WHJC - October 1985
Dreamwalking - John Coupe
(page 2/9)


There is a darkness born of confusion and sired by chemistry. In it memories are shuffled and re-shuffled. Strange images float through the brain and causation seems to break down as the most recent memories are replaced by the most obscure or the most repressed; sickness leads to reward is followed by birthday which seemingly results in a lost ration book and a cold winter.

When Russel Aitken woke he was in the Orwell, a tatty old tourist pub built in the days when vast hoards of tourists roamed the land, photographing, spending, traveling - killed off by security restrictions, penury and travel permits. Or the Plague. For a split eternity Russel felt himself on the edge of returning to the Plague torn year of ninety-seven... the boy's face contracting and twisting as his heart tore apart... the crack of the rifles in the street after the final decision by the government to surrender to the lesser of two evils. Some units of the Army had fought for days. A few were still fighting.

He breathed deeply and those ghosts faded. Concentrating hard, he tried to bring himself altogether out of the past.

A green field and a sky so bright it hurt his eyes. The air is so thick and warm that running is like swimming. The grass is a perfect green carpet free of variation or imperfection, clouds are wholly white and imminently fluffy. From the naivete of the picture Russel guesses that it comes from early childhood when the brain perceives absolutes in everything and colours the information from the senses to match.

There are boys playing football in the grass. It is playtime and they have returned to the natural social structure of the gang, the tribe. An intruder, older and enormous, runs up to the ball and takes it. Outraged the tribe pursues.

Russel is the first to reach the older boy. The boy shouts and lunges out, an unequal fight develops and soon degenerates to bullyinq. The tight fraternity of the gang dissolves, they stand by afraid to interfere, no one trusting the others enough to be first.

Russel knows that unless the fight ends soon he will be badly hurt. He throws out his arms in an attempt to surrender and is hit again. Very calm now, he steps forward and pushes his pencil into the side of the boy's face as hard as he can.

There is blood and in the eyes of Authority, the teachers whose world is even more simple than the child's, only Russel is to blame.

His mind returns to the present in the Orwell.

'I've lost some more. I don't know how long ... what day is it?'

'Tuesday. The fourteenth.'

'Then I've lost a straight week, Reg. I can't remember anything about a job... So that's it? You'll give me the B?'

'That's it Russel.'

Reg passed him a tab which he immediately mouthed and washed down with a glass of water. The feeling of instability waned and Russel knew that his grip on reality was once again sure - barring the possibility of the involuntary attacks that marked the ultimate stage of use of AB. Russel had had two attacks in the past month that he could remember. But he would be safe, totally safe, soon when he was online.

'You look tired, Russel, you should go home and sleep a bit.' Smith was a genial, helpful, bear of a man. He could also break peoples' arms in cold blood. He wasn't a very simple sort of person but Russel thought he could count on him as a friend.

'Why? How long have I been awake? '

'A good twenty hours, but I'd like you to stay awake a while longer; there are a few things we have to talk over, Russel'. The man who spoke was a stranger. He turned to Reg. 'You can go'.

'I'II see you sometime then, Russel.' He hesitated. 'This business has never done you any good.'

Some men join the foreign legion to forget, Russel was paid to take AB instead. He was a highly specialsed sort of mathematician who had the misfortune to be working for the KGB. Or the CIA. Or who ever it really was.

'You were good, Russel, very good. You still are, but AB's eating away at your head. We can't afford to take the risk of your freezing at the wrong moment and going off into one of your dreamworlds.'

Russel could sift through the traces of a man's life and extract the essential form from gigabits of data. He could take what he found and recreate a personality on a computer. The model was then compared against its subject and fine tuned until it yielded accurate predictions of its human counterpart's behavior. Such programs are expensive tools and deadly weapons.

'You're saying... you don't need me anymore?'

'I'm glad you still have a sense of humour, you're going to need it.'

'I'm going to need it?' He laughs.

In a world where data is so amenable to analysis and so telling that a computer is more deadly than a gun, it pays to cover your tracks. Use a false name, pay cash whenever you can, wipe away finger prints. Or wipe minds with AB instead.

'A' begins a process of re-shuffling in which recent memories are replaced with dimmer ones. After a few hours the events of last week are so deep they can never be found. 'B' stops the process. 1n between ... well, nobody takes AB for fun.

But Russel's life had its compensations. He was a member of that increasingly small group of people with enough to eat in the Freetown; most people were very hungry indeed. The Government had put a squeeze on a couple of months back; the Soviets had obviously decided that the town no longer produced enough to justify its capitalistic existence. But even that was unimportant compared to the time he spent online.

'Yes'. The stranger's face is composed. It's a very handsome face. Its symmetry is total and perfect in a way Russel has never seen before; not an eyebrow does but reflect its twin. His hair is dark brown and his eyes seem even darker. The overall effect is inhuman and machinelike. Now the machine opens its mouth and words like bombs roll out to fall on Russel far below.

'You're finished, Russel. No more money, no more help ... no machine time.'

people at computerWhile online the user lives in a computer contained world of his own creation, interacting with it through his terminai's screen and speech box. The computer flashes subliminal messages deep into his brain, prompting the user and drawing him in until only the world on the screen seems real. At last the VDU fills his fovea and his brain sees nothing else, then he is lost in a place out at his mind, living in a bit mapped un-world. All regular users became psychologically addicted. They stay healthy, do not get violent or suicidal or take to believing they can fly but they get very dependent on having access to a billion rouble computer.

