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The Taste of Blue
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2 ALTERNATIVE FORMATS iPhone-iPad/EPUB | Printed Book
The Taste of Blue, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 1

It was midnight, and the patients were asleep.

Dr. Hollister squeezed a teabag against the side of her cup with a spoon, watching the whorls of dark brew roil with brownian carelessness to colour the water and, hopefully, to lend her some measure of respite from the leaden exhaustion that weighed her down like a wet wool coat.

She closed her aching eyes and sniffed the steam.

Thunder rumbled again. Tonight the weather was an ominous tease, a stuffy stillness constantly threatening to open up into something wild. There was no wind, but the air smelled like rain. Like Dr. Hollister, the sky stood in wait, biding its time before flying off the rails.

The overhead fluorescents guttered, a hiccup in the buzz. Somewhere, far away, lightning was striking the grid.

Dr. Hollister yawned desperately. She turned the page to pore over the next chart.

The grad students could sense the tension. Their trivial complaints were, for once, kept to themselves. Dr. Hollister could hear their whispers and sense their flickering glances through the sliver of space between her office door and the wall, her reluctant and minimal concession to the university's "open door policy."

Behind her eyelids the phantasmagoric interplay of afterimage blobs drifted and billowed in her vision. A blurry artifact of her teacup blended into a tunnel of blue rings, through which her perspective unwillingly progressed. Deeper, bluer, further...

Her eyes snapped open.

She bit the inside of her cheek until it threatened to bleed. Left wanting by this stimulus, she next dealt herself a couple of harsh slaps across the face. Her cheeks prickled and her ears rang.

"Dr. Hollister?"

She looked up to see a pair of grad student eyes peeking through the sliver at the door. "I'm fine, thank you," said Dr. Hollister, her own eyes on the papers as she shuffled them importantly. "Just a little tired. Have you checked the back-ups for Room B?"

"I was just on my way out, actually. They should be fine."

"Should won't do," she snapped. "We're getting some brown-outs and I don't want gaps in my data. Do you understand?"

"I'll double-check them right now, doctor," said the student quickly, slipping away.

Laurentian University had cut her funding mercilessly. Dr. Hollister knew that when the last student went home for the night, she would be left alone to monitor the patients herself until sunrise. She wondered how she would make it through. She mashed the last vestiges of tea from the teabag and then sipped. Hot and bitter. Sharp, but not nearly sharp enough.

A bank of computer displays hung on the wall across from her desk, their faces illuminated with slowly scrolling graphs charting blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, electro-dermal activity and brain waves. The displays were reflected in the glass wall behind her, a one-way window looking out upon the six beds of Room A. Inside each bed a patient slept, ensnared in a battery of wires and leads.

She patients did not sleep peacefully, but never the less Dr. Hollister envied them. They tossed. They turned. They grunted. Some muttered the words that haunted her, as they muttered them night after night: "I can taste it...the taste of blue...so bright, so bright -- please save me from him."

Dr. Hollister did not know from whom the patients wished to be saved, but she knew what he looked like. In an accordion folder on her desk were the pictures they drew during the day -- each idiosyncratic and unique in some ways, but each converging upon a common image: the blue man, the fat man, the one reaching for their throats like an enraged buddha, tearing them out of the blue tunnel that promised so much peace.

Fourteen patients, all drawing the same phantasm. Fourteen patients, all experiencing the same nightmare. Every night.

"The taste of blue...I can taste it."

Dr. Hollister shivered, then sipped more bitter tea.


*


She let out a little yelp as her head sprung up off her desk blotter, knocking over the teacup and nearly tumbling from her chair. She blinked and knuckled her eyes, then scanned the computer displays for an alarm code. There was none.

Her heart was hammering. She sank back into her chair and tried to catch her breath. Tea dripped on the floor. She looked at the mess helplessly.

A loud knocking sounded. It was vaguely familiar -- her sluggish memory suggested it was a sequel: the first knocks had probably been what awakened her. Someone was pounding on the front door.

Dr. Hollister smoothed down her labcoat as she passed out of her office and shuffled wearily down the long, polished linoleum corridor to the front door. As she drew near it was pounded upon again, the bangs echoing through the deserted building.

"Hang on, hang on," she called grumpily, putting her eye to the peephole. "The building opens at six," she called.

A shadow stood on the stoop. "Dr. Carolyn Hollister?"

"Six," she repeated. "Come back at six."

"I must speak with you urgently."

His voice was low and calm despite his insistence. She blinked, attempting fruitlessly to focus through the fish-eye distortion of the peephole. "Laurentian policy is we don't open the door until six, okay? It'll have to wait until morning."

"I'm afraid this can't wait."

"It's going to have to. Are you one of my students? You can make an appointment with my secretary." Dr. Hollister began to turn away from the door, wondering whether she would have to call security.

