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Over the Top Secret - Chapter 7
AKA Test is My Middle Name
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Start at the beginning (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
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We’re in a different room now, slightly larger with all kinds of exciting doodads lining the frosted glass walls on steel shelves. It’s sort of like a recording booth for bands, except instead of cozy and warm and conducive to the creative flow, this place is sterile and cold and perfect for dissecting aliens.
“Now hold your left arm perpendicular to the floor. That’s it,” Simon says from behind his computer monitor.
He has me standing on one leg with practically every part of my body connected to more wires. My ass is still on full display because of this ridiculously useless paper hospital gown. I feel entirely naked. Eric watches with his mysterious, calculating eyes, arms crossed as he sits on the edge of Simon’s giant metallic desk.
The floor is separated into fourths. One fourth is wood, one fourth is carpet, one fourth is tile, and the other quarter is a pool of water, covered by a plastic casing. I’m standing on the carpet part now, barefoot, and shaking like a scared wet dog.
“Now put your tongue behind your front two teeth and say ‘Hippopotamus.’” Simon’s voice echoes through the speakers in the room, ending with the audible click of the microphone button.
Ugh, I just did that. I swear half of these tasks are probably being whispered into Simon’s ear by a certain smirking someone who just wants to watch me suffer. I’ve already been drenched in freezing cold water, blindfolded and subjected to concise, intense periods of no oxygen, exposed to chemicals for the purpose of “olfactory testing,” forced to put my hand in mystery boxes for the sake of my “tactile response health”, and asked to recite the alphabet backward to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” Each time I let out a cry of pain, it seems to give Simon a burst of encouragement.
It's hardly reassuring.
As I stand here, hair still dripping from my most recent swim in the floor tub, I think about my parents. It’s hardly fair. I’m being tortured and held prisoner while they’re somewhere off the coast of Freeport getting drunk with a bunch of strangers. Thousands of smelly strangers stuck together in a floating box of germs.
On second thought, I’ll take the torture. However, I wouldn’t say no to a Pina Colada right about now.
But I have to wonder if my parents will even worry when they hear about the plane crash. If they hear about it.
Alright, stop being a drama queen, I tell myself. I’m just starting to freak out about the possibility that I won’t ever be allowed to leave this place. Or that The Director will have Simon erase my memory. Or that, most likely, they’ll just kill me.
Either way, I’d really like to put some pants on first.
“Perfect,” Simon says. He releases the microphone button, leaving me to lip-read his and Eric’s conversation behind soundproof glass. I strain my eyes, tracking every move Eric’s luscious lips make. Simon smiles at whatever he’s saying, then Eric looks right at me with a smirk. Microphone static fills the air, and Simon’s voice follows.
“You may put your arm down now,” he says. It flops to my side, tingling with the pins and needles of no blood flow. “Now turn your attention to the floor. Do you see that line of tape there?” I nod. A line of red tape runs about twenty feet down the wood floor. “Please walk along it.”
I take my first step, then the next, trying not to trip over the wires attached to my calf muscles. “I’m not drunk, you know. Is this even necessary?”
My toes tingle with each step. I’m still regaining feeling in my big toes and the inside of my lips, but for the most part, everything else is back to normal. It’s been a while since I got here, and I’m honestly surprised I haven’t been offered any water or snacks or bathroom breaks. It’s a wonder I haven’t peed my pants yet, or lack thereof.
“Can I get a bathroom break soon?” I reach the end of the tape. “Hello?” I’m talking to myself here.
“Turn around and walk back,” Simon instructs. He hasn’t said “please” this whole time.
“Ugh, fine,” I say, carefully lifting each foot over the other’s wires. They can definitely see my entire naked derriere as I walk back along the line. Maybe that’s why Eric is snickering, or maybe it’s the giant “LAUNCH” shaped welt on my bruised butt, but this constant string of mortifying events has pretty much desensitized me at this point.
“Stay on the line,” Eric’s voice comes through the speaker. I jump in surprise, almost losing my balance.
“Maybe I would if you’d stop interrupting me!” I shout back.
“Oh, and please lower your level of sass.”
