I grabbed the hardbound dossier. After skimming through it quickly, I signed on the dotted line. I, Alex Brown, was confirming my participation in Elysium’s clinical trial, accepting the risk, and waiving liability in case of accidental death. The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on me.
Dead men couldn’t sue.
Elysium was a market leader in pharma, but I had never heard of this facility located in the middle of nowhere. Walking into the state-of-the-art auditorium, I glanced around nervously. There were over thirty participants gathered. A man in a lab coat, sporting a goatee, addressed us.
“Hello everyone, and welcome! I’m Dr. Theodore Kent, the head of this centre. I want you to congratulate the persons sitting on your left and on your right for making it this far!”
I turned to the lady to my left, plastering a smile on my face. Thankfully, I was seated in a corner, next to the wall.
One person less to put up a fake smile for.
“In this trial, we will study a basic human emotion, happiness. We wish to create the most powerful anti-depressant ever known to humankind with no side-effects. Imagine, purchasing little pills of happiness over the counter. We could revolutionize mental health!”
The audience whispered in excitement. I felt nothing.
“You are a freak!” I recalled my ex-girlfriend Jessica’s parting shot, as Dr. Theo droned on.
“I hope you have read the terms. No phones or internet usage during your stay here.”
The-lady-on-my-left muttered indignantly, “who reads fine print?”
Dr. Theo continued, unperturbed.
“The trial will last for four weeks. During this period, you will not be allowed to leave. If you attempt to, you will be shot!”
Stunned silence ensued.
“Just joking. This isn’t Squid Game! *” Dr. Theo chuckled.
“Instead, our legal team will sue you for millions!”
Like that was any better.
“Let me explain the fundamentals of the trial. You will each be issued a wearable tracker, an Elyvate, manufactured by Elysium. We want to know what makes you happy. What makes you sad?
You will be assigned tasks, and your reactions studied by our doctors. There are hidden cameras on location. You will be subject to neurological imaging and blood-draws as well. We feed medical data and photographs into a specially designed algorithm that calculates points that flow into your Elyvates.
Each of you will start with 15,000 dollars. Based on your performance and the points amassed, the balance will move up or down. We will get into the details later. Removing your Elyvate even for a second will reset your balance to zero.”
That sure caught everyone’s attention.
“Let me introduce you to my assistants. This is Dr. Lenny.”
I looked up to see her. She resembled Jessica- golden hair and dimples. Our eyes met and she smiled at me.
I just stared back.
“Theo, how close are we?”
“E, we have to be patient.”
“Hurry up! The client wants updates.”
Dr. Theo cowered and slunk away.
We surrendered our phones and were promised that they would be kept safe in the lockers. We were divided into groups. I was assigned to Dr. Lenny’s one, and she issued me my Elyvate.
Every Elyvate had a touchscreen menu with individual names pre-programmed. We had 15,000 points each, with every point convertible to a dollar. Some of us clutched onto our devices tightly, for fear of the money slipping away.
We began with an icebreaker session. It was pure agony. A young woman in my group went first.
“Hi! I’m Jean! My name sounds like DNA, but less twisted.”
I don’t understand how people burst into laughter effortlessly. When it was my turn, I blanked out. Dr. Lenny reassured me.
“Some of us are introverts, and that’s OK too. The purpose of this activity is to get comfortable with one another. “
Earl, a plump middle-aged man raised his hand.
“Dr. Lenny, why did you decide to work for Elysium? Was it passion?”
“That too. Mainly student debt though.”
Our group chuckled. I followed suit. It was easier to conform. It invited lesser questions.
You are a black hole. What is wrong with you?
My thoughts were interrupted by the lunchbreak announcement. Lunch was a sumptuous spread-salads, lasagne, pasta, and delectable desserts. We tucked in.
Who knew that happiness could be this lucrative?
After lunch, we headed to the labs, where we underwent ECGs and other medical tests. Later that evening, we had a session in the gym. I loved working out, as I could keep running on the treadmill without worrying about reaching anywhere, just like a hamster-on-a-wheel.
At night, we went to our rooms which were neat and clean. I snuggled under the covers and went to sleep. When I awakened the next day, my Elyvate was buzzing. I had a notification.
