Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The monsters are just about to carve into my flesh when the fright-spasm finally wakes me. I struggle to breathe until panic releases my chest; gasping breaths hiss and thunder. The viewport is fogged with condensation and I’ve wet myself.

Just another ‘night’ in my TARP – Therapeutic Accelerated Rest Pod – and one of the reasons I’m thankful TARPs are never for communal use after you qualify. No more sharing the sack with the last sleeper’s leavings – or getting ragged for whatever you left behind. Plus, no need for Kevlar pillows and ballistic nylon sacks as TARPs are cased in the same armour they use on main battle tanks.

I flush the ‘iffy-whiffy’ – gas and air mix – that the TARP uses, then peel myself from the pad as the lid rises.

“Mmmm. You’re ripe. Happened again?”

“What can I say, Doc? Dreams of you are hard on a man.”

My partner-in-banter winces. Doctor Maera Hughes, inventor of the TARP, stands next to mine. With a face too angular to be called pretty, she’s never seen in a labcoat, only immaculately-tailored pantsuits. Under which is a tall, slim body that must spend hours in a gym – she held me down single-handedly when I had a panic attack during early TARP acclimatisation. Stopped me hurting a lot of people that day. When I asked why she was even there, she replied: “No matter how high you go, you should still do menial duties.” That’s why she serves as a TARP nurse: ensuring the sleeper wakes. I’m flattered that she attends my wakings more than anyone else’s.

“Nice, Ian. I’m honoured. Now excuse me while I go bleach that image from my mind.”

We both laugh and just like that, I’m back. Ready to fight for truth, justice and whoever’s paying enough to decide what those two are today. With a grin, I head for the showers.

TARPs have revolutionised the world. People have natural sleep cycles that vary between four and ten hours. In a TARP, they all become three hours thirty minutes. It’s a night’s sleep, but you get it in the span of a polite party. The military were early adopters and remain the biggest users. TARPs aren’t cheap. Aside from the ultra-rich, there are TARP lounges in many corporate headquarters these days, usually next to the gym and restaurant, so dedicated staff don’t have to go home until the end of a project, if at all. TARPs are unheard of in non-urbanised zones: they call it ‘sleep farming’ out in the sticks.

“Captain Drachin.”

I swear my boss just magically appears. I never see or hear her coming.

“Director Baktak.”

“Got a hot one. Local insurgents running a pocket media outlet, claiming the TARPs are dream-stealing devices for alien overlords.”

“What makes their loon channel so special?”

“The data. Maera has verified some of the videos they screened. Got to have deep hooks into our side to access those sorts of goodies. We need to seize everything they have for analysis.”

“You realise that means there will be no time for niceties?”

“Captain Drachin, your command will be on Hot Zone Two rates from the moment you lift.”

That’s triple pay with a per-kill bounty. Bad luck, loons. Truth and justice just decided you lie.

I wave to Maera as I head off to muster my team: “See you later, Doc. Keep it warm for me.”

Maera runs a dark tongue across pale lips and smiles as her favourite snack disappears from view. Aliens? She and her sisters have been here for longer than these pestilential humans.