Elizabeth had expected the man responsible for Matt’s disappearance to look like a mad scientist, a wild-eyed, shock-haired Dr. Frankenstein with a white lab coat and glossy black rubber gloves. Not this fairly well-groomed older man in flannel and denim with a sad face.
Still, there were less than a ten seconds between Elizabeth’s realizing who the new prisoner was and her slamming him against the wall of the cell.
“What did you do to Matt? Where is he?” she shouted in Harte’s surprised face.
“Oh, Professor?” interjected Hector. “May I introduce Matt’s sister, Elizabeth? You’ll want to watch out for her left hook.”
“Young lady, please release me. I will explain what I can, subject to the potentially inherent...” Harte was cut off as Elizabeth twisted her grip on his collar.
“Do you go by a nickname?” Hector asked her suddenly. “Beth? Liz? Betty? There are lots of options – sort of the opposite of Ed, you know, lots of Ed names, Edward, Edwin, Edgar, all get shortened to the same thing. Al’s even better; Alfred, Albert, Alvin, Alistair, Alphonse, um...oh, of course, Algernon, how could a psychologist forget Algernon?”
Elizabeth loosened her grip and looked at Hector; Harte gasped a breath. “What are you talking about?” she said.
“Just wanted to get your attention before you choked the guy with the answers, champ. I can understand the urge to throttle him when he’s talking, though. Low-level Asperger’s, or something like that, isn’t it, Professor?”
“Mr. Ojeda,” Harte wheezed, “my condition is not a matter for discussion.”
“After the day we’ve had, Professor, I think we’re entitled to talk about whatever we want,” Hector said. “Why don’t you let him go, Eliz... – actually, what do you prefer to be called?”
“Elizabeth’s fine,” she said. She liked the way Chavez had said it, at least. She released Harte, and he staggered over to the cot.
Hector leaned over him. “So, explain.”
Harte hung his head for a long moment before he spoke. “All right. In 1976, a United States Army Captain by the name of Todd Forrest volunteered for a certain experiment. It involved administration of certain psychoactive substances in order to modify the awareness of soldiers in combat.”
“What does this have to do with Matt?” Elizabeth interrupted.
“Patience,” Hector said. “I expect the Professor is about to tell us he administered the experiment. Right?”
“Wrong,” Harte snapped. “I tried to help the Captain afterwards. The substances he had taken in the experiment had drastic effects upon his brain chemistry. He experienced hallucinations and paranoia. Many of Captain Forrest’s delusions derived from popular fiction of the time, stories of spies and secret agents.
“Captain Forrest’s particular delusions centered around the belief that he was the leader of a team of super soldiers, all of whom had been part of the army’s experiment. In fact, Forrest alone was the subject.
“I was brought in to consult on his case. I tried standard therapies, but they were ineffective. So I was forced to turn to other, stronger, more radical treatments in order to control his condition. While those treatments were potentially risky, they had been extensively tested, and I judged the risks acceptable.
“What I did not anticipate was that the military had not been honest with me about the true nature of the drugs that they had already given the Captain.
“It took me over a decade to figure out what had happened. As I am sure you have guessed, the combined effect of the drugs was similar to that which we call Visulex, only much more potent, and uncontrolled.
“Captain Forrest disappeared in front of me, but he reappeared at various times and places, much in the way Mr. Larkin now does. Where he appeared, he could alter reality. His delusions became manifest.
“Even after the Captain’s appearances tapered off in the early 1980s, I continued to search for a way to cure his condition. The danger he posed was still incalculable, and he was, is, my patient. There were times when, to my shame, I hoped that he was dead, but I could not take that chance. The Visulex experiments were part of my extended attempts to find a way to access aleph-two, the dream world, and retrieve Forrest.”
“And the men-in-black outside?” Hector asked.
“Central to Forrest’s fantasy was the belief that he and his team were being used or opposed by a nefarious and secret group within the government. There was no truth to these beliefs, of course. The man who supposedly led this secret group was named Robert Black.
“The commander of this base likewise identifies himself as Robert Black. For reasons which I do not understand, this person is pretending to be, or actually believes himself to be, a man who does not exist.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.1]