When the mind is tricked into thinking a virtual world is real, the consequences are high.
"Curiosity killed the cat."
It was an expression that Dr. Claire Waldgrave was very familiar with, but as a psychologist it was her job to be curious about people and why they acted the way they did.
And it had never gotten her in trouble before, but the game has changed. In virtual reality the play book gets thrown out the window and the rules change at the whim of the programmer.
And this time, in order to save her "patients", Claire will have to put her life in the hands of another and learn to trust again.
Ramuth crept through the jungle-like foliage; some of the plants were vaguely recognizable to him but, in the moonlit night, most merged into indistinguishable blotches and streaks of green. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face, making Ramuth twitch as he carefully subdued the urge to wipe it off. Stillness and silence were the best protection for anyone who was dumb enough to get caught in the Thairamut at night. Unfortunately, it was only meager protection at best, unless he made it back to the city before dawn he was a dead man anyways. It was simply a choice between tempting fate and the notice of night predators--the Gaaltori--by trying to get back to safety or giving up on life and waiting for the pollen of the beautiful Rosevines to destroy his mind.
Although Ramuth was more of a quit-when-the-going-gets-tough kind of guy, he was not ready to die. This left the challenging journey through Thairamut as his only option.
Ramuth felt something--probably an insect--land on his arm but he didn't even glance at it. Even if it was poisonous, Ramuth categorized that threat less than making any sudden movement. One more injury that would need attention... Ramuth shrugged it off, he would be visiting the healer first off if he got out of this alive.
After a few more steps, which Ramuth was able to keep on moss-covered patches of ground, he stopped and glanced down at the lodestone which was tied around his neck. It was tan in color with a few streaks of grey, and it hung on a piece of twine which ran through a hole at the center of the stone. On Ramuth's bedside table in Perdivonce--next to the note from Lehen, which had turned out to be a trick--rested a stubby cylindrical stone, a perfect fix for in the hole in his stone.
Ramuth turned his attention back to the stone. It was off-centered from where gravity dictated it should be; instead it rested above his heart. Ramuth slowly turned his upper body to the left until the lodestone was centered again. Satisfied that he was going in the right direction, Ramuth continued forward. He carefully evaluated each step before committing to it, as he knew every twig and dry leaf would serve as a dinner bell to the Gaalitori if he stepped on it.
While the passage of time was impossible to judge, the pain made each moment seem to last an eternity. Ramuth's eyes hurt from straining to see in the near darkness, his already sore muscles tortured him with every carefully smooth movement... and his arm throbbed with every beat of his heart. As he paused, Ramuth allowed his thoughts to drift back in time, trying to remember why his arm hurt so badly.
Ah, the bug, Ramuth realized, of course...
Then, the sudden screech of a Gaele broke through the silence of the night. Though Gaeles were not dangerous unless you were a rodent, the shock managed to shatter Ramuth's calm state of mind.
Suddenly his heart started racing. Paranoia gave every bush menacing eyes and salivating mouths, ready to devour him if his attention slipped away. Every sound, even those as benign as a whisper of wind, caused his head to jerk in the direction it came from. Ramuth knew, knew, he needed to calm down or he was dead, but that knowledge was distant and unhelpful.
Then there was movement in the bushes right next to him, accompanied by loud rustling. Panic rushed through him as he fell into a defensive crouch. It must be a Gaalitori, Ramuth thought as his hand fumbled for the knife which was strapped to his thigh. Minutes passed and nothing happened. Then there was movement from another bush.
Involuntarily his body jerked, but Ramuth quickly controlled himself and only turned his head toward the sound--and found himself in a stare-down with a Bitarb.
Ramuth sighed. A quiet and soft sound, but enough to send the furry creature bounding back into its burrow. A wry smile touched his lips as he silently berated himself for his momentary lapse into mindless terror. Rising from his crouch, Ramuth started forward again after a swift glance at the lode stone. But his relief blinded him and, without testing the ground, he placed his full weight on it.
The earth caved in beneath him. It sent Ramuth crashing onto the forest floor with a wild cry he wasn't able to hold back. Stunned, and gulping for the air that had been forced from his lungs, Ramuth struggled to accept what had just happened and how it affected the odds of his survival. At best, he had possibly five minutes to make it the rest of the way out of Thairamut. By his rough estimation, he was still 2 miles from the edge...
