by Jen Michalski
DreamWorld smells like trees and flowers, popcorn and French Fries. Parts of it, like the bathrooms and stores, smell crisp, like magazine paper. Things you hardly see in Sunrise City. You can even see the sun at DreamWorld.
“It’s not real—it’s a projection,” Barry explains as you are quickly led into another tunnel system, one that branches underneath DreamWorld so that the Chosen don’t ever see you out of character. “My grandparents saw the real thing once. It didn’t look like that.”
“Like what?” you ask. The sun beaming down on DreamWorld is beautiful, the rays of green and purple and yellow light poking through ripples of cloud. Sometimes they dance in unison to the DreamWorld theme song, which goes something like a world of your imagination/a dream that’s real/a world of your creation/past and future is here.
“It didn’t have those colors. And it wasn’t curved like that.” He points to the horizon of DreamWorld, beyond the park’s twenty square mile radius, where the rays sharply bend downward at the end of the dome. In Sunrise City, the sky is always gray, with thick bands of fog that float through at random intervals.
You want to ask Barry other things, like about his costume, a blue jumpsuit with a patch on the left breast: NASA. You know he works in Back to the Future, which was billed “the past that will once be future again.” There are spaceships there, and depictions of the planned vacation colonies: Kepler 22b and 69c. You can ride in a ship and pretend to land at 69c, even swim in the ocean.
You will work in the dark. Literally, in a cave, in the Swashbucklers of Yore attraction at Old Continent. The Old Continent is the only world in which those like you, the Others, can work, and even then, only certain Others work there—those who look closest to the Chosen. You feel lucky to have been selected to work at the plum employment nerve of the greater Sunrise area are but sad that your brother Joey wasn’t, that he fears for his life most days, with the Banned roaming around, trying to breach the domes he spends his days repairing. The Banned occupy more than one million square miles of the land outside, some of it still vegetative and uncompromised, you’ve heard, and all they want to do is get back into hot, crowded little places where everyone fights each other for everything.
“I swear Freddie is one of the Banned now,” Joey said one night after work. “He went for a piss behind the Hover Jeeps and never came back.”
You’re grateful that Joey hasn’t wandered off the worksite and, with prolonged exposure to the environment without his ventilator, become Banned. And you’ll be happy at DreamWorld, you know it. Instead of keeping people out, you’ll be welcoming people in–like the 30,000 Chosen who visit DreamWorld every day. They fly in from cities in the north, where the domes are larger and nicer, the water filtered, the air plentiful, and everyone is free of disease. Still, life is hard even for the Chosen after the collapse, and they need distractions.
And here’s how, after two weeks of training, you distract them: you crouch behind a rock in the Swashbucklers of Yore exhibit, dressed like what has been described to you as a “pirate.” You had always thought pirates were people who worked on computers before you were born, the ones Joey said stole everyone’s money. You’ve never heard of these pirates, who live at sea and rob other ships. You’re never sure what’s history and what’s spectacle, whether the things Barry said happened when he was a kid really happened, like the usurping of the government by companies, the quarantine to Sunrise City for so many families, or the “Others,” and forced exodus of the Banned, those unable to work or who just weren’t liked for a number of reasons. In the history book sponsored by The Corporation, only one of which was available in your school, those families like yours, who were homeless, forced to barter and prostitute, were the victims of their own bad choices.
And you? You don’t remember making bad choices. You do remember clearly the day when DreamWorld came to Sunrise City. You were still in school, what passed as it. You remember the woman, a Chosen, in a navy-blue suit with the DreamWorld patch on her jacket, her swept-up red hair. She had so many teeth, uniformly white. She put her hand on your shoulder and called you lucky.
Simon is lucky, too. He’s the other half of your ride team. In exactly two minutes and thirty seconds the first boat will roll by full of DreamWorld guests¾and while Simon distracts them at the front of the boat, you will jump out from behind the rock and attempt to rob them.
“Ahoy, ‘tis this be the new crew?” You listen to Simon chew up his lines like dough. “Ye just in time, for we’re going to pull off the heist of the century! This is either brilliance, or insanity!”
