The Unknown Object
Hannah Davis precariously balanced a stack of history books as she worked her way down the busy high school hallway, dodging and weaving as students sprinted to their next classes or grabbed things from their lockers. Of course, not a single student offered to help her carry some of the heavy books to her classroom. Typical teenagers, she thought, clenching her teeth in barely-disguised annoyance. So worried about not being late to class they don’t notice anything else in front of them.
A stray strand of blonde hair suddenly worked its way down her forehead, blocking her vision slightly. Since she was using both hands to carry the books, she couldn’t well brush the hair out of her face, the result of which meant she was now trying to navigate the crowded hallway without being able to see well. As she walked, she bumped into a heavyset student, almost dropping the stack of books.
“Sorry about that, Mr. …Yang, isn’t it?” she said.
“Uh, yeah, uh, no problem, Ms. Davis,” the teenager replied, making no indication that he had any plans of offering to help or even of stepping out of the way.
“Mr. Yang, could you please…uh…assist…”
“Oh, uh, yeah, sorry, I gotta go to class. Seeya later, Ms. Davis,” he said, nodding and walking away.
Ugh. These kids.
She finally got to her classroom’s closed door and was looking around to see if she could find someone to hold it open for her while she carried the books in when she heard someone call to her from further down the hall.
“Hey, Hannah,” the stentorian voice said. She turned to her left and saw its source: Mr. Hudson, the P.E. teacher. He sprinted towards her and took the books from her, using his foot to hold the door open.
“You’re a life-saver, Johnny,” she said, with a genuine smile of relief, brushing the troublesome blonde hair away from her face. Mr. Hudson grinned, then walked in after her, gently placing the books on the desk.
“Uh, actually, I didn’t come here to just help you out—you’ve got a call from the Lansdale Central Public Library? They transferred it to the teacher’s lounge. I just came to let you know.”
“The Lansdale Central Public Library? Why would they call me?” she wondered.
“No idea, the guy didn’t say, but I figured it might be one of your history project things,” Mr. Hudson shrugged, then walked out the door, holding it open for her.
“Well, I’ll go see what it’s about. Thanks again, Johnny.”
“Anytime, Hannah,” he said. As she walked past him, she could feel his eyes on her.
“That’s strange,” Hannah said into the phone. “I didn’t give any authorization for him to be at the library. His mother called the school this morning to notify us that he and his sister were sick. No, nothing about…who did you say? Oskar who? I’m afraid I’ve never even heard of that person.”
Hannah was in the teacher’s lounge, which was empty except for herself, Mr. Hudson (who had followed her, obviously interested in finding out what the mysterious call was about), and one of the junior high teachers, sitting in a corner and eating a sandwich.
“Yes…yes…thank you for informing me, Mr. Wilford. I’ll be sure to follow up and contact the parents. I appreciate it.”
She hung up the phone.
Mr. Hudson grinned wolfishly.
“So, what was it? Sounded like one of the kids was cutting class.”
“Yes, that’s what it sounds like,” Hannah said carefully. She didn’t want to give too much away. She knew Hudson had a reputation for being a bit of a bully with the kids. The last thing she wanted was to paint a target on one of the students’ backs, especially when she didn’t have any details just yet.
“Well, who was it? These little shits are always trying to get away with things like this. You have to teach them to respect you from the start, or they’ll walk all over you,” Hudson confidently stated, as though he were repeating a teacher’s mantra he’d learned long ago.
“I’m not sure what’s going on yet, so I’ll be keeping my own counsel until I do. I have to be discreet. Confidentiality issues, and all that,” Hannah said with a tight smile. Before Hudson could wheedle her more about the identity of the student, she marched out of the teachers’ lounge and back to her classroom.
The librarian, a man named Chris Wilford, had mentioned that a student named Timothy West had come in, claiming to be doing some sort of research assignment for history class. Hannah would never have gotten the call directly except for the fact that West had apparently name-dropped her.
