Reading Time: 18 minutes

Withdrawal can be rough, and Rusty’s Sueño-Z addiction was bad. He didn’t know how bad until the casino put him on night shift.

The first night wasn’t terrible. Rusty missed that night’s episode of Billy Dreamgood of course, but nothing more. On the second night, he felt light-headed. He hid a tremor in his hands as he dealt cards at the blackjack table.

Rusty hit a wall on the third night. The Xibalba Bay Casino took on a hallucinatory quality. Lights too bright. Chimes from the slot machines rang like gongs. The cards turned slippery in his hands. He forced himself to concentrate on the game.

“Dealer has eighteen.”

“Hit me,” said a man with red whiskers and green eyes. Rusty recognized him from his training. Professor Sharp, a card counter banned from every casino on the Strip.

(Image by Marie Ginga via Adobe Firefly)

Rusty flipped another card from the shoe, trying to stay calm. King of Hearts. “Nineteen. You’re on a roll.”

“I took a Lucid pill. I’m pretty sure this is all just a dream,” said Professor Sharp with a crooked smile. “Hit me again.”

Rusty was sweating. With his left hand, Rusty peeled another card, Two of Diamonds. With his right, he reached for the panic button under the table. Three quick presses, the “911” signal.

Professor Sharp jumped as if he’d gotten an electric shock. He plunged into a knot of people milling around the nickel slots.

The pit boss jogged up, face red.

“It’s Professor Sharp!” called Rusty, pointing toward the nickel slots.

“You better not be yanking my chain.” The boss dove into the crowd as more uniforms beamed in at the casino exits. Somebody screamed.

Rusty looked at Professor Sharp’s vacant spot at the table. “ZLA” was scrawled in ballpoint letters on the King of Hearts.


Rusty fell into his car, exhausted. The sun poked over a jagged horizon. Morning — too late for Sueño-Z. Rusty wondered what he’d missed on last night’s episode of Friends of Billy Dreamgood.

He rummaged in the glove compartment and found a vial of Sueño-Z pills. He slid a tablet out, just to look at it. A green oval stamped with a blue letter Z.

Drop a pill at bedtime, be entertained all night long in your dreams. Drop one in daytime, nothing, nada, zilch.  The sun was over the hills now.  What was the harm?

Rusty saw his tired face in the rearview mirror. Hands trembling, he popped the pill in his mouth.


The nightmare was vivid.

Three burly men in white coats. Two holding Rusty down. The third fills a syringe.

“Her sleep mask fell off!”

“Don’t stress,” says the syringe man, glancing at his watch. He wears an orange Club Scorpio T-shirt. “Nobody drops Z in the morning. The nightmares are too nasty.”

Rusty feels a sting as the man injects him with the needle.

Darkness arrives like falling cinders.

An airplane screams like a wounded jaguar.

Snakes with skull heads rise from the jungle, laughing and howling.


Before his evening shift, Rusty hesitated on the boulevard outside Xibalba Bay. Before him rose a volcano, the last remaining relic of the old Mirage. The sidewalk was littered with coupons for escort services. A convertible of young revelers passed. Drunken shrieks Doppler-shifted to primate howls as it roared away.

A crowd of tourists was forming for the next human sacrifice. Rusty stopped to join them. He stuffed his hands in his pockets to hide a passing tremor. He couldn’t deal cards until his hands were steady.

A scream came from the volcano. Muscular high priest Moon Jaguar carried a scantily dressed native princess up the slope. The King waited at the top, decked in feathers and leggings, arms raised. He wore a necklace of poker chips.

The priest approached, his nubile prisoner kicking and struggling. Cameras flashed.

“Let me go!” wailed the princess.

“Silence!” commanded the King. “You will feed the volcano! The gods will reward us with rain.”

“And good fortune at the craps table,” the priest added.

“Never!” cried the princess.

The volcano belched orange smoke. The King turned to his high priest.

“She gives herself willingly?”

“Oh yes, majesty,” the priest replied with a wicked grin.

Someone laughed.

“Also, her hands and feet are well tied,” the priest added in a stage whisper. More laughs.

“Cast her to the depths of Xibalba!” decreed the King.

The princess screamed as the priest heaved her into the volcano. A rumble shook the ground and the volcano burped flames. The King and high priest ran away into the artificial jungle. Tourists cheered and clapped.

