The Stolen Mind

This past week I had the chance to sit down and try a project I’ve been eating to do for a while: rewrite an old, public domain science fiction story from Project Gutenberg and update it for 2015. The Stolen Mind is a story that appeared in “Amazing Science Fiction” Volume 7 in 1930, and I’ve rewritten it below. It was a fun experience for someone like me who’s never done fiction before, like writing with training wheels on, and I might try another in the future to learn more about writing fiction.

The Stolen Mind 

By M. L. Staley 

Rewritten by Alex Becker

*       *       *       *       *

“So tell me, why do you want this job?” Owen Hunt felt the steel of the quick gray eyes that jabbed like spears across the office table.

“Why does anyone want a job?” he bristled.

Keane Clason gave an impatient smile.

“Come on, now!” he said. “I’m not trying to trap you. But my ad was a little…unusual, and it was done that way to attract an unusual type of person. To judge your qualifications, I need to know why this job appeals to you.”

“I can tell you that,” nodded Hunt, “but there’s nothing unusual about it. Look, Clason Research Corporation is leading the industry. And, to be honest, it seems like it’ll pay well, and quickly.”

“Good,” said Clason. “And you feel that you’re qualified?”

“Definitely. I’m 24, in great shape, I’m serious about my work and determined to succeed. I’ve got no family, and I’m willing to take risks – reasonable risks, at least – to make the world a better place.”

Clason smiled his approval.

“You say you need money. How much immediately?”

Hunt was unprepared for the question.

“Ten thousand dollars,” he ventured.

Without hesitation Clason pulled out a stack of hundred dollar bills and laid it on the table.

“There’s your advance fee. You’re ready to go to work immediately, I hope?”

“Ab-Absolutely,” stammered Hunt.

Stunned by how quickly things were happening, he sat staring at the money that lay untouched before him.

To accept it would be like signing an unread contract. But he had asked for it; to refuse it was impossible. Even to delay about picking it up might arouse Clason’s suspicion. Already Clason had turned away and was opening the door of a steel cabinet. Hunt had one second in which to reach a decision…. He crammed the stack into his pocket.

*       *       *       *       *

With delicate care Clason set two objects on the table. One looked to Hunt like an amplified version of a harmonica: a black metallic rectangle about six inches long with a trapezoidal carbon-fiber mouth attached to one of the longer sides. The other model was a circular carbon fiber tub. Within it was a series of concentric plastic dividers, making it look like a target from above.  Next to it, a small stand contained four flasks containing liquids of as many different colors.

“Look at these models carefully,” said Clason. “They represent two of the most remarkable discoveries of all time. The one on your left is the most destructive weapon known to man. The other I consider the most constructive discovery in the history of science. It may even lead to an understanding of the nature of life, and of the relationship between the mind and what we call the soul.

“Both of these were developed by my brother Philip and me together–but we have disagreed about how to use them.

“Philip”–the inventor dropped his voice to a whisper–“wants to sell the secret of the Unraveler–that trapezoid, there–as an instrument of war. If I should permit him to do that, it might lead to the destruction of whole nations!”

“How?” demanded Hunt “What is this, some new kind of nuke?”

“No, no,” said Clason contemptuously. “Even the largest nuclear weapon would be a child’s toy compared to the Unraveler. Did you know that, just like any other molecule, our DNA often breaks down?”

“Yeah,” responded Hunt, “like in cancer.”

“Precisely,” answered Clason. “But did you also know that this breakdown isn’t caused by anything extraordinary, but by molecules such as water and the oxygen that sustains us? Much like iron that is left abandoned, our DNA slowly rusts away. Ordinarily, our bodies repair this damage. We have discovered that, by inserting a previously unknown particle, we can accelerate the rate of DNA oxidation exponentially. What would ordinarily take decades in a human being takes nanoseconds when exposed to a barrage of these catalytic particles. The effect is devastating. By using a miniaturized plasma wakefield particle accelerator, we can take the oxygen in the air around us, ionize it, isolate the relevant particles, and project them over at least five hundred miles, depending on the level of energy used.”

“Just picture to yourself what this means! In a space of ten minutes two people can cut a swath five hundred miles long in any desired direction.”

*       *       *       *       *

“Have you ever proved it?” demanded Hunt skeptically.

“Yes, we have,” snapped Clason. “Right here in the laboratory–but on a minute scale, of course. However, there’s no time to demonstrate now. The point is that my brother is determined to sell this invention if he can get the price he wants. He argues that instead of bringing disaster upon the world, this machine will forever discourage war by making it too terrible for any civilized nation to consider. Mutually assured destruction! In spite of my opposition he has opened negotiations with an one of the more ambitious factions in North Africa. He may actually close the sale at any moment!

“However,” Clason drew a deep breath “you see this other device? Simple as it appears, it’s the key to the whole thing. We can use it–you and I–to overcome Philip’s will and stop all this from happening. The two of us can do it. Alone I wouldn’t have a chance.”

“Why not bring in the Feds?” suggested Hunt. “Seems like the best way out of this to me.”

“You simply do not understand,” frowned Clason impatiently. “Philip is selling the plans and descriptions, not the device itself. Even if this model and the larger test device that we  built were destroyed–even if I were willing to have Philip sent to Leavenworth for life–he could still sell the Unraveler.

“But this other invention, our Neuron Liberator, makes it possible for me to gain control of Philip and actually change his mind, through the medium of an Agent. I have hired you to act as my Agent, Hunt, because you’re young, tough, and you’ve got a strong character. And by way of reward I can promise you both money and a brilliant future.”

*       *       *       *       *

The inventor poised in a tense attitude on the edge of his chair as though his body were charged with electricity. His eyes seemed to dart out piercing waves that set Hunt’s blood to tingling. Then for a moment he dozed off, lost consciousness of his physical self. It was as though he had opened a door and found himself suddenly on the brink of a new and totally strange world. He shook himself and brought his mind back to the present. Focus! he thought to himself. There was a problem to solve and not much time in which to solve it. He was a patriot, but he also didn’t want to destroy the life’s work of this old inventor.

