Tasha had been having nightmares. She often had nightmares. Here is what she wrote in her log:
“A swimming pool filled not with water but with darkness, a liquid medium more buoyant even than sea water, perfectly safe to jump in. But if I do, I will be utterly alone. I will be alone forever because I will never be able to completely dry off.
“Except I’m already soaking wet, drenched in liquid solitude. It is too late for me. I may as well get in the pool.
“The thought horrifies me. If only it had never happened! I open up the book that is in my hands, and the swimming pool becomes an illustration across its facing pages, and then I close the book, and the swimming pool is gone.”
The team lead, who had the privilege and responsibility of scanning the teams’ logs for interesting finds, was fascinated by that book. What else might it contain? Who had created it? Had they written the book so that it was full of powerful, impossible artifacts, or had they simply bound it full of blank pages able to collect such artifacts for later use?
In the world we inhabit today, questions like these are nonsensical. But within the discipline of dream archaeology, it was known that dream objects come into being with complete histories and potential futures. Additional dreams may further elucidate those histories. Extracting the object into waking reality allows one of its potential futures to become actual.
With such an extraction in mind—indeed, such extractions are the entire point of dream archaeology—the team lead instructed the rest of the dreamers to help Tasha uncover more information. This is a relatively easy task for a well-trained dreamer. The first step involves a combination of dream incubation and lucid dreaming; even ordinary people manage that from time to time. The second step is to make the energy of the resulting dream available for the targeted dreamer’s use. This is trickier for the untutored, but a piece of cake for a trained dream archaeologist. Thus Tasha woke, every morning for a week, with the book clearer in her memory.
She also woke visibly agitated, the more with each passing morning. The team lead, who fancied himself an empathetic sort, urged her to explain why.
Tasha rolled her eyes. “Did you miss the part about the book containing horrible nightmares?”
“But with proper care and precautions, think what good its contents could do for the world! For instance, that swimming pool you freaked out over. For law enforcement, it represents a humane and cost-effective alternative to the death sentence on one hand and life imprisonment on the other. Don’t you think?”
The thought made Tasha shudder. There was nothing humane about being drenched in eternal solitude. But there was no way for her to explain this to her team lead. He hadn’t experienced the nightmare. His own dreams remained suspiciously uninteresting.
As for the other dreamers, they were dreaming about the book nonstop, and they didn’t like it. Each dream left them less sanguine than the one before. In one dream, Mikael opened it and released a cloud of butterflies. Each, taken alone, was beautiful. In their swarms, however, they made his skin crawl. Sarah found the book in her lifelong recurring nightmare of a shadow detaching itself from the wall of her childhood bedroom; she closed the book on it before it could touch her with its twig-sharp fingers. Ken, meanwhile, found his finger tracing and retracing the spiral designs burnt into its cover as he imagined opening the book. Thought becomes deed in dreams very easily; it took every ounce of his will and training to keep the thing closed. Its surface was supple and warm, more like living flesh than leather. He thought it was a dreaming beast and was terrified that it might wake up before he did.
The project lead grew exasperated. “First Tasha, now the rest of you. Why must everyone but myself take this thing so personally?”
“Dreams are personal, you cretin.” Sebastian looked the team lead in the eye as though daring him to protest the invective. His experience with the book had been particularly dire that morning, and he felt such a small outburst was well justified. “You want an objective view, get a telescope.”
The argument was interrupted by a disquieting thump, followed shortly by Ken’s cut-off exclamation as he woke from yet another nightmare. Something had fallen off his bedside table. It was smaller than it had appeared in their dreams, but it was without a doubt the book they sought.
While the fourteen subordinate dreamers stared at it in shell-shocked silence, the team lead sprang upon the artifact with an inarticulate cry of joy. He lifted it high for all to see. “At last! We have succeeded! Now to open it—”
“Don’t,” said Tasha.
“My dear,” said the team lead with a tolerant smile, “your fears are understandable, but they are hardly universal.”
“Well, open it outside, at least,” said Mikael. “If something like a wildfire or a Tyrannosaurus Rex comes out, I’d rather it eat your Pontiac than the bed I’m planning on sleeping in tonight.”
But by then the team lead had already tried to open the book—and failed. The pages stuck together as though glued. He glared accusingly at Tasha. “You did this. You sabotaged the project somehow. You and your petty concerns—”
Tasha took it away from him so suddenly he didn’t have time to struggle. “You never dreamed of it yourself,” she said. Her voice was unmistakably relieved. “Of course you can’t interact with it. It’s never been real to you.” Then, with a radiant smile, she clutched it to her chest and ran.
The team lead was after her in a moment. “Stop! Thief! That is Institute property!”
The rest of the team came after, yelling imprecations at him—”Don’t be an asshole!” “Leave her alone!”—and encouragement to Tasha. Once they got outside, though, they fell silent. They backed away, spreading out in a loose circle they hoped was larger than the blast radius of whatever happened next. Tasha and the team lead faced each other across the parking lot like gunslingers; whichever of their two teammates survived, they all had a feeling the duel would need witnesses.
Tasha held the book at arms’ length, pointing it like a pistol at the team lead where he stood framed by the doors of the institute. He began to walk toward her, cajoling as he came. “That’s right, my dear. Give it back.”
She didn’t give it back. She opened it.
For an instant it lay across her hands like an ordinary book. She tilted it forward as though showing the illustrations to a group of children she was reading it to. But the other thirteen teammates could see that the pages were blank.
Then she closed the book up again, and the Institute disappeared. It and the team lead were simply swallowed up. A moment later, the book, too, was gone. And each of the thirteen witnesses knew, as a dreamer knows when they wake from a nightmare, that the threat that had seemed so imminent a moment ago was only a dream.
There is no Institute of Dream Archeology. There never was one. It was only ever a story in a book, and the book may never have existed either. If anyone knows for sure, Tasha might, but she’s not telling.
She sleeps much better these days.
This has been the Friday Fictionette for October 13, 2017. It's also the Fictionette Freebie for the month, making the full-length fictionette (1324 words) available for anyone to download from Patreon (as an ebook or audiobook) regardless of whether they're subscribers.
Cover art incorporates public domain photography sourced from PIXNIO.com.