PUBLISHED IN "EVOLUTION" – THE 15TH VOLUME OF THE short story collection: Just below the Surface
The birth was finally over. Utterly spent following the C-section, Julia lay in the bed and stared into space. She was exhausted and could not speak. Beside the bed sat her husband, Steven, resting his head in his hands. A fresh morning newspaper carrying news of Donald trump’s assassination lay on the table beside him but he had no energy to even glance at it. The birth pangs had arrived three weeks before time and had been sudden and severe.
At least everything had gone well.
A low, strange, humming sound snaked into the hospital room and disappeared quickly again but neither of them heard anything. Nor did they note the presence of the two men who suddenly stood in the middle of the room. Both men wore black polyethylene protective suits with robust zippers, hoods, and facial masks with large transparent openings for the eyes:
“We’re in,” one of the men said through his neuro-transceiver.
The audio crackled a little but that was common enough when signals were sent over such low frequencies.
“We hear you,” a voice came from Operations. “Connection stable. All fluctuations neutral.”
“Confirmed,” the other responded, “we’re commencing the dive.”
The two strangers, completely out of place in a hospital environment, began with a simple visual inspection of the room. Not all spaces were clearly visualized so their gaze came to rest on Julia laying in the hospital bed.
“How does the subject look?”
“The subject seems unharmed. Repeat: No visible harm.”
“Fine, proceed with caution,” Operations warned.
Like astronauts taking their first steps in an alien spacecraft, they slowly approached Julia and Steven. Everything seemed peaceful but as they got closer a rupture seemed to open in the scene that hadn’t been there before:
A child’s cot appeared.
“You see what I see?” the man called Christopher whispered. “I think we’ve struck gold here.”
Inquisitive, they neared the sweetly sleeping child.
“Do we know who the child is?” the other diver asked. His name was Marco.
“No, not with certainty, but it may be the client. Just make sure you get it all back,” the team coordinator at Operations commented.
“Cute little face,” Chris said about the child, whose skin was still quite pale and whose hair was damp and sticky. “Whoever you are, some day you’ll be glad to see this memory.”
He focused on the child’s wristband that revealed a girl’s name: Merle.
“Now don’t forget the mother and father. They’re equally important,” the voice in the neuro-transceiver said.
“Naturally,” Chris answered and mulled over how to get some good shots of the father, who still sat with head down in the chair. “Marco, if you stay there, I’ll try to get Dad in as well.”
“Don’t get too creative, Chris,” the team coordinator warned. “There must be no increase in fluctuations as you get closer. Move slowly.”
Chris inched slowly forward.
Each step he took could give off waves that in turn would distort the state of somnia in the subject and result in an alteration of the scene. At best, the subject would just wake up; in the worst-case Chris and Marco could find themselves somewhere else and in big trouble.
There was no danger of that right now. There was another problem, however: Chris could only see Steven from above, not an especially compelling angle.
“I’ll try kneeling, see if I can’t get more of his face ...” he whispered.
“It’s risky, Chris,” Marco warned. “You need to stay mobile, just in case he moves.”
“I know,” Chris responded and did it anyway.
“Wait, Chris, at least let me get some images of the mother first. Then we’ll have that in the bag. It’s just as important,” Marco said as he slowly withdrew his focus from the child.
Meanwhile, Chris had already begun to kneel down.
He loved moments like these.
“Nothing’s going to happen.”
“You never listen,” Marco said reproachfully as he observed Julia. She was pallid and wan but that was to be expected after a C-section in which she had lost a lot of blood.
“How’s her self-image looking, Marco?” Operations asked.
“Very stable. Her picture of herself is perfectly harmonious,” and thought to himself that she was quite a beautiful young woman. Or rather: Her perception of herself was beautiful. What he saw was of course a replication of herself as she appeared in her memories. In reality, she was a wrinkled old lady of 91 in poor health who lay sleeping on a bed in the room next door with her head plastered in sensors.
