Cerebrum

The swarthy, smartly dressed young woman stood out against the sterile corridors of Building M of Ultrencht Health’s Research and Development compound. Her task, as she had just learned in a briefing with her lawyer the night before, was to synthesize human imagination. Delores Daring, her nametag read, though truthfully she preferred the name Lola, and anyway either name was preferable to her unwanted high school nickname of Double Dee. She was a graduate student, pursuing a career in neurosciences, and while money was certainly a factor, Lola Daring was in it for the discovery. She took a sort of winsome pride in the fact that her name sounded like a Carmen San Diego knock-off, because she felt that she was, like her heroes Picard, Kirk before him, and Nemo before all of them, exploring the unknown frontiers of existence. The final frontier, in Lola’s mind, however, was the human brain. In studying it, she was reminded of Crichton’s The Lost World in the sense that it was almost impossible to truly know the brain in an unbiased manner. Was there anything more reflexive than using one’s mind to study the brain? And if brains could communicate, as some theorized, did one brain considering another affect said brain?

These were the sorts of questions Lola avoided asking at parties, especially medical events. Her fellow students weren’t there to theorize, they were there to schmooze, and more to schmooze they were there to show off what they knew. She recalled Ultrencht’s annual Emerald Gala, where she was subjected to an hour and a half of mutual masturbation in the name of medicine but mostly money. After getting bored of downing champagne, Lola stole away to the corridors of Gambol Central hospital itself, on the pretense of exploring.

It was amidst the fluorescent shadows of the hospital and the echoed slaps of her heels against the linoleum floor that reflected them that she came across Dr. Hollarghast.

“Not much one for parties, are you?” Hollarghast said, sitting on a lounge chair that overlooked the Gambol Campus.

His voice, which was scratchy like a burlap bag, caused Lola to start.

“Sorry if I scared you, Miss Daring,” Hollarghast said. “It’s just that I rarely find good company during these yearly festivals to Mammon.”

He held out his hand to the lounge chair next to him.

“Have a seat,” he said. “It hasn’t yet been tainted by the uninsured, I promise.”

Hollarghast was, by all accounts, a cynical–and depending on whom you asked, odious–man. But he was also universally praised for his talent and innovation. There was a running joke that he basically lived at the hospital these days–after all, he had to prove his worth to them beyond innovation, and he performed this through what most was an addiction to healing surgery. In truth, it was a calculated maintenance of his ReveRevue’s–Ultrencht’s way of monitoring employee value to the company. The Revue’s, as they were called for short, were a measure of how much money every doctor was bringing in for the hospital. You operate on a lot of patients who have cheaply treated disorders, lower revenue. But if you take a handful of bizarre cases…

In this manner, Hollarghast had achieved value both to the company and to himself. It had given him enough sway to whip the boards that made these sorts of decisions to open a research and development unit. The idea, of course, was to innovate more expensive treatments. This was Hollarghast’s gambit, at least. Everyone knew, though, that the man was reincarnation of the Nazi scientist complex, though he was without a morally void Reich, instead opting to work within a morally null company.

Lola considered all of this as she observed Hollarghast now, staring out the windows at the cold, navy blue and orange sunset that only the American North could provide, sucking on all things a lolli from the basket they left for patients in Family Practice.

“What flavor?” Lola said.

“Green Apple,” Hollarghast muttered. “Delightfully sour. I’d have grabbed one if I’d believed myself that you’d come.”

Hollarghast looked like he was a very lively 100 years old, with the physical presence of Eustace from Courage the Cowardly Dog and the darkness and mystery of Keith Richards. Like the former, he wore Transition lenses that seemed to completely obscure his eyes, even indoors with the lights on. His eyes themselves were blue, but so pallid that they almost looked grey.

“If you believed yourself?” Lola said. “I’ve heard legends, Dr. H, but you don’t control fate.”

She wished to assert herself. Notions of gender were changing, but people, especially the older amongst them, still saw the Other as lesser and something to be pushed around. Not Lola Daring, though; she’d make sure of that.

“You are a gifted student,” Hollarghast said. “And I sense you’re looking to test the limits of the brain. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’re looking to make money, make a name for yourself, save the image of the Brain Surgeon from the flimsy hands of Ben Carson. And you can do that, and you will do that. But, here’s the thing about great minds–they collaborate.”

He took off his glasses, folded them, and put them into the lapel of his white lab coat. Hollarghast had not dressed for the party. He was, ostensibly, on call.

“I read your report on imagination,” Hollarghast continued, pulling up his phone and tapping on the PDF app.

“Specifically it was about the brain’s ability to make manifest certain realities–“

“It was about imagination. Don’t misunderstand me as saying you’re not saying anything new. It’s just that you’ll find greater credibility in the dumbed down macro concept, not the mystifying jargon. Nothing terrifies your competition more than when they can understand everything you’re saying without grasping the whole.”

“So you read my report,” Lola said.

“Yes…” Hollarghast said, “and I wanted to extend a job offer to you.”

“Oh?” Lola said.

“It would require you to work when you’re not on your fellowship. And I can only guarantee twelve dollars an hour, maybe more if you’re resourceful. But I know your studies aren’t cheap. I know your parents can only help you so much.”

