“It’s what we’re calling an improved McMemen technique,” Siston said. “Users are affected for longer periods of time and more strongly. It’s more difficult to snap them out of the trance state, and the problem of blackouts has been solved.”

“Solved how?” Friedman groused. “That’s been the millstone around the program’s neck for years. The assets always suspect something because of the memory gaps unless we take them into custody and implant false memories the old-fashioned and expensive way, with psychologists and bright lights.”

“That’s the beauty of improved McMemen,” replied Siston. “In addition to the orders and situational training, it implants…well, the technical term sucks so the boys have been calling it a ‘seed crystal memory.'”

Friedman glared. “What kind of new age hippie crap is that?”

“Well, the human mind has an enormous capability for creativity–just look at dreams. The technique utilizes that mechanism to construct artificial memories using the asset’s own building blocks. The ‘seed crystal’ provides the raw materials and a rough structure–say, a short camping trip–and within that framework the asset’s subconscious will construct a totally realistic and totally individual memory. They’ll remember it all down to the raccoons stealing their marshmallows.”

“Ridiculous,” Friedman said. “They’d remember a pink elephant or something crazy like that.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Siston said, grinning. “After all, this whole conversation was implanted in your mind the same way.”

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It’s not that I don’t try to remember my dreams. I really do. I even keep a journal.

Most of the time the forgetfulness is too strong, a tidal wave of colorless oblivion eating away at the edges of every image.

Sometimes, though, I wake early and write some notes intended to help me remember and fully transcribe the dream. Often, it’s simply not enough, and I find these ghostly reminders of something I can’t quite recall endlessly fascinating:

to the ends of the earth / magnolias / a sister’s song / skeletons

we were completely wrong / mysterious city / been through this before / i just can’t

tomatoes / candy cigarettes / heist / milkman / 10 degrees

internet / snatches /done it all before / the real fails me

I was riding to work on the first train, as usual, and looking out the window at the countryside I’d seen a hundred different times before.

And then–I don’t know what triggered it–a flood of memories came back to me. Sights, sounds, and images from a long-ago and long-forgotten dream. Usually they fuzz away into nothingness before you’ve even fully woken up.

But once in a while, they come back.

I had a vision of a little town in a valley, mostly wood houses with just a few modern buildings mixed in. Snowy in the winter to the point of being practically cut off, dreamy and hot in the summer with long sunbeams glinting off brightly-painted porches.

I remember a little house–my house?–with an open porch and a swing and a bright yellow paint job.

I remember waiting for someone, someone I loved, someone I missed or was missed by during long and hard winter nights.

But I can’t remember their face, their name, or what brought us both to that little yellow house in the snowy valley.

“Okay, I’ll tell you. But it’s probably going to sound crazy.”

Dr. Teller smiled. “I hear things that ‘sound crazy’ for a living,” he said. “Most of the time they’re nothing of the sort; I make it a point never to judge.”

“I’m…I’m walking down a long hallway. An infinite hallway. It’s made of beautiful, cold crystal, faceted like a diamond and colored by the blue sky above. I’ve been walking for hours–days–before I notice something.”

“And what’s that?” said Dr. Teller.

“The walls are made out of little cells, smooth and transparent and unfaceted. And suspended in each one…is me.”

Scratching on the notepad. “You?”

“Not me as I am now–I recognize that even in the dream–but me as I was. This hallway has every moment of my entire life preserved like a bug in amber. As I walk I see what I wear and my age and my position all change, one crystal cell at a time. Eventually, I get to cells filled with me as I am in the dream: confused, disheveled, and in my pajamas.”

“How does that make you feel?” Dr. Teller asked.

“I’m…well, I’m terrified. What happens if I keep walking? What will I see? And does the crystal corridor have an end? The idea scares me more than a hundred psychos in the back seat of my car. It…it chills me to my core, as if the hallway has become ice. But I keep walking. I can’t stop.”

Now, I’d never been much of a believer in Freud, or lucid dreaming, or any of that stuff. New age hippie crap, I thought, like energy crystals or pet rocks or George McGovern.

But that was before I got sick.

It’s the stress that did it, most likely. I worry too much; plus unemployment and barely $6k of padding between me and destitution sure didn’t help. There wasn’t any money for the doctor, but then again the last time I’d gone they’d given me antibiotics for what was clearly the flu and told me to rest and drink fluids. I could do all that on my own and–as a bonus–not contribute to the creation of superbugs.

So that’s how I found myself on the couch, feverish, and too sensitive to light and sound to so much as turn on the TV. Things started kind of subtle; I’d been talking to an old girlfriend from high school for twenty minutes before I realized that she wasn’t there. After that, I decided I’d go for a swim, and turned off the gravity to float about the apartment.

Flying…

Ben was touching the sky.

He soared high over the lands below, crashing through flocks of birds, tearing through clouds, skimming low over lakes and rivers. An irrepressible grin was plastered across Ben’s face, and an incredible rush of life surged through his body.

Nothing could slow him down.

In the back of his mind, though, two darker thoughts churned beneath the exhilaration, the raw life force: a nagging suspicion that he was dreaming again, and Terrie’s face, contorted with shock and disbelief.