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Bonus Story

Neil James Hudson


Neal James Hudson is a UK-based writer whose work has appeared in anthologies for Third Flatiron, as well as for zines  such as Nemonymous and On the Primises.

Neil James Hudson is the author of the short-story collection The End of the World: A User's Guide, which can be orderedfrom his website at

Strain Your Brain! only confirms what your mother always told you -- playing games makes you stupid. Fortunately, reading a good science fiction doesn't do that.




By Neil James Hudson

     As I navigated my way through the campus, I wondered again what on earth Professor Stendahl could possibly want with me.  I wandered past crowds of young people, most laughing, one crying, several campaigning for the forthcoming election as if they themselves were standing, and not a few with a copy of Strain Your Brain! which suggested that the Professor was something of a local hero on campus.  I suspected that brains would be better strained if the students actually resorted to studying, and I wondered how far Stendahl’s project reflected attitudes in the education system in general.  Greater intelligence was now seen as a right, and indeed a capacity that everyone possessed:  those who clearly weren’t in its possession could blame it on upbringing and a lack of opportunity.  But on the other hand, it was a refreshingly multicultural society, and for a few seconds my cynical defences were breached by a small hope for the future. 

     I asked a randomly selected specimen for directions:  she was considerably more helpful than the receptionist had been, and I soon found myself in the Professor’s office.  He seemed a likeable fellow, thoughtful but a little absent-minded.  I thought he looked like a physicist rather than a psychologist, but perhaps that was just because he bore a slight resemblance to Einstein.

     “I expect my review wasn’t as complimentary as you’d hoped,” I said, trying not to apologise.

     The Professor waved, as if my apology were a bad smell in front of his face.  “On the contrary, I found it very intelligent.  I think that’s more important than sycophancy, don’t you?”

     “I have a duty to my readers to be fair,” I said.

     In fact, I’d only troubled myself with Strain Your Brain! in the first place in order to avoid writing about the election.  I didn’t want to deteriorate into cynicism, but those two self-important over-privileged businessmen just reminded me of blind men in the desert arguing over who should drive.  And the commentary and analysis that we journalists were providing was just drivel.  We deconstructed promises that we knew would never be kept, and used the tiniest evidence to predict the election result.  There was one story that Stratton availed himself of a photo-opportunity in a café, and that when he left, his staff removed the cup from the premises.  It was speculated that they didn’t want him to leave a DNA sample.  In fact, it was to stop us from reading the tea-leaves.

     So Professor Stendahl’s Strain Your Brain! was a welcome distraction for me.  By coincidence, my review of the program was printed next to a story of John Stratton playing the same game, another daft opportunity for irrelevant publicity.  I was fairly even-minded, I think.  The Professor had decided, on the basis of ambiguous scientific evidence, that solving a series of puzzles would increase your IQ.  I found it more interesting than I expected, and more difficult--once the program established my ability, it operated at a level that genuinely challenged me.  However, ultimately I wasn’t impressed.  I felt that one could equally raise one’s intelligence merely by refusing to live such a stupid lifestyle in the first place.  I said this in my review, and imagined that it wasn’t what the Professor wanted.

     His desk was absurdly clear:  I was always suspicious of an ordered mind.  But one object sat alone in the middle of the space, and he now pushed it over to me.  “The sequel,” he said.  “Perhaps you’d care to try it.”

     I picked up the machine and studied it.  “I hope you’re aware,” I said, “that my review will be, once again, scrupulously honest.”  He just smiled at me, apparently expecting me to be more impressed this time.

     This version seemed to comprise a different selection of games.  Previously it had resembled IQ test questions, which I’ve always found dull, but dressed up in a more engrossing and dynamic manner.  These puzzles seemed to be more standard types, of the sort that you get in tabloid newspapers and downmarket women’s magazines.

     “I don’t do word searches,” I said.

     The Professor smiled at me.  “Have you ever had your IQ tested?” he asked.

     I nodded.  “When I was a student, I found out I had an IQ of 157,” I said.  “After that, I always tried to keep 158 dollars in the bank, so I could say I had more money than sense.”  I looked up, and realised that Professor Stendahl was a man who smiled at everything and laughed at nothing.

