It’s a dangerous job. They told me that in college, they told me that in my doctoral studies, they told me that when they recruited me, and they tell me that every morning of a jump. It’s a dangerous job, Jodie. But I know the risks. Everyone in this field knows the risk.
My first case was standard: a sociopath who slaughtered half a dozen children in his basement two centuries earlier. We don’t save the victims, of courseâ€¦that would mutilate the timeline. We don’t even see the subjects. In the projection chamber, I lie on the table as wires are taped to my head, stimulating REM. It takes a special type of person, I hear: a lucid dreamer. Without that ability, it’s easy to lose yourself.
I enter him as he’s almost there, hovering on the brink and fantasizing about the pale-eyed brunette in the basement. I feel the body shudder with the feeling of falling that accompanies the transition to sleep. His mind unfolds into images: the man who sold him bread in the morning, people he passed on the subway. They never dream about the victims. They have their waking hours for that.
Years in the future, the movements of his unconscious are being recorded. In hours, they’ll be processed and scrutinized, and the database will be updated.
His mother, long dead, walking down a corridor and holding a glass of water. She opens a door and he’s inside. “Did you finish shopping?” he asks, and she gives him the glass. He drops it, spills it. The water is the ocean and the shattered glass is light breaking on the jagged edges of waves as he looks overboard. Dreaming. I watch.
When they pull me from his mind the transition is gentle. The scientist enters the dream patterns with keystrokes. “Nice job,” he says, because he’s flirted with me for months. I smile and leave. I’ll be back the next day.
As I sleep in my own bed, fragments of the dreams are recycled. The lucid dreaming distances themâ€¦this is simple review, observation rather than motivation. The scanners realize this, and ignore me. Across the city, people are dreaming, matching and evading profiles. Dangerous cases are summoned and saved by doctors who do my work in reverse. I research, they cure.
It’s a dangerous job, but someone has to do it. We haven’t had a serial killer for centuries.
They sealed Emily’s room three days after the accident, trapping puzzle games and animatronic bears behind the white hydraulic door. Her parents did not want to see the small proofs: things like names doodled on digipaper, the I’s topped by pixellated hearts. A week later they shut down the biofield to save energy and the house’s mainframe showed the room turn cold, its window displays no longer marking the difference between imagined night and day.
The cards and flowers dwindled off after a few weeks, but Emily’s parents waited months before disposing of the everblooms. The white and green plants, caught in photosynthetic stasis, did not shadow the evolution of grief. “Who’s getting married?” the mother of one of Thomas’s school friends asked when picking up her son. Her question was met by lingering silence until Thomas told her, “They’re my sister’s. She’s dead.”
That night, the organic material was recycled, and for days, every meal tasted of chlorophyll.
The forms arrived eighteen months later, stating in cold, efficient terms that the period of sanctioned mourning was over and it was time to consider the population stability of the community. It was a matter of duty, and only the mattress made sound.
Thomas watched his mother swell. Against all odds, pregnancy had improved her mood; she now spent days smiling, one hand resting over the growing bulge. “We need to renovate the room,” his father said.
“Emily’s room?” Thomas asked.
“It’s just a room,” he said, his tone flat. “Rooms don’t belong to anyone.”
At night, Thomas stood before the mainframe, trying to guess the password his parents had set. Her birthday, no. The day of the accident, no. Nothing. He pressed his hand against the sense panel and the mainframe grew warm.
Password accepted, the display read, although Thomas had typed nothing.
The door to the room opened with ease, just like the door of every other room in the house. The lights were dimmed for night, as Emily had always been terrified of the dark, and he noticed the scent of a recent biosweep, killing the bacteria that might have harmed the young girl. It took Thomas several moments to realize that the biofield had never been lowered, despite what the mainframe had claimed.
On the opposite wall, the constellations of Earth hung in the frame of the window display and Thomas moved closer, scanning the well-mapped ocean that his parents had chosen as his sister’s view. At the edge the dark and textured expanse, the horizon showed the faintest signs of dawn: darkest purple blending into the night sky like a bruise.
