platos_cave_01

Sunhill Asylum, 14 November, 1963.

Maria had seen many splendid assemblies in London but nothing could have prepared her for the majesty of the asylum ballroom – a cavernous hall with a heavenly vault of cherubs and gold acanthus leaves. As she crosses the floor, she feels the pulse of music, and is overcome by a wild desire to whirl and waltz about the room; so strong is the compulsion that a faint smile comes to her lips, and she imagines herself in a pink silk gown, her plaits woven with gold, sparkling like a faery queen beneath candelabras of blazing lights.

But she wasn’t going to the ball – she was going to the basement – a forbidden realm of darkness that lay somewhere beyond the stage. And all on errand of a dead man. The rational world was beginning to crumble away; for she had entered a marginal realm betwixt the living and the dead; betwixt reason and madness; a realm of impulse, presentiment and instinct. Feminine logic, she told herself. The answers lay hidden in the depths. Isn’t that what Hardy said? And even though she felt herself hanging by a thread, she knew the only danger was to doubt.

After crossing the ballroom, David takes Maria into a vestibule off stage left, and collects two “Galaxie” 6 volt lanterns from a cupboard. He hands her one and says:

‘These are proper torches, like what firemen use. Push the switch forward for the front light; pull back for the rear light – that’s the red flasher on the handle, see? But that’s only for danger, like when you break down, or get lost at sea.’

‘So where do we go from here?’

‘The trap room.’

‘And where’s that?’

‘Under the stage. But they keep it locked.’

‘Do you have a key?’

‘No, but I know another way in. Follow me…’

He leads her into the orchestra pit – a dark recess that extends under the stage apron, full of crooked music stands and mysterious corners. They weave amid the chairs to the rear, where David lifts a panel in the stage siding:

‘A secret passage. Jack found it. But you mustn’t tell anyone. It’s a secret. Understand? Top secret.’

Maria hesitates as she gazes down a grim stairwell strewn with cobwebs.

‘Don’t worry about them spiders,’ grins David. ‘They don’t bite.’

He steps inside and she stoops after, a dank wind licking her legs. They descend under a cross-work of brown timbers which support the stage above. At the bottom they enter the trap room – a musty chamber where the stage lift is powered by a large mechanical winch. Directly above is the star-trap, an ingenious device whereby an actor can miraculously appear on stage, as if from nowhere. They wend between a network of wheels, ropes and pulleys. The room is littered with old set pieces that lie forgotten in the dust: a crescent moon made from chicken-wire and papier mâché; a mask of Zeus; a donkey’s head; and an array of plywood faeries propped against the wall. David points to a large hoarding painted with vines:

‘I did that,’ he proclaims proudly. ‘ – For the Christmas pantomime. Jack and The Beanstalk.’

‘It’s very good. You’re quite an artist.’

‘We had elephant buns. And sherry trifle. And hats and crackers.’

‘But David, are we close? Where’s the basement?’

David pulls the hoarding aside to reveal a hatch in the wall:

‘It’s down here. But you have to crawl.’

‘Really? For how long?’

‘About a hundred yards I reckon.’

A nervous smile flashes across her face:

‘It’s quite an expedition you’re taking me on, isn’t it?’

‘Do you want me to fetch a boiler suit? You’ll ladder them stockings.’

‘No, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Hurry up: we haven’t much time.’

David unbolts the hatch and climbs inside, humming softly as he crawls off into darkness. Maria clambers after, wincing as her knees graze on the concrete floor. They traverse a tight passage about three feet square with an arched brick vault; the walls are fixed with studs carrying leaden pipes and electric cables. After twenty yards the passage turns left and descends a steep incline. Her heart begins to race. The whole asylum seems to press upon her soul. Why did she not confine herself to cloister? Her ideals were forever outstripping her abilities. It was a reckless venture, to be sure. She was always chasing signs and wonders. How long before she was hauled off to a padded cell? She creeps onward, squeezing between the ducts, smudging her face with oil and ripping her skirt on a nail. They come to a junction box where a brown mouse scurries from the torchlight. She begins to perspire, panting in the rank air. And all the while, Hardy’s garbled voice rings in her ears, like crackled whispers from beyond the grave.

At the end of the passage, David kicks in a metal grill which falls with a clang. Then he crawls out and drops out of sight. A moment later his head re-appears in the shaft:

‘You have to jump. Give me your hand.’

Maria shunts off the edge and lands in a foetid puddle. The blood rushes to her feet. She half swoons in a netherworld of vague shadows and indeterminate shapes. She finds herself in a derelict ward with broken strip lights dangling from the ceiling. The complex is vast, littered with ghostly prosthetics and rusting beds.

‘This is Sector Seven,’ says David. ‘It’s where they did the trials.’

‘What trials?’ asks Maria. ‘Do you know?’

‘Bad things. They did bad things.’

She sweeps her beam around the perimeter where a row of metal filing cabinets gleam on a wooden counter. Without delay, she moves along the cabinets, opening the drawers and searching inside. Reams of mouldy records flick between her nails as she riffles through the index. “R”, “S”, “T”, “U” …  But the entry for “V” is missing.

‘It’s not here, she mutters.’

‘What about that one?’ asks David.

His beam clips a small green cabinet perched on the counter end. Maria walks over, side-stepping a dead rat as she inspects the drawer. The label reads:

OPERATION CYCLOPS 1957-1960

But the drawer is locked.

‘I need to get into this cabinet. Can you help me David?’

‘Oh yes, I can bust that open, easy. Wait here a minute…’

David wanders off down the aisle then crawls under a bed. A moment later he returns with a large metal spring:

‘This should do it.’

He jams the spring in the lock and wiggles it about, yanking the handle. Suddenly the lock clicks and the drawer slides open. He steps aside as Maria fingers through the records. Within seconds she pulls out a file marked “VALLIS”.

‘Eureka.’

The file is empty but for a small piece of paper that is burnt at the edges. She scans the page, her eyes widening in alarm:

Human Potential Unlimited. Operation Cyclops.
Subject: Jack Vallis. # 777.

Anomalous Mental Phenomena:

• Proclaims a unique sense of non-existence.
• Insists he has slipped into some other plane of reality.
• Simultaneous awareness of beings in multiple dimensions.
• Claims to function in several dimensions simultaneously.
• Spontaneous episodes of invisibility.
• Passing through physical obstacles.
• Levitates for considerable time without injury.
• Visitations of a luminous glowing sphere.
• Materialization and dematerialization of objects in his vicinity.
• Experiences a spiritual ‘alien state’ telepathically.
• Rearrangement of objects by Poltergeist activity.
• Frequent occurrence of inexplicable synchronicities.
• Sporadic, often very specialized memory impairment.
• Spontaneous episodes of dissociation which produce gaps
  in consciousness.
• Consciously remembers abduction by demons.

Signed:

Carl Schneider, O.S.B. May 14 1957.

Distant footsteps echo down the corridor.

‘Someone’s coming!’ frets David.

