Prose Header

Orion’s Dendrites

by Lawrence R. Dagstine

Table of Contents
Parts 1 and 2 appeared
in issue 156.

part 3 of 4

“What approach should we use now?” the master technician asked.

“The Dreamscape program,” pushed Stevens. “A semi-awake nightmare, used in the most severe situations to obtain forgotten information. First off, I want to keep him partially sedated using the same placebo-controlled environment you've all been working with up until now. Then, I want the gravity back inside the glass unit. Also loosen his restraints. We no longer need him tied up like an ape. Then cut the flow of wires to his temporal lobe. There's too many. Poor chap should be able to walk about, stretch his muscles a bit.”

“You heard him,” said the master technician. “Prepare for cerebral filtration.”

The chamber worker behind him nodded. “Anti-gravity hold being disabled.”

“Wrist locks and head clamps being released,” said another worker, flipping a variety of levers on a weird, oblong-shaped switchboard.

All eyes were on Orion.

“Secondary outcome variables in effect,” said the master technician, “as is the responder rate for reactions to the new conditioning program. And on three...

Lebros Inquiry - Day 2...

Orion awoke to a frightening scream — a terrible, inhuman scream out of hell. But he did not realize that the very sound of the scream came from out of his own mouth.

His reaction was automatic, an animal response to danger. The awareness of his glass-encased environment had him acting violent, panic-stricken — all part of the Dreamscape operating program. He threw punches at the air, kicked with his arms and legs, rolled to the left and then to the right, as gladiators do, landing on his feet in a half-crouch. He stood half-naked in a fighting stance. He cursed and he spat. The fingers of his right hand closed around something that wasn't even there. In a ring-shaped prison with thick glass and metal tiles on the floor, and in a chamber meant for conducting memory input studies, it was no wonder he was facing in the direction from which the enemy had come. But there was no enemy. It was all in his imagination, part of a nightmarish battle over reality and fantasy, where nothing moved, inside or out, and where he fought desperately for sanity.

“Amazing,” remarked the master technician curiously. “The subject must still think he is at battle with the spaceman.”

“Better undo some of the influence,” Stevens suggested with keen observation from outside the glass cylinder. “Reverse the program's polarity using the probe. That's all I need, his behavior pattern reverting back to a primal stasis.”

The master technician nodded. “What now?”

“Turn all propulsion and biofeedback from yesterday's attempt to negative.” A brief pause. “All the feedback he's given us will be absorbed, then introduced to his weakened state of mind twice the power, but in semi-awake mode.”

“Excellent idea, sir. A study just short of simple hypnosis.”

“You just leave that part up to me,” said Stevens. “Tomorrow is another day. I'll scrap the whole dendrite project and try brainwashing and interrogation if I have to. Before you know it, he will have revealed what we need to know.”

Orion now keeled over, struggled onto his hands and knees, his head hanging toward the ground like that of a stricken animal. The floor was shaking according to his perception. What was this sudden feeling? Where did it come from? Was it real? And why did he feel so hostile all of a sudden? A giant fist, as if some unseen force were at work, seemed to slam into his ribs. He now found himself lying face down on the floor. There was a taste of blood in his mouth. The pressure around him was so strong — from where it came he was still uncertain — that both his ears popped. A hand hit him in the back. But that was impossible! There was nothing there. There was a stink of hot lubricating oil in his nostrils, yet no blood. Orion craned his head around, saw the rest of his body wedged between the ring-shaped sides of the glass. His whole being was closing in on itself. He knew vaguely that he was alive, but who he was, where he was, why he was, and what happened to him on Lebros...these were things that were temporarily beyond recall.

There was, however, the sound of inaudible voices. This was no dream. Then bleeping sounds, which came from computers. How curious. The high scream of machinery deepened. And then gravity. Gravity was reasserting itself within this confined space. That much he was aware of, and that helped him realize just how awake he was.

He closed his eyes, then reopened them. A fiery shower of pain burst through his skull. He moved areas of his body where he thought, through the Dreamscape program's conditioning effects, he got hit. The pain worsened. So he lay still, the floor turning, watching the sharp, reddish fragments of hallucinatory pain bypass his vision. He took stock. He could feel his extremities. He could move his head from side to side. He was aware of circulation. He could see the sides of the glass coffin in which he lay. He could hear the steady roar of machinery, which did not sound like it came from inside but out.

