The Endocrine Tyranny By D.J. Cockburn

The Endocrine Tyranny
D.J. Cockburn

free sci-fi short story

  Gareth stared out of his kitchen window. He didn’t pretend to be riveted by the pigeons bustling between Nottingham’s rooftops. He knew their only attraction was being at the opposite end of his apartment to the bedroom. He cursed himself for a fool and poured some orange juice into a glass.

It took almost as much courage to slide back the bolt he’d crudely installed as to open the door. Mary turned her head to look at him and he looked back at the five-foot-two, ginger-haired woman. He looked for the fear or accusation he would expect in any other woman he had handcuffed to a bed, but her face remained as devoid of expression as when he brought her here three days before. She turned her gaze to the ceiling.

Gareth sat on the bed and tried to smile. What the hell am I doing? he asked himself for the hundredth time that day.

“I brought you some orange juice,” he said.

Her eyes flicked to the glass, then back to the ceiling.

“You used to like it.”


He held the glass close to her hand, but she made no move to take it. Gareth had never been into bondage, and asking the retail assistant in the sex shop for the handcuffs with the longest chains had been an excruciating ordeal. They needed to be long enough so Mary would be able to feed herself, but she had refused everything but the occasional sip of water.

Gareth put the juice on the bedside table. “Are there any books you’d like?”

The pile of books on the table lay exactly as he’d left it. He had bought some of her old favorites like Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond, but perhaps she now found Dawkins and Diamond as far beneath her as she used to find his own favorites like Nick Hornby and David Brin.

“Need the bathroom?”

He took her lack of response to mean no. He lifted her left forearm and checked that the cuff was not painfully tight.

“Not hurting you?” He knelt to check her left arm. She didn’t answer.

Mary sat up and snatched the glass from the bedside table by its base. Gareth looked up, startled at how fast she had shed her torpor. She smashed the glass against the table and thrust the jagged edge at her throat. Gareth threw himself across the bed and caught her wrist. Mary strained against his hand.

Gareth was in an awkward position, and he struggled to hold her with both hands. She tilted her head back and inched her throat closer to the glass. Her arm quivered with effort, then she went limp so suddenly that Gareth fell off the bed and the glass thumped to the floor. Mary slumped back on the pillow.

“You stupid…” Gareth took a deep breath to control his temper. “Why’d you do that?”

“Why did you stop it?”

Gareth’s eyes snapped to her face but she was back staring at the ceiling, her expression as blank as when he came in. He bit off the response that she knew very well. Her understanding of sarcasm was gone with the rest of the personality he remembered. The important thing was that she had spoken to him at all.

“I’ll answer your question if you answer mine,” he said.

He wasn’t sure whether he imagined the slight twitch of her mouth that used to signal impatience, but she replied. “Death is preferable to life without access to the serum.”

Her days of silence had given Gareth time to forget how unsettling it was that she did not speak in the first person.

“I liked you the way you were.”

“Emotions induce stupidity.”

“There are compensations for stupidity.”

“Perhaps, if the emotions do not lead inevitably to depression. Yet you cannot be persuaded to allow the rational choice between access to the serum or death. You make your decisions by emotion and then defend them with arguments invented to avoid considering the possibility that you may be wrong.”

Gareth was unsure whether she meant him in particular or the whole human race. He could think of no answer so he started gathering broken glass.

“Now you answer,” she said.

Gareth tried to remember her question. Her face was still blank. She wasn’t testing him; she had simply forgotten how other people lost the thread of a conversation.

“Why did I stop you?” He remembered. “I could tell you I was saving the world, or that I’m afraid of what you might do to yourself. But you’d know I’d be lying. The truth, Mary, is that I love you and I think you’re still in there somewhere. That’s why we’re both going to wait for you to come back.”

He forced himself to look into her eyes. They revealed as much as a pair of marbles.

“Love is a metaphor for addiction to endorphins that are mistakenly associated with a particular person.”

Gareth straightened. “Perhaps. But here’s another question. Isn’t what I’m doing what you really wanted when you had that implant fitted?”

Mary stared at the ceiling. Gareth checked there was no broken glass where she could reach it. He’d have to get a neck brace in case she found something else to jam into her throat.

When he had cleaned up the rest of the spilled juice and broken glass, he found himself at the kitchen window again. The five o’clock traffic jam under the Nottingham rain was almost hypnotic, but couldn’t push the thought of the woman in the bedroom out of his mind. Then again, she had rarely been out of his mind since the day two nineteen-year-old biology students happened to sit next to each other in a basic genetics lecture.

