Andrei grips the chain-link fence, unmoving, anticipating the light beams. Right above him, Nadya hangs in silence. Three white circles dance around one another, catch them by the foot, the hand, by a bit of their dark clothing—and swerve, continuing their semi-randomized sweep further down the fence. He breathes out a sigh of relief.
The chain vibrates as Nadya claws her way to the top, switches sides, extra-careful around the barbed wire, then climbs down as slowly as before. For a moment, her face comes opposite Andrei’s while he’s still on the outer side; he moves to kiss her, but she smiles, drops to the ground.
He climbs after her, mimicking her movements, and they make their way to the nearest building with a covert swiftness reserved for master burglars.
Sidling against Building D2’s back wall, Nadya peeks round a corner. “All clear,” she says. Andrei looks—the sentry in the guardhouse yawns, checking his wristwatch.
“Now,” says Nadya, and they dart across a patch of grass to the second building. They check the guard again—massaging his forehead, eyes closed—and nod at each other.
“You’re doing great,” she whispers, patting him on the back.
They scuttle to Building A2, closer to the center of the compound, before taking off their backpacks and gloves. The prowling circles of light flow like oil on water on the outskirts of the yard.
“Give me the clips.”
Andrei fishes them out of his backpack, hands them to her.
They’re hunched above a rectangular protrusion from the wall, a foot above the ground, a tube running down from it and burrowing into the mulch. The dream box, and the tongue.
Nadya pries the box’s front plate open with a screwdriver. She attaches the alligator clips to two nubs, one black, one white. An optic cable connects the clips to a splitter, which connects to two plastic helmets, like a construction worker’s, except matte black and slick looking.
They put them on.
She grins. “Bon voyage.”
She flips the switch attached to the optic cable like a bead, and dreams drip down the length of the wire—
NeurOnIce is the world’s largest morgue, Nadya had explained to him—no bodies, obviously, but racks of servers hosting the pre-mortem brain scans of the now deceased. Some scans live out their Afterlife™ in supercomputed paradise; some hang out in enclosed, virtual bubbles, cheaper than the processor-heavy alternatives; and some are just there, awaiting better times when the cost of computation would drop to permit their resurrection.
It is from these poor souls that the dreams are fermented, she’d said. They’re left to themselves, expensive processing cycles unspent, brains thawing out, tapping into the cerebrum’s mechanism of rest and repair. Passing years of dreaming, of replaying memories, like a camera recording a screen to which it’s wired.
Necroneirics. Dead people’s dreams. Self-generated content, experienced, then discarded. Drip, drip, dripping down the length of the wire.
—Andrei removes his helmet with a violent tug.
His breathing is labored. Cold sweat on his body, exacerbated by the night breeze. He shudders.
He sees Nadya propped on the wall, shrouded in shadow, eyelids fluttering to the flow of junk dreams. He waits for her to wake up, trying not to think of anything.
When she comes to, she stretches as if rousing from deep slumber.
“What’s the matter?” she says.
“I dunno.” He pulls closer to the wall.
Stroking his arm, “Didn’t enjoy it?”
“No.” Eyes focused on the cracked light sweeping the fence. “It was terrible.”
“Oh, Andrei, I’m sorry your first dream was a nightmare. They’re pretty amazing, usually.”
“I was an old man,” he says, eyes vacant. “Dying, with nobody around. No family, no friends. Just one bed in the middle of a never-ending library, with shelves and shelves of books. I cried out in pain but no one answered. Suddenly, the books started toppling over like dominoes, thudding to the ground. Thud, thud, thud, drumming faster and faster. Then, just before death, and waking … this thought enters my mind. I’ve—”
“Wasted your time living other people’s lives.” She sighs, starts packing the equipment into the backpacks.
“You’ve dreamed it, too?”
She swings her backpack over her shoulder. “It’s a defense mechanism. Widely popular. Dreamers from Venezuela got maimed by guard dogs a few years back, so after having settled the matter out of court with them, NeurOnIce dropped the Rottweilers, and turned to more sophisticated methods to drive us away.”
Nadya drops to the ground, peeks round the building’s corner.
“It’s a ham-fisted metaphor for what we do.” She gets up, points to the fence some hundred feet away, readies to pounce. “Supposed to make us reconsider our hobby or something. It’s a bad trip. Forget it. Now.”
And they sprint, equipment bobbing in their backpacks. Gripping the fence, climbing over to the other side, leaving the guard none the wiser about their midnight excursion.
Trudging along the sidewalk toward the city, keeping to themselves.
After twenty minutes of quiet, Andrei says, “Why do you do it?”
Nadya shrugs. “Pleasure, fun. Same reasons people do amusing things.” Seeing his raised eyebrows, she adds, “It’s as valid an experience as any. Nobody can convince me otherwise.”
At the intersection where their paths diverge, Andrei gives her a perfunctory hug. He knows he will never see her again.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you,” she says, eyes sweeping the bitumen. “Maybe the movies would’ve been a better choice for a first date.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
He watches her disappear down her street, then he heads home, unable to shake off the fright of having mistaken, even briefly, his life for somebody else’s.
Damien Krsteski writes SF and develops software. His stories have appeared in Plasma Frequency, Flapperhouse, The Colored Lens, Bastion, Perihelion SF, and others. He lives and works in Skopje, Macedonia.