Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Mister Dawn, How Can You Be So Cruel?

I only met Mr. Compton once, but he was easy: fifty years old, twice divorced, thin black hair with gray roots, expensive off-the-rack suit, office shoes with rubber soles, an expensive gold watch on one wrist and an expensive smartwatch on the other, sunglasses inside, a smile on the outside. He told me that he loved “hot jazz.” He told me that he had never truly been in love. He told me that his favorite film was Breathless. These were all lies, but lies are much more revealing than the truth. Truth is molded by the real; lies are shaped like our souls. So I could see Mr. Compton very clearly, read him as if he were a Commedia dell’Arte character. Behold, the Compton, an American variant of the Pierrot, first popularized in New York City. He is identified by his ill-fitting dress and clumsy manner. He seeks to take up as much space on the stage as possible, but is filled with profound loneliness when he has done so. Although wealthy and ostensibly high class, his status amongst the other characters is low unless they seek his favor for plot purposes. He is fond of speaking, but says very little of substance. He quickly falls in love with any female character who shows him affection, but his love is never requited, for he seeks, in all things, to possess rather than to feel; this is very funny.

I was working on his weekly dream package. He wanted to be a spy. Not a spy for any particular organization or cause, just “a spy,” a pastiche of a pastiche, a memory of a memory of a bunch of bad movies and stale paperbacks. His “spying” largely consisted of sleeping with beautiful women and shooting guns at faceless bad guys, broken up by car chases, boat chases, and/or ski chases. It was my job to arrange these elements and season them with detail and context (exotic locales, convoluted plots, various sizes and shapes of tit), such that they seemed new and different and exciting and dangerous and sexy and wild and wonderful.

I was good at it, but the work was spiteful. I had been Mr. Compton’s dream concierge for months, and he always wanted the same thing. Worse, I had a dozen other clients who wanted variations on the same basic idea, only with cowboys or samurai or cops or explorers. Even the unique clients were mired in cliché and kitsch: the childless banker who dreamed of a large family, the local politician who lived through a different romance novel each night, the real estate broker who would never graduate from magic high school. It was offensive to me. Augmented dreaming was the most sophisticated form of media ever devised, but most people just wanted to live out popcorn fantasies and sentimental wishes.

“Hey Marianne,” I said, as I worked on another tedious scene.

A moment passed, and Marianne’s head popped up over the divider between our two cubicles. We were never friends, exactly, as we did not particularly like one another, but we were accustomed to speaking candidly, as we were of similar ages and the only two women in our department.

“Yeah?” she says.

“How many abs is too many?”

“Six is fine. Eight if you really want to go for it, I guess.”

“What if I put twenty on this guy? Or fifty? Or 100? Say he’s just gotten finished with a gunfight. He tears the bottom of his shirt to make a crude bandage, revealing his abs to the sexy enemy agent. But when he looks at them, he sees nothing but abs, forever abs that go down miles and miles into the abyss, and flexing and unflexing like a muscle machine. What if I did that?”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Why are you asking me this, Esther? Don’t do that.”

“I’m not going to do it. I’m just wondering if I could? I mean, could the system handle it? Could we figure something out?”

She sighed again and sank back below the divider. “Forget it, Esther. It’s DreamSplash.”

I thought about it for a long time. Rex, our boss, would’ve been mad if Mr. Compton reported it to him, but he wouldn’t fire me. I was good at my job, and people weren’t exactly lining up to work in augmented dreaming in those days. Most had written it off as a boondoggle for the rich, an interesting but useless novelty that would soon go the way of Segways and Laserdiscs. I could probably paint outside the lines without any real consequences, besides having to redo it later. I figured we could figure out how to make it work in our system, though it would require a lot of tweaks to ensure that Mr. Compton didn’t wake up. It would take a lot of time, but the tweaks were what I liked. They were why I got into the business in the first place. Figuring out how to map out impossible structures and abstract sensations, harnessing the infinite possibility of dreams. It would’ve been beautiful.

