"Imagine a Lucid Dreaming Tournament for Individuals and Multiplayer Teams" - I said.
Jack imbibed his drink listlessly. He was as uninspiring as his pedestrian first name. I couldn't fathom why I kept socializing with this amebic specimen of office worker. We had nothing in common, except the cramped and smelly cubicle we shared.
"Lucid Dreaming?" - He intoned, gazing dolefully at his empty glass, his waxy fingers compulsively smoothing the doily underneath it.
"It's when you know that you are dreaming and can change the contents of your dream at will: its environment, the set of characters, the plotline, the outcome ..."
"I know what is lucid dreaming," - stated Jack, his voice as flat as when he ordered the next round of drinks.
"You do?" - I confess to having been shocked. Lucid dreaming is the last thing you would dream of associating with Jack.
"Yes, I do." - A hint of a smile - "I used to practice it."
"Practice it? What do you mean?"
Jack turned and eyed me curiously, his equine face strangely animated:
"Just how much do you know about lucid dreaming?"
"Not much." - I admitted - "Read about it here and there. I am more interested in its business applications. Hence my idea of organizing a tournament. It is doable, isn't it? I mean, I read about shared dreams and such."
If I hadn't known Jack, I could have sworn to have seen his visage fleetingly turning derisive. But, the moment passed and he was his old anodyne self again. He sighed and sipped from his long-stemmed receptacle:
"There are many techniques developed and used to induce lucid dreams. There's WILD, where you go directly from wakefulness to a dream state. It's eerie, like an out of body experience."
"How would you know what an out of body experience is like?" - I couldn't help but ask.
Jack smoothed the greasy strands that passed for hair on the shiny, bumpy dome of his skull:
"I had a few when I was a kid. Doctors told me it was dissociation, my way of fleeing the horrors of my youth, so to speak."
He smiled ruefully and the effect was terrifying. I averted my eyes.
"Anyhow, I also tried MILD, to recognize tell-tale signs that I am dreaming while asleep and WBTB - that's: wake-back-to-bed - where you sleep for a while, then wake up, then concentrate on a dream you would like to have and then go back to sleep. I even went for supplements and devices that were supposed to help one to have lucid dreams. Some of them worked, actually." - He scrutinized the fatty residues of his fingertips on the surface of the glass and then gulped the entire contents down.
"Wow!" - I said, appropriately appreciative - "I didn't know there was so much to it!". I hoped that flattery - augmented by a few more drinks - will be enough to secure the free consultancy services of Jack.
"It's just the tip of an iceberg. Users and developers all over the world are now working on shared lucid dreaming and on enhanced learning techniques. It's an awesome new field."
I suppressed a smirk. "Awesome" was one of my favorite catchphrases and Jack has just plagiarized it nonchalantly. Maybe there's still hope for him, I mused.
The conversation looked stalled, though, Jack lost in some labyrinthine inner landscape. I had to do something.
"Imagine a gadget that could record dreams, and then replay, upload them, and network with others. I call it: Mindshare."
"Oldest theme of sci-fi novels and films." - Jack shrugged and waved the waitress over. She glance furtively in my direction. I knew I had this effect on women: tall, athletic, always expensively attired, handsome, I am told. Poor Jack: dour, gruff, balding, dull and looks to match his character or lack thereof.
"Such a machine can be used to commit the perfect murder." - I insisted - "Induce a dream of extreme physical exertion in a person with a heart condition. Or show spiders to an arachnophobe, or place someone with a fear of heights poised to fall off a cliff."
He gave a stifled snigger:
"You seem to be good at this sort of thing, but a bit behind the curve."
I ignored the insinuated disdain:
"I have it all figured out." - I proceeded cheerfully - "The implement must come equipped with a mind firewall for protection. I call it the mindwall. You know, to fend off unwanted intrusions, hackers, crackers, criminals, that sort of thing. The mindwall will be designed to prevent exactly the sort of crime we have just been discussing."
Jack shifted his gangly body in the high-backed transparent plastic chair. He didn't respond, just studied the fan-shaped pastel lights around us.
I got really carried away, treating Jack merely as a neutral backdrop:
"Now, there will be content developers, talented dreamers, dream distributors, platforms, and what not. Exactly like software, you know. All content will be allowed but with ratings, like in the film industry. Inevitably, I can foresee the emergence of miruses, mind viruses, and mrojans, or mind-Trojans. I even thought of a new type of criminal offense: Mind Trapping, trying to alter the consciousness of a collective by interfering with the minds of a critical mass of its members. All these will all be illegal, naturally, and the FBI will have a special branch to take care of them, the..."
"... MIND: Mind, Identity, Neural, and Dreaming Police" - Said Jack.
For a moment there, I was disoriented. This was my line, the next few words I was about to say. How did Jack ... How did he ...
Jack stared at me oddly. Beads of clotted sweat formed on his brow and stubbly jowls. He muttered: "Hutton's Paradox".
"What?" - He was beginning to piss me off with his feigned aloofness and enigmatic utterances. The waitress glanced at us curiously. I realized that I had raised my voice. "What?" - I repeated, this time whispering.
"The British writer, Eric Bond Hutton, suggested to ask the question 'Am I dreaming?' to determine if you are in a dream-state or not. This query would never occur to you while you are awake, so the very fact that you feel compelled to pose it proves that you are asleep."
"That's utter nonsense!" - I susurrated - "I am definitely and widely awake right now and I can ask this question and it's not conclusive one way or the other."
"Then how do you explain the fact that I knew what you were about to say?"