“Are you hungry?” the husband looked up suddenly and asked. His voice boomed like the voice of God speaking from heaven – that’s how it often sounded when voices appeared in a dream. Positioned relatively close to the husband, Chris was startled.
“What’s happening, Chris? There are fluctuations in your area. We’re registering weak dissolution of the scene surrounding you.”
It was Operations warning him from outside the dream. As well as following the dream images from the divers’ viewpoint on multiple screens in a giant media nerve center, the Operations team could also monitor what were termed dream fluctuations. Fluctuations were movements or oscillations that destabilized a dream. The odd thing was that even though the subject couldn’t see the dream divers, they could still affect the dream. Their fluctuations were measurable and experience had shown that if the subject was disturbed excessively in a scene – either by external noise, vibrations, or other influences – then the scene could shift radically. The interference of the divers could have unforeseen consequences for the dream while the dream could correspondingly have consequences for the divers.
Which is why Chris withdrew with care.
Marco’s unbroken focus remained on Julia, who shook her head wearily:
“I have no appetite whatsoever,” she said to Steven. Her voice was gentle and pleasant. Almost musical.
“Don’t let slip while she’s talking, Marco. Those memories are invaluable,” Operations instructed.
“I’m going nowhere ...” he whispered in reply.
“Chris, there’s still disruption in your area of the scene.”
It was Steven, the husband, who had risen from the chair and now stretched and yawned loudly.
“I’m doing nothing,” Chris assured the others, though without mentioning that he was backing slowly further away.
The yawn sounded like the roar of a lion. It was loud enough to make the scene tremble at the margins.
“Latest fluctuation measure is 9.5 just around you, Chris, that’s too high!”
“Relax, man, I’m pulling back ...”
With measured care, he raised his foot and took one step backward but, unluckily for him, in the wrong direction. On a shelf behind stood an object that was destined to ruin everything:
A glass of squash.
“Would you like something to drink?” Steven asked and without warning his reaching hand penetrated right through the belly of the dream diver.
“Ouch, damn it!” Chris exclaimed in pain as Steven’s hand disappeared through him like he was a ghost, sending shivers of psychosomatic pain through his body.
On the bench in the divers’ room Chris writhed in pain.
The problem now was that any movement or sound from the dream divers could send counter-fluctuations against the subject and disturb the state of somnia. If the subject woke up, the scene would vanish instantly.
Everything would be lost.
If the dream were to be maintained, Chris would have to pay the price.
“We’re ready to abort, okay Chris?!” the voice from Operations said. With a single click they could extract the dream divers from the scene and put an end to the pain. “Now we’re measuring fluctuations at 34.4! Chris, should we let Marco handle the rest?”
In general, a person could withstand fluctuations of about 70. No one had ever survived fluctuations up to 100. The brain could simply not handle such an extreme perception of agony without shutting the body down and killing the dream diver in the process.
“Wait,” Chris responded in pain while it felt like someone was hacking at his insides. The fluctuations were extremely strong. They throbbed through his own illusion of his body and also emerged in the real world where he lay in torment.
He had never imagined he could feel such pain from a glass of colored water being pulled through his stomach.
“Chris! We repeat: You don’t need to put yourself through this,” the voice through the neuro-transceiver from Operations was concerned, “the fluctuations are shooting right through you!”
Fortunately, it was finally over, and he exhaled a sigh of relief:
“It’s done now,” he groaned, while in the dream Steven walked to Julia and handed over the glass of squash which she sipped with a loving glance at him.
“The man’s a damn masochist ...” the voice at Operations muttered, viewing the scene through Marco. Steven kissed the subject on the forehead and, because Chris had endured the pain, they were rewarded with a priceless memory.
The value of such things was inestimable. There was a lot of money in loving memories.
“You okay, Chris?” Marco asked while maintaining focus on Julia, who they were both connected to. The only difference between them and her was that they were conscious inside her dream.
