Author Topic: Chapter 11  (Read 8950 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 11
« on: June 10, 2022, 02:58:35 AM »
Chapter 11

Listlessly, Vicky stared up at her ceiling. There was faint noise from the background of the other women in the cell block, but the only other thing she could hear was cards flipping.

That was her roommate, LaShanda. Somehow she'd gotten hold of a deck of cards just after arriving here, and had several forms of solitaire memorized. She was civil enough to live with, but very closed off. Apparently LaShanda had been in and out of juvie, and then prison, most of her life.

Vicky scratched at the wall next to her bed with her pen. It was metal, and the back end made for an adequate tool. It was a trope to mark her days in jail, but Vicky had gone along with this for all those reasons, including tropes. There. Tomorrow would be the end of week three.

Despite the news coverage of Bellstock she'd watched, and her own understanding of Archcrest before joining the prison population, Vicky had still been surprised at just how stark things were for the inmates. Somehow she'd gotten it into her head that prisons were built to rehabilitate people, but so far there had been no signs of anything like that.

There were no vocational training courses, and no means of getting a GED. The library was laughably understocked. There was a weekly therapy session led by Dr. Shalmers, the psychiatrist she'd helped to hire, but interest in it seemed limited at best. In fact, most of the day was just busy-work in the kitchen, the laundry, the storeroom, or outside tending to the grounds.

For the first time, Vicky was actually regretting that she'd insisted on everything being as realistic as possible here.

The prisoners themselves seemed to accept the conditions without question. Most of them had done time in other prisons, but at least two were newbies like her. Max's guards were firm and direct, but at least they weren’t unfair. Vicky still shuddered to think about the male guards back in Bellstock, torturing people for fun.

As for Vicky herself, things had gone mostly smoothly. She had attracted a few stares, especially on day one. When LaShanda and one of her friends had asked about her code, Vicky didn't know what to say. She'd tried to lie, but the code had stopped her. That had been a valuable experience too. It wouldn't allow her to take shortcuts in social interactions by lying to people.

In the end she'd settled on, "I don't want to talk about it right now, but I'll tell you eventually." Which was technically truthful. As soon as this experiment on her was over, she'd be free to tell all of them if they cared.

Fortunately the code had never stopped her from telling the truth. Even when telling the truth did hurt someone's feelings. She guessed it only worked that way because lying to them would hurt them even more.

Another surprising thing was how factional their small community immediately became. None of them had known any of the others before coming here, but they immediately divided themselves along racial lines. Vicky hadn't understood that at first, but LaShanda explained it late at night after everyone had gone to sleep.

"Out there, you got plenty of people telling you that race doesn't mean anything. That it doesn't really exist. People believe it because they've never actually been inside," she'd said bitterly. "In here, you got no choice but see how much it matters, because everyone's in your face every day. The guards here don't really care, but some of the places I've been, they're a lot harder on black folks and latinas than you guys. Nobody lasts long alone in prison, so you find your people right away. And skin is how you tell your people right away."

It was meaningful, if not exactly articulate. LaShanda could have been a philosopher or poet perhaps, if she hadn't been dumped into the system at age ten. And this wasn't even a supermax! Vicky knew if she was shut up in one of those, white skin or not, she'd probably have gone insane by now.

A baton rapped against the concrete partition on the edge of her cell. Groggily, Vicky looked that way. It was Henry Rawlins, the same guard who'd seen her just after the surgery. "Get up, Brandt. You got places to be."

"What's going on?" She mumbled, as she slid out of bed and down to the ground. Fortunately she was tall enough not to need the bunkbed's ladder all the time.

Henry sneered. "Just put on your shoes and come with me." He nodded to his left, and the cell door slid open.

Vicky shared a farewell nod with LaShanda as the door closed behind her. Henry moved behind her downstairs and out of the cell block.

"I'm so sorry, ma'am," he said hurriedly, once they had gone through the block door. "You know I'd never say that if-"

"It's fine, Henry," she assured him, gripping his shoulder. "You're doing your job. I'm sure you never thought your acting class back in college would come in handy on this job." She'd had a few conversations with him and the other guards before starting this in-person experiment.

