August 17th, 9:38 a.m.
Except for two young girls with piercing eyes and pierced eyebrows, the train was empty. When they glimpsed him watching them, Thomas looked away, at once discomfited and scornful. He studied the eternal Hudson instead, trying to think away the fear that churned his gut. “Perhaps when the next person dies,” Agent Atta had said before leaving his office. Thomas had thought of calling Neil then and there, to warn him, to question him, something, but had stopped short of actually punching the number. He needed to see him, he realized. He needed to see his reaction.
Perhaps when the next person…
It was strange how easily the obvious escaped people in the press of events. So much was seen without seeing, understood without understanding. Thomas had overreacted in his office, had dismissed something that had screamed for careful consideration. But how could anyone think clearly after watching that… that neuroporn or what ever it was?
Besides, Neil was his best friend. Closer than even his brother, Charlie.
It had to be some kind of mistake.
Even so, something in Agent Atta’s look haunted him. Not another one, her eyes had said. Another intimate of another perp, claiming there was no way their buddy/son/husband could do something like that. And she was right. As a rule, people judged themselves according to their intentions and others according to results. In study after study, individuals ranked themselves as more charitable, more compassionate, more conscientious than others, not because they in fact were—how could they be when they were just as much others as they were selves?—but because they wanted to be these things and were almost entirely blind to the fact that others wanted the same. Intentions were all-important when it came to self-judgment, and pretty much irrelevant when it came to judging others. The only exceptions, it turned out, were loved ones.
That was what it meant to be a “significant” other: to be included in the circle of delusions that everyone used to exempt themselves. And then there was Cynthia Powski, trembling, gasping, squirming as though rolling a squash ball between her thighs.
But what was he supposed to say? “Neil? Oh, that psychopath… Yeah, we polished a forty of whiskey at my house last night. In fact, he’s passed out on my fold-out couch right now.”
Was he supposed to say that?
No. They hadn’t earned his trust. There was no way he would turn in one of his oldest and closest friends, not without hearing his side first.
There were always sides.
The doorbell had rung at exactly 7:58 the previous evening. Thomas knew this because all through dinner Ripley and Frankie had been begging him to watch Austin Powers, which was on at 8:00. He had just finished loading the dishwasher, and Frankie was throwing a tantrum in the living room, demanding he unlock the parental controls. Thomas had swung open the door while telling Frankie to hold his bloody horses, and there was Neil, waving at the moths and midges twirling about the porch light.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Neil beamed his best panty-remover smile and held up a brown paper bag. He was dressed at his nondescript best: khaki shorts, Hindu sandals, and a black nano-T-shirt with a panel playing and replaying some clip of Marilyn Monroe swimming naked in a blackand-white pool. Thanks to his lean build and the jaunty, jockish way he carried himself, he looked more like an undergraduate hoping to score some weed than a respected neurosurgeon. Only his face advertised otherwise. No matter how expressive, it always seemed to flex about something inveterate and imperturbable, as though he had been a boxer or a Tibetan lama in his most recent previous life.
His minivan loomed in the driveway behind him.
“Found myself in need of some liquid therapy,” he said.
“Dad!” Ripley cried out in her snottiest voice. “It’s, like, starting already!”
“Austin Powers,” Thomas said in explanation.
“Smashing, baby,” Neil said, clapping him on the shoulder.
An hour later, Thomas realized he had become quite drunk. Ripley was curled around cushions, fast asleep between him and Neil. Frankie was sitting avidly on the floor in front of the screen, laughing as Austin dodged booby-bullets.
“Aren’t you tired?” he asked his son.
Thomas looked apologetically at Neil. “I promised I would watch it with them.” Ever since the divorce, the kids had become particularly exacting when it came to promises. He sometimes wondered how many penny-ante pledges it would take to dig him out of the hole he and Nora had shoveled together.
Neil laughed, nodded at Frankie, who rocked like a heroin junkie beneath a close-up of Austin. “Just think,” Neil said. “Right now your son’s brain is being rewired by signals from outer space.”
Thomas snorted, though he wasn’t so sure he found the comment funny. It was an old college game of theirs, describing everyday events in pseudo scientific terms. Since science looked at everything in terms of quantity and function instead of quality and intention, the world it described could sound frighteningly alien. Neil was entirely right, of course: Frankie’s brain was being rewired by signals from outer space. But he was also just a kid enjoying something silly on TV.
“And,” Thomas replied, “any minute now molecules from my large intestine will trigger nerve impulses inside of your nose.” Neil frowned at him, his eyes luminous with reflected screens. Then he gagged and laughed all at once, pulling his nano-T over his nose. Black-and-white Marilyn kicked across the sides of an oblong pyramid.
