‘Anyone seen Rudy?’ Helen wandered into the staff canteen in search of her boyfriend. His shift had already finished and they had a date.
‘In his tower.’
‘Thanks, Pete.’ This time, she was determined to get him away from his experiments and out to the holo-gig in time for the start. Anticipation moved her swiftly along. Tonight’s band was called Led Zeppelin. Not everyone approved of primitive music being played in this way, but Helen loved it. A scrap of a tune popped into her head, the image of the band flashed across her inner vision; Helen’s breath caught in her throat and she felt her heart rate pick up and her cheeks flush. There were times when she could understand how the primitives had become so obsessed. With their inferior intellect and suggestibility, they were easy prey.
Rudy’s job fascinated Helen. He told her things, showed her things, that someone of her grade should not be exposed to. It made her ambitious. She wanted to work on the Project, be Rudy’s lieutenant, help him with the big experiment.
The Watchers would never let her within a mile of the Project if they thought she could be affected by the subjects; it was essential that staff cultivate a professional detachment. She deliberately slowed her breathing, focused on the company song and Rudy’s face. The implanted sensors picked up the slightest change; best that they think she was keen only on the company and on Rudy.
Billy Brown’s life was shit. He kicked a stone along the pavement, hands in his pockets, head down, wondering how it had all gone wrong. A year ago, things had been perfect. He had a good home, great parents, big brother, kid sister… Then his mum and little Emily were killed in a hit and run. Drunk kid in a stolen car. The police scraped him off the road a couple of miles on from where he’d ploughed into Billy’s family, after he ran the Ford Capri Ghia head on into a lorry. Billy’s mum died straight away. She had tried to save her daughter, but had succeeded only in giving her a few more pain-filled weeks of life. Watching her die had been the hardest thing Billy had ever done.
The men of the family each reacted differently to the tragedy. Big brother Rob joined the police force. Billy’s dad hit the bottle. Billy tried to hold things together, but with his brother working away, he was left with his father and Jack Daniel’s, and the house seemed uncomfortably full with the three of them. Tommy at school had offered him some grass to help him chill out, but he didn’t want it. He wanted his life back. His lovely, settled life, with mum nagging him to tidy his room, Emily pestering him for an aeroplane swing, Rob shouting at him for borrowing his records without asking, and dad thinking he was Pele when they had a kick-about in the back garden. You couldn’t kick a ball around in there if you tried now, it was so overgrown.
Normally he coped better than this. He had found he could control his pain and that a little could go a long way, but just at the moment, all he could think about was oblivion. He was struggling to see the point of his existence. It really didn’t seem worthwhile any more.
Helen called the lift that would take her up to the lab at the top of the tower.
Billy went up to his room and got his kit from under the mattress.
Helen stepped out of the lift and tapped on the door, peered through the glass window.
Billy took out the razor blade and rolled up his sleeve.
‘Helen!’ Rudy looked at his watch. ‘Sorry, love, just didn’t notice the time.’
Billy looked at his arm. It was covered in scars of varying age and depth.
‘Come on in. I’ll just finish off.’
Billy gripped the razor blade in his fingers. It didn’t seem enough any more just to cut superficially. He felt like cutting deeply, wanted to see his blood flow, feel it warm against his skin, perhaps for the last time.
‘What are you working on?’
‘Oh, we’re looking into stress and despair. Billy here is the subject. I gave him a happy life, then destroyed it to see how he would cope. He resisted addiction, but took up self-harm. Control freak. I’m suggesting suicide to him. He seems susceptible.’
Helen looked at the boy on the screen. He was sitting on his bed, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, long, shaggy hair hanging in his eyes. ‘He’s just a kid.’
Rudy smiled. ‘They’re not like us, love. They aren’t people, just components in a computer programme, elements in an experiment.’
Billy stroked the blade across his wrist. Not to cut, not yet, just to imagine.
‘Lab rats, I know. It’s just…’
‘Don’t forget they have a choice. We change their environment to see how they cope, put suggestions to them and see how they react. But everything they do, they choose to.’
Billy steeled himself.
‘Tell you what, I’ll leave this for now. I can finish off tomorrow.’ Rudy tapped on his keyboard.
Billy stopped. He looked and saw the blade as if for the first time, shook his head as if to clear it. He stared wide-eyed at his kit. Then he put the blade away, zipped the case up and put it back under the mattress.
‘If you want to work on the Project, you’ll have to get used to this kind of thing. There’s more to it than just holo-gigs, you know!’
‘I know.’ Helen smiled. She knew she was being silly. They were things, they meant nothing. And she really did want to work on the Project.
This is an oldie that was first up at Jim Stitzel's site, Flashes of Speculation, back in July 2006. I keep coming back to it. I think there's a bigger story here, but probably novella rather than novel, and I'm just not sure what to do with it!