Fiction: Shallow Thoughts
By Chris Wickham
The reporter waited for twenty-seven minutes in the chrome and green-accented lobby of the Department of Biological Engineering before being admitted to Dr. Yatsunyk’s office. She greeted him with a tense handshake and—after he seated himself across from her desk—stony silence. “I thought you hated the press,” he said with a wry smile.
“What makes you think that.”
“You said so. And you said that now that the trial is over, you just want to get back to work.”
Dr. Yatsunyk eyed the reporter, then let her gaze wander out to the students outside her window, carving muddy footpaths through the grass on the way to class. Mist held the late morning light over the Charles, bathing it in a soft glow.
“No one’s thinking about this right,” she said. “The government funds, the murder, the side effects—and a tremendous scientific breakthrough overshadowed by all of that ugliness. We did good work, and I want that to be remembered.”
“Well, no promises,” he said, “but lots of people want to hear the voice of Dr. Yatsunyk, and they haven’t yet. Not for want of trying.” The reporter leaned back in his chair and looked over his glasses at the professor. “You had a very good lawyer, after all. You only gave limited testimony in Luke Pratt’s murder trial and you were acquitted of your single charge arising from allegedly unethical human experimentation.” Dr. Yatsunyk winced. “So I would like to hear your story regardless, and at the end, you can tell me if we’ve addressed what’s missing.” The reporter placed a recorder on her desk and nodded to her to begin.
“This is the first thing you have to understand: Luke Pratt was the real deal,” said Dr. Yatsunyk. Her voice was adamant, colored with a tinge of exasperation, like she was speaking to a stubborn child. “I am not gullible,” she continued. “I’m not some twenty year old who joins a startup and drinks the Kool-Aid. And I’m certainly not a venture capitalist. I’m a scientist, and a rigorous, dispassionate review of our internal data showed that septamine could change the world. For the better.
“And the second thing you need to know is that, on New Year’s—”
“Let’s not start with New Year’s,” said the journalist. He spoke slowly, trying to ease the tension. “We aren’t relitigating the trial here—we’re telling your story. So tell me: When did you first meet Luke Pratt?”
She paused, then nodded. Her posture softened. She settled her chair back against the towering shelves filled with books, scientific studies, and molecular models. “I probably encountered him for the first time when I was hired as an assistant professor, about six years ago. He would have been fifteen. He was one of the faculty brats and more interested in our work than most. But he always looked old for his age. He might have blended in with the students if not for the afro and a little mustache that looked like it took more effort than it was worth.
“Franklin—Dr. Pratt—started him in the lab as soon as it was legal. He was working with mice shortly after I arrived. What really made him stand out to me was his relationship with his father.”
“Nepotism?” asked the reporter. He sounded more curious than accusatory.
“Not exactly. They had a close working relationship. They would challenge each other, check for understanding. I could barely understand Luke at first—he used to talk so fast, barely enunciate, it was worse when he was a teenager—but he was an excellent thought partner. Franklin raised him on science and the Socratic method. I’m an army brat, and academics’ kids are the same way: either the most enthusiastic scientists you’ll ever meet, or the type who would rather die than set foot in a lab.
“He was in the first category and, frankly, in a category of his own. He was a high schooler acting like a college student, and, once he enrolled, he was a college student acting like a full-blown scientist. Franklin gave him a lab bench in exchange for help with writing proposals, and he was nearly as brilliant a grant writer. Perhaps a little too willing to over promise—but that could easily have been admiration for his father, or just teenage zeal. And he was an incredible worker. If I came in after midnight to check on a time-sensitive assay, he was here, and he was always back by 7AM, before I’d finished my coffee.”
“How did he have that much access to the lab?”
“He had his dad’s key and more lab assistants than most faculty, all for free. They were his friends—undergraduates who practically worshipped him. And they were the real victims, in the end. Liliya especially.”
“Your research now is focused on helping them, right?”
