dreamGames – the Glitch

When the Glitch hit, with the capital ‘G’, it wasn’t immediately obvious. It happened out of the corner of your eye, in your most peripheral of vision. It was like the visual feed to your brain stuttered, for just a second. Like a record skip, very subtle, but it was enough; the world froze, for a few tens of milliseconds, then continued on as if nothing happened. Everything was still there, the floors, the walls, the time. The water running, the steam rising. But the inmates, the pracs, the doctors, even DiCOM, for just a second, shivered; snatched from one of an unknowable set of reveries. Minutes passed while everyone tried to resume their former activities, but there was something new there now. An itch you hadn’t noticed before. A bit of knowledge that you knew exactly where it was and how to open it. And yet, it was terrifying. A cold slab in the pit of your stomach. A splinter in the brain.

The Doc scratched the itch.

He knew he would be afraid but he didn’t know he’d get a heady brew of claustrophobia. He couldn’t breathe, his lungs tightening, walls closing in. The nurse’s station was suddenly cramped and his tiny desk and tiny notes and tiny pen were suddenly inches from his face. Clawing at him, the room, it heaved and he emptied his stomach on the sterile, steel floor. Coughing, spluttering, the Doc fell to his knees, hands clutching at the desk, notes strewn. It was all so…

Fake.

The splinter turned into a bullet into a bomb and he began to hear the yells. In amongst the uproar of the others he heard a quiet whining, like a train whistle, piercingly despondent, helpless. Searching, he found it was coming from him. The Doc burst through the door and saw a dream scape. Indistinguishable from 5 minutes but he knew it was different. The world tilted as his nausea resurfaced.

Ah, shit.

He ignored the stifling crowd of fear-mongers and ne’er-do-wells, and sprinted for the ward. People were mumbling in corners, screaming at pracs, pracs screaming back, he saw DiCOM flash by in a whip of yellow, her face pale. His heart was pounding, he could feel the drumbeat, the tattoo he felt when he was in a game. The adrenaline was coursing through him, the physiological response happening before his consciousness perceived it. Hang on, he thought, why was he panicking? The Doc stopped, his heart going a mile a minute. He closed his eyes, and-

Eyes open.

The beat kicks in, all snare. I pound down the tiled corridor, hugging the wall. There, the double doors to the ward. Slam! Inside now, I see her – El. She’s awake, sat up in bed, wide-eyed. She sees me and I see wary recognition.

What was my plan?

“El, we have to leave, now.” I say. She continues to stare at me. I take one step, just as the bright, neon inhibitory fields float down like Chinese lanterns from the ceiling. Phasing through ventilation shafts and grey, stained cement. One of the glutinous, car-sized fields envelops me in an embrace. There’s no pain, just a buzzing sensation I can feel everywhere. It moves through me and past me. I let out a gasp and click back onto El. “El, now!” Why am I taking her? I should just run, now. Where? My thoughts are burning and bursting into each other, too fast to pay more than a second’s worth of attention to. El was getting up, saying something. This is a dream, Doc, a dream! I grin like an idiot, and start to Materialize a door right then and there.

A pause in the beat, everything goes black.

Next thing I know, El is kneeling next to me, shouting over alarms. My nerves are on fire, electricity fitting me into a scarecrow. I can barely move. Someone has winded thin, copper wire into every artery and pinned me to the cold floor. A neuron sparks, then another. The inhibitory fields, you fool. I shake my head and spasm in pain. Audio kicks in and I hear El, not panicking, but telling me that we need to go because there’s someone-

Kicking me in the ribs. I cough, trying to cry out but its stemmed by another kick to my jaw that silences me. Shaking, I try to find my assailant. Big, rugged, dude. Not seen him before, maybe another patient? Whoever he is, he reaches for my neck as I tense. More inhibitory fields start popping into existence; the man snaps his eyes up, looking slightly worried.

The distraction buys me a few seconds. To do what? I can’t Materialize, they’ve stopped that from up top. Old school, I guess. I reach out, the man’s ankle in reach and grip it around my elbow, hard. He grunts and using all my strength I twist and squeeze, pain wracking my body, but it works. The man can’t help but fall to one knee, giving me access to his face. I go for his neck, just as the ward doors slam open a third time.

DiCOM, holding what looks like a futuristic handgun, fires a stun pulse, hitting my attacker square in the chest. He’s launched 3 feet into the air, before crumpling painfully next to El’s bed. DiCOM glances at El, then at me.

“Doc, you okay?” She says. Her voice is strained. I nod, bleakly, still prone on the floor. El is the picture of calm as DiCOM goes over to her. “We need to get all these patients to the Safe Room, we need to wake everyone up.” El nods, and at once goes to the nearest bed, pulling out IVs and shaking the slumbering patient awake.

“Safe Room?” I croak, trying to get up on all fours at least. DiCOM nods.

“It’s a secure facility, not on this floor. It’s not even in this ‘scape, it’s part of another-” she trails off, not used to explaining this stuff to us. I nod, rubbing my chest, “s’okay, let’s just get everyone up.”

“We need a door,” she says, more confidently, in her element.

“We can’t-” I start, she nods.

“There’s built-in subroutines, ones you can just unfold, without creating. Here, look,” she walks past El, who’s moved onto Bertrand, the previous patient now bleary-eyed and shivering in fear, tucked behind El, towards one of the pseudo-windows. Brandishing a pen and notepad from her trench-coat, DiCOM scribbles something down, rips off the page and places it on the window, holding it there for a few seconds. The window starts to shimmer and pulse against DiCOM’s hand. She lets go of the scrap of paper, which stays put. Lines of light appear in a complicated matrix on the window, and start to fade into a tessellating kaleidoscope of confusion. A gap appears in the pattern and grows – a door in the ‘scape, built-in.

DiCOM turns to El, who now has three patients in tow, and then her eyes roll freely in their sockets. A trickle of blood drips from her left ear to the floor. I’m up, clutching a bedpost, yelling incoherently. The man, breathing hard, towers behind DiCOM’s collapsing form, a bloodied IV stand in his grip. DiCOM sprawling out, face-first. All the patients scream and El backs away from the attacker, looking for a weapon, anything. The man roars silence at the patients. I notice DiCOM’s eyes are still open, she’s wounded, badly. She blinks at me, once, twice. Motions imperceptibly with her hand. A pillbox? With a last ounce of strength, she dry-swallows a yellow capsule, skidding her notebook across the floor towards me – I grab it. The noise alerts the attacker who leaps to DiCOM’s static form, picking up her broken, groaning body with one hand.

Like a bubble bursting, she pops out of existence. An echo in the void. “What the-“, is all he manages, frozen in shock.

I look down at the notebook, it’s turned to a page with text scrawled, “ICE – switch”. I start to dissolve before I’ve even finished reading the words. I leave El, the man, the patients, the ward, the door of light, the goddamn ‘scape above me as I fade to black.