I go someplace when I sleep. It was the better part of a year before I could be sure of it. Otherwise referring to it as an actual place would be a touch too dramatic for what, at the time, seemed to be simple recurring dreams.
They began when I was fifteen. Most likely as a mental refuge from what happened, according to my therapist. But then, her job is to concoct believable sounding explanations for things. There’s no real rigor involved.
I found myself naked the first time. Greeted as I awoke by the cold, solid concrete beneath me. An industrial facility of some sort, although it was never clear what it was for. Roughly U shaped, with a series of tall windows inset in the outer wall, dull yellow light pouring in through them onto the dusty grey floor.
Whoever designed this place really loves concrete. It’s something that turns up in a lot of their work. I think it’s the blunt, homogenous banality of it. My therapist said it’s the physical version of depression. That the more I described the place to her, the more certain she was that it was all some elaborate cry for help. Worse, there was a brief spell where I believed her.
But, a cry for help does not have relentlessly self-consistent physical laws. Nor the same dimensions every time you visit. I’ve always been helplessly methodical, and so on the third or fourth time through the same dream, I began to map my environment. For lack of any measuring implement, I used footsteps.
There is nothing to write with in the dream, and any writing I do encounter is this garbled, ever-shifting mess of unfamiliar symbols. Signs, books, placards. Anywhere I expected to find letters. Not being able to read anything is apparently a common element of many people’s dreams. That there are common elements to everybody’s dreams somehow doesn’t trouble anyone.
On either end of the U-shaped room, I found doors to a grand hall filled with row after row of useless machinery. Designed in a way that obviously won’t work. Gears turning against each other, Pistons pushing against other pistons, electrical wiring set up deliberately to short circuit. I thought I might learn something if I were to fix all of it, so I set out in search of tools.
I found them lodged among stacked rows of rusty steel pipe. That’s the other thing that’s everywhere in the dream, pipes. Snaking up and down walls, overhead, underfoot. Often where it makes no sense, like a loop of pipe doubling back on itself. Nothing living, either. Never once saw so much as a weed.
The tools, if I can call them that, proved worse than useless. Whoever designed them either doesn’t know what they were meant to be used for, or thinks he’s funny. A hacksaw with black, glossy film for the blade. A screwdriver with another handle where the tip should be, that sort of thing.
Every night, after roughly the same duration, I would wake up. Then, while everything was still fresh in my memory, I’d add to the maps. Reams and reams of them, organized into binders stacked next to my bed. Worried my mother terribly and she never missed a chance to say it. As though her steady retreat into the bottle was any better.
I couldn’t see what else to do with it. No choice but to go there every night, may as well try to learn something. It went from a novelty at first, to disturbing, but then settled into a sort of bland familiarity. Every day, in the back of my mind, I knew exactly where I would be that night. Often making plans for some new experiment.
Could I permanently change anything? Yes, it turned out. Objects would remain where I left them from one dream to the next. Could I break any of the windows? No, nor could I see anything through them except for the dull yellow glow. Could I hurt myself? When I tried, the pain seemed real enough that I thought better of pushing it. Could I bring anything through with me? Only whatever I was wearing when I fell asleep.
In this way I began to amass a body of data about the place. And by then I was fully content to say that it was a real place rather than just a recurring dream. Being slammed in the face with it over and over, every single night, had that effect. With no other outlet, I posted to the internet about the whole ordeal. I thought maybe I’d find somebody who’d experienced something similar.
Instead, I found a post describing the exact place, down to every little detail. They’d gone about exploring and recording it differently, but there was no mistaking it when they mentioned the tools, or the unreadability of the text. I searched for a timestamp and discovered it’d been posted just minutes before I found it.
So, I hastily hammered out an account of my own explorations of the place, and included my email so they could contact me. Not really pinning my heart on it, but excited to discover I was not alone. Only the next morning, after my usual nocturnal wanderings, I found the post had been deleted.
Subsequent posts were deleted more swiftly, and I received a warning not to continue “spamming” by private message. I plead my case with the mod but received no reply. It troubled me for weeks afterward. Thoughts of some stranger halfway across the world, suffering the same thing night after night.
The same frigid, grinding, contiguous smear. The concrete. The rust. That place everybody has visited during their long, dark nights of the soul but forgets about when their fortunes improve. They move on with their lives, but it’s still there. Waiting.
The stack of binders grew and grew. More than once Mom threw it all out. I didn’t even make a fuss, just went back to work recreating all of it. By that point it disturbed her a lot more than it did me. I’d already succumbed. Living more in the dream than I did the waking world. You need only fear what’s in the dark until you become part of it.
A failure of imagination, I suppose. To think I’d already seen the worst things shadows can conceal. Because the dreams and resulting obsession with documenting them had begun to impact my health, my mother recommended I participate in the local university’s sleep study. She and I still meet every Sunday for dinner at a Mexican place. I order the same thing every time.
I did it for her. I know she worries, and really, she bears enough of a burden without me adding to it. So I submitted all of my details through their website, expecting to be turned down only for a confirmation email to follow later the same day. I found a number of forms attached to it that the email instructed me to sign, either digitally or by printing them out.
Really long, belaboured legalese. Could all of this really be necessary for a sleep study? I understood the necessity of covering their assess and indeed, it wasn’t hard to find recurring language in the documents absolving them of wrongdoing should I somehow expire from sleeping too hard, or whatever. I skipped to the end and signed, just to be done with it, then emailed the documents back to the sender.
They chose a Sunday to have me visit. I tried to reschedule as I never miss Sunday dinner with Mom, and we’d meant to discuss the matter of what to do with all of Dad’s old stuff that was still sitting in storage. When I called her about it she told me it could wait for a week, that finding some help for whatever was going on with me was a higher priority in her book.
So, with mixed feelings about the whole affair, I showed up before the beautiful antique of a building that the email indicated was where the sleep study would take place. I checked and re-checked the address, putting it into my GPS a second time after I’d arrived to make sure I hadn’t misspelled anything. But no, it really was the place.
I must’ve driven by it four or five times trying to pin down exactly where it was on campus, too. Whoever does the landscaping decided it’d be a good idea to surround it with maple trees which render the building all but invisible from the road. With my CRV parked across the street, I pocketed the folded up paperwork I’d printed out in case they needed a real signature after all, then headed for the porch.