“Yes.” Dr. Yatsunyk’s gaze drifted back outside, to the quad again. It was empty now; classes had started, and the students had left deep grooves in the mud.
“So,” said the reporter, waving his hand slightly to call back her attention. “When did you decide to work with Luke?”
“I was in the lab late at night, troubleshooting an issue with one of my postdocs. I was in a bad mood. We had encountered an instrument problem and come up with a quick fix that was about as elegant as duct taping a car door shut. Luke asked to meet with me at midnight. I snapped at him to just find me tomorrow. He said it couldn’t wait, but that he needed another half hour to get ready. For whatever reason, I went back to my office. I wouldn’t have done that for another scientist, for my department head, for anybody. Luke compelled me, though, and he had never asked for my time. I fumed until five minutes before midnight, when he found me and brought me to the back of his father’s lab to show me his Barnes maze results.”
“Barnes maze? Can you briefly explain? Not all of my readers are scientists.”
She nodded. “A rat is placed on an elevated circular platform, surrounded by a circle of equally spaced holes. An escape tunnel is underneath one of them and the rat follows it to a reward. Visual cues, like a cardboard yellow star or a blue box, are hung around the maze for navigation. To prepare a trial, you let the rats explore the maze the first day, then guide them to the hole. Rats start the real trials the next day. First they search hole by hole, then they’ll skip some, and after the fifth or sixth round, the quick ones will head straight to the reward hole. It’s a standard test for learning and memory in animal psychobiology.
“According to the data he showed me, the rats in his treatment group went directly to the reward in their trial. Either their olfactory senses had improved or their memory capacity had increased far, far beyond what we thought was possible. When I asked what the treatment was, he smirked; he was a good salesman, even then. He showed me similar results with the radial arm maze and the Morris water maze. I thought for sure he had messed with the procedures—even professional scientists put their fingers on the scales of their own experiments, and the temptation is irresistible for undergrads. I asked him if he had found a way to make rats psychic and he said, ‘Honestly, maybe.’
“It was the next slide that pissed me off. It showed results for human sensory and problem-solving tests, with off-the-charts performances in the treatment group. That was the nearest I ever got to walking.”
“What was the problem?”
“Because that meant he’d been using humans! This isn’t the 1960s, the era of the Stanford Prison Experiment. You need to be careful, and humane, and most of all, compliant, or you could face real consequences. So I went from pissed off to intrigued to furious in about fifteen minutes, but I was absolutely hooked. What could accomplish this? What was this holy grail of human enhancement?
“And when he flipped to the next slide, which showed the formula for the drug that we all know as septamine—you could tell it was an amphetamine derivative right away, just from the structure—my jaw dropped. He had made his own drug, given it to rats, then his friends. It was unethical, illegal, and more promising than any drug since penicillin. He had rediscovered dynamite. Nuclear fission in chemical form.”
The reporter’s eyebrows lifted slightly, but he kept his face blank.
“And that’s when he asked me to join him,” she continued. “He knew that I had a long working relationship with DARPA—sorry, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the Pentagon research agency that’s been behind every technological breakthrough since the 1950s. I’ve devoted my career to optimizing human performance, specializing in caffeine and amphetamine derivatives. War is mostly a logistics game, but at the special operator level, human ability really matters and the generals know it.
“I told him to stop everything, right then. No more human testing and I would sleep on it. But of course, I didn’t sleep. And the next morning, I told him yes.”
“And that’s how you became Chief Scientist Officer at his company?”
“Exactly. And do you see why? That’s what I want people to understand; we’re not scam artists, or 19th century apothecaries, or greedy. I genuinely thought we could change the world.”
“Then why not go through the FDA? Can’t you understand how using DARPA might seem, to some, like a means of skirting regulatory review?”
“If you thought you could advance medicine, would you want to wait fifteen years to do it?” Dr. Yatsunyk said.
The reporter considered. “I’ll save my questions for later. But I have a lot of questions. Go on.”
