When the mind is tricked into thinking a virtual world is real, the consequences are high.
“So, how bad is it?” Claire asked, forcing a causal tone of voice.
“Bad.” Dan answered morbidly, as they walked through the campus and toward Jordan Hall.
Claire cut a glance over at him. He was literally wringing his hands. Claire sighed. “Calm down, Dan. They won't fire you. You've been the best department head since Lewis Terman.”
“You really think so?” Dan beamed at her.
“Yes, I do. Now tell me, how likely am I to find a pink slip in my mailbox?”
“I'm not sure. It really depends mostly on how much gossip and news there has been about the incident. You know everything is about public perception.”
“mmhmm” Claire intoned. So it was very likely--college campuses were rumor-mills like none other.
They walked past the Math Corner and into the Jordan Hall. After a brief, mostly habitual battle over taking the elevator or the stairs, Claire and Dan ascended to the third floor and walked down the hall to the Department of Psychology's office. Most of this floor was dedicated to professor's offices, some connected directly to the main hall and others were down separate hallways. Both Claire's and Dan’s offices opened into the main department of psychology office, along with many other offices occupied by senior professors. When the three secretaries who worked in the psychology office saw them coming, they all immediately found reasons to rush into one of the various offices attached to the room.
Claire smiled grimly as she entered the office. She briefly considered then dismissed, on the basis that it would appear cowardly, the idea of avoiding her mailbox and going straight to her office. That would only prolong the uncertainty, which was certainly worse than knowing one way or another.
Claire went to her mailbox and grabbed out its contents, secretly relieved that they hadn't actually printed her termination letter on pink. Or if they had--Claire mentally corrected herself--they at least had the decency to conceal it in something white. Claire took her handful of papers and retreated to her office. She was so intent on reaching privacy that Claire almost slammed the door into Dan, who had trailed after her.
“Whoops,” Claire said as an apology while opening the door back up for him to enter. “I forgot what a busybody you are.”
“Hey, that hurt. I'm here solely as your friend.” Dan countered as he sat down in one of the chairs she kept in her office for students and visitors.
“Sure you are,” Claire's tone was patronizing. She down next to the computer and booted it up, carelessly setting the mail nearby.
“Why would you accuse me of being a-- …a busybody?” Dan infused a load of disgust into that one word.
“Dan.” Claire turned away from her computer and looked him straight in the eyes. “My mother can't fake surprise.”
“Oh.” Dan's face fell. “So... I guess she told you I called?”
“Yeah, but don't pretend this was the first time you called her.” Claire turned back to her computer and brought up her e-mail. Once loaded, she deleted all the junk from her inbox. That pretty much cleaned it out, considering she lumped anything with the word 'conference' in the subject line into that category.
After those few moments of being ignored, Dan burst out, “Okay, fine! I am.”
“Am what?” Claire teased.
“A.... Quidnunc.” Dan substituted with a grin.
“A what?” Confusion caused a slight frown to appear on Claire's face.
“Q-U-I-D-N-U-N-C.” Dan spelled it out for her in a patronizing tone.
Claire obediently typed it into the search engine. Ignoring the first link which led to a computer business, she clicked on the dictionary entry and read “A nosy person; a busybody; a gossip-monger.”
Claire laughed. “Well, I suppose it is more dignified sounding. Where'd you come up with that?”
With a sheepish grin, Dan revealed his phone.
“Ahh.” Claire eyed the phone critically. “It's a good thing that my students aren't as good at hiding their phones as you are...”
“Hey, where do you think I learned it?”
Claire grimaced and ceded that point. She would have to start watching her students more vigilantly on test days--that is, if she wasn't fired. Claire stopped herself from glancing at the stack of mail and turned back to her computer screen. She opened the few e-mails left in her inbox, most were from students asking about various assignments coming up and none were really important. Not able to waste any more time with e-mail, Claire pulled up minesweeper and started playing it, knowing that from Dan's chair he could not see what she was doing. However Claire could see his every move and he was moving a lot.