‘Hush! Turn out your light!’

They switch off their lanterns as a yellow beam glints through the observation window. Maria folds the page, slips it down her blouse and whispers:

‘Get down!’

David ducks behind the counter as the door creaks open. A tall man enters the ward, his face obscured by the glare of his lamp. He proceeds with caution, sweeping his beam left and right as he steps amid the puddles. He moves ever closer, dodging a fallen light that dangles on a cable. Then he stops by an iron lung and turns full circle, throwing his beam from floor to ceiling. Maria remains rooted to the spot, her slender figure lost in a chaos of shadow.

His beam probes the darkness, gliding across the tiles, revealing old bedpans and piles of rotting mattresses. The spot moves closer, skirting the counter and clipping her toes. She inches back against the cabinet, her elbow nudging the draw which rumbles on its rails and shuts with a bang.

‘Who’s there?’ gasps the man.

His beam catches her face which seems to float, disembodied in the gloom. She squints:

‘Doctor Pontius? Is that you?’

He sighs with relief:

‘Ah! Maria, how fortunate to find you: my battery is running low. I must admit, you are most persistent. But I knew it wouldn’t be long before you discovered the basement.’

She flicks on her torch and dazzles him back:

‘Are you stalking me Pontius?’

He raises a hand and shields his eyes:

‘Please, lower your beam; you’re blinding me. My only concern is to keep you from harm.’

‘But how did you know I was here?’

‘It was a simple matter of deduction. You were seen with Sister Birkin in the laundry. And since she refused to reveal your whereabouts, I surmised you were somewhere forbidden. Listen to me, it’s very important: you must leave here at once. It’s not safe.’

‘What happened down here?’

‘Do you really want to know? You’d think there was a curse on this place. It flooded after the Big Freeze. The water mains burst, shorting the generator which powered the pumps. A fleeting thaw then everything froze up again. A month later the boilers died. The patients nearly expired from hypothermia. We had an ice storm in March, then the sewers ruptured, bringing an infestation of vermin. The whole place became a complete health hazard. An insurance right-off. It was cheaper to close it down and move the equipment upstairs.’

‘No, I mean, what was it for? What did you do down here? What did you do to Jack Vallis?’

‘That’s confidential, I’m afraid. Do you realise what you’ve done? You’ve got Sister Birkin into an awful lot of trouble.’

‘My presence here is nothing to do with her.’

‘Then who told you of this place?’

‘Doctor Hardy.’

‘When?’

‘On the telephone – this morning.’

‘You’re delusional doctor.’

‘I can assure you, I’m perfectly sane.’

‘You still believe you spoke with him?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘So you have now acquired the gift of your protégé: talking to the dead.’

‘Hardy isn’t dead.’

‘Yes he is. Dead as a dodo. His corspe is laid out in the Preston morgue. I spoke with the pathologist this morning. He performed the autopsy several hours ago. Hardy’s brain was dissected and examined for abnormalities.’

‘But Hardy still lives. His consciousness continues without his brain.’

Pontius scoffs:

‘The human capacity for self-deception never fails to astound me. Faith has no place in clinical psychology.’

‘What will you do when you have replaced the eternal God with your humanist philosophy? Do you really think that liberalism and the laws of science will be enough to sustain a moral and merciful society? What will become of this world when it is ruled by the medical materialists? When mankind believes in nothing but what he can see and touch? You might as well run with a pack of dogs.’

‘This area is strictly out of bounds. You must leave at once.’

Maria doesn’t budge an inch.

‘What’s Operation Cyclops?’

Pontius fixes her with an icy glare, his spectacles glinting in the torch beam:

‘Who told you of Cyclops? Hmm? Cat got your tongue? Well who told you is neither here nor there. You have no business here. These lower levels are a labyrinth. You could easily get lost. It’s far too dangerous for a lone woman. Look around: it’s crawling with vermin; they have nibbled the wiring; there are live cables everywhere. Come with me this instant.’

‘I’m not going anywhere.’

‘No doubt Vallis put you up to this. What did you expect to find down here? Something incriminating perhaps? Forget it. Operation Cyclops ceased years ago, and as far as I’m concerned, it never happened.’

‘What was it? A drugs trial?’

‘Better you don’t know.’

‘You must be able to tell me something. Is that too much to ask? Don’t I at least deserve an explanation?’

‘Very well. Operation Cyclops was a C.I.A. funded program into narco-hypnosis.’

‘To what end?’

‘That’s all I’m allowed to say. Now take my advice: turn around, go back the way you came, and we’ll forget all about this.’

‘I’m sorry doctor Pontius, but it’s too late for that. You should have been straight with me from the start. You used Jack Vallis like a guinea pig. You knew his powers were genuine, but you still subjected him to E.C.T. – You administered more shocks than any normal brain could endure. Or was that simply to erases his gifts?’

‘Be careful young lady. That’s a very libellous accusation.’

‘But it’s the truth, isn’t it? You went out of your way to discredit Vallis; to misdirect the staff and sabbotage his treatment.’

‘Are you accusing me of professional misconduct?’

‘Jack told me of an anonymous letter he received after his first year at Sunhill. There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, transsexual soul is bared to the press. Did you write that?’

‘Of course not! How dare you! What do you take me for? I don’t know who wrote it. Considering Jack’s past, it could have been anyone: a school friend with a grudge; or the manager of Harraps where he stole his female attire. Who knows?’

‘Vallis claims it was sent by the Psychiatric Defense League.’

‘What?’

‘A secret organisation that protects the reputations of its members by discrediting troublesome patients.’

‘I’ve never heard of such a body – if it exists at all.’

‘What did you do to Jack Vallis?’

‘You’re out of your depth. You have no idea what you’re getting into.’

‘Then tell me.’

‘The experiments in this ward were top secret.’

‘Psycho-surgery?’

‘Amongst other things.’

‘You used the patients like lab rats.’

‘I was only concerned with advancing the understanding of the human mind.’

‘Such as?’

‘Do you really want to know? I doubt it. Much of what happened here would offend your moral sensibilities.’

‘I’m not a wallflower. Tell me, as one doctor to another. I’m genuinely interested.’

‘Very well. But there were many problems in the early days. Mainly because we had inadequate knowledge regarding control and maintenance of intra-cranial pressure during surgery…’

He steps towards her. She starts and snaps:

‘Stop! Don’t come any closer!’

‘You’re paranoid Maria. Do you want to know or not? It’s hard to have a professional conversation at opposite ends of the ward.’

‘That’s close enough. Stay by that iron lung. You can tell me from there.’

