by Aliya Whiteley
Actually, that’s not the worst. The worst is realizing, in the journey that comes after life, that I do not know my way after all. And neither do you. For all your talk of navigation and sailing the high seas, you have taken me into the darkest jungle of a night-world and left me there. There is no clue to the path. You, Peter Millican, brought me here. I followed your lead. And now I’m stuck.
But before this, in my last dream courtesy of Dreamtech, I was a Princess. An object of desire, and I liked it. We are not meant to like being objectified, are we? But I was the object of my own desire, sparkling pretty, like the sun on a smiling sea. I launched the cruise ship with a champagne bottle. The next thing I knew I was on it, amongst the men on this maiden voyage. Just one princess in the Captain’s Cabin, waiting coyly for a knock on my door.
And you knocked, dream invader, head thief. You strolled into my fantasy and presented yourself, dressed as a king, in a crown of iron and a military suit, dark blue, brass buttons. Naval, perhaps. You outranked me.
I should have sent you away. I can’t pretend I didn’t recognize you, Peter Millican. But my life has been such a straight line. I lived from A and B, and coming across the giant Y of You threw me a curve ball of spectacular seduction. I wanted it to happen.
So this expensive last request, courtesy of my bells-and-whistles insurance policy for Permament and Total Disability, switched me from boring ugly old Barbara Elmsworth to a Princess.
And then worst happens. I meet you. You interrupt my planned week-long cruise amongst an all-male population, and seduce me with talk of steering my ship for me. And you steer me here. I can hear the tigers, moving closer. I cling on to my tree branch and pray they don’t know how to climb. I’m awash with sweat. My party dress is torn and I’ve lost my tiara.
• • •
“He’s hopped,” says the Client Assistant.
“Can we not use that phrase?” says the Client Officer. “He’s not the Easter Bunny. He’s not a bouncy animal from a Disney cartoon.”
“Sorry. He’s transferred.”
“That’s better. You never hear me talking of hopping, do you? Add it to the tally, then. What’s the total?”
peter millican. 203.
“Inform the hospital they should turn off Miss Elmsworth’s life support,” says the Client Officer. He steps back from the screen, rubs his bald head, and looks around the darkened crisis center. It is a safe, snug womb of an office. Pleasantly hot. At least two members of staff are yawning. “Better to go early with a plug-pull than wait around in the Recess for some wild animal to maul you. Right?”
The assistant isn’t so sure. Maybe the Recess isn’t all that they say it is. He’s never been to a jungle, so he has only fictional ideas on which to base his mental picture. He thinks of Tarzan and a botanical garden he once visited on a school trip. And the alternative is death, earlier rather than later.
He decides not to inform the hospital. It’s only a few days until they switch her off, anyway. She can hang on in there for that long.
“Let me know when he transfers again.”
“Yes, of course.”
“You can message me on my private line. Just keep tabs on him.”
Now who’s into flights of fantasy? The Client Officer likes to think of himself as a private detective, or maybe the chief of police. He hunts the criminal down the long dark corridors of the mind, pitching his wits, relying on his hard-nosed instinct. All the clichés for the Client Officer. His dreams are film noir, no doubt. Will he catch Peter Millican? The Client Assistant is not persuaded by his bullish speech. He’s been working here long enough to lose faith in the process. He’s refused the employee right to a Dreamtech end and isn’t going to live out his last fantasy when it comes to that. He’s seen it go wrong too often.
• • •
And I’m on the moon.
The moon really is made of cheese.
I sit down and break open the cracker barrel. Water biscuits. My favorite. And a small trowel. I skim the waxy yellow surface of the moon and up curls a delightful slice of gouda. I place it on my cracker and munch, looking out at the view of the Earth. It’s a blue-green bauble hanging on a curtain of space, warmer and softer than I had expected. No spacesuit or helmet required.
My nose twitches. There is some mouse left in me after all. I can smell … humanity. It stinks, lacking the simplicity of curds and dairy products. Can I really smell it all the way out here, so far from the home planet? We humans really carry.
