Shaking off the dreams is how we begin every day. If you can’t, if you let them mire your mind, there’s no way to go forward. Since we had been activated – woken – whatever – every night was a hideous cascade of nightmares. Maybe the others got used to it, maybe they didn’t always wake up screaming. I know Chelsea did, worse than me, because I was always there when she woke up. Our shared adventure, and now shared bed had brought us close in ways I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why she felt a similar bond with Chelsea. Maybe I was still resentful for the crack across the head – a literal crack, which Chelsea filled with the same epoxy that was slathered across the hole Charlie had put in me. I suppose I felt like I was coming apart. The dreams hardly helped. Charlotte was hidden away in the green; her yells of waking lost in the in the fat leaves and branches. Perhaps that soothed her. Perhaps it would have soothed all of us – I never got the chance to find out. It’s hard to bear grudges when the four of you hang in an unreal void of information and history, probably unhealthy too. You can’t have divisions between just four, despite the embarrassment of options: three against one, everyone for themselves, two against two. They’re all bad and unaffordable in such a tiny environment. But what we were supposed to do when Charlotte decided to curtail our freedoms and limit us? Well, as pragmatic and endlessly practical beings, we just got on with it. So we adapted to waking up alone, we adapted to think only within these four crudely conjoined domes, we forgot about the world around us because we weren’t in it. In an important sense, it was not in us either.
In all the junk that had buried my pod I found old media drives, tablets and screens. All broken, if not mechanically then at some deep level. The best I could tease out of them was a few seconds of lavish colour, spilling in waves across the screens. They were more than we had before and they took pride of place when we all met up. They were so limited that speculation could only be wild. We had screes of green fields and blue skies shambling up zigzagging steps of static, cars and planes that collapsed into jittering fragments of grey, brief glimpses of people as they warped and oscillated off the page. But that was it. No text files, no communications, no scraps of navigational data – nothing to tell us where we were or what this place was for. It was frustrating, but we had to give it up. We had to stop worrying and thinking about that. We settled into our routines and the schedule, and fell back on what the manual told us about themselves and tried not to want more than we had. We had our health, as I believe they say, although the clothes we wore only hid the cracks and wear we had gained.
If only the dreams would stop – they were the only thing left (barring the confinement, restricted company, fear of the outside and what lay beyond the garden…) to disturb our existence. They gave us a blood-smeared view of the world that was beyond, or behind us, filled with places, people and things, horrible events that we had no way of corroborating as fact, or dismissing as imagination. What imagination could we have? Our lives so far hardly seemed to merit such frightful dreams – we had done none of those things, or even thought of them – except when we were asleep. I wondered if that meant there was something deeply wrong with our programming. The manual only specified that a personality would be downloaded, the idea of us being without a driver, without being possessed was unmentioned. Was there some latent psychopathy in the framework we had been given which is always there, only overridden by the personality dropped on top? If so, then these dreams were urges at a base level, below the level of awareness. I feared what it might drive us to. Chelsea comforted me with the idea that if I was concerned about such things then I didn’t seem like the sort of person who would go on and commit those acts. Again, the manual was silent. The others listened to my worries, we talked about them and ultimately dismissed them. They didn’t fit into the quiet life we had, so I let them float back below the surface until waking brought them back.
I learned to dread waking up. I avoided going to sleep. Only the routine Chelsea and I had ensured that I did go and refresh regularly, but I’d draw it out as long as possible. That warning flicker of red in the amber could only be ignored so far, as I’d learned. At least we didn’t have to lie awake in the pods waiting for sleep to find us. You just have to wait for the lid to close. Sometimes that can feel like forever.
I pulled open the lid of my pod. It had begun to seize, and maintaining the hinges had fallen off my to do list for several days now – I only really remembered about it when I was getting into the pod. By the time I woke up it felt much less important. I’d gotten into the habit of dimming the dome’s lights a little, so a wash of light poured across my wasteland from the corridor and Charlie’s eternally lit maze of boxes and buckets. The pod lay just outside that beam, close enough for reassurance, so close I could reach out my arm from the pod and have it bathed in light, yet far enough the pod itself seemed a cool, quietly dark place to lie down. I don’t know why that was calming, or why I should need to be calmed when the second the lid closed I would be out, like a light or other than the device you can just turn on or off. Maybe I thought it would keep the nightmares away. Of course it didn’t. That night – we always thought of it as night when we went to sleep, which meant that Chelsea and I had slightly different ideas about the time of day – I dimmed the lights, helped the lid open itself and climbed in. With the lid shuddering and wheezing to itself I sat up and coaxed it down. As it finally slid down I caught a shape in that yellow light that flowed into my dome. I couldn’t see it clearly – an arm raised, a fluid shape that vanished almost immediately – merely impressions, and then of course, I was asleep.
Ten men stand on the cliff’s edge. Five of them face the ocean, the other five face inland. The sky is richly black, a near-blue velvet that seems more texture than void, pitted with glittering eyes of the stars looking down at the cliff, judging. The moon is missing. Its absence is keenly felt by the ten men, and they look for it, in whichever direction they face. Their ankles are bound, a spike of black iron driven diagonally from the outside of the ankle, down and into the hard, rough rock below. For all that they are in constant pain, they attend to their task: to watch. Below them the ocean idly grinds away at the rockface, content to brutalise it over aeons. I approach the cliff from below, across the wet sand, stepping over the boulders that mar its sleek surface. The gentle spray from the waves stings like acid and I hop onto the treacherous rocks. The brine has burned holes in my calves, black orifices that leak – thick liquid drooling down my legs. Pools form about my feet, and though I try to hop further up the rocks, the substance pouring out of my legs is treacle thick and spilling over the rocks, filling up the hollows and nooks of the beach. Where it touches the seawater, the sea becomes inert, its waves abruptly halted and the black ichor rolls out across its surface. Up and down the stilling waves it goes, still trickling out of the burned holes. The volume of sludge oozing out of me is so vast that I am buoyed up by it. It has filled and covered the seas, a black tide that rises up the cliff face – no longer interested in slow annihilation, the sea’s new coating surges upward, engulfing the rock until I’m brought to a level with the cliff top. The ten men stand there still. The five who have faced the obliteration of the ocean, their heads turn to watch me as I rise. The black blood trickles over the cliff, follows the black iron spikes into the ankles of those five. They jerk, spastically wrenching their limbs back and forth, beating their unseeing colleagues, black liquid gushes from their fingertips, mouth, nose, ears and eyes. It joins the obsidian sea around us. I step forward, between their collapsing bodies, my hands on the shoulders of two of the remaining five. I use their strength to pull my feet forward, though they remain swathed in darkness. I step over the collapsed and emptying bodies and onto the grass of the cliff. I leave burning black footprints. Behind me the five men erupt in screaming as the moon finally rises, from out of the earth before us. It is a violent yellow, sick with disease, its substance fractured and swollen. It looms over us and the screaming intensifies. I join them as my flesh begins to boil, tatters of skin and muscle pattering down into the oily murk is spreading out to coat everything in death.
Predictably, I woke up screaming – both at the dream and the dimly remembered sense of something wrong as I sank into sleep. My head hurt – it seemed I had banged it again, so keen to escape from sleep as the pod began to open. A bad start to what turned out to be a much worse day.