I roll my eyes and mutter through gritted teeth, “Pardon me for being a little upset about my current situation.”
Eric presses the speak button again and a screeching sound pierces my ears before his voice fills the room. “You’d be surprised the kinds of weird crap Simon has to deal with, especially with past subjects purposely trying to tamper with Simon’s research.”
“Golly jee, why would anyone do that?” I ask sarcastically. It goes right over Eric’s head.
“You know, competitors or foreign agents trying to infiltrate T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T., nab our experiments, and copy our data files. And there’s always someone trying to steal The McGuffin. Truth serum is now standard procedure.”
I finish my little walk and turn on my heel to face the guys. “Yikes,” I mutter. “There’s a whole spy world that I have absolutely no idea about.” Hey, wait a minute. What if these guys aren’t actually spies and are just a couple of loonies out in the middle of nowhere? I try to push the thought aside.
“We’re just scratching the surface, babe,” Eric says.
I give him an exasperated look, ignoring the fact that he called me babe. “Can we move on to the interesting part and find out why Project McGuffin worked for me and why it didn’t work for Eric?” I ask. The last bit of the truth serum is still flowing through my body, and it’s definitely to blame for my childish behavior. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
Eric lowers his steely gaze at me in response to my comment. Do I detect a hint of jealousy? The thought pleases me. Though, I’m sure it’s because of the drugs in my system. I’m never this petty. Or sassy. Or whiny.
Maybe this “McGuffin” has unleashed sides of me I never knew existed. Besides my competitive side, of course, which always comes out during academic decathlons and state-wide testing. I’ve only ever felt truly confident under the pressures of testing. Which is probably why I’m chock full of sass right now. Once it wears off, I’ll be back to my worrywart self, I’m sure of it. I have my mother’s genes to thank for that.
The sealed glass door swooshes open as Simon eagerly waddles in, scanning his trusty stack of notes with wide eyes. Eric follows, hands in pockets, a permanent smirk on his face.
“What now?” I ask.
“We’re finished with the physical health testing,” Simon states.
“You passed. A plus,” Eric jokes, but it seriously pleases me.
“Alright. One test down, one to go, right?” I ask Simon.
“If you’re lucky,” Eric mutters.
“Please take a seat over there.” Simon gestures to a wall.
“Oh! Silly me.” He types a seemingly arbitrary pattern into the tile on the wall and suddenly it opens up, revealing an entirely different room cloaked in dim lighting. What a weird place. I heave all the wires around my ankles into a big pile at my chest.
As we walk closer, lights flicker on in the high ceiling above us to reveal a very stark, smooth white room. In the center lies a raised, circular part of the floor with pulsing blue lights emitting from beneath it. The circle slowly turns, bouncing light off the curvy, metallic-looking chair atop it.
“That’s a chair?” I ask. “It looks more like a sculpture.”
“Yes, it’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? My favorite T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. asset, if you ask me.” Simon puts a hand to his cheek and stares dreamily at it.
“What does it do?” I ask, slightly terrified of his possible answers.
“It does many things—”
“That we don’t have time to discuss with you,” Eric finishes, flicking a look at Simon. I let out an agitated huff.
“Let’s just say, this thing can give life, and it can take life,” Eric states, ominously. I stare at it, wondering how many ways it might kill me. I shudder.
“And you want me to sit in it?” I say.
Eric nods. “Standard procedure,” he says with a wicked grin.
I should have guessed.
“Please take a seat.” Simon gestures to the oddly shaped piece of equipment, still turning as the floor slowly spins beneath it. I awkwardly step onto the ledge, lose my balance, and trip into the weird seat, dropping all the wires to the floor. I let out a short, high-pitched shriek as my butt touches the cold metal.
“What are you looking for now?” I ask.
Neither of them answers me.
Simon pushes his hands against a white tile panel on the wall. A desk unfolds from a cutout behind the panel, complete with multiple monitors and loose-leaf papers strewn about, as if Simon had been working here all along and simply folded his desk into the wall when he was finished.
Eric presses against another panel, and a closet door opens. He pulls out two soft-looking rolling chairs and gets comfy in one of them, ready to watch the show as Simon submits me to a whole new slew of tests.
