The Dream Machine
By Joel Tagert
Published Issue 085, January 2021
Author’s note: The underlined sentences in this story were generated from the preceding sentences by Talk to Transformer (https://app.inferkit.com/demo), a predictive neural network, with minimal alterations for narrative and grammatical continuity.
When he reached the top of the hill and saw the highway in the moonlight extending downward in a long straightaway, Terrell jammed the accelerator to the floor. He could just see the tail lights of the black LTD on the far side of the hill, and he was desperate not to lose them.
The Bel Air’s engine roared and coughed, the car rattling and whining unpleasantly. It had sustained some damage to the front end when his assailants had forced him off the road and into a cattle fence ten minutes earlier. The crash had broken both headlights, but now that was to his advantage; he was running dark.
Who were they? He had his suspicions, but couldn’t say for certain. Two men in dark clothes and ski masks had pulled him from his vehicle, chucked the keys far into the snowy Wyoming night, and beaten him just enough to leave him collapsed in the grass. Then they’d taken the stainless-steel suitcase containing his machine from the backseat and raced off.
But since the day he’d absent-mindedly locked himself and his wife Layla out with the keys still in the ignition, Terrell kept an extra key taped to the undercarriage. Bleeding from nose and brow, still struggling to breathe from a wallop to the stomach, he started the Bel Air up again and went racing in pursuit.
He checked the gas: a third full. He could only hope it was more than was in the LTD’s tank. The radio was playing Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: “The world won’t get no better, if we just let it be … na, na, na, na, na, na.” He was surprised to hear it here in the boonies; some college station, maybe, out of Laramie. It was a cheery enough tune, but in his current state it felt unutterably mournful.
He shook his head, trying to clear it. How long had he been driving? It was dangerous enough, with just the half-moon for light, without him passing out. Hopefully he didn’t have a concussion. He had closed somewhat with the red eyes of his quarry, however – and they were taking the exit, a Sinclair station glowing like a lighthouse amid the storm.
If there was a chance for him to reclaim his invention, this was it. He slowed and waited by the roadside until the driver had gotten out and gone inside, the other fellow, a thin blond man, was standing outside, leaning against the car and smoking a cigarette as the gas pumped.
Terrell had only one weapon. He stepped on the gas, heard pebbles fly under the wheels. Blondie saw him a second too late, and the Bel Air clipped him as it sideswiped the LTD. As soon as it had stopped, Terrell flung himself out the door and came around to the left back door of the other car. Tearing it open, he seized the heavy stainless steel case and dragged it free.
He had a few seconds at most before the other man reached him. There was no way he could outrun them. He entered the combination, released the buckles, and opened the case.
Inside the dream machine waited, its core a circular arrangement of tiny silver pylons set in a complex, spiraling, wavelike arrangement of stipples, like a tub of mercury set in a centrifuge, bombarded with sound and then frozen. He flipped the first switch and the mercury came unfrozen, revolving as it rose and fell, a hypnotic silver whirlpool.
“Hey!” someone yelled. He looked up and saw blondie’s partner, a heavyset guy in a Carhartt jacket, coming around the car, and realized he knew him: it was the head of security from the lab, Pete Hostetter. He had a gun in his fist. “Whatever you’re doing, back away!”
“Do you even know what this is?” Terrell yelled.
“I know it’s company property,” Hostetter replied. “That’s enough for me. Now –”
Terrell flipped the second switch, and the gun started twitching, whirring.
Terrell held up a finger to his lips. “Wake up, Pete,” he whispered. “Get on your feet and go to the bathroom. Or we’re going to pop you.”
The man got back in the car, followed Terrell’s instructions. The door shut behind him.
Now in the passenger seat, he locked the doors. This meant he had to pee. He didn’t think. He just went. He made it back around to the backseat just as the windows showed the clerk poking his head out from the gas station door. “I called the cops!” he yelled.
Terrell saw Hostetter’s look of absolute shock, staring at the engineer in horror. He still had his dick out of his pants, crouched awkwardly in the gap between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, where he’d been peeing into the backseat. Eeriest of all was how the car door had swung shut behind him, as if propelled by an invisible hand.
“Don’t follow me!” Terrell yelled as he shut off the machine, closed the case and opened the door to the Bel Air.
He was in trouble, bad trouble. When he had realized what the machine was capable of, he had known what he had to do and where he had to go: their old house in Berkeley, full of the happiest memories of his life. Of course it was possible the machine could take him there now – it was nothing if not unpredictable – but the tone was wrong right now, the mood was wrong. Even if it triggered discontinuous events, he knew it was unlikely to alter how things felt.
But wasn’t that what he wanted, above all else? To drop the leaden yoke that had been on his shoulders, oh, forty years now? To see her face again …
It would happen in the house. How could it not?
