Dull, all pervading pain. Sam retreats even farther. A memory of warmth and darkness beckons, sheltering him, but the voice won't let him stay hidden.
"A point of stress." The voice of the computer is rich and warm. He almost responds, but nothing is worth the effort. "Relieve this stress at any point and the network begins to break down. The pattern is made up of many memories. Face it at any point and it loses its power over you. Once that is done you can change the pattern. You have the strength, and you can learn to use it."
A picture builds up in his mind, clear and vivid. He'd been at his desk, shuffling papers aimlessly. The presentation for Fowler's Fabrics refused to take shape.
"Hey, Sam!" One of the steady processions of office boys, lank hair curling down over his collar. "Boss wants to see you."
He looked up, an automatic protest rising to his lips. "The name is Mister Jackson..." But the boy was already turning away, heading for the water fountain or the john.
"You wanted to see me, Mister Craddock?"
"Come in, Sam. Sit down." The pink jowled face was serious. Even the bald dome of his scalp seemed to reflect the light in sharply uncompromising gleams. "You're two weeks behind on that Fowler Fabrics promotion, and you're not doing any better on it than you did on the last two jobs I gave you. They were lousy! I don't know what's wrong with you, and I don't care. This work demands fresh thoughts, new ideas. You just don't seem to have what it takes any more. I'm putting the Fowler account in Murchison's hands. You have two weeks to tie up any loose ends, and then you're out! You weren't hired to be our 'token Black'. You were told when you came here that you would have to work just like anyone else, and you haven't done it."
Sam's protests died in his throat as Craddock pointedly ignored him. Murchison! Always Murchison. He'd undercut Sam's presentations at the last several conferences, slipping in his deadly needle in the guise of helpful comments. The others around the table had chuckled, or looked away in embarrassment. No one wanted to offend a man who was so plainly on the way up.
"Let's try that scene again." The compassionate voice reaches out to him in the darkness. The sting of a needle in his arm is instantly forgotten in the flood of warmth and energy it brings.
"Hey, Sam! The Boss wants..."
"Mister Jackson to you, Joey." His voice was firm, but not angry.
"Sorry, Mister Jackson. Mister Craddock wants to see you in his office."
The boy, his shoulders held a little straighter, turned and walked away. Sam gathered up his Fowler Fabrics notes and strode confidently across the busy office.
"Mister Craddock." His voice was sharp, crisp. "I was just coming to see you. I'm ready with the material for Fowler Fabrics. If you'll give your approval on it immediately we'll have time and to spare to catch the Fall market."
"Ah, oh yes." Mister Craddock squirmed uncomfortably. "As a matter of fact we've had, that is I've had some doubts about your handling of that account. Murchison..."
"Yes, I've been watching him," Sam cut in with a slight chuckle. "Flashy, but shallow. He'll need a lot more seasoning before he's ready to handle anything this big. Now, here's what I have planned. There are still a few rough edges, but I'm sure that a man of your wide experience will have no trouble smoothing them out for me."
The mental picture fades back into darkness, but aren't things a little brighter, the pain just slightly dulled?
"That will be enough for this session. Nurse, wheel Mister Jackson back to his ward and bring in Miss Evans." The voice is almost as warm as the computer's.
"Yes, Doctor Strand."
The restraints are loosened, and Sam Jackson curls up on his cot, free for a time to seek out the darkness at the core of his being. For now all pain and conflict are far away and he is safe. He doesn't hear the screams or smell the stink of vomit and disinfectant in the dingy ward. He doesn't feel the tubes that feed him, doesn't even know it when he is wheeled into the treatment room again.
Once more the soothing voice of the computer reaches out to him, banishing a little more of the constant ache he has lived with for so long. It isn't necessary to retreat quite so far into the Nirvana of non being.
"Pain and sorrow are the fate of all men," it comforts him. "What made the difference was how you reacted to them. Store up rage and grief, bottle them up inside of you and there comes a time when you can no longer carry the load. You must learn to react, to bring your emotions out into the open where they can be handled. You will not always conquer, but your wounds will only be on the surface. Go back now, back to the year when you were twelve. There was a fight..."
For the hundredth time, a picture builds up in his mind. It is all there, bright and clear and sharp. He smelled the hot asphalt as the sun beat down on the playground, heard boys and girls calling out to one another as they played and ran.
"Get outa my way, jerk!"
"Ow!" He went sprawling, wincing at the pain of a skinned knee. "Cut it out!"
"Gonna make me, Black boy?" Fat and ugly, big beyond his years Dale Porter loomed over him, laughing. "C'mon, Sammy. Try and hit me. I'll even give you one free swat."
Sammy's arms flailed wildly as he rushed the bigger boy, but a fist in his belly dropped him to his knees in agony.
"Leave me alone!"
"Shaddup! You make me sick with your whining. Go running to Teacher and you know what you'll get on the way home from school."
Dale cuffed him aside, and he ran sobbing for the shelter of the schoolroom.
"Go back." The voice is stern, but not accusing. "Back to the beginning. Re experience the fight the way it should have gone."
Once again the playground sounds and smells surrounded him. He was watching some older girls playing volleyball when someone bumped into him.
"Get outa my way, jerk!"
He caught himself as one knee scraped painfully on the blacktop. With a yell of fury he sprang at the larger boy, fists swinging wildly. When some bigger kids pulled them apart Sammy's left eye was closing and a trickle of blood leaked from his nose, but Dale was in little better shape.
"You didn't hafta climb all over me," the bully whined, wiping his nose on a torn shirtsleeve. He glared at Sammy, but made no move to resume the fight.
"So keep your elbows to yourself next time," Sammy answered, holding back angry tears with an effort that made his throat ache.
Still glaring, Dale turned and walked away muttering to himself, not quite as cocky as he'd been.
The sessions go on, reliving incident after painful incident and gradually the pain recedes. Sam is more aware of his surroundings, noticing what is happening around him for the first time since being brought here. The County Hospital is overflowing, the care minimal.
"We are restructuring your emotional responses to crucial situations." Doctor Strand, neatly bearded and puffing on a pipe, talks to him as he waits for another session. He sits in a contoured chair now, rather than being strapped to a gurney. "We not only relieve the emotional charges associated with the original trauma, we teach new, more appropriate responses to situations which inflict such injuries."
Sam listens warily. The treatment room is a hybrid of office and laboratory. A gleaming desk along one wall is flanked by comfortable chairs and oak filing cabinets. The opposite wall is hidden by banks of computers. Their terminals are linked to an oversized chromium helmet that might have come from a beauty shop hair dryer.
A burly male nurse wheels his chair into position and the helmet comes down over his head. He flinches as metal probes touch shaven spots on his scalp, then relaxes. A soothing hum is all around him. Once again the voice of the computer, so like Doctor Strand's, directs him to a painful scene from his past.
"You ain't no good, Sam Jackson!"
He flinched from the saw edged voice. Sitting in a sagging overstuffed chair, he squirmed uncomfortably. His wife loomed over him, her café au lait features handsome rather than pretty when they weren't scowling. The rest of the apartment was in keeping with the chair; small, cramped, and shoddy.
"Aw, Honey," he muttered, not bothering with the careful diction he used at the office. "It don't do no good to get mad. I'll get me another job, don't you worry."
Science Fiction /