Images and Dreams in the Wake of Mental Exertion

Date: Mon, 16 Sep 1996 17:24:22 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: End of Round 1

"Today's top story: Day one of the Qualifying Exam is over. Did anyone walk away? Find out, at eleven!"

<Click!> The reporter's image warbled briefly and faded away, leaving Jesse in a world of dark and silence. He held his hand up to the screen, feeling the soft tingle of the fading static charge. Particles of dust danced away from his fingertips, crackling lightly.

A dim green glow caught Jesse's attention from somewhere in his peripheral vision. "3:22" shone in pale letters on the alarm clock's face. Their cool green glow pushed the shadows back into the corners. The shadows called silently to be released, beckoned Jesse to set them free and join them. Jesse unplugged the clock, and was bathed in a new level of darkness.

Soon it became clear to him that there was yet more light in the room. The television screen, though off, retained a faint residual luminescence. He placed his hand against it, observed its outline. Black against a lesser black, a hand-shaped doorway into the unknown of the mind. As he gazed into the deep black of the shape, it seemed suddenly large and far away. If he concentrated on it, could he unlock its secrets?

As he focused his attention, he felt himself drawing nearer the black shape of his hand. Startled by how large it suddenly bacame, he pulled back. As he pulled his hand away from the screen, a wave of dizziness came over him, pulling him into the blackness all the faster. He tumbled through the opening, just missing the negative space between his index and middle fingers.

His first instinct was to panic, but as Jesse passed though the opening, the tension of five hours in the exam room dropped away like so much loose clothing. His neck, so sore from being craned over the exam papers, was no longer sore. His headache was gone. His shoulders, his back, his eyes - were relaxed. He breathed lightly, for there was nothing that needed breathing. Panic turned to calm, and he found himself to becoming drowsy.

Looking around, he found himself hurtling through black space, as though ejected from an angry planet. The dim grey of the screen, with its giant hand-shaped opening, dropped rapidly away below him, and disappeared into the distance. He wondered for a moment what the hell was going on, and how he would get out of it, as he closed his eyes and allowed himself to sleep.


Everything became fuzzy. Photons born in the primordial fireball of the universe lit momentary sparks of white snow behind his eyelids. In his ears, they murmured soft white noise.

Photons from the Big Bang. I am not alone.

He opened his eyes, and was bathed in a new level of darkness.


Date: Tue, 24 Sep 1996 12:47:24 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: End of Round 2


The screen had receded to the edge of the universe, merging with the sea of primordial energy. Jesse cast about to identify any flaw in the smooth void. He saw nothing in any direction, save the impossibly dim specks of photons from that seething cold sea, until at last he caught sight of something in the impossibly far distance. Concentrating, he moved towards it.

The object, Jesse soon saw, was a door standing open in space. Bright light poured through it. As he approached, he saw that it looked down on a pleasant, pre-industrial countryside, some hundreds of meters below. The gently rolling hills were tinted golden brown with ripened wheat. Young children played games along the dirt roads, while women hung laundry and assisted the men and older children with the harvest. A herdsman directed some choice cattle down the road to the market.

Boldly, Jesse immediately started to step through, but was blocked at the doorway. Puzzled, he extended his arm through it, and was promptly buffetted back by the thin haze of a passing cloud. When he rubbed his battered fingers, they seemed as substantial as ever, yet he could not pass the thinnest obstacle beyond the door. He closed his eyes for a moment to meditate.

The photons again lit sparks of snow behind his eyelids, and he again felt the presence of another. His skin tightened in a chill. He opened his eyes.

Next to the door was a figure with four arms and an aura of calm. She wore nothing but a rounded gold tiara and a few long, colorful ribbons draped loosely about her that seemed to blow in an imperceptible wind. Before Jesse could fully register what he was seeing, she closed the door and gently pushed him through it. Passing through the wood, there was a moment of dark, followed by blinding bright light.


As his eyes adjusted to the light, Jesse found himself sitting on a comfortable couch, surrounded by friends and acquaintences from different times in his life. There was Nick, from high school; there, Amy from college; there, Heather and John from graduate school; and more. Conspicuous in their absence were Priya and his closest friends from college. On the table in front of him were glass mixing bowls from his home, and at his feet was the backpack he had inherited from his mother.

Amy was inviting everyone to a birthday party; whose, Jesse was not sure. He did not know how to explain the surreal manner in which he had found himself there, so he packed his mixing bowls in the backpack, excused himself, and set out for home.

The campus outside was strange to him, neither Earlham's nor Ohio State's, but he set out in the direction he felt was right, confident that he would not go too far wrong. The backpack was light, the air refreshing and cool, and the sky clear and full of stars. It was a nice enough night to be out for a stroll, and Jesse walked relaxedly as he thought about his travels this day. That he was in a place that seemed like home, yet strange to him, did not trouble him.

Having passed a large building, he had another look at the sky. He was startled by the sight of two moons in different stages of eclipse: a crescent and a ring. Thery shone brightly yellow, and were frighteningly close together. Jesse turned around to rush back and tell his friends to come see the spectacle of it.

As he passed the building going back, he looked up again and saw that one of the moons had moved dramatically, and was coming out of eclipse. Its color had turned a deeper orange, and it seemed slightly larger. That moment, as Jesse looked on in horror, the new moon exploded in an earthy display fireworks, scattering massive shards of flaming rock over the Earth. Irrationally, Jesse ran for the cover of the building as he watched the first terrible piece streak to Earth, landing just miles away. The trembling of the ground knocked him back down the gentle slope of grass. The backpack tumbled free.

Jesse's mind raced: That first piece landed far enough away, my friends are still fine. How could this happen? I could really, seriously, die here. How little we understand then end, when it comes...

The soft grass cushioned Jesse's head as he stared up at the sky. The pyrotechnics lit the sky with the quality of lights reflecting off a rippling pond. Jesse was dimly aware of lights coming on in the buildings around him, and the voices of hundreds of people screaming in surprise and fear. Jesse watched the huge chunks of rock, moving so fast, yet seeming so slow. It struck him how futile it was to seek cover. But at least you wouldn't have to see it coming, the firey rock growing ever larger in your vision, commanding the whole of your attention in those last few seconds.

My God, do I want to see it coming, or not?

He clenched the grass between his fingers, only to have it ripped free by the next impact tremmor. In renewed panic, he closed his eyes tight and felt the irregular shaking of the Earth as he waited to know the end. At the last, a bright glow appeared behind his eyelids, accompanied by a sudden, intense silence, commanding the whole of his attention.


The light and silence remained, but Jesse was suddenly calm and relaxed, as he had been when he first passed through the door that was his hand. He opened his eyes, but they remained closed.


It is alright.

What? What's happening?

How little we understand. You are stronger than you might think.

Who are you? What are you talking about?

Rest for now.

Jesse felt four hands lifting him. They were strong but gentle about his arms, and pulled him easily up, into sleep.


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