In the Net of Dreams: Chapter One
ON THE AIR
In The Net Of Dreams
by Wm. Mark Simmons
Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
The trouble with first-year fencing students is they all tend to think that theyre Zorro before the semester is half over. A few will even go so far as to challenge me to a match after the first month. I guess its a natural temptation when the instructor wears a kneebrace and an eyepatch. So once or twice a semester I find myself called out on the pisté like an ageing gunfighter challenged by some young punk hot to make a quick reputation.
I shouldnt complain: it provides me with an opportunity to demonstrate that true swordsmanship is as much a matter of skill and technique as speed and strength. And I get a little more respect from the class after their latest champion takes a drubbing from the Old Man. Which is what a fourteen-year difference in our respective ages makes me, I suppose.
My latest would-be DArtagnan was growing more frustrated by the second. It was bad enough to be beaten with the whole class looking on. What made it infinitely worse was the realization that my attention was elsewhere while my foil continued to hold him at bay.
Normally I would pretend to pay attention to my opponent-- out of courtesy, if nothing else. I was rarely mindful of the observers that hung out around the periphery of the gym--but I knew this one face from somewhere and I couldn't quite place it.
To merely say that she was beautiful would not come close to doing her justice; beauty must be anchored in character or it is just an empty freak of nature. Framed in a cascade of red hair, her features promised just the right blend of sophistication and sensuality. A knowing, worldly-wise countenance that spoke volumes of experience, yet it seemed unmarked by worldliness. Almost a contradiction; a face that was poised and yet open.
And speaking of open, Carter had allowed his foil to drift to the left following my feint: I cut my blade over his in a coupé and lunged. Scored. Ended the match five, zip.
We unmasked, degloved, and shook hands like civilized men of the twenty-first century.
"You're getting better every week, John," I told him. In point of fact, he had finally figured out that my eyepatch meant that I was blind on my left side.
He grinned sheepishly and the end-of-period bell sounded. My class turned from docile herd to thundering stampede in the direction of the showers.
The redhead was moving toward me as the rest of my fencing students left the gymnasium. She was tall--five-ten, maybe five-eleven--and had one of those impossibly perfect figures that are only found on the covers of old paperback books and cheap holo-zines. The only other place you found women who looked like this was in Dreamland--
And then I made the connection. She was a Dreamwalker.
More likely a Dreammaster, since I recognized her face. My growing interest suddenly withered: I could guess why she was here and what she wanted.
But: innocent until proven guilty, I reminded myself, grimly switching over into my "polite" mode. "Yes?"
"I am Natasha Skovoroda," she replied, extending her hand.
I started to take it and then froze with a second shock of recognition. No wonder she had looked familiar; Natasha Skovoroda was more than just a Dreammaster, she was an international star. And, more significantly, she had taken triple Gold in fencing at the last Olympics: Foil, Épée, and Sabré. "I'm honored," I said, finally remembering to take her proffered hand.
"Honored enough to have a drink with me?" Her voice had a low, husky quality that triggered an involuntary shiver between my shoulder blades.
"Your choice. I will buy."
"I don't drink."
"You must get terribly dehydrated." There was a dryness in her voice that won me. "What about dinner, then? I assume that you do eat?"
"Are you still buying?"
I considered. In spite of Ms. Skovoroda's standing, this encounter had "setup" written all over it. There had been other such approaches--some less subtle. "Okay," I gambled. "Dinner of your choice. But who pays for it depends on the coming negotiations."
She laughed, flashing perfect teeth. "You are the first American to pronounce it correctly with the first try. But, please: Tasha."
"All right. Tasha. It's obvious that you're asking for an opportunity to parley, not a date."
She looked rueful. "I am that transparent?"
"I get this approach every couple of months," I explained. "And not on account of my good looks."
She colored slightly but recovered well. "And do you turn them down?"
"You can tell me what it is that you really want over dinner. If I agree to it, you can pick up the check. If I turn you down, Dutch treat. Sound fair?"
She studied me. "You are a man of principles."
"I'm a creature of conscience."
She hesitated and I could almost hear the mental gears shifting.
"I know a place where the food is good and the atmosphere is--how you say--comfortable?"
