Chapter 1: Prologue
They said women were inherently more psychic than men.
Their natural empathy and intuition set them apart from logical and down to earth males, devoid of mystery or the celestial grace of the female sex.
The fairer gender- more in tune with the cosmic heartbeat of the universe and the inner lives of people shrouded in the darkness of the solitary human brain. Put together with moonlight and spare rib bones. Women were mythical in the way the platypi were alien.
Bullshit, that’s the first thing Cindy thought.
Someone was selling these men snake oil.
The classroom was dead still as a recruiter stood in front of her lecture hall, military pin shining across his breast pocket.
“So you see,” his words faded in and out, “we are doing important research into the female psyche, unlocking untold advances.”
Cindy thought that she felt just about as intuitive as a soggy bowl of cereal on a good day, even as a young girl she could barely tell when it was about to rain. She got stuck on more than once at the rural Ohio schoolhouse, forced to sprint home in soaked socks and shoes as the sky pelted her. Her gifts were limited to rolling her eyes and sometimes turning the radio on at the right moment.
That didn’t stop her from standing up in her level 4000 grad class, “when do the trials begin?”
She had a feeling no one else at any lab across the country was going to look at her name and not throw out the application.
So they wanted women, Cindy could be that woman.
She was handed a flyer with a microscope in the corner, handwritten in curly chunk letters, like that would scare off fewer candidates.
$650 a month!
No experience needed
The bottom phrase caught her attention, well, the bottom phrase and the fact that that salary was twice what she would make anywhere else as herself.
Degrees preferred, she blinked, preferred, not crumbled in the trash and questioned.
She left a long repetitive message on her parents answering machine before finding her best dark suit to neatly press into her suitcase. Her advisor informed her that they wouldn’t be holding her spot after this.
The flight was seven hours long across roving box fields and scathing blue mountains. It passed in long ever-lasting chunks of color and mixed shapes framed by the small oval window.
She was ready at any minute to put her head between her legs if so much as a tremor went through her armrest. She remembered her grandma reading her the obituaries like this every Sunday morning like some funny prank. Plane, gone down over the Colorado Rockies, Plane, gone down over the fields of Iowa, Plane, set on fire and sucked into the Bermuda triangle. Or something like that.
Cindy’s gums ached from clenching them when she walked on solid ground again, the DC air smelled like snow and flu shots as she gathered up her belongings and took a deep breath. She got in late and barely remembers the night spent in the musty yellow hotel next to the road. The honking of horns and voices carried over through her walls, she remembers thinking that people in DC needed to calm down.
The ride to the interview the next day was mute and unhurried as she paid the cab driver and went through the first checkpoint, and the next. They told her she would be going to the basement level.
It felt like a type of fever dream you wake up from and are missing a kidney from afterward. Despite fearing for the safety of her sellable internal organs Cindy takes the elevator ride down five stories into the deep quiet earth. A group of guards check every single one of her belongings again at the entrance and then some.
Some part of her, the other part that read obituaries with her eyes as steady as head beams, wanted to snarl at them and say she’d put a curse on this place at any moment. Men like this were terribly afraid of curses, perhaps it was because they weren’t made of moonlight and spare rib bones.
She lets herself be led into a separate deeper room, her heels feel thunderously loud against the hard floors as she was led in.
She finds a straight-backed black chair in front of a sturdy long table, she stands in the entranceway for a long moment before they grunt at her. Cindy shuffles quickly in and takes her seat, staring rigidly ahead at the chalky gray walls. The Pentagon was about as friendly as a knifepoint, she waits another couple minutes before a bright light flashes in her face when another door opens.
Heavy footsteps follow as she hears paper shuffling.
“So,” an officer in dark blue squinted at her as he takes a seat. “It’s Chal-yan?”
“Um, Cha-li-on. It’s uh, a ‘lie’ in the middle.” She says softly, as if not to spook him or wake any spirits slumbering beneath the concrete.
He frowned at her through a thick mustache, “that a ruskie name?”
