‘Hypnotica’ (Part One) by Chris Mahon
‘Hypnotica’ is a story about dreamwrights, mage-musicians who travel across the dreamscape at night to hijack dreams and turn them into mind-bending concerts. The story focuses on two dreamwrights, GRIN and NO-FOOT, who are left picking up the pieces of their lives after one of their shows turns into a nightmare.
A dead-heat night in the circular streets of the Yoshira, where light drips off rooftops and collects in people’s eyes. Above the steam rising off the paving stones, the smell of melting chocolate and fried sugar, and the hysterical laughter of the night-people, climbing upwards like the steps of an amphitheater are more and more streets, filled with bathhouses, theaters and candy shops. At the very tops are the cobalt-blue towers with pagoda roofs where partygoers look out from the balconies and watch the other glowing, ringed cantons of the city orbit them in the dark. Each hub is connected by spindly wooden bridges like the arms of an octopus. A parade is crossing one of the bridges, full of blue lanterns and people in masks, with tall ghosts rising out of the crowds like slow-moving monoliths, dressed in their flowing silk robes.
As the parade flows off the bridge and into the district, one pair of sandals splits the sea. His mask is smooth and expressionless, with the lips parted as if he is whistling. Its surface has the shifting, oily rainbows of a conch shell, reflecting the lights of the Yoshira. His pupils are jittering in their sockets like moths against glass, and there are no feet in his sandals, just air. In his left hand, he holds a silver tuning fork. They call him NO-FOOT.
The Yoshira is a dream city, and there are breeds of mages here that only exist between sunset and sunrise. The most famous ones, the ones only the Yoshira can make, are the dreamwrights, who play their music for the ghosts and the dreamers, carrying their songs in their bones.
Through the crowd of masks coming off the bridge, NO-FOOT spots another pair of jittering pupils. The mask is a porcelain one, bright red, with two small eye holes and the fang-toothed smile of a demon, the brow furled in pain, but the cheeks pushed up to the eyes as if caught in the middle of a laugh. The eyes lock on him and the owner of the mask begins pushing his way closer. They meet in the mass of people and throw their arms around one another in a fierce, quick hug.
When they pull apart, the man checks NO-FOOT’s eyes silently, his grotesque ceramic smile hanging in the air between them. They call him GRIN. With a flourish, he pulls up both of his sleeves.
Tattooed onto the flesh of his arms, stretching all the way to his neck, are long parallel lines: a music staff of three octaves, sprawled with immaculately neat maps of tonics, intervals, flats, sharps, and time signatures. On the backs of GRIN’s palms, perfectly plotted graphs change their shapes with every second. With trepidation, NO-FOOT realizes that GRIN’s output could deafen him and everyone else in the street.
NO-FOOT lifts his sleeves next. Like GRIN, he’s spent weeks preparing for tonight. His skin is a kaleidoscopic mirror of the street around them: distorted masks and bodies slide over his flesh, collapsing in on themselves and blossoming in other places. NO-FOOT tilts his head and the scene changes its angle, so that GRIN is looking at a warped version of his own mask. He laughs.
They start walking up the street with the flow of the crowd. NO-FOOT’s heartbeat is pounding blood into his head, and he can see GRIN’s whole body shaking with excitement. On either side of the street, every door is splashed with their names in white paint, advertisements for tonight. The doors in the Yoshira lead into dreams, but once he and GRIN say the word, all of these doors will open into their show. GRIN provides the music. NO-FOOT provides the words and the dance.
They stop outside one of the doors and GRIN pulls his own tuning fork out, then cocks a finger and flicks it. He listens, his fingers caressing the air around the two prongs. He begins to tease out the oscillations until the fork makes a faint ringing sound, like a finger on the rim of a wineglass. NO-FOOT looks up to find a girl in a monkey mask watching them. There’s a red birthmark on her neck, which she covers as soon as she meets his eyes.
Finally, GRIN picks up a wavelength full of sleepers on his fork. These are people outside the shared dream of the Yoshira, dormant sleepers out in the world. GRIN presses the fork to the door like a key and slaps NO-FOOT on the arm. Before going through door, NO-FOOT gives the girl a cavalier little salute with three fingers to his forehead, then he steps through and blackness envelops him. From there, he drifts down to the blankness of the dreamscape.
Each night, the unconscious masses drift up and down through the different spheres of sleep over and over, forming a pattern every narcomancer knows by heart. At the peak of the cycle, the sleeper’s eyes begin to dart and jitter, as if they’re awake again—this is when dreaming begins. For those who have mastered lucid dreaming, hitting the peak of the cycle marks the end of all limits. In those eight minutes, old memories and personal fantasies can be touched and smelled, twisted and altered like clay. At the end of that eight minutes, it’s gone.
The dreamwrights aim bigger. They find bands of sleeping minds out in the dreamscape and hijack them, bringing all of them into a single, shared dream.
NO-FOOT’s blackout resolves itself into a dim landscape. The silhouettes of thousands of sharp, geometric peaks and valleys silently rise and fall as he watches, like a living piece of origami. This is the dreamscape, and every peak comes from the mind of a sleeper. NO-FOOT listens as GRIN begins to hum, his vocal cords running through the chromatic scale half a dozen times in a few seconds before he finds the right notes. As GRIN hums his tune, the dreamscape erupts into a forest of spikes, radiating outwards in ripples.
