At first I was just walking around, enjoying the scene. Then I was trying to evade a group of people, chasing after me. They were law enforcement. I wasn't guilty of any crime except being a stranger, but that made me dangerous, and I knew they would imprison me - or maybe deport me - if they caught up. As I ran from street to street I noticed that the buildings were getting taller, more modern and industrial looking. This was no longer a quaint seaside town, this was a major port city with a huge population and many things going on.
I looked up, over the roofs of the buildings, and saw the side of a gigantic steel tower rising into the sky. It was so tall that it appeared to bend forward until it was hanging over me in space. Clouds wrapped casually around it. Near the base, it spread out into four huge legs, like the Eiffel tower. I couldn't see where they contacted the ground, since that was obscured by distant buildings. "That's the spaceport," I thought to myself.
I stood there, watching. Now I could see the base. The tower was standing in the ocean, about a mile offshore. I could see cargo ships slowly approaching it. Halfway up the tower, I saw the gray metal pinch slowly inward, as though the whole structure were dividing into two pieces. The pinch narrowed to nothing and a huge ball of water began to grow at its center, slowly pushing the upper half of the tower away from the lower half, higher into the atmosphere. I tried to think of the incredible energy involved in what I was seeing but couldn't really comprehend it.
The ball of water elongated upward into a column, stuck between the two metal columns of the tower. Then it reached some kind of maximum length, and the tower stopped growing. The upper half began to wiggle up and down, very slowly, moving a little father each time, and soon the whole steel column was bouncing on the column of water just below it, like a trampoline. A few more gigantic impacts, a few more rebounds with the column of water stretching back up, and then - the upper half of the tower simply left the atmosphere. It bounced up and kept going, and was gone.
Then only a few moments later, a different metal column, just as huge as the first, came plunging down out of the sky and landed on the column of water, compressing it down, down, until the water compressed into nothing and the new column met with the lower half of the tower. The two pieces instantly un-pinched and became a single unbroken tower, just like what I'd seen before.
"That is some amazing technology," I thought. "I have to get a closer look."
I threaded my way around the buildings, trying to get closer. It helped that I could always see the tower above me. The streets changed from dirt to pavement, and crowds of people appeared, going on errands. The city looked like San Francisco now. Ahead of me I saw the steel column rising into the sky, but there was something different about the perspective. I came to an intersection and straight ahead of me I saw the base of the tower.
It was about ten feet wide, and sitting on a square trailer about the size of a dumptruck. The four knobby tires of the trailer were resting on a patch of pavement in the middle of the busy street, with cars and people zipping around it on all sides. Trash and weeds, and tiny pieces of sparkling automobile glass, were scattered casually around like the no-man's-land at the shoulder of a busy commute highway.
I waited for a gap in the traffic, and ran out to the middle of the street, and stood under the base of the thing, looking up at the underside of the trailer. It was made of black metal with cylindrical shapes and heavy wires bulging all over it, and it thrummed with some kind of powerful energy. Some of the cylinders had glowing red rings around them. I scrutinized it, trying to remember the design and the character of the thing. I thought: "When I wake up, perhaps I can draw a picture of this and it will give me some clue into what the technology of the future will be... But dangit, it's so complicated. I'll never remember it all!"
Then I realized my pursuers were catching up with me.
I ran across the other half of the street, and down a path that sloped gently towards a dirt road, following the shoreline. There were houses lining the side of the road facing the ocean, made of rough wood and built on precarious looking stilts, which in turn rested on rough pilings jutting out of the water. The ocean was calm here, and it looked like it stank of seaweed and fish, though once again I couldn't actually smell anything.
I walked along the road for a while and noticed a particular building that was taller than the others, and had a lot of antennas and little microwave radio dishes mounted on its roof. A couple of ramps ran from street level up to solid-looking doors on either side. This was an important building, probably guarded by many police. There was something inside that they didn't want me to see.
I meandered to the shoulder of the road and walked downhill, towards the water, passing beneath one of the ramps along the wall of the building. Dang, there were security cameras here. Lots of them, actually, with dangerous-looking gun barrels and lasers sticking out of them. I was probably already being recorded from several angles, and if I made the wrong move they would open fire. "Well I'm not going to put up with this!" I began running and dodging, moving irregularly. The cameras tried to track me but couldn't. I sprinted up one of the ramps, across a back porch - more locked doors - and down the ramp on the other side. As I ran I bent down and picked up a rock about the size of a shoe, covered on one side by purple quartz crystals. It looked just like a rock my father collected many years ago. When I was back on the street, I turned around mid-stride and hurled the rock back at the building, trying to strike one of the cameras. I was off by a few feet but I hit some kind of decorative statue that was anchored to the wall, and it shattered, and made a zapping noise. Turns out it was full of electronics.
