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Fiction – “Sy Nebula and the Dream Tosser” by Angela Ambroz

The Dream Tosser is grimy. It smells like old sweat, and Sy can see tears in the rubber surrounding its shell. Wires lie in clumps by the headstand, stuffed haphazardly into one of the skull-clamps. Old graffiti still decorates its outer shell, though the paint is chipping.

Drained of its fluids, it looms like a large coffin – just like they said it would. And Sy thinks, I’ll hardly need all that space. Then again, they also said you move around a lot in a Tosser. Allow space for spasms.

“Pretty, ain’t it?”

A baritone beside her left shoulder. Sy turns and sees Abe Two Shotguns. He is rubbing his stomach with both hands – it’s a thing he does when he gets excited.

“I was thinking less ‘pretty’, more ‘hideous’.”

“Well, we’ll clean it up for you, nice and squeaky. Though you’ll hardly bother with aesthetics once you’re inside the thing and on your way.” He looks at her, and his dark eyes glow. “Ready for the big leap?”

“Just waiting for my date and place.” Sy tries to make herself sound self-assured, like a cocky military pilot from her comic books. But she can feel the fear roaming around in her small intestine, shuffling around last night’s curd.

“Speaking of which, we’ve zeroed in on the logistics just this morning. Come with me. I’ve got to give you your homework!”

***

The book is heavy on her knees. Most of the title has worn off completely (D––TE’S I–––RNO), and the yellowing, curled pages smell like old urine. Sy holds her mouth with one hand and pokes cautiously at its edges.

Abe’s office. Piles of papers stand in uneven towers. A couple antique books, the intranet monitor blinking.

The ship’s lights flicker once, twice. When Sy looks up from one gnarled page full of faded ink, she meets Abe’s gaze.

“Like it?” he asks. “It’s a pretty juicy little nugget, historically speaking. I myself am a fan. You lucked out, Nebula.”

“Yeah, but the place I’m going to– ”

“Florence.”

“Right, Florence. It’s nowhere in this thing,” she touches the pages disgustedly. “And I’ve never even heard of it.”

“Dead middle of the Italian peninsula. You heard of Italy, right? Pre-Euro Union stuff?”

Sy shrugs. “Sort of. So it’s a European country then?”

“No, I mean – Italy was the country, Florence was the city. But at the time you’re going, it actually was a country, too. Okay, they didn’t really have this country stuff back then – but they had governments, banks, all that good stuff. For all intents and purposes, it’s a country. Big ol’ tribe.”

Sy stares, a headache coming on. And this man learns about this stuff for a living?

“And this,” she touches the book’s broken spine. “This thing is important?”

“It’ll give you some great insights into the culture, names of things, the way people thought about stuff. And look – religion is really important. You’ll have to know what you’re talking about.” When Abe talks, spittle collects at the edges of his mouth. “Rejoice, Nebula. You’re also holding a collector’s item: that is probably the last modern language Dante in the universe!”

Sy’s mom had said that Two Shotguns’ enthusiasm was infectious. That working with him would be a joy to wash away the hellishness of the job itself. But right now, Sy just thinks she’s made a big mistake.

Abe is, if anything, perceptive: “Okay. I understand what you’re thinking. I felt the same way my first time. You’re scared.”

“No, I mean I…” Sy fumbles.

“Hey, it’s normal! You probably resent having to learn all about this junk anyway. ‘What’s it to me?’ you’re thinking. ‘Who gives a damn? How’s this gonna help us? Can’t you just download it into my brain?'”

Sy chuckles. “That’d be easier…”

“But trust me, Nebula. This is how we’ve done it for years. Decades! And it works. It works better than you think. The more you come to love this pee-smelling book, the happier you’ll be going on the inside.”

“You noticed the smell, then.”

“Only copy. In the universe! Look, don’t fret. You’ll be back on The Rez before you can fart.”

***

“So you’re really doing it?” Rabbit asks. He smells yeasty, like he’s sweating ale. “Like, you’re really going into it?”

