Clayton Garner sprung from his bed, tripping over the retro alarm clock he had knocked across the room in fervent kicks of a wild dream. The details were fading fast, though he could clearly remember flying through swirling vortexes in outer space with some red-haired beauty-- of course, none of that mattered now that he was running late for the first day at his new job. "You overslept?" the training coordinator echoed dryly when he explained, but she excused the tardiness because so few applicants had signed up. Work shortages and all. "Besides," she added, her thin smile twitching, "if it becomes an issue, we'll just install an alarm app to your CogniChip." She referred to the popular brain implant which revolutionized cognitive and biometric technology across the globe. This job was at a CogniCorp data storage facility; really, they just needed warm bodies to push a few buttons and fulfill their human employment quota. The joke was on her though, because Clayton never got the chip and they never scanned for one because again, not many people signed up. "Take a seat then," she said, waving him along, then turned on an orientation video and scurried from the room. Clayton took one of the blue chairs in front of the projected screen, next to a cute girl with fire-red hair. She looked like the one in last night's dream, though it now occurred to him that he never noticed that one's face-- it was always just out of view anytime he tried to look. This real girl, however, did have a face and it was pretty damn cute. His knees knocked together, a gentle reminder not to stare. She laughed at something corny in the video, and he chuckled and played it cool. "So, why were you late?" she whispered, while the AI trainer droned on about never peeking into the consumer's stored data. "And please, I'm hoping for a good story because I'm bored out of my mind." They both snickered and he explained the events again, but the really cool version with more dramatic gasps and explosions. He decided it wise to leave out any mention of dreaming about a girl with red hair, for the creepiness factor alone. "You know," she said, "I had a weird day too. Ever have one of those days where everything just seems to go all wrong, like comically so?" Clayton nodded and said- "That's when you do a reality check--" "What?" she asked; his ears roasted in embarrassment. "What? Oh come on, now I gotta know..." "Well," he relented, ready to kick himself for potentially ruining this, "people who lucid dream do reality checks like count their fingers. I'm still learning how, but..." "Wait, what? Say that again?" "No, it's stupid, I was just kidding..." With a nervous cough, Clayton waved it away, completely saved by the abrupt ending of the video and the training coordinator's rigid return. In front of the screen, she gave a few brisk claps. "Ok, who can tell me the three laws of cognitive data handling? Luckily someone had been paying attention and prattled off like a good little kid in Sunday school. Clayton looked over at the cute girl next to him, who was suddenly very interested with her wrists. She turned them up and down, several times, and fell into a fit of giggles. "I'm dreaming," she said, showing her wrists. "Look, see? No tattoo." "Uh, what?" "The tattoo. I got it like three years ago. Just a little green paw print on my wrist after my dog died. His name was Garner.... Oh, that makes sense, because that's your name isn't it? Your last name?" "Uh, what?" "EXCUSE ME!" the training coordinator interrupted, "I'll have your attention please. Or there's an app for that!" "I'm telling you, I'm dreaming," she said under a fountain of fiery hair; Clayton slowly moved over a seat. "Oh come on, now I'm the one acting weird?" She leapt up onto her chair and shouted, "I'm dreaming! Ok, ok... I can't get too excited..." Clayton just stared in awe, this couldn't be real. Maybe she took something? She was way too cute, in his humble opinion, to be acting like this. The training coordinator began yelling to get down from the chair and "act normal" or she'd be made to. When that didn't work, the coordinator pulled out a tablet and began swiping at it in short, furious strokes. "Why... isn't... it working?" Amy sneered, "It's like you guys aren't listening. I'm dreaming! None of you are real! I'm certainly not going to let you control my mind with your silly cog chips or whatever-- seriously who makes this stuff up... oh that's right, me!" Of course, thought Clayton, she could just not have the chip, like me. They never checked, right? "Look, I'll prove it to you. I don't know how to do a bunch of stuff yet, but I can change the color of my chair." She hopped down, and closed her eyes tight. To everyone's surprise, the chair changed from a navy blue to lime green. Eyes sprinting open, she placed her hands proudly on her hips in full superhero pose. "See? Told ya." Nearly everyone in the room gasped and backed away, except for Clayton. He didn't know what to think about it. "Who are you?" he asked, frozen in place, but not from terror. "Oh, well I'm Amy! Welcome to my dream! Wanna get out of here?" "You mean, just leave?" "Yeah, let's go." "No, I can't just leave! I need this job," he snapped. "Those bills don't pay themselves, you know." "Are you still not listening? I'm dreaming. This job doesn't exist. You don't exist. There's no you to need a job, and no job to need. I dreamed it all up. I dreamed you up, okay? Now let's go have fun!" She reached out her hand and after one last hesitation, their fingers