"No, it's red, of course!" Abigail quickly contradicted him. "But no," she went on. "Maybe not, maybe it could be...."
"It's just the color of the light," said Blossom. "It's not red or green, it's just the color of the light."
"Yes," said the doctor, turning it off. "Well, for your information, you would all have called it red before the experiment. And it is red." He turned back to the wall. "That was to demonstrate how one does not discriminate between colors, or anything else, unless it is necessary; unless the discrimination is reinforced. In this case it was not not reinforced, the subjects knew it made no difference what color the light was, and soon stopped noticing it." reinforced, the subjects knew it made no difference what color the light was, and soon stopped noticing it."
"But ... but will we ever learn to tell the difference between red and green again?" Abigail asked in a frightened voice.
"Now, the dance," the doctor continued, ignoring her question. "Although the behavior I hoped eventually to elicit was altogether different, the dance nevertheless served its own very important function. From it, you learned many things: that you would have to behave in a certain way in order to eat, that you would all all have to do it, that food would only come at certain times over which you had no control, that the things you must do to get it would change, and that you would be instructed have to do it, that food would only come at certain times over which you had no control, that the things you must do to get it would change, and that you would be instructed how how to change the behavior, if you were alert enough to notice." to change the behavior, if you were alert enough to notice."
"But if we all all had to dance to make it work," Oliver couldn't help asking, "then how come it started working with just the three of us?" had to dance to make it work," Oliver couldn't help asking, "then how come it started working with just the three of us?"
This time the doctor didn't seem to mind answering. "That was an attempt to get those two to give in. We felt that if the others were actually eating, and tempting them with food, as we hoped, then they would be more likely to surrender."
"Okay," said Blossom, "but how come sometimes the machine didn't work when the light and the voices were on, even though we were doing everything right?"
"Yes," said the others, stepping closer to him. This was something that had puzzled and frustrated them all.
"You won't understand, but that was what we call variable-ratio reinforcement," the doctor said. "It produces more stable and long-lasting behavior than consistent reinforcement."
As they puzzled over this statement, the doctor went on. "Now, to explain the goal that was the objective of all our controlled conditioning. One of the great problems of the human race is that the conditioning most people receive from life, from the real world, is unplanned-haphazard and accidental. Is it surprising then that people are only rarely well adjusted? That only rarely do they find themselves in a life situation for which their conditioning has prepared them? No wonder that so many people are frustrated and dissatisfied (if not worse), and therefore do not perform with maximum efficiency. Our eventual goal is, of course, to be able to provide scientifically planned conditioning for everyone; but in this, our first real effort with human subjects, our aim was simply to produce a group of people who would be particularly well suited to carry out certain very important jobs."
"Hey, now wait a minute," Lola said. "I don't get it. Jobs Jobs? I mean ... what the hell kind of jobs do you need monsters monsters for?" for?"
The doctor ignored her. "Our great President," he said, his eyes on the viewing wall again, "has long known the direction of our research, and a little over a year ago I had the honor of meeting with him personally. He asked me if I could provide for him a group of young people, an elite corps, who would be able to follow unquestioningly any order given to them, no matter how ... uh ... distasteful or unnecessary it might at first seem; and who, furthermore, would be so cautious and so alert that they would be very unlikely ever to be interrupted, or ... well, to get caught. If you think about it for a moment, you can see how vital such a special corps would be in missions relating to our international security, intelligence, and defense, as well as certain domestic issues. Not to mention its use in providing directors of concentration camps, prisons, as well as excellent interrogators. And I told our President that yes, I was quite confident that I could provide him with such a group. The funds for such an important project were, of course, quite generous; generous enough to allow for the construction of an environment large enough for the increased operation we foresaw. And then these five extremely fortunate young people were chosen to be the first participants in this historic project. It is too bad that some of them did not realize quite how fortunate they were."
