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The Experiment

— by Dave K.                                                                                                                >>BACK

Dr. Cornelius brought his cigarette to his lips and left it there. It bounced from the corner of his mouth as he spoke. He shifted his weight between legs and leaned against Crisp’s chair. It reminded him of a joke.

Resolving to surprise her husband, an executive’s wife stopped by his office.
She found him with his secretary sitting in his lap.
Without hesitating, he dictated: “In conclusion, gentlemen, shortage or no shortage,
I cannot continue to operate this office with just one chair.”

“Have you ever been to a sawmill, Mr. Crisp?” he asked.

Mr. Crisp had not. He didn’t see how it was relevant.

“I have,” Dr. Cornelius continued. “Many times. Fascinating work.”

“Is it?” Mr. Crisp asked. He still wasn’t following; this wasn’t a thought stream he had expected to ford.

“No one can drop logs into the river one at a time. They all tumble out at once. All together, it’s a mess that cannot be shored. That’s what progress is, Mr. Crisp. It’s messy, and putting it all in order is, too. Deadline driven. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Mr. Crisp said, relieved that the sawmill business went somewhere he understood. He preferred the direct approach.

Dr. Cornelius paused to drag on the cigarette. The lit end was chasing the filter, and gaining on it. “This is a simple test of pressure. Relax, and you’ll be fine.” He exhaled sharply and left.

Mr. Crisp watched him go. He was strapped into a chair that sat on top of a copper panel in the floor. Someone in a wrinkled boiler suit had attached copper electrodes to his temples and wrists, and then he’d sat alone for half an hour before Dr. Cornelius had appeared. His restraints were tight, but not to the point where they cut off circulation. The straps for his feet were tighter, though. He hadn’t figured that one out, but he would. Considering the pace of things this morning, he’d have time to think it through. He was a smart man.

A very smart man, in fact. He’d scored in the top 5% on the company placement test, one of only two men to do so. The other had been disqualified for cheating. Crisp had laughed, to the extent one could laugh, at the irony of it. He understood pressure in ways that Dr. Cornelius would never know.

And, to Crisp’s credit, Dr. Cornelius did not know. He had stepped into a small antechamber between Crisp’s room and the other one he meant to visit. But first, he lit the end of a new cigarette with the old one, tossing the dog-end onto the pile next to his operator’s console.
When he walked into the second room, Mr. Seeley was waiting for him. He stood the way his parents had taught him when addressing his betters; head bowed, hat in hand.

“No need for all that, Mr. Seeley,” Dr. Cornelius said, blowing a plume of smoke away from Seeley’s face. “This is not a formal matter.”
Seeley looked up, hesitant. How could it not be a formal matter? He worked down in the bat house, assembling boilers. He’d only seen Dr. Cornelius’s face as an etching on the company letterhead. All the same, his shoulders relaxed.

“Yessir,” he said. He declined when Dr. Cornelius offered him a cigarette, and felt guilty afterward, but if Dr. Cornelius was insulted, it didn’t show.

“Tell me, Mr. Seeley, are you a people person?” Dr. Cornelius asked. “Are you comfortable socially?”

“Yessir,” Seeley said. He liked people, all right. The dumb ones made life difficult, but he did fine in the pub when someone brought their relatives or new girlfriends around.

“Good. Understand, Mr. Seeley, that our business lives and dies on people.” Dr. Cornelius emphasized the word. “We are in a people’s business.”

“We are, sir?” Seeley asked. No sarcasm intended, or present. He’d just never heard that before about factory work.

“Yes, indeed. Our efforts aid the cause of man, Mr. Seeley. We lift society above the savage and closer to God. And if that lift happens to be steam powered, so be it.” He smiled, and Seeley returned it. “This is a test of your obedience, and your compassion. So, pour yourself some tea, make yourself comfortable, and press the green button when ordered.” He nodded towards the plush armchair facing the window into Crisp’s chamber. The large green button in the console under the window would make itself known.

Seeley had never driven one of the steamcarriages he spent his work week building. Mr. Crisp had; in fact, he’d bought one after his test results came in. But Seeley walked to and from the factory, since it was only half a mile from his house. He passed steamcarriages the whole way there, and the whole way back. He liked looking in the windows and writing little stories in his head about their drivers. A young couple, for example, would be cast as arguing lovers. An older businessman with graying hair swept to one side would be driving to his parents’ house to kill them with a hatchet and trundle their musty old bones away in in the attic. In an old trunk. And so on.

“Tea’s cooling, Mr. Seeley,” Dr. Cornelius said. He leaned back from the kettle just shy of ashing his cigarette into it. Seeley nodded and poured himself a cup, sipping and smiling. He’d been drilled on that often enough to do it reflexively. He wanted to sit down, but Dr. Cornelius was still standing.

Dr. Cornelius didn’t intend to leave until Seeley sat down.

