The curtained cubicle around me is bright and blue, and as my vision begins to blur and my thoughts begin to slow and turn toward a dreamlike cadence, the surgical light above the table begins to resemble the sun, hanging in the center of an azure pleated cloth sky.
I’m slowing down. I’m not dying, though. I’m not even injured. The combination of drugs and a modified Delta wave state controlled by an artificial intelligence synched with the simulation control system, and with the subject I’m going to visit, is doing its work, pulling me under into something like deep sleep, where I will dream.
I will not dream alone, however. Across miles of urban wilderness and what the world has taken back from civilization, of swampland and the growing deserts, and through a wireless connection that must pass through fifty or so repeaters in towns and cities spread over the landscape, is my subject. A forty-six-year-old woman who is dying. Who was in some sort of accident only a few hours ago. I never know what exactly happened until I talk with them. There isn’t enough time. Bandwidth is at a premium now, and what the Expository can afford goes to linking our minds together over the distance. If things go well, they will send a group in-person, but that’s never a given. The subject has to agree. It wouldn’t be ethical work, otherwise. The Expository is many things. Secretive. Sometimes extraordinarily frightening in what it is capable of. But it strives for a sort of impossible correctness, a consistency of relative moral weight.
They use to call them research labs or think tanks or what have you, but after the Collapse all of those that were funded by national governments either went under, so to speak, or ended up joining the Expository Collective. The ones that were dependent on for-profit R&D quickly found that science was no longer profitable, so most of those are now gone, too. There are a few independent university ones left, though. A combination of pride, distance, or a wariness of the politics of the Expository keep them independent.
I can’t see anything now. I’m still able to record these notes only because of the A.I. jumpstarting my consciousness ever so slightly every few brain cycles. They wanted me to keep proper lab notes, but I was never a scientist, not really, and I find that it’s better to do it this way, while it’s happening. I’m a storyteller. I mean, sort of. The Expository sends me to handle things that require a certain unorthodox or abnormal bent. Things that the meticulous or the rigid don’t handle very well. That’s a grandiose way of saying I get picked to do some really weird things that nobody else wants to try, or just won’t do. So, here I am, falling asleep, with my inner monologue being transcribed by the same computer that’s keeping my mind awake and aware enough to have it.
I hate this part. It always feels weird. You know that feeling when you’re in a nightmare or just having a really disjointed dream made up of memories or fantasies or what you had for supper? You’re having the dream, but you can’t move and you can’t wake up from it? You’re even vaguely aware of what’s going on in the room around you, even though your eyes are closed. But the dream stuff, like the snake that just slithered passed my head, feels absolutely real. It’s the in-between space where what your mind creates is just as real as the things you can feel and hear around you, except without a little nudge back downward or upward, you can’t even move or run away. This is right where I need to be for the simulation system to take control and manufacture a kind of feedback loop from what I’m dreaming and what I need or want to create.
Yeah, I saw that old movie, too. This isn’t like that. The point isn’t to convince anyone they aren’t dreaming. The point is to make sure that they always know that they are. And to leverage and control that for… whatever it is the Expository wants to do with this ability in the end.
SYSTEM NOTICE: STABILIZING CONNECTION
The world around me becomes a little less strange. The snake vanishes (where that came from I have no idea… not a particularly scary or menacing snake… just a snake that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in reality). And just like that, in a flash, I’m standing in a forest in front of what looks like a giant, toy, fairytale castle. It looks like it’s made of white plastic, the huge ‘stone’ bricks merely indentions pressed into the surface. There are purple rooftops and pink crenulations running along the tops of every wall. The sky is bright and the sun is shining. There are a few white clouds floating by overhead. It’s very warm. Not hot, but late-spring warm. It’s nice. And then the forest and sky are gone, the grass beneath my feet replaced with… what looks like carpet. Above the castle and myself is a stained ceiling and a giant ceiling fan is spinning. A three-bulb fixture hangs from it. One of the bulbs is burned out. Above the mountain that is a bed with an enormous brown comforter draped over it, along what serves as the new horizon, I can see water damage on the ceiling. I’m on the floor of a bedroom in what looks like a low-rent apartment. The air smells of cigarette smoke and breakfast. Eggs and… something else. And then the forest and sky are back, and then the bedroom again.
