One of Taylor's favorite tricks was the nightmare dump. All the worst, most terrifying, most demeaning, most grotesque moments had been excerpted from the nightmares of the entire human population and patched together into a rapid-fire slide show. The scenes or slides were neither mental pictures nor full-blown hallucinations but something in-between. They seemed to be projected onto a 3D screen inside him. Though each of these stills appeared for only a fraction of a second, they were all absolutely vivid, convincing, and horrific: a demon was eating his intestines, a cat was tearing out his eyes, a woman was shitting in his mouth, dwarfs were raping his parents, Satan was crushing his testicles, an atomic blast was moving across the face of the earth, a tsunami was devouring Washington, D.C., the President was pulling his teeth out with pliers, dragons were consuming each other, thousands of children were burning to death, aliens with intricately bejeweled faces made of circuit-board and rancid meat were inserting electrodes in his spine, Jesus was being boiled alive in a cauldron, evil laughing faces grew larger and larger till they filled the universe ... There was an endless procession of these scenes, no two of them alike. And yet the nightmare dump sometimes went on for hours. At a conservative estimate of three per second, this meant that Drew was regularly being bombed with upwards of thirty or forty thousand unique and detailed nightmare scenes per session. Here was proof, if proof were needed, that he was not crazy: no single individual brain could have produced all that material, all by itself, at such a rate. The nightmares were obviously being produced elsewhere and transmitted to him. He could not imagine that Taylor's minions had sufficient bandwidth to subject all their victims to such heavy bombardment. Therefore he concluded that he was one of their highest priorities.
This was also proven by the amazing number of tormentors assigned to his case. Not counting the ants, there were at least sixteen distinct voices that were broadcast into his head at various times. The ants of course were not very intelligent; he realized that most of them were just robots running limited programs; their speech consisted of tape-loops of babble and gibberish meant to confuse and distract him and wear him down. They were just noise.
The sixteen voices were different. They belonged to real people with individual personalities. They seemed to know everything he did, everything he thought or felt. Apparently they monitored him around the clock, working in shifts. Usually three or four of them were on duty at once. Their task was simply to take turns insulting him, harassing him, convincing him that he was worthless or insane. He knew that they were real people because sometimes they addressed one another, even by name. He guessed that they were colleagues, and that they worked together in the same office or building. From things they said, clues they let drop, he concluded that they were situated somewhere in Washington, D.C. They were not very professional, perhaps. But they all knew him intimately, and some of them—the shrill old woman, the saucy child, the gruff one they called "Duke"—said some truly awful things. "You're the worst kind of hack writer." "You've never done shit with your life." "You killed your daughter."
Aside from verbal abuse, they also had at their disposal equipment that allowed them to send him all manner of bizarre sensations. Drew would feel his head expanding to fill a room, or get the unmistakable sense that the back of his head was missing. The cancer and the worm in his guts, he now realized, were their handiwork too. For a full day he was convinced that his mouth and gums were rotting; the words "acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis" were repeated over and over again, on a robot-loop. (He would not eat, for fear his teeth would fall out, which of course won him a triple dose of hydrops.) Another day he was made to believe that he was being genetically transformed into a woman; he could actually feel the cells in his scrotum folding up and being carried away for disposal by his bloodstream.
One day he found himself suddenly reminiscing about the time he had taught Miranda to drive, remembering how nervous she had been, and how snappish her nervousness had made her, and how snappish her snappishness had made him. He even recalled entire portions of their conversation ... before finally realizing that it had never happened, that it could not have happened, that it was a false memory implanted by the agents assigned to his case, who of course were having a good laugh at his expense. But this sort of thing did not happen often; it must have been too labor-intensive to fabricate entire memories like that.
The people around him who were not meat-robots were only holograms projected from afar. That is, they were merely the images of real people (actors, working for Taylor). Drew deduced that he was being kept away from real people because the electromagnetic beam that they were firing into his skull at all hours was so intense that innocent bystanders would inevitably be affected by it. This explained why so many electronic devices malfunctioned when he was around, and why his cat had bit him. It was called the halo effect. Miranda had explained it to him once.
