Rakash Marrech blinked and tried to focus his bleary, bloodshot eyes on the whiskey glass before him. Its level had not changed; he’d had one small sip when he poured it five hours earlier, and no more. He didn’t feel like drinking – he already felt drunk, even though only that one small sip had passed his lips. Turning his head with weary lassitude, he looked at the digital clock glaring at him from the bookshelf. Two am, another four and a half hours until dawn. God, he was so tired! So washed out and worn out, dizzy and confused, unhappy and exhausted. And yet he would not allow himself to sleep, instead fighting to stay awake. It was too frightening to sleep.
He switched the television on again and started flipping channels. An improbably blonde woman who looked as if she had never in her life stepped into a kitchen, was extolling the virtues of a non-stick coated frypan. Her exhilarated energy levels and impossible vivacity irked Rakash and made him feel even more listless and faded, so he clicked the remote again.
On the news channel, a politician explained with monotonous earnestness that some country – Rakash wasn’t sure which, he’d missed that part – was acting in a manner that constituted a threat to world peace. The only way to maintain that peace was to unleash a rain of bombs and missiles supplied by a coalition of accommodating allies, to blast that country back into renewed submission.
He clicked again, and watched in lazy fascination as a mythical Japanese creature called Desutoroyah spewed electric beams at a plasticised Godzilla, who returned fire in kind, while the two of them rampaged around on a model of Tokyo in the 1960’s. The grainy 16mm film and the cheesy unreality of the situation – buildings were falling like badly painted blocks of foam because that’s what they were – drew him in for a while, but shortly he felt his eyelids fluttering and realised that just sitting and watching this themeless havoc was sending him into a pre-sleep trance. His tiredness was beginning to overcome his fear of sleeping.
He switched off the television and got up to walk around. His limbs were unwilling and his legs jerked rather than respond smoothly to the drowsy commands of his brain. He was just so worn out! But he couldn’t go to sleep again. What if he had that dream again? The one where he was smashing his way into the community hall, and then breaking tables, shattering screens and windows, beating cowed officials with relentless, pitiless fury, using his own fists, the legs of chairs and even the local magistrate’s gavel.
He went to the window and looked out on his street. In the deep darkness he could barely discern the silent squadron of hoverdrones floating above each home, each marked only by its pulsing light, showing that it was capturing data. Each drones was equipped with a series of sensors that scanned the brainwaves of the people within the home below, and when the wave pattern held that distinctive combination of alpha and beta waves that signifies REM and dream-filled sleep, the drone would begin its work.
He simply could not afford to drift off to sleep and fall into a dream – if the dream harvesters were to perceive the tenor of his dreams he would surely be interrogated, and quite possibly sent away for dream therapy.
Perhaps if he slept in snatches during the daytime, he could avoid REM sleep and dreams? If he could anaesthetise himself sufficiently with alcohol, he might fall into a dreamless sleep? But he did not like alcohol very much, neither the taste not the way it made him feel, and as a consequence he didn’t trust his own ability to drink enough to induce a semi-comatose state. There was nothing for it; he would have to stay awake.
A sharp rap at the front door startled him. Had he fallen asleep? He couldn’t remember having walked from the window to the seat at the kitchen table, but that was where he found himself. His head had obviously been on the table, as evidenced by the little pool of drool on its surface, matched by a similar sized smear sticking stickily to his cheek. Eight minutes past two. Not enough time to have fallen properly asleep, let alone to dream. He was safe.
A second staccato tattoo on the door, this time more urgent and much louder, reminded him why he’d been shaken out of his reverie. He was still too dopey and dozy to wonder who would be knocking so forcefully on his door at this time of night, and walked in a slow daze to the vestibule to open the door. What he saw there snapped him wide awake. An officer of the Surv, whose badge identified him as Major Mulan Dibor, was standing with expectant impatience on the doorstep, and behind him stood a pair of heavily armed and armoured SWATs. The officer smiled a thin, chilly smile and said, ‘Mr Marrech, is it?’
Rakash nodded dumbly, aware that this was not a social visit, yet unable to process the chain of events quickly enough to be afraid. He was so deadly tired that, it occurred to him, he may even be dreaming this scenario. He looked closely at the holobadge the officer was still holding out before him. The Surveillance Corp’s logo, with its legend “To surveil and detect” emblazoned around it, looked real enough. So did the menace in officer Dibor’s smile. And so, most assuredly, did the large, matt black weapons the SWATs were carrying.
The officer, obviously having concluded that he had been patient and polite long enough, pushed past Rakash and into the house, and the SWATs followed. Rakash followed them.
The officer and Rakash were seated at the kitchen table, while the SWATs stood, still holding their guns at the ready. Dibor regarded the splotch of spittle on the table and used the sleeve of his uniform to wipe it away with disdain.
‘You haven’t been sleeping, Mr Marrech,’ he said. There was a sharp, almost a serrated edge to his voice.
‘I haven’t been tired,’ said Rakash.
The officer chuckled lightly. He wagged his head a little too, to show that his amusement was genuine. He swung around to regard the two bulky, over-equipped SWATs, and under his gaze they both stiffened to attention, gripping their firearms even more tightly.
‘Come come, Mr Marrech,’ said Dibor in an indulgent tone. ‘You cannot expect me to believe you are not tired? Take a look at yourself in the mirror, man. To say you look like death would be an understatement. You’re decomposing right where you sit! Now please, tell me why you have not been sleeping these past three nights.’
‘I have, I have,’ said Rakash without even convincing himself. ‘I’ve been sleeping every night, but perhaps not dreaming,’ he offered.
