Chapter 5 – Probing

Speaking in all honesty, it wasn't entirely difficult to stop a mental fallacy from occurring. All you needed to do was to avoid paying too much attention to the little things, really. Notices on walls, television screens in shop windows, plate numbers on cars going by on the streets, or even the clothing on passing people were things you'd want to avoid looking at, for instance.

Come to think of it, that was probably the first lesson I'd learned during my first few days on the job at the applied neurology department. Well, there were others, of course, such as which toilets tended to get blocked more often, which cafeteria seats had loose screws, whose offices you could nick stationery from without getting caught, and not sticking your nose into security's business.

Somehow, despite everyone stressing the importance of not messing with the security department down under – as the staff tended to refer to applied neurology – I did not even run into a single security officer after a week of working there. It was almost as if all of the security staff had the ability to turn invisible or were otherwise hidden very well, with the only signs of their alleged existence being those odd little stone statues and the glossy fisheye lenses of their wide-angle cameras that were all over the ceiling.

When everyone clocked out for the day – even the caffeine junkie named Carl who we called our receptionist, whose role in the daily operations of applied neurology were questionable at best – there never were any people going around locking the place up. Blast doors sealed themselves, and lights switched themselves off. Frankly, the whole scenario made me wonder if the place was run by an advanced supercomputer; topside technology was certainly behind that which was just about taken for granted down under, after all.

After several hours of trying to figure out the mystery of applied neurology's security department, I finally decided to let it be. Just like the thinly-veiled threat which Zachary Harding had made when I went poking about the security statue in the cafeteria. I just let it be, and that was it.

With those thoughts out of the way, at least temporarily, I ended up focusing my attention on what my job now was; junior mind prober and assistant to none other than that hyperactive bastard, Zachary Harding.

Yes, he ended up being my immediate superior. Don't ask me how or why, thank you very much.

xxx

Mathematics was a beautiful subject, it you really sat down and thought about it. Everything could be expressed in terms of variables if you got down to the heart of things, and so in that sense, mathematics was not merely the door and key to the sciences, as some scientists were fond of saying, but rather, could be labelled as the key to explaining life itself.

Naturally, time was something we mathematicians had always appreciated for its mysterious and abstract nature. Some called time the fourth dimension, and when you considered that the three dimensions which defined matter could actually bend time around themselves, it wasn't too bad a nickname for the one force which physics has yet to master. Heck, just look at relativity and you'll get what I mean.

And that is why I was hardly surprised when one day, Zachary walked into the office that we shared and gave me some rather unexpected good news. Of course, he couldn't pass news along like normal people did, too – he had to nearly dismantle his office door and get crushed by a filing cabinet in order to get the message through.

He had practically slid into the room, shaking the door on its hinges, and crashed into his filing cabinet. The metal cabinet swayed about for a few moments, but did not fall over – very fortunate, considering that the only direction it could have fallen was on to where he was lying on the floor.

"I take it there's been a big announcement of some sort?" I asked him drily as I offered him a hand. "And can't you, just maybe, use the door like normal people?"

"Now that is an absolutely load of bollocks!" he sniffed, as he bounced to his feet and dusted himself off. "This is all the custodial staff's fault, I'll have you know. Those bastards and their excessive amounts of floor polish are what caused me to slip!"

"The news, then?" I asked him, as I took my usual seat in front of his desk and turned my attention back to the manual on mind probing that I had been reading prior to his rocketing into the office.

"Aha, yes! You, my dear assistant, are going on your first mind probe tomorrow!" he declared, crashing into his poor, battered swivel-chair. "I'll be escorting you in, of course, so it'll mostly be observation work for you."

I stopped my reading, and looked up at him over my glasses, only half-believing my ears. "Pardon me?"

"What, are you British now, like Jane?" he huffed, running a hand through his hair and opening a file that had been waiting for him on his desk since the day before. "Yes, you heard me right. We'll be going mind probing tomorrow, and it'll be your first trip into someone else's mind. Since you're a newbie at this gig, someone senior – namely yours truly – will have to accompany you in to make sure everything goes smoothly."

He beamed at me, despite the fact that the expression of disbelief on my face probably made me look like a goldfish or any other goggle-eyed animal.

"Cat got your tongue?"

I blinked a few times, having a little difficulty in getting my response straight. Sure, I knew that my progress during the last week of stimulations was better than anyone had expected, but they deciding to send me into an actual mind probe this soon felt... just a little sudden.

Finally, I didn't answer, as Zachary, being the loud bugger that he was, made it unnecessary for me to say anything. "So, be here on time for work tomorrow, but wait for me at reception. You haven't been cleared for elevator usage yet, right?"

"No, I haven't," I mumbled, still trying to clear my thoughts. "See you tomorrow at reception?"

"You got it, dude."

Seriously, what was it with him and calling me a dude?

xxx

The reception area looked just as bland as ever, with Carl the pseudo-fixture looking at the world over the rim of his coffee mug and the numerous, closed elevator doors. Zachary and I got there at the same time – completely expected, given that we took the same train to work every day – and proceeded to use one of the elevators that we had yet to use in my brief period of employment. It also had a unique locking mechanism, which required a retinal scan, as compared to the others, which could be opened with a mere touch of a finger.

"Are they all different?" I asked Zachary, as the elevator's doors slid shut.

"Some are, and some are not," he replied, humming the tune to one of those obsolete television series which he was so fond of illegally downloading and watching in his spare time. "Depends on where you want to go, it does."

Now that made no sense whatsoever. "How can the elevators be unique if our destination is a factor? They can't think, can they?"

He merely bobbed his head to a tune that only he could hear, and said, "Ask security."

Damn these people and their vague answers! I was just about to attempt thinking up an explanation for the problem of the elevators, when I noticed something odd; we weren't moving through the brightly-lit cavern that housed applied neurology. Instead, the elevator had descended into a dark tunnel, and was silently speeding along its rails.

"Where are we going, Zachary?" I asked him, watching what looked like solid walls of stone whizzing past through the elevator's transparent sides. "This isn't the usual place, that's for sure."

"Observant, you are," he drawled. "Mind probing has a more secure facility, one level below us. They built applied neurology in a natural cavern, and dug down deeper for the probing labs."

I let out a bemused snort at that. "If applied neurology is already down under, than what do the folks here call the probing place?"

"The basement," he replied nonchalantly, almost making me roll my eyes out of sheer disbelief. Clearly, the people who ran things here had a few connections loose up in those undoubtedly brilliant heads of theirs.

After a few more minutes of moving along in the darkness, the elevator stopped, and its lights went out. Understandably, I was hardly amused.

"Is this some kind of weird joke, Zachary?"

"Of course not - standard operating procedure, that's what it is, man. Just wait until they're done screening the elevator."

"Who?" I asked, just as he decided to go all childish and poke me in the back. "Hey, stop that!"

"That wasn't me," he said, sounding unusually serious, for once. "Just... remain still, and let security check the elevator, alright?"

I felt my blood run cold as my mind caught up with what he had just said. The elevator doors hadn't opened, and yet there apparently was someone in it with us? Right there in the pitch black, deep underground. A cool breeze blew past my face, startling me, just as the lights came back on. Just then, I didn't know what made the whole situation worse; the fact that even Zachary looked slightly uncomfortable, or that I could see the elevator's surroundings.

We were suspended in the middle of a small, spherical chamber, held in place by nothing save for the elevator's rails, and there wasn't a soul in sight. There wasn't anything I could see outside the elevator that indicated anyone having approached the elevator to check its contents, or even any signs of life in the near-complete darkness.