“What? Oh no, none of that. My dear boy, despite all appearances, I assure you that The Institute stays abreast of every modern contrivance including digital signatures.” The funny little old fellow welcomed me into the sitting room and took my jacket. I introduced myself, and in turn he identified himself as one “Heironimus Travigan”. I tried addressing him as doctor or professor but was rebuffed each time out of what I took for modesty.
“Tell me about The Institute.” His eyes met mine, narrowed for a moment as if probing my expression for information. Then his relaxed demeanor returned. “What don’t you know that is necessary for the purposes of your visit?” For a start, I told him I’d like to know what this is the Institute of. He smiled, wrinkles bunching up at the corners of his eyes. “Naturally, it’s the Institute of institution.” When I asked of what sort, he winked and said “Institutional”.
That answered none of my questions and raised more, something I’d soon learn was an irritating habit of his. Just never enough to make you sincerely cross with the man, on account of his otherwise warm, if eccentric, personality. Just as you’re about to boil over and demand some straight answers, out come the cute anecdotes, the rhymes, or some other amusing distraction.
I expected something more technical than a bed. It looked like any other bedroom except for the archaic nature of the decor. Nearly everything intricately carved, polished wood of some kind. The sheets and pillowcase both black cotton, with a black velvet blanket. In the corner, a little digicam on a tripod with a thin retractable USB cable leading to a laptop on the dresser next to it.
I asked how they would measure my brainwaves, my vitals and so on. He mulled that over, then informed me that it wasn’t that sort of study. I could scarcely imagine what other sort of dream study exists, but he got me laughing with some hasty but serviceable wordplay, and soon enough I was tucked in.
“I’m still not clear why I’m not hooked up to anything. I get that you can’t tell me everything, it’d fuck with the results. But how are you going to get any sort of useful data without any sort of medical technology?” He reassured me it was all according to the requirements of the experiment, then handed me what looked like an old fashioned television remote. “That’s the only device you’ll need. But hang onto it. You won’t get far otherwise.”
I studied the little gizmo but found nothing remarkable. Weren’t even any batteries in it. Looked like something my Dad would’ve had in his study. Wood grain panels at top and bottom, big punchy calculator style buttons of shiny black plastic, and curiously scratched out labels under the buttons for rewind and pause.
I asked what it was for but he would only tell me to keep hold of it as I fell asleep. “Rest it on your chest if you like, but under the shirt. Skin needs to be touching.” I began wondering what sort of person I’d entrusted my unconscious body to, but then thought of Mom. So, gripping the hollow little plastic box at my side, I began counting sheep.
It’s a cliche, but really works. At least it always has until now. Somewhere around thirty five, the sheep slowed down. More and more until one hung in the air just over the fence, defying gravity. This is when I realized I’d fallen asleep. Usually it’s straight to that place, no interlude. So imagine my concern when the sheep began to move backwards.
Slowly, at first. In a stilted fashion, like watching an old timey movie while something goes increasingly wrong with the projector. Then faster and faster, sheep whipping by, jumping backwards over the fence. Faster and faster, until it was one long continuous blur. I felt myself sweating, somewhat surprised to be doing that in a dream. Then I felt the remote in my hands.
Pause. The sheep, a blindingly rapid streak until now, suddenly halted. Again, one of the sheep hung in place over the fence. I looked down at the remote, exactly as I remembered it, and hit play. The sheep resumed their normal motion, and moments later the vision faded to black. It’d been such a novelty to experience anything else in a dream that I felt sort of let down when, upon opening my eyes again, I found myself there.
Same cold, concrete floor. Same windows, same bizarre doors with no knobs. All the frames slightly different sizes, as though the architect had only a rough idea of how big people generally are. But, there was one difference. Something unprecedented in all of my history with this place. When I looked down, I was still holding that odd little remote.
How could that be? I’d tried numerous times before to bring various objects with me. I think clothing worked because it’s part of my self-perception. And, apparently, because it directly touches my skin while I fall asleep. But nothing I’d ever tried would make any other object from the waking world appear in the dream, or vice versa. Until now.
A blast of static issued forth from a small speaker embedded in the device, behind a grid of little holes in the bottom wood panel. I dropped it while reflexively covering my ears. When I uncovered them, I heard what I soon realized was the professor’s voice scolding me through the speaker.
“I told you never to let go of it, you twit! What’s the first thing you do but drop it! Pick it up at once, before one of them gets ahold of it, and don’t you dare set it down anywhere after this!” I bashfully picked up the remote and inspected it for damage.
“That’s some of the most sophisticated technology at our disposal, right there in your hot little hands. But you must’ve realized that already when it came into the dream with you. That’s no small feat! Though it is not alive, it shares a crucial quality with your body which allows both of them to travel between the Manifold and the waking world intact.”
It just kept coming. Seemed like a better idea to just let him talk than to inject questions here and there, as it usually turned out he was about to explain whatever I was going to ask about anyway. But only in the same sense that he ever explains anything. “Oh dear. It’s as I suspected. You’ve really stepped in it, you know.”
I asked what he meant. “You’re in that place. I don’t have to tell you or anybody else which one. Everybody knows it, if not as a dream then as a certain feeling. The feeling of writhing internally even as you are outwardly placid. Of wandering alone on a dark Winter’s night. Fingernails dragged across a blackboard, forever.”
I asked what other place I was supposed to be in. He sounded exasperated, as if I should already know all of this. “You must’ve had normal dreams before this one. Those are your own mind. Your own little offshoot of the Manifold, as it should be. Most never get further than that, and I tell you in truth, they’re better off for it. But the place you find yourself in now is something like an antlion’s pit for wayward dreamers. You’ve been trapped there for some time, haven’t you.”
I affirmed it. When I told him it’d been several years rather than months or weeks, he sounded stunned. I shook the remote a few times wondering if the speaker crapped out, but he’d only fallen temporarily silent.
“I don’t understand. It never lasts for this long. By this point they’ve always reached the bottom.” I astonished him a second time when I explained that I’d never gotten further than the the bottom of the stairwell, as it’d been the work of all those years just to completely document everything until that point.
He laughed uproariously, leaving me to wonder what the joke was. “My boy, that’s just fantastic. I knew I did well picking you out of the pile. See to it that you don’t explore any more of the place than you have already. If you don’t already know why, turn the remote over.” I did as instructed. I hadn’t thought to check the back until now and discovered an index card sized mirror on it.