Hannah tried to think about Timothy West—she barely knew him. He was one of those students who didn’t particularly stand out. Not at the top of the class, but not at the bottom either, he was one of those middling students she had every year. Though come to think of it, he’d visited her last week to ask a question, but had gotten shy once the Model U.N. girls had come into the classroom. He’d promised to ask about it next week, and then never done so. Should she have followed up?
One thing was for sure—his mother had called in claiming he was sick, but he was certainly well enough to go out of his house. Still, not exactly the type of behavior a student would typically get up to when playing hooky from school. The whole thing was a bit strange. Why would he cut classes just to go to the library?
Hannah decided to call up the student’s mother and set up a meeting so she could find out more about the situation before filing a report with the dean of discipline. She should cover her bases and figure out what was happening, be thorough.
When she got back to her classroom, Hannah made a mental note to get the West family’s phone number from the school’s student directory and give them a call later in the day.
Timothy walked behind Ms. Sommer as she sauntered through the big hall of the library. She said she lived nearby, so the two of them were going to go to her house to pick up all the secret documents that Dr. Müller had left for his ‘heir’…including the supposed ‘guide to obedience’ the old lady had been hyping up.
His mind was troubled and he was distracted. He kept thinking back to what Ms. Sommer had said about Mom and Heather. How he was their master and they were his slaves. There was something about that which bothered him.
Maybe it was just the fact that she’d stated something so explicitly that he’d been keeping in the back of his mind, pretending not to realize. Maybe her stating it so starkly had jolted his moribund conscience awake.
He loved his mother and he loved his sister, Tim reflected. But the things he’d done to them…with them…
He thought of his mother’s body writhing beneath him as she brought him to orgasm. How nervous he’d been, and how kind and gentle she’d been with him during his first time. How he’d warped her mind and used her for his own pleasure.
Tim thought of himself pushing past his sister’s maidenhead, taking her virginity. A precious, one-time gift meant for the man she loved. He’d stolen her away from her boyfriend and made her do something she would normally have been horrified at the thought of.
Even with the mind control gun, their minds had rebelled against what he’d done. Tried to find alternatives to being with him. He’d never meant for it to be that way, but in their subconscious, they must have loathed the fact that he’d forced them into…into sex…and…
A reedy voice interrupted his self-reflection. It was the fat assistant librarian, looking somewhat alarmed, calling to Ms. Sommer from the information desk. She had grabbed her purse from her desk, and didn’t even slow down her pace as she walked towards the exit doors, clearly in a hurry.
“Where are you going ma’am? Isn’t it too early for your break?”
“Ah, I forgot something at home, Chris. And I have to escort this young man back to his school. It’s a weekday, so I doubt there’ll be anyone here until after two. I should be back by then.”
“But you never leave…I mean, uh…about the school…I already ca—”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you have everything in good hands. Hold down the fort for me, eh, Chris?”
And with that, she passed through the exit doors. Tim picked up the pace so as not to lose sight of the old lady.
Ms. Sommer’s home was just a five-minute walk from the library. As they walked, she mentioned that it had been bought for her by Dr. Müller expressly because of its location. She’d been working there since the mid-1960s.
Holy cow, Tim thought as he calculated the years. She’s been working at the same place for almost fifty years? Just waiting, in the vain hopes that some guy will show up to pick some documents up?
He realized, though, that Ms. Sommer hadn’t just been vainly hoping. She’d most likely been compelled to obey, by Dr. Müller’s direct command. He wondered if she realized that she’d been tethered to that library like a prisoner to a ball and chain.
“Here we are,” Ms. Sommer said cheerfully, trotting up to a two-story Queen Anne house with white clapboard siding. There was a dark blue Ford Fusion parked out front. Like its owner, the house was old but in meticulously maintained condition.
As they entered the foyer, the first thing that struck Tim were the books. Books everywhere. On shelves, in stacks on the floor, on tables. Most of the books were old, but some were newer. Books on European architecture. History books. Coffee table books of European photography. Dozens upon dozens of sightseeing guides. All of them had sticky notes, tabs, and bookmarks sticking out from the sides. As he went into the living room, he saw the four walls were lined with bookshelves. The entire house felt like a library. There had to be thousands of volumes.