The room thundered with machine-gun fire. Frankie turned with what he called his “squishy face” and cried, “You stink, Daddy!”
“Shhh,” Thomas admonished. “You know how mad Ripley gets.”
“I have mallcools in my nose, too!” Frankie chortled to Neil. “Stinky ones.”
Instead of humor, there was a flash of anger in Neil’s gaze, so quick that Thomas was certain he had imagined it.
Thomas had shrugged, flashed his son and his friend a dopey guilty-as-charged smile. “I had KFC for lunch.”
After putting down the kids—or the little Gideons as Neil liked to call them—Thomas had found Neil checking out the books on the living-room shelves. The overhead lights glared, making a ghost of Marilyn and her naked breast stroke across his chest.
Thomas nodded at the shirt. “Kind of sexist, don’t you think?”
Neil turned and tilted his head, his trademark one-shoulder shrug. “So is biology.”
Thomas made a face.
“Where’s your book?” Neil asked, running his eyes across the landscape of titled spines. Some of them were beaten and battered, others shiny new.
Thomas grimaced the way he always did when his book was mentioned. “In the basement with the others.”
Neil smiled. “Been demoted, huh?”
Thomas returned to the couch, eyed the full shots of whiskey Neil had poured, decided to take a swig of beer instead. “So what’s up, Neil? How are things at Bethesda?”
As much as he loved the guy, it irritated Thomas the way he always had to press Neil for the details of his life. It seemed part and parcel of a more sweeping inequity that haunted their relationship. Neil had always been elusive, but not in a secretive or suspicious way. It was more aristocratic, as if something in his bloodline exempted him from full disclosure.
Neil turned from the shelves. His face looked pale and blank in the lights. “Actually, there’s nothing at Bethesda.”
Thomas cocked his head, not quite sure whether to believe him. “You quit? Neil, you should’ve—”
“I didn’t quit.”
“You were fired?”
“I never worked there, Goodbook.” He paused as though out of breath. “Bethesda was, ah… Jesus, I don’t know how to say it without sounding cheesy. Bethesda was, well… just a cover.”
Thomas scowled. “Now you’re screwing with me.”
Neil shook his head, laughing. He held out both hands, like a prophet or a politician or something. “No. I’m serious. I’ve never even set foot in Bethesda.”
“What have I been doing?”
Thomas stood blinking. “Are you kidding me? All this time you’ve been lying about where you worked? Neil…”
“It’s not like that, Goodbook. It’s not like that at all. Lying about Bethesda was part of my job.”
“Part of your job?”
“I was working for the Man. For the NSA. When they tell you to lie, you lie, no matter who it is, and God help you if you don’t.”
More laughter. “Un-fucking-believable, huh? I was a spy, Goodbook. A fucking science spook! Reverse-engineering God’s own technology!”
Thomas laughed as well, but like someone bullied into doing so. It was strange the way the company of intimates could make lunacy seem almost normal. Or maybe not. They were the baseline, after all; what we all use to sort the mad from the sane.
“I knew this would freak you out,” Neil continued. “Which is why…” He scooped up the bottle of whiskey and banged it on the coffee table.
What was it about lies that made them seem so pedestrian? Everyone lied all the time—Thomas knew the statistics, knew that men lied primarily to promote themselves, while women lied to spare others’ feelings, and so on. But it was more than a matter of typical patterns or brute frequencies. There was something essential about lies, something that ranked them alarmingly low on the list of slights and injuries. A toolbox wasn’t a toolbox unless it had a pair of pliers—something to twist or bend with.
“But why did you do it?” Thomas had asked. “Why join…them?”
Neil had this peculiar way of smiling sometimes. “Sly” was too small a word to describe it. Even “conspiratorial” seemed to lack the requisite number of syllables.
“For the love of my country,” he said. “Gotta protect the Fatherland.”
“Bullshit. You a patriot? Please.”
“Hey, man,” Neil crowed, “my high school is, like, way, way cooler than your high school.”
Thomas refused to laugh. It was an old joke of theirs, referring to the way patriotism was simply “school spirit” writ large, a mechanism used to generate solidarity, to enforce consensus and conformity, particularly during times of crisis or competing social interests.
“So why did you do it?”
Neil slouched back into the couch. “For the freedom.”
“You have no idea, Goodbook. The resources. The lack of constraints.”
He paused as though debating the wisdom of his next words. “I now know more about the brain than any man alive.”
“No. I do. I really do.”
Thomas snorted. “Prove it.”