“Mirrors are another thing you’ll never find in that place. Not one that’s clean enough to see yourself in, anyway. For one thing, you’ll understand a good deal more than He intends if you do that. For another, mirrors can be used as an alternate means of escape into the Manifold. It’s not intended that anybody who finds this place should ever leave. The longer they stay, the more of the wither they accumulate.” More nonsense. As if sensing my skepticism, he admonished me to study my own reflection, so I did.
I gasped. It was everywhere. Why had I not recognized it until now? The texture of grime, of dust, of crumbly cracks on every surface. Which I’d assumed was actual wear and tear, but which I now recognized for something like a rash, or a fungus as I could now see it coating my neck, arms and part of my face. Overlaid on the skin like a decal, shifting about as I moved as if not completely bonded to me.
“It’s no good. If it consumes all of you, I mean. That’s when He comes to you, at your weakest, to broker a deal. Everything you most desperately want, or at least the convincing illusion of it, in exchange for something unspeakable. Do not pry. You have no need to know, as I’ll not let you be suckered into that. Instead, press ‘info’ and follow the sounds.”
I searched the face of the remote, and sure enough, one of the buttons said info, so I pressed it. A faint ping sounded from the speaker. Then another, then another. I found as I walked about that the ping grew softer or louder depending on my position, so with some careful experimentation, I set off in the direction that yielded consistently louder pings.
Eventually I arrived at a room I’d long since scoured for any remaining detail not yet recorded in my binders. Yet, the pings were loudest here. So whatever I was meant to be searching for had to be in here someplace. I searched lockers along the wall and the inside of a toolbox with a handle lined, of course, with sharp little spikes.
Finally, the only drawer of a great desk in one corner of the room, next to the only clock I’d ever found in this place. On the wall just under the clock, a faded blotchy stain. On the desk before me, a letter of some sort, though of course I couldn’t read it. The pinging stopped when I opened the drawer. Inside, a small pistol and what looked to be a glass sphere.
“No need for the pistol just yet, but have a look into that orb if you’d be so kind” the professor’s voice instructed me through the speaker. He said it so casually that I might’ve missed it. Frowning and peering again at the strange little button box, I reached for the orb. Surprisingly warm in my hand, as if there were some energy source inside.
When I looked into it, I recoiled. There was the professor’s face looking back at me! “Oh don’t tell me I’m that difficult to look at, m’boy. You know in my time, I was quite the ladies’ man. Of course there’s no going back, they see to it. Now if you just keep looking at me...yes that’s it. Don’t look away.” As I maintained eye contact with him, I witnessed my surroundings both distorting and receding in all directions until, baffled as to how I got there, I found myself someplace else entirely.
It was the entrance hall of a mansion, beautifully intricate in the same style as the building I’d struggled to find earlier. Wherever there was any space for some sort of flourish, there it was, a lovingly hand carved bas relief depicting various scenes from mythology. The floors above us came apart and reformed as I watched, comprised of countless interlocking platforms.
Each platform was itself intricately decorated, as expected. But each also included one wall, with a familiar looking clock on it. As well as an equally familiar stain just under the clock. When one of them descended low enough that I could get a better look, I discovered they all carried identical mahogany desks with a single drawer.
This was my first direct glimpse of them. Ghostly images of men in what looked to be finely pressed grey suits, slumped over their desks. The clock behind them spinning furiously in the wrong direction. As I watched, in perfect synchronization, they all suddenly bolted upright, materials from the wall stain abruptly being sucked into a hole in their head which disappeared a split second later.
On the opposite side of the hole, each held a gun to its temple for a few seconds, then set it in the drawer and closed it. Finally, still moving in lockstep, all of the flickering, grainy images of men stood up from their desks and walked backwards out of frame. The clock then began to operate normally, hands turning in the direction I knew they ought to.
In a perfect reversal of what I’d just seen, all of the men walked into frame, sat down at their desks, withdrew the pistol from the only drawer, then shot themselves. Gun to the temple, sudden splatter on the wall under every clock, then they’d collapse forwards onto their desks as blood pooled under their heads. Then it once again reversed itself.
It was at this point that I noticed the professor next to me. Clothed head to toe in the strangest outfit, despite the fact that he’d been wearing boring, bog standard professorial attire when I’d last seen him. From the bottom, his boots were what I figured for polished black vinyl, reaching nearly up to his knees. His trousers, like his shirt, were made from rich black velvet.
Then came the belt. A solid seven or eight inches wide, plainly serving no other purpose than aesthetics, made from thick black leather with a polished silver restraint poking through one of the notches. His gloves reached nearly up to his elbows and were made from the same shiny black vinyl as his boots. Finally his collar, every little silver button done up, looking nearly tight enough to choke.
“You look surprised. Did you really imagine that nobody’s ever explored these places more methodically than you? Become masters of them?” I hadn’t imagined any of this ahead of time, and said so. It seemed to amuse him. “Clothing is only an expression of your self image. Something you naturally struggle to change, but which is trivial for one of us.”
Us? I scanned the room, for the first time noticing distant figures clad in uniforms identical to his on various floating platforms. The non-stop forward and backward three dimensional movie playing out on each one, if I could call it that, made them difficult to pick out unless you knew to look for ‘em.
Almost unsurprising to see what each of them held in their shiny, gloved hands. Nicer than the one I’d been given though, made out of what from a distance looked like obsidian. One of them commandeered the platform he was on, landed it before us, then greeted the professor with “As it ever was”. Travigan casually replied “As ever”, then informed the other fellow that I was the one he’d been telling him about.
He was clothed head to toe in the same manner as the professor save for a small obsidian pin on his collar. Some sort of rank, no doubt. Black hair slicked back with hair salve, features straight and angular as if carved from a block of granite. He held out his own remote, turned it over, then angled the mirror on the back to peer at me through it. “Quite advanced. Never seen a case this bad, usually He’s got ‘em by now.”
The professor agreed. “An unusual case. Spent years simply mapping everything he came across in excruciating detail. I know he made it down the stairwell, but not much further. Certainly never descended through the clouds, anyway. He really jumped out at me as the ideal candidate for this attempt.” The two continued to talk about me as though I weren’t present.
“Excuse me, but what are those things?” I pointed to the transparent movie-like apparitions on the countless floating platforms. I had to repeat myself several times before they’d stop simply talking over me. “My dear boy. I assure you that you’ll be able to render the service you’ve enlisted for without ever knowing that, and that you’re much safer for it.” But I’d just about had it with obfuscation by then, and insisted upon being filled in.
