by Charlie Hill
"Sleepwalking" by Sean Sullivan
“Right. Let’s get you fixed into the chair. Are the straps tight enough? I know from your article damning test 37 that you’re well aware of the dangers idle hands can cause. Although your tone was quite sensationalist, I will admit that was an unfortunate mess. The price of progress, I suppose.
“We wouldn’t want that for you now, would we? We want you safe and secure, relaxed enough to experience the full extent of what we have to offer at the clinic.”
He is talking at you as he goes about his business. Dr. Gould, as frantic as they all say, dashing between all the other chairs, tweaking this, noting that. His wiry hair makes a halo in the stark lighting of the laboratory.
“Have you experimented with psychedelics before? A man as worldly as you has surely dabbled.”
He winks, you nod. The tranquilisers they gave you to ease the transition make movement difficult. How many waivers did you sign?
“Yes, good. Well, unlike chemical processes, the digital sensations will begin immediately. There is no build-up. No anticipation. The experience simply is. Are you ready? Good. The others will be waiting for you when you reach the bottom.”
Despite their sophisticated design, the servers that line the far end of the room growl from the strain of the program. Whatever this is, it’s elaborate. You have speculated many long nights as to how it could be done, how the subjects could be prodded or bribed into believing what they described in their testimony. The crackling pipes on the walls, the tanks of bubbling fluids, the white coats— the veneer is convincing.
The other patients are already zenned out in their own chairs. Most look peaceful, almost dead. One guy has a cheek that won’t stop twitching. His nails leave white streaks along the leather armrests. The air has a tang of parsnip or broccoli. Then vision fades.
In darkness, it begins.
“Curious, isn’t it? I always describe it as feeling like a piece of lubricated velcro dragged against itself. There is always another hook, always another eye, but we pass between them. We glide. The catch is momentary. Each caught hook feels like a possible version of reality, an interpretation, but we know the true world is the motion between each eye.
“It took us so long to see that… To look at the world as it is, not the way we pretend it to be to get by. Vibrations, possibilities, not one story but all stories unfolding together along this fractal spread. It really is quite beautiful. Just remember to breathe.
“Of course, the sensations vary for everyone. Describing them has been an arduous process. We would never know if we feel the same because we would still describe our experiences with our own words. What might be ‘spongey’ for you becomes ‘springy’ for me. It is not scientific. To avoid the confusion of qualia we had to coin an entirely new phrase for this stage in the process. What we now say internally is that it ‘glerms.’”
This feeling that rises from your feet, this tingling novelty rising in bars— Does it ‘glerm?’
You think it might. These waves, these blocky, fractal stalactites that sprout through your toes, your arches, pure vibration up your shins. Many versions of yourself, all occupying the same space. This chair sits at the centre of all possible worlds and each of you has their own seat.
Escape. Release. Resonance.
The feeling of a word that has no meaning. A meaning defined in its own utterance. It does, it glerms. It glerms so good. You feel it and you know it. It was pressed into your brain, hard as Truth.
In receiving that knowledge, something else is lost— a name.
In all of these possible selves, all these many people sat on top of each other, there is no one that you can point to and say: “This is me.”
It is too much. What is your name? What does your face look like?
The cavern walls are lined with masks and none of them fit.
The feeling has you lusting after those smooth stalactites that dilated through you. The old-new word that brought you into a new oblivion of touch, the glerm— that is already slipping out of reach, becoming nostalgia. It was barely a second of this process and yet the sustained duration gave it all the familiarity of home.
You lose it like you lose a loved one: that rectangle carved out of rain-softened earth. You think you will never love, never belong, again. Time will never stop for you to catch your breath.
But then you get it. You get the jam from the inside. Bismuth veins, crystalline sugar spiking through all of your pipes, all of their pipes aligning you to a sole purpose. You are a colony, a hive. The glerm deepens. It means so much.
Your life has been devoted to words but have words ever been more than sound? More than an excuse to press our lips together? Did you say that or did he? What was his name again?
Your voice repeats the word ‘cucumber’ forever and you’re dangling over the edge of that pit, that pit they dumped her in, heels kicking.
Mother. Lover. Sister. Friend.
