There are two principles of science, the crucible through which raw data is poured and transmuted to understanding:
Correlation does not imply causation.
Cause precedes effect.
Like so many things, these truths are not always true in Night Vale. Or rather, they're true, but differently. It takes Carlos a year to grasp this, even after he realizes that Night Vale's space is real but its time is not.
But StrexCorp Synernists Incorporated isn't part of Night Vale.
When Carlos hears that StrexCorp has purchased the community radio from Station Management, he knows better than to assume it's a coincidence, that the company made their move scarcely a year after his team arrived in Night Vale.
Carlos is angry—is furious, as he can't recall ever being before. It takes him most of the night to identify the cause of his anger as fear. At next morning's meeting with the science team, he keeps his voice calm, unaccusing, as he says, "I want to remind you all that research sold to private corporations cannot be published. StrexCorp's nondisclosure agreements are thoroughly binding."
By the furtive exchanged glances, more than one of his associates have already signed such an agreement. More than one are considering it, anyway. The reason is clear enough, but so disappointing.
That evening when he's leaving the lab, Ginevra the physicist meets him by his car. "Hey, boss," she says. "Give us a break, all right?"
Carlos wouldn't have guessed Ginevra to be the one to sell out. No one goes into quantum physics to get rich and famous. But she shakes her head at his betrayed look. "Not me," she denies. "But it's difficult, you know. It's not just the money. You can't publish with no replicable results; we'd be laughing-stocks if we tried. Knowing that someone's interested in your research, that it has purpose, even if it doesn't get your name on a paper..."
"None of my experiments have been publishable, either," Carlos says.
"Yes, but it's easier for you here."
"Easier?" Carlos says blankly. He lived through Valentine's Day and Street-Cleaning Day and agreed to ring the doorbell of a house that wasn't there. He almost died in a hole under a bowling alley.
Ginevra looks uncomfortable. "Not safer, I don't mean. But it's different for you. If this town loved the rest of us like it loves you..." She shakes her head again. "Forget it. But if you find out who it was, go easy on them? Signing your soul over to StrexCorp should be punishment enough."
It turns Carlos's stomach to hear her say it so plainly. But it doesn't make him less angry, or less afraid.
He cooks dinner for Cecil that night, his mother's tinga de pollo. He hasn't made it since he was an undergrad, and he's not positive the chicken is actually chicken—the skin on the breast was scalier than it should be—but Cecil loves it. And over dessert Carlos confesses, "It was one of my science team—or more than one, I don't know—"
Carlos looks at the window, open as per the secret police's mandate for fair weather. He lowers his voice anyway. "The StrexCorp buyout of your station. Strex was informed by a scientist on my team—I don't know how much they know, but...." Enough. They know enough to have started their takeover there. StrexCorp is brutally efficient, obsessively modern. They wouldn't bother with an outdated media outlet like a radio station, unless they knew..."Cecil, I am so sorry—"
Cecil smiles, reaches across the table to take Carlos's hand. "Dear Carlos, are you your scientists' keeper?"
It's very hard to identify rhetorical questions, when it comes to Cecil, so Carlos answers, "No? I'm nominally the director, but they have broad autonomy in their research. Though if I'd known any of them had been contacted—"
"Then it wasn't your fault," Cecil says.
If only it were so simple. Guilt can be ignored, forgotten, absolved. Cause and effect is immutable. "If we hadn't come to Night Vale, StrexCorp wouldn't have known—"
"Or else they would've gotten their information from another source." Cecil grimaces. "Steve Carlsberg, for instance."
"But Steve Carlsberg has been here for years. And StrexCorp has been around for years. That they're interested now—it's because we're here. Because of our research. If we'd never come—"
"If the station's buyout was the inevitable result of you coming," Cecil says, raising Carlos's hand to his lips to brush kisses over the knuckles, "then I'm glad it happened. I would much rather have both you and StrexCorp in my life, than neither."
It's too late, but Carlos does what he can to mitigate further damage. He puts blocks on the email server, though most of the team have the computer savvy to get around firewalls. He removes the radios from the lab, instead records Cecil's show and listens to it in private. It won't stop other scientists from making their own analyses; but at least he can keep his reactions from betraying knowledge that his colleagues might not have yet deduced.
Carlos should've realized sooner that he wasn't the only one piecing together Night Vale's unbelievable truths. He's not the only genius on the team; he's not even the smartest of them. His interest in Cecil's show is well-known, something of a joke around the lab; the other scientists rib him about Cecil's outrageous crush. He should've been more careful, less obvious.
He has nightmares—he's always had nightmares, and since coming to Night Vale they've become a regular event. But they change now, not the usual anxiety dreams of pursuing monsters and surprise quizzes.
