There was something on my mind a moment ago, but the thought has vanished.
Strings of multicolored pennants snap at the air above my head. I’m standing in the crowd in the middle of an open-air market. Behind the tin roofs, I can see the points of the snow-capped mountains that surround us. They’re close in the clear air, just a few steps beyond the edge of the market.
I scan the stalls, trying to remember what I was going to buy. I was definitely here for some reason. I pat my pockets, trying to find something amiss. Was I hungry? Needed a part for something? I turn and look behind me, trying to figure out the way I came.
One person brushes past me and I feel them take my wallet. I grab their arm a moment too late, and they twist free and sprint into the crowd. All thought of my present situation lost, I tear after them, pushing through the space they leave behind.
The thief turns right, darts into a narrow tarp-covered gap between two stalls. For a moment our pursuit is quiet and blue. The noise of the market is muffled here. We pass behind a food stall, sun-shafts through holes in the tarp flashing by in the steam. I try to keep my footing on the wet floor.
Ahead, they leave the alley and plunge back into the crowd. I exit the blue alley and the sunlight blinds me, so I stumble and fall. The thief is gone when I scramble upright.
I wait a moment and seek higher ground via a stack of crates and the roof of an unused stall. A flutter of dark material in an alley catches my eye but I stand, panting, and watch the thief pull away.
The wallet has my cards, my passports, my vital papers. It becomes clearer in my mind as I dwell on it. The wallet itself is artisanal; expensive leather worked by a close friend of mine for a large amount of money. The wallet has an emotionally significant symbol etched onto the front, an emblem of a close experience I shared with the friend who made it. To let it go would be dangerous and expensive and humiliating, and my body strains to continue the chase.
I remain still. I don’t know why I’m frozen until the two-step mantra rises.
To escape the dreamer, remain clear-minded and see your death.
I’m clear-minded now, having released my connection to the tether, but something is missing. I don’t see anything in the market that could be my death. Fabrics, trinkets, electronics….
An icy metal railing catches the sun at the end of an aisle. A battered yellow sign warns people away from the edge. I focus, imagine myself leaning over the railing. Looking at the blue-shadowed glacial valley below the mountain, outcroppings of rock drawing my eye down, down. The ice on the railing melting under my hands. My hip bones on the railing as I lurch forwards, fingers slipping—
My stomach jolts and I snap out of the vision. Sweat beads on my brow, unnaturally warm for the winter, because of course it isn’t really winter—
And I snapped out of the vision again, into the real world. Out of the icy market and into my sleeping bag in my tent in the desert.
I sat up and drew in a long, shuddering gasp, hand already reaching behind me for the dreamer that had fallen with one tendril still on my neck and the others lying limp in the polyester fabrics.
“d,” I said.
I cleared my throat.
“DREAMERS!” I yelled.
I yanked my bare feet out of the sleeping bag and into the boots, flailed around on the floor of the tent for other dreamers (none), unzipped the tent, stopped!
I pushed my hand against the roof of the tent. There was a dreamer sitting above the flap. I slapped it sideways, through the fabric, and heard it flop onto the ground. Then I crawled out, dragging the one that was in there with me out onto the dirt, where I stomped it into mush.
This all happened in pitch-blackness. I had shuffled back to my tent and started on the second dreamer when the lights came on. The camp came alive with groaning and muttering.
“I got two!” I yelled to nobody in particular.
Flashlights scanned the ground inside the circle of tents, then around the perimeter. There was a thud and a muffled squish. “Got one!” yelled Mandela.
“Nothing here!” came another report, this one from Poke.
“Nothing!” yelled Star.
“All clear, I think,” said Koda.
“Okay!” I yelled, and sighed. There was silence while we reassembled.
“It’s 5:30,” said Poke, and looked at us. We all looked at the sky that was beginning to lighten.
“I’ll start the coffee,” said Poke.
Ten minutes later, we were sitting around the half-buried ashes of last night’s fire. Poke made the best coffee in what was left of the world. I savored it, rolled each grainy sip around my mouth. It was old trail coffee, but well-preserved. Low acidity, and Poke never burned it, regardless of how rough the previous night had been.
I was still in the post-dreamer stage where I relished every sensory connection to the waking world.
“Crane, how are you feeling?” asked Koda.
I looked up blearily at him.
“It wasn’t the worst one I’ve had,” I said, eyes back on the ashes.
Getting nabbed by a dreamer was a uniquely personal experience, and often a humiliating one. It was a stark reminder that you had slipped up. Forgetting to look up when entering an abandoned building, neglecting to check your back when traveling alone, or in my case, leaving the tent flap slightly unzipped.
Most people didn’t tell, unless it was a truly nasty one. A lot of people thought it was bad luck. Some people thought they were portentous, or full of rare psychological insights. Mandela talked about both of hers on this trip and they weren’t even that interesting. She definitely owed us after the first one, though. We lost twelve hours when we should have been on the road, propped her head up and spoon-fed her oatmeal and water. I wasn’t sure if she’d follow in her parents’ footsteps and never make it back up.
Mandela decided on a timeout after that.
“You know the drill,” I said to Koda, who was still watching me. “Cleared up, saw my death. I don’t think this one was more than ten minutes or so.”
“A speedrun,” he chuckled, and drained his coffee.
PC slang. Koda liked to flex his pre-crash birth year sometimes.
We broke camp swiftly and methodically. The last travelers to pass through had cleared brush around the site and swept the rusted table, and we did the same. Star led the way out, laminated map in hand. Mostly for show, because she’d done this route before and had a mind for directions, but old habits die hard and it never hurt to double-check.
“We’re finally turning south today,” she said. “We can get the shade from the highway on the trail, too.”
“Last day on foot, right?” asked Poke.
“Yep. We’ll get to the truck stop this afternoon ‘cause we started so early.”
“Yeehaw,” I murmured.
Tension left our shoulders and we adjusted our frame packs for speed at the cost of energy. The promise of a hot meal and a cold shower (and a truck!) was a lighthouse at the end of the shimmering desert.
