“So you…want to go into stasis, sir?”
“For seven to eight hours a night, yes,” I said, nodding to the only person I trusted to help me carry out my latest endeavor.
“But the technology doesn’t work that way,” Leeke said. “No one has yet managed to develop a program this sophisticated that wouldn’t require continuous stasis for at least several months, probably more. At least, not with the information that the agency has released so far. Sir, at best, I fear it would be a waste of your time.”
“Well, that certainly isn’t the point of my newest acquisition. Quite the opposite. I have plenty of possessions and plenty of currency. And if ever I were to lose any of it, I know how to acquire more. But there is one currency that I cannot make more of. And do you know what that is, Leeke?” I paused long enough for her to response with a shake of her head. “Time. I have as much, and as little, as every other person on the planet. So if I can’t make or buy more time, I have to make the best use of the time I have. And what is the one thing we must do that is the most wasteful of our time? Sleeping.”
“The pods are not designed to be turned on and off.”
“We could try, can’t we? What would be the harm? I’m already wasting all that time sleeping. But if it works…than I could do even better than the crew of the Titan mission. And if I can do it for myself, I can make it available to my fellow humanity. Imagine it. Children learning the basics in their sleep.”
“Then what would they do when they were awake?”
“Play, I suppose. Outside in the world, and work with their hands…do the kinds of things that they couldn’t do in their sleep.”
“But, we are supposed to sleep. What if there are adverse effects that we have not yet foreseen? The crew of the Titan mission aren’t going to be sleeping. They’re going to be in something like medically induced comas for almost four years. Some of that time has been set aside for hypnopedia, it is true. To replace what they could be learning and doing if they were awake. But some of that time is designated for true restful sleep.”
“Do you really think we need seven whole hours to consolidate our memories and subconsciously work through whatever problems and issues we faced during the previous day?” I frowned and shook my head. “I’m skeptical. Anyway, even if I’m wrong, what’s the harm? Don’t tell me you’re not even slightly intrigued.”
“My first concern is for your safety, sir. And my second is for the…legality of what you’re doing.”
I waved my hand as if to wave Leeke’s concerns away.
My newest endeavor was worth the cost of my fortune. And it was worth the risk of myself.
Like everyone else in the world who hadn’t been residing under a rock for the past seven years, I’d kept up with the Titan mission. I’d been fascinated and impressed by the technology involved in the propulsion, the shielding, the guidance systems. And with the planning and preparation and foresight involved in establishing the future settlement. It was all impressive. But the one thing that really caught my attention over the past two years was the Version 67 Svetsky-Leung Stasis Pod. This particular model was designed in combination with modern hypnopedia methods. When I first heard of it, I realized that the scientists and engineers who built the pod had done what I’d been dreaming of doing for nearly half my life.
They had made more time.
I wasn’t the only one who was fascinated with this aspect of the mission. After all, not many people on Earth could imagine, much less dare, to venture out into space to colonize another world. But many could definitely imagine and hope to learn a new skill while they slept.
But it wasn’t quite that simple.
Hypnopedia, or sleep learning, had its limits. Once upon a time it was a pseudoscience, until direct brain interface technologies were developed that could help treat sleep disorders. And then, eventually, those technologies took advantage of other potential “powers” that people possessed while sleeping and dreaming. One of those powers was hypnopedia. Still, one could only go so far, and only learn so much.
But there were some who believed those limits were a result of the natural sleep-wake cycle that most people experienced. In other words, the true effects of the learning were constantly interrupted by the pesky state of being we call “waking.”
But the 67-SL stasis pods were specifically designed for a person who would not only have uninterrupted sleep for years, but who would be in a deeper state of unconsciousness.
And if they were going to be “sleeping” anyway, some thought, why not try to make use of that time? Why not try to give them an even greater advantage once they reached the settlement site? Why not test our theories, if those tests could be done with little to no risk of harm?