The second thing that struck Tim were photographs, paintings, and posters of exotic locales hanging from the few walls that didn’t have bookshelves. The Alhambra in Spain, European villages, a big black-and-white photograph of the Coliseum in Rome.
“Do you travel a lot, Ms. Sommer?” he asked, trying to make conversation. He figured she must be an avid tourist.
She had been walking past the living room, but suddenly stopped, gave him a strange look, and shook her head.
“I’ve never left Lansdale my entire life. The master needed me here,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“Uhm…was that okay with you…I mean…?”
“Now that I’ve found you, it was all worth it,” she nodded, as though that explained everything.
There were so many questions he wanted answers to, Tim didn’t know how to start. He started with the most obvious one.
“Are there a lot of people like you in Lansdale? You know, that were subjects of Dr. Müller’s mind control gun?”
“Slaves, you mean,” she clarified. Hearing that word again brought a small chill to Tim’s spine. “There used to be hundreds of us. Accountants, doctors, government officials, police. All in key positions to make sure the master was well taken care of, protected. Then, of course, there were the servants. The women for the master’s bed. His wife—she was an unusual case, I believe. He called her his masterpiece—she’d offended him at some sort of social gathering, so he made it his project to recreate her personality from the ground up. She went from some bratty little débutante to his most devoted slave.”
It was as though he’d been Tim had been hit by a truck. Hundreds of subjects…slaves? And what he’d said about Dr. Müller’s wife…
“You mean Elizabeth Duvivier, right? I read about her in the doctor’s obituary. What do you mean, he recreated her personality?”
“It’s all in the guide to obedience. In most cases, when a slave is under the influence of the mind control gun, the master simply added or re-shaped memories to ensure complete obedience. It was the standard protocol. Most subjects aren’t even aware of it—the only reason I am is due to the special task the master gave me, in relation to finding his heir. But in his wife’s case, he created a whole new set of memories and discarded all the previous ones. The master created his ideal woman. Elizabeth Duvivier was a piece of stone, and the master was the sculptor. Like the myth of Pygmalion.”
“But isn’t that kind of like…doesn’t that mean he basically killed the person Elizabeth Duvivier used to be?”
Ms. Sommer gave a callous shrug.
“If memories are what make a person, I suppose that’s true.”
“And if I…if I use this guide to obedience on my mom and my sister, won’t that mean I’ll be..I’ll be…” Tim’s throat went dry. He couldn’t finish the sentence. Would it be like killing them and replacing them with marionettes, puppets on strings?
“Not at all the same thing,” Ms. Sommer assured him, her voice taking on a sickly-sweet tone. “You’ll just be implanting certain memories into key points of their lives, ensuring suggestions are implanted and reinforced—as though they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be your slaves, and now they’re fulfilling their purpose. Their other memories will remain as they are. They’ll still be themselves…but they’ll feel so much more fulfilled, so much more alive knowing they have a purpose in life—to serve their master.”
Tim wasn’t quite so sure about that. The more time he spent with Ms. Sommer, the less sure he was that she was happy to be Dr. Müller’s servant. More like she was trying to convince herself of it. Or that the only reason she was happy was because she was told she had to be.
“How many of those hundreds of people are still around now?” He did quick mental calculations. He figured Ms. Sommer must have been enslaved when she was just a college student, maybe earlier. An entire life spent in service to a dead man.
“I didn’t know all of them. I assume some of them must still be around—maybe in retirement homes,” she said, waving her hands dismissively. “What does it matter? You can create a whole new set of slaves. A young man like yourself…I already know what interests you have…Imagine all the desirable women around you…with the guide to obedience, none of them will be out of your reach, no matter who they are. Now come, let’s go to my study. I have all of the documents there.”
Tim gulped at that. All the desirable women…he thought about his sister’s friends…his teacher, Ms. Davis…maybe even his aunt Lily and her daughter…no one out of reach. Still, alteration of memories, implanting and reinforcing commands—would they all end up like Ms. Sommer?
Well, he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to have access to the guide of obedience. Just in case.
