Suspense Thriller Mystery

The man in the suit, that's how Ethan thought of him. He’d told them his name after a cursory introduction, but he seemed sexless, devoid of personality. The man didn’t try to sell them a product; he wasn’t engaging them; he wasn’t dynamic or persuasive. 

One by one they’d been narrowed down from thirty or so, to fifteen, and now, after almost a week, to just the five of them. They’d been encouraged- not prohibited- from speaking about their personal lives, but they wondered, were they being recorded? They’d had such little down time, away from the man in the suit, who stood in front of a screen, the room cast in a purplish hue. A nondescript building, up the stairs, through a narrow hallway, to a cloistered room with stadium seating and cheap carpets, like a dollar movie theater. For the past five days they’d watched video clips from a large projector, in which, without explanation, the man frequently dimmed the lights and displayed montages of familial scenes, naturalistic settings, often entwined with orchestral type music. At times it could be quite touching. Also speeches and interviews, some inspiring, some boring, from all different types of people. Afterwards they filled out questionnaires. So many of them, so puzzling. 

During their lunch hour, where they all sat in a break room with catered sandwiches and sides of chips and sodas, some of them had tentatively broached the subject if they were part of some social experiment, or even a reality show. No one knew, only that they’d been paid the sum of two hundred dollars per day. Easy money just to watch some video clips and fill out questionnaires. 

Ethan thought for certain it was a reality show (which he wisely kept to himself), sure it was another recycled idea with a new spin- although these days hadn’t every twist or shock to the reality landscape been thoroughly trod; the soil of reality programming turned over so many times it held zero nutrients, bearing no fruits of new viewership? But what else could it be besides a reality show? At any moment Ethan had expected producers to emerge from the wings and hand them release forms. Although, with just five of them now, it couldn’t be that compelling,

could it? 

Ethan had refrained from speaking ill of the man in the suit; in fact, he spoke very little at all. At least until he went home and regaled his wife with all the details he’d suppressed during the day. While he kept himself aloof from the others, he did manage small talk, for as he observed, there were those who stood in the corner, hawkish and unapproachable, and they’d been eliminated. But was that the correct word? Eliminated? Asked not to return…whatever that meant.

And then on this day, Friday, the man in the suit said, “Congratulations. You’ve been selected as the beta testers for our new trial.” His manner, having been sacrosanct, now smiled at them.

Hearing this, Ethan felt a surge of pride, but he quickly tamped it down. What, exactly, was he being selected for? 

“The project has a name, as we facetiously like to attach names to them, and this one is referred to as Uncanny Valley, which was coined in 1970 by the professor Masahiro Mori.” 

Ethan wanted to write this down, perhaps Google this professor, but incidentally his phone had been confiscated (harsh words; it had merely been turned in and then retrieved at the end of the day by a charmless woman behind a desk in the lobby).

A woman entered the room (not the charmless receptionist), stocky and muscular, wearing a dark-blue pantsuit, similar to the severe style of the man. She was carrying a container which she carefully set on the table, and then she stood there with her hands crossed in front of her, her stance wide-legged and primed, making Ethan think of a government agent. So this was not a smarmy reality show. 

Now that they’d been selected, the man seemed more relaxed, marginally so, and he now affixed himself to a name. Mr. Alt, he told them. Was that his true name, Mr. Alt, or a code name? Short for alternative? In which the possibilities, of course, were endless. 

Ethan knew he tended to overthink things, and this past week his mind had been blessedly empty. The man in the suit (Mr. Alt) asked them of this: to empty their minds of cares and worries so as to absorb their environment as much as possible. 

Mr. Alt continued, “You are here for an important reason.” But before he divulged more, he laid out the terms: they’d have to sign paperwork, which the stocky lady handed out, thick packets of legalese which could hardly be read in such a dim room. Again, strangely, no one demanded that a lawyer be present, or that they’d be given an appropriate amount of time to review it. 

Ethan could not help himself. “Excuse me,” he said, and all heads turned to him. He could feel palpable relief that he’d been the one to sacrifice himself, to ask a logical question. Or perhaps the rest of them- three women of varying ages, and another man, in his mid-forties- were not so persnickety about paperwork.  

Mr. Alt seemed to tut tut him. “No questions until after the paperwork is signed.”

Ethan reddened at this, but he held his tongue. The audacity! The energy in the room now harnessed itself towards signing the documents, and after some hesitation he joined them. He believed in the strictures of choices, of right and wrong. The aphorisms rang true, but this was a murky one. In some sort of Dickensonian irony, his wife was ill. Flushed and weak, she’d been bed bound for the last few weeks, her muscles weak and her appetite poor. She'd had all sorts of tests (she was not pregnant, although it was a fleeting hope, as they’d both agreed not to try until he’d finished his masters program). And then impossibly, the diagnosis: Cancer. 

Ethan signed the papers, and although his bearing was stiff, it would not allow for meekness. He had a right to ask. 

