Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Writer: Jared Handley


Programming the dreams is easy. I can understand why to a layperson it would seem difficult, but in actuality what appeals to me most about my job is its utter simplicity. I write a code, a program reads that code, feeds it to the patient's brain. It knows where to transmit the data, the medical guys hook everything up when the patient first arrives. All I do is create the information; paint the picture. Programming is a breeze.

Now compiling successful notes during Familiarization, on the other hand, is extremely hard.

When a patient arrives at Dock 22, where I’m positioned, you know they're a very important person. Very. So when that VIP account is assigned to your bay, the Subject Identity and Desires Familiarization Procedure can be the most stressful thing you'll ever encounter.

Early in my career I had an old man who owned fuel mines on several planets. He had traveled the Universe, been a father of five, fought in two wars, and experienced extreme wealth and opulence. They hooked him up, hooked me up to him, and for five days--like I said, this was early on; three days is tops nowadays--I traveled his memories, in a largely lucid dream of my own. I was awestricken by what he had lived.

At the end of that fifth day, when they unhooked me and sent him on to Installation, I had thirty hours to use my notes to design a Segue and Dreamfield that were good enough he’d accept it. That is: create a dream that this man would prefer to his real life. The coolest real life you could ask for.

The way it works is, after Familiarization, they sedate the patient to a consciousness somewhere between the waking state of their arrival and the never-to-return sleeping state of Suspension. It takes about thirty hours to set in enough that you can safely infiltrate their thoughts with manufactured ones. If they aren’t deep enough though, you might completely fry them, so you have to wait thirty hours.

Then you have about eighteen hours, two days in total, until they’re in for good. That period is the Segue.

The Segue is tricky but not too bad; once you’ve figured out where they are and where they want to be in their Dreamfield, all you do is lay the track, and they’ll travel. If you’re careless--not that you work Dock 22 if you’re careless--it is possible for a patient in Segue to awaken, if they want to bad enough.

Has to be that way. No one would sign a contract with any company offering Suspension unless they get a chance to experience it first. It makes sense, what with some of the horror stories you hear. Sloppy programmers, sadists, that sort of thing. If you aren’t careful you could spend your life locked in a nightmare worse than Hell.

I am, if I may brag, a master of my craft. Never lost a single one for the company. I’ve had hundreds of patients, all shapes and sizes and creeds, all of whom have had the kind of lives that even the moderately wealthy long for, and I’ve sold all of them on my interpretation of their dreams. I know that programmers often get lumped in with the medical guys and the engineers, but we truly are the last remaining artists.

People want some strange things from time to time. There was a lady not long ago who owned a snack foods company. The same face I’d seen on cookie and cake wrappers since I was a kid, just laying there on the Familiarization table waiting for me. I got inside there and you know what she wanted? She wanted to be a stray dog. And I’m not talking in any of the forts either, she wanted to be out there roaming the wastelands and ghettos out in the natural world.

Of course that’s not what she would’ve really wanted. I’ve been out there, you can’t even stand around for that long before your voice goes raspy and your eyes start to burn. But, she wanted to be a dog out in the unprotected environment, so I had to figure out why.

What appeals to her about that life?

What is her threshold for discontentment?

You must figure out how much bullshit a person is willing to take before giving up. The mind will sniff out the flaws in a perfect world then start to realize it’s all fake. If things are too good, your patient won’t be convinced and you’ll lose them before the dream takes hold. Or if it happens when they’re already deep, though it’s much more difficult to lose them at that point, they could panic and enter into an irreversible nightmare state. You don’t want that on your record, my friend. You can get prison time for that sort of malpractice.

I’m careful though. She wanted to be a dog, so I convinced her she was a dog. Not the happiest dog, not the unhappiest dog, just a dog. The way she thought it would be to be a dog, that is.

People have the strangest dreams, but I never judge. Understand that: I never judge my patients based on their dreams. If that’s what you want...

It all changed for me, very suddenly. They brought in this woman, younger than me. Karen. In the first place, I couldn’t understand why she would want to be Suspended. No kids, huge fortune, perfect body, and a pretty face. If she didn’t want her life I could find a few billion who’d swap with her.

When I got into her memories, things started to make sense. She was an astronaut, very highly ranked as a matter of fact. She had gone on a few peace missions and had been successful in introducing Earthlings to multiple new races, only once encountering hostile lands.