Ramuth allowed himself to curse vehemently--now that the reason for silence was gone--as he forced himself to stand. Most of the profanity was directed at Lehen, and her beauty which had muddled his logic and placed in this situation. Of course, it seemed only fair to direct the rest of it to the earth-burrowing Bitarbs--as the rodents no doubt deserved the blame for destroying the structural integrity of the ground. Ramuth wished he could appreciate the irony that a harmless animal, which many people kept as pets, was going to be responsible for his death. That thought spurred him into action, and he ran.
Or tried to, but immediately his forward momentum became a downward force and he ran straight into the ground again. Thoughts jumbled, it took Ramuth a few precious moments, which he did not have to spare, to put together what had happened.
His ankle had been broken or sprained and was no longer able to support his full weight. Cursing even more loudly, an act that was now a valiant attempt to keep terror at bay, Ramuth struggled to his feet and achieved a running limp. He didn’t even think to glance at the lode stone. Ramuth was no longer running toward safety, simply away from the creatures that chased him.
The thumping of his heart echoed loud in his ears, louder even than the crashing of brushes he ran through and crunching of leaves under foot. To his addled mind it became a song, where the foliage provided the melody for the drum beat of his heart. A silly smile touched Ramuth's lips at the thought. But then another sound joined the song and wiped the smile from his lips. It was the distinctive snapping sounds that Gaalitori used to communicate with each other.
Fear resurfaced. Or rather, it became even more intense. Ramuth wished wistfully that he would die of fright, for no doubt it would be a kinder end than the one that awaited him. Five more steps. More snapping. Even closer this time. Then suddenly eyes appeared before him--eyes of a creature that belonged only in nightmares.
Its dark, hairless skin was pulled so tight over its body that, beneath it, Ramuth could see the pull and shift of tendons and muscles. It had been impossible to distinguish from the shadows of the night until Ramuth was only a foot away.
The Gaalitori opened its mouth and its four fangs seemed to glow slightly in the darkness. For a moment neither moved, then the Gaalitori emitted another series of snaps. As quickly as that, the air above Ramuth's head stirred and suddenly a heavy weight landed on him. Off balance already, the extra weight and forward momentum knocked him onto the ground. For the third and final time.
Weakly, in the back of his mind, the thought, "Three strikes and you're out!!" rose to the surface. But those words didn't make any sense, and Ramuth couldn't remember where he had heard those words before.
Pain brought Ramuth out of his momentary reverie, as claws or fangs broke through the skin on his back and dug deep. Ramuth released a wild cry and struggled to reach his knife, but his arm was pinned in an awkward position by the weight of the creature--or creatures--on top of him, and he couldn't maneuver enough to get a hold of it.
Then there was more pain. And blood started trickling down his sides. More weight on his back. Then excruciating pain filled him, as poison from the Gaalitori's fangs spread throughout his body. His thoughts became slow and sticky. Ramuth struggled to bring forth a picture of Lehen, but instead a different woman's face surfaced. She was smiling at him, love in her eyes. Ramuth didn't know who she was but he was suddenly filled with sorrow and guilt. He knew he had let her down, though he couldn't remember how or when. A single tear leaked out, then the Gaalitori claimed his life.
* * *
That loud sound unequivocally associated with death and hospitals filled the room. But this was not a hospital and there were no nurses or doctors rushing into the room, although an alarm was activated in response.
A minute passed and no one came. And another minute; counted down only by the beeping heart monitor.
Finally a nurse burst into the room and ran to the machine.
"Dr. Torres!!" Alarm made her voice shrill as she yelled over her shoulder. "Patient 43 has been unresponsive for two minutes already."
"Administer a dose of adrenaline, stat! And get the crash cart from the utility room. Get patient 43 onto a gurney. I need him flat!"
"Patient 43 is not responding!"
"Get him out of that contraption!"
"I think it is too late."
"It hasn't been 5 minutes yet, there is a chance" Dr. Torres prepped the crash paddles and as soon as the attendants laid the man on the gurney he applied them to his chest. Six tries later Dr. Torres set the paddles down and flipped off the heart monitor. Solemnly the occupants of the room surveyed each other and the motionless--lifeless--man on the gurney.
"Dr. Torres...?" The nurse left the rest of the question unvoiced.
"Yes," The doctor sighed. "I will go tell him."
