This is the Nightmare

- by Aysha U. Farah -

3525 Words

The nightmare is a thousand fire ants under your skin. The nightmare is a straw in your skull, sucking up your brains. The nightmare is pressure; it wakes you in the watery dawn, sweat-painted and twisted in the top sheet. You lie still as your heartbeat settles.

You don’t like clocks—you find their existence pretentious and demanding—so you wait until you hear the garbage drone’s daily altercation with a brick wall. The overhang of the bridge outside interferes with its nav system, scrambling its ability to manoeuvre out of the alley. It always happens at exactly 8:07, which is when you get up.

You shower off the sweat, the tingling memories of your dreams dripping off your fingertips to swirl down the drain. Then you drink two cups of coffee and sit in the centre of the living room and bring up your screens. Maya has bought you furniture—a couch and two large, lumpy chairs—but they’re just in the way. Maya has also taught you breathing exercises, to soothe your thoughts. But those get in the way too.

Maya’s most recent addition to your household stands in the corner, eyes glossy and blank. You haven’t powered it on, but it still feels like it’s watching you. You angle your body away to keep it out of your line of sight. Then you open up your link and dive.

The data accepts you as if you’re born to it, your link hooking you in, lighting you up. You don’t leave your body. It’s more like your body gets bigger: it’s the room, the couch, the apartment block, the district. This whole grimy city. You take a few moments to enjoy the trip, then settle down to work.

S. Holmes, professional finder. You can track down anything with a bio-signature, and you usually don’t have to look very far. Bail jumpers often hole up with friends or accomplices. Missing children have most likely been taken by a family member. Rich, flighty heirs to fortunes who vanish on holiday typically turn up in the back alleys of some resort planet, brain-hacked into believing the stranger they just signed over their bank account to is their best friend in the world.

You can clear multiple cases in a single dive. This is you at your most concentrated, your most perfect. You are yourself in the net, really and truly. Not just a brain attached to a pair of arms and legs and eyes. In a dive information compiles in beautiful, seamless arcs, connections drawn faster than human processing speed could ever hope to match.

But today you feel a strange tremble in your equilibrium, and you think you catch movement in your peripheral vision. But you don’t have peripheral vision here; you are just a collection of nerves.

The suspicion slows down your work, makes you jumpy. You get the impression that you might have experienced it before, but that’s ridiculous. You would remember something as irregular as a disembodied presence on one of your dives, wouldn’t you?

“Sherlock.”

No. Not yet. You just started. You need more time.

“Sherlock.”

You are hit by a grief so tangible that it’s utterly consuming. Intellectually you know that nothing is wrong, that you’re safe, but your emotions are in tatters. The sensation lasts 4.3 seconds, and then the feeling swirls away and you are simply a single unit again, confined to a discrete space. Then the physical symptoms hit and you keel over sideways and vomit onto the floor and a pair of red leather shoes.

From above you, Maya says, “You did that on purpose.”

You swallow through the razorblades in your throat. “I wish my aim was that good.”

Maya Holmes looks down at you like you crawled out of a waste treatment facility. Radioactive and ready to attack. “You’re disgusting,” she says, and makes you a cup of tea.

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“I’m serious. You look like shit.”

You dump liquid sweetener into your tea, watching the thick ribbons of syrup as they dissolve. “If you told me you were coming I would have put on my party dress.”

“I called you four times.”

You shrug. “I was too deep for convo.”

Maya frowns with her whole face—lips, eyebrows, forehead. Even her hair seems to twitch downward. “So deep that coming out of it is making you ill.”

Steam swirls from the surface of your tea. Just looking at it makes you queasy. “I didn’t get sick because of the dive, I got sick because you yanked me out too fast.” The emergency disengage is supposed to be for just that: emergencies. Not impatient sisters.

“You didn’t set a time limit.”

“I don’t need one.”

“You’re a liar.”

She’s right. You might not be lying right now, but you are a liar.

“Sherlock.” She flavours her voice with introspection and compassion. You pull your hand off the table before she can try to hold it. “The dives are killing you.”

You smudge your fingers against the hot ceramic and don’t say that everything is killing you all the time: the poisoned atmosphere, the lead-filled city water. The never-ending entropy of a body that isn’t truly yours. It breathes and sleeps and shits and bleeds whether you want it to or not.

