(published 15th January 2018)
Right now, I’m sitting in a queue about to have my memories erased, and soon they’ll be lost forever – such things are inevitable, I suppose, or so they tell me; but in these last few minutes, while I still can, I want to recall the day I first saw her, before it’s all gone; and when it’s all gone, as a common courtesy, maybe for the time being, you could remember it for me, on my behalf – at least until the moment comes when you have your memories erased too.
The day I first saw her, she was slumped by the window in the waiting room, her eyes half-closed, and at first, I thought she was squinting in the sun’s harsh glare – January was incredibly hot that year; but after I’d checked my notes, I realised she’d probably just fallen asleep. When I next looked, she was blinking, peering down at the garden, at its flock of raucous macaws in the banana trees, then into the distance at the livestock grazing on the rooftop farms over Sussex. She stirred when her name was called, and I watched her struggle to rise, then walk with a trace of a limp towards me. I smiled a warm ‘Hello’, because appearing to be friendly to patients was an important part of my job then, even though they often didn’t notice. She wore an empty expression as I guided her to the doctor’s office and, from behind the white desk, as the door opened, I saw Dr Alecto glance up in askance, and in a sharp tone of voice address her and say, ‘You again. What is it now, Theia? What’s the matter with you today?’.
Afterwards, I lead her back to the entrance of The Clinic, discussing what the doctor had prescribed – how it uploaded, how it interfaced and how to liaise with me should she have any issues. ‘I’m the Medical Technician assigned to you’, I said, showing my ID, and smiling; ‘I’ll be monitoring your progress throughout the treatment, mainly via telepresence, so please don’t hesitate to chat to me at any time, about anything’. She yawned in response, impassive, gawping into empty space as if I wasn’t there, then stumbled off into the stifling afternoon without even saying goodbye.
I know she went straight home, because, as I said, I was monitoring her. She ate, showered and went to bed early, attaching the device from the doctor in the way I’d shown, and within a short time, according to my remote observation feed, she was responding well to it. Theia fell asleep and, soon after, the programme began to run. A peaceful dream gradually sharpened into focus, revealing the fresh colours of an alpine landscape, with a lush flowering meadow and a turquoise stream, set against the backdrop of a crisp flawless day. I saw the images unfold in the dream as she did; I saw the whirling pairs of butterflies above the wild lavender, and the shimmering rainbow on the horizon. I heard the sweet trill of songbirds, and an omniscient voice, reassuring and calm, guiding the words of a sleep meditation. As she relaxed further, the scenery drifted, then gently faded away, transforming into the dreamless oblivion of deepest sleep.
In the morning, Theia’s vital signs all recorded as healthy; she’d slept without disturbance the whole night through, which was encouraging, although the treatment is nearly always effective the first time. I noted she had a good appetite for breakfast, eating a bowl of seaweed flakes and a whole moonfruit, and then she left for her job in centenarian care management. It was late afternoon when I received a call from her, whilst I was off duty, playing the guitar. On the screen, she looked revitalised, with much more animation in her face than yesterday, but she seemed agitated. I smiled, and said, ‘How are you?’, but she ignored that; instead, she questioned me about the side-effects of her prescribed therapy, so I reeled off the list, urging her to elaborate the reason for her query, but she just tutted and said, ‘I really hate having to deal with you’.
There was a silence, so I thought it best to fill it by apologising for any perceived flaw regarding my empathy, that I’d only been working with civilians for a short time. Again I bid her to please continue, and this time she did; Theia said she’d been seeing things, images in reflective surfaces, or in the corner of her eye, that mirrored the scenery from the dream, but with a macabre, frightening quality imbued, and, in some instances, the landscape had appeared to be on fire. ‘And that voice’, she said, ‘that voice from the dream – again and again, I’ve been hearing that voice all day.’ I asked what it had said, but she wouldn’t answer.
As we spoke, I searched through my notes on the inducing of deep sleep via brain stimulation, but I could find no reference to waking hallucinations as a side-effect; so, weighing the pros and cons, I decided to advise that the visions would probably wear off once a normal sleep cycle had been established, and that we should continue the treatment a little longer.
With a huff of irritation, she agreed to this – maybe just to get rid of me, so I said goodbye and left her alone. But I remained watching and I know how she spent the evening, what she ate, when she bathed, what she read, what she wore and I recorded when she lay down that night. And as she turned over and surrendered to sleep, the dreamscape activated again, slowly metamorphosing into view. This time, I’d chosen a forest scene for her, a clearing with shafts of mellow sunlight and ancient moss-covered trees. I thought she might like the fragrant pine needles crunching underfoot, and the sound of a woodpecker echoing from deep inside the copse, and the inquisitive red squirrels, extinct now of course, foraging amongst the bluebells.
