*This chapter contains strong language, references to animal experiments and a creeping sense of paranoia.
5. Things In Cages
“Damn, those are cold.” I said, steeling myself for the next one.
“Sorry,” Jill said. It’s not that cold. She breathed on the lead before she taped it to my chest.
Her annoyance fed mine so I tried to keep talking to distract us. “Have they been out today?”
She shook her head and taped a fourth lead down so that they made a neat row of white circles under my collarbone. “They don’t usually get out for testing until the afternoon.”
I turned my head and bent down so she could put one of the smaller leads on my left temple. “You don’t take them out in the mornings? I thought they got walked in the back lot.” I didn’t care, but I felt like I needed to say something while she was working.
She taped the last lead to my temple and threaded the wires from each of the leads through the hole near the waist of my jumpsuit. She plugged them into the battery pack that sat about belt level and zipped up the front. “I’m not much of a dog person.” She flipped on the battery pack and turned to the display. “Ok, Agent Piken, give me a mood index. What’s your dominant mood this morning?” Probably depressed again. It’s like they think this is canine therapy not a real experiment.
“Irritated,” I said.
She glanced up and had the grace to look embarrassed. She worked far enough from the rest of the paths in the labs that she forgot to watch her thoughts. “Right, well, anything else?” I’m never going to get transferred to the real lab at this rate.
She was right about that. By Craig’s order none of the lab staff was telepathic and for them to work with the path subjects it required a lot more than knowing where to put the leads and how to read the machines. It required real mental discipline to deal with the felons who were just starting treatments and could still get inside the techs’ heads. Jill couldn’t hush a stray thought let alone form a decent block. “Mostly nervous,” I said, softening, she was just trying to do her job.
She nodded, not quite looking at me, fiddling a few of the dials. “Ok, I’m basing you at nervous. Go ahead and get settled, they’ll be in in a few minutes.” She waved me toward the door of the test room.
“Thanks.” I opened the door and let it close behind me before I sat on the floor. I settled with my back to the wall, my knees drawn up and my arms crossed over them. I looked carefully away from the low trap door in the far corner. The trick was to let them come to you.
The door opened with a slow squeak and across the small room I got a strong whiff of the hamster cage smell of cedar chips and milk. Then there was a low snuffling.
Already I was more pleased than nervous or even irritated. I tried to hold onto nervous for the readings, but it was a lost cause.
Either because I couldn’t hold my mood, or because they’d gotten brave enough, all five dogs came out in a rush.
I turned and looked at them and they all stopped, halfway across the room, staring back with down tilted heads. The angle of their heads was just enough that I could see the ports at the back of their skulls. White plastic disks buried in the short white and brown fur. They stood, shuffling their large feet, five beagle puppies in an almost perfect line, feeling me out.
It wasn’t like being read by a person. I felt vague apprehension and excitement from the little group. And a tingle on the back of my head that made me think that their ports must be itching again.
I could feel their intensity on my mind. Not physically, but like reading a person who was thinking about me, an echo of the nervousness and worry that had been eating me up since Sunday.
One by one they ducked low to the floor and crawled toward me in little hitches. Submissive and worried now themselves, a mirror of my mood. It was hard to hold the mood when they all looked so damn pitiful with their ports and the blue ink tattoos on the insides of their ears. I reached out to pet them. Their worry vanished and there was a projected sense of happiness as they vied for my attention.
White liked as many people as possible to work with the dogs. Being heavily empathic they didn’t do well without a lot of contact. It also gave him more reaction readings to work with. The electrical from the people and the chemical from the dogs. As one of the only paths on staff I tried to come in once a week or so. I never got why he used beagles, though one of the more pleasant techs told me that beagles were used for a lot of psych experiments. Maybe as a pack hunting breed they were more empathic to start with.
My head itched again and I rolled the puppy I was petting off his belly so I could see his port. I felt lightly around the edges and it felt warm. I flipped his ear to check his number. The ports went straight to the fluid around their brains so any kind of infection with the port could kill them. I let the puppy roll away and tossed the ball the next one brought me. I tried to fake the throw like I did with mom’s dog but three that were paying attention just stared at me. It sometimes made me wonder if White had gotten farther than empathy with them. “Here you go.” I tossed the ball across the room and watched them scramble for it. For all the plastic and shaved thighs they were just puppies.
Jill buzzed me from the outer lab. “Agent Piken? It’s 8 o’clock.”
