Things started falling apart around ten years ago.
It began as one of those garage-based startup stories; two guys working all on their own, with no funding to speak of, developed the next big thing in personal entertainment systems. Everyone’s electronic devices had converged into one tiny unit that did it all – and it was fully integrated into wearable electronics with tiny built-in recording devices and sensors to record our surroundings, measure our reactions, anticipate our needs, guess at our whims.
No one talked about computers or networks anymore because they were everywhere, in everything. No one knew where to go next because everyone thought we had it all, that we were at the pinnacle of technological achievement. No one, that is, except for Jeremy Simmons and Walter Pike.
Jeremy was a biochemist, and Walter was a physicist and electrical engineer. The two entrepreneurs were college classmates and long-time friends, each accomplished in their respective fields. Their revolutionary idea, like so many others before, had come to Walter in a dream.
People wanted infinite novelty. The entertainment industry couldn’t keep up with the demand – it rehashed every story, remade every movie. Escapism was at an all time high, and there was nowhere left to escape to. But Walter knew better; there was one place left, and anybody who wanted to could get there with the right equipment.
Lucid dreaming was nothing new. Aborigines were playing with their brain chemistry and consciously entering dream states tens of thousands of years ago. But modern man had long ago lost this faculty, as the need to focus on his surroundings for his survival had supplanted it. Walter knew that if people could enter their dreams and control them, they could entertain themselves, and they would only be limited by their own imaginations.
As it turned out, the science was fairly simple. A few years of research and human experimentation produced the right combination of designer sleep drugs and electrical stimulation for certain areas of the brain. The finished product was a convenient, ergonomic, handheld plastic package with a little clasp that fit in your nose and two electrodes you fitted to your head.
My friend Roger had been an accomplished lucid dreamer for years and years, ever since he was a child. He had never needed any kind of drug or device to induce a conscious dream state, but the prospect of entering his dreams with no effort thrilled him. He spent all of his savings and threw himself into debt to be one of the first people to own a Spinner. That’s what they called them: Spinners. It was all just marketing garbage, the things didn’t have any moving parts or anything like that.
Spinners were an overnight success.
Everyone wanted to “walk in their dreams” like the advertisements promised; and that’s exactly what they did. Spinners followed the same path as almost every technology – at first, they were only used by a few early adopters. When prices dropped and word spread, they worked their way into the mainstream. Knockoffs started getting produced overseas, and they quickly became cheap and ubiquitous. Spinners were a pop culture phenomenon. Dream interpretation was the new fad science, and psychologists had a field day gathering new information and insight into their patients’ problems.
As the usage of Spinners climbed, a few reports came in from people alleging to have had strikingly similar dream experiences. Some even claimed to be able to communicate to each other in a shared dream state. These reports were largely regarded as hoaxes or as case studies that demonstrated people’s susceptibility to the power of suggestion. That was really all the warning we had. When it finally happened, it happened fast.
There were billions of Spinners out there. At least every other person in the world had one. Practically everyone could enter the world of their dreams anytime they wanted to – so they did, as often as possible, every hour of the day they could manage, for as long as they could.
I was always a bit of a Luddite, preferring old books (books with paper and pages) and classic stories to the latest and greatest technologies and retold tales. I almost never used my Spinner; so when the end came, I was awake for it.
How can I describe the end of the world? If you’re hearing this story from me, it’s likely you were there for it yourself, and you know already what it was like without me having to tell you. But I have to try to describe it, for my sake, for my sanity.
It was an overwhelming feeling of wrongness. I have this ridiculous image in my head of billions of people all picking up their heads at once, like groundhogs reacting to some inaudible sound. But there was no sound. There was nothing except for a sense that the world was no longer right.
I happened to be home, sitting in the kitchen. I looked out my window, into the yard; nothing seemed to be happening, but I felt a strange urge to go outside. I felt no breeze when I opened the door. And that’s when I noticed there were no sounds. No noise, no birds, no squirrels, no cars, no planes. I looked up at the sky… and there were no clouds. But it was not right, because the sky was turning different shades of blue. It was like someone had short-circuited the sky, making it flash and flicker uncontrollably.
Did you ever have that terrifying feeling – the one where you were suddenly and irrationally afraid that if you turned around quickly enough, the things behind you wouldn’t be there anymore? That happened too, of course. It happens all the time now, but that’s not always how it was. I never expected that the tree I was looking at two seconds ago would not be there when I turned around.
