By Tom Barlow
“I HAD NO IDEA YOU WERE SO unhappy,” Jordan Stuart said. She could barely hold the phone in her trembling hand.
“Then you haven’t been listening for the last three months,” Gabriel Wythe said, each word a needle in her heart. “I thought maybe after you saw that shrink, after he prescribed Kourage, your problem might get better. But it hasn’t, has it?”
She took a deep breath, counted to eight as she exhaled. Five years of therapy and he was right; she still cringed at the suggestive look, the portentous caress. “But we’ve been fine in bed. Haven’t we?”
“The fact that you think that’s fine is the problem. I ran into Terry Dolmeyer last night at synagogue and he told me he broke up with you for the same reason.”
“You talked about our sex life?” Her stomach flipped.
“You have a reputation, in case you don’t know it. I should have listened.”
She threw her phone across the living room, where it landed in her aquarium.
Unfortunately for Gabriel, Jordan was a woman who did not tolerate insult. She wanted him to hurt as she did. She also had the means at her disposal to avenge herself, as long as her ex continued to use his Apple Dreamcap™ to bring him nothing but the most entertaining, ennobling scripted dreams, the kind of scripts she wrote for a living. Its inventors had discovered that even in REM dream state, the brain maintains an awareness of the world around it, the reason that a whistle from a passing train can find its way into an ongoing dream. The Dreamcap used this connection to feed entire scripts of sensory impulses, sight, sound, touch, smell and taste, into the brain’s neural network, producing coherent dreams. It also served as a sleep enhancement device to keep the subject from waking mid-dream.
And as long as Jordan had access to the programming that mapped his brain and dealt him such content (although her supervisors were unaware she’d hacked the system to that degree), he was hers to play with. She had a hoard of freeware black scripts, written for masochists and daredevils, that she’d been studying to steal ideas for her own. She wasn’t above sending a few his way.
However, she’d learned the hard way not to act on every capricious thought that entered her head without seeking a reality check. There was only one person with whom she could share this fury, her sister Olivia.
Livvy always talked her off the ledge, like the time she wanted to hack and poison the college application of the volleyball queen of their high school when she broke Jordan’s nose with a spike during practice and then turned to her teammates for a high-five. Her sister had pointed out that the injury, which left a bump, had actually lent some character to the boring, common beauty that had been a product of her parents’ capitulation to the DNA designer.
Fortunately, Livvy was Earthed at the moment, on mandatory leave from the orbital Club Med Polaris where she worked as a gerontologist. She was down to rebuild bone density and muscle, so recently she had not yet lost her Moon face.
Jordan picked a bottle of chardonnay on the way to the Victorian that Livvy shared with her polyamorous family.
“I wondered when you were going to stop by,” Livvy said as she escorted Jordan into the great room overlooking downtown Pueblo. “We have the place to ourselves. The wives and husbands are either at work or taking their turn at the daycare co-op we share with the other love pods. They let me stay home to enjoy a little solitude.”
They spent the next half hour catching up, Jordan mostly listening as Livvy told her about the exploits of her family. Two new children, one husband banished, one wife added.
Jordan, on the other hand, had little to report; stable in her job for six years, only one paramour at a time, with plenty of time between each.
“Something’s wrong,” her sister soon detected.
Jordan put down her glass. “As a matter of fact, there is. Gabriel dumped me.”
Livvy slid over the couch, took her by the hand. “Oh, you poor thing. I know it’s hard, with one-on-one relationships.”
Jordan’s eyes were welling, and she angrily brushed away the moisture. “It’s hard, yes, but not for him. He’s one of those guys who’ll never commit, just change his partner every couple of years when expectations get too high.”
“Was it due to your ... problem?”
Jordan nodded, blushed. “I have to tell you, I’m thoroughly sick of being used and discarded.” She leaned forward, clasped her hands in front of her mouth. “Would it be so wrong to even the score a little? He’s caused me enough pain I think he should experience a little himself.”
Livvy drained her glass before replying, “You know, I said we divorced Carter Ng, but I didn’t tell you why. He was recording our lives and selling them to a guy who was planning to turn them into scripts for any loser who wanted to go to sleep and pretend they were one of us. If there was a way I could pay him back for that betrayal, I would. So I understand where you’re coming from. What’s your plan?”
Jordan was so surprised at her sister’s encouragement she was momentarily speechless. “I’m going to send him some nightmares. He’s so addicted to his Dreamcap he won’t go a night without it. ”
“But he’ll report you the first time he has a bad dream.”
