Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

Somnambulnauts

The following is another short story that I written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, we are such stuff as dreams are made on…

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Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

There was a bird on the horizon, swooping gracefully through the air. It was a majestic sight. The only concerning thing was the fact that there was no oxygen outside.

“Huh,” said Chloe, watching the bird flying closer over the lunar landscape, “that’s kinda cool.” Her supervisor, Professor Susan Aikman, chuckled next to her, the laugh crackling across the suit radio.

“My dear,” the older academic said, “you have not seen anything yet.”

Chloe watched the bird fly away across the moon’s horizon, until it was nothing but a pinprick of light in the distance, joining the millions of stars in the firmament above.

“Should we have caught it?” asked Chloe, suddenly surfacing from her wonder-induced trance and remembering why they were there. “Was that bird…important in some way?”

“How does one catch a dream?” replied Susan, sounding distant.

“Professor…” pressed Chloe. He mentor snapped out of it.

“No, it wasn’t important. It was a metaphor, a reflection of why we’re here. I think it was symbolising how the quest for human knowledge is like attempting to fly towards the farthest stars,” explained Professor Aikman.

“Wouldn’t that make it a simile, not a metaphor?” mused Chloe. Susan shot her a withering look that made Chloe blush.

“Would you like to change your PhD studies to English Language?” she asked.

“No, Biochemistry is fine,” muttered Chloe, not looking at her supervisor.

“Then shall we proceed?”

“Which way?” asked Chloe. One part of the moon pretty much looked like any other.

“This way,” said Susan, stepping into her house, only it wasn’t her house, it was her house merged with a German hotel she had once visited for a conference in 1992.

Chloe looked behind her to take one last look at the bird, only the star field was gone and now she could see she was surrounded by the garden of Professor Aikman’s house, except that all the trees had been replaced by free-standing kitchen sinks. Chloe shrugged, wondering briefly if the bird would ever reach that farthest star, and then she went to follow Susan into the not-quite house. Chloe was still getting used to the Somnambulnaut Suit; with the warm electronics and the conditioned air blowing over her face, the smells combined to remind her of a new car. The suit had somehow felt appropriate when they had been stood on the moon, but now she was stood in someone’s front garden it felt cumbersome and claustrophobic. She took as large strides as she could, fighting against the stiffness of the brand new fabric in the leg joints.

By the time she made it through the door the professor was already waiting at the lift in the entrance lobby to the hybrid house-hotel. The lift was made of glass, only it wasn’t transparent. Chloe looked up. She could see the first floor landing from the professor’s house, seemingly continuously repeated for floor-after-floor, stretching up to infinity.

“How are we going to find the information we’re looking for?” asked Chloe as they waited for the lift. The lift level indicator was counting down, just not in the normal way that numbers usually work. “Do we have to search all the rooms in this house, or something like that?”

“No, we’re nowhere near our destination yet, this is just the subconscious,” bending down to straighten the hall rug while they waited. Normally the rug was a rectangle but here it was triangular for some reason.

“Wait, we’ve started in the sub-conscious?” asked Chloe, confused. “I thought that was something we had to work down to?”

“I don’t know why people think that,” said Susan, “the subconscious is just random noise surrounding the core of what makes a person a person – their memories and experiences.”

The Professor may have talked like that was a general factual statement, but Chloe felt it as a chiding lesson directed at her.

“So ok, when we reach down into the memories, we’ll find the information?”

“Yes, although not as literal information. You’re not going to see walls of text or giant equations written in the sky. The brain doesn’t work like that and neither do the Somnambulnaut Suits. What will happen is that you will get to experience the memories of the events that led the subject’s brain to form the information that you’re looking for in the first place. Once you’ve re-lived their experiences, if you’re close enough to the subject both in knowledge and temperament, then your brain will acquire the information you’re after of it’s own free will.”

“Then let’s hope I’m close enough to the subject,” muttered Chloe. Susan shrugged noncommittally.

“That’s why you were selected for this assignment.”

Silence descended, unlike the lift they were waiting for, which according to the indicator was currently passing floor ‘backwards Cyrillic R’.

“If we need to go down, could we not force the door to the lift shaft and jump down?” asked Chloe. Susan looked aghast at this suggestion.

“The Somnambulnaut Suits are designed with incredibly powerful and compact haptic feedback, which is essential for the purposes of properly experiencing the subject’s memories. While the suit can’t directly injure you per se, it could make you experience the physical agony of falling down a lift shaft and impacting on the floor, which in turn may be enough to send your body into shock.”

It was Chloe’s turn to look aghast. “You didn’t mention that in the standard operations manual! How did you get this past the grant-funding ethics committee?”