But I thought of Mr. Compton. He didn’t sign up for the weird stuff. I loathed him, or the idea of him, and thought him the purest example of the bourgeois doofuses I was forced to service, but consent is consent. One cannot simply shove a soul into a hollow vessel, no matter how much one judges the vessel to need it.

So in the end I did not give the dream-Compton infinity abs. I gave him the correct number of abs and eyes and toes and ears and smiles. He was handsome, I guess. Certainly more than he was in life, but in a way that was flattering to his real appearance. That was my job in a nutshell, to flatter the real world. Or perhaps to flatten it. Whatever. Like I said, the work was spiteful.

• • • •

This was my favorite dream. I made it myself. I am in a park from my childhood, sitting on the edge of the beautiful fountain and looking into the water, assiduously sketching and re-sketching the contours of my trembling reflection on a page in a notebook. The world beyond the fountain is too much, too intense, an overwhelming rush of sensation and association, too bright, too hot, too heavy. I draw without looking at the paper or lifting my pen, allowing my hand to mimic the motion of my eye along the surface of the water. In tracing and retracing and retracing and retracing an image of myself which is too impossibly protean to capture, I seek to lose my ego in velvety quixotism, make myself into a living koan, and without realizing, I have become my reflection, and I look up at myself, still sitting at the fountain as I sink down, being slowly sucked down the drain, and I feel myself beginning to stretch deliciously, but the strangeness of the sensation was too much, and I snapped awake.

I sat up and wiped the water from my eyes. I was in my bathtub, which I had fashioned into a crude AD pod with spare parts I stole from work. I had made that dream for my senior thesis. It had only been a couple of years, but already I had changed enough that I couldn’t fully sync with my dream self, and I would wake up as it got more abstract. I hadn’t even gotten to the good part this time. I was supposed to go down the drain and emerge as a fish in the ocean, where I would swim and frolic, then I would see a shadow of a bird on the water above me, and I would become the shadow and then the bird, and I would fly and fly, first over the Earth and then into space and finally into the sun, end of dream. I wondered how long it would be until I couldn’t sync with it at all. It was maddeningly paradoxical; in a dream you can be anyone, do anything, but you always feel like yourself. Mess with that, and the dream fell apart. Soon, my favorite dream, my most beautiful creation, would be gone forever, and no one would ever be able to appreciate it again.

Whatever. It was my favorite, but it was not my ideal as an artist. It was interesting but still conventional, just a reworking of common fantasies and mythological themes. I wanted to move past that into purely abstract, anti-humanist perspectives. I wanted to be a color, or a shape, or a feeling. I wanted to become a triangle, experience the world of a triangle, feel what a triangle feels. That was my dream.

I did not leave the bathtub. The cool water was deeply relaxing, and I realized that I had no real reason to get out of the tub at all, nothing to do and no place to be. And so the hours melted like butter on the tongue. I was still there when my phone began to ring. The sound was so faint at first I couldn’t tell if I was actually hearing the phone or if I was imagining it, that way that sometimes you imagine sounds so vividly they suddenly seem to become faintly audible, like the memory echoes off the imagination and rattles the inner ear somehow (sounds only exist in your mind anyway; the question is whether they are prompted by the action of atoms in the air or of electrons in the meat). But even when I felt confident that yes, the phone was ringing, I did not move. I did not care. I was in the bathtub.

The phone stopped ringing and rang again, and stopped ringing and rang again. I did nothing. At first, this willful disinterest was pleasurable, and I imagined myself as the sort of person who blithely, even joyously, ignored the thoughts and feelings of others. The sensation of power, however petty, along with the comfort of my repose, was narcotic. And I thought to myself, half-joking, this is the only thing that has ever made me happy, and I did not know if this statement was true or not; my chest felt cold, and my eyes began to water, and I felt as if I had, suddenly and without warning, stumbled on a second, secret Esther within me, and, having tugged on this thread, I could not stop from myself unraveling, and the Ester that I knew, the Esther that I was, suddenly seemed to be just a character in a fairy tale I told myself to go to sleep every night.

