h2>Dating : The Welcoming Room
“Is this your first time?” she asked, standing from her sleek office chair and pulling on the white laboratory coat that had hung over the back of it.
“Er — yeah,” came the stilted reply. “If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to do.”
She had assumed as much. The young man’s awkward demeanour had given it away as soon as they sat down; he looked panicked and uncomfortable in the imposing, sterile surroundings of the ‘Welcoming Room’ — a name she’d always found ironic. It was about as welcoming as an operating theatre, or a morgue: an uninterrupted pod of pale-white walls which surrounded a faded, grey carpet, on which stood three white, isolated desks. Each desk was equipped with a computer and chair, both black, and nothing else. Personal possessions were prohibited. Phone use was forbidden. Food and drink were to be consumed at designated break-times, and never in the vicinity of clients. Welcoming, she had thought on her first day, if you were born in a lab.
Upon entering the ‘Welcoming Room’, clients were given a small information pack which outlined the process of their visit, the pricing of their particular package, and a non-disclosure agreement, which, it was made clear, was to be filled in immediately and handed to the ‘rep’ before the introductory meeting began. Alma was one of six ‘reps’ in the company, responsible for greeting and initiating clients before their experience began, as well as accompanying them on their ‘exploration’ as the company liked to call it. The man sat in front of her — Ryan Ledsford, 22, Royal Tunbridge Wells — had spent the entirety of their fifteen minute introductory meeting staring around the room like a child in a new school, both intrigued and terrified by the sheer experience of the new surroundings. She had watched him twist the brochure in his hands, tearing at the pages in tiny increments while he answered the standard security questions, making sure to plan and measure his responses in case he misspoke and was forcefully catapulted from the premises. The image raised a slight smile on her normally stoic face, which she immediately brought back under control. Emotions were to be kept in check.
His careful answers were deemed acceptable and his introductory meeting was marked as ‘successful’ on the computer’s single accessible program. His payment, a significant one for someone so young, had cleared immediately upon booking, so Mr Ledsford was ready to go. The next step would be moving through to the ‘Preparation Area’ where Alma would give him his final briefing before they transcended.
“Well you’ve got nothing to worry about,” she reassured him, “our equipment is top of the range, and there are fail-safes if anything does go wrong, but I assure you — everything will be fine. I’ve done this a fair few times now.”
Against company protocol, she flashed him a quick smirk and a wink as she straightened her lab coat. It wasn’t something she had ever done before, but she felt as if he needed the reassurance — a bit of humanity in the midst of all this cold, minimalist, techno-overload. Most clients were older and smugly comfortable, with an unflappable air that came from prior experience of the ‘exploration’. She had become accustomed to seeing the same collection of faces in the two years she had worked there, and none of them looked a thing like this bunny rabbit of a boy, with his wide eyes and anxious expression.
The Preparation Area was one of three chamber-like spaces attached to the main hub of the Welcoming Room. Upon entering, guests were invited to remove their shoes and jackets, then lie back on a leather recliner adorned with so many wires and attached to so many monitors that it looked more like a dentist’s chair that had wandered into an operating theatre. The company had attempted to minimise its intimidatory nature by employing a Swedish design firm to give it a sleek, post-modern look, but encasing the chair in a curved, bottle-green, plastic casing hadn’t done much to make it any more welcoming. If anything, thought Alma, it looked like a giant beetle, trapped on its back. Not something she would enjoy climbing into. Nevertheless, Ryan Ledsford was invited to do just that, and he did so with little fuss.
“Okay, Mr Ledsford,” Alma began, softly. “I know you’re aware of the general approach from here on in, but I need to go through a few guidelines with you before we attach you to the machine and “transcend”, as we like to say. Are you comfortable?”
“Er — yeah,” he replied. “Comfortable, thanks.”
“Okay,” she continued. “So, at this point, I need to remind you that the reality you are about to enter is not, for all intents and purposes, real. It is a simulated environment, and should not be confused for the real world until I confirm that you are, officially, back in this room, lying in that chair. Is this clear?”
Ryan considered for a moment, searching for any discrepancy he may have missed. “Yeah… yeah. All clear… I think.”
“You think?” Alma questioned. “Mr Ledsford, I cannot proceed with the exploration until I am fully sure you understand the situation.”
“No, no,” he scrambled to reply, “I get it. I do. Like… it’s a dream, right? Somebody else’s. So it’s not real in that sense.”