  Gareth found himself thinking of his Uncle William, who had been struggling to break his alcoholism for as long as Gareth could remember. He would stay dry for months at a time, going to AA meetings, holding down a job and telling everyone how much better he felt about himself. Yet even as he said it, the wistful tone of his voice that told of something missing from his life. Something he feared for what it would do to him, yet something he was not complete without. Last time Gareth had seen him, the man ranted for an hour about how much he hated what he was doing to himself, punctuating the conversation with whiskey shots. Yet sincere as William’s self-loathing was, Gareth had seen the man as oddly content, as though he had found his true niche.

He presumed that William remembered his first drink as Gareth remembered that genetics lecture.

Now, ten years later, Gareth’s hand closed into a fist at the knowledge that he’d spent nearly all his adult life addicted — and he knew Mary had chosen the best word for it — to being alternately disparaged and desperately needed by her.

Once he thought he’d untangled himself. Two years after she dumped him, he had his own life two hundred and eighty-six miles from her, though he’d recognized that he only knew the length of the leash because he hadn’t managed to slip it. He wondered now whether part of the reason Mary had jerked the leash tight with a late night phone call was to reassure herself he was still at the other end.

Several weeks of dating had culminated in the first time Gareth hadn’t slept alone since the split with Mary, so his sleep had been fitful and he had woken immediately when his phone crashed into Sultans of Swing. Radhika had groaned beside him as he fumbled for it.

  He flipped the phone open. “Mm?”

“Gareth?”

The one word swept away sleep like a bucket of cold water. “Mary?”

He felt Radhika stir.

“There’s something I need you to know, Gareth,” said Mary.

He recognized the hesitation in her voice. Mary was at her most vulnerable, needing approval from the one person who would always give it. But, he reminded himself, she could not depend on him anymore because he had vowed to break his dependency on her. That decision had begun his claw back to sanity after the break-up.

“Mary, it’s, uh, half past three in the morning and I’ve got work tomorrow.”

“Please, Gareth.”

Gareth’s thumb caressed the button that would cut the call. He clung to the idea that he might actually press it for a moment, before moving his thumb away.

“OK, I’m listening.”

“I can’t tell you on the phone.”

Gareth knew nobody else who would call in the middle of the night to say they didn’t want to talk on the phone. In the two years away from Mary, Gareth had spent an unhealthy amount of time reflecting on their relationship, but he felt he had a much better understanding of what made her tick than he ever had while they were together. He had never understood her need to reassure herself of his devotion, or her inability to see it for herself. If he had tried to point it out to her, he could imagine the impeccably reasoned arguments she would use to dismiss the idea, and her scornful remarks about ‘soft sciences like psychology distilled to the lowest denominator by daytime television.’

Gareth took a deep breath. “Mary, what’s going on?”

“I’ve got a, well, a procedure today. I’d like…I need…you to be here.”

“What do you mean, a procedure?”

“I…it’s hard to talk about it on the phone. I’ll tell you when you get here.”

“Here? Where’s here? Edinburgh?”

“Yes. I’m sorry,” she said, “I know I should have called you before. I wasn’t going to bother you with it but I haven’t slept all night and all I can think is that…that I need you here.”

“What time is this procedure?”

“Nine this morning.”

“Nine? I can’t be in Edinburgh by nine.”

“You can. If you start now…I need you. Gareth? Gareth, are you there? You’ll be here, won’t you?”

Gareth ended the call. The best thing to do would be to put an arm around Radhika and go back to sleep. He was as likely to do that as Uncle William was likely to take one drink and pour the rest of the bottle down the drain.

“Where are you going?” Radhika’s voice was dangerously calm.

“Edinburgh.”

Her silence spoke louder than any words as he dressed. He found his keys and paused at the door. She was sitting up with the duvet pulled to her chin.

“Something you want to tell me?” she asked.

He tried to etch every line of her face into his memory, even the angry crease down the middle of her forehead. The last image of a happy time.

“I’ll let myself out, then,” she said.

He closed the door, wondering what Mary meant by a procedure.

 

The U2 CD he’d left in his car’s player alternately caressed and pummeled his ears as he drove through Nottingham and on to the M1. Three lanes of tarmac to himself left his mind free to wander, but the only direction it could go was back to the eight years of Mary. For the first six months they had felt perfect for each other, although Gareth now recognized that if they hadn’t sat next to each other that day, it would only have been a matter of time before they each sat next to someone else.

Mary surprised nobody by graduating at the top of their class. She moved on to a virology PhD at Oxford, which she accepted as her just due. “Some of us have it, Gareth, and some of us just don’t.” They moved into an apartment together and Gareth gave up on biology to separate his career from hers. Not that she appreciated his reasons. “Retail, Gareth? Couldn’t you find anything more constructive than that? There’s no reason you couldn’t at least be a technician.” He did the cooking and cleaning while she worked seven fourteen-hour days a week and came home tired and short-tempered. “Gareth, how many times have I told you I can’t eat eggs with rice?”