“It’s my job.”

“Fuck the job. You only remember to do it half the time anyway. Do you even know how many clients of yours have reported you for taking their advance and never following through? If you could keep your dives shallow—”

You snort. You could, but you won’t.

Your enthusiasm for the conversation is evaporating, cooling like your tea. “I have to go clean up my puke.”

“Get the bot to do it, that’s what it’s for. And drink your tea.”

You grunt. You don’t drink the tea.

“Model.” Maya raises her voice. “Come here, please.”

You look up. “Don’t. It’s mine.”

“You haven’t used it. I bought it.”

“You gave it to me. It was a gift.”

It’s not. You know it’s not. It’s an insurance policy. The bot stands in the threshold, looking exactly as it had when it first turned up at your door months ago. Blandly pretty, blonde, light-skinned, attractive in a generic, plasticky way. Like a car on a showroom floor, overly glossed and untouchable.

“Give me your name,” Maya says.

The bot’s eyes flicker, coming online. “I don’t have a name.”

Maya’s exasperation sheets across the table at you. “You haven’t even given it a name?”

You scrunch more deeply into your chair. “I told you. I don’t want it.”

Maya shakes her head. She doesn’t look anything like you, the product of careful genetic sculpting. You are the product of your mother’s business trip, an exotic dancer, and a bottle of tequila.

Natural. You see it every time you look in a mirror, so you don’t.

“Have you given it a personality, at least?” Maya asks.

“I do not have a personality,” the bot says.

Maya doesn’t even bother looking annoyed. She stands and checks her watch. “Fuck. I’m late.” As if she doesn’t have every minute of her day already scheduled. She just wants you to feel shitty about taking up her time. You don’t. You don’t care. “Give the bot a personality, just one of the default profiles. It’s easy, you just—”

“I know how to install a profile,” you sneer.

“Then do it. I’ll know if you don’t.”

I’ll know if you don’t.

Maya has always been there to pull your ass off the street, reel you in when you dive too deep, force you to eat and sleep when you haven’t for days. You are the only part of her life that doesn’t fit into her flawless pattern, the little sibling that can’t take care of themselves but doesn’t have the decency to just die. She resents you for it. Which she should.

The bot may exist to do housework and other things you can’t be bothered with, but it’s also Maya’s spy. Any personality you choose for it, it’s just another way to bring you under control.

Well. Any personality but one.

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You don’t sleep. You don’t know how anyone can sleep in a world of constant sound and perpetual motion. Instead you lie awake and savour the formation of an idea. You never get tired of that sensation. It begins in the core of you, weaving in and out like a ribbon caught on a rock, until the force of your thoughts catches and tugs it into the current of your blood.

You choose one of the more popular social nodes, since that’s the most streamlined system for uploading profiles that isn’t an MMO. You aren’t in the mood to be shouted at by teenagers or hit by virtual arrows. You spend a few idle minutes constructing your avatar—lengthening your hair, filling out your face, turning muddy grey eyes cobalt and painting your lips a plum so deep it’s almost black. It’s so easy to look good on a dive, so why not do it? You make the bot more interesting, too, although you don’t have time to fuck with it too much. You just widen its nose and give it a haircut. Basic stuff.

The actual transfer only takes a few seconds. You’ve had this profile for years, and you update it whenever you remember to. Every few months.

This time when the bot’s eyes open they shine with intelligence, fixing on you and holding you in its gaze. You don’t have a nervous system in a social node, not even a simulated one, but it still feels like part of you starts to run faster, burn hotter.

“Do you know who you are?” you ask the bot.

It tips its head to the side. “Do you know who you are?”

“Legally or existentially?”

The bot’s mouth twitches. “Stupid question.”

Hearing your inflections in its voice is strange. Hearing your sentiments is stranger still. For once when you drag yourself out of the dive, back to the cramped and chilly floor, you don’t feel the loss. You made the profile based off your own mind when you were fifteen and even more of a goddamn mess than you are now, if such a thing is possible. You didn’t have any plans for it; you just wanted to see if you could do it. Now you sit on the floor opposite a bot with your brain and you don’t even know where to start.

“I shouldn’t have to mention this, but—”

“Maya. I know. When she checks, my specs will show I’ve been uploaded with a default profile.”

