The mine supply truck that Javier Pobre and Ralph Pence had stowed away in slowed markedly as it took a sharp exit off the highway near the Mexican border, giving the two drifters from the violent streets of L.A. an opportunity to safely jump from the back. Javier and Ralph had never been in an arid desert at night. They stood silently for a moment as the truck sped away, eyeing the cold, endless terrain warily.
Nearby, on the edge of the highway, stood a sign that read Spectre... 20.
"Any port in a storm," muttered Javier, starting off down the shoulder of the highway toward the town, Ralph's short, hunched figure following close behind. The miles went past slowly, silently, neither man speaking, hunger and fatigue dogging their steps. A smile lit up Javier's handsome features when he glimpsed the bright lights and the large, open gates of the park.
"Welcome to Morpheus Park," said Ralph, reading the large sign arching over the entrance. "Travelers are free to use any of its resources and conveniences. Courtesy: The Town of Spectre. Can you believe that, Javier?" he asked.
But Javier wasn't listening, for he was off and running into the oasis-like park, across its lush green sward toward the groves of trees, where sparkling water fountains and picnic tables stacked with food waited. Soon the two men were lying in the fountains, their hands and mouths stuffed with sandwiches and fruit.
"The people of Spectre sure are generous and kind," effused Javier, looking fondly toward the lights of the town beyond the park, "leaving the park lights on late into the night for travelers like us. Providing food, water, blankets ... even pillows."
"They must be fabulously wealthy to have created this amazing oasis in the middle of the desert," observed Ralph, casting his eyes about at the numerous varieties of plant life visible in the light.
"Must be," replied Javier. "And it looks like we have the entire park for ourselves. Sure beats sleeping on urine-soaked city sidewalks surrounded by gangbangers and drug fiends."
"Amen," whispered Ralph.
The park lights dimmed, as if signaling it was time to take rest.
"This spot looks good," said Javier, grabbing a blanket and lying down on a large, smooth, black stone bench speckled with red spots that resembled an oversized piece of bloodstone.
"I'll crash here," said Ralph, lying next to a small tree identification sign at the foot of a small grove. Propping his head up on his elbow, he read, "The Ginkgo Biloba is the only example of a broad-leafed deciduous gymnosperm tree. It is a living fossil that first appeared in the Middle Jurassic, 174 to 163 million years ago. Imagine that," he said dropping his head down on the pillow and drifting toward sleep. "A dinosaur tree ..."
* * * *
Ralph woke up in the dark, sweating profusely in the hot, moist jungle-like air. Pulling back the blanket, he listened to the grunting sound emanating from the ginkgo tree near him. Sitting up slowly, he scanned its branches until he saw the creature: a big lizard with long claws and tail crouching on a large limb, shuffling about restlessly, watching for prey passing on the game trail below.
Suddenly, the clawed lizard leapt to the ground, snapping up a small dinosaur in its curved, serrated teeth. Frozen stiff with terror and awe, Ralph watched as the predator clawed its way back up the ginkgo's trunk and fed. All he could do was lie still and observe as the lizard hunted through the long night.
* * * *
Javier woke up in the dark, shivering in the cold, dry, morgue-like air, staring at the smooth back of the stone bench, which was glowing. Sitting up, he watched as a horrifying image—the battered face and body of a dead man—flowed slowly across its smooth surface. From deep inside the stone, a somber voice resonated:
"Peter Orloff, homeless, age 34. Murdered in Spectre. Remains found in a municipal drainage ditch."
Javier's eyes opened wide with disbelief as the face slowly changed into that of a strangled woman with a rivulet of blood running down her cheek, a noose dangling from her limp neck.
"Cynthia Odell, hitchhiker, age 26. Murdered in Spectre. Remains found on the town hall steps."
All Javier could do was sit and watch with morbid fascination as the faces of Spectre's numerous victims rolled on through the night.
* * * *
The sun was rising, spreading its soft light through the trees of the park, when Ralph shook Javier awake.
"The craziest thing happened last night!" shouted Ralph. "I woke up and saw a dinosaur in this ginkgo tree, and boy did it look real! I stayed up all night watching it hunt. I must have fallen back to sleep, 'cause when I woke up this morning, I realized it was just a dream."
