It seemed that a glitch may have occurred; the framerate might have skipped for a second, or maybe the pixels had become blurred. But either way, while the show had gone on, that minute change had allowed the extant causality to manifest itself as a minute degree of user awareness; it was instantaneous. I have literally no idea how I got here. I’m dreaming, aren’t I? Jeanne Clarkeson mused to herself. She had only found herself within a lucid dream a handful of times over the thirty-six and three quarters years of her life, if that is indeed what this was. She shuddered for some reason, then looked all around herself; she was definitely out of doors, and the air was good and cold, with a slight tang as if from a wood fire. The steppe that she stood on was very level; almost unnaturally so. It seemed as if all she could see were sheets of flat, porous granite stone stretching away both behind her and away to either side. The surface of it was striated with many ages’ worth of weathering, and there was no telling how long that it had lain there. However, when Jeanne raised her eyes up and looked ahead of her, she saw that it was a different story. She was maybe fifteen or twenty yards from what appeared to be a large mountain; it was one in a whole range of them, like a row of teeth emerging from the gum that was the topsoil after the stones ended. There was a huge cave yawning at its foot; on either side of its massive, hundred-foot high entrance, there were light brown trees with dark green foliage winding up the grassy sides of a cliff’s edifice. Above it all, as her eyes continued to track upwards, was a canopy of darkest purple night turning to black before she saw the star Sirus seemingly wink at her by flickering for but a moment.
Jeanne started forward a few steps, then stopped dead. But, I hate caves. Then she looked down at herself before continuing; she had been so taken aback by the strange environs that she had been entirely ignoring herself and could have been nude for all she knew. However, that was not the case, as her arms and hands were covered in elbow-length, black, evenly creased black gloves. She was also wearing a form-fitting black bodice and black jeans, some scuffed black boots and a long, dark brown leather jacket. The whole ensemble was a bit racier than anything she would have worn in her waking life. Just like that freaking science fiction flick. Is this really my dream? Checking both front pockets of the jeans, she found that she had no mirror, but even so, she could make out a few strands of her familiar red hair outside the edges of her visual sense field. It’s even tied back in the dream. And where am I? She tried to think back even a short while, and there were literally no memories relating to how she came to this point. She remembered what must have been last night quite well, of course, as her fiancee Paul had slept over; always memorable. They had fallen asleep together as well, while spooning. But after that, there was nothing. Well, might as well get on towards this mountain. It’ll be just like hiking. But … there’s not a soul here. Weird. But dreams are always weird, I guess. So, she resumed walking. As she did, she saw the grayish-white stone end and a dirt path strewn with dead, multi-colored leaves form, almost as if by magic; and the strangest part was that as she walked, it seemed to be getting longer the closer she got to the cave’s mouth. The ground is changing. What is this? She paused to compose herself, then continued down it for some reason as if nothing had happened. And just at the moment that she began to feel as if she were making some progress towards her goal, the patch of leafy urth directly under her feet parted as if it were the two sides of a great trap.
She looked down, eyes widening, with her right foot over the exposed pit for several seconds before plummeting down into it, as she had already put her weight upon that foot in the normal process of walking. Her hair flew up over her head as she fell, and she expected to hit some solid ground, but that was not to be; instead she fell into a massive pile of some slimy, squishy substance and became lodged several feet into it. The starlight was meagre, but when she recovered from being jarred, she began to see curving lines in the semi-darkness and sense movement around herself; quite a bit of it. Snakes. Jeanne just froze up at first. They were sliding around her legs, her midsection; rolling over each other and hissing on the surface, their beady little eyes focused only on what was directly ahead of them. They began to curl around both of her arms, almost like bonds, but she was caught fast and somehow even began to sink in further and further. Then, one that was much larger than the others, almost a king among vipers, began to slither from the outskirts of the pile; as she could still barely see, she began to follow it by the sounds of its movement alone. It was emitting a louder version of the low, vibrant hissing; and as it went, an odd rattling noise from its tail sounded out like a death knell. She began to contort in an effort to twist around while coiled at all appendages and could feel the lithe little bodies tearing, smashing and bleeding on her as she made progress; their blood was strangely cold on her legs. She came to the pit’s wall, but could not find a handhold of any kind in the dirt, at least not one that didn’t crumble immediately. She fell back, screaming and writhing as if she were one of them. Then, she saw the big one loom over her, blocking out the stars themselves.