Somebody tapped Rusty’s shoulder.

“You Rusty?”

A cocktail waitress he recognized from work.

“They want you inside.”

Rusty looked at his watch. He wasn’t late for his shift.

“What’s up?”

The waitress shrugged. Rusty followed her into the hotel.

Armed guards appeared at his sides in the lobby. “Come with us.”

Rusty glanced at the waitress.

“Do you sacrifice yourself willingly?” she asked with a smirk.

The guards hustled him to a bank of employee-only service elevators. One punched a series of numbers into a keypad. Gold doors slid open.

“Where are we going?”

“Top floor. Boss wants to see you.”

The doors opened on a wood-paneled office suite. Another security guard looked them over, checked their badges, then nodded. They proceeded down a mahogany hall hung with paintings into a large office overlooking the Strip.

Through the window Rusty saw a rollercoaster gondola careen through the New Venetian’s spires. He didn’t notice the well-dressed man behind the desk until he stood.

“You must be Rusty?”

“Yes, sir.”

The man had fierce eyes and leathery skin. He wore a gold necklace with a jade amulet. He flicked his eyes toward the guards and they disappeared.

“Anthony Jade, president of Xibalba Bay.”

They shook hands. Jade had a firm grip. Rusty hoped Jade didn’t notice his tremor.

“So, you’re the guy who spotted Professor Sharp.”

“I had help.”

“I dislike modesty,” said Jade. “I saw the surveillance tape. Professor Sharp walked right into our gaming operation, and not one of my security people spotted him. Then you, a blackjack dealer, you nailed him. And it was what, your second night on the late shift?”

“Third night.”

“Outstanding. See my receptionist. She’s going to fix you up with a coupon for two steak dinners at Tlaloc’s. Champagne’s on me.”

“Thank you.”

Rusty returned to the reception area. The guards were chatting with the receptionist. A familiar man hurried past toward Jade’s office. He wore an orange Club Scorpio T-shirt.


Rusty needed a fix, but Sueño-Z only worked at night, and Rusty couldn’t sleep nights anymore. The man in the orange shirt, the man from his dream, maybe he could help.

Finding Club Scorpio wasn’t hard. It was away from the Strip, where locals go, squeezed among small older casinos, tattoo parlors, and pawn shops.

A bouncer in a muscle shirt guarded the battered metal door. Rusty watched a group of young people swagger to the entrance, argue with the bouncer, and then walk away shaking their heads.

Rusty approached casually and reached for the door. He felt a hand on his arm.

“Private club,” said the bouncer.

“I know,” said Rusty.

The hand squeezed tighter. “You’re not a member.”

“I work for Xibalba Bay.”

The hand loosened. “Reporting to who?”


The bouncer pushed open the door with the toe of his boot. Rusty entered a battered hallway lit by black lights, its plywood walls stapled with posters. He smelled urine.

Rusty emerged into chaos. People dancing, drinking, and shouting. A DJ presided from a chain link cage, a Day-Glo orange scorpion painted on the wall behind him. Strobe lights pulsed and bass quaked the sticky floor.

Rusty moved through the crowd scanning sweaty, blissful faces. It was going to be hard to find the man in the Club Scorpio shirt. Rusty grew discouraged. He leaned against a dark wall, watching the dancers, feeling the music in his diaphragm.

A young man with short dreadlocks materialized.

“Y’all on the prowl, am I right? Looking for something?”

Rusty shrugged.

“Step into my office.”

The young man pulled Rusty into the men’s bathroom. Guys at the urinals glanced up as the man pushed Rusty into a toilet stall and latched the door.

“I’m Coyote X.”


“Well, Russ T, what you looking for tonight? Maybe I can aid you on your quest.”

“I’m looking for a guy I saw in a dream, and then later at the casino where I work.”

“Looking for a guy you saw in a dream?” Coyote X laughed. “Ain’t we all.”

“It’s not like that. I think this guy can help me.”

“Well, I ain’t no bureau of missing persons either.”

“I need to kick Sueño-Z. I can’t take it anymore, but it’s got a hold on me.”

“Can’t take it, can’t shake it.”

Rusty nodded.

“Heard of Lucid?”

“The substance that Sueño-Z was derived from.”

“Sueño-Z is Lucid cut with other drugs to make you relax, make you receptive, and keep you hooked. But Lucid is pure, the real deal.”

