A prodigy, he’d been called; the new face of neuroscience, the one who would single-handedly save the world from neurological disorders. A Ph.D by the age of twenty-five, articles in more journals than he could count, whispers about a Nobel Peace Prize as he slid comfortably into his late twenties with the achievement of a sizable new grant to study the subconscious and various sleep disorders.
The grant money had long since run dry. He’d been on a kindly forced “extended sabbatical” that was approaching its third year. Dean refused to think about what would happen when his access to the meager and barely sufficient instruments he had to resort to was revoked. He was so close.
He arranged himself on the table, and his brother – medical assistant, lab assistant, EMT and the only person left who didn’t call Dean insane, at least not where Dean could hear – fastened the safety straps on his arms and across his thighs. “Sam?” Dean asked, raising his brows to feel the tug of the adhesive on the monitoring wires at his temples.
“Two hours in phasic REM tonight. Deep. Don’t let me start coming up after I hit REM the third time. Keep me there.”
Sam exhaled forcefully through his nose. “Dean, that’s dangerous. Too dangerous to do without an anesthesiologist. Maybe even with one.”
“I don’t have an anesthesiologist. I’ve got you.” He caught Sam’s eyes and held them. “You know more about what we’re doing than any anesthesiologist out there. I need time. Give it to me.”
Sam appeared indecisive. Dean didn’t look away; Sam was the one to turn, under the pretense of adjusting the straps over Dean’s legs. “Under protest,” he said finally, lowering himself into a chair next to the prepared syringes of milky white fluid.
It was the fluid that dictated the extreme measures; propofol wasn’t difficult to obtain, but if Dean didn’t succeed very soon, he’d have to begin going through channels of questionable legality or switch to induction agents that had more unpleasant side effects. The smaller syringe, which Dean could barely see, was filled with the various agents he’d finally stumbled across that could increase the amount of time spent in continuous REM sleep, assuming the brain had already been primed for that level of sleep activity. It was a proprietary formula, and one that likely would make him famous, if anyone cared to review his research anymore.
Sam scanned the screens that reported the various signals from the monitors attached to Dean’s body. “Time is seventeen fifty-three,” he reported. “Beginning induction with 180 milligrams of intravenous propofol, rate of forty milligrams per ten seconds.”
The hot smear of the drug washed up Dean’s arm, a pain he’d learned to tolerate quickly. Almost immediately he felt the thickness of sleep begin to fog his mind and he embraced it, eager to begin.
“You can’t honestly believe they’re real,” his mentor had said incredulously, some five years ago.
”Of course not, not all of them,” Dean had pressed. “Not even most. But so many people dream about so many identical themes, regardless of culture or socioeconomic background – nearly every single person has dreamt of their teeth falling out, for example, even if it’s a worry they’ve never had before, and it’s always linked to increased rate of stress hormone – which increases the amount of time spent in phasic REM. And these dreams are always vivid upon waking, and remarkably detailed in extremely logical ways – doesn’t that suggest something about the interconnected reality of the human subconscious?”
“And I’ve been able to document that these vivid and logical dreams begin a full twenty seconds before REM sleep even begins. That should be impossible, but it happens in more than two thirds of the subjects I’ve studied.”
Dean had stopped, realizing he’d been pacing in the small space before the desk.
“Your results are intriguing and the anomaly warrants further study, but I don’t for a second think it points to any ‘bridge between concurrent realities.’” His mentor had peered over his spectacles at him. “And if you are half as smart as I know you can be, you’ll stop believing it, too, before someone else hears you.”
Vague impressions of a radio studio decorated in tasteful shades of lavender, manned by three of Dean’s old high school friends; another several minutes spent wandering a convention exposition hall filled with booths of people Dean did not know and products he could not immediately discern; these were the dreams Dean had termed “long-wave GABA fixations,” the dreams that exist solely within one’s own mind, an attempt the brain made to fix real and imagined life experiences into long-term memory.
He knew precisely the moment he emerged from the long-wave GABA fixations into true REM dreams, the ones that occurred during phasic REM sleep. Everything felt more solid, as though he could go for a run and become tired, or eat an apple and taste it. It was, after all, the same neurological pathways interpreting his experiences here as would interpret his experiences while awake; as far as his neural cortex was concerned, this was reality as much as the waking world.
And Dean had reason to believe that perhaps it actually was.
