The imposing glass doors parted with a sigh. A short, bespectacled woman wearing a lab-coat and holding a clipboard said, “Cat study?”
Flipping a page on her board, the woman turned it towards him and jabbed a finger. Her nails were short and unvarnished. “Sign here.”
He did so.
He found himself whisked through a series of white, featureless corridors to a large reception room in which were seated perhaps a dozen people. They were all perched on moulded stools around the edges of the room.
“Take a seat,” the woman said.
He did so, squeezing between an overweight middle-aged man wearing tracksuit bottoms, and a pretty young woman playing Angry Birds on her mobile. The woman glanced up briefly, smiled and went back to her game.
The big man to his left said, “First time?”
Alex nodded. “How’d you know”
“Done dozens of these,” the man replied with a trace of pride. “They pay pretty well, and mostly in vouchers, which suits me fine.”
Alex nodded again, trying to avoid staring at the man’s girth and wondering if he’d meant food-vouchers.
“Okay, that’s everyone,” the woman in the lab-coat said in clipped tones. “I believe we can get started.”
Alex took stock of the faces around him: A real cross-section in terms of age, shape, sex and ethnicity. He wondered where he placed in the demographic.
The woman raised her clip-board. She appeared to be reading from it. “Here at Andross Pharmaceuticals we pride ourselves on being global leaders in the fields of healthcare, clinical-nutrition and front-line research into combating a wide variety of chronic and acute medical conditions. Our latest endeavours, however, have been focused on the pet-owner, specifically the feline pet-owner.”
A woman opposite Alex smiled. “Cats!”
The woman in the lab-coat ignored her. “You’ll be here for one hour. During that time you’ll each be given a different product to look at, then asked a series of questions about that product; after which, we’ll present you with another product, and a different set of questions and so on, until the hour is up. Everyone clear so far?”
“Good.” She lowered her board. “If you’d like to follow me into the testing rooms . . .”
Everyone stood and shuffled out after her. Alex saw the woman with the phone slipping through the doors. Blue, flower-print dress, crisp blue eyes, pale skin. Just before disappearing from view she turned and smiled at him again. Yes, really pretty. He made a mental-note to try and talk with her when this was over.
The woman in the lab-coat led them down a long hallway lit by overhead fluorescents. Windows lined either side, but they were opaque. Indistinct forms milled to and fro behind the frosted glass, the shadowy outlines of equipment of some kind, accompanied by strange whirring sounds and a low humming. It had the air of a lab, Alex thought, and probably was.
Something nudged his elbow. He turned to see the overweight man beaming: “Don’t worry, they’re not going to turn us into Soylent Green!” The jowly face pitched back with a roar, and a few people smiled. Alex didn’t. The reference jibed a little too well with the clinical architecture of this place. The fat man stopped laughing and said, “How’d you hear about this study, anyway?”
Fishing in his jeans Alex brought out his wallet. He flipped it open and withdrew a rectangular scrap of paper. There were numbers printed along one side, and one of the shorter edges was torn. “Advert on the Uni notice-board. Request for participants in a cat study, then some pretty decent payment terms and this phone number. Only condition, you own a pet.” He tipped the wallet towards the larger man, who squinted at the small battered photo framed there: A black and white kitten with wide green eyes and only one ear. “Baxter,” Alex grinned. “Found him on campus a few months back. We’re pretty attached.”
The big man laughed. “Lovely pic, but . . . Well, don’t get me wrong, most lads your age’d have a picture of their girlfriend in their wallet.”
Alex shrugged. “Most lads my age have a girlfriend.” He glanced ahead. The woman was chatting with someone else now. Another man, he saw with some irritation.
The big man nodded with sage-like understanding, then dug pudgy fingers into the pockets of his tracksuit; they re-emerged, also holding a wallet. Lifting a flap on one side, he revealed a passport-sized photo of a ginger Tom. “That’s Sid.”
Alex laughed. You hear about Cat Women, he thought, but never Cat Men.
“If everyone could please find a table and be seated,” the woman in the lab-coat barked, holding open a door at the far end of the corridor. As Alex shuffled past he read the sign: Testing Room One.
