“…the very first thing you must learn is to beware of dreams,” the speaker said, “detailed dreams. Dreams that seem indistinguishable from waking life. Yes, especially those.”
Across the aisle, Julia crinkled her nose. Gray had been the recipient of similar admonishments these past weeks, so he didn’t blame her.
“It can and will reach out to you through all available channels.”
Gray wrote ‘eggs’ on his notepad, and then drew a square around it three times so it would look like he was taking notes. Artificial sunlight filtered through the picture windows. They were many feet underground, but the windows were dressed with suburban scenes for their benefit.
“Remember, you were not selected at random. We chose you not only for your expertise, but for your resistance to lucid stimuli. Please, if you notice anything at all, tell someone. There is no shame in seeking help.”
Gray applauded politely when the others did, but was off by a beat. Julia caught him at the door.
“You know a wandering mind is a sign of mental unrest?” she asked. He pretended to hit her with the clipboard.
The housing chamber turned out to be significantly smaller than the practice chamber. Their study subject, codename Morpheus, took up half the wall. Gray sat in the observation seating, little more than a group of folding chairs before the tube that bathed the chamber with a pulsing lavender light. The others were restless, he could see it in their nerving smiles and shifting seats. Once seated, the door hissed shut and hydraulic valves ensured it would not open again in a hurry. Gray clicked his pen and began writing.
The thing hummed with a throbbing, soothing rhythm. It was soporific. The others made endless trips to the coke machine, but Gray abstained. Soon enough, they were both jittery and jaded. Gray resorted to calisthenics.
Ten minutes before shift end, Gray went to click his mechanic pencil and it flipped spectacularly out of his hand. Gray got on hands and knees, but couldn’t see where the pencil landed.
“Does anybody have—” there was a black Bic on his seat already. He didn’t know who to thank, so he thanked the fellow sitting closest to him. The thanks went unacknowledged. Gray got back to writing, the pen moving with a fluidity he was unused to. Someone called, and Gray looked up to find the door open. Shift had ended. Gathering up his papers, he looked down at the last thing he’d written. He stopped dead.
The series of numbers was approximately half a number string he knew well. In an emergency, this could override the lock system and free him from the chamber. With numb fingers, he gathered his things.
“I mean, it could be something,” Julia said. They carpooled because her husband needed the car for his job. She snacked while Gray drove, little Japanese crackers that were individually wrapped. “But it could also just be nothing. They told us to memorize those things and tear them up, remember? I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”
“Yes but the man said—“ Gray changed lanes. “I just want to be sure. If there’s a hole in the wall I don’t want it to be me.”
Julia laughed throatily. “Alles klar, comrade.” she toed off her shoes and rolled down her window.
“I’m serious,” Gray said, “if it can get to us through our sleep that easily, make us forget what reality’s like—you know dream shorthand?”
Julia rolled her head, hand propped against her window.
“Your mind makes shortcuts. I didn’t even see my neighbor’s face because I didn’t pay attention to it in real life. You know you can’t dream anything entirely new?”
Julia rolled her eyes. “I remember that. If you see something unfamiliar it may just be peripheral data. Or you might just be awake, who knows?”
Traffic merged into one lane ahead of him. The black vinyl of the steering wheel was hot in the setting sun. He steered with his elbows while he dug out the sheet and handed it to her. She hummed high in her nose and turned the paper over when she was done with it, as if looking for a secret message.
“It’s all right there. One minute I was recording just fine and the next—”
He licked his lips. “Readings. You know. What they told us to do.”
“Readings?” Julia’s voice echoed back at him oddly.
Gray looked down. Instead of a steering wheel, his hands were on a black plastic panel of buttons where he idly tapped out numbers.
“—I’m telling you it happened,” Gray said, holding the door for Julia. “I dreamed I was taking you home—”
“Whoa,” Julia said, and laughed.
Gray reddened. “Your car was…I think your husband was using it.”
“All the way in Milwaukee?” She stopped before the next set of doors and peered at him, concerned. “Did you report it?”
“I’m about to,” he said. He bid her adieu in the next hall, she went on to the atrium while he went down to security. There was a single black-uniformed guard on duty, looking bored as he clicked through the security feeds. Gray hesitated, but forced himself to march up to the desk.
“I want to report an irregularity.”
The guard shrugged. Gray looked down incredulously.
“Did you hear what I said?”
The guard nodded curtly, not looking up from the screen bank.
“I have a problem,” Gray said, trying to keep the tremor from his voice, “I think it’s reaching me in my sleep already.”
“You and everybody else, pal.”
Gray stared open mouthed for a second.
“Are you serious?” he said. The guard sighed long and thin through his nose and plonked a clipboard in front of Gray.
“I’m sorry Gary,”
“Sir, if you could fill this out with your employee ID number and complaint, I’ll get right on it,” he said in a monotone. Gray snatched the clipboard and scribbled furiously.
