Chapter 3 – Occupational

We stepped out of the elevator, and were approached by a tall woman who stepped out of the crowd surrounding it. She offered us a smile and a wink, before turning around and addressing the others.

"Alright, so who bet on the minimum time? Less than fifteen minutes, I believe it was," she said, drawing several laughs from the people and a few raised hands. "Well, looks like it's time you guys paid up – security's just analysed the footage, and minimum time wins!"

Cheers and groans were heard as the crowd slowly started to disperse, and I turned to Zachary for an explanation, eyebrows raised out of curiosity. He just shrugged and gave me a smirk, and it was the tall lady who ended up explaining things to me.

"Oh, don't worry about it," she said cheerfully, clapping me on my back. "We bet on how long it takes the new people to figure out how to work the bookshelf, that's all. And you were certainly a fast one, too."

"Less than fifteen minutes, right?" I asked, realising what it was that the crowd had been betting on. "So, did you win the bet?"

She made a face, and sighed. "As observant as you were back there, you cost me ten bucks."

"Alright, Tammy, back off from the new kid," laughed Zachary. "He's got quite a lot of ground to cover today."

She raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh, so you're his mentor? May the gods have mercy on his soul, then."

"Come on, then," he said, "you're just jealous because I won the bet!"

"Looks like your faith in mathematical logic won after all, Zack," she said, smiling a little. "Anyway, I've got to get back to work. See you two around."

Turning to me and giving me a nod and a smile, she said, "Don't worry about him, really. He may be a bastard, but he's the best sort of bad example you could follow."

With that, she spun on her heel and walked off, practically gliding down the corridor, leaving me to wonder just how crazy my supposed mentor could be. Zachary grabbed me by the shoulder, startling me a little.

"Alright, it's time to familiarise you with this place. It's not quite as complicated as being topside, trust me!" he declared happily.

I was starting to wonder if the man was completely sane, and some of the shock that had initially thrown me when I had seen the outside of the elevator was beginning to make its presence felt again. "This. This place. How?"

He merely walked down the corridor, and gestured for me to follow him. I jogged a little to catch up with him, and he started to speak again.

"Just how current are you with technology?" he asked, as we walked past several glass-walled offices containing people working at computers. "Military stuff, that is."

I thought about for a brief moment, and replied, "Not that current on military stuff. I know the government authorised the purchase of those bombers-"

"No, no," he cut me off, shaking his head and smiling slightly. "Not weapons, my dear. I'm talking about intelligence. Do you think we've got spy satellites, teleportation devices, mind-reading machines, maybe? Intelligence-related stuff."

An article I recalled seeing on one of the journal databases flashed past my mind's eye. "Wait, you said you were a pharmacologist before this?"

"Uh-huh," he nodded, as we turned away from the main corridor and headed down a narrower one with fewer doors along it. "And what does that have to do with the question?"

"You could have asked me about any of the fictitious devices the military is supposed to have, but you mentioned mind-reading machines," I answered, feeling slightly suspicious as to just what applied neurology was all about. "And there was that drug they patented a while back. Morphodex, I think it was called - supposedly a tool to prevent prisoners from lying during questioning."

Zachary stopped dead in his tracks, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "How did you find out about the Morphodex?"

"I specialised in industrial chemical processes for my thesis," I reminded him, my mind working overtime on the side to piece together all the clues that I had been given thus far. If the current clues were any indication, there was definitely hell of a lot more going on down here than mere neurological research. "It was one of those things floating about in the journal archives."

He started walking again, and started speaking again, disbelief evident in his voice. "Looks like someone's ahead of the learning curve, then... They must have pulled your computer's records from surveillance... Anyway, where was I?"

"Something about manipulating someone's consciousness, I would think. And what's this about my computer being under surveillance?"

"Just a security thing – they probe into everyone's history before hiring anyone," he said dismissively with a wave of his hand. "But yes, what you said was correct. Here at applied neurology, we focus on the subconscious and how it can be controlled. You're aware that the subconscious theoretically has greater capacity for intelligent thoughts than the conscious mind, right?"