‘As you wish…’

He leans back on the chamber and surveys the dereliction with regret:

‘Some of the most rewarding years of my life were spent in this ward. You wouldn’t think it now, but this was the most advanced neurology unit in Europe. Our first trial involved deep brain stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus. The goal was to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. This was achieved primarily by altering the tonic activity of the subcortical circuits. However, the treatment had marked psychiatric side effects, including delirium, mania and psychosis. I used similar techniques in our second trial: Operation Comfort. Essentially it was an attempt to control seizures by Vagus Nerve Stimulation. I had several patients who suffered refractory epilepsy, which presented with psychotic symptoms. Besides an anti-epileptic effect, V.N.S. affects various cognitive and behavioural functions. For example, it increases alertness and reduces the need for sedation; it also exerts a strong antidepressant effect. V.N.S. was activated at 0.25 mA for two weeks following the implantation procedure. At first, the results were promising; but then a remission in one patient was followed by a total relapse in another. Results were inconsistent and ranged from aggressive behaviour and confusion, to visual and auditory hallucinations which were very frightening to the patients.’

‘Did you cure anyone?’

‘Yes I believe so. A fifty year old man with a previous diagnosis of childhood epileptic encephalopathy. He had normal psychomotor development until the age of 2 years. Then he suffered his first seizure which caused an unstable gait. The following years he presented with a progressive decline. All the normal developmental milestones were never reached. Consequently, he had severe behavioural problems. By the time he was twenty he was suffering frequent atonic, atonic and atypical absence seizures. When his parents died at forty, he was committed here. He spent ten years on a cocktail of drugs that rendered him cataleptic. But after undergoing V.N.S. for a month he was completely cured, and could walk normally for the first time in his life. Unfortunately he already suffered extreme mental retardation, so it was impossible to assess him on a scientific basis. He died from a stroke two weeks later.’

‘So much for Operation Comfort.’

‘Yes it was an unfortunate name in retrospect; and became and a joke amongst the staff. They called it Operation Rigor Mortis. Success never comes without failure. I am sure that V.N.S. will one day prove an important therapy.’

‘Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Is that what you did to Vallis?’

‘No. His was a different trial altogether.’

‘What trial? I must know, Pontius.’

‘I am not permitted to say. But take that E.E.G. machine over there. It was the source of many remarkable discoveries. We found that the more the brain stem is blocked, the greater the amplitudes of the cortical encephalogram.’

‘How did you block the brain stem?’

‘With various derivatives of barbituric acid. Veronal and Somniphene suppress the thalamus, allowing the cerebral cortex to function more freely. Paradoxically, when the thalamus is completely blocked, the cortex becomes so active that consciousness ceases altogether.’ [i]

‘A coma?’

‘Precisely. But a coma can be induced in two ways. Either when the cortex is suppressed with narcotics such as scopalamine, or when the cortex is strongly activated by blocking the thalamus with Somniphene. I discovered that hypnotic induction produces activity very similar to thalamus suppression. I believe this suppression of the thalamus, and the increased cortical activity that follows, might account for the healing processes associated with hypnotic treatment. In conditions of deep auto-hypnotic trance, my patients were able to do remarkable things. Their creative centres were activated to such an extent that they could produce drawings, write musical compositions, and solve complex mathematical equations.’

‘Fascinating.’

‘Yes. But here’s the crux of the matter. Cortical amplitudes increase considerably during trance. So it is only logical to assume that paranormal abilities occur when a person can exclude, at will, the influence of the brain stem.’

‘And that’s what Jack does?’

‘It’s only hypothetical. Perhaps Jack can enter a state of consciousness where his brain stem is suppressed, so activating the latent powers of his cerebral cortex.’

‘Is that what you did to Jack? Suppress his thalamus?’

‘No. And need I remind you that Operation Cyclops is still top secret.’

‘I don’t give a damn about your secrets! Tell me what you did to Jack Vallis!’

‘Your obsession with Jack Vallis is not only detrimental to this hospital but to your future career. If you care at all for Vallis, you will tell me where he is.’

‘Why should I?’

‘Because he’s my patient. Rest assured, I have his best interests at heart.’

‘That’s rich coming from a psycho-surgeon who lobotomises men at the drop of hat.’

‘I resent that remark.’

‘Lobotomy! God knows how that got past the human subjects committee! It’s little more than vivisection!’

‘I strongly disagree.’

‘You cannot de-mark any border in the brain, and claim that up to this line there is volition and intelligence, but beyond it there is none.’ [ii]

‘I disagree again.’

‘Listen to me Pontius, you’re making a big mistake. You can’t lobotomise Vallis: he’s too important. I won’t let you proceed.’

‘You don’t have any choice in the matter. Doctor Hulme and I have already decided. Your foolish attempts to hide Vallis cannot stop the inevitable. Tell me where he is.’

‘I don’t know where he is.’

‘You’re lying. Do you take me for a fool? I know full well that you and Jones are plotting against me. Your refusal to cooperate is making your position here quite untenable. Why throw away your career over a lunatic?’

‘He’s not a lunatic.’

‘He’s a highly dangerous psychotic.’

‘Nonsense. Jack Vallis wouldn’t hurt a fly.’

‘He bit off a man’s ear. And he stabbed my palm with a nail – a six inch nail, which he prized from the belfry rafters.’

‘I’m sure you would have done far worse, had you suffered your own treatments.’

‘He was going to crucify me. Crucify me, you understand?’

‘Crucify you?’

‘I found a doll under his pillow, skewered with pins. He had written my name across the forehead. He was hexing me.’

‘I thought you didn’t believe in magic.’

‘You mean Black Magic.’

‘Desperate men take desperate measures.’

‘Your Jungian profile of Vallis is entirely wrong. Vallis is a religious maniac. His primary mission in life is to be a victim soul. He believes he has been called by God to suffer in union with Jesus Christ. A transsexual on the cross. His life is a spiritual battle between God and the Devil. His soul is the “battle ground”. He suffers for the salvation of sinners. Vallis pronounced me a heretic when he gave me this stigmata. He said I would burn at the stake. The stake.’

‘He hates you Pontius.’

‘Oh, he hates me all right. Did you hear about the stunt he pulled last year? He tore up the lino from his cell to make an ink block printing press.’

‘To print what exactly?’

‘Lavatory paper. He stole fifty rolls from the janitor’s cupboard, and printed a cartoon of my face on each sheet. The text said: “Use This Side”. He then distributed these rolls amongst the staff toilets. I became a complete laughing stock.’

Silence. Maria bites her lip then bursts into fits of laughter:

‘Oh! Oh! Pontius! I’m sorry, but that’s so funny!’

He looks utterly offended as Maria begins to weep with laughter. Then little by little his face cracks into smile. He chuckles:

‘Yes. Yes. It is quite funny I suppose.’

Their laughter fades and echoes down the passage. Pontius continues:

‘My point is Maria, that to pull off a stunt like that requires a very particular kind of mind. It requires meticulous planning and obsessive attention to detail. Especially in a place like this, when you’re under constant observation. I mean, Vallis must have sat up for months, printing those bog rolls and no-one was any the wiser.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He said a goblin did it. Typical. But when I found the printing block under his mattress, he claimed diminished responsibility on account of insanity.’

‘I must say, that’s rather clever. What did he use for ink?’

