A Backbone for Frangible Dreams
© 2000 D.F. Lewis
D.F. Lewis’ story, The Shiftlings, appeared in our March 2000 issue. This time around, the England native introduces us to a character living two lives. Are they past and present? Present and future? Or is someting else going on?
     The fact that I could arrive in time for the conference was a ludicrous proposition because, by all accounts, I was dead.     My worry was not when the dreams started, but when they eventually stopped. I believed that, as long as the dreams were contained within my sleep, I felt the waking world was safe. I indeed had the dreams under control. After all, dreams were nothing but haphazard images, intangible mementoes of waking life, essentially my property, my own damned esoteric business.
Then, for no apparent reason, the dreams stopped. And the long ensuing unbroken sleep, rather than refreshing body and spirit, began to drain my inner resources. After each spell of sleep’s pure unconsciousness, I woke with eyelids so heavy the lashes felt stitched into my cheeks; and my breath was labored, thoughts encumbered, limbs aching to their very roots. I had to stay put; no amount of false will-power could lift what felt to be a stranger’s body from the bed’s warm security. Eventually, however, I rose and, like one of those career zombies from the old films, found myself walking to work, only to make fitful attempts at the simple tasks that now seemed quite beyond my meager powers. Unknown to my conscious mind, dreams continued willy-nilly.And, yes, the conference table was peppered with note-pads, some already scribbled on with figures and diagrams-and strewn with HB pencils, a number snapped off at the point due to the haste in planning this meeting-and edged with nameplates in no particular order… except mine was at the table’s head.
Also, there were not enough chairs to go round.
Upon the wall, the cinemascopic computer screen flickered, focused and unfocussed, as the keyboard-man, somewhere in the bowels of the building, struggled with the knobs on his console. He was desperately trying to tune into the various intercoms on board the starships scattered across the known and unknown universes, some of which even blinked out incomprehensible codes from corners of an untenable egg-shaped universe whereto they had accidentally strayed.
The keyboard-man managed to obtain, in his panic of twiddling, only local radio phone-ins, instead.

Erstwhile colleagues humored me-or they humored the person they thought was me. One even cracked a bad egg over my head at a wild office Christmas party-but I failed to understand the joke, let alone appreciate the stench. Later in that party, I encountered a woman-I forget her name-with whom I dimly remembered having previously struck up a lively business relationship amid the short-hand and the lap-top computers.
“What’s wrong?” she asked me quietly, having taken me aside, away from the brunt of the festivities.
“I don’t know. It’s just as if someone else has taken over my body. I no longer feel in control of it. But you don’t want to hear about this, do you? Not tonight.” I mindlessly picked broken eggshells from my hair.
“I don’t like to see you like this. Have you been to the quack?”
I cringed. She obviously meant a shrink.
“No. I’ve got to come to terms with myself, on my own…”
“I disagree. They can do marvelous things these days-like discovering malignancies before they’re even there and mind training, even brain implants…”

The conference delegates, having arrived outside in Government-requisitioned items of ancient public transport, clutched their umbrellas and brief-cases. One individual in particular, Captain Peter Erak, seemed especially keen to appear nonchalant, as he ambled towards the swing-doors of the skyblock. His brief case had been designed like an old style supermarket carrier-bag. He looked up towards gods or spacemen who had always been the bane of his life.
Dragged out of a cozy bed at an unearthly hour on the other side of the world, with no hope of ever regaining such sleep for at least another forty-eight hours, Captain Peter Erak was not in the best of moods. He waved lackadaisically at the next participant who happened to arrive behind him in a souped-up vintage London omnibus-together with his retinue of personal secretaries and grooms. This was Battlefield Marshall-whose nameplate, following my own death, should have been at the head of the conference table but was, in reality, lying relatively unnoticed in the corner under the umbrella-stand whereto it had elegantly glided during one of those arguments that too often beset administrative staff.
“Hiya, Peter Erak, we’re going to give those blighters a hiding today.” Marshall twirled the ends of his moustache, twirled it using the metal hooks screwed into the knuckle-joints of his right hand: hooks that were replacements for the fingers which had been chewed off by the controls of his spacecraft in his now legendary campaign against aliens during the Wars of Redress, after a clumsy (or crazy) engineer had left so many misalignments following an overhaul. It had been nigh impossible to tell the craft’s mouth from its belly-button, nor its spine from its cockpit. The bone of his life.
Peter Erak yawned, opened up his umbrella and entered the skyblock, thus snubbing his superior merely for the sake of his own self-satisfaction. Yet it was not obvious enough to be noticed by onlookers, a fact which served to ensure there was no need for retribution by Marshall upon Peter Erak. Punishments and vengeances were only required for show: hence those wars so many years before.
Battlefield Marshall shrugged and smiled at the security guard who stood within the central pivot of the swing-doors. Servants those days had no wits, he mused, and all the fun had gone out of command. Still, Captain Peter Erak deserved some sort of warning reprimand, for his over subtle misbehavior, but this idea fled from Marshall’s mind (for want of company).