"The dangers of virtual reality are already evident in our society today. If virtual reality is achieved to the degree that modern gaming and electronics companies are hoping, we will have effectively created another way for people to escape their current reality in favor of a better one. Now, finding an "escape" is something our culture looks for almost everyday. I'm talking about curling up with a good book, watching television, watching a movie, online gaming or any of the other small and harmlessly ways of avoiding reality for a few brief moments. Make no mistake, virtual reality immersion will not become part of that list." Claire paused and surveyed the audience, allowing them a moment to process what she had said, but also to give herself a chance to breathe.
So far, so good. She had been really nervous when invited to take on the keynote speech at Stanford's annual technology conference. Claire as a general rule didn't like talking in front of crowds. A classroom or one-on-one was fine, but being faced with the who's-who of professionals and professors in computer software and computer science fields was a bit intimidating given her psychology background. However, the board of directors had assured her that she would be received well due to the subject matter and how computer interactions were becoming more and more heavily influenced by human perception. They also added that it would be a refreshing change from all the technical presentations. So, here she was, reaching the close of her talk, and nothing bad had happened. Claire hadn't tripped walking onto the stage, stumbled through her speech or any of the numerous social gaffes that had plagued her dreams last night.
"No. Virtual reality will be placed on a list next to drugs, alcohol, pornography, self-mutilation, and the multitude of other self-destructive addictions that are used to alter reality. Virtual reality will be addictive. It will be a world that you control and have created to your specification. You can do anything. You can be anyone. You can feel or experience anything you want to. The only real question is why would anyone want to come back to the "real" reality?" Another strategic pause.
"I know this because, you can experience something similar to virtual reality today. It is a technique called lucid dreaming. As the name implies, it is a state in which you are aware of your dreams; and more importantly, you can control your dreams. This has led to some disastrous results, including listless behavior, divorce, depression, unemployment, malnutrition, and even a few cases of suicide." Claire allowed the gravity of the situation reflect in her voice. "Fortunately, mastering lucid dreaming is a rather difficult task. Even those who achieve some mastery over their dreams cannot always control the world or activities they dream of. However, virtual reality will require no skill from the person using it and as such it will be more pervasive than any other mind-altering substance we have ever encountered. It is anticipated that immersion will warp expectations, sap the motivation, and cause general dissatisfaction with life. Anyone who yearns for greater things will be likely turn to virtual reality to experience them instead of taking the time and effort required to achieve them here. The psychology of getting something for nothing is the cause behind almost every crime...
"In essence, taking a stroll through virtual reality can be viewed as that first dose of cocaine. Coming out of it, ordinary life won't seem good enough, and then the primary desire left will be returning to virtual reality... This will lead to doing whatever is required to get there as quickly as possible. Not only is it likely that virtual reality will desensitize, demotivate, and demoralize; it might even be dangerous. The mind is very powerful, powerful enough to change reality in some cases, as proven by placebos and another related phenomena. If the virtual world is realistic enough that it can convince the mind it is actually real, then there is a possibility that it will no longer accept this world. There is also the possibility that, if death is allowed in a virtual reality world, the mind could kill the real body also.... Thank you for attending and as you go back to your work, please keep these theories in mind. Because technology has become such an integral part of life, it will affect everyone in it."
"Everyone, let's give Dr. Claire Waldgrave a round of applause." Dr. Dan Rodman, Claire's long time friend and emcee of the conference, tucked the microphone under his arm and joined in clapping before continuing. "Dr. Waldgrave is an expert in clinical psychology and a long standing professor here at our esteemed university as well as a independent therapist. I would like to take the time for a few questions. So if you have a question please approach the microphone."
Claire suppressed a smile at Dan's words. There was already a small gathering around the microphone, although mostly made up of Stanford students, who were allowed to attend the conference if they desired to.
"Dr. Waldgrave, how close is virtual reality to being a reality?" The speaker's lips quirked as though he thought he was especially witty.
"While the audience would undoubtedly be able to answer this better than I, it is my understanding that it is closer than many would think. As the main economic value of virtual reality is in the complete package--meaning the participant is able to experience the full range of senses--many companies have as many as three or four of the separate technologies complete and are trying to achieve the fifth or iron out bugs in the operation of the equipment. In fact, Stanford has a virtual reality console that make its subjects 'feel like they're plummeting down a 30-foot pit.'*"
"You sound very certain of your prognosis. You must have experienced some of these mind altering states or substances." The snide comment came from a skinny woman with a pink scarf. If Claire were to guess, she would bet that Ms. Pink Scarf was an administrator in a company that was currently trying to achieve virtual reality.