‘Several tins of boot polish – dissolved in a jar of paraffin which he siphoned from a greenhouse heater.’

‘He hates what you’ve done to him Pontius. And to be honest, I don’t blame him. All he wants is your confession.’

‘My confession? That’s absurd.’

‘He wants you to confess your crimes and renounce your faith.’

‘What faith?’

‘Why, Atheism, of course.’

‘Vallis has a pathological aversion to rationalism. He thinks the book of Genesis is a historical and factual document.’

‘If you think he’s mad, then why do his opinions disturb you so much? The simple truth of the matter is that you are unwilling to commit yourself unreservedly to the acceptance of his gifts; you cannot cut yourself adrift from the physiological theories of the brain. That’s why you refuse to embrace the metaphysical reality of a universal mind.’

Pontius looks her up and down, his glare full of inscrutable intent. He ogles her ripped skirt, her laddered stocking – the dirt on her face. Then he says:

‘In many ways, I admire you doctor Torris. I mean, you obviously took great lengths to get down here. The only entrance to this basement is the lift – and only I hold the key. Which means you must have found a secret way in. Do you want to tell me about it?’

She remains frozen to the spot, fearing what he will do next. And all the while the rusting pipes drip like stalactites in a subterranean cave. She stiffens, steps boldly forward and asks:

‘Who is Carl Schneider?’

‘Schneider? Never heard of him.’

‘The name means nothing at all? He signed Vallis’ file. There are letters after his name: O.S.B. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the Order of Saint Benedict.’

‘Ah, yes, now I come to think of it, I do recall a Schneider. A Catholic priest who was summoned at the request of Vallis himself. Jack was being plagued by demons. Demons from the Old World. There was a ghoul who stalked him by day and a Satyre who visited his cell at night. Of course, I knew these spirits were nothing but hallucinations. Undeniably so. Characters from his journal that he had imbued with flesh and blood. But I thought the rite of exorcism would be psychologically beneficial. You see, often the effectiveness of a treatment hinges on our ability to influence the perception of the patient. And since I was unable to stop these hallucinations with therapeutic methods, I thought the impact of a full blown exorcism would be a cathartic experience. I wanted to show Jack that I took his demons seriously. I wanted to gain his respect, influence his objective reasoning, and ultimately his future behaviour. So I sent for father Doughty – the asylum priest. But Vallis attacked him with a toilet brush. He claimed Doughty was evil incarnate and possessed by Satan himself. Vallis said if I didn’t get Schneider, the whole asylum would go up in smoke.’

‘And what was Schneider’s verdict on these demons?’

‘Ah well, that’s the difficulty, you see. Did these apparitions have a provoking cause outside the mind of Vallis himself? I’m sorry to say that Schneider’s verdict went beyond the bounds of orthodox science and common sense.’

‘He thought the demons were real?’

‘Yes. But I wasn’t present at the exorcism, so I cannot say. Does that answer your question?’

‘Not really. What about Human Potential Unlimited? Where does that fit in?’

He remains silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts.

‘I’m sorry, but I’m as much in the dark as you are. It’s a mystery to be sure. I only met Schneider twice – once at the start of the program, then again at the exorcism, six months later. To be honest, I’m surprised you found anything at all in Jack’s file. All records were seized by the C.I.A. at the end of the trial.’

‘And what part did you play in this plot?’

‘My instructions were simple: to administer the drug and record any unusual side effects.’

‘Such as?’

‘You read the file, didn’t you?’

‘Anomalous phenomena.’

‘Exactly. Phenomena that do not fit in with established scientific theory.’

‘And no doubt you were handsomely rewarded for you cooperation.’

‘I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for the science. I’m sorry, but I’m under oath not to reveal any more.’

‘You’ve done something terrible to Vallis. Don’t deny it.’

‘Vallis isn’t what you think he is. He’s a construct. A pseudo-savant. I made him – in this very ward.’

‘And now you’re going to destroy him. All because his mind does not conform to the Freudian ideal.’

‘Lobotomy is not a bad as you think. Jack will be much happier after the procedure, I can assure you.’

‘Rubbish. Psycho-surgery is a brutal tyranny over the lives of sensitives, clairvoyants and telepaths – and anyone else, who by virtue of their sexuality, dwells on the margins of society. It’s nothing but a witch hunt.’

‘I could have you sacked by nightfall. Is that what you want? Ever since your arrival at this hospital, you have gone out of your way to obstruct and undermine my authority. And now you’re trying to turn the board against me. You think you can change Sunhill? Fool. I am Sunhill.’

‘You deceived us about Operation Cyclops. Me, Jones, Smith and probably Hulme too. I wonder what else you are hiding?’

‘Your efforts to protect Vallis are commendable doctor, but completely misguided. Vallis will be found eventually; and when he is, he will be neutralised.’

‘But you can’t!’

‘You’ve become too involved with the patient. You’ve lost all clinical objectivity. And your behaviour of late has been completely irrational. In fact, I deem you borderline psychotic. I am quite capable of taking the necessary steps. Do you understand?’

‘You don’t frighten me.’

‘This isn’t the place for you Maria; you don’t belong here. I warned you about Vallis. But you wouldn’t listen. You made the same mistake as Hardy: you got too close. And now Vallis has compromised your judgement. He’s got inside your head; discovered how you tick. You’re an intelligent woman. Can’t you see he’s manipulating you? He’s a psychopath, expert in fabrication and deception. He’s stringing you along like a puppet.’

‘Oh please, that’s absolute nonsense. I know a psychopath when I meet one, and Vallis isn’t it.’

‘Do you know what Hardy confessed just before he died? I couldn’t believe my ears. He said that Vallis had taken him to the Old World. Hardy, that paragon of the Freudian school and life-long sceptic, insisted that he had gone back in time and met himself in a former life. Now what do you think of that?’

‘Perhaps he did.’

‘Poppycock. That’s clearly beyond the realms of human possibility. What we have here is a classic case of mutual psychosis. I’ve seen it before. Certain states of madness are accompanied by an exceedingly strong magnetic personality. It can be quite overpowering at times, even to a sceptic like Hardy. I’m not sure how it works exactly; hypnosis; mutual dreaming; I don’t know which. Either way, Vallis is a highly dangerous sociopath. And your Jungian introspective method is not reliable.’

‘Nor is your experimental bias.’

‘My experimental bias?’

‘Yes. Not to mention your telepathic contamination.’

‘Telepathic contamination? That’s ludicrous!’

‘Is it? How can you investigate paranormal states of mind when your materialistic outlook attaches you to a specific pre-determined outcomes? You’re suffering from cognitive dissonance. You ignore vital information simply because it conflicts with your pre-existing theories. Have you forgotten what happened yesterday?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Then why do you refuse to accept the evidence? And why should the Old World be any less real than his telekinetic powers?’

‘Very well. Let’s assume for one moment that you’re telling the truth. What makes you believe in the world of a psychotic fantasist? Enlighten me doctor Torris. Do you really think he can travel through time?’

