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Danchekker stood in a room in the upper level of PAC, hands clasping his lapels, speaking in a confidently genial tone.

"There have been times, I admit, Vic, when I have been guilty of displaying less of an open-minded disposition than should be expected from a scientific professional," he told Hunt, who was leaning on the wall, arms folded, while Shilohin listened from behind an oversize Ganymean desk. "But you know yourself the difficulty of abandoning a notion that appears to make sense once it has taken root." The professor released one lapel briefly to make a dismissive gesture in the air. "In the present case, my conviction up until now has been that no hypothesis beyond misplaced Thurien generosity, coupled with their inability to understand the human capacity for self-deceit and wishful thinking, was necessary to account for the general Jevlenese condition that we observe today."

"Yes, Chris, but there's something—" Hunt began.

Danchekker merely nodded that he understood and continued. "In particular, I disagreed with the suggestion that there might exist a discrete, external cause of their widespread aberration, and specifically that such a source might be associated with JEVEX."

"I'm not saying that it's a general Jevlenese condition anymore," Hunt said. "It only applies to—"

But Danchekker raised a hand, as if preparing Hunt for a revelation. "I am able to inform you, now, that I have seen fit to reverse that opinion. Sandy and Gina have persuaded me that JEVEX might indeed turn out to have been the culprit." He turned momentarily to survey an imaginary chalkboard. "The neurally coupled Thurien information-transfer system is able to generate a compete sensory experience of any real, sensor-equipped location; or alternatively, of what can be totally illusory circumstances and events, fabricated withing the processing environment itself. Now, we already know that JEVEX didn't incorporate the same precautions and restraints as VISAR, the system upon which it was modeled. Also, VISAR was developed in the first instance to accommodate to Ganymean psychology, which is vastly different from human.

"The point that escaped me until my attention was drawn to it is the ability of this alien technology to access directly and interact with the inner processes of the ming. In brief, it can create utterly compelling artificial realities shaped by the conscious and subconscious wishes of the subject." Danchekker stared pointedly at Hunt. "Imagine what that could mean. We've been asking what could divert a whole population from rationality and disrupt their mental equilibrium to the point where they are unable to sustain a coherent distinction between illusion and reality. Now, I think, we have the answer. Escape into JEVEX-created fantasy became a universal narcotic: perhaps the ultimate analgesic against all pain and worry, disappointment and boredom. The Ganymean psyche, by its nature, enjoyed an inbuilt resilience against overindulging; the human one, unfortunately, did not."

Danchekker bared his teeth to show of the new amity and understanding that existed between them now that he had reformed. He turned toward Shilohin. "Garuth described the symptoms as being like a 'plague.' And, indeed, we see that is precisely what it was: a plague of and addiction that operates directly on the mind. The historical record shows that the symptoms first began long ago, but not until JEVEX had been in operation for some time. Again, the facts are explained. And today, all of the cults and movements across Jevlen, despite their other disagreements, are unanimous in demanding that JEVEX be restored."

"But that's not it, Chris," Hunt managed to get in at last. "I don't think that what we're looking for has got anything to do with fantasies in people's heads. I think it's something very real."

Oblivious, Danchekker sailed on. j"And the social disruption that we see shows precisely the kind of effects that one would expect from a powerful narcotic. In the course of its development, the brain has evolved a chemical reward system which motivates the organism by producing sensations of pleasure that become associated through learning with beneficial, survival-oriented behavior patterns. What makes narcotics so pernicious is their ability to short-circuit the process by triggering the reward mechanism directly, without anything beneficial having to be done at all. And in the case of a narcotic such as the one we have here where the effects are—" He stopped and jerked his head back to look at Hunt abruptly. "What was that? What did you say?"

"Yes, headworlding and the Thurien interstellar welfare program are what have made the Jevlenese defenseless against the plague. But those things aren't the virus," Hunt said. "There is a source, and it's a very strange one—as strange as anything that might be extracted from the most psychotic subconscious. But I don't think it's a product of anything like that. I think that the source exists somewhere tangible—that it's real."

Danchekker blinked. "But that's what I've just said, isn't it?"

"Not quite. You s—"

"You tried telling me it was JEVEX, and I disagreed. Now I'm accepting that it was." Danchekker's color deepened a shade. "Dammit, Vic, ever since we met you've been telling me that I should be more flexible. Now I've conceded to reverse my view on something which, quite frankly, still strikes me as more than a little farfetched, and you're saying it's not good enough. Well, what in God's name do you want?"

Hunt remained unruffled. "You're accepting JEVEX as the cause that detached them from reality," he said. "But I'm saying it only dissolved the glue. What pulled them away was a particular kind of Jevlenese who weren't out of touch with reality—or maybe whose reality was very peculiar."

"Aren't we splitting rather fine hairs?" Danchekker objected.

"I don't think so," Shilohin commented, looking at Hunt curiously.

