There is a ghost in the machine and the monsters don’t like it. They are creatures of relentlessly exacting habits; the slightest imperfection in their designs is an irritant that itches the whole social order. Francesca Kincaid is a bag of gravel tossed into their precision clockwork world.
She’s been on the run for weeks now, during which time she has learned three things.
One, she can walk into any dream she pleases, a chameleon in the landscape, unseen by monster eyes.
Two, there are others like her, who possess the right spark of imagination to defy the monsters’ horrifying dream architecture; once they understand their imprisonment, they are all too willing to be recruited to her cause.
Three, she may not be the monsters’ only problem.
It begins with the crew of the fishing boat.
Most dreamers are imprisoned in solitary worlds, as she had been, but sometimes the monsters group them together. The trawler is one such collective nightmare, an unsettling scenario of snarled nets, spoiled catches and a storm approaching too fast for the engines to outrun. Four sailors aboard bend grimly to their frantic work, praying for their safe return to loved ones ashore, but certain they will never see land again.
Such scenarios, awash with anxiety and dread, are rich pickings for the monsters, Francesca knows. She doesn’t understand yet how they feed, but their undoubted purpose is to cultivate this miasma of horror.
“Ahoy, Captain! Can I lend a hand?” By the dictates of dream logic, her sudden presence goes unquestioned. She simply blends into whatever narrative preceded her.
The ship’s captain is a scrawny man with thinning hair, more an accountant than a seasoned trawler man. He squints at her through foggy spectacles in momentary confusion, then nods. “We need to lose weight. Help Nelson dump the cargo.”
As she strides across the deck, wind driving sea spray at her, she affects a stagger for appearances. Nothing here will affect her unless she chooses it, but it pays not to be complacent.
Nelson is a thick-armed teenager with anime tattoos and Sophia Loren on his t-shirt. He is using a crane to move heavy bins stocked with live fish to a niche on the stern. Francesca watches him overturn the bin and spill the catch into the churn of the boat’s wake. “You crane, I’ll tip!” he yells.
Francesca assumes control of the crane and lifts the next bin into place. A heavy wave hits the prow, throwing a wall of spray across the entire boat.
When it clears, Nelson has vanished. At first, she assumes the dream has concocted a new plot point to escalate the stress: man overboard! Either sacrifice time and perhaps die in the course of his rescue or abandon him to the sea.
Then she sees the anime-festooned limb sloshing among the gasping fish.
“What the -?” A woman’s head emerges from a hatch behind Francesca. She asks, “What happened to Nelson?”
Before Francesca can answer, the woman vanishes back into the hatch with a surprised “Oh!”
Francesca rushes to the hatch, but within is a black hole and the woman has vanished. A man screams from the darkness, “Watch out, it’s-” and is abruptly cut off.
The Captain appears, gun in hand, looking wildly about. He yells “Nelson! Burgess! Samuels!”
Francesca is rattled. Dream-deaths are rare – the monsters need the terror, not the release of tension brought by death. Something else is going on here. She grabs the Captain’s hand. “Back to the cabin! We’re getting out of here.”
She leads the way, ducking through the wheelhouse door. Movement makes her look back. The Captain shudders and jerks out of sight. Francesca catches a glimpse of russet hair and claws like scissor blades.
She flees the savaged dream, taking refuge in a troubling reverie of looming bills and suspicions of infidelity. As the dreamer frets about confronting her husband, Francesca pours herself a drink.
“Alison,” she says to the dreamer, “I just saw something killing dreamers. How does that happen?”
“I don’t understand anything anymore.” Alison shakes her head and goes to answer the door. Her husband kicks it off its hinges and brandishes a knife at her.
Francesca pulls her away and drags her to the kitchen. “Is this your dream or his?” she asks.
“We used to share everything,” wails Alison.
A sound like breaking sticks comes from the front door. The husband screams in hoarse terror.
“Come on!” Francesca drags Grace out of her own dream, ignoring her disoriented cries. They stumble through a child’s towering, indistinct terror of half-glimpsed horror movies; they tumble through smoke-filled corridor, ignoring the hacking coughs and wailing sirens; they run headlong through a dim forest of miserable owners calling for missing pets.
In a hospital corridor smelling sickly of disinfectant, Francesca comes to a halt. “It’s still coming,” she says, as a blood-splattered orderly rushes past with an instrument trolley. “It must have our scent somehow.”
“Is there anything you can do?” Alison’s only certainty is her reliance on Francesca. She is struggling to remain calm.
“A couple of things.” Francesca finds a restless sleeping patient and begins unplugging machines, flicking switches, hitting alarms. A heart monitor starts wailing.
“What are you doing?”
“Disrupting the dream,” replies Francesca as she hefts a fire extinguisher through a window. “Our hosts will send a troubleshooting crew.”
“You said they were monsters too! How many monsters do you want here?”
“I want to set the monsters to fight each other.”
Alison shakes her head. “I don’t want to be in the middle of a monster fight.”
“You won’t be.” Francesca points to an unoccupied bed. “Lie down.”
Confused, Alison obeys. “This isn’t much of a hiding space.”
“You won’t be able to keep up if I have to run. The only place you might be safe is out of the dream.”
In the distance, wood splinters and the screaming begins.
Francesca snaps her fingers.
“Alison. Wake up.”