"No, I'm not a student," said the tall shadow outside. "I'm a detective."

Dr. Hollister paused. "A detective?"

"Listen to me, Dr. Hollister. I know about the nightmare. I know what's been happening. And I know that everything -- everything -- hinges on your seeing me tonight."

"I'm sorry?"

She heard the stranger sigh on the other side of the door. "The taste of blue," he said quietly. "I can taste it. Can't you?"

Thunder rumbled. Dr. Hollister unbolted the door.


*


With her office desk safely between them Dr. Hollister studied her guest. He lowered himself into the chair opposite her carefully, one black gloved hand gripping the arm. Once settled he manually crossed his legs by picking up one thigh and arranging it over the other. He then deposited a business card on the edge of the desk.

Dr. Hollister picked it up. It said: S. MISSISSAUGA, INVESTIGATIVE SERVICES and below that was a printed telephone number that had been crossed out and replaced by one jotted in by hand. She looked up.

He was native. His hair was a salt and pepper crew-cut. He had dark, sad pouches beneath his eyes, though the eyes themselves were bright and alive, wide and chocolate brown like a puppy or a colt. His expression was dour. Aside from his eyes he looked twice as tired as Dr. Hollister felt.

"South Mississauga?" she asked. "Down by Toronto?"

"Mississauga is my name."

"You're not with the police."

"No," he agreed.

Dr. Hollister straightened her labcoat and crossed her arms. "It's unlikely I will be able to be of much assistance. It is not this institution's policy to release information willy-nilly. We are under no compunction to cooperate with any private agency."

The detective nodded, then uncrossed his leg and began to methodically straighten his body again. He flattened his overcoat with a stiff left arm. "I'll see myself out," he said, rising.

Dr. Hollister sighed. "Wait a minute." She shook her head, lips pursed. "Please sit down, detective. I don't mean to be...so abrupt. We're working on very little sleep here."

The detective settled in his chair again. "Yes," he said.

Dr. Hollister turned over her spilled teacup. "Can I offer you some tea?"

"Yes."

She plugged in the kettle on the file cabinet behind her, rubbed her eyes, then swivelled around to face the detective with what she hoped was a better approximation of professional composure. She pulled a tissue from the box and mopped up the spilled tea. "So," she said, "what do you know about the dream, detective?"

He tucked into his coat and removed a silver cigarette case. "Do you mind if I smoke in here?" he asked.

"I mind very much, yes."

"Okay," agreed the detective, clicking open the case. "I'll only have one, then."

Dr. Hollister did not object further, hypnotized by the elaborate but practiced process by which the detective inserted a hand-rolled cigarette into his mouth and lit it, transferring items between his hands. The right glove hummed with tiny motorworks as it moved; the left glove was stiff as a mannequin. She wondered if the damage were neurological. "You're handicapped," she said.

"No," said Mr. Mississauga. "I have four artificial limbs."

"Most people would count that as a handicap."

Mr. Mississauga ignored that, his eyes fixed on Dr. Hollister earnestly. He dragged on his cigarette, then took out a small, bright blue notebook with Japanese robots on it. He knocked a pencil out of its spine and unfolded the notebook on his thigh. "It's contagious."

Dr. Hollister frowned, shrinking back. "Pardon me?"

"The dream, doctor. The dream is contagious. You asked me what I know, and I know that for certain. Everything else is conjecture."

"How do you know that?"

Mr. Mississauga exhaled smoke. "Tell me about the first patient."

"I don't think I can share those details with you."

"I don't care about names."

The kettle whistled. Dr. Hollister swivelled in her chair and began to dole out two teabags but Mr. Mississauga cleared his throat to interrupt, then leaned across the desk to offer a teabag of his own. "You carry your own tea?" she asked, brow arched.

"Yes," he said simply.

She paused, looking at him, but he did not elaborate. She accepted the teabag. He sat back again, releasing a faint perfume of photographic fixer and beef soup. She returned her attention to the tea and revolved to a forward orientation a moment later with two steaming blue and orange mugs with Laurentian logos on them. They each sipped from their cups. "Congenital phocomelia?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Judging by your age I'm going to guess in utero thalidomide poisoning."

"Yes."

Dr. Hollister smirked. "Not chatty are you, Mississauga?"

"No," he agreed. "I listen."

She sniffed, the best approximation of a chuckle she could muster. "Hah. I suppose that's my cue to start talking, isn't it? Well, I think I can safely tell you a thing or two, detective. For starters, you're right -- it's contagious. Patient Zero reported first experiencing the dream five weeks ago, we've been able to connect the subsequent cases to contact with her."

"She's female," muttered Mr. Mississauga, making a note. "Age?"

"Pubescent," she replied crisply. "Caucasian; no signs of prior adverse health; very bright; minor social-behavioural issues."

