Randall finally found Brynn in the main cafeteria. He had stopped by her office quite a bit in the last few days, but either the office had been empty, or she had been in a meeting or on a call.
It shouldn’t be this hard to find your girlfriend, Randall thought.
Brynn was standing just inside the doors, studying the trash containers in front of her, a plastic fork in hand.
“It’s the far right one,” Randall said, as he caught up to her. He pointed to a bin labeled with an image of two intertwined leaves. The other two were marked with the more familiar trash and recycle pictography. “The fork’s compostable.”
“Thanks. Sorting the trash is getting harder than my research,” Brynn said. She gave him an apologetic look. “Sorry, I haven’t had a chance to reply to your texts.”
“It’s alright. Are you still coming by Saturday night?”
Brynn’s phone buzzed and she took it out of her pocket. It buzzed several more times while she was reading the message. “What’s on Saturday?” she said, her attention still focused on her phone.
“Our anniversary?” Randall said.
“Oh, right, ok. Yeah, I’ll be there, don’t worry. Look, I have to go, but I’ll be there.” Brynn was already calling someone on the phone as she left without saying good bye.
Randall wasn’t sure if Brynn had even heard him. She had been more distracted than usual lately, and Randall had thought about asking her what was going on. But he didn’t want to pry. She’ll tell me when she’s ready, he thought. Until then, there’s nothing I can do about it. Besides, he had his own project to deal with. He was almost late for the meeting.
By the time he arrived at Dr. Campbell’s office, he had pushed the conversation with Brynn to the back of his mind. Today was the first live test of the project he was working on with Dr. Campbell – a project they thought might lead to a new understanding of the brain. For their first experiment, they had chosen a lie detector. Dr. Campbell had come up with a way to measure brain waves, and Randall had come up with an algorithm to convert those brain waves into images.
It wasn’t the project Randall would have chosen, as he imagined all the other possible uses for this technology. But Dr. Campbell had assured him it would be the easiest way to keep this project funded by the higher ups.
“They need to see we’re doing something useful for them,” Dr. Campbell had said, when they were picking out the first experiment. “Once they get something they want, then they’ll give us more money and we’ll get to research the things we want to research.”
Now they had finally reached the live trial. Dr. Campbell was in the middle of setting up the equipment. He nodded at Randall, as he continued to attach small medical pads, the size of band-aids, to a set of wires, connected on the other end to a computer screen. “Randall. Are you ready?”
Randall settled into the medical chair in the center of the room, and stuck the electrodes to his head – one on his forehead and one just above each ear. He did it smoothly, calmly, as if it were just another day in the office and not a first new attempt at peering into the brain. “Ready.”
Dr. Campbell turned on the machine. The screen lit up. Randall couldn’t see it from where he was sitting, although he could see a blurry reflection in Dr. Campbell’s glasses.
“What is your name?” Dr. Campbell said.
“Randall.” He could see the images shift in Dr. Campbell’s glasses.
“And what is your job here?”
“How long have you been in Selunia Falls?”
The images continued to shift as Dr. Campbell worked his way through the baseline questions – a set of questions about Randall’s background that were easily verifiable. Baseline completed, Dr. Campbell then asked, “Why are you in Selunia Falls?”
Randall hesitated. He considered what to say. He didn’t want to sound too egotistical, especially to one of the senior researchers.
A smile spread across Dr. Campbell’s face.
“What?” Randall asked.
“Pretty ambitious for someone so young, aren’t you?” Dr. Campbell said.
Randall knew then that the machine had succeeded. He leaned forward so he could see the screen, and on it was an image of a lab room twice the size of the one he was in now. He was speaking to a group of researchers, and they were taking notes and hanging onto his every word. The image was fuzzy – he couldn’t see any faces or details – but the broad strokes were clear.
“I admit it,” Randall said without shame. “I want to be in charge of my own research lab.”
“Well, let’s finish this project first, and then see what happens next.” Dr. Campbell leaned in and said conspiratorially, “The director wants this project going as soon as possible. He hasn’t said exactly why, but I heard he thinks there’s someone in the lab stealing secrets, and he wants to figure out who it is.”
“The full algorithm is almost done,” Randall said. “I’m sure I can get it working this month.”
“Good. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, whoever helps the director solve his problem would have a lot of freedom to pursue what they wanted.”
Randall and Valerie were eating lunch in the cafeteria. They often ate lunch together – Valerie was another one of the research assistants who worked in the lab, and they had shared an office for a while and become friends. She was a molecular biologist, specializing in the study of bacterial DNA. On occasion, Randall and Valerie had tried to figure out the exact nature of the research at Selunia Falls by putting together a list of all the different scientists’ specialties.
So far they hadn’t figured anything out.
Randall was picking at his chicken salad, which, despite being surprisingly good for a corporate cafeteria, did nothing to lift his mood.
“What’s wrong?” Valerie said. “Stuck on your research?”
“Nah. There’s a few glitches still, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon. I’m pretty close. I can feel it.”
“What? Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.” He looked again surreptitiously to the other side of the cafeteria.
Valerie followed his eyes to see what he was looking at. When she saw Brynn, she sighed. “Just let it go. I’m sure she had a good reason.”
“She said she was coming to dinner and she didn’t. She ditched it. She ditched our anniversary.”
“I keep telling you. An eight month anniversary isn’t a thing. It’s not a thing!”
Randall continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “And look at her. She talks to that guy way more than she talks to me.” He brooded as his mind jumped immediately to all sorts of scenarios. Missed anniversary. Ignoring his texts. Spending all this time with this other guy.
“That guy is her research assistant,” Valerie said. “Have you even talked to her about any of this?”
Randall got up from his seat, a plan having shaped up in his head. “I’m going to now.”
Valerie called out as he was leaving, “Talk to her, not yell at her!”
He made his way across the cafeteria to where Brynn was eating lunch. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure,” Brynn said.
Randall looked meaningfully at Brynn’s assistant, who was sitting next to her, also in the middle of lunch, hoping he would get the message. The assistant, fortunately, picked up his tray of half eaten wings and announced, “I need to go check up on an experiment in the lab,” before he left.
“I need your help with something,” Randall said. “I was wondering if you could be a volunteer for the research project I’m doing. There’s some glitches and having some more data would be helpful.”
“I don’t know… I’m pretty busy. The funding meetings are coming up soon and I have to get my pitch ready. It’s like interviewing for your job every quarter.”
“It won’t take a lot of time. One hour, that’s all.”
“Don’t you have an army of volunteers already?”
“Yeah, but more data is always helpful.”
Brynn’s voice turned suspicious. “Is this some kind of trick? I’ll have a lot more time after the funding meeting and we can do whatever you want.”
“No. It’s not about that at all. But since you mentioned it… you do owe me.”
“Owe you? For what?”
“For cancelling on dinner.”
“I don’t owe you anything for that,” Brynn snapped. But then she sighed and relented. “Fine, I’ll do you this favor. Let me know when.”
To avoid suspicion, Randall lined up several other test subjects for that day. The work proceeded smoothly. He asked the subjects the standard battery of questions, and used that data to further calibrate his data model.
He checked the schedule as the next candidate walked in. It was the last test before Brynn showed up. The candidate looked around, and Randall pointed him to the test chair in the center of the room. Randall had seen the candidate around the lab before, though he had never talked to him and did not know his name or what he did. He attached the electrodes to the candidate’s face and scooted back around to where the computer terminal was facing.
“I’m going to start the experiment now by asking you a set of questions,” Randall said. “Please answer them truthfully.”
The candidate indicated that he understood with a nod.
“What is your name?”
“I need your legal name for the experiment.”
“That is my legal name.”
Had Dr. Campbell sent someone in to test his algorithms? No matter. Randall had confidence that his code would be able to work around the occasional dirty data.
“Ok, then, Rainbow. What is your job here?”
“I’m a physics researcher.”
“And how long have you been in Selunia Falls?”
“I-” Before Rainbow could answer, the screen went dim and blanked out. Randall tapped the keyboard a few times and turned the screen on and off a few times, but nothing happened.
What a time for my program to glitch out. And with Brynn coming in too…
Rainbow could see him smashing away at the machine. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No, no, nothing’s wrong. Machine’s just being weird,” Randall said. “I think we need to reschedule.” He was preoccupied with getting the machine working in time again for Brynn, and he barely noticed when Rainbow shrugged and left the office.
Randall checked the time. He really wanted to – no, needed to – investigate this glitch. It was something that he had been chasing for a while now and all his previous attempts had failed. But he also needed to get ready for the next experiment. He debated, then he pushed a button on the side of the machine to drop the machine into recovery mode, and typed in the commands to initiate a full system diagnostic.
His hand hovered over the enter key, but he didn’t press it. At the last minute, he cursed and bent down and yanked the power cord out of the socket and plugged it back in.
The machine restarted, and everything seemed to come back up as normal. He went through the login procedure and finished bringing up the system just as Brynn walked in.
“Alright. I’m here,” she said. “What do I do?”
Randall showed her how to attach the electrodes. When everything had been set up and she leaned back into her chair, Randall started the experiment.
“What is your name?”
“What is your job here?”
Randall looked down at the list of baseline questions and impulsively decided to ignore them.
“Are you trying to split up with me?”
“What?” Brynn said, surprised.
“I said, are you-”
“I heard you,” she said. She tore off all the wires connecting her to the machine and stepped out of the chair. “You’re an asshole, Randall.”
“It’s a simple question.”
Brynn was seething now. Randall wondered if he’d gone too far this time – if she might actually punch him in the face. He held his breath and tried to lean back without making it too obvious. Instead she stormed out of the office.
When she was gone, Randall replayed the image the machine had collected. He replayed it over and over, hoping the algorithm had made a mistake, and that on this next time it might show something different. But it never did.
It was an image of Brynn’s empty office, followed by her leaving Selunia Falls.
Randall spent the next couple of weeks refining his work and continuing to search for the glitch. Valerie was out on vacation and Brynn wasn’t speaking to him, so he spent all his time secluded in his office, often eating there as well.
