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Stolen Skies – Part Eight (Nanowrimo 2022)

We were never intended to remember our dreams. Ideally they let us process our day to day experiences through oddly muddled pastiche of memories and metaphors. They have that peculiar dual quality of feeling strange and affected in retrospect – like watching Nosferatu in your local church’s pantomime – yet during the dream it felt perfectly natural (even if the dream was shot through with curious emotional notes). Being gifted perfect recall of dreams while the oneirocyte integrated fully into our minds began to seriously undermine our sense of reality.

Gex, Scoro and I would spend as much of the day as possible in our cubes – working on the programme had ensured that our cubes were all together, and the cube complex was tucked away on the quiet side of the domed city, away from the manufactories and the processing portal. The latter was a kind of airlock that kept the cold, often poisonous air out of the city. It also kept out those luckless fuckers who hadn’t yet gained admittance to a dome. The compassionate pragmatism of the early days of the disaster had been profoundly strained by the logistics of the climate emergencies we’d been repeatedly plunged into. Cities had been closed up and shut down. Thousands had been taken in and found a place to live, but the nuclear winter and the environmental fallout of our englobement had left tens of millions on the move, choking through the hell we’d made our world into. We stayed as far from that end of the city as possible. The vast refugee camp spread a third of the way around the city, sheltering in the lee of the dome. We had lost count of our surviving population, but it wasn’t looking good. Vast programmes of work were directed at building shelters for those trapped in the toxic environment, even though its results would be too late for too many. A dense network of tunnels, old mines, drainage and underground carparks had become home to many more than could be squeezed into the cube habitats of any city. It wasn’t just that we wanted to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that none of this was happening – of course we did, we were in the fortunate group who had been ensconced in a dome when it all went to maximum shit, embedded in a programme prioritised “for the good of humanity”. Honestly, that sort of thing can make you into a bit of a wanker. It was also that the nature of our ownworld realities was sensitive to outside influence, certainly while the oneirocytes were still figuring out which part of our experience was real and comforting and which was imaginary and terrifying.

I was in the early stages of constructing my ownworld, selecting elements from both my recalled dreamworld, my memory, and my imagination. In the ownworld it didn’t matter which was which, I could create an underwater realm where I could breathe water as easily as air in the real world, populated with historical artifacts and talking furniture. If I wanted to… When Gex, Scoro and I met up in the evenings, huddled inside one or other of our cubes, we’d vape and talk about our dreams. Normally, someone describing to you their dream was invariably the most tedious of conversations – filled with private symbology and painfully banal details. What seemed bizarre and fascinating to one person was dull as the proverbial ditch water to another. But we were plumbing our dreams for detail, attempting to connect with those structural metaphors that our unconscious minds used and reused. They were the hooks that the oneirocytes would use to drag our unconscious dreaming minds into the real, conscious present, and allow our conscious awareness to inhabit our dreams. So, endless talk of why a particular flower, the height of a staircase, the ceaseless presence of a dark figure whose fingernails were teeth, were keys to forgotten memories and the underlying structure of our self-awareness was vital for us, though we’d have sounded like lunatics to others. Meeting together also served a few other critical functions: remembering to eat, for one. In my dream I’d feasted for hours, but in the real world I’d barely swallowed toothpaste, but my stomach’s expectations were being fed as much by the dreams as by reality. We literally had a checklist: have you eaten, have you washed, have you drunk anything, do you remember where you are…?

We’d become detached from reality, focused inward to the exclusion of all else. An alarm would shock me out of the half-dream semi-waking state that the oneirocyte had produced, wandering through a desaturated landscape in which I slowly grew marble trees. They grew so slowly, but they gave the constant impression of upwards writhing motion – a soothing, continuous winding. I’d lurch from that back into the somewhat grubby cube, unaware that I’d been pacing back and forth in the living room kitchenette of the cube, knocking papers and junk over. We learned early not to leave anything sharp or dangerous lying around after Gex somehow embedded a kitchen knife in her thigh and had spent the afternoon bleeding till our alarm snapped her back to the world, covered in blood and freaking out. These were only some of the reasons that the initial research had been lab-based, with observation rooms, medical staff and an enforced structure. It didn’t help that night and day had fucked off over a decade ago, and our circadian rhythms were only partially supported by having lights come on outside on a regular timetable. The oneirocyte’s integration disabled some core functions like paralysing the body while we slept, and that was going to continua to be a problem until we could access the switch for paralysis ourselves. Much, much safer when strapped down in a laboratory.

