PerSimmons:

In the Net of Dreams: Chapter Two



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In The Net Of Dreams

by Wm. Mark Simmons

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

I adjusted the dreamset on my head and settled back into the webbing of the dreamcouch. "Anything special I should be watching for?" I asked reluctantly. Although Dr. Cooper’s encrypted message had persuaded me to come along peaceably, I wasn’t in a mood to be overly cooperative.

Quebedeaux said nothing. Vanauken shrugged. "We have so little to go on," he ventured, "that I’d prefer a fresh opinion. I don’t want to pre-bias you in any way before you review the recordings."

Right.

The portly little man was clearly out of his element and in over his head. Observing the beads of perspiration that were beginning to collect below his receding hairline and above his pale lips, I tried to imagine what his responsibilities were under normal circumstances. He probably conducted Dreamland tours for visiting low-level dignitaries.

"We decided that you should experience this particular playback before we continue the briefing," he continued, taking his cue from one of the techs seated behind the consoles. "You can study the others later."

"Fine." My tone was bored and noncommittal as I pulled the eyeshields down. Although my temper was nearing the boiling point, I had no intention of dissipating it on corporate underlings. Mike Straeker had yet to put in an appearance. And I was determined to express myself most eloquently on the subject of my treatment these past five hours. If Cephtronics was giving me time to cool down, the psychology wasn’t working. "Let’s get on with it," I snapped.

The memory playback washed over me, drowning out all thought apart from the sensory stimuli of the encoded cephalic recording. The stored memory was suddenly my immediate reality.>.>.>.>.>.>.> .>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.>.

#

Og was in a foul mood.

It wasn’t just the godsbecursed sunburn--though he had been above surface far longer than was sensible. No, it was that the need was on him and he was caught in an ethical (and financial) conflict.

Og was a Bridge-Troll, an occupation quite common among the more intelligent Water-Trolls. He lived in the Pooder River, at a natural bottleneck where a rude bridge arched the flood. Travelers who wished to cross the Pooder within twenty miles of Casterbridge--with minimum risk to life and limb--had to use the bridge.

And Og would always permit them safe passage. As long as they paid the toll.

The Casterbridge bridge was not only a Troll bridge, it was also a toll bridge. Signs proclaimed this fact at either end of the wooden span in seven different languages. Travelers were admonished to "Stop!" And: "Pay Troll!"

Og would pop through a trapdoor in the middle of the traverse and hold out a green and warty palm. If a customer seemed reluctant or unnecessarily slow, he would growl, squint his goggly eyes at the offender, and begin to salivate. At his best, Og could salivate like a waterfall during the monsoon season.

The reason why no one had come along and put Og out of business before now was quite simple: he had an understanding with the mayor of Casterbridge.

In fact, Og had had understandings with the mayors of Casterbridge going back nearly three hundred years: the town treasury received a share of the take and Og remained largely unmolested. In addition, Og had agreed to contribute to Casterbridge’s backdoor defense. Should invaders ever approach the town from the far side of the river, the Troll’s instructions were to "remove" the bridge. It was an equitable arrangement for both parties.

Yet, as good as business was, three centuries of it was enough to bore the most unimaginative of minds, and Og longed for the "good old days". His fondest memories were of the times when he and his friend Grom had initiated brawls with the border patrols, tossing the knights into the deep part of the river and making bets on whether or not they would make it back to the shore. Og always won because the Ogre would invariably bet on the knights: Grom never seemed to grasp the negative effects of plate armor on human buoyancy.

Thinking hadn’t been one of Grom’s fortes, but he had been a lot of fun when it came to frightening pregnant women, knocking over occupied privies, scattering compost heaps, and peeking in bedroom windows late at night.

Now Grom was gone, and people accepted a Bridge-Troll as one of the normalities of everyday life. His own daily existence had been reduced to bridge maintenance and repair; civil service duty at the Casterbridge border.

And, as if that wasn’t degrading enough for a Troll who had once terrorized the kingdom’s most puissant champions, last month some of the village children had thrown rocks at him! When he had tried to frighten them with one of his more ferocious displays, a little girl had responded by sticking out her tongue.

Then, nearly a week later, he had had a most unfortunate encounter with a rather gruff family of billy goats.

And finally, just this week, for the first time in over three generations, a troop of light cavalry had tried to cross the bridge without paying the toll or the Troll. Og didn’t feel up to a fight with odds of twenty-to-one, so he kicked out the main support strut, collapsing the

bridge and forcing the weary but now-wiser soldiers to make a ten-mile detour.

