the Board of Directors what Merriweather told us to tell them—or not; you can tell them the truth for all I care—and then those rich assholes in suits can figure out what they want to do next. But our work here is done. Or at least mine is.”
Foster turned to leave, but Parsons caught him by the wrist and stopped him from going further. He looked Foster dead in the eye and spoke with a humorless intensity. “Atwater did create a working subspace, and I can prove it to you.”
Foster yanked his arm free. He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine. Prove it then.” The husband and father of two young children wanted to tell Parsons to piss off, but the research scientist and early career ladder-climber kind of wanted Parsons to be right. If what Parsons said was true, it would be a huge discovery for the both of them. But still, he wasn’t going to hold his breath.
Parsons walked over to a bookcase and searched the middle shelf for one volume in particular. He found the book he was looking for and then pulled on the spine as if attempting to remove the book from the shelf, but instead of pulling it free, the book just snapped back into place and the bookcase slid slowly open to reveal a secret stairway leading down into an unlit basement.
“How the hell did you know about that?” Foster asked.
Parsons held up the manila folder. “It’s all in here. This passage is part of the licensed floor plan on file with Lotus. It’s what’s at the bottom of these stairs that’s not.”
The two men descended the stairs to find a narrow tunnel that terminated in a dead end. They walked to the dead end and stopped there.
“Did you remember to bring your medicine?” Parsons asked.
Foster was beginning to feel a bit nervous. “I did,” he replied.
“Good,” said Parsons. “Take a dose now. If I’m right, you’re going to need it.” Parsons un-manifested the manila folder and then manifested a vile of medicine. He shot it back without a second thought. Foster reluctantly followed his colleague’s lead.
“According to Atwater’s movement tracker, he spends a disproportionate amount of time in this very spot despite there being nothing here. According to the tracker, he stands in this very spot for hours, sometimes even days at a time. Odd, right?”
“Maybe he sleeps down here,” said Foster. “Maybe this is where he goes when he’s depressed and wants to be alone. It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing about the guy.”
“Exactly. There are too many logical explanations, which means the computer would never flag the behavior for investigation—what with privacy laws and all. Atwater knows this, too, and I suspect it’s why he was too lazy to cover his tracks.”
“Tracks to where?”
“To the subspace,” said Parsons. He then pressed his fingers against the dead end and watched with a mixture of fear and excitement as his hand disappeared into the wall.
Foster looked on in amazement.
Parsons looked back at Foster and grinned triumphantly. He had been right.
Dumbfounded, Foster could only manage a disbelieving chuckle.
Satisfied with the results of his test, Parsons removed his hand from the wall and Foster jumped back in fright. Parsons’ hand was no longer human. It was a fibrous, tree-like thing with green fungous growing in and around all the cracks. Parsons’ first instinct was to desperately shake his hand free of the foreign matter, but after a number of failed attempts, each attempt becoming increasingly more desperate, he was finally forced to accept that his hand was now a fungus-infected plant.
“Uh…don’t worry,” said Foster, sounding more than a bit uncertain. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. None of this is real, after all.” He was horribly transfixed on Parsons’ mutant hand. It had started to sprout leaves and birth insects that skittered up the old man’s arm in a frenzy.
“Body horror,” said Parsons, turning his hand over to study the demonic growth from both sides. “It’s one of my greatest fears.”
“Well you seem awfully calm about it right now!” an excitable Foster exclaimed. His own eyes were growing wider with terror.
“I think I’m in shock,” said Parsons. He blinked the confusion from his eyes. “I don’t get it. I took the medicine.”
“The subspace on the other side is obviously corrupted! You were right! This is probably how those men died. But holy shit, Parsons! I’m worried you’re about to join them! The mutation just keeps getting worse! It’s all the way up to your neck now! We need to get you out of here!”
Parsons just stared dreamlike into the middle distance. “I took the medicine,” he murmured. “My subjective influence on this place should be null. This nightmare shouldn’t be happening. It can’t be happening.”
“Parsons! It’s heading down to your waist now! Oh my God, that’s sick!”
“Stop what you’re doing right now!” shouted a voice from behind them.
