Traveling in the shuttle waterbus, Doctor Michael Stones looked through its side windows. He could see other boats of various sizes. They all crawled along invisible lines, punctuated by grey buoys. These buoys reminded him of his patients. Each one tilting as the waterbus passed, as if saying, “Do I know you? You're not supposed to move me but if you did, it would be the first excitement I've had in too many years. Many people just ignore me on their way to adventure or from the pleasure of seeing a city I used to know. Say something to me. Make me feel again.”
The doctor almost did speak but kept quiet. He didn’t want to let them down again. He held his hopes back, eager to experience things in this city he has imagined for so long. His waterbus decelerated further as the outskirts of the city approached. He had a faint tremble of excitement as he came closer.
The waterbus crept into the city along a small canal where he could see ancient multi-coloured buildings on either side. These constructions stood there, immobile, as if waiting for something. He couldn’t impress them. They'd seen so many people over the hundreds of years that had drifted by.
Then the boat turned onto a larger canal. It wasn’t given any distinctive name. There was no point. It was taking people to distinctive places. This stretch of water was the Canal Grande. Wider ancient buildings were right at the edge of this canal but none were more than four or five stories high. The doctor stared at these off-white and terracotta houses, stained with centuries of experiences. So many had dark and wide doors right at the edge of this canal, going into the waters. They invited questions. What was behind them? Was there anything behind them or were they always closed to anyone daring to look?
Every now and again, he’d see unexpected breaks with fencing guarding a patch of greenery. Such rare greenery in this city where nothing is permanent except these old and sometimes crumbling buildings.
Going further along the Canal Grande, he noticed more of these houses looked cleaner, almost freshly painted. Many were looking like mansions with pillars and sheltered walkways. They weren’t homes anymore. They were major hotels, museums or even casinos.
The doctor noticed the waterbus passing gondolas. They were steered by men wearing blue and white striped shirts with flat straw hats. They were transporting tourists not businessmen. He had to remind himself he came to this city as a businessman. That was forgotten for a moment as the waterbus took him underneath that famous bridge. A bridge so heavily built, little shops were on it. Ponte di Rialto.
Going under the bridge, he could see more mansions at the water’s edge. They remained magnetic to the doctor but now he was alerted by his guide. It was easy to forget he had a guide who’d met him at the airport. A guide employed by the people he was due to see. A guide who wore sunglasses all the time. Dr Stones stared at him, trying to recall his name. It was ‘Antôn’ something. He was irritated at forgetting Antôn’s full name, especially after they'd talked about their mutual family connections with Vietnam. He murmured the guide’s name to himself. Antôn heard and smiled as he picked up Dr Stones’ bag. They were coming to a bus stop.
They disembarked and Antôn led the doctor along several narrow walkways between the buildings. They were walking by so many imposing front doors. These passageways were punctuated by small squares and bridges over tiny canals almost the width of the walkways. The names of these passageways and squares were clearly marked but the doctor still felt lost. Eventually, the guide took him down yet another walkway to halt at a dark red, wide door. Antôn pressed several buttons on the keypad on the wall next to the door handle. He then turned the now unlocked handle and heaved open the door. He beckoned the doctor to follow him inside and then went up a twisting staircase to second door.
Through that door, they were in the lobby of small hotel but it was more than that. One of the four doors around the lobby opened and a thin Japanese man came out. He smiled at the doctor. “It’s good to finally meet you Dr Stones.” He spoke perfect English with no accent. “Has Antôn Tram told you who you'd be meeting?” The doctor shook his head. “No matter. I am Ichirō Takahashi.”
Dr Stones smiled. “We talked - briefly - a couple of weeks ago.”
“Indeed, we did. I was taken aback by your knowledge of our research and your ideas of how to apply our,” he hesitated, “medication.”
“You know I want to test it first.” replied the doctor. Takahashi nodded. “So, what nearby medical centre do we go to and when do we go? Remember, I’m only in Venice for six days.”
The other man smiled. “That’s why we’ve rented the whole of this small hotel for two weeks. We’ve been here nearly a week getting things ready before you came. We’ve prepared one room for your assessments. You can sleep in another room on this level or do your work in private there should you wish. We’ll be using the other two vacant rooms – there’s another one upstairs – as our bedrooms as well. We can also have food delivered.”
“Then let’s get started,” answered the doctor.
“You go into your bedroom. Unpack, relax, get changed or whatever. After, say, a couple of hours we’ll all get together for the assessment.”
It was past regrets. Nothing mattered except now. But the fear of what may happen was always there.
Michael turned his head left and right, hoping to see anything.
He knew he wasn’t alone but-
But then he could hear something. Shuffling? The slow scraping of moving feet?
But where did that noise come from? On the left? The right? Behind him? In front?
The movements stopped.
No sound except breathing.
In. Out. In. Out. Steady. Regular breathing. Not hurried. Not stressed.