When the paperwork was collected, Mr. Alt smiled at them. “Splendid. Now you must have many questions. You must wonder why you’ve been selected for this trial. Unfortunately, it is not an exact science, and I happen to be a scientist. Dr. Spencer T. Alt is my formal name, but you may continue to refer to me as Mr. Alt.” He walked over to the table and retrieved from the container a small object wrapped in a translucent packaging. “I pose a question to you. What if you could see into the human soul?” He waved a hand at them. “Don’t answer that. For while that is a lofty ideal, the answer is that such a thing is not possible. But with science,” and his eyes sparked at them, “we can try.” He pulled out of the packaging a pair of glasses. “Don’t be fooled. This is a sophisticated pair of glasses. Expensive too. You are all going to get one. Not to keep- they are far too precious. But you will have the opportunity to test them in the wild, the wild being the various establishments of the great city we live in.”  

He spread his hands out and gestured to them. “Again, I ask, why have you been chosen?” A chuckle, not unkindly. “Well, you’re easily manipulated, the whole lot of you. It’s all right. It’s a good thing. That is to say, for our purposes.”

Ethan took umbrage at this. He looked at the woman next to him. She was a stay-at home mom of three; the other woman was a pediatric nurse and the other a high school teacher. He couldn’t remember what the man’s occupation was, but apparently they were all pansies.

Mr. Alt continued, “As this is a field study, you will have exactly five business days to record the data. This is not a movie set. Perhaps you will feel a bit like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, but I assure you it’s only a pair of glasses- light controlled and installed with a microchip which acts as a miniature processor. Think of it as a filter. A highly advanced filter that eliminates falsehood. One that records the micro expressions, the length of eye contact, and so forth, based on an algorithm to determine emotional manipulation, and on the other extreme, psychopathy. The uncanny valley. Where on a deeply subconscious level we recognize a facsimile, that creeping feeling when our minds are being read; in which we recoil, but which often fails to signal the control center of our brain. So with the assistance of these glasses, you will do the interacting, and then on our end, we will collect the data. At the end of the week, if you are interested, we will share the results.”

One of the women raised a hand and asked, “Do the people know? The ones we’re…interacting with?”

“Absolutely not. That would infringe on the integrity of the trial. Don’t worry, you will have a driver and chaperone, a fellow scientist, who will explain the conditions as the week unfolds. As with any experiment, there will be variables, but your safety is paramount. And I must insist upon the confidentiality of the contracts you’ve signed. That includes, as per the contract, if you recall, loved ones and family members. Breached contracts will result in swift reprisal. And that is all. I will see you back here on Monday.”

When Ethan arrived home, his wife was still at the hospital. She’d insisted on driving with her mother, as she said that he made her too anxious. She’d been exploring her options- a mastectomy was no longer viable- but chemo was scheduled for Monday- her first round over a course of eight weeks. Much to his protests, again she insisted upon her mother- a woman he found overbearing, and he didn’t relish the thought of her staying in their cramped apartment for the time being. But what could he do? 

He could make some extra money during his two week break from school, that’s what he could do. He could avoid, as he was wont, to avoid the unpleasantness of the hospital. 

His wife was pale and tired when she came home, but he roasted them a chicken (mother-in-law present) and made vague statements about his odd employment for the following week. They forced high spirits, waylaying the encroaching despair of money worries and sickness. His mother-in-law inserted herself far too often, with plans of fundraising and meal trains. And while Ethan knew he should appreciate her help, he felt only a simmering annoyance. 

With relief, Monday arrived and he made his way back to the building, the excitement growing as he entered, being somewhat tempered by further paperwork and regulations. Finally he was driving through the city with his escort. And finally getting the approval to put on his glasses, in which it felt…utterly normal. Perhaps it had a bit more heft than normal glasses, although he had perfect eyesight, and he could feel a slight whirring noise, almost imperceptible, as though a computer was warming up. 

How to explain that week, those hours? Relatively monotonous, to be honest. He spoke with a doctor, a salesman at a computer store, a pastor of a megachurch, all of them prearranged by his chaperone who'd given him aliases and false backgrounds. He even stopped by the hospital, as the scientist allowed him (who felt more like his handler), and brought a coffee to his wife, who was in between appointments, and they quietly sat in the lounge while the scientist made himself scarce. His mother-in-law, thank goodness, was not present.

The week limped along and then it was over. Ethan felt he had failed. He returned to the room for the final time and relinquished his glasses and was granted his check. Mr. Alt, however, was pleased. He told the group that for their first trial run (insinuating there’d be many others with other testers) it was a boon of information. 

“Would you like to know the results?” he asked them archly. “I’m afraid it’s hard to read if you’re not used to analyticals, but there were some out there, yes indeed.”

“Who was out there?” Ethan asked, curious.

“Oh, you know, the usual culprits: the manipulators, the gaslighters, the sociopaths.” He turned on the monitor and clicked on a file. “You see here,” and he became more animated, “you, sir, Ethan Strong, is it?” He clicked to a file with his name on it. He flipped through a stream of documents, downloaded and official, and it looked like an EKG reading, graphs and lines with corresponding numbers. On one of the documents there was a definite hike, a sharp peak.

“Here it is,” Mr. Alt said, enlarging it.

“For anonymity purposes, I shan’t tell you the name, but you can figure it out, if you try, Ethan. Let’s see here.” He leaned forward and peered at it. “Ah yes, this shows quite a high level of psychopathy. Deception off the charts. Contempt, grandiosity, overall sadistic delight.” He smiled curiously at Ethan. “It looks to be only yesterday afternoon, at two thirty. It was on Coute Road. That’s the hospital, is it not? Fascinating.”

November 18, 2022 20:44

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