“I’m well cared for,” Lola bluffed.

“Mhmm,” Hollarghast said. “Look, I won’t insult you with money. I’ll admit, it’s a title too that’s below your stature. You would be my assistant.”

“You really know how to make a hard sell,” Lola muttered.

“I’m not a salesman, Miss Daring. I’m a scientist who moonlights as a surgeon. And with my recommendation, you can do the same on your terms, and even experience something that will give your passion something to feast on in the meantime.”

“What are you doing that you need an assistant for.”

“Regardless of whether or not you take the job,” Hollarghast said, “I’ll need you to sign an NDA before I can tell you…Ultrencht’s rules, not mine. Probably for the best, even in my bitter, cynical state, if I wasn’t legally obliged to keep my mouth shut about this, I’d probably be telling all of your underperforming classmates that we are synthesizing the very thing they lack.”

He gave her a look, as though this was ample information, mixed with concern that she might still not be picking up on his drift.

“And they don’t lack skill,” he added.

Lola laughed. “All right, Dr. Hollarghast, I am intrigued. I will not be signing anything tonight, but might I meet you in your office sometime soon to discuss terms?”

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, almost growling with glee. “In fact, any time tomorrow afternoon–my office hours are 3 to 5– if that is not too early.”

“If I decide upon it, I will be arriving during the four o’clock hour,” Lola said.

“Don’t keep me waiting, Miss Daring,” Dr. Hollarghast said.

“Don’t tell me what I will do,” Lola said with a smile, and walked away.

She thought she heard him mutter, “I don’t have to,” as she left, but she hoped she was imagining that. She had, in her mind, already made up her mind in the negative. She would sooner work at Sandwich Station than work for Benjamin Hollarghast.

>>>

That night, Lola had a nightmare.

The nightmare began, if she could recall properly, on her bed, but she was stunned to find her bed was in the midst of the cosmos, all around was blackness, but there was a nebula in the distance, purple and wispy. The bed itself was swinging around a single, white planet, rapidly. As her bed spun around to face the planet, she discovered it was in fact a giant eye, green like hers. She screamed as her bed sped into the eye itself, enveloped in the black pupil.

Lola awoke to find herself in her room, and in retrospect chided herself for not noticing the geometry was all wrong. She stood out of her bed and stumbled to her bathroom. Now, in real life, she lived in a 1-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom adjacent to her bedroom. But this journey to the bathroom entailed a long corridor, decked out with purple wallpaper, with a strange featherlike design from floor to ceiling. She remembered wondering who designed this house to have a long hallway with a bathroom at the end. It didn’t seem practical.

Still, she finally made it, opened the bathroom door, and hastily turned on the lights.

She was startled by the immediacy of how bright the lights were, but she was even more startled by her reflection in the mirror.

Her bangs were breathing.

She parted them to find her forehead itself was expanding, then watched with astonishment as her skull itself opened, revealing not a brain, but an endless deluge of eyes, all kinds of colours this time, floating to the ceiling and popping like bubbles, leaving a grayish pink stain on the ceiling each time they popped. Each stain looked like human in an old medieval relief, complete with grotesque, pained expression.

She screamed and woke up.

<<<

To her own surprise, Lola found herself at Dr. Hollarghast’s office the next day, at 4pm.

She was less surprised to find Hollarghast was out.

“He’ll be back soon,” his office manager, Gilles, said, frustrated. “I’ve texted him. And he’s not fully scrubbed in, but he’s consulting on a surgery. Just have a seat in his office in the meantime.”

“Will he be okay with that?”

“Yeah, he told me to make an exception with you.”

“Hey, I’m gonna be working pretty closely with this guy, if I agree to his offer,” Lola said. “You’re his office manager. What’s it like working with the guy?”

Gilles rubbed his hands, almost as though he was washing them of the matter, and said, “It’s great experience. A year of this and I can go anywhere.”

“Right, but what’s he like as–”

“It’s hospital work,” Gilles said abruptly. “Your work follows you home and you can either handle it or you can’t. A lot of people can’t handle Dr. H. But if you can, then he’ll respect you. And that counts for something. But if you think I’m going to stand here and waste my time telling you why not to work for him, then you really are quite foolish. He works for Ultrencht, I work for Ultrencht, and in a way it’s my job to rat on him to them. Not to you. And trust me, we’re watching you as much as him. Now have a seat, won’t you?”

Lola nodded, a bit dumbfounded, and made her way into the office, checking the reflection of one of Hollarghast’s awards to make sure Gilles was leaving. Almost out of principle, she did not have a seat.

Instead, she dug through Hollarghast’s bookshelf, which was extensive. Various volumes stood out to her. Of course, there were old standbys, books on surgery that he was more likely to possess because he’d had them as a student himself in the days before EBay, textbooks that could not be sold anyway because they were out of date a mere month after publication. Then there were more colorful volumes, such as Anton Szandor LaVey, as well as an odd-looking book labeled “Codex Gigas.” There were also more recognizable and less esoteric volumes, such as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and a book called The Six Dares of Saligamus. Dr. Yvonne Drummond’s book, The Corridors of the Subconscious, stood out to her. She wondered if there might be any interpretation of her dream, then considered that Drummond had gone mysteriously missing following a quickly-hushed scandal at the college she taught at, so perhaps not the most credible source.