The stilted English coupled with the faint Russian accent had utterly charmed me into submission.
* * * * *
I took my medication before hitting the showers.
Normally I would wait until I was leaving the gym, giving me a safety margin to make the drive home. Tonight, however, I wanted to give my brain cells the chance to sober up before I engaged in any mental fencing with Ms. Skovoroda.
I could have taken the easy route years ago: a few well-placed electrodes and a simple, push-button remote. When the pain starts to redline, a little microamperage along the right neural paths makes it all go away. Hard to believe but my surgeons convinced me with a demonstration on a lab monkey that had suffered hideous burns.
The doctors still bring it up every now and then. The drugs must be rotated to maintain their effectiveness, are potentially addictive, have numerous unpleasant side-effects. And theyre less efficient: even doped to the gills, the pain is still there. It doesnt bother me very much any more.
But its always there.
Along with the memory of a trembling monkey living in dazed, electronic bliss. Indifferent to food, sex, anything but that little button that it clutched to its emaciated chest, crouching in the corner, knee-deep in its own filth; its dreamy eyes focused on some inner simian nirvana. Seemingly lifeless except for spasm of its mangled paw every few minutes as it pumped the remote for another dose of current.
I can handle the chemicals. I know there are ten thousand bodies on ten thousand slabs every year who have said the same thing, but I believe I can deal with the chemicals.
I took a long, hot shower, dressed slowly, and called a cab. I didnt like leaving my car in the faculty parking lot overnight but, if the drugs are safer, its because I dont work without a net.
The "comfortable atmosphere" turned out to be a penthouse apartment in one of the city's ritziest hotels. I settled on the sofa and studied my surroundings while she dialed room service.
There were few personal effects in sight but a nearby bookshelf was overflowing with reading cassettes. A closer examination revealed a collection of authors that read like a Whos Who of fantasy and heroic fiction. One author, however, was conspicuously missing--even though I knew better, I could almost hope....
The painting over the fireplace--an oldstyle oils on canvas--sent hope to the showers when I noticed it a moment later. I got up and walked over to examine it when Natasha excused herself to go change. Her use of the phrase "into something more comfortable" brought to mind a number of truly awful movie scenarios, but I reminded myself that the average Russian citizen is unfamiliar with the sleazier aspects of American cinema.
I had never seen Ms. Skovorodas Dreamland avatar but there was no mistaking the identity of the woman in the portrait. There were differences, to be sure: the avatar had long, flame-colored hair that fell in waves over her shoulders and down her back--much thicker and redder than Natasha's, with two streaks of quicksilver that framed the face. The eyes were a deeper green--more of an emerald hue--and the arching copper brows and the pointed tips of her ears peeking through her hair indicated a mix of Human and Elven blood.
In spite of the changes, her avatar's face was her own. Most Dreamwalkers favored dreambodies with a physical appearance somewhat different from their own. But then so few of them were as stunning as Natasha Skovoroda in real life.
As for her outfit, her armor did not amount to much more than a chainmail bikini--a minimal breastplate and an insubstantial cross between a miniskirt and a loincloth. Even though the outfit was composed of small metal plates and interlocking links of chain, it could hardly be considered functional in any sense of the original intent. Rather, it was what the well-undressed pulp heroine was expected to wear in stories devoted to pubescent male fantasies.
I had to admit, though, that it did show off her body to a great advantage. Which was mostly the point, I supposed.
"What do you think?"
I continued to study the painting without turning. "I can see how increased exposure has brought you international fame." She chuckled, a low throaty sound, and I caught the scent of freshly applied perfume. "I should think, however, that youd want a bit more protection in battle. From wind as much as from weapons."
She sighed. "Perhaps--but it is the standard Amazon battledress. Ours not to question why...."
I shook my head. "Thats not the dress code I originally programmed for their culture. The Amazons have never been a tribe to flaunt their sexuality."
"Much has changed," she agreed. Her voice took on a serious tone. "That is why I have asked you here to talk."
