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Waking Up Grinning[]

Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Random Title writing contest. The category I chose was Dreams/Sleep.

The gravel crunches under my high heels as I force my way, step by aching step, along the side of the maintenance-road.

Above me, on either side, the swaying green corn-stalks form walls twenty feet high, pressing me in along this narrow corridor. Autopollinators whir above them, vast, slow-spinning brushes dispersing their contents like pale yellow snow. It drifts down over me, clinging to my clothes and my hair and my skin, coating me until I look like a strange yellow ghost, stumbling down this ruler-straight road.

I take a pull on my oxy, my lungs relieved at the small break from the pollen-choked air.

Cameras whir above me, black glass eyes lurking in heavy housing watching from atop tall poles of white metal, their small forms grinding to follow me as I stagger onwards. I ignore them. If there’s anyone watching me from the other side, they haven’t come for me yet. And I doubt they’re going to bother unless I do something to harm the corn.

And I have much, much more important things to do.

The car crashed a couple miles back. Something in its engine burst and whined, and then suddenly the steering wheel didn’t work and it was skewing off the gravel and crunching nose-first into the delicate plastic fence and the immovable corn-stalks. I suppose it was inevitable. It was old, and already broken. It was never going to take me that far.

No matter. I’m prepared to walk all the way there if I have to.

My shadow stretches out before me, on and on through the bright orange sunset towards where the maintenance-road is cut off by the horizon. I follow it, pollen swirling up in dusts around my feet, my smile plastered across my face.

I saved the pills. That’s what matters. They’re clutched tightly in my hand, my sweaty fingers squeezing the little orange bottle like a child’s mascot plushie. Twenty-three, I have left. I have counted so very many times. Twenty-three. Twenty-three until I find him. Twenty-three nights dreaming of him.

Twenty-three mornings waking up grinning.

I am wandering, alone, through the corridors of some strange place I cannot name.

Its floors and walls twist, different every time I try to find my way back. They are white, and sleek, and clean, adorned with pictures of things that were important to me once, but that I can never quite make out when I look at them. Sometimes the corridors will open out into a room – huge rooms that remind me of the studio or the atrium or places I almost recognize but not quite, artificial light filtering in through high windows, motionless people at desks whose faces blur and fade when I go to them.

And all through this place, dotting its walls and ceiling and even floor like strange metal fungi, are the loudspeakers.

They whisper to me, an incessant sound at the corners of my vision, that feels like it will worm its way in through my eyes and wrap itself like a python around my brain. I cannot make it out, but as I stumble and run faster and faster I can feel it building, roaring and pounding like what the ocean must sound like. It seems almost to propel me, a pressure at my back driving me on and on, through the labyrinth corridors towards some inevitable destination.

I stop for a moment, at a place where one hangs low enough on the wall for me to reach, and put my ear to its fluted head.

Follow, say the words coming out in their thin, half-audible stream. Follow. Follow. Follow.

Who am I to disobey?

On and on my feet pound, carrying me through space after space towards whatever beckons me onwards. And when the alarm jolts me out of sleep, long before I am ready to stop searching, I can still feel the rush of exhilaration in my mind, and the stupid, almost hungry smile on my face.

They’ve given me a new pill with my dinner.

I adjust myself, sitting up as far as I can in my cramped white sleeping-pod to look at it. The others are small things, in a little plastic cup beside my shake and nutrient-cube – tablets or little capsules, white and blue and red or some combination of the three, scraping slightly as I shift the cup to look at them. But this one – this one is as long as my fingernail, a bright orange capsule sitting fat and proud atop the rest, almost daring me to discard it, to abandon it on the tray and let the machines whirl it away.

I won’t, of course. The pills are there for a good reason. They help me with things, with my weight and my anxiety and my paranoia and my hysterics and my acne and my period and the pain in my muscles and the pain in my eyes and the pain in my bones. They’re important. I have to take them. And besides – it would take so long to fill out the form explaining why I didn’t want it.

