(Shortly after leaving college, I think, I had an idea for a cyberpunk retelling of the Lord of the Rings, crossed with a hefty dose of Lovecraftian Dreamlands mythos and a bit of The Matrix. This fragment is all that ever got written of it, but reading it through again now, I still mostly like the voice and implied setting. Sharing now for posterity, and possible future inspiration. Incidentally, the two spelling errors are intentional and should be read as written.)
“The human mind is never more than seventy-two hours from madness,” RC says pedantically. “That is the entire basis of DreamNet.”
Kram shifts in his seat. RC sips from a cup of lukewarm English Breakfast tea, one sugar no cream, and idly watches the wall.
“Explain the hell the relevance of that,” Kram finally asks.
Here are facts: Kram is dressed in baggy red mock-camouflage sweats, sitting as if relaxed at one end of the booth’s couch. He is wearing prescription shades but they have slipped down his nose. His hands are nervous in his pockets. His jack is covered by a stylish chunk of hand-carved wood fitted with plastic. His real name is Jeremy Lee but only government employees call him that. He wishes he could change his nickname. RC claims that his real name is Carter but that his buddies call him Cola and most folks use his initials. He is wearing a suit and tie with a strong thematic tendency toward black. His jack is small, discreet, and metallic. He is looking at the wall because they are in a booth at the theater and the wall is where Raymond versus The World, which he has downloaded, is playing.
Kram’s parents are upset because he has not yet ended his schooling to pursue a career, and both men present know this.
“Modern psychology holds that dreams are what we experience when our brains shuffle data taken in during the day. Without this sorting process, we would lose our grip on reality. A human who remains awake for seventy-two hours, by which I mean three days straight, is tungsten-certifiable insane. But that’s not all. If a human is dream-deprived—by which I mean allowed to sleep but woken each time REM begins—then the same insanity will develop. It begins with irritability, confusion, disorientatatation. Later, paranoia. A range of schizoid tendencies. Eventually, death. This is you. Me.”
Kram pops a kink in his spine but does not speak.
“They knew this in the good old days. They had the interfacing tech and NeuralNet. Now, most folk logged on awake, right? Not Kenji, programmer savant. He trained himself to log in while asleep, and bypassed the automatic logouts by spicing his jack with code he wrote himself. He figured, why just sort through data you already have? Why not give the brain controlled amounts of new data and let it sort that too? He studied number theory and French, the major works of Voltaire, in his sleep before going patent.
“So ‘what happens next?’ you don’t ask.”
It is true that Kram does not ask this. He orders a mocha, which is vaguely like asking, almost. RC interprets it as such.
“It took off, right? You study all hands-on daytimes; you study all dreaming at night for up to three REM sessions; you take a test next week. College wasn’t always only twenty months. And everything’s safe as long as you load clean data from your home set instead of going on the Net. But there are always viruses, right? And shoddy programming. And advertisements. Nearly seven hundred people died in three years and tens of thousands needed psychiatric care.
“Of course it’s the Israeli military that comes up with the solution, right? People could control their dreams in the good old days too, just not all the time. Kenji could, but he only used it to flip the on switch. Other people could, but they were told that it just got in the way of the data flow so they suppressed it.
“But if you want to control the flow, you control the dream first. This one guy had a free-time dream where he was sitting on a rock hitting goats with a stick as they went by. Pow, inspiration. Next thing, they had people all training themselves to control their dreams. Eighteen months; three hundred more people die and firewalls just aren’t stopping the bleed. The Israelis decided the experiment was a success after one guy actually manipulated a data chunk, rewrote it on a hard drive, in his sleep. He created a dream-room that he could revisit the next night and that other people could visit as well. Revolutionary. Literally, new worlds. These folk could sit and be hit by full-on subliminals all night and not even wake up hungry, much less wanting a new car. So a generation later, kids by the age of sixteen are trained to be active instead of passive dreamers, and at eighteen they’re allowed out of the YouthNet into full-on public dreaming. The age limit’s been creeping down ever since as kids learn all younger how to do it.”
Kram speaks up. “And that first room became the all fabled White Box at the core of the dNet, yeah.” His mocha has arrived, and he is patting his hair, with the spoon as a mirror.
“Except not. That room is the entranceway of the old NightNet, which some servers still carry. I’ve been there some. It’s mostly just entity-interface.” He leans forward. “The DreamNet most folk know isn’t everything, Jay Lee. You know that.”
Kram is eager to be incredulous. “You trying to sell me porn?”
“God no. I’m talking about the World. I’m talking about the part that can never be cleaned from the servers because it’s in our heads. This isn’t rooms, Jay. I’m talking about the space chiseled straight out of the collective unconscious. Jung would crash if he were alive to see it.”
The sound of money pings somewhere in Kram’s mind. He sips and nods for RC to go on.
“Now, the World has its own rules a little, but anybody used to traveling in dreams can scan it with great rapididity. Now I’m asking you if you’d like to write. Look around all first, of course; this is interactive like a room isn’t, except more so. But I’ve seen some of the rooms you designed, and we like to have people like you on board.”
Here is a fact: Kram makes a masterful attempt at sounding like a bored man with room to haggle. It is also true that he fails.
“So this is all for real instead of for class credit?”
“Of course.” RC takes out an actual print copy of a contract and waits. Then he hands over a pen and waits. Then he takes back the contract. “Keep the pen. I’ll sign my line after you get to my home in the World. Call it a test. If you don’t catch me, leave a message in the stacks right by the entrance.”
Here is a fact: RC leaves after closing his balance but Kram, who has nothing better to do, stays and watches as Raymond chooses the green pill and all of a sudden things are becoming stranger faster than usual, which is not a new storyline but makes for a good kick-back-relax movie.