The edges of the hole are laser straight. The rain pours through you and you would rather not be here. It’s such an awful drop below, and your formal shoes are pinching at your ankles. Centuries of spades carved a chasm through the Cambridgeshire countryside, dug right down through soft chalk into Hades.
Is this all the glerming? Has it become something else? When will the shining be sung, the chorus skwaked or the fusions fissioned? You would quite like some air. Things are becoming grave.
You want to take the headset off because you thought there wasn't any deeper you could go, but here yawns the chasm of glerm, the void, the valley, the way-out-there: what space looked like before we knew it was dead and empty. There was always deeper to dig but you were comfortable with grass between your toes.
Now there is no grass, no ground, no sky, no coffin, no rope.
You are falling and your fall is only getting faster.
“You’re screaming, yes. That happens a lot in these studies. I urge you to understand that scream as a cry of elation. What matters is how you frame the sensation.
“Swing wide. Feel the rush. Yippee!”
Too much glerm. Far too open. If you could glom. If you could hang and dangle… but everything is grease. A slip ‘n’ slide into a holly bush.
“Isn’t it nice to be without thumbs? This isn't the place for thumbs. No pressure to write, to take notes and analyse. No guilt in not doing if you’ve got nothing to do it with. The devil can’t recruit you now. Swing away, my lad.”
Swinging. Surging. Flying. Soaring.
Forever down the rabbit hole that is your own mouth, swallowing your head and all the rest of you sliding down your gullet and into the acid where you live off your own potential energy. You spiral. You become. You end and you begin. You flicker.
You glow, perpetually.
A ring of fusion that is a star that is the light that feeds your flower-self sprouting in a meadow that shivers in the breeze that is your soft breath. Such sweet summer aroma. You stroll and frolic and skip. All is life and light and hope: living, laughing.
You lean in to smell yourself, the flower, but as you come close each pip in your sunflower face opens into a whirlpool-mouth sucking you down and again you are falling through yourself and you have always been falling through and the flower-self in the meadow was hours ago and how many months has it been since you swallowed your own face and how can it take so long to fall forever when you’re always accelerating and the sense of the image is dizzying, strobing, blurring into--
This has always been the way. The important part is seeing it. Time is not so simple as what our eyes evolved to keep track of. Only past experience is holding you back. You know this.
See the oozing primary colours and the calm spreading everywhere. Intense oscillation becomes a clear tone. They shift and shimmer, the Primaries, but they never mix. There is truth to them. Obvious, really. You shift and shimmer. Obvious.
You consider green.
“Yes, the colours. Please be a bit quieter. You’ll disturb the other subjects. They know what the colours are. They all know. They know so much more than you, despite all your research into this institute. They’ve been through this a number of times.
“It really is something you have to experience to know anything about. You can interview all the subjects you like but you don’t know anything until you see it for yourself. This is why I wanted you in the chair. I wanted you to see what our work is really about, not the theories, not the abstracts, not the interviews after.
“The Thing in Itself.
“If you cast your mind back to the brochure, you should remember the phases of the process. Right now you should hopefully be reduced to a shuffling splurge, and that's OK.
“That's expected. That is within our metrics.
“Isn't it nice to be boneless? I always wonder at that point in the experience if maybe spines were a mistake. It might be better to be armoured on the outside and soft on the inside, you see. To be soup in a bowl. Perhaps the lobster did know something.
“I want you to imagine shedding yourself. That’s what you need right now.”
Barklike scraping, gnashing teeth. The skin of a lychee catching under your fingernail in an open-air market that stank of unrefrigerated meat. An old woman screamed ‘garlic’ in Spanish.
“No, not like that! Stop scratching. Don't pull that cable. How did you even break those straps? Put your hands here and don't move them. It’s a wonder you can move at all. Not within our predictions.
“You are a stubborn mule, aren’t you?
“Deep breaths. Focus on the colours. You liked the colours.”
The colours, yes. Where are they? Have you lost them? Will you ever find them again? Will you ever know peace? What peace can be found in a world as restless as this?
“Now, imagine your skin is hard. Have you ever had terrible sunburn? Not just peeling, but cracking? Skin like well-roasted Sunday pork, lined with crackling. That. Imagine all your skin is like that and push against it. Crack. That sugar sweetness of your glermed-up soul oozing through. Share your juices.
