Orion’s Dendrites

by Lawrence R. Dagstine

part 1 of 4


How far will people go to make one man remember the past?

Lebros Inquiry - Day 1...

General Observer Stevens came down the long stairs of the space observatory and started across the test facility to the rooms leading into the cerebral chamber. Then he had his first sight of luck. The tests on his moåst unique subject were well under way.

SUBJECT NAME: Orion T. Jacobs.

SUBJECT CLASS: Veteran cosmonaut, planetary explorer.

He had nearly reached the dendrite probe, a mainframe for scanning memory cells and conditioning cerebral matter, when excited voices were raised ahead. A technician in the same room pulled down his goggles and threw a lever. The next moment a great surge erupted, large monitors flashed, and a baldheaded scientist appeared hurrying anxiously toward him. He seemed pleased. A moment or two later the master technician dashed up the stairs and flew after him. As he passed Stevens he flung a sentence over his shoulder. The General Observer had caught the word “soon”.

He hurried up to the metal observation deck. Then he understood the reason for the stampede of scientific minds and clapping.

“Raise intensity level by three,” said a voice over the speaker. “Our observer is on deck. I repeat...raise intensity level by three.”

“Dendrites picking something up,” shouted one scientist. “Visual in five to ten minutes. Prepare narcotic inception.”

“Placebos have been drained,” said another scientist, sitting in front of a giant computer. “Hypnotic sedatives and memory-inducing agents in effect.”

Sweeping into the cerebral chamber in full awe were a flock of blue and white plastic-robed technicians, the majority being of same height, weight, and extreme facial features, and having flaxen hair that was neatly parted. Scientists in white gowns and cotton masks were running along a computer-dotted area below. Over two-dozen, stand-alone devices and terminals gleamed with extraordinary power and lights and bleeped an even far more impressive technological symphony. A lengthy experiment was taking place. An admiring group of researchers clustered at the ends of the balcony, and out of all of them, Stevens seemed most delighted.

He turned around and patted the master technician on the back. “Ah, finally,” he said, putting on his bifocals and picking up a clipboard off a nearby monitor. “I see you’ve made progress.” He grunted with anticipation. “It won’t be long now. I guess we’ll finally see what’s inside that noggin of his.”

“Don’t expect much on this budget, sir,” said the master technician. “After all, he can’t recollect much of what happened. Actually, much of anything.”

“He will soon enough,” said Stevens confidently, as he looked down at a ring-shaped prison made of glass, and holding a man strapped to an anti-gravity chair. “Orion Jacobs will remember everything, no matter how much power we put into the probe and no matter how much we take out.” Strange wires protruded from a steel plate attached to the prisoner’s shaved head. As he hovered about in a semi-conscious drug-induced state of trance, it seemed as if the whole examination was focused around one thing. The barren moon of Lebros.

“If all else fails we can always try conformity,” suggested one chamber worker from below, “or even social aversion tactics. Such techniques have been known to bring out information, even when the patient doesn’t realize he possesses it.”

The master technician scratched his chin. “Interesting approach. I think that would satisfy our financiers quite nicely. We could close the Lebros file for good.”

“I don’t care,” said Stevens genuinely. “As long as the subject is not damaged, and as long as he tells us what we need to know about the lunar surface.”

“The moon is that vital?” the chamber worker asked.

Stevens grasped the balcony railing. “Whatever is down there is.” He eyed the confined man once more. “What you see in that glass encasement is an important man. There’s a lot going on in that noodle of his, a lot of invaluable data installed on his cerebral hard drive. And our job is to retrieve it. Those heady incumbents from the Administration aren’t handing out pensions for nothing.”

“Intensity levels at five!” roared the speaker once more. “Final preparations for remembrance process now under way!”

Stevens licked his lips and swallowed hard. The anticipation was great. For a moment he thought he was denied access to the cosmonaut’s brain, but the levels were far in excess of its normal settings. Then a visualizer unit came down, a sort of projection-like screen made for viewing by larger audiences. The test began to work. He drew a deep breath. There was a fraction of a second’s silence amongst the scientists and technicians in the chamber, both upstairs and downstairs. And then, with the full force of his lungs, Stevens hurled the word in everyone’s face.

“Now!”

For the operators below, especially those controlling brainwaves and memory patterns to and from the probe, protective goggles went on once more. What had begun as a simple test into the embodiment of pure recollection and mind control was now developing into the real thing. A picture began to manifest, but the large screen was not clear enough.

“Improve visual aspect,” ordered Stevens. “One-hundred percent.”

“Yes, sir,” said the chamber worker from below. “Percentage up.”

“No, no. Now it’s too blurry. Better make it eighty percent.”

The chamber worker nodded, and turned a dial on his switchboard.

“How accurate is this?” Stevens then asked.