“Tell me,” he said in a husky voice, “how are you going to use me? I’m not some psychic, I don’t even know my own sign.”

Clason gave a short laugh.

“You don’t need to be a psychic. Astrology is just a blind sort of groping and hoping. Neuron Liberation, on the other hand, is the opposite: an exact science. Here–I’ll show you.”

Into the outer cell of the Liberator he emptied the purple vial, and so on to the innermost, which he filled with a golden-green liquid like an old wine bottle.

“The separating nanofiber membranes, you understand, are permeable by these complicated solutions. Each liquid has a different composition and therefore should, under normal conditions, mix with the others through the membranes until all pressures are equalized. I prevent them from mixing by maintaining a precisely controlled current which slows ionization and builds up osmotic-electric potential.

*       *       *       *       *

“Now if an Agent–you, for instance–submerges himself in the central cell, at the same time maintaining a physical contact with his Control at the surface of the liquid, and if then the osmotic-electric potential is suddenly released by closing the circuit, these liquids serve to accelerate ions towards the center solution, which contains the cathode.

“Under these conditions your body becomes a sort of sixth cell, and your skin another membrane in the series. Of course, you aren’t actually a part of the circuit but just present in the flows of charged particles which is created. Your body acts as a catalyst, hosting a chemical reaction without itself being affected in any way. Physically you undergo no change at all; but in some strange way which is, like life, beyond analysis, your mind flows out into the solution, while your unaltered body remains at the bottom of the tank in a state of suspended animation. The electrical actions which once took place between your neurons now take place between the particles of the solution. Your thought processes, while still connected to your brain, begin to also take place outside of your body.

“If no Control is present, all that is needed to return your mind into your body is to reverse the process, and you’ll emerge from the tank exactly as you entered it. But with your Control present and in contact with your submerged body, your thought processes, instead of remaining suspended in the solution, flow instantly into his body and reside there. Your disembodied mind, residing in the body of the Control, will be heavily influenced by the electrical actions of the Control’s brain. You will, in effect, be subject to his will.

“This can not be done, however, unless the wills of Control and Agent have first been brought into unity. To accomplish that, we clasp hands”–Hunt grasped Clason’s extended hand–“and look steadily into each other’s eyes.

“Now, it is well known that the particular patterns of electrical activity of an individual’s brain are as distinctive as the sworls of his fingerprints. What is not so well known is that the electrical patterns in one person can be remapped to match with another person’s.

*       *       *       *       *

“To teach your brain to do this, you consciously diminish your will by concentrating your mind on the same thing as mine: the goal that I’ve shared with you. Gradually, while we concentrate, your brain’s electrical patterns will begin to match mine. Once we’re united like this, when your mind is liberated in the tank it will more easily jump to my body, subject to my will not only because of the electric current generated by my brain, but because you have matched my electrical patterns. Immediately after the transfer there will be a brief conflict, because even in this evolution teaches us to fight and survive, but I will end up in control, since the electrical activity of both minds is patterned after my own brain’s activity.

Hunt felt, rather than saw, a wall of alarm closing in on him. He tried to avert his eyes, to withdraw his hand from Clason’s grasp. With a nostalgic pang in the pit of his stomach he suddenly realized that he could not do so. He had gone too far–farther than he should have, farther than anyone should have. He lost himself entirely in his effort to submit his will to Clason. A prickling sensation coursed up his spine, his extended arm went numb, his hand trembled violently.

“Wonderful!” said Clason, suddenly releasing both eye and hand. “Just as I hoped, this will be easy for you. Sit here for a minute, I’ll be right back.”

*       *       *       *       *

For a second after the door closed, Hunt remained slumped in his chair. Then he was on his feet, shaking himself like a wet dog to free himself from the spell under which he had fallen. Something about Clason attracted and at the same time repelled him, making him shake and muddying his mind like a too-strong Irish coffee, right when he needed to be on his game.

Rusting DNA–disembodied minds–brain patterns! Nothing there to get hold of. Were these things real or imaginary? Was Keane Clason a great inventor, or a madman? Was Philip really evil? Should he get help, or go on alone?

Professional pride said: wait, don’t panic! With his knuckles Hunt tapped the table, half expecting it to melt under his fingers. The feeling and sound of the contact shocked his brain into noticing something. On a table in the corner sat a laptop–an invitation. He sat down, signed into his account, and wrote a quick message:

Just got hired. If you don’t hear from me in a day, get in here.

Only a few seconds passed between signing in and hitting send, but it was all he had. He had just dropped back into the chair and a lounged back when the door burst open and Clason flew into the room.

“We have to go,” hissed the inventor. “Philip plans to seal the deal within a day.”

In spite of himself, Hunt jumped upright in his chair. Clason tapped him on the shoulder reassuringly.

“It’s all right,” he smiled, “I’m ready for him. We’ll make our move this afternoon and beat him by eighteen hours.

“Let’s see.” He paused. “Oh! yes. I was about to explain to you that as soon as the mind of the Agent enters the body of his Control, the Control can transfer it into the body of still another person. It takes a special manipulation of brain patterns, but through biofeedback I’ve trained myself to accomplish it.

“Now do you understand why I wanted someone with a strong character? As my Agent, I want you to enter the body of Philip, and your will must be strong enough to conquer his in the battle for mastery which will begin the instant you intrude into his body. You will still be under my control, but your will must be strong enough on its own merits to overcome his. I can direct you, but your strength must be your own. Clear?”

*       *       *       *       *

“I think so,” said Hunt slowly. “But what happens after you stop Philip?”

“That’s the easy part,” smiled Clason; “but naturally you feel a little anxious. I simply withdraw your will from Philip, return it to your own body, and wire you two hundred thousand dollars.”

“You’re sure you can?”

“Perfectly. All I have to do is touch Philip’s hand to recapture your will. As I said, I’ve trained myself to do this through extensive biofeedback practice. Then I immerse myself in the tank. When I close the circuit, the device will extract both minds momentarily from my body. But since both minds have a slightly different pattern despite our efforts to unite them, each will seek out and enter its own body. Then you and I climb out of the tank exactly as we are right now.”

