The Taste of Blue is a story told in two episodes, posted serially by me, your rapid eye moving host, Cheeseburger Brown.
News: I'm pleased to announce the immediate availability of Sensible Flying Shoes: Collected Stories Volume II, the follow-up to Hot Buttered Something, featuring newly edited versions of 2007's stories with original illustrations by yours truly. Order your copy today!
Meanwhile, our freshest story begins:
It was midnight, and the patients were asleep.
Dr. Hollister squeezed a teabag against the side of her cup with a spoon, watching the whorls of dark brew roil with brownian carelessness to colour the water and, hopefully, to lend her some measure of respite from the leaden exhaustion that weighed her down like a wet wool coat.
She closed her aching eyes and sniffed the steam.
Thunder rumbled again. Tonight the weather was an ominous tease, a stuffy stillness constantly threatening to open up into something wild. There was no wind, but the air smelled like rain. Like Dr. Hollister, the sky stood in wait, biding its time before flying off the rails.
The overhead fluorescents guttered, a hiccup in the buzz. Somewhere, far away, lightning was striking the grid.
Dr. Hollister yawned desperately. She turned the page to pore over the next chart.
The grad students could sense the tension. Their trivial complaints were, for once, kept to themselves. Dr. Hollister could hear their whispers and sense their flickering glances through the sliver of space between her office door and the wall, her reluctant and minimal concession to the university's "open door policy."
Behind her eyelids the phantasmagoric interplay of afterimage blobs drifted and billowed in her vision. A blurry artifact of her teacup blended into a tunnel of blue rings, through which her perspective unwillingly progressed. Deeper, bluer, further...
Her eyes snapped open.
She bit the inside of her cheek until it threatened to bleed. Left wanting by this stimulus, she next dealt herself a couple of harsh slaps across the face. Her cheeks prickled and her ears rang.
She looked up to see a pair of grad student eyes peeking through the sliver at the door. "I'm fine, thank you," said Dr. Hollister, her own eyes on the papers as she shuffled them importantly. "Just a little tired. Have you checked the back-ups for Room B?"
"I was just on my way out, actually. They should be fine."
"Should won't do," she snapped. "We're getting some brown-outs and I don't want gaps in my data. Do you understand?"
"I'll double-check them right now, Doctor," said the student quickly, slipping away.
Laurentian University had cut her funding mercilessly. Dr. Hollister knew that when the last student went home for the night, she would be left alone to monitor the patients herself until sunrise. She wondered how she would make it through. She mashed the last vestiges of tea from the teabag and then sipped. Hot and bitter. Sharp, but not nearly sharp enough.
A bank of computer displays hung on the wall across from her desk, their faces illuminated with slowly scrolling graphs charting blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, electro-dermal activity and brain waves. The displays were reflected in the glass wall behind her, a one-way window looking out upon the six beds of Room A. Inside each bed a patient slept, ensnared in a battery of wires and leads.
The patients did not sleep peacefully, but never the less Dr. Hollister envied them. They tossed. They turned. They grunted. Some muttered the words that haunted her, as they muttered them night after night: "I can taste it...the taste of blue...so bright, so bright -- please save me from him."
Dr. Hollister did not know from whom the patients wished to be saved, but she knew what he looked like. In an accordion folder on her desk were the pictures they drew during the day -- each idiosyncratic and unique in some ways, but each converging upon a common image: the blue man, the fat man, the one reaching for their throats like an enraged buddha, tearing them out of the blue tunnel that promised so much peace.
Fourteen patients, all drawing the same phantasm. Fourteen patients, all experiencing the same nightmare. Every night.
"The taste of blue...I can taste it."
Dr. Hollister shivered, then sipped more bitter tea.
She let out a little yelp as her head sprung up off her desk blotter, knocking over the teacup and nearly tumbling from her chair. She blinked and knuckled her eyes, then scanned the computer displays for an alarm code. There was none.
Her heart was hammering. She sank back into her chair and tried to catch her breath. Tea dripped on the floor. She looked at the mess helplessly.
