The pink froth bubbles out everywhere like a bath bomb exploding from a tub. It collects in pools until it suddenly rushes up, towering down at me like a giant tsunami. My lungs seize, pain jolting out of my throat so I can’t scream. There’s a blank sensation of liquid trickling over my tongue. I can’t taste it. The froth grows until it sweeps me out of the large hotel atrium and onto the street.
I wake up screaming, sharp pain forcing me to exhale to stop the cramping in my lungs. Jax flips around, throwing her lifeless arms around me. Her body weight grows heavy until she’s pinned me deep into the folds of the mattress. “Breathe.” She digs her knees into my thighs. “Breathe.”
The room is motionless, pitch dark except for faint glimmers of moonlight from the outside. I turn to see flutters of something wet hurry past the windows and disappear. Snow again.
“Grocery store?” Jax finally unravels herself from on top, sliding back into the warm void where she was sleeping.
“No—this time I was drowning in pink froth.” The grocery store dream happened two nights in a row. I was running through a maze of aisles, zipping past panicked crowds in search of a light switch to turn off the chaos. I couldn’t find the switch, instead watching my hands disintegrate, peeling and melting as if contaminated.
“They’re sending the patch kits at 7, that should help. God. I’m sorry.” She rolls over and turns her face away from me. “I’m so sorry.”
I push myself out of bed and move towards the balcony. Blankets of white sludge have piled up on the rooftops, more coming down hard from cosmic night sky. This place is cold in ways that even I can imagine.
The kits don’t come at 7. There’s a glitch in the transmission system, they’re telling us, and we’ll have to wait for them to beam the next batch. This is the first mission I’ve had nightmares. Jax and I throw on some clothes and make our way through the empty hotel hallway and down the stairs. Large crystal chandeliers drop down like inverted columbines in the main lobby, blood orange sofas and cow hide chairs littered everywhere to give the bar a modern rustic look. Jax picked this place because she says I Ramble, like the hotel’s name.
We push through the front doors and spill out into the storm. Muddied white sludge lines the sidewalks, but there are no footprints. We struggle to find lifelines.
“Should we try going north this time? Maybe we can look through some residential areas for clues,” Jax steers us towards a corner sign marked 26th Street. I flail my arm around trying to wake it up. “Why did they put me in this one? I’m not this fat back home.”
She laughs and throws me a side smile. “Or maybe you are and you’re finally feeling it.”
Our bodies are shells, transported down from the main ship before our consciousness was beamed using a digital stream. Without knowing what happened here, there’s too much of a risk exposing the Mission’s real bodies to unknown elements. The technology is decent, but not perfect. My nightmares are likely the byproduct of shoddy coding, Jax says. The patch kits are meant to clean up the transmission route so we can navigate more clearly through our shells. With no kits coming, I brace myself for the next attack.
We trudge through urban decay: rusted chain fences, overgrown weeds, and a toppled street lamp. There’s nothing here, no stray dogs, stray people, or other multicell organisms except for the foliage and fauna. Jax takes photos and organizes them on her wrist pod. An abandoned shop stands crooked a few blocks away, its green cross signage partially shattered by the looks of a rock. Other than this discovery, we haven’t found signs of violence or of war.
“Wonder who lost those goddamn tapes, huh? You think they recorded over them?” The tapes she’s referencing were part of media disaster back home, one of the biggest scandals in the Space Administration’s history. Jax takes a random turn down another street, continuing small talk to keep us busy. She picks up a partially decomposed cigarette butt and tucks it into the large tank on her back. We’re walking science labs, collecting specimens and taking photos of this city. I can’t remember its name except that it’s covered in graffiti art and railroad tracks. We’ve been racking our brains for days, settling into our ported bodies while trying to get a sense of this place. We know it was abandoned decades ago but since the tapes went missing, we don’t know why. Jax and I were eventually appointed to go back to Earth to find out why.
The static buzz flits against my eardrum. It’s a dragging noise that doesn’t stop even if I clear it with my finger. It’s been going off ever since we woke up in this city. The static beats like a signal, bursts of nothing followed by more nothing. It drops dead altogether a few seconds later, leaving a residual ache inside my skull. I wonder if the static is causing my nightmares.
“Buzz is back,” I kick a rock, rambling behind her.
“Wait, I’m coming.” She runs back at me, waiving her wrist around my ear. Nothing.
“You missed it.” I watch as she makes her way back up the street.
Bits of a clear plastic bottle are wedged in-between the sidewalk and a sewer drain behind her. I stop and stare, its dirtied shell the only surviving relic of someone’s momentary consumption. Even after all these years, it’s held steady against the sewer grate. I haven’t seen a lot of materials like plastic until waking up here. Except for a single skeleton we swabbed near a creek, there is no sign of anyone now.
We’re walking through a train marked “Lightrail.” This looks more familiar to us – a prototype of the current mass transit connecting our pod cities. Jax shadows behind, rummaging through fabric seats for any items left behind of passengers past. The seats that aren’t badly decomposed have streaks of red and orange on a fuzzy blue, an oddly modernistic design. A row of advertisements tower above us. In one block, there’s a person dressed up in a heavy jacket, large pants, gloves, and a pair of black goggles over their face. “THE FRESHEST OF POWDER x THE FRESHEST OF TIMES,” it reads.
Jax pulls out a flaking pile of papers between some seats.
A flash of light shoots through my eyes. My jaw snaps shut, tightening my temples as a powerful surge of pain enters the back of my head and exits through the front of my skull. I can’t find anything to hold on to, I’m trying hard not to spiral out of control again. Eventually, I wander against a cold metal pole to squeeze between my hands. Jax’s voice fades in and out. I feel chills, a sweat pouring out of my shell.
Dots of yellow emerge. They’re people wrapped in yellow masks. A woman dressed in a fancy gown laughs as she runs across the middle of the car. I run after her, reaching as grabs onto a door to jump. She looks so perfect, a Sally of the internet.
“Shit, did it happen again?” Jax rushes over, dropping the folded pile of newspaper in the center aisle. The woman disappears.
“I think something bad happened here.”
The buzzing sound creeps through my skull again: bzzt, bzzt, bzzt, bzzt. I grab the paper and start reading.
“Stocks…All-Time High, Mass Casualties…in Tiny China Town.” It’s falling apart in my hands, ink rubbing against the ridges of my thumbs.
“Casualties? Like war?” Jax’s pod chirps from her wrist. “They want us to port immediately.”
“The buzz, it’s back.” I frown.
She waves her wrist around my ear, looking for a signal. It chirps again. “Finally.” She shines the podlight against an empty advertisement slot.
PLEASE ONLY LEAVE HOME FOR MEDICAL CARE, WORK AT A CRITICAL WORKPLACE, OR OTHER NECESSARY REASONS, FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT COVID19.COLORADO.GOV.
“A signal’s still going around here?”
“COVID19.colorado.gov.” Jax taps her wrist. “They have copies of the older Internet saved on deck.” She reads, shoving her other arm into her pants pocket, producing a plastic bottle of hotel shampoo. “Wipe your hands off, you touched the metal, wash them with your water tank.”
“What you got there?”
“This place is contaminated, there was a virus here, they weren’t supposed to leave.”
She’s still staring at her wrist, shaking.
“It stays dormant until it finds another host. This shit is everywhere. Let’s go.”
Jax’s body collapses and her podlight goes out. I feel a sudden sleepiness set in, the masks reappearing in my periphery as the woman in the gown emerges once again from a nearby seat. Sally of the internet.