DreamNet

Earl Vickers

Brian paused a moment in front of the weather-beaten Victorian. At last, he entered the building and was escorted down a brightly lit hallway. Sleepwalkers in lab coats plodded from one stark white room to another.

"Welcome to DreamNet," said Sylvia, a tall, striking blonde in charge of the psych department. Her white clinician's coat sported a red velvet scarf. "At first we were strictly a research institution," she explained, "but soon we realized that people would pay to have more exciting dreams, especially if they got to keep the video."

"I'd pay not to have any dreams at all," Brian mumbled. He was thin, almost emaciated, with a haunted look in his eyes. "Show me the host machine and I'll get started."

Sylvia led him into a control room full of electronic equipment and antique, over-stuffed furniture. An array of monitors displayed a variety of scenes, realistic yet unmistakably dream-like.

"We began by studying computer-assisted lucid dream induction," said Sylvia. Then we linked two subjects together and found significant overlap in imagery. As we increased the number of participants, the system suddenly reached a kind of critical mass, as if each person had become a node in a giant neural net, dreaming fragments of a collective dream."

Brian shifted uneasily in his chair. "A group mind."

"Yes," said Sylvia, enthusiastically. "The participants use emotional hyperlinks to travel from one person's dream to another's. DreamNet is a laboratory for trying out new behaviors, a sacred space where people can redream their lives. We think it may prove useful for treating insomnia and other sleep-related problems."

Brian looked intrigued. "Where do I fit in?"

"The system has come under attack. The intruder triggers a massive chaotic instability, a giant whirlpool that spins around the network, feeding on the dreamers' emotional energy. I shut down the system as soon as I see it happening, but users still experience sheer terror, followed by weeks of depression or anxiety."

She inserted a disk, fast-forwarded through footage of a young woman being fitted with a electrodes, and hit 'play'.

The woman was riding in the back of a jeep which was speeding around a narrow mountain road. She asked the driver to be careful not to go over the edge. He began driving faster just to make her nervous. Laughing, he turned around to see the expression on her face. She screamed as he missed a turn and went over the bank. The tape switched to white noise.

"This is not the kind of publicity we need," Sylvia said. "I suspect it could be a potential competitor, trying to make our system look unsafe."

"Or maybe just some bored teenager? Or even an insider?"

"It's hard to trace. The network's so deeply interconnected...." She looked Brian in the eye. "Do you think you could track him down?"

"Sure," Brian shrugged. "I could do it in my sleep."

"You'll have to."

He stared incredulously.

Sylvia explained. "We need someone who can debug the network under chemically-induced somnambulism and somniloquy. In other words, someone who can walk, talk and do systems analysis in his sleep."

Brian scowled. "No way. I don't mind sitting at a terminal chasing down some hacker, but I've got bad dreams of my own." He stared suspiciously. "How'd you get my name?"

"We had a colleague at the Center for Sleep Disorders run a search."

"For what? Systems analysts with recurring nightmares?"

Sylvia nodded.

"I don't get it."

"Several people have gone in after him; he just hides out until they're gone. But fear is a magnet for monsters. They can smell it; they feed on it. So we send you in, you wait for him to show up, then you lock onto his signal."

Brian stood up. "You want me to be nightmare bait? Sorry, but I've done my time. Two or three nights a week I wake up with my heart pounding out of my chest."

"I know," said Sylvia. She opened a manila folder and began reading. "'Insomniac... Withdrawn... Obsessed with fear of death...'"

"And you want me to go in there looking for the mother of all nightmares?"

"You'll be paid quite well for taking a nap."

"Yeah, right," said Brian.

"Look, I'll be here to guide you through it, monitoring your vitals the whole time. I'll shut the system down long before you're in any kind of danger."

"Forget it. Not my idea of fun." Brian turned and headed toward the door.

"How long have you had these dreams?" Sylvia asked. "Fifteen, twenty years? And you're okay with that?"

Brian kept walking.

"It's up to you," Sylvia said, "but facing the net's nightmare may be the only way to cure your own."



Sylvia showed him to his office.

"This is your headband," she said, adjusting it to fit. "There's a microphone so we can stay in voice contact. The bidirectional neural transducers will seed your dreams with images. When you're sleepwalking, your brain will combine the DreamNet signals, your real-life surroundings and your own mental imagery into one coherent picture."

"What am I supposed to do?"