A loud knocking sounded. It was vaguely familiar -- her sluggish memory suggested it was a sequel: the first knocks had probably been what awakened her. Someone was pounding on the front door.
Dr. Hollister smoothed down her labcoat as she passed out of her office and shuffled wearily down the long, polished linoleum corridor to the front door. As she drew near it was pounded upon again, the bangs echoing through the deserted building.
"Hang on, hang on," she called grumpily, putting her eye to the peep-hole. "The building opens at six," she called.
A shadow stood on the stoop. "Dr. Carolyn Hollister?"
"Six," she repeated. "Come back at six."
"I must speak with you urgently."
His voice was low and calm despite his insistence. She blinked, attempting fruitlessly to focus through the fish-eye distortion of the peep-hole. "Laurentian policy is we don't open the door until six, okay? It'll have to wait until morning."
"I'm afraid this can't wait."
"It's going to have to. Are you one of my students? You can make an appointment with my secretary." Dr. Hollister began to turn away from the door, wondering whether she would have to call security.
"No, I'm not a student," said the tall shadow outside. "I'm a detective."
Dr. Hollister paused. "A detective?"
"Listen to me, Dr. Hollister. I know about the nightmare. I know what's been happening. And I know that everything -- everything -- hinges on your seeing me tonight."
She heard the stranger sigh on the other side of the door. "The taste of blue," he said quietly. "I can taste it. Can't you?"
Thunder rumbled. Dr. Hollister unbolted the door.
With her office desk safely between them Dr. Hollister studied her guest. He lowered himself into the chair opposite her carefully, one black gloved hand gripping the arm. Once settled he manually crossed his legs by picking up one thigh and arranging it over the other. He then deposited a business card on the edge of the desk.
Dr. Hollister picked it up. It said: S. MISSISSAUGA, INVESTIGATIVE SERVICES and below that was a printed telephone number that had been crossed out and replaced by one jotted in by hand. She looked up.
He was native. His hair was a salt and pepper crewcut. He had dark, sad pouches beneath his eyes, though the eyes themselves were bright and alive, wide and chocolate brown like a puppy or a colt. His expression was dour. Aside from his eyes he looked twice as tired as Dr. Hollister felt.
"South Mississauga?" she asked. "Down by Toronto?"
"Mississauga is my name."
"You're not with the police."
"No," he agreed.
Dr. Hollister straightened her labcoat and crossed her arms. "It's unlikely I will be able to be of much assistance. It is not this institution's policy to release information willy-nilly. We are under no compunction to cooperate with any private agency."
The detective nodded, then uncrossed his leg and began to methodically straighten his body again. He straightened his overcoat with a stiff left arm. "I'll see myself out," he said, rising.
Dr. Hollister sighed. "Wait a minute." She shook her head, lips pursed. "Please sit down, detective. I don't mean to be...so abrupt. We're working on very little sleep here."
The detective settled in his chair again. "Yes," he said.
Dr. Hollister turned over her spilled teacup. "Can I offer you some tea?"
She plugged in the kettle on the file cabinet behind her, rubbed her eyes, then swivelled around to face the detective with what she hoped was a better approximation of professional composure. She pulled a tissue from the box and mopped up the spilled tea. "So," she said, "what do you know about the dream, detective?"
He tucked into his coat and removed a silver cigarette case. "Do you mind if I smoke in here?" he asked.
"I mind very much, yes."
"Okay," agreed the detective, clicking open the case. "I'll only have one, then."
Dr. Hollister did not object further, hypnotized by the elaborate but practiced process by which the detective inserted a hand-rolled cigarette into his mouth and lit it, transferring items between his hands. The right glove hummed with tiny motorworks as it moved; the left glove was stiff as a mannequin. She wondered if the damage were neurological. "You're handicapped," she said.
"No," said Mr. Mississauga. "I have four artificial limbs."
"Most people would count that as a handicap."