Before the sun had fully burnt off the morning mist, we came up on the highway. It was a jagged line in the distance that snaked over the land and then suddenly, without warning, became a crumbling structure that loomed over our head. I could see a few dreamers lurking on its shaded underbelly.
To escape the dreamer, remain clear-minded and see your death. The thought was an unbidden but necessary guest, one I had invited into my mind years ago.
The trail didn’t cross underneath the overpass yet. It stayed in its long shadow, winding closer and closer to a point somewhere in the far distance. My gut clenched at the thought of passing underneath the clumps of dreamers. I glanced at my boots, where a few iridescent filaments lingered, and wiped them on some brush as I passed.
“This is a good route,” said Star. “I know you guys want to go fast, but if we hold a decent pace the trail will keep us in the shade for most of the day.”
“I wish concrete wasn’t so terrible for your legs,” said Poke. “Walking on that highway would be pretty nice.”
“Concrete also gets very hot in the sunlight,” said Star. “And there are no wind-breaks, so if you’re in a headwind it sucks.”
“Ech,” said Koda.
“It would be so nice to get an infra project out here,” said Mandela wistfully. “Just plant a bunch of trees in the median and on either side, maybe put down some dirt, and you’d have such a great road.”
“Hah,” said Koda. “Maybe bring it up at the truck stop and they’ll relay it to, what, Salt Lake? What’s the nearest city?”
“Reno, as of today,” said Star.
“Hell yeah,” said Poke. “That’s progress right there.”
We traipsed on in silence for a while. The sun rose steadily.
“You guys mind if I dictate?” I asked. The breeze from the morning had died down.
“Yeah, go for it,” said Mandela.
“Sure,” said Koda.
I reached back overhead and rummaged around in my pack. My fingers touched the toothbrush, crank battery, utility knife, and recorder.
I inspected it for dust and damage as I walked, absentmindedly falling into step behind Poke so I wouldn’t twist an ankle. The recorder’s batteries were still mostly charged and its current storage chip was only half full. The blue paint was chipped. My fingers had long since worn away the text on the buttons.
I clicked it on.
“Alright, day seven of the San Francisco courier trip. We’re almost to the truck stop, and it’s a beautiful day to be walking, especially after the run-in I had with a dreamer last night. However, I was in and out in maybe ten minutes. Nothing scary, it was, uh…”
I trailed off, unsure.
“Are you guys okay with me talking about it?”
I was met with grunts of assent.
“It was a market in some snowy mountains somewhere. The tether this time was my wallet that got stolen. Nice wallet though, I remember it was made by some random friend and had something etched on the front.”
“What was it?” asked Mandela, hunting oneiric symbols.
“I’m not sure, I just remember that it was significant somehow. In the dream.”
“Probably a crane, har har,” said Poke.
“That’s a tether for you,” said Koda.
“Yeah, it was pretty textbook,” I continued. “The dreamer got into my tent somehow, I must have left the flap open a little. I found one more on the roof and knocked it off before I got out, and then…who got the other one? Star?”
“Dela got it,” said Star.
“Yeah, Mandela got the other one. Three in total. Anyway, the weather is nice and we’re making good time. We did a package check this morning and everything looks okay.”
I clicked the recorder off and took a sip of water.
“We did do a package check, right?”
“Poke did,” said Koda.
We walked on. I watched the scenery pass. There weren’t many structures or ruins on our route. There was an occasional tree with a dreamer or two hanging in the branches like a limp balloon, but as far as I could see it was mostly grass and scrub. Some low brown hills crept by us in the middle distance, and closer to the horizon I could just make out the mountain range. It was odd being this far west and not hearing cicadas in the late summer.
Cloud shadows drifted on the dead grass. There was enough cover that the air stayed cooler than it had been at the start of our trip.
“We can stop for a meal up ahead,” Star said after a while. “There’s a rest area somewhere around here, if it isn’t filled with dreamers.”
Sure enough, the rest stop materialized as our path drew closer alongside the raised highway. It didn’t look like anything much, just a bathroom and a few shade-giving structures with some trees and picnic tables, but I was glad to see it. Then we got closer and I noticed the dreamer infestation.
They slumped and clumped on the trees. Tendrils hung in the air and trailed over the picnic tables. As we watched, one slid off a branch and splatted onto the concrete, where it lay motionless for a moment before beginning a slow slide into the men’s room.
Koda inhaled and sighed deeply, and started expanding his walking stick.
“You know,” he said slowly, “when I was a California baby, we had these things called piñatas. I loved them.”
“…yeah?” said Poke.
“They were cardboard creatures, and they were filled with candy. When it was your birthday, they’d put a blindfold on you and give you a stick, and they’d hang one on a rope from a tree branch and let you go wild on it.”
“That sounds fun,” said Star.
“Yeah, it was pretty fun as a kid,” said Koda. “I remember one time one of my uncles was in charge of the rope and he kept yanking it up and down while I was blindfolded. I only got a few hits in before getting so frustrated I cried.”
We tried to imagine him as a crying child and there was a moment of silence, interrupted by two sharp clicks as Koda finished locking out the ends of his staff.
As we approached, one dreamer slipped off a picnic table and moved slowly towards us. As its tendrils extended upwards, Poke took a running leap and stomped on it with both feet. It made a huge mess, and Poke lurched backwards on his suddenly-slippery soles before righting himself under his frame pack. He turned back towards us in shame.
“Be careful,” said Star.
Koda said nothing and swatted the two remaining dreamers out of the trees.
We began the smashing in earnest. The procedure was very simple (if you were prepared): watch each other’s backs, always keep an eye on what’s above you, and burst the rubbery outer shell of the dreamer to destroy them. I didn’t think about it as killing, because I didn’t think they were alive. Dreamers just sat around and multiplied when nobody was looking. The closest Earth thing to them was a jellyfish, visually, but at least jellyfish had to eat.