I tossed several of the balls to distract the dogs and got up feeling guilty. I was heading up to my meeting and they were getting carted back to their kennels to get their fluids drawn and tested. I had been assured that it didn’t really hurt them but it only took one walk past the lab while they were getting it done to know that they sure as hell didn’t enjoy it.
I closed the door firmly behind me, feeling sorry for them, but better than I had when I came in. If the dogs were happy, so was everyone else. “7081 is having a problem with his port. Not painful yet, but it itches,” I told Jill, turning off the power pack at my waist before my better mood vanished.
Jill wrote it down on her clipboard. They always turn that damn pack off before I can do the final index. “What about your index?”
I peeled the tape off my temples. Getting irritated again. “I’d say neutral, still a little nervous.” Irritation wasn’t going to matter, it was part of the first reading anyway. It was probably part of all the readings she did. I was feeling spiteful. I left all the tape on the leads and handed them to her in a sticky ball on my way to the door.
It left me feeling petty as I pulled the jumpsuit off and put my clothes back on. And nervous. I was back to nervous. More nervous than I’d been before my first op. Nervous enough to briefly imagine what the scene would look like if I told Craig that the mission was impossible. If I went right into his office and said, sorry boss, no deal, it’s too big a risk to the whole department. He couldn’t replace me. So far he hadn’t been able to find anyone else to do pick-ups.
“Andrew? You in here?”
I paused tying the knot on my shoe. I was too distracted if the least stealthy person on earth could surprise me. “Yeah, I’m in here Ray.”
Even though I knew it wasn’t true, it seemed like his hair preceded him around the lockers. Bright red and wiry it only reinforced the state of general excitement he was always in. I wonder if I left the fume hood on. “In with the dogs? I didn’t think you’d have time this morning.” You want to come by the C lab and see the results we’ve been getting with the monkeys? he added clearly.
I smiled to myself and shook my cuffs down over my shoes. I liked the way White always thought like I was supposed to read him. Not like I was sneaking around. “Can’t, I’ve got to get upstairs and get things together for the meeting.”
His face fell but he recovered quickly. “Right, the meeting. Do you think we’ll really be able to get her?” It would be amazing for the Hex-47 trials. This could completely prove my sensory deprivation theory.
I frowned slightly. “That’s what we’re going to find out. You have your heart set on this one?” I asked, though I hadn’t meant to.
He looked sheepish and scratched the back of his head. “We’re not getting anywhere with the models now. There’s no telling which subjects are going to come through treatment…” Sane, he finished, his eyes on his shoes. Outside of the clinical reports he never said the words sane or insane out loud. It was a superstition after the fifth subject showed signs of mental instability. If he didn't talk about it it didn't mean his experiment might fail. He shrugged. “This will be a good one, a good step forward, I can feel it.”
“What if it proves Forrest’s serotonin interaction theory?” I needled, uncomfortable talking about our lack of success so openly.
That won’t happen. If it was going to it would have already. “Do you need anything special from us for the meeting?” he asked, excited again. It was like having a conversation with another telepath sometimes, he always had at least two threads going on in his head if not more.
I shook my head. “No, just bring yourself and try and make sure Forrest actually shows up.” I wanted to ask about the op outline I’d sent him but I had the slim hope of a cancel order before we got a chance to meet.
His head bobbed. “Not a problem, I think he’s actually curious. We’ve never been called in to an op meeting.” We could go undercover as orderlies or something to get you in, he offered, he pictured me lowering myself from the ceiling on a harness to get into the ward.
Getting in wasn’t the problem but at least someone had a more ridiculous plan than mine. Maybe I’d have him tell it to the rest of the group before we started. To keep things in perspective. “You keep thinking about it. I’d like to get everyone’s input at once.”
He nodded again. “Ok, I’ll go see if I can find Forrest, we’ll be up at 8:30 sharp,” he assured me, ducking back around the lockers, giving the impression that his red hair had left last.
I put my jacket on, dumped the dirty jumpsuit in the laundry chute next to the door and made my way back to the elevator. I could feel my blood pressure going up as I walked. Even Ray White knew, with no experience in operations, that we’d have to get someone on the inside to get Matthews out.
It was the only way and there was no way to get out of it. I’d requested the meeting, and I only had one op outline. If I called the meeting off I knew how it would look to Craig. Like I wasn’t a capable team leader.
