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Dream in the Machine - Short Story (unpublished)

Dream in the Machine
By C.N. Pinto

“Today’s the day we die,” I whispered it, knew it in my bones. I could smell death on the air, but that was nothing new. This was a war, after all. I could feel it, though, this time, heavy and inevitable as nightfall. This time it was different, this time was coming for us. I thought I wouldn’t be afraid, how could I be afraid when I’d seen every single day? But then it’d be there, snuffing out souls and I knew it had caught our scent. It had been stalking us for ages, and now it’d found us, found our beating lives and had them in its jaws. “Today’s the day we die,” I said, and I knew it was true.
“Talking to yourself again?” The voice was my friend and captain, Gary Fields. He smiled, and the white of his teeth was the only brightness in the dirt and camouflage paint. “Hell, Jones, you’re going to talk death itself to its own grave.” Fields had a way of making everything…I don’t know, less frightening. He drove away the shadows with his
wry laughter and his strong voice. I supposed it was the mark of a good leader. “We should just let you loose on them, and we wouldn’t even need to fire one round.” A bullet whizzed by overhead, thudding into the mud walls, into the concrete shelters. It had been a long time since there had been a trench war, funny how history repeats itself. If I believed in God I would have blamed him.
“Less words, more bullets then, Capt’n,” I said, and I tried to be more cheerful, or at the very least more attentive. It’s hard to be both when you’re scared shitless. There was…a blaze, very close now. Sudden deafness, as if the world had been muted. Without sound, light rose like the sun at the horizon. “Today’s the day we die,” I muttered. And the enemy drew closer. Black ants crawling across the plains. I wished we had some of the machines left over to fight instead of us. The grips were wrong, the weapons too heavy for human arms. And it wouldn’t have to be us doing the shooting. It wouldn’t have to be us doing the killing. Insects, writhing in a plague over the pockmarked land. Only bugs, not human, no one’s friend, no one’s family. I wondered how long it’d been since I’d seen my wife, but I couldn’t remember. Seems like the whole world was made out of grey and flashes of light that blinded and sounds that cut the ears and the soul. And then, I looked up, and they came, surging over the barriers.
There was no order to retreat. There was no order to retreat. I wanted to run away. There was no way that we could stop the inexorable army that rushed over the last pits of death.
“Run.” The voice was soft, barely audible above the rattle of the guns. I had never heard a voice like that before. It was Fields. He was giving an order that went against training, against what we had been taught, as soldiers to do. “Run, Jones,” he said. “RETREAT!” He screamed it, and those that could barely stand held those who couldn’t at all. I just lay in the mud, looking up at Fields who was unmoving. He was profiled against the ridge, an easy shot for a sniper with any skill, but the bullets never struck home.
I wanted to run. But I couldn’t. If Fields was there, I couldn’t leave. And he wouldn’t leave unless the order was given. He was a soldier, from his rifle down to his waterlogged boots. He was a soldier, or he was a god of war. “Run, Jones.” His voice was soft. “Get up and go!” He picked me up and shoved me in the direction that the others had gone. “Are you deliberately disobeying an order from me?” He asked, and I laughed, because I was denying order that was in itself a refusal of another. I laughed and I stood up, so that there were two of us on that ridge.
He smiled, then, a bitter slash of white against the grey and the sickly orange of the sky.
“Then get down, let’s send a few of these bastards with us.” The army approached the two men on the crest of the iron hill. The mass rushed towards them, thinking that there was no one there. They were surprised. The gunfire exploded through the bodies, ripped a stream of gore through the faceless mob. And then I saw it, the weapon that was meant for me. Out of unaccountable hundreds, I saw the bullet that was my doom. There was a tiny explosion. Tiny for me, it was meters away, a minute muzzle flash that blossomed like a little flower at the end of the barrel. But it never hit.
Crouched, as if in prayer, was Fields. And a second flower blossomed on his chest and on his back. Red as a rose. As its terrible, gory petals unfolded, I think I might have screamed. I stood, and a hail of bullets tore through both our bodies.
Voices, drifting in and out of consciousness as my life leaked away. “Take them. I want to know why they...” I felt motion, in a distant sort of way, as if I was floating above our bodies, in space maybe, in heaven. All I could see was the scarlet slowly spreading over Fields’ strong back. Today’s the day we die. The red faded to black.