Simon grabs a small silver remote and taps a few buttons. The floor stops spinning, and a set of armrests emerge from the chair’s sides. “Place your hands on the edges there,” he instructs me from his desk. Then he presses another button, and a set of footpads emerges at the bottom of the chair. “Place your feet atop the scanners,” he says, touching one more button. A helmet emerges from the top of the chair, smoothly setting into place just above my head. Colorful lights twinkle and soft beeps start up. Simon then pulls his rolling chair up near me and plops down, paper and pen at the ready. Eric scoots closer, as well.
“Explain when you first encountered my test message. Tell me everything about the experience,” Simon says, “down to every detail.” The bubbling enthusiasm underlying his words makes me feel excited about what’s to come, temporarily dispelling my fear of undergoing the upcoming death-chair test. This shouldn’t be too bad...
“Okay.” I scrunch my face up, trying to remember it all. “I was sitting at my desk. In the kitchen. In my apartment. It’s a small apartment. One bedroom, one bath, a small stove, and barely any room for preparing meals. Which, honestly, isn’t too bad since I’m only usually cooking for one anyway—”
“Try to stay on point,” says Eric, jiggling his leg impatiently. “Jesus, both of you,” he mutters.
“Tell us what happened when the message appeared,” Simon urges.
“I finished the test, and the screen turned black. Then a small white square popped onto the screen.” Simon rapidly scrawls all this down in his notepad. “It started flashing. Then I felt like I was mesmerized by it. I don’t remember what happened after that, except that it felt like I slammed into a brick wall.”
Simon rolls back over to his computer and types up a few things. “Do you remember if you saw anything? Heard anything? Remember to hold the armrests,” he adds.
His insistence on the armrests has me feeling hesitant, but I grip them tighter nonetheless and think back on the moment. Suddenly, the images come back to me. “I saw flashes of explosions and people, I think. But they were dark, like shadows, and there were weapons.”
“What kind of weapons?” Eric asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I just blacked out. That’s all I can remember.”
Simon plucks a few seemingly random loose-leaf papers from his desk and sifts through their contents, then he clicks around on the screen. Eric walks over to his side. Together, they ponder the information on his monitor.
“What? What’s happening?” I ask. The angle of the monitor makes his readings look like a bunch of scribbles to me.
“You interpreted the text as images,” he says. “Very peculiar.”
“What text? What was your message?”
“My message was the entire movie script for Mission Impossible Two,” Simon says.
I stare back at him, brows furrowed. “You sent me a script?”
“Yes, it’s about the same size as a standard T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. mission brief, and I thought it was topical, seeing as we’re secret agents and all.” He smiles, proud of his little nerdy joke. “What’s most impressive is you received the words correctly but interpreted the message as a combination of stand-out images. Your brain is quite unique.”
“So she got the message, but she didn’t know what it meant,” Eric says, disappointed.
“I’m sorry—you said you sent me a movie script?” I ask again, but the question bounces right off their thick heads.
“This suggests her imagination is powerful, as well as her creativity,” Simon explains to Eric. “The fact that Julie is interpreting text in other forms prompts a whole slew of befuddlements,” he says, smiling from ear to ear, “seeing as the whole point of Project McGuffin is to deliver T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. intel, unaltered, directly to an agent’s brain.”
“Maybe that’s because she’s not a field agent,” Eric suggests. He stands, begins pacing around the strange chair, making my head spin. “If I could replicate her brain waves or something, maybe I could understand the messages.”
Simon bursts into hearty laughter.
“What? Isn’t that the whole point?” Eric asks.
“No one can replicate brain waves.” Simon wipes a tear from his eyes. “Especially not from this brain.”
“Why not?” Eric asks. He flexes his muscles in frustration.
“It’s a very… unique brain.”
“You keep using that word,” I say. “What makes my brain different from the rest of your test subjects?” Saying the word makes me feel like a lab rat. Besides, didn’t he mention something about this being potentially life-threatening? Suddenly, this doesn’t feel like such a good idea. I really don’t want an ear grown out of my back like that mouse, or something equally as strange.