"That's going to get their attention for sure," I thought, and put my head down and ran as hard as I could for a while. When I looked up again I was running along a wide cement causeway, attached to the wall of a gigantic room. Below me and in the distance I could see smaller buildings built inside this room. People were walking all around me. Was this a giant shopping mall? Or a party in a giant cave? The surroundings weren't distinct enough to know. I looked behind me... And there were four policemen, in blue uniforms with brass buttons, only ten yards away and sprinting to catch up. Time to deploy my secret weapon!
I planted my feet and skidded to a stop, spun around, and held open the right side of my leather jacket. The device inside the lining activated, and all four cops were bathed in an invisible energy field, causing their bodies to go limp. They fell down and rolled into an awkward pile just in front of me. Hah! I bent down and searched the pockets of the nearest uniform, and came up with a small brown lump of plastic shaped vaguely like a handgun. I wasn't sure what it did, but it was probably dangerous. Perhaps the cops would approach more cautiously now that they knew I was armed.
There was a passageway cut into the brown wall of the cave, about eight feet tall. The walls were warped and irregular, as though it had been melted into existence. I could see artificial light coming around the bend. It looked interesting, so I ran in that direction.
My friend and I ran along the passage. I don't remember where we met. He was my height, with a blond goatee and sideburns and a shaved head, wearing a denim and leather 80's punk outfit with rips and metal spikes in it. His doc martens struck the ground heavily. The pursuers were hot on our trail, again, and despite making random choices at several dozen forks in the passageway, we couldn't shake them off.
We spotted a door in the wall ahead, and as we pulled up I yanked it open. It was a room about the size of a gymnasium, with gently sloping walls, and it was packed with people, mostly college-age, milling around in the open space. A raised walkway was built along three of the walls, and a huge plexiglass partition built into the fourth wall, opposite from us. Was this some kind of prison exercise area? No, wait... These were students... This was a campus rec room. On the other side of the plexiglass we saw more students, standing in long lines waiting to collect food onto trays. A cafeteria.
My friend and I dodged through the doorway and slammed it shut. Then we climbed over the railing of the walkway, and half shoved, half crowd-surfed our way across the packed quad, towards the plexiglass. At the last moment the crowd threw us into the air and over the partition. I sprawled across the checkout counter, with my face over the edge and buried in a heap of Hostess-brand cupcake and donut packages piled in a basket. The woman at the register - looking vaguely like a nurse in her white uniform and hat - gave me a bored look. Just another customer.
I turned my head, crinkling the packages around me. "I remember when I used to eat these every weekday," I thought. "I would bum change off my friends, and eat the cupcakes from the bottom up, saving the frosting for last, and dunk each waxy donut individually in the cardboard single-serve milk cartons. So delicious... Too bad I can't eat any of these now, with this damn wheat protein issue."
"Hey," I said aloud to the cashier. "I don't suppose you have any gluten free stuff like this?"
"No," she said. "But check this out." She picked up a long paper package from the floor and turned it upside-down. A loaf of french bread sailed out and thumped onto the counter. Then she punched it, very hard, with her fist. Crack! It broke into three parts, with the smallest part trapped under her first. She picked it up and handed it to me.
Before I could take a bite, the crowd surged behind me, and shoved me and my friend out through the cafeteria doors and onto a wooden porch, where students were eating at tables and enjoying the fine weather.
We were wandering in a shadowy forest. The tree trunks were skinny and straight but the canopy above my head was so thick that I could barely see the sky, and the ground was slick and lumpy with leaf litter and loose rocks. Animal paths crisscrossed in the gloom, providing more solid footing, but they bent awkwardly around tree stumps and doubled back to follow the strange contours of the land. There was a general downhill slope to the right, and in the distance between the sandwich of dark formed by the canopy and the ground I could see a coastline, and the glowing blue of the sea only a half-mile away. If I could manage to walk in a straight line I might get there, but the animal trails worked against me, and soon I noticed that there was something very wrong with the geography of this place.
Ahead of me, one of the trails passed between a pair of trees and then sloped sharply down. But outside the pair - to the left and right - the hillside continued onward unchanged. I looked around and realized that this sort of thing was happening in every direction. The ground between every pair of trees had a slightly different horizon line. As I walked, the change in horizon stayed constant between the pairs, even as my changing perspective brought a new swath of ground into view between them. It was like I was standing in the middle of a thousand different forests, all tilted on a different axis, cut into vertical ribbons and spliced together at the exact place I was standing, with the tree trunks defining the border of each ribbon.