No, it’s not coming from Earth. It’s coming from behind me. I turn and see—
“Hello,” you say. “My name is Peter Millican. That’s a heck of a view you’ve got.”
I don’t know you. Or do I? I think you might have been at my wedding. That face in the photo, the line-up, some distant relative, or a friend of a friend. No, didn’t you deliver my second daughter? Or perhaps you were the anesthetist for my wisdom tooth removal. Are you here to remind me of these things, events, happenings? Is this a dream of cheese and psychotherapy?
“Great imagination,” you say, and suddenly I’m sure that I don’t know you after all.
“Thanks,” I say. “I wanted to be different.”
“Cheese is so tasty, isn’t it?” you say. “Mind if I…?”
I nod, and you crouch down to scoop up a handful of my moon, munching with gusto. It feels like a bit of an imposition, to be honest.
“What’s your name?” you ask.
“Terry. Terry Mead.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Are you from the hospital?”
“No.” You have a great smile. It’s a pleasant face, with a transforming crook of the lips to make you charming. You knew this, of course. You use it with aplomb. It strikes me that you’re a salesman. If I had been blessed with that smile I could have done a lot better than I did. I don’t quite know what I mean by that. What is better than a wife, a job, a home, two daughters? And yet, even now, I think of opportunity, that glimmering light that never leaves me. The hope of eternal optimism.
“Are you here to save me?” I ask.
You shake your head and wipe the crumbs from your cheek. “Sorry. By the time people get to this stage they’re beyond saving.”
“Absolutely me too. More so than you.”
“Shouldn’t you be in your own dream, then?” And I then I realize I do know you after all, at least by reputation. Peter Millican, multi-millionaire, head of Dreamtech, face of a thousand adverts — death can be a dream, sweetheart!
But you’re dead.
You died before me, years ago. There was a funeral. You were indulging your hobby of demolition derby and became the meat in a metal sandwich. I remember. But it seems impolite to mention it.
I dig up some more cheese and choose another cracker, but it’s losing its appeal. Do you sense my disquiet? You come and sit next to me, and we stare at the Earth, which is looking more and more vulnerable by the second. It’s defenseless out here, amid the emptiness. A giant foot could land on it at any second.
I’m beginning to hate my imagination.
“I’ve got two days of cheese ahead of me,” I say.
“Was this really your heart’s desire?”
“I thought about doing the naked ladies thing but it just seemed so predictable. Besides, my wife wouldn’t like it.”
“Tell you what,” you say. “Why don’t you let me take you away to a better place than this? If you end up in a bunch of naked ladies it’s my fault, isn’t it?”
“Can you do that?”
“Absolutely. Just relax and let me in. Can I…?” You put your hand on the back of my neck. I don’t think any man has ever done that before. Having my prostate checked regularly towards the end, and then the operation that didn’t work, yes, but a hand on the neck is less clinical, isn’t it? Can I really relax into this?
You hum something. It’s a tune from a musical. It soothes me. And I let down my defenses. I let you in.
The moon of cheese dissolves underneath me. The Earth begins to shrink away, to no more than a dot, a pinhole, and then it winks out of existence.
It’s so dark.
“Hello?” I say. I want to be alive, just one more time, I want flesh to rub against another, the soft and the hard and the rubbing of skin to skin. I want to be a young man in a body that’s under my command, ready to stand to attention. Could you, Peter Millican, give that to me? I’ve given you my moon, so can’t you give me a night of lovely ladies, just once?
I feel humidity, heat pricking my skin, the first beads of sweat. Shapes press close around me as the blackness lifts, slowly, slowly. Trees, vines, the sound of birds with strange calls. A realization of time and place, presence and peril.
And the low, low growl of a tiger.
• • •
The Client Assistant lets his hands fall from the interface. Two hundred and four dreams intercepted. Two hundred and four transfers from head to head.
Can it really be hushed up indefinitely?
The Client Officer puts one hand on his bald head and takes a deep breath. “We’re no closer to catching him. Two years, and we’re no closer. We have to do something. Something drastic.”
