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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Neuropath, Chapter Five (Excerpt)

|| Tom's life is not what it once was. His marriage to the beautiful Nora is on the rocks and he now sees his two young children only on her say-so. His best friend Neil has moved to California to teach neurology. He has one success - a book on human psychology. Tom wiles away the time trying to teach bored grad students. But that all changes when Neil comes back into his life. For it seems that Tom's best friend was working for the National Security Agency, cracking the minds of suspected terrorists. Now it is Neil himself who has cracked and gone AWOL - what's more, he has left behind evidence that he has been employing his unique skills on civilians - obsessed with the idea that he can control the human brain. Thus begins a terrifying sequence of events as Neil starts to kidnap and mutilate people with a connection to Tom. He damages their brains and then releases them - often leaving them mad. But only when he gets near his ultimate target does he reveal the full horror of his plan . . .

Neuropath, Chapter Four (Excerpt)

|| Tom's life is not what it once was. His marriage to the beautiful Nora is on the rocks and he now sees his two young children only on her say-so. His best friend Neil has moved to California to teach neurology. He has one success - a book on human psychology. Tom wiles away the time trying to teach bored grad students. But that all changes when Neil comes back into his life. For it seems that Tom's best friend was working for the National Security Agency, cracking the minds of suspected terrorists. Now it is Neil himself who has cracked and gone AWOL - what's more, he has left behind evidence that he has been employing his unique skills on civilians - obsessed with the idea that he can control the human brain. Thus begins a terrifying sequence of events as Neil starts to kidnap and mutilate people with a connection to Tom. He damages their brains and then releases them - often leaving them mad. But only when he gets near his ultimate target does he reveal the full horror of his plan . . .

Neuropath, Chapter Five (Excerpt)

The following is the fourth chapter in R. Scott Bakker’s book Neuropath, out now from Tor Books. You can also read chapters one, two, three, and four if you missed them!

FIVE

August 17th, 1:54 p.m.

 

The lie nagged at him so much the most he could do was stare out the windshield at the flash and glare of passing vehicles. Why hadn’t he just told her the truth?

They think he’s a serial killer, for Christ’s sake!

[And Nora was making love to him.]

Neuropath, Chapter Four (Excerpt)

The following is the fourth chapter in R. Scott Bakker’s book Neuropath, out now from Tor Books. You can also read chapters one, two, and three if you missed them!

FOUR
August 17th, 11:56 a.m.


Questions. Questions like wasps at the beach, nagging, threatening, never really stinging. What was taking them so long? Why was she touching his knee? What kind of thing was that to say? Of course he’d worried about Neil and Nora on occasion, but he had always decided to err on the side of trust. Trust.

And now look at him: stung beyond sensation.

Agent Logan followed him back to his house so that he could drop off his car. Now he sat in her Mustang, numb in more ways he would have thought possible. At an intersection a wool-haired kid with a squeegee cleaned her windshield, and Thomas found himself comforted by the sight of her rummaging through her purse for loose change. He even smiled at her gentle curses.

“Why you?” he asked after she had handed the kid several dimes and quarters.

“Pardon?”

“Why send you after me?”

“The boss thought I was your kind of people.”

“And what kind is that?”

“Honest,” she said with a wry smile. She looked away to make her left turn. “Honest and confused.”

[Read more…]

Neuropath, Chapter Three (Excerpt)

The following is the third chapter in R. Scott Bakker’s book Neuropath, out now from Tor Books. You can also read chapters one and two if you missed them!

THREE
August 17th, 11:15 a.m.

Plagued by a curious breathlessness, Thomas crowded off the MTA North with a dozen or so others, most of them chatty octogenarians. He’d lost count of how many times he’d shaken his head and pinched his eyes, but images of Cynthia Powski, her desire turned inside out, returned with every blink. Again and again, like an adolescent dream. He didn’t begin shaking until he started crossing the hot-plate asphalt of the parking lot.

Sunlight glared across a thousand windshields.

Everything had pockets, hidden depths that could be plumbed but never quite emptied. A look, a friend, a skyscraper—it really didn’t matter. Everything was more complicated than it seemed. Only ignorance and stupidity convinced people otherwise.

There was something unreal about his house as it floated nearer around the curve. In the final days of their marriage, it had been a curious image of dread, a white-sided container filled with shouts and recriminations, and the long silences that cramp your gut. It had occurred to him that the real tragedy of marital breakdown was not so much the loss of love as the loss of place. “Who are you?” he used to cry at Nora. It was one of the few refrains he meant genuinely, at least once the need to score points had climbed into the driver’s seat. “No. Really. Who are you?” It began as an entreaty, quickly became an accusation, then inevitably morphed into its most catastrophic implication: “What are you doing here?”

