"Home," Jazin said. "My bank account doesn't match my dreams."
She stepped in front of him, her ivy green skirt flaring a swirling as she moved. "I have dream vacations for all budgets."
"Yeah?" And he was going to get a promotion to a corner office. Just as soon as the moon turned blue. "Does this dream vacation come with paid leave 'cause my boss isn't the type who likes to give people time off." Company CEOs weren't famous for caring whether their worker bees had rest and relaxation. The only thing that mattered to the boys calling the shots upstairs was the company's bottom line and their fat quarterly bonuses.
The girl smiled impishly. "No leave time required. This really is a dream vacation." With a touch of her finger the brochure projected a hologram of him on a white sand beach. "Do you know the average dream lasts less than five minutes? With Dream Away's new REMtech Dream 6K you can have a week's worth of luxury in five minutes."
Jazin pushed the brochure away. "Thanks, but no thanks. I can't afford a vacation, real or otherwise."
"Oh, but you can!" the girl insisted. "Give me a minute, I'll give you the perfect day. Give me five minutes, and I'll give you a week in paradise. Give me an hour, and I can give you a lifetime!"
"You'll give me a sticky chair to nap in that stinks of other people and hasn't been sanitized in a week. Pass."
Her face lit up in an infectious grin. "Don't be that way!" She hit him playfully in the chest with the brochure. He noticed her brown eyes were luminous as sunlit topaz, and for just a moment he wanted to stay.
Shaking his head, Jazin tried to sidestep her again. Pretty girls were easy enough to come by in the beauty capital of the system. But he knew the sales pitches and the tricks. The way the sellers would befriend you, ask you your name, create a need. Oh, they were good, it's what kept the companies in business and the populace in debt.
"Come on," the girl cajoled. "What would it hurt to try it?"
"I'd like to pay my rent this week, thanks all the same."
She licked her lips. "What if I... gave you a taste? For free."
"Sounds like you're pedaling hard addictives, lady."
"Oh, no!" She shook her head and her beaded earrings jingled a soft melody. "Dream Away's product is one hundred percent non-addictive."
Jazin rolled his eyes. "I bet. I nap, I walk away and the dream's forgotten in ten minutes anyway. Everyone knows dreams don't last."
"Dream Away dreams do." She placed a small, elegant hand on the crook of his arm. "In one minute I can give you the perfect day. You want the corner office? It's yours. Do you want to be the star of your favorite sports team? Done. Do you want a day to catch up on your reading? I have all the books waiting for you. You'll feel the pages in your hands, smell the paper and ink, and when you open your eyes you'll remember the book just as if you'd spent the day reading."
"And then I'll want another hit which will cost me – what – a day's wages? A week's? It's not worth it."
"Dream Away provides no more endorphins than you would get from a thirty minute run at the gym. And while we can't burn calories for you like a run will, we can offer you a reduction of mental distress. Five minutes and you'll feel as if you took a week to relax. Think of it as the perfect vacation, all of the benefits and you've lost no time!"
He frowned skeptically. "Things that sound to good to be true..."
"... usually are!" She pointed at him and smiled cheekily. "I know! Dream Away isn't the real thing. You won't get a real sunburn at the pool in the Jawamai Mountains. You won't really eat draris fruit in the orchards of the Old King. The new friends you meet won't be real. But you'll remember all of it like it was."
"How?" he demanded. "Are you going to dribble fruit juice on my chin?"
"Everything you experience is a secondary sensation as processed by the brain. If the brain misinterprets a signal a sound can become a color, or a light breeze can become a burning fire along your skin. When Allerd Wria first started working on his theory of Unified Brain Function he was looking for a way to address those inconsistencies in damaged brains. Further research allowed him to develop a method of retraining brains after traumatic injury. The REMtech Dream 6K is the delightful outcome of his otherwise serious work.
"While hospital may need Dr. Wria's more serious projects this one was created to let people play."
Jazin's eyes narrowed in thought. "What was the original purpose of the machine? Torture? Interrogation? Punishment?"
Her lips flattened into a frown. "Treating depression." She held the brochure up. "Overworked people suffering from seasonal depression or sudden loss were able to use pre-programmed dreamscapes to work through their difficulties. The commercial model is less structured, you will design your own dream as you dream."
"So you can't guarantee I won't have a nightmare." There was always a catch.
The girl hooked her arm through his elbow and steered him toward the store. Brightly colored travel calendars and pictures of famous buildings lined the walls. "We do exert a little control. The REMtech Dream 6K reads what the brain is dreaming of and enhances the thought by triggering the respective neurons. You think of a fruit and by your first dream-bite you will taste the perfect fruit. Using the same technology we can steer dreams so that you stay in a pleasant and happy state, whatever that may be for you." She shrugged. "Or not. We don't judge."