Ms. Sommer’s study was, like every other room he’d seen in her house, filled with books. There was an old rolltop desk in the center of the wood-paneled room, with a reel-to-reel tape recorder on a small wooden table right next to it. The entire room looked like something out of the 1950s, and as he entered it, Tim felt as though he’d traveled through a doorway into the past.
The old woman took a set of keys from her purse and unlocked the rolltop desk, pushing up the wooden slats to reveal the desk’s surface, and an old cardboard box, about the size of a shoebox, though a bit wider. She grabbed it and turned to Tim.
“This is it,” she said, and opened the box. He saw a number of yellowing, stapled, typewritten old documents.
“This is…it? I thought you said there were thousands upon thousands of—“
“Yes, but that’s Dr. Müller’s other research. This is what you need. An operating manual for the mind control gun. The guide to obedience. A repair guide, if the gun were to ever break down. All in English.” She rifled through the documents and showed him the various section. Maybe a few hundred pages in total.
“The, uh, guide to obedience is—“
“It’s here,” she said, pulling it out of the box. “It took the master years to perfect, he told me. A series of simple commands, given one after another, in the exact order and wording in which they appear. They will alter the slave’s memory, their consciousness, and make you their absolute master.”
Tim grabbed the guide eagerly, and skimmed through the pages. It wasn’t what he expected. The commands, as they were, were written in simple English, as though for a little kid. Was this because English was Müller’s second language? Some of the commands were really vague, too. ‘Think of a happy childhood memory. Consider the part of that childhood memory that brought warm feelings to you. Do you have that memory in your mind? Now, I want you to have that feeling again. I am the only one who can give you that feeling.’
This stupid bullshit was the guide to obedience? The guide was over fifty pages long…and filled with similar ‘commands.’
‘…the feeling of protectiveness you felt from a parental figure…’
‘…the taste of your favorite food…’
‘…the strongest feeling of sexual pleasure…’
This is garbage, Tim thought. I’ve been fucking duped by this old biddy.
His shock must have been obvious on his face, because Ms. Sommer gently put his hand on his shoulder.
“The guide is written in simple English so it can be understood by any subject, no matter their age, no matter if English is their first or second language. The commands are intended to have a cumulative effect, which might not be obvious when seeing them in isolation. This is important—you must not skip a single command. The commands must be given one after another, exactly as they appear in the guide. Once the slave has received and accepted the entire series of commands, their minds will be entirely pliable. In their awakened, conscious state, you will be the master. In their unconscious state, when you’ve controlled them with the gun, you can give any suggestion or command, and it will be accepted, without hesitation.”
“Without hesitation?” Tim asked skeptically.
“Yes—for example, your mother and sister, whose bodies you’ve enjoyed,” Ms. Sommer said. Tim’s face went slightly red, suddenly reminded this old woman knew he’d engaged in incest. “You could make them think they were your girlfriends…could make your mother believe you were your father, her husband…could make the mother think she is the daughter, the daughter think she is the mother…with but a single command. Their own unconscious minds would deal with any of the incongruities in the situation.”
Tim rubbed the bump on his head.
“Would they be okay with, uh…me doing stuff with...both of them? Like, they wouldn’t get jealous or upset?”
“Dr. Müller had an extensive harem. The women understood, they were happy—they knew their master’s appetite and accepted it as natural.”
The fantasy he’d had of taking both his mom and sister at once flooded back to him. With this guide, he could do that. But wouldn’t it mean he’d be wiping his family’s memories? Destroying what made his mother and sister the people they were, like what the doctor had done with his wife? How could he risk something like that?
Ms. Sommer apparently felt satisfied her explanation had assuaged him. She placed the box of documentation in his hands, then closed the rolltop desk, locked it. She now turned to the reel-to-reel tape recorder, she took out a large reel from a nearby drawer, began expertly placing it on the recorder.
“Now that I’ve given you the documentation you needed, I’ve fulfilled my purpose,” she said, her glee barely contained. “My previous master’s will has been completed. And now you will take his place. As long as you are careful and discreet, this town and its people can be yours.”
Tim felt a cold shiver run down his spine. He rubbed his arm, realized he had goosebumps.