She carried the link with her on the airplane, exchanging witty comments and gossip with her friends through small boxes on its high-resolution screen. “I’m going to miss you so much!” Cindy typed. “You’d better keep in touch!” She promised postcards and souvenirs, though she rejected Mike’s request for a pound of Thai opium. “Don’t worry,” she told Cindy. “You can always text me.”
She spent layover hours in hard plastic chairs, legs folded and link open on her lap. Boredom was a thing of past generations: even when time zones changed and her friends fell asleep, there were emails and message board posts to respond to.
Fourteen hours on a bus in Cambodia were spent sleeping and chatting. Through the lens of her linkcam the endless rice paddies were converted to 72 web-safe colors and uploaded to her album, where they immediately generated a flurry of posts. “I’ve never seen so much open space!” Kim said. “Promise to post more!”
The neon-lit shore of Koh Phangnan under a full moon was converted to a scattered collection of notes for her travel blog, and as she boarded the boat back to the mainland, she chatted as she organized the notes into an update. “Sounds like fun,” Leah said, and they gossiped about Leah’s coworkers as the crystal-blue ocean spread out in every direction.
Months later, back on home soil, she sat in a diner with several friends recounting stories they’d already read on her blog. “It’s nice to be home,” she said with a smile. “It’s only been a couple days, but I feel like I never left.”
It wasn’t until the subway stopped at Union Square that Alba noticed the difference in time.
I’ve been on this train for hours, she realized. Before the conductor’s announcement, she’d been lost in the newness of her amplified intelligence, rolling her mind around foreign concepts like a child rolls his tongue around a piece of candy. She didn’t notice time passing, though she was acutely aware of her surroundings. Now, with the implant, nothing escaped her perception.
When she glanced at her watch, seven minutes had passed. Seven?
The thought was quickly discarded as a reflection in a window launched her into an analysis of Plato, but it was resumed again, three minutes later, at 8th street. Three minutes later?
The implant had come highly recommended, although it was still in an early phase of development. She’d managed to get on the list of volunteers through university connections, and it had been surprisingly painless. A mild hangover, then nothing. Her mind raced, cross-referencing books she was certain she’d never opened, but the sensation wasn’t disorienting. Alba was lucid. Wholly lucid.
It took weeks to get to Canal street, by which point she’d developed a detailed understanding of number theory. Her watch said that seven more minutes had passed.
A fly landed on her still hand, and she watched it probe her skin with its mouth. After months, it flew away. A fly’s lifespan must seem so short, she thought, or so long. It must depend on the fly’s speed of processing information.
It took nearly a year to reach her house, by which point, Alba had aged almost twenty minutes.
At night, the wind howled over the tent like an angry djinn, forcing its sandy fingers through tears and clumsy folds. “Tonight is the Aisra’s,” they’d whisper in nearby towns as the wind fought to erode the frictionless forcewalls, but if the Aisra caused the storm it was indifferent to it, curled drowsily upon a succulent-floss pillow as its tail flicked in response. There were no pilgrims on nights like this, but Saika tended to the candle as if the sky were clear and the dunes carved sharply by moonlight. Even an unseen compass knows how to find the north. As she was taught as a young child, she left the tent four times an hour, scarf pulled tight against the endless and violent desert. Always, the flame burned in its glass case, leading strangers to their unexpected home.
In the moments between her duties, Saika stroked the sacred creature, her fingers brushing lightly against the softest fur. Legend said that the Aisra wove the dreams of the people, that it carried nightmares away from children and released them into the swirling sand. Saika was the Aisrakeeper, and by extension, a silent monk. The tent was always silent: words weren’t of the dream world, and they would distract the Aisra from her duties. When people came to worship, they said nothing as they kneeled before the small creature and asked to be protected from dreams. The desert caused dreams. The light-years between the colonists and their ancestral home causes dreams.
Tonight is the Aisra’s, Saika thought as her fingers pressed gently into the back of the creature. Keep dreaming, she told it. Let the desert carry it away.