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Monday, May 23, 2005

The bravest scientist in the world: FTMT Short Story No 9


The bravest scientist in the world

The pale grey shed on the edge of town industrial estate was a prime example of nondescript anonymous attention avoiding functional architecture in the 2oth century. It was comparatively small, bleak, devoid of external information and apart from the few cars parked nearby and the waste skip had a look of almost deliberate artistic abandonment to it. There was no natural light in the small research laboratory part, windows were bricked up and fresh air sneaked in from a primitive and unreliable ventilation system. Inside the space was divided by a number of screen walls into various functional areas, offices, labs and experimental rooms. Strip lights burned on in the main lab. They buzzed and flickered occasionally and desk reading and inspection lamps remained on all day and grew hot contributing to the dry and stale atmosphere. Two long work benches ran along each wall on either side of the door, each covered in an assortment of papers, notepads containers and clutter, behind this there was a back line of computers, printers, test rigs punctuated by red or amber power or stand by lights and miscellaneous bits of bookcase and shelving. On the walls white boards and charts alive in scribbles and diagrams covered the blank spaces and added window proportions to the otherwise bare walls. On the floor again and odd mixture of stools and trolleys and lab chairs languished. The whole room had a run down a neglected feel but it was home and valuable workspace to the small team of eight scientists and assistants who spent long hours there pursuing the explanation to or solutions for their current suite of problems.

The large hand on the white clock above the door seemed to struggle to reach the number twelve but eventually did and at about 8AM the first of the staff began to drift in to start the day. It was Monday and the start would be slow, Monday’s were always slow, even if staff had been working all weekend as occasionally happened. The team drifted in, Henry, Spike, Ricardo, Janice, Franz, Wendy, Paul and lastly their leader and mentor Dr Steven Alexander. As a cross section of the scientific community they could have been typical, all from a variety of academic and industrial backgrounds, recruited and brought together, at a high price as a result of the choices made by Dr Alexander. The nature of their work and their personality types and their respective salaries meant that accommodation and outward status was not of prime importance, it was the challenge and goals and the possibility of ground-breaking work that kept them motivated and focused.

From the library shelf the young assistant Paul reached up and selected a large folder entitled “Dictionary of Fear”. He thumbed through the thick document stopping about halfway through, his eye pausing on a lengthy footnote:

“What is the point of writing if it is simply to cover a blank page or screen with pretty words? Of what use is script that exists only as a superficial design upon a piece of paper that leads us nowhere and enriches or informs no one? Each man must strive to conquer his inherent fear of facing the truth, firstly the truth about himself and his position in this world and then to confront his true lack of knowledge and the great responsibility he holds to make his mark and in the process make sense of the many incomprehensible worlds that surround him.” Dr Steven Armstrong – Why Future Worlds Must be Better - 1992.

He closed the folder and carried through to Doctor Alexander’s private office where it was now required.

The processes of thought leading to fears and their irrational or logical sources were being explored and evaluated by the use of chemical stimulants and depressants on a fresh band of volunteers who were due to visit the lab this morning. Doctor Alexander (Dr A as he was known) had been working on the chemical control of fear. Dr A considered fear to be the most crippling and restrictive of all human emotions and a massive limitation in man’s development and next evolutionary steps. It was Dr A’s opinion that unless fear was understood and managed man was doomed as a developing animal and eventually rodents or insects, creatures with little self awareness or fear would succeed over man. Fear was in his opinion the most restrictive and basic of human limitations that needed to be brought under some form of control, if not by strength of will then by chemical assistance. Of course this type of thinking was less that popular and as a result Dr A did not enjoy support from any of the scientific mainstream or the media. The work into fear research, he reasoned, was held back by fear itself. The basic fear of tampering with such a fundamental human survival characteristic was widely misunderstood and seen by many as simply a means of turning healthy individuals into drones or dog soldiers with no conscience or reason.

