1 – Murder
I launch myself from the starchy bed, leaping onto shaky feet and I’m up. Awake. No, scratch that – I’m asleep, adrift in my dreams, floating in lucid-space. My eyes perceive solid shapes as fuzzy outlines and the world is spinning, racing past my drunken gaze.
A door. Open it!
I unbolt it, slam it with a dull thud. I hear glass crackle and shiver and I’m-
In a corridor: a feeling of dread, unease. The walls are vibrating off-white, glaring with distorted menace – hospital. Spinning. I stop, wave my hand around, and the spinning slows to a crawl. I run my hands over myself, searching for something I forgot. There, in my pocket. I draw out a shiny red pill, holding it between my index and thumb. Without hesitation I dry-swallow it and blink once, twice.
The corridor starts to solidify. The wavering stops and sounds begin to reach my sleeping ears, like someone turning up the volume on a radio ever so slowly. I can hear my panting, my heart beating a frantic tattoo, the dull thud of the dream-state itself, the L-generators humming, and the crowd. The crowd is roaring – unintelligible support, but support all the same.
I’m moving, forward, to the next room through an archway. I start to conceive a map; its ghost shape hovers in front of my eyes, carving out a red pixelated line from my origin to “YOU ARE HERE”. I air-brush it away and pull myself forwards, ever faster. I should turn left-
The room is a library, ancient, dusty. Always a library when I’m the host. My hands skim teak and oak surfaces as I vault over cushions and lamps and there-
A shadow in the corner.
The crowd is at fever-pitch. The shadow shouts at me, but all I hear is an underwater garbling. I growl and race over to it; simultaneously the shadow darts through a book-lined door, escaping my clutches.
I grunt my derision and sprint after him. Sweat streams down my temple, its salty punch providing no succour, only distraction. I concentrate hard for a second and the dream-sweat disappears. It takes an ounce of my will, but it’s worth it. My grogginess is disappearing and I can begin to hear coherent shouts from the crowd; even the commentator is coming through now.
IF YOU’RE JUST TUNING IN LADIES AND GENTS, WE HAVE A GAME AFOOT. OUR CHALLENGER, THE REANIMATOR, IS ATTEMPTING TO OVERTHROW OUR SEASON UNDEFEATED CHAMP, THE DOC-
I follow the shadow into-
Snowfall. A freezing wind pummels me to my knees. My lungs gasp in the sudden temperature change as I realise that I’m still not used to these new terrain changes.
HA-HA FOLKS. THAT LITTLE DREAM-SKIP WAS COURTESY OF OUR IN-HOUSE ARCHITECT. JUST SOMETHING TO KEEP OUR CONTENDERS ON THEIR TOES.
The commentator’s voice reverberates in the alpine wilderness.
I spot the shadow leaping into Christmas foliage. He/She/It is playing the long game, I guess. Stupid. 50-50 chance we’re dead if we don’t kill the other. My stomach lurches and my feet become snow shoes, my outfit a slim skiing jacket. I rise, just as a crossbow bolt tears its bloody way through my cheek.
I try to ignore the frozen pain, keeping the shadow in my focus. He is in full view; his feet planted, he cradles his weapon like a baby, flakes of snow melting on its sleek lines. I can do nothing but rush him – so I do. I’m at full pelt, snow crunching, blood speckling my eye, I see him raise the bow, and then-
Impact. We fall, expecting to hit hard frost in a maelstrom of arms and legs when the ground flips and we crash into the ocean. A swimming pool. Sound is deadened, warped as we stare at each other in shock, both becoming aware of our burning lungs and chlorinated eyes at the same time. I untangle myself from his slick overcoat and break the surface.
Night, summer. Warm rain dripping from polluted purple clouds peppers the west coast of the US. We are in the Mc-suburbs of a large city, its teasing lights flickering and blinking in the ozone stink. I swing around to my left, reaching out for Reanimator – but he’s already halfway across the pool, breast-stroking to the edge. I grin, maniacally; water is my playground. I torpedo towards him, reaching his ankle just as his fingers brush the wet concrete. I drag him towards me, his leg muscles tensing in fear.
“I have you.”
I don’t know if he hears, but his body stiffens. He is a deer trapped in headlights, his fear radiating out of his eyes, red hot, like laser beams. It only fuels my blood-lust as I pull him underwater with me, taking a large breath as I do so. He thrashes and gurgles in the micro-whirlpool we’ve created, but my strength is unyielding. I crawl up his body, my hands vice-like, searching for his neck. Aah, yes. I can feel his heart flip-flopping through his carotid; a fish out of water. His hands try to gouge my eyes but I head-butt him, hard. That dazes him and his movements slow. I squeeze.
A single bubble floats out of his blurry nose, seeking its destined “POP”. My body spasms from the lack of oxygen, but I maintain my grip. I must see him die. His eyes stare into mine; they are yellowish, terrified. Sad. I feel his thrumming heart flicker and disappear, finally – I let go and swim up towards moonlight. I break the surface and-
The crowd goes wild.
