The slight shock was what hurt the most. He felt just a small one, behind his left ear. If he took enough of the yellow pills, the sting might go away. But when he opened his eyes and looked around, he saw the same thing he’d looked at for the last two years. White steel bars and white walls, with no decoration save the black and white photo of his wife Laura on the nightstand. He really missed her. James slowly eased up from his slumber. He felt a chill in the sterile cell. He felt the pain of where the device had been plugged in. He laughed to himself. I had been the one eager to learn about this marvel of science, and look where that got me.
Three years ago, James started working for StoneCorp, a new corporation that specialized in the advancement of current technology. He was only a few years out of the Learning Center, and he needed a job to support his pregnant wife. So he took the Fourth-Level job on the processing line of the Dreamscape devices. He didn’t even know what the device was before he took the job. His first day on the job, he met Bruce Lassiter, the designer of the Dreamscape device and the head of the company. Bruce liked to personally meet and explain the device to new employees, even Fourth Level employees. That’s how important it was to him.
“Here’s how it works, in a nutshell. The device acts as a receptacle for the impulses your brain puts off during REM sleep. Dreams. They record onto this disc, which we then can play back. It’s like watching a movie of your dreams. Pretty fascinating, huh?”
“I’ll say,” James said as he bent in to take a closer look. The device looked simple, but he knew it wasn’t. A curved metal clamp attached to the back of your head and then connected to a small box with a disc inside. It all seemed too fantastic and unreal to him. He wanted to learn more about it and how it worked.
James had been in a dry spell before that job. He had been unemployed and his Learning Center dues went unpaid. That job was going to save him. He could finally get ahead. He could finally be somebody important. He’d been striving for that for years-to be more than just a low-level worker. He wanted to be someone who made a difference, not just one of the crowd. He looked at the device with one eyebrow raised. He just nodded and said, “Looks interesting. I think I can get to know it inside and out.” He didn’t see Lassiter’s slight look of concern.
He started the job with the enthusiasm you’d expect from someone eager to please and get ahead. He was there early every day, inspecting the devices and learning from the engineers the inner workings of the complicated brain scans that the devices did. His first Viewing came after he’d been there for six months. By this time he was thoroughly versed in the product. That’s what they called it: The Product for Peace of Mind. Their marketing team had decided that the Dreamscape device would be sold as a means to help people better understand their subconscious mind and their innermost thoughts, thus better understanding themselves. James had seen it every day on the line: the thin metal frame and the disc reader, connected and alive. He’d never seen it in action though. He’d never seen it used on a real person. He was excited to see it in action.
There was already a packed room full of employees for the Viewing when James came in. He took a seat in the second row, trying to look inconspicuous. He was curious, and hoped he’d learn a lot here. He’d been told about The Viewings so many times, he felt like he’d seen many by now. But this was his first live one. The patient couldn’t see James and the others there, due to a two-way mirror. The patient came in, and lay down on a white table. A nurse dressed in light blue came in and put an IV in the man’s arm as he lay there. Soon, the man was asleep. James whispered to the woman sitting next to him, “How long will we wait here? They can’t force someone to dream, can they?”
“Actually, they can,” she whispered back. “Lassiter designed these devices so that they can control when you dream. It wouldn’t surprise me if they could design what you dream, too. He talks about his wife Maria and the struggle she had with night terrors and anxiety. Go to one of his lectures and you’ll see. He says he wants to help others avoid the fate his wife had. She killed herself five years ago. She was disturbed and he felt that if he could understand and maybe change her dreams, he could heal the glitches in her subconscious. He never got over it. So he keeps designing this device to be better and do more. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.” Two doctors in long grey overcoats sitting in the front observation row turned and gave James and the woman a sharp look. He knew not to say any more. Although the patient was behind walls and couldn’t hear anything outside of that room, it was very still and silent while they observed. It was like no one wanted to breathe, except for a few whispers like his. James wondered to himself how they could make someone dream. But then, they captured dreams, so who knew what else they could do if they wanted to. It must be scary to be that powerful. He had always been afraid of power and what it might do to him.
Then it happened. The patient started to dream.
