7:30 AM, August 14, 1994 / Location: CLASSIFIED
Doctor Tarbut Melm sat rigidly, desparately trying not to betray any signs of the immense fear and paranoia that gripped him internally. Across the large meeting room table from him sat five highly decorated and powerful individuals from the very upper echelons of the United States Army: The Experimental Special Projects Committee. Not just any top brass, either—these people were ghosts to the public. All of them were buried neck-deep in the government's most top-secret projects. Ones the general public couldn't even begin to develop a conspiracy theory about. The black ops of black ops. The type of people that, if you even looked at them the wrong way, would have you 'disappeared' and your body never found at the government's encouragement. And maybe not just you. Maybe your whole family; maybe anyone you ever knew, just to be sure any trace of you was wiped from existence. The type of people, if Doctor Melm was to be honest with himself, that had 'Scorched Earth Policy' as their lightest tactical response.
The meeting room had no windows, so that the goings-on that took place could not be spied on from afar. The walls were constructed with extreme soundproofing in mind. There was nothing on the walls except for alternating patterns of black foam-looking wedges designed in such a way to diffuse sound efficiently. The ceiling wasn't much different, except for the holes for the recessed overhead lighting that shone a surprisngly white light in all directions. The floor was rubberized so that it also absorbed errant soundwaves. Centered in the middle of this plain and efficient room was a long, dark, wooden table marked with the scars of decades of meetings. If Melm had to guess, the table was the only thing in the room that remained unchanged since the room's original construction.
Seated at this table were exactly five people, not including the Doctor himself. He didn't even know their names, only ranks. It was better this way. He didn't want to remember details about these people. He didn't want to remember any details about the stout and gaunt looking woman to the right, or the dark and grizzled head honcho seated directly across the table from him. He didn't want to remember anything about the ancient and balding hispanic man to the left who could glare bullets, and he especially didn't want to remember specifics about the other older white men that sat closest to him on either side. He didn't want to remember their overflowing medals on their perfectly tidy uniforms or their rigid stature.
Melm was a goldfish in a tank of sharks. Compared to them, he was a scrawny pencil of a human being dressed in business casual. He technically wasn't part of the service branches; he was a civilian contractor brought in to the fold and not required to adhere to military doctrine. He was pale, with reasonable red hair that probably ran afoul of hair length regulations. His appearance stood in direct contradiction with the people before him that lived their lives by the book. He was their antithesis.
He had just asked them for two billion dollars.
He stifled a shiver. His hands remained casually clasped on the wooden table in front of him as he patiently waited for the dangerous men and women before him to finish leafing through the supplementary material he had given them, following the main presentation he had just given.
This project he was proposing—Project TWELVE MONTHS—had to be the most insane thing that anyone had ever proposed in this room. Given that the meeting presided in a room that didn't exist, inside of a building that didn't exist, inside of a government complex that didn't exist, with five secretive senior army personnel that didn't exist—the competition he had for that claim was no joke. If he fucked this up, he was absolutely sure he would cease to exist, too.
But Melm had done his research. Oh boy, had he done his research. Dotted every 'i', crossed every 't'; no stone left unturned during the years-long research effort that he and his team had done for this project. Every possible question he could conceive being asked had an answer. Painful and tedious data collection, repeated experiments, and every avenue explored, all wrapped up in a neat little document printed exactly five times. With a request as expensive and ridiculous as what he was putting forth, and for how much he was asking—already skirting on the lower end of the cost estimates—it had to be that way. Any doubt; any reason to think the project wouldn't work, and project TWELVE MONTHS would be shot down with no remorse. His entire team would be gutted and moved to other projects, and presumably Doctor Melm gutted too—in the literal sense. He had not overtly been threatened. But Melm was quite self-assured as to what happened to those who wasted the Committee's time.
The man in the middle of the Committee quietly turned to the last page in the booklet he had been given. The room was already deadly silent—but this particular man, a well decorated four-star General from what Melm could make out of his insignia—had the presence that sucked the sound out of the room like a black hole. An intensity Melm surmised, that could only be attained through decades of exposure to the most depraved aspects of war imaginable. A life Melm was quite happy he had been kept well enough away from, knowing only fragments over the years. Already more than he should know.
After all, Doctor Melm was a scientist. He was happy to be tucked away in a lab somewhere, perfectly safe Stateside—while he worked on some of the most weird and out-there project ideas ever put to paper for the United States government.