“The semester ended three weeks later and I took a sabbatical,” Dr. Yatsunyk continued. “We procured enough grant funding from the rodent tests to rent a laboratory space three blocks from campus. Our timing was impeccable. The Department of Defense had just reinstated a Gulf War–era rule loosening exceptions to human experimentation, so DARPA program managers were looking to rebuild their chemical enhancements portfolio, and I was already their most trusted source. By August, we were in final round talks with a program manager, and DA&M—that’s the Director of Administration and Management—agreed to permit human trials in January. And once we were working for DARPA, the floodgates opened with venture capital. We planned a New Year’s party to close our seed round.”
The reporter held up his hand, palm forward. “We’re still not ready for New Year’s, I don’t think. Before we get to the party, was there anything in those months that you wanted to elaborate on?”
He raised his eyebrows. “At some point during this period you started taking septamine yourself, didn’t you?”
Days later, when the reporter was writing up his report, this was the moment that he would relive most sharply. Dr. Yatsunyk’s voice had picked up speed by that point. She had started talking more with her hands, moving into the rhythm that had won her accolades as a teacher, her voice vibrating with a devotee’s zeal. But she seemed to collapse in on herself at the reporter’s question. Her eyes drifted outside again, finding a sculpture composed of sheets of twisting black metal, droplets of condensed mist falling from them onto the sidewalk.
“I did. ‘The junkie scientist,’ they called me.”
The reporter gave her a slight nod, encouraging her to go on.
“I only took septamine three times. I wanted to experience it before putting my name on an application with DARPA. I know it showed incredibly poor judgement. It was stupid, deeply stupid, not to mention an IRB—International Review Board—violation to take an untested chemical, a drug that I knew was an amphetamine derivative, with unknown side effects. They only waived the charge because I testified. If it had been one of my colleagues, I would have cast the first stone. I risked my career and my reputation when I should have let the trials speak for themselves.
“I just … I wanted everything to go perfectly, and I was so curious. I’ve been working with DARPA on optimizing special operator performance for my entire life. I was practically raised to do it. I’m an army brat myself, and a child of Soviet émigrés. I was born behind the Iron Curtain and still had family trapped there when I was young. It’s unfashionable, especially among your readers, not to mention academics, but I’m patriotic. I believe strongly that American hegemony is good for the world, that it drags the rest of the us inexorably towards liberal democracy, and I know from growing up around military strategists that special operators are the steel tip of our country’s spear.
She had leaned forward across the desk and started gesticulating with her hands. “Septamine dwarfed all of of my prior work. Imagine your life’s purpose—maybe it’s supporting a family, getting rich, writing the great American novel—and a brilliant young scientist just gave it to you, asking that you be its guardian. In retrospect, it’s obvious that septamine was too good to be true. The body keeps the score, and where you pump the brain up, it always comes back down again. But there was no dope-sickness, no hangover; the only withdrawal I ever felt was frustration that my mind was slow again.
“When he told me he didn’t know if it made the rats psychic, I think he was only half-joking. A septamine high is the closest to extra-sensory perception you can get. You and I aren’t seeing with our eyes right now, or hearing with our ears; our brain interprets signals from them and it does the seeing and hearing. Septamine dramatically improves and accelerates that interpretive process. You don’t just see, hear, or smell better—you solve problems more quickly, speak beautifully and effortlessly, read social and emotional cues from faces as well as if you were reading them from minds. But of course, we discovered, there’s a cost.
“With most amphetamines, addiction sets in quickly and withdrawal is hell. But with septamine, nothing happens after weeks of regular dosages. Our best guess now is that it causes incremental damage to your ability to perceive and synthesize information about the world around you, resulting in psychosis. Gradual but, as far as my current research has found, irreversible.
“I think Luke had been secretly taking septamine for longer than any of us. Meanwhile, the road show that fall, where he performed for a rotating cast of investors and government administrators three or four times a day, all while trying to run a fledgling company—that would have put a large mental strain on anyone.
