Have you ever wondered why we dream? Have you ever wondered where your mind goes at night? Gemma never did, but very soon she’s about to find out what happens when you tap into the hidden frequencies of the multiverse.
Gemma walked through corridors painted pale green, along tiled floors on which her footsteps echoed loudly. It was otherwise completely silent. The lights were a mixture of modern fluorescent strips and creaking metal lamps that cast an oily yellow light that didn’t reach the deepest corners. The whole building smelt clean – but not a wholesome clean. More like antiseptic. Clinical. The doors she passed were all closed, and they were normal enough except that the frames were heavily braced with rubber sealing around the edges, as if they once housed something much more heavy-duty. She’d never been in this part of the university before. In fact, she hadn’t even known it was part of the university until yesterday. The great block of dirty bricks – some behemoth from a Victorian nightmare – was on the edge of the city, far from the rest of the campus. She’d never looked at it twice, but now she walked through its empty halls, looking at the doors and glancing down at her phone screen to figure out where she was supposed to be going. She knew she had the right floor, but the doors were numbered only sporadically, and even then inconsistently. It was impossible to get her bearings, and she was now somewhere deep within the building, away from any windows, relying solely on the lights along the ceiling. Finally, as she began to grow impatient with the whole enterprise, she stumbled on the room she was looking for. Room 141. Department of Oneirology – a department that, as far as she’d been able to determine was contained solely within this office. She knocked on the door and waited for an answer. Nothing happened so she knocked again. She stood there in the cold echoing corridor which was completely devoid of any decoration – no soothing pictures on the walls, no potted plants, no notice boards, not even so much as a water cooler. Apart from the disinterested receptionist she’d spoken to in the lobby, it was like this whole grim edifice was abandoned. She wrapped her arms around herself as she felt a shudder go through her. Maybe coming here was as stupid as she’d first thought when she’d seen the advert on the uni website.
She started to turn away, giving up on the whole dumb idea, when a voice called from the other side of the door. “Yes?” A woman’s voice, a little muffled thanks to that ever-present sealing around the frame, but still strangely warm and reassuring, almost motherly.
“Speak up!” came the voice again, sounding more irritable now.
“Sorry,” Gemma said, a little louder, “I’m…uh…I’m here because of the advert…?”
“Really?” The disbelief was audible even through the door.
“Yes. Is…is that all right?”
“I suppose so. Come in then.”
Gemma was hesitant, but she pushed the door open and stepped inside. The room within was strange. Its brickwork walls were painted the same nauseating institutional green as the hallway and the ceiling was very high. There was one window, narrow and high up, with bars across it. Only weak, pale light filtered through. The contents were typical of any university professor’s office, but the proportions of the room were such that desk, chairs, bookshelves, teetering piles of files and a lone goldfish circling forlornly in a round bowl, all seemed to be clustered into one corner, with the rest of the space given over to mysterious shapes covered in dustsheets. An older woman, short, black, with close-cropped grey hair, hoop earrings, thick glasses and a wide, white smile, stood up from the desk and came towards her, holding out a hand. Gemma took it gingerly. “Hello,” she squeaked.
“Hello, my dear.” The professor’s accent had a trace of Nigerian in it which, Gemma realised, was probably why she’d found it so instinctively matronly – her grandmother had spoken with a thick Nigerian patois, and her young self had found it almost impossible to understand her growing up. But still, the familiar lilt instantly put her at ease.
“You’re…um…Professor Adeyemi, right?”
“Yes, yes.” She still held her hand in a warm grip and put her other hand on the back of Gemma’s, dark brown against her paler coffee-coloured skin. “And you are?”
Gemma at last succeeded in freeing herself. “Gemma.”
“Lovely to meet you, Gemma. Come, come.” She beckoned her over to the office furniture cringing in the corner and pulled out a chair for her on one side of the desk. Professor Adeyemi sat down on the other side. “Tea?”
