I roll over and peer at Mei in the dim morning light, hoping the bounce in her dreamspool will fix itself and I can try to get some sleep.
Sitting up with a sigh, I flick on the light and drag my toolkit out from under the bed. “Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll fix it.”
Mei blinks at me, her eyes unfocused as she bounces again and again through the final moments of her dream. Last time she bounced, she was in the massage dreamspool, and the masseuse had just reached the tight spot in her left foot, so while I was unwinding the cortical spools from behind her ear and flushing the ducts, she was writhing in my arms, a bleary smile on her face even as she asked for help.
This time it is an easier job; there is nothing wrong with the spools, just a loose dermascrew that I fix in seconds.
Mei yawns and stretches her arms overhead as she comes fully awake. “It was the old-style steak and mash. I’m still drooling.”
Dream Catchers can hold eight dreamspools; you’ve got your standard moonlit beach, mountain sunset, laughing with a group of friends, hiking in a peaceful park, singing around a campfire, and a delicious meal, among others. The steak and mash is Mei’s favorite.
“The only problem is the satiety factor,” Mei continues, climbing out of bed and shuffling into the kitchen. “Dreaming about a steak that good and waking up hungry is a nightmare.”
But, of course, it isn’t really a nightmare because those didn’t exist anymore.
“Thanks for the help, Ro. Sorry I woke you up,” she says with another yawn.
“I was already awake,” I mumble, sliding away the toolkit. I had been dreaming about my grandfather again, seeing his face, dark as oiled sand, peering out at me from my own mind. Before I can change my mind, I get out of bed and begin packing.
Mei prepares us a feast for breakfast; cooking is one of the few things she still does with something approaching passion and the synth-bacon almost tastes like actual meat. She is finished complaining about the bounce now, and I know better than to start in. To Mei, complaining about humanity’s greatest achievement is incomprehensible, just as it would have been to me before I started seeing Guman’s face in my dreams.
Nine years ago, the dreams of every person on earth stuttered to a halt and no one knew why. It was known as Oneiric Collapse and in a matter of weeks the ancient rhythm of life had come unmoored. Before OC, we woke up, lived our lives, and went to sleep to enjoy a cushion of time that wasn’t quite ours, that wasn’t quite real, and that most of us took for granted. After OC, eight hours of sleep passed in an instant and reality never stopped. Without dreams, there was no escape. People went insane quickly.
The mass suicides began in August, and before the month was out there wasn’t a country in the world that hadn’t been caught in the conflagration. When we weren’t killing ourselves, we were killing each other. Simmering geo-political tensions erupted into all-out wars, already violent conflicts spiraled out of control, and civilian atrocities became a way of life. Three months after OC, itchy trigger fingers punched buttons and mushroom clouds blossomed on two continents. The world was gripped by terror and madness and six months after OC the global death toll reached five million.
The United Nations & Corporate State Organization held an emergency summit in Cairo and vowed to commit the resources of the world to solving the problem. Oneirologists likened it to Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon that wiped out bee populations earlier in the century and left the global food supply teetering on the brink of disaster. Then synth-feed was developed and seeded in all available farmland, and while our diet has never been more monotonous at least it is reliable. They found a way to synthesize crops and eight months after OC they found a way to synthesize dreams. The Mahindra Corporation, a cyber-prosthetic manufacturer in India, announced the creation of Oneiric Simulation Sub-Cranial Devices, soon known colloquially as Dream Catchers.
After the first wave of DC implantation-trials, the world waited breathlessly for the reports. When it was announced that the trials had been a success and that dreams had been resurrected, newsfeeds showed global celebrations that lasted for weeks. According to the UNCSO Manama Accord, every person on earth was due a Dream Catcher and before the year was out every human on earth had a DC jacked into their skull.
“I think I’ll head down to Utopia today,” I say after I swallow the last of my synth-bacon.
Mei looks up at me and I feel ashamed by the mild surprise in her eyes.
“I know it’s been too long.”
“It’s good you’re going. He’ll be happy to see you.”
“What will you do while I’m gone? Paint?” I ask hopefully.