“I’m having a hard time believing this,” he said, “is your department supervisor around?”
The guard, still looking at the monitors, shook his head. Gray felt heat gather in his cheeks.
“Well, the next time I see him, I’m going to tell him—”
The guard wore no name tag. His uniform was in perfect order, but there was no photo id, no nameplate, nothing.
Gray stammered. “Wait.”
“Sir, please finish filling out the form.”
Gray looked down at the clipboard. In a series of boxes too long to fit his employee ID number, he had been writing the number string.
Julia ran into him in the hall.
“Pinch me,” he said. Julia giggled. “Just do it.”
She did. It hurt, but not enough. He smiled.
“This is a dream.”
She slapped him. It hurt too, but it was more of an echo of pain, he realized, a memory where it was supposed to be currently occurring.
Julia was watching him. “If you want something stronger, I’m afraid we’ll need assistance.”
“I don’t remember going home last night,” he said. She steered him down the hall.
“I mean it. I don’t have a distinct marker between days. When did we start this?”
“You need something to eat,” Julia said patiently, “and then a buttload of caffeine.”
“See? You can’t answer me because I don’t know!”
She smiled pity at him while she punched buttons. A tiny cup fell in the receptacle of the coffee machine and filled.
“You want creamer?”
“I’m not thirsty. Or hungry,” he said.
Julia leaned against the machine, elbow cupped in her other hand. “I’m officially concerned about you.”
Gray pinched himself. It hurt. It hurt right then and there.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t think I’m taking this assignment well.”
Julia as still watching him. “Three weeks,” she said.
“You asked how long we’ve been working.” Her smile dimpled her chin. “Three weeks of pen jockeying, writing down random strings of fuck-all. Do you think they even feed us real readings?”
He had to smile back. “That’s not what I was hired to do.”
Her smile disappeared.
“I mean, I want to avoid going down that lane. If there’s room for questions, room for doubt, it might be able to pick at that crack, widen it.”
The fluorescent lighting made hollows of Julia’s cheeks. “Do you think it’s that strong?”
“Who knows?” he asked, “either it’s been getting me outside the facility, or it’s been fooling me into dreaming that it has. Either way, I don’t like the implications.”
Her smile came back. “Listen to you. Analyze everything that happens, even to the death.”
Gray got up. “I should. It was practically beaten into me.”
The vending machine hummed like a black obelisk in the corner, bags and boxes double-bright against the darkness. Did he feel like cool ranch or nacho cheese?
“Maybe you should get off the assignment,” Julia said behind him, “just a hunch.”
He chose potato over corn and input his choice. “Believe me, I plan to. I’m going to quit like it’s raining money.”
“Today must be your day.”
Gray stopped. He found he had not been entering the coordinates of the chip bag, but a number string. He snatched his hand away.
Gray set his alarm clock for six-thirty and rolled over. He was not tired, not even a little bit. Late-night television beckoned, and with a sigh he gave up and groped for the remote.
Something was wrong. The batteries were dead or dying, he kept pressing buttons and the light would come on but the television stayed off.
Gray stopped, and looked down at the black universal remote in his hand.
“No,” he said.
There was a line to get in today. Gray stood still as the people around him fidgeted, muttering about the holdup. Someone had abandoned a carton of Chinese food in the testing area, now the whole building was on lockdown. All Gray wanted to do was get inside and work.
He stopped short of the security door, his face reflected in the onyx glass, finger hovering over the security pad.
“No,” he said.
He was typing on a report. His hands moved almost independently from his brain. Gray looked only at the screen as he hit the keys, never misspelled. He made himself look down.
The keyboard didn’t match the words. There were no letter-keys, only numbers.
“No,” he said.
He was sitting at his desk. It was ten minutes to shift end and all his work was in the bag. He tapped his fingers rhythmically, eyes on the second hand as it crept around the clock face.
He stopped tapping. He made his hands into fists.
“No,” he said.
He was in the chamber. Julia was there. She stared with—was it passion? Intensity, certainly.
“Gray,” she gasped, “I love you. I love you. Please love me.”
He looked at the tank behind her. It was empty.
“You know, I never got a good look at you,” he said. Julia was silent.
Gray sat down. “I can always just stop doing things with my hands,” he said conversationally, “but you can make me forget, can’t you?”
It was back in its tank. With the shield up, the lavender pulsed into a rapid violet, almost pretty. It rotated gentle in some unseen current, deaf and blind and unborn.
“Has this whole thing been a dream from start to finish?” The thing pulsed with sympathetic radiation.
“You can dilate time, but this can’t last forever. And what then? They find me keeled over in my seat, you find another one? How many? Or am I really the only one? Is there something about me, specifically?”
Morpheus gave no answers, just floated in its liquid half-life.
Gray made fists of his hands, and then put them in his pockets for good measure.
“Well, I guess we’ll see,” he said, “we’ll just see…”