“Also dangerous and illegal.”

Coyote X reached into his jacket, extracted crescent-shaped spectacles, and gave Rusty a long look.

“Sit, grasshopper.”

Rusty perched on the toilet tank. Coyote X lit a joint and leaned on the stall door. Others came and went, urinals flushed, sinks ran, music throbbed through the tiled walls.

“Lucid is hardcore,” warned Coyote X, “but it’s only dangerous if you’re weak minded. CIA invented it. Folks on Lucid—Freedreamers—have powerful dreams. They can even send each other dream messages. They call it Z-mail.”

Rusty had heard these urban legends before. “I can handle it. Does it work in the daytime?”

“Claro. And it’s way better than Sueño-Z.”

Rusty’s hands were shaking. “How much for three hits?”


Rusty sits at the foot of a Mayan pyramid. Others squat in a circle around the stone temple. Rusty took a Lucid pill, so he knows it’s a dream, but it seems vividly real. Unlike his nightmare, Rusty doesn’t feel any loss of control.

A barefoot priestess ascends the pyramid’s wide stone steps. A sunbeam lights her noble face. She draws an obsidian knife from her hair, letting it tumble loose around brown shoulders. She leans over a stone bowl and presses the blade to her left palm. A fat drop of blood hits the bowl.

“Tlaloc of the morning,” she says.

She moves around the bowl to face south. A moment’s pressure from the knife, and another dark drop falls from her hand.

“Tlaloc of the yellow fire.”

Facing west, another drop. “Tlaloc of the dark twin.”

Facing north, “Tlaloc of the howling cold.”

Dark clouds boil over the horizon like giant birds flushed from hiding.

“Rain!” cries the priestess.

“Rain!” call the people on the ground.

Thunder shakes the earth. Cool rain falls in wet, welcome drops. The priestess descends the pyramid and walks to Rusty.

“Welcome, Freedreamer. You’re new to our cell.”

Rusty stands. “Cell? Like a terrorist cell?”

“More like a neuron in Gaia’s mind.”

“Is this telepathy?”

“We call it freedreaming. Those of us in the same vicinity mesh to form local cells.”

Rusty tells the priestess his nightmare. She listens as rivulets of rain race down the pyramid.

“I can’t explain it,” she admits. “Sueño-Z in the daytime usually triggers random experiences, or none at all.”

“Ask the Overcell,” suggests a man from the circle.

“Very well.”

The priestess ascends the pyramid again, bare feet splashing on the steps. Thunder growls. At the top, she places her hands on the bowl as rain mixes with her blood. She tilts her face to the sky.


Fractal-fingered lightning strikes the priestess. She seems unhurt. She returns slowly down the stairs, approaching Rusty, hair floating and crackling around her head like Medusa.

She smiles, reaches into her belt, and pulls out a lottery ticket. “You’ve got Z-mail.”


Rusty walked into the casino. His hands were steady. Etched in his mind were six numbers on a frayed lottery ticket from a jungle priestess in a drug-soaked dream. Playing the lottery was too obvious but he’d tried it anyway. Twice. Didn’t match a single number.

He had a better idea now. Roulette. Rusty knew which wheel was the luckiest, all the dealers knew. He pushed his way to it, nodding to coworkers who knew him.

“Howdy, Rusty,” said the roulette dealer. “I’m not sure dealers who work here are allowed to gamble here too?”

“I deal blackjack. There’s no conflict with roulette.”

The dealer glanced around for the pit boss, then lowered his voice. “Just one spin, then you best move on.”

One spin. Rusty put everything he had on the table, about $500 in chips. He placed chips on each of the six numbers from his dream.

The ball shot to the rim of the wheel, racing pi times around its golden circumference, skidding, then tumbling to its destined resting place.


Rusty had lost it all. And the pit boss was coming.

“Beat it!” hissed the dealer.

Rusty pushed into the crowd, swimming like a salmon against a tide of tourists, fighting through smells of sunblock and sweat, away from the boss, away from the game floor. He found himself by the private service elevators.

No button. Just a little keypad on the wall with numbers on it. Rusty walked dreamily to the keypad and pressed the six lottery ticket numbers, one by one.

The gold doors opened. Rusty entered and pressed the top floor. The elevator ascended just one level, then stopped to open its doors again.