"Something crazy happened to me, too!" exclaimed Javier. "I woke up on the bench and discovered it had turned into a video screen displaying a who's who of transients murdered in Spectre. I know the victims' names and what they look like. I guess I fell back to sleep sometime during the night. It sure seemed real, though. As real as your dinosaur."
Javier fell silent, and thoughtfully rubbed his mustache between his fingers.
"I wonder," he murmured, looking toward the high walls surrounding the gated community, "if we can learn what this is all about over there."
* * * *
Javier and Ralph took a shower and stowed the blankets and pillows back in their marked cabinets before heading out of the park. The kindly security guard at the gate directed them to an office in the town hall where a diminutive, middle-aged woman in a black suit with large, mournful eyes and excessive makeup sat behind a desk smoking Pall Mall Lights in a long cigarette holder.
"Good morning, gentlemen," she said, in a deep, resonant voice. "Welcome to Spectre. My name is Denise Mara. I'm Spectre's Social and Community Service Worker. I hope you slept well and found everything to your liking in our lovely park?"
"Thank you," replied Javier. "You're very kind. But how did you know we spent the night there?"
"Look around the town, Mr. Pobre," she said waving her tiny hand at the office's large plate-glass window. "Notice the profusion of cameras mounted on the exterior of the buildings. They're also scattered throughout the park. They're but a small part of the elaborate security measures used to protect our unique community. We've already scanned your irises and know your backgrounds ... which I am happy to say are crime-free."
Denise took a deep draw on her cigarette and blew a smoke ring. Ralph and Javier tried not to stare at her wet eyes, which glowed faintly, and the odd birth defect in the middle of her forehead composed of lines faintly resembling a twisted spider web.
The Social and Community Service Worker handed them a tiny pamphlet entitled, Spectre, The Proud Home Of America's Deep Sleep State, and a meal voucher entitling them to free meals at the restaurants in town.
"Spectre does not have a homeless problem," she continued, her voice dropping still lower. "And never will. Be sure you are out of Spectre before the gates close at eight. You are free to stay in Morpheus Park as long as you wish, of course. Free bus tickets to a destination of your choice will be available at the station whenever you feel the inclination to leave."
Ralph looked at the pamphlet and asked in a puzzled voice, "What's a Deep Sleep State?"
Denise quietly blew a smoke ring, punctuating it with a grim smile.
* * * *
The people they passed in the street looked ordinary enough: an old man with a long white beard and cane; a young girl wearing an attractive floral-print, butterfly-sleeve, split dress; a young couple affectionately holding hands. But their eyes, bright, shiny, and liquid, seemed to glow, and their faces were unusually calm, rested, and aloof.
Javier and Ralph came to the offices and the press of The Spectre's Eye several blocks from the town hall. "Shouldn't we read this now?" urged Ralph, brandishing the pamphlet in his hand.
"We'll read it after we investigate those murdered people I saw in my dream," Javier replied firmly.
Entering the main office, they went directly to the newspaper's computerized archives, which were accessible to the public.
"Here's a picture of Peter Orloff," said Javier, locating the article about the murdered transient. "That's him. The man I dreamt about. And here's a picture of Cynthia Odell, the murdered hitchhiker."
"There were a total of 40 victims, according to this article," said Ralph. "All of them within the first year of the town's founding. And the murderer or murderers were never found."
"I don't understand how I could have dreamt about them," whispered Javier. "All of them. It seems impossible. I don't think it was a dream."
"I need a coffee," said Ralph.
"Good idea," replied Javier. "I'm exhausted from staying up half the night."
* * * *
"We don't get too many people from out of town in here," said the tall young girl with the Cheryl nametag pinned to her blouse, standing behind the counter of the Cozy Cup.
"Your eyes don't shine!" exclaimed Ralph.
"Or course not," she continued, placing two cups of steaming coffee on the counter. "I'm not one of them. The Dreamers bus us in in the morning so we can do the work. Waiters, gas station attendants, cashiers, cleaners, maids ... all of us. Then they hustle us out on another bus before the bats come out. They're strange people, but they sure pay well." Cheryl smiled faintly and went back to wiping the counter.
"Look," said Ralph pointing at the brochure Denise Mara had given them. "Spectre was founded as a place away from America where the adherents of the Deep Sleep State could practice their unique form of communal meditation in isolation," he read, "… scientific meditation during sleep that allows the community collective control over the REM phase."
