The bearded man was dressing for battle. He donned a light smock made of smart fabrics, all manner of nano-telemetry microdots and Wi-Fi feedback gauges impregnated into its weave. Below the fabric, gel patches the size of halved Ping-Pong balls studded his body in strategic locations. He looked more like a hospital patient prepped for surgery than someone dressed to kill.
As she watched through the one-way observation window, Catherine noticed the man had a rare and unsettling intensity of lethal intent to his stare; his eyebrow a single solid bridge. He’d looked at her through the glass, directly into her eyes, and much as they assured her it was impossible to see through the mirror, his eyes still bored into her mind minutes later.
She guessed him in his mid forties, but with muscle tone twenty years younger. Before they’d dropped the slip over his head, his alley cat body was a network of deep scars and thick welts; a battlefield of healed trenches and old impact sites where projectiles and shrapnel had done their work.
She’d nudged Ken, horrified, “What’s this guy been up to?”
“Stamp collecting,” Ken whispered.
“Seriously...!” her tone begged urgency for a reply.
“He’s probably been in more skirmishes than you’ve had shopping trips.”
“Jesus! He sure bought some nice souvenirs.”
Earlier Ken had briefed her that this would be a Spetsnaz building clearing exercise—Spetsnaz were the elite of the elite in Russia’s army Special Forces who have undergone countless grueling training programs to earn their stripes.
As Catherine watched, they were slinging the man into a webbing of straps that were then hooked onto a set of enormous hoops all connected to form a massive double-volume gyroscope.
The construction had the appearance of Copernicus’ model of planetary motion with the Commander slung in its center as the sun.
This would be a commercial run, not a Time Dilation trial, Ken had explained.
“Why the gymnastics equipment?” Catherine frowned, “I thought you said they just lie and twitch?”
“The gyroscope? You do remember details,” he complimented. “This is going to be a very physical routine. We could do it with the God Helmet, with transcranial stimulation, but then we wouldn’t be able to assess his musculoskeletal condition. He needs to be in peak physical condition and this is still the only way to test that to breakdown.”
The team was ready and the exercise could begin.
Once he had secretly placed the re-engineered drug into the patches, Ken had given his permission to resume trials, bringing the Time Dilation facility back on track.
For Ken, the previous six weeks had been overwhelming and stress-filled.
Alex King, the private investigator charged with setting up a Colombian connection, had needed access to far more technical data and specifications for the pharmaceutical re-development than Ken had on hand. Ascertaining them through third party consultants while trying to retain anonymity had proven almost impossible, but eventually they had been delivered.
Eventually, when the deal was struck and the Colombians invested, Ken was able to step from his own shadows, into their murky world.
During their argument, in the minutes prior to his death, Craig had mentioned what the solution to the drug’s problem would be.
Ken had passed the information on and the fault had quickly been found and eliminated.
Alex had arranged for the drugs to be manufactured in bulk; Ken’s only task was to attend the drug trial. To remain incognito, he’d prepared an elaborate disguise and faked a broad Scottish accent. As far as he’d been concerned, remaining undetectable was the only test necessary for the use of the drug. The drug was a three part concoction, entirely benign and of no interest to any food or drug administration. Only once the two active ingredients were mixed and spun through a centrifuge would the catalyst be added, and it would take on its required neuropsychotropic characteristic.
He’d observed two trials performed on unsuspecting subjects. Their doses massive, they’d died in hallucinating terror. Ken had watched the autopsies where, thankfully, no trace of the drug had been revealed. Once satisfied, he’d paid the laboratory in the blood diamonds they’d requested before slipping out of the country on a private jet.
With the adapted formula for creating the psychotrop under lock and key, Ken would have no need for anybody else to know the true secrets of Time Dilation. Each of the components could be manufactured in separate facilities and stored apart. The drug was potent enough to only rarely need brewing. Vast quantities could be fixed to gel patches in a very short time.
In a single day, an unskilled worker using an automated applicator kept in a locked strong room could prepare enough patches for a year’s requirement.
“Ready on-line... Audio.”
“Ready on-line. Visuals.”
“Subject prepared; Hypnosis sequence launch...” The intercom speakers in each monitoring booth repeated the checks with drilled regularity, all were in a general announcement mode and every department involved in the run was hearing the call.
It was much like the launch sequence of orbital rockets, as Ken had explained earlier, “The program can either be controlled centrally from up here or by using the tablet running a control app.”
He’d shown her the interface.