He was in a prison of some kind. A mental prison? No, too big, too high-tech. A space station with a laboratory. That was it. He could feel the faint rise and fall of unsymmetrical gravity, that sense of weightlessness that sometimes went with being in outer space. But from his glass-encased cell with the ceiling-raised chair in it, it was obvious that someone or something was in control of it.

“Be careful,” said an almost inaudible voice from outside the glass. Orion put his ear up, not quite sure he'd heard correctly. “He's coming around.”

Lebros. Sam. UB4 outpost. The team's abandonment. It came rushing back to him now. The spaceman attacking. An eighty percenter, the most brutal fight a cosmonaut with limited oxygen could absorb short of having his bones crushed. Rage gave him strength. Focusing helped him remember. He started to climb to his feet...

But if he truly started to recall, then perhaps it didn't show.

“It's not working,” said the master technician. “The patient is realizing this is nothing but a fake dream sequence. He'll never be able to tell us anything in this state.”

“Then increase fluctuation,” pressed Stevens. “More gravity, more illusion to make him think it's real. He'll act out what he discovered, that I guarantee.”

“But he'll override the dreaming program and become sane! The system will overload for sure!”

“Then gas him!” Stevens argued. “Gas him with more mind-altering drugs!”

The master technician nodded. He did not want to admit that the subject was too strong-minded for such a conditioning treatment. It was going to fail, and the General Observer still would not get the information he was after.

“If this continues,” he said, “use transference as a way of inflicting light pain and fogginess, otherwise put him back to sleep. Then we'll move him upstairs.”

More buttons were pressed, levers turned. A sharp pain exploded in the back of Orion's head and he pitched forward into the heightened darkness as it swelled up at him from the floor. What was this? Was this a nightmare of some sort? Was someone controlling the lights from outside the glass barrier?

It seemed only an instant that he was out, but it had to be longer. For as utter consciousness came seeping slowly back, an image at a time — one in which, oddly enough, he saw himself as somebody else's guinea pig — he found that he was out of the current enclosure and sitting strapped in a chair of some kind inside a large sphere of titanium webbed by steel piping, and with various wires attached to the sides of his cranium.

The sphere hung at least fifty feet above the ground in a huge, metallic room. Banks of computers stood along the far wall, making melodious noises like that of children's nursery toys. Men in white smocks resembling surgeons were working over them, pushing switches, pulling levers, loading big reels of tape. Other men, technical types with bleached hair and blue suits, and wearing colossal earphones with dangling plugs, stood looking up at Orion. The edges of the room were lined with a collection of weird-looking devices — rotating chairs with sockets for backs, reminiscent of old-fashioned massaging comforters but with a menacing look and feel to it. There were also electronic tilt tables; magnets coming out of the ceiling; egg-like disorientation drums revolving on multiple axes at fantastic speeds; heat chambers that looked like steel sauna rooms; upside-down tandems with strange-looking wheels and cerebral wires attached to the sides of them; water simulation tanks constructed of canvas and wire. These must be machines of torture, he told himself. The equipment scientists of that day and age used on test subjects.

“Lebros,” a voice finally echoed up at him, but from which side of the room he was unsure. “Tell me. What exactly did you find down there?”

Orion was still a bit disoriented. “Wh...what are you talking about?”

Now he heard someone reading off information about him: “You are from the planet earth, I see. Orion Thompson Jacobs... Russian-born cosmonaut with one hell of a career at planetary exploration. Health problems include a rapid pulse rate and constant ear infections. Hobbies include tennis and backgammon. You were born in the year 2545 A.D., middle-aged, married twice, and prefer spatial environments to nitrogen-based ones. An unusual occupation for someone with an accelerated bill of health, wouldn't you agree?”

The gravity in this new room was so assimilated, he felt as if he were speaking to the edge of the sphere in front of him. “Who are you people? How do you know so much about me?”

“We know everything!”

One of the white-gowned figures below now plugged a small microphone into the console in front of him and spoke. It was the master technician. Orion heard his voice, tiny and remote, like the other man, trickling into his ear. “... thank you once again for your cooperation. The idea is to find out just how much you saw and how much you know. Even a millisecond will do. It will also test how much the human brain can tolerate. Gravity fluctuation helps speed the process...”