She shook her head vigorously, “not at all.” Her family was from Kazakhstan so that wasn’t an entire lie. “The east.” She says vaguely so he wouldn’t probe.
She already knew they were doing twelve different background checks on her as they spoke so it wouldn’t make much of a difference. They would know her by 1500 data points soon, everything from her birthday to the size of her headgear in 8th grade.
“Right,” he looked down at his piece of paper with a frank squint, “you went to Stanford.”
“Yes sir,” she looks down at her hands as she answers.
“You studied Psychobiology?” He said the word like it an uninvited guest at Thanksgiving, the one that had just made a rude pass at his sister.
“Dr. Hanberry,” Cindy almost goes to bite her lip, “And the faculty. They’re calling it neurobiology.”
She can see a more pronounced frown through his thick mustache, “I see,” he says roughly, “you’re a real brain gal.”
She sits up straight, “I read that’s what you’re looking for.”
He makes a small thinking noise, “so we are.” He reads over her credentials again before clearing his throat, “you’re almost going on seven years at that school.”
“I’m interested in the work.” She says plainly.
“Not interesting enough for ya recently?” It was almost wry.
Cindy shifts in place, “I was thinking of a change.” She taps her fingers on the table with a musical thrum. “I would love to get into a… well stocked sort of lab.”
“Ambitious!” He chuckles openly.
She tries a thin smile, “Keen.”
The general adjusts his hat and leans forward, “How would you say you are in confined spaces, ma’am?”
Cindy keeps her expression neutral, “As well as anyone else I might presume.”
He takes her in for a long moment and Cindy lets the cool air of the room cling to her.
That was the beginning.
Chapter 2: Red, Green, Blue Days
“Red,” she blinks, “blue.” She takes a breath, “green.” The lights flash behind her eyes, “red, again.”
A doctor was frowning at her through his mask and it’s all Cindy can do to keep her eyes straight ahead. A crown of wires whizzed around her head and she feels more like a rat running through an electro-shock maze than a team player.
She blinks her eyes and feels a pulse in her temple, the wires sent a little spark of electricity through her. She doesn’t flinch, Cindy holds herself still.
Two steady blue eyes stare back at her. “Green.” She says softly and the scientist next to her keeps scribbling things down.
Cindy imagines the notes on his pad absently: ‘candidate 5- sleep deprived?’ ‘Has not guessed a single color right,’ ‘forgot to brush my teeth this morning,’ ‘look at the cans on candidate 4.’
‘Still haven’t brushed my teeth.’
Perhaps she should be more charitable with him, she barely remembered his name after all. But he was breathing on her and he, nor anyone else, had asked her if she needed to pee in the last four hours.
And for the record, to hopefully be documented, preserved and studied with the rest of the paperwork. Cindy really really needed to pee.
“Blue.” The woman across from her forms the words with a soft curve to her mouth, like she was kissing a cloud with her palette. Cindy looks down at her lap.
The doctor on the other side of the room clears his throat, Cindy forces herself to look back up and look at candidate five in the face. Louise gives her a curious look but pronounces the word ‘yellow’ like she was going to take it out to lunch.
Cindy takes a deep breath and tries to be more charitable again, Louise was from Minnesota, things were different there.
She thinks about the wonders of what must be Minnesota as she looks the other woman in the eye and little buzzes go through her forehead. Connecting the left and right brain synapses, stimulating the cerebellum.
Activating neurotransmitters between two totally different individuals.
She hears a deep sigh behind her and Cindy feels the buzz of the machine, a wall of wires and transmitters and entire processing system, power down. The fritzing, whirring sounds slowly tapers off as Cindy exhales.
The little electric pulse in between her ears stops and she takes that as a sign to pull out the pads on her temples.
“Let’s break for lunch ladies,” the doctor says behind her and Cindy takes the opportunity to not look any one in the eye again. It was the little pleasures.
She stretches and flattens out her skirt as she plans to go dart to the restroom as fast she can.