I decided I had bathed too deeply, washed away too much. The shadow of death lurks when we lose vigilance; et in Arcadia ego. And so I removed myself from the bathtub, and I finally answered my fucking phone.

“Hello,” I said.

“Is this Esther Williams?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Montgomery Ellis. I’m calling about an employment opportunity.”

“You could’ve left a message.”

“We’re excited to talk to you, Esther. We’ve heard great things.”

“From who?”

“That information is sensitive. We’d love to speak with you in person and explain.”

“And who is we?”

He laughed. “Our company is called Dreamr, and we’re going to break everything you know about dreams into a million little pieces.”

• • • •

The Dreamr Facility was nothing like DreamSplash. DreamSplash occupied a couple of floors in an ordinary downtown office building and was furnished like any office might be. Dreamr felt like a colony on Mars or mad scientist’s undersea base. Everything was clean and new and plastic and smooth, soft blue or pure white, and perfectly lit. I had seen attempts at a similar aesthetic plenty of times, “hip” offices and fancy computer stores, but I had never seen it fully realized like this.

Montgomery was giving me a tour, and I guess my interest in the design was visible. “Think of it as blank canvas,” he said. “You can make anything you want a reality here. Imagination and creativity are the only things that matter. Context is a relic of the past.”

I nodded. I read somewhere there’s a sensation of otherworldliness that theme parks and casinos attempt to cultivate to distance customers from reality, particularly the reality of human money. Dreamr had that vibe in spades, which made a lot of sense for a company that dealt in fantasy.

We walked down a long hall lined with identical computer consoles. Montgomery said they were for “a project in development,” but didn’t elaborate. Montgomery was interesting. He was tall, very handsome, and he spoke in an imperious mid-Atlantic accent, like a villain in a movie from the forties. But his manner was relaxed and open, and he wore jeans and a concert t-shirt, and he had a long, scruffy blond beard. There was something off about him, something I couldn’t quite read, and I found that appealing, like when you listen to people speaking a foreign language just for the music of it.

He was pretty much locked into the corporate spiel, going on about how great it was to work there and how they were going to shatter the industry with new innovations without ever saying what exactly it was they were doing. I just nodded along, half paying attention. I figured Dreamr was just a bigger, better version of DreamSplash. Someone with deep pockets probably thought they could muscle their way in, eat up all the market share, then get out before the bubble finally burst. I’d keep doing my old job with better pay, maybe a fancier title, maybe for even richer doofuses, millionaires or even billionaires. I wondered what kind of things that people who own their own planes dream about. What do you dream about when you can buy anything you want?

We stopped in front of a door. Montgomery opened it with a keycard. Inside was a desk, one of those consoles I had seen in the hall, a couple of AD pods with 2v helmets attached.

“This is where you’ll work,” he said.

“Wow,” I said. “It’s nice.”

“It’s all yours.”

“All? As in, the whole thing? Like, this is my office, just for me?”

“Office and laboratory, yes. Just for you, as head of the department.”

“Head of the department?”

“Yes, you’ll be head of the Content Research team. To be honest, it’s our smallest team. You’ll only have four or five people working under you at any given time.”

“I thought you just wanted me to be a dream concierge.”

He laughed. “Oh, that’s not our business model.”

“Then what is your business model? What exactly do you do here?”

He smiled almost hungrily, and I realized he had been waiting for me to ask this the entire time. “Our mission at Dreamr is simple. What’s the main problem with Augmented Dreaming right now? No one can afford it but the very wealthy. Even low-end AD pods cost upwards of $5000, and each unit can only play dreams specifically designed for a particular user. Companies like DreamSplash can produce them easily enough, but at high costs and often low quality. The market is small, and the novelty is wearing off. We’ve known how to create augmented dreams for ten years now, but the tech has barely advanced since Nagai and Ray. Our goal is to design an AD unit that is affordable for everyone and to offer dream content compatible with every user.”

“Is that possible?” I asked.

“That’s where you come in, Esther. We heard about your interest in . . . atypical dream content and our interest was piqued. We did a little poking around, and we were quite impressed, particularly with your work at university.”

