Francesca has been wandering the darkened halls of the charred house for ages when the knock finally comes. The door is a pristine white unlike anything else in her singed surroundings; it wasn’t there a moment ago.
“Excuse me, Miss…er, Francesca Kincaid?” The two handymen wear overalls and tired, indifferent expressions. The long-faced speaker’s breast pocket label names her as Sam; the one with big hands pulling a fully-laden tool trolley is apparently George.
Sam waves a piece of paper with indecipherable forms printed on it. “We got a work order says your dream is malfunctioning, Miss. May we come in and inspect the apparatus?”
Francesca blinks slowly as she swings the door open. “I’m dreaming?”
“You’re supposed to be, Miss. Something’s gone wrong.” Sam pops a hatch on the side of a toolbox and produces a complicated device resembling a piccolo crossed with two egg-beaters.
“What is that?”
Sam pulls off her cap, which is printed with a drifting-cloud logo and the name “Id Industrial”, and scratches her ginger buzz cut. “This? I guess you’d call it an emotional seismograph. It’ll help us track the problem to its source. Can you lead us to where you last felt uneasy or unsafe?”
“I think I know just the place.” Francesca leads them up a rickety staircase, creaky and rotten with mould, to a room where a four-poster bed is draped with tatters of silk and littered with foul-smelling goose down. As it was on her previous visit, the room is a few degrees too cold for Francesca’s comfort.
“Perfect,” said Sam. “Stand back and we’ll have you back in your dream in no time.”
George pulls the bed aside to reveal a trapdoor. Sam lifts the hatch. Under the floorboards lies a mishmash of machinery, as if someone has dumped the engine parts of everything from a 747 to a combine harvester and jerry-rigged them into a new device. George pulls a spanner from his belt and experimentally whacks the nearest part, which might be the carburettor of a muscle car from the 1970’s.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” complained Francesca. “Dreams don’t come from machines! Do they?”
“Hah! No, not as a rule.” Sam twiddles a dial of the side of her piccolo-seismograph until it makes a whirl-whoop sound. “Normal human dreaming is just the chemical highlights reel from the memory cataloguing process. Interesting, lots of potential, but not all that consistent. We were after something a little more reliable. Hence the mnemonic induction engines.”
She looks Francesca up and down with a quizzical expression. “That was well spotted, come to think of it. You shouldn’t have been able to notice that.”
Francesca shakes her head as if she’d just stepped through a cobweb. “Are you telling me you’re trying to control my dreams?”
Sam looks down at George. George looks up at Sam. They both look at Francesca and burst into laughter.
“Dreams? Dreams? You dumb human, we don’t want you to have dreams. We’re controlling your nightmares.”
“You heard me. We didn’t conquer the waking world so you could act out your weird little self-actualising fantasies about flying and succeeding and having a puppy who talks to you. We want you screaming your tiny little minds out, forever and amen.”
Francesca sits down heavily on the bed, sending up a plume of rank feathers. “What are you talking about?”
Sam sighs, but it’s a sneer of mockery. “As if you could fathom the breadth of our designs, you monkey-brained little throat gargle. I’ll give you the montage so we don’t fry your synapses.”
The room abruptly becomes a freeway, choked with stilled traffic; drivers emerge slack-jawed from their cars as gigantic figures dressed in biohazard suits loom above them. The sky has torn open as if ripped by claws, and eyes stare down through the slashes. Cables rise from the bitumen and drag screaming victims into the earth; others find themselves stalked and slain by their own toothy, ravenous cars, or throttled by their shirt collars. A few just fall into the sky.
Now the room is a forest, where desperate survivors flee unseen horrors. Now it is a city street, where exhausted stragglers are overrun by swarms of bugs and bats. Now a shoreline, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unconscious humans are laid side by side on the sand, enveloped by fibrous tendrils as thick as a shroud. Every one of them is screaming like a scalded infant. Behind them is a great engine, a black dome straddling the horizon like a feeding spider, generating psychic torment.
Sam kisses her fingertips appreciatively. “Human misery, Miss Kincaid. Mwah! Tastes so good!”
Francesca’s eyes drop to the white-knuckled fists in her lap. “Dream vampires. That’s…not what I expected.”
“I guess not.”
“Why tell me now?”
Sam grins. “First of all, because your uncomprehending terror is frankly hilarious. Second, when we restart the dream sequence, you won’t remember any of this. Speaking of which, how are we doing down there, George?”
George’s voice is muffled by the floorboards. “Lots of damage down here. Gears and bolts all over the place. It almost looks like it’s been deliberately -”
A thump from the floor jars Francesca to her knees, and Sam stumbles. She yells, “What was that?” The only reply from George’s direction is a sharp smell like scorched oil.
Francesca whips an arm around Sam’s throat in a choke hold. “With enough time and motivation,” she whispers, “any machine can be understood. This one hard-codes metaphors, right? That’s your problem, right there. It’s not just comprehensible to the tiny little human mind. It’s also surprisingly easy to sabotage with just a little imagination.”
She raises the pair of silver scissors she imagined earlier.
“You chewed on me like a midnight snack, Sam. What do you want to bet I can walk out of here wearing you like a suit?”