2 – IRL
The crowd monitors are muted as I sit up in the chrome lab, unplugging and unsticking wires from my sweaty body. The light in the room is soft and comforting, kind to my eyes. I look to my left and see the Reanimator, dead. IRL dead.
“Why’d they call him the Reanimator?” someone says.
The Prof is tapping away on a keyboard booting up the unhooking protocols. I start scratching the IV line disappearing into my wrist. The Prof swivels round.
“Stop that. I need to give you fluids.”
I sigh, lying back down in my cold dampness. I itemize: there are exactly 0 windows, 4 pairs of dual brick-orange lights, and 1 dead body on my left. There is the ever-present multi-frequency hum of the L-generators. On screen, I stare at the Reanimator’s freeze-frame; the last shard of panic from the dream is captured in his face, a perma-death grimace. They say you’re supposed to be at peace when you die but he sure doesn’t look it.
“Okay, all done,” says the Prof, a minute or so later. I slither out the IV line and get out of the crib, slowly, carefully stretching my muscles. The Prof blanks his screen and comes over to me holding a blue pill and a paper cup. He motions both to me and I take them mechanically. “Remember, tomorrow, we’re in the lab,” he says through a woozy filter. “Doc,” he sighs, “Doc.” Motor memory nods my head for me.
Out of the corner of my eye I watch the gory replays of my victory in the dream-scape. I feel no remorse, no disgust or regret, only a small, neatly packaged vacancy. The little LED display in the corner of the screen blinks at me with the time: 01:48.
I slick my messy hair back with a moist hand. The Prof has left and it’s just me and a corpse.
I untangle myself from more wires and walk past Reanimator, making a point not to look at him too closely. I’m left with an image seared onto my eyelids of his tensed body lying on the metallic rails, tubes and lines leaving and entering his body like some sort of failed octopus-symbiosis experiment.
A few twists and turns in the submarine-like corridors later and I’m in my quarters. The dull orange light is replaced here with a jarring blue one; it’s supposed to help stabilize feelings of wakefulness post-dream. Collapsing on my standard-issue bed, I call up a food order.
“Hess, a number six please. And plenty of water,” I say to no-one in particular.
“SURE DOC. GIVE ME 5 MINUTES,” replies a disembodied voice.
Reanimator almost had me right at the start – it’s how you get the pros. Hit ‘em hard and fast.
Dream games were like chess. The difference is the board is subject to change at any moment based on feedback from the dreamer. The L-generators algorithmically generate arenas, weapons, forms, abstract wisps of thought by primitive mind-reading. The best dreamers have some manner of control over this, tilting the board to their advantage. Newbies can only hope to overpower their superiors with speed and reflex, avoiding strategy, acting randomly, carelessly.
Regardless of strategy, you have one aim: kill the other guy.
I do not remember my first game. I’m assured that I won, however. My second game was won by forfeit. The third a fluke. But the fourth…
It started on top of a skyscraper.
Her name was Merci Fuck-You. I think she was French. Or Asian.
Merci was dozens of games in, rolling in viewers and credits, her name on neon billboards across IRL cities. Not a top hitter, but in the top half. Competing with the likes of Kira-sama, A Quiet Whisper in the Silence (thankfully shortened to Whisper), and the number 8 holder, I-Dream-You-Scream.
Dream games are brutal. If you don’t kill the other player in 20 minutes, either yours or their brain IRL will self-destruct thanks to some shitty contract every dreamer signs. Hence, stalemates are rare – no-one is going to leave death up to chance.
A beeping wakens my reverie.
“HERE YOU ARE, DOC.” A thin crack appears in an otherwise seamless metallic wall in the corner of my room. The crack illuminates and parts of the panel break up into tiny squares, moving robotically into a pre-determined shape: a little grey tray. Tiny, insectoid arms and pistons start moving more panels as a cardboard package is dumped onto the tray, squeezed out from the pixelated void in my wall. A smell of warm spices and rice drift over to me, pulling with its arousing vapour.
“Thanks, Hess,” I go over and pick up the tray. Within seconds, the pixelated void collapses into a matte wall again, leaving no signs of any lines or blemishes.
A number six is rice, boiled veg, faux-nuts and GM-beans. Ingredients that would cost a fortune up top, but for us dreamers, warm food every day is a perk. I generously drizzle the accompanying peanut sauce over the food; the fatty goo melts into golden rivulets.
Wolfing down the piping hot carbs, my mind drifts back to Merci…
AFTERNOON FOLKS! OH, DO WE HAVE A SWEET FIGHT LINED UP FOR YOU. LET’S SEE HOW NEWCOMER THE DOC SQUARES UP TO THE WELL-SEASONED MERCI, FUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOU!