Here. My home.

[Read more]

A Fact More Indigestible than Evolution (Part II)

For centuries, the human brain has been a kind of black box, a place we could theorize with impunity, which is to say, without fear of scientific contradiction. Well, the box has been cracked open, and our theoretical free lunch is at an end. And what contemporary brain and consciousness research is discovering is at best, perplexing, at worst, terrifying.

Indigestible.

So what will the result be? What happens when an indigestible fact hits a culturally sensitive stomach? Will we get sick? Or will we pass it like a green penny? The history of evolution provides us with a possible model of what to expect, with the battle being primarily fought over education. But then, I would argue that evolution is only partially indigestible. Where a good fraction of us have abandoned the theoretical accounts handed down to us by our self-aggrandizing ancestors, the kinds of theories brewing in brain science could prove psychologically impossible, as opposed to merely socially difficult, to believe.

[Read more]

Neuropath, Chapter Two (Excerpt)

The following is the second chapter in R. Scott Bakker’s book Neuropath, out now from Tor Books. You can also read Chapter One if you missed it!

***

TWO

 

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.

MORE?

Pleeeeaaase…

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.

“Nooooooo.”

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.”

“But then…”

“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.”

“The NSA?”

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.

Thomas flinched.

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.”

“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.”

“More bullshit.”

“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?”

“Guessed what?”

“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.

Death-penalty deep.

“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.

“How?”

“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.

A Fact More Indigestible than Evolution

Ever wonder how people can believe Elvis and Hitler are still alive?

Sad fact is, we are bunglers when it comes to believing things we can’t immediately see. We are prone to over-simplify. We are prone to feel certain about dubious things. We are prone to cherry-pick what confirms our views, and to selectively overlook what challenges them. We are prone to understand complex phenomena in psychological terms.

The list goes on and on.

Science can be seen as a kind of compensatory mechanism, a family of principles and practices that allow us to overcome enough of our cognitive shortcomings to waddle toward an ever more comprehensive understanding of the world. Unlike ‘theory’ in the conspiracy or detective novel sense, scientific theory is the result of processes developed over centuries to correct for our biases. If the technological transformation of the world over the past few centuries provides us with a stunning demonstration of science’s theoretical power, then the thousands of years of muddling that precede that transformation provide an equally impressive demonstration of our theoretical incompetence absent science.

Of course, believers in prescientific worlds generally don’t know anything about our theoretical incompetence, nor would they want to. We are prone to cherish our beliefs, especially those learned at the collective knee of family and tradition. Our incompetence, in other words, is such that we’re loathe to acknowledge our incompetence. Imagine every Christian, Moslem, and Hindu in the world suddenly shrugging and saying, “Meh, what do I know?” The sad fact is that we are capable of strapping bombs to ourselves, killing untold numbers of innocents, on the strength of things like familial hearsay and ancient guesswork.

 

We can believe that hard, that stupidly. We, not just “those crazies.”

Science is the cruel stranger, the one who tells us how it is whether we like it or not. Human vanity being what it is, you might say it’s amazing it succeeds at all in advancing theories that not only contradict received dogmas, but cut against our psychological grain. I sometimes think it’s this ability, the power to press home outright offensive portraits of our world and ourselves, that most distinguishes it as a claim-making institution.

Take evolution. Sure, you can slather layer after layer of laudatory rhetoric across the evolutionary portrait, say, eulogize our biochemical kinship with the totality of living things, or lionize those few crucial adaptations that make us human, but it still leaves us sucking on some bitter cultural and psychological pills. No matter how much you gild our particular branch of the evolutionary tree, it’s still just another branch, random in origin, indeterminate in destination.

According to most traditional accounts of our origins, we’re something really special—like really, really.

So here’s the question: What other bitter pills does science hold in store for us? The cruel stranger isn’t finished, you can bet the family farm on that simply because nothing is final in science. So what other stomach churning surprises does it hold in store for us? And what happens if it begins telling us things that are out and out indigestible?

What if science, the greatest institutional instrument of discovery in history, starts telling us there’s no such thing as choices, or stranger still, selves? What if the portrait of humanity that science ultimately paints strikes us as immediately and obviously inhuman?

This is the question I ask in Neuropath through the lens of one man’s troubled life.


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.

Neuropath, Chapter One (Excerpt)

The following is the first chapter in R. Scott Bakker’s book Neuropath, out now from Tor Books. For the cover copy:

Tom’s life is not what it once was. His marriage to the beautiful Nora is on the rocks and he now sees his two young children only on her say-so. His best friend Neil has moved to California to teach neurology. He has one success—a book on human psychology. Tom wiles away the time trying to teach bored grad students. But that all changes when Neil comes back into his life. For it seems that Tom’s best friend was working for the National Security Agency, cracking the minds of suspected terrorists. Now it is Neil himself who has cracked and gone AWOL—what’s more, he has left behind evidence that he has been employing his unique skills on civilians, obsessed with the idea that he can control the human brain….