Even then, he’d known he was her pressure valve, though he was never sure how much of that pressure came from her supervisor and how much from herself. He hoped it would get better when she moved on to a postdoctoral position in Edinburgh but the end was inevitable and looking back,  Gareth was surprised that it didn’t come earlier. “Gareth, you’re driving me up the wall. I think it would be best if you just move out.”

Discotheque segued to One and Gareth realized he was pushing his VW Golf along at ninety-five miles per hour with his hands tight on the wheel. He eased back to seventy, not wanting to catch the attention of a bored speed cop. There had been some good times,  hadn’t there? Yes, he remembered, the days when she would just want to be held because an experiment hadn’t worked or because her results had been criticized. Her need for him would soothe the running sore her sarcasm kept open and give him a reason to stay when she threw herself back into her work. Tonight she had shown that, contrary to the excellent advice Bono poured out of the speakers, it was not too late to drag the past into the light.

One segued to Electrical Storm and Gareth realized how utterly foolish it was to be smiling.

It was only when he turned off the M6 that Gareth remembered he hadn’t asked Mary if she was living in the same apartment, but he also knew it would take more than the memories of a broken relationship to drive her to the trouble of moving. An earthquake or an offer of a more prestigious post might do it, but nothing less. He couldn’t decide how he’d react if Mary had only weeks or months to live. What frightened him most was that he might be relieved at having the source of his fixation placed beyond reach.

By the time he parked at half past eight, Radhika was already a distant memory. He took a moment to call his line manager and report sick, then forced himself out of the car and up to the apartment.

He bit his lip as he knocked on her door. Whatever was about to happen would confirm he was still at her beck and call. Or perhaps she had moved away and he was about to make a prize fool of himself with someone in a hurry to get to work.

Mary opened the door. There were new wrinkles around her eyes and her hair was lank and unwashed. She looked as if she hadn’t eaten or slept properly in weeks. Gareth started to speak but she rocked forward and somehow he was leaning down to hold her and her arms circled his waist and damn it felt good.

A neighbor walked past. They broke apart and shared an embarrassed smile. She led him inside and they sat on the same sofa he remembered hauling up the stairs by himself. She snuggled against him. “Thank you for coming, Gareth. I wasn’t sure you would.”

Gareth had nurtured the rational part of his mind since he had last seen Mary. Now it was in full retreat, but it still managed to yell “bollocks she wasn’t” from over the horizon. It would be so easy to close his eyes and give himself over to the warmth of her, but it was already twenty to nine. “Mary, what exactly is this all about?”
“I can’t handle my emotions.”

That was not news. “Mm?”

“So I’ve decided to get rid of them.”

“What?”

“Look, I’ve been clinically depressed for the last two years. I couldn’t cope without you but I was always anxious and unhappy when you were here.”

“I remember.”

“I’ve tried four different antidepressants, but nothing worked. If this goes on, I’m going to end up killing myself.”

Gareth didn’t doubt that she was telling the truth. It must have been bad for her to admit a need for help, even to herself.

“Then I ran into an old friend from Oxford. A neuroendocrinologist.”

“A what?”


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  “Neuroendocrinologist,” she said as though talking to a child, the familiar impatience in her tone. “He’s got a technique for excising emotions at the source. He’ll be here in a minute.”

Gareth felt something tighten in the pit of his stomach. From anyone else, he might have expected a harmless piece of quackery but Mary would sneer at anything lacking a mechanistic foundation that she could thoroughly research.

The knock came before Gareth could frame a pertinent question. Mary opened the door to a gangling man in his mid-forties, carrying a briefcase that Gareth eyed nervously. The man looked startled when he saw Gareth.

“Gareth Forrest, this is Stephen Underbird,” said Mary.

“I thought you’d be alone.” Underbird spoke with the expensive accent that Gareth heard from a lot of Oxford academics.

“Gareth’s an old friend,” said Mary. “He’ll understand and don’t worry, he won’t recognize your name.”

Mary had never learned tact. An alarm bell rang in Gareth’s head because there was something familiar about the name, although he couldn’t remember what.

Underbird shook Gareth’s hand as though it was a rotting fish.

“Stephen,” said Mary as they sat down, “could you explain this to Gareth? You’ll put it much more simply than me and it’s important he understands.”

“You haven’t told him?” Underbird looked ready to bolt for the door.

“Gareth won’t make trouble, will you?” said Mary.

“Uh, no.” Gareth suspected he should be throwing Underbird out of the window, but there was no arguing with Mary.

“Well,” Underbird still looked doubtful, “if you say so. Mary’s told you about her depression?”

Gareth nodded.