He hesitantly smiled at that. "You're right about that."

Henry led her past the kitchens and into the old interview room, where she saw Max, Amir and Tom all waiting for her. There was also another man she didn't know, wearing an impressive suit and a cool appraising look on his face.

"Hey, guys. What's going on?"

Tom stepped forward. "This is Steven Perry, with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Steve, I'm sure you know about our engineer and first human test case."

"It's a pleasure, Miss Brandt," Steve said professionally, shaking her hand and gesturing to the chairs around the interview table.

"Good to meet you, too," she said cautiously. She glanced back in the direction of the cell block for a moment. "Is there some kind of problem with the experiment? I'm not supposed to be pulled out unless there's an emergency. The others will ask questions."

"The experiment is over, Miss Brandt. Or Andrea, if you prefer."

"I go by my middle name, actually,” she said automatically. “Just call me Vicky."

"Right. Well, after discussing things with your colleagues and your head of security, I'm confident I've gathered all I need from this case study of yours. Our researchers back in DC will keep going over the data of course, but they're sure it's time to expand this implant technology of yours to include more human trials. You’ve all done quite well with this project. Especially you, Vicky. A lot of people in our headquarters didn’t think your company would be able to pull it off, but you proved them wrong. Well done.”

Vicky wasn’t sure what to say. The experiment was done- just like that? “I haven’t even been in there three weeks yet! I was told it would take at least two months to get an accurate picture of how the code interacts with inmates.”

“It seems those estimates were overly generous,” Steve said smoothly. He gestured to a pile of manila files stacked on the table. “Now, my people have a list of potential candidates, and those are the people we feel would benefit most from this technology. I’d like the three of you to come back with me to DC, and help us expand on your project. We’ll need at least a dozen of these ‘codes’, and details on how to implant them surgically. Any materials and equipment you need will be in place by the time we get there.”

This was spiraling out of hand quickly. “Now wait just a minute-"

“I’m afraid that’s unacceptable, Mr. Perry,” Tom put in, giving Vicky a warning glance. “Or Steve, if you still prefer that. The design for the codes is still the property of BPH Corrections, and we’re not interested in selling it just yet. The data we’ve collected is also our property, along with the MEGs, the EM coils, and pretty much everything else in Archcrest that isn’t nailed down or cast in concrete. This facility is already set up and running, complete with surgical rooms, diagnostic equipment, interview rooms like this one, and housing facilities for several hundred subjects. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to bring the test subjects here instead of rebuilding all of this somewhere else?”

Steve looked a little surprised. It was clear he hadn’t been expecting this kind of resistance. He’d probably assumed that they would be grateful for the BOP's support, and would go along with their plans or risk getting their supply of test subjects cut off. Vicky felt a moment of shame for not seeing this coming. Of course he would feel that way. He was part of an organization so used to getting its way that he would just assume he could steamroll over anyone.

Tom’s behavior was concerning as well. He had cut her off, but then everything he’d said was in line with what Vicky would say. He was speaking for her, and it was demeaning. Still, it was probably because he thought Steve would react badly to be dictated to by a woman, nearly bald and still recovering from brain surgery. Was it sexist to use your male privilege to bypass sexism?

Steve’s expression darkened noticeably. “You’re asking for flexibility, Mr. Penderton, but the people I work with don’t bend easily. If you push them, they might decide to try and do this without you. Now that Vicky here has proven it’s possible, the chances are even higher. Are you prepared for that?”

“The people you work with are also reasonable businessmen,” Tom answered calmly. “I’ve been communicating with your office for months now. Oliver Corey and I have developed a fine working relationship, and we’ve got a profitable thing going here. I don’t think either of you want to just throw that away over minor details like where this project happens, or who our test subjects are. There’s always room for negotiation, right?”