“Curiosity!” she heard Hollarghast hiss behind her.   “The catalyst of the creator’s mind.”

She was startled, but she hid it. She slid Drummond’s book back into its place.

“Love your books, Doctor,” she said, and indicated A Wrinkle in Time. “See yourself in Charles Wallace?”

Hollarghast chuckled.

“Miss Daring, I don’t see myself in anything I read. Helps me stay objective.   I do, however, see much of myself in you. To the point where whenever I see, you, I get the first two lines of ‘I am the Walrus’ stuck on my head in a loop.”

He took a seat at his desk, which was surrounded by various chachkis. Notably there was a picture of a woman, but it was old, and Lola was unsure if it was a lover or a relative. Everything else seemed designed to suggest Hollarghast spent his time going to various exotic locals and purchasing souvenirs that looked “authentic.” Whatever that meant.

“I considered your offer,” Lola said. “And I’ve decided to accept.”

“Excellent,” Hollarghast said, “I have the papers right here–“

“However,” Lola continued, “I accept on the condition that every question I ask, you must answer. Even if you think it’s a stupid question. Even if it’s ‘classified.’ I am your assistant; I can do my work best if I know. And if we really are innovating, there’s a lot I’ll be asking about.”

Hollarghast stared at her, the corner of his mouth curling ever so slightly.

“Yes, Miss Daring, absolutely. That won’t be a problem whatsoever.”

“Good.”

“So you are ready to sign, then?” he said.

“Not yet,” Daring said. “I want to have my lawyer look over this paperwork first.”

Hollarghast nodded.

“Of course,” he said. “We couldn’t possibly have you working in an abusive condition.”

“Finally,” Lola said, feeling some anger mounting within her chest, “you will not speak to me in that way. You will speak to me as an equal.”

Hollarghast narrowed his eyes.

“I cannot agree to that,” he said. “For I see none as my equal.”

“Fair enough,” Lola said. “On some abstract level I do respect that. Doesn’t make you a good person.”

“I’m not,” Hollarghast said, as she began to leave. “Don’t ever see me as one who claims to be.”

She nodded. “If everything looks good to my lawyer, when do I start?” she said.

“Monday,” Hollarghast said, checking his copy of The Corridors of the Subconscious, as if she might have left something in it. “9 AM. Arrive at 8 so that you have time for decontamination.” He sighed, snapped the book shut, and set it on his desk. “Miss Daring, I can never promise any good intent, I cannot promise that I appreciate or care for morality, I cannot claim any fealty to ethics. But know that I am speaking in earnest when I say whatever work you choose to do will be most appreciated.”

She nodded, and left. But she found it oddly endearing.

 

EXPERIMENT 1

 

It was this series of events that led to the swarthy, smartly dressed young woman finding herself within the sterile corridors of Building M of Ultrencht Health’s Research and Development compound. From the exterior it had looked almost like a crate one might find on a barge, but its interior led to a stairway guarded by a lone security guard, his tag reading “Francisco J.” Francisco looked at Lola’s badge, nodded, and pressed a button unlocking a vault door at the foot of the stairway.

Upon entering the compound Lola was reminded of another Crichton book, The Andromeda Strain. Facility M was similarly labyrinthine, and “samey” as one might say. The only thing delineating one hallway from another was lettering and numbering. For instance, the exit stairway led to ring A1 of the facility. Lola assumed that this was the largest ring and she would be working further inward as she gained more clearance, but without a map it was hard to be sure. This was certainly a building designed for the left-brained, and Lola was glad to have become so adept at masquerading as one who was left-brained, living within the trance created by another.

The compound, Lola soon learned, did indeed work further inwards, and was in fact in the shape of a spiral, with “spokes;” that is, hallways connecting each layer. Her freedom to roam was limited, as if you went too far in, bland-looking men with sunglasses were quick to kindly ask you to turn around.

“Well, thank goodness this isn’t a test of problem solving skills,” Hollarghast said, when Lola finally arrived, ten minutes late, and everyone laughed. There were five test subjects sitting in a circle with him, and he had an empty seat open for Lola.

“Now, we’ve all signed our NDA’s, and my assistant finally figured out how to navigate a spiral,” Hollarghast said. “Let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of why we are here. Ultrencht Health Systems has found a way to synthesize imagination, and is looking to test its effects. We hypothesize that the potential for imagination may be much greater than simply looking at the world in a different way. Maybe the reason we cannot study a system without affecting it is because our minds are constantly changing the world.”

He looked around, and with a condescending grin simplified his statement:

“By that I mean, our imaginations don’t just adjust reality, they create it.”

Hollarghast pulled out a remote and pressed a button, lowering a projection board over one of the observation windows.

“Everyone, meet Cerebrum, our own synthetic imagination program. Now, don’t be alarmed, I’ve engaged in a little bit of theatrics, but I can assure you this is not what the machine actually looks like.