“I’ll use a hacker’s trick—if I end the dream with a brief fun script, that’s all he’ll remember clearly when he awakes. But the residual from the nightmares will make him miserable all day.” She waited for Livvy to talk her out of the idea.
Instead, she said, “Could you do that to Carter as well?”
The next day at work she reviewed her cache of black scripts. It took her only a few minutes to pick one for Gabriel that evening; she knew how much he hated enclosed spaces.
He’d already selected his happy scripts for the week, so she pulled up the last one scheduled for that night, took the culminating scene and isolated it as a script in itself. She appended it to the nightmare that would run during his last REM cycle so the happy script would be fresh in his mind when he awoke. It took her longer to hack into Ng’s account, only to find he was the kind that chose his script at bedtime, and not every night. For him, she pulled up his history and chose his favorite to culminate the night, an S&M script in the world of “Mad Max.” She wrote a routine to intercept his last cycle and replace it with the nightmare she had prepared.
That night, as she put on her own Dreamcap, she chose a script based on “The Count of Monte Cristo”; she loved historical settings, and the revenge theme appealed to her.
Gabriel Wyeth went through his usual nighttime routine, ablutions, combed HairHalt through his locks, swallowed his sterility pill. As he hit the bed, he briefly missed Jordan’s weight on the other side, glad the first of the REM scripts he’d chosen for the night was a sexual scenario with him as John Kennedy sneaking out of the White House to bed Marilyn Monroe. He fitted the Dreamcap, ordered the lights off, and snuggled down for another night of entertainment.
And then he was in a mine; he could see just that much in the fading light of his carbide lamp. Coal was smoldering somewhere nearby, acrid fumes that were painful to breathe. He was underdressed in a t-shirt and underpants, the cold like an icy hand on his groin. His claustrophobia had him screaming within a few seconds.
The tunnel snaked away before him, thirty centimeters deep in fetid water. He staggered down the uneven floor around the bend before him only to encounter a wall of fallen coal blocking his way. An arm protruded from beneath. He sliced his foot backing away.
He closed his eyes, attempted to gain control of the terror racing through him, but his foot seared with pain. His throat was tightening in response to the smoke, and all he could do was back into a corner and crouch, put his hands over his ears to mask the crackle of rock fracturing over his head.
Finally, after he’d broken down in sobs, balling his fists so hard that his nails dug crescent-shaped wounds in his palms, came the terrible thunder as the ceiling gave way.
And then he was in a sailboat, sails billowed, a lovely redhead on his arm, Taittinger in his flute, St. Croix in the distance. He closed his eyes and reveled in the flow of air, perfume, and salt water in the Caribbean sun.
The alarm pulled him away, and he sat up, rubbed his face, puzzled. He usually awoke refreshed, but today there was a pall over the day to come.
Modifying the black scripts to maximize their impact on Gabriel was almost fun for Jordan. There was malice she’d husbanded away from the previous failed relationships, and now it fed her efforts. She knew the man well enough to select those that would have particular terror for him.
Over the next week, her ex spent a night as a Jemaah Islamiyah prisoner, flayed at dawn. Froze to death as member of Captain Robert Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole in 1912. Was procured for a night as a boy prostitute in a Thai brothel. Spent the night as a Jew liming and burying bodies in Auschwitz, as a soldier choking without a gas mask in the trenches of the Somme, as a cannibal butcher in the Second Korean War.
She waited five days before waking early to watch him walk to the local train station for his daily commute to Denver. He looked exhausted, haunted, from which she took great satisfaction.
Livvy had seen Ng, whom Jordan had dealt similar scripts, in a training session and reported that he, too, seemed deeply disturbed.
But Jordan hadn’t devoted the time to know Ng that well, and Livvy had failed to tell her how fundamentally unstable he was. Therefore Jordan was caught by surprise when after a week of nightmares the flag she’d put on him brought news that he’d been found dangling at the end of a rope.
It was never her intention to kill him, or Wyeth, only cause them commensurate pain. She was cancelling Gabriel’s dream for that night when Livvy called on the vid.
“You heard?” Livvy said.
“Yeah. I never meant it to go this far.”
“The family is devastated.”
“You haven’t told them about us, right?” Jordan said.
Livvy shook her head violently. “Never. They’d never forgive me.”
“Then let it go as a bad idea. I’ve got your back, and you have mine.”
“Sisters forever,” Livvy said.
Jordan didn’t have the heart to escape into a script that night, and Ng appeared to her in a natural dream. He offered no forgiveness.
It was a week later, just when Jordan had finally begun to put the dire deed behind her, that she had the nightmare. The cops bursting through her door, dressed like SS troops, goose-stepping her to the car, freezing cold, shoving her in a glass cage so she could see gathered crowds pointing at her, laughing, just then realizing she was wearing not a stitch. She could tell a scripted dream from a natural one, and when she woke she immediately recognized this as one of the former.
