Everyone winced as they heard the deep mouthy laugh down the hallway, approaching the cafeteria. As though some signal had been given, all over the room, Eckl Pharmaceutical employees, from custodians to executives, began to move. Some began to briskly assemble the remains of their fractionally eaten meals, rise from their seats, and feed their lunches into the open maw of the room’s trash bin, while others tapered clubby, ongoing conversations and withdrew to their plates.
Todd Waycross, a technician in the New Product Development Department, felt exposed by the dining room’s subtle exodus and looked longingly at his untouched bowl of tomato bisque. He decided it was not worth it and joined his coworkers making their way to the room’s exit – the one opposite the sounds of the laugh, the one he was not due to enter.
“I am not getting caught alone with him again,” muttered hungry Todd as he eschewed with a recent acquaintance from accounting.
“I have my mother-in-law’s holiday fruitcake at my desk,” offered the acquaintance. “You’re more than welcome to it.”
The escalating sounds of the man who had charged the room into action finally synchronized with his materialization at the double doors. And there he stood, his angular frame, his bright white hair, his great fleshy mole under his right eye, his fiercely eager smile that brandished more lower teeth than upper, absorbing the room. If there were any diners who had not heeded the sounds of his approach in the hallway, it was too late now.
The man had employed his usual theater of entering the dining room through the very center of its pair of swinging doors, and stood with them spread all the way apart. He shot a gay finger that singled out and settled on Miss Tufty, who had almost managed to disappear into the kitchen with a large empty pot.
“Miss Tufty, Miss Tufty, did you make Mama’s chicken and dumplings today?” he asked in an overly loud voice pitched for the stage, pitched for the room.
“You know your mama don’t work here and has gone on to glory, Conley,” advised the silver-haired, blue-collared woman of 65. Her voice was quiet and had the stress of a mother desperate to manage a disorderly child, her thick, reflective, black-rimmed glasses a sheen veiling her biting aggravation.
“Well, if you follow that recipe I gave you to the letter, won’t none of us know that it was just you!” bellowed the man as though having produced some clever closing witticism. He shifted his steel-blue eyes across the room, finding no reaction to his banter, however. Miss Tufty dipped into the kitchen.
The man’s name was Dr. Conley Chislom, a corporate chemist and general jackass, and the year was 1964. Many found it implausible that such a galling individual could secure a position as department head for one of Atlanta’s most profitable companies. In truth, Eckl Pharmaceuticals’ devotion to its most unpopular employee ran deep for reasons undisclosed to the public.
Chislom had never married and rarely met someone willing to date him, though for much of his 50’s he did keep company with the governor of Georgia’s office secretary – a curt woman with her own unique set of interpersonal foibles. She dumped him when it became clear he wanted only to impress his mother by the loose association with her venerated employer.
When Chislom lost his mother to lung cancer in 1960, he was left alone in the family’s great antebellum home and escaped loneliness by putting in long hours at Eckl Pharmaceuticals. His perpetual and assiduous involvement with his employer expanded the work, and he was eventually advised to take on an assistant. With no willing applicants to the position, Chislom was left appointing an awkward ginger-haired youth named Reginald Seabolt, a complete opposite personality to his own. Seabolt was withdrawn and painfully shy, and unlike Chislom, he kept potential friends at bay because of the self-assurance that was not there.
By the end of 1960, these two friendless men were quite close outside of work, with Seabolt often spending long evenings playing billiards and drinking beer at Chislom’s massive home. Though their days were spent developing medications for a prospering company, their evenings, however, veered into unrelated and enigmatic research.
One evening in April of 1961, an inebriated and maudlin Chislom disclosed to Seabolt disquieting histories regarding their employer. In his basement, which was stocked with years of appropriated company equipment and chemicals, Chislom opened a dusty cabinet, and with boozy solemn importance, showed his young guest files and formulas of a chemically manipulated grain fungus that Eckl Pharmaceuticals had developed for the war against the Reds. According to Chislom, their employer had once been commissioned by the U.S. government to develop these psychotropics to ply people’s mental state and brain functions. Chislom proudly explained that other privately owned institutions were also commissioned and had explored methodologies such as hypnosis, sensory deprivation and even sordid forms of torture (though these were only rumors) to exact similar results. The purpose, Chislom ratified to the youth, was for everyone to develop some form of effective mind control to be used against the Soviets, who were working on the same thing – and probably still were.
“Regrettably,” Chislom had bemoaned, “our progress was a bit lackluster enough that ole Uncle Sam pulled the project in ’54. We were told that the whole program had come to a halt. Hell, son… we should’ve kept pushing. I’m sure the Commies did.”
Chislom and his young guest stayed up much of that night looking over all the dusty notations of the long-dead project. Drink had burned away, and the two men were engrossed in the highly technical chitter of their shared science. Seabolt proved quite adept at the central sciences and identified completely radical takes on a few of the old compositions. Chislom, though he would never admit it, could hardly keep up with him.
Over the ensuing months, the colleagues spent secret hours of their workday at the better-outfitted labs of Eckl Pharmaceuticals reviving Chislom’s gallant protection of democracy by reworking the formulas without truly understanding the potential neuronal outcomes should the new psychotropics be introduced to human physiology – and without truly having a goal in mind.
Seabolt was happy for the close companionship, but for Chislom, their quiet experiments recalled the days of being part of something highly imperative and important and then missing some integral opportunity at real stature, true significance. Some mournful thing had been stirred within him, and now it was awake.
