Preface: I was playing with a new style and concept, and it didn’t work. Most would agree that it’s not my best story.
Isaac was looking forward to falling asleep, and it wasn’t just because the day at work had been exhausting. Ever since he had learned to lucid dream, that world had been preferable to his waking one. In the dream, he could do what he wanted. Growing up, he had always remembered his dreams more than most. Then, when he first learned the lucid dreaming technique as an adult, it opened a door inside him he didn’t even realize existed. There, he didn’t just experience the dream as a passive audience viewed a movie. He composed it. He felt like a musician imagining a symphony, but more, as if that person also heard the piece performed live as he was writing it. Flying around his dream world, teleporting, and people doing whatever he wanted were all very basic tasks once he learned to access wakefulness within the dream world.
Isaac knew he had to be asleep and coherent in order to obey when she called him, however.
One of the dangers with lucid dreaming is his own imagination blurring with the lines of reality. So they were all instructed to carry tethers of some sort. The idea behind the token was that it would change slightly when in the dream world. One woman had a necklace, which was cracked in real life, which would be whole again when in the dream world. That way she would be able to look at it and its condition would let her know which world she dwelt in. Isaac’s tether wasn’t tangible – not exactly. He had always wanted a tattoo on his wrist, but couldn’t because of his work. In this dream world, though, he had that tattoo. It wound around his wrist, like a bracelet, with a matching circle just below his elbow. They were connected along the radial nerve by a single, tribal strand of ink to match the others, forming a tattooed cuff around his lower arm. It was subtle – black against his dark skin – and elegant. Working as a doctor, he almost never even saw his arm while awake. When he did happen to catch a glimpse of himself in the real world, he was often surprised to see the blank arm, he was that used to seeing it within his dream realm.
Whatever tokens or tethers each person had, it was also what she used to summon them. Wherever they were in their dreams, if they were able to comprehend her call, they would see the token grow white hot and bright. Isaac had no idea how she did it, but there were many inexplicable things about the old woman.
When Isaac obeyed, that was when the true – the only word he had for it was magic – would happen. They would all gather at what she had taken to calling the sanctuary. Isaac was a doctor, and had always done well in school, but this technology was well beyond him. She had tried to explain it to him once, but he had finally come to accept it as essentially a lightning rod for lucid dreamers, drawing those she chose to her sanctuary.
The first time Isaac met her, he had come to him, entering into his dream in a way he still couldn’t explain. Like everything else in his waking dreams, he assumed the old woman was just a figment of his imagination. Isaac simply had to blink – going from his home city of Lagos to the smaller Nigerian village he had grown up in, which was opposite the sprawling capital in nearly every way. Smog became wide-leaved jungle trees, river of traffic became the background roar of flowing water. But, that fateful day, she remained, watching him from a distance. She was white – a relatively rare sight this deep in the rainforest but far more common in the hospital.
Feeling completely safe in his dream world, and quite aware he was dreaming, Isaac had been comfortable as he studied her. He was surprised when she spoke without his prompting, then again by her words.
“Do you understand me?” she asked in English. Her wrinkled hands sat comfortably folded in front of her, as if she were as aware Isaac was dreaming as he was.
Though not Isaac’s primary language, his mother had been a missionary from England, so he grew up hearing that tongue as much as his father’s. At the hospital it came in handy, as many tourists who came to the city knew only that language, or perhaps that language in combination with one heard even more sparsely in central Africa. Either way, it was enough to communicate to his patients, wherever they were from.
“I do.” Out of curiosity, Isaac did what he could to change her hair color. Nothing. It should have been an easy manipulation in his dream. “Who are you?”
“My name is Agatha.” Not a name he would have imagined on his own.
Was he awake, then? No, he could still control other facets of his dream. That was the only way he knew at the time to test the idea, as it was Agatha who had taught him about tokens. “What’s going on?” Isaac asked aloud, more to himself than this stranger.
“Do you feel it?” Isaac realized later that she was teaching him to find his own way to the sanctuary. In that moment, though, it felt like a line from a bad movie.
It wasn’t an auditory call, as her suggestion implied, but the internal quiet still helped him recognize what she was talking about.
“You do feel it. Good.” And with that, she was gone. Not in a blink or a pop, but in that odd jolting-yet-stretched momentum that was so signature of dreams, as if she had never been there to converse with him in the first place.
But that call remained.
Why not? It was a dream world, after all, with no real consequences in the waking world. Since the summons was closer to a hunger than the homing instinct of a pigeon, he didn’t exactly have a direction to walk. But, with the unnaturalness yet comfort of lucid dreaming, he could simply think and be there. Now that she had gotten him to recognize it, the need to answer the call was almost insatiable. So he did.
It was a strange place. Well, strange in that it was remarkably normal. The room was like the cafeteria at the hospital, but quite abandoned. Posters in English about nutrition were sun-bleached and peeling. A window had had something thrown through it at some point, causing a draft to run parallel to the shielded lunch counter, long bereft of food.
“Do you like it?”
Isaac spun to see the woman gazing proudly around the cavernous room. “What am I looking at?”
“We call it the sanctuary.”
Isaac was more taken aback by her first word than her last. “We?”
“They’ll be here soon,” she answered mysteriously.
“Time is relative in the dream,” he commented. Sometimes, in his own experience, he had spent days in the dream and it had been mere hours in the real world.
The old woman smiled. “You’re right there.” The chilling breeze picked up again, and, annoyed, Isaac gestured to the broken window to repair it.
But it didn’t change. Neither did the debris on the floor, nor the failing posters. Nothing here was changeable? Like the woman herself, this place was outside of his control. “Any idea why I can’t make it warmer in here?” Isaac asked. Even if she was merely his imagination, she was being helpful in answering his questions.
“Because we’re real. This place is real, I am real, the others are real. You cannot change another’s imagination, only your own.” She kept referring to others.
Then the scope of what was happening began to sink in. “Real? You mean you exist, well, somewhere?”
“I’m from the Americas, yes. I built this place to bring people similar to myself – people like you – together.”
Conjoined dreaming? Crossing across continents? Around the world? It was a concept tossed around more in works of fiction than science. Was lucid dreaming the key, then? Isaac had so many questions, he could hardly settle on which to ask first. “What do you mean people like me?”
The old woman merely grinned at his question.
“Good to see you again, Agatha.” Another voice, this time young and male, appeared before Isaac could fine the speaker. He was white, and younger than Isaac. “Who’s the new bloke?” It took Isaac a moment to place the accent. Australian. Cool.
“Isaac.” He offered his name as well as his hand.
“He’s still deciding if we’re real or not,” the old woman informed her new friend.
The newcomer’s smile was easy. “You could spend the rest of your time among us debating that very thing. Best just to accept it and hang on for the ride, mate,” the man said with a wink.
“Don’t frighten him, Sebastian,” came another voice, this time young and female. Isaac turned to notice, not one, but two beautiful young women sitting as they joined the group in the odd room.
Then another two men appeared, one was Japanese, by the looks of him, and the other of some sort of Latin origin. One from each continent, at least racially, Isaac realized.
That was how his first meeting at the sanctuary started.