Suite Mentale

by Randall Garrett

Copyright© 2018 by Randall Garrett

Science Fiction Story: Eight students of telepathy go mad and their instructor is a vegetable. That makes the instructor the perfect person to work out the bugs in his system.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

OVERTURE--ADAGIO MISTERIOSO

The neurosurgeon peeled the thin surgical gloves from his hands as the nurse blotted the perspiration from his forehead for the last time after the long, grueling hours.

“They’re waiting outside for you, Doctor,” she said quietly.

The neurosurgeon nodded wordlessly. Behind him, three assistants were still finishing up the operation, attending to the little finishing touches that did not require the brilliant hand of the specialist. Such things as suturing up a scalp, and applying bandages.

The nurse took the sterile mask--no longer sterile now--while the doctor washed and dried his hands.

“Where are they?” he asked finally. “Out in the hall, I suppose?”

She nodded. “You’ll probably have to push them out of the way to get out of Surgery.”


Her prediction was almost perfect. The group of men in conservative business suits, wearing conservative ties, and holding conservative, soft, felt hats in their hands were standing just outside the door. Dr. Mallon glanced at the five of them, letting his eyes stop on the face of the tallest. “He may live,” the doctor said briefly.

“You don’t sound very optimistic, Dr. Mallon,” said the FBI man.

Mallon shook his head. “Frankly, I’m not. He was shot laterally, just above the right temple, with what looks to me like a .357 magnum pistol slug. It’s in there--” He gestured back toward the room he had just left. “--you can have it, if you want. It passed completely through the brain, lodging on the other side of the head, just inside the skull. What kept him alive, I’ll never know, but I can guarantee that he might as well be dead; it was a rather nasty way to lobotomize a man, but it was effective, I can assure you.”

The Federal agent frowned puzzledly. “Lobotomized? Like those operations they do on psychotics?”

“Similar,” said Mallon. “But no psychotic was ever butchered up like this; and what I had to do to him to save his life didn’t help anything.”

The men looked at each other, then the big one said: “I’m sure you did the best you could, Dr. Mallon.”

The neurosurgeon rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead and looked steadily into the eyes of the big man.

“You wanted him alive,” he said slowly, “and I have a duty to save life. But frankly, I think we’ll all eventually wish we had the common human decency to let Paul Wendell die. Excuse me, gentlemen; I don’t feel well.” He turned abruptly and strode off down the hall.


One of the men in the conservative suits said: “Louis Pasteur lived through most of his life with only half a brain and he never even knew it, Frank; maybe--”

“Yeah. Maybe,” said the big man. “But I don’t know whether to hope he does or hope he doesn’t.” He used his right thumbnail to pick a bit of microscopic dust from beneath his left index finger, studying the operation without actually seeing it. “Meanwhile, we’ve got to decide what to do about the rest of those screwballs. Wendell was the only sane one, and therefore the most dangerous--but the rest of them aren’t what you’d call safe, either.”

The others nodded in a chorus of silent agreement.

NOCTURNE--TEMPO DI VALSE

“Now what the hell’s the matter with me?” thought Paul Wendell. He could feel nothing. Absolutely nothing: No taste, no sight, no hearing, no anything. “Am I breathing?” He couldn’t feel any breathing. Nor, for that matter, could he feel heat, nor cold, nor pain.

“Am I dead? No. At least, I don’t feel dead. Who am I? What am I?” No answer. Cogito, ergo sum. What did that mean? There was something quite definitely wrong, but he couldn’t quite tell what it was. Ideas seemed to come from nowhere; fragments of concepts that seemed to have no referents. What did that mean? What is a referent? A concept? He felt he knew intuitively what they meant, but what use they were he didn’t know.

There was something wrong, and he had to find out what it was. And he had to find out through the only method of investigation left open to him.

So he thought about it.

SONATA--ALLEGRO CON BRIO

The President of the United States finished reading the sheaf of papers before him, laid them neatly to one side, and looked up at the big man seated across the desk from him.

“Is this everything, Frank?” he asked.

“That’s everything, Mr. President; everything we know. We’ve got eight men locked up in St. Elizabeth’s, all of them absolutely psychotic, and one human vegetable named Paul Wendell. We can’t get anything out of them.”

The President leaned back in his chair. “I really can’t quite understand it. Extra-sensory perception--why should it drive men insane? Wendell’s papers don’t say enough. He claims it can be mathematically worked out--that he did work it out--but we don’t have any proof of that.”