     “Give it a go,” he said.  “I promise you you’ll notice the change.”

     So sitting in the office of a Professor of Psychology, I did a word search, trying to identify different breeds of dog in a grid of letters.  It was harder than I’d expected, possibly through the choice of unused letters.  I felt slightly humiliated as I struggled with his problem, but I finished it in the end.

     “Take it away with you,” he said.  “Keep working at it.  I promise you you’ll notice the change in no time.”

     Was he right?  It seemed unlikely, but I felt as if I’d strained my brain cells so much that something must have happened.  And when I walked out of the campus, things seemed different.  I didn’t know if the atmosphere had changed, or if I could perceive things better.  But now I was suspicious of people, as if the racial mix were really a powder keg that could explode at any moment.  I could only assume I was picking up subtle signals that I hadn’t noticed before.  The Professor’s game was working.


     At home I flopped down on the sofa and put the news on.  Election again, dull dull dull.  Stratton was delivering an important new speech--that’s how they described it anyway.

     “Let’s isolate the key issue here,” he said.  “Let’s not think in terms of races.  Let’s think of it in terms of reds and blues.  Imagine a grid full of red squares, with a few blue squares in it.  So long as there are only a few blue squares, there’s no problem.  But as the blue squares increase, they tend to form large shapes:  while the red squares find themselves increasingly at a disadvantage.  The larger the shapes, the easier it is to grow: while some of them just turn yellow ...”

     What on earth was he going on about?  With a start, I remembered the first edition of Strain Your Brain!  Blues And Reds was a tricky exercise in which you had move the squares around to stop the blue squares taking over.  Now Stratton was using it as a metaphor for racial harmony.  Wasn’t that taking it too far?

     I took out the first edition of Strain Your Brain!, fired it up and started the Blues And Reds game.  After the second edition though, it just seemed silly.  I knew that I could win the game, so it didn’t seem worth wasting the time.

     Instead I called John Stratton’s press office.


     To my surprise, someone agreed to meet me in person to discuss Stratton’s relationship with the game.  It must have been one of his most junior staff, mind--a blonde woman, still in her twenties.  I suspected that Stratton had hired her for other reasons than a proven track record in public relations.

     I decided to research this later.  So far, there were no rumours about Stratton’s love life, but he was bound to slip up sooner or later.

     “So, I gather you’ve been straining your brain,” she said.

     “And so has Mr John Stratton,” I replied.  “I found it an odd thing for him to be doing in the middle of an election campaign.  Isn’t he busy enough already?”

     She smiled, although it was more like shrugging with her mouth.  “I don’t think anyone’s too busy to improve themselves.  Surely you’ve noticed an improvement?”

     “I’ve got to admit, I do feel cleverer than I did a couple of days ago,” I said.  “But what’s in it for Stratton?”

     I wasn’t sure myself why I thought it mattered.  I just had an intuition that I was chasing a real story, that there was something at the back of this that was worth my time.  Was this proof of my increasing intelligence?

     She began to speak as if she was quoting from some prepared press release.  “John Stratton simply believes that a more intelligent population will be an enormous asset in the twenty-first century.  Any help that Professor Stendahl can give will be a boon to business, and will vastly increase the quality of life in this country.  And remember, if the public are to help us fight back against the new threats we’re facing, they need to be exceptionally vigilant, to be able to spot the slightest clues about suspicious people.

     “Look, think of it as a numbers game.  If terrorists are zeroes, and the public are the other numbers, you want to isolate the zeroes.  You need to arrange the public so that there’s only one zero in a whole line of law-abiding people, so that there’s only one in a whole square--”

     “Hang on,” I said.  “Now you’re doing it.  That’s a sudoku you’re talking about.  Why do you think the world’s like one of these games?”

     She studied me for a bit, and I wondered if her interest was purely professional.  I could certainly see why Stratton might get himself in trouble over her.  “Tell me,” she said, “have you seen the sequel to Strain Your Brain!?”

     “I have,” I said.  “Professor Stendahl gave me one himself.”  I couldn’t resist this little boast:  she wasn’t the only one who mixed with famous people.