“If it weren’t for my belief that anything is possible,” Hunt shook his head, “I’d say that your claims were completely ridiculous.”

“And you couldn’t be blamed,” admitted Clason readily. “This toy of a model isn’t convincing. But come with me and I’ll show you how the Liberator looks in actual operation.”

*       *       *       *       *

Clason tapped on a false section of wall to reveal a retina scanner. He presented his eye, and a section of wall slid open to reveal a staircase. Below, Clason pressed his thumb to a reader next to another door and opened it, leading the way through a narrow and tremendously long, dimly lit hallway. Yet another door opened in front of them and slid heavily back into place with a low metallic gulp. Here the darkness was so utter and intense that Hunt imagined he could feel the weight of it on his shoulders. From the slope of the passageway and the muffled beat of machinery that had come to his ears on the way along, he guessed that he was below ground in some room at the rear of a factory.

He stifled a low grunt of surprise as Clason switched on the rows of bright LED lights overhead. No wonder the darkness had seemed so thick! Even the blue-white shafts of light descending from the bulbs were occluded. Their rays rebounded from the liquids of the great circular tank in a blinding dazzle of color, while the dull black walls and ceiling were so perfectly absorbent that beyond arm’s length they became essentially invisible. Even the ledge on which he stood–on the side of the vat–gave Hunt the feeling that to move would be to step off into a bottomless pit.

Clason immediately distracted him, pointing here and there in his quick, nervous way to indicate how faithfully the Liberator had been reproduced from the model. Everything looked the same, with the addition that here a long plank like a diving board extended out from a wall-mount as far as the central compartment of the tank, and that from its end a narrow ladder hung down to the surface of the dark green liquid. What looked like an enlarged light switch was mounted to the wall above the base of the plank–apparently this was what controlled the tank.

“When the switch is in the upward position,” said Clason, pointing to the chalk-marked plus sign above it, “the liberation process begins. All the rest of the time it should be in the downward position, marked with a negative sign, in order to maintain or restore the system’s potential energy and allow the brain to resume electrical functions within itself, as I explained to you before.

“Now let’s rehearse, so that when the time for the real performance comes we’ll be ready.”

“Yes, sir,” nodded Hunt, so dazed by the glittering light that he was hardly conscious of what he said.

*       *       *       *       *

“First,” said Clason, running lightly up the steps to the plank, “you walk out to the end, like this, and start down the ladder into the center of the tank. Once at the bottom of the ladder, you’ll lower yourself into the tank. The liquid is as warm as bath water; it’s not acidic; it won’t hurt you at all.

“Meanwhile, I’ll hold onto you until the instant you become submerged. Your brain’s electrical activity will extend beyond your body, and immediately into a a waiting host outside the pressure of the vat – me. Now your mind is in me, ready for transfer into Philip, where it will act as my Agent. That’s how simple it is! Come on up and we’ll go through the motions.”

Hunt experienced a shiver as he mounted the bridge. Annoyed with himself, he shrugged the feeling off. There was no risk here. He was used to taking chances and doing dangerous things; ordinarily he wouldn’t even hesitate. Now he moved all the more quickly, as if to belie the squeamishness that had suddenly overtaken him.

Swinging past Clason on the plank, he lowered himself without a pause to the bottom rung of the ladder, arms reaching up almost to the plank. The inventor, laying down with his head hanging over the edge of the plank, maintained contact with him.

“All right, I get it,” he said in sudden irritation. “No need to hang around.”

“I’m just making sure I’m still flexible enough to do this,” grunted Clason amiably. “Just a minute now.”

He wriggled as if trying to adjust himself to a better balance, but he quickly moved free hand up and pressed a button in the side of the plank. Instantly the structure, pivoting downward on its wall-socket, plunged Hunt to his waist in the osmotic solution.

“Hey! What the…” he shouted, trying to wrench his hand out of Clason’s sinewy grip. “Let go, you idiot! Let me up!”

But Clason clung like a leech, his teeth gritted under the strain. Again the plank lurched downward, and with a violent splash Hunt vanished below the surface.

Surprisingly nimbly for his age, Clason scrambled up the ladder and back to the base of the plank, where he immediately flipped the switch. Casually he erased the chalk-marked signs above and below the switch and interchanged them, turning to watch as the plank slowly righted itself and the vacant ladder came clear of the liquid.

For some time he stood staring at the gleaming colored rings of the vat like some witch over her cauldron, his lips working, his hands clasping and unclasping like the tentacles of some giant sea monster. Then, as if the spell had suddenly broken, he turned on his heel and switched off the lights. As he quickly walked down the hallway toward his office, the airlock sucked the door against its jamb with an ominous whistle.

*       *       *       *       *

In an instant, as Hunt’s shackled spirit writhed in its new housing, he knew that he was hostage to a traitor. Formless and voiceless, he still fought, half-crazed, for the freedom which the instinct of ten thousand generations made necessary to him.

At the same time he was furious at himself for having been tricked like a little kid. The collapsing plank, the hidden button, the fake rehearsal, the tuning of his mind to that of Clason–step by step the whole con unfolded itself to him now.

But what was the point? Only one answer seemed possible. Keane Clason must be the one who wants to sell the Unraveler; Philip is the one who was trying to stop him! And Owen Hunt, former Secret Service Agent–he would be the tool to force the sale.

With a soundless scream of rage Hunt’s mind and will hurled itself against Keane’s. The two met like infuriated bulls, and for an instant, not even a nanosecond, each held their ground. But two minds can not exist on equal terms in a single body, and in this case Hunt’s activity had already accomodated to Keane’s patterns, and Keane’s neurons set the pace for Hunt’s dissociated electrical activity. Hunt had challenged the master of this body, the will of the Control. He could do no more. It hurled him back, crushed him like foam, compressed him to subatomic size in the background of his consciousness. So brief and unequal was the conflict that in the next breath Clason had all but forgotten the presence of the stolen mind within him. When he was ready to use his Agent, he would summon him!