“Thank you?”

“We want you for two reasons. First, we want to offer a wide slate of dream content. We anticipate users of rarified taste with aesthetic inclinations similar to yours, whom we think will appreciate your work. Second, we think your work is the key to unlocking a universal dream template. If you can create content wherein human beings can turn into water or math or windchimes or whatever else you can imagine without waking up, then we believe we can use that data to crack the sync problem.”

“Wow,” I said. “I’m not sure what to say. I feel like I’m supposed to ask questions about salary and benefits and how everything is going to work, but honestly I don’t really care. I just want to do this.”

“Then say yes, Esther. All you have to do is say yes. That’s how it works here at Dreamr. Just say yes.”

“Sure, yeah, yes. Just, can you tell me who told you about me? You keep mentioning it, and it’s very mysterious.”

“Marianne Jeffords. I believe you worked together at DreamSplash?”

“Oh cool. She’s here now, too?”

“Yes. I’m afraid you probably won’t see her too often. She’s working on a very exciting project in engineering. But I’ll be sure to sure to forward your thanks, if you’d like.”

“Oh yeah, sure, thanks.”

“Great. Let me just go and get some paperwork. I’ll leave you here to become acquainted with your new space.”

He shook my hand, and he left. I sat down at the desk, my desk, and leaned back in the chair. And I thought to myself, Now this, this is the only thing that has ever made me happy.

• • • •

“The amygdala readings are holding steady, Director Williams,” said Jerry.

“Blood pressure good, heartrate stable,” said Soo-ah.

“Rapid eye activation initiated,” said Arturo.

“Good. Everybody stay calm. We’ve got this,” I said.

Subject #89A was in the dream pod. All of us, my assistants and I, were gathered around, operating consoles and laptops hooked up to the pod. A few dormant sleepwalkers were standing in the corners, in case we needed help in an emergency. We had almost done it. We were so close. We were about to turn a man into a triangle.

“What are you seeing, Petra?” I asked.

Petra was hooked into the dream on the 2V. She could see what the subject saw, but could not feel it, hear it, taste it. “Mostly greyspace. A few wavy lines on the periphery.”

“Good. Let us know if that changes,” I said. “I’m initiating the Triangle Sequence.” I pressed a button on my computer, and Subject #89A began to dream that he was a triangle.

It had been five years since I had begun at Dreamr. My team and I had done so much. We had completely solved the problem of dream rejection. No matter what happened in the dream, subjects wouldn’t wake up unless we wanted them to. No matter what they felt, no matter how strange or uncomfortable or even painful the sensation was, they would remain in the dream. Of course, we would never purposefully make them feel pain. Never. But while it was easy to make sure that old-fashioned cinematic-style dreams were painless, it was not always clear when you got to the level of abstraction. Does it hurt to be a triangle? Or rather, is the sensation of being a triangle more analogous to human pain or human pleasure? There are a number of sensations that we experience all the time, even when asleep. The sensation of breathing, muscles moving, organs sloshing around. What happens when those sensations, which we all experience every moment between life and death, are suddenly gone? What is the psychic effect? How does the mind construct itself in an impossible scenario? We were not dealing in virtual reality, but in the manipulation of dreams. There was a human element that could be manipulated but never erased.

“Heartrate is starting to climb,” said Soo-ah.

“It’s fine,” I said. “He’s just surprised. What are you seeing, Petra?”

“Same as before. No change.”

“Uh, I’m getting some weird readings. I don’t even know what to make of this,” said Jerry.

“I think we should unplug him,” said Arturo.

“No,” I said. “He’s fine.”

The readings suggested that the patient was trying to reject the dream, but couldn’t. My hope was that he would move past this phase into acceptance, into triangleness. So far, all our subjects’ vitals had gone too far into the red, and we’d pulled them out before we got what we needed. I had high hopes for Subject #89A. He had tested high on our disassociation battery, and his favorite director was Andrzej Żuławski. He was perfect for this.

“Director Williams, I think we have to stop,” said Arturo.

“Petra?” I said.