Mei laughs as if I’ve made a joke and flicks on her tablet, aiming it at the wall. As her favorite re-run begins to play, I feel myself mouthing the words of the punch lines, like a dreamspool I have seen too many times.
For a second I consider telling her everything, like I have almost every morning for the past year. I’ve been seeing Guman’s face in my dreams, I imagine saying. And my dreams…are different. I imagine the disbelief that would play across her face, before finally giving way to panic, or as close to panic as anyone can get these days. I know Mei would rush me to a med-tech office and demand an emergency DC replacement. I also know that wouldn’t help; even when DC’s malfunction, they never malfunction like this.
I bend to kiss the top of her soft blonde curls. I want to say I miss you, but I settle for goodbye.
After they announced the creation of DCs, everyone on earth was categorized to determine when they would be eligible for implantation. I was rated an R12 – non-essential sector employee, over 18, no dependents. My rating gave me an estimated wait time of 5 months before implantation and I used that time to pore over DC schematics and all the literature I could find hoping I would stay sane long enough to get my own.
Dream Catchers are beautiful – cortical wires, neocortex ports, prefrontal dampers, dream sequence filaments, the gear spirals like a galaxy in the liminal space between the brain and the skull. The spiral is an ancient shape, one that our ancestors painted on cave walls and burned onto the sides of grassy hills, and now we have woven it out of manmade fibers and laced it onto our brains.
At the bottom of the stairwell leading outside I pause and take deep swallows of air to quiet my churning stomach. Every time I go out it is getting worse. I push open the door and step into the hot winds whipping into Darwin from the Timor Sea. As I get closer to the bus depot I am swallowed by a crowd of pedestrians and we bump and jostle against one another like a school of fish, oblivious and silent. I tell myself it’s irrational, but I feel like I’m walking through a movie set and I’m the only person who knows we’re all actors. I lower my head against the wind and hurry.
At the depot I purchase a ticket for Utopia and realize with a flush of shame that it has been almost three years since I have visited my grandfather. When I was a kid, after my parents died, I was moved into a foster home north of the city. Guman visited me every month, which meant he had to beg rides from friends, barter with long-haul truckers, and walk miles in both directions. But as a kid, all I knew was that my favorite person was coming to see me and I waited beneath the eucalyptus tree in the front yard, dying for the first glimpse of his flat brimmed hat and glowing smile as he crested the rise in the road.
That first year, when all I could do was ache for my parents, I spent most of Guman’s visits in his arms crying. He always held me patiently, until he could coax a smile from me with one of the treasures he brought in his leather satchel. Sometimes it was tiny seashells or strangely shaped pebbles, but most often it was what I loved best of all, little red sweetberries. They were real, not synth-feed imitations, and they were so tart they made my toes curl. I would eat berry after berry, staining my fingers and lips, content to listen in silence while Guman sang.
He began singing to me from his first visit, songs that were as strong and pure as fresh water in the desert. Eventually, he taught me the words, the melodies and, finally, the meanings.
“These aren’t just songs,” he said one evening, as lightning bugs flashed lazy messages along the edge of the yard. “These are songlines and they’re the maps of the Yonglu.” He poked a finger at my chest and then at his own. “That’s us, my kid.”
I laughed, thinking he was teasing me as he often did, and my mouth felt slow and sticky with sweetberry juice. “How can a song be a map?”
“When you listen to the words and they tell you where to go, that’s how,” Guman explained. “If you know your land, the songs can take you anywhere you need. The words can even guide you over great distances. If we sing these songs, my kid, we remember who we are and we are never lost.”
I find an empty seat in the depot’s cavernous waiting room, drop my bag to my feet, and scan the screens that cover every surface. They are flashing decade old re-runs peppered with advertisements for programs and films that never came out. The only new footage these days are the newsfeeds, which are mainly just weather reports highlighting the extreme climatic events that have become commonplace. The screen closest to me is showing a report on the North American brown bear. After years of relentless drought and heat waves, the species has finally succumbed to extinction, joining their arctic brethren who disappeared three decades ago.
None of the people watching this particular screen make a sound. Some yawn and look away. Others drift toward the café-machines, to deliberate between one type of reconstituted synth-meal and another.