I nodded, and he went on.

"You see, that's one of the reasons why they said Einstein was such a great thinker; he had managed to harness the power of his subconscious by daydreaming all the time, or something like that," Zachary said, stopping in front of a closed door. He started digging around in his pockets. "Now, just where are those keys?

"So, with the invention of that lovely little sedative you mentioned, neurologists had very fine control over how unconscious a person could be. By administering the right dosage, they could even induce a shift from conscious thought to the subconscious. Do you get where I'm going with this? Gotcha, you sneaky bastards!"

"I guess," I replied, feeling that something was still amiss. "And why are you using keys, anyway? Doesn't this place operate using the chip implants?"

Even I had had an identification chip implanted in my right hand, and I was a new employee. It stood to reason that all the other people employed by the Institute would have one of them as well, but then again, there was a lot which they kept hidden, as I had just realised.

"Down here, everything's got tighter security. Since they invented key implants, everyone's forgotten how to pick these old-fashioned locks, it seems. With the sensors built into this lock, it's not likely for security not to catch an intruder, anyway," Zachary said, as he got the door - to what I presumed was his office – open. "And what was I just saying? You need to stop distracting me, hah!"

I followed him into the room, whose lights were off. "Sorry about that. You were saying something about inducing subconscious thinking?"

"Oh, right, that," he muttered, as he flipped a switch and turned on the lights. "Take a seat, kid. It's going to be a long bit of explaining."

The office was neat, and was comfortably roomy. A desk, a filing cabinet, two chairs, and a small sofa were all it contained, and the only things keeping its walls from being completely featureless were a couple of framed photographs.

I sat down in front of the desk, and Zachary took the seat behind it. "Getting back on topic here, what we do is play with the human subconscious to solve humanity's problems. Hmm, you're a mathematician, so I suppose you're familiar with Fermat's last theorem?"

"Fermat's last theorem, you say?" I echoed, trying to remember what exactly the theorem entailed. "Didn't a team of mathematicians solve it just about five years ago?"

"Indeed they did," he nodded. "Well, if you wanted proof of how powerful the human subconscious is, there it is. The British version of this department put a group of mathematicians under, and when they woke up, there it was; the solved proof. And that's why applied neurology – I think that may be the international nickname for this field – is so hushed up."

That got me thinking, and I didn't exactly like the thoughts which came to my mind. "And just why am I needed here, then? The sedative isn't that difficult to manufacture, and it's a controlled item, anyway."

Zachary leaned back in his seat, and scratched the back of his head. "Well... you see, it's really not as simple as putting someone under and letting them wake up with the keys to the universe. During the sedation, we need to keep someone on hand to chronicle their thoughts, like a spotter for weightlifting. And our last mathematician... well, she won't be doing any more deep thinking for a while."

"What happened to her?" I asked, my interest piqued. "And how do you chronicle someone's thoughts?"

"Patience, grasshopper!" he laughed. "She took her leave of us, and that's all I'm allowed to say. As for how we chronicle thoughts, it's a long, tedious process involving electrodes and advanced computers."

"I find it doubtful that a computer could tap into someone's thoughts," I said, frowning as a thought struck me. "And why do you need to chronicle the thoughts, anyway? Can't they remember their own thoughts?"

He gaped at me for a short while, before offering me a handshake. "Damn you guys and your logical thinking. Well, that's basically the root of the problem; the division between the conscious and subconscious mind.

"As much as the subconscious is a powerful thought processor, only the conscious mind possesses the ability for direct thought and memory. So when we put them under, they retain just enough consciousness to control their thoughts, and yet can tap into their subconscious for the actual thinking. But it seems that memory is a higher function of consciousness or some good shit like that, so they won't retain any of their thoughts."

"That is just... whoa," I said, feeling a little overwhelmed by everything. "Give me a moment, could you?"

"Take five," he nodded, as he opened a drawer on his desk and dug out some papers. "It's a bit much, but we need you debriefed as soon as possible, if you know what I mean."

