Black Petals Issue #107, Spring, 2024

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(After) Life is What You Make It: Fiction by Richard Brown
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Insights Into the Trajectory of Human Cetacean Communication: Fiction by Andre Bertolino
Mal Ojo: Fiction by M. N. Wiggins
No Dark: Fiction by Bill Dougherty
Overtime: Fiction by Dennison Sleeper
A Cut Above the Rest: Fiction by Roy Dorman
Resemblance: Fiction by James McIntire
Sign of the Times: Fiction by Liam A. Spinage
The Attic Party: Fiction by Michael Fowler
The Renovators: Fiction by Hillary Lyon
The Balance: Flash Fiction by Rick McQuiston
Bawk Dark: Flash Fiction by Michael C. Jessen
The Incident With the Mismatched Man: Flash Fiction by Charles C. Cole
Radio Tower: Flash Fiction by Blair Orr
Take Me With You: Flash Fiction by Steven French
Slippery: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Where Dead Babies Come From: Poem by Nolcha Fox
302 Asylum Avenue: Poem by Joseph Danoski
Another Story: Poem by Joseph Danoski
Home Repairs: Poem by Joseph Danoski
A Creepy Leap Year: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Funeral Memorial: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
BatGrl: Poem by Casey Renee Kiser
Twin Flame: Poem by Casey Renee Kiser
Shadow Play: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Dark Ride: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Leviathans of the Void: Poem by Christopher Hivner
Sunbursts: Poem by Christopher Hivner
Into the Eyes: Poem by Anthony Bernstein
Airtime: Poem by Peter Mladinic
Gloria: Poem by Peter Mladinic
The Sorcerer: Poem by C. Walker
Frozen Eve: Poem by C. Walker

Dennison Sleeper: Overtime

107_bp_overtime_amr.jpg
Art by Ann Marie Rhiel 2024

OVERTIME

 

Dennison Sleeper

 

          “You’re late” the nurse stomps out a cigarette as punctuation, huddled under an awning outside the fire exit. A brick props open the emergency door.

          “Pods all look the same at night.” I light my own.

          “Well, not like the guy’s going anywhere.” He leans against the wall coolly, attempting an air of calm. “What did they tell you about this one?”

          “They never tell me anything. Anyone see you come in?”

          “A bum in the parking lot when we got here. Bout’ as fried as our patient upstairs. HQ made us switch to plain clothes and unmarked vans now. If he’s got enough synapses left to process, he would’ve seen just a couple drones heading home for the night.”

          “Where are they now?”

          “What? I don’t know, man. Not here.”

          “The rule is nobody sees us. Nobody. Last nurse got doxxed. Protesters outside of her condo in a day. Had to get relocated.”

          The nurse scoffs.

          “Ha, yea, relocated.”

He lights up another cigarette.

          “Don’t bother,” I interrupt, “we’re going up.”

          He knows I wasn’t late by accident. That would be impossible. Automata Worldwide’s fleet of self-drivers have less than a .01% chance of arrival time inaccuracy. Especially when coming from HQ directly to one of the company's own employee pods. But what I said earlier wasn’t a lie, either. All of the pods do look the same at night. And during the day. City-block sized cubes of brutalist architecture housing 400-600 loyal workers each. He also knows it’s not his place to ask questions.

          We creep up the fire exit stairs like stoned teenagers returning home after curfew. We text the second nurse inside of the apartment, who cracks open the door as we arrive. I lock the door, check their ID tags, and shake off the adrenaline.

          Each of us has a different technical manual for dealing with Dreamers. Each tailored to our exact roles and responsibilities. Sparse and specific as to ensure we;

 

  1. Don’t fuck up

  2. Don’t know more than we need to

     

              It’s a good thing, too, given the manuals are written on acid paper that dissolves within a few hours of opening, quickening the more you handle it. I don’t bother bringing one anymore. By the time I’m called in, there’s only so much that can be done. The second nurse is a young woman. Sporting a tight white-and-black spotted dress, dangling teardrop earrings, jet-black bob haircut, and heels hastily covered in plastic wrap. She nervously flips through her manual with one hand, covering her face with a tissue in the other.

    That’s not good.

              They called her during an off-day. And she’s new. Are we short-handed already?

              “Put the manual away, miss. You’re going to burn the thing out early. I’ll walk you through it.”

              She eyes me warily and checks with her partner who nods in confirmation. The nurse returns the manual to a leather clutch hanging off her shoulder.

              “The smell…Jesus, my head is killing me. Can I step out for a minute?”

              “Rule Number Three- Don’t, under any circumstances, leave until the Dreamer is awake,” I say.

              “Or terminated. And that’s Rule Two for us,” says the male nurse. “Here.” He hands her a small pump of liquid menthol. “Spray it on the tissue.”

              I stopped bringing that, too. What she smells – what we all smell – is the unmistakable miasma of human rot. A sickly-sweet mixture of pus, sugar, and gangrene. Stew gone bad; left to fester on the stove in a humid city apartment.