‘Maybe. Who are we to doubt? He has given demonstrable proof of his gifts. His mind can manipulate matter at a distance. He breaks the laws of physics like straws. Vallis might have gone back in time – but in ways we cannot imagine.’

‘For example?’

‘Vallis is a trance medium. He has access to states of consciousness that are unknown to medical science. And in these altered states he might manipulate both time and space. The Old World may be just as real as 1963.’

‘And I suppose you believe in demons too. After all you believe in a magic baby that was born of a Virgin.’

‘You are not as infallible as you think. There are unknown forces at work here. Despite your clinical training, it would be unwise to ignore the warnings of Holy Writ, or the teachings of the Saints.’

‘Like I said: you don’t belong here. You belong in the Old Word with Jack Vallis. Why don’t you return to your convent, where you can live out your creed undisturbed?’

‘Why should traveling through Time be any more different than traveling through Space? These two dimensions are intrinsically linked – via consciousness.

‘Maria, please don’t tell me that you actually believe all that clap trap. You think Jack Vallis can return to Medieval Paris?’

‘Not exactly. At least, not the Paris we know in the history books.’

‘Then what are you implying? Where is this Old World, if not in his own head?’

‘Another dimension. Hyperspace. Accessible only through consciousness itself.’

‘Hyperspace. How very convenient. And what about you Maria? Where do you fit into Time? Where do you fit into Space? Certainly not here. At least, not in your capacity as a doctor. You’ve lost the plot. You’re just as much a fantasist as Vallis.’

‘You’re in denial. You refuse to accept Jack’s abilities because they conflict with your materialist paradigm. You believe the ultimate constituent of physical reality is solid matter. So you judge all anomalous phenomena in the light of deterministic physics. God’s majesty is bigger than you. Our three dimensional universe may be part of another set of dimensions within a much larger multiverse.’

‘Fine words doctor. But even if that were true, it does not explain how Vallis goes from one world to the next – or from past to future and back again.’

‘No, I agree, it doesn’t – not until you accept that consciousness is the fundamental datum of the cosmos. And Jack is superconscious. Think about it. Is it so ridiculous? There must be many dimensions of space and time. We live in three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension; but these are just a small subset of many others.’

‘How would you know? You’re not a physicist. And even if you were, that’s just metaphysical conjecture. Besides, what you propose goes against your own Catholic dogma. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. One heaven. One earth.’

‘But Christ also says: “In my father’s house are many mansions.” [iii] What does that imply, if not multiple dimensions?’

‘Your multiverse is nothing but a feeble pretext to explain away anything and everything; and as such is very popular with delusional psychotics who insist this world is a false one.’

‘But isn’t that the fundamental teaching of all religions? That this world is an illusion? A shadow of a far greater reality?’

‘Ah! I am well versed in the allegorical tales of the ancients. Plato asserted that this world is nothing but a dark cave of shadows and base matter; a den of the senses. Above is the fire of the sun – the way upward, into the realm of truth and knowledge. But only a mystic can find the royal road out of the cave, into the world of Light, where he can behold the true forms of creation, and leave the shadows of misconception behind.’

She looks quite astonished:

‘You surprise me doctor Pontius. So you’re a theist after all.’

‘Theist, no. But my first degree was in philosophy: surely the most worthless intellectual pursuit ever invented.’

‘You’re a man of many facets.’

He is overcome with a sudden urge to confide in her. He bows his head and speaks soft and low:

‘I wanted to better myself, you understand. My father was a milkman, my mother in service. But despite obtaining a first class honours in philosophy, I remained a complete ignoramus; uneducated and uninformed; equipped only to deal in the currency of sophistry and spurious argument. That was before I read Freud and became acquainted with the fundamentals of brain biology and human personality.’

‘And now you are an enlightened medical materialist, who explains all psychological phenomena in terms of morbid anatomy.’

‘Precisely. But as far as Jack Vallis is concerned, I’m just an atheist pedant, who takes reason and not revelation for the reason of his belief. I have seen for myself how he fools the ignorant; patients who accept his powers without question, and profess he has miraculous powers. He has caused much rebellion at Sunhill, and undermines the good work we do here. His pernicious doctrine of superstition must be stopped once and for all.’

‘You should be more tolerant of him. He cannot help who he is.’

‘I can assure you, I am far more tolerant of his errors and conceits than I am of your Jungian method. For unlike you, I always maintain a clear distinction between the facts and their interpretations.’

‘Yes, you are a clever man, there’s no doubt. Yet you cannot peel the scales from your eyes. These are the facts, not interpretations, but facts: Jack Vallis is a telekinetic telepath with powers beyond your wildest dreams. His supernatural abilities are proof that materialism is a dead-end. But you refuse to accept these facts – facts which have been irrefutably demonstrated in the cold light of day.’

‘No atom of reliable evidence has ever been produced to show that his powers are supernatural. Indeed, I believe then to be quite the opposite.’

‘Oh! You Freudian fool! You define all boundaries of legitimate enquiry in terms of medical materialism. And any findings which conflict with that paradigm are simply ignored or doctored to fit the orthodox framework. What’s the matter? Don’t you believe in the powers of saints and mystics?’

‘Mystic? Jack Vallis? What utter rubbish. Vallis is no more a mystic than he is a Parisian lady. The Old World is born from fantasy, dreams and trance. It was only by narco-hypnosis that these things arose from a subliminal substratum to become part of everyday consciousness. I do not deny that this was accompanied by many strange phenomena. But I do not attribute these things to otherworldly powers. Rather their manifestation was the result of a very rare biological process.’

‘What process?’

‘Bioelectrogenesis. Jack is like an electric eel. Somehow his flesh can generate a sudden difference in electric potential. You felt the shock yourself. That’s why E.C.T. has so little effect on him. These are the facts. Scientific facts. Belief in the spirit world is not required.’

‘That does not explain his transcendent manipulation of matter.’

‘Why do you cling to a religious belief in transcendent mechanisms? Bioelectrogenesis is also linked to electro-communication and electromagnetic perception. Such phenomena are common in many marine animals. Vallis can obviously sense things which lie beyond the range of normal human perception. But these phenomena have a physical and material explanation. And I’m sure that bioelectrogenesis is the key. His telekinesis must have an electrostatic aspect. Likewise his telepathy – although I prefer the term biophysical information transfer. I am convinced that all paranormal phenomena can be explained in physical and chemical terms. Perhaps Vallis has some kind of electro-receptor organ, like sharks, rays, skates and catfish. He was born with a parasitic twin lodged in his bowel. His anatomy might be abnormal in many other ways. He might even harbour a biobattery – a sodium-potassium pump – like the Hunter’s organ of the electric eel. In this manner he could maintain a potential difference between his intracellular and extracellular space.’

‘What about his precognition and x-ray vision? He located Hulme’s tumour without knowing the first thing about it. When I first met Vallis, he described a birthmark that was hidden beneath my blouse – and many other personal details that no one else could possibly know. How does your bioelectric theory explain that? It doesn’t. Because these are spiritual powers. Mystical powers.’

