“Name?” barked a heavy-set white-suited man who was sitting at the desk beside which I knelt.
“Winston what? Smith?” he laughed.
“Winston Hamlet,” I admitted.
“Well, that’s a grand name,” he replied truthfully. “Address?”
Impulsively I gave Charrington’s address in SoHo. I wasn’t going to give Julia’s coordinates; for some reason, Charrington had popped into my head. The clerk titled his head at me like a curious beagle.
“That so?” he said. Bushy eyebrows, dyed black hair, white suit. It was Charrington himself.
Charrington went on typing, presumably adding my correct address to the record.
“Insurance?” he asked.
“What do you mean, insurance?”
“Who’s going to pay for this?”
“Pay for what?”
“I don’t want treatment.”
“I’ll put Medicaid. Are you vaccinated?”
“Yes,” I said defiantly.
“How many times?”
“Five or six. I lost count.”
“If you require life saving treatment, do you agree to receive a blood transfusion?”
“Do you have a sincerely held religious or personal beliefs that prevent you from receiving a transfusion?”
“Are you a member of the Latter Day Saints?”
“Would you care to read some literature about the life-saving benefits of receiving a transfusion?”
“No. I’m not going to answer any more questions about transfusions.”
“Do you consent to life-saving treatments for Covid-19?’
“I’m not going to answer anymore questions. I want to call a lawyer.”
At that he yelled at the closed door, “Questioning complete.”
Behind me the door opened and two men in blue jumpsuits rushed in and pulled me backward off my chair by the armpits. I could hear Charrington chuckling as they dragged me down the hall. One of the orderlies unlocked the door to a white tiled room and the other pushed me in so violently and landed on my hands and knees. I was in a holding cell with a half dozen men and two women showing advanced stages of poverty, who all seemed to be very drunk or drugged, coughing, breathing heavily sitting close together on narrow benches secured to the wall. In the center of the tiled floor was a drain, and I sensed, by my nostrils, that it had been used as a urinal.
“Don’t think you’re going to jump the line. We’ve been waiting hours, to get some service,” growled one man.
“Over twenty-four hours,” mumbled another man.
“I’m not here because I want to be,” I replied. I felt the top of my head. There was a big gash and my hair was sticky with blood.
“No one is,” said a skinny woman with heavily seamed cheeks and thin, drawn-in lips. “But we don’t have a choice,” she added sadly, picking lint off her dirty pink tracksuit.
After a few more questions, I drew it out of her that they were all guilty of #WrongHealth and were waiting to be put in quarantine. They had all tested positive after being arrested for minor crimes and had been sent here. The lipless woman wasn’t showing any symptoms, but I guessed she would be soon enough because the other woman next to her was wet coughing into an already saturated mask that she had turned into a hanky, and the men were almost as bad.
So this was part of my punishment then, sentenced to a Covid ward. There was no more room on the benches, so I sat in the corner with my knees up and put my head on my arms.
“You’re bleeding,” said the skinny woman. “Here,” she added, touching her forehead.
I touched my brow and got fresh beads of blood on my fingers. I patted it dry with my sleeve.
“You got it,” said the woman, helpfully.
“Are my eyebrows gone?” I asked.
“What eyebrows?” she replied.
The man next to her laughed.
“Your lip’s busted,” she added.
“Yeah, I can definitely feel that.”
“Cops beat you up?” asked a man who might have been speaking from experience.
“What’d you do?”
“Don’t answer him,” advised the lipless woman. “Informants.”
“You all sick with Covid? Did you get the vax?” I asked.
“I did four times, for the donuts,” said the man who had the wettest cough.
They all laughed at that.
“You should have waited for the beer and the weed,” said the skinny woman.
“Oh, can you shut it?” said the sick woman, who looked to be quite elderly. She lay prone on the floor and was trying to get comfortable by resting her head on her folded arms.
“I didn’t take that shit,” muttered the skinny woman.
After that, the room went quiet. Some of them lay down on the floor. The others took up the space on the benches to stretch out. My head was pounding. The pain took my attention away from thinking of the way Honoré had looked at me, with that silent scream.
It was hours later and the room had emptied of everyone but the sickest man who was snoring heavily, lying on his back on the bench. One by one, an orderly in a blue jumpsuit had come to call their names. Finally, the door opened and my name was called. As soon as I stepped into the hall, I was in a chokehold from behind. A couple of jumpsuits hustled me into a chair and strapped my arms and legs down.