“With it, a single operator can run the entire show, but we generally man each station to fine-tune aspects of the subject’s experience.”
What he had failed to mention was the safety aspect of running unmanned.
“My run’s not going to be with a full house?” Catherine whispered with alarm.
“I wouldn’t share it for the world, Darling.” Ken assured.
Not fully understanding the technology, and assuming it integral to the virtual reality, hypnosis was the aspect, that most troubled Catherine.
She was certain that Ken was no hypnotist, so how was he planning to put her under when it came to cyber-sex? She’d met and liked Leon, but she was definitely not going through with it if he was to be present.
Hearing her terms of engagement, Ken soothed her fears with a thorough explanation;
“As you can see, everything’s computer controlled and monitored. Each booth has its own screen and audio repeater that displays only their exclusive responsibility. They’ve got an override to correct errors that might get made up here,” he gestured to the main control room, “Look, there are Leon and Mark down there.”
He pointed to a glass-fronted room where the two men sat with earphones about their necks and a microphone between them as they hunched over a screen.
Oddly, although Leon’s voice had been counting the subject into trance through the intercom, the two men were chatting at their own pace;
“Who’s doing the talking?” Catherine asked.
Turning to the operator, Ken ordered, “Kim, show Catherine the repeater.”
Kim immediately executed a few keystrokes and one of the screens on her monitor console divided into a split of windows.
Within each window was a different aspect of the words being uttered. One window contained the written text complete with a tracking cursor, keeping tempo with the spoken words. Other windows contained graphs and data that pertained to the voice quality, modulation, and feedback from the wireless telemetry smock worn by the man in the gyroscope.
“My God!” Catherine exclaimed, “I had no idea,” she was no stranger to technology but the extent of it staggered her.
“See,” Ken pointed to another glassed booth, “there’s Stuart, this screen is a split responsibility. Stuart in audio must ensure that all of the technical aspects of the sound quality are maintained—are authentic.”
“Is it a recording?” Catherine had asked.
“No, it’s A.I... the Artificial Intelligence I told you about. Computer data parsed through a neural network,” Ken smiled, “...impressed?”
“Impressed doesn’t come close... it’s overwhelming. Hang on,” Catherine scowled, spotting a flaw, “If this is pre-recorded, why when Leon isn’t here, is his voice necessary? What if you want to give a command that he hasn’t pre-recorded?” she’d posed.
“What a clever little thing you are,” Ken pinched her rump.
It was unexpected—inappropriate—and Catherine whirled on him, offended; but something in his look obliterated her furious response, instead she smiled idiotically and hated herself once more for doing so. He could do things nobody else could, and consistently get away with it. It was like he had a grip on her mind.
“Everything is computer controlled, that’s not Leon’s voice that you’re hearing.”
“It’s not?” she was perplexed.
“Well, in a way it is. We used his voice, or rather its intonation. He has the perfect modulation... we synthesize it... build up each syllable, inflection by inflection so that whatever we key in will be reproduced in audio.”
“And other languages? Could this synthesized Leon do it in other languages?”
“Absolutely. The unit is online, it taps into the cloud and draws off of the characteristics of any language we need.”
Catherine’s mind leapt to the implications of what just this aspect of the technology might mean for political diplomacy; the media could put words in anybody’s mouth without them ever having uttered them!
As if reading her mind, Ken added, “...more than that, the voice will stand up to finger-printing. Nothing will tell it apart from Leon’s voice.”
The fact of it had Ken previously entertaining whether Craig’s voicemail to him had been just such a hoax fabricated in the studio.
It wasn’t inconceivable. Delivery to his phone would be easy for the computer to achieve through VOIP—Voice Over Internet Protocol. The only question would have been who would have had the motive to create such a bizarre ruse, and to what ends?
All of the routine checks were complete and the hypnotized subject hung like a helmeted crucifix in a futuristic torture rack.
As she stretched to touch the main screen, set into the console before her, Kim spoke into her microphone;
“All systems are a GO!”
The instant her finger contacted the touch-screen’s pulsing “Start" window, the speakers erupted into a cacophony of sound and the man in the web raised his head off of his chest.
From their elevated viewpoint, Catherine watched as television repeaters around the stadium complex burst into life and action.
“Let the games begin,” Ken heralded the unfolding drama and Catherine’s mind leapt to the Coliseum in Rome.
This modern scene was for her an unsettling echo of that dark age when the persecuted fought beasts in just such a pit as the warrior would now face his fabricated adversary.