He opened a PowerPoint presentation and flipped to a slide showing a brain with two eyes attached.

Everyone laughed, except for Lola, who felt unexplainably ill. It was not the same as the image that she had seen in her dream, and yet the eyes, particularly fullness of the ones attached to this brain, reminded her so much of the ones that had floated out of her head. Moreso, the eyes in her dream…well, there had been no brain there, had there been? The absence made it all more ominous, if the brain was not in her head, where had it been in the dream? What was her mind trying to show her?

She brushed these questions off, as she didn’t want to miss Hollarghast’s explanation of the program.

“Now,” Hollarghast said, “Your purpose in this experiment is twofold. A, we just want to see how the layman handles an SI–Synthetic Imagination. AI was already taken, naturally. Secondly, though, you all get to give input. You are all “creatives”–one a musician, one a comedian, one a photographer, one a dancer, one a painter, one a…no, I guess that’s everyone. My point, anyway, is that you each represent pillars of the right-brained community. Of course, we’ve given Cerebrum a functioning left-brain as well, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to control it, but it’s a normal processor, like any other computer. That’s the control of our experiment. The right brain of Cerebrum is the variable. And you all get to be a part of the experiment to test it. Any questions before we move on?”

The photographer, nametag reading “Jordan,” raised his hand.

“Yes, Mister Zaphon?”

“What’s the right brain of Cerebrum made of?”

“Organic stem cells,” Hollarghast said. “A miracle of science, to be sure. Not to be taken lightly.”

Zaphon nodded, satisfied with the answer.
“All right, then,” Hollarghast said, and he handed a clipboard with a thick stack of papers on it to Lola, “without further ado, it’s time for Experiment 1.”

Experiment 1 lasted for a week, and would turn out to be everyone’s favorite experiment, though Lola would soon discover this might not be saying much. However, the experience itself was a marvel nonetheless.

The subjects were given a cap of sorts that was connected to Cerebrum. The first experiment had screens placed over their eyes that showed first person footage of another test subject doing something they were proficient at. So, for instance, the sketch artist experienced the violinist playing Paganini Caprice number 1, and the violinist experienced the sketch artist drawing a detailed ink portrait of a bittersweet child on a rainy day.

The catch was that after they experienced these events, these talents that were outside of their field, cerebrum enabled them to accomplish them on their own. It was exactly imagination, per se, more talent, but Hollarghast felt that this was a very functional finding, something to tell shareholders about. The findings were exciting and bizarre; the dancer did a standup routine­–and killed. The comedian, man in decent shape, but nothing muscular, performed Ballet en Pointe and was able to do most of a move set from Swan Lake’s “Dance of the Cygnets.” However, physicality was a limitation, something Hollarghast and Lola made note of [later experiment alters comedian’s physiology]. Still, everyone applauded, despite the comedian nearly breaking his ankle and being absolutely out of breath.   They had never seen anything quite like that.

This went on for a week each business day focusing on the results of each individual.

Lola herself played with Cerebrum’s talent programming, and was astonished to find herself drawing not only the picture the artist had drawn, but a rendering of her own nightmare. It wasn’t quite as good as the artist might have drawn it, but it was much better than Lola had ever drawn.

On the third day, Lola pulled Hollarghast aside after the day’s session had ended.

“Dr. Hollarghast,” Lola said, “You’d mentioned Cerebrum was made of stem cells…”

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, and then added sarcastically, “only the best stem cells.”

“Well, I was wondering if I could have a look at it. The Cerebrum Right Brain processor.”

She was expecting him to say no, which is why she asked so early in the experiments, with hopes of persuading him near by the end.

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, “But later, if that’s all right, Miss Daring.”

He was surprisingly polite.

“Yeah,” Lola said, “Just as long as I get to.”

“You most assuredly will,” Hollarghast said. “Good night, Miss Daring, and thank you for your help.”

<<<

That night, Lola dreamt she was in Gambol hospital. It was confusing because she was both a doctor and a patient–two people, two different perspectives, both experienced simultaneously from a first-person point of view. She felt powerless as the patient, confined to her view of the hallway from her gurney. This powerlessness registered in the dream as this awful, ticklish sensation, somewhere around her armpits.   As the doctor she felt this wickedness, this ill intent coursing through her, which registered as chills around her neck. Overall it was a highly discomforting feeling, and because she was both victim and perpetrator she was unable to stop herself from the eventuality that her gurney seemed to be barreling towards at full speed, as pushed by herself.

And that was also disturbing. She couldn’t see her “doctor” face as the patient, and as the doctor she could only see the double door at the end of the hallway that she was intently pushing the bed towards. But she could read the nametag on the white hospital coat of the doctor.

Hello! My name is:

DARIN LOLAN

It was dream brain; that sort of way that your subconscious can never quite form a coherent written word, but it was no matter: it definitely signified her name.

“Stop,” she tried to whisper, but became frustrated when it came out of the doctor’s mouth and not the patient’s, as a loud scream.