Despite this suppression, Hunt began to see dimly through strange eyes, and to hear vaguely with ears that were not his own. Feelers, tentacles, some intangible kind of conduits carried thought impulses to him from the host brain. He received these impressions vividly, but his own responses were so weak, due to the subjection of his will, that Clason was entirely unconscious of anything Hunt did. Hunt wasn’t enough of a scientist to be surprised at the ability of a disembodied mind to experience sense impressions in the body of another. He was only glad that there was more than darkness and silence. Very, very slowly he was awakening to a new kind of consciousness–the consciousness of another person’s self. He hated and loathed that self, but it was better than the terrible void that had begun this experience.

*       *       *       *       *

Suddenly, as light grew brighter and sound more clear and definite, a new element entered–the element of hope. At first it was feeble: its only suggestion was that sometime, somehow, he might escape this prison. But it was like water to a parched plant. It caused his will to expand, to extend its feelers, to press up a little more bravely against the crushing pile of the will of his host.

Now another surprise sprang upon him. He was moving! That is, Clason’s body was moving in some kind of car, which was threading its way through crowded streets. Stores, buildings, buses, people–Hunt remembered them all distantly as things he had known thousands of years ago. The driver turned his head, and his profile seemed vaguely familiar.

Now a rush of foreign thoughts drowned out his own. Thoughts overflowed from Clason’s mind. They surged along the conduits that bound the two minds together, but only Hunt was conscious of their arrival.

Keane’s mind was on his brother Philip: that much was particularly clear. And there was something about a phone call. Yes, Keane had called the cops on a burner phone, using a voice changer, giving an anonymous tip. He had said that a man had been kidnapped, dragged into a building on a certain floor. The cops had called the factory, and Keane had acted, incredibly well, like he was shocked to hear the new. That’s why he was here now–he was on the way to meet with the cops. And he was chuckling–chuckling because he had fooled Hunt and the police, and because now a billion dollar deal was almost in his grasp.

Cutting in close, the car turned a corner and parked in front of a row of condos in a section of the city which Hunt didn’t recognize. As Clason stepped onto the sidewalk, Hunt was more painfully aware than ever of his powerlessness to influence, by even a twitch of a muscle, the behavior of this hostile body in which he had allowed himself to be trapped. In his weakness he felt himself shrinking, contracting almost to nothingness under the careless pressure of Clason’s will.

*       *       *       *       *

Clason glanced casually at his watch, and three men all walked up to him from different directions. They looked like ordinary people, but along the pathways of Clason’s brain it came to Hunt that they were detectives coming to talk with Clason.

“Where is he?” asked Clason, with an anxiety which Hunt knew instantly was pure pretense. “Is he safe? Don’t let them take him away!”

“Don’t worry,” replied the leader of the detectives. “The alley and roof are covered. We’ll take care of the rest ourselves.”

Quietly they climbed three long flights of stairs in the half-light. Clason held back as if in fear. He was a good actor, and Hunt felt the shrinking and hesitation of his body as he crouched and slunk along in the wake of the detectives, pretending terror at what was about to happen, though he knew–and Hunt knew he knew–that there would be no resistance up there–that Philip would be found alone exactly as he had been left by Keane’s hired guns.

On the top landing Burke, the leader, paused to count the doors from front to rear.

“This is it,” he whispered to the bull-necked detective just behind him.

The other nodded, and crouched back against the opposite wall while the remaining detectives placed themselves in position, guns ready, waiting for the moment the door gave way.

*       *       *       *       *

Hunt longed for the power to kick his hypocrite of a master as he still held back, cowering on the stairs, playing his role to the absolute limit. Then the door flew in with a splintering shriek under the charge of the human battering ram, and across it hurtled the other two detectives in a cloud of ancient dust.

“Got him!” someone shouted.

“Phil! Phil!” Keane Clason’s voice fairly quavered with sham emotion as he ran into the room and threw himself at a man tightly bound to an upholstered chair wedged in with tons of old, cloth-covered furniture.

But Philip was too securely gagged to reply, and as Burke slashed the ropes from across his chest he dropped forward in a state of collapse. They led him to a couch, and Philip, an older man like his brother, soon started to become more alert, holding his arms and massaging the cramps out of them. Suddenly he sat up and pushed the cops aside.

“What time is it?” he demanded, alarmed.

“One o’clock,” replied Keane before anyone else could answer, patting his brother affectionately on the shoulder while within him Hunt writhed with indignation. “My God, Phil, it’s amazing that we got to you in time. Really, how–you’re not hurt?”

“No,” grunted Philip, “just beat up. Gimme ’til tomorrow, I’ll be good as new.”

“If you’re ready,” suggested Burke, “I need to know what happened. How’d you get here? Why’d they take you? Did you recognize anyone?”

*       *       *       *       *

Philip frowned and shook his head.

“Yesterday around noon,” he said slowly, “I was in Denver. I took the supersonic commuter to Cleveland, since I had to hurry back to the office after an early morning meeting. There were three other passengers in the cabin–two men and a woman. I got out my laptop, answered some emails, and I remember looking up about 20 minutes later when I noticed we were slowing down. The next thing I knew I was approaching the ground in the strangest state of mind I ever experienced. My head was splitting, and everything looked unreal to me. Seemed as if I was coming down on some new planet.”

“You mean the ship was landing?”

“No, no. I was dangling from a parachute…. By the way, where am I now?”

“In a Munson Avenue loft.”

“In Chicago?”

Burke nodded.

“I guessed as much,” frowned Philip. “I must have hit hard and blacked out. When I woke up, even before I could start to get untangled, I saw these men run up to me, and they grabbed me, tied me up, and threw a bag over my head. I knew we drove a while after that, but I didn’t see anything until we got here and they took off the bag over my head.”

“And you didn’t know any of these men?”

“Yes–those that I saw.”

“Isn’t this enough for just now, Burke?” interrupted Keane, and Hunt received an impression of uneasiness that was not apparent in the inventor’s tone. “Let him rest, he’ll remember more when he’s rested.”