After the world was jacked, this unexpected phenomenon, soon known as the Stabilizing Effect, moved across our minds like a low-pressure weather system. Weeks after global implantation, things went silent. People don’t talk much anymore, birthrates have fallen, and, most remarkably, a blanket of peace has descended over the world. Decades old wars, the most brutal conflicts, all evaporated. There were no peace summits or iron-clad treaties, people simply drifted away from the front lines, losing interest and vehemence in equal measure.
At first, we were so overjoyed with this new age of Pax Universalis that we didn’t notice the other results of The Stabilizing Effect; we listen to old music, watch old films, and read the same books over and over again, because nothing new is ever produced. Art is now viewed with a curious detachment, like a vaguely interesting relic from a bygone era. DCs have slashed and burned the unpredictable vegetation of our psyches to the ground and seeded our mindscapes with synthetic dreams that sprout in orderly, regimented fashion. The great dark forest inside our souls has been turned into farmland, and life carries on.
Mei and I met just before the OC at one of her gallery openings. This blonde creature rushed up to my friends and me as soon as we entered the gallery, all kinetic smile and bawdy laugh, and I think I was in love by the time she introduced herself. She moved in with me soon after and filled the corner of our bedroom with canvases and a forest of spiky paintbrushes and I used to spend evenings in bed, a devout audience of one, watching her paint as the light seeped from the sky.
After OC, Mei stopped painting and she never seemed to mind. Neither did I. Not until this year.
There is movement at one end of the depot and I see the bus to Utopia has arrived. I file onto the carriage, surrounded by the vacant faces of my fellow passengers. I’m trying not to think too far ahead, I don’t want to lose the momentum it has taken nearly a year for me to gain. I feel like a child running to their parent, blindly trusting that somehow they will make everything better.
For years my DC worked perfectly. My dreams were reliable and banal. I sat on the moonlit beach, I watched the mountain sunset, and I laughed with faceless friends that didn’t exist in my waking life. The dreamspools always worked, until one night they didn’t. I don’t mean they bounced or shorted or fragged, nothing like that. Those were standard deviations and easily fixed. This was unlike anything I’d ever heard about.
It was the moonlit beach. I was always happy when this spool came up because the rendering was not half bad. The yellow moon hung overhead in an indigo sky and I sat watching the gentle waves; it was all unfolding exactly as it always did.
Until I wasn’t alone anymore. At first I just sensed a presence, so I got up and began walking along the beach, pushing the parameters of allowable experience until the dream buffeted me backward. In old-style dream logic I realized the figure was to my right, in the foliage flanking the shore, the face barely noticeable, darker than the shadows and utterly still.
“Guman?” I asked, as the dream fragged and I woke up.
The next day, I went to a med-tech office and explained the vision to the doctor.
“A face? In the moonlit beach spool?” The doctor, a pale man with peach fuzz on his upper lip, looked baffled. “Did you buy a knock-off ‘spool, maybe? They can be dangerous, you know, fungal blooms, frayed circuits.”
I shook my head. “This wasn’t a knock-off. Government issue spool 43A.”
He checked my gear, praising the cleanliness of my ducts as he keyed in the diagnostic code to my display panel.
“Everything seems to be in working order, Mx. Arrolealis. I wouldn’t be too concerned if I were you.” He smiled at me like I was a naughty child. “I suspect what you experienced was just a particularly vivid day-dream. A simple case of imagination run amok.” He closed my file on his tablet and opened the door, ready for the next patient.
Once Guman appeared, everything else about my dreams began to change, too. Even when he wasn’t present, there were constant deviations from the script I’d dreamed for the past eight years. The ocean in the moonlit beach was choppy with rough waves. The walk through the peaceful park was a torment of mud and hail. The laughter with friends spool became crying, and then kissing, and then a frenzy of faceless sex. When I woke from that one, I reached for Mei, unable to remember the last time I’d felt such urgency. After that, the spools unwound completely, and I was adrift in pure wild-dream for the first time in almost a decade. It was like being in free-fall in my own subconscious and I never wanted it to end.
But it did, every morning, when I woke up to find that nothing else had changed. The world shuffled on beneath its synthetic caul and I wondered if I was going crazy.
