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Chapter 8


Chapter 8

The bus ride from Illinois was a long one. Twelve-plus hours on a bus with twenty convicted criminals wasn't exactly what Tom considered to be a relaxing journey. Granted, none of them were violent offenders, but they still had to be secured for transport. The guards took care of that with practiced ease. There were two Correctional Officers or COs, a Lieutenant, and then Sergeant Greaves in charge with them on the bus.

Greaves was a longtime veteran in the BOP, having worked in at least a dozen prisons over the last thirty years. Still, during his interview Tom had gotten the distinct impression that Greaves didn't like his job much. The older man had seemed relieved to be in charge of a carefully vetted, consistently nonviolent group of criminals. That was just Tom's assumption, though. Greaves had never spoken much about his personal life, but according to his file his own father had died in a prison much like the one they were leaving here.

Amir was on the bus too, fiddling with one of the MEGs on one of the prisoners' heads. Tom watched him lean precariously over one prisoner as he did so. "Would you sit down already? If this bus does any kind of turn you'll be swaying all over the place."

Amir gave him a wry look. "This is a rare opportunity to gather data while we're traveling. Whatever they see and hear will affect the readings, so I want to make sure these four MEGs keep working for the whole journey. I just wish Vicky had been able to reinforce more for the trip." He paused. "Where is she, anyway? I haven't seen her since yesterday."

"She and the other technicians flew down to Archcrest- that's the new name of our Alabama facility- yesterday. It's livable enough for now, but she wanted to make sure those EM coil things were in place before we got there." Tom glanced back at the middle of the bus, where a cylindrical case had been bolted to the floor. "What are those things for, anyway? I never did get an answer from Vicky about that. Not one I understood, that is."

"Oh. Um.. well, the MEGs are made to read electromagnetic changes in the brain as the subjects do whatever it is they do during an ordinary day. Trouble is, the earth has a pretty big EM field already, running from pole to pole. That coil is basically turning this whole bus into an electromagnetic dead zone, so that we can get clear readings. Vicky rigged it with a battery just like the MEGs themselves. She also had to alter the bus' own electronics so the engine could start with that thing nearby." He tapped his laptop. "She had to adjust these as well, so that the EM coil doesn't mess with the computers. That's why I asked you to turn your phone off, too."

Tom nodded sagely, pretending he understood all that. There was a distinct tone of admiration in Amir's voice, as there always was when he talked about Vic. It was clear he had feelings, but he was usually too distracted by their work, or just too shy to say anything.

Tom had entertained notions about her once too, just after they'd all graduated. She was kind, brilliant, and beautiful. Most people with her skills would have tried to get a masters in electrical engineering, but she had been eager to test her skills, and had gone looking for work as soon as possible. Sadly, she was also a farm kid from Minnesota. His parents had been pretty clear that they had set much higher sights for him.

Thinking back on those days still caused a twinge of regret, even though it had been years now. His parents had been incensed by his sudden decision to quit politics entirely. They hadn't understood, but then how could they? Tom himself had been terrified about the future, and those doubts had taken a long time to fade.

"Did you get a chance to look over those building plans I sent you?" He asked Sergeant Greaves, trying to pass the time and distract himself a little.

Greaves nodded curtly. "That place is built for hundreds, and we only have twenty for now. If the renovations are in place by the time we arrive, there shouldn't be any problems."

"They are. Part of our deal with Coleman-Saito Industries included their help getting Archcrest ready in time. Have you ever worked with any corporate security people before?"

"A few times, but they were basically rent-a-cops. I've never worked with that company before." There was a clear question in there.

"They're professional enough," Tom clarified for him. "I made sure they know you're calling the shots until we can hire more COs to pick up the slack."

Greaves' mouth twitched slightly: the closest he ever came to a smile. "Good call."

"I'm curious. What do you think of this brain-mapping project of ours? I never hear you or the other guards talking about it."

"I'm no scientist," Greaves shrugged. "If you want to tinker with peoples' heads and figure out how they work, that sounds good. As long as they're willing."

"They are. I went to a lot of effort to make sure they get shorter sentences and better treatment to make up for how annoying those headsets have to be. Did you ever consider trying one on, though? I did, when they were first being built."

"Not a chance. But Hartman and Khan were talking about it. You might want to ask them."

Those were the two COs Greaves had brought on when he'd been hired. They were young and inexperienced, but disciplined. Greaves had worked with both before, and vouched for them. Tom resolved to talk to Vicky about both of them when they arrived. Now that Coleman-Saito was on board, they had the resources to build a bunch more MEGs, and he was sure Amir would approve of having non-criminal subjects as well, even if they probably wouldn't wear the MEGs every waking minute.

Speaking of increasing their numbers. "We're gonna need to bring in more inmates- and guards, I guess- over the next few months. Some of them will definitely have violent crimes on their record." He paused briefly. "I'm not ashamed to admit I'll need help with them. Would you be willing to sit in on their interviews? I'm used to dealing with politicians and businessmen. They may be just as ruthless as the people I'll be meeting at Archcrest, but it's a different kind of ruthlessness."

