Lighting Fire To Ashes

1:

Alan Shepard’s teeth were falling out for the third time this week.

To Jess’s left, her trainee, Steven, tried not to retch as they watched Shepard tear loose another piece of dangling gristle from his mouth and drop it into the bathroom sink.

“Ah, okay,” Steven said, “I’m supposed to figure out what this means, right?” He rubbed his chin with his fingers and stared up at the stained ceiling of the hotel room. In the meantime, another of Shepard’s teeth bounced off the ceramic and circled the drain.

“I have no idea what this means.” Steven concluded. “It’s just gross.”

“Mr. Shepard recently lost a loved one,” Jess said. “He’s starting to realize that he’s getting older, and his own death is drawing closer. Being forced to confront his own mortality, and trying to ignore it during the day, is making these concerns manifest in his subconscious mind.”

“You can tell all that just from watching someone’s teeth falling out in a dream?”

“I can tell all that because I read it in his file. Just like you were supposed to.” Jess frowned. “We’re not here to figure out what the dream means. We have analysts for that. Our job is to just observe and record.”

Jess had been observing the dreams of company employees for years. Part of their worker efficiency program–finding psychological issues in workers at an early stage increased productivity overall, and was also an indicator of which workers could be sent off to “early retirement” when it came time for budget cuts.

The dreams were observed via an interface that translated brainwave patterns into 3D holographic images. Jess didn’t know how the machine worked. It was built back before the world went to shit, by people now long since dead. She did know that the machine was intended to aid in the treatment of mental patients, but that all changed when the private sector bought out the technology and decided to monetize it to make a better return on their investment.

Jess liked her job, by and large. The gruesome sights, the nightmares–none of it really bothered her. Sometimes the sex dreams were awkward. But sifting through people’s subconscious thoughts was easier than talking to them while they were awake. Her anti-social tendencies made her uniquely qualified to deal with the often disturbing imagery dwelling within the human mind. No matter what she saw, Jess never got too immersed. She always knew that it wasn’t real. And she recognized the most important fact–that people had very little control over all the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside their heads.

If anything, the truth was the exact opposite. All the fears, the neuroses, they controlled us.

Minutes passed, or they seemed to, and Mr. Shepard’s sink was now overflowing with blood and saliva-slick teeth. No matter how many came loose and fell out of his jaw, more sprouted from his gums, shiny and wet, to take their place.

Jess put a finger to her earpiece. “Have you got what you need yet?”

After several moments, an analyst’s voice answered back. “We’ve got what we need. You’re free to extract.”

“We can leave?” Steven asked, looking pale. “Thank God.”

Mr. Shepard, the grimy hotel room, they all faded away in a flash, leaving Jess and Steven standing in an empty white room.

Jess dismissed Steven and made her way to the control room. Or, as the analysts mockingly referred to it, “the place where dreams are made”.

The control room was a maze of monitors and cabinet sized computers made up of spinning reels and blinking lights. Jess was greeted by Dale, a thin, mousy looking man in a sweat stained white shirt. Dale was many things, but he wasn’t annoying, and for that, Jess tolerated his company.

“How’s the trainee working out?” Dale asked.

“Steven?” Jess asked. “He doesn’t have the stomach for the work, and I don’t have the time to babysit.”

“Shame.” Dale shook his head. “I know you could use the help. Have you seen how packed the schedule is for next week?”

Jess wasn’t listening. Her attention was on the setting sun, falling below the horizon line, being swallowed up by the ocean waves. Another day gone. In the past, cities were all lit up at night. Corporate towers glowed more fiercely than the brightest stars, neon signs cast waves of light out onto the streets. Now when night came the candle flames were snuffed, the lamps dimmed, and the whole world was gently swallowed up by the encroaching dark.

“Long day, huh?” Dale placed a hand on Jess’s shoulder. She tried her hardest not to recoil from his touch. “What’s on your mind?”

Jess sighed. “Just thinking about how a place can change you. There was a time when I wouldn’t go near a corporate city-state. I can’t tell you how many business towers I’ve set fire to. And now…”

Jess didn’t finish her sentence.

“If that’s true, how did you ever end up in a city like Eidum? And working for the Aeus family, no less?” Dale said.

“Rebel organizations, so-called ‘Eco-Terrorists.’ For all their admirable qualities, they don’t offer healthcare plans. I had to grow up sometime.” Jess turned to walk away.

“Wait!” Dale shouted after her. “What about Alan Shepard? The guy you just observed?”

