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The Multiplex Man
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Dr. Valdheim, wearing a white coat over shirt sleeves, appeared in the hallway while Jarrow was still completing formalities at the reception desk. He was in his sixties, Jarrow guessed, a tall, gangling man with thick, metal-rimmed spectacles, who managed to combine a broad, straight-shouldered frame with a gaunt, hollow-cheeked face topped by a balding dome, looking as if it found its way onto the wrong body.

"Mr. Jarrow, good morning. Right on time as always. And how are you feeling today?"

"Not too bad. At least the weather’s easing up."

"It has been a tough one, yes. I thought the snow was here forever."

Valdheim’s voice had a trace of a foreign accent that Jarrow had never been able to place but hadn’t asked about. Despite his senescent features, his manner was always brisk and sturdily robust. Jarrow wondered if that was his way of seeking to impart professional reassurance. If so, it never quite worked, for Jarrow always found himself with a feeling of something sinister in the background, like a shadow lurking just beyond his limit of vision. He wasn’t sure why.

Marje, the receptionist, ran Jarrow’s verification coder through a slot on her terminal to confirm the details she’d entered, and handed the card back. "That’s fine, Mr. Jarrow. How are those kids treating you at the school?"

"Oh . . . " Jarrow fumbled for an answer. He had always suffered from an acute awkwardness with women, which taxed his thinking faculties even over questions as innocuous as this.

"I guess you’ve been there long enough to know how to look after yourself," Marje said.

"Er, yes. I guess so."

"This way please." Valdheim rescued him with a gesture in the direction of the passageway leading to the treatment room. "You’re the first," he said over his shoulder, indicating the empty waiting room with a nod as Jarrow followed. "We can go straight through."

Jarrow had been attending these sessions periodically for almost six months now, although the circumstances leading to them had begun some time before that. In the course of his mandatory annual checkup the previous summer, he had described periodic attacks of lethargic depression and emotional confusion, sometimes bad enough for him to take time off work. Suspecting an incipient cerebral disorder, the local clinician referred him to a specialist for diagnostic tests, who in turn brought in a neurologist from the Regional Health Authority’s Ramsey Hospital in St. Paul. The condition turned out to be a mild inflammation that soon yielded to a course of antibiotics and drugs.

But to Jarrow’s consternation, he was informed that the tests had revealed certain irregularities in underlying patterns of neural activity, which were thought to have induced the condition. In other words, although the prescribed treatment appeared superficially successful, the suspicion was that it had addressed the symptoms rather than the cause. Nobody could be really sure, however, since that area of psycopathology was on the fringe of contemporary research. However, Minneapolis had been selected as one of several national test sites for a new piece of diagnostic equipment that was being developed for decoding and analyzing deep-seated brain activity, and Jarrow was approached to volunteer as a model case study. Jarrow agreed, and the introduction to Dr. Valdheim had followed soon afterward.

They entered the treatment room, which Valdheim had once described as housing a "glorified video reading head." All the same, it still managed to require the inevitable carts with rubber tubes, glassware, and trays of implements that doctors everywhere seemed incapable of functioning without, and the sight of which always made Jarrow feel slightly sick. The room itself had a bench and a sink along one side, with shelves and a glass-fronted cabinet full of jars and bottles above. A control console with a keyboard and several display screens, along with two cabinets of electronics, took up most of the wall opposite. The centerpiece of it all was an assembly of electrical apparatuses, focusing guides, windings, and cooling coils that dominated the space in between. From its center, a leather-topped couch extended into the room, its head end surrounded by a radial array of metal tubes and crystal plates laced by wires and optical fibers, around which the room’s other fittings seemed to stand in respectful reverence like the lesser trappings in a chapel before the main altar.

It was called QUIP, which Jarrow now knew stood for Quantum Interferoencephalogram Processor. Valdheim had told him so. Valdheim had also been more than generous with his time in trying to explain about superconducting current loops, quantized molecular magnetic moments, and resonant phase patterns deep in the brain; but that kind of thing really wasn’t Jarrow’s field.

Although he tried to nod and shake his head and say the right things at the right times, he still didn’t have a clear-enough grasp of how the device worked to have hazarded any attempt at describing it to anyone else. But apparently the detectors could sense changes in electrical current as small as a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of an ampere, which Jarrow gathered was about the same fraction of the current in a small flashlamp as the thickness of a piece of tissue paper was to forty times the sun"s distance from the planet Pluto. After that, he hadn’t even bothered trying to follow. His first impulse had been to flaunt this newfound knowledge at Larry, but it would only have given Larry, who taught sophomore math and physics, the satisfaction of snowing him with more technicalities. So in the end, Jarrow had decided against it.

Valdheim went over to the console, flipped some switches, and commenced a dialogue with one of the screens via the keyboard. "You’re becoming something of a celebrity, you know, Mr. Jarrow," he said over his shoulder.

"Oh, really?" Watching Valdheim checking the responses and then entering another command put Jarrow in mind of a virtuoso organist enraptured with his natural medium. He himself found the ubiquitous thickets of buttons and cryptic symbols, which barred the way to seemingly everything he wanted to do in the modern world, incomprehensible. You had to be under fifteen or Japanese to understand anything these days. Or one of those people whose business it was, like Larry---and which Larry never let slip an opportunity to demonstrate.

