Alison Trent listens to the bone-shuddering cries of the Stalker echo across the overgrown campus, waiting for the chance to sacrifice herself.
She doesn’t know if the Stalker can be destroyed. Even the Yau, who were ancient long before life on Earth began, do not know. Nothing is certain but that the Stalker must be trapped, and she is the bait.
Caspian Gale and the Yau Coordinator Jasper have been inseparable for so long neither thinks of itself as an individual. “We are a bridge between worlds,” they insist, as they forge a mental link from the waking world to the realms of nightmares. “We are the interface between those who slumber and those who rose.”
“You are a conference call app,” Francesca Kincaid retorts. “Connect us already.”
Francesca’s dream form looks like something spray-painted on the side of a van – an imperious warrior-queen, sword in hand, armour the same dull grey-blue of the dreamscape, and carrying herself with menacing presence, like an epic hero looking for a foe to vanquish.
Alison Trent spent just a short time in Francesca’s company,when she was still part of the dream world. She’s never seen Francesca’s waking form. She realises she probably never will. Their physical bodies might be continents apart. “I’m glad to see you’re still alive, Fran.”
She feels Francesca’s grimace before she sees it; the sensory feedback from the Gale/Jasper interface obeys its own laws. “Sorry, Ali. You won’t be so happy when you hear the plan.”
“I feel pretty good for someone who hasn’t moved in years.”
Alison’s only been awake for two hours, after sleeping for –well, nobody has admitted how long it’s been, but the campus is wildly overgrown with grass a body’s length taller than her, impassable shrubbery thickets, and ivy so dense in places as to pull walls from buildings.
Caspian Gale, the human half of the Gale/Jasper hybrid, hands her tarnished equipment and a stale energy bar. “Your Phyter – the Yau volunteer who sustained your life and held you safely in the dream state – also worked to build your muscle mass and flexibility.”
Alison winces at his quietly remonstrative tone, but apologies are no use now. “Until I killed it, you mean. Did it have a name?”
“Yau names are fluid expressions of lineage, social function,gender identity, cultural accomplishments and preferred pastimes,” Gale said,though Ali suspected it was Coordinator Jasper’s reply. “They liked to be called Bob. They admired your tenacity, Alison.”
“I guess Bob would take satisfaction in knowing my last moments will be as horrible as theirs.”
“They would not. Bob wanted you to live, above all else. They cared for you more than anyone you’ve ever known.”
Alison thinks about her nightmares, where her husband Luke turned on her, over and over, again and again.
“Then I owe him one.”
While most of what remains of the human race squirms in the throes of Yau nightmares, Francesca Kincaid gathers her army. Nera Ramesh, her lieutenant, reshapes the illusory space into a stadium to accommodate the hundreds of dreamers who have resisted the Yau illusions. Almost all of them owe their heightened awareness to Francesca. Almost none of them thank her for removing the scales from their eyes.
“We get only one chance at this,” Francesca tells them. “If we screw it up, everything dies. Every Yau. Every human. So we don’t screw it up, okay?”
They roar assent. Francesca beckons them, and they fall into an untidy march behind her.
Nera says, too quiet for anyone but Francesca to hear, “What if we don’t screw it up? How many will die then?”
Francesca shrugs “Leave the accounting to whoever’s left.”
Ali’s role in the plan is simple: she runs.
The Stalker knows she’s awake; it has known since the moment she killed Bob and lost their protection. It homes in on her brain activity like a bloodhound in summer. Ali is prey.
“Where is it?” she huffs into a two-way transceiver.
Gale’s voice crackles through static. “We can’t be sure. We have very few observers. But it’s close to you. It’s getting closer.”
The roar, when it comes, is worse than before. It sounds like a half-frozen bear being dismembered by a rotary saw.
Ali runs. She scurries off campus, bounding along the rooftops of abandoned cars, heading for the crumbling city. Could she lose it in the decaying streets? Not for long. Maybe for long enough.
Unlike Gale/Jasper, the Stalker exists in both the real world and dreamscape simultaneously. Perhaps other worlds as well. But it is a singular being; it can’t quite be everywhere at once. There are some physical laws even it must obey.
She hears its pursuit. She hears cars shunted aside, the crack of splintering tree trunks and thudding feet. Not quite all the way to the presumed urban safety, Ali turns to confront it.
She fires a flare gun without aiming at a shadowy shape in full sunlight. It’s smaller than she expected – horse-sized at most, it is an unfixed ball of shifting spines, huffing mouths and glaring orange eyes. The searing red flash disorients the Stalker. Her tiny hope of disabling it dies at once.
Ali has no other weapons but a steel bar and bravado. “Come on then, you hungry mutt. Make it quick. Bob’s waiting for my apology.”
“God help us, it’s enormous.”
Two things: the Stalker has never been distracted before, and nobody has ever tried to surround it.
Francesca’s soldiers are nightmare-saboteurs. They have learned to turn the stuff of dreams into weapons capable of hurting the Yau.
But the Stalker is not the Yau, and dream-weapons do it no harm.
Instead, they dig a hole. A hundred weaponised dream-sappers crack the sleeping universe wide open.
The Stalker’s limbs flail. It falls shrieking through the gap between realities.
A stray tentacle plucks Francesca from her vantage point, and drags her down.
The gap closes.
The Stalker and Francesca are gone.
This week’s story is the latest instalment in a series I’m determined to eventually bring to an end, preferably before they become a novel told in thousand-word chapters. The series to date are Works Like A Dream, Any Dream Will Do, Alison’s Awake and The Nightmare Bargain. I’m not prepared to swear to the final count, but there’s going to be at least two more stories before the dream warriors wrap up.
This week’s title is freely adapted from my favourite line from Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (played by the magnificent Michael Ironside), who was objectively the best character in Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers. The line is “I only have one rule. Everyone fights, no-one quits. You don’t do your job, I’ll shoot you.”