“Just a minute,” nodded the detective, turning back to Philip. “Is there any reason someone would do this to you? Is there anyone who would want you out of the way for a while?”

Philip jumped up, all of a sudden. Then he was on his feet, clutching at his brother’s arm.

“Keane!” he pleaded, “Keane! What happened to it? I know what they want! It’s the Unraveler!”

“Water!” roared Keane, and Hunt felt the panic that coursed through him as he tried to drown out his brother. “Somebody bring water! He needs it!”

At the same time he snatched up Philip’s hand in a grip of steel. Instantly his wild eyes became calm, the redness passed from his relaxing face, and he slumped down weakly on the couch.

*       *       *       *       *

In that fleeting moment Hunt surged into the body of Philip and confronted his will with a fierce intensity. For now his mind would have command that he could use to fight his Control.

With a sensation of contempt he met Philip’s resistance and rocked him ruthlessly backward, crushed down and compressed his feebly struggling mind. And as Philip yielded, Hunt felt his own mind expanding to fill the abandoned space, taking possession of the borrowed body with hungry greed, and flashing from its faded eyes a spark of vigor.

Burke stared in amazement at the kaleidoscopic rapidity of the changes in the Philip’s expression. Strange lights and shadows continued to flit across Philip’s face as Hunt’s invasion of him proceeded, but with a diminishing frequency which soon assured Keane that his Agent was tightening his command.

The younger of the detectives stood fascinated, his mouth hanging open. The other spoke guardedly to his superior:

“Whaddya think, pills?”

“Nah!” replied Burke, shrugging himself out of his trance. “Shock.”

The actual duration of the conflict in Philip was something less than three seconds. It would have been more brief if Hunt had really tried. But his sensations as he first surged into this new habitat under Keane’s propulsion were so weird and unearthly that for the moment he was lost in the wonder of the experience. For that short time, Philip was able to fight back against the onrush of the invading mind.

In the next second Hunt became conscious of the resistance. Urged on by his Control, he was forced to push Philip back and subdue him; but Hunt’s sympathy for his opponent and his hatred of Keane made him rebel against the order. He wanted to disobey Control, retreat, leave Philip in command of himself. But he could only go on, unwillingly thrusting back Philip’s mind despite the indescribable torment and confusion in his own. Unattuned to the electrical patterns of Philip’s brain, Hunt’s own mind had a chance to assert itself freely and begin to override the activity in Philip’s neurons. Then, with the feeling that he was ten times worse than the most inhuman demon, he took full possession of his borrowed body.

“I’ll take him home now,” said Keane composedly to Burke. “As you see, he needs a little extra sleep. In the meantime, if you need me, you have my number.”

*       *       *       *       *

To the young mind of the Agent, used to the lightness of an athletic physique, the body in which it moved down the stairs to the limousine seemed strangely heavy and awkward.

“I’m messed up, Keane,” he said with Philip’s lips as the car got under way.

“Hrmph!” snorted Keane, “you’re just in shock, that’s all. Go to bed when you get home and take a nap. At ten tonight a man named Dr. Nukharin is coming. He’ll drive you to a garage, leave the car, and switch to another one a few blocks away.

“Out near Marbleton you’ll find a stealth jump jet in an open field. Nukharin is a good enough pilot. He’ll fly back southeast along the lakeshore to the meeting place. You should arrive about twelve-thirty. We’ll do the test at 1:00 AM.”

Hunt listened in a state of abject rage. Lacking the power to resist his Control, he could only boil away in Philip’s body like a wild creature hemmed in by a steel cage.

“Bring with you,” continued Keane venomously, “that flash drive you took from the safe in my office. Hold the other drive to give to Nukharin tomorrow, after he sees the results of the test and wires one billion dollars to your account.”

The murderous greed of the man maddened Hunt. He tried to rebel, his mind squirming like a physical thing, thrashing in the nothingness like a wounded shark in the sea. For a moment he felt that he was about to break the bonds that his demon of a Control had fastened around him. He worked so forcefully that the entombed and fragmented mind of Philip climbed up in fits and starts out of the blackness and joined in the hopeless struggle. But along the pathways of brain activity that still chained Hunt to his Control, Keane saw the onset of mutiny, and his eyes darted flame as he countered with a focused force of will that effectively paralyzed his unruly Agent.

“Listen! You whimpering dog,” he snarled. “Think as I tell you–and nothing more! You are going to apologize to Dr. Nukharin for your previous unwillingness to sell the Unraveler. You are going to tell him that I am at fault–that I held out–but that you found a way to get me to agree. You understand?”

Hunt could find no words. With Philip’s head he nodded meekly. Just then the car stopped and the chauffeur threw open the door.

*       *       *       *       *

Dr. Nukharin flew high despite the masses of cumulus cloud which frequently reduced visibility to zero. He just had to follow the rim of the lake to his destination, and his GPS held him on course.

In the back seat hunched Philip, his body crumbling under the weight of Hunt’s despair. For hours the Hunt had gone on vaguely, hoping somehow to stop Keane and save his world, thinking he might grow strong enough to wrench his mind loose and free Philip from his conscienceless brother. Even if–he wasn’t sure–it would leave his own mind forever separated from his body, he was ready to make the sacrifice.

Suddenly the jet shuddered and whined as Nukharin redirected thrust to the vertical landing nozzles. Hunt had never been in a jump jet before, and the feeling of a plane stopping in midair and falling in the darkness on a trip to a weapon of universal destruction was too much to handle. He felt as if he were falling straight into the Pit of Hell.

His mind seemed to trail out in a giant nebular spiral behind the descending ship. He felt that he had suddenly crossed some cosmic meridian into a new plane of existence, where he was nothing but plasma and gas, a disembodied being of thought and energy. But even here his focus remained the same. Keane Clason–terrorist, traitor, mad scientist–must be destroyed!

“I will end him.” vowed Hunt in words that were no less real for being soundless. “I’ll chase him to the end of space and time to make him pay!”