“Be back by half past one.” The doctors weren’t looking at her, but stood in her way as they reminded her of their Very Important Work.
“I know sir,” she nods at the man she wished at least try out a toothpick or flossing one of these days.
She passes the next military scientist and hopes Doug was bumbling about somewhere, Doug always let her pour over the numbers once she was free and walking around again.
Cindy darts over the woman’s restroom (newly installed) as she hears a pair of footsteps trailing her, she looks over her shoulder to nod at Louise.
“Be right back,” she says with a wave.
“I’ll save you spot in the cafeteria.”
The woman must have an iron bladder, Cindy shakes her head as she watches the other participant retreat. Cindy ducks into the small sterile gray restroom, there were still urinals in the corner from before the room had been ‘repurposed.’
She sighs heavily in relief and tries not to touch the bruised areas around her forehead before she’s done.
“Red, yellow, blue, green,” she snorts and picks at her nails, looking at the walls as she finishes.
The underground military facility felt and tasted like a knock-off brand of seltzer water, sparkling and vaguely unpleasant. The ruling design theory was functional and grey, grey like the inside of a dying man’s mouth, grey like storm clouds that make your chest rumble. Grey.
It was being sucked into an entirely different world, and needing to pee most of the time you were there.
Cindy washed her hands and was pleasantly surprised by the pinkness of the soap, it was the little thing.
She takes a deep breath and spends some time fixing her hair, she wasn’t sure she was going to miss the sun or personal space. But it turns out some part of her was attached to both those things.
She relishes her time alone in the restroom before one of the cleaners steps in and they nod at each other before Cindy heads out.
“Red,” her heels click on the cool floors like a bad joke, “green.”
She passes several brass with papers and whispers between them, there were other experiments going on in this same facility. They were just the only ones trying to unlock the powers of bad hotline psychics.
Cindy was so close to rolling her eyes into a coma as she thinks about it. She concentrates on the smell of stew and white bread as she enters a bustling cafeteria, a small Asian woman waves at her from the corner.
She waves at the table of women and waits patiently to be walked, fed, and walked again to a little rectangle surface. Everything was made of boxes and squares and more rectangles, it was like a geometry sex dungeon.
She crosses off the last part in her mind and lets the thick stew pour onto her plate, she inhales deeply. The food at the very least wasn’t bad.
“Cindy,” one of the girl’s was grinning as she waved her over.
She shuffles over through the other long school tables to where the four other woman sat. There were roughly eight of them living down there in total, not counting the cleaning staff that came down regularly.
Cindy wasn’t sure if they bunched them all together to increase ‘telepathic potential’ or just out of convenience, either way, she kept telling them they needed a bigger sample size anyway. They told her they had been doing these same things on men for 3 years now.
At least it was equal opportunity brain rot.
Cindy sits down delicately as her skirt sweeps under her, “Martha,” she grins with a nod, “Tric.”
Martha was a friendly girl from South Florida with a psychology degree, as most of them did. Tric was a secretary that got stuck down there with them.
“See,” the women slicked her beehive black hair back, “it’s unrealistic, no one wants to shave that much muff.” She shoves a magazine under her nose and Cindy politely pushes it back.
She was currently browsing a playboy she found in one of the restrooms like it was a Sears catalog. “It looks like a terrible tiny mustache.” Tric was squinting her eyes, “The things they do to these women, jeez.”
Cindy doesn’t look down at the naked woman on the magazine, “Stew is nice and warm today.”
“Is it a Tuesday?” The frazzled Mrs. Catherine at the end had her notepad out and was calculating something. The days of the week next to the months next to an astrology chart.
She had a degree in communications and math.
“God, someone tell me it’s a tuesday,” she chewed on her bottom lip, “it’s been two hundred fifty two days, Venus is in retrograde…”
She was mumbling to herself, she was also candidate number one and the first one they dragged into The Depths (as Cindy was calling it) to see if their tickers could talk to each other.