To my surprise, he obliged. “For the Manifold and the reality outside of it to exist, certain things have to work the same way for everybody, everywhere. A common infrastructure, underlying machinery of the universe that’s normally invisible to us. What you’d call physical laws. The one we’re concerned with here is time.
Time is what ensures that everything doesn’t happen at once. Cause always precedes effect, the reactions on which all of the technologies known to you depend, and so on. But it doesn’t ‘just happen’ that way. That’s work, somebody needs to do it. There is after all no shortage of intelligent life throughout the universe working tirelessly to thwart the tyranny of unidirectional time.
Anybody who’s ever lost someone close to them. Who’s ever longed for a bygone era, or realized that all of the stars will one day burn out. Many of them are sufficiently motivated to try and do something about it. A former fellow of the Institute, Ronald Mallet, was among the first in your continuity. Had his own reasons for wanting to turn back the clock. They all do.
But if you make an exception for one, you have to make an exception for all. As the number trying to reverse time increases, and as the technology available to them grows ever more powerful near the end, more and more work must go into enforcing the forward movement of time. A certain something or other cobbled together from odds and ends, known to many different cultures by even more plentiful, diverse names.
You can’t simply call them what they are, can you? It would be ugly and rude. They perform an essential service after all. So, we’ve taken something from their surroundings and clothed them with it, that their insufferable nature might remain hidden. Of course, even that name chafes them. It’s something you must never say aloud or even read, lest you never stop. It’ll consume your every waking thought, like a splinter in your mind.
Don’t you feel them? They’re behind you even now, hands on your back, ensuring you go through with it all start to finish. That whatever direction you move in, it is never backwards. Not in the true sense of the word. So that once you discover what you’re moving towards, you cannot reverse course or even slow down, however desperately you might wish to.
All of this was bought on debt, you see. Light, color, sound. Existence. It cannot last forever, that initial sum will eventually be depleted, at which time the debt must be paid. They make sure that nobody tries to back out of it. That we all play the only parts we’re able to, always moving irreversibly towards the end of all ends. As per the agreement. ”
The two resumed discussing business, or what passes for it in their line of work. Try as I might I could pry nothing more from them, and was repeatedly shushed until I gave up and wandered off. Among the platforms landed on the ground floor, I found one being serviced by a pretty girl. Pretty as she could manage in that stuffy black uniform, anyway. Her hair also black, slicked back over her scalp, not one strand out of place.
“What are you up to?” She looked up from the open panel in the platform, elbow deep in its greasy cogs and pistons. “Oh, I just started today. I’m fixing the motivator, these things don’t break down often but when they do they’re a bitch to fix.” I gestured up at the other floating platforms and the oscillating animations playing out on them, asking what any of it was.
I noticed a brief flash of fear in her eyes. Even after that, she remained subtly nervous but did her best to conceal it. “Haven’t you read anything in your own offshoot? It’s everywhere.” I told her the text was always unreadable, and she seemed relieved. “Don’t fiddle with your remote. There’s a button on there that’ll unfrazzle text so you can read it. Trust me, you don’t want that.”
I asked why. It only frustrated her. “Look fella, if I knew why, I couldn’t be here talking to you about it. That’s how it spreads. I want no part of it, I’ve seen what happens.” So for a time, I left her to her work while I studied the buttons on the remote more closely. The first one I tried was mute.
Rather than silencing the distant voices of those two self-important old men or the clinking and clanging of the girl nearby digging around in the guts of the platform, it instead un-muted the ticking. Must’ve been on mute by default until then. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. A rhythm which matched exactly the movements of the flickering, monochrome spectres on every platform. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
The girl didn’t seem to notice, still absorbed in her work. So I picked out the next button to try. Closed captioning seemed as good a guess as any. It only made transcriptions of whatever was being said aloud nearby appear in the bottom half of my vision. Finally I pressed language. Nothing seemed different, but then, there was no text in view.
I opened a book sitting on the desk next to where she was working. Same desk they all have. Aha! The text inside was now Italian. Still unreadable to me but a huge step up from the swimming, garbled mess it had been before. I pressed the language button again, and it became French. Despite the language barrier it was quite obviously just the same phrase, repeating.
I continued bashing away at that button until at last, the page was in English. I don’t know what I expected. For some great mystery to be revealed? That being able to at least read what was written, apparently everywhere, might clue me into something the professor was keeping from me. “Backstoppers”, I muttered. The girl’s head whipped around to face me, pupils dilated. “What did you say!?”
“Backstoppers. That’s all it says, over and over. Backstoppers backstoppers backstoppers, page after page of it.” A bead of sweat formed at her hairline, then traced its way down around her nose, collecting on her upper lip. “The Backstoppers”, she whispered, face contorting in a mixture of terror and agony. “Backstoppers. Backstoppersbackstoppers. Stoppersback.”
The two men, arguing until now, suddenly took an interest in the commotion and came racing over. “What have you done, boy? What have you done?” The girl was crying now, but couldn’t stop saying it even through the tears. “I told you to give him a simpler remote”, Travigan’s superior barked at him. He looked wounded. “We don’t have any simpler than that. I hardly thought he could get into any serious trouble with it.”
Professor Travigan sighed, deep sadness in his face. He put a hand on the girl’s shoulder as she hunched over, head in her hands, rocking back and forth as she babbled. “I’m sorry dear. So, so sorry. It always destroys me when this happens, but you know what comes next. There’s no other choice”.
“Stoppersback” she frantically blubbered, reaching for the drawer. “Backstoppers. Backstoppersback. Stoppersbackstoppersback. Backstoppers.” She withdrew a pistol, stained with black sticky oil. “Backstoppersbackerstoppersbackstoppers” she cried as she reluctantly raised it to her temple. “Stoppersbackstop-”
Before I could stop her, she pulled the trigger. A startlingly loud report. Her blood and brains sprayed across the wall just under the clock, and her soon to be lifeless body slumped over on the desk. Travigan laid into me while the other fellow hung back and muttered “She knew the risks.”
“Do you have ANY IDEA what you’ve done? Any inkling at all of what went into her training, you clumsy fool? The countless years she dedicated to The Institute, just to be here as a greasemonkey? Did you even find out her name?