When she got into work that morning, still deeply rattled, she immediately checked her account. It showed that the dream she had chosen for that REM cycle, as Cyrus the Great of Persia, ran as scheduled. So where had the nightmare come from?
She only had to fret about it for an hour before the answer walked into her office. Mason Harper, her supervisor as of the first of the previous month, had a faint smile on his face as he took a seat in front of her desk and crossed his feet at the ankle. Every time Jordan saw him she was reminded anew of her great grandfather, himself a tall man, with the same narrow eyes, the same artificial tan more yellow than bronze, the same habit of licking his lips in conversation while awaiting his opportunity to reply.
Still, Harper was her supervisor, and as his star scripter he had found little need to spend time supervising her. She was content with this arrangement.
“What’s up?” she said.
“You know where I worked when I first started here?” he said. “I was one of the guys paid to spend their days trying to hack into the system, so that the company could patch any leaks before they were discovered by outsiders. We rarely found anything except the occasional employee who wanted to sell us access; they didn’t know we were the company, of course.”
“That must have been interesting,” Jordan said, praying that he wasn’t going where she feared he was.
He shrugged. “Boring as hell, really. Anyway, one day to my great surprise I found a way for people who were legitimately in the system to expand their access. I kept the knowledge to myself, figuring it could prove very useful, and it has. In fact, one of the traps I put in place was tripped just the other night.”
It was all Jordan could do to keep from looking away.
He licked his lips several times. “Want to guess what tripped it?”
“Haven’t a clue.”
“Oh, come on. Quit playing coy. I know you were feeding a couple of our clients nightmares. Even if you hadn’t set off the trap I’d still recognize your code anywhere. Very clever, tagging their favorites on the end of each. But you know what happens to people who have nightmares every night? Feed somebody nightmares every night for long enough, you get a psychotic. Keep it up, you might just get a corpse, like your sister’s ex-husband. And it only took you a week to kill him. You must have sent him some dire stuff.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jordan said.
Harper leaned back in his chair. “The evidence is there and it isn’t going anywhere. You knew just enough to get in trouble, but not enough to cover your tracks. Now, of course this is more than just a fireable offense; you’ve broken a couple of laws that could land you in prison for murder.”
Jordan glanced at the window. Would it break if she tried to run through it? Forty-one floors up, she’d certainly die upon landing.
“On the other hand, I could be persuaded to keep my mouth shut.” He grinned.
“What do you want?” she said. “I don’t have much money.”
“Oh, I’ve got money. No, what I want is something you’re particularly well positioned to provide. You’re an attractive woman, and kind of stuck-up. I have a weakness for women who think they’re too good for me.”
Oh God, she thought, appalled at what she saw coming.
But he threw her a curve. “What I want from you is a script; you and me and every sex act you can imagine. Your best work, nothing held back.”
She was so angered it was all she could do to stop from picking up her tablet and throwing it at him. “If you’re so turned on by me, why don’t you just write one yourself?”
He shook his head. “You know better than that. I write one for myself, it’s no more fun than masturbating. It’s the knowledge that you wrote it, willingly, that makes it erotic.” He stood. “I’ll give you a week.”
Despite the disgust that threatened to overwhelm her, Jordan could see no way out of the dilemma short of complying with her boss’ demand. The question was how little could she supply that would still be acceptable to him? After steeling herself with an extra couple of tabs of Kourage, she decided against scanning herself in the nude, choosing instead to cheat by grafting her head onto the body of a freeware model of similar build and skin color. Somehow, this seemed less personal, allowing her more liberty to put the avatar through acts that made her gag.
Her shrink attributed her frigidity to a mistake by her DNA designers that was uncommon but not unknown, so for her this had all the eroticism of a gynecological exam. She was careful to avoid including any suggestion of affection in the machinations for fear Harper might take it as an invitation. She could only hope that it was enough to get him off her back, figuratively speaking.
But it wasn’t. He leaned over her shoulder as she ran the script for him on the screen in her office, blushing cherry-red from the first scene. At first, he was giggling, but it soon became apparent that he wasn’t buying the passionless nature of the lovemaking. She had written a different scenario for each of five sequential REM cycles, but before she reached the fourth, he pushed away from her. “I’m glad I’m not hooking up with you in person,” he said, “because you must be one cold fish. Do it again, and this time, I want you as a willing, no, eager participant. Loosen up. It’s just sex.”
“No, it’s not. It’s rape.”