A nurse in a Halloween-grade uniform, showed me syringe with her thumb on the plunger. “This’ll just make you really sleepy.” The jumpsuits held me firm while the nurse stuck the needle into a vein. I had a metallic taste in my mouth, and a warm feeling started in my toes and moved up my legs.
When I emerged later it might have been days or hours. I was in a cold room, lying in a bed, still unable to move, unable to open my eyes. The periodic beep of a machine monitored my heart. Someone entered the room, fiddled with the machines and left. I couldn’t open my eyes or even move a finger to let the nurse know that I was there and I was awake and I knew what they were doing to me.
Later I was woken up by a rough orderly gripping my head and pulling it back while while another one opened my mouth and shoved a long black snake down my throat. My mind struggled with it.
“He’s fighting it,” said the nurse.
“Give him more sedative then,” said someone else with an accent. “It’s good for you, Son. Just take it.” I saw Koenig in surgical scrubs leaning over me in front of a bright surgical light, and I stopped fighting.
I slipped into semi-dreams. I couldn’t feel my body. I imagined myself as Gertrude as she lay dying, stuffed with tubes. For what might have been days, I went in and out of consciousness for brief glimpses of my murder as it was underway. I felt very, very tired, and yet terrified.
Then the black snake was being pulled from my throat. I was able to open my eyes as the nurses left the room, turned out the lights and locked the door behind them. I was in a room with a caged window that looked out upon the Wassaic hills fading in sunset. I tried to move and saw that my arms were still strapped to the bedrails. But the IV had been removed and now there was only a big purple bruise in that spot. A sense of deep relief overcame me and I felt gratitude for those angel nurses who had just set me free.
Sometime later in the night, lying across the threshold of oblivion, I was startled by a bright burst of white light, followed by an even brighter one and then darkness. I waited seconds in the silence for the thunder claps, which, when they came, mirrored the sharpness of the bursts of light, the second percussive wave rattling the metal bed frame. I realized I was in Dr Frankenstein’s lab because he was always using electricity in his work. I could hear him talking in the next room, in fact. He was saying, it must have been to Julia, “A new species would bless me as its creator. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve gratitude from mine.” Dr. Victor Frankenstein was pathological narcissist and he was seducing Julia. But she was only pretending. She was always pretending. Dr. Frankenstein was Koenig, I remembered.
When I woke again it was late morning. My eyes popped open and my mind was remarkable clear. My bed had been raised to a sitting position. My scalp was itchy. I felt a couple of inches of stitches where I had banged my head. I looked out the window to see three yellow and black mechanical cows going back and forth over the already cut lawn.
“They shouldn’t over-graze the pasture,” I said in alarm.
A vaguely familiar voice from the corner of the room behind me answered, “It’s what they do.”
“The problem with mechanical cows,” I said, “as compared to animal herds, is they don’t derive their energy from the grass they are cutting. Major design flaw, in my opinion.”
“Mechanical cows also don’t water or fertilize the grass as they cut it. Mechanical cows don’t replicate themselves and you can’t eat them once they’re full grown.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said the voice.
“How many technological advances don’t really solve any problems just make new ones?”
The voice decided not to answer.
I woke a second time. It was still morning but a little later. The mechanical cows were manned Cub Cadet lawn mowers and I was alone.
Charrington burst into the room, pushing the door ahead of him so hard it hit the wall and banged shut behind him. “Quite a storm last night. Very unusual for winter, but then everything is out-of-wack these days.”
“She’s back with Mom and Dad in the city. Happy family. Julia’s pretty pissed at you, by the way.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Surprised to see me here, of all people. Just to let you know, I rented your farm, not because I was after you. I needed to be in Amenia while we set up the program. You’re not that special. But I’m nosey,” he thrust out his face and raised his bushy brows, “and I rifled through all your personal stuff. Boring mainly, except the memoir in the bottom left hand drawer of the guest room.”
“That drawer was locked.”
“Right. Well, I unlocked it.” He shrugged. “But that’s just me.”
“And you spied on me in the loft too.”
“I have all those records, yes. Usually, I peep for the thrill of it, but in your case, in your case, you led us to that ‘patriot’ bunch and all their associates. Not a bad bonus.”
“They’re good people.”