The man named Frank scowled. “Wasn’t that demonstration of his proof enough?”

A small, graying, intelligent-faced man who had been sitting silently, listening to the conversation, spoke at last. “Mr. President, I’m afraid I still don’t completely understand the problem. If we could go over it, and get it straightened out--” He left the sentence hanging expectantly.

“Certainly. This Paul Wendell is a--well, he called himself a psionic mathematician. Actually, he had quite a respectable reputation in the mathematical field. He did very important work in cybernetic theory, but he dropped it several years ago--said that the human mind couldn’t be worked at from a mechanistic angle. He studied various branches of psychology, and eventually dropped them all. He built several of those queer psionic machines--gold detectors, and something he called a hexer. He’s done a lot of different things, evidently.”

“Sounds like he was unable to make up his mind,” said the small man.


The President shook his head firmly. “Not at all. He did new, creative work in every one of the fields he touched. He was considered something of a mystic, but not a crackpot, or a screwball.

“But, anyhow, the point is that he evidently found what he’d been looking for for years. He asked for an appointment with me; I okayed the request because of his reputation. He would only tell me that he’d stumbled across something that was vital to national defense and the future of mankind; but I felt that, in view of the work he had done, he was entitled to a hearing.”

“And he proved to you, beyond any doubt, that he had this power?” the small man asked.

Frank shifted his big body uneasily in his chair. “He certainly did, Mr. Secretary.”

The President nodded. “I know it might not sound too impressive when heard second-hand, but Paul Wendell could tell me more of what was going on in the world than our Central Intelligence agents have been able to dig up in twenty years. And he claimed he could teach the trick to anyone.

“I told him I’d think it over. Naturally, my first step was to make sure that he was followed twenty-four hours a day. A man with information like that simply could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands.” The President scowled, as though angry with himself. “I’m sorry to say that I didn’t realize the full potentialities of what he had said for several days--not until I got Frank’s first report.”


“You could hardly be expected to, Mr. President,” Frank said. “After all, something like that is pretty heady stuff.”

“I think I follow you,” said the Secretary. “You found he was already teaching this trick to others.”

The President glanced at the FBI man. Frank said: “That’s right; he was holding meetings--classes, I suppose you’d call them--twice a week. There were eight men who came regularly.”

“That’s when I gave the order to have them all picked up. Can you imagine what would happen if everybody could be taught to use this ability? Or even a small minority?”

“They’d rule the world,” said the Secretary softly.

The President shrugged that off. “That’s a small item, really. The point is that nothing would be hidden from anyone.

“The way we play the Game of Life today is similar to playing poker. We keep a straight face and play the cards tight to our chest. But what would happen if everyone could see everyone else’s cards? It would cease to be a game of strategy, and become a game of pure chance.


“We’d have to start playing Life another way. It would be like chess, where you can see the opponent’s every move. But in all human history there has never been a social analogue for chess. That’s why Paul Wendell and his group had to be stopped--for a while at least.”

“But what could you have done with them?” asked the Secretary. “Imprison them summarily? Have them shot? What would you have done?”

The President’s face became graver than ever. “I had not yet made that decision. Thank Heaven, it has been taken out of my hands.”

“One of his own men shot him?”

“That’s right,” said the big FBI man. “We went into his apartment an instant too late. We found eight madmen and a near-corpse. We’re not sure what happened, and we’re not sure we want to know. Anything that can drive eight reasonably stable men off the deep end in less than an hour is nothing to meddle around with.”

“I wonder what went wrong?” asked the Secretary of no one in particular.

SCHERZO--PRESTO

Paul Wendell, too, was wondering what went wrong.

Slowly, over a period of immeasurable time, memory seeped back into him. Bits of memory, here and there, crept in from nowhere, sometimes to be lost again, sometimes to remain. Once he found himself mentally humming an odd, rather funeral tune:

_Now, though you’d have said that the head was dead,

For its owner dead was he,

It stood on its neck with a smile well-bred,

And bowed three times to me.

It was none of your impudent, off-hand nods... _

Wendell stopped and wondered what the devil seemed so important about the song.

Slowly, slowly, memory returned.

When he suddenly realized, with crashing finality, where he was and what had happened to him, Paul Wendell went violently insane. Or he would have, if he could have become violent.

MARCHE FUNEBRE--LENTO

“Open your mouth, Paul,” said the pretty nurse. The hulking mass of not-quite-human gazed at her with vacuous eyes and opened its mouth. Dexterously, she spooned a mouthful of baby food into it. “Now swallow it, Paul. That’s it. Now another.”