"Was there any event that seemed to precipitate the onset of the dream?"

"She was struck by lightning," said Dr. Hollister. "The physical damage was quite mild, but with the sleep disturbances there arose some concern that there may be neurological damage. Her parents -- they're alumni -- brought her here so we could check her nocturnal brain-wave activity and take some fMRI scans. The waiting list at the hospital runs about three months, you see."

The lights guttered briefly. A moment later thunder rolled.

"The storm's getting closer," noted Dr. Hollister.

"Yes," said Mr. Mississauga. "We're running out of time."

"What do you mean?"

Mr. Mississauga crossed his leg again then rearranged his little blue notebook. "Was anything revealed in the tomography?"

"Nothing significantly abnormal, no, beyond slightly elevated levels of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which isn't entirely off the map in terms of patients experiencing chronic night terrors -- which, really, we don't expect to see in pubescent girls unless they've suffered a serious psychological trauma like violent abuse."

"There is no evidence of abuse?"

"No. Dr. Amroliwallah's had several interviews with her. He says she's borderline depressive and a mildly narcissistic, but again, this isn't entirely uncommon for early adolescent mood swings."

"Does she menstruate?"

"First mens was just over eight months ago, yes." Dr. Hollister cocked her head. "Exactly what kind of a detective are you, anyway?"

"I specialize in the inexplicable."

"Do you have a degree?"

"No."

"How does one qualify for such a position then?"

"I am myself slightly inexplicable," he replied with a small, tight smile. "It lends me a certain insight." He glanced down at his notebook. "Who acquired the dream next?"

Dr. Hollister took a breath. "The mother. At first we assumed she was simply obsessing over her daughter's dream imagery, but then her co-worker began describing the same visions, including details that had not been discussed between them. The custodian from the girl's school was next, and then his brother. They're all here now, sleeping in our labs."

"And they all dream the same dream?"

"And complain of the same secondary symptoms, yes."

"What secondary symptoms have you seen?"

"Waking fixations on the dream elements, becoming progressively more pronounced. Patient Zero, in fact, is scheduled to be transferred up to the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital tomorrow. She's become virtually monomaniacal -- all she will discuss is the dream. It's neurotic."

"And the other patients are converging on a similar state?"

"I believe so, yes, but at this point the official diagnosis is hysterical pseudo-contagion among the others. It doesn't make sense, but Dr. Yedelman is a stubborn man. I'm trying to get my data together to make a new argument to him. He simply must see it: the pattern of transmission is classic. We just don't have any clue what the means of transmission is."

Mr. Mississauga sat back in his seat and regarded her levelly. "No clue? Dr. Hollister, consider it: what we're dealing with here is a memetic pathogen -- a self-replicating body of ideas. And there are established ways of transmitting ideas from one brain to another."

Dr. Hollister shoved her empty cup aside. "Like what?"

Mr. Mississauga ground out the end of his cigarette in his empty cup, then placed it on the desk. "We're doing it now, you and I. We are having thoughts, encoding them into speech, expression and movement, and broadcasting them through the air and the light in this office. You hear me speak, you watch me talk, and you glean my meaning: the idea from my brain is now available for consideration in yours."

"That's a cute model, detective," replied Dr. Hollister with an indulgent smile, "but I'm talking about a concrete vector of transmission. These patients aren't being inspired by each other's ideas -- that's what Yedelman thinks -- they're dreaming the same dream, with identical narrative sequences and imagery."

"The fat blue man."

"The fat blue man, exactly. He's an enemy, and we must stop him."

Mr. Mississauga looked up sharply. "Say that again, doctor?"

Dr. Hollister blinked, then pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "I'm sorry -- like I told you, I'm personally exhausted. Babbling nonsense." She opened her eyes again. "What I'm saying is, how do you transmit the idea of a malevolent blue fat man without describing a malevolent blue fat man? Patient Zero's mother never told her colleague what was in the dream, only that it was recurring and unpleasant, a dream about being pursued and torn away from something sweet."

"The taste of blue."

"The sweet, sweet taste of blue -- so long and so warm, so forever and so much a kind of hug for your heart. Don't let him get me. Stop it, him. Stop it, him." Dr. Hollister blinked again, cleared her throat. Mr. Mississauga was watching her closely. "Um, yes," she went on, flustered. "And that's what they all say -- whether they've heard it from one another or not. How could it possibly get from, as you put it, one brain to another without having heard the phrases themselves?"

"Not all communication is verbal, doctor, as I'm sure you appreciate. Much information is passed between people via non-verbal means, such as body language, skin response, and even smell."

"Are you proposing that the dream hops brains by smell?"