I just sat there for a while, thinking things over. Things were radically different from what I had expected, and frankly, I doubted anyone would have expected whatever Zachary had just told me. So it seemed that the government had found ways to get into human minds, but were yet to be able to control them. That was a slightly comforting thought.

Whatever comfort I had disappeared rapidly when I realised that secrets were now a thing of the past. There would be no lying to a mind probe, now would there? And if it was possible to sedate a person with such fine-grained control as Zachary had claimed, then sedation to completely prevent any resistance to someone glimpsing into a mind probe would be inevitable.

But, my ever-cynical mind argued, a mind probe was logically not possible. In fact, it was the sole problem with the entire scenario. The human brain did not broadcast thoughts like radio waves, as far as I knew. Even if they stuck electrodes in to measure the electrical impulses which travelled along the brain's neurones, there wouldn't be a way to distinguish the specific impulses for thought from physiological impulses.

Or was there?

As I continued to mull over the feasibility of a mind probe, I glanced about the room, and saw that it was, as I had initially thought, rather bland and tidy. The photographs on the wall showed Zachary with several other people, and one of the pictures showed him standing with a bunch of other people in white laboratory coats, all holding up flasks of brightly-coloured liquids and hamming it up for the camera.

It was when I looked away from the pictures that I noticed the little black statue.

Just like the one I had seen back in the decoy lab which was the entrance to the applied neurology department – briefly, I wondered what its true name would be, if not for the euphemism of applied neurology – the statue in the corner was made of polished stone, and sat in the corner of Zachary's office.

"What's that?" I turned back to Zachary and asked, causing him to look up from his paperwork with a look of mild surprise. "That statue – it was in the lab where we entered this place. What is it?"

He took a second to look where I was pointing, and replied, "That's part of our security system. Surveillance tool of some sort, I think."

Now, I might have been the new kid on the block, but I wasn't a complete idiot. Or so I hoped. Even he didn't sound convinced by the claim that the tiny statue was a surveillance device. "I highly doubt that, Zachary."

"That's what is," he shrugged. "We don't have very many rules down here, but if there's one thing everyone goes by, it's this; don't mess with security. You could come to work dressed like a stripper, you could screw a colleague over your desk, you could run a weekly Poker night down at the cafeteria, or whatever. But you definitely do not want to mess with security. Is that clear?"

"I see," I said, going back to my thoughts on the mechanics of a mind probe. After a short while, I decided to mentally file it away for later scrutiny. "So, what am I supposed to do now?"

"Eh?"

"You've debriefed me, I think. So what exactly am I supposed to do down here?"

He picked up the paperwork he had been doing, and shoved it back into the drawer which he had taken it out of. "I suppose you'll have to start some stimulator training for a mind probe. Sort of a test of whether you've got the mental fortitude to survive inside someone else's head."

There it was again, the suggestion that you could actually get inside another person's mind. Something was definitely not right here. "I'll just take your word for it."

"Alright," he said, sounding as chirpy as he had been when we'd first gotten down into the reception area. "Let's get to it, then!"

xxx

The stimulators turned out to be located in a separate chamber, at the other side of the large cavern which housed applied neurology. Unlike the one that we had just left, with its corridors and offices, this chamber was basically one large compartment filled with machinery. Metal catwalks, ladders, and stairs occupied the bulk of the chamber, with large, egg-like pods and computers located seemingly haphazardly all around it.

When I looked up, I saw that the pods and computers were there even near the ceiling of the chamber, nearly ten meters above us. Somehow, that sight alone made chills run down my spine. The place felt like a tomb of some sort, especially since we seemed to be the only people in it.

Seeing another one of the tiny black statues by the door didn't help to soothe my nerves one bit. It was creepy, to think that such a small item was apparently capable of being utilised as a surveillance device.

"Hey, Timmy!" Zachary called out, causing a man to let out a loud curse from somewhere amidst the tangle of machinery which filled the room. "I've got the new guy here for some practice!"

"Just a minute, damn it!" came a frustrated-sounding voice, muffled a little by the humming of the machinery all around us. "Ah, gotcha! Pod seven should be primed and ready, so try that one first."

