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A uniformed, armed security officer stood inside each of the two soundproof doors, augmenting the guards on the corridor side. On the floor of the small amphitheater, a small lectern stood, flanked by Beck and Patricia on one side, Jack Clemente and Dr. Tabbart on the other. Their expressions were uniformly blank.
The lecture hall, although the smallest at the Institute, was still two-thirds empty. The twenty orderlies, nurses, psychiatric social workers, and technicians slowly filled seats in the first three rows.
After three minutes of nervous buzz and rustling, the room grew quiet as Tabbart approached the podium.
"Good morning, colleagues." He spread his notes across the podium. He didn't need them, wouldn't be up there long enough to use them, but he always spread notes before speaking.
"You have each been selected for this" -- he seemed to be looking for a word -- "appointment on the basis of your record, qualifications, and accomplishments. You are all to be congratulated."
In the audience, some opened notebooks, others checked that their pens worked or kicked off their shoes. Few paid attention. They knew, from past experience, that this was just the warm-up. The main show would begin only after Tabbart left.
"We at the Volker Institute have a long honored tradition," Tabbart continued, "of being the first to blaze new frontiers in the ever-widening expanses of neuropsychiatric explorations. Today, we begin the journey anew."
Patricia, twice-bleached lab coat covering the ankle-length skirt and utilitarian blouse she'd particularly chosen for this morning, checked her notes, then sneaked a look at Beck. His jaw was tight, eyes staring straight ahead. Had she not known better, she'd have assumed he was the one about to undergo therapy.
"I am satisfied," Tabbart droned on, "that all of you will function in the highest traditions of the Institute. That all of you will give the difficult task ahead your best efforts. That all of you will do nothing to bring dishonor on those of us not privileged to be part of this noble effort."
He gathered his notes, bowed at Clemente and Beck, noticeably ignoring Patricia, then turned and walked briskly from the room.
Jack waited for the guard to close the door behind the chief of staff before walking over to the podium. He smiled out at the audience.
They all came to attention, pens poised over pads.
He leaned casually against the lectern. "A couple of ground rules, to start. This project is classified at the highest levels. Since all of you here have worked under similar security before, I won't bother to go over each of the rules individually. You've all received copies of them. Read them! One thing more. All discussions of this project, even with other project personnel, must take place only within the project's confines itself. That is, within the walls of Unit A-249. Security insists on this."
He took a deep breath, looking over the group.
"Somebody once said, always open with a joke. Okay." He paused. "What do you get when you take a type A3 personality, thoroughly train him in the rather arcane arts of deep-penetration intelligence work, then subject him to over six years of solitary confinement in one of the harshest penal environments in the world?"
A long silence.
"No answers? No guesses?" Jack nodded slowly. "Precisely our problem. Our task here is threefold. First, answer the question I have just propounded. Second, find a way to undo whatever psychic damage his captivity did to him. Third, and this is the hard one, folks, return the subject to as close an approximation of normalcy as possible."
"Define normalcy," a voice from the audience called out as the others wrote furiously.
Jack thought about that for a moment.
"That's a valid question. Suppose you're standing in line for the movies on a cold day. Suddenly, a man cuts in front of you, getting the last available seat. You're forced to remain out in the cold for another two hours.
"A normal person would protest. A type A1 would protest, perhaps loud enough to call for the manager. Our subject, suffering from a decomposition of his personality, with occasional reversions to primitive behavior, would most likely attack and kill the interloper, and possibly the usher that allowed him in." He paused. "I'll settle for the type A1 response as normal in this case."
He turned and nodded at Patricia. She stood, took a deep breath as she walked to the podium, and began without pause.
"Our course of treatment is unclear at this point," she said in a strong voice, "but if we can rely on the record, four points are manifestly clear."
She opened a file.
"One: We must limit access to the subject, particularly during the early stages of treatment. Until we are convinced that his sudden mood changes and violent lapses are under control, only Dr. Clemente, myself, and one nurse and orderly per shift will be allowed in actual contact with him.
"Two: Due to the subject's very high intelligence, we must constantly question whether his demeanor and actions are true reflections of his actual emotional state or merely sophisticated masks, put into place to lull us into a false sense of security. You must never let your guard down around this man.
"Three: A preliminary diagnosis of decompensation lability syndrome has been arrived at. Since this is a relatively rare condition, I expect you all to read up on it. But let me give you this critical reminder."
Never good at public speaking, she picked a spot in the back of the room, directing her comments to a Chagall print.
"Although we have drastically reduced the stress that the subject is under, the erosion of his personality will continue as long as he remains under some form of close custody, no matter how lenient that custody is or is perceived. Go the extra mile, smile, laugh at his jokes if there are any. Give him maximum encouragement constantly. But be prepared for sudden rejection or violent reaction to the most trivial of things."
A hand was raised in the second row.
"Dr. Nellwyn," a nurse said quietly, "just how violent is the subject? How much risk are we in?"
Patricia looked over at Jack.
"We'll deal with that issue in due course," he said crisply.
Patricia slightly raised her eyebrows, then turned back to the audience.
"Fourth: Most important and apropos your question, never, under any circumstances, confront the patient over anything. Never paint him into a corner or limit his options." She took a deep breath. "Over and above his aberrant behavior reflexes and phased atavism, he has been trained" -- she looked down at Beck -- "to the finest edge, to respond to confrontation with overwhelming force and violence."
She paused, as if unsure where to go at that point. Finally, she turned to Beck.
"Before I conclude," she said softly, "it might well serve us to get the subject's history at this point."
She stepped aside as Beck took the podium.
"My name," he said in a steady voice, "is Brigadier General Alexander Beck, formerly SACSA to the Joint Chiefs."
"What?" several people in the audience said at once.
Beck smiled. "My apologies. The special assistant to the chief of staff for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities. Twelve years ago, I was tasked with creating a unit of special deep-penetration intelligence agents, capable of operating and surviving in a hostile urban or unpopulated environment without the need for support or instructions."
He leaned casually against the lectern.
"Simply put, take a man or woman, give them a task like, oh, severely curtail Soviet agricultural output in the Ukraine, or retard Chinese nuclear facility manufacture, then turn them loose. They would have the training, ability, and survivability to go out, do their jobs for a set period of time, then be extracted, say, six months later."
He smiled a private smile.
"It was the perfect concept. Completely self-sufficient, they would blend with the targeted communities, take whatever they needed to live and carry out their missions from the targeted populace themselves. Low-maintenance, high-yield, covert, effective, human rifles. Just point and shoot."
The audience was stilled.
"A study from the Horizon Institute in Santa Monica suggested that, for the types of operations we were contemplating, we seek out sociopathic personalities. It was felt that, given their lack of a traditional moral base, as well as their ability to carry out complex, high-risk tasks without emotional judgments as to the relative rightness of those tasks, they would make the perfect tools."
"Jesus," someone muttered.
Beck fixed him with a withering stare. "Unfortunately, sir, as it turned out" -- he paused a long time -- "I wasn't."