One certainty in life is reality only exists when it is being observed. Even those brief insights into the underworld of the mind that dreaming uncovers are the realities of their moments, and dreams are the most containable of portals. For conscious and unconscious to directly calibrate would be worlds colliding.
So what of a dream that is not mine at all, but the nightmare of another into which I have somehow stepped? One I can only watch replay again and again, night after night, but from which I am detached and helpless. Exactly whose mindscape am I witnessing, and why does it summon mine to do so?
It begins outside a theatre, the doors of which open of their own accord as I enter. Alone in the foyer, I pick up a program with a bizarre looking cover. A surreal couple coloured pattern in which I detected the shape of an animal’s head, though I was not too sure.
I then make my way into an auditorium, deserted and musky, surrounded by gothic balconies that hang empty and quiet as a crypt. I take my seat in the front row and only then does the feeling of isolation take hold, a chill rushing down my spine like a dagger.
I look around the empty theatre feeling sure there was some presence here, I could feel it now. It may be a thousand unseen eyes watching, or the forbidding presence could be my own self. God, how vulnerable I felt.
Then the curtain lifts, revealing a set representing a longue comprising of a television set, are wooden chair and a large three piece suite. In front of it a small girl sits on the floor, aged about six or seven, playing with paper dolls. With matted light brown hair and a very plain face, she was dressed in a blue frock with a yellow flower pattern embodied on its pockets, and upon her head a large, floppy blue hat that hung over her eyes.
She plays for what seems like a number of minutes and then a stirring from behind the couch. A long skinny brown hairy leg appears over it from behind, obviously not human. This was confirmed by being followed by another and another until eight in all, as they rise up the body of a huge, six foot long spider. It’s six or seven deep black eyes are fixed on the girl as it slowly crawls over the couch.
Lost in her playing she fails to notice the approaching creature. I try shouting at her to run, but my voice is lost and I am unable to move. I can only watch helplessly as the monster draws nearer, saliva dribbling down its great fangs.
Suddenly it leaps upon the girl, enclosing its four middle legs around her, and then using its four remaining ones to drag itself back to the couch. Within the cocoon of its legs, the girl is barely visible and does not make a sound. I feel violently sick as it disappears with her behind the couch from where it came. And there the moment ends.
Each time I then awaken it is with that same feeling of nausea, and an uncannily detailed recollection of what I experienced. The memory of dreams usually fades quickly once awake, another reason to surmise this is not my dream at all. So the question remained as to who it actually belonged to.
A shrink would have a field day with this, which was another good reason to keep it to myself. For the past four years I have been working for a very hush-hush section of the Department for Internal Security. Originally recruited from Cheltenham, I foolishly accepted as it offered the chance to be trained in firearms. What I let myself in for was more John Le Carre than James Bond, and not even as glamourous as that. Licensed to carry, yes, but most of my assignments were routine follow ups of old cases. Little did I know the mysterious dream was the opener to such a case which, I am now convinced, was waiting for me.
The file left on my desk was stamped “Open” which meant it was either unresolved and due for review, or resurrected because of new evidence. One glance at the last entry confirmed the former, so I started reading and a complicated affair it unfolded before me.
The central player was Dr. Bruce Markov, a specialist in genetics. The son of a former Soviet defector and Polish immigrant mother, he graduated from Bath University and became involved in research into cell replication technology and DNA. He married an Italian called Mary Pacino and spent seven years happy but childless, until a tragedy happened.
The couple was involved in a motorway car smash which he, miraculously, survived intact except for some fractures. Mary lost a leg above her knee and her arm was left limp. Invalided, she needed caring for thereafter at their country home by a resident nurse while he continued working in a private laboratory he had installed on his estate. The nature of his project was highly classified and its details not recorded.
But then, in the couple of years that followed, she somehow got better. There were two further photos of her attached. One of her in a wheelchair left leg missing and arm hanging down. Then another labelled as taken two years later, and on which she is stood with two legs and apparently mobile arm. The report confirmed that movement did return to her arm, and Markov obtained an artificial leg so advanced it appeared natural.
A year following this photograph, Mary became pregnant and had a baby girl, Anna. Unfortunately, unspecified complications occurred and she died giving birth. The child was raised at his house initially by a nanny and later a governess, while he continued with whatever project he was engaged.