“Shut the hell up, Hole,” Sy grunts. She takes a large swallow of her lager.

People are murmuring, pointing at her and hovering needlessly by their booth. No one’s paying attention to the intranet, even though a game is on. And Sy can hear the giveaway words: Tosser. Dream Rider. Fact Checker. Spider. The song they’re playing is an old Earth one, tinny and sentimental, and Sy wishes they would just change it.

“I wouldn’t,” Rabbit continues. “I mean, obviously. I haven’t. Aren’t you afraid about the whole reverse effect stuff?”

“Not much. Worst thing, I die and the thing spits me back out.”

“Spits you out as a psycho!”

“Oh, come on. How many Tossers have you even seen?”

“Ha ha, I know a lot of tossers, don’t you worry…”

That’s Rabbit for you. He makes jokes that were stale two hundred years ago. His nose twitches. They say if you stay on The Rez too long, you start to turn into your name. Sy wonders when she’ll start getting pointy and full of fluid. Injecting wit and energy, ha.

“Your mom doesn’t want you to go anymore, you know,” Rabbit says. He stares into his cup. “She changed her mind.”

“She said this to you?” Sy asks.

“Do you even see her anymore?”

Sy shakes her head. Her skull is starting to feel tight and heavy. She’s leaving in a week. She needs to be ready.

“Yeah, tons of times. Look, Rabbit, I’ll see you around.” She stands and grabs her bag; the weight of the I–––NO makes the strap cut into her shoulder. “I’ve got some studying to do.”

***

It’s a late night, early in Sy’s training week, when she sees one of the sealed Tossers crack open. Alarms go off, people start running all over the place, but she’s glued to the spot: staring at the ripping rubber seal, the cascading fluids, and the man falling out. His leg is twisted at an unnatural angle, his face is bleeding. It looks like his cheek has been torn in half.

He hits the ground with a wet smack, and starts jerking around, eyes rolling up.

“Medic, medic! Where the fuck’s the medic!”

“Don’t touch him, he’s in shock!”

“What the fuck happened to his face?”

The worst thing is the smell: it comes steaming out of the Tosser like orange smog. Someone pukes into a corner. Sy’s eyes water. Tosser Hall is reeking, it smells like sulfur, like a carcass. Sy wants to run, but she can’t – she can’t stop looking at the man, hair plastered with oozing slime, blood forming a thick pool by his cheek.

“That,” a hand clamps down on Sy’s shoulder, “is probably your greatest teacher, right there. Ray Gamma. One of the best.”

***

Sy remembers Gunpowder from school, when the latter wore her hair in a tight weave and liked to quote esoteric passages for Earth Lit, impressing no one. Now she’s completed medical school, and she leans her hip against the hospital lobby desk.

“You want to meet who?” she asks.

“Ray Gamma. From the Tosser.”

“Wrong. Try again.”

“Gunpowder… come on.”

“Don’t call me that. I changed my name, you know. Do you even know what gunpowder was?”

“Uh, a weapon?” Sy ventures. “Look, I just need to talk to him – Two Shotguns says he’d– ”

“You can call me Fina. Most people say Doctor, but I like you, Sy. You’re smart, and you’re pretty.”

“Fine, okay, Fina, what about Gamma?”

“Nope. Unavailable.”

The Doctor Formerly Known As Gunpowder searches her lab coat and pulls out a pack of chewing gum. She offers Sy one and pops another in her mouth. She chews in loud smacks.

“Why do you want to see him so much anyway?” she asks.

“Two Shotguns– ”

“Yeah, I heard what the old chief thinks,” Gunpowder waves her hand in the air, limp-wristed. “What about you? What do you think, Nebula?”

“I – me?” Sy asks. She shrugs. “Hell, I don’t know. I just want to make this easier for myself. If Two Shotguns says talk to the guy, I talk to the guy. He says Gamma’s one of the best spiders we got.”

