This story is by Alejandro Bastidas and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
My best friend plunged his knife into my stomach and twisted the blade with his bloodshot eyes locked on mine. There had never been a man so determined, neither one so happy. He hadn’t smiled like that even when I accepted to be his best man, making him my brother-in-law. I would’ve never allowed any other man to marry my sister. There was a curse upon his lips that twitched as I gasped for air, and that curse morphed into laughter as the blood flooded my mouth. I wondered: what could possibly turn a good man cruel? Reality. That’s the answer. Or maybe the illusion of reality. Yes―that’s more like it.
“You don’t…understand.” Speaking those words made me feel as if my ribcage was trying to strangle my own lungs. Funny how things so close to my heart were becoming the death of me. “Just… listen to―”
No sound came out, and then the world went black.
A FEW HOURS EARLIER
“You nervous, pal?”
“Well, you know, nothing a few drinks can’t fix.”
“Watch it. You screw this up and I’ll wreck you.”
“Oh, really? You? I’d love to see you try.”
“We may not know who’d win, but my sister would definitely kick both of our asses.”
“Of that I’m certain, and also scared, to be honest.”
“Come on Bruce, you’re the most noble and kind man I’ve ever met. As long as you make her happy―and I know you will―she won’t have to beat you up.”
“I just can’t believe this is happening man. It’s been a crazy ride, you know? But I’m glad you’ve been by my side all along.” Bruce sighed and checked his watch, with his feet still tapping the concrete. “Okay Rick, I have to go now. See you tomorrow, buddy. Take care.” He gave me a quick, awkward hug and ran off into the night to prepare mentally for the ceremony.
On my way home I whistled the old classic Bruce and I would sing in thunderous voices with alcohol in our bloodstreams. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?. The masterpiece was called Bohemian Rhapsody from ‘A Night at the Opera’. Caught in a landslide… no escape from reality, released on 1975 by Queen. Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see…
I got home at quarter past eleven and dropped into my queen-sized bed without even taking my shoes off. The dangling dream-catchers in the ceiling danced with the chilly wind of autumn and their swift movements made my eyes heavy. My vision got blurry as my head spun in circles and exhaustion consumed me.
The next thing I know I’m falling. Free-falling, actually, but my eyes still closed, as if I don’t care that I’m thousands of feet above the ground and plummeting into my death. My eyes open and I find myself surrounded by thick clouds and a baby-blue sky alien to Royal Oak near midnight. After regaining consciousness and realizing what’s about to happen, I release such a powerful scream that sends a flock of black birds fleeing from the treetops below and into the vastness of the sky. My screams are just as loud as their screeching, but they are silenced abruptly after I land into the cruel cold of a lake… and then I wake up.
I sit up straight and look down at my body to realize that I’m soaking wet, with black feathers over my sheets and a swampy smell all over my room. The cold proceeds to hit, almost knocking me back into the pillow as I wonder if I’ve gone crazy, or maybe it’s a lucid dream. But the cold, the water and the feathers are real, the shivers of my spine cannot be product of my subconscious.
I curse the cold that knocks me back into the dream. As I sink into the bottom of the lake a hand yanks me by my shirt into the surface. The birds cast a shadow over the swamp, and then a strange face casts one over me. His eyes are blue and sad, his expression almost unreadable, except for the hint of fear that lingered in his stare.
“Come on Rickard, we do not have time.” The booming voice of the stranger forced me to jump to my feet and follow.
“Uhm, sir, my name’s Rick… now, if you don’t mind I would like to go back to my bed.”
“I’m taking you back to your real life. This is bad. You don’t even remember your own name―only the one they created for you.”
“My real life’s back in Royal Oak, and yours is in a psychiatrist… and who’s they?”
“Less questions, more walking. They will appear in any second. If you don’t remember your name I doubt you’ll remember how to fight so stay close to me.”
“No, you…Stranger. I won’t walk until you explain.” The Stranger glanced back at me with a stare so frightening that made my neck retreat into my shoulders.
“Nay. I explain as we walk. Come on!” The Stranger then started to run after a monstrous hiss invaded the environment, and shrieks answered all around the swamp.
“What’s going on!?”
“You are Rickard the Bold, part of Earth’s cyborg program along with Bruce the Reaper. You were abducted in the battle of the Ural Mountains by the enemy and since they cannot destroy you, they had to neutralize you. Their alien technology has allowed them to put you into cryogenic sleep as they engineer fake realities into your minds. Everything you know, everyone you’ve met and everything you’ve experienced isn’t completely real. People in your designed lives play different roles in the real one, especially you. You are no lawyer, Rickard―you’re a soldier. Remember that, because when the dream-catchers come, I won’t be able to stand against them.”
“Them?! Oh hell no, sir. You’re insane. There is no damn Rickard!”
“They are the dream-catchers. Alien blood-hounds tasked to hunt down any anomalies in the Dreamfield like myself. The dream-catchers in your fake rooms are portals for the bloodhounds to enter your dreams. See, dreams are the brain’s self-defense system against manufactured realities, since they are the bridge between this façade and the ultimate reality. Only through dreams we could rescue you, and now we have to go for Bruce. The aliens made his fake reality miserable, making you responsible for his every misfortune and now they plan to release the both of you into the Dreamfield so that he can kill you in revenge. I’m trying to get you lot out before their plan proceeds. We must hurry!”
“My sister’s wedding is tomorrow! I cannot miss it running off with some lunatic!”
“Rickard, you don’t have a sister. The family you have is your daughter, Riley. Remember her face. Remember her voice. You need to get Bruce to listen to you. Make him remember the mission. This will reboot his systems and then you’ll both be out of this illusion. It sounds crazy, but you have to―”
The Stranger suddenly stopped moving after a blade impaled his stomach and came out through his spine, coated in silver blood. As the body hit the floor bluntly, a large figure revealed itself. It was Bruce, with one robotic arm and half of his face made out of metal. Even with a mechanical left eye, I could tell he was infuriated. It was the sick stare of a murderer. As I looked at him, everything flooded my memory in an instant. Riley singing Christmas carols, the invasion, the mission, everything.
“You raped my daughter! Then you murdered her, you disgusting fuck! I have waited sixteen years for this!” I was awestruck, hearing the things I had done to him in his fake reality.
Bruce lunged at me without hesitating and I was embraced by hate and steel. My very best friend, my killer. The enemy had released him into the Dreamfield and their plan was succeeding because I was dying. My eyelids fainted, but the music in my ears told me I was still alive.
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see…
As I opened them, my reflexes kicked in and I shoved Bruce to the side, with absent paint and a recovered memory.
“Remember the mission, Bruce! You don’t even have a daughter.”
“Oh, but Rickard, I do remember. This is the beauty of when reality and illusion converge. The Stranger tricked you. His purpose was to get you to me. After they set us into the Dreamfield I’d incapacitate you, and then the aliens would extract your knowledge from your memory-drive and acquire the key to win the war. That was their plan. You designed our planet’s defenses, so they’d know how to obliterate them. The Stranger―a virus sent to this ship―made you release me before that could happen so that I could kill you and save mankind. Rickard the Bold, soon Rickard the Martyr… and me, I’ll still be the Reaper.”