"Fortunate?" Lola said. "You call it fortunate to be put through that hell? And for your information, if you think that my goal in life is to go mucking around in dirty political-"
"Be quiet!" The doctor's voice was sharp, his irritation so uncharacteristically apparent that his acquaintances behind the viewing wall were again surprised. "Your attitude is deplorable," he went on severely. "But eventually we will have techniques sophisticated enough to deal with individuals even as intractable as you. No," and his eyes rested steadily on the viewing wall, "no, I did not come up with five usable individuals, as I had hoped, but it cannot be held against me. This is the first experiment of its kind, after all; one hundred per cent success on the first try is an unreasonable demand. You can see that two of the subjects were incorrigible-no one else, I can assure you, would have been able to deal with them any better than I. And the other three are exactly what we need," and he threw out his arm toward Blossom, Abigail, and Oliver.
Now it was clear to the five in the laboratory that the doctor was very upset, if not actually deranged. Why did he keep talking to that blank wall? And those watching from behind the wall were now even more shocked, shifting in their seats and glancing nervously at one another. Lawrence had never behaved this way before; something must really be wrong.
"I have come up with three perfect specimens," the doctor was saying. "And all five of them can be studied. We will soon learn to be one hundred per cent successful; we will learn from our mistakes; no one else now is as experienced as we are. This project must must remain in our hands. The three of them standing here are perfectly usable, they will make excellent operatives. In only a few months' time I am sure they can begin their-" remain in our hands. The three of them standing here are perfectly usable, they will make excellent operatives. In only a few months' time I am sure they can begin their-"
"You mean we're going to keep on being being like this?" Abigail burst out, unable to control herself. "Isn't it going to go like this?" Abigail burst out, unable to control herself. "Isn't it going to go away away?"
The doctor took a deep breath and nervously adjusted his glasses. "I hope not, but as yet I cannot say for sure," he said stiffly, as though it annoyed him not to have the answer to everything. "This is the first project of its kind, so of course we have no extinction curves. Charts, you know, showing how long the behavior lasts after it is no longer reinforced, and if, in fact, it ever really does stop. That is what we will now begin learning from you."
They were walking in the hospital grounds. Blossom, Abigail, and Oliver did not seem very comfortable being out of doors. Their bodies were tense, and their eyes moved constantly up to the sky and then from side to side. And though they were huddled together in a little group, they rigidly kept from touching one another. They did not smile.
They were between tests. Lola and Peter, they had just learned, were soon to be sent away. "To an island," the doctor had announced, "where misfits are kept." The other three had more tests to go through, and then were to begin their training. What the training specifically was to be, none of them knew.
Lola and Peter were walking behind, watching the others curiously. Suddenly, Oliver spun around. "Stop staring at us!" he said.
"We weren't staring," said Peter, and stopped walking. "We were just-"
"I don't care what you were 'just' doing," Oliver said. "Leave us alone."
Abigail looked terrible, still very thin, with sunken, shadowed eyes.
Blossom was fat, pink, and healthy. "Yes, we don't want you around," she said. "Stop tagging along after us. We don't need you. Get away."
"With pleasure," Lola almost said, but stopped herself. They were pitiful; there was no point in being nasty. "Come on, Pete," she said, and they turned and started in the other direction.
He reached out and took her hand. Neither cared that someone might see. They had been taught all their lives that the only deep feelings between men and women were sexual, but now they knew that it was a lie. They were friends and they loved one another, and their hand-holding was perfectly innocent. It was one more thing to rejoice in, one more way in which they had risen above the system, above the machine. They had won, there was no better feeling than that; and now they were to be sent away. Sent away to a place where people might be like themselves; a place where things would be different, and perhaps better.
"It's too bad about Abigail," Peter said. "She looks so sad, and she was really okay once."
"I know," said Lola. "I wonder what will happen to her. I wonder if that conditioning will ever go away."
"The doctor said no one knows," Peter answered, and they strolled together toward a cluster of stunted trees.
Still in their little group, Blossom, Abigail, and Oliver hurried (they were unable to walk slowly), across the hospital grounds. They stuck closely to the cement wall, feeling safer there. And then the wall came to an end, the path took a sudden turn, and they were face to face with a traffic light-a green, blinking traffic light. Without hesitation they began to dance.
WILLIAM SLEATOR is the author of The Angry Moon The Angry Moon, a picture book illustrated by Blair Lent, and Blackbriar Blackbriar and and Run Run, novels for young people. A 1967 graduate of Harvard College, where he studied both music and English, Mr. Sleator spent a year in London studying composition and working as an accompanist at the Royal Ballet School. He now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.