              Each appointment begins with an inspection. In an eight-hundred square foot apartment, it takes me less than ten minutes. I check for hidden cameras, wiretaps, cell phones, smart devices, unsent and unopened letters. Anything related to the outside world. In the pods, this is made even easier as everything is provided by their –  and my – employer; Automata. His webcam knows what he’s been eating and his microwave knows when he cooked it. The AI assistant – playing his favorite songs, setting his alarm, calling Mom – knows when he’s fallen asleep based on the cadence of his breathing, and for how long. This is how Automata was alerted.

              First, the employee stops showing up for day-shifts at the office. Burnout is real, so no-shows are initially forgiven. Especially if they live in the pod. For them, no job equals no home. They reappear eventually.

              If they don’t, then the analysts pull their bio-records from their home. Their breathing indicates an abnormality of REM-sleep. Too deep for just drug use or alcoholism. And the erratic nature of the dreaming indicates increased brain activity. The same centers of the brain that are involved when working. Normally, this would be done in real time. The employee caught within a few days. My inspection reveals that, unlike the others, this one is offline. That means they were working on something sensitive.

              The apartment consists of three rooms—a front living area with a couch, TV, desk, kitchenette, and door to the bathroom. The third and final room is separated by a large curtain behind the couch, failing to restrict the smell of death behind it. The room has been restricted in emergency protocol by Automata. That means only the dim, red emergency lights are working. Internet access is cut. The air conditioning is too strong and too cold; for preservation. The apartment stays this way until an Inspector like myself clears the Dreamer for reintegration. I walk towards the bedroom, the nurses in tow.

     

              I was hired during the launch of the Dreamworks program three years ago. Worked in employee monitoring long before that. If we were allowed to use names, mine would be in the byline of the tech manuals. I get to act jaded because I’ve seen it all. The hard-nosed corporate gumshoe. The inscrutable company goon. Cool, calm, collected. At this moment, thoroughly shocked and disgusted.

              An attempted exclamation under my breath is caught in my throat alongside coffee-flavored bile.

              “Yea,” the male nurse says. “It's bad.”

             

              Suspended above the bed before me is a human marionette.

     

              A mass of tangled cables hovers above like a chaotic thought bubble. Streams of different colors connected to body parts and machinery. Thin, white wires attached to electrodes on the temples and forehead. Thick, black cables connected to the headset that lays titled over his eyes, a dark blue glow emanating from underneath. Straps hung haphazardly through rings in the ceiling that hold up the twig-like forearms, fingers still frantically typing at an invisible keyboard. The legs are propped up with pillows to keep the blood from clotting. A catheter runs out below the sheets, a yellowing stain forming along its course. An IV runs from the wormlike artery of his left arm, another sits in the shriveled muscle of his quadriceps. These last two were added by the nurse upon arrival.

              The fingers are broken and askew, the tips bloody stumps, fingernails disappeared or hanging on by a strand of flesh. The keyboard, set aside by the nurse (a violation of protocol), is dotted in flecks of blood and bone. His lips are dried and cracked, glistening from a recent sheen of balm the nurse applied before shoving a feeding tube down his throat. The male nurse gently pushes the body side to side, wiping at open bed sores with antiseptic. Even in such a deep sleep, the body twitches involuntarily with pain. I know the nurses aren’t allowed to administer any sort of anesthetic as it could interfere with the Dreamers work. We’re not permitted to know exactly what that work is.

    The electrode wires end in a monitor above the headboard. I insert my ID card, punch in the code, and watch as an antique strip of receipt paper prints out below. Six inches. Twelve. Eighteen. The receipt comes to a halt three feet later.

    “What’s it say ?”

    He knows I can’t answer that. Not that it would make any sense to him.

    The report is in binary. I scan the report and send it back to HQ, awaiting instructions. I slump into the couch in the living room and rub my eyes. The coffee table in front of me is littered with opened bills and a series of pink and green envelopes, long ignored, surely containing the same. A much healthier version of the bedridden drone sits in a frame, holding a girl I imagine is his daughter.

    “Her medical records are here, too.” The nurse points at the picture frame. “Leukemia. No wonder he picked up overtime. I’m guessing the bastards overclocked him?”

    Overtime. Overclocked. Derogatory slang for the Dreamworks program. Words any smart employee would avoid saying behind even closed doors for fear of firing. Or worse. As much as I hate to admit to the brash ‘Rage Against the Machine’ attitude of Gen Alpha, each inspection makes it harder to argue.

    Dreamworks is overtime while you sleep. A computer chip the size of a dime inserted deep into the temporal lobe, stimulated by electrical signals at night, returning simple feedback to a localized hard drive in the form of binary. That code is sent back to Automata HQ, translated, and used for all sorts of things. Customer purchasing preferences. Search engine optimization. GPS coordinates. Or, if you listen to the Anti-AI protesters, the total mapping of the human subconscious to fully automate Artificial Intelligence programs and create a system of living, breathing computers.

    The program has been a huge success. Employees relished the opportunity to literally make money while they slept. Users reported the occasional nightmare or vision disturbance during the day, but nothing more. Until a few started disappearing from the office. Then a few more.

