This is the first chapter in the novella “House of Dreams.”
“The fabric room is to our left,” Manuel, head of Recruitment at the House of Dreams said as he guided her down the headquarters’ hallway. He wore a scientist’s lab coat, if such things came made of silk and intricately stitched with stars and comets. Thin silver glasses hung from an ornate chain around his neck.
The place looked like a house stretched to fit its corporate inhabitants; the wallpaper was cheerful but the hallways were too wide and clean to feel comfortable.
The House of Dreams was only ten years old, but had a meteoric rise to become the preeminent luxury brand of ambassadors and influencers alike, with a market cap double the size of Gucci, Dior, Fendi, Versace and Chanel combined.
They had no user experience team, no marketing team, and they did no customer research. Journalists rumored instead that the company had a way to magically find what people wanted.
“And down on the right is the Fabric Mixer. There you can “remix” different materials together to create a specific blend you want in case we don’t have what you’re looking for in our library.”
Aanya did not believe in magic, and was enough of an insider in the fashion industry to hear other rumors.
“Here’s our bathrooms. Our technology might be state-of-the-art, but our human technology still hasn’t gotten an upgrade.”
Aanya smiled nervously as she realized she had laughed too late at his joke.
Manuel coughed and continued quickly on, “After fabric creation we have the P-Genn Lab, where you can design what patterns, if any, you want on the fabric. Here you can add any design you like. And then there’s the Fit Lab,” Manuel motioned to a closed room with a line of dummies of all variety of human body — short, tall, thin, fat, old, disabled, “We want to create clothes that fit everyone.”
Aanya looked at the models. They were all covered up so she could not see any designs other Printmakers worked on.
“And finally,” Manuel stopped at the end of the hallway. There was no need for him to announce what this was. This was the Printmaking Studio, arguably the most important fifteen by fifteen foot space in the entire world for a fashion designer.
The focus of the room was on a massive five foot by five foot Smart Canvas that sat on an Easel in the middle of the room. A Smart Canvas would robotically sew or glue on the fabrics she selected using a Smart Brush.
In front of the canvas was a low table with a Smart Brush and a platter with a cookie.
“And now, your interview,” Manuel said. He led her in front of the Easel.
“You signed the NDA with HR? And the health screening?”
“Just checking. Our interview procedure is…not standard. We need to make sure our procedure is a secret and that candidates are of sound mind when they go through it.”
Aanya looked around the room, confused. A designer doing a mock-design for an interview was standard with the proliferation of AIs that often helped fashion design candidates create fake portfolios.
“There’s no set prompt. Just create whatever comes naturally to you.” Manuel turned to leave. Before he shut the door, he motioned to the platter, “The interview starts when you eat the cookie.”
“..the cookie?” She looked down at it. She had figured it was a polite snack while she worked.
Perhaps this was it. The cookie must have some sort of chemical compound in it. Aanya had smoked weed in college, and had designed several of her final class projects high. Her parents would have a fit to know her indiscretions would make for great interview practice.
Manuel left her then. She knew he could probably still see her. All the walls were likely either embedded with cameras.
Aanya stood in front of the Easel. She had designed thousands of outfits before. She picked up the cookie. It looked utterly mundane, the kind you could get at any supermarket.
She bit into the cookie. Chewed. She stood there, but felt no different. More confidently, she popped the rest of it in her mouth.
By the time she finished chewing, she felt a tingling in the middle of her palms. As she shifted on her feet she felt a sudden lightness to her body.
A flicker of light caught her attention at the corner of her vision. She turned to the hallway where the light from the outside streamed into the room. The light seemed to come to a halt and solidify in the air. She ran her fingers through it, and was surprised when her hand came away with a puddle of light cupped in her palm.
This was certainly different from weed.
“You should get started on your case study.”
Aanya jumped and turned at the sound.
Behind her, near the easel was a light-skinned black woman, with large, loose curls and a cat’s grin on her face. Her golden eyes sparked with mischief.
“How…how did you get in here?” Aanya asked.
“Why, the other door,” the stranger motioned to a dark green door frame that had appeared behind the Easel. The door was carved with ferns and tropical flowers and vines that dripped down its sides. As she looked the flowers pulsed in an invisible wind; a lizard’s tail scuttled under a leaf.
“Come along now.”
With that, the woman disappeared through the green door.
Aanya gingerly followed.
As she stepped through the door, she stepped on to soft, spongy ground. As she began to walk forward, the earth tilted upward and the ground in front of her pulled upwards so she was forced to climb.
The woman who had brought her here was almost invisible now, every so often darting out from behind a tree branch far ahead to cry, “This way!”
Her words were echoed in bird song.
The tree branches above her seemed to endlessly move. As she looked longer Aanya saw many of the branches were not actually trees, but snakes. No no, she shook her head, they seemed to be trees that turned into snakes and back into branches again. While normally this would have alarmed her, it seemed here the dividing line between plant and animal was much thinner.
She climbed as the shadows of the trees skittered along her skin, climbed until there were no more shadows as she had reached the top of the canopy.
In front of her the black woman stood and looked off into the distance towards the sun.
“I have drawn my life into two pieces: before experiencing this place and after,” the black woman’s smile was wide and jubilant, her eyes holding the joy of a kid at Christmas.
“It’s magical. I heard rumors of the House of Dreams….but not like this. I never could have dreamed of this. Where are we?”