‘If you think Vallis has mystical powers, then you must attribute the same to plants. I once witnessed the transmission of bioinformation in real-time on a thermographic camera between two ferns. Each fern was grown in a separate pot. When a toxic agent was added to the water of one plant, (the inductor), the other plant registered the change.[iv] There is nothing mystical about Jack Vallis. He is merely more sensitive to electromagnetic signals. What we have here is a rare case of human magnetism. The sensitivity of animals to the earth’s magnetic field is well known: it is used by migrating fish, birds and mammals. No doubt human beings evolved a similar ability, which now lies dormant in the majority of the population.’

‘That does not explain how Vallis can read minds.’

‘Perhaps he can remotely sense the electromagnetic fields associated with E.E.G. potentials.’

‘The dead don’t have E.E.G. potentials. Vallis has obtained corroborated evidence from the spirit world. I’m talking of highly specific details, particular only to the deceased and their surviving relations.’

‘For example?’

‘Vallis described the location of lost fob watch – a family heirloom that was missing for forty years. It was found exactly where Vallis described, under the fifth floorboard of an Edwardian drawing room, beside the hearth, where the owner displayed two Wedgwood dogs – one of which had a chipped nose. Now how is that possible?’

‘Gypsy Jill. He belongs on Blackpool Pier. Vallis has you wrapped around his little finger. How can you be so gullible? Tell me, do you believe Vallis can walk through walls? Do you believe he can fly through the air like a bat?’

‘I don’t know. He can levitate a tea-cup. Why not his body? And bilocation is a historically documented phenomena. Just before my mother died, she appeared to both me and my father, despite the fact that we were at different ends of the country. These things are more common than you think.’

‘I’m sorry but I can’t accept that.’

‘Why must materialists hold the monopoly on scientific truth? Your Freudian schooling has you in chains. You cannot turn your head and behold the sun at the mouth of the cave. Even when Vallis shows the way, you see only your own shadow and the shadows of others, moving like marionettes on the wall of the den. And these shadows you mistake for the reality of things. Little wonder. The light of Truth gives you sharp pains. Levitation. Telekinesis. Pyrokinesis. These powers of mind compel you to look at the sun. But the harsh glare of reality causes you much distress. And you fancy that your world of materialist shadow is more comfortable than the objective reality of the psychic world. Don’t you see? The conscious mind is somehow connected to a fundamental state of the cosmos: The Unus Mundus.’

‘Yes, yes, that’s all very well Maria. But your Unus Mundus is just philosophical mumbo-jumbo. You have no proof for its existence. In fact, it’s little more than a woolly Jungian term used to describe some all pervasive energy field. Do you mean to tell me that consciousness pervades matter, like water in a sponge?’

‘Yes. I think everything is conscious to a certain extent. Even rocks and minerals. Take that iron lung your leaning on. The metal is imbued with the emotions of the patient who lay inside it; their hopes, fears and pains. These feelings are somehow recorded in its sub-atomic structure. That’s how Vallis can read inanimate objects.’

‘Psychometry? What utter twaddle.’

‘Do not pretend that you understand consciousness, because you don’t. No one does. Consciousness is a complete mystery.’

‘Consciousness is a process that runs on brains. Plain and simple.’

‘The box jellfish has no brain. Yet it has 24 eyes of four different types, some of which resemble the eyes of humans and can form complex images. Even without a brain, the box jellyfish can respond to light, avoid obstacles, and learn to find its way through a maze.’

‘Which only goes to show that a brain is not a prerequisite of advanced behaviour.’

‘Or even of consciousness. Perhaps box jellyfish share a group mind. Like ants and flocks of birds.’

‘The collective unconscious and all that. It really has no place in modern psychology.’

‘It has every place. The subconscious is not only the most important problem of psychology, it is the problem. That is why the study of psychic phenomena must be preliminary to all other mechanisms of the functioning mind. Don’t you see? Pontius, listen to me. Why don’t we work together? Truly, we would make a great team. Wouldn’t we? Just think what we might achieve together! If we studied Jack’s powers, we could change the world, Pontius. The world!’

He studies her for a moment, his heart warming with an unfamiliar glow. For he sees in her all the optimism of his youth. He knows the years have made him blinkered. The torch dims momentarily and the ward is thrown into darkness. When it flickers back to life, Pontius stands world-weary, his head bowed, his arms hanging by his sides. His face is daubed with despair. How he longs for her moral courage. He has completely underestimated her.

‘You must think I’m a fool, Maria.’

‘For wanting to neutralize Vallis? Yes, I do.’

‘Funny. It’s always easier to confess things in the dark. Don’t you agree?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

‘Tell me, why did you renounce your vows? What made you decide to become a psychologist? Was it just a noble desire to cure the sick? If so, then why not a nurse or vascular surgeon? Why did you choose the mind in particular?’

‘If you must know, I was inspired by an article I found in my father’s library.’

‘What article? Do I know it?’

‘I doubt it. It was from an old Independent called “The Birth of The Dream” by Bergson.’

‘Bergson? Never heard of him. Well go on, tell me what it said…’

‘I can’t quote the article verbatim. But after reading it, I knew what I wanted to do with my life: “to explore the most sacred depths of the unconscious, to labour in the subsoil of consciousness… For that is the principal task of psychology in the opening century… Wonderful discoveries await it there, as important perhaps as have been in the preceding centuries the discoveries of the physical and natural sciences… That at least is the promise which I make for it, that is the wish that in closing I have for it.” [v] And that is why Jack Vallis is so very important. Not just to this department, but to all mankind.’

He looks utterly torn. He shakes his head and mutters:

‘Forgive me Maria, but my hands are tied. There’s nothing more I can do.’

‘Tied? Tied by whom? Schneider?’

He looks away.

‘Listen to me Pontius. This is bigger than you. It’s bigger than all of us. I think Vallis is in contact with some sort of higher intelligence. A non-human intelligence.’

‘You mean his Cyclops?’

‘Whatever it is, I am sure this intelligence is the key to his powers.’

‘Have you any idea how ridiculous that sounds? The notion that Vallis is in contact with some kind of alien being is inherently preposterous.’

‘I disagree. And I think the Old World is quite real. And whatever you may think, I believe Hardy went there, just as he claimed.’

‘Forgive me, but you’re beginning to sound like one of the inmates. In fact, your words might have come from the lips of Vallis himself. Which makes me even less inclined to believe them. Non human intelligence? His Cyclops is nothing but a psychotic phantom – an entity created by a drug with the very same name!’

‘Nothing but. Nothing but. Oh you’re such a stick in the mud! You want to neutralize Vallis because he presents an inconvenient truth. What if he’s right? What if he can go back in time?’

‘Even more reason to get rid of him. The world isn’t ready for a man like that. What do you suggest we do? Return to 1930 and kill his mother?’

