Project D - First Segment
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"...dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before." ~Edgar Allen Poe
“It won’t end here, you know.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement, a softly spoken one full of all the truths that never existed in the vast expanses of their crafted universe. Maya nearly whispered it to her lost friend as she watched him back up to the edge of the rusted, rickety platform they now stood upon, the whole world stretched out beneath them.
It would’ve been a beautiful dreamscape, really, if not for the circumstance–just the two of them, together, the same but different, their bodies aged and battered by countless tests and endless trials they’d been forced to endure again and again. They stood there, alone, atop an ancient tower overlooking the sea, the fading sun dancing on sparkling waters as if the rest of the grey and deadened world behind them was simply a figment of a nightmare long forgotten.
Aiden turned away from her, away from the desolation of war at her back, tilting his bruised face up at the golden sky for a moment as if to soak in its nonexistent warmth.
“You don’t know that,” he argued. “It ends somewhere.”
As he glanced over his shoulder to grin at her, his cocky smile barely touching his lips, she wondered what he looked like in real life, the one outside of the dreams. He was a grown man here, stubble prickling against a darkly tanned cheek, scars drawn deep across a too-thin torso. She’d seen him take on different ages, different genders, different ethnicities all across the globe, but despite all that, his smile always stayed the same. It was gorgeous in its melancholy, the expression that was never quite a smile, but something deeper, something sadder, something that spoke of loneliness and pain and the endurance required to trudge through it all. She would know him anywhere by that smile, just as she would know the others by their signature quirks and mannerisms.
Maya loved her friends, each of them for their own unique reasons, but it was possible that she would never acquaint herself with their true faces. She might never know what this familiar smile actually looked like on the boy who lived half a world away. She might never hear his true voice, discover the real color of his eyes, feel the texture of salt on flesh as she wiped away his tears. It was very possible, once she awoke from this endless chain of fantasy and mayhem, that she would never see any of them again.
But that was a thought that never seemed to trouble Aiden.
“See you around,” he said, his fingers briefly throwing her a casual wave as if they were new neighbors simply parting at the nearest street corner. Then he just…
“Maya, hurry up, you’re going to be late!” her mother hollered up the stairs, her Korean dialect sharp and angry as it echoed off the walls.
“I’m coming, Mom, god,” Maya bit back, knowing she was tempting fate by sassing her mother. Normally they spoke English–living in Koreatown did not automatically grant them a free pass from acting like the Americans they were (or so her father often said)–so if her mom was in ‘hardcore Asian-mode’ as Maya called it, she knew she was in deep shit.
“She’s going to kill you,” her little brother, Ty, pointed out.
Maya shoved the last of her things in her bag, ruffled Ty’s hair up a bit, and raced down the stairs, dodging the rapid-fire stream of daggers her mother was glaring at her. Instead she bounced over to where her father was working diligently at his computer in the living room, gave him a peck on the cheek, and grabbed one of his toast pieces off his plate.
“You better eat more than that,” he scolded lightly, “you’ve got a big day ahead of you.”
She shoved the bread into her mouth as she ran to the door to slip on her shoes and swipe up her skateboard. “No time. I’ll grab an early lunch. Love you, Dad, bye!”
“Good luck,” he hollered, but she only caught half of it before she was off, dropping her board to the concrete and hopping onto it in one smooth motion.
Good luck, my ass, she thought as she made her way towards the subway station. She was headed to Dream Station LA, ready to take her preliminary Sequence tests, a process that didn’t require luck. Nobody failed a Sequence exam. The technicians were only there to monitor how busy a person’s brainwaves were, how prone to dreaming each person was so they’d know how much material they would have to implant into the person’s head. Basically, they were testing people to filter them into the, “Hooray, we get to be lazy and just monitor their progress!” room versus the, “Dammit, this dunce has no imagination whatsoever, now I have to work for results,” room. Maya already knew where she’d end up. She’d always had a vivid imagination, and even more vivid dreams.
She just wished those dreams weren’t going to take away two years of her life before determining what the rest of it was going to become.
“Desirae?” the technician called, glancing around the lobby of Dream Station Atlanta as she waited for the right young woman to stand.
What she got instead was a young man with an obscene t-shirt, long shorts, and a cap pulled down a bit too low over his eyes. “Dez,” he corrected, but was all smiles when he lifted his head up to greet the woman.
She looked at the chart on her tablet, then glanced him up and down as he approached. “Would you prefer I marked ‘male’ on your profile?”
“Eh, nah,” he waved off. “Maybe when I come back in six months for the big sleep, but not while I’m still a minor under my parents’ roof. I don’t wanna die before I get a chance to live forever.”
With an appreciative snort, the technician led the way through the double doors and down a long, white corridor. It looked more like a hospital than the “fun times” place all kids were expected to live starting the day after their sixteenth birthday (the extra day giving them some time for a last day of childhood/glad you’re alive/hope to see you again in two years party). Then again, Dez supposed the building didn’t really need to be anything colorful and full of good cheer. All that stuff would come on the inside, from a combination of the brain and whatever the “Master Chefs” (as he called them) cooked up to feed the mind. None of the kids would even see what was going on around them in the outside world.
