The sound of a heavy revolver being cocked snapped Carl from his fitful dreams, eyes frantically searching for the weapon, only to find it in his own shaking hand. His head and the firearm dropped back to the bed as one, and he spent long minutes trying to control his breathing, trying to forget the terrors within his own mind.

Ever since fleeing Chicago, it was always the same. Every time he closed his eyes he knew what story would unfold, what horror awaited him. Even self-medicating only dulled the sensations, not blocked them. Forcing his eyes open he felt the sheen of cold sweat start to evaporate as the broken air circulation unit did its best to swirl the stale miasma which constantly seeped into his apartment from the alley outside. Three thousand klicks from home and it all smelled the same. Everything was the same.

Aren’t you supposed to forget dreams?” he lamented to himself, setting the weighty revolver on his bedside table and trying to shake away his own exhaustion—there would be no more sleep that night.

It always started off so simply. Meet the Johnson at the outdoor bistro, go over a vague job outline, agree on a price. It all sounded like a normal datasteal/object procurement gig until he mentioned the targets: specifications for and a prototype of a set of cybernetic genitals. The Johnson was completely serious, and it was too late for Carl to say no. As he sat on the bed, rubbing his temples and trying not to remember what came next, the thoughts came unbidden, unwanted.

Reconnaissance went as well as one could expect from two computer specialists and a fast-talking mage; the team found the means to blackmail the head of the R&D wing and a simple plan of “get an appointment, make demands” was agreed upon. Carl grimaced in closet-sized apartment, alone with the ghosts of the past.

Ghosts—bad turn of phrase. Running his hands through unwashed hair did nothing to stop the dreams…the memories.

He was the youngest, freshest member of the team, and as such was stationed outside the building as surveillance in case anything looked awry with their lines of escape. Connected to the team by private image links, he could see and hear everything, as much as he would come to regret his high-definition, front-row seat.

As the mage sauntered to the front desk, tepid muzak piped in to provide corporate-approved and inoffensive ambience, everything went wrong at once. Carl’s budding career, his shot at a payday, and his sanity all disappeared in an instant. A swarm of more than a dozen ghostly, ephemeral security guards, dressed in archetypal cowboy duds, and bolstered by a seven-foot werewolf, faded into existence, six-shooters at the ready.

Carl winced, hating that he couldn’t tell the difference between what had actually happened and what his brain fed him every time he closed his eyes. It was a never-ending rerun of his worst experiences, and it wouldn’t leave him alone, no matter how far he ran.

Opening fire, the ghost-cowboy-werewolf security team felled the mage in one cacophonous volley, dropping him to the floor. The shared team feed showed he was alive but in critical condition, at best. As he clutched at his chest the other hacker decided to leave no runner behind, and burst through the front door with his gas-guzzling Harley Scorpion motorcycle, intending to scoop up the fallen mage and make a quick—if impressive—exit.

As fast as he was, the werewolf was faster. Try as he might, even with a fully-automatic rifle, he couldn’t put a dent in the mass of teeth and claws before he too was cut down, the bike spinning out from beneath his eviscerated form. The last image coming through the shared link was a final spray of blood.

Dream-Carl had the crushing realization that had he stepped forward, had he been anywhere else but around the back of the building, he too could have been another body for the pile. Whatever mission he had signed up for, what he had been a part of was a merciless slaughter. He knew that the security team would be looking for whomever was on the other end of the video feed, and he sped off into the busy city streets, knowing his fledgling career as a Chicago-area shadowrunner was just as dead as his teammates.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Carl’s body trembled with adrenaline and anxiety, fear and self-doubt. He had begged, borrowed, and stolen his way across the country, and had arrived with nothing to his name but a quickly-cracking psyche. How long would the memories, the dreams continue?

Carl wept, the sounds of his sobbing lost in the drizzle falling in sheets against his thin walls.

Header image by Kevin Risseeuw from Pixabay