 

* * *

To my fall 2003 Popular Culture class.
For being honest in the face of complexity,
and for remaining humble in
the shadow of mystery.

Author’s Note:

What follows is a fictional story based on actual trends and discoveries in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. Though things have not yet become quite so disturbing, at least this much is clear: we are not what we think we are.

* * *

The grace that saves us from psychiatric diagnosis is nothing more than the sheer good fortune that millions of others happen to share our delusion.
—CORDELIA FINE, A Mind of Its Own

* * * 

ONE

August 17th, 6:05 a.m.

Love dies hard.

Two years they had been divorced, and still he dreamed about her… Nora. As slender as an intake of breath, shining with the light of all those admiring eyes. It had been her day—her day first—and Thomas had made it his own by giving it to her wholly.

The music thumped. The floor swayed with smiles and grand and flabby gestures. The grandfather from North Carolina, shaking his hands like Sunday revival. The cousins from California, wowing the women with their MTV moves. The aunt from WeightWatchers, striking this or that Cosmopolitan pose. The spectators laughed and cheered, continually glanced at the little illuminated screens they held in their palms. Catching his wind at the bar, Thomas watched them all. He beamed as his best man, Neil, broke clear of the fracas to join him. He looked like an actor, Thomas thought, dark- eyed and erratic, like Montgomery Clift celebrating the world’s end.

“Welcome!” Neil cried in a tone meant to cut through the jubilation.

“Welcome to Disney World, old buddy!”

Thomas nodded the way people do when friends say inappropriate things, a kind of reflex affirmation, chin here, eyes over there. He could never leave things alone, Neil. That was what made him Neil, Thomas supposed—what made him extraordinary.

“Give it a rest,” he said.

Neil threw his hands out, as if gesturing to everything in all directions. C’mon. You see it as clearly as I do. Courtship. Pairbonding. Reproduction…” He grinned in a manner that was at once festive and conspiratorial. No man living, it seemed to Thomas, could put so much contradiction into his smile. “This is all just part of the program, Goodbook.”

“Neil…”

“You don’t have an answer, do you?”

Thomas saw Nora making her way toward them, laughing at an uncle’s one- liner, clutching old hands. She had always been beautiful, but now with the pomp and attention she seemed something impossible, ethereal, a vision who would shed her gown for him and only him. He turned to scowl at his friend, to tell him that she—she—was his answer.

His new conclusion.

“Time to grow up, don’t you think? Time to put the Argument behind us.”

“Sure,” Neil said. “Time to sleep.”

Nora danced between them, staggered Thomas by swinging from his arm.

“You guys are freaks!” she cried. She could always tell when they were talking shop, and always knew how to draw them back to the rough ground of more sensible souls. He held her in the rocking way of drunken lovers, laughing so hard he couldn’t speak. Another Tom and Nora giggle session. At parties, people would always comment how only they seemed to get each other’s jokes. Isn’t that what it meant? “Getting” somebody?

They were just on the same drugs, Neil would say.

“Can’t you feel it?” she cried, rolling her eyes out to the drunken yonder. “All these people love us, Tommy! All these people luvluvluvvv—”

The alarm clock crowed as remorseless as a reversing garbage truck. Thomas Bible swatted at it, squinted at the spears of sunlight. He felt like a scrap of something drawn from a forgotten pocket: too crumpled for too long to ever be smoothed. He was hungover—well and truly. Running his tongue over his teeth, he winced at the taste.

He sat hunched for several moments, trying to muster the peace-of-stomach he’d need for the long lurch to the bathroom. Fucking dreams. Why, after all these years, would he dream of his wedding reception? It wasn’t so much the images he resented as the happiness.

He was too old for this shit, especially on a workday—no, even worse, a work-and-kid day. He could already hear Nora’s rebuke, her voice cross and her eyes jubilant: “What’s this I hear…”

The bathroom reeked of whiskey, but at least the toilet lid was down. He flushed without looking, then sat down in the tub and turned on the shower. The embalming water felt good, so much so he actually stood to wash his hair.

Afterward, he pulled on a robe and trundled downstairs, shushing his dog, an affable black Lab named Bartender. He collected the whiskey tumblers and beer bottles on his way through the living room and thought about checking in on the den, but the partially closed door buzzed with awkwardness. Just inside the door, a pair of blue jeans lay crumpled across the carpet, legs pulled inside out. He considered barging in and committing some petty act of vengeance—bellowing like a drill sergeant or jumping up and down on the foldout or something similarly stupid—but decided against it.

