SOMETHING FELT WRONG. Swerving through cars and running red lights, Magan sped through side streets in her old green Dodge. She was running late. She’d barely rolled out of bed; the cold shower didn’t help, nor did the triple espresso. Her distressed jeans felt awkwardly snug and her long auburn hair tangled like a rat’s nest. Fighting the pit in her stomach, she’d grabbed her belongings and reluctantly dashed to an “exclusive” study on intuition.
“Damn it,” she hit her hand on the steering wheel when the stoplight turned yellow, slammed the gas pedal, and zoomed through the intersection. Car horns blared. “Sorry!” she yelled back and slid down in her cracked seat. Her mind scrambled in anticipation. “What is the worst that could happen? I have to guess some flashcards?” Being wrong about every life decision from men to her career, she didn’t have an ounce of intuition and questioned why they’d selected her. Shrugging her trim shoulders, she took a deep breath and drove down a tree-lined Oregon road.
She had no choice: rent was already late, and she’d maxed out her credit cards. With the study’s initial payment, she could placate her landlord and pay her bills. A win-win. Assuming these researchers didn’t kick her out once they realized she had no intuition to study. Hmm, there was that.
Hesitantly following her GPS, she turned down a narrow, winding road, graveled and rutted, heading into an unfamiliar valley. She had lived in this town all her life but never knew this old road existed. Easing up on the gas pedal, Magan noticed the bushes growing thicker and the road becoming dark, with dead branches reaching down to her like crooked fingers under the thick canopy of trees. Inhaling slowly, she softened her pounding heartbeat.
Finally, a clearing appeared with a field of dead grass surrounding an old brick building. Spotting a small, wooden sign with fresh paint that read “Research Center,” she pulled into the driveway, up to large double gates. A tall guard with a crew cut and black uniform lifted his right hand robotically, motioning her to stop. In his left hand, he carried a digital black box with an 8-inch square display.
“Hello, ma’am, are you Magan Silver?”
“Ah, yeah…how did you know?”
Without glancing at her, he continued typing in his wireless display box and then shoved the display in front of Magan’s left arm. With a deep, booming voice, he said, “I need to see your driver’s license, acceptance letter, and please place your hand on this scanner.”
Magan’s jaw dropped. “You need to scan my hand? Isn’t this a little much for a simple study?”
The guard didn’t blink, just squared his broad shoulders. “Standard procedure, ma’am.”
Magan stared ahead and gripped her steering wheel, fighting every muscle that screamed to turn around and go home. Ignoring her better judgment, she gave him the documents and slapped her hand on the cold metal scanner. As the lasers traced her hand, she noticed three cameras pointing straight at her from the top, left, and right of the gate. Feeling violated, she pulled up to the main building mumbling, “I hope the money is worth it.”
She walked through the sterile white lobby for more security checks. Guards dissected all her bags, made her walk through a biometric body-scanner, and had her sign a lengthy non-disclosure letter before entering the main hallway. But when they tried to confiscate her cell phone for “security purposes,” her hand death-gripped her device. “No way. This is my lifeline. Look, I will turn it off.” Another young, fully-armed guard in a navy-blue security suit walked up, “Ma’am, I’m required to secure your phone. It will be safely returned after the experiment.” Clenching her teeth, she glared at the guard as she slowly placed her phone in her designated metal box. The guard turned toward the elevator. “You can follow me now, ma’am.”
They stepped into an elevator with padded gray walls. The guard scanned his hand on a display in the elevator wall, looked through the device for a retina scan, and typed a code on a black keypad. The elevator doors squeaked closed. Magan felt her stomach turn as the elevator traveled down…down…and down some more. She cleared her throat and muttered, “Um, how far down does this go?”
Without moving, he answered, “That is confidential ma’am.”
The stale air thickened as they traveled down in silence. A digital display indicated they had traveled past the 20th level when the elevator shuddered to a stop, making her stomach drop. When the doors finally squeaked open, Magan lunged to the opening door to breathe in fresh air. Even though it smelled like recycled hospital air, it was better than the dank elevator. She followed the guard through a stark white hallway with white tiled floor. They entered into a cramped waiting room with more white walls, tile, and buzzing fluorescent lights. She sighed when they walked in, breathing in more musty air. The guard signed release papers, then nodded and walked out—leaving Magan standing at the door, sweating with anxiety.