“And useful to us. All gathered together like that it’s easier to track. So,” he said indicating he wanted to turn the conversation in another direction, “it took three days, but we finally got back a positive Covid test on you, qualifying your care for roughly fifty-thousand dollars in Federal funding.”
“Do I really have Covid?”
“Who cares? You were wheezing, had a fever.”
“Is this a prison hospital? When do I get to call my lawyer?”
“You haven’t been arrested. You fell ill suddenly the pharmacy and paramedics brought you here.”
“Then I can go?”
“Not quite just yet. We have to keep you to monitor your mental health.”
“To make me crazy like you gave me Covid.”
“Here’s your sedative,” said Charrington holding up a syringe.
“I don’t want it.”
“It’ll ease the pain.”
“I don’t want it.”
Charington showed me a small black object like a remote control or a toy gun. He smashed it against my chest. First my back arched and my legs went stiff and then I felt the crippling pain.
“Do you want the sedative now?” Charrington asked with mocking kindness. “Stop screaming and ask nicely.”
“Yes,” I gave in.
Charrington injected the sedative. After a momentary taste of metal, the next thing I knew I was in a court room on the witness stand, feeling awkward because I was naked under my hospital gown. Judge Koenig presided while Charrington prosecuted. Koenig wore a traditional judge’s black robe and an elaborate 18th Century French-style powder wig. It was the first time I’d seen him wearing false eyelashes that looked like spider-legs.
“Mr. Hamlet, what is your party affiliation?” asked Charrington.
“I don’t have one.”
“Sir, please confine your answers to the multiple choice options.” Charrington pointed to the phone in my hand.
I looked at the screen, which offered “Republican” or “Democrat.”
“I’m not registered. I don’t vote.”
Charrington showed me his stun gun.
“Okay, Democrat.” I checked the corresponding box.
“What were you doing at the Capitol on January 6th?”
I looked at my phone. The options were: “I was part of the armed insurrection” or “I was one of the leaders trying to overthrow democracy.” I picked the latter.
“On the afternoon of December 22nd, did you or did you not poison a five-year-old child?”
In my mind’s eye, I saw myself rubbing poison ivy oil on Honoré’s lip. “I did,” I confessed.
Charrington drew my attention to my phone.
After checking the right box, I scrolled through pages of text too small to read until I found a big orange “ACCEPT” button. I looked at Judge Koenig, who gestured “please” with an age-spotted hand.
I accepted the terms.
When I woke again it was bright in my room and my windows were black. My arms were no longer tied to the bed rails. Within a few seconds of regaining consciousness, a song started playing in my mind’s ear, a song that I’d been hearing for days now, I realized. I couldn’t get snatches of lyrics out of my head, but couldn’t place them either: “I’m just a sweet transhumanist—” No, that wasn’t it.
As I got out of bed, my hospital gown parted and my rear-end was exposed, which made me feel thoroughly vulnerable. I took off the gown a turned it so that it opened in the front where I could manage it better. Pathetic really. They’d already done to my body whatever they wanted to do. As I was tying the sashes, out of the corner of my eye I saw I someone in a white lab coat sitting in the corner behind my bed, crossed leg wagging playfully to and fro.
“You won’t make it very far dressed like that,” said Felix O’Brien.
At first startled, I remembered belatedly that my friend and co-conspirator, the FinTech billionaire, Quixote Wind Energy CEO, Moon Salad entrepreneur, and NeuroConnect marketing engineer had been there off and on for days. I’d talked to him about the mowers. I understood that it had been he who ordered Charrington to remove my vent.
“Why am I in this place? What do you do here?”
“They’re advancing science.” Felix had lost his tan. He face was pasty and dotted with red splotched hives. “You look awfully suspicious. I saved you. Do you know that what you were trying to do is a felony? You’re lucky the girl’s father is not pressing kidnapping charges.”
“How did you ‘save’ me?”
“Sarcasm? They take volunteers for drug trials here in exchange for commuted sentences. In your special case, I got the Feds to drop charges. You meant well, I explained to them. And you’ve been under a lot of stress. Everyone has.”
“What’s happened to Honoré? Julia?”
“Charrington wasn’t lying. They’re back with hubby. It takes a traumatic event like this to bring parents back together.”
“Does Julia know what I was trying to do?”
Felix answered carelessly, “I dunno.”