The Advil was in the kitchen.

His place was old, one of the original farm houses built long before the rest of the surrounding subdivision. Creaky hardwood floors. Tall ceilings. Smallish rooms. No garage. A concrete porch just big enough for two Mormons. “Cozy,” the real estate agent had said. “Claustrophobic,” Nora had continually complained.

Even still, Thomas had grown to love the place. Over the years he had invested quite a bit of time and money in renovations—enough to make the Century 21 guy right. The kitchen, especially, with its period fixtures and porcelain-rimmed walls, radiated character and homeliness. In the morning sunlight, everything gleamed. The chairs cast ribbed shadows across the tile floor.

Now if only Nora hadn’t taken all the plants.

By the time he started the coffeemaker he was feeling much better—almost human. The power of routine, he supposed. Even half-poisoned, the old brain appreciated routine.

The previous night had been nothing if not crazy.

He wolfed down a couple of stale Krispy Kreme doughnuts with his coffee, hoping to settle his stomach. After sitting for several minutes listening to the fridge hum, he pulled himself to the granite counter and began preparing breakfast. He knew the kids were awake before he heard them. Bart always clicked out of the kitchen and bounded upstairs moments before the muffled cries began. Like all Labs, he adored his tormentors.

“No!” Thomas heard his daughter, Ripley, shriek. Tumbling footsteps along the hallways, then, “No-no-no- no!” all the way down the stairs.

“Dad!” the eight-year-old cried as she barreled into the kitchen. She was thin and willowy in her Donna Duck pajamas, with a pixie face and her grandmother’s long, raven- black hair. She swung into her seat with the strange combination of concentration and abandon that characterized everything she did. “Frankie showed me his you-know-what again!”

Thomas blinked. He’d always been an advocate of early childhood sex education, but he could see why most parents were keen to keep the genie in the bottle for as long as possible. Shame was a lazy parent’s way of teaching discretion. Or so he told himself.

She made a face. “His thing, Daddy. His”—she screwed up her face as if to give the official word an official female expression—“peeenis.”

Thomas could only stare in horror. Dammit, Tom, he could hear Nora say. They need their own rooms. How many times… He called upstairs, wincing at the volume of his own voice. “Frankie! Do you remember what we said about your morning—” He caught himself, looked askance at Ripley. “Your morning… you- know…”

Frankie’s petulant “Yes” floated down from the nethers of the house. He sounded crestfallen.

“Keep your pecker in your pants, son. Please.”

Of course Ripley had been watching closely. “Pecker, Daddy? Eeww!”

Thomas grabbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. Nora was going to kill him.

No shame, he told himself. The world was lesson enough. Ripley was already fretting over what clothes to wear, talking about how L’Oreal was better than CoverGirl was better than what ever. Soon they would wince at photographs of themselves, at the sound of their voices on the answering machine, at the rust spots on the rockers of their car, and so on, and so on. Soon they would be good little consumers, buying this or that Band- Aid for their innumerable little shames.

Not if he could help it.

Several minutes afterward, little Frankie shuffled across the tiles, squinting against the sunlight. Thomas was relieved to see his Silver Surfer pajama- bottoms intact. The four- year- old rubbed his puffy eyes, flapping his elbows as he did so. Though impish and compact, Frankie exaggerated all of his movements— even his facial expressions. He waved more than he needed to wave, stepped more than he needed to step; he even sat more than he needed to sit. He took up a lot of room for such a little kid, spatially as well as emotionally.

Ripley regarded him, her expression one of glum boredom. “Nobody needs to see that,” she said, pointing at his crotch.

Thomas cracked another egg, smiled ruefully.

“So?” Frankie replied.

“So it’s weird. Showing your thing to your sister is weird. Ugh! It’s sick.”

“Is not sick. Daddy said it’s healthy. Right, Daddy?”

“Yes…” Thomas began, then grimaced, shaking his head. “I mean no… And yes.”

What was the problem? Hadn’t he taught a graduate seminar on child sexuality at Columbia? Didn’t he know the “developmentally correct” swing for most every curveball a kid could throw? He held up both hands and stood over the table, trying to appear both stern and clinical. His children, however, had forgotten him. Mouths half full of toast, they bickered with the obstinate whininess that characterized so much of their communication.

“Come on. Listen up, guys. Please.”

They were both chattering at the same time now. “No, you!” “No, you!” Christ Almighty, his head hurt.

“Listen up, jerks!” he cried. “The old man has had a rough night.”

Ripley chortled. “You got drunk with Uncle Cass last night, didn’t you?”

“Can we wake him, Daddy?” Frankie asked. “Can we wake him, please?”