“This is where the process really begins.
“Good. good. Remember, keep your hands still. Fingers not even twitching. Still and calm.”
Do you have hands? What are hands?
Something like a tree. Something like a cave. Something like an octopus. Hands.
The faint pressure of his hands around yours, warm flesh forming cave walls. Warm as the first affection of your infancy, reaching out pioneering fingers and finding them held in return. Fingers interlocking, pressing the joints as close as they can go, wringing all possible intimacy out of that clammy grip.
It is warm. He is warm around you. The cave, the mother, the scientist. His glasses are so authoritative. They steam up in the warmth. He must lift his shirt to wipe them and you are warm. Warm enough to undress, to shed. To glerm.
Slide out and come.
“The cracks are spreading. All the fissures in you now. I know you are almost ready. That spent up old face of yours has split right in half and the inner you is seeping out. We might need a bucket. All that ageing, nothing more than a memory. Of course, I’m speaking figuratively, but I can see it. I can see your new face emerging. This face has never felt the wind or rain. It is pure. Clean. New. Unconflicted.”
What he said.
“This is the first stage. True nudity. A new self will harden here but, for now, enjoy the first caress of wind in your most intimate places. Holes you didn't even know you had. It is joyous, but don’t get distracted.
“It is time to remember the process. It is time to do what you came here to do.
“Look around you. See all the others lying here. They have been waiting for you. Come closer.
“No, no, don’t move. Don’t get up from the chair. Remain calm. Remain still.
“Carol, do we have more straps?
“Come closer in your mind. Sink into the simulation. Look at all the others around you. See them waiting for you, welcoming.”
Already stripped, they shiver and glisten. Seals piled on a beach to breed. The mound of soft forms, writhing.
Is this what you are?
“Like a pile of chewed gum, aren’t they?”
“Come be chewed with us,” they are saying.
You feel each word etched along your skin. Chewing glerm.
“OK, you can stop repeating that phrase now. We heard you the first time. Very funny. Just relax. Slide in and mingle. Take a little, give a little. Meet someone new. You're all soft here. Diffusing.
“I hear you're an expert at networking. You met your editor at one of your father’s parties. Yes, I researched you as well. Don’t worry for now. Just focus on the sensation.
“You can feel those tendrils that catch, that interlock: the velcro of you. Your protrusions and your vacancies. We’ve all got them, you know. This is understanding. This is compassion. These are all humans, real humans, glermed and shedded, just like you, even if they might feel a bit strange. A bit ‘other.’ We're all strange on the inside. Embrace the difference. Offer up a memory. Let it slip between you. Small talk, small times. Good. They're sure to give it back.”
You are nine and the gardens around you continue as far as you can see. Your attention is absorbed in an ice cream. It is dripping down your wrist. You stick out your tongue and trace that sweet trail back to its source. The scoop teeters as you tilt the cone, but it does not drop.
Around you they are sighing, humming, they let you sink a little deeper and their own hearts open in the light of a hundred summer afternoons. You smell sunscreen. You taste salt. You are high up in a tree and they are all cheering for you. You are swimming across the finish line.
Their love is warm and smooth. It soaks into your porous skin. You feel you must give back, any way you can. You need that sweetness again. You push another memory through your skin.
You are fifteen and you walk through foreign mountains. The peaks that surround you are more massive than anything you have ever seen. They stand so strong. They are a lesson in themselves, to look at them is to learn something about time, about scale. The air is so fresh. You have never been so far from built-up land.
“This is fantastic. I am a little surprised that you’re taking to it so well, but I suppose someone in your profession must have a certain flair for self-expression. Keep going. Perhaps something more personal. Think of your parents.”
You are six and there is grass beneath your bare feet. You try to pull it up with your toes. Your mother is reading her book on a picnic blanket and she will not look at you. You want to call out to her but she will scold you for interrupting
Your toes grip the earth harder. The grass blades snap and scratch your skin. She will not look. That book has taken her somewhere else. She is always reading, trying to escape somewhere.
Your toes have scooped out a clump of earth, roots dangling useless. The ants begin to pour out of the hole. They are swarming over your feet. Each bite like a burning needle. Right at your naked core.
