The restraints snap taut, stopping me from springing out of the “coffin” like a jack-in-the-box and forcing my eyes to pop open.
Gasping, I float a hand to the cortex jack at the base of my cranium. The hook-up is barely attached–a millimeter farther would have spelled cerebral catastrophe. The quarter-inch cable clicks back into place, sending a nerve tremor rippling down my spine. I ease myself against the tattered padding. I don’t remember how I died this time, but for now I don’t care. I prefer to savor these last moments of panic before the doldrum of reality forces my body back into equilibrium.
I should strap in tighter, but the slightest external pressure can result in a “bumpy ride”–anything from a snug waistband to a rogue cowboy dragging you behind his horse halfway across Arizona. The less distracted the body, the freer the mind. I’ve heard some higher-end models even use float tanks. Such luxuries have no place on a colossal scrap heap like the Venture, but still, our 154 machines, though outdated, poorly-maintained, and jury-rigged, remain the ship’s most fiercely coveted amenities. Even now, impatient voices are swarming just beyond the bolted hatch in front of me–or perhaps “over” me.
The chamber is so small that from the coffin I can touch any of its six windowless walls–years in low-gravity have erased terrestrial notions such as floors or ceilings. A musk lingers from the hundreds of fevered passengers who’ve locked themselves in this very room for countless hours of escape. The single lamp is only bright enough to sweep the darkness into the corners and hope I won’t notice. Still, the light pierces my bleary sight.
I shut my eyelids as a barricade against the invasive stimuli. But it’s no use. As the torrent of breath subsides and my heartbeat retreats from my skull back into my chest, “the Hum” re-emerges, like the sand beneath the tide. The Hum–that invisible and ubiquitous white noise, somehow simultaneously heard and felt; that unnatural sonic alloy of the whir of artificial daylight, the drone of drip-fed heat and oxygen, and the rattle of myriad bolts which prevent the Venture from bursting apart like a pinata and releasing its 214,000 captives into the insatiable void; that inescapable reminder–the Hum is the reason a dozen day-cycles have passed since I’ve had a proper sleep. The reason I’m here.
And now that the rush of chimerical death has worn off, I’m eager for more. But everything–the restraints chafing my inner elbows, the sweat beads clinging like leeches to my skin, the recycled air exfoliating my nostrils, that goddamn Hum, even the Rorschach of residual light floating against the black canvas of my eyelids–everything, reminds me of the unwelcome truth: the dream has ended.
I open my eyes to check the remaining time:
Why is waking a few minutes before an alarm so infuriating? What is a minute anyhow? Merely a subdivided duration of the orbit of a planet so distant the Venture won’t make port there again in this lifetime. Yet our perception of time remains dictated by these vestigial metrics because it’s all we bothered to teach our self-reflexive machines.
Enough philosophizing. This session cost me a week of “breakfasts” and I intend to get my rations’ worth. I can’t afford an extra sedative; I’ll have to find my own way back in.
I breathe in and out–slow, controlled–then let the black curtains fall.
Start at the end: My lungs are burning. There’s no air. Launched out of the airlock again? No. There’s a weight on my chest and something fluffy mashed against my face. My heartbeat quickens at the memory of helplessness. Not a bad way to go. Not nearly as exhilarating as being vaporized by a blaster or as liberating as falling two hundred stories, but not bad.
Never having been suffocated before, I’m skeptical of the machine’s accuracy. For all its enhancing, extending, and control-granting power, memory and imagination–two sides of the same coin, really–remain its sole building blocks. But its every sensation is either a flawless synthesis of previous experiences or else possesses zero “real-world” comparisons. That’s the beauty of a self-referential system–it’s accurate even when it isn’t. Efficient too. The sci-fi tales of our grandparents foretold elaborate simulators, but why waste rations and space on holodecks when each passenger already carries every conceivable desire inside his own subconscious.
