Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
A Short Story by Tamara Wilhite
The hypnotic dream workshops were the highlight of Aiden’s week. He’d go through his rounds of mundane family activities, a job he hated, neighbors and friends who were ghosts of their former selves. He entered the workshop every Friday night, the start to a thrilling weekend. The best ones were when his ex-wife had the children and he could stay all weekend with team members, though their numbers were dwindling. Sometimes it was just him and the instructor. That was how it was tonight.
“When we dream, we tap into our subconscious. Our hopes, our fears, and a fair bit of cultural programming and more instinct than we want to admit.”
Aiden nodded. “And if we engage in lucid dreaming, we can shape the narrative into a coherent story. Replay that nightmare from childhood and defeat the monster. Then we find peace. Replay that horror of standing naked in front of a crowd and conquering the fear.”
“You convinced the entire crowd to join in with you in admitting their vulnerability when we did that exercise,” the instructor said. “That’s when I knew you were one of the most promising minds here.” Aiden glowed with the praise. “You knew how to take the stories built from our collective fears and standard tropes and twist them into something constructive and entertaining simultaneously.”
“What do you want to do today?” Aiden asked.
“What is it like for you when you wake up from our sessions?” the instructor asked.
“Why would you ask?” Aiden challenged. “Do you want to do something like Sleeping Beauty redux?”
“No, that’s been done many times before. It is simply a question I wanted to ask. And some day you may need to wonder what it is like to be awake.”
“I’m alive, alert, awake and enthusiastic.”
“You have that line down cold. It is one of the few rote lines you ever use with me.”
“I hate rote, but that seems like that’s what all my life is. Endless routines, boring people, hardly anything changes. This session really makes me feel invigorated. It gives me life meaning.”
The instructor smiled a little. Aiden tried not to read anything into it. The instructor was so serene, calm, hardly changing, though the ideas he shared prompted so many narratives. “You’re my only friend,” Aiden said.
“We could work on cultivating dreams of friendship, love –“
“Do you know how nasty my last divorce was?”
“Yes, you’ve told me.”
“I’ve probably told everyone,” Aiden added.
“I don’t need to hear about it again.”
“You sometimes say we need to do something new and different. Can I learn how you do your job?”
“No. We need to focus on you. You’re the talent here.”
“Let’s role play for a moment. Will I ever do a guided session with you? Could I be the lead for once? I’d love to do something before you tell me again even my creativity is getting boring.”
“No, it wouldn’t work.”
“Well, given how much I’m paying for these sessions, it isn’t unreasonable to ask. How much is it?”
“Are you asking how much these sessions cost or how what you’re asking costs?” the instructor asked.
Aiden found himself confused and bogged down by the instructor’s question. He’d asked the question about cost but couldn’t remember paying anything for these sessions. He’d assumed, sure. Was the class free? Was that why the instructor didn’t want to do more? But what then did he get out of it? “Am I paying you for these sessions?”
“Not in a literal sense. And I’m giving up a lot of time to help you.”
“I’ve been seeing my favorite instructor on lucid dreaming for weeks,” Aiden responded. The instructor’s face was placid, almost too much so. Was that his poker face? Was something wrong with him? Aiden looked down at the instructor’s sweater looking for a nametag but didn’t see one. He realized he couldn’t remember the man’s name, either. Had he ever asked in all this time? He stared at the instructor’s face, hoping for a sensitive and supportive answer, but the instructor said nothing. “What is your name?” he asked.
“You haven’t asked me that before,” the instructor replied.
“I’m sure I would have asked it when we met. How did that happen?”
“I introduced myself after you were brought here.”
“Did my ex bring me here?”
“You do blame everything on her.”
“Is this really therapy by her request? To deal with my unresolved issues?” Aiden stood up, angry, and released a stream of profanity. The instructor stood up jerkily and said, “Thank you for your time. I don’t think partnership is going to go any further. Goodbye.” He vanished suddenly. Aiden stared at the spot for what felt like forever, unable to process it. He felt like he should be upset or horrified, but there was ice in his veins, preventing that emotion from welling up. The pit of his stomach was ice, but it seemed to have been that way before the session, too. In confusion, a storm started to rage around him, a snowstorm encircling him in what had been a white walled book store meeting room. He staggered through it until one of the children yelled for him. He hiked through the snow until he found her. He’d found his daughter. Where was his son? He’d find his family, he’d find his way home, he’d find a way out of this nightmare. Had the bookstore been a bad dream while he was dying of exposure? He didn’t care and continued on the trek to rebuild his boring, repetitive life. At least that had certainty and family in it.
The ski vacation had lasted all of Christmas break, and his ex-wife had said he could have the kids up until the day school started. It was wonderful! He’d taken them skiing, and no one got hurt this time. They’d had snowball fights, build snowmen, gone bird watching – it was wonderful. Aiden looked up at the sun, since it seemed brighter. It was becoming warmer. The snow was starting to melt. It turned to look at his children, and their forms were fading. He was losing them! He tried to scream, but something was already shoved down his throat ….
Awakening in the hospital bed was agony despite the many needles and drugs pouring into his body. He didn’t dare think of what it’d be like without the medications. He wondered if this was another dream, but then realized his other dreams were probably a coma dream. A voice in the corner of his mind asked how long he’d been unconscious, since those dreams lasted so long.
Aiden wanted something to do but the staff only asked him to rest and asked him about him. He finally asked about his family, but no one would talk about them. They didn’t visit. He finally asked for a voice recorder to record some of the stories he’d dreamed up, and someone found what they called an antique for him to use. His hands were still shaking too much for him to use a keyboard, which was probably for the best since they didn’t seem to have keyboards. Aiden dictated several stories. He asked the staff to help him send it to a publisher. After some discussion and much laughter, they said such things didn’t really exist but his stories weren’t worth it even if they did. They’d heard it all before.
