A Night at the Opera
by Allen Finn
forum: A Night at the Opera
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

......... ....... ..... ..  

A Night at the Opera


           Dr. Julie Parsons takes the file from the top shelf and clutches it nervously. Her body shivers underneath her light sweater, and the late autumn storm bellows outside the office windows. A small lamp illuminates the elegant desk, and aside from a large holographic computer monitor, the workspace is a tumultuous sea of paper and mess, splashed across dark mahogany. Various books, scattered in tall piles around the room, diminish the huge area of the penthouse suite. Journals with such titles as  'Neurological Determinism' and 'Projection-Model Evolutionary Psychology' litter the chairs, next to the numerous multi-volume textbooks on the shelves.

           Julie notices the eccentric slap-dash pen markings adorning the charts and posters draped across the office walls, covering paper surfaces with massive graphs, strings of numbers, and linguistic nonsense. A pad of white paper sits centred on the desk, headed by 'The Sudbury Institute of Cognitive Science'. The nameplate on the desk displays Dr. Timothy Carmichael's name in gold.

           "On Minimal Conscious Cognition, by Timothy Carmichael, et al.," Julie reads aloud from the file in her hands. She jumps as lightening strikes a few kilometers away, causing a small compass mounted on Dr. Carmichael's expensive penholder to spin wildly. Her grip on the paper folder tightens. Julie takes a deep breath and detects the sharp scent of a pine forest.

           She looks uneasily around her at a world of wood and paper, but the smell seems to come from the Institute's exceedingly clean hallway floors. Pine; a tree; forests; mountains; sky; a lake; her mind spins the scent through deja vu.

           She whispers the opening lines of the research paper aloud, but as she continues, her lips and fingers purse with growing anxiety. Her eyes are dragged along by the words of the report: "The human subject pays attention when a vital truth is presented," the late Dr. Carmichael's written voice dictates.

           Twenty minutes later, Julie turns to the final page of the research paper, her face and sleeve stained with tears.

           She frantically searches her handbag for a cigarette, lights one, and holds the slim report over the lighter's flame, casting its burning husk into the steel trash bin.  She watches with tear-filled eyes as her late mentor's work turns to ashes. As the inky argument is cremated, the citations and inductions on the leaves of the manuscript curl towards oblivion. Julie tiptoes out of the office in an attempt hide her presence from the Institute's security system, sulking down the hall with her mind still on fire.

           She holds the cigarette between her smooth, shaking lips. She stumbles towards her office and reaches out for the doorknob. The male part of the lock slides out with a click and the door swings open.

           Just as Dr. Parsons begins to feel less hysterical, the two men who are waiting for her raise their weapons and yell "Freeze!" in a practised threat. She stares at the men in blue, a pair of security guards, holding matching silver pistol barrells along her line of sight.

           The men stand tensely and express in their faces a seriousness more terrifying than any research paper could ever elicit, but Julie's mind races through possible reactions. She has a letter opener on the far side of her desk. Her office window leaves only a three-floor drop to the bushes and snow banks outside. The emergency staircase is perhaps twenty running strides from her office door. With another look at the guns, gut feelings tell her that good looks and quick thinking are her only current assets.

           The guard on the left speaks, keeping his body motionless: "Excuse me, but there's no smoking indoors, doctor. I'm afraid that our immediate orders from the central security system are to arrest you without delay. You are hereby charged with jeopardizing informational security and trespassing in restricted areas."

           The guard says it slowly and carefully, but what he thinks is Why the Hell did that damn computer say this fox was committing a major security breach when here she walks in looking like a featherweight supermodel who probably set off the fire alarm with her damn smoke?

           Julie steps between the men, sits on the desk, and slowly grinds her cigarette into a coffee mug, keeping eye contact with the guard who spoke. She emphasizes her cleavage, letting them both see in gold lettering, "Julie Parsons, Ph.D." She leans over her desk.

           "Allow me to defend myself, gentlemen. It's only, what, two minutes to midnight? I'll be happy to sort this out. It doesn't require my arrest if I go searching for a week-old report, does it? I should be insulted! I hope I can settle this without the red tape, so to speak, here and now." Julie's hand tiptoes alluringly towards the back of her desk, but her expression scarcely hides a boiling panic.

           What's your number, mama, Sgt. Salt is thinking. "I'm afraid I have to ask you to come with us," he says. "If there's no problem, Professor Kivitsik will have you released tomorrow morning, but we're not here for your opinion. We know you'll understand." He holds his gun steadily and nods to Sgt. Cooper, who, keeping his eyes on Julie as he circumnavigates her, walks towards the door.

