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 March 5, 2069

“…and then I couldn’t remember which way the classroom was,” said Mr. Addison, squinting off into the distance as though hoping it would aid his recollection. “And since I was already late, that just made things worse.”

Dave rubbed away the weariness from his eyes and leaned back in his desk chair, propping up his head with one hand as he struggled to maintain his focus. His client Addison was reclined on the plasticated chaise lounge facing the opposite end of the cubicle, describing his most recent dream to him in exhaustive detail, unaware that Dave’s attention was rapidly fading. Dave knew that he had to steer his mind back to the immediate matter at hand fairly quickly–although the tablet resting in his lap was recording audio for the session, he still needed to keep track of what Addison was saying to take notes for his eventual report.

Sensing a gap in the conversation, he offered a brief, non-committal response.

“Go on,” said Dave.

“Well, that’s when things got really weird…”

Dave felt his thoughts beginning to drift away again as the session wore on. Hoping to marshal his resolve, he tilted his chair forward and adjusted the grip on his stylus, holding it at the ready just above the tablet’s surface. At the very least, he could endure the tedium knowing that he would be able to wrestle with his fatigue in earnest later on–after all, the day had to come to an end eventually. That said, despite being persistently, unceasingly tired, he still hadn’t been able to sleep for the past several weeks.

Thankfully, his client’s dream was fairly pedestrian and had a straightforward enough interpretation–it was a variation of the perennial ‘forgot about a test at school’ narrative archetype, a clear symptom of professional anxiety. Dave was duly familiar with the concept, both in the abstract and from a lifetime’s worth of personal experience.

As if overhearing these thoughts, Addison pointed at the plaques that hung from the cubicle wall like hunting trophies.

“You probably know what I’m talking about right here,” he said mid-gesture. “That’s a lot of school to get through.”

“Yep,” said Dave, smiling wanly. “I had to complete a six-year college program and four years of graduate school to get that Master’s.”

Addison gave a theatrical whistle, perhaps to show that he was as impressed as he was sympathetic about Dave’s extensive time in academia. Dave opted not to mention the fact that, after he got his Master’s degree in psychology, he had to start working right away in order to accrue the ten years of experience he needed to qualify for his official license, not to mention chipping away at his substantial student loan debt. It was an indisputably long and arduous process, and he frequently had to remind himself that his pursuit of a full-fledged career in psychology, along with the prestige and material success that it entailed, was a marathon instead of a sprint. Regardless, he could at least take solace in the fact that his decades of schooling were firmly behind him.

“Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, I couldn’t fit in my desk chair…”

Hoping to motivate himself in the face of his client’s ongoing monologue, Dave looked up from his tablet and re-examined his surroundings through the lens of his current frame of mind. For the past two years, he had been working in this building as an independent analyst for Reverie Therapeutics on a standard renewable six-week contract. However, the soundproof cubicle in which he conducted his business was rented through another company, WorkBlox, on a monthly basis. As well, his office furnishings and professional equipment were provided by subscription to a third company, ProQuipment, every eight weeks. Considering that these last two were both owned by the same parent company–Rio Guerrero, Inc.–he found these arrangements unnecessarily convoluted, but there wasn’t much he could do about it beyond making sure he kept careful track of these obligations on his tablet.

The logistics behind his employ in general were, frankly, harrowing–especially on the rare occasion where all of his bills lined up at once, triggering a massive drain on his bank account. However, he had long since acknowledged that these expenditures were fundamentally necessary to prosper in his line of work. At the end of the day, he still made a few dollars over minimum wage after all his work expenses were taken into account, which was more than a lot of people could ask for.

Meanwhile, Addison continued to drone on about his dream while Dave tried to keep up as best as his murky sense of awareness could allow.

“…so then I picked up my stylus and it wasn’t working at all. My screen ended up all covered in scribbles…”

After several more minutes of painstaking diligence, Dave finally heard a familiar melodic chime emanate from the center of the room, temporarily bringing him out of his stupor. He suppressed a sigh of relief–it was a welcome sound, indicating that the session was over. Following this signal, he set his tablet aside and stood up to draw Addison’s attention before launching into his usual end-of-session spiel. His voice took on a calm, cheerful tenor that he had long since mastered from his early days of working in the health-sales industry.

“I’m afraid our time for this session has run out. You can schedule your next appointment with our tablet app or a compatible calendar service, available wherever apps are sold. Please be sure to browse through our many exciting offers and promotions for related treatments, which we update every day for your convenience. Thank you for choosing Reverie for your therapeutic needs today, and we hope to see you again soon.”

Addison stood up and gave him a brief nod, waving awkwardly as he headed out through the door and into the aisle between the two main rows of cubicles. This time, knowing he was alone, Dave’s sigh was audible.

However, he didn’t have time to rest on his laurels–he only had five minutes before his next client was due to walk in. He snatched the tablet off his desk and began reviewing the session transcript with his own annotations overlaid against it, checking for any keywords or phrases that needed to be tagged using one of the colored buttons at the bottom of the screen. Each button corresponded to a certain ‘red flag’ that another health service or professional agency could refer to and act upon accordingly. Dave wasn’t sure who specifically had access to these reports outside of Reverie, but some of the more common warning signs he had seen during his tenure were ‘inappropriate violence’, ‘sexual deviance’, ‘suicidal ideation’, ‘lawless behavior’, and ‘radical beliefs’, among others.

With a practiced hand, he scrolled through the transcript and scrutinized its contents line by line. In the end, the task proved to be as dull as Addison’s dream–nothing in particular stood out to him as being problematic. Satisfied, Dave wrote down a quick one-line summary at the bottom of the form with his stylus (“School test dream caused by work anxiety, condition OK”) and submitted his report.

Seconds later, he received a notification indicating that Reverie had successfully processed his transaction. He quickly scanned through the receipt, his eyes narrowing as he got to the end of the payment section–Addison had stuck him with a $0 tip.

Cheap bastard, Dave thought to himself, dismissing the screen with a flick of his wrist.

He glanced at the clock and saw that it was nearly half-past four. He had only two more hours to go until the end of the workday, but it would be later still before he would be back at his apartment. He anticipated that his evening would once again be spent chasing after the dim prospect of a peaceful night’s rest, which would likely prove to be as elusive as ever.

Dave rubbed his eyes one last time, the weight of his exhaustion bearing down upon him before his next client walked through the door.

The darkness seemed to ripple with heat as the city sweltered under a hazy blanket of smog for the fifth night in a row. Languishing amid the hellish conditions, Dave lay spread-eagle on his foldout bed, his limbs dangling uncomfortably over the edges of the mattress. The cramped interior of his micro-apartment offered little recourse against the ongoing heatwave–he couldn’t afford to rent an air conditioner on top of his regular living expenses, so the temperature inside was not much different from what it was outside. Only the overhead fan provided some small modicum of relief, but the air was so thick with moisture that it hardly made any difference. At this oppressive level of humidity, one did not so much perspire as become increasingly damp, and Dave was no exception–every inch of his body was beaded with drops of sweat, making his bedsheets cling to his skin with an unpleasant, almost plastic stickiness.

