“Yes?” Vieira asked.
“Hi. I’m Linda Cellini. I dropped by my aunt’s, but no one’s home.”
The Phillips’ lived just across the way.
“The Phillips’ have gone to Mexico City on vacation. Taking in some sights. Won’t be back ’til Monday, I think.”
Ashley knew all that, of course, Logan having checked.
“Oh,” she said. “Mind if I wait here while I call a cab back to the city?”
“Not at all,” Vieira said. “Please, come in.”
“Thanks,” Ashley said.
The interior of the house looked much like Ashley had guessed from the exterior—the tiled floor, the rounded archways of the doors, the high ceilings. There were also framed photos on display, on tables, on bookshelves, of himself, and his wife, and younger people she took for his children and grandchildren.
The side of the living room facing the ocean was dominated by a floor-to-ceiling window offering a striking view of the beach and the deep blue of the Pacific beyond it.
“Have a seat,” Vieira added as he shut the door. “Can I get you anything?”
“A glass of water would be great, thank you.”
Ashley settled on the couch, watching him, half-expecting him to call somebody, somebody who all this time had just been waiting for her to show up. But no, all he did was get that glass of water and bring it to her.
Ashley accepted the glass and took a sip as she surveyed the coffee table in front of her. Laid on its top was a rather thick book on the life and death of civilizations by an author whose name she was not quite able to pronounce, with a bookmark projecting from the middle. His only companion at the moment, she guessed, not seeing or hearing anyone else about, his wife out, no friends over.
“I’m afraid I have a confession to make,” Ashley said. “I’m not really Linda Cellini, and I didn’t come here to see the Phillips’. I actually came here to see you.”
“Oh? What about?”
“Project Athena,” Ashley said.
Vieira didn’t look any more put out than if she really had just come in to wait for a cab.
“How did you come by that name?” Vieira asked in a tone that indicated curiosity rather than suspicion.
“Does it matter?” Ashley asked.
“I suppose it doesn’t,” he allowed. “Though I imagine it took some doing.
“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why you’ve taken an interest in this matter?”
“Will it make a difference?” Ashley asked.
“It might,” Vieira said.
“I didn’t choose to be involved in this,” Ashley said. “I was dragged in, and all I want is to get back out. And it seems that the only way I can figure a way out is to find out what it is that I’ve actually been dragged into.”
“That’s one way of looking at what you’re doing,” Vieira said. “Another’s that you’re just getting yourself deeper and deeper into it all. So deep that you might never be able to get back out. But perhaps you thought this the least-worst of your choices?”
“Yes,” Ashley admitted.
“All right. So why come to me?”
“I do know that you worked on this project with Professor Sebastian de Ruyter, among others,” Ashley said. “Serving as an advisor to the project’s sponsors, if I’m not mistaken?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “All quite true. But as you can see, I’m retired now, and entirely out of the loop.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a story behind that?” Ashley asked.
“You mean a disagreement?” Vieira asked. “No, it was a lot more civil than that. The job has its demands, among them a lot of travel. That takes its toll, especially on an older person like me. And at the same time I felt more and more like I’d already made the contribution I was capable of making. Like what came next called for fresher minds and fresher eyes. So I tendered my resignation and came down here last year. Which is why I don’t see how I can help you.”
“Well, there are some crucial gaps that I think you can fill in for me,” Ashley said. “I know that the purpose of this research was to develop a system capable of using electromagnetic fields to alter brain activity—” Ashley added.
Vieira looked down, as if she’d just reproached him. Having heard the accusatory note in her voice as she described his work, she guessed that she had.
“My generation grew up playing ’duck and cover,’” Vieira said with a changed facial expression, as if he saw something wrong with her reaction. “Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”
“Some kind of children’s game?” Ashley guessed.
“It sounds that way, doesn’t it?” Vieira asked. “Like ’duck, duck, goose.’” Vieira smiled bitterly at that. “But no, it wasn’t a children’s game. It was a technique for trying to survive a nuclear explosion they taught you in school. You stop what you’re doing, get under a desk or a table or at least a wall, lie face down with your hands over the back of your head. To keep yourself from looking out the window and being blinded by the flash, or getting hit by breaking glass or other debris coming through the window. You’d be a bit less exposed to radiation, too, for the same reason.
“But you can imagine how little good that would really do in a full-blown nuclear war. As everyone with any sense knew.”
“Then what was it about?” Ashley asked.
“What else?” Vieira asked her. “Conning the public into believing that the way things were being run would lead to anything but the end of life on this planet. The way human beings have lived ever since civilization began, in petty little states ruling by force, using force against each other when they had differences, and building bigger armies and more powerful weapons to do it . . . that brought us to the Bomb. After which the old game had to go, or we did.
“In other words, our survival depended on our getting a world government. But that kind of cooperation wasn’t forthcoming in Nineteen Forty-Five, and it hasn’t got an iota closer since then, but if anything, further away. Just sitting here, talking about something like world government, I can see in your face that you think I’m talking like a crazy man.”
