By Christopher Nonsibor
Photos © Dale Johnson
So near and yet so far… there was something there, in the mists that eddied around him, just beyond his perception and just out of reach… but try as he might to follow, he simply couldn’t get near to whatever it was, that intangible shadow, that will-o’-the-wisp, that flitted, fleetingly, a fraction of a metre outside of his range. Obfuscated by something as impenetrable as it was imperceptible, it remained an enigma, unidentifiable, intangible but so, so temptingly and infuriatingly close, so familiar and yet so alien and so very… there. He ploughed onwards, clawing blindly as the mist thickened to a billowing smoke-like fog that swirled around his hands as he waved them in an uncoordinated swimming action, all to no avail as he lunged aimlessly, panic rising.
‘Where are you? I know you’re there….’
Blackwell awoke with a start and sat bolt upright in an instant. Perspiration coated his skin and his heart palpated. It was always the same. Darkness surrounded him. A strange sense of déjà vu … night after night, the same dream.
‘But what does it mean?’ he asked the air.
‘What does anything mean, basically?’ the voice came to him from his left, and he froze. The voice, all too familiar: his own voice.
‘Look, all I’m saying is be careful. A person isn’t safe anywhere these days.’ Another voice, this time to his right. Again, in the absence of light, Blackwell still recognised the inflection and modulation as his own.
‘No, I suppose not,’ Blackwell replied hesitantly, attentive to his own vocalisation, comparing it with the invisible speakers to either side of him. This only reinforced the opinion he had already formed.
He snapped his head to the left, and then to the right, in the vain hope he might see something, the source of the other voices, but the inky blackness was absolute.
‘Well, how do you think it’s working so far?’ asked the voice to his left.
‘What the fuck is this?’ Blackwell gasped, his chest tightening with fear.
‘I do believe it’s working, Dr Rittner.’
‘And I do believe you are correct in your observation, Dr Breidenbach.’
Rittner leaned forward and squinted at the monitor, round spectacles teetering on the of his pointed nose. ‘Yes…. we appear to have successfully programmed the images and reactions experienced during the REM stage of sleep, and without the dysphasic side-effects of previous attempts.’
Breidenbach leaned forward and turned a few dials, her long fingers skillfully manipulating the controls. Rittner looked on and admired her dexterity and her sleek physique, experiencing a sense of arousal that was not purely scientific. Breidenbach was an automaton, impervious to emotion and entirely focused on her work. Rittner cleared his throat, resumed his robotic composure and returned his full attention to the bands of screens before him.
Still immersed in the darkness, Blackwell sensed that he was not alone. Time had passed: of that he was convinced. Precisely how much time, he had no idea.
A sudden rush of air disturbed the humidity of his room and he was outside, alone in a dense forest.
His voice echoed back at him, but was somehow different. Was it really the sound of his own voice, or another voice calling back at him through the dense undergrowth and strange, gnarled trunks that loomed through the heavy, swirling fog that hung like a shroud and clung oppressively about every object, even his own physical frame?
‘This is fucking insane,’ he muttered to himself with a shiver. It was so, so cold. ‘I know, I’m still dreaming. The dream within a dream…’
‘It’s all right, Robert,’ a voice said soothingly.
Blackwell spun around in an attempt to ascertain the source of the speech, panic rising within him, but there was no-one to be seen.
‘How many times?’ Blackwell asked, his throat constricting, forcing his voice in a tight, breathless rasp that quavered a little. ‘I don’t know… I don’t know why I keep coming back here. I can’t seem to find my way out. I can’t seem to wake up from this…’
‘You are not sleeping,’ the voice replied. You must believe.’
As the blood poured from the cuts across his palms, Blackwell fought the urge to panic: he did not want to believe; he refused to believe and he would not believe.
‘Robert! Robert! It’s alright, calm down!’
Blackwell awoke with a start and sat bolt upright in an instant. Perspiration coated his skin and his heart palpated.
‘I… I…’ he stammered.
A familiar face swam into view, that of his wife, Caroline. Perspiration broke on his brow, this time with relief, as the face and voice matched one another.
‘It’s ok,’ she assured him. ‘You were just having another bad dream.’
Blackwell sighed heavily and shuddered, adrenaline still coursing through his veins. He looked haunted, confused. He ran his hand down from his glistening forehead down to his chin. He felt groggy and disorientated. ‘It was… I was…’ he stumbled, his breath short.