“Yeah, why did she get the message and not me?” Eric’s eyes flicker to me and back to Simon. He isn’t sitting well with the idea that someone might be better than him at something.
This pleases me.
“In practically every field agent I tested, they each used the same or similar parts of their brains— the parts that have to do with physical exertion, instinctual reflexes, and emotional responses such as fear, excitement, and pride, etc.” Simon turns in his swivel chair to face me.
“But with Julie,” his eyes glimmer, “it seems there is far more activity occurring in the areas involving memory, projective imagination, and interpretation. Also, she’s exhibiting more complex emotions such as,” he looks at the monitor and continues, “wonder, anxiety, mortification, distress, dread, panic, terror, exhilaration, attraction, etc.” Eric snickers at that last one. “And it’s inspiring to see this high range of capability when it comes to apprehension and even physical ability.”
“What are you saying? She’s more capable?” Eric points to me as if I’m a potato, sounding incredulous.
“She’s more… emotional. More honest. More open,” says Simon.
“So, a woman,” Eric states. “And obviously unfit for an agent.” I roll my eyes.
“Perhaps, but possibly just right for Project McGuffin.” The same giddy smile is plastered on Simon’s pale, freckled face. I can practically feel the crackling energy coming off him every time he mentions The McGuffin or his readings. This kid is seriously freaking me out.
“You got all that from reading my palms?” I ask.
“Among a few other tests I performed while you were unconscious. The point is,” Simon continues, seeing my worry at his last statement, “these are all surface-level readings. The chair will tell us even more.”
“What about my physical reaction to the message? I passed out for a whole day,” I say.
“And she was sweating like a pig on the plane ride. Not to mention acting like a total freak,” adds Eric.
“You’re one to talk,” I jibe. “Eric’s right, though. I was sweating a lot, and I felt like my head was splitting apart.”
“Your physical response is slightly alarming. We wouldn’t want our field agents to pass out on the job, but it’s also much better in comparison to my previous test subject responses.”
The image of the ear-backed lab mouse comes back to mind. “Uh… what happened to them?”
Simon ignores my question. “If all you experience is the sweats and slight nausea, I’d say it’s a success.”
“What about the full-body convulsions?” I ask.
“Yeah, she almost shook herself to death. That’s not exactly ideal,” adds Eric. He runs a hand through his hair and lets out an exasperated sigh. Someone’s getting impatient over here, and he’s not even the one being tested!
“That’s right,” Simon says. He taps his chin contemplatively, then stands from his desk and slowly circles me in the chair with his hands clasped behind his back. He tilts his head to inspect me from behind his spectacles, then stops every few moments to sniff my hair, my feet, flick my toe…
“Hey—” I start, but Eric shushes me.
“Oh!” Simon stops pacing and claps his hands with an enthusiastic little jump. “Perhaps your convulsions are a response to the test message because it was the first foreign data influx!”
“What about the second time?” I ask.
“It’s possible you experienced such a strong physical response the second time because of the sheer amount of data.” He smiles. “I mean, that was twenty-five terabytes of information. Digital information. Gone right to your brain!” He practically dances.
My palms sweat against the armrests. This does not bode well. “What’s next?”
“Now, we’re going to test whether The McGuffin information officially transferred to your mind.” Simon hustles over to his desk, readjusts something on the monitor, then excitedly plops into his rolling chair again, scooting close to my side. “First, tell us everything you remember from the transfer.”
I ignore the terrible sinking feeling that comes with the fact that this seems to be going nowhere, and instead tell myself that we’re almost done. Just a few more questions and I’ll be well on my way back home. With a huff and a shake of the head and a determined attitude, I get to explaining. I tell the two boys how, just after I accidentally pressed “LAUNCH” with my ass cheek, it was like overlapping images and clips and silhouettes and explosions and memories and violence and blueprints, and yadda yadda, all combining to form one master feeling of dread.
“Do you have any idea what it means?” asks Simon.
“Not exactly. It just felt like one bad nightmare.”