     “Let me tell you a secret,” she said.  “Entirely off the record?”  I nodded.  “John Stratton had some input into the sequel.  He had discussions over how the game could better provide the skills necessary for life in the twenty-first century.  Have you tried the Spot The Difference game yet?”

     “Hardly,” I said.  “I don’t have time for--what’s the word?--unimportant things.”

     She nodded.  “Have a go now.  You’ll see.”  I took my copy out, and went through the menu to the game.    “It looks easy, but the point is that people are learning to see when things are wrong.  If you can find the differences between two dogs, you can tell the difference between a terrorist and a law-abider.”

     Once again I felt that the game was beneath me, but I had a go and I got it sorted.  Finding the last difference was the real problem--one of the dogs had a different pattern on its socks but I didn’t see that for some time.

     “That was easy,” I said proudly.  “And you reckon I’ll be able to tell who’s a terrorist now?”

     “You should certainly find it easier,” she said.  “Now do you see why John Stratton is so interested in the game?”

     “I suppose he needs to tell who’s a terrorist more than the rest of us,” I said.

     She paid for the coffee and left soon after, but I thought I’d get in touch with her again tomorrow.  I could tell she fancied me.


     When I got home I just put the telly on.  I didn’t have another look at the game--I reckon you need to let go a bit when you’ve had a hard day.  But whatever channel I had on, I still kept finding this stuff about the election.  And it was strange--I didn’t notice at first, I wasn’t really watching but I’d left the telly on while I had the kettle on, but that Stratton bloke was still talking in terms of the Prof’s game.  There was one time when he was going on about maths--he was talking about how the policies of the other parties didn’t add up, and he was doing all these clever things about numbers.  There was a lot about how “if peace is to be the result, and terrorists are one of the problems, what do you have to add to it to get the result?”  Which just made me think, that’s another of the puzzles on the Brain game.  I switched it on again just to prove it.  I even did one of the problems just to show I still could, it took me a while but that was just because it was so late.  I knew I was getting better because the second game was telling me so.

     The other guy in the election, Michael Benton, was talking much more normally.  He even had a go at Stratton for being hooked on this game, but that was a mistake because it was so popular.  They had some members of the public on afterwards and they were saying how they used to like him, but since they’d been doing this game their IQs had gone up and now they knew he was talking rubbish.

     I still liked him actually!  I hadn’t made my mind up who I was going to vote for, and I reckon that’s a sign of intelligence, when you think about each thing when it comes rather than just supporting someone slavishly.  So I don’t think there was any sort of conspiracy going on, it wasn’t like the game made you suddenly support Stratton or anything daft like that.

     But it was still odd.  I thought back to earlier on, when I hadn’t been so clever, and I’d thought there was something not quite right.  I thought that I should be able to work it out now, but it still wouldn’t come.  So I decided to sleep on it.  My brain needed a rest anyway.


     I didn’t go into the office the next day.  I reckoned I needed to go and have another word with the Prof, and anyway you don’t want to be stuck in an office when the weather’s good.  I walked to the tube, and although I was looking around to see if anyone looked like a terrorist, I couldn’t see anything.  I didn’t think I would mind you, I thought that girl was just being daft, they don’t go wandering around with guns in their hands.

     So I walked back through that college campus and quite frankly some of them looked a bit dodgier this time.  Some of them were hanging around in groups talking, and you had to wonder what they were talking about since it all seemed to be private.  And there was one group of foreigners who looked a bit suspicious.  I’m not prejudiced or anything, I reckon it’s disgusting how some Muslims are treated, the good ones, but it’s always them when there’s some sort of a terrorist attack isn’t it?  The bad ones are just giving the good ones a bad name.  So I thought, I’ll just make a note of it for now, because if I keep playing this game I might get better at seeing what’s what and then I’ll know if I should report them or anything.

     Anyway, I got to the Prof’s office, but he was off teaching, so I had to wait.  I still wanted to think, I still had this idea at the back of my mind that I was trying to bring up to the front.  But it wouldn’t come, so I had another go on his Spot The Difference game.