“How do you figure? I never laid a hand on you.”
“You’re a pig, you know that?”
“Sticks and stones, darling. Fix it. And I saw a picture of your sister when I was researching you online. Include her in it this time.”
“This is about me. Leave her out of it.”
“Why? Afraid I might tell her family that she convinced you to kill Ng? That might not be a bad idea.”
For Livvy’s sake, Jordan couldn’t push him further.
What he wanted was programming that demanded she put herself in the shoes of the type of person she disliked: the libertine, the sybarite. That night she pulled up several of the best-selling sex scripts and attempted to capture the attitude of the female characters before taking another stab at hers. More smiles, moans of pleasure, moments of eagerness and aggression and tenderness, rather than tolerance—each time she added one, she cringed. She threw up while adding her sister to complete the ménage à trois.
Nonetheless, after another difficult night’s work, she had something that approximated what Harper had demanded.
To her relief and humiliation, he was satisfied. Still, she spent the next month looking for a new job, but the market was tight for script writers.
Her quest ended the day she was sitting with an employment counselor she had decided to consult about her lack of success. The woman nodded, spent a few seconds on her tablet, frowned, then held up the screen to Jordan. There she saw the script she had written for Harper running as a video clip.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“It’s gone viral. Anyone researching you is bound to find this. Employers are going to question your judgment in posting this in the public, and that could certainly put them off you.”
Now she understood the sly sideways glances at work, the whispers when she passed.
She was unable to swallow her wrath on the way home. Worse, when she arrived she found Livvy in her living room reclined on the couch.
Her sister wasted no time saying, “I see that I’m now starring in one of your scripts.” Surprisingly, she didn’t sound pissed.
“I was blackmailed to do it. I had no choice. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
Livvy grinned. “I can’t imagine how someone could force you to star in a slut script. I’ve never met a more modest person in my life.”
“It was to save you as much as me.” She explained about Harper’s blackmail.
Her sister clenched her fists. “If that’s the case, then I owe you.”
“Aren’t you bothered? By the sex?” Jordan said.
“Honey, I’ve done everything you included in that script, and more. It’s just friction and lubrication. Every animal does it, so why should I be embarrassed?”
“But ... I had us together.”
“It’s just fantasy, Sis. Forget it.”
But Jordan couldn’t forget it. Not even for a moment.
Livvy was with her pod and Jordan had no one else she could spend Christmas Day with who was unaware of the script. After killing a pitcher of wassail, she chose a mix of carols and sat down at her home terminal. If she couldn’t undo time and deed, she could at least find vengeance.
The next day she explained her plan to Livvy, unwilling to make eye contact as she laid it out.
“I can’t believe this is the same person who wouldn’t jaywalk a year ago,” Livvy said when she was done.
“Even a shy person has limits,” Jordan said. “It’s either this or I kill myself.”
Livvy placed a hand on her shoulder. “Promise me that you won’t do that. Ever. It’s you and me, remember? Against the world? Without you, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Then you’ll help?”
“If he tells the family what I did, they’d banish me, and I couldn’t stand for that to happen. And you could end up locked away for life. You’re my sister. Did you really think I wouldn’t?”
Livvy took Jordan shopping for the appropriate attire; she had nothing seductive in her wardrobe. She ended with a bougainvillea-print silk blouse with a plunging neckline, white miniskirt, precipitous heels and a crystal ankh pendant that rested nicely in her braless cleavage. She blew a quarter of her paycheck on a pheromone-rich perfume from Coty named Tumescent.
She spent time practicing in the mirror, trying to channel her sister’s eager attitude about sex. She had to leave her inhibitions at home if she was to accomplish her mission. To her surprise, as she anticipated the night she did feel a tingle that she was unfamiliar with.
She had once overheard Harper tell his intern that he spent most weeknights at home on an MMOG gaming site. On that Tuesday evening, she donned her new outfit, put the vial of dope her sister had scored for her in her purse along with a coffee straw, grabbed the bottle of Cristal Champagne she’d purchased for the occasion, downed an extra dose of Kourage, and set out for Harper’s home.
She held her breath until Harper answered the door, dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. When he saw who it was, he frowned. “What are you doing here?”
“May I come in?” she said.
“Do you have a gun?”
She smiled, the eager grin her sister might give someone that turned her on. “No gun. Just champagne.” She hoisted the bottle.
He stepped aside, a perplexed look on his face, as she entered. “Explain, please.”
She reached up and squeezed his beefy bicep. “I was royally pissed at you, over that script thing, of course. But you hit the nail on the head. I was such a cold fish that the fear of sex was ruining my life. You can’t imagine how many boyfriends I’ve disappointed. Can we open this? My throat is dry.”