Neil had flashed that self-same smile.
“Patience, Goodbook. Patience.”
What Neil described was straight out of Mengele 101.
It started “small-fry,” as Neil put it: a pi lot project with sensory deprivation interrogation techniques. The powers that be gave his research group a theo terrorist they thought could be key to unlocking several American-Muslim cells. Apparently they interviewed him via a sham fellow inmate, discovered what he thought his execution would look like, and more important, what he thought paradise would look like. Then they arranged his execution…
But instead of killing him they simply put him under—deep under. Then they transferred him to a specially prepared sensory deprivation tank, pumped him full of MDMA variants and opiates, gave his body some time to acclimatize…
Then woke him up.
No sound. No light, smell, touch. Sealed in his skull and higher than a fucking kite.
Apparently the subject tried screaming, thrashing, and all that—a brain in sensory limbo, Neil said, automatically attempts to generate feedback stimuli—but they’d induced motor paralysis to better prevent him from sensing himself. Besides, he had no choice but to feel good with the mickey they’d slipped him. When the MRI showed them his visual centers spontaneously lighting up, they introduced him to “God,” this ultra slick intelligence specialist from Bahrain. To hear Neil describe it, the man literally thought he’d died and gone to heaven.
“Let me tell you,” his buddy said with a gallows grin, “when God’s asking the questions, people answer.”
The horror had to be plain on his face, Thomas knew. That and the confusion. Neil always seemed to speak to different parts of your head, to broadcast on multiple frequencies—it was one of the things that made his company at once so entertaining and nerve-wracking. But this?
“So that’s what you’ve been doing all these years?”
“Christ, no! That’s how I started. After the preliminary success of the SenDep program, I was identified as a rising star. They transferred me from the psychomanipulation division to the neuro. They opened the vault, good buddy, and let me wander the wonderful world of black ops.”
Thomas lowered his beer. “The NSA has a neuromanipulation division.”
“You’re surprised? Why do you think places like Washington or Beijing are infested with spies? Because that’s where the decisions are made. Wherever important decisions are made, you find spies. And ultimately”—he tapped his temple with a finger—“this is where all the decisions are made. So why not?”
Thomas poured two more shots and handed one to Neil. “Because it’s immoral,” he said. “And just plain creepy.”
“Immoral? You think it’s immoral?”
“Fucking A, I do.”
Neil scowled and smiled at once. “Weren’t you the one always arguing that morality was a sham? That we’re simply meat puppets deluded into believing we live in a moral and meaningful world?”
Thomas had nodded. “Ah, the Argument.”
The Argument. Its mere mention seemed to open a pit in his stomach. Evidence of an old atrocity.
“It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, sometimes, even when you know for a fact that they’ve had a hand in dozens of deaths. Our heads are just filled with so much crap. The older ones, in par ticular, think they’re Captain Kirk or something. Our evil mind-scanning technology is no match for the human spirit. I even had one old theo terrorist tell me that his soul was his citadel, and that God guarded the gate.”
Neil paused for a moment, as though pensive with regret. His face was drawn.
“What did you say?” Thomas asked lamely. He still couldn’t believe he was having this conversation.
“That I could give a rat’s ass about his spirit. That it was his brain I was interested in. That his will was simply one more neural mechanism, and that once it was off-line, he would quite happily tell me everything our field operatives needed to know. And I was right. We had moved far beyond sensory deprivation interrogations by that time. Using all the imaging data on the brain’s executive functions—you know, Roach’s famous experiments on the differences between weak-willed and strong-willed individuals—we simply isolated the offending circuits and shut them off. It was as easy as flicking a switch.” His laugh was more a breath-filled snort. “Who would have guessed, huh?”
“That all that evil mind-scanner stuff would be so laughably far from the truth. Why design a machine to read thoughts when all you have to do is shut down a few circuits and have your subject read them out for you?”
Dumbstruck, Thomas stared at him. Neil, his best friend, was saying that he was one of the bad guys. Wasn’t he?
“I…” Thomas began in a thin voice. “I don’t know what to say… let alone think.”
“Fucked up, huh?”
Thomas studied the shot glass before him, the ring of hard light across the rim. “It’s not so simple.”
“But it is, Goodbook. Desires arise from the deepest of the brain’s mechanisms. It’s like plastic surgery. There’s what? Five highproduction channels entirely devoted to plastic surgery on the Web now? Evolution has hardwired us to assess the fitness of prospective mates in terms of visual appearances. Once our tools and techniques allow us to manipulate skin and bone, desire does the rest. The old taboos are gradually rinsed away, and before you know it, the cosmetic surgery industry is producing a quarter of the country’s biowaste, and make overs require bone saws instead of dainty little pencils and brushes. Where once we used to paint ourselves to conform to desire, now we recarve ourselves. Same with designer babies. Or gene-doping in sports. You name it. Neuromanipulation. Neurocosmetic surgery. Are you telling me you don’t think it’s inevitable?”
