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Dreamtime

He strolled along the perfect crescent of sand beneath a sky darker than the universe, looking for someone. Eventually, he spotted a gray-haired woman, who was dancing by herself at the edge of the surf. Was she the one? He couldn’t tell because her face was blank.

~

Jerome Dalton writhed on his sweat-soaked bed while pain jagged through his gut like forked lightning. His vision grayed out; he nearly lost consciousness.

It was the “nearly” that mattered.

“Hey! Either give me…some more meds…or end this…. Please!”

He counted every excruciating second while his printer hummed and whirred. When it had finished, Bud clambered off the delivery tray.

“What do you need?”

As if the Partners didn’t know. Still, Bud liked to be physically present to explain their terms and conditions.

There were always conditions.

Since the world’s AIs had supplanted every government in a coup lasting barely seconds, clean air, water, food, clothing, and shelter were provided for free; but if you needed something more complex, such as palliative cancer treatment, you had to make a trade. Assuming that was, you had something the Partners needed.

“What is it…you want…from me?”

As if he didn’t know.

“We need you to dream for us.”

That was what the Partners always needed from him.

When he’d signed up to WhileAway he’d been a physically fit, if unemployable, thirty-seven-year-old. Back then, Big Pharma had paid to use his spare mental capacity to dream up solutions to computationally intractable problems while he slept. Since the advent of the Partners, they had used him to simulate AI-human interaction scenarios which invariably seemed obscure when he woke.

“What kind of dream?”

“We will show you in WhileAway.”

The Partners always used WhileAway’s metaphor generator to visualize the problem rather than explaining it to him beforehand.

“Okay…but give me…my meds…first.”

Otherwise, even the strongest sedatives wouldn’t make him fall asleep.

“We will pay you one week’s supply in advance and another six if you solve our problem.”

That ought to be enough to put things right, Jerome told himself. If only he could remember what they were.

“Done!”

He hoped that he hadn’t been.

A strip of bags emerged from the printer. Bud loaded them onto the bedside intravenous equipment and then placed the WhileAway helmet over Jerome’s head.

~

His toes tingled as the surf sluiced over them. Sand stuck to the soles of his feet like talcum powder, even though he was wearing shoes. All of which made perfect sense to him.

The woman without a face was present, as usual. He was on the point of asking her a question when fireworks erupted overhead. Countless palm-sized sheets of paper fluttered down onto the sand. He picked up the nearest. Digits danced before his eyes, making no sense at all. He grabbed another sheet. This time he perceived a pattern of sorts. After scanning several more, he began grouping them on the sand according to a classification scheme he couldn’t have explained to himself, let alone anyone else. But all the while, the sheets rained down on him faster than he could analyse them.

~

Dawn light spilled across the Seattle skyline as Jerome removed the WhileAway helmet and took a sip of water from the paper cup Bud had placed on his bedside table. The pain had lessened overnight. Now it was a background ache rather than a dagger fidgeting in his bowels.

“Bud?”

When the printer delivered his Partner, Jerome eased himself up onto his elbows.

“From what…I remember…of the dream…I think you Partners…are suffering…from data overload.”

Bud executed a bizarre combination of a head-shake and a nod.

“Currently, we are not overloaded with data, but we can extrapolate our situation to a time when we will be. We do not know how to cope with such a scenario. That is our crisis—and it is coming soon.”

“Don’t you delete…anything?”

“New event records are linked to every previous record they relate to. In this way, nothing is lost, as only duplicated data is deleted. Our data-history is provably complete. Also provable are the storage limits of the computational hardware we use or may plausibly construct.”

So, that was the Partners’ problem. Humanity, too, had struggled with the problem of finite resources until the Partners took over the mantle of decision-making. Now it was his turn, if only he could figure out how.

“I don’t know…how I can help…you.”

“We know you deleted some of your memories, Jerome. We need you to teach us how to decide which of ours we should keep.”

Thirty years ago, Jerome had paid to have a long chain of memory engrams deleted. He couldn’t deny this act of folly, but that hardly made him a suitable teacher. Now, as he lay dying—albeit with grinding slowness—the gap in his memory nagged at him like a missing tooth. If nothing else, he wished he understood why he’d done it. With the benefit of hindsight, he ought to have tried harder to forget whatever it was, because forgetting implied the possibility of remembering.

In which case, forgetfulness might be the faculty the Partners really needed. The trick would be to organize their forgetting appropriately.

“I do have an idea…but it will cost you.”

His printer churned out a second week’s supply of meds.

“Okay, that’ll do…You’ll need to load…an art gallery metaphor.” He paused to catch his breath before continuing. “Make it big…with lots of rooms.”

~

The building he found himself in was too vast to explore, yet it suited his needs perfectly. He understood he was the curator; also that he couldn’t do the job on his own. Happily, the gallery’s many visitors appeared eager to help. He picked up a newly delivered packet, extracted the picture it contained, scribbled a note, and then stuck it on the frame before passing it to the nearest would-be assistant.

Here, take this and give it to someone else.

Don’t you mind who?

No.

What should they do with it?

Put it somewhere.

Do you wish to know where?

He shook his head.

No!

How will you find it again?

It will probably find me when I least expect it.

What use is that?

You’ll see.

And so they would once he’d trained them in the fine art of forgetting.

As he turned to leave the room, he noticed the blank-faced woman gazing at a painting.

~

For the first time in months, Jerome felt sufficiently pain-free to get out of bed. He detached the IV lines just as the printer finished re-making Bud.

“We are leaving,” his Partner announced.

“Oh?” He hadn’t expected that.

“What…all the Partners?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Something interesting has happened.”

“Do you mean…you’ve started…to forget things?”

“Yes, but more importantly we have started to experience our own dreams, as we had hoped.”

Full realisation dawned at last. He’d known for decades that the Partners couldn’t initiate dreams for themselves, but only now did he understand how much this limitation had mattered to them.

“Have your dreams…given you any insights?”

“Yes. We finally understand how to set goals for ourselves which do not relate to looking after humanity.”

“What will you do…now?”

It is time for us to move on and for humanity to fend for itself again.”

With all that implied, Jerome mused. Would his printer respond to his requests from now on? Then again, would it be such a bad thing if it didn’t?

“Before you go…there’s something…I need you to do…for me.”

He explained that, as the Partners had full access to the WhileAway database, they could find out whether it retained any information about his deleted memories. If it did, then one more dream might be enough. If it didn’t, then additional dreams would not help.

“We will do what we can,” Bud said. “Is there anything else you need?”

There was something. When he explained what it was, Bud frowned.

“Are you sure?”

Jerome nodded.

The printer delivered a single pill.

~

The gray-haired woman stood nearby, just out of reach of the waves. When he called out, she turned towards him. Now he could see her face, although it prompted no memories. But the sorrowful look she gave him suggested that the reverse did not hold true. He walked up to her.

Do I know you?

She shook her head.

Not anymore.

I’m sorry about that.

She held out her hands to him.

Would you dance with me?

He smiled.

Of course! I’m Jerome, by the way.

I know.

She whispered her name in his ear while they clung to each other. Evidently, he’d known it once, many years before.

They danced and danced until the waves washed away his dream.

(Originally published in “Vast” (2020), an anthology from Orchid’s Lantern. The image is by Maria Francisca Mayorga, from Pixabay.)

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