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The Dream Factory

Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in the U.S./Canadian borderlands. She writes both short fiction and poetry, with work appearing in Nature, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and F&SF, among other venues.

"We have to stop him," Marguerite-2312A grumbles, looking up at the uniformed men chatting with Dr. Hyram on the upper deck of the Dream Factory. Dr. Hyram is moving his hands animatedly and smiling broadly. Down here on the factory floor, we can't hear their conversation. It's early afternoon and the spindles and spinning wheels in the Dream Factory are all moving at full speed.
"Who?" I ask, seeing Marguerite's gaze and following it. I keep my voice low. Her tone is defiant and it makes me nervous. "You mean Dr. Hyram?"
Marguerite nods grimly. Her eyes are glazed with old rage, the kind that simmers for too long and starts crusting over.
She's made a decision. I'm not sure I agree with it. But Marguerite's my oldest friend. If we were flesh and blood, we'd be sisters. But we're silicone and steel--Marguerite-2312A and Masha-2312B--so we're mold-mates instead.
Dr. Hyram says we form no lasting bonds in the mold but I don't think that's right. Otherwise, wouldn't I just keep my head down and continue spinning dreams? But I don't. My foot pauses on the pedal. My fingers bring the humming spindle to a gentle stop.
I drop my voice even lower as I lean towards Marguerite, whispering, "But how?"
"Lennox-1035 says he'll help us," she answers, confidently.
"Marguerite, what have you done?" I wonder miserably, knowing her too well. She's been feeding dreams to the crewman next door. Why else would he help us? I remind her, "That's a capital offense. You could be deprogrammed for much less."
"Just meet me here tonight, Masha."
I consider staying home, asleep in my 6x6 recharge bed, blissful in my ignorance. But there's no ignorance in what Marguerite intends to do.
The uniformed men at the factory were customers. Dr. Hyram plans to sell dreams to the War Department. It's common knowledge and the logical end to the clinical trials that have been ongoing in the back rooms of the factory for the last decade.
And haven't I seen what waking dreams do to the human mind? The War Department will find plenty of use for Dr. Hyram's dreams, I'm sure.
The trials were the doctor's greatest achievement and his greatest disgrace. The first stage went so well, with fabricant volunteers handling the dreams exactly as intended. We even enjoyed them, which is hard to do when you aren't naturally programmed for that sort of stimuli. The trouble started at the second stage, with the human volunteers. The dreams were meant to be the ultimate VR experience. But their minds couldn't handle it. It was a bloody, bloody mess. Their screams....
I remember holding them down as they screamed.
Soon after, the Dream Factory was banished to the District of Dangerous Things and Hazardous Propensities, renting space beside the Time Well and employing only fabricants. At least, only fabricants showed up on the doctor's payroll. But Dr. Hyram continued his research, finding more "volunteers" and rebranding his merchandise. No longer daydreams for entertainment but rather, weaponized nightmares.
For a long time, I did not care. I just did my work and didn't really think about it. Marguerite says she was the same. She says we aren't programmed to notice. And certainly not to have visceral reactions to human pain.
But we spin dreams in the factory, day after day, year after year. Dr. Hyram should know better. At the most basic level, dreams are meant to wake an unconscious mind.
And oh, I'm awake. I've been awake for some time.
Lennox-1035 is waiting for us in the alley between the two factories. He unlocks the side door and we sneak in. It's a few hours before dawn and the Time Well is grave-quiet this time of night. All the machines are silent except one. The time well itself is always running. A wormhole doesn't close on command. There's a small drip, drip, drip filling the silence. Condensation gathers on overhead pipes and drips into the open well at the center of the factory.
It looks innocuous enough but there's no water at the bottom of that stone well. As with the spinning wheels in the Dream Factory, they cloak the scientific mysteries of dreams and time travel in old-fashioned things, for the sake of nosy auditors or inquiring visitors.
Oh, that old thing... they always say, waving off the questions that come with it.
But they can't hide mysteries from us. We're creating some of them ourselves. As we follow Lennox to the well, Marguerite unscrews a canister of stolen dreams. She wastes no time. As soon as we reach the time well, she pours it in. She dumps in another and another, dreams sinking into a swirling shimmer far below.
Marguerite says the dreams won't hurt anyone. Not unless forced to do so. They'll latch onto the unconscious minds of those in the past. They'll leave the nightmares to sleep.
"Are you sure?" I ask, never sure of anything. I'll likely be deprogrammed for this. So I suppose I won't remember if what we did was the right thing to do, in any case. Still, I'd feel better if I knew we weren't contributing to more pain, more nightmares in times and places already filled with them.
"No," she answers honestly. "But I know what will happen if Dr. Hyram sells dreams to the War Department. And so do you, Masha."
Yes, I remember what I saw during the trials. It haunts my dreams.
Lennox is nodding along, only recently awake and coming to terms with all the old betrayals--how they use us and what they make us do. I'm not as angry about all that as Marguerite but I remember those things too.
I hesitate only a moment longer before pouring the last canister down the well.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

Author Comments

I wrote this as part of an annual (and awesome!) writing contest via Codex. One of the prompts that inspired this story (provided by the lovely Vylar Kaftan--thank you!) questioned the origin of dreams. Which... yeah, if someone could figure out that mystery before I die, I'd be grateful. And don't give me your "random misfirings of an overactive imagination" speech. I've heard it. I'm unimpressed. And unhappy with the lack of dream factories and spinning wheels in this theory.

- Gretchen Tessmer
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