“Did you see Dr. Stevens today,” Martha beamed at her, “he sure was handsome with those new glasses.”
Cindy wrinkled her nose as she tried to remember which one that was, “I’m sure he was.” She reassures as she organized her plastic spoons and forks on her trey.
“Don’t bother Cindy with that sort of thing,” And there she was Louise.
Louise was seated two spots away from her, wearing her regular fleece pink sweater with a baby blue skirt. She always had the look of someone who rather be knitting or talking about the different shades of sycamore trees.
A sweet girl with bright eyes and soft round everything from her personality to everything else.
Though, of course, Cindy always had the temptation to give her a Catholic Speech on numerous things, and Cindy wasn’t even Catholic.
“She’s a woman of science,” her lips turned up, “She’s already married.”
They tittered around her and Cindy’s not sure if she should be relieved or offended, it felt like the time for a Catholic Speech about teasing. And smokey eyes and long lashes and whatever else the Minnesota girl was doing.
“No wonder my son has hang-ups, none of these women got any marks on ‘em,” Tric took another long drag of her cigarette and Cindy sighs.
Louise delicately continues her meal and Cindy couldn’t guess what she was thinking if she tried. And she’d been paid to try.
It had been one week in The Depths of the Pentagon with several hundred scientists, but Cindy had barely got to touch a spreadsheet. The fairer sex was meant to be tied into whirring machinery and watch the own gears in her head wear thin.
She keeps these complaints all to herself as Martha talks about getting cookie dough here for the winter season and Tric compared the January and February centerfolds. Miss Catherine went into the depths of her paperwork, submerging into the relative position of Uranus.
Cindy wondered at what point she might start to gradually grind herself down into a distilled crazy paste, but she had a vision that it wasn’t going to be as interesting any of these women.
Louise quietly talks about her new knickers with Catherine until the other woman gets her tarot cards and takes out the hanged man.
“I’m not sure if I really need another one of these Miss Cathy,” she laughs hallowly and Catherine gives her spooked fish look.
“It’ll increase your chances.” She whispers in the way that would make Edgar Allan Poe write poetry.
“Right right, of cracking the case.” Louise grinned, “Don’t worry miss Cathy, we are on it!” More tittering.
Catherine slips her another card, “hide this under your pillow.”
Louise was smiling but her face was slightly paler, she had been dealing with these women a lot longer than Cindy. She just mildly turns her face away and gets re-engaged with the very rosy Martha talking about the letter her sister sent.
Cindy watches this all go by like a film of someone else’s life, not for the first time she wondered if she made the right decision. Or if there was one.
She moves the rest of her stew around the plate moodily before throwing the rest of it away and following the other woman back to the test rooms. The giant wall of machine was already getting warmed up again and Cindy could see someone waving.
“Oh thank God,” Cindy murmurs and jogs up to a portly middle-aged man. “Doug,” she greets, “Good to see you.”
“What? Yes.” Dr. Doug Johnson had slight hearing problems from his time in the war, but was an overall agreeable figure.
Cindy almost bounces, “I was hoping to get a peek at any data before the next session starts.”
He nods back, “yes, yes, I did appreciate your last observations on some of the wavelength fluctuations.”
Probably just anomaly, but Cindy doesn’t say that out loud. She nods as they let her into the backroom, she can feel Louise looking at her curiously again from behind her. She doesn’t quite look over her shoulder.
“Progress is slow, but we think if we keep up the transcranial stimulation with the right locations, we’ll be getting you all to be reading morse code to each other in record time.” He was beaming with his gapped front teeth and round cheeks.
Cindy is more grateful than the time she got her period during her ‘fear of immaculate conception’ phase of teenagehood.
The cool military fans blow against her face, keeping the test samples and piles of paper dry and clean. Cindy turns toward the analysis, gingerly picking up the spreadsheets as her mind swims, the points read off their electric current stats.
“Would that mean we should start shaving our heads?” Cindy asks hoarsely before frowning, “it might open up more vectors of magnetic connection with the machine.”