I put the nutrient-cube into my mouth, chewing it morosely as I look at the thing. They’ve given the cube a new flavor, a sour thing that’s trying to be lemon and not doing it very well, and it makes me miss the warm-tasting almost-apple that it used to be. No matter. I’m sure I’ll get used to this one soon enough, even if it does cramp my stomach and make my eyes burn. And it’s better than what I’d get on the street, living on oxy-wages and industrial waste. At least it’s food.

I could look up the pill, of course. I could see what it does, and why they’ve issued it to me – they’re obligated to tell me, after all. Grunting slightly at the movement, I shift myself and reach up above me, to where the touchscreen’s pallid glow suffuses down from the roof of my little sleeping pod, opening my update folder and scanning idly through the masses of unread messages within.

But I can’t be bothered to spend the next hour sifting through the impenetrable mire of the pharmaceutical updates to find a medicine whose name I don’t know described in language I barely understand, and I realize a few minutes later that I’ve almost subconsciously closed the folder and gone back to scrolling Threadage again.

I sigh, half-sitting up again and looking down at the dimly-lit meal tray. There’s a letter G on the top of the pill, stamped into its hard, thin casing, glittering in the shifting light of the video on-screen. I stare at it for a moment, wondering idly what it stands for. Then I shrug, slipping the little thing onto my tongue, and wash it down with a sip of shake.

As it slides down my throat, my eyes wander back up to the feed on-screen, meaning to make a bit of progress on my ever-looming engagement quota. But as I scroll through the endless wash of ads and scattered posts, my mind wanders, drifting away to times and memories that had lain buried for years. Memories of happier things. Memories of childhood, of the distant time before I lived in the VanoPhil building, when my life was more than this little sleeping pod.

I don’t quite know when it is I fall asleep. But in my dreams, I am young again, following toys and games through the nursery, a smile of uncaring bliss across my face.

Follow, whisper the waves, playing against the shore. Follow. Follow. Follow.

I run along the beach, my brain’s imagined seagulls humming like security-drones as they fly away into the cloudy sky. The waves whisper at my feet, chlorine blue and foaming with memories, and I reach down occasionally to pick one up – my old toy Honda Horton, perhaps, bedraggled and ruined, his smiling mouth half-eaten by time, or that essay I’d scored perfectly on, its shimmering red A+ half-eaten by the saltwater. My mind keeps trying to spiral away, to dream those dreams and relive those memories, but always the whisper of the waves drags it back here, now, to this beach. Follow. Follow. Follow.

On I run, not knowing what I’m looking for but desperate to find it. There are dead things on the shore now, things I would rather forget, but they seem to fade as I look at them, blurring into dark, meaningless shapes on the sand. They do not matter. They are but gifts of the waves – small beauties and smaller pains, deposited on the shore by the far greater sea which spawned them.

I look up, out across those waves, to where the grey clouds fade to purple and gold on the horizon.

There is a shape, there, on the far-off line between sea and sky, black against the sunset. I cannot see it, not properly, not from this distance, but I know what it is – a small chair, like a swivel-seat on a boat, emerging on a long, swaying pole from the sea. And sitting on that chair is him.

He is dark, quiet, facing away from me into the sky. He sits hunched there like a gargoyle, head bowed, arms on his knees, feet braced against the pole beneath him. Over his back is a small cape, and on his head is a black top hat like a TV magician, making his already impressive height seem even greater.

He is motionless, except for the flap of his faraway cape in the faint sea breeze. He does not see me. He does not acknowledge me. But his voice whispers to me from the waves.

Follow. Follow. Follow.

I kick off my shoes and obey.

The water is warm around me, clear and blue, lost memories swirling around me like a plastic-spill. I can see the seabed far below, strange dunes tinted blue by the water, toys and touchpads and ads and paychecks and memories tumbled up amongst them, swirling ever onwards towards the shore. I ignore them all. Only he matters. He is why I am here. He is why I am me.