For a Twenty-first century woman it was a strange déjà vu and she forced herself to snap out of the momentary trance;
“He’s seeing all of this?” she asked, startled by the life-like images on the monitor screens.
“You sound surprised Cath, didn’t you work with these visuals in the commercial campaign?” Ken queried with a sarcastic flavour.
“Yes, but you hear it’s computer footage, it just doesn’t seem possible. I know it’s dated thinking, but ‘virtual reality’ conjures up grainy animated images in the arcades.”
“If it makes you more comfortable, think of this as just another multi-billion dollar arcade game.”
Catherine ignored his gibe. Minutes later, still in awe by the activity that bustled around her, a reckless thought bounded into her mind, “Can you hook me up? Now?”
Ken turned slowly to face her, his mouth agape, “Do you want me to get you a doctor?”
“Why?” she felt admonished by his reproach.
“Maybe you took me too seriously, Cath... This program is not a game. None of our programs are.”
Jilted, but not defeated, she fell silent brooding a few moments on his justified point;
“What if you don’t hypnotize me...?” she came back at her most persuasive, “...if I can sample it while my nerve is strong, there’s more chance of me trying it some other time,” She was black-mailing him into giving her a tryout at the peril of the sex game.
Ken caught the drift of her none too subtle threat and wasn’t prepared to call her bluff;
“I suppose we could tone down the tempo... Kim... we got any down-time today?”
Kim opened the bookings roster on an auxiliary screen, “There’s a space from sixteen thirty till nineteen hundred, Mr. Torrington.”
“You’re on!” he informed Catherine.
As she looked down from a level above, the lightly dressed gladiator tumbled with the ease of a trampoline acrobat and Catherine’s heart leapt with mixed emotions of dread and elation.
Like a child swept away in the war of his imagination, his every move was a balletic response to his private vision. He dangled weightlessly in the rigging evidently hiding, crouching, crawling and rolling, running and peeking around the next non-existent corner, telegraphing no warning of what he might do next. In isolation he looked demented, but the monitor offered a glimpse of sane redemption for his actions.
To glimpse from man to monitor was a queer study of the interplay between an event and its victim.
Catherine watched in fascination as the tunnel vision with which she had worked so much during the production of the commercials unfolded in an unceasing sequence of action.
After a few minutes they departed the spectacle and made their way up to the reception where they’d part ways until their four o’clock rendezvous.
As they moved along, yet another memory kept playing through Catherine’s mind. It had its foundation in a procedure that Ken had given her the option of not watching;
She had considered the option as a challenge, a test of her will, and she’d accepted. But watching that aspect of the ritual had been horrifying and simultaneously stimulating.
The man had stripped completely naked and a female doctor had inserted the catheter and a rectal bag apparatus. The scene had continued flashing through her mind in deliciously decadent flashes of voyeurism.
Now, unable to control her aching trepidation any more, she asked Ken if she’d have to undergo the same procedure later in the day.
“Of course you don’t have to, sunshine,” he replied cheerfully, “just don’t wear your best underwear!”
Catherine’s heart sank and they walked on in silence. It took several more minutes before she was about to depart, and during that interim she had steeled her heart against the predicament that she was soon to be in, consoling herself with the fact that at least it would be a female performing the task.
Ken walked with her to the car. He had been wearing a sadistic grin ever since she had asked the question, and finally she tired of his amusement at her expense, lashing out with a playful blow that caught him harmlessly in the middle of his chest.
She punctuated the action with a stern rebuke, “Enough!” she pouted, her face pinching into a pantomime sulk, “I’m not going to play anymore.”
Ken plucked at his lower lip in the manner of a childlike taunt and Catherine made as if to chase him. “All right,” he cried in a laughing retreat, “I’m only kidding with you. You won’t be time dilated, you’ll be able to take care of your own potty training.”
Relief washed over Catherine, yet she growled with sham furry at being hoodwinked; then another penny dropped in her mind, “If.... and only if, mind you, I do play the sex game,” she raised both eyebrows in question. “What then?”
Before answering, Ken moved to a safer distance out of her range;
“Don’t worry,” he let the pause hang as he increased the gap between them, “those bits will already be occupied.”
He’d begun to run before finishing the sentence, but Catherine had anticipated something vulgar and she was quicker over the distance than he’d reckoned, planting a glancing slap on his back as he tried to dart.
“Bastard,” she shouted after him as he fled, then she turned back to her car.
“See you at four!” he taunted.