Amira Shehadeh was born onto an Earth very similar to ours; the chief difference between here and there was the Nightmare.
To begin to understand this story, one must first understand the Nightmare. Just as the better collective consciousness of mankind ascends into the nighttime as points of light and watches over the daytime as an eye of fire, so too do the darker inklings of our souls pool in the earth and the air and the sea. But the very worst of the collective unconscious has its own special space reserved for it in that world, a space involuntarily visited by the drifting minds of hapless dreamers since the beginning of recorded history and millennia before. Whether humanity created it or merely fell into it, the Nightmare has always been there, and it has only ever gotten worse.
As a young child in Lebanon, Amira began to experience the Nightmare even before she could talk— two to four nights per week, squarely in the median range. Her refugee parents were too poor to afford the sympatholytic drugs that the greater portion of the civilized world used to suppress their symptoms, and the family paid a heavy toll. Amira was too young to remember the night her mother walked into the desert to die, but she does remember the day her father threw himself under the treads of an army tank. It was her tenth birthday.
Within two years she had been adopted by an American couple and welcomed into their comfortable home in Maryland. They had lost their own son to the Nightmare and still had a balance of unspent affection to pay out, not to mention those special pills and medicines that somewhat ameliorated the terrors of the night. Amira learned English, enrolled in a public school, and was pleased to discover that she was very smart. For several years she was more content than she had ever been.
Soon things began to fall apart again. Her stepfather, always half-buried in the sofa, became distant and slurred his words; her stepmother drew frail and hysterical, clutching at her lost child with a trembling grasp. The Nightmare, you see, is a crafty opponent, one that has had thousands of years to learn the weaknesses of man. Once again it had taken the unlucky girl's parents from her.
But Amira, beneath her meek demeanor and thick accent, sheltered a resilient soul and would not be broken. She was sixteen at the time of this story, and she had found a way to fight back.
On the day she would change the world, Amira overslept slightly. A Nightmare of red-eyed serpents had shocked her awake at about two A.M. last night, and by the time she had fallen back asleep it was time to get up. As a result, she had to shovel down a quick bowl of cereal (quietly, to avoid waking her stepfather on the couch) and catch the bus without even brushing her teeth. A light, misty rain pattered the windows throughout the ride, and Amira had to make an effort to avoid nodding off.
The next hours of her day passed unremarkably at Saint-Denys High School. Amira was neither popular nor a pariah in the school's social bubble, and while she was an outstanding student she was not obnoxiously so. She did not allow schoolwork to be the center of her life; it was what she would be doing after school that was important.
That afternoon she caught another bus, and this time she did doze off. In fact, she was still asleep when the bus trundled to a stop in front of the ISO, and the only other passenger— Raymond Mendes, a classmate of hers and fellow ISO intern— had to wake her. "We're here," he said unceremoniously, and left.
Groggily Amira arose, shouldered her backpack, and disembarked, mumbling thanks to the driver on the way. Ray was already at the door, and she hurried to catch up, striding past the large sign with the moon and stars and the words Institute for the Study of Oneironautics.
Amira's room was number 307-47, following the Institute's unfathomable numbering system (there were only about forty such rooms, their labels seemingly unrelated to each other). She had become subconsciously possessive of it, and its details were now as familiar to her as those of her own bedroom. There was the robin-egg blue vase on the bedside table, with the three live flowers and the one dead one that had gone so long unchanged that it verged on symbolism; opposite was the instructional poster showing how and where to apply each of the twenty-six electrodes for the polysomnograph machine; next to that, the carpet-lined locker for phones and watches; and above the bed, plastered across the night-sky ceiling, Shakespeare in airy calligraphy. We are such things as dreams are made of. Ray's room had a different inscription— something by Goldie Phillips, he had said.
With the movements of routine, Amira deposited her phone, laid down, and began peeling the protective plastic off of the electrodes. She didn't need to look at the poster. Peel, place, secure, repeat. Placement for the electrooculograph was particularly important; it took a few minutes to make sure that the right electrode was exactly the correct distance above her right pupil, and likewise with the opposite electrode below her left. These would track her eye movements during REM sleep, which she would use to send signals via a predetermined code. For example, a sequence of three rapid movements up and down was a distress signal, indicating that the dream was too uncomfortable to continue, and the machine would automatically wake her.
The Institute's special polysomnograph machines weren't only used to measure brain activity— it was their other function that made the oneironautic experiment work. To initiate a lucid dreaming experience, the machine would use electrical signals to stimulate the brain in various complex ways. The subject needed to maintain the awareness that they were dreaming, so it was necessary to activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (which normally shut down during REM), and increase activity in the parietal lobes, generally speaking. Also, in the interest of maintaining a safe, balanced experience, the amygdala and parahippocampal cortex were encouraged to be less intensely active; after all, machine-induced lucidity was basically a face-to-face encounter with the Nightmare itself.