Og chewed his nails thoughtfully. Four days had passed since then and he was still putting the bridge back together. He spat out the mangled nails, took a new mouthful, and resumed hammering with a sigh. Four days loss of revenue had been a high price to pay--not to mention a blistering sunburn from four days’ loss of shade. But Og was committed to the principle of the thing. His only regret was that he hadn’t waited until more of the soldiers were on the bridge itself before kicking out the crucial strut.

Between hammer-blows, Og could now hear the steady clip clop sound of approaching horses. Only two, he decided after much ear straining. Perversely, he hoped the riders would be belligerent and wear heavy armor. Not too heavy, he decided: it was less satisfying when they sank immediately. While he did need the money after four days of lost tolls, Og felt an even greater need to do a little therapeutic violence.

Especially after that goat debacle....

The riders topped the hill now and Og got a good look at his prospects: a large Human barbarian and a petite Elven woman. The female was an unknown factor, but the barbarian looked positively dangerous. Og didn’t care, though; he still wanted to mangle.

When they reached the bridge they dismounted and led their horses, the man in front, the woman following behind. The barbarian wore some skins, a bonelink breastplate, and very little else. A claymore was slung across his broad back--a two-handed sword that measured six feet from point to pommel, or about six inches shorter than the man himself.

He had a sullen, craggy face with long, thick black hair that was barely kept out of his eyes by a leather headband. His body was massive with well defined muscles and wall-to-wall pectorals. Eyeing those, Og began to have some second thoughts about starting any real trouble. Maybe someone else would be along later in the afternoon.

The woman, in contrast, hardly topped five feet in height. What could be seen of her form beneath her leather jerkin and breeches seemed to lessen the threat of the short sword that hung at her side and the short bow across her back. But Elves were more unpredictable than Humans and Og had good reason--based on previous experience--not to dismiss one of them too lightly.

When they were almost to the centerpoint of the bridge, the trapdoor popped up and Og thrust his head and shoulders through the opening. Just that much was enough to put him at eye-level with the Elf. He scrunched upwards a couple of feet more to loom over the Human.

"You, I assume," said the barbarian calmly, "are the Troll that I am supposed to pay. How much?"

Og was disappointed: this was going well and that was too bad. On the other hand, the Elf did look a bit nervous, and maybe something could be made of that.

"Four copper pieces," he rumbled in a liquid, yet gravelly voice. It made him sound like he was trying to talk and gargle at the same time. The Elf tried to hide a sudden smile and Og felt his temper nearing critical mass.

The barbarian pulled out a silver piece. Now Og smiled; he had teeth reminiscent of two display racks filled with badly rusted daggers. "Exact change, please." In all fairness, it should be noted that Trolls have no aptitude for making change. But Og had a way of saying "please" that completely divorced the word from any pleasant connotations.

"Sorry," the barbarian mumbled apologetically, "I don’t have four coppers." He dropped the silver piece into the Troll’s ham-sized palm. "You may keep the change."

Og had never met a polite and well-mannered barbarian before and he didn’t much like it. Nor did he like the man’s combination of muscles and six-foot sword. And he usually heeded his premonitions--he hadn’t lived to be five-hundred-and-thirty-seven years old by being incautious. Still, Og had a burning need to fight someone. And he couldn’t help speculating: might it be interesting to throw someone in the river who had an even chance of making it back to shore?

The situation was decided as the barbarian, puzzled over the delay, inquired: "Excuse me, something got your goat?"

As Og lunged, the barbarian reached for his sword. The next few seconds were a blur but the culmination of events was crystal clear: Og brought his teeth down on the barbarian’s sword hand, effectively separating it from the wrist. Whether or not the Troll would have pursued his advantage with the wounded and defenseless warrior was left to further speculation; the man fainted and Og was left facing a very angry Elf with a drawn bow.

Now the chances of an Elven archer missing the mark at this range were roughly the same as a Dwarven warrior passing out from drinking a lite beer. And Og didn’t like the looks of the arrow she had pulled back to her cheek: it was black and green and covered with an assortment of nasty-looking runes. He even fancied that he could hear a high-pitched humming sound emanating from the shaft.

"Back off," the girl ordered sharply.

While Og tended to have his impetuous moments from time to time, no one could accuse him of being deliberately stupid. He dropped back through the trapdoor faster than Santa Claus down a chimney.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.<.

#

The encoded cephalic recording ended and the memlink was terminated.

