Dream-Hunter

By Nick Wood

Dream-Hunter.

That is, indeed, what they call me.

And what is it I search for?

The heart of evil and truth –- and, just sometimes, a little bit of madness and lies.

Today, though, I might get the entire shitload.

I choke back unexpected dread as I prepare for immersion in my pod, the Doc wiring my scalp to the monstrous man lying comatose beside me. Out of the corner of my right eye I can sense his slumbering bulk, rising and falling with a slow and menacing snore.

Sledgehammer Jones.

No, Sledgehammer fucking Jones.

I wince as the Doc pulls on the scalp electrodes, stinging my right parietal area.

She gives me a slap on my exposed arm, “Stop being a baby.”

Like she’s the one going into the head of a brutal killer.

Straining against the head strap, I lift my head a few inches and turn to the right. Jones is a mountain of a man swelling under those blue sheets, a pale white egg-domed head laced with cables feeding the machine between us. A big man indeed, and with a temper to match, I’d heard.

Not that I’ve always been on the side of the angels myself. But then, my father had always taught me to be assertive, modelling it forcefully to me whenever he suspected I had lied to them.

Until mamma would step in, a protective pillow against his punches.

I lean back again, to avoid my eyes spilling.

Mother…!

Focus on the job ahead.

We go back a few years, Doc Lizzie Abasi and I – 27 missions in all – and I have a 96% hit rate – the best fucking Rider in the world.

Bar none.

But you probably know that, I’m all over the Wiki pages.

Dream Hunter One, they call me.

It’s almost countdown time now, I can smell the acidic, cabbage-like stink of the REM-inducing drip the doc is preparing and suck in my breath, readying to both fall and soar into Dream-Space.

“Hey Doc,” I call, “Give me some decent music to work to this time, none of your funny Irish shit.”

Doc smiles over me, the purple bag of Stim swishing in her gloved hands: “I’m not Irish, remember – and you put up with what I choose to play, Peter John Scott.”

Always, she uses my full name – and yes I know, she’s Peckham born and bred, third generation ex-Nigeria, so where does the yen for Irish music come from?

Fuck it, who knows where anything comes from, especially our nocturnal dreams seaming our lives with images that seldom cohere? And faces. Old women, vaguely recognizable, wrinkled, and dark – darker hued than me, dual heritage man that I am. Always staring at me, willing something from me.

Tip of my brain stuff, never quite named.

Focus, Scott, forget the phantom crones.

I groan, “So what’s it to be this time, Lizzie?”

She’s busy with the Loom™ – the machine that locks brains together, the drip already hanging between Sledgehammer Jones and me. This is always the point where my shivering increases and words start to freeze in my mouth.

My fifteenth year at this game and it only gets harder.

I hear the large man alongside me catch his breath, as if not fully asleep.

Dread deepens.

“‘Let’s Remember 1848’, by The Literal Leprechauns,” Lizzie says, moving onto my least favourite part, the needle in the arm. Her brightly beaded cornrows tickle my right cheek.

“Wh-Why?” I ask, looking up at her face instead, forcing words out, unable to hide their quiver, “That’s a f-f-fucking long time ago.”

Lizzie half-smiles – as if she doesn’t notice – and signals to me with a drop of her right palm; I’m going under soon. She tilts her head, squinting at me over her smart-specs with those brown eyes of hers. It’s as if there are still things she likes to look at directly, without hearing the verbal comments that attach like buzzing flies to her smart goggle visuals.

Or perhaps she just doesn’t like to hear what the Face-Rec sites continually say about me.

I’m not really that arrogant: I really do have me some damn fine parietal lobes. Perhaps I have my dead English dad to thank for my skills; I was raised on tales of his lucid breakfast dreams, but my Zulu mamma’s daily putu-pap and peanut butter toast always satisfied my stomach.

So it was that I learned to straddle both God and Nkulunkulu: science and myth, dream and reality.

I have not seen my mum since my divorce, more than ten years ago now.

She’d gotten on well with Shireen, my ex-wife.

Perhaps too well?

Mamma told me I’d turned into ‘him’ and then left me, going back to the other family I hardly knew in South Africa.

‘Him’ – my father with fists. Surely not, mother?

Surely, surely not?