Simon calculates something. He silently scoots back over to the computer and clicks around. Eric steps closer to me, silently assessing me from top to bottom. It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking behind those beautiful, dark hazel eyes. I hope he can’t see too clearly through this paper dress. I turn my head away in an attempt to hide the blush forming on my cheeks.
“My readings suggest that The McGuffin did, indeed, transfer to your brain,” Simon says. “But I wonder how or if we can access it.”
Eric and I wait patiently for Simon to continue while he makes more scribbly notes, but he just sits down and stares at his papers, eyes dancing with ideas.
“What are you thinking now?” Eric asks.
“No one at T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. knows the true extent of The McGuffin’s knowledge, not even myself. Once created, The McGuffin sort of took on a sentience of its own.” Great. An alien is making itself at home in my brain. “We don’t know what we don’t know, which is what makes this so difficult.”
“There’s no way to find out what’s in my head?”
“Not based on our limited knowledge of The McGuffin,” says Simon.
“That sounds like a bad thing,” I say.
“Perhaps,” Simon says, still looking like he’s hopped up on a pound of Smarties candies.
“Then why are you happy about it?”
“Because there is so much we do not know!” He lets out a heartfelt giggle.
“That’s not true.” Eric scrubs his hand over his face. “We might not know everything The McGuffin hasn’t told us, but we do know everything it has.”
“Precisely!” Simon claps his hands together. “We can try to awaken The McGuffin by exposing Julie to information only The McGuffin would know from previously completed missions!”
Their burst of excitement is slightly alarming. “You’re going to trigger me? I don’t want to start convulsing again.”
“I saved some muscle relaxant, just in case,” says Eric. He pats his pocket reassuringly, but the fact he’s kept it this whole time is disturbing. The idea of being trapped with two crazy people who think they’re spies hits me again. Maybe they’re actually some weird Doomsday preppers who got bored. I take a deep breath. Calm down, it’s not likely. I hope.
“Lie with your back directly against the chair, Julie,” Simon says. He presses another button on his chair remote. The helmet lowers onto my head and— ZZZZZZZZZ! A surge of electricity jolts through my bones. I can’t even scream it happens so fast.
Eric dashes to my side and unplugs the chair in one motion. We all stare at each other. Every hair on my body is singed. Is that what burnt hair smells like? Gross. I’m still breathing heavily.
“Oops, accidents happen,” Simon says in a sing-songy manner. He stifles another giggle and rapidly scribbles more notes.
Accident my ass.
“Apparently, the chair was last used for an electrocution interrogation.” I about pee myself at the mental image of death by electrocution. Dear God, what does this scientist boy do in his free time? “I—er, someone must have turned it off improperly…” He recomposes himself.
Eric readjusts a dial and plugs the chair back in. It boots up correctly this time, emitting a low hum.
“The good news is, it seems the electricity jogged your brain waves,” says Simon. “According to my readings, they’re more active.”
“You think?” I cough. My hair sends a faint trail of smoke into the air. Why am I letting myself be subjected to this? Oh yeah, because I passed an unpassable test and I want to know why. Darn my curiosity.
“Eric, let’s start by referencing some of the information The McGuffin had given you on your previous missions.” Simon pulls his chair up again.
Eric nods. He thinks for a moment, then looks right in my eyes and says, “Cookie Monster,” dead serious.
“I thought you said this wasn’t a joke,” I say.
“It isn’t.” Eric furrows his brow. “Did you feel anything when I said… Cookie Monster?” They both lean in.
“Not a thing. Except now I want some cookies.” My stomach grumbles as if to prove it. “What are you talking about?”
“The McGuffin doesn’t remember,” Eric says to himself, sounding slightly offended.
“Remember what?” I demand.
“It’s classified, Julie,” he reminds me.
“Don’t you think we’re past that?”
Eric sets his jaw. “Fine. Cookie Monster was the name of an evil villain who wanted to get rid of all the obese people in the world, so he poisoned the top cookie-making factories to try to wipe out all the fatties.” I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t worry, I handled it.”
“Fatties?” I frown.
Eric shrugs. “He wasn’t a very PC Evil Villain.”
“There’s such a thing as evil villains?”
“Don’t be naive,” says Eric.