“Sure, sure, I’ve had worse,” Chris grunted with a certain weariness and walked to the safety of a corner from where he could observe everything from a distance.
In truth, he was badly in need of a break to recover. Then he spotted something odd:
“Have you seen the floor, Marco?”
“Uhhmm, no ... just focusing on the subject here ...”
“Come over here if you can ... It’s really strange. I’ll keep an eye on the subject.”
Marco slowly withdrew from the central character, now monitored by Chris. When he reached the end of the bed, he did as Chris had asked and scrutinized the floor.
Something was dripping beneath Julia’s hospital bed.
“Is that squash?” he asked wonderingly.
“Don’t think so,” Chris responded. “The glass looks untouched. The husband placed it on the bedside table.”
“Can you examine the floor?” Operations asked but the voice was drowned out by the woman’s voice, which echoed disconcertingly in the scene:
“Steve, I feel something’s wrong. It’s like there’s something very wet underneath me,” she said to her husband with a fearful look in her eyes. “Will you look?”
“Of course, darling,” Steven said, while Marco bent down at the end of the bed to examine the fluid spreading across the floor. Marco reached out and drew his index finger through the glossy pool, leaving a smeared line on the linoleum floor:
“It’s blood,” he said as he noticed another droplet dripping from the bed.
The subject was bleeding.
“You need to be careful, Marco,” Chris warned. “Steven’s about to lift the sheet, if she’s bleeding there may be trauma. This scene can become a nightmare. Then anything can happen.”
“Just say the word if you want to abort the dive,” Operations said. “We have plenty of good material now. We do not want you two stuck inside a nightmare ...”
Unfortunately, they weren’t quite fast enough.
“My god, you’re bleeding, honey!” Steven exclaimed when he discovered the pool of blood beneath Julia’s bed.
They both opened their eyes in horror and Steven immediately tugged on the thin red cord hanging above the bed.
“Help!” he cried. “We need help in here! Now!”
His shouts for assistance were so loud Chris and Marco had to shield their ears, though it made no difference. Covering the ears is a natural response in the real world, so that was also the usual reaction for people who were diving in a dream.
But the yelling fatally distracted Marco.
He couldn’t get out of the way in time.
“Watch out!” Chris shouted as the room door burst open and a swarm of doctors and nurses poured into the room like a mob of zombies scenting blood. This mob ran straight at Marco who was pummeled by a freight train of well-meaning saviors.
Chris watched as the hospital staff ploughed through his colleague – it was as if his body was pulverized by a machine gun salvo.
Worst, however, was Marco’s shrill and pain-filled howl as the fluctuations rocketed up to 85.2!
“Abort! Abort!” Chris roared, but he was powerless to intervene. All he could do was observe Marco’s suffering until, after a couple of seconds, he was plucked from the dream.
Chris waited for his turn. The hospital room was crowded with doctors and nurses standing in a tense circle around Julia’s bed.
The husband looked devastated. The subject screamed. The staff tried to hold her arms and legs while some others pressed and kneaded in the region of her blood-stained abdomen.
“The womb, it hasn’t contracted properly,” a doctor observed as the walls of the scene began to shrink in upon them.
“Restrain her arms and legs,” a nurse commanded loudly.
Chris looked around. There was possibly a tunnel forming in the dream. Soon the scene would become even more deadly.
Fortunately, at that moment he was pulled out of the dream too.
Returning from a dream dive is a disconcerting experience. Severe headaches are a frequent side effect. Nauseating, disturbing colors that block the sight are also common. Divers suffer a feeling of vertigo and a sense of disembodiment for a long while after.
In Chris’s case, he opened his eyes to a pounding heart and a surging feeling of panic.
From his cranium he ripped off the twenty or so diodes that were needed to connect to a subject’s dream. The job of dream diver also necessitated being shaven completely bald.
None of that mattered now.
