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Dream Eater

(1,619 words)

When we reach the Promised Land across the stars, I’ll become a real girl. I won’t live in a jar. I’ll live among the other settlers, and I’ll play and talk to them with a real voice. There, I will be more than just a presence at the edge of their sleeping consciousnesses. Father promised me so, as long as I’m a good girl. So I’ll be good, and do as Father tells me, and purge the clutter from the settlers’ dreams.

Settler #36 dreams of ice cream—his salivary glands tingle with the anticipation of strawberry goodness. Even in hibernation, such fragments manage to form and fill the mind’s vacuum.

“We can’t have that,” Father’s voice tickles my auditory cortex. He speaks truth. The settlers’ brains need their rest, free from shackles that hold them back. They’ll need to wake up focused against the challenges of their new planet. Gluttony is a sin. Such dreams are neural junk, cluttering down morale. “Off with it, my little Mora.”

So I slide in and reroute nerves and fine-tune synapses to eradicate longing. He fidgets in his sleep, grappling onto his memories. I shift my approach so as to not disturb his stasis, my pruning now more delicate but no less thorough. Once Settler #36 slips back into dreamless—and flavorless—slumber, I shift my focus to another stasis pod. Settler #12 dreams of the wife she left behind. Again. I took care of that, didn’t I? Two days ago. And last week. And last month. Too many times since the Deucalion left Earth’s orbit.

My brain—all that I am—lights up with a surge of adrenaline, courtesy of the adrenal glands that float somewhere to the right of my neurons. I once asked Father why he chose that particular type of tissue to accompany my brain. He just laughed. I soon learned why. I cannot flee, so I fight to be spared his rage when he discovers my failure, and dismantle another dream.

Then the little girl beside Settler #12 dreams of the pet rabbit she couldn’t bring along.

“Off with it.”

It’s a kid with her bunny, I dare.

He scoffs. “There’s no room for pets where we’re going. Beasts of burden, perhaps. Food, certainly. She’s lucky her rabbit won’t end up in a pot.”

So I do what he bred me to do. Bred or grew, I sometimes wonder. I obey anyway. He told me a story once at bedtime. It wasn’t a good story. Lots of suffering. Lots of pain. Lots of death. People gifted with too much power for their minds to handle. The first human telepaths grew disturbed, deranged, destructive. I won’t be any of those things—I don’t have the neural implants they did. I’m just a brain, his little Mora who lives in a jar.

“Good girl,” he coos once I’m done, and allows me a wave of endorphins.

A taste like strawberries. The warmth of a beloved pet’s fur. And I drift off to sleep, yearning for Father’s kiss good night on my forehead once he makes me a real girl.

* * *

The settlers dream less these days, only fragments that make little sense. Bitter mingles with sweet, longing with loathing, the shudder of a fleeting nightmare with the quiver of an equally fleeting caress.

Are we there yet? We should be, but Father ignored me the first twenty-some times I asked. Good girls don’t nag, so I stopped. He barely comes to the lab these days, his thoughts a bundle of worry he won’t allow me to untangle. His mind is off-limits—he made that clear early on.

But how can I float idle while he hurts? The next time he sleeps, I extend neural tendrils to calm down his thoughts and weed out the hurt from his dreams. What I encounter is white-hot fire.

He stands atop a low hill, clad in brilliance, overseeing ever-stretching green fields. People kneel with offerings: grapes and strawberries, chickens and rabbits. Some of the women kiss his feet, others kiss his hands. He speaks blessings aplenty, but his heart holds no love for anyone but himself.

Where am I? Where is his little Mora, who’d sit on his lap, like a real daughter? I float through the sea of faces. Some I know from the dreams I’ve stolen, some I don’t; some are clear, some only smudges at the outer borders of a dream. And none of them are me. Neither at his feet nor in the background. Have I been such a worthless child that I don’t deserve a place in his dream?

What will happen to me when we reach the Promised Land? And what will happen to them?

“My little Mora.” His sigh fills my jar with adrenaline. “Why did you do that?”