It seemed likely there was also a financial incentive at work here. Steve was probably getting some kind of kickback for being a liaison between the BOP and Archcrest. Inwardly, Vicky couldn’t help but smile. Tom really did use every tool at his disposal. His history in business and politics, his white-collar upbringing in the way that he spoke, his maleness. All of it was a part of his persona, and it was effective. Even Amir seemed impressed.

Fortunately, it didn’t look like they were at an impasse. Now that Tom had made it clear they would not give up control of this project under any circumstances, Steve seemed to adopt a more conciliatory attitude. It took them another hour of collective talks to figure out the details, but when Steve finally left, he looked at least somewhat satisfied with the results.

“This is bad,” Amir said after he was gone. “They may be willing to wait for now, but they want the codes, and eventually they will try to take them. Some kind of legal injunction maybe, or just straight-up theft.”

“They still need us for now,” Tom said thoughtfully. “And BPH is a licensed company. They can’t just steal from us without opening themselves up to massive backlash. Every private company currently doing business with the BOP would have a horse in that race.”

“Now that I’m not a prisoner anymore, I’ve got some extra time. I can build codes from memory. I’ll delete all the files on the codes just to be safe, and I’ll build extra safeguards into the server down in the archive room. If they want our data, they’ll have to risk destroying it,” Vicky added on bitterly, and then paused. “I wonder why they want the code schematics so bad, though. There’s nothing ingenious about it alone. It’s where it’s implanted that really matters.”

“I wondered that myself,” Tom mused. “They probably assume it’s some new revolutionary technology that you came up with, and it’s the implant itself that makes the decisions of when and how to stop any behavior that’s ‘wrong’. The BT102 wasn’t that long ago, and as much trouble as it caused them, Oliver did say he was impressed by its design. Maybe they think you laid another golden egg.”

Vicky snorted. “So they’re willing to ignore me or override my decisions because I’m a woman, but they still think I invented some kind of artificial intelligence despite that? Figures.” She paused for a moment. “Amir, could you give us a minute? I need to talk to Tom in private.”

Amir gave them both a graceful nod and left the room. Down the hall, Vicky could make out his friend and former assistant Chen, who beckoned at him and they headed towards the operating room.

Vicky turned to Tom. “I need to apologize to you,” she said immediately. “When you first cut me off, and started speaking on behalf of me, I took it personally.”

He raised a hand to stop her, but at least it wasn't like before. “I never would have done that without your permission, though. I hope you know that. I just didn’t have time to warn you. Steve showed up without warning, and insisted on seeing you right away. That’s probably part of his negotiating strategy- trying to keep us on the defensive.”

Tom did sound apologetic, but not panicky. At least he recognized he’d overstepped some boundaries.

“I know,” Vicky said reassuringly. “That’s why I’m not upset or anything. I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. Actually, I’m proud of you for taking the risk and protecting our work regardless of how it might make you look.”

Tom quirked a smile. “People keep saying that to me. I’m not really sure what to do about it.” He opened the interview room door and waited until she was through before following. “Your room is waiting for you. Actually I’m set up down the hall next to Amir now. I’ll tell you about it on the way. Turns out Max is actually a grandfather.”

-.-

"How's it going in there?" Amir's voice filtered down into the server room.

It had been a few days since her incarceration, but Vicky was still glad to be back at work. She wasn't quite done working on the server, so she answered without scooting herself out to look up at Amir. "So far so good. I don't know much about encryption, but I can at least rig the server with one of those EM coils. If someone tries to download any of our information without shutting this off first, it all gets erased."

Amir's head hung down next to her, his hair balancing oddly sideways. "Can't they hack the server remotely once you turn it on?"

"Not anymore. I shut off remote access and removed the wireless connections from the machines themselves. It's like my code now: it can't send or receive information wirelessly."

"That's a relief. What about the specs for the code itself?"

"All erased. I can build more as needed, but as far as our oh-so-benevolent government overlords are concerned, my masterful ingenious world-changing invention exists now only in my own memory. I'm like the Eli Whitney of behavior modification."

Amir frowned, as he helped her up to her feet. "The cotton gin guy?"

"That's right. He didn't want his plans stolen, so he memorized and then destroyed them." Abruptly Vicky swayed a bit, and had to put a hand on the table to stay steady. "Whoa."