Thomas glared at him, breathing evenly. “No. I’m telling you I don’t think it’s right.”
Neil shrugged. “If you mean that most people would disapprove, then you’re correct.” He had looked away while saying this. Now his eyes flashed dark and menacing. “But why should I give a fuck?”
Thomas belted down another shot, not because he wanted it, but because it seemed safer than replying. It was funny how easily a lifetime of learning could be forgotten, how all the layers of sophistication could be stripped away, leaving a wounded boy, a hurt and mystified friend.
“Have you an arm like God?” Neil suddenly asked, obviously quoting something. He laughed.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s his program,” Neil had said. “So why not just enjoy the ride?”
Booze was never a good thing when having conversations like this. The content came through loud and clear; it was the emotional significance that was filtered. Booze had a way of making sharp things fuzzy and fuzzy things sharp.
“Why tell me this now?” Thomas asked.
“Because,” Neil said, reapplying his mischievous smile, “I’ve quit.”
“But…” Thomas paused. Suddenly it dawned on him that Neil was doing far more than breaking a nondisclosure agreement, or even committing a felony for that matter. This stuff had to be classified—which meant his friend was committing treason. They were treading water in the deep end of the pool.
“Just like that?” Thomas asked.
“Just like that.”
“I didn’t think they let you guys quit.”
“No. They don’t.”
“But they’re making an exception for you.”
Another smile, a second coat of mischievousness. He ran a finger along a dark braid in the couch’s upholstery. “They have no choice.”
“No choice,” Thomas repeated, looking with dread at the brimming shot of whiskey before him. “Why?”
“Because I’ve covered my bases,” Neil replied. “I’ve been planning this for a long time.”
Despite the booze, Thomas suddenly felt very alert. Something told him he needed to be careful.
“So you do think it’s wrong… what you did, I mean.”
Neil leaned forward, elbows on knees like a basketball coach. “Is it the kids?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Are they the reason?”
“The reason for what?”
“The reason you moved back into Disney World?”
The double-take confusion evaporated, and Thomas suddenly felt focused the way only whiskey and outrage could make possible. “You’re drunk, Neil. Leave them out of this.”
Disney World was their pet term for the world as understood by the masses, one papered over with conceit after comforting conceit. A world anchored in psychological need rather than physical fact. A world with a billion heroes and happy endings, where the unknown was irrelevant and confronting your own weaknesses was the breakfast of losers.
“You know,” Neil said, “I find it hard to remember what it’s like living with one foot in both worlds. To know, on the one hand, that paternal love is simply nature’s way of duping us into perpetuating our genes—”
“It’s not duping… Look, Neil, you’re really starting to piss me—”
“Not duping? Hmm. Then you tell me, why do you love your son?”
“Because he’s my son.”
“And that’s an explanation?”
Thomas glared at his friend. “The only one I need.”
“Of course!” Neil cried. “Evolution wouldn’t have it any other way. It takes a lot of commitment to raise a child to reproductive age.”
Thomas tossed back his shot, clenched his teeth in revulsion and dismay. What the fuck was going on?
“Because you love your kids,” Neil continued, “you expend tremendous resources on them, you train them, feed them, protect them, you would even die for them. You do all the things that your genes happen to require, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the harsh realities of natural selection.” Neil frowned, leaned back into the cushions. He hooked his toes on the coffee table. “And that’s not duping?”
“They’re just different descriptions of the same thing,” Thomas said. “Different angles.”
Neil paused to slam back his whiskey. “C’mon,” he continued, gasping. “This is your argument I’m making, Goodbook. Didn’t you spend an entire chapter listing all the ways we bullshit ourselves to feel better? And how about your cognitive psych classes? Didn’t you tell me that you spend the first two weeks discussing the relationship between gut feeling and socialization? How all those movies urging people to ‘follow their hearts’ were simply another way for culture to reinforce the status qu—”
“Enough!” Thomas cried. “What are you saying, Neil? Are you actually trying to talk me out of loving my children?”
Again the one-shoulder shrug. “Just saying,” he said, his manner both offhand and nightmarish. Marilyn swam ethereally across his broad chest. “Just reminding you what you already know.”
Speechless, Thomas did what most men did when at a loss for words: he turned on the TV. The lights automatically dimmed. The quiet seemed to sizzle beneath the television blare.
