Episode 16: Gilman's Dominoes
by David Noonan
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Cephalopod
Cephalopod

I never expected to return to consciousness. And I certainly didn't expect it to happen so gradually. I've been near death before -- I was in the war, you know -- and I remember starting awake after surgery, like I'm bolting upright in my bed after a bad dream.

The first time I passed out trying to contact a hadribor, it was the same sudden awakening. And when I nearly died performing eidetic transubstantiation last year, I came back thrashing so hard that I burst through my restraints.

This is different. I only slowly, vaguely got the sense that I was thinking again, and for quite some time, I just thought about thinking without regard to myself as the thinker.

I don't have any sense of time passing, so I'm not sure how long I remained in this state of inchoate consciousness. It took a lot of "thinking about thinking" to dredge up a name out of the churning not-quite-thoughts that surround me. A name: Gilman. And knowing that name was like pulling the loose thread on the cuff of a sweater. I started to remember images, events, logical sequences, causes and effects. You might say I found the blueprint for "me," and I started reassembling my mind.

I'm now in possession of my psyche; I'm fully self-aware. What I lack is any external stimuli. No sight, no sound, no sensation whatsoever. I don't even perceive the absence of stimuli. I don't see darkness or hear silence. I simply cannot perceive.

Faced with sensory deprivation, a lesser mind conjures up something comforting or at least explicable -- often a place from memory, a religious fantasy-place, or just an inky, quiet void. (I know firsthand that darkness is far more comforting than utter nothingness.) But my mind is a far more flexible tool, and it has trained in dozens of techniques to withstand such deprivation, everything from psychological coping mechanisms to more esoteric meditative disciplines. It's as if my self-awareness is itself self-aware. If I can rebuild my entire mind from scratch with no external referents, I can handle this timeless, senseless reality. In short, I can wait. So I do. I think, and rebuild, and wait.

As I wait, I replay cause and effect from the beginning of Gilman's mortal life, watching each event tipping like a domino into the next in a sort of propulsive movement that seems to have its own animate purpose. Yet I'm detached enough to see the truth: Each domino, each event is a singular, crystalline effect from the previous moment and the cause of the subsequent moment. Remove a domino, and the illusion of progress ends in a clatter. Twist an event sideways, and the dominoes tumble in a different direction.

There is, of course, one cause-and-effect -- one fallen domino -- that can't be manipulated, and that's the last effect. The effect of two bullets entering my brain. There aren't any dominoes after that one, so it does no good to contemplate what would have happened by changing that event. Agnar shooting me is immutable.

It's immutable unless the reconstruction of my mind is the effect born of that fatal cause. But no falling domino can stretch across that vast gulf between "eldritch scientist on the verge of solving the universe" and "disembodied presence devoid of all perception." Some of my dominoes are missing -- which sounds enough like an idiom for madness that I imagine my flesh-and-blood self chuckling mirthlessly.

A troubling thought ripples across the vast ocean of my consciousness. The name -- "Gilman" -- that triggered the reconstruction of my mind? I didn't "think" the name into existence by myself. Something outside, something beyond this formless reality fed it to me. I was a thinker without identity before I received the name "Gilman," and without that name I wouldn't be self-aware. Someone told me who I was, and thus enabled my reconstruction.

That thought triggers questions: Who names me Gilman? What exists outside the structure of my mind? Would another name have created another me? Unanswerable questions, so I continue to wait. But my wait is no longer the satisfied patience of the self-constructed man. It's the anxious wait of the schoolboy at the headmaster's office, unsure whether he has been summoned for praise or punishment. And I am deserving of both great praise and stern punishment in my past life as Gilman, so I cannot guess the motive of the one who named me.

I continue to wait, but I feel my consciousness fraying around the edges as I worry about the motives of my namer. My thoughts rub against each other, creating mental friction that makes further meditation difficult. Anxiety stalks me like a predator, and it's a constant battle to resist the lure of imagining myself into a false but blissfully sensory reality. This sensory deprivation will not drive me mad! I can wait for the one who named me to make its presence known.

I cannot perceive how long I fretfully wait -- minutes, months, years? -- before I start to perceive the Voice. It is sonorous and deep, and despite my efforts at discipline I cling to the Voice -- cling to the glory of stimulus. The Voice almost overwhelms my carefully constructed psyche, which was bereft of perception for so long. The Voice is the literal extent of my external universe -- the only thing I know of beyond myself.

"Gilman: Consume," the Voice says. "Gilman: Consume." I imagine a new domino, quivering, tipping slowly toward the next. In that span of time, however brief or lengthy, I contemplate whether to embrace the Voice or resist it.

But the last domino I remember, the two-bullet domino, represents failure, not success. With every bit of mental effort I can muster, I reject the Voice. Any human mind can twist or alter perception -- in fact every ordinary mind does so in every waking moment. But only a fanatic, disciplined genius overmind like mine can reject perception utterly, negating the very idea of it.

Or so I tell myself. I will myself not to hear the voice. I use the nihilistic meditation of mad Dr. Krauzen. I try to retreat into the "howling" state that the Vakutheran monks perfected in the Middle Ages. I form a psychic tower of will as the Lord of Sacrifices himself once instructed me.

And the tower holds against the onslaught of the Voice. I cannot hear it; I am back in a formless state where I can perceive nothing beyond my own consciousness. My thoughts briefly flicker to my memory of the Voice, and for an instant I recall what the Voice sounded like.

That instant is the twisting domino that marks my doom. Once I replay the sound of the Voice in my head, I can't stop thinking about it. I've closed any actual perception of the Voice, but these echoes in my imagination -- they're enough to put the Voice inside my defenses. Once I imagine hearing the Voice, it's as powerful as actually hearing the Voice.

Instinctively, I know I must consume, and I do. I greedily take in the geyser of energy offered me.

Sensations of my body resume. It is a new, metallic form, far larger than my human one, bristling with weapons both physical and mystical. Where once I had limbs, I now have . . . deadlier protrusions.

My vision resumes, or at least a semblance of it. I feel the giddy rush of awakened potential as my sight extends around corners, beyond colors, into realms governed by science and by sorcery.

My hearing resumes, and I hear the Voice again. I know it was the Voice that whispered "Gilman" to me, that invisibly directed my reconstruction, and that now provides me with motive force.

"Omega Commands Gilman: Configure/Travel."

A domino falls into place as my mechanical parts scurry to obey.

To be continued...


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