Although he had been keeping his eyes resolutely shut for several hours now, Dave remained solidly awake–or rather, in the state of semi-twilit bleariness that seemed to dominate his conscious mind lately. Even without the heat, trying to fall asleep would have proven to be an ordeal for him, if history was any indication. Compounding this difficulty was the fact that, earlier in the evening, there had been an immigration raid in another apartment building only a few blocks away, drawing a significant police presence along with all the flashing lights and sirens that entailed. Thankfully, they dispersed fairly quickly once SWAT was called in and made their rounds. Dave didn’t particularly appreciate the encroachment on his peace and quiet right in the middle of his nighttime rituals, not to mention being burdened with the knowledge that the belligerents in question would be shipped off to a deportation camp somewhere. Still, he supposed it was a better outcome for them than ending up on the wrong end of a rope, like they often did in the border zones down south.

Peeling his back off the bed as he shifted positions, Dave reluctantly gave in to his morbid curiosity and glanced at his tablet. His eyes took a bit to adjust, but he soon recognized the dull cream-colored digits on the darkened screen reading 2:46 am. What little optimism he had for getting any sleep that night began to evaporate–the realization that he had to get up in a few hours to get ready for work was a devastating blow to his morale. He looked away from the screen in desperation, intent on focusing on anything else to distract himself from the time.

His gaze ended up landing on a nearby shelf, which housed the handful of medications he had been prescribed in order to maintain a halfway functional day-to-day life. Sleeping pills were pointedly absent from the lineup since none of the ones he had tried so far had worked–not to mention that it was too time-consuming and expensive a prospect to experiment with different prescriptions. Also present was a half-smoked pack of greens that he had picked up at a convenience store as a last-ditch attempt at self-medication, but he was planning to throw them out since they only seemed to make him feel anxious and paranoid.

Dave wiped the layer of sweat from the back of his neck and forced his eyes closed before readjusting his posture one last time, stubbornly resigning himself to discomfort if it meant having at least an outside chance of getting some sleep before sunrise. The profound feeling of fatigue that afflicted him had become so acute that it nearly gave him a headache, but he put the sensation aside and directed his attention inward. His breathing settled into a slow, steady rhythm as he lay there, the simmering confines of his apartment seeming to disappear from the edges of his perception.

After what felt like a very long time, he finally drifted off into a fitful slumber.

It was not without irony that, despite being a professional dream analyst, Dave was seldom able to remember his own dreams. He usually recalled them as nothing more than a smattering of shapes and sounds, without any real significance behind them. It was unsurprising, then, that he soon found himself caught up in another meaningless blur of noisy, colorful abstraction.

At some point, however, his dreamscape underwent an abrupt shift in scenery.

The world took on a sharp and sudden clarity, as though a veil had been lifted from Dave’s eyes. He found himself standing in a lush garden, ringed on all sides by verdant ferns and bright red flowers, their petals swaying softly in the breeze as though dancing to a silent melody. In the middle of the surrounding greenery was a regal-looking ornamental fountain, its large concrete basin collecting a pool of crystalline water which fell from a tower of concentric bowls that extended upward from the fountain’s center. The air seemed to exude a serene sense of calm, gently eroding the lethargic atmosphere that had clouded Dave’s disposition–if only for a moment, he felt perfectly content and at ease with himself.

It was then that he noticed the woman standing near the edge of the fountain.

He couldn’t seem to fully perceive her form–perhaps because he wasn’t well-practiced at dreaming–but he could feel a beautiful, confident energy radiating out from her. She was wearing some kind of black full-length coat, although its exact characteristics were indistinct, as were her arms and legs. Her face, however, appeared clearly in his mind’s eye–he noted her pale features, framed by a fiery tangle of auburn hair, her striking gray-blue eyes, and the deep red paint of her lips, in tantalizing detail.

Dave stood there, transfixed at the sight of this woman, as she began walking toward him. A nameless feeling swelled in his chest, his vision seeming to blur and distort wildly as she drew closer. Through it all, however, her face remained as clearly visualized as before. The sensation of euphoria that rushed through him crescendoed as she came to a halt about an arm’s length in front of him.

She leaned forward, bringing a hand up to the side of her mouth as though trying to intimate a secret to him, her lips forming the outlines of words with subdued furtiveness. Her voice came out in a whisper, both sensual and crisp, tickling his brain.

“Indigo Crush.”

Dave awoke an instant later, the morning sun streaming onto his bed through the cracks in his blinds like rivulets of light. The pervasive feeling of drowsiness that had plagued him for weeks seemed to lift temporarily as the sensation from his dream lingered within him for a few moments. Even after it had faded, he could hear the woman’s enigmatic words in his mind like an echo. As he got out of bed and prepared for another busy day at work, Dave felt a palpable lightness in his chest, as if he was on the verge of some great epiphany.

Chapter 2

It had been three days since Dave first dreamt about the woman in the garden and heard her murmur that unrecognizable phrase into his ear like a long-forgotten promise. He found himself having the same dream every night since then–no matter how long it took for him to fall asleep, he would inevitably be transported back into those strangely pastoral surroundings. The scene played out like a movie reel stuck on loop: the garden with the fountain in the center, the red-haired woman walking up to him, and the words that she could only convey to him in a whisper. Although he could anticipate everything that was going to happen within the dream, the feeling of tranquility bending upward into exhilaration seemed to blossom within him as vividly as it had the very first time he had dreamt it.

As soon as he got back home from work after that first night, Dave embarked on an intensive online search, hoping to develop some insight into what he had experienced. Because he made his living interpreting dreams, he recognized from an academic standpoint that the dream he had was likely a manifestation of his own personal struggles and desires–the fact that the focus of his dream was centered around an attractive woman, in particular, did not escape his notice. However, he could not shake the nagging intuition that his dream carried a more tangible meaning to it. He was certain that he had encountered the term ‘Indigo Crush’ somewhere before, likely imprinting itself in his subconscious days or perhaps even weeks prior, but he couldn’t seem to place it. That sensation of being unable to remember, needling at him from behind the furrow in his brow as he feverishly tried to probe his memory, was frustrating, to say the least, but failing to find anything after sorting through dozens of pages of search engine results only served to exacerbate matters even further.

His sense of intrigue deepened after he had the exact same dream again that night. Dave grappled with a vague but mounting feeling of anxiety as he tried searching for information online once more. However, it was nearly impossible to determine what the mental association between Indigo Crush, the garden, and the red-haired woman could be, if there indeed was one at all–every combination of search terms that he could think of returned a jumble of unrelated results, links to malware sites, and other assorted garbage. In desperation, he tried posting on an anonymous question-and-answer board to see if anyone else had heard of Indigo Crush, but in what should have perhaps been a predictable outcome, his post became a magnet for personal attacks and general abuse from the broader online community. The cost came not only to his pride but also his pocketbook–spending so many hours online over the past couple of days was sure to send his Internet bill skyrocketing.

Dave continued to ponder the matter as he stood in front of the vending machine at one of the far ends of the office. Normally, he would try to get his daily lunch break over with as quickly as possible–usually by eating at his desk so that he could catch up on his reporting–since otherwise it meant less time getting paid work done. However, his recurring dream had left him in a reflective daze, distant from the goings-on of the world around him and yet keenly aware of his own mental processes, the thoughts bubbling away in his head with frenetic intensity. The fog of weariness that had enshrouded him for so long had now grown noticeably thinner–he felt as though a hidden wellspring of vitality had opened within him, urging him to pursue the true meaning behind his dream by any means necessary.

