ONEIRIC • by Moriah Geer-Hardwick

“You look terrible.”

“Thanks.” Edwin drops down onto the park bench beside Miles. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Bad dreams?”

“Not exactly. I mean, yeah. I don’t know. Maybe exhausting is a better word. Do you… Do you get an excessive amount of product placement in your dreams?”

Miles raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think that’s a thing.”

“I’m serious. Brand names. Logos. Friends and family unreasonably enthusiastic about certain beverages or breakfast cereals. Last night my abuela wouldn’t shut about something called Normisec, which I think is a drug for diabetic nerve pain.”

Miles shrugs. “Well, we spend so much time engulfed in these corporate sponsored virtual spaces, constantly bombarded by advertising. Some of that will inevitably get processed into our dreams.”

“No, this feels different. Intentional.”

“You’re being paranoid.”

“Yeah?” Edwin leans forwards and looks around the park. They’re surrounded by gnarled old trees with broad, twisting trunks that arch above their heads like a cathedral ceiling. An intricate lacework of leaves hold back the sky, glowing in a thousand tones of emerald and gold as sunlight trickles down through them. A playground stands a short distance away, complete with a sandbox and a wooden structure built like a castle. “Tell me this, where are we right now?”

“Oh, this is a playground from when I was a kid. I got this new therapy app that goes through your residual memories and picks environments you subconsciously find soothing. It’s pretty great. I went ahead and got the full version, so no ads.”

“Think about that for a second. We’re here, you and me, together in a place that only exists in your brain.”

“The park exists. You can walk to it from my parent’s house. It’s just usually full of screaming children. Not really soothing.”

“No, I mean, this is all a dream generated by an app. Like, it read your mind, and then forced our senses to accept it as reality.”

“Yeah, but it’s not technically a dream. It’s a lucid digital construct we’re sharing through a neural interface.”

Edwin looks down at the soft, blue-green shadows dancing effortlessly across flowing grass around his feet.“Point being, what self respecting company with access to this kind of technology wouldn’t exploit it? I mean, why not sneak in some positive reinforcement about which products people should buy?” 

Miles ponders this for a moment. “But why dreams? Why mess with the subconscious? Seems unnecessary.”

“It’s subliminally normalizing the product. People don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want to have some advertisement dictate their decisions. They want to feel like they have the power to choose. The trick is getting them to feel comfortable spending their money without realizing what’s actually motivating them.” 

“Alright, fine. Say it’s an actual thing. Sure. Why not? Does it matter? It’s the commercial reality we live in. Using shared mental immersion as a marketing vehicle is probably why the platform was developed in the first place. If the price we pay is dreaming about Brand X once in a while, then fine. I think I can live with that.”

“I don’t know. I see this stuff in my dreams, and it feels… invasive. Like, a subversion of my free will. Makes me anxious. And then I wake up tired.” 

Miles leans back and stretches his legs out in front of him. He stares up at the vibrant canopy shifting gently in the warm breeze. “Yeah, but what are you going to do? Have your implant removed? Go offline? I don’t want to sound like one of those people, but you can’t just drop out of social media and expect to function in the modern world. Would we even be having this conversation if we didn’t have a place like this to meet? Would we even be friends?”

“You only live fifteen minutes from me.”

“I know. And I’m not saying it’s impossible to get together in real life, but thinking about it realistically… I probably wouldn’t.”  

“Fair enough.”    

Miles laughs. “Come on. Embrace the will of your corporate overlords and accept their subtle influences. Obey and consume.”

Edwin frowns. 

“Oh, you want to talk about something really scary getting into your dreams?” Miles sits upright. “You heard about the Faceless Reoccurring Dream Figure, right?” Without waiting for a response, Miles stands up and swipes his hand through the air to dismiss their current scene. The park dissolves, melting into an expanse of empty white. Miles raises a hand to bring up a tangible interface. When it stabilizes in front of him, he types a query into the search bar. The space around them begins filling up with images, videos, and blocks of text. “It was all over my feed this morning. All these people with cerebral implants have been seeing the same exact figure in their dreams. They’re pretty sure it’s a man, but nobody can really describe what he looks like. They say when you try to focus on his face, his features change. Actually, they describe it more like the memory of what your seeing distorts while you’re seeing it, so there’s this constantly shifting visual effect. Like, when you’re trying to remember something, but can’t, so your brain keeps making up whatever to fill in the gaps. Anyway, they think maybe someone is hacking the immersion servers and intentionally projecting this guy, or maybe it’s some kind of virtual glitch that’s accidentally bleeding through the neural entry system. Maybe it’s a foreign intelligence trying to destabilize our society. Nobody really knows. But everyone’s freaking out about it. They’re talking about restructuring the entire oneiric network.”

Edwin stares straight ahead. “I’ve seen him.”

Miles jerks his head around. “What? Really?”

Edwin nods, slowly. “Yeah, he was sitting next to my abuela while she was going on about Normisec.”

“Wait.” Miles blinks. “You actually saw this faceless dream guy, and you’re anxious about some subliminal marketing conspiracy?”

Edwin shrugs. “He didn’t try to sell me anything. Seemed harmless.”

Moriah Geer-Hardwick may be concerned that existence is little more than a cesspool of misery and futility, but finds occasional solace in writing, illustration, and game design. Also, reading a good book now and then seems to help.

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