On I swim, on and on, hands pawing at the water, legs kicking desperately behind. I cannot see him now, but I know he is there, just behind this wave, or this one, or this. Soon I will find him. Soon everything will be all right –

And then a wave crashes down over me as I surface for air, and I awake with a start in my sleeping-pod, eyes wide, gasping for breath, an almost bestial grin of exhilaration stretched across my face.

I stand in front of the green-screen in the studio, a fake smile plastered across my face, my eyes sweeping from camera to remote camera as I gesture to the little orange bottle I hold in my hand.

“Grinzeprin,” I read from the dozen teleprompters, baring my teeth in a cheery grimace that I know will be artificially whitened later, “has been reported to increase bone density and provide clearer skin and eyes. In addition, ninety-eight percent of subjects said they experienced prolonged feelings of euphoria after taking Grinzeprin.”

I’m barely even processing the words – it’s not as though they matter anyway. They’re the same buzzwords that all the ads have, and it’ll be edited and dubbed and cut a million times to fit whatever platform it’s being broadcast on. All I have to do is look appealing in the raw footage and they’ll do the rest.

I adjust myself, my heels tapping against the green of the floor as I give the cameras an attractive sidelong shot. “Ask your local doctor or pharmaceutical site about Grinzeprin today! Call now to receive your Grinzeprin starter package, including three bottles of Grinzeprin, a Grinzeprin fact booklet, a Grinzeprin T-shirt, and a Grinzeprin coloring book for the aspiring Grinzeprineur in your life, all for the low, low price of 499.99!” Still smiling, I lean forward, exposing a hint of cleavage to some of the hungry cameras as I give the bottle a little tap with one fingernail. “Remember – with Grinzeprin, you’ll always wake up grinning!”

There’s a little ping and a green light from the teleprompter, and up behind the thousand cameras, the live feedback-footage of myself on the big wall-screen goes suddenly dark.

I sit down hard on the floor, taking big, heavy breaths and reaching behind the green-screen for an energy drink. It’s hot in here, with the floodlights and the endless thundering whir of the cameras, and the makeup and antiperspirant cream clinging to my skin make it feel even hotter. I debate turning the fan on, but it’ll mess up my hair, and I probably don’t have time to fix it before the next shoot begins. Best to just sit for a moment and drink.

As I set down the plastic can, I find myself idly wondering what it is I’m advertising, and glance down at the bottle in my hand.

It’s a little orange thing, with a fat plastic lid that you have to press oddly to open. Grinzeprin, it reads, with a lot of technical information and an image of a smiling woman who is not me holding up a bottle of the stuff. For a moment, I amuse myself with the image of infinite bottles of Grinzeprin, stretching away forever into the label, before something suddenly connects in my head.

This is the pill they’ve been giving me! This is that big orange capsule, with the capital G inscribed on it, that’s already become my favorite in the few days since I’ve started taking it. I always look forward to the relief of the pills, of course, but this one doesn’t make me shake or vomit or panic mid-shoot – this one actually makes me feel better when I wake up, and genuinely does fulfill the promise of its motto. I smile slightly, genuinely pleased to be advertising a product I actually like for once.

Suddenly, so abrupt and unexpected that it makes me jump, the wall-screen comes on with a bright flicker of pale light.

I scramble to my feet, assuming that the next shoot has started, but there’s nothing on the teleprompters, no ad to read to the watching electronic eyes. And after a moment, I realize that it’s not my image being displayed up there, huge and high-resolution. It’s a news feed.

The fuzzy, flickering image of a city street looms there, towering concrete buildings covered in ad-screens pressing in against a crowded street. Drones circle through a sky so smoggy that it’s impossible to tell if it’s day or night, and cars push slow and grim through the flowing crowds of people. And in amongst those people, walking down the street with a sheer purpose that makes vehicles and pedestrians alike part the way before him –

He’s a tall man, dressed in a sharply cut ash-grey suit, his short cape fluttering behind him as he walks. His hands are folded behind his back, and his face is hidden beneath the brim of his hat – a tall, fancy-looking black top hat, with an orange band around it. He speaks to no one, acknowledges no one, but around him the pedestrians stare as though they’ve never seen his like before, and the cars slow and even stop so that their passengers can get a better view.