“Tell me,” the technician began as she stopped in front of a door that was an exact clone of every other door in the place, “do you dream of yourself as a boy often?”
“Off and on,” Dez answered honestly. “I think...more on. I mean, that would make sense, right? I have a hard time remembering what I dream, but I figure it can’t be all rainbows and pink, fluffy unicorns. Not that all girls like that shiiii-stuff. Sorry. I just mean, I think like a guy, so I probably dream like a guy.”
The tech nodded her head thoughtfully. “One would think, but it doesn’t always work out that way. You do know that you’ll be assigned female if you dream more as female, right?”
Dez waved a hand at her. “Pssshhh, I ain’t even worried about it. I know who I am. I have got. this. down.”
With an air of confidence that was not even remotely an act, he strolled into the room, plopped into the patient chair, and waited for his next instructions.
“This isn’t going to hurt, right?” Jeannie babbled as the technician stuck little probes all over her head. She blinked as he gently tugged off her glasses to make room for the probes that needed to be applied to her temples. “I mean, everyone says that it doesn’t hurt, but of course everyone’s going to say that. Why would an adult tell a kid that it hurts when they know we have to do it anyway? That would just be stupid, getting the kids all afraid before they even have to come in for their first test. I’m sure that would make things really difficult for you guys, wouldn’t it? Of course it would.”
“Relax, Jeannie,” the how-dare-you-be-so-handsome technician winked at her. Jerk. “It doesn’t hurt. Not even a little.”
“Okay, but what about the dosing? What if you overdose me? What if I never wake up? What if I fall into a coma right now and don’t get my six months to hang out with my friends? Or, my online friends, at least. I mean, there’ll be mass panic if I suddenly stop showing up in my fan groups. Those people depend on me, you know? I have protocols I have to set in place so everything runs smoothly while I’m in the induced sleep.”
Handsome Tech smiled at her with his perfect teeth and bright blue eyes that made him look like every one of her favorite superheros come to life. It made her want to violently punch his face in. Seriously. How was it even fair to put such a pretty man on the face of the Earth (especially in Minneapolis, of all places) and then make him be the one that was all up in her personal space? Didn’t the Universe know by now she didn’t socialize well in person? She was making an absolute fool of herself. Not that she wasn’t used to it. She never really did know when to turn up the dial on her filters. This was just her life. At all times.
Fuck my life.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, Jeannie,” Handsome Tech assured her, even though a “long time” couldn’t have been more than like three years by her guess. He looked too young to have been doing it for much longer than that. “You’re going to be just fine.”
She kept her mouth shut just long enough for him to finish connecting the probes to her face (how ugly did that make her look?), then was about to spout off another list of concerns when he pretty much just shoved a smooth metal inhaler...thingie...into her mouth. His thumb pressed something on the top of the cylinder, shooting a puff of gas down her throat that actually tasted oddly like churros and chocolate–yum.
“How long does this take to kick in?” she asked, foregoing yelling at him for his ninja inhaler attack in favor of the tasty treat he had just given her.
She didn’t hear his answer.
Zamir opened his eyes to find himself at the ports in Bahrain. Funny. He went to sleep at the Dream Center in Dubai. He remembered flying two hours to get there for his examinations, and now there he was, right back home. Was this a bad sign, that he was at the ports? He wanted to go into the Arts, not spend his days unloading cargo like his father.
“So lame,” he mumbled, and kicked a rock down into the water as he strolled along an all-too familiar path.
He didn’t understand why the whole world began following the example the United States set so many years ago. Sure, their dream training project had catapulted them back to the top of the global scale in politics, education, economics and everything, but at the complete cost of freedom of choice in what people wanted to do with the rest of their lives. Art was a passion, not a logical mindset. What if his mind latched onto the risks of going into a creative field and his own fear made him dream results that took him away from his passion? What if simple familiarity lodged his subconsciousness to areas that were safe? To the port and his hometown and his parents and his school? What if he was, even now, when he was still six months away from induced sleep, dooming himself to a future of slavery at the beck and call of his own lack of bravery and confidence?
Why couldn’t he have lived in a town that was less enhanced, and therefore didn’t care just yet about the dream assignment program? There were still some places like that around the world, some of them not even too far away from where he’d grown up.
Oh, right, but if he had grown up in one of those areas he wouldn’t have learned about poetry, music, graphic design, and the beauty of oil on canvas. Fair trade, he supposed.
He supposed it even more when he noticed the graffiti that had gradually begun appearing on the cargo crates as he’d walked down their line. His gaze wandered over each piece, each picture becoming more and more extravagant as he moved along until each full crate became a mural that connected one to the other.
“Whoa,” he smirked, taking back all his previous thoughts. With a lighter heart and a new skip in his step, Zamir danced his way through the port, absorbing his own mind’s art as much as he possibly could, rapping out one of his favorite performer’s songs in the process. Maybe this dream training thing was going to turn out alright after all.
