You know that feeling you get, right at the edge of sleep, when consciousness has slipped away and that long, dark abyss yawns open in front of you? You lean out over the maw and gravity, like tentacles from the depths, wraps itself around you. Then there’s that tiny little tug, that little yank, and you startle back into waking again, gasping for breath.
I’ve been waiting for that tug for months.
It feels like months, anyway. I guess it could just as easily be five minutes or five years. You start to lose track after a while, and there’s nothing in the long dark to ground you.
Sleep for an eternity, return before dinnertime. That’s the plan, anyway. Some new hyperdrive the big brains in engineering have cooked up. I can only pretend to understand it myself, but they’re sure it works; they’ve tested it on synthetics and the readings say they reached the Pleiades before their programs locked up and they had to be recalled. “Poisoned Apple,” they call it. And guess what they call the protocol that wakes you up? “Prince Charming.” Cute. Some geek was real proud of that one. We left low-earth orbit on schedule, entered hibernation with all readings normal. But something’s wrong. There’s something down here with us. Or up here. Whatever. Whatever this thing is has gotten into our dreams somehow.
I saw him not long after the sleep began, which I thought was strange. Usually, I dream of home. In fact, I was dreaming of home, of holding my kids and hugging them and telling them how much I’d missed them, Maisie with her uneven ponytails, Drew, missing two teeth different from the last time I saw him. Then they’re gone and there’s Baxter, standing next to the tire swing in my front yard, looking as confused as I feel. He’s bleeding from a cut on his face, he’s sweating like he’s just run six miles in the rainforest, and there’s this living terror in his eyes, like he can’t believe he’s alive. And he asks me — he asks me — if I’m real. Before I can calm down enough to realize that it’s a dream, I’m just imagining it, there’s this screech, like a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards, and these footsteps. Fast. Too fast, like one of those old silent movies where the action’s sped up. And Baxter looks behind him, and he pisses himself — I know, because I smelled it; I can still smell it — and he takes off running.
I wanted to chase him down, but you know what it’s like; it’s a dream, you can’t move, you’re a prehistoric mosquito trapped in amber.
Then this … thing spirits past me. It’s after Baxter, and it’s terrible. I can’t describe it, but every hair on my body stands up just thinking about it. There’s pure horror radiating off of the thing, and it’s all I can do not to piss myself in fear, just like Baxter did. And as it passes me, it lets me see one thing. Its eye. Slitted and seeking and the color of hellfire, it blurs through the dark like a shooting star, and it stays there in my mind. It goes on chasing after Baxter, but somehow its eye stays there, floating in my vision, peeling back the skin on my soul.
It knows me.
Don’t ask me how I know, but it knows me, from the things I did when I was a snot-faced brat in the third grade selling candy outside the lunchroom, to the affair before my divorce that nobody knew about, to my irrational fear of spiders. I can see all this written on my own face, reflected in that awful eye, and then it’s gone, and my front yard has burned away with it and left me in the dark. I hear Baxter’s running footsteps, but he’s not fast enough, not nearly fast enough, and then all I can hear is screaming and slicing and spilling and then nothing. I’m alone in my dream again, for now.
That was a week ago. Or a month, or more. Who the hell knows? All I know is that my only hope is that Prince Charming will kick in and wake us up before that thing comes back for me. I only took this posting because they say the windfall is going to be huge, that once they can show that Poisoned Apple works with humans there’ll be money coming out of the walls. But I think they’re gonna be surprised when they wake us up and we’re all dead, our minds turned inside out or roasted in our heads or … whatever that thing does to us.
Baxter’s dead. Soon I’ll be dead too. My luck, that thing will come for me as a plague of spiders. I only hope they give my kids a big payout to keep them quiet.
“The subject’s mind is a wreck. He’s a vegetable.”
“But he made the trip?”
“Well, his body made it.”
“That’s good enough for this stage. What was it that fried his brain?”
“Well… we can’t really tell.”
“What do you mean?”
“Right before flatline, his brain lit up like a Christmas tree. Fight-or-flight response, fear response, everything fired at once.”
“He hallucinated and scared himself to death.”
“I’m not sure it was a hallucination. Based on his cognitive scans –”
“What, you’re saying he really saw something that scared him to death?”
“No. I’m just saying, as far as our readings go, he didn’t imagine it.”
“Jesus. What was that?”
“It looked like a spider just crawled out of your terminal. Must have imagined it. How long before the next round of testing is ready?”
“Just a few days.”
“Keep me posted. I’m headed home. Too late already, tonight.”
“Sleep well, sir.”
Chuck’s challenge for the week was an X meets Y mashup. I drew “Nightmare on Elm Street” meets “Snow White.” Which is just oodles and oodles of fun. Good job, brain, working on this one right before bedtime.