Volunteers tested the pods for six or seven months at a time, with astonishing results. Those volunteers learned in their sleep what would have taken them three or four times as long to learn if they’d been awake and consciously studying. They learned in their sleep and were tested upon waking in a variety of subjects from astrophysics to exotic calculus, and fluency in various languages.
The volunteers had less success in learning tasks that required a particular physical condition, like playing an instrument or a sport. By the time their bodies were well-conditioned enough to perform the physical aspect of the skill, their minds had forgotten too much.
If the 67-SL stasis pods worked as hoped, everyone on the Titan mission would be able learn enough to earn additional credentials in at least two different fields of expertise, according to their choices and the needs of the mission. Redundancy of skills and knowledge among the crew would further ensure the success of their mission, a settlement on a new world. If the experimental program failed, the crew would still have the expertise they learned the old-fashioned way, when they were conscious and consciously studying. The stasis pods and the program were carefully configured and would be constantly monitored. Each pod and program was customized for each member of the crew.
Thirty countries had to chip in to cover the cost of each stasis pod—even without the hypnopedia programming.
Over the course of my life, I’d been called “obscenely wealthy” by many. And I have made extravagant purchases before. But my latest acquisition was the true test of what true wonders I could get my hands on with an “obscene” amount of wealth.
I had managed to acquire one of the prototype 67-SL pods. The money was not just for the pod, but for falsifying the documents that confirmed the pod had been dismantled, and its parts repurposed for the construction of another pod. And the money was for purchase those parts on behalf of the joint space agency overseeing the mission. And because there were so many people involved in the project, not a single human being at the agency had to be bribed for information or to look the other way. I just had to find all the proper cracks, and direct the pod to slip through them.
If I could manage to make the pod work the way I wanted, I had a contact within the agency with whom I could come clean. Someone who would be able to convince the higher powers at the agency and the governments involved that the greater good outweighed my crime of minor theft. If I could make the pod work the way I wanted, I would have made it work the way many, many people wanted. And I would be transparent with all my research and proof. In the grand scheme of things, having risked only myself and my own life and mind, I could be forgiven.
After all, everyone was afraid that if the pod technology worked and became affordable enough for a business to purchase a few, people would start going into stasis for years on end to gain skills and knowledge without conscious mental and physical effort. But I was not interested in sleeping for four years at a stretch and waking up with two or three degrees. What I wanted to do was something that the naysayers might actually want to get behind. To sleep for the typical recommended seven to eight hours a night, and to learn during that time. If that worked for me, for everyone, than people could keep up with news and developments in their own fields in their sleep, and still live their normal waking lives. People might even be able to learn an instrument or a sport—or at least hone their skills—in their sleep. The sleep-wake cycle would allow a person to exercise and tone her body as needed for the physical skill in question.
Coupling hypnopedia with stasis was only the first stage of a grand vision.
This could be my greatest achievement, and a great achievement for all humanity. And it would all be because I had the money to throw at the problem. Money that even thirty governments working together could not manage to produce. And of course they couldn’t. Governments had more urgent and dire matters to sort out. But I didn’t.
As little time as I had, I still had more than most.
I did not have to trade my time for labor, for one thing. And I had trusted agents running my many other enterprises, for another.
The order in which a plan is executed is of vital importance to the plan’s success. So the first step in my plan was to go into stasis for a few months and learn everything I needed to know about the stasis pod itself. Leeke would assist me with maintenance, repairs, and monitoring of my time in stasis. We would bring on others as needed. So long as those others were under my employ and in my trust, all would be well. Things would go wrong, of course. And as Leeke pointed out, numerous times I might add, our pod was a prototype and probably even more prone to malfunction than the final version of the 67-SL pod.
Of course we could not foresee every possible problem. But again, the risk was worth taking. And after all, how risky could it be to sleep?
“What do you mean ‘classified material?’”
Leeke stood before me with a file in her hand, a rather thin file with two sheets of heavily redacted paper. It was a memo.
