The walls around me are bright white, almost like a mirror. Facing them, I can see just how strange I look. A dark black jumpsuit that emits a soft green glow, bare feet, with sensors and wires are attached to my fingers and chest. The room around me is echoing with the beeping of machines and a slight but heavy hum coming from the DreamScape2000. A neon screen catches my eye and I watch it flicker curiously. Numbers run horizontally up and down the screen, slowly cycling out. None of it makes sense to me but the staff here at Lake Laboratories seem to understand it perfectly fine.
Two scientists, Dr. Cleo and Dr. Lakes, stand over the coffin-like box running last minute checks. This will be my third time in the simulator. The first time was scary, of course, but then incredible. That’s when I had a picnic with Van Gogh and he gave me a painting lesson in a field of sunflowers while I vented about my father. It was strangely euphoric.
My second time in the simulator was not that great. In fact, it was flat-out terrifying. I was unaware that Cleo and Lakes were also creating a genre of horror landscapes, and I was the lucky duck that got to try that one out for the first time. It was like I was in a living nightmare.
Even if I wasn’t getting paid as much as I do to be their human lab rat, and was once subjected to a terrible desert filled with lizard-men who wanted to kill me, I reckon I would still want to participate. These machines have been in the making for years now and the media was very vocal about them. Every news platform, social media channel, and chatroom was talking about the DreamScape2000. Everyone wanted to try them out, even me.
When my chemistry professor approached me after class and asked me if I’d want to apply to the trial, I jumped at the chance. So here I am, four months and dozens of physical and mental tests later, making history. Who’d have thunk it?
Cleo and Lakes come up to me and slide the heavy black helmet onto my head. The inside of the helmet is padded, but I can feel some hard discs spaced out along my skull. Dr. Cleo slides the visor shut over my face.
They give me the same run down as twice before. My heartbeat automatically will be slowed to near-death once I am completely submerged in the saline chamber. I have exactly one hour to explore the new platform they created, named Cloud Nine.
The goal is to take mental note of everything that happens. What does it look like compared to the simulation they showed me? Are there any glitches in the scenery? How realistic is it? Any positive and negative feedback is not just welcomed, it’s obligatory. They even have rights to scan my subconscious for details I may have forgotten.
If I have any troubles, I am to press the red button on my watch, which could not more obviously have been a panic button. The watch, which will also offer me a countdown to keep track of time, wasn’t one that would ever fall off, so I didn’t need to worry about that. It had been tattooed on my wrist and hurt like a bitch, but it worked like a real watch.
The doctors reiterate. If I need to press the button for whatever reason, the trial will end within one minute. I’ve heard this before and am not really paying attention. My hands were shaking from nerves or adrenaline or both. This will be my third run, yes. But, it will also be my last. I’ve been one of twelve beta-testers, all of whom were given only three full chances in the simulator and I know that I am no different.
“Gia, you got this?” Dr. Lake said.
“Yup. Let’s do this.” I said, while feeling like an absolute badass.
The young, red-haired lab assistant, who’s name I never learnt, sets up a ladder before the machine; my signal that it’s time to start. I step up the ladder and then lower myself feet first into the water. It’s warm and smells salty, and I can feel some light bubbles coming from somewhere below.
Right before I put my head under water, I check that it is completely sealed. My experience in the test-session lightly traumatized me when the water slowly started leaking in and nearly filled up the whole helmet. Every move I make is careful.
Dr. Cleo attaches the tubes to the back of my helmet that will be pumping me oxygen. Finally, I lay back, slowly, and once again my body is completely submerged. A blue light on the lining of the inside of the machine illuminates as a thin layer of plastic moves to cover my entire body. As soon as it clicks into place above my head, Lakes shuts the machine and I hear a rush of air being suctioned out of the DreamScape. The bubbles stop. Everything around me goes dark and I feel myself fall backward.