Club Scorpio man appeared. Different shirt now, but the same guy. Sharp nose, hard gray eyes. He gave Rusty an odd glance, stepped inside the elevator, saw the top floor was pressed, nodded slightly. The doors closed and the elevator climbed.

“I seen you around up there,” said the man.

“Same here.”

“Saw you at the boss’s office. You’re new?”


The guy stuck out his big, tan hand, a gold bracelet on his wrist.

“They call me Poke. On account of I’m in charge of needlework.”


A bell chimed. The gold doors slid open on the top floor.

Poke waved and began to walk away.

Rusty hesitated. “I’d like to tag along,” he called out. “If you don’t mind?”

“Why should I mind?” asked Poke. His voice was easy-going, but his gray eyes were hard as granite. He stopped and eyeballed Rusty. “Did the boss ask you to watch me operate?”


“Well, watch anyhow, then tell him what good work you seen me do.”

“I think he knows.”

They turned a corner and came to a double door marked RESTRICTED. A guard was there.

“You’re with him?” asked the guard.

Poke and Rusty both nodded. The guard pressed a button. Doors buzzed and swung inward.

Rusty followed Poke into a white antiseptic room. It looked familiar. A woman with curly hair was strapped to a hospital gurney, wearing a starched gown and a black sleep mask over her eyes. She wasn’t moving.

“Sedated,” said Poke. “We don’t want her broadcasting before show time.”

Rusty suddenly understood why this place was familiar. His nightmare came from this room. From this girl.

Poke went to a cupboard, grabbed a bottle, and started filling a syringe.

“Slow acting stimulant,” he explained. “We’ll have plenty of time to get her to the studio.”

He swabbed the woman’s forearm, then injected her. Her mouth opened but made no sound.

Two orderlies entered. They looked questioningly at Rusty but let him follow as they wheeled the woman’s bed down the hall.

They reached a door called STUDIO Z. Inside, a sound stage was set with furniture, doors, and fake curtained windows. The rest of the spacious studio was dark.

The woman was moving, groggily waking. The orderlies elevated her bed, sitting her up to face the stage.

Actors arrived. Rusty recognized the famous Billy Dreamgood. Rusty stayed in the shadows. Billy headed onto the stage. Bright lights came on as he chatted with someone offstage. A man Rusty guessed was the director entered a glass control booth.

Poke gave the woman another injection, attached electrodes to her head, removed her sleep mask, and taped her eyelids open with surgical tape so she couldn’t look away or blink. He examined her pupils, then checked a monitor above the bed.

“She’s online,” he said. It was 2:56 AM.

“Places,” called the director from his booth. “On the air in ten.”

The woman on the gurney stared, her blue eyes unfocused, surrounded by dark circles. She was young, once pretty, now exhausted and sick.

ON THE AIR signs illuminated. Bright lights washed shadows from the stage. The young woman stared straight ahead.

Billy Dreamgood flung open a door and walked onto the set of his famous apartment. “I’m home!”

Billy walked to a table by the sofa and picked up a piece of paper. “A note from Nurse Ronnie!”

Poke came and stood next to Rusty.

“I did good,” he whispered. “Tell the boss.”

Rusty nodded. He was trying to understand what was happening. “She’s transmitting this?” he guessed.

Poke nodded. “Live to 200 million sleepers.”

Rusty looked in the director’s booth. It had more knobs and switches than a jumbo jet cockpit. Ads for cars and deodorant flashed across a bank of monitors.


“Direct to her subconscious,” said Poke, fingering an electrode cable. “And from hers to theirs.”

American flags fluttered on the monitors.

“You did good,” said Rusty. “I’ll tell the boss.”


Rusty returned to his car in a parking garage behind the Xibalba Bay. Instead of starting the car, he sat and thought about what he’d just seen. Sueño-Z, Billy Dreamgood, all centered around that poor woman trapped in Xibalba Bay. She must have some telepathic power, maybe a genetic mutation, to connect with sleeping people through Sueño-Z.

Rusty was sleepy, and the car was warm. He rolled down the windows. He pictured the woman in the casino. He fished in his pocket and felt the two remaining tabs of Lucid. He pulled one out, picked lint off it, and popped it in his mouth.


Rusty hears a disembodied voice, muffled by fog. He moves toward it. A silhouette forms, revealing the curly-haired woman from last night. They’re standing on what looks like a London walking bridge, iron railings glimpsed through shifting fog.