“Very good,” she affirmed. “The exploration takes place in the subconscious of another person. We will be entering that reality and experiencing the inner-workings of another mind. While we are within the exploration space, I will be your guide, and as such you are expected to follow my instructions in the off-chance that anything goes wrong. Do you accept this?”
“Of course,” Ryan replied, with an air of consternation, and raised his head. “But what could go wrong? I didn’t think there was much risk involved.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she answered, breezily, “the risks are minimal. But if a machine malfunctioned, for example, there are procedures that need to be followed in order to exit safely.”
“Right… right. That’s fine.” Ryan relaxed again, staring up at the ceiling, dotted with dim, fluorescent lights. “So I won’t, like, die in real life if I die in the dream?”
Alma laughed. “No, no. Sorry for laughing, but we get that all the time. It’s a dream, Mr Ledsford; you can’t die in a dream. You could throw yourself off the Empire State Building and land on your feet like a cat if you wanted to.”
“Of course. It isn’t reality. You could choose to land in a pool of custard if you fancied it. The only thing you can’t control is where the dream takes place — that’s down to the host. Or, I should say, the host’s subconscious. Once you’re in there you have the power to do whatever you want, within reason.”
Her mind flashed to the hosts: a group of civilian volunteers that lay, deep within the confines of the unimpressive, concrete office block that secretly housed the Somnambulist Programme. From the exterior, the SP would have looked like any other office building in North London — aging, uncared for, a remnant of the grey 80s. A building that may as well be abandoned for all anyone knew, or cared. Few knew — through contacts in the darker reaches of the city, or the odd whisper that slipped through drunken lips — the real truth that lay behind the dull husk: an opportunity to see within the mind of another and, for the right price, the freedom to consciously explore the possibilities of the subconscious world.
The hosts were recruited from applications sent through to the SP from their “scouts”, a faceless team of men and women who scoured the poorer quarters of the city to find those willing to put themselves on show. Addicts, prostitutes, drug-runners — anyone was fair game and liable to be approached. To many, it was a simple decision: continue living your destitute, desperate existence, or save yourself by taking the occasional nap and allowing some rich blokes to poke around in your dreams. Chances are, you’d never even remember what they did in the process. Applications flooded in; the majority were discarded without a second glance. Hundreds of individuals at the end of their lines left waiting for a day of salvation that would never come.
The lucky few that were selected faced an unexpected period of what the company liked to call “strengthening” upon their arrival. The company would explain to them that this period would allow them to dream more vividly, and cope with the erratic sleep patterns they would have to adapt to in the near future. In reality, the process was designed to weaken and subdue, both physically and mentally, forcing the hosts into a state of subservience, worried that any step out of line would result in the immediate termination of their golden situation. Many broke down under the pressure, begging to be released back to the streets of the City; others fell so ill the company were forced to drug them and drop them off outside a hospital far enough away to avoid any suspicion. The remaining candidates “graduated” in a ceremony organised by the company — a small, meaningless token that gave their twisted psyches a flash of positive reinforcement; enough to keep them loyal forever.
Alma entered the last few quantifiers into the operating system and attempted to push the mental images of the hosts to the back of her mind. She had only ever seen them once — a fleeting glance through a closing door, but the scene was unforgettable. The circle of prone bodies, the wires hooked to every conceivable point of the body, the thick, blue light of the room… she shook her head, dispelling the memory, and turned again to face Ledsford.
“The one thing we do ask of our clients is that, despite their general freedom to do as they wish once we are on the exploration, please refrain from discussing the situation with the host once we come into contact with them within the exploration space. In simple terms, don’t tell them they are in a dream.”
“Okay,” he replied, staring at the ceiling. “Is that because it’ll cause them harm? Or us?”
“Neither,” she clarified, quickly. “We just find that, in the past, revealing the reality of the dream tends to throw things off. The host becomes lucid and the dream becomes unstable — less authentic. We want you to experience the inner-workings of the unconscious mind, not the blank canvas of an active imagination. Once the dreamer becomes aware they are dreaming, the entire purpose of exploration is removed.”
“Makes sense… I think…” came the reply. “Anyway, it’s your company. You make the rules.”
“Ah,” she exclaimed, “if only that were even vaguely true.”
A scoff of laughter came from the chair.
“Are you ready, Mr Ledsford? We’re all set here.”