“Please, don’t deny it,” Vieira said as Ashley felt herself flush. “For one of your generation, such skepticism is only natural. There have been so many, many, many disappointments in my lifetime, and you all grew up in the wake of that, so that you don’t know anything else. So that you can’t even imagine the dreams people used to have. Or even their clear-headedness about what we have to do in order to survive as a species.
“But that doesn’t make the diagnosis of the problems wrong, or eliminate the necessity of a solution. If the world’s governments wouldn’t cooperate of their own accord, maybe they could be made to cooperate.
“At first it seemed incredible . . . and then I realized how mundane and tried-and-true it actually was.”
Ashley had had a hard time following the line of Vieira’s argument up to then, but now she was sure she had lost him.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked.
“I mean there has always been mind control, making people do what those in authority want without a fight,” Vieira said. “Organized religion, mass education systems, the popular press. They’re not perfect. They don’t eliminate the need for force, for police and soldiers and jails and the rest. But they mean a lot less of those things than there would have to be otherwise.
“Maybe we could do something like that internationally. Not in the old ways, obviously. We’d need something much more precise, that works much more directly working on the brain and the nerves—on what we so nebulously refer to as a ‘mind.’ Picture, for instance, a psychotronic device capable of breaking down the will of an enraged mob. Or better still, a device keeping the mob from getting enraged in the first place.”
Ashley pictured just that, little white boxes secretly moved into restive cities, maybe inside innocuous-looking vans. Or beaming their waves from inside of aircraft circling above, reaching god-like into the minds of the human beings below.
“Did you ever build those machines?” Ashley asked. “The ones for affecting crowds?”
“We did,” Vieira said.
“And were they ever tested?” Ashley asked. “In actual field conditions?” She heard the accusatory note entering her voice again, but couldn’t help it.
“Yes,” Vieira said.
“And how did you do that?” Ashley asked.
“We went to violent slums for tests, places where murder rates were high, and the makings of gang wars and riots were always present,” Vieira said. “Or places where insurgencies were ongoing. Different places so that we could try it in different kinds of terrain, different kinds of weather, on people from different cultures. But all of them had in common sufficient levels of violence that short-term increases and decreases in its incidence would be statistically noticeable.”
“Then after going to those places you . . . set up the equipment and watched?” Ashley asked.
“You can say that, yes.”
Ashley pictured Vieira or some subordinate of his throwing a switch, and . . . people killing and getting killed. Just like that. Just so that he and his colleagues could see if it would happen. It didn’t seem much different from murder, and suddenly the innocuous old man in front of her didn’t seem so innocuous anymore.
“Neuroscience isn’t like charting the movements of planets around the sun,” Vieira said, as if in answer to what she was thinking. “It’s messy.”
Listening to him say that Ashley felt a chill she hadn’t experienced even in de Ruyter’s presence.
“And you saw what you went to see?” Ashley asked.
“We demonstrated the principle,” Vieira said.
“Enough that you went beyond experiments?” Ashley asked.
“As I said, I’m out of the loop. But prior to my retirement, a decision had been taken to deploy them to crisis zones.”
Places she might have seen on the news, where violence was ongoing and governments were tottering. “And were they . . . effective?” Ashley asked. “Like in the experiments?”
“I understand that they made a contribution,” Vieira said. “To stabilizing the situation, to avoiding bloodshed.”
She found herself picturing that, those vans, those aircraft, just out of sight in those scenes, dampening the wills of the combatants.
“But it is just a beginning,” Vieira said. “A stopgap. Even the power to dissipate aggression is itself too crude for these purposes. In the long run what we need is the power to make people actually think in the needed ways, and act in accordance with those thoughts, comprehensively and continuously, on a worldwide basis.”
“What about freedom?” Ashley found herself asking, with more feeling than she’d intended to express.
“What about it?” Vieira asked. “Everything I have learned in a lifetime of studying the human brain and mind tells me that our bodies are machines, designed by evolution and programmed by our experiences. That there is room for genuine free will amid all these powerful forces may be nothing but a myth of that time between the birth of modern consciousness and the beginning of science when we could believe that we actually were thinking for ourselves.
“But admittedly we have yet to prove this. So let us assume, for a moment, that the capacity for choice exists on a biological level. But what about a social one? We talk a great deal about freedom, free will and the rest, but we mean very little of it. We say that people can do anything they want, make whatever choices they want—but if they don’t make the choices those in authority tell them to, then they are punished. By their parents, by teachers, by employers, by the law, by the bad opinions of peers and the larger community. And most absurd of all, their own elaborately socialized capacity for guilt and shame plays the role of punisher, so that the whole of existence, even that internal world that should be freedom’s last refuge, is part of this vast system of control.