I tried to talk about it with Mei, my voice stumbling to explain the feeling that I’d woken up and noticed the sun for the first time. She was confused and then worried. She told me I was making her tired and she needed to sleep. When she woke up she never mentioned it again so neither did I.
I ride the bus for 23 hours, first through the endless stretch of suburbs that ring Darwin, then through a vastness of empty countryside. Red clouds of dust billow from the side of the road and I watch them dissipate into the bleached bone sky until it stains my vision orange. It hasn’t rained here in months, and isn’t expected to anytime soon.
It was another consequence of the Stabilizing Effect, an unintended side-effect of an unintended side-effect. In the years immediately preceding the OC, the world had started to address what had long been considered a lost cause and great strides were finally made to avert the impending ecocide. CO2 levels were brought down, critically endangered ecosystems were coaxed into equilibrium, and the people of Beijing, Bombay, and Los Angeles, saw stars for the first time in decades.
On my last visit to Guman before the OC, we were sitting outside his little house, admiring the wild tangle of his non-synth vegetable garden, planted with exceedingly rare wild seeds, and discussing the announcement we had just seen on the newsfeed. The Great Barrier Reef, long thought to be a completely dead 2,300-kilometer testament to humankind’s failure, was exhibiting signs of life. Great green swathes of Porites coral surrounded by clouds of fish had been spotted, news of which startled experts and fed the growing hope shared by the rest of us; perhaps we hadn’t doomed the planet, after all.
“I didn’t think I’d live to see this day, my kid,” Guman said, plucking a bright red sweetberry from the plant at his feet and popping it into his mouth. “It just goes to show you, there’s always hope.”
But after global DC implantation, that budding impetus shriveled and died, unrealized and incomplete. We turned away from the fight, all of us. We watched the reports that came more frequently over the years, as the carbon emissions once again soared, as rising seawaters gradually submerged coastlines, and as ecosystems collapsed one after the other. We watch the reports, we nod to one another, and we turn away to hide in manufactured fantasy while the world burns.
I know of precisely one human being that isn’t hiding in synth dreams, one human that was never implanted; Guman. I visited him soon after my implantation, when it first started to seem like humanity might actually survive the OC. I’d been geared up for six weeks and was still swimming through a cloud of giddy relief. Guman met me on the tarmac of the bus depot, where he pulled me down for a kiss and then looked up at the fading pink scar beneath my left ear.
“Ah, my kid. Full-on cyborg now, yeah?”
I laughed incredulously. “Of course. Like every other human being.”
He gave me a wink and lifted the brim of his flat-billed hat to expose the DC-free peppercorn curls behind his left ear.
I was stunned. “Guman, hasn’t your number come up? They said everyone in the NT had been implanted. Why didn’t you tell me you needed help getting registered?”
He waved me away and turned to begin the walk to his house, but I pressed on, horrified.
“We need to go right now to a med-tech office, this is unacceptable,” I said, hurrying after him. “We have to make a complaint. You should have had a DC by now!” I was furious for a few more moments until I realized he was smiling.
I stopped and let him walk on as the realization washed over me. “You didn’t register, did you? Guman, why? What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking,” he began, as I caught up to him, “that I couldn’t handle having a computer for a brain.”
Words tumbled out of me in disarray. “It’s not like that, it’s a relief. Your dreams come back. Aren’t you going mad without them?”
“No more than I was before,” he answered with a laugh.
A disorienting sense of unease unwound in my chest as I imagined life without a DC, remembering the dark, endless months before I was implanted. “You can’t do this, Guman. People can’t survive without gear.”
Guman didn’t respond and we walked on into the setting sun. I struggle now to recall any other memories from that visit, it is all clouded over by the horror of what Guman had done.
I used to visit him several times a year, but since that first post-DC visit 9 years ago, I have only gone to see him twice. Guman never got a rig; he was the only person I heard of to have survived without implantation, and the thought of his life of seamless awake was simply too much for me. I eventually stopped visiting him, I tried to not even think about him, until he appeared in my dreams and unraveled my world.