“Now, master…will you please…do me this one favor?” she said, her voice as sweet as honey.
“What do you mean?” Tim blinked, not understanding.
“As I said, I’ve done everything I was ordered to do, and now…do you remember what I told you about Elizabeth Duvivier?”
“Yeah, you said that the doctor basically recreated her entire life, molded her into the perfect wife.”
Ms. Sommer nodded gravely.
“Now, I’d like you to do the same to me.”
“…Do the same to you? Wait, what?” Did this crazy old lady want to be turned into his wife? What the hell was she on about?
“The master promised me, that once I had done as asked, and passed the documents on to his heir, he would give me the life I’ve always wanted. The master recorded his commands on this old audio reel. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, but without the effects of the mind control gun, it’s worthless.”
“I’m…I’m not sure what you want me to do.”
She sighed impatiently.
“You couldn’t have helped but see all of the books in my home. Sightseeing volumes, history books, travel journals.”
He nodded. She continued.
“My dream…my dream has always been to see the world. To travel, to go to Europe, drink coffee at a Paris café, fall in love in Rome, camp out in the Spanish desert in Almeria, see all the old castles in Germany.”
“But you…you said you’ve spent your whole life here.”
“Because it was the master’s command. He told me his heir would visit the library to receive the documents you now hold in your hands. He never set a deadline, a time limit.”
Awareness of what the old lady was saying slowly began to dawn on Tim.
“For the past fifty years, I haven’t taken a single day off. A single sick day. And now, I’m an old woman in my seventies.”
“So, you’ve…you’ve never had a chance to see any of those places. Never been able to fulfill your dreams,” Tim said, mournfully. Dr. Müller had ruined this whole woman’s life.
“That’s where you’re wrong, young man,” she said, smiling triumphantly. “Even though I’ve never been there, I feel as though I know every inch of the European continent, its history, its landmarks. And if you fulfill my request, I will have traveled there, will have lived there, will have lived the life I’ve always wanted.”
“What do you mean?”
“On this audio reel is the life of my dreams. Dr. Müller recorded a series of commands, of memories. It will rewrite my life to one of travel and excitement. Yes, I may not have ever been to Europe physically, but my knowledge will be able to fill in the gaps. I’ll have fallen in love wildly in love with a mysterious Frenchman, ridden a Vespa down Rome’s side streets, kissed a handsome young man under the arches of Heidelberg Palace.”
“The audio reel will rewrite your memories? But won’t that mean you won’t be the person that you are? Like, it will transform you into someone else? Like what happened with Elizabeth Duvivier?”
“But I won’t know it, you see. That’s the beauty of it. I’ll be a new person. I won’t know anything about the master, or about you, or what you’ll be doing with that mind control gun. We’ll both win, you see? You’ll tie up a loose end, I’ll get the life, the memories, I’ve always wanted. No longer will I have the life of someone who has never stepped a foot out of this detestable little town. This is what Dr. Müller promised me. This is his final gift to me.”
There was fire in Ms. Sommer’s eyes now, and Tim could see that there was no arguing with her. This was why she’d been so eager to help him. This was the carrot on the stick that Dr. Müller had placed for her.
Tim suddenly had a very dark thought. What if Ms. Sommer hadn’t even cared about traveling abroad, and Dr. Müller had just implanted that suggestion into her mind?
The mind control gun was more powerful, more frightening than Tim had ever imagined. Still, Ms. Sommer was right about one thing—to live for the past fifty years in the hopes that some random person would show up at the library to claim some old papers, that was a wasted life. If the recording on that reel would provide her with a new set of memories, make her think she’d had all sorts of journeys, love affairs, adventures—wouldn’t that be a blessing, a gift, even if it were a lie? He thought of the old woman, listening to the recording of the life she wished she had, probably praying each night that someone with the mind control gun would come to save her from her boring, anodyne existence. Reading book after book of places she would never be able to travel to had to be its own, very specific kind of torture.
Besides, he was curious to see how this memory rewriting would work. And he’d never have another willing test subject like the old woman in front of him.
“Okay,” he said, after a long pause. “Show me how to work this tape recorder thing.”