Theo was not the type who would normally sign up for bizarre medical experiments but he needed the money. It was surprising they even recruited him because he was almost sixty and out of shape. After too long teaching English in Saudi Arabia and sedately overindulging in local culinary delights, his gut was bigger than it ought to be.
Theo had been in shape back in the day, when he’d been a scuba diving instructor in Palawan. Swimming every dawn, living on fish and bananas, tepid nights spent hammering sweet young things. It paid next to nothing. But by God, that had been the life. He wished he could relive those years forever.
But now Theo was ready to retire and found that his savings were a bit light-on. It was either this experiment or go back to teaching in the Kingdom for a few more years.
He chose the experiment.
It would be preferable, he calculated, to sit in a hole for six months than to ever again suffer the indignity of being jostled and abused by the ill-mannered scions of minor Saudi royalty.
The university couldn’t give Theo full details because the study was supposed to be double-blind, but was informed that it was some kind of sleep experiment. They wanted to see how a person’s sleep patterns would alter if deprived of normal cues like sunlight, temperature changes, clocks and so on. They would put him in a comfortable room underground for six months with no connection to the outside world and observe how he slept.
Though he wasn’t supposed to, he looked up related experiments online and found that people’s circadian rhythm would normally lengthen from twenty-four to twenty-five hours in this situation. He guessed they were seeing if the same thing would happen to an old codger like him. Talk about making money while you sleep!
There would be nothing in his miniature apartment that could indicate the time – no electronic devices, windows, phone calls, etc. He could only read books and do a little exercise. There was a freezer full of ready-made meals and a specially modified microwave with no clock.
For this six-month project he would be paid $120,000. Not bad. Together with his existing savings it would be enough to buy a nice place in Palawan and provide a frugal income. Some part-time dive instructing would help subsidize his nocturnal activities.
Theo had to fill out a form to apply:
- Living family – 0
- Friends – 0
- Preferred number of social interactions per week – 0
- Social media accounts – 0
- Pets – 0
He turned out to be just what they were looking for.
On the appointed day he drove out to the research facility in the desert of Arizona, far from any rumbling trucks or blaring music that might penetrate his sealed accommodation. It looked like an ordinary farmhouse. Inside was a pokey office strewn with unclean coffee cups, a bank of CCTV screens and an elevator that went three yards underground.
“We’ll keep an eye on you from up here,” said Kate. She looked like a dowdy kindergarten teacher but her lab coat signaled she was a Scientist. “We’re not spying on everything you do, just checking what time you go to bed and what time you wake up. There are no cameras in the bathroom or shower so please don’t sleep there.”
“We’re not allowed to communicate through the camera. Don’t wave or hold up a sign. It’s the phone or nothing. Rules of the experiment.”
A toilet flushed and another woman walked into the room. This one looked like a Scientist but was Mexican and looked more boy than girl. Karen said, “This is Fatima, my colleague. I’ll be up here half the time and the other half will be her.”
“Hi!” said Fatima.
Theo grunted something that may have been a greeting.
“How are you feeling? Are you excited? Kinda crazy, huh?”
Fatima frowned. “Well, would you like to enjoy a bit of last-minute sunshine before you go down?”
“Nah, good to go.”
They hooked him up with electrodes, gave him a large jar of vitamin D, then Kate took him down in the elevator with his luggage. The room looked fine. Comfortable enough, had everything he needed. Theo dumped his crate of books on the floor – mostly fantasy and science fiction plus some books about technical diving and learning resources on the Palawano dialect. Theo also brought along some small weights and resistance bands. An exercise bike and treadmill were provided.
“This is the emergency phone,” Kate said. “And next to it you’ll find the emergency button. If it all gets too much, break the glass and push it.”
“Yeah, got it.”
“Please remember, if you . . .”
“Yeah, yeah. Each time I use the phone, ten grand off the payment. If I press the button, experiment’s over and I get paid a flat hundred bucks for each day I stayed here. I had to go over it a million times with the counsellor.”
“Okay, well, looks like you’re well-prepared then. Please take your time to look around, see if you have any questions. There’s no hurry.”
“I mean, once I go upstairs, that’s it, the experiment’s started and you won’t talk to anyone for six months, so let’s have a good, old chinwag . . .”
“I’m fine.” Theo pulled out a book, Lord Foul’s Bane. He’d read the series before but a long time ago.
“Well, um, any, ‘final words’? Haha.”
Theo sat on the bed and opened the book. He’d forgotten that it starts in the real world before the fantasy part begins as the protagonist gets hit by a car. “Nah, I’m good.”
“Oh, well, I’ll be going then. Good luck! Remember the phone in case you have an emergency.”
“Okay.” Theo was really looking forward to rereading Malazan Book of the Fallen but had decided to save it for later. The beginning of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had already reeled him into its world. He saw the leper fall unconscious, enter another world, commit a crime. When Thomas was being pursued, Theo looked up and realized that Kate had gone. He returned his attention to the book.
At first, everything was fine. Theo got into a routine. Every ‘morning’ when he woke up, he recorded the presumed date in his notebook to keep a rough track of time. He thought it would be approximately right – by the time he got out it would only be off by a month or so, he reckoned.
He would do moderate exercise, eat breakfast, then spend the bulk of the day reading, studying and doing light physical activity to stretch his legs. When he felt too sleepy to move or focus any more, he would go to bed.
It was good not having a television because he was a bit of a TV addict and got a lot more done without one around.
The camera and electrodes didn’t bother him. He doubted that Kate and the other one, the Mexican, would be too interested in perving at an old wreck like him. His attention was entirely devoted to his books, his studies and his waistline, which improved slightly over what Theo calculated were several weeks.
Theo was not entirely unsociable. He imagined that around the three-month mark he’d start to feel a bit stir-crazy and by the end he’d really need to get out and have fun. He’d already booked a ticket to Angeles City and planned to live it up for a while to decompress. However, that would come later. For now, everything was fine. Peaceful. He inhabited a mercifully quiet world free from the endless distractions that plague life above ground.
After what he estimated to be about one month, when he’d finished the Thomas Covenant series and had made a good start on Malazan, something went wrong . . .
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