The New Program
Sam T Willis
The Primer, Book 3
Copyright 2017 Sam T Willis
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Table of Contents
“What you’re talking about is a non-surgical lobotomy, Mr…?”
“My name isn’t important.” His expression never wavers, even when he’s speaking, and his teeth are so impossibly white I’m starting to wonder if they’re fake. This guy’s smile could be weaponized. He refuses to divulge his name and stays emotionlessly glued to the most outlandish sales pitch I’ve ever heard. “What is important, Mrs. Trembley, is that we all understand each other here. No one is talking about lobotomies. It’s natural to have some emotional response to the prospect of drastic change, and we understand that, but we’re all on the same side here. Ultimately, you want to help these people, correct? Rehabilitation is our goal, too.”
I open a chat window with Warden Jacobs, who’s sitting silently on the call, and tell him that what I really want is to wipe the smile off the nameless, patronizing sleaze-bag’s face. But I don’t say that out loud, because that would be an unprofessional, emotional response, and he’s already getting dangerously close to playing the “women are irrational” card. And then I would actually get angry, and he’d try to blame my reaction on pregnancy somehow, as if that was any better. After that I’d have to irrationally climb through the computer screen and stab him in the face with my jaunty, nautical-themed letter opener. “The key difference, Mr. Doe, appears to be in our definitions of rehabilitation. In my definition, it’s a process the inmates take part in. They retain their free will throughout, and it’s ultimately up to them to internalize the process and value of making good decisions. Am I correct in assuming you’ve never worked directly with inmates?”
“My team has established itself in several facilities over the last few months, actually.”
“Your team. Not you. I’ve been counseling inmates for more than a decade. You should trust me when I say there’s no such things as a magic bullet for behavioral rehabilitation. You should also stop trying to sell the idea that that’s what you’re actually doing. I’ve looked over the documentation you shared with us, and it reads like a pamphlet on the virtues of brainwashing.”
The Warden just finished typing back, because he’s apparently too intimidated by the anonymous man with the crew cut to actually speak on the line. “Let it go, Marcia, it’s a done deal. All you’re doing is hurting yourself.” I click the window shut without bothering to respond.
“I would be glad to bring in a few members of the development team to take you through the science of it, if that will make things easier. I’m sure they’ll be much better able to show you just how far our therapeutic program is from brainwashing than I am. I can assure you, at the very least, that every single thing our program does is entirely reversible.”
“I fail to see what your development team could possibly tell me that could change my point of view. I mean, morally speaking, surely you can see what I’m struggling with. You’re talking about fundamentally changing human personalities. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think we can allow your program to move forward at this prison.” It’s impossible to tell if I’m getting through to this man; his smile is as wide as ever. I’d expect a big, important operative from Washington to show more offense at being lectured by a mere functionary like me, but if anything he seems to be enjoying it.
A new message from Jacobs appears on my screen, right over the nameless man’s mouth. A long string of exclamation points, no actual words.
John Doe’s voice is halting when he replies, like he’s fighting back a laugh that’s trying to escape. “I think you’ve misunderstood the situation here. This is a Federal prison, you understand, and this program is being mandated by the Bureau of Prisons with the consent of the Attorney General. I’m afraid you don’t have a say in whether or not it moves forward. This meeting is ultimately a courtesy to bring you up-to-speed on what’s coming.” He pauses for a second, still smiling, savoring his trump card.
I know I’m fighting a losing battle. That doesn’t mean I can’t try to annoy them so much that they give up and take their program somewhere else. I’m pretty sure I can muster that level of unmitigated obnoxiousness. “I intend to write to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to register my complaints.”
The nameless man waves a hand apathetically in front of his webcam. “By all means. But I’d advise you to keep your complaints generic and at a high level. The details of this program are strictly classified, and uttering them via public communication channels such as email or the Postal Service is considered disclosure of classified information, and is punishable by up to ten years in the Federal prison system. I believe you’re familiar with their work.”
A threat. So he’s probably not a robot. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to a real reaction from him, but what can I actually do with it? Threatening to reveal classified information would be an amazingly efficient way to lose my job, or to wind up in prison. I hesitate for a second, but think better of pressing on that particular argument. There will be other ways to make trouble. “Understood. I appreciate the advice.”
He nods and makes a bit of a show of looking down at his watch. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to cut our discussion off here; I’ve got another meeting to get to. I’m sure this is just the first of many times we three will meet, and I look forward to continuing this spirited discussion after you’ve had some time to get used to the program.”
The video feed disappears, throwing Warden Jacobs back up on my screen. He’s red in the face, shaking his head slowly back and forth, and looking down at his desk. He apparently hasn’t yet realized that we’re both still on the line. I clear my throat, which makes him jump, but at least gives him a split second to gather himself before I speak. That’s about all I can muster as far as trying not to be insubordinate goes.
“He’s gone, sir, you can speak now.”
He looks up slowly, and the red hasn’t subsided at all from his cheeks. He’s not going to yell, though, that’s not Jacobs’s style. Just like it’s not his style to stand up to the anonymous Federal agent who thinks he can coopt our entire prison. “Marcia. You are actually killing me. That call took ten, fifteen years off the end of my life.”
Since he never actually raises his voice, it’s difficult to get a read on how upset he actually is. I could be hazarding my career by talking back to him right now, or I could be taking my only chance to justify myself before what just happened crystalizes in his mind. Since I’m already apparently in the mood to take risks I just give up and go for it. “You see what I’m saying, right? These people have rights; we can’t just let some shadowy science program come in here and turn them into robots. You can’t do that to people.”
His hands are resting flat on his desk like he’s trying to stop it from escaping. “You’re exaggerating the situation to an absurd degree, Marcia, and I think you know that. It’s a new form of therapy with a remarkably high success rate. That’s all it is. You should be excited about it. No one is going to come out of it a robot or brainwashed, they’re simply going to come out of it reformed. Perhaps you’re not….”
“If you say I’m not thinking clearly because I’m pregnant I’m going to walk up to your office and beat you to death with a crib bumper. Don’t think I won’t do it; I’ve got the ugliest one you’ve ever seen in my trunk.”
He cracks a smile. So he can’t be that angry. I’m probably not going to get fired today.
“Listen, all I’m asking is that you give this program a chance. It’s not like you really have a choice, they’re coming in no matter what. Just keep an open mind, see what the results look like, before you try to take on the entire federal government.”
“Just let them brainwash a few people before I decide if brainwashing is a bad thing? And when it turns out it is?”
He heaves a long, rattling sigh. “They say the process is completely reversible.”
“There’s a difference between saying it can be reversed and promising to reverse it.”
He nods slowly, silently tipping me off to the fact that, despite his arguments against me, he’s one hundred percent on board with what I’m saying. At least I assume that’s what that nod means. I don’t know. His tone, at this point, is more apologetic than anything else. It feels like there’s something else he wants to say. “I don’t know what more I can tell you. What’s done is done, we’re just going to have to wait and see what this whole operation looks like.”
I mumble something that I can plausibly deny has any swears in it, kill the video feed, and get up from my desk. My back is killing me. Maybe this will all look different after I take a walk. A long one.
The new program starts completely outside my efforts to stop it. They move a team into the old library, repurpose the space into their facility over the course of two days, and start seeing patients almost immediately thereafter. The whole thing operates with military precision, even their doctors. Despite Mr. Doe’s insistence that they would be happy to explain things to me, they seem barely willing to exchange pleasantries. I’ve been copying down their nametags onto a legal pad just in case.
It’s amazing how well they all seem to know the twisting corridors of the sprawling prison, despite only having been here for a week. New employees spend their first couple months getting lost over and over behind the bars that separate each block and each generation of hallway. Not these guys, though; I’ve yet to see one even consult a map. And they seem to know all of the inmates who have been selected for the program on sight, before they ever actually meet. All of my requests for a list of test subjects have been, so far, denied. It’s not like I could possibly have a legitimate interest in the care the inmates I supervise are receiving.
It’s late Tuesday morning, which means it’s time for my counseling sessions. Since my promotion I’ve only kept a few cases to myself. I tell myself it’s just the toughest ones, but that’s not entirely true. Just the tough ones that I’ve had for a good, long time. Lifers I’ve developed a relationship with. For each one of them I have a little narrative in my head, all these signs of progress that I’m probably imagining, and a path forward that ends with them understanding the exact weight of their crimes, and internalizing an earnest desire to make things right. Not that I’m unrealistic about their chances. I’d take a one-in-ten success rate any day.
My first appointment, with Rodney Sturgis, is perfectly normal. Rodney is a roller coaster of a case. He spends some sessions locked in awkward, surly silence, staring at the floor and answering my questions with grunts. Sometimes he’s genuinely forthcoming, and I’ll get thirty minutes of productive conversation, mostly on the abject hopelessness that comes with a life sentence, sometimes with the slightest hint of remorse sprinkled in. Today, though, he’s chosen to show his belligerent side. He spends much of the appointment on his feet, waving a finger at me and ranting about his unflappable loyalty to…something. Some vague concept of comradery from his past life, something he likely only half remembers. He’s done this before, and I’ve found the only thing to do is roll through the appointment and conclude in the exact same place as where we began. I’ll have to find some time later to imagine a few miniscule hints at progress to keep myself going.