As the doctor she took out a surgical mask and tied it around her mouth, but not before taking a large wad of tissue and shoving it into her own mouth, keeping herself, the doctor, from speaking. All of this was seemingly performed without the gurney slowing its journey down the hall. If anything, it was speeding up.

The two red double-doors, blackness behind the windows, grew closer and closer, faster and faster, until they were upon them.

The blackness of the windows gave way to two eyes.

Lola’s eyes.

The dream screamed, all around. The eyes screamed, the walls screamed, the hall screamed, Lola screamed as a patient, finding with horror that her tongue was somehow bound, and Lola screamed as a doctor, choking on her own gag.

And Lola woke up.

 

EXPERIMENT 2

 

“Gloves are off, kiddos,” Hollarghast said. “Not gonna be fun this week. But we’re paying, and we’re paying good.”

They were. The subjects were receiving two thousand dollars per day. It had led to an overwhelmingly chipper attitude the week before, after their initial qualms about what on earth would have a company paying them this much for testing had passed. Now those qualms were resurfacing.

“What exactly are we doing?” the painter, Jordan Zaphon, said.

Hollarghast did not acknowledge him but proceeded to answer. “Who here likes haunted houses?”

The photographer, Aria, held up her hand slowly, grinning, but she looked nervous.

“You can go first, then,” Hollarghast said, “it’s kind of like a haunted house. But much safer. It’s just in your head. And we’ll be all around you to make sure you’re safe. We’ll even have a team of doctors standing by to monitor your vitals, your comfort, etcetera.” Hollarghast motioned to the windows of the room they were in, which of course were mirrored, so it was hard to know how many if any doctors were actually present. “Unfortunately they can’t meet you. Not that they’re too good for you, they just don’t want to interfere with the results of the experiment. Like Crichton’s Lost World.”

“Sick reference,” Lola muttered, in spite of herself.

“What a moment, everyone,” Hollarghast said, “Doctor Daring wants you all to know she caught my reference. Let’s all give her a round of applause.”

Everybody laughed nervously, and clapped, except for the comedian, who looked visibly uncomfortable.

Lola looked at Hollarghast, and mouthed Doctor?

Hollarghast shrugged, and smiled ever so slightly.

Aria was hooked up to cerebrum, and reclined on gurney that Lola told herself looked nothing like the one in last night’s dream.

“All right, Miss Ciela,” Hollarghast said to Aria, “Are you comfortable?”

Aria smiled and gave a thumbs up, her eyes obscured by Cerebrum’s blinders.

“All right, then,” Hollarghast said, “I think it’s time we took you on a tour of frights. My colleagues say I sound a bit like Vincent Price, so in a way I’m the most qualified.”

Everyone laughed again. Hollarghast was acting more genial than usual, and Lola sensed this was not because he was more comfortable with the test subjects. She had met doctors who had worked with the man for almost a decade who still felt a palpable chill when the man was in the room. In a way, his friendliness, which Lola was beginning to suspect was an act, made him all the more unsettling today.

Aria jolted a moment, and everyone shrieked.

Aria giggled, “What’re you guys freaked out about?”

“You just had us going there a moment,” the comedian said.

“The body jolts when cerebrum amplifies its ability to imagine. Essentially the computer has tricked it into dreaming, so the body thinks that it is asleep.

“I feel so funny! It’s a bit like being high,” Aria said, then added: “So my friend tells me.”

Everybody laughed.

“Can you tell us where you are?” Hollarghast said.

“I’m on the shores of an ocean. It’s nighttime. It’s beautiful,” Aria said.

“Go into the water,” Hollarghast said, more quietly.

“How deep?” Aria said.

“Just get your hands wet, hold them in the water, maybe,” Hollarghast said, and then motioned for everyone to join him at the sides of Aria’s gurney.

“Oh, it’s cold!” Aria said.

“Sorry, but keep them there a moment. How does the air feel?”

“Better than in here,” Aria said. “It’s fresh and it’s delightful.”

Everyone gasped.

Aria’s fingers were becoming pruny. They weren’t wet, but they were reacting to being in the water all the same.

“What’s everyone gasping about?” Aria said.

“Your hands are reacting to the water in the dream, the way they would if you got your fingers wet in real life. Your body is bridging the gap between imagination and reality. This moment may be the first observed moment of the human brain creating reality from nothing.”

“What, uh, what else can it do?” Aria said nervously.

“What would you like it to do?” Hollarghast said.

“Um…” Aria clearly had something on her mind, but Hollarghast cut her off.
“I know!” he said, “you should eat some food in the dream and see if it nourishes your body. Imagine the applications.”

“Yeah,” Aria said, “which way is a restaurant?”

“This will be a bit of a jolt,” Hollarghast said, “I’m going to seat you now.”

“Okay,” Aria said, “I’m ready.”

She didn’t sound ready.

Hollarghast turned a dial and Aria screamed, which made everyone else except for the doctor gasp.

“Are you all right, Miss Ciela?” the doctor said.

Aria nodded. “Sorry, just not used to experiencing dream transitions so vividly. I’m at a Rio Bravo Steakhouse.”

“Nice,” one of the other subjects said.

“Feel free to order, I’ve programed servers into this,” Hollarghast said.