She blinks, it made more sense to have multiple stimuli around the cranium. She glances at him to see if he was listening.
Doug Johnson laughs slightly, “we did that with the boys, but got similar results.” He winks, “plus, I’m not sure if all the ladies would be as willing as you to let go of those pretty locks.”
Cindy blew air out of her nose but just nods stiffly, she surveys the data points quickly as she considers the different existing communication pathways they could be using. They seemed to be hooked into the right sectors, but perhaps the wrong surgical connectors.
She opens her mouth briefly, “could I take these to my room tonight?”
Doug flattens his mustache out, “I think I’d get in a little more trouble if I let these out of the room.” He hums and adjusts his glasses, “besides, they’re not too different from the last ones.”
She frowns again and puts them down, the clock was almost at exactly one thirty. Doug pats her on the back, “you’re a great asset Ms. Jabiyev.”
“Thank you,” she feels her stomach bottom out and she follows him out of the back room, Louise waves at them warmly as they come back.
“See anything worthwhile?” She grins, “any changes?”
Cindy just shakes her head, “nothing to report on.”
“That’s a shame,” Louise clicks her teeth, “but I have a good feeling about today.”
“That’s our Louise.” Dr. Johnson laughs and pats Louise also on the back before disappearing into another one of the rooms where one of the other pairs was.
Cindy eyes him before she feels a slight nudge on her ribcage, she turns around to see Louise’s bright blue eyes staring widely down at her. She was a good head taller than Cindy.
“Did you sweet talk him into that back room?” Her full lips were in that same elegant curve.
She shrugs, “I listened to him talk about his kids for two hours and he seemed to warm up to me.”
Louise chuckles, “they musta hired you for your listening skills.” Her eyes twinkle and Cindy finds her somehow mildly more round and tolerable.
“That, and my exceptional ability to sit in chairs.” Cindy says dryly because no one else was around.
Louise lets out another laugh, “you don’t say, is it in any way connected to your above average ability to say colors out loud?”
Cindy covers her mouth to laugh slightly, “I was color naming champion at my college.”
Louise slaps her knee, “you are a delight miss Cindy!” She snorts before grabbing Cindy’s shoulder, “no wonder you could sweet talk Mr. Doug.”
Cindy glances down at Louise’s dove-white hands before looking back up, “I wouldn’t call it sweet talk,” she catches her breath, “More like… psychology. Nice things.”
Louise nods and Cindy looks down at her shoes, she jumps when she feels a warm hand on her shoulder. “Tell you what.” Louise says, “I was a psychology major myself,” she says with her chest puff out, “if we put our heads together we’re bound to make that data sing.”
Cindy cocks her head to the side, “you want to see it too?”
Louise bites her bottom lip and turns back to the room as it opens, “better than sitting on our bums and having ‘em shock us day in and out.”
Cindy exhales, “I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking that…”
Louise squeezes her shoulder and they hear the machine ding as it finishes warming up. “Some time then.”
She enters the dim whirring room again and sees the next new doctor preparing the electro-helmet that attached at her temples. She stares wearily ahead, vision blurring together as she watched Louise be plugged into the exact same machine across from her.
Sometimes they did the experiment with a sheet obscuring each other, sometimes they thought eye contact helped. Cindy personally thought it was better double-blind, but no difference had been recorded yet.
The heat of the computer electroencephalogram (EEG) bathed the left side of her face, preparing to translate and stored their thoughts. A piece of paper is put in front of Cindy.
“Now, you know the drill miss Jabiyev, concentrate.”
Cindy looks up and makes steady eye contact with Louise, she turns her thoughts into a pointed dagger trying to stab out into the darkness. A little prickle goes through her skull again and she can feel the electric currents working through her. Toward her.
She takes a deep breath and the light blinks for them to start.
“Yellow.” She says dryly as Louise’s mouth stays a shapeless flat line. She concentrates, “Blue.”