Born Out of Due Time, a Fantasy by Ched Rayson. Chapter Three, Part A. Available to Silver, Gold, and Charter Subscribers
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past…
Precisely at 8:55 Anterus Smith arrived at the offices of The Veritas Center for Humane Studies. He was wearing what could have been the same black suit, but it looked almost new and had been freshly cleaned and pressed. He had thought about putting on a white shirt but in the end settled on a a light blue-gray and a black and bronze necktie with diagonal stripes of abstract irises or lilies. It wouldn’t do, he reflected as he tied his tie, to convey an impression of the loyal corporate employee. Although he had given up his early affection for Kenneth Patchen and Jack Kerouac, he had never embraced conformity, which was reason enough for hating the entire counter-culture.
The Veritas offices occupied a small, three-story commercial building put up between the two World Wars. It had at one time housed a printing company that put out weekly newspapers in Swedish, Finnish, and Yiddish, but nobody spoke those languages after the Second War, and no one in Nadir read much of anything in any language. There was a bookstore, but it mostly sold coffee and sticky pastries to people wolfing down the latest Clive Cussler product or some “non-fiction” bestseller about the private life of Hitler or Hillary Clinton. Non-fiction. The histories and biographies they sold were more fantastic than the science fiction.
For a while, the building had rented out space to small outfitters for the fishing boats, but that part of the lake had been fished out, even before the lamprey had come to finish off the industry. Falling on hard times, it had been used as a warehouse, while there was still anything to store in Nadir. Small as it was, the building was still too big for the Center, which leased out space to a down-at-heels attorney and a chiropractor who nearly electrified his patients, trying to get his equipment to work.
The building was located not too far from the docks, which were hardly used anymore, though the city of Nadir was making a halfhearted effort to redevelop the shoreline for pleasure boats and sport fishing. The brick building must have looked like a prison, when it was built, but after decades of weathering and rot, the place had come to look picturesque, especially compared with the steel buildings, slapped up in the 1960’s and 70’s, which dominated the postindustrial lakeshore.
When he entered the building, he was met by a security guard, dressed snappily in a uniform that an Eagle Scout or SS corporal might have worn with pride. The guard snapped to and, checking his logbook, verified that someone named A. Smith had an appointment with Mr. Borowski. On the way to the kid’s office, Anterus tried to chat up the guard but struck out on both Baden-Powell and Heinrich Himmler. “Never met either of ‘em,” as he opened the door and showed the guest into the office.
“Borowski must have stepped out for a minute. He got in about 8:30.”
The kid was not in his office except in spirit: The untidy room was dominated by an iMac with a gigantic screen and a smaller backup screen, all stationed on a high desk behind a tall stool. Every surface was cluttered with piles of wires, discs and drives, gimcracks and gizmos, stacks of reports and official forms, and brightly colored photographs of the Borowski wedding. Here and there lay half-empty bottles of energy drinks and half-consumed packages of “nutrition” bars. The only attempt to decorate the room were some unframed posters of superhero comic books. Apparently, meek little Shawn, with his incongruous military buzzcut, saw himself as a ravening beast with metal claws.
When the kid showed up, he was dressed in his usual regulation grunge, but he went into the bathroom and changed into what he called his “work uniform.” He vented his resentment, as he he explained why he had to change clothes. Dr. Ross repeatedly reminded the staff that they were scientists and scholars and should dress accordingly. The boss usually wore either a rumpled charcoal suit or a navy blazer with grey trousers. Shawn opted for the blazer, which he had bought at Penny’s, though he did rebel to the point of wearing a broad tie with a flashy pattern instead of a conservative rep tie indicating the elite regiment in which the wearer had not served or the English public school or college he had not attended.
Before even saying “hello,” much less “welcome,” Shawn took hold of Smith’s tie and asked in a Southern accent he must have got from watching reruns of Hee Haw,
“Are those flewer de lee? You a French royalist or somethin’?” Disentangling the tie from Shawn’s stubby fingers, Smith said only “fleur de lys. This final ’s’ is not silent.” He did not add the information that the flowers, which included the stamens, were in fact Florentine, not French.
“I told you there were bizarro things happening here. Yesterday morning I had to come in early to have time to go see you. Anyway, as I told you, I found Dyson—coming out of my office. He said he’d got lost but he was, what’s the word? Sort of cocky? Too self-assured?”
“Yes, you told me all this.”
“Did I? Anyway, I went to see Justin, who says he chewed him out, but that could just be Justin playing tough to impress me. Dyson claimed he had wandered into the wrong office, but Justin’s story was that he had sent him to pick up a report. I don’t know what Justin was doing in the office at 8—he is not due until 9 and is late almost every day.”
“What did you tell Mr. Wright about hiring me?”
“Only that you were very smart and—here I laid it on thick—a kind of forensic historical investigator.”
“That’s a bit too cute. It may be better to say nothing more along those lines. We don’t want to arouse any curiosity. You told me about your dream, and you suggested there is at least one volunteer who has begun to act strangely. Is there anyone else?”
“Yeah, maybe. There’s Steffie. Stephanie Diamond. She’s a young research assistant? She’s started taking an interest in the Third Reich, can’t quit talking about it. She buys Nazi memorabilia on Ebay. She says it’s just a joke, but I don’t know.”
“These are strange times, and a lot of people fall for anything extreme…”
“Yeah, but Steffie is Jewish.”
“I see your point. What about you? Did you have another dream last night?”
Plunging ahead, Shawn recounted the latest episode. This time, he was an Aztechie [sic] guerrilla, killing Spanish soldiers who wandered into the jungle. They were all blue-eyed blonds, and he felt good about killing them. Smith asked him how much he knew about the Aztecs.
“I watched a History Channel program…”
“What did they say about human sacrifice and cannibalism..”