This room was larger than the first. Dozens of cubicles lined three of the four walls, each housing a small desk, a computer screen and a chair. Another door stood opposite, this one labelled Testing Room Two. Alex took a cubicle to the right of this door and swivelled to look for the woman in the blue dress. To his disappointment he saw that she’d elected to sit beside the man he’d seen her chatting with seconds earlier. Alex looked this rival up, down: Smartly dressed, good looks and build, older. Yeah, this bloke had the edge.
Anyway, he wasn’t here to meet girls. He was here to make some money . . . So that he could afford to meet girls.
The woman in the lab-coat said, “If you’d all like to log into the computers in front of you. The password is your initials, followed by the number zero.”
Alex turned to the blank screen. No keyboard. He tapped experimentally and a login box flashed up. Tapping again, a virtual keypad appeared. Exclamations of confusion around him, followed by chuckles of understanding as everyone gradually worked it out. Nobody asked for help, at least. Alex tapped in the code and hit enter. The screen was filled with a strange symbol: A red flower with twelve petals.
The woman in the lab-coat stood in the centre of the room and gave a light cough. Everyone turned. “Each time you’re about to see a new object you’ll hear this noise . . .” All at once, she threw back her head and made a sharp trilling sound. “. . . EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”
The entire room stared, worried glances were exchanged.
The woman continued as if nothing had happened. “When you’ve finished the test, simply select submit, and we’ll proceed to the next stage.”
Securing her clip-board beneath her arm she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Alex thought, Test?
The overweight man in the cubicle to his left was laughing. “She does that every time. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to put you all a little on edge. Apparently it gives them better results on the survey.”
“Very strange,” an old man in a tweed jacket muttered, and several people nodded.
“I know,” the overweight man grinned. “That’s the idea.”
“This is a cat-related survey, right?” someone else enquired.
They all began to babble at once. Alex saw the pretty woman glance his way and was about to smile when a piercing sound – eerily similar to that the woman had been making – emitted from their screens and they turned as one.
The image was of a small tabby cat, sitting pertly up with its forelegs planted before it. Beside it were the words, ‘When you have finished viewing the image tap the screen.’
Alex tapped the screen.
Question 1: What colour was the cat? (press screen to bring summon keyboard)
Alex tapped the screen again and typed, ‘Ginger.’ He hit ‘submit.’
Question 2: How many legs did the cat have?
Alex frowned again. A trick question? He tried to remember the image, but he was fairly certain. What kind of weird test was this anyway? He typed, ‘4.’
Another buzzing sound, making him start. The exact same image as before appeared on his screen. He was surprised – not to mention a little unnerved – to see that the Tom had only three legs. The stump in place of one of the rear legs had been hard to discern due to the way the animal was seated. A low chuckle escaped his throat. So that was the game, huh? He’d have to pay a bit more attention. He tapped the screen.
Question 3: What is your favourite food?
Alex typed, ‘Pizza.’
Question 4: When did you last exercise?
‘Today’ (He’d biked the four miles from his Halls of Residence to the industrial estate where the focus group was being held).
Question 5: What three attributes do you look for in prospective partners?
Alex heard muttering behind him and turned. A skinny man wearing a heavy metal tee-shirt with a bunch of tour-dates on the back was twisting round in his chair. “What’s any of this got to do with cats?”
“You on number five?” Alex asked.
The man nodded. A few of the assembled were glancing around with half-amused, half-worried expressions. Most were plodding on.
Alex grinned. To hell with this, he’d play along and out-weird them. They still had to pay him anyway. Turning back to the screen he typed, ‘Length, breadth and height.’
Question 6: Which is more important to you, family, friends or your career?
He typed, ‘Both.’
Question 7: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Question 8: What did you end up being?
Question 9: Do you believe in God?
‘I do believe that’s irrelevant.’
Question 10: Do you believe in love at first sight?
‘Meow? Cat study?’
Suddenly his screen buzzed again and a new image flashed up.
A wave of discomfort prickled his neck. Another photo, another cat, this one black and white, not too dissimilar in terms of motif to his own, recently-acquired, Baxter. Apart from the fact that this creature’s fur was rigid with fear. It was arching up with its claws raked out and its eyes terrified slits. No sign of the instigator of this fear. The background was white, the floor plain ceramic. The cat’s spiky shadow leapt out behind it, so someone was shining a light, but other than this the frame was empty. Alex touched the screen.