“Well shit.” I stopped in front of the elevator doors and slid my security pass through the reader. The light went green and the triangular metal plate next to the doors opened. I put my eye up to the scanner and tried not to blink.
The interior of the scanner glowed green and I pulled my head back. The doors slid open with a faint whoosh and a blast of even colder air. I stepped in, not bothering to zip my jacket for the brief ride. There were only four buttons inside, the door open and close buttons, one labeled L, and one labeled G. I hit G with my thumb. I picked over my meeting plan as the elevator swooped up the ten levels to the ground floor.
Maybe they’ll punch enough holes in it that Craig will put out the cancel order. That won’t look good either. I put my hands in my pockets as the elevator slowed. I was just in time, the door slid open with the coldest blast, like standing in an industrial freezer. Yeah, and then he’ll fire your ass. You should just go in there and hand out assignments. I shuffled quickly through the short metal hallway to the lockdown door. I had to pull my hand out of my pocket to swipe my card. My knuckles went stiff from the cold. The smooth door emitted a clunk from somewhere inside and slid open. I ducked through into the longer hallway. The door slid shut behind me with almost no sound. I always found myself walking slower down this last corridor. Between the two doors, each comprised of twenty feet of super cooled steel, I was in complete telepathic silence. The labs had their chatter of techs and doctors and subjects, the upper offices had their agents and secretaries and administrators. But right in between, silence.
I paused at the far door, my hand wrapped around my security card. I tried to enjoy the quiet. Explain the plan, be open to suggestions. I could see myself standing at the head of the conference table. Firm, in charge. I want alternatives. I want a safer op. “A safer op,” I repeated to myself, testing out the phrase.
It might work. I swiped my card and waited for the retinal scanner. It opened and I put my eye up to it, waiting for the green light. I shouldn’t have called Warren in, I decided, still second guessing myself. Of the people coming he was the one most likely to run back to Craig and tell him I had no idea what I was doing.
The green light glowed and I took a step back to watch the door slide open. The air from the bright hallway hit me and I pulled my jacket off as I walked through the door.
“How’s the new Sudoku book?” I asked Gail as I signed the clipboard at her desk. Her pen was hovering over a half-finished puzzle, but her eyes and her attention were on me.
He looks pale. “Too easy, I’m already half through. I think those crosswords you found last month were harder,” she said, looking me over carefully.
This was much more pleasant than the once over she gave anyone who approached the door while she trained the gun under her desk at them. Gail was a strange fixture at the complex, she sat at her old fashioned desk in front of the huge steel doors, the last human security measure between the employees and the labs. She looked and was friendly, but there was no question that if your security card didn’t swipe or your retinal scan didn’t go through, she would shoot you.
I took a piece of candy from the bowl on her desk. “I’ll see what I can find on my next assignment,” I promised.
She nodded. “I might have to make an extra batch of brownies then.” He needs fattening up anyway, she decided and dismissed me with her grade school teacher smile.
I turned from the desk and started down the hall with my jacket over my arm and a peppermint in my mouth. I could feel her attention shift back to her puzzles. Now if that’s a nine and the other one is a three, then this must be a seven.
Even with a stop at my office for the maps and diagrams of the asylum I was the first one in the conference room. It was on the second floor of the upper levels and had wide windows that looked out over the desert. There wasn’t another building in sight and out beyond that, nothing for at least fifty miles in all directions. I liked looking at the desert in the morning when it seemed pastel and clean, a completely empty space. It felt like something to meditate with, to get absolute calm. That was what I needed for this. I needed calm and I needed clarity.
I needed someone to come into the meeting and completely shoot down my plan for Park Slope. I needed someone to talk me out of it.
I tried to focus on the desert instead. The desert wasn’t going to panic and neither was I. I was going to be cool and calm and explain the op to the tactical team and see if they could come up with something less crazy. Crazy. Asylum operation. Very funny.
I blotted my palms on the front of my slacks. At least my hands weren’t shaking like they had been when I first had the idea Sunday night.
If I push the Hex-B trial back, will that interfere with the physicals?
I turned toward the door and looked at the clock. Five till. White’s early? I felt strangely gratified. I sat down and opened my notes.
A few seconds later White came in. Forrest wandered in behind him, bent over a sheaf of papers in his hand. He found a chair with his outstretched hand and sat, not looking up at all. I don’t see how they think that will work. The effects of barbiturates on telepathy are completely negligible.