I raised the eyeshields on my dreamset and pulled the sensorweb from my head. "So?"

Vanauken folded his arms and leaned back against a console. "As I said before, this recording was made during the period that the Anomaly took place. You detected no sensory distortion because the discernible effects occurred just after the point where we stopped playback."

"So?" I prompted again.

Vanauken frowned and started to fidget. "What makes this recording different from several thousand others made during the last moment is Mr. Henderson."

The door opened as if on cue, and a man entered the room. He was shorter, of slighter build, and much better dressed, but he had the same hawkish features....

"Yes, yes," Vanauken was saying, "this is the barbarian in the sequence you just experienced. Henderson just managed to squeak out of the Program before withdrawal was closed off. But he didn’t get away scot-free."

He held up Henderson’s right hand--still attached to his arm in this world, of course.

"This is Mr. Henderson’s right hand, the one that corresponds to his avatar’s sword hand. That’s the one that was bitten off by the Troll."

As if I were too dense to make the connection.

He suddenly produced a long straight-pin and jabbed it into Henderson’s palm. Everybody in the room flinched except Henderson. Even Vanauken seemed a little unnerved by his own act.

"Don’t worry. I didn’t feel a thing," Henderson assured us with a wistful smile. "Ever since withdrawal from the Program, I haven’t felt anything in this hand. I can’t feel it, move it, use it--anything!"

"Another side-effect of the Program’s--uh--" Vanauken hesitated.

"Malfunction," I coached with unconcealed insolence.

"Uh--right. Unfiltered biofeedback," he continued. "When Mr. Henderson’s avatar lost his hand, the resulting backlash of unfiltered biofeedback actually impressed upon his brain that the hand no longer existed for him. And now that he’s awake, his brain refuses to recognize his real hand’s corporeal existence. In spite of visual and tactile evidence to the contrary!"

"Is this temporary or permanent?"

Vanauken shook his head. "We don’t know. Attempts at hypnotherapy have completely failed to this point. Surgical alternatives have been proposed, but we’d like to postpone such drastic measures until we have a better perspective on how this all happened."

A horrible suspicion was growing in the back of my mind. "But if someone can dream the loss of their hand and not be able to use it when they wake up--then what happens if their avatar gets killed in while they’re inside the Program?" I asked.

"Precisely the point I’m trying to make," Vanauken squeaked. "The Anomaly has negated all system safeguards and amplified the

biofeedback process! If a Dreamwalker is in symbiotic taction with his or her avatar, and it dies, then the actual body--that person’s real body back in the Cradle--will experience terminal biofeedback!"

"You’re saying that they would actually die?" Even I wasn’t above baiting a man on the verge of hysteria.

He frowned. "I believe that I stated that quite clearly."

I leaned back into the dreamcouch’s body-webbing and considered all that I had been briefed on up to this moment.

"Okay. Let me make sure I’ve got the picture, now. The Fantasyworld Program has been...compromised. How?"

Vanauken cleared his throat and looked over at a familiar and reassuring face.

Try to imagine the inscrutable Buddha of the Orient as a smallish, Caucasian woman. Now, give her short, curly, coppery hair, electric blue eyes, the soul of an Irish poet, the mind of a Rhodes scholar, and the personality of Annie Oakley. Got the picture? I doubt it. Dorothy Cooper defies easy description.

"Well, at first the problem was thought to be external or mechanical in nature," she answered from behind the Systems monitors. "Some malfunction in the hardware or the monitoring systems.

"But current data indicates that the Program, itself, has been corrupted. Our leading theory is that some internal portion of the Program has inverted the Primary Access sequence." She spread her hands helplessly. "In other words, the Dreamland staff no longer have any control over the Fantasyworld Program because someone or something inside the Program Matrix has taken it over."

"A Dreamwalker?" I asked.

"I don’t know!" For the first time in my life I was seeing Dr. Cooper in an attitude of helpless defeat, and that unnerved me more than anything else I’d heard or seen so far.

"It shouldn’t be possible." Dr. Quebedeaux shifted in her seat. "But then, this whole situation is an impossibility!"

I was resisting the strong impulse to say I told you so--I was saving that for a face-to-face with Mike Straeker. Why Dreamland’s Chief of Programming hadn’t put in an appearance at this briefing was mystifying. They had wanted me badly enough to come looking for me--even to the point of dragging me back under armed guard. As a consequence, I expected to be talking to the head man, not a roomful of subordinates.