This project though; this would be his life's work. He could feel it. As much as his nerves had rattled him incessantly for the week leading up to the presentation, he also had a rare optimism he had never had before. Optimism that was especially odd given that this was his first project as the Lead, having called all the shots during the research & investigation phase. He hoped that his effort would show through in the presentation and that they would keep him as the Lead should the project progress into the final phase.
If it made it to the final phase. Two billion dollars was a lot of money to ask for, even if he was abosluely sure the project would succeed.
The four-Star General abruptly closed the booklet and set it down on the table in front of him, looked up at Melm, briefly catching his gaze. Melm instinctively looked away, as though maintained eye contact would be akin to challenging a deadly beast his alpha status.
After an uncomfortable minute-long silence of the General starting at Melm, the General spoke. "So," he said in a flat tone that betrayed no indication of his thoughts on the matter, "Project TWELVE MONTHS." Almost in unison the other four high-ranking officers placed their booklets on the table as well. The General looked around at his four Committee companions; he was sizing them up, getting their impressions from their motionless faces without even having to ask. He turned back to Melm, who resisted the urge to swallow nervously. "Two billion dollars. Which, if I'm guessing, is your low-ball bid to get this project approved."
Yikes. They saw right through. Melm knew that with these people, there was no point in even trying to lie—they would see right through him with no effort. His best option was honesty. So he nodded in response.
"I have to say Doctor Melm, that of any project that has come across our desks—yours is certainly the most... unique." The General paused for a few seconds, staring right at Melm, as if he was drilling right into his head to look for any signs of wavering confidence. "I haven't seen anything this bizarre since the stuff coming out of the Sixties." He casually used his index finger to flip the document open before him, and began leafing through Melm's research. "If it wasn't for your precise and excellent attention to data and details, we would not have even let you finish your presentation."
The emotion that the General's statement instilled on Melm was simltaneously gratifying with the compliment; but it was also terrifying with the outright admission of what would have happened if he bombed the presentation.
"Doctor Melm, I want you to tell me in your own words: How confident are you that you could complete the final phase of this project for the two billion dollar budget you've proposed?"
Melm steeled his nerves as best he could. With every ounce of conviction he could muster, he looked right in the General's eyes and answered him with the three-word reply he had been practicing for weeks.
"One Hundred Percent."
The General continued to stare right back at the Doctor, but this time he did not avert his eyes. At this point, it was not a challenge from Melm, it was a challenge from the General. Looking away would all but convey even the slightest bit of doubt that Melm had ever had about the project. This was the make-or-break moment. These few seconds of prolonged eye contact mattered more than the years of research or the presentation. The culmination of everything he had worked on hung entirely on this silent test of confidence.
After what was probably a much shorter timeframe than it felt, the General was the one who finally broke eye contact. He leaned over and whispered into the ear of the officer sitting to his left; a whisper so quiet that Melm could not make out a single syllable even in the solemn silence of the meeting room. Within a matter of seconds the five Committee members were all whispering among themselves. Every couple of seconds they would cast a quick glance at Melm, then continue on with their inaudible conversation.
Then as quickly as it started, it stopped; they all turned back towards Melm, silently waiting. Melm took this as his queue to speak: "After a thorough presentation of the subject matter, has the Committee reached a decision on Project TWELVE MONTHS?"
This was it. Whatever words came out of the General's mouth next would either confirm his demise, or validate every preconceived notion he'd ever had throughout the duration of this project. Oh, and he'd get to live, too—which was, admittedly, a nice benefit.
The General stayed silent for a few seconds before sliding the booklet back over to Melm. "We have indeed decided on the future of you and your weird project," the General said with the same unreadable intonation in his voice.
Melm involuntarily held his breath.
"It seems, Doctor Melm..." the General began, pausing for effect; studying Melm for any last signs of weakness. "It seems, we will be giving you two billion dollars."
Melm sighed with intense relief.
"However," the General continued, boring a gaze deep into Doctor Melm's long-gone soul; "given the... nature of this project, we will be paying close attention. If we ask you to make a cut, you will ask 'where, how long, and what knife.'"
Melm swallowed. "Of course, General."
The General glanced at each of his colleagues, seeming to take in almost imperceptible shows of reaction to what had been proposed. He turned back to Melm. He studied the Doctor for a second; sizing him up, looking for any last-minute signs to cut the cord.
"What concerns me, Doctor, is not that you indend to play God." He stared at Melm unblinkingly. "What concerns me is that you intend to play God and win."