The second appointment is always one of the most interesting half-hour blocks of my week. Gunther, who insists on being called “Gun,” has been one of my favorites for years. He’s quite unrepentant about the triple homicide for which he pled “Not-Guilty” whilst offering essentially no defense. He claims extensive connections to the Russian mob, but has never produced a statement about them that was more substantive than “Just you wait. When I give them the signal there’s going to be hell to pay.” He’s been in here since he was a kid, just on the wrong side of eighteen, and he seems to be unable to take his lot in life seriously. Everything is just a play to him, something to talk through with a fake Russian accent and faker bravado. He’s more talker than anything, just a ball of untapped energy and words. He goes on and on, and I barely need to speak.
Today, though, it strikes me the moment the CO brings him through the door. His posture is different, the slouch is gone; he’s standing up perfectly straight, and he makes eye contact with me as he crosses from the door and sits down in the chair opposite my desk. There’s no sign of the constant motion I’m used to; he’s sitting stock-still in his chair as the CO backs out and closes the door behind him. He’s staring at me with this hard, blank expression. It’s a strange sensation, seeing him act like this. Like I’m looking at a mannequin wearing his face.
“It’s good to see you again, Gunther.” He doesn’t correct me. It’s literally the first time he hasn’t practically fallen over himself to insist I use his nickname. “Would you like to talk about anything specifically today, or should we just pick up where we left off last week?”
It takes him a long time to say anything, like he’s trying to translate my words in his brain before responding. When he does speak he’s much quieter than usual, and his on-again, off-again Russian accent has dissipated entirely. “I have nothing to talk about.”
And that’s it. He’s silent after that, staring straight into my eyes like he can’t look away. This is the first time I’ve been in a room with one of their test subjects. I think they chose him just to make the transformation as drastic as possible. It takes me a few seconds of sitting in silence to realize I’ve got a conversation to run, the normal counseling protocol seems miles away. “All right, then, I suppose I’ll just have to choose our topic. I’d like to hear what you have to say about the new rehabilitation program. I understand you’re a member.”
Again, there’s a long pause before he says anything at all. “It’s fine.”
“Fine. I see.” He still can speak, at least, and provide simple responses. I’m scribbling observations on my legal pad, every detail I can think of, though I’m not sure why I bother. Posture. Lethargy. Unfocused eyes. “Care to elaborate? What, specifically, is fine about it?”
“It’s the same as anything else.”
Six words again. That seems to be the limit so far. I probably shouldn’t be asking him about the program, that’s probably a breach of some kind of confidentiality rules, but they haven’t actually cared enough to mention anything to me, so I decide I’m within my rights to keep poking. “So, in the program, you do exactly what we’re doing right now? You sit in my office and talk to me? There must be something else to it.”
The longest silence yet. It seems as if he doesn’t have the force of will to make himself speak, and has to muster the energy. If he were exhausted, though, he wouldn’t be sitting like he had a metal pole in the back of his shirt. “I sit in the room where the library used to be. A man asks questions and leaves. They turn the lights off; I sit in the dark. They turn the lights on and a guard brings me to my cell. The same as anything else.”
I write as quickly as I can, trying to capture his words exactly, as well as note the complete lack of inflection or any kind of enthusiasm in his voice. Gunther normally sounds almost like a teacher’s pet in a classroom: full of life and excitement even regarding the mundane, using the accent only when he’s going slowly enough to remember. This is a completely different person. But I know I shouldn’t allow my side of the conversation to remain silent for too long, not when I’m getting actual information out of him, so I respond while I’m still writing. “How does it make you feel? When they leave you alone in the darkness?”
“Is there anything, in particular, about that room that you would say is calming? The darkness, for instance?”
He stares back at me like I’ve asked him to explain something that’s impossible to put into words, his mouth slightly open. His breath is so shallow he doesn’t move perceptibly, and I haven’t caught him blinking yet. I decide to try a different approach to the same idea. “Do you like the new program?”
The rest of the half hour is similarly unproductive. When Gunther leaves I have another appointment, and then another. The last one of the day, right before lunch, stands out from the rest in more ways than one. Corey is the king of his cell block, something like six foot eight and three hundred pounds. What little society we allow to develop inside our walls flows through him: a giant, invincible figure who seems to know everything about everything. He’s also been my ray of light, my great success shining in a weary world. In the office with me, he talks at length about his leadership role, how he uses it to construct meaning and hope in the lives of men who have none. He seems to think he’s doing my job for me: building productive members of society who are, if not actually remorseful for their past actions, at least aware of their crimes and a need to strive for a different life. We’ve debated both of our effectiveness at length, and I’ve found him to be more than an adequate sparring partner. Corey says my whole worldview is founded on delusional optimism, and I say similar things about his. Every Tuesday I come home with a head full of our conversations, and every Tuesday my husband asks if I’m secretly in love.
That’s not going to happen this week. Corey is normally soft-spoken—to be sure—but not like this. He’s completely silent except when asked a direct and concrete question, holds unwavering eye contact, has perfect posture, and holds no definite opinions. I push him [_hard, _]searching for some spark of the humanist philosopher I’ve spent ten years getting to know, but he’s at least as difficult to communicate with as Gunther was. At the same time, this isn’t the same as taming a case of ADHD. This is something I have to force myself not to take personally. By the time the appointment is over I’m not thinking straight. My mind won’t settle on anything. Damn it.
I spend lunch trapped in my head. There has to be a way to organize these thoughts into something productive. Or something better than pointless. It strikes me as I imagine Gunther and Corey side-by-side: polar opposites in appearance, but acting exactly the same. I’m going to record them and put them right next to lobotomy videos from the archives. Jacobs will get to see how this looks for himself, and think of what the newspapers will say when they find out. This is too dramatic a change to stay hidden for long; one of these men is going to have a visitor, then the whole prison gets dragged through the mud. I type up everything I’ve got in my head and written down while completely neglecting my food. The email I send Jacobs will have to be perfect. So dramatic he won’t be able to ignore it. At some point I get myself convinced that I’m actually going to be able to change something by doing this. The delusional optimism is seeping into another aspect of my life.
“You’re still on your feet?”
I get the question about thirty times a day, but it seems especially prevalent in those rare instances when I come up to the administrative offices. It’s slightly more tiresome each time they ask, making me consider going on leave just to avoid the constant interrogation. It’s even more annoying, I find, when I’m trying to rush down the hall because I happen to be late for a meeting. I mumble my response as I pass without breaking stride, something to the tune of “to the bitter end,” and round the doorway into the mini-office that leads to the Warden’s office.
His door is propped open—I presume that means he’s expecting me—so I just push in without knocking. Jacobs adjusts his glasses and waves for me to take a seat, his body language as perfectly neutral as ever. He looks like he’s aged a good fifteen years in the past few weeks; I’d like to assume the new program is to blame, but who knows? A lot goes into managing a prison of this size. I close the door behind me and sit myself down slowly, lest I fall into the chair instead.
“We’re not stopping the program, Marcia. You know that.”
His voice is calm, slow, and at least a little patronizing. With no excuse to waste time on pleasantries, I go straight into my prepared statement, which I wish I’d brought notes for, but oh well, it’s too late now. Off I go. “You watched the videos I sent?”
“I didn’t need to watch the videos. I know what’s in them, and it doesn’t change anything.”
“You really should watch them. The lobotomy videos, at least, then come down to the floor and talk to the inmates themselves. The similarities are startling. Blank expressions, decreased appetites, improved posture, any number of things have changed. They’ve stopped talking for the most part, too. I’m going to start testing basic cognitive functions next week to see how much damage has been done. In the meantime, I need you to suspend the program. I know you have the capacity to intervene if there’s an emergency that threatens the health of the inmates. If this doesn’t constitute and emergency, I don’t know what does.”
He lays his hands flat on the desk like he’s working up to something, but his voice stays calm and slow. His ability to maintain the appearance of composure, regardless of the situation, is probably what got him the position in the first place. “First off, you will not be testing the cognitive functions of any inmates. Do you understand me?”
“I understand you, but if you’ll just….”
“No, I will not. I won’t be watching your videos, I won’t be interrogating the inmates, and I won’t listen to your arguments again. There is nothing I can do to intercede here, nor do I believe there is cause for me to do so. The program is going well by all accounts. The inmates who have already started have shown remarkable behavioral improvements. Not signs of brain damage, Marcia, behavioral improvements. We have zero complaints—zero, other than yours—from prisoners, from COs, or from your subordinates. There’s no reason to keep fighting this. The new program is working.”
Wow. I take a deep breath, reminding myself carefully not to shout at my boss. I really, really want to scream in his face, though. “You don’t believe a word of that, sir.” Then I take on a lower tone. “Do you?”
“I believe you may be imagining a large portion of this problem.”
He may be an expert at keeping his cool, but I’m struggling to match the effort. I take a moment to calm down before going back to the plan. “You’re aware of this facility’s history with lobotomy, sir?”