Theia was responding well to the sensory stimuli until the voice-over script began, intoning a loop of hypnotic words intended to aid a soothing descent into rest. It was at this juncture that I noticed her heartbeat and pulse rate start to speed up, so I was just about to mute the voice in the programme, when something odd happened in the dream that, in all my years of monitoring people during induced sleep sessions, I’ve never seen before.
A seemingly random character appeared. A young man with a mass of curly dark hair stepped out of the trees; he was speaking the words of the voice-over script and, with abruptness, mid-sentence, he stopped. He remained motionless, as if waiting, and he wore a curious curving smile, as though he was aware of an audience. Then, as he stood there, at the corner of his mouth, I noticed a trickle of blood begin to ooze and rivulet downwards, dripping onto his white clothes. A fresh wound deepened in colour near to his temple and started to seep blood, spattering flecks of crimson across his face, across that strange relentless lingering grin.
At that instant, my attention jolted back to Theia because she gulped for breath in her sleep, and was trying to speak, trying to move. I aborted the dream sequence at once, and I know from her perspective, the dream world would have warped, buckling into twisted shadow, and she would have suffered the eerie sensation of falling out of it, falling into a dark fog, engulfed by the ear-splitting hiss and shriek of white noise. It took some time for her to regain consciousness, and when she finally did, she woke up coughing and spluttering, shaking and crying, her skin goose-pimpled with cold. In the gloom of her bedroom, again and again she refused to answer me when I tried to console her.
I wondered what to do; I debated whether to go there in person, but decided against it, since she’d clearly taken a dislike to me and would hardly feel comforted by my presence. So, instead, I watched her with a keen vigilance all night. She didn’t try to sleep again and when dawn spread across the sky, she got dressed and went out. She walked for an hour in the tropical gardens, which were visible on surveillance cameras, so I could follow her; then she came here, to The Clinic, as I thought she might, intent on speaking to Dr Alecto before the day’s appointments began. I saw her arguing with the automated receptionist on the front desk and I tried to intervene, because those stupid machines have an appalling lack of rapport with patients, but Theia told me to go to hell, that she only wanted to talk to the doctor and would wait however long it took. I tried not to take this personally, I really did understand her frustration; so I returned to my duties.
After a while, I saw her sneak up the corridor when the mechanicals weren’t looking and loiter around the doctor’s office. She finally entered unannounced when someone came out and, through the doorway, I saw Dr Alecto grimace at the intrusion, glowering with his usual misanthropy; but he relented and the door closed on them both. Obviously I shouldn’t eavesdrop on private conversations, but it’s easy to do so in my line of work, and I wanted to know what was discussed. Mainly, it was the hallucinations and the nightmare but I also heard Theia say, ‘That Technician is spying on my every move; it really gives me the creeps’, which was embarrassing, but I put it down to exhaustion on her part, because in a ragged, pitiful voice she then said, ‘I’m so tired. I think I’d rather die than always be this tired.’
There was a silence. Then Dr Alecto cleared his throat and replied. ‘I read your medical notes with interest’, he said, ‘you had a brain injury, didn’t you. In view of that, perhaps I shouldn’t have prescribed this kind of therapy for a sleep disorder’. There was another silence. Then he added, ‘But maybe you deserve everything you get’.
I heard Theia’s reel of surprise. She started to form a response, but the doctor continued talking nonetheless. ‘You killed someone,’ he said with matter-of-fact smugness. ‘I read the report – “asleep at the wheel”, it said. What a quaint, archaic term that is these days. How did you get access to an antique car, anyway?’. She didn’t answer, and in the ensuing pause, I imagined he subjected her to a scathing glare. He then said, ‘I suppose you still can’t remember anything?’
Theia muttered a reply. ‘No’, she said, ‘I…I have no memory at all of that night’. Her breathing was fraught, and it pained me to hear her in distress – it pained me to the core. I’m amazed at the inhumanity of the doctors in this clinic, who think they can behave without any consideration for people’s feelings, just because there are so few real doctors around these days. I deliberated whether I should feign an excuse to enter the room, but then I heard Dr Alecto sigh loudly, and say, ‘Well, he’s dead now, your unlucky passenger, and if you see him in your dreams, why not apologise for killing him when he next turns up?’. He dispensed a hollow bark of a laugh and then said, ‘Continue the treatment or don’t. It’s up to you’.
