Hugo sat in the waiting room, waiting. The walls were peach coloured, the floor shone, pot plants occupied strategic corners. On a television mounted on the wall a video played on a loop. He watched it for the fifth time.
A man in a white coat—he looked like a doctor, stethoscope, confident, officious manner—walked and talked at him through the screen.
“Sometimes feel like this world just isn’t for you? Maybe life isn’t providing the excitement, fulfillment, or romance you always expected. We have just the solution for you here, at Life Dream Industries,” he stopped walking and looked out into the room, “Hi, my name's Dr. Super. I’m the chief technician at LDI. Our state of the art dream development technology allows us to feed your mind with the excitement and meaning that you have always craved, the adventures you deserve. We provide our customers with an invaluable escape from their humdrum lives,” he was riding a camel through the desert at the head of a cavalry charge. Over the din of war cries and rumble of hooves he carried on, shouting now, “You too can live the life of your dreams, the life of a film character or a film star, the life of the great men and women of history and fiction,” he was sitting in a large armchair in a room lined by bookshelves smoking a pipe and wearing a tweed dear-stalker. He took the pipe from his lips to say, “We simply link you up to our system and reality becomes a dream long forgotten, along with your job, or lack thereof, your humiliations, pains and distresses. With Life Dream Industries, you can pass the rest of your days living out your own and other people’s fantasies in a blissful universe of your own creation.”
He stood up and was once again wearing the lab coat and walking along a hospital corridor. He swept back a green curtain to reveal a ward full of sleeping patients. The walls were green. The bed frames were metal painted white. Beige sheets were pulled tight over still bodies. Dr. Super clasped his hands behind his back and set off between the beds at a relaxed pace, the camera tracking him. He stopped when he came to a bed sagging almost to the ground under the weight of its occupant, whose belly rose nearly as high in the opposite direction and held a hand out towards it while he addressed the camera again, “This is Paul. Paul weighed five stone when he was born. His mother died from the effort. His father was disgusted and ran away. Reaching sixty stone by his thirtieth birthday, Paul lived with his great aunt and had never taken a step in his life. He had never had a girlfriend and had no friends, unless you counted his great aunt and his doctor, Dr. Harrison. He spent his days in bed watching television. His aunt prepared his meals for him, washed him, clothed him, kept him in house and home. She needed a large trolley and a modified Stanna Stair Lift to move the masses of food it took to keep Paul alive.
“Then, on Paul’s thirty-first birthday, the trolley, laden with cake, sausage rolls, sweets, and crisps, toppled over and crushed the frail old woman. She lay half alive across the threshold of Paul’s bedroom and called out to him for help. It took him five days to crawl out of bed and inch his way over to the phone to call the emergency services. By that time she was dead.
“When the ambulance crew finally arrived they found Paul crying and eating rotting food from the trolley that had killed his great aunt. Not long after that, he called Life Dream Industries for help,” the doctor began walking again, emphasising his words with his hands, “Now Paul is an athlete, a ladies’ man, a war hero, a senator, the cool kid at school. His parents love him. He does not remember who he used to be. He does not remember that his great aunt died. And now YOU,” he pointed at Hugo, “can have all this for just five hundred pounds!” Dr. Super looked amazed to have said it, ‘£500’ flashed bright green on the screen. “That’s right, just five,” he held up a hand, fingers and thumb outstretched, “hundred pounds. And after that everything is completely free!” ‘FREE’ flashed green on the screen, “That’s right! Absolutely free! So call us today on 0800 373267,” he stopped in front of a small crowd of similarly attired people, smiling, arranged as for a photograph, and they called, “We look forward to hearing from you.”
“Life-Dreams Industries,” said a voiceover, “You won’t even know you were born.”
Hugo watched the video start over again, then leaned forward for a magazine from the coffee table in front of him. He tried to read. He gave up. He stood and crossed to the water cooler. He drank some water and looked around. He poured another plastic cup-full and went to sit down.
“Mr. Morose? We’re ready for you in Dr. Super’s office,” the nurse on reception smiled and pointed through a door to her left. Hugo kept his eyes down as he walked past her. “First right Mr. Morose.” He nodded his thanks to the floor and followed her finger through the door. He entered the first room he came to. It was empty.
He stood for a moment and looked around. There was a large, expensive looking mahogany desk. The walls were covered with framed certificates. Behind the desk was a leather chair, the executive kind that came with wheels and an adjustable back. On top of the desk were a computer, a pot full of pens, and a photo of a woman hugging two children. In the corner of the room opposite the door was a bird cage. On its newspapered floor lay a parrot, apparently dead. Through an open window, the city outside hushed and lowed like an ocean against the shore. A car passed by below. Gospel singing from the church across the street filtered through like an old gramophone recording, hissing and falling and crackling over the whispering metropolis.
“Right then Mr. Morose,” the door to the office had opened and the man from the video walked in, “My name is Dr. Super.” He sat down and busied himself with some papers. His skin was an unnatural day-glow orange. In the video he had seemed young, healthy, smiling and energetic and wholesome to the point of being annoying for it, like a kids’ TV presenter. Now the bald patch on his crown glimmered under the light.
He looked up. “Sit down,” he said, frowning slightly. He rested his elbows on the desk, put the tips of his fingers together and considered Hugo for a while. Hugo considered him back. His teeth were uneven, yellow, not like they had been in the video. Each feature on his face pulled your eye away from the other, a large nose, and somewhere a tiny mouth, one large ear, one smaller and slightly lower down. His left eye stared, almost imperceptibly, out at a point behind Hugo’s head.
