It was one of those silly things.
Last night, pounding away on the keyboard, the words flowing as the thrill of creation coursed through Martin, he wanted to finish the chapter while the scene remained vivid in his mind. His characters took advantage of this momentary freedom to produce some striking dialogue. He finished the last sentence, sat back and sighed. Mentally drained, but immensely satisfied, he rubbed his tired eyes and groped for the mug. The coffee barely tepid, he drained the cup and nodded. His third in…he couldn’t tell. As he moved, his stomach sloshed. The digital clock on the bottom of the screen read 01:15. He had been at it for a solid three hours! No wonder he felt stiff. Martin did not worry about the late hour as he shut down the computer. It had been a great piece of writing, he told himself. He stretched his arms until the joints popped, washed the mug, and readied for bed. Tucked under the doona, the chapter replayed in his mind and he allowed his thoughts to drift.
The coffee must have done it. Not awake, but not sleeping, his bladder demanded release, but he did not want to drag himself out of a nice warm bed just to have a pee. Besides, the room was freezing. July in Melbourne not at all amusing. There wasn’t even snow to add charm to the winter. It was simply miserably cold. He turned over and pulled the doona over his head. Only a little longer, he told himself.
Martin’s bladder thought otherwise. The harder he tried to recapture sleep, the hydraulic pressure became more insistent until he actually felt uncomfortable. Either get up and get the business done or wet the bed. Not an option really. Disgusted, he sighed, pulled back the doona, and immediately shivered from the biting cold. Not bothering to switch on the light, he slid his feet into the slippers and stumbled toward the bathroom. Although the room was totally dark, he did not need a light to find the bathroom, having done this sort of thing hundreds of times.
He reached for the door handle and made to step through. Unfortunately for Martin, the door was still closed, which caused his head to crash painfully against it and made him stagger. He did not have to have the room lit; there were plenty of sparkling lights around him. He uttered a short earthy word, opened the door and groped for the switch. The bathroom exploded with light and he winced as his eyes adjusted.
His hydraulic problem momentarily forgotten, he stepped toward the large vanity mirror and peered closely at his head. A nice red bruise had already colored his right temple, but the skin remained unbroken. Another expletive. His bladder reminded him why he came here and he took care of it, sighing with relief. Done, he switched off the light and strode toward the bed. As he wriggled under the warm doona, he opened one eye and glanced at the digital clock display: 05:42. He closed his eyes, exhaled with contentment, and allowed tension to ease out of his body. His head hurt, but he pushed back the discomfort and the associated unpleasant memory.
Next time, switch on the light, dummy, he told himself.
* * *
Martin liked being a freelance IT consultant and part-time author. His professional work paid the bills and his writing filled his soul. Running complex projects and seeing them completed gave him intense satisfaction, despite the downside of constantly fighting for resources, schedules overruns, and ballooning budgets, not to mention function creep clients always tried to slip in. He had a simple work philosophy, on the surface anyway. The client defined the project objectives and delivery timeframe. Martin’s job was to make it all happen within those parameters. If the parameters changed, any of them, he had a chat with the client. You want additional functionality, it will cost you this much, and will impact the schedule by this many days or weeks. Sign off on the requirements variation and I’ll get it done. Of course, that attitude did not always endear him to the client who wanted the expanded requirements delivered within the original budget and timeframe, which made Martin somewhat of a hard-nosed bastard. It did not bother him. Sometimes the hard facts of life had to be explained to a client in a language they understood—stuff around with requirements and you will corrupt your business objective. He got away with his approach because he was very good at what he did.
Four more years, he told himself, and he would have enough financial security to retire in comfort. Being a part-time writer provided a release for his literary creativity, and he looked forward to the day when he could write all day, every day. Well, on most days. No need to push things to the extreme, or he would be swapping one 9 to 5 job for another, not that his work was ever 9 to 5. He found writing a joy and fun, but there were other types of fun he wanted to indulge in.
When he finally woke, the clock read 07:36, but being Saturday, he could afford to be lazy for a few minutes. Today was his washing, house cleaning, and grocery shopping day. He did a cursory clean every weekend, but once a fortnight, he made a thorough job of it.
He pulled back the doona and winced as the cold air made his skin tingle. He strode to the large window and pulled back the drapes. The eastern sky stood bathed with a red glow, and frost covered the front lawn. Not really a lawn, not anymore. An assortment of various grasses had taken over the front yard after he had it landscaped originally. Now, that had been a lawn. Then the permanent water restrictions came into force and he could no longer water anything, unless he installed several bulging water tanks. He had a drip system that took care of his shrubs and bushes, the lawn left to its own devices. In summer when everything was burnt brown, he often thought of replacing the scraggly growth with a pebble garden, but the cost was too prohibitive. If he ever sold his place, the new owners could do what they liked with it. For the moment, Martin remained content to leave things as they were.