“Yes, brain implants,” said the woman. “Didn’t you know, that I’ve had one. Goes with the face lift.”
The waking world must have grown crazier since I had been born. But then I realized that it was not the world that had changed, nor even had I myself changed. I was now living in a completely different world from the one in which I’d fallen asleep the night before. Surely the world itself needed a good shrink. Not me. I was quite healthy. The world was sick.
I decided I fancied her. I knew that office parties were for flirting with people one only knew from the distant respect of desk-level protocol and tippex etiquette. I settled a peck on her lips, to stop them from jabbering, if nothing else. Imagine my surprise when she crooked her arm behind my neck and tried to eat me-literally. French kisses were not in the same league. Eventually, I had to come up for air. I’d rather have the chitter-chatter than the erotic cannibalism.
“I stopped having dreams several nights ago,” I resumed breathlessly, “and I think they may have escaped out into the real world.”
She smiled in a strange condescending manner, as if she did not even want to bother to understand what I was saying: her confidence deriving, not from understanding, but from not wanting to understand.

I was fresh from disasters at the planetary poles of New Jupiter, limping towards the conference building on crutches that seemed to be natural extensions of my bones. I had been granted a taxi as soon as the relevant authorities had recognized who I was at the spaceport. This had meant a charade of flagging it down in The Mall, telling the peak-capped driver (who already knew) where to go and, finally, tipping him with a few Old Pennies from the pre-Seventies.
I was more surprised than anybody that I was still alive. After all, who could follow death? I waited for the swing-doors to be dismantled-much to the annoyance of its surly jobsworth attendant. And as I mooched on the pavement, I reviewed my life (which, in fact, had been little more than a series of events in brackets).
Since the Disgrace Years (during most of which I was a child), I had stumbled between irrelevancies, earning stripes and titles as I went. I was now so important, so high up the dignified chain of command, there were still only a few links left between myself and God. I did not even need a title at all, unlike Captain Peter Erak and Battlefield Marshall. Respect was my deathright, and I was determined to wreak it, even if it meant becoming a cyborg or, even, a full-blooded android with next to no human parts or, at the last resort, becoming a real alien. Death had many stages, and I was resolute in my desire to cross them by whatever means of Man, Metal or Monster.

I abruptly noticed the shambling figure of the office boss approaching our head-to-head. Not the ordinary boss, but the boss’s boss, the one we rarely saw.
“Hello, I hope you’re enjoying the party. It’s good to see people letting down their hair for a change…” -not pausing to draw breath, let alone to give us the opportunity to respond-“…the firm’s had a good year, no mistake, so everybody deserves a good time. Which reminds me…”-looking at the wall clock-“…have either of you two dears the price of a taxi fare? I’ve been a silly goose and left my purse at home.”
I offered the few shillings I found in the lining of my pocket, which were readily accepted. I turned back to the lady with a fine line in lobotomy and idle banter. But then I heard the distant tones of a vaguely reminiscent voice: gently calling my name across the milling rumble of steamers that the party had now become: each participant of the ruckus holding a hefty jugful of amber brew poised between mouth and manly stance: fingers splayed round the glass like a knuckly spider, spurning the handle’s use. It was a wonder I heard the sweet-toned voice at all. Yet I made polite excuses to the lady with the wrong brain and took a hazardous route through the big talk merchants with the jugs. One spat in my ear, but I did not catch what the spit said. The odd snatches of conversation I did catch as I wove between the more upwardly mobile end of the room were not congenial, amid the tinkle of G & T’s. I wondered why they were smoking so heavily; must be to suffocate the germs, I assumed. Or, perhaps, a lungful of tobacco smoke was better than your average gulp of otherwise untreated air. In any event, I made it to the far window, where I hoped the owner of the plaintive voice would be waiting for me.
There was nobody of significance in the vicinity, however. Only a giggle of office juniors plucking the backs of each other’s bra straps under the blouses. They scowled at me, making me feel small. Then, across the other side of the room, I spotted a lady whom I loved and who I thought loved me in what appeared to be a deep affectionate exchange with another lady who looked like me but wasn’t me. I called out in a bleating plaintive voice of jealousy.
But neither heard me. Or they studiously snubbed me by sliding through the French windows together. Meanwhile, I was blissfully unaware that it was not a bad egg that had been smashed on my head, but a bottle wickedly wielded amid the other throes of the wild party.
Or it was indeed truly a bad egg, by actually not being an egg at all?
I felt relieved, however, that it was not me actually thinking such outlandish thoughts, thinking, as I did, in words I didn’t understand and by means of what I felt to be a yolky brain that, no doubt, belonged within someone else’s shell-bone. Yet, all stuff and nonsense, no doubt.