“Sparkles. Like before you pass out. Stars. But all around.”

“Is he moving?” I asked.

“He’s having a panic attack,” said Soo-ah.

“These readings look like a plate of spaghetti,” said Jerry.

“I think he’s trying to run. Or fly,” said Petra. “Or something. I don’t really understand what I’m looking at. I think I need to sit down.”

At this point there were many sensors beeping and buzzers blaring and warning lights flashing. My assistants were talking over each other, cowardly and frightened, like little children caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Petra was on the floor, and Arturo was by her side: the damsel in distress and her white knight. Typical. I liked them all fine, but they lacked vision. We were after something important. I just waited. And waited. And waited.

“Director Williams!” screamed Arturo.

I sighed and pressed a button on my computer. No more triangle. Everyone calmed down, and we got Subject #89A out of the pod and gave him some apple juice. He did not speak. His eyes were wide, but empty, and he did not seem to know exactly where he was. I wondered if there might have been a time dilation effect. That would’ve been good data. If only.

I was tired. We had been through so many subjects, and none of them could take it, and my assistants didn’t have the nerve. I thought about firing Arturo, but it would’ve been pointless. What I needed was a subject who truly appreciated art, someone like me. I would’ve done it. I should’ve done it. But there were rules and protocols. Order had to be maintained. I hated that. I was never good at the practical aspects of business and management. I just wanted to make beautiful things, after all. Who can fault me?

The team left with Subject #89A, and I texted my assistant Sahad my lunch order. He arrived in my office a few minutes later. Or rather, the sleepwalker Sahad was piloting arrived a few minutes later. Sahad might be the best in the company at piloting sleepwalkers. You would have believed the sleepwalker was just an ordinary man wearing a strange helmet. He stumbled a bit, but stumblers exist in all walks of life. He placed my lunch, hamburger and fries, on my desk, and I said thank you without thinking. He was about to leave when I noticed a piece of paper sticking out from under the helmet. I reached out and grabbed it. There was a message:

Meet me on the roof at 3.

– M

• • • •

Marianne was waiting for me on the roof. She was alone, which was unusual. We hadn’t spoken in years, but I saw her around the campus frequently enough. She was always flanked by at least a couple of sleepwalkers. She had headed up the project that created them, and now she was in charge of ironing out the kinks: improving motor control and decreasing response time.

“Can I trust you?” she asked when she saw me.

“Maybe,” I said.

“I don’t think I can. But I don’t have any choice.”

“That’s fair,” I said.

“They’re trying to merge our projects,” she said. “It’s fucked.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Project Moirai and Project Westenra. They’re being combined.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

The sleepwalker system, Project Westenra, grew out of our early experiments. Figuring out how to keep people locked in dreams taught us a lot about manipulating the nervous system. We eventually figured out how to separate the ghost from the machine, how to make people into puppets. This dovetailed beautifully with the development of the AD headsets as low-cost replacements for AD pods. The headsets weren’t as effective at suppressing physical responses as the pods, but as long as the dreams were pleasant and the work wasn’t too strenuous, they stayed asleep. It was true that my work had been instrumental in developing the protocols for the sleepwalker architecture. But they were fundamentally different projects.

“I thought we were going to help people. Physical therapy. Athletic training. Mobility for chronic pain patients. Hell, just giving people something to do on the subway. Or a way to zone out while you’re washing the dishes. But now it’s all fucked.”

“What are you talking about?”

“They’re running out of money. They still don’t have a consumer grade unit, and the market is dead.”

“So?”

“They’re combining our work to make something really evil. They’re trying to get into the private prison business. It’s perfect. Their minds are tormented by your nightmares, while their bodies are hired out as cheap labor. They never wake up. Perfect.”

“I don’t make nightmares,” I said.

“Sure. Whatever,” she said.

“You have proof?”

She threw a manila folder at my feet. “Check it,” she said. “Your boyfriend wrote the proposal.”

I picked up the folder. “Paper?”

“No trail,” she said.

“This isn’t a spy movie,” I said. “We work at an office. Don’t be so dramatic. Send me an email.”