“Did you learn anything?” Light, in my eyes, like in the dentist’s chair. It had an anaesthetic quality to it, a dulling sensation rather than a wakening one. People moved around me. I could tell from the pattern of shadows that flickered across my dazed mind.
“To that end they were a bit of a failure. But they did make good prototypes…” Pain suddenly cut through the conversation, fireworks exploding behind my eyes. I tried to jerk, to thrash in pain. But it was as if there was something missing. I couldn’t move. My body. What happened to my body? I tried to focus, to bring everything back into perspective. My eyes didn’t seem to work right. Glasses, that was my first thought, and then I remembered that my eyesight had been perfect ever since I had joined the military.
“He’s regained consciousness,” the voice said, dispassionately. I could make out colours now, and shapes. “Took this one longer than the other one, makes me wonder why he even made it this far.” I seemed to be on a table, but my sense of everything but gravity was attenuated, hard to fathom. If this is heaven, I thought, then religion is a joke.
Whoever it was that was speaking turned to me, I could fuzzily make out his face as he bent over me.
“Listen,” the voice said, ridiculously calm. I wondered if it was the enemy that had found me, or if some miracle had happened and allies had come. “You aren’t currently mobile. A few more hours and you’ll be able to sit up and walk.” Mobile? My thoughts were confused, hard to hold on to.
“Fields…” I said, and my voice sounded strange, as if the shape of my lungs and larynx had been fundamentally altered. I felt like another person, I hoped I wasn’t a quadriplegic, better to be dead.
“Oh, the other one, you mean. He was in worse shape than you. Cost the unit a fortune to fix him, you know. But they wanted to know.”
“Know what…?” My voice was weak, although I supposed I should be glad that I could still breath and think, let alone speak.
“That’s enough of that.” Someone else spoke sharply, I could see in the corner a thin man, a doctor, that was my first thought. “Tell it to rest for the moment, and then put it in containment with the other one.” I was afraid, so it wasn’t a miracle after all. It was the other side that had gotten us.
“Sleep,” the voice suggested, and I did, passing through light into blackness.
Some time later. I still lay on a flat surface, but it wasn’t the same one as before. There was no one there, for one. I half slid off a table of some sort. There was a metallic crash when I hit the ground. Somehow, it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. My joints didn’t seem to work the way I remembered them. It was like relearning how to move, even just to sit down. My eyes still weren’t working.
“Hello?” I asked, my voice weak and I crawled towards what seemed to be a wall. Bars, heavy grating, enough to cage an elephant. Something scraped on the ground behind me. I turned around, awkward as a small child, to see it. A hand clapped on my shoulder. I jumped, my limbs spasming. And slowly, I turned around.
And into his eyes. His calm eyes. Fields. And I was comforted, just by seeing him there. But why didn’t he say anything? I touched his face, unsure if it was real. My fingers slid down skin, (again the sensations came from far away, from someone else), and then…metal. He was a ****** machine. With Fields’ eyes.
“What did they do to you?” I whispered. And the eyes were sad, though unspeaking. And then I saw my face, in the pools of his eyes. And it was every bit as inhuman as his. I screamed until my lungs shook and I tasted blood. And Fields, or the machine that had his eyes, said nothing.
When the tears stopped, I could see again. My senses were weird, distorted. I could see in infrared, in ultraviolet, in frequencies had no names. But I could see again. I had my back to the bars. It wasn’t a jail, as I had first thought it was. It was a transport vehicle. A massive door made up the majority of the wall. I stood up, and walked slowly around the small chamber. The machine that had been Fields was there, crouched in the corner, watching cautiously. It seemed to me that more had been taken away from him then his voice. Defeat clung around him, a cloak of fatigue that had nothing to do with his body.
There was a shift, and I was sprawled on the floor. Fields, I noticed, kept his balance easily. There was a squeal of hinges and the hiss of hydraulic joints. Light flooded in from the door. A desert sun that blazed on a landscape of stark rock.
