Blake’s Dream

By: Firemane

 

            I was Dreaming when the phone rang.  Of course, I wasn’t aware of the phone ringing.  No, what clued me in was the fact that my world suddenly ceased to exist as the computer dumped my Dream and flooded my system with stimulants.  I jerked awake and stared at the clock while I waited for reality to catch up with me.  I slipped off the inducer cap and reached for my cigarettes.  The phone continued to ring as I let the nicotine fight with the jitters from the Dream-dump.  The caller didn’t hang up.  There was only one number that had priority over my Dreaming, and they knew I’d answer eventually.  When I felt up to it, I picked up the phone.

            “You know, one of these days you’re going to give me a partial wipe doing that.” I complained, before he could start in on me making him wait.  If he was going to make me go through 90 seconds of amnesia, he could put up with me cutting into his playtime.

            “Cut it, Tony.  I’ve got a job for you.”  I knew that was the only reason Larry would call me at home, but I was still a little surprised.  Work had been slow since I’d raised my rates again.  Real slow.  I hadn’t had a job in almost a year, in fact.

 

            Of course, that had kind of been the idea.

 

            “I could have guessed.  This better not be some stupid veggie trip.”

            “Not yet, but it could be if we don’t get him out soon.  This is big, Tony.”

            “Oh?” I lit my second.  “Who’s the client?”

            “Oh, nobody important.” He drawled, “Just Luminous Industries.”  I snorted, sending smoke out of my nose.  At least it wasn’t milk.

            “L.I.?  You’re kidding me.”

            “Nope.  They asked for you by name.”

            “Christ, they invented the inducer, what do they need me for?  Can’t one of their wizards pull this guy out?”

            “They don’t seem to think so.  There are special circumstances.  They want you.”

            “They do know that I’m expensive, right?”

            “Price is negotiable, Tony.”  Righteous anger seemed like a good excuse to turn him down.

            “Like hell!  I’m not going to cut my rates for anyone.”

            “I wasn’t talking about the price going down, Tony.” He let that sink in.  “Come on, Tony, you haven’t landed a job in, what, a year now?  Don’t you have bills to pay?”

            “Not really.”  It was amazing how little I spent from week to week.  I owned my own place, right outside of town, and I had my inducer.  I had photocells and a cistern, and there’s not much more a man needs, when you get right down to it.

            “There must be something you want.  A hard-to-find Dream?”  An idea popped into my head, then, and I smiled.

            “Ok, I want L.I. Special Edition #150983-69, Regent Studios #539-892, and…” I licked my lips between drags, wishing I could see the look on his face. “September Harvest.”  One of those was a war-era interrogation Dream.  It was supposed to be the ultimate hard-core Dream experience, if you could take it.  Of course, it was also rare and entirely illegal.  The other two were imports from unregulated dream studios.  Also illegal.

            “Jesus, Tony, that’s…” He broke off as someone on his end interrupted.  I held my breath and strained, but I couldn’t make out more than an impression of an Inlander accent.  “Ok, Tony.  You’ve got a deal.”  There was awe in his voice, and I realized I’d just stuck my foot in a big fat trap.  A verbal agreement in these cases is binding, and I knew better than to try to back out on a company like L.I.  “Your ride will be there in 10 minutes.  Don’t forget to put on some pants before you answer the door.”

            “Jackass.” He let the dial tone answer me.

            Ten minutes.  Barely enough time to make myself presentable, or as close as I ever got.  I still had bits and pieces of my interrupted Dream floating around in my head, as well as the makings of a good migraine from the stimulants.  I decided the coffee was a bad idea, but I had some anyway.  It wasn’t as though I was going to have trouble sleeping. 

            It took my ride significantly less than the allotted time to arrive.  I’d barely gotten my clothes on when the door rang.  The pair outside looked like they’ve been bought as a matching set, plain gray suits, short ponytails, clean-cut.  They both had the deceptively open faces the really good thugs cultivate these days.  I felt like I was about to be kidnapped by customer service.  Their car was jet black, the surface of the car such a deep black that it seemed to drink in what little light filtered through the clouds.  Which was, of course, exactly what its surface photocells were doing.  They politely loaded me into the back, and we cruised off.

            The streets were quiet for nearly noon, but there were still one or two private cars moving around, as well as the public rails.  Despite the speed with which my escort arrived, I had plenty of time to think and calm my over-stimulated brain while we drove.  I couldn’t figure out why Luminous Industries could possibly need my help. 