Greaves looked at him in surprise. "If you think my input would be helpful, sure. Usually I'm just the guy watching them, not the guy deciding if they belong here."

"Trust me. When it comes to our inmates, I'll be needing your gut instinct a lot more than mine."


The next few months saw a remarkable transformation take place at Archcrest.

As part of Tom's deal with Coleman-Saito Industries, CS technicians and security were all over the prison from day one. Vicky did her best not to interfere with their duties, and was repeatedly surprised by the deference they showed her. They worked with her as the prison population tripled.

Most of the new inmates took well to their new circumstances, but there had been a few incidents with some. One had even struck her hours after being brought in. She'd carried a black eye after that, and refused to cover it up. Vicky wasn't sure if she was just being stubborn or if it was some kind of statement that she wouldn't be intimidated, but she felt a strange sense of pride about it.

Tom had discussed terms with their CEO Kenshi Saito without consulting her, but he hadn't agreed to anything without her. It was stepping close to the line, but not over it. Vicky was willing to let it go.

One of those terms was that any advancement they made that could be used to treat physical disorders in the brain like epilepsy, or mental disorders such as schizophrenia, had to be handed off to CS once verified. That had been an easy one to agree to. It was ironic that her earlier work in dealing with physical pain had inspired designs which had been sold so that she could now work on mental pain.

While the behavioral centers of the brain were her primary focus- or actually Amir's because most of this was Greek to her- they were still gathering tons of data on the rest of the brain. That stuff could be handed off without any problems.

Most of the time, the prisoners were allowed to go about their business normally as long as they wore the MEG. Max- or Sergeant Greaves as he insisted on being called by everyone else- had set up a mostly normal prison schedule of activities for them. It included basic tasks for busy work, such as vocational skills ranging from landscaping to maintenance to laundry. It was important that every detail from those activities be recorded, so Vicky had put a camera and mic inside each MEG.

They also had to fill out questionnaires with what-if scenarios, and the cameras caught which answers they gave as the MEGs recorded any unusual activity.

In her research on behavior theory, Vicky had read about an infamous 'obedience test' back in the 60s which had caused a pretty big splash. It seemed perfect for their purposes, as the experiment required someone to think they were inflicting pain on someone else. She wanted to recreate it, but Amir had talked her out of it. Apparently it was still considered ethically questionable to this day, and even Tom was against it. He was worried that Mr. Saito might end their partnership if they got any bad press.

And it was a valuable partnership- Vicky had to admit that. Not only had they outfitted Archcrest with a ton of new equipment, they were also paying dividends on the potential cures to mental disorders that had been cooked up. Vicky, Amir, and Tom weren't rich yet, but they were definitively better off now than before.

That was what worried her the most, actually. Etani had been paying her, too. Vicky lived in constant fear that some news story would air someday, reporting that some Coleman-Saito product had been used to torture or violate people in some way.

It was why Vicky insisted on setting up the equipment herself. All monitoring data went through her first, before being divided and sent out either to Amir or to the CS people. It took up an extra few hours each day, but it was well worth it to her.


One of those nights she and Amir were in the archive room and one of them, or perhaps both, made a breakthrough. They had been studying the lateral frontal pole in the prefrontal cortex (a phrase which Vicky had learned only through repetition) for months now, and a trend was finally starting to emerge.

"We've gone through thousands of different incidents by now," Amir said tiredly, stifling a yawn. "From when Stillman hit you in the face all the way to Carson yelling at his wife when she visited, and everything in between. In almost every case, just before the act a corresponding spike is triggered right there. That has to be it!"

"I think you're reaching here," Vicky said, feeling gingerly at her eye. The bruise had faded, but the memory was still sharp. What Carson had done left an impression, too. His poor wife had been in tears by the time the guards had intervened. At least he hadn't struck her. "There are over a hundred cases here that should have triggered that spike and didn't."

"And we interviewed the inmates about each of them. When asked, they said they weren't sure about their intentions. This is definitely more than a correlation here." He yawned again, and Vicky smiled.

She enjoyed the time they'd been spending together in this room, though clearly he was oblivious about exactly why. And he had a point. From what she knew about statistics, this was definitely significant. "You're tired. Go on upstairs and get some rest. I need to process today's data and divide it up anyway."

"There you are," Tom said from the doorway before Amir could respond. "It's good you're both still up. I've got some.. news from Coleman-Saito's legal department."

His expression was serious. Glancing at Amir, Vicky gestured Tom inside. "What's going on?"

Tom sighed. "Apparently the Federal Bureau of Prisons is ending their business arrangement with Coleman-Saito. As a result, CS is shutting us down. We've been instructed to get our inmates ready for transport to other facilities. By this time next week, Archcrest will be emptied out."

Vicky took a deep breath, not trusting herself to speak. "Why, though?" Amir asked angrily. "I thought they didn't care how many inmates we had here, as long as they were up to national prison standards."

"They don't. Officially, this is the result of a 'new direction' on the part of the Department of Justice, and has nothing to do with us. Unofficially, it seems they're not willing to risk legal liability by associating with my private prison company. My guess is they found out about your involvement with the BT102, and are panicking. The press they got from Bellstock was bad enough- they're probably not willing to risk it happening again."

