the heft and the edge 14/2/2019
Madmen in Paradise
It was after Caulfield’s arrival that the big leap occurred.
For simplicity’s sake, they picked one of the several Polynesian island civilizations from Mead as the target reality. So many studies had been undertaken, and so many books written about this particular society that Caulfield was sure he could present it in extreme detail to their subject. He knew it so well, he would easily be able to predict and neutralize any possible difficulty. Vernier, at this stage, agreed that information would have to be supplied aurally, with the subject under hypnosis, over a period of months. Babbage, torn away from his precious computers, spent hours with Caulfield recording the verbal information they had prepared onto magnetic tapes.
The subject Vernier chose for the experiment had a head start: he was a half-Polynesian British sailor, whose mother was originally from the Gilbert Islands perhaps not the same type of community as the target society but one at least that shared common experiences of fauna, flora and weather. Indeed, George Timkiss had visited the islands twice before his discharge from the service in 1944. His subsequent breakdown and descent into a semi-catatonic state appeared to be linked more to the violent death of his mother than the evident horrors of war. On arrival at the Ministry, George had been at the best of times docile, at the worst dead to the world. Only hypnotism had broken through the wall that separated him from what we call normal life. His behaviour when animated by Vernier’s opening therapies was hardly more encouraging: he developed a tendency to erupt into fits of hysteria. His education for the experiment had been a long and laborious task.
The preparation was meticulous and extensive. A brutal combination of sedatives and psychotropic drugs kept George barely conscious but accessible for weeks on end. Hour after hour tapes were played to him, full of familial stories of the islands, films were shown, songs were sung. Their task was to fill up his conscious thoughts with memories of a home in paradise, with the language of his people, with the beliefs they shared in everything from how weather works to the nature of their creator.
They had begun the process in the depths of a frozen winter but summer was well begun before they determined that the education was complete. In Babbage’s unusual phrase, the “data was loaded”. George Timkiss had a new name: La-u. He knew the name of his village; he knew what food was considered good to eat, what to drink, when to drink it; who to bow to, who to bully; how many wives he could have. In short he had been given, quite literally, a new identity to believe in. It was not the reality where poor George Timkiss lay on his bed and moaned, and could not feed himself, and had no voice, and knew nothing of the passing of time. That past life, that barely-a-life, was as nothing in comparison to the variety and promise of a future, of an alternative present. And yet he was on hold. George remained in limbo. There were two realities in balance, fighting for his attention. George stood between, incapable of accessing either.
Vernier likened it to filling up the petrol tank of a car: it can’t go without the fuel, but equally, even if the fuel is there you still need a spark to get it moving. Babbage scoffed at such a simplistic analogy. Surely it was more like a computer, he said, with the data in place, ready and waiting only for a command to run the programme. Caulfield was taken by the notion that what they were about to attempt was a profound act of creation. “Like the touch of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.” Vernier was very well pleased with the allusion. He would himself provide that spark, he would give the command, he would bring life to what was as yet merely potential. He would give La-u an instruction, under hypnosis, to go home.
George Timkiss slumped in the Body Chair, apparently asleep. He wasn’t strapped in because it wasn’t thought necessary: his temper had been completely placid in recent months. The observation team looked on with interest, rather than excitement, as Vernier bent to whisper his blessing, his words designed to set La-u free. What, after all, was there to get excited about? As normal, they would measure the heart rate; monitor how much his palms sweated, set themselves to counting eye movements, set the tapes spinning to record any momentous comments.
What happened then was something they did not have the physics to explain. In the physics of some other reality it is probably very obvious.
Three of the five man team swore that, for no more than a split second, they saw palm trees, a beach and a fire. Just for an instant, after Vernier gave his instruction, the room around them shimmered out of existence and back in again, and left them breathless. Both Vernier and Caulfield missed it completely: they were more concerned with Mr. Timkiss. Immediately he began to shout in the Polynesian tongue he had been so meticulously taught: “No, No, NO! The spirit is, No There is no spirit, eating me. Eating me! N0 N0 NO” and then in clear English “Not here, not me, I…’. And all the time he was babbling and screaming he was fighting, struggling with unseen opponents. He was dragged to the floor and back to his feet by unseen hands and suddenly propelled through the wall into the equipment room as if the wall did not exist. The observers followed by way of the corridor and arrived in time to see George seemingly hoisted onto an invisible platform. His legs were dragged apart, welts appeared at his wrists and ankles as though cords cut into his skin. None of them knew what to do to help him. His face twisted in absolute terror but his writhing and straining ended abruptly. The room was filled with a noisome smell of burning flesh. Some of the observers insisted they saw the flames at his groin, but then the world shivered once again and George Timkiss, severely damaged, was returned to the cold reality of the Ministry.
A babbling man, clearly possessed of a demon, had been cast out of the paradise he had created around himself, and his seed was burnt.
The gods that governed his existence shrugged their shoulders and then returned to their offices to consider the implications.