“So, gentlemen: this is our first subject. Our pioneer, if you like. Meet Patient Zero.”
Professor Austin addressed his two students. One of whom, Verity noticed, was female.
The Professor’s voice was lower and more carefully-spoken than Verity remembered: she wondered if he had the ‘flu. She stared blankly at the wall behind his left shoulder.
There was Jamila in her damask robes, turning her chair round and getting out her little book for morning prayers. She put a shawl over her head. Verity wished she could do the same; she was finding it hard not to smile at her own ingenuity.
“Helen, Jamila,” she had said earlier, over breakfast, “I don’t know if I ever told you, but I volunteer for experiments. As a, er, subject. And I heard yesterday that these guys, the latest lot, they’ve just got their grant money through. They’re psychologists. Or psychiatrists, I can’t remember.”
“Are they coming here, to the ward?”
“Yes.” Verity looked into her empty breakfast bowl. “I’m really sorry_”
“What are they going to do?” asked Jamila.
“Just...look at me and, try and talk with me. It’s like a Turing Test_”
Helen looked up. Verity could tell she’d never heard of such a thing.
“They’ve got, fifty real mental patients, and fifty of us who’ve got nothing wrong with us. And we’ve got to pretend to be, you know, one thing short of a wotnot, and then without doing any physical tests, like brainwaves and stuff, they’ve got to tell the real ones from the, er,”
Verity grinned. “Yeah. Players.”
“So I take it your sponsored silence_”
“Ooh thanks, yes, that’s a point!”
She took down the notice about Amnesty International. “Yes: I’ve not really much choice have I..?”
“You must be mad.” Helen had said.
The Professor came around beside Verity’s bed, pulled up a chair and sat down. He leaned in.
“Hello, Verity.” He spoke slowly and carefully, looking right into her eyes.
Verity stared blankly past him and out of the window.
“Do you remember who I am?”
“Judge your honour...” said Verity in a monotone. She noticed the male student snigger.
“Can you hear_”
“Hear...” Verity echoed.
The female student came over.
“Can you remember your name?”
“My...prayer...” Verity remembered to squint: disconcert them. The female student backed off a little.
“Yes: Player, that’s right.” said the male student with a smile that even Verity could see was fake. “Verity,” he looked down at his clipboard, “Imelda, Player.” She decided she didn’t like him. She stared straight in his eyes and announced:
“I’ve just cut my good man’s throat.”
She saw Helen grinning and stifling a laugh. Thankfully Jamila was still in deep communion with The Merciful.
The Professor’s right hand flashed up to slap Verity, but her own left arm moved quicker to block: defence.
“Self-preservation.” said the male student. “Surely getting rid of the drive for self-preservation will prove more difficult than the work done so fa_”
“And what, exactly, would you know about these complex cognitive processes, hmm? Of the statistical calculations involved in analysing and modifying them? Of the search, the screening, the vetting, for the ideal, first subject? Ewan?
Verity noticed ‘Ewan’s ears turn red.
“Send me to the ‘lectric chair!” she ordered.
The Professor turned pale. He got up and left the bay, followed by his two students. Verity watched them out of the ward door until it had closed.
“They’ve gone”, she said.
The Colonel walked in with a coffee.
“Oh, thank you.” She smiled up at him.
“You were damn good!”
“Thank you, Colonel. Have you met Helen and Jamila, by the way?”
The Colonel’s eyes widened on seeing Jamila.
“Is that a real, y’know, Moslem?”
“Yes. She’s praying.”
“Well, OK. Now, let’s talk about Cassie. Methods: tactics. You ‘member the tone?”
Verity hummed it.
“She ain’t gonna get scared off like your Prof, and she ain’t got a stinkin’ hangover neether_”
“Was he hung over?”
“Sure, couldn’t you tell? ‘Mazed you didn’t get tipsy just sittin’ near the guy.”
“In. No I wasn’t. Trusted ya to do a good job. You play soccer don’tcha? Defense.”
“One-up at half-time, huh? Whatcha gotta do now?”
“Er...keep my nerve.”
“Sure. Defend good. I can go in and tell if you’re losin’ it, if ya like. If it don’t disconcert ya.”
“What could you do, though? If I_”
“Sit in the lounge there, line o’sight, and give y’a signal. Biofeedback.”
“That might help actually, yes.”
Verity spent the rest of the morning on-edge. Just before lunch she went to the window and looked, once more, at the evil Plant Building. Recalled the lad she had seen in Helen’s chair. Decided not to tell Helen about it: thankfully everybody had slept right through the fracas.
She grasped the handle to open the window. No infrasound today.
And screamed out loud:
“Oh my God!! Infrasound! Hertz! Six!! That lad...Six Hertz!! Bloody hell! Am I thick or what??”
When she turned round to apologise to Helen and Jamila, she slammed straight into Cassie.
Can love beeee...
She hummed the tone in her head: block Cassie’s signal.
She couldn’t see the Colonel. She didn’t know how a broken person should walk. She recalled the R.T.I. video she'd watched last year, took its advice about emergency situations and collapsed.
Cassie knelt beside her. Someone's footsteps headed for the Nurses’ Station.
“Are you OK?” Cassie’s voice. Footsteps headed in towards her.
“All the excitement proving a bit too much for us, is it?” Dr Wheeler’s voice. “General, I think we’d better allow Mrs Player a bit of quiet, hadn't we?”
Cassie wouldn’t budge.
“Thud.” said Verity.
Cassie’s footsteps receding.
Dr Wheeler knelt beside Verity, but she could tell his attention lay elsewhere. She heard the ward door close.
“Well done,” said Dr Wheeler, putting down Verity's discharge report and medications so as to offer her a hand up.
“I think we had her fooled, don’t you?”
“I think we had her fooled, don’t you?”
Verity couldn’t quite believe her ears.