She couldn't believe what she was hearing. If their test subjects were being sent back, this project would grind to a halt. They'd been at it for months now, and they were getting close- she was sure of it. "We've already passed information to CS that allowed them to come up with treatments for four different minor brain disorders. Doesn't that count for anything?"

Tom shook his head. "Not enough, apparently. The BOP doesn't care about medical advances as much as their own reputation- and the funding they get by having it untarnished. I might be able to convince them to let us keep going, but only if I can give them something big- something that helps them with their prisoners." He looked back and forth between them. "I don't suppose you've got anything I can present to them in the next week or so?"

Amir sighed. "Nothing concrete. We've only got working theories so far." He waved at the computer screen, "and a lot of data to pore over still."

"Then we have no choice. Once our test subjects are gone, we'll have to go public. Ask the general population for volunteers. I'm not sure how into the idea CS might be, but we still have some funding," Tom looked around, "and a facility to house them. It might be enough."

Amir clenched his hands into fists. "The moment we go public, we'll have corporations and legal groups jumping down our throat. We'll never be able to get our message out there, much less have anyone believe it!"

To Vicky, the boys' argument faded a bit into the background. She was looking at the data from before, and feeling a sense of stillness. She knew what she had to do.


Both of them paused, possibly sensing the gravity in her tone. "I know you have the equipment for a sterile operating room here in Archcrest. How long until you can get it all unpacked and set up? So that the OR is functional, I mean."

"Uh, a day, maybe. Why?"

Vicky thought about the materials she also had here. "I can have one of these implants completed and tested by then. How confident are you in your ability to implant it?"

Amir's eyes widened, and Tom cut in before he could respond. "Whoa, whoa, there. Even if we can find a prisoner willing to volunteer for brain surgery, they're all still technically in the custody of the US government! There's no way the DOJ or the BOP would sanction anything like this. It would mean jail time for us to even attempt it!"

Amir nodded heartily. "I could perform the surgery, but I won't. No doctor with any scruples would risk an inmate's life like that, even with their permission."

"Who said anything about an inmate?"

It took them a few moments to grasp what she was saying, and Vicky enjoyed the flabbergasted expressions they gave her as they were adjusting.

Tom recovered first. "You mean one of us? Obviously Amir can't do it- he'd be the one performing this... insane procedure."

"I mean me," Vicky said firmly. "I don't have your connections or relationship with the BOP or with Coleman-Saito. I can't negotiate like you can. Besides," she added as the thought occurred to her. "You may have agreed to take orders from me when it comes to your path in life, but I'd never force you to go through a procedure like this. It wouldn't be right."

"Vicky-" Amir began, but she cut him off.

"You said it yourself. If they shut us down, we'll have to go public. The moment we do that, we'll be under nationwide scrutiny. I don't know which corporation or government entity would do it, but someone would definitely take control of this project immediately. All of our data would be sold to the highest bidder, and all of our work here would have been for nothing!" She speared them both with harsh looks. "I can't let that happen."

Amir turned around to his computer, and pulled up a list- somewhat frantically, in Vicky's opinion. "At least let us talk to someone else. Here. Dennis is up for parole in two weeks. He's one of our most cooperative subjects. I'm sure when that happens, he'll volunteer. We can make it worth his while if he's still not sure!"

Vicky gave him a sad smile. Ever the protector. He and Tom both behaved that way sometimes. It was sexist, but she couldn't really blame them for how society had raised them. She reached out and gripped them both by the shoulders. "Even if Tom can stall the BOP that long, there's no guarantee that Dennis will get paroled. If he doesn't, we're back to our public non-option. Face it, guys. I'm the right person for the job and you both know it."

It was clear from their expressions that they needed more convincing. "Think about it. I set up the equipment and helped you gather the data, Amir, but that's all done now. All this stuff just needs to be maintained, and Kyle can do that just fine without me. I'm basically just an assistant now, helping you both with your tasks. This is the next step for me, I'm sure of it. I'm willing to risk my life to test this." She paused. "I am afraid, sure, but I won't let that stop me."

"You might be risking more than just your life, though," Amir said softly. "This is experimental brain surgery we're talking about here. You're young and strong enough to get through the procedure, but who knows what kind of complications there might be? Have you heard of Locked-In syndrome? People with brain damage have been completely awake and aware of their surroundings, but utterly unable to move or speak at all! They could only lie there, for the rest of their days, with no conduit to the outside world, no agency, no communication. If I screwed up even slightly, that could happen to you! I'd be risking your sanity!"

"I trust you. I'll set up my will and sign a DNR beforehand just to be sure, but I know that you're skilled enough to do this. Just like I'm crazy enough to try it," she added with a smile.

They both looked like they wanted to continue dissuading her, but there was a sense of inevitability around them by now. She could feel their slow realization that it was basically either this, or giving up entirely. Tom especially looked pained at the prospect. Perhaps he had wanted to be the first human trial, or he felt that he'd be the one taking other risks. Risking your own safety was one thing, but standing by while a friend did it was much harder. It looked like he was just realizing that now.


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