“Hello,” he says. “I met you last night at the casino.”


Rusty steps closer. “You probably don’t realize. They’re keeping you in a laboratory inside a casino.”

She considers this, tired eyes fixed in the distance.

“Why is there always fog?” she asks, her words muffled.

“Maybe because you’re sedated,” Rusty guesses. “What’s your name?”

“Carmela Dormer.”

“I’m Rusty. Do you remember how you got here?”

Carmela steps to the railing and rests a pale hand on it.

“I was living on the streets. Hooked on smack.”

“Try to remember the last thing before you came here.”

Carmela pushes a curl of wet hair from her face. Her blue eyes shine. “You work for them?”

“I’m just a blackjack dealer,” says Rusty. “I found you by accident.”

“How’d you get here? This is my secret place.”

“I’m not sure,” Rusty admits. “I dropped Lucid.”

Carmela pulls a tissue from her sleeve.

“I dropped Lucid once,” she sniffs. “That’s how they got me.”

“What happened?”

“I crashed a rave party at a junkyard downtown.”

“Downtown Vegas?”

She nods.

“I dropped Lucid. Most people fall asleep, but I stayed awake. At first nothing happened. I thought it wasn’t working. Then people got blurry, like not real. All except one. A man with red whiskers.

“He walked up to me, asked me some questions. He said I had a gift. He warned others would be able to detect me too if I dropped Lucid. He told me to run away before the government found me.”

“Maybe you had a bad trip.”

“That’s what I figured. Next morning, I left my daughter with my mom, and I checked into a methadone clinic.”

Carmela pauses, looking into the fog.

“There’s more?” Rusty guesses.

She nods sadly. “One night at the clinic, I took Lucid again. I knew it was a mistake, but I was sick and tired of methadone.

“That night, some men busted into my room. They covered my mouth. One of them injected me with the purest smack I’ve ever had. They took me away in a van.

“Since then, I have these nightmares. A room, always the same room, same people. Between nightmares I live here.”

“The people you see in your nightmares,” Rusty asks, “is one of them named Billy Dreamgood?”

Carmela’s eyes widen. “He scares me.”

“Millions of people know him,” says Rusty. “Thanks to you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I think Xibalba Bay is using you like human antenna to broadcast dreams.”

Carmela looks doubtful.

“Millions of people watch Billy Dreamgood’s soap opera every night. I used to be one of them. They take a drug at bedtime called Sueño-Z. It’s Lucid spiked with other chemicals. Maybe it helps them tune to your wavelength, sort of like I’m doing right now.”

“I transmit dreams?”

Rusty nods. “You may not even need Lucid anymore to do it.”

“That’s my special gift?”

A constable appears from the fog. He’s wearing a bobby’s hat and carrying a night stick.

“Sorry to interrupt,” the constable says politely.

They stare at him.

“Urgent Z-mail for you, sir.”

The constable pulls a candy bar from his coat and hands it to Rusty.

Rusty looks down at it. On the wrapper is printed:


“But you’re already here,” says Rusty.

“Ah, no,” replies the constable with a chuckle. “Apparently I am just a dream figment. These particular coppers are real.”

Carmela’s eyes widen. “You have to wake up!”


“Perhaps I can assist, sir,” the constable offers helpfully. He pulls out his nightstick and whacks Rusty on the head.


Rusty woke in his car with a headache. It was fiercely hot. He squinted at the Xibalba Bay shimmering in the heat.

Two LVMPD officers were striding toward the parking garage. Rusty started the car, dropped it into reverse, and roared away. As he paid at the exit, he saw the cops round the corner.

“Keep the change,” Rusty told the parking attendant as he sped away.


Rusty drove till dusk smoldered on the mountain ridges, trying to figure out his next move. Once a police cruiser followed him for two blocks, but then it turned away.

He spotted a small methadone clinic. Rusty parked his car and got out. After walking a few blocks, he came to what might be the junkyard of Carmela’s rave. A vacant lot with tires and rusting auto parts. A few bums burned trash in a barrel to ward off the desert night air.

Rusty hesitated. The police hadn’t stopped him. Maybe it wasn’t too late to go home, forget about Carmela, and resume his safe, simple life. Carmela. How had he been able to tune into her twice now? They seemed to have a connection. Of course, every Sueño-Z addict had a connection to Carmela. That didn’t make Rusty special.

