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 emitting from the DreamScape2000. A neon screen catches my eye and I watch it flicker curiously. Thin lines of computer code seems to be dragged across the screen, like a lonely worker painting the lines of a newly lain road. None of it makes sense to me but the staff here at Lake Laboratories seem to have no trouble with it at all.
Two scientists, Dr. Cleo and Dr. Lakes, stand over a coffin-like box running last minute checks. As directors of this project, they will be attending my third time in the simulator. The first time was scary, of course, but in an incredibly gratifying and addictive way. That simulation was a picnic with Van Gogh on a soft summer day. A gentle breeze shifted the golden field of wheat around us, as if it were the rocking waves of the ocean. As the sun shone down on us, Vincent helped me draw the scene that lay before us. With each stroke, we added more and more life to our own little sliver in time. The one he and I shared together.
It is one of my own fondest memories, and it wasn’t even real. It was the result of a stroke of luck on my part to participate in some weird time-travel-meets-virtual-reality game being built by some big shot company that I didn’t, quite frankly, care about at all.
My second time in the simulator was not that great. Ok fine, 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 the exact nightmare that I had for ten months, when I was eleven years old.
Even if I wasn’t getting paid as much as I do to be their human lab rat, I reckon I would still want to participate. These machines have been in the making for years now and the media won’t shut up with them. Every news platform, social media channel, and chatroom was talking about the DreamScape2000. Even the eighteen-story Sega building downtown had ads out for it every once in a while. Everyone wanted to try them out, myself included.
When my chemistry professor approached me after class last spring and asked me if I’d want to apply to be a beta-tester, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t quite wonder why they had chosen me. In fact, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just happy to be in the same room as the creators. So here I am, four months and dozens of physical and mental tests later, making history. Who’d have thunk it?
Presently, Cleo and Lakes came up to me and slid the heavy black helmet onto my head. Like always, my head wobbles a bit as I get used to the weight. The inside of the helmet is padded, but I can still feel some hard discs spaced out along my skull. Dr. Cleo slides the visor shut over my face with a uncharacteristic gentleness.
They give me the same run down as twice before, something my contract says they legally have to do each time. My heartbeat will be slowed to near-death once I am completely submerged in the saline chamber. Then some science stuff happens and, poof. I have exactly one hour to explore the new platform they created. Cloud Nine.
The goal is to take mental note of everything that happens. How does it look in comparison to the prediction photos that they showed me beforehand? Do the graphics seem more realistic in Cloud Nine than in the previous simulations? Are there any glitches in the scenery? What was my overall impression of the sim as a whole? Any positive and negative feedback is not just welcomed, it’s obligatory. They even have the legal rights to scan my subconscious for details I may have forgotten. Or purposely omitted.
If I have any troubles in the simulator, I am to firmly press the red button on my watch and hold it down for ten seconds. 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 painlessly tattooed on my wrist with a needle gun, but it still functioned like a real watch. Better even.
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 sim and I know that I am no different.
“Gia, you got this?” Dr. Lake said. Looking back on it, he did look a bit concerned, with just the slightest crease between the brows. But he hid it well.
“Yes, sir.” I took three quick, deep breaths.
The young, red-haired lab assistant, who’s name I never learnt, sets up a two-step ladder before the machine; my signal that it’s time to start. I step up and then slowly lower myself feet first into the water, to a sit-up position. It’s soothingly warm and smells salty, and I can feel some light bubbles coming from somewhere below. Dr. Cleo leans down to attach the tubes that will be pumping me oxygen into the back of my helmet.
Right before I put my head under water, I run my fingers along the creases in my helmet, to check that it is completely sealed. My experience in the second test-session lightly traumatized me when the water slowly started leaking into my helmet and nearly filled it all up. Every move I make is careful and precise.
Finally I lay back, slowly, and all at once my body is completely submerged. With a whir, a door above me slides shut, sealing me in completely. A blue light shines around me and I watch as a thin layer of plastic moves to cover my entire body. As soon as it clicks into place above my head, 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 slow-motion backflips 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. If I looked up high enough, it almost felt as though I was in one giant sphere.
I slowly turn in a circle to take in the full view. There are birds flying around that look like they are made of paper, like origami, and I can see hot air balloons floating in the distance. They sway and rock lazily in the sky but I myself feel no breeze at all. Their swinging reminds me of a baby’s cradle and I smile softly.
As I turn, my heart stops, as I can see that 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. Yet somehow this thought doesn’t calm me as much as it should. I’m just a cautious person by nature.
As I glance over the edge to get a better view of what lies below, I see the top of a ladder peaking out. Down it went, 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. Gliding down and down and down.
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. This new cloud gives me a completely different view of the scenery than the one above.
I make a mental note of appreciation for these two lone pillars below me, which seem to be made out of a dense cloud, as I can still see through them if I look hard enough. Some of the clouds around me 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. Not sure how that happened. I feel as though I’ve only been in here for a few minutes and decide to kick it up a notch. So I climb onto another cloud and then another and then another, trying to get to a high vantage point. The higher I get, the darker the sky becomes. Soon, I see little shining stars popping into the sky.
There are statues on a couple of the clouds as well, sort of similar to the pillars I saw earlier. There is a horse in mid-jump that looks like it belongs on a carousel and two giant statues of chubby sleeping babies and 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. I bet if I had longer to explore here, I could uncover some pretty incredible detail.
As my hour ticks away, I catch sight of a huge castle made of, you guessed it, cloud. I’m reminded of a specific sandcastle that I made at a beach when I was younger. The resemblance is uncanny (I only remember because I won a prize for it) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the doctors had somehow pulled that memory out of my brain to reconstruct it. There’s not as much detail in this particular apparition, but it’s very creative nonetheless.
I only have a few minutes left now and decide to spend it jumping and doing flips on one of the clouds. If you push off hard enough, the clouds become trampoline-like. 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 am a part of history.
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 think with annoyance. 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 that go on forever and ever. 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. Still, I try to convince myself that this is no big deal. My training has taught me to stay calm.
But this has never happened before. Even on the first trial, I left after thirty-seven minutes. Now I was beginning to panic. I take deep breaths to slow my heart rate, but the terror that I felt in the second sim is rushing back to me. 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 blink out and go black.
My hands are shining with sweat and my face feels hot. A flush of heat is burning at the back of my neck and I can hear my heart thumping violently against my chest. I realized we never had a plan for if the simulation doesn’t end on time, or if it doesn’t end at all. Despite all the training I’ve done, right now I don’t know what to do.
When thirty minutes since I first tried to leave have passed, I come to a conclusion that leaves me feeling nauseous. I am stuck.