Magan wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans, brushed back her long hair, took a deep breath, and shuffled past the waiting area to the front desk. She tried to ignore the dozen women and men sitting quietly in fold-up chairs. A woman in thick round glasses and a collared, pea-green dress glared at her from behind the desk. She squinted while pushing her glasses up her narrow nose. “Please place all materials—jackets, wallets, keys, jewelry—in this container and have a seat.”
Magan rolled her eyes and surrendered the last of her personal belongings. She turned around and noticed the other twelve participants. All looked dumbstruck and equally naked of any belongings.
A squeaky air vent was the only sound heard. She looked for a seat while passing a middle-aged man whose left eye twitched as he grinded his teeth and stared at his feet. Next to him sat a large bald man flaring his nostrils and cracking his knuckles while a bony woman sat biting her nails and bouncing her left leg up and down like a piston. One girl in her 20s twirled each strand of her sandy-blond hair as she nervously smacked her gum. Another woman stared at the ceiling while gnawing on a pen. Magan gulped at the scene and sat down in a cold metal chair, wondering how she fit in with this group of nervous oddballs. Then again, since nothing in her life seemed to work out, maybe this is exactly where she belonged. The thought made her slump in her seat.
After a few minutes, a rotund doctor with a gray beard and soft white hair walked into the room. His wrinkled lab coat bounced slightly as he stepped before the nervous participants. He glanced at the air vent and smiled, taking a deep breath. “Mm-hmm,” he studied each individual intently, adding another “Hmm,” as they stared back at him blankly. As his gentle eyes danced slowly around the room, Magan felt like he could see right through each person.
He pushed his glasses up his button nose and spoke with a resonant but calm voice. “Hello ladies and gentlemen. My name is Dr. Kowalski and I am responsible for the Human Preternatural Psychogenic Project, also known as HPPP, the study of mental telepathy, the process of sending or receiving thoughts from one person to another. Thank you for coming today and enduring the arduous questionnaires and surveys over the last few months. We interviewed over 1,000 individuals and due to a variety of factors, each of you has been carefully handpicked for this experiment. We feel this is a rare opportunity. Each of you will need to answer a few last questions before we can begin.”
As he was leaving the room, he turned back, half chuckling, and casually mentioned, “Oh, and I do recommend that you answer these questions honestly, for us and, more importantly…for yourselves. Thank you and good luck.” With a twinkle in his eyes, he smiled slowly at each person and left.
Taking a deep breath, Magan took a good look around—everyone seemed bewildered but one man with thick black hair at the back of the room. As she sat up in her chair, their eyes locked. She looked down but could still feel his crystal blue eyes gazing at her. Toes curled and face flushed, she glanced back and noticed he had casually looked away. She could barely see his striking eyes as his shag hair fell gently over his tan face and defined cheekbones. He wore a black sweater—just tight enough to reveal his broad shoulders and muscular build yet loose enough to fall over his tight, faded jeans. He looked like a sculpted model with rough edges, and it surprised Magan that she had missed seeing him before. Perhaps she had been too distraught to notice.
Most of the women were politely glancing at him. Calmly detached, he studied the lady behind the desk, not caring if she noticed his curious stare. Magan noticed that just watching him created a stir in her stomach, a nervous thirst that made her twitch and look away, only to be forced back into gazing at his relaxed stillness in a room of thick tension. She had been married for only a year, realizing that they were both too young to settle down at 19. Despite an amicable divorce, and years since passed, taking an interest in any man was petrifying. Somehow, this mysterious man captivated her. She shook her head to snap out of the trance.
For the first time in years, Magan took inventory of her appearance. She pulled back her hair to reveal her hazel, almond-shaped eyes. Straightening the light-blue sweater that accentuated her fit figure, she smiled inside, relieved she’d put on some lipstick before she ran out. But the mysterious man never looked back. Figures. He was way above her caliber. Humiliated by her mind’s useless ability to hope and daydream, she slumped back down in her chair and joined the others by looking down at her shoes.
The lady behind the desk finally broke the dead silence by calling one name at a time and ushering each person down the hall.
“Magan Silver?” Magan jumped up and followed the lady through a door, down a corridor, and into a cramped interrogation room. Relieved to escape the pull of the mystery man, she followed the lady apprehensively, wondering again why they’d chosen her for this study.