    Like any new technology, Dreamworks was launched in Beta. It needed tweaking. Patches. Defenses against hackers. Began with a solid ninety-nine percent efficacy. The one-percent lies a few feet behind me. Desiccated. Riddled with open sores. Fingers typing until they break down into cases of loose sausage. Unable to wake up. Trapped in their digital cubicle.

    The first few cases were easy enough. Disconnect the units, perform a hard reset, inject some adrenaline and you’re good to go. In rare cases, electrostimulation via a needle inserted into the chip. Bonus pay for their troubles. The majority of them didn’t even leave the program. Rumor is that the ones who did back out, the ones tapped into the cloud, kept on working anyways. Without ever knowing or being compensated.

    “How are his vitals?” I ask.

    “BPM at fifty with a slight arrhythmia. BP eighty over sixty. Blood sugar basically non-existent. Eye movement suggesting stage three REM. I’d say he’s been like this for seven, maybe eight days.”

    “How is that possible?”

    The nurse shrugs.

    “Given the emergency code on this one, the size of the incision on the back of the head, I’d say he’s got something a bit more advanced in there than the rest.” He taps his head with a gloved finger. “You taking notes on this?”

    Rule Five. Nothing on paper. I mimic him with a tap to my own head.

    My portable scanner pings. Code words drift across the two-inch LCD display, too long to be read at once, just in case anyone looks over my shoulder.

    Omega. Twelve. Seven. Adam. Juice. Extend. Extend. Extend.

              I squint at the screen and wait for the words to pass by again to confirm.

              Extend. Extend. Extend.

              A word I’ve only seen once before, and never in triplicate. For the first time since my rookie months, I wish I had my manual.

              “What’re our orders, captain?”

              I sigh as I push off my knees to stand.

              “You talk too much.” The nurses follow me back to the bed.

              “You,” I point to the girl, “set up a cascade of three more IV bags. Double-check the stability of the feeding tube and the volume of the nutrition formula. Replace the catheter. I’ll need you back here twice a week for maintenance. You’ll get your orders the day of.”

              “Understood.” She speaks confidently, relieved to finally be involved.

              “You,” pointing to the man, “raise the patient, thoroughly clean the sores and pack them with gauze. Replace the sheets. Shake out the legs and arms. Your priority is the fingers. Check the damage and add splints. I need you to make sure those fingers are fixed up properly. I cannot stress this enough.”

              “And the electrodes?”

              “Don’t touch it. Or the headset. I’ll handle those.”

     

              We set to our tasks. The girl is eager and efficient. Works in silence. She’s getting a solid report from me.

              The man. The man is keeping an eye on me, and me on him. A rookie would say he’s methodical. I say he’s stalling.

              I remove the headset, clean the padding, and tighten it up with a snug fit. Plug in a flash drive containing a much-needed update. I type in a code to the monitor for a hard reset. Then I slip into the living room to perform some old-school maintenance. Grabbing a pair of scissors from the Dreamers desk, I cut the cords of every electronic device in the house. Lamps included. By now Automata would have reset the lock code for the door.

              “Progress report?”

              “All good on my end,” says the girl. Indeed she is. Each of her tasks in fine order.

              “Almost.” The male nurse is gently massaging the feet of the Dreamer. I inspect his work. Primarily, the fingers. The splints are well-done. Stiff and secure. Automata uses specific splints for the Dreamers; rubber tips on the end, and elastic shock absorbers surround the joints. I recheck the monitor and headset and remove the flash drive.

              “We’re all set in here. Wait for me in the living room.”

              The girl marches off. The male nurse lingers, staring at the face of the dreamer, casting a mournful glance over his shoulder as he leaves. I begin my last task.

              In spite of his aggressive typing the keyboard remains in working order. I reattach the wrist-straps and place it a half-inch underneath his fingers, which continue in their lonely wriggle, searching for their keys like worms to soil. With the keyboard back in position I give the Dreamer a shot of adrenaline, and the fingers come to life in an excited march across their field of dreams.

              “What are you doing?” the male nurse asks, horrified.

              “Miss, please head down to the parking lot. A car is waiting for you. Be sure to take the fire exit stairs. You will hear from us soon.”

              She glances at the male nurse and back to me before heading out. The male nurse is shivering. I step close to him and pull out a slim digital camera.

              “This you?”

              I show him the screen. An image of him, picket sign in hand, mouth stretched wide mid-shout, eyes wrinkled in anger. The sign reads:

              Dreamworks=Slavery

              I have no doubt that, if he could, he would tackle me right now, and beat my face in. He might have the size to do it, too. But my left hand, below the belt, holds a syringe of tranquilizer stuck deep into his thigh. The needle imperceptibly thin. He crumples onto the floor, eyes wide in fear and shock. Mute, helpless, and fully cognizant. I check my watch.

              “You’ll be collected in seven minutes. I can’t tell you what happens after that. My advice? If you get the chance, if they let you alone, kill yourself. It will be a mercy.” Tears well up in his eyes.

              “And,” I continue, startled to find myself choking up, “I’m sorry about your brother.”

Dennison Sleeper is a traveling comedian, documentarian, writer, and corporate-life refugee. He strives daily to be a better creative, and worse employee.

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