Dream Asylum

I don't pretend to understand them.


I was traveling on the coast. The surf was dangerous, the air misty, and the mountainside close. There was a woman with me, my fellow explorer, but I do not remember who she was.

I knew that we were hiking through a landscape on a planet far from Earth. We were the only two people on the planet, in fact the only two people in the solar system. Billions of years separated us from the time that was ours. We had arrived here through a bizzare form of time and space travel. I had no idea how long we would be staying, or if we could return.

We turned away from the windswept coast and began slogging into a swamp. The choppy ocean was at our backs, but soon the booming noise was drowned out by our progress through the muck. We were both wearing hip-waders, and had to take very large steps to avoid tripping on submerged objects. The water came up mid-thigh and was covered in green scum.

The wind was dead. Overhead, the sky had become a pinkish blank. I could not tell how far away or close it was - we might have been inside a lit cave. As we moved, brushing waterlogged debris aside, I approached a dirt plateau, ringed with short browned grass.

It was stacked with a mountain of teddy-bears.

Smooth plastic bodies only retained tiny patches of the bright paint that had given them personality. Wind and weather had eroded their limbs into vague shapes. My companion and I stopped, and as I looked them over I remembered a scene from an old childrens' movie. Thousands of bears had danced in unison, singing a happy song as confetti swirled above. There had been balloons, and cheering people dressed in cartoonish period clothes, celebrating victory over a foul menace.

Now the bears were useless. They had been stacked here for future projects, but whatever agency owned them was long gone. The most disturbing thing about their presence was that every one of them was stacked facing out, as though they were all searching the horizon for rescue.

My partner and I continued slogging. Between myself and the shore of the bear island, a mound of decayng objects rose from the water. I approached the mound and saw that hundreds of nutcrackers had been discarded here, to rot in the swamp. Each one was a crafted wooden soldier, about a foot tall, with a golden sword and a high stovepipe hat. The ones above the waterline still retained their bright paint.

I picked one up and rotated it. The lever sticking out of it's back moved freely, and as I brought it up the little soldier's jaws opened, ready to receive a walnut. I remembered another scene from the movie. A mad swarming army of nutcrackers had raided the kingdom. Their levers had been pulled all the way up, freezing their jaws in a nihilistic battle-scream of silence.

I yanked the lever out of the one I was holding, and examined it. A contoured stick, painted red like the solider's coat. The far end was ringed with white slashes that had recently been teeth. Not so dangerous now, I thought. I threw the soldier back on the pile and flicked the lever at it, then resumed wading with my companion.

A vehicle buzzed past us, a low motorboat with rounded edges, mettalic racing stripes, and a windscreen. It resembled the land-speeder Ben Kenobi drove in Star Wars. A small man in a bellboy uniform was at the wheel. There was a passenger in the back seat. In a moment they cruised around the hillside of bears, out of sight. Flotsam bobbed in their expanding wake.

I didn't react. We went on. Soon another boat puttered around the mountain, and drifted to a stop in front of us. A different man, in the same uniform, sat looking at us. He was trying to determine if we were willing to pay for a ride. We looked back at him. He grunted, made a half-shrug in wide shoulders of his grey jacket, and swung his boat around. In a few seconds my partner and I were alone again.

We left the mountain of bears behind, and the ground of the swamp rose up to rough scrubland. Our rubber hip-waders vanished. On our right was a panoramic valley, filled with a sparkling lake. The swampwater was running quietly over a sharp edge and down into the lake. The stair-step effect was a common feature of this landscape.

We passed under a stone arch and into a brick tunnel. Low snakes of water and twisted weeds complained to our hiking boots. The ground stepped up to cement and we were on a walkway, which opened up to the strange pink blank of the sky. On our right was a sparse railing of two metal bars, flaking in different colors of paint. To the left was cement the color of the floor.

Over the railing was a stair-step garden, descending to a cliffside. Ten feet down, at the base the cliff, a tightly-shored river flowed in a gentle zig-zag, into an arched tunnel like the one we'd come from. Along the opposite shore of the narrow river, another wall rose to a height above our heads. Even though the open air was above us, our vision was thus restricted to the garden, canyon, and walkway. I felt like a rat in a maze.

On this opposite wall was a curving banner, flourished at the ends to resemble a ribbon. Words were painted on its metal surface:


An elaborate wrought-iron logo was riveted above the sign:


The water was black. The entire channel that the river flowed within was made of clean white bricks. It was also free of weeds, like the garden, if it could be called a garden. It was more of a low-lying menagerie.