The two colleagues turned to see Dr. Atwater and his butler, Merriweather, standing at the bottom of the secret staircase. Merriweather looked ready to rush Parsons and Foster if it came to that.
“Atwater!” Foster cried. “You evil bastard! Don’t just stand there! Help us, dammit! Parsons is gonna die! Look at him!”
“Get away from that man!” Merriweather shouted. “He’s dangerous!”
Foster looked over at his dear colleague. “Parsons! Your legs! They’re rooted to the ground!”
Parsons had almost fully transformed into a decrepit old tree at this point, and the only reason he shouted was to cut through Foster’s crazed screams for help. “Foster! Foster! Tell my wife I love her, okay! Tell Luisa I love her!”
Foster stopped shouting for help, and he looked calmly into Parsons’ eyes. He smiled. Then he burst into hysterical laughter. “You’re fucking nuts, Parsons! Fucking Nuts with a capital ‘N.’ I never should have listened to you. I never should have let you come down here. I should have stayed in bed and tomorrow we’d be home.” He frowned. “I have a wife a kids, for Christ’s sake! My son! God, he’s only five! This will devastate him!”
The last bit of Parsons that was still human was his mouth. “Tell her,” it groaned. And with that, the bark grew over the lips and fused the mouth shut, but not before a handful of insects escaped the yawning maw in mass. Parsons was dead.
Foster looked anxiously toward the wall.
“Dr. Foster!” Atwater called. “Don’t do it! We don’t need any more trouble than you’ve already caused!” He was starting to make his way quickly over to Foster. What he intended to do once he got there was anyone’s guess.
“Is he dead? Like for good?” Foster asked in reference to Parsons. The Parsons-shaped tree beside him was now crawling with bugs. Foster wanted to close his eyes and wake up from this dream. He closed his eyes and reopened them, but nothing happened.
“My guess? Yes, he’s dead.” said Atwater. “Stubborn ass. This didn’t need to be his problem.”
Merriweather grabbed Foster and slapped a handcuff on the man’s wrist. He then slapped the other half of the handcuffs upon his own wrist so as to tether he and Foster together and prevent the young scientist’s escape.
“Whatever you intend to do to me,” shouted a worried Foster, “I suggest you give it up now! If Parsons is dead, the engineers back home know, and that’s all the evidence the Board will need to send the Feds in here. You’re done for, Atwater! You had your chance to get out of jail free, and you pissed on it. I hope it was worth it.”
“I violated no terms of service!” Atwater shouted angrily. “They have no right to shut me down! Merriweather! Take him to the parlor! We’ll discuss what to do with him there!”
Foster found himself once again in the parlor, sitting in the same seat he had been enjoying a glass of brandy in only a few hours prior, only this time, his arms were handcuffed behind his back and his feet were bound together with layers and layers of duct tape.
Atwater had pulled his chair over to the opposite side of the coffee table, nearer to the fire, and had angled the chair so that he could face Foster’s direction as if the two were about to play a game of cards. He stared intently at Foster with fingers clasped in front of his mouth. Merriweather stood dutifully by his side.
After a long staredown, Atwater broke from his gaze and manifested something in his hand. It was rectangular in shape and looked to be a small box of some sort.
“I assume you’re familiar with the Tarot Problem,” said Atwater.
Foster nodded. “Some say you almost solved it. Back before your funding was cut. Back before you decided to hide away in here.”
Atwater opened what was now obviously a box of tarot cards and removed the stack of cards from their case. “Well, they’re wrong,” said Atwater. “I didn’t almost solve the Tarot Problem. I did solve it.”
Merriweather grinned proudly.
Foster responded with a tormented laugh. “You really do think I’m an idiot, don’t you? The tarot problem doesn’t have a solution. Anyone with even a bachelor’s degree in psycho-mathematics can tell you the same. The stories about you are fun to believe, Dr. Atwater. They’re even more fun to tell. But we all know they’re not true.”
