Cody Goodfellow’s novels include Radiant Dawn and Ravenous Dusk (Perilous Press, 2000, 2003), Perfect Union (Swallowdown Press, 2010), Repo Shark (Broken River Books, 2014). Both of his collections—Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars and All-Monster Action (Swallowdown Press, 2009, 2012)—received the Wonderland Book Award. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static, Inhuman, Cemetery Dance, and the Magazine of Bizarro Fiction. He recently edited Deepest, Darkest Eden (Miskatonic River Press, 2013), an anthology of new fantasies set in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea, and is currently assembling a companion volume of Zothique stories.
THE LAST PLACE TRE WAS LOCKED UP, THEY WOULD line up all the new inmates, naked and shivering and dripping chemical disinfectant. The commandant tells you that the first rule is no talking, ever. Any questions? he asks. The next new fish who opens his hole gets his teeth smashed in with a truncheon. Any more questions?
Tre was swiftly learning to miss that kind of caring human contact.
This new place seemed better at first. He didn’t even remember being transferred in. He just woke up in this plastic coffin, a solitary cell like a port-o-shitter turned on its side. By his second sleep cycle, he forgot why he was arrested. By the third one, he had to search for the barcode on his wristband to recall his name.
Pills ground up in his food, gritty Mexican pharmaceuticals in tropical beach party colors. He tripped often enough to know the taste of alkaloids, but this shit was way too strong. Meals came with more pills in a tiny envelope that told him to report any SIDE EFFECTS.
It was better than any high he ever paid for, most of the time. He’d think of something funny and forget to laugh, or just mumble the word joke over and over, cackling like a loon. But there were moments when he dreamt he was flying, and then he was falling and jolted out of sleep with his heart racing and every muscle tied in knots, every time he started to really sleep.
They shocked him awake with microscopic electrodes embedded under his skin, and if he didn’t forget what he was doing and fall asleep again right away, he would scalp himself with his bare hands, trying to dig them out.
All his life, Tre barely remembered his dreams. Something was chasing him, or he was chasing something. It almost had him or he almost had it, and then he woke up. But now he was aware he was dreaming, aware that he was asleep—if he was anywhere, it had to be a dream—but he couldn’t remember being awake. They drugged him out of his mind and shocked him out of sleep, channel-surfing him with their remote control. He had to go somewhere…
They’re trying to drive you crazy, said the smartest part of him, the part that he beat down inside himself, whenever it dared to speak up. They’re trying to drive you out of your mind so they can follow you like a marked rat, so they can track you back to the nest.
It got worse when they stopped feeding him.
The dreams got uglier. Chasing him and pushing him into a pit and he was drowning in battery acid. He pinched himself to wake up, but it didn’t work. He bit himself, tearing skin and God he was delicious. He ate half of his own hand and was gnawing on his wrist when he woke up and saw his cell was open.
A big black thing waited in the corridor, crouching between him and his food. It lifted a leg and pissed on the tray, but it was nothing like a dog.
He pinched himself. It didn’t hurt like hunger, but it felt real enough. Without another thought, he lunged at the thing, drove it back on its hind legs, slammed it into the wall, and ripped out its throat in his teeth.
He ate everything, even the bones. He grew so full that he expanded right through tinfoil and cardboard walls.
It was another dream, but more real than anything he’d ever experienced, awake or asleep or on any drug. The light was like wine, the air was alive with music and perfume, and the wind felt like the skin of a woman against him.
He floated among thousands, millions of human bodies, mostly naked or in varying states of undress, in a bottomless sky of glowing clouds and gentle, embryonic warmth. He was the only one awake, the only one who was real.
A beautiful redheaded woman floated by and he tried to grope her, but she popped like a soap bubble. Others crumbled like ash or dissipated like smoke. He raged at them, tumbling through clouds of bodies like a bullet until he encountered one that hit him back.
Her hair was blacker than shadows, and it covered her milk-white face like a living veil, but flashes of green submarine light spilled out of her eyes. She asked his name.