Finally, after about 5 minutes of fidgeting Dan couldn't hold back any longer. “Aren't you going to open those?”
Claire burst out laughing, and watched as realization crept through Dan's face.
“You were torturing me on purpose!” Dan accused her.
“Guilty as charged,” Claire answered, still chuckling. “Go ahead, satisfy your curiosity.”
Dan still looked a bit peeved, but started rifling through her mail none the less. Dan paused on a small envelope. “Who's Thumar Al-- …Al-ie-saw-rey?”
“Thumar Al-ez-w-are-ie.” Claire sounded through it for Dan's benefit before demanding, “Give that to me.”
Claire took it out of Dan's hand and hurriedly opened it. She felt the swift sting of acquiring a paper cut, but ignored it in favor of unfolding piece of paper inside. It contained only three lines of typed text.
I'm sorry for running out on you. I got some really bad stuff after what happened ... Was trying to run and I think it's too late for me to get out. After all you did for me, I thought you should know.
Claire frowned at the paper, both confused and worried.
“What is it?” Dan asked, craning his neck to get a look at the paper.
Claire handed it to him, in effort to prevent him from spraining it. Dan quickly scanned the paper and commented, “It is very mystery-novel-ish, isn't it?”
“It is.” Claire agreed as she picked up the envelope and glanced at the stamp. Its postmark indicated that it had been mailed two days ago, from a post office with the same zip code as Stanford's. That is odd....
“So what's the deal with Mr. Ali-Zahri?” Dan's voice called her back to her office.
“Oh. Um... well, he was supposed to have been deported actually.” Claire answered slowly.
Dan glanced at the envelope in her hand, then back to her face. “He wasn't?”
“I guess not, or this is just some prank. But I can't imagine what the purpose of pulling a prank like this.”
Dan sat there and looked at her expectantly. Claire sighed and started from the beginning, “Thumar was initially a student here at the university. He was a very good student, and did well in my classes. Which is one reason why this note is suspicious; his English was almost as good as mine. But I digress. Before Thumar could finish his schooling, his parents in Morocco died, and he didn't have enough money to continue schooling. I saw him a few times after that, and tried to help him, but he was too proud to accept my help and too depressed to help himself. The last time I saw him, he was doing some sort of medical trial, because he wanted free drugs.”
“How did you find out about him being deported?” Dan asked.
“Thumar listed me as his next of kin on an apartment lease. So, the INS agent came to see me when they couldn't find him there. It had been almost five months since I had seen Thumar and I didn't have any information to give them. I never heard about it again, but I assumed he had been found.”
“Do you think Thumar is still here?” Dan asked slowly.
Claire sighed. “I don't know. This seems too odd to be real...”
“But truth is stranger than fiction!” Dan hurriedly interjected.
Claire smiled slightly, “Of course, this all is appealing to your Quidnunc-ic nature, isn't it?”
“All I'm saying is, looking into it couldn't hurt... right?” Dan asked eagerly.
“I suppose not, do you want to take point on this one?”
Dan was too busy gathering up the envelope and the letter to notice the hint of mockery in her voice. Moments later, all that remained of Dan was the echo of her office door shutting.
Claire sighed wearily. Of course, to Dan, the Thumar story trumped whether or not she got fired. Slowly Claire opened the rest of her mail, and was not really surprised to see the letter of termination. Despite its polite wording--and phrasing which implied that she had been the one to give notice--it was made clear that she was expected to clean out her office and hand over her course material to Dr. Miller by the end of the day.
Claire glanced back at the minesweeper game, but couldn't summon any amusement as she thought back to messing around with Dan. Instead she felt oddly betrayed. Though she had acted nonchalant about the possibility of getting fired, shouldn't he have known that being fired would hurt even if she didn't really love her job. After all, being fired was a form of rejection.
