There was a time Branson could move 50 dreams in a single night. After 10 years dealing dreams, he’d become the top ace. It was a hungry world out there, and he was damn good at feeding it.
He took a hard-right turn, leaving the poorly-lit sidewalk and entering an alleyway littered with spilled garbage cans and indistinguishable shapes wrapped in shadow. His steps echoed off the cement buildings to either side, announcing his presence to the scurrying rats and the vagrants who battled them for real estate.
It hadn’t always been this way. He’d been a good cop, once. Altruistic and clean, before the dirt began to seep in beneath his fingernails. It was simple, really; his reasons weren’t so different from the countless other reasons a good cop gave for going bad: he wanted more.
He’d always done well on the streets. He spent two years on patrol, impressing his superiors and earning himself a promotion to sergeant at 25 years old. He was lieutenant by the time he was 30. His squad called him “Baby Branson” behind his back, on account of his being younger than many of them.
He ignored their teasing and worked hard, earning their trust and respect. By the time he made lieutenant, there wasn’t an officer in the precinct who didn’t believe he deserved it.
His life could have gone on that way, with him advancing through the ranks until he became commander or chief and earned himself a healthy retirement. But he wanted more—more money, more excitement, more danger—and it didn’t take him long to realize that dreams were the way to get it.
Dreams weren’t illegal in themselves—no matter how hard the government had tried, they couldn’t remove people’s ability to dream—but trafficking in them was. His years as a patrol officer meant that he’d been fitted with a standard Dream Collection Device—a transparent piece of machinery no bigger than an old-school cassette tape imbedded into his right forearm.
The device had gotten plenty of use out of him in the early years. He spent night after night on the streets, hunting down dealers and confiscating stolen dreams. The collection device stored the confiscated dreams until they could be uploaded to Evidence. As a lieutenant, he became especially adept at identifying where to set up surveillance operations. It wasn’t in the poor parts of town, like in the old days with meth and heroin. There was plenty of dealing going on there too, but they weren’t the real problem areas. Those were the Heights, the upper-class neighborhoods full of white-collar workers rolling in money and just dying for escape from their mundane lives through exotic dreams. The Heights made up the true underground: a hotbed of demand with the money to feed it.
After ten years of busting dealers, Branson became one himself. His knowledge of the streets, combined with his proximity to the cops tasked with keeping them clean, allowed him to hit the ground running. The Heights became his dominion, where he spent his days pretending to follow leads, but really trading confiscated dreams for hard-cold cash. He wasn’t just good at dealing; he was the best.
Problem was, he’d started using the dreams himself. All those nights spent alone, searching the most intimate corners of people’s minds, collecting every thought, every delusion and fantasy, every nightmare. The work had begun to wear on him. Or maybe he’d just been curious. The reasons didn’t matter.
He’d only experimented at first, nothing big, no nightmares or anything like that. Superhero dreams, mostly, rescue the damsel in distress, that sort of thing. He’d always wanted to be Batman growing up. It was the reason he’d joined the force in the first place; he wanted to do something good in the world.
A whisper interrupted his thoughts, dragging him back to the present.
“Hey B, you holdin’?” Branson could just barely make out the glimmer of two eyes in the shadows, iridescent, gleaming and bright. Others might have called the effect beautiful, but Branson knew it for what it was: the mark of a full-blown addict.
“Nah, Hack, not tonight. I’m off.”
“If you’re off, why you hangin’ around here? Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on here but dealin’.” The voice tittered with laughter before disintegrating into a wheezing cough.
“Mind your business, junkie, and leave me to mine.” The truth was, Branson came here often. He couldn’t risk getting caught using in the Heights, and it never felt right stealing from confiscated dreams for his own use. He recognized this for the twisted morality it was, but he still felt more comfortable replenishing his supply from the dark and stinking alleys of the slums.
“Sure,” Hack said, once he could catch his breath, “I’ll mind my business. But my business ain’t so different from yours, is it? You’re just as hooked as the rest of us. The dealer’s been dealt.”
Branson could hear the rustle of his rags as Hack moved away, that wracking cough of his echoing off the black walls of the alley.
He was right, of course. Branson was lost—hooked like the rest of them—and it scared the hell out of him.
But he told himself there was still time; he could still get out. He didn’t go in for the real hard stuff, dreams of killing and raping, dreams of going mad—not like Hack. Branson remembered his sordid tastes, and it gave him a shiver just thinking about it. He’d gone the way of the junkie, all traces of humanity gone, and all that was left were the dreams.
Branson would never let it get to that point.
He found the dealer—a different one every time—and concluded his business quickly. The sight of Hack and those glowing eyes had set him on edge, and he had no desire to linger. When he got home to his apartment, he went straight to the bathroom and checked his eyes in the mirror. No sign of the iridescence yet; he wasn’t marked.
He stripped down to his boxers and climbed into bed. He hadn’t bothered turning on any lights; the dreams worked better in the dark. He pressed a button on his right forearm and the control panel slid into view. The Dream Collection Device had been there for so long, it’d become a part of him.
He hesitated, his finger poised above the green button marked “Upload.” He could choose. Say no this time. Go to sleep. Go to the precinct in the morning and upload the dreams to Evidence like he was supposed to. No more dealing; no more using. There was still time to do something good with his life.
Outside Branson’s window, the dealer laughed and shook his head. It was the same story every night with this guy. He supposed it was par for the course for beatnik cops like Branson. His nightly wet dream of going dirty was probably the only thing that allowed him to get up and go to work in the morning.
The dealer wasn’t judging; after all, he lived the life Branson dreamed of. For the most part, his dreams were accurate. All except for one part: dealing and using were the same thing. Either way, you were lost. Branson should be grateful that his nightly escapades were limited to dreams.
Finished for the night, the dealer closed the panel over the Dream Collection Device imbedded into his own forearm and made to leave. His iridescent eyes flashed once more over the cop sleeping in his bed, and he felt a moment of envy. He wondered what it was like to live a life like that, safe and uncorrupted.
The thought lasted only a moment, before the dealer shook himself back to reality. There was no time for dreaming. Dirty cop dreams paid good money on the streets.