Discover more from Gary Paul Varner
THE TEMPLE OF MAGGIE STONE
Chapter 9: Back to the Cafeteria
Robert and Maggie sat at the table closest to the door. This time, the cafeteria was not vacant but filled with men and women in lab coats grabbing food and sitting at different tables. Maggie could only hear pieces of the various conversations, but already, people knew a body had come to life and was being held in one of the observation rooms. However, she couldn’t eavesdrop too much because Robert was watching her, his brow furrowed, and his lips pursed. Maggie assumed he was trying to decide what to say. When it became apparent he was getting nowhere, she decided to break the ice.
“The last time I had the brain scans, they didn’t take very long, but I think they’ll want to keep me around.”
“I suppose they’ll want to keep me here, too,” Robert said with a wry grin. “I’m a witness.”
“Yes,” Maggie said. “I’m sorry. I hope you don’t lose your job.”
“I’m glad I came.” Robert sighed and rubbed his chin. “I’m not saying I think you’re really my mother, but I, at least, know you and dad were telling the truth about this place.” He groaned and grabbed the back of his head with both hand; his eyes stared at the table. “I’m sure you believe you’re my mother, but if Dad was right, and there is a soul, then you should be gone. However, you were right, too. Back in that room, I mean. They made it sound like they just made a copy of you, but if that were the case, your old body wouldn’t have died…unless.”
“Unless what, son?”
“Maybe they make copies and kill the original person. They killed mom.” He looked up at her, an apology written on his face.
Maggie blinked, horrified by the idea. Could Dr. Lane do something like that? Would she really kill the original person just so she could say she was preserving life? Would she be willing to kill her original self for profit? She shook her head. “Dr. Lane doesn’t strike me as the type.”
“She doesn’t strike me as sane,” Robert said.
“She’s eccentric,” Maggie replied. “She’s also in denial about something. I don’t know what, but something.”
“She is in denial about that body springing to life for no reason. But it must have. It’s the simplest explanation, but if that’s really the case, then it would mean…I don’t know…that you might have more than one personality. You haven’t had any lapses in memory or bad dreams, have you?”
Robert shook his head. “This whole thing is just too much. I’m confused just thinking about it.”
Maggie sighed. “I’m just as lost as you.”
“So, where does that leave us?”
“I don’t know, Dear. All I know is that I feel the same as I did before. Well…before the cancer anyway.”
“Well, I’m sure, given enough time…maybe…” He shook his head. “No. I don’t think I’ll ever see you as my mom, but…I don’t know; maybe, the questions will fade a little, and things may not be the same, but they won’t be bad either.”
Maggie smiled. “I’ll take what I can get.”
Robert looked around the room. Maggie followed his eyes and had an idea what he was going to ask next.
“What do you think is going on with the girl?”
“If I were to guess, I would say Dr. Lane is right. Somebody started putting information into that body’s brain. Still, Dr. Blake is probably right, too. It would take years to translate the brain’s language. But somebody might’ve tried to program the girl to see how far they could get. Perhaps, Albertson just fiddled around for a while and put her back. Then she woke up. The poor thing.”
“It makes as much sense as my theory. What about this Pinkerton guy?”
“It’s the government. I’m sure there are a million agencies. He’s probably just another faceless man.”
“Dr. Lane wasn’t happy about it.”
“Dr. Lane started this whole project with private donations but ran out of money, so she sold her soul to the government. His presence just means more government involvement. And whatever happened before, it was the government’s fault. It was their idea to use a convict on death row as the first guinea pig.”
“No.” Maggie said. “I think they grabbed some random convict and did the experiment on him, but they weren’t watching him. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the security around here is less than modern. He must’ve escaped, and this Pinkerton fellow must be the one trying to track him down. Dr. Lane is probably embarrassed by this and mad because she wanted to do the experiment on herself before she tried it on anyone else.”
“I noticed she looked…well, similar to you,” Robert said.
