By Alex Shakar
It’s the summer of 2006 in New York. Fred Brounian’s twin brother and former co-CEO, George, lies comatose and dying of cancer in a hospital. The virtual-reality company they founded together has been stolen out from under them by a military-contracting conglomerate, which has since laid Fred off. His fiancée has left him, he’s lost his swanky apartment, and he’s moved in with his parents. Broke and alone, he’s entered a scientific study in which “peak” experiences are administered by means of an electromagnetic helmet, with the aim of giving him a more spiritual outlook on life. Last week, thanks to the helmet, he felt himself becoming repeatedly, blissfully, and at times disastrously one with his surroundings—including his experimenter, Mira.
The red bulb.
The control room window, black shade drawn.
The black perforations in the white ceiling tiles, a night sky in reverse.
The glossy galaxy, masking-taped to the ceiling tiles, creased from former folds. Must have come in a magazine.
She’d leaned over him, his experimenter, Mira Egghart, same as last week, applying the gel, the electrodes, first to his head, then unbuttoning his shirt.
“How are you?” she’d asked, in a clipped sort of way, a button of her own pear blouse nearly within reach of his teeth.
“OK,” he’d said, not knowing whether the question was clinical or friendly or just the usual formality. “How are you?”
She hadn’t answered for a moment, maybe considering how such a question from a test subject such as he should be dealt with. It was a hot day for a long-sleeved blouse. He could smell the not unpleasant scent of her sweat, jasmined with deodorant.
“OK,” she’d finally hazarded, swirling gel over his heart.
She’d reached up to where the helmet hung from its jointed arm and pressed it onto his head. He’d idly watched the sway of her skirt as she left, then looked over to find the man behind the control room window giving him a stern look over his reading glasses.
Mind drifting now, drowsy from weeks of nights of half sleep. Still trying to will the walls of himself to open up like last week, to expand and contain the bulb, tiles, shelves, poster, to be all things, space itself.
On the galaxy poster taped to the ceiling directly above, he sees a pattern to the stars; not just one swirl but thousands, an intricate weave, swirls within swirls in all directions. So clear to him now he can barely believe no one’s spotted it before. He’ll publish his findings to the world, to personal acclaim, universal joy, the end of all wars. His dying twin was right, after all. Things aren’t what they seem. This can’t possibly be anything but proof of divine order.
Then Fred’s awake again, or so it seems. Only, the poster has grown, the stars so close he’s almost flush up against the paper.
He’s afraid: fear comes in ripples, emanating from his center. He can feel nothing but these ripples, he realizes, neither the chair beneath him nor the helmet on his head, nor his head itself.
He can turn, and despite his fear, he does so, slowly in space, to see the room below:
The steel cart.
The reclined black chair.
The reclined body in the chair. Checkered shoes splayed. Eyes shut.
For a second he thinks it’s George, somehow whisked here from that hospital bed, as he’s never seen himself from the outside. But there he is. That crazy, wired-up gold helmet on his head.
A change in the light draws his attention to the control room window. Mira raises the shade, painting herself and the oldish, sleek-haired man into existence with a single, upward stroke. They’re standing side by side, bathed in pale-blue monitor light, peering through the glass. For a confused interval, Fred’s still above them, but then, as though a stopper has been plucked from a drain, he’s plunged back down, stuffed into too many sensations at once. A dry tongue, a drier mouth. A pulsating scalp, too hot, too tight. Eyeballs sliding beneath a warmish gauze of some kind . . .
. . . eyelids.
He can’t seem to open them any more than the millimeter they already are, though this is enough for him to make out Mira and the man again, gazing down at him, their expressions slack, their eyes misted and lost in the sight of him, like a mother and father awed by the mystery of their sleeping infant. As they watch him, the man puts his arm around Mira, cups her narrow shoulder in his hand.
She lifted off the helmet. Then gave him a closer look.
He thought about answering her. He couldn’t quite remember how to do so, through what medium or biophysical process. Then he heard someone very close to him murmur an assent. The voice was his own, or a rough approximation. He swallowed painfully around the dryness in his throat.
“Do you feel like you can get up?” she asked.
Again, he contemplated the mechanics. He began lifting his arms and legs, but recoiled at the feel of all those muscles slithering around his skeleton, electric eels in a coral bed.
“Do you need a while to get your bearings?”
Her voice was perhaps even a little more hoarse than last week. It didn’t rise, though the concern in her eyes made him aware of the fear that must have been in his own. He felt that fear directly now, feeding back on itself, folding into panic. Trapped in this snakebed of a body.
The air only accessible through narrow tubes of skin. For his sake more than hers—to convince himself that, unlike in his nightmares, he could at least move this fleshly carapace—he nodded.
“Just relax. I’ll come back in a few minutes.”
