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In the Net of Dreams: Prologue

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In The Net of Dreams

by Wm. Mark Simmons

 

"We are such stuff

As dreams are made of, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep."

--The Tempest; Act IV, Scene 1--

 

"What dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil?"

--Hamlet; Act III, Scene 1--

 

"And now for something completely different...."

--Monty Python's Flying Circus--

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

DREAMLAND FILES / MEMORY EXTRACT

Subfile: FANTASYWORLD

Cephalic Index: P2A <Michael Kelson Straeker>

Cellular Unit: 927664[Om]793^216.557[Sub]4|||2|20|53|||

 

The Ghost in the Machine.

That’s me, Straeker mused as he leaned stood before the highest window in his wizard’s tower. He shook his head, then inhaled deeply, savoring the scent of freshly cut wheat. It smelled real, but the olfactory stimuli were as much a computerized contrivance as everything else.

Down below, a line of peasants were scything their way through the field adjacent to the old stone tower like a wave undulating in slow motion. "Serfs’ up," he murmured, wishing Ripley were here; the rest of the programming staff never seemed to appreciate his obscure puns.

He gazed at the fields and forests, spreading out before him like a patchwork quilt of green, gold, and brown, stitched with fifteenth century stone and wattle huts. Again (as so many times before) he tried to dispel their apparent reality to his senses.

He couldn’t. Even though he knew better.

He knew that the world he now inhabited was not reality--unless, of course, you inserted the word "virtual" in front as a qualifier. The fields and forests were nothing more than Program-generated conceptualizations--hypnogenous projections of a master computer known as "The Machine".

It was supposed to be a game: the ultimate evolutionary step in interactive computer programs. At the Dreamland Complex you could choose between several dozen Programworlds, enter a sensory deprivation/life-support tank called a "Cradle", and have your consciousness--or psyche--projected into a dreambody or "avatar" in the Computer-fabricated milieu of your choice.

The Programworlds were not actualities within the physical universe. They were computerized counter-realities that only existed in that infinitesimal void between the synapses of the human brain and the interface circuitry of Dreamland’s supercomputer.

The Ghost in the Machine....

In a sense, every visitor to the Fantasyworld Program was a "ghost" in The Machine. The significant difference was that their psyches all had real bodies, back in the real world, to return to when they exited the program.

Mike Straeker, alias Daggoth the Dark, did not.

His "real" body was surely dead by now. And that neat little paradox made his present circumstances very unique: more than anyone else, he truly was the Ghost in The Machine.

As he contemplated the view, he experienced another wave of dizziness. He staggered and clutched at the window’s mossy sill as vertigo was followed by a burst of blinding pain that ricocheted around the inside of his skull. It was always the same--no worse than the previous attacks. And no better. And unlikely to get any worse or any better but almost certain to stay the same and plague his existence for all of the days and months and years to come.

Perhaps for all eternity.

Cursing roundly, he turned and stumbled across the flagstoned chamber toward the bookshelves. There was no doubt in his mind, now; he had waited too long before making the final transfer.

Oh, he had been so clever: cheating death by escaping into the Computer, trading the Real World for a Programworld so that he could exchange his failing body for a healthy dreambody--an avatar with the promise of a long life free of pain and infirmity.

But in his timidity, he had waited too long in making the final commitment: the disease had been left behind, but not before the tumor had taken a sizable chunk of his brain. Which meant a sizable chunk of his current Cephalic Index file. The tumor was gone, but so was the brain tissue where the malignancy had made its inroads. Since the template was damaged, his last psyche-pattern update had been corrupted, as well. He had escaped his own mortality. But not soon enough to enter the Fantasyworld Program whole.

Regrets and recriminations were useless, though. By now his body had been discovered, disconnected from the cerebral and bio-sensors, removed from the womblike environment of his Cradle, and buried somewhere. Or cremated. In the outside world Michael Kelson Straeker was officially dead. There he had been beyond help.

But here he still might have a chance! In Fantasyworld his wizard’s avatar wielded powers beyond anything imaginable in the mundane world of so-called reality. And, even though his consciousness, his very existence, was now reduced to a state of piezoelectric patterns in an extensive computer program, it still seemed a far better alternative to that final, unknown void that waited beyond death.

The question of his soul (mortal or immortal?) bothered him less than these damnable migraines! He had to believe that his programming skills might achieve the healing here that the science of Medicine had failed to provide during the course of his former existence outside of The Machine.

The room was half-filled with dusty stacks of tomes and illuminated scrolls. He had hoped that one of this world’s arcane sciences might provide the cure for his malady. But hundreds of hours of research had yielded nothing in the way of relief and puzzling out the thaumaturgic texts had often made his headaches worse.