No, Claire shook her head, she was being silly. Dan didn't think of her as a woman with feeling, who would need protecting or comforting, but a professional colleague. It made sense, as Claire had never wanted to go beyond being professional colleagues.
Claire quickly transferred all the files on her computer to the external her hard drive, which she kept in the office for backup purposes. After that she collected the syllabi and lecture notes--Dr. Miller could buy the textbooks himself, because he wasn't getting hers--for her three classes and headed out of her office. She almost tripped over the boxes someone had set outside her door, but recovered as gracefully as possible and continued to Dr. Miller's office.
Claire could hear his voice through the office door, and decided to not disturb him. She almost set the pile of papers right in front of his door, just like the boxes had been in front of hers, but resisted the temptation. Claire liked Dr. Miller and it wasn't his fault that she was fired.
Claire was halfway through packing up her stuff when Dan burst into her office, knocking over a box which promptly spilled its contents on the floor.
“Ah!!” Claire exclaimed in surprise. She turned to snap at him but reined back her temper before she said something she would regret.
Dan didn't seem to notice the mess he had created or her frustration. “You'll never guess what I found out!”
“What?” Claire asked, as she started cramming all the stuff back into the fallen box.
“Thumar Ali-Zahri died yesterday. It was all very mysterious--just like the note--the autopsy didn't reveal a conclusive cause of death. Isn't that interesting?”
Claire stopped what she was doing, and the textbook was she tucking away fell from her limp hand. First Alek, then being both actually abandoned and pseudo-abandoned by Dan, then getting fired then Thumar's death and Dan's excitement with it. It was just too much.
“That's all you have to say?” Claire demanded. “Thumar was a person, Dan. Not some story book character. This is real life! Don't treat his death like it means nothing.”
Dan looked taken-aback by her exclamation. “Uh, sorry. I didn't mean anything... I didn't mean to disrespect him.”
Claire sighed. Great, now she was alienating her acquiescence too. “I'm sorry too, Dan. I'm a little overwhelmed at the moment.”
“It's okay.” Dan actually looked around the room, and what he saw caused him to frown. “They actually fired you?”
Dan sat down on the floor next to her. “This is all my fault-”
Claire laughed weakly. “Don't be silly. This is Alek's fault, even my fault, but not yours.”
“Well, I'm still sorry about it...... Who will I borrow textbooks from now?” It was a weak attempt at humor but Claire favored him with a smile.
“What you should be asking is, 'Who will cover for my student counseling hours?' Honestly I don't know how you got your degree in psychology when you are so oblivious to the emotions of the people around you.”
Dan chuckled slightly. "That's because you can't learn empathy from books."
They sat for a moment in companionable silence.
“So... tell me more about Thumar.” Claire leaned toward him, bumping him lightly her shoulder.
“Well I started with a simple internet search through newspapers in this area. I was really hoping for more information about the deportment but it brought up an obituary. I thought it was odd that he died only a day after that letter was supposedly mailed, so I called and asked about him. You know, most people are very helpful when you tell them you are writing a story about something. I guess they hope you'll put their picture in the paper.... Anyways, the lady working at the mortuary is almost as much of a quidnunc as I am... and she assumed I already knew the death was mysterious when I called, because why else would I write about it? So she told me that the autopsy had ruled out most of the common causes of death. It was as though the brain just stopped functioning for no apparent reason, and because of that he suffocated.”
“Hmm.” Claire thought about that for a few moments. “Did they say what they are doing with his remains?”
“I think they cremate them and scatter the ashes.” Dan looked like he was going to add something else, but held himself back. Claire appreciated his restraint, as she could guess what he was going to say.
“I'm going to go down there.” Claire decided as she got to her feet.
“Why?” Dan asked.
“He deserves a proper burial, even if his family is not longer around to attend the funeral.”
“Do you want company?”