There was a little tray on the bookshelf behind her with a small kettle, like might be found in a hotel room, and a chintzy teapot in the shape of a thatched cottage, with two mismatched mugs. The professor busied herself with it for a moment. “I’m surprised to see you,” she said after a minute.
“What I mean is,” she continued, turning around from pouring boiling water into the pot, “is I don’t usually get anyone responding to my advertisements.”
“No.” She swirled tea leaves with a spoon and then sat back down again, letting it brew. “My department has a rather poor reputation.”
“I didn’t know that.”
Adeyemi looked surprised. “You didn’t?”
“Sorry, I’d never even heard of…uh…oneirology, until yesterday.”
“But you’re a student here, yes?”
“That’s right,” Gemma replied with a nod.
“What do you study?”
“Ahhh.” Adeyemi leant back in her chair and it creaked beneath her weight. “Arts student. I’m guessing you’ve never come to this building before.”
“No wonder you look so frightened.”
Gemma gave the professor a small smile. “Just not quite what I’m used to.”
Adeyemi held up a hand. “They thought putting me here would keep me out of the way. I’m a bit of an embarrassment, but they daren’t get rid of me. The thing is, this is exactly where I wanted to be all along.”
Gemma nodded politely. She had no real idea what this woman was talking about. She just wanted to get on with this and be out of here as soon as possible. Adeyemi stood up and inspected the tea in the pot again then, apparently satisfied, she began pouring into the two cups. There was a bowl of sugar which she put on the desk between them, then she walked over to a compact fridge humming under another shelf beneath the goldfish and came back with a small bottle of milk. That too was placed in the middle so she could help herself. Then the steaming tea arrived. Gemma didn’t touch the milk or the sugar, and neither did Adeyemi. Evidently they both took it the same way.
“Do you know what I do here?” the professor asked.
“I research dreams. That’s what oneirology is. The science of dreams. I’m one of the only academics in the world specifically studying dreams. I’m not interested in sleep, in psychology or any of that stuff – just dreams. What people dream. How they dream. Most importantly, why they dream.” She cocked her head as she placed her tea back on the desk. “Have you ever wondered that, Gemma?”
“Wondered what, sorry?”
“Why we dream.”
“Um…no…I guess I haven’t.”
“Would you be surprised to hear that nobody really knows?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer. She’d never had any interest at all in science, and questions like that weren’t ones that occurred to her in the normal course of events. Dreaming was just one of those things, wasn’t it? Who cared really? But, she realised that on some level, she’d assumed someone must know what it was all about. “I suppose I would, yeah,” she answered.
“There are a lot of theories. Exercising the brain. Ordering the long-term memory. An evolutionary measure designed to keep us alert even when we sleep. Other animals do it – did you ever see a dog’s legs twitch in its sleep? It’s dreaming of running under a full moon. Wolf dreams.” She smiled. “That’s what I like to pretend anyway, but who knows?”
Adeyemi laughed shortly. “I can see this doesn’t interest you. Why would it? It hardly interests anyone else at all. I put out those advertisements now and then, hoping someone might volunteer for one of my studies. You’re either very lucky or very stupid to come here.”
“Very desperate,” Gemma said. “For the money I mean. Sorry.”
“Yes, well, you’re a student.”
“It’s not just that…I…well, I’m sort of between homes at the moment. My girlfriend and I split up. I’m trying to scrape together a deposit for a new flat, sofa surfing in the meantime. This looked like an easy way to pick up some quick cash. Sorry,” she said again.
“It’s fine, my dear. I don’t care what brought you here. Only that you’re willing to help me with my research.”
“If you’ll give me the five-hundred quid, sure. Whatever you need.”
Adeyemi watched her over the rim of her cup, then took another sip of the pungent tea. The blend wasn’t one Gemma recognised. “Let me tell you what I believe, Gemma,” the professor said slowly.
“Around eighty years ago, there was another academic who took an interest in this subject. A Dr Morrison. You won’t have heard of him; he died penniless and discredited. But he had a very unusual theory about dreams. At the time he was working, the human mind was very poorly understood, but the existence of neural oscillations had been discovered and already quite extensively catalogued.”