He hesitated, wracking his brain. He wasn’t wearing a wristband or anything else, and neither was she. “Andre K—Tre, just Tre. Who’re you? How come you’re not like everybody else?”
“My name’s Ariadne here,” she said. “And we’re inside the Orgasm.” Drifting from one body to the next, she sought out a woman wrapped in a dove-gray fur coat and turned her over to go through her pockets. Some of them were entangled in the heat of sex, but most were alone with their eyes rolled back in their heads. “You know what this is, right? How old are you?”
His mind was a sieve. His body changed or dissolved when he tried to look at it. He guessed, “Sixteen…”
“Maybe in a couple years, player.” Jumping into a tangle of young faceless men in fraternity sweaters, she took wallets and drug stashes and tiny gray firefly things out of their heads. “You’re lucky. Most inmates in the solitary program break down and lose it without ever finding their way out of their own heads. Some inmates will maim themselves or go crazy to get out of work detail, you know? Knocking on Joe, they used to call it. But the really crazy ones are the ones who do the real shit work in here. If you lose your name, you forget who and what you are. They use you completely. That black dog-thing on your breath…that’s what you turn into.”
Nausea made him start to feel solid, start to fall. “Whatever,” he said. Already bored. “This is a dream, right? We should do it.”
She shook her head, so tired, though he still couldn’t see her face. “Thanks, no. You look like a Francis Bacon painting of someone he really hated.”
“But this is my dream, and you—”
“This isn’t your dream. Right now, we’re in an artificial communal dream-space created with drugs and guided hypnotic imagery. Everyone sleeping in its broadcasting footprint experiences the same wet dream, brought to you by Burroughs-Wellcome, Bechtel and Wackenhut.”
The velvet ease of her dismissal sent him into a childish fury. Thrashing another knot of orgasmic ghosts into sparkling ashes, he turned on her with azure fire drooling out of his fists. “I’m old enough, and I’m more real than you can handle, girl.”
She turned away, daring him to come at her. Floated above him and her hair fanned out, giving him a glimpse of her face. Light came out of her mouth. She had no eyes, only holes alive with television snow.
“Listen, dummy. The people who run the prison are using you as guinea pigs. They’re keeping you in a lucid dream state…jolting you with electrical shocks until you’re dreaming while you’re awake….That’s just the primary conditioning. They’re trying to find and control dreamers who can go into other people’s dreams.”
He still didn’t understand why she didn’t want to hook up, but she must be someone else, not a figment of his exhausted imagination. “Why are they doing this to us?”
“Why? To sell things. To run everybody. They want to create a universal dream-space that they can control…or to discover the real one, so they can plant a flag in it.”
She kissed him, and the shock was greater than the electrode jolts. Her words were too heavy to hear; they sank into him like lead.
Something blocked out the sun. The air turned cold and slimy and too thick to breathe. Any second they were going to shock him awake and he wanted to hold onto her, but the thing was so huge it exerted its own gravity. It sucked him down, away from her, and all the empty vessels fell after him like rain.
“Run!” she cried. “Run back to your body! Choose the right door—”
He fought to stay with her, climbing and leaping over tumbling bodies, screaming her name, but she floated always out of reach. He hit the bottom and the bodies kept piling up. Thrashing, clawing, biting, tearing, and crawling, but they buried him alive. Crushed under their weight and stink and waste, unable to breathe, unable to die. When the lightning in his head finally jerked him out of the dream, he awoke clawing at the walls.
At the first place they locked him up, when he was eleven, you could go to the yard after lunch, where it was too hot for anything but fighting, or you could go to the library. There were no good books to read, but if you wanted to stay, you had to do puzzles. The pictures on the boxes were sun-bleached or mismatched or just missing. Many puzzles were just in coffee cans, with no hint of what they should look like. You had to move the pieces around and try to put them together, knowing none of the pieces might even be from the same puzzle.