"You seem very certain that I have had experience with reality altering states… you must have seen me indulging in them." Claire paused as the room laughed. "All joking aside, I do enjoy books, movies, TV shows, and I have dreams so, yes, I have had some experience with the mild forms of altered reality or escaping reality. However, as I grew up in a home where substances were abused on a daily basis, I have never experimented with drugs myself. I have had many patients with addictions to chemical substances and a few to lucid dreams. So, while I haven't actually participated in any of these activities, I have enough experience with them to talk about this type of behavior. Trust me, Stanford would not have asked me to give this presentation if they did not think I was qualified to speak on the subject."
There was a small altercation over who got the microphone next and the big man sporting multiple tattoos and piercings won out over the middle aged, slightly overweight woman. Claire agreed with the woman, she would've let him win too.
"So you are saying you don't agree with any form of altering reality?"
He had taken an aggressive stance and Claire realized that this was probably going to morph into a conflict, but she didn't know what to do about it, other than to act as though it was just another question. "That's not what--"
The man cut her off, talking loudly over her so that if she had said anything else sit would have been completely drowned out. "Yet, you claim experiencing an "altered reality" gives people a false idea of what life really is, right?"
"Well…” Claire hesitated. He was obviously trying to trap her into a certain answer, and she wasn’t sure how to respond. “Yes, however this is not always--"
He cut her off again, this time turning and gesturing to the room at large while speaking into the microphone. "And this causes people to behave in ways that harm general society...?"
"Usually... but a small amount of altered reality is a good thing. After all sleep is a form of--" This time Claire tried to fight with him for it. He started talking right after the first word she said but instead of giving him the floor she increased the volume of her voice too until they were of the verge of having a shouting match, which is where Claire drew the line. Shouting was absolutely not professional.
"So, if every form of altered reality causes a false view of reality, and this view of reality is harmful to society, then every form of altered reality should be prevented, because harm to the general society can never be a good thing, can it, Dr. Waldgrave?"
Well, obviously there was only one answer to that. "No."
"Well, well. A presentation of virtual reality and you didn't invite me? I'm hurt, Claire." This loud voice did not belong to the punk-man at the microphone. His voice was rich and cultured, and caused Claire's stomach to start churning.
Claire watched as Alek Fjerstad, the owner and CEO of Tasi International--the world's foremost leader in innovative software--stepped out of the shadows near one of the auditorium doors. "It's not nice to defame someone without allowing them to be present to defend themselves. I wouldn't think the Stanford University would appreciate knowing that one of their professors is behaving like that."
The threat was obvious in his words. Charismatic and handsome, there was a good chance he could actually put her in unemployment. Not to mention, all the money he had at his disposal to grease the way.
Claire forced a laugh. "The implication that your company is the only one close to virtual reality technology does a disservice to this audience. I am not trying to defame it--or you--just to inform everyone about the possible repercussions."
"Well, that's all we have time for! Thank you for attending. I hope you all enjoyed the seminar." Dr. Dan Rodman's attempt to get her out of the bad situation fell flat, as no one in the room seemed eager to move an inch and Claire wasn't inclined to turn tail and run. Undoubtedly, if Alek had come all the way out here himself, he was going to talk about her and her beliefs whether she was present or not. At least if she stayed he might not be able to twist them as much as he would like to.
"Of course, of course. If you have another seminar scheduled in this room, we can take this outside." Alek suggested with a smile.
"Noo." Dr. Rodman quickly answered, eyes flickering over to Claire and then back to Alek. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face as he endured the pressure of all the eyes in the room. "Of course you are welcome to this room, if Dr. Waldgrave doesn't have something else to attend to...."
His voice trailed off and his eyes begged her to make up an excuse. But Dan didn't know Alek like she did. So Claire replied cheerfully, as though looking forward to their verbal battle. "I’ve nothing scheduled. Please Mr. Fjerstad, continue," Let's see if we can arrange an unemployment check for me.