I turned then. I had hoped--not really expected, you understand--but hoped that this time it might be different. Alas, her "something comfortable" was more peignoir than lounging outfit and the stage was set for the requisite seduction scene. She handed me a glass of wine and, had I been wearing a tie, I'm sure she wouldve loosened it for me. "Ah, yes. Talk. Well. Lets get down to business."
She sat on the sofa and patted the cushion beside her. I decided that I was big enough and old enough to protect myself, so I sat next to her.
"You want me to train you," I interrupted bluntly.
"How did you know?" Her hand went to her throat in a maidenly gesture of surprise. It was so self-consciously staged that I had to fight back a smile.
"Youre hardly the first. With dozens of Dreammasters offering advanced training, people still track me down to ask for a shot at some supposed inside track." I shook my head. "I havent been back inside since Dreamland went public a little over five years ago. I have no official standing in the Dreamranks--yet people come to me as if I were some kind of omnipotent Dreamlord who can unlock the forbidden secrets of the Fantasyworld milieu."
"Can you blame us? After all, you wrote the books." She nodded at a table across the room and I saw what I had missed before: a set of The Kishkumen Chronicles by yours truly. "And created most of the original Program. If anyone could provide a Dreamwalker with an inside edge, it would naturally seem to be you."
"Perhaps. But the DreamNet is five years older--five years different. And what would be the ethics of handing the winning secrets over to the highest bidder--assuming I was privy to such in the first place?"
She bristled at that. "I am not asking for Program Matrix secrets! I am asking for some basic training. I need a guide. A navigator in the Net."
I shrugged. "Like I said, there are dozens of competent, if not exceptional, Dreammasters. All with up-to-date experience. Who needs a rusty old has-been?"
She leaned forward and her robe parted in such a way as to almost seem unintentional. "I do," she breathed.
"Why?" I leaned back to avoid a possible collision.
"Because you are the best!"
"Uh-uh. Youre the best," I asserted. "Triple Olympic Gold-medalist, international star, darling of the Networks, Dreammaster--Dreamlord, even; if one believes just half of your press coverage."
She shook her head. "There is no Dreamlord status."
"Officially. But if there were, youd be at the top of the list." I spread my hands. "The question is: how can I offer you any superiority in training?"
"The people who know say that you are the best fencer in the entire world," she answered. "That you are unbeatable in any of the European styles...."
A flattering answer but it was my turn to shake my head. "Maybe once. If it were true, that was years ago. Im certainly too old, now--"
"Thirty-six is not too old!"
"Thirty-four. And youre the one with Olympic Gold, not me."
"Everyone says you would have taken the Gold if you had made the Matches in France! You were on the U.S. Team--I have seen the tri-dees of your matches! You were the best!"
"Past tense," I qualified. "The accident didnt just sideline me from that years games, it ended my career. I have almost seven pounds of metal in my body--mostly surgical implants but some of it is residual shrapnel from the crash. My brace reinforces a leg that is more scar tissue than muscle and ends with only half of a foot. And this--" I ran a finger over my eyepatch, "--adds the difficulty of monocular vision and near-zero depth perception. I have three students in my advanced class, all barely twenty, who have more stamina, strength, and agility, and could most likely take me in three out of five bouts."
"If they had your experience and skill," she argued. "Then, maybe, in a regulated competition match. But in Fantasyworld the swordplay is not regulated."
"When you programmed Fantasyworld, you were a respected fencer--a Master in the European forms. Most Dreamwalkers are hack-and-slashers, but the best of both cross blades in some variance of the European schools."
"Thats to be expected, I guess. Whats your point?"
"Just this"--she paused for effect--"you are half a decade better today than you were five or six years ago when you created the Basic Program and set the ability parameters for the Constructs."
"The artificial people--computer generated characters--that are constructs of the Program as opposed to the real Dreamwalkers and their avatars."
"Oh." Another example of how out-of-touch Id become.
"Anyway, your original superiority plus a five-year edge might be enough in itself, but you have studied Kendo since then. And the word is that you are very good at that, also."
"Other Dreamwalkers have studied and used Kendo disciplines," I argued. "The Oriental styles are advantageous in some situations, but nothing foolproof. And there are Dreammasters who do training in Kendo."