"Are you all right? Is it the code?"

"No, I remember what that headache feels like. This is just from me standing up too quickly. I'll be fine."

She turned on the servers to test if everything was all right, and started running a diagnostic program. Computer science wasn't her forte in any way, but she could at least upgrade the computers mechanically. "Any news on our new candidates for the code?"

Amir nodded. "One of them got here this morning. The other two are expected tomorrow. Dr. Shalmers will give them all a psych eval when they're here. Then we start brain scans and if everything checks out, pre-op procedures."

The diagnostic showed no problems, so Vicky shut it down and left the archives. On Amir's suggestion, they headed up to the kitchen to get a late meal. "Are we sure they're all volunteers? I doubt any of them is as crazy as I am."

"As sure as we can be. They're all lifers with violent histories, but each of their parole reviews indicated they've moved away from that. The last altercation any of them had was over two years ago, and it was minor. It looks like they're just trying to keep their heads down and not get in trouble anymore."

"If they're lifers, why did they agree to this? You think Perry offered them money to help test it?"

Amir flipped over a pair of chairs and set them at the table. The cleaning crew had been through here today, and lifted them up so they could vacuum. "I suppose it's possible. It's probably more of a plea bargain situation, though. From their files, it looks like their families have some trouble with the law as well. Oh, happy belated birthday, by the way."

Vicky smiled. "You remembered."

It had happened while she was still locked up with the other women, who had now all been told the truth. Vicky had then offered them the chance to join the study and get brain scans. Most had declined, and been shipped off to other prisons, but some were still considering it, including LaShanda.

Birthdays had always been a family affair in the Brandt household. Since she hadn't lived up in Minnesota for a long time, the more recent version usually involved a phone or video chat with her father. This year had been the exception. They'd talked for a while before she'd been 'locked up', but her birthday had passed unremarked.

By her, anyway. It seemed Amir was taking it more seriously. From one of the upper cabinets, he brought out a gift and placed it on the table. "I knew what to get, but Tom was the one who had it sent here. He's got connections that made it possible. He'd be here too, it's just he had to fly up to DC to meet with Oliver Corey to finalize details."

"I get it," Vicky said, picking up the box curiously. It was small but heavy. "He never really cared about birthdays as much as I do. Neither of you do, really."

On Amir's urging, she unwrapped and opened it. Inside was a clear crystal, square in shape but wider than her hand. Grinning, Vicky lifted it up and looked at the ceiling light through it. The light split in two, with shadings of red and orange between them. "This is great! Calcite, right?"

Amir nodded. "It's called Iceland spar. It was used by the Vikings to help them navigate back in the day. Given that you're setting the course for our proverbial ship, and you love geology, it seemed fitting."

Vicky moved the crystal to look at him, and suddenly there were two Amir faces, partially superimposed on each other. "Iceland, huh? No wonder you needed Tom's help to get it. Thank you so much. This will be a big addition to my collection!"

Amir smiled, his face coloring just a little, and opened the fridge. "There's a small cake, too, but it's not really complete anymore. I think one of the guards may have taken a slice or two. Or Max's grandson. His mom showed him around about a day ago.

"It's perfect," Vicky said, and meant it. A moment of silence passed between them, and Vicky knew that it was time.

"Amir, there's been something I've been thinking about for a long while now. It sort of ties into my code. I suppose I could use it to test the code."

Amir's eyebrows raised slightly. "We've put you through hundreds of minor tests by now. Did we miss something?"

Not giving herself any time to hesitate, Vicky moved close and kissed him. They were both standing, and he took half a step back, but she could tell it was because of balance and not reluctance or confusion.

It went on for a few seconds, before she stopped and pulled back a bit. With a breath of relief, she looked him in the eyes. "I had to do that. And I think I had to wait until I had a code. If it was wrong, in any way, the code would have stopped me. It didn't." She paused. "I know you don't usually take the initiative. You don't need to say or do anything about this. If it makes it easier I'll just head out right now, and go get some sleep. I just wanted you to know. That's all."