Miranda's occasional appearances puzzled him. She was not a hologram, obviously, because she was dead. And yet she was too clever, too versatile in her speech and behavior to be a robot. Nor could she be a false memory, because when she visited him it was in the present tense. So she was either a ghost, or a simulation. He opted for the latter explanation. They had been monitoring her long enough to have compiled her habits, mannerisms, memories, and responses to various situations. And besides, to believe in ghosts was madness.
To think that they went to all this trouble just to break him down, to destroy and discredit him! It was true that a lot of this so-called psychotronic torture (the agents themselves often used this term) was ridiculous, and it often seemed to be carried out less in a spirit of hostility than a sort of vicious playfulness. But they never let up. Clearly they hoped it would have a cumulative effect.
Because Mike had been wrong. Their technology had improved, but their methods had not grown more sophisticated. They were still bumping your car in traffic.
But it was not working. Despite all the mad thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images that they poured into his brain and body every hour of every day, he did not feel mad. They had failed to penetrate to his core. He was inside here somewhere still, battered and bruised but intact. All they could do was hammer at him from the outside. Now that he knew that every bizarre feeling and idea came not from him but from them, he had only to withstand it. Their psychological attacks were not at bottom any different from physical blows: they could kill him, beat him to death, but they could not change him; they could hurt him, annoy him, disorient him, but they could not become part of him, or make him become something else.
The hydrops treatments however were another matter. Those he would do anything to avoid.
"Where's Dr. Hutch?"
He knew better than to talk about Taylor and his holograms or the plot against the President to anyone here. The robot-doctors and impostor orderlies, nurses, and patients were no doubt in Taylor's employ. In any case, they were hungry for any evidence of what they called "aberrant thought processes." Like the evildoers in Mike's novel, they evidently hoped to drive him insane by treating him as if he were. This explained the elaborate fake hospital, and all the fake crazies raving about Satan's Illuminati and anthrax in their cereal and so forth. It also explained why Hutch and the other so-called psychiatrists were so quick, so eager, so happy to seize on anything he said or did that might be construed as the speech or behavior of a paranoid schizophrenic. Hutch for instance seemed hardly to listen to anything Drew had to say, but always leaned hungrily forward when he asked if he was hearing any voices. One day a nurse holding a clipboard had asked him if he knew what day it was, then who the President of the United States of America was. He could tell by the way she wrote down his answer, scarcely able to conceal her pleasure, and by the way she walked away, practically gloating, that he had been wrong: the President was no longer president. But if she had been a real nurse, if Hutch and the others were real doctors, they would not have exulted in his wrong answers, the "proof" of his madness. Real psychiatrists wanted the ill to get well. That nurse believed she had caught him out, that she had learned something about him, something she could run and tell the "doctors"—namely, that he was disoriented, confused, out of touch with reality. But he had caught her out, learned something about her: she was a fake. They all were. They wanted to drive him mad.
Which was why they used any excuse, any "aberrant thought process" or "symptomatic behavior" whatsoever, to justify giving him another dose of hydrops. It was these treatments, if anything, that were going to drive him mad.
The method couldn't be simpler. They strapped him down inside an empty padded tub (sometimes stripping him beforehand, sometimes not), then slowly filled it with water (sometimes cold, sometimes warm). (The water presumably focused or amplified the signal.) Then they gave him an injection.
They never told him what was in the syringe, of course. When he begged, the first few times, to at least be told what it was for, what it was supposed to do, they only smiled through their meat-masks and said that it was to make him better of course, silly man.
But he knew anyway. They wanted him drugged and tied down, they wanted him in one spot and unable to struggle, so the electromagnetic beam could do its work.
Its job was to take him apart.