It was Julia. She had promise I can’t even quantify for you in a way that you’d understand. And what did you do, despite careful repeated warnings, but wander right into the minefield and get her killed! It’s all your fault, boy. All your fault.”
Killed? Surely not! But he affirmed it. “We’ve all got pacemakers. Something that works similarly anyway but for the opposite purpose, to stop the heart should it be necessary to ensure that one of us does not wake up. That what you exposed that poor girl to doesn’t leave the Manifold with us. Do you now appreciate the dangers involved?” I sensed genuine fear from him. Even from his superior. What had I stumbled onto, exactly?
“Can you destroy it?” Truly curious but also seeking to defuse their anger. “In here? Easily. It’s basic maintenance, like pruning the hedges. Otherwise it just spreads until it consumes everything. Here, watch.” He pointed his own remote at one of the apparitions and pressed play.
The faceless ghostly figure sat down at the desk, withdrew the gun from the drawer, and shot itself. Professor Travigan then pressed stop. That was it. No reversal, no repetition. It faded away, leaving only the platform, desk, wall, and clock behind.
“Of course you have to do it one by one, so it’s quite a chore. Still, a much simpler endeavor than if it were to escape the Manifold. We’d then have to track down every instance of their name in print, or spoken aloud in audio recordings or videos and destroy it all.
But they don’t make it that easy, either. Otherwise, especially in the era of internet searches, identifying every instance of their name would be trivially easy. You could have a list of all the works you need to destroy compiled in an hour or less.
So, they tie themselves to something. Attach their name to it. Something big and influential usually, that people cherish. So you cannot set out to destroy it without your whole city, country, or species allying against you.
Where I’m originally from, they used a children’s hospital. It was the last name of the guy they’d dedicated it to. In another I’ve visited, it was the name of a holy city. It’s always something you can’t destroy.
Countless have tried. Mail bombs, suicide bombings, arson. Always condemned by the media as unhinged losers out to harm the innocent. They really stack the deck against you any way they can. They have a great many powerful enemies, after all.”
As he led me to the far end of the room, I dwelled on the girl who’s life I’d accidentally destroyed. However vivid, all of this must still be a dream, so I felt torn between guilt and skepticism as to whether anybody had actually died.
I knew better than to say so in light of how they’d reacted. Whatever all of this really is, it’s under their control. I dare not provoke them under such conditions. Soon we arrived at a grand pair of wooden doors with polished brass knobs.
“This is who you’re looking for”. He handed me a photograph of a pale girl with long black hair, wearing a faded, frilly green dress. “She’s beautiful” I gasped. “Who is she?” Professor Travigan tucked the photo into my pocket with the glass orb. “Her name is Violet. At one time, a rising star in The Institute’s oneironautics division.”
I struggled to pronounce the term until he set me straight. “Oneironautics. The exploration and documentation of dreams. What you’ve been doing for many years now, with startling success for an amatuer. It’s why you were chosen. We saw your posts about the foundry. That barren, cursed place in which you’ve been trapped every night until recently.
We run a continuous automated search for mentions of keywords related to it, investigate those who post about it and delete all mentions of it thereafter. It was one of ours who tipped off your mother about the sleep study.”
I complained that it still wasn’t clear what I was meant to actually do. “Violet’s been taken hostage. Someplace even we cannot reach her. The man responsible isn’t one of ours, but he is accessible through the Manifold whenever he sleeps. Somewhere in the recesses of his unconscious mind are the coordinates and authorization codes we need to extract Violet. Her condition is stable for the time being but there’s no telling how long she’ll last.
Find Violet first. She’s under instruction to guide you to Dr. Bizen, your target. He is nowhere near as seasoned an oneironaut as either you or Violet, so between the two of you it should be possible to outsmart him. You already know how to locate orbs, and Violet will be in contact with you through your remote. Do try not to get her killed as well? Off you go.”
Over my objections, he opened the double doors, pushed me through, then shut and locked them behind me. Talk about sink or swim. The room before me was as incomprehensible as the last. The backstoppers were present here as well, though restrained within brass cages at the corners of the ceiling. I shuddered, but remembered their necessity. Without the correct movement of time, my task would be impossible to complete.
Overhead I watched as entire rooms shifted about on rails relative to one another. Something like a Rubik’s cube or sliding tile puzzle. The entire structure of the mansion dynamically mutable even as I inhabited it, making a low pitched groaning, grinding sound as it continuously rearranged itself. Through windows in the moving rooms I could see uniformed Institute officials milling about, talking with one another, doing paperwork and so on.
The remote pinged. So softly I wasn’t sure it really had until the second time. I navigated about bookshelves, couches and tables until I arrived at the next set of double doors. The ping was noticeably stronger here but not much. I proceeded through them into the next room. Incomplete as it turned out, the far end open to the outside. I didn’t realize that was possible.
A brisk wind whipped my hair about as I approached the edge of the floor. Wooden beams continued a little further above and below, but did not meaningfully obstruct my view of the landscape. The mansion seemed to be perched atop a very high, narrow mountain with a long, winding road spiraling down it.
The fields nearly out to the horizon looked to be subdivided for agriculture, with a mountain range just beyond. If I leaned out a bit, I could see the rooms of the mansion sliding, locking and rotating from the outside. It defied my understanding of what was possible in the Manifold, though admittedly I’d only seen the foundry until now.
A strong wind threatened to toss me out of the opening, so I hastily backed away and sought the next set of doors. The ping grew stronger and stronger as I continued, until I located a glass orb within a dresser drawer. I assumed it worked the same as the last one, and peered into it. As though it were a three dimensional hole, I could see something of the destination on the other side.
Amidst sparkling points that I took to be bubbles trapped in the glass, I glimpsed a row of bookshelves. As I looked, my surroundings began to blur and I felt myself drawn into the orb. The transition was as abrupt as before, and a moment later I found myself someplace else.
A grand library of some sort. I’d passed the occasional bookshelf to get here, but this room contained nearly nothing but shelf after shelf of dusty old books. Same wood, same polish and styling as the mansion I’d come from, so I concluded it must be another part of it. After some wandering, I came upon a truly stunning sight.
An entire wall consisting of windows, faceted like stained glass but all of them transparent with no coloration. Through them I could see that the library protruded off the side of the mountain a ways and included a modest gazebo like structure, suspended by a chain from an arched iron support. There it dangled precariously in the open air, accessible by a hanging walkway consisting of wrought iron and birch planks.
