The clock said 2:30 pm. I contend that late afternoon is the hardest part of every working day. You know you don’t have enough time left to accomplish much, and those last couple of hours in the office seem to drag on longer than the others. Even when you enjoy your job as much as I do, sometimes you have trouble keeping your batteries charged for those final minutes of the day. That is where I found myself on that Thursday. I was waiting on the arrival of my third case of the day – my seventh of that week alone – and I still had a stack of folders on my desk to work through in the coming week. Our office had been busier than usual, but the cases always seemed to come in waves, especially in the winter months. Truthfully, the backlog did not really bother me because I was lucky enough to be doing what I wanted to do in life and what I had specifically trained to do.
My formal job title was “Senior Case Worker & Technical Programmer” for the Descartes Meditations Project – or DMP, for short. When people inevitably asked what I actually did, I told them that I got to make people’s dreams come true every day. The DMP was more than just a machine; it was an inspirational concept and revolutionary idea. I assumed the doctor, founder – and my personal hero – that created the machine and program chose to name it “Descartes” after his iconic statement: “I think therefore I am.” I am not certain if that was the real reason or something more, because our founder was always coming up with unique names and explanations for the things he did.
Most people referred to the core technology behind the DMP as the “dream machine.” Using his creation, we can hook someone’s brain up at the right points, periodically feed the right chemical impulses at the right times, and – through the true genius of the doctor’s innovation – make anyone believe anything. The clients rested peacefully and the machine engaged their mind in a carefully monitored and controlled fantasy world. After its successful introduction, the dream machine was quickly adapted to provide entertainment and the ultimate virtual vacations for wealthy clientele.
The doctor, though, had created the DMP for a much nobler cause, and that was the cause I had been drawn to join. The philanthropic scope and mission of the DMP aimed to provide a needed alternative for the welfare state. I worked with people after their more-productive years – usually around fifty or fifty-five years old – or those people who were disadvantaged in some way and not able to accomplish what they otherwise might have that had sadly now become a negative drain on society.
I saw all types of clients, but most of them had been in and out of the social welfare system all their lives and the DMP was their final stop. There were vocal critics and skeptics about the project because these people were in a sort of “permanent dream state” for the rest of their lives. The obvious counter to this argument was that participation in the DMP was actually a superior life for all of them – not to mention that it cost the state much less to support them that way. The true nature of my job was to meet and interview each client, determine their needs and wants, and then design and program a dream that fit them.
I had worked at the DMP for sixteen years and become one of the best in the country at my role. In my time, I saw many other case workers come and go, though. Some could not handle the work after a while and complained that they felt like they were forced to play God. I always saw the work differently and viewed what we did as a principled pursuit much like – I believe – the doctor who created the project. Yes, of course, we were saving the state lots of money, but much more importantly, we were giving amazing opportunities and new life to disadvantaged people that would never have had them otherwise. Thanks to our founding doctor – who I had the honor of taking a couple of classes from when I was in college that helped inspire me to choose this profession – I not only liked my job but was thankful for it and the difference it made in the world.
My feelings for my job aside, I was having trouble psyching myself up to finish out this Thursday as I looked at my next client slouched over across from me in my office. The Humanity Board had already approved him for the DMP, and he was the stereotypical client: fifty-seven-years-old and divorced for twenty years with adult children. Like so many others, he had burned bridges and made mistakes that resulted in his relationships with his now-grown children that were more than just strained but nonexistent. He was unemployed, unhappy, and out of options. I was offering him the opportunity to now live out his life anyway he wanted to.
After some small talk and the required historical back ground questions, I got right to the point and asked, “So, what do you want to be?”
The client mumbled for awhile, clearly having no idea how to answer to the question, but then responded, “Why can’t I just be…whatever I want to be?”
This was a familiar and almost predictable question for me by now. There were days my first thoughts were “looks like you have tried that and it hasn’t exactly worked out well,” but I always provided a more sympathetic response to the question. “You can. This is finally your opportunity to do and be whatever you always wanted to be,” I would say.
The slouching client remained silent, and I went on to give examples of things he could do like being famous, being successful, or maybe even being good with the ladies. After some time and some thought, he finally spoke, “But that isn’t me…and it isn’t me doing it.”
“Of course it is!” I replied. “Memories and knowledge are all relative. The emotion they create and the satisfaction they provide are real. If this makes you believe you have accomplished something, and you have the knowledge that you did, no one can tell you otherwise.” I never wanted to get too deep with the client about relative truth and knowledge, so I would usually go back to trying to help them paint a life. “Just think of what you could now accomplish. Think of how much happier you are going to be.”
I could tell he was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable as his eyebrows furrowed a bit and he let out an audible sigh. “I guess I don’t give a darn. I never really wanted to do much anyway,” he said noticeably frustrated. Next – letting his guard down slightly and becoming more vulnerable – he said, “I always wanted to help…but it seems like everything I have done just hurts others.” Finally, trying to deflect the questions from himself, he asked, “Well…what would you be if you could do this?”