"Lucky guess!" - I hissed - "Sheer coincidence!"
Jack shook his head sadly and used a flimsy paper napkin to wipe films of soupy perspiration off his contorted face:
"The words were too specific. Plus I got the acronym right. Either I was reading your mind loud and clear or we are both dreaming right this very minute."
We sat there, thunderstruck. I knew he was right. The pub, its tubular fittings, pinstriped waitresses, and ponytailed barmen looked suddenly contrived and conjured up, like papier-mâché, or cardboard cutouts, only animated somehow.
"But, ..." - I began
And he continued: "... who is ..."
"... dreaming who?" - I finished
Who is the dreamer? Who is the figment? I certainly didn't feel invented. I had a flat, a horde of girlfriends, money in the bank, a family, a history, a future. I had Jack, for Chrissakes! I had co-workers, a boss, a career, a cubicle that smelled like wet dog in winter and a man's locker-room in summer!
Still, Jack didn't look unreal, either. He was too loathsome to be a dream, but insufficiently deformed to fit into a nightmare. He was just an ordinary, interchangeable, dispensable cog. Repellent cog, but useful. And he drank martinis. No one in my dreams ever drank alcohol, a vestige of my teetotalling upbringing. And Jack, too, had a job and a life.
Or, did he? What did I really know about him? Coming to think of it, nothing much. He wore garish clothes, ate sandwiches wrapped in oily paper, claimed to have a parrot, which I never saw. Is that enough to disqualify him and render me immaterial? No way!
"There are tests." - Said Jack after a while.
"What do you mean: 'tests'?"
"Tests to determine if you are dreaming or not. Like: pinching your nose tight-shut and trying to breathe without using your mouth. If you succeed to do it, it's a dream."
"Oh, there are hundreds." - Grunted Jack noncommittally.
"Something we can do right here and now?"
"Both of us don't need to do it." - Said Jack - "If one of us succeeds, then the other is real. If he fails, the other's a mere fantasy."
Jack raised both his hands and stuck his left thumb through his right palm. Clean through. I gazed at him, dumbfounded. As the realization of what this meant dawned on me, I felt elated.
"There!" - He said, strangely triumphant - "I am the delusion and you are real. I always knew this to be true. In fact, I am relieved. It's wasn't easy being me." He stood up and repeated the stunt.
"That was cool!" "Could you do it again?" "Way to go, man!" - A chorus of adulation, applauding bartenders, waitresses, and patrons surrounded Jack, who seemed to bask in the attention. He kept thrusting his thumbs into his palms and extracting them, not a drop of blood in sight, his hands none the worse off for the tear and wear that must have been involved.
Suddenly someone asked:
"Can your friend do tricks, too?"
"No way! He is real, man!" - And the room exploded in sinister laughter.
"I don't think he is more real than you are!" - Said the red-headed waitress that couldn't keep her eyes off me when she served us drinks. The bitch!
"Yeah, right, let him do some magic!" - Everyone joined in and gradually drifted and formed a circle around me. Jack stood aside, smirking and spreading his hands as if to say: "What can I do?"
"Do it! Do it! Do it!" - The murmur gradually increased, until it became a minacious roar, an ominous rumble. I lifted my hands to fend off the sound wall, but all I could see was two bleeding stumps where they should have been: crushed, bleached bones and protruding arteries, spouting a dark and strangely fragrant liquid onto my face.
"Jack!" - I shrieked - "Where are my hands? Where are my hands, please! Jack!"
The mob clapped thunderously and Jack took bows, as he weaved his way towards me. He knelt down and put his fleshy mouth to my ear:
"That's another test. If you cannot see your hands, if they are replaced by something hideous, you are dreaming. It's merely a nightmare, don't worry about it."
"But, I can't be dreaming, I am real, I am not a character in a hallucination!" - I protested, striving to raise myself off the shiny chessboard-patterned floor, supporting my mysteriously weightless body on the two stumps that were my arms.
"I don't know about that. These tests only tell you that you are in a dream, but they can't distinguish between characters in the phantasmagoria. They can't tell you if you are the dreamer or merely one of the characters being dreamed of."
"But, when you pierced your hand with your thumb, you said that you were unreal and that I exist! That I am doing the dreaming and you are in my dream!" - I cried.
He smiled benevolently: "I knew that it meant a lot to you, that this is what you wanted to hear.'
"So, it was all a lie? All of it?" - I heaved, holding back a torrent of tears.
Jack slid by my side, legs extended, touching the opposite wall:
"All you have to do to find out is to wake up." - He said and rubbed his temples wearily. I noticed how fatigued he looked: bags under his eyes, his veiny skin, his distended paunch. He appeared old, unkempt, and disheveled.
"I don't want to wake up, I am afraid, Jack. I am afraid that I might not exist."
Jack nodded in empathy:
"I know, I know. But, like that, trapped in a dream, you definitely do not exist. It's an illusion, all of it. It changes at its creator's whim and behest. We are nothing, mere stand-ins, decorations, frills. Don't you want to at least try to have a life? Don't you want to have something to call your own, to be someone? You don't even have a name here!"
And he was right. I didn't. I wanted to protest, but, the minute I opened my mouth, I knew Jack had a point and I did not have a name. I was nameless. I might as well call myself "Jack" for all I knew.
"Just give me your hand." - Jack said softly - "We are in this together. We will wake up or we won't, but we are a team, buddy. After all, we share the same office, remember?" - He smiled, a vain attempt at joviality. He extended his right hand and I proffered my left, coagulated stump, and we held on to each other and willed ourselves awake.