Claire turned to look at him, but his face only reflected sympathy--not curiosity. A genuine smile touched her lips. “Thank you, Dan. But I will be fine.”
* * *
“You want to what?” Incredulity colored the young girl's tone, as she finally managed to tear her attention away from what must have been an absolutely riveting article in Cosmo, to look at Claire.
It was no wonder Dan hadn't had an issue getting the details of the autopsy. Ms. Mia Trunton--according to a bronze name plate--had probably been psyched to be talking to a guy, who could be very charming when he wanted, that she didn't care about a simple thing like giving away confidential information which could get her fired. Mia was still staring at her with a I-must-have-heard-you-wrong-or-you-are-just-dumb look, which didn't seem to be clearing up, so Claire managed to repeat her request in a calm voice.
“You realize that a plot out here is gonna cost ya, like 5k, right? And I'm just talking about the plot, not the funeral and all that.” Mia informed her.
Claire nodded. “That's fine. Just give me whatever paperwork is necessary.”
Mia shrugged, “Sure, but it'll take a while the forms to be processed. And we will require a deposit.”
Claire nodded, and slowly filled out the necessary paperwork, along with a check.
“Alright, that's all we need. We'll contact you in a few days to release the body to you.” And with that, the allure of her unfinished article pulled Mia back into her magazine.
Claire walked outside and took a deep breath. That had been harder than she thought it would. Claire stood still for a brief moment, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her skin before she started to her car.
It wasn't the secretary calling her back, as the voice belonged to a man. Slowly Claire looked behind her. A man, who she would guess was in his fifties, stood by the pillared entrance. Claire saw that there was a bench a few steps to his left, and figured that he been where he had waited.
“Who are you?” Claire asked.
“I need to talk to you.” The man told her, taking a few steps forward.
Claire hastily moved back. It was midday, but the parking lot was empty and Claire had her doubts about whether or not the secretary would hear her scream, or bother to help her if she did. Claire didn't carry anything for self defense on her person, and she had to admit that this whole scenario was freaking her out.
“Who are you?!” Claire asked again, this time hysteria made her voice shrill.
“I'm sorry; I didn't mean to frighten you.... I have information about your friend. Mr. Ali-Zahri. I'm Dr. Torres.”
Claire eyed him. He appeared sincere, and he really didn't seem that dangerous but that didn't mean Claire was going to take any chances. “You work here?”
Dr. Torres hesitated. “In a manner of speaking, yes. But that is not important. Actually, the reason I wanted to talk to you is because I need your help. Or rather… there are others--like Mr. Ali-Zahri--who need your help.”
“What do you mean?” Claire asked slowly.
“You gave a presentation at Stanford recently, yes? About virtual reality?”
Claire looked at him, then laughed. “I get it. This is all an elaborate prank isn't it? Ha ha. I bet Alek cooked this all up, didn’t he? You can come out now, Alek! I’m on to you!”
Claire was too busy looking around for Alek to appear, laughing at her, to notice the doctor's shock. Dr. Torres quickly recovered and composed himself before gently laying a hand on Claire's shoulder, which was enough to get her attention back on him. “This is no prank, Ms. Waldgrave. Nor is it a laughing matter, I'm afraid.”
“Okay. What is it then?” Claire asked, still half convinced it was a joke.
“Did you find out the cause of his death? Isn't it odd? What do you think could cause the brain-the mind--to kill a perfectly healthy body?” Dr. Torres let his words hang in the air between them and watched horror crept into her expression.
Claire’s hand lightly covered her mouth; an instinctive response caused by her dismay. “You don't mean--”
“Yes, I do.” Dr. Torres hesitated for a moment, and then continued. “Mr. Ali-Zahri is the first victim of virtual reality.”
Dr. Torres hurried down the darkening street. His heart raced, his palms were damp with sweat, and the can of pepper spray he clutched was in danger of slipping away. As he traversed down the sidewalk, the streetlights taunted him with his alternatively chasing and fleeing shadow. Every few steps he paused and peered behind him.
