The Dragon’s Black Box
by Lou Antonelli
Dr. Kimberly Lewis stood at the observation window and looked at the unfortunate Mexican.
Her companion nodded towards the subject, who was strapped to a stainless steel gurney tilted to a 45-degree angle.
“We’ve brought him up for you to take a quick look,” he told the cognitive psychologist. “Obviously, we’ve been keeping him heavily sedated.”
The man was young — no more than 24 or 25 — and his olive complexion was underlain with a violent red. His eyes were wide and glazed.
His mouth barely moved.
“Loan lee oso loan lee oso loan lee...”
He kept repeating the same meaningless phrase over and over.
Dr. Lewis leaned forward. “I wish I could make out what he’s saying.”
She scratched her chin. “How long has he been like this?”
“The entity, for lack of a better word, entered his body two days ago,” he said. “The locals caught him yesterday, and we hauled him here.”
“It’s clear some kind of entity was involved?”
“We have an eyewitness who saw a humanoid pterodactyl-like manifestation enter his body.”
“That would match the description of a Predecessor. How could they see it?”
“It was visible in the smoke — there had been an explosion.”
He handed her a slip of paper. It was a copy of a hastily penciled sketch.
“This is a drawing the mine’s manager made for us. It certainly matches our supposition of what a dragon looked like.”
She peered at the paper. “Yes, I agree. I’ve worked on two Predecessor projects, and this jibes with everything I know.”
“How did you get recruited for the Predecessor Project, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It was easy,” she said. “If you’re a black box psychologist like me, it’s hard to break new ground. Then one day some guy shows up and asks for your help to study the mind of a nonhuman sentient race. Even if it’s only second or third hand — only through their structures and technology — it’s still a great opportunity.”
She smiled at the older man. “Beats nuts and putz any day.”
She snorted and looked through the window again.
She wrinkled her brow. “Just how conscious is he?”
“Not very. When we try to bring him to full consciousness, his vitals shoot too high. He’d stroke out.”
She looked at the sweat on the man’s face and at his dripping wet shirt. “He’s probably not going to last long, anyway.”
“That’s why we called you,” said Dr. Rosenfield. “We figure if we’re going to lose him, at least we can learn something before he dies.”
She rested her chin on her fist. “Poor bastard.”
* * *
“These gentlemen will brief you on the particulars of what transpired.” Dr. James Rosenfield gestured towards the two men in dark suits who entered the secure conference room.
The foremost held out a hand. “Dr. Kim Lewis, thank you so much for coming. Dr. Rosenfield has a great deal of faith in you. Please sit down.”
The older man smiled from where he sat as his much younger colleague resumed her seat.
The two men sat across from them. The second spoke up. “We appreciate your coming on such short notice. You can imagine how difficult is it to find a cognitive psychologist with the appropriate security clearance.”
“I understand this involves a Predecessor artifact. I’ve worked with these before. I helped work out the operation of the artifact found in the Ingolstadt cave,” she said. “And I helped decipher the control panel of the dragon jet found at Capulin Peak.”
She smiled sweetly beneath her blonde bangs. “And if either one of you calls me a Dragon Lady, I’ll throw you over my shoulder.”
The first man chuckled. “You obviously are in deep with this project. It’s a pleasure to talk freely with someone about this.”
She returned his cheesy smile.
“This was an intact and undisturbed hibernation chamber,” said the second man. “It was found in a lignite coal bed in Hopwood County, in East Texas. It had snagged their dragline. Strip miners found it and thought it was an erratic boulder.”
“Dr. Rosenfield told me they blasted it with high explosives.”
The first man leaned back. “It’s testimony to the robustness of Predecessor construction that after 65 million years, 20 pounds of C-4 barely cracked it open.”
“Some kind of manifestation emerged from the chamber and darted into the body of the nearest person — our unfortunate Mr. Hector Gonzales,” said the second man. “He was the bulldozer operator.”