The last few orange tendrils of sunset blurred into diffuse particles on the side of the scraper. I didn’t land as much as condense into being by the open-air top-floor bar. My hand was already in the process of putting down an empty shot glass when I Integrated. The wind dampened lazy beats coming from speakers dotted around the seemingly ad-hoc executive party. The glass fell from my loose hand, shattering into a dissonant note as I immediately crouched down, searching for Merci with eyes the size of saucers.
No sign of her anywhere. Probably camouflaging; Merci was known for stealth. People were staring at me so I got up, sweating profusely, and made a point of staring fixedly at every detail in the dream. Shit, shit, shit. I’d never played this cat & mouse shit before. Fuck. Nothing was happening. The forced chill-out party was a backdrop to nothing. I couldn’t imagine the audience were enjoying this…
I started beating myself up for not preparing more. You knew she was stealthy. Fuck, just wait for the silenced sniper shot and you’ll be dead in-
Wait. There. The Lady In The Green Dress. She could have been one of the NPCs, easily blending in, but something about her was off. Call it a Spidey-sense. Whatever, but she didn’t belong in this picture.
I started to Materialize: the frame of a gun began to form and solidify in my hand. I imagined the precise weight of the loaded handgun, its inky black exterior and machine-cut lines. I’d watched too many spy movies so naturally it looked like a Walther. 10 seconds later I was behind Merci, her head a metre from the muzzle. NPCs started screaming and scattering but Merci hadn’t moved an inch. I started to push back on the trigger-
“You’ll miss,” she said in a caramel voice.
The wind drops, the beat kicks in. 120 BPM: all snare.
“I- ,“ before I can finish my sentence she’s evaporated. My hand twitches reflexively and a bullet fires into nothing, yet in time with the beat pounding in my head.
I turn and there are 20 of her, surrounding me. Mirages of Merci. I panic, dive, roll towards the obligatory rooftop pool, as bullets, knives and shards of glass explode in concert. I submerge and sound becomes dulled and distorted. I kick to a corner and start to Materialize my katana, Amagumo. Unconsciously, my lungs shut off and gills form on my throat – a trained reflex from spending so much time underwater in dreams. The beat goes on; its pitch now a throbbing pulse.
I find purchase on the pool wall and pull myself out, landing with poise on one knee, defensively. Amagumo gleams slickly in my hand.
The 20 Mercis have been busy. All are kitted in sea-green armour, elegant and lightweight. Some carry harpoons, a bow, a trident, others carry whips, a mace, a great broadsword. I tense, my eyes flicking between copies, unsure of which is real. I breathe in once, hold it. Release.
They converge on me as I raise Amagumo. A serpent of water erupts out of the blade like electricity, vaporising one Merci into mere atoms. I buckle under the water pressure, swinging the blade around, trying to hit as many as I can. I hear screams of fury, dampened by the maelstrom of ocean rage. One copy gets in close and I’m forced to parry, the crackling water shuts off and forms a protective shield with each glancing blow of Merci’s sword with mine. I snarl and push back, knocking back the armoured valkyrie. A second Merci whips my ankles, sending me crashing face first onto the ground. I feel a crossbow bolt thunder into my shoulder and simultaneous heat and ice race down my arm, bringing with it numbing pain. I cry out, slashing haphazardly, Amagumo vomiting vortices of seawater at anything and everything.
I shakily get to my feet, one hand paralysed, searching for my target-
Another whip coils around my one good arm, restricting my sword. Ah shit! I try to get my numb fingers underneath the biting leather but everything is wet and slippery. I struggle and thrash, kicking out, splaying my sword hand wildly. With a murderous gleam in her eye, Merci, the real Merci, steps towards me with purpose, swinging a weighty mace. Trust the real one to savour the kill.
Can I drag her into the pool?
I rush towards the copy, loosening the taut whip and quickly wrap it around my leg, catching the Merci copy off-guard. She slips and falls on the slick ground. I drag her deadweight body towards the edge of the pool, unable to untangle myself; the real Merci advancing on me.
Merci somersaults over my head, kicking the sword out of my hand, off the roof, down to the drowned muted symphony of street noise below. I didn’t realise how close we were to the edge. The pool has vanished – she Translated us about 20 metres forward.
Still reeling, Merci lashes out at me with clawed hands, wrapping them around my throat. Her eyes are like the aurora, her teeth sharpened with incisors 2cm long.
Cursing myself for losing focus, I block her venomous bite with my hands. I slip and we both tumble over the parapet. A small safety walkway breaks our fall. Street sounds are closer, louder. We are fumbling, punching, grunting, both trying to get the upper hand. She lands an elbow on my nose and I feel a bloody crunch. I shriek and head-butt her as hard as I can manage. She lurches back as I drunkenly try to realign my focus – Materialize something fast! A knife, a rock, a fucking fuck, anything!