“Yes,” Maggie said. “After the first experiment went the way it did, she immediately tried the operation on herself. Probably so the government representative, which looks to be Albertson, could say that the operation was a success without having to mention the escaped convict.”
“Makes sense. So, what do you think we should do?”
“I just have to do the brain scans and whatever other nonsense they want and hope they decide to let us go. It’s not like secrecy is the goal here.”
“I don’t know. They sound like they want to keep the girl under wraps.”
“Well, they haven’t done a very good job,” Maggie said, looking around the room.
Robert smiled. “No, I guess they haven’t”
“Dr. Lane might want to keep it a secret, but Albertson was excited. He’ll publicize the whole thing as soon as possible, and I think Dr. Lane will feel better once they have an idea about what’s going on. I wouldn’t worry. The only thing that could get us into trouble is asking about the convict. The less we know the better.”
Robert nodded then frowned. “Dad didn’t want you to do this, did he?”
Maggie shook her head. “No. I think he shared your opinion about the soul entering the new body until he saw me after the operation. Then it became a moral question for him. He felt like it was a sin. I had him convinced, though. I just didn’t convince him fast enough.”
“It’s probably better that you didn’t,” Robert said. “I know he would’ve done it for you, but regardless of whether he woke up the real him or not, I think he would have hated himself afterward. It might have bred resentment between the two of you.”
Maggie smiled and nodded, doing her best to fight back the tears. It was a sad thought, but true. “Maybe, you’re right. Maybe, it was for the best. Still, I’m going to miss him.”
“Yeah,” Robert said. A tear ran down his cheek. “Me too.”
The two sat for a while, saying nothing, until Horace and Randolf entered the cafeteria and motioned for Robert and Maggie to follow them. They did so, winding through the monotonous halls until they reached a lab where another doctor with ash blonde hair began hooking up a series of wires to Maggie’s head. Maggie sat in middle of the room on a metal folding chair, waiting for whatever scan they were doing to begin. The doctor pressed some unseen button, and there was a low humming noise. Robert sat at the far end of the room. He looked nervous. Maggie had told him there was nothing to worry about as long as they didn’t ask about the convict, but did she really believe that? Dr. Lane didn’t seem capable hurting anyone, but Albertson seemed to have a malicious streak in him, and Horace and Randolf seemed completely indifferent no matter what happened. A minute passed, and the doctor began pulling off the tangle of wires attached to her head.
“Oh,” Maggie said. “Well, good,”
“Yep. You’re going to be just fine.” The doctor looked down; a sheepish grin grew on his face. “Can I ask you something?”
“What’s it like…being in there? I mean, I know the brain looks normal and everything, but does it…you know, feel different?”
“No. I feel like a young woman. I spent so long being an old woman that I forgot what it was like to be young…at least, a little bit. I can certainly appreciate my youth more than I did before.”
“Are you thinking about having the operation?”
“Not me, my mother.” The doctor blushed. “I don’t know if she would be willing to go through with it or even believe that such a thing is possible, but she has cancer, you know, and so I was thinking about it. I don’t know. What do you think?”
Maggie stammered. She thought about Ray and his moral conundrum. She thought about the naked girl sitting in the observation room, all but alive. And she thought about the fact that despite everything which had happened over the last twenty-four hours, she was still grateful to be alive. “I think you should wait until the whole thing goes public. I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling you one way or the other until the full year passes.”
“Of course,” the doctor said. Maggie noted how disappointed he looked. To her surprise, he said something else, probably, so he wouldn’t have to think about his mother and whether or not she would still be among the living in three months. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m probably not supposed to tell you this but why not? I’m sure Dr. Lane has mentioned that these bodies are mostly made of silicone. There’s more to them than that, and the whole process has made the bodies particularly durable. I can’t promise anything, but the theory is that they won’t age the same way an organic body does. It’s possible the body you’re in could last you up to two hundred years. I can’t say if the chemicals running through your brain will last as long, but Dr. Lane claims she’s figured out how to replenish those. You could live for a very long time.”