“Right now you’re in the Sun-igbo, the sleeping jungle.”
“But really, where are we? Is this…some sort of virtual reality?”
“Our current theory is that in the human brain there are deeply embedded structures that all of our brains share, structures that on a quantum level share the same gravitational signatures. When in this mind state, your brain can sort of travel across all of the structures.” The woman shrugged, “At least that’s what the scientists say. You don’t need to know the science behind it though.”
“What do I need to know to get this job?” Now that she had experienced this place, Aanya could not imagine a world in which she did not come back here.
“You love it, huh?”
“It’s beyond words…this place…”
“You’ll need to be able to show you can travel, and bring information back. See, this tree, if you travel out across a specific branch, you can travel through someone’s story. Here,” the woman turned her towards a branch, “Start walking. I promise you won’t fall.”
Aanya took two steps out from the center of the tree. As she did so, she felt herself grow smaller and smaller until a single leaf encompassed her entire vision. The longer she looked the leaf took on a different texture, and it was as if she was twisted in a new direction, not quite up or down or sideways but something in between all of them. As she fell in this new direction, she found she suddenly could not remember her name. A new person’s life’s path felt tangled with her own. She felt a second of anxiety rush over her before Galina remembered that she had brought more logs in for the fire so she could relax. She huddled closer to her sister for warmth.
Arina was still awake, and asked her for a story. “Let’s see, last night we left home on a magic carpet, and flew past the snowy mountains, south to where there’s no snow even in winter.”
“And we met a camel!”
“Yes, and helped a snake charmer get his snake back from a lion, and for that he gave us a magic mirror. Tonight we must carry on. So we travel on until we reach a beautiful garden in front of the most majestic palace, with a golden dome and spires that reach to the sky. The king’s sons were turned into birds, one black, one white, and every day could be heard singing from the palace gardens…”
As Galina spoke her whole life’s story played out, as she traveled instead with the blanket as the two girls grew up. The blanket’s corners over time grew ragged and threadbare. Her mother turned it into a new dress, her wrinkled hands beautiful as they worked the cloth under the gold light of the kitchen flame.
That dress was caked in salt as her family crossed the endless sea to a foreign land called America, and flecked with stains as she washed hundreds of floors of wood and tile on this foreign shore. There was just enough fabric when her daughter was born to stitch together a little camel toy to inspire her daughter’s late night dreams.
As she stitched she would stop in places to massage her hands. As she stared at her hands the world began to shift, the dark of the small kitchen, in the apartment in the basement of the laundromat fading and the light of the interview room with its blank Easel coming back into view.
But the dream — or vision? — that Aanya experienced clung to her, and she moved now with confidence. Time passed, she did not know how much, but the sun trickled golden into through the windows when she put down her brush. Her fingers ached. Her feet ached. There was a kink in her left shoulder but none of that was important. Her brain was very much alive, more alive than it had ever been and she was laser focused. She wanted this job more than she wanted anything.
When Manuel came in, he did so softly, “Quite a ride wasn’t it?”
“It was magical! Like nothing I have ever seen or experienced before. It’s so hard to put into words…,”
Manuel laughed, “That’s the typical reaction of everyone who has gone there. We never know if a person will or won’t be able to breakthrough beforehand, and we don’t want to influence the experience.”
“Why sell clothes when you could just sell this drug? Everyone would buy it.”
Manuel chuckled, “Now that is a complicated question. If you get accepted, you can ask my boss’s boss that question. On that note, why don’t you show me what you made.”
Aanya gulped and ran her hands on her skirt to run away the sweat.
“I saw a blanket, passed down from when I — ,” she paused, for what she had experienced was not truly her own life, “used first as a blanket, and then made into a dress, and then into a stuffed animal. Right now there is a disconnect in the fashion industry between when you are done with clothes and what happens to them after. It’s taken as a matter of course that they will most likely end in a landfill, maybe burned…but here a pattern for other things can be stitched on. It’s making the next step of the garment evident and obvious. It can also create a secondary revenue stream for each item as people bring a jacket back in to the House of Dreams to be redesigned into a bag, that’s what I laid out here. This idea can be used across lots of different things….like dresses made into scarves. I know every luxury brand, they have the problem that once they sell an item, it’s out of their hands. So even if a purse keeps growing in value, you don’t get to directly capture it. But with these clothes, people are coming back to the store over and over again.”
With that Aanya stopped. Her tiredness rushed in all at once.
“It’s a beautiful idea. May I?” Manuel stepped to the Easel and zoomed in on one of her patterns.
“I got something similar. Same cross-hatching, different material.”
Aanya turned around and almost passed out. There in the doorframe was the Black woman from her vision.
“You’re….you’re real,” she stuttered. Her heart pounded so loud she could not hear what the woman replied. She touched her hand to her face and found it came away with tears. It could not be true that she had met a real person in a drug-induced dream land.
“Simone,” Simone waved, “I’d be your boss. You got a handle on things really quickly. You should be proud of yourself.”
“You exist.” She could not think about things like work, when she had met a person for the first time in a dream that then walked in to the room.
Simone laughed, “I’m sorry, I had the same reaction my first time. It’s almost a relief to see someone else as astonished as I was.”
“So, this is real?” Aanya looked back and forth between Manuel and Simone.
“Which part? That there is a drug that can help us explore humanity’s interconnected consciousness, or that we’re using it to sell more stuff to people?”