You curl your feet around the footholds molded into the back of the boat and scramble up, a spider.
“Tis’ amazing how often those two traits coincide,” You bark on cue.
You say this so often over the course of first few months you feel like one of the animatronic pirates that are stationed around the scenery, chirping “a pirate’s life for me,” while smoking cigars and eating turkey legs, and dollars, the currency of the Old World, lying at their feet. Sometimes they freeze up and are removed, an identical pirate rotated into their place between rides. You wonder how many there are in the bowels of DreamWorld, waiting to be plugged into the machine.
“Shut up, keep your head down, and do your job—and you’ll continue to be lucky,” Simon says every day in the locker rooms as he removes his waterproof boots that have been made to look like they’re in tatters.
There are rumors that Simon’s family are Banned—a sister with muscular dystrophy, whatever that is. Others say it’s because Simon’s father was too “non-optical,” his skin a shade browner than Joey, who’s already on the borderline and has to work double hours every day to prove worthy of his Other status. The best thing, you know, is not to be noticed, to fade into the background like those glitchy pirates. To hope you never freeze up.
But you are so lucky! You have a purpose, a small currency transfer, protein shake credits at the canteen. You’re not stuck back in Sunrise City making contraband euphoria pills in your kitchen, selling them on the street, one misstep away from the black marshes.
One morning, you are excited to get to work. You’ve heard there is a pin for your one-year employment, a cupcake with real icing and sugar.
Instead, Arnaud is there, putting his things in Simon’s locker.
“Simon got promoted.” Arnaud rolls his eyes when he says this and makes air quotes with his fingers. “I hope all his dreams come true.”
Arnaud used to work the line at the front of Swashbucklers of Yore, keeping the Chosen entertained while they waited for the next boat. You’ve always steered clear of Arnaud in your time here because he stirs up shit. About how DreamWorld is the worst of the Corporation’s slavery because they made its employees think they aren’t slaves, that they were part of something important. That they belong.
“In memory of Simon,” Arnaud cocks his pirate hat forward and grins at you. “Let’s burn it all down.”
You don’t answer as you follow him out of the tunnel and into the cavernous attraction. It’s dark here, but not so dark you can’t see, like in the tunnels. You run the blade of your rubber knife over your palm. What does he mean, “in memory,” or “burn it all down?” Only Dinosaur Park uses fire, and it’s not even real. As the timer on your DreamWorld watch beeps, signaling thirty seconds, you slip into the lukewarm, sludgy water. Like Simon, Arnaud is the distraction, the fast-talking husker who keeps the audience captivated while you climb on the back of the boat. With his skin like honey, green eyes, and broad nose, you can see why Arnaud has been promoted to front-of-house marauder. Handsome enough to neuter any danger the ride-goers might feel as he passes a bag around the boat and demands everyone put their valuables in it.
You tread water, watching the boat amble up to your station. Everything is coordinated, down to the second; even the non-automated jobs at DreamWorld run with machine-like precision. When the boat passes a small boulder, triggering a blizzard of fog, Arnaud jumps out onto the boat and says his lines as you curl your feet around the footholds molded into the back up the boat and scramble up, a spider.
“Tis’ amazing how often those two traits coincide.” The words form on your lips like breaths.
When Arnaud grabs the young Chosen boy in the front, it’s not in the script. You’re supposed to walk through the boat, grabbing the Chosen’s currency holders, which will be returned to them by Celie as they exit the ride.
“If you want to see your comrade again, you will give my comrade all your currency and all your treasures, including your park cards,” Arnaud explains. He has the young Chosen in a headlock; not too tight, but tight enough. Those who have ridden before each other nervous glances—have they changed up the ride? The newcomers chuckle a little, willing to play along. There are two people who take risks, you’ve learned—those with nothing to lose and those with everything to lose but who don’t know it.
“What are you doing?” You murmur to Arnaud as you drop all the valuables into a burlap bag at the front of the boat.