The Client Assistant is not sure if he’s meant to reply. He is applying for other roles in the organization away from the trouble-shooting end. He’s sure he could forget all of this, given the opportunity. Let others mop up the Millican mess. Let the police come, let the Net get wind of it. The dreams that were paid for have been hijacked. Somewhere, in an unknown location, the remains of the company’s founder is wired up to a life support machine and Dreamtech interface, and his mind stalks the dying through their last fantasies so he can banish them to his personal idea of hell. He takes revenge — for what? What is he getting out of this? He hangs on to his half-life with the determination he once applied to his organization.
“Contact the hospital,” says the Client Officer. “You know what to do. I’ve got an idea of how to stop him. I’ll need a few days to get it set up. In the meantime, contact me if it happens again. Tail him. Don’t let him out of your sight.”
Of course, Detective, thinks the Client Assistant. Staring at the screen and rubbing your bald head has become such an important part of the process.
Terry Mead, victim two hundred and four, is out there in the jungle of dead dreams. Maybe he’s a great white hunter, with an elephant gun and a pith helmet. Maybe he’s in a loincloth, swinging from tree to tree. It doesn’t have to be just pain, does it?
• • •
I reach the end of my song, take in the rapturous applause, watch the flowers being thrown to my feet and then I open my mouth to begin again. I get to do this for days, and I’m going to enjoy it every single time.
The stage trapdoor opens and you pop up.
You are dressed in a tailcoat and cravat. You look the part. But this is my solo, I paid for it fair and square, and you should not be here. You are not Valjean. You are a charlatan. I feel it.
You tell me you’re sorry to have interrupted. You tell me I have great taste. This is your girlfriend’s favorite musical. Or it was. You tell me this has brought back memories, brought you to a fresh realization of who you are, what you want. You ask if you can kiss me, just once, as a thank you, and that idea shocks me into a reply.
“No! Get off my stage. I’m singing.”
“Listen, I just—”
“I’m in control here. You’re interrupting my performance.”
“You’re dreaming a dream.”
“Your last dream,” you say.
“That’s right,” I whisper. My real body is so very old. A machine keeps it breathing. There’s no breath, no air, no song of my own. In my small house, my relatives will gather, moan about my choice to spend my legacy on Dreamtech, and then they will divide up my CD collection of classic musicals. Or maybe they’ll just give them all to charity. Goodbye to Cats, Starlight Express, West Side Story, Grease, Joseph. A long line of very old friends. Some people worry about what will happen to their pets after death. I worry about what will happen to my music.
And Les Miserables, my favorite; it deserves no concern on its behalf. It will go on and on without me. Fantine will have her front teeth pulled a million times more, and Valjean will last throughout eternity. Les Mis is a work of art, no less. It will last forever.
“I’m Peter Millican,” you say.
“So what? Piss off.”
“Haven’t you heard of me?”
“I don’t care, I don’t care, get off the stage.”
“I made Dreamtech. I designed this dream.”
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t. I specified it to a designer.”
“I made the technology. I made a place where dreams can come true. And I made another place, where dreams go to die. A place where tigers come at night.”
“With their voices soft as thunder,” I say. I know these lines so well. I know that place. I lived my entire life there.
“Fantine always dies, doesn’t she? She can’t fight the tigers,” you say. You are handsome and clever. You are Valjean, after all. And I know how these scene ends.
I don’t want to sing any more.
The crowd is restless. The green strands of my song have faded away, and the chandelier brightens as the stage lights dim. It’s time to go home. The curtain descends.
“This doesn’t have to be the end,” you say, and you look so earnest, so solid, that I believe you. “I can save you. Take you to a place where you can fight the tigers, and maybe even win.”
I can’t move. I don’t want to die, even if it means spoiling the show.
You walk to me, and enfold me in your arms. You kiss me once, and suddenly the stage lights are bright and hot once more, and the crowd roars their approval. For once, The Glums end happily for Fantine. I’m going to wrestle those big cats and make rugs out of them.
