Dream Asylum

I don't pretend to understand them.


I was down in a cavern. Soft brown rock, round walls lit by flickering torchlight. I was part of a crew overseeing the vigorous operation of a machine made up of wooden gears, and sticks tied together with twine in a latticework. A conveyor belt ran the length of the machine, which passed through several cavern rooms where my people stood. The conveyor belt bore bird-like creatures, some hatching from eggs, some flopping around and squawking curiously at us. They were batlike, brown, with birdlike snouts and warm, leathery skin. Their wings had claws. There were other creatures on the belt too, and it was our job to see that one bird, and one smaller creature, were each nestled in one small contraption made of tied sticks, the three combining to make one unit in a flying biological air force.

As I watched a bird being carefully tethered inside a wooden carrier, I mused that I was "glad to be down here, than up there with the dumb people". I was referring to the people near the surface, who were not informed of the true nature of the weapons we assembled, or the conflict taking place.

Instantly I was on the surface, standing shin-deep in the water of a creek. I was with a small team of three, holding the end of a long black rope. The rope went over the water to the second person, who was standing at the mouth of a short cave set into the shore of the river. The rope went into the cave, which sloped down sharply for a good 40 yards and then opened in a small room. A third person was there, tying the rope to one of a long line of harnessed bird-creature combinations, just coming off a conveyor belt.

When the person tying the rope finished, they gave a signal, and the two of us in the water pulled fiercely. The rope stretched slightly, then retracted like a rubber band as we pulled, and the creature was drawn gently up the tunnel with gathering speed, and burst into the open air on a diagonal ascent. Immediately the bird's wings flapped, and it took off over the trees.

We launched several other units this way. A small creature zipped out of the cave like a hummingbird and danced in the air before the two of us in the creek. Speaking in a querulous, wailing voice, it asked if we'd seen "the master". Neithr of us knew. The creature became more agitated, and darted off into the trees towards some buildings. We shrugged and continued our work.

Then I was watching a movie in the downstairs living room of my old Scotts Valley house. It was showing on the old faded tv in the squat frame with the wooden shutters that slid closed. It was Dune, but it was the second half-- a part I'd never seen before, nor read about in the books. It was the part "where things got weird", I knew.

I watched the TV and flowed into and out of the reality it depicted, as the details of the scene demanded. Skeletal creatures with large hind legs and thick, dragging tails were extricating themselves from the mire of a muddy black swamp. They moved clumsily, sluggishly, as if they were being awakened from a long sleep. Their bodies were alive, but through means I was unfamiliar with- they looked emaciated, half-dead, sometimes partially disemboweled- but fell into procession readily enough, in a slow line moving through jungle foliage, ending at- a couch!

Here they shambled single file onto the cushions of the couch, each waiting its turn solemnly. There were other creatures on the couch, living things with an unclear morphology. I cannot remember the details, but I remember that they were merging with the skeletal walkers, two or three of them at a time, enacting some twisted metagenesis whose end product was unknown to me. Sickened by the sight of the process, I turned, or turned my mind, away from it.

I was near the end of the movie, now. The master of the aboveground factory (the buildings the little flying thing had fled to), a floating fat man resembling the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from the cinematic Dune adaptation, had died unmercifully in the gears of a machine that distributed circuit boards to other parts of the assembly line. As I ran through the teirs and catwalks of the installation, I noticed that the belts and holders running through the rest of the factory were devoid of those circuit boards, as the flow had been interrupted. This wasn't part of the normal course of the movie, I realized. Those boards were usually there. Something strange may be happening.

I reached the top of a ramp and kicked out, bashing through an opaque plastic wall with little black gears riveted to it, almost like gaudy art-deco except the gears appeared to serve some purpose in a nearby machine. I carefully kicked the spare edges of wall aside and stepped into an adjacent hallway, heavily trafficked by various humanoid creatures trying to escape. I noticed that the boards of the hallway were thick, bare wood, crudely laid- just like the boards in the hallway of the barn by my old Scotts Valley house. The hallway was just as short, too. No more than half a dozen steps and the hallway ended, open air beyond. I leapt and started flying.

I was about 10 meters in the air, swooping around the side of a rambling wooden building resembling the barn in workmanship- flaky brown paint where there was paint, bare boards everywhere else, often warped. Wavy plastic shingles passing for roofing. I flew around a corner and up a bit, and saw a black metal scaffold bridging the air, with two huge smoking vats resting on it. Not like the barn at all. But more like the movie.

Over and beyond the vats I darted and banked around a gauntlet of roiling chimneys jutting from cement blocks. Occasionally little fireballs would explode from the chimneys and dart unpredictably around in the thick air. If I collided with a fireball, the intense heat would sear the flesh right off my limbs. I avoided them all barely.