He waited patiently. If it were only his perceptions, he was certain that he would not need to wait at all. If it was only happening within his own mind, why spend time waiting during a narrative that concerned only him?
He did not have to wait long.
Dean rose from the chair that had appeared to accommodate him; the chair instantly vanished, though Dean knew it would immediately exist again the moment he went to sit down in it. “Cas.”
It was a presence, the definite knowledge that someone was there, though no body appeared and no voice sounded. There was no glowing light, no zephyr against his cheek, simply the solid conviction that he was joined by another person.
A person who recognized him, and greeted him warmly. Dean felt the exact sensation of a hand having been pressed fondly against his cheek, though nothing of the sort had happened, and he smiled.
“I don’t know how much time I have left,” he said, and the presence was suddenly wholly attentive. “But I spoke with Jimmy a few nights ago. Or tried, anyway.”
Faint questioning. Dean nodded.
“Jimmy was one of my subjects, with the blessing of his family. His clinical diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia, but I have my reasons to doubt that. He was doing similar research when he fell asleep one afternoon. He hasn’t woken up for seven years now.” Dean paused, ordering his thoughts. “But it’s not a coma. His alpha waves are running mad. He’s dreaming – vividly, constantly. He’s here.” He gestured around himself. “It was finding him, here, several times, that made me start studying subconscious reality bridges, beginning with him.” Dean shook his head. “Then his family disappeared, and with it, their consent for me to study him. I haven’t been near him for two or three years, now. At least, not awake.
“He wants to wake up, but his...consciousness, his sense of self, is fractured. He literally can’t hold himself together, not even here, and pharmaceuticals didn’t help before he went under. His body lacks complete consciousness, even if he were to wake up.” Dean looked up, though there was nothing to focus upon. “And you – you need some sort of vessel for your consciousness.”
Apprehension. Dean held up a hand.
“I know you want his consent. I’m going to try and help you find him. You’re...for lack of a better term, you’re made from this place. And he’s been here so long that I think you’re the only one he might actually understand anymore.” Dean coughed. “He’s hard to find. But if we look together, I think we can –”
With a gasp that tore at the back of his throat, Dean lurched against the strap over his chest in an attempt to sit up, the dim lights in the lab still stabbing at his eyes.
“Dammit, Sam!” he growled, working his wrists out from under the straps on the arm boards. “Two hours, I told you – two hours in phasic REM –”
“That was two hours exactly.” Sam was stabbing his finger at the touchscreens of the various monitors, silencing their alarms. “A minute more and your tachycardia would have progressed into arrhythmias. Or did you want to go into defib tonight?”
Dean’s heart was still pounding. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath, as much to push back the swell of frustration as to slow his heartbeat. “Fine. I’ll get back down to baseline levels and we’ll try again.”
“No. We won’t.”
The words were soft, but the steel behind them made Dean try to crane his neck to look at his brother. “Sam, I am right on the edge of –”
“I said no. I’m not going to – to enable this anymore.” To Dean’s dismay, Sam began emptying the last few syringes of milky white propofol into the pharmaceutical waste container. “I thought – at the beginning, when you first asked for my help, I figured, well, at least I could control your dosage. I’d be watching you, and I could keep you from hurting yourself.” Sam pushed at the plunger of the last syringe with unnecessary force. “And I’d be taking care of my brother like he took care of me. But it’s been years, Dean. And this – tonight – I can’t do it anymore.” Sam tossed the last empty syringe into the waste container and turned to face Dean, still helplessly strapped to the table. “You’re an addict, you’re delusional, and if you don’t check yourself into Fairhaven tomorrow, then I’ll do it for you.”
“I’m not a –” Dean cut himself off. In every sense of the word, he was technically an addict. That argument wouldn’t get him far. “Sam. I am so close I can taste it. Once more and I can – I’ll be enhancing the quality of two lives. Jimmy will wake up.”
Sam visibly tensed. “You’re not supposed to go near Jimmy.”
“I haven’t,” Dean insisted, “that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, what this whole thing is – It’s all in my notes. It’s right there. Haven’t you been reading my notes?”
“Dean,” Sam said, and he sounded pained, as though explaining something difficult to a child, “your notes are gibberish. No one can read them.”
Dean pressed on. “How do you explain Jimmy, then? How do you explain what I knew about him, even though we’ve never spoken a word to one another?”