• • •
This is a bit extreme, isn’t it? thinks the Client Assistant. He’s really hoping his transfer comes through sooner rather than later. The Invoicing Department have expressed a keen interest in having him aboard.
He places the Dreamtech net over the Client Officer’s head and switches it on. Somewhere deep in that bald pate the specified dream begins to unfold. Here’s hoping it’s good enough to catch a thief.
• • •
The great Alfonz Poisson rubs his bald head with one hand and ticks his choice on the sheet: halibut, followed by beef wellington. He might have a créme caramel to finish, if indigestion doesn’t strike. It’s a heavy lunch; he promises himself he’ll have a light dinner. He contemplates his stomach, the top fold of the napkin draped over its bulge, and thinks of what he will say at the Istanbul conference. His keynote speech is entitled “The Cunning Mind of the Modern Criminal” but he hasn’t bothered to write it yet. Maybe tonight. Maybe not.
At the back of his brain, he has a tiny thought that being Alfonz Poisson is far superior to being a Client Officer.
The dining car door is flung open.
“Murder!” screams a young woman in a flapper dress with a pink feather in her hair and loops of pearl strung around her slender neck. “Murder in the baggage car!” And then she faints clean away.
Alfonz Poisson takes his napkin from his lap and puts it next to his plate. The halibut will have to wait.
He makes his way to the baggage car. Three bodies, laid out in a row. They are dressed identically, in black. There are no marks, no signs of a struggle. They all wear white laminated name tags, attached to their chests by tiny gold safety pins.
Alfonz examines them closely, taking in their faces, and the arrangement of their bodies. Beneath his placid exterior great calculations are taking place. He has a mind like a razor: sharp, slicing. He has travelled the world solving the most difficult of cases, and he knows how to assemble a motley group of suspects and keep them hanging on his every word until all is revealed through their own fallibility. The guilty eyes, the shifty glances — he reads these with ease. He smiles a little as he takes in the scene. He knows exactly how to solve this mystery. The halibut may not be ruined after all.
Only half an hour later, once more in the dining car, Poisson speaks to the assembled travelers: the Pargeters, the Quincy-Smythes, Lord and Lady Trumbuloe and the entourage of suspicious maids and manservants. They all squirm in their seats. Is it him? Or her? Who can be trusted? Who has a motive? Who will be denounced as a cold-blooded murderer of three?
Poisson clears his throat and continues his final address. “And so, my dear people, the answer is not where we expect to find it. This murderer is not a rational man, no matter how neatly the bodies are arranged. He is a man of singular passion, consumed by an idea that he thinks nobody will understand. He is devoured by his actions, and he is helpless to the memory of it. He will return to the scene to make sense of his many tumultuous feelings. Will he forgive himself if he looks upon this scenario again? Or will his guilt own him? Let us, dear people, find out the answer.” He checks his pocket watch. His timing is, of course, perfection.
“The killer is—” he says—
And the Orient Express plunges into a tunnel.
The darkness is absolute. There is a scream; then the sound of breaking glass. A moment later the tunnel ends as abruptly as it began, and the early afternoon light streams through the wall of windows to illuminate—
And now Poisson is alone with the killer of dreams. He has found his man.
The detective and the murderer observe each other. Eventually, Poisson says, “You knew it was trap. But you came anyway. I guessed you’d be that sort of person.”
“It wasn’t guilt. Or curiosity.”
“What, then, sir?”
Millican sits down opposite Poisson and examines the dining card selection. “You’ve got an eye for detail, I’ll give you that. You with the police?”
Poisson folds his hands over his stomach. “I am merely one of your employees.”
“Perhaps a little more diligent than the rest.”
“I’m not actually hurting anyone,” says Peter. “They’re already dead.”
“You leave them at the mercy of wild animals.”
“That’s not what the Recess is. The tigers aren’t … they’re not actual tigers.”