With a noticeable passion, I did more than explain what I would be but what the founding doctor of the project had been. It was because of him and his vision and dedication that I was doing what I did at the DMP. He had wanted to help people and created this project out of compassion for others. As a matter of fact, the good doctor not only devoted his life to this project, but eighteen years ago, he believed so much in this idea that he designed his own program and voluntarily became a DMP client to prove its worth and increase its acceptance. It was rumored that his program was just an expansion of his life’s mission. His programmed dream state allowed him to daily take care of people and expand the DMP into the entire world. I believed in him and what he believed in, and I always felt I was carrying out the wishes of our founder on his behalf in his noble absence. So to answer the client’s question more directly, my response was simply that I was following in the doctor’s footsteps and already being exactly who I want to be.
It seemed that something I said or the inflection I used to say it made an impact. The client’s eyes brightened and he sat up straighter with his mouth ajar as he took in everything. Even though I believed I had long ago heard every possible question from clients, his next words truly surprised me. Using a half-embarrassed mousy voice, he almost whispered, “Can I be the doctor…too?”
“What?” I asked even though I had heard his words clearly.
“I know it may sound odd, but…what you explained…and what he did…and everything…you said I could be anything. Can I be the DMP founder or do his program? Does it work that way?” the client asked more eagerly now.
Being honest, I had to think about that one. Pondering his request, I could see no reason why it should not work. Just to convince myself I was not just being an overly proud parent pushing my figurative child into a future they really didn’t want, I asked the client if he was sure or if there was anything else he would rather do.
“No,” he said, “I really never had any dreams, and I always wanted to help other people, so that dream sounds as good as any other to me.”
Selfishly, hearing his answer was downright exciting! Not because he wanted to follow in my personal dream of following the doctor’s dream and not because we finally came to an answer upon which we both agreed. It was exhilarating because I realized something more special immediately when the client first uttered the idea that he wanted to be like our founder. One year before the DMP began its philanthropic mission the doctor had programmed his own mediation state and became its first 100% volunteer client. His only request was to provide him privacy and not go into or view his personal program. He was certainly an eccentric genius and was often intentionally vague about details and kept much to himself. Since entering his own dream state, that portion of his lifestyle remained. He was resting in a secluded and restricted area of the DMP building. The exciting truth was that this client’s suggestion had given me the inspiration I needed to finally answer a question that had lingered with me for my entire career.
It often seems that some of the simplest answers are the ones that you never think of until they are right in front of you. While I was prohibited from directly viewing our founder’s dream state program, I could export the nuts and bolts of it directly and reuse it for my current client. If I wired my new client up to the good doctor’s program, I could go in afterward to view some of the coding and visuals to glimpse just a little bit of what the doctor sees and how he is living out his life now. It would really be that easy, and it had never occurred to me because no one had ever requested it until now.
The next week really seemed to crawl by as I waited for the client’s scheduled transition into the DMP. I found myself anxious for the first time in a long time about a programming session. The client arrived and was also understandably nervous. We went through the protocol questions to make sure he was aware, compliant, and ready. He nodded his head in a manner that seemed to convey less that he had understood and more that he was ready to be done with everything. We gave him a small sedative which was common to help settle any nerves. Truth be told, I almost wanted one myself to calm down as well. I was like a kid getting ready for Christmas morning, and I felt my heart begin to quicken its pace with anticipation.
After about twenty minutes, the client was in the resting pod and fully attached to the machine. The programming process was one of the easiest I had ever done. Simply copy, paste, and slightly tweak the profile to fit the client and then press “Enter.” I paused slightly before the last keystroke thinking about the client, thinking about myself, and thinking about the founder of the DMP. It was almost like everything I had achieved in life had come full circle now and had renewed meaning again with this client. What had started with an inspiration to help others – that had captivated me to join the DMP – was now being passed on to this client. I confirmed all the settings on last time, pressed “Enter,” and go…
The client closed his eyes, and I watched as the chemicals dripped, the lights pulsed, and the program ran. It would take about ten minutes before any visible image would be produced on the screens of his active dream for us to view them. It generally took that long for the system to work in reverse and take the negative and positive feedback from a client’s brain and convert them into an image we could watch much like a television program.
I sat almost motionless, knowing that the image that would come up – while it would be of my client’s dream – would be so much more to me. This was the program that the doctor and creator of this project wrote himself. My eyes dashed from the switchboard to the monitor and back, waiting for some indications of the exact moment I may be able to see anything. The one thing I was not looking at was my client when I was snapped back into reality by an assistant calling my name to take a look.
I turned and saw my client in the pod looking as if all blood had drained from his face. Looking into his expression more closely, I saw dark and motionless eyes now staring back at me. His breathing was short and deliberate like an animal stalking its prey, and his hands were warm and clammy. I ran quickly back to the board to check his vitals and make sure everything was programmed correctly and noticed the viewing screen was already showing an image.
Instead of displaying an image of a compassionate and benevolent caretaker I saw a huge devil-like figure on the screen. The setting appeared to be something of a prison with the client’s glaring red eyes as its apparent overseer. Screams of terror filled the air as people in the dream were tortured and manipulated to do the client’s bidding. I covered my eyes not wanting to see anymore when through my fingers I saw just the edge of the screen fill with vertical flashes. Disbelief overwhelmed me as I realized the flashes were actually flames and what I was seeing – what the doctor had long ago programmed – was Hell…and he as its master.