“Welcome to the Okanagan,” the voice said cheerfully. “Your friend already has been out and about. We just brought him back ‘cause we thought that you’d like to see a familiar face.” I picked myself off the ground, and stepped outside. The sky was so bright, a dome of pure white, as if I could see right through it and into heaven. “You want to adjust your spectrum, I expect.” It was the scientist from earlier. As if the words triggered something unconscious, my vision became as I remember it to have been, the sky a perfect, drowning blue.
“Lovely day, isn’t it?” The voice bantered on. I just wished he would shut up. “Going to put you through training, reconfiguration and the like.” It occurred to me what had happened.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“We’re the good guys. We’re the future,” he answered. “And, we’re the ones currently paying your hospital bill, which, I might say, is not unsubstantial.” It was so…banal. He looked at me, his white jacket flapped in the sandy wind. “And you,” he added, “You’re going to fight for us. You’re going to help liberate the world.”
“You…you nearly killed us.” I was in disbelief, “And you destroyed our fields, our cities, our lives.” I was suddenly aware that I was taller than I had been. I wanted to hit him, to wipe that smile off his face. “How the hell can you tell us that we’re going to fight for you?”
“But your friend has already done it.” And then I knew why Fields had looked so empty. And at the same time, I knew why he was still alive. He was a soldier -- he had to have someone to fight for. And I never doubted the scientist’s words.
I walked past him. It was good to feel the air again, the sun warming what chilly skin I had. A lone bird winged over the empty land. It was peaceful, almost, except for the set of barracks, and command centres. And the targets, set up in the distance, the firing ranges and artillery. I turned around, and Fields was there, watching silently from the shadows of the vehicle.
And I knew I had to fight. But not for them. Never for them. “Fine,” I said, and I meant it. “Fine I’ll fight your ****** war.” But not for you.
The man only nodded. He knew I would do it. “Then, head over there and meet your new unit.” He pointed a field. There was a circle of heavy shadows stretched on the plain, and I knew they were like us.
So we fired weapons that I had never heard of, bolts of energy, waves of percussive sound. And sometimes I wondered whom we were going to fight against, who we were going to kill. As quickly as I wondered, I stopped wondering. I didn’t want to know.
The days passed quickly, a week, and then two. I didn’t eat with my unit, I didn’t speak with them. I underwent the routine repairs without a word. During my free time I sat with Fields and stared out at the empty wasteland. I wondered what he thought, how much was still left of him inside the machine. He said nothing, wrote nothing, did nothing. Once I took him by the shoulders and shook him, hard. But he only looked at me. His smile was gone, his voice was gone, his soul was gone. Empty. I wondered why they still kept him around, why I still kept him around.
And then they announced we were going to war. And some of them cheered, and some of them cried. I said nothing. Fields said nothing. (But I knew he was eager to go, I could feel it in the tightness of his body, in his eyes that were the only part of him left). So we stepped back into the transport vehicles, twelve ghosts going to fight for nothing they believed in.
The fire that bloomed in the sky was bright as second suns, and third suns, and supernovae. The percussive bursts of firearms, and the heavy rattle of artillery. I remembered, again, the trench war. But this was nothing like it. This was not the hiding, the lying in bloodied mud and wishing that the bullets would miss and wouldn’t miss. I felt no fear. I saw Fields step out of the vehicle. He stood, outlined against the sky and I thought I saw him in his ragged uniform again, rifle held against his shoulder. But that was only a memory. He stepped out of transport, and I knew why they had kept him. He was different on the battlefield, transubstantiated, alive. And the unit, and myself, followed him into war and brought death with us. And for a minute, among the blood and the screams, and the horror of our enemies, once our friends, I felt a terrible joy. I revelled in it, in the terror, in the sheer, ****** pain.
Then they were all dead, or all gone. I suppose we had won. I didn’t care. We went back somewhere, to another facility. I wondered what would have been on the evening news, if such a thing still existed. I wondered what I would have done if I had ever gone home, taken the bath, spoke with my wife. Maybe we would have gone to the bedroom together. I don’t know. I stopped wondering after a while.
It was like having the same dream, over and over, waking up and finding that it was still the same dream. Murder, and death and fire in the day, in the night. Always there was me, and there was Fields in it.
And then one day the lights turn off, miles below the earth as we are, we are plunged into blackness. Explosions rock us, even buried in the ground. And I know something has gone wrong.