It’s as if I’m doing flips in the empty air until I find myself surrounded by a pale blue sky. I look down at my body. I’m still barefoot and wearing the black jumpsuit, but the helmet and wires attached to my body are gone. I wiggle my toes and feel the cool, fluffy sensation of the cloud. I kick my left foot forward and pieces of smoke swirl up into the air. It’s like a thick, warm fog and it’s extremely pleasant.
Hundreds of clouds, big and small, surround me as far as I can see. Some are thin and stretch out into eternity, others have curled into spirals and climb even higher into the sky. Below me is just a pale yellow space that fades to purple, green and pink into the same deep indigo as sky above me. There’s no source of light as far as I can see. It almost looks like I’m in some sort of sphere.
I look around me. There are birds flying around that look like they are made of paper, like origami, and hot air balloons floating in the distance. They sway and rock in the sky but I myself feel no breeze. They remind me of a baby’s cradle.
I turn around and my heart stops when I see I am at the very edge of a cloud. One step forward and (on Earth at least) I would fall down and down until I land somewhere. But I know this is, quite literally, a safe space. I can’t feel pain. I can’t get hurt. I can’t die. Somehow this doesn’t calm me as much as it should.
I glance over the edge to get a better view of what lies below and see the top of a ladder peaking out. Down it went, probably connecting to another cloud underneath. As I lower myself onto the ladder, my body slowly descends to the next cloud, like I’m in a video game.
My body is light here and the gravity is weak. When my feet touch the next pillow of fog, I bounce. I take a little hop and get a light feeling in my stomach. I feel like I’m made of bubbles. The cloud gives me a completely different view of the scenery than the one above.
There are two lone pillars that look like they are made of paper or maybe an extremely solid cloud. As I assess my surroundings, I notice that some of the clouds are shaped funny. I see some shaped like a heart, a bunny, a mustache, and a large ship. I can tell that there is a lot to explore here and decide that this is my favorite landscape yet. Hopefully Dr. Cleo and Lakes will let me come back even after the study ends.
Checking the watch on my wrist, I’m surprised to see that my hour is already halfway up. I climb onto another cloud and then another and then another. The higher I get, the darker the sky becomes. Soon, I see shining stars popping into the sky.
There are statues on some of the clouds. There is a horse in mid-jump that looks like it belongs on a carousel and two giant statues of sleeping babies. A kite tethered to a distant cloud, floating thirty feet into the air, with colorful ribbons trailing alongside it. Each cloud I climb offers a new perspective and many more discoveries. I can tell that this platform has many layers and more.
As my hour ticks away, I catch sight of a huge castle made of, you guessed it, cloud. I’m reminded of a sandcastle. Not a lot of detail in this particular apparition, but very creative.
I only have a few minutes left now and decide to spend it jumping and doing flips on one of the clouds. This one was built like a trampoline. I never seem to run out of breath and suddenly feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to test drive this new invention. It will be something I tell my grandkids. Maybe, I’ll even write a book about this. This new gaming technology (which will likely bleed over to government studies and, based on humanity’s history, military and war) is going to be revolutionary.
I watch as my watch ticks down from ten seconds to five, four, three, two, and one. I close my eyes and wait for the familiar feeling of falling back into the machine. But nothing happens.
Maybe my watch is off a minute or two. I wait two more minutes but nothing happens, so I press the red button on my watch. I’m still on the cloud.
When I look around, all I see are hundreds of white shapes and no way out. Time is passing slowly, so I just sit down, pressing the red button repeatedly. My heart starts to thump in my chest and my lips and the back of my ears go numb.
This has never happened before. Even on the first trial, I left after thirty-seven minutes. I was beginning to panic. I take deep breaths to slow my heart rate. I remember Dr. Lakes telling me that panicking would interfere with the machine’s ability to properly display my surroundings. The landscape around me starts to flicker and glitch out, and soon a huge portion of my surroundings go black.
My hands are shining with sweat and my face feels hot. I realized we never had a plan for if the simulation doesn’t end on time. I don’t know what to do.
When thirty minutes have passed, I come to a conclusion. I am stuck.