I found Violet there, curled up in a great leather seat, reading some thick esoteric tome about dreams. I didn’t expect finding her to be so easy. Then again, I had a great deal of help. If not for Professor Travigan I’d still be hopelessly stranded in the Foundry. “I wondered when you’d come.” She spoke as if she knew me, and some deeply nested part of my brain reacted strongly to it. Why?
“You’ve still got your remote. Good. Don’t let it out of your sight. You’ll also want to take this with you.” She handed me a glass orb. I explained that professor Travigan already told me to keep hold of the remote at all costs. “Did he tell you about...them?” I began to ask if she meant the backstoppers but she produced her own remote and muted me before I could say it. I continued trying to speak in my confusion, unable to make a sound until she un-muted me.
“Don’t ever say their name. Don’t read anything around here that you don’t know for certain is uncorrupted. They like to slip it in where you least expect. Bits and pieces won’t do you in but a dozen or so uninterrupted repetitions either spoken aloud or in your head, and….well, by now you’ve probably seen what happens.” I thought back to poor Julia and, now convinced of the reality of my situation, felt impaled by a surge of guilt.
“I bet he also told you that they’re just part of the machinery of the universe. That unfortunate fools who accidentally trigger them are like grasshoppers ground up in the chains of a combine harvester.” I nodded. “A pack of liars is what they are” she continued. “The Institute created those things to make time travel difficult and dangerous for anybody else, in order to monopolize time control. Not anticipating that it could be turned against them.”
I’m not the sort to take sides, though they did rope me into all this under the pretense that it was a “dream study”. Part of me wanted to split. The rest wouldn’t allow it. I’ve always been a sucker for a beautiful girl, and as Violet stood before me, try as I might I couldn’t conscion leaving her like this.
Something about the shape of her eyes. The color of her dress. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d met before, years ago. Perhaps when we were children. Some half-remembered glimmer of recognition floated to the surface of my mind the moment I’d seen her picture, and was only growing stronger by the minute.
“When you’re done staring, I’ll show you to his office.” I abruptly diverted my eyes, fooling nobody. Had I really been so obvious about it? “It’s just….I feel like we’ve….” She waited expectantly, but I couldn’t bear to say the rest. “Nevermind. Lead the way.” She raised her eyebrow, but then took my hand and directed me to an elevator.
It was the sort you’d expect to see in a very old hotel, but in better repair. No proper door, but a highly polished brass gate which closes in the manner of a scissor jack. Oddly there were no buttons for selecting the floor you’d like, only an unusual mechanism that included a pair of film spools.
To ascend, you turned a crank which advanced the film. To descend, the inverse. Like an old fashioned movie camera or a projector, but without any obvious means of projecting anything. “One more thing” Violet said as the gate closed. “Don’t use your remote too much. The flow of time is less strictly enforced in the Manifold, but it’s still possible to provoke them.”
No need to ask who she meant. It’d been percolating in the back of my mind since the incident with Julia. The Manifold seemed a vast, dark jungle to me, filled with things I did not yet know enough to be frightened of. The elevator arrived on the top floor with a hollow, metallic sounding ding and I disembarked into a room which only proved more beautiful and strange than the last.
A grand bay window took up the far wall. Shaped somewhat like a lemon, or eye, in three parts: A left pointing triangular window, a square shaped window in the center, then a right pointing triangular window. Each with elaborate inset designs, though like the windows from the floor below, none of it was dyed. Light poured in through them, given the appearance of solidity by swirling dust passing through.
Before the window stood a sturdy, strangely familiar looking desk. On it, a quaint little machine beneath a glass dome that I recognized as the device stockholders used to receive stock market information from, via continuously printed paper tape. “Don’t touch that” a voice boomed from behind me. I stiffened as I turned to look. “You’ve no idea what it does.”
The man I guessed to be Doctor Bizen only stood up to my chin. Aging, portly and wearing a green sweater vest, after he’d been built up so much by professor Travigan I envisioned somebody more imposing. “You’re here about the girl, aren’t you.” Already having failed to get the drop on him, I considered lying only briefly. May as well be direct at this point.
“Why are you holding her here? It’s killing her.” He ambled over to the windows behind his desk and peered wistfully out at the landscape below. “Ah, Violet. My little pet. She’s an interesting case, isn’t she? Yes, very interesting indeed.” I huffed. It was as if I’d said nothing at all! So I grew more insistent. “You’re going to release Violet.” He reacted so slowly that, at first, I thought he didn’t hear me.
“...I’m going to do what, you say? You’re quite imaginative you know. Release her? Whatever for? She is my golden goose. With her, I can turn it all around. All of it. They’ll see they were wrong about my research. Wrong to send me to this dreadful place. To sweep me under the rug! I don’t know how much Violet told you but I’d wager I know which parts she left out. What makes her different. If you knew, you would not be so easily cowed by a pretty face. Not if you knew.”
No need. For I knew what I felt when I saw her, the only part of all this that felt unquestionably real. And that despite his doddering, easygoing demeanor, there was a strong menacing undercurrent to Dr. Bizen’s voice. No need to pound his chest or make any other show of strength. It could only mean that he had me at some invisible disadvantage.
I nervously searched the room for any sign of weaponry or traps, but nothing stood out. Only bookcases to either side, the ticker tape machine on his desk, and a decorative globe. I leaned in to search for the names of countries I knew, fiddling with the remote until the labels were in English. All of them read “Backstoppers”. I grimaced, and looked away.
However you try to ignore them, they’re always there. Quietly. Part of the background, going unnoticed until you know what to look for. After that, they’re everywhere. The genie that will not go back into the bottle. So, I hatched a plan. As he mumbled to himself, I pointed my remote at the ticker tape machine and cycled through languages until I hit English.
“This can’t last”, I said. “You know they’re coming for you. I’ve seen what they can do.” He didn’t appear to react. “Are you listening? The men in the uniforms. They’re masters of this place. Do you really think you can defy them?” He only stood there, continuing to rub his chin. Then I heard him chuckle...from behind me. “I’m no slouch myself, you know.”
I did a double take. There he stood, holding a remote of his own. That’s when it dawned on me. I now had some notion, at least, of what the REC button was for. “You might ask yourself why they sent you. Alone, no less. What can you do that they cannot? The defenses I designed all key into their cardiac arresters. Only an amatuer without one implanted could walk past all of it undetected.