The view cuts, again and again, showing him from street-level cams and from the flock of drones that accompanies him. He’s no celebrity – I would know his face if he were. And besides, he’s not framed like that. He’s framed in an almost…threatening way, as though his march down this nameless street will lead inevitably to the end of the world.

Nervously, I walk off the set, going around behind the cameras for a better view.

I’m not really supposed to leave the set, not while the cameras are rolling, but something tells me they won’t stop me. And besides – there’s something hypnotic about this silent news feed, broadcasting itself impossibly on a screen that, as far as I knew, was supposed to be off.

There is a text crawl, at the bottom of the screen, the words of whatever reporter or news anchor is covering the story, transcribed so that even without sound, the news site’s message can reach me.

‘- most powerful men in our world today, and one of the most intriguing. As you can see, even here, despite his unexpected appearance, all eyes are on him, and he’s taking the attention in stride –’

The view cuts, to a camera that must be set on the roadway itself, staring up at him. His face, for the instant I can see it, is hard-set and distant, as though he could break the world and build another in its place if only he put his mind to it. In his eyes, something seems to flicker, for the barest instant, and he turns –

And looks down, through camera and screen, at me.

I know it is at me. I’m not in the center of the screen – I’m off to the side, ready to scurry back onstage the instant this strange broadcast shuts off. But his eyes meet mine, perfectly, and in them I can sense approval and pride and promise. Follow, those eyes seem to say. Follow, and my breath catches, my heart swells. Follow, and my mind is aglow with hopes long forgotten, with dreams I’d had to kill wondering if they could live again.

I take a hesitant step forward, one hand folded over my heart, the other reaching out to press against the soft, rippling warmth of the LCD screen. And hesitantly, nervously, not quite knowing if I dare to, I smile.

I am half-running through a forest, surrounded by the buzz and hum of insects and birds, unsure of where I must go.

He is waiting for me. I’m sure of that. I can feel him just ahead, sitting on his strange chair, utterly silent as he thinks of things too great for me to comprehend. But I do not know where.

Perhaps this fork in the path will do it. Or – no. No, I’m sure I’ve been here before. This one, perhaps. Or this one?

Follow, come the words, identifiable as his voice now, murmuring silently to me through the trees. Follow. Follow. Follow.

A deer runs out in front of me, its antlers tangled with Christmas lights, camera cables caught in its hooves. It looks at me, for the briefest instant, and for a sudden, overwhelming moment I remember being small again, watching a documentary on the last ecodome where deer still lived. Then, before my dream can change to an echo of that memory, the deer leaps up into the branches above, and is gone.

I look up.

Above me, the boughs of the trees interlace, forming a beautiful lattice like some strange, fantastical hall. Light filters down through it, glinting off the patterns of wood and leaf grown into the shape of walls and doors and corridors, the leaves hanging like trim from beautiful archways. And there, far in the distance, sitting in a spherical room made of a thousand woven branches, memories blooming like flowers around him, he sits hunched over his chair, on a pole extending up from the forest floor.

I run to the nearest trunk, trying to get a grip against the glass-smooth bark, trying to haul myself up it. I must get to him. I must. There must be some way into those beautiful halls, into that golden-green glowing space that is his and that I desperately need to be mine.

Deer look down at me, and birds, and what I imagine wolves must look like. Follow, they whisper in his voice. Follow. Follow. Follow.

“I can’t,” I reply, my voice sounding strange and hollow and childish.


The entangled deer reaches down a long, slender limb, extending its hoof towards me and unfolding it like a hand. I grab it, joy rushing through me as I use it to brace myself, scrambling up the slippery tree trunk, crawling up and up towards that beautiful hall above –

And then, from nowhere at all, the pleasant beeping of my alarm cuts into my dream, and I awake in my cramped white sleeping pod, hope still grinning from my face.

After eight days, I find a break in the fields.