“All I know,” Sam said evenly, clearly trying to head off Dean’s passionate tones, “is that you freaked out the Novaks enough that they took out a restraining order against you, and then moved. If you’re messing with him again –”
“You’re not listening to me, Sam!” Dean strained against the straps again. “I am so close to helping him, curing him – and helping Cas – I’ve told you about Cas, I know I have –”
“We’re done,” Sam interjected flatly. “If I let you off the table, will you go to bed quietly, or do I have to leave you there?”
Dean glared. “I’ll stay here, if it’s all the same to you.”
Sam shrugged and stalked out of the lab – which, before Dean had turned it into a lab, had been Dean’s garage. As the door shut, it left Dean suspended in darkness broken only by the blue glow of the screens behind him.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was difficult to drift off to sleep on his own, now; he could usually manage it two nights out of three, but for any reliably deep sleep he needed the propofol. But still, he had to try. Cas and Jimmy needed him.
He’d interned at Fairhaven, knew a great many of the doctors and even some of the resident patients. It was different, being on the other side of the scrutiny, knowing the flowcharts of diagnosis that were dancing in their heads, knowing even before he’d finished the first therapy session what they would call him.
They were unfailingly polite; they called him Doctor, even when he did not insist upon the honorific, and they listened with mild interest to his explanations and theories. They did not agree with his assertions that he needed no pharmaceutical assistance for his “hallucinations,” but allowed that so long as he wasn’t a danger to himself or others, they wouldn’t mandate them.
He played mah jong in the day room, participated in the group therapy sessions, and slept badly.
He rarely dreamed.
Dean turned, running fingers through hair that was just slightly too long. He felt his jaw drop. “Jimmy?”
The man grinned, a little shyly. “No. Well...somewhat. Cas, at the moment.” He held his arms out, looking down at the cheap black suit with the crooked tie, the slightly too-large tan overcoat. “This is how Jimmy remembers himself. He’s far more atrophied, of course – I doubt he could breathe on his own if I woke him up – if I could wake him up.” The corners of the smile fell slightly, and he raised his eyes to meet Dean’s. They were blue, a cutting, cobalt blue that tugged at Dean’s heartstrings in tangible chords. “He’s been asleep so long, and I’ve – well, I’ve never been awake to begin with.”
Dean nodded slowly. “A shot of methylphenidate hydrochloride would probably do the trick,” he mused. “They’ve been using it to jump-start the recovery phase of anesthesia for a few years now.” He shook his head. “Not that either of us are in any position to get it to you.”
Cas cocked his head to the side. Finally seeing the gesture, instead of just sensing it, made Dean grin despite himself.
“I’m currently enjoying the gentle accommodations of my neighborhood psych ward.” Dean explained before shaking his head again. “I shouldn’t be here. I had notes, documentation of everything I’d done, but...you can’t write in dreams, did you know that?” Dean looked up from his hands. “That cortex is inactive during REM. All this time, directly after waking up, I thought I’d been writing but it was...nonsense. All nonsense…” Dean sighed heavily. “My brother brought me here. I think I’m going to be here for a good, long while.”
Cas looked dismayed. “How will we...?”
Dean shrugged. “When and as I can. Sleeping isn’t easy. But I’ll try.” He reached out to take one of Cas’s hands in his own. “I’ll try.”
Dean woke before Cas’s lips managed to brush against his. He threw his paper water cup across the room. The water sprayed across the white wall and glistened.
“Tell me about Cas.”
Dean looked up, immediately guarded. “Why?”
The psychiatrist’s name was Dr. Connors. He was decent, as psychiatrists went, and Dean didn’t begrudge him his profession, but Dean had always considered talking therapy to be more or less useless as a mode of treatment for severe neurological disorders. If they were going to saddle him with a neurological rather than behavioral diagnosis, they may as well treat him as such.
“He seems to be important to you. When did you first meet him?”
“Four years ago.” Dean considered shutting up, but even if Dr. Connors was unlikely to believe him, it would still be nice to order his thoughts enough to put them into sentences. “He’s a direct manifestation of will in alpha-wave phasic REM.”
Dr. Connors blinked. “You’ll have to run that by me again.”
Dean smirked. “You know how, in dreams, whatever you need is always there? A chair, or a musical instrument you want to play, or – more sinister – the monster that always chases you? Cas is like that. He started as a construct to keep me company.”