Seeley scrutinized the window console, keeping his eyes away from the doctor’s. The green button sat crooked in its frame, pushed up on one side by intestinal loops of rubber-coated wiring that ran back into the antechamber. Thin steel ties kept the wires from spilling out and tangling.

Dr. Cornelius considered that Seeley might ask about them, or why his room had them and Crisp’s didn’t. Seeley was a curious sort, he’d heard, but he wasn’t sure whether that curiosity ran along dreamy or inquisitive lines.

Finally, although it tightened every parental disappointment reflex in his body, Seeley asked permission to sit. It was granted with a hint of amusement that belied peals of internal laughter.

Dr. Cornelius let some of it out as he walked back into the antechamber and out onto its rickety balcony.

He looked out onto the industrial necropolis of Franco-Midland SteamTech. The grounds wrinkled like an old bedsheet, rising in hillocks of scrap and salvage and falling into valleys floored by loose, achromatic soil that shone amber under the sun. Sorters no bigger than ants from the balcony’s height were picking through it, pulling bent propellers out of aluminum tubs and tugging unbent grating from anonymous metal capsules and boxes. The future, big and messy. It reminded him of another joke.

A little girl came running into the house and said, “Mommy, I met the most wonderful man this morning. He was the garbage man,
and he was carrying a big bag over his head, and it broke and went all over him. And, you know, Mommy, he just stood there and
talked to his mother, his son, and God.”

Dr. Cornelius spat his cigarette out into the future and stepped back into the antechamber. He sat at the operator’s console, running his hand along the glass faces of the -ometers and gauges and tracing shapes in the smear with his fingernail. Then he let his hand drop to a dial and turn it rightwards, inching the Chair A – Power gauge up. He felt the wires floor hum back to life against the floor.

Seeley felt a kinetic change in his room’s atmosphere as well. He looked at the speaker next to the green button and set his teacup back on the saucer in anticipation.

Dr. Cornelius let him wait for a few minutes before closing the intercom channel and telling Seeley to “push and hold the green button for one second.”

Crisp had been turning his wrists in their shackles, testing his mobility, when they almost bit him. “Ow!” He cried out, then cut himself off sharply. His brother Kevin had told him about how the Army ran them in full kit until they threw up and made them punch into buckets of gravel for hours and locked them in rooms full of mosquitoes or bees, and if anyone squawked they got it worse.

Crisp sat as still as he could, letting the shock undulate through his limbs and out. It had agitated his heart rate, and he sucked in air, letting his stomach expand fully before exhaling. They think I’m all brain and no spine, he said to himself. They think I cheated.

Seeley saw the man in the chair jump and yanked his finger away from the button. He clasped his hands together, squeezing the guilty one hard to punish it. His father had been a soldier during the Morlock Wars, and held steadfast to the opinion that hurting others was unnatural. He went camping, alone, every Victory Weekend without fail. Seeley’s mother always listened to the remembrance programs on the wireless set while he was away, as if intention traveled over radio lines to wherever her husband was. She clasped her hands that way, too.

Dr. Cornelius kept the intercom line closed and told Seeley to “push and hold for 5 seconds.”

There was no response. He waited for a minute, then stood and walked into Seeley’s room. He found the bat house worker out of his chair, turned away from the window.

“I hurt him,” Seeley said. His voice was low, weighed down with reflexive guilt. He looked up at the doctor, whose face could be read as piteous and impatient.

“I hurt him,” Seeley repeated. “I think he’s really hurt. We need to get him out of the chair.”

“You’re a good man, Mr. Seeley,” Cornelius said, smiling. “And observant.” He put an arm halfway around the man’s shoulders, as if to draw him into executive confidence. “See, the board is thinking of promoting that man”–he pointed at Crisp– “to a top research position. It’s a big job.

Short deadlines, long hours. Pressure. Logs are rolling, Mr. Seeley.” He clapped the man on the back. “But you’re right. I put too much juice through the wires. I’ll go adjust it and we’ll continue on, yes?”

Seeley looked at Cornelius, then over at the man in the chair, his face set tighter than a new hatband. Cornelius took this as a reluctant “yes” and stepped back into the operator’s room to scale back the power. It reminded him of a joke.

A prisoner spent several years waiting to die by electric shock on a murder conviction, when his sentence was reduced to life. As he
sat on a metal necessary bowl in his cell, he bit into a wire and was electrocuted.

“I can’t do it, sir,” Seeley said, calling after the doctor. He still had to go home and write a letter home, as he did every week, and the man who would read it spent every Victory Weekend in a tent with every dead hand he’d ever shaken piling up in his mind, in that tent.
Cornelius heard him, and his shoulders sagged.

* * *

Crisp heard muffled voices behind the mirrors. He hoped they belonged to people who, impressed by his resolve, would let him out.