Six years following this tragedy, a Markov endured a third and more terrible blow. Police had been called to his house when the governess, Georgina Watkins, was found dead. Her skull was cracked and body covered in savage bites with flesh missing as if attacked. Markov claimed he must have been in his lab when it happened and heard nothing. Neither had Anna who had been playing in another room and raised the alarm after finding the woman prostrate in her own blood.
It was only days after this that Anna disappeared. Markov alerted the police when finding her bed empty one morning and a search of the area was immediately organised. Her father reasoned that the trauma of discovering her mutilated governess must have driven her to run away and he may well have been right. But no trace of her was found and this suggested another possibility.
Our department became involved immediately with the security implications. Whatever Markov was working on, it was classified so highly even Whitehall was denied access. It may have been his daughter may was kidnapped and being held hostage with a view to blackmailing him. The governess had probably stumbled on a previous attempt and was murdered to remove any witness, the wounding a cover for the real motivation. But Markov denied being contacted by anyone with any clues as to her well-being.
Then I saw the photograph of Anna, one taken shortly before her disappearance. Dressed in a blue frock with yellow flowers on its pockets, she had matted light brown hair and a plain face. I sat back in my chair and breathed out heavily. It was the girl from my dream.
A couple of mornings later I pulled up outside the Markov home, a large house in its own grounds and driveway. I had accepted the assignment because it seemed fated, with the dream turning out so precognitive. But a later detail in the report stood out as curious, and intuition suggested it a possible lead as yet not investigated.
‘Doctor Markov? Steve Roebuck, we spoke on the phone.’
‘Yes, I had not forgotten. Come in.’
I entered the hallway as he closed the door. I got the strong feeling of not exactly being welcome, which Markov’s frankness was quick to confirm.
‘Look, I thought that whole business was finished with ages ago, unless you have uncovered something.’
‘No, Dr. Markov. All I know is your daughter is still missing and the identity of whoever killed Georgina Watkins remains a mystery. Until we resolve both those questions, the case remains open and has to be reviewed every so often, even if it seems futile after all this time.’
‘Well, I still haven’t been contacted or blackmailed by anyone, except for occasional journalists hoping for a new lead. Of course, you only have my word for that.’
‘You think my department is skeptical?’
‘Your department has given me cause to think that, yes.’
‘Well, I can assure you of our objectivity, but we cannot leave any stone unturned in our investigations. As a research scientist, I’m sure you appreciate that.’
He guffawed ‘Good call, Mr. Roebuck. Come along, let’s go into the parlour.
Any other person would have been surprised, but I wasn’t. His parlour was an exact match for the one in the dream, something I must have been unconsciously expecting. I sat down while he remained standing. ‘I would offer you something, but being a host never interested me, good or otherwise.’
Noticing a portrait on the mantle, I gestured towards it ‘Your Anna?’
He looked at it quietly nodding and I moved onto the question on my mind.
‘Dr. Markov, three months after Anna’s disappearance, you had your wife’s body exhumed and brought to your private lab.’
‘Yes, I’m aware that is in your file, though I don’t see what bearing it has on this or what business of your department.’
‘It may not on either count but, not knowing your reasons, it does appear odd.’
‘As I stated in the exhumation order, it was to run further tests to ascertain a possible genetic cause of the symptoms that lead to her death, which they were unable to pin down at the time. Research breakthroughs I had achieved since indicated we could extrapolate the necessary information from her DNA.’
‘Were these breakthroughs achieved prior to Anna’s disappearance?’
‘I don’t see the relevance, but yes. I didn’t feel much like working after.’
‘Not until you finally decide to run tests on your wife’s remains, which could have been done previously?’
‘Let’s just say losing Anna finally prompted me to find out why exactly I lost Mary. Does that sound so odd?’
I nodded ‘No that sounds right, actually. Did you find anything?’
He considered for a moment. ‘Nothing concrete, but certainly more than the coroner recorded.’
‘Which, you’re not going to tell me?’
‘No, it is part of the ongoing development program I am engaged on, as sanctioned by the Department of Scientific Research. I’m afraid even your clearance isn’t high enough.’
‘All right, but may I ask if her death was related to the accident suffered earlier.’