Mr. Mississauga ignored that, his eyes fixed on Dr. Hollister earnestly. He dragged on his cigarette, then took out a small, bright blue notebook with Japanese robots on it. He knocked a pencil out of its spine and unfolded the notebook on his thigh. "It's contagious."
Dr. Hollister frowned, shrinking back. "Pardon me?"
"The dream, doctor. The dream is contagious. You asked me what I know, and I know that for certain. Everything else is conjecture."
"How do you know that?"
Mr. Mississauga exhaled smoke. "Tell me about the first patient."
"I don't think I can share those details with you."
"I don't care about names."
The kettle whistled. Dr. Hollister swivelled in her chair and began to dole out two teabags but Mr. Mississauga cleared his throat to interrupt, then leaned across the desk to offer a teabag of his own. "You carry your own tea?" she asked, brow arched.
"Yes," he said simply.
She paused, looking at him, but he did not elaborate. She accepted the teabag. He sat back again, releasing a faint perfume of photographic fixer and beef soup. She returned her attention to the tea and revolved to a forward orientation a moment later with two steaming blue and orange mugs with Laurentian logos on them. They each sipped from their cups. "Congenital phocomelia?" she asked.
"Judging by your age I'm going to guess in utero thalidomide poisoning."
Dr. Hollister smirked. "Not chatty are you, Mississauga?"
"No," he agreed. "I listen."
She sniffed, the best approximation of a chuckle she could muster. "Hah. I suppose that's my cue to start talking, isn't it? Well, I think I can safely tell you a thing or two, Detective. For starters, you're right -- it's contagious. Patient Zero reported first experiencing the dream five weeks ago, we've been able to connect the subsequent cases to contact with her."
"She's female," muttered Mr. Mississauga, making a note. "Age?"
"Pubescent," she replied crisply. "Caucasian; no signs of prior adverse health; very bright; minor social-behavioural issues."
"Was there any event that seemed to precipitate the onset of the dream?"
"She was struck by lightning," said Dr. Hollister. "The physical damage was quite mild, but with the sleep disturbances there arose some concern that there may be neurological damage. Her parents -- they're alumni -- brought her here so we could check her nocturnal brain-wave activity and take some fMRI scans. The waiting list at the hospital runs about three months, you see."
The lights guttered briefly. A moment later thunder rolled.
"The storm's getting closer," noted Dr. Hollister.
"Yes," said Mr. Mississauga. "We're running out of time."
"What do you mean?"
Mr. Mississauga crossed his leg again, then rearranged his little blue notebook. "Was anything revealed in the tomography?"
"Nothing significantly abnormal, no, beyond slightly elevated levels of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which isn't entirely off the map in terms of patients experiencing chronic night terrors -- which, really, we don't expect to see in pubescent girls unless they've suffered a serious psychological trauma like violent abuse."
"There is no evidence of abuse?"
"No. Dr. Amroliwallah's had several interviews with her. He says she's borderline depressive and a mildly narcissistic, but again, this isn't entirely uncommon for early adolescent mood swings."
"Does she menstruate?"
"First mens was just over eight months ago, yes." Dr. Hollister cocked her head. "Exactly what kind of a detective are you, anyway?"
"I specialize in the inexplicable."
"Do you have a degree?"
"How does one qualify for such a position then?"
"I am myself slightly inexplicable," he replied with a small, tight smile. "It lends me a certain insight." He glanced down at his notebook. "Who acquired the dream next?"
Dr. Hollister took a breath. "The mother. At first we assumed she was simply obsessing over her daughter's dream imagery, but then her co-worker began describing the same visions, including details that had not been discussed between them. The custodian from the girl's school was next, and then his brother. They're all here now, sleeping in our labs."
"And they all dream the same dream?"
"And complain of the same secondary symptoms, yes."
"What secondary symptoms have you seen?"
"Waking fixations on the dream elements, becoming progressively more pronounced. Patient Zero, in fact, is scheduled to be transferred up to the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital tomorrow. She's become virtually monomaniacal -- all she will discuss is the dream. It's neurotic."