* * *

He was half-right; Seeley was pleading his case pretty hard. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He worked hard. He didn’t cause any trouble. He was grateful for the job and the pay and would never set foot into a Labor Agitator’s Hall, not even to ask directions on how to get away from there. But he didn’t want to hurt anyone.

Now he found himself standing in front of the operator’s console. Cornelius had proposed a compromise: Seeley would control the power and Cornelius, as his superior, would helm the responsibility of the green button. Seeley had agreed without seeing the console. It was what happened when people built things out of math. Gauges and -ometers registering inscrutable measurements that effortlessly overtook Seeley’s primary school education.

“What do I do now?” he asked Cornelius, who was settling into the armchair.

“There is a dial under the Chair A – Power gauge,” Cornelius said.


“Mr. Seeley, we don’t have time for an introductory engineering course. Do you see the words Chair A – Power?”

Seeley nodded and said yes.

* * *

More voices. Louder. Yelling? Crisp’s fists tightened, the skin on his wrists now raw from the brass restraints. What is going on here?

* * *

“There’s a dial under those words,” Cornelius continued. “Do you see it?”

Another yes.

“Good. Turn it to the right.”

Seeley did as told. “Um, sir? The needle is going up on the numbers.”

It took a second for Cornelius to translate that. “That’s all right, it’s supposed to. Keep going.”

Seeley stopped at an arbitrary point and stepped away from the console. “All done.”

“Good man!” Cornelius smiled. He stepped into the antechamber and opened the intercom line between himself and Crisp.

* * *

“Mr. Crisp!” A voice from the ceiling. Crisp’s head shot up, his eyes scanning. Nothing. He accepted that the speaker was behind him.

“Yes?” he asked in response.

“Sorry for the delay. We’re ready to resume the test. It won’t take but a moment more of your time.”

“N-not to worry,” Crisp said. “Can’t rush progress, right?”

Silence. Crisp took a quick assessment of himself – sweat dappling his upper lip, his temples, along his nose where it swept into his eyesockets. His wrists and ankles. His pulse was erratic, over-responsive to any sudden noises or changes in the atmosphere. His extremities tingled, but did not shake.

That changed as raw voltage coursed through his muscles and hair.

The minimum current a human can feel is thought to be about 1 milliampere. Currents approaching 100 mA kill as they pass through sensitive portions of the body, like the heart, through the arms. Dr. Cornelius was well aware of this, as he leaned on the button. 100 was an important number. Pure water boils at 100. 100 is the sum of the first nine prime numbers. It is two units above what Mr. Crisp scored on his placement test, and ten above Cornelius’s score. It is more than ten units above what everyone else in the company scored. More than twenty in some cases.

Dr. Cornelius looked at the future a lot. He saw sleek dirigibles in the air and steamcarriages in the street. He saw houses, neighborhoods, districts hooked up to hydraeic lines of steam-generated electricity. He saw how groupings of interrelated parts with separate functions beat out a rhythm for growth, for utility. And most of all, he saw himself standing on top of it under the penstroke rainbow of an asymptotic relationship between the company placement test scores and 100.

Few words native to English or any other language are fit to describe how Mr. Crisp felt. Suffice it to say that the second-to-last thing coursing through his mind was a brief, white-hot, explosive realization of complete and total independence from everything. He flushed numb from fingertips to brain as electricity folded him into thin, sharp creases.

The last thing to go through his mind, of course, was the fatal shard of current that popped his eyes like paper bags.

There was a seven-minute pause between the initial charge and the final one. Dr. Cornelius had intended to get it all done with in one shot, but before he realized Seeley had grabbed him he was up and away, reaching out and flailing for the green button. They burst through the glass butterfly doors and out onto the balcony as the world gaped and widened in front of the doctor.

Seeley said nothing. He was in the tent and no words would fit.

Cornelius wriggled out of his grip like an eel and pushed, palming his thick stubbly face and throwing his shoulder into it and nearly falling off himself as Seeley tipped over the railing without a sound.

The doctor crumpled, gasping, adjusting to the reality that he had not gone tumbling into the scrap heap and he was himself, on the balcony, his sleeves and arms pleated with cuts from the broken glass doors.

Upon composing himself, Dr. Cornelius finished up with Mr. Crisp and opened the intercom line down to the building’s freight entrance, letting the salvage crew know there had been a fall and to “whip him ’round to hospital when you find him, lads?” It all reminded him of a joke.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground, no breath, eyes rolled back in his head.
The other man runs out to the road and waves over a passing steamcarriage.
He gasps to the driver: “My friend is dead! What can I do?”
The driver, in a calm soothing voice, says: “I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”
The hunter nods and walks back into the woods. A shot is heard. The hunter returns to the steamcarriage.
He says: “All right, what now?”

Dr. Cornelius didn’t consider himself a bad man, on the whole. He just rolled logs downstream.

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