“Best? Huh,” Gunpowder snorts. “That poor fuck’s not going to be the best anything for a long while yet. Do yourself a favor, Sy, go home and read your book.”

Sy rolls her eyes. “Shit, Fina…”

Gunpowder laughs. “What?”

“It’s boring!”

“Well, you know who to blame.” Gunpowder’s eyes twinkle.

“Two Shotguns?”

“White people! For getting us into this mess!”

“Oh, come on, Fina…” Sy laughs. Leave it to Gunpowder to make cheesy history jokes. She would get along great with Rabbit.

***

Ray Gamma’s leg keeps turning itself around, the nurses say. Whenever they stick it in the cast, put pins in the kneecap, it just pushes the pins out and twists. This causes Gamma a considerable amount of pain, and it baffles and embarrasses the hospital. They keep him in the special wing: Dream Vets Ward.

“Shee! What is that? Did you pee yourself, girl?”

Sy looks up from her bag and closes it quickly. The nurse is looking at her with a smirk. He is lithe and athletically built. Sy swallows.

“What? No. It’s – I’m looking for the Vets Ward. I got a letter from the chief.”

“Oh yeah?” The nurse saunters up and rips the paper from Sy’s hands. “Phew! You do smell like pee, you know.”

“It’s not me,” Sy grits through clenched teeth.

The nurse reads before tossing the paper lazily towards Sy.

“Third floor. Right turn, straight on. Follow the graffiti for Nightmare Alley.”

“Cute,” Sy mutters.

Upstairs in the Ward, Ray Gamma is the only patient. He lies in his bed surrounded by beeping monitors, tubes and an intranet scanner. A dictation device is lying by the bed as well, still in its packaging. Gunpowder arrives with a needle.

Cautiously, Sy approaches.

Ray Gamma’s voice sounds like sand burning in the sun. His skin is cracked and reddish, like he got too much flare, and he’s speaking in a low, rushed murmur.

“Okay, I know you can speak English too,” Gunpowder is saying. “You tried it last time I tried to stick you. Can you do it again for me, baby? It’ll make both our lives a lot easier. Hell, it’ll make this syringe’s life a lot easier… oh! Speak of the devil.”

Gunpowder’s smile to Sy is warm and inviting. Sy thanks her silently for it; her insides have been roiling with each step she takes closer to Gamma’s bedside.

He’s stopped talking. And he’s staring at her.

“Ray Gamma, you’ve got a new recruit to talk to. Meet Sy Nebula.”

“Hi,” Sy says.

Gamma stares.

“He’s a little shy,” Gunpowder explains. She rubs his arm with a swab before preparing the needle. Gamma flinches away before she can inject him.

“Touch me not with that, she-demon!” he exclaims.

“There! English!” Gunpowder says. “Great!”

Gamma frowns, muttering something in not-English.

“Uh, Gamma, I thought I could…” Sy begins tentatively, but she’s interrupted.

There’s a commotion by the door – a woman is exclaiming, Let me through! Let go! ¬– before she detaches herself from a group of annoyed nurses to come striding inside. Sy can already smell her: an aromatic whiff of something… earthy.

Ray’s eyes fill with tears when he sees her, and she pushes aside Gunpowder and Sy before taking Ray’s face in her hands. Sy winces for him: the bandage on his cheek is red.

They have a hushed, dramatic exchange, full of intimate gestures and muffled sobs, and then Gamma says, eyes streaming,

“Please don’t make me.”

“You must trust me, Raymond,” the woman says. “It shall ease our passing here. Now, take the nectar and sleep. I shall return ere you wake.”

Gamma, eyes red, looks away, staring down at the bed. In a voice choked with embarrassment, he says, “I called her a ‘she-demon’.”

Gently, the woman strokes his good cheek. She smiles.

“You always were a strange one, Raymond of Tripoli.”

Gunpowder approaches slowly and, in the woman’s presence, injects Gamma with the ‘nectar’. His eyes flutter shut a moment later.