“In pretty bad shape, isn’t he?”

Nurse Peters turned to look at the man who had walked up behind her. It was Dr. Benwick, the new interne.

“He’s worthless to himself and anyone else,” she said. “It’s a shame, too; he’d be rather nice looking if there were any personality behind that face.” She shoveled another spoonful of mashed asparagus into the gaping mouth. “Now swallow it, Paul.”

“How long has he been here?” Benwick asked, eyeing the scars that showed through the dark hair on the patient’s head.

“Nearly six years,” Miss Peters said.

“Hmmh! But they outlawed lobotomies back in the sixties.”

“Open your mouth, Paul.” Then, to Benwick: “This was an accident. Bullet in the head. You can see the scar on the other side of his head.”


The doctor moved around to look at the left temple. “Doesn’t leave much of a human being, does it?”

“It doesn’t even leave much of an animal,” Miss Peters said. “He’s alive, but that’s the best you can say for him. (Now swallow, Paul. That’s it.) Even an ameba can find food for itself.”

“Yeah. Even a single cell is better off than he is. Chop out a man’s forebrain and he’s nothing. It’s a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.”

“I’m glad they outlawed the operation on mental patients,” Miss Peters said, with a note of disgust in her voice.

Dr. Benwick said: “It’s worse than it looks. Do you know why the anti-lobotomists managed to get the bill passed?”

“Let’s drink some milk now, Paul. No, Doctor; I was only a little girl at that time.”

“It was a matter of electro-encephalographic records. They showed that there was electrical activity in the prefrontal lobes even after the nerves had been severed, which could mean a lot of things; but the A-L supporters said that it indicated that the forebrain was still capable of thinking.”

Miss Peters looked a little ill. “Why--that’s horrible! I wish you’d never told me.” She looked at the lump of vegetablized human sitting placidly at the table. “Do you suppose he’s actually thinking, somewhere, deep inside?”

“Oh, I doubt it,” Benwick said hastily. “There’s probably no real self-awareness, none at all. There couldn’t be.”

“I suppose not,” Miss Peters said, “but it’s not pleasant to think of.”

“That’s why they outlawed it,” said Benwick.

RONDO--ANDANTE MA NON POCO

Insanity is a retreat from reality, an escape within the mind from the reality outside the mind. But what if there is no detectable reality outside the mind? What is there to escape from? Suicide--death in any form--is an escape from life. But if death does not come, and can not be self-inflicted, what then?

And when the pressure of nothingness becomes too great to bear, it becomes necessary to escape; a man under great enough pressure will take the easy way out. But if there is no easy way? Why, then a man must take the hard way.

For Paul Wendell, there was no escape from his dark, senseless Gehenna by way of death, and even insanity offered no retreat; insanity in itself is senseless, and senselessness was what he was trying to flee. The only insanity possible was the psychosis of regression, a fleeing into the past, into the crystallized, unchanging world of memory.

So Paul Wendell explored his past, every year, every hour, every second of it, searching to recall and savor every bit of sensation he had ever experienced. He tasted and smelled and touched and heard and analyzed each of them minutely. He searched through his own subjective thought processes, analyzing, checking and correlating them.

Know thyself. Time and time again, Wendell retreated from his own memories in confusion, or shame, or fear. But there was no retreat from himself, and eventually he had to go back and look again.

He had plenty of time--all the time in the world. How can subjective time be measured when there is no objective reality?


Eventually, there came the time when there was nothing left to look at; nothing left to see; nothing to check and remember; nothing that he had not gone over in every detail. Again, boredom began to creep in. It was not the boredom of nothingness, but the boredom of the familiar. Imagination? What could he imagine, except combinations and permutations of his own memories? He didn’t know--perhaps there might be more to it than that.

So he exercised his imagination. With a wealth of material to draw upon, he would build himself worlds where he could move around, walk, talk, and make love, eat, drink and feel the caress of sunshine and wind.

It was while he was engaged in this project that he touched another mind. He touched it, fused for a blinding second, and bounced away. He ran gibbering up and down the corridors of his own memory, mentally reeling from the shock of--identification!


Who was he? Paul Wendell? Yes, he knew with incontrovertible certainty that he was Paul Wendell. But he also knew, with almost equal certainty, that he was Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. He was living--had lived--in the latter half of the nineteenth century. But he knew nothing of the Captain other than the certainty of identity; nothing else of that blinding mind-touch remained.

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