Norman turned to get his bearings, to look out at the hills he had passed and considered vaguely, not seriously, climbing. He wasn’t sure what the paperwork would be like for something like that—just to get a view of the desert, the undistinguished, white horizon. He gazed listlessly down at the toxic grey soil. He had grown used to not seeing his footprints on the ground behind him—it was something that made sense now, didn’t threaten to faze him out of his episode.
He inhaled deeply, reintegrating and forcing himself out of his thought spiral and the air stung his nostrils—dust was being picked up several miles in the distance by another funnel, hazing the landscape ahead of him. He focussed on the objective, the sequence of occurrences that had brought him there—that was important, it was what they were studying back at home, because they wanted to know what it took for a human to assimilate into a foreign environment as well and authentically as he did in the physical body. Foreign in this case meant for them a supramundane, yet ostensibly real location. And that was the frustrating part; without the body—and Norman looked now at his raised hand, inspecting its very real-seeming and detailed features before it began to melt and dissipate—without the body riveting the mind to the physical plane, much like gravity a bowling ball to the ground, things could get a little confused.
Norman had been chosen for his scores primarily in proper cognition and integration of stimuli—his brain worked like a clerk in a little office; images, movements, sounds and other classified, multi-planar tidbits floating around on the physical dimension that he was attuned to receive and percept, like other people’s thoughts, were filed away with unusual accuracy, which meant that according to them he was more sane and more lucid that ninety-nine percent of the American population. He still had slip-ups. Things appeared in locations the natural environment of which wouldn’t support; like plants and animals. Sometimes star patterns, geographical features like ridges or valleys—sometimes intelligent structures: towers in the distance, fetishes in little niches of rocks, clay sculptures. These were seriously important back home, and regularly caused a stir that could escalate it seemed indefinitely until a concrete conclusion was reached—real or not real. One option was logged, written up into a report, plugged into the system for hard data. The other would stop planet earth from turning.
On Norman’s first day, something he never talked about not least because there was only a minuscule and frighteningly impersonal circle of people he could talk to about these things, he had seen a humanoid figure atop a hill, much like the ones he contemplated now. Sitting, it seemed as though it were looking out at the deathly quiet alien desert, calm and introspective, motionless like a statue in what looked like a Half Lord of the Fishes Pose, one leg folded and flat, the other bent, crossing above with the torso twisted to face the direction of the resting leg. Norman had struggled to keep his breathing, his vitals stable. The prospect of seeing another organism out there, alive or not, had sent his mind racing. Struggling up the hill, resisting the temptation to break protocol and project himself up there, which at the very least could ruin an episode, eliminating recall and screw with the data, and at worst fling the traveller into astral oblivion, he approached what became clear was another human, dressed in women’s clothing. The person meditating he knew as he got closer was his mother, who had died during a botched abortion—he alone surviving. Her closed eyes and somber, empty expression haunted him.
Grimacing now and turning he wiped his brow, thick with sweat that wasn’t there. The whirlwind had died; was only now a gentle, silent spinning of grey dust like ash, floating in the harsh white starlight.