It’s the scientist again. He looks old, his hair is white, his face is wrinkled. He looks tired, a deep, immeasurable sadness in his heavy-lidded eyes. Time has passed. He isn’t the young, cheerful man he used to be. I supposed I wasn’t the same man I used to be. (And the thought moves through my head, that I wasn’t even a man, let alone the same one). It has been a while.
“Come with me,” he says, and he makes no jokes, no attempt at conviviality. I don’t either.
He leads us to a capsule. It is hidden behind locks and doors as thick as my hand. He steps into it. “No one else has use for this, anymore,” he says, and it sounds almost like a joke. Almost, but not quite. He touches the four-dimensional controls, giving audio directives to the consol. There is a sensation of movement, which intensifies, until I am pressed back into the floor. Something shudders open, opening like an eye far, far above us. The scientist is in a seat, strapped into it. The world roars. Over the sound of a thousand lightnings tearing, I hear his voice: “Bury me when you get there, won’t you?”
It seems like we are spinning. But I don’t feel it. I can see out of a window. Everything is black, pricked with points of light that are sharp enough to pierce a soul. Occasionally there will be a flood of light in from the window, inundating the chamber, washing us away. It is periodic, regular. At first, a great sphere used to appear in the window, a luminous blue swathed in heavy grey and sickly yellow. It reminded me of something I had seen as a child, looking through a calendar with Venus and Mars in it. It would get smaller. Days pass. Months, years.
The scientist is still there, in his chair. He looks peaceful there.
I think I am going into stasis. I feel sleepy, and across the room I see Field’s head nodding. I fall in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I dream, and they are dreams of the life I had lost a long, long time ago. Dinner with my family, coming back from a campaign. And then not coming back at all. Fields’ voice. I miss hearing it. Sometimes when I wake up, I feel moisture running down my cheeks.
And then we are hurtling towards something. The change in acceleration startles me out of my sleep. Fields is already awake. I know even though he isn’t moving. I look out the window. We are rushing towards a surface as a meteor, a falling star. And then the impact shatters my consciousness once again.
There is a hiss of air, and I am reminded of decades ago, when I emerged remade as a killing machine. Light again, but different. It was colder, although the sun’s radiation burned through the thin atmosphere. The sky was a deep, deep blue, like nothing on earth.
“Hello?” The voice was female. “Is anyone there?” I wished it would go away so I could sleep again. I closed my eyes, hoping that when I opened them there would be nobody there. “You’ve come a long way,” the speaker was very close now. I opened them. A face loomed before me, blue eyed but with skin sun-darkened. She smiled. It was strange seeing a living human again.
“Welcome to Mars,” she said. And then I recognized the red soil. “Home of the optimists,” she laughed. I could see why -- they were only ones who would survive on this harsh, half-terraformed planet. The air was very thin and cold. “Come on. If you want a place to stay you’ve got to help out.” She stepped out of the capsule, and in the light, her metal body reflected the light, shiny and bright as polished silver.
I followed her. Fields was behind me. We left the scientist in his tomb, millions of miles away from the planet he had helped destroy, and we set off across the surface of Mars. I wondered if I had to fight again. It didn’t really matter to me, either way. I felt lighter, in the sun again, however far away it was. It might have been the girl. It might have been the gravity. A cluster of white shelters leaned out of a cliff, a few lonely dwellings in the middle of nowhere. Hardy plants grew around the doors. Flowers. I touched one, marvelling at the silken feel of the petals. It crumbled between my mechanical fingers, and dissolved in the harsh wind.
“Not much of a conversationalist, are you?” She asked. I turned around, wondering if she was talking to Fields. I heard her laugh.
“What’s so funny?” I asked. My voice sounded hoarse. Of course. I hadn’t spoken for several years.
“You.” She smiled. Her teeth were very white. She gave no other explanation. “What can I call you, anyway?” She asked. It had been a very long time since anyone had called me by a name.
“I don’t know,” I said, sadly. I looked away, at the empty plains. “A long time ago…I was called Jones. But sometimes I get the feeling that the name doesn’t belong to me anymore. Someone else’s name. Someone else’s life.” I was aware I was babbling. I stopped. First person I see and I’m telling my whole damn story. Hell, Jones, you’re going to talk death itself to its own grave. She brushed my arm, her metal hand against my shoulder. And I felt reassured, safe again. Behind me, Fields was silent.
