They are not human, they are fairly certain of that. But as humans do, they sometimes dream, or think they dream. And that frightens some of them.
Silver and Ruby are the ones who like to talk about it. Steel is the one who shuts them down. Lead will sometimes laugh and attempt to make peace between the three. Sometimes he looks to Sapphire for help. Most often, she refrains from taking any part in it. Lead will shrug and turn away. Sometimes Sapphire thinks she feels a little guilty about that. She would prefer not to feel that way, and so she usually leaves, possibly to seek Jet or Copper, possibly to go wherever it is she goes to be away from the rest of them.
When I close my eyes, Ruby says — she always starts the conversation this way — I see things that I did in the past. I’m sure they are memories. And aren’t memories of the past dreams? Isn’t that what the humans dream about?
Not necessarily, Silver will say — he often follows up on Ruby’s opening gambit — sometimes they dream about the future.
Ruby generally sniffs. That makes no sense, she will say. How can you have things in your head that haven’t happened? I mean, yes, when one is awake, that makes sense, because that’s how one can plan for the future. But when one is asleep?
It appears to be the way humans are, Silver will almost always respond. Consider it the way that they walk through Time ahead of their own physical selves. It needn’t be the way you do it. If you choose only to dream about things in your past, I am sure there are no rules against it. Then he smiles sympathetically.
This is when Steel generally steps in. There’s no reason to be talking about this. It’s useless speculation. We have better things to talk about. Ruby, you aren’t dreaming. We don’t dream.
Those around Steel rarely gainsay him. It’s too much trouble, Silver will say. It’s water dashing off a rock, Sapphire will murmur. Copper may start to argue with Steel, but Jet or someone else will generally shake their head very slightly at Copper, who will unwillingly subside. Lead will shake his head much more emphatically and say Steel, my friend, what will you say some day, the day you’re proved wrong? What about that day, eh? Steel won’t respond with anything but a deepening frown. Ruby will roll her eyes, then she will leave, but not before saying rebelliously I do so dream.
There is usually something in Silver’s eyes just about the time that Ruby leaves and everyone stops talking, Sapphire thinks; something at odds with his usual cool demeanor, something worried. He will eventually drift off in that manner of his. She never does ask him, upon his eventual returns, whether he ever follows Ruby to talk to her more about dreams.
Steel, now; Steel, having silenced or chased everyone away, will sit silent himself, or stand brooding, looking off to somewhere only he can see. Eventually the cycle ends when everyone receives new Assignments. Everyone scatters, and there is no telling when they will all be together again.
Still, Sapphire is certain that the discussion will reoccur. Ruby, like Silver, worries at ideas, like a dog worries at a bone. She observes humanity and believes she should have what humanity has. Silver, meanwhile, wants to understand what humans have, without necessarily wanting it for himself. They are both, in their own ways, quite as relentless as Steel.
It’s Steel about whom Sapphire is truly concerned, however. As didactic, occasionally humorless and often dictatorial as he is, the way he responds to talk of dreams goes well beyond his normal manner.
The answer is so simple, and Sapphire doesn’t like to dwell on it, although she is aware that she will have to.
The truth of the matter, Sapphire thinks after these incidents (usually as she walks through the dark that humans don’t know about to where she wants to be) is that the argument represents a difference in hearts. And hearts are a difficult matter for Elements.
Ruby longs to dream. Silver is curious. Lead worries, mostly about everyone but himself. The others … well, Sapphire is less certain of them, and doesn’t really care what they might think.
Steel? Steel is afraid. And that makes her unhappy.
She has seen him in the grip of fear before, as he has seen her in its grip, so she knows. For instance, she knows he does not like visions, no matter how many times during Assignments they have had to deal with them. And there it is, she thinks; there is the connection. Visions are simply dreams in present tense, and Sapphire can connect the dots.
There comes a time, eventually — it was always going to come — when, after one of the repeated cycles of talk and dismissal, Sapphire does not drift away. Instead, she waits until all the others have done so, faded out and headed away to Assignments.
Silver is the last to go, and his eyes flick from her to Steel and back. He is very worried, but he simply smiles. I’m sure you’ll let me know about it all when you think it’s the right time, he says, even more opaque than usual. Sapphire nods, but doesn’t smile. Steel simply eyes Silver until the latter puts up both hands, as if to ward Steel off. I’m not to blame, Steel, he finally says, then turns and leaves.
Steel, she says, commanding his attention very gently.
What, he snaps. He is all surface irritation, but he doesn’t meet her eyes.
Tell me what you are thinking when the others talk about dreams, she urges him.
Nothing. I simply don’t have time for trivial conversation, he responds.
She lays a hand on his arm. Just that, but his eyes are drawn to hers, and once they connect, he can’t escape. If the others saw her now, they might think she was smiling; they would be wrong. She waits.
Finally, Steel breathes out. Finally, finally, he looks her in the eyes. I see us, he tells her. The two of us. We’re in a motorway cafe, a petrol station cafe. There are Transients —
She is now the one to hold her breath. Transients? This is a very bad dream. She thinks further, then asks him where is Silver? Is he in the dream? Steel shrugs, but nods at her question. Sometimes he’s there, and sometimes he’s not, Steel says. Sometimes he is trying to help us, and sometimes he is not. Or perhaps he cannot.
But we cannot leave the cafe, Steel continues heavily. We are there, floating on a sea of stars, and that is where we will always be.
No wonder he discourages talk of dreaming, Sapphire thinks, trying to remain calm. She has difficulty with that, especially after looking into his eyes and listening to what he tells her. No wonder he is afraid. What he says resonates with her, and something inside her shrinks, trying to find a safe place to hide. But she can’t go to that place. She must stay with Steel, and try to rebalance him. She wishes Silver had not left.
Then she thinks back to to the earlier cycles, the arguments where Ruby whispers mutinously that she does dream. She thinks about Copper, how Copper has to be restrained from arguing with Steel about dreams. She thinks about Lead who challenges Steel, and about Silver, who won’t stop bringing dreams up, over and over again. All of them, she thinks; they are all unwilling to pretend that something doesn’t exist when they know it exists.
She ponders and eventually decides; I shall emulate them. In fact, I shall outdo them, in order to deal with Steel and his fear.
She says all that to herself. This is what she says to Steel. She says, I believe your dream.
Just as his face goes grey — of course it would, Sapphire thinks, because he undoubtedly wants her to dismiss his dream in the same manner he dismisses others, and she has refused to do that — she speaks again.
Because I believe in your dream, I am going to work very hard on dreaming myself. I imagine I can dream a dream in which we escape the cafe, and the Transients.
Steel’s eyes go wide, before he remembers himself. You’re a fool if you think you can do that. But his face is no longer grey.
Her own eyes become brighter and brighter, until they fairly blaze cobalt. Perhaps I am. If my being foolish is a problem —
He shakes his head slightly. No. It isn’t, he says. His face softens almost imperceptibly.
She smiles and bows her head. Then I shall continue to try.
They both turn at the sound of a discreet cough, and see Silver. His smile is extremely broad and it feels to Sapphire as if it is a true smile. Dreaming of escape, he says softly. Now that’s a dream to dream, to strengthen. I believe I shall join you, Sapphire. He glances at Steel, one eyebrow raised, and of course he is waiting for Steel’s approval.
Steel gives it.
Somewhere in a sea of stars, the walls of a motorway cafe grow very slightly thinner.