Another spasm of pain caused his anger to flare. He kicked the stack nearest his foot and the mystical books flew across the chamber. A couple of them flapped around the room a bit before deciding to roost on a high shelf.

There was a hissing sound and he whirled around, tripping on his sorcerer’s robe in the process. A black cat, perched on a footstool in the corner, was watching him with wide golden eyes. "Shut up!" the mage snapped in annoyance.

"But I didn’t say anything," the cat protested in a wounded voice.

"You were going to!"

The ebony feline gestured with one paw. "Am I that predictable now?"

"Yes." Daggoth the Dark tugged at his robe and adjusted his conical headgear, recovering a little of his lost dignity in the process. "That’s part of what makes you--"

"A familiar!" groaned the cat. It jumped down from the stool. "You want I should go see the apothecary this afternoon?"

"I’m not out of aspirin, yet!" he roared, swinging his foot at another stack of books. They prudently scattered in all directions before his foot could make contact.

"But it’s your head again?" the cat asked in a way that held no question to it at all. "How about an anti-pain spell?"

"I need something permanent, dammit!" He flung himself down on an anachronistic sofa and moaned. "It’s not just the pain--it’s the gaps in my memory, in my thinking. If I have a train of thought, it gets derailed." He shook his head. "Blank spots...mental fuzziness...not to mention occasional double-vision."

"Sounds more like the end result of a three-day bender, to me."

"Out!" bellowed the magician. "Out, out, damned cat!"

"I’m only trying to help," it protested peevishly, backing toward the door.

"No one can help me," Daggoth the Dark said softly. "The answer I seek can’t be found in the books and tomes of lesser sorcerers. I’m the greatest mage left to this world, and not even I have the power to conjure myself to health!" He smiled ruefully. "Magician, heal thyself."

His black-furred famulus paused halfway out the door. "Well, if magic itself is not powerful enough, perhaps the powers of the gods are. That is, if you want a cure badly enough to get religion."

"The gods?" Daggoth snorted disdainfully. "Bob Ripley and I created those so-called gods. We programmed most of them out of textbooks on mythology. This world has only one true god and that is The Machine! And, before I fled from the world beyond, I was its High Priest: I am the Programmer!" He started to rise but suddenly fell back and covered his eyes with a shaking hand. "Was," he corrected in a small voice. "I was the Programmer. The Chief of Programming, to be precise. They must have someone new, by now."

"Then you are out of favor with your god?"

"Out of favor?" The man considered. "Nooo. More like out of touch. No console, no access protocol, no means of interfacing even the peripheral data banks. In other words, out of luck!"

Straeker thought upon the reality beyond the boundaries of the Program, of the Access and Monitoring Ports in Dreamland’s Control Central. "If I were on the outside, again, I could pull my original psyche-patterns out of the Cephalic Index Files: I could impress those healthy engrams over the damaged brain-patterns I’m stuck with now." He sat up, a flicker of hope starting to glimmer in his eyes. "That might just do it! That might restore the neural paths and memory clusters lost to the tumor since that last psychescan!" Then he clutched his head. "But it’s no use! I don’t have that kind of access from inside the Program!" Slowly, he lay back down.

His familiar did not understand the meaning of most of the words, but it had caught the tone behind them. "Then your god will not help you?"

"My ‘god’ can go to hell!"

There was a long and thoughtful pause. "He can?"

"Yes," snapped the mage, turning his face to the wall; "it can!"

"Oh! I did not comprehend before. This one you call ‘The Machine’--it is a Demon?"

"As appropriate a term as any I could devise under the present circumstances," muttered Daggoth.

"Does that mean yes?"

"Yes, yes...." His voice was muffled and distant.

"They why do you not conjure this Demon and demand its services? Adjure its cooperation with bell, book, and candle?"

It took a moment to sink in. "What?" he roared, coming up off the couch like a volcanic eruption.

"You know the process better than I." The cat was backing away again, trying to keep one eye on the apoplectic wizard and the other on its own escape route. "Draw a pentagram, conjure the Demon, and command it to do your bidding."

"Conjure the--" The wizard nearly choked on his laughter. "How do you conjure a Computer and force it--a thing of logic and circuitry--by magic, to alter the Program of its own internal reality? You’re talking about summoning The Machine to appear inside of one of its own master programs! The Program would be running the Computer instead of vice versa! That’s...." He stopped, a stunned expression slowly giving way to a beatific smile. "...entirely feasible!"

The concept was so outrageous, so unthinkable, that Straeker was momentarily confounded by the sheer audacity of it. Hope flared again and it took all of his willpower just to sit down and think the whole thing through.

The Programworlds--and more specifically Fantasyworld, where he now resided--were monitored by an external staff of technicians. The Programming crew--particularly those directly responsible to the Chief of Programming--had the power to manipulate the various Programs and Subprograms. Given time and access authority, they could alter the Program Matrix, itself.