He stood up and went to get coffee, and Lola followed.

“Doctor,” Lola said to Hollarghast, “What exactly are we doing today?”

“We’re testing Cerebrum’s ability to communicate with the amygdala,” Hollarghast said, “as well as the prefrontal cortex. You know the phrase ‘perception is reality?’ Of course you do, who doesn’t–” Here he poured himself some more coffee. “–We’ve always taken this to mean people see the world in the way that they imagine it. But what if human perception is powerful enough to alter reality itself? The possibilities would be endless. We could circumvent invasive treatments, cure diseases, save money, abolish money even, or make our own new standard of money. We could do whatever we wanted. Ultrencht hasn’t even considered the full scope of this, mind you. A corporation does not want to fund something that could abolish the notion of funding. They want to fund something that gives them power. But the power of imagination is so raw…it makes the very concept of power seem petty.”

He took a sip, wincing from the heat.

“Anyway, we better get back.”

He heard a scream from the test room.

“Uh oh,” he said, casually.

His attitude could not have been any more different than the scene they were about to discover.

>>>

If one were to look at the documents that explained the events that led to Aria Ciela’s death, one would be surprised not only by the amount of detail they contained, but how little they actually revealed. There were four witnesses, a full vitals monitor, and even a live feed of the input from the Cerebrum program. The case itself was open and shut; she had a pulmonary embolism that led to an unexpected and almost instantaneous death, unrelated to what she was experiencing in the dream.

However, witnesses claimed to have witnessed Miss Ciela struggle with her breathing in her final moments, as well as complaining of an unnerving figure watching her through the windows of the restaurant in the Cerebrum dream, eventually letting itself in through a shadowy emergency exit near the restaurants’ lavatories. Furthermore, this figure matched Ciela’s memory of a home invader she had mentioned during test pre-screenings. She had caught him in her apartment in the weeks prior to the tests, rifling through her things. He had clearly been a robber, but she confessed the notion of home invasion had become a recent fear and obsession of hers. After all, the only valuables he had stolen were her photographs, suggesting he was some sort of obsessed fan with premeditated and prior knowledge of where she lived. Her home, she explained, had always been her haven–or was it heaven? It was hard to catch through the grainy recording of the interview now. But either way that heaven had been violated.

All other test subjects had been quarantined for questioning and mental evaluation followed the events of the test. As the death seemed to have been caused by external factors, the study would continue.

<<<

Lola, like everyone else who had been present for the incident, had to sleep in housing provided by Ultrencht. It was a simple, windowless room, with a squeaky bed, a small side table, and a tube TV in the top corner. Hollarghast explained he had pulled some strings to set Lola up in a call room, which he promised was nicer than the quarters the other test subjects had been given.

Lola could only imagine what their space was like, as she killed a cockroach that had scuttled out from the bedside table. She turned on the TV to a rerun of this old early 1960’s sitcom, Delores and Louise, and fell asleep.

Lola dreamt she was in a tunnel, which looked as though it was made of rusted rock, and the rock was breathing, and the tunnel was breathing. It became more and more narrow, the contractions of the tunnel making it more and more claustrophobic. She was alarmed to find that though the walls contracted like muscle, they were still every bit as hard as the rock of a normal cave. She crawled on all fours, to avoid getting crushed, and quickly made her way through the narrowest part of the tunnel towards a pale light, doing her best not to get crushed.

She thought the cave had the best of her when she popped her head out of its entrance, but was able to successfully slide out before the final contraction. The air was clammy, cool, and misty, and the moon lit the breezy knoll on which she stood.

She looked out over the knoll to behold the bay of a large, glistening lake.

The lake from Aria’s dream.

She was terrified, but knew not where to go, so she headed towards the lake itself, until she was in up to her ankles. It was cold, but not shockingly so, and on any other night the gentle lapping of the waters would have soothed her, but tonight its gentle rhythm took on a much eerier tone, as though it was the calm before some horrid storm.

She heard a deep groan, like the cry of a whale, deep beneath the waters of the bay.

An eye floated to the surface, floating ever so briefly, staring at her before popping in a red mist, like a bubble.

Then another eye.
Then another.

Soon thousands of eyes began to carbonate the surface of the lake, suggesting there was something much bigger in the water, floating to the surface.

She saw a veiny, pink membrane break the water’s surface, right in the center of the moon’s reflection.

And there, an enormous brain, the size of a small yacht, floated to the surface, two eyes attached beneath its frontal lobe.

Lola’s eyes.

Lola blinked, and the eyes blinked as well.

Lola felt dirty concrete beneath her hands.

She had been watching the whole dream up until then on the screen of a tube television, like the one in the call room. She appeared to be in some sort of basement, with no light except that of the television and some external hard drives connected to it, pulsating lights on their posteriors. The television itself was propped on an old wooden dresser with two drawers, the topmost drawer open, revealing a black box with a cord that led to the hat on Lola’s head.

She was connected to cerebrum, or something like it. It wasn’t nearly as state of the art; that was clear, but it was working every bit as functionally. It was around this time in the dream that she realized she was a man, in a man’s body, somehow restrained in this dark basement. Lola lifted her male hands, to discover they were anemically pale. Even the act of lifting them was far too much.

