The isolation chamber at the Monroe Institute is a faraday cage, roughly cubical, twelve feet on a side. It's painted drab gray and sits in the middle of a small warehouse that serves as the institute's laboratory. Scattered around the warehouse are the remains of prior experiments. Microphones. Headphones. Electronic synthesizer keyboards. Cables in loose coils.
A large harness of wires issues from the top of the cube, runs along the warehouse ceiling, and travels through a wall that leads to a control room. A large-bore corrugated pipe follows the cable. This is the air supply.
Your footsteps echo slightly in the empty space, your bare soles smacking against the smooth concrete floor sounds the way they did when you ran from the bathroom as a child, dripping bath water across the linoleum.
Gleaming starlets of dust float lazily in a beam of sunlight that blasts down from a skylight.
You're nervous as you walk across the floor to the cube. Darlene leads you. She opens the thick, refrigerator like door. Her thin frame and white hair sends you into metaphors. Are you following the white rabbit into the hole? She smiles. She knows.
It would be ridiculous to have come this far to chicken out. Wouldn't it? It's not so much the distance--the plane ride, the multiple connections to Charlottesville, the hour-long drive into Nelson County, to Robert's Mountain Road, a long way from anywhere. The journey over land hasn't been as far as the distance in your mind. You're a long way from the way you used to think about the world. You don't believe in ghosts. You see the trick behind every medium's prophesy. You know there's an explanation for everything and given enough time, it will all turn out to be a Scooby Doo cartoon. The spirit will be unmasked. It's the butler. It's the jilted lover. It's the prodigal son who was left out of the will.
In the end it all makes sense because the world works via laws our species is mapping. We don't have them all yet, but even things we don't understand will adhere to those few equations we know. It has to be.
Doesn't it? What the hell are you doing here? What are you trying to prove?
Step up. Inside the light is muted orange. Late afternoon at the beach. The walls are covered in Sonex, a sound absorbing foam that will turn the space inside into an anechoic chamber when the door is closed.
Back when they thought radiation might interfere with the process, they covered the cube in sheets of copper to keep out the electromagnetic fields, and then lead to keep out stray cosmic rays.
Turned out, it didn't matter, but there was no sense dismantling the cube.
Along the far wall is a water bed. Its contents are heated to ninety-five degrees--typical human skin temperature--warm enough you won't feel it when your body reaches thermal equilibrium, cool enough you won't overheat.
You lie on the bed and your body sinks so that you have to suppress the brief panic of self-preservation that strikes as the thought crosses your mind you'll be enveloped. But you don't. You float. And after a few seconds, you can't feel the bed beneath you at all.
Darlene tapes a couple of electrodes to your chest, your leg, your fingers, your head. They'll be monitoring you. All the wires you saw coming from the cube will reveal you to Skip. He'll be monitoring your heart, your skin's galvanic response, your body temperature, and a couple of your brain waves. He's got a few computers that will process the signals and tell him when interesting things happen.
That is--if you see a ghost, he'll know before you do.
When you're hooked up, Darlene slips headphones over your ears, swings a microphone toward your lips, and tells you to say, "Hi," to Skip.
Skip's voice flows like molasses. He was born for this. Spent twenty years in military intelligence with the best of them. Star Gate. Star Warz. Grill Flame. Ingo Swann. Joe McMoneagle.
Now it's you on the other end of the mic. And you don't believe any of it.
Darlene closes the door. They shut off the light, and the walls disappear. The bed disintegrates under you. You've never been in so much dark it's brighter with your eyes closed.
So why are you here then?
"We're going to start slow. Just relax. When something happens, let us know." Skip's voice is so soft it could put a butterfly to sleep.
You tell him you will, and you know he's typing on his computer. He's bringing up some sounds. They've reverse-engineered the brainwaves of a world renowned psychic, and now Skip is going to impress them upon your fertile mind. You can't feel anything change. You believe something must be happening, but it isn't.
