Part One - Sweet dreams

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Julia was dreaming

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Julia was dreaming. She was in a garden, filled with beautiful flowers. Purple petunias, pink impatiens, orange marigolds, sweet Williams and tiny violets, all filled the flower beds in neat rows. A delicate perfume wafting from a bed of white roses, tickled her nose as she strolled along the grassy path. In the distance, stood a graceful Grecian-style folly, complete with intricately carved Corinthian columns made of glistening white marble. Gentle sunlight warmed her back as she wandered through the garden.

Peaceful. Everything was so beautiful and peaceful here. She smiled in her sleep and snuggled further under the quilt.

The machine attached to her head hummed almost inaudibly, lights glowing faintly on the monitor alongside.

In the next cot, sixteen-year-old Jason dreamt of racing cars. He was driving a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport Mark 5—red, of course—around the famous Le Mans race circuit, swooping and skidding on two wheels as he overtook the other cars on the track. Breathless with exhilaration, ace driver Jason was unbeatable.

The machine attached to his head hummed sweetly, like the Bugati's engine, the lights on the monitor glowing a bright green.

Further along the ward, Noah was having a nightmare. Panic-struck, he ran through the dark streets of his mind, pursued by a monstrous insect. He could hear the feet skittering on the pavement behind him, smell the fetid breath, see the huge shadow looming over him, about to pounce. Noah screamed and woke up, sweat pouring from his body.

Shakily, he took a sip from the tube of water positioned near his mouth, and tried to calm down. Just a dream, it wasn't real. It was just a dream. He took another sip of water from the tube, wishing futilely that he could get up and pour himself a proper glassful. Or better still, go for a walk until his heart steadied and the last wisps of the dream faded away.

He might not be able to leave the cot, but perhaps he could stay awake for a while. Knowing from past experience that tossing and turning would only attract attention, he lay as still as he could, pinching the soft flesh above his elbow under the covers to keep awake. He was not going to fall asleep. He wasn't. He daren't. He simply couldn't bear to have another nightmare.

The machine attached to his head buzzed irritatingly and the lights on the monitor went out.

Noah heard the door open at the end of the ward and froze. Desperately, he tried to steady his breathing and pretend he was asleep. In. Out. Eyes shut.

Two men in white coats entered the ward. One of them was studying a small laptop and frowning at the results. He tapped the screen a couple of times with a long forefinger.

Despite himself, Noah felt his muscles start to relax. He was unaware when he fell back into a deep sleep, as the benzodiazepine drug streamed into his bloodstream through the port in the back of his neck.

The man with the laptop shook his head. "Noah's being non-compliant again, Jackson. We'll have to keep a closer eye on him."

Jackson nodded absently, already focussing his attention on the first sleeper in the row. He picked up a helmet device attached to her monitor and put it over his head. In seconds he was transported to a pretty garden. He was strolling down a path, looking at the flowers and... nothing else happened. True, the scent of the flowers had been pervasive and the colours... ever so slightly different from how he would have seen them, but...

He took the helmet off.

"Anything worth keeping?" asked the other man.

Jackson shook his head. "Nothing. I'm tempted to say that she has, like, a vanilla personality. But I feel like that would be doing a great disservice to the flavour vanilla. I mean, people actively seek out vanilla-flavoured products. Children clamour to get a vanilla ice-cream cone. Nobody's clamouring for anything Julia-flavoured."

"What about Jason, then?"

Jackson picked up the helmet attached to Jason's monitor and smiled. Instantly he was transported to the race track. He could feel the leather wheel twisting in his hands, smell the petrol and experience Jason's excitement as if it were his own.

"That's more like it! Race cars."

"Cars again?" The other man didn't return the smile.

"It's a good one, Miller," Jackson protested. "Lots of action."

"Hmph! That's all very well, but the market wants something more sophisticated. Perhaps we should consider upping his dose. Maybe increase the level of SSRI."

Jackson looked down at Jason, happily sleeping, enjoying his dream. "I suppose so. If we have to, but let's wait a little longer, shall we? After all, there's still a demand for these sort of dreams in the children and young teen's market."

Miller paused and studied Jackson thoughtfully for a moment. "I hope you're not getting too close to any of the subjects, Jackson. Remember, they are all here for a purpose. They—or their families—signed a contract. They are no longer citizens, they're a resource. They belong to Dream Funk Incorporated."

"Of course," murmured Jackson obediently. He changed the subject. "What were you saying about Noah?"

"He was awake when we came in, pretending to be asleep."

"Another nightmare," said Jackson quietly.

"I hope you're right," said Miller, looking happier as he strode towards Noah's cot. "Horror is on the rise at the moment, and Noah's dreams are always in demand. No one can manifest fear as successfully as he does."

Miller reached out for the helmet device and placed it on his head. Even though he knew it was a dream, he still felt the adrenaline kick in as he fled down the dark streets, chills running up the back of his neck as he heard the skittering feet get closer and closer. Miller took off the helmet and grinned. "That's going to be a winner, if I know anything." He looked back down the ward to Julia. "You know, I'm tempted to give her some of the same stuff we're feeding Noah. Might shake her up a bit. Nobody's buying sweet dreams anymore, not even little old ladies."

"Might be worth a shot," agreed Jackson, who didn't particularly care about Julia. "So we'll let Jason be for the moment, then? That race track dream was rather good."

"All right," said Miller. "We'll give him another week." He rubbed his hands. "I'll get the lab working on a new formula for Julia as soon as possible. We'll start slow and build up, see what we get."

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