by Joe Zabel
The VISR Christmas party was the Institute's major publicity event of the year. It was also the ideal opportunity to show off the Hunt Building's primary architectural asset-- the central atrium with the skylight and the large abstract mobile representing the nervous system. Spotlights caught the mobile against the night sky, as below it, the VISR staff congregated to celebrate.
Walking up to Dr. Vaughn, Roger Hollister leaned over and shook his hand.
'You really know how to give a party, Karl.'
Vaughn looked around, pushing his wheelchair forward. 'I really like what the girls have done with the decorating-- you can hardly recognize the place!'
Vaughn accidentally bumped into a young secretary with his wheelchair. 'Ohh!' he said. 'Excuse me!'
The young woman turned. 'Oh, hi Dr. Vaughn. Did I crowd you?'
'No, Bethy, it was my fault. I was just telling Dr. Hollister here how terrific the decorations are; you and the crew did a fine job!'
'Thanks! It was fun, anyway.'
As they passed on, Hollister said, 'There certainly seems to be a holiday spirit in the air!'
'Yes,' said Vaughn.
'A far cry from the crisis Ms. Swanson warned of.'
'Mmm,' said Vaughn. 'Kathy doesn't understand the instinctive human need for homeostasis. Our staff is comfortable here. They're well paid, their jobs are secure, and the work suits their ambitions.'
Vaughn looked at Hollister. 'It takes a lot for them to want to upset that. A lot more than one unorthodox practitioner!'
'I wish Ms. Swanson were around to hear this! Speaking of which, where is she?'
'I expect she's in the building somewhere, but I haven't seen her since Friday-- she had to take Monday and Tuesday off.'
'Hell of a time for it!' bristled Hollister.
'Couldn't be helped, I guess-- she was the victim of a break-in of some sort... anyway, she said she'd be in this evening. We'll have to...'
Vaughn was interrupted by the sound of his pager. He read the LCD, then said, 'Damn. Could you excuse me a minute, Roger?'
As Vaughn wheeled off to a vacant corner of the floor, Ross Kerbach approached. 'Dr. Hollister? Ross Kerbach, the Daily Wausau Times. I understand that VISR is going to be releasing an announcement tonight regarding you.'
'Yes,' said Hollister, grinning with expert P.R.savvy. 'VISR's press kit will have all the details, but it's no secret that I'm joining the senior staff and will be appointed to the board of directors.'
Kerbach said, 'I expect it'll be a real shot in the arm for the Institute to have someone of your stature and fame join the staff.' But Hollister was only half listening. He was watching Vaughn over in the corner, talking urgently on his cell phone.
Shortly after, the partygoers were commiserating over the diminishing selections on the refreshment trays. The general hubbub of the crowd had died down, and began to lapse into silence with uncomfortable frequency. It was a quarter past nine.
A TV cameraman interrupted Hollister's interview with Kerbach. 'Doctor, we've got to tape something now if we're going to make the 11 O'clock news.'
'Yes, I was hoping you could get Dr. Vaughn's public announcement. But I don't know where he's disappeared to!' Hollister scanned the room for the wheelchaired figure. But he was nowhere to be seen.
The fourth floor elevator opened, and Vaughn rolled out in his wheelchair. He looked both ways as he entered the hall, then proceeded down to his office.
He took out his keys and reached up to unlock his office door. But before he put the key in the lock, he tried the door. It was unlocked.
He shook his head, and made a mental note to remind his secretary to be more careful. He pushed the door open and wheeled himself in.
He negotiated the outer office, which was illuminated only by the ambiance of the screensaver on his secretary's desktop PC. A similar glow emanated from his inner office.
He entered the inner office and went over to the computer, which displayed the main menu screen. He took the mouse and was about to select a function. But then he stopped, let go of the mouse, and turned to look behind him into the twilight of his office.
Kathy stepped forward from a corner where she'd been standing in the shadows.
'Hmmm,' said Vaughn. 'I should've guessed when I found the office unlocked-- but the computer screen was the tip-off. It should have flipped over to screen-saver.'
Kathy shrugged her shoulders. 'I wasn't expecting to be interrupted. You seem to have abandoned your guests.'
'I received some very bad news,' said Vaughn. 'and then I come up here and find that one of my most trusted staff members has broken into my office!'
'I didn't break in,' said Kathy. 'I had a key.'
'Who gave you...' said Vaughn.
Then the thought struck him, and he said, 'Oh.'