This won’t do. I’m starting to feel a little sick.
COMMAND: Decrease subject control by twenty percent, please.
COMMAND: Also, confirm integrity of recording. Is this being recorded properly?
SYSTEM: VERIFIED. RECORDING IS FUNCTIONING
COMMAND: Was the environment a forest or a bedroom for a longer period?
SYSTEM: … A BEDROOM
COMMAND: Reset the environment around the castle to the bedroom setting, please.
I glance up at Bed Mountain, and over toward what looks like a bookshelf covered in giant ponies. They’re enormous. I’m about the size of a plastic toy soldier, the kind that use to come in bags. I’d say I’m about three quarters of an inch tall. Pretty neat.
I’ve been in worse places while doing this. People like to believe that every mind is, fundamentally, similar and that when it enters a relaxed state it will tend toward something positive. That’s not the case. Depending on how they die, the landscape of this place often reflects whatever they were feeling when that happened. If they were terrified, then part of them is still terrified. I’ve been on volcanic plains full of monsters. I’ve been in mazes of… horrible things… while the sky boiled and lightning flashed overhead. Once I even entered the mind of someone who had… done some things he shouldn’t have done… and … you know what you can read the notes on that if you’re so inclined.
SYSTEM: WARNING! PLEASE MAINTAIN A CALM DEMEANOR – ENVIRONMENTAL INTEGRITY IS DEPENDENT UPON…
COMMAND: I know.
I try and fix my attention on the giant toy castle. It’s almost comical, just sitting there like a fortress from some story. I wonder if it has seen the love stories of plastic royalty, or fierce battles against hordes of… whatever it is this person thought should attack a toy castle. It’s a calming sight, though. I don’t expect to find anything awful in there. Maybe some toy furniture? A treasure stash of, what? Costume jewelry? Only one way to find out.
I plant one foot in front of the other, brushing the knee-high tufts of carpet from in front of me as I make my way across a smelly, stained savannah. An ant passes me and barely gives me a look. It’s about the size of a rat in comparison to me. Kinda cute, really. I fight the urge to pick it up. Best not to disturb things more than necessary until I’ve talked to whoever is in that castle. I’m choosing not to fly over the tufts of carpet for the same reason. I could, but it would put more of a strain on the system. I know damned well I shouldn’t be able to fly. My brain would either get lost in the experience or try to wake me up, which the system would have to compensate for. I’m not in any real danger, of course. (other than psychological). It wouldn’t do for me to have to reset this, though. Usually there’s only time for one try.
Whoever this person is, they have a fantastic memory, and quite an imagination too, probably. I’m almost certain they’re in the castle. Usually when people die from trauma they will take refuge someplace inside themselves. Sometimes, as I said, it’s a maze. Sometimes it’s a cave, or even a bunker. Sometimes it’s a castle that they probably played with as a child. Something that makes them feel safe. It’s difficult when they feel safe inside of a crowded place, because I have to sort out who is the real person and who they built around them for comfort. That takes ages, because the system can’t tell the difference, and sometimes I lose those people because I waste so much time sorting through their psychology to find the one in charge.
The drawbridge is down, though. That’s interesting. They’re obviously not too scared. They’re just… what… waiting? Someplace nice? Tucked away in a familiar memory. And, I have to admit, other than the obvious signs of poverty, this person clearly felt safe here.
I pass beneath the arch of the huge plastic doors. There’s a stylized icon of a princess at the apex. I’m almost certain she’s from one of the old cartoon movies that kids use to watch, back when they made those. I can’t remember which one. The Great Hall in front of me is also plastic. There’s plastic purple carpet running the length of the room, surrounded by plastic indentation lines and painted black and white tiles. There are scuff marks on the smooth plastic floor. From doll royalty? From the hooves of plastic horses? Who knows? Whoever this person is, they remember details, though.