As he dressed, he gingerly touched the lump on his temple. A slight headache throbbed at the side of his head. He would take an aspirin with breakfast, which should take care of things.
He breathed deeply of the crisp air and finished dressing.
* * *
Sunday afternoon was uncomfortable, double shots of aspirin not helping his headache. Did he perhaps scramble some gray matter with the door encounter? If the headache did not clear up by tomorrow, he would get a CT scan. He felt normal, but would he be able to tell if he carried any brain damage? Just a bad bruise trying to heal itself, he told himself.
On Monday morning, the alarm woke him from a very pleasant dream—now he would never know how it ended. He had no real desire to go to work, face a cold morning, the crush of passengers on the train, or the scheduled status meeting with his project managers. He would rather be lazy and remain in his nice, soft, warm bed.
It was always like this. Each Friday night, he told himself that tomorrow, he would sleep in and make up for lost time during the week. No way. After years of waking up at six am, Saturday morning found him wide awake at six am—usually. On Sunday, he did manage to squeeze in a few extra minutes, but not enough. Mondays were bad. He wanted to sleep like the dead, but the damned alarm wouldn’t let him. A conspiracy to deprive him of sleep.
In the bathroom, he checked his bruise, pleasantly surprised to find only a colored spot. It did not even hurt when he touched it. Almost finished with breakfast, the wall TV gave him a dose of morning news, he realized the headache was also gone. Now we’re cooking!
He drove to the train station, parked, and joined a convoy of people making their way in. He did not even mind the cold, and it looked like another clear winter day. He had his notepad in the briefcase and he would put in some writing. Why waste forty minutes staring out the window or the expressionless faces of fellow commuters?
During the day, he kept seeing a black circle in his mind, and it had nothing to do with the novel he was writing. Simply one of those things, he figured.
Martin came home satisfied with the day, himself, and his program of work. His client did not grumble too much as things were more or less on schedule, and his project managers wanted him to leave them alone. Well, as long as they did their job, he happily left them alone. They knew he would kick ass if they didn’t. Be friendly, but carry a knobby club.
He transcribed the writing he did on the train into the computer, editing as he went along, a glass of bourbon at his side, and went to bed. Two, three more months tops and his novel would be finished. At it for seven months already, there was only so much time he could devote to writing holding down a full-time job. It was moving, and that was all that mattered.
His dreams were always vivid, in full color and surround sound. Sometimes they appeared so real, he had to exert almost conscious effort to tell himself he was dreaming. That happened with some of his bad dreams when he found himself in a precarious or embarrassing predicament. Like walking around town with no clothes on, and nobody seemed to notice. Right now, he dreamed he was in Venice and missed his tour bus. His suitcase, carry-on bag, wallet, and all his documents were on the bus—and no bus. In a strange duality he often found himself experiencing, he knew he was dreaming, but that did not lessen the emotional impact and momentary panic he felt standing in front of the hotel and no bus. He did not speak Italian, didn’t know the hotel where the bus would drop everyone for the night, and he had no money. The earthy words he said did not help things.
Suddenly, a black circle appeared before him some two meters in diameter. Inside the circle, he could see his fellow tour members, on the bus, chatting to each other. Relief flooded through him. All he had to do is step through the circle and he would be safe. So, he stepped through. No one turned to look at him as he walked down the aisle toward his seat and sat down. He snapped on the seatbelt—the local cops had a dim view of passengers not buckled in—and gazed at the passing scenery. He had no idea where the bus was taking him.
The dream faded and Martin fell into deep sleep.
As usual, the alarm jerked him awake. He turned over and curled into a ball, savoring a few more seconds of slumber. Not feeling crisp or bouncy, he rolled over on his back, opened his eyes…and went pale.
At the foot of his bed stood a black circle the same size as the one in his dream. He blinked and slowly rubbed his eyes. That’s it. He was still dreaming. He pushed back the doona and sat up, ignoring the cold. The circle was still there. Trying to wrap his mind around what he saw, he gingerly reached with his hand and pushed through the circle. His hand disappeared and he immediately snatched it back. He wiggled his fingers, all there.
He climbed out of the bed, his feet sliding automatically into the slippers, and slowly stepped toward the circle. It maintained its position before him. Whichever way he moved, it shifted to present a full, impenetrable, black surface.
Martin knew he must be dreaming, because dream circles don’t become real when the dream ended. So, he must be dreaming, right? The only problem with that hypothesis, he was wide awake and knew it, and he had a black circle in his bedroom. The knock on the head had sent him over the edge and he was delusional. That must be it.