"That's our cue," Zachary said, gesturing for me to follow him. "Come on, then – seven's somewhere... there, I think."

We made our way up a past a few levels of the pods, and eventually stopped at the second-highest level. There were four pods there, and three of them seemed to be sealed – the fourth had a visible seam running along its entire length, looking very much like a large, metallic seed pod that had split open. As we got closer to it, I could see that the computer next to it seemed to be running a screensaver, with the number seven floating about on its monitor. On taking a closer look at the screen, I realised that I could see the faint outlines of the cables behind the monitor through the screensaver.

Just as Zachary had stepped up to the monitor, I realised just how advanced the whole getup was. "Wait, that's a framework monitor, isn't it?"

"Indeed it is," he said, nodding absently as he tapped at several keys on a keyboard that had slid out of a slot beneath the computer monitor. "Hey, we're on the government's payroll here. Don't you think we'd be having the best equipment money could legally buy?"

He was certainly right about that, if the elevator we'd taken earlier was any indication. Framework monitors were supposed to still be at the prototype stage, due to the holographic technology required for them to function – they were basically a rectangular frame which projected a hologram across the empty space in the middle of the frame. Compared to the technology behind them, plasma and LCD screens were as clunky and obsolete as a cathode ray tube.

I was just beginning to wonder about any other supposedly nonexistent things which I might run into at work in the near future, when a loud hissing noise started right next to me. As expected, it was from the pod sliding open.

"Get in, then," Zachary said, nudging me towards the pod as he continued to work with the computer. "Just lie down in the pod, and remain very still."

"What about the electrodes, or whatever you mentioned earlier?" I asked him, as I looked under the pod's raised upper half. The inside of the pod was cushioned with a foam-like material, which had a strange stain on it towards the far end of the pod. "And what's that stain?"

"Eh?" he asked me, glancing over at the stain. "Oh, don't worry about it. That was probably someone's lunch. Not brain matter or blood, that's for sure."

"It's... clean, right?" I hesitantly stepped into the pod, ducking under the top half. "And should I worry about anything?"

"Unless you've got a tendency to get motion sickness easily, nothing at all," he said, tapping one last key with relish and turning to face me. "In you go! Just lie very still, and don't worry about the vomit – we disinfect all the pods after use."

Lying down the in the pod felt really comfortable. The foam-like padding in it seemed to mould itself around my body, and felt as if it was vibrating mildly. When I was lying straight on my back, there was a loud hiss, and the top half came down above me, sealing me in. For a few seconds, I was lying there in complete darkness, until a dim green light came on inside the pod.

"Now just remain still, so the electrodes can be placed properly," Zachary's voice spoke through a speaker. "When the stimulation starts, if everything around you starts having a reddish tint, just concentrate hard on wanting to get out, understood? It's the thoughts about getting out that manually override the stimulation."

"Got it," I said, even as a tickling sensation started along my back, running all the way up to the back of my head. Suddenly, the tickling gave way to a cold sensation that felt as if a finger dipped in cold water was being dragged along my back.

In a second or so, the coldness was replaced by what felt like pins and needles, and I realised that the strange sensations were probably being caused by the electrodes inserting themselves through my skin and into my spine. The coldness was probably a local anaesthetic of sorts, and it was little wonder that Zachary had instructed me to remain still.

And then, just when I thought I was up to speed with everything, my vision blacked out completely.

"Zachary?" I reflexively called out, trying my best to remain still. "Hello?"

My voice sounded hollow, almost as though it was echoing back at me from a cave or canyon. There was a mild tingling in my fingertips and toes, and a soft buzzing started in my ears. Everything remained dark, and I briefly wondered if something had gone wrong with the stimulation.

Suddenly, a bright seemed to flash right in front of my eyes, temporarily making me see stars. When my eyes had recovered from the flash, I found that I was no longer in the pod. It took me a second to realise just where I was, and all I could do was stare when my mind processed that little bit of information.

I was back at the university again. Or at least, the stimulation had brought me there, back to the desk in front of Professor Wang's usual lecture hall.