Another bright smile. “Brain waves, in layman’s terms. Dr Morrison knew that the firing of neurones in the brain caused our thoughts – our consciousness – but neuroscience was in its infancy and he could not begin to guess at their meaning. However, he was fascinated by the different readings he received from subjects with differing mental states. Some of what he did might now be considered unethical, but he made many interesting observations about patients diagnosed with psychosis, schizophrenia, depression and other psychological ailments. What surprised him most of all though were the results he got from studying the brain waves of the dreaming mind.” Adeyemi leant forward. There was something almost hungry in her gaze, and Gemma had the impression that she’d been waiting to talk to someone about this topic for a very long time. She began to feel uneasy again. “The kind of activity that goes on in your brain when you dream is fundamentally unlike that which occurs when awake. Your consciousness is a different beast entirely when dreaming. The frequency of the waves changes, and you enter a state not unlike that experienced by people with the most profound mental illnesses. Which is no great surprise, since dreams can be so illogical and terrifying!” She laughed.
Gemma smiled weakly. “I suppose that makes sense,” she offered.
“I would hope so. Dr Morrison came up with a rather unusual theory. So unusual, he didn’t even share it with his colleagues, as he knew how ridiculous it sounded. He began to believe that, when dreaming, the mind is operating on a different frequency not because it is merely thinking strange thoughts, but because it is physically accessing a strange place. Earlier in his career, he had been a proponent of the then-nascent concept of parallel universes, which would later find support upon the discovery of quantum mechanics. Morrison theorised that there was another reality, adjacent and concurrent with our familiar world, that our minds inhabited while asleep. Did you know that, even now, we don’t know why most animals need to sleep? We have no idea at all! We know that it’s a basic biological requirement, but no one understands why we should evolve to need to spend a third of our lives unconscious. It’s an odd idea when you stop to think about it, isn’t it? We know that, in basic biological terms, an organism has to burn calories in order to generate energy, but why should they need to rest then? No matter how much food is taken in, sleep will eventually be needed. It’s seems completely independent of the normal processes of taking in, storing and burning energy. Morrison’s great conceptual leap was to understand that sleep – and dreaming – has nothing to do with being tired in the conventional sense, but rather spoke to a deeper need inherent in consciousness to access the place he called the Otherworld. Visiting this parallel universe replenishes us and allows us to continue to exist in this mundane one.”
Gemma was staring at the professor now. Her hands twitched involuntarily on the arms of her chair, and she wondered what had possessed her to come here and speak to this crazy woman. This wasn’t worth the five-hundred quid. “Look, professor…”
“I know it sounds insane, child. I know.” She laughed again; a big, hearty belly laugh. A grandmother laugh. “I thought just as you did when I first read Morrison’s papers. I told you he was ridiculed, didn’t I? His work was very obscure and hard to track down, but I came to understand that there was a grain of truth to it all. I was a physicist once. I know about frequencies, and about the implications of quantum mechanics. The multiverse is a soup of probability, and our lives are just the nodes where those mathematical curves intersect in four-dimensional space. Alter the frequency of your consciousness, and it’s not so hard to believe you might move along those curves a little. When I looked into the possibilities, it began to explain so much. What culture didn’t believe in the existence of another place; a world of gods and monsters? What culture didn’t practice shamanistic rituals that promised to allow its people to transcend their mortal bodies and enter an altered state of being? These concepts are universal. Our minds reach out for transcendence, for the touch of magic that will elevate us to the divine. All of the strange things we see, the notions that we never shake from our cultural landscape in spite of extensive research done to disprove them, can be explained by this incredibly simple idea. There is another world, very much like our own, but operating on another quantum frequency. Our minds are evolved to enter this world by attuning our brain waves to that frequency, because doing so has a positive effect on our wellbeing – so much so that we constantly strive to replicate it in the waking world. But it isn’t easy, and we can’t maintain the dream state for long, which is why we experience the Otherworld as such a jumble of thought and emotion. We relive old memories and invent new ones. We access our darkest and most disturbing fears and desires. We are allowed only a glimpse of Mount Olympus each night.”