Jess stopped walking but didn’t turn back around to face Dale. “Don’t bother waking him,” she said. “Upper management made up their mind before today’s observation session even started. We were just there to gather data to reinforce their decision. Existential crises aren’t good for workplace morale. Someone will be along to flush him in the morning.”


2:


These days, sleep was elusive. Other people’s dreams bled into her own until she didn’t know which thoughts were born from her own mind and which ones just clawed their way in and took root.

A friend had suggested meditation. Closing her eyes, slowing her breathing. Imagining a sunny sky, a green meadow, trying to conjure the feeling of wind on her face.

None of that worked. But what put her right to sleep, at least for a little while, was imagining Eidum on fire, burning until the flames boiled away the water and left a smoldering mound of ash in the earth.

But like all dreams, these images slipped away with the morning light.

The morning sun sat high over the flooded city of Eidum. The water had risen again with the tide, and she could hear the waves crashing against the walls of her apartment building. The farmers were already out, navigating between the skyscrapers in their row boats, pulling fish from the nets and tending to the kelp gardens. Workers dressed in khakis and sport coats hopped down from their apartment windows or climbed down trellises to board the ferries to the corporate offices.

Jess stood in front of her bathroom mirror, shaving the short bristle of hair off of her scalp.

She looked tired, by her own estimation. And as she stared deeper into her reflection she noticed the dozens of crisscrossing lines surrounding her eyes, and nesting in the corners of her mouth.

“Existential crises aren’t good for workplace morale,” she reminded herself aloud.

She walked out to her patio and leaned over the railing, letting the sun’s rays shake loose the haze of sleep. Her mind went back to the conversation she’d had with Dale the night before. In her time she’d seen dozens of towns and cities, at least one bigger than Eidum, burn to the ground. And somewhere inside, she felt a sadness knowing that this city never could.

Still, if she did have to live in a city, there were worse places than Eidum. She’d never thought she’d settle anywhere, but there was a tranquility about this place–the waves gently lapping at the concrete walls, the birds swooping low over the water and nesting in the eaves of long abandoned buildings.

Neura, Jess’s personal data assistant, interrupted her contemplation and chimed in with her the schedule for the day. “10 a.m. Observation of human resources manager Philip Finch. 11 a.m. Appointment cancelled. Urgent alert. All appointments cancelled. You are to report directly to the office of Saul Aeus”.

“Aeus.” Jess frowned. “Christ.”


3:


No one bothered to remember the history of the old nations, or of the fallen capitals, but everyone in Eidum knew the history of the Aeus family.

David Aeus was the kind of eccentric who hoarded canned food and had bomb shelters and panic rooms built into all of his properties. When he got word of rising sea levels and global warming, he started building his properties with a watery future in mind. His masterpiece of construction, Aeus Tower, which sat at the heart of Eidum, was designed to withstand being fully submerged underwater. A plastic mesh composite made up the building’s substance, and the glass, even on the outside elevators, was thicker than what they used on the deep sea oil drilling submarines. It was an impressive feat, if a bit wasteful. The ocean had only risen some 100 feet, leaving the rest of Aeus Tower still looming well above the water.

David’s descendant, Saul, was the result of almost a century of isolation and incestuous family inbreeding. Saul had always made Jess uncomfortable, even though their encounters had always been (thankfully) brief. There was an off-putting, artificial look to his face, present in his uneven eyes, a smile that was much too wide for his jawline. He looked like he’d been carved and molded by a god that possessed no aptitude for making realistic faces or proportions.

Jess kept to the opposite side of the elevator as it descended below sea level. Outside the elevator window schools of fish, glistening in the morning sun, darted by in thick clouds.

When Saul spoke, it was with his back to Jess, still facing the windows. “Tell me,” he said, “you’re familiar with my deceased sister, Aurora, are you not?”

“Pretty much in name only. I was sorry to hear of her passing.” Jess, equal parts nervous and impatient, crossed her arms over her chest and reclined against the wall. She waited for Saul to say something, to offer up information on why he’d brought her here. But if he had anything else to add, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to do so.

The elevator came to a stop. “What is all of this about?” Jess asked.

The doors opened onto a white room, and in the center of the room was a woman, head shaved, suspended on an operating table, with dozens of wires protruding from her scalp and trailing off into a large computer sat in the corner. Even though she’d only ever seen her on vid-screens, Jess recognized the woman’s face. Aurora Aeus. Saul’s dead sister. Pale as a grave worm, drained of color, blue lipped and motionless.

Across the room from Aurora was another table, empty, but with an identical set of wires that hung suspended from another bank of computers.

Saul patiently stared at Jess, letting her mind fill with questions. Waiting for just the right moment to speak. “My sister, Aurora, never died. Not really.”