His tone turned abrupt. ‘I think you better leave.’ I didn’t argue, his reaction had answered my question.
I left my contact details more as a hook to reel Markov in. Intuition told me he was holding something back, and catalyst of my visit just may create the uncertainty of being able to keep it back much longer. He would do one of two things. Either retreat behind a further barrier or decide to share the burden of his secret. A couple of days later my gambit paid off.
I returned to Markov’s house at his invitation. He rang out of the blue, apologising for his abruptness and inviting me to come back and see him. ‘It will be in your interest,’ he said guardedly, yet uncomfortable like someone in a confessional booth. ‘But I will take you into confidence and you alone. You will understand why.’
He was similarly ill at ease when opening the door and inviting me in. Once in the hall, he came straight to the point.
‘There is a detail I have not told anyone, and I get the strongest feeling you sense that.’
‘I sense you are holding something back, but not what. I also sense you are troubled and not simply by what happened in the past’
He nodded ‘You are correct but if I divulge it remains between you and me, at least for now.’
‘I have already agreed to that.’
‘Indeed, come this way.’
He led me through to the back of the house and into the extension which I knew contained his laboratory. What I did not know about was the elevator secreted within a walk in cupboard door, which he opened and bad I entered first. Following me in, he pressed a button which not only activated the door shut but started the lift downwards.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Into the basement, though cellar is probably more apt.’
‘Which is not in the plans for this building?’
‘You certainly do your homework. This was discreetly installed when I had the lab built. Good idea to have a secret storage area.’
‘So is this what you wanted to share with me?’
The lift came to an abrupt halt. ‘No, something much deeper.’
The doors opened to reveal a dimly lit corridor. There was nothing but the sound of our own footsteps as I silently followed him. At the stood a door and light switched on automatically as we entered the room behind it. It was his laboratory, complete with workbench and the usual paraphernalia. Against one wall were small cages, some containing rabbits. However my attention was dominated by the glass partition behind which was a partially lit cavern evidently carved out of the subterranean earth, itself pockmarked by smaller pot holes.
He went to one of the cages, extracting a large brown rabbit and carrying it over to the partition. Crouching down, he slid open a small door, just big enough to push the animal through. Sliding it shut, he got up. ‘Come closer,’ his finger waved and pointed to the area within, as I approached the glass.
We both watched as the rabbit explored its new terrain. Then I began to notice small bones scattered around the floor and alarm bells began to ring.’
‘So what else is in there?’
Grimly, he pointed again. ‘Look.’
At the far end of the cavern wall was an opening at its base, from which something stirred. Long spider like fingers crawled from the shadow of its mouth, a hand then followed by an arm. It looked human with grey crinkly flesh resembling the texture of a dead leaf. An identical hand followed and the fingers of both dug into the earth, arms levering to pull forward the body from which they protruded.
The first think I could make out was a mane of long matted hair. Then a body dressed in what appeared to be a ragged gown, the type issued to hospital patients. Bare legs pushed out from behind with talon like feet. It was only when the figure raised its head up I realised it was a woman. One whose eyes were slanted pools of white, with only black pinpricks for pupils. And both fixed on the rabbit.
The animal seemed unaware as she crawled towards it, her mouth opening to reveal rows of sharpened teeth, dominated by a pair of lengthy incisors. With saliva dripping down the sides of her mouth, the hunter’s intent was clear.
My stomach jumped as she suddenly leapt onto the rabbit, her fangs sinking into its helpless neck. She then withdrew, letting the animal go and crawling backwards into a cross legged position, eyes remaining on her victim who remained still in apparent shock. I turned to Markov.
‘Who or what in God’s name is that!’
‘You are looking at the killer of Georgina Watkins.’ Yes, it had to be. The woman’s teeth and radius of her mouth did seem to correspond with the wounds found on Miss Watkins, which led to my next question.
‘And your daughter?’
‘Haven’t you guessed? You’re looking at her as well.’
I gazed back at the woman. Her size would denote somebody in her teens, but Anna would be no more than nine by now. Markov solemnly shook his head. ‘It is what she has become, my poor Anna.’
As she began to move in on her still prey with vorous intent, Makrov signaled we should leave. ‘Let’s spare ourselves the sight of her devouring.’