James stared, rapt, at the television monitor. He saw a young boy, about three, playing with his father. They were in a green field, just the two of them. The scene looked so peaceful and calm. James thought it must be nice to have such pleasant dreams. James always had lucid dreams, the kind that grab you by the throat and wake you in the night. His dreams were the kind that leave you in a cold sweat. They were the kind that he’d rather not remember but he always did. James feared his dreams. Then, as he watched the monitor, he noticed something that seemed slightly off. The father in the dream walked away, and the boy followed. There was a white doorway there, in the middle of the field. The father opened it, and it led to a long staircase. James found himself counting, One..two..three… and he noticed that the man went up twenty-two steps. The little boy called out to his father, and the father turned to go back. But now, there was only one step back, and it led off into oblivion. He had no way to return to his son. James felt a panic in his stomach as he watched. He felt his body tense. This reminded him of dreams he had had. The fear of losing someone he loved gripped him.
Just then, the patient awoke. He seemed to be breathing heavily, and was clearly unnerved. At this point the doctor near the mirror started speaking.
“What we have witnessed is the classic separation anxiety dream. We are all afraid of losing loved ones, of being separated from loved ones. In some cases, this may signify a change in our lives, or a stressful new situation…..”
While the doctor droned on, James found his mind wondering to Laura. He met Laura ten years ago to the day. He always remembered the date because he knew, from the first time he spoke to her, that she would change his life. He knew he was lucky. Laura had supported him through it all. The layoffs, the depression, even his addiction to those damned stress drinks. Those things were supposed to be natural and healthy, the advertisers said. They cured what ailed you! They helped you naturally get rid of stress in the body! They were organic! What a load of crap, James said to himself, almost out loud. He wasn’t thinking about the device at that moment, but he might as well have been. What they were selling seemed to be as unhealthy for people as the drink. It all seemed wrong to him, to control people’s subconscious. He started to wonder who he really worked for. He still felt uneasy because of that dream. He felt they were playing with people’s minds and emotions, and he felt they had gone too far.
James went back to his assembly line still a little bothered. His friend and co-worker Bob came up to ask him how it went.
“So? See any good dreams? Nightmares are the coolest. When I went, this guy dreamed he was turning into a skeleton, right before his own eyes! Man, Hollywood hasn’t been the same since they started marketing these dreams as movies. People love those reality shows, I tell you.”
“It was okay, I guess. It bothered me, in a way. It seems so….invasive. Like, ‘Here’s your mind, let me get in there and see places I’m not supposed to.’”
“You think dreams are off limits? I don’t know. Sometimes they can be harbingers, so maybe we need to study them more. Haven’t you ever had a dream that later came true? Or later, sometime when you’re not expecting it, something that was said or a moment from your dream will become real life. And you think its déjà vu but really, it’s the dream coming true. Hence the saying, ‘Dreams do come true.’”
“That saying is about people’s personal goals, Bob! Come on now. You know dreams are just fantasies in our heads.”
He didn’t want to admit it, but he knew Bob was right. He’d had that happen before. The dream was so fleeting that he hadn’t given it a thought after he woke up. But then he had that moment, where it was real. He had to stop and pause: Was this déjà vu, or all in his head?
James went about his day, and tried to forget The Viewing. He wondered why they called it that, like it was a funeral. But that’s what it was called when they all got to watch the product in action. When he got home and Laura asked about his day, he did something he never did. He told her his day was fine, nothing out of the ordinary. He didn’t want to tell her about The Viewing for some reason. He wanted to protect her. Somehow, somewhere, something was wrong. He could feel it. From the time he saw the oblivion blocking the father from his son, he felt nervous. It was just a dream that someone had, but he felt like Lassiter and his company were controlling people. He started to feel trapped.
The next few weeks passed, and more after that. There were Viewings, but James could not attend. He just wanted to do his job, get paid, and leave. His supervisors increased the workload, but refused to hire any more employees. James worked overtime. He tried to focus on his work, as monotonous as it was. He noticed one day, a pattern in the manufacturing codes. He kept seeing the number 2822 on the disc players. After a week of noticing this number, he was curious. He opened one of the devices while he was on his overtime one night. It was late, and he knew there was at least one other employee working late with him, but otherwise, he felt alone there on the quiet assembly floor. As he looked inside the device, he saw the control switches. He had learned that the control switches attached to your thought center. Product ad men had said that this allowed them to “guide” a person if he became caught in a nightmare which was affecting his heart rate. They said they would guide you to safety in the dream and bring down your anxiety levels. James had started to question this entire process. His instincts told him that something was off.
Two days later, James was called to meet with Lassiter.
“Mr. Lassiter has requested a meeting with you,” Lassiter’s assistant said, hurriedly, while throwing a folder at James as he sat on a break.
“What’s this about?” he said, loudly, as the assistant just walked away and never responded.
