He sat in the middle of a meadow.
Tattered pant legs crossed over each other, barely reaching the worn out leathers of his shoes. His shirt was purple, the words “Aesop Lives” splashed across the chest in bold, white lettering. Blond wisps of hair fell loosely, almost touching the bony framework of his shoulders, but not quite.
He thought of flowers.
A burst of roses quietly and unobtrusively appeared in full bloom, swaying in the almost-wind that rippled the long grasses of the meadow. They were black, blacker than a starless night with a new moon, but he didn’t know that. His was a world of artificial light, even in the day, when the sunlight never reached the ground. He thought the roses were pretty.
He thought of other pretty things.
A tiger materialised. Or at least, what he thought a tiger should look like. It was a massive beast, striped in a mix of black, white, and green. Its tail was too long, and its ears were almost like a dog’s, constantly twitching.
The not-tiger took a moment to glance around the meadow, stretching forever in every direction. Bored, it lay down and yawned, opening its enormous jaw wide and showing off its sharp, clean teeth.
He glanced at them and dismissed it; the tiger would not harm him. Moving on, he thought of a childhood birthday party.
A few streamers whistled out of the air and subtly disappeared. Somewhere, a balloon popped.
He frowned and thought harder. Nothing happened.
“Dammit.” His hand bunched into a fist and he slammed it into the ground. It made an odd, metallic noise.
A voice reached out, echoing everywhere. “Sorry, sir,” it said apologetically. “It’s only a prototype, sir. There appears to be a bug in the thought machine, sir.”
“Fix it.” He relaxed his hand, letting it fall into his lap.
“We’ll do our best, sir.”
“I want it fixed, Parkinson.”
The not-tiger paid no attention to the voices. Neither did the roses.
He stood, carefully placing his hands on the meadow’s earthy floor and getting to his feet. He made his way over to the not-tiger and reached his hand out to pet it, to feel the silkiness that a tiger’s fur offered. His hand went straight through the not-tiger and he felt nothing.
“Sorry, sir,” the voice echoed. “Still working on that problem, sir.”
He grumbled. The not-tiger vanished. The roses wilted. A gallows sprung up where the tiger was, a rotting corpse hanging from a noose. The corpse’s face was the only part of the body left untouched by the rot.
“Very funny, sir.”
The gallows disappeared. The corpse didn’t, and dropped to the ground. A sickening crack and squelch of rotting tissue issued forth, and the corpse’s head rolled off, its tongue lolling around in its mouth. Pus oozed forth from where the head had separated from the body. He nudged it with his foot and it rolled a little more.
“I don’t smell anything.”
“The thought machine only processes sight and sound right now, sir. We’re working on the other three senses, sir.” The voice was a little stiff now.
He sniffed, as if to test the validity of the statement. He deliberately stepped on the beheaded, rotting body, smiling in satisfaction as it squelched under his leather shoes. He glanced down at his feet as he walked; no trace of anything was left on the shoes, because he wanted it that way.
He walked into an invisible wall.
“Fuck you, Parkinson.”
“Sorry, sir. You’ve walked into the wall of the room, sir.”
“Thanks for informing me of the fact.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
He laid one hand on the invisible wall and waded through the meadow, leaving behind him a trail of dead, matted grasses. Eventually he came to an anomaly in the wall.
“This is the door?”
“What happens if I leave the room?”
“The equipment loses the signal and the Dreamworld crashes. Sir,” the voice added sullenly.
He turned around and went back to Parkinson’s head. He bent over and picked it up by its matted hairs.
“How come I can pick up your head, but I can’t feel it?”
“You can pick up my head because the thought machine senses that you want to, sir. You can’t feel it because there aren’t any nerve sensors in the Dreamworld yet, sir.”
“What if I want to feel it?”
“The thought machine only processes sight and sound, sir.”
He grunted and drop-kicked Parkinson’s head. It soared beyond the invisible wall, grew wings, and flew away. He looked at Parkinson’s beheaded body. An axe appeared in a stump in the ground. He worked the axe out easily, raised it high, and smashed it into Parkinson’s chest. The employee uniform tore and the axe sank in quite readily.
An idea occurred to him.
“What happens if I imagine a gun and shoot myself?”
“I don’t know, sir. Perhaps you should try it, sir.”
“I think I will, Parkinson.” He grinned. A .45 calibre revolver materialised into his hand and he raised it to his head. “If this works, tell Theresa I want you fired from Komtek.”
He pulled the trigger. The gun shot a blank.
“Guess you won’t be fired after all, Parkinson.”
“I guess not, sir.”
He paused, struck by another idea.
“What happens if there are two people in the same Dreamworld session?”
“I suppose that both their Dreams would be produced, sir.”
“Have you ever tested it?”