“Why, of course,” says Simon. “But that’s beside the point. Tell us about,” he pauses for dramatic effect, “Omar the Czar.”
Silence. I stare back at them. “Oh, was something supposed to happen? Sorry. I got nothing.” Simon makes a note. Eric groans.
“Who was Omar the Czar?” I ask.
“A circus freak who wanted to take control of Russia. Don’t fret,” Eric says at my shocked expression. “I went undercover as a gymnast and took care of it. And returned The McGuffin to headquarters in record time.” He smirks. I picture him in a leotard and the image is disturbingly intriguing.
“Isn’t The McGuffin supposed to be, like, super top secret?” I ask.
“Oh yes, very,” assures Simon.
“Then why do people keep stealing it?”
“It’s what happens when you have the most important collection of classified intel in the world,” Eric says, like duh.
“Let’s get back on track, yes?” says Simon. I glance longingly at the giant AC ducts lining this high-ceilinged room. They remind me of my failed escape attempt earlier (oh how things were simpler before I tried to take matters into my own hands), and of the fact that we could seriously use some fresh air in here. It’s getting musty. Or maybe that’s just my anxiety-induced BO.
“Yes, let’s get back to the questioning so I can get this thing out of my head and go home.”
Eric shakes it off and zones in on me again. Simon sits poised with his pen at the ready.
“How about… Gizelle?” says Eric.
I milk their reactions just a bit before saying, “I got nothing.”
“That didn’t jog your mind? You didn’t see anything about Antone’s Drone, Gizelle?”
“Nada,” I say.
“That was a big mission, as I recall,” says Simon.
“Well, I sure as hell remember Gizelle,” Eric says with a knowing grin.
“Okay, next one,” I say, shaking my head. This is like a very weird game of Jeopardy.
“What about… Limoncello?” Eric asks.
Nothing, once again. “Do I even want to know?”
Eric sighs and sits back in his wheelie chair. After a moment of silent temple massaging, he says, “How about… Greyson?”
“Wait a minute,” I mutter. Greyson, Greyson, Greyson… the name sounds familiar. “Oh, Greyson!” I exclaim. They perk up at my response. “Wasn’t he the guy you blew up after the plane crash?” I ask Eric.
“Yes, but… did The McGuffin tell you anything about Greyson’s Daycare?” asks Eric.
These missions are sounding crazier and crazier. “No, I didn’t know Greyson was a babysitter.”
“These were all seriously intense, high profile missions,” scoffs Eric. He starts pacing in a circle around the chair again. “I can’t believe The McGuffin doesn’t remember a single one of them. It’s like they meant nothing to The McGuffin.”
“I’m sure The McGuffin appreciates your hard work, Eric,” assures Simon. Why are they talking about it like it’s a person?
“Alright, let’s move on to a different kind of test.” Simon presses another invisible button on the chair remote. It maneuvers so I’m lying flat on my back and the helmet forms a dome over my face. It’s a claustrophobic cave of twinkling LED colors and beeps. I wonder if this is what being in space feels like.
“I’m going to send you another message— don’t worry, it’ll be tiny.” Simon’s voice sounds muffled from outside the tiny helmet. “Especially in comparison to twenty-five terabytes.” Metallic belts clamp shut around my waist, my wrists, and my ankles.
“What’s happening?” I ask. “What are you doing?”
“That’s just to protect you from yourself, should you start convulsing again.” Simon dismisses it like it’s nothing. “I’m going to send you a simple text message. One line. Ready?”
He types something and clicks a button.
I gasp, my back arches, and my heart stops for a moment as I receive a surge of colorful information.
I’m sitting in a musty old wooden house, almost like a barn, and there’s a handful of people with me. We’re wearing old clothes, like from the sixties, and everyone’s laughing.
Suddenly, we’re all floating, and the laughter turns creepy like it’s slowed down.
Then I’m pouring a bright purple liquid into a giant silver spoon while images of an umbrella pop in and out of my vision. A bunch of dirty men dancing in piles of coal surround me. I see some tiny penguins and then BAM-- that’s it.