“By not mentioning that in the standard operations manual,” replied Professer Aikman, stepping into the lift as the doors opened. Chloe followed her in, the two of them scraping their suits together as their combined bulk filled the lift. None of the floor buttons were labelled with numbers, just the safety information from the back of a packet of washing powder.

“This one,” said the professor, selecting a button. Chloe looked again, and the lift buttons were labelled with Ancient Greek poetry, just as they had been all along. Chloe raised her hands to rub her temples, but the suit gloves simply clucked against the outside of her helmet. Dream logic was doubly confusing when you were awake. Chloe could understand the Ancient Greek – even though she couldn’t understand Ancient Greek – and could see the the verse selected was a poem by Wordsworth on the subject of longing. But of course she could read that because it was in English. Chloe’s head began to spin and she closed her eyes and bent over to lean on her legs.

“Please don’t be sick in the suit,” said Professor Aikman from the mezzanine floor above her. The interior of the lift was as large as a football field and included a mezzanine floor. Posters of 1960s pop icons plastered the supporting pillars. “Maybe just sit down, close your eyes and wait for us to reach the memories.”

“It’s not real, I’m in the lab – it’s just a simulation projected onto the helmet’s visor – it’s not real, I’m in the lab,” muttered Chloe to herself, repeating the mantra over and over. She sat down on the floor, hugging her knees and jamming her eyes closed. She felt a tingling as the electrodes tucked under her hair pulsed on her scalp, seeking to alter her perceptions – playing with the chemistry to her brain to give her the full experience of the subject’s mind.

“Don’t fight it, you’ll only make it worse…” said the professor from somewhere impossibly distant.

“It’s not working, let’s pull the plug,” said someone else – a man – his voice crackling over the radio. Chloe couldn’t remember who he was or where he was. Was he from a dream?

“No,” said another distorted voice, “this is too important. We need the knowledge the subject has.” Where was he? Where were these people, trying to decide her fate?

Chloe suddenly realised that the lift was no longer moving. Cautiously she opened one eye, then the other. Her scalp tingled and her brain buzzed. She was sat alone on the floor of the tiny lift. The opaque glass sides of the lift were entirely transparent, just as they had always been. Outside the evening sky was filled with stars.

Chloe was sitting at a table with her new husband – except she didn’t have a husband – outside a café in southern France. Yes, this was a long time ago. Hadn’t she been wearing a suit? She lifted a glass of wine to her lips. No, that would be silly, why would she wear a suit when she had this lovely flowing dress that was so right for the summer? She sipped wine and talked with her husband as the world passed them by. They swapped hopes and fears for the future, talked about plans, and most importantly, dreams. Finally the café closed and even the stars retired.

Chloe stood up to pay the bill and immediately sat down again on the hospital bed. There were less than thirty seconds between contractions, it wouldn’t be long now and they would finally meet their daughter! He husband held her hand, a look of encouragement and pride in his eyes. He let go of her hand once Chloe was safely on board the yacht and then began to haul himself on-board after her. What better way to celebrate Chloe’s appointment to the professorship than a sailing holiday around the Scottish coast, just the two of them? Her husband tried to pull himself back on board but the stormy seas were too rough. Chloe struggled to help him, and working together they just managed to pull him onto the deck. The yacht lurched violently in the swelling seas and neither of them saw the swinging mast boom coming as it lurched through the rain to collide with his head. Chloe dropped to her knees, grabbing his hands as his unconscious body began to slide away across the water-slick decks. Chloe let go of his hands and sat back in the chair. The steady rhythm of the heart monitor beeped in the background. Outside, the hospital corridor was filled with quiet activity. Her husband lay comatose in bed beside her. All those dreams they had discussed on that summer night, locked up in his head…

Chloe took her eyes off her husband and looked down at the journal article on her tablet. This was it, the final missing piece of her many long years of gathering data. It helped all the other information she had acquired slot into place, giving it context. Now she knew she could design the equipment that would allow her to parse the delta brain waves of any individual and turn their dreams into something recognisable to others.

“And there you have it,” said Professor Aikman.

Chloe looked up to see Susan standing with her arms folded, leaning against the doorway into Chloe’s office…except this wasn’t Chloe’s office was it? It was Susan’s office at the university. Chloe looked down the iPad held in the gloved hand of her suit, quickly committing the title of the paper to memory.

“Yes, I see it now. I felt your motivation, and your thought process. I see how you looked at the science and engineering puzzle in a way that no-one else could. I felt why you needed to create the dream suit, to spend one last night at that café with your husband…”

“And you feel confident you’ll take that knowledge back with you?”