On each step of lawn, pacing unevenly down to the channel edge, metal flowers were planted. Most lacked leaves, consisting of a smooth stem capped with a daisy, or the crude profile of a tulip or a rose. The profiles could only be discerned from the railing we stood at, though just ahead the walkway bent to follow the facing wall.

Thick paint made the stems green, and the flowers into blocky pastel nuggets. You'd find similar shapes floating in your cereal. Flowers weren't the only decoration. Two-dimensional bunnies, birds, and oversize insects were also spiked into the lawn, so many that the scene looked claustrophibic and uncomfortable. It was as though zookeepers had rounded up all the small game from a forest into a holding pen, and the creatures kept a fragile truce by remaining as still as possible.

I put my hands on the railing and swung a foot over. I stepped down onto one curved shelf of lawn, and then to the next, descending towards the channel edge and the river. I leaned out, resting my hands on my knees, and examined the water. It was swift and flowing, but became utterly black just an inch below the surface, like a painter's rinsing cup.

I stood up and turned around. As I was walking back up the steps to the railing, I noticed that the metal bugs were moving.

Grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, ants, and other spiny, feathery, multi-legged creatures I could not name, had broken their stasis and were creeping towards me very slowly. I sensed that they were not dangerous, but merely curious. Curiosity is a sophisticated emotion for an insect to project, and I became aware of a presence that was all around me, permeating everything from the insects to the grass to the very walls. It was from this mind that the curiosity was flowing.

It was a spirit, either haunting the area, or built into it mechanically, as a tourguide. It was one of three spirits, who acted as gatekeepers. After a long and troubled sleep, this first one was now awake and inspecting me cautiously through a thousand insect eyes.

As I walked up the grass stair, more critters gathered around. I was careful not to tread on them, and moved slowly so that they had plenty of time to accomodate my steps. On my right I noticed a white tabletop, jutting out over a patch of lawn, attatched to the lower bar of the guardrail I'd climbed over. I turned and walked to it.

The tabletop was blank. In front of it, attached to the guardrails, was a whiteboard. I reached into my back pocket and removed three small objects, which I lined up on the table. They began to awaken and move. They were dormant insects. They unfurled wings, and flew away over the walls.

I heard the spirit speak in my mind. My partner, now recognizable as Carolyn in khaki archeologist's gear, was standing with her hands on the guardrail. She heard it too. The voice manifested directly as thought words, and had no pitch or timbre but what our minds created to separate it from our own inner monologue.

It introduced itself as one of three guardian spirits, and welcomed us to the park. It spoke of recent history, but I cannot remember what it said.

On either side of the whiteboard was a flower - a frilled red and white cup in a bed of leaves. A green tongue of plant matter, segmented and lined with spiny fuzz, began to slide from the center of each flower. Like arms they crept out into the air and around my back, linking at my neck. The spines tugged at my shirt. The flowers were trying to pull me into a hug. The plant wanted to embrace me in greeting. I was trying to listen to the spirit voice, though, and I opened my mouth and yelled at a flower: "Dammit! Will you PLEASE stop that?"

The vines reluctantly unlinked and slid back into their respective flowers, but not before I detected an ominous resonance trailing my words. I had said the word 'dammit', a curse-word. The park was a Disney park, and resented the use of harsh language. I backed away from the table, intent on climbing back over the railing. I was muttering under my breath, and the park caught the words "dammit" and "god" several times. The park did not approve. It would not be nice to me.

The insects stood their ground, watching. I picked my way through them and made it to the rail. Back on the walkway, I looked ahead of me at the bend and noticed that the way was blocked by a tangled mass of machinery and flaked metal tubing. Some covering had eroded, and parts of the interior mechanism of the park had become visible. The mechanism had, in fact, grown over the pathway like a cancer, and joined with the metal railing. The only way to proceed was to crawl under the struts and gears, close to the floor where the machinery had not grown.

I got down on my hands and knees. Carolyn followed behind me as I wound my way into the mess. The path turned left, and in front of me was the railing. Between the horizontal bar and the floor was an intricate spiderweb of steel and thick glass. At the center of the web, a huge insect was encased in amber. The spirit voice informed my mind that this was it's body.

I did not know whether to believe this. It could have been a gimmick set up by the park designers, and the source of the spirit voice could still be a machine deep in the guts of the park.