You may be wondering why the Institute used adolescent subjects for this unsettling work— or, perhaps more importantly, how there could be an ethical precedent for doing so. The scientific reason was simple; teenagers, as an age group, experienced the Nightmare most frequently, and thus were the most reliable subjects. And these were not child soldiers conscripted against humanity's enemy; these internships were, of course, voluntary, and in the history of the Institute nothing worse than discomfort had ever befallen a test subject.
With the press of a button, the polysomnograph hummed to life. It could recognize the bioelectrical signature of Amira's brain, so there was no need to fiddle with any settings. The time is now 5:25 PM, its screen informed her before dimming out. Your session will end at 8:00 PM.
Now there was just one more step; falling asleep. The environment was certainly conducive for it, since the room was soundproofed and painted with stars and other symbols subliminally associated with sleep. Amira, as always, lay flat on her back and never fidgeted, counting her breaths until her thoughts blurred and trailed off.
When she opened her eyes, she knew she was asleep. She was still in the same room, except now it was completely dark. She couldn't even discern the Shakespeare quote above her.
Dark, she signaled with her eyes— two movements down. There were small noises coming from over by the door. Unconcernedly, feeling slightly lightheaded, she turned her head to look.
The door had opened, and a figure stood there, silhouetted against the even-darker abyss outside. It was in perfect tricolor— jet black all over, save for red eyes (like last night's serpents— could be something there) and gleaming white teeth like carving knives. In seconds it had stolen to the side of the bed, lowering its face near hers and opening its jaws wide.
Intruder, Amira indicated calmly. One down, two left, one down.
Its teeth were at her face. Its mouth gaped—
The transition was ingenious and imperceptible. Instead of fangs, a garage door loomed open. Actually, it was her garage door. She was standing in her step-parents' garage with the lights out, facing a rectangle of drizzling rain and chilly night.
Amira, who had been expecting the transition, was already relaying. Dark. Domestic. Rain. When she tried to look behind her— generally worthwhile, since the Nightmare had to scramble to put something there—she discovered she couldn't. Cheater.
She was three-fifths of the way through signing immobile when a distant rumble became audible. It was her step-parents' car turning into the driveway.
Steadily, ominously, the growl of the engine and the sound of old tires on rain-slicked pavement drew nearer. The rectangular aperture to the outside brightened sharply with the glare of the headlights, every raindrop thrown into sharp relief. Despite herself, Amira felt a chill run down her spine.
Then, like some predator returning vengefully to its den, the brick-red minivan was there, coming straight towards her. She squinted against the headlights; there were two figures in the car, stiff and utterly oblivious to her presence as they prepared to run her over. Her step-parents.
Now she understood. There was some complex metaphor here, to be sure, but the gist of it was that the Nightmare had dug around in her brain for her subconscious feelings about her adoptive parents and then found a way to use them against her, constructing a threatening interpretation of those feelings. As her own resentment, insecurity, and loneliness bore down on her on four wheels, Amira couldn't think of what to relay. This one had gotten to her a little, and she couldn't wait for it to be over.
She involuntarily squeezed her eyes shut as the minivan hit her (although, of course, her eyes were really closed already), but she didn't feel an impact. Instead, she felt cold water. A blurry pressure pounded at her eardrums.
Somewhat tentatively, she pried open her eyes. She was underwater now, and she knew exactly where. It was the lap pool at the local YMCA, at the bottom of the deep end; to her left was a smooth white wall, with a sign reading 11 ft. near the waterline.
At this point Amira became intensely aware of the need to breathe. She kicked for the surface... or tried to, rather, since her feet appeared to be stuck to the bottom of the pool. This development, rather than driving her into a panic of survival instinct, actually calmed her. It's just a dream, she reminded herself. I'm not drowning. I'm in a bed at the Institute and I'm sleeping soundly and breathing deeply. Breathing deeply. She shook her head, sending a string of imaginary bubbles to the surface.
That was when she did it. There was no moment of epiphany, no eureka, no specific catalyst for what she did. She simply reached her hands out in front of her and tore a hole in reality.
She froze for a moment, pausing to comprehend what she had done. Then she stepped through the rift, and was Somewhere Else.
The backstage of the Nightmare was a literal backstage— there were ropes hanging down for the curtain, and girders with spotlights, and the other things that Amira's mind put there to signal backstage.
And there were words too...
Long I stood there, wondering, fearing...
Amira turned in a slow circle. The words swelled to a hymnal chant:
Deep into that darkness peering...
She recognized those verses. Poe's The Raven.
"Dreaming dreams no mortal dared to dream before," Amira finished in an awed whisper. She realized she didn't have a body.
"Took you long enough," croaked the Raven.
* * *
Amira's body was discovered at eight-thirty. The Institute closed its doors forever, but it was no longer needed anyway; the Nightmare was gone. A sixteen-year-old orphan had beaten it.
Dawn broke over humanity, and when they closed their eyes Amira Shehadeh was their benevolent god.