Was it getting nearer?
Was that a gentle breath, blowing onto the left side of his face?
Warm and slightly damp. That breath smelt of something familiar.
Were there more faint movements he could hear?
The sounds of his own breathing interfered.
He held his breath and listened.
His head throbbed with the need to breathe.
But he listened.
Then he could hear a voice chuckling and whispering directly into his left ear, “Holding your breath to hear me?”
A sharp stabbing pain into his left arm.
Was that now or a memory? Or both?
He gasped and twisted as the agony spread.
Pain-movements-turning-feeling hands-moving-hearing steps and then
But something was different.
Had the time changed? But he still couldn’t see anything.
He couldn’t even see the watch he had on his right wrist.
He couldn’t move his right arm.
He couldn’t move his left arm either.
He furrowed his brow. Where was he now?
Was he up? Was he down? Was he- What he felt didn’t make sense and-
“Ah!” He’d banged the back of his head on something.
“Ah!” He banged the back of his head again but this time he was angry.
He was angry at himself.
He now knew he was lying on something.
He couldn’t move his arms and-
His tried to move his legs but his ankles were tied to something as well.
Now he was afraid. It was going to happen.
He was warned. Was he warned?
He couldn’t move.
He couldn’t see anything.
He didn’t know where he was.
He didn’t know who was around him
But he did know who he was.
“I am Michael Stones,” he shouted, stressing his words, “I know who I am.”
The voice chuckling again. “Are you? Can you be sure about that? Can you be sure about anything?”
That familiar smell.
“I am sure. I am a doctor. I know who I am,” yelled Michael.
“I don’t believe you,” replied the voice.
That voice was so calm. So self-assured. So familiar.
“Who are you?” asked Michael.
“You know who I am,” responded the voice.
Pain again. Sharp, never stopping pain.
Going on and on and-
“I’m slowly cutting your right leg with- what does it feel like Michael? What am I using?”
Sharp. Rough. Pulling on his skin.
“Tell me Michael. What is it? Do you know or don’t you?”
He could smell things.
He so wanted to be elsewhere.
“You're trying to eat my leg,” he whispered before daring to add, “but you're not.”
“Why not? You can’t do anything to stop me.” asked the voice, sounding as if speaking with something in his mouth. Spittle with small chunks of something hit Michael’s face. Then a hand darted between his legs and squeezed his genitals. “What about ripping,” his grip tightened, making Michael squirm in pain, “ripping these off as well?”
“You can’t because you're me,” gasped Michael, fighting off his tears as well as the throbbing tears he could feel.
The burning light was so painful. He half closed his eyes until
Fade. Fade. Fade. Better.
Michael looked down. Now he was sitting on a chair; naked.
He looked forward. Squint. Focus.
Someone was standing in front of him. Smiling.
Michael smiled in return. “You're not me. But you're wearing my clothes so you smell like me.”
Then what he saw in front of him distorted. The person’s face twisted as if draining down a plug hole. Michael looked around. Now he was sitting on a chair in the middle of a kitchen sink.
He looked ahead. He could see no person. Only the sink’s round plug hole on the centre of the floor. And round the edges of the hole was a faint jagged outline in sharp white and purple. A way out?
He shook his head.
Was it a way in?
He could almost reach it. Then he realised his arms and legs weren’t tied down. He looked down. The lower part of his right leg was bleeding, showing deep bite marks
but then there weren’t marks on either of his legs.
He stood up, scanning around. He was in a square kitchen sink. He looked upwards. He could see the big, long metal tube of the kitchen tap and above that the off-white ceiling. Then the ceiling became partly obscured as a giant arm and hand reached to the side of the sink. A groaning noise and suddenly water started to pour from the tap down to near Michael’s feet. He stepped back with alarm as warming water splashed him. He looked around and saw a rope ladder dangling on the sink wall behind him. He didn’t think about this being another illusion but simply grabbed onto the ladder and climbed as fast as he could. The rising hot water was splashing at his legs.
He got to the top but then was mystified again. Everything around him had changed once more. People just calmly, almost rigidly, were walking by him. He looked more closely at them as they passed. They were animated dead people. Walking, rotting bodies.
One man looked at Michael as he came near. “Do you recognise me Dr Stones?” he asked.
Another man approached Michael. “He doesn’t see us for what we are.”
The lighting changed tone and the figures walking by turned around and closed on Michael. They'd all become more wasted. Their dried skin stretched over their skeletal faces. “Why couldn’t you see us for what we were Dr Stones?” spoke the first man again. He reached out to touch Michael and then everything faded to black.
“Time to sleep,” someone told him.
Dr Stones cautiously opened his eyes. He was somewhere different but somewhere familiar. A man approached him. “Are you alright?” he gently asked.
“I don’t know,” the doctor replied and gazed around the room he sat in. He looked down. He was naked, sitting on an ornate chair. He looked up at the man. “You're wearing my clothes,” the man nodded, “but I can’t remember who you are.”