*       *       *       *       *

The plane nimbly touched down and the cold, bare facts of his destiny rushed in on him in full force. He felt the nearness of his Control seconds before he saw him through Philip’s eyes. With a sensation like a knife thrust he realized that now he must speak, play his part, be any cold-blooded hypocrite that Keane Clason chose to make him. The silent order came down the line promptly enough; he responded as surely as a computer follows its programming.

“Well, Doctor,” chuckled Philip with an insidious leer, “here’s the magic box, just like I promised you. Won’t take long to set up. This test is going to be so vivid and conclusive that not even a hard-headed skeptic like you would doubt.”

“You misunderstand me,” returned Nukharin in an injured tone. “So far as I am concerned this is just a formality, but it’s still necessary. You want me to spend a billion dollars for worthless tech? That wouldn’t win me any favors back home.”

Keane Clason was waiting on the platform of a giant truck, engine idling. The Unraveler was smaller than he expected, about 10 feet wide. It was ready except for what looked like three large, disconnected power generators with multiple satellite dishes on top.

“One of the beauties of the Unraveler,” said Philip cheerfully to the Doctor, while Keane smiled slyly to himself, “is that these power receivers provide all the energy needed for the test. Connected wirelessly via a few custom installed terminals to all the power plants in the region, these three transformers have the capacity to funnel an entire petawatt of energy into two laser pulses. And it’s all thanks to this genius little brother of mine,” and he clapped Keane patronizingly on the back.

“Yes, ah–Dr. Nukharin,” ventured Keane timidly, and at that moment Hunt experienced the raging red hatred that causes people to become murderers. “Philip has promised me that you will only use this as a threat to prevent superpowers from starting a third world war.”

“Of course, why else would I want it?” replied the Doctor heartily. “But now let’s do the test. Even with this level of secrecy, I don’t like being out in the open.”

*       *       *       *       *

As the receivers were connected and brought on line, both Keane and Philip inspected each cable and support. Hunt and Nukharin watched as the Unraveler itself was hydraulically lifted fifteen feet in the air before coming to a rest.

As the climax of his deal approached, Keane’s excitement practically gave him a heart attack, hints of which came confusedly through to Hunt’s mind. With a peculiar satisfaction he felt that Keane was suffering. The inventor’s jaws became rigid, as though his blood had changed to liquid oxygen and frozen him, unable to control himself.

Keane was afraid! Genuinely afraid, this time. Hunt caught the impulse too clearly to doubt its meaning. This was no sham! Keane was doubting his own device, fearing that in the crisis some element in the finely calculated weapon might fail to operate, cheating him of the wealth he came for. When he spoke, and even Nukharin noticed the tremor in his voice:

“This amplification chamber, which looks like a stretched out megaphone, is made of a material printed out on a nanometer scale. The particles shoot out of this chamber in a precise pattern. The uniformity of the destructive field depends on the precise calculation of particle trajectories within and exiting the device.”

“If it’s that precise,” said the Doctor: “will anyone other than you be able to even use this?”

“It’s fool-proof,” chattered Keane, almost losing control of his voice, “absolutely fool-proof. Don’t you have scientists in your country who can follow written directions? That’s all you need.”

“Very well,” shrugged Nukharin. “I just want to be sure that no unforeseen difficulties arise in an emergency.”

“See this display?” continued Keane. “By inputting the desired range, the receivers modify the character and quantity of energy sent into the system, and the laser bank contained within is modified accordingly. Or, you can set it to maximum power, even rotating the entire machine on its axis, providing a full three hundred and sixty degrees of destruction.”

“And is there no danger of this going wrong–of destroying itself and us?” suggested Nukharin.

“None. There is no explosive force and no nuclear reaction involved. As long as we stand clear of the chamber there’s nothing for us to worry about.

“Now look. I have set the rangefinder set at three hundred yards, which will just about cover the stretch between us and the lake. I will cut a swath for you–and every bush, every blade of grass, every insect in this swath will be withered to ash in the twinkling of an eye. The destruction will be absolute.”

“Please proceed,” said Nukharin grimly.

Keane pulled a lever in its slot, then pressed it down into its lock as the array swung lakeward at the desired angle. Then, after lifting a plastic shield over it, he pressed a small button.

At the controls below, a light flashed on and off. The signal was superfluous, since Hunt had already received his silent command from his Control. An icy dread fastened on him. He must obey the unspoken command; he had no will of his own with which to resist. The test would be a success; the Unraveler would be sold; the world would be turned into a shambles. And he, Owen Hunt, would be the destroyer, the murderer, the weak fool who made this horror possible.

All this flashed through the Agent’s mind in the fraction of a second that it took him to extend Philip’s hand, press a button on the nearest receiver, and flip the switch marked “connect.”

For an interminable five seconds he waited in simmering rebellion which the paralysis of his will made it impossible to put into action. Then again the command pulsed within him, the light flashed, and he flipped the switch to its original position.

Cold sweat cascaded down Philip’s face as Hunt heard the receivers power down. He longed for the strength to toss Keane Clason to the ground and turn the Unraveler on him. But with an awful irony he was forced to his feet, and found himself speaking words that curdled his blood.

“Come,” said Philip in a triumphant tone to Nukharin, “let me show you that Clason inventions do what they promise.”

Flashlight in hand, he started toward the lake with Nukharin and his brother close behind him. Twenty steps, and the long meadow grass suddenly vanished from beneath their feet.

“Look!” whispered Philip excitedly, waving the light from side to side to show the forty-foot swath that stretched away before them. “Not a trace of life left, not a blade of grass–nothing but dust!”

The only response was a gurgling sound from Nukharin’s throat.

“Look!” Hunt formed the word with Philip’s lips under the urge of Keane’s Control. “There was a tall bush here. What do you see now? Just a pile of ash. If we were to look more closely, you’d find that even the root has disintegrated to a depth of two feet.”

“Enough of this,” croaked Nukharin in horror. “The deal is done.”

His face was convulsed with fear. Without another word he turned and ran toward the jump jet. Philip gave a start as if to follow.

