‘The Sleep of Reason’ is a short story by Eddie Robson. Commissioned by the organisers of the ‘After Dark’ festival, the story is a response to the talks and the ‘Night Travels’ walk which took place during the festival.
Eddie is the author of the novel Tomorrow Never Knows, the BBC Radio 4 sitcom Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully and The Dukes’ recent Christmas show Beauty and the Beast, amongst other things.
The Sleep Of Reason
By Eddie Robson
The worst thing about recurring nightmares is you have them over and over again and yet you never see them coming. And so, as Sandra Horton dreamed of sitting in the sun on the steps that led down to the yard of her old grammar school, next to her former PA Rachel (who was never at the school, and who Sandra hadn’t met until she was 32 and Rachel was 25 – it wasn’t clear why she was there), she had no sense of what was coming next.
Sandra was leaning back, propping herself up on her arms, and Rachel was talking about an eyebrow pencil she’d nicked from Boots at lunchtime – when Sandra felt the nibble on her finger. She withdrew her hand quickly and turned –
– and there she saw the mouse that had bitten her. And more mice. Mice scurrying through the school’s open door. Mice pouring through a crack in the Headmistress’ window. Mice coming out of the drain.
Sandra grabbed Rachel’s hand. A mouse emerged from the cuff of Rachel’s school blouse. Sandra pulled her hand away again.
Sandra screamed for help as the mice poured over her like a wave – but nobody around even seemed to notice anything odd was going on, and Rachel was saying tomorrow she might try to steal a lipstick. That was the last thing Sandra heard before the chittering engulfed her entirely –
Sandra’s head jerked up, and for a moment she was totally disorientated. It was dark. She was moving. She could hear ‘Take On Me’ by A-Ha.
But it was only for a moment, and then she realised she was in the back of a ministerial car, on her way home from a Newsnight interview, and ‘Take On Me’ was her ringtone. She’d fallen asleep. No surprise really: it had been a long day.
She didn’t often dream, these days. But they say you always dream. You just don’t always remember it.
Sandra wiped drool from the corner of her mouth, picked up the phone and looked at the screen. It was Anji Mir from the Comms Office. Sandra wondered whether she wanted to answer this. It might be something she wanted to hear. It might not.
She answered it. ‘Hello?’
‘Sandra?’ Anji said. ‘That was great.’
It was something Sandra wanted to hear. ‘You saw it?’
‘Yeah! There was a thing on the US election on Sky News so we didn’t see it go out live –’
‘Right.’ Good to know what your priorities are.
‘But we just caught up, we thought you handled it brilliantly, especially when they tried to ambush you with that question about mental health –’
‘Well yeah, I did prep very thoroughly –’
‘Great. Rob’s really pleased, he’ll call you tomorrow for a full debrief but really, they were looking for a headline and you didn’t give them one so, job done.’
Sandra was about to say goodbye but she realised Anji had already hung up.
Well, about bloody time, Sandra thought. She’d been Sleep Secretary for nearly two years now and most of the public still thought her predecessor, Chris Goodman, was doing the job, even though he was Home Sec now. Chris had been the first to take up the role at the newly-formed Ministry Of Sleep, before anyone really appreciated how significant it was. It had been formed in response to the advent of Subconscious Plug-In Technology – or SPIT for short – a technology designed and patented in Britain. It could be used to hook a computer up to a sleeping brain and use that brain’s spare capacity as part of the system. With access to a human brain, the computer could process data in ways that a purely logical system could not. It could identify patterns in data that would otherwise require hours of tedious sifting and laborious analysis. It could respond to emails sent to customer services departments. It could beta-test websites and software, approaching them as a human user could. And all with no effort from humans themselves.
The potential of SPIT rapidly became clear, and the government suddenly realised that the UK was slightly ahead of the curve. They raided other government departments to divert funds into the new Ministry Of Sleep and created infrastructure that enabled every house in the country to connect up to the SPIT network. Security on the network was paramount of course, otherwise there was a risk someone might try to hack into your brain while you were asleep. Once it was up and running, anyone could, if they wanted, sell their sleeping hours as processing time for whoever would pay.
This had transformed the UK economy overnight. Literally overnight. Having got there first, the country became the leading supplier worldwide. Wealth poured in. The unemployed and disabled had a new way of earning money, slashing the benefits bill. Britain was a powerhouse in its sleep.