The vein in his forehead bulges. “Of course I am. My father worked here when I was a kid. When they were cleaning that horrible program up.”
“Have you ever seen what a person acts like following a lobotomy?”
I can see actual anger on his face. This is probably a mistake. “Enough with lobotomies. We are not performing lobotomies, not in any form, in this prison. Forget about it. You’re caught up in sensationalism; I would have expected better from you.”
“Blank expressions. Decreased appetites. Less aggressive behavior, decreased cognitive functions. Reduced capacity for speech. Other than the posture, which is probably indicative of nerve damage or back pain that they’re unable to cope with properly due to other impairments, everything we’re seeing is consistent with intentionally administered brain damage. That’s not sensationalism, that’s easily observable fact.”
He lifts up his glasses to rub his eyes and nose. That one landed, at least. “What it is is confirmation bias. You were never going to see anything but the worst in this program. By all means, you can continue hating it if you want—I can’t stop you there—but you need to do it quietly.”
His voice sounds less like chastisement and more like pleading than I would have expected. It’s some kind of confirmation—at least—that he doesn’t have his head completely in the sand. A small rhetorical victory for me, and it makes this whole thing make more sense. “You’re actually frightened of these people.”
He pulls open a drawer in his desk, seemingly at random, and starts rifling through a pile of binder clips while staring at them like it requires his undivided attention. “I think we’re talked about this enough for now. We can meet again later.”
“We’re in the middle of a conversation here!” Deep breath, deep breath. “What did they do?”
“Listen to yourself.” His voice is loud. This is the closest I’ve ever heard him get to yelling. “This isn’t some movie, there’s no shakedown going on here.”
“Then why are you so frightened?” No response. “There’s a man without a name barking orders, for Christ’s sake. What do you think they’re going to do?” Still no response. “Sir, if they’ve threatened you we need to report it, or….”
“No one has threatened anyone, Marcia.”
“You weren’t listening when he threatened to imprison me for complaining to his boss?”
His voice is back down to its normal level, even after the interruption. Even if I hit a nerve before he has it under control now. “Your imagination is running away with you, as I said earlier. Everything to do with the program is classified. He was just looking out for your well-being, just like I am right now. You’ve got a baby on the way; you can’t be trying to undermine Federal law enforcement.”
“What happens when one of these men gets a visitor? The families are going to know immediately, and they’re going to ask questions. Are they going to be arrested too? Is John Doe going to intimidate them?”
He frowns but doesn’t miss a beat. “You haven’t done any research on the inmates in the program, have you? Every single one they’ve recruited is on a life sentence, and not one has had a visitor in more than a year. These are forgotten men. I didn’t have a choice about this program coming here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t done my homework. At least three other sites have been running the thing, for longer than we have. I talked to their people and they don’t have any complaints. The whole thing looks ugly from the outside, but there’s nothing there. I dug.”
“And you’re sure that these positive reviews are legitimate? That these people aren’t afraid to speak out against the program?”
He puts his hands up in the air and shakes his head, looking down at his desk instead of at me. He keeps shaking it for the whole time he’s talking. “First you’re obsessed with lobotomies, now it’s intimidation. I don’t know, okay? How can you know? I dug and I’ve talked to people I trust, and everyone says all the right things. They all agree the program looks shady, but I don’t know. Just because it looks shady doesn’t mean it is.”
There’s a resignation, or a something in his voice. Jacobs has known about this program for a lot longer than I have—he’s gone through the mental argument already—and he’s given up. I should take his word for it and do the same. It’s not like there’s anything I can do to stop it anyways. But he doesn’t actually know. And everything points in the opposite direction. “It’s hard to swallow. If it quacks like a duck….”
“Sometimes it’s just a really convincing fake duck.” He stops, frowning, and folds his hands. “I don’t know. I’m not sure how to make that metaphor make sense. The point is that there is nothing there. But don’t take my word for it, make some calls. Leavenworth and Allenwood have had the program for a couple months now. The Unit Supervisors there should have more to say about it than I do. I’m sure they already asked all the questions you want to ask, anyways. Better to get the answers from them instead of what’s-his-name.”
I don’t know anyone in Leavenworth or Allenwood, but it’s worth a shot. I nod and repeat the names in my head a few times, trying to make sure not to lose them while simultaneously trying to figure out how I’d even go about contacting Correctional Unit Supervisors at other prisons. I’ve never tried it before. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate the advice, and your patience. I understand this imposition is probably harder for you than it is for me.”
“Just promise me you’ll be smart. You’re going to give me a heart attack.”
I’ve gathered a list of Corrections Unit Supervisors at Allenwood and Leavenworth, asked around a bit to pinpoint the people who actually have hands in the new program, and put in calls. It was surprisingly easy; apparently we’re all better connected to one another than I’d ever expected. Now, though, I’m on to the hard part: waiting for a call back. It’s been several days, the program is progressing of its own volition, and nothing I’ve seen to this point has done anything to assuage my fears. If anything, it seems worse than I thought. The number of affected inmates has grown, those who have been in the program for three weeks now have become even more withdrawn, and the other inmates are starting to notice. Three different program inmates have been flagged as potential suicide risks. We’ve seen no evidence that they actually [_are _]a danger to themselves, but monitoring has been stepped up regardless. Which means the new program is costing us overtime, and subsequently money, and that flies in the face of all the promises of cost savings they made to sell it.
I’m in my office now, trying to take it easy and find something else to think about that won’t keep my adrenaline levels elevated for the next six hours, when an email comes in from an account labeled “Long-term Incarceration Research and Rehabilitation Group (LIRRG),” a name I haven’t seen before but is easy to place. What an unwieldy label they’ve chosen for themselves. There’s no actual human identity attached to the email, just that of their organization. What these people have against names I have no idea.
To Whom It May Concern,
Effective immediately, preventative supervision of LIRRG volunteers has been suspended. Extensive psychological testing and a preponderance of data have determined these volunteers are not threats to themselves or other inmates. We thank you for your concern, but ask that any future changes to the care of volunteers be cleared through LIRRG representatives prior to implementation. Failure to comply with this regulation could compromise experimental data and constitutes grounds for employee disciplinary action up to and including termination.
Wow, that’s some email. My instinct, which is probably driven by an underlying foul mood, is to send something back that’s as long as this one is terse. A nice, five-plus page email explaining exactly what protocol is supposed to be in a Federal facility when one or more inmates flag another as a danger to himself. Not that I think I’d change anyone’s mind—I’ve long since given up that delusion—but perhaps just to demonstrate that they’re dealing with actual, reasoning human beings. People who are good at their jobs and don’t appreciate being shuffled to the side with a few brusque sentences. But that would probably be considered grounds for “employee disciplinary action,” and would be a waste of time besides. These people are too good at making people into robots to think of them as humans any more.
The phone rings, making me jump about halfway out of my skin. While I catch my breath the baby does a cartwheel of protest. The phone rings again, and it’s somehow only about half as jarring as the first one. One more deep, bracing breath, then I answer. “USP Odessa, this is CUS Trembley speaking.”
“Ms. Trembley! How are you? Ryan Solomon, USP Allenwood returning your call.”
He sounds enthusiastic, probably young. I’m still working on not having a heart attack.
“Mr. Solomon, thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I just wanted to get in touch with you regarding the Long-term Incarceration Research and Rehabilitation Group. I understand you’ve been working with them for a few months now.”
I can hear him typing through the phone. Typing fast, and kind of a lot, enough to make the receiver bob up and down on his shoulder. “Yes, I’ve been kind of their point-of-contact here. Not that they need much contact, they operate basically autonomously. Like a military outfit. Are you getting the program down there in Odessa?”
“They just started here, actually, almost three weeks ago.”
He stops typing and takes a long, inward breath, holds it for a second, then his words come tumbling out in something like an extended sigh. “Things are just starting to get strange down there, then? Don’t worry about it, really. Everyone is going to need a couple more weeks to adjust to the behavioral changes, but before long you’re going to grow to love this program. They singlehandedly shut down three of our most problematic groups, just by bringing in a few key volunteers. Incidents are down across the board.”
He doesn’t sound like anyone has a gun to his head, but I wish I could see his face while we talk. Or maybe if I could hook him up to a polygraph. Just to be sure, not that I’m obsessed or anything. “We’re starting to see similar results, and I agree, that part of it is promising. But what I’m really interested in are any concerns you have with their methods, with the direct effect they’re having on the inmates they select for their program.”
“I’ll need to think about that one for a second; I want to give you a good answer, but honestly nothing springs to mind.” Then he, from the sound of it, turns the receiver away from his face and starts typing again, muttering to himself. For long enough that it makes me start to wonder if he’s forgotten we’re in the middle of a conversation. I clear my throat loudly, hoping he’s still close enough to actually hear me, and that seems to bring him back to the phone. “Sorry. It’s just a hard question. I mean, the men these people have singled out, they were hopeless cases. Lifers, every last one of them, long histories of behavioral problems, their families have given up on them. Every single one is a completely different person now.”
“That doesn’t strike you as problematic?”