“By November, I caught strange looks in his eyes, like was he confused or unfocused, and then suddenly angry, or indignant, at himself and at us. And little things: His hair was even more disheveled than usual, he started to seem unfocused late at night, and he started making mistakes or omitting crucial details during investor calls. He always had been a fantastic public speaker, but in private, he started to monologue, go on just a little bit longer than was strictly necessary to make his point. In most people, it wouldn’t have been noticeable. I told myself it was the pressure of leadership. He was still young, but even so, I figured the physical toll weighed on him.
“I stepped in as the face of the company more and more. I wasn’t hiding anything, like some reporters said—I was just trying to give him some space. He was a kid, and a brilliant kid, and I didn’t want this to ruin his life.”
“Did you start experiencing side effects?”
“My side effects never progressed to paranoia or psychosis, but I did start experiencing what we now know to be the first ones.”
“Yes. Pathologically vivid nightmares. Up until then, my deepest fears had always been career-related. I’m an ambitious person, driven to a fault. No family, no hobbies, all of my friends are other scientists. That’s how you grow up in poverty and end up here. Now, instead of nightmares about failing a test, or bombing a review board, I just see students in the lab, the ones who followed Luke, who took septamine under his guidance. Little Jonestown devotees with plastic cups of cyanide. Nightmares aren’t about what happens—they’re about how you feel, right? In my dreams, I’ll be working next to a student, or meeting one for office hours, and then guilt paralyzes me, crushing me like ego death without the numbness. You know that some students exhibit daytime paranoia now that that they’ll probably never be rid of, right? No other murderers, though, and no successful suicides. At least not yet.”
The reporter studied his cup of coffee while Dr. Yatsunyk composed herself. A few moments later, she said, “So, are we ready for New Year’s?”
“I think so,” he said. “Go ahead.”
“We planned to restart human trials with DARPA in the first week of January. We organized a New Year’s party to celebrate the close of seed round funding. A typical seed round for a biotech startup raises a few million dollars. With my reputation, his child prodigy narrative, and our results, we were able to sign nearly forty million dollars worth of commitments. Enough to hire a staff, advance proofs of concept, even draft a roadmap towards FDA approval and commercial use, even though it might take a decade or more. Liliya Petrovna came to my office an hour before the party.”
Dr. Yatsunyk’s eyes were focused on a point beyond her desk, beyond the reporter, onto some point in back wall.
“I recalled our conversation word for word in the trial. I don’t know how she got into our labs. Liliya was never an employee—just a friend of Luke’s, or had been. I rolled my eyes when I recognized her as one of Luke’s acolytes. I was busy, busier than I’d been in years, and I didn’t want to deal with her. But she seemed furious, like if I asked her to leave she might punch me. She got to the point: ‘Septamine is killing us and Luke told me not to tell you.’
“My insides turned to ice. In a way, I already knew—I had seen Luke struggling. I may not be a medical doctor, but I do take one principle seriously in my work: Do no harm. Sounds funny coming from a DARPA-funded scientist, but my work has always been defensive. Our special operators are heroic, not to mention expensive, and priority number one is keeping them alive.
“The conversation with Liliya was a twisted inversion of my first night in the lab with Luke. He had shown me septamine’s rewards; she had screenshot after screenshot of her friends’ group chat describing the costs.”
“Why hadn’t she contacted you before then?”
“She said that if she hadn’t spoken to me in person, Luke would have convinced me to ignore her. At least eleven of his student ‘assistants,’ the ones he’d been trying septamine on, were experiencing the nightmares already, and most were still on Luke’s side. He had convinced them that bringing septamine to human trials would be the fastest way to fund research on the side effects, and whistleblowing prior to that would stop us in our tracks.
“Three of those students now have clinically diagnosed psychosis and no family history of mental illness. Those three had formed a sort of support group after one of them attempted suicide three weeks before New Year’s. Luke had apparently blocked them on social media and his phone and he wasn’t a student anymore, so they didn’t know how to contact him, short of stalking our offices. Their anecdotes weren’t enough to prove that septamine was dangerous, like we know it is now; but if true, they were enough that we needed to stop everything, right then. This wasn’t a chemical we could put anywhere near humans.