Merci slices off her armour, revealing a tight skinsuit underneath, the former transforming into a razor-sharp garrotte. She leaps towards me – I try to dodge but I’m clotheslined by her outstretched arm. She swivels behind me and has the death thread around my neck. FUCK SAKE. I’m struggling, desperately trying to get a hold on the thread but it’s too slippery, my fingers bleeding from the jagged edge, blood swimming down my shirt. I’m fading-
I hear a clang and see Amagumo right next to my left hand. Merci’s bloodlust keeps her from noticing. How did that- I ignore rational thought and I stretch painfully, fingers slapping the steel floor, centimetres from the katana. She grunts and grips the thread tighter as I feel the weight of the Earth on my lungs. Almost…
I summon the last vestiges of strength and jerk Amagumo backwards, aiming vaguely at Merci’s head. Blood and dura squelch out the side of her temple and the garrotte goes slack. I splutter as I breathe erratically. I see myself reaching for the railing, push Merci’s limp body over the edge of the walkway.
I don’t look at her fall, but I hear the splatter on the street below. Or at least, I imagine the meaty slap.
A blinking blue light above my bed signals recreation.
3 – Prison
I step out of my quarters, leaving diffuse blue lights and Hess’ monotone voice in my wake, “PLEASE PROCEED TO THE REC ROOM.”
The rec room is where the dreamers gather once a day, without exception, for “activities”. I suppose this is to abate the solitary life that we lead. It’s always a bit awkward though: you might be killing your scrabble partner in the next dream game.
I meet Happy Ending in the corridor. We grunt at each other, walking in silence for a while. The clang of the steel floor echoes throughout the dimly lit corridors.
“How’s killin’?” Happy asks.
I tell him about Reanimator. Happy sighs. With relief? Pleasure? God knows.
Happy was an old-timer; been here ever since I started. He rarely got called up to the roster nowadays though. His polling was in the high hundreds and hence the moderators didn’t care whether he lived or died. Thankfully, once you build up a bit of a reputation, you can skip a few matches every now and then – if you make a big one stick. I glance at my dreamer-standard L-watch, checking the match-ups: Happy’s next game was against a newbie, Nightmare on OverwhElmed Street.
“Jesus, Happy, some of these names are such trash,” I shake my head in disappointment.
Happy nods absentmindedly, “Yep, someone’s gotta show ‘em how it’s done.” I’m not sure if he heard what I said.
The steel clanging gives way to a soft pad-pad-pad. The turquoise walls of the rec room collapse into my field of view as I take in the other dreamers. It’s an indoor, cutesy, prison playground. Hence the inmates’ creative name; the Prison.
I turn to Happy but he’s already gone; he’s slapping hands with a few guys I don’t know. Everyone’s wearing white shirts, white slacks, white plimsolls. An bony-shouldered girl nudges me as she squeezes into the Prison, her hair whipping past my face as I recognize the vanilla scent.
“Hey Doc,” she says. I nod back reflexively. Her name is Kanasu, Kas for short, and she is 6 clean.
See, each dream game ends up with someone dying, whether you kill the other person or you leave it up to chance. There’s always one game a week. There’s about a hundred of us in this Prison. You can do the math – we should all be dead by now. Ergo, we don’t know how many Prisons there are; there could be 10, 20, 1000. Some guys here say there’s an infinity of Prisons, that they’ll never run out of dreamers because they’ll just clone them or some shit.
6 matches and still alive is good. I’m at 18 clean, top of the current season, and I’ve been here 4 years.
There’s no use in trying to understand the algorithm they use to match-make. It’s not robotic/fair; it changes based on trends, based on who people want to see on the big screens. Take Happy for instance, he’s been here most of his life and he’s only 22 clean – this game coming up is his first in a year.
Kanasu walks over to the canteen. She grabs a coffee, a couple blue pills and goes to sit alone on the bleachers; I dig the moody teen act.
I start to go over to join her, dodging a rogue football, but a practitioner, a Prac, blocks my path. His dull eyes notify me to stop.
“61021. Have you had your allotted blue today?” His voice is scarily monotone, á la Hess.
“Yeah, the Prof dosed me,” I start to move past him when he grabs my arm, a little too forcefully.
“Good game, Doc. I saw it,” A sick energy grips him, “That choke-out was real good. Real good.” I look back at him in disgust, tearing my arm away and wiping off invisible stains. I don’t look back but I can feel his eyes boring into me.
I shake out the Prac from my head and walk into a conversation about walls. A nameless in white is speaking.
“So, look, I reckon that there has to be some wall we can get through. Open air, you know. We gotta start digging somewhere,” a few other guys in white nod in agreement. Kanasu saunters over with an empty coffee cup, rolling her eyes. She catches mine, so I smirk back at her.
“Start digging then you imbecile,” she says. The man in white, whose face I can’t place right now, narrows his eyes.
