Kora takes the blackberry water offered by the floating tray and shudders as she looks out the glass wall to the thirty-story drop.
Silver buildings crowd the crosshatch of streets, huddling against one another for warmth. The river crawls between, lazy and black, a sheen of ice sweating on the surface. Above it, a train winds past, clinging to the tracks like a frostbitten tongue. An endless winter, a long and sunless scream, encapsules the city of Chicago.
The glass trembles as Kora sets it back down. Even from up here she can still hear the train, rattling in her empty bones.
A bot stands waiting for her, its body a rough sketch of a human, faceless, encased in liquid black. It even tilts its head in a humanesque way.
“You seem nervous,” the bot comments, as if it isn’t silently scanning every fluctuation in Kora’s heart variability. Its voice is distinctly female, soft and ingrained with concern. Kora wonders if they programmed it like that just for her.
“I’m fine. It’s just…” Kora swallows. “Do you have any…is there anything I can take?”
The bot shakes its head, a gentle whirring from side to side. “I’m sorry, but the agency does not permit any additives that could affect the sleeping process. We prefer a natural experience.”
Funny, Kora thinks, when she’s pretty sure there is more than just blackberries in her water. Her head swirls. Her thoughts are starting to drift farther and farther apart, as though they can’t catch their own tail.
“You’ll feel more relaxed once you lie down,” the bot says in what Kora imagines is supposed to be a sympathetic tone. “The sleep session begins in seventeen minutes.”
Seventeen minutes. It almost sounds like a joke. Then Kora remembers reading somewhere that it takes the average person ten to twenty minutes to fall asleep. Wouldn’t that be nice.
She’s starting to regret lying on her application.
But then she sees the bedroom. Or the dream room, as it’s technically called. Whatever makes you feel less weird about being here. But Kora can’t help feeling weird, because it all looks so normal. Blackout curtains, a King size bed, white silk sheets, goose feather pillows that melt under the weight of your head. Even the temperature of the room is ideal—not too warm, not too cold. From somewhere in the walls, a hum of white noise plays.
The bot leaves her with a reminder that it will return at the end of the session.
Kora can’t remember sleeping that long since she was in college, blacked out from another bender.
“Just fake it,” her best friend Angela had advised her, a regular Sleeper back before she (in her words) moved on. “You’ll be asleep before you know it.”
Kora didn’t point out that it was easier said than done. Angela sleeps through everything.
She’d even been asleep that night. The one that changed everything. When they’d both been sitting in a drunken stupor on that bench in the empty train station, too late at night or too early in the morning. Not a police officer in sight. There had been a shadow waiting for them. Gloved hands. The smell of leather now forever trapped in her nostrils. It had been a starless night. A night Kora hasn’t been able to recover from even all these years and therapy sprints later.
Sleeping is the only thing she hasn’t tried.
Kora picks up the neatly folded set of rose pajamas. They fit her perfectly. Of course. Part of her itches to tear them off as soon as they’re on. There’s something too intimate about the way it catches on her skin, like silken fingers tracing her protruding bones, her awkward elbows and pointed knees. Like a gentle but invasive inspection.
She tries not to think about what’s about to happen in the dream session. She’s heard every scenario and imagined the rest. It isn’t hard. What’s hard is pretending to sleep in a bed that isn’t yours, wearing pajamas that probably belonged to the girl before you, waiting for a stranger.
No, not a stranger.
She slips under the sheets. They fold like cool water on top of her. She closes her eyes and waits.
The man slides the leather gloves over his prosthetic hands.
His mechanical fingers flex appreciatively. He’s always loved gloves. They leave no trace, no mark, letting you move through the world as invisible as a winter breeze.
He smooths back his thinning hair as he looks down the empty train tracks into the swirling, frigid dusk. Human specks rush through the sleet-swept streets. Lights sizzle and dim in the hive of buildings, moving shadows drifting through obscurity. He admires the anonymity of the city, where you can move undetected, unnoticed. Where you can disappear without going anywhere. Where you can change your name, your age, nowadays even your face.
He’s been waiting to be found. To be hunted. He never is. No one ever looks in the right places.
He will never pay for what he’s done.
The train is late. The platform is empty. Most take refuge inside the fogged-up heated waiting room. Not him—he is never cold.
He is half machine, after all. A phantom. Half here, half there.
He runs a hand across the top of his favorite wooden bench. He imagines the texture of it rough in his fingers. Whispers of the nameless women who once sat here flicker through his memory filter. He feels close to them, so close, as though they still sit beside him. Hovering like clouds of frozen breath. He can still smell their mingled perfumes. With a pleasured sigh, he closes his eyes and settles himself onto the bench.
Now he waits. It’s only a matter of time before one of them wanders his way.
Drunk, stumbling. Soft.
They make it so easy for him.
The platform beneath his feet rattles as the sound of the train approaches, a loud and screeching onslaught. He stands to greet it even though he will not get on. He’s not going anywhere.
It’s the thrum of the tracks, the pounding of the cement beneath his feet that excites him. It feels like power. Power as raw, as real as lust and longing.
The lights of the train hit him. They are blinding. The train is not stopping, only increasing speed.
It is then that he feels a pair of hands on his shoulders. Small yet somehow imperceptibly strong.
The pleasure of the moment before, of visiting his bench, of waiting for the women to come, is replaced by a panic in his chest--the part of his chest that still resembles the human he used to be. He tries to turn around, but blackness trickles into his good eye. The other is already blind.
She has found him. He’s not sure which she it is. He has stolen the sleep from so many.
The train hurtles down the tracks toward him.
She pushes him into it.
Kora opens her eyes and slowly sits up in bed.
The wooden bench is still there. Fashioned exactly after her memory, her endless night.
It is empty.
Was it always empty? Goose feathers float around her, on her sheets, in her hair. The detritus of a distant dream. The sound of a train whistle fades in her ear.
Her hands tingle. Her pulse twitches. But for the first time since that night, Kora feels….rested. She feels revived.
This is how they hook you.
She thinks of the ad campaigns. The spam emails. She’d always scoffed at it. Rolled her eyes at her best friend for even suggesting it. But now. Now it all makes sense. This is unexpected–a release like nothing she’s ever tried or felt.
Violence without repercussions. Vengeance without law.
Even if none of it was real. Even if everything was designed from memory, dredged from specs of pain and fragments of fear, of fury.
It was real to her.
The blackout curtains open slowly, automatically, letting in cold sunlight. The bot enters the room.
Has it already been six hours?
“The session is now complete,” the bot confirms. “Please submit your payment at the processing station.”
“Wait,” Kora says. Her mouth is dry and her throat is raw, as though she has been screaming all night.
The bot waits expectantly.
She doesn’t know what to ask. How to ask. It’s her first time in the dream room, after all.
“Is that it?”
“Your dream series will remain confidential. As you have optioned for gold membership, you may access and edit it at any time,” the bot recites. “Please submit your payment at the processing station and schedule any future appointments with reception. Thank you.”
Kora steps out of bed, knowing she will be back. “No, thank you.”
Somewhere, a man lies dead under a train. Tomorrow, he will be alive.
And she will kill him all over again.