The only thought that rushed through his head was whether Marco had survived the dive. No one could withstand such high fluctuations. His fear that Marco had been fatally hurt was confirmed when he looked over at the bench on which his colleague lay.
People in masks and surgical gowns stood around the unmoving body.
One held a hypodermic with a shot of adrenaline. The needle would pierce directly into Marco’s heart. One studied a monitor that displayed a dangerously flat line that should have been making beeping sounds at regular intervals. Instead, it was followed by a constant wailing alarm that indicated Marco’s heart had stopped beating.
One of the doctor’s was giving him CPR.
“... 16, 17, 18, 19, 20,” then Chris heard another doctor with a defibrillator interrupt:
“Stand clear! Move!”
The first doctor stepped back, wheezing breathlessly. Everyone else did the same. Except for the one who placed the electrode pads on Marco’s bare skin and sent thousands of volts coursing through the body of the broken dream diver.
The lifeless body raised itself up a moment but then fell back – just as dead as before.
“Repeat,” the doctor persevered, starting CPR once more.
“Come on, buddy,” Chris whispered and nervously watched as the medics worked tirelessly to save his colleague. “Fight it, Marco. Fight!”
Again, loud shouts:
“… 18, 19, 20.”
Then a fresh dose of electricity was jolted through Marco’s body in the hope of kickstarting his heart.
But once again it failed.
The medical team kept going for about twenty minutes.
Vainly they tried again and again. CPR, artificial respiration, epinephrine, defibrillation. They tried everything but nothing helped.
Finally, the lead doctor threw his hands in the air and cursed loudly:
“Damn!” he exclaimed and kicked a chair across the room.
Some looked downcast while others shook their heads resignedly.
“No!” Chris cried out in frustration. “It can’t be true.” This must not happen.
But it had happened. The old lady’s nightmare had stolen Marco’s life.
Merle watched through the window of the hospital room. The room in which her aged mother found herself was filled with equipment: computers, cables, and outlandish looking apparatuses. It was hard for the 91-year-old lady, still just resurfacing into consciousness, to make sense of all the devices. A nurse was wheeling some equipment away and when the old lady briefly and drowsily opened her eyes, it was clear to Merle she didn’t understand what was going on.
She could see in her mother’s eyes that she was bewildered. Merle desperately wanted to go in and comfort her.
Merle was plagued by a feeling of guilt at having inflicted the dream divers on her mother. On reflection, maybe it wasn’t the kindest thing to have done.
The evening before, Merle’s mother had been put to bed in the usual manner at her care home. What she didn’t know was that she had been given a sedative in her tea and, after falling into a deep sleep, she was whisked by air ambulance to Memory Hunters’ headquarters an hour north of New York. She was swiftly hooked up to the company’s Dreamhub, a supercomputer that allowed the dream divers to access her brain, travel around in her mind and extract experiences from her memory while she slept.
This was the 14th dream dive.
Ordinarily, the subject never knew anything but on this occasion Merle’s mother had a rare nightmare and had woken suddenly mid-dive.
Of course she was confused. Who wouldn’t be if they opened their eyes to see a hospital room filled with advanced computers they were connected to?
“Your mother’s going to be fine,” a polished, self-assured voice said behind her.
Slightly unsettled, she turned to see the director of Memory Hunters advancing down the hall to meet her.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Merle said as the director stretched out his hand.
Merle was about to shake it when she realized she still held her cellphone. It had been ringing all morning. Her personal assistant trying to get hold of her. But she hadn’t answered because Memory Hunters had urgently called her in because of the nightmare. She moved the phone to her other hand and greeted him.
“Yes, I was quite concerned.”
“You must not worry, Merle, calling you in is just standard procedure.”
“What happened? Didn’t the dive go as planned?” she asked and pointed to the window behind which her mother lay. “My mom looks very subdued. When can I see her?”