He half-laughs. I wasn’t aware I’d made a joke. “The only problem I see is that they might have found a way to put people like us out of a job. I’m sorry if I’m not giving you the answer you’re looking for, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. The LIRRG is doing good work, they’re doing God’s work. Just give them a little time. You’ll get used to the weird little ticks, and you’ll learn to love how much easier your job is.”
Jacobs was right, anyways. The other prisons haven’t been complaining about this program, not like I have. It seems impossible that I’m the only one who has a problem with the LIRRG. Even the sound of their name is abrasive. “You’re telling me that you have absolutely no moral objection to a group of researchers medically altering the personalities of human beings?”
“Careful how detailed you get on the phone, Ms. Trembley. There are, err…some of the information is really closely guarded.”
Oh, fine. I’ll play the “don’t say the dangerous words” game. “You don’t see anything morally wrong with the drastic changes that are occurring? With the fact that they’re calling these inmates volunteers when they don’t have the legal standing to consent to joining a clinical trial? That this program, as wonderful as it is, is so secret that you can’t even discuss it over the phone?”
“It’s going to be okay, Ms. Trembley. Really. I don’t know what cause getting all bent out of shape about this serves. The fact is that the program has been mandated by the Federal government. They get exactly the results they promised they were going to get, and the end result is that some extremely problematic inmates are more balanced emotionally and better able to cope with the stresses of incarcerated life. The program has the added effect of making our jobs much easier, and eventually reducing the number of COs we need to keep on the floor during a given shift. The LIRRG gets the research they want, the inmates get an improved quality of life, we get a reduction in stress at work, and the prison itself saves money. There is no loser in this situation. I know it’s different, and I know it’s scary to think that a program like this is probably going to make people like you and me unnecessary in ten or fifteen years, but this is real progress. These people are being reached in ways that our councilors could never get to them. It’s a good thing. Enjoy it.”
And that’s it, I’m done. Solomon made my brain explode and I’m dead now. Maybe I’m being crazy, maybe he’s right. Maybe we’re both right, but it doesn’t even matter if these people, who are never going to see the outside of the prison anyways, are having their brains altered. Maybe it’s better for them. Wow, though, I can’t believe I just thought that. They’re even starting to get to me. I’ve got to stop thinking about this stuff before I lose my mind. While I’m trying to set my thoughts on anything else, and my blood is starting to boil itself over for the second time in the last ten minutes, the floor alarm goes off. The buzzer and flashing light combined are just about enough to kill me. Again.
I come rushing, or as close as I can get to it, out of my office and look for any sign of which way to go. Two COs head by to the left, looking flustered, so I turn and follow them, doing my best to keep pace. The alarm is less oppressive in the hallway, but it’s already had any effect on me it’s going to have. Now that I think of it, Solomon was right about one thing: this is the first alarm since the program started weeks ago. Violent incidents are way down. I can definitely see the appeal.
A third guard comes jogging up alongside me, a woman I don’t know well at all, and she puts her hand on my shoulder like we’re friends. “Ma’am, you don’t need to respond to this. We can take care of it.”
The hell I don’t. This is my correctional unit. I don’t say that out loud, of course, because I must project an air of professionalism even when being patronized. “I’m fine, but thank you for your concern.” Surprisingly hard to speak while moving at slightly faster than a normal walk. Maybe I do need to slow it down. “All alarms in this area are ultimately my responsibility to resolve. I plan to be there to resolve them.”
She sounds apologetic, at least, which is a step in the right direction even if she’s apologetic about the wrong thing. “I just meant, you know, because of the baby.”
“I know what you meant.” She winces. I snapped a little harder than I meant to. Hard to keep track of your tone when you’re realizing just how long this damn hallway is, and you really want to stop for a second to catch your breath but at this point you can’t because it’s become a matter of pride. I’ll just have to fight through it, pretend like this isn’t the first time I’ve exerted myself in a month. “I’m not on leave yet, and while I’m still here I plan to continue doing my job as normal.”
We round the corner, I steal a glance at her and see the frown of thought. She’s trying to find a way to say what she wants to say without invoking further wrath. I can make no promises until I hear what she has to say. “It…you know; it could be dangerous. Responding to a violent incident is normally CO work….”
In that, at least, she’s technically correct. We arrive in the cafeteria a few strides behind the group we’d been following to find three inmates under restraint being led out of the room, and the situation still out of control. I can make out Corey towering over everyone else at the center of it, standing there with his arms behind his back—someone punches him in the face half a second after I cross into the room, and he doesn’t so much as flinch. There are two more next to him, program inmates, just standing there and taking it, but I can’t tell who they are through the mass of people. Regardless of how tough they may be, though, you can only just stand there and let a room full of people beat on you for so long.
While the COs are dragging people out of the pile one-by-one, I manage to catch a voice I know somewhere in the middle of the scrum. “Just move, man! Do anything!” It’s Rodney, shrieking like he’s desperate, and I catch a glimpse of him taking a swing at one of the three men in the middle just as the guard I’d run in with darts forward and tries to grab him. And she was trying to convince me this was too dangerous. I follow along after her, trying to keep clear of the edge of the rumble, and catch up to her as she locks a rather flimsy full nelson on Rodney, who could toss her in a few tries if he’d wanted to bother. I get myself right in his face before he can struggle too much, and the sight of me seems to slow him down.
“What the hell are you thinking, Rodney? They’re not even fighting back! What kind of a man hits someone who won’t fight back?”
He moves like he’s struggling to get away, but it doesn’t look convincing. If anything, he’s probably grateful for the excuse to stop. He won’t make eye contact, he staring down at the floor, and I’m expecting the silent treatment. I wait a few seconds for him to say anything, knowing I’m just going to have to give up on him if we don’t want to stand here for an hour. Then, unprompted, he breaks character.
“That’s the damn point! When’s the last time C-Ton let a man hit him and didn’t put him in a hospital bed? He ain’t even still there, man, look at him.” I spare a glance, and Corey’s still standing in the exact same spot, his face bloodied and jumpsuit torn, but standing at attention like he’s waiting for his drill sergeant to come back. The fight around him has died down, each of the attackers had been subdued and most of them are already being led out of the room towards solitary. If we even have enough cells down there. “Man is dead inside. He used to be my brother, now he’s a damn zombie-mannequin-ass-living dead.”
And it’s not that I don’t agree with him, but this is not a test I’d ever have thought to run. Something Solomon said pops into my head. Everyone is going to need a few more weeks to get used to the changes. Everything’s just starting to get strange. A few key inmates. I didn’t get him before, but we was dropping hints. The selection process wasn’t random. Solomon knew exactly what was going to happen. My dislike for that man only grows at the thought; the responsible thing would have been to give me fair warning on possible inmate reactions. That’s not the situation right in front of me now, though. I need to deal with this before I can worry about that.
“I understand your concern about the sudden and dramatic changes in a few of your fellow inmate’s behavior, but that doesn’t come close to justifying attacking them like this. You understand that, don’t you? You’re going to have to take a turn in solitary for this.”
He twists his face up to respond, no doubt with something openly hostile, but before he actually manages to get a word out the overmatched CO holding his arms calls to me over his shoulder. “We actually got new orders this past weekend. No more solitary in response to violent incidents, not for life sentences at least. The Long-term Incarceration Research and Rehabilitation Group is taking over disciplinary actions in these cases. Something about cost savings.”
I take a step back and close my eyes. There are a few too many moving parts here, and my head is spinning from trying to figure out how they all fit together. Rodney and I make eye contact, I think both of us have the same wide-with-fear expression. He knows at least as well as I do what discipline from LIRRG consists of, and he doesn’t want any part of it. I’m not thinking fast enough to come up with a way to get around this, not when I already told him he was going to solitary. A few more seconds of hesitation pass, then I decide to just throw caution to the wind.
“We’re going to let the disciplinary action slide just this once, I think. Call it extenuating circumstances. We’ll do an extra counseling session this week to ensure we don’t have further incidents.”
Rodney exhales for the first time since the CO spoke. And then she speaks again. “Are you sure, ma’am? We’ve been given explicit instructions—no one is allowed to take inmates out of the LIRRG program. It’s considered insubordination, and could put your job….”
“I know what they said. What I’m telling you is that, as the Supervisor of this unit, it is my judgment that this particular inmate does not need disciplinary action at this time, and thus has not been admitted into the LIRRG program. If they take issue with me doing my job you can feel free to direct them to my office. I would be happy to explain myself to them. In the meantime, please release Mr. Sturgis, as he does not constitute a threat to himself, nor those around him at this time.”
She lets him go. By now we’re the only people in the cafeteria, so the whole scene feels oddly personal. The CO takes her leave, leaving me alone with Rodney in this awkward silence. If he appreciates the rescue his pride won’t allow him to say anything about it. I, at least, can take comfort in doing one good turn. And risking my job in the process.
