"You can't brew coffee with coconut milk," I said to James when he woke me up. "The doctor told me. It's gross."
The doctor was back at the beginning, but the dream jumped around so much I couldn't remember what came before each other.
Post-apocalyptic future. Large swathes of urban landscape destroyed by some disaster, whether act of man or God lost to memory. Rural scapes were the domain of mutated beasts and random packs of synthers, when the migrating bug bit them.
Synthers were marauding gangs who rampaged through each remaining city for a while until boredom or wanderlust hit them and they moved on. Through some underground mod process they'd been almost entirely replaced with synthetic prostheses of all kinds. So while they still looked barbarically human, they were strong, near-indestructible, and ran entirely on ethanol and sadism.
Something had happened in the Disaster, whatever it was, that had thrown spacetime out of joint, and some parts of the earth were slow to recover. There were pockets of geography that were out of sync with the rest of the world: slower, faster, sometimes an entirely different time period, sometimes one that had never existed in our history at all. Many were stable, and monitored by whatever local government ran the area in which they appeared, to help guide travelers through safely and to harvest any resources that could be gleaned from a pre-Disaster time skip. Others were wild, fluctuating, or utterly uncharted, and people who went in rarely came out. These were barricaded off and only used by the desperate, for whom a risk of death was better than whatever or whoever was chasing them at the time.
The doctor was apologizing to me when I came to. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Your leg got earthed, there was nothing I could do, I had to kill it." I winced. Sometimes people would get earthed, where their personal bio-field would get confused while in a time pocket and believe they belonged there, and they couldn't pass back out of the bubble into reality, but simply pass through into the full world whenever, or wherever, they had phased. For some, caught in the resource-rich pre-Disaster past, this could be seen as a blessing. For others, attempting to explore hostile alter-futures, life became brutal and short. More rarely, the bio-field would partially fragment, and only a portion of the body would become un-phased. Those poor bastards ended up lurching through life like stroke victims, dragging around parts of them whose nerve receptors were 500 years ago in a country that never existed. Excuse me, US poor bastards.
I hauled myself up on my elbows and looked down. My leg was still there, although I couldn't feel it. But it looked too solid to be un-phased. The doctor explained that since a 'phased leg couldn't hold weight (by being unable to contact the ground), he'd had to wrap it in a synthlimb for my own survival, the ability to run being a key trait of that these days. Unfortunately synthetics couldn't phase, so by encasing it he'd cut off biosignals between my phased real leg and the rest of my body, and it was essentially dead. I didn't believe they'd ever figure out how to cure earthing, so this revelation didn't bother me nearly as much as it did the doctor. The synthlimb could respond the same as my old leg, could feel pressure and temperature, and even pain, I discovered as a nurse unexpectedly jammed a horse syringe into where the bone used to be to draw off excess fluid. I snarled through my teeth at her as I gripped the sides of the examination table. She turned away, unblinking.
The four of us had snuck into the 'synthers lair while they were out carousing, raping, yadda yadda. We loaded up on as many weapons as we could carry and began smashing the stockpiles of alcohol they used for fuel. A hideous waste, I felt, but in these times we could no longer afford the luxury of incapacitation, even temporarily. There was only one case left when we heard the whooping outside. We cocked our weapons then realized it wasn't getting any closer. Peering out the door, we saw the tribe gathered in a circle on a spur of destroyed overpass a few dozen yards away, across a destroyed and insurmountable stretch of land. They were grouped too thickly to see what was in the center of the ring, but it was squealing in agony while they laughed and cheered. I grabbed one of the remaining bottles in fury, tore off a strip of my shirt and stuffed it in the neck, lit the hasty Molotov and hurled it overhand at the gang. It thunked solidly between the shoulderblades of one of the synthers, then fell to the sandy ground unbroken and still guttering. He looked down at it, then farther down, and grinned.
I followed his gaze and wanted to scream in rage. In the shadow underneath the fragmented overpass, the gang had built a topless cage out of rusted sections of chain-link fence and scavenged razor wire. Inside I saw a woman's headless torso beginning to rot. Crouched over it, weeping, was a second naked woman whose legs had been hewn off near the hips and roughly cauterized. The synth tipped a wink at me as he kicked my Molotov down into the cage. I turned away from the sounds of shattering and screaming, shaking with fury and revulsion at their cruelty, my weakness, my failure and what it had cost.
We were waiting in line for the city checkpoint to pass through a 'phased zone. The other three used their citizen chits, but I had to sneak in under a different identity, and I couldn't remember why, only how.
"Asylum," I told the guard. Non-citizens were rarely allowed into a city, since they might be synther scouts, diseased, or something not even human. Only ex-synthers looking to go citizen were allowed asylum, because their enhanced strength bolstered the city's resources, and they usually had inside information on the pack movements. And there was a price to pay.
"YOU were part of a tribe?" He sneered and spat. "Don't think we need any synth-whores 'round here, thanks same." I raised an eyebrow at him and began to slide his hand up the wide leg of my trousers. He began to grin, anticipating a bribe of sex, then froze as his hand encountered the unmistakable clammy plastic feel of the synthskin leg.
"Trained as a runner, deskjockey. Scout AND messenger, fastest in the tri-state, so if your boss ain't interested in THAT..." But he had already yanked his hand back and was wiping it on his shirt. He jerked his thumb at the wall behind him.
"G'wan then, pick." The price. Ex-synthers were prized for their strength and knowledge, true. Prized, but never trusted. To gain asylum one had to mark oneself permanently to warn the rest of the citizens what kind of person they were potentially dealing with, buying from, befriending. A literal brand. The one concession most cities gave was a few different patterns to choose from, to give a drop of decoration to the disfigurement. Most of the patterns on this wall were squat, harsh, primitive things: a marriage of gang scrawl and caveman drawing. I wasn't surprised, most synthers who had enough freedom to escape were men, and these were the kind of symbols that would appeal to the kind of man who joined the tribes in the first place. Most women were captured as spoils of war, or driven to desperation by starvation or threat. They usually became sex slaves, or in the worst cases used as meat when rations ran low for those not yet fully converted. The guard's skepticism of me was totally understandable. One design caught the corner of my eye: it seemed to be an old letter, but so covered in embellishment it became an alphabetical Gordian Knot.
"That one." The guard chuckled in an unfriendly way.
"That's the Flourished Riddle, girly. I'm afraid you have to earn that one." I nodded. "A riddle for a Riddle, then. Stump me or stump off." He chuckled at his own wit.
I thought for a moment, then pulled my shirt off over my head. As his eyes started to widen I turned my back to him, showing him the ring of tattooed symbols from neck to waist.
"There you are. What's it mean?" After a few seconds of silence, I turned to face his stunned stare.
"Give up?" He nodded mutely. "Good. It's me."
The guard thought for a moment, then grunted and lifted a glowing iron from the brazier against the back wall.
"Turn back 'round," he muttered. "I got a bullseye to hit."
More later as I remember.