There was a green light winking in the middle of the machinery for recording and analyzing positron emission tomography. Mason was sure he had never seen it there before.
“What is the green light for?” he asked Sayan, who ran the PET lab for the university.
“Before I answer, let me ask you, what do you see it doing?”
“It’s oddly hypnotic, isn’t it – the regular way it keeps blinking on and off. It seems to have a pattern.” Mason counted to himself for a while. “It does display a pattern,” he announced. “It keeps repeating, after a slight pause. Two, three; one, five; three, two; three, two; three, five.” There was a hesitation before Mason went on. “What does it mean?” Actually, Mason knew exactly what it meant. But he was not in a position to explain how he knew.
Sayan shook her cap of blonde hair slightly and looked down. “In a way, of course, I’m glad you see it, too. But it also scares the crap out of me. It may mean nothing at all, but it’s a consistent pattern, and I would be at a total loss if I were asked to give it a biological explanation.”
“Who is your current subject?”
“Have you ever heard of Irina Sushko?”
“No. Should I have?”
“Please, no,” said Sayan. “She’s our local celebrity medium. I was getting sick and tired of seeing mediums advertise on television, on Istagram, on Facebook. ‘I talk to the dead on Thursday evenings. I talk to the dead on Zoom.’ It really riled me up. And we kept getting hints that it wouldn’t hurt state funding for the university if the faculty would do something, every now and then, to get our names in the newspapers and on TV. So I challenged this Sushko woman – she actually has a regular program on cable -- to talk to the dead while I did PET scans of her brain. To my surprise, she accepted, and collaborated with all the necessary requirements of the experiment. She ingested the sugar drink laced with trace amounts of positron-emitting material. I’ve provided her with undergraduate volunteers, so she could pretend to contact their lost loved ones while I scanned her brain. At first, I saw nothing unusual in the readings I was getting. Then I realized that, if you looked solely at the section of the brain that deals with numbers, there was this steady, slow pulse.”
“So the green light is responding solely to emissions from that section of the brain?”
“Yes. It glows green whenever she’s thinking of numbers.”
“Why would she be thinking of numbers, and then not thinking of numbers, in this precise pattern, over and over again?”
Mason stared at the blinking green light. “It’s very consistent. There’s a strict tempo to the whole thing. If she’s controlling this effect consciously, she’s putting a lot of work into it.”
“Yes, it’s been like that since she began talking to the undergraduate students. Jesus, I knew I hated her voice when I heard her on TV. But to have her right here in the lab, prating endlessly in that grating, self-satisfied manner – still, I can’t send her away, not when she’s created a valid scientific puzzle.” Sayan shook her head again. “I can’t believe she can follow the clues they’re giving her, and make up all that nonsense about dead relatives, talking, talking, talking so volubly, while at the same time keeping up a steady pattern of thinking about math and then not thinking about it.”
Mason was seemingly transfixed by the sight of the green light. For reasons he really would not have liked to divulge, he had become fluent in the primitive form of Morse code employed by prisoners communicating cell-to-cell among themselves. You took the letters of the alphabet, and left out “Q” as unnecessary. “Q” was replaced by “KW.” That left you with five rows of five letters each. You knocked from one to five times to signify the row you were in, and then (after a pause) from one to five times to signify the letter in that row. The code was far more cumbersome than real Morse, but was also far easier to learn. “Two, three; one, five; three, two; three, two; three, five” was a very familiar pattern. It decoded as “hello.”
Then the green light broke the pattern it had been holding to so intently. “Two, three; one, five; three, two; three, two; three, five,” it said, one last time. Then it went on, “Three, three; one, one; four, three; three, five; three, four.” That meant, “Hello, Mason.”
The green light called Mason by name three times – apparently, so he would know it could be no mistake or accident. Then it called him by his real name. It called him by his real name just once, but he almost fell down. He had not used that name since leaving prison years before. He had discarded his prior identity, now tainted by a felony conviction for embezzlement; and painstakingly built up a new identity that had, at last, enabled him to find respectable employment, at the university.
“You seem to find this as fascinating as I do,” Sayan was saying.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mason said slowly.
“Do you have any guesses as to what’s going on here?”
E-M-B-E-Z-Z-L-E-M-E-N-T, spelled the green light. E-M-B-E-Z-Z-L-E-M-E-N-T. E-M-B-E-Z-Z-L-E-M-E-N-T.
“What do you want?” Mason cried out.
“It’s freaking you out, too. I can hear it in your voice,” Sayan responded. “Calm down. I just wanted to see if you had any intuitions about it. You’ve got a knack for coming up with helpful possibilities.”
“Thank you,” said Mason. But he was thinking something else.
“Yes, I can hear your thoughts,” the green light answered him. “Actually, I need your help with something.”
“Now that you’re here, the pattern seems more random,” Sayan noted.
“Listen to me, Mason. I’ll agree to call you, ‘Mason.’ For now. I really need your help.”
“What are you talking about?” Mason almost screamed in his mind.
“I can’t stand her voice,” the green light said. “I’ve been listening to it for years now, and it’s driving me crazy. It’s just awful the way she trails off at the end of sentences. Her voice gets all gracky-gracky. And so smug, you could cut it with a knife.”
“Do you see a new pattern of any kind?” Sayan asked.
“I can’t hear her. She’s on the other side of the glass,” Mason thought.
“You’re lucky,” said the green light. “What a nag. You have no idea how restful it was here, until she showed up. Talking and talking. You know what we want.”
“No, I don’t know,” Mason insisted in his thoughts.
“You’re a liar, as well as an embezzler. We want you to put her in our hands. We know what to do with her.”
“How can I possibly put her in your hands?” Mason thought.
“You have to send her here.”
“How could I do that?”
“She drinks something in order to do this experiment. Put something in her drink.”
“I wasn’t asking you for advice on how to kill her. I was explaining that I couldn’t possibly do it. It would be wrong. I was an embezzler, once. It’s true. But I’ve never been a murderer.”
“I think maybe you better go to your office and rest,” Sayan said. “You have the strangest expression on your face. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“You better do what I say,” the green light warned Mason. “You’re not the only one who speaks prison Morse around here. You’re not the only one who’s got something to hide. Maybe next time I’ll be asking them to do something about you. And I can make it worth your while. You lost someone from your neuroscience department recently. I can tell you what the theory he was planning to confirm when he passed away so suddenly. It was really brilliant.”
“You can go to hell,” Mason screamed wordlessly at the green light.
“Oh, come on, Mason,” said the green light. “I think you know who you’re talking to. Where do you think this call is coming from in the first place?”
And then, the green light began the strangest pattern. “Two, three; one, one,” it said. “Two, three; one, one. Two, three; one, one.”
Mason ran from the room.