The folklore said dreamers were solar-powered, and that was why you didn’t see as many when it was overcast. My anecdotal evidence said otherwise. It was interesting to see them after the person they’d attached to woke up, though. They barely moved, and didn’t even reach for a new person. They just lay there like fat little batteries.
I wiped some sweat off my brow and checked on the rest of the group. Koda’s methodical stomping had coated the lower half of his boots in a layer of gelatinous dreamer innards. Star and Poke weren’t far behind, and they always had each other’s backs. Mandela was still struggling with the finer techniques of dreamer smushing.
“Dela, you gotta be more decisive,” I called to her. “You’ll only slip on them if you don’t burst the outer part. If you punch through the center you’ll be fine.”
Gazing thoughtfully downwards, she gave me a thumbs-up and raised a leg for a particularly powerful stomp.
“I think that’s all of them,” said Poke.
Star huffed. “Man. That was a lot of dreamers.”
Even Koda was breathing a little hard.
We shrugged our packs off onto the picnic tables and slumped down in the shade. I felt a tickle at the back of my neck and flailed for an embarrassing few seconds until I realized some of my hair had come loose from where I’d tied it back. Mandela giggled.
We unpacked the rest of the lunch. Dense bread, dried meat, and dried fruit was the same thing we’d had on most of the trip, but none of us really cared. It got the job done, and now that we’d cleared out the dreamers, this rest stop was definitely one of the nicer places we’d eaten. All the tables were in the shade of the trees and structures by now, alleviating the worst of the heat, and we could see for miles across the empty landscape.
“We’ve got twenty minutes before we need to head out, if you guys want to relax,” said Star. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the clunky watch on her wrist served the same purpose as her laminated map.
Koda stretched out across the top of one of the concrete tables and closed his eyes. Poke began methodically cleaning his rifle, even though it had been a few days since he’d last fired it. Mandela started trying to sketch the dappled shade across his shoulders.
I grabbed a roll of paper and wandered over to the bathrooms. The structure would have been a disgusting place pre-crash, rarely cleaned for the volume of people that passed through it. Now it was just a dusty shelter for the animals that sometimes slept there. A small amount of light came in through the gap between the walls and the rafters. Someone had installed a pump by one of the toilets.
There was nothing in the stalls or on the ceiling, so I sat down and the dreamer fell onto my neck from its perch atop the wall.
The mascot costume is heavy and my undershirt is soaked with sweat. Drums and whistles clatter all around me. We’re approaching the second hour of the parade, and it isn’t showing any signs of stopping. I don’t even know what part of the city we’re in anymore. Worst of all, the five cups of coffee I had this morning are getting to me.
I need to stop, find somewhere to take a break, but I’m in the middle of a group of other mascots. Sweat drips into my eyes and I blink furiously in the steamy, still air of my costume. It’s stifling. I stumble and the mascot behind me collides with me. It grabs me, shoving me up and forwards, and I can catch a muffled expletive through its snout.
We march on through the sun-drenched streets. My eyes scan the sidewalks for a convenient alley or convenience store, but everything is roped off for us. For our parade.
The light glitters off the windows and the drums echo off the buildings. The coffee churns in my gut and I can almost taste it in my mouth, bitter and burned. Poke never burned it.
When I remember who Poke is, I break into a cold sweat inside the costume. I don’t remember how I got here, not yet, but I need to clear my mind. That’s the first thing. I know there’s a second thing, but I can’t remember it yet.
The first step is always to accept your current situation; to take stock of what you’ve got. In this world, it’s established that I have to continue the parade. The physically roped-off alleys, the other mascots that push me if I falter. I can’t stop marching; that’s a given. I almost reach to pull off the head of my costume, but something tells me that’s a bad idea.
I take a deep breath of sweaty air and slowly let it out. Clear-minded. That’s the second thing. Remain clear-minded in spite of the obstacles the dream throws at you: tethers, physical discomfort, or rare emotional appeals.
I remember the next step is to see your death. How can I die here?
I’m on the street, but it’s all closed off. I can’t be run over by any cars. Something could drop on me, maybe. I look up and in an instant the sun blinds me, but I have enough time to realize I’m in the middle of a large avenue. Not underneath any windows or scaffolding.
The parade turns a corner and I sneak a look backwards. We’re part of a small cohort at the head of the procession. Behind me plod other brightly colored mascots, followed by a marching band and a train of whimsically themed floats. My padded feet slip on a pile of confetti and I almost fall. The costumed creature behind me doesn’t push this time, instead opting to knee me in the kidney. Even through the layers of fabric, it hurts. If I were to fall, I’d get no sympathy.
But would that be enough to kill me, I think, trudging along. Let’s see. If I did fall right now, the other mascots would trample me first. It’d hurt, but wouldn’t be enough. They’d be followed by the band, weighed down by their gigantic instruments. Maybe that would be enough, but there’s more to the parade. I was able to see at least five floats before they disappeared in the haze of heat and confetti.
If I were lucky, the wheels of the first float would hit my head instead of my legs.
I bolted upright on the cold seat. My head snapped back and crushed the dreamer against the concrete. I ripped it off my neck and slammed it against the wall a few more times for good measure. Then I stuffed it into the toilet, where it lay as I tried desperately to flush it with the pump.
I splashed water onto my face when I washed my hands. The bathroom was cramped and dark like a mascot costume.
When I ventured back out into the light, I noticed that the sun had shifted, and the rest of the group was watching me. Mandela visibly relaxed as she saw me emerge.
“You okay in there?” asked Poke. “I heard a lot of slamming towards the end.”
“You should eat more fiber,” said Star.
They were unconditionally glad to see me, which warmed my heart, but I couldn’t believe I missed the dreamer. I had even seen it crawl into the bathroom as we were walking up.
“Tricky, aren’t they,” said Koda, watching me silently shake my head.
“They always know somehow,” I said. “They’re always behind or above you, in those weird places where you have to look twice.”
I stood there a bit longer, trying to follow the line of thought to its end and get it out of my brain, then shook my head.
“Ugh. Let’s pack up, I wanna get out of here.”