There is a small cutout off the maintenance road, a little graveled lot where a truck and an airtight shack sit covered in golden pollen. Both are old, and rusty – clearly bought years ago and heavily maintenanced since. Thousands on thousands of cables trail like a black spiderweb towards a metal pole on the roof of the shack – the tails of the cameras, feeding what they see to a monitor somewhere within.

I am gasping for breath, wheezing in the thick carbon-dioxide air and pulling in vain on my empty oxy. My legs ache. My clothes are tattered. My body is drenched in sweat. I am starving, and dehydrated, and exhausted. I have only fifteen pills left.

The only thing keeping me moving is the promise of finding him.

My dreams have been throbbing with him, my exhaustion letting them leak through into my waking hours as well as my tossing, fitful sleep. I imagine him sitting, in his chair on its pole, at the end of this infinite road of gravel and corn, his whispers echoing back to me through the rustling of the leaves. He is so close now. So close. I can almost hear him.

I stagger towards the truck, hauling myself with a faint whimper of pain up onto the running board. But though I rattle and heave and bang, the door is locked, and all my pounding on the window with my weak, shaking fist cannot grant my poor starved body the strength to break it.

I stumble back off the running board, falling hard on one hand against the rough gravel, and pull myself slowly upright, moving step by painful step towards the little shack.

There is a light inside, I realize, as I get closer to the door. The whirring of a fan, too, keeping the air inside cool and comfortable and oxygenated. My lungs start to ache at the thought of that – being able to breathe freely and easily, instead of choking on this hot, shallow air, so thin that even the deepest breath is insufficient.

Hesitantly, I grip the knob, and push open the door.

I am greeted by a rush of cold air, making my hair flutter and my hungry lungs gasp frantically in relief. I can breathe. I can breathe. At last I do not have to choke on pollen and pumped-out CO2, do not have to try and draw sustenance from drained air that humankind shuts out. I can breathe.

I stumble forward, my renewed strength carrying me into the little room beyond the door. For a living space, this place is huge – an entire room, with a bed on one side and a stove on the other, a huge TV on one wall playing the news reel of him on loop. If anyone lives here, though, I cannot see them – there are no people, only a mug of cold coffee on a side table suggesting that this place has ever been inhabited at all.

The cupboards are well-stocked, though, yielding bags and cans and boxes for my hunger and a great chilled jug of water for my thirst. I sit down surrounded by them on the floor, watching the television play the scene I know so well as I cram sweet cereal and CracklePops and chemical-tasting water into my mouth, relief washing in great waves through my body. When I stand at last, my limbs are still shaking, but now at least it is exhaustion and nothing more.

The keys to the truck lie on the table next to the mug. I take them gratefully, and then, after a moment’s thought, I screw open my pill bottle and gently, ever so gently, tap one of its precious contents out into my palm. I’m a bit surprised that whoever owns this place didn’t seem to have a pill cupboard, but perhaps I can give them one of my own, as thanks for all the bounty they have bestowed upon me.

Smiling, I slide the pill out of my hand and into the mug of coffee.

I stand atop a strange white monolith, so narrow I can only barely balance upon it, and so tall that it seems to go on forever underneath me.

Around me are other such monoliths, at a thousand different angles, braced and tilted and enclosed to form a vast, twisting space. A line of them emerges from the floor like the spines from a dragon’s back, a long, arcing row that stretches on and on and away, until it is hidden by the hump of this place’s curving not-roof.

With an enormous effort, I jump from this one to the next, as though along stepping stones.

There is little sound in this place apart from my own – the noise of my feet against the smooth stone surface, the gasp of my breath as I prepare myself to jump again. But what sound there is is taken and amplified by the structure of the things, bouncing again and again off the monolith’s pale flanks, repeated and channeled over and over until at last it forms that familiar word at the edges of my ears.

Follow. Follow. Follow.

“I’m trying,” I say, and my speech echoes back as an explosion of words, urging me onwards.

One monolith. Another. Another. It becomes hazy, almost – not the grinding effort it would have been while awake, but an almost accelerated feeling, as though the effort of the journey matters less than its completion. The entirety of this place is identical, but I can feel my heartbeat speeding up, can feel the excited way the words bounce around my head like fluttering birds. I am getting closer.

