To Sleep, Perchance
by Doug Lane

2,370 words

A buzzer awakened Alan—not the bee-wing pitch of his alarm, but the hard metallic thrum of the judicial klaxon informing him the Authority was convening a session at his door.

         

He kicked off the covers, his dream already blurring. He’d been swimming in chocolate pudding, draped in a sundress. Periwinkle blue with petite yellow daisies, familiar somehow, but remembering where from was like catching smoke. He’d been headed towards Fiji, palm trees waving from the beach, but the dress was heavy with dessert, dragging the bottom and slowing his progress.

         

He glanced at the clock. 2:18 a.m. "Justice waits for no one," he muttered.

         

He opened the apartment door, bleary, his mind still full of pudding. One of the city's Court Compliance officers greeted his drowsy frown. The unfortunate trooper was clad in the absurd body armor with blue-steel finish that the bureaucrats made them wear year-round. The trooper's voice modulated through stereo speakers set in the lip of the helmet. "Citizen Alan June?"

         

"I have neighbors, you know."

         

The officer waited.

         

"Yes. Alan June."

         

"You are in violation of Intellectual Property Patent #179113272-K92421, registered to Mr. Reginald Whirly of 128 Hempstead Drive, Hoboken, New Jersey. Royalty or Challenge?"

         

"I'm being sued by a man named Whirly?"

         

"Royalty or Challenge?"

         

"It's 2:18 a.m."

         

The trooper was still. The speakers spit a beat of white noise before he spoke again. "Royalty or Challenge, sir?"

         

Alan shifted feet. "You're jerking me, right?"

         

The trooper sighed over the speaker. "C'mon, buddy. Royalty or Challenge?"

         

"Fine. Challenge. I don't sleep, nobody sleeps."

         

He missed the good old days when court was a room with furniture and actual litigants and daylight. You met face-to-face to hash out who owned what and had infringed on which, without all the digital mumbo-jumbo. But then came the web, the cloud, the universal database. The corporate lobbies succeeded in opening the floodgates to patenting specific creative ideas, their way around losing copyright control over time-proven and lucrative properties. This begat the subconscious scanners, the only way (or so the argument went) to ensure no one was infringing upon anyone's intellectual property. The theory was to catch the body-modders who could eyeball a video or listen to music and neural uplink copies direct from their senses. What were they—one in ten thousand? The reality was a huge broom sweeping everyone together—even, in Alan's case, because of a dream he didn't himself understand.

         

The whole thing, an ugly baby named the Knight-Dualt Act, also codified how infringement was dealt with. Time had become elastic to the law. If it wasn't a felony, the law dictated the issue needed to be resolved as close to the time and point of the detected offense in order to minimize damages.

         

The trooper scanned Alan's ident chip for his legal information. He activated the Judiciscreen in the hallway with the turn of a key from a ring of forty or so, summoning the Magistrate-on-Call and her clerk. Counsel for Reginald Whirly was conferenced in, grim in both expression and robe. Alan's attorney appeared in a burst of static and glared. The man was a fantastic attorney for the cost, but he lacked imagination—always wanting to settle. Alan also thought the man could have run a comb through his hair.

         

Within 90 seconds, everyone was duly sworn and the hearing began.

         

The Magistrate read the summary of the allegedly violated patent. Alan's counsel, fingers chording on the keyboard with a woodpecker's pace, moved for dismissal. "Rapid-ident suggests Whirly is deceased. Lack of probate suggests he did not transfer any held patents prior to his demise, making them orphaned work."

         

Central Records undertook a hypertensive deep ID search to confirm, identified the false positive of a Reggie Whirly, who'd died in a hopper crash four years earlier, and tracked the correct Whirly down through a daisy-chain of address changes. Motion denied.

         

In a holdover from the dream, Alan found himself with a chocolate craving. He wondered how Fiji fit into things. He'd never been to the islands. He wasn't even sure he could find it on a map without a search engine. The island groups always flummoxed Alan; he avoided them when generating content for travel sites. It was lucrative work-for-hire, writing tips for people embarking on exotic voyages. It was all stuff anyone with two bits of common sense could rattle off the top of the head. But actual travel? Feh. Alan liked the city, its sounds and energy and bustle. He liked not being scanned and poked at the airport. He didn't miss losing luggage. 

         

As if he could read Alan's thoughts and was bored by them, the trooper yawned with gusto. Alan caught a whisper of it through the man’s helmet.