But it is. You may as well be floating in outer space. There's a memory lodged in your mind. The memory is of someone with your feet walking toward the cube, laying down, putting on headphones. The memory is of someone in your body doing an experiment.
You have this memory, then it goes away.
There is no difference between having your eyes opened or leaving them closed. You listen to your breathing for a while. Then that gets boring.
Someone says, "When I was stuck in a prison camp in Albania I used to dream myself out of the torture," and it doesn't startle you. It's a low, gruff voice. He's speaking Slovenian, and it's the first time you've heard the language, but you know what he means. Sound is a primitive form of communication.
There are other ways.
You wake up. You realize you've been dreaming. You snap back into your body and you're feeling the air move in the cube again.
Skip's voice in your ear: "What happened?"
"Are you sure?"
You remember someone from a Yugoslavian prison camp. You don't know what to tell him.
The voice comes back. It's not Skip. It says, "Here's how we're going to do this. You're going to have trouble remembering what happens in the altered state. You're the sort of person who forgets his dreams, so what you're going to do is to dip down into this level. Listen to me. Deposit what I say into your short term memory. Then pop back up to consciousness. One bit at a time. That's how you'll get my message into the front of your mind. Okay? Do it. Wake up. Wake up, now."
"Joe, can you hear me?" It's Skip.
"Yes. He told me to wake up."
"Who told you to wake up?"
"I don't know. He's in a prison camp in Albania."
"Why are you talking to someone in a prison camp in Albania?"
"How the hell should I know, Skip? This is your goddamned experiment."
Skip tells you to calm down. It's easy to do, even though you're worried. The sounds they're piping into you enable to you adjust yourself to near sleep simply by thinking about it. Sort of like self-hypnosis, only better.
The voice doesn't come back. After a while, you get bored again. You fall asleep, and Skip wakes you up. You don't want to waste your chamber time sleeping. Concentrate.
Nothing happens so you decide to invent something. You decide you can see people. Four. There are four people around you, two on either side of your body. You think about it and then you see them. Look, there they are.
Thin, white, ghost like. They have dark almond eyes. Alien.
"What's happening?" Skip asks.
You don't want to tell him you made this up so you pretend you're sleeping.
"We're seeing something on the monitors, Joe. What do you have in there?"
There are four living aliens in the chamber with you. You invented them out of thin air and now you can see them with your eyes opened. Two on either side. Tall. Gaunt. Cartoon-like. Like a bad science fiction movie. They stare at you. They know what you're thinking.
These are your guardians. Your guides. Spirit guides. If you were an Apache, you'd have imagined them as wolves. Because you're from silicon valley, they're Steven Spielberg characters.
They slip their long thin fingers under your body. You can feel them moving the shirt on your back. The bed sloshes under you as the water moves to fill the spot you've left.
"Joe?" It's Skip. No sense telling him about this hallucination.
The hands begin to lift you. The water in the bed gurgles as you're lifted from the mattress.
The microphone positioned over your face hits you in the nose.
This is like a ride. It can't be real, but it feels so real.
"Who are you guys?" you hear yourself say.
They answer right into your brain, "You need to ask?"
"Joe?" Skip is insistent. "There's someone in there with you. I can hear them. Who are they?"
"Skip? What did you say?"
"Who's with you? I can see them on the monitors."
You're not sure what comes first--your screams, or their dropping you.
You come down on the side of the water bed. You slam down a good two feet. Hitting the wooden side of the bed hurts your back.
All the sounds are on a tape Skip gives you when you leave. Your scream. The sound of your body slamming into the bed. The sound of the water sloshing.
Months will go by. Years. You don't want to listen to that tape again, ever.
But you remember as clear as yesterday, Darlene pulling open the door, her silhouette in the doorway, her laugh when she sees you half off the bed, having landed cockeyed.
"What the hell happened?" you ask her, yanking the headphones from your ears, the wires from your arms and head.
"It's a little soon for this to start happening to you," she says.
You remember the word "soon", as if there would ever be a good time.
And the tape, which is proof, sits silently in your sock drawer.