“I saw you on TV,” said Hugo.
“Oh really?” said Dr. Super. He returned his attention to the papers in front of him, then broke off to readjust the pot of pens, shift the computer screen, and arrange himself in his chair. “There are just a few things we need to establish before we can proceed. Ok?” he said pulling a clipboard from a drawer in his desk.
“Well done. A few questions first: Have you ever been diagnosed with any mental disabilities or illnesses?”
Mr. Super made a mark on his clipboard, “No depression, schizophrenia?” Hugo shook his head. “Well done. Good. Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence?”
“Good, excellent,” Dr. Super put the clipboard down, “Now then. What is it you hope to gain from us here at Life Dream Industries, Hugo?”
Hugo shrugged, “Don’t know really. Guess I’m just kind of bored. I want stuff to happen, I want to be the kind of person stuff happens to, the kind of person who does stuff, you know?” He fell silent, trying and failing to think of something else to say.
“Well done,” said Dr. Super. He reached once more into a drawer in his desk. This time he pulled out a skull cap from which sprouted hundreds of long, thin wires of many colours that came together in a jack at the end. “Ok then. We need to do a little preliminary assessment now. Put this on. We just need to establish a baseline,” he handed the cap to Hugo who put it on his head. It was heavy. He felt foolish sitting there wearing it.
Dr. Super leaned over the computer to plug Hugo in. “Well done,” he said, apparently to himself. “Now, I’m going to ask you a few questions but I don’t want you to answer them out loud, just say the answer in your head, clearly but not out loud. Good? Ok,” he fiddled with something on the keyboard. “Now,” continued Dr. Super, “What is your name? Good. What is your favourite colour? Well done. What do you find most annoying in the world? What has been the worst moment of your life so far? What was the most embarrassing moment of your life? Excellent. The happiest moment of your life? Have you ever been to Alton Towers? What is the most boring job you’ve ever done? What is your biggest ambition in life? What is your biggest dream?” Hugo looked at him uncomprehending. “What I mean to say,” Dr. Super said, “is that if the laws of nature and physics and society and life, in general, were not an issue, what would you do?” He gave Hugo a moment to formulate an answer. “Brilliant. Well done. Perfect. Thank you very much, Hugo. Now—are there any questions you would like to ask me? Any queries?” he gave Hugo a searching look, as though expecting some kind of confession.
“A couple,” said Hugo. “I think your parrot’s dead.”
Dr. Super raised himself a little by the arms of his chair and looked over at the cage. He lowered himself again and said, “No, she’s just sleeping.”
“Oh. Well then, I was just wondering, out of curiosity like, how does it work?”
Dr. Super gave this question some thought, then he said, “I’m not really at liberty to discuss that. It’s a closely guarded secret—a lot of people want to know that, and not for entirely innocent reasons. Suffice to say that our computers read, by the electrical currents generated in your brain, your desires and your dreams. Then the computer provides a kind of blank canvas for your own subconscious to build into a world, the world the way you want it to be. That way you are in control of everything that happens without even being aware of it. You get to have your cake and eat it. You wouldn’t understand the fine mechanics of it anyway; it’s very advanced technology. Ok? Good. Then if you could just sign this disclaimer…”
“Is it risky? You know, could I die or something?”
“There is an infinitesimal, tiny, chance that something might go wrong. If you read the contract, you’ll see.” Hugo read some of it, but it was long and boring so he signed without reading the majority.
“And will you be paying by cash or cheque?” said Dr. Super, carefully folding up the contract and storing it away on a shelf behind the desk.
“Brilliant. Do you mind?” he held out a hand.
“Oh. No. Of course not.” Hugo counted out the money.
Dr. Super quickly counted it again. “Well done,” he said, “If you’ll just come this way through to the waiting room again and my colleague will be with you shortly,” he stood by the doorway to let Hugo pass and held out his hand, “Congratulations on your new life Mr. Morose.” Hugo shook it and went into the waiting room.
“Miss Doors,” the receptionist called as Hugo walked out, “Miss Rachel Doors? Go through please.” A young woman got up and walked past him. She was very beautiful. He wondered what someone like that could possibly need with a place like this.
He had barely sat down before another door opened and a new voice called his name. He got up and went through. On the other side, there was an operating theatre. The table in the middle of the room was surrounded by trays full of tools and several large machines that flashed and clicked reassuringly. Two men stood by the table wearing black suits and latex gloves.
“Lie down,” said one of the men. Hugo lay down. Beside him, the other man lifted a large syringe full of green liquid and tapped it with a fingernail.
“Give me your arm,” he said. Hugo lifted his arm. The man rolled up his sleeve and carefully fed the needle in, “Count down from one hundred.” Hugo proceeded to do so, realising vaguely at one point that he still had all his clothes on. He reached seventy-nine.
“How many people do you honestly think are going to fall for this?” he heard a voice say.
“Everyone wants to believe you when you promise them Heaven, man,” said another, “Besides, once they’re dead, what difference does it make to them?”
Hugo tried to open his eyes, to lift his head, to kick his limbs, but it was as though he were set in thick rubber. He could feel his will to move straining against invisible restraints. He tried to yell, but he couldn’t prise his mouth open or cajole his vocal chords to move.
“Personally, I’d never believe anyone who promised me Heaven,” said the first voice, “Promise me Heaven and I know every word out your mouth is a lie.”
“Yeah, but you’re a cynical bastard, Harry. Come on. I think this one’s just about done; let’s get him down to the cutting room. Someone pre-ordered his heart.”