But that was on the outside.

Daggoth the Dark moaned as his head began to throb again. Think! he chided himself. If external reprogramming is impossible, then what could be done with internal Program manipulation?

When visiting any of Dreamland’s Programworlds, one’s psyche resided in an avatar appropriate to that particular environment or culture. But like one’s real body in the real world, the dreambody was subject to the laws and events of that particular Dreamland Programworld. If his avatar were to throw a rock at a window, the Computer would calculate weight, force, and trajectory to decide if he would hit or miss his target. It would then produce the appropriate physical results and material manifestations.

But Fantasyworld did not stop at duplicating the physics of mundane reality. Here, magic was very much a part of natural law and order. As he decided which spells to cast and performed them, the Computer made calculations based on component, ability, and magic-theory tables, and then produced the appropriate magical results.

Or failures, as he too well knew.

In short, the laws of both Nature and Magic in this world were governed and maintained by the Computer. The Machine was, indeed, god.

Of course, The Machine was still initially programmed externally, and was still subject to the external monitoring and guidance systems. But it was also self-programming, making thousands of Program adjustments every second; every time someone lit a fire, chopped down a tree, threw a rock, or cast a spell, the Program was minutely changed and updated. Every action taken in Dreamland was a miniature act of reprogramming the whole Programworld. In effect, it was possible to change the Master Program from within its own context. At least in a Lilliputian sense, anyway.

So if a little--then why not a lot? And, if the Computer was programmed internally as well as externally, why not summon The Machine, itself, for direct programming and input?

He frowned suddenly: he knew why not.

That process was tantamount to an internal takeover. It would certainly alter the primary Program Command Sequence. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot.

He couldn’t be sure at this point. But, if he was able to turn the directive input around, it could very well nullify all external directive input. Whether that condition lasted for just a nanosecond, or a bit longer, he couldn’t be completely certain.

But that was their problem and not his, he decided. As long as his tampering didn’t undo the basic structure of Dreamland’s Operating System, that is. There had been some evidence of Matrix instability of late and he would have to exercise caution: it wouldn’t do him any good to find a cure if he destroyed his own world in the process!

The door swung open and a turtle slowly shuffled into the room, walking somewhat erect on its hind limbs and carrying a notepad.

Straeker frowned and consulted the digital readout on a large, wall-mounted hourglass. "Pascal, are you early?"

"Um, nope, Your Mageship," it answered leisurely: "late, as usual."

The wizard softly cursed the inherent glitches of silicon-based chronometry and reclined upon the sofa again. "Not that it matters today," he inquired mildly, "but why are you late?"

"Um, welp, as Your Wizardness must surely remember, I am a turtle--order Chelonia, suborder Cryptodira--"

Michael Straeker/Daggoth the Dark waved his hand in a get-to-the-point gesture.

"--a toothless, slow-moving reptile, according to the Phylum Factorum," continued the toothless, slow-moving reptile. "If you wanted a subroutine with some speed, Your Shamanhood should have considered some other form of anthropomorphism--"

"And not mixed my program metaphors," the wizard concluded. "Enough, already! I’m going to want you to take some notes." He cleared his throat. "A lot of notes."

The turtle booted up its notepad and gestured with a stylus. "Logged on," it stated in testudineous tones.

"And then I want you to get a copy of my journal over to the Archdruid of Dyrinwall, ASAP."

Pascal would have raised an eyebrow had he possessed one but had to settle for nodding in what he hoped was an ironic manner.

Daggoth tried to pick up his train of thought where he had left off. His only other worry was that he pull it off without betraying his presence to the outside staff. To the Dreamland Project and Cephtronics Inc., he no longer existed--except as a bronze plaque on a wall somewhere.

Here, in Fantasyworld, he was no longer Michael K. Straeker, Chief of Programming: he was Daggoth the Dark, an archmage of such power that there was nothing in this world that might be denied him. He didn’t want anyone or anything to interfere with that.

"Chief?"

He got up and wandered over to the book stacks again. Must think carefully, he told himself; cover all the angles.

He hadn’t done anything legally or morally wrong, he was sure. At least, not yet. But he was just as sure that if Cephtronics or the Project learned the true nature of his existence within the Program, they would be very unhappy about it.

"Chief?"

No. Better to stay completely dead and buried. If they found him out, the best treatment that he could hope for would be that reserved for a lab specimen. And he did not relish the thought of spending the rest of his "life" being poked, prodded, measured, and spied upon.

"Chief!" yelled the cat.

"What?" he yelled back.

"What if you cannot control the Demon once you summon him?"

"Well," his eyebrows raised speculatively, "we’re going to find ourselves in one hell of a mess!"

 

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