He watched as the door open and a smiling man accompanied by a blue-skinned woman wearing the same green dress as the girl walked past chatting happily. The man's uniform was of a low-level maintenance worker, someone who did manual labor ten hours a day, but instead of a laborer's perpetual frown the man looked as if he'd never had a bad day.
"A regular customer," the girl said. "He comes in every few days for a three minute dream. Says it's like getting an extra weekend."
"And how much of his pay are you stealing."
"Small packages have small prices," she said. "He pays two credits, only a quarter of an hour's wages for him. Fifteen minutes worth of pay and he gets three days in paradise."
Jazin snorted in disbelief. "I bet he can't tell reality from fairyland anymore."
Her smile grew amused. "Dream Away does complete product testing before putting anything on the market. You'll find, as our researchers did, that it is easy to differentiate from dreams and reality. You retain the memory of the place, but the human mind always knows where it is. That gentleman has been doing classes and training prep during his dream sessions. Dream Away is helping him get a better job."
The blue-skinned girl started chatting up another prospective customer in the busy transit corridor.
He sighed. That was life, wasn't it? Rush to work, hustle all day, rush to catch the next tram home. Every day was regulated down to the minute. His pay meant he had sixty minutes a week of running water, four hours a week of electricity, and a single meal box with seventeen nutritional meals a week. The other meals he either had to skip or spend money on at a company restaurant.
The girl nudged his shoulder. "One minute and I'll make all your cares go away."
"The perfect day. And the first time is free."
"Fine." Jazin waved to the back of the store. "Fine. I'll try it. It's the only way you'll let me go."
"You won't be disappointed!" she bubbled. Grabbing his hand she dragged him back to a small parlor painted all black. "Don't worry about the color. This is just to keep light reflection down. Please, have a seat."
A black plethasynth chair sat in the middle of the room with a green light shining out of diodes along the headrest. "That's it?"
"The REMtech Dream 6K is a very advanced machine. We don't need wires and cables everywhere to do this. After all, this is the age of nanotech!"
"All right." Reluctantly he shrugged off his coat. "Um..."
The girl pointed to the wall. "There a locker right there. You can code it to your handprint just like the lockers at work."
Quaslin LockerShop lockers than. They were ubiquitous. Seventy years ago Quaslin had been a minor repair company and now a person couldn't turn around without seeing their logo plastered on some piece of metal. That was the advantages of having one of the only metal refineries left in operation in the system.
He tucked his briefcase and coat in, double checked the lock, and reset the code.
"You'll only be asleep for a minute," the girl said. "You're things will be perfectly safe."
Spoken like a woman who wouldn't lose her job if the boss found out she'd been casual with the security of a company briefcase. It didn't matter that he didn't have rank or secrets to hide, the company was in open conflict with three other big corporations and any sign of indiscretion meant a pink slip and your name on the station blacklist.
"Sit here, sir, and I'll adjust everything for optimal comfort."
Jazin eyed the chair and then heaved a sigh. "Fine." He sat down and noticed wrist braces on the arms of the seat.
The girl followed his worried gaze. "Those are there for your safety. About twenty percent of our clients experience sleep-walking tendencies, involuntary and uncontrolled movement, while dreaming. The straps keep you from waking up with a black eye." She snapped the locks shut and a screen on the ceiling lit up.
The words I AM FULLY AWAKE glowed softly in the darkness.
"That is the voice control panel for the retraints. When you wake up you read the words provided and the machine will release you. Would you like to try it?"
"I am fully awake," Jazin read aloud.
The word RHUBARB appeared in the same soft pink glow.
"Rhubarb," Jazin read obediently.
The restraints unsnapped with metallic click.
"Ready for your perfect day?" the girl asked as she locked him back in.
He settled back into the soft arms of the machine. "Sure, let's do this."
"Where would you like your perfect day to be?"
Jazin shook his head. "I don't know. The beach sounds nice. I've never been there."
"Then the beach it is. Sweet dreams!"
The lights dimmed and he heard the door shut. He took a deep breath, blinked, and he was standing on the beach with a hot sun beating down on his bare arms. A white bird swooped overhead screaming. Just ahead he saw a shack of some kind that looked like it was selling drinks. It seemed like a promising direction, so he walked that way...
***She lifted the ident card off the corpse in the chair. Jazin Reirs, software technician second-class. Middle aged, overweight, single, and stupid as a box of rocks. He'd carried encrypted documents to and from work every day and never known the value. Poor fool. If he'd guessed maybe he could have sold the papers and bought some protection.
Her ear comm crackled. "How is our friend?"
"Dreaming. Permanently. I have everything we came for."
"Then get out. We have another target for you."
Folding the papers she tucked them into a locked carrying case hidden in the garter on her thigh and locked the dream parlor behind her. The nice young lady she'd rented the room from waved as she showed another perspective client the latest in TuyongTech virtual reality. Experience the beach in real time, sand in your shoes is extra!
It was true what they said, people who spent their lives dreaming of a better future never were awake enough to make one.