On the worst days, just the knowledge that you're dreaming is enough to set you shivering in the cot, neck stiff from the cables.
Eventually one of your wardens will come, so you wait. They are little more than shadows, these days: features you can't quite bring into focus; skin tone somewhere between ivory and midnight. You can't remember any of the names you gave them when you first arrived.
Every day is more or less the same. Your wardens detach the cables from the base of your skull, then lift you from the cot and pull a scratchy cotton smock onto your body. That at least you can feel—touch hasn't fled you yet; cold and heat and discomfort are familiar friends.
If you're strong enough, you ask to watch your dreams, but days like that are few and far between.
Most days they walk you down a concrete-grey hallway to a room with no doors, and sit you in a chair across a table from a blinding, impenetrable light. The questions and your answers are always the same.
How did you make it, this beast that is eating the world?
I dreamed it, and it was.
You've always been able to do this?
Yes, since I was a child. I used to dream pets and playmates, but my parents were afraid and made me stop.
What happened to your parents?
They're gone. At first they hid me away when people found out I could dream things real. But the people kept at them until they brought me out again. They said they wanted to study me, to put me in a machine until they knew how the dreaming worked and could replicate it.
And your parents?
They were going to let it happen but they changed their minds and—
They changed their minds, or you made them? With this power of making dreams real.
Maybe. Anyway they're gone.
And you dreamed the world-eating beast just after.
Can you stop it? Will you?
I don't know.
You don't know if you can, or if you will?
I don't know. I'm sorry. I need more time.
Then they take you down another hallway, bathe and feed you, and return you to your room, where you can rest until you're ready to sleep again.
This goes on so long that time and memory lose all sense of meaning.
At last there comes a day when your wardens don't arrive. You lie there shivering until you can't any more, and then you make yourself sit up. You make yourself unlatch the cables, gasping as the needles scrape against the inside of the holes. You lift yourself from the cot and pull the scratchy smock on one final time.
There's no real point, of course. It's obvious the world-eating beast has come to finish what you started, but couldn't carry through. If indeed it was you who started this—when you try to think back to your childhood, little is clear. You've never been too good at distinguishing dream from reality.
You make yourself walk the hallway, but the room at the end is empty. No chair, no table, no blinding light. You go back to your room and your cot, and you ask yourself questions with no answers.
How do you feel about your parents?
What is it like to dream love?
Can something be saved when it's already gone? When it never was?
There are so many things you don't know. But you decide—at last—it's worth a try.
You close your eyes. You sleep. You dream.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
Subscribe to Stewart C Baker to support their work and get updates on new stories and exclusive content each month.