There are picture frames on either wall, but they clearly aren’t part of the plastic castle. Some of them show scenes of a woman in a uniform doing various tasks, filling out some papers, running through the street in some city I don’t recognize. There’s an old couple serving cake to a little girl at what looks like a birthday party. There’s a man’s face, in another. He’s frowning and there are water droplets falling down the glass covering the little movie of him playing within. Carrying a torch, are we? Some of the frames are black, and the darkness inside them is spilling out around the edges, melting the frames a little, and deforming the plastic when it hits the floor. I need to move faster.
At the end of the Great Hall there is a doorway. It’s ridiculously ornate, covered in stickers of hearts and action heroes and the stains of stamps that look like animals. I walk through the doorway and onto a spiral staircase made, not of plastic, but of stone. Old stone that has been walked on a million times before. There are windows in the walls that make no architectural sense with relation to where the staircase is positioned within the castle. Sunlight is streaming through the windows and out of every one a different vista of some beautiful part of the world greets my eyes. It looks like the inside of a real castle, or a monastery, from… Europe, maybe? A remembered vacation, perhaps, or something from an old travel show. Who knows?
I climb the stairs, which seem to go on forever. I must have climbed forty stories and this castle wasn’t that tall. Cute. When I finally reach the top there is a room. A large, round room that looks like an apartment. There are huge floor-to-ceiling windows along one wall, looking out over what passes for the fashionable center of a contemporary city. I don’t know which one. Presumably the one she’s from, where she lives. Lived. In the distance you can see a lot of urban decay. Beyond that it’s wasteland. Trees and hills but tormented by storms and desertification. Junked cars and crumbling buildings.
There’s a sofa in the middle of the room, facing away from the windows, toward the doorway I’m standing in. On the sofa is a toddler dressed in a little police uniform. Complete with a tie and a little plastic badge. That’s gotta be her. The kid doesn’t look afraid. Just looks up at me curiously. I whisper a command to the system to turn me into a stuffed pony before entering the room. I have the weird sensation of having four feet and no hands. Then I trot over to the sofa and stand in front of the kid.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hi!” She waves and gives me a toothy grin.
“Can I talk to big you?” I ask.
“Why!” She folds her arms and makes a face. We really don’t have time for this.
“Because I have an important message for the queen of this castle, and I have to deliver it. An evil sorcerer turned me into a horse and if I don’t deliver the message I’ll be stuck as a pony forever.”
She considers this. Pokes me on the snout a couple of times, giggles, and then says “Okay!”
She closes her eyes and morphs before my eyes into a woman in her mid forties. Now she’s wearing boxers and a t-shirt, presumably the wardrobe of many an evening in this apartment. Her formerly long, stringy brown hair is now cropped short, and is darker, almost black. She looks youthful, but very tired.
“Hello, again,” I say.
“A talking horse? What the hell?”
“Oh,” I say, slightly embarrassed. “Sorry.”
COMMAND: Please restore my appearance.
“A science fiction talking horse.” She doesn’t look any more pleased than her kid version had. A tough crowd.
“It was the only way your younger half would cooperate,” I say. “And this isn’t science fiction. And I’m not a dream. Well… not just a dream. You’re dreaming, and I’m here, but you’re not making me up. I’m actually here.”
“Right. Who are you, then? I don’t know you.”
“That’s true,” I say. “You don’t. But, I need to talk to you and we need to be quick about it.”
“I think…” she says, “I think I’m hurt or… I was at work and something… where am I?”
This is the really dangerous part. I mean, sometimes you phase into these things and, like I said, it’s a nightmare full of nightmares, but you can usually find your way through all that and find the subject. The tricky part, though, is the part where you tell them exactly what’s happening to them. Some of them can accept it and roll with it. Others get really angry and rage or try to attack you. Some run away and you never find them again. Some go catatonic and quiet until time runs out.
“That’s right,” I say. “You were at work and you had some sort of accident.”