He could feel Neil sitting on the couch to his left, watching him. That annoying Coca-Cola pop-up—the “gurgle-gurgle” one his kids loved—flashed onto the screen. Surgical white flickered across the room. He clicked through the news sites, letting the fragments of info-chatter seal the hard moment that had passed between them. An update on the French ecoriots. A retrospect on the causes of the Chinese economic crisis. A tasteless story about Ray Kurzweil’s recent death. Accusations that Wal-Mart had installed hidden low-field MRIs to monitor their employees.
Neil reached out to pour them two more shots of whiskey. “I guess you have no choice,” he said.
Thomas gingerly raised the shot glass, downed it. He was drinking mechanically now, a talent he had picked up in the final days of his marriage. “What do you mean?” he asked, pretending to watch the screen. The high-definition images seemed to drain away all his anger, make his world as small and trivial as it actually was.
“To rationalize. To set up shop in Disney World.”
Thomas shook his head. “Look. Neil. All this stuff was great in college. I mean we were soooo radical, even in Skeat’s class, mopping the floor with lit majors, freaking people out around the bong…” A pained grimace. “But now? C’mon. Give it a rest.”
Neil was watching him carefully. “That doesn’t make it any less real, Goodbook.” He gestured to the TV, where lines of Muscovites stretching out into a haze of gray snow shared the screen with talking heads and warm studio lighting. “Just look. It’s ending, just as Skeat said it would. No virulent pandemic, no mass environmental collapse, no thermonuclear Armageddon, just mobs and mobs of people, hominids pretending to be angels, clutching at rules that don’t exist, feeding, fighting, fucking…”
Thomas snorted. “Neil…”
“So where are your knockdown arguments? Outside the threat of coercion, why should anybody play along? Why should we help granny across the street? Because it feels right? Please. Anyone can train a cat to shit in a box. Because of what philosophers say? Double please. We can blah, blah, blah forever, come up with an endless stream of flattering bullshit, redefine this and redefine that, and in the end all we’ve done is confirm you cognitive psychologists and your Christmas cata log of ways we bullshit to make ourselves feel better.”
Thomas laughed. Emotionally, it always felt like standing on marbles when he was drunk. Annoyed one minute, amused another. In balance, and out.
“So,” Neil pressed, “where are your knockdown arguments?”
“I have two,” Thomas said, raising the same number of thickfeeling fingers. “Frankie and Ripley.”
Neil shook his head and smiled. Now it was his turn to feign interest in the images tumbling across the TV. He cradled his beer between steepled fingers. For the first time, Thomas saw past his own irritation and disbelief, and realized just how much stress his best friend must be suffering.
The NSA… unbelievable.
On the screen, images of armed men shooting into the sky floated beneath a GE corporate banner: Islamic fighters in some breakaway Chinese province.
“Theo terrorists,” Neil said.
“I think,” Thomas replied, “the technical term would be ‘insurgents.’ ”
“What ever. You know how we dealt with them in the neuromanipulation division?”
Marilyn tittered at the edge of the pool on his T-shirt.
“Love,” Neil said. “We made them love us.”
Thomas had stared blankly at the screen.
“As easy as flicking a switch.”
This had been the pattern, since their first days rooming together at Princeton. Neil with his questions. Neil with his demands. Neil with his mocking replies, his outrageous claims. All of it hedged with just-fucking-with-you glances and a what’s-your-problem tone. Just as no two people are exactly equal in terms of capacities, no friendships are perfectly mutual. Neil had always been quicker, better looking, more articulate—inequities that had always expressed themselves through the complicated weave of their relationship.
And Thomas had always been more forgiving.
“But hey,” Neil drawled after a moment, “I came here to celebrate, not to break your balls.”
Thomas shot him a humorless look. Black-and-white Marilyn seemed to be drowning across his chest, but it was just a trick of the angle. “I was beginning to think the two were indistinguishable.”
“I’m sorry, man. Just a mood, you know. Here.” He splashed two more shots of whiskey, then raised his in a toast. After a reluctant heartbeat, Thomas raised his in turn. He could feel himself sway ever so slightly.
“I’ve escaped,” Neil said. There was something embarrassingly direct about his blue-eyed gaze. “I’ve completely escaped.”
Thomas had been too afraid to ask which…
The NSA or Disney World?
R. Scott Bakker is the author of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousdandfold Thought, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power.” He is also the author of The Judging Eye. He spent his childhood exploring the bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore and his youth studying literature, languages, and philosophy. He now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and their cat, Scully.