“Liliya told me that she would submit all of her evidence to the press in twenty-four hours. I asked her to call me before she did and she gave me her number.”
“So you could talk her out of it?”
She considered. “More out of a general contention that press makes things worse.”
“Worse than they turned out?”
Dr. Yatsunyk shifted uncomfortably, opened her mouth, then apparently decided to press on. “I sat in my office alone for a few moments, stunned, just staring at my desk. Then I found Luke and pulled him into an empty classroom. I was as furious as Liliya that point. And he told me she had made it all up.
“I have to stop you there,” said the reporter. “Let’s revisit the questions I had earlier. If you knew human experimentation was dangerous, why hadn’t you sought out the participants in his trials already? Why didn’t you warn them to seek medical assistance immediately?”
“I wanted to stay as far away as possible from the work he had done before I joined. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I hoped that the trials he conducted with his friends were limited and didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to know. At that point, I thought my nightmares were from stress, not the drug. He told me to call her tomorrow; he bet she wouldn’t even pick up.”
“Calling it a ‘mistake’ seems like a self-serving understatement. Why keep him front and center if he had behaved so irresponsibly? And didn’t you have a professional and moral obligation to seek out those kids?” A note of exasperation crept into the reporter’s voice. “Did you really believe him when he said Liliya was lying?”
“I didn’t know what to believe.” Dr. Yatsunyk’s voice started to rise. “I told him we would postpone human trials, but I agreed to announce the next day and let the company have its New Year’s party.”
“But if any investors attended and you didn’t mention it, that’s flirting with fraudulent—“
“Anyway, I didn’t see him again that night,” Dr. Yatsunyk snapped, cutting him off. ”He didn’t answer his calls or his texts. I didn’t know what had happened. I managed to keep it together in front of the twenty or so employees that were counting on me. And the police called me the next day.
“They showed me the security footage at the station.” Her voice had become throatier, as if she were holding back tears. “You can just make out Luke’s tall, skinny silhouette, the afro, waiting in the alley by the entrance to our labs. He had finally texted her and told her he wanted to talk. She passed through the lamplight for just a second when he darted out of the alley and pulled her back. You could barely see him strangle her. She fought, but he pinned her too tightly against the brick for her to push him away. She stopped moving and he just stood there, indistinguishable from her still body and the shadows. Then the security guard started approaching from the parking lot and he ran. They had me identify her body the next day. She looked exactly the same, but the anger was gone; stiffness had set in and there were dark bruises around her neck.
“And what enraged me, more than anything else, was that people blamed her for coming back. As if she could have expected that her friend would murder her.”
Dr. Yatsunyk looked exhausted but words poured out of her in a rush:
“The real reason I wanted to talk to you, one last time, is how people consume this whole disaster like entertainment. They find it titillating. It has everything: a greedy professor, a sociopathic prodigy, buckets of money, and a spitfire blonde who walks right into danger.
“But what’s really at the heart of this, what’s really true, is that this is all so goddamn sad, and stupid—that it’s closer to a comedy of errors than a Greek tragedy. I wasn’t greedy for money, I was greedy for the next penicillin. Luke made irresponsible decisions because he was inexperienced, not because he was a genius or a monster; as to whether he was a murderer, the trial established that he barely knew what he was doing at the point, even though he seemed lucid to me. And the press coverage made Liliya look like a victim in a slasher film who turns back to the haunted house, instead of a smart young woman looking for accountability, who trusted an old friend for the last time.”
“Do you honestly believe that Luke didn’t know what he was doing? Not that night—from the beginning,” said the reporter. “That inventing a new amphetamine, shooting up with it, and bringing his friends along with him was a matter of inexperience? For a young adult who practically grew up in a lab? And you stand by the insanity plea, in spite of everything that you and he had to gain?
“First of all, the District Attorney and the judge have to agree to an insanity plea for it to be accepted,” she snapped.
