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
"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
Twenty minutes later, Julie turns
to the final page of the research paper, her face and sleeve stained
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
* * *
"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
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?"
"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
"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
"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
"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.