“So he’s like an imaginary friend.”
Dean held back a sigh. “Just as much as a fetus is an imaginary child. He’s a person in potentia. The only reason he doesn’t exist in this phase of reality is because his consciousness doesn’t have a vessel to inhabit.” He felt the smirk tug at the corner of his mouth again. “Actually, that limitation is something we should all be grateful for – otherwise the monster under the bed would be something we’d need to worry about.”
“All right,” Dr. Connors said patiently, “so Cas is a person. A man? Tell me about him.”
“He started out as just a presence,” Dean relented, deciding that humoring the therapist wasn’t the worst way to use up an hour of time. “A way for me to think out loud and feel like someone was listening. But before long...tell me, Dr. Connors, how often have you sat and chatted with catatonic patients?”
“And what about completely comatose ones? The ones who respond to no stimuli whatsoever?”
“Not as often, but I have.”
“There’s a difference, isn’t there? One is a presence...but the other you can sense is processing your words. Is interacting with you, even if they’re unresponsive.” Dean leaned forward expectantly.
Dr. Connors looked thoughtful. “I understand the feeling you’re driving at.”
“Cas went from one to the other. There was no gradient. Just one day, it felt like he was understanding me, instead of simply being a sounding board.”
“And what does he look like?”
Dean shook his head. “Cas doesn’t look like anything. He’s consciousness without form. A fully-fledged person, with a sense of humor and a vast intelligence, far beyond anything I could ever hope to obtain, and – probably most important to my research – a comprehensive, constant sense of self, that continues to exist even when I’m not present.”
Dr. Connors made a note. “How do you know he’s male?”
Shrugging, Dean tamped down the seed of frustration that the psychiatrist would sweep aside Dean’s research for such a banal question. “I don’t. He feels male, but that could be my own preconceptions. He’s never corrected me when I’ve addressed him with masculine pronouns. It could be he doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care – gender constructs are something he’s never really had to worry about, not having ever existed in a human society.”
“Do you think maybe that’s a projection of your perceived expression of gender?” Dr. Connors asked neutrally.
Dean stared blankly. “I don’t even know what the hell kind of question that’s supposed to be.”
“Never mind.” Dr. Connors waved a hand. “So Cas is a good friend.”
“More than that.” Dean took a breath, considering his words carefully. “If I believed in souls, I’d say he was my soulmate. Since I don’t, I’d say that he shaped himself to complement me exactly. He’s everything I didn’t even know I wanted.”
Dr. Connors looked mildly surprised. “You indicated in your profile that you’re straight.”
“I am.” Dean leaned forward, conspiratorial smile threatening to spread across his face. “But then, he’s not really a dude, is he?”
Dean had wandered aimlessly for some time now through the elaborate park. Cas never made him wait this long. He hadn’t been present the last two times Dean had managed to make his way here, either. And he hadn’t been able to find Jimmy.
Were they awake?
“Phasic REM,” Dean explained patiently to Annette. “It’s the first stage of REM sleep, the one where you have vivid dreams. You can dream lucidly there, with practice, because your brain isn’t really asleep, at least not all of it. And it’s all the same neurological stimuli. Your brain can’t tell the difference between that reality and this one.” Dean thumped the table in front of him.
“So dreams are real?” Annette asked in a hushed tone.
“Not all of them,” Dean rushed to assure her. “But there’s a reality we can reach in phasic REM if the right variables are controlled. This reality –” he thumped the table again – “is interpreted by our brains, and we all agree it’s real because we all share it. But it’s never the same for everybody. We create false memories all the time – enhance events, change the focus, forget them or reconstruct them entirely – this reality as we can experience it is not immutable, but we share it.” Dean glanced at Dr. Connors. “It’s why we record things, for evidence. Our brains all recollect stimuli differently. In phasic REM, we can enter another plane of reality, another phase that we can share with other people, just like we share this one. It’s just as real.”
Dr. Connors cleared his throat. “I think that’s enough, Dean.”
Dean jumped slightly. “Why? I thought talking was the entire point of this charade.”
“I don’t think it’s a good topic for group therapy.” The psychiatrist’s tone had the steel-blue tinge of authority to it. “We can discuss it later, if you’d like, in private.”
