‘You are not going to make it to Australia,’ the Minister had told the Clients. ‘Not even in your dreams.’
The Bureaucrat watched her reflection in the mirrored window. Her colleagues’ screens flickered blue-green. Coffee cups clinked against glasses and papers rustled as her desk-mates packed up for the night. The hum of the fluorescent tube above her head had almost become inaudible. She clicked it off. Glimmers of faraway screens, islands in the dark, were picked out across the mirrored window. She pressed her face against the glass so she could see outside.
Clouds encircled the building: far-off thunderheads rolled over on their bellies and, close by, dissipated to grey, damp fog. She watched lights from the city far below strobe across their undersides.
‘Who turned the light off?’ someone called from across the room. She switched it back on and sat once more at her desk. ‘Thank you,’ the same voice called. Order was restored.
The Bureaucrat turned back to her monitor. She could go home once this brief was completed, but she had been working on it all day today and all day yesterday and hadn’t typed a single word. The Minister gestured on her screen, video of his speeches playing in the background of her documents as it did every day.
She couldn’t hear his words but they had all been made to memorise the speech, so she knew what he was saying. Now that illegal arrival by boat had been stopped, they must close the last open border. It was time to prevent illegal arrival by thought or aspiration or hallucination.
She pressed her face against the window for another moment, stared into the storm for answers, then turned to her keyboard and began to type.
For seven months, the Minister’s dreams had been full of boats. The boats landed in Sydney Harbour, at Port Melbourne and Port Adelaide. They docked in Fremantle and disgorged their hordes of angry passengers, a liquid swarm that flowed over Australia’s cities like lava.
Every morning when he woke and walked out his front door he could see them, feel them all around him. They had slipped out of his head, climbed over his pillow and now here they were on the streets of Cronulla, selling inedible kebabs and unable to answer even the simplest question in the most basic English.
Today, though, all that would end.
The Minister’s car arrived. He and the Adviser began talking before they’d even left the driveway. They talked about numbers and about strategies, about press conferences and operational matters, and the gritty rime of his dreams began to evaporate in the light of day. By the time they pulled into an unmarked warehouse on a nondescript street in Campbelltown he could see the possibility of a solution taking shape.
An entourage waited to greet them inside the tinted sliding doors, then scattered in search of coffee, to deposit a coat, to secure the premises. As the Minister and the Adviser entered the innermost room of the warehouse, only the Professor remained beside them.
She had a very quiet voice. Annoyingly quiet, the Minister thought. Couldn’t she have had someone write all this down, send it to him? He tried to concentrate. She was sliding back the cover on a box – a fish tank, it looked like, inside a wooden box – whispering all the while.
‘Could you speak up a little,’ he instructed, and she reached out a hand and actually put it across his mouth.
‘Please,’ she said, ‘you’ll have to lower your voice. They’re not used to the sounds of our world.’
No-one had touched him that way in years. Her fingers peeled away and he could feel their imprint still upon his lips. He banished the thought, leaned forward to better see the fish tank and whatever lived inside.
‘This is only a prototype, of course,’ she whispered to him, blocking his view with her body. ‘In order to operationalise the solution they will need to be released in large numbers on the Island. And then if you wish to expand the program to the Source Zones, obviously the breeding program will need to be extended exponentially.’
‘You’ll find the funding implications for each option in the departmental brief we received yesterday.’ The Adviser reached over and tapped the Minister’s iPad to bring up the relevant screen.
‘No!’ whisper-shouted the Professor. ‘No artificial lights!’
The Minister tucked his device beneath his suit jacket. A faint glow escaped, bathing his face in cobalt blue. He felt angelic.
‘Please, if you could just lie down, I’ll release the prototype. They work much better when the subject is asleep.’
The Minister stretched himself on the firmer-looking of two banana lounges, smoothing his suit jacket to avoid wrinkling. The Professor handed him an eye mask and muttered a few presumably soothing words. Shortly after, the Minister found himself thinking about whether his car would always be a watermelon and how he would balance it during Mass and realised that at some point he had fallen asleep.
His usual dreams began. The boats, the boats, the boats. The hordes, afloat; their guttural yowling, their babies’ abrasive cries. The smell of them, their odd religions, their refusal to form an orderly queue.
And then, from the blue, blue sky, a monster appeared: wheeling, churning the air, it swept down upon the boats and the boat-borne hordes with its scything talons, shredding the babies, its giant wings beating up waves which swamped the boats and sank them to the bottom of the blue, blue sea.
Just like that.
The monsters circled in the sky above him as he lay back on the warm, white sand: their giant spreading wings of scaled skin, their glinting razor teeth. On the back of each, in harness, a gleaming knight, silvered and brave, swooped his mount to defend Australia’s maritime dream borders.