There was significant amount of whispering in the audience as Alek walked on stage and took the microphone out of Dr. Rodman's limp fingers. Dr. Rodman glanced worriedly between the two of them before deciding to leave the battlefield while he still could. So Claire watched as her only ally fled the stage and hurried out of the room and wondered idly if he would summon security for her. She doubted it… he was probably burning a trail to his closest stash of Bourbon.
"I only heard a bit of the last question." Which I'm sure you wrote "But it appears that you claim that any form of altering reality is ultimately harmful to society..." Alek paused for a moment as his gaze swept the room before landing on her, "…yet you are a practitioner of hypnosis, are you not?"
Anger swept through her, but mostly anger at herself. She hadn't considered him bring up hypnosis--which, to her mind, was just another tool she used in therapy. It did alter reality, or at least the way people viewed reality, in much the same way as drugs. Except hypnosis was beneficial and drugs were not. Claire pasted a smile onto her face. "Practitioner is hardly the correct word. Hypnosis is not a form of magic or mind control, it is simply a tool used to bring you unconscious mind forward in order to change certain behaviors."
There, that didn't sound too bad.
"My apologies. I obviously do not understand hypnosis; it is much like the national deficit or the ingredients of your sausages." The audience obediently laughed at his assessment or his pronunciation of sausage.
By admitting he wasn't an expert on hypnosis, not only was he connecting to the audience, many of whom were also unfamiliar with hypnosis but he was also subtly pointing out that neither was she an expert in the field of virtual reality. So subtly many people probably didn't consciously catch the hint, but they would come up with it later and think they deduced it, which would make it much more powerful than if he had actually said it. Claire caught herself gritting her teeth and immediately stopped, but the amusement that flickered in Alek's eyes told her that he noticed.
"However, what little I do know of hypnosis suggests to me that it gives people an altered view of reality. Would you agree Dr. Waldgrave?"
"Hypnosis does, sometimes, result in people viewing life differently, but it is unlike other forms of altered reality in that it does not support fantasies or bad behavior."
"However, it can be used to do bad things, can't it? Covert hypnosis can be used to make people do things they ordinarily would not do.... can't it? …and a hypnotist could cause someone to enjoy hypnosis so much that they would want to do it again, couldn't they?"
Obviously, he understood more about hypnosis than he wanted the audience to believe. "Covert hypnosis is mostly myth. You cannot override a person's fundamental set of personal morals."
"But you could trick them, couldn't you? Weave a story were something they wouldn't normally do it absolutely necessary to.... let say, save their family? Most people in this room would claim that they would never kill someone.... but if they were confronted with a situation in which they had to kill someone in order to protect their family, would they not kill that person? Most people have situational morals, Dr. Waldgrave. You of all people should know that..."
Pain punched through her, as memories of their past--and the incident he was referring to--resurfaced. Claire couldn’t stand looking at his smug expression for another second, so she turned to gaze around the crowded room. That was when she realized that she had already lost this battle.
People were whispering softly to each other. Most faces reflected concern, confusion, and even fear. As computer and software gurus, they didn’t know enough about psychology and hypnosis to pick apart Alek’s lies. Anger swept through her. What right did he have to come here and do this to her? Claire wasn’t the only person concerned about virtual reality, or even the most vocal, yet here he was. At her university, in her life and trying to ruin it for the second time.
"I guess the most important issue of all of this, is the goal of the person who is in control." Claire was no longer talking to the audience but to Alek.
“I have very good intentions." Alek grinned at her.
"I really hope you do, but I fear that it is wealth, not wisdom, that motivates your actions." Claire turned to the audience for her parting shot. "Please, do not let our words alone convince you--we both have our own reasons for choosing our sides in this argument--instead, research the topic and chose the side you think is right. The truth of a message should be more important than the style in which it is conveyed. Thank you."
Claire turned and walked out; and no one followed her.
*Okay, this is ironic but I stumbled upon this article after I set wrote this Stanford scene San Fransisco Chronicle - Virtual becomes reality at Stanford (and yes I realize the article is from 2007...)
Rain pattered lightly on the window. Claire watched as the water beaded on the glass, and the small drops merged together. The droplets slowly got bigger and bigger until gravity overcame the surface tension. It always happened suddenly; the drop would shudder as it gathered that last little bit of moisture needed, and then it would plummet down the window, leaving bits of water behind.
Claire couldn't help but feel empathy for the poor water droplets. At the moment, she felt that they were a very accurate, if abstract, representation of herself. Claire had always wanted, and worked hard, to be more and more successful. She managed to balance her very successful independent practice with her academic career and continued education.