Dean clenched his jaw. “I’m not raving. And I have documentation, if you’d give me access to my journals so I could translate them.” He leaned forward. “I know it’s not science until I have the evidence. I can give that to you – to everyone – but I need access to my research.”
“Why not just get to it in your dreams?” That was Sophie, who had mocked him from his very first day in group therapy. She had a sharp tongue and a knack for small little digs that hit home.
But Dean just stared at her. “Sophie,” he said slowly, “you are amazing.”
Sleep was hard to get to. They would try to wake him up if they caught him napping during the day, and he wasn’t allowed pen and paper at night, which meant he had to make the most of the five-minute snatches he could get. He scribbled – on paper, on napkins, scratched on his skin, when they stopped giving him paper. On tables, on walls. Graphomania , he knew his patient profile said. A likely side effect of propofol withdrawal, in combination with incidences of narcolepsy .
And then, later, in ink a slightly different blue, it is likely that the compounds Dean introduced may have caused permanent impairment to his ability to ascertain fact and fiction.
He hated the neat, steady handwriting of Dr. Connors as it spelled out the damning statements. Hated it, because no matter how Dean tried, he couldn’t make his own notes march along in neat lines. They scrawled, they meandered, and even when he focused, they did not make sense.
Dean glimpsed Cas for a bare moment, long enough to see Cas’s mouth begin to form Dean’s name, before the orderly shook him awake.
The orderly would receive worker’s compensation for his dislocated shoulder.
Dean was rewarded with lambskin-lined restraints.
Sorry I missed your last visit. If I can get to sleep, I do, even if it’s at a bad time.
I know you’re technically my custodian while I’m considered “unable to consent to treatment.” Tell them to take me off the methylphenidate. I don’t have narcolepsy, and I think you know that. I need sleep, and I need it on my own terms.
And if you can, check on Jimmy for me. He’s awake.
“You can’t keep doing this.”
Dean spun, body wracked with slack-muscled relief. “Cas. I –”
“No time. Give me your arm.”
Bemused, Dean rolled up a sleeve. Cas grabbed his arm, prodding for a vein with his thumb while his other hand pulled a syringe from his pocket. “You’re wreaking havoc on your wake-sleep cycles,” he said in a distracted tone, uncapping the needle with one hand. “It’s doing serious damage to your pre-frontal cortex. The drugs they’re giving you aren’t helping. This will.”
Dean stared at the label on the syringe as Cas pushed the plunger. “That’s mine,” he said in surprise, ignoring the burn that flowered and branched up his arm. “My formula. Where did you get it?”
“That’s not important.” Cas threw the syringe to the side; it disappeared before it hit the ground. He grasped Dean’s arm with both hands, rubbing briskly, and the burning faded as the drug grew less concentrated around the injection site. “You’re here now. For...well, until we can get you out safely.”
Dean stared. “I’m what?”
Cas caught his eyes. The cobalt shimmered in a heartfelt plea. “I’ll come to you as often as I can. And I’ll take care of you. It’s the least I can do, after all you’ve done for me. And for Jimmy. We’ll work something out.”
He reached out to lightly brush a hand across Dean’s cheekbone, and the sensation of touch lingered long after Cas vanished.
Numb, Dean sat down on a bench in the elaborate garden.
The sun set.
It began to grow cold.
“Damnedest thing.” The doctor shook his head as the residents collected around the patient’s bed. “They found an empty syringe next to him. No one has any idea where he got it, and the traces of pharmaceutical in it shouldn’t have put a mouse in a coma.”
One of the residents took a step closer. “They say you should never meet your heroes,” he said softly.
Another resident scoffed, shoving a pen behind her ear. “This guy’s your hero?”
“Yours, too,” the first resident shot back. “He found the cause of fibromyalgia before he turned twenty. Cured it two years later. The man’s a genius. Have you even read anything he’s written?”
“Before or after he started writing in cipher?” The doctor asked wryly.
The rest of the residents filed out as the doctor gestured, but one stayed, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Dr. Novak?”
“Yes?” The doctor turned.
“Did the...stuff...he wrote near the end ever get published?”
“Published? No. But we’ve got it in his file.” Dr. Novak’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Why?”
“I think I’d like to make Dr. Winchester my case study,” Dr. Tran said softly, studying the jagged peaks of the EEG on the monitor. Alpha waves. Hyperactive alpha waves. The man was dreaming. “And I’ve always been good at ciphers.”