Her last mission had taken them to a settlement on a tiny planet. The native life was not, as predicted, intelligent and peaceful. It was insentient and beastly; vicious animals. The crew hadn’t gone a mile before they were on them; six spiny legs as big as a man, slick, fishlike torsos, mouths like an earthworm’s with a sharp ring of teeth inside. I knew I was witnessing a memory, yet it was the most frightening vision I’d ever seen.

She was the only survivor.

But as she was launching, out of the copilot window, she saw something move below. Before she could make it out, she was in orbit. I went back over that memory again and again, as I’m sure she had.

Was it one of them? Had another survivor tried to catch up with her?

Back on Earth, she’d received an award, a fat pension, and a nudge into retirement. After what she’d witnessed, her rights to space travel were suspended indefinitely. They don’t want head cases taking on the skies up there, and nothing leads to space dementia like the shell shock of an alien battle.

The most curious thing about her was her fascination with life on Earth at the beginning of the Information Age. She was a pioneer, discovered new and amazing civilizations all the time, yet she’d had this lifelong attraction to ancient society. It seemed the vision of being able to walk beneath a blue sky called to her most.

She had wanted to return to explore heavens, seek out another place like that old Earth. But if she couldn’t do that now, Suspension would have to work. It made sense.

Something strange happened to me. It took nearly two weeks to come out of Familiarization with her. I learned so much about her, her memories, her dreams. I just couldn’t finish up because I couldn’t learn enough about her.

I had fallen in love with her. Completely and truly in love.

Still, she had a dream and it was my job to create that dream. So I made her a Segue as good as any I’d ever made. I set her up in a fairly mundane life typical of the early Information Age. Nothing too special to be suspicious, but she got her blue sky.

Now, she can take that dream and disappear into that great sleep. Or, she can wake up, come away with me, and find that beautiful place she dreams of. She might not have the clearance to fly, but as far as they’d know she’d still be in the bay, dreaming away her life. I have full clearance and my own personal craft. It’s nothing great, but it can make it through a few galaxies. With her piloting we could do it.

She could have what she really wants instead of living in this dream. The problem is that right now she’s convinced she’s sitting at a computer screen in the 21st century reading a story.

Just wake up and we’ll go. Come on, Karen.

© Jared Handley 2011

Jared is a writer, sometimes theatre actor and director, and salesman living in Dallas with his wife and daughter. He can be found at Six Sentences and at


  1. Absolutely fantastic Jared! what a wonderful piece :)

  2. I'm utterly - no, make that unutterly because I'm dumbstruck with awe and admiration. This is tremendously imaginative and so well-written and believable. Gosh.
    The only downside was that to start with I thought you were talking about the setting up of LitFire and then had a creepy, creeping suspicion that it was OUR heads you were aiming to get into ... perish the thought: with a head like yours, why would you?
    Well done Jared. Indeed.

  3. Well done, Jar. Never saw that coming, and I like where it went!

  4. This took off slowly, for me, because the opening reminded me of other dream implantation themes. But then it grabbed me. I think my favorite line was "nothing leads to space dementia like the shell shock of an alien battle." Of course!
    Kudos for taking the reader into the minds of the various dream clients and showing us their lives and dream scenarios. The little details are very smart and, in a dark way, humorous. Not the happiest dog but not the unhappiest dog either, made me smile. If you haven't already entered, check out the CZ Rannu Fund speculative fiction contest online. This could be the winner.

  5. Nice twist, and a lot going on here. Philip K. Dick & Harlan Ellison echoes in the general plot, along with the subtext of the artist-for-hire themes. I was wondering if it would be background & world-building the whole way, but then you added in a plot that personalized the world and the narrator to a new, relatable degree. High level work.

    Small editorial suggestion--if you folded in the plot about Karen early on & mixed intimations of his feelings for her in with the guy's job description, it might make the story more seamless and less overt in its "section-y" feel. Feel free to ignore that or tell me to get bent!

  6. Really well told story Jared - you give enough sic-fi element to give the setting a feeling of reality, but the story itself is driven entirely by the characters. I really enjoyed it.

  7. A bold look at the future.....or is it? Great stuff, Jared. My brain is still churning.


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