A wry smile curled her lips as Claire thought back to how she had felt this morning. She had been so elated that of all the people who could have given the keynote speech, the board had chosen her. Her! A psychologist!
Claire knew now--even though she hadn't realized what she was doing initially--that when the idea had been suggested to her, her hesitation hadn't stemmed from not wanting to give the presentation but from her desire to have the board convince her that she could not fail. And they did. Claire had let them build up her confidence to the point that, though she was still nervous, when she walked into that auditorium Claire knew she would do great. And with each success--not tripping, not stumbling, not stuttering or mumbling--she grew more and more confident. And then... Alek walked through the door and she started to fall, almost as fast as the drops of water still were.
But, if she was going to go so far with her current analogy, then what did the trail of water left behind represent?
Claire pondered that. Her professional reputation? Her credibility? Her dignity?
Claire sighed and turned away from the window, no longer able to enjoy the rain. She glanced down at the book she held loosely in her lap, but she was unable to focus on the words. Her mind was too busy going over every word Alek and his lackey, the tattoo-punk man, had said and what she had said in response. What could she have said, or done, differently? Should she have had the security personnel remove the tattooed man? Should she have bowed out when Dan had tried to get her to leave? What if she had--?
Claire's head jerked up as a loud sound jolted her out of her memories.
It took the second ring for her to realize it was the phone. Claire stared at it as though it was a snake, ready to bite off her hand..... or a bit of water, ready to send her plummeting down the window again. Claire managed a weak chuckle at the thought. She need not worry about that as she was already in the puddle.
Claire briefly contemplated getting up, but as that would require leaving the perfect cocoon she'd made with her fluffy blanket. Laziness won out, and Claire scooted down the window seat towards the end table. Another ring echoed through the room. Three more and it would go to the answering machine... Only she had never bothered to set up an answering machine on her home phone.
Claire quickly reached out, stretching her arm as far as she could, but her fingers just barely grazed the charging base her phone rested in. Claire braced her other arm on the edge of the window seat and shifted forward again, which got her a few inches closer. The phone blared at her. Claire closed her fingers around the phone.
Success! Claire grinned.
Suddenly Claire's hand slipped off the edge of the window seat and she tumbled onto the carpet with a thud. The phone let out another ring, as though angry at being dropped. Momentarily stunned and staring at the clawed feet of the end table, Claire started laughing.
Prompted by the final ring, Claire managed to answer the phone while still half laughing. “Hey.”
“Hey! I wasn't sure you were going to pick up. Wait....... are you crying?!” Alarm raised the pitch of her mother's already high voice. Claire had always imagined that if mice could talk, they would sound like her mother did when she was upset. Suddenly the vision of a mouse with a tidy bun, sporting her mother's coveted pearl necklace and waving baby mouse arms in the air in a hysterical fashion, popped into Claire's mind. Laughter resurfaced and Claire's attempt to choke it off only made her mother more concerned.
“Oh, honey, it’s okay. I'm sure it wasn't so bad-”
“Laughing.” Claire managed to get out, swallowing her hysteria-induced amusement. “I'm laughing, ma.”
“Oh.” There was a pause, “Oh, well. That's good.”
Claire could hear the confusion in her mother's voice and smiled slightly. “It appears that you called to provide a shoulder to cry on. I'm sorry I ruined that for you..... I can pretend to cry if that would make you feel better.”
“No, of course not dear.” Her mother sounded a bit aggravated. But Claire supposed her reply had been antagonistic, so she couldn't blame her. Claire groaned softly as she mother continued to speak. There was something hard digging into her stomach. “I just thought you might need someone to talk to.”
Realizing that her mother might have assumed the groan was directed at her, Claire quickly asked, “Who told you?”
“Well....” Claire fought with the constricting blanket that was wrapped around her and gained a sitting position. She glanced sadly down at the book that had been smashed beneath her, as her mother continued in a rush. “Don't be mad at him but it was that nice friend of yours, Dr. Rodman.”
Claire was surprised he had still been lucid enough to speak coherently. Dan was the person who had suggested to the others on the board of directors that she speak at this conference. No doubt he also feared that Alek's interference would adversely affect his standing at the university, and he didn't have an independent career to fall back on.