As the drug began to seep through him and the beam zeroed in on his skull, he could feel it starting to happen. He could feel himself being peeled apart into separate layers, distinct sections. One day the fan in the ceiling overhead was spinning and he watched in horror as his awareness of its movement slowly detached itself from his awareness of its color and his awareness of its shape, till there were (1) a colorless shapeless flickering blur of movement, (2) a motionless shapeless splotch of whitish-gray; and (3) a motionless colorless snapshot of the outline of a spinning fan. At first these more or less overlapped within his field of vision, complementing one another; but then they were pulled farther and farther apart, till each aspect existed on a mental plane of its own. Meanwhile the countless other elements of his perception—the water on his skin, the straps holding tight his arms and forehead, the angle of his head, the pressure on his neck muscles, his fingernails digging into his palms, the weight and mass of each of his drugged organs, the constrained rise and fall of his chest, the air going in and out of his lungs, the voices of the attendants, the buzzing of the lights, the humming of equipment, even the feeling of his tongue inside his mouth—each of these sensations was also being slowly torn asunder, peeled off from him and isolated in its own little compartment of consciousness, until there was no "him" left to remove parts from. The most terrible thing was that he could actually watch it happening. It was as if the various frequencies at which his sensations oscillated were being forced out of phase, till they had nothing in common. It was like listening to a roomful of clocks, tick-tocking at first in unison, become gradually more and more out of sync, till there was no common rhythm at all, only a distressing cacophony of individual ticks and tocks. When someone shouted in the hall, the shout seemed to float there in empty space, in nothingness, in a sort of acoustic limbo, forever. He was in pieces.
He dared not reveal how terrifying he found the experience, not even silently to himself, for the agents were always listening to his thoughts, and if they knew how well the hydrops treatment achieved their ends they would certainly subject him to it unremittingly, until he was truly insane. So he never objected when Hutch or one of the head nurses prescribed another dose, and he was careful not to show any fear as the time of the treatment approached. But he took care, too, not to say anything to anyone about Taylor, the President, or the electronic harassment that he endured every minute of every day and night, waking or sleeping; for all such talk, of course, smacked of "conspiracy theories," and gave them the excuse they needed to strap him into the tub again.
So he acted cheerful, was not too talkative, and ate heartily, and they had to leave him more or less alone.
"Where's Dr. Hutch?"
"Ah. Well. Pity he didn't warn you. I'm afraid he's been rotated."
Dr. Bindle was different. For one thing, he did not believe in the hydrops treatment—though he was quick to justify its use, in some cases.
"The mind," he said, "is like a very large molecule. What we call sanity is just one of its many possible configurations, or isomers. Sometimes the molecule is given a good shaking up—some traumatic event occurs—and when it settles down again we find it has fallen into one of its other possible configurations—one of the various forms of insanity. In order to return it to its former state, it is often necessary to give it another good shaking up. That was the role of electroconvulsive therapy and insulin shock in the past, and that, alas, is the role of hydro-phenotrembutal subcoma therapy in our hospitals today. There is no question that the experience is unpleasant, even traumatizing. It has to be, if it's to do any good."
That Dr. Bindle even bothered to explain all this to Drew was, from a hospital staff member, so unusual as to be astonishing. A tremor of excitement passed through him.
Was it possible? Was this, here, at last, a real person? Was this the person he had been waiting for?
"But in my opinion," Bindle went on, humbly and without haste, "it has been sadly over-prescribed. One's colleagues have a tendency to rely on pharmacological cures, which lend themselves so conveniently to precise measurement and easy administration. Understandable, and forgivable. However, in a case like yours, Mr. Dunkel, I think I would prescribe an older, perhaps less sophisticated, perhaps less efficient, but in my opinion no less effective method. Yes, I think I would recommend a little good old-fashioned talk therapy."
By the end of their first half-hour session, this kindly old gentleman scholar—who, with his beard, his glasses, his wide thoughtful mouth, his plodding diction, his calm quiet gravity, his phlegmatic air of hard-won experience, considered wisdom, and reliable authority, reminded Drew of his own father—this man Dr. Bindle had so impressed him, that he realized he would tell him everything.
And, in time, he did.
"I owe him a lot," Drew said.
This was a year later.