“Yes!” she says, clearly happy to be remembering details and to have the weird horse person believe her. Horses have this affect on people, you know. Especially, as in this instance, you’ve known the horse since you were a kid. “I was working a food riot and… we had just gotten everyone to calm down and they were even helping us to unload the trucks and… and it was starting to rain and… one of the crates fell from the stack and hit me and I…”
“You were hit,” I said. “And I’m sorry to say, you’re dying. It must have been a big crate.”
I know this seems cruel, to just throw it out there like that? But I’ve found that it’s better to figure out what kind of situation you’re dealing with. If I can get a clue about how the person is going to react, sometimes I can have the system manipulate the environment, so they can’t hide or conjure up some nonsense to impede me. It’s just better for everyone if I don’t sugar coat it too much.
She stares at me for a long moment, and then a couple of tears stream down her cheek. “Well… that sucks,” she says. “You said.. you said you were real and that I’m dreaming but I remember it happened and… am I in Heaven or Hell or something or…?”
“No,” I say, sitting down beside her, now capable of doing so in my not-horse form. “It’s nothing like that. We’re actually inside your toy castle on your bedroom floor, which, is quite charming if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“My… what? Why?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “you tell me. It’s your dream. Usually people pick somewhere they feel safe, though. I guess you really liked this castle.”
“I do,” she says, slowly. “I mean, I did.”
“You’re not dead yet,” I say. “But you’re almost there. I’m talking to you through a kind of dream state situation passed through a neural network that we’re sharing. Basically, we’re both having your dream together.”
She looks up, genuinely surprised. “That’s fucking cool… but why?”
“It is fucking cool,” I say. “And the ‘why’ is I’m about to offer you a lifeboat before you drown.”
“They can fix me up or…?”
“Nope,” I say. “You’re definitely a goner. Pardon me for being blunt but we don’t have time to dance around it. I don’t know the details but they don’t call me to do this if the person has a chance of waking back up. Whatever happened to you, it damaged your body beyond repair, and you’re dying right now as we have this conversation.”
“How long do I have?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s complicated. It’s not so much a question of actual time, because when you’re dying, even after you’re clinically dead, your brain sort of keeps on working as long as it has the energy to do so. You might have hours in the world, and maybe days or weeks in here depending on how long it takes for your brain to shut down. Time sort of stretches out, for you, just as it would in any other vivid dream.”
“Okay,” she says. “What does that mean, though?”
“Well, it basically means that you have a long time to piddle around here in your castle or in whatever you happen to dream about after I leave. It won’t be so vivid, though, because the system won’t be stabilizing your dreams, so you’ll just kind of drift through memories or fantasy or whatever until you can’t anymore.”
“That… doesn’t sound so bad,” she says, nervously but with more resolve than I expected.
“It’s not infinite,” I say. “And it might get worse toward the end. I’ve been in situations where the person I’m trying to help can’t accept what’s going on and I watch what happens near the end. It starts making less and less sense. Honestly? It gets a lot weirder and more chaotic and scarier for some people. It just depends on the person and which parts of the brain fail first.”
She starts trembling a little at that. “Calm down,” I say. “Don’t panic. If you panic it will happen more quickly and I might not be able to get your attention again. Just listen, okay?”
“Okay,” she says flatly. She’s trying to breathe evenly, some sort of calming exercise. I can’t help but smile because, well… we’re asleep so…
“What do I do?” She asks.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I say. “I work for a group called the Expository and…”
“Oh fuck,” she says. “No. Whatever it is, no! Absolutely not.”
I’m used to this reaction. The Expository has, after all, a reputation for… pushing the limits of what is possible and including people in these projects, to arguably varied results.
“Just, hear me out, okay?” I say. “Besides, it’s either that or you slowly go insane inside your own head, probably, and then die. You see that black stuff in the cracks?” I point to the walls where the rot, the nothingness, is starting to seep into the room around us.
“What is that stuff?” She asks, breathless.
“That’s how your mind is processing its own destruction,” I say. “It’s different for everybody. I saw that water stain on your bedroom ceiling before I came up here. You probably remembered that and chose it as some sort of symbol of decay. It’s your brain trying to warn you that something’s wrong, that you’re forgetting things, important things, and it doesn’t know what to do about it.”