Straightening, the woman wipes her eyes before turning to face Gunpowder and Sy.

“Sorry about that,” she says.

“Not a problem, Maya. It’s just Day Two, after all.”

“Who are you?” Maya asks, looking at Sy.

Sy scratches her forehead nervously. “I’m – me? I’m, uh, Sy. I’m– ”

“A noob,” Gunpowder supplies. “She’s taking the dreams later this week.”

Maya’s gaze softens. “Oh, you poor thing. What have you gotten yourself into?”

“You’re a vet?” Sy asks, heart pounding.

“Unfortunately. Just got back two months ago.”

“Can I ask – ?”

“Twelfth century. The Levant.”

“Wow…” Sy murmurs. Both Gunpowder and Maya laugh. “And he’s – is he…?”

“My partner,” Maya says with tenderness. She looks back at Gamma, lying unconscious in the bed. “My guy.”

“Wow, I mean – that’s – interesting,” Sy stutters. “I – actually, the big chief sent me to Gamma, says I should talk to a vet and you guys – like, we’re close in our history stuff, really close! We’re practically on top of each other! Actually, Two Shotguns gave me a book to read, and, uh, I was wondering – it looks like talking to Gamma’s gonna be tricky. But if you…?”

“No can do, girl,” Maya says. “Sorry. But you forget everything by Day Sixty. Ray is, for now, your best bet.”

“But he’s – what languages was he…?”

“Arabic. French. Latin.” Maya chuckles. “Don’t worry. I told him he has to talk the ‘demon speak’ if he wants to get out of here. Poor, busted up Ray. He’s convinced this is hell. Like, literally hell.”

“Oh,” Sy says, feeling stupid.

“It’ll wear off in a few days. The psych stuff always wears off.”

“Yeah, wish we could say the same for the physical,” Gunpowder grumbles, punching codes into his leg’s cast.

***

Ray Gamma calls her the ‘petite demon’, and Sy smiles about it when she’s alone.

Most of their conversations dance around Gamma’s crazy psych. Sy finds herself assuring him again and again that they’re not going to boil out his eyeballs or eat his liver, and he mostly prays to a spectral God about how evil he was.

“Punished, I have been, for that is certain,” Gamma laments. “But whether this be Christ’s punishment on the Mohammedan or the will of Allah on a kafir, I cannot tell. Oh, to be both and neither! What have I done?”

“You’ll be okay,” Sy says, forcing a smile.

“What?”

Slowly, Sy learns to modulate her speech, matching his. She downdates her vocab, translating The Rez into floating cloud of exiled ones and the Dream Tosser as time device of liquid and fumes.

But no matter what Sy says, Gamma is convinced this is hell.

At night, Sy wears a nose-clip and reads the I–––NO, skipping back and forth through passages and making notes in her intranet pad. She tests some of these things out with Gamma:

“Yea, verily, Count of Tripoli,” she says, “the hellfires burn not in this land. See you the white, gleaming walls?”

“It is a fiction. Or I am in Limbo.”

“Limbo then it may be, for we are all unbaptized here. Yet displeasing it is not, verily.”

“Petite demon, your standards are just low.”

Sy almost laughs. “Tell me then of your lands and your peoples. Tell me of the sand. I hear it in your prayers.”

“My prayers are my own!” Gamma barks. “And piteous, desperate prayers they are, too, for I know not which way lies the Holy Land.”

“Tell me of the Holy Land, then, good Count. Redeem this lowly demon.”

A smile crawls across Gamma’s face, crinkling the bandage.

“Very well. The sins have been counted, my final judgment has been passed. I see not why I should resist now. Perhaps in speaking of it,” his eyes grow distant, “I may not only entertain you, little one, but also fashion a shield against my sufferings.”

***

“Girolamo. Say it.”

“Giroma – Giraloma. Damn!”

“Savonarola.”

“Girolema Sanovaloro. Ah.”