“Merriweather, if you’ll please,” said Atwater. He handed the deck of cards to his butler and relaxed back into his seat. Merriweather held the deck in his hand as if awaiting orders to deal. Atwater, meanwhile, manifested a vial of the black medicine and held it up for Foster to see. “Why do we take this?” he asked. “Why do we take the medicine?”
“Is this a game to you?”
“My dear Dr. Foster, would you like to learn how I solved the Tarot Problem or not?”
Foster felt the same twinge of intellectual curiosity that caused him to follow Parsons into that cursed basement beneath the study. “I apologize,” said Foster. “I do want to know. I do. We take the medicine to block our subjective experience from influencing the construction of the environment.”
“And why do we do this?”
Foster shrugged. “Lots of reasons. To maintain a sense of objectivity while doing case studies, to do A/B testing, to act as control–”
“You know what I’m asking,” said Atwater. His eyes narrowed. “Why do we really do this?”
Foster laughed to himself. He thought about telling Atwater to fuck off. “To prevent nightmares,” he said. “To prevent insanity.”
Atwater barely grinned. “Think of a card,” he told Foster. His eyes pointed to the deck of cards in Merriweather’s hand.
“The Hanged Man,” said Foster.
“Okay,” said Atwater, “And I choose Death. Now, Dr. Foster, according to the Tarot Problem, who do you think is going to be right?”
“Lotus systems use the Hierarchy Method,” said Foster. “When the system recognizes competing subjective requests, it ranks each requesting user by highest paid control of the space, weights those users by percentage, and then randomizes the outcome as determined by those percentages. The user that’s paid the most money to be in the construct usually wins. So, under normal circumstances, I’d wager that you’d win. But I’m a quantum psychoanalyst assigned to an active case, so I can deny any request you make, and in that scenario, I win.”
“Do you deny my request then?”
“Merriweather, deal the first card.”
Merriweather dealt the top card face up onto the coffee table between the two men. It was the Death card.
Foster did not look impressed. “There are a number of valid reasons as to why that would have happened,” he said. “Besides, that’s not even illustrative of the Tarot Problem.”
“We’re not finished yet,” said Atwater. “Now tell me what would happen if you and I were equals in the construct, or if the construct was for example a tax-funded public space, which due to regulations, must be egalitarian with no favor given to any one particular user.”
Foster shifted uncomfortably in his bounded state. The handcuffs were on far too tight and they were really starting to hurt. “The Default Method then. The system recognizes competing requests, weights all outcomes within a probability set in accordance with a number of variables, and then randomizes the results.”
“And the Null Method?”
“All competing requests are denied, and no answer is given. But only miserable bastards build a construct with that method employed, which is kind of why I was surprised to learn it wasn’t being employed here.”
Atwater ignored the barb. “And the Utopian Method?”
“All subjective requests are awarded, even competing ones, which creates a logical fallacy, and a breakdown of the system. Hence, the Tarot Problem. There is no way for us to both guess a different card and both be right, even if we’re equal in the eyes of the system.”
“Pick another card,” said Atwater.
“The Tower,” said Foster.
“And I pick The Devil,” said Atwater. “Merriweather, deal the card.”
Merriweather dealt the card to reveal The Devil.
“That’s more like it!” said Foster. “I win. I knew I would.”
“So, you think you picked The Devil?” Atwater asked.
“I don’t think I picked The Devil,” said Foster. “I know I picked The Devil.”
Atwater looked up at Merriweather and exchanged with him an impish grin. “You see my dear, Foster. The terrible tragedy of my great discovery is that no one will ever know I was right.”
“I’m confused,” said Foster.
“I’d expect nothing less of you,” said Atwater. “But while the world will never know of my genius breakthrough with the Tarot Problem, I can still build upon my success to make a name for myself in subspace pioneering and the solving of the subjective coefficient—two things that no one could deny should I succeed. Now tell me, Dr. Foster: Why do we only take the medicine in systems governed by the Hierarchal Method?”
“Because the system allows for complete subjective control in the absence of competing inputs. Unfortunately, that includes both dreams and nightmares, and the nightmares are much more common.”
“Would you agree that it’s a major flaw of the Hierarchal Method?”
“I would,” said Foster truthfully.