“I’m fucking scared right now,” she says.
“That’s very rational of you,” I laugh back at her, trying to dispel the sense of doom I have just created.
“So, what are you offering,” she asks. “What is it you want me to do and how badly am I gonna regret it after I do it?”
Now, I want to just tell her that everything is going to be alright and that we have magical powers and we’re going to save her and nothing will be expected from her in return. That’s what I would do if it were my decision. But it’s not my decision, and I figure whatever they’re going to do with this technology later, with these people later, is worth my cooperation, if for no other reason than the opportunity to go and pluck dead people from the clutches of death itself. I mean, who wouldn’t do that if they had the chance? I know it seems callous, but once I did it the first time I knew I’d probably never stop. They might not even ‘do’ anything with these people. Some of these projects never go anywhere, and the Expository will keep them alive as long as they can, out of principle. So, I do what I’m supposed to do. I tell her the truth.
“The system,” I say, “the A.I. system that’s helping to stabilize your dream now, it can keep doing that indefinitely if we separate you from your body.”
He eyes grow by a factor somewhat more pronounced than would have been physically possible if we weren’t dreaming. She looks almost cartoonish, but astonished and a little alarmed too.
“You want to put me inside of a computer?”
“Well, no,” I say. “We can do some pretty amazing things, or… the Expository can do some pretty amazing things, but that’s still not possible. I know this because they tried. Most of the people they did that too are either insane versions of themselves or not responsive, or they’re in a sort of miserable hell, from what they’ve managed to communicate. And besides, they aren’t their original selves. They are copies. The ‘you’ part of you is intrinsically tied to the physical structure of your brain. Software and hardware, if you take my meaning. All you can do is copy it. You can’t recreate it someplace else. I mean, there is talk of using a kind of quantum entanglement to do the copying such that it’s the ‘same’ consciousness before half dies but that’s still being worked on and besides, if you ask me, that’s still just another copy. You leave something behind either way.”
The blackness is there, in the corner of my eye. It’s spreading more quickly. Things are starting to vanish from tables and stuff keeps changing around us. It’s subtle but the construct is collapsing. She must be very bad off if it’s decaying this quickly. I don’t say anything, though, because it wouldn’t do any good and anyway, she’s communicative and receptive right now and I don’t want to risk losing the precious few minutes we have left, or her turning back into a kid and forcing me to chase her around a melting castle. I hate being in here when they die.
“Okay, listen. Just let me get this out. There’s a nanoparticle solution, a kind of goo, basically, that we place your brain in. Yes. Brain in a jar. I know. Listen. We take your brain out of your head and we put you in a jar, but the nanoparticle solution includes tiny machines that act as transceivers that link you up to the system, so you basically feel the way you feel now, except better, and you get to control what happens to you in here. You get control over your A.I. system. It helps you, gives you whatever you want or need, helps you build things or experience things. Do whatever you want.”
“But how would I live without my body?”
“That’s the other thing the goo does. It changes nutrient compounds that we place in the… in the jar… into things your brain can metabolize. It also contains the oxygen your cells need to function. And it acts as your blood would, except you don’t need a heart because the tiny machines are self-propelled. They move around your brain in your capillaries and deliver what needs delivering.”
She is sitting there beside me, slouching, mouth open. “You want to put me into a fish bowl and feed me like a pet fish? And this will keep me alive?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” I answer. Again, best not to sugar coat it. And I’m not supposed to anyway, so…
“And it’s either that or I die, soon I’m assuming?”
“How long would I… I mean after, if I chose to do it, how long…?”
“Forever,” I say. “Well, for as long as the Expository is able to keep the jar safe and provisioned. And I’ve been assured that they will do that for as long as they exist, for everyone who chooses to do this.”
She’s thinking. She’s thinking it’s too good to be true, and she’s flabbergasted by the very idea of it, and she’s wondering what the catch is. She’s scared. She’s sad. All of it. Honestly, I prefer the ones who actually think it over. It makes me feel better about doing this for them. To them.