            The first commercial inducers came out when I was just a kid, right after the war.  Originally, they were used by the military during the war as an interrogation aide.  The so-called Virtual Reality technology had been around for years, feeding images and sensations into the subject’s brain, but no matter how good the illusion was, reality was always there, floating in the background like an after-image.  Then some R&D hotshot at Luminous got the crazy idea to bypass the senses entirely, stimulate the area of the brain associated with dreaming directly, and suddenly it was the biggest thing in interrogation since the “rack”.  The military loved it.  Once they had the Dream Inducer figured out, it didn’t take them long to figure out how to translate read dreams into electronic data.  Prisoners could literally be interrogated in their sleep.

            L.I. knew they had a good thing going, and when the war was over, they decided to bring it to the civilian sector.  Why suffer through the inadequacies of VR when you can live out someone else’s Dream?  That isn’t to say everything went off without a hitch.  If Induced Dreams were totally foolproof, I’d be out of a job.  The early inducers didn’t sedate the user, and there were cases where people had “waking Dreams” that led to mental problems.  As soon as it became obvious that the inducer was a hot item, other manufacturers popped up, and not all of them knew what they were doing.  A lot of companies that got into the inducer business crashed when their product started creating raving psychotics and drooling amnesiacs.  Plus, the Dreams themselves could have disturbing effects on the psyche.  Trading nightmares and secret fantasies became a small, but profitable, business.  None of which explained why L.I., a company that knew more about Dreams and Inducers than any other in the world, would need a hack like me.  I still hadn’t figured out an answer when the car finally stopped.         

 

            “Ok, so why am I here?” I finally asked.

            “Existential questions have no place here, Tony.” Larry reminded me.  I smirked.

            “Come on, I’m hooked already.  Tell me what I need to know.”  Larry led me through the halls of L.I.’s private medical facility.  We caught an elevator going down, and Larry gestured to me to keep silent until we were alone again.  After the rest of the passengers got off, Larry let the doors close in front of us.  The elevator continued to descend, without direction from either of us.  I glanced his way.

            “This is a very sensitive issue for L.I.  The patient is one of theirs, the best Dreamsmith they have.”

            “Tora?”  Larry nodded.  The man was a true genius, a composer and programmer.  Few people could do either, and he did both, with stunning quality.  Most studios relied heavily on lucid dreams, but some few, like L.I., had the computational resources to create Dreams from scratch.  Most had a jarring, disjointed quality that left you with bad vibes for hours afterward, something that hardcore Dreamers got used to.  It’s an acquired taste.  But Tora’s works were impossibly smooth, almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

            “He’s in one of his own Dreams, and his system is locked.”  That explained why they were willing to accept my terms.  Tora was one of their big money-makers, and if he became a veggie, they’d lose a lot of revenue.  “They want him out, of course, but…”  I stopped walking.

            “But what?”

            “I told you there were special circumstances.  His machine has the only copy of his latest work.  It’s supposed to be something totally new and radical.  He refused to let anyone see it.  They want to recover that program untouched.”

            “You’re kidding me.  I’m supposed to pull him out without hacking the Dream?”

            “Why do you think they couldn’t put a Wizard on this?  You can do this, Tony.  You’ve talked plenty of people down out of their Dreams without any hacking.”

            “Yeah, but…”

            “Don’t worry about it.  If things get too hot, you know I’ll pull you out.  Just like…”

            “Don’t remind me.  There’s a reason I didn’t want this job, you know.”

            “All the more reason for you to get this over with.  Prove to yourself that you’ve still got it.” I waited for the obvious cliché, and he didn’t disappoint me.  “Sometimes when the horse throws you, you’ve got to get right back in the saddle.”

            “Whatever.  When do I get to meet the man of my Dreams?”

            “Right in here.  We’ve already got everything set up, just the way you like it.”  He led me through the double doors into an operating theatre.  The seats were empty, though I could easily picture them full of anxious spectators, waiting for me to yank this Dreamsmith out of his Dream like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat.  The patient was literally strapped into his inducer, and as I watched a thin river of spittle spilled from his mouth to run down his cheek and drip off his chin.  A male nurse dabbed it with a cloth.  Hardly the way I would have expected to meet the world’s greatest maker of artificial Dreams.  I looked around.

            “You an Examiner?” I asked the nurse.  He just looked blankly at me.  I turned to Larry.  “Where’s the Examiner?”

            “That isn’t necessary, Tony.” Larry assured me, with a smile that was pure grease.  It occurred to me to wonder what he’d been up to while I was practicing for retirement.  “We all know your psychometric profile is perfect.”

            “Like hell we do!  I haven’t done this in a year.  Any of my profile characteristics could have gone out of bounds by now!”

            “You were Dreaming when I called, weren’t you?” Larry pointed out, “You’d know better than anyone if things have changed.  Isn’t that what you always used to say?”

