Double Blind(2)
Author:Brandilyn Collins


    “Oh.”

    The silence vibrated.

    “I haven’t said yes, you know. This is my meeting to decide.”

    “Yeah. Okay.”

    A hesitant tone. For some reason I resented it, which wasn’t fair. Sherry was a great friend, had been ever since we met at an office party for the investment company where Jay and I worked. After Ryan’s death, then the attack, she’d often carried me. Goodness knows I’d been a dead weight.

    “Lisa, I hear those cogs in your head. Stop it.”

    “Okay.”

    “I’m just afraid for you.”

    “I know.”

    So much was at stake. The operation could go badly. I could get the placebo. Even if everything went perfectly I’d still need to build my future without Ryan. “That’ll still be hard,” Sherry had warned me. “It’s not like this operation will erase all your troubles.”

    Yes. But what if I didn’t do this? Even Sherry had no idea what my life had been like. No one could possibly know.

    “So, okay.” Sherry’s voice lightened. “Miss the best spaghetti on the planet. Just let me know what happens. And whatever you decide, you know I’m with you.”

    “Yeah. Thanks.”

    A man stepped out of the building, heading for the parking lot. Even in daylight I pressed back in my seat and checked the door locks. Was he an employee? A trial participant? I watched him approach a blue sedan some distance away and open the door. My body relaxed a little, but my heart pinched. Ryan’s car had been that color.

    “Lisa. Promise you’ll call me.”

    “Promise.”

    I clicked off the line and dropped the phone in my purse.

    The building loomed before me. The air seemed suddenly heavy. Was that an omen?

    I glanced around and saw no one. The frail promise of safety in a parking lot. Purse in hand, I slid from the car.

    The building’s glass-plated door was huge. I forced it back and edged inside to a white-walled lobby with shiny tile floor. Across from me sat an imposing U-shaped desk and behind it—a security guard. He looked in his fifties. Thick gray hair, a jowly face. His name badge read Richard Mair.

    He allowed a half smile. “Can I help you?”

    “I’m Lisa Newberry, with a 5:30 appointment to see Jerry Sterne.”

    My eyes landed on a row of monitors to the security guard’s right. Six in all. One for each floor? They displayed fish-eyed views of elevators and hallways, skewed forms moving across black and white screens. On one monitor—me, looking small and vacant.

    I glanced up at the ceiling. There sat a tiny camera, mounted against the corner.

    “May I see two pieces of identification?”

    Security cameras in a company like this made sense, but they unsettled me, all the same.

    I pulled out my driver’s license and credit card. Why did they even need to see them? Surely they had a picture of me in my file. But that must be upstairs with Sterne.

    Mair checked them over, then gazed at me. He handed the items back. “Thank you.”

    I put them away.

    “Here’s your visitor’s pass, Ms. Newberry.” Mair printed my name and the date on a white square and slid it into a clear-covered badge with a long loop. He also asked me to sign my name and the time into a logbook. “Hang this badge around your neck. Return it when you leave. You can have a seat over there.” He nodded toward two plush sofas facing each other, a magazine-laden table between them. “I’ll let Mr. Sterne know you’re here.”

    On weak legs I crossed to a couch and sat. Gazed at the magazines of all colors and sizes. So much life promised on their covers. Did such a world still exist?

    Oh, Ryan. He’d be so disappointed in my desperation. He’d worked so hard to fill me up emotionally, especially after my miscarriages. My failures. His faith in me was a steady pour. I’d been a leaky pan.

    “Ms. Newberry?”

    I jerked up to see a man on my right. “Hi. Sorry, I was. . .” I stood.

    He held out his hand. “Jerry Sterne, research director for the Empowerment Chip trials.”

    Midforties, maybe? A friendly face and chocolate brown eyes. Receding dark hair. He was built like Ryan, tall and slim.

    The familiar pain needled my gut.

    I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

    “This way, please.” Mr. Sterne gestured toward the elevator.

    We stopped at floor three. In his office, a sitting area held four armchairs, in one of them a severe-looking woman with gray hair slicked into a bun. Not a wrinkle on her skin, and her ice-blue business suit matched her eyes. She stood as we entered. Her lips curved, but the smile didn’t reach the rest of her face.

    “Ms. Newberry.”

    She held out her hand, and I took it. As expected, it was cold.

    “I’m Clair Saxton, second research director for the trials. Jerry and I are teaming this one. So nice to meet you.” Her voice had a polished edge. Like steel.

    “Nice to meet you. Please call me Lisa.”

    “And we’re Jerry and Clair.” Jerry Sterne indicated a chair. “Would you like tea or coffee?”

    “No, thank you.”

    He settled next to Ice Queen, the two of them facing me. On a table near Jerry sat a folder with my name on it, two pens, and a small wooden box. I crossed my ankles, hoping they wouldn’t tremble.

    Jerry spread his hands. “Welcome, and congratulations on being accepted into the trial. We wanted to meet with you today to go over any questions you might have. I know you’ve had numerous explanations before, but this is your chance to tie up any loose ends in your mind. Also, due to the proprietary nature of our trial, our people who interviewed you could not be as forthcoming about all aspects up to this point.”

    “I know.”

    Jerry rose to pick up two business cards from his desk and handed them to me. “Keep these and call either of us anytime if you need to.”

    I slipped them into my purse. “Thank you.”

    He resettled in the chair. “So, first—do you have questions for us?”

    Only a million. “I want to hear more about how this works. And what the side effects could be.”

    “Sure, common questions. As you know this is a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Until it’s completed you won’t know whether you’ve been given a viable chip or the placebo, and neither will we. That way neither you nor we are subconsciously biased as to the results we observe.”

    “I can’t get the placebo. I need this too much.”

    “I understand it’s hard. But we can’t guarantee that. People undergo trials like this to test new products in the hope they’ll get the real thing—which is likely to benefit them. In our case, this is our third round of trials, and we’ve seen some wonderful results. At the same time, the power of suggestion is a strong force. In trials like this, a fair percentage of people claim improvements even from the placebo. That’s taken into account when results are reviewed. The tested item—here, a chip rather than medication—must prove positive results above those from the placebo.”

    “You’re telling me I could feel better just for having the procedure?”

    “It’s possible.”

    I studied my lap. If the power of suggestion was that strong, why couldn’t I overcome this depression on my own? Why was I dying a slow death, when I wanted to live?

    “How does it work, then? The real chip.”

    Clair jumped in, her chilly eyes gleaming. “A little background might help. Cognoscenti isn’t the first to research brain implants. But we’re definitely the best. For example, some patients with depression or Parkinson’s have been successfully treated with implants. Also Darpa, a science unit of the U.S. military, has been part of a project funded a few years ago that involves numerous universities, including Stanford. They’ve been concerned about the number of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain injuries. They’re working on repairing those injuries through a new technique called optogenetics, which involves emitting light pulses to trigger precise neural activity in a certain area of the brain.” She waved a hand. “We surpassed them long ago by developing a tiny chip made of electrodes that send out similar pulses. Our chip’s energy is renewed through motion of the patient, much like a no-wind quartz watch. So there’s no replacement of batteries needed. And we place our chip on a different part of the brain—amazingly close to the surface, not deep inside. These two points of our technology alone are far advanced over anyone else. In fact, many researchers told us neither one of them could be done. Yet we’ve done them both—and on the same chip. As a result of our placement technique, our procedure is as minimally invasive as it can possibly be.”

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