“What, you thought we were just sitting around waiting for you?” asked Mandela. “We’re ready to get going.”
I looked at the rest area. Everything was clean. My frame pack sat on the table, fully in order.
“Thanks, guys,” I said, and we kept moving.
I stayed in the back this time and kept my eyes up. I couldn’t stop thinking about that stupid parade. We were just a small parade of five people now, camping costumes fluttering in the breeze, but it made me nervous for some reason I couldn’t describe. Acting out part of the dream, however small and remote, felt wrong. Like we were walking into a trap or willingly winding up some vast and terrible mechanism.
I felt like the rest of the group could pick up on my unease. They might have attributed it to the fact that I was grabbed by two dreamers in a day, which was pretty rare, but I could never tell what they were thinking sometimes.
I kept walking.
It was mid-afternoon when we got to the outskirts of the truck stop. It was a small settlement, but the farms and scattered animal pens stretched out for a few miles around it. Some people in the fields glanced at us as we approached, but a group of couriers was nothing new to them. I was glad we’d made it before the sun went down, because there was nothing worse than checking for dreamers in the dark.
We passed a large wooden sign that said THEATER. Behind it, a solar panel array stretched over to the hills. I blinked in the reflected sunlight.
“Is that a road name?” I asked.
“Pretty sure it’s the town name,” said Star. “I’ve seen weirder. I stopped at a place in Montana once that was just called E.”
“The solar panels look pretty clean,” said Mandela. “That’s always a good sign.”
“Looks like a big place,” said Poke.
“Maybe,” said Koda, after some thought. “I’d estimate a few hundred based on the farms, but we don’t know what the southern side looks like.”
We passed the inner wall. It was nothing special, a ring of repurposed livestock fencing around the core of the town. A few kids on bikes sprinted past. Old trees grew from the remains of the paved road, thick roots pushing aside chunks of asphalt.
“Look, they could have dug up the pavement around those trees like they did for the main road,” said Mandela, pointing. “But they didn’t. It’s restricting their growth.”
“They’re making a statement,” chuckled Koda. “Theater likes their theatrics.”
The truck stop was a complex of a few buildings. Oak trees shaded the remains of a parking lot, around which a few structures rose for a couple stories. I could see the garage in the back. The parking lot was enclosed by a low fence that seemed more for decoration than utility. Where it opened to the main road, a woman lounged with her feet up on a table.
Despite the fact that she had watched us approach, she waited until we were at the table to swing her feet down and stand up to greet us.
“Afternoon,” said Koda.
“Hello, folks, my name’s Samantha, but you can just call me Sam,” she said. “We’ve got the common area here, lodgings over there”—she pointed to an ancient hotel-looking building—“and of course, the garage is behind the common area. Our truck stop offers a range of amenities, including hot meals, hot showers, and a prime location in Theater’s historic downtown.”
Recitation over, Sam smiled at us. “Well. If you’d like to follow me, we can deal with payment inside.”
She sized us up as she escorted us past the fence and into the truck stop. I felt more remains of asphalt under my feet. The air was cooler inside the compound.
“Five couriers is kinda rare, huh? Let’s see…”
Her eye was drawn down to Koda, as usual, and his gray-streaked hair.
“Navigator,” she said, looking at Star and the constellation tattoos on her hands.
“That one’s a gimme,” Star said.
Sam’s eyes flitted over to Mandela, then Poke, noting his rifle, then back to Mandela. Most people on the road tended to give her a second look, which we were used to by now.
“If he’s the hunter, then you’re the mechanic.”
Mandela nodded. “Mechanic and botanist.”
Sam’s gaze lingered on her and then settled on me.
“So what are you, the second mechanic?”
“I’m an archivist,” I replied.
“I’m documenting the rebuilding, mostly, and taking some field notes for when Chicago eventually gets the trains out here.”
Sam frowned. “Rebuilding what, exactly? We’re not doing much of that these days.”
I shrugged. “Someone’s gotta write things down, might as well be a courier. We carry little things,” I said, neglecting to mention what our current package was, “but they add up. Traveling is a good source of information too.”
“The extra pair of hands has been pretty nice,” said Koda.
“I can imagine,” Sam said absently. “Here’s the main hall. We’ve got a few people passing through, but I’m sure you folks will want to get on the road as soon as possible tomorrow. I’ll tell the mechanics to prioritize your group tonight.”
“What kind of trucks do you have?” asked Mandela, craning her neck to look over at the garage. Bits of conversation floated over, followed by the clang of someone dropping a metal tool on a concrete floor.
“Oh, this and that,” said Sam, raising her voice over the ensuing swearing. “No gas, obviously, but we’ve got two vans and a few flatbeds.”
Mandela murmured something.
“Where are the showers?” I asked.
“Ha!” said Sam. “No worries. We’ve got them in the lodgings. I’ll get your group set up with the keys.”
We entered a large lobby that must have been grand once. Wires snaked across the flaking plaster and through crudely punched holes in the walls. A few copper pipes rose into the ceiling. Despite this, the rest of the space was taken care of. The afternoon sunlight through the windows only lit up a few dust motes, and someone had swept the floor recently.
Sam sat down at a large desk and flipped open her computer, already working the pedal on the floor. I felt the soft vibrations of the flywheel, heard it squeak as it started transferring power into the computer.
“Thing takes forever to start,” she said, poking a few keys.
“That sounds like a small wheel,” said Mandela. “What do you do if you need to get up or something?”
Sam looked up at us over the lid of the computer.
“Well, then she saves her work,” said Koda, who was already digging into his pack, and said to Sam: “Two rooms should be plenty, thanks.”
“I don’t use it for much besides numbers,” Sam said, licking a thumb to count the bills she had been handed, “and to keep track of a couple things. We’ve got a guest book in the common area if you’d like to sign that.”
Sam pulled open a drawer and withdrew a group of worn brass keys. Their edges were soft with use.
“Two rooms, then. Second floor, first two on the right.”