            “That’s different!” I protested, “It’s against the law to ride someone else’s Dream without an examination.”

            “And you do it all the time.” He countered, “I told you, this is a sensitive issue.  What do you think would happen if word got out that Tora got stuck in one of his own Dreams?  There are enough people already who want to see Induced Dreams banned altogether.  We need this kept quiet.”  I became suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I was deep inside a very powerful corporation’s private facility.  L.I. could see to it that nobody asked questions if I were to mysteriously vanish.  I cursed myself for forgetting to follow even the most basic procedures in accepting a client.  I’d allowed myself to be suckered in and I had no choice but to follow through and hope for the best.

            At least they had a nice setup for their Inducer.  It was one of the nice new models I’d heard about, the kind that didn’t need direct contact to work.  I leaned back against the cushion, and the headgear slid down automatically.  A series of pastel lights began to flash in front of me.  They don’t really do anything.  They just give the user something soothing to look at while the subsonic and electromagnetic fields of the device induce delta waves in the brain. 

            My home system has a gradual shift from waking to Dream, but either the newer systems didn’t or the device wasn’t calibrated properly, because I found myself slammed into the Dream.  Or possibly a pre-Dream, I realized, because the Dream didn’t materialize immediately.  I floated in a pulsing sort of pinkish haze, hoping that Tora’s new Dream wasn’t crucially flawed.  I somehow doubted they’d bother sending anyone in after me if the Dream made me cyber-psychotic.  Despite my fear, I felt waves of calm washing through me as the entire Dream pulsed, rhythmically. 

            “Larry?” I sub-voc’ed, establishing contact with the waking world.

            “Right here.  What do you see?”

            “Whole lot of nothing.  I’m going to see if I can push deeper into the Dream.  Any idea where our boy is?”

            “Yours is the only brain registering.” I swore.

            “You sure he’s not a turnip by now?  There’s something really wrong with this Dream.”

            “Negative, he’s got full brain activity.”

            “What’s his sig?”

            “Deep Purple.  He’s got a lot of theta mixed in his waves.”  I let that digest for a few minutes, as the gentle swell of the Dream drained away my apprehensions.  I could see how a Dream like this could push you past delta and into theta wave production.  Maybe that was what his big project was?  If so, he’d been reading too many old Soviet reports.

            Relax.  Come this way.

            It wasn’t Larry speaking, I could tell that much.  The voice was omni-present, like the pulsing, but I got an impression of where it wanted me to go.  With no other leads, I moved in that direction.  This is the point where I’d generally start wanting to hack.  Out of reflex, I reached for my tool-belt, a convenient visualization of my hack tools.  Surprise, surprise, it wasn’t there.

            “Tony, I don’t know what you’re doing, but remember that you aren’t supposed to hack this time.”

            “Is that why my toolkit’s disabled?”

            “Bingo.”

            “And what if I run into trouble?” I asked, still pushing my way forward.  The Dreamstuff had a consistency somewhere between water and silt. 

            “I’ve got my hand on the panic button.  You’ll be out of there in no time.”

            If you believe that, I’ve got some nice Real Estate for you to look at.          

            I froze.  My line to Larry was supposed to be totally isolated from the Dream. 

            Not everything is what it seems.  Continue.  I promise you will not be harmed.

            With no other real options, I obeyed.  The Dreamstuff became thicker, and the pulsing slowed and became more forceful.  I got to the point where I was unable to push forward on my own, but I continued to move in short bursts, propelled by the pressure wave of the beating Dream.  I finally came against what seemed like a wall, and the pressure mounted with each pulse, until finally I felt something tear, and I broke through.

 

            “Tony?  Tony, are you there?”

            “Yeah, I’m here.” I answered, getting a look at this new layer of the Dream.  I understood now a little better how this Dream was constructed.  Where I had started was only the surface.  There were probably multiple layers.  That alone was absolutely revolutionary, a brilliant design.   

            “Tony, you aren’t showing up in the Dream anymore.”  I started to explain.

             Please don’t share this little secret yet.  I have so much more I want to show you.

            “I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation for that.” I assured Larry.  “Hey, Larry?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Still got your hand on that panic button?”

            “Sure thing, pal.”

            “Get off of it.  I don’t need you jumping the gun at this point.”

            Don’t worry.  I can get you out if you really need to get out.  I remembered Tora’s drooling, vacant face, and wondered if perhaps I shouldn’t tell Larry to pull me out right then and there.  But I suspected that it wouldn’t have done any good one way or the other.  Hell, he’d admitted that they’d lost track of my signal.  I was as much a vegetable as Tora so far as they were concerned. 

            “What does my sig look like right now?”