Poisson remembers his other life, where he watched a training documentary about the dangers of properly constructing a dream so that clients couldn’t fall through the cracks into a terrible jungle. The price of creating only happy dreams in the mind is that the nightmares, the equal and opposite reaction, must be stored somewhere. Poisson understands this. He has had terrible nightmares since his hair began to desert him. In the nightmare his hair regrows, sprouts from his perfectly bald head with such alacrity that it twists around his throat, grows into his mouth and down to his stomach, choking him, choking him. He would not like to live in that reality, particularly if his hair also turned into a tiger and devoured him from the inside out.
“What are they, then?” he asks. “Why call them ‘tigers’ if they’re not?”
Peter hums a song that Poisson does not recognize.
“Tell me where your body is. Let me unplug you, and we can put an end to all this. Surely you’ve seen enough dreams now. You must be ready to travel onward. To whatever’s next.”
“The funny thing is, they’re never alike,” says Peter.
“Their final dreams. You might think everyone just wants a final weekend of debauchery without consequences. Some do, don’t get me wrong. But there’s always a twist. Something you wouldn’t expect. A detail that has to be just so. I’ve never come across any that are exactly alike. I was looking for confirmation.”
Poisson sighs. Does he have to catch the man and then sit through the interminable confession too? “Is your body in the city? A desert island, perhaps? Give me a clue. I can solve clues.”
“I was so in love,” muses Peter. He gets up and strolls around the dining car, straightening cutlery, examining wine glasses. “I made Dreamtech for her. I based my dreams on her dreams, my nightmares on her nightmares. And then she left me, and I couldn’t see why anyone should have their dreams any more. Let them all have nightmares.”
“Do you insult the chef if you want dessert, Poisson? You’re an idiot. I had decided to give up this game but you rile me. I’ve given you enough clues. Now you can find your own answers.”
Poisson stares at Peter Millican. Have there been clues? He’s missed them. But he cannot admit to that. If he admits defeat, he’ll go right back to being the Client Officer, attempting to clean up messes and getting nowhere. This reality is so much better.
He strokes his bald head. “Monsieur Millican, you have given away everything. Simply allow me to compose my thoughts and I will reveal the location of your body.”
Peter sits down once more. He is collected, urbane, handsome. He is an adversary to be afraid of. “Any time you’re ready,” he says. “I’m all ears.”
The detective and the murderer face each other. The train travels onward.
• • •
“I hope we’re all still here in the morning,” says Barbara.
“If not,” says Terry, “can I just say, this has been the best holiday ever. Meeting up with you two — well, I only wish we could have done it in reality. Soulmates. I don’t use that word lightly.”
“It’s been a great end to a rubbish life,” says Sally softly.
We squeeze hands, and say a prayer for you, Peter Millican. You are a great guy. You have been inside our heads, and you knew what we wanted, what we really wanted, all along.
The tigers take up a gentle rocking motion, side to side, and start to hum. The jungle birds chirp along in time, and we dream a little dream of you.
Then the tigers open their mouths and lovingly devour us. They take slow, careful bites, crunching through bones and expectations. We are all delighted to learn there is no pain after all.
• • •
Never waking. Never coming back. Something went wrong, said the Nurse.
He’d been informed of the risks. Carted off to a private facility to lie stretched out like a fish until one day he awakes, or Dreamtech gets tired of paying the bill. And they were still no closer to finding Peter Millican. Perhaps they never would.
The streets are teeming with people; it’s a late work day for him and the evening crowd forms a line for the theatre adjacent to the Dreamtech facility. It had been a stipulation of Millican’s that the theatre remain intact and operational when he bought out the property. The showbill hasn’t changed since — it’s a joke amongst the employees —Les Miserables, hundreds of performances. And the theatre has the perfect name. They call it The Glums. Such perfect irony for a place that’s meant to serve up happiness in a dream.
Perhaps I should quit, the Client Assistant thinks. It’s not a new thought. In his own dreams, he imagines quitting, throwing his written notice into the face of the Client Officer and then jumping out of the window and flying away, up into a perfect blue sky, like Superman. But now the Client Officer is gone.
He’ll have to get a new dream.
© 2013 Aliya Whiteley, all rights reserved