Chris had taken all the credit for that, of course, and been rewarded with a promotion. It had been made clear to Sandra she had some big shoes to fill, and that really, the best she could do was just keep everything running and not screw it up. There was no call for her to come in with bold new ideas. They already had the bold new idea, thanks. She rarely heard from the PM. Or from the PM’s Director Of Communications, Rob.
Now that the initial excitement had worn off, there were a few scare stories doing the rounds – anything about SPIT was easy clickbait – and Sandra was spending a lot of her time fire-fighting, reading and commissioning reports, and putting out figures that demonstrated that everything was fine. Which it was. People had been scared of telephones, and television, and computer games, and the internet – and then all those things became normal and everyday.
A text arrived from Rob. PM very happy. well done, glad they didn’t ask How do you sleep at night.
Despite herself, Sandra felt a small rush of delight at this praise.
Just before 3am, she was woken by A-Ha again. But she hadn’t been dreaming this time. A side effect of SPIT was that it tended to block out dreams, which Sandra found useful. And she could actually get through a lot of her constituency business – correspondence with the public and whatnot – while she was asleep, which for a cabinet minister was an enormous boon.
Sandra pulled off her SPIT cap and looked at her phone. It was Anji again. For Christ’s sake. She’d spent two years hoping they’d notice her and now they were calling in the middle of the bloody night.
Sandra answered the phone. ‘What is it?’ It came out tetchy, but she found it hard to care.
‘I’m coming over,’ said Anji.
‘I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘That’s why I’m coming, to explain.’
‘You can’t do it on the phone?’
‘No. Put some coffee on.’
And Anji hung up.
Sandra looked down at her husband, Paul. He was asleep. He slept through everything.
Shortly afterwards, Sandra was staring into a coffee percolator because she couldn’t muster the focus to do anything else. Her brain kept running through the Newsnight interview. It had to be that, surely? Someone had picked up on some gaffe she’d made and it was going to be the big news story today. That had to be it. As she struggled to think of what exactly she might have said, she became increasingly angry with Anji and the rest of the comms team for failing to pick up on it themselves – that was their job, wasn’t it? – and by the time Anji arrived, Sandra was quite prepared to give her a piece of her mind.
When Anji arrived, she came to the back door and knocked. Sandra opened the door and before Anji could even greet her, Sandra said ‘This is about Newsnight, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ Anji said.
Sandra’s tirade was halted in its tracks.
‘Where’s that coffee?’ said Anji, removing her coat.
On the sofa in the living room, Anji explained to Sandra what it was about.
Yesterday morning, police officers in Leeds had responded to a 999 call. A man named Nicholas Carroll, an account manager at a large insurance firm, had called from his bedroom, where he appeared to be under siege. His message didn’t make much sense, and it descended into hysterical screaming and exhortations for the police to hurry before it was eventually cut off.
The police opted to send armed officers to the scene, a decision which would later be entirely justified. They arrived at Carroll’s house at 6:22am, finding the scene quiet and no lights on in the house, and proceeded with caution. Breaking in and performing a sweep of the property, they found signs of a struggle in the kitchen, the hallway and up the stairs. Finally they came to the bedroom, where they found the door broken off its hinges. There was no sign of Carroll, or his assailant.
It was then that they heard noises coming from a rear upstairs bedroom. The noises were indistinct, but someone was moving around in there.
The officers carefully moved through to the back of the house. They shouted a warning to whoever was inside, but received no reply.
They opened the door.
What they found inside was unexpected.
There were two strange figures, both of which looked roughly like human beings, but larger than life somehow – both were about eight feet tall. One was male and looked older than the other, who was female. Both were covered in blood, and each held some pieces of Carroll’s body, which between them they had dismembered. Some of the pieces of their victim were on the floor between them, and they were arguing who should get what.
The officers attempted to make an arrest, and the situation unravelled.
One of Carroll’s assailants – the male – reared up and lashed out at the officers, who responded with a volley of gunfire. Almost every shot hit the target. They put eighteen bullets into it in total, several in its head and where its heart ought to have been. The officers testified that it it was not until a line of shots caused its head, left shoulder and left arm to become entirely detached that it stopped coming at them and fell to the ground.
The female watched this, as if letting the officers eliminate her rival, then she came at them too. It took twenty-three shots to stop her.
On closer examination of the body, the officers established that these were not creatures of flesh and blood at all. They were mechanoids that been produced and assembled by Carroll’s 3D printer, in his downstairs study, whilst he slept, and they had attacked him shortly before his alarm went off.