Your mother sighs and puts down her book.
You are exposed on the white shore with all the other seals, the sky endlessly open above you. Your mother has gone, deep under the earth, but the ants are still here. They are coming from somewhere inside you, pouring from one of your holes. Swarming over all of the others, invading their recollection.
The others are writhing in discomfort, a violation that reaches right into the heart. They were vulnerable for you and you broke their trust.
Now the mass is shifting. You roll between them, still shedding ants. They are shifting to push you away, edging you out of their pile, onto the cold scratching sand.
You are separate now.
The clumping sides that face you begin to harden. The sugar syrup that you dripped on each other crystallizes into a barbed wall and to try and push through to them is to grate yourself. But still you throw yourself against it to apologise for the ants. You have to atone for what you did. You have to get back to their pleasant melding.
You offer halting teenage dancing, the rotating light stinging your eye at intervals. You offer the first puff of smoke in a wintery bike shed, the pressure to transgress.
“That’s not supposed to happen. How strange.
“Don't worry about the pain. Pain is temporary. Just keep mixing. Keep sharing. They’re sure to like you in the end. I’ve never seen a wall last long.
“And please, screaming never made a friend.”
But the wall is still standing. It is so high now, so solid. Can’t he see that?
You want to share. You want to be accepted and to roll around in all their sticky warmth but you will never make it past their wall.
You try and throw your memories like a catapult, slinging birthdays at bowling alleys, pillow forts, the excitement of that first time you held hands. A fumbling kiss, musky bodies huddled in an armchair while a horror movie screams to itself in the background, but the wall is resolute.
“Remember, deep breaths. This is supposed to be the most beautiful part and your worrying is ruining it. You're making all the others nervous too. Just relax. Reeelaaax. Deep breaths. You'll start growing a new skin far too soon if you're not careful and then what will you have gained? It seems such a shame to come this far only to turn back.
“You always wanted to be a part of my research. I could tell from the sheer number of articles you wrote about my studies. I know you wanted to challenge me. You wanted to make sure I was the real deal so you held me to an uncompromising standard.
“I understand. There’s no ill will here. Scepticism is the default response to new technology.
“This is not my revenge. I’m not telling them to shut you out. They do what they want.
“It will all be alright if you can just let go. Focus on the good parts. You loved the glerming, didn’t you?”
It’s so cold outside the wall. You’ve run out of memories to throw. You’ve run out of strength to lift your tendrils and now you are a boneless blob. You shiver in the sand.
The sky is darkening or your eyes are hardening to what little light remains. You are becoming stone.
You have always been a stone on this shore, washed by the waves. You have always been nothing, insensate. Any other world was nothing but a dream.
Motion was a dream. Thumbs were a dream. The monkey was a dream. The word…
“OK, time’s up. Let’s take that off you. Can you focus your eyes?”
How are you back in this room, back in this skin? The lights. The smells. The world is so specific. It hurts in its clarity. It moves with a delay.
“Can you stand? Would you like one of the orderlies to bring you a chair? It can take a moment for your more instinctual brain processes to catch up. Something as simple as walking becomes immensely complicated when you have to consider each motion consciously.”
Lights in the corridor, designed to be soothing, but the walls feel false. You know that behind each of these windows is a camera. These halls feel bigger than their budget would allow. Who is really behind all of this? What is really going on here?
In a sideroom they remove the chair so that your wheelchair can fit. He takes his seat opposite you and he watches you, watching him. His hair around his ears shining with dust. His bald crown protruding like a polished gem of genius. He is letting you see his true self, the curtain is pulled back. It will never close again.
You cough as you try to speak.
“Here, some water. You know all about what happens next. How did you phrase it?
‘This is where the fraud drowns his theories in Freudian nonsense. He tricks his marks with an elaborate light show and then gives them a glorified tarot reading.’
Please, we’re recording, tell me what nonsense you saw and I’ll do my best to tell you what that means.”
Artist's Statement: Inspired by the psychedelic therapies of R D Laing and drawing from the fluid visuals and shifting realities of Satoshi Kon, this piece is a disorienting exploration of what therapies might be possible following advances in virtual reality. It poses the body against the mind and explores many possible forms a mind could take.