“Just read it,” she said.

I sighed. “Can I bum one?”

She gave me a cigarette and lit it with a lighter. We smoked together.

“We already treat them like slaves around here. That was never the plan.”

“At least we pay them,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that totally makes it cool to turn people into robots. Payment.”

• • • •

Montgomery was leading a yoga class in the free-energy zone. Half the attendees were employees. The rest were sleepwalkers. The employees got to relax and physically express the music of their souls. The sleepwalkers’ pilots got to practice. Win-win.

“Virabhadrasana Two,” he said. He lunged forward, extended his arms, directed his gaze over his right hand. His form was not perfect, but he exuded confidence. The crowd followed him. The sleepwalkers were better at it than the employees. Their movements were ungainly, but once they locked into the pose, they stuck there, motionless.

I waved from the other side of the room, and he smiled.

“Trikonasana,” he said. “Hold it.”

He didn’t do the pose. Instead, he walked over to me.

“What the fuck is going on?” I whispered, angrily.

He looked back for a moment, then at me, puzzled. “It’s a yoga class, Esther.”

“Not that, doofus,” I said, and I explained to him what I knew, what Marianne’s documents had revealed.

He sighed and put his arm around my shoulder. “Free stretch, everybody!” he yelled, as he walked me into the hall.

“I was going to tell you,” he said, when we were alone.

“When?”

“When the deals were in place. You have to understand, this is completely speculative right now.”

“But it’s going to happen?”

“Either we do this, or it’s over. We have no revenue right now. We’ve burned through so much money over the past few years. It’s a miracle we’ve been able to stay afloat this long. The tech is beautiful, but we’re still a few years out from launching. The AD helmets are still too expensive for mass production.”

“This is fucking unconscionable! I didn’t sign up for this to fucking torture prisoners.”

“Why did you sign up for this, Esther?” he asked.

“To make art,” I said.

“So you’re making art for prisoners. To help them rehabilitate. Same thing.”

“Not the same thing! You want to turn them into slaves, and you want me to torture them.”

“Rehabilitate them. What’s that thing you always say? The Tarkovsky quote. The purpose of art is to heat the soul or something?”

“The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

“Yes, exactly!”

“That has nothing to do with what you’re planning to do.”

“Doesn’t it, though? We can help these people turn their lives around. A little negative reinforcement does wonders. Your work is . . . challenging, my dear. Most people, given the option, will never choose it. But with this, your work will be experienced by thousands. Imagine what it could do for them.”

“That’s bullshit,” I say.

“If we don’t do this, Dreamr is done. That means no more lab, no more employees, no more strange and wonderful dreams. You’re back where I found you, photocopying James Bond films for rich idiots. We’re doing this regardless. Either you participate, or you lose everything.”

He walked away without saying anything else.

• • • •

The next day, I became a triangle.

• • • •

Marianne made a scene as she was taken away. She screamed and cursed, threw things on the ground. Said she was going to the press. Said she would ruin us. Cried a little, I think. It was sad. Marianne and I were never friends, but we were accustomed to speaking candidly, and that is a rare kind of relationship, a special form of intimacy. Montgomery and I watched as she was escorted out from the balcony above the lobby.

“Do you feel bad? You shouldn’t. She was trying to destroy what we’ve built,” Montgomery said.

“She said she couldn’t trust me. One ought to trust one’s instincts,” I said.

“True,” he said.

“I had an idea,” I said. “About getting the helmets on the market.”

“What?” he asked.

“What if, instead of getting people to pay for the helmets, we paid them?”

“Interesting,” he said. “Tell me more.”

Violet Allen

Violet Allen

Violet Allen is a writer based in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Liminal Stories, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Resist: Tales from a Future Worth Fighting Against, A People’s Future of the United States, and elsewhere. She is currently working very hard every day on her debut novel and definitely has more than ten pages written, is not lying to her agent about having more than ten pages written and does not spend most of her time listening to podcasts, and everything is totally cool, I promise. She can be reached on Twitter at @blipstress.