I had asked her to find every scrap of information she could about the technical specifications and operating parameters of the 67-SL pod. Most of it was freely available to the public, but there were key pieces of information missing. Pieces of information that had been deemed a potential danger. And even those pieces were within my reach.
By the time that copy of a classified memo was placed in my hands, I had spent the better part of a year setting that stasis pod up for its first test run. The Titan mission had launched months ago. The crew were already learning away in their pods.
“Is it enough to delay the timeline?” I asked without opening the file. Leeke would have already read every word, and tried to uncover every redaction.
She shook her head. “It’s hard to tell. If it was just a last-minute note of concern from an official, I doubt it would have been redacted and classified. I can only surmise that maybe the memo contains information about some risk or risks that might have delayed the Titan mission. And if that’s so, then yes, it is enough to delay our timeline.”
Bureaucracy is ever the thorn in my side.
For two days, I agonize about what might be written on that memo. All I can read is the odd meaningless word. An article. The word “the.” A conjunction. The word “and.” Nothing of significance.
I decided to proceed.
And on the day of the autumn equinox, I slipped into the 67-SL prototype stasis pod, and I fell asleep.
I emerged from the pod four months later, on a rainy and blustery winter day.
Leeke assisted me out of the pod. The pod was designed to exercise and stimulate the body to prevent the problems that were typical in a human body that lay still for prolonged periods of time. I did not have bedsores or edema or even muscle mass loss to contend with. But I was terribly stiff. And very disoriented.
My voice could produce no sound until my throat was properly lubricated with specially designed electrolyte formulas, and upon my insistence, a snifter of brandy.
When I was able to speak, the first words I said were, “I know what that memo was about.”
I knew because in the four months I’d been in stasis, I had learned everything about the 67-SL pod, every record, every document, every news article or segment, every recoverable note written on a napkin or a sticky pad.
There was one thing, one problem that remained unsolved when that memo was written. The scientists and engineers called it the “filter problem.” I’d heard someone make that reference before once or twice perhaps. But I’d thought it was referring to the filter for bodily fluids in each pod. It had to be replaced often, so often that the ultimate solution was to add the filter changes to the list of monitoring duties for the small crew who would remain awake during the trip.
But the processing of bodily fluids is not what the “filter problem” referred to.
I explained to Leeke over a few cups of hot tea.
“The memo probably referred to the need for controls and safeguards against the unique psychological and mental stresses of dreaming for too long,” I said.
Leeke frowned. “Dreaming?”
“When we are learning in our sleep, that learning is happening in a mindscape that is filled with unpredictable yet consequential events…our dreams”
Leeke shook her head. “But don’t we all dream all the time? Aside from sleep-walking, or a fright from an intense nightmare, what danger could there from dreaming? Or…I should say, what lasting danger could there be?”
I widened my eyes and then narrowed them, trying to catch the movement that flickered in the shadows behind Leeke. Was it the reflections of the rainfall outside the window? Or did I see something in the shadows?
“There is a reason we only sleep for a short period of time,” I said, staring at the shadows, daring them to move. “We risk great damage to ourselves if we dream for too long. But we have natural safeguards in place if we do exceed that time. Filters through which we pass so that when our minds emerge into consciousness, we forget the twisted and maddening things we have seen in our dreams. Even people who wake from comas pass through these filters. If they didn’t…”
“Would they go mad?”
I frowned and shook my head. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“How are you feeling, sir?”
“Not like myself,” I said. I shifted my gaze to her face. “But none too worse for wear either. I’ve been lying around for four months, but I feel exhausted.”
“We suspected that might be the result of a continuous learning program. If you go into long-term stasis again—“
“I won’t. That was just a one-time thing. That was how long I needed to gain as much expertise as humanly possible about the pods. Well, especially for someone who does not have a core background in engineering.”
“Perhaps your next topic of study should be sleep and dreams,” Leeke suggested.