“Oh,” Maggie said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. The doctor smiled.
“It’s exciting. We could be close to discovering immortality. I mean, I know how far-fetched the idea sounds, but it could become a reality. Who knows how long your body will last, but even if it doesn’t, you can, again in theory, just move into another body. We haven’t tried multiple jumps yet, but so far, there are no indicators that your mind would deteriorate, so it’s a possibility.”
“Have you seen the operation?” Maggie asked.
The doctor shook his head. “No. Dr. Lane insists on doing it alone. She’s done everything she can to keep that skunk Albertson from watching the procedure. I don’t blame her. If I’d discovered something like this, I would keep it a secret, too, at least, until I was sure I was going to get the credit.”
“I don’t blame her either,” Maggie said.
“I’ve seen the equipment she uses. It’s a giant hulking machine with lots of hoses and wires running through it. I guess, it can be run by one person. She must’ve built it herself; although to be honest, as brilliant as Dr. Lane is, she doesn’t strike me as much of an engineer. Oh well, I guess people can surprise you.”
“That’s true,” Maggie said.
Horace and Randolf entered the room and looked at the doctor. He took their glare as his cue to shut up and finished pulling off the multiple wires outlining Maggie’s scalp. When Maggie was clear of the wires, she stood up and shook the doctor’s hand.
“Good luck with your mother,” she said.
“Thank you,” the doctor replied. It broke Maggie’s heart to see the sadness in his eyes, but the young man kept his composure well enough.
Maggie and Robert followed the vermin and the cheese out into the hall. As they were walking, Horace turned to them and said, “We have rooms prepared for you. You’re going to be here a while.”
“We figured as much,” Robert said. “I don’t suppose you can give us an idea how long.”
Horace shook his head. “No, of course not. Do I look like I carry any weight around this place? Also, we’re going to need your cell phones.”
“What about our families?” Robert asked. “They know we’re here, and I’m sure they’ll start poking their heads around if we don’t return soon.”
Horace rolled his eyes. “You’ll get a five-minute phone call.”
“I understand this is probably just procedure, but we really don’t know enough to be dangerous. What’s the harm in having our phones?” Maggie asked.
“Lady, I don’t know. What do you want from me? The closest thing to an answer I can give you is there are tech wizards out there, and they might try to use your phone to map out the complex. The doctors aren’t allowed to have their phones either, so we aren’t asking you two to do anything out of the ordinary, okay? I don’t even have my phone!”
“Okay,” Maggie said. “There’s no need to get upset, son. We’re just trying to understand.”
Horace looked her up and down. “Well, now you understand.” He turned and continued walking.
They reached the elevator. Randolf pressed the button, and the doors opened. More florescent light flooded the hallway like vomit. They all stepped inside the elevator, and the doors closed. Maggie listened to faint hum of the elevator as they ascended. The doors opened and real, natural light blinded her for a moment as she stepped onto a bright, carpeted hallway. They were on another floor, most likely one of the floors above the lobby. She looked down, giving her eyes the chance to adjust and saw that the carpet was the same as the lobby but in much better condition.
Horace and Randolf led them halfway down the hall and opened two doors which faced each other, revealing two rooms which resembled a cheap hotel, complete with a single queen-sized bed, a dresser and a TV.
“Pick whichever one you want. It doesn’t matter,” Randolf said. Robert went left and Maggie went right. They each turned and stood in their respective doorways.
“Okay, phone calls,” Horace said.
Randolf added, “We’ll be back in five minutes.”
The two left. Maggie looked at Robert who shrugged, pulled out his phone and closed his door. Maggie stepped into the hallway. She took out her phone and, after fiddling with the lock screen for a full minute, called her daughter.
After about five rings, Ashley picked up. “Hello?”
“Hi, Dear,” Maggie said, looking around. She felt like somebody was watching her. It must have been Horace and Randolf who she assumed would never really give them privacy.
“Mom? Hey, so, what’s going on?”