And then, suddenly, a leap carries me to a monolith short enough to make out the space beyond the curve of the roof, and I see him.

He sits atop his chair where the last monolith should be, aloof, uncaring, his back turned to me. The pole is taller than even the tallest of the great white structures, but I do not care. My goal is in sight. All I have to do now is make it to him.

Another leap. Another. Another. With each one he grows closer, the details of his form becoming clearer. That orange band around his top hat. The ash-grey of his suit, shimmering strangely in the pale light that suffuses this place like fog. The rusting metal of the pole, the clean iron grey of the chair. The whispers swirl around me like great flocks of bats, pushing me towards him, and I let them half-carry me like an airplane soaring on the wind. Not so many more now. Another. Another. Another –

And then, almost before I know it, I stand atop the very last monolith, at the base of the pole, looking up at where he sits a hundred feet above.

I call out to him, but he does not reply. He does not even move. I can hear his slow breath, the quiet flap of his cape in a breeze I cannot feel. It is as if he does not know I am there at all.

I know, in that instant, that I will have to climb to him.

There is no hesitation in my mind. I crouch, pausing for a moment in apprehension, and then spring forward, borne on my wind of whispers. My limbs flail out as I find myself suddenly, horribly, falling, and my hands reach frantically for the pole, for it will save me, it will lead me to him, it must, it must –

With a sensation like an electric shock, my hands close around the cold metal. And as they do, I awake with a start to the pinging of my alarm, still grinning with exultation even as I realize that I have failed him yet again.

I lie in my sleeping-pod, awake, thinking.

They sent me off the shoot early today. They never do that, ever – often they keep me late, shooting for an hour or two or even three after the end of the shift. But I’ve never finished early before. Not once, in all the years I’ve worked here.

But then, everything has changed since that news broadcast, and the entry of his terrible face into the ghostly electronic halls of the internet.

Every frame of that video has been scrutinized and analyzed, picked apart by VTube and Threadage and YouMag until every shot, every shape, every blurry jumble of pixels is recognizable at a glance. Discussions fester regarding who he is, where he came from, why he’s here now, what his connection is to Grinzeprin. I do what I can to contribute, though I’m no video editor or photo analyst, and don’t have the insights that they do. All I know is that I’m as desperate to know as they are, and that my heart skips every time I scroll down past the ads and find another post about him, or another VTube theorizing about where he might have come from.

I do what I can to help, of course, as I have these past few weeks. I like and comment and share, bombarding subscribees and friends I do not know with the latest facts and theories in between the ads, gasping in amazement with the rest of the world at each tiny discovery, each new bit of progress, each celebrity that looks like him but turns out eventually not to be.

But over these last few weeks, chasing him in my dreams, seeing him on my touchscreen, thinking idly of him as I advertise his pills, the idea has been growing in my mind.


The word that echoes through everything. The one constant everyone seems to agree on. Follow. Follow. Follow.

I will do so.

Not in the dreams. In the waking world. I will find him, and go to him, and find out what it is he saw in me, that day upon the screen.

I can leave this place, the vast white monolith that is the VanoPhil Building. Doing so will render my job here forfeit, but what does that matter? I will not need to come back here. I will not need a job ever again. All I will need is him, who told me to follow. Then I will obey his instruction, journeying out across the baking, artificial, smog-choked world, until I find him. I don’t know how, but I’ll do it. I have to.

And almost as though he himself has reached through the screen to grant me what I need to come to him, a notification pings into my YouMag feed.

I don’t recognize the name, but then, I don’t recognize the names of most of the people I’m subscribed to. But he’s offering something. A car that someone left him when they died, a little Volkswagen sitting abandoned and unwanted in a towering parking garage.

And then I read the address, and my heart skips in my chest.

It’s in my city. Not too far from here, even. Just a few hours on foot through the smog-choked streets. I can make that. I can walk that far, for him.