"But those who have utilized Kendo, have no training in the European styles: theirs was pure Kendo." She smiled. "What happens when a Master of the European blades also becomes proficient with the Japanese longsword?"
I shrugged. If she could fake sexual attraction, I could feign modesty.
"Your Kendo instructor says that you have developed a combination of the Oriental and European styles that is quite astounding!"
"What else did he say?" Oshi had been rather noncommittal in his comments on my progress as of late.
"That it lacks the purity of the True Way, but that it is the most formidable and possibly the deadliest technique that he has ever seen. High praise from an Asian swordmaster."
"Im sure hed be willing to teach you everything that hes taught me."
She rested a hand on my shoulder, a sure sign of trouble to come. "I want you to train me."
"Ill be starting a new series of fencing classes next semester--"
"I want you to train me personally. In Fantasyworld. I need the best guide in the DreamNet and I will make it worth your while!"
"--if you know so much about me, then you should know that I dont need the money."
"I did not say anything about money," she replied, leaning forward again. This time her garment fell open with no possible question of intent, revealing flawless skin. "I said I would make it worth your while."
I got up with a little concern that some vestigial interest might be showing. "I hate to eat and run, so I think Ill just skip dinner."
She reached out, caught my arm, and pulled me back to the sofa with surprising strength. "I am sorry. I should have known that this would be the wrong approach with you. Please--sit back down." Her voice and her expression said that she was genuinely sorry, and she pulled her clothing together as I sat back down.
"Theres something youre not telling me," I said after a long silence. She didnt answer so I pursued the question that was banging around at the back of my mind.
"Natasha Skovoroda does not need training from a man who has not gone online since the Tournaments were first opened to the public. I doubt there is any Dreammaster--currently in or out of Fantasyworld--who is the equal of a triple Gold-medalist. The next Tournament--Dreamquest VI, isnt it?--doesnt begin for another six or seven months. And I dont buy this guide routine for a minute." I sighed. "So why dont we stop dancing and you tell me just exactly what it is you really want from me?"
She stared off into space for a long time before answering. "The Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers has disappeared."
It took a moment for the meaning of her words to fully register. "Were talking the number three man in the Russian Federation? The guy right behind the president and the premiere?"
She nodded. "We prefer the term prime minister to premiere, these days."
"What does this have to do with you?"
"I have been recruited to find him."
Her mouth twisted. "In this instance I think you mean SVR. And no," she said, shaking her head, "I am not a government operative. Although I suppose I am being asked to work for them in this instance."
She bit her lip pensively. "We have come a long way from the days of Communist oppression and the Komitet Gosurdarstvenoy Besopasnasti. Still, the FSA, SVR, FSK, Alpha Group, FSB, and the other half-dozen offspring of the old KGB, can be most...persuasive." She shivered and I put my hand on her arm in spite of myself. "It is FAPSI that is pressing me for the moment."
I cocked an eyebrow.
"The Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information," she explained. "Borys Dankevych is also the Chief Minister of that bureau as well as his post as Deputy Chairman."
"If hes missing, why recruit you? I assume your government has highly trained agents with specific experience in this sort of thing."
"Yes and no: he disappeared in Dreamland Complex while on a goodwill tour of your country. It seems that Dankevych tempers his love for Rossiyskaya Federatsiya with a fascination for the Western European Renaissance and medieval myth."
"And he vanished in Dreamland?"
"We know that he took a side trip into the Fantasyworld Program. In his last communiqué he likened his side-trip to Dreamland to Khrushchevs historic visit to your Disneyland in the previous century. Nothing has been heard from him since then and I was recruited to use my DreamNet status to search for him on-line. Which is why I need your help!"
I leaned back against the cushions. "I still dont see how I can help. I havent set foot on Cephtronics property in nearly half a decade. Im on good terms with maybe a dozen people who are still inside, but I doubt that dropping my name will open any doors for you. In fact, it would probably do just the opposite." I shook my head. "I just dont see how I can be of any help to you."
She moved down the length of the sofa to sit beside me. "Go in with me!"
"Why? This sounds like a job for the techs. Have you asked them for help? They can locate any Dreamwalker on their monitors in a matter of seconds."
"No. It was tried before I was even brought into this."