Question 11: Where in the world would you most like to travel?
He pushed back on his chair. “None of this relates to the images.”
The big man was nodding. “I know. Admittedly, I’ve not done this particular round of questions before, but I’m telling you, there’s always a point to it.”
“How many are there usually? Questions, I mean?”
“Around twenty, I think.”
Alex pulled himself back to the desk, and typed, ‘North Korea.’
Question 12: Do you feel your government is doing a good job in running the country?
‘Did you say ‘ruining’?’
Question 13: Have you ever considered voting right-wing?
Question 13: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
But before he could answer the screen buzzed again.
“Jesus,” he whispered.
It was a black-and-white photograph of a house in a field. The house was run-down, crumbling, windows cracked like broken teeth. To the right stood a tall oak tree, with shafts of sunlight spilling from its spars. A man was hanging by the neck from a rope tied to one of its lower branches.
The image disappeared. The door to the room flew open. “Well then, are we all finished?”
Alex said, “What the hell was that last image?”
The woman with the lab-coat was smiling tightly. She was no longer holding the clipboard, he noticed. “Which one did you get to?”
“The one with the dead guy!”
Everyone was staring with the same uneasy expression.
She laughed. “The piñata, you mean?”
Alex shook his head. “That was a man.” He tried to remember the image, it had only flashed onto his screen for a second. He looked at the screen. It was blank now, but for a single box: Submit?
The woman in the lab-coat sucked in her lips; her previously rigid demeanour seemed to soften with both amusement and apology. “No, it was a piñata. I see that we may need to review the material, we’ve never had anyone -”
“What’s this got to do with bloody cats?” said the old man in the tweed coat.
“I’m sorry, I’m not able to supply you with that information.”
Someone else muttered, “I thought you said we’d be looking at products?”
“Yes,” said another, “and I thought this was going to be for an hour. What else’s in store, then?”
The woman in the lab-coat frowned. “Any of you are free to leave at any time.”
An uncomfortable silence, during which everyone considered exactly how much their pride was worth to them.
The woman’s eyes gleamed victoriously. “Good. Now, I’m going to call your names, and when you hear your name I’d like you to go through this door, one by one, for the next part if the test.” She pointed to the door marked Testing Room Two.
A low rumbling of dissent. Alex glanced at the young woman in the blue dress. To his surprise he found her staring back.
The woman in the lab-coat held open the door and began to reel off names, surname first. One by one they stood and shuffled through the door. The overweight man (“Williams, Benjamin!”) was the first to go in, still grinning away. Alex crossed the room and took a recently vacated seat beside the pretty woman: “You as freaked out as me?”
She nodded. She seemed to be trying to project an attitude of amused puzzlement, rather than the disquiet that she – not to mention the rest of them – was obviously feeling. “That was one dark test. And I think you’re right . . . At least, I’m sure it was supposed to look like a man.”
Alex held out his hand. “Alex.”
She took it. “Lizzy.”
“Bet you didn’t think you’d be asked about God on a cat survey, did you, Lizzy?”
“No, I thought we’d just be rating kitten selfies for cutene -”
Alex laughed as the woman began to rise, smiling shyly. “Really?”
She swatted a hand at him. “My mother was German.”
He grinned. “Mine was French. Good luck.”
“Bonne chance.” With a wink she left the room.
Alex leaned back in his chair, watching the group filing through the door. He thought of the cat, bristling with terror. He thought of the figure, hanging from the branch . . . Piñata? Maybe, but it had looked pretty, well, human. And exactly what kind of commercial insight would Andross Pharmaceuticals be intending to glean anyway by showing him either a corpse or a piñata, for that matter?
“De Large, Alex?”
Alex stood. “Last one, so I suppose so.” He slid past the woman in the lab-coat, offering her a smile and a wink. She returned neither.
He found himself in another, extremely narrow corridor. He could see the other group members shuffling some way ahead, and set off after them. By the time he reached the end of the corridor only a few people remained. The others had ostensibly passed through the white door ahead, marked, Testing Room Three.
The girl – Lizzy – must have been one of them
Alex said, “This is Testing Room Two? This corridor?”