“My research has shown that chronic depression comes about in individuals whose emotions overwhelm them. The same people may have periods of happiness, even euphoria. They may distract themselves by immersion in achievement through work or sport, or in relationships, but the negative emotions always prevail in the end and the result, in layman’s terms, is what we call depression.”

Gareth nodded again. It sounded like a fair description of Mary.

“The solution is to remove the hormones that drive the emotions.” Underbird might have been talking about clipping toenails. “It’s a simple procedure. I insert an implant into the lower spine. Then, every day Mary will inject herself with serum containing a cocktail of antibodies against hormonal receptors in the brain. The implant transfers the antibodies to the cerebro-spinal fluid…”

“Hang on a minute!” Gareth found himself on his feet. “You’re saying you switch off emotions by making the brain unable to respond to hormones?”

“That’s a reasonably accurate synthesis, yes.”

Something was falling into place in Gareth’s mind. “And you’ve done this to how many people, precisely?”

Underbird’s mouth opened but he did not speak.

Mary cut in. “I told you I can’t go on being who I am, but think about the potential for a moment. Reproductive hormones won’t be distracting me with sexual urges. Adrenaline and cortisol won’t be making me afraid of failure. All these hormones that have been holding me back will be gone and I’ll be able to concentrate in a way that nobody ever has before….”

“How many?” Gareth had never cut Mary off like that before.

“I’ll be the first.” She spoke as though it was a privilege.

“Perhaps I could…” Underbird broke in. “I’ve done this extensively on monkeys and though their behavior changed, they lived longer and suffered no ill effects. Yes, it’s a radical procedure that I wouldn’t do lightly, but Mary is capable of understanding the procedure as well as anyone and would certainly benefit from it.”

Gareth suddenly remembered where he’d heard Underbird’s name. “But you never had approval to do it to the monkeys, did you? Nobody would support your mad ideas, so you diverted funding earmarked for something else and bypassed the ethics committee to hide it. How could I forget a name like Underbird? You were struck off the medical register when they caught you, weren’t you?”

“That was an exaggeration by the press. I was asked to resign from the university. I returned to neurosurgery and I’ve been practicing ever since.”

Gareth felt adrenaline overwhelming him. He couldn’t restrain himself from shouting. “That’s why you’re doing it in Mary’s apartment, isn’t it? You would be struck off if anyone knew about it.”

Underbird stood up. “I think I’d better go…”

No!

Both men turned to Mary.

“No,” she repeated. “Gareth, this is the only chance I have to be someone I can stand to be. Please don’t block my way. It’s really no different than Prozac. It’s all about regulating the neurochemistry, but this has so much more potential.”

“Bollocks! This bastard,” Gareth waved at Underbird, “just wants a successful experiment so he can try out his pet theories. He’s taking advantage of you because you’re in no state to make your own decisions.”

“Gareth.” Mary used her conversation-over voice. “Please.”

The hard line of Mary’s mouth told of the same decision as when she announced they were moving to Edinburgh, and again on the day she told him to move out. He recognized the taste of futility as his objections died on his tongue. Three strides took him out of the door and he didn’t stop until he was back in his empty apartment in Nottingham.

“Gareth!”

Mary’s shriek cut into Gareth’s sleep like a whip. He jerked awake and fell off the sofa.

“Gareth you bastard!”

Four days of silence had come to an end. He scrambled to his feet and burst into the bedroom, the room lit by the low-wattage lamp he left on for her. She was sitting up, straining against the cuffs, her teeth bared in pure rage.

“There you are! I’m going to kill you, you bastard! You kidnapped me! You’re going to jail for the rest of your life!”

Words stumbled into each other until Gareth couldn’t understand what she was saying, but there was no mistaking the meaning. Emotion had returned to Mary, if only the emotion of anger. She ran out of breath and lay back panting.

“They’ll come for you.” Her voice was lower but pregnant with malice. “You’ll go to jail and they’ll gang rape you every day and I’ll visit you just to laugh in your face.”

Gareth was more startled by the use of the first person than by what she said.

“Nobody’s coming,” he said. “There’s been nothing in the papers about you going missing.”

“They’ll come.”

“Not unless someone reports you missing, and I’m guessing you’ve become so reclusive that nobody knows what you’re doing from one day to the next. They probably assume you’re at home writing a paper or something. Am I right?”

He was going to add that if anyone had reported her missing, a quick review of security camera tapes would have led the police straight to his door by now. Mary cut him off by lunging at him so hard the bed jerked forward.

Gareth changed tack. “If they do come and they find out what you’ve been doing, think about what they’ll do to you?”

“You’re still stupid. You destroyed the evidence.”

“They’ll have your notes, and do you think they’ll let you have your serum back while they’re working out whether you’re a bioterrorist or not? That’ll take weeks.”