“Is she in a coma?” Jess asked.

“Yes. Drug induced. She has some brain function but not enough to compel herself to wake. We’ve tried to keep her comfortable, but to be honest we’d given up on her. Until this.” From his sleeve Saul produced a syringe full of a soft blue liquid. “We’ve been working on various cell restoration projects for years, and we’ve finally hit upon a working formula. We’ve tested it on Aurora, and it’s restored her cells, brought life back into her atrophied muscles. Physically, she’s as healthy as when she fell into her coma.”

“But she’s still sleeping,” Jess said.

“The cell restoration process brought vigor back to her body, but you’re correct. There’s some spark missing in her. She won’t wake. We’re hoping you can… interact with her, on a subconscious level. Goad her into awakening.”

Jess shook her head. “Even if I try to observe her dreams, you realize that I can’t just pop into her head and start asking her questions, right? It doesn’t work that way. I can only observe, not interact.”

“Perhaps that’s how your “dream machine” back at Aeus Enterprises works, Jess, but we have more advanced technology here. You’ll be able to not just observe, but fully experience and influence the dream just as Aurora experiences it, once we link her mind with yours.”

Jess’s mind reeled with questions, but Saul seemed to be growing increasingly short on patience. “Why me?” Jess asked.

“You have a special knack for making sense of the rambling incoherence of the subconscious mind. It’s impressive, really. The analysts, they all recommended you above any of your peers. That being said, you were not our first choice for the job. Your predecessor… backed out on us.”

“Do you mind telling me why?” Jess asked.

“The mind-link interface was a little… intense for our first candidate. Aurora has been sleeping so long, her mind is like an abstract painting. It can be a lot to process.” Saul paused, his crooked eyes scanning for any reaction from Jess to his words. As though he were trying to sniff out any hint of weakness. “Just know that if you do this for me, you will be compensated greatly. I’m thinking… early retirement.”

“Not the kind of ‘early retirement’ that involves a quick death before being flushed out to sea, I take it?”

“No.” Saul shook his head and leaned in close. “The kind that means you get to live the rest of your life like royalty.”


4:


Rain slick walls shimmered in the waning reflections of the stars. Music softly echoed through the chamber, a droning symphony of broken clarinets and whimpering, muffled cellos, like the hand of a shadowy composer held over the orchestra’s mouth, stifling their screams.

The table she lay upon was cold, and she had refuge from it. No warmth left of her own.

She couldn’t open her eyes, but she suspected that was a blessing in disguise. If she could, she was sure that she’d only see the blighted, abyssal shores of her own very special, very private hell. The images of her surroundings that flitted past her mind’s eye were force fed in through the tubes that she could even now feel piercing through the skin of her scalp, down into the bone, lighting the ruined recesses of the dead grey matter that floated half decayed inside the grave of her own skull.

“Where am I?” Jess thought into the void. Her voice sounded lost, lonely, inside the sprawling catacombs of her subconscious mind.

She could hear the footsteps again. She tried in vain to move a finger. Wiggle a toe. Arch her back. Scream.

The footsteps were as deliberate as the ticking of a clock, just slower. As though whoever was approaching was scared they might awaken her. Or were perhaps just relishing the moment.

In her mind’s eye she pictured the person so quietly approaching as a kind of Clockwork Prince, a devious, animatronic dandy twirling across the tile floors in a kind of stop motion interpretive dance, letting his anticipation for what was about to come double with each footfall and heartbeat and panicked swell of her own chest, until he, at last, came to stand over her bedside.

He leaned over and whispered to her with a viper hiss, forked tongue flicking her earlobe. “My sleeping beauty.”


5:


Jess returned to consciousness groggy, her body slow to shake off the effects of the chemical sleep. There was a ringing in her ears, shrill and constant. She recognized it after a moment–an EKG flatlining.

She struggled to move, to make words, but it was like trying to run underwater.

Aurora’s bedside was a frenzy of activity. Doctors wearing white smocks and face masks and blue gloves fiddled with dials and swapped out used bags of clear fluids for fresh ones. Jess noticed a clock on the wall, and in the haze of half sleep she watched the minutes pass. 5. 10. And still the EKG screeched that Aurora had no heartbeat.

Realization dawned on her. Some of it from what she observed, some of it no doubt the residual effects of her mind-link with Aurora. But in that moment, Jess knew; they weren’t resuscitating Aurora. She’d be a lost cause by now. Aurora was dead. And something in Jess’s mind whispered to her that Aurora had been dead for a long, long time.