At breakfast, everyone was talking about their scores and how they had lost points. Earl had lost 900 points, and Jean 2000.
Jean kept whining about her balance and complaining that her Elyvate pricked her. I seemed to be the only one with their total intact. No one had gained any money.
Everyone had been elated at the freebies they received yesterday. If emotionless meant zero, did points reduce with happiness and increase with sadness?
“E, there is a candidate that doesn’t experience emotions.”
“He amassed zero points over the week.”
“I saw that too. He can be a control sample, Theo.”
The first week had just sped by. I had fallen into a routine.
Breakfast, medicals, tasks, monitoring.
Some tasks were physical, like working out at the gym. Others were analytical, like solving mathematical problems or puzzles. Dr. Lenny was tolerable, which in my universe was quite an elevated place to be in. I caught her sneaking furtive glances at me. I wondered why that was.
Did she also think I was strange?
Yesterday, we had a cooking class; it was fun and relaxing for many. However, the ones that had giggled yesterday seemed sad today.
Their points must have been reduced.
We assembled in the auditorium.
“Week two! You made it alive!” Dr. Theo laughed.
That guy needed to stop watching Netflix.
“By now some of you may have figured out how the point system works. Penalty points are levied for happiness and excitement. Emotions like anger, unhappiness, and depression are rewarded. Think of it as a government policy, taxes for happiness, and monetary aid for depression. “
A hand shot up.
“Isn’t this trial about happiness?”
“Yes! Joy and sorrow are two opposite sides of a coin. To understand one, you must explore the other.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“This is a controlled environment; your safety will be monitored.”
‘For any accidents, refer to the non-liability clause’, went unsaid.
There was mumbling in the audience. People were already trying to game the system.
“This week onwards, Elyvate updates points real-time based on heart rate and other biomarkers. President Theodore of the Empire of Elysium has concluded his speech. Haha!”
No one laughed.
I went to ask Dr. Lenny a question in private.
“Why can’t I feel emotions?”
“It’s a neurological condition, Alex. Have you ever been diagnosed before?”
I shook my head.
“You are different. But you are also other things-handsome and intelligent. “
She clasped my hand. I’m not big on contact, but I didn’t push her away. She cleared her throat and took her hand away.
“Alex, your condition has a name.”
“Is it covered by insurance?”
“Then I don’t want to know.”
The group dynamics had altered considerably. The real-time point updates kept everyone on tenterhooks. The task that day, was to work on a Lego design. Jean was the first to complete. She shrieked with joy. Realization dawned, as she glanced at her Elyvate.
Her one moment of excitement had eroded hundred dollars! Her face fell. The Elyvate beeped.
This was only the beginning. People started looking anxious and unsettled, as they juggled their emotions. Earl whispered conspiratorially to me.
“This isn’t a trial for happiness. It’s probably to understand women and their mood swings. Trust me, I’m twice divorced!”
The week passed by in a blur. Everyone around me struggled, their eyes glued to their devices. They were sinking deep into dark pools of depression.
“E, this week has been stupendous. Everybody except Alex has gained anxiety and points. But…”
“I’m worried about their mental health. Will they be able to withstand more?
“I don’t care. We are so close!”
“Congratulations for making it into week three; group tasks will now commence. Your Elyvates have been updated, enabling you to view each other’s points!” Dr. Theo exclaimed.
An option called scoreboard appeared on my Elyvate’s menu. My name was third from the bottom and my total at 15,000. At the top of the list was Earl, with double my points.
Having two ex-wives had helped.
People viewed one another with a sense of envy, further pushing their points up, setting into motion a vicious circle. The tasks continued with the same rigor, only things were complicated now. Some seemed to be on the verge of nervous breakdowns. We played a football match and people tried hard to lose. The game dragged on hopelessly until our time was up and not a goal scored.
That night, I struggled to sleep. My room faced the administrative block, the HQ, a building that was usually shrouded in darkness at night. I saw a light on. Strange! I lowered my window and heard a distinct bang.
What was going on?
Curiosity got the better of me. I climbed out of the window and slid down the pipe. I walked up to HQ. My suspicions were confirmed. Someone was in there for sure. I knocked on the entrance door, assuming it was locked, but it swung open quietly. I walked in and made my way up the stairs to the second floor, where I saw the light on.