I grin, as I tap the reply button. Hope is pounding in my chest like a second heart. I will follow him. I will. I will.

He is waiting for me.

Follow, say the voices of the crowd. Follow. Follow. Follow.

I push through them, all but running down the smoggy street. Drones circle above me, the whine of their rotors drowning the crowd’s speech for stuttering intervals before it resurges again like a wave, whispering to me, calling to me, pushing me along like the pressing bodies.

I can almost see the flap of his cape ahead of me, the bob of his top hat above the other milling heads.

My hands part the forms ahead of me like water, eager to move along faster than their sluggish, meandering shuffle. Their faces turn towards me, smiling, half-familiar, blurred shapes of people I once knew, people I once cared about. Hands reach out to grab me, and whether they mean to push me on or pull me back I do not know. I do not allow myself to be slow enough to find out.

For a moment, I see a flash of orange hatband ahead of me, and I dart towards it, the movement carrying me gradually down a different street, at a different angle between the mammoth concrete buildings. One of the drones skims down, its camera-lenses playing his face on them like screens, and I swat at its huge form like an irritating fly, sending it buzzing away again up into the yellow-brown clouds as I push on and on.

And then, as I emerge into a larger, wider space of street, I see him.

He is not walking ahead of me, like I had thought. He is sat upon his pole, the base of it buried in the cracked concrete of the street like a fire hydrant, its tip up in those choking mustard smog-clouds, so that his body and his chair are silhouetted within them, like a deity looming on high within the orange and gold.

I run forward, scrabbling at the pole, trying desperately to climb its smooth metal surface. But my hands slide uselessly off the slick iron, and my movements do not so much as send ripples up towards where he sits, silent, uncaring.

From below me, I feel something. A touch. A hand, on my lower back.

It is a member of the crowd, pushing me upwards, helping me up. Another joins me, and another, and a third, their eager message flowing in his voice from their lips as they lift me up and up and up towards him. Soon they begin to pile atop one another, crushing each other below me in their eagerness to lift me, to deliver me to him, that single, imploring word carrying me up and up and up. And all the time, I see him up there, getting closer and closer and closer, my heart beating almost in my throat as I scrabble and pull and do what I can to pull myself up as their thousand bodies push me.

One of the drones skims down, and I reach out to grab its metal chassis, feeling it dip and whine as I pull myself up and set a foot upon its plastic carapace. Another whirs down, and another, and another, and I step on each in turn, like a strange staircase carrying me up and around the pole, ascending closer and closer and closer. My fingers brush the base of that cloud of filth, and then my hair, and then my shoulders are in it, the whispered chant from the crowd throbbing up towards me, eager, excited, hopeful.

And then, as my feet become immersed entirely within that choking yellow filth, I reach up, and hesitantly, reverently, touch the tip of his cape.

His head snaps towards me.

I feel as though my heart will burst. My smile is so wide I think my cheeks will break. His eyes turn towards me, orange, glowing, aflame, coming to meet mine –

And then I am sitting up in the seat of the truck, gasping for air, still grinning like a madman even as tears fall burning from my eyes.

That truck has taken me far, the food and oxies I loaded into its backseat sufficient to carry me for weeks through the corn. But even the corn is gone now, the fields ending with an abrupt white metal fence, and leaving in their wake a broiling wasteland of crumbling ruins and jagged rock-formations and the harsh, grim dust of the bare earth.

There is no road, here. No guide, no way to tell which way I am to go. But I feel certain of it, like a seeker-drone finding its way home. All I must do is keep driving, go on and on and on, and eventually, eventually, I will find him.

Ten pills. Nine. Eight. Seven. I take one faithfully, each night before I go to sleep, and sink with relief into dreams of him, calling me forever to follow. They will run out, soon, but I have faith. I will find him in this last week, before my beloved orange pills are gone at last.

And then, on the second-to-last day of driving, something appears over the horizon.