Saul appeared at her side, without warning, and leaned over her. “You woke up faster than we anticipated, Jess.”

“Aurora,” Jess said. “You lied. She was dead before we even began.”

“She’s been dead for years.” Saul sighed. Jess wondered if he would have even shared this information is she hadn’t come to the conclusion on her own. “We’re trying to give her a pulse. We’ve only be able to succeed in short intervals. We can’t get her brain functioning, and without that the heart just stops all over again.”

Jess tried to sit up, only to find herself strapped down to the bed. A wave of animalistic, gut piercing panic sliced through her.

Saul turned away, leaving Jess to struggle in vain against her bonds. One of the doctors approached him, and she was able hear their snippets of their conversation. “We were close, Mr. Aeus. Brain wave activity was spiking. Aurora was nearly able to sustain respiration on her own.”

“That’s closer than we’ve ever been before.” Saul walked back over to Jess, and ran his fingers through her hair.

“Let me go,” Jess whispered weakly. The thought of going back into that dreamscape, that feeling of being blind, unable to move or scream, but still aware of what was happening to you…

Saul smiled. “You’ve done well. I know it was tough, but it’s working. Yes, full disclosure, my sister was clinically dead. But with our cell rejuvenation formula, we were able to restore life to her long dead cells. Imagine the possibilities if we can actually restore brain function. We can make human beings effectively immortal.”

Saul turned and nodded to one of the doctors, who rushed over with a long syringe. Jess tried to shake free of her bonds, using her shoulders to rock the bed, but several other doctors rushed over and she quickly found several hands holding her down.

“You understand we can’t let you walk away now. Not when you’re getting us results. But you’ll reap the benefits of all of this, I promise you.” Saul squeezed her hand in an attempt to reassure her. Jess wanted to strangle him with the straps holding down her wrists.

“We will have to intensify the mindlink. This is a specialized anesthetic, one that allows you a greater degree of cognitive function without letting you ‘wake up’.”

No. Jess thought, unable to give voice to the words, her mind’s eye burning with the afterimages of Aurora’s dreams.

The needle pierced the flesh of her arm, and sleep crept in around the edges of her vision, turning everything black.


6:


It was a strange feeling, the mind-link. Jess could feel a pressure, a presence that was always just behind her, looking over her shoulder. Aurora’s consciousness was a tangled mess, rambling lunatic thoughts that seeped in from the periphery.

At that particular moment, Aurora was pondering whether or not she was actually in hell.

Jess tried to visualize a setting. A place for herself and Aurora to interact. But all that she was able to conjure was that same cold room in Aeus Tower, lying on an operating table and surrounded by pale, red eyed doctors wearing blood covered smocks.

Aurora seemed to accept this invitation. She emerged on the table opposite Jess, bleeding from a thousand syringe punctures. She looked like Jess had seen her in the real world, pale and drained of life, skin tight around her bones, with the cloudy eyes of a dead fish. It was then that Jess realized Aurora was not only regaining consciousness, she was pulling information directly from Jess’s mind.

Aurora turned her head and smiled.

Jess awakened from the dream to find herself in a stupor, smelling of antiseptic, strapped down to that familiar operating table, and still stuck with dozens of wires. They’d been force feeding her fluids just to keep her alive, and the results were apparent. She was shrinking down to skin and bone.

Jess had noticed, some time ago, that one of the doctors kept a calendar on their desk, one that she could see clearly in the next room, beyond a set of glass windows. After each “session,” with Aurora, as she was lying there waiting for her next injection of anesthesia, she’d glance over and see that another day had been torn away from the calendar and tossed into the wastebasket.

A week went by, then two. Then a month. All in the blink of an eye. The way that dreams just slink away come the morning light.

It must just be part the dream, Jess thought to herself. Aurora’s been lying there for so long, her fears are bleeding over into my conscious thoughts. They wouldn’t just keep me strapped to this bed indefinitely, while they try in vain to bring life to a dead person.

The sun rose again. It looked so odd, pale and rough and shimmering, squatted low over the black waters. Eventually, another doctor came round with a needle to put her to sleep.


Jess awakened gasping for air. But this time the room felt different. The doctors were gone, the machines were silent. The lights flickered, threatening to shut down completely. Off to the side, behind panes of glass, Jess spotted Aurora sitting in the dark, her pearly eyes darting back and forth, like a panicked animal beset from danger on all sides. Her hair flowed softly behind her, the way curtains shift as the night wind rushes in from an open window.

Aurora shrank away into the dark when she heard footsteps approaching from down the hall.

They both knew what the footsteps meant by now. The Clockwork Prince.