He soared on the solar winds like a great bird more beautiful than any hawk: vaster than any galleon: faster by a thousand times than any earthly gale. Far beneath him, light minutes to sunward, his radio sense showed the Flock feeding in the rays of the sun; photosynthesising food and converting sunlight to electricity to power their intricate dual metabloisms: harnessing the torrential energy of the photon storm to break down floating rock to carbon and vital gases and from these building new lifestuff gram by patient gram.

Loneliness was his constant companion now; never before had anyone strayed as far from the Flock as he had in pursuit of the strange rogue asteroid. Yet he could not give up, not with so many mysteries unsolved. Was it by chance that when the rock had miraculously, unpredictably, inexplicably altered its orbit its new path put it on a collision course with the third planet? And was the rock, as its spectra suggested, really pure metal? Impossible and wonderful. The answers to these questions were worth defying the Innocent Ones and the Armigers for, were worth the long flight into the cold.

Without warning there was a deafening squeal of noise on the hydrogen band! It had come from 'ahead' on his trajectory. The signal clicked with unnatural precision, each pulse the same length as before.

   	  ON ON
        ON ON ON 

A hymn! The perfect holy numbers. Was the space around the third planet occupied not merely by intelligent life but by True Believers? Or could it be that the third planet itself, and not (as his people had always believed) the sun, was God?

The signal changed, became richer and more complex. The receiver trembled, his mind on the verge of glorious, perfect madness. He listened closer to the message, a new pattern emerged. He was being sent a two dimensional picture. Data flowed, neverending stream of -

Blackness. Slack and wild, free of even the tinge of negativity, depression engulfs him. Russel's employers had finally pulled the plug on his terminal's connection with their supercomputer and he is human once more.

-Mike? Jake here.

-Yes, that's what I'm calling about. Our Russian friends think it may be a specialist, one of their undercover units just paid off. He fits the bill perfectly. He knows this system and is a good enough programmer to have hacked through our security - especialiy if he put a trap-door in while he was still a legitimate user.

-No, I don't think there's been a major security breach. It's just the machine time he wants, I doubt he's stupid enough to lift any information for selling - he must have some suspicions about who he was working for.

-What? Oh, the guy's a dreamland addict, the sort of online freak who spends more time in 'Wessex' than he does in the real world.

-Of course the Russians have a contract out on him - but I wouldn't count on them finding him soon.

-Yes, things surely were better in the old days. At least your pensions were index linked - what'd that be worth now? Five hundred percent? But if I have to choose between the CIA or MI5 and the Plague, and the Russians and the antidote, I go for the guys with the pills. Hey look, I think I can do something about the last of the great hackers myself, okay?

-Right. With extreme prejudice.

-Have a nice day.

Again, Russel has hacked his way back into the system. The past months have been the most satisfying in his life; the thrill at having dodged his ex bosses, who were surely making strenuous efforts to find him, and the delightful sense of superiority he gained from his programming triumphs, combined with the effortless way he was able to work in a nirvana like state, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours a day, have combined to lift him to a level of happiness he has never known before. Except online.

Soon he will re-enter the computer again, turning this time to an almost real scenario. No pretending this time that the recently discovered starbeasts were intelligent. Russel was going to go spy-hunting.

-Captain? The intruder's back in the system. Our telephone people have let you have the approximate location?

-Yeah, he's smart all right. Takes a lot of brains to fix a phone like that so it can't be pinpointed. Won't help any this time, though.

Russel has lost them for the moment, but unless he gets off the street soon they'll have him again. He ducks into the doorway of a promising looking house. A quirk check shows that the alarm is on - which means that the owners must be out. He works quickly and efficiently on the door. His game self is skilled and opens it in seconds.

-Yes, sir. He's walking right into our trap.

-Thank you. Breaking into and altering that sort of program while it's still running isn't easy.

The room is tatty and dark, but in the corner there is a computer terminal. Russel grins, what a stroke of luck! He inserts the disk he has stolen from the opposition, and begins to scan their records, memorizing the faces of their local operatives, the men who could be waiting outside to kill him. The edge this will give him may prove vital.

Satisfied, he flicks off the screen and gets up. It's time to move again.

-He's coming out now!

Captain Romanov and his men scan Russel's street in anticipation.

Russel checks the street quickly recognizing no one he relaxes and walks out. There is a sudden sound of thunder and he falls. The sensation of pain is surprisingly realistic, but all the time, in the back of his mind he knows that it is only a game.

-Mike? We got him. I can't say he never felt thing, but he probably never realized that it was really happening.

-Be fair on the guy, Mike. Most of us fool ourselves at times, we just manage without the hardware.

Yah, you're right. That probably is just so much philosophical rant. Thanks a million Mike.

-Yes that is a possibility. Even the KGB is that imaginative monkey see, monkey do. I'll never feel safe going online again.

-Mary and I wouldn't miss it for the world. We'll be there at eight. See you then. Have a nice day, Mike.

John Coupe