Danchekker snorted. "Very well. Supposing we accept this contention of yours for the time being. What are your grounds for proposing it?"

Now that he had Danchekker's attention, Hunt unfolded himself from the wall and perched on the arm of one of the chairs of the conference area that formed one side of the office.

"First, we need to distinguish between two kinds of Jevlenese," he said. "On the one hand there's the common or garden-variety, who waves banners in the parades, gets his philosophy from the Dear Aunt Mary column, and probably thinks that Jevlen is carried on the back of a giant turtle." Hunt nodded in Danchekker's direction. "That's the kind you're talking about, Chris. And yes, I agree, given something like JEVEX, they could get so addictively immersed that they wouldn't know whether they were in it or out of it. They're the ones I'd call genuinely crazy; and I'd say they make up most of the population. That's why we've got such a mess outside."

"Which was more or less our conclusion also," Shilohin threw in. "Our rationale in shutting JEVEX down was that it would compel them to face reality."

Hunt nodded. "I know. But it hasn't worked the way you hoped, has it? And I think I know why. You assumed, as Chris did, that it was something inherent in the actual exposure to JEVEX that was sending them off the rails. But all JEVEX did was condition them to be highly suggestible—to any influence, inside JEVEX or out of it. And that damage had already been done over many years; switching JEVEX off wasn't going to undo it."

Shilohin sat back in her chair as the gist of what Hunt was getting at became clearer. "You mean the influence that's unhinging them is still out there," she checked.

"The ayatollahs," Hunt replied simply. " You didn't switch them off."

"But they're just as much Jevlenese too," Danchekker protested. "Merely coining a word for the extreme cases doesn't endow them with any qualitative difference that matters." He showed his teeth again and thrust out his jaw challengingly. "And besides, you're simply moving the question to another place, not answering it. If you're postulating them as the cause, then what, may I ask, deranged them? What caused the cause?"

"That's where the difference lies," Hunt said. "They're not simply an extreme case of what's wrong with the Jevlenese in general. Their problem isn't the same. They're defensive and disoriented by something they've experienced, and it drives some of them over the edge, yes. But they're not exhibiting the same uncritical gullibility that you see in the typical Jevlenese—in fact, some of them have managed to retain an amazingly strong grip on themselves. Their difficulty isn't telling what's real from what isn't; it's with knowing how to interpret what they accept as real."

"Are you saying that their ability to interpret their perceptions has been disrupted somehow?" Shilohin asked.

Hunt shook his head. "Not exactly. The ability is still there, but it's confused. It's as if what it's being asked to interpret is suddenly unfamiliar."

Shilohin looked puzzled. "That sounds like the inverse of a paradigm shift. The paradigm stays the same, but reality no longer fits it."

"Not a bad way to put it," Hunt agreed.

"Is this the business of being 'possessed' that they talk about?"

"I'm pretty sure that it is."

"You mean they suddenly perceive a different reality? Their conceptual framework stays intact, but what they're experiencing doesn't relate to it anymore?"

"More than that," Hunt said. "If different individuals tried to fit different models, I'd agree with Chris—it would be because something had affected them subjectively. But that isn't the case. Their conceptual paradigms are essentially the same"--Hunt glance at Danchekker—"which suggests that we're dealing with something objective, Chris, something real."

Danchekker stared at Hunt with a pained expression for a few seconds; he turned his head toward Shilohin as if for support, then back to Hunt again. "You're being logically absurd. Either these are externally induced psychotic delusions, or they are not. If they are, then their nature will vary from individual to individual. Any similarity that you see is a fabrication of your own prejudices, Vic, not a property of the world outside. If they are not delusions, then reality must have changed in an identical way for one group of people, but at the same time stayed the same for the rest of us. How could that be? The idea is preposterous."

"Unless they transferred, somehow, from an alternative shared paradigm that was equally valid," Hunt pointed out.

"And where is this alternative reality supposed to be? In the fourth dimension?" Danchekker scoffed. "You've been talking to too many Jevlenese."

"I don't know where, for Christ's sake! Maybe that's what we should be looking for. All I'm saying is the facts point that way. You're saying the facts can't exist because they don't point the way you think they should."

"What facts?" Danchekker retorted. "All I've heard is pure conjecture—and rather fanciful at that, if I may say so. When you urged being more open-minded, you didn't say anything about trips to fairyland."

"Why don't you try talking to a few ayatollahs?" Hunt suggested.

"I have. It achieves nothing. They're quite impermeable to logic or reason," Danchekker replied.

"We have tried getting some of them to cooperate," Shilohin put in. "But acute insecurity and suspicion of everybody is one characteristic that they do seem to share. They've reacted to every experimental environment that we've tried to ser up as hostile and threatening."

Hunt looked at her with a curious expression for a moment, and then redirected it at Danchekker. "Well, maybe I can introduce you to one who won't," he told them.

 
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