He knew that it all stemmed from whatever it was that the phrase ‘Indigo Crush’ actually referred to, but without having any further avenues of investigation, Dave was at a loss about what to do next. How could he get an answer about something that no one else seemed to have heard of before?

“‘Scuse me.”

Dave snapped out of his reverie and turned around toward the source of the disruption. He vaguely recognized the man standing behind him as another cubicle renter on this floor of the office building–he wasn’t sure what industry he worked for, but Dave had seen him in passing a handful of times over the past couple of years. He hadn’t really spoken to him at length before, although it seemed as though that was about to change.

“Are you gonna be done ordering soon?” the man asked. “The other machine’s busted.”

It was only then that Dave realized he had been standing in front of the vending machine for several minutes now, completely lost in the realm of his own thoughts. Reddening, he stepped aside so that the man could take his place in front of it.

“Y-yeah,” he said quietly, his voice catching in his throat a bit from being startled. “Sorry.”

The man assumed his position and began scrutinizing the selection on the machine’s animated display. Now that he had been brought firmly back to reality, Dave considered a possibility that offered him a small spark of hope: his investigations had come to a dead-end, but perhaps this fellow WorkBlox associate would be able to help jumpstart things again. It was an appealing notion, but one that he was somewhat reticent to act upon–it had been a long time since he had really engaged with someone outside the context of his sessions, and it was hard to shake the feeling that he would be sorely out of his element. In point of fact, he would never have spoken to another renter under normal circumstances if given the choice. However, the depths of his curiosity had become so precipitous that he was willing to try almost anything to sate it, even if it meant embarrassing himself in the process..

Ignoring the uncomfortable dryness clinging to the inside of his throat, Dave adopted an amiable tone before engaging with the man, who had just started punching his order into the vending machine.

“Um… it’s Jake, right?”

“Jason,” the man replied.

Dave winced briefly at his misstep but continued undaunted.

“T-teriyaki noodles. Good choice.”

“Yep, for sure.”

Dave could feel a cold sweat forming around his temples, the rising tide of anxiety threatening to overtake him as he tried frantically to come up with a good segue into his intended topic of discussion. After a short lapse in conversation, for lack of a better option, he forced himself to take a direct approach.

“H-hey, have you ever heard of Indigo Crush?”

“Hmmm,” said Jason, thinking idly. “Can’t say I’ve heard of ’em. Are they a band?”

Now Dave began to flounder. “Ah, no, it’s… actually, I was hoping you knew. I heard it somewhere the other day, but–”

The vending machine beeped loudly as it delivered Jason’s order, which hit the bottom bin with an audible ka-chunk. Jason reached in and pulled out a small plastic parcel sealed with a transparent lid, the noodles inside pressed against the top like a pale tangle of worms. He turned back to Dave for a moment, food in hand.

“Sorry, doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Ah, okay,” said Dave, his enthusiasm now totally deflated. “Th-thanks anyway.”

Having finished his exchange, Jason stepped away from the machine and made his way back toward the outer row of cubicles. Dave stood there for another moment in silent deliberation, wondering if it would be worthwhile to try asking other people around the office, before finally resuming his stance in front of the vending machine and pushing a few buttons. He picked up his order of teriyaki noodles and walked back to his cubicle, his mind caught in a maelstrom of conflict and uncertainty.

That evening, as was his usual custom, Dave ate his dinner sitting on the couch while watching the nightly gazettes on his monitor. The pre-packaged scalloped potatoes and ham that he had heated up were as salty as ever, but he could still barely taste them. In that same vein, although the current events playing on the screen were unquestionably riveting–ozone advisories in effect along the West Coast, developments in the war in Tunisia, and a major protest to repeal the flat tax, to name a few–Dave had completely tuned them out. He had once again retreated into himself to mull over his dream, turning the matter over and over again in his mind as if to examine it from all angles. Ever since he had tried talking to Jason earlier that day, he had found himself alternating between feelings of frustration and anticipation, looking forward to his dream repeating again that night and yet remaining no closer than before to determining its origin or purpose.

In the hopes of leaving this indeterminate territory, Dave let the analytical part of his brain take charge and tried to assess his mental state as dispassionately as he did with his clients. He was duly aware that his research into the phenomenon known to him only as Indigo Crush was driven by a fixation bordering on obsession, and not just in relation to the mystery behind the phrase itself–there were many dimensions to his dream that he found himself compelled to explore, including the pristine nature of the garden and the allure of the red-headed woman that seemed to take residence there.

Even so, the dream’s main attraction for Dave was the rushing feeling of elation that always seemed to accompany it. It would start in a slow and calm measure at first, then progressively build up and eventually burst forth to the surface of his mind as he awoke. Each section of the dream wove neatly into the next, forming a beautifully evocative tapestry that never ceased to captivate him with its intricate warps and wefts. Compared to his mental condition while awake, going through the motions in his daily life amid a feeling of eternal fatigue that seemed to reach to his very bones, the garden in his dream was its own form of Eden–and perhaps, he had to admit, the red-haired woman who inhabited it was his personal rendition of Eve.

He directed his attention back to the screen in front of him, frowning at the glare of his reflection juxtaposed against the crime blotters and police reports from downtown that now scrolled across the display. Thinking logically, perhaps this was the reason he was having the dream–the world around him was boring, crass, and in a seemingly perpetual downward spiral, whereas the garden was idyllic and built upon a foundation of overwhelmingly positive emotion. In light of this enormous gap between real and ideal, what reason did he have to be anything other than single-mindedly focused on the meaning behind Indigo Crush?

Dave turned off the screen and walked over to his diminutive kitchen, discarding his empty dinner tray in the trash can underneath the sink. It was time for him to begin his nightly routine of stretching, relaxation, and hygienic activity, which he had carefully designed to facilitate the process of falling asleep. However, considering its low success rate up to this point, he was inclined to skip everything and go straight to bed if it meant getting back to his dream again that much quicker. The thought made his heart beat a little faster with excitement, but it soon gave way to impatience and worry–what if he were to spend yet another night of tossing and turning, but without dreaming anything at all? It would be like the light at the end of a very long tunnel suddenly being snuffed out in front of him. His heart sank at that depressing prospect.

He sighed and sat on the edge of the bed for a moment of brief introspection before finally lying down and setting his tablet on the nearby mantel. In his view, coming closer to grasping the intricate workings of his dreamscape was well worth the risk.

Chapter 3

Dave kept the navigation app in the periphery of his vision as he drove through the boroughs on the south end of the city, following the blue directional arrow on the screen with detached carefulness. He was partway through a shift at his hobby, delivering packages by car as a courier for Rio Express–the flagship subsidiary of Rio Guerrero, Inc.–which he did for a handful of hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Although this often meant moving and lifting items too heavy or bulky for drone-based delivery, it was not without its advantages–not only did it allow him to get out of his micro-apartment and do some informal sightseeing around the city on the weekends, but it also afforded him a few extra bucks to help him get ahead of his debt payments each month. He had already managed to make enough money to recoup the cost of his certification and initial sign-up fee, so apart from the increase in his insurance premiums that he had to deal with until he could finance a self-driving upgrade for his rental vehicle, every dollar he made from here on out was pure profit.

