“What do they sound like?”
“You know who.”
“Instinct and The Narrator.”
“Yeah.” Rainer took a long swig from his energy drink, and the slim-proportioned aluminum can caught a blaze of oncoming traffic, leaving me with a headlight-shaped after-image I couldn’t seem to blink away.
Rainer said, “I can’t believe I haven’t asked before this, actually. I’m going to be so pissed off if The Narrator has had an English accent this whole time and you didn’t tell me.”
“Drama, amigo. English accents make everything seem more meaningful. A cultural artifact of our colonial ancestry. As much as we hem and haw about the malleable superiority of so-called American English, we’ll always have an inferiority complex to those old-world monarchists.”
“How is that more dramatic?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m very on subject right now. This is the exact and only topic of the conversation, in fact.”
“The topic is ‘what do the voices sound like?’ Don’t be all shifty about it.”
“I’m not being shifty. They sound like, I don’t know.”
Cain realized he’d never consciously thought about how the voices in his head, twin forces that had so dramatically impacted every aspect of his life, actually sounded. Cain wasn’t sure they sounded like anything he could identify and explain. They were more like a feeling; the tingle at the back of one’s neck when watched; the certainty that something bad is about to happen; the thrill of danger faced and conquered, or knowledge sought and accumulated.
“I don’t think they have a ‘sound,’ per se. No accent or anything. It’s almost like an internal dialogue, you know?”
“Trialogue,” Rainer said.
“Right. It’s like thinking. You can’t really say what you sound like in your own head, but you can ‘hear’ yourself think.”
“So it’s like voices in your head that aren’t voices. Personalities without personality.”
“Uhm, yeah, I guess.”
“Almost like your mind is wandering.”
“What are you getting at?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing in particular. Just trying to suss it all out. An element of the whole thing I wasn’t clear on. I mean, it was a pretty action-packed exit, wasn’t it? Our leaving LA?”
“I guess. A bit.”
“Dude, the doc applied your brain waves to other peoples’ brains, and the owners of those brains flipped out. Convulsed. A monk and a supermodel were convulsing on the floor. At our feet.”
“I don’t think Sand is actually a model…” I said.
“A very modelesque woman, then. One who doesn’t age because she’s full of modelesquing nanobots or whatever.”
“Okay? Dude! You haven’t said a word about it. It’s been two days, plus the hours we’ve been on this bus, and we’ve only got the overnight part of the journey left before we arrive in Smithton, and we haven’t talked about this at all. Do you know how difficult it’s been for me to hold back and not discuss this very cool but kind of crazy thing that happened?”
“What is there to say?” I asked.
Rainer mimicked my voice. “What is there to say?” He huffed a little, the way he always did when he felt he was the only sane person in a discussion. “Cain, buddy, I have to tell you, I think you’re in denial or something. There’s so much to extrapolate from what happened at the lab that I don’t even know where to start. I can’t even begin to fathom a starting place, the explorable area is so vast. Like Yosemite.”
“It’s a really big park.”
Yosemite National Park was established on October 1, 1890, and consists of nearly 750,000 acres of protected wilderness. A small portion of the park was initially set aside by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, to protect the Yosemite Valley from development. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, later petitioned to expand the park’s reach, increasing the area many times over and leading to the establishment of the US national parks system.
“I know Yosemite,” I said. “What’s the non-state-park vast explorable area you’re talking about?”
Rainer gulped the last of his energy drink and tried to flatten the can, pancaking it between his hands. The pressure only caused the middle to buckle, though, and he made a disappointed face before setting the half-crushed container down on the adjacent seat. “How about the fact that we now know your brain is the source of these voices, and not some kind of device tucked away in the folds therein?”
I could feel my face scrunch up. “Did we think that was a possibility?”
“We thought many things, Cainerino. Many things. Among them, the possibility that you may have had a chip planted in your head, and that someone might have been communicating with you through said chip.”
“You never mentioned this to me.”
“If I did, and I was right, then the chip-people would have known I knew, and may have tried to take me out.”
“But now that you know that’s not the case…”
“…I can safely bring it up.” Rainer spread his hands, as if explaining the sum of a simple math problem to a kindergartner. “Which is great, because I was a little concerned for a while there. That you might go all ninja on me or something. These things happen.”