I shook my head. “I think something far more mundane might be warranted. Something to get me back in the swing of the daily hustle. I’ll rest for a few days, then I’ll start the pod sessions the way I first envisioned. Seven to eight hours every night. And then I wake having learned everything that had and would be happening the next day, the next week. Did you gather any interesting data on the pod while I was under? Anomalous readings?”
Leeke shook her head. “The pod performed as expected. We maintained. Maybe we got lucky, but nothing unusual happened while you were under, sir. At least not on our end.”
I nodded, still mesmerized by the rainfall drumming against the window. “Not on your end…”
I know when I am awake. And I know when I am sleeping. The pod has not confused me in that respect. But I still had to wonder when I saw the first sign that something was amiss. I was awake and absently scribbling on my notepad as I spoke with a friend over the phone. We were arranging a dinner date. I’d drawn a symbol on my notepad, unfamiliar to my conscious mind.
I’d slept in my own bed the previous night, as I would for a week, at least, before returning to the stasis pod. I didn’t remember any dreams.
But when I looked at the symbol I’d drawn, two interlocking horseshoe shapes surrounded by accents, the image of a door came to the forefront of my mind. And I had the feeling that I’d seen the door in a dream.
As I worked at taking down notes on the operation of the stasis pod, and on the next hypnopedia program I would load into the pod for myself, I kept seeing shapes moving at the corner of my vision. And once, even on my arm, my keyboard. I was jumpy, the way a person is jumpy when deprived of sleep. It had to be some side effect of learning in my sleep. Either that or I had brought more than knowledge back with me into the waking world.
I almost preferred the latter, as unsettling as it sounded. If I was sleep-deprived and so drowsy that I was jumping at stray hallucinations of imagined bugs, then my ultimate plan would not work. I wouldn’t be able to learn during my usual sleep cycle and wake up both refreshed and well-versed in biomechanics at the same time.
But when I saw what I thought was a bug crawling toward me from the edge of my desk, I thought I was just seeing things. And I kept typing.
Unlike the other visions, when I would bat at my arm, thinking I was shooing a moth when it was just a stray piece of thread from my blazer, this bug kept crawling, slowly, toward me.
I didn’t want to look. I raised my notebook, ready to sweep away whatever it was. I glanced over at it.
Marching steadily toward me from the corner of the desk was a large insect with six thick segmented legs, a striped brown-orange body, and…and a face with a bald head and two tiny eyes peering at me, and a nose, and a mouth. It was a human face.
I cried out and brought my notebook down onto the creature. I heard it—or thought I heard it squeal.
As I caught my breath, Leeke rushed into my study.
“There was an insect here,” I said. “It had the face of human. I had to kill it. It wasn’t threatening me. But I just…I shouldn’t have killed it.” The surge of adrenaline in my body woke me, gave me a clarity I did not have a moment ago.
Leeke bent down to examine the remains. The worried frown on her face abruptly vanished. She lifted a tissue with the remnants of the bug lying on top in the palm of her hand. “It’s just a potato beetle, sir.”
It wasn’t moving. It was dead. I didn’t want to look at it. I didn’t want to see its face.
The next morning, I woke feeling utterly drained.
“Something is wrong,” I told Leeke at breakfast. “I have a feeling that I may be dreaming all through the night. And forgetting when I wake.”
“Then you believe you are not getting any rest? We can set up a sleep monitor to—“
“I want to go back into the stasis pod. At least if I sleep there and spend all my time dreaming, I’ll remember, and I might figure out why I can’t rest.”
“Maybe you just need some time to readjust. It’s only been a few days.”
“I’m jumping at pieces of lint floating through the air, and violently murdering bugs that made the mistake of wandering into my field of vision.” I shook my head. “I need real rest. And the best way to figure out what’s wrong is to go back into stasis.”
Leeke was gazing down at my plate. I had sliced the piece of buttered toast on my plate into several triangles which I had absently arranged into a pattern. A symbol.