The elevator started moving again with a small jolt, and the two of us made the rest of the trip in utter silence. When it pulled up at a small, brightly-lit station with a lone man sitting there, you could probably have heard the tension in the enclosed space of the elevator relaxing.

"Security got on your case?" asked the man, looking perfectly bored as he flipped through a comic. "They've been excitable of late."

"My assistant here felt one of them poking him," Zachary said, as we headed past the man and towards a flight of stairs that led, unbelievably, downwards. "She's all yours."

"About damn time, too," grumbled the man, as he got up and stretched. "See you around, Zachary."

"Hell with you too, Don," Zachary called out, as the man stepped into the elevator, and we walked down the stairs. "Everything alright with you, then?"

"Not exactly," I deadpanned. "What the Hell was that about? Security couldn't have gotten into the elevator, Zachary – the doors were shut the whole time! Just what went on back there?"

He gave me a pointed look, and spoke, slowly. "Like I said, you don't want to question security. There are some things you'd be best of not knowing, trust me."

Trust him on the matter? As we reached a corridor which ended in a circular, iris-like door, I decided that something was definitely wrong with the whole picture. Something was very wrong indeed.

When the doorway opened up like a gigantic flower in bloom, however, I nearly ended up dropping all my thoughts on the matter of the security check.

It looked very much like the stimulation chamber upstairs, but minus what looked like half of the clutter. Everything was clean, brightly-lit, and neatly labelled, without even a single stray wire leaving a wall outlet. The pods were all built into the walls like stasis chambers in those old space exploration movies, and most of them were already occupied by the time we entered the chamber.

Several technicians moved about, with some of them being dressed in white coats and others in mechanic's overalls. I even saw a couple of people moving around in black suits, but I couldn't be too sure – they seemed to be moving about very quickly, almost like they were in a big rush even down here, in this eerily silent facility.

Zachary led me towards a pod with a man sleeping in it, and called a technician over. "Right, so this is our man, okay? He's a chemist, and today he's trying to do something with organic polymers. Something like that software they used years ago to let video gamers help in stimulated protein folding.

"Our job is to observe how he assembles the polymers, and to tell him exactly how when he wakes up. Is that understood?"

"Got it," I nodded, still with a slight tremor to my movements. "Do we go in right here?"

"Eh? No, no, no," he replied, shaking his head, just as the technician tapped a few keys on a handheld control console and caused a concealed drawer next to the pod to slide open. "Take two of the helmets in there, and follow me."

I peeked into the open drawer, and saw that there were indeed helmets in it, as he had said – six of them, to be precise. Picking up two of them at random, I followed him towards the far end of the chamber, not missing the barely-audible sound of the drawer sliding shut behind me.

The other end of the chamber turned out to lack pods, and instead bore a strong resemblance to a karaoke bar, oddly enough. Several unmanned desks were there, each next to a door with a clear porthole in the middle of it at about eye-level. Glancing into those that we walked past, I could see people lying in recliners, all wearing the same helmets like the ones I was holding. None of them seemed to be moving.

"Are they all... probing?" I asked Zachary, as he opened one of the doors, and went into the room.

"Got it in one," he said, sitting down in one of the six recliners in the room. "Here, shut the door, sit down, and pass me one of those."

I did as I was told, and within seconds, the two of us were seated next to each other, and were putting on the helmets. As I put the strange contraption on, I could feel the telltale coldness of several electrodes on its inside coming into contact with my scalp. Grimacing a little, I tried to ignore the tingling sensation that started as the hair-like electrodes pierced into my skull and made their way to my brain.

"Lie back and enjoy the ride, dude," Zachary said, sounding strangely... sleepy? "When you see me, just wave, but keep things quiet, alright?"

His words had barely made it through the fog that was rapidly clouding my mind, before everything blurred together...

... before coming back into sharp focus, just like that.

I was standing next to him in a large, white room, which had no doors or windows. The room's walls arched over our heads to form a large dome, and met the floor at rounded junctions. Somehow, it made me feel like we were stuck inside either a colossal pebble, or an oversized bun.

