I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

8. Deceit

Well, there went Chase’s credibility. We piled up at the inner door like fire victims outside a mislabeled “Exit”. I could feel what the others were thinking. They suspected Chase of holding the sides of the doorway to prevent them from escaping; I knew he was clinging for dear life; to keep himself vertical. I would be willing to bet that he had never, in fact, seen the insides of this room before. Maybe he told the truth about being fired. For a ringer he seemed strangely not in on the joke. Corso doubtless played his cards close to his chest. Had he cleverly secured a helper the rest of us distrusted, one with no actual idea what was going on?

“Where are the sensors?” asked Chase.

I thought he meant, “censors” and I looked around for people. But Corso, ignoring his assistant teased the rest of us. “Too late now,” he bellowed hollowly in mock movie-villain-tones. “Enter. Consider yourselves committed.”

We undulated shyly into the inner sanctum and nervously appraised our surroundings.. Dr. Corso was in his element; his polished head and magnificent hooked nose glittered like beetle’s armor beneath the Battlestar Galactica lights. Had this room originally been a planetarium? I get headaches when I attempt to recognize constellations. Safer to assume we’d broached a brand new universe.

Over his shoulder Corso shot me a secretive glance of exaggerated surprise; surprised by my surprise. Of course everything he did was exaggerated, but I felt he singled me out too obviously to be his teacher’s pet. I shivered away from this undeserved, undesired acclaim, hoping the others were too dazzled by our brave new world to cotton to it. Projecting
at the same time power, calm and ill-suppressed glee, Corso bellowed out a deep, low laugh as he dumped his books upon the table.

“Center yourselves, children. Time’s a-wasting.” His professorial self he brusquely knuckle-thumped the volumes. “I have assembled quite a classical dream library for my little oneironauts,” he told us. “Aristotle, Freud, Jung, Artemidorous, the Atharva Veda. Feel free to avail yourselves at any time. Just don’t keep them forever.”

Not what we’d imagined, it did not resemble a lab of any kind. Six armless padded recliners – more futon than daybed – were arranged in a circle like petals ofa flower, about a foot offthe floor occupied the center of the room. At their heads – in the center of the circle – was a smoky blue glass chalice on a metal tripod. The floor was padded in the same blue vinyl.
“A padded cell,” said G-Rad. “My parents always warned me this was where I’d end up.”

“It was either that or strap you in,” said Corso. “God forbid you should fall in the throes of a dream, hurt yourselves and sue the collective asses offthe institution that gave your intellects birth. People are so litigious nowadays. And I admit I did not feel that bound subjects would respond with the freedom that I require. That’s something that makes me different from all your previous pedagogues. They prefer their novices in harness.”

Zane’s comment was, “What’s with the disco ball?”
Chase repeated, “Sensors. Where?”

Corso raised up his hands as if fending us off. “Such demanding guinea pigs! One at a time,” unwound his tattersall scarf and draped his Burberry over the back of an executive chair that sat before a starship control panel.

He responded first to Chase. “The suits themselves are wired. State- of the art I assure you, and delightfully non-invasive in my opinion. Everything will be filmed to maintain a perfect record.” He gestured at the black glass bulging semicircle above us from the ceiling. That was Zane’s “disco ball”. “Behold the eye of history.”

Yet another abyss looking back at us – into us? I joined the shrieking “guinea pigs” with my own question, “Is there anybody watching?”

Corso’s eyes crinkled with a stifled giggle. I could feel him playing the “Chase game” with me; trying to get the others to question our relationship. Damn his eyes.

“In the multiverse?” he teased. “There are those to whom an empty universe is abhorrent and there are others who absolutely require one in order to feel of any personal importance. Will the nobodies ever become somebodies? Let that be a question for another time and another class.

Don’t be paranoid, Miss Suzino. If it’s being filmed that bothers you, please remember that most of modern life nowadays is recorded. You gave permission, not that I needed it. We are usually rambling from the purview of one camera into that of another. I think myself that it is very good advice to live one’s life as if watched by a thousand eyes. Iwishyouto concentrate on mine as the most important eyes. Time to suit up, dream team. Let the oneirotherapy begin.”
Sorry I spoke.

“Suits?” echoed Koo and Soliz together, joined for once in an equivalent distaste.