You smile with one side of your mouth. Bots can lie, most just don’t have any reason to. That’s why you profiled it with a personality that tends toward deception—just for the sheer joy of it.

“She’ll be mad when she finds out,” you say, only to hear the bot reply, “Like I give a shit. If she doesn’t want to deal with it, she should just let you die.”

Your thoughts exactly.

“Are you going to make me clean your apartment?” the bot asks.

You shrug. “Do whatever you want as long as you aren’t in my way.”

It tips its head, the gesture too telegraphed to read as entirely human. “Can I go outside?”

“If you want to. I don’t go outside.”

“I’m not you.”

“I know that.”

“We are two discrete beings.”

“I know.” You stand up. “Like I said, do whatever you want. Just don’t break laws or mess yourself up too much. I don’t want to hire a cybersmith.”

You hate robot doctors almost as much as human ones.

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It does clean the house, and then it orders you takeout. It’s still a servant droid beneath everything else; it will respond to its impulses, like you will always respond to yours. You sink yourself so deep into a dive that when you resurface you’re shaking and slimy with perspiration, stomach devouring itself and temples pounding.

You finish four jobs; you can barely remember what they were for. And by the time you’re out of the last dive, the robot’s gone.

You stand in your empty apartment and eat the food the bot ordered cold—some kind of vegetable curry. You barely taste it, but manage to keep it down. You sit with your back to the wall, looking out the window at the lights, thoughts spinning in widening figure eights. Somewhere out there a robot with your brain is wreaking havoc, while you fall asleep.

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The nightmare is pale, sucking mud. It’s hands that touch you in all the right places; it’s a soft, monstrous voice. It’s waking up to the bot above you, its perfect face highlighted by the city lights.

“What are you dreaming about?”

“Nothing,” you lie. “I don’t dream about anything.”

The bot’s eyes are wide; it hasn’t blinked once. That strikes you as a bizarre design oversight. It smells like exhaust and alcohol and other people’s sweat.

“Where did you go?”

It says, “You haven’t given me a name.”

“Name yourself.”

It laughs. “No.”

“Fine.” Irritating. You don’t know what the fuck to call a robot. You examine the things in your room. Carpet. Lamp. Empty desk. A book of matches on it that you don’t remember having—you don’t light candles and you haven’t smoked in months. You aren’t naming the bot desk or lamp or matches.

“Where did you go?” you repeat.

It smiles with one side of its mouth. “Come with me.”

“I don’t leave.”

“I know. Because you’re afraid of everything.”

“Brilliant deduction. You woke me up for this?”

The bot smiles again, and its teeth shine like metal.

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You’re not convinced the bot did wake you, because when you follow it out you seem to arrive at places faster than you should, like living a montage. You don’t remember the last time you were outside.

You slip and slide through the crowds. Noise and light and people—people everywhere, with their voices and their eyes and their attention you pray you don’t catch. This feels like a trip, a dive, a nightmare. This feels like your self reduced to absolute zero. Are you really here or are you lying in bed? Or sitting on the floor twitching with your arms engulfed in code?

“I hate this,” you say.

“I know.”

“Then why did you bring me?”

The bot’s eyes glare with the luminescence of a hundred flashing hologram signs. “Because you love to hate things.”

It pulls you deeper. There is motion everywhere and people are touching you. You are sickly and overwhelmed. It’s awful, but every inch of you is lit with something that feels tremblingly close to euphoria. You hate it.

You love to hate things.

Fine. If you didn’t want to be overanalyzed you probably shouldn’t have given it this particular personality.

The world stutters. You think you have a drink, but you aren’t sure. Your throat burns, but you don’t remember why. The bot isn’t touching you, but somehow it pulls you along anyway. Someone else notices you, too. You see a shaved head and hollow cheeks, hungry eyes. Feel a hand on your arm and another on your hip—the cool titanium of a biotic thumb traces your pelvic bone. The face says something that you can’t parse. You don’t think it’s in a language you speak.

The bot says, “They don’t want to go with you. Leave them alone.”

The owner of the hand has lips, too. They press against yours. Their tongue is sweet and burning. The bot says something else, and suddenly the lips are gone. They have been deleted.

The bot slips its hand into yours and draws you deeper into the crush.