Stepping out the lab, he ushered me into a smaller room consisting of a small table and two chairs either side. We sat and faced one another, silently at first as I had no idea of where to begin.
‘You can now understand why I insisted on your promise of keeping quiet.’
I nodded ‘So where does all this begin?’
‘Initially with me, Mr. Roebuck. As a Geneticist my life work has been into the cultivation of artificial cell growth through methods of cloning and DNA manipulation. My goal was the revitalisation of dead cells and the reversal of physical decay. Re growing parts of the body that have failed, maybe even an entire body.’
‘You mean bringing back the dead?’
‘There could be that implication, but I was primarily concerned with renewal of the living not the raising of the dead. For my research I focused on species themselves capable of physical regeneration, whether localised or bodily. There are reptiles that can grow new limbs to replace any lost, snakes that shed old skin for new. And tarantulas that do both.
‘As with all arthropods, their skin is actually an exoskeleton with they shed in a process of ecdysis, or molting. This is because arthropods grow over time, but the exoskeleton does not. A new exoskeleton grows from underneath, including new limbs.
‘Which brings me to the second part? After our accident, Mary was left shattered with a leg missing and arm that no longer functioned. She had no quality of life so, for me, it seemed a risk worth exploring. To take the results from my experiments, and apply them through the splicing of DNA. In time, power slowly returned to her arm and a new limb grew until a perfect match for the old.’
‘Yes, I thought I had him to thank, especially when as an added bonus Mary was fertile again, and soon pregnant. But God was actually angry at my messing with nature, Mr. Roebuck. She died giving life to Anna, the third factor in this tragedy.’
‘I take it she has inherited the arthropod elements you introduced to her mother.’
‘Yes. There was no sign at first, but as she physically grew her DNA evolved the characteristics of Mary’s donors. I had no reason to suspect until it manifested very suddenly.’
‘The governess, Georgina?’
‘I found her body, and then found Anna crouched in a corner with blood around her mouth. She seemed mentally possessed but it didn’t last. She soon came round with no memory of what had happened. As far as she was aware, she had been in the parlour playing with paper dolls. And that is what she told the police when I finally sent for them.
‘So when you reported her missing?’
‘The process had begun to accelerate. She took to attacking animals in frenzies of sudden hunger. Then the fangs grew, from which she was able to infect them with her own venom.’
I shuddered. ‘Just like a spider.’
‘Not quite. The venom of a spider is an acidic substance that initially paralyses the victim then dissolves their insides into liquid form, as spiders ingest their prey externally. Anna still digests flesh internally and hers is an acid of a different kind. One that shuts down the conscious mind, or rather diverts it into the unconscious. Not physical paralysis but a hallucinogenic one. Her victims appear unaware they are being eaten alive.’
‘My head sank into my hand. ‘Christ almighty! So you have kept her down here ever since.’
‘While I’ve tried to find a way of arresting and neutralising the alien effect, or even reverse it.’
‘With no success I take it?’
‘Not so far. I’ve been working on another approach, which I’m nearly ready to implement.’
‘Then why keep this secret? Why didn’t you inform us, or bring in the Department of Scientific Research? They could have helped.’
‘More likely have her on a dissecting bench. What else do you do with the result of an experiment gone horribly wrong? She is a genetically impure creature and they would never risk that getting into a reproductive chain.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘You don’t know how we work. Not when we are out of the prying eyes of public opinion, or Whitehall.’
I sat back and thought for a moment. ‘Look, you can’t expect me to keep quiet about this.’
‘I know. I needed to unburden myself and you are the first I felt to be the right one.’
‘You said something about another approach?’
‘Yes, I should be ready to apply in the next few days. Could you at least wait until then? After that and depending on the result, we can reevaluate the situation.’
‘Do you need help?’
‘I’ve managed on my own so far.’
‘If it doesn’t work, would you agree then would be the right time to inform the Department?’
‘To be honest with you, I think never is the only time.’
Seventy two hours passed with no word from Markov and I began to wonder if he was stalling. Conversely this latest treatment he was trying may be taking time. I could not imagine any result would be overnight, but early signs of response? So I took it upon myself to phone him, several times during the course of the day and evening, only to be answered by a voicemail with which I left repeated requests to contact me. This left one recourse.