He had gotten quite good at puzzles, at spotting things that did or didn’t belong, at making things that didn’t belong fit together. It helped him to cope now, when every morning he woke up in a different prison.
The rules were always different, but always the same. It was a dream-prison, a shared imaginary space. The other people around him were not figments of his imagination, but other drugged prisoners. Sometimes they were giant, toddling, bawling babies. Other times they were skeletons riddled with ghostly parasites the size of pythons. In the worst of them, there was only blackness, sickness, and tubes going in and out of his arms and down his throat, and choking himself to death the only exit.
Tre figured out the rules soon enough. When a boy with a huge black-red starfish for a face jumped him in the shower, Tre cut him from nipples to navel with a knife that came out of his mouth. The wound yawned and everything but blood poured out. Before the guards gassed them, he tore the hole in the inmate wider and climbed into it and escaped.
He wandered in and out of strangers’ fantasies like a runaway bogeyman, crashing forbidden love trysts and eternal birthday parties and shredding gossamer ectoplasm in his dreamteeth, always looking for another door. When the familiar CLICK CLICK of alien voltage shot through his brain, he welcomed it and rode the lightning down into deeper sleep.
It looked like an ancient, ruined amusement park—Six Flags over Atlantis—drooping arches and crooked towers infested with rusting, hyperbolic ribbons of rollercoaster track, endless empty arcades, deserted shopping malls and echo-haunted pavilions the color and texture of fossilized bones. The pavement was slick, grimy ice; beneath it, he could see a black, rushing river. Drowning people and things both foreign and familiar pounded at the ice and screamed bubbles at him until the current ripped them away.
Mobs of undead scavengers with featureless green hamburger faces climbed out of the gutters. He ran like a drunken puppet as the street turned to taffy. “Get back, you bastards!” he roared. “I’m the last man!”
He dashed their hollow heads open, and pumpkin seeds and circuitry spilled out. They forgot him, swinging listlessly at each other and gasping, I’M the last man! And maybe each of them was right, he thought, when he looked into a funhouse mirror and saw his own rotten, bloated face.
A paralyzing shock jerked him by the silver cord that bound his soul to his body, growing to a grand mal seizure when he fought it. Sweltering fever-heat poured out of him. The ice melted and cracked. He plunged into frigid blackness and was swept away.
The next dream was beautiful: endless blood-red jungle, rolling valleys, eternal tribal war. Tiny, twig-boned jungle pygmies prowled the crushed velvet undergrowth, blasted or blessed with strange mutations that made each tribe a species unto itself. He waded into internecine feuds and picked a side at random and stomped the enemy like ants, and they carried him to their village like a living god of war. They offered him what little food they had, sang his praises as they starved, as their fragile fairy daughters withered, blackened, and burst at his touch.
He stayed through three seasons and burned through ninety-two tribes like a plague and it was hard to leave, but he could find no peace. She haunted his dreams within dreams. This is a labyrinth, not a maze, she told him. There are no dead ends, no alternate exits. The only way out is through …
She was the only real thing, the only one who could remind him this was a dream. The mere thought of her brought the shocks, as if to punish him or deliver him deeper, but they could barely reach him, here. He was almost happy…
And then the real gods came, and he was only another scurrying insect looking for a rock to hide under.
They ate up the sky with their obscene, insane parade of shapes, but there were no shadows when they held up lenses that magnified the blood-red sun into slashing white tongues of fire.
Burning down to his bones, he ran for hours through the inferno, and it hurt more than anything he’d ever felt in waking life, but he couldn’t wake up, he couldn’t even die.
He came to a ruined temple adorned with sleeping stone faces and bug-eyed, bloody-tusked angels. Before the temple lay a long, narrow pool that perfectly reflected the tower, but the sky in the reflection was a star-mad winter night with a bloated blue full moon impaled upon the tower’s silver spire.
Tre threw himself into the water, but when he broke the surface he only fell faster into the airless void on the other side of the mirror. Screaming only sucked cold fire into his lungs as he plummeted past the darkly luminous faces of the mirror-temple and fell burning into the starry dark of deepest dreams.