clasped with a tingly little zap from the raw shock of curiosity; as they fled the orientation room, the training coordinator screamed after them to stop running or she'd paralyze their legs. "Don't listen to her," Amy assured as they sped down a long corridor past rows of blank office doors. "Look, I'll use those big doors straight ahead and teleport out of here. Hopefully. You coming?" At this point, for Clayton, 'no' didn't really seem to be an option. He hadn't even begun to process what he just witnessed, but the deepest whisper of inner wisdom promised that he'd never find out if he let her go. They bolted to a pair of metal doors at the end of the hall; and when those squeaked open Clayton squinted, blinded by the light of a new dawn. "Yay it worked." said Amy, "Well, mostly. I wanted to go to my dream forest, but we seem to just be in a city park. Oh, I can see CogniCorp just over there... so we're still here basically... darn it." Clayton's vision slowly returned as she talked. He wasn't too sure about the teleportation...it felt as if they had been running this whole time, and this park wasn't very far from the facility... "Prove it," he said, heaving; Amy rolled her eyes and scoffed. "Please. If this is true I want to know." "If this is true," she answered, walking around stooped over, searching for something. "Then when I wake up, you're dead. Poof. I mean, how much do you really want to know? Just help me look for my dream token, ok? Whenever I get lucid it's usually laying somewhere around..." "No!" burst from Clayton's mouth before he had the chance to stop it. "No, you tell me, right now. What the hell is going on here?" She sighed and flipped her fiery mane to one side and began stroking it in long pensive pulls like a queen lioness considering her dinner options. "Ok, fine. This is only like my fifth lucid dream... but sure, I'll go ahead and waste it by proving to a random NPC that this is a dream. Let's do that!" Then, as if a sudden bolt of inspiration zapped her alive, her eyes brightened and she smiled wide, and clasped her hands together and said -- "Oh, I've got it! I've always wanted to learn to fly! I mean, you're here to serve me, right? Ok, then we'll pet two dogs with one hand. Or whatever. How about if you can teach me to fly, it will also prove that this is a dream!" Clayton agreed, both thrilled and terrified. It just so happened that he was a prolific flyer in his dreams, ever since he was a kid (or since a few hours ago, depending on what happened next.) He jumped up a few times and really tried to emulate how he would fly in his own dreams; but gravity worked as expected, and really this whole thing felt nothing like a dream. It all felt very real; even now he found himself rationalizing what had happened when the chair changed colors. He would have gotten lost on an endless train of deduction, had Amy not snapped him out of it. "Any time now," she teased, "seriously, I can wake up at any time. I've already been in here quite a while." "Hmm...Ok. Pretending that this really is a dream, when I first started flying I found it much easier to jump off something." They scanned the park for anything short to jump from, but it was mostly grass and the few standing trees had no lower branches to climb (and they definitely weren't climbing to the top of CogniCorp, no matter how much she insisted that it was a dream.) "Ok, I have an idea. We'll do air steps! Yeah this should be real easy, and if you're really dreaming we'll know right away." Going off of how he had done this in his dreams, he had Amy stand with her feet together. Then as instructed, she raised her right knee and was to understand that there's an invisible platform of air beneath her foot. "Ok I think I can feel it," she said. Now for the test: if this really was a dream, the platform would support her weight as she stepped up with her left leg. "Here goes," she said, and with little effort began climbing invisible stairs before Clayton's eyes. He looked on, frozen again, yet still not from terror. He didn't know what he felt, though the idea of it was just on the tip of his tongue--not that he had any mind to express it. After Amy was up to a good height, she looked down and yelled, "What's next?" "Yeah, this is happening," Clayton admitted slowly, shaking his head in existential awe. "Alright then, yeah. Ok, yeah." "What part of wake up at any time--" "Yeah, ok. Just-- wow. Ok! Well, I guess you should jump off! And... I can't believe I'm saying this... but just use the momentum of the fall to propel yourself upwards like a glider!" He acted the motion out with his hand as if it were a toy shuttle or paper plane. "Ok, here goes," she shouted, and leapt. Down and down she fell in a nose dive so close to the ground that Clayton rushed to catch her - - but at the last moment she leveled out and soared up and away. She flew out pretty far and then circled back and away again. Clayton lost sight of her a few times, but could clearly hear the distant shouts of "Oh my God!" and "I'm doing it! I can't believe I'm flying!" drifting further and further away... He waited for a while and contemplated his obvious fate; but when it became clear she wasn't returning, he stomped his feet firmly in the ground to jump. She wasn't going to just fly away and out of this shattering existence. Not that easy. Gravity was still in full effect, but right before he landed he gave his feet a few little kicks and started flapping his arms wildly, and, to his utter amazement, began to float