He felt tightness in his stomach. His anxiety increased when he saw 2822 come up on the next product, when he went back to work. He hadn’t figured out what the number meant, if anything. It was probably just a manufacturing code. Still, his sixth sense told him something was off. When it was time, he came to Lassiter’s office and poked his head in, knocking slowly.
There was no one there. There was just a big, empty black desk and a large comfortable-looking sofa. He took a seat on the sofa and waited.
These people, he thought, they do everything with pomp and circumstance, sit in large empty offices and make plans that affect all of us when what they ought to do is listen to those of us who work with these things every day. We have ideas for how to improve this workplace, but they don’t want to hear them. He felt agitated. He froze when he saw a file on the desk. That file wasn’t there when he came in. Maybe he just hadn’t noticed it. It had a file number of 2822. He looked up casually when he heard the air unit turn on, making a soft hum as it blew warm air on him. When his eyes came back to the desk, Lassiter was there.
“What the hell?”
He hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
“It’s alright, James. We brought you here for a reason.”
“We? What? Where did you come from? You weren’t here a minute ago?”
“Yes, I was. Perhaps you’re confused. Perhaps, too much stress drink today?”
The room had started to feel very warm to James. He was confused and this made him very nervous. One minute, he’d been alone, and the next, Lassiter was there. He felt like he was being toyed with or tested. Was he seeing things? Dreaming? He felt like a rat in a cage. He felt trapped again.
“No. I haven’t had any drinks today. I’ve been doing my job as normal. Why am I here?”
“We feel you’ve been investigating the product.”
“Who is WE? I come in, I do my job. That’s it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
James knew it was a lie. He had been disassembling and studying the devices for weeks. He had become more of an expert than he ever thought he would. His heart started to race inside his chest as Lassiter just stared at him with a calm yet ominous expression. James thought about Laura and tried to relax. But he got even tenser as he thought of her. What if they tried to hurt her? He also worried about his financial security. He felt he might be blowing this chance at a stable job. Something was wrong here in this company, and he wanted to know more. He only felt it once, the sting. And then, blackness.
“Take him for testing,” Lassiter said to his assistants in grey. “Call me when he breaks.”
James was home. Laura was there, calling him from the bedroom. Laura. He smiled and headed in. When he got there, she was on the bed, laying down, undoing her blouse.
“Laura,” James could barely get it out. He was so happy to see her. He went over and lay on top of her, helping her undress. He felt her touch, her warm, comforting touch, and he knew he really WAS home. He kissed her shoulder lightly. He stopped. Something was wet. He felt drips falling on his face and neck. It was raining. They were inside. He looked up. No sprinklers, no fire alarms. When he looked back down, he saw a pool of red; it was her water mixed with blood. Laura was pale and lifeless. He stared in horror as he saw her, in his arms, the pool of blood from a wound in her stomach.
“I’ll get help!” he screamed, as he left the bed and looked around for a phone. He saw nothing but a white door. He turned back for Laura, but she was gone. The bedroom was gone.
“This is a dream!” he yelled. He knew from his dream study that once the lucid dreamer is aware of the dream, and says so in it, he or she will wake up immediately.
But he wasn’t waking up. He was still at the door. He was wet from the rain, and his shirt still smelled like Laura. Tears welled in his eyes as he thought of her there, lifeless. It’s okay, he said to himself. This is just a dream. Maybe they’re recording this, those bastards. They must have plugged up that damned machine to me. I never agreed to this.
“I want OUT!!!”
Maybe if I yell enough, they’ll tire of it and let me wake up. How can they do this? Make me dream?
“Worse yet, they’ll make you remember.”
It was a deep voice, a man’s voice that said it.
He turned, and saw a man in grey at the door. The man had on dark glasses, and appeared to James almost like a robot in his mannerisms. This man opened the door. Seeing that he had no choice, James went to the threshold. He saw a long staircase. Without counting, he knew there would be twenty-two stairs. And only one stair back. He sighed and started climbing. He WAS curious to see where it led. If he was going to be forced into a dream, he wanted to try to understand the dream and why it was happening.
But what he saw at the top of the stairs, he could never understand. He saw two couples there, one him and a blonde-haired woman, and one Laura and a dark Latin man. Laura seemed entirely uninterested in James. In fact, she seemed not to know him. He saw that her stomach was bulged. She was pregnant! James turned to leave, but there was nowhere to go. He sat down where he was, and sobbed silently. Laura had lost their baby not long after he started this job. Ever since then, he’d tried to be her rock. He’d tried to be the support she needed. He felt it was his fault, somehow.
“Good. Emotions come across well for us.”