“Keep practicing. It’ll come.” Two Shotguns rounds his desk and sits heavily. A cloud of dust erupts from the chair. “Now, siddown, Nebula.”

The bathrobe Sy wears is itchy. She can feel the skin of her shins getting prickly with goosebumps. T-minus one hour. She sits.

“Enjoy the book?”

Sy doesn’t trust herself to speak, so she shrugs.

“Now, Nebula, I haven’t got much time with you left. But I like to give a little speech before anyone goes into the Tosser,” Two Shotguns says. “Tell me, you ever seen the outside?”

Sy shakes her head.

“Pity. It’s pretty nice. Stars shining brilliantly, like the gods sneezed sparkles. Really pretty. I know how you like aesthetics, Nebula. When you’re back, give the windows a whirl. You should make a trip of it. Anyway: Earth… it’s nothing like here. And I don’t mean the way people talk, or the things they like to do for fun. I mean, the air – all mixed up, wafting around. And a big ol’ star up in your face all day long. Let me tell you, if you went down there in your own body, you’d get fried. Just toasted.

“I’m saying this because of the psych effects. Even if you’re running around in one of their bodies, everything’ll feel different – on the inside. And, in the beginning especially, you’ll wonder what the hell you just got yourself into. Why the hell you’re messing around with the troglodytes. All that.

“But we made a promise, Sy. And every generation we spend floating around up here is another generation we fail to live up to our promise. Humans aren’t sky people, Nebula. We’re Earth people. And Earth is where we belong. And Earth is where we’ll stay, past tense, if we can’t figure out how to implement what we’ve learned up here, present tense. You see what I mean?”

“Hindsight is Twenty-Twenty,” Sy says, repeating the well-worn mantra.

“Exactly right. Bingo. Now, we need young, smart people like you, Sy, to do their part. Your part might not seem important – some crazy old monk in some random peninsula – but, trust me, it is. It all is. And I want you to remember that. Remember who you are – you are Sy Nebula – and remember what your mission is. Repeat it to yourself every night you’re there. And you’ll be fine.”

“Like Ray Gamma fine?” Sy asks.

“Better. And Ray Gamma’s our best. Our best!”

***

My name is Girolamo Savonarola, and I am a Christian and a republican and a believer in the virtues of man. I am forty-five years old, and I will die soon.

My prayers at night change; they mutate to accommodate a vengeful, wrathful Lord who, to punish the moral laxity of man, and especially our Florentine state, shall bring fire with Him, the rings of Dante Alighieri’s hell. Yea, verily.

One day, we will all go up in flames the shape of mushrooms and the size of Titans. One day, this second Eden – this Earth – shall reject us, and the black will swallow us up.

When I began, my prayers were gentler. I was a sweet man, and a friend of Jesus. He taught me much of philosophy, like Socrates and Plato, and He led me to gardens of thought untouched by previous mortals. For that, I will forever be grateful.

Meanwhile, our city is in ruins. The French pox eats away at our citizens, and I know it is His wrath for the sins we have committed. It is in our books, our sodomy, our dancing halls and taverns.

I preach of the sky, of escaping to heavens above, and finding refuge in the stars. I speak of the sun descending from the heavens to burn the stones of the Piazza della Signoria. We will taste that heat one day.

When I die, I know I will go to hell. I am not worthy of the celestial heights which I preach. But I – this wretched flesh, this minor devil – will go there a proud and brave soldier in the eternal fight. My body will be scorched away from this Earth, and then my soul shall fly up to see glimpses of the stars, before it makes its home downwards, beyond Virgil and Socrates, above Judas, at the ring of violence, where Aristotle’s old student, Alexander the Great, lives, burning up to his eyebrows. As he conquered Persia, so I will conquer you – Florence first, and then, the stars.


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About the Author

Angela Ambroz has published in Strange Horizons, Reflection’s Edge and Expanded Horizons. She has lived in Italy, Fiji, the UK, India and now Boston. When not writing science fiction, she reviews movies at her blog, the Post-Punk Cinema Club.

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