He continued along the path that his tablet dictated with well-practiced diligence, but Dave’s thoughts were otherwise unfocused, his mind stalled out in the middle of a deepening mire of despondence. He had been having the dream about Indigo Crush for over two weeks now, and despite trying his best to investigate matters further, he had come out of the undertaking empty-handed–he had nothing to show for his efforts except for the brief, blissful glimpses of serenity that the dream seemed to allow him. Those feelings had persisted for a short while into his waking life at first, but like a potent narcotic, the dream started to become less and less effective as time wore on. Now when he awoke, the bright sensation that burned within him in the dream quickly withered away, replaced by an all-encompassing feeling of dejection and hollowness. Sometimes, that cold sense of reality was so stark in its contrast that he wished he hadn’t dreamt anything at all.

However, in spite of these newfound misgivings, Dave found himself looking forward to the dream again each night as he slid into bed, the visceral disquiet from the previous morning becoming a mere inkblot eclipsed by the shadow of his growing anticipation.

Dave was brought back to the situation at hand by a faint chime coming from his tablet. Realizing that he had reached his destination, he pulled up to a nearby curb and stepped out of the vehicle, his authentication key at the ready. He quickly spotted the bank of mailboxes posted nearby and slid his key into the card reader installed at the top of the unit. After dialing in the recipient’s address, he hoisted the parcel out from his trunk and set it down into the delivery chute that had opened up on one side of the mailbox. Following a short scan, he heard a familiar ding as the chute closed, indicating a successful delivery. There was no need to check his tablet just yet, however–he knew that Rio Express would only tender payment after he had delivered all the packages in his current run.

Dave queued up the next address on his tablet and resumed driving, although he remained firmly adrift in his thoughts. More and more, he had begun to consider his dream to be a symptom of chronic mental distress, given how long it had been going on and how frequently it had managed to recur. One clear contributor, although by no means definitive, was the constant work grind to which he had subjected himself–between his role as a dream analyst during the week and as a courier on the weekends, Dave felt as though he had become a stereotype of the workaholic burning the candle at both ends, a flimsy pantomime of a productive member of society. At least on the surface, the idea of spending most of his time working didn’t seem to bother him, but he knew that stressors like this often caused tension to build in the subconscious mind in ways that weren’t always immediately apparent.

Even if that were the case, however, it wasn’t something that he could do much about, not only because he needed a job to sustain himself, but also since his psychologist’s license depended on him continuing to put in his time working in health services. In that sense, if he wasn’t able to maintain his current trajectory, he might end up worse off than when he started–potential employers viewed gaps in work history with a critical and often dubious eye. Dave wasn’t willing to sacrifice his lucrative future career, not to mention the years of preparation and hard work it had taken to get this far, for the uncertain prospect of a little peace of mind.

He sighed as he cast an idle glance at the scenery passing by his driver’s side window, unfamiliar as he was with this part of town, and gripped the steering wheel tightly. Perhaps it would be better for his mental well-being if he were to forget he ever had the dream, to begin with. It only seemed to serve as a distraction from his real problems, a symptom rather than an actionable cause. Not to mention that he was still having trouble falling asleep in spite of–

Dave found his train of thought suddenly cut short when he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye that stopped him dead in his tracks. Acting purely on instinct, he veered out of traffic and swerved off to the side of the road, his right front tire jumping the curb with an audible squeal as he hurried to park the car. It was as though a fire had been lit inside his head–he didn’t even take the opportunity to think twice about what he had done. He had only enough presence of mind to put on his hazard lights before stepping out of the vehicle, his eyes widening like saucers as he boggled at the spectacle that unfolded before him.

Right there, in the middle of this unknown stretch of a yawning metropolis, was the garden he had seen in his dream.

Dave walked toward the garden, a small green space that seemed to have been dropped neatly in place between two nondescript office buildings, as though hypnotized. He was half-convinced that he was having some sort of episode by the time he reached the front gate, but a strong gust of cool air brought him back to reality, shaking the nearby foliage with a genuineness that was beyond the grasp of a mere hallucination. Anticipating a dramatic change in the weather as the city continued its ongoing shift away from the recent spat of heat, he drew his windbreaker closer around his body before slipping through the gate and proceeding into the garden proper.

He continued his trek until he was, to the best of his reckoning, where his dream always seemed to begin. Dave could see that there were definite differences between the garden as it existed in his mind’s eye and the one that he saw before him now–the ferns were a little less vibrant in their coloring, and the crimson flowers had wilted a bit in response to the burgeoning cold. However, the fact that it was the same garden as the one in his dream was indisputable, not only because of the general shape and arrangement of the flora that encircled him, but even more conclusively by the presence of the singular fountain at the center of it all. He observed the water cascading from its tiered basins with mesmerizing intensity, as if trying to transport himself into his dream while still awake.

It was at that moment that Dave felt an uncanny sense of synchronicity, like a sharp electric twinge, deep within his brain. He tore his eyes away from the steady trickling of the fountain and stared off into the space just beyond the lip of its foundation, an escalating sense of otherworldly eeriness overtaking him. For a brief instant, he was utterly certain that the red-haired woman, replete in her wraithlike garb, had bled over from whatever subliminal realm she had come from and was about to materialize from behind the edge of the fountain, walking toward him with that distinct, captivating air swirling about her and those mystical words dancing from the curve of her lips like a lilting refrain. The immediate enormity of this belief was so overwhelming that it sent a shock through to the base of his spine as he stood there, totally consumed by the imagined possibilities that reverberated within him.

Then, just as suddenly as the sensation had come, it disappeared. Dave stood there, briefly suffocated by an onrushing feeling of impenetrable seclusion, the muted sound of splashing water cutting like a knife through the silence that had descended around him.

Once his senses had returned to him, Dave started shaking his head, as though trying to rid himself of the delusional fantasies that had nested deep within his mind. He told himself that he must have seen the garden sometime before he started having the dream, filing it away in the recesses of his memory only to be recalled in detail later while he slept. He knew that any other explanation was outside of the bounds of science, crossing into the territory of New Age philosophy or the paranormal–in other words, sheer impossibilities that could only persist among the lunatic fringe. Entertaining such notions was a fallacious and even dangerous exercise that he, as a fledgling psychologist, could not logically accept under any circumstance.

But still, Dave knew to the core of his being that he had never seen the garden before in his life. And that meant that here had to be something more to his dream–his intuition screamed it from every fiber, every atom that held him together. No matter what rationalization he could provide that would satisfy him academically, he could not escape this primeval and intimate truth that had taken root within him, and that now held him ever so tightly in its thrall.

Dave clutched one hand around the edges of his pants pocket, fumbling around the area for a moment until he realized that his tablet was not there. A few seconds later, he remembered that he had left it in the car–and in the process, the whole chain of events that had led him to the garden came rushing back to him.

He froze for a moment that seemed like an eternity as a fresh sense of panic set in. How long had he left the vehicle unattended by the side of the road? Dave didn’t wait for an answer–he beat a hasty retreat through the garden gate and sped over to where he had parked his car. He saw that it had had two pink slips glued to the drivers side window with some sizable parking fines attached, but thankfully the vehicle itself appeared untouched. With a small sigh of relief, he opened the door and resumed his position in the driver’s seat, only for his mental state to be thrown into disarray once again–his tablet screen was glowing red with missed notifications about upcoming delivery deadlines, some of which had already expired.

The sudden discovery of this insurmountable time crunch immediately pushed the matter of the garden into the back of Dave’s mind as he frantically worked to resume his deliveries. Even as he did so, however, he could feel the spark of Indigo Crush rekindling within the turbulent pit of his soul.