NO-FOOT bites his lip and sings to himself in his head.
If everybody’s got to die, I’d rather do it in the sky…
When GRIN begins to sing, it’s an eerie, ghostly warbling that no human throat could ever produce. The chaotic rising and falling of the origami mountains begins to speed up, until the entire dreamscape is a roiling mass of spikes, humming like a caged earthquake while GRIN’s high-pitched notes shape and modulate it.
The black dome of the dreamscape’s sky begins to fill with flickering images and feelings; some sleepers have already crossed over into dreaming. The volume of the hum coming from the landscape increases by one, two, then three orders of magnitude, until NO-FOOT’s teeth are vibrating so hard that he has to clench them to keep from biting his tongue.
If everybody’s got to die, I’d rather do it in the sky…
GRIN is goosing the landscape now, throwing in quick licks of notes, trying to get the surface tension of the dreamscape to break and cross over into dreaming. They’re going to shift any second now. GRIN’s fingers begin to snap out a beat, two hundred and forty beats per minute, four-four time.
If everybody’s got to die, I’d rather do it–
There’s a split-second of cavernous silence, and then the world is in NO-FOOT’s eyeball. Dreams pour in by the hundreds, dripping down his irises in a stream of images that whip by faster than any waking eye could follow, but his darting pupils catch every second of it. GRIN’s voice rings out immediately, splitting into two different parts, his melodies unfolding like wings in NO-FOOT’s vision. The intro.
The moment the first measure starts, NO-FOOT’s body is already snapping into place with it, his movements in time with the beats. His skin flows, his legs grow longer, his arms bend into wings, and his neck stretches until his form is slipping between a man and a crane, the words flowing out of his mouth.
If everybody’s got to die, I’d rather do it in the sky
Why don’t we do it in the sky?
He feels tongues wash over his body, the din of thousands of voices rising and falling like waves fills his ears, and the smell of fresh fried eggs and steaming hot rice is everywhere. He swallows it all. As the words rush out of his mouth, they become thousands of birds, each one a dreamer caught in the song. The birds are caught up in the cyclone of his dance, turning and banking in an undulating wave made of sound. He snaps his fingers once.
Across the Yoshira, all of the doors painted with their names now lead to this corner of the dreamscape, their show. Partiers from the Yoshira begin streaming in, getting lost in the soundscape, giggling and shouting with excitement, each one in a different mask. They turn into birds and join the whirling rhizome over his head, listening to the beats through the titanic thrumming of their own hearts, the wind filling their bodies with the rush of a hundred-mile-an-hour orgasm. Across the sleeping city of Senkaku, people are moaning in their sleep, biting their lips. In the morning, they’ll remember this—the intensity will be burned into their bodies for days. This is the realest thing they will ever experience. This is what NO-FOOT lives for.
He gets ready for the second verse, but something fills his vision like a flash of lightning and the words die. For a moment, two wide, ice-blue eyes are staring into his—the eyes of a crane. At the back of his mind, NO-FOOT feels GRIN miss a beat, then another.
Suddenly GRIN’s melody veers into a strange key, then dissolves into high-pitched white noise. Nightmares begin to roll in, broken teeth and glistening black snakes, and GRIN’s scream splits the dreamscape. He’s lost control. Dreamers are scattering like clouds, and GRIN’s slumped form rises over the dreamscape like an eclipse, his palms clutched over his ears, his mask’s porcelain lips curled back from his teeth in a screech.
In the middle of it all, NO-FOOT sees a tall, pale woman reaching up toward GRIN with one hand, as if to touch the sun. Her ice-blue eyes are wide.
NO-FOOT feels his body ripped through the spheres of dreaming, his back arching from the speed. Then the paving stones of the Yoshira are under his feet again and he’s stumbling forward, his hands coming to rest against the wall of a building. To his horror, he can still hear the high-pitched scream in his ears, like tinnitus.
He looks into the window of the building and stares at his eyes. His pupils are still and his high is gone, but as he stares at the glass, the shape of GRIN’s mask begins to warp the pane like molten metal. Two arms emerge from the glass, grasping at NO-FOOT’s sleeves, and he realizes that GRIN is still trapped in that pocket of dreaming.
Clutching at NO-FOOT and screaming at him from a thousand miles away, GRIN shouts the name of a district and a street in Senkaku, then he flashes out of existence. The keening in NO-FOOT’s ears peaks, and every window in the Yoshira shatters at once.
When the sun comes up the next morning, NO-FOOT is already sitting on the edge of his hammock. His mask is on his lap, with a ghostly impression of his face cast in sweat on the inside. His skin is just flesh now, with no images crawling across it, and scrawled on his palm is an address and a name, written in grease pencil before the dream faded from his memory.
NO-FOOT looks down at the city from twenty stories up. He’s hanging between the scaffolding of two ruined buildings, his legs dangling over the edge of the hammock. The cawing of crows grates on his ears as sunlight breaks over a building and cuts across his eyes. This is not the Yoshira. This is the waking hell of reality, and this city is called Senkaku. Somewhere down in that city GRIN’s sleeping body is still trapped in a nightmare, somewhere between waking and dreaming.
As NO-FOOT runs a hand down his face, he looks between his fingers at the stumps below his knees. Two wood and metal prosthetic legs, bent like a fawn’s, are bolted straight to his joints.
They call him NO-FOOT.
END OF PART 1
Read part 2