Unsurprisingly, there was no answer to the doorbell or knocker. He could be down in his lab, of course, but a feeling nagged at me. I went around the exterior of the house to find another way in. Fortunately, I came across a small side window slightly open on the latch. Enough for me to prize open with a crowbar I kept in the car, and a frame just big enough to squeeze through.
Once inside, I checked through the rooms of the house, shouting Markov’s name. There was no sign of life, except for some unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink. There was only one place he could be. Sure enough, when I opened the door to the secret lift, it was down on basement level. I pressed the button to summon it back up.
Stepping out in the dimly corridor, this time only the sound of my footsteps sounding as I headed straight for the lab, before shouting ‘Markov? It’s Roebuck, you in there?’ I stopped just short of a door that was ominously ajar. Pushing it open, I found him immediately behind it. Face down, on the floor in a pool of blood. As I stood over him, my eyes glanced further and I saw her.
She sat in front of the glass partition, cross legged and seemingly waiting. It was in reflex rather than judgement that I reached into my jacket and produced a gun from its holster. I took aim, but she neither moved, nor even appeared to see me.
‘I don’t know if you can hear or understand. If you can, could you acknowledge in some way?’
She remained still. With gun still pointing, I carefully stepped towards her, ready to either duck or open fire at the slightest movement, yet still there was nothing. Surely her spider heritage would sense movement, even the slightest vibration. But as I got nearer, I sensed there something different. Standing right before her, I realised her eyes were missing altogether, nothing but empty sockets. I bent down just enough to brush her face with the tip of my gun, and it crumbled inwards as an empty husk would.
Like a flickering shadow she leapt from behind the bench, teeth sinking straight into my wrist. Yelping, I attempted punching her head with my fist but she held fast before suddenly releasing and pulling back. My affected arm fell, the gun dropping from my hand. Head dizzy, I stumbled backwards before the room seemed to tilt ninety degrees and I hit the floor.
I managed to rise into an upright position resting on my hand, and the room had elongated liked it had been stretched, the glass partition now further away. And there she sat where the husk had been, cross legged and grinning at a prey that walked straight into her trap.
However, I could see the gun. On the floor it must have been several feet in front, but appeared to be pulled further away along with the room. I hoisted myself up further and began to shuffle towards it. Anna, or whatever she was, did make a move suggesting she did now know the significance of the weapon. But while I had that on my side, the speed of the venom was working against me.
The room suddenly flipped around almost 180 degrees and I instinctively tried to clutch the floor, even though there was nothing to grip. But I didn’t fall or slide, I was still at one with the room. Only now it began to disintegrate.
The solid room around me melted away into blackness, one dotted with lights. Then there were larger orbs of different sizes and colours, one with rings circling around it. My world had been pulled from under me and I drifted in space, among millions of planets stretching out forever. And I was becoming lost in their infinity?
There was a white star becoming more prominent as it grew, or got closer it was hard to tell. And within its glow a figure became increasingly visible. A figure sat cross legged and grinned out at me.
A hand within my mind opened its fingers, and then gripped tightly as it tugged at my last semblance of reason. The image of Anna Markov was the only porthole of reality in this lost pocket of time and space, a reality waiting to kill me. My only salvation lay between me and her.
I reclaimed the memory of the room I was still inside, despite what my mind was telling me. And the gun that slid out in front of me, my only hope of salvation. I reached out into the seemingly emptiness of space and felt the hardness of a floor, which my senses alerted I was still sat upon. Crawling forward slightly, my hand swept from side to side in increasing urgency. Then it hit something, an object of cold metal.
The gun became visible as I scooped it up and wrapped my finger around the trigger. Heart pounding, I took aim at the bright star and Anna was already raising herself up, ready to pounce. It was with the third shot I passed out.
By my reckoning I must have been unconscious several hours before my eyes opened, revealing the laboratory I had apparently left. Raising my trigger hand first, it was still wrapped around the handle of my gun. I lifted myself upright and there she was, crumpled on the floor in her own blood. Not a discarded shell this time, but the end of a life lost ages ago
I have no count of how many months have since passed, isolated inside an observation unit whose location I cannot guess. There is no hope of being allowed free, at least for the time being. I have had the fluid of a mutation flow through my veins, and the only living being to survive the experience. Could the seed planted in Mary Pacino have now passed to me?