“They said it was, you know, some kind of religious thing, like Christian communion.”
“They didn’t talk about the mass slaughter of children and adolescents who made up a standard part of the Aztec diet?”
“That’s been pretty much debunked as Catholic propaganda…”
“Has it? Fly to Mexico City some time and go to the Museum of Meso-American antiquities in Chapultepec Park. They don’t pull any punches. I had real nightmares for several days after seeing the so-called ‘Aztec Calendar.’ It was actually a sacrificial stone depicting their sun god. His tongue is shaped into an obsidian knife that was used to cut the beating heart of the victims who were still alive.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Maybe they thought it tasted better that way. The biggest food fad in China these days is to eat live animals while they are still squirming in the mouth. You, young man, are the victim of American education, which teaches the absurd lie that people are pretty much the same, wherever you go. That is an insult to the human race.”
“Hey, I went to parochial schools.”
“The difference being exactly what?”
Shawn had obviously had enough Aztec cultural enrichment for one morning and was ready to change the subject, but Smith had to point out the conspicuous flaw in any conspiracy theory to explain the dreams.
“It seems to me that whatever or whoever is behind these dreams has found his way into the darker corners of your mind. The obvious culprit is you. At this stage in your life, you may be getting cold feet about your commitments. At the very least, you have to be a collaborator, witting or not, in this plot, since no one else knows you as well as you do.”
“Look, Smith. I know you’re supposed to be a smart guy with a lot of insights, but until a few weeks ago, I was pretty happy. I loved my wife: Hell, I liked her a lot. I never thought much about minorities—my family brought me up Republican. Now, all I can think of is Wounded Knee, the Little Big Horn, Chief Joseph. It’s like someone’s being practicing voodoo.”
“You’ve never heard that the devil cannot enter your house without an invitation?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Smith said nothing: There was no point in repeating himself. Shawn took advantage of the pause to get down to business.
“We’re going to start you in VSET—‘the virtual sensory enhancement training’ program that was designed to increase olfactory, auditory, visual, and tactile, imagination.”
“Every man can now be Marcel Proust?”
“Yeah, whatever, something like that.”
Shawn outlined the basic approach and commented, “The first step is memory training. As Ross likes to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you learn or experience, if you cannot remember it.”
“So he really is a Platonist…”
“Is that something like Plotinus?”
Smith let it pass. He sometimes forgot how much he had to let pass these days. The problem was getting interesting, too interesting for the usual banter. The first step was to be a series of tests on the subject’s recall. First, the subject was to listen to a recording of a short narrative and then answer questions. Then he would read the same narrative and answer the same questions. In the next step he would first read the narrative, do the test, and then do the test again after it the same narrative was played.
There was some problem initially, since the narratives they were using were mostly too familiar to be useful: Stories by Maupassant and Hemingway, tales from Livy and Herodotus. Finally, Shawn settled on contemporary fiction—a story by someone named Jane Smiley. Obviously a made-up name. In any event, Smith drew a blank, and after listening to a story, he knew why the author wanted to conceal her identity. There were also news accounts, which had to be read aloud, since there were no recordings. He had a good recall of the narratives that were read aloud and a better memory for the stories he had to read by himself. The results were fed into a computer, and various scores were computed—none of which interested the subject at all, though he did make the mistake of commenting on the silliness of the fiction and the incompetence of the news reporting.
The last text, the Declaration of Independence, was more difficult because so much of it consisted of abstractions. He did fine with the Preamble, which he had memorized as a schoolboy (Didn’t everybody?), but he only managed to recall about 40% of the abuses alleged against the King’s government.
When the initial tests had been completed, the subject was fitted out with headphones and goggles that were something like Google glasses. Ordinarily, Shawn explained, he would be put into a specially designed booth, but all the booths were currently occupied by other subjects. The headphones and goggles were the original outfit, and they were still used when they took the experiments out of the office, as they were going to do for the upcoming retreat. When he was later asked what the experience was like, Smith used to say it was like having your mind turned into a computer screen. In other words, a near-death experience for the brain.
First a light appeared and began winking hypnotically to the rhythm of tones he was hearing through the headphones. He entered into a semi-trance and saw the outline of a house appear on his mind screen. The house had a sign that read: Declaration of Independence, and, as the familiar words were heard through the headphones, they appeared on the screen, and the topics were popped into the different rooms. In the entryway appeared the word Preamble, followed by short phrases: human events, dissolve political bands, assume from among powers, self-evident truths, created equal… The different parts of the house were given similar treatment, often pointed with images like a picture of a train in the list of the King’s train of abuses, a crowned figure tearing up laws, Indians attacking a cabin. he was given five minutes to study the house before the words and images disappeared. Then, staring at the outline, he was told to conjure up the topics of the argument. This time when he took the test, he scored 80%.
“Not bad for someone your age, not bad at all.”
“What’s the best anyone has done?”
“A mentally retarded eight year old got 100% of the topics and could repeat the text almost letter perfect. But then he had advantages.”
“What kind of advantages?”
“Being what they used to call ‘simple,’ he was not confused by any anxiety about what anything meant. The retard’s brain took in everything as if it was a disc being burned. People without his advantages really need the house. It helps in several ways, for example, by imposing a structure, but it also short-circuits the subject’s thinking, which can be fatal to good memory. In thinking visually, you partly revert to the pre-literate mind.”
Smith did not explain that the memory game went back to the Renaissance and from there back to ancient teachers of rhetoric. Ancient politicians had to speak without notes, which meant they needed to develop very high level memory skills. Someone—probably Ross himself—knew what he was doing. He did not bring this up, because it might have led inevitably to a discussion of the occultists who had developed memory systems. Shawn would not understand the implications, nor, probably, did Macmillan Ross, but someone did.