“Yep. All good. Let’s do it.”
She noticed his fists were clenched by his sides. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to hang about any longer; it was time to dive in and push past his trepidation.
“Right then,” she continued. “I’ll quickly prepare myself, then we’ll transcend.”
The plethora of wires and electrodes required to be attached in order to enter the exploration space had, in her earlier days, terrified her. She had felt like a lab rat, or a patient suffering from some incurable illness. Now, after so long with the company, they were simply a process to her; a necessary routine that took no longer than a minute to complete. As she lay back in her own (distinctly unfashionable) recliner, she pulled the hinged screen over her and began the countdown procedure.
“Right, Mr Ledsford,” she called over to the prone, tense figure opposite her, “twenty seconds and we will begin. With five seconds to go, you will feel the tranquiliser enter your system. By the time we get to zero… well, you won’t be aware of the countdown.”
There was no response, but as she peered over, Alma saw a shaking thumb being raised in reply. She lay back, smiled, and connected her hands on her chest. She felt the pinch of the needle piercing her arm in its customary position, then allowed her eyes to slip behind their lids, and the blackness to roll over her like a sheet.
Soft, orange curtains fluttered in the late-afternoon breeze of a summer’s day, birdsong played affectionately outside the half-open window, and the last rays of the sinking sun sent gossamer strands of light into the room in which she awoke. She held out her hand from the carpeted floor and allowed the light to play against her skin, feeling its warmth soak into her. It was hard at times, she thought, to remember that none of this was real; all this serenity, this idyllic summer evening, was simply the spectral remains of some long-forgotten memory, endlessly looping in the back of some unfortunate mind.
Sitting up, she felt a wave of nausea run through her body — a typical side-effect of the transcendence, but one she realised she had forgotten to warn the client of. She quickly looked across the room to find him before he involuntarily vomited on himself.
“Oh, Mr Ledsford,” she began, but trailed off when she realised he was not where he was supposed to be. Realistically, given their positions in the preparation area, Ledsford should have been directly opposite her; his feet facing hers. Yet he wasn’t. Nor was he anywhere else in the room. All she could see were two small armchairs, ornately stitched but fading with age, a disused fire-place, in front of which stood a battered two-bar heater, and a bookshelf in the far corner, sparsely filled with a collection of irregular texts and, what she presumed to be, family photos of differing colours and sizes.
More bemused than panicked, Alma reached into her coat pocket for the control pad, designed to, in extreme circumstances, terminate the exploration prematurely. Though she had often wished to, she had never used the termination procedure stored in the pad’s memory files, but given that her client had somehow failed to travel with her to the exploration space, it seemed a legitimate reason to use it now.
Just as she was about to enter the passcode, however, she heard the creak of a floorboard from above her, and the sound of muffled voices. There was every chance it was simply the host talking to a projection (what the company called other individuals present in the host’s dream), probably a family member given the setting, but she couldn’t risk leaving Ledsford in the exploration space without her there. If she terminated without him in range, she wouldn’t be able to return to the exploration space for an hour, meaning Ledsford would be either left unsupervised and get up to God-knows-what, or she would have to fetch a supervisor to go in after him. Neither option appealed; the latter least of all.
Ascending the staircase, exposed wood that had clearly once been carpeted, the voices became clearer: a man and woman. They were heated, urgent voices — one angry, one pained — and came from behind the closed door at the far end of the landing. Stalking towards it, along the thinly carpeted floor, she noticed the two rooms to her left; open, but pitch black. The landing was lit by a lone bulb hanging, exposed, from the ceiling, already straining to adequately illuminate her way, which revealed nothing of what was hidden in the blackness past the door-frames.
The door creaked as it opened ahead of her, revealing a miniscule box room, hastily wallpapered in fading pink, strips falling away and fluttering in the breeze from the window. On the single bed against the far wall, she saw Ledsford, his hands placed firmly on the shoulders of a young woman in front of him. As she turned, Alma saw the tears running down her face and her eyes flashed to Ledsford who glared at her as if enraged by her interruption. It had been, at most, a matter of minutes that Ledsford had been away from her — what had he managed to do in that time?
“Get out,” Ledsford growled, “you’ve got no right to be here.”
This was not the man she had transcended with. All the nervousness and indecision had disappeared; there was a fire in his eyes that alarmed her. He seemed like a seething pitbull, chained to a flimsy panel of wood.