"Yes," Valdheim said. "Your case is being talked about in professional circles."

"It is?"

"Well, a certain rather specialized group of professionals, anyway. It has some interesting features."

Jarrow had never thought of himself as important. He felt mildly flattered.

|Valdheim touched another button, entered a code, and looked up expectantly as one of the screens that had been blank came to life. "Let me show you a little of what we found last time," he said. Jarrow followed his gaze obediently. The screen showed a mass of what looked like scores of richly branching trees of various colors, all densely intertwined and enmeshed together. Some seemed to flicker in highlights, with branches suddenly disappearing from some places while others added themselves elsewhere, darting their way erratically through the forest like fingers of multiple-forked lightning feeling pathways to the ground. Other patterns came and went spasmodically, while still others propagated smoothly, changing and distorting like smoke rings moving through turbulent air. Valdheim had shown Jarrow, it could all just as easily have been a computer reconstruction of autogenesis in a petri dish, or a surrealistic vision of colliding galaxies.

Valdheim stepped a pace back and explained, still looking at the screen. "Here’s a recurring cycle of activated dendritic arboration paths occurring in a region of your inferior temporal cortex. That’s one of the regions where visual primitives resolved in the striate cortex are combined into coherent imagery. It also receives an input of emotively significant associative weightings from the neocortex. But the configuration of synaptic modifications established as a consequence is inhibited by oscillations correlating with the conscious state, which are communicated from the thalamus." He pointed from one entanglement of meaningless, pulsating luminescence to another, then turned to look as Jarrow inquiringly.

"Fascinating," Jarrow said.

"We are looking at what goes on inside your brain, you see," Valdheim went on. "This is where the images that you see begin to come together. Man is a visual animal. Images are very important to us. We weight them with various emotional associations, depending on our experiences." He gestured again. "Normally, of course, the images are driven by signals coming in from the world outside, which is how they keep in step with reality and hopefully reflect what’s happening there. But the region can still function when there are no signals coming in to direct it. Then it invents images of its own."

At last, a glimmer of something that made sense. "As in dreaming," Jarrow hazarded.

Valdheim returned a perfunctory nod, as if to a moron who had just grasped the connection between A and Apple. "What we have here is a repeating pattern of just such a nature, which represents a persistent set of images and connotations that will affect the processes taking place in the further areas that this region maps into. And this, we believe, might be the root of the depressions and disturbances that you described when you came to us. "

Jarrow thought he followed that part. "These images . . . am I supposed to know what they are?" he asked uneasily.

"No." Valdheim shook his head. "As I said, the activity is suppressed during the waking condition. Hence you have no conscious awareness of the form in which it manifests itself. And our techniques at present are not sufficiently sophisticated for us to tell you. But later, we would like you to take a series of psychological tests to help us try and establish that." The doctor rubbed his palms together. "In the meantime, back to work, yes?" He showed his teeth in a skull-like parody of a smile. "Or at least, I shall do the work while you relax. To activate the pattern, we will have to put you to sleep again."

Jarrow knew the drill by now and was already removing his jacket. He hung it on the stand by the door, added his necktie, then slipped off his shoes and sat down on the leather couch. Nurse Callins---Valdheim"s stern-faced, middle-aged, and terrifyingly efficient assistant---entered through a rear door as Jarrow settled himself back and lowered his head onto the rubber headrest at the center of the radial array.

"Good day, Mr. Jarrow," she said, at the same time handing Valdheim a folder filled with papers, charts, and printouts.

"Hello again."

"A three-seven soporific, please. Same dose as before," Valdheim said. Nurse Callins turned toward the bench and the sounds came of tablets being dropped into a beaker and liquid being stirred. Valdheim moved over to the couch and began positioning supports and fittings around Jarrow’s head. Jarrow felt soft pads tightening snugly beneath his ears and cold contact heads probing through his hair to touch his scalp. Although he knew that the procedure was noninvasive and painless, an involuntary nervous reaction asserted itself, and he found himself talking reflexively.

"It must be pretty expensive---all this stuff you’ve got here."

"You wouldn’t want to pay the insurance premium," Valdheim agreed.

"I’m surprised that a private practice would have equipment like that."

"I’m cooperating with a national trial program, don’t forget. The government owns it."

"Isn’t it kind of unusual for it to be in a place like this? I mean, why wouldn’t they set it up in one of the state hospitals somewhere?"

Valdheim watched a readout while he adjusted a control. "Hold still now, Mr. Jarrow. No more talking, please."

Nurse Callins moved into view and lowered a shallow drinking cup with a shaped lip. "Here you are. Easy, now."

The liquid tasted mildly tannic. Jarrow drained the last of it, then raised his eyes to find Valdheim’s face peering down at him, seemingly from afar and yet filling his field of vision. The drug was taking effect already. Valdheim’s voice sounded distorted and hollow. "That’s the idea. Nice and comfortable. Watch my fingers as I count. You’ll be away before I get to ten. We’ll see you later in the recovery room. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . "

The fingers blurred into each other, and Valdheim’s face receded to become a pink smudge. For some reason his eyes, gleaming through the metal-rimmed spectacles, still remained distinct.

The voice boomed, emanating seemingly from everywhere: "Six . . . seven . . . eight . . ."

 
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