Her hand hovered, tentative, over his shoulder. For a second, she rested two fingertips there. Then turned and left.
No one here but a body in a chair.
Fred in a body.
A nauseated one, flinching from its own feel. The only spot of comfort was the lingering impression of her fingertips through the fabric of his shirt, a reminder of the good side of having skin. He cultivated that square-inch patch, tilled and tended it into a full-body embrace. Imagined her sitting down sideways on his lap. Wedging her arms between him and the chair. Pressing her palms to his back. Her breasts to his ribcage. Her cheek to the side of his neck. He started to feel normal. The fear subsided.
He tried to get up again, successfully this time, locating his feet and rising to balance above them. Walking wasn’t hard: a regular oscillation, which, once begun, took care of itself. In the hallway, he found the control room door open and the Roman-haired guy in his seat, taking Fred’s measure over the flat horizons of his glasses. The man’s look was neither amiable nor disdainful, just penetrating. The brown of his eyes, from this closer perspective, looked as if it had seeped slightly, like a dye, into the surrounding whites. For a moment, Fred thought the guy was going to say something, but then those dyed eyes wandered back to his computer.
Continuing down the hall, Fred found Mira in her office, sitting in profile, an elbow on her desk, those same two fingers propping her head at the temple, stretching the skin at the edge of her eyebrow. Her eyes were closed.
“Made it on my own,” he announced.
She started, nearly knocked her takeout coffee onto her laptop. He lowered himself into the blue recliner, and she put the computer on her lap and swiveled to face him. Her game face on now. Focus. Professional-grade compassion.
“So, how did it go?” she asked.
“It was . . . different from last time,” he said, locked more on the act of speaking than what he was saying.
“I went completely out of my body this time.” The fact only really sunk in then. “Jesus. I had an out-of-body experience.”
Her lips twitched, almost imperceptibly. Then she caught herself, modulating into a calm nod. “Please describe it for me. Tell me in as much detail as you can.”
She was eager at the news, it seemed, but not quite surprised. He was about to ask why when the obvious struck.
“You did something new to me. Didn’t you?”
“We can discuss that. But first, why don’t you tell me about it?”
He stared at her. “I was up at the top of the room. I saw myself down there.”
She typed. Nodded. Typed some more.
“How . . .” he burst out. “How could you possibly make that happen?”
“If you could, Fred”—she sounded impatient—“I’d like you to—”
“Please. Just tell me.”
She was clearly flustered. He could see he was disrupting her protocol. After a moment, though, she seemed to decide it wasn’t worth the fight. She closed her laptop, leaving it balanced on her thighs.
“All right. There’s a small region of your brain called the angular gyrus. Right about here.”
She turned to display the side of her head and pointed just behind the upper part of her ear, where her hair flowed around and down toward a dark metal barrette.
“Like the parietal lobes, which I told you about last week, the angular gyrus also plays a role in helping you perceive your own body. If you remember, the parietal lobes may help mark the borders of where we end and the outer world begins. But the angular gyrus appears to be what allows us to perceive our bodies as our own in the first place.”
She’d gotten over her momentary annoyance, her face animated now. It struck him that the times she lectured him about the science—angling her head this way and that, moving her hands around like semaphore flags, unleashing torrents of jargon—were, oddly enough, the times she seemed to him at her most natural and unguarded.
“The fact that our bodies are ours seems pretty obvious to us,” she went on, spreading her hands, “but it’s actually a pretty complex operation, neurologically speaking, requiring a lot of sensory-data analysis and mental mapping. When the angular gyrus misfires, we still have a sense that there’s a body present, but we don’t feel like it’s ours anymore. It just doesn’t feel like any part of us. The result can be a free-floating sensation, or even a sensation of being outside of our own bodies.”
“OK. But . . .” He shook his head. “I saw my own face.”
“Yes, it’s strange.” She took a moment to nod in sympathy. “And even if there is a neurological explanation—”
She hesitated. Then relented, sparing him the psychobabble. “Your brain spends a lot of its energy building models of the world around you. To do this, it relies in part on the data from your senses and in part on your imagination to fill in the blanks. You can tell the difference between me speaking to you now and a daydream because your brain has evolved another function that acts as a reality flag, which it plants in whichever of the competing scenes at the moment is most vividly sensed. You have more data coming in from this room than from your daydream, and so your brain decides that the room is the thing that’s real at this moment.”
As she said this, bracketing the air around her face with her hands, he had one of those eerie moments of doubt, wondering if he weren’t in fact dreaming all of this—up in the air, down here in the chair, no difference.