When I disembark at the Utopia depot, night has fallen. I turn off the main road and head down the hard packed dirt path toward Guman’s house. He has no tablet so I haven’t been able to let him know I am visiting and I hope I will find him at home. I end up finding him outside, where he is sitting on a wooden bench next to his front door and I almost don’t see him from behind the tall twists of plants in his garden.
He stands up slowly and I am silenced by the sight of him. Guman has been old as long as I’ve known him, but now he is ancient and withered, a small pillar of a person, like a desiccated termite mound baked frail in the heat. But his smile still glows like the rising sun and he puts his hands to my face and kisses me. “My kid, my kid, it is good to see you.”
He holds me close for a long moment as I begin to cry. Anyone else in the world would be astonished to see my tears, but not Guman, and they flow without comment. Long minutes pass before he leans back, wipes the tears from my cheek and takes me by the hand. We turn away from his house and the dim lights of town, and begin walking into the bush. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, fat baobab trees melt out of the shadows and we drop into a dry riverbed, turning to follow its winding track.
We walk for a time in silence and I let the darkness soothe the ache in my throat until I trust myself to speak. “Guman, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I stayed gone for so long.”
“No apologies needed, my kid.”
“It was wrong,” I say to his back. “I can’t believe I let so much time pass.”
Guman waves a hand over his shoulder. “I told you, no apologies needed. You were having a hard time, you did what you needed to do.”
In the distance I hear the swirling cry of the willarroo, something I haven’t heard since I was a child. The stars shimmer overhead and make the night sky feel very close and very large, all at once. I can hear Guman breathing ahead of me and I feel safe.
“I’ve missed you, Guman.”
He glances back at me over his shoulder, “Missed me? Haven’t we seen each other almost every night, my kid?”
He reaches out and takes my hand and we walk on together in silence. The night hangs like a mantel of velvet from the stars overhead, and as the moon climbs higher in the sky, following its own path through the night, Guman begins to sing.
“I Rise up and begin
Begin with the earth
Flat trail of sun under my feet
I Rise up and begin”
I look down and see that Guman has led us onto a rust-red wrinkle of earth that glows like a dim sun in the darkness and winds like a subterranean snake. He continues singing and his voice is as deep and wide as ocean current, filling the night with his words.
It is a songline, one Guman taught me so many years ago. And it is, of course, the path we are following.
“Waves of land, moving stone
I walk on the water of the earth
I swim on the waves of the earth”
The path we are on begins to change, small hummocks of earth bubble beneath our feet, miniature peaks and valleys, and we roll over them like earthbound ships.
“We walk through the valleys of darkness and day
We dream ourselves awake”
Guman looks back at me, and for a single disorienting moment I think I can feel the earth spin on its axis beneath my feet. The faint smell of wood-smoke, salt, and honey fill the air, and somehow I know we have entered Guman’s dreamscape. I wait for this to feel strange or impossible, but the feeling never comes.
“The path grows dark
We meet ourselves now
We rise up and begin”
Awareness. A figure stands to our right. Guman and I stop and turn to face the shadow among shadows, a man alone in a vast landscape. It is Guman, another Guman, surrounded by a forest that is as tall as it is wide; it circles the earth and is filled with all creation. A shadow moves across the sky and darkness falls over the forest, which I now realize is the dreamscape, the wild-dreams of all humanity. The shadow eats away at the trees, ripping the foliage from branches, and Guman watches while the dreamscape is devoured, receding in all directions, before fading into the distance and vanishing entirely. He is now an island, exposed and adrift in a lifeless seabed. I turn to face the Guman standing next to me and I see he has already begun walking on.
“I cross water first
I cross water again
I rise up and begin”
I smell water, clear as daylight in the dry air. We cross a stream and then another and our feet carry halos of moisture into the dry dirt of the path.
Guman stops in front of me and raises an arm, pointing through the darkness to a figure standing in a grove of thorn trees. It is Guman again and he is walking, following a trail, searching for something, waiting for it to speak to him. I begin to understand he is tracking his lost dreams through the wasteland of his own mind, following memories so faint they are nothing more than spores carried on the wind.
This Guman kneels and begins to dig in the dusty earth. Then, he lifts something from the ground and holds it up to the moonlight where it catches the light like a pearl before he places it reverently into his satchel. Dreamseed.