Far below I could make out the jungle foliage and the line of skeletal creatures at the couch. Their process was failing-- huge fibrous spikes were stabbing up from the earth, impaling the walkers before they could make it onto the cushions, then pulling back, leaving gaping holes. It was as if a sunken colony (from the game Starcraft) had discovered their activity and was attempting to subvert it. I was only marginally less repulsed this second time I saw it.

Eventually I landed on the eaves near the top of the barn/factory. Just a short climb up the wooden sides, and I was standing on a small gravel patio at the very top, hemmed in with a polite wrought-iron fence. Of all things, a tiny snack shop was open for business in a nearby wall. People were milling about, all of them my age, most of them women. I recognized some of them.

I looked to the edge of the patio where there was a gap in the fence. This gap was for a ramp which descended a few meters to another patio, this one made of wooden boards. It appeared structurally unsound. Other people were milling around there, in the heat and mild confusion of the factory aftermath.

I instantly knew that the two patios were for the upper and lower "class" of people in the factory. Each kept strictly to their turf. I also instantly knew that none of these people were real. They were all factory workers. They were all cyborgs. Robots created by the master for assembly-line work. Now the assembly line was in ruins. What would they do?

One robot, looking exactly like a girl I knew in High School named Tara, sat morosely on the gravel of the upper class patio, looking at her hands folded in her lap. "I don't know about you," she said, "but all I feel like doing is having a really good hamburger."

This, I realized, was the problem. She had been programmed by the master (for reasons I can't fathom) with the overwhelming desire to go eat a hamburger at a certain restaurant near Sacramento. Now that the factory was destroyed, she was free to fulfill that desire-- but it was just programming! She knew that the restaurant she could see clearly in her mind, the hamburger she could remember the taste of,... didn't exist. And, what's worse, never had.

I bent down to think, absent-mindedly reaching for a wrought-iron chair to sit on. All of a sudden Ken was at my side, apparently to give consolation. "Wait a minute" I said to Tara. "I remember a certain restaurant near Sacramento. That desire of yours may be taken from a memory in the Bell family."

In fact, perhaps the desires for all the robots had been extracted from people the master knew. This theory assumed that memories were hereditary, which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. (The implication that Ken and I were both part of the Bell family was not even acknowledged.)

That at least some of the robots could fulfill their desires was now evident. But what of the others? What of the robots in general; what were they to do? I had no answers. The dream gave a few to me anyway. A large group of the female cyborgs took off for the city and established, of all things, a brothel. They employed their shrewd business sense and were quite successful for a number of years. Several of the women left the brothel, and one in particular became quite powerful in underground organizations. With the passage of decades, she found ways to maintain her mechanical structure while many other cyborgs failed- or killed themselves out of boredom. She didn't age or falter, and was revered by some as a god.

The dream fuzzed around me and I offered a prayer to this female cyborg god. On a personal note, I can't remember the last time I prayed about anything, except once when I was about eight and a friend moved away and I stayed up all night asking the gods in general why they had separated us. I heard no answer then, but in my dream, I sensed that this cyborg could hear me in what I called "dire times", and her voice rang out in my head:


No shit! I shrugged. All of a sudden I was wearing swimtrunks and splashing around in a huge public pool. Other swimmers frolicked around me, or sunbathed on the rolling lawn at the water's edge. I dove down, closing my eyes, and came up again for a breath, jack-knifing my body so I would plunge right back under. In this dolphin-like way I slowly criscrossed the water.

This went on for about a minute and the dream slowly hazed out. I was lying by the wood-burning stove in the downstairs living room of the Scotts Valley house, warm and toasty, staring into the coals of the fire. The oranges and yellows were the most vibrant colors I'd ever known, shimmering beyond gold in a wavelength that was almost audible, the angelic song of fire. The heat drew the moisture from the skin of my face like sap. My eyes should have surely dried out but for some reason I didn't have to blink. I could stare continuously at the wood as it bloomed into tissue-thin sheets, oozing flames, blue fringes licking over the cooler spots like lightning, the ink in the paper occasionally birthing a geyser of deepest emerald green, flashing for an instant. I felt pure rapture from such beauty, boring in directly through my eyes. Deeper at the core of the coals my vision was overloaded, and everything bled to white in the heat, wavering on a longer bandwidth, an irregular heart.

I felt like a cat curled on an exquisite fur rug. My body was ticking around me like a clock (or a bomb, as some see it), as always, but on top of this harried blood I was somehow residing in an infinite stretch of peace and warmth. The mystery of life.

I woke up abruptly, as a garbage truck set down a dumpster across the street.