“The way this function seems to work is that something always has to be real,” she was saying. “So when there’s a lack of sensory data to determine the reality of the moment, the imagination is called on more to fill in the blanks. When you dream, and you’re cut off from most of your sensory data, your imagination goes into overdrive, and since they’re the only game in town, your brain marks those imaginings as real. You could sense your body and face, but since your angular gyrus was jammed, so to speak, you felt they didn’t belong to you. Since the room was dark, and the feelings were unfamiliar, your imagination did its best to construct a coherent model of reality.”
She sat back.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” she said.
“I saw you, too. Down there,” he said.
“Did you?” She cocked her head, interested in a study-related sort of way. Re-opened her laptop. The typing again.
“You and that other guy, behind the glass, watching me.”
The typing ceased. Something changed in her look. He could see her trying to hide it.
“Did he put his arm around you?” Fred asked. He mimicked the motion, putting an arm out, cupping the air. “Like this?”
Her eyes, probably his too, went a bit round.
She narrowed hers. “Let’s take this more slowly, from beginning to end. Tell me everything you saw.”
“I don’t know. There isn’t much more. Most of the time I was just sitting in the chair, daydreaming. Then I was up there. You raised the shade.
He put his arm around you. A split second later, I was back down . . . back inside . . . seeing you from that angle.”
She smiled faintly, blinked for an extended moment, self-reproachful.
“OK,” he surmised, already bitter. “So you’re thinking that my eyes really opened when you raised the shade. And it just took a few seconds for my brain to figure it out.”
“Fred,” she said softly. “Why does it matter so much to you what I’m thinking?” Her look probed. “What are you thinking?”
It sounded like doubletalk. At the same time, it was a fair question. What was he thinking? There was nothing the experience could have been but some kind of hallucination. He knew that, didn’t he? They’d induced it with an electromagnet, for God’s sake, just like last week. Yet even more than last week, he was crestfallen. The freedom, the sense of release, had been even greater this time. All he wanted was to be up on that helmet room ceiling again, unbounded as the air itself, watching from on high as Mira’s skirt appeared behind the rising shade, one arm rising with the cord, the other supporting her as she leaned forward over the narrow, cluttered desk. . . .
The white Formica desk . . .
Bathed in the monitor light . . .
“Whose sketch pad was it?”
Mira looked at him askance.
“On the white desk, in the control room,” he went on. “The desk I couldn’t possibly have seen from chair level. Do you draw, Mira?”
“It’s a hobby of . . . Craig’s,” she said slowly. “Sometimes he sketches things.”
“With those flat drawing pencils, right?”
A current shot between them. She swallowed before she spoke.
“What was on the sketchpad, Fred?”
“What was on it?”
She looked like she might be holding her breath.
He tried to remember. “I don’t know.” He shut his eyes. “All I see . . .”
He peeked at her. “It was blank. Wasn’t it?”
She looked away.
“I’m sorry, Fred,” she said tersely. “I didn’t mean to give you the feeling I was testing you.”
But she had been testing him. And he’d failed.
“But how could I—the sketchpad was there.”
She still wasn’t looking at him, embarrassed, it seemed to him, at her own disappointment.
“You’re thinking I could have seen it on the desk at some other time,” he said. “Like on my way past the control room from the hallway. Or through the window before I sat down in the chair.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “That’s more or less what I’m thinking. Or part of what I’m thinking.”
He tried to recall the minutes preceding the session. He’d followed her down that hallway, noticed a run in her stocking at the back of her left knee. They’d passed the control room door, which was open, wasn’t it? Yes, it probably was. Had he seen the sketchbook then? Maybe he had. And he’d stood there afterward in the hall exchanging that look with the man, Craig. The desk had certainly been in view then. Though the sketchbook had been closed by then, hadn’t it? But wait, had it been there at all by then? Already, Fred understood it would be impossible to know if the out-of-body experience had been real, that in all probability it hadn’t, and that even in the utterly unlikely event that it had, it might as well not have been, for all the good it would do him now.
She leaned forward. “I know this is difficult. But try to put aside the question of whether you were up there in some objective, provable way. Just close your eyes, and tell me how it felt.”
He clenched his fists. It seemed a pointless exercise. But there was a strange urgency in her tone, and in her look, and anyway, a part of him longed to sink back into the memory. He let his eyes close, tried to coax the corded muscles in his chest into admitting a full breath. He floated in the dark.
“Like . . . nothing at all,” he said. “That one ripple of fear, then nothing.”
“I see a smile, I think,” she said. “So it was a good nothing?”
No. Not a good nothing.
The best nothing imaginable.
He heard her set the laptop on her desk, and by the time he’d opened his eyes, she’d switched off the lamp. Down by the floorboards, she appeared again, plugging in the nightlight, that fat little plastic star, setting her face and stockinged knees aglow. She stood and draped the same knitted blanket as last week over him, confiding with a whisper:
“Many of our subjects can’t even get off the ground.”
Luminarium will be published by Soho Press in August 2011.