“Well, it’s hard to explain everything, but basically, one of the bodies woke up. They don’t know why, and they’re keeping Robert and I here as a precaution.”
“What do you mean as a precaution?”
“Well, they want to compare me to her and see if there are any differences.”
“What are they hoping to find?”
“I don’t know, Dear. I can’t say for sure how long we’ll be gone.”
“You don’t think they’re going to do anything…shady do you?”
“No, of course not. They want me to go public in a few months so they can sell the bodies. Everyone is just spooked. I wouldn’t worry.”
“That’s impossible. It sounds like they’re holding you against your will.”
Maggie paused. She knew her daughter would be nervous, but she’d been so busy reacting to everything, she hadn’t given much thought as to why Ashley should be nervous. She and Robert were being held hostage; that was exactly what Dr, Lane was doing. Did that say something about the character of her benefactor? Should she be nervous as well? “It wouldn’t make any sense for them to do something bad. They just want to protect their…”
“Asset? Property?” Ashley finished.
“Yes,” Maggie admitted before she could correct herself. She pulled the phone away from her ear. Was she really property? Was she now owned by some cooperation she didn’t know about, or perhaps, the government? Would the people who saved her life even consider her human at this point? She shook her head and brought the phone back to her ear. “Either way, there isn’t anything that can be done about it, and I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”
“That’s not true, Mom. We can call the cops. You don’t have to stay there.”
“There’s hardly any need for that,” Maggie said, trying to sound confident.
“I think there is.”
“Just give it some time.”
Ashley paused for a moment then sighed. “Just call me if you get scared. I’m serious.”
“I…I can’t do that, Honey. They’re going to take our phones.”
“Are you serious!” Ashley shouted.
Maggie saw Horace and Randolf come out from behind a door at the far end of the hall. It hadn’t been five minutes. Clearly, they were listening to their conversation after all and were worried about Ashley escalating the situation. “Listen, I have to go. Please don’t worry or do anything foolish. I can handle things here.”
“I love you, Dear. Don’t worry.” Maggie hung up the phone before Ashley could say anything else. Horace and Randolf were there a few seconds later, and Maggie handed them her phone.
Horace took the phone as Randolf started knocking on Robert’s door. After about a minute, just as Randolf was grabbing a key card from his pocket, Robert opened the door. He handed them his phone. “Here,” he said, smiling a pleasant, cocky little grin. The kind of smile he used to give Maggie and Ray when he thought he’d gotten away with something.
Horace and Randolf eyed him suspiciously. “What did you do?” Horace asked.
“I ordered some pizza,” Robert said. “What do think you think I did? I called about three different people to let them know I’m here.”
Horace and Randolf didn’t look satisfied with the answer. “We’ll come get you if you’re needed,” Randolf said. “In the meantime, stay here.”
“I’m at least going into the lobby to get my pizza,” Robert said, still smiling.
Horace glared at Robert. “If you want pizza so bad, we’ll order it for you.”
Robert laughed. “You’d probably poison it.”
Horace shrugged. “Suit yourself. Just don’t leave the building. We’ll find you if you do.”
“Really, because you can’t seem to find that convict,” Robert said.
Maggie shot him an angry look, but Robert didn’t notice. Horace continued glaring at her son, and there was something truly threatening in his eyes
“Be careful,” he said. “Be very careful.”
Without another word, the two men handed them their room’s keycard, turned, and went to the elevator. Maggie watched the doors close behind them. When they were gone, Robert looked at his mother and pulled out another cell phone. He smiled. “My job requires me to have more than one phone.” He looked at the elevator. “Idiots.” He laughed and looked back at his mother. “You want some pizza?” Maggie shook her head.
“I’d like some,” a voice said. They both turned around. Behind them, stood an elderly old man in a plaid shirt and blue jeans. He smiled. “Why, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” His voice carried a thick southern drawl, almost Cajun. He stuck out a gnarled, bony hand. “The name is Delphin. Delphin Esteban.”