"I suggest only that it may be unwise to underestimate the power of implication. To imply a message can be to broadcast everything except the message itself, a kind of negative image or reverse mold of the original. If implication were a science, such complex messages might be engineered."

Dr. Hollister sniffed sceptically. "You think somebody made this?"

"I don't know. It could as well have arisen spontaneously out of the ocean of memetic, information-based constructs our civilization shunts to and fro every day. In a way, it was bound to happen eventually."

"What was?"

"Self-replication," he said heavily. "Consider: melodies are weakly self-replicating when they're catchy. People find themselves whistling them, and thereby transmit them to others. Is it really too large a leap to imagine ideas doing that by form instead of fancy? If self-replicating genetics could evolve from a pool of interacting organic molecules, why not self-replicating memetics from a pool of an interacting brains?"

Dr. Hollister sat back in her squeaky chair and rubbed her forehead. "Like I said before, detective, the model has appeal. The question is, how does it help us?"

Mr. Mississauga leaned forward eagerly, his chocolate brown eyes locked on Dr. Hollister. "It helps us because it frames the terms of our response: if an information-based pathogen is out there in the wild, it must be contained. We cannot let it loose in the ecosystem of our civilization to continue to evolve and possibly do incredible damage. You said it yourself: Patient Zero's going to a rubber room. What would happen if that were the fate of millions?"

A shiver ran across Dr. Hollister's shoulders. "God," she said.

Mr. Mississauga nodded. "Or rather, the Devil."


*


The detective limped as quietly as he could on his artificial legs as he and Dr. Hollister entered Room A among the sleeping patients. A white noise generator whispered over every bed, punctuated by the slow respiration of the sleepers. The lights were dim and amber.

"This is it," whispered Dr. Hollister. "And this is her."

"Patient Zero?"

"That's right."

"This is her artwork?"

Dr. Hollister nodded. Together they surveyed the array of childish paintings taped over the girl's bed. They were signed CASSANDRA and several of them were annotated in a curly hand. One said, THE BROKEN LIGHTS and another said THE UPSTAIRS GO DOWN. All were dominated by blue, and many featured the bloated form of an angry man reaching out.

Mr. Mississauga turned away from the nightmare gallery abruptly. "It's interesting that what you render as Stop it, him she renders as Stop Tim, as if it's a proper name."

Dr. Hollister shrugged. "Slurring words together is common. These notes are often made immediately upon waking, when the patient is still disoriented. The other patients all differentiate the words more discretely: Stop it, him."

The girl moaned and fussed in her sleep. Dr. Hollister glanced at the monitor then indicated that they should leave. She followed as Mr. Mississauga stumped out into the corridor. She clicked the door closed.

"Your notion that it could be a specific name is even more far-fetched," she said, her eyes watering from the bright gleam of the corridor's fluorescents. "Even if I could accept that a sequence of narrative could be implied with a carefully engineered set of non-verbal cues, how could a name be transmitted?"

"I don't know," admitted Mr. Mississauga. "But micro-gestures, including twitches of the lips and throat muscles, might convey audio information if the target were sufficiently receptive."

"You believe the dream impels the patient to twitch their throats at people?"

"No. Vivid dreams have their own vector of transmission -- we tell one another about them. Dreams that are not retold are quickly forgotten, but dreams described to someone else take a hold in memory. What I'm proposing is that when this dream is retold, there is a second layer of information -- a parasitical message that transmits the self-replicating payload. It could be in modulations of the voice, flicks of the eye, gestures with the hand, or any complex combination."

Dr. Hollister paused outside her office. "But why, detective? Why would someone want to send information that way?"

"Let me ask you this, doctor: what does DNA want?"

"What?"

"Deoxyribonucleic acid is a self-replicating organic molecule. Why does it replicate itself?"

Dr. Hollister crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the jamb. "Well, of course there isn't a real why to it at all. It replicates in an appropriate medium due to its chemical properties. It's ultimately just a geometric pattern of molecules. It replicates because that's how it is shaped."

"And so too perhaps this insidious idea. Maybe it propagates because it is shaped for propagation -- shaped by chance plus change: an emergent property of the mix of random ideas."

"The odds against it are astronomical."

"Yes," agreed Mr. Mississauga. "As if probability itself were warped."

She raised a brow appraisingly. "Is that what you really think?"

Mr. Mississauga compressed his mouth into a tight line, but said nothing.

Dr. Hollister pushed open the door and regained her seat behind the desk. Mr. Mississauga lowered himself into the guest chair, then slipped out his cigarette case again. Dr. Hollister grimaced. "You do appreciate that the university has a very strict anti-tobacco policy, don't you? The custodian's going to smell that in the morning and file a report."

"I'm native," said Mr. Mississauga, lighting his smoke. "Anti-tobacco policies don't apply to me."

"You've got to be joking."