Swimming through eternal night, the stars grew larger, more numerous…swelled until they surrounded him and swallowed the darkness. He hid his face from their unblinking glare, flinched from the snail-trail touch of naked eyeballs on his goosebump-prickled flesh. In the place where everything was made of eyes, he finally found her.
Her matted hair was made of rusty knives. “Jung said dreams are the ‘voice of Nature,’ but She stopped talking to us a long time ago. Did you ever read old books and wonder what they were all smoking? Their dreams were so much deeper, more real. Even you can tell that our dreams are broken.”
“I don’t need you—” His words came out as stillborn bubbles, turning belly-up and floating away. When they finally reached his ears, he heard himself say, I don’t know how to read.
With a sad, rusty nod, she said, “You can’t just wake up, because you’re not in your own dream. These are the gutters of the collective unconscious, which they’re trying to colonize, because something went wrong with the real lands of Dream.”
He tried to speak again and almost drowned. Her silencing finger was like a sword on his lips.
“When the first proto-humans started to achieve true consciousness, the disconnected hemispheres of the brain started talking to each other, and we met gods in our dreams. They taught us hunting and farming and art and war. They raised us up, but we came to believe it was just us, talking to ourselves in the dark.
“Somewhere around the middle of the last century, the human race had kind of a collective nervous breakdown. We were kicked out of our dreams, the real ones, the shared space where we once touched the infinite. Long before either of us was born, we lost the Realms of Deeper Sleep…the door closed, the temple fires were put out, and now something blocks the way. That’s what you’re trying to find. Somewhere deep inside us is the door to the dream more real than waking life, the dream of the universe itself.”
He struggled to make himself heard, to make his words into sound. “I don’t want to know this—”
“You already know it. They have their pet theories, but they can’t face the truth. They’re the ones who cut us off from the Dream. Movies and TV and everything we consume, all that energy wasted to make all those false realities more real than our own. They’ve already made waking life a dream and the dreamers into a mushy mass-mind where everyone shares the same dream of being the only one who matters.
“That’s why, whenever they catch someone who grew up without media saturation—Islamic terrorists, home-schooled fringers, feral kids, or chronic wards of the state like yourself—they wreck their sleep schedule and test them to destruction trying to find out how to repair what’s gone wrong with the rest of us.”
His frustration swelled into a bubble that enclosed them both. Eyes oozed all around them, bathing them in vacant scrutiny. “Who are you, really? Where are you? You’re not in jail. You don’t have a dog in this fight. I just want to go home. I want to wake up…”
She shook her head and shed sparks. The knives sang like wind chimes. Burning wind threw him down so he found himself staring up into her eyeless face. “Forget about waking up. They can’t even wake you up now. The lucid dreaming program runs in ninety-day cycles. If you’re this deep, you’re probably a brain in a bucket with some jumper cables on it by now. They use any excuse to cut you open, sell your organs. The Dream is the only real afterlife, the only real state where human minds have survived the death of their bodies. You have to go through to the other side. Find the one who stands between humanity and the Gate of Deeper Slumber. Find it and kill it.”
“Why should I?”
She tilted her head and now she had eyes like opals, and a smile like molten diamonds. “I belong to the man who can lead us to the true Dream.”
He inhaled the bubble, pulling her toward him. “I’ll put your ass to sleep, don’t worry. But what’s in it for me?”
Her sly diamond smile turned to coal. “Everything mortal will fail you.”
“I won’t fail you.” He breathed in the blood and wine heat of her, and became a man.
“You will,” she said. “And I’m not mortal.”
She kissed him. A spark passed from her lips and bored into his brain, burning synapses to slag, creating strange new paths and echoing voices in his mind. His head exploded and he woke up.
He floated above a desolate wasteland of ashen dunes. Glowering over the horizon, a sickly white mountain with a huge, hideous monument carved into it. Eroded limestone features slowly emerged from the gray void, until he realized that the face of the mountain was his own.