“It’s all up here,” replied Chloe, confidently tapping her helmet.

“And in there, I trust,” replied Susan, pointing at Chloe’s heart.

“Not very scientific, professor,” laughed Chloe.

“Oh surely I’m allowed a little whimsy at the end?” said Susan, cracking the first smile that Chloe had seen from her all day.

“I guess this is the last time that we’ll talk,” said Chloe, “thank you professor. For everything.”

“Thank you,” replied Professor Aikman, “thank you for helping my work live on.”

There was a brief awkward pause, then Chloe and the professor embraced in an amicable hug, their helmets clinking together and gloved hands slapping the power packs on each others backs.

“The lift will take you where you need to go,” said Susan, pointing out of the office, “as for me, well, I think I’d like to linger here a little longer…”

Chloe nodded and walked out into the corridor outside the office. The lift was right there in the university building, right where it always was. Except now it was made of opaque glass and all the buttons were labelled with Susan’s office extension number.

“Goodbye professor,” said Chloe, watching Susan as the doors closed.

“So long,” replied Susan as she disappeared from sight.

Chloe gasped for breath as the room span, before finally vomiting in a bed pan. Removing the helmet and the head electrodes had been extremely disorientating.

“Rough landing, huh?” said the man behind her.

“You could say that,” coughed Chloe, wiping away a string of bile from her mouth.

“Did you get the information?”

“Give me a minute.”

“Did you get it?!”

“Yes,” said Chloe, regaining her composure, “what’s the damn rush?”

“You understand the full workings of the Somnambulnaut Suits now? You can replicate them? Improve on them?”

“Yes! Jeez,” said Chloe, looking over at where the frail body of Professor Aikman lay at death’s door. It was so strange to see her like this, when she’d just been talking to a healthy and vital version of her moments ago. But – like so many other important things – that had all been in the professor’s head. Now there the professor lay, unconscious and only kept alive by a ventilator and feeding tubes. A Somnambulnaut Suit helmet rested over her head like a ritual death mask, a long network cable snaking out to join it to Chloe’s suit.

“I had to be sure,” said the man, before turning and nodding to one of the nursing staff, “do it.”

The nurse leant over and flipped a switch, and the ventilator bellows stopped their rhythmic rise and fall. Alarms began to sound to indicate Susan’s heartbeat was failing.

“What are you doing?!” cried Chloe in panic, rounding on the man.

“It’s for the best,” said the man whose name she couldn’t quite remember. Chloe turned back to look at Susan, tears welling in her eyes. The professor turned her helmeted head towards Chloe and winked.

Chloe gasped for breath as the room span, before finally vomiting in a bed pan. Removing the helmet and the head electrodes had been extremely disorientating.

“Rough landing, huh?” said the man behind her, “I heard the trip up through the subconscious can do that. You’ll see all sorts of weird stuff.

“You…could say that,” coughed Chloe, wiping away a string of bile from her mouth.

“Did you get the information?”

“Give me a minute.”

“Did you get it?!”

Chloe took a deep breath, considering her next words very carefully…

#writewithchrisandmillie, Writing Prompt

Write with Chris and Millie (Week 18)

Every week my writer friend Millie and I alternate providing each other with writing prompts. We then allow ourselves one week to come up with a short story based on that prompt. This has been a fun exercise in both practising writing and devising plot hooks. You can see many of my stories on this site if you search for the Short Story tag.

We share the weekly prompts here and on Twitter – search the hashtag  #writewithchrisandmillie – so that anyone else who is in the mood for a writing exercise can join in too.

This week’s prompt is:

Jaxon didn’t get a lot of letters, so one detailing an unpaid debt was a surprise. What made it particularly surprising was that the debt could not be settled with money…

Good luck!

writewithchrisandmillie

#writewithchrisandmillie, Writing Prompt

Write with Chris and Millie (Week 17)

Every week my writer friend Millie and I alternate providing each other with writing prompts. We then allow ourselves one week to come up with a short story based on that prompt. This has been a fun exercise in both practising writing and devising plot hooks. You can see many of my stories on this site if you search for the Short Story tag.

We’ve recently decided that we’re going to start sharing the weekly prompts so that anyone else who is in the mood for a writing exercise can join in too. I’ve started sharing them on Twitter – search the hashtag #writewithchrisandmillie – and I’ll also post them here each week.

This week’s prompt is:

There was a bird on the horizon, swooping gracefully through the air. It was a majestic sight. The only concerning thing was the fact that there was no oxygen outside.

Good luck!

writewithchrisandmillie