What was it with the apprehension? Just a bad night, he told himself. I’ll sort it all out this afternoon.

“No. Leave him be. Listen up! As I was saying, the old man has had a rough night. The old man needs his kids to cut him some slack.”

They both watched him, at once wary and amused. They knew what he was, the clever little fiends. He was a Hapless Dad. When they angered him, they simply pretended he was shamming until it seemed he was shamming. Manipulative little buggers.

Thomas took a deep breath. “I said, the old man needs his kids to cut him some slack.”

They shared a momentary glance, as though to make sure they were both on the same mischievous page, then began laughing.

“Serve oos owr breakfust, wench!” Frankie cried, mimicking some movie they’d watched not so long ago. It had become their Breakfast Joke.

With this, Thomas was undone. He conceded defeat by ruffling their hair and kissing their heads.

“Don’t say ‘wench,’ ” he murmured.

Then he got back to breakfast—like a good wench, he supposed. He’d forgotten how much he loved weekday mornings with his children.

Even when hungover.

 

 

 

Normally he saw Franklin and Ripley only on weekends, as per his custody agreement. But Nora had asked if he would take them for the week: some bullshit about a trip to San Francisco. Ordinarily taking the kids wouldn’t have been a problem, but Nora had unerringly caught him at the worst time possible: the run- up to the new school year, when the kids had scaled the stir-crazy summit of their summer holidays and when he was up to his eyeballs with committee and course prep work for the upcoming semester. Thank God Mia, his neighbor, had agreed to help out.

Mia’s real name was Emilio, but everyone called him Mia, either because his last name was Farrow, or because of his days as a drag queen. He was a great guy: an amateur Marxist and a professional homosexual—self-described. He was a technical writer for JDS Uniphase and usually worked out of his home. Though he constantly made noise about despising kids, he was positively maudlin when it came to Frankie and Ripley. He complained about them the way diehard sports fans complained about their team’s winning streaks: as though offering proof of humility to fickle gods. Thomas suspected that Mia’s love of the kids was nothing short of parental, which was to say, indistinguishable from pride.

Running late, Thomas hustled the kids across the lawn. The neighborhood was young enough to sport winding lanes and a bewildering variety of trees, but too old to suffer the super-sized Legoland look. They found Mia standing on his porch arguing with his partner, Bill Mack. Mia had dark, Marine- cropped hair, and a face that shouted zero body fat. His build might have been described as slight were it not for the obvious strength of his shoulders and arms. The man was built like an acrobat.

“So that’s just great,” Mia was saying. “Fanfuckingtastic, Bill.” He turned and smiled guilelessly at the Bibles assembled on the steps below. “Hi, kids,” he said. “You got here just in time to say bye-bye to the prick.”

“Hi, William,” Thomas said carefully to Bill. The previous month Bill had decided he wanted to be called William—the name had more “cultural capital,” he had said.

“Jeeeezus Christ,” Mia snorted, his inflection somewhere between Alabama wife-beater and California gay. “Why not just call him Willy?”

“ ’ee’s goot a wee willie,” Frankie cried out in his Scottish accent.

Another movieism.

Mia laughed aloud.

“Why hello, Thomas,” Bill replied sunnily. “And how are the Bibles doing?”

“Dad’s hungover and Frankie showed me his pecker,” Ripley said.

Bill’s smile was pure Mona Lisa. “Same ol’, same ol’, huh?” He crinkled his nose. “I think that’s my cue…” Sidling between the Bibles, he walked to his old-model Toyota SUV— one of the ones ecoprotestors liked to sling tar across. He looked like a blond Sears cata log model in his three- piece. Thomas glimpsed Mia mouth Fuck off and die as Bill pulled out of the driveway.

For as long as he’d known them, Bill and Mia had done all the things statistically doomed couples typically do. They made faces while the other was talking—a frightfully good indicator of impending relationship meltdown. They described each other in unrelentingly negative terms. They even smacked each other around now and again. And yet somehow they managed to thrive, let alone survive. They had certainly outlasted the Bibles.

“Nothing too serious?” Thomas said, checking as much as asking. Over the years he’d helped the two of them sort out several near- fatal communication breakdowns, usually by talking one of them back from the brink without the other knowing. Guerrilla therapy, he called it.

“I’ll be fine, professor. Gay men love assholes, remember? Pardon my French.”

“Daddy speaks French, too,” Ripley said.

“I’m sure he does, honey.” Mia nodded at the black minivan parked next to Thomas’s Acura. He raised his eyebrows. “Company, professor? L’amore, perhaps?”

Smirking, Thomas closed his eyes and shook his head. Mia was hopelessly nosy.

“No. Nothing like that.”

 

 

 

Thomas was a creature of habit.