Someone lucid enough to follow directions but with no real idea of the dangers involved, or you’d never have been suckered into it. That’s the other half: you’re disposable to them. What sort of masters do you work for? Think hard about whether you can trust what they’ve told you about me.” He fiddled with his own remote and the doppleganger standing at the window vanished.
The remote in his hands looked cobbled together. Neither obsolete like mine, nor the sleek black wonder gadgets wielded by the uniformed men from the entry hall. I recognized parts of it from the mechanism in the elevator.
The spools were internal, but like an opened up camera, there was a strip of exposed film running down one side of it. Sliding it in either direction presumably advanced or reversed time, while all other functions were performed by standard buttons.
“You’re out of your depth. This is an old man’s game. They’ve sunk to a new low, dragging amateurs into the middle of it.” I glared as he talked down to me. As though I couldn’t possibly pose a credible threat. “You mean like Violet?” I quipped. Must’ve been a sore spot, as he whipped around and snarled at me.
“Don’t speak about topics you have no knowledge of! She’s cold inside, you foolish boy. Her life is in no danger and never was! She was dead before we met. It’s what makes her such a scientifically invaluable curiosity.” More senile babble. Seemed to be a pattern with this guy, but he stopped short when I withdrew the glass orb from my pocket.
“....My goodness. Be careful with that! Do you realize what you have there? Best give it to me before you hurt someone.” I backed away and raised the orb above my head, visibly startling him. “Easy now, easy. You don’t want to break one of those. A whole universe comes out. One within another, within another. And Heaven help you, should you carry one orb through another. I told you, you’re out of your depth. Now just set it down carefully, and-”
As he spoke, forms emerged from the orb which swiftly resolved into striking figures clad in black velvet uniforms with shiny black boots and gloves. What followed was absolute pandemonium which exceeds any possibility of satisfactory description. Somehow the mind crippling possibilities of multiple people using weaponized remotes against one another hadn’t yet occurred to me.
Black blurs sped around the room as the Institute men, on fast forward, evaded Dr. Bizen’s futile attempts to pause them. He then clicked fast forward himself and for several seconds I had absolutely no idea who was who, what was happening and whether or not I should flee. Then one of the black figures halted in place. Paused by Dr. Bizen, who then carefully aimed his remote and pressed power. The uniformed man vanished.
Dead, or just awakened? No way to tell. No time to ask either, although time was growing increasingly meaningless as the battle unfolded around me. One after another, more men in black velvet uniforms emerged from the orb. And in turn, each of them was paused by the green blur I now figured for Dr. Bizen, then forced out of the Manifold entirely. I finally understood. I’d only ever been a mule. Somebody to smuggle the orb past his traps so they could get to him.
They never cared what happened to me. Not the Institute. Not even Violet, much as it pained me to admit it. The black blurs dwindled in number until the last few stood frozen in various poses around the room.
Doctor Bizen slowed to a comprehensible speed, pointed his remote at the orb, then pressed stop. The light inside flickered and went dark. “If it were that easy to stop me, don’t you think they’d have extracted the girl by now?” he gloated, snatching the orb from me.
“More are on their way. You haven’t won.” My bluff was just as transparent to him as I’d intended. But to be safe, he waddled over to his desk to check the ticker tape machine. Immediately he cried out in fear, recoiling and nearly tumbling backwards with one hand over his eyes. I approached as he writhed about on the floor, and despite myself, glanced at the tape.
Just as I expected, there it was. Over and over in an unbroken string. The machine only continued to print more of it as I stomped on the custom remote he’d dropped, reducing it to scrap. “Stay back!” he threatened, holding out the glass orb as if to drop it. I backed away as instructed, but then narrowed my eyes, smiled, and produced the real orb from my pocket. He blinked incredulously, then flew into a rage once he realized what I’d done.
I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish by hurling the fake orb at me. What I do know is that when I reflexively pointed my remote at it and hit rewind, it flew backwards along the same trajectory. Only he’d moved his hand since then. So it sailed right past him, smashing through the bay window.
The moment the glass panes shattered, the illusion of the landscape on the other side faded away, revealing what he’d been hoarding there all this time. What, in his vanity, he believed he could forever maintain control over. An endless geometric array of floating platforms spiraling off into infinity. Each bearing the same desk, the same wall, the same clock. Each supporting the same familiar ghostly figure, going about its eternal routine.
“You’ve fucked us!” He wailed, loose strands of grey hair falling over his eyes as he struggled to get up from the floor. “You’ve done it now! Why didn’t you listen?” His voice was soon drowned out by the increasingly loud ticking. Accompanied for the first time by their voices. Carefully defaulted to mute anywhere they’ll be near people, for the first time I could hear what they really sound like.
I winced, then put my hands over my ears trying to shut out the maddening rhythm. No good. I had to remove one in order to aim the remote and mute them. But even then I could only mute them one at a time. My head started to hurt. When I tasted something warm and coppery in my mouth, I rubbed my hand along my upper lip and discovered my nose was bleeding. Ears too.
The rhythm does it. Like spinning gears. Like thumping pistons inside your head. Relentless, recursive, secondhand insanity. I thought I couldn’t hear myself think at first, but then realized I was finding it increasingly difficult to form thoughts at all. Except for one. I stumbled backwards, jaw hanging open in dismay as they began to pour out through the shattered window. Replicating unrestrained, rapidly filling the office with more of themselves.
I could no longer see the fat little doctor. He’d been enveloped by it in the span of a few seconds after the windows broke. So I fled for the elevator, fumbling with the weird controls as the surreal, kaleidoscopic swarm expanded towards me. Finally as I tugged at the film, the gate closed and the elevator car descended. I could still hear them approaching from above, the rhythm of their voices and the tick-tick-ticking now so intense I could feel it as vibrations through the floor.
The moment the gate opened on the floor below I erupted from the elevator car, calling out for Violet. “What’s the matter?” she breathlessly inquired, sensing my panic. Before I could answer, they reached the bottom of the elevator shaft behind me and began to fill the library. The moment she saw it, her face contorted with rage. “You did this, didn’t you. It’s all your fault! Really got my hopes up...I thought you’d be the one.”