Tubes ran up his nose and down his throat, and an IV dripped glucose into his arm. Nobody had ever put so much effort into keeping him alive. His body jerked as regulated high-voltage pulses raced through it. A rubber plug in his mouth kept him from biting through his tongue.
From somewhere out in the murky void beyond the bed, a ghastly panorama of distorted faces leered down, dire constellations that blurred and warped and spun off flaming comets of words that tumbled to detonate upon the twisted wreckage of Andre Kellogg’s body.
“Mr. Kellogg…Is he, can he…He is? OK….Tre, your mother says you like to be called Tre … . You’re in a secure ward at MU Hospital. You’ve been an inmate at a private juvenile correctional institution, and you’ve been under sedation for most of the last fourteen months…. We’re very sorry for your discomfort, but the parent company was in no way legally responsible for what happened. This affadavit releases us of liability….”
Big pregnant pause, filled with the sound of breathing machines.
“Now, all the records were destroyed….What we’re trying to ascertain is the objective of the experiment that was performed on you….Anything you could volunteer would be invaluable….Can he even hear me?”
He tried, but could not get any closer to his body. A soft but irresistible wind, the repulsion of like magnetic charges, pushed him back. He could only watch as his hand reached out for the pen and mechanically signed the form.
He drifted off and they left his body alone and when he woke up, he was still months of agony away from walking without assistance, but he would survive…and more, he would get something he never could have hoped for—a second chance. He could recover and start over with a clean slate and the knowledge that the broken, insane system had failed to swallow him whole—
He woke up on another table—a cold steel one, and the lights in his face hid the masked canine faces of the ghouls who cut him open and played inside him.
“Jesus, look at these lungs. What are these kids smoking these days?”
“Dibs on the liver…”
He turned away and flew, burning through the restraints and the red curtains of the operating theater, and then he was racing through the trees of a forest. He ran like a flayed rabbit, hunched over to hold his slit belly together. The surgeons chased him through the misty forest on all fours, baying his secret name. He threw scraps of himself over his shoulder and escaped when they stopped to eat them. Through the mist and great cathedral groves, he stalked until he came to the edge of a chain of purple, snow-crowned mountains.
A vast ruined city of giants melted into inky pools and indigo rivers of shadow in the faltering glow of a bloated purple sun. The road passed among towering mausoleums and orgies of shattered statuary. He heard a brittle clap of falling brickwork and whirled in time to see her vanish behind a rock.
“I see you!” he shouted, then turned his back. He needed nothing from her now.
“You shouldn’t have come here!” she cried out. “You’ll just deliver it to them—”
He threw a rock at her, but it seemed to pass right through her, confirming his fear. “Get lost, you’re not real! You took over my body and sold me out—”
“You’re still confused, poor dear. Are you really so sure that you’re real?”
He threw another rock, but it turned to smoke as it left his hand. The street subsided beneath him, like a great beast letting out a long, last breath.
A pulsating flood of pus boiled up out of the earth, the distilled infection of a mortal wound. Before Tre could make her understand, the sea of sickness had drawn itself up into a suppurating tidal wave.
Domed temples collapsed under its lurching, liquid weight. It stretched upwards and curled overhead, countless human bodies suspended within its gelatinous mass.
“Kill it!” she screamed. “That’s the thing that stands in the way of the Dream! You can be the one who saved the sanity of the whole human race, Tre! You can be the one to slay the dragon—”
It didn’t look like a dragon. A wall of liquid flesh crashed down on the causeway, flinging bricks larger than cars aside like grains of sand.
He ran so fast he flew over the buckling plaza, dodging falling columns until he came to the end of the abandoned city. The road led to the head of a staircase that wound down the sheer mountain face into shoals of dimly glowing clouds far, far below.
She stood behind him. She looked younger than he was, but he knew better than to trust anything he saw. “It’ll crush you if you take another step. It’ll eat you up so you die inside it forever.”
