"So glad you could make it!", said Cleist, the Assistant Director of the Centre for Altered States, offering Trenchfoot a stubby hand. They sat down in flaccid, leather chairs beside his desk.
"We in Altered States are always very grateful when people find the time to come here, ready to donate their energies to our research."
" I'm very happy to be of service. I'm really looking forward to finding out something about your work here."
Placing the fingers of both hands together in front of his chin, almost as if in prayer, Cleist looked at him expressionlessly. He was of Herculean proportions - although a bit run to seed, with a sizeable gut.
"You wouldn't have anything for a headache, would you?" Trenchfoot asked, raising his eyebrows and rubbing his forehead. "Too long in the video parlour."
Cleist heaved himself out of his low-slung chair and walked round to the back of his desk. He sighed as he searched for tablets in among the welter of papers on his desk, but to no avail. He pulled open a drawer and took out brown bottle after diminutive brown bottle, carefully examining the label on each.
"Here we are", he said, opening about the sixth bottle to appear from his drawer and looking inside. "Oh no, it's empty." He lobbed it into the bin in one corner of his office.
Eventually, he found an identical bottle in the next drawer down. "Ah, this one's got some left. One enough?" he asked, walking back round his desk to where Trenchfoot was sitting.
"That's fine. Many thanks. I'm sorry to have caused you so much trouble." Trenchfoot got up to take the pills - it seemed only polite.
Cleist inverted the bottle and managed expertly to tap out just one pill into Trenchfoot 's upturned palm. He snapped the bottle shut. Putting it back on his desk, he picked up a file from the top of a stack of papers.
"Take your time", Cleist said as they both sat down again. "The headache may be partly due to a little nervousness on your part. We'll have a few moments time-out before we start."
"Oh, I'm fine - perfectly calm."
Cleist didn't reply; opening the file, he began to flick through the pages. Trenchfoot sucked happily on the lozenge as he waited for Cleist to finish reading. His head was bent forward revealing a few shiny strands of black hair carefully combed in parallel lines across the back of his pate.
Shutting the file, he threw it at his desk. It landed on the floor on the other side of the desk taking other files with it. He didn't seem to notice.
"Feeling any better?" Cleist asked.
"Yes, a little, thank you."
"You should be fine in a couple of minutes. Well, to get to the business: we've got all the drugs here: LSD, Mescaline, Marijuana, Cocaine, Amphetamines, Barbiturates, Coca, Psylocobin, Angel Dust, Ketamine ... and we've got other toys at our disposal, for instance a Gezang room. Have you heard of one of those?"
"No, I can't say I have."
"I'll explain it in a moment. You can choose which you want to try. If you wanted, you could specialise in one and become what we in the business call a Substance-Specific Psychonaut. People have been doing research into Altered States for ages now", continued Cleist, "it's nothing new. In the early days, they used to try and map A.S. activity with..."
“Forgive my ignorance, but what exactly is an Altered State? You mentioned a number of drugs, so does Altered State really mean tripping?" Despite what he'd said to Ella, he had had, in fact, no idea what to expect at the C.A.S. He was definitely warming to the idea of being a psychonaut and was anxious and impatient to know whether what he thought he might be asked to do was really going to be the case. Cleist looked at him with a blank, set face.
"Altered State is a very general term to cover those other types of conciousness, visions or illusions or whatever you care to call them, that we experience when the brain is over-stimulated from inside or under-stimulated from outside. Over-stimulation can be caused by drugs; under-stimulation can occur, say, when you find yourself alone in a boat in the middle of an ocean for days on end."
" How are you feeling?" he asked.
“Your headache." Cleist made a limp gesture with his index finger towards him. His face was cold and set; if anything he looked aggressive. It was hardly an expression of solicitude.
"Oh, practically normal, thank you."
Cleist nodded, continuing: "An altered state is, I suppose, basically when the brain ceases to act as a filter for the outside world and sees and hears itself more readily. You might call it a kind of short-circuit. Other people may disagree, of course, but that's my view."
Trenchfoot was finding it difficult to concentrate; he hadn't expected a lecture and couldn't really see the point of it. And, there was another thing distracting him: why was Cleist stock-piling digi-cassettes? Looking around the room, Trenchfoot reckoned there must have been literally thousands of digi-cassettes stacked up against the walls, on chairs, under chairs, wedged in between filing cabinets and yet more crammed into shelves in a small alcove. What did Cleist need all of them for? He had seen yet more pillars of cassettes along the walls of the corridors outside Cleist's office.
"As I was going to say before, when this field of research was in its infancy, people tried to map altered state experiences using surface electrodes, electro-encephalograms and so on; they tried to relate the subjective experience to data and theory about the kinds and areas of physical activity in the brain. Other researchers trained people to recognise shapes, colours, sounds according to a standard code, so they could report what they saw during their A.S. very precisely - for example, giving the specific frequency of any colour they saw. But, we're doing something rather different here."
As Cleist talked, he seemed to warm to the sound of his own voice and the glimmer of a smile would pass across his thin lips.
“We've developed a rather remarkable recording machine that we can attach to the brain; we call it a psycho-recorder. We hope it will enable us to record onto conventional video the sights and the sounds and even the voices that people experience in an A.S. The video can then be played back on a conventional computer or a bio-brain suspension. I'm sure you can see that this gives us a very objective picture, at least in principle. Of course it's early days as yet. We need to check verbal reports with what we're getting on the psych-video data so that we can steadily improve the sensitivity and accuracy of the A.S. recorder. Does all that seem clear?"
“I think so. You mean that, when I'm going through an altered state, I'll be talking into a voice recorder trying to describe what's happening?"
"Yes, that's it." That explains all the cassettes, Trenchfoot thought. "And at the same time, I'll have an A.S. recorder attached to my head while I'm taking some of the drugs you mentioned?"
“Not immediately, but in due course, yes", Cleist replied.
"But is it safe?"
Cleist smiled confidently.
"I can tell you - with some pride, I might add - that nobody has had a bad trip under our supervision. There are also advantages: you might find Nirvana, discover the key to the unity of all things –though, we prefer it if people don't stray too far into the metaphysical. And if it so happens that you're an I.S.P..." Trenchfoot looked perplexed.
"Sorry. Imagination-Starved Personality - then what you experience here might stoke up your mental fires, give you a more interesting internal life. A lot of people who come here and turn out later to have been I.S.Ps have been helped in this way. Okay so far?"
“Yes, I think so."
"Well, to start things off, I think we'll try and get the measure of you in the Gezang room. But first, I'll have to ask you to drink something of my own creation to help matters along." He made to get up, then paused half-way out of his chair. "One other thing. Sometimes an A.S. can go on for longer than planned. Could you give me an emergency telephone number, so we can ring your family, if needs be, to tell them you'll be late back?"
"I live alone."
“No children. No wife."
"No. I live quite alone."
Cleist eyed him with some ... interest?
"Now for the potion." He went over to a glass cabinet and took out a beaker with a clear green liquid inside. He poured some of the contents into a glass and added some drops from a small bottle; he held the glass under the tap above the basin behind his desk and poured some water into it. After swilling the mixture around in the glass until it transformed into a cloudy solution, he gave it to Trenchfoot.
"Okay, drink that down please. It should taste okay. A bit like bananas."
It must have been a long time since Cleist had drunk the stuff. It tasted like rotten eggs, but Trenchfoot drank the lot.