“See, I found him.” White jerked his thumb toward Forrest and pulled out a chair for himself. Is there any coffee? he asked, glancing around.
I smiled to myself, it was his own quarantine rule that wouldn’t let him bring his coffee out of the lab, but he was surprised and disappointed every time. I pointed toward the door. “In the kitchen if you want it. We still have a few minutes.”
He shrugged and pulled the little memo book out of his lab coat. “Might as well get started. You said you had some questions about the daily routine?” He was methodically checking every pocket for a pen. Got it. He held up the pen with a grin. So what was unclear?
I scratched my chin with the end of my pencil. Regular session, free time, meals, group session. “Well most of it is pretty self explanatory, but what actually happens in a group session? What’s the atmosphere like?” Will I be able to pull it off?
White sat back, his smile replaced by a tight expression of distaste. “Well, when I interned at the Slope, group was a mess. All the open ones going off on their issues at the same time, the closed ones hiding so far behind their blocks all they do is drool.” He tilted his head. “Guess that’s an advantage this time.” I don’t think you’re really going to have any problems. That place is only a problem if you’re getting treated there, he thought with real bitterness.
“Good thing I won’t be there long,” I said, my fingertips white where I gripped the pencil. “Now you’re positive that bi-polar is the way to go on my admittance papers?”
“It’s the easiest. You won’t have to pretend to hear voices or act out. You only have to appear withdrawn,” Forrest said in his slow voice, highlighting something in the article he was reading without looking up. Effect on serotonin levels. That could be something.
White nodded in agreement. “Easiest way. If the staff psychologist’s schedule doesn’t change you won’t even have to go through the entrance interview.” This is going to be great.
He wouldn’t be so damn cheerful if he was going in there. “I still want to do that practice interview with you tomorrow.” I underlined bipolar on my copy of the outline. If we could’ve gotten Brandt-
“Too bad Brandt isn’t back for another week. Oh, and I checked into the staff, looked for anyone who might make it hard for you. They only have one tac and she’s in the occupational therapy department,” Ray told me, with a hint of a smile.
It was good news. I could block a tactile path if I had to, but it would have added worry on an op that already had a failure probability of thirty percent.
There’s no reason to endanger ten guys when we could do this with an easy transit pickup. I shot a glance at the door, I could feel Warren coming from the far end of the hall. “Others coming?” White asked when he saw me look at the door.
I’ve read the outline, Piken wouldn’t put something like this together if there was an easier way, Kepler was saying.
I nodded, half my attention beyond the door. You’re not kidding there. “Sorry, Ray. Anyway, yeah, I wish we could have Brandt too but I’ll only be there three days tops.”
We’ll do our best, he offered, nodding in agreement. “I pushed all the morning experiments back, so we should have plenty of time to practice.”
They’d stopped talking well before the door, but Warren was seething and pushed the door too hard, making it hit the wall. Shit. He cringed in embarrassment and then straightened, giving me same look he always gave me. No matter where I saw him, in the halls, or at a meeting, he always looked startled and wary.
Kepler nodded at everyone and took a seat between White and the end of the table. He scanned the horizon outside the windows. Clear day. “What are we starting with?” he asked, his white blue eyes turning casually to me.
Warren walked around the table, behind my chair at the end so he could sit facing the door. He left a chair between us. Yeah, are we starting with how it’s impossible or how we’re going to blow our cover going in with that many guys?
I ignored him. “We might as well start at the beginning. What are our options for getting me admitted?”
How will the admittance staff not notice something from the agents bringing him in? I didn’t think of that. White was watching Kepler with bright interest, pen poised over his notebook.
Kepler turned his head to one side, scratching his chin. “I took a look at your report on the entry procedure,” he nodded to White, “and it looks like we can do a simple blind op. They use police agencies for transport all the time, so as long as the agents don’t know you...” He shrugged. It’ll all be clear.
Yeah, perfect until we have to get him out. This is fucking ridiculous.
I almost rolled my eyes. “Agent Warren, something you want to add?” If you’d just fucking ask we could move on.
He blinked and sat back in his chair.
I caught some surprise from White. I usually had a better cap on my temper. “Well?”
Warren straightened his shoulders over the tight feeling in his stomach. “I think you’re making this too complicated. Why can’t we just get Matthews during a transport?” I can’t be the only one that thought of this. He sat up even straighter.
“Matthews isn’t getting out of Park Slope with anything less than a court order from the Governor of New York. They wouldn’t even transfer her to a hospital when she had a heart attack three years ago.” I kept my eyes on him until he looked away.