“The chamber had been intact?”
“Yes. The miners had no idea of what they were getting into.”
“Gonzales immediately killed the pit boss and ran off,” said the first man. “Fortunately, this is a very isolated area and he wasn’t able to do much damage before he was overcome by local sheriff’s deputies the next morning.”
“He’s been under heavy sedation ever since,” said Dr. Rosenfield. “We tried to bring him around, but he becomes violently agitated.”
“Do you think you can help us, Dr. Lewis?”
The young lady looked across at them. “Well, sure, it’s a snap to determine the psychological profile of a predatory electromagnetic manifestation of a nonhuman sentient creature that probably died 65 million years ago.”
The men began to protest, but she cut them off. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t smart off. It’s my way of coping with the stress.”
“I understand,” said the first man. “I suppose, of course, there’s always danger when dealing with this kind of project. But many people have already dealt with the victim, and there’s been no indication of the entity attempting to relocate.”
Dr. Rosenfield snorted. She looked at him and back at the duo. “You make it sound like a corporate transfer. Very well, I’ll do my best. I hope you don’t have unrealistic expectations.”
The first man set back in his chair. “No ma’am. We’d be happy with anything you can learn.”
* * *
She looked up from the laptop as the older man walked in.
“It looks like you’ve settled in very nicely.”
She smiled and rested her arms on the desktop. “It’s actually quite comfortable. You must spend a great deal of time here.”
Dr. Rosenfield chuckled. “More than I would like.”
“Well, I appreciate you letting me borrow your place.”
“Oh, goodness, it’s the least I can do after dragging you out to the middle of the desert on such short notice. I was afraid you’d protest that you didn’t want any special treatment.”
She smiled. “I saw the other quarters. I’m blonde, but not stupid. This is much nicer.”
The old man laughed and rubbed his bald head thoughtfully. “I can cope for a few more days.”
She looked thoughtful. “You really don’t think he’s going to last long, do you?”
He sat down on an empty chair beside her. “I’ve looked at his ongoing biometrics. If we brought him up to full consciousness, he’d suffer a fatal heart attack or stroke out in ten minutes.”
He touched her forearm to distract her from the screen. “Do you think it’s just fright?”
She pushed the lap-top back. “No. People don’t have such a severe physiological reaction from being frightened. You’re a clinical psychologist. What do you think?”
She swiveled in the seat to face him. “What’s your best guess?”
The old man rubbed the white bristles on the back of his neck. “Well, the obvious thing to think of, is that he’s possessed, but...”
“Yes, I know. Even if there are such things as ghosts, none would hang around 65 million years.”
“There’s never been any indication that Predecessor technology had its own unique physics,” she added. “I doubt there is a technological way to trap souls — if such things exist.”
She bounced her light cursor gently on the desktop.
“Besides, although they were not human, the Predecessors were still terrestrial. You would think that if the spirit of the thing possessed Gonzales, it would try to communicate.”
She adopted a mock-serious tone. “It might say, ’Hoo boy, did I oversleep!’ Or maybe look up at the Moon and say, ’Well, there’s the booger that caused the whole problem’.”
The older man didn’t fall for the lighthearted tone. “You did seem a little nervous at the briefing. You’re not afraid of being possessed, are you?”
“No, it’s not that — and I don’t think Gonzales is possessed. I think he’s suffered cerebral impairment.”
Dr. Rosenfield raised his eyebrows.
“Whatever escaped from that chamber may be so strong that when it entered him it literally blew his mind,” she said. “You’ve seen dragon technology. How would you describe it?”
“Good point,” he said, rubbing his knuckles. “Robust. Durable. Strong. Powerful.”
“Yes, powerful. I get the same impression. If the minds of the Predecessors were as strong as their technology...”
“The mind of a young uneducated Mexican mine worker didn’t stand a chance. I see what you mean.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, the possibility I could get my mind blown the same way,” she said.