Sylvia thought for a moment. "Imagine you're going on a monster hunt. You won't have a map, a weapon, or any clue where you are, where you're going or what the monster looks like."

"So, what am I looking for?"

Sylvia shrugged. "Footprints, monster tracks."

"Literally?"

"If you like," she replied. "It's your dream — do it any way you want. This is not traditional systems analysis. Some of the same principles apply, but only by analogy."

Brian frowned. "How am I going to find him if you shut the system down the minute he appears?"

"Well, hopefully you'll get a good look at him first."

"No," Brian insisted. "You have to keep it running until I catch him."

"I thought you were afraid of nightmares."

"I am," said Brian. "That's why I only want to face him once."

Sylvia sat down and thought about it. "There's folklore that if you die in your dreams, you'll actually die. We know that normally it's not true — people often dream of their own death without it actually happening. But in DreamNet... Maybe I'm just being superstitious, but it seems quite possible that your nervous system might simply shut down.

"Look, I'll find him. Before he finds me. But I want you to keep your eyes glued to the screen, and if I screw up you're going to pull me out of there at the last possible minute." Brian added, "I want ten times my normal hourly rate."

Sylvia smiled. She gave him a capsule and a glass of water.

"This will induce sleep while inhibiting the normal sleep paralysis. Relax on the couch for a few minutes while it kicks in. We've mapped the network topology onto the layout of the DreamNet building. You can sleepwalk freely throughout the house, exploring different parts of the network as you go."



Brian peered into some of the dream cubes he passed as he walked down the hallway. In one, people were showing each other their latest inventions: an air spray that made sound waves visible; pills that made bath water drier; brain thumpers; thought jammers; a sneeze detector and auto-blesser.

Another room was the stage for an experimental theater group. People gathered to act out fantasies and bring odd characters to life. Brian came in during intermission.

Walking over as if she knew him, a woman whispered, "Don't you wish you'd stayed home and forgotten about this enlightenment stuff?"

Brian turned to walk away, but a man grabbed him by the shoulders.

"The past is right next door to pain," the man yelled.

Brian pulled away and went backstage. A woman put her face directly in front of his.

"Become a node in the vortex," she said.

A group of young punks noticed Brian and gave him nasty looks. They wore mirrored contact lenses, and a couple of them carried human skulls. Brian pretended to ignore them, but they followed him out onto the main stage.

The ugliest of the bunch, sporting an incredible collection of facial warts, pushed Brian up against the wall.

"Hey, man, you stole my motorcycle!"

Brian looked in the punk's contacts and saw his own reflection, pale and vacant. He broke loose and turned to face the crowd. "I don't know who you think I am, but you've got the wrong guy."

The audience applauded enthusiastically.

The punk gestured to his friends. "Let's get him."

Brian ran out the back, with the punks in pursuit and gaining on him. At the end of the hall, he reached a pair of doors. The first was labelled 'He Who Hesitates Is Lost.' Brian hesitated, then, without looking, leapt through the door labelled 'Look before You Leap.'

He plummeted down the center of a large transparent tube for what seemed like forever.



He landed on a stack of old ragged mattresses that smelled vaguely disgusting. The basement was dank and poorly lit. Brian could hear malevolent laughter in the distance and a reverberant retching sound from above. He leapt from the mattresses just in time to avoid being vomited upon.

Sylvia's voice crackled in his ear. "Are you all right?"

Brian stood up. "Well, I don't think anything's broken, except maybe the comm link — the audio's a bit scratchy."

"Okay," Sylvia said. "I'll be right down."

"Actually, I'd like to look around for a while."

He waited expectantly.

"Sylvia?"

There was no reply.

Brian shuffled through dark halls that echoed with faint, distant sounds: screams, whispers, voices from his childhood. He thought he heard footsteps following him. Turning around, he imagined he saw movement. He backed away and edged warily around a corner, his heart pounding rapidly. He felt a hand grab his shoulder.



"Ah, didn't mean to startle you, lad." The voice was unknown yet oddly familiar.

Brian spun around and saw an old man. He caught his breath. "Who are you?"

"I'm the night watchman."

"Is it night already?"

"It's always night down here," the watchman said.

He led Brian to a large, open room where the light was slightly better. They sat on a pair of old wooden chairs.

Brian eyed the guard suspiciously, then asked if he knew anything about a computer break-in.

"Ah, you mean the Nightmare," said the watchman.