“When and where and for who have these things happened?” I asked.
“MKUltra, for one.”
An evolution of the US government’s Project Paperclip, through which agents recruited Nazi scientists post-World War II to glean what they had learned doing extensive human testing, Project MKUltra was a CIA human research operation dealing with human behavioral engineering.
The project officially ended in 1973, but during its over twenty years in existence, researchers experimented on unwitting US and Canadian citizens from many different angles, including the secret administration of LSD and other drugs, hypnosis, sexual abuse, sensory deprivation, isolation, and torture.
A multitude of theories exist about the true purpose behind MKUltra. As many of the documents related to the program were destroyed by then-head of the CIA, Richard Helms, in 1973, it’s difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a rich world of conspiracy around the project.
Though MKUltra was aimed at manipulating human subjects’ actions, there’s no evidence that anyone involved ever had a microchip surgically implanted in their brain. Since the first microprocessors were built around the same time MKUltra was being shut down, it seems unlikely that the technology would have been available to make that kind of experiment feasible.
“They didn’t plant chips in people’s brains during MKUltra,” I said.
“Not that we know of.”
“What else? What other theories?”
“Well,” Rainer said, “how about the notion that this might be something more than just some kind of awesome schizophrenia? What if you were, like, adopted? And your parents took you in, because your real parents knew you’d be hunted. By the government. Or by foreign agents who…”
‘Schizophrenia’ is actually characterized by hallucinations and delusions. ‘Dissociative identity disorder,’ popularly referred to as ‘multiple personality disorder,’ is the mental anomaly characterized by more than one personality being housed in a single brain.
“Nothing, just being schooled by one of my mind voices about mind voices. Apparently ‘schizophrenia’ wouldn’t be the right word for it, if that theory were legit.” I leaned back against the cold bus window and swiveled my legs toward the aisle. “And as for all these theories: this isn’t a comic book. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life. There are no hidden forces building super soldiers and…”
“Except for Steinberg,” Rainer said.
I paused. “…Except for Steinberg.”
“And Tyrone Carson, the ‘beige man’ running The Commons.”
“…And him. Kind of.”
“No way. He’s with Steinberg. He doesn’t count.”
“He does count. You know he’d be doing what he’s doing, with or without the doc,” Rainer said. “That man’s the cybernetic equivalent of Strauss and his plastic surgery addiction. No way he sits on the sidelines if Steinberg retires.”
I tried to change the subject. “Can you imagine Steinberg retiring? What do you even do with yourself after being so…driven? Involved? Breaking the law to do what you’re passionate about?”
Rainer said, “I can’t imagine it, because I think it’s his destiny.”
“Pfft, come on, Rainer, you don’t believe in destiny.”
“Not in the religious sense, maybe. But in the sense of having something you’re built for on the genetic level and also happen to come into contact with sometime in your life? That type of synchronicity has got to be rare.”
Rainer leaned back in his chair and stared out the window. “You’re right that I don’t believe in the faith-based, hokey-pokey kind of destiny. But at a certain point, the odds are so slim, and the combination of factors so great, that you can’t help but wonder what we would do without these people-plus-circumstance sums.” He sat back up and waved his index fingers around, then swung them together. “The combination of the right person, the right field of study, and the right time.” He made an explosion motion with his hands, and an explosion sound with his mouth. “Kablammmmmoooooo-whoooooooooosh.”
I smiled, settled back into my chair, and stared out my window. I listened to the grinding of the bus’ rusted components rasping against each other, the result of parts with a purpose combined in a non-ideal way. I said, “Most people, I think, are kind of like this bus. Just non-ideal, flawed parts thrown together, achieving the bare minimum, but nothing more. I think the right combination of nature and nurture is probably really rare. How often does a mind like Steinberg’s come around? Once in a generation? And how often is a person with such a mind raised in an environment that encourages its growth?”
Rainer’s eyes had started to droop, despite the energy drink. As he drifted off to sleep in his tacky fabric and naugahyde chair, he said, “Take a look in a mirror, amigo. It might be rare, but it happens.”