I glanced back at the advancing 3D grid of platforms, desks and clocks. Then I turned back to plead with her for forgiveness, but she was nowhere to be seen. The orb I’d been holding was also gone. I stood there sputtering for a moment in stark disbelief that she’d really done such a thing. The spreading contagion nearly upon me, I fled to the far end of the library, then through the double doors into the next room.
But they were propagating too quickly to escape on foot. Each time I peered over my shoulder the wavefront was closer than before, that monotonous chant heralding their approach. An epiphany struck me: While they were too numerous to slow or pause individually, I could instead speed myself up.
So I pointed the remote at myself and pressed fast forward. At once, the world slowed around me into a sort of blurred, fluidic continuum. I could feel air being pushed out of the way as I walked down the corridor, now thicker than water. But without the orb, I could only run so far. Each world I’d so far accessed consisted of only a few rooms.
Like being painted into a corner in slow motion. Eventually I backed out of the building and onto the walkway leading to the hanging gazebo. There would soon be no place left to stand. What if I leapt off?
Falling usually wakes me up. But couldn’t it kill me here? Or would I be fine without the cardiac device? Questions furiously jockied for my attention, no answers forthcoming and no time to really consider any of it. My anxiety approached infinity as, at last, my hand was forced.
Of all the frivolous things to think about at a time like that, I found myself agonizing over how I’d disappointed Violet. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew her from some other time and place. That this might’ve been my sole chance to liberate her. Somehow, that’s what stung the most as I raised the remote to the side of my head and pressed power.
I awoke with a gasp, bolting upright and choking on my own breath. I leaned over the side of the bed as for a moment I thought I might throw up. Nothing came of it, so I then sat there for a minute or two just catching my breath and letting the pounding in my chest subside.
I briefly searched the building for Travigan, finding most of the doors locked. Not actually wanting to face him and not knowing what else to do, I took my jacket, got into my car and drove home. Rain started up a few minutes into the drive. I was soon lost in thought as the prismatic multitude of water droplets snaked their way down the windshield.
Took what felt like years to finally arrive. It’s a miracle I wasn’t in an accident. Even after I climbed the stairs to my apartment and flopped down on my bed, I couldn’t make myself focus on the here and now. Plagued by visions of Violet, still trapped in the Manifold. That is if any of it really happened.
Was I drugged? I’d never so much as discovered if he was a real professor, much less one qualified to perform human experiments. Should’ve trusted my gut, yet another fuckup. And yet, the subsequent nights I had a variety of dreams. The way it was before the foundry, the way it’s supposed to be. I also vaguely remembered waking up with the remote in my hand. Didn’t I?
Recovery came slowly as memories of the ordeal threw me for a loop. At work, at school, even when I next met Mom for Sunday dinner. She noticed it right away. “I’m worried about you.” I smiled weakly as I pushed the contents of my enchilada plate around with a fork. “When are you not worried about me?”
But as ever, she wouldn’t let it go that easily. “Something’s different, you’ve gotten worse. Before you just looked tired and skinny. Now I could swear you’re seriously ill. I really thought that sleep study would be a silver bullet, but look how it’s left you. It’s all my fault.” I immediately met her gaze and took her hands in mine. “No it isn’t” I insisted, staring intently. “It’s mine. My fault. Don’t you ever blame yourself. I did this.”
She teared up, and chose her words carefully before speaking next. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault. Maybe sometimes, terrible things just happen. There’s no meaning, no moral to take away and nobody to punish.” We sat there for some time like that, her hands subtly quivering as I held them.
Took a lot out of me. Talking about it, however veiled, always does. I didn’t want to do anything but go home and sleep off the Mexican food. But I’d promised Mom that we’d have a look in the storage unit this week, so on the way home I pulled into the U-STOR-IT complex and parked outside of the bright orange sliding door with 131 on it.
The sky was a matte grey smear. Cloudy, presumably. But the sort where you can’t pick out individual clouds or even the texture of them. “It’ll do my heart good to sell some of this stuff” Mom opined as she climbed out of the car. “I dunno. Maybe it’s just symbolic? But I really don’t want it around anymore. It’s like ripping off a bandage.”
I’d heard this a number of times before, but this time she finally seemed serious about it. Enough to have me drive her out here. Enough to let me pile his old things into the trunk as she checked them off a list she’d prepared. Maybe this was really a new start. Maybe we could finally begin building a new life atop the ashes of the old.
Then I found his desk in the back of the storage unit. It all came back to me. I’d been the one to put it there, on that day. Wound still fresh, eyes red and puffy as I leaned into it with my shoulder, sliding the unwanted reminder as far into the dark, dusty recesses of the storage unit as possible. But it’d been there all this time nonetheless. Waiting.
My hands shook as I reached for the drawer. I froze. No need to look, surely? It must’ve been cleaned out. I’d done that first, hadn’t I? No need to look. Yet my hands continued of their own accord. Tugging the creaky old drawer open. Unfolding the brittle, yellowed sheet of paper inside. The one with the pistol underneath it.
Still loaded by the looks of it. Safety hadn’t exactly been at the front of my mind when I’d stashed the desk here all those years ago. I turned my attention to the paper, unfolding it with great care. Why read it? Why? No need. I just couldn’t stop. Some part of me refused every effort to fold it back up and return it to the drawer. A splinter in my mind.
“I wish I could make you understand why I did this”, the note read. “It must seem to you like no reason could suffice. But life sometimes takes strange turns, and you wind up in a position you never anticipated. Contemplating the unthinkable.
You must never blame yourself for it. Above all else, I want you to remember that. I love you and your mother dearly. I only did this to protect both of you from something I dare not put in writing. There are indeed more things in Heaven and Earth than dreamt of in our philosophy, some of which mean us harm.
It has me now. I’m writing this during a precious moment of lucidity. But that will pass, and I’ll again be overtaken. If there were any other way to insulate you two from it, you must believe I wouldn’t resort to this. I know how it’s going to affect both of you, but I have no other choice. Forgive me.”
A crusty black stain marred the lower lefthand corner. I knew damn well what it was before it dried. The tears rolled down my face freely now, forming damp spots on the note wherever they fell. Why’d I have to look. One fuckup after the next. I turned to see Mom standing there, staring at the note. Too late to conceal it from her. I nudged the drawer shut with my knee so she’d at least not see the gun.
“Just...just an old shopping list” I fibbed. “All sorts of old stuff in here.” Much too late, I wiped the tears away with my coat sleeve. “Backstoppers” she replied. “Stoppersback”.