‘Mock all you like. But you raise an interesting point. The paradox of killing your parents before your birth does not necessarily imply your own extinction. Not in a multiverse.’

‘Oh really? Alas, I am running out of patience. And I am far too busy to entertain more of your preposterous fantasies in the dark. There’s nothing down here Maria – nothing but the dreams and disturbed imaginings of a man who cannot accept who he is. The Old World is just construct for his female alter-ego. Nothing more. The events in his journal are nothing but dreams, unbeknown to the dreamer.’

She slams the counter and exclaims:

‘Oh! You’re such a Freudian blockhead!’

‘Can’t you see what’s happening? Vallis has infected you – just like he infected Hardy – who you claim to have spoken with on the telephone. A dead man. I think you should go home. Return to London. Take some time off. Get some perspective on the situation. See how you feel in six months. And if you still want a future in psychiatric medicine, we can discuss it then.’

‘Oh no, you can’t get rid of me that easily.’

‘If you want to commit professional suicide, that’s your funeral, not mine. Now, shall we return upstairs?’

‘No. I’m not finished here.’

‘Just what are you looking for exactly? You found his file didn’t you? What more is there?’

‘I won’t know until I find it. Sack me if you want to doctor Pontius. Either way, I’m going to save Jack Vallis.’

‘He is quite beyond salvation. It is you who needs saving.’

She wags her finger:

‘Ah but doctor Pontius, don’t forget: you’ve signed his release form.’

‘What release form? I’ve done no such thing.’

‘Yes you have. It was recorded on tape, remember? And there were witnesses: Matron and Bob. I have a copy of that tape in a safe location. I even have a transcript on my person…’

She dips her hand in her coat pocket and removes a small card:

‘If, on the 22 November 1963, President Kennedy is assassinated, then Jack’s psychic gift will be proven by act of prophecy. In which case his lobotomy shall be cancelled. He shall no longer be judged insane or kept incarcerated against his will, but shall be released forthwith, back into society.’

‘To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t give a fig. Lots of people have prophetic dreams. The subconscious is highly inventive. Just because a dream comes true, does not imply the dreamer is an Oracle. When I was a child, I dreamt that our house exploded. My parents were going through a rift at the time, and looking back, the dream was obviously about disintergration of the family unit. I awoke screaming and confessed the dream to my mother. From that point on she became paranoid about gas leaks. So much so that she insisted on checking the stove several times a night. It drove my father mad: it probably drove them even further apart. Ten years later the war broke out. Then the Nazis began a sustained attack on Liverpool docks. It began 28th August 1940, and went on till May the following year. My dream came true during the Christmas blitz. Our house suffered a direct hit. My entire family was killed in the blast. By some twist of fate I was out that night, courting a girl.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that doctor Pontius.

‘It was a long time ago. But that dream doesn’t make me a prophet. It was pure coincidence and nothing more.’

‘Well I don’t believe in coincidence. What if your dream was a warning?’

‘Well it wasn’t a very clear warning, was it? When I got home, I prayed they were safe in the shelter. But that wouldn’t have made the slightest difference. Because another bomb hit the railway arches on Bentinck Street. Forty lives wiped out just like that. The Christmas Blitz. Like it was a present from Santa Claus.’

He takes a pack of Woodbine from his pocket and shakes it in the air:

‘Want a smoke? I always need a smoke when I think of that.’

She finds his honesty disarming.

‘All right Pontius. Don’t mind if I do.’

He ambles over and taps out a cigarette:

‘I shouldn’t really. It’s bad for the lungs.

‘Anything’s better than the stench in this place.’

‘You’re right there.’

Her face sparkles in the glow of his lighter. She pulls hard on her cigarette then says:

‘Thanks Pontius. So, you’re quite human after all.’

‘Not the monster you thought I was?’

‘No, but I wanted to punch you earlier.’

‘Yes, I have that effect on women.’

‘Hardy did speak to me on the telephone. Really, he did.’

‘Let’s forget it. Working in this place would drive anyone nuts. Er, by the way, do you really have a copy of that tape?’

‘No. You burnt it didn’t you? At least, that’s what Jack said.’

‘So much has happened these past few days, I can’t remember if I burnt it or dreamt that I burnt it. I haven’t slept a wink in 48 hours.’

‘Jack believes that when he dreams in this life, he sends messages to himself in a past life.’

‘Jack is a mad hatter.’

‘But you accept the idea of mutual dreams, don’t you? You said so yourself. Is that not a form of telepathy? What if consciousness transcends time and space? What happens to our dreams when they drift away on the ether? Is it not possible, that when we dream of an event, that dream might be received by another dreamer, in another time, before the event occurred?’

‘And the moon is made of cream cheese.’

‘That’s why Vallis wants to return to the The Old World. There’s something he must correct.’

He draws on his cigarette:

‘The Old World is so far away in space, and so remote in Time, that I cannot accept it as having any foundation in reality.’

‘I thought the same as you, until I heard Hardy on the telephone. You see, I think Vallis has created a time loop.’

‘You’re in the wrong profession. You should take up science fiction. Write tales for ‘Amazing Stories’. Time loop? Maria, please.’

‘Think of it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. A phenomenon known as retro-causation. That explains his prophetic dreams. You see, Vallis has experienced all this before. Possibly many times over.’

‘That sounds like hell to me.’

‘Indeed, it does. But what if you could warn your family about that bomb? What if you could somehow contact your younger self and send him the information in a dream? Would you do it? Would you try and change the course of events?’

‘To ponder the question is a futile. What if I could avert the sack of Troy? The fall of Rome? The Great Fire of London? The death of Newton? Or the coming of the Antichrist? What if I could reincarnate in a body of my choosing, just as Jack asserts? Several years ago I had a patient who was a prominent biochemist. She suffered a psychotic break and claimed she was a von Neumann machine.’

‘A what?’

‘A machine that can copy itself. Each morning, she claimed to be an entirely new person. She remade herself overnight in her own likeness. And by making endless copies of herself, she claimed she had cheated death and achieved immortality. According to her, she was four billion years old and the mother of all Creation. Her argument was entirely logical – just like D.N.A transcription. In order to persist through time, she always made more copies of herself than the environment could destroy. But when treating her, I knew perfectly well that I was not dealing with a rational mind. The point is, Vallis might provide you with many rational explanations, but that doesn’t make him sane. So why do you believe he is? For god’s sake woman, he’s a bona fide lunatic! Take some advice from a clinician who has your best interests at heart: forget this time loop, and stay clear of Vallis, before you fall into his pit of pandemonium.’

‘I fear I’m up to my neck already.’

‘Just tell me where he is, and this whole thing will be over with by tomorrow.’

‘I can’t tell you. I don’t know.’

He steps toward her:

‘Then I will be forced to take drastic measures. Purely for you own protection, you understand.’

Just then, David steps out from the shadows and snarls:

‘Leave her be.’

Pontius jumps:

‘David! What are you doing here? Do you want to go back to working in the slops room?’

‘No doctor.’