The shower was everything I had hoped for. I still checked for dreamers, though. Afterwards, I lay on the bed, sandals and all, and watched as the rest of the couriers unpacked.
“What did Sam tell you about Theater? Is there anything cool here?” said Mandela, poking her head through the door to the room that I shared with Koda and Poke.
“Not much,” said Koda, emptying his pockets onto the single table. “Kinda funny that they actually have a theater though.”
“Closed ‘till Thursday!” hollered Star from the next room.
“It’s fine,” I said, lounging on my hard mattress. “You see one terrible rendition of a Shakespeare play, you’ve seen them all.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing any rendition,” said Mandela coolly.
“Well, if you’re up for an afternoon stroll, we can at least check out the building,” said Koda, leaning out into the hallway. “Any other takers?”
“I would, but I’ve got some sleep to catch up on,” I said, lying back on the mattress. The tough springs were heaven after a few dreamer-infested days on the road. “Just lock me in when you leave. I’ll have the window closed.”
Koda tossed me the spare key from the doorway as they headed out. I was asleep before my fingers finished curling around it.
I never dream.
For a second after I awoke, I thought I was back home. The wall was to the right of my head and the dim light through my closed eyes was exactly how I remembered it. I lay there, relishing the illusion, until someone across the hall slammed their door. The spell broke and I woke up properly.
The room was silent, dark, and stuffy, and the sunset painted a deep orange square on the far wall. My mouth was dry and my head pounded. The water in my pack was still cool. From the rest stop in the desert that had been full of dreamers.
I shook my head despite the pain, trying to dislodge the vision that clung to my brain like a gummy tentacle.
I slid open the window and took a breath of dry air. It was time to do my job and talk to some locals. I put more clothes on and grabbed my things from my pack, leaving a note for Koda and the rest of the group on the door as I left.
Archiving. Common area then closest tavern. Opened window for air. Watch for dreamers.
The door locked firmly behind me and I trotted down the worn steps and out of the bunk building. It was going to be a clear night, but the day wouldn’t let go just yet. Long shadows from the town’s other buildings stretched across the courtyard. The grand windows of the main hall were dark, but I saw a figure inside, silhouetted against the dusk as she swept the floors.
I wondered what this place had been before the crash. Maybe after the crash, for a little while, before the dreamers started dragging people away from the waking world. Before people figured out how to escape or constantly look over their shoulders and whole towns were swallowed up.
Who knows how long it took the first dreamers to reach this little desert town after their capsule hit the Pacific. Maybe they hitched a ride on the bottom of a desert bus, or on the wheels of an airliner passing overhead. Or maybe they just brainlessly slithered their way across the desert, chasing whatever it is people have that draws them.
I checked above the door to the common room, but it was clear. I pushed it open and the figure at the far wall stopped sweeping when she heard the creak.
“Hi,” said Sam. Her voice echoed off the hardwood floor and high ceilings. “What can I do for you?”
“Just some conversation, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I always talk to one or two people in the places we pass through.”
“I’ve got a busy evening ahead of me,” said Sam, “but go ahead. You’ve got until I finish this room.”
By the looks of things, she was close to done. I felt my way over to one of the threadbare seats, trying not to bark a shin on a low table, and hastily made myself comfortable. Most people liked talking about their lives to anyone who’d listen. Sam was a rare sort.
It was too dark to take notes, but that was fine. I barely wrote things these days anyway since I was always walking. I clicked a few buttons on the hand recorder.
“So, Sam, you were born post-crash, right? Was it here in Theater?”
“Mm-hmm. Born and raised.”
That was unfortunate. She didn’t look old enough to have a PC birth year but you never knew. I was still waiting to hear about the first few crash years from someone who wasn’t Koda.
“Was it always called that?” I asked, and watched her silhouette pause mid-sweep.
“No, we used to be Aberdeen.”
“What’s the story behind the name change? Did it have anything to do with dreamers?”
She sighed. “We opened a theater. It keeps everyone sane. We’ve got original plays by one guy, but the theater’s closed right now.”
“Until next Thursday,” I pointed out helpfully.
“That’s right. Opening night,” she said and picked up the broom.
“Is the playwright available to interview?”
Sam paused in the doorway to the lobby, barely visible in the dusk.
“No. He locks himself in the tower of his house for a week before he finishes a play. Also, if you want to interview more people, the tavern’s right off the square. Sorry for not being too talkative tonight, but it’s been a long day and my work isn’t done yet.”
That was disappointing, but then again I wasn’t sure if I had the energy for an extended interview. It had been a long day.
Lights came on outside. The streetlights here still worked, but I wasn’t sure how much longer the local power grid would stay up. That was a question for Mandela. Towns with good grids were always nice though, otherwise we’d be checking for dreamers everywhere.
I wandered in the approximate direction of the town’s center. Star would have been able to find it in an instant, but I just walked towards whichever cluster of lights was brightest.
Before long, the tree-lined street opened onto a plaza. A few strings of weak electric bulbs spanned the area between rusted traffic lights. More people wandered around. I didn’t like how carefree they seemed. The plaza was well-lit and full of good lines of sight, but you never knew what lurked around the corner in a dark alleyway.
The tavern was a large building at the far end of the plaza. An unlit sign indicated that it was called the Albatross. Inside, it was dim and quiet. I ordered the weakest beer I could find and settled in a corner, taking notes and wondering when the rest of the couriers would show up.
Eventually, I’d had enough. The place had filled up with more people. I got another drink and made a circuit of the main area until I saw what I was looking for: two people roughly my age who seemed to be enjoying themselves. I caught their eyes as I approached.
“Mind if I join you?” I asked. The locals smiled beerily and made welcoming gestures, so I pulled up a chair. After some small talk, it was established that they were Will and Hog (real name unknown). As for mine…
“Crane? That’s not a real name,” said the ever-observant Will.
“That’s right,” I replied. “You guys don’t know about road-names? You don’t do them?”
“What?” said Hog.
I paused, unsure how to explain the concept. They were big boys.
