I bought a Coke at a dog-stand. It tasted like burned sugar. I used it to wash down four drugstore aspirins and decided to go home and check my alarms. Automatically I took a different route toward home, and so passed something genuinely unique:
A wirehead shop with a large sign in its window saying “FREE SAMPLES”.
I stopped in my tracks and stared at that sign.
Free Samples? How in God’s name could you give free samples of radical neurosurgery? And what if it were true?
I entered the shop.
The shock doc was old and thin and red-nosed. His clothes were baggy everywhere they weren’t shiny. His hands shook at rest. They were almost the only sign of life; his face and eyes looked newly dead. A potential customer was gibbering and gesticulating at him like a speed freak, babbling something about installment plans, and he was not reacting in any way at all, not laughing or anything. Eventually the customer realized he was wasting his time and went for his gun. It was a sure sign that he was stone crazy— was he going to hold a gun on the doc through surgery?— and I started to backflip out the door. But the doc stood his ground; one of those shaking hands shot up and slapped the man, crack, crack, forehand and backhand. They stared at each other over the gun. The excited man was no longer excited, he was quite calm. He put his piece away, spun, and brushed past me on his way out. His expression made me think of Moses traveling away from the Promised Land.When I turned back to the doc he was giving me precisely the same dead stare he had given my predecessor.
Now I noticed that his other hand was in his pocket. It was not alone in there. He looked me over very carefully before he took it out, empty.
I was doing my best to look like a man at the very end of his rope; con man’s chameleon reflex. The room helped. Surely to God his operating theater was bright and well lit, but this office-anteroom was dingy and dark and depressing as hell. Unnaturally depressing; I suspected subsonics at high gain. The predominant color was black, and it’s not true that a black wall can’t look dirty. Even the storefront window was blacked over; the only illumination came from a forty-watt bulb on the ceiling. There was no decor. Behind the doc an L-shaped affair that might have been either a counter or a desk grew out of the wall, a chair on either side. One had to pass the thing to get to the door that must lead to the operating theater. On the opposite side of the doorway from the desk was a tall steel cabinet with a good lock. A black box sat on top of the desk, and connected to it by telephone cord was what looked like an oversized black army helmet.
I shuffled my feet. “I, uh… good, uh…”
“You saw the new sign and you want to ask me some questions,” he said. His voice was flat, sepulchral. “That sign is going to make me rich.”
I have known cripples and cops and killers, people who must learn how to get numb and stay that way, and I have never met anyone remotely so inhuman as that man. It was impossible to picture him as a child.
“I, uh, always understood there was no way to…”
“Until this year that was correct,” he agreed. “It still can’t be done anywhere but here. Yet. The device that makes it possible is my own invention.” He displayed no visible sign of pride. Or, for that matter, shame.
“How does it, uh…?”
“It is based on inductance principles. I do not intend to discuss it further. My patent application went in this week; that sign has only been up for an hour.”
“Well, but I mean, how would I…” I trailed off.
He stared at me for a long time, hands shaking. “Step over there against that wall. Behind the sonoscope.”
Hesitant, heavily, I obeyed. The sonoscope looked just like the one in every emergency room, rather like an old fluoroscope, except that the face of the display had a fine-mesh grid inscribed on it. I stood in the proper spot while he candled my head with ultrasonics. He grunted at his first look. “Trauma there. And there.”
I nodded. “War wound.”
“Hold your head still. I will have to offset the droud a bit—”
“Hey listen,” I interrupted, “I’m sure I’m going to do this. I just—”
His shoulders slumped a little more. “Of course. The sample first. This way.”
He led me to the desk counter, sat me down, and went around behind it. He made three adjustments to the black box, one to the inside of the “army helmet”. He passed it to me. “Put this on. That way front.”
I eyed it dubiously.
He did not sigh. “When I activate this unit, it will set up a localized inductance field in the area where I calculate your medial forebrain bundle to be. For a period of five seconds you will experience intense pleasure. The effect will be almost precisely half as strong as that produced by a conventional droud from standard house current.”
“What if my medial thing isn’t where everybody else’s is?”
“That is unlikely. If so, the most probable result would be that you would feel nothing, and I would recalibrate and try again.”
“What about least probable? Are there any potentially dangerous near-misses?”
“Not lethal ones, no. There is a chance, which I compute at less than five percent, that you might experience a feeling of either intense heat or of intense cold. If so, tell me and I’ll disconnect.”
“This thing has been tested a lot?” I temporized. “I mean, you said that your patent thing just went in this week.”
“Exhaustively tested, by me, for a year at Bellevue.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Volunteers?”
“Mental patients.” No, in other words.
I kept on looking at the damned helmet.
What was I doing here? Research? Investigating the subject of Karen’s crusade, so that I could understand it better, understand her better? What was to be gained here that was worth sticking my head into a giant homemade light socket?
Was it really that tempting? To know pure pleasure for once, for just this once, to let go all the way and find out what happens when you let go? If I did let go, could I find my way back?
“Doctor, do you consider conventional wireheading addictive?”
He didn’t flinch. “Yes.”
“Is this addictive?”
“Is it habituating?”
It can’t be. One free sample per customer. I am not a candy store.”
I had a thought. “Can you cut it back to one-quarter droud strength?”
“Yes. That would still be your only sample.”
Still I waited and debated. He was making no slightest effort to influence my decision wither way, or to hurry it along. He was dead. I thought of Karen in the harsh light of her living room lamp, and of the young wirehead I had left shredding his identification. I thought of what Karen wanted to do. She wanted to commit financial and/or physical violence on the people who ran this industry. She wanted to abolish this practice. I intended to try and con her out of it. I had to know what it was like.
I put my hands on the helmet, and I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what ecstasy would feel like, and—
-Spider Robinson’s Mindkiller, Berkley Books, 1982:
Chapter Six, Pages 122-125