Corso gestured over his shoulder. “Fashion was the last muse to be consulted. Sorry, children. We are simple beginners. We must dream before we can fly! At the edge of the room you see a boys’ locker room and girls’ locker room. Nothing fancy. But do get going. We all have packed and demanding schedules. I personally am always required to be in at least two places at once. Chop chop.”

Making no further effort to direct us, he plugged in an electric kettle, punched in another keycode, flipped switches and checked light levels. The starship was ready to depart. With me or without me.
I drifted towards the door marked “Women.”

As soon as the door closed behind us we three girls fell into fits of nervous giggling.
“I think we bit off more than we can chew,” said Soliz.
“There’s a disgusting metaphor,” I choked.

“Oh, My God,” moaned Koo, “Look at these horrible things! One size does NOT fit all! And I think they’re spandex.” She panted in distress like an animal. “I am going to get so sick.”
The suits were purple with little spiral silver designs. Even I blanched, and I once worked for a restaurant that dressed me up as a squid.

“Four alternates,” hissed determined Soliz, whose determined ancestors had probably stormed castles, armed only with scythes.

I had to respond to the challenge, so, not for the first time, my body did one thing while my brain did something else. Does getting sick cancel out the pretty? I wondered. Then I gritted my teeth and slid the damn thing on.
“Why purple?” I moaned, why couldn’t he choose camouflage? Maybe then I’d sneak unnoticed out of here .

“Would basic black make it any better?” asked Koo.
Soliz, standing stark before us, confidently revealed unpruned nethers and barbed wire tats. “Come on. We all knew this was too juicy a gig. It was bound to turn nasty at some point. Bait and switch is like the fourth law of thermodynamics.”

“Thank God for daydreaming,” sighed Koo. “When you’ve absolutely got to be anywhere else but here.”

My soul rebelled at the fourth law. Not to mention the fifth law, which says “One size fits all” means baggy on Koo, tight on Soliz and “just right” on yours truly, Baby Bear. What fresh hell? Was this why Corso picked me, like I’m a “perfect sample size?” Never have been before.
His voice ringing through my head answered, too late, like Poe’s damn bird. Suck it up and walk it off. Whether I liked it or not I was a silver and purple starship warrior. All for lack of a bit of scratch. I sighed noisily.

Koo, overwhelmed by purple, mimed the robot dance until we all cracked up. Bondage exercise, indeed. She pulled extra fabric way out in front. Pregnant robot. “Just when I got to be a size zero, too,” she said.

“A size zero?” barked Soliz. “How can there be such a thing?” Poor innocent. I didn’t tell her there are negative sizes, enticing us to be “less than” from birth.

“ Why not club your feet into a perfect lotus?” Once again we faced off as strangers. Just when we were getting along so well, too!

“Let’s not fight,” I suggested. “Stay together in case we have to mutiny.”
“Aye, aye,” said Koo. “Let’s force Corso to wear this thing –” “And make him walk the plank,” said Soliz.

We erupted into such hilarity we had to hold each other up. I was starting to like Koo. She’s not so bad. She’s like those scrappy little dogs that come with a designer purse. I mean, it’s not their fault they look like vermin. And I would like Soliz too – if she wasn’t so prickly-smart. And if I weren’t so scared of her.

“Omigod,” hissed Koo, trying to pull herself together, “You think we’re on camera now?”
“He was watching us before,” said Soliz. “It’s a safe bet he’s always watching us.”

Was Hadleigh rigged with cameras? Corso and Bex should get together, then they’d possess all of me. “There’s a law that says you can’t film dressing rooms.” I asserted weakly. “At least there was at the mall where I worked.”

“We’re guinea pigs now,” said Soliz glumly. “All bets are off.”
“Ladies, we are waiting.” Corso’s cross voice outside the door.

We walked out together, arm in arm, buoyed by our chance of mutiny if things got scurvy.
Things scurvied almost immediately. The men were in silver, huddled close as they dared to the men’s room door in case it turned out Corso was only pranking us. They looked at us clearly relieved to see they weren’t the only idiots.

“Silver’s better,” I protested. ”No fair.”
“Danger, Will Robinson,” joked Zane, but without much energy, while G-Rad said, “You ladies are looking humptious!”

“See? No big deal,” said Corso. “You can rely on me to take care of you. Ready to fly? Let’s organize ourselves male-female-male-female, thusly.”
“Like a revolution or a dinner party?” asked Chase.