“You see, Foster, we are in need of a better system! We are in need of a system in which people are freed from the yoke of both objective and subjective oppression! We are in need of a place where all people live in a blissful eternity of their own collective creation. We need to reject both the soulless life of isolation and the prison life of competition. But to do that we need to be made ignorant of our differences and accepting of our lack of control. But acceptance is antithetical to a paradise of one’s own design, so we must instead devise a system that convinces people that they are happy precisely because everything is within their control, even though in reality it is not.”
“And my guess is you’ve created that system.”
“No. But I’m close. I’m oh so very close. Parsons was right. I did create a subspace. At first, I created it for my own creative whims. I thought up a wet lab complete with hundreds of different assays and tested to see if I could replicate proven results without the aid of an objective framework. The answer, if you’re wondering, is I couldn’t. But then it occurred to me. Why was I aiming so small? I had created a subjective subspace, for God’s sake! I should be testing the very limits of man! And that’s when I recruited Merriweather here to join me. With his background in psycho-mathematics and my existing breakthroughs, nothing would stop us! But all we needed then was a test subject–a young lab assistant willing to do whatever it took to make a name for himself in his field.”
“So, Parsons was right. They did all die in the subspace.”
“No,” said Atwater. “They died in the Lotus build. They died in the Hierarchal System. That’s what the Board of Directors found out, and that’s why they’re suddenly so worried. I violated no terms of service, Foster. Lotus Technologies did.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My utopian subspace worked. All my assistants reported the same findings upon return. ‘Nirvana!’ they’d say. ‘Pure heaven!’ ‘Eternal bliss!’ But then came the tragedy. Every time, the same results. Within moments of returning, their worst nightmares would manifest in a way that was unstoppable, just like what you saw happen with Dr. Parsons. Their minds had been so used to pure freedom, pure unbridled joy, and they couldn’t cope with the return to a world opposite of that. The nightmares returned like a cancer that had grown stronger in the absence of a healthy immune system, and they took over. The medicine was powerless to stop it.”
“You should have just told the truth!” Foster admonished. “You should have just cooperated after the first accident! Your inability to let go of your damned ego led only to more needless death! You’re a monster!”
Atwater sighed. “Perhaps,” he said. “But all great scientists are pariahs of their own time. Why should I be any different?”
“You’re not a great scientist,” Foster said with a mocking laugh. “You’re a lying fraud!”
“Merriweather,” said Atwater.
“Yes, Dr. Atwater?”
“Do you remember the first plan we had talked about?”
Merriweather tried to hide a grin. “I do.”
“I’ve made my decision. We shall go with the first plan. After our business with Dr. Foster is finished, we’ll move on to cleaning up the rest of this mess. I expect we’ll be getting a visit from the Feds soon.”
“Most likely,” Merriweather agreed.
Atwater turned his attention back to Foster. “My dear, Dr. Foster, here is what I’ve decided. As you probably suspected already, I can’t possibly let you go home–”
“For Christ’s sake, Atwater! I have kids!”
“And I’m sure they’ll miss you dearly,” said Atwater. “I also can’t let you stay here. I wouldn’t want you getting loose or somehow finding a way to escape. And I can’t just kill you, because that would make me a murderer, and I do not want to be that. So instead, I’ve decided on a compromise. How you respond to my compromise will solely decide your fate. After we’re done here, Mr. Merriweather is going to take you back down to the basement and you are going to be sent into the utopian subspace of your dreams. It will be absolute bliss for you. Really, it will. But the only caveat is–”
“I can never come back,” said a gut-punched Foster.
“You have been listening!” Atwater exclaimed with pleasant surprise. “Oh, you are much smarter than a janitor, aren’t you?”
Foster flicked the condescending bastard off with his eyes.
“But while the sentiment of your deduction is correct, it’s not technically the truth. You don’t have to stay in your dreamworld forever,” explained Atwater. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to, but just in case you don’t, you can leave any time you want. But if you do…well…only you know the nightmares that would await you.”
“Burn in hell!” Foster spat.
“Rejoice in heaven!” Atwater replied. “Merriweather, take him away.”
© 2020, Rob Carroll