The moment he awoke he gently began to sob. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He wasn’t supposed to wake up. He was supposed to be dead. Instead he found himself in a painfully white, antiseptic-stinking clinical bed in a tiny room under the migraine-inducing flicker of strip lights.
Nothing hurt though, at least right now, and he felt that it should hurt. It was like the pain was there – his mouth, throat and belly felt ‘wrong’ – but , at a distance.
A hand touched his shoulder in a perfunctory display of affection, a mechanical pat and he realised that he wasn’t alone.
“Jake? I’m Doctor Eich. They told me you’d be awake soon. Do you need a moment or can we talk?”
The little man perched on the bed was a gargoyle of a figure, peering with interest from behind thick, old fashioned glasses. His body odour made its presence felt even over the antiseptic and he was disheveled and unkempt for a doctor, right down to his dirty nails.
“Oh. I’m not that kind of doctor,” he said, noticing the looks. “I simply have a proposition for you, if you’re interested?”
Jake tried to speak, but all that really came out was a croak, a rasping sound like some comic-book supervillain, a wheeze that took a moment to form a “Yes.”
Eich smiled, though the expression did not look like it was used to being on his face and soon sidled off again in embarrassment when it realised it didn’t belong.
“I work for the government on military projects. I’m a neuroscientist, a psychologist and a pharmacologist. I’m working on forms of… ah… weaponised psychiatiry.”
Jake nodded slightly, taking in the rest of the room. As his eyes adjusted to the light it didn’t seem quite so bright or clinical. There was a coffee – or at least a coffee coloured – stain on the wall and an ancient television set into a folding mechanical arm. The ‘out of order’ sign was so dusty and faded he suspected the last thing on that screen had been Top of the Pops.
“If I may be blunt, and I shall be anyway… well, Jake you’re suicidal. You have no family. No parents. No children. You’re in hospital because you were doing shots of Toilet Duck in an attempt to end your life. If you see no value in your life, might I suggest that we do? We need human subjects you see and they need to be ‘disposable’. If you’re that keen on ending your life I can assure you that that’s a distinct possibility. Sound good?”
Jake just nodded, shifting to try and sit up – which made him feel pain even through the morphine haze.
“Excellent,” Eich thrust a sheaf of papers and a pen towards Jake. “Sign these.”
Once that was done Eich gave Jake a too-firm handshake, tucked the notes under his arm and headed for the door.
“Thank you Jake, Mr Bell here will keep an eye on you until you can be transferred.” He hovered a moment by the door, half in, half out. “There’s just one last thing. If we’re going to be working together you should know that I am what a layman might call a sociopath. I hope it won’t put a dampener on our relationship.”
With that, he was gone, only to be replaced by Mr Bell who had the body of a rhinoceros and the face of an elderly fetishists freshly flogged buttocks.
Jake, half wondering if this were a dream, closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
It hadn’t been a dream and now here he was, scant weeks later in another room. This one with all the minimalism of a Japanese hotel room and the charm of a late-period George Lucas film. This bed had straps, which was worrying.
Eich was doing something complicated with a computer terminal, centrifuge and a hypodermic while Jake sat, in crinkly paper pyjamas, waiting to hear his fate.
“Doctor, what even is this experiment?”
Eich babbled away while he worked, measuring and combining in a manner that suggested even he might be capable of happiness. “It’s an emotional inhibitor. A complex series of drugs working in tandem to alter your perception. To make your perception more objective without compromising your moral and ethical processes. We’ve had some very limited success but everyone so far seems to go mad for some reason. Not to worry, we’ve made adjustments.”
Jake fidgeted, playing idly with the buckles on the bed straps.
“Why would they go mad?
“Most people,” Eich mumbled, decanting the mixed fluids into the hypodermic “live their lives in a glorious state of delusion. Everyone has degrees of pre-existing bias and many of these are very important to them. Strip away their subjectivity and – I suspect – the world no longer makes sense to them.”
“And why would you want to do such a thing?” Jake swabbed his own arm where it was dotted with marker pen, ready for the injection.
“Can you imagine?” Eich wrapped a rubber tube around his arm and held the needle ready. “Truly objective scientists, truly objective diplomats, millitary advisors. Even soldiers? Police who could make truly rational choices about when to shoot and when not to? The advances in science alone would be enormous and whole fields would have to be excised or rewritten. Sociology for a start.”
The doctor sniffed arrogantly and plunged the needle into Jake’s arm.