Over the years since he and Nora had moved to the burbs, the hour- long commute into Manhattan on the MTA Metro-North had become a reprieve of sorts. Thomas liked the packed anonymity of it all. The literary types could boo-hoo all they wanted about the “lonely postindustrial crowd,” but there was something to be said for the privacy of vacant and indifferent faces. Countless millions of people all herded into queues, all possessing lives of extraordinary richness, and most with sense enough not to share them with strangers.

It seemed a miracle.

Thomas imagined some grad student somewhere had published a paper on the topic. Some grad student somewhere had published a paper on everything. Now that the big game had been hunted to extinction, all the little mysteries found themselves in the academic crosshairs, all the things that made humans human.

Usually Thomas read the New York Times—the ink-and-paper version—on the trip into Manhattan, but sometimes, like today, he simply stared at the passing Hudson and dozed. No river, he was certain, had been the object of more absent contemplation than the Hudson.

He had much to think about. Frankie’s incestuous exhibitionism

was the least of his concerns.

He glanced at the front page of his neighbor’s Times and saw the

headlines he’d expected.

 

EU SAYS U.S. AID PACKAGE “NOT ENOUGH”

DEATH TOLL COULD TOP 50,000 RUS SIAN OFFICIALS SAY

 

And of course,

 

THE “CHIROPRACTOR” STRIKES AGAIN:

 

SPINELESS CORPSE FOUND IN BROOKLYN

 

He found himself peering, trying to read the hazy squares of text beneath. The only words he could make out were “vertebrae” and “eviscerated.” He blinked and squeezed his eyes, then cursed himself for giving in to his morbid curiosity. Thousands of years ago, when people still lived in small communities, paying attention to random acts of violence actually paid reproductive dividends. That’s why human brains were hardwired to pay attention to them.

But now? It was little more than an indulgence. Candy for a Stone Age mind.

He thought about the previous night instead.

He was just screwing with me… Wasn’t he?

 

 

 

Thomas emerged from the oily humidity of the subway onto Broadway and 116th. He leaned against the railing, overcome with what his father had always called “jelly belly.” Fucking shooters. Why had he agreed to do shooters? The New York march of cars and people soothed him for some reason.

Columbia was surprisingly busy, given the school year had yet to begin. Dozens of students sat on the steps along the Low Plaza, cradling books and coffees and the ubiquitous palmtops. Thomas always enjoyed the walk to Schermerhorn Hall: the cobbled courtyards and bricked gardens, the contrast of grass and old stone, the humble academic grandeur. He passed through the shadow of St. Paul’s Chapel, and it seemed he could feel the morning cool radiating from its hunched walls. For all its logistical drawbacks, Schermerhorn was an ideal home for the psychology department. Apparently Columbia’s designers had a yen for interior spaces, enclaves within enclaves. It seemed proper that the Schermerhorn should be hidden, just as it seemed proper that it should be old, the stone leached, the walls settling on uncertain foundations—a place built by men who could still take the soul seriously.

Perhaps because he was hungover, Thomas found himself pausing before the entrance, gazing at the latter half of the inscription above.

 

SPEAK TO THE EARTH AND IT SHALL TEACH THEE

 

A laudable commandment, he supposed. But what if humanity had no stomach for the lesson?

 

 

He ducked his head into the psychology department office to check his mail.

“Oh, Professor Bible,” he heard Suzanne, the head administrative assistant, call.

Hanging sideways in the doorway, he smiled at her. “Make it quick, Suzy; I’m feeling woozy.”

She grimaced and nodded toward three suits, two women and one man, loitering outside the department head’s office door. They seemed to be watching him with peculiar interest.

“Can I help you?” Thomas asked. Their scrutiny felt vaguely offensive.

The dark-haired woman stepped forward and held out her hand. “Professor Bible? Thomas Bible?” she asked.

Thomas didn’t reply, convinced that she already knew who he was. Something about their demeanor said they had glossy photos in their breast pockets, and dossiers in their palmtops.

“I’m Shelley Atta,” she continued after an awkward moment. “This is Samantha Logan and Dan Gerard.” Logan was tall, blond, and implausibly attractive. Despite the crisp professionalism of her suit, something about her demeanor spoke of tongue studs and ankle tattoos. With blue eyes and Gallic brown hair, Gerard had the look of a washed- out football captain: packed with low-density muscle, indifferent to the faint mustard stains on his lapel. The kind of guy who made monkey faces when he peed. They seemed an unlikely pair.

“Is there someplace private where we might speak?” Atta asked.

“Preferably someplace with a BD player,” Logan added.

“What’s this about?” Thomas asked.