“A party, of course,” Corso responded smoothly. He had no intention of walking the plank. “Why not? Surely you believe in the principle of sacred geometry, Mr. Quinn? The mysteries of gender are the twin pillars bearing up the universe. I say we need all the energy we can get.”
Chase chose a recliner on my right side.

At our heads the blue chalice, lit mysteriously from within, poured out a white fog that curled over its edges, drifted into the room and slowly dispersed.

“What the hell is that?” demanded G-Rad.“Isn’t it cool?” Said Corso. “It’s a magnet. It’s a well-known fact that magnetic energy promotes restful sleep.”

“But…that fog. What is that stuff?” G-Rad cast a nervous glance toward the exit sign. Too late, G-Rad.

“Mere water vapor. Produced by ultrasonic waves. I’m a sucker for atmospherics. In a moment you’ll smell the incense. Before you ask, it’s sandalwood. ”

Corso poured water into mugs from a steaming electric kettle and shook in powder from glassine envelopes. “A nice relaxing drink and offto dreamland,” he purred.
“That doesn’t look like the stuff the nurse gave us,” said Zane nervously. “Seriously I’m in training. Not supposed to have drugs.”

“It’s dopamine,” Chase hissed to me out of the corner of his mouth, like a gangster. “For dopes.”
“Don’t make me regret re-hiring you, Mr. Quinn,” threatened Corso. “I have minimal sympathy for rabble-rousers. I was one, briefly, at your age, but then I learned to focus my energies. For your information, this is a strictly natural concoction.” He passed out mugs. Working at the mall had made me cynical about “natural” concoctions. Everyone’s favorite claim, but natural is anything that exists.

Chase continued conversing with me privately. “Herbaceuticals”. I smiled with the pleasure of being singled out for confidence. He could have picked Soliz, who was on his other side. I favored Chase with my special smile.

“Nothing mind-bending here, I can assure you,” Corso droned on soothingly. “Check your suspicious twenty-first century minds at the door. None of you experienced negative consequences at your initial exam. It’s strictly to relax you. I’m relying on the raveled edge of teenage exhaustion to push you all the rest of the way.”

“But what are the ingredients?” Chase chivvied, peering into the green depths of his mug. He was a button pusher and Corso’s buttons were pushed. Now Corso seemed really annoyed.

“Really, Mr. Quinn. You are an exceedingly obnoxious guinea pig. Please allow me some trade secrets. What would you do with the knowledge? Google it? Bring in everything that’s ever been said about it so we could all engage in spirited debate? Wouldn’t that be quite beside the point of this very expensive and time sensitive experiment?” He projected his angry voice ceiling wards expanding his threat to the alien stars. “You should know by now – none better – that I don’t cosset the obstreperous. You will function appropriately or you will function elsewhere. I warn you I will pull in alternates. Understood?”

So the “alternates” at least were not an urban legend.
“Aye, aye cap’n,” sighed Chase, moving his shoulders from side to side as if comfort was elusive on his particular Procrustean bed.

Corso smiled into my eyes as he handed me my mug. Classic vampire moment: accept or reject? But I accepted. I had to. And I drank. It had a bitter, bark-like taste with rotting-leaf under notes and a strong metallic finish. Not as bad as the Kool-Aid Howk dispensed, but you did have to gag itdown. Itriedthinkingofthesassafrasrootsdugupandgnawedin childhood. Why did we do that? Just because forbidden? Corso’s voice thrummed its panoply of strings.

“Consider me your facilitator, enhancing the potency of our group experience,” said the greedy vampire. “Here’s an opportunity for democratic involvement. Music or no music?”
“Anything, so long as it’s classical,” said Chase.

“Anything so long as it’s not classical,” said Zane.
Corso chuckled as he settled at his board. “The bulls do clash. I’ll take that as a request for “ocean sounds”. Drink up, little dreamers. I’ll be coming around to collect the mugs so I’ll know who’s been naughty or nice.”

As he played at his control panel the lights went down. I tried memorizing the night sky of this host planet but the stars began to spin.

The fog fleeing the bowl seemed to leach into our brains. A nameless ocean whispered innocuously along some anonymous shore. Sandalwood and patchouli smoked the air. I was really feeling it now. A hand touched mine and a shock of self-consciousness ran through me. A foot away were Chase’s blue, blue eyes. Were they trying to tell me something? Or should I try deciphering the code pressed into my fingers? My brain tripped over itself and fell prone. Time to close my soggy-lidded eyes. Corso’s voice bounced around the room disembodied, like a playful spirit.