I staggered from my waking dream to the door – checking the list on the back of the door: “Are you dressed? Then go next door.” I was dressed. The dream and real were overlapping and I’d gotten dressed in my ownworld, generating a pair of white trousers, shirt and gloves there. Here, I’d apparently found analogue clothing in my drawers – scruffy, well-worn cargo trousers, ragged band t-shirt and my favourite  shoes. Close enough, and a seemingly trivial but significant shift In my ownworld development: I’d briefly inhabited both realms simultaneously. The extent to which that was possible was highly limited – I could walk forever in my ownworld, but unless I started opening doors in the real world, there was a limit to how far I could walk without falling down stairs or crossing a road. Theoretically, processing the dreamworld as a replacement for the real world was possible, but the variables between the two were so vast that this wasn’t actually very desirable. I didn’t want to walk into traffic while striding across my dream plain or explore an imaginary cave while climbing out of a fifth floor window.

Even in walking the very short distance between my cube and Gex’s, it felt like I was walking in two worlds at once. It’s impossible not to dream of the real world sometimes, and since the corridor between our cubes exists in both realities, I could feel them both. The corridor was at once short, comprising a dozen cube doorways and simultaneously a seemingly endless tunnel that arches off into the distance, rising high into the sky. I staggered a little with the vertiginous effect of dream overlaying reality and slapped my hand against the entrance buzzer of Gex’s cube. I was pretty sure it was Gex’s cube. It was Gex’s cube: she opened the door and laughed in my face.

“I can’t tell if I’m dreaming any more,” she laughed, “come on it. Scoro’s already here.”

Gex waved me in. She was wearing just an old dressing gown, it’s grey flannel wearing out along the arms, near threadbare by her wrists. Scoro was slumped in an armchair, one hand on his forehead, the other clutching a mirror which he was staring into.

“Fuck, I forgot the food,” I said. Gex shook her head and steered me toward her kitchenette where a stack of freeze-dried packages was spilled across the counter. Guess it wasn’t my turn after all. I took over the important business of shoving them in a microwave and gathering up cutlery.

“It’s getting worse,” Scoro said quietly. “I’m not sure if this is what I look like now.”

He was still looking into the mirror, a frown creasing his face. I offered him a bowl, which he accepted and three of us sat in silence, eating, making occasional eye contact and generally gazing about like stoned idiots. This was the most real part of my day. After eating we chatted about our experiences – like Scoro and Gex, I too was finding that the edges of reality had frayed quite badly, but we were all making progress in creating worlds that we could re-enter whenever we went to sleep. It was the bleedover of dreams into the waking world that was causing us problems. After finishing the bowls of noodles, Gex had cracked out a new box of zygoptic vapes, and we’d resumed vaping together. Harmonising, unifying. If we were struggling to disentangle reality individually, perhaps the zygoptics would provide a way for us to support each other.

“I saw a door today – in my ownworld,” said Scoro, “I didn’t put it there, and I don’t remember dreaming about a door just standing in the middle of nowhere.”

“I dreamed a door in my ownworld too,” Gex replied. “Wooden frame, black door. No handle.”

I’d seen that door too. Just a glimpse, between the marble trees as they wound their way infinitely upward. There one moment and gone the next.

“How did the door feel, Scoro?” Gex asked, leaning forward intently.

“Warm…” both Scoro and I said together.

“That’s the same door,” Gex said, “it kept shifting about – that’s how I knew I hadn’t dreamt it into existence. It was like being awake when the dream memories overlay reality. But in the ownworld it never feels like that – I’m laying out elements intentionally.”

“Agreed,” I added, “the oneirocyte can separate dreams from reality in the ownworld, but it seems to be struggling to do so in the real world.”

“Wasn’t this the point where subjects started to go mad?” Scoro asked, eyebrow raised.

“Well, yes. But in fairness, they went mad at every stage when it went wrong.” Gex reminded us.

Something was adding an element to all of our ownworlds – it didn’t feel dangerous. Its warmth felt inviting. It just needed to stay still long enough to be opened.

“What’s on the other side?” I wondered.

“Maybe it’s a symbol – maybe this is the clean break between ownworld dreaming and reality that we’ve been looking for, it’s a dream metaphor for dividing dream and the real. Next time it shows up, I’m opening it.” Gex’s eyes were gleaming – a shine from the zygoptics added to the strange sleep-addled states we were living in.

“Alright. Let’s all do that.” I proposed, “But let’s stay here tonight – together. We should be close, since we don’t know what’s happening.

We all agreed to that. Scoro and I went and fetched mattresses and bedding, and the three of us dossed down on the floor together. Mattresses pressed up against each other’s, hands loosely touching. We willed ourselves into the dreamstate for the ownworld, and the real world vanished around us.

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Stolen Skies

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