Edition 23: A Necessary Evil by Jason M Harley
Shania Lenton has always had no compunctions about going for what she needed to advance. This time, it means investigating what is holding her back. The past catches up with everyone, but in this science fiction world, Shania brings it on herself. SY
Shania Lenton looked into the ReflectME window on her digital wall. She had her office door locked and to herself. The woman gazing back at her was the very picture of the cool, no-nonsense businesswoman, an image she had cultivated over the last twenty years. Twenty years of victories big and small. Some, she reflected, at heavy costs, looking at her naked ring finger. But success, especially of the scope she had achieved, demanded sacrifice.
Like a trip to the Undercity. But what she had acquired there was worth the breach in civic protocol. Shania opened an inconspicuous-looking micro-refrigerator bottle and shook a thin, metallic capsule into the palm of her hand. She scowled at the way her hand trembled.
The innocuous greeting chime of her personal Intra-Health advisor application reminded her why she was holding a Neuro-Fountain.
“Hello Ms. Lenton,” it said, in the brisk secretarial tone that she had selected. “You’ve told me, repeatedly, that you aren’t overly stressed, but your physiological readings tell me otherwise. Now, I’m only able to read your biological signals—and only those that correspond to the sensors you are wearing—but given your otherwise peak physical shape you should consider making an appointment with a specialist. As a precaution, if nothing else.”
“Are you suggesting I’m lying?” she asked the AI-driven application.
“No, but isn’t it worth being thorough?”
It knew her too well. The appeal had been tailored, like the others, just enough to give her pause. And eventually, to push her to find a solution: Neuro-Fountain.
I will, she thought, powering it off. Count on it.
If something psychological was the cause of her increasingly bothersome bodily distractions she planned on identifying it. And was willing to receive the help of modern science, especially when it could be given anonymously.
She looked down again at the capsule and pursed her lips, remembering that Neuro-Fountain wasn’t finished with all of its clinical trials. Steeling herself, she tried to recall (not for the first time that day) the experimental literature she had read about it, the human trials in particular. The drug had helped participants travel back in their memories and view them just as they had experienced them. The scientists reported that doing so had brought their participants perspective, insight, and in some cases direction that was normally lost or distorted through recall.
Shania smiled briefly, remembering her initial thoughts: that the couch sharks were going to find themselves out of work as soon as the drug hit the market. And she had no doubt it would.
“To the first true pioneers of the human mind,” she said, toasting her reflection with the capsule.
When she bit down on it she was surprised that she didn’t feel anything. No chemical release or current. Not even the cool burst of some kind of gel or liquid that could be absorbed by her gums or saliva.
Yet, she thought she could feel her mind unfurling. It was a sensation somewhat akin to feeling a cool, welcoming breeze drift through a hundred distant doorways that had just been opened.
“So tell me, Ms. Lenton,” she said aloud, impersonating the stuffy voice she imagined a human psychologist would have and smiling to herself, “what’s bothering you? Any regrets?”
She was suddenly back in a confessional booth at her Catholic High School.
“Sins?” a sixteen year-old version of herself asked. “Why, I have none to confess, Father.”
“We all have sins my daughter,” a harassed-looking priest replied. “But when we ask God for His forgiveness, they are washed away and we feel bathed in his love once again.”
Year after year her answer had been the same, as was the priest’s stale-sounding and doubtlessly, over-practiced rebuttal.
“I have nothing to confess, still,” her forty-year-old self told the priest, sitting across from her. “Though I suppose this waste of a perfectly good lunch break is a necessary evil. But nothing done out of necessity is a crime.”
The priest didn’t reply. Didn’t even twitch disapprovingly in acknowledgement.
A frown slowly spread across her face like a darkening sky. “Obviously,” she added, feeling an itch.
She started moving through her suddenly, easily accessible memories to find it. But it found her first.
“Bitch!” her former assistant sobbed. She was wiping her eyes in the boardroom across from her. Shania blinked before she then remembered: she had fired the woman when she unexpectedly found a more competent employee. It was survival of the fittest, not the most senior.
Shania opened her mouth to reply, but before she could, she was struck by another memory.
“Slut!” her former manager screamed into her face.
Suddenly, he was leaning away from her and tucking himself back into hastily pulled-up dress pants while turning around to the open door of his office. But rather than scream at the intruder he gasped and muttered something as his eyes made contact with his wife’s.
The tip-off had worked. The womanizer had been eyeing her since she was promoted. He deserved his fall and she deserved another promotion.
Shania opened her mouth to say so when the face of her college roommate appeared. They had been friends since high school, but one wouldn’t know it from seeing the expression of loathing that looked back at her.
The words hung heavy in the air, which seemed to have thinned. Amy had been popular and smart; too much of both. Before graduating, Shania had realized that she needed to either outshine or dull her friend’s aura of accomplishment if she were to finish top in her class. And so she had helped Amy cheat on the final exams. And made sure all evidence pointed toward her. Amy had killed herself.
“Was that a necessary evil?” a voice asked.
The scene had frozen with Shania holding Amy’s suicide note.
“I didn’t know she would kill herself!” Shania blurted out. “I didn’t know they would expel her!”
“Or that I would inconvenience you by dying before you could finish reviewing a pitch and fly down to visit me in the hospital?” It was her mother’s voice, though her lips hadn’t moved, and she lay cold, still, and graying on a hospital bed.
“Of course not,” Shania shot back through gritted teeth.
She suddenly found herself getting dizzy. A buzz filled the air. Or was it singing?
The scene of her mother in the hospital faded and she found herself squinting at herself in the ReflectME screen. Only, her reflection seemed to be going static. She turned her head and realized that her vision was failing when all she could see were odd, cubic shapes where her furniture had been.
A wave of anxiety eclipsed everything else that she had been thinking of and had just experienced as the possibility of her vision being permanently compromised dawned. It was short-lived, however, as her whirling thoughts were soon jolted to a strange numbness that crept into her left arm.
Everything was nearly dark when she hit the ground. Or was it a cloud?
She was dimly aware of her door being tested and vaguely wondered what they were waiting for when her senses seemed to stretch out before her.
“It’s locked tight,” her new assistant said, turning to Gary, Shania’s junior partner. “Should we break it? I thought I heard something like a crash a moment ago?”
Gary only laughed. “Kid, you have a lot to learn,” he said.
“What if she’s hurt?” he replied.
“Tim, you’re the one whose more likely to be hurt if something fell in there. If something toppled over on her head, it will be on yours. Especially if you remind her that you exist right about now.”
“But I wasn’t there,” Tim said. “I didn’t touch anything.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Gary said. “We’re all deflector shields for that one. The day she takes the fall for a mess of her own making is the day we’re all on our stomachs with smoke rising from the back of our heads.” He pointed to his forehead with his fingers folded into the shape of a pistol.
“Isn’t it worth the risk though?” Tim asked.
“Bang.” Gary said, jerking his head back and withdrawing his hand. “Is your career worth it? Listen. If there’s one thing Ms. Lenton taught me over the years it’s this: there is no such thing as a necessary evil, only the necessary.
Jason M. Harley is an incoming assistant professor and current postdoctoral fellow who spends his days hopping between university labs and his nights hopping between fictional worlds. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell where his days end and his nights begin, however, given the nature of his research with advanced technology and measurement of psychological processes (think sensors). He hopes that you have, or will, enjoy reading A Necessary Evil. He’ll know if you don’t. Well, maybe only if you’re willing to share your facial and physiological data. Learn more about his scientific research by visiting https://sites.google.com/site/jasonmharley/ or Twitter @JasonHarley07.