She started to move away, but he took her hand before she got too far. "I knew. Before, I mean. I've.. wondered about it for a long time now." He took a deep breath. "I'm glad your code didn't stop you. And you're right: it's something that definitely needed testing. Physical and emotional relationships are an important part of being rehabilitated from prison life. The trouble is.. if I had a code, it would have stopped me."

"Oh." Realization came over Vicky like cold water running down her spine. "Oh! Is there- someone else?" Visions of Amir's former classmates, friends from med school, even the other inmates she'd just left, flashed through her head one after another.

"No! Not in the way that you think, anyway," he said quickly. "A code would have stopped me.. because I'm engaged."

Those last three words didn't quite get through at first. Of all the platitudes and rationalizations that he might have come up with to try and make her feel better, that hadn't been one of them. "You're what now?"

She realized suddenly she was sitting down on the table, with the Iceland spar next to her, as if mocking her with its presence.

He sighed. "Her name is Ruth Eigner. She lives over in Tel Aviv. Her parents and mine have been friends for a very long time. They made the arrangements a few years ago, and Ruth and I have been communicating ever since. The last time I saw her in person was when I was a kid, though. I doubt I could have picked her out of a crowd."

"And you agreed to this? I thought you hated your parents. Didn't they insist that you stay in Israel, and be a doctor there?"

"I don't hate them," he said helplessly. "I respect them. And I'm grateful for everything they've done for me. I had no reason to refuse. Despite what I said, I wasn't sure about anything until you.. did that."

The pieces were finally coming together. Amir had been working with Devin Chen for weeks now, familiarizing him with the procedures. He would only do that if he knew he wouldn't be around to do them himself. Also, Amir had been willing to put his life on hold in the first place, in order to join her and Tom with this project. That hadn't been out of loyalty to them or a spirit of adventure, though. It was because he had known he had no future in this country, and wanted to help them before he left! Now that she thought about it, even his birthday gift felt more like a farewell gift!

"You said you've been communicating with her," Vicky went on after a moment. "Are you.." She couldn't quite bring her self to say 'in love'. "Are you going to marry her, as planned?"

Amir shook his head. "I can't anymore. A code would stop me," he joked. "I.. was ambivalent about it before, but I decided there wasn't much to keep me here, now that the code has been proven at least partially successful. I told myself that I might someday come to love her, though it might not happen that way. She's remarkable: smart and driven like you, but a bit bossy too. Someone who could get along well with my parents. And I owe them a lot. Marrying her would have gone a long way towards proving myself to my father."

"You shouldn't have to-" Angrily, Vicky stopped herself. Just because she had a loving father who was perfectly fine with her moving far away didn't mean everyone did. Suddenly she was wondering if her father really was fine with it, or had just said that to spare her feelings.

Amir only smiled sadly. "I know. The wedding is scheduled for January, but I'll go back early. I have to cancel everything, and I have to tell them in person. They deserve that much. Ruth does too."

Feeling a mixture of relief and remorse, Vicky hung her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to throw your life into chaos like this."

He chuckled. "You already did that when you got us started on this path, remember? Sometimes chaos is exactly what people need. Besides, I'd rather walk a risky path with people I love, than a stable one with people I merely like. Or in my father's case, tolerate."

Suddenly he turned to her and his stance changed from joking and wistful to serious. "I don't know exactly how I feel about you. You're my best friend, and I value that deeply. I don't know if any relationship between us has a future. It may not- relationships are always risky in that way. But I do know I want to explore that possibility. Is that enough of an answer for you, for now anyway?"

Vicky nodded, again not quite sure what to say. As it turned out there wasn't any need for words. They just leaned on the table together, eating cake with tiny plastic forks. Vicky tried to relax there next to him, feelings of guilt over what she'd done to Ruth- a woman she'd never even met- mixing with relief that he wasn't actually leaving, mixing with joy that he might feel the same. It was a kaleidoscope, much like the colors filtering through that crystal on the table.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 04:00:29 AM by Daen »