“Quite,” replied the master technician from beside him. “Mr. Jacobs has been prepped with the usual behavior modifications prior to confinement and cerebral attachment. For example, not only are we searching his brain for what our bosses desire, but also given the appropriate circumstances almost any word or sentence denoting a political or religious creed or militant, rebellious nature, can become a deadly insult. Resistance on his part, especially to remember the events of Lebros and his purpose for being there, will only cause him mental anguish. It’s better to give in early. Show us everything.”

“As long as you don’t damage him.”

“Never, sir. I would guarantee my life on it. So much has been introduced, so much has been implanted inside his brain prior to experimentation. A word like ‘obedience’ could no doubt be used with devastating effect, but only if he decides to resist our probing techniques. The word ‘defiant’ would probably be reckoned a virulent term of abuse to our technicians, but to him, when under the probe and certain narcotic agents, it would modify and pacify. Pacification is the key. There isn’t much riding on this project, that I know, but the idea of probing the brain is new even to us, so the expenses involved in the early stages will be very minute. I have faith in Mr. Jacobs though. You should be able to file detailed reports to our superiors by day’s end.”

Stevens was impressed. “Excellent. That’s just what I wanted to hear.”

Still, judging by the length of time it took for the visualizer to clear, it seemed as if Orion was just another work in progress, only a very special one.

Stevens grinned. “Ah, what’s this? Our guinea pig just twitched.”

For a moment there was no sound. Just machines buzzing, lights flashing. It was enough. Then someone shouted “hooray”. Success? So soon? It was, Stevens thought, one of the head scientists below. He started to smile. The other workers below deck, after one bewildered look around, managed to join in convincingly. “I want every slaphappy idiot removed from the station should our man’s memories backfire on us,” the General Observer made perfectly clear. “Where I come from, it’s a curse to count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

“Give it time,” said the master technician. “Give it time.” Only he and Stevens did not laugh or applaud. “It’s been ten minutes. If this happens the way we want it to happen, then our boys have reason to celebrate. Success can only be attained through the discipline of science, and for that you need patience.”

For a moment Stevens glared at the visualizer savagely. What could be taking so long? Was Orion’s brain that complicated? Impatiently, he pulled himself away from the balcony railing and the master technician and headed for the stairs. The master technician followed steadily behind. As he caught up with him the furious observer turned and shook a fist at the screen above.

“Damn technology is worthless,” he said. “Show something already!”

The picture finally cleared.

With the power of the dendrite probe — and Orion’s memories being used like a transceiver — the cosmonaut’s past experiences came into simulcast form.

“Well,” said Stevens, “this must be day five on the lunar surface. I suppose he was going for a walk outside his rocket.” The moon was fully visible now. “I wish I knew what it was all about, this exploration of his. But I certainly do see purpose. It’s in his eyes. Right through the spacesuit and helmet. Can’t you tell?”

The master technician did not reply. He was too busy congratulating himself, as well as others, for an experiment well done. He shook hands all around.

“I bet he’s a dangerous type, that one,” Stevens commented at large. “That’s if he already knows, of course.”

“A type of space rebel,” said the master technician, as he looked up. “But how do we prove it?”

“Yes...how indeed?”

Stevens glanced up at the screen and studied day five on Lebros, from Orion’s perspective, carefully.

To the other people, who were breaking out the champagne and party favors, they’d forgotten the original point at issue. Something extremely important. And Orion’s eyes were the window to finding out what it was.

Not so much, however, in the case of the General Observer.

As for the visualizer, here was what one man’s memories were made of. All of the experimentation and research made possible through dendrite technology.

A dark moon. The sky behind the range of its jagged peaks appeared jet black in both form and color, pinpointed with luminous stars. The terrain between was rolling, crater-pocked, low density, dotted with spiked outcroppings and splinter-sharp fragments of stone. Steep canyons and cliffs crisscrossed the rubble-strewn mesa like petrified bolts of lightning. It was truly an astronaut’s paradise, and the forty-five year old Orion T. Jacobs, who started to recall most of it, was in his own endlessly vast interplanetary spectacle.

Cautiously Orion walked down the titanium-plated cargo hold ramp attached to one of the rocket’s rear cylinders. At the bottom he placed one foot on the edge of the dish-shaped pad and stepped out onto the lunar surface. The dust-covered layer underfoot had the consistency of crunchy snow. He placed one boot in front of the other, then repeated the process. Gradually he began to walk. It was tough going forth; the clunking feet were like magnets to rocky debris. Endless potholes and sprouts of congealed rock slowed him down. Every step was uncertain, a fast or sudden fall dangerous. Still, there wasn’t much difference between Lebros and earth’s moon. Inadequate condensation and an insufficient atmosphere.