I turned to my companion and said to him, "We need to be careful. This is the subconscious realm. In fact, I think it's two subconscious realms. Yours and mine. We need to let our instincts guide us or we'll be lost in here forever."
The man made a pensive expression and nodded. His eyes were alert and curious. I really liked this guy's attitude - he was flexible and observant, ready for anything, but also big-hearted and protective of his friends. Or maybe I was just reading that into him, based on his punk-style outfit. What I did know was that we communicated well, which was important for a journey this dangerous. Perhaps our shared wavelength was actually the whole reason we could even be on this journey. Two subconscious realms - the dark forest, which was mine, and the seashore, which was his - woven and tangled together into a labyrinth that we needed to solve.
We walked down one of the sloping paths, making sure we both threaded between the same trees so we didn't walk off into separate dimensions of forest. Eventually all the skewed horizons leveled out, and the trees grew thicker and the canopy darker. There was no sky at all now.
At a bend in the trail we passed by a riverbed, dry except for a faint trickle of water six or seven feet down. On the other side, half-obscured by twisting black branches, was a decrepit brick building with a huge clock face built into it. The mechanism inside the clock was damaged in some way. As we passed near the building, we heard a hammer strike a bell inside the clock, but it produced more of a clanking sound than the usual chime. THUNK. The sound repeated, once a second. THUNK... THUNK... Then twice a second, then three times, then as we kept walking and left the building behind us, the sounds merged into a continuous rattle like a chainsaw, before fading into the background.
"I wonder if that's somebody's alarm clock in real life?" I thought. "It can't be mine... I don't own one. And if it was my phone, it would be quacking at me instead."
As I imagined the sound in my mind, I felt the slow churning of the sensation that tells me I'm waking up. But I didn't want that, so I focused instead on the trees and the path. The sensation passed.
The path dissolved into the forest floor, and the tree trunks became scarce, even though the canopy above was still solid black. Ahead of me I saw rows and rows of movie theatre seats, each row leaning slightly askew of its neighbors in a way that would have really annoyed any audience trying to actually use them. The rows formed a rough square of seats. Beyond that square, I could see other squares of seats, facing in other directions. Where were the movie screens?
I approached a square of seats with an aisle in the middle. Looking up the aisle, I saw an enormous flat-screen television. Not the modern kind, but the big projection kind, with the huge bloated backside and the fuzzy picture. It was ten feet tall. Between it and the seats was a huge pane of scratched-up plastic, like a post-apocalyptic screen protector. Whatever audience usually sat here was obviously very rowdy. In a way, the mere presence of the plastic invited abuse. I had an old screwdriver in my pocket. I pulled it out and hurled it at the television, making a star-pattern of cracks about a foot wide in the plastic. Yes, very satisfying.
The television screen changed, from the indistinct fog it was slowing before, to a movie trailer. Scratched lines tumbled up the image, making it obvious that the trailer had been transferred from old projector film.
On the screen, pale-skinned women, all nude or topless, were cavorting in a swimming pool. There was a net strung across part of the pool, and every now and then, a volleyball would come sailing in from outside the frame and one of the women would leap into the air, spraying water everywhere, then arch her back and smack the volleyball towards the net ... with her breasts. Other women would then go scrambling to hit the ball back over the net, the same way. There was no explanatory voiceover to make sense of this.
"What the hell? This was a movie?" I thought.
There were credits appearing in the corners of the frame, identifying the director, the producer, etc., but they were too fuzzy to read. After a minute or so, the trailer ended. The screen went back to indistinct fog. I turned away from it and noticed that a big square door had opened in the wall nearby, so I walked through it.
My friend and I walked forward, out of the trees, and emerged at the seashore. "I remember this!" announced my friend. "This is mine! Let me show you around."
I followed him as we walked across an open patch of sand, intermixed with chunks of wave-beaten rock and coral, fragments of shells, and dried seaweed. There was a line of boulders between us and the water, and I could hear waves slapping lazily at the other side. One of the boulders had a huge hole eroded straight through it, forming a pleasant arch. We walked under the arch and beyond, along a spit of flattened rock leading out over the water, just a few inches above the surface. Looking around, I could see the shoreline weaving irregularly away to my left and right, forming other coves and inlets. Farther out I could see a scattering of little islands, and beyond them, another large land mass with a city spread across its slope like a shining band in the bright afternoon sun. The spit of rock ended in a bulge, and I stopped walking and stood on it next to my friend.