           Julie lunges downwards at Sgt. Salt with her right fist and lands four hard knuckles in his flabby groin, eliciting an ear-piercing scream. As she reaches for his gun, Sgt. Cooper aims quickly to fire twice, missing Julie and striking Sgt. Salt on the back of his left thigh. "Damn it!" Sgt. Salt yells while Cooper misses with another shot. Julie reaches out and pulls the letter opener off her desk, but just as she clenches her fist around it, her whole skull becomes electrocuted by Sgt. Cooper's bolt of electricity.

           Sgt. Salt lies writhing on the floor, holding his left buttocks, as Sgt. Cooper claps his hands dramatically and laughs until he stops, a serious look returning to his face, his eyes darting up to the room's security camera.  He forms an 'O' with his lips as he blows on the end of his stun gun, which isn't smoking. "Applied Tesla theory, one, homicidal Ph.D., zero. Don't worry Salt, that muscle pain won't last long for you, or for her, I promise, it's only neurons firing. Did she say it was two minutes to midnight? See, she has a Japanese watch-that was her first mistake. By mountain time it's already past twelve." He reaches over the desk and takes her coffee cup, looking at the cigarette inside.  "Evidence," he says, "or not." He sniffs the air and looks down at Sgt. Salt. "Get up, Seargent, and use the cuffs on her. Never doubt the conclusions of an advanced Turing machine when a beautiful woman is involved, eh? Well, shall we?"

           Sgt. Salt replies with a cold glare. He rises to his feet with a groan, and slaps handcuffs on Dr. Parsons. As Julie is dragged out of the room, the last conscious words to come out of her mouth into the room's microphone are "Kill me."

* * *

           Alone in his office, Dr. Henry Nordstrom gazes out the window, looking over kilometers and kilometers of dry, cold, Canadian winter. The splendor of Sudbury, he thinks to himself, pours over the earth like a shower of silt, blackly blessing every member of the population. In the 20th century, NASA used this scorched environment for simulation moon landings. Henry flexes and extends his fingers over the desk and speaks aloud.  "Testing," he says.

           "The world's addicted to the internet," Dr. Kivitsik's voice replies through the room's speakers. "That's why we psychiatrists need psychiatrists these days, Henry." The voice coming out of the speaker cracks with dry laughter.

           Nordstrom turns from his computer and looks out towards the rain-pelted snow in the parking lot. "I bought that chess book you were talking about. It's alright. I'll probably read the whole thing."

           "See if it works for you. Pawn takes pawn."

           Henry pauses to survey the chess board on the holographic plane in front of him. His corner office, a floor below Dr. Kivitsik's, is arranged neatly and linearly. The desk is now patterned in the third dimension with black and white chess squares.

           Henry ponders at Dr. Kivitsik's latest move. The white pawn had jumped forward two spaces, swiping alongside Henry's black pawn and taking it and him by surprise. This rings discordantly with Henry's knowledge of the game of chess. "One second, Professor. I don't know if a move like that is legal. Did your pawn just..."

           "The computer wouldn't let me do it if it wasn't allowed to. It's a valid move, it's an underused technicality, in fact. It's called the En Passant rule. Some players don't use it or haven't even heard of it, which says something about its subtlty."

           Dr. Nordstrom mouths a four-letter word to himself, crooks his finger against the black rook, moves it hesitantly, then retracts his move.

           "I think," he begins slowly, his voice shaded with the record-player static of thousands of cigarettes, "I think..." That it's done, he thinks to himself, that I've got you in inevitable checkmate from here on in, old boy. "It is. engendered." He picks up the holographic queen piece by the hips, and colonially bitch-slaps Kivitsik's white king and the surrounding pieces, in four or fewer moves.

           Dr. Kivitsik ponders the intentions behind the move and sees a trap forming. Henry hears Dr. Kivitisk laugh out loud. "You must have that ChessGod program open.  You win, I resign."

           Henry smiles indifferently, his satisfaction at his own progress marred by Kivitsik's blunder at the end of the game. "Going to the opera tonight, Doctor?"

           "Right, yes, at the Science Centre this evening. I don't know which opera they're doing, and I can't remember who composed it. It should be an enjoyable performance, though, spectacular even, if the artistic director is who I think it is, that girl who went to...." Dr. Kivistik suddenly pauses, and his voice trails off.

           Henry's gaze darts from the snowy parkinglot back to the image of the old man's face on the holographic screen. "Anna is going, but unfortunately I can't make it," Kivitsik says. Graduate student Anna Wirman, is a daughter begotten by Janne Kivitsik's third wife, aged 23 years to the old man's jocund 63. "She's quite the musician, and music enthusiast, and she says the lead soprano shouldn't be missed, that leggy Korean, or was it the Japanese, no, the American lady who got held hostage, you know, in wherever it was, Brazil, I believe."