“Mr Ledsford,” she replied, trying to remain calm. “While the company offers a generous amount of freedom to our clients, attempting to desert your guide during your experience will not be tolerated.” Hazy images flashed in front of her of various instances in which she wished she had been deserted — explorations hosted by women much younger than the one sat in front of her now. “I will remind you of the agreement you made before we began.”
Ledsford rose. Alma stepped backwards.
“You can shove your agreement,” he spat. “I know what a deal with you people means. Five years you’ve had her. Five fucking years. Do you realise how long I’ve been looking? How much I’ve had to do?”
His hands shook at his sides while tears formed and rolled down his cheeks. Alma raised her own hands in a genuine confession of ignorance.
“Mr Ledsford, I…”
“Put that fucking thing down!” He howled, indicating the control pad. She immediately obeyed. They stared at each other in silence for a moment until the girl on the bed emitted a sob of fear and panic. Ledsford returned to her side and wrapped an arm around her, pulling her into his chest.
“Your sister?” Alma asked, gently. Ledsford nodded and turned his head to the wall.
“She disappeared. No message, no note. She was just gone. We knew she was struggling — drugs, some mental health issues, but…” he paused, swallowed, and exhaled. “But we didn’t realise how bad it was until the police dug up her financial records. She was in deep all over the place. Banks, credit cards, pay-day loans… the police gave up on her after 6 months. They couldn’t declare her dead until seven years had gone, but our case worker told us to forget it. Said he’d seen it all before. Turns out she was here, with you, the whole time.”
The silence hung in the room like a cloud; the door clicked shut behind Alma as she tried to process Ledsford’s bitter story. “Look,” she tried to explain, “the company does target vulnerable people as potential hosts — I know that. But we offer an opportunity; something that can pull them out of their dead-end life. We give them a purpose and a chance to better themselves.”
“You can fuck off with your company community bullshit. You steal people, and there’s nothing more to it than that. I’ve spent the last three years and every penny I have researching this sordid little project you’ve got going here. I’ve spoken to people in bars who’d heard whispers, met your rejected host applicants in car parks at night, dined with your clients in restaurants I never knew existed. You entertain some sick fuckers with more money than morals. I’d tell you some of the stories they told me, but I imagine you’ve seen it all, haven’t you?”
Alma was about to answer when the girl interrupted.
“Ryan… what’s going on?” she mumbled, her head still buried into his chest. “Who is she? Why is she here?”
Ledsford moved her backwards and looked intently into her eyes.
“It’s a dream, Emma. Just a dream.” His voice was soft and reassuring. “But you’ve been dreaming for a long time. I’m here to get you out.”
“Mr Ledsford…” Alma warned, but he was far past the point of caring.
“What do you mean?” Emma replied, struggling to comprehend. “You’re not here? This isn’t real?”
A thud came from behind the closed door. Alma remembered the dark rooms she had passed.
“No, it is real, Emma. I’m here. But this,” he motioned to the room, “isn’t. It’s a dream — a dream she’s forcing you to have. I’m here to take you home.”
“I don’t want to be here, Ryan.” The tears fell faster as her hands scraped against his chest. “I don’t want to be here.”
The thud from behind the door resounded, followed by slow, ponderous footsteps.
“Mr Ledsford,” Alma declared, “I told you specifically not to inform the host she was in a dream. Don’t you realise what happens to a fragile mind once it realises it can manifest projections of whatever comes to it?”
A firm, threatening knock pounded against the door.
“Emma,” announced a deep voice from outside. “Open the door, Emma.”
Alma looked over to the bed, where Emma scurried to the corner against the wall. She turned her attention again to Ledsford.
“You need to get her under control.”
He turned to his sister, sobbing in the corner.
“Emma, don’t think about him. It’s a dream. You’re in control. He’s not real. Take us somewhere else. Anywhere.”
But the room remained. The pounding grew louder — the voice angrier. “Open the fucking door,” the voice demanded. “Now!” Emma wailed in fear. Alma had seen enough.
“Mr Ledsford, I am terminating this experience. Please come to my side — this has gone far enough.”
“No chance,” came the response, though the voice shook more than it had done. “I’m not leaving her. You come here, press your button, and we’ll all wake up together. Then you’re taking me to wherever the fuck it is you keep them, and I’m taking my sister home.”