The Minister tore off his mask and sat up. ‘That’s bloody great!’ he whispered, as loudly as he dared and as he did, his eyes, adjusted to the near darkness, saw a hand-sized bird flit by. Another followed. The Professor’s phone emitted a strange, high-pitched whoop and the birds flew back into the glass cage.
The Minister heaved himself to his feet and stared through the glass, squinting. The birds were perched, still, on thin, carved rails. Over the back, the wings, of every bird scrambled a tiny, pink creature, preening its mount, undoing its harness, calming it, feeding it.
‘Martin, have a look at this,’ the Minister whispered, and thumped the Adviser on the sole of his shoe. ‘Get up and have a look at this.’
The Adviser peered into the cage, saw the scrambling creatures that lived there. ‘What are they?’ he asked no-one in particular.
‘They’re birds, Martin, with tiny blokes on their backs; what do they look like?’
‘Like birds with tiny blokes on their backs.’
‘So,’ the Minister turned to the Professor, ‘give me the run down. What are we looking at here?’
She drew the shutter on the glass box closed. ‘Let them rest now,’ she said. ‘Do you want to sit?’ she gestured at the banana lounges, but the Minister and the Adviser preferred to stand. ‘These warrior birds, bred and trained here in our laboratory, are capable of entering the human dream. They patrol the borders of the dream world and expel undesirables, turning their dreams into nightmares.’
‘Who are the blokes on their backs?’ asked the Adviser.
‘Their handlers. We now have …’
The Adviser interrupted. ‘How did you make them so small?’
She ignored him and went on. ‘We now have a viable breeding stock of these birds…’
‘Was it genetic engineering?’ he butted in again.
‘Mate, probably best we don’t know,’ the Minister suggested.
‘What? Oh, yeah: plausible deniability.’
The Minister nodded. ‘Please, you were saying. You have a breeding stock?’
The Professor continued. ‘Correct, and we can release them in a widespread control program whenever the word is given.’
‘Control program, eh?’ repeated the Adviser. ‘We’re going to have to run this one by the Environment Minister, Minister.’
‘He’ll be right,’ the Minister reassured him. ‘So they’re ready to go?’
The Professor nodded.
‘And you were saying we can deploy them not just on the Island, but in the Source Zones as well?’
‘A deployment that widespread may take a little more time, but is definitely within our capabilities.’
‘You little beauty.’ The Minister planned to sleep well tonight.
With Australia’s dream borders patrolled by monsters, the Clients had no escape. They must live over and over, awake or asleep, in the interminable boredom of the Island’s tiny rooms and sweaty clothes and filthy toilets and mosquito hum. Whenever they tried to dream of anywhere different, the horrible birds swooped upon them, tearing at them until they woke screaming. It was safer to stay where they were. Today, tonight; today, tonight. No different.
The Client unfolded the voucher that had come to him in yesterday’s package from the Helpers, smoothed it between the palms of his hands. His monthly dream voucher, an Australian dream donated by a Citizen who would smuggle him over the border and for one night take his place. Take his place in a night of feet stuck to the toilet floor, of a bed which never smelled clean.
Tonight the Client slipped into sleep hidden deep in a generously donated Australian dream.
He was a pebble on a driveway, then a dragonfly hovering over a fish-pond; he was firmly held in two tight, soft hands, the carved wooden spoons which mixed dressing into potato salad.
He became braver. He was the staffie in its kennel, pulling at the chain which stopped him reaching a Glad-wrapped pack of kangaroo fillets perched by the barbecue. He stayed with the staffie for a while, enjoyed the tantalising smell and the thrilling risk of wanting something so forbidden so badly. Lying there, at the end of his tether, he watched two birds bickering in a nearby tree. A growl rose in his chest, but they were just birds, dreams of birds. Magpies, perhaps.
He was safe here.
He stretched out to the very edges of the dream: found a spot first go in the multi-level carpark at the mall; rode his bike in a suburban cul-de-sac until the streetlights came on. He saw a girl at the beach forget she’d untied her bikini top and roll onto her back unawares. He ate cheese.
The sky began to lighten and he felt the waking world pull at him, but the Client had already made up his mind. He would not go back to all that. Let them try.
In the grey-green morning Island light, word passed around that a Client wouldn’t wake. Someone was sent: a doctor, perhaps; more likely a guard. And somewhere else, oblivious to the bright City sunlight on her sleeping face, the Bureaucrat curled her toes away from the cockroaches, covered her ears to block the whine of mosquitoes, and wondered how much longer it was until dawn.