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The folds of her flesh draped like curtains over the sides of the hover-chair—rich and smooth, like brocade, and his eyes traced their undulating curves and rolls like sand-dunes in a desert. Eyes and lips formed an oasis: clear, moist, beckoning. And he was so thirsty. . . . The lips parted slightly, then, breath as dry and sweet as desert sun. “Kal. . . .”

“Kal. Time’s up.” The electronic voice that called was just as dry as hers, but harsh where she was only saccharine. The edges of the Dream blurred and faded into nothingness, and he sat up as electrodes dropped, slack-lined, from the sides of his skull. The little cubic room blazed suddenly into brightness, and Kal maneuvered his hoverchair into the hall.

A Dream-Guard stood outside, his hoverchair emblazoned with the badge of his office. Kal handed over his card. “25 credits worth of Dream,” said the guard in a voice of professional monotony. He stamped the card with a mechanical whirr and handed it back. “Hard work.”

“And you.” Kal turned his hover-chair and hummed slowly down the hallway, his watery eyes still lost in the Dream’s oasis, the lumps and bulges of his body still pulsing with the heat of the Dream-voice.

He passed Rona on the way to his cubicle, her lipstick too red and smudged, eyes weak, lumps like dimples in the clay of her chin. No Dream-illusion, this. She smiled, puerile, and held up her card. “50 credits,” she squealed, a schoolgirl.

He smiled back, swallowing revulsion. “Hard work.” He ignored her response and positioned the hover-chair at his desk; he ignored the sounds of her procession down the hallway and flicked on his monitor. He rubbed his temples. He watched the numbers that crawled like insects across the screen—black, multiplexed, endless. He yawned, and noted the anachronism of his action. Hard work, he repeated: more a chastisement than a courtesy.

If he’d heeded his own advice, he’d still be where Rona was, where he’d been only minutes before, in the sweet embrace of Dream. . . . Oh, go to sleep, he told himself. He’d been ignoring the numbers; he’d have to go back and start again.

Hours passed and the symbols bulged and blurred together; Kal sucked a syrupy liquid from a tube to focus his attention. It tasted of honey and chemicals, a hint of cinnamon and sulfur. There was music in the background, the faint, metallic rustle of mechanized attempts at trumpets or xylophones. The rhythms pulsed below his hearing and the numbers marched to their tempo.

Second meal, and Kal loaded his tray without paying much attention to its contents, then moved to a table in a corner where Mera sat, already waiting.

They didn’t speak much. They never did. Words from the monitor behind them filled the void in conversation.

(“Oh, go to sleep, Mike! I only agreed to this partnership so we’d get a room closer to the refectory!”)

He looked past her, past the lumps and lingering in her eyes. She was no Dream-illusion, either; he could never lose himself in the bulging billowing of her flesh.

(“And you wonder why I wish I could sleep every night! So I’d have less time forced to look at you!”)

“Hard work,” she said, finally, as they moved and made to leave, and he replied in kind, and his doing so was as scripted as his actions in his Dreams except in Dreams he didn’t realize this.

Hard work, he told himself.

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