"And the other patients are converging on a similar state?"
"I believe so, yes, but at this point the official diagnosis is hysterical pseudo-contagion among the others. It doesn't make sense, but Dr. Yedelman is a stubborn man. I'm trying to get my data together to make a new argument to him. He simply must see it: the pattern of transmission is classic. We just don't have any clue what the means of transmission is."
Mr. Mississauga sat back in his seat and regarded her levelly. "No clue? Dr. Hollister, consider it: what we're dealing with here is a memetic pathogen -- a self-replicating body of ideas. And there are established ways of transmitting ideas from one brain to another."
Dr. Hollister shoved her empty cup aside. "Like what?"
Mr. Mississauga ground out the end of his cigarette in his empty cup, then placed it on the desk. "We're doing it now, you and I. We are having thoughts, encoding them into speech, expression and movement, and broadcasting them through the air and the light in this office. You hear me speak, you watch me talk, and you glean my meaning: the idea from my brain is now available for consideration in yours."
"That's a cute model, Detective," replied Dr. Hollister with an indulgent smile, "but I'm talking about a concrete vector of transmission. These patients aren't being inspired by each other's ideas -- that's what Yedelman thinks -- they're dreaming the same dream, with identical narrative sequences and imagery."
"The fat blue man."
"The fat blue man, exactly. He's an enemy, and we must stop him."
Mr. Mississauga looked up sharply. "Say that again, Doctor?"
Dr. Hollister blinked, then pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "I'm sorry -- like I told you, I'm personally exhausted. Babbling nonsense." She opened her eyes again. "What I'm saying is, how do you transmit the idea of a malevolent blue fat man without describing a malevolent blue fat man? Patient Zero's mother never told her colleague what was in the dream, only that it was recurring and unpleasant, a dream about being pursued and torn away from something sweet."
"The taste of blue."
"The sweet, sweet taste of blue -- so long and so warm, so forever and so much a kind of hug for your heart. Don't let him get me. Stop it, him. Stop it, him." Dr. Hollister blinked again, cleared her throat. Mr. Mississauga was watching her closely. "Um, yes," she went on, flustered. "And that's what they all say -- whether they've heard it from one another or not. How could it possibly get from, as you put it, one brain to another without having heard the phrases themselves?"
"Not all communication is verbal, Doctor, as I'm sure you appreciate. Much information is passed between people via non-verbal means, such as body language, skin response, and even smell."
"Are you proposing that the dream hops brains by smell?"
"I suggest only that it may be unwise to underestimate the power of implication. To imply a message can be to broadcast everything except the message itself, a kind of negative image or reverse mold of the original. If implication were a science, such complex messages might be engineered."
Dr. Hollister sniffed sceptically. "You think somebody made this?"
"I don't know. It could as well have arisen spontaneously out of the ocean of memetic, information-based constructs our civilization shunts to and fro every day. In a way, it was bound to happen eventually."
"Self-replication," he said heavily. "Consider: melodies are weakly self-replicating when they're catchy. People find themselves whistling them, and thereby transmit them to others. Is it really too large a leap to imagine ideas doing that by form instead of fancy? If self-replicating genetics could evolve from a pool of interacting organic molecules, why not self-replicating memetics from a pool of an interacting brains?"
Dr. Hollister sat back in her squeaky chair and rubbed her forehead. "Like I said before, Detective, the model has appeal. The question is, how does it help us?"
Mr. Mississauga leaned forward eagerly, his chocolate brown eyes locked on Dr. Hollister. "It helps us because it frames the terms of our response: if an information-based pathogen is out there in the wild, it must be contained. We cannot let it loose in the ecosystem of our civilization to continue to evolve and possibly do incredible damage. You said it yourself: Patient Zero's going to a rubber room. What would happen if that were the fate of millions?"
A shiver ran across Dr. Hollister's shoulders. "God," she said.
Mr. Mississauga nodded. "Or rather, the Devil."