‘Was it the same dream again?’ Caroline asked, a concerned look on her face.
He nodded dumbly. ‘It keeps on happening… but each time it’s slightly longer and slightly deeper, like it’s drawing me further in. new layers.. a dream within a dream.. and then I can’t wake up…’
‘It’s ok,’ she said calmly, looking into his eyes.
‘But it feels so… real,’
‘I know… but I’m here. It’s ok.’
‘We are making progress,’ Breidenbach affirmed, giving a stiff nod of satisfaction.
‘Indeed,’ replied Rittner mechanically. His monotone delivery belied the excitement swelling within him beneath his crisp white lab coat.
Breidenbach began to dictate into a digital dictaphone, speaking in a clipped, measured and clinical tone. ‘We have now successfully rendered the sleeping state and the waking state interchangeable. This means that the subject cannot differentiate between the two, and most importantly remains convinced that he has been sleeping while wake. That is to say, the waking experience is perceived as a continuation of the sleeping experience. We have achieved the objective of inserting images from the dream into the waking state, so that the subject received the projected images of the dream, and believes that they are dreaming while they are awake.’
‘We need to report our findings and infirm Schtikk of our progress immediately,’ Rittner stated, his simmering enthusiasm countered by his clipped, clinical delivery.
‘No,’ Breidenbach cut him dead.
Taken aback, Rittner blinked and started at his colleague. ‘But Dr Breidenbach!’
Breidenbach wasn’t budging. She wagged a stern index finger in front of her own face, fixing Rittner with a hard stare as she made her pronouncement: ‘No. First, we need to be absolutely certain that this is as we think it is. We must repeat the experiment and continue to monitor our findings to ensure that this is no one off, no fluke.’ She continued, speaking so authoritatively that Rittner could only stand silent and immobile: ‘But above all, we must take time to consider precisely what we have achieved… The ramifications are almost beyond comprehension. Don’t you appreciate the power we hold in our hands?’
He ploughed on through the undergrowth: instinctively he knew he must follow a specific trajectory, one that was dictated by the bearings of his internal compass. All the while, the trees seemed to be whispering to him.
‘Robert, wake up!’
There was no breeze: the air was completely, deathly still, and yet voice seemed to waver and phase and to pan from left to right. And yet the trees seemed to sway, lean and tilt as if of their own volition. Faces emerged and disappeared in the knots and hollows… a trick of the light, he thought. Blackwell had never been prone to anxiety or paranoia at any point previously, but presently they washed over him in tidal waves, sending shivers of fear and rivulets of perspiration running down his back. No, the faces ,looked all to real as they whispered insidious messages directly into his cerebral cortex.
‘I… can’t…’ he gasped, as though struggling for air. His throat was tight and he felt as though he was asphyxiating, his air supply cut off at the larynx.
Blackwell wriggled against the invisible hands around his throat. He slipped, and felt himself falling momentarily before a sudden jolt. Had he been asleep, he would have awoken at this: instinctively, he knew, knew that this was real. He was living this, but felt strangely detached and decentred. He felt the clammy damp leaves of the forest floor against the back of his neck, and then immediately felt additional weight and pressure on his limbs, pressing his ankles and wrists to the loam.
‘Dr Breidenbach!’ anxiety pinched Rittner’s usually impassive face.
‘Dr Rittner, calm yourself. We have a duty. This is bigger than us, than all of us: we have a duty to science!’ Breidenbach’s eyes flickered: Rittner believed he spied a glimmer of mania, and, although scared, he felt the furnace of his own passion burn still hotter. Whether it was for the breakthrough or for Breidenbach, he was uncertain and did not wish to contemplate.
Rittner swallowed and spoke evenly: ‘But Dr, this is beyond mere mind control now. It’s beyond humanity.’
Breidenbach remained impervious. ‘We must pursue our ends at all costs. You do understand that, Dr?’
Rittner nodded slowly. ‘We must go back… all the way back.’