He warily nodded toward the kitchen area at the back of the open floor plan. The place was surprisingly neat, with more color than she had expected. One entire wall had been covered with vid paint; she briefly imagined her slut dream played on such a large platform and shuddered.
As they crossed the living room to the kitchen, she continued, “Anyway, when the script became public, at first I was ready to kill myself from embarrassment. But you know what? I had an epiphany; for the first time in my life I saw sex for what it is, just lubrication and friction. So what if everybody saw me doing all those things? There are six billion people on the planet, so there must be a whole lot of fucking going on. In a very weird way, what you did was the best thing that has happened to me in my life. I’m finally free.”
He took the champagne from her hand, sniffing her as he did. His eyes widened. With a quick twist, he had the cork out. “Well that’s about as surprising a thing as I could ever imagine. But you’re welcome.” He reached under the counter and produced a couple of wine glasses. “So you’re here to what? Celebrate?”
She gave him the smile again, and said, “No, I’m here to screw your socks off.” She stepped forward and gave him a long, soulful kiss to which he rapidly responded. “Think of it as my way of saying thank you.”
He was reacting the way Livvy had said he would, his common sense yielding to his erection. To her surprise, within her nervousness was a frisson of empowerment. There was a wide couch in the living room; she took the champagne in one hand, Harper in the other, and dragged him to it. As they sat, she pulled the vial from her purse, waved it playfully in front of him. “You ever do coke before you make love? My sister says it’s like climbing on a rocket.” She steeled herself as she reached over and placed a hand on his crotch, to discover he was ready, willing and able.
“All the time,” he said, licking his lips. She reached into his shorts with one hand as she dumped out the white powder on the coffee table with the other, and used the straw to drag it into two long lines.
“After you,” Harper said. She could tell he was still suspicious, even with his dick in her hand. Leaning over, allowing him a clear view of her breasts, she took the straw and vacuumed up a line of the cocaine laced with rohypnol, depending on the adrenaline her sister had shot her up with earlier to keep her from passing out. Even with this, she felt immediately woozy. “Wow, what a buzz,” she said, not having to pretend.
This seemed to reassure Harper, who took the straw from her hand and snorted up the second line. He had just placed one hand on her breast when his eyes glazed over; a moment later, he passed out.
Jordan climbed unsteadily to her feet, pulled her phone from her purse and called Livvy. “Show time,” she said.
In a moment her sister was at the door.
Jordan watched with admiration at her sister’s medical skill as she quickly threaded a nasogastric tube up Harper’s nose and down into his stomach. Livvy then produced a small bottle of liquid morphine and poured it down Harper’s tube directly into his stomach. Once she had administered a lethal dose, she carefully removed the tube so that there was no evidence of it.
“How long?” Jordan whispered.
“The rohypnol will keep him unconscious until the morphine hits,” Livvy said. “How are you feeling?”
“It’s all I can do to keep from passing out myself.”
Livvy checked her heartbeat, her pupils, her breathing, as they sat quietly. Harper soon stopped breathing.
Livvy squeezed the bottle in Harper’s hand, then set it on the table in front of him. She used an alcohol wipe to clean the coffee table where the coke mixture had been.
“Your turn,” she said, looking at Jordan.
Jordan pulled out her phone. She was glad she had nothing left to do but give a go command to the program she had prepared the night before. In a minute, scripts were cued up for Harper’s mother, sister, supervisor at work, his secretary, his doctor, his minister. That night, each would witness his suicide note, a dream in which he explained about the rapes he’d committed, the molestations, things he could no long stand to live with. He apologized, explained the rohypnol (to numb him), the morphine (the coup de grâce), all laid out in a script written with the programming nuances that would identify it as his work. All consistent with what they would find when they broke into his apartment the next morning.
As they reached the car, Livvy asked, “You OK?”
“I thought I’d feel better,” Jordan admitted.
“You’ve read enough revenge scripts to know it’s never as sweet as you imagine. By the way, you looked delicious tonight.”
Jordan had barely begun to settle into her position as Harper’s replacement, had barely begun to experiment with the sexual freedom that resulted from her escapade, when she was approached by a headhunter. One of his clients had seen the script she’d done for Harper and wanted to hire her away, at a large salary increase, to write scripts for shy women looking to find their own liberation.
Tom Barlow has published stories in over 60 magazines and anthologies, including “The Intergalactic Medicine Show,” “Crossed Genres,” and “Nebula Rift.” His science fiction novel “I’ll Meet You Yesterday” is available from Bundoran Press.