“It’s, uh, it’s easier to do certain things when you’re a little detached from people. On the road.
“Imagine you’re traveling through some difficult mountains, and someone in your group gets grabbed by a dreamer. Of course you take care of them while they’re dreaming. But imagine an entire day passes, or maybe more, and you have to take care of this person and watch your own back at the same time, and you have no idea when or if they’re gonna make it back up. Imagine the next town is a week or more away, and the entire time you’re not moving, but you’re eating into your supplies. Then a storm rolls by, or the temperature drops, and you have to get moving, so you make a choice…”
I gazed into the distance and brought my drink to my lips, letting the timeout bracelet on my wrist catch the light.
“What?” said Hog.
“Forget it,” I said. “It’s an old courier tradition.”
I neglected to mention the superstition about real names and other people in dreams, and that most courier teams inevitably became close after a few weeks on the road.
“What’s your real name?” Will asked.
“My home-name? It’s a little similar to my road-name. But it’s bad luck to say it right now. And I’m not going to part with it on the road like this,” I added, trying to indicate that some peer pressure and a little more beer would convince me to part with it.
Will nodded sagely and glanced at my half-empty glass.
“So,” I continued, “what’s with the playwright? I hear he’s a recluse.”
“No, he’s a man,” said Hog, and laughed a deep hur-hur-hur.
“Shut up,” said Will. He turned to me. “Mr. Haywood is great. He keeps us sane.”
“You gonna be around for opening night on Thursday? I hear the newest play is going to be some powerful stuff.”
“What kinds of plays does he write?”
“Weird ones,” said Hog.
“Absurdist dramas,” said Will.
I nodded and left a gap in the conversation, trying to get more out of them without appearing too nosy, but they didn’t bite.
“You guys squash any dreamers lately?”
There was a pause. Hog scratched some stubble. “Not really.”
“Do you know what they are?” said Will. “You’re from one of the cities, right?”
“We left from Chicago, yeah,” I said. “Nobody knows what they are yet.”
Will set his drink down a little harder than he intended, slopping foam over his knuckles, and leaned over the table towards me.
“Hog and I think they’re alien recreational devices.”
“Alien weed,” Hog added proudly.
“Not like weed, man,” said Will. “I told you. It’s like alien acid. You have to forget your earthly attachments and see your own death so you can ascend.”
I was glad that the survival folklore had made it to Theater, but less thrilled to see it come up in this context. The two-step solution was supposed to be used in life-or-dream-death situations, not half-baked conspiracy theories.
A small group pushed through the doors of the Albatross. One of its members waved.
“Next round is on me,” I said, and pushed my chair back. “Enjoy your night.”
I got in line and bought a large bowl of stew. The other couriers were almost finished with theirs by the time I got to their booth.
“You guys have a nice walk? I’ve been archiving. Scoot over.”
“Archiving brews, maybe,” said Star.
“False,” I said. “I’ve been assembling my data and I think Theater is close to a major breakthrough on what Dreamers actually are.”
“Really?” asked Mandela. “What are they saying?”
“Check this out.” I produced my notebook and spread it flat on the table. Everyone peered over their bowls as I carefully added another tally mark for Alien Weed.
Star dropped her spoon and rolled her eyes.
Mandela groaned. “I hate townies like that. You know they’ve never lost anyone to a timeout.”
“I tried to tell them about timeouts, but I don’t think they got it.”
“What, they couldn’t even imagine it?”
“I’ll buy us some drinks,” said Star. “Koda can tell you about the town.”
“They don’t get many couriers,” said Koda.
“Star said she’d been through before,” said Poke.
“That was years ago. I guess they haven’t had any since.”
Odd movement in my peripheral vision made me glance towards the bar. Star had been cornered by one of the locals. He gestured and stabbed a finger in our direction. In Mandela’s direction, to be specific, because although I couldn’t hear him, I saw his lips curl around with that and his nose wrinkle as he snarled the epithet. Then he lunged forward and threw a haymaker.
I started, and Poke and I instinctively moved closer on either side of Mandela, but the fact that Koda was still in his seat meant that things hadn’t gone completely south. I thought about what I had just seen and relaxed a little.
Visuals and body language were always important before a fight, doubly so in a room full of strangers. Anyone watching would have seen Star’s palms up in a placating gesture, head and gaze lowered as the aggressor loomed over her. That’s why it was okay for her to block the haymaker with her elbow and hit the man very hard in the throat. The kick to the stomach was probably warranted too.
The townie’s flailing arms cleared a table as he fell backwards. Star stood still, the model of restraint, as glass broke around her. Koda strode up a moment later before the other locals got to the scene to break up a fight that had already ended, and knelt down by the fallen man. Then he stood up and turned to Star. He said something and they both looked back at us, saw Poke and I sitting on either side of a very nervous Mandela.
I looked around the room. Will and Hog were glaring at me. The arrangement of legs under their chairs indicated they had been about to get up.
As conversation started to rise around the Albatross once more, Koda and Star leaned over to the bartender and had a hushed discussion.
There was a quiet noise next to me. Mandela and I looked over at Poke, who had just sheathed his knife.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re gonna get us kicked out,” I said.
“I checked my rifle at the truck stop. I gotta have something.”
Star returned with drinks.
“Good news!” she said. “We’re going to drink these, and then we’re going to leave!”
I woke up again after less than an hour’s worth of sleep. I was still a little tense from the bar fight. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling for a while, wondering if Star was also wound up and awake in her room, and then slowly sat up and looked out the window.
A single light shone in the dark town. It was in the spire of a house on a hill, not far from here. The playwright was working late, and I suddenly needed to see.
The nap I had taken earlier in the afternoon had screwed up my sleep schedule, and a walk in the cool air before crawling back under warm blankets would help. Some part of me, the archivist that refused to leave a blank section in his notebook, told me this was a good idea.
I debated it internally and reached a decision after a few minutes.