“Alright then, I’ll have to make up my own name for you,” she said lightly, although I remembered the sincerity of her touch. “Come help me fix the heating system, and he,” she said, indicating Fields, “can bring the fuel.” We didn’t have to fight after all.
The girl, her name was Victoria, (and she teased me when she said that she was absolutely sure it was her name), ran a water refinement plant in addition to fertilizing the barren soil. The theory was that eventually they would be able to farm the land, not just growing food in the expensive hydroponic chambers. Whatever the reasoning was, it made for a busy day: fixing valves, collecting and transporting the condensed water, refuelling the reaction chambers. And of course, Victoria was always there. I think I might have been happy again. Days passed in a dream of ochre afternoons.
I went out to gather some of the flowers that grew in the plains. I thought I might give them to Victoria. In the distance, I saw dust rising, not the sandstorms that I was now familiar with, but as if a great mass approached just below the horizon. The flowers were crushed against my chest, a smear of green and white. I ran back to the shelters.
Victoria was there. Only her. And Fields. The shelters looked abandoned, forsaken, empty. “I’m sorry,” she said. I didn’t know what she was sorry for. “I should have told you earlier, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want you to leave.” She looked up, the expression of devastated sadness foreign on her face. “There’s a war.” I turned away. Black insectile forms crawled over the edge of the horizon. They had two legs. “We have to run,” she said. And I did.
We ran across the empty fields, a planet haunted by sins brought from another world. We were tireless. But they were faster. I could see them, coming closer, with each passing minute, the distance closing. And then the rifles sprayed a riptide of stray bullets that cut into the rock around our feet. And then I was aware that it was only Victoria and I who were dashing forward. Fields had stopped. I turned around, although Victoria kept running. I think he winked at me, in the distance. I knew then how much of him was still left in that mechanical shell. And then the bullets ripped through his chest, the metal twisting and pockmarked with holes and snapping electricity. He collapsed.
“No,” I whispered. Victoria tugged my arm. Behind Victoria and I, they had stopped to examine Fields, swarming around him, like ants around a dead bird. And I ran, ran as fast as a machine who was once a man can run.
Victoria and I stopped at an abandoned stock house. There was farming equipment, tractors, that had not yet been used -- and old-fashioned long arms. Rifles. I lifted one, hefted it experimentally. A century ago, it was heavy in my arms. Now the grip intended for automata fit my hands. It was light.
“I have to go back for him,” I said. I turned to Victoria. “It’s been a dream, these last few weeks.” I smiled, sadly, as I reassembled the barrel, snapped on the cartridge feeder. The movements came naturally, though I hadn’t used this kind of weapon for a long time. “But not mine.”
“You’ll die,” she said, a statement, a lie. Victoria smiled crookedly, “And I’ll never have found a name for you.”
“I died a long time ago,” I said. And the dead don’t have names.
I walked out, alone, onto the plains of Mars, to find Fields. Dust rose around my metal feet, but my breath came easily. Today’s the day we die. I remember saying that an eternity ago. I knew now, that it had been true. My pace was relentless, inexorable. I tracked across the red sands, and I brought with me death. I brought with me absolution.
I know that they didn’t see me, when I found them. I know all they saw was the flash of metal in the cold sun, the spray of bullets, the wicked wounds that the bullets left. From the corner of their eyes, they saw a mechanical angel, glimpsed the god from the machine. They gathered, grouped, massed, like a single living creature. So that it was I who fought the giant. I who fought against the colossal entity that threatened to swallow me.
I could see him, high above on the copter landing, cabled to the transport restraints. He looked down at me, and his eyes were surprised. He shouldn’t have doubted that I would return. He had died for me, after all.
Their weapons were tearing through me, destroying everything mortal. It was difficult to walk, to think. A film of red, then grey edged my vision, until all I could see was the pale light of Mars in his eyes. The last few steps were agony. And then, we stood on the landing, the red rock stretching around for miles -- empty, barren, hard and cold.
Their rifles shattered me, broke my body and my consciousness. This time the bullets passed through me before him. And. it all.

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