Emily knows that she sees it refracted by the lens of her cultural signifiers. She explained it once to Kai that it is like a woman dreaming she is hurtling down a hill: the woman is on a bus that is out of control; she swings between being terrified and being caught up in the rapture of the free-fall. Another woman from a different time has the same dream, except in hers she is riding a horse whose reins have been cut. The underlying significance of the dreams is the same, but the appearance is adapted or refracted by the lens of the women’s individual cultural signifiers.
What Emily sees now is a room.
It is a room where people come and lie or sit on chairs. The people attach large wires—salamander’s tongues—to a hole in their chest as a kind of logging in. The people are tethered to each other so that each is logged into the next. Emily knows it for the image of variant realities.
‘Are the cable butchers sentient?’ she asks the Captain. She thinks he might not answer her—he is angry; he is more and more angry in this part of the grid, and she knows he tries hard to keep it in check—but he does answer, peering at her, eyes like a dog with a hurt leg: ‘Are you?’ he says quietly. Then he snaps at her: ‘All intelligence is bloody artificial’ and backs off across the room.
Emily looks idly at a piece of paper on the desk. On it is written:
What r they building at the end of the
I hear drilling in the night, coughing
behind the wall.
I go out to fetch the milk
There’s water on the floor.
She looks up and notices, across the desk, a girl carefully tipping the high, plastic-backed stool she sits on, so as to rest balanced on two—and then for a moment one—legs. The girl notices she is being watched and looks at Emily reproachfully.
‘It’s hard not to be a chauvinist.’ the girl says. ‘I’m chauvinistic too sometimes as well.’ Her head tilts as if she is hearing something. Then she looks again at Emily and asks quite earnestly: ‘Why don’t you grow a pair?’ Emily is unsure what to say. She moves away from the table.
‘No, wait! Don’t go.’ the girl says. ‘I’ve been reading the novel you are writing. It’s very good. It’s really very good how it is. How real it is. The details are so… lifelike.’
‘It won’t carry on like that.’ Emily replies. ‘I’m making it real but it’s all a lie. I’m obsessed with the moment when you see thru something and your preconceptions change.’
‘Like this?’ the girl asks and she slides something across the desk to Emily. Emily notices how clean the girl’s hand is as she looks down at what she is showing her. It is the other side of the piece of paper from before. On it is a rough sketch of two boys holding a book between them. On the cover of the book she can see has been drawn a very small version of the two boys also holding a book; and so on.
Emily smiles in relief, shuts her eyes, feels the feedback loop, her consciousness shift, and opens them somewhere completely different.
Kai is there, in joggers with his hair slicked back. ‘Whose mind are we inside?’ he asks. Emily definitely doesn’t know the answer to that and thinks it presumptuous to think of it as someone’s.
She can see a kind of loading bay with a split floor. On the landing ahead of them are five figures in a line, all lying prone. Emily and Kai move up the steps, approaching the bodies. The figures are frozen: There is no movement of breath, no twitches; their chests do not swell and then fall, and yet they do not seem to be dead.
Emily looks at each in turn. One is without the top half of their head, as if someone has sliced it off in one clean line, anything above the ears. No inner head is showing, instead there is flat skin. The features are delicate; artificial lapping layers of synthetic material: blues and greys.
Another of the figures is pustulent; open green sores across her naked torso, her horrific swollen breasts. There is no smell. The third and fourth figures are blurry, as if they have been forgotten. Emily thinks perhaps it is her that has forgotten them. And the fifth, closest to Emily and Kai, is a beautiful muscular man with ruddy bronzed skin. Like the woman, he is wearing almost no clothes—a loin cloth, his black hair tied in a white band—but he has markings of red ash scratched on his skin. His hand is clasped around something long, thin, tubular, and as Kai leans closer to see, Emily’s stomach lurches.
‘No!’ she says. It is too late.
Kai is lying on the ground exactly where the man just was, frozen but peaceful. The muscular warrior is stood where Kai was standing. Emily shrieks and recoils back. Looking at Kai he is still and lifeless.
‘What did you do?’ she stammers. The warrior is advancing towards her. And, despite the dread that rises in her, across her mind comes the thought that she would like to be crushed by him. She would like to be so completely engulfed as to forget everything: the songlines, Kai, Caliban, her mother—everything. She catches herself before it is too late. Perhaps it is her or perhaps it is the bark of the Captain she hears louder, stilling her other thoughts: ‘Back!’
The glamour is broken. For an instant she sees the man tired and sad, then again he is the young warrior, lustrous, arrogant. She ducks past, reaching to the body of Kai, and instinctively knows to kiss his forehead, her hands coiling around his thick, bristly hair. Kai now is once more next to her; standing, awake.
The warrior lurches at them, and, in her mind’s eye, Emily can see her own face in the warriors, as her and Kai are racing back across the platform. She glances behind and sees the man is stationary, his long confident gestures as he brings the blow gun to bare on them. With a cry, Emily pulls herself back to get between the dart and Kai, and she feels its sharp teeth bite into her left shoulder.
Ahead of them is a ticket office and a pudgy man looking flustered.
‘You can’t come through here!’ he says.
They ignore his flailing arms. A train has pulled in, and he calls at them, his face now the face of the warrior:
‘Three hours.’ His tone is eerily polite.
Llew Watkins is an artist and writer based in Limehouse, London. Working with the organisation Shambhala he organises meditation retreats for people in their 20s and 30s.