I twitch until my heart comes back to life. I gulp down the air. My armpits pool with sweat, and a short-lived wave of nausea takes over, but then… that’s all. The helmet recedes, and the chair returns to its semi-normal chair shape.
“What happened? What did you see?” Simon asks.
I take a moment to catch my breath, shaking the pain out of my head. “Something weird was happening— laughter, I poured something purple, there were dirty men all dancing around me,” I sputter.
“Is that really what a young woman should be dreaming about?” Eric teases. I ignore him.
“There was something else, but I can’t…” My words fail me. “Give me that.”
I grab Simon’s pen and notepad and hastily start drawing the images I couldn’t describe. I don’t even know what I’m drawing until I’m done drawing it, driven by an intense need to get it out of my head. We all squint at my amateur scribbles.
“It looks like an umbrella,” says Eric.
“Being held by a penguin,” I add. “Oh, and that’s coal.” I point with the pen at my chicken scratch drawing.
“Fascinating!” Simon grabs the notepad from me. “This is absolutely intriguing. You said it was like a memory for you?”
“Would you like to know what the message was?” he asks.
“Are you kidding me?” I say. “Why would you use that as the message? Why not an actual word? Or something like ‘Hi my name is Simon’, or ‘Testing, one two three’?”
“Julie, you’re missing the point,” Simon corrects. “I sent you a single word, and your brain clearly knew it was a reference to Mary Poppins. However, you didn’t interpret the text as text.”
He’s pacing now. His words grow louder with each new exciting thought. “Nor did you dream up anything specifically related to the word I sent. It all seemed to be references to other parts of the film. But your brain knew the correct film. Judging by my readings,” he turns to his computer again, and I wonder about these magical readings, “it looks as though your brain referenced past feelings you had about the film, combined those feelings with the scenes you remembered most, and then played them for you like your own memories.”
Simon claps his hands together again. I flinch.
“This is fascinating, indeed. Let’s do another test.”
“Wait—” I protest, but he’s already set the chair into MRI brain scanning mode, and I’m back in the tiny claustrophobic head dome.
They test my brain on clips from Jurassic Park, Reagan’s State of the Union Address, old television shows like I Love Lucy and Walker Texas Ranger, and even audio clips of Eric’s mission recordings and Taylor Swift songs. Each time my mind does something different with the data.
Sometimes, I see myself doing things related to the content, like riding a T-Rex like a horse or shaking Reagan’s hand, and other times I’m reading a book, and random words start floating through the air. With every message, my brain comes up with a different combination of memories and visuals, but it never touches on what the message actually is. The weirdest part is that I’m unable to retain half the information from these “visions” unless I draw it out before I lose it.
After a few more rounds of these makeshift tests, Simon lets me take a break. I massage my head. Eric walks to the corner of the room and stretches, does some push-ups, squats, faux boxing, generally being a nuisance, while Simon stares at his data. He’s grinning like a fool, which means whatever the data is showing probably isn’t conclusive in the slightest.
“What does it all mean, Simon?” asks Eric mid jumping jack. “Can you somehow copy this method over to my brain?”
Simon bobs his head up and down as he follows Eric’s moving eyeline. “It means Julie’s brain is unpredictable.”
“But we know she is receiving the data,” Eric reminds him, switching to lunges. If he’s trying to impress me… damn it, it’s working.
“Yes,” Simon says, “but it’s unreliable.”
“And we still have no idea how to access The McGuffin,” Eric realizes, stretching his biceps behind his back.
“Precisely,” Simon says.
“So all this was a waste of time,” I say.
“No! My goodness, no. This is fascinating and valuable information, indeed,” says Simon. He gestures to his monitors. “I’ve established a connection to a person’s brain through digital means and have successfully sent different types of messages to said brain. The most exciting part is that the subject— I mean, you—” he glances at me, “were able to receive the messages and relay back to me, well, not the message exactly…”
“Like she said, it was a waste of time,” says Eric, finished with his aerobic exercises for now. “Just great.”
“Well, I guess that’s it,” I say. “Time to take off the helmet, remove The McGuffin, and send me home. Right?” They look at me blankly. “Right?”