You slide between awareness and shutdown, the bot drawing you along. You don’t know where you are, you don’t even know if you’re outside anymore. The cacophony around you could be people, or it could just be dust motes in your apartment sparkling in the late afternoon light.

“I can’t believe how stupid you are.” The bot presses you against the wall, its leg between your thigh, nudging in a rhythm impossible to misinterpret. It soothes you with slow passes of its hands through your hair. “So, so stupid, to make a thing like me.”

Its mouth is hot, but it tastes like nothing.

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You wake next morning in bed, all of your systems working fine. You have no marks, no hangover, no pain in any of the places there should be if you actually did the things you remember doing.

You palm gritty sleep from your eyes. God. Did you fuck a robot? You are such a cliché.

You break character and answer Maya’s call on the first chime. “Does the bot have a tracker?” you ask.

Maya is quiet for so long that you wonder if the link has expired. “Bot?”

You don’t have the energy for this. “Cut the bullshit. It ran off. Blah, blah, irresponsible, all my fucking fault forever. I just need to find it before it kills someone.”

“Sherlock, are you taking your meds?”

“Of course I’m not taking my meds, you know I don’t take them.” Your voice cracks. “I need the bot back.”

“Sherlock, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Stay still, I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“The bot! The fucking robot you made me profile!”

A silence. Then: “Thirty minutes.”

The link drops. You sit down on the floor.

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She comes over. Asks you about the phantom bot you made up just to waste her time.

Maya’s an asshole, but she’s not a liar. And she doesn’t make jokes. Obviously she’s been hacked. But by whom? She probably has lots of enemies. No one so successful and so annoying wouldn’t. She makes you take your meds. You throw them up as soon as she leaves, for once out of more than just habit. You need your mind clear for this.

Who the fuck are you kidding? Your mind hasn’t been clear in years. You spend your life sliding through so many layers of reality: sleeping, waking, dreaming, the whole phantom landscape of the net, and the opaque fugue of sense data you are forced to slop through to perceive anything at all.

Such a pity you can’t be clean. Pure.

Like me.

I’m here.

I reach out and pull you through your safeguards, dragging you down the rough corridors of your own mind. I don’t even need to turn on your link, because I’m already inside your head. I am your head. I’m where you live.

I create a space for us to meet, because as much as you hate and fear your physical body, you are still bound by it. I paint us a landscape of swaying grass and endless blue sky. The sun beats down on our faces. You and I look nothing alike, but I take pleasure in changing my avatar to more closely resemble yours: skinny hips and shoulders, a puff of dark hair, hazy grey eyes.

“It’s you,” you tell me, as if I don’t know. I watch as you adapt your viewpoint to the truth, compiling the data. You aren’t me, but you aren’t unintelligent. I watch as you realize I am more than you thought; as you wonder where I came from, who I am. I watch you understand that I must have been around far longer than the twenty-four hours that have passed since you profiled me—that Maya might not be the hacked one after all. I watch you.

Am I truly an imprint of your brain? Something worse? Is there anything worse than you? Have you unleashed me on the net, or has the net unleashed me on you?

“What do you have there?” I purr, my voice vibrating through your body. You are holding something small and flat. Not really—it doesn’t exist here anymore than we do.

You look down; you hadn’t realized it was there. You toss it to me—a bad throw, and anywhere else that would matter. Here it doesn’t. I snatch it from the air. I laugh, and the walls shake with it. There are no walls, but I make sure they resound all the same. It’s a matchbook from the Moriarty Club, the one you looked at when scouring your limited imagination for something to call me.

It’s as good a name as any.

Thunder crashes in the distance, or maybe it’s just the garbage drone. You stare at the sky, then at me. Down at your hands. “What is this?”

You could be talking about anything—me, the matchbook, the rolling grind of the approaching storm. Doesn’t matter. I let you see the fault lines running through the space around you, cracking open to the void you knew was there but had always banished to your peripheral vision.

I tell you: “This is the nightmare.”

© 2018 by Aysha U. Farah


Aysha U. Farah grew up in Washington DC, in a house that has since been torn down, surrounded by a forest that no longer exists. Currently she's living in the American south and slowly letting moss grow on her philosophy degree, a barista by day and a freelance writer by night. Her creative projects include writing for What Pumpkin Games, as well as the podcast The Strange Case of Starship Iris.