The Cartographer's Dream
Doctors across the world are still no nearer to discovering the cause of the so-called Sleeping Death. The reported death toll to date has now reached over a million people, and widespread panic has set in world-wide. The government are pleading for calm during this difficult period. We go over to our...
The unwatched television followed its programming and switched itself off. Had the television been able to see, it would have seen its previous watcher lying asleep on the bed, smiling. As he flew through his dream, very definitely his dream, he was happy. He would wake up, but that did not take away the joy any more. Not now.
The spinning globe sat precariously on the arm of the chair. Nigel spun it round with one hand, occasionally stopping it with his index finger. His finger ran over the country he was pointing at, and he sighed. Sometimes the USSR, now shattered. Sometimes a country in Africa, starving. Sometimes America, the failed dream.
On the other arm of the chair was a glass of Southern Comfort, or more accurately ice and coke with a hint of Southern Comfort thrown in to make it seem like a real drink. Nigel took another sip, and spun the globe again.
He looked up towards one of the maps on his wall - a map of the world before Australia was discovered, or Antarctica. There was another beside it, which still had California as an island off the west coast of America. And another where America itself did not appear. Nigel smiled at them as the globe came to a gradual stop. He looked back towards the globe, down at the Pacific Ocean. He ran his finger along, feeling the smoothness of the Ocean, followed almost immediately by the bumps which represented the Rocky Mountains.
He imagined swooping down over the Rockies, flying out towards the ocean, with almost half of the world to travel before there was any more land. As he sat there, the images bombarded him: his face felt dry, his arms felt tired, his heart raced. Imagination was easier now. That was the only benefit he had found in blindness.
There would be no new maps for him. That much he understood, and almost accepted. Of course he could use the ones specially designed for the blind, but they didn't look good, or at least he didn't imagine them to look good. The maps on his walls had been etched into his memory over the years he had spent with them, staring at them, learning history just so he could understand what the people who had discovered the countries would have felt like.
Obviously he would never know.
Matilda woke up screaming, for the third time that week. It was the same nightmare again. Falling for miles and miles, seeing the ground looming up before her. A wide green grassy plain, with horses running wild across it. She always had enough time on her descent to see the paradise she was falling into. She never felt the ground.
A glass of water soothed her nerves, and she sat down on the edge of the bath, wondering what she was going to do about it. She couldn't carry on like this - her boss was beginning to notice that she fell asleep during the day, and if she lost her job she'd lose her flat. Sleeping pills might help, and wouldn't require a day off - unlike making an appointment with the doctor. She resolved to visit the chemist's on the way to work, hoping that would make the difference.
Christine shivered in the cold, her torn blanket pulled tightly around her in a futile effort to keep out the cold. She had forgotten that they cleared out Victoria station overnight nowadays, and she couldn't face trying to get anywhere else, so she had stumbled into an alleyway next to Pizzaland to fall asleep, or at least try to. It was a cold winter.
The phone box across from her beckoned. All she had to do was pick up the phone and ask for a reverse charges call. Her parents would drive over, would take her back, give her a warm bath and a warm bed.
She pulled her knees up to her chin, resting her nose on her knees so that her breath stayed in the warm area under the blanket. She closed her eyes, and prayed for change.
Nigel put the globe back down on the table, took the glass into the kitchen and emptied its contents down the sink. He washed it up immediately, and put it back on the drinks cabinet where it lived.
"Time for bed, said Zebedee," he said to himself as he pulled the curtains closed and went upstairs to bed. When he reached the top of the stairs, he opened the door to the spare room. He walked slowly and reverently inside, and sat down in the chair in the centre of the room. Surrounding him, papered to the walls, was a set of maps of every country in the world, as of 1934.
On the far wall was the northern hemisphere. Behind him lay the southern. It had only occurred to him after the accident, but he didn't actually like these maps. It had taken him some months to realise why, but it was because they were complete. There was nothing new. From space they could take pictures of the world, and prove that there was nothing left to discover, except of course the last native tribe in New Guinea.