That should’ve been in the report.
I had to fight the urge to get into it with him. He was right, and it would have been in the report if I’d had more than eight hours to put the op together. “Let’s talk extraction. Based on her privileges there are only two places she could be evacuated to, south side or south west corner.” I tapped the map of the grounds with my finger. “Ray said they evacuate for fires but just tripping the alarm isn’t going to keep them outside for long.” I’m sure you’ve got an idea Kepler.
Kepler shook his head thoughtfully. “No, I think we’re going to need a real fire. Somewhere in the main building so they evacuate everyone. Warren, you want to tell them what you came up with?” He makes a bad impression being so nervous at these things.
We all looked around at Warren. For a moment he didn’t look nervous or belligerent, he was proud. “The kitchen is the weak point in their security, too many deliveries going in and out to pay close attention to all of them. A small charge almost anywhere in that room will find a lot of fuel for a fire-“
In the kitchen, with the gas lines? “Wouldn’t it be bad to blow the place up with Andrew in it?” White asked, leaning far onto the table so he could see where Warren was pointing.
Warren’s eyes narrowed briefly. What does the lab squad know about it? He shook his head, something about White’s open expression was disarming. “A little charge doc, to set off the stuff in the supply closets, we’re not going to blow up the gas lines or anything.”
“How are you going to get it in?” I asked, tracing the distance between the kitchens and the ward I was aiming for with my pencil.
Warren’s eyes stayed narrowed when he turned to me. If he’d done the full course at Quantico he’d already know. “Just a switch out at the warehouse, we substitute one of their boxes for one of ours. With the tracer on it we won’t even have to send an agent to place it.” Because some of us care about keeping our guys out of trouble.
He brought up the abbreviated agent training paths got whenever he could. Anything to imply I wasn’t qualified. “Good,” I said shortly, turning back to Kepler. “What about the extraction? If we do this at night I can almost guarantee she’ll be coming out on the south side.”
Kepler shifted in his seat the way he always did when he wanted undivided attention. “I’m thinking we should go earlier, I was looking over the schedule and if the evacuation happens during dinner or evening rec time then there’s a better chance of you sticking with her right out the door.” Tossed out of bed, who knows? You could get split up.
My instinct was for a late night evacuation where there would be more confusion and less chance of being read. But my instinct also told me not to go at all. They’ll be confused enough with smoke and alarms. “Let’s try rec time then, I can get closer to her without being obvious.”
“Then we’ll put the main team on the south side, three guys on the corner just in case. There’s some good cover over there so you can lead her off toward the fence while everyone’s distracted. If we’re lucky we won’t even have to break cover,” he added, nodding toward Warren. And he was worried.
I took a deep breath. “We need to have the full proposal for Director Craig tomorrow by 3pm so it can be approved for Friday.” I gestured toward White. “Ray’s actually going to answer his pager today and tomorrow if you have any questions about the facility. I also put the schedules and layouts in the email I sent you. Any other questions?”
They all shook their heads, even Forrest had put his article away and watched me with his sharp brown eyes.
“Ok, have your proposals to me by noon tomorrow.” I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off.
Kepler got up first, a thin memo book and pen wrapped in his thick fist. “I should have it by morning.” Give you more time to put it together.
I stood up and shook his hand. “Appreciated.”
Warren was around my chair and following Kepler out the door before I was forced to offer my hand. Forrest stood up and pulled a scrap of paper out of his lab coat. He started writing on it and walking toward the door at the same time. If the intern is on time today I can get her to make those slides for me. It was a wonder he got through the open door without hitting anything.
White was still sitting, watching me and swinging his chair from side to side. I could see ink smeared over the back of his hand from the notes he’d been taking. You’re worrying too much. You’re not going to The Slope for real. “Want to come to lunch? Shelley and I are braving the cafeteria today.”
I rolled the maps back up and put a rubber band around the tube. You wouldn’t understand. Being a path in with all those nuts? My stomach was in a knot just thinking it to myself. “Let me drop this stuff off in my office. I’ll catch up with you.”
Good, I don’t want to eat alone with Shelley, he won’t talk about gaming in front of you. “If you have any more questions, let me know,” he offered, standing and patting my shoulder.
I watched him out the door, my chest tight. That’s it, you’re going to Park Slope. Craig had to approve the op but really, it was in the bag. I was going.