“What would I have to do in return? I don’t have a lot of money and I…”
I sigh and shake my head slightly. I shrug. “I honestly don’t know. They’re doing this for a specific reason, at least that’s the idea. I don’t know what that reason is. The only thing they will promise is that they will do their best to keep you alive, and comfortable in your new… arrangement.”
She sits there for a while, silently, fiddling with her hands, interlocking her fingers and tracing the patterns on the couch cushions. Very good memory. Incredible imagination. A very thoughtful person. Such a shame that something terrible happened to her, but on the upside, she has a second chance if she wants one. So, there’s that.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I know it’s a lot, but I need an answer. The sooner you decide the less the system will have to reconstruct to compensate for the… the rot. The more ‘you’ you will be afterward.”
“What the hell,” she says in a soft monotone. “I don’t want to die.”
I reach over and pull her head close to mine. “Good,” I say. “Want me to turn into a horse again to celebrate?”
She actually laughs at this.
“What do I do? How do we start or…?”
COMMAND: Give me one standard Afterlife Agreement, please.
A single page contract appears next to me on the sofa. I pick it up and offer it to her.
“You want me to read it to you? Or you can read it yourself. Reading will actually work here. The system keeps that part of your brain awake.”
“What’s the point?” She asks. “Like I have a choice!”
“You should read it, or let me read it to you,” I tell her. “You are literally bargaining for your undying soul. I’m not joking. This is serious. Once you do this they won’t let you die. Ever.”
She just stares at me. So, I pick up the contract and begin reading it to her, quickly but distinctly.
“I,” I look up at her, “what’s your name?”
“Christina Paula… Christina Paula… I can’t remember my last name.”
“It’s alright. It will be in your records. Even one of your names is enough.”
“I, Christina Paula, being now functionally deceased and having been made aware of this condition and my options with regard to same via ‘dream state relay actualization’, have chosen, without coercion or obfuscation, being fully aware of the circumstances and risks, to grant The Expository, its agents, or its successors, forever and in perpetuity, full custody over the physical substance of my functional brain, its tissues, or its non-functional deceased matter should the transplant process fail. I understand that my brain will be taken from my body and placed within a biologically sustaining enclosure, wherein my thoughts will be stabilized and assisted by an artificial intelligence in order to ensure my sanity and comfort. I understand that my personality and thoughts shall remain my property, in perpetuity, but that my physical manifestation shall be in the custody of The Expository, its agents, or its successors, forever and in perpetuity, and shall be subject to whatever non-destructive procedures, experimentations, or uses to which The Expository, in its sole discretion, shall deem worthy or necessary.”
“Well,” she says simply.
“Well.” I repeat.
“Do I sign it or…?”
“Just place your hand on the page. That will demonstrate your agreement.”
COMMAND: System, are you still recording?
In April of 2089, Christina Paula, in a dream she shared with me, on her deathbed hundreds or thousands of miles away, placed her hand on the idea of a contract that would save her mind from destruction, and grant control over her soul to the Expository. I kissed her on the forehead before they woke me. We didn’t say anything else to one another. What else was there to say? I had saved her, but we both knew that she still had an uncertain future. And what is a gift that someone is forced to accept? Is a hand reaching toward a drowning person truly any kind of altruism, or is it simply another expression of control, or the most basic expectation we have of humanity? And should drowning people need to sign a contract before you pull them from the water? And what would the Expository do with her? With all of them?
A few weeks later, after the next shipment of new… residents… arrived, I was standing in the control room, where they saw to the needs of System and where they could look in on their dreamers. On one of the monitors, a huge plastic white castle with purple rooftops and pink crenulations towered over a lovely enchanted forest. There were horses everywhere among the trees, and a dragon swooped overhead. Then, a few seconds later, the view was gone, replaced by that of another dreamer, an abstract place with unrecognizable laws of gravity or physical space. Not one of my recruits.
I stepped out and made my way to the elevator, took it three floors down to the blue cubicle room with the false sun, and went to sleep again.
– THE END –
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.