Her face contorted. “Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!”

Gareth lost track of how long she ranted, shrieking threats and obscenities. Her abuse had never been such a blunt instrument before. He stood in the doorway and soaked it all up.

Eventually she slumped on the bed from sheer exhaustion. Tremors of rage quivered through her body, but subsided as he watched. The defeat on her face was harder to take than the hatred. He fetched her some water in a plastic cup he’d used since her suicide attempt. He expected her to throw it at him or turn away, but she let him hold her head up while she drank.

She slumped back and blinked away the tears in her eyes. She turned to him with no sign of anger. “You were right, weren’t you?”

“What?”

“When they find out what I did, they will call me a terrorist. They’ll never let me out.”

Gareth clung to the word ‘I’.

“You were right too,” he said. “I destroyed the evidence.”


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  “But my laptop, my notes, it’s all there…” Her face was pale with an expression that Gareth suddenly recognized as terror.

“I’m not going to tell anyone and nobody else knows. I’ll get everything for you.”

Her fear was unchecked. It occurred to Gareth that he was trying to reassure her with reasoned words, but no words could help. The cause of her fear was a deluge of hormones that her brain had become unused to, and the only way to counter it was with another hormone. He’d read everything he could find on endocrinology recently, and the word ‘oxytocin’ sprang to mind. A hormone released by touch that engenders trust.

He slipped his hand into hers, expecting her to pull away. She seized it as though it was a lifeline. Gareth felt himself returning her grip with equal strength. A warm glow spread up his arm. Oxytocin, he thought, but knowing the name made the feeling no less real.

He rolled on to the bed and gathered her in his arms. Her body was rigid and trembling, and he felt her try to embrace him but she couldn’t hold him properly because of the cuffs. He tried to sit up but she clung to his T-shirt.

“I’m going to get the keys,” he said, thinking even as he said it that perhaps oxytocin engendered too much trust.

“No, no, don’t leave me alone, Gareth. Just hold me. Hold me. Don’t let me go.”

“I won’t,” he said. “Never.”

He held her, feeling her tension drain away. He reveled in the sensation of her, even as he held himself ready to jump clear at the first sign of another mood swing. As the grey Midlands dawn drowned the electric light, he heard her breathing assume the rhythm of sleep.

Perhaps, just perhaps, he was doing the right thing.

 

A few days ago, his worst problem had been an irate customer who was convinced there was something wrong with a television because it wouldn’t pick up channels he hadn’t subscribed to. Gareth had retreated to the back office to wonder whether his promotion to department manager had been a blessing or a curse, and had felt his phone vibrate.

  “Hello?”

“Gareth?” The voice was female, but otherwise so devoid of inflection that he couldn’t place it.

“Speaking.”

“It’s Mary Bellard.”

“Mary?” He hadn’t heard from her for a year, since what he’d come to think of as the Day of the Underbugger.

“There’s something you should know.”

“Look Mary, I am not racing up to Edinburgh again just because you call me out of the blue.” Gareth wished he sounded more convincing, if only to himself.

“You can hear it on the phone.”

“How long will this take?” he asked.

“It depends on the number of questions.”

Gareth felt the sting of Mary’s tongue, but there was no sarcasm in her tone. He had the sense that she was reacting like the department’s accounting database when he forgot to fill in a column of data. He told her to wait a moment, and went into  the staff toilet to avoid being seen taking a personal call at work.

“OK, let’s start when the Underbugger did his experiment on you.”

“Underbird.”

“Underbird, then. What happened?”

“You can’t understand it. The best way to put it is being able to think clearly. The mind could operate without the hormonal distractions that had slowed it down before.”

That was when Gareth noticed that she had stopped using the first person.

“You mean your depression?”

“That cleared immediately, but there’s no way to explain how the mind improves when it is not distracted by the endocrine system.”

“You’re going to start preaching about freedom next.” Gareth was rarely sarcastic, but he wanted her to snap at him, to show she was still Mary.

“Yes, freedom is a reasonably precise metaphor.”

Gareth took a deep breath. “Mary, is that all you had to tell me?”

“No. You should know that the freedom will soon become general.”

Gareth felt icy prickles in his spine. “What does that mean?”

“The freedom will be given to everyone.”

“Yes, I got that, but how? Tell me in metaphor if you think I can’t understand it.”

Mary was quiet for a moment. He guessed she was thinking of the best analogy to communicate her ‘free’ thoughts to a traditionally wired brain.

“Stephen Underbird worked out how to prevent hormones influencing the brain, but his system is inefficient. Constant re-administration of antibodies is expensive, and most peoples’ hormones would make them afraid to use it. I spliced the receptor proteins into a rhinovirus, that is, a common cold virus…”

“Jesus Christ!”