Dibor watched Rakash’s shifting, bloodstained eyes as he spoke, unblinking. He gave a theatrical sigh.
‘Mr Marrech,’ he said, ‘please give us some credit. The dream harvesters that come to the space above your home each night are finely calibrated instruments that are able, from a distance of up to thirty metres, to define with remarkable precision the electromagnetic waves your brain is emitting as a byproduct of its operation. They know when you are awake, they know when you are asleep, and they know very well when you are trying to stay awake in spite of overwhelming fatigue. They also, of course, know when you are dreaming, but more importantly they know what you are dreaming. Perhaps not the absolute detail, to be sure, but enough to identify the tenor and thrust of your dreams. The metadata, if you will. They know – and so, subsequently, do we – when your dreams are angry or sad, or happy, or wistful, or rebellious. And by that, combined with the other intelligence we gather as you go about your daily life, we can judge how your life is going.’ He smiled another narrow, thin-lipped smile. A grimace.
‘When a person like you, who has had no recent tragedy, inconvenience or trauma in their life, goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid dreaming, thus depriving us of the data we need to monitor your happiness, we become suspicious. We cannot help but conclude that there is something you are trying to hide from your government. Perhaps some anger that may later emerge as dissent, or even rebellion. Call us paranoid, but that’s the way it is. If it is the case that you are having misgivings about our system, we need to do something about those misgivings. Make them go away. But there may be some other source for your unwillingness to provide us with the data we need, say, an overbearing boss, a wayward love affair, or maybe even some financial straits, that the sum and total of our admittedly extensive monitoring has not discerned. We like to give you the benefit of a doubt. So I repeat the question: why have you not been sleeping, Mr Marrech?’
Rakash tried not to writhe in his seat, then slumped forward. He was already beaten and everyone in the room knew it.
‘I had a dream,’ he said with infinite sadness.
‘You had a dream,’ Dibor said in a solicitous but mildly victorious tone.
‘A bad dream,’ said Rakash. ‘A dream I didn’t want to have, and I didn’t enjoy, but I had it.’
‘Mr Marrech, it pleases me to tell you that you have nothing to worry about,’ said Dibor. His delivery was smooth, his voice was soothing, but there was still an undertone of intimidation and superiority. ‘One of our harvesters caught the gist of your dream, and we think it’s a bad dream too. But a dream is just a dream after all. We never worry about just one dream,’ he said expansively. ‘As long as one does not have the same or similar dreams with any regularity.’ He smiled. Was it just the light, or were his teeth really pointy?
‘For that may indicate that a pattern is forming, and should a pattern form, then your bad dreams can become your worst nightmare, if you catch my meaning.’
‘But I don’t want the dream. I didn’t want that one, and I don’t want another one. I can’t sleep because I’m afraid I’ll have another one, and that would not be good for me.’ He stared sadly at the floor and counted carpet tiles.
‘No, it would not,’ agreed Dibor.
‘So I just won’t sleep,’ said Rakash a touch too cheerfully, and a lot too optimistically.
‘Yes. No, I am afraid that wouldn’t work for us,’ said Dibor, betraying no sense of emotion of any kind, let alone fear. ‘You see, we have a system here. Everyone goes to sleep, everyone dreams, and we read everyone’s dreams to ensure that they are happy. In that sense, the system works perfectly well. Then you come along and you try and separate yourself from the system on the strength of one bad dream. You decide you will operate independently of the system.’
He took on a look that was almost kind, and that Rakash took to be encouraging.
‘Try to see it from the system’s point of view just for once,’ said Dibor. His voice had the soft irresistibility of cold logic, but there was also a note of passion or pride, or both; it was clear that he loved the system. ‘There is only one system, and when you step outside of it, it seems as if you’re trying to create a system of your own. You’re effectively saying “look at me, I’m going into competition with the system.” That’s what the system hears. And the system doesn’t like competition. It can’t tolerate it. Imagine if we let you operate your own system. Pretty soon your next door neighbour, Matsushito, will decide that he will exit the system too. And then not long after that the whole street will want to be independent, and the system will fall down entirely. So even though you are by no means an essential or even an important part of the system, you are required within it.’
Tears rolled down Rakash’s pale, lined face. He slumped to the table, then used his balled up fists to rub his eyes dry, applying so much more pressure than was required, it might be called savagery. When he finished his eyes were red and raw.
‘But I can’t! I can’t go to sleep. What if I have bad dreams? What can be done?’
‘Mr Marrech,’ said Dibor with a careless shrug. He had already stood up and was collecting his things – his hat, his leather satchel and his tablet – to go. The two SWATs were already on the move, heading towards the door.
‘As far as we are concerned, there is no problem with the system. The issue lies with you – you live within the system, and like everyone else you are expected to live by its rules. If anything here requires adjustment, it is you. I suggest that you learn – very quickly, I might add – to enjoy your role within the system, and that when you go to sleep at night, you have contented dreams. For one thing is certain,’ he said, and here his voice took on a sudden icy hardness, ‘you will go to sleep. Otherwise, we will return and put you to sleep. Do you understand?’
Rakash was crushed. Beaten. ‘Yes,’ he whispered.
‘Then sweet dreams, my friend,’ said Dibor, and whisked out of the room and out of the front door.
Rakash awoke, startled, at the kitchen table. It took him a moment to work out where he was and what had happened. He looked at the clock and saw that it was 5.45am. He got up and went to the window to look out at the lightening horizon, and to look straight up into the sky. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of a dream harvester, flashing green to indicate that it was carrying data, zipping off towards the city to download.