The man in grey stood over James. He couldn’t take it any longer. James bolted up for the man, grabbed his collar, and slung him to the ground.
“You bastard! What is this? Some kind of game to you people? You have no right!”
Before he could say or do any more, he was alone. He felt warm sand beneath his feet and smelled the clean ocean air. It was a white beach, with pure white sand. He picked up a handful and ran it through his hands. It felt soft and smooth. He smiled at the sensation.
“Try to get out, James. They want a robot. Don’t let them win.”
It was Laura’s voice, and she seemed distressed. He didn’t know what to believe. He felt he was being manipulated, and he had no way out. A wave crashed the beach and covered him. He was underwater now, but he could breathe. His heart stopped racing, and he felt calm, so he breathed. He inhaled deeply. How nice, to be able to breathe when I should be drowning, he thought. Life seemed kind of like that to James sometimes. Just when he thought he was drowning, he found a way to breathe. You’re stronger than you think, he heard his mother say. He closed his eyes and slept. How do you sleep inside of a dream? It’s hard to say, but you do. You sleep calmly and deeply, and you’ll never be disturbed. You’re in part of that otherworld now, looking at a tiny part of life through the eyes of God.
He woke with a start. He felt the cold metal on the back of his head. He saw the TV monitor. He turned his head to the right and saw the mirror. His hands were strapped in with restraining equipment.
“Hello? Why are they doing this to me? I didn’t ask to be a part of this! I just wanted to do my job!”
“Then you shouldn’t have tried to learn so much more, “a distant male voice said. James thought it was Lassiter’s, but he couldn’t be completely sure.
The nurse in blue came in and spoke with a soothing tone.
“It’s okay, Mr. Coughlin. You’re okay now. We had to restrain you for fear you’d hurt yourself. I’ll just take those straps off now.”
She took off the straps and James sat up. The door was wide open for him to leave. When he got off the table, though, he felt weak. He couldn’t make it to the door without help. He grabbed the nurse hard by one arm.
“You’re going to lead me out of here. Now. Past the security guards, past the doctors. Out to the street.”
“Okay, Mr. Coughlin. We’re not your enemy here. We’ve been trying to help you.”
“Help me?? Is that what they call this? ‘Help?’ Well, thanks, but no thanks. I didn’t do anything wrong and don’t want to be a part of any tests.”
As he said it James felt a wave of concern. What about Bob and his other co-workers? Who knows how many they’ve done this to? He had a desire to help them. But then he saw the number 2822 on the nurse’s armband.
“You can’t help them, James.”
It was Laura’s voice again. She was his voice of comfort. He couldn’t see her but he heard her. He realized that he must still be in the dream. Laura had never met any of these people. She was on his mind every day. Maybe they tapped into his memories somehow, and created these dreams to terrify employees who questioned. He had questioned from the time he saw a Viewing. Maybe this was a plan to brainwash all of the employees with a few nice memories and a few impossible scenarios. He felt he was slowly losing his mind. If he saw that number again, he just might. The nurse was gone, and he saw his friend Bob walking up the hallway. James stood there at the door just outside of the patient area for testing.
“Bob! They got you, too? What can we do to get out of here?”
“Shhhhh!” Bob said, as he hurried up to where James was standing. Bob handed James a note. It read, “They can see us, and they’re recording. At midnight, the guard changes and we can talk.” James read it fast and stuffed it in his pocket. He hoped they hadn’t read. Bob walked away and was gone as soon as he had come. James felt apprehensive. What could they do? They seemed to be under the control of their employers. How do I tell time here? James wondered. He didn’t have a watch. He wasn’t sure how he knew it, but when midnight came, he knew it was time.
James met Bob and a few of the others (he was surprised how many) in an empty room. How he got there, how they all got there at the same time, James didn’t understand. Bob saw the puzzled look on his face.
“If it’s on your mind enough, you can will yourself to a certain place in dreams. We’ve been trapped here too. We think we know a way out though. Lisa discovered that if we follow the numbers, they’ll lead us out. They’ll help us wake up.”
“What do they all mean?” James asked, still confused.
“The number 2826 seems to be the key,” Lisa chimed in. “Follow that number and you’ll wake up. At least, we think that will work. We haven’t actually tried it. We’re afraid it might do the opposite, and put us in a coma. But we’ve seen it only on people that are alive, and not trapped here. 2822 is the Corporation’s number. You’ve probably seen it on all of the devices. People you see with that number are already under their control. 2820 appears on those who are no longer with us.”