A few days have passed since the fight in the cafeteria, and things have calmed down considerably. I also haven’t been fired—so far—for my defiance of the LIRRG edict on discipline. I’ve decided, at this point, that I’m all alone. Corey was proof of the Warden’s complete submission to the program. He may have even been LIRRG’s [_gift _]to him: a key inmate whose neutralization massively disrupts the prison social hierarchy. I haven’t had a clear thought, or an early night, in days. Now I’m pulling into my driveway even later than I have been, and something is amiss. There’s a big, black SUV with super tinted windows parked up against the curb in front of my house. It’s the only car parked on the street for as far as I can see in either direction. There is no dearth of driveway spots in the area, either. This is a person at my house. The lights are on inside; from the driveway I can see my husband crossing from the dining room into the kitchen. He’s probably putting dinner together. Whatever I assumed was going on for a second there disappears, I turn off the car, and head inside.
Right when I close the door behind me Brent’s voice calls out. “Finally! I was beginning to wonder if they’d mistaken you for one of the prisoners.”
I drop my bag on the table by the door, kick my shoes off, and follow his voice towards the kitchen. “I think that joke gets funnier every time I hear it.” Then, when I get to the doorway, I stop dead. The man with no name is in my kitchen, leaning against the counter, and drinking a beer. He smiles at me and tips the beer in my direction, a gesture that’s supposed to mean something, but I can’t fathom what.
“Your friend here was just telling me how he’s a wizard.”
Brent’s zipping around the kitchen like a crazy person, apparently in the midst of preparing a meal that’s much more elaborate than we’d normally eat on a weekday when I get home late. I’m staring at him, pretty much unable to remember how to make words come out of my face, and John Doe is standing there smirking, taking a slow pull from his beer like he’s enjoying watching me look dumbfounded.
Finally, thankfully, he swallows and sees fit to clarify things a bit. “I don’t claim to actually be a wizard.” He points at me, still smiling. It’s odd hearing him speak in such a casual tone. “You know Harry Potter, right? Everybody knows Harry Potter. How there’s the Muggle government, and then there’s this whole other government for wizards that the Muggles don’t even know about?”
I finish entering the room and sit down on a stool by the bar. Brent’ll forgive me the laziness. “In this metaphor, you work for the Ministry of Magic?”
The hand that was pointing at me changes into a thumbs up, and he takes another casual sip of beer. “Exactly. You’ve got it. You all, and the elected government you’re used to, you understand, are the Muggles. There’s the President and Congress and all that stuff, and from the outside it seems like that’s all of it, because that’s all you ever need to know about. But on the underbelly, there’s a whole other infrastructure. That’s me. That’s where I live, and that’s why I can’t tell you my name, for instance.”
And what is the point of telling us this? “And that makes you who, exactly? Cornelius Fudge? At least now I have something to call you.”
“I like to think of myself as more of a Dumbledore-type, but yes, that’s the general idea.” He finishes the bottle and places it down, hard enough to make a noise, on the countertop. We all stand in silence for a moment.
When, finally, the silence becomes too odious for me to leave hanging there, I ask the question I’ve been meaning to ask since I first saw Cornelius Doe standing in my kitchen. “I’m sorry if this seems a bit rude, but what are you actually doing here?”
Brent stops washing the pot he’s working on a wheels around, grinning like he’s about to tell a really, really bad joke. “You mean besides refusing to eat the chicken marsala I’ve been slaving over for hours? Your friend brought a present for the baby. Wouldn’t let me open it until you got home, though.”
Cornelius smiles, something a little different from his toothy, salesman smile. His eyebrows are turned down in the middle, like it’s not really a smile at all, as he reaches onto the counter behind him and retrieves a little box wrapped in green paper. “You never told me if it was a boy or a girl, so I guessed.” He walks the box over and holds it out for me. I take it slowly.
We actually haven’t told anyone. It seemed like the best way to avoid getting bombarded with frilly pink dresses and things. In the end, though, everything has just been green. Apparently there are only three choices when it comes to baby items, unless you want memorabilia for a specific sports team. I pull open the paper, then the plain white box underneath. Inside is a stuffed monkey wearing a pink “Don’t mess with Texas” onesie. I glance back up at Doe, and he’s still got that same expression locked on his face.
“Guessed right, didn’t I?”
My hands go a little numb and I put the box down on the counter without saying anything. This is, what, a threat? He’s telling me he can see my medical records, maybe? Or am I being paranoid? He’s staring at me, still smiling, and I can’t tell if he’s actually trying to be friendly or he’s enjoying the effect his hint is having on me. I’m flipping back and forth between chastising myself for paranoia and freaking out a hundred times a second. Either way I want him out of my house. Now. I swallow even though my throat is dry, but just when I’m about the make the request my thought process is interrupted by Doe’s voice.
“What are you doing?”
Brent is standing in front of him, phone pointed at his face, framing him up to take a video. And clearly oblivious to the underside of this interaction. “Sorry, buddy, but this is the price you pay if you want to give our baby a present. We made everyone do it at the shower; you don’t get out of it just because you’re a little late. Don’t feel like you have to say anything profound, everybody seems to think they have to say the wisest thing they can think of, but it’s not like that. Just say a few words, for like ten seconds, and that’s that. So our daughter can always remember the man with no name. And…go.” He hits the record button, and suddenly we’re taking video of the man whose work is so secret that even his name is classified.
“I, uh, wow.” This is by far the least composed I’ve ever seen Cornelius. “Hey, little lady. I know your mom. I’m kind of her boss, I guess, in a way. Good luck in this world. You’ve got a great set of parents; I hope they stay with you for a good, long, time.” And then he stops. I’m probably imagining the emphatic pauses between the last few words. Brent kills the video and drops the phone in his pocket.
“See, that wasn’t so painful. Now, I’m afraid I’m going to have to make things awkward again by insisting, for a third time, that you stay and have dinner with us.”
Doe stands up, locking in a rigid, military posture that matches what I see every day in his test subjects. Maybe he’s in the program. Maybe that’s why he seems a little off. “I’d really love to, but sadly my commitments are myriad, and my hours are irregular. I need to get back to the office. I’d like to thank you both for the hospitality, the offer, and the beer. It does me good to get out and talk to real people every so often. Sometimes I forget what it’s like. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Trembley, I just need to borrow your wife for about ten seconds, then I’ll be on my way.”
He walks out of the room, pausing to put a hand on my shoulder and pull a little bit. I sigh loudly, force myself up from the stool, and follow him over towards the front door. By the time I get there he’s already popping his feet back into his shiny black shoes without unlacing them. He lowers his voice to whisper levels so I have to come very close to actually here what he says, and somehow he’s tricked me into leaning right in next to him despite myself.
“On Monday, several inmates are going to be transferred to a new facility in Washington D.C.”
I scan my brain. Just because he’s whispering doesn’t mean I have to. “There’s no federal prison in Washington D.C.”
The response nets me an eye roll. “I said it was a new facility, didn’t I? As I was saying, these transfers are going to take place Monday afternoon. Before then, the paperwork is going to come across your desk for signature. You’re going to sign it without any more episodes like the one in the cafeteria, correct? The Warden told me he was precariously close to writing you up for insubordination, but I convinced him to hold off. I won’t be there to do that again on Monday. Fair warning.”
He doesn’t actually wait for me to respond, either because he wants the dramatic effect of a sudden departure or because he thinks he can assume he knows what my response will be. The door slams shut in my face and I watch Cornelius Doe tramp down my front steps, jump off the curb, and climb into his massive SUV without glancing back. I’m left standing there, wondering why on earth I would interfere with transfers.
“Five-minute warning, hon!”
It’s Monday now, and the transfer paperwork is still sitting on my desk. I haven’t refused to sign anything, I’m not sure I have the guts to do that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t drag my feet. There are eight transfers in total, the first seven inmates entered into the LIRRG project, plus one surprise entrant: Rodney Sturgis, who hasn’t even been admitted into the program. I haven’t seen him since I got the forms—and I’ve been on the lookout—even if we’re not likely to have a chance at a private conversation.
I’m clicking my pen on my desk over and over, opened-closed, opened-closed, for lack of anything better to do with my hands while I stare down at the transfer forms. Refusing to sign won’t do anything; they’ll just grab another supervisor and have them put their name on it, the delay will be half an hour at most, and it’ll be the end of me here. There’s a principle I feel like I’m violating, though, by putting my name on these sheets with no idea where these men are even being sent, or what’s being done to them. And there are at least a dozen more in the queue just waiting to be transferred themselves. It’s a voluntary program. It’s a disciplinary program. They use it to reduce overpopulation. They use it to manage problem populations. They probably dangle it as a reward in hopeless cases, too. The LIRRG can be anything they want it to be, as long as it gets them more bodies for their research. I can’t believe I’m putting my name on this.
I hit the desk, the baby startles and bounces around furiously for a few seconds, and I scribble some extra-sloppy versions of my signature on the first three copies of the form. All this stress is bad for my daughter. I just need to stop thinking about it; stop pretending there’s something I can do. Just step aside and let someone else fight the fight. That’s the smart, responsible thing to do. I think it is, anyways. It’s hard to tell from here. I hit the desk again, hard enough to make my hand sting, and sign the rest of the papers as quickly as I can. That’s it, it’s done. I can just drop these in the interoffice mail and pretend I never saw Rodney, Corey, Gunther, and the rest.