The springs under the cot squeaked as I sat up, and I froze and looked back at Koda and Poke. Neither of them stirred as I pulled on my outdoor clothes, but I still kept my moon-shadow clear of their faces as I padded towards the door to pull on my boots and jacket. I paused at the door for a moment and decided to lock it. Koda had a spare key.
I stayed in the darkness as I made my way over to the playwright’s house. It was easier to see other things in the shadows when you didn’t walk in the light. The last thing I wanted was for a dreamer to fall on me, I thought as I checked the branches of a tree before passing underneath it. I imagined the rest of the couriers waking up and having to deal with an angry local who’d found me underneath a dreamer in someone’s backyard, or — I shook my head just thinking of it — some idiot panicking and pulling it off my neck before I made it back up. Dream death was supposed to be a peaceful way to go, but still.
In the still air, the bush ahead of me rustled. I stopped and waited for fifteen seconds until a dreamer slipped out from underneath it and crawled around the corner, trailing twigs and leaves.
Dream death. That happened once in my hometown, when I was much younger. They never said who accidentally pulled the plug. I supposed the guilt was punishment enough.
At least our group had never needed to deal with a timeout on the road. I’d met courier teams who had done it and they didn’t tend to stay together very long afterwards. Aside from the obvious reason of being down one member, a lot of people just couldn’t face the possibility of doing that to another person again. And so they stayed home, or traveled alone until a dreamer grabbed them.
I rounded a corner and stopped. I was at one end of an overgrown courtyard, which Haywood’s house overlooked. A single window on the second floor was lit up, and through it I could see the top of the playwright’s bald head. It looked like he was bent over a desk.
Something told me I needed a better view. This was straying out of night walk territory and into trespassing and spying on townie territory, but I didn’t care. Just like the snow market dream from the other day, I sought higher ground. In this case I climbed a toolshed in someone’s backyard and peered up at his window.
I couldn’t see much. Haywood’s head didn’t move. He was still bent over his desk.
I climbed further, made it to someone’s covered back porch by way of a thick tree branch, and paused when I tried to make sense of what I saw through the window.
Haywood was bent over his desk, but in an odd position. His arms weren’t writing, but folded on the desk under his head. He was wearing a shapeless hoodie, hood rumpled over the back of his head and drawstrings pooled on the desk. It was an odd hoodie, made of suspiciously nice material for a town in the middle of nowhere. No patches on its surface, and it looked almost translucent…
When I finally understood that a dreamer was pulsing quietly on his spinal cord I almost fell off the roof then and there.
Instead, I just froze in a half-crouch for a few seconds and felt the hairs on the back of my neck dance and tingle in the dark. Like the few minutes after chasing away a spider when every itch feels like it has eight legs, every rustle of wind and click of timber sounded like a gelatinous lump slipping off a ledge. There was a dreamer on him, in his second-floor room with a closed window.
If dreamers could get into these houses, I needed to go check on the rest of the couriers.
In my panic, I had barely registered the movement in the window. Haywood was stirring. His post-dreamer movement was the slowest I’d ever seen. He sat up with a faint smile and stretched, staring at the wall the entire time. This wasn’t a man flailing around in his first waking moments. This was a man deep in thought. This was a man who reached up and tenderly plucked the alien off his neck like he was picking a flower. This was a man who put the creature in an ornate lacquered box when it was done with him, efficiently cleaned the seeping wounds on his neck, and leaned forward with fire in his dead little eyes to start furiously writing down whatever it was that he had just experienced.
I was very glad we wouldn’t be here for Thursday’s opening night, I reflected in quiet horror as I climbed down from the roof.
I had to warn the group. Had to grab Mandela and Koda and Star and Poke and get out of this cursed place as fast as we could. Grab a truck, maybe, if Mandela could switch out a battery and get it ready for the road on her own. Worst case we all go on a midnight walk together.
On the face of it, I knew there was nothing logically wrong with talking about dreamer encounters. Their subjects were only taboo due to superstition. But to purposefully seek the nightmares out, and then bring them into the real world and immortalize them…I shuddered.
My body strained to run, but I knew enough to methodically pick my way back to the truck stop the same way I’d come. I looked at every bush, every overhanging eave and every tree, and despite that the dreamer still almost got me. I was almost to the truck stop, getting greedy with my time, so I barely noticed the tentacles swing up into the leaves. I wasn’t sure what I had seen and so I stupidly walked under the tree to check it out.
Looking up in curiosity was what saved me. My hand intercepted the dreamer as it dropped out of the trees, just barely kept the tentacles away from my neck. The fear and nervousness and disgust at this entire night converged on this thing, and it made a soft pop as I crushed it in my fist. A single tentacle waved at my neck and went limp a moment later as it expired without any further noise. I stuffed it into a knot in the tree and wiped my hands on the rough bark.
The rest of my night walk was uneventful. I moved slowly and methodically and avoided two other potential dreamer encounters before I got to the lodging building.
I crept up the ancient stairs and opened the door to the shared room as quietly as I could. I didn’t know what I expected. Koda sitting on the bed with a light on, maybe, like an angry parent. Poke glaring at me with his rifle on his lap.
I was greeted by nothing but two slumbering shapes. While I was gone, the moon had moved. Now only their edges shone silver in the room.
I closed the door and leaned against it, thinking while I watched them. What would I accomplish by waking everybody up now? We’d scramble to get our things together and get on the road in the middle of the night. We’d be half-asleep and with an angry town behind us. Probably without a truck. Best to wait it out.
I locked and bolted the door and got into bed, where I stared at the ceiling until dawn.
Poke was the first one up. He was the type of person who was never affected by post-sleep drowsiness, even after a dreamer encounter. He went from stirring to sitting up and awake in a matter of moments, and that was why we always relied on him to make the coffee.
Even so, I wasn’t prepared for him to turn to me and say “Crane, you look like shit.”
I blinked at him. “It’s been a long night. I’ll tell you guys about it when we eat breakfast.”
Once the rest of the group had gotten ready, we picked up some supplies and food, and walked to the plaza to eat and soak up the early-morning light.