He sat in the chair, rocking backwards and forwards, until his frustration wore out and he fell asleep.
Robert had just popped out for a Chinese when he saw her, swaying slightly. He stopped the car, and turned the lights off. Her legs buckled under her, and she fell to the ground, strangely gently. She was wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. Her blond hair was plaited. She looked in her late teens, possibly as old as twenty.
Robert stared at her, wondering what to do. She was drunk, he was sure of that. He ought to get out and help. Or he ought to leave her alone to throw up and get well again. But it was cold. And she was quite pretty.
He stepped out of the car and slammed the door, just to make sure that if she was still conscious she would notice him coming. He walked over to her and knelt down beside her, feeling very awkward. She did not move.
"Are you all right?" he asked, and then shook his head, despairing of himself. He put a hand just above her shoulder, wondering whether he was 'allowed' to touch her or not. There seemed no one else about, so he poked her gently with a finger.
She still did not move.
What now? he asked of himself. To the hospital. It never occurred to him to ring for an ambulance. No, he should take her himself. He did spare the time to wonder if he would have acted this way if it had been a man who had collapsed. The answer was probably no, which annoyed him.
She was very light, and her skin felt very cold. He pulled her over to the car, and fumbled around trying to unlock the passenger door while keeping her upright at his side. Her head flopped forwards.
Robert opened the car door and manhandled her into the seat. She was completely limp, and showed no sign whatever of moving. He strapped her in, worried about how much he was touching her, and what she would think if she did wake up. Images ran through his mind - of her screaming, running away, accusing him of kidnap or rape.
He shut the door, and walked round to the driver's door. He started the engine, switched the lights on, and looked over at her. She was slumped down in the seat, her head forwards. Her hands were thin, skin stretched over bone. They were lying on her thighs, her fingers at strange angles Robert felt sure a hand could not reach comfortably. Instinctively he leant over and moved them so they were lying flat.
At that point Robert noticed she wasn't breathing. He stared at her chest, at her mouth, and then back at her chest again. It wasn't moving. He put a finger underneath her nose, and did not feel even the slightest breeze.
As the concept of mouth-to-mouth sprang into his mind, he panicked. She would accuse him of rape. Kidnapping a girl and forcing yourself on her. Kissing her while she was unconscious. She might be only fourteen. He pushed the car into first and kangaroo-jumped the car down the road to the junction. Fortunately there was no car coming, because he changed up into second, took the corner, skidding the back wheels, and only then checked there was nothing coming.
He broke the speed limits all the way to the hospital, even speeding past the speed cameras going at twice the limit. There wasn't a flash, but Robert wouldn't have cared if there had been. There was a girl dying next to him. Or dead already. And if he had known... Or been willing to try...
He slammed the brakes on in front of casualty, turning the engine off but leaving the keys in the ignition, and ran round to the passenger door. A hospital porter shouted at him. He shouted back, telling the porter to move the car if he was bothered.
When the porter saw the girl, he rushed over to help. "Drugs?" he asked.
"I don't know," Robert replied. "I saw her collapse."
They carried her into casualty, and she was put on a trolley and whizzed off into the bowels of the hospital. The porter disappeared, and Robert collapsed onto a seat, shivering.
A nurse came over to him a couple of minutes later. "Could we have a few details, please," she asked, sitting down beside him. She put a hand on his shoulder, which Robert found comforting. It still took a cup of coffee and almost twenty minutes before he could manage a coherent word, though.
He told the nurse what had happened, and burst into tears as he described her not breathing. The nurse wrote it all down, and then looked up at him, her blue eyes staring straight into his. She moved round to squat in front of him.
"You should go on a first-aid course, in case something like this happens again, but please, Robert, don't worry about this one. The doctor said there was nothing that could have been done. If a paramedic team had been there, she would still have been dead. I'm sorry."
"What did she die of? What was it?"