It was jarring, completely disorienting. I expect that many people must have gone insane – rioting, panicking, killing, the usual. What else are you going to do when most of the people have disappeared and the world goes crazy?
Nothing really bad happened to me. There weren’t any natural disasters, there was no catastrophic destruction. Almost everything technological stopped working; no more electricity, no more net access – nobody ever thought about any of that stuff, because it was all so invisible. And who really knows how a TV works anyway? I know now what was going on: the world was readjusting itself. Reconfiguring itself. Becoming less complex. I confirmed this when I broke open a couple of my toys and the electronic bits inside didn’t look right. Billions of people dissolved into nothingness, and the world that they knew dissolved with them. Or they just took it with them.
Incredibly enough, life goes on, even for eyewitnesses of the apocalypse. Most places just don’t exist any more. I don’t get hungry too often, which is good, because food can be hard to find. But sometimes I have to really think about how I want to feel if I want to feel that way. I’m less real than I once was. That hits me pretty hard sometimes.
It gets lonely. There are a few people left, mostly neighbors I know and one or two friends – but we can’t see each other or talk to each other unless we both want to find each other. We’re separated by a gulf of unreality that we can only bridge with shared experiences. If we know the same place, we can meet there.
I was thinking about Roger the other day,
and I guess he must have thought about me around the same time. He knocked on my door; I opened it, and found myself looking at a wreck of a human being. His face was haggard, his eyes haunted. I quickly sat him down and made him some tea. His fingers kept grasping at the edges of the table, running up and down the sides of it, testing its integrity. After a while, he finally managed to speak to me.
“I’ve seen so much, John. There are… things. Out there. Unimaginable things.”
He stopped for a moment, staring off into nothingness.
“I can go farther than most people. I can move out into the places outside of our locality. It’s like… it’s like we’re in a gravity well. But it’s a reality well. Here, I mean, where you are. What’s left here, anyway.”
He tentatively brought the cup to his lips, and sipped gingerly at the tea.
“I think people used to collect at the bottom of the well. Concentrated reality. Everyone has their own sphere you see, their own influence… a dream realm they create around themselves. When they dreamed, they used to climb up the sides of the well in their spheres, floating up like champagne bubbles. But they all eventually settled back down to the bottom again, because there was a pull there. The mass of other people, they all made up a consensual reality.”
“But then… then everybody started leaving, more and more of them, and more often. They all went into their own worlds, deeper into their own spheres, and they all floated up at once – and everything down here, it all started to break apart.”
I just sat there, taking it all in, not really knowing what to say or think. Not sure what to believe.
“Roger – what did you see? What’s out there?”
The tea cup in his hand shook. He stared forward blankly.
“The outside… it’s so big. So empty. But it’s not really. Not empty. There are creatures – massive, bloated things that undulate and wade through the dark nothingness. You can’t compare them to anything because they look like nothing else, like nothing we know.”
“And they hunger. They strain dreamers through their teeth like whales eating plankton. They eat consciousness. They swallow the bubbles…”
Roger broke down crying after that. There was no consoling him. I laid him down, tried to make him comfortable on the couch. I think he eventually fell asleep by the time evening came. When I went to check on him the next morning, he was gone.
Who knew that reality was a self-defense mechanism? A shell, like a coral reef, there to protect us from who-knows-what? No one expects the world to disappear when they fall asleep… but then again, who would have thought that everyone was going to fall asleep at the same time?
Now the world only half-exists; it’s getting harder and harder to tell whether I’m in my dream state or whether I’m in what’s left of the world. I think this is what the Aborigines were talking about – the Dreamtime. The world before the world, half in dreams. Maybe this isn’t even the first time this has happened, maybe there were worlds and worlds before this one. Maybe the Bunyip and all those other spirit creatures aborigines drew on cave walls are the things Roger saw.
I can’t keep track of time. It’s difficult to maintain any sense of time at all, days and nights pass when I’m not paying attention. I have a hard time focusing my thoughts. It feels like I’ve written this story about a thousand times – I write it and read it back to myself over and over.
All I have now is this story. All I can do is tell it and keep trying to make things real again. I just need to get enough people to listen…