‘Then return to the laundry at once. Well go on lad, don’t just stand there. I won’t tell you again.’

David scowls and refuses to move:

‘I’m not going anywhere. Sister Birkin told me to look after Maria. Anyway, I don’t much like the look of you, doctor Pontius.’

‘Well, you’re not exactly an oil painting yourself old chap. Very well, have it your own way. I’ll accompany you both myself. Turn around the pair of you. There’s nothing more to see here; nothing but empty beds, rats and spiders.’

‘The Old World is real,’ claims David. ‘I’ve seen it. And I know how to get there.’

‘Do you David?’ urges Maria. ‘How?’

‘It’s through them doors.’

He points to a pair of doors at the far end of the ward. The orange paint is daubed with dried blood and the round windows twinkle in the torchlight.

‘Clearly the man is deranged,’ sighs Pontius. There’s nothing through there but the old surgery. It’s derelict – has been for years. Enough of this charade. Now please, let us return to the wards: there are other patients in this hospital besides Jack Vallis, you know!’

But Maria ignores him and makes a bee-line for the doors:

‘I want to see this for myself. Come on David, show me what you mean.’

Pontius flusters after, waving his hands in the air:

‘Oh for God’s sake woman! Are you completely mad? Vallis and his cohorts have you chasing phantoms! There’s nothing there I tell you!’

But before he can say another word, Maria and David vanish through the doors.

‘Come back!’ urges Pontius. ‘It’s not safe! Wait for me! I can’t see a bloody thing!’

He begins to panic, slapping his torch with his palm, and panting as he mops his brow with a hanky. A feeble glow swells in the reflector and makes a dim ring on the floor. Groping through the darkness, he shuffles toward the doors and pushes them ajar.

He enters a small ante-chamber with a scrub sink and an autoclave. Even in the dark, he knows it like the back of his hand. He fumbles along the wall, past the sterile supply cupboard, then past the cadaver lab where he did much of his training. His heart quickens in his chest. The dark is all consuming, full of hidden terrors. He paws along a rail, his feet colliding with rubber boots that flip and flop like flatfish. Something drops from on high and brushes his face. A low moan escapes his lips.

‘Jesus. What was that?’

He looks up. Two simian eyes are glowing in the cupboard: the black monkey of his id. He blinks several times, trying to erase the spectre from his mind. Then a fleeting beam sparkles in the neurosurgery window. He puts his nose to the glass and peers inside. Maria and David are standing beneath a vast surgical light that hangs like a U.F.O. in the gloom. Maria fumbles for the switch but the light is dead. He mutters:

‘Fool…’

The perimeter is lost in shadow and the chequered floor littered with mouldy swabs. David turns his beam upon an electro-shock machine which stands beside a bed with buckles and restraints.

‘That’s where they did it.’

‘Did what?’ presses Maria.

‘Fried his brains. Day and night. But you can’t kill Jack.’

‘Silence!’ spits Pontius, storming into the room. ‘You know nothing about it!’

‘I do,’ defies David. ‘I saw it. I was the laundry boy, remember.’

Maria looks utterly bewildered, her face a pale apparition:

‘But David, where is the Old World?’

‘Here,’ replies David.

‘Where? You mean in here? This surgery?’

David nods.

‘Ha!’ exclaims Pontius. ‘I told you. The Old World is nothing but make belief: a fantasy of two paranoid schizophrenics.’

‘Shut up!’ snaps Maria. Then softly to David: ‘Was it just a game between you? This place? The Old World?’

‘No, not a game. It’s real. The Old World is real. I went there.’

‘But David, how can it be real? There’s nothing here.’

David remains mute. Maria sighs with remorse and shakes her head. Then she turns to Pontius and says:

‘Forgive me doctor. Clearly, I have been misled.’

‘Deluded, more like,’ tuts Pontius with relief. ‘Now that you have satisfied your childish curiosity, can we return upstairs? Despite what you may think of me, I have no happy memories of this place. In fact, it gives me the creeps.’

He reaches for her hand, then adds softly:

‘Come on Maria, let us leave the Old World in the shadows where it belongs.’

But just as they turn to leave, David cries out:

‘Wait!’

And with that, he grabs a steel bowl and hurls it at the E.C.T.

A shimmering flash ripples through the dark. A bioluminiscent burst, like the lure of an angler fish. The bowl is swallowed by a vortex and vanishes into thin air.

Pontius stumbles back and lands sprawled on the tiles, his spectacles skewed across his face:

‘What the hell?’

Maria scurries behind him and mutters:

‘God in heaven. What was that?’

‘The portal,’ leers David. ‘Jack opened it with his mind.’

Dumbfounded, she crawls under the operating table and peers at the portal – an inky hole that is both profound and obscure. Then, taking a pen from her coat pocket, she tosses it into the abyss. Another scintillating flash as the pen is swallowed behind a glassy membrane which stretches from floor to ceiling. As the ripples subside, the membrane gradually dissolves, leaving coruscating tendrils of plasma that squirm like eels. Aghast, she mutters:

‘Oh Jack Vallis, what have you done?’

Then she turns to Pontius and cries:

‘Jack was right! He was right all along!’

But Pontius has already fled through the swinging doors.

The floor begins to vibrate. She senses danger: a tangible presence from beyond. It whirls about the room like a dense black cloud, extinguishing the lamps, leaving a cold abyssal darkness. Terrified, she whispers:

‘David. Are you there?’

Silence.

A brief discharge flickers round the portal. Then the surgical light bursts into life, its nine spotlights blazing like suns. Metal objects begin to chime and float about the room; scalpels, forceps; clamps; bone saws; and three kidney trays that get sucked into the portal. Then the spotlights explode one by one: Pock! Pock! Pock! …

She cowers as a storm of glass tinkles on the floor. Then darkness.

‘David? Are you there?’

No answer.

Her torch, which lies several feet away, begins to pulse, its rear reflector filling the room with infernal red flashes. David is now visibly distressed. He stoops by the portal, rocking back and forth, wringing his hands and stuttering:

‘Cede Deo. Cede Deo. Cede Deo… [Yield to God].’

Her throat is hoarse with fear:

‘Who’s there?’

He whispers:

‘Demons and devils and Satans and Liliths.’

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2018

i. Psychical Physics. The Internal and External Magnetic Field. Experiments of Koopman and Franke. p.148-149.

ii. A Text Book of Physiology, 1893, page 727.

iii. John, 14:2.

iv. The Backster effect. An experiment replicated by Dr. Eugen Celen of Romania. See also: “Rapid Changes in Tree Leaf Chemistry Induced by Damage: Evidence for Communication Between Plants” in Science of July 15, 1983. Described in a transcript of ‘International Conference of Psychotronic Research: June 5-10, 1983’ . Russell Targ, Delphi Associates, Palo Alto, California. CIA Psi Research document number: CIA-RDP96-00792R000500400001-8.

v. The Birth of the Dream, by M. Bergson. The Independent, Oct. 30, 1913.