“The Predecessors were the first — and certainly so far, the greatest — race on this planet,” she said. “What if somehow I punch through to a dragon mind trapped in Gonzales’ body? Can I face that dragon?”
She leaned back in her chair and sighed. “You know as well as I do that cognitive pysch is a Black Box, you can’t actually see what’s going on inside the mind. You can take some good guesses now, thanks to MRIs and such,” she continued. “But what will happen if we open the Dragon’s Box? Will I — or will all of us — end up like Mr. Gonzales?”
“Well, Kim, I know you well enough to know you’ll go slow and be careful.”
He leaned around her and looked at the laptop’s screen. “What do you have there?”
“I’m doing a little reading up on ancient Egyptian religion. I have a theory percolating in the back of my brain.”
He rose and rubbed her golden hair in a very avuncular way. “OK, young one, I think you’ve got things under control.”
* * *
Gonzales looked like a limp marionette, with all the wires and tubes connected to him.
Dr. Lewis looked at the project manager, who had been the first man at the briefing the previous day. “I don’t think we need to give him any stimulants,” she said. “Just letting the sedatives work their way out of his system should bring him around.”
She studied his vital signs. “We’ll give him morphine for the pain. The pentobarbital and scopolamine will help relax and loosen him up — if there’s anyone still in there.”
The manager stared at the biometrics reading. “You think he may be brain dead?”
“Or possibly hopelessly brain-damaged. I’ll be able to tell from the real-time MRI once he’s conscious.”
She waved indifferently towards the gamma ray beam machines on either side of the man’s head, and looked towards Dr. Rosenfield.
“What’s it look like?”
“An undifferentiated green fog,” he said. “Really nothing to speak of. Only the brain stem seems to be functioning normally.”
“Loan lee oso loan lee oso loan lee...”
He sounded different from before. The two psychologists looked at each other. The lab techs looked around, too. They also noticed the change.
The manager cocked an ear. “That’s the first change we’ve had since he got here.”
“Dr. Lewis leaned forward. “Uhh.. is he trying to sing?”
“Sounds like it,” said the manager.
She went over to the gurney. She leaned over by his ear and spoke to him in a calm and even manner in Spanish. “Are you in pain, Hector?”
There was no reaction.
Dr. Lewis waved a hand by the side of her head. “I do think he’s trying to sing.”
The man’s words grew more distinct as he seemed to be singing a jingle.
She spoke again. “Do you know where you are, Hector?”
Still no reaction.
Now a weak melody seemed to emerge. “Lonely, oh so lonely. Lonely, oh so lonely. Lonely, oh so lonely.”
Dr. Lewis straightened up. “I recognize that.”
She leaned over his face and shined a penlight in his eyes. “Minimal reaction.”
She looked over at Dr. Rosenfield. “What do you have?”
“We have activity in only a very small extremely localized area,” he said. “I can’t recall what’s located there.
She looked into the stricken man’s eyes. “His mind’s gone.”
She clicked off the light and dropped it in a pocket. “I’m afraid we’re not going to find Hector or a dragon in there.”
The Mexican began to shudder and jerk on the gurney.
“Put him back under,” she said. “It won’t make any difference.”
She snapped off her surgical gloves as she walked past the manager. “There never was any danger of anyone else being possessed,” she said. “There never was an entity in there. The damage was done three days ago.”
* * *
Dr. Rosenfield looked over his younger colleague’s shoulder.
“He’s essentially brain dead,” she said. “That box is empty.”
“Well then, what caused it? What’s your conclusion — if you don’t mind me asking? What’s going to be in your report?”
“Did you get me that information on the East Texas chamber?”
The older man pulled a zip drive out of his cardigan pocket. “Oh, yes, I forgot. Here you go.”
Dr. Lewis plugged in the drive and began to intently scroll pages. She spoke as she scrolled. “Just as I thought. All of the hibernation chambers that have been found have the same strong electromagnetic shielding. This one was no exception.”