The words did mean something and, yet, didn’t. Fustian to the nth degree. Indeed, the hum of words around the conference table rose and fell with each item of the makeshift agenda. The wall screen had by now entered Phase-and the many dots and dashes were interpreted quite differently by each delegate.
Captain Peter Erak snored loudly, an ear pricked for any sign of the meeting coming to an end. He had nothing to contribute. The universe, to him, was not as it used to be in the good old days. Everything, but everything, had run to seed. Even beyond the known universes, other civilizations were at this very moment suffering their own version of the Disgrace Years, as his own had done during the Eighties and Nineties. Aliens were aliens by name only. He shrugged in his sleep.
Battlefield Marshall peered quizzically at his nameplate, wondering why he couldn’t decipher it. Words were never his strength. He could not clear his throat as his own words became eggs of phlegm in the throat. The lung dust billowed round the conference room, showing that the esophagus filters had been too glibly turned off to allow the free flow of debate and brainstorming. He prodded the bent skewer of his index finger up his nose. There was irritating rust up there.
I surveyed the others from the safety of my own self-confidence. If nothing else, death could give me that. Men were a rat race apart, I mused. Worlds elsewhere were being blown to smithereens upon a whim. At the same time, between the confines of this room, the intrigues, side-treaties, gangings-up, singlings-out and the subtleties of the ever-tentacular agenda were quite beautiful to witness. The individual sitting on the floor taking the Minutes would no doubt be struggling with the apologies-for-absence, late arrivals, early departures, cross-references, mini-delegations, sub-committees, tangents, any-other-business and even dreams.
But I knew they all missed one thing: one vital point which, if they’d known, would have made the whole meeting itself pointless: and that point was that each attendee thought that the others were at least halfway sensible and surely capable of a modicum of constructive ratiocination. By natural inverse extrapolation from such a basic over-estimation of human nature, every delegate was literally condemned to a greater stupidity than each other.
Another nova glowed upon the screen like a diamond nugget. Obviously, Battlefield Marshall couldn’t tell his arse from his elbow nor his mouth from his belly-button, as folds of flesh ore oozed from his nostrils. The blighter had pushed the wrong knob on his personal armrest console (or perhaps it was altogether the wrong armrest).
The man taking the Minutes seemed pleased that the humor in the situation had long since disappeared: never appropriate in the first place. Battlefield Marshall decided to see to the cloakroom arrangements, to ensure that the correct tickets had been pinned to the correct coats. He passed the flowering of umbrellas upon their stand. He felt cleaned out. Captain Peter Erak still snoozed, but his dreams were at least clearer than his life had ever been. Tiredness no longer mattered.
But I slept a new life where neither Time nor Minutes counted. My shed body was left like a lion’s cage. The other delegates argued on, oblivious, as the disco lights on the wall-screen flickered through the wordsmoke of the conference room. If only one of them would be inquisitive enough to pick up my own unofficial hastily scribbled Minutes, then at least the huge choking cloud of humanity would end up having a silver lining. And this was because I had scrawled out, during my last death throes, the very core point: “Mankind’s own stupidity is the sole cause of universal entropy, not vice versa, as mankind has always proposed.”
Peter Erak and Marshall were nothing more than mere ciphers in a universe that existed solely within a single skull’s walls. Good job they didn’t know their ultimate predicament or else there’d have been dear to pay.

I had gained a new wisdom from my own death. Because or in spite of being a stuffed nonsense called woman, my wondrous being existed because it had hatched from a brittle dream of Man, Metal and Monster … and I now simply knew what was what and how was how, if not when and where and, even, if.
The stuff of dream
The egg-bone of life.
The mother craft