           "Nice," Henry replies, knowing that Kivitsik's words likely mean You bastard, I know you've had your hands on my daughter, or I know you want to if you haven't already, God damn you.

           "Yes. Now, I don't know how to put this, Dr. Nordstrom, but there's been a problem overnight.  A significant problem."

           "Shoot," Henry says evenly.

           "I think you had better come up to my office."

* * *

           Loud angry guitars and voices scream at unholy decibels as Julie wishes she could crush her fists into her ears, desparately trying to block out the heavy metal music endlessly raging through the loudspeakers in the detention cell. The relentless distortion continues its effective torment as she sits handcuffed to her chair. The needle crawls its way across the black spiraled plane of an original vinyl copy of Ride the Lightening, and it becomes 36 hours since Julie has slept.

* * *

           "What took you so long?"

           Dr. Kivitsik sits behind his massive desk. His eyes meander around his office, rolling from the print of Heironemoussss Bosch's 'The Garden of Earthly Delight', past a tall black coat rack beside the door, to a mahogany-framed Canadian impressionist painting on the other wall. The sharp figure of Fredrick Nordstrom stands in the doorway.

           "I had to shutdown ChessGod," Nordstrom says, thinking Maybe if your sense of smell worked properly you'd have a better appreciation for your ex-wife's organic tea and you'd know I was just smoking a cigarette with one of your grad students who knows that my field will eclipse yours long before your dead-end research stops. "I was just smoking, professor," he says with a laugh, "I was smoking a very long, harsh American cigarette, and now my thoughts are edified, ready to be directed. And as I was walking up here, I heard that the British public has voted Bohemian Rhapsody as the top rock single of all time." He stares at Kivitsik. "You'd have guessed that if you thought about it long enough, I'd hope."

           Kivitsik is suddenly uneasy. "Well...," he begins. He lowers his eyes from Nordstrom. He shifts around in his chair, now looking up at the Bosch painting. Bosch's 'Hell' is a weird, arresting, protosexual landscape, a pornographic Where's Waldo, created by a sin-obsessed Dutchman who unleashed  his images and died half a millenium ago. Sometimes Janne Kivitsik stares long and hard at the image when he's alone, but he feels a guilty exhilaration which makes him wonder if it should be hanging there. 

           Nordstrom, following his gaze, smiles when he sees the object of attention. He takes a moment to examine the painting closely.

           In front of a shadowy industrial background, sectioned into slices by artificial light, a giant knife protrudes from between two huge ears, which dwards dozens of tiny naked humans and demons on the ground below, all holding strings, spears, and ladders. Against a solitary wall, a cowering woman is forcefully encroached upon by a creature with branches for hands, and next to her and it are hellhounds devouring a human body, while several men stare from nearby and defecate into a bottomless void, on the edge of which a man totters precariously with the weight of a watery world on his shoulders as a human figure reaches down redemptively from above him. Another man with a paper on his knees is trying to fend off a swinish nun, under the watchful eye of a midget with an arrow in his thigh, and the midget wears a suit of armour and a giant helmet, off of which a human's foot is hanging. Simulatneously, just beside a crowd of people kept at bay by a human who pushes against the seething mob with a massive table while being attacked by a vermin who has the man impaled with a sword that a naked woman is reaching for, there stands a giant rabbit, who hangs a dead human body at one end of a long pole, and a single black and white die on the other. Musical instruments of enormous size also figure prominently in the painting, which is on the slender right panel of a larger tryptich.

           "Sexy, eh?"  Nordstrom asks Kivitsik, who blinks. "You might think the painting was a microscopic view of male sperm, but no one saw a sight like that until the Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek looked at his own bullets under a microscope in 1683, after inventing the microscope in 1674, think what you will. Would you believe that van Leeuwenhoek was baptized in the same month and at the same church as the painter Jan Vermeer, who used van Leeuwenhoek as the model for one of his paintings, as did M.C. Escher last century? Those Dutch!  Where does one start?" Nordstrom turns to the other wall with interest, looking at a massive landscape painting. Kivitsik leans across his desk to admire the work.