“Ichirō Takahashi.” He paused. “Can you remember your name?”
Dr Stones hesitated. “I’m afraid to.”
Takahashi frowned. “Why are you afraid?”
“I’m not sure everything around me is real,” answered the doctor.
The other man nodded. “Bear with me a moment.” He turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. After a short while, Takahashi came back. He wore a different outfit on but carried Dr Stones’ clothes draped over his right arm. In his right hand, he also held a glass of water. He closed the door behind him, put the clothing on another chair in the room, and closed the door before offering the glass to the doctor. “Have a drink. It’s just water.” Dr Stones took the glass and thirstily drank from it. “Now just relax.” He walked over to the doctor’s left to go to one of the two windows in the room. He drew back the curtains covering it. Day light flooded the room. “It looks like it’s nice out there.” He turned back to the doctor. “I’ll go out and let you get dressed. When you want to, come out and see us in the lobby.”
“Shoes. I need my shoes,” the doctor expressed.
Takahashi slightly shook his head, being irritated with himself. “Oh God, I’m sorry. Completely forgot. Hang on a sec.” He went out and came back soon after, carrying the doctor’s shoes. “There you go. Sorry about that. I’ll go now. See you in a bit.”
Dr Stones stood up. He slowly scanned the room. It was the mirror image of his bedroom next door except there was no bed; only two ornate chairs and a narrow table by the windows. He walked to one of the seemingly flat walls and touched it. The beautifully detailed wallpaper was padded like in his bedroom. He stepped back and, for a moment, he could see, on the wall, a faint outline of another doorway in jagged lines of white and purple. He shook his head. It was gone.
He stood still for several minutes, waiting for those lines to reappear.
Reanimated, the doctor reached over for his clothing and quickly dressed. He put on his shoes, took a deep breath, and opened the door to go into the lobby.
Dr Stones saw Takahashi, Antôn Tram and a third bespectacled person seated at a round table, talking. Takahashi was distracted by the doctor and smiled at him. As he came nearer, Takahashi indicated his two companions, “As you know here is Antôn Tram. This other gentleman is Nguyen Van Duc.”
The doctor smiled and nodded at them. He frowned, remembering his experiences in the room behind him. He turned to Takahashi. “Was that injection you gave me a high dosage or something?” he asked.
Takahashi was taken aback but replied, “Well, slightly higher and without our form of tranquilizers as you requested.”
What do you mean by ‘form of tranquilizers’?” asked Dr Stones
“You said you wanted to apply this drug to patients with Alzheimer’s disease.” Dr Stones nodded. “We all know from brain scans there are physical changes in the brain structure of those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Our form of – I can’t think of a better word – tranquilizer delays the effects of the drug so the brain doesn’t get overloaded but allows itself to adapt. We’re close to enabling a type of -” Takahashi paused, “Again, I’m leaping into stereotypical words here. We’re enabling a type of drug induced telepathy. It’s almost a sort of ‘bilateral symmetry’ - or rather asymmetry - between linked minds. So, several people with Alzheimer’s can help each other. If someone with a strong mind is repeatedly injected, that person may be able to link with other nearby people, and assisting that person’s mind as well as the minds of those close by.”
Dr Stones was unimpressed. “That’s supposition. It’s pretty much what you’ve said to me over the phone. You haven’t yet told me how you get to that imagined idea. Have you done testing? You didn’t seem to want to talk about that. Why didn’t you want to?” He paused. “I’m now able to think more clearly about what I experienced under that drug you gave me. It’s beyond a straight hallucinogenic compound. I’ve experienced some major hallucinogens during my research.”
“As for testing. Yes, we have. Numerous volunteers. People with little to lose. These gentlemen here were two such helpers.” Takahashi indicated the men he sat by. “They also helped develop another,” he hesitated, “treatment you may also be interested in.”
Dr Stones smiled at these men who smiled in return. There was something bothering him about their smiles. “You’ve had several failed treatments.”
Takahashi deeply sighed. “Yes, we have, but then you’ve already done similar things like giving some patients experimental drugs for treatment whilst giving others placebos for the same illness.” Dr Stones looked away trying to think of a reply. “You don’t have to answer that. You're not the only doctor who did that kind of thing. Yes, we've had failures but now we can approach you with this.”
The doctor leant forward and pointed at Takahashi. “So, what about this ‘telepathy’ and ‘bilateral symmetry’? You said you're close to enabling it. How close? Remember, I’m only here for a few days. I thought you were further on than you're suggesting.”
“We’ve actually enabled it,” answered Takahashi.
“Before, you said you're close to it and now you're saying you actually have done it. You're contradicting yourself. Give me the actual data,” demanded the doctor.
Takahashi smiled at him. “You’ve already got it. You're still dreaming. We’ll talk more when you’ve woken up.” He and the other two men faded away.