Kanasu goes on, “Ever seen a window? We’re probably underground. The only thing you’re gonna find if you dig sideways is your own ass, eventually.” The man’s face looks set to explode. He starts to get up, so I step in between them.
“Outta the way, Doc. I got no problem hitting a girl.” His eyes are already bloodshot from the rage. I recognise him now – Bulldozer. I vaguely remember seeing him on the box months ago tearing apart a newbie; overkill, I seem to recall.
Swallowing my nerves, I stand a bit taller, “Forget it, Bull. Just leave it.” My mouth is dry. In dreams I’m a killer, in real life, I’m nothing.
His little group of white followers get up now. Aw shit. “No.” He says. One word, but it’s enough. I think he wants to-
“Let’s jack in.”
I was worried he was going to say that.
Kanasu crushes her polystyrene cup in one hand. Only she could make that cool and not cliché. “Sure.” Her lips are small white lines, her eyes calculating. She gives me quick look, asking me a silent question. I sigh, bobbing my head, and follow her to the chair.
Jacking in meant a dream fight, but a safe one, i.e. you can’t be killed. It’s a good way to let off some steam, or in this case, work out some long-standing emotional issues. Everything still hurts for real though (thanks, stupid psychosomatic brain). Dream-injuries carry through to dream games – real pain in the ass when you’re up for a real fight, nursing stupid Jack-bruises.
A few other inmates start perking their heads up, looking our way. The mood changes in the room to a jangling thrill. I glance up at the LED timer in the dome up top: 39 minutes of recreation left.
Kas and Dozer have already made their way to the fight “arena”; it’s a couple of chairs, dream-scape equipment and few old monitors. They sit in the worn, orange recliner chairs and start wiring up leads to their skin – patches in their clothes unfurl revealing reddish marks where the seals have been stuck too many times. A small crowd gathers around the multitude of screens starting to light up around the pair. Two Pracs walk over silently. They do nothing, drawing little attention to themselves; they’re here just to monitor / make sure there’s no foul play.
One small guy, a Kid, starts touching one of the screens displaying white noise now. A black, letter-rubbed-clean keyboard judders out from underneath. His fingers become a blur as he starts to boot the program.
Kas has already shut her eyes. I’m stood behind her, waiting for the instruction to attach the final seal to her forehead. Dozer has stripped down to just his pants, his stocky upper body sweats stickily and somehow I feel like I can smell his built-up fervor, his desire to hurt.
The low rumbling and trills from the program draw my attention to the monitors; snow-covered mountain-tops and thunder flood the screen. The low hum of the machinery is paralleled by the chatter of the crowd, a rising crescendo, adagissimo. Both fade in and out of phase coherence, creating and destroying harmonics and dissonant thrums. I start to feel myself dissipating into the flow.
It’s like waves, crashing.
My eye catches a flash of rogue code on the screen. I solidify and follow the flash to its source, but to no avail. Hopefully nothing.
“Rules?” shouts the Kid on the keys.
Kas doesn’t answer, eyes still closed, meditating maybe. I look to ‘Dozer’s second, who’s been looking at me the whole time for a response. I shrug. He turns to the Kid-
“One round. No Materializing,” He looks at me for confirmation; I nod imperceptibly. “Maximum dream-skipping”. The crowd starts to break out in guffaws and snippets of laughter. Kanasu is smiling in some sort of Zen-mode. Dozer’s face is set – a concrete death mask.
“10 seconds,” The Kid hits return a few times and points to me. I place the forehead seal on Kas, brushing her skin ever so slightly; it’s warm and sweaty.
“Good luck,” I whisper to her. I don’t know if she hears; her face is plain, white noise.
The Kid points at Dozer’s second. He places the seal on a very sweaty forehead, nervously making sure it sticks.
The crowd has gone quiet, just like in the last few frames before a film starts. People shuffle to get a better look at the screens, leaving me stood watching Kas, her face a grimace.
The Kid steps back from the keys, “They’re in.”
I listen to the waves, crashing.
4 – Burly Brawl
Eyes open. Except, not mine this time.
Both Kas and Dozer land supine in wet snow, in a piercing wind, on a thunder-rumbling mountain plateau. Macabre lightning blinks in epileptic code. The monitors flicker in mock drama, adding to the crowd’s lust. I remove my damp hand from Kas’s limp arm, my eyes wide and bulging.
Kas gets up first, sprawling forward; in the same movement she scoops up a snowy handful and ejects it into Dozer’s eyes as he attempts to stand. He curses and rubs his eyeballs. Kas grounds herself and leaps into Dozer’s teetering midsection – a “whoopf” emanates from his lips as both collapse into-
Bamboo mats. Beige walls, soft afternoon light and the musk of sweat. Drill calls in Japanese are heard in the distance. A kneeling student NPC, his eyes not leaving the floor starts to knuckle-rap on drums. Dozer, not wanting to be taken off-kilter again, breathes deeply and kicks up his body, landing slickly on the balls of his feet. He enters a mock Kung-Fu stance, then screams, kicking forward.