Shelley Atta’s eyes narrowed in irritation. She had a dense frame that could seem matronly or imposing, depending on her expression. She suddenly seemed imposing. “We’re with the FBI, Professor Bible… As I said, is there someplace private where we can talk?”

“My office will have to do,” Thomas said, turning on his heel like the busy man he was.

 

 

He demanded and studied their identification on the way to his office. He felt like a moron afterward. They certainly looked at him as if he were a moron.

Thomas distrusted “law enforcement” in all its multifarious guises, for many small reasons. A cop with the NYPD had been his neighbor once—a total asshole. Narcissism. Borderline personality disorder. You name it. Then there was the shakedown he had experienced driving through backwoods Georgia years back. Somehow the local sheriff had clocked his crippled Volkswagen—which could manage what? sixty-four or sixty-five floored?—doing ninety-seven. He still remembered the way the man had leaned into his window: like he was hungry and Thomas had his Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But the big reason was that he knew how frail people were. It was his job, studying all the things people would rather not know about themselves. He knew how quickly and how thoroughly positions of power could distort them. He knew the behavioral consequences of such distortion, and he knew how often innocents suffered as a result.

Thomas unlocked the door and ushered the three agents into the papery silence of the cubicle that was his office. Unlike some of his colleagues, he had never made a “home” of his office. He had no comfy chairs for graduate groupies, no prints of Nietz sche, Skinner, or Che Guevara, just books and sticky- notes. The agents scanned his shelves. The attractive blonde ran an appreciative finger down the spine of his first and only published work, Through the Brain Darkly. Agent Atta seemed to be looking for evidence of pornography or drug use. Either Dan Gerard was a restless man, or he was distressed by the chaos. A mild OCD, perhaps?

“So what’s this about?” Thomas asked again.

“We should watch the BD first,” Shelley said, producing a silvery disk.

Thomas’s stomach tightened. They were purposefully denying him context, anything that might prepare him for what he was about to see. They were going to be watching him closely, he knew, looking for small, telltale cues in his reaction…

Just what in the hell was going on?

The FBI, here in his office. Surreal. He suddenly relaxed, even smiled as he turned on his computer. The kids were going to freak when he told them about this. “The FBI, Daddy? No way!”

It must be some kind of mix- up.

They waited for Windows to load—always an awkward moment, it seemed to Thomas, even when alone.

“Bible,” he heard Agent Gerard say behind him. “What kind of name is that?”

He was trying to rattle him, Thomas supposed, using oblique antagonism to make it more difficult for him to conceal any potentially incriminating reaction. But they had no idea just how hung-over Thomas was. He doubted a muzzle- flash next to his ear could make him jump.

Thomas turned in his swivel and looked Gerard dead in the eyes. “Grab those chairs,” he said, motioning to the far side of his office. “We should all sit.”

Agent Gerard glanced nervously at Agent Atta, then did as he was told. One down. Two to go.

Thomas dropped the BD in the tray. They were all sitting now. The screen was black.

“Do those work?” Agent Atta asked, pointing at his desktop speakers. Thomas clicked through a couple different windows.

“YOU LIKE THAT?” blared from the speakers.

The voice sounded male, but it was electronically distorted—deep, as though gurgling through a synthesizer’s version of the ocean bottom. Thomas’s skin pimpled. What was this?

“What are you doing?” A female voice, breathless and undistorted. She sounded confused, as if she wanted to be terrified but…

“DO. YOU. LIKE?”

“Nnnngha… Oh God, yesssss.”

But was too aroused.

There was a tussle of lights on the screen, then Thomas saw a home video shot of a woman’s torso. She was sitting in some kind of black leather chair, and wearing a patterned-pink shift so soaked in water or sweat that it clung to her like a semi-translucent condom. She was panting like a dog, her back arched, her nipples hard. Her face remained off camera.

“YES… YOU LIKE,” the rumbling voice declared. Whoever was speaking, Thomas realized, was also holding the videocam.

“What… Wha- what are you doing?”

“MAKING AN ARGUMENT.”

“Oh, Jeeeeesussss…”

The camera dipped, and Thomas glimpsed her naked thighs swaying. She seemed to be grinding her hips, but nothing was touching her. Nothing he could see.

“MAKING LOVE.”

“Mmmm… Mmmm,” the faceless woman moaned, her voice curiously childlike.

“MORE?”

The camera jerked upward, and Thomas saw her face. She was bleach-blond, with the pouty-lipped harem beauty of a Hollywood starlet. Her right cheek was thrust against her shoulder. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, her lips pulled into a pained O.

“Pleeeeaaase,” she gasped.

Her body stiffened. Her face slackened. For a moment, her lips hitched into an Elvis curl. Then she started writhing in ecstasy. Gasps became howls, and for a mad moment, she shrieked, until the tendon- baring intensity strangled the possibility of sound. She convulsed, jerked to the plucking of inner strings.