Or I can hand deliver them. I need to walk around anyways. Sitting here is making my back hurt, and the exercise will keep my mind busy. I force myself up—it’s getting harder every time—push the papers into a neat pile, slide them into an envelope for easy transport, and exit the office. It’s a short walk to the old library, where someone is no-doubt waiting for the forms to be delivered. I keep the pace brisk, telling myself with every step that this is helping me feel better in more ways than one. If I can’t actually interfere, at least I can feel like I have some agency. The Ministry of Magic will be able to pretend, for a little while, that I’m a good team player.
I knock hard on the door to LIRRG headquarters and wait for someone to answer. Generic Government Functionary #7 pulls it open, looks me up and down, and frowns. “Can I help you?”
There’s no reason to be angry or rude. Just hand the man the envelope and be on your way. I lift said envelope up and present it. “CUS Trembley, dropping off the transfer forms.”
He frowns, then hesitantly takes the envelope, like he’s afraid I’ve put poison on it. “Seems a bit unusual, you dropping off the mail yourself.”
“I thought this was a little behind schedule; you all were expecting these on Friday. I didn’t want to delay things further by relying on interoffice mail, not when you’re only a few hundred feet from my office.” My eyes catch movement behind Government Functionary’s back, and I lean over to get a better look. “Are those the transfers? Do you think I could have a word with them? I’ve been their councilor for several years now.”
The Functionary turns a quarter of the way around, so he’s talking into the room rather than to me. “I’m afraid you’re not authorized to enter the facility, Mrs. Trembley. These men are being prepped for transport now regardless, so there really isn’t time to chat. If you wanted to say goodbye you really should have stopped in before today.”
“Stopped in,” like they’ve been living in the LIRRG facility for some time now. “I’ll keep that in mind for next time. Only, I’ve been trying to track down one of them in particular for several days. Have they been transferred in here full time?”
“Yeah. Standard procedure.”
“How long have they actually been in your facility?”
He rolls his eyes, clearly the questions are wearing on him and it’s only a matter of time before I drive him to the point of complaining about me. But you can’t be rude to a pregnant woman; it’s like you’re being rude to two people at once. He shrugs. “I don’t know. Friday, maybe? The schedule was a little compressed for the first batch, because we’re trying to catch up to the other facilities. The next group will spend about five days in here, under round-the-clock observation, before we ship them up to Washington. It’s possible the schedule gets compressed again once we go into production, but I don’t know. Anything less than five days and you really risk abnormal brain activity.”
He starts to shut the door. Unfortunately, I’ve accidentally stepped into the doorway, blocking it from swinging too far shut. I need to choose my words very carefully here to extract the most possible information while drawing the least possible suspicions. A tall order, if I’ve ever heard one. “Have you heard when the next batch is coming through yet? I’ve gotten conflicting reports.” He doesn’t answer right away, looking at me with a wide, frog-like frown that says he doesn’t think I need to know that kind of thing. “I need to make sure the paperwork is in order before I go on maternity leave.”
That seems to, at least partially, cure his suspicions. I think I’ve made the transition to a coworker in his mind rather than an enemy. Perhaps he’ll even be magnanimous enough to share his name if I play my cards right. “I couldn’t tell you exactly; they like to keep us guessing too. But it won’t be more than four weeks. We’ve already got another set of eight well into the program. That’s about the usual pace, anyways.”
So about five weeks between groups, eight people each time, then faster once they go into “production.” He’s talking about these men like they’re objects, a product coming off the assembly line. I suppose I should have expected that part, but the idea that this is going to be an ongoing thing that’s only going to increase in scale has thrown me off somewhat. I try to disguise the deep breaths I’m taking to keep the stress levels down. I’ll be home, at least, for the next group, and probably two more after that. By the time I return I might not recognize any of the remaining inmates. I force a smile.
“Thank you for the information. I won’t take up any more of your time; I’m sure it’s a scramble to get everything in place before you ship the inmates out.” I pull my foot out of the doorway, but he doesn’t pull it shut right away. I get the sense that there’s something he wants to say; his mouth moves a few times without any words actually coming out. I’m guessing he can’t decide if he’s actually allowed to share what he wants to share.
Finally, after an excruciating two seconds of me trying to psychically grant him the strength to talk to me, he shakes his head, still frowning, and finds himself something nice and generic to say instead. “It was no problem, really. We’re all just trying to do our jobs here. But we don’t call them inmates once they’re in the program, Mrs. Trembley. We call them ‘volunteers.’”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks again.” And I turn to walk away as he closes the door behind me. I almost wish he’d said nothing at all. We’re all just trying to do our jobs here. Somehow that makes me feel even worse. The “volunteers” thing bothers me, it sounds like something out of 1984. Or I’m going crazy, in which case this baby has excellent timing. She’ll get me out of here for a couple months and keep my mind off the mounting paranoia. Maybe the LIRRG will have the place empty before I get back.
When I reach my office again I pause next to the door for about half a second, then decide there’s no reason to go in there, and keep on walking. Jacobs can still do something about this, whether he thinks he can or not. I’m going to have to take one last stab at making him see that. I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t. And I’m going to make sure he can’t live with himself if he doesn’t.
He’s on the phone when I arrive and holds up a single finger to ask me to wait a second. I imagine myself reaching over his desk, pressing the button, and ending his call so I can start yelling at him. It’d be cathartic to get it all out, but that’s probably not the play to make. I have to stand here, maybe pace back and forth, cross my arms, and try to stay angry. Keep the immediacy of the thing from falling away. He talks and talks and talks, very quietly, about bedsheets. The budget for new bedsheet purchases. The most inconceivably boring topic of conversation possible, and he’s just droning on and on in a quiet, monotone voice, threatening to lull me to sleep. I take deep breaths, stop pacing, sit myself down, and wait. At the rate they’re going it could be a year before the end of the conversation.
Sometime that evening, or maybe three minutes later, he hangs up the phone. All of my momentum is gone. In its place I explain to him exactly what I just learned from the LIRRG guy. My words are much clumsier than they were in my head, but I’m getting the general points across: three prisons, eight people every five weeks in each place until they go into “production.” I explain how the guy talked about them, how they added Rodney to the program despite me removing the disciplinary reason for doing it—or maybe because of it. I rant and rave a little, gaining momentum as I go, building up to the fact that the man with no name showed up at my house, he knew the sex of my child despite the fact that we haven’t told a soul, and threatened to fire me for insubordination. Jacobs remains impassive the whole time, sitting there and listening to me but not seeming to react to what I say. Like he already knew all of this. Now I’m accusing him of already knowing everything, of making a deal with the LIRRG to have Corey inducted into the program, and raving about Solomon from Allenwood. Eventually I just run out of words.
He takes a long time to say anything. Perhaps he’s just organizing his response, separating the different aspects of my crazy-sounding conspiracy theory in order to go through them one by one rather than in an incoherent chunk. When he does talk, his hands are folded in front of his mouth, partially obscuring it from view. His voice is just as calm and even as it always is. “You’re clearly under a great deal of strain, Marcia.” I sputter something in response. There aren’t enough vowels in the sounds I make to call them words. “How soon are you due?”
The question takes me by surprise. I answer it automatically; the response has become Pavlovian at this point. “The fourteenth.”
“Less than two weeks.” He takes a deep breath, like he’s shoring himself up for something. Not a look I wanted to see. “I think, under the circumstances, that it’s probably best for both you and the baby if you start your medical leave a little early. It isn’t a healthy time for you to be worrying about this. I assure you, the work will still be here when you get back.”
Not that I haven’t been considering it myself, but to have it thrown out there, especially in that way, makes the whole thing sound insulting. If it was medically possible I’d try to filibuster, keep working until they conceded that I didn’t need to go on maternity leave at all. “The work will be there, but how many of the inmates will be gone? The problem doesn’t go away just because I do.”
“No one is suggesting it will. The fact of the matter is that the program will go on whether or not you’re here to complain about it, and there’s no reason to have this conversation again. By continuing to try to cause disruptions, Marcia, you’re drawing the wrong kind of attention. You have nothing to gain by fighting him, but you have everything to lose. Soon to be more, in fact. Think about this. That man can do much worse than show up at your house.”
“What, he’s going to kill me? He gave me a stuffed monkey to let me know that he’s going to murder my unborn child if I keep bothering him? Are you listening to yourself?” I don’t know why I’m arguing against it. This whole thing is ridiculous. Obviously showing up at my house was a threat, but you’re not supposed to let threats work. “You’ve abdicated control of this prison to a man who has no name. He runs a secret program no one is allowed to talk about that involves pacifying and then kidnapping people who are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He shows up at my house and tells me this ridiculous story about a secret government run by wizards. His people talk about human beings like objects and their program like it’s an assembly line. They’re afraid of abnormal brain activity and their schedules, but they don’t care about the crimes against humanity that they’re actually committing. Think about it. This isn’t a normal thing to disagree with, this is an evil thing.”