"Yes," he said. He blew out a puff of fume. "I'm not very funny."

Dr. Hollister smiled despite herself. She sipped ineffectually from her empty cup and then plugged in the kettle again. "Why did you come to me, detective?"

"Everyone I've interviewed has ended up here."

"Whom have you interviewed?"

"Gerald Robinson, Maxwell Reuben, Cynthia Ghetty."

"They never mentioned anything."

"I asked them not to."

"What did they tell you?"

"The dream," he said somberly. "They recounted the dream. It begins in a familiar place -- a childhood home or another comfortable space -- but a sense of foreboding grips them when they find the light switches don't work."

Dr. Hollister swallows. "...That's right," she says vaguely.

"They feel compelled to move upward, to get to a room with windows and sun. They move about the space to find stairs to climb, but every stairwell leads only down. Even stairs that look like they go up turn out to descend when they put their feet upon them. No matter where they run they go lower, deeper, into progressively darker hallways and chambers."

"Yes," breathes Dr. Hollister, her forehead now glistening with sweat.

"They panic. They flee. They crash into unseen objects in the dark as they frenetically quest for a way out. They scratch gouges in the walls, they clutch stairway railings to fight against the relentlessly dropping risers. Every downward step makes their stomachs leap, their hearts pound against the backs of their throats."

"Yes..."

"They are being pursued. They can hear his heavy, unhurried feet behind them. The faster they run the less traction their own feet get, the world turning syrupy, slippery and blue. They skid and slide and fall, and over their shoulders they catch glimpses of the awful thing bearing down on them -- corpulent, wrathful, reaching out to seize them out of a halo of blood."

"Stop it, Him," she mutters under her breath.

"It's a maze of blue shadows, a twisting tunnel, and even though the distance is so bright it hurts their eyes the immediate environment remains oppressively black. He's right behind them now. Nothing can stop him from getting closer."

"He's an enemy."

"He's hunting them. He won't give up. He is not desperate, but determined. He only has eyes for his prey. His footsteps never accelerate but never the less he gains. He gains. He gains."

Dr. Hollister's eyes went wide, her mouth barely moving as she spoke in a disconnected, distant way. "If only we could read the writing on the wall..."

"We can," insisted Mr. Mississauga, the pace of his narrative accelerating. "They're numbers. One, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, sixteen, seventeen, nineteen..."

"They're primes."

"No, sixteen is not prime. It's a string of primes interrupted by a pattern of non-primes. Twenty-three, twenty-nine, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-seven, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three, forty-seven..." Mr. Mississauga trailed off, his eyes darting randomly as if in REM sleep, his features strangely slack.

Dr. Hollister stared at him for a moment. "Detective?" she prompted.

He jerked, then blinked. He shook his head, licked his lips and continued speaking as if there had been no interruption: "Have you ever turned around, doctor? Have you ever turned away from the blue tunnel to see what's behind you? To see what's behind him?"

Dr. Hollister sat back and folded her hands on the blotter. "I haven't had the dream, detective. My knowledge comes from the patients' accounts."

Mr. Mississauga shook his head firmly. "You're fooling yourself. You're having the dream every night."

"I've never experienced it, I tell you," she snapped, surprised at her own sudden hostility.

Mr. Mississauga was unfazed. "You've never remembered the experience, you mean," he declared. "Most dreams live beyond the realm of recall, as you well know, doctor. But you're not immune. The dream is living inside you, executing each night, doing its work on your mind, changing your thoughts, drawing you into obsession."

Dr. Hollister pursed her lips dubiously. She was so tired. The entire conversation was starting to feel surreal. "Alright, I'll bite: what's behind the dreamer, detective?" she ventured.

"Red."

"Red?"

"As blue as the tunnel ahead, the world collapses into red darkness behind."

"What does that mean to you?"

"Do you know what redshift is?"

"No."

"The further astronomers look into space the greater the attenuation of electromagnetic wavelengths. Simplistically, the expansion of the universe draws out the light and shifts it along the spectrum. The further away an object is the more redshifted it appears. Thus, in a very real way, the colour of the past is red."

She raised her brow, chin in her hand, as the kettle began to shriek. She tended to it and then swivelled back to face her patiently waiting guest. "I think I follow you, detective. If red is the past, you believe blue is..."

"The future."

Dr. Hollister scratched at the side of her jaw pensively, inhaling tea steam. The bag had broken, and an irregular smear of leaves was sticking to the bottom of the mug. She looked up. "You think the dream is about the future?"

"To be quite precise, I believe it is a message from the future."

She smirked sceptically. "Time travel is not possible."

"Not for matter, perhaps. But for information the same bounds may not apply."

She shrugged. "I'm no physicist."

"Nor am I. But the dream seems to me to be a warning, and warnings concern events yet to come."