The sound of traffic--a calming and reassuring melody to the city-breed doctor--was distant, as few cars were traveling on this street. Without the ambient noise traffic brought, the only sounds left for Dr. Torres could have come out of a horror film. The heavy th-thump of his heart and the uneven clump-clump of his shoes on the concrete.
Though Dr. Torres never saw anyone following him when he looked back, he could not shake the idea that someone was there, in the shadows, waiting.
Maybe it was his Conscious--which he was sure would not manifest itself as Jiminy Cricket but as Virgil's Minos, who absolves the just and dooms the guilty--preparing to drop a giant urn on his head and force the burden of all those dead people's souls onto his shoulders.
It wasn't his fault! He didn't sign up to kill people. ...he had just wanted to be remembered as the doctor who made the first journey into virtual reality possible. But, what had seemed like the deal of a lifetime, had quickly become the shackles that were eating away at his soul. A true deal with a the devil. And now, Dr. Torres feared he would never be able to escape with his sanity and reputation intact.
That was why he had decided to bring in Dr. Waldgrave. It had almost seemed like destiny deigned to let him in on the plan by serving her up on a platter. It had started when his wife was filling the silence with talk of their daughter, Sarah, and how she was doing. In the midst of that narrative Dr. Waldgrave's name had popped up. That name rattled around in the back of his head, like the identity of some unknown actor, until he remembered where he had seen it. Dr. Waldgrave's name had been listed on the, recently deceased, Thumar Alzahrani's paperwork as a medical emergency contact. A quick online search had revealed that Dr. Waldgrave was a professor of psychology at Stanford University.
To do more research, Dr. Torres had called Sarah--something he hadn't done in years--and found out more about Dr. Waldgrave under the guise of catching up. He had also discovered that his daughter thought the sun and moon set with Dr. Waldgrave. Sarah had taken all of her classes, even the ones that couldn't be used in Sarah's undergraduate course requirements. According to Sarah, Dr. Waldgrave was highly regarded in her field and extremely concerned about those who needed help, even offering free psychological appointments to students in need.
That was when the idea had coalesced, and Dr. Torres had decided to play on her sympathies to get her help. So, Dr. Torres had set up the meeting, by dropping the letter into her campus mail and stalking the coroners office from a food joint across the street. He couldn't think of anyone who, after receiving that note, wouldn't at least show up to ask some questions.
Dr. Torres was almost ready to give up when the broad had finally shown. He had not been prepared for how much she looked like his Sarah, though. They wore they're hair the same way, a short chin-length bob parted on one side and held back on the opposite. Sarah's hair was not curly, but Dr. Torres imagined that her highlights were a tribute to Dr. Waldgrave wavy, blond hair. Dr. Waldgrave even dressed like his daughter--or rather, vice versa--with her conservative pantsuit. Then he had found out that Dr. Waldgrave had already satisfied her curiosity because the bimbo inside had given the information over the phone and had only shown up out of kindness to take care of Thumar's remains. That was the same sort of thing his daughter would do... that he might have done...
Maybe that was the cause of his distress. Maybe that was why he was feeling so uneasy. His mind had decided that Dr. Waldgrave and his daughter were connected and now it felt like he was endangering Sarah by bring Dr. Walgrave into the fray.
Or maybe someone was really following him.
Regardless, he had no choice. He had already given Dr. Waldgrave five of the confidential patient files and the address of the facility where they would meet tomorrow. And, even if he hadn't, something needed to be done. Everything he had tried had failed. Not only failed, but failed in such a monumental way it had killed eleven people.
He had killed eleven people.
The strength in his legs gave way and Dr. Torres slumped against the dirty brick wall which bordered the sidewalk. The pepper spray dropped from his nerveless hand and skittered away down the sloped concrete.
How had it all gone so wrong? When had his idealism died? How had he gone from a humanitarian to a murderer?