“What does thinking about it gain me, exactly?” He’s still not raising his voice. Instead, he puts his hands down, turns to the computer, and begins clicking and typing as he talks. “I’m setting up your medical leave now. You have plenty of sick time to cover your leave. If you absolutely insist, you can finish out the work week, but at this point I think it’s best for everyone, above all you, if you just go home at the end of today and come back in two or three months.” He glances at me, just for a second, and the look on his face is something like pleading. “I can sell that story; you understand? Everything that’s happened up until this point can just be called hormones, and it can all go away when you walk out the door. That’s the best I can do for you.”
“That gets me out of the way, sure.” Deep breath. My heart is pounding and my back is killing me. I can’t keep a thought in my head for more than a second. “But does it let you sleep at night? Right now you’re the only one who can affect immediate change here. You can veto those transfers, you can toss the LIRRG out of the building, and you can shut the whole program down at least for a little while. Then you can take every scrap of documentation they’ve given you on what they’re doing, along with all of my notes, and you can turn them over to the press. After what the people here did sixty years ago, after all the accounts of those lobotomies, there isn’t a reporter in the state who wouldn’t salivate at the chance to break this story. You got all the real evidence, though. All I have is what I’ve written down. It’s no more credible than word-of-mouth.”
If he considers it, even for a second, he doesn’t show it. “What, exactly, do you think they’ve given me? Some great, big report: ‘This is how we turn off people’s brains. We’re going to make them into super soldiers now!’”
He goes right over me. “They haven’t given me anything besides a briefing on exactly what happens if you withdraw LIRRG therapy from a patient who’s already been treated, complete with video. And let me tell you, Marcia, our COs would not be prepared for that scenario. No one would. I try to pull the plug, they call my bluff, and a lot of people get hurt.” He’s still building in volume, worked up to a degree I’ve never seen before. “After they get hurt, one way or another the LIRRG takes control of this place and they get exactly what they want. I’m guessing you and I wind up either in prison or dead. I’m doing the best I can, here, but this is not a fight that can be won. Do you really think this man, who’s been in your home and in your medical records, would leave his pet project wide open for a back country Warden to shit all over? He has leverage on everyone. Everyone.”
I’m fresh out of momentum again, reeling and disheartened. This can’t just be unstoppable; things just can’t be that way. I listen to the sound of his mouse for a few seconds while I digest. Where the hell did the super soldiers thing come from? Sounds like something out of a comic book. “I can’t just sit idly by while he does this to people, sir. It’s not in my nature.”
His voice has returned to normal again. He makes one final double-click, and the printer starts running immediately. “I don’t expect you to sit idly by. I expect you to be smart. And sometimes, being smart means waiting until you can actually do something other than throw yourself under the bus. You’re of no value to anyone, inmates or otherwise, if you’re roadkill.” He reaches over, grabs the freshly printed form and hands it to me, still warm. “I’ve already sent a copy along to HR. I know you didn’t agree to it, but it’s really the best we can do. You can come in tomorrow if you’d like to tie up loose ends, but as I said before, you’re not doing yourself or the baby any favors by sticking around. You’re not doing me any favors either. Head back to your office, grab your notebooks or what-have-you, and go get some rest. You’re going to need it before long, that much I can promise you.
I accept the paper, head spinning too much at this point to sustain any real anger, and look up at the ceiling. The dots on each ceiling tile are exactly the same. I wonder if that’s always the case. “If it’s all right with you, I’m just going to take a minute here. Need to gather my thoughts.”
“Take all the time that you need. And know that we’re going to miss you while you’re gone, Marcia. Everyone but the suits from LIRRG.”
It’s clear, now, that I’m not going to be able to do anything from the inside. I was never going to be able to do anything from the inside; the machine is too well oiled. They’ve worked too hard to protect themselves from the people they’re using. But there’s got to be someone out there who knows something about these people already, someone who’s looking for another piece or two to the puzzle. I’ve got my notebook, several dozen pages, names off the few LIRRG badges I’ve been able to get a look at, notes from the sessions I’ve had with affected inmates, my guesses on their program, the names of people I know for sure have been inducted. It’s not much, but it’s something, and it might help someone who has more.
I leave the office early, drive home faster than I probably should, and get there well ahead of Brent. Normally that would mean I’d start in on dinner, but I’ve got a few other things in mind to get done this evening. He’ll forgive me. I set myself up in front of Brent’s laptop, with my notebook next to me, and open Google. The first search is the easiest. “Long-term Incarceration Research and Rehabilitation Group,” encased in quotes, which reveals nothing at all. I drop the quotes and get a few hundred thousand matches, none of which seem relevant as I click through the first few pages of results. LIRRG gets me a bunch of information about rabbits, strangely enough. The names I have for LIRRG techs net me a whole lot of nothing, a few profiles and an eBay store of vintage stuffed animals.
I knew they weren’t going to make this easy, though. Next on the list, I open the video Cornelius Doe made for my daughter. It seemed so silly at the time, now I’m blessing Brent in my head as I click through the clip frame by frame to get the absolute best likeness of the man with no name. Once I find one I’m happy with—straight on and smiling that same salesman smile that seems to be his default expression—I take a screen capture and upload it as an image search. Nothing that directly matches, and a bunch of visually-similar matches for men with the same color and style hair, and green shirts. Nothing on that first page at least that matches what I’m looking for. For some reason I’d assumed that was going to be the one that cracked the case open. Wishful thinking.
Getting frustrated, I abandon that tab for the time being and open another one, then start searching for anything vaguely related to prisoner brainwashing. Fiction, garbage, and conspiracy theories. My brain goes numb as I click and click and click. Mind control, hypnotism, non-surgical lobotomies, Washington D.C. prison, click click type, click click type. I have no idea how much time passes. If I were paying attention I’d realize that Brent really should have been home by now, but my brain is getting too tired for details. Page after page, and it’s becoming clear that I’m going to have to dig through the entire Internet to find anything of value, if there actually is anything out there to be found.
Later, much later, after I’ve taken to flipping back and forth between scrolling down the picture page and checking random search results, something that seems just the tiniest bit less crackpottish than the rest of what I’ve seen so far catches my attention. It’s only after a few seconds of scanning the article that I realize it’s because the portrait in the top right corner, of what looks like a Marine, was one of the matches on my image search as well. Weird coincidence. I scan the article quickly, looking for anything worth paying more than cursory attention. The guy’s name was Allen Hartley, apparently he killed himself suddenly while on leave. His mother insists that he was part of a research program for Homeland Security. She calls it “Subproject 54.” Mind control. She says they used a sound machine to control his thoughts, to make him kill himself.
It reads like science fiction. There’s no way this is a real thing. And Homeland Security has nothing to do with the Federal prison system. I’m just about to back out of the article and keep looking when my phone rings, which scares me so much that it triggers a Braxton-Hicks contraction on the spot. Gritting my teeth, I answer the thing without looking at the number as I realize it’s 10 PM and Brent still isn’t home.
“Don’t you think you’re being a bit irresponsible?” It’s the man with no name.
I pull the phone away for just long enough to check the number, but it’s a blocked ID. “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing specifically. It just seems like, if I were you, that last thing I’d be doing at a time like this is putzing around on the Internet, reading ridiculous tabloid journalism.” He’s watching my computer. My heart sinks. I’m at a loss for what to say, but he seems to have enough prepared to cover the both of us. “Allow me to explain to you how this is going to work, Mrs. Trembley, because you’re clearly not taking the situation seriously. Your phone is going to factory reset itself at the end of this call, all data will be wiped. Your husband’s phone has already been wiped, the police have seen to that. You’re going to delete any other copies of the video you took of me, along with those screenshots you searched with. Someone is going to be by in the morning to confirm that all of this is complete. Do you understand me?”
I obviously understand him, but my brain is locked on one statement in particular. “You said something about the police. About Brent. Tell me where Brent is.”
He laughs. It sounds like spitting. “Just a funny mix-up with the highway patrol. For some reason his car came up as stolen when he passed through a routine sobriety check this evening. They’ve got him in local detention for the night, but I’m sure things will be sorted by morning. Provided, of course, that you follow instructions.”
Jesus. While he’s talking, for want of something to do with my hands and eyes, I click back over to the tab with the image matches and keep scrolling, looking for a match. Another Braxton-Hicks hits me, a bit harder than before. “You need to let him out. Now.”
“You’re in no position to give me orders, Mrs. Trembley. If I were in your position, in fact, I’d imagine my tone would be much more conciliatory. As it happens, you’re extremely lucky that you’re pregnant right now, and that I am a compassionate person.” Compassionate my eye. Megalomaniacal sounds closer to the truth. “We would not, normally, take your utter disregard for the protection of classified information, nor for your outright defiance of direct orders from your superiors, so lightly. I understand your maternity leave started this afternoon. That is for the best. You will not return to Odessa at the end of your leave; we’re going to transfer you to another prison that’s clear of the program. You’re not going to complain about this at all, you’re not going to talk about the program with anyone, and you’re going to look no farther. Am I understood so far?”
I close my eyes while I respond, it feels like it helps me concentrate, and I need all of my available brainpower to form real words just now. “What, exactly, are you threatening to do if I don’t follow these instructions?”