Magan sat on one side of a wooden table facing Dr. Kowalski and the two women by his side. They all had a foot-high file in front of them with her name on the top cover. The gaunt woman in the middle with large rectangular glasses spoke first. “Hi Magan. My name is Dr. Helen Stern. I know you must have many questions, but first, we must brief you on security measures. If you decide to participate, you will need to verify your agreement to the secrecy of this experiment.” The woman’s thin lips attempted a smile but missed the mark. Everyone stared and waited for Magan to respond, so she nodded.
“Good,” the not-quite smile disappeared as she continued, “You’re strictly prohibited from discussing any aspect of what you see, hear, or experience to anyone, including family, with no exceptions and no recourse. Appropriate actions will be instigated if you violate this requirement. Do you agree to these terms?”
Magan sat back in her chair. “Uh, wait. If I talk to someone, I agree that you can take… appropriate actions?”
The woman shoved a black handheld device in Magan’s face. “I need a confirmed ‘YES’ spoken directly into this recorder.”
Magan felt herself bristle. Yes, she’d heard. Would she be sued? They waited for her response. Finally, she replied, “Look, I have no need to share this… joyful…experience, okay? Besides, it would be social suicide.”
All three stared blankly at Magan, ignoring her sarcasm, the recording device pushed a bit closer. She wanted to ask more, but the woman’s cold stare was even more condescending than her tone had been.
She figured this had to be like that Area 51 thing she’d seen on documentaries, where even years later guards and technicians still kept mum about the little green aliens they dissected. But, hey, she wasn’t involved in more than using her intuition to see or hear or know stuff. And, she sighed, soon enough they’d know it would be only a guess on her part anyway.
Looking up to the ceiling to hide her fret, Magan rubbed both hands through her hair to calm her thoughts. The original interviewer had confirmed she could keep their initial payment, even if, as the man had said, “things don’t work out.” She desperately needed the money since she’d quit her pathetic job, and it wasn’t just chump change. And she had no family to tell anything to anyway, except her brother.
Rolling her eyes at the annoying lady, figuring these were just stupid scare tactics anyway, she leaned forward. “Ugh…whatever. Okay…Yes.”
Why would anyone care about someone just guessing some square or circle behind a card anyway? She wouldn’t be intimidated by absurdity. It was probably just some stupid legal formality.
“Great, meet Dr. Admins, who will now give you the details.” Dr. Stern nodded at the plump woman with bright blue eyeshadow to her right, got up, and left. The woman’s hairpins jingling as she giggled, her presence seemed oddly mothering and familiar.
She clapped her hands. “Oh my dear Magan! You can’t imagine how excited we all are to start this experiment. We could have the most profound impact on humanity.”
She pulled up her sleeves and leaned forward. “Now honey, this may get technical but just bear with me. Through a simple injection, you will receive a harmless medibot, a medical nanobot, which is a cell-sized, electro-mechanical robot that will travel to your brain through your bloodstream to literally ‘wake up’ your seventh sense, your ability to perform mental telepathy. The nanobot can sense and respond to your body’s changes, move to specific locations, communicate wirelessly, perform molecular assembly, and self-repair. They run on nanobatteries, nanostructure anodes and cathodes that are smaller and more powerful than traditional batteries. We have already confirmed that you are not allergic to any of the nanomaterials used in the medibot’s construction. Isn’t that just amazing!”
Magan stared blankly as her breath stopped, wondering what the heck she just got herself into. “Huh? You want to inject a small robot in my brain? You’re joking, right?”
The doctor smiled and cleaned her glasses. “Don’t you worry now, once I explain the science, it won’t feel so scary. You see, the medibot will create molecular bonds to activate more of your thalamus, that’s the biological gateway or switch to the frontal lobes of your brain, and expand your ability to decipher more frequencies, such as those produced by others’ thoughts. It will stay there for the duration of the experiment, four weeks. And when it’s over, it’s programmed to break those molecular bonds, detach, enter your bloodstream, and exit through defecation.” She folded her hands in satisfaction.
Magan didn’t breathe but felt a slight headache emerging.
The doctor sighed. “Oh honey, you simply poop this little robot out. You won’t feel a thing. We track it throughout the entire process to make sure you’re safe. We’ve experimented on hundreds of monkeys and even human volunteers. All procedures were done successfully with no known harmful side effects. We are now taking this technology out to the public,” she smiled, her eyes lighting up, “And you get to be a part of our first testing group! Don’t you feel lucky?”
Magan didn’t smile. “Thrilled.”