Chapter 4

Dave lay on the bed, curled up on his side with his head resting in the lap of his Euphorix therapist Angie, his brow knit despite the pleasurable sensation of her fingers running through the furrows of his hair. Purchasing the services of a professional cuddler at the end of each month was the only indulgence that he regularly allowed himself, although he would have to tighten his belt a little after this session–his budget was still struggling to absorb the penalties that Rio Express had recently imposed on him for his late deliveries, not to mention the parking fines that he had incurred that same day. The weight of his financial reality would have burdened him more if there were any viable alternatives available to him, but even a basic VR kit was well outside his price range, and left much to be desired since it provided only an impersonal connection between parties. Besides that possibility, the other avenues for companionship that he had found were either unduly expensive, flatly illegal, or both.

Ever the consummate professional, Angie noticed his discomfort and gave him a sidelong look, the gentleness evident in her eyes. She leaned in and murmured softly into his ear, as if trying not to startle him out of his trance.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

Dave felt a brief tingling across the back of his neck as she spoke, but it went away once he had registered what she was saying. It was a question that, based on his admittedly limited experience with women, never really had a satisfying answer–or at least, none that ever came to mind in the moment. This instance was no different, but feeling that it would be awkward to leave her question unanswered, he decided to hazard a response, even if meant making one up off the top of his head.

“N-nothing,” he said. “Just work stuff.”

“The usual grind?”

“Well, yes, but…” he said, struggling to come up with a believable spin to put on his story.

Without being prompted, Angie jumped in to try and fill the gap that he had left at the end of his sentence. “Dealing with a big project? Workplace politics? Or maybe, an office fling?”She said this last remark in a lighthearted, almost teasing tone.

Dave let out a nervous, perfunctory laugh that was not much more than a sharp exhalation of air. On the surface, it was a natural enough response–or at least, he hoped as much–but the intent behind her words gave him some pause. The WorkBlox building in which he did business was mostly rented out to workers from the technology sector, which was skewed pretty heavily toward the male demographic, and he hadn’t had the opportunity to interact with any female colleagues at Reverie since his initial orientation a couple of years prior. As such, his working situation didn’t really provide many chances to meet members of the opposite sex. Even if it did, his contract contained strict anti-fraternization clauses to shield his employer from potential harassment charges. Of course, it also went without saying that his clientele was off-limits since dating a patient would be a gross breach of professional ethics, although that was never a line he had any interest in crossing, to begin with.

Realizing that he had introduced an uncomfortable lull into the conversation, Dave finally responded to Angie’s conjectures.

“N-no, nothing like that.”

She started rubbing the tips of her fingers in a circular motion, working through to his scalp as though lathering it. Dave felt a wave of calm wash over him, releasing some of the tension that had clustered around his temples. His forehead began to unclench a bit as the stress in his body slowly dissipated.

“Just relax,” said Angie as she put her techniques to use. “It’s okay to leave work at work.”

As her hands went through their well-practiced convolutions, Dave found himself reflecting further on the matter of his relationship prospects. Neither his work nor his hobby offered any real opportunities for meeting women, and he didn’t know anyone personally who would be able to introduce him to someone, either. Although he technically had a subscription to a few dating apps on his tablet, he very rarely checked them since he found the process so thoroughly demoralizing. Even his best efforts in this arena seemed to fall spectacularly short, garnering maybe a meager handful of matches over the course of thousands of swipes. Of those who had granted him the privilege of a match, the conversations either promptly died off or resulted in shaky plans that inevitably fell through. It was a struggle that he largely tried to ignore, existing only on the outskirts of his consciousness. Even so, he was keenly aware of the difficulties inherent to the dating process, and the depressing slog through a never-ending cavalcade of rejection that it seemed to entail.

As Dave contemplated these fatalistic musings, his thoughts turned inexorably toward the matter of his dream. It had been a week since he stumbled upon the garden in real life, and all he had managed to learn since then was that it was named, rather mundanely, Fountain Garden Park. This tiny grain of information had inspired him to delve back into his investigations with an almost religious fervor, but leads quickly ran dry from there. Still, he knew for certain that the garden truly did exist, and as such his fascination with Indigo Crush became all the more ardent. The weight of this knowledge took its toll on his mental stability, however–his emotions seemed to have come untethered, swinging erratically between quiet indifference and passionate intensity with what felt like each passing moment.

Although these latest developments had left him in a state of flux, the strength of his convictions about his dream never wavered. He staunchly believed that the red-haired woman that appeared before him every night had to have a cosmic significance to her presence in his dreamscape, more than just a psychosomnic symbol or a manifestation of his slavering id. As he reenacted the usual scene in his head, her incantations once again echoed in his ear, her voice shrouded as ever in a low, intimate whisper.

Then, out of nowhere, Dave was seized by an unexpected impulse. Angie probably knew a great many women from her own social and professional life–maybe she had seen the red-haired woman somewhere before? He realized that it was a possibility so remote that it bordered on astronomical, but no sooner had the thought come to mind that the words came tumbling out of his mouth in a congealed mass of syllables.

“D-do you mind if I ask you something?” he blurted.

Angie continued to stroke his hair as she spoke, smiling sweetly all the while.

“Sure, go right ahead.”

Dave could feel the sweat begin to condense on the back of his neck as he tried to find a way to put his feelings into words. It took more effort than he would have cared to admit to keep from launching into a disjointed play-by-play of his dream, but he was able to successfully stifle the urge. His rational side concluded that talking to Angie at length about the garden, and especially how he had found it in the real world, would only make him sound as though he had gone off the deep end–not only could it potentially bring the session to a premature and unsatisfying end, but it could also close the door on finding out anything further about the red-haired woman. The thought of running into yet another setback in his long pursuit for an answer set off a nauseous tremor in his stomach, but he knew he had to take some kind of risk if he wanted to progress further. He had come too far to back down now.

Steeling his resolve, Dave gulped and proceeded with his question.

“I-I’m looking for someone,” he said, clearing the hitch in his throat with a strained cough. “I mean, someone I saw the other day, just in passing on the street.”

“Oh, really?” Dave couldn’t see Angie’s face from where he was situated, but she at least sounded as though she was paying attention to what he was saying.

“It was this woman that I saw. I don’t know her name, but I can remember what she looks like. I know it’s a long shot, but if I describe her to you… w-would you be able to tell me if you’ve seen her before?”

Her fingers stopped weaving through his hair for a few brief moments as she pondered his request, but resumed shortly after.

“Um… sure, I can try,” she said.

Dave felt his heart skip a beat–he realized that, however implausible the outcome might remain in the end, he still had one more chance to learn who the red-haired woman was, and by extension the meaning behind Indigo Crush and his dream as a whole. A newfound sense of gratitude welled up inside of him, taking hold so completely that he bolted upright from the bed as though struck by lightning, leaping to his feet with unexpected swiftness. He could tell that Angie was surprised at his uncharacteristic liveliness, noting her arched eyebrows and the distinct glimmer of bewilderment reflected in her eyes. However, he quickly found himself swept off by his own runaway thoughts instead, becoming more and more consumed by the alluring visage of the woman from his dreams.

The prospect of a potential breakthrough in his investigations was so exciting that Dave found it hard to keep still. He began to pace around the room as he tried to formalize a vision of the red-haired woman that Angie could readily digest. After a moment or two, however, he realized that he could no longer contain himself–he dove headfirst into the details with reckless abandon, hoping that she would be able to follow his circuitous train of thought well enough to provide a reasonable answer when all was said and done.