"Right. Know anything about him?"

The night watchman wrinkled his forehead, deep in thought. For a moment Brian thought he saw a small third eye between the old man's other two eyes. It closed and appeared to be gone, but soon it opened again. Brian wondered if it were an optical illusion, some trick of the oddly shifting light.

"Nope," the watchman said finally. "Never heard of him."

"But you said..."

"Oh, that Nightmare," said the watchman. "Sure, everyone knows about that Nightmare."

"I've been sent down here to find him," Brian said.

The watchman laughed. "You couldn't find him if he were right behind you."

Brian ignored the insult. "Do you know where he is?"

"Yep."

"Well?"

"He's right behind you."

Brian turned his head and looked around. The watchman laughed so hard he started coughing.

"Told you," he said.

Brian noticed a strange glint in the third eye.

"That's my night eye," said the guard, sensing Brian's interest. "Works real good in the dark. Like I said, I'm a night watchman."

"It must come in handy down here."

"Yep." The eye opened wide and studied Brian's face. "You're dreaming, aren't you?"

"No," said Brian, somewhat annoyed. "Are you going to tell me how to find the Nightmare?"

"Don't worry, he'll find you. And when he does he'll eat you alive."

Brian stood to leave. "Forget it. I don't want your advice."

"No one does," lamented the watchman. He reached into a pouch and took out a small amulet attached to a leather strap. "Here, let me give you this. It's a dream catcher."

The object consisted of a circular wooden frame surrounding a web of silver threads and some bird feathers, gray with white streaks. Intrigued, Brian took the amulet and hung the strap around his neck.

"It's made from an actual spider's web, reinforced with a metallic spray. They say it catches the bad dreams and lets the good ones pass through and become real."

"What happens to the bad dreams?"

"They end up down here in the basement." The guard laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair.

Brian examined the talisman, feeling the tension of the threads. "Does it work?"

The guard winked his third eye and whispered, "I wouldn't count on it."

 



Brian tried to follow the watchman's absurdly convoluted directions, but he ended up wandering aimlessly through the labyrinth. He stepped into a dream cube and found hundreds of cats strapped to tables. Robot arms gently petted the cats; microphones recorded the resulting purrs.

Brian looked at a large black cat and thought for a moment he recognized it.

"Kali?"

The animal sat, seemingly traumatized, in front of a video monitor. Its eyes were glassy; its fur stood on end.

He moved his hand in front of its face. There was no response. As he touched the animal, he suddenly realized it was much larger than Kali had been. Terrified, Brian tried to pull back but was unable to move. The cat snarled and bit his hand hard, unrelentingly.

Brian yelled. The cat broke loose from the straps and ran out the door. Brian stared at his hand in disbelief as the wound healed almost instantly.

He stepped out the door and thought he heard a woman, perhaps Sylvia, in the next room screaming ecstatically, "yes, yes." He felt a twinge of jealousy.

Peeking around the corner, he saw a mockingbird perched in the rafters, singing "Nyess, nyess, nyess." He wondered how it found its way into the basement. The bird gave him a curious look and flew off down the hall.



Brian followed the path the bird had taken. A strange wind whipped around the corners, shifting directions for no apparent reason. Once or twice he sensed a dark presence, a hint of motion at the periphery of his vision.

Finally the maze opened out onto a long, dimly lit passageway. At the far end of the corridor, Sylvia stood chained to the wall, her face staring in horror.

Brian began to approach.

"Wait!" she shouted. "It's a fear test."

Brian paused, then continued walking toward her.

"Careful," she said. "There's quite a drop."

Brian looked down and realized the floor consisted of a single narrow beam in the center of the hallway, with a deep abyss on either side. He found it odd he hadn't noticed. His steps became cautious, tentative. He avoided looking down, seized by an unsettling notion that something down there was staring up at him.

Brian spotted the mockingbird's nest high in the rafters and thought it curious that the bird would nest in a basement. The mockingbird began chattering madly, leaping into the air, doing somersaults while performing inspired but nonsensical melodic improvisations.

He felt the bird was taunting him, mocking his petty, lonely excuse of a life. He heard it daring him to wake up, to stop sleepwalking through the world. He looked away, not wanting it to see the emptiness. The bird swooped down at him, pecking at his head, trying to make him lose his balance.

He thought he heard the bird challenge him to do one honest deed, speak one honest word. From deep in his gut, Brian belched. The mockingbird cackled and flew off.