"Cephtronics claims that Borys Dankevych left with his aides, the day before yesterday. The SVR says he did not. Obviously, someone is wrong."
"Or lying," I agreed. "So what is your next step?"
"I have been ordered to go back into Fantasyworld and begin my investigation there."
"Whats stopping you?"
"Cephtronics. They claim that they are closed for Program enhancements and upgrade maintenance. No one is allowed to log on the DreamNet until further notice."
"I still dont understand what you want from me. Especially if you cant even get into the Program."
She gazed at the floor in defeat. "I thought you might know something--might have heard something. Since you created the Fantasyworld Program, I thought you might know another way in. I understand that it is quite customary for programmers to create their own, personal back door for their programs--a way to get in that no one else knows about. I thought--"
"That I could sneak you in my back door?" I shook my head. "This is a different kind of program, Tasha. It doesnt work the same way." While that was true, I did have a back way in that nobody knew about. I just wasnt ready to spill my secrets to an unknown pretty face who had just admitted to working for the Russian secret police. "Im sorry youve wasted your time."
She shook her head and began toying with the hair at the back of my neck.
"Oh, I do not think so. The night is still young...."
The last sensation I clearly remembered was something cold pressing against the side of my neck.
I knew it was a dream even though it came with all of the sensations of waking up. A man in a military officers uniform was standing at the foot of the bed.
Thats how I knew it was a dream.
"Art thou the Ghost of Armageddon Past?" I mumbled. "Or Armageddon Yet To Come?" My experience with most dreams is that you play it fast, loose, and you stay on top. Never give a phantasm an even break; your subconscious can be murder.
The phantasm with the birds on his cap and shoulders spoke. "Dr. Ripley?"
"No," I lied, turned over, and pulled the pillow over my head.
The pillow was removed. "Robert Remington Ripley, the Third?"
"Never heard of him," I groaned, as I tried to pull the covers over my head. They were removed as well. The overhead light came on and the room was suddenly filled with stocky Marine-types.
"Go away," I moaned.
"Im sorry, Mr. Ripley," the phantom colonel responded, "but I have my orders."
"The name is...Schwartz..." I muttered, "...Ralph Schwartz. And you are nothing but nocturnal indigestion: a bit of cheese, a piece of undigested meat...."
"Sergeant," interrupted the rude phantom colonel, who seemed to be a Marine as well, "...the shower...."
I was telling myself that none of this was real and pondering the Freudian significance of the Marines using Natasha Skovorodas shower facilities when several pairs of hands gently but firmly lifted me out of bed.
I eventually stopped screaming and they turned off the cold water. I wrung out my eyepatch and looked reproachfully at the colonel who handed me a couple of dry towels. "You," I announced, "are not a nice person."
He shrugged. "You think Im bad now, just see what happens if youre not dressed and ready to go with us in ten minutes."
"Where are we going?"
Gingerly, I shook my aching head. "I just came from there."
"I prefer my own version, thank you."
The man sighed and tilted his cap back on his head. "Dr. Ripley, I am under explicit orders to bring you to the Dreamland Complex. Your choices in this matter are very limited and very simple. We are going to escort you there. You decide whether we do that as an honor guard or as a chain gang." He glanced at his watch. "Nine minutes, son."
I adjusted the black patch over what used to be my left eye and gave him my best impassive look. As my cosmetic surgeon had been content with mere function as opposed to the aesthetics, my impassive expression is somewhat less than encouraging. "Im a great believer in civil disobedience."
The colonel returned my gaze thoughtfully. "They said you might be reluctant."
"And what did they tell you to do if I was?"
"Give you a message." He folded his arms across his beribboned chest. "Dr. Cooper said to tell you that you were right. She says: Beautiful Dreamer is having a Nightmare."
"No shit?" I dried off hurriedly and began pulling on my kneebrace.
No one mentioned Natasha Skovoroda and there was no evidence of her presence from the night before. Not even a discarded mini-ampule from the trick ring she drugged me with. I wondered how much Id told her as they ushered me up to the roof and into a waiting military transport. Within two minutes we were headed west at mach two and accelerating.
Go to Chapter Two
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