Hot tears leaked down his face as Dr. Torres finally accepted the man he had become was no man at all. Why had he thought he needed pepper spray? It was everyone else who needed to be protected from him!
Dr. Torres slid to the ground, back against the wall and stared out at the darkening street. He no longer could go home. How could he kiss his wife or hug his daughter when he had lies on his lips and blood on his hands? No longer a Doogie Howser but a Frankenstein. And like Frankenstein, he had been too caught up in the potential of his work to realize the destruction it could bring.
He could still make it right. If he could get the rest of the subjects out, he might be able to forgive himself.
Dr. Torres pushed himself to his feet and started down the street, in the opposite direction he had previously been traveling. His steps were firm and his attention did not falter. It was time to go back to the facility and prepare for Dr. Waldgrave's arrival.
* * *
Claire sat at her kitchen table and listlessly pushed her spoon around in the bowl of soup that sat before her. It had long since lost the warmth it received from the microwave, bits of grease had congealed on the surface and danced around like little sail boats, riding the currents from her spoon. The files the mysterious Dr. Torres had given her were spread out on the table. Each folder contained the initial paperwork the participants had filled out, when they had signed their lives away for $11,000 for 3 weeks time. It had now been almost two months since the "clinical trial" had begun.
Nausea ate away at Claire, and even if it were not for the lumps of fat and cold state of her soup she would not have been able to force it down. Claire had always hated knowing about the things people would resort to, in order to get some easy money, but in many ways this was worse. Most of these patients were people who would not resort to violence or crime to get the money they needed. So, they had tried to earn some honest money by auctioning off their bodies as test tubes.
There was a section in the initial paperwork where a reason for submitting for a clinical trail was required. The responses weighed on her heart, and made her despise herself for her comfortable lifestyle.
Claire couldn't force herself to open Thumar's file yet, but the four other files contained sad entries to that question. A young girl, Emily, was trying to earn money to be able to reclaim her baby back from government care. A young man, Steve, was fleeing an abusive parent and had no where to stay and no money to survive. An older woman, Lydia, was trying to make some extra money because her husband had always wanted to visit Spain and they never could afford it. The last was a middle aged woman, Noelle, who had recently been laid off and needed money to pay for the medications her father required.
Claire wasn't sure why the participants decided to pour their hearts out on those unyielding legal papers. Maybe they figured no one would ever read it, maybe they thought someone would and would want to help, maybe they just couldn't find anyone else to talk to.
Claire mentally cursed Dr. Torres, who she knew was using these files to manipulate her emotions. In case everything else wasn't enough, he had also been kind enough to enclose before and after pictures of patients. These pictures were not made for a commercial, they weren't Photoshopped or fake. They depicted real people and real change.
None of the before pictures depicted happy, smiling faces. Emily had dark bags under her weary eyes and lack hair. Steve looked tense in his picture and Claire could see scars and fresh bruises on the exposed parts of his body. Lydia fit the kindly grandmother stereotype, with puffy hair and old-fashioned clothing. Noelle's face was inscrutable, but her hands were knotted in her lap.
The after photos were the main cause of her stomach's unrest.
The after photographs seemed to be of dead people. None of the subjects eyes were open as they lay on a gurney with a simple hospital gown on. All of their skin was remarkable pale, their eyes were sunken, and their bodies significantly thinner.
The folder's assured her that, with the exception of Thumar, they were all alive. Even if that she true, Claire knew they really weren't. They were trapped in their minds and an imaginary world.
Claire just hoped she was strong enough to bring them back.
Claire stepped out of the taxi and stared at the bland looking office building in front of her. It was five stories high, stucco white and lacking any artistic embellishments such as columns or arched windows. The taxi driver's patience ran out, although she had only been standing there a moment, and he tooted the horn. Claire jerked slightly in surprise. She shut the door and hurried onto the sidewalk, afraid that the taxi might clip her in his haste to return to populated streets and more fares.