'That's right-- Sally's office key.' Kathy looked hard at Vaughn. 'I surmise that the keys were a last minute added touch, to make Sally's story seem more convincing. But it was sloppy. The apartment and car keys were nothing like Jen's real keys. And the key that I thought was the office key didn't fit in my office. I didn't realize that at first because I'd changed offices; but later I checked.
'The answer was simple. Whoever put that key on Sally's ring must've used their OWN office key, and the next day got it replaced. Nothing suspicious about saying you misplaced your key.'
'And my office was the first one you tried it on?'
'Dr. Yang was adamant,' said Kathy. 'He swore that you couldn't be involved with New Leaf. But when I told him about the 'drop it' game and the 'clothes make the man' lecture, he had to concede that those were two therapies you invented.'
'You're talking about my work at the Griffith Health Clinic? That was a perfectly legitimate program to help children raised in abusive cult environments. It allowed them to discard the mental habits they'd learned in the cult, and prepared them to accept a new identity, as if putting on a new suit. We were using some of the same mind-control tactics that the cults themselves used.'
Kathy said, 'You're referring to the process of 'unfreezing?'
'Yes, from Edgar Schein's theory of coercive persuasion. But where my technique differed from a cult's was in the second and third stages, Changing and Refreezing. Whereas it's the goal of the cult to create an obedient zombie, I was attempting to create a healthy, integrated personality that would be capable of re-entering society. These cult children simply had nothing-- I was offering them new personalities to create new lives.'
'I think I understand where these new personalities came from,' said Kathy.
'Taped interviews,' said Vaughn, 'conducted with the subject in a mild hypnotic trance. Ask the right questions, and keep the tape running, and eventually you capture an amazingly complete personality.
'But the most important innovation I created was the way in which this audio-taped personality was grafted onto the patient's.'
'They SLEPT through it?' asked Kathy.
'Exactly. I gather you saw the whole process at work.'
'But Doctor,' said Kathy, 'I'd read that sleep-learning is a hoax! Isn't the brain effectively shut off from outside contact during sleep.'
'Normally, yes,' said Vaughn. 'But I'd developed a technique of creating 'micro-seizures' during sleep. These micro-seizures changed the brain chemistry dramatically, so that new information could get in. And the results were dramatic.
'During normal consciousness, the brain filters new experiences, providing context and judgement. But in sleep, these judgement filters aren't active-- so the mind accepts the new information uncritically. Repeat the process for several nights in a row, and you've created... a new personality!'
Vaughn spoke with obvious pride, but Kathy was unimpressed. 'When did it start to go WRONG, Doctor?'
Vaughn frowned. 'The new personalities were stable, self-reinforcing identities. But there was one stumbling block.
'An example is a subject of mine named Jonathan. His cult childhood had rendered him incapable of constructive action, humorless and without normal human emotions; an amoral sociopath.
'But then we gave him the background and experiences of a trained psychologist. He had the vivid recollection of all the trials and triumphs, the friendships and loving bonds of this other individual.'
Vaughn shrugged his shoulders. 'But what was he going to DO with them? The psychologist himself still existed! There wasn't ROOM for Jonathan with this other fellow still around!'
Vaughn's knuckles whitened as he gripped the armrests of his wheelchair; a slight tremor entered his voice as he continued. 'But this psychologist, he was a cripple! And his spinal injuries caused him a daily agony that Jonathan knew all about. And so it was an easy matter for Jonathan to persuade the psychologist that it wasn't worth going on... a simple overdose of pills, and all that anguish would be over!'
'You mean?' asked Kathy, nervously.
'I mean...' said Dr. Vaughn. He leaned forward in his wheelchair and pushed up out of his seat. He slowly straightened up until he towered over Kathy. '...Jonathan was right!'
Terrified, Kathy backed away from the dark standing figure.
Dr. Vaughn held out a hand in warning. 'Stay!' he commanded. 'There's something I have to show you, and then you can choose how you'll use the information.'
He turned his back on Kathy, and strode over to the PC terminal.
'No doubt this is what you were trying to find,' he said, bringing up a dialog box and entering an ID and password. The New Leaf system displayed on the screen. He leaned closer to the terminal, and she couldn't see the screen. But the laser printer started up as he took a screen image.
'I don't see how you could pull it off,' said Kathy.
Vaughn turned back to face her. 'Impersonating someone is not so difficult when you have the subject's cooperation. Vaughn had only to announce that he was taking an extended leave of absence, and bid his fond farewells to his associates. Then I took over. Of course, there were a select few from the original organization who were in on it; but they were like me-- patients passing as doctors.'
Vaughn took the finished printout as it unscrolled.