I see Guman walking his dreamscape for years, the only person awake in a world of artificial dreams, on a quest for something no one remembers. His bent figure shuffles through the wasteland, waiting months and even years between each discovery. With a tremor of agony, I realize that Guman never planted a single dreamseed for himself; he never again dreamed. He hoarded the seeds, sacrificing his own mind to shield them from the darkness.
I turn to the Guman standing next to me and he opens the satchel at his hip. I peer inside and begin to cry; his seed vault, his great collection, is so small, there are so few. He lifts the satchel over his head and hands it to me. Wordlessly, I place it around my neck and feel it fall to my hip, where the dreamseeds rustle softly in their dark womb.
“I planted one in you, last year,” he says. “And one was all it took. Some may need more. You’ll learn how to judge soon enough, my kid.”
He turns and we walk on, singing together now.
“The earth brings me to shelter
Together we begin.”
The path leads us beneath the overhanging lip of a gorge, and as we walk, I catch the faint smell of sweetberries in the air, and salt water, and, faint as a sigh, the acrid tang of Mei’s paint; we have crossed into my dreamscape and I am singing louder now. Guman’s voice has fallen to a whisper, but I know the song, he taught me well and I can sing for us both.
We come to a thick grove of wild vegetation and I know it is where Guman planted that first dreamseed in my mind. I recognize the plant that sprouted from that seed, standing tall and gnarled in the center of the copse, while other plants radiate out from it in a gentle spiral shape. From that one seed, these plants have grown and I move through them slowly, collecting as many seeds as I can find.
I can see Guman’s plan unfolding on the horizon and taking shape against the night sky. He intends for me to use these dreamseeds to rewild humankind’s mind and I feel humbled and exhilarated and mad with hope. I think of what this will mean to the world, the return of passion, of art, of laughter, of one last chance to save the planet and ourselves.
Then I feel a rough current of fear as I think of resurrecting not just wild-dreams, but also what we have come to know as their dark siblings, violence, pain, and war. I turn back to Guman and he looks at me for a long moment, his tired eyes intent on my own, until the fear ebbs and only its echo remains as a warning. I know I will plant these seeds and I know I will share these songs, these paths, this knowing, this dreaming. They are all intertwined and the one is inseparable from the other. It is time for us to become fully human, earth-animals dreaming ourselves awake.
I turn and lead the way up the gorge. Guman has stopped singing but I am not afraid because I know this song and I know where it leads.
“I rise up and begin
Awake with dreaming
I climb through the night until dawn
I rise up and begin”
When I wake, I’m standing at the top of the gorge, watching the sunrise melt the blue shadows on the rock, my satchel of dreamseeds hanging at my side. I am alone and I know I won’t see Guman again. I turn and begin the walk back to Utopia, to the bus depot, Darwin, and home.
I began with Mei. For weeks, I sang myself into her dreams and waited in spool after spool, mountain sunset, moonlit beach, steak and mash, waiting for her to notice me. It started with a look, confusion in her dark eyes. She approached my figure as I crouched in the foliage of the moonlit beach and reached for me. I let her feel what I was feeling; I helped her dream what I was dreaming, and to my surprise she accepted immediately. We planted a dreamseed into the soil of her dreamscape, singing together, slowly at first as I taught her the words and then with full-throated shouts of joy. It took her mind several tries to shrug off the DC’s hold, but when it did, when she was free, it was spectacular. The thorny undergrowth that had slept dormant for so long leapt forth in a great quaking explosion; it was beauty and pain all at once.
And then we reveled, running through her dreams like children let out after too long inside. We climbed trees in the peaceful park, skinning our knees bloody on their rough bark. We chased each other, tumbling like laughing goats down the scree of the sunset mountains. We moved together as one on the shore of the moonlit beach, urgent ecstasy beneath indigo sky. And then we left the dreamspools entirely and spiraled through her wild-dreams, lost and awake and rejoicing. Like the art she made that first morning after waking from a wild-dream filled sleep; it was vivid, textured, and vulgar, thick red paint dripping off taut canvas. It was a terrible, human kind of beauty.