           "Yes, what a landscape, Grace Lake, it's called. Just beautiful." On the wide canvas, protected behind glass, the oil paint strokes across a row of smooth Canadian mountains; the grey rocks cradle a shining lake under a stratosphere of endless grey clouds. "Beautiful, isn't it.  Simple and mesmerizing, like it has some secret power behind it. I've seen the actual mountains and the lake where the painting comes from. It's a crystal clear lake, and you can literally see down, through thirty feet of water, down to  the very bottom. And it's just in a little provincial park near Sudbury, not far from here. It's funny, but we had to fly into the lake on a small pontoon plane, a Beaver, and the pilot said that at the end of the 90's, a picture of the plane was in Playboy, remember that magazine? After seeing those mountains myself, I think they're worthy of representation."

           "You make it sound convincing, like it's a place I might want to see before I die."

           "Yes, I've even seen a photograph of Franklin Carmichael there himself, you know, the artist of The Group of Seven. It showed him sketching the area, with the whole mountain range in the background. In one seond last century a camera flashed, and afterwards we get billions and billions of years--snap--in an image." Kivitsik exhales.

           "Carmichael or Bosch, doctor," Nordstrom prompts with a raised eyebrow, yawning and crossing his arms as he points at the walls on either side of him.

           "They're both nice in their own ways. I prefer the latter. The choice seems obvious."

           "Obvious for a mind adapted to survive in the former environment, and not the latter. Think about it."

           "A painting of mountains and a lake is a calm contemplation of man's imperfect wonder at his natural environment; an abstract, absurd, surreal painting is a wild representation of man's untamed subconscious drives. Agreed?"

           "Agreed," Henry says. "Don't impertinent questions lead to a pertinent answer?" Fredrik's eyes gleam.

           Kivitsik evades Nordstrom's gaze and pulls his arms off the desk to play with an expensive pen, which is now his, ever since the late Timothy Carmichael recently vacated the position. "You're right.  I think the landscape painting seems more... truthful, to me, I suppose."  He looks at Henry. "To business, then."

* * *

           God damn it, damn him, damn her, damn it all, Nordstrom steams subvocally.

           "Fitta!" he cries as he stubs his toe on the bucket someone has left in the hall in front of his office. The bucket is usually sitting just outside the prisoner detention room.

           Henry enters the office and pushes a stack of old books off the thick pad on his desk, throwing Kivitsik's chess book aside. He places a sheet of paper on hardcover called 'The Ascent of Memes' and writes the Greek letter 'A' with his left hand while typing on the holoscreen with his right. Being right-handed, Fredrik's Alpha is as crooked as a pre-schooler's chalk scribbling.  Seeing the ill-formed letter reminds him of how pointless it had seemed when halfway through secondary school they began teaching him Greek. "The government's new cirriculum is highly effective, quite comprehensive," the teacher had told their class, "and very, very theoretical. As in, it's an actual cirriculum, of course, but it's 

           Beside the letter 'A', he writes, in Greek, with his right hand: 'Apply pyschological pressure on the detainee and investigate the nature of last night's violence.' A second sentence spins around in his mind. Fredrik fears that by acknowledging the second thought on paper, he'll fill his subconscious with the very ghostly whispers he wants to avoid. But his hand begins to write, and his mind follows. 'B: Entertain no attraction to the female detainee.'

* * *

           "Hi. I'm Henry Nordstrom. You may remember me from such situations as our workplace flirtations, including when I pretend to be pushed into you and made you fall over and drop all your paperwork everywhere. Hey," he winks, "You probably liked it."

           Fredrik flashes a smile at himself in front of the mirror, applying a dose of overpriced aftershave.

           He stares at the mirror, checks to see if any of the hamburger he just ate is still stuck in his teeth, and washes his hands with soap.

           He flicks some extra water off his hands, straightens his tie, and leaves the washroom, walking rhythmically towards the interrogation room over the binary black and white floor tiles. In his mind and on the side of his dress pants he bangs out a rhythm from a song by a little-known band from an 
industrial town near his in Lund, Sweden, and as he keeps walking he hears a different kind of noise being blasted over the speakers in Julie's detention area.

           "Do I hear the twelve-tone system of composition, or is that a cat walking across a piano?"

           "Now, Dr. Nordstrom," the orderly for the detention room says crisply, "the only information I'm permitted to tell you is as follows."

           The orderly speaks with a loud, clear voice, and in under a minute speaks just over 400 words.  "You know what you have to do, as usual. Good luck."

           "That last one was the only sentence you wasted, chief.  Listen in on this interview and fetch me a pail of water. You'll find a dry bucket outside my office."

           Henry enters the interrogation room and immediately sizes up the male and female detainees. The girl, Julie, has studied under Henry and knows a few of what he calls his 'Jedi mind tricks', which makes it easier for her to mentally spar with him. The male, however, is new to Nordstrom's eyes, and Henry looks at a dark, creased face which shouldn't belong to such a young, relatively normal-looking man. The man doesn't look up as Nordstrom enters the room, closes the door, and sits in front of him, nor does the man see as Nordstrom glances at Julie, who is also silent.

