By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: The Dream Peddler—She carries a bag of dreams for sale. There are people eager to buy—some, too, who’d like to sell her the dreams they have already.
Robin checked her clipboard and then her watch. She had to calibrate all of the Dream Extractors at exactly the same time. She knew what they said up and down the halls, in whispers. That she obsessed about the calibration. After all, didn’t it just require moving a switch?
Sure, she thought. Incorrect calibration has nothing to do with wiping memories. With people losing a hold on themselves because they can’t remember anything. With the growing population in the mental institutions across the country.
Another time check. She kept her eye on the second hand and moved forward one careful step at a time. Even though she could track everything around her out of her peripheral vision, she still hadn’t lived down the time she’d run into the rolling chair. When the second hand completed its turn around the face, she pressed the blue button in the middle of the dash. Just like she did every morning.
The dashboard of equipment began humming, and she felt it then: her heart flipped. She’d pressed the same button every morning for the last ten years. She should have been able to approach the Dream Extractors with the same nonchalance that everyone did. But she couldn’t help it. Her greatest scientific invention still sent a thrill through her body.
Robin turned around. “Yes?”
“Someone’s in the lobby. Said he needs a large delivery.”
She nodded and went to her office to drop off the clipboard. Taking a second to smooth her hair with a hand, she shook her shoulders and held up her head. Robin waited a moment for her confidence to reinforce her; today it almost worked.
As she reached the lobby, she took a moment to observe the man. He wore an expensive black suit—designer, no doubt—and checked his watch with much more frequency than Robin did. In her ballet flats she thought he might not hear her approach, but as she approached he turned and eyed her. His look slowed her down. Robin saw hard lines in his face, and his eyes glittered with a touch of menace. After a moment, though, he offered Robin his hand and a smile she had a hard time believing.
“Ms. Penn, the woman herself. It’s an honor.”
Robin took his hand and shook it, but the softness of his hand made her skin prickle in warning. She’d seen him somewhere before, but where?
“Thank you. I’m sorry, I don’t recall your name, Mr., uh…”
She gasped. What was one of the biggest real estate developers in the world doing in her lab?
“I have a business proposition for you, Ms. Penn. Could we speak in your office?”
Robin glanced behind her and saw the receptionist gawking. No wonder. The last time anyone had heard anything from Donald Ace was during congressional hearings more than a decade ago. When he’d finally testified for the last time and went underground, everyone thought Ace would be content to run his business from there.
Clearly something had drawn him out again.
“Of course, Mr. Ace,” Robin said. “Please, follow me.”
She took him down to her office and then began dry washing her hands. Robin had developed the protocols for the lab, but in all of the discussions with the board of directors they had never formulated a protocol for a tycoon’s interest in the work they did. What did Ace want?
“I don’t believe in small talk, Ms. Penn, it wastes time and money,” he said, making himself comfortable on the edge of her desk. “I need a thousand nightmares by the end of the week.”
Robin’s heart began to beat harder. Her assistant had said a large delivery, but no one had ever asked for this many Dreams in one collection before. And why bad ones?
“Can you deliver on my request, Ms. Penn, or do I need to explore other options?”
She inhaled a long breath with as little sound as possible. “I’m sure we can discuss the possibility. Of course, you realize, Mr. Ace, that before we conduct any transactions I have to know exactly what you plan to do with the Dreams. I can’t authorize the release of that many Negative Dream Experiences without knowing their intended purpose.”
Ace stared at her, and Robin fought the intense urge to squirm. After a moment he smirked.
“Do you understand, Ms. Penn, that I am a busy man? That I don’t deem it necessary to explain myself to every single person I encounter?”
“Mr. Ace, I understand, but we have a procedure we have to follow here, and I can’t authorize the release of that many—”
“Ten million dollars.”
She blinked several times. “What?”
“I can give you ten million dollars for the dreams.”
Her heart started beating harder, and an image popped into her mind: Donald Ace on TV, sitting behind a microphone, vehemently denying any financial support of extreme practices in state penitentiaries. Every single penitentiary that had its practices called into question sat on land that Ace had once owned. His detractors shouted long and long at rallies and protests that Ace got kickbacks for providing state governments access to unlimited funds that would let them do essentially whatever they wanted to inmates. Including medical experiments.
The beating in her chest made her tremble. Ten million dollars would revolutionize her budget. It would give her access to the latest of technology and allow her to hire the best scientists away from her rivals in order to create their own tech. But Ace…why did he want the dreams?
Robin swallowed hard.