That song was playing in my head again:
…Well babies, don’t you panic
By the light of the night, it’ll all seem all right
I’ll get you a Satanic mechanic
I’m just a sweet transhumanist…
I’ve been making a man…
“I had strange dreams about a Dr. Frankenfurter,” I said. “Did they give me hallucinogenics?”
“Mm,” said Felix.
“I was in a musical,” I said remembering, “Judge Koenig opened his robes and he was dressed like a transvestite. Everybody was doing the warp speed.”
“The time warp, I think,” said Felix.
The room suddenly swerved and I fell to the floor. After a minute, I felt fine and said so. I grabbed the metal bedframe and pulled myself up. “I need to go home.”
Felix slapped his knees. “Come on. I’ll show you my NeuroConnect lab. I’m in the next building.” He tossed a pair of slippers at my feet. “The office doesn’t know what happened to your clothes, but you can put that on.” He pointed to a starched and folded blue jumpsuit lying at the foot of the bed. “We’ll get you out of here.”
“Oh, thank you Felix,” I said. “I didn’t expect this.” I unfolded the jumpsuit as Felix observed in a professional manner. By virtue of his lab coat, everything he did seemed to have a professional manner. I stepped into the jumpsuit and pulled it up to my waist without removing the hospital gown. Felix nodded at my modesty as if I had passed that test. As I tried to simultaneously hold up the jumpsuit and remove the gown, Felix said, “Here,” and pulled the gown away. I put my arms in the jumpsuit and zipped up with a loud comical, “Vvvtt.”
Felix gestured at the door, which I was surprised to find unlocked. Again he gestured me down the hall in front of him and down the stairs. At the top of the stairs, I looked down and slipped slightly on the steps. Felix caught me.
“Careful there,” said Felix. “You’re not quite well yet. Take it slow.”
“Transvestites aren’t like Tim Curry anymore,” I complained. It seemed I was still dreaming. “Some how it was better when they flaunted their sexual deviance. Now they claim they’re all following family hour programming.”
“That is the ultimate in deviance, don’t you think?” replied Felix.
We went to a level below ground and then went through a door to a musty tunnel that connected to the next building. Low wattage bulbs dimly led the way. “What will young people do to shock their parents nowadays?” I continued to complain. “I mean, grandmas are helping their granddaughters secure their strap-ons.”
“What’s the world coming to, yes,” patronized Felix. After a while he realized he did have something more substantiative to add, “Suicide. They kill themselves to rebel against their parents.”
Yes, I thought, suicidal tendencies mushroomed in the dark of the lockdowns, turning a whole generation into a death cult. Nothing is worst than children wanting to kill themselves. Nothing. It is the lowest level of cultural hell. Felix had led me into a dark basement filled with discarded hospital equipment from the eugenics era. “Wait. Where are we going, to a dungeon?”
“In the fifties, the buildings were retrofitted as fallout shelters,” he explained. “They were thinking that people might live underground for months, maybe years, waiting for the radiation to clear, so they connected the basements of the entire campus. Fascinating, really. They replenished the supplies regularly.”
“They were planning to save the feeble minded inmates?” I asked doubtfully.
“Oh, no. They would all be turned out to fend for themselves in the event of a nuclear disaster. These bunkers were for doctors, engineers, and good-looking women. Neat history, right?”
“Hard to believe they thought they could survive nuclear war,” I said.
“If you plan it right,” replied Felix. “It’s interesting to think that all the preparations we’ve been making to colonize the moon might actually help some of us survive nuclear war here on Earth. Similar problems, same solutions. Growing food indoors, radiation damage risks, permanent winter, water reclamation, supplying enough protein in the form of insects.”
“Did they vaccinate me?” I asked.
“Vaccination is a loyalty test. They want you to ask for it. That’s my sense. But, you didn’t consent.”
“Not while I was drugged?”
“No, you kept asking about Julia and Honore.”
“What happened to Amil?”
“Out on bail. They will try to make an example of him.”
“More likely a martyr.”
“It’s tricky,” said Felix.
We reached the end of the tunnel and went through a newly installed door that opened into a pristine laboratory, with two rows of long tables bearing mostly electronic equipment. The room had a acrid smell, which I followed to the far table where a bald baby orangutan in a diaper that sat at computer monitor, maneuvering a joystick. There was two inches of fresh stitches on his crown. The little primate was trying to target a moving red square. As he watched the screen, he suckled on a stainless steel pipette.
