The Dream Writer
The day I was hired to be a dream writer was the happiest of my life. I never imagined that it might kill me, and imagination was the entire reason I was hired.
I became a bartender at the Freudian Cigar to hobnob with dream writers, who worked in the building across the street. There, at five o’clock in the evening, they would gather to smoke, drink, and blow off steam from the day’s chaos, prior to stumbling to their cars or rideshare services, to go home and hopefully dream of absolutely nothing. I had hoped, rightfully as it turned out, that I could use that proximity to wrangle my resume into the hands of somebody that mattered.
That the Dinas needed dreams was a relatively well-guarded secret, perpetuated by a tacit agreement between the government and media outlets. There was far too much money invested in the success of the Dina program for any weakness to be revealed, at least on a widespread basis. It was pure rumor that brought me to the F-Cig, and I wasn’t disappointed. As a writer, it was by far the most interesting thing I could be doing with my life. And I still felt that way even after hearing about how the job really was.
The dream writers, while snugly tucked into my bar with a few belts in them, described a work day with a hellish pace, split between altruistic brainstorming sessions with coworkers and feverishly hammering out mostly outlandish scenarios, with a few moments of genuine literature that would only ever be known to the Dinas receiving them. The pay was mediocre, though far more than an unpublished genre author could expect to earn, but one only needed to do a quick Google search for Dinas in the news to understand why the dream writers had such high job satisfaction.
Without dreams, the Dinas had a high likelihood of psychosis. It was something having do to with their genetic coding; they couldn’t achieve REM sleep without a Wave Augmentation Device, and even then, their subconscious minds couldn’t come up with anything, a fact that confounded their creators as Dinas are anything but lacking in creativity when awake. Research was ongoing, but as a stop-gap measure, it was discovered that giving them a dream script to follow, administered subliminally via the WADs, prevented any mental breakdown. Once this was discovered, the dream writer career was born, and the government began recruiting. New York City was the location of the first center, which was uninspiringly called the Nexus (I guess they couldn’t get the rights to the Matrix), and it was across the street, at the F-Cig, where I managed to convince a middle manager with a fondness for whisky sours to consider my qualifications.
So, I got what I wanted after all those years. I soon discovered that all those bar patrons weren’t exaggerating. Dream writing was an enormous task. Our branch handled over 500 Dinas, and each of them needed at least a three hundred word dream outline daily. We ran three shifts, just like out in the world, but thankfully only a quarter each of the Dinas worked second and third shift, respectively. I was on second shift, so my workload wasn’t quite as bad as the first shifters. I only had 27 Dinas assigned to me, and most of them were stationed at Fort Ellis Island, which made writing their dreams pretty easy. Soldiers were probably the easiest career field to write for; one could get away with fairly mundane stuff and keep ‘em from eating the business end of their sidearms. Still, I tried to add as much science fiction to the dreams of military personnel as possible, after all, if an alien invasion really did occur, they’d be better equipped to deal with it. Right?
It wasn’t until I had a .45-caliber pistol pointed at my testicles that I realized that might have been a mistake.
I’d seen this woman the night before, she was impossible to miss. She wore the distinctive buzz cut of a soldier, along with the pricey leather jacket that the military issued to aviation officers or others within an operations group. She had removed her unit patches, easily enough since they were affixed with Velcro, but that was only so she could wear the jacket without the rest of her uniform. During her last visit she had simply spoken to Jenna, one of the other bartenders, and left. It turned out that she had asked about me. If I survived the night without my genitals blown off, I would have to ask Jenna why in the world she hadn’t mentioned the inquiry to me.
I only saw the pistol for a moment, long enough for her to draw it, sit down, and conceal it under my table. In a smoky corner of the bar, there was no chance anybody would have seen it anyway. Her pale green eyes reflected the light from the LED candle that I’d pushed to the side of the table to make room for my Monte Cristo sandwich and something-or-other toasted lager. I immediately lost interest in the remnants of my meal, and sipped my beer in what was almost certainly a failed attempt to look cool.
“Richard Pauling?” she asked.
“I think you already know,” I gulped with a broken voice. I must have sounded like a nervous teenager.
“I’ve got a bunch of questions for you,” she began, “as I’m sure you do for me. Unfortunately, I think I’m going to get more out of the conversation.”
“Why do you need the show of force?” I asked weakly.
“Because we’re not supposed to be talking to each other, and I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t freak out on me.”
My mind raced. She was one of my Dinas, there was no other explanation. And she was right, insofar as I wasn’t supposed to know any of my subjects, and vice versa. It was supposed to be impossible for a Dina to find out the name of their dream writer, but here she was. At the moment, how was the least of my questions.
“How did you know I wouldn’t freak out at the sight of a gun?” I asked, again trying to play it cool.
“Surprise, shock, and confusion,” she replied with a smirk. “Most civilians freeze up.”
“Fine, so you got the drop on me. I’m not going to scream for help. What do you want to know?”
“I apologize for not introducing myself. I wonder, do you have a name for me?”
My reply was delayed as one of the waitresses came over and asked my mystery guest what she wanted. Without a hint of pretense, she ordered a gin and tonic, and turned back to me.
“I don’t know which one of my subjects you are. I do have silly names for some of them. I’d ask you to describe some of your dreams, but I’m afraid the stuff I feed to soldiers is pretty generic.”