At first it seems like a light of some kind, a golden glow thrown up against the wispy, suffocating clouds. Then, as morning dawns and even those last trails of white bake away from its flanks, I realize the truth. It is a tower – colossal, looming, monolithic, a titan hyperbola made of polygons of pale glass, stretching what must be half a mile or more above the wasteland. Its surface flickers and glows and shifts, illuminated a warm white except where the light hits its edges and turns them a fiery orange. It makes no sound, but I can feel the sheer presence of it, humming towards me and over me and through me, beckoning me like a great beacon, up there among the plains.

That is it. That is where I must go.

Larger and larger it grows, looming up in the windshield of the truck until it is all I can see, its titan mass shedding light around it like a lamp the size of the Moon, drowning out even the sun in the sky as its golden glow seems to suffuse the world. By the time I stop and step out of the truck with a thud of metal doors, its gargantuan form is mesmeric, its curved flanks sloping ever away from me and the uneven segments of its bulk soaring up in elegant lines into the afternoon sky.

Hesitantly, reverently, I walk towards the small wooden door set into its side, and pull it open.

Within, the tower is hollow, light pouring in like a greenhouse and filling the place with an almost misty illumination, a slender iron pole stretching up through the center as though somehow supporting it like a circus-tent. Within that space, drifting like bubbles in a lava-lamp, float human figures – thousands on thousands of them, hanging limp and motionless in the air as though supported by wires. For a horrible moment, I think they’re dead, until I understand the gentle thunder that suffuses this gigantic hollowness – the sounds of unguessable amounts of human beings, breathing the slow, peaceful breath of sleep, until it sounds as though the tower itself is alive and feeding some mammoth lung.

I find myself listening to that sound, trying to pull out the familiar words, but this is not a dream, and the breath of the floating sleepers is only that and nothing more.

There are stairs, around the inside of the tower, spiraling up and up like a corkscrew away from me, made from the same strange, glassy material as the glowing walls. My shoes are long since gone, and the stairs are warm and hard beneath my bare feet as I take my first step, and then another, and a third, wondering at the unfathomable scale of this place, and at how many made it here before me.

I am wondering still, as my aching legs carry me up the last of those stairs, and through a gap in the glimmering glass ceiling onto the top of the tower.

Around me, far, far below, stretches everything. The wastelands roll away and away, scatters of pale cloud sprinkled across them like strange lost sheep. It is sunset, now, though I do not know if it is the same day or not, and though the ground is in shadow the tower’s peak is still bathed in deep golden sunlight. Somewhere far away, I think I can spot the silver glint of water on the horizon, and the faint green afterthought of the cornfields far, far to the west.

But none of that matters, in comparison to what waits at the tower’s center.

Through the roof, no more than a hundred feet away from me, emerges the iron pole, looking almost out of place in this huge, beautiful structure. And atop it, on that strange metal swivel-chair I know so well, sits him.

As always, he faces away from me, hunched forward in apparent exhaustion, staring out across his unimaginable domain. A part of me wants to simply stand there, to savor this moment, this thing I have worked so very hard for. But this is no dream, and there will be no alarm to stop me reaching him.

Grinning with excitement, I stretch out a hand, and go running towards him across those warm, glowing panes.

His head turns, as I approach him, his top hat tilting gently in the sun’s fading rays. His physical presence after all this time is almost overwhelming, and I drop to my knees as I reach him, beaming with joy as I try to find the words to express my churning thoughts.

In the end, I need none, for it is he who speaks to me.

“Hello, child,” he says, his voice somehow exactly as I expected it would be – calm and mild and so very powerful. “You’ve traveled quite a long way, to get here.”

Hesitantly, eyes brimming with tears and transforming him into a swirling mass of colors, I nod.

Through my eager blinking, I watch him stand ever so slowly, reaching out a hand, tilting his head as he looks down at me. “Come, child,” he says, and his voice is so full of command that my hand has reached for his before he has finished speaking the words. “Dream with me.”

My palm touches his, with a small sound of flesh on flesh, and the world goes dark.

And I fall upwards and away, into swirling landscapes of color and beauty and dream, that neither I nor any other need ever wake from again.

Written by StalkerShrike
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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