The effects aren’t immediate. The unnerving warmth is spreading from my throat to my stomach, acting as a fuse, burning slowly and transforming my mind into a waiting room. My eyes close as I concentrate on the sensations fighting for control of my body; everything is slightly altered and increasingly unfamiliar. I still haven’t moved. My eyes open and, for the first time, they see the new world they now inhabit. Discoloured and unfamiliar, the periphery of my vision throbs in time with my heartbeat. I slow my breathing, which in turn slows my heart rate, but then the throbbing speeds up and a sense of uneasiness grows over me: this isn’t how it’s meant to be. I do everything in my power not to panic, but I am no longer in sole control of my body or my mind. I must get out, must leave, must run.
On standing up, my head starts spinning. I stumble towards the door and reach for the handle, but my hand doesn’t feel my own; the lack of control I have over it heightens my anxiety. My senses seem to be on a time delay; everything is slow, foggy and out of reach. Colour trails follow every movement and the world is shaking at a frequency so fast I almost don’t notice its effect. I’m growing more panicked with every passing second, noticing the endless intricate details that are changing around me. Finally, my fingers close around the handle. The cool metal should feel refreshing, but all I get is numbness: this hand is unfamiliar, not part of me.
I will myself to pull the handle down, to open the door to the unknown. Nothing happens, and slowly the realisation arrives: a bubble has been created, a safe, understandable bubble that is becoming progressively inescapable.
My hand removes itself from the door. I cannot stop the fog that is thickening around me, obscuring my senses and cutting all ties to the world I inhabited before. It seems as though every molecule of space is changing, shifting to represent something that is slightly altered from its previous form. I am in a new equilibrium and the air feels thick, as if gills are needed to breathe it.
I use the door to steady myself, close my eyes, and lean back, taking a deep breath. As I open my eyes, I notice the other people in the room, dark shadows hiding from themselves in corners, eyeing each other up. Each one a black, almost shapeless form, always shifting and moving in and out of their own space. My study of these shapes draws my attention away from the ever warping world around them. Each one is curled in on itself like a child hiding from an angry parent, staring into an abyss found in the pattern of the carpet, or the white of the walls or the eyes of a companion. Each one is both the same as the last and completely different, alternate breeds of the same species.
Everyone reacts differently in these situations: some thrive, enjoying the new sensations and emotions; some panic; and some aren’t really interested, claiming that they don’t feel anything. Things look and feel different. Simple actions become awkward and cumbersome. Knowing how the process of walking is undertaken, but not being able to walk can make for some frustrating experiences. Some people thrive on these sensations, finding them interesting and a novelty; they enjoy the new way water tastes or how warm everything is. Others panic. They don’t understand what it is their mind is doing, and how everything is changing. Feeling like nothing will ever be the way they are used to again, they begin to cry and beg and move and lose control of their thoughts, they panic, worrying everyone around them.
Some are more inquisitive, exploring their surroundings. Rather than trying to simply get on with life and enjoy the little treats their brains have for them along the way, they like to purposely engage in activities that will stimulate and excite them, forcing new experiences and opening doors. These are the bravest of the room dwellers; they are all of average stature and move freely. These inquisitive creatures look around the room like cats, analysing each occupant in turn and examining all the information in the room that is relevant to their own interests; they explore, climbing through the room like monkeys in the jungle.
As each one of these creatures slowly begins to show signs of life, I retreat further into the darkness, to remove myself from the clan, and to observe. My own mind is still absorbing everything in a completely unfamiliar way, each piece of information hitting the cerebral cortex from a different direction, trains arriving into the wrong stations at the wrong times. Information hits my mind like a sucker punch from a mugger, each iota of knowledge penetrating in to a vastly different section of my psyche than it previously would. From my corner of the room, I can see each member of the group as they explore their surroundings even more.
Some are entirely lost in their own minds. Their faces vacant and shallow, empty. The one nearest to me is one of the smaller members of the group. Leaning against one wall and emptily staring at the others with me, she looks around with her mouth half open, swallowing up as much information as possible. I can tell she’s more aware of her surroundings than she seems. Her eyes are giving her away, lighting up at interaction, and when she notices me watching her a wry smile comes upon her lips. She looks at me, but in my current state of mind I feel invisible and her gaze travels straight through me to the wall behind. Her face falls and her gaze swings in another direction. Eating up anything she comes across; consuming the entire room with her eyes, and everyone in it.
The biggest member of the group, the tallest and most powerful, begins to pick itself up from the floor, heaving its weight away from the confines of gravity. It reaches the full vertical space available to it, and its head turns toward a companion, unnaturally slowly. The second shape recognises the movement of the first, and a slow and timid dance ensues, both entering the space of their opposite by degrees. With gentle and careful movements, they begin interacting, first with eye contact and then hesitantly, as if engrained with fear, they reach out toward each other. Their shapes begin to solidify, body parts become clear and the mist around them recedes. Hands, two of them, one big and one small, within a space so shockingly condensed it has only ever existed in the imagination of physicists.
Time slows as everything becomes one solid swirling mass of black smoke around the fingers of the two hands. As millennia pass, the hands come closer and closer to meeting one another; no one has taken a breath in an age. Civilisations have risen, fallen. Conquerors have come and gone. The entire universe has entered a new state – and still the two hands are moving towards each other until just one micron of air separates them.
As the hands finally collide – after all these eons have passed – everything that was previously known and understood about this new world shatters like thin ice on a lake. Cracks begin to appear on the walls and the black liquid, making up all things unseen, begins to bleed from them. Sirens and the sound of fingernails on chalkboards fills the air, as each individual morphing shadow begins to twist around another, writhing in pain and terror. The two in the middle, hands still touching, begin swirling and encompassing one another, black tornadoes meeting and absorbing all energy and light in the room, leaving only darkness and terror behind.
The fear is paralysing, pinning me to the ground. I distort and fold my body further into the corner, my back to the wall. My hands scrabble around above my head like freshly netted crabs, desperately trying to find an escape. I can’t take my eyes off the others, melting into one another and screaming, as if they are reliving the worst imaginable scenarios, in constant, indescribable pain. I close my eyes and force myself to stop moving, stop thinking. I concentrate on my breathing, trying to slow things down.
A burst of light comes through the blackness and the smoke begins to recede, leaving behind swirling patterns of space. My eyes begin to burn, but I know I must not look away. Music comes from the light and, for the first time in millennia, it seems there is beauty in the world. The whirlpools of blackness continue to recede, growing smaller and smaller, before dying away.
The light fills the room and out of its brightness comes a delicate, milky white hand. It reaches out towards my face and caresses my cheek. The feeling is as welcome as iced water on a hot day. A voice, as warm as a mother’s, soothes my senses, speaking a language that is familiar but not my own. It coos to me from the light, before falling away into the walls. The hand extends towards me, revealing a long, slender and beautiful arm, then a shoulder, and then, piece by piece, the full form of this wondrous being is visible. She smiles at me as darkness overcomes me, a warm and comfortable darkness, a womb for me to fall into and recover.