Gemma licked her lips. “I…I think I understand.” She didn’t understand, and she didn’t want to.
“You don’t have to believe me,” Adeyemi said in a kindly tone, “you just have to help me. If you do, I’ll give you your money. Doesn’t matter if we find what I’m looking for or not. But if we do…well, you might find there are more important things happening in your life than a breakup and a deposit on a new flat. This could change humanity forever.”
“What is it you actually want to do?” Gemma asked her, starting to feel a cold dread creep through her.
“I want to influence your brain waves using a technique Morrison devised. I want to match them to the frequency that he believed corresponded with the Otherworld and take you there deliberately. You will experience something not dissimilar to lucid dreaming, whereby you are in complete possession of your faculties, but you will be in a place that is not this universe. Nothing less than astral projection, Gemma. You will be temporarily disembodied, but of course perfectly safe, for your body will be here with me, sleeping. You may not even leave the building; reports of what the Otherworld is like vary, and it seems it may be almost completely identical to our own. It’s possible you would even be able to see me, and yourself, but of course you won’t be able to interact, any more than your dreaming self can communicate with your waking self.”
“This sounds a little dangerous…has anyone done it before? Did Morrison actually manage it?”
“He had some success, but he was limited by the technology of his time. I’ve perfected his designs with the use of modern computers, and now I can induce the dream state to a sleeping subject at will.”
“Right…but have you tried it before?”
Adeyemi grinned. “As I said, I don’t get many respondents to my advertisements.”
“You could try it on yourself though?”
“Far too risky. Someone has to be here to monitor the subject, in case…well, in case of something happening…” She trailed off a little distractedly.
Gemma sighed. “Look, professor, this has been a really interesting discussion, and the tea is great, but I really think that, on reflection, I don’t need the money this badly. I’m really sorry.” She started to stand.
“A thousand pounds,” Adeyemi said. “Not five-hundred – I’ll pay you double.”
“Fifteen-hundred. I only need your brain for an hour, Gemma. Fifteen-hundred pounds for an hour spent sleeping. Success or failure, I’ll pay.”
She hesitated. Who in their right mind would turn down that kind of money? A mercenary streak showed itself though: she saw how desperate the professor was. “Two-thousand,” she heard herself say. “Up front.”
Gemma felt cold suddenly. Adeyemi sat up and held out a hand. Gemma took it again, a little limply. “Okay…so what now?”
“We can’t do it today. I need you to have been awake for at least twenty-four hours. Come back in two days, just before midday. We can begin then.”
Adeyemi reached into a drawer and pulled out a cheque book. She took a pen from the desk tidy and began writing out a cheque. “Your surname, Gemma?”
She told her, feeling numb as she watched the strange old woman loop the three fat zeroes on the amount line. Two grand, just like that! Fuck the deposit! If she had to stay awake for a whole day, she was going to do it in style. “Can I…um…can I drink before doing this?”
“Certainly. Do whatever you like. Except sleep.” She tore off the cheque and handed it over to her. Gemma took it like it might bite. “I’ll see you in two days, yes?”
She bobbed her head. “Sure. I’ll be here.” She left the half-empty room, already half-dreaming, cheque tucked neatly into her back pocket, mind reeling at the thought of having a bank account that healthy. She ought to pay off her credit card, sort her car out, find that bloody flat, but those all seemed small concerns now. Professor Adeyemi’s crazy experiment also seemed irrelevant just then. The old crank couldn’t possibly believe any of the nonsense she spouted, but Gemma was happy to humour her for an hour for this kind of money. She almost felt guilty for fleecing her, but who would turn down an opportunity like this one? She wandered back through the sterile corridors, giddy with excitement.