“We need to know our past, in order to understand where we are going,” Lizzie says slowly.

“But neither of us are fucking Irish,” I say, the quiver in my voice gone, as my hurt and fear fades into the groggy, initial rush of the Stim.

Sledgehammer Jones is waiting, so I hold back from the pull of the dream, thinking thickly, focusing my gaze into the pulsating light overhead.

I have my plan ready, but know that means little sometimes, given the inherent surrealism of the domain. They never give me an easy ride either – I’ve had some mega-whacked out dream partners over the years. Those who refuse to talk – or who deny their crimes – have seriously fucked up dreams.

I get the choice picks, the hardest of the hard. As befits the best of the best, I guess.

My head sinks back and I watch the screen above the far wall struggling to make visual sense of Jones’s Imago-EEG, a cloudy and murky grey, he’s still some way short of REM state.

Time to let go. I slip into the barely charted space between waking and dreams and hover in hypnagogic flux, pulsing a Door to be walked through – but…

What – the – fuck?

The screen flickers, fuzzes and sharpens. A man stands: slim and sharply-suited in grey, a svelte version of the nude man lying on the medical trolley next to me. This thinner, virtual Sledgehammer Jones is ignoring the glowing green door behind him – avoiding my usually unfailing initial lure.

Instead, he seems to be peering out at me – and, and he, he’s fucking waving?

“What’s, uh, – what’s his status?” I ask, my voice fading distant, crashing. My vocal cords constrict as I start to slowly sink.

I can still sense Sledgehammer’s body alongside me — seemingly sedated by a drip infusion.

“Dream status reached,” Lizzie says, a vague shape now, floating between us. “He’s deep in REM sleep.”

How – the – fuck – is this – possible? I’m one of only a small batch of people in the world who have learned how to tread and weave the borders of dream and waking. We’re starting to knit together at the brainwave level, and it’s me who’s supposed to be holding the fucking threads — yet, somehow, this bastard is waving at me while dreaming, grinning like a skinny snake.

The pull into sleep is an intolerable tug at my being, but I focus on pushing my frontal lobes for just that little bit longer.

Is this just a hypnagogic hallucination?

“Up his sedation,” I grind out slowly; REM sleep locks the body muscles, to stop you doing daft things while you dream, like killing someone.

I see Lizzie’s shape swing towards the screen — and freeze.

Forever.

And for no time at all.

She spins around again and hovers over him; I’m guessing she’s opening his Stim drip even wider.

On the screen, Jones has turned and opened my green door, blowing it red with a breath.

Red.

The Sledgehammer’s favourite colour.

He steps through.

As for me, I lose my grip to the torrent of sleep.

I am disembodied, a vague flash of fish in a raging unconscious river. Then I am there; gasping, wet and shivering, in a muted and pale cream bathroom. I have all the props ready, waiting – a bathroom, a bath, and several…implements.

The man himself is not yet here. I have time to strengthen this dream, to sculpt the images from many visits and forensic holograms – I sense Jones looping along my corridor just outside.

I twitch and tweak his synapses with fused will. There’s a part of the hippocampus where the memories beneath the dreams can be unlocked – with the right training and expertise.

He will enter soon, filling the bath with someone he knows and re-enact a scene from his unconscious that he has – until now – always consciously denied.

(Flowers and broken glass make a green rabbit jump.)

I breathe slowly to clear the crazy images and re-orient myself, even though I have no need to breathe. Then, with familiar dexterity, I climb the wall like Spiderman, sticking myself to the ceiling and making myself invisible.

The scene below starts to shiver and splinter into a myriad of dream fragments, a confused chaotic collage, disorienting me for eternal moments.

I forget…no, I …remember, I am Peter, Peter Scott, Rider. This is my dream. Reassert command; take control… With practiced ease, I re-clarify the bathroom walls, with matte beige paint and maroon horizontal stripes at chest height, as per forensic record.

Jones must be coming – and he is powerful. But he seems scattered and shattered in his dreaming thoughts. I only hope he is now fully immersed in my dream.

Distantly, I hear bathwater tinkling and I buzz myself back into being, hanging from a burning hot bulb on the ceiling, invisible spider-like legs scalding. Sledgehammer Jones must be disturbing the strands of this scene.