The research was funded via a discrete holding company by a large US based pharmaceutical firm who wished to remain at the forefront of chemical control research, the US Government (an intelligence agency) had also shown interest but held back on actual support. Months of pilot work and drug synthesis had led up to the planned test for today and all the staff were anxious that it should run smoothly with the minimum of hold ups. The twelve volunteers were the type normally recruited for the research, unemployed, shiftless people happy to be fed and kept warm for £75 per day. This system may not stand up fully legal scrutiny but Dr A had sanctioned it as the only viable way forward for this testing stage of the project.

In the entrance module the volunteers began to arrive and were received and processed by Paul and Wendy. Personal details were confirmed or captured, a brief health check done and then each one was invited to shower and change into a white overall. Once this process was complete a simple breakfast, provide by a catering agency was offered in the refectory room. The volunteers always gladly accepted this and it helped to set the tone for the rest of the day’s testing. Once fed Paul and Wendy called them together and gave them a brief presentation on their health and safety, their pay arrangements and the timetable of tests that would occur that day. Then each of the volunteers were taken into an individual soundproofed cubicle and left alone with a TV to watch and some tea, coffee and snacks. It had been some months since the last batch of human experiments had been carried out and today marked the restart and a vital new stage of the programme.

Of the twelve men (they were all men) six would be given a newly synthesised drug and six would be given a placebo. Paul and Wendy administered the drug via the refreshments and did not themselves know who had taken what, only Dr A knew. A remote body monitor (RBM) was fitted to each man to record his test reactions and feedback the vital physiological information Dr A required. All the team, including Dr A wore similar systems in order to provide base line and calibrate able data. It was all part of Dr A’s strict set of procedures as the use of human guinea pigs had to carefully monitored and controlled and results had to be backed up by a water tight testing process. By nine thirty all the administration had been done and the guinea pigs had been primed, the tests could now begin. Every man in his own cubicle was then shown a short series of violent and frightening images, some new, some familiar from TV and film archives and some from documentary sources. The images ran for two hours allowing the drugs to act and the individual’s time to desensitise (as usually happened) and react and hopefully forget they were being monitored.

A period of settlement and silence followed the film trial and then at twelve a light lunch was served within the cubicles, comfort breaks were given via an en-suit toilet every cubicle had. Once the lunch was over, the doors were electronically locked and cockroaches were dropped into each man’s room from a hatch in the rear wall, then ten minutes later six brown rats were released in a similar way. The temperature in each cubicle was raised gradually throughout the day also and fresh oxygen was denied them. By one thirty the cubicles were becoming very unpleasant places to be. Random loud bangs and disturbing noises followed the rodents and then a mixture of steamed urine and small amounts of carbon monoxide were released via the air system. Then a tannoy message was played to inform the volunteers that contrary to the brief they had been given they were not to be released and would remain in their solitary confinement indefinitely. It was usually at this point that a number of the men would begin banging and kicking on the walls and doors, desperate to get out. A long period of complete silence and the gradual dimming of the internal lighting followed this announcement.

In the lab the wall clock ticked on and on. The bare wall seemed to resonate and amplify it’s sound to coincide with the drop of every bead of sweat on Paul’s brow. Wendy noticed and was also uneasy, mirroring Paul’s nervousness and plain anxiety. For both the thought of the pain and torture, the slow build up of fear and the x-factor of the unknown that they were subjecting the twelve guinea pigs to was upsetting, necessary but upsetting. Of course the men were paid volunteers but really their choices in life were limited and if the best that they could get was the life of a human lab rat, what was that worth? She rationalised further, for the hundredth time that soon it would be over for them, they would get the balance of their money, counselling and some support and another meal and then return quietly to a life on welfare support, and if they spoke up who would care or listen anyway? These thoughts worked for a time but she still found it hard to detach, not to empathize or care for the twelve disciples of fear locked in their personal experimental prisons.