Anxious, he turned the suitcase so it faced him in the passenger seat and opened it again. It was best to be prepared. He turned back to driving, the lines of the highway extending before him in the gibbous moon, an endless yellow river. His head hurt. His eyes slipped shut, just for a second …
A siren whooped and he was wide awake. Blue and red played in the rearview. Damn it! He flipped the first switch on the machine and it hummed to life. Should he hit it now, or was it better to stop?
Don’t be stupid. You may be a PhD, but you’re still a black man on a Wyoming highway.
There was no point in waiting; once the police were out of the vehicle, he thought there was a good chance of gunfire and more deaths. It was the logic of the thing. Better to veer into the unexpected, look forward. Terrell held the image of the road west before him, thought of rain-soaked beaches, gray skies, Layla’s hands, trying to forget the patrol car behind him. He flipped the switch again and grabbed the radio headset to talk to anyone, anyone, who might be able to get him to his friend that wasn’t a banshee.
He snapped the radio off and scanned the road for a good cover that wouldn’t expose his armored car. The next off-ramp was out of the question. Taking a look down the road was his best option.
He came to a roadblock in a shopping area that had become a warzone. But Terrell was more than a little familiar with car-to-car firefights. He’d been in a war before, in Vietnam, where he’d served in the Army Corps of Engineers, fighting the banshee soldiers of the Viet Cong. Now Vietnam was over, but banshee tech was the real winner, in the inevitable logic of proliferation.
Terrell shook his head to clear it. He was near panic. He found himself in what passed for downtown Rawlins, Wyoming, a police roadblock in front of him. No fewer than eight patrol cars, half from the Highway Patrol, were arrayed across the street, guns at the ready. This was very, very bad.
On the other hand, his vehicle was suddenly armored, his windshield reduced to a slit of thick bullet-proof glass, and he had a radio on hand. He also had knowledge, new abilities: how to fire a weapon, how to drive to kill, to evade, to escape.
Wait – did I know those things before? I was never a soldier.
But he had fought, of course, had seen the bodies of his squad mates explode in the directed sound-rays of the banshees …
There are no banshees! There’s no such thing!
“Doctor Jacobs!” came a voice – a very, very powerful loud voice. It rattled his bones, gave him an instant headache. “Get out of the vehicle with your hands in the air!”
One more try. I can still reach my friend Layla …
No! Not just my friend! My wife!
Dear God, what was happening to him? He wanted to change the world, but the machine was changing him along with it. If he kept using it, who knew what might happen?
The police banshee was tuning up now, a painful whine in his ears. Soon it would blast the doors off the armored car and maybe leave him a red paste on the interior. He put on the radio headset again for a little protection, turning it quickly from the channel where he’d heard his own name (spoken by a police negotiator, he’d assumed), heard music on the band and stopped. It was a familiar song: “The world has changed so very much, from what it used to be …”
He closed his eyes and rested his finger again on the switch. Things could still be better; he only needed to touch that deepest well of feeling and remember who he truly was. His name was Terrell Jacobs. He was an engineer and scientist working in Denver. He was married to Layla Renee Jacobs. She was not dead; there had been no highway accident years ago. He imagined her scent, the feeling of her skin, the way she cocked her head. They were walking in Washington Park together. One last time, he flipped the switch and said goodbye.
Terrell raised his head so he could see. A green light lit the room. “Great. So this means I’m back to reality, right?”
Terrell heard Layla’s soft laughter. “Tell me about it.”
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer, artist and longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword. His debut novel, INFERENCE, was released July 2017.
Dave Danzara has spent most of his life creating art. Born and raised in California, Dave won a scholarship to Laguna Art Institute of Southern California in 1994. His influences can be found in pop culture, sci-fi, fantasy, film and music. Graphic design and digital collage art have become Dave’s passion and signature. Thanks to social media, Dave has attracted the attention of musicians worldwide and has created album artwork for several bands of various genres. From Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Los Angeles, California, Dave’s art has been featured in many art galleries. He has 10 years of experience as a freelance videographer and is the Director, writer and Producer of “The Video Craze” documentary film. He is the owner of Vector Invader Productions. He has been involved in numerous freelance projects and short films. Dave enjoys the challenge of creating art; for him, it is a lifestyle. Find Dave’s work on Instagram: @lostintimedesigns
Born and raised in Taiwan with great zeal for exploring the world, Maggie Hung is always keen to up-skilling herself by learning new things whenever she gets a chance. She is a highly self-motivated and passionate designer equipped with multidisciplinary skills, and is committed to shaping useful and delightful interaction and simplifying complex information. She has a great interest in design and 10 years of experience in painting. She believes the best product lies in the greatest harmony between users, business, technology, and design.