“So how are we doing tonight?” asked Jacqueline as she adjusted the discs on Connor’s forehead. “Are you all ready to have some wild dream about being a musician? That sounds like so much fun to me.”
“Yeah, I guess I finally get to be a rock guitarist. That’s what I always wanted when I was a kid. It looks like my wish is finally going to come true.”
“Good for you.” Jacqueline smiled brightly. “Me, I always wanted to be a singer. I’d just love to stand up there onstage and let it rip.”
“Nothing wrong with that. You’ve probably got a great voice too. Maybe you can give a concert here one evening and liven things up. I know I’d love to hear you sometime, and I’m sure Professor Elicott would think it was an excellent idea too. Good for morale.”
“That’ll be the day, won’t it?” Jacqueline laughed at the thought. Then, “Are you comfortable? Need anything before I go?”
“No, no, I’m fine. You go take care of the others.” Connor gave Jacqueline his warmest smile and then lay back.
But everything wasn’t as fine as Connor had let on. Something was prodding at the back of his consciousness and wouldn’t let go, something Marguerite had mentioned in passing the evening before. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been listening, he realized, only that he hadn’t been paying close enough attention to appreciate her remark’s significance. And now he was having trouble remembering what it had been and why it was worrying him so.
“Let it go,” Connor told himself.
He tried to relax and imagine the electric Fender guitar he’d always wanted so badly to play, but his mind was unable to focus on it. Instead, his thoughts wandered randomly from one topic to the next. He knew his inability to concentrate would make it difficult to have the dream he wanted, but there wasn’t very much he could do about it.
And then, just as Connor was about to drift off, he realized what had been bothering him ever since he had left Marguerite’s apartment early that morning. Hadn’t she mentioned some cryptic reference Reicha had made to the previous experiment? Yes, that was it. “What exactly did happen in Moldova?” he asked himself.
And then he was asleep.
Connor found himself in a large room filled with worn furniture that reminded him of photos he had seen of New York hospital waiting rooms in the 1950’s. The strong smell of disinfectant only strengthened the impression. An overhead fluorescent fixture buzzed and flickered. To his right, behind a wooden desk were rows of green metal filing cabinets, some of whose drawers were buckled and missing the handles needed to pull them open.
Connor knew at once where he was. “Moldova,” he whispered. He tried to remember what he knew of the country but could think of nothing other than that it was located somewhere in Eastern Europe and had once been part of the U.S.S.R.
A pair of swinging doors pushed open at one end of the room. Beyond them, Connor could see, was a ward filled with iron frame beds. On a rickety wooden stand beside each had been placed an apparatus somewhat similar to that used by the university in his own experiment. These machines, however, were bulkier and looked much more low tech.
A doctor, stethoscope around his neck, entered the room with a white uniformed nurse at his side. Connor instinctively moved back into the shadows but then realized the pair hadn’t seen him and that he was in fact invisible to them.
“But what could have happened?” the doctor asked. Though he wasn’t speaking English, Connor had no trouble understanding what the man was saying.
“How should I know?” the nurse responded brusquely. Her manner was defensive. “One minute Catemir was lying in bed asleep and then, when Natalia went to check on him twenty minutes later, he wasn’t there. No one saw him leave. I’ve already spoken with the front desk in Admissions, and they are certain he did not exit by the main entrance. And no one has been able to find any trace of him even after having searched half the night. All we can be sure of is that he is no longer in the hospital.”
The doctor frowned. He was a small wizened man wearing a rumpled gray suit and a black bow tie. He turned to stare at the nurse through his wire rimmed spectacles. “Nurse Chernyakov, this is not acceptable. No, not acceptable at all.”
The nurse, a strongly built woman in her early fifties, fairly bristled. “What do you want of me?” she snapped. “You know as well as I that I cannot keep watch over all these patients twenty-four hours a day. And neither can any of the other nurses. We have too much to do to be babysitters for your precious patients.”
“You forget this hospital is a government institution. Patients cannot wander in and out as they please. Especially not the patients chosen for this experiment. Many of them are prisoners hoping they will be given a pardon after having volunteered to be part of this experiment. Catemir himself was such a one. He killed a man in a bar fight two years ago.”
“If he was so dangerous,” said the nurse, “you should have had guards posted to keep watch over him.”
“And put at risk the success of what we are attempting? I think not,” answered the doctor peremptorily. “Besides, there should be no need of guards in so secure an institution. All the windows are barred and the only unlocked doorway is at the main entrance.”
“Well,” observed the nurse, “apparently that is not enough. Somehow Catemir managed to find a way out. I am sure he did not wish to return to prison once his usefulness here was ended.”
The doctor threw up his hands. “It would be bad enough if Catemir were the only one. But he is the third to disappear. Do you hear me? The third!”
“I can count as well as you,” the nurse reminded him.
“What will the authorities say when they find out?” The doctor’s tone had grown plaintive. There was more than a trace of fear in it.
“Yes, that is what is really worrying you, isn’t it?” sneered the woman. “You will have to explain to them why you failed to report the first two who escaped. No doubt that will be the end of your priceless experiment.”
“If the authorities take action against me, you also will suffer the consequences, Nurse Chernyakov. I am sure you are well aware of that.” The doctor paused and then continued in a lower voice, “To be honest, it is not the risk to my career that worries me most.”
The nurse looked at him in surprise. “What is it then?”
“I’m not sure that these three managed to escape after all.”
“What then? Surely they did not disappear into thin air.”
“Then where are they? As I pointed out a moment ago, the windows are barred and the front door is under surveillance. They could not have simply walked out.”
The nurse regarded the small man speculatively. “What are you suggesting? That they were taken away? Surely that no longer happens in our country now that we are free from the Soviets and the K.G.B.”
“We have our own secret police these days.” The doctor removed his spectacles and began to wipe them with a handkerchief taken from his jacket pocket. “But that would really not explain it satisfactorily either. They could not very well enter unobserved any more than the patients themselves could exit. There must be another explanation.”
“I do not believe in the supernatural if that is what you are implying,” said the nurse. “That is the stuff of nonsense. We left all those folktales behind us centuries ago.”
“Nor do I believe in the paranormal either,” answered the doctor. His tone grew didactic. “But that does not mean that there are not purely natural forces we have not yet discovered. No one fully understands the human mind and its capabilities. It is always possible that we have stumbled on something in our researches we never expected to encounter. It may be we have unleashed some hidden power from within the mind itself, something that lay dormant until we inadvertently awakened it.”
Nurse Chernyakov only shook her head. “I hope when you are interviewed by the authorities you are able to come up with a better theory than that. Otherwise, we will all find ourselves committed to an asylum.”
The two continued talking as they turned and left the room, but their voices were too low now for their words to be audible.
Connor watched the pair leave. He looked about him, took a step toward the file cabinets and then stopped. Even if he were able to translate whatever was contained within the folders they held, it would do him no good. After having overhead the conversation between the doctor and the nurse, he knew the researchers were as much in the dark as he was in understanding what was happening about them. There was no point in lingering here any longer.