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August 13, 1962
John Clark stood by a lab table, as usual deep in thought and oblivious to the low murmur of activity that was all around him.
He was ancient, by outward appearance. His true age of 62 lay heavily upon him; a stranger passing him on the street might have thought him in his late seventies. His face was carved with wrinkles borne by long years of care and disappointment. His body was slight and stooped, the result of a lifetime of bending slightly over lab tables similar to the one he hovered over this day.
Today might have been, to the casual observer, little different from the long tale of his life. He wrestled with figures, ran experiments, theorized and thought. He was the first one to have come in that morning, and was likely to be the last one to leave, save perhaps one—an assistant of his, Dennis Mason, who was by far his most promising protégé in years.
Clark was at this moment, however, pondering a set of data he received that for the first time showed promise in his overall designs. His eyes were fixed on a clipboard in his right hand, and with his left he held a yellow pencil to his mouth. He had a habit of biting off the eraser to all his pencils and leaving neat rows of teeth marks on the upper two inches of his pencil.
The data he was pondering had to do with the project that had consumed the last eighteen years of his life—an analysis of brainwave activities of subjects in deep REM sleep. Today’s triumph was that he was able, for the first time, to concretely isolate the behavior of a sleeping brain from that of its waking counterpart, to determine beyond doubt the fingerprint of the dreaming man versus the random firings of a vast, complex system that never completely shut off even during sleep, coma, or severe trauma.
This set of data proved that he was on the right path. He was able to isolate several areas of the brain that displayed low, discernable patterns of activity during waking hours yet seemed to explode in chaotic, meandering trails on his paper when a subject was in deep sleep and dreaming.
His ultimate goal, still a long ways afield, was twofold: To isolate which signals came not only from a dreaming subject but from the dream itself; and to record this activity in a way that could be stored and reproduced at a distance, to allow for remote analysis of these brainwaves. It certainly seemed to him that the first part of his goal had been approached, if not yet reached.
It was a rare moment of triumph for him, and though neither face nor body language betrayed it, his pulse raced and his heart thudded in his chest. A scientist whose life’s work has been validated knows few thrills more deep than this, and he allowed himself a rare daydream of all his work ending in stunning, complete success. He saw himself making a speech to his peers accepting a Nobel Prize, speaking at colleges and universities whose students and faculty hung on his every word, picking and choosing his next experiments and receiving for his assistance only the finest young minds and skillful hands.
So it was that, deep in his trance of thought and speculation, daring for the first time to actually believe that a long step had been made on his road, he noticed neither that the activity around him had ceased nor that the sun had long since set, capping the end of a beautiful summer day that he marked little and cared about not at all.
A hand on his shoulder startled him from his reverie and he looked up to see his assistant, Dennis Mason, holding out a cup of coffee to him in an ancient ceramic mug. His lab coat was, as usual, disheveled but clean, and his glasses hung so far toward the tip of his nose that it was a wonder they stayed on.
“Thanks,” Clark said, and took a loud slurping sip. The coffee was more bitter than usual, and after a few seconds he noticed that his lips were numb. He looked up with a start.
“I’m sorry, John,” Dennis said to him. “But it’s time.”
“You?” said John. Dennis nodded, sadly it seemed to him. “Son of a bitch,” he said softly, almost to himself. “I had no idea.”
“You have about eight minutes. Do you want to call anyone?”
“Yes, please.” Dennis walked to the other side of the room and brought a telephone with a long cord to him. Clark dialed the phone and waited a moment.
He could feel the poison already starting to work. His heart rate had been elevated already, lost as he was in dreams of triumph and glory. Knowing what was coming only made his heart thud faster, betraying what little time he had left.
“Hello, honey, it’s me. Listen, I wanted to tell you something.” He paused. It occurred to him that he didn’t know what exactly to say. He knew enough to know that if he were stupid enough to blurt out what had happened to him that the phone would have been ripped from him and his life ended right there. He couldn’t even make a maudlin proclamation of love without arousing suspicion.
Finally, after having to sit down from the effect of the poison coursing through his veins, he continued.
“So, I’ll be home in about two hours,” he finished, and his inability to say anything more profound left him feeling impotent and small. “OK? So I’ll see you soon.” He paused. “I love you, Jeanine.” He closed his eyes. “Bye.” He hung the phone up and looked at Dennis.
“Will you be taking over?” he asked, a little faintly.
“No, it’s not my role to conduct. Only to oversee, and to transfer the work when any one man gets too close. You did well, John, and if it’s any consolation, you have the gratitude of the government for your service.”
Now the poison had been working for some time. His vision tunneled in and his breath came in low pants.
“Jeanine?” he asked with an obvious effort.
“Well taken care of. We’ll pay off the house and continue your stipend until she dies.”
John nodded almost imperceptibly. After another minute, he leaned against the back of the chair. “Son of a bitch,” he repeated in that same faraway tone, and died.
Dennis strode to the window and with the blinds gave a signal long arranged. Less than two minutes later four men in protective equipment came in and started cleaning up. In four hours any evidence that the room had ever been occupied was removed utterly.
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