Steam and coconut scented bath salts saturate my nose from the water below; my eyes water with the sharp tang surging through my sinuses. Spiders don’t have sinuses, do they?

Focus, Scott. Stay alert — and watch out for the bursting of any irrational anomalies from Jones’s unconscious.

The dream steadies, seaming itself thicker, lacing itself with the richest of sensorial detail – and I sense Jones’s excitement as his dream throbs ahead of him, moving into the bathroom like a palpable, gloating force, ready to shake and shape events.

Here we fucking go, then. I ready myself too.

It is then that I see her. She is in the bath. Thickened and greying slightly with the approach of late middle years, she is bending forward, water dripping off her back as she scrubs her toenails with deft concentration.

Jones himself enters, and I am relieved to see he is in a red bathrobe that reveals his real, blossoming bulk – no longer able, then, to conjure a lucid and ideal dream-self; he is finally absorbed into the fabric of our mutual dreaming. She – his wife, Alice – hesitates and half turns to Jones.

“I’ve almost finished,” she says, covering her breasts with her arms.

“So am I,” Jones says, smiling.

Slowly, she looks up, and her sadness wafts up to me. A drop of water spools off her left cheek. I wonder, for the briefest of moments, if it is salty.

“Why, Alice?” Jones asks, standing squarely, stolid in his growing anger.

She seems unaware, shrugging with resignation and a hint of despair. “Barry does care for me, you know. And you haven’t really been here for a few years now,” she says, “Always — working?”

“Yes!” Jones shouts. “Working, fucking working – while you – you fucked!”

Shit, flashes of a bedroom scene intrude, another man with Alice, their limbs sprawled together, elsewhere. Take us back, back to my scene. There… I re-plaster the bathroom vignette, focusing intently on bringing back all pieces, including the implements.

Especially the implements.

Jones’s wife has her hands lifted, covering her eyes and, I’m now sure the leaking water dripping through her fingers is salty. Her shoulders are heaving and her voice is muffled, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t- didn’t mean to hurt you.”

But Jones has already picked it up.

One of the three implements in the bathroom at the time – toilet brush, hand vac and… a small sledgehammer. Propped behind the toilet bowl, it had been mistakenly left some few days past by builders completing the wall renovation.  It was neither easily nor automatically available. And yet the man has stepped around the toilet to heft it, moving back to the bath and his wife, readying himself, hammer over head.

Alice drops her hands to the side of the bath and only gulps with a frightened rasping wheeze. Her pinkish eyes are dilated, huge, staring us down.

Eventually, her voice comes, raspy with fear: “John, what – what are you- what?”

He swings the hammer down onto his wife’s head.

Despite myself, I close my eyes.

She screams — and screams — and screams?

I look.

Ngibambe Ngesandla (Dream Hunter)

She is thrashing in the water, desperately, frenzied in panic. The bath water is… clear, foaming with her surging activity, but clear.

The large man stands, head down, hammer in both hands. He has stopped the swing just inches from his wife’s head.

But… in reality, he had not.

Dream-jacking always gets to the truth. Defences down, dreamers re-enact events – given the right steer, the right props from an expert Rider — and there are none better than I.

My prompts always spark a replay of actual events, dream or no dream.

Uh-uh, focus, Scott…

Sledgehammer Jones straightens and looks up then.

Straight at me.

“So. How much are the Crown Prosecution paying you for this?”

Shit.

Fucking shit.

Jones’s wife is standing now. Water streams down her body, over her breasts, down her belly and thighs.

Jones looks back at her, but keeps speaking to me. “My name’s John. Just John Jones. I loved this woman dearly. I want to set her free.”

“What?” I whisper from the ceiling.

He looks up at me again. “I’m going to put the hammer down and let her go, so she can join Barry, like she always hoped.”

“But… that’s not what happened.”

“No,” he says, “But it’s what should have happened.”

I’ve never faced this dilemma before. What to do? If I just let him take hold of the dream, I have no doubt they will fire me. They get paid by the conviction – as do I.

John Jones puts the sledgehammer down. His wife has stepped out of the bath and is drying herself on a large white towel – she wraps it around her body and ties it over her left shoulder like a toga.

“I loved you, John,” she says.

She does not look at either of us; it’s as if she is no longer aware of us.