Still somewhat bemused over the lack of outward polish, Claire approached what appeared to be the front door and entered the lobby. A security guard with, what appeared to be, a real gun stood at attention in the antechamber--it really was too small to call a lobby, Claire decided--blocking the only other exit. The room had no furnishings at all; there was no chair for the guard to sit in, no desk to sit behind, and no security cameras to monitor.
Claire shifted uncomfortably under the weight of the security guard's measured glare and stoic countenance. Claire briefly contemplated turning tail and running away, but the memory of Thumar surfaced and urged her forward.
"Hehm. I'm, uh, looking for Dr. Torres..." Claire immediately criticized herself for the nervous sounding delivery. The more confident one acted, the more likely you were to get your way. Following that advice, Claire forced herself to look the man in the eyes and straighten her posture.
The guard noticed her change in demeanor and his hand dropped to his gun, "ID"
Claire's gaze had followed the movement of his hand and all her courage drained away. The death of her charade of confidence culminated in her instinctive recoil at his sudden and sharp command. "Oh. Of course."
Claire obediently rifled through her purse and produced her driver's license.
The security guard took it and examined it thoroughly, leaving Claire to stand there uneasily for, what felt like, 5 minutes. Finally he handed her the plastic card back and stepped aside. "Dr. Torres is expecting you."
"Thanks." Claire briefly considered asking for directions, but the guard's eye were firmly fixed on the door again. And, she really didn't want to spend any morre time in his presence anyways.
Claire stepped into the dimly lit hallway and was pleased to see that straight forward was the only direction in which she could travel. The carpet beneath her feet muffled her footsteps, though the emptiness of the seemed to magnify the sound of shifting fabric as she walked. Claire noted that this hallway had three security cameras in the short distance between the antechamber and a corner leading to the right. In fact, now Claire was fairly confident that the security camera could view the front door over the security guard's shoulder. The intimidating presence of the man--not to mention the gun--along with the darkness, was enough to render the cameras invisible.
Claire had just turned down that corner when Dr. Torres appears out of the elevator it dead-ended into.
"Welcome, Welcome!" Dr. Torres shook her hand enthusiastically. "I am so glad you made it out."
He ushered her into the elevator and click on a button marked with a B.
"Thank you, you have a chilly reception set out for anyone who wanders in." Claire mentioned.
"Well, this project is top secret. It is not like we want people wandering around the facility."
There was some merit to that, Claire reasoned, but surely the doctor realized that people knew locked doors were more likely to conceal hidden treasure than open doors. Claire shook that thought away. She wasn't here as a security consultant, and she wouldn't be of much help if she were. "Where are the participants of this "trial"?"
"We are headed for them now."
Claire frowned slightly, they had been in the elevator much longer than they should have been, considering she had entered on the first floor and they were only traveling to the basement. Claire opened her mouth to mention that, but the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open and that thought was thrown out of her mind.
The walls were all mirrored, her reflection bounced back at her from the wall directly ahead of her, but when she started trailing behind Dr. Torres, her reflection bounced off of the two walls next to her also. Vertigo made her stumble and almost fall, as her eyes swam with the vision of multiple selves and Dr. Torres and multiple hallways and space that continued to infinity.
"Oh, I'm sorry my dear. I forgot how disoriented this hallway is to those who have never been exposed to it. Just keep you eyes on the heels off my shoes and follow me." Dr. Torres kind voice washed over her and pulled her out of the confusion.
Claire swallowed her nausea and kept her eyes on his shoes, gratefully that no one had decided that the floor should be mirrored also. Claire was so busy ensuring that the contents of her stomach would remain were they were, that a brief conversation the doctor and other man had didn't register as anything more than sound and a brief moment of stillness which helped her regain her equilibrium. Unfortunately her peripheral vision would allow her to completely remove herself from the mirrored confusion. Then Dr. Torres was walking again. They made several turns before the mirrors disappeared, by Claire didn't know what turns they made. They might have gone in a complete circle for all she knew. Finally though, the mirrors disappeared and Claire looked up again.