         

Alan's counsel motioned for a Request for Waiver of Royalty on the grounds of Non-Literal Subconscious Infringement. The motion required awakening Reginald Whirly, now a resident of the upscale Rye, NY. Whirly, just in bed on the heels of a long evening of cocktails at the country club, was surly at the interruption. He declined the waiver instantly as his cold eyes appeared on screen. "I didn't get to Rye by giving my money away," he entered for the record with the annoyance of the detached, slightly intoxicated rich.

         

"It was a dream," Alan mumbled. His counsel hissed at him to be quiet, then argued that the case of Lowe v. Dreamtime Syndicate held "a person cannot be held To Account for infringing an idea patent if the dream's duration is less than 62% the length of a recorded program of like genre."

         

"Because," Alan whispered to the trooper, who he motioned inside, "everyone watches the Fiji Pudding Sundress Swimming Hour."

         

The trooper’s body shuddered. Then he realized his speakers were off and fumbled with the button to activate them, but the moment to laugh had passed.

         

Opposing counsel countered Lowe had no bearing on individual, organic dreams, "but applies instead to manufactured dreams, randomized for entertainment purposes. Rather, the defendant is required to provide a royalty as his dream was a direct duplication of Whirly's intellectual property." Counsel also hinted that Whirly, a psychologist who made substantial secondary income patenting the subconscious ramblings of his anonymous patients for sale as raw material to the video entertainment market, might also be entitled to damages against future lost wages. "Defendant's dream was such a precise lift of Patient 997 Session 11, the registered idea might be useless after the publicity over the hearing in progress."

         

As Alan prepared coffee for himself and the grateful trooper ("Two sugars, thanks."), who looked only nineteen of however many years he was, he wondered if there was actual publicity of 2 a.m. intellectual property patent infringement hearings. Weren't the police blotters full of murderers, rapists and drug deals gone bad in a hail of bullets? Shouldn't those get the lion's share of coverage? And in terms of criminals and deviants, was it even ethical for a lump like Whirly to violate doctor-patient privilege to make a fast buck?

         

Alan's counsel argued parallel independent development with Patient 997. "My client is a freelance writer. Given his substantial work for both travel and cooking sites, the organic combination of elements such as Fiji and pudding in his subconscious isn't beyond the realm of possibility." Counsel then overplayed his hand by petitioning to establish the identity of Patient 997. As the victim of identity theft on four different occasions, the Magistrate was vehement in her denial of the request, suggesting the ask was contemptible.

         

"See?" Alan passed the trooper a tin with butter cookies from his sister that had arrived the day before. "My guy never knows when to quit. Always trying to leg out a double on a clean bunt."  

         

Whirly's counsel parried. "As a writer for trade, the defendant bears responsibility for awareness of the possible ways to run afoul of patented concepts. Further, he should carry optional insurance, as any responsible creative should." He requested Alan testify to whether he'd ever dreamed up an idea for a column or not.

         

"Ah, hell," Alan said before they invoked the oath on him.

         

He'd dreamed up some great concepts and told them so. "I had one dream where I was an emu on roller skates on an ice floe. I parlayed that into an emu-cam livestream for a nature magazine's website. They surgically attached a microcam to its bill, right between its eyes, and turned it loose. Top hit on the site for four months until Charlie the Emu died under mysterious circumstances." Alan never had heard what the final minute of video revealed. He suspected the assistant handler was responsible.

         

Opposing counsel used it as admission not of an infraction, per se, but of the potential "for people like my client to be ripped off, no matter how innocently." He pressed for an immediate ruling on payment.

         

Alan shook his head and the tin of cookies caught his eye. No, not the cookies. A memory snagged him with fishhook efficiency. He set down his coffee and requested thirty seconds to confer with his counsel.

         

"What?" Alan's counsel asked on the private Consult channel.

         

"Have them read through the patent again, line by line."

         

"I swear, Alan. If you're screwing around—"

         

"Eight successful challenge cases, not a dime paid to the Whirlys of the world. Oh ye of little faith. Have I ever made you look bad?"

         

"Why can't you be dull-eyed and vacant like the hop-heads and thrill-killers the Public Defender tosses me?"

         

The Magistrate's Master Action Clock marked the consultation time limit. Alan's counsel requested the line-by-line reading of the alleged infringed patent.