Blackwell came to, still lying on the musty, damp ground. How long had he been out for? Where was he? His surroundings were hazy, contorted, and flecked with a glacial opacity. Robert rubbed his eyes, but to no avail. He was not where he thought he was. No longer in the autumnal forest he had traversed so many times on sunny weekends, he was in a place altogether more alien, surrounded by megalithic trunks and giant ferns… the sky ruptured kaleidoscopically as strange and fierce shark-like creatures carved arcs through the air… a rumble of thunder shook him to the core. He glanced down in the direction of a flopping, slithering sound to see an axolotl at his feet… his feet? He raised his hands and turned the palms upwards to his face. They were smaller, daintier than he recalled, before realising that these were not his hands.
Blackwell shivered and cast his eyes down once more, over his naked breasts, smeared with mud. Raising his eyes, first to the tempestuous sky and then straight ahead, he gazed out across the mudflats of prehistory and he knew he was home.
Meanwhile, Caroline was struggling to fathom precisely where she was, or how she had arrived at her present location. She was disorientated, bewildered. The street looked familiar, yet somehow alien. She surveyed her surroundings, nondescript buildings hemmed her in on all sides and blank faces milled about her seemingly aimlessly. A man collided with her shoulder as he hurried past.
‘Sorry mate,’ he said. She turned to look at him but he had already moved on and so she was unable to catch sight of his face.
‘Mate?’ she muttered under her breath. Anger rose and she clenched her fists. Momentarily glancing at her hands, Caroline realised that the hands within the frame of her vision did not belong to her. The skin on the palms was tougher, the fingers thicker, the overall contours more rugged. Turning the hands over, their backs carried a covering of hair. They were not her hands: the hands before her eyes were those of a man, and yet, they were strangely familiar. She ran the palm of the right hand down over her face and told herself that the strange sense of déjà vu she was experiencing was simply a part of the displacement of the dream, just as her inability to recall how she came to be wherever she was was simply compression. Yet something continued to gnaw at her.
She approached a man who was walking toward her. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. Like the hands, the voice was familiar, but not her own.
The man hurried past, ignoring her. She took this as proof positive that she was only dreaming: he could not hear or see her because behaviour was not rational in the world of the dream: invisibility was her anxiety, and the loss of her identity was simply another manifestation of a deep-seated fear of failure in society.
She could feel the erection thrusting against her jeans. Shaking her head and fighting the urge to fuck the next thing that entered her personal space, she laughed to herself about the transparency of her dream’s imagery.
‘Do you think this is a good idea?’ Rittner challenged, agitated.
‘Good and bad are relative. Science is non-moral,’ Breidenbach asserted blankly.
Blackwell brushed away the creature that had climbed up to his wrist as he crawled on his hands and knees beside a bubbling swamp. A cross between a giant woodlouse, a trilobite and a scorpion, it sent a shudder through Blackwell’s tortured body, while at the same time, cementing the belief that lurked somewhere in his psyche that he was dreaming. And yet… it not only felt real, but entirely natural.
His breathing felt different somehow, and he felt somehow at home in a most primal way. Landing on its back, a sharp crack was audible as its exoskeleton cracked against a protruding chunk of Hyaloclastite. To his left, a chasm that vanished downwards into eternity. The pit of his stomach lurched as he slipped. He was sitting at the base of a tree. Resting his back against its trunk, he shuddered as he felt its serpentine girth move, the gnarled ancient bark worn smooth like giant scales. Running now, the rain came harder than before, but when he arrived at the door of the shack, he found it was locked.
‘Let me in!’ he yelled desperately.
The land began to slip away to his left, the rocks and clods falling down, down, down, before finally popping in molten bursts. Blackwell looked down in terror as the abyss inched closer. The heat of the white-hot larva at its bottom scorched his retinas. Slipping and desperately trying to maintain his grip on the door handle, Blackwell’s left foot was now flailing into the void as sulphurous gasses rose and enveloped him in a toxic fog. He gasped and lurched, and inhaled sharply, terror surging through him as the lizard drew near.
‘I think we have seen enough,’ Rittner said, his voice brittle with tension.
‘I don’t think we’ve seen nearly enough,’ retorted Breidenbach, turning to her colleague with a manic glint in her glazed eyes.
‘Have you completely lost your mind?’ exclaimed Rittner, panic rising as he saw the needle in his colleague’s hand. Rittner began to back away, but Breidenbach advanced, mechanical, an automaton, a slave to some signal Rittner could not tap into. ‘No…!’
The syringe was drawn back and the syringe full of a purple fluid that was all too familiar.