“You understand?” Mary’s voice somehow conveyed surprise in spite of her monotone.

“You mean you and the Underbugger are planning to release a highly infectious virus that will switch off people’s emotions?”

“No. Stephen Underbird was unable to comprehend the results of his procedure and has abandoned it as a failure. The virus was developed without his involvement.”

“That’s…” Gareth bit off the word ‘insane’ as it would be stating the obvious. What Mary had done to herself made her insane by any definition.

“How?” he asked.

 

“By self-infection and frequenting public places in the subsequent days. The process will begin tomorrow.”

Gareth rubbed a hand over his eyes. It just did not make sense that he was standing in the staff toilet while his ex-girlfriend told him she was about to free humanity from emotion. Mary must be either deluding herself or inventing the whole thing for some esoteric reason of her own.

“Haven’t your colleagues had something to say about this?” he asked.

“With sleep requirement reduced to two hours in twenty-four, it is possible to pursue several projects at once. Also, emotions make people easily distracted from matters beyond their immediate understanding.”

There was a ring of truth to that. Mary had always been a workaholic and had made few friends even before the Underbugger. “Mary, this isn’t exactly ethical, is it? Don’t you think most people would prefer to keep their emotions?”

“Hence the preparations were kept secret and the reason freedom will be imposed rather than offered.”

She seemed to have fixated on the metaphor of freedom.

“Isn’t it their right to choose freedom or not to?”

“A minor issue. People would choose freedom if they had experienced it. A broader issue is that the hormonal drive to procreate is depleting natural resources to the extent that for most, there will soon be little choice but misery.”

“Oh spare me the try at a bleeding heart. You mean that without emotions, people will be happy to stay at home and stare at the wall.”

“That metaphor is poor. Experience shows that most people will exercise their intellects and wish to occupy themselves productively. Sufficient resources are available to support people alive today for the remainder of their lives.”

Gareth was about to point out that Mary’s intellect had always dominated her personality and had never shown any interest in having children, so she had no way of knowing how less cerebral people would respond. Then he saw the implication. It knocked him down on the toilet seat with the force of a blow to the solar plexus. “So humanity goes peacefully to its grave because everybody’s lost interest in sex.”

“It is the greatest benefit for the greatest number.”

The problem, thought Gareth, is that she may well be right. He was well aware that it was his own endocrine-dominated emotions that made the idea so repellent.

“Mary,” he struggled for something that might persuade her. “I don’t want to lose my emotions.”

“Would you describe yourself as content?”

That was the wrong question for a man who recently spent his thirtieth birthday with a bottle of wine and a James Bond box set for company. “I’d say so, yes.”

“The tone of your voice indicates the contrary.”

“You’re pretty good at decoding emotions for someone who doesn’t have any.” Gareth was on his feet again.

“You can assess the mood of a dog. It does not mean that you think like one.”

“So we’re all dogs to you, is that it?”

“It was merely a metaphor.”

Gareth took a deep breath. He was being drawn into an argument he was not going to win. He needed to focus on the obvious point. “Mary, why are you telling me this? Why not just set me free with everyone else?”

There was silence from the phone.

“Mary?”

She cut the call.

He sagged against the wall.

“Mad,” he said aloud. “She’s gone completely round the bend.”

She must be delusional, he told himself. He should not take her too seriously or he would find himself acting on the silly, probably illegal ideas that were forming in the back of his mind. Mary must have lost her job long ago if she’d taken to spouting nonsense like that.

“She’s not my responsibility.” He marched back to his desk. “I have my own life.”

His words just reminded him that the nearest thing he had to a life was a twice-weekly trip to the gym. Gareth found himself bringing up the Edinburgh University website and plugging ‘Mary Bellard’ into the staff directory. She was still listed as a postdoctoral researcher with a long string of publications to her name. There were eleven in the last year alone, and Gareth knew enough about research to recognize an extraordinary level of productivity. It also suggested that since her work was surviving the review process, it was lucid.

“No,” he said. “I am not going to…” He was already on his feet and heading for his Golf.

He started up and the CD player crashed into the middle of Hotel California.

“I know the feeling.” Gareth wondered how many times he’d checked out of Mary’s life as he flicked the player off. He had no plan beyond getting to Edinburgh and he needed to formulate one without having his mood jerked around by the Eagles. It wasn’t until he passed Newcastle that he acknowledged he’d had a plan in mind before Mary ended the call. The difficult part would be keeping his nerve to do it.

He stopped and bought a T-shirt, a denim jacket, a toolbox and a roll of duct tape.

He parked outside Edinburgh University’s virology building in the long Scottish twilight, and blinked back memories of the days when he’d come here to bring Mary a snack or a drink when she worked late.