         

The clerk read a laundry list of incongruous images, ticking them off one by one—pool, instant pudding, Fiji—until the clerk reached the periwinkle blue dress. Whirly's patent defined it as a mother's dress with pale green flowers.

         

"ERRRRRT!" Alan offered a flawless mimic of the litigation alert klaxon. "In the dream, the dress was a girl's sundress. Not with green flowers, with yellow daisies—my sister's dress. And I know because I remember it."

         

Alan's counsel would have fired daggers from his eyes, had he been body-modded for it. "Now you remember it?"

         

"Coffee." Alan tapped his cup, the trooper nodding behind him. He held up the tin of cookies. "And these. A tin of butter cookies arrived yesterday from my sister Amanda. The dress in my dream was the one Mandy was wearing during a family vacation to Assateague Island in Virginia, the day she nearly drowned. She got pulled under in a surf so churned up, it was a dark, chocolatey brown to the untrained eye." Alan dunked a cookie in his coffee. "My eyes were especially untrained when I was six. Add the arrival yesterday of the tin at my door, and thus Mandy to the front of my mind, to the story in yesterday's paper about the annual running of the wild ponies across the Assateague Channel, then consider the phonetic similarity of the island names 'Assateague' and 'Fiji' and you get . . ."

         

His voice trailed off to allow both counsels to catch up. He wanted to give the trooper a high-five.

         

Opposing counsel immediately objected. "Move to strike as inadmissible and hearsay unless the claim can be proven."

         

Seventeen seconds later, Central JudiData's computer—tossing data at 870 exaFLOPS per node—provided the digital copy of a thirty-one-year-old paramedic report from the Assateague Island Ranger Station archive. The image of the yellowed sheet confirmed Amanda June, age ten, had been sucked under the waves in a rip current and nearly drowned at the beach.  The report was accompanied by a photograph of the harried girl in a blue dress with yellow daisies, towel around her shoulders, sitting with a brown-haired boy no older than six. The boy faced away from her, an expression of distress cut into his features with sharp strokes. 

         

Alan was surprised how accurate his memory of the dress had been in the dream.

         

Alan's counsel swung for the fences. "Under Bovary v. Kesterson, a dream resulting from unresolved psychological trauma, specifically when said trauma was suffered as a minor child, is not actionable under Intellectual Patent Statutes, as they are a psychological abstraction beyond the patient's ability to regulate, even when treated by a psychologist in good standing with the Government."

         

Whirly's counsel had no answer for that. The trooper hoisted his mug to Alan in salute.

         

The Magistrate dismissed Whirly's patent claim en toto. In rapid succession, Whirly's counsel lost an appeal and a damages suit for pain and suffering filed by Alan after Whirly's counsel, on direction of his client, offered to buy intellectual property rights to Alan's derivative dream. Whirly coughed up $21,000 plus court costs, provided via automatic credit transfer, and the session was concluded.

         

The screen went dark and the trooper returned it to its slot in the wall. The clock on Alan's stove read 2:46 a.m.

          

The trooper lingered to finish his coffee. On the way out, he glanced back at Alan. "Why would you put yourself through this? You don't see any plumbers up at 2 a.m. defending their imaginations. They have a dream with a Bowie song or Obi-what's-his-name from STAR WARS, they pony up a tiny royalty and move on."

         

"Two reasons. First, Whirly's an unimaginative thug. His house in Rye was built on other people's ideas. Second, no one gets rich off my imagination but me. Plumbers want to give it up? It's their nickel. Meanwhile, I spent twenty minutes sticking up for myself and go back to bed with 420,000 additional nickels in my pocket." For a moment, he considered going to Fiji just to do it.

         

The trooper considered it, finally shaking his head in disbelief. "Hell of a way to make a living." He reattached his helmet and started for the elevator. Modulated again, Alan noticed how much older the speaker made the trooper's voice sound. "Thanks for the coffee."

         

Alan shut and locked the door. By 3 a.m., he was back in bed, eyes closed and with a light snore, having the most marvelous dream about being a chipmunk with a jet pack.

Doug Lane’s work has appeared online and in print at Abyss & Apex, Pulp Modern, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. He writes, works, and lives in Salem, OR with his wife and their elderly feline overlord. He maintains a small but sincere pumpkin patch on Facebook (DougLaneWrites) and a vacation destination at www.douglasjlane.com. You can read more in his collection SHADY ACRES & DARKER PLACES, available (occasionally by special order) anywhere you buy books.