“You’re not going to be able to use my words as evidence of anything, if that’s what you’re after. Even if you were recording this call, which you’re not, the phone will be wiped clean when I hang up, and your cellular carrier has already agreed to drop this conversation from your account’s history. Since you asked so nicely, I’d be happy to explain exactly what happens if we catch you violating the terms of our agreement. Number one, Brent goes to prison. He’s already in one now, it would be easy enough to keep him, or re-arrest him later. Number two, we’ll admit him into the LIRRG program, I’m sure you’ll appreciate that, and I already have a form with his name on it. Number three, your daughter, upon her birth or any time thereafter, becomes a ward of the State. She enters into the foster system, wherein she will be extremely unlikely to find a permanent placement due to a series of unfortunate mix-ups with her paperwork. She will move from temporary home to temporary home until she turns eighteen, at which point she will either fend for herself or enter this nation’s prisons, depending on my mood. You, Mrs. Trembley, will simply disappear. No one can say for certain what will happen to you, but I imagine it won’t be a pleasant experience. Am I understood?”
While he’s talking I find a picture of him. I’d know it anywhere. He’s climbing into his black SUV, it looks like someone took it through a window across the street, but it’s definitely him. I click the link, only to find a 404 error. Of course it’s dead. I go back, grab the URL, and try to find a cached version of the page. “I understand. If I clean my hard drive and never mention your program again you’ll leave my family alone, correct?”
“Exactly right. And keep your browser history clean, as well. We’re going to keep an eye on you, obviously. You don’t have any evidence, you need to remember that, and I’ll know if you try to talk to anyone. Why don’t you do yourself a favor and get some sleep now? We’ll be sending someone by bright and early to check on things, to help you clean up your computer if you don’t know how to do it properly and that sort of thing. You’re going to give him anything else you have, that’s extremely important. That yellow legal pad especially. Once he gives me the thumbs up your husband’s paperwork will clear, he’ll be released, and we can all pretend this ugliness never happened.”
He hangs up without saying goodbye, and a particularly painful contraction hits me as I lay there. For the first time, it occurs to me that these might not actually be practice. Have they been going on all day? Jesus, I think I’ve been ignoring them all day. Of all the clichéd times for something like this to happen—with my luck I’ll be giving birth in the next ten minutes, just like on TV. But I’ve got a few things to get done before I can leave the house. I just have to breathe through this thing so I can get to work.
The picture takes me to a brief article on some kind of blog site I’ve never heard of.
Have you seen this man?
We are requesting anyone with any information about the man in the above picture to contact us as soon as possible. Set up a new, anonymous email account with one of the services linked below, and send an email to the address at the bottom of the page. Do not include any specific or personally identifiable information in your email. We will contact you as quickly as possible.
Those precautions validate my suspicions if nothing else. There’s at least one other person trying to piece things together on this guy: her name is Candace, and she knows how dangerous he is. It feels like a little victory. Struggling to breathe properly through a combination of exhaustion and what I’m increasingly convinced is actual labor pain, I move over to the closet in the front hallway and start rifling through the old boxes we keep on the shelf overhead. My old camera, a real camera, is in a box up there. I pull it out, take out the used roll of film that’s already loaded, and pop in a fresh one. I grab a few extras just to be sure, thankful I kept a decent supply on hand, then struggle back over to the computer.
Making sure the room is as lit as it’s going to get, I start with the notebook, taking a carefully framed picture of every single page of my notes. I go through a roll and a half that way, then finish up by taking pictures of the computer screen. Candace’s page, that article about Hartley, the blog post, the screen capture of the man with no name, then a few more frames from the video for good measure. I stop for a second, take a few breaths and try to think of anything I missed. When I come up empty I stash the second roll of film in my pocket, take out the old roll and stuff it back in the camera like it was there all along, then put the whole thing back where it came from. Even if they find it, they should have no reason to think I used it.
I set the laptop up on a table in the hall by the door—still plugged in and open—and delete everything, including my browser history. The notepad I leave sitting on top to the keyboard, open to a formerly blank page, on which I scribble a hurried and apologetic note explaining that I’m going into labor and need to go to the hospital. I think about leaving my phone as well, but when I glance down at it that little green robot is the only thing on the screen. Wiping itself. It would have been nice to be able to save some things…oh well. Spilled milk. Another quick break to lean against the wall and pretend I’m not going to faint any minute, then I trudge up the stairs to get the overnight bag. Just a little longer, the hospital isn’t too far. If I get there they can pump me full of drugs and I’ll have a baby and sleep and forget about this and it’ll be amazing. Just power through until then.
My thoughts are swimming, barely coherent as I grab a coat even though it’s eighty out, slide the overnight bag over my shoulder, and stumble back down the stairs. Keys are on the table by the door, then I’m out and in the driveway, sitting in the driver’s seat of the car before I realize I’ve left without shoes. I only consider going back for them for an instant, until the next contraction hits, and I throw the car in reverse and pull, very irresponsibly, into the road. It’s not that far, it’s not that far. There’s still a camera store right off the highway, I think, fifteen minutes from the hospital. That’s not that far.
The whole drive is a blur, I’m going either ten miles below the speed limit or twenty miles over it, it’s impossible to tell, but somehow I find my way off the highway and over to the camera store whose existence I wasn’t even sure of five minutes ago. It’s still there, closed because it’s pushing eleven on a Monday, but there’s an overnight drop-off slot and a tray of envelopes next to it. I park the car illegally right out front, struggle my way over, and drop the two rolls of film in one envelope. Somehow, I manage to muster the presence of mind not to write my own name on the envelope. Need something I can remember, though. Something easy. I almost laugh to myself as I write “Candace Potter” as neatly as I can possibly muster, then seal the envelope and drop it in the slot.
Back to the car then, and to the hospital—it’s not far now—and I can barely keep my eyes open, but I’m going to make it. This is all going to be over soon; they’re going to let Brent out of jail and I’m going to be a mom and it’s all going to be okay. The man with no name is going to leave me alone and Candace is going to find him and take him down. It’s all going to be okay. I remember pulling up to the hospital, getting out of the car—did I turn it off?—and walking towards the glowing white doors. It starts raining. Rain of all things. After that I don’t know. But it’s going to be okay. It’s all going to be okay.
A sneak preview of
The Primer, Book 4
Coming in 2017
“Before we continue, we’d like to pause to warn any viewers watching with small children that the following clip contains graphic violence and may not be appropriate for all audiences.”
The warning gets my attention, and I turn to watch more carefully. They cut to a low resolution video from a security camera, probably one mounted on the side of a building. There’s a crowd of people walking in either direction on a very wide sidewalk, and suddenly there’s screaming. It doesn’t come with any sound, but you can see the screams on the people’s faces. The crowd starts to break away from one spot, it’s hard to tell what’s at the center, but the panic spreads quickly, and soon they’re knocking each other over to get away.
Once it clears out a little there’s a man standing awkwardly in the middle of the frame. He has a slight build and black hair, and he’s leaning over to one side at an odd angle. Two people are lying on the ground near his feet, and he stares at someone in the crowd for a second, then charges forward in a straight line, kicking that man in the back as he tries to run, knocking him to the ground. His movements are jerky and almost inhumanly fast. He’s moving like one of ours.
They cut away from the video, and the reporter is back on the screen. “Truly, truly disturbing footage. The police tell us that, thus far, there have been no fatalities, though several people have been admitted to local hospitals and are in serious condition. Police haven’t disclosed the names of the victims yet, as not all families have been notified. The suspect in the video, John Pastore, was apprehended by police at the scene, and is currently in custody. We’ll keep you informed of further developments in this story as they happen. In other news….”
Who is the man with no name?
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About the author
Sam writes stories like ninjas skulk around in the dark: constantly. Most of them disappear into that place where short-term memories go instead of becoming long-term ones, but occasionally he manages to pin one down before it escapes. When he’s not pursuing an endless procession of characters and scenes through the catacombs of his brain, he’s chasing two diminutive demons (his son and daughter) through the recesses of their house in Schenectady, NY. When these two worlds collide, one question arises: “Daddy, how do you make up this crazy stuff?”
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History repeats itself... In the 1940's and 50's, the United States Penitentiary in Odessa was the home of a revolutionary inmate rehabilitation program: a fast, simple miracle surgery that could reform even the most hopeless case in minutes. Recipients were rendered quiet, docile, and manageable. The surgery was called "transorbital lobotomy." Now, more than sixty years later, Odessa is getting a new program. It's just as promising as lobotomy, with none of the mess. And the Long-term Inmate Research and Rehabilitation group says it's completely reversible. They say it's been a huge success everywhere they've tried it. And that the details are classified. Marcia Trembley, a correctional unit supervisor for USP Odessa, has worked with inmates for long enough to know that there's no such thing as a magic bullet for rehabilitation. She can see history repeating itself. If only someone, anyone, would believe her.... The Primer book 3 The Primer book 1: Break The Primer book 2: Beaten The Primer book 4: The Volunteer (coming Spring 2017) The Primer book 5: To be announced...