"You're reading an awful lot into the imagery. What happened to a spontaneous evolution from a pool of interacting brains?"

Mr. Mississauga drew on his cigarette. "I admit that it is not my chief theory," he said. "It is, instead, the easiest to digest."

"Why pass it on, then?"

"Because I require your credence," he replied, releasing a bloom of smoke. "We're agreed that a memetic pathogen is at work, and that's what's essential. My speculations on its origin are beside the point, entirely secondary to what we must accomplish here tonight."

"But you do think it is an engineered thing, and not an evolved thing, is that right? That's what you really think?"

Mr. Mississauga's deep brown eyes were open and unevasive. He cleared his throat and said, "That is my supposition, yes. I believe the pattern was introduced via modulation in the lightning that struck Cassandra -- that struck Patient Zero. That is where my investigation began, with the weather. It's been strange lately, you'll have to admit."

Thunder rumbled, closer now. "I'm no meterologist," said Dr. Hollister.

"Nor am I. But I hesitate to go into too much detail for fear of eroding what capital in trust I may have earned with you up until this point."

Dr. Hollister leaned forward. "Risk it. I want to hear," she said. "If I'm to accept a strange man into my lab in the middle of the night, I might as well hear why. In for a penny, in for a pound."

Mr. Mississauga hesitated, the end of his cigarette pinched between the lifeless fingers of his gloved hand. "There is an event coming," he said heavily, "an event that will disrupt the very nature of probability. The ramifications of this effect will propagate backward in time with a plottable geometric decrease in amplitude." He pushed the cigarette stub against his silver case, smothering it. "It is my belief that certain forces are determined to exploit this hiccough in the laws of physics to their own ends. And one of those ends is to transmit a message designed to alter future history."

"That's pretty wild, detective. You should write pulps." She chuckled hollowly. "And no doubt your pursuit of the truth in this matter is being hampered by the forces of evil?"

Mr. Mississauga narrowed his eyes. "Has someone else approached you?"

"I was only joking, detective..." she trailed off, her attention caught by the sound of a car drawing into the parking lot. She swivelled in her chair and put a dent in the Venetian blinds with her index finger. "Someone's here."

Mr. Mississauga did not stir from his seat. "White sport utility vehicle?"

"That's...right."

"Florida plates?"

Dr. Hollister opened a wider gap in the blinds and squinted past her reflection in the glass. "Yes." She swivelled back to face him. "Someone you know?"

"Yes."

"Who is it?"

"The forces of evil."

Dr. Hollister fixed Mr. Mississauga with a frankly appraising look. "Would it be untoward at this point for me to ask after your mental health history?"

"My mind is unusual but stable."

"Unusual how?"

"Narcoleptic somnianimus conscientia and Pavor nocturnus conscientia."

Dr. Hollister blinked. "Somnianimus conscientia?" She shook her head. "There's only been a single documented case of persistent Somnianimus conscientia in medical history." Her speech slowed as her eyes widened. "An aboriginal boy with congenital phocomelia studied by Dr. Ananthan in the late sixties..."

Mr. Mississauga was poker-faced. "Yes," he said at last. "Dr. Ananthan was a nice man. He used to bring me caramel apples."

"Good Lord!" cried Dr. Hollister. "You -- you're Patient Lambda Eight?"

"Yes."

"I can't believe it. I can't believe I'm here talking to you. You're the reason I got into sleep research in the first place!"

Mr. Mississauga shrugged as he slipped out a fresh cigarette. "Small world," he mumbled around it.

"You're one of the most remarkable cases on record, detective. You may well be the only man alive who retains awareness throughout the sleep cycle. Most experts believe it's impossible to survive that way on the long-term, at least not without serious psychosis. My thesis advisor at York assumed you were dead."

"I've come close," admitted Mr. Mississauga, lighting up. "But I manage."

They were both startled as a pounding sounded at the front door. "What should I do?" gasped Dr. Hollister. "Should I let them in?"

"No," said Mr. Mississauga firmly.

"What do they want?"

"To ask you questions, as I have. Unlike me, however, they are prepared to coerce you if required."

"But who are they?"

Lightning flashed through the blinds. "Hubbardians," he said. Thunder boomed. "We have to get moving, doctor. We don't have much time left."

Footfalls crunched in the gravel outside. Dr. Hollister glanced between the blinds again. Lightning flashed. She withdrew her head quickly. "I think they're peeking in the windows," she said, thoroughly chilled. "And what the devil is a Hubbardian?"

The footfalls came closer. "Get down," advised Mr. Mississauga.

They faced one another afresh beneath Dr. Hollister's desk, each holding their breath. The window thumped quietly as someone pressed their face to the glass, squinting through gaps in the blinds to search out the room. "Lights are on, but I don't see anybody," came a muffled call. A moment later the footfalls retreated.