Just to my left, where the path was supposed to continue, the conflagration of metal cables and gears became too thick. I started crawling backwards, out of the briar patch of metal, and noticed a handle sticking out of the mess. I reached out and pulled it back, then released it like the launcher on a pinball game.

The entire jumble surrounding me began to lurch and morph. Carolyn and I backed out the way we came. We sat with our backs to the cement wall near the tunnel, watching the machinery work. I saw a two-dimensional profile slide up to us on a track along the far wall. It was a lion, painted like Scar in the Disney movie The Lion King, jaws open, one claw up in a menacing wave.

"Enter the villain" I thought to myself.

The spirit voice was replaced with the grainy sound of a cartoon lion roaring from an ancient electric speaker. Scar introduced himself and proclaimed that he was waiting to be born, and that the only threat to his destiny was the population of a nearby village, who were prophesised with the power to destroy him.

As he talked, the world dissolved to a fog, and I found myself leaning against the curved metal wall of a pit. The pit was rotating. In the center was a grey metal drum that was also rotating, though the column on top of it, reaching to the ceiling, was not. I could not see over the edges of the pit, but there were handholds. A single beam, a catwalk, led from the top of the drum where the column started to the outer wall of the pit, but it was too far up to reach.

The metal floor was descending deeper into the pit. A picture of Scar was painted on the drum, and as I watched, the sinking floor revealed more of the painting. When the painting was fully revealed, Scar would be released into the pit. That would be trouble.

I hoisted myself up on two handholds and leaned over the lip of the pit, onto a floor. Just as I swung my legs up and out, the rotating catwalk swept through the area where they'd been. My legs had almost been amputated by the mechanism of the park.

I stood up in the room. Each wall was a thick square window, translucent with dust and dirt. The floor near each window was a jumble of potted plants and clear plastic objects, elementary shapes and pieces, reflecting white sunlight around the foliage. This was where Scar was waiting to be born.

It was a tower. Visible through the windows was a forest. Carolyn was at a low door set into a wall whose bay-window was smaller than the others to accomodate it. She had managed to operate the old locking mechanism, and swung the door open. She climbed out. I walked up to the doorframe and looked down.

Carolyn was standing in a creekbed, at the base of a very thick tree. Partway up, the tree had been amputated and this tower room sat on top of it. A twisty mass of metal growing up the side of the tree made descent dangerous, but possible. I regarded Carolyn among the large polished stones of the dry creek, and asked her what to do.

She told me to swing out along the shutter and push down the metal scaffolding. I could hang onto that and drop. To my left was the shutter she spoke of, very heavy metal pieces welded together and painted dark brown to resemble the washboard face of a wooden shutter. I put my hands on the top and shoved off, moving out over the air. Beyond the shutter, along the wall, I saw the scaffolding.

It looked like part of a crane, or an old oil derrick - four long metal tubes laced together with smaller segments, in triangular patterns. Its base was bolted to the wall on hinges, and I reached out and yanked it with one hand. It folded down with a squeak, and clanged to a horizontal stop, pointing out into the air halfway across the creekbed.

I stepped onto it and walked out, then squatted and eased myself down over the edge so that I was hanging. I dropped next to Carolyn. She was looking up. I looked up.

Seeing the scaffolding hanging out there, I realized what the gimmick was. Scar had been lying, of course. The people in the distant village were actually prophesized to release Scar, not destroy him. Visitors went from this place to the villiage, where they were told that a standing army could vanquish Scar if they only had access to his lair. For this they needed a bridge, and, feeling heroic, park visitors would set about lowering the other half of the scaffold on the other side of the creekbed.

Once this was lowered, though, they would see that the two scaffolds didn't quite meet. A keystone was required. It was in the possession of a hermit. If visitors beat the hermit at a simple puzzle game, his tinny voice would roar and he would relinquish the keystone - a triangular chunk of tubing painted gold.

They didn't actually get to handle the keystone, it was lowered by a cable from the sky and set into the bridge for them. At this point they expected a mighty army of two-dimensional pygmies to come out of the forest and zoom over the creekbed, foiling Scar's plans in a terrible cacophony. Instead, lighting flashed, and Scar came zooming the other way, out of his tower and into the forest. Visitors soon realized that they had been used by Scar, and that their adventure had only begun.

When the park had been open, attendance was high. All these plot points happened at the same time. As one walked the labyrinthine pathways between locations, one would see action from dozens of other places in the plot, all happening at once. It would be a loud, disorienting jumble that would only make sense as you visited things on your own, in their proper order.

Pondering this interesting design quirk, I woke up.