     So the Prof turns up after half an hour, and who’s he got with him?  Only John Stratton, hasn’t he!  So I thinks, how’s he got away from all that media and everything?  But then I remember that he’s got something to do with this new game, and I think, yeah, I should be interviewing both of them.  See, I reckon I’ll be able to catch him out better now, I’ll notice more things and I’ll know if he’s lying.  So I’m “I didn’t expect to see you here, Mr Stratton,” and he’s like, “I thought I should see how our subject’s doing,” and I’m like, “your subject?  That’s like politics, yeah?”  But they both just smile and we go in their office.

     “So, how are you feeling?” asks the Prof, and I says, “yeah, I got to hand it to you, Prof.  I didn’t think that game would work but I reckon my IQ’s gone through the roof.”  And then that Stratton bloke’s smiling, and he goes, “yeah we thought we were right about this.  As soon as we realised that your brain can be trained to be more intelligent, we thought, it could go the other way too.”

     But I didn’t get what he was on about, so I says, “surely you just want to make people brainier?” and he looks at me, and he’s like, “Politics is a funny old game,” and my ears prick up then because this is the kind of thing I’m listening for, so I’m like, “what do you mean?”

     “Think of an election as a set of tangled lines,” he says.  “You’ve got the voter at one end, holding the fishing-rod, and all the parties are at the end of the line, so you’ve got to trace the right line, to find out who they’re going to vote for--”

     “That’s what you keep doing,” I says, and I think I’m onto something now, that idea at the back of my mind wants to come out.  “You keep talking about life as if it’s one of these brain strain games.  But that’s just daft, I know you’re like teaching skills and that but that don’t mean that life’s a word search does it?”  And then I sees this idea, and I says, “but then if you’re training people to think in a certain way, then when you start talking like that, they’re going to think along with you.”  And I don’t know where these words are coming from but I let them out anyway.  “You’re using these games to lay the foundations of how you want them to think.  Then when you deliver one of your speeches, your audience is already halfway there.  They simply follow the content of your arguments, as if it’s a track that’s already been worn down in their brains.”  What I’m saying sounds preposterous, but I had had at first hand a demonstration of how pernicious the effects of Professor Stendahl’s game could be.  “The mental skills you claim to be imparting are actually the preliminaries to accepting your political arguments.”

     I looked at the two in front of me, the Professor of Psychology and the politician, and saw everything with a clarity that chilled me utterly.  I had reviewed this device, and thought it a harmless entertainment.  Now I realised that in fact I had stumbled on something far more sinister.

     An even more unsettling thought hit me as I looked down at my own copy of Strain Your Brain! 2.0.  I’d used this on several occasions since first meeting Professor Stendahl.  Had it been controlling or influencing my own mind?  “And if that’s the purpose of the first game, how much worse is the sequel?”

     The two men looked at each other, worriedly.  Then John Stratton put on his politician’s smile.  “Tell me, have you actually played the Tangled Lines game?”

     “No, I’ve been too busy with the Spot The Difference,” I said.  The words jarred as I said them, and I realised how I’d been wasting my time with trivialities.

     “Just give it a go now,” he said.

     So I took up the stylus and had a go at tracing the lines.  It was harder than it looked, and the pen kept going off the lines and the game made a funny noise.  So I says, “this is too hard,” and that Stratton bloke, he’s like, “nah, you keep at it, I’ll change the difficulty level,” and then he turns it up but i keeps going at it i do, and when i finally does it i gives a whoop and says there you are, thats me im a genius now

     and stratton he says yeah you are pal your sorted now i bet your glad you got this game so now do you see why its like the vote

     and im like yeah i see youve got to get to the right ballot box havent you and he says yeah, thats right but youve got to make sure you vote for the right person as well and i says hang on your one of them people arnt you your standing in it

     and he says yeah thats right and then the prof starts talking and he just talks funny uses loads of long words like hes beter than anyone else and i says you sure your a prof not a puff?  but stratton says look you dont want them terrists running the world do you?

     and i says no that’s right you sort them mulems muslems out and ill vote for you mate and he shakes my hand and i leaves then.  and outside theres all them foregn people.  i know theres some people say there ok but they must be thick or something everyone knows their just trying to blow us up.

     then later that night stratons on telly and hes going on about reds and blues again and i says yeah thats right you tell them pal but then i turns it over cos its just boring and on the other side theres some girls with no tops on.



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