“Lunch?” A voice asked from the doorway.
He had forgotten that Valerie came back today. She looked well rested. The vacation had treated her well.
“Sure,” Randall said, in better spirits now that she was back. “But let’s try the other cafeteria this time. I heard there was a special that was pretty good and I want to try it out.”
They caught up on small talk on their way. In the cafeteria, Valerie picked up her order first and found them a table. She eyed him as he sat down with his usual chicken salad. “I thought you were going to try out the special.”
“I took a look and changed my mind.”
Over lunch, they talked about how their respective projects were going.
“Did you figure out the glitch yet?” Valerie said.
“I’m optimistic,” Randall said, as he took another bite of his chicken salad.
They were on their way back to the office when Randall saw Brynn coming down the same hallway. Brynn hadn’t noticed him yet, but it was too late for Randall to back out without drawing attention. He pretended everything was normal and smiled at her as they passed each other. Brynn only gave him a frosty glare.
It didn’t escape Valerie’s notice. “What did you do?” she said.
“You just assume it was me? I didn’t do anything!”
“You did something. I know you.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Randall said. Mercifully, they arrived at his office. “I need to get back to work.”
He spent the rest of the afternoon sketching out ideas on the whiteboard, but none of them seemed promising. He went home for the day but couldn’t let go of the problem, continuing to think about it as he watched TV. When he tried to go to sleep he tossed restlessly, the combination of his work problems and personal problems keeping him awake.
The next morning he dragged himself to work to do battle with the glitch again. To his surprise, office staff were removing the equipment from the office as Dr. Campbell looked on.
“What’s going on?” Randall asked.
“The project is done,” Dr. Campbell said. “Done. Cancelled. Scrapped.”
Randall stood there, exhausted, trying to wrap his mind around what was happening, as office staff maneuvered equipment around him. “But why?”
“The project doesn’t work.”
“Is this about the glitch? Because I know I can fix it. I just need a little more time.”
“This isn’t about the glitch,” Dr. Campbell said. “Actually your code worked great. But the foundations of it are unworkable.”
“I don’t get it.”
“So you know how this system works, right?”
Randall nodded. “It’s like a classic polygraph, except instead of measuring just body vitals, it measures brain waves too. It provides a lot more detail.”
“That’s right. The brain waves are able to provide an actual picture – the pictures that are generated by your code. But fundamentally it still has the same problem as a classic polygraph, because it uses the same basic mechanism. All this machine tells us is that the question triggers an emotional response. It doesn’t tell us that the person is telling the truth.”
“So we just need to fix that also, then.”
“That’s the thing I’ve been researching for months. Believe me, no one wants this to work more than me. Except maybe the director. Sorry, Randall.” Dr. Campbell patted Randall on the shoulder. “We’ll find another project for you. I can put in a good word.”
Randall left the office in a daze as he wandered aimlessly around the lab. This project had consumed his life, and now he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He stopped by Valerie’s office, but she wasn’t there.
Maybe I should make peace with Brynn…
But first, he had another stop to make. He went to visit Sian, a botanist who worked in the lab, and she helped him pick out a set of exotic flowers, many of them with shimmering blossoms that didn’t exist naturally in nature.
With bouquet in hand, he found Brynn in her office. It was a minor miracle that he had found her so quickly, and he took that as a good sign. Brynn was typing at her computer, and Randall knocked on the door. He laid the flowers on her desk.
Brynn eyed the bouquet suspiciously. “What is this?”
She made no move to touch them. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“It’s a peace offering. Put them in a vase or something.” Brynn was being so frustrating about it all.
“No. You know I don’t like flowers. And you can’t just get out of jail this time by bringing a gift. You screwed up. You screwed up big time. And you know what? You didn’t even apologize.”
Randall knew this had been a mistake. “Why should I apologize?” he said. “You’re the one who’s been ghosting me. You want to break up, but you’re too scared, so you just try to avoid me instead.”
Brynn looked at him quietly, which unnerved Randall more than if she would have yelled at him. “Why would you think that?”
“When I asked you if you wanted to split up with me.” The images on the machine replayed again in his mind’s eye. “You were leaving. At least, you were thinking it.”
“I don’t know what you saw. Yes, I was thinking about leaving the lab,” Brynn said. “But it wasn’t about you. I thought the funding committee was going to drop my project. And I didn’t want to have to tell you.”
The question triggers an emotional response… Randall’s stomach turned. His insides twisted together while a cold sweat spread across his skin. He was a child again and he had cracked the snow globe and it was leaking everywhere and he wasn’t sure if he could put it back together again…
“I’m sorry,” Randall said.
For several long moments, Brynn didn’t respond. “You could have just asked me like a normal person, you know,” she finally said. Even the air itself seemed to sigh.
“You could have told me.”
“True. Maybe I should have.” Brynn picked up the bouquet of flowers, observing the hues that shimmered even in the office light. “Dinner tonight?”
“Yeah. In the end, the funding committee approved my project. It lives for another quarter. Consider it my peace offering.” She dropped the bouquet back on the table.
Randall smiled and nodded. Then he ducked out before Brynn could change her mind.