Kas rolls away, still on her back, as the entire dojo rotates in space. Dozer’s kick maintains an Earth-gravity impossible trajectory, coming to land on the wall, his reference frame now shifted by 90 degrees.
I breathe in sharply. Didn’t see that coming. I glance at the Kid on the keys; his eyes glint with pride.
Dozer runs down the side of the wall, quickly acquainting himself with the new 4-way gravity and launches himself again at Kas. She’s already twirling away, one forearm out to parry the blow. The fist lands and she changes her grip, grappling Dozer and spinning his almost weightless body to the side wall. Gravity clutches at him and the wall (now ground) catches his full weight on his chest. The crowd groans aloud.
The drum tattoo picks up as Kas runs forward, falling backwards, landing on the side wall feet first. Dozer is up and shaking his head. He grimaces and pounds his chest with a clawed palm.
There is a beat of silence.
Their limbs join as they spar at superhuman speeds. Arms meld and fists slash at air as both proficiently dodge, pivot and duck. Legs scrape bamboo, sweaty grips tug shoulders and cup calves. Both are breathing hard even though neither have landed a blow. Dozer knee launches towards Kas’s chest, she blocks with open palms but they are ripped open, leaving her exposed momentarily. A pivot and a kick from Dozer throws her backwards several metres.
In the chair she jerks spasmodically, her eyes rolling back into her head. Saliva pools in a cheek dimple. I look at her with worry. I check the clock; only 5 minutes have passed. I hear a click-click-click as the Kid shifts the manual dream control. 30 minutes to go.
For a second, Kas is dusting off her karate uniform, and in the next-
Wet, urban, neon-pink slathers a sticky, pulsing nightclub in a dystopian fever-dream. Dancers and drinkers are skin-to-skin; touching, flirting, laughing. Kas steps out of entangled flesh, her body shiny and exposed to the seizure-inducing photo-erotica. She swipes her hair out of her face, re-joining the vibrating crowd, searching. The crowd wolf whistle their approval.
The music comprises rising waves of male and female moans. A pit of awkward sweat starts to swell in my lower back. Jump cuts show the club’s patrons grinding and sucking tongues – they must be doused in NocEm; a sex dream drug.
I can almost taste the plethora of human sexual fluids on my skin. Saliva, salt and sweat. I shiver in simultaneous disgust and arousal.
One screen shows Dozer in a booth surrounded by half-naked NPCs. A pair of beautiful males are gripped in desperate lust, their hands all over each other. A latex-wrapped female holding a whip strikes a roaring patron, his chest covered in red marks, his eyes filled with pleasure and pain. Dozer stares into the crowd, a thigh-sized blunderbuss resting peacefully on his arm. A viper cannon.
“Hey!” I shout, “I thought we said no Materializing?” The Kid on the keys shrugs sheepishly. Damn, this could get very messy. I look across at Dozer’s second. He avoids my gaze quickly. Who else staged this shit-show.
I discreetly bring up the HUD on my L-watch. Finding Kas’s ID, I send her a message in the dream chat. MATERIALS OPEN. If she notices the blinking notification icon hopefully she’ll prepare.
The screen glitches as the Kid types in a lengthy command. The horizontal bars of white noise disappear into crystal-clear fuchsia, bringing with it the club’s audio track. I feel goosebumps all over immersed in the scene; synth beats, electronica, cresting peaks of endless sine waves fill me up.
The crowd seems to move in slow motion as we see Kas emerge, armed to the teeth. She’s already firing twin laser pistols as Dozer’s eyes widen in shock. The first round burns through the male dancer’s midriff, his lips manage to make an ‘O’ as he collapses, haemorrhaging blood. His partner screams, clawing at the victim’s blood-slick, still-warm abs. Dozer brushes aside the table with a meaty flourish, glass shards peppering the clueless crowd. All noise is drowned out by the sawtooth and bass moans. Kas’ second round is off centre and bounces wildly around the reflective booth. She goes to ground, loading ammo into a heavy-duty rifle hauled from her back; the crowd around her has dispersed, dancing, always dancing.
Viper cannon in hand, Dozer paints the room in snake-like plasma ejecta. The viper rounds are like arc-lightning, starting out as a solid energy pulse, then branching and splitting off into smaller and smaller spikes of hot pain. A tendril licks Kas as she rolls out of the main beam, burning her arm to a crisp.
In the chair, Kas starts to seize up. Shit, forgot the mouth guard. I manage to stick the top guard in her mouth, preventing her grinding her teeth. Her eyes blink epileptic Morse underneath sweaty lids as I hold her shoulders down. Her “injured” arm tenses and flexes intermittently – it’s dead in virtual but fine IRL. Her brain’s confused to hell though.