I was hovering outside the door when Theia burst from the room; she rushed off, then tripped over whilst leaving the building. A droid zoomed towards her to offer assistance but I swatted it aside with a kick, helping her up myself. I thought she might tell me to go away again but instead she grasped my arm and gazed at me with a tragic intensity, and for the first time, she looked me right in the eye. ‘I want to go back’, she said, ‘back to that dream – and speak to him. Can I even do that?’.
I thought about her question. ‘Yes and no’, I said, rattling off the reasons why we never advise the use of lucid dreaming programmes, as they’re very different from therapeutic dreams and can have unpredictable, even potentially dangerous side-effects if used without care. But she pleaded with me, still holding my arm, and in view of the cruelty the doctor had just shown, I felt duty bound to assist her. So that evening, I acquired some lucid dreaming software, although I made it clear I’d have to withdraw her from any scenario if she became overwrought. We talked for a while, chatting together; then she retired to bed and I watched her remotely, as before.
When she was asleep, bit by bit the lucid dreamscape materialised, at first a charcoal grey blur, but then it cleared into a starless night-time scene, dank and murky, with a crescent moon above, and a soft drizzling rain. We were at a dimly lit crossroads, in the middle of an empty road. Out of the gloaming, I saw the wreckage of a battered dented vehicle, old-fashioned and obsolete; and nearby, another piece of debris was smouldering, still with embers of flame. Theia reached out towards the car, opening its passenger door and, sharing her viewpoint, what I could see inside was a shadowy mass of a body, a young man with curly hair. He was slumped in the seat, unmoving; his pale face, with that upwardly curving mouth, turned towards the faint light. But then he seemed to rouse; he opened his dark eyes and he blinked.
Then something unexpected happened – my observation feed went dead. I tried again and again to re-establish it, because I couldn’t allow her to continue without supervision. After several attempts, I decided to manually withdraw Theia from the dream by hacking into her domestic service butler and ordering it to help me, but it was then that I realised she wasn’t actually present anymore. She wasn’t in bed, asleep or awake, she wasn’t in the bathroom, she wasn’t anywhere at home. I patched into the security cameras in her building, on her street, and searched, but I couldn’t find where she’d gone. I eventually located her by microchip ID tracker; she was at an isolated site on the edge of the city, at a crossroads, and, because my readings suggested she was unconscious, I alerted an emergency team to reach her faster than I could.
They brought her back to The Clinic, with bloodied feet and torn flimsy pyjamas, apparently having sleepwalked into the night under the influence of an induced trance. I knew I’d be in big trouble now, firstly for facilitating her actions and not supervising them properly, but secondly for involving myself in her experience rather than dispassionately observing it. But I was astonished to find I didn’t care; I only cared about Theia – about her needs, her wishes, her dreams, and that she was safe. I stayed there by her bedside, watching, until she was fully awake.
It was Dr Erebus who arrived to attend her. I usually avoid him, as he’s prejudiced and bigoted towards staff like me, staff who originally trained for combat in war zones; but I remained present whilst he spoke to Theia, discussing her past – the car crash, the night terrors and the post-traumatic stress. ‘Dr Alecto should’ve mentioned the latest option’, said Dr Erebus. ‘Amnesia surgery. Soon, everyone will want it done. You could have all memories of the accident, and the people connected to it, both conscious and subconscious, permanently removed. Then you could live in blissful indifference, with all the worries of life blotted out.’
As Theia contemplated this solution, I saw her face crumple; I saw her eyes flinch, then brim with tears, and even though it could’ve lost me my job, I felt compelled to shield her. So I blurted out that she was in no fit state to be making such decisions now, that she was overwrought, vulnerable and needed quality rest and why couldn’t he have the sensitivity to see that.
I thought he’d be annoyed by my outburst but, instead, Dr Erebus gaffawed to himself with oafish disdain. ‘It never ceases to amaze me’, he said, ‘how much you ex-military types think you’re actually a comfort to your patients. You’ve killed thousands: you’re the stuff of nightmares’. He sniggered again, as I reached out for Theia’s delicate hand, holding it with tenderness between both of mine as she wept. And, in a tone of ugly, cutting sarcasm, as he left the room he said, ‘What do you know about anything, anyway? Your thoughts don’t count – you’ll forget them when you’re next brainwashed. You’re under orders to care or to kill, and to do your duty, but you’re not real. You’re only a convenience, only a tool – wake up to yourself. You’re just a heartless robot’.
Aviva Treger was born in Hastings, UK. She studied History at UCL then later trained as an actor with Questors Theatre in Ealing. She’s a new writer, with three short stories published so far.
“Wake Up To Yourself” was published previously in England’s Future History: Volume 1: A Collection of Short Stories.