The Prince crawled into the room on all fours, broken backed, head suspended between his thighs, hands grasped tightly round his feet. He rolled around the tile like a snake being burnt alive by blistering desert sand.

The mind-link with Aurora had been growing stronger as of late, and this was apparent in the fact that Jess could see the Prince’s face for the first time. And despite the frilly renaissance clothes and his contorted form, she found that it was a face she recognized. Saul Aeus.

Saul unfurled himself and rose from the floor to tower over Jess’s bed. In the next room, Aurora shut her eyes, hiding herself completely.

In Saul’s hand was a long syringe, dripping with a green liquid which hissed as drops of it fell and scalded her bed sheets.

“So still and peaceful,” Saul said as he brushed Jess’s hair with his slender fingers. “My sleeping beauty. I could never let you just rot in the dirt. If only I could wake you with a kiss. Or two. Or three.” His tongue flicked at the stale air, and she felt his clammy hand caress her thigh.

As the needle pricked her arm and the venom coursed, cold and raw, through her bloodstream, Jess felt the jaws of sleep close around her once again.

And then realization dawned upon her. She remembered; she was already asleep. Trapped in the most wretched dream. And with that realization, she knew that she had to change the setting. She needed to get Aurora out of here, away from her brother.

Jess imagined a bed. Something familiar to Aurora. But not a hospital bed. No machines, no doctors. No doors for unwanted guests to enter in the twilight hours. Jess tried to picture Aurora, not cold and blue, but vibrant, with rosy cheeks, lying between warm blankets, with a fire blazing quietly in the opposite corner of the room. Outside the window snow leisurely fell onto the leaf strewn autumn forest.

Jess took a seat in a chair next to where Aurora was lying. In her hand she held a storybook. “I know you haven’t been feeling well,” Jess said, “but you’ve been resting long enough. I think getting up and out will do you more good now. I’ll tell you one story to put you to sleep, and I want you to wake up tomorrow ready to leave this place. How does that sound?”

“The story,” Aurora whispered, “is it one with a handsome prince who comes to save a captive princess, and then he takes her back to live with him in his castle forever after?”

“Yes,” Jess said.

“And what if the princess doesn’t want to be saved?”

“Then she can burn down the whole castle, and the handsome prince with it, if that’s what she wants.” Jess smiled. “As long as she promises to get a good night’s sleep, and wake up ready to leave this place in the morning.”

Aurora closed her eyes. Jess watched her for a time, but as she stared she noticed a strange orange light wash over Aurora’s face, and then the rest of the room.

Jess turned to face the window, and outside she saw the entire forest consumed by fire.


7:


Jess awakened to screams and chaos. The sounds rose and fell like lapping waves. The nameless, white-coated doctors scrambled over each other to flee the room.

Jess heard the moaning sound of a dying animal coming from just underneath the table. She craned her neck and saw Saul Aeus lying at her bedside, bleeding from the throat and gasping for air. He dragged himself across the floor, leaving a red smear in his wake.

Aurora was propped up against a nearby wall, wires trailing from her shaved scalp and her rail thin arms. Her mouth was soaked in her brother’s blood. She walked over to Jess awkwardly, as fast as her chemically rejuvenated legs would carry her. Aurora’s eyes were as shrouded and distant as they were in the dream. Jess couldn’t read anything of her intentions.

“Is this still a dream?” Jess asked. Aurora grabbed hold of her arm, and Jess felt the familiar prick of a needle. But this time, rather than putting her to sleep, she felt energy and vigor fill her muscles. Aurora had given her Saul’s cell rejuvenation serum.

Aurora fixed her gaze on the dying Saul. “Father wanted Saul and I to have children,” she said. “Keep the Aeus name alive.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper, and her tongue fumbled over the words. “They started me off too young. Maybe that’s why I could never get pregnant, who knows?”

Aurora loosened Jess’s straps and helped her to sit upright. “You should go,” she said. It was a command, not a request.

Days, even weeks later, the image Jess was left with, the one that forever burned its way into her dreams, was of Aurora perched like a vulture over Saul as the last of his blood dribbled out of the wound in his neck and his eyes glazed over. As Jess walked away Saul reached his hand towards her, as though pleading with her not to leave him there alone. Jess kept walking.

The Aeus building burned all that night, and on into the next morning. Jess watched it all, watched the concrete blacken and the plumes of smoke swallow up the light from the rising sun.

Fires happened in the city all the time, she knew, only to reach the water and fade away. The buildings would always remain standing, but Jess wondered if burning out the heart of Eidum would be enough to bring the rest of the city to ruin, in time.

In her heart she hoped so.

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