Magan examined Dr. Admins carefully, oddly soothed by her bouncy cheerfulness after the baffling admittance process. She noticed that the way the doctor styled her hair—short and simple—to the blue blouse she wore and white tennis shoes all created an uncanny remembrance to a favorite neighbor from childhood. It took a minute for her words to entirely sink in. Dr. Admins noticed Magan’s suspicion and began again, attempting to gain Magan’s confidence.
“It will be like a little vacation for you. You get to try something new, meet new friends, explore your potential. Magan, I know it’s strange to not have any contact with the outside world until the experiment is done, but you will be surprised how fast a month goes by. Honey, you don’t have to worry about a thing, all your food and housing will be supplied here at the Center. You get to start today! You can make one phone call, which we must listen to, to notify your brother in Washington. And then you can help us embark on technology that could bring world peace and understanding across many nations. Isn’t this exciting? Are you ready?” Her hair pins jingled again as she grinned.
Magan sat up straight. “What do you mean, I can only call my brother?”
“Oh honey, your phone call can be to anyone. We just know he’ll be the one you call.” Dr. Admins glanced knowingly to Dr. Kowalski as he smiled back.
Magan sighed. “Look, I’m happy I finally got a solid scientific explanation for what’s going on. For, um, gaining telepathic abilities. But I haven’t talked to my brother in months. I guess you think because Killian is the only family I have left, after my parents’ death and my divorce, I would call him? He’s some Washington bureaucrat—too busy to involve himself with my ‘mundane Oregon life.’ Nah,” she looked down at her hands, feeling tears well up, “he wouldn’t care if I called.” Even so, the doctor was right. Because she had no one left in her life, Magan knew he still would be the one.
Wiping her eyes, Magan shook off the stark reality of her lonely life. Besides, feeling like no one cared was nothing new. “So, what happens if this nanobot thingy doesn’t detach? How do I know you won’t fry my brain?”
“Oh no, honey, we have no guarantees. That’s why we must have you sign all the release papers. But as you know, great gains require great risks.” She raised her eyebrows—exposing her thick blue eyeshadow. “Hey, don’t look so down. We haven’t had one malfunction yet.” Magan looked at the wall.
Dr. Admins leaned forward to gently place her hand on Magan’s. “Magan, we selected you because you’re not afraid to take risks. You have untapped potential.”
She shrugged. “Or you know I have nothing to lose.”
Dr. Admins’ eyes softened as she grabbed Magan’s hand firmly. “Then together we help you create a whole new life. A new beginning. You are ready for this, Magan. You need this!”
Magan sighed and sat in silence. Dr. Admins was right. She loved adventure, learning, and especially helping others. However, after countless disappointments of never finding the right purpose, relationship, or job, that passion had disappeared. Too many adventures had morphed into misadventures, and helping others had turned into obligations instead of appreciated effort. And a tolerable job? Or a Mr. Right? Wrong. Dr. Admins’ words were almost too perfect—she loosened her hand from the doctor’s grip and looked at the wall to think. She desperately needed a change, to do something—anything—meaningful. And the money. She needed rent money.
Thinking about her brother made her pause. He would kill her if she got herself into another “embarrassing” predicament. Then again, never calling to just say hi, he cared more about his precious image than her happiness. She was tired of living in his shadow. What did he do all day that was so important anyway? Write useless legislative bills that solved nothing? He had never discussed his job with her; he probably felt she was too stupid to understand. Maybe she could finally prove him wrong.
In sync with her thought, Dr. Admins leaned in and whispered, “Together we can change the world.”
Magan sighed and agreed to their terms, signing the final document. She then signed a receipt for her initial payment, filling in directions to transfer a portion of it to her landlord and deposit the rest in her minuscule banking account. Dr. Kowalski, who still had not spoken, looked at Magan, smiled, and slowly nodded. An assistant guided her to the only room with an outside phone line.
Magan left a “lab approved” message for her brother, “Hi Killian, just telling you to not freak out if you can’t reach me for a month. Just taking a little vacation. And, yes, I have money, and no, I’m not doing anything stupid. Chat when I get back. Ciao.” The technicians recorded the call.
As the doctors sauntered away down the hallway, Dr. Admins whispered to him, “You’re sure it’s safe to use Magan, especially considering where her brother works?” Dr. Kowalski sighed with concern and said, “Magan doesn’t know where Killian works or what he does, and she has the perfect psychological profile for what we need. You know how hard that is to find. It’s worth the risk. Just don’t tell the Board.”
As Magan was escorted to her private room, she noticed a wooden framed white poster hanging in the hallway with bold black lettering that read:
“YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS.”