Instead Carlos dreams of standing on a mountain, pointing down at Night Vale below. At his command, a giant spotlight illuminates the town. The light is so bright that it erases all shadows, every building on every street standing out in stark relief, from the town hall to the carlot, the bowling alley to the rubble of the waterfront. He can see the clock tower; he can see the bottom of Radon Canyon and inside the dog park.
He takes notes in a notebook, meticulously recording every detail, as the light burns brighter and brighter until everything is whited out, like a nuclear blast, and he's observing an empty desert.
He wakes up with his fingers clenched around a non-existent pen and his face wet, eyes aching from that blinding light.
Carlos stops spending the nights at Cecil's; he goes back to his apartment to sleep. Cecil doesn't ask him why, though he wonders about it on his show. If only obliquely, in accordance with the decency standards; Cecil is as always a professional.
Cecil's show is mostly unchanged; the StrexCorp managers have a light touch. More moderate than the old station management, really. Cecil's editorials aren't censored any more often than before, and his blatant campaigning for Hiram McDaniels goes unchecked. Maybe StrexCorp favors McDaniels' pro-business candidacy. Either way, Cecil doesn't seem too concerned. But then, very few of the things that should concern people ever concern Cecil.
Then Cecil finds some old cassette tapes in his closet, one night when Carlos should've been there, but wasn't. If he had, if he'd been around to suggest they listen to them in private first—
But maybe Carlos wouldn't have. Or not listened far enough. The tape seems harmless at first, and there is something so charming about hearing that much-younger Cecil. Carlos smiles as he listens to the recorded show, recalling himself at the same age, just as obsessed, though in his case with deep-space telemetry and particle colliders.
He doesn't realize at first what he's actually hearing—doesn't realize it until too late. It's already too late. If he were listening to the show live he could have called Cecil, stopped him from playing the end of the tape—but he isn't, and the broadcast has already been heard, the damage is already done.
Carlos can only hope that the scientists at StrexCorp don't know enough to understand. That they won't realize how big a piece of Night Vale's puzzle they've gotten, or won't understand where it fits.
It's a slim hope. He knows the caliber of researchers at StrexCorp.
Cecil sounds the same as usual on the radio the next day, but he doesn't call Carlos that evening, or the next. Carlos isn't surprised. He is, a bit, when Cecil turns up at his apartment door on the third night, slightly unsteady on his feet and with his breath smelling more like actual rocket fuel than alcohol. Cecil doesn't say anything, just takes Carlos's face in his hands. He doesn't say anything but his eyes are pleading, and Carlos leans in and kisses Cecil thoroughly enough to lick the foul bitter flavor of whatever he was drinking off his tongue.
Carlos doesn't have the nightmare of the spotlight that night because he doesn't sleep. Instead he lies awake in his bed, holding Cecil. Cecil doesn't snore or snuffle; he's utterly quiet when asleep, and Carlos spreads his hands over Cecil's chest to feel the rise and fall of his ribcage, counting every slow silent breath until dawn.
Carlos wishes he could ask Cecil not to do his show. To not go back to the station at all. He knows he can't; he can't bear the look Cecil gets, when he has to refuse Carlos anything. So all Carlos can do is listen—in real-time now, wearing headphones in the lab and trying not to react to anything Cecil says.
A week goes by and nothing happens—or rather plenty does, but all within the abnormal norm of Night Vale. There are yellow StrexCorp helicopters in the skies with the black and blue and birds-of-prey; but the sun does not shine any longer or any brighter than it should, and Cecil's show continues as usual.
Two weeks go by, and still nothing happens. Cecil doesn't mention StrexCorp on his show, outside of the sponsor spots—not directly, anyway. He does talk about community service and public works perhaps a little more often, his praise of the Sheriff's secret police and the city council more zealous. And he keeps reminding his listeners that no angels have been seen in Night Vale of late—"which is only to be expected, since angels aren't real."
It makes Carlos uneasy and proud at the same time. They don't talk about it, but Carlos knows it's intentional. Cecil's integrity as a journalist is atypically defined but not inconsistent. His biases are Night Vale's, the point of view unique to those who dwell in the town's unreal reality; they aren't easily swayed.
Carlos only hopes that StrexCorp doesn't realize that while they might have bought out the radio station, the Voice of Night Vale is not for sale.
Three weeks go by, and Cecil gets a StrexCorp memo politely advising him to make his sponsor spots more upbeat, as marketing research shows that tone in advertising matters more than words. He reads the memo aloud on air, apologizing for failing previous sponsors, and then practices variations of 'upbeat', most falling somewhere between laughably phony and starkly terrifying. It's the kind of thing that would be derisive satire if anyone else were doing it, but Carlos is pretty sure Cecil is genuinely concerned he's let the local businesses down.