“Getting the hell out of here,” he mumbles back as the timer signaling you to get off the boat beeps. “Let’s go.”
Three minutes separate each boat. In that time, Arnaud usually goes down the tunnel toward the exit with the bag and drops it off to Celie, and you get back in the water. But now you are both in the exit tunnel with the boy.
“It’s okay, buddy.” Arnaud squeezes his shoulder and winks. “It’s all part of the act.”
“Where are you?” Celie’s voice chirps out of the connect-mic looped around Arnaud’s ear. “We’re more than thirty seconds off.
“We’ve got a Chosen,” Arnaud says. “We ain’t giving him back unless we get access to the marshes.”
“Think this through,” you say carefully to Arnaud. You hear the sound of the doors being locked on either end of tunnel, sealing you off from Celie and from the boat dock. Every inch of the park is tracked by surveillance cameras, and if they’re looking at the three of you right now, they will note the sweat glistening on Arnaud’s face, his eyes flitting back and forth as he decides which camera to address.
Arnaud is one of those who think they have nothing to lose. But you do. It’s not much—your brother Joey, your shared one-bedroom sleeper in Sunrise City, your free annual physical, which is less about your health than whether you have developed lung or throat or skin cancer and are therefore will be Banned—but it’s not the black marshes.
“We want a boat in quadrant E, second tunnel,” Arnaud says to the camera above and to his right. “And passage to the marshes. When we reach the marshes, you get the kid. And if we don’t get the boat in ten minutes, he’s dead.”
“We’ll die in the marshes,” you argue, feeling for the rope holding up your pants. If the extreme temperatures and toxins in the marshes don’t get you, being Banned will. It was in the hologram the Corporation played for you at school—how the cities were protected with domes and recirculating air and water systems. How the corporation protected you, even if the dome in which you lived was overcrowded, the air purifiers operating at half capacity, the food flown in from other cities sometimes soiled. And the people who visited DreamWorld, the Chosen, you were never told where they lived. Probably, you think, so you can’t get to them.
“It’s all fake.” Arnaud rolls his eyes at you. “Bullshit they feed you to keep you here.”
“My brother works in the black marshes,” you say. “It’s not bullshit.”
“Homeland Forces dress up like the Banned and harass the maintenance workers,” he speaks slowly, as if you’re a child. “There’s nothing out there, except lots of land for the taking. The marshes aren’t real. Just like DreamWorld.”
Your world is real, you think, you and Joey splitting your weekly egg, two loaves of bread, the protein pudding (although you never touch the strawberry flavor). It’s the only world you care about. That you know.
And you can’t let Arnaud take it from you. While he stares into the camera, pointing to his watch face, you slip the rope from your pants and take a step toward Arnaud.
“We should tie him up,” you explain, holding up the rope and nodding at the boy. “For safety.”
“Now you’re making some sense.” He shoves the boy toward you, whose usually creamy face is now pink and tear-stained; his lip trembles as he looks at up you, slowly cognizant of something wrong but lacking in the imagination of the desperate to conceive fully the dangers.
“I want my mommy,” he says to you, his lips curling downward, his expression sharp. It’s more a demand than a plea, and you almost want Arnaud to snap the little runt’s neck if the doors don’t open and the boat doesn’t show up. But you know the only hope you have of seeing Joey again, of keeping your life simple and your head down, is to do this. You let the kid scurry toward the end of the tunnel nearest the boats. As he pounds on the door, crying, Arnaud brushes past you.
“What are you doing?” He yells, grabbing the boy from behind. “Don’t you know how to tie up a kid?”
As Arnaud drags him away from the door, his back toward you, you walk toward him, the rope loose in your hands. As you fling the rope around his neck and tighten it, the doors on either end of the tunnel slide open, and the gas canisters roll in. Sometimes, at the end of the day, Arnaud would share his cigarettes with you. Sometimes he would laugh at your jokes. For a brief moment you think you shouldn’t have tried to killed him, but like many of you, he’s probably already dead inside, anyway.