Maggie shook the little man’s hand. “Maggie Stone,” she said. “And this is my son, Robert Stone.” Robert shook the old man’s hand as well; however, Delphin kept his eyes on Maggie.
“Son, eh?” he said. Then his eyes brightened. “Oh, you’re the lady they did the operation on! Why, it’s an honor to meet you, ma’am!” He shook her hand again, this time with more strength than Maggie would have thought possible. “I almost didn’t recognize you with your clothes on and that black hair. I shoulda known, though. Those green eyes are hard to miss. No offense, miss, but the blue contacts aren’t helping very much.”
Maggie blushed. “You saw the body before the operation?”
“Yes, of course,” Delphin said. “I’m the janitor around here. Even top-secret labs have janitors.”
“I guess that’s true,” Maggie said, laughing. “You’d think they’d have a whole staff of them.”
Delphin shook his head. “No. The cooks clean up the kitchen and cafeteria, so that’s something, but we’re on a tight budget, as I’m sure you’ve heard. Poor Dr. Lane was forced to seek government funding. That’s the reason for the introduction of the spider monkey and the gorilla.” Both Robert and Maggie looked at the old man questioningly, and he pointed to the elevator.
“Oh!” Robert cried, laughing. “You mean the two henchmen! I was going to call them George and Linnie.”
“Grumpy bunch,” Delphin said, shaking his head again. “They give this place a bad vibe. I can’t call them new anymore, though. They’ve been here for two years.”
“How long have you worked here?” Maggie asked.
“Oh, I was here back when this place was a theater. I was in charge of keeping up the building even after the poor theater went under. Then Dr. Lane took over the place and built all that fancy equipment below. She decided it was easier to keep me rather than hire her own crew.”
“It must have taken her years to build the lab,” Maggie said.
Delphin shook his head a third time. “Not as long as you would think. She said she had lots of private backing in the beginning, but I don’t believe it. I think she was born into money because no one came around to check on their investment. I’ve never been much of a businessman, but back when the theater was open, sponsors, investors and advertisers would be in here all the time. Some of them even wanted to have a say in what kind of plays were produced. The fellas that ran the old theater refused those folks, and that’s part of the reason the poor theater went under.”
“I see,” Maggie said. “So, she used her entire fortune on her experiments?”
“That’s what I think, ma’am.”
Maggie felt a wave of sympathy for the doctor. No wonder she’d been so angry about the government intrusion. It must have felt like a real defeat.
“Well, if this thing works out, she’s going to get whatever money she lost back in spades,” Robert said.
“I hope she does,” Delphin said. “She’s a sweet lady. She was even sweeter back when she was a bigger woman; although, back then, she was very shy, timid even. But I’m happy for her. She seems much more confident with that new body of hers.”
“I can imagine,” Maggie said. “So, you’re in charge of cleaning the place. It’s safe to say you know the layout of everything, even the labs downstairs.”
“That’s right,” Delphin said.
“So, you have access to the bodies?” Robert asked.
“That’s right,” Delphin said. “I have to clean them, same as I have to clean every room. It isn’t as much work as it sounds. Just have to wipe the dust off of them from time to time.”
“Would it be too much to ask for a tour sometime,” Maggie asked. “I’m afraid neither of us know our way around.”
“I would love too,” Delphin said. “The only place I can’t take you is the lowest lab. Dr. Lane wants to keep the operation secret until she announces everything to the public. I’m only allowed to go down there once in a great while. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course,” Maggie said.
“Is it also safe to say you can go wherever you want, and nobody asks any questions?” Robert asked.
“Yes, sir,” Delphin said.
“Any chance I could get you to let me into the lobby so I can grab a pizza?”
Delphin smiled. “I’ll do better than that. I was serious when I said I’d like some. So, how about you add an extra pizza to your order, one full of pepperoni, and when it gets here, I’ll fetch the order myself.”
Robert threw his arm around the old man. “Delphin, you and I are going to be great friends.”