“W-well, she was about my height,” he started, haltingly. “Maybe a couple of inches shorter. She might have been in heels or something. I don’t know. Anyway, she was wearing a heavy black coat. Like a winter coat, I mean. I’m not sure why since it hasn’t been really cold lately, but maybe it was decorative or she was just trying to cover herself up. I think she probably had a nice body from the looks of her, but I couldn’t really tell because her coat was so thick. But maybe she was wearing it for some other reason.”

Dave paused for a second to gauge Angie’s reaction, but her general mood was inscrutable. Realizing that he had probably ventured too far into the weeds by talking at length about the woman’s wardrobe, he decided to continue on a different tack.

“Anyway, she had a pretty-looking face. I’m not sure if she was wearing makeup or not. Lipstick, for sure–like the dark red kind–but not much else. Which is what I prefer, to be honest. She also had fair skin, blue eyes, and this long red hair that really made her stand out. It was curly and thick, almost like… well, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is what they say about the carpet matching the drapes.”

He continued, staring off into the distance as though trying to project an image of the red-haired woman directly in front of him for his own visual reference.

“I remember her voice sounded very mellow, kind of low but also soothing. I don’t think she had an accent since she spoke pretty clear English and she didn’t sound like an immigrant or anything like that. Actually, I’m not sure whether she lives in the city or if she was just visiting. I saw her at the park near 38th and Broadway, if that helps narrow things down.”

Dave stopped talking for a moment to catch his breath. His mind reeled a little as he double- and triple-checked his mental list of details about the red-haired woman, but the sensation went away after he was sure he had covered everything. Without wasting any more time, he capped off his inquiry with the actual question at hand.

“So, do you know who she is?”

He looked at Angie expectantly, certain that, in just a matter of moments, she would provide the long-awaited answer he had been searching for. She wore a peculiar expression on her face, her lips tightened to a thin line as sat up on the bed with her arms tucked in firmly at her sides. Dave thought that perhaps she was having trouble internally sorting through her network of friends and acquaintances to find someone matching the description that he gave. However, it was only a few seconds later that she provided a brief, if somewhat faltering, reply.

“I… uh… no,” said Angie.


“I don’t know a woman who matches up with that… very detailed… description.”

Dave felt as though he had been sucker-punched in the gut. His heart, which had been beating all the faster in anticipation of her words, seemed to stop and then lurch to a sluggish thud as a shadow fell over his demeanor, draining all the color from his face. He tried to muster a casual response but was quickly overcome by a heady malaise which drained him of all his energy.

“I see…” he said weakly.

Perhaps it was because his distress was so evident in his appearance, but whatever the reason, Angie got up from the bed and stepped toward him, her hands splayed out in front of her as though she was trying to approach a wounded animal.

“To be honest, I kind of figured that would be the case from the get-go. You said so yourself that it was a long shot. I know a friend or two that have red hair, but I don’t think either of them is who you’re talking about…”

As she spoke, Dave felt a growing sense of agitation hammering in the middle of his head. It was bad enough that the red-haired woman had once again slipped back into the realm of the intangible–he could feel a lump forming in his throat that he could not swallow as this consideration hit him in earnest–but now he was forced to sit through a lecture about how foolish he had been to have gotten his hopes up. He began to compulsively pick at his nails as he listened to Angie speak, but a few moments later his hands reflexively curled into fists. What right did she have to talk down to him like this? Perhaps because she was technically billed as a therapist, she mistakenly thought that she had insight into his circumstances. However, Dave knew that she had ventured far outside of her element. Only he had the requisite knowledge, the essential understanding of self, to realize the importance of finding the red-haired woman. Only he could determine what it was that Indigo Crush truly meant. Only he–

Christ, he thought to himself. Will this stupid woman ever shut up?

The dull rage that had found a home within him now ran hot in Dave’s veins, pulsing through his body with an intolerable constancy. As the sound of Angie’s voice continued to fray at his already raw nerves, he found himself inching steadily toward the boiling point. Finally, in a fit of desperation, he grabbed blindly for the nearest object–which turned out to be a disused water glass–and brandished it above his head like a cudgel.

“ENOUGH!” he bellowed, dashing it against the floor in one rapid motion.

The glass shattered into dozens of glittering shards upon impact, scattering across the linoleum floor in jagged fragments. Dave blinked, his violent temperament now completely vanished, as though the events of the past few seconds had been nothing more than a bad dream. He had only enough presence of mind to glance at Angie and witness her transition from shock to horror, and then to profound indignation. No sooner had he noticed this than she lashed out at him, causing him to recoil as she jabbed her finger in his direction with furious emphasis as she spoke.

“Alright, that’s it!” she snapped. “I’ve had it! They don’t pay me enough for this shit.”

She yanked her coat off a nearby wall hook and headed for the door. Dave started toward her as the realization of what he had done began to overwhelm him, but when she turned around he found himself frozen in place by the fierceness of her glare.

“Stay away from me, you goddamn psycho!”

With that, Angie exited the micro-apartment, slamming the door shut behind her.

The silence that now pervaded the room seemed to ring in Dave’s ears. He found himself sliding down to his knees, his heart wracked with guilt and despair–he had never meant to push her away, but his frustration had ended up getting the better of him. Now it looked like he would never get the chance to see her again, and that was even assuming he didn’t end up being blacklisted from Euphorix entirely. The red-haired woman from his dream, too, seemed too far away now to ever truly reach, leaving him empty and alone under the indifferent auspices of the city. Perhaps, he mused, he was doomed from the start to suffer from the pleasures of the dream, unable to gain what he desired and yet unable to avert his gaze. His loneliness redoubled as this conviction took residence deep within him.

Dave remained kneeling on the floor for a long while, until he could marshal just enough strength to crawl into bed. He lay there in a state of miserable catatonia for what felt like an eternity.

The next morning, he awoke to the blaring of his alarm, feeling listless and fundamentally numb. He soon realized that for the first time in weeks, he had dreamt of nothing.

Chapter 5

Dave remained propped up at his desk, staring off into the void with unfeeling intensity as the working hours slowly ticked away. Although his cubicle was host to a number of different clients that morning, he could only perceive their chatter as distant background noise, like a monitor tuned to static in another room. Even as clients came and went, he remained in an oblivious stupor, his right hand automatically tapping the tablet buttons with the stylus held limply between his fingers. Dave knew that the full extent of his apathy must have been readily apparent, but he didn’t care–he had only enough energy to give each client a curt greeting at the beginning of each session and his usual canned response at the end. Whether this led to withheld tips or poor reviews at the end of the day didn’t matter much to him anymore. Such concerns failed to penetrate the layers of fog that now seemed to totally obscure him.

It had been nearly a month since Dave had stopped dreaming about the garden. At first, he wanted to believe that the missing dreams were just a fluke, or perhaps caused by a mental disturbance from the incident with Angie back when it was still fresh in his memory. However, after a week without any dreams whatsoever, he had to admit to himself that something had irreversibly changed–the doorway that had opened itself up in his mind’s eye was now barred shut. With that, his remaining leads into Indigo Crush completely evaporated, leaving the trail to go cold for what was, in all likelihood, the very last time. In the weeks that followed, his anxiety and mania gradually decayed into a cavernous depression that now left him in an existential vacuum, alone and grasping blindly in the dark.