I can make the hammer larger, more enticing, red both in colour and nature – and wait for Jones’s hippocampal cognitive rehearsal to kick in with irresistible compulsion.

…But would this make me an accomplice? Will I then be guilty of murder too?

Alice hovers uncertainly by the door and Jones looks up at me again.

Fuck it; mamma had always told me to do the ‘right’ thing.

(Until she left me.)

“Okay,” I say, dropping down from the ceiling and fleshing myself. “Let her go, then, if that’s what you really want to do.”

Alice stays, though: frozen, immobile, her face contorting with the effort to move.

I turn to Jones. His face is dripping with sweaty exertion: “I can’t free her,” he says. “Help me, please.”

But, try as I might, I have no point of contact with her – she is not my dream imago to shift. I turn to shrug helplessly, but Jones has already picked up the hammer, now swollen and red, again.

“My name is John,” he says, “Just John Jones. Get that? Guilty – I’m guilty.”

He hesitates for a moment and then hands the hammer over to his wife. He bends forward submissively. “Do it,” he says.

I open my mouth, but I’m unable to scream.

“Do it!” he shouts.

“Lizzie?” I croak.

Alice Jones raises the hammer over her head and brings it crashing down on the large man’s head.  The hammer bounces off his skull with a crackling, crunching sound, spraying a flash of blood across the room.

The blood laces my tongue – metallic, salty, explosive. I am falling sideways, grunting, winded, as I land on a crumpled and broken body.

John Jones’s wife looks down at me; the bath is empty and dry.

But she is not Alice anymore – she is Shireen, my ex-wife, whom I’d lost patience with -but only once or twice, I swear, mamma – until she left me.

This time though, Shireen is the one holding the hammer. She smiles, dark hair swishing across her face.

Shit, there is no dream-breath from this body beneath me. Jones’s head looks misshapen – splayed at an odd and bloody angle on the floor.

Shireen lifts the hammer over her head.

“Fuck it, Lizzie!” I scream, “Get me out of here.”

Shireen swings the hammer.

The bathroom walls start to shift externally, crumbling, roaring, as if an empty storm is sucking them inexorably outwards.

The bathroom cabinet and a wall explode and beyond, all I can see is a vast and complete emptiness. No sound, no shape, no colour.

No dreaming.

Just …

Nothing.

“Li-zzie!”

And then I start falling sideways, sucked and stretched into the black hole beyond. I catch a flicker of images flashing past me – Old Man, Hero, Trickster, a flash of bleeding Jungian archetypes. Then dead-eyed animals, increasingly bizarre, mostly mute and long extinct.

I hurtle helplessly towards the empty hole at the heart of it all.

An old woman watches me from a place where everything has gone out. I think I know her, her hollow eyes are like burnt out planets.

“Mamma?” I call in desperation, flailing to stay away from the blackness above and beneath me.

Her head tilts, as if turning towards me – her face is creased with concern, brown eyes focusing on my face.

She holds her right hand out at me, clawed, but tendon-etched strong. “Ngibambe ngesandla,” she says.

“What?” I say, wondering if I should give in to the sucking darkness.

“Have you learned nothing of where’re you’re from, Peter – hold my fucking hand!”

But she smiles as she says it and I realise it is the only thing that might just save me. I scrabble at her, but miss.

The darkness desiccates words, drowning everything.

Something grips my arm and yanks me sideways.

Two hands are huge on either side of my cheeks. The woman seems to be holding my face up.

I recognize her and start to cry.

“Lizzie, thank God…”

“I’m here,” the Doc says. Her voice is warm and reassuring.

I continue to see hints of – fractured images and beasts, drifting in nothing with a vast void behind, the nothing that fudges the boundaries and certitude of everything I can now see — or perhaps it’s just that my eyes keep leaking, smearing my sight and sense of surety?

Leaking…

Jones’s words – were they meant for him – or me?

Guilty.

I’d certainly… hurt Shireen.

Twice.

Perhaps more?

And yes, I remember mamma had told me, when I was still a teenager at secondary school, that even once was too much.

Lizzie holds me against herself; her shoulders are bony, but warm. “It’s okay, Peter,” she says.

“What- what the hell happened to Jones?” I choke.

