Chapter "THE TYRANTS" Ro Slade
A huge black Volga approached the military-looking campus, all grey concrete and steel, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence for protection. The man stepped out of the booth to meticulously check the passes, the faces, the trunk of the car, and only then he unlocked the gate. Smyrev was satisfied: extra precautions never hurt, and he expected his orders to be followed to the letter. The guard was granted a nod of approval and beamed with pride.
Every person inside the building was aware of his arrival. The people were shaking in their rubber-soled shoes, and even the experimental animals in their cages were unusually quiet. Smyrev was a figure of ultimate authority and inspired almost sacred awe. He was their god, and as a god, he demanded unconditional trust, devotion, and readiness for sacrifice. His omnipotence was never questioned. The tyrant was fully aware of the effect he had on his staff, and it suited him. This was the world where he and others like him flourished. The idea of another, democratic order never crossed his mind.
The Institute Head was entitled to his days of radical decisions. When it happened, everyone moved like shadows, wishing to blend in with the walls until the thunderstorm passed, leaving them shattered and breathless. One word from Smyrev, and a brilliant career could be damaged beyond repair. In one day, a renowned researcher would find himself out in the cold, his laboratory closed down, his assistants fired, and years of hard work gone down the drain.
There was an exception, though - Professor Mehedov. He would never be dismissed, or replaced. Mehedov and Smyrev had been together for decades, trusted each other and no one else. The two were so often seen shoulder to shoulder that their employees among themselves referred to them as the Smehedovs.
At the entrance to the main building, Mehedov, wearing the malignant smile of a crocodile – and indeed he showed all his teeth that appeared to be too many – gestured with his wrinkled hand at the car. The chauffeur obligingly sprang to open the door. Smyrev gracefully emerged, contemplating with a proprietary air the professor, his entourage, and the main building behind them - their headquarters, their pride, the Research Center.
Inside the Center, the arrangement of laboratories according to floors duplicated the so-called evolutionary ladder, starting with simpler animal kinds and leading up to the highest. In the basement, they kept mice and rats. There were endless rows of cages filled with little rodents climbing over each other, squeaking, fighting for food and water. The stench was sickening, and the whole picture unnerving.
On the first floor, they carried out tests on rabbits. Apart from their experimental value, these tasty-looking bundles of fluff presented a permanent temptation to the half-starved assistants of the laboratory. Lanky youths with bad skin caused by malnutrition, they fantasized about tender roasted pieces of rabbit meat. What a delight, with a glass of medical alcohol! The dream was not easy to push away, and once in a while it came true. However, on most days, rabbit-proof workers slurped abundant saliva and trotted off to the canteen for a daily portion of greenish potatoes and a cup of something that distantly reminded them of tea. For most days, fear was stronger than hunger.
Higher up, on the second floor, cats were daily sacrificed for science, injected in the stomach, operated on the brain, lobotomized. After a surgery, the cat could not walk straight and staggered back and forth in its cage, the electrodes protruding obscenely between the animal’s ears.
On the third floor, dogs of disputable breed and origin resided. Through the bars of their prison cells, they reproachfully followed their masters with watery eyes. Breathing heavily and rapidly, the canine subjects became agitated twice a day when a foul-smelling portion of dog food was delivered by an assistant.
On the next floor, there were eight rhesus macaques and a few exotic animals. It was rumored they even had a duck-billed platypus, but few knew for sure what was going on in this mysterious unit.
The Laboratory of Man crowned it all on the top level of the building, the area of heightened security. Behind thick steel doors, the secret of the human brain was being explored, guarded day and night with access denied to all but the chosen.
Each research department was headed by a neurophysiologist with advanced degrees and an impressive resume. The Heads supervised the work of senior and junior scientists, and reported to the Director of Research who was also the Head of the Laboratory of Man. Professor Mehedov, the leading investigator with the smile of a predator, knew it all, but it was Smyrev, the Director of the Institute, who had the final word.
The Directors and Heads of laboratories held weekly meetings in a conference room equipped with monitors and microphones, discussing only issues of utmost importance. The bosses were not to be bothered with little things, but this was exactly what happened recently. At that meeting, one of the Smehedovs raised his bushy eyebrows, and the other bared his notorious teeth.
- “Boss, we have emergency”, - Laboratory Number Four ventured, at the end. - “We called every animal shelter in town, but dogs of small size are in high demand right now. We cannot continue to run the trial…” - he stammered, sensing the resentment of the authorities, but continuing nevertheless with his issue.
- “There is a construction site not far from the campus. My people spotted a couple of homeless dogs running free, just the right kind. If I could have your permission to send someone on the lookout…We can vaccinate them on the premises…”
The problem was not their concern, but the Directors exchanged glances. They both envisioned a couple of bearded senior researchers chasing dogs through the construction sites of Babushkinskaya. A smile, ready to reveal itself, hid in the corners of Smyrev’s eyes. Mehedov covered his teeth with his scaly hand, and yawned.
Science at times requires unprecedented steps. This is why their permission was being solicited. Soon a couple of captured dogs will be brought to the third floor to be operated upon. In the course of the experiment, several electrodes will be implanted in each animal’s brain. The wires sticking out of cork on top of the dog’s head will make it look like a creature from outer space. What if the owner unexpectedly materialized to claim the pet? It was essential that the animals be the sole property of the Institute. The electrodes contained precious materials, gold and platinum. The Research Center was not a cheap place.
After permission was granted, with Number Four assuming responsibility for possible consequences of Operation “Grab the Dog”, all the dossiers were passed on to Mehedov. The results of the trials were not of the kind to be published in monthly and annual research journals and presented at conferences. The information contained in the Institute’s files was never discussed, or referred to, other than inside the walls of the building. Submitting the files to the Director of Research meant the meeting was over. The boss dismissed all but Mehedov.
In sharp contrast to his immaculately dressed friend Smyrev, the Head of the Laboratory of Man looked as though he had just emerged from a fight. His clothes were disheveled, wrinkled and greasy. It would never be tolerated in another, but Professor Mehedov was a different kind of animal. He was accepted for what he was, for he was a genius. The two did not need words to communicate. In the conference room, they never discussed their decisions, or even talked to each other. They did so only in the safety of the Laboratory of Man, with its thickly insulated walls.
The Laboratory Heads were aware that the bosses were not to be disturbed for the rest of the day. The mortals left quietly, while the gods headed towards their private elevator at the end of the corridor. It took them to the top floor. When Smyrev keyed in a code, the door moved aside, revealing a very long and narrow passage brightly lit with stark fluorescent lights. It had two rows of identical grey doors, with no plates or numbers on any of them.
The place was very quiet. It smelled slightly of medicine and strongly of danger. The two walked in the direction of the portal at the end of the corridor, the sound of their steps muffled by a thick carpet. Their shadows followed them, sworn to secrecy, unafraid of the deadly knowledge kept behind the steel doors.