Changes to your personality.
The words echoed in Ashley’s mind.
The elimination of the ‘brakes’ that keep the tendency to seek thrills in check.
“And you just left it at that?” she asked when she recovered herself, hearing the sharper edge in the tone of her voice as she asked that question, despite her attempt at self-control.
“It was deemed best not to follow up with you past that interview,” the professor continued.
“You mean you deemed it.”
“I implemented the policy.”
They seemed to be going in circles.
“We also refined the conduct of the experiment,” de Ruyter volunteered. “I can assure you that we did not make the same error again.”
That assurance meant less than nothing to Ashley.
“What I mean to say is that no one else suffered from the same mishap,” de Ruyter said. “Anyway, it’s all over now. The program was concluded four years ago.”
None of this meant any more than de Ruyter’s earlier assurance.
“Why is there no record of your being at Gotham?” Ashley asked bluntly.
“Why should there be any record?” de Ruyter asked, as if the question didn’t make any sense. “I never held a position at the institution. Nor made a public appearance there.”
“Then how did you know about the experiment?” Ashley asked.
“I was in charge of a broader research program being conducted at many institutions,” de Ruyter said, pride unmistakably evident in his voice as he spoke now, in the way he sat up straighter in his chair.
“I did at times visit particular sites,” he elaborated. “You just happened to be a participant at the time of my visit to Gotham.”
Which was why he remembered her face, she thought. He didn’t deal with vast numbers of test subjects personally. She was probably one of the few he saw live, out of the many who passed through white rooms where people got their brains zapped all over the country, and maybe the world. Like Shelley Young over at Povenmire.
He probably didn’t even remember her.
“There’s no record of anything like this experiment being performed at the school while I was there,” Ashley said. “Why is that?”
“The discretion was a condition of the sponsor.”
Discretion. Funny word. “And who was the sponsor?”
“It was my impression that this program was a defense matter,” de Ruyter said. “The Army was, remains, very interested in nonlethal means of subduing crowds.”
“I’ve heard about this kind of thing before,” Ashley said. “On the news. So why bother to keep your project such a big secret?”
“The issues are highly technical—”
“And the experiments crossed ethical boundaries?” Ashley said. “The kind that make you keep experimental neural inhibitors with which to shoot up your test subjects, just in case things don’t go as planned? So that nobody finds out?”
The professor looked to the side again, which Ashley thought was just another hint that he was being evasive, but then she heard footsteps outside. She paused, waited to hear the direction those footsteps would take. And to see de Ruyter’s reaction, some sign that he was going to try something. But those steps simply continued deeper into the department (another person, coming in through that back door), and then there was the sound of another door opening and closing.
“Yes,” de Ruyter said after the door shut, eyes looking right into hers, voice firm. “As worthwhile researches often must.”
“So that sponsor, they own all the research that came out of the project?” Ashley asked. “It belongs to them, not you?”
“Yes,” the professor said, less confidently.
Ashley thought that explained a lot. To have the money for this large program he described, and the necessary help greasing the wheels to get administrators to look the other way, he did need a big, powerful sponsor. Like the army.
But if this really was a defense matter, even a highly classified one—especially a highly classified one—why was the disc in the custody of Harold Northrop? Not just a private citizen, but one who didn’t seem to have ever been involved with the Defense Department, or the defense industry, in any close way?
“You said you guessed it was the Army,” Ashley said. “So the people who sponsored you didn’t actually say they were from there? They were some kind of front?”
Once more, the sidewise glance.
“Who were they? What was the organization’s name?”
“The Thomas Galt Memorial Fund,” de Ruyter said. “A private foundation which sponsors worthy scientific and scholarly research—”
Again Ashley heard more footsteps in the hallway outside, and again she kept quiet.
The footsteps got louder and louder, stopped.
A knock on the door.
The professor smiled thinly, quite conscious of how the balance of power had shifted between them. She had the weapon, but far less leeway to use it with someone now trying to get into his office.
Ashley leaned over the desk, close to him. “Answer it,” she whispered. “Tell them you’ll be just a minute. Say it loudly and clearly, enough for me to hear every word you say. And no sudden moves.”
A still smiling de Ruyter went to the door, opened it a crack.
“Ms. Carr,” he said. “Just a minute more and I will be right with you.”
Ashley didn’t hear Ms. Carr say anything, didn’t even see her clearly (de Ruyter was a large man, and the door open only a very little on the other side of him). But de Ruyter didn’t seem to try anything before he shut the door and returned to his seat.
Ashley leaned toward him again.
“Your cell phone,” she said. “Give it to me.”
“I’m afraid I left it in the car,” de Ruyter said.
“Stand up,” she ordered him, motioning with the gun.
He did so. She reached over, removed the cell phone case clipped to his belt, found that it had the weight of a phone inside of it, put the case in her own pocket.
If he meant to call his friends from Tom Galt, he wouldn’t be doing it through the college switchboard, which would mean he’d have to get to a shop and buy a new cell before sending them word about their talk. It was not much of a delay, but every minute counted.
“You should know I recorded the entire conversation,” Ashley told him as she slipped the gun back into a backpack pocket. “Your silence will buy my silence. And any lies will have consequences.”
Ashley could hardly believe the lines coming out of her mouth, but she was entirely serious, and de Ruyter seemed to get that, biting his lip as if chewing that thought over as she backed out of his office, then passed Ms. Carr, nodding to her casually. (Carr was a few inches shorter than Ashley’s five feet eight, with long dark hair. Maybe a couple of years younger. Probably a grad student, just like Ashley had been pretending to be.)
Carr had seen her, but only briefly, and had no reason to remember her. And after she was gone there was no one in the hall to see her go back out of the department the way she’d come in, through that rear door, then down the stairs and out of the building.
Ashley phoned Logan just then.
“I’m ready,” she said. “Meet me at the same spot as before.”
No names, no details, no unnecessary words.
Ashley returned her own cell phone to its case, then took out de Ruyter’s phone. She was tempted to hold on to it, have Logan search it for the secrets it might yield, but knew that phones could be traced by way of GPS. So she smashed it and dropped the remnants into the first garbage can she saw as she completed her circuit back to the lot, conscious all the while of how the thick herds of students she’d seen about had thinned out earlier, pretty much everyone going to class already there by that point. It left her with less cover, as the glance of a campus cop reminded her, but she didn’t seem to need any for the time being.
Back at the lot Logan was parked right where Ashley expected him, and as she approached the car she heard the door unlock. Ashley dropped through that door into her seat and they headed off even before Ashley heard the click of the door locking again.
“How’d it go?” Logan asked.
“Fine, just fine,” Ashley said, thinking again about what de Ruyter told her about the experiment’s effects on her body and mind.