"I see," muttered Javier, his eyes filled with sudden understanding. "They can manipulate their dreams, and evidently ours. That explains the civics lesson on homelessness and the arboreal lesson on the ginkgo tree they gave us last night."
"Spectre's 666 citizens resent the federal government's classification of the community and its self-declared designation of the Deep Sleep State as a cult," continued Ralph, his voice trembling. "Our civic awareness slogan is, The Night Is Ours!"
"You better believe it," whispered Cheryl, refilling the boys' coffee cups. "It's rumored the Dreamers killed 40 or so transients in their dreams; that some of the adherents of the Deep Sleep State couldn't control the violent impulses of their own subconscious ids. Either way, the Dreamers gated the community after that awful business. Keeping the homeless out must have worked, 'cause there hasn't been a murder here since."
* * * *
"Let's clear out of here," urged Ralph stepping out of the Cozy Cup into the warm, sunny street. "These Dreamers are nuts."
"Right," said Javier walking briskly toward the bus station.
"Wait a minute," said Ralph stopping abruptly in front of a small bar called The Forgetful 'i'. "Maybe our meal voucher includes drinks?"
"Maybe," replied Javier, grinning with hopeful expectation.
The portly bartender looked up from the copy of The Spectre's Eye he was reading and smiled at the two new customers.
"Welcome, fellow outsiders!" he declared. "What'll it be?"
"All we have is a meal voucher," said Javier.
"That's just fine," beamed the bartender. "Drinks and food from the grille are on the town."
Javier and Ralph ordered a large meal and drinks. The comfort and privacy of the shady bar calmed them, and soon they began to talk lightly of ways to circumvent the Dreamers if they were forced to spend another night in the park. Drinking and laughing jovially, the hours passed quickly.
The sun was setting when Javier and Ralph stumbled out of the bar. They panicked for a moment when they discovered the bus station was closed for the day. They were too inebriated to walk out into the desert, far from the influence of the Dreamers, so they headed down the quiet streets and out the city gate toward Morpheus Park.
"Look at the bats!" cried Ralph, pausing to peer back at the wall surrounding the town.
"Cheryl was right," declared Javier. "The buses have gone and the bats have come out."
Several large bat-like drones glided slowly over the buildings and the high wall, scanning the dark streets of Spectre for the foolish and the lost.
* * * *
"This'll fool 'em," slurred Ralph, holding a whiskey bottle from The Forgetful 'i'. "We'll sleep far from any benches and trees. Right out here in the open where they can't get us."
Grasping blankets and pillows, the two men dropped down onto the open ground between a grove of oaks and a grove of ash trees and fell fast asleep.
Javier woke up feeling a sharp pain in his ribs; a young girl stood over him holding a quarterstaff, urging him to rise to his feet. Ralph soon joined him, prodded on by a girl also wielding a traditional quarterstaff from the Middle Ages. Ahead, lining the open passage between the two groves of trees, stood a gauntlet. One line of girls stood next to the oaks, wearing black medieval kirtles and holding long oak quarterstaffs. The opposite line of girls, next to the ash trees, wore red kirtles and held long quarterstaffs made of ash.
Pushed into the mouth of the gauntlet, the men stumbled and fell to their knees, crawling and crying beneath the blows of the numerous quarterstaffs. When they emerged from the gauntlet, bruised and bleeding, they were dragged back to the opening and forced to endure another round at the hands of the girls. Far off to the side stood a crowd of townspeople cheering them on, including an old man with a long white beard and cane; a young girl wearing an attractive floral-print, butterfly-sleeve, split dress; and a young couple holding hands. And so it went the whole night long, the two men forced to endure the unendurable.
Javier shook Ralph awake. Morpheus Park was aglow with morning light. Neither of them felt a need to discuss the events of the night. No words could explain away the bruises that covered their bodies. The dream they had shared was as real as any nightmare could be…
* * * *
The bus tickets were waiting at the station, just as Denise had promised. Spectre's Social and Community Service Worker was waiting there too.
"It's true!" exclaimed Javier, pausing at the top of the stairs leading into the bus. Looking into the eyes of the somber woman standing below, he said, "You do own the night!"
Denise quietly blew a smoke ring, punctuating it with a grim smile.