“How was your midnight walk, Crane?” Koda asked after a minute.
I froze, sandwich halfway to my mouth, and looked around the plaza. It was empty.
“I went to Haywood’s house.”
“The playwright. I figured out which house it was from talking to the townies.”
“And? What was it like?”
The sandwich was a lump of glass in my throat as I swallowed.
“Bad,” I said quietly.
Everyone leaned in.
“I know this sounds insane, but Haywood is purposefully going under with dreamers. He keeps one in a box in his desk. I walked to his house last night and I saw him come up from a dream and put it away. Then he started writing everything down.”
“He what?!” Star yelled. It echoed around the plaza as Koda put a finger to his lips.
“He what,” said Poke.
“He’s turning his dreams into plays. He’s making people act them out. And I think he’s been doing it for a while because his neck is” — I shuddered — “all messed up. It’s like there’s been a dreamer on him every night for a month.”
“That’s not good,” said Mandela.
“No, it’s not,” said Koda thoughtfully. “None of you saw anybody crush a dreamer yesterday, correct?”
We looked at each other and shook our heads.
“I think people here have different superstitions. I don’t think they want to kill them.”
We pondered this.
“I think they know about Haywood,” I said, “but I also think they’re scared of me, and want to get us out of here as quickly as possible. Sam didn’t want to talk to me because she knew I was writing everything down. Also, she kept pausing when I asked her about the theater.”
“That sounds about right,” said Koda.
“You didn’t say anything earlier?” said Poke.
“I wasn’t sure until I heard from Crane. Star seemed okay with the town.”
“That was years ago! I was only here for a night and I was a little preoccupied.”
“We need to get out of here as soon as we can, I think,” I said.
“I’ll go get the truck then,” said Mandela, getting up. “You guys can pack up whatever’s still in the rooms.”
I clapped a hand on her shoulder. “I think we should all stick together.”
The rest of the group was already packing.
“Yeah, we’re not splitting up,” said Star.
We walked back in a group. The town center was sleepy and deserted, but more people were out and about as we got closer to the edge of the inner area.
“Packs now, then check out, then truck,” said Koda.
I opened the door to our room first. “Did one of you leave the window open?”
Koda frowned. “Check everything” — he put a hand on Poke’s chest as he surged forward— “carefully. I’ll check the other room.”
We rummaged. No dreamers, nothing missing.
“All clear,” said Koda from the next room. “Let’s get on the road.”
I was secretly relieved to see Sam not at her desk. We left the keys and headed to the garage.
It was smaller than I’d expected. The concrete floor was clear of tools but covered in oil stains. A truck sat pointing towards the door, which was already opened.
“Oil,” said Mandela quietly. “That means…” and she trailed off as the single mechanic there stood up from behind his workbench.
“Is this our truck?” said Koda. “Sam said you’d have one ready for us this morning. We’ve already checked out and we’re in a hurry.”
“Er, it can be,” he said. “I was about to put the last battery in.”
“Can we help?”
“No, no, I’ve got it,” he said, and we watched him unplug the battery and struggle to lift it off the ground.
“Here,” said Mandela, and leapt up onto the truck bed. She levered the battery bay open and paused.
“There are two empty slots here. I thought you said the truck only needed one.”
Mandela and I shared a look. Don’t ask questions here, we’re just good couriers trying to deliver our package as quickly as possible. We aren’t scared of a town full of dreamer-obsessed idiots.
“We’ve got the second one,” I said quickly, unplugging another battery. Poke helped me lift it into the truck bed as Mandela and the mechanic finished installing the first one. Koda and Star had already picked up the keys and were beginning to load up our packs.
Ten minutes later, we were out on the open road. The truck whirred quietly over the cracked highway. Koda was on the first driving shift.
“That town sucked,” said Star, dangling an arm out the window. “I don’t remember it being like that the last time I passed through.”
“Sure lived up to the name,” said Poke.
“I wonder what the play was about,” Mandela muttered. “Nothing good, probably.”
“You know,” said Koda, still looking at the road, “when I was a kid, we had naturally occurring dreams. People really liked to talk about them. There was no superstition around it.”
Poke wrinkled his nose.
“The funny part,” Koda continued, “was that nobody else wanted to hear about them. Nobody! It was universal. We all treated our dreams as these secret visions, but anyone hearing about them just thought they were nonsense.”
“So you’re not too sad about missing the play, huh,” said Star.
“Not in the slightest.”
There was a moment of silence.
“You know, that town is pretty close to battery death,” said Mandela. “And I think they’re only just realizing it now.”
“Yeah?” said Poke.
“Do you remember the flywheel Sam was using for her computer? They know the basics of how to run a computer with dead batteries, but they’re still working out how to make it efficient. The wheel was too small, and running on bad bearings. Also the gearing was off, so Sam had to push the pedal faster than normal.”
“Hmm,” said Koda.
“And Sam said they don’t use gas anymore, but those were fresh oil stains on the floor. They probably found some old barrels and are trying to run some generators or something, and didn’t want us taking that last battery.”
I scribbled furiously in my own shorthand, watching Mandela gesture as she spoke.
“Also, speaking of which, the batteries on this truck” — she jerked a thumb behind us — “are terrible. They’re not gonna fail on us before we get to the next truck stop, but I don’t think we should leave it parked in the sun if we can avoid it. I’m gonna see if I can disconnect the cables when we stop for the night.”
I glanced back at the San Francisco-bound package tied down in the truck bed. We were still a long way out, but were making progress. We would definitely be there before winter. Maybe I could make it home next year in time to spend the summer with my family.
“You must have a lot of notes, Crane,” said Mandela. “Gonna write us a story about them?”
I had so many notes. I had to tie the events of the last day and a half into a neat little package, not to mention the voice clips about the playwright and the townies’ views on dreamers to integrate and the visions from the dreams, plus my own memories before they faded and the notes from Mandela rambling about battery death…
“Eventually,” I said, reclining my seat. “For now, I’m going to get some damn sleep.”