Focus. Who was there? I recall an image of William Blake before a wall of gold bricks, clutching a white pillow and crouching like a wildcat. While searching for my gun, I find a Shakespeare mask at my feet. I try to put it back on, but my hands are zip-tied. It’s the bank heist scenario, but something’s off. I can’t be hostage and robber.
Stop. Don’t reason. When entering a dream, logic isn’t a tool, but a barrier. You might as well try entering a river by scooping it into a bucket. Dreams don’t have beginnings and endings, only points where you fall in or out of the current.
Shit! Shouldn’t have looked.
Just relax. Let it wash over you.
Blake and I are cramming our backpacks with gold bricks. A woman we forced to open the vault is following me, saying, “You don’t have to do this.” I can’t see her face, but she’s wearing this pastel yellow ascot with baby blue sparrows. From the lobby, I hear Byron shouting threats as he and Shelley tie up the hostages, while Coleridge and Wordsworth empty the registers. I only joined the Romantics for this one job. I need the score to pay for Mama’s transplant. The woman with the yellow ascot glares disapprovingly. Sirens wail outside. Shots fired. Yeats, our getaway driver, has been gunned down in the streets. Blake puts his pistol to the manager’s head, cursing him for pulling the alarm. He doesn’t suspect it was me who tipped off the cops. The woman at my shoulder shakes her head. Gunshots in the lobby. Shelly is bleeding out in Byron’s arms. “They’re coming!” Yeats screams, rushing into the vault. The manager begs for mercy. Turns out, he was the one who let us in. The woman with the yellow ascot had been waiting for me inside, asleep on a bed of gold. Could it be…? BANG! The cops are breaking down the vault door. The woman rolls over–it is Eleanor!–and looks at me with piercing conviction. I know what I have to do. I tackle Blake. BANG! He fires, just missing the manager’s face. We have each other by the throat when Yeats sneaks up behind me. BANG!
The hatch quivers as someone pounds from outside–“dream junkies.” I’ve heard of them breaking in and unplugging dreamers mid-session, but I’m not worried. I’ve seen these malnourished insomniacs roaming the corridors, begging for rations like orphans or stowaways. Let the bastards try. They’ll break their knuckles before they break the lock. A four-decade voyage will test any man’s limits, but the blame for addiction rests none save the addict.
Still, I can’t sleep through their racket. And I need to get back to Eleanor.
She shouldn’t have been there. After the last time, I disabled recurrences. Technically, the dream was original, but it was basically a new variation on an old theme: I fight for her; she rescues me from moral suicide. Regardless, she found a way back to me. Now, it’s my turn.
But the dream-junkies aren’t letting up.
Son of a bitch!
I check my rations. Maybe I can squeeze out another hour. I’ve missed breakfast by now. Can I risk skipping a few more meals? I don’t want to wind up in sick bay again.
Time to decide: Eleanor or reality.
I know the difference–I’m not some junkie. I know exactly how many days have passed since I abandoned her on Earth. At this point, I’ve spent more time with the dream than I ever did with the girl. Still, maybe we’re connected somehow. Maybe she’s reaching out to me across the cosmos. Or it could just be some unresolved shit my subconscious needs to work out.
I adjust the settings:
Then, I concentrate on building an opening scene: I’m suffocating again, but this time, the pillow withdraws to reveal Eleanor, straddling me, my hands zip-tied to her golden bedposts, her wild hair half-covering a voracious smile, still wearing that yellow ascot, and nothing else.
I add an hour, plus several seconds for the sedative to kick in, then transfer the rations.
The light fades. The curtains fall. The clatter of the dream-junkies floats away like a kite without a string, disappears into the Hum, then both melt into the gurgle of a gentle stream. I sink into the coffin and slip down sleep’s sublime current toward distant ocean dreams.
Ryan Shane Lopez is a teaching assistant and MFA fiction student at Texas State University, but previously worked as a bookseller for over two years. His fiction has been published in Obra, Door Is a Jar, and Hypnopomp magazines, and is forthcoming in Abstract. He has a wife, Hannah, and a three-year-old daughter, Josephine.