“They’ve been going in circles for the last hour,” Mehmet says, pointing at the sails over the balcony wall. “They’re like shark fins, aren’t they?” He turns to me slowly, his gray-green eyes staring up through some private dream as he pulls the data card from the back of his head.
“They’ll be coming soon …” I say, trying not to think about what is on its way. “We don’t have to stay, Mehmet.”
New forms begin to spread out across his face, streaming down his neck like watercolors. They are cut-and-splice fragments of lucid dreams, reshaped and mixed into new images. They swirl and harden on his chest, until there is an image of a child in a zoo holding his father’s hand.
“A childhood memory,” Mehmet says.
I lean down to face him at eye level. “We don’t have time for this.”
“You worry too much …” he says, letting his own face become the recorded image of mine, channelling through expressions of worry.
The doorbell rings from inside the house.
The layers of dream-strata peel away until he is himself again.
“Time to go to work,” Mehmet says. With a tilt of his head, the heavy locks open. The cartel men file in with the predatory grace of the beasts they resemble, their genes modified with the phenotypes of carnivores. The lowest-ranking members flank the walls in a jungle hierarchy.
“They brought the whole Menagerie this time,” Mehmet says.
Their leader approaches slowly from the back of the line, his gray face stretched back, modified with cartilage and other skin grafts.
“I thought sharks only hunted at night, Carcharo,” Mehmet says.
“Times are changing. You know as well as I do, the food chain isn’t what it used to be. You’ve done quite well for yourself, haven’t you,” he says with a sharp smile. “Is your protégé learning the tricks of the trade? Why don’t you come and work for us, boy? We have room for a gazelle.”
A bear-like man separates from the group to stand next to me, his body covered in patches of bristling hair. He smiles as razor-sharp teeth sprout from his mouth, hunger and malice gleaming in his black eyes. “I prefer fish,” he says, latching his paw around my arm.
“You can’t train them unless you give them something to nibble on once in a while,” Carcharo says. “I presume you know why we are here.”
“I can’t say I do,” Mehmet says.
“Let me help you remember.”
With a glance from Carcharo, a hyena approaches Mehmet. Corded muscles pulse through his arms. He lifts Mehmet out of his chair with a single hand, turning him toward the shark like a puppet.
“One of our men went to Canvas Town for some dream therapy a few days ago.”
“I remember the wolf,” Mehmet says with a smile, letting a scene play out across his chest. A girl with a red cape and a picnic basket is skipping along a path.
“Your humour is better than your sense,” Carcharo says. The hyena sets him down for a moment, and the shark leans in close to his face. “What did you do to him?”
“He was carrying a tailor-made virus, so I gave him something in return.”
“A virus would’ve been a far less painful way for you to die, Mehmet.”
“You know what’s interesting about sharks,” Mehmet says, as if imparting a basic fact. “They can’t really see all that well. Shapes get blurred, and what they think they are seeing is really something else. But even if they could see clearly, they’re not smart enough to tell the difference.”
The bear releases me, his claws pressing against his eyes. The others begin to stagger, voices cut through with inhuman sounds. I watch them stumble across the balcony, scrambling over chairs, plants, reaching out for something to hold onto.
“When your man came to me, I took a nice little tour of his memories. It wasn’t hard to find the gateway codes. The access points were all lit up like beacons. I had keys to databases and banking systems, all the passwords to your own private dream worlds in my head.”
“You will die,” Carcharo says. He tries to speak again, but he chokes through the words.
“Your little wolf brought me a nice picnic basket,” Mehmet says, fragmented dreams flickering across his body. His cheeks are bathed in pixellated flame.
The men begin to scream.
Mehmet turns to me with a smile. “All of the Menagerie have implants in their frontal lobes, along with dopamine and serotonin enhancers. All it takes is a little tweaking and …”
“Why were they trying to implant a virus in your head?”
“Laws of the jungle,” Mehmet says. “Their cartel traffics in dreams, after all. I’m just their competition.”
“You’ll have to teach me how to do that trick, someday,” I say.
The dream projections on his body continue to play out, revealing the memory of the boy in the zoo again. The broken statues of gods are scattered around the cages while a red sun flares in the sky. The roots of silk cotton trees are draped over the walls of the cages, framing them like dreadlocks.
“It’s all about accessing the unconscious mind.”
“Dreadlocks,” I say, thinking of the cages. “What are you going to do with them?”
Mehmet stares out at the sails passing above the balcony wall. In the distance, I can hear a siren, a sound that resembles the high-pitched wail of an exotic bird.
On his chest, a little boy is smiling as he looks into the cages of the zoo. The canvas of his chest swirls, shifting to reveal an image of animals behind bars.
Preston Grassmann’s work has appeared in Nature Magazine, Futures 2, and Daily Science Fiction.