His insomnia had retained a constant presence in his life even back when he was dreaming regularly, but now it seemed to gnaw at him with renewed antipathy. Dave could barely maintain his already tenuous grasp on reality–his waking moments were now a sort of torture, fueled by a deep, almost spiritual exhaustion that weighed down on him like an anchor. He spent his days working, commuting, and then going straight to bed, repeating this cycle ad nauseam until it all became an indecipherable blur. The only discernible difference from day to day was that, since he had been fired from Rio Express after his foray into the garden, he was not forced to leave his bed on the weekends anymore. Still, these opportunities for recuperation were unavoidably squandered–he ate very little during these brief periods, and unfortunately slept even less. All he could do was yearn achingly to have the dream again, if even just one last time, and hear the red-haired woman whisper in his ear once more, “Indigo Crush”.

Dave would have remained motionless in his chair for the rest of the day, but right around noon, his tablet chimed as it received a message, bringing him out of his daze for a brief moment. Blinking away the dryness from his bloodshot eyes, he tilted his head toward the screen and read through the notification.

He froze as he digested its contents: it was a directive from the Reverie corporate office, requesting that he proceed to the conference room in the adjacent building immediately for a meeting with one of their liaisons.

The reason for the meeting wasn’t stated in the message, but Dave didn’t have to think too hard to figure out why he was being called in–the quality of his work had clearly suffered through his interminable descent into the doldrums, and some small part of him had expected he would eventually be let go as a result. Funnily enough, the idea of being discharged from his contract with Reverie didn’t faze Dave all that much, even though it probably should have–it might have been because the dire reality of the situation had not yet fully dawned on him, but his first instinct was not one of panic, but rather of weary relief. Perhaps this was a sign, a clarion call from on high granting him permission to finally succumb to the downward spiral into which he had been inexorably drawn.

Regardless, he knew he would have to answer his employer’s summons sooner rather than later. Ignoring the groaning of his joints from sitting in the same position for so long, Dave stood up and put on his coat before heading out to the ground floor.

The heat of early March had now fully given way to a decidedly wintry late April. Dave shivered as he trudged through the frosty path between the two office buildings, the icy air biting at his exposed face with indiscriminate cruelty. The walk did not cover too great a distance, but the harsh elements of the cold world in which he found himself made it seem all the longer. He hurried into the building opposite his own, immediately reeling with a sense of déjà vu–the layout and decor in the front lobby were nearly identical to that of his own workplace. This proved advantageous in determining his bearings at the very least, and was soon able to find the meeting room.

He knocked on the door briefly before entering, unsure of what to expect.

Dave quickly discovered that the conference room was actually host to two occupants rather than just the one that the message had indicated. Both appeared to be professionals based on their attire, but they had distinctly different demeanors–the woman sitting behind the desk had a stony expression, her eyes singularly focused on her tablet, while the man stood off to one side, leaning casually against the desk with his hands in his pockets. He smiled broadly at Dave as he entered the room, catching him off guard.

“It’s Dave, right?” he asked, jovially extending his hand. “Carl Handscombe, Hyperion Solutions.”

Befuddled at this pronouncement, Dave could only manage enough situational awareness to grasp Mr. Handscombe’s hand and give it a half-hearted shake. Handscombe continued to talk throughout the exchange.

“Our company has been conducting studies with the general public in this city on behalf of businesses nationwide. You’ve been selected as one of the participants for a new initiative that we’ve been piloting over the last few months, and we’re hoping to get some feedback from your own personal perspective.”

He gestured at the widescreen monitor on the wall before Dave could fully comprehend what he had said. It flickered on automatically, drawing Dave’s attention to the video that had been queued up. Dave eyed the screen blearily at first, but after the copyright notice had faded from view and the footage began to play in earnest, he found himself completely entranced–in fact, he could scarcely believe what he was seeing.

On the monitor in front of him, the dream that he had found so elusive over the past few weeks had suddenly come back to life.

Dave gaped at the screen as the scene played out, exactly as he remembered it from the dream that had once so engrossed him. The camera panned from one end of the garden to the other, fixating on the fountain in the center before coming to an abrupt stop. This was followed by a smash cut to the red-haired woman coming up from behind the rim of the basin–his heart nearly leaped out of his chest at this–and walking confidently toward the camera. He could see now that she was wearing a fashionable black peacoat and what looked like stiletto heels, their sharpness contrasting with the visual blur that had previously obscured them. Another key difference was that there was an ethereal kind of music playing in the background as the scene progressed, like synthetic strings vibrating in space, cutting out briefly just as the woman whispered “Indigo Crush” into the camera.

Although Dave expected the video to end right there, it went on for another few seconds. The camera cut to a dark room with a spotlight shining down on what looked like a tiny glass vial of liquid with a black cap on top. The words “Indigo Crush” were laser-etched onto the surface in curvy letters, a fact that was supplemented by the voice of a woman with a seductive British accent: “Indigo Crush. By Marchand.”

Dave stood there for a moment, nonplussed, before Handscombe stepped in to explain.

“We’ve been working to corner the emerging market of dream advertising for a while now,” he said, beaming brightly. “Our design team came up with a number of different mock product campaigns and tied each one to a specific delivery mechanism to see which ones work best across a variety of field conditions. Now, in your case–”

Handscombe pulled out a tablet at this point and tapped through some prompts with his stylus before continuing.

“–it looks like the Indigo Crush men’s cologne promo was broadcast for around three and a half weeks in March, and we can see from your Internet search history and the surveillance records from your office and vehicle that the campaign was highly effective overall, although it says here that the signal underwent some distortion during transmission. Your data’s been the most conclusive so far, though, so I think kudos are due either way.”

Dave was at a complete loss for words for a few seconds, observing the still image on the monitor with a vacant stare. Finally, he managed a somewhat meandering response.

“S-so, Indigo Crush… is a cologne? A-and what about the garden…?”

“We had some archival video of Fountain Garden Park that we had to use to keep the film rights from expiring, so our visual effects team went ahead and killed two birds with one stone on that one. As for the product itself, it never actually existed. The one you see on the screen is just a detailed render that they were able to put together for the mock campaign.”

Dave gulped back the bile that had risen to the back of his throat, causing a burning sensation to build in his chest. He dreaded to hear the answer to his next question, but he felt compelled to ask it all the same.

“A-and the woman?” he croaked out.

Handscombe laughed congenially and winked at him. “Eye-catching, isn’t she? All computer-generated, of course–composited from a pool of hundreds of freelance models, then tweaked by the effects team to look even better than the real thing.”

It took all of Dave’s remaining mental fortitude to keep from buckling under the strain of this latest revelation. He felt as though he had been hollowed out, physically and emotionally, to the utmost degree. Nothing seemed real anymore–even the garden that he knew existed had become nothing more than stock footage, a backdrop upon which the fiction of Indigo Crush could be performed. The fact that the red-haired woman he had spent so many lonely nights longing for was purely a fabrication, and even more so that the very phenomenon of Indigo Crush which he had obsessed over for nearly two months was nothing more than a half-baked delusion concocted by some corporate marketing team, was an unyielding weight on his soul. It was all he could do to keep the last vestiges of his sanity from crumbling away altogether.

Either Dave’s body language failed to betray his emotional state, or Handscombe did not care, but in any case, he kept right on talking to Dave as though the previous insights were totally inconsequential.