Reaching the large open area at the end of the hallway, he unchained Sylvia.

"We're not safe yet," she said. "The Nightmare's not far away."

"Where is he?" Brian asked.

"I'll show you, but first give me a kiss for luck."

He closed his eyes and kissed her, gently.

"Here's your Nightmare," she said.

Brian stepped back. Before his eyes, her skin began aging, wrinkling, turning blotchy and leathery, cracking and peeling loose from her bones. Her hair turned gray and fell out in clumps. Maggots crawled from her eye sockets, dislodging her lifeless eyeballs. Locusts swarmed from her open mouth.

Her corpse became a living conglomeration of insects: ants, cockroaches, earwigs, dung beetles, various forms of larvae. They moved as one, as if she were still alive. The corpse raised its arms and approached him for another kiss.

He stepped back.

Thousands of eyes stared deep into his soul. Brian looked away in disgust. The insects united their various sound-producing mechanisms to create an intelligible but revolting simulation of the human voice.

"What's the matter?" the corpse hissed. "Am I bugging you?"

Brian turned, brushing away the insects that were biting, stinging and eating at his flesh. He walked back across the beam, away from the corpse. From the other end of the beam the cat approached, blocking his path.

"You're afraid of it, aren't you," the corpse taunted behind his back.

The cat seemed larger than before. Its fur was so black it looked as if a cat-shaped hole had been cut out of the world.

Brian stood transfixed, trapped in the deep iridescent green of its eyes. In the corners of the cat's eyes he saw a baby mockingbird falling from its nest. The cat poised. Without thinking, Brian entered the cat's dream and leapt into the abyss, snatching the nestling in mid-air.

Shortly after reaching terminal velocity, the cat landed on all fours and began playing with the bird, dropping it, batting it around, letting it think it could escape only to capture it again.

Brian heard a police whistle and jumped out of the cat's dream. He looked around guiltily and saw the parent mockingbird leaping into the air making angry squawks. The cat dropped the nestling at Brian's feet.

He picked it up. The bird had spots of blood in its beak and on each wing, but its heart was beating rapidly. It turned its head to look at him, blinking its eyes. Its feathers matched the ones in the dream catcher.

Brian held the bird out toward the cat. "See what you've done?" Pulling the bird out of the cat's reach as it pounced, he pondered the gratuitous cruelty that seemed hard-wired into the system.

Brian decided the bird wasn't likely to live, and if it did the parents would reject it. Uttering soothing words, he quickly twisted its head off to put it out of its misery. The head snapped off more easily than he had imagined. There was surprisingly little blood.

He was unnerved to discover that his right hand could feel the bird's heart beating as strongly as before.

"Stop suffering, damn you!"

He found himself savagely squeezing the life out of the headless body. His right hand felt moisture. The heart finally stopped.

Sickened, he looked at the bird's head in his left hand. The eyes were still staring back at him. Realizing it's the head, not the body, that feels pain, he was horrified to think the bird's brain might still be alive, witnessing this grim ordeal. Brian popped the head in his mouth and crushed the skull between his molars.

He opened a dream cube door and vomited into the darkness. Below he could hear the sound of insects swarming.

The parent mockingbird flew away, whistling the "Andy of Mayberry" theme.

 



Hearing distant screams, Brian ran to the main hallway and found a trail of insects. At each room, the trail branched off. He looked in one room and found a man struggling to escape the relentless onslaught. In the next room, a woman huddled in the corner, being devoured by bugs.

"It's spreading," Brian said. "My nightmare's taking over the net."

The watchman's voice came over the headband. "Trace it back through your past."

Brian wandered into a vast cavernous space. The air was heavy, oppressive. The room reverberated with the sound of dripping water.

"Nothing yet," Brian said.

"Stalk it. Let it take a shape and a form, feel it through your body, get a whiff of it with your nose."

Something flickered in the distance but faded out.

"It's too dark."

"It started to come through," the night watchman said, "but you blocked it."

Brian entered a narrow, winding passageway. The ground seemed to rise and fall like the deck of a ship at sea. The walls undulated gently, twisting in folds that resembled the convolutions of the brain.

"Tell me again what I'm looking for."

"The unspeakable."

Brian laughed. "Oh, that."

"The embodiment of everything you say no to. It follows you around, riding your blind spot."