And how can I turn this fucking face tap off?

“He’s dead,” she says. “Jesus, they’re going to crucify me for overdosing him on sedatives.”

“But,” I say and stop, unable to find words; it’s all I can do to focus on the warmth of her body and the strength in her hands, still cradling my shoulders and head.

Then she leans back and moves away, starting to decouple electrodes and tubes from the large, still body lying alongside me.

Exhausted, I lie back on the pillow and watch her, unable to move. She switches off the Loom™. The Doc is decoupling me with smooth professionalism and I can see her show of warmth and compassion is past.

My tears stop and dry, prickling my cheeks.

We had a legitimate court order to dream-jack him, but John Jones had already decided to face his guilt head on – and, unable to free his wife, had preferred to die.

Still, where the hell does that leave us?

I look across at Sledgehammer.

There is just the barest hint of a smile at the corner of the dead man’s lips.

The bastard had left me with my ex-wife and the hammer.

My body is starting to warm up, just the teeniest little bit, and words free up inside me. “Listen Lizzie, I will testify that Jones chose to die. They will see that for themselves too.”

They.

Dream Justice, Inc. – that part of the privatised English Crown judiciary.

I pull the sheet off and stand up, my body – now well on the pudgy side of thirty, and sagging in readiness for forty – crackling stiffly in its jumpsuit. I stretch upwards, my blood needling harshly through arteries and veins again. Every year, my stretches get harder and harder.

Lizzie has covered Sledgehammer Jones’s torso and looks up at me with a smile. “Thank you – that may just help, Peter, a devastating nocebo effect, perhaps…”

I wipe my face with a forearm as I stiffly step across to the body next to my bed.

“I’m sorry… John,” I say. Given proper training and circumstance, it is clear that he would have been the greatest Dream-Rider in the world, not me.

Funny thing is; it suddenly didn’t matter to me anymore.

I’d made my own share of mistakes too – and I was no longer the best anything.

Dream-Hunter Two? Not quite the same ring to it.

More, I’d caught a glimpse of what lies behind both dreams and waking.

I open the door to leave and hesitate, “Bye, Lizzie.”

“Bye, Peter,” she does not look round.

“No,” I say, “I mean bye.”

She pivots slowly in her chair and looks at me again. Her eyes are a deep and penetrating brown. “You’re quitting, Peter?”

I nod. “Don’t think I can Ride again on the criminal justice system.”

“Bye Peter,” she does not get up.

“Did you see…her, at the end?” I ask.

“Who? I just saw you rising out of the darkness – as if dragged by hope.”

I close the door behind me.

***

Hope lives by the name of Precious Msimang; she has claimed back her old clan name, I remember.

I have forgotten her number but it takes my smart-watch only two seconds to patch me through.

The old woman from my dreams stares at me with apparent disbelief.

“Mamma!” is all I can manage.

“Peter,” she says – and then the line freezes.

I know why – she always hated to cry in front of me – especially after…he – had hit her.

It flickers on again – mamma looks old and worn, but with the faintest of smiles, watching me closely. “Why have you called now, what do you want?”

“To visit,” I say, “…and to talk about you and the family, and South Africa.”

“A good place, now that Rhodes Has Fallen,” she says. “This is my place to die.”

“Let’s not talk about death,” I say, “Ngibambe ngesandla, mamma.” (This time it is me who freezes the screen.)

I lie back and stare up at the numb white ceiling of my small flat.

I have taken women for granted, including the one who carried and birthed me, with both pain and love.

Guilty as charged.

It is time to start my redemption.

It will be a long, long flight home, to a place I hardly know.

Still, time to live a new dream.

Dream-Hunter, they call me.

But my name is just Peter John Scott Msimang.

Nick
Nick Wood is a South African clinical psychologist, with over a dozen short stories previously published in Interzone, Infinity Plus, PostScripts, Redstone Science Fiction, Fierce Family, AfroSF and upcoming in the How to Live Amongst Aliens (2015) anthology, amongst others. He has also had a YA speculative fiction book published in South Africa entitled ‘The Stone Chameleon’. Nick has completed an MA in Creative Writing (SF & Fantasy) through Middlesex University, London and is currently teaching mental health at the University of East London. He can be found: @nick45wood or http://nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz/

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