“The Predecessors went into hibernation because of the solar flares whipped up by the Moon’s gravity as it wobbled into and was caught by the Earth’s orbit,” said Dr. Rosenfield. “That we know. All dragon technology we’ve found is heavily shielded.”
“Yes, and I see...” She spoke slowly as she scrolled “...nothing different with this chamber.”
She turned and faced her colleague. “I know from some quick and dirty research I did in the Eyes Only archive here that there’s no technology that can trap a soul — if there is such a thing.”
“I know, it’s been tried a few times. What are you getting at?”
“If something came out of the chamber and ran into Mr. Gonzales, it wasn’t a spirit.”
She handed him a printout. “I thought, since we are dealing with the oldest race on the planet, I’d find an answer with the oldest religion we know of.”
He looked over the pages. “Yes, but the ancient Egyptians were still human.”
She pointed. “They believed in the same kind of souls as we do, a spark of the eternal that descends from the Godhead at birth and returns at death.”
“They also believed in the Ka, a kind of personal soul that a person develops while they are alive, and which takes some time to dissipate after death,” she continued. “It was like a personality.”
“It was for the Ka they buried people with all those material goods, to keep the Ka happy until it moved on.”
“Sounds vaguely familiar,” said Dr. Rosenfield. “But what has this got to do with our subject?”
“I think it’s safe to say, since the Predecessors were beholden to the same laws of physics are we are, they couldn’t have even inadvertently trapped a soul. But when you take into account the same heavy shielding that kept electromagnetic radiation out also would keep it in...”
“I see. You think it was the electromagnetic energy of the Ka that was trapped in the chamber.”
He raised a finger. “Intuitive, but brilliant!”
“The soul — if there was one — would have dissipated years ago after the body crumbled. But the Ka was trapped for almost 65 million years by the shielding.”
She turned back to the screen. “It was an unfortunate accident. These chambers were only supposed to hold the dragons for 1,000 years. But the disruption caused by the capture of the Moon was so great that many of them were damaged and didn’t open in a timely fashion.”
“Yes, and the Predecessors petered out and went extinct 50 million years ago,” he said. “Very well, what happened to Mr. Gonzales?”
“I said it at first in a flip manner, but after looking at the real time MRI, I guess I was right all along. His mind got blown. His intellect was destroyed. All he has left is the animal sub-brain — which explains how he’s acted after the incident.”
“So what about the singing?”
“You saw how localized the sole functioning area of his brain was. It was a small area containing memory,” she said. “Apparently it was where the Ka touched before it dissipated.”
“The memory of a song?”
“Yes, you didn’t recognize the tune, did you? It was the refrain from a British hit from 1965. It was long before my time, but I’ve heard it. So must have Mr. Gonzales, at some point in his life.”
“I suppose, as the Ka flew into Gonzales, it was the one thought it could recognize,” she continued. “Rather sad, in a way. Here was a strong and powerful creature — at least as willful as an Egyptian pharaoh — and after 65 million years of isolation, it had one thought left. It touched Gonzales’ mind where that one thought was the most clearly expressed — in the memory of a song — and then dissipated, unfortunately destroying Gonzales’ mind in the process.”
“Did we learn anything, then?”
“Actually, yes. The Predecessors may have been strong, powerful and willful, but perhaps their minds were not as alien as we might think. I probably assumed their minds were just especially large and powerful reptilian intellects, cold and unemotional,” she said.
“If I pulled anything out of this long-dead dragon’s black box, it may be that they did have emotions.”
She sighed. “I found the fossil of at least one in the dragon’s black box.”
She looked up to see Dr. Rosenfield was puzzled.
“Loneliness is an emotion,” she said. “That was the last thought of the Ka as it ran through Gonzales’ mind and dissipated — that it was lonely.”
“The refrain of the song — Lonely, oh so lonely...”
Copyright © 2006 by Lou Antonelli