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SWC - A18 - Cloud 9

Arisia'18 Student Writing Contest - 2nd Place Winner

Cloud 9

By Julia Dickman

Making Your Dreams Come True Since 2042!

At Cloud 9 Dream Co., your happiness and safety come first. Using state of the art technology, our patented REM headsets activate your subconscious through waves designed to give you the best lucid dream experience possible. Your brain fills in the rest, effectively specializing your personal Cloud 9 experience. Simple sleep is a thing of the past!

(Standard Dream Kit starts at $99.99. Upgrades to Exclusive Pack and V.I.P Set will respectively cost $199.99 and $499.99.)


Cloud 9 cornered the synthetic dream market in 2042, because up until that point, there’d never been anything like it. For the first time ever, people could control their dreams just by making an online purchase. The perfect intersection of science and capitalism.

Say you purchase their best-selling standard dream for $100: "The Perfect Day." For a teenager, the three-part story might consist of this: You ace your AP European History test. You go on a date with your crush. You get accepted into your reach college, that Ivy League that you applied to just for the hell of it. The end. But if you're an unhappily married man, "The Perfect Day" would be more like this: You’re divorced and have custody of the kids. You hook up with your hot secretary. You crack open a cold one with the boys and watch the Super Bowl (and of course, your team wins). The end.

It's a very simple formula, and the headset is reusable.

But your brain is an auto-fill for the gaps in "The Perfect Day." Even though you're always changing as a person, your $100 only bought that three-part story. You're limited to the confines of a very structured narrative. The more money you pay, the more complex you can make your dreams.

$500? That's the God tier.


It’s a rainy day, and rainy days are synonymous with trying to bend the laws of science.

The three of us – me, Mike Hennessy, and Casey Cobb – are huddled inside Casa Cobb, the fort that Casey’s family built together in the woods behind their house before Mr. Cobb left. Casey has his Wi-Fi hotspot set up and it’s warm and dry with our portable space heater and mountain of blankets.

Mike is grinning like an idiot into his phone and I can hear the tack-tack-tack of a text message being typed out. I can’t stop staring at his new ear gauges and platinum blond hair (that he currently has pulled back into a bun). When did Mike get cool? Where’s the kid who used to let craft glue dry on his arms so that he could peel it off and eat it?

"Victoria Vanderbilt, I’m a total tool for you," Casey sings, coming up behind Mike and shaking his shoulders. Casey’s hair is long now too, sweeping along the nape of his neck in dark curls. He’s wearing slatted rave glasses and an oversized t-shirt that he won last year at some ramen eating contest.

"Go to hell," Mike says without heat, not even looking up from his phone.

Casey rolls his eyes and plucks Mike’s phone out of his hands. "Unplug, Hennessey."

"You’re such a–"

"No more profanity in Casa Cobb." Casey tosses Mike’s phone my way and unsure of what to do with it, I drop it into the Target bag full of snacks behind me. "It’s guys’ night, remember? This is a Victoria-free zone, and yes, that includes your weird, picture-less sexting."

"You know, this is why you’re the backup friend," Mike says, scooting over to me and throwing his head in my lap. He smiles lazily at me.

"Nerd," I say.

"For you? Anything."

I laugh at that.

"Enough flirting already. Victoria’ll be jealous." I don't miss the clip in Casey’s voice or the way his smile doesn't reach his eyes. He's been like that a lot lately. "I have something to show you two losers."

"Right, your ‘big surprise.’" Mike makes air quotes with his fingers.

Casey ignores Mike’s sarcasm and rifles through his backpack until he finds one of those plastic takeaway bags with ‘Thank You’ written over and over again. My eyes widen when he slips out a package swaddled in layers of bubble wrap.

"No way," Mike says, awed.

The words forming in my mouth never make it out.

Casey looks proud. "Yes way." He waves the Cloud 9 headset toward us. It’s sleek and dark, $100 worth of the latest artificial dream tech decorated with little constellation prints. It looks like a pair of flat headphones.

"Did you buy this at half price behind a Walgreens or something?" Mike asks, inspecting the headset. "Why’s it out of its box?"

"Because I already opened it." Casey leans back, arms folded, clearly smug. "I’m not paying $500 or whatever for the ultimate dream. That’s bull, so I did some tinkering with the coding on ‘The Perfect Day’ and figured out how to multiply each part of the three-part format by three. The dream lasts longer so more shit happens. Boom." Casey claps directly into Mike’s face. "And that, gentlemen, is how you get more bang for your buck."

Mike snorts. "You do realize that there’s more than one $100 option, right? And you chose ‘The Perfect Day’ and not ‘Adventure Is Out There?’"

"I’m sorry, did you use the last of your bar mitzvah money to give your bros the most epic dream experience ever? No? Then shut up." Casey plugs the headset into his portable charger, double-checks the battery, then detaches the cord. "And since I’m a generous guy, I’m letting one of you two virgins be my guinea pig completely free of charge."