“All of the scientific and circumstantial evidence, including both the side effects of the drug and Luke’s behavior, was provided by you,” the reporter snapped back.
“And corroborated by others! The evidence was strong enough for them, and it should be strong enough for you and your readers.”
The reporter reached to pause the recorder, as if he were ready to leave, then hesitated and pulled back his hand to massage his eyelids.
“Dr. Yatsunyk… at the beginning of this interview, you told me that you wanted to change how people understand this trial. I genuinely don’t know if you’re not being honest with me or yourself, or both. But what you’ve said changes nothing.
“Patriotic or scientific motivations don’t excuse what seems patently obvious: You used your stature at a world-renowned university and connections with the government to cut corners for a vanity project, endangering students and raising tens of millions of dollars along the way. You used those same tools to exonerate a well-connected young murderer who, frankly, deserves to be in prison. Even the drug—you’ve compared it to penicillin twice, but it doesn’t actually cure anything. At best, you’ve invented the mental version of anabolic steroids, at worst, methamphetamine with a novel side effect of permanent psychosis. My readers don’t know how you sleep at night.”
The reporter tensed as if he expected Dr. Yatsunyk to explode, but her face had become pensive. “I’ve read that and worse,” she said. “Some of it is even true.” She sighed, and when she spoke again, she did so slowly, measuring every word. “I’m the most ambitious person I know—I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t—I won’t say no to money, and I didn’t think Luke deserved to go to prison. But I’m not responsible for the human trials that occurred before I joined. I put a stop to them immediately, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask the prosecutor. Maybe I could have done more to investigate what happened before I joined, but the law didn’t require it of me. I don’t see why I should regret it. ”
“Then why do those students appear in your nightmares?” said the reporter, quietly.
“My motives can’t be so easily untangled. I care deeply about science and about the mission behind my government work. And I can say, unequivocally, that this was not a vanity project. This drug will revolutionize human mental performance. The synthetic process and formula revealed during the trial are out there for others to take and run with. Time will prove me right.
“Having searched myself, my soul, I believe that the impact of our work will make history books and justify the broken path Luke—we—took to get here. The trial will simply be a footnote. And that’s how I sleep at night.”
Dr. Yatsunyk stood up and opened the office door for the reporter. “I’m done with public comment now, probably forever. I’ll keep working to clean up the mess Luke made before he found me, and even if I do, you’ll never hear from me again.”
The journalist began his piece with one word: Arrogance. His commentary on Dr. Yatsunyk’s interview decried the moral blindness of the academy and biotech investors, nepotism that allowed a mad young scientist to skirt the rules, and a top-tier scientist’s willingness to ignore unethical practices in the pursuit of government funding. His article induced pinpricks of serotonin in the brains of the highly-educated readers who gobbled it up, then watched the documentary, and then the biopic.
He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting later that year and asked to give a speech to the newspapers’ Board of Directors on his reporting during and after the trial. The night before, as he sat at his desk writing and rewriting the speech, he opened a drawer and pulled out an early draft of his profile of Dr. Yatsunyk.
This draft was softer, more expository, almost philosophical. It opened with Dr. Yatsunyk’s childhood behind the Iron Curtain and noted that a pharmaceutical giant was now conducting promising clinical trials using septamine in low dosages as an Alzheimer’s treatment. The draft was run through with red ink. At the top, a question in his editor’s handwriting read: “Point of view?” In the ink of his favorite pen, the reporter had written his own one word admission in response: “Muddled.”
The reporter sighed, rubbed his temples, and resigned himself to the task before him. He opened the drawer to return the draft and, seeming to think better of it, dropped it in the trash.
Chris Wickham is a technologist and fiction enthusiast in Washington, D.C. If he's not skimming Wired for story ideas or reading Russian literature in the bathtub, he's probably walking on the National Mall with Corey (his first-round editor, lawyer, and life partner) and Chloe, his bossy Portuguese Water Dog.