"This is where we used to meet," he said, looking wistful. "We would play together all the time, when I was a kid."
In my mind I could see it. My punk friend, a younger version of himself, waiting out here on the rock. He looks up and sees an emerald green fish-tail flickering in the water. He smiles. Soon a young woman - the same age as him - drifts up gracefully from under a wave and slides sideways as the wave crashes, carrying herself to a sitting position next to him in one practiced movement. Her hair covers most of her back, shining like spun glass. She's wearing a swimsuit top with decorative trinkets, collected from the ocean floor, folded into the straps and sewn into the lining. The image is incredibly clear, like I am seeing his own memory. A real mermaid? Or perhaps his imaginary friend, developed into fine detail by endless repetition.
I break from the memory and my friend and I begin walking back up the peninsula of rock, toward the shore. I pause, bend down, and run my hand along the rock. What strange material. It appears to be solid rock with seashells embedded directly in it, like fossils. I can feel ridges, as though it was eroded by a glacier, or perhaps carved flat by some gigantic machine.
We are running from the pursuit again. They haven't given up, but they're not as threatening as they were, because now my friend and I know how to dodge and turn in the labyrinth to put massive distance between ourselves and them. We don't have to run very often.
We walk into a restaurant. Light-brown varnished wood forms the ceiling, walls, floor, and a long countertop along the left-hand wall. A couple of attendants work busily behind it. Round wooden tables of varying size are placed here and there in the room. The right-hand wall is a series of iron-and-glass windows, admitting a terrific amount of clear late-afternoon sunlight. The varnish practically glows.
This place looks lovely. My punk friend and I agree to hang out here for a while. He walks over to the bar and sits on a stool next to three other people also dressed as punks. I realize that the whole restaurant is filled with friends of ours. Not necessarily people we know, but people we would instantly like once we met them.
"But wait, something's missing," I think. "Some people are missing."
In a few seconds I figure it out: "Hah! I can't forget all my freaks!"
A section of wooden wall opens near the bar, revealing a group of people, standing close together. They step into the room and I realize it's the beginning of a long, compressed line of people, extending far down into a hallway. They all need to come in and make themselves at home.
I smile as the line move slowly along. They're all shapes and sizes, but mostly wearing black clothing, in leather and denim and silk, with neon and silver accents - belt buckles, dyed hair, jewelry. Their shirts have occult symbols or pictures of beloved album covers from industrial and punk bands. They carry books, notebooks, musical instruments, laptops, and other creative instruments under their arms, and as they enter the room they begin talking animatedly, finding open seats and gathering at the tables and the bar, beginning sketches of diagrams or maps or portraits, or typing code or essays into laptops. Almost everyone is working on something creative, and collaborating with someone else.
It's glorious. "This is the place," I think. "Now that we know the labyrinth, we can go anywhere, but I think this is the place we'll be coming back to over and over."
With this knowledge settled in my mind, I start to wake up.
"No, wait," I think. "This isn't right. When I wake up all this will be gone. I need to warn everybody; or at least say goodbye..."
I walk up to my friend the punk, and clap a hand on his shoulder. He turns to me, smiling. I see that the cloth of his jacket and the arm of the shirt beneath it looks mottled, as though it was sprayed with bleach. "It's happening already," I think.
I compose myself, look directly at him - for the first time I notice that his eyes are a startling bright yellow color - and say, "I have some really bad news."
He looks worried. I push on: "You weren't designed to last any longer than this dream. When I wake up, you will die. In fact, everyone here is going to die. Everyone. It's going to happen soon and there's no way I can't stop it."
Tears come to my eyes. I feel a mixture of horror and guilt, knowing that the mechanism of all this death is inside myself, a part of me. "I'm sorry," I say. "I'm really sorry."
My friend's face is frozen for a while, as he tries to process the news. His eyes flick down, then back up at me. He smiles, and puts his hand on my shoulder, completing the circuit. My feelings of guilt and panic are so strong that the whole dream lurches around me, and I nearly wake up, but I fight it back down like bile.
I let go of my friend's shoulder, crying openly now, and begin running around the restaurant, and out onto the porch, taking hands, touching everyone I can in some way. "I'm sorry," I say. And, "thank you. Thank you," over and over. "I wish I could save you. All of your - any of you." There are more people ahead of me, down the walkway leading to the pier. So many people, all of them friends, all of them at the center of this world about to vanish. I trip on the rough edge of a plank and go down hard onto my hands, my vision blurred. The dream lurches again. I stand up stiffly and began to run toward the next cluster of people. I can't quite see them now. "Thank you for helping me, thank you for your hard work..."
My alarm rings.