Cooper I trusted. Dorothy and I had ridden the DreamNet together when the Program was in the process of being set up. We had play-tested the Fantasyworld milieu during the years of development, before Dreamland went public. She was an able Dreamwalker, a good scientist, and moreover, a good friend.

Vanauken was too supercilious to be taken seriously. From what I could gather, he was more of a P.R. man for Cephtronics than an actual technical advisor.

And Dr. Quebedeaux was an unknown quantity. Slim, cool, and too-elegant, she seemed the embodiment of all the bad qualities of all of the disagreeable blondes I had ever known. Worse than that, she reminded me of my ex-wife.

"So, I’ve been hauled out of bed in the middle of the night and dragged here under military arrest because you people have lost control of one of your Games?" Lack of sleep was beginning to tell: I was getting testy and letting it show before Mike arrived.

"No, Dr. Ripley," Dr. Quebedeaux snapped back. "You are here because we have lost control of one of your Games!"

Coop tried to be conciliatory. "We were hoping you might have some insights into the Program’s malfunction...."

"Are you sure it’s the Program that malfunctioned?"

Quebedeaux frowned. "What do you mean?" Coop knew where I was leading and suddenly became very interested in the Systems monitors.

I folded my arms across my chest. "If I were you, I’d start my investigation with an updated psyche-profile of the System, itself."

"What are you talking about?"

I sighed. "I’m talking about that giant vat of gray matter at the heart of the Dreamland Complex."

"Are you seriously suggesting that we psyche-scan The Machine?" Her expression was disdainful. "Mr. Ripley, The Machine is not a sentient organism. It is a computer that utilizes banks of cultured cephalic cells for memory storage and information retrieval. Bio-ROM has been used for years--"

"But not Bio-RAM," I interrupted.

"We are talking about a machine--" she continued tightly.

"Bullshit! If you people are still calling it a machine after all this time then you are dumber than I originally thought! Mike Straeker hung that appellation on it because Cephtronics was afraid of public opinion and a Frankenstein complex. But it’s not a machine and calling it a chrysanthemum won’t make it a flower, either. A computer, maybe; but cephalic cellular units are organic and that makes it a gigantic brain--soulless or not!"

"So what are you saying? Are you suggesting that our ‘giant brain’ has had a nervous breakdown?" Her voice acquired a studied tone of mockery. "Or maybe that it has become mentally ill?" Her lips curled into a tight, humorless smile. "Perhaps even schizophrenic?"

My own patience was wearing thin. "Look, lady--" I could ignore a person’s title of degree, too. "--I don’t care! Cephtronics and I parted company over this issue--and the moral question of Gaming with AIs--over five years ago. If it should finally turn out that I was right and Dreamland was wrong, well then that would just tickle me pink! Go find some other patsy to bail you out."

"Maybe we haven’t given you a clear picture of just how serious this thing is...." Dorothy spoke with uncharacteristic quietness.

"I understand the loss of revenue should give the Board of Directors the screaming meemies."

"Robbie...there are people trapped in the Program."

The ensuing silence was deafening.

"You’re telling me that Dreamwalkers could really die in Fantasyworld?" I asked finally. "And you haven’t brought them out yet?"

"Haven’t you been listening?" Dr. Quebedeaux’s anguish matched mine for the moment. "We can’t bring them out! We no longer have any control over the Program!"

I looked at Vanauken. "Can’t you just open the Cradles and wake them up?"

He shook his head. "We thought of that, first thing."

"And?"

"Attempts to recall and revive a couple of Dreamwalkers-- without Program withdrawal processing--proved to be relatively fatal."

Relatively fatal? I decided to let that one pass for the moment. "What else are you trying?"

"Everything!" Vanauken spread his arms. "At this point, we seem to have only one strong option. Dr. Quebedeaux?"

The tall blonde in the white smock hugged her clipboard to her chest as she stood and began speaking. "Since the Program was altered--to all appearances--from the inside, our best chance is to ascertain how it was done in the first place, and then undo it--"

"From the inside," I finished for her.

She nodded. "External approaches will continue to be tried by the technical staff, but we feel that a group of highly skilled Dreamwalkers--Dreammasters, if you will--inside the Program, have a better chance of rectifying the problem and returning control to the Project."

"Sounds reasonable," I agreed. "But what if they’re unsuccessful?"

"Then," Vanauken answered, "as things stand now, they’ll remain trapped in their avatars and in Fantasyworld until their deaths--natural or otherwise."

 

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