           "The first of you to speak will be given an amount of cash equivalent to the price of five large hamburgers from the cafeteria. Since both of you are charged with national high treason, I'll make the rules clear. If either of you refuse to speak during the next 20 minutes, I may use physical torture at my discretion."

           "I'll speak," the woman says, looking up at Henry, who instantly turns to her.

           "Are you an intelligent person?" he asks.

           "How am I supposed to answer that question?" she replies.

           "Not with another question. Chief!" he yells through the door to the orderly, "Bring me that pail!"

           Dr. Nordstrom pauses for a deep breath.

           "Please, Dr. Parsons, I await your account of last night's events."

           After a minute of rapid speech Julie ends her explanation, and the orderly rumages outside the door, bringing in the pail of water. "Now to double-check that account with the video feeds from last night." On the wall, a video monitor confirms the events Julie described in motion picture format. "We have a winner!" Henry exclaims. He glances with a smirk at the two prisoners and catches Julie's eye for a second. Henry grabs the pail and looks inside it. He sticks his finger in the water to check its temperature. The water level rises slightly as the finger dips.

           "What is your name?" Henry asks the man.

           "Uh, Karl," the man replies.

           Henry thrusts the pail of water in Karl's face, then winds his arm high above his head to strike the man across the face. Henry's palm flies to within an inch of Karl's cheek and slices to a halt.

           "Karl, I just heard your name for the first time two minutes ago, and I already know enough about you to either legally end your life or let you walk out of this room as soon as possible."

           Karl spits in Henry's face. Sweat runs from Karl's matted hair into the pitted crevice under his eyes. "You bastard, Nordstrom! We found out! Do you think that people are going to let you publish your research? Why do you think Carmichael killed himself last week after the discovery? Do you think  you have the right to tell humanity your damned theories? You can't imagine the pandemonium---"

           Nordstrom interjects in a monotone. "I believe that both of you have recently broken into Institute files and reviewed Dr. Charmichael's paper 'On Minimal Conscious Cognition'. Whether or not our research destroys the notion of human free will is as important as whether or not a tree falls in the woods, et cetera."

           "Are you sick? You twisted quack! Only fools would assume conscious determinism!  You'd be some kind of demented robot, a Turing machine!"

           Nordstrom points to his head with a smile. "On, or off. Zero, or one. Bang, bang, bang, and a million neurons later, out comes your final answer."

           Henry pulls a gun from his side and points it at Karl's forehead.

           "I don't want to hurt you, Karl. You're a talented researcher, so they tell me, but apparently you need clarification in a few key areas. You're not leaving this room alive until you discuss with me the essential points of cognitive determinism. Tell me about how the earth is flat, or explain to me why the Sun rotates around the earth, or show me a single inconsistency in this joke we call reality, and I'll turn myself into a careful collection of chemicals."

           Karl shouts the worst word he knows.

           "At least you chose to express it in English," Henry replies, and fires his gun at Karl's head.

           As Karl slips to the floor, Henry walks behind Julie and unlocks her restraints.

           "You had heard that Carmichael had cancer, eh, Anna? He was into an advanced T-4 prostate tumor. In his will he mentioned that his assisted suicide would attract attention to our new findings. After the opera performance, tonight, when the publicity committee files our press release, it all begins. You played your character quite well. You made it sound irrationally paranoid enough, I'd say, but did you really need to slip in those details about the security gaurds? Wouldn't you have been unconscious of that? Oh, and should we take your vehicle or mine? I still have the wine under my front seat."

* * *

           "Why didn't you kill him, darling?" Anna asks as they take their seats at 'The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat', an adventurous modern event composed by an old scorewriter for Hollywood films.

           "Any man deserves a chance, plus a second chance," Henry replies. He brushes his finger along the inside of Anna's coast, grazing her wrist and arm. "And if you electrically shock a man the right number of times, he'll eventually get wise." Anna laughs at the ticklish feeling on her arm, and the lights in the Sudbury Science Centre auditorium grow dim.

           "Shh! It's starting," Henry whispers to Anna, making her laugh even more with his touch across her hand and his voice in her ear.




copyright 2005 Allen Finn.

Allen Finn:
Allen Finn is a student of English and Biology at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.  Most of his spare hours are spent watching films and attending or listening to audio recordings of dramas.  His work has yet to see publication beyond the campus newspaper, and his acquaintances' email inboxes.