She heard movement in the shadows of the basement, from beneath what looked like the faint outline of a staircase. She could sense there was someone else down here with her, and they were headed towards the television.

The noise, like the swoosh of sweatpants, or maybe slippers on concrete floor, stopped once it had reached the dresser, and went silent for a moment, which was punctuated by the faintest sound of breathing.

The TV cut to a black screen, with flashing white text:

Time to wake up, Lolan.

A shadow of an arm moved in front of the tube TV, switching it off.

And Lola was surrounded by blackness.

She realized her feet still felt wet from the dream of the shore, as she woke up.

She was back in the call room. It was 7:00 AM, and the room was lit by the fluorescent lights of the laboratory halls from underneath the bedroom door.

Her feet were pruny from the lake.

And the television was off.

Lola hastily made for the bedside light, trying to get the twist switch to work, before realizing she needed to turn it towards her.

The room, lit, revealed she was alone.

She looked at the television, and turned it on.

Still reruns.

Must have been a sleep timer, Lola thought to herself, and indeed when she found Doctor Hollarghast, he confirmed this was the case, apologizing for not warning her.

 

EXPERIMENT 3

 

It took a few minutes of sitting for Lola to realize no one else was coming to today’s session.

“Is it just us?” Lola said.

“Apparently,” Hollarghast muttered, wincing at his coffee.

“What do you mean, ‘apparently?’ I thought everyone was pretty much held here against their will at this point. Not really something you can flake out of.”

Hollarghast shrugged. “Should we check on them?”

“Yes,” Lola said, annoyed.

Hollarghast motioned for her to follow him.

“Sleeping all right?” Hollarghast said.

“Just fine,” Lola replied.

Hollarghast nodded. “You don’t have to tell me about it. Just wanted to know. If you do experience nightmares after yesterday’s incident, there’s no shame in consulting therapy.”

“I, uh….yeah, I agree.”

Hollarghast made his way past Quarters 2, the musician’s door, to Quarters 1, where the dancer was staying. They could hear Paganini’s variations playing furiously within, immaculately.

“Didn’t know he was a violinist,” Lola said.

Hollarghast knocked on the door of the first quarters.

“Miss Celeste?”

Silence.

He opened the door to find the quarters completely empty.

“It’s gone,” he said quietly.
“You mean ‘she’?” Lola said. “Also, these are barely big enough to be practice rooms, let alone sleeping quarters.”

Hollarghast made his way to Quarters 2, where the music was coming from.

“Mister Ali, are you all right in there?”

The music stopped.

“Mister Ali, mind if we come in?”

The music began playing again.

“Take that as a ‘yes,’” Hollarghast muttered, procuring a key and opening the door.

Inside was something that mildly resembled the musician. It had legs like a human, it was seated, and it had a torso like a human, a head like a human, and arms like a human.

Notably, though, his neck was open.   It was not gory; there was not a lot of blood. But his vocal chords were visibly exposed, and red from how much activity they had experienced. He had discovered a way to run air through them in a way that simulated the music of a violin.

Attached to his head was Cerebrum.

“My, Mister Ali, what innovations you’ve discovered!” Hollarghast said. “Truly the human voice is the greatest instrument!”

“Does that…does that hurt?” Lola said, quietly.

The musician looked at her and nodded, tears running out of his eyes.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Hollarghast said.

They went to the next room, Lola too dumbfounded to say anything. Anything she might have said was lost upon reaching the comedian’s room.

“Coming in!” Hollarghast said.

They heard a groan of pain.

“Better hurry,” Hollarghast said calmly, opening the door up.

Inside was the comedian, his legs unnaturally muscular, balancing his entire body in a pirouette. He was shirtless, and his vertebrae were notably jutting out.

“Hey guys,” the comedian said, “I had become frustrated with my bad physical shape, so I thought I’d give the ol’ machine a try and see what it could do for me.”

“Should have consulted with us first,” Hollarghast said.

“You can fix this, right?” the comedian said, pointing to his feet, where his toes had fused together.

“Yes!” Hollarghast said, clapping his hands, “and Cerebrum is the key! Have fun.”

“All right, man, but you will fix it, right? This really hurts–”

Hollarghast shut the door.

“Onward!”

Hollarghast didn’t even bother knocking on Quarters 4, and opened it to find the painter sitting in front of a canvas, looking dumbfounded.

“Oh, there it is,” Hollarghast said, pointing to the Cerebrum unit atop the canvas.

Within the canvas was Aubrey Celeste, the dancer, practicing her newly learned standup routine, to the cheers and laughter of a painted audience.

“It’s a new reality,” Zaphon, the painter, said. “I made a new reality. But I don’t know how to get her out. I think she is the new reality. It’s acrylic,” he said blankly. “Saligamus wanted oil. I see him looking through me.”

“Who’s Saligamus?” Lola said, but Hollarghast spoke over her.

“Miss Celeste, can you hear us?” he shouted into the painting.

The dancer looked at them through the canvas, and waved.