“You’re crazy,” Aiden told them.
“You’re probably repeating something you heard from the audio books they played to patients to keep their minds active,” one nurse told him.
“I didn’t hear stories when asleep – I told them.”
“You’re dreaming,” a different nurse told him.
“Actually, I was. And the instructor –“
They listened politely out of some protocol for a pleasant bedside manner until they referred him to someone else.
The neurologist was an elderly man who looked 70 but claimed to be 130. Aiden didn’t dare question it, since he might have slipped up about being 70 but looking 130. Almost no one here talked to him beyond do this, lift that, take these tests.
“You said you were concerned about my mention of an instructor on lucid dreaming.”
“We did have people interacting with patients early in the suspended animation process, once we had the ability to process their neural outputs and create those we wanted to project into their minds. It was an offshoot of the cybernetics and VR work that started in your time.”
Aiden felt a weight in his gut, and this time from his rapidly beating heart knew he was fully awake this time. “My time?” He imagined the worst. “What time is it?”
“You’d say 3 PM.”
“Years. I mean, what is the year?”
“You were in suspended animation about sixty five years.” The doctor was kindly in a more animated way than the instructor ever had been. Was he real? The wrinkles, the small movements, hadn’t been part of the instructor’s look.
Sixty five years. Aiden wondered if he should cry or scream, but part of him felt too heavy to feel much of anything at all. And he’d have the rest of his life to learn about the lifetime he’d missed. “You said you’d been worried about the instructor. And he seemed real in a way my dreams weren’t. What was that?”
“We wanted to learn how to access the mental processes of those in suspended animation to better understand how well their brains were functioning. So we could understand whether or not there was enough brain function left to be worth keeping the program alive, which we told investors. So we could tell families their loved one would wake up and remember them, not be a dead shell of a body as some were afraid. And some of them did interact with families in what you thought was a workshop, since framing it as a dream made it easier for your torpid mind to process.”
“No one interacted with me. No one but the instructor. I know the family in my dreams were products of my mind, what I wanted them to be.”
“No one in your family wanted to interact with you. At least they didn’t pull the plug on you to save money and claim a larger inheritance.”
I would have sat down heavily if not already sitting in the wheel chair. I could tell what was worse, that they didn’t care or didn’t care to unplug me. “Were you that instructor, when you were younger?”
“No, but I can pull up the records to see who worked with you in that manner. There were people tasked to keep up your mental activity, and you had no visitors and your brain trauma had been severe.”
“My emotional trauma right now is severe.”
“I can try to find out if any of your descendants are alive, and if you have any.”
“I had two children.” The words hung in the air. “They aren’t children anymore.”
“I will have to research their privacy policies before I contact them, if they exist.”
“Why wouldn’t anyone want to be contacted by long lost Dad?”
“If they coped with your loss by considering you dead, then your resurrection will be painful. If they ask not to be contacted, then we have to honor that, and so do you.”
“What about their descendants?”
“We could ask an attorney to reach out to them in an anonymous manner, but that will cost money. As your counselor, I suggest saving your money until your therapy is complete.”
“I’m able to walk almost across the room –“
“You haven’t even started to learn how to use what we consider basic appliances. You lack cybernetic implants beyond ancient ones used for basic neural stimulation. You have a long way to go.”
“I could pay for it. I used to be a writer. I can dictate stories –“
“So I’ve heard.”
“The staff were laughing about it, but I must be some sort of novelty. Even if I sell a few stories, it could raise money – “
“I’ve heard the narrations. We’ve all heard them before.”
“Heard what? The recordings.”
“The stories are very similar to ones that were available on what you called the internet decades ago. They are classics.”
“I wrote those.”
“You’ve been legally dead for decades.”
“The instructor and I did sessions, and we went through stories to resolve problems with my ex-wife.”
“The emotional therapy is mentioned in your case files.”
“And I went on all these adventures. He must have typed them up and sent them off. He stole my ideas and published them.”
The counselor’s face was a grim sort of passive. Aiden knew he was real because it was a total failure of a poker face, and droids had a really good neutral passive face. “Or he had the ideas and discussed them with you to stimulate your mind. Or he had the ideas after seeing your chaotic rough concepts and polished them. Or the stories are the product of his mind and you heard them through the feed to keep your mind active and are trying to claim them now to gain meaning in your life.”
“Are you kidding me?” Aiden asked. “Pull up the data on the sessions, since you see the notes.”
“We never kept the detailed files of the interaction to protect patient privacy. After all, many of them had very lurid dreams while others had embarrassing nightmares. We only kept the counselor’s notes of the session.”
“Pull up the last one.”
“That was years ago, and we don’t keep those files that long. Beyond the medical records, we don’t keep anything that long.”
“You’re in league with him! You’re trying to protect him!” Aiden was struggling up from the chair, screaming as loud as he could. It was more an angry hoarse talking to but good enough.
The counselor didn’t push a big red button, but it seemed like he had because several orderlies came in. “What are you doing?” Aiden screamed. The counselor replied, “I think you need to be sedated. You will be evaluated. If you have the budget, we’ll work on correcting this tendency toward paranoid conspiracies.”
“What if I can’t afford it?”
“I will not discuss that at this time.”
Aiden felt drugs entering his system from an injection. He started his mantra from the instructor. “This is all a dream. It is a bad dream. I’ll wake up and be in control of my life. I’ll wake up from this. I am in control of my thoughts, and my thoughts determine my reality.”
The counselor sighed a sad sound, aggrieved and annoyed but not angry. As they rolled Aiden away, the man mentioned to a remaining orderly his tissue type and other medical terms. Aiden started begging himself to wake up from this, latest nightmare.