There were a few lights on and he could see figures through the windows, but he couldn’t get in without a swipe card. He stripped off his white shirt and replaced it with the T-shirt and jacket. He forced himself to sit and wait while his stomach felt as though it was trying to force its way up his gullet. Knowing it was the combined effect of cortisol and adrenaline made the mix no less potent.

He saw a young woman heading to the door. He got out of the car and jogged to intercept her.

“Excuse me!” His voice sounded almost steady. The activity was clearing his mind

She looked up from her handbag, where she was presumably looking for her swipe card.

“Hi there,” said Gareth. “I’m from MacAllan Electrical. I got a call because a freezer’s broken down but I can’t get into the bloody building.”

The woman’s eyes flicked to the toolbox and Gareth tried not to hold his breath. He was counting on the virologist’s perpetual fear of a freezer breakdown destroying collections that took years to assemble. Hopefully a postgraduate student, as he guessed she was from her pierced lip, would not know who serviced the freezers. He’d invented MacAllan Electrical on the spur of the moment.

“Which lab?” she asked.

“Professor Hillman.” Gareth named the head of Mary’s research group.

The woman looked relieved and swiped her card. Her question had been born not of suspicion but fear that it was her samples thawing out.

“Second floor, last on the right,” she said. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Gareth climbed the stairs and paused at the lab door to check there was no one inside. He closed the door behind him and switched on the lights. He started with the nearest incubator, working through the stacks of flasks filled with rose-colored medium until he found some labeled with Mary’s meticulous handwriting.

He traced her initials with a finger. “Oh, Mary.”

The sound of his voice broke his reverie. His lapse of concentration seemed absurdly funny and he had to force down a fit of giggles. He really wasn’t cut out to be a burglar.

He worked through every incubator, piling up Mary’s flasks on a bench. He’d spent enough time in labs to know there would be a bottle of bleach powder somewhere and he found it under the sink. He put a pinch of into every flask he could find with Mary’s initials.

He visualized the bleach ripping through cell membranes and viral envelopes, but instead of relief, a sense of guilt welled up. He was committing an act of violence directed at Mary’s work, the most important thing in her life since long before the Underbugger. He had to force himself to finish the job and dump the flasks in the incineration bin. Mary would have some virus in cryostorage, but his next stop would be Mary’s apartment.

The lab door clicked open and to his shock, Mary stepped through it. She gave him a glance and strode to one of the incubators. She jerked open the door to reveal the spaces where her flasks had been. She found them in the bin and looked at Gareth again. He searched for any sign of surprise or anger in her unblinking stare, but could see nothing he recognized.

“You are very attached to your emotions,” was all she said.

“Call it force of habit.”

“An accurate metaphor. It was a mistake to tell you.”

Gareth stepped toward her, as though his plan had taken control of his body while his conscious mind looked on.

“It’s only a setback of a few days. More can be cultured.” She looked up at Gareth standing over her. “Unless the habit is strong enough to kill for.”

Gareth paused. There was no fear in her voice or her expression. His hands fastened around her throat. His brain became a forum for debate: emotion screaming in horror while reason pointed out what Mary would do if he left her to do it. His hands held their grip. She pulled at his wrists, but moved him no more than a child could. She reached for his face but he held her at arm’s length and she clawed at empty air. He closed his eyes to hide from the pallor of asphyxia in Mary’s face.

Her hands fell away. Gareth found himself holding her up rather than holding her back. He shifted his grip and pulled her to him. Her head rolled back and she drew breath with an almighty gasp. Gareth almost collapsed with relief that he had not overdone it, but he guessed he had no more than a minute or two before she regained consciousness.

He scooped her up and ran for the door, ready to tell anyone he saw that he’d found her unconscious and was taking her to the hospital, but they encountered no one.

  He tilted the passenger seat back, then took off his jacket, rolled it and put it under her neck to open her airway, something he remembered from a department first aid course. She moaned softly. He longed to put his foot down and roar out of the car park, but it would attract too much attention so he kept his speed down.

Her hands were twitching as he pulled into the quietest street he could find and stopped in the middle of the road. He saw no faces in any of the house windows, so he got the roll of duct tape from the back seat, passed a length behind the small of her back and pulled the roll around her wrist and around the back of the seat. He taped down her other arm in the same way, and taped her ankles to the seat runners. He had no idea how Mary would react when she came to, but he did not want her attacking him or jumping out of the door at seventy miles an hour.

Her eyes fluttered open.

“I’m sorry, Mary.” He engaged the clutch. “I’m sorry.”

His shoulders tightened, ready for the weight of rage or hysteria that his whole experience  warned him to expect, but Mary sat in silence all the way back to Nottingham.