Suddenly, Jeanne fainted inside of the “dream”. When she was finally roused by the distinct sound of dripping water somewhere, it was what could have been minutes or hours or days later; she was lying on her back with her limbs splayed at all angles, much like a rag doll. She was now in almost total darkness; her irises quickly strained to adjust, but there was simply nothing for them to even find, as it had nothing to do with acuity. So, she got down onto her hands and knees. More stone. A cave, then. She began to carefully move forward like an animal, picking up water and bits of mud on her hands and soaking her jeans to the knees. The light was so far off as to be a small spot in her visual field; it began as merely a glowing, a redness that then segued into a greenish-whiteness. Then she could see the tunnel walls, and finally her own shadow just behind herself and slightly to her left. Then, the tunnel opened up into a large cavern of dark gray stone; at first she didn’t understand what she was seeing, but after several moments, she realized what it was; the cold hit her at about the same time.
It’s totally frozen. It appeared to be a small lake; that same odd glow that she had seen first in the tunnel seemed to emanate from within it, yet it seemed to be frozen over, as she could detect no motion of any kind. She found herself trying the toe of one small boot out onto the surface to check it for hardness. Better not, it may be unstable … But when she turned back around to find a way out of the cave back the way she’d come, she found nothing but a wall of solid stone. The tunnel had closed, almost like a mouth. What the … She stood there and simply stared at it for several moments, eventually feeling as if she might cry. Instead, she composed herself, turned and looked across the icy surface to find the far side. Sure enough, there were not one but a total of three darkened tunnel openings over there. Well then. She got back onto her hands and knees and eased out onto the ice. It was so cold that she immediately lifted one hand to see if it had stuck, but it hadn’t, so she put it back down and began to scuttle forward. At first, all was well. However, when she was about two thirds of the way over it, she began to sense a problem; even before the glass-like ice had started to crack. The ice was thinning. She had no idea how she could know that, but instincts were what they were, and she stopped immediately after coming to the realization.
The fissures ran out from her like a spider’s web, and the area of the lake’s surface directly beneath her partially gave way, submerging her limbs, lower body and belly in the water. Jeanne responded by throwing the majority of her weight forward so as to avoid plunging into it completely; yet, somehow the jagged edges of the break were pointing upward and they sliced straight through the black leather of her jacket and into her arms on both sides; she began to scream uncontrollably, and as she felt herself sliding backwards, she began to scrabble about with both hands for holds that weren’t there. There were only more shards of glassy, hard ice; it was almost plastic-like in its translucency, and her hands were quickly impaled as surely as her arms had been. One of the thinnest ones ran straight up her left index finger to the second joint; she began crying as well as bleeding. She withdrew them hastily, the splatters of blood surrounding her and the break like tampon blooming. Jeanne was bleeding out from several wounds; she could feel other shards in the sides of her abdomen, possibly shredding her intestines. After a few moments of pure shock, she stopped screaming and began to pull herself forward as slowly and carefully as possible. That’s not physically possible, she thought as she went. Why would they stick up like that? Things break inwards. She raised her head and looked; the other caves were about ten or fifteen yards away. She would never make it, especially not when she was losing so much blood; she pressed her forehead down against the ice, and sighed …
And then it all collapsed underneath her; Jeanne was suddenly immersed in the glowing water. She stared upward through the water towards the roof of the cavern as she sank, in too much pain to even attempt to swim; the blood in the water soon swirled all around her, and it began to obscure her entire visual field. So, she looked down; and immediately wished she hadn’t. The bottom was covered in moulding tile, oddly enough, and she was heading almost straight for a huge hole full of darkness; it was almost too large to be a mere drain. She tried to scissorkick and swim away, but she just wasn’t fast enough because of the injuries; suddenly a dessicated human hand reached out of the whole and grabbed her by one foot, pulling her into it. She screamed, huge air bubbles forming and rising towards the surface. Jeanne held on to each side of the hole weakly with her mutilated hands; they slipped, and all she could see then was the darkness; nothing more. Then, she was in a forest, under a canopy of hundreds of fir tree branches. The ground was covered with needles, but moonlight shone through the apertures above her so she could see well enough. She looked down at herself again. Not a single puncture in the jacket’s arms, not so much as a hangnail on her small hands. There was literally nothing; she was whole again once more. What the fuck just happened, then? Am I actually in hell? That’s the only explanation. But it’s freezing. Then, she was quite startled when someone actually answered her. But not externally; not even using sound waves.