Mike brightens. "Can I–"

"Noah!" Casey interrupts. "Would you do me the honor?"

Mike’s eyes narrow at Casey. "Dick."

"Mike should get to do it," I say. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mike smile, that fond smile that he usually reserves for Victoria and his younger sister, Isobel. Mike is all hard edges, everything from the jut of his Adam’s apple to that always-there anger in his eyes that appeared sometime around sophomore year to the way his voice leaves pins and needles dancing across your skin. The softer side of him feels private, like I was never meant to see it.

Pointedly, I turn back to Casey, who huffs impatiently.

"Once Mike is done getting wet over Victoria, he can have a turn," Casey says. "Noah, you ready for this?"

"Yeah, okay."

"Lie back."

As I get comfortable, Mike leans close to my face and says, "Nervous?"

"No way." I grin. "This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, man."

"You never forget your first," Mike says, bouncing his eyebrows. I laugh, trying to hide the way my hand shakes against my flannel sleeping bag. Despite my efforts, Mike notices, and locks our pinkies together – our old silent signal for I’ve got you. "Look, if things go screwy in there, just try to remember that I’m not gonna leave your side. I know that you can’t wake yourself up unless there’s a drop or you get killed, but try to give me a sign, if you can. I’ll shake you out of it."


"It’s gonna be awesome."

"No, I know."

"Strap in, Zhang." Casey snaps the headset over my ears and hands me a bottle of sleeping pills and a half-finished Gatorade. I take the recommended dosage and wince at the short keening noise of the Cloud 9 system booting up. "You’ll be home in time to kiss your daddy goodnight." I glare at Casey. He just laughs.

The last image I see before I close my eyes is Mike giving me a thumbs-up and Casey smirking over me.

"Sweet dreams, Noah."


Jared Hardwick slams me against the row of lockers in the shower room, and my head throbs. Half of the guys around us hoot and yell – the other half just look away, unwilling to involve themselves. Part of me is grateful – the fewer people to witness my humiliation, the better.

    I always sneak away at the end of class to clean up early so that this doesn’t happen; so that I don’t run into Matt Stanford and his friends. Why didn’t I today?

    Matt snatches my gym bag away from me and dumps the contents across the wet floor. He grinds his dirty Nike into my towel and bundle of clothes, and my skin crawls thinking about how unsanitary that is. My heart is beating impossibly loud and everything feels like it’s happening in horrible slow motion. I can’t breathe, and I focus on that instead of the fact that I’m dripping wet and not wearing a stitch because Jared yanked me out of the shower.

    Am I crying?

    This has to be a nightmare.

    "Tell your freak friend to stay away from my girlfriend, okay Zhang?" Matt’s fingers dig into my collarbone and I cry out. Breathe, breathe, breathe. "Vicki doesn’t go for burnouts."

    Jared lets me drop to the tiles, kicking my inhaler toward me. "Breathe up, girly-boy." Fingers shaking, I let the medicine hiss down my throat and I let out another wet wheeze.

    I’m alone, trembling.

This has to be a nightmare.


In Calculus, nobody asks me why I’m soaking wet, and I don’t know if I’m relieved that no one’s staring or distressed that no one cares.

    "Mike," I say when my best friend enters the room and drops down into the seat beside me. "I need to tell you something."

    Mike is chewing on the eraser at the end of his mechanical pencil and staring down into the assignment from last night. Of course, his is unfinished, but I’m impressed that he even tried.

    "It’s about Victoria."

    "What." His voice is cold and distant, and I wonder absentmindedly if he’s on a bad high. He can get like this sometimes, and all you can really do is give him space. I eventually meet his gaze and I’m startled by the emptiness that I find there; there’s always something in Mike’s eyes, even if it’s anger. Now, there’s nothing.

    My breathing is shallow again. I take another hit from my inhaler.

    When I look back at Mike, he’s intently snapping the lead out of his pencil and into even little pieces. The noise is brittle and he won’t lift his head again.

He refuses to speak to me for the rest of the day.


    At home, I find a note from Mom and Aunt Katie on the counter.


At the hospital with your father and Kate.

Will be home at 7. Lasagna in the fridge.


    I take a shower and throw my ruined clothes onto the floor of the laundry room. They land with a wet smack and I try to shake Matt and Jared’s leering faces out of my eyes.

    Whenever I had a bad day as a kid, my dad wouldn’t even ask questions – he just knew. He’d take me to Lettie’s, the local diner, for chocolate malt shakes and a huge paper tray of homemade French fries.

    "Tomorrow will be better," he’d say, dipping fries into his shake. "Think of getting a good night’s sleep as a, uh, a reset button."

    Tomorrow will be better.

I fall asleep, buried in blankets, and wake up at 8:59 in the evening to a ringing that makes my head spin.

Mom and Aunt Katie still aren’t home. I stumble into the kitchen to answer the house phone. Outside, it’s black and rainy. "Hello?"

Mom is crying. "Noah, I’m sorry. He’s gone. He just slipped away."