"Probably drugs of some sort. The doctor doesn't know yet. There seems to have been something wrong with her brain. She was probably already brain-dead when she collapsed."
"What was her name?"
Robert had never seen someone die before. His grandmother had died, but the coffin had been closed. A friend at school had died, but there, too, there was no body. The only death he had seen was on television, and that never seemed real. Just another film, but this one called "The News". Matilda, though, had been in his arms. He had felt her fading warmth as she slipped away.
Nigel walked slowly across the landscape, wondering how it was he could see. He knew it was a dream, but his sight was still not normal. He was not looking somewhere, or seeing through what he remembered as his eyes. Rather, he was experiencing a tiny patch of a map, with yellowy-brown voids beyond each edge. He wasn't seeing it from above - rather, he was feeling it around him. From inside everything, out to everything. He knew there were animals in the forest, and could feel each one of them. The little rabbits and mice, right up to the monkeys that swung around above.
He felt there ought to be big cats there, so he felt for them. And they appeared.
It was a good dream.
Without warning, he felt a woman standing in his dream. Standing behind him. He turned round, although that was not necessary.
"Where am I?" she asked. She sounded nervous. Her forehead was wrinkled, worried, and she stood slightly slouched.
"I don't know," replied Nigel. "Do you like it?"
"This doesn't feel like a dream," she said.
"It does to me."
"Is there anyone else here?"
"Do you want there to be?"
"It would be nice. We could have a picnic." She thought for a moment, and stood straighter. "I don't feel tired," she said. "I have felt tired for so long, and I don't any more."
Nigel smiled, and went in search of other people.
Christine awoke as the policeman prodded her. "Sorry, miss, but you can't sleep there."
She tried to jump back, disorientated. She had been speaking to someone. He had offered her something, but she couldn't remember what. She looked up at the policeman, wondering what was going on.
She looked down again, wishing him away.
"Look, miss, if you don't move on I'm going to have to arrest you."
She started crying. Angry at herself, she stood up and walked off as resolutely as she could. She passed another phone box, and stood staring at it for a few moments before walking off. In her anger her surroundings went unnoticed. She didn't see the car until it screeched to a halt in front of her. The bumper hit her just enough to knock her over, and the world flashed black for a moment.
The man rushed out of the car, and knelt down beside her. His first words were "Oh please, Lord, not again."
She opened her eyes, and Robert leant down to pick her up. He hugged her without thinking, and then moved back again, worried.
Christine squinted at him, still confused. "What? Who are you?"
"My name's Robert. I didn't see you. I swear I didn't see you."
She moved her hand clumsily round to his shoulder. "It's all right. No need to get upset. I believe you. You didn't see me. Don't suppose you'd have somewhere to sleep, would you?"
Nigel went back to his dream the next night, and there were more people with Matilda. She looked noticeably older, which surprised him. He felt the world, and felt more of it beyond the forest, and beyond the hills. A mountain range to one side, and islands beyond the forest. This was an archipelago. He felt beyond, but there was nothing yet. Undiscovered, he mused, and smiled again.
He spent the night watching the people eating and drinking, and enjoying themselves. One of them had caught some rabbits, and was cooking them over a fire.
Nigel appeared in front of them, and they thanked him for the dream.
He felt concerned, and asked them if they realised that things would get harder as they tried to forge lives for themselves. They did not seem to mind, and spoke of their plans with ambition and hope. Nigel spent the night listening to them discussing their dreams, how they would build various wooden houses. Each of them described the house they wanted, and what they thought they would be able to build, and how they were going to manage.
At the end of the night, Nigel went away, leaving them to sleep in the warm night.
"It was the same offer again, last night. I remember it better this time."
Robert stopped buttering his toast and turned to Christine. "What offer?"
"To get out of here."
"Charming. Give a girl a place to live..."
"No, stupid. The world. Out of the world. This woman called Matilda keeps asking me to join her."