You are given a raise, a small one. Not only have you taken Arnaud’s place at the front of the boat, but, due to the “incident,” the attraction opens one hour earlier and closes one hour later each day to handle the increased traffic. Some guest hologrammed Arnaud’s hostage-taking on his personal device and it went viral. Now, thousands of Chosen flood the turnstiles at Swashbucklers each day, hoping to be kidnapped by you, to flirt with the possibility of danger, even as DreamWorld worked PR overtime to assure future park-goers that kidnapping incident was not real but instead an installment of “off-script” encounters designed to heighten the experience.
“Kidnap me!” A young girl pleads with you, pulling on your tunic. Some things are real in DreamWorld. For instance, you were forced to watch Arnaud’s execution. You all were, in your own locker room. The shot from the rifle was loud and the sound of it entered all of you at once, causing your hands to clutch your chests. Only when you moved yours away, there wasn’t blood on your palm, blood seeping into your shirt, your breaths heaving and gurgling, like Arnaud’s, before they stopped.
And although you got that raise, a small one swallowed by your increased hours, everyone else got a pay cut because of Arnaud’s insubordination. They can’t blame Arnaud, because he’s dead, so they blame you. They cannot hate DreamWorld or the Corporation any more than you can. They have brothers, too, and sisters and children they don’t want sent to the marshes. Instead, they avoid your eyes when you come in the mornings and leave in the evenings. Even Barry has stopped talking to you.
“I’m sure it was Freddie,” Joey says when you question him about the Banned who roam the marshes. You have been thinking about things, about how when you, Arnaud, and the young boy were secreted from the exhibit via tunnel 3, new pirates were probably already in your places, doing improv with the audience, assuring them that all was going to plan. About how you don’t matter.
“But what if they paid him to look like he was Banned, to scare people from trying to escape into the marshes?” You question.
“I think you’ve spent too long in the water at DreamWorld.” He shakes his head. “Next thing you’ll tell me it’s okay to work without my respirator.”
You laugh when he says it. You know what’s real and what isn’t. Don’t you? At night you lie awake and think about Arnaud on the ground inside the locker room at DreamWorld, the pool of blood that grew slowly around him, darkening the floor like an eclipse. You try not to cry; you’ve heard from the others that it causes cancer.
“Better him dead than both of you,” Barry had said at the time. He had a roll of paper towels and helped you mop up the floor after Arnaud was removed. You had wanted to ask Barry about Simon, whether he’d been banned, but you had to work fast before lunch was over.
“Take me!” The little girl is pleading with you now, your tunic slipping off your shoulder in her grasp.
“Come on—make her day,” her father nudges you with his foot from where he sits in the first row of the fabricated boat. The park has allocated an additional two minutes and thirty seconds to your attraction to account for the new kidnapping and ransom scene. You kidnap six children an hour, ten hours a day. You are trapped here, selling DreamWorld’s fiction sixty times per shift because of your Other status.
Out there, in the marshes, you could be anything.
You smile at the girl and pick her. Instead of stepping onto the dock, you dive into the water with her and swim under the boat, looking for the opening of tunnel 1. It doesn’t go outside the park, and the door isn’t even open, but it’s submerged under the water and will be hard for the others on the boat, if they decide to come after you, to find. They’ll think, for the first few minutes, it’s only part of the act, a new twist. By the time they realize you’re not coming back, by the time your lifeless bodies float up to the surface, it’ll be too late. You clamp the girl’s head under your armpit and grab onto the handle of the underwater door of the tunnel, keeping you both anchored, watching bubbles from your mouths whirl and snake to the surface. Although it’s too late for Joey, you think about Arnaud, Simon, his sister and father, out in those marshes, waiting. When you come to meet them, when you see their beautiful green eyes, their glowing skin, and they’ll look like angels.
And you know they’ll forgive you. It was just part of the act, Arnaud will grin, and you’ll smile, because it’ll be the truth.
Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and two collections of fiction (From Here; and Close Encounters). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. She’s been named as “One of 50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the editor and founder of the literary journal jmww.