Carroll was married, though he and his wife were separated, and so his wife was called to formally identify the body. Her name was Nadine. She was a small woman, slightly built, warm and friendly, but upon seeing her the officers immediately experienced a moment of uncanny recognition. It was clear that one of the artificial creatures they had just destroyed was some strange, mutated rendition of her. In her divorce, she had cited continual interference from Carroll’s family, especially his father, as a major factor in the breakdown of the marriage. A little further exploration of Carroll’s home turned up photographs of Carroll’s father, and the basis for the other mechanoid became apparent.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Sandra, a little flatly.
Anji’s eyes narrowed slightly. ‘You don’t see what this has to do with you, do you?’
‘No,’ Sandra admitted. She didn’t add that she very much wanted it to have nothing to do with her, although it was true.
‘Carroll was a regular SPIT user,’ Anji continued. ‘He was using it the night he was attacked. The police kept it out of the press, thank god, they said it was an unidentified intruder – if Newsnight had got hold of it before last night –’
‘Hang on – we don’t know this has anything to do with SPIT, do we?’
‘The man clearly felt caught in the middle of this situation with his wife and his father. The police found these monstrous versions of them chopping him up and arguing over the pieces – the imagery isn’t exactly subtle, is it? He probably wasn’t a very imaginative man.’
‘He probably should’ve stood up to his father then, shouldn’t he?’
Anji sighed. ‘Probably, yes – I don’t know the full details of their marital breakdown. But reality doesn’t enter into it. We’re talking about dreams. He saw himself as the victim, so he became the victim.’
‘No,’ said Sandra, crossing her arms. ‘I don’t buy any of this.’
‘We all know people dream a lot less when using SPIT than they do normally. Where do those dreams go?’
‘His printer could have been hacked.’
‘Listen! Yesterday, police cross-referenced lots of strange incidents from the past few weeks. Most of them weren’t even reported to the police, people just complained to their 3D printer manufacturers. People have woken up to find their printers have made lost childhood toys, animals that don’t really exist… one woman found a full-size working replica of the actor Paul Newman, as he looked in the early 1960s, naked on her dining room table.’
‘These people were all heavy SPIT users.’
Sandra had that falling sensation. The one you get in dreams sometimes. ‘But… why didn’t we know this could happen?’
‘Hey. Stay calm.’
‘Chris commissioned all the impact reports. He did loads of work on it. This is his fault. They told me not to change anything!’
‘We’ve got a lid on it. Nobody knows anything yet.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘It’s not in the papers and we’ve had no questions. Breathe, Sandra.’
Sandra took a deep breath. ‘What do we do?’
‘We can start by telling people to take their 3D printers off the network at night. We don’t have to say exactly why, we can say it’s a… signal interference issue. Fortunately not everyone has a 3D printer.’
‘Most people do.’ Sandra pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘Oh god…’
‘And we get straight on with a fix for the problem. I’m sure we can build in a safeguard to stop this happening again.’
Sandra started to speak; then stopped; then decided this had to be said. ‘But… maybe we should tell people to… stop?’
Anji gave a little shake of her head. ‘Stop what?’
‘But that would make people think it isn’t safe. We don’t want that. You don’t want that.’
Sandra nodded, but inside her a voice was screaming But it isn’t safe. It was screaming that she’d always known this was a bad idea, that she’d had so many misgivings about it since being offered the job but she’d suppressed them because it was such a great job, that she’d always somehow known something would go disastrously wrong on her watch and the opposition and media and public would eat her alive.
‘OK,’ said Anji, ‘let’s prepare a statement, we can have it out to the media first thing in the morning. Can I get you another coffee? You look tired.’
Sandra nodded and handed her mug to Anji, who took it to the kitchen.
Almost as soon as Anji had gone, Sandra heard the noise from the hallway. It was faint, she couldn’t really make it out. She stood and moved closer to the noise, which seemed to come from the study.
The study door was closed. Behind it was a scuffling, a skittering. The sound of tiny sharp claws scratching at carpet and wood. Hundreds of them, getting louder and louder. The door itself was shaking with the pressure. The creatures on the other side were scraping and gnawing furiously at the bottom edge, fashioning a gap large enough for them to pass through.
Sandra realised she ought to run. She also realised it was already too late.
© Eddie Robson, 2015