“I must definitely go back under,” I said. “This symbol and the other one I drew yesterday, they entered my mind during my time in stasis. And they are still there, even as the knowledge I gained about the pods is still there.”
“How are you so certain of that? Have you looked the symbols up?”
I pointed to her. “You do that for me. And in the meantime, I’m writing a new hypnopedia program. Don’t worry, Leeke, I’ll have you check it for errors before I go back in.”
“Sir, it sounds as if your sleeping brain has become stuck in only one of the stages of sleep. The rapid eye movement stage. But that is as much of a guess as your guess about those symbols. Neither of us is an expert in sleep or dreams. We should consult someone who is.”
“Agreed, but not just yet. I want to try this first.”
“What if you make it worse?”
“How could I possibly make it worse? If you’re correct, then I haven’t really slept for four months, have I?” I pressed a hand to my chest. “But my vital signs are still normal. Aside from being a bit punchy, the effect on my faculties and my behavior are nominal…for now.”
I pointed down to the floor, past the floor to the basement where the stasis pod lay. “What I need is in there not out here. And it’s where I need to be to solve this mystery.”
My mind had learned something, something I hadn’t programmed it to learn. That must have been it. I was certain that it was. My mind had learned something that wasn’t filtered out when I woke, because my prototype stasis didn’t have the official filters installed. And the one that Leeke and I had built, well, it obviously was not sufficient.
Or maybe…my mind had almost learned something. But I had woken from stasis before I could finish. And now there was an itch that needed scratching. And if I waited too long, I would be too fog-headed to do the math and to write the program that I needed to help guide me back to that itch, to that something.
As I wrote the program, another symbol emerged when I took a break for lunch, and mindlessly dragged a French fry through ketchup until I drew a series of overlapping polygons.
I glanced at Leeke as I climbed into the stasis pod.
“No matter how much or how little time passes for you in there,” she said, “I’m going to pull you out after seven hours. Sooner if I see any signs of distress.”
I nodded and lay back on the cool padding. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I was walking down a familiar path. It was the path from my front door to the sidewalk. But it seemed to be lengthening as I walked, and suddenly there were brambles flanking the path, and husks of tree bark littering the path.
I came to a fork. Both roads looked identical. One was marked with a sign that read “academy.” The other was marked with a symbol. Two interlocking horseshoe shapes, surrounded by various accents. I stared at both signs. I glanced around to see if there was anyone nearby who might tell me about the two paths, and help me decide which one to take.
I had the feeling that I knew which path I wanted to take. I just couldn’t think of it at the moment.
“Why am I here?” I asked aloud. And I answered myself.
“I’m here to learn.”
A sound, a tiny squealing, drew my attention to the ground. Among the litter of dried leaves and bark, I spotted something crawling along, toward the road marked “academy.”
I gasped with a sudden realization, a sudden memory. I looked at the sign with the symbol. I had drawn that symbol, when I was awake.
I headed down the path indicated by the horseshoes symbol.
Thereafter, I was ready when I encountered the symbol made up of multiple triangles, carved into a brick along the now-paved path on which I tread.
And I was ready for the third symbol, when I found it painted on a door, a freestanding door that stood in the middle of the path.
As I approached the door, I felt something in my right hand. Something metal. I traced the shape with a finger. It was a key.
According to the news, all was well with the Titan mission.
But then, why would it not be? The mission’s 67-SL stasis pods were final versions. They contained the proper safeguards. They were designed to deal with the “filter problem.”
My prototype was not. But I wondered. Were those filters too strict? Were there some things they were filtering out that perhaps need not be filtered? Were there some…perceptions they were filtering out that need not be filtered?
Maybe there is more to dreaming than learning. And maybe there is more to learning than knowing.
While three dozen souls lie in stasis on a ship that hurtles through the frigid vacuum of space, aiming to explore what is “out there,” I lie in my own pod, having found a door I did not know was present in my own mind.
I stand at the threshold of that door, holding what I think is the key, asking myself if I am ready to explore what is “in here.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel