The lost civilization: a dream
PREFACE: There’s a dream I keep having. Maybe you’ve been having it too, in some form, at least. Or maybe it’s real; maybe we’re living it. It’s getting harder to tell these days, huh? In any case, it’s not a good dream. And it’s not over. It goes like this…
I’m a passenger in a huge, creaky, horse-drawn wagon, along with scores of other people -- all of whom I know. The wagon is making its way ponderously over rough terrain, navigating potholes and washouts in the crudely-maintained road. The sides of the wagon are open, exposing us to the weather, both good and bad. The vistas are nonetheless beautiful as we slowly traverse a familiar countryside -- rolling wooded hills, neatly kept farms, rushing streams, mossy bogs and beaver ponds, and great stands of trees. The air is rich with birdsong. I am intimately familiar with it all, and it pleases me.
We traverse the same rough, circuitous path over and over, and we have been for as long as anyone can remember. There is neither a beginning nor an end to our journey – only the regular recurring patterns that change slowly, one into the other.
Each passenger, included myself, seems to have a specific task to perform on the wagon. Some maintain the numerous wheels, which keep breaking on the rough path. Some care for the horses, which seem numberless from the low vantage point of the wagon – like a great equine ribbon stretching out in front of us. Some care for the younger and older passengers. Some make repairs and perform general upkeep and services on the living area portion of the wagon. Sometimes we jump out together to weed or harvest a field of crops, or bury our dead -- always returning again to the wagon to resume the journey.
The work is busy, but not hurried. It is being carried out skillfully and without complaint. The work also appears to be largely self-organized; each person seems to know what they need to do and how to do it. The younger passengers are apprenticing with the older ones.
Various ‘official figures’ periodically descend from the largely-ceremonial driver’s area in front of the wagon -- sometimes offering assistance to the orderly work, sometimes hindering it. Occasionally, all work stops as one of the officials mounts the elevated seat and rails on passionately about some mundane topic or other before leaving us alone. But overall, the physical demands of the jobs at hand and the steady competence of the workers continually trump all but cursory distractions from the ever-revolving cast of officials.
And then something changes.
The horses are abruptly unhitched and turned loose. They are replaced with a large ornate metallic box, belching black smoke, that begins to accelerate us over the rough terrain. The wagon pitches and lurches violently now, as we plow rapidly over and through obstacles we had formerly taken great effort to avoid. The frightened passengers scramble to find a seat. Several less fortunate ones are trampled to death in the rush. Several also fall out to their deaths as the wagon careens down the uneven, obstacle-laden path. The wagon suddenly veers from the path, effortlessly flattening vast swaths of the countryside with an ease of destructiveness that strikes me as obscene.
Suddenly, the sides of the wagon become covered over by beige panels composed of some smooth synthetic substance, obscuring the view outside the wagon. Fluorescent lights are quickly installed overhead. An elaborate, brightly-colored electronic console drops down in front of each person. We are separated by thin-but-functional cubicle walls. I can no longer see who is next to me or around me, but I don’t care. I am mesmerized by the flickering lights and sounds. A pleasant flow of ‘room-temperature’ air circulates around my face. I am handed a drink that soothes my throat and makes me vaguely dizzy. All that I need to do can be done from my console. All that I need can be obtained from my console. I drift in and out of an uneasy sleep as the wagon continues to heave and jolt, presumably still plowing through the countryside. But I’m not sure. I can’t see where we are. I no longer know what season it is. I can’t even tell if it is day or night.
A thunderous crunch suddenly shakes the wagon, and jars me fully awake. And then, just as abruptly, the inside of the wagon becomes still and quiet. The violent crashing of the wheels and heaving of the wagon has vanished. We seem to be flying, but it’s difficult to tell. I cannot see out the windows, nor do any outside sounds penetrate the secured window panels. I have a vague sensation of acceleration forward and upward, but again, I can’t be sure. Changes from moment to moment are subtle to the point of unnoticeable.
In any case, our path seems much smoother now. It is not overtly unpleasant – but still, something doesn’t feel quite right. The former comfortingly-chaotic bustle of co-workers has been replaced by a low, ponderous hum of electronics and an occasional glimpse of one of my fellow passengers scurrying past my work area, head buried in a portable screen. I can no longer recall their names. The wagon seems to be enveloped by a thick, heavy ennui, even as the content offered by the screens becomes more and more frenzied and elaborate. A numbing sadness washes over me in waves. I drift off to sleep again.
I wake with a start.
The sensation of altitude change – alternating up and down -- is palpable now. I feel a subtle high-frequency shaking of my work area that seems to be intensifying. Several of my console screens are malfunctioning. The air has become stale, and a searing headache grips my temples. I hear the sound of tearing metal outside the wagon, but I cannot imagine the source. Faint ribbons of an acrid, burning smell waft through my cubicle.
I leave my cubicle in an attempt to find the driver’s area. I am convinced that something must be horribly wrong. I pass console after console of screen-lit faces -- some fearful and cowering, some gesturing angrily, some howling in laughter, but most just staring blankly at the flickering screens, hands pressed to their temples. A familiar face on every screen now assures that everything is under control. It will be all right. There are charts and numbers to prove it. We are in a rough patch, but the future looks bright. Everyone should remain calm. Return to your screens. Resume your relaxation exercises.
After traversing a bewildering maze of cubicles, I finally reach a door leading to the driver’s area. There is a steady coming-and-going of the same officials I remember from before – but something is different about them now. They seem more frantic – and angrier. Their former air of jovial incompetence has been replaced by a barely-repressed air of cold violence lurking just below a veneer of efficient politeness. There is something grotesquely inhuman about them as they pass in and out of the door. A wave of gooseflesh runs down my arms.
I slip through the door and stand as unassumingly as possible against the wall, watching the frenzied activity with distress. Violent arguments break out regularly among the officials – each one ending with a swift beheading. There is no reaction to the extreme verbal and physical brutality. It is apparently normal.
To my alarm, I notice that the windows inside the driver’s area have also been covered by the same beige panels that exist around my cubicle. There are no gaps; no direct observation of the outside is possible from the cockpit. My eyes quickly fix on the screens -- there must be SOME indication here of where we are! In horror, I realize that each screen merely shows a different measure of the wagon’s forward and upward acceleration. The operators at the control consoles, frantically turning knobs and barking orders into their headsets, seem to be solely trying to maximize these various acceleration parameters. Occasional failures to maximize a given parameter results in a swift beheading.
I cannot believe my eyes. The gooseflesh returns, but as a wave the runs the length of my body this time. I feel the hair rising on my neck. My breath quickens and blood rushes to my face. Good God! THEY don’t even know where we are! How DARE they?!
Enraged, I grab one of the beheading axes and bury it into a nearby console. Sparks fly, and a great chorus of angry yelling rises up. I extricate the axe from the smoking console and hurl it against one of the window panels. It resists the first blow, but the second blow dislodges a small corner piece. A harsh unfamiliar light streams into the cockpit. Numerous hands grasp me firmly and blows rain down on my back and neck. I am shoved violently against the wall, my face becoming pressed hard up against the now-open corner of the window.
I can see now.
We are far, far above the surface of the Earth. I can barely make out the ground as we pass above brief gaps in the oddly-colored cloud cover. Holy crap! We must be miles up! I strain my eyes to view the outer part of the wagon. It is indeed disintegrating, as I feared. Numerous sleek, shiny, metallic engines, which have now replaced the single old ornate black one, are smoking and shaking violently. Several of these engines are partially severed from their moorings. I watch in horror as one rips free entirely and falls away from the wagon, which seems to now be barely maintaining altitude.
The cockpit is in tumult. Warm blood – not mine -- spatters the side of my face. Then, in a great spasm of light, sound, and motion, all the remaining engines in view rip free and fall away.
As a dull axe slams repeatedly into the back of my neck, we begin our descent.