A timer goes off, like a digital watch beeping, the volume magnified to reverberate throughout the entire house.

    I can’t breathe.



Jared shoves me to the wet tiles of the shower room, and I feel my inhaler hit my foot. "Breathe up, girly-boy."


    "What." Mike’s voice is canny, and I search his eyes for some kind of emotion. Anything.

    There’s nothing.


"Noah, I’m sorry. He’s gone. He just slipped away."



I know how this day ends.


I can’t breathe.


There’s nothing.




I’ve been here before.


    I try dropping myself off the roof of the high school… down the basement stairs. I slit my own throat with a kitchen knife… walk in front of the cars speeding down Main Street at night. Nothing jolts me awake.

    I always wind up back in the shower room.

    Then Calculus class.

    Then home.

    One, two, three.

    Have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day?


    In his sleep, Noah is still. In fact, I’m only reminded that I’m not staring down at a corpse by the gentle rise and fall of his chest and the warmth of his hand in mine. I didn’t even realize I was holding it. His eyebrows cinch in discomfort, and I run my thumb over his knuckles. I never got a chance to tell him that I like his undercut and the new way he’s been dressing, all hipster with eighties sensibilities. Victoria would absolutely love his whole sensitive street fashion thing.

    "I wonder how he’s doing in there," I mutter.

    Casey scoffs. "It’s not called ‘The Perfect Day’ for no reason. I’m sure he’s just dandy."

    "Why are you like this?"

    "What do you mean?"

    I let out a frustrated noise and let my fingers tangle in my hair. My rings bump my scalp and I try to ignore how vulnerable I feel without Noah beside me. "You’ve been super pissed at me and Noah lately. I want to know why."

    Casey considers this, then checks his digital watch. When he looks back up at me, all attempts at feigning casualness disappear from his elfish features and I let out a little breath when I see the hatred and vitriol burning in his eyes.


    "Oh, don’t Casey me!" Casey lets out a laugh, high and unsure. "You know exactly what this is about."

    I put myself between Casey and Noah’s unconscious body. "I really, really don’t."

    "No? Okay, then." Before I can square my stance in the limited space, Casey shoves me, hard, and I topple down beside Noah. "I am so sick of you two leaving me out of everything!"

    I pale. "What?"

    "We’re supposed to be a group of friends, but whenever we do literally anything together, it’s just you and Noah acting all buddy-buddy with each other, sharing all these inside jokes and teaming up against me. You think I like third-wheeling while you two stare into each other’s eyes or some crap? Well, I don’t. I don’t like being the person who walks behind you two ‘cause there’s not enough room on the sidewalk or, or that guy you both just use to buy cool shit or drive you places." Casey wipes his eyes, his face red.

    "And whenever one of you is stuck with me, God, could you be any more obvious about how you’d rather be somewhere else?" Casey curls his lip at Noah. "Maybe now you’ll finally start seeing me."

    My blood feels like it’s freezing in my veins. "What did you do?"

    Casey says nothing.

    "Cobb, what did you do."

    "You know, you’re cute when you’re worried," Casey says. "And stop looking at me like I just masterminded a genocide or something. I compounded the time into the hundreds so that an hour out here feels like a month in there."

    "He’s been reliving the same day for a month?"

    "A few months," Casey corrects.

"Can he wake himself up?"

"Nope. The loop is resistant to internal shocks. Noah’s under until my timer runs out." Casey pauses. "Earlier, you were complaining about ‘The Perfect Day,’ so you should be happy. At least Noah got something a little more exciting."

    "What are you talking about?" I demand.

    "I also reversed the coding on the subconscious auto-fill." Casey smiles and taps a forefinger to his temple. "Meet the one and only creator of ‘The Worst Day Ever.’"

    My fist connects with Casey’s face exactly the same time his digital watch chirps.

    Casey’s trying to staunch the flow of blood from his nose, and there’s something cathartic about how the crack of cartilage felt against my knuckles.

    "You’re supposed to be our friend!"

    "It’s 9:00," Casey says stuffily.

Noah bolts upright.

    He promptly begins sobbing in this horrible fit of gasping and screams, and his fists twist in the fabric of my jacket when he throws his arms around me. He’s shaking like a leaf and we both slump to the floor of the fort.

    "I’ve got you, dude," I say, holding him tight. "You’re okay. You’re okay." Using my free hand, I find his inhaler and wait for his fingers to clutch around the plastic and the click of the button. "Everything’s gonna be okay."

    "You can comfort him," Casey says, standing unsteadily. "Since you two are such great friends."

    Casey leaves the fort, and all I hear is Noah’s cries and the whirring power-down of the Cloud 9 system mingling with the heavy rain.


Live the dream with Cloud 9!

(WARNING: Cloud 9 products are not meant to be tampered with by anyone other than professionally trained neuro-engineers at the Cloud 9 Dream Co., and we subsequently cannot be faulted for any psychological or physical damage done to your person as a result.)