But Do Mental Asylums Dream of Electric Seas?

Visiting my patients at the Navy Asylum was my favorite part of the week. Cyber-psychiatrists don't get many success stories, even if mine couldn't leave the asylum without risking a psychotic break.

"Hi, Doc." Robert always greeted me almost before I opened the door. He didn't see through the cameras as such, but he had told me that it felt like he did. Like a faded memory of the present, the gist of vision without the images. It was similar to how he had felt through radar systems. Much more peaceful, of course.

"Hello, Robert." Through my mostly human eyes he looked happy, and the real-time physiological ghosting around his face confirmed it. The mutual transparency of two people using a wide range of sensors on each other made many forms of politeness unnecessary, and we picked up the thread of our last conversation right away. "Did you think some more about the idea of leaving here for a full-time job?"

"Yeah. My answer's the same, Doc. I appreciate the idea, but I don't think I can. This place is good for me. You know that."

I did. Unspoken, but not at all out of sight, was the way his mind had deteriorated after leaving the Navy. His brain had come to need the state of constant neural interfacing with the huge complexity of a nuclear carrier -- its sensor systems, its vast computers, even its crew -- and it had starved and raved in the echoing isolation that was civilian life, as hyper-connected as it felt to most people. He had committed himself to the Asylum, I estimated, maybe with days to spare before killing himself like so many others.

The Asylum had saved his life. Now it was keeping him sane -- that it was my idea didn't make it any less true -- but also, in a way, trapping him. He could do some forms of remote work, of course, but his psyche had adapted to the building's systems, its cameras, drones, and information systems a poor but perhaps sufficient substitute to the ship his very neural tissue missed so much.

(And he had told me a secret. Through their connection to shared systems crewmates were connected to each other at a much deeper level than the Navy knew or acknowledged. Nobody said this aloud, but everybody knew what everybody else dreamed, and over time everybody on a ship dreamed the same dream. That's why some couldn't survive leaving their ships, and why he felt he couldn't leave the Asylum. Some part of him lived in or was identical to that shared dream.)

"I know, but last week I didn't give you any specifics because I hadn't gotten confirmation yet. I had a meeting yesterday with people from the Mayor's office, and they gave the green light."

"The Mayor's office? What sort of job are you talking about?"

"The Asylum's systems are no match for a ship's, but what about the city's? They are going to test military neural systems for city-wide monitoring, and you have the experience."

He blinked. I could see he was thinking furiously, trying to picture it. Maybe it was my imagination, but I could have sworn the smart speakers in the room were holding their breath.

"What the heck, Doc. It might drive me crazier than I was, but how can I say no? A city."

I smiled, relieved and guilty. He was right. This could very easily go bad for him. A city's systems were both larger and less elegant than a ship's, not a compact, well-trained entity ever-watchful of the outside world, but a busy, solipsistic mess turned into itself in fear and greed. Therapeutically speaking, it was a risky gamble for an uncertain gain.

(But I wanted to be the first urban psychiatrist in the literal sense. To be the first to know what a city dreamed, and he could find and tell me.)

He nodded and smiled at the thought I had not needed to express, and I had no doubt that all over the building patients were smiling fragments of a single unfathomable smile.