Dr A breezed in; he was speaking in Spanish to Ricardo who accompanied him. Both men were dark and Latin looking, wearing identical lab coats and deep in their technical conversation. Paul and Wendy remained outside of it for a few more minutes until Dr A barked an order at the waiting Paul. “I want you to maintain the silent period indefinitely, I want you to extend the monitoring!” Paul spluttered “But we’ve, they’ve agreed only to an eight hour stint you cant..”
“Paul, Paul.” Grinned Dr A “This experiment is far bigger than you or I or those gentlemen on whom we depend for our further research, there is greater good, a greater mission, a quest you must learn to respect. By all means consider the apparatus that you must use in your experiment, it has a clear value, but do not lose sight of the higher purpose for the sake of some minor worry that flits across the shadow that is your soul!” Paul stepped back and Wendy stepped forward. “Sir, we need to be clear that these men are willing to remain on during an extended experiment, we must respect their freedoms despite our own needs!” “Of course my dear” Continued Dr A “We shall, you shall, the rights of all are worthy of the highest respect, and these brave subjects shall be tested and significantly rewarded for the flexible attitude they are demonstrating”.

Paul broke in once more, “We cannot ask or offer them further choices while they are in the deprivation/stimulation cubicles!” Then Dr A spluttered back, “So we shall choose for them, it is an easy matter to resolve, now do as I say, and as I think you both know best!” Dr A wheeled around leaving Paul and Wendy speechless. The men in the cubicles had been subjected to the normal tests, all that they had been briefed to expect and a little more. Now more testing was to follow and an indefinite period of deprivation and escalation of fear as the drug kicked in or as it would in 50% of the examples - did nothing. Paul continued the tests as before for a further four hours. He could sense the pent up anger, fear and frustration the poor men within the cubicles must be suffering. He felt weak and hopeless in his job and angry with himself and the Doctor.

It was at this point that the building fire alarm, normally quiet, obedient and reliable chose to sound. Unexpectedly smoke began to filter in through the air handling system and a haze grew quickly before all eyes remaining in the experimentation area. The alarm system was connected by magnetic latches to all fire exits, main doors and guinea pig cubicles, on sounding all these doors automatically opened and obediently - today they did. For a few moments there was true chaos within the building. Despite being partly smoke blinded choking staff and scientists reacted well and began to try to shepherd the confused guinea pigs from the building. The guinea pigs however misunderstood the situation and believed it to be part of the test. Perhaps they thought that a reaction was required or only allowed themselves to follow the rules of simple ignorant blind panic. The staff were not prepared for the violent outbursts that followed the release of the trapped men. Panic driven scuffles broke out and precious seconds wasted. Dr A seemed to be singled out, burly hands and shoulders bundled him backwards against the escape currents and as the last guinea pig left his cubicle Dr A was flung into it’s open door. Nobody knows who in the thick smoke and screaming slammed the cubicle door, locking the Doctor in the rapidly smoke filling cell.

The confusion between release and escape ran on as if in slow motion. In reality it took less than a minute to get everybody from the smoke filled building and out onto the shingle and gravel surfaced car park. Everybody that was except Dr Alexander. The approaching fire brigade sirens could be heard over the noise of passing traffic. Henry was holding a clipboard and taking a role-call, repeating names and clicking his pen nervously. Behind him smoke and flickers of flame were steadily devouring the laboratory as the shocked and puzzled people sat stunned in its shadow. Paul knew right away that Dr Alexander had not made it.

The Fire Department had the blaze in the ancient ventilation system out in a few minutes, but it was the smoke that had done the damage as it had been sucked and pushed through the building. It was late afternoon when Dr Alexander’s body was brought out from the smoky cell, through the lab and into daylight. His asphyxiated body was hot and dirty with the smoke but not burned, the LED from his RBM still flashing a pale green working message from his belt. The staff argued over who had let him go, over what the guinea pigs had done and how it could have all been avoided but ultimately blame could not be easily apportioned anywhere.

A week later the coroner returned the RBM to the team who had returned to a small area in the building (without ventilation). Paul took the decision to hook the RBM to the docking equipment to see what Dr A’s readings were. “It would be what he would have wanted,” he reasoned to he remainder of the team (Spike and Ricardo were by now long gone). The green RBM pulsed as the information was downloaded, a graphic display began to run as the information flowed and fed the hungry fields. Paul clicked on the mouse and waited a few precious seconds; he gulped and gasped as the graph formed before him, clicking as it found each point on the scale and now forming a straight and horizontal line, a perfectly flat line. Dr A had died in alone in his metal tomb – unafraid.

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