“Easy, easy,” the old lady soothed as Aiden jolted out of sleep. She gave him a sympathetic look. “So sorry. Nightmares don’t usually happen during the examination process, but they can creep in from time to time.”
Aiden gulped down a breath, still trying to catch his bearings. White room, chair, wires sticking out of his head (no, no wires, just wireless probes pasted on temporarily), sweet old grandma with an Irish accent...which was weird because he was in Melbourne. He was in Melbourne, wasn’t he?
“Dream Station Melbourne,” Irish Granny pointed out, reading the panic that was still written on his face. “You’re awake now. Everything’s fine, dear.”
“You’re sure?” he managed to get out once he’d centered himself a little more. “This isn’t a Red Riding Hood trick, is it? Granny, what big eyes you have?”
“No, silly.” She slapped him lightly across the arm. “No tricks. Just the end of your examination. You did well, you know, despite the nature of the dreams. You’ll make for an excellent candidate.”
Aiden huffed at that. “Don’t be too quick on that assessment. I dream easily, but nightmares are sort of a pattern. You might have to go in and fight some of my demons for me, or your Monitors are going to get bored watching the same things over and over again.”
Granny gave him a troubled frown and marked something in her tablet. “Shame to have such troubles at such a young age. We’ll be sure to have our Weavers spin some nice things for you. By the time you’re out of the program, you should be more stable in that regard.”
“Yeah? I didn’t think it worked that way,” Aiden pointed out. “I thought you just pumped trials into our heads for two years and watched how we got out of them.”
“Oh, Heavens, no.” Granny seemed amused, but also genuinely appalled. “We need to see how you react in all situations. We can’t very well determine your future on nothing but bad circumstances. You will live lifetime upon lifetime, some good, some terrible, but you’ll be a well-rounded, mature, responsible adult by the time you’re through, and one who has a solid path laid out in front of him based on what your own subconscious mind desires. There are ups and downs, just as there are in the real world, but you’re lucky enough to get to experience them in a safe place where you can learn from them without causing harm to yourself and others. It’s why our world is a much better place than it was in the past. Everyone comes out of the sleep stasis with vast amounts of experience and knowledge, and a firm understanding of who they are and where they fit into the world as people.”
Aiden blinked at her for a moment before bringing his hands up in a slow clap. “Wow. You’re, like, really into all this, aren’t you? How many times exactly have you given that speech? It seemed pretty well practiced.”
She winked at him. “More times than years you’ve been alive, that’s for sure.”
He laughed at that as he pointed at his head. “Great. At least you’re honest. Can we get these things off now so I can go home? I’ve got a game tomorrow.”
“Right then. Things like that matter at your age, you know. You’d better make the last of your games count.”
The way she said last made the word sound all too permanent for Aiden’s comfort.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!”
Drake cursed under his breath as he swung down between the rafters of the highrise that was still under construction. The blaring sound of the alarm ringing out in the night sky drilled into his skull with an intensity painful enough to make his ears feel like they were bleeding; he nearly lost focus on what he was doing. Why his fellow Infiltrators couldn’t make these alerts more subtle, and the locations easier to reach was beyond him. All of this showboating wasn’t necessary in the Astral.
“Bloody fuck, I’m coming!” he growled again as he dropped to the basement level of the building and darted across the cold concrete, throwing himself through the room’s single door and arriving in a purple grass field on the other side. The door clicked shut behind him, vanishing into a glittering, sea-green sky, leaving him alone with an exasperated expression on his lean face. “Huh. Well this is very...faerie land.”
He wandered through the field for a bit, batting his hand at a pink butterfly that fluttered around his face before coming to a small tree that sprang bright yellow fruits. There were five of them, a number that seemed small on a regular fruit tree, but to Drake, it was far too many.
Five? In one month? And he was expected to be responsible for all of them?
“This is what I get for taking a vacation,” he groaned, and plucked the fruits from the branches one by one. He hoped they tasted sweet. If he was being forced to scarf down five of them, they had bloody well better taste good!
As he sat down in preparation to eat–a dreamscape method of absorbing information–Drake reconsidered whether his little vanishing act had been worth it. He’d been mentoring kids for five whole years, but the process wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Needing a break, he had closed off his mind to his fellow Infiltrators for three months before he finally meandered back to the cause. They welcomed his return with open arms of course, but now it seemed like he was paying the price for his impromptu departure. Three proteges had been the maximum number he had taken in the past, and that had been difficult enough as it was. How was he going to juggle five?
He supposed he would just have to figure it out. It wasn’t like he had any other choice, unless he just wanted to abandon a few of the kids to fend for themselves. He wouldn’t though, and everybody knew it.
“Alright, kiddies, let’s see who we’re dealing with,” he stated, and bit into the first fruit. It was sweet. Good. That meant he was going to like this kid–Maya, according to the flash of information that popped into his head. He hoped the other four would be the same. If not, he only had six months before their induced sleep to make buddy-buddy with them; otherwise, they were going to fail. If that happened, they would be considered program rejects, and everybody knew what happened to program rejects.
They disappeared. Fail the program and the world would never hear from them again.