He walked into the lot, sat on a broken bedspring away from the bums. They didn’t look at him. Firelight flung shadows against graffitied walls. Slogans “Dream Free” and “ZLA” were spraypainted in bright letters. He wondered what to do next.

Same thing Carmela did, of course. It was so obvious.

Before his rational left brain could stop him, Rusty pulled the last Lucid tablet from his pocket and swallowed it. Now he just had to stay awake like Carmela had.

Time oozed by. Rusty watched the bums around the fire. They grow blurry as reality shifts into present tense.


Rusty rubs his eyes. Blurry bums, all except one. He has red whiskers. He walks across the lot toward Rusty, green eyes sparkling in the firelight.

“Professor Sharp,” says Rusty, amazed at the wicked silliness of it.

“I remember you from the casino,” says Sharp.

Rusty has a silly grin.

“You’re on Lucid,” Sharp observes. “Yet you remain awake, and you can see me clearly. Most people can’t.”

“Carmela can.”

Sharp nods. “She’s the reason I was in your casino.”

“You tried to help her before, too. You appeared to her in this very place.”


“Why do you care about her?”

Professor Sharp smiles mischievously. “You’ve seen the letters ZLA?”

“You wrote them on the King of Diamonds. They’re painted on the walls.”

“Z-Liberation Army,” says Sharp. “Freedreamers, fighting for your right to dream freely.”

Rusty shook his head. “You’re fighting for people to take Lucid instead of Sueño-Z? What’s the point?”

“People won’t need either drug to dream freely if we shut down Jade’s operation.”

“You know Jade?”

“Of course. I’m the local ZLA Overcell. Your boss is our enemy.”

“Why is Xibalba Bay mixed up in this?”

“A casino is the perfect front. Highest security outside the federal penitentiary system, plus massive cash flow.”

“And plenty of watered-down drinks,” quips Rusty.

Professor Sharp laughs, then lowers his voice.

“The people behind all this were doing experiments, learning to control dreams for profit and propaganda. But they lacked one special ingredient.”


Sharp’s green eyes twinkle. “Carmela’s special. They found her by tuning into her powerful dream signal. Psychic triangulation, if you will. Now they control her with heroin.”

“If they found Carmela, they can find me too.”


Rusty swallows. “I have to end this.”

Professor Sharp reaches inside his coat, pulls out a photograph and hands it to Rusty. It’s a picture of a baby in a sandbox, holding a stuffed zebra.

“This is Carmela’s daughter Gabi. Use it to help her.”

“Is this another crazy Z-mail?”

“No, you’re not asleep. This is real.”

Professor Sharp leaves and rejoins the blurry bums. They wander off together toward some dark railroad tracks.

Rusty looked down at the photo in his hand, then at his watch. 2:30 AM. Almost Sueño-Z time.


Rusty stood by the Xibalba Bay service elevators. Slot machines prattled in the casino. Rusty tapped the lucky lottery numbers from his first Lucid dream into the keypad.

Gold doors slid open. Rusty stepped inside and pushed the top floor. The elevator ascended quietly. A camera in the corner watched.

Doors opened on the top floor. No guard in sight. Rusty found Studio Z. The ON THE AIR sign was still dark. Maybe he wasn’t too late.

Rusty slipped inside. Carmela was propped up on a gurney facing the stage. Billy Dreamgood stood under a spotlight, alone, silent. Then Billy’s face screwed tight, and he screamed, spraying saliva.

“Intruder!” shrieked Billy.

Bright lights snapped on. Armed guards grabbed Rusty’s arms.

“Infection!” Billy shouted. “Cancer!”

The spotlight switched off and Billy fell silent.

A familiar man stepped from the director’s booth. He wore a jade amulet. His eyes bored into Rusty.


Jade smiled icily. “My favorite blackjack dealer. I decided not to deactivate your security clearance. I wanted you to visit us again.”

A trap. Rusty tried to pull free from the guards. Jade brought his leathery face within inches of Rusty’s.

“Who do you work for?”

“You,” Rusty answered truthfully.

Jade punched him in the gut. “Who do you really work for? ZLA?”

A man in a white lab coat appeared beside Jade with a syringe, looking nervously at his watch and Carmela. He was someone new; there was no sign of Poke.