Sadly, her relief only lasted a moment, because this room was also over stimulating. Although, it was what she had expected a high-tech computer lab to look like. The large room before her had glass partitions everywhere, some opaque, some clear. The room seemed endlessly large, such like the hallway of mirrors, because of the glass walls did nothing to minimize the vast expanse before her. In some of the rooms, figures clothed entirely in white worked amidst the vast towers of circuit boards and wires. Some workers wore normal clothes and worked only on consoles, not exposed electronics. Or that was what it looked like to her... Most of the electronic gismos were unnamed and their purpose unknown.
Claire felt lightheaded and dizzy again. Claire was certain that she was out of her league in this, how could she possibly help when she knew very little about computers and electronics?
Dr. Torres' hand took hers and his measured pace lead them through the glass maze. Claire noticed that a number of the technicians in the area stared at them as they passed. Claire recognized looks of surprise and even a hint of fear in their eyes, as though something unexpected and unwanted had happened. This response confused Claire, and she mediated on it as Dr. Torres led her through a few more turns and into a glass room. Once inside, Dr. Torres hit a button on the wall which turned the glass opaque.
Claire had seen glass that was capable of transforming like that before but was still impressed, and extremely grateful for it--she had gone into sensory overload and she definitely needed some time to recover.
Dr. Torres guided her to a chair and actually pressed down on her shoulder to ensure that she would sit. Claire smiled at this unnecessary action but obediently sat down, while Dr. Torres rushed to set a tray of refreshments in front of her. Claire did not talk as she made her coffee and then sipped it. By the time she was halfway through her cup, calmness had replaced her anxiety.
Claire cleared her throat, "A little warning would have been appreciated, doctor."
"Hrm, yes, I'm quite sorry about that, my dear. I was too excited by your arrival to remember my manners."
"I forgive you." A smile danced across her lips, "Although, I'm not sure I believe you. I think you wanted me to be suitably impressed by your facility here."
A slight blush crept across the older man's face and he admitted, "Perhaps, I might have thought that it would be more impressive without any forewarning."
"Well, I am suitable impressed. Why the mirrors, though?"
"Mostly just for appearances. I'm sure you will be waiting to meet the head programmer. He is a genius, only a few years younger than yourself, I think. He came up with the majority of the technologies used here, along with all the programming that went into the game. He understands it better than anyone else."
"Yes, I will definitely want to talk to him." Claire glanced around the spacious office, noting the refrigerator and doorway through which she could see a sink. "I am sure you have tried many times to rescue the people from the game. I can't imagine that your financier is pleased that you have had to bring in someone from outside the company to help. I would like to know what you have tried and the results of those trials. I also want to know how many of the players have already died and how many still remain trapped."
"Of course, of course. You shall have all the information you want."
Claire waited silently, in order to see if the doctor would answer any of her questions. He didn't. His arms were resting on top of his desk, and he was leaning forward slightly, conveying some sort of eagerness, but apparently that did not extend to helpfulness.
"How many have died, doctor?"
"Oh, please, call me Erik."
"You are dodging the question, Erik. Tell me how many have already died." Claire demanded.
The doctor, Erik, lost his look of hopefulness and slumped against his desk. His eyes retreated from hers, landed on the tray and stayed there. "I can't--"
Claire said nothing. He would tell her, or she would leave. She needed complete cooperation in order to do this job.
Finally, Erik sighed and admitted, "Twelve."
Claire sat back in her chair, horror filling her as she stared at Erik. Twelve people already dead... from a game. Stunned silence filled the room for a few minutes, both occupants busy with their own thoughts.
"Okay." Claire drew in a deep breath. "Let's make sure it stays that way. Take me to see the programmer. We need to start as soon as possible."