Escape from Reality
Something was wrong. I should have been awake by now. I should have been back at DreamScape getting dressed, and settling my bill.
But I wasn’t. I was still in my dream, re-living my college days from years ago. I had wanted to escape my present reality. I had wanted to recapture that sense of hope from back then, that sense of future promise, a future filled with adventure, and love, and success. A future that had never materialized. At least not for me.
My real body lay comatose at the DreamScape facility, connected to wires, electrodes, and IVs. One IV dripped a measured dose of DreamFree, a psychoactive derivative of dopamine. The drug induced the dream artificially, an artfully crafted experience, a blend of select personal memories interwoven with computer-generated ones.
The company promised its clients an enjoyable time. Its slogan was, If you only knew then what you know now. Their patented drug imbued the dreamer with a mild euphoria, a feeling that every endeavor would be pleasurable and satisfying. When the drug ran out, the dreamer woke up.
That was the theory.
I tapped my wristband, my so-called DreamWatch, for the umpteenth time. Nothing happened. It was dead.
Of course the watch wasn’t real. Everything in the dream seemed real enough—one could touch the people and the buildings, hear the sounds and taste the food—but it was all illusory. The watch was just an image planted in the brain by DreamScape’s computer, like all the images the computer created.
When the DreamFree ran out, the dreamer suffered a mild emotional withdrawal from the drug. People in the dream seemed less friendly. Problems appeared where there was none before. Nothing tasted good or smelled right. Heartrate increased, as did blood pressure and body temperature. The dreamer subconsciously yearned for the familiarity of his real world, and wished the dream to end. As the experience became less comfortable, the imaginary time on the imaginary watch wound down to zero. Like a restless sleeper, the dreamer would wake up, naturally.
Except when he didn’t.
My DreamWatch had read zero three hours ago, just before it died. A rapid heartbeat and increased body temperature should have woken me, but my heart was calm, my skin cool. I slept on.
Dream time and real time were roughly the same. DreamScape’s standard dream lasted 48 hours, typically from Friday evening to Sunday evening. My current dream time was well over that. If I didn’t wake up soon, I’d be dead tired for work on Monday. But that wasn’t the biggest problem. In one hour they would terminate the dream abnormally.
I saw her across the quad, tapping her wrist. She was not supposed to be there. I walked up to her, my six-foot frame towering over her petite figure.
“Sarah? What are you doing here?” This was wrong. I hadn’t known Sarah in school. I should only be seeing people I knew during my college years, plus whatever make-believe characters the computer added. Sarah was real, but I had only met her a few months ago.
“I’m trying to wake up,” she said. “But this damn wristband thingy isn’t working.” She stopped, realization dawning on her face. “Tom? What are you doing here?”
“Never mind that. What about the emergency button?” This wasn’t the first time I had been trapped in a dream, but it was the first time I couldn’t wake up from one. Tapping the wristband three times should make a red button appear. Pressing the red button would trigger an alarm at DreamScape, notifying the technician that the dreamer wanted the dream to end.
Dreamers could escape their dream whenever they wanted. Once notified, the tech would stop the flow of DreamFree, and initiate a harmless alpha brainwave sequence to wake the client. I had used the red button in previous dreams without problems.
“I can’t get the damn button to show up,” she said. “I can’t get anything to show up. I’ve been trying for hours. I think the battery’s dead.”
“It doesn’t have a battery. The wristband’s not real. And mine’s not working either. It must be their computer. It’s not totally off-line, or the dream would have ended. The code must be corrupted somehow, with a virus or a worm.”
She frowned. “I don’t like this. I want to go home.”
“There’s something else wrong. Two dreamers can’t share the same dream. They said it couldn’t happen, that it required a psychic overlap.” Which was bad, but I didn’t mention that. “Besides, you’re in my dream, where you shouldn’t be.”
“Tell me about it. I’ve been here for two days with a bunch of strangers. This is the right school, but the wrong time. I don’t know anyone here but you, and you graduated long before I did.” She made a face and spit something on the ground. “Yecch. That gum tastes rotten. Look, I need to get home. I have to feed my cats.”
“We’ve got bigger problems than feeding your cats.” She didn’t get it. “I figure we only have an hour before they force-wake us.”
“What’s wrong with that? At least we’ll be awake.”
“Didn’t you read the waiver you signed? If they use a strong stimulant to force-wake us, there could be permanent psychological damage, maybe physical brain damage.”
“But what can we do?” she wailed.
I thought out loud. “Somehow our mental state in the dream affects our physical state in reality. If we can do something here in the dream to make our bodies change in real life, we’ll wake up—naturally and without harm.”
“How can we do that?”
“We have to increase our physical activity. We need to increase our heart rate and body temperature. Let’s jog around the quad a few times and see if that works. Are you game?”
She turned before I finished, yelling over her shoulder, “Catch me if you can!”
I tried to run after her but couldn’t. An invisible viscous substance enveloped my legs, sapping my strength, slowing me to a walking pace. It was just like a real dream when you’re trying to escape some horror, and can’t. I could see Sarah struggling as well.
“This isn’t working, Sarah. How’s your heart rate?”
“The same. Yours?”
“No change. The program must be getting more corrupt, letting in subconscious thoughts. Pretty soon it won’t make any sense at all. We’re running out of time.” I took a breath. “Listen, I have an idea. Do you remember the office Christmas party?”
“We agreed never to speak about that.”
“I know, but…”
“Look, I am not having sex with you. It only happened that once because we were both loaded.”
“But remember how hot we got? Our pounding hearts? What could be more stimulating than that?”
“Forget it, Tom. It was a one-off. A mistake. It’s not happening again.”
“Exactly. It’s not really happening at all. It’s just a dream. It’s all in our heads. So what’s it going to be? A little imaginary sex, or brain damage? The clock is ticking.”
In the end, Sarah agreed, however begrudgingly. We went to my dorm room and made the two-backed beast of love. We broke our embrace and collapsed, panting and sweating.
“How’s your heartbeat now?” I asked.
“Racing out of control.”
“Remember,” she said. “This never happened.”
We laid there for several minutes, cooling down, our hearts subsiding. Time was running out. Her jasmine scent now smelled like sauerkraut.
She sighed. “I guess that didn’t work. We should have woken up by now.”
Before I could respond, the light started fading—the first sign the dream was ending. As darkness descended, I looked at Sarah, her face distorting, morphing into another face, a familiar face…
I awoke to chaos. A fire alarm blaated incessantly. I squinted my eyes, protecting them from a flashing strobe light. An overhead sprinkler spewed out a shower of cold water. The room door stood open. Several people in scrubs ran past, paying me no attention. Peering through squeezed eyelids, I spied flickering computer screens, smoking and spitting out sparks.
I had an overwhelming urge to pee. Clawing off wires and ripping out IV’s, I rolled out of the sopping bed, bare feet landing in puddles. I staggered and splashed to the adjacent rest room. Everything seemed larger than before. The floor seemed closer.
I leaned on the sink and opened my eyes. I looked in confusion at the image staring back at me. It was Sarah. She blinked when I blinked. She touched her face when I touched mine. I looked down at my body, horrified. It was her body.
Psychic overlap. Computer malfunction. Our minds had exchanged bodies. I had wanted to escape my reality, and had gotten my wish. I would never wake from this dream. I would never escape from this reality.
Hysterical laughter drifted down the hallway from another room. A familiar voice. My voice.
Sarah was awake.
Writers’ workshop and writing group