“Hold on just a second,” growled Keane, whose composure had returned with the test successfully completed. “I still need you, even if you’re as much a coward as that doctor.”

Coward! The epithet burned Hunt like a firebrand. One of the fine, intangible lines that bound him under the will of Keane Clason severed, and his own will exploded into action like a thunderbolt. With startling agility his mind whirled Philip around, the flashlight held tightly in his hand. But Keane was faster. A blow to the wrist sent the improvised club flying. Then Philip reeled backward from a kick to the stomach, and his clutching hands beat the air as he sank unconscious t the dust.

*       *       *       *       *

With a violent tug, Hunt lifted Philip’s body to a sitting posture. A phone rang, and he could feel in his mind that Keane was still there. Philip’s body wasn’t built for this kind of action, and the kick the night before made it even weaker. Now he sat rocking his head painfully between his hands. But Hunt lifted him to his feet by sheer will, and he staggered across the room and picked up a phone from the table to answer it.

“Hello!”, he said in a hoarse voice.

“Get the hell out here to the factory!” rasped Keane, and immediate hangup emphasized the command.

It was one o’clock as Philip whirled his car into Olmstead Avenue. At three, reflected Hunt as the car scorched over the asphalt, he had to be at the downtown office to deliver the flash drive and approve the wire transfer.

Then he was face to face with Keane, reeling dizzily at the hatred that blazed from his accusing eyes.

“You thought you could stop me?” The voice was a low snarl, and as he spoke Keane threw down a tablet to the desk. “But you’ll never get away with it–neither of you!”

Dismay, hope, dread, wonder robbed Hunt of the power to speak. But he grabbed the tablet with such unexpected violence that Keane staggered back in surprise. Then he was devouring the screaming headlines of a news blog. Three seconds, like a slow exposure, and every word of the Daily Beast’s great scoop was laser-etched in his mind:


June 6th, 7:30 AM ET

Doctors can’t find a cause of death for five public officials found early this morning, but a mysterious swath of dead vegetation on shore might be linked.

BURNS HARBOR, IN – Five Chicago public officials, including an Indiana state representative , died early this morning on a boat trip back from a weekend camping near Benton Harbor, Michigan.

The small motorboat was tower into port at Burns Harbor around 5:00 this morning by the Coast Guard after being found adrift less than a mile off shore.      According to Petty Officer David Goff, the craft wasn’t running any lights and was called in by another boat which nearly collided with it.

The weather along the Indiana shore was perfect all night and there is nothing to indicate that the boat was in trouble at any time. The bodies are unmarked, but residents of Burns Harbor are quick to provide explanations ranging from murder and suicide to aliens.

Dr. J. M. Addis of Burns Harbor, the first doctor on scene, says that they appear to have suffered some kind of breakdown on a very small scale, possibly at a molecular level. When asked how that theory might relate to the large area of dead vegetation not too far away, Addis declined to comment. Joseph Sleichert, who lives in a nearby apartment complex, said he noticed on his morning run that this patch of ground extending back from the lakeshore was completely stripped of vegetation overnight. “My guess would be some sort of insect,” he reports. Others say that the condition of the ground indicates that it was burned at high temperatures. Nothing is left of the soil but a blue powder.

Philip faced his brother with eyes that were dull with agony.

“You have made me a murderer!” Hunt forced out the words in painful gasps.

But Keane snapped back at him like a rabid dog.

“You did it–you did it yourself! You messed with the Unraveler. You ruined the test! You changed the range! You tried to kill me, and instead you killed five people! And you’re going to pay–both of you. You hear me?–you’re going to pay!”

His voice mounted the scale to a scream, a sound of complete horror–the terror of exposure, the deep regret of losing the vast wealth almost within his grasp. He was losing his mind.

*       *       *       *       *

Frantically Hunt tried to think how he could answer–he was an Agent, completely under the power of his Control! If he could have done anything, we would have called in reinforcements, called the cops, even killed him, as soon as he had the chance! But in his rage, Keane’s control over Hunt was absolute, and Hunt found himself speechless. Unable to move even his hands, rooted to the spot like a statue, Hunt couldn’t communicate at all.

He might have stayed like this forever if Keane’s fear hadn’t distracted him from his surroundings. For just a moment, he forgot Hunt, Philip–everything but himself and his pain. And in that instant of distraction, Hunt’s enslaved mind experienced a sudden rush of strength and hope. Independently of his Control, he found that he could move Philip’s hand, could take a faltering step.

But what should he do with it? How could he take this feeble spark of freedom and fan it into a flame of resistance? An idea came to him: get distance from Keane, and maybe with one titanic effort he could launch himself against Keane, take him by surprise, crush him, and become the Control himself.

With infinite effort Hunt forced Philip’s body step by step across the room. He had to reach that window, get a signal of distress to someone in the street.

But Keane began to sense a mutiny. He followed. He crossed the floor with slinking, tigerish steps and snaking body. His wet lips writhed back over his teeth, and his  features contorted like a monster from the underworld. Now as his Control drew physically near, Hunt felt his his infinitesimal strength fade awa. Slowly Keane reached up with his clawed fingers and grasped his Agent by the arm.

“Remember!” he hissed, “if these deaths are traced to us, you break down–you confess–you take the blame–you keep me clean–you tell them how you forced me into it–you plead guilty and pay the price! You understand?”

Hunt made no reply, but he understood all too well how utterly Keane had betrayed him. Stupid. How could he have imagined that Keane Clason would ever give him back his body? Philip would be sent to death row, Hunt a homeless spirit wandering in space, and for the body at the bottom of the tank, the brief regrets of government service!

*       *       *       *       *

A sudden rushing sound filled the air with a sense of action and alarm.

Two–three–four speeding cars swung in recklessly to the curb and shrieked to a standstill on smoking tires. Cops leaped out and deployed on the run to surround the factory. Keane ran to the security panel and hit the lock.

“Come on!” he spat at Philip as he tapped the false wall panel and started at the retinal scanner.

The command galvanized Hunt to action. In two bounds he had Philip on the stairs. A heavy impact rattled the office door just as the camouflaged door slid back into place. Then, infected with Keane’s panic, he was running down the passageway, his legs pumping with adrenaline.

