ON MOST WEEKNIGHTS, Dr. Reed Faraday sat on her deck with a glass of wine, observing the birds that fluttered about her verdant backyard. She was not a hobbyist and didn’t birdwatch because she found the activity—or birds themselves—particularly interesting. Rather, she did so out of habit, which was similar to how she drank wine. Her knowledge of both was passing at best. She wasn’t able to discern the star finches that gathered in the trees of her secluded property from the diamond firetails that often flocked there—and while a syrah was her choice variety, she hardly knew anything about it, let alone enology.
Nearly a decade earlier, Faraday had become the youngest-ever recipient of the Gellar Genetics Prize for her postdoctoral research, in which she proposed a novel method for mapping chromosomal mutations.
“We’re looking at codes—I think of them as puzzles—and, indeed, some are very challenging,” she said in her acceptance speech. “But inherent to all puzzles are solutions. I believe we are closer to finding these solutions than we thought possible when the Human Genome Project began.” At only twenty-one, Reed Faraday spoke with a disarming conviction more befitting a scientist three times her age. She had every right to do so: she was on the cusp of a breakthrough that might have led to those solutions. But when job offers began to roll in after her visionary Gellar speech, she found herself distracted with potential opportunities, and stymied by the very work that had propelled her to the spotlight.
“That’s a sign-on bonus? I thought that was the salary!” Faraday tittered during a brief meeting with two recruiters from XYX Pharmaceuticals, widely regarded as the world’s premiere research facility. (As her friend Laura had put it, “You don’t say ‘no’ to XYX Pharma. You may never get another opportunity to say ‘please.’”) They assured Faraday that she would be contributing her talents to “something greater.” With more experience, she would have seen a red flag in their insincere vagueness. But at the time, Faraday only saw potential—and she had no voice of reason to raise a specter of doubt. She was alone.
Faraday accepted the position, assuring herself that it would be a means of completing her own work—she would have access to cutting-edge resources that weren’t available to her before. She wasn’t deliberately neglecting to finish what she’d started, she was being naïve. Her poise and vision belied her youth.
Faraday swallowed a mouthful of Syrah as she thought of these moments, when she had choices. After almost ten years of faithful work for XYX, she was no closer to finishing her chromosomal mutation research. *, she thought, if my life wasn’t empty. It would be okay if I was doing work that mattered, the “something greater” they promised me.* With another gulp of wine, Faraday pondered why she’d taken the position. It hadn’t been for the money alone. It must have been the prestige—she’d been chosen and that felt so good that it blinded her to how mundane the job really was. It was a transgression of character—born out of ignorance—but a transgression nonetheless. And she felt hollowed by it.
Habitually, Faraday’s remorse would have led to an empty glass and then to a jog, a shower and bed. However, on this evening, it led to more wine. “I’m a cog,” she mumbled as she drank, her gaze fixed on a cluster of finches. “Just a cog. And you’re just birds. Stupid, beautiful finches…” There are 228 known species and mutations of finches, Faraday recalled from a birdwatching book—a well-intended gift from her friend Lloyd, who had mistaken her for a hobbyist. She’d only skimmed enough of it to write a thank-you note that appeared to be informed by the gift, so there was a reason this arbitrary fact had stayed with her: the number 228 reminded Reed Faraday of something…
She stood before several bookcases that walled her living room, a third glass of wine in her hand. Her eyes landed on the worn spine of a volume titled The World’s Most Challenging Ciphers. She flipped through pages of text covered in the handwriting of both a child and an adult.
“Finished with your homework?” her grandfather always asked before they embarked upon hours of work on coded puzzles. A decorated World War II cryptographer, even Ben Faraday had his limits: “Cipher 228 is tougher than anything I had to decode during the war,” he revealed to eleven-year-old Reed when she goaded him into telling her if he’d ever been stumped. “I haven’t even decrypted all the vowels in that one.”
“Yet,” she replied, a brilliant twinkle in her eye. Her confidence caused him to chuckle. It was the same disarming confidence that would catch the attention of scientists and recruiters ten years later.
XYX Pharmaceuticals has gutted me of that confidence. They’ve kept me in a cage, Reed Faraday thought, taking a moment to look up from the book and out into the backyard at the finches. They had begun to dissipate as night fell. Her wine-stained lips curled into a slight smile as she saw a pair of birds disappear into the darkness. It occurred to Faraday that perhaps her interest in watching birds each evening was born from envy. Enjoy your freedom.
Her eyes went back to Cipher 228, a few scant pencil marks beside it. “You owe it to him to finish this,” she muttered to herself, angry and inebriated. “He gave you everything.”
Faraday gathered a pencil and a few sheets of loose-leaf, under a sudden spell of determination. She was never impulsive. She rarely broke from her routines. But for two hours, she allowed the rest of her tiny world to slip away as she sat on the floor and fixated on strings of numbers—codes for letters, an encrypted message embedded within—as though doing so might somehow “free” her from the setback that the past decade had been.
It was a setup for failure; Faraday didn’t just struggle, she recalled moments when, as a child, this came so easily to her. She stumbled to her feet in a panic, the walls of her house seeming to close in on her. She rushed to her medicine cabinet, popped open a prescription bottle, and dropped an Ativan onto her tongue. She shut her bloodshot eyes, searching for deep, soothing breaths. But she could only muster shallow gasps.
Desperate, Faraday found herself refilling her glass with the remainder of the bottle of Syrah, another Ativan poised on her tongue. Just take this away from me—or take me away from here, she thought, ready for whatever was to come, even if that was an infinite void of darkness. I don’t care…
And then, Reed Faraday hurled the glass of wine across the living room, watching in disbelief as it shattered against the opposite wall. She didn’t do so in rage or frustration or fear—this action was seemingly out of her control, against her will. As the alcohol ran across the floor, Faraday remained still. Her gaze fell upon her outstretched hand, finding a bright red speck of light trained on it. She moved her hand, first in a gentle wave, then in a violent spasm, yet the red dot remained perfectly situated. Faraday peered outside into the darkness. Is this a trick, a joke—the kind kids play with laser pointers? She had a sudden sinking, sickening feeling: Or is XYX Pharmaceuticals trying to have me killed? Am I expendable?
She slipped out of the living room and ducked into a dark closet, alarmed to find that the glowing red dot was still, inexplicably, positioned on her hand. “I’ve had too much to drink,” she stammered, rubbing her sinuses. Faraday stumbled to bed and fell asleep.
When she awoke the next morning, she looked at her hand, relieved to find that the red dot was gone. As she showered and prepared for work, she chalked it up to stress and wine-induced hysterics. Reed Faraday was a natural loner who had increasingly allowed that very loneliness to get the better of her, yet she was thankful not to have shared the prior night with anyone else. It was my own silly vacuum of drunkenness; it won’t happen again.
But there had been a witness. Perhaps Faraday was too embarrassed—and shaken—to admit to herself that she’d been on the brink of taking her own life. During that moment, she lost control, and something was watching over her. Whether or not she chose to remember it at the time, something took that control and became her safety net. This was no guardian angel; it needed Reed Faraday as much as she needed it, marking the start of an otherworldly symbiosis.
Copyright © 2021 Robert Ian Simpson