His analytical mind rejected that fanciful proposition and he spent a few moments studying the circle. He had a black hole that led to…somewhere, if he believed his dream. He pictured his kitchen, and immediately, the kitchen appeared within the circle.
“This is nuts,” he declared.
Step through and you are there, right? It worked in his dream. Surely, it would not be that easy, would it? What he did in his dream violated every physical law he understood. He did not understand everything, he told himself, and the kitchen looked very real.
Martin hesitated, threw reason and logic out the window, and stepped through the circle…and found himself in his kitchen.
“Okay, steady. You’re not coming unstuck.”
He turned, but the circle had vanished.
He stood on the polished floorboards and realized he was warm, the preset timer having activated the heating system. He shook his head, not prepared to analyze what happened, and made his way to the bedroom. During the shower, he focused on the work program for the day, the black circle a shadow in his mind. Anyway, it was gone. An aberration, something he dreamed.
As he tied his tie, he wanted a shot of coffee to clear his mind. In the mirror, he saw the circle. He turned and slowly nodded. It seemed to obey his will, but did it?
“Go away,” he said, and it vanished.
He wished the circle to appear and it did.
“Martin, old boy, if you haven’t totally slipped your rails, this has possibilities.”
He pictured his kitchen and the image appeared in the circle. He grabbed his jacket and stepped through…into his kitchen. A whimsical thought popped into his mind and he smiled. In the circle, he could see St. Mark’s square in Venice. If he stepped through, he felt certain he would find himself there. It was late at night in Venice, but the square teemed with tourists, and the image opened a vista of possibilities.
What about breakfast in Rome, dinner in New York, a day on a tropical beach? No more air fares! He could go anywhere he wished for free. All very exciting and appealing, but what if he could not summon the circle anymore? What if this ability faded over time? It would be like his dream, stranded somewhere without documents, and the authorities asking some pointed questions he would not be able to answer. He could picture himself all too vividly being interrogated by unsmiling cops, in jail, his comfortable life no longer comfortable.
Having a doorway to anywhere clearly handy, but he had to think things through. An obvious problem using the circle immediately presented itself. Someone, somewhere, was bound to notice if he suddenly popped into existence, which would cause talk, unwelcome talk. Departing required that he conjure up the circle, which would also cause someone to pop their eyes. Even if no one saw him, cities these days were filled with surveillance cameras. One of them would record his sudden appearance or exit, and the hunters would be set loose. Of course, he could employ more subtle and less public methods when using the circle.
He bumped his head and now had a teleportation…thing. The bump clearly did something to his brain to make this possible. He could not tell if the ability was permanent or transitory while his brain healed itself, if damaged. He will have an MRI and have himself checked out. In the meantime, he would use the circle and explore its potential.
Martin rubbed his hands and stepped toward the percolator, only to be blocked by the circle. Within its boundary, he saw the New York skyline. He turned and faced another circle. This one showed the Taj Mahal. He felt his face drain and his mouth went dry. The TV announcer droned through the day’s weather, and a field of ice cliffs popped into Martin’s mind. A new circle appeared showing a glacier beneath a clear sky.
His mind freewheeled and he stood surrounded by circles, all showing different images.
“Go away!” he screamed and the circles disappeared.
Badly shaken, he reached for the percolator and poured himself coffee. His hand trembled as he brought the mug to his lips. From a welcome gift, the circle had suddenly become a living nightmare.
It not only obeyed his conscious will, but his subconscious mind also appeared to control it. Something he did not expect, although he should have. He had been too euphoric seeing its possibilities to note the darker side. He sat down and gulped the hot coffee, his sweaty shirt plastered against his clammy skin.
Not good, not good.
How can a person censor his subconscious self? When the inner self could not express itself, could not control reality, its desires and fantasies were of little consequence, except to the mind benders, of course. When the inner self could summon the circle—many circles—that presented an altogether different set of problems.
Control…firm control, he told himself. Don’t picture anything. Keep your mind blank.
Right, he can do this.
Martin stood, turned, and faced the circle. He had not called for it, but it was there.
“Go away,” he croaked. The circle remained.
Did some part of his subconscious, or some inner secret desire, summon it? No way to tell. At least it was blank, no image to step into.
Control…don’t think of anything.
The circle wavered, then reformed.
Keep a blank mind, he told himself.
The circle approached him and he immediately stepped back.
The circle enveloped him and he found himself in total darkness. He whimpered and shut his eyes. When he opened them, he was still in impenetrable darkness.
Martin screamed and screamed, but there was no one to hear him in the dark corridors of his mind.