“Not exactly, Jeanne. Good guess, though.”
A second voice in my head? That’s a new one.
“Not quite. It’s not a dream either, but … close.”
Who are you? How do you know what I am thinking?
“I know all about you, Jeanne. Much more than you realize. Don’t panic. You are still on the planet Cedron, and the year is still 2058, but while you were sleeping, quite a few things came to pass. Things quite outside the sphere of your control, as it were.”
What do you mean? What kind of things? Who the fuck are you, and how are you speaking in my head?
“It’s me, Mike Bronstein.”
Bronstein? Jeanne thought back furiously. A memory glimmered like an underwater jewel in the labyrinth of her subconscious. There had been a Bronstein in Synaptic Response a few years ago, maybe four. He had been systematically sexually harassing his female co-workers, asking them to impress themselves into modules for his own personal use, which was a huge no-no at VerTech. Not to mention the legal morass if they hadn’t dealt with him severely and promptly. Jeanne vaguely remembered terminating him; a thin caucasian man with relatively short brown hair who still wore glasses for some reason; he had been wearing charcoal slacks, a white shirt and a bright blue tie that day, she remembered.
“Well, I’ve had a good deal of time on my hands since you terminated me. So I’ve been surfing the web, you know, and doing research. Research on how to bypass lock and security systems. Intensive research.” Jeanne could feel her face draw into an involuntary grimace; whether it was her real self or the virtual one, she couldn’t tell.
“And, I paid you and your fianceé a little visit last night. Well, me and a couple friends. You both sleep like fucking kids after a trip to the carnival. It was no trouble to chloroform you, but him …”
What do you mean …? You didn’t … she stared off at the mouth of the cave; the surf pounded against the rocks down by the water’s edge as if inattentive to her problems.
“Oh, but I did. He resisted, and we had no choice but to put him down like an animal, and then the boys figured we’d toss him off the Connolly Bridge. You know, make it look like a suicide and all that. It was pretty easy, really. I’m sure he’ll wash up sooner or later. They might even mistake it for a suicide, if we’re lucky. It’s too bad you won’t be able to attend his funeral.”
That’s what this is about, Bronstein? You’re miffed about the termination? We went quite easy on you, my friend. We could have turned you over to the authorities … and under those new laws, buddy … Even in the dream-state, she could feel her eyes beginning to water up, and then she began sobbing. It was almost instantaneous. You don’t understand, Bronstein. That’s why you were never promoted, I remember now. “Lack of imagination,” your department head called it. And “lack of diligence” was also tossed around. You were always so fucking lustful that in addition to your behavioral problems, you would constantly make tiny little coding mistakes. And guess what, asshole? One of them has woken me up. Made me lucid. And that is the key to breaking the virtual or augmented state.
You fucked up, Mike. Had to gloat, did you?
“Bullshit. BullSHIT. I’m cabled right across from you in the fucking twin-cab, and you’re as under as anyone ever has been.”
Thanks for the additional information, moron. Jeanne willed away the lingering unreality with a tremendous effort of will and began clawing at her face, until finally the combination allowed her fingers to feel the mask. She tore it off over her head; the augmented reality twin-cab was an old video game booth gone wrong; two leather-bound seats riveted across from each other in a booth with an entrance in either side. Red lights only lit the interior, which was all black. Jeanne immediately stood up and yanked the module’s cable from the block behind the plastic wall behind her, making eye contact with Bronstein, who was only fitted with a headset, and leapt at him. His eyes grew wide as saucers as she wrapped the module’s cable round his corded neck and began to pull on the two ends, constricting his airway more and more as the frantic moments passed. Caught off-guard, he threw a couple of weak punches at her head, but they were easily avoided as he began to weaken. Two minutes later, she released the cord and his body dropped to the twin-cab’s floor, tongue lolling as his head smacked against it. Dressed in only her underwear, Jeanne released the valve for the entrance to her right and opened the door. Stepping out of it and into the studio, she looked back at him.