'We had the idea of finding two kinds of people-- the dregs of society like our former selves; and individuals who had achieved success, but who were carrying unbearable burdens of guilt. Both groups would have a yearning to be 'reborn'-- and we could accomplish it for them.'
'And that became New Leaf?' asked Kathy.
'Exactly,' said Vaughn.
'And Jen Marriott-- she was one of the second group-- the successful ones?'
'Yes,' said Vaughn, becoming cross with the recollection. 'Successful enough for our purposes-- there is a strategic value to placing recruits into influential executive rolls, even as secretaries and 'executive assistants.' But she lost her nerve, and tried to step into the new life we'd prepared for her 'reborn' self. It could have been very awkward. Fortunately, our roots in the Wausau area were much deeper than she'd imagined.'
Kathy's eyes filled with hatred. 'You... killed her!'
'We only reminded her of her obligations.' said Vaughn. 'Her guilt over past events did the rest.'
'Why'd you try to get ME involved? Didn't you know what it would lead to? Do you know what's happening out at your little farm compound right this minute?'
'You mean the subpoena? Our people have instructions to cooperate fully. Sally will be turned over to the police unharmed. And then what? It will be just another civil liberties case that our lawyers will surely win. Just as surely as Sally will return to us once the police release her!'
'It won't be so simple when the courts hear MY testimony!'
Vaughn laughed. 'Oh, I'm not worried about that.' He stepped towards her.
She backed away. 'Don't be afraid, dear,' he said. 'I'm not going to lay a hand on you. I just want you to read a sheet of paper.'
He held up the printout. Kathy slowly took it from him.
The page was dark and unreadable in the shadows. She tilted it in her hands, until the glow from the PC illuminated its surface.
It was the demographics of Kathy Swanson. The picture that accompanied it resembled her. But it was not her.
And under current location, the printout indicated 'deceased.'
Kathy stared at the white paper... and everything started to fade and became white... and she was staring at a sheet of whiteness, suspended in space, falling...
Speckles of grey began to appear in the whiteness. Then a confusion of contrasts and colors flooded her vision. She had only to focus, and the scene before her returned to clarity.
She was still in the room. Vaughn was still standing in front of her, leering. The sheet of paper was still clutched in her hand.
'You...' whispered Kathy in a hoarse, strange voice.
'YOU KILLED KATHY!!!!'
She screamed, and lashed out at Vaughn with her fists. Vaughn was unprepared for her sudden violence, and before he could throw her off, she'd gotten a grip on his shirt. Now she was trying to strangle him, while fearlessly ramming her forehead into his face and chin. She viciously brought her knee up into his crotch, folding him over in agony. She pressed forward as Vaughn lost his balance. The two of them tumbled over onto the floor.
Vaughn managed to pry Kathy off him and throw her to one side. He scrambled to his feet and pushed the wheelchair over on top of Kathy. Then he fled from the inner office.
Kathy pushed the wheelchair off. She arose, her eyes wild, her forehead bleeding from deep cuts. She picked up a brass bookend from a shelf. The books it was holding flopped over on their sides. She hefted the weighty object in her hand.
In the outer office, Kathy moved quietly and intently, stalking the other. The executive space was eerie in the darkness, the furniture and partitions creating pools of threatening shadows.
She noticed a trail of blood on the floor. It didn't lead to the door. He must still be in the office.
She began the search. There weren't many opportunities for concealment-- three desks, a partition, and a file cabinet.
She heard a single 'pat!' Turned.
He was leaning over a desk, bracing for a jump. Blood from his chin dripped onto the desk.
He came in low. She swung the booked down on him, but it bounced off his shoulder. He bear-hugged her waist and drove her back across the floor. The two struggling figures slammed against the atrium window.
Vaughn lifted Kathy off her feet and slammed her into the window divider. It cracked.
He drove her against it again and the window shattered.
Glass rained down into the atrium. The Christmas celebrants below fled to the other side of the floor. A woman screamed as the brass bookend hit the floor and bounced high over the crowd's heads. Then they all looked up.
Kathy was half out the window, flailing her arms in vain. Her assailant continued to press her outward, so intent in his efforts that he was halfway out the window himself.
From behind, it must have looked that way, because when Roger Hollister entered the room an instant later, his first action was to pull Vaughn back in.
But then he saw Kathy's legs kicking frantically as she began to tip over the window sill, while screams of horror could be heard from the atrium below.
Hollister seized Kathy's ankles and tilted her forward. She struggled to lean back into the window, and Hollister pulled her in and lay her on the floor.
He turned to Vaughn, who was regaining his feet.
Hollister punched him square in the jaw, and Vaughn collapsed across the floor.