“It’s not meant to be insulting,” I said nervously. “I just like to use pet names for… damn it.”
She smirked again. “Relax, I get it. I guess it doesn’t matter. And if it makes you feel better, I found my dreams to be anything but generic. In fact, I loved them. I looked forward to going to sleep every night; I guarantee you I don’t get that level of entertainment during the day.”
I managed to feel a bit of pride even as my heart remained in my throat. “Thanks. We would like to be more creative for everybody, but the work load is just too heavy. I’m glad you liked your dreams, but that just makes me even more confused as to why you’re here.”
She leaned closer to me, and spoke deliberately. “What happens next?”
“What? You mean tonight?”
“With the Zendreen invasion, you idiot. What happens next?”
A fresh wave of adrenaline hit my chest, and my voice fell to a whisper. “Dinah Ninah.”
“You’re subject nine. Dinah Nine-ah. I did say it was silly.”
“I don’t want you tell me now, of course,” she said, her tone suddenly brightening. “Just start the story again. Do you have any idea how crazy I’ve been, since the story stopped?”
I thought of the large caliber round aimed at my junk, and nodded. “Kinda.”
“I’ve talked to a few Dinas, and some normals in my unit. I know we experience dreams more intensely than normals. I also learned that I’m the only Dina in my unit to receive a serial dream. How common are they? Why did you stop mine so abruptly?”
I shrugged apologetically. “Writer’s block.”
She scoffed. “Can’t you get fired for that?”
“You’ve taken a huge risk coming to see me, so I’m going to extend a little bit of trust to you. We’re not supposed to write serials. For anybody. In fact, I sent you the first chapter by accident.”
“Yeah. We’re only allowed to use approved software on our computers. I had just enough downtime at work to focus on my own project, but I had to use the dream writing software to do it. I had you selected on my tab, and I hit send instead of save. The damn buttons are right next to each other on the menu.”
“Okay, I’ll buy that for now. Once you realized you’d sent it to me by accident, why did you keep doing it?”
“Dream writers are like any other writer, Nine. They thrive on the attention of fans. Just knowing that a Dina had seen some of my personal work was very compelling, even though I knew I’d never get any feedback. It was exciting to me, so I kept doing it. I’m very sorry, I just got stuck on the story. If it means that much to you, I can start it again.”
Nine looked like she was about to start crying. “It means everything to me.”
“Holy shit. Okay. You do realize this only adds credence to why we shouldn’t write serials, right?”
“I don’t care. How likely is it that you’ll be caught?”
“Slim to no chance.”
A tear escaped from her eye. “Thank you.”
Nine holstered her pistol, to my immense relief. The waitress saw her do this as she returned with the gin and tonic, but paused only briefly before placing the glass on the table.
“Now that we have this clandestine relationship,” I began, “I would love to hear your thoughts on my story. Since you’ve seen it as a movie in your head, I want to know if it’s something I should publish.”
“Give it a proper ending, and I’ll come by the bar again and let you know.”
She sipped her drink, and I began to think about how beautiful she was. I couldn’t help but think that if we started a relationship, it might add legitimacy to the two of us knowing each other, if we claimed we met by accident. Which was sort of true.
“I need to get back to the base,” she said. “I just need to know one thing before I go. Why did you kill off Major Richter? He was my favorite character.”
My head felt like I’d just been hit with a baseball bat. I stared at her in shock. She could tell I was astonished, and she cocked her head to the side in confusion. I stammered, babbling like a fool, the syllables coming out garbled like a foreign language.
“What?” she insisted.
“I… I never wrote that. I considered it, but I never sent that to you. It was just one of many possibilities I had in my notes. What did you dream?”
Nine folded her arms across her chest, and spoke with annoyance. “Richter was alone on the Percheron after the rest of the crew evacuated to the Reckless Faith. The weapons were destroyed, and the Zendreen flagship was preparing to fire on Washington. With the stardrive still intact, he realizes he has to ram the other ship. He brings the Percheron to 99% light speed and destroys both ships, saving the city. Are you telling me you never wrote that?”
I spoke slowly, enunciating my words. “I never wrote it.”
The truth of the situation hit us both at the same time. I was excited by the truth of it all, Nine looked as near to panic as I had been when she first sat down. We looked at each other in silence for what seemed like an hour. I said the only thing that could be said.
“You can’t tell anyone about this. Not if you want to keep your duty assignment. Not if you don’t want to end up in some government laboratory, with your brain poked and prodded more than a toddler with a bowl of oatmeal. I have to ask you, though, have you been dreaming about basic training lately? Use of force against an adversary? Arguing with your superiors about some stupid bullshit?”
Nine stared past me and spoke detachedly. “No.”
“Then your subconscious isn’t listening to the WAD anymore. You don’t need me anymore.”
She suddenly reached across the table and grabbed my arm. She was incredibly strong. It hurt. A lot.
“But I need you to finish the story.”
I pulled my arm back and she mercifully let go. “I can feed you the story, but I don’t know if you’ll receive it. Nine, if your brain has formulated its own capability to dream, you’re on your own.”
She stood up, wiping away tears. She pulled out a small notebook, wrote something on it, and tore the page out.
“Here’s my e-mail address. Send me a copy of the finished story.”
Nine slugged down the rest of her drink and walked out of the bar. I rubbed my sore arm and wondered if Major Richter really had to die.