The pounding on the front door resumed. Dr. Hollister flinched against the sound, drawing her labcoat more tightly around her shoulders as she crouched on the floor. "Time for what?" she whispered. "What is it you think we have to do so urgently?"

Mr. Mississauga's head brushed the underside of the desk as he turned to her. "The only reasonable course of action should be clear: we must contain the contagion. Whether engineered or evolved, the pathogen must be stopped here and now before more people end up like Cassandra out there."

"How do you propose we do that?"

"Electroshock therapy, doctor. You must disrupt the dream with an induced seizure, to break up the active pattern. If necessary, you must administer subsequent treatments until you've successfully interfered with the stored components enough to break the replication mechanism."

She bumped her head on the bottom of the desk. "Are you mad?"

"You must do it now, before more people are exposed. You must start tonight."

She pressed her hand to her scalp, wincing ruefully. "Detective Mississauga, I can't simply start shocking people willy-nilly. This isn't the nineteen-forties! There's such a thing as informed consent, and the need to demonstrate a sound basis for my practices."

The windows shook with the next peal of thunder. Again someone pounded on the front door. Mr. Mississauga appeared undisturbed, but his chocolate brown eyes bore into Dr. Hollister with razor-sharp intensity. "Carolyn, you could be stopping a global plague of the mind. Think about that."

She kept looking to the corridor, toward the source of the banging. "I should call campus security," she said, crawling out from under the desk and straightening with a weary grunt. She reached for the telephone.

"No," barked Mr. Mississauga, still crouching low. "We need to be left alone. We must begin the electroshock treatments before the storm gets here. Nothing else is more important -- nothing."

Dr. Hollister slammed her fist down on the desk. "Get this through your head: I categorically refuse to endanger my patients' well-being in such a way, Detective Mississauga. Do you understand me? It's unethical and it's preposterous! I won't do it."

"You must, Carolyn. Consider what may be at stake."

"Granted, you've given me a lot to think about here tonight, Detective, and granted, your...unusual condition may lend you a special perspective on this problem. Never the less, I refuse to rush ahead. I can promise you this much: I will study the problem in light of what you've said."

Mr. Mississauga got to his feet, glaring down at her. "That's not good enough."

"It will have to be," she said icily, chin high.

They stared at each other over the desk. The pounding on the front door continued. Rain began to dribble against the window, at first softly and then quickly building to a feverish, wind-whipped pitch.

Mr. Mississauga sighed, his shoulders dropping. "If you won't do it for them, Carolyn...please, I'm begging you: do it for me."

Dr. Hollister blinked. "What?"

"The taste of blue," croaked Mr. Mississauga, the tendons in his neck quivering. "I can taste it. And I can barely think of anything else. It's consuming me, bending me into a babbling fountain of contagion. It's taking every reserve I possess to continue speaking to you coherently." He staggered closer. "I can't manage it. Not any longer. It's relentless, and it's rotting me."

Dr. Hollister said nothing, but after a moment she gave him a tight, single nod.


*


"This is insane," she mumbled as she helped Mr. Mississauga up onto the treatment bed. She took his overcoat and hung it on the rack, its heavy pockets swaying. Mr. Mississauga watched her quietly. "You'll have to remove your limbs, I'm afraid."

He nodded gruffly. "I'll...need your help."

She helped him strip. It was a strangely intimate experience to uncouple the tall native's four artificial limbs. Here, in the electroshock room, they were insulated from the noise of the storm and the knocking on the front door. The only sound came from the steady buzz of the fluorescents and Dr. Hollister's progress as she unbuckled the leather harnesses around Mr. Mississauga's upper thighs. The skin beneath was callused and hard. The stubby flippers the detective had instead of legs were pale and covered in a fine peach-fuzz of hair.

Dr. Hollister tested her syringe and then injected a muscle relaxant. "You'll be disoriented for an hour or two," she warned. "I hope you're not planning to drive anywhere."

"I take taxis."

She strapped him down, then proffered a rubber bite-plate for his mouth to protect the tongue. Before passing it to him she hesitated. "I could lose my license," she said.

"This is important," he said evenly, looking into her eyes.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because, unlike you and your patients, I have the ability to roam the dream at will, with full lucidity. And all that I have seen has convinced me of one thing."

"What's that?"

"Blue Tim is not the enemy," he pronounced carefully. "The dreamer is."

For some reason Dr. Hollister shivered. She hugged her shoulders, the bite-plate hanging loose from her fingers. "How do you know?"

"Because the fat man is not the only pursuer. I have seen past him, and there are others." He paused, licking his lips again. "And I'm one of them."

Dr. Hollister almost dropped the bite-plate. "What?"