Almost exactly two years later in April of 1963, after the apathetic and prolonged waning interest in their research, after having cataloged their new psychotropics for the indeterminate day they would “award” it to the country, Chislom surprised himself by taking samples of their compounds back to his home laboratory without informing his young collaborator. At his home, he diluted the samples and began to test for biological responses – on himself. Whether this act was born from some unconscious desire for self-destruction or some perverse step to realize greatness, Dr. Conley Chislom’s reason was unknown to him, and it led to someplace completely unexpected.
Two hours after having self-administered, intravenously, one of their batches, Chislom suffered an "out-of-body” experience that he initially mistook as an elaborate hallucination. This he actually anticipated. After all, the formula from the batch did feature an array of complex psychoactive components. Quite suddenly, from some fixed position near the north wall of his basement laboratory, Chislom surveyed his body lying limply on the floor. Gripped by the sudden primal fear of having just died, he desperately wanted to be back with his body—and he was. Hours later and after dressing a cut to his ear he received from the fall, Chislom returned downstairs to study the side of the room his consciousness seemed to occupy. He stood, carefully considering all the accounts of illusory experiences he had studied in college, the varied distortions to perception and cognizance, the dissociative symptoms that induced the semblance of perceiving one’s own physical body from someplace outside of it. Yet, Chislom was certain that his perception-based phenomena was like no chronicled side effect of any known phantasmagoria-inducing drug he had ever researched. His experience was completely lucid and real to his conscious being. Indeed, during his episode, he was unequivocally certain of being outside of his body.
Just before his experience, he had been looking at a recently purchased Jena Ng microscope, which sat on a small table in the manufacturer’s wooden box. The box was opened, and the microscope was revealed. In the instant just before the fright of seeing himself on the floor had overwhelmed him, he recalled hearing the oddly distant slump of his collapsing body while, at the same time, smelling the strong lacquer of the microscope’s wood container, which had been across the room.
He returned to where he had been standing and looked intently at the expensive microscope on the opposite side of the basement laboratory and tried to catch the slightest smell of the wooden container from the distance.
And then it happened again.
Throughout the remaining months of 1963 and over the span of 1964, Eckl Pharmaceutical employees were thankful to find that Dr. Conley Chislom had become slightly more reclusive, even withdrawing from the stilted companionship of Reginald Seabolt. In that long time, he had been quite busy, fashioning personal experiments and journaling his discoveries about the psychotropic and what it had done to him. An enduring italophile, he named the compound PSIONICA, the Italian form of psionic, a name that, at least to him, conjured appropriate imagery and would perhaps describe the parascience that seemed to typify his discovery.
During his solitary research, he had grown quite proficient with his out-of-body experiences and found that he could discharge from his human form as easily as walking through a door. More specifically, he was placing his “self” into various objects around the room, leaving his physical body in a disconcerting (yet stabilized) comatose condition. He could even hop from one object to a second object without having to return to his body, though he was mindful to limit his away sessions to an hour at a time. Having a concern that his body would die while he possessed items around the room, he got into the habit of outfitting it with a cardiac monitor. He would then leave his body reclined in his mother’s favorite chair and his own favorite pillow. He made tentative attempts to possess animals and plants, particularly his neighbor’s dog, who would often loiter on the cool bricks of his back patio. In the end, it would seem, he could not occupy anything living.
After much practice, he mastered the ability to nudge objects he possessed by minute degrees, though this effort typically resulted in the destination object simply toppling over. He recorded in his journal that he retained faculties of sight (though somewhat narrowed) and hearing (though somewhat distorted). He even experienced a numbed sense of tactile perception. Quite oddly, his sense of smell was far more acute than that of his natural body. To his dismay, however, he found he had no means of speech once he was... away.
He determined that the hardest part about existing outside his body was the alien proprioception he felt when out of his natural human shape. He chronicled the sensation as being “perfectly locked up” and that the most demanding items to occupy were objects that were completely solid throughout. Though these far denser objects could be easily inhabited, garnering movement was almost impossible, and he often felt a sense of claustrophobia while in them. Machines, he found, offered a great relieving and freeing agency as he was able to articulate movement by manipulating their designed motions and functions. He would spin the hands of an occupied clock or change the channels of an occupied television set. Chislom discovered that if he occupied the same object frequently, he grew more accustomed to all its potential oscillations and was quite comfortable existing within it. He even experimented with fluctuating the pitch of an old single-speaker radio to dispatch crudely formed words (which naturally sounded nothing like his own voice).
As to the compound itself, Chislom settled that the curious side effect remained quite lasting and stable, perhaps within his brain, at the first threshold dose, which he calculated to be 8 mL. He self-experimented with higher and continued doses, but found that the increase brought on vertigo and tinnitus without altering the bizarre initial reaction. He was certain the compound disintegrated completely via digestion, and would only implant its extraordinary byproduct if introduced directly into the bloodstream. There was nothing extraordinary in its odor, taste, viscosity or water-like transparency. Indeed, the single unique property of Chislom's PSIONICA is its one side effect – a side effect that he knew would change the world forever.
Now it was December of 1964, five days till Christmas, and Dr. Conley Chislom was starting to grow maudlin again. He felt he had taken his research as far as he could go, and he needed to share his discovery with someone he could trust. He turned from the buffet line with his tray of Miss Tufty’s oily salmon croquettes, English peas, mashed potatoes and a roll, walked across the cafeteria and sat down beside Reginald Seabolt, who was eating alone in the corner of the room.
“How are you, son?”
“Hi, Conley. I’ll have those sulfur reports this afternoon.”
“Yes, that’s fine, Reg. Listen… You recall that project we tinkered with last year?” Chislom’s voice was low as he glanced around the cafeteria.
“Sure, Conley. What about it?”
“Why don’t you come over to the house tonight. I want you to... see some developments.”
End of Chapter One