It takes an army of monsters to bring down Francesca Kincaid.
The handful of survivors drag her, beaten to within an inch of her unwoken life, to their leader. “Coordinator Jasper,” says one through swollen lips and cracked teeth, “we’ve brought the renegade to heel.”
Jasper presents as a middle-aged bureaucrat with a tidy haircut and polished shoes, none of which reflects his true appearance. Nor is he precisely male, though the distinction here, as in the waking world, is meaningless.
He looks from the disheveled soldier to his bloodied prisoner with a sneer. “I hope she didn’t give you too much trouble, Garry. I vividly recall you departing in a much more sizeable company than you’ve returned with.”
Garry shakes his head. “She led us into a trap. Tricked us into fighting the Stalker. It was a massacre.”
Coordinator Jasper nudges Francesca’s slumped form. “I see. She outwitted you, then.”
The demons holding Francesca down on the plush fur rug of Jasper’s hotel suite have the grace to look embarrassed to have lived through the battle. They look wildly out of place in the Coordinator’s luxuriously appointed dreamscape.
Jasper motions for the guards to release her. “Miss Kincaid, what a thorn you have been in our well-laid plans.”
Francesca coughs a large glob of blood onto the rug and rubs her black eyes with cut and singed palms. “Maybe. But I didn’t mix your metaphors. You did that all on your own.”
“Your muddled excuse of a human language isn’t really the issue, is it? What exactly did you think you were accomplishing with this petty revolution of yours?”
Her revolution has been anything but. For what has seemed like months – it’s impossible to judge time in this prison of endless nightmares, though Francesca has learned some useful tricks – she has been lifting scales from the eyes of her fellow sleepers, revealing the existence of their tormentors, and recruiting an army to her cause. A few hundred of them now, tucked away in hidden folds of camouflaged dreamscape, emerging as small, fast-moving bands on desperate missions. What began as her sheer fury at the mass anaesthetisation of the human race by an invasion of parasitic nightmare-creatures is now something more. A desperate gambit to avoid extinction.
“That thing you call the Stalker. It preys on my kind, but it doesn’t mind a taste of yours.”
Jasper raises an eyebrow. Of all humanity’s idiomatic gestures, he admires this one most for its economy. “Congratulations on your perspicacity, if not your appreciation for the wider perspective. So you lured the Stalker into savaging my people while you led yours to safety?”
“I’m a regular Dreamlands Moses.”
The guards mutter and snarl until Garry silences them with a few sharp slaps. Coordinator Jasper says, “An efficient strategy. And have you ever seen the Stalker yourself?”
Francesca considers the question; it’s quite apparent she’s more preoccupied with calculating her odds of killing Jasper before the guards can overpower her. “You know I haven’t. It kills anyone who sees it.”
“You are both correct and wildly misinformed, as it happens.” Jasper waves her toward a lounge chair, as though suddenly remembering his manners with an unexpected guest. Francesca, bemused, perches on the edge of the leather recliner with its slightly off-putting contours.
“The Stalker is a predator of the highest order. And yes, it kills anyone it perceives, though its suite of senses differs considerably from that of either of our species. We barely understand its nature, though it has hunted us for a long time.”
Francesca frowns. “How long, exactly?”
Jasper shrugs; another favourite of his. “Life on this planet evolved from a clay seabed slick with nutrient scum. This was before that.”
Garry snorts. “Pft. Aliens!”
“We’ve fled from a conceptual space so incompatible with your psychological framework as to render the question nonsensical,” Jasper replies. “But yes. We’re called the Yau.”
Francesca’s chipped nails dig into the soft chair arms. “The keyword I just picked out of that gibberish was ‘fled’. You didn’t just invade us, did you? You led the Stalker here.”
Jasper drums his fingers on the side of a bookcase filled with leather-bound first editions. Abruptly the hand fills with a crystal tumbler sloshing with an amber fluid. Jasper drains it empty in a single gulp.
“Yes,” he says, “now we’re getting to the point of all this.” He looks at the empty glass, sighs, and places it on a shelf. “We did lead the Stalker here, but we didn’t invade. We came to make a bargain with you.”
He explains, as others have explained: every human, paired to a Yau, fell into a coma which concealed it from the Stalker. The Yau provided sustenance to keep the physical body healthy, and a dream architecture of continuous ordeal, designed to build the resilience, determination and ruthlessness needed to oppose the Stalker.
“It worked,” says Francesca, showing the bloodstains on her hands.
“Too well,” agrees Jasper. “Most humans are incapable of breaking out of the dream fugue. Fewer still can manipulate the dreamscapes, or wake up physically. You’re an unexpected disruptor.”
“Is this the part where I have to die for the sake of, what, a seven billion person training montage?”
Jasper shakes his head. “It’s too late for that. Less than one billion humans still live, Francesca. We’re almost out of time.”
Garry thoughtfully scratches the side of his head. “You want to bring the fight forward. All in, right now, dream world and real world, us versus the Stalker. It’s a huge gamble.”
“Be silent, Garry. This is between-”
‘Garry’ peels off the demon skin she’s been wearing for days, and shakes out a tangle of black hair. “Nice to meet you Jasper. That’s Nera. I’m Francesca Kincaid,” she says. “The little costume drama was to get me close enough to kill you. This must be your lucky day, because I’ve decided I believe you instead.”
On the lounge, ‘Francesca’ sloughs her bruised white skin to reveal an unblemished black complexion. Nera sighs with relief. “Never again, Fran,” she complains. “That disguise itches.”
Francesca Kincaid grins.
“Time to hunt the Stalker.”
This week’s story is part of a sequence which wasn’t originally intended to be a complete story, but which will be by the end of it. The previous parts are Works Like a Dream, Any Dream Will Do, and Alison’s Awake. I’d like to claim they all stand alone, but I suspect it makes much more sense to read them in order.
I have some lovely writing news, but I will post about it on the weekend when I have a bit more time. Check back in then for a preview of my next publication (not counting Friday flash fiction, which will be back next week, regular as clockwork).