Even though it was barely seven o’clock in the morning, the director appeared fresh and energetic. His shirt was crisply pressed, his tie perfectly knotted and not a hair was out of place in his neat haircut. A broad smile creased his face.
“Listen to me. Everything went swimmingly!” he reassured her. “Don’t fret, Merle. Your mother is perfectly fine. I promise you. You’ll be able to see her very soon. As I said, we only called you in because she had a minor nightmare – nothing devastating. It’s just that when a subject is woken prematurely, we like to have the next of kin close by to comfort them. We do this all the time and it’s perfectly routine. You really ought not to worry.”
His words put Merle at ease.
Though her mother was afflicted with severe dementia, at an advanced stage in fact, and in a few hours would remember nothing, Merle felt it was important not to upset her.
Not least because her mother had never consented to anyone extracting the memories she held in her mind. This was something Merle had decided upon when her application for legal guardianship of her mother had been approved.
“Well, okay, that does set my mind at rest somewhat. What about the dreams? Wasn’t there anything good today?”
“Today was a huge success. Believe me, we captured some exquisite, precious memories today. You have something to look forward to, Merle. I think you’ll find these memories incredibly special when you see and hear them. They are all about you!”
“I am actually looking forward to it,” she smiled fleetingly but then remembered why she had been summoned in the first place. “But what about the nightmare? Did you capture that too?”
The director laughed softly and held out his arm as an invitation to accompany him down the hall.
“Well, if you were expecting a horror movie, I’m afraid we have to disappoint you. In general, nightmares generate a lot of noise in the visuals. For inexplicable reasons, neurons behave very differently than in regular dreams. We cannot actually see what’s going on. We can only measure it. This area is the subject of a lot of research. But for now, we can only present you with good memories. I hope you can live with that.”
“Of course,” she answered and felt the cellphone vibrate in her hand. “It will be exciting. How long did you say you would continue with the dream dives?”
“That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about, over a cup of coffee, before she wakes fully,” he said when a door suddenly opened and a downbeat looking man walked out.
The man was bald with dark rings under his eyes.
“Oh, hello, Chris,” the director greeted the man and smiled a dazzling white smile.
The bald man nodded and continued down the hall to a coffee dispenser. As he passed Merle, it was as though time stood still. She looked briefly into his sad eyes that were filled with pain and emptiness.
“Let’s go into the conference room,” the director went on, taking her by the shoulder and guiding her away from the man. “It’s the next door. On your right.”
Shortly afterwards they heard a plastic coffee cup drop to the bottom of the dispenser and begin to fill with coffee. The director raised his voice above the noise of the coffee machine.
“Well, I know the price of a dream dive is awfully expensive but your mother’s mind is remarkably rich in spite of her advanced age and condition. There are many, many great memories about you and your family that we can get hold of ... but, of course, only if you think we should, Merle.”
Behind her the bald man turned in surprise to observe the woman he had just passed by. He very nearly spilled the hot coffee he held in his hand. Was it her? Was this the little baby from the dream?
Without them noticing, Chris watched from a distance and strained to hear their conversation. Just as he had done in the dream.
“Yes, well, I think we should go on,” she said. “The only issue is I have a business trip next week so I can’t be here if Mom has another nightmare. But otherwise, you can simply bring her back and forth from the care home as you usually do.”
“That sounds fantastic, Merle,” he heard the director say. “By the way, those nightmares are very, very rare – in fact, they’re not a problem for us at all.”
“That’s good to hear,” she responded.
“Yes, isn’t it? You just give your business your full attention. We’ll make sure to capture some unique memories from your mother’s dreams that you can watch on your return. Which reminds me. Have we spoken about our Dreamers Cut Edition?”
The director led Merle into the conference room. Out in the hallway, Chris stood stock still and listened.
As the door closed, the coffee cup fell from his fingers unnoticed and a dark pool of warm liquid began to spread across the linoleum floor.
Translated into English by Andrew Culligan