Returning her focus to the book, Claire grimaced when she saw a small tear in one of the pages. Claire slowly ran her hands over the pages of the book, attempting to smooth out the creases it had acquired, while she half listened to the phone. “He is very charming. He was so worried about you, you know. I think he likes you.... I never understood why you haven't made yourself more available, he is intelligent and he has a good job.... He would be able to support a family...”
“Ugh, enough, ma! I am not ready for kids. And the thought of doing that with Dan....” Claire had a brief vision of the morning after--the actual act being too far-fetched to contemplate--which had them sitting at a kitchen table together in frozen silence. They had nothing in common, aside from academia which was not something she would want to discuss everyday for the rest of her life. Claire shook her head to clear it. “Please let it go.”
“Okay, okay.” A little bit of sharpness entered her mother's voice. “I just think you need to get out more.”
“mmhmm.” Claire had found the smile-and-nod approach worked well with her mother, unfortunately neither communicated well through the phone so her noncommittal response would have to do. Claire untangled herself from the blanket and climbed to her feet so that she could wedge the slightly damaged book onto an already full bookshelf, partially hoping that the pressure might help iron out the remaining fold marks.
Her mother sighed, and her voice softened. “I just want you to be happy.”
Claire started to say that she was happy, but her throat closed on those words. Startled by the sudden realization that she was not happy, she said instead, “I know, mom... thanks.”
“Well... you know my number. Call me anytime if you want to talk about it.”
They said their goodbyes and hung up.
Claire stared at the phone for a minute before gently placing it back in its cradle. Why wasn't she happy? She would have had no problem saying she was happy yesterday or even 5 hours ago, but now? Was her happiness such a fragile thing, that one event could destroy it?
Claire forced herself to admit that it wasn't even the thought that she might be fired that was bothering her. Though the end of her speech was humiliating, she hadn't even given it to her peers. The collection of computer geeks and business men would probably either write off the disaster as a reason why women shouldn't present, or why psychologists shouldn't present at their conferences. All that would remain in their mind was the stereotype, not her. As such, the event probably would not affect her psychiatrist practice at all.
Even if she was fired, Claire wouldn't really miss teaching at Stanford. She had always disliked the constricting format used for grading. A good psychologist had less to do with memorizing terms and writing essays, and more to do with empathy and connecting to the patients. It was a thought had been weighing more and more heavily on her mind. It had reached the point where Claire had already done some research on what she would have to do to start giving training classes separate from the university. Of course, Claire had thought to do that on top of her current work load...
Unfortunately, if Claire accepted that it was the Stanford incident which caused her sudden sadness but not because of her career, then she also had to accept that it had been seeing Alek which had destroyed her sense of happiness. Claire quickly shoved that thought out of her mind, knowing she would not like where it took her.
Maybe her mother was right and she needed to get out more.
* * *
“What exactly are you saying, Torres?” Alek asked, his tone revealing that he was dangerously close to violence.
“I'm saying....” Dr. Torres hesitated for a second then said in a rush, “I'm saying that the shock from forcibly removing the subjects from the simulated environment killed eleven people. They went into sudden cardiac arrest. Usually, in a fully-staffed and fully-equipped medical center, this would not necessarily be fatal... but we did not have enough personnel to resuscitate all of the patients who needed it. As per your orders, we focused the majority of our attention on the second trial... and because of that the second trial only accounted for two of the deaths. Unfortunately, only four of the patients were able to recognize this world after recovering from the shock, the rest were sent back. However... nine of the people in the first trial died.”
Silence filled the room as Alek stared at Dr. Torres, struggling to control his urge to throttle the doctor. Though he was succeeding at that, there was too much negative energy flowing through him and the desire to destroy something mounted to an unbearable level.
Alek suddenly jumped to his feet and sent his heavy wooden desk crashing onto its back with an angry shove. The doctor jumped backward and watched, with no small amount of fear, as the glass lamp shattered, papers fluttered to the floor and pens bounced merrily across the carpet.
“When I came to you, you said you could handle this situation.” Alek said, almost casually as he approached the doctor, not stopping until they were almost touching. “Fix it.”
Intimidation had always been a useful tool to Alek, so he let his stature, muscles and wanton displays of destruction speak for themselves. Without another word Alek turned and left, quietly shutting the door behind him.
Dr. Torres sagged and he slowly collapsed onto the floor, where the shattered pieces of glass reflected his despair.