“She’s almost online,” said the man urgently. He pointed to an EEG monitor next to Carmela.

Jade sneered at Rusty as he turned away. “Whack him.”

Rusty heaved himself in Carmela’s direction. “Carmela!” he yelled.

Carmela lifted her head from the gurney, trying awkwardly to tug off her sleep mask. Rusty pulled the photo from his pocket.

“It’s me! Look at your daughter Gabi!”

The mask came free. Carmela blinked under the bright lights. When she saw the photo, her tired eyes widened. ON THE AIR signs illuminated.

“Get him out of here!” bellowed Jade.

“Sir,” whispered the syringe guy, “we’re on the air. The whole country is watching you.”

Jade made an odd strangling noise, looked at Carmela, then forced a smile onto his face.

“Welcome, America,” he fumbled. “I’d like to introduce tonight’s very special episode of The Friends of Billy Dreamgood.”

A guard started to unholster his gun. Jade hissed and waved both guards away from Carmela’s field of vision.

Suddenly free, Rusty ran to Carmela and gave her the photo. Tears filled her blue eyes. No one dared to interfere. Everything Carmela saw or heard was going out live to millions of dreamers.

Rusty helped Carmela off the gurney. With one hand she clutched Gabi’s photo, while the other clasped Rusty’s shoulder as they walked across Studio Z. As they passed Jade, he gave Rusty a look of cold hatred.

Rusty took Carmela down the hall. He got her to the elevator, out of the casino, outdoors. Armed goons followed at a discreet distance, ready to pounce.

“Turn and look,” said Rusty.

Carmela turned her head. The goons hastily fell back, hiding behind parked cars and palm trees.

“I’m a camera,” said Carmela.

“To them you’re a camera.”

“Not to you?”

“Not to me. Not to Gabi.”

He drove her to the methadone clinic. Jade’s goons didn’t dare to follow. Carmela smiled weakly as nurses bustled around her, welcoming her back.

“I’m a transmitter.”

“To them.”

“To them,” she agreed. “Not you. Not Gabi.”


A throng of reporters camped outside the clinic. When they saw Rusty, TV lights flared. They shouted questions.

“Did you kill Billy Dreamgood?”

“Will the Sueño-Z show be on tonight?”

“What’s your relationship to Carmela Dormer?”

“How does Sueño-Z work?”

“Will we ever find out what happens to Nurse Ronnie?”

Reporters and police began to blur, all but one. A man with red bushy whiskers and cheerful green eyes. He parted the sea of blurry people like Moses, stepped up to Rusty, and held a microphone to his face.

“Rusty,” he asked, “how does it feel to save the world?”

“Exhausting. I need to sleep.”

“Sweet dreams,” said Professor Sharp.


Rusty is at the Mayan pyramid again, Beatles music floating over cranberry fields. Not the phony Xibalba Bay pyramid—the real one. That’s how he knows he’s dreaming again.

“But I didn’t take any Lucid. I didn’t even take Sueño-Z.”

The brown barefoot princess smiles from the steps. “We don’t need drugs anymore to dream free.”

“People will still take Sueño-Z. Withdrawal’s a bitch.”

“You got through it.”

Rusty notices his hands no longer shake. He feels good.

She sits on the bottom step and looks at Rusty. “How do I appear to you?”

Rusty’s puzzled. “Mayan princess? Big pyramid?”

She laughs gaily. “A princess? To me you are a Roman senator, complete with toga.”

“We don’t see the same thing?”

“There’s no consensus reality here,” explains the princess. “No ‘here’ here, actually. We project what our unconscious chooses.”

Rusty shakes his head and smiles. He knows there will be plenty of time to understand all this.

“Welcome to our cell,” she says. “We still have much work to do. We need your help.”

“Breaking addictions?”

She nods. Others emerge from the jungle. Each approaches Rusty, hugs him, then takes their place around the pyramid.

The princess points to the pyramid. “The Overcell wants to communicate with you. Although I understand you’ve already met corporeally.”

Professor Sharp.

Rusty climbs the cool stone stairs, his heart lightening with each step into the turquoise sky.


This story first appeared in Summer of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Collection, 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Micháel McCormick's patronus is an owl. Mike's work in more than eighty magazines and anthologies has earned Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations and other awards. Connect with Mike at @mikemccormickauthor on Facebook or at his website Mike McCormick.