 

Even oxytocin could not keep hunger at bay forever. Gareth slipped his arms from under Mary without waking her, and went to the kitchen for some breakfast. He brushed his teeth afterward, smiling at the irony of preserving mundane routines.

He opened the door to check on her and found her leaning toward a cuffed hand to rub her eyes. Gareth sidled in, looking for a clue to her mood. It felt like a first date.

  “How are you feeling this morning?” he asked.

She looked at him. A spasm ran up her back. “Uh, I’m fine.”

Gareth looked closely at her face. He was sure she was blushing.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m…Um, Gareth? I think another set of hormones just found its way through.”

“What do you…” Mary’s hips writhed. “Oh!”

“Gareth?”
Gareth had never imagined his name could contain such a mix of invitation and urgency. “I’ll get the keys.”

“Be quick.”

When he released her, she attacked him with such energy that for a moment, he was afraid she’d been bluffing. She dragged him on top of her and Gareth gave up thinking for quite some time.

Afterward, they lay together without speaking. Gareth felt the full weight of the last few days as the adrenaline that had carried him through  ebbed away. It was dangerous to trust Mary, and he knew her oxytocin smile might not survive another set of receptors being reintroduced to their hormones, but he was too tired to care. He watched her drift into sleep and could not help but follow her.

He woke after a few hours, but Mary was still asleep. He decided he did not want to be lying naked next to her when her next mood woke her up. He kissed her forehead, rose and dressed. He found nothing to do after that, so he ended up in front of the television with the volume turned down. He was almost asleep again when Mary appeared in the doorway, wearing one of the t-shirts he had brought. It fell to below her knees.

Gareth turned off the television and she sat down. He studied her face for clues but she just looked lost. Perhaps she was, he thought: adrift on a sea of hormones without chart or compass.

“Is there anything to eat?” she asked.

“Is that the latest…I mean, are you very hungry?”

“No Gareth, it’s not a mood swing, it’s the inevitable consequence of being chained up without food for a week.”

Gareth felt the scourge in a familiar place.

“Four days actually,” he said.

Mary’s head sank into her hands. “I guess that’s me back to normal. It feels so horribly familiar. Like there’s something about to boil over just here.” She tapped a fist against her chest.

“That was almost an apology.”

She looked up. “Yes it was, wasn’t it? Well, you’ve shown more backbone than I’ve ever given you credit for. I must be reacting to it.”

Gareth didn’t know how to answer that, so he got up and went to the kitchen. Mary followed him.

“French toast with maple syrup?”

Mary had always liked that. “Sounds good.”

Gareth cracked the eggs. Somehow it felt right to be cooking for Mary again. Not good exactly, because sooner or later whatever it was behind her breastbone would boil over and scald both of them. It just felt right, in a way Gareth did not remember feeling since they broke up four years ago.

“Mary,” he said. “I need to know. That virus of yours. Would it actually have worked?”

  Her brow creased in thought.

“I don’t know,” she said at last. “I can’t seem to think like I did. I doubt I could even understand my notes, but I’m not going to try. I’m going to destroy everything related to that project as soon as I get back to the lab.”

Gareth whisked sugar and cinnamon into the eggs and dipped the bread in them.

“Gareth?”

“Mm?”

“What you did…bringing me here. I should be grateful, but you know what I’m like. I’ll bring it up and hold it against you, so I’ll say this now. Don’t let me. You’re stronger than I imagined and the best thing you can do for me is to stand up to me.”

“Does that mean we’re back together?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks for asking.”

She looked as though he’d slapped her. “I mean, if you’ll have me. Obviously.”

Gareth thought about whether he could spend the rest of his life standing up to Mary. He was certainly stronger than he had been, but was he strong enough?

“Of course I’ll have you. I love you.”

She looked at her feet. “You’re addicted. We both are. That’s why I called you, you know. Whatever I did to myself didn’t cure the addiction. Even after the treatment, I was still following the plan to get your attention. To feed my need.”

The hell with right, that felt good to hear. He had assumed the connection between them had survived when she called to tell him her plans, but he had never been sure until she said it. And perhaps she was right and he was strong enough for her now. And perhaps Uncle William told himself he was strong enough to stop at one drink every time he opened a bottle.

None of those thoughts stopped the grin spreading across his face. “So you’re addicted to me and I love you. What, precisely, is the difference?”

He left the stove and kissed her. The French toast slowly turned black.

©D.J. Cockburn
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D.J. Cockburn
D.J. Cockburn has been writing stories for several years. Between receiving rejections, he earns a living through medical research on various parts of the African continent. Other phases of his life have included teaching unfortunate children, and experimenting on unfortunate fish. His most recent stories have appeared in the anthologies Warrior Wisewoman 2 by Norilana Press, and Triangulations: Dark Glass by Parsec Ink.
D.J. Cockburn

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