And then, on the other side of the room, there was the chemist we had seen earlier. He was dressed exactly as he had been in the pod, but this time, he appeared to be very much awake, and was focused on what seemed to be a massive, pretzel-like solid floating in the air right in front of him.

I waved to Zachary, who nodded, and he gestured for me to get closer to him. When I walked right up to him, he leaned over, and whispered, "Good that you made it in here. Now, we're going to go right next to him and listen to his thoughts. Don't ask."

Silently, I followed him until we were practically flanking the chemist. He didn't seem to notice us standing almost directly adjacent to him, and instead reached out to touch the floating thing he was so fixated on. Giving the strange object a closer look, I realised that it was an extremely complex space-filling model of some macromolecular structure.

Right then, his finger touched the molecule, and a voice spoke up in my mind, barely above a whisper.

Catalytic bond formation... higher pressure required?

That certainly made me freeze on the spot. I just stood rooted there, watching in awe as the molecule untangled itself from the pretzel shape and formed an even more complicated tangle. It started to pulsate like a heart made of coiled wires, and eventually uncoiled, going static once again.

Multiple coils unstable... quartenary structures necessary?

Haemoglobin.

Hold that thought – a monkey's fist configuration could possibly be more stable.

As I watched the molecule loop itself into a lattice-like sphere, I finally realised what exactly Zachary had meant by 'listening' to the chemist's thoughts. Very clearly, he had meant doing so quite literally.

I sneaked a glance at Zachary out of the corner of my eye, and saw that he was staring quite intently at the polymer as it continued looping and coiling itself into a neat little ball. The chemist had withdrawn his hand and was now just looking at the polymer as it began vibrating vigorously, before disappearing in a puff of smoke with the muffled sound of an explosion. Almost immediately, a fresh polymer chain materialised in front of him, the smoke from the disappearance of the previous one dissipating as quick as thought.

A simpler configuration, then...

Spirals or pleats, maybe?

Cyclic? Furanose or pyranose rings? Porphyrin?

Even as the chemist started running through a myriad of possible configurations for the polymer molecule, more copies of it started materialising all over the room and assuming the various shapes he was thinking up for them. I flinched as one exploded not a meter away from my right ear, and the others started pulsating, vibrating, or otherwise moving where they had formed.

Within seconds, half of the new molecules had exploded, leaving just a handful which pulsated steadily or just floated around, apparently frozen in space. Things came to a standstill then, as we just stood there, watching the chemist and his molecules doing their thing.

Timing decent on furanose...

Bonding stable...

Increasing stress tests, higher modulus?

Flexion, flexion.

For some time, the molecules were shaken, squeezed, and deformed by invisible forces as they got subjected to what I imagined were probably some very vigorous tests of their structural robustness. A clock had most conveniently appeared next to each of them once the chemist apparently decided to time the stress tests or whatever it was he was doing, and based on those, I could tell that the testing itself went on for nothing less than four hours.

The chemist must have been particularly interested in those resembling hexagons, because they slowly started coming closer to him, as though he was generating his own gravity and drawing them in. He started to scrutinise them one by one, finally settling on a configuration that reminded me strongly of benzene's Kekule ring. All the other molecules flew off to one side of the room and arranged themselves in neat rows, almost as if they were soldiers who had been instructed to file into their ranks. Once that part had been sorted out, the clocks which had been accompanying the molecules all vanished just abruptly as they had appeared.

Given that they had all been analog clocks with actual hands and not digital displays, the room's sudden silence did feel quite strange.

Kekule seems stable.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when a massive sheet of what appeared to be human skin – complete with blood vessels and glistening fat deposits attached to it - popped into existence right in front of the chemist. While I was busy trying to calm myself down so as to not draw his attention to me, the hexagonal molecules started multiplying themselves and flying all over the large sheet of skin, attaching themselves to its edges like little magnets.