I want to scream when he nears me. I cannot. I want to weep and beg for mercy. I will not. When he pushes the hibernation drugs into my jar, I want to ask for one final bedtime story, but he’ll only tell me lies. So instead, I lull myself with fragments of the settlers’ stolen dreams. My thoughts drift onward, to what I pray awaits at journey’s end: when I’ll awake, I’ll have a tongue, to taste strawberries. Skin, to feel the sun. And legs, to run away.

* * *

I wake up in silence.

Father? No one answers. Where’s everyone? Are we there yet? Adrenaline floods my container that’s too low on glucose. I’m groggy and aching and scared. Did they leave me to starve? To die?

Someone? Please? I scream with no voice, stretching my reach as far as I can manage.

“Hello?” A voice. Feminine. Steady. Cautious. Others crowd behind her, none of them familiar.

I grapple onto this new consciousness approaching mine, and suddenly my world lights up. Someone somewhere turned on a switch, and fresh glucose solution drips into my jar.

Father? Are we there? My scream hurts them. I struggle to restrain my anguish. Father?

He’s not there, and I hear none of the settlers either. These people are members of a rescue party. Did . . . did we crash? What happened? I reach out to the first woman who approached me.

Please. Where’s everyone? Forty-six families left Earth aboard the Deucalion. Please, what happened to them?

She won’t say. I probe deeper, my reach unwelcome. Now fragments of images answer me. She tries to close up her thoughts, but I push and fight and fly upon every thought-pattern I can hijack.

And I see, and wish I didn’t.

No Promised Land at journey’s end. Only a barren, stubborn rock of a planet that wouldn’t be terraformed. No flourishing settlement. A few broken-down shacks, a handful of skinny animals grazing on prickly shrubs, and too many graves.

Where’s Father?

My answer is a single image: a dried-up corpse tied on a dead tree. On his chest, a wooden sign: DECEIVER.

And over there, huddled by a fire pit burning dung, the few surviving settlers—all twenty-seven of them. Old. Withered. Crippled by weather and sickness, most of them. Among them, a middle-aged, broken woman clutches on her chest a rag doll that resembles a bunny.

If I had eyes, I’d weep. If I had arms, I’d hug them. If I had legs, I’d throw myself off a cliff. But all I have are the memories of dreams I once devoured. The girl who loved her bunny. The boy who loved ice cream. And the woman whose love defied time and space and Father’s delusions.

I reach out to them.

The brains of the surviving settlers light up like a night sky with the collective dread of the betrayed. They know me, the thief who came during the long night of their interstellar journey to nibble on their dreams. They know me, and they reject me. Their grief and their despair weave a mental howl that keeps me at bay.

You are not welcome, Spawn of the Deceiver.

I retreat back into my jar, back into the only home I’ve ever known, alone with my hoard of stolen moments. I wish I could tell them that, if I could turn back time, I’d drill through Father’s brain and stop him from hurting them. But my regret won’t become atonement—not after everything I’ve taken.

Forgive me, I whisper. And with all that I was and all that I am, I reach out again.

I release the sum of my stolen parts unto their minds: the fur of a beloved bunny, the softness of grandma’s hand-knit shawl, the warmth of sunlight on the skin, the embrace of a kindred spirit during a storm. I give them back the longing for sweet-and-sour, the first mouthful of warm, bitter coffee on a winter morning, and a spoonful of strawberry ice cream. I remind them of the exhilaration of wild dancing, of running through the woods and the scent of wet grass after rain. And once I’m done, I return into my jar, empty and bereft, to serve my sentence of solitude.

Until I’m not alone.

Settler #11—Kate—seeks me out first. She lets me feel the prickly coat of a goat as it grazes.

Settler #36, Jim, shares the taste of the caramel-flavored protein bar the rescue team gave him. Martha, Settler #27, allows me a ride on her mind for a walk at the edge of the settlement, to look at the wilderness beyond. And, at long last, I have eyes and legs and hands, and I can taste and feel everything I’ve ever longed for. Everything Father could not—would not—give me.

Like a real girl.

Christine Lucas is a Greek author, a retired Air Force officer (disabled), and mostly self-taught in English. Her work appears in several print and online magazines, including Future SF Digest, Pseudopod, and Strange Horizons. She was a finalist for the 2017 WSFA award and the 2021 Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award For Disability In Speculative Fiction. Her collection of short stories, titled Fates and Furies, was published in late 2019 by Candlemark & Gleam.

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
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