Looking around me, I saw that the stimulation was a damned good one, indeed. The environment had been recreated down to the finest details, such as the threads on the lecture hall curtains and the creases on the paper in the wastepaper basket next to the lecturer's desk. Heck, the fact that there was even paper in the basket, or a basket to begin with, was highly impressive.

When something in the basket caught my eye, I bent down over it to get a closer look, and was surprised to see my own handwriting on the crumpled paper.

A sense of being watched boiled up in my gut as I looked around uneasily. I knew that all the universities nowadays were practically loaded with surveillance thanks to those students going campus all those years ago, but would someone be watching the security camera footage here, in the stimulation? Zachary had mentioned going into people's thoughts during the actual mind probing process, after all.

Or had the stimulation tapped into my own memories to fill in the finer details on wherever it happened to place me? That would have explained the crumpled paper with my writing on it. Nonetheless, there was just that lingering feeling of doubt within me as to whether I was being watched.

Just then, the doors to the lecture hall opened, and a janitor walked in, pushing his standard-issue cart of cleaning supplies. I could only gape at him as he proceeded to empty the wastepaper basket into the portable incinerator built into his cart, and cleaned the board – which I had just realised was covered in more of my own writing, from what seemed to be a tutorial on eigenvalues and eigenvectors that I remembered giving to some undergraduates just before I had submitted my thesis. Even the janitor's face was familiar to me, as I had seen him about campus frequently during my six years spent as a student there.

"You have got to be kidding me," I muttered, causing the janitor to look in my direction disinterestedly.

"If you've got no business being here, clear off," he said gruffly, sounding just as I recalled. "Some people have a lecture hall to clean."

"I was just... leaving," I said weakly, slowly heading for the lecture hall's back exit. "Thanks."

The back exit opened up into a corridor that was eerily identical to the one which I had walked through during my time at university, and finally, something seemed amiss.

Next to the back exit was a notice board, which was often used by the lecturers to post announcements. However, this one was not empty, nor was it filled with notices. It simply appeared to be a messy meshwork of brown corkboard and white papers, almost like what you might see if pieces of a notice board - and the notices on it - were stuck in a blender.

There was a fragment of the usual timetable, and there was a piece of Professor Wang's announcements regarding the upcoming exams from three years ago. Many, many more shredded notices were stuck to the board, making it look like a bizarre collage of sorts.

I considered the strange sight for a few moments, and finally, a possible reason for the strange sight dawned on me. Had I been correct about the stimulator drawing on my memories to supply environmental details, then complex or incomplete memories would have resulted in faulty portions of the environment, as was the case with the notice board. But it was just a theory – I made a mental note to myself to ask Zachary about it later.

Everything still led to my first and foremost question, though. Just how were the thoughts being extracted by the people in applied neurology? Hell, how had the stimulator managed to pluck these details from my mind to recreate the entire lecture hall, complete with the tutorial notes on the board?

Just as I started to walk down the corridor, the temperature around me dropped suddenly, and the lights all went out. When they came back on, flickering faintly, I realised that they were all red.

A scuttling sound came from somewhere behind me, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. I whipped about to see what was causing the sound, and saw... nothing.

Frantically, I tried to remember what Zachary had told me to do. Think, think... out! He hadn't mentioned the consequences of the red light, but I was willing to wager that they weren't pleasant.

"Get out, get out, get out," I feverishly chanted in my thoughts – or were they thoughts within thoughts? – just as the scuttling sounds started again. "I want to get out!"

The scuttling sounds stopped.

And then they started again, right behind me.

"Out!" I half-thought, half-shouted, and the entire corridor started spinning around me. Everything started to move in and out of focus, and I could make out flashes of red light amidst the chaotic mess of images. There was a loud rumbling sound, and everything went black for me once again, even while the scuttling sounds continued.

Somewhere in the darkness, I heard the scuttling sound fading, and soon enough, I was left in silence. Just then, I felt a strange, squeezing sensation around my head, and the darkness cleared, revealing the insides of the pod.

Instead of the green glow which had illuminated its interior earlier, I was being bathed in a harsh, red light.