Alma walked over to the bed, beside Ledsford, and began the sequence.
“We can discuss this matter once we have terminated.” Ledsford leaned back and grabbed hold of his sister’s leg.
“Like I said: I’m going nowhere without her. I’m not letting you wake me up so you can have me marched out of the building. And if you think I’m not going straight to every newspaper in London and bringing them to your front door then you’ll be sorely surprised. You’ll have to have me killed. Although,” he stared uncompromisingly at her, “I’d guess that’s not an untapped market for you lot, is it?”
Alma stammered and struggled, but could find no response. She knew Ledsford was right: once they terminated she would call for security and he would be strong-armed out of the building, after which she would be relieved of her duties and sent on her way. As for his final accusation, Alma knew nothing about the farther reaches of the company’s operations, but it seemed reasonable, given the secrecy surrounding the programme, that certain individuals may have been forcefully silenced to maintain the operation’s anonymity. Like so much else, she had always managed to push those realities away. Considering them now, however, she realised there was no way she could risk waking the girl. If Ledsford’s disruption was enough to lose her job, she could only imagine what would happen if she pulled Emma out as well.
Though no one spoke, the room was chaotic. The pounding on the door grew wild and vicious, Emma sobbed and wailed against the wall, and Alma’s mind battled against the cacophony.
“I can’t take you both, Ryan. I can’t. You have to come with me now and we’ll work this out.”
Ledsford smiled and looked up at the ceiling.
“I’m not leaving without her,” he repeated, looking back at his sister. “I know how this all works. I know there’s no other way you can take me back. You may as well just do it. Then we can work it out.”
He turned to face Alma, tears welling in his eyes and falling to his lap.
“Please,” he croaked. “I can’t leave her here. Not like this. Not here.” He looked down again and squeezed his free hand. “I’ve come so far… You don’t know what I’ve done to get here. It was all for her. Just take us back. I know what it means for you, but it’s the only way you can get me to leave.”
Alma closed her eyes and let out a long, slow breath. The shouting and pounding on the door had transposed to the screeching of crows which seemed to circle invisibly above them. Emaciated tree branches scratched at the glass and felt their way through the open window as Emma pressed herself as close to the wall as possible, wailing in unbridled fear. The solution came to Alma, unwelcome as it was, with shuddering clarity. There was another way, but the potential cost felt heavy within her, like a stone pressing against the pit of her stomach. The nausea returned.
“You’re right, Mr Ledsford. I can’t take you back without your sister. But it’s not my only option.”
Ledsford looked up, puzzled for a moment. His eyes searched inwardly for the piece he had missed. When they found it, he smiled, looked down again, then back at his sister. He released a half-amused puff of air from his nose before whispering “Okay,” as if to himself. “Okay… you do what you need to do.”
The stone in Alma’s stomach dropped. She stepped forward to confront him — to make him think about what he was saying. “Ryan, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’ll just…”
He cut her off with clear conviction — “No. This… This is the only way it can be.” The room was so loud, she barely heard him, but could just make out, “It’s your decision. Not mine.”
As she stepped away, her heart thumping and head spinning, Ledsford climbed onto the bed next to his sister, pulling her down to meet him as he must have done countless times before. The tree branches retreated as he stroked her hair; the crows nested in the cracks between the ceiling panels. Alma stood and watched them for a while, their tenderness and purity, trying to find some other way, some other answer, before the sheet was pulled away and the glare of flourescent light from above blinded her.
The last time Alma saw Ryan Ledsford was four months later, after a twice-delayed debrief with one of the company’s managing directors. The company, she was told, were concerned at how a “saboteur” had managed to bypass their stringent security systems, but that Alma was to be commended for her ability to act sensibly and loyally under extreme pressure. After an awkward parting handshake, she had been wandering down a half-familiar corridor, when a technician stepped out of a set of double doors ahead of her. Before she knew what she was doing, Alma had slipped silently inside the closing door, allowing it to hiss shut behind her.
There, in the thick, blue light she had tried so hard to forget, she saw him — strapped down and wired — the glow of the screen above illuminating his bruised face and angular nose. He looked almost peaceful. Emma lay two stations away, the hair Ryan had stroked as they lay on the bed shaved away to a thin, blonde fuzz. Above Ledsford’s station, a soft, orange light blinked routinely. She wondered, as she pulled the door open, what he was dreaming of.