If Orion could hear the man, then maybe... “Help, get me out of here!” he now bellowed at the top of his lungs.

“... by resisting to remember or talk at such gravity or stress levels, chemical changes begin to take place,” the master technician continued without pause, “all courtesy of the dendrite probing system. This new test can only be performed in a shielded atmosphere. Why? Blood pools, vein walls soften, and large amounts of calcium are released from the bones. There are serious shifts in both cerebral and body fluid levels, such as atrophy and schizophrenia. It's unlikely, however, the new test will allow your brain to reach that point. You may have succeeded in memory recollection and semi-awake mode of thought, but we'll be victorious the third time around.”

The chair had started to slowly turn. Electrical currents were flowing. Now it began to pick up speed. At the same time it began shaking in a circular formation with increasing violence. “Remember that you yourself control the outcome,” the voice in his ear said. “By remembering and talking about it, you may stop. Press the emergency lever beside your left hand. When you feel that you have reached the limit of your mental and physical endurance, go for it. But only if you tell us about Lebros! Otherwise the carousel ride goes on. Now isn't that simple? If you tell us what we want to know, the motion will cease. Thank you once again, and good luck.”

Orion tried the lever. Nothing happened. He either refused to talk or refused to remember. The chair shook harder and harder and spun faster and faster. The vibrations grew more intense, as did the mental and physical abuse. It felt like he was in an alternate universe, a realm of his own making splintered into a chaos of unbearable motion. His brain practically crumbled under the whirling onslaught. The spinning and the gravitational fluctuation and the stress were too much. And then a roaring sound started in his ears and he heard another sound. A powerless voice, shouting in agony against the mind-destroying shaking. His own. And like before, his hand pulled at the lever again and again but there was no reaction. He resisted, or at least Stevens and the master technician thought he was. There was nothing but the roaring in his ears, the bloody tears from his eyes, and the bite of the straps and treatment that was tearing his mind and body to pieces.

His shouts turned to screams as the assault on his senses continued. His ears popped continuously. He closed his eyes in torment, but it did no good. The very cells of his brain — under this new conditioning treatment — the very corpuscles of his blood appeared to throb, and to burst in a mounting crescendo of pain.

“Lebros... Lebros...” echoed the other person's voice again. “Just what did you see on the lunar surface?”

“Resistance is futile,” echoed another voice. “Remember and obey!”

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the onslaught stopped. Orion's movement ceased, and the third test came to an abrupt halt. He opened his eyes and saw no change in the red-splashed darkness. His brain pounded inside his skull, the very muscles of his face and body quivering uncontrollably. Gradually, bit by bit, all of his senses began to recover. The scarlet flashes became crimson, then green, and then finally vanished. The background blended with them in a growing lightness, and through the haze of his damaged sight two faces gleamed.

“One more of those and he'll die on us for sure,” said the master technician.

“He doesn't seem too damaged,” said Stevens casually. “But you're right. We almost blew the entire mainframe on this try.”

Things were pale and motionless. A thin, dead face with dead gray eyes and a savage grin now looked up at him. The mouth moved. It said: “Is there anything you want to tell us? Anything you've remembered?”

Orion glanced down obliquely. “Where am I?” His tone was all but friendly. “I want to know! What have you done to me? Why does my head feel swollen?”

“There was a slight overload,” Stevens tried to explain to him. “The pain you feel is the result of mental fatigue. The next seventy-two hours will be groggy, a period in which you may suffer some neuropsychiatric adverse effects. Previous subjects have complained of hallucinations, while others have experienced more deeper traumas, such as psychotic depression and paranoia. But that can all be avoided if you just tell us what we want to know.”

Orion closed his eyes and said, “Go to hell. All of you!”

“Such aggression. It would have been much easier if you just conformed... .” Stevens now faced the master technician and said, “Take him up again.”

Orion shook his head, and there was nothing after that but the long, deep rise into cerebral darkness. He surfaced once, briefly, to feel the faint rise and fall of a cool metal floor under him and to know that he was spinning once again; then the blackness spread across his vision like the wings of a bird and he felt the cold and clammy rush of air against his face. And he knew it for what it was: death.

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence R. Dagenstine

Home Page