“So people don’t choose, but accept others’ choices as if they were their own. Or they rebel. Or they choose something other than what they really want, alienating themselves from the world they live in, and maybe even their own personalities and bodies. Admittedly a very few privileged people may do a little better than that, because they have a broader range of socially acceptable options, and can live with the consequences of a degree of irresponsibility or rebellion. But the point is that they are so very few, and they do only a little better. And so in the end, while we are normally taught that the engineering of wants in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is dystopic, the average person would likely find his scenario a great, great improvement over their present existence.
“I suspect you have known something about both those sorts of lives.”
Ashley thought of her life as a parentless scholarship girl in the dorm at Gotham U, working crummy jobs and agonizing over her GPA as she pursued a career she didn’t really know anything about and wasn’t even sure she wanted. How dry it all seemed now, how bereft of the pleasures that youth was supposed to contain, how narrow that path she was traveling, that “good,” “responsible” young people were supposed to travel, picking from a very short list of approved career paths and devoting themselves to jumping through hoops to get credentialed and get the job and then jump through still more hoops once they had it—for the rest of their lives. How different all that was from the lives of the more privileged classmates who could afford to go to sunny places during Spring Break while she went on shivering through Manhattan’s winter, and how different from the life she began when Julian brought her into his world.
“Yes, I have,” Ashley admitted.
“Then you know the truth of what I’m saying. And here’s another truth. Given the ‘choice’ between freedom, even if the freedom of which we have spoken is all that people say for it, and the survival of the human species, one cannot but opt for survival. Because even if one holds that life without freedom has no meaning, there can be no freedom without life, and keeping the species going means that at least there is still a chance of humanity regaining its freedom someday.”
Ashley struggled to avoid being overwhelmed by it all.
“How did you end up being the one to do all this?” she asked.
“A group of interested businessmen asked me my thoughts on the matter, and things went from there,” Vieira said.
“They have been called by that name,” Vieira said. “Though they don’t use it among themselves. They refer to themselves as the Olympians.”
“Project Athena was part of Project Olympus. There were other projects under its larger heading, all with commensurate names. Project Artemis, Project Demeter, even a Project Zeus. They were outside my area, and so I simply didn’t have anything to do with them, but you can probably guess at their objects if you have any acquaintance with Classical myth.”
“You didn’t think this was unusual?” Ashley asked. “I mean, that a bunch of businessmen are financing a project like this?”
Vieira shrugged. “Security is being privatized. Or rather reprivatized. Like most things in this world. At any rate, I’ve seen little evidence that government would behave more responsibly in this matter. You see, the Olympians weren’t the first people who engaged me to work on such a project.”
“Your time with the DoD, you mean,” Ashley said.
“Yes,” Vieira said. “That I’d actually end up working with the Pentagon . . . that was something I wouldn’t have believed just a few years earlier. During the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, I was in the crowd demonstrating right outside that building. But my work got their attention all the same, and I did take them up on their offer. It didn’t amount to what I’d hoped, but clearly it wasn’t forgotten, because word of it got back to the Olympians.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. The private sector isn’t immune to the bureaucratic mentality, to the games and the politics I saw when I was working for the government. Far from it. And these people got where they were by looking out for Number One, and had all the ego you’d imagine would come from being on top, and being worshipped for it like modern-day gods. And just like you’d expect from people who would call themselves ‘Olympians.’
“But where this thing was concerned, this particular group of men and women had a clarity of purpose that genuinely impressed me. The world they want is not exactly the world I want, you understand. I certainly don’t like everything they stand for. But the point is that they are trying to do something, where everyone else—in fairness, everyone who counts, who is actually in a position to get things done—they’re doing nothing.”
“Given their prominence, I imagine some of them are well-known public figures,” Ashley said.
“Naturally,” Vieira said. “But names are one thing I will not tell you. For reasons which should be obvious.”
Ashley remembered what he’d said about her reasons for approaching him factoring into his decision about whether or not to speak to her. She supposed that while he was willing to answer some questions, he would not give her any answers that would actually let her interfere with the project. Which to her mind ruled out just about anything of use.
“Is Harold Northrop one of the Olympians?” Ashley asked all the same.
Vieira did not say anything to that, at least not with his lips.
“The way you asked me if I’d really want to know earlier,” Ashley said. “It made me wonder if you have your doubts. About all this.”
“I do not pretend to be completely free of my era’s prejudices, even when I can recognize them for what they are,” Vieira said. “A later generation may have another perspective. The point is to see that they will be around to make the judgment for themselves.”
There was a knock at the door, and Vieira got up to answer it. Ashley didn’t stop him, saw him greet his wife at the door.
Ashley thought about her chances of neutralizing Helen Vieira, of using the serum on Anthony. Of the complications involved in both courses of action. If a neighbor dropped by, if family really did come, if the drug didn’t work as promised . . .
“Thank you for your time,” Ashley said, and then departed as casually as she’d come.