A bright neon rainbow flickered in the sky, ending somewhere beyond the horizon. A crow flew out of the red band and landed on the corpse’s body, ruffling its feathers.
“Then how do you know?”
The gun disappeared, the dead grass sprang back to life, and the crow cawed.
“It’s all theoretical, sir. It’s never been done since it won’t happen when we release the final product, sir.”
“Shouldn’t you test it? You know, just in case some hackers or joyriders try to run a dual Dreamworld.”
A pause. He could almost hear Parkinson’s breathing increase by the smallest of increments. The roses, again in full bloom, put forth another flower.
“I suppose so, sir.”
“Put on the suit, Parkinson.” He grinned.
“Someone has to oversee the data registers, sir.”
“It’s all recorded. You can oversee it later.”
“Fuck departmental procedures, Parkinson. I’m the president of Komtek. Put on the damn suit.”
The crow hopped over to the head, pulled out the left eye, and flew back to the neon rainbow, which disappeared with a loud bang.
He whistled. The roses bloomed at full tilt, and he would have sneezed if the programmers had done the smell sensors. He didn’t.
Parkinson arrived in the Dreamworld dressed in his full Komtek uniform, an ugly cacophony of browns, greys, and mustard yellows, ironed to perfection. Except for his full head of brown hair, he was particularly nondescript; when he smiled, it was nervously. His Komtek boots flattened the grass where he walked.
Parkinson glanced at his body double, lying decapitated in the gut-stained grass. A thought, and it was gone.
“I never said you could do that.” He frowned. Parkinson’s body double reappeared, swarming with maggots.
“Sorry, sir.” Parkinson inched away from the maggots.
“What happens if you imagined your corpse away, and I imagined it back, and you imagined it away again, and I imagined it back, and we kept doing that?”
“I suppose the thought machine would overload, sir.” Parkinson glanced at the black roses. The bush was massive.
“What happens then?”
A dairy cow blinked into existence, then disappeared.
“I don’t know, sir. It’s never been done, sir.” He locked his hands behind his back.
“Let’s find out.”
“I’d really rather not, sir.”
“Parkinson, are you trying to tell me what to do?”
He glanced around the meadow, now spontaneously dotted with black roses. His eyes settled on where the cow had been.
“Let’s try it with that cow.”
“What cow, sir?” He blinked.
“Damn you, Parkinson.”
The dairy cow materialised. It showed no sign of surprise since he didn’t expect it to. Within the space of a few seconds, it was gone. Almost instantaneously, it was back, before disappearing some moments later.
He suppressed a sigh of frustration. “It’s never going to work if you take an eternity to make it go away, Parkinson.”
He watched Parkinson sit down on the grass, arms and legs folding themselves awkwardly around him, and then a third idea occurred to him.
“If you shoot me, and want me dead, does that mean I’m dead?”
Parkinson blinked. “Sorry, sir?”
He waved his hand impatiently. “I tried to kill myself. It didn’t work because I didn’t actually want to be dead. But if you tried to kill me, and you wanted me dead, wouldn’t I be dead then?”
“But what if I didn’t want to be dead when you wanted me to be dead when you shot me?” he continued. “It’s like the cow, but better.”
Parkinson stayed silent. He looked at him impatiently, waiting for an answer.
“Well? What would happen?”
“I’m not sure,” Parkinson said finally. He took another moment, and then continued. “I think that whoever’s thought process was stronger–whoever had the greater will, I suppose–would have their Dream processed, since the thought machine only processes the strongest thoughts.”
Silence reigned in the meadow for a few moments. Somewhere, a bird started singing.
“Let’s try it.”
Parkinson stared. “Sir?”
“Here,” he said, shoving a gun into his hands. This time it was a pistol. “Shoot me. And really want me dead. I’ll want to be alive, of course. It’s a contest of wills.”
“But what if–”
“You think you’ve got a bigger imagination than mine, Parkinson?” He snorted. “It took you ages to get that cow to go away.”
“So why are we doing this, sir?”
He waved a hand randomly. “For kicks, Parkinson. Ever done something for kicks?”
“Just shoot me. And don’t forget to tell Theresa I want you fired if this works.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Parkinson stood up, shifting nervously in his Komtek boots and holding the pistol gingerly.
“I’m sure you’ll get some interesting things on the data registers.”
A breath later, the pistol had disappeared from Parkinson’s hands and reappeared in his.
He grinned again.
He pulled the trigger.
A shot rang out, and a body fell to the ground.
For a few moments, nothing moved in the meadow. The bird, who had stopped singing a few moments ago, started its song again. The cow reappeared.
Parkinson sighed as he straightened, blinking. He saw Komtek’s president lying on the grass, his eyes comically wide open. A few drops of blood spattered the grass. The pistol was nowhere to be found. A thought later, and neither was Komtek’s president.