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Conspiracy Against Normalcy Will Keep Fishbowl Alive

Column by Anders Hove

This Friday I had an important date to keep: My elderly friend Ratko Icic had taken ill, and I had promised his wife Mirjana to visit him and keep him company.

Ratko was listed in the intensive care unit of the small Balkan General Hospital in Medford. The sun had just set when I arrived in his room, casting a faded red shadow through Ratko's cold, plate-glass window.

"How are you, old friend?" I whispered softly, bending down to speak directly into Ratko's wrinkled, withered ear.

"Very well, thank you," said Ratko, turning his eyes to mine. His voice sounded strong and full-bodied, not what I expected from a man on his deathbed.

"I've been enjoying this rest," he said, folding his knotty brow into an intense stare. "I hope you understand why we have to go away."

"No, I don't," I said, shaking my head. "Are you really ill, or is this some sort of silly conspiracy I'm not going to like?"

"No, silly," gasped Ratko. "With the reinstatement of the opposition victories in Serbia, life has become very dangerous for men of my background and history. When the regime was strong, Belgrade could trust me with the information I have. Now that the tables are turning, I have suddenly become dangerous."

Absently, Ratko smoothed his bed sheet with his hand, exhaling dramatically. "So I must disappear. Fortunately, this hospital specializes in disappearances."

"Ratko, you are obviously a very sick man. Maybe it was a mistake - my coming here and getting you all excited."

I turned as if to go, but Ratko's jaundiced arm was on my sleeve, tugging urgently.

"Mr. Hove, stop," said Ratko. "We can change the subject if you wish. Something closer to home?"

I settled back into my chair uneasily, nodding my assent. Ratko pulled a stack of yellowed paper from behind his pillow, handing it to me. Squinting, I could barely make out the gothic script on the front. "Most secret," I read, "burn immediately upon receipt."

"Go on, read," whispered Ratko, "you will find it most interesting."

"D___ Office, urgent," I continued. "Jerome W____ agrees with our design for Plan Fishbowl and has asked our team to look for an appropriate location. The location must meet the following criteria:

"First, it must be near to a main stream of undergraduate traffic, someplace where any tour of campus would pass. Second, it must be plainly visible from outside. Third, it must be located near an entrenched and affiliated bureaucratic department that will protect it and prevent its removal before the completion of the plan.

"Finally, once installed, all traces of the project's purpose must be eliminated. The project must remain a secret if it is to successfully undermine our enemy's efforts to attract and retain well-rounded and socially competent individuals to this campus. The dangers are great: If the public or faculty learn that a small group of individuals have manipulated the intellectual composition of our applicant pool, our positions will become untenable."

I shook my head in disbelief. "Are you suggesting that the Fishbowl cluster was part of some absurd conspiracy to scare away normal, balanced individuals from coming to MIT? Who would swallow that? I'll agree that Athena brings out the worst in people. But that doesn't make it a deliberate plot to undermine the character of the student body."

Ratko's eyes were closed. "Really, Hove, look at how MIT has evolved. The Institute produces a crop of money-grubbing nerds fresh for manipulation by powerful members of the capitalist elite. Think of Project Athena's corporate sponsors. Powerful interests, my friend. They would not stand idle while their supply of techno-goons was threatened by societal change. Powerful interests protect themselves, Hove, no matter what the cost to society."

"That's ridiculous, Ratko," I said, shoving the papers into the trash as I stood to leave.

"Please," Ratko pleaded. "In my old age, I have few friends. I do not wish to lose you. I want to remain in contact after I - well, after I depart.'" Ratko's voice lowered to a snarl: "Another departed member of my family will wish to remain in contact as well."

The blood rushed from my brain; I pressed my limp, tingling palms against the sides of my pants. Turning my head to look back at Ratko's bed, I beheld a wide, many-jewelled smile.

"It can't be. Radovan, alive?"

Before I could say more Ratko's head slumped onto his pillow. The electronic pinging of his heartbeat became a steady yowl. Doctors ran in yelling, shoving his rolling bed into and down the hall. His smile disappeared through a closing door.

Anders Hove will return to the Balkan Subversive and Revolutionary Bookstore next week.