Brian squeezed past a tight bend and peered through a crack in the wall. The scene was faint, shrouded in mist.

It was dusk. A small boy sat crying in the middle of a field. Beside him lay a black cat that had been tortured to death by the bully next door. The cat's body was covered with maggots and flies.

Brian redreamed the scene from different angles: from the bully's perspective, from the cat's point of view, from a thousand pairs of insect eyes. It still didn't make any sense, yet somehow he understood.

He sighed deeply, an exhalation he felt he'd been holding in for years.



Brian followed the trail of insects to a large room in the corner of the basement, next to a stairwell. In front of him stood the rotting corpse of his dreams, with a leering grin of roaches and maggots. The evil stench was almost unbearable. A black cat walked out of the shadows and rubbed against the corpse's leg.

"Who are you?" Brian demanded.

"I am your death."

"You're just a computer-enhanced bad dream," said Brian.

"I'm your worst nightmare."

Laughing maniacally, the Nightmare pinned him in the corner, drowning him in darkness. The bugs swarmed over his skin and began consuming his body.

"Now you're going to die," the Nightmare hissed.

"If I die, you die too," said Brian.

"If I die, the whole universe dies. So be it."

The Nightmare stood back and stared at Brian, focusing the net's bad dreams onto his body.

"I'm going to kill you with your own fear of death."

Brian broke out in a cold sweat and began shivering. He doubled over with abdominal pain. His feet hurt. A tooth ached. A kidney stone began a slow, agonizing journey. His heart beat in wild, irregular rhythms. He clutched his chest, expecting to die.

His hand felt the threads of the dream catcher amulet.

Brian held the web in front of his face. The amulet vibrated in his hand as the metallic threads sizzled with a white-hot glow. Fighting his distaste, Brian forced himself to meet the Nightmare's gaze.

"Who are you?" he demanded again.

The amulet transformed into a mirror. Where the Nightmare's face had been, Brian saw his own reflection.

"I am your fear," said the Nightmare. "I am your fear of life."

The mirror shattered into shards of broken memory. The Nightmare began dancing wildly, waving its hands and clicking its heels.

Reluctantly at first, Brian joined in, following the Nightmare's every move. Then, taking the lead, he stepped closer and closer until he was in the very center of the swarm of creatures.

He saw himself as millions of individual living organisms, the group mind of the net. He felt the power of the hive mind, swirling with energy, and leapt from one creature's dream to another's, seeing with the eyes of an ant, a maggot, a cockroach. His consciousness spread out onto the dark corners of the net in search of human contact.

His body filled with energy. Laughing with dark pleasure, he stomped on the Nightmare's feet, crushing ants and delighting in the sound of maggots popping. A mockingbird lit on his shoulder and began picking off insects.

Still covered in bugs, he ran up the stairs and chased the gang of punks around the experimental theater.



Brian took a moment to orient himself, then sat up on the couch.

Sylvia opened her eyes. "Did you figure out who the intruder is?"

"Yes," said Brian. "It's not a hacker, or a competitor trying to steal your customer base. It's an emergent property of the system, a natural consequence of the neural net."

Sylvia looked puzzled.

"You've created a group mind," said Brian, "a collective consciousness. But the conscious mind always has an unconscious — a place crawling with autonomous routines, discarded program fragments, meaningful mistakes, repressed emotions, forgotten dreams. Bugs, worms, viruses, parasitic entities that ride the net like junk mail. The mental equivalent of junk DNA."

"Interesting," Sylvia said.

"You can't suppress the Nightmare — that merely increases the very turbulence you're trying to avoid. And the threat of shutting down the system drives the Nightmare further underground, where it quietly soaks up any available energy, only to erupt violently when least expected."

"But if we let the network run itself, there's no telling what could happen," Sylvia argued. "People could have all kinds of..."

"Nightmares?" offered Brian. "People have nightmares all the time."

Sylvia shook her head. "But who's going to pay to use the system if it gives them nightmares?"

"A better question is, who's going to pay to be prevented from working through their nightmares? DreamNet threw my fears in my face and made me deal with them. Just as it amplified your worst fear, the thought that a competitor might trash the system and steal your customers."

Sylvia smiled guiltily.

Brian squinted at her, crossing his eyes slightly, and looked into the resulting third eye."I think you knew more about the Nightmare than you consciously realized."

She spoke into the microphone. The night watchman's voice boomed forth.

"Yep."



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