“He is rewarded with banana smoothie every time he hits the target.”
My heart sank as I realized the orangutan was actually a human toddler whose body seemed stunted, making eerily primate-like movements.
“He’s only thirteen months old and already he can beat me at the game. Look closely. Do you see anything odd about the set-up?”
“Other than child abuse?” I said feeling acid back-up into my throat.
“Anything odd about the device itself?”
“It’s being used on a baby?” Then I noticed that the joystick was not connected to the computer. “It’s not connected by WiFi is it?”
“No. In fact,” said Felix, walking toward the baby, “I can take the joystick away—” he pried it out of the baby’s hand. The baby formed a fist and kept pressing his thumb as if he still held the joystick. The curser on the screen moved with the baby’s fist.
Felix said, “It’s a NeuroConnect.”
I hauled off and punched him. He staggered back pulling on his nose.
“That,” said Felix, “was quite impulsive.” He looked at his bloody hand. “But your reaction time was actually hampered by your frontal cortex, adding micro seconds to the time after your limbic brain decided to punch me.”
I vomited copiously at Felix’s leather gloved feet, but he leaped back quickly enough to avoid the stream of yellow bile. I felt much better. I shook my fist and looked around, expecting to be grabbed by security, but we were alone with the toddler, who hadn’t even acknowledged our presence but just kept suckling the stainless steel pipe and moving his fist.
Felix pulled on his nose again. He found a tissue and stuffed screwed up pieces of it into his nostrils. “I don’t think its broken?” He gave me a three-quarter and a frontal view.
“Not yet,” I answered.
“Spoken like a cowboy.”
I went to the baby. I stroked his fuzzy head, but he did not turn away from the screen. As I bent down to pick him up, I smelled his scalp, both pleasantly oily and disturbingly acrid. He suckled obsessively and stared at the video screen. “Where’s his mother?” I demanded. I lifted him up and he immediately he went into a rage. I tried to hold him to my chest, but he went on kicking his feet and wailing.
“There’s only one way to soothe him.”
He wailed so hard I thought he was going to choke himself. I put him back in the high chair and he greedily took the pipette again. I wondered how the Lawn Chairs and I could organize a rescue plan, get a few veteran gun nuts to help out. “You’re training him to fire a remote-control weapon,” I said.
“At NeuroConnect, we don’t decide the uses to which this tool may be put. What we have done is eliminate the need for an interface between your thoughts and your actions. No more joysticks. No more needing to type into a computer or even speak into it. Your thoughts alone will control it. Think how much faster we will be able to act.” He showed me his thumbs. “Right now we’re hampered by these little meat sticks.”
“Everyone will be able to post more impulsively on Telegraf.”
“The first use will be to help paralyzed people walk again.”
“They will have to think every step they take with their exoskeleton? Why not a hand control?”
He ignored me. “And diseases of the mind like depression and obesity.”
“You map the areas of the brain that fire simple motor control and from that you imagine you can put any thought into any brain? Your investors must be gullible.”
“Well, it is the U. S. government.” Felix smiled showing me that full set of teeth.
“A baby,” I said in disgust.
“Because that’s the point. His neural connections aren’t formed yet. If we can train them young, we can get superhuman performance.”
“Or maybe just an idiot.”
Felix frowned, thinking. He took his phone out of his hind pocket and thumbed something into it. The baby’s computer monitor went dark. Felix twisted his high chair around to face me. The baby’s face was growing red and grimaced as he worked himself up into a scream.
I held out my arms to pick him up. He raised his fist. A shock in my crotch sent me backward onto the ground. Felix laughed. I tried to get up, but my whole jumpsuit was electrified and my body went stiff like a mannequin. Then the stabs of pain receded almost as quickly as they had come.
“Will you please remember that we have the power to change your mind at any moment? If you doubt the project in any way, you will writhe in pain, instantly. Do you understand that?”
I understood what he wanted me to say.
“Before you can be released, you need to complete the trial you signed up for in exchange for dropping those felony charges. You understand? You volunteered receive treatment for you mental health problems.”
“I don’t have mental health problems.”
As Felix looked down at me, his face sagged. He looked old and tired. “Everyone does,” he said.
I put my hand to my crown and felt the stitches there that I’d noticed before.
Felix smiled approvingly, a very ugly smile.
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