"Wait," said Robert, suddenly paying attention. "Matilda?"
It took almost fifteen minutes of Christine describing Matilda before Robert was satisfied it was the same person.
"I saw her die."
"I saw Matilda die. She looked about fifteen, though, when I saw her, but it's got to be the same person. She's in your dreams. How is that possible?"
"They aren't my dreams. At least that what the man said. He said it was his dream, and I could live in it if I wanted."
"Who is he?"
"He didn't say."
"Well if he appears again, ask him."
"Anyway, you aren't going, I assume?"
"I don't know. It looks like a nice place. I dunno. It's kind of weird."
Nigel felt his dream, his world, age years every night. He walked through it every night as it grew, as people built small villages and herded their cattle, and changed their clothing when it wore out, and adapted. Some of them fought, and a small number killed each other. Their small archipelago was becoming overcrowded, so Nigel lowered the sea, and a land bridge appeared, allowing people to travel off the islands onto a large mainland. Nigel didn't know what was there. He felt excited.
There was still something troubling him, though. He went to talk to Matilda, to find out what she thought. She looked very old, now.
"My Lord," she said, bowing.
"Stand up, Matilda. We've known each other long enough now."
"Too long, I think."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I'm tired. I've really enjoyed all of this, but I'm getting tired now."
Nigel nodded, and turned away. "Very well, Matilda. But I'm going to miss you."
"I know," she said.
Nigel felt Matilda lie down, and then felt her body empty. When nothing remained, he pulled the body into the ground, and felt the ground absorb it. He cried.
Robert woke to find Christine lying, lifeless, beside him. He shook her twice, but already knew. The way she was lying, he knew instantly. He almost recognised the feeling. When she didn't respond, he started hitting her, and then the bed, and then bashed his head into the pillow and tried to scream.
He phoned the ambulance, which took almost thirty minutes to arrive. They pronounced her dead. They took her body away to perform an autopsy, and the doctor spent a while asking Robert what she had eaten, drunk, and what she had done for the weeks leading up to her death. Robert couldn't think, and kept bursting into tears. He didn't mention the dreams.
They diagnosed it as being the sleeping virus, and said they were very sorry. Robert watched the news that night, and saw that over a thousand people had died that night in Britain alone.
When he got home, he took a bottle of sleeping pills, and lay down on the bed. "All right. Whoever you are, come for me."
"You wish to come to my world?"
"I do. If Christine is here."
"There are many Christines here."
"You took her last night. She was right next to me. I felt you kill her, just like Matilda."
"I didn't kill them! I offered them a choice. I offered them hope of a better world. And I delivered. This is better."
"For how long?"
"Until someone else has a strong enough dream to forge his own world, and takes my people away. Maybe a thousand years. Maybe a hundred-thousand. Until I get tired. Who knows? But for now, for this moment, those people are happy, and can dream. So don't go telling me I killed people."
"Who are you?"
"I'm... It doesn't matter. I know Christine. She's waiting for you, if you want to come. I'll take you to her." The ground disappeared, and Christine appeared in front of then. "I'll leave you two alone, then."
Christine and Robert stared at each other.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I had to get away. My parents had found out where I was living, and I couldn't face them."
"It's all right. So long as you don't mind me staying here with you?"
Christine laughed, and kissed him.
"The numbers given don't match the numbers in my world."
"No. That's because yours isn't the only one."
"Any advice, since you've done this before."
"Don't try to have too much control. The tighter your grip, the more angry you become. I made that mistake, in the early days. Leave well alone, and enjoy watching."
"Is your world worse than mine?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because you created ours to escape yours."
"When I created yours it was much better that mine. Like your new world is to this one. Now, it's not really a valid question. My world ceased to exist a long time ago."
What is left of the government has declared martial law, and demands that all able-bodied men and women present themselves at their nearest government building for assignment to emergency duties. According to doctors, unless something is done to halt the rate of casualties within the next month, the population of the country will fall below one-million. Further reports follow...