there, bobbing up and down just centimeters over the fluffy emerald grass. "It's true! Oh my God, I'm dreaming! Or... something..." He heard more excited squeals from above and went upwards, however very, very slowly. "Alright Clay, just let the ground fall away. That's right..." And it did. The world shrunk beneath his feet as he soared up into the sky. He could just barely spot Amy like a speck on the horizon, and joked to himself that if someone didn't know better they might mistake her for a UFO--a slight distraction from a dark fate he must soon face. She seemed delighted when he found her, and they flew up and away from the city and over fields and forests. Up ahead he could see a large lake, sparkling like a carpet of yellow diamonds in the waning sun. "Can't believe I haven't woken up yet!" Amy yelled between daring aerial flips and twists. "Hey, I forgot your name! Didn't I give you one?" "You can call me Clay-!" he shouted back, briskly cut off by a large and rather startled bird. They flew straight toward the lake and asked each other lots of curious questions; when they arrived, they flew to the top of a rushing waterfall and Amy landed delicately on a large boulder at the edge. The scarlet mane plopped down around her shoulders and at once she pulled it to one side and began stroking it. "Why do you do that?" Clayton asked, landing not so gracefully beside her. "You mean why do I play with my hair? Um, it's a tactile thing, I guess. Keeps me anchored in the dream, and probably the only thing keeping you alive." The chuckle which followed was quite crass, then as if realizing how psychopathic it sounded, her smile faded. "Oh, sorry... " "Well you seem really sure about yourself," Clayton replied, shrugging. "But who knows, maybe you're right. Any idea how much longer I've got?" "Yeah, I can feel it fading. I don't know how much longer, but let's just sit and watch the sunset. Is that OK?" Clayton nodded and they looked out over the sparkling lake in awe of its dreamed-up splendor. "But you have to keep talking or I'll fall awake." "Well, tell me about your life," he said. "You know, out there or... wherever!" "Hmmm... Well it's alright I suppose. Actually it's weird, like there's a dark veil over many of the details... but I'm a total cinephile, I remember that. Love what Hollywood-- ("God rest their souls" was inserted with an old-school criss-cross gesture against her heart) --what they had to say about lucid dreaming. Ever see Inception? Sandman? No? Not into classical filmography? Nevermind then... Oh! and I live in my apartment with my cat Bynx. Hey look, there's my dream totem, it's Bynx!" She reached over and pulled something from the tall grass beside the boulder; he laughed. "Bynx is a stuffed animal?" "He is in my dreams," she answered, and sat the toy cat in her lap to pet. "And don't be mean or I'll make you jump off the waterfall." "Yeah now you sound like the training coordinator," Clayton responded very dryly, then cleared his throat and looked away. "Never mind, you probably have every right to..." "I'm sorry, Clay." "Hmm?" "For how pompous and rude I've been. I know you're only a dream character and all, but... maybe that's just how I treat myself, I guess. Anyway I should have been more sensitive. Luckily you won't be around much longer to remember any of... Oops, see I'm doing it again!" "Let's just talk," said Clayton with folded arms. "OK. Well then... How about you? What's your life like here? What did I dream up for y-- I mean, what has your experience been like?" Clayton found a nice sized pebble and tossed it down the roaring waterfall. "It's been alright, I guess. I don't even know how long I've been living it to be honest..." "Oh, well I only went to sleep a few hours ago, you know." "Yeah," he said. "So there's not much to talk about, really. Middle school was pretty f'd up." "Haha, yeah mine too..." They both found this incredibly funny for some reason, and laughed so hard that Amy almost dropped Bynx down the fall. Then they talked more, and eventually the subject came to the idea of Clayton dreaming. "So you're telling me," she said, a rouge eyebrow portraying her frank disbelief, "that you've been having lots of dreams all this time? But never a lucid dream?" "Well, I dunno." He shrugged. "To me this feels like a lucid dream, I guess. It would definitely be my first." "Well then, if you haven't had a lucid dream before, how did you know how to fly?" Clayton laughed and looked toward the setting sun, nearly cresting the horizon. "Maybe you assume things too much," he said. "In my experience, you don't have to know you're dreaming to fly." He waited for some sarcastic reply, but one never arrived. "Amy? Don't wake up on me yet... " But when he looked back she was fading fast - only a thin outline of her remained, and then that dissipated into a thousand golden sparkles mimicking the sun-kissed lake below. "Huh," he said, and again found himself frozen. No, not from terror, but because - - "I remember." Clayton stood up on the boulder and wiped the grit from his hands. Then with a deep breath, he took a running leap and dived off the waterfall, and before crashing into the lake, levelled off and shot straight up to the emerging stars of an eternal sky. And with that, he decided to explore the realms above and below; determined to learn everything he possibly could. Perhaps he could reach Amy again, and tell her what he remembered. Maybe next time, he'll wake up first.
*original art by Shaun Powers *******************