“There, much of these molecules are chemically similar to opioids, so you should be fully ‘in state’ in about two hours. Let me just strap you down and I’ll come back then.”
Seeing little reason to fight, Jake lay back, closed his eyes and waited for the drug to take effect.
The bright lights, he supposed, as he opened his eyes, were meant to simulate the sun. There were no windows in this block so the light must be important. It could have psychological and health effects so if they wanted a baseline it made sense to reduce such stresses.
The straps were not right, one was tighter than the others and now his hand was sore, to go with the throbbing ache in his throat and stomach that never really went away.
“How do we feel?”
Eich looked terrible. Jake was aware, instantly, of every imperfection in his face. Every line, every wrinkle. He’d known Eich was psychotic but he could see it now, immediately, dead eyes, a mouth that could approximate a smile but never mean it.
“This is interesting Doctor. Very interesting. You look terrible by the way. I suppose I had built up a certain image of you these past few weeks but I see you now. You’re just here for the job, it doesn’t really mean much to you. Nothing does.”
Eich frowned a little uneasily.
“I see every pore Eich, every line, every wrinkle,” Jake pulled slightly at his straps, staring at them left and right with curious intensity to take in the stitching and fastenings before he leaned back again into the pillows. “I feel every thread in these sheets. Every imperfection. It’s like I can see everything as it really is. No beauty, no blindness. Everything is filth and bacteria. Everything is slowly dying. All that stuff we deliberately forget every day to get through our lives.”
Eich bent down and scribbled his notes with a biro on his note pad.
“The ball in that nib has a slight imperfection, the variation in sound is unbearable. That paper’s recycled, rough, it’s like sandpaper on my ears. None of this matters, but it’s unignorable and I don’t feel the need to stay quiet about it.”
Eich made another feverish note and opened his mouth to speak. Breath wheezed in ageing lungs, lips cracked, spittle stretched disgustingly, his meaty tongue twisted behind his yellowing, crooked teeth.
Jake interrupted. “The other test subjects killed themselves. Didn’t they,” it wasn’t a question.
Eich’s mouth flopped shut like a partially deflated paddling pool, teeth clicking. Then contorted his face into a jiggling noise box.
“Yes. They all did. The straps make it obvious I suppose.”
“That and if I wasn’t already at that point, I would want to. I know how insignificant we are. I know how pointless this all is. I know what you are really trying to do here and I know what’s pointless too. It’s not going to work Eich.”
Eich frowned and leant close, cheese wafting on his breath, his pulse audible as his heart sluggishly pumped that rancid stew he called blood around his veins. “What do you mean?”
“Objective soldiers? That was never your plan. Objective scientists? Perhaps. What you really want this for is governance. To control government, to make the best choices. It won’t work.”
Eich leaned further forward, there was a thumbprint on his glasses, each viscous, oily line looming in Jake’s vision like an oil-soaked cormorant. “Why not? Tell me!”
Jake turned his head away is disgust, but the faintly laundered smell of the pillow was little better.
“How do you think the ministers will react when you wheel out the Amazing Objective Man? To begin with they won’t believe you. If I live long enough to be right they’ll get spooked. Each ideology will celebrate when I agree with them and ignore me when I don’t. Nothing will change except we’ll have some certainty that if we’d only done things differently we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.”
“Surely we can convince them man! Think of the good we can do!” Eich was almost apopleptic, and he was lying.
“You don’t care about the good Eich. You’re a sociopath, remember? You’re into it for the fame. You think this is your ticket to history and a justification for your inhumanity. You’re not objective Eich, you’re unfeeling and you haven’t thought this through.”
Eich stepped away from the bed, twisting this way and that, chubby, filthy little meat-tentacle clenched into nascently arthritic fists. “There must be a way…”
“Eich. The poor vote against their own interests. Governments ruin their nations in pursuit of ideological purity and cling to beliefs long after they’re proven wrong. Rationalists and pragmatists have always been ignored. Why would I be any different? Why would you be any different? They’ll kill me as a threat and then kill you. You know it. This is a miraculous dead end. It would be like being the only sober person in the car when nobody else will let you drive. It would be heartbreaking. Even for you.”
Eich’s shoulders slumped and his head hung low.
“You know what this drug does. You know I’m right. The only way out for us is if the drug fails. You’ll have to kill me. Humanity will just have to muddle through. Let them have their illusions and delusions and hope for the best. If you know they’re wrong, utterly, completely, it will only bring despair.”
Eich shuffled back to the bench and drew air into an empty hypodermic.
“You’re right. Of course.”
There was nothing else to say.