Then suddenly she was back, whimpering, “Oh-my-gawd-oh-my-gawd—”

“AGAIN?”

“Oh-please-yes!” Swallow, then, “Yes-yes-yes-yes!” with every quick breath.

Then she was coming again, and the camera jerked yet farther up.

Thomas exploded from his chair. “Are you fucking kidding me!”

The woman’s braincase had been sawed open. A flea-circus of pins and wires formed a scaffold over the convoluted neural tissue. Lobes glistened in the light.

“Calm down, Mr. Bible,” Agent Atta said.

Thomas clutched his scalp, fairly yanked his hair. “Do you realize I could fucking sue you for showing me this…this… What the fuck is this?”

“WOULD YOU LIKE THE CONTROLS?”

“The BD arrived by mail in Quantico, Virginia, the day before yesterday.”

“So this is your fucking mail? What? You belong to the rape-of-the-month club or something?”

“As far as we can tell,” Shelley Atta said hesitantly, “the woman in the video was not sexually assaulted.”

“YOU ARE FREE,” the ocean-voice croaked. “YOU KNOW THIS? YOU MAY LEAVE ANY TIME YOU WISH.”

Thomas clicked pause. An image of the woman biting her lower lip froze on the screen. He found himself looking away, around the claustrophobic confines of his office. The air seemed thick with exhalations. Someone smelled like coleslaw.

“Tell us,” the other woman, Samantha, said, “do you know the whereabouts of—”

“No,” Thomas interrupted. “I’m not saying anything until you tell me what this is about. I’m a psychologist, remember? I’m familiar with informal interrogation tactics, and I refuse to cooperate until you stop playing games and tell me just what the fuck is going on.”

Agent Atta scowled at him. Agent Gerard stared blankly at the frozen screen.

“Let me tell you what we do know,” Samantha Logan said. “According to Biometrics, the woman is Cynthia Powski, or ‘Cream,’ a porn starlet from Escondido, California, who was reported missing last month. Our analysts assure us the images are real, and the neurosurgeons we’ve consulted insist the level of…manipulation depicted is quite possible. What you just witnessed is real, Professor Bible. As bizarre as it sounds, someone is abducting people and screwing with their brains.”

“People?” Thomas asked, his ears buzzing. “You mean this woman isn’t the first?”

Agent Logan nodded.

Suddenly Thomas understood. “You’re looking for a neurosurgeon…”

He thought of the previous night.

“According to our research,” Shelley Atta said, “you were roommates with Neil Cassidy at Princeton, weren’t you?”

“Of course I was— You think Neil did this?”

“We’re almost certain of it.”

Thomas waved his hands wide, as though warding away something with more momentum than his world could handle. “No. No. Look, you don’t know Neil. There’s simply no way he could have done this. No way.” Even as he spoke, he could see him, Neil, grinning in the porch light, his teeth Crest-commercial straight.

“And why do you say that, Professor?” Agent Logan asked.

“Because Neil is sane. When my life goes crazy, when I have difficulty distinguishing up from down, I call Neil—that’s how sane he is. Whoever’s doing this has suffered some kind of psychotic breakdown. Statistically, the chances of something like that happening to men my age is almost nil.”

“So you and Neil are close?” Agent Gerard said.

Numb nod.

“How close?” Agent Atta asked.

“Bum-buddy close. What fucking business is it of yours?” Thomas paused. He was letting his temper get the best of him—and letting these feds push his buttons. Think clear, he reminded himself. Think straight. But he couldn’t squeeze the writhing images of Cynthia Powski from his thoughts. He could still hear her moan, it seemed.

He could even smell her sweat.

“Look,” he continued evenly. “Your primary suspect is a very close friend of mine. And you know what? If we were talking about somebody I didn’t know, say the chief of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, I’d probably be more than willing to play this game with you. But I know how these things work. You’re fishing for something. It could be general information, or it could be something specific. The bottom line is that I have no way of knowing just what you’re fishing for, which means I have no way of knowing whether I’m helping my buddy or digging him a deeper hole.”

“You don’t trust us?” Agent Logan asked.

“Are you kidding me?”

“We’re the good guys, Professor Bible,” Agent Atta said.

“Sure you are. Do you have any idea just how bad people are at reasoning? It’s terrifying. Add to that the contradictory interests typically generated by hierarchies, like the FBI, where career-friendly decisions are so often at odds with truth-friendly decisions. Add to that the emergency repeal of the constitutional provisions guaranteeing due process—”

“It would be stupid to trust us,” Atta said, her tone tired and disgusted. “Irrational.”

“Exactly,” Thomas said flatly. “One might even say insane.”

* * *


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.