“Hey!” the painter said, angrily. “Don’t break the illusion.”

The dancer, looked at him, frightened, and then went back to her routine, and the audience laughed even harder than before. The image was lit like Lautrec’s vision of the Moulin Rouge, and there was something ghoulish about it all.

“Wow,” Hollarghast said, with enthusiasm that was excessive by a half, “this is so cool.”

He walked out and slammed the door shut.

“They’ll be fine,” he said. “They don’t need us anymore.”

Lola was not entirely clear what spell Cerebrum had the subjects under, but she knew she had to destroy it.

“Doctor,” she said, “this is a marvel. Did you build this?”

“In a way,” Hollarghast said.

“Mind if I see it?” Lola said. “I want to admire your creation.”

“Our creation,” Hollarghast said. “Follow me.”

They made their way deeper into the spiral of the research facility.

“What do you mean our,” Lola said.

“Miss Daring, Cerebrum is not yet complete. We come to this little realization every time, and each time you are held back by your fear.”

“Each time?”

Hollarghast continued: “You and I are very much alike, but the primary difference between you and I is what we are willing to live with. It has made me the much smarter of the two of us, despite the larger potential of your own mind. You look at those subjects and see people in pain. I look at them and see notches on the wall between humanity and the cosmos. At the end of the day, though, it’s your perception that makes reality.”

They had reached the spiral’s center.

Hollarghast opened the door with his keycard, and somehow, impossibly, the door opened to reveal a sterile medical hall, with two red double doors and darkness at the end.

“It’s in that room at the end.” Hollarghast said.

“What is it?” Lola said, nervously.

“Humanity is a celestial creature, Miss Daring,” Hollarghast said. “This is why the devil always is so obsessed with them in literature. God was so consumed in self-importance that he created proof of his own obsolescence. Greeks believed Prometheus stole fire from the gods, but the Judeo-Christians and the Satanists know the truth: God snuck the fire to man before he even existed, and he made man forget so he wouldn’t get any wild ideas. And as long as man is man, he will remain ignorant. But if he were to become more…”

Hollarghast paused, and grinned. “Lola Daring. It sounds like bad fiction. It’s so perfect.”

“Can you go with me?” Lola said, nervously.
“I’ve already gone,” Hollarghast said. “This is your journey to make.”

He shut the door between himself and her.

Lola looked at the end of the hall, and against all better will, began her journey down the hall. To record the thoughts that flitted through her head as she made a journey that must have been about five minutes but felt like an hour would fill an entire volume.

Finally, though, she reached red double doors at the end of the hall.

Silence, broken by the whine of the hinges as she trepidatiously entered the darkness.

It was a room different from all others in the compound; dry and dirty, like a well-guarded cellar, concrete all around and presumably no paint.

The only light was a television, a cathode ray tube from the 90’s, perched atop a small wooden dresser. Lola could hear shuffling in the corner and knew she was not alone. It terrified her, but she sensed that to investigate would be madness.

Instead, she opened the top drawer.

Inside was a Cerebrum console, with the name Lolan Darin written on it, over white tape.

Lola put it on.

She watched the screen in horror, as it showed her own brain being removed from her head, connected to the eyes of each of the test subjects, and stored in a jar. The jar, in turn, was connected to a processor, that remotely controlled each of the Cerebrum units.

Cerebrum was her brain.

It had been the whole time.

And whatever had transpired, perhaps even Lola’s entire lifetime, had all happened inside of that brain.

She heard the shuffling growing closer.

Staring at her own brain, inside of a jar inside of a screen, Lola felt all at once helpless and like a god.

She was in a prison of her own mind, with no idea of how to escape.

She watched in horror as countless experiments were performed on infinite test subjects. Sometimes the sessions would last a few weeks, as her memory events had gone, other times they would last for years.

The screen flashed: Text, followed by images of Cerebrum experiments.

Dare 1.

She saw men scream in terror as they spoke all languages at once.

Dare 2.

She saw women whose eyes showed the immensity of how it felt to be powerful and powerless as they used telekinesis to build prisons around themselves with rocks and concrete that they were not strong enough to break free from.

The screen flashed:

Dare 3.

A boy, no older than nine, was able to use Cerebrum to breathe blue fire, incinerating a mouse that had snuck in.

Dare 4.

The mouse, outfitted with a tiny version of Cerebrum, enslaved all of humanity.

The screen flashed once more:

Dare 5.

The cellar again, this time the man from Lola’s dream surrounded by at least twenty duplicates of Lola, each staring at him lovingly.

Dare 6.

The lake once more, but out of the waters surfaced the world, and Lola fell in. All around her were monuments, statues, even currency, with her face on it, and within her face, if you held the currency up to the sun, you could see Cerebrum, the brain in a jar, its twelve eyes staring back at her.

The screen flashed a final time.

Time to wake up, Darin.

The shadowy figure reached out and turned the dial, and all went black.

 

END EXPERIMENTS. RESULTS PENDING.

+++

Samuel Cullado
12 December 2016

If you liked this story and would like to see more, consider supporting me on Patreon.
https://www.patreon.com/culladobehindthecurtain

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