Ahead of me was Dr. Lenny, standing over a slumped Dr. Theo, with a revolver in her hand. She looked up, unusually calm, as though she was expecting me. Now there was no escape. Not when she had a gun.
“Why did you kill Theo?” I asked quietly.
“You see that big E in front of HQ?”
“E for Elysium?”
“No! I am ‘E’. Eleanor Smith. Lenny for short. When I inherited this company from my old man, we were in heavy debt. I was afraid we would have to declare bankruptcy. That’s when I secured a contract for developing a bioweapon for a powerful client. They wanted a chemical that triggered anxiety. Anxiety so severe, that it would cause the heart to palpitate and explode.
I needed unlimited data and test subjects to develop the product. We selected our participants carefully and invited them to innocuous trials with a promise of monetary reward. We gave them Elyvates to wear, and injected our formulation, Angsta-1, into their bloodstream through vials and microscopic needles embedded in the devices.
We needed subjects to be anxious to accelerate the activation of the Angsta. We triggered them using a reward and penalty system. The blood draws analysed the body for hormonal changes after every daily prick. We have held forty trials so far, and every time have enhanced the Angsta formulation in the injections, based on the data collated. The trials have given us insights on reactions triggered, and we have synthesized new Angsta molecules that are 10 times more potent and can trigger severe fatal anxiety.”
“We were your guinea pigs. You could have killed us.”
“Nah, the dosage was too small for that. At max, you would experience bad anxiety, something quite common nowadays. Angsta-41, the final product, is now ready. We aren’t testing it on you; too risky. Instead, the client has promised to deliver ‘volunteers’. Mostly refugees and drifters. High risk-high return. That’s why I’m personally involved, but undercover.”
“The bumbling fool developed cold feet. He wanted to quit. So, I got rid of him.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Alex, you are different. You don’t make emotional decisions. Your test results revealed that you were barely impacted. With you, there is no fuss, no drama. With Theo gone, I need an operational head. None of the other doctors know about this or are trustworthy. I am proficient with the science already. You will make a perfect partner, and us, a great team.”
“What makes you think I …”
“I can offer you a new life.”
Lenny kept her gun down and turned around. In one swift move, she jabbed my arm with a needle.
“I developed Angsta-41-lite, an attenuated derivative of Angsta-41. It’s more potent than what has been administered to you until now, but not that powerful to kill you. Feel the magic.”
I gasped. My head grew heavier.
I recalled my break-up with Jessica. For the first time, big tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt catharsis and relief. And then…. nothing. Back to being me.
I reeled under the magnitude of what I had experienced.
“The effects are temporary. Join me, and I will formulate something that will make you feel sorrow AND joy.”
I didn’t know what to say. My life flashed in front of me.
You are a freak. Blank Slate. W-E-I-R-D-O.
My decision was made.
I held out my hand. Lenny smiled, relaxing. Suddenly, with a swift movement, I grabbed the revolver she had left on the table. I fired at her, point-blank. As she crumpled down dead, I observed the look of horror on her face.
She was going to have major trust issues in hell.
In the lab, I discovered containers labelled ‘highly inflammable’. I took my lighter out and went about my task.
I had no feelings, but I wasn’t unfeeling.
The charred bodies of Elysium CEO Dr. Eleanor Smith, and scientist Dr. Theodore Kent were recovered from a private facility. Investigations are underway.
A recently concluded audit has detected financial irregularities in Elysium’s books. The company stocks have plummeted to an an-all-time low.
The Elysium investigations had opened Pandora’s box. Everything was hushed up quickly. It was concluded that Eleanor had burned down the building for insurance money to bail Elysium out. Theo had tried to stop her. She shot him and killed herself.
Despite the abrupt halt to the trial, we were still paid. I donated my 15,000 to an institution that supported mental health.
There are days when I recall that brief moment of euphoria, passion, and pain. Should I have chosen differently? I recall Eleanor’s plan to push innocents over the brink of sanity, for greed.
If this was normal, I was better off being different!
I continued my walk, remembering to don a smile for the old man that sold me newspapers.
Dystopian Drama on Netflix where participants are shot down after losing challenges or trying to escape. The late Dr. Theo was a fan, until he was red-lighted himself.
Image credits: Diane Serik, Unsplash