No-one replied. They all seemed mystified by the whole affair.
The door ahead swung open. Darkness lay beyond. The first man in line stepped through, the door shut. A moment later it re-opened, and this time a young pregnant teenager hobbled through. Now it was just Alex, and a middle-aged Indian man in a smart blue suit. The man said. “Is it me, or is something a little odd going on?”
Alex nodded. “Ever see The Twilight Zone?”
The door opened. The man sighed, clapped a hand on Alex’s shoulder then stepped into the darkness beyond.
Alex waited in the silent corridor. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and tried to whistle a tune, but he found that he either couldn’t think of one, or the corridor wouldn’t permit it. He brought out his wallet instead, stroked Baxter’s playful face beneath the plastic window.
The door swung open.
Closing the wallet with a snap Alex marched through.
He found himself in an empty room, no sign of the Indian man, or anyone else. Not pitch darkness, but close; he could see the bare edges of the walls, and when the door closed behind him the light improved, although the quality of the room did not. Just four smooth grey walls and a low ceiling, a box, the size of a large garden shed.
Alex said, “Hello?” He walked a little way into the room, searching for an exit, or cameras, or two-way glass (or trapdoors). Nothing. He coughed, giggled nervously.
All at once there was a flash. The world turned instantly white, after-images of the walls dancing across his staring eyes. He cried out; his hands flew to his face and he fell into a crouch. A rumbling sound and suddenly, beneath his feet, the sensation of movement. It felt as though the entire room was shifting sideways. After a few seconds he let his fingers drop. The room was still there, but now an image flickered up, filling the wall opposite. It was a colour photograph of an attractive young woman wearing suspenders and a Basque. Alex studied it, frowning. Then he noticed that she was missing a foot.
The image changed. A horse lying on some crater-filled battlefield, its intestines looped over its shoulders like a set of giant reins.
Alex said, “That’s weird.”
It changed. A video this time, a young man holding a gun to his head. The man stared into the lens, stared into Alex. A bang.
Alex whispered, “Gross.” He was smiling.
It changed. A monkey with its scalp peeled back and clusters of wires trailing from electrodes taped to its brain . . .
It changed. Dozens of people – their heads shrouded, their hands tied – leaping from the roof of a tall building.
It changed. A man pouring boiling liquid onto a screaming . . .
Alex sat upon the floor. It changed, horror after horror, and he watched, sometimes laughing, sometimes gasping with glee, but always with his eyes fixed on the screen.
After an hour or so the final image flickered off. Lights came on. A section of the wall pushed outward and two men stepped into the room. They were wearing surgical gloves and masks. The masks were white and emblazoned with a logo: A small red flower with twelve petals. One of the men was tall and muscular, the other was the overweight man Alex had been talking to earlier. The tall man bent to Alex’s grinning corpse and said, “Every single one of them, Ben.”
“Told you so,” the other nodded, his humour showing beneath the mask. “Oh ye of little faith.”
“I just didn’t anticipate results like these so quickly,” the tall man said. “I mean, the way some of them were spiking when we ran that first cat pic! . . . We picked some sensitive souls this time.”
“Well, rest assured, it works,” the fat man said. He reached down and hooked his hands beneath Alex’s armpits. “Instant delivery. One flash, soon as they stepped through the doors, they’re infected. One by one like bloody clockwork, docile as lobotomised monkeys, not a trace of cognitive dissonance, utterly desensitised . . . We could have shown them anything.”
“We did show them everything!”
Chuckling, the two of them started to haul the body from the room. Alex’s wallet fell from his jeans. The fat man dropped his end, bent and retrieved it. Flipping it open he stared thoughtfully for a few seconds then snapped it closed again. “If we’re lucky, we’ll receive approval to start getting this into circulation within the next five or ten years. We’re certainly not going to need to run many more human-trials.” He slipped the wallet into his baggy tracksuit bottoms. “Don’t get me wrong, the media’s still doing a great job of desensitising them, but this -” He shook his head. “This could give us a decade or two on the competition!”
The taller man laughed. “What competition?”
Joining him in mirth, the big man bent to the corpse. “Tell you what, after we clean up here, you want to go get some lunch? I’m famished!”