Kas lies prone on the sticky dancefloor. Her arm has self-cauterized – partially the lightning but her healing has kicked in too. Her one good arm is crumpled under her back. Strobes of blurred red light dance on Dozer’s grimace; he walks over, each stomp in time to the slowing pulse of the beat. He kneels down, grinning inanely, and places a hand on Kas’ slack form. IRL she goes limp. I immediately check her vitals if she’s crashed – they’re stable. Hmm.
Dozer winces, Materializes a 6-inch blade, flicks open a flak patch on his thigh and rubs the weapon on a gooey orange patch there. The gelatinous substance sticks thickly to the now dripping knife. That’s neurotoxin. Chemo-Materializing is very complicated in virtual, more likely Dozer keeps the scripts ready in a pre-made folder when he’s jacked in. A standard toxin can bleed into RL and keep you in a flu-like trance for weeks, a bad one can fuck you up for months. Dozer rolls Kas onto her back, her eyes are shut, saliva dribbles down her neck, starting to mix with the puddle of blood creeping towards Dozer’s shoes. I’m tempted to pull her out raw, at cost.
Everyone misses what happens during the next 5 seconds. The dream focus is on Dozer; his face a grinning tableau before transforming into a look of pure horror. He staggers back, clutching his groin, blood and citrus-coloured goop gushing through shaking fingers. His body IRL starts jack-hammering like a fish out of water. It takes three guys in white to hold down just his upper body. His legs kick over his vitals stand, pills and LEDs burst and crackle, jerking the crowd momentarily from the screens.
On screen Kas’s body is tired, listless, but her eyes are wide, triumphant. Dozer’s knife hangs loosely in her remaining arm, the neon lights flickering off dripping orange. Next to Dozer’s moaning collapsed form lies his mutilated genitalia, ripped material from his trousers, and heaps of glistening blood. The entire crowd groans in unison. Neurotoxin and soft flesh do not mix. Tears are streaming from Dozer’s eyes IRL, his legs still flip-flopping. I look towards the Kid on the keys who’s about to call the fight-
A severe-looking woman pushes the Kid to one side and slams the laptop lid down, severing all connections. Dozer and Kas shoot out of their dreamscape with a gasp, surfacing from an ocean of virtual bruises.
“You’ve had your fun, now TO YOUR CELLS.” She’s the DiCOM (Director of Communications). The energy fizzles out of the room. All inmates are at once children, the factions and deep set rivalries at once silly and unimportant. The rec room’s blue LED clock starts to flash only a few minutes left as everyone files out sharpish. Reality has set in, if momentarily.
“Doc, a word,” DiCOM motions me over. She starts to walk away, expecting me to follow. I swivel towards Kas; she’s struggling with her wires, her legs shaky, one hand massaging her once-dead arm. She gives me a tired smile. I turn back, noticing Dozer’s guys carrying the broken monolith by the shoulders, his moans and grunts of agony resonating throughout the now vacant room.
I follow DiCOM’s lead diligently, the lap dog that I am.
5 – In From The Cold
I mentally shake off the clinging stress from Kas’ dream fight and follow DiCOM through a once-locked, hissing slide door out the back of the rec room. I’m on autopilot, watching myself go through the motions, DiCOM tugging me behind her with an invisible thread. Something bothers me about her walking, not the steps, but the sound of regular, plastic ruffling. I re-integrate with my surroundings, look up from the floor and see that she’s wearing a semi-transparent, neon-yellow trench coat. Reflexively, I look to my right, expecting to see a window. Damn, that instinct still persists 4 years later.
The few weather memories I have of the outside world are wet. Constant, hammering, stormy or gentle, but rain all the same. Sometimes all at the same time. The drugs here make us forget, I think. I shudder as I recall myself standing alone statically, staring out past floor-to-ceiling glass at brushed red blinking lights over an industrial oblast. Black rain finger-tapped the window teasingly, a rare calm settling over the hazy, smog-filled city. I look again to the opaque corridor wall – only grey concrete lines greet me.
“Doc,” DiCOM hails me. Her face is unreadable, tight, harsh lines intersecting precision-engineered beauty. I’m still thinking about rain as I follow into her office.
I enter into a thunderstorm. Within seconds my white slacks are drenched. What the-
DiCOM throws me a waterproof; waltzing behind her desk, she throws up her hood. Well this explains the trench. I pull on the PVC raincoat, enjoying the pressure of rain on my head, rivulets finding the gaps between my fingers. I find my voice-
“How is this…?” I trail off, transfixed by the lack of any clouds above me. Thick, fat raindrops fall straight from office roof panels. I start to look around more closely at the space; it’s raining, but nothing is wet. Papers on DiCOM’s synth-wood desk are crisp and dry, her desk display isn’t shooting sparks, and the carpeted floor doesn’t squelch. Experimentally, I caress a faux-leather sofa next to the entrance – it’s dry, warm even. I feel DiCOM’s gaze on me; her eyes are piqued, probing.
