Short Story: “Daydream”

How can you tell if you’re dreaming?

By P. Orin Zack

What does that thing say?

I wasn’t finished making out the text on the guy’s bumper sticker when he rolled forward enough to blind me with a shard of summer sun off his chrome. This being Seattle, I’d lost my shades since the last time I needed them, and was glad of hitting the afternoon highway backup in the shade of an underpass for a change. It was hot, and I was getting woozy from the stench of exhaust fumes.

This was my first return trip from a new job, and I was too wound up to listen to what passed as a newsmagazine on the local jazz station. Oh, it was fine as far as it went, but they had some blind spots you could drop a few good-sized planets into. They spent their time humanizing the stories they did cover, but the subject matter never even drifted close to controversy.

Thinking back, it seems like I’ve been seeking out that missing bit forever. Time was, I’d get my news from TV and the newspaper in whatever city I was living in at the time. But some jobs exposed me to things that never made the news. Stupid corporate decisions. Inside guff on defense contracts. What was obvious to folks like me in the IT trenches never seemed to waft into the rarefied air where the powerbrokers lived.

The car in front crept forward slowly for a few car lengths, then stopped. I motioned to the driver in the sedan beside me to pull in, so I could linger a few moments longer in the shade. It would be nice to have an air conditioner that worked.

Anyway, over time I realized that the really important news, if it appeared in the paper at all, was buried inside, and it usually ran only a few column-inches. Understanding the world had become a matter of assembling clues, of reading between the lines in stories that might be in almost any part of the paper, and then trying to make sense of it all.

But that was all years ago. Back when programmers were prized. Back when employers were more interested in whether you could do the job than in whether you’d just done it for someone else.

What I saw back then frightened me. I knew that patterns played out in small ways that I could see on jobs would eventually be writ large, and with predictable results.

Short-sighted solutions that looked good on this year’s budget at the expense of long term risks were everywhere. You can’t project revenues more than a decade because the year is stored as a single digit? So use two digits. None of this code will still be around when years start with ’two thousand’, anyway. That’s someone else’s problem.

Then there was the Arab Oil Embargo. The government said turn off every other light in the building to save energy. I saw a future with millions of Bob Cratchits crammed into office cubes lit by 40 watt incandescents. The spacious corporate offices would still be well-lit, of course, because such sacrifices are meant only for the masses.

And so on. But the more things change, the more they remain the same.

With the Internet, if you go beyond the same old sources, the news isn’t just scattered, it’s atomized, like the clouds of steel, concrete, office equipment and people that blew through the streets of New York on September 11, 2001. It’s like listening to a horde of blind men feeling their way around a shape-shifting elephant. But even that was just a translation of the same pattern to a more diffuse field. What really drove me crazy was trying to make sense of the tangled web of events that wove through the destruction of the towers of the World Trade Center and a wing of the Pentagon.

Stare into the light long enough, they tell me, and you’ll go blind.

Speaking of which, I’d better pull up. If I let anyone else ahead of me, the SUV on my tail will have this pile of tin for lunch. Where’s that bumper sticker I was reading a moment ago? I don’t see the car any more. Oh, well.

Like everyone else, I put off thinking about it that day, and waited for word of what had happened. If I noticed the anomalies, I didn’t question them right off. After all, I was a continent away. All I knew was what was broadcast, what was on the newswire, what made the papers.

But the official lies cured me of that soon enough. Problem was, what really did happen? There have been so many levels of misdirection, so many false trails set out, so many opposition ‘heroes’ put forth that I had no choice but to construct a scenario that conflated several layers, not only of cover story but of fall-back plans that were added to make sure nothing could go wrong. I’m guessing that the key to it all was a black project weapons test, and that all the rest of it was due to the many players who had to either cooperate or be kept quiet. Only something that important would be worth all the trouble that’s been gone to these past several years.

The only thing it doesn’t seem to have is an end-game. The constitution has been shredded in the name of this fraudulent militancy, and the junta that forced a quiet coup in 2000 has set things up so the only next step can be dissolution of our purported representative democracy in favor of a blatant military dictatorship. It’s either that, or they end their charade in time for the next presidential election, and slink off into the shadows. In a sense, they’ve written themselves into a corner, and have no choice but to declare their intentions openly.

It’s like the end of Dr. Strangelove. The director destroys the world, the credits roll, and the audience has a good laugh because such a thing could never really happen. If I was dreaming, it would be the kind of untenable situation – like falling off a cliff — I could escape only by waking up, by stepping outside of that made-up world. Because if you don’t, there’s no point to the drama. Stories exist because there’s someone to watch it, someone to read it.

Hold on. Did you feel that? The cool breeze?

I think this heat wave may finally be breaking. Look up there! It must be those clouds rolling in. Funny I didn’t notice them before. They weren’t even in the forecast. It even smells good. And the trees over there, the ones shading that transit stop – looks like they’re turning up their leaves, voting for rain. I’ll be so happy to feel a nice cleansing shower for a change. It is Seattle, after all, even if summers have been getting so much dryer than they used to be.

Where was I? Funny, I don’t seem to be able to recall what I was on about a moment ago.

Almost like I had drifted off into a daydream of some kind. Good thing I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel, though. Could have had a nasty accident, broke a leg or something.

Oh, well. Starting something new can have that effect. Gets you all wrapped up in never-was or might-have-been. Daydreams, nightmares even.

I’m just glad that old Ben Franklin convinced Jefferson that the constitution be re-evaluated every time there’s an election. He knew better than the rest of them that things change. After all, inventing stuff was his life’s work. Besides, if we didn’t make periodic adjustments, there’s no telling what might have come of that attempted corporate takeover of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. Corporate rights, indeed!

Speaking which, I’ve got an idea for the next Constitutional Convention. Have the oath of office sworn on the very document the oath binds its leaders to uphold.

Now I remember. I was reading a bumper sticker. What did it say? “Wake up! The world won’t run itself.”


Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack


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