"I can navigate the dream at will," he reiterated seriously. "And I have seen myself there. Not as I appear here now, true, but it is I none the less. In armour, masqued, sprinting after the pursuit like a gazelle."

She gazed down sadly at his feckless flippers. "That sounds like wishful thinking."

"My dreams don't have the power to fool me," said Mr. Mississauga fiercely, his voice hard. "I know them too well. I know them more than any man should know the underside of his own mind. I live in nightmare, Carolyn: it is my language." He paused, looking up at her with an expression open and helpless. "And I can feel it all slipping away from me, occluded by the dream's obsession. Blue, blue -- the taste of blue. Please, Carolyn. I need peace. I need it to stop...or I need to die."

She swallowed, then nodded. "Okay," she said. "Okay."

She inserted the bite-plate into his mouth, then gently touched his forehead before sticking on the electrodes. "Do you want a sedative?" she asked. He shook his head. "Okay," she said again, backing away from him toward the controls...

The monitor crawled with the readout from the electroencephalograph. Mr. Mississauga closed his eyes. Like a flipped switch, his brain-waves changed. In less than two minutes he had reached the dream and she watched its influence dance through his mind. Her hand hovered over the controls.

"Stop Tim," Mr. Mississauga murmured around the bite-plate.

Dr. Hollister twisted the dial.


*


Mr. Mississauga tugged his overcoat over his shoulders by alternating jerks of his mobile right hand, then slipped it inside the pocket and removed his silver cigarette case. He offered it to Dr. Hollister, who watched herself withdraw a hand-rolled smoke and felt herself plug it into her mouth. "I haven't smoked since I was a teenager," she said.

"A cigarette every few decades won't hurt you," he said, his voice dry and tired but somehow less somber than it had been.

He lit them up. Dr. Hollister coughed.

"I'll probably be fired tomorrow," she croaked philosophically.

"Save the world or take home a paycheque," agreed Mr. Mississauga with a nod. He drew on his cigarette, then blew out a cloud of fume that looked, briefly, like a bird. "It's a choice I've made before."

"How do you feel?"

"Clear," said Mr. Mississauga. "Quite clear. Suddenly, blue is just a colour."

Dr. Hollister's eyes were watering. She looked at the cigarette in her hand accusatorially, then put it to her mouth and drew on it. "Do you think we eradicated the pattern?"

Mr. Mississauga exhaled. "Yes. Whatever remains in memory I can take care of myself, now that I know what I'm dealing with."

Dr. Hollister cocked her head. "How can you do that?"

"I've learned some techniques in my travels. I spent my teens in Tampa, my twenties in Braj." He dropped off the treatment table and wobbled slightly as his artificial feet his the floor.

"That's in India?"

"Yes."

Dr. Hollister whistled, leaning against the electroshock controls. "You are a singularly fascinating man, Detective Mississauga. I'm quite sure I've never met anyone like you. I'd love to study you."

He shook his head. "I'm done with that."

"I..." she started, then fell silent. He continued to look at her, his eyes gentle and uncluttered. "I'd like it if maybe we could just be friends, then."

"I have to move on," he said, looking away. "This case is a part of something larger, and that something has been calling me since I was a kid. I must proceed toward Event Zero, the event that begins it all. It hasn't happened yet but when it does...I'll be there to see it."

"You'll be leaving Sudbury straight away?"

"By breakfast."

Dr. Hollister shot the cuff of her labcoat and looked at her watch. "That, arguably, could be any time now. The sun should be coming up. Do you think your Humpitarian friends are still outside?"

"Hubbardians. No, likely not. They'll return. Tell them nothing. Do not see them alone. Accept no invitations." Mr. Mississauga reached for the door. Then, seemingly as an afterthought, he mumbled, "Thank you."

"Wait," said Dr. Hollister.

He paused and looked back over his shoulder at her.

She said, "Before you go, I need you to do me a favour." He said nothing, so she continued, gesturing with a shaking hand at the electroshock treatment bed. "I need you to do me." She hugged her shoulders, then rubbed her temples in slow circles. "Okay?"

Mr. Mississauga gave her a small, tight smile. "Show me how to work the controls," he said quietly.

Dr. Hollister shrugged off her labcoat and nodded.


*


Come morning the grad students took care of the patients. Someone closed the door to Dr. Hollister's office all the way, unwilling to risk anything disturbing the deep, peaceful sleep which she advertised with a careless snore, splayed out in her swivel chair. She had a childish grin on her lips and the place smelled like cigarettes.

The grad students decided that Dr. Hollister had somehow, inexplicably, gotten laid.

A crude dream-catcher made of twisted strips of bond paper hung over her head, swaying in time to her breath.

Fin.


CONNECTED STORIES
Stubborn Town | The Extra Cars | The Secret Mathematic | Tim, Destroyer of Worlds | Jesus and the Robot
| Greener Grass

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