Mary Caserio

<muffled> Three, two, one, go.

You can’t read in your dreams. Not really. Think back to the last dream you remember. Any reading? Probably not. Ok, really think back. Is there any dream you remember reading in? Maybe? Sort of? Ok. Picture the letters or numbers as they appeared. I’ll wait. 

Are you done? It was kind of a trick question. Sorry. But not really, since I already gave you the answer. You almost certainly can’t read in your dreams. You likely drew a blank. Even if you didn’t, and you could think of a time you read in a dream, whether it was an alarm clock, or a street sign, or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, your brain was probably making up information, just filling in the blanks. If you saw any letters or numbers, they were probably incomprehensibly jumbled. You might have seen nothing at all.

Yet, when you woke up, you were sure that the clock read 2:17, or that the street sign said Maple Lane, or that you could quote Kafka with perfect accuracy. Why? In your time, scientists aren’t exactly sure. They think perhaps it has something to do with the dreaming brain, the subconscious, wanting to replicate the skills of the conscious mind. Dreams are often ridiculous, impossible, fantastic. Last week I had a dream that started with my second grade teacher and I roller skating in an empty pool, and after many odd alterations ended with Kermit the Frog writing a sermon in a distorted version of the Oval Office. 

Despite the implausible scenarios, settings, and “plots,” for lack of a better word you’d understand, we find it difficult to tell dreams from reality until we wake up. Your subconscious wants you to think your dreams are real. Of course, my dreams are different from yours, so take my example with a grain of salt. For all I know, Kermit’s evangelical-slash-presidential tendencies held the key to the nuclear codes.

Scientists also think dreams might come from memories bubbling up. You “saw” 2:17 on the clock because some part of your brain stored the conscious memory of reading that time, then spat it out to fill the blank clock in your dream. Maybe Maple Lane was a street you drove down once as a teenager. This isn’t writing—composition in dreams is equally near impossible. Plus, you’re not a DreamVault, so it’s all happening in your head, meaning reading and writing are the same. Instead, your unconscious mind engages in clever mental gymnastics, producing telepathic trickery that sidesteps actual language.    

You might be thinking, what about The Metamorphosis, or any other book that you’ve dream-read? There are two scenarios here: one, you’ve actually read the book, or two, you haven’t. In scenario one, your subconscious is probably pulling pieces of the book closer to the surface and spitting it into the dream. It’s a more complex version of the alarm clock and street examples, but no harder to understand. Except, I guess, for why you’re so oddly preoccupied with The Metamorphosis. Scenario two is where things get interesting. It’s the phenomenon that companies like Somninsero started researching twenty years ago, producing the revolutionary and completely unproblematic marvel known as DreamVaults. That was sarcasm. I’m pretty sure that tonal inflection hasn’t evolved too drastically since the Information Age, but I need to be certain you understand.

The brain has incredible power. Even people from before the Security Wars should know that. Wait. Fitz, why does the visual transcript show that you’re striking out a bunch of important stuff? 

<muffled> I have to do it this way to get it through the firewall. Don’t worry, I’ll fix it before transmitting. 

Ok. Sorry. Should I just keep going? 

<muffled> Start from “The brain has incredible power.”

The brain has incredible power. Even people from before the Security Wars should know that. You probably also know that some people’s brains use more of that power. I’m not talking about intelligence or aptitude. No, as you probably guessed, I’m concerned with the rare few whose sleeping minds can truly produce and comprehend written language.

I’m one of those people. My name is Jane, by the way. In case you were wondering. 

People who can do what I do aren’t something new. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge supposedly wrote one of his most famous poems, “Kubla Khan,” in 1797, after seeing it in a dream. How remarkable is that? I think it’s amazing. Of course, centuries later, humans learned to exploit such dreamers. Which, you know. Typical.

I’ve never written a poem from a dream, although apparently it used to be pretty common among the DreamVaults-formerly-known-as-citizens. I was only nine when my parents sent me to a Somninsero institute where I was taught-slash-coerced to believe in the Somninsero mission and suppress lucid dreaming tendencies. Actually, Somninsero scientists were the first to discover such tendencies are also common among people with the capacity for dream-reading, a huge disappointment, I’m sure. That was sarcasm again. 

Leaving us free to explore our own subconscious minds would be pretty counterintuitive, since the whole point of DreamVaults is to bury information so sensitive that after the Security Wars, people aren’t trusted to know and machines aren’t trusted to store. Everyone can be bought or broken. Every computer can be hacked, especially now that AI can do most of the work. I don’t know what’s in my head. It really could be nuclear codes or state secrets. It might just be the record of some stupid scandal that a celebrity paid huge amounts to have locked in a DreamVault. Obviously, this doesn’t make the whole world forget the scandal. But the only legally permitted record is buried in someone’s mind, so it fades from public knowledge almost permanently. The internet has become a lot more restricted since your time. The Information Age is unequivocally over.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter what secrets I carry. I’m just a vessel, ready to be accessed with some secret trigger—maybe even Kermit the Frog—when whatever I don’t know that I know is needed. This is almost as absurd as your fictional Kafkian obsession.

Don’t ask me how the knowledge is implanted. Somninsero didn’t think the explanation was important, so I was never taught. What I do know is that when I read in my dreams, I’m not just regurgitating conscious knowledge like most. However, after what Somninsero did to me, I’m never sure if what my brain composes is really me, or just a hijacked fragment rising to the surface. 

<muffled> Ok, that was good. But I think we’re being tracked. We should probably move before recording the next part. 

Ok. Ok. All good. This is going to work, isn’t it? 

<muffled> Honestly, I have no idea. 

That’s comforting.

Mary Caserio is a sophomore studying computer science and English.