“What are you two saying?” Simon furrows his brow, shakes his head. “There’s much more to be done. We can perform more tests, but this time we will ramp up the physical requirements—”
“I’m exhausted and starving, and I just want to go home. You said if it didn’t work, you’d take The McGuffin out of my brain.” I lie back down in the chair. “So c’mon, let’s do that.”
Simon squirms a bit. “If you insist.”
“What’s the problem?” I ask, figuring if Simon is squirming there really is something to be worried about.
“Who said there’s a problem?” Simon nervously exchanges a look with Eric. I stare at them expectantly.
“I can technically remove The McGuffin from your brain,” Simon states.
He bites at his lower lip. “But not without it killing you.”
My eyes dart between Simon’s grimace and Eric’s shocked expression.
“You’re kidding,” I say.
“We never joke about The McGuffin,” Simon says once more.
That’s right, I forgot The McGuffin is the holy grail. Something occurs to me.
“Did you know this the whole time?”
Simon wrings his hands. “Well…”
“Unbelievable,” I say.
“I-I had a hunch, but I wasn’t certain until the electrocution accident really sealed it in your brain.”
“Accident! Yeah, right. You did this on purpose just so you can keep playing scientist.” I slide off the freezing chair.
“The readings say so!” Simon sputters.
“Oh, well, if the readings say so,” I mock, then I rip the wires off my body. “Looks like I’ll be taking the damn McGuffin home with me then.”
“No! You’ll affect the readings—”
“What readings?” I stomp over to his computer. “It’s just a bunch of squiggly lines and gibberish! Are they all-knowing as well?” The absurdity of the situation finally hits me. “How do you even know what they mean? What kind of scientist are you?”
“I’m the T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. Computer Scientist,” Simon says, shaking from the confrontation. “It’s my job to know! I just know!”
“Oh sure, like The McGuffin just knows everything,” I say.
“That’s how things work here, Julie,” Eric says. He puts his hand on my shoulder and pulls out the remaining muscle relaxant from his jacket pocket. “Calm down,” he warns. I shove his hand from my shoulder and cross my arms, giving him the best “I hate you” expression I can muster. Once my blood pressure decreases, I reluctantly do as he says. Simon shakily clicks around on the screen.
“The readings,” he starts, I flinch at the word, “tell me your pathways are totally sealed.”
“What does that even mean? You’re just making this up,” I grumble.
Simon turns to me, suddenly serious. “I know what I’m saying, Julie. The McGuffin is stuck in your brain.”
The three of us stand there for a moment, immersed in our own thoughts.
“So, what now? You’re not going to kill me, are you?” The familiar tingling sensation of fear creeps up my spine.
“You’re a liability,” says Eric. “And this was a major waste of everyone’s time. Unfortunately, we’ll have to see what The Director wants to do with you next.”
Something inside of me cracks. “Why can’t I just go home?” I ask, dangerously close to breaking into tears.
“Because there are highly classified, terribly important and irreplaceable documents stuck in your brain,” says Simon like I haven’t been listening this whole time.
“Obviously, you can’t go walking around with that information in your head,” says Eric. “The fate of the country, the world, is in there.” He assesses me as I stand there, arms crossed, wondering why I had to go and take that damn career quiz in the first place.
“Looks like you didn’t pass the test, after all,” Eric says. I hunch forward, totally disappointed in myself.
Simon looks longingly at his gibberish readings. “I suppose it’s time for me to give The Director a call.” He pulls his phone out.
“At least you have a backup, right?” I ask, remembering what The Director said in their last phone conversation.
Just then, a loud horn blares through the building. Flashing red lights replace the white fluorescent bulbs, and a recorded voice repeats, “CODE RED, CODE RED, CODE RED….”
Instinctively, I cover my ears from the deafening sound.
“It can’t be!” Simon gasps. He hacks away at his keyboard in a worried flurry. “My God…” He stares in shock at whatever it is he’s seeing.
“What’s happening?” I yell.
“It’s a Code Red!” confirms Eric.
Gee, I hadn’t noticed. “What’s a Code Red?”
Eric turns to me dramatically, wind blowing in his hair (where is the wind coming from?) and says, “The McGuffin backup has been hacked.”