“Something cooked up by one of the Kids,” she explains, her eyes not leaving mine, unblinking. She sits back in a creaky chair, sighing satisfactorily, one hand outstretched in the virtual downpour. Thunder bellows as lines of rain pepper her yellow coat – still dry to the touch, I’d guess. “It’s a very mild form of dream tech. It feels real, but it’s just a sensory hack.” With an almost imperceptible hand gesture DiCOM turns down the rain; it’s now a fine mist, an English sea drizzle. I rub my eyes tiredly, wiping away rain that isn’t rain, and sit on the sofa, waiting to learn the inevitable reason for this meet.
DiCOM swipes and gestures at her diffuse blue display, bringing up holographic folders and quick-scrolling through ethereal lines of text. I know she’s reading my file; my life wrapped up succinctly in a couple pages of passive aggressive holo-paper.
The memory of the crime that got me in here flits across my mind. The formal silence sparks it. Visions of a rag-doll, mutilated body lying too still in a too-quiet library, if that’s possible. Her arm’s all bloody, twisted awkwardly after she fell on the now-shattered glass case. I’m breathing hard, clutching a heavy, bent volume, its pages flecked with gristle and matted blood. Someone screams nearby.
A low roar of thunder flings me back onto the sofa in DiCOM’s abode. I shift uncomfortably, the rain’s insectoid march holding its breath in a dialogue void created and controlled by her.
“4 years, Doc,” she begins. I exhale quietly, “4 years and you’re still here. 18 clean, and starting to roll with the high-hitters,” she pauses, swipes away the holo-info and stares at me through the mist, “It’s too risky for someone like you.” I wrinkle my brow.
“Luck of the draw, I guess,” I say.
“No,” she replies nonchalantly, “It’s coordinated from up top.” I probably should be surprised but I take it calmly. Later, I think about my fight with Merci.
“I-,” I start, but she silences me with the tiniest movement of her finger.
“I have a job for you, Doc.”
“I already have a job.”
“This one’s important.”
“I help the Prof-”
“You don’t do that anymore.”
I’m sweating, again. Or, is it just the fake rain pooling in my lower back?
“You used to be a medic.” It’s not a question. I rub my face, hard.
“Medical physics,” I say. She ignores me.
“You worked with L-therapy, off the books.” Another statement.
“Sort of,” I clench and unclench my hands repetitively, “I never actually saw the dream; I just hooked everything up, made sure-“
“Do you know that this facility includes a psych ward?”
I pause for a few seconds, staring anywhere but DiCOM’s hawk-like gaze. “Y-yes.” I already know where this is going.
“You will help out in the ward. We’ll suspend your ranking for now, take you out of the game. At first, you can learn the ropes, hook things up,” she smirks, “but soon I need you to deal with a few, high-profile clients.”
“I thought these were inmates, not citizens,” I say, confusion now spilling onto my features.
DiCOM leans back in her chair, staring up at the rain.
“They are, of a sensitive nature,” she struggles to get the words out. “We can’t let any of this information get out, so we have to keep this in-house. You’re the only medic who happens to be a damn good dreamer, so…” she trails off, her voice fading in the rain, its white noise consuming the words.
In the pregnant pause I suddenly see it all: a manager of thieves and murderers, a company with vested interests, a broken hierarchy and lies swept under the rug. I see my role on the board, a pawn, to be used to progress towards some as of yet unknown finale. I exit my boxed mind and at once perceive a naïveté that while I had known existed, I had feared to relinquish. Why? To survive, my mind swiftly replies. Ignorance is a warm embrace, a false safety, but a comfort all the same. I turn away, disgusted with myself. But, what now? Instantly: nothing. It’s already done. You have been sentenced.
I fade back in and notice DiCOM is stood up, God knows for how long. “You’ll be transferred to the clinic tomorrow. We have a few patients with some waking dreams, recurring nightmares, that sort of thing – grunt work to get you started.” There is no victory, no change in her persona. This wasn’t a battle, there was no argument prepared. It was already done, the decisions made with the subject absent. Why should I fight against the inevitable? Merely a wolf crying at the moon.
“I’m no psychologist.” I can’t look her in the eye.
“No, you’re not,” she says, “You’re a navigator. You can guide their dreams, form them into something palliative.” DiCOM sits back down, dismissing me.
I nod weakly, turn to leave.
“Chip.” I shiver as I hear my real name for the first time in a long time. Was it reassurance? Perhaps she thinks me her pet, to be soothed. Resignedly, I pause, my hand on the door. “It’s time to bring the Doc back in from the cold, mmh?”
I pull off the PVC raincoat and drape it on the sofa. The door swishes shut behind me, the rain cut off in mid-drip.
That person died a long time ago. I murdered him in my dreams.