“Anyway, now that we’ve brought you up to speed, we’d like to have you go through a debriefing process–just filling out a brief questionnaire and an exit interview with one of our researchers. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours of your time, and we can schedule it whenever you’re free this week. But first, we’ll need to get your signature on a few documents.”

With that, Handscombe set his tablet on the desk so that it was plainly visible, revealing a screen covered on all sides by densely-typed legalese. For the first time since the meeting began, the woman sitting there shifted her gaze away from her own device, focusing on the documentation with unnerving intensity.

“Just a little legal formality,” he said, waving one hand idly. “We were able to acquire your data from its respective owners during the Indigo Crush campaign, but the documents here are for agreeing to provide the additional debriefing data and some other miscellaneous details.”

Dave looked into the screen of the tablet with deadened eyes. There were three separate boxes hovering toward the bottom of the text which were awaiting his signature. He almost reached for the stylus to start signing in the designated areas out of instinct, but his nascent feelings of hatred and revulsion toward Handscombe and the woman stopped him. After everything that these people had put him through, all the anguish and torment that he had endured at their hands for the benefit of their own vainglorious ambitions, did they really expect him to roll over and give them what they wanted?

The gravity of this final humiliation was so staggering that a switch seemed to flip inside Dave’s head. Galvanizing anger flashed through him, filling every corner of his mind. He found himself speaking with cold deliberation through gritted teeth.


“I’m sorry?”

“I said no. I refuse to sign these.”

Handscombe’s smile faltered briefly, but he quickly recovered as the woman at the desk interjected on his behalf. Dave noted that her voice was higher-pitched than he had would have guessed from her appearance.

“As a legal representative for Reverie Therapeutics, I would like to inform the contracted worker that, in accordance with the standard renewable employment agreement signed by the relevant parties on March 31st, 2069, any requests made by a third party for the contractor’s data, outside of those used exclusively for federal identification, that have been legally approved by the company, must be fulfilled by the contractor on an immediate basis. Refusing to comply with this directive will result in a breach of contract which will render the employment agreement null and void.”

She fixed her severe gaze on Dave, causing an involuntary shiver to travel up his spine. Despite the heady legal jargon that couched its intent, her threat was perfectly clear–if he didn’t agree to participate in Handscombe’s debriefing, Reverie would fire him. It was the very outcome he had anticipated when he first walked through the door, but this time the prospect struck him differently. The fact that the attorney had tried to strong-arm him into compliance rankled him to his very core, his previous contempt for the two representatives now burning white-hot in the center of his chest. However, the fury that consumed him was fundamentally noble in its genesis, transporting him to an island of calm amid a sea of stormy chaos.

Dave understood what he had to do with perfect clarity. Slowly, he reached for the stylus that lay in front of him, his fingers curling around it as though gripping the hilt of a blade. Then, with a demonstrative movement of his arm, he raised the implement above his head and slammed it down into the tablet.

The stylus drove through the surface like a masonry nail, sending cracks spreading across its outer layer like discordant spider webs. Handscombe gave a visible start of surprise, running a hand through his hair and clucking his tongue as the screen flickered and died, but the attorney barely batted an eyelash at Dave’s outburst.

“Very well,” she said, resuming her position before her tablet. “As of this moment, the contracted worker is terminated from the aforementioned employment agreement with Reverie Therapeutics. Any pending payments to the contractor’s account for work completed since the last payment period will be automatically remitted back to the company. Please expect a contract cancellation fee less this amount to be sent out in the next two to three business days. No further contact between the contractor or the company in an employment-related capacity is to occur from this point forward.”

With that, she tapped her stylus a few times on her tablet, presumably to set the final details of Dave’s fate in stone, and then got up to leave the room. Having recovered from his initial shock, Handscombe began to follow suit, but as he stowed away the remains of his tablet, he glanced at Dave and gave a shrug.

“Well,” he said, grimacing slightly, “we’ll make do with what we have. And, uh… we’ll send you a bill for the damages.”

The door shut behind them, leaving Dave alone in the conference room–dreamless, unraveled, and disconnected from the world.

Bundling his clothes as best as he could around himself for warmth, Dave peered out into the frost-stricken city from the plaza of his former office, the rows of buildings seeming to radiate out in all directions. It gave the impression that there were endless possibilities stretching before him, but he knew that this was just as much of an illusion as Indigo Crush had turned out to be. The full import of what had transpired now settled, deep and abiding, within the pit of his stomach, cultivating in him a coalescing numbness that not even the cold weather could rival.

As Dave stood in the center of the square, he performed a mental calculus that was bitterly steeped in the realism of his situation. He had a little money socked away in his bank account, but it was close to the end of the month–the rent on his micro-apartment would be due in a matter of days, not to mention the rental fees for his appliances, furnishings, and other everyday accouterments to contend with on top of that. He would have to cancel his rental agreements for his cubicle space and office equipment, seeing how he was now out of a job, which in turn would incur a pro-rated cost for the latest rental period, and possibly even additional fees due to his early cancellation. That also didn’t include his outstanding student loans and other personal debt, nor the penalties from Hyperion Solutions and Reverie that he was apparently going to be awarded.

The realization was as stark as it was unpleasant: even in the wildly improbable event that he was able to find a new job by tomorrow, there would not be enough time to meet his financial obligations. He had no assets, no collateral, no prospects of any kind for him to even make a dent in the impenetrable wall of payments that loomed over him. In other words, there was no possible way for him to dig himself out of this hole, no winning moves left for him to make–the game was over and he had lost. At the end of the day, he had nothing to his name but the clothes on his back.

Dave was immediately struck, as though by a counteracting force, by a fleeting compulsion that soon became more firmly rooted in his mind. If it was true that he had nothing left to lose, he reasoned, then that also meant that there was nothing left for anyone else to take–not Hyperion Solutions, not Reverie, not Rio Guerrero, nor any of the countless other corporate entities that had dictated the strictures of his life up to that point. They would certainly attempt to collect their dues, of course, but he knew that it would ultimately prove unprofitable for them. Trying to squeeze blood from a stone rarely yielded much, after all–except perhaps a sore pair of hands.

Dave looked across the plaza toward the office buildings one last time. The city that towered around him was indeed a strange monument, erected in honor of a society that had become profoundly sick. He had managed to survive it by rationalizing that he was living virtuously, seeking to help others in his profession as best as he could. In reality, however, he knew that the portrait he had painted for himself was none too flattering–he had become just another purveyor of pop-psych nonsense keeping the few bare threads of social cohesion from fraying. In the final estimation, his work had served not to help his clients, but rather a small, nebulous class of individuals that were so walled off from the public sphere that they were effectively invisible.

It was for that reason that he decided to turn his back on the city for good.

Dave found himself squinting as the sun sank lower toward the horizon. He shook his head to bring himself back to reality and shielded his eyes so that he could see clearly again. There was no longer any point in standing there–now or never, it was time to go.

He walked away from his old office building without a second glance, his sense of purpose strengthening with each stride. That night, he slept soundly for the first time in years.

Michael Seaholm

Michael Seaholm

Michael Seaholm is a software developer from Minneapolis, MN, who writes fiction in his spare time. He has previously written for a couple of short story anthologies, as well as for a local alternative press during his undergraduate career in Wisconsin. His interests beyond writing include game development, music, and retrocomputing.

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