James didn’t have to think long on it to know what he had to do.
“I’m willing to take the risk. I’m going to follow that number, if I can. I can’t be trapped here forever. Who knows how long this little experiment is meant to last. Who knows how long we’ve been asleep? It’s driving me crazy being here. It makes no sense here.”
And with that he left the group. The others called after him, but he shut them out. He just wanted to get back to reality. When he saw his sister in the doorway of their house, he ran to her. At last, he thought, a way out! Kendra was alive, in the real world. But so was Laura, and he’d seen her before, dead. He put this thought out of his mind. He came up to Kendra and started to speak. He smiled when he saw the tattoo of 2826 on her arm. It’s like they’ve all been branded, in a way, he thought. James took Kendra’s arm and he started to wake up. Just before he woke, he saw Laura running for the doorway. She was saying something, and seemed rushed and distressed. He couldn’t hear her this time, but he saw a tattoo on her arm. It read 2820.
James woke and sat up. He wasn’t sure this was real either, until the doctors came in and started talking in medical-speak while showing James his dreams on the monitor. They acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He saw the meeting with Bob and the others. And he saw Laura. He also saw the grim look on the doctors’ faces.
“What is this? I’m going to sue you all for every dollar this company is worth! You can’t just mess with a person’s mind like this!”
“Mr. Coughlin, we urge you to remain silent. You may wish to consult your lawyer for more serious reasons than to sue us.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Mrs. Coughlin was found dead this morning in your home. She had a wound to the stomach.”
James could not believe what he was hearing. His heart started to race. He felt as if he might explode. How could this happen? Who did this? They had to be wrong.
“Who did this? How?”
“The authorities are on their way, Mr. Coughlin.”
“What? I’m being charged? With what? I was here, remember? Check your tapes!”
“Our monitors show that you were led in for the test at eleven o’clock. Mrs. Coughlin appears to have been dead for at least five hours before that time.”
“Led in? What? I was drugged, and forced into this ‘test’! I’ve been here with you while someone has attacked my wife! I need to go.”
James headed for the door, determined to leave. He was stopped abruptly by the security team. He never made it to see Laura that last time. He was interrogated, tested, the tapes were played, and he was sentenced. They had evidence, they said. Undeniable evidence, like his fingerprints and DNA on her neck. He had tried to get a lawyer to help him, but he lost. His sentence: To be a test subject for StoneCorp’s Dreamscape device. StoneCorp had control of more than people knew. To James, this was a fate worse than a death sentence. With this sentence he knew, even when he woke for real, he’d just be back in that dream world the next day.
As he walked the long corridor to his cell, James marveled at how clean everything was. It was an immaculate place, with not a single particle of dust to be seen. As he passed the testing cells, he saw Lisa, and Bob, and Joel, and countless other co-workers. They looked peaceful, in their slumber. James knew they were anything but peaceful. He passed each day, on his way to the Transition Center. Part of his particular sentence, since he’d been “involved” in a murder, was to take Transition Therapy. He told them every time what he saw in his dreams and how he had no memory of ever leaving, of ever hurting Laura. It just wasn’t in his nature, he kept telling them. They stared solemnly at him and took notes on a clipboard. They rarely said anything back. He felt like he was talking to the walls. So he went by every day, and eventually he didn’t see Bob anymore; he figured they got him to crack entirely and he was gone. No one could tell James where the lost ones went. Eventually he stopped asking.
The slight shock was what hurt the most. Just a small one, behind his left ear. Not just the shock of the device, but the shock inside of him, as he realized he was in a place he couldn’t get out of. He could go in circles here all day. If he took enough of the yellow pills, it might go away. But when he opened his eyes and looked around, he saw the same thing he’d looked at for the last two years. White steel, with no decoration save the black and white photo of Laura on his nightstand. That photo was all he had of her now. His memories were starting to fade as the dreams were forced on him and he couldn’t remember what was real and what was a dream anymore. He saw numbers all the time, everywhere. This was his nightmare. But he had a plan, in the remote part of him that still could make sense of it all. They didn’t know it how much he had studied this device, and he thought he could come up with a crude yet effective counter-programming device. He reached for his notebook, hidden in a crevice behind the bed. He looked at his plans and smiled.
The guard came around, checking the cells. James quickly shoved the notebook under the bed to the back, to his hiding spot. He smiled as he thought about his etchings there.
“Fearscape: They’ll be sorry!” He knew he’d be free one day. He just knew it……
Illustrations by Joshua Scappaticci
Find more of his work at @scappaticciart