—Fight that, I can’t—
At his back now, she pushed him toward it. “You only have to face it to drive it back. Then we’ll escape—together…”
He didn’t know what to believe. He embraced her, pivoted, and threw her over his shoulder into the gathering protoplastic storm. The monstrosity recoiled, shivering with joy as it digested her. Seemingly forgotten, he escaped, sobbing with terror and relief.
The treads of the staircase were too tall to scale alone, but he lowered himself over each of seventy cliff-like risers and dropped from the last step just as the terminal rays of daylight failed. Somewhere along the way, the stairs had grown smaller, or he had grown larger, until he stumbled over them and had to stoop to proceed down the tunnel at the foot of the stairs. Satisfied with his offering, the abomination did not follow.
The tunnel abruptly grew into a grotto lit by a pillar of white fire. The walls were riddled with holes, doors, and gates. Some were rusted shut or blocked by sheets of cobweb or clumps of fungi, while others were lit by torches and hung with faded bill-boards and flashing video screens.
He did not mean to bow to the two ancient men who stood between him and the maze of doorways. They stood taller than the tallest he could make himself, and wore monk’s robes and peaked hats with feathers as high as their gray beards were long.
Something about them reminded him of ancient Egypt: the sandstone skin, the hieroglyphic nonsense that came from their hidden lips; but they were older than Egypt, older than mankind. Yet he did not look away, for he recognized the craggy, merciless cast of their faces. They were judges.
One of them took his shoulder and pressed him down into his true shape. You must present your ka, my son, to enter.
He didn’t understand, but this was no time to show weakness. “You can’t stop me. I faced the thing outside, and I beat it. I’ve come to open the gate of dreams…” In the name of the gods Burroughs-Wellcome, Bechtel and Wackenhut … “I claim the right to pass for all humankind…”
The judges looked at one another. Nasht, the one who touched him, carved a question in the air, and his brother, Kaman-Thah, answered with a shattering laugh.
The thing you defeated is the diseased dreaming of all your brothers and sisters. You saw it as it saw itself, for that is its sickness. Each of you hates the whole as it hates itself, and so you can never be free of each other, and so you can never be one. Separated from your souls, you can only be reunited in dreams. So they may never pass into the land of deeper sleep, as you may still … but where is your ka?
The judge held up a mirror. In its murky depths Tre saw, for just a moment, Ariadne reaching out to him as she fell into the countless mouths of the thing that chased them, but then he only saw himself, gasping like a beached fish.
Your soul, boy … what have you done with your soul?
He tore free of them and raced toward the wall of doors. They moved after him so fast their human masks slipped, and for just a moment he glimpsed their true faces. But they couldn’t stop him, because he knew what he was looking for.
She showed him. He thought she had betrayed him, but she had showed him what none of the others had discovered, the true nature of the only door that opened. At last, he would do something that mattered. He would set himself free, and the whole human race—
With his eyes wide open and his hands steepled in a diver’s prayer, he leapt into the pillar of living flame.
The fire was blinding and all-consuming.
Beyond it lay a place made of joy. He had dreamt of it before, but now that he had truly reached it, he found a purity that rendered reality a pallid, dirty shadow. The light resolved and softened, and he saw the lands of Dream—
And then he was dragged backward through the fire.
Only by slow, agonizing degrees did he come to realize that he was under restraints in bed and being jolted by temporal electrical shocks. Awake.
“Hey, the shitbird’s still alive. What’d I tell you?”
“I didn’t bet you.”
“Whatever. Hey, kid—which one of these tubes is he breathing through? Hey, kid, you want to talk now?”
He looked right through them. This was just another bad dream. He would wake up any moment, in the Dream that was more real than waking.
“Drop the act, kid. You’ve only been in solitary for forty-eight hours. The sooner you tell us what they said, the sooner you can go back.”
This wasn’t a dream. With cold surgical tools, they pinched about ten places on his body that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was awake, that had him begging to tell them everything.
But the words wouldn’t come.
So that night, they started all over again.