StrexCorp apparently agrees; they don't send another memo.
Four weeks go by, and Carlos, working late on semi-illicit wheat-related research, dozes off in the lab and wakes up to the mass spectrometer beeping and the spiral-bound notebook his head was on imprinted on his cheek, and no memory of any nightmares disturbing his sleep.
If StrexCorp theorized the truth, surely they would have tried to test it by now. Their purchased scientists would have devised an experiment to ensure that the company's money wasn't being wasted on a fruitless endeavor.
Maybe, Carlos thinks, maybe StrexCorp has no idea. Maybe they're just buying up local radio stations across the country to expand their national media domination. Or maybe they observed the significance of Night Vale's community radio without comprehending it. Effect follows cause, but time doesn't work in Night Vale, and without linear entropy...it took Carlos a year to realize any of it himself, after all, even with personal involvement. Maybe he's given StrexCorp too much credit.
It's three in the morning—according to a clock that's not real—but Carlos drives over to Cecil's instead of back to his apartment. Cecil answers the door after a single knock. "Carlos?" he says, and Carlos says, "I just wanted to see you," and Cecil beams and pulls him inside.
The next morning Carlos makes pancakes and kisses Cecil awake to give him his plate. He goes to the lab with his lips sticky with maple syrup, and listens to Cecil's show on his headphones as he works, shaking his head at Cecil's industriously cheerful shilling for Sony and smiling in spite of himself at Cecil's scathing criticism of the Night Vale Blood Bank's failure to invest its A-positive in the (apparently lucrative?) plasma market.
Then Cecil says, "Listeners, I have just received another memo from our new station owners, StrexCorp—Strex: remaking the world to be a better place, as many times as it takes. The memo is printed on thick cardstock designed to be ergonomic and papercut-resistant; it feels very crisp and official in my hands. Its message is in a plain black type-face, and reads, 'To Cecil Ger—"
Cecil stops abruptly, falling silent. Carlos listens closely, turns up the volume, straining to hear any sound through the hiss of dead air.
He's reaching for his phone when Cecil coughs a single dry cough, and draws a noisy breath, rasping in the microphone.
Then Cecil screams, terrified, agonized, like he's being torn apart.
Carlos rips off the headphones and sprints for the lab door, ignoring the stares and questions of his colleagues. By the time he makes it to his car, the radio is silent again. He's halfway to the station before a voice finally comes on—not Cecil; the station's latest intern, Carlos thinks, though he can't remember their name or face, and the intern's voice is so shrill and quavering that their gender's unclear, "S-sorry for the interruption; we go now t-to the weather—"
There's a helicopter on the radio station roof, its rotating blades nearly nicking the steel signal tower. It's blue, so Carlos is not surprised when two of the Sheriff's secret police bar his entry. They have batons and tasers and riot gear. Carlos doesn't hesitate, just charges past them, slamming his shoulder into the door to force it open.
The secret police don't tase him or hit him; they grab his arms, drag him back from the door. The shorter one pushes up her mirrored visor to shout into his face, "Sir! Carlos! Please calm down, please—Cecil's not inside, we're taking him to the hospital—look—"
She points up at the helicopter on the roof. Its blades are spinning up, their throbbing vibrating the air.
The police officer's grip on his arm is firm and her eyes are wide. She is so pale that the freckles scattered across her snub nose show sharply against her gray face. Carlos has seen her eating at Big Rico's, but only in civilian clothes; he'd assumed she was a yoga instructor or a talon hygienist. Her mouth moves, but he can't hear what she's saying over the thunder of the helicopter taking off.
She shifts her hold on his arm to pull him toward the waiting squad car, its lights flashing. Carlos lets himself be dragged along, be pushed into the cruiser.
Most people taken away in a Night Vale secret police car are never seen again. If she's arresting him, it's no less than he deserves. Whatever StrexCorp has done to the Voice of Night Vale—she knows. Everyone in Night Vale knows, most probably. Likely more than Carlos, though he can guess the what, if not how. He knows what he would have done, what experiment would be necessary to prove the hypothesis, if he'd cared more about gaining the proof itself than its potential impact. If he didn't mind destroying the subject in order to comprehend it.
This wasn't his experiment, but it might've been. And StrexCorp wouldn't have known to do it, if no one had tried to research this fascinatingly impossible community, if no scientist had ever turned their attention to Night Vale's radio.
Cause is followed by effect.
Carlos leans his head against the cruiser's glass window, tells the sunlit streets of Night Vale speeding past, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry—"