Adhesion acceptable...

Grafting.

Another sheet of skin – discoloured and apparently unhealthy - materialised next to the first, and was promptly... attacked by it, for lack of a better word. The skin with the polymer molecules attached to it latched onto the fresh sheet, anchoring itself using the molecules like suction cups, and looking like a grotesque, oversized slug as it did so. More and more molecules started materialising and adhering to the edges of the skin sheet, smoothly binding it to the other. The line of polymer even started resembling the stitches made by a sewing machine, as they aggregated and arranged themselves into neat lines.

By the time a double-line of polymer was formed all along the edge of the skin graft – the chemist had thought of it as such, so why not call it that? – the excess skin beyond the polymer lines was already disintegrating.

Decay rate...

Healing period, assume normal...

Burn cases?

No burns!

And there it was. Even I, a mathematician who dabbled in chemistry, could recognise the end result of the chemist's work.

It was a perfect skin graft. The polymers had somehow acted like an army of self-adhesive sutures to secure the healthy skin to the diseased skin, and had grafted it over. Even as the three of us watched the completed graft rotating in mid-air before us, looking like a substantially fleshier version of a holographic projection.

Greyish trails of what appeared to be smoke lagged behind the rotating skin, making me wonder if the graft was starting to fail. As the seconds passed, however, I saw that the wispy trails were actually streams of disintegrating polymer molecules, which left a faint, groove-like scar in their wake.

Minimal scarring.

Too deep, dermal rooting.

Minimised dosage.

Just like that, the entire grafting assemblage flickered like an image distorted by static and reappeared looking just as it had been right before the polymer molecules started breaking down. This time, though, the double lines at the edge of the graft seemed fainter.

Another few seconds went by, and there it was, a perfectly healed skin graft, without any scarring to show for it.

Optimal result. Manufacturing acceptable, dosage requires individual calibration.

Melanin and pigment-related retention?

Shut up, you moron!

I was so absorbed in my wonder for what I had just seen, that I barely noticed when the chemist himself vanished from my sight along with the skin graft and his leftover polymer molecules. When Zachary tapped me on the shoulder and told me that it was time to leave, I numbly nodded, and went along with him towards a door that had appeared on the other side of the room.

The door opened of its own accord, revealing what seemed to be a window. Not a window like the ones in houses, though, but rather, those that they built into surgical theatres for the onlookers during surgery.

Looking through the windows, I was dumfounded to see nothing other than an aerial view of myself and Zachary Harding, lying back with our helmets on. It was almost like those doppelganger things, really.

"Alright, just jump through the window," Zachary told me, causing me to notice that what I had thought to be a window was actually little more than an empty frame without a pane. "Aim for your seat, and alright? Goodness knows you wouldn't want to end up in my head, of all places."

Wait. What?

Before I could even open my mouth to ask him just what he meant by that strange statement – I seemed to be hearing a lot of those, of late – he had vaulted over the edge of the frame and was hurtling down towards the image of his apparently unconscious self.

"Get out of there, now!" his voice snapped in my mind, sounding mildly alarmed. "Move it!"

"Alright, already!" I grumbled, as I hopped over the frame's edge and threw myself down towards myself – as odd as that may sound, it's what I did.

Just as I was about to crash into my motionless doppelganger, I felt rather than saw the lights flickering all around me, and everything around me started swirling into a messy blur. There were strange murmuring sounds all around me, and I got a strange feeling as though my skin was too tight all of a sudden...

... and then I woke up, sitting bolt upright in my seat and gasping for air as though I'd just let out a long-held breath.

I looked over to Zachary's seat, where he was languidly stretching out, looking like a puppy that had just woken up.

"And a good morning to you too, Sleeping Beauty," he yawned, as he took off his helmet. "How was it?"

Despite everything that had happened on the way to the laboratory, I found myself smiling as I answered his question.

"It was awesome."