“I want a close-up of whatever he sees,” Observer Stevens interrupted. “There might be something we overlooked. Something on the floor maybe.”

“I’ll try a two-dimensional outlook,” said the chamber worker behind him.

The collective events being played out were altered once more. The visualizer took on a new angle. All eyes were once again focused on the big screen.

In Orion’s ears was a steady, loud hissing sound. It wasn’t from the probe. It had come from the pressurizing, breathing, cooling and drying system of his two-ply, rubberized spacesuit he wore onscreen. He moved his head from side to side, and inside the close-fitting plastic helmet with hose and breathing unit, he looked for other astronauts or exploration specialists like himself. The light was blinding to his eyes. It was dawn on Lebros. He brought his right-hand thermal mitten up and lowered one of the sun-filtering visors.

The voice in his earphones said: “Welcome back to the crevasse, Jacobs. The rest of us are over here, on the edge of the canyon. No, not that way, silly. Over to your right.”

Walking terribly slow and awkward, Orion said, “Give me a break. It’s been a good ten years since I explored the moons in this region. Anyway, find it yet?”

“Find what?”

“What blue team is supposedly after. Red team has nothing to report.”

“Hey, when we know what it is ourselves, we’ll tell you.”

Orion shook his head and laughed. “Yeah, I hear ya.”

He finally turned and saw the two figures in their bulky moon suits waving to him. He waved back. “Roger, Sam,” he said into his mike. “Good to see you, good to be back. I’m still a bit disoriented from the sun. You’ll have to bear with me.”

He was glad he was meeting them this way. With the approaching white light who could tell anyone’s identity through seventy pounds of two-ply rubber, nylon and plastic?

He moved out across the barren, forbidding terrain. The pumice-like surface beneath his feet was brittle, sharp, full of gorges and jagged outcroppings. Hiking across it was torture. Every step was taken with careful consideration.

“What’s next?” he said into the mike.

“I think it’s still over in the ravine at UB4’s outpost,” the voice in his ear said. “Yellow team arrived at the scene yesterday. They supposedly found somethin’ down there.”

Where in the hell was UB4? Orion wondered. And what did they find? It was something which confused both the blue team and red team. But a moment later he happened to look down and there, along the edge of the next chasm, like a grid mark running from A to Z, was something worth investigating.

“Pause screening,” Observer Stevens interrupted. “I want a detailed report on all of yellow team’s activities before the blue and red cosmonauts’ arrival. I’d also like some information on this UB4 ravine. It’s somewhere there.” He clapped his hands abruptly. “Well, what are you waiting for? Continue probing!”

The technicians, scientists, and chamber workers scurried back to work.

Eyes were back on the visualizer.

It took Orion close to a half an hour to reach the end of the ravine although it was only a few hundred yards from the rocket. The problem was reduced gravity. And then there were the other impediments: a temperature range of five hundred degrees, when on the sun-basked side, the most intense pressurized vacuum to be understood by man, suit-piercing stalagmites and menacing rock formations, and feeble gravity, only one-third as strong as the earth’s moon. That made it almost impossible to keep one’s balance. Although Orion could jog along with ease, even go gliding through the air for hundreds of feet, but being a seasoned astronaut, he didn’t dare move at more than a hop, skip, and a slow crawl. The terrain was very rugged, the surface uncertain, and there was no way of coming to a sudden stop.

The ravine was almost twenty-five feet deep and steep-sided. It ran in a tight, zigzag pattern, its bottom gouged and pitted by hundreds of meteorites and space debris. There was no sign of anything, not even the slightest evidence that yellow team had explored. But that didn’t mean much. There was, however, a blue team lunar vehicle. Abandoned by the looks of it. As for this special discovery, or item, or object, or whatever it could be only a few yards away, hidden from view.

Cautiously Orion edged his way down the steep flank, feeling and testing each protruding rock for sturdiness. Each hand and foothold was stable before putting his entire weight on it. Well, supposedly. Tiny meteorite pebbles went bouncing down ahead of him, dislodged by his boots. He let go after about fifteen feet, then used the gravity to pillow his descent. As he reached the bottom of the ravine, he turned left, and headed toward the UB4 outpost and old lunar vehicle. He moved slowly, picking his way over the tortured convolutions and spiked outcroppings of a formerly explored ash flow. The ash flow came from a channel or cave network. Old campsite, old equipment. Still, no evidence of this special something. There was, however, proof that earlier expeditions had been searching. Blue team, a big predecessor to red team, which had been his cosmonaut outfit, and the newer and more advanced yellow team. Because of the steady hissing sounds in his ears and because of the vacuum outside his spacesuit, he didn’t hear anything behind him. But he either saw or sensed a sudden flash of motion and turned.

Something mechanical had come to life.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Dagstine

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