Inside the tank chamber the brilliantly colored rings of liquid flashed back under the bright lights. Half crazed with anxiety, Keane danced back and forth on the black ledge like a hyperactive kid. His face was grey, drool leaked from his twisted mouth, his eyes were two black pools of terror.

Again Hunt experienced the weird sensation of freedom from Control. New hope sprang up in his agonized mind as heavy blows boomed against the air-locked door. Great waves of fear came to him from Keane, and he knew that Keane was losing it. Now what would Keane do? What could he do? Why, of all places, had he come down this rabbit hole of a room?

Thud, thud! A battering ram must be hitting the door. Then it stopped, and quiet clicks were heard as they began to attempt hacking the door panel.

Still the door remained closed, but the proximity of the cops whipped the faltering Keane to action. He jumped up and was on the platform. With a lightning hand he threw the switch down to the chalk-marked plus sign, starting the reversal process in the tank. Then he pressed a button hidden in a corner and a panel slid silently aside in the wall, revealing a narrow passageway.

*       *       *       *       *

Hunt’s mind went red with anger. He might have known that this traitor would have an escape hatch!

But his Control gave him no time for independent thought. He forced Hunt to turn Philip’s eyes up to his own. Without disconnecting that grip of his glittering eyes, Keane leaped back to the ledge. Hunt felt the silent order:

“Get up on that plank! Dive into the tank! Get back into your own body, let Philip have his! Then come up–the two of you–and face the music. Ha! I’ll be gone, and who’s going to believe you?”

Hunt took an obedient step toward the platform. But at the same instant a lock on the door clicked, and they were almost through! Keane Clason turned around with crazed eyes, the look of a man whose mind was gone. With a gasp he sank down upon the steps, his body doubled in pain, his hand clutching at his heart. Another crash followed, and he shuddered and grunted in pain.

Instantly Hunt felt he had room to maneuver. Keane’s sudden physical weakness had loosened his control. Philip’s lips worked painfully as Hunt forced him to pause, to disobey the command of Keane. In a spasm of will he fought to wrench himself free from the countless clinging tentacles of his Control. In great surges, Hunt’s reviving volition pounded against the walls of his borrowed body. Now he sought to force this sluggish body back to the wall, to open the door and let the cops in. But Philip seemed to ossify, every tendon and muscle of his body frozen to stone by the conflict that raged within him.

Braced against the wall, Keane was rising slowly to his feet. His panic attack was over, and he was bringing his Agent back under control.

“Come on!” he gasped, realizing that he lacked the strength to escape alone and needed a new plan. “Lift me–quick! Carry me out! Slide the panel back into place. We’ll escape together!”

*       *       *       *       *

The spoken command turned the balance against Hunt. His will yielded to Control, and at the same instant Philip’s body relaxed. Suddenly strong and flexible, he lifted the trembling Keane and tossed him across his shoulder.

For a moment the noise on the other side of the door had stopped, but now another lock clicked open, and only two remained.

“Quick!” gasped Keane. “Move! Get me out of here!”

But Keane himself couldn’t move. Voices shouted from the other side of the door, commands to get ready to breach, and each shout filled Hunt with a sense of hope that let him refuse Keane’s commands. Then a wave of nausea swept over him and left him reeling. It seemed like Philip’s blood had turned to boiling oil. A dazzling mist swallowed him up, and with a weird sense of inflation he felt full strength returning to his will.

Another lock released and cued Hunt to take action. He leaped to the platform. The gurgling sound of objection rattled from Keane’s throat. But Hunt paid no attention. Philip was walking the plank–away from the open panel–out over the tank.

Rapidly he dropped down the ladder to the bottom rung, snatched Keane’s wrist in a gorillalike grip, and hurled him down into the vat.

Then Philip was clinging desperately to the ladder, his strength gone, his body shivering as if he were hypothermic.

“Go on up the ladder!” came a strange, gasping voice from below him. “For God’s sake let me out of here!”

*       *       *       *       *

A downward glance, and with a shout of surprise Philip was scrambling up the ladder, because there was a head down there, and a pair of naked shoulders, and the face of a man he had never seen before. Hand over hand Hunt followed. Philip had collapsed and lay prone on the plank. Hunt lifted him to his feet and shook him anxiously.

“Philip!” he urged. “Philip! Can you walk?”

The shouts from the other side of door helped to revive the older man.

“Quick!” whispered Hunt, grabbing Philip’s arms. “There’s barely an hour left. Get to your office. Destroy the data. Refuse the money. Do you hear me?”

Philip nodded dazedly.

“Hurry!” puffed Hunt, thrusting him through the opening that Keane had reserved for his own escape, and sliding the panel back into place.

Hunt was himself now–young, strong, free. Instantly he hit the switch on the wall. Keane had failed to emerge from the tank, and since he was submerged alone, he could not escape until the switch was flipped.

Just as Hunt leaped from the platform to release the airlock, the door burst in and three men with drawn guns rushed into the chamber.

The leader stopped, swore, and stood blinking his unbelieving eyes. Hunt was poised like a statue, his naked body gleaming an unearthly white against the lusterless black of the wall.

“Hunt,” came from the three in chorus. Then a rush of questions: “What’s going on? What happened to you? Where are the Clasons?”

Hunt turned toward the platform, expecting to see Keane.

“Something’s wrong!” he shouted. “Quick! Somebody get Philip. He’s gone to his Loop office. Keane Clason’s at the bottom of this tank. I’m not sure how this thing works, but Philip can get him out! I’m sure of it!”

*       *       *       *       *

Despite the confident predictions of both Hunt and Philip Clason, neuron liberation failed to restore Keane to life, and at last the coroner ordered the removal of the body. The autopsy revealed that cardiac arrest was the cause of his death.

For reasons best understood at Washington, the cause of the five deaths in Burns Harbor was withheld from the public. Hunt’s punishment for his part in the crime consisted of a promotion and a warm personal letter from the President of the United States.