“Welcome to cosmic dreaming,” he boomed. “You will dream at such a depth the mind bursts the bonds of selfhood and merges freely with the universe. Free from trammels of time, from body, from identity itself, we uncover time’s great secret; we are one. Think on it. Think what it means to be untied from debt, obligation, relationship, guilt, regret or loss. There are no mistakes. Freedom from identity frees us from suffering. Everything you have ever wanted will be achieved now, effortlessly, and in abundance. Desires and longing are the fuel that rocket us to the stratosphere of rarest air. One in the great Oneness, we will all of us dream together.

Controlling our dreams, joined together in generous embrace we access a power precluding separation. Surrender to the ultimate in luxury: the infinite sleep that has always been your birthright. It is time to claim your entitlement.”

His words made sense individually, but linked together they seemed a cacophonous jumble. Valuing words as I do, I had to dismiss them. This noise was like the fake waves that pretend-crashed on a stage set shore.

Instead of joining anybody, my usually bicameral mind split further, into thirds. There were the two childhood voices; the scared one and the reassuring one. This third voice must be Corso; words implanted during lost hypnosis time, saying things like everything new is scary and I’m not alone but chosen. If we concentrated just on safety, who would achieve anything? And freedom must be earned, not given.

But I didn’t care for this invasion. Ideas for me are catch-and-release consider before you take them in. If threatened I have learned to disappear, and now that I was bodiless, it seemed easier. The only thing holding me was Chase’s hand; I could leave my hand with him. I fled the voices, Corso’s and my mother’s, tossed them back to earth; powered up and soared away. Far behind and earthbound Bex’s angry voice accused me of never knowing what I want and called me stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. If it wasn’t Bex then it was the ghost of my own body; a weighted corpse resenting my effortless dance above the fray while it was forced to roil in blood and bile below.

Corso’s drone burrowed after me like a worm, like a dangerous download bearing a virus you’ll never get rid of. “Surrender comes on little cat feet,” Corso cooed into my ear, not realizing I was no longer there but watched him from above. Why work so hard on me? Where was everyone else? Or was that Corso’s ultimate trick, making us think his magic was reserved for each of us alone?

“The garden door is closing and you’ll be left behind…” His voice oozed. “See, the stars are out. The world inside and the world outside long to merge… only the pictures in your head prevent them.

Doesn’t it feel good to let it all go? It’s all beneath you now. Flesh itself is gone. When you open your eyes, you will be gazing down at your lost and unperfected self.

Nowtheroomitselfisvanishing,your connection to earth is someone else’s problem now. You have released your fears. Look how tiny they seem, disappearing over the horizon. ”

My fear was flushed in a rushing sound. Must be my spirit gushing through the transom, right on schedule. I was sure ofit. My old body, cherished and abused, collapsed before my eyes like a deflating balloon, skin falling to folds predicting of old age — if I ever chose to grow up. But why should I bother? The real me was airborne; a pale, and lightened spiral of myself. Pure energy. Why had I ever feared this pleasure? Inside we all know how it feels to fly. A shock of recognition.

Still Corso sang below. He’s keeping them there, I thought resentfully. If he won’t let them go I’ll have no one to play with. Freedom is fake if confined to one room. I hesitated at the transom, reaching through for the lost hand.

“Pure oxygen is pouring in; surging around you, supporting you. Welcome it. As the ocean once was, this is your element now. You need neither gills nor lungs, you can exist anywhere. You float weightless in the richly pregnant darkness. Ecstasy lies just over that horizon, rising in the night like a sun. It offers everything you need for your journey. Feel the power of its penetrating heat through the shimmer of ectoplasm that is all that remains of your spirit. You will enter it now.

It will sting at first; it scorches only for a moment. Consider it a blessing. Now surrender to the enchantment of selflessness, in union with the universal power that has been calling you from the beginning of eternity. Time has no meaning here.

With a last rustle you let go of the final pictures in your head, the faces, the memories, the constraints tethering you to the purposeless quotidian, dragging you down and holding you back. Herd animals will pull the load; you were born for better things. My voice is the last bond to disappear as language itself loses meaning and becomes a hum, abyss of sound and soundlessness in which you vibrate endlessly in polymorphous pleasure.”

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