            “You’re positively gay, Tony.”  Pale Lavender.  I was edging deeper into theta wave territory myself now.  I decided to completely break protocol at that point.

            “Larry, I’m going to try and make contact with the patient, but I think he might be able to hear you somehow.  I’m tuning you out.”

            “Tony, that’s a really bad idea, and you know it.” It was, and I did.

            “Nothing you can do to stop me short of dumping me.” I pointed out, “If I don’t come back, you can either dump me or stick me in the same ward with Tora.”

            “But…” I put my fingers in my ears.  Crude symbolism, but it worked.

            “Ok, now that we’re alone, I want you to show yourself.”

            Not yet.  You’re still too far away.    

            “This is really good work, by the way.  I’ve never seen an artificial Dream this fluid.”

            You haven’t seen the best part yet. There was considerable pride in that voice, and I felt I was making a good start on developing rapport with the patient.  Keep going.

            This part of the Dream was a wilderness.  It looked to be pre-Bomb, so it could have been anywhere.  Maybe it was a fantasy jungle, straight out of Tora’s imagination.  There was no telling.  I heard a soft growl, and turned to find a giant cat of some kind staring at me.  It looked to stand about two feet tall at the shoulder, and it was covered in black rings.

            That’s an ocelot, I was informed, isn’t it beautiful?

            It was a magnificent animal, I realized, as it coolly considered me.  There was something regal in it’s bearing, a kind of condescension.  It leapt down from its branch, and padded past me.

            Follow it.  Tora suggested.  I walked behind it, implicitly safe in the knowledge that I was walking through a Dream.  The cat came to a pool of water, and it lapped at the water’s edge.  As I watched, the cat stood up, it’s muscles and skin reshaping with remarkable smoothness until it walked on two legs.  I could tell now that this was a female of the species, and she smiled at me in a way that was disturbingly human.  I’d met anthropomorphic characters in Dreams before, though those were usually carefully crafted nightmares.  She didn’t seem like the run-of-the-mill horror character, though, as she waded into the water, glancing over her shoulder at me.  Her look was an obvious invitation.

            “You’re making an awfully big assumption about my sexuality, you know.”

            Not really.  I’ve done my homework, Mr. Blake.

            Alarm bells went off in my self-preservation instincts.  I knew I should pull the plug right then, but I didn’t.  Of course, that was making the assumption that I really still had that option. 

            “When have I ever suggested I was into animals?”

            You see her as an animal because that is how she first appeared to you.  What if she had shown her human self first?

            As I watched, she changed further, until she stood there as a human woman.  She dove under the perfect, clear water, and swam with long, powerful strokes.  She emerged on the other side as a tiger.  The tiger gave me a look, and despite the inhumanity of her features, I understood the meaning.  I never learned to swim, so I went around the edge of the pond to meet her.  She moved toward me and I backed away, stumbling over a fallen limb that I would have sworn wasn’t there the moment before.  I saw her powerful form above me, and despite the fact that I was Dreaming, I felt afraid.  So much had happened that I couldn’t explain.  What else didn’t I know? 

            Then the tiger brushed against me, her body warm beneath the cold of her dripping fur, and the feeling was incredible.  To touch such a creature… it seemed almost profane.  The Tiger was lost to the world, and if I was to consider even a hint of reality in this Dream, then she surely must have been a ghost.  I realized then that there were other animals around me, large and small.  Some of them I knew from Dreams and museums, and some of them I did not recognize at all.  They approached me, and surrounded me.  The tiger had withdrawn, and they all stared at me, their glassy eyes like a silent accusation. 

They’re all dead, you know.  All of these creatures have vanished from the Earth.

I tried to protest that it wasn’t my fault, but somehow I couldn’t find my voice.  The tiger stepped forward again, and I knew that this silent jury had somehow reached a decision.  She stood above me, waiting.  The other animals gathered closer.

Slowly, tentatively, I reached out to touch her.  My fingers brushed against her fur again, and I felt that curious thrill of contact.  I touched them all, each in turn, and I was enveloped in a blanket of forgotten life.   

            These creatures have no fear of Man. 

            “A nice Dream.” I admitted.  I once slept on my arm for so long that when I woke, it was completely numb.  I knew it was there, but I couldn’t feel it or reach it.  And then there was a rush of pain, and feeling returned.  What I felt with those animals was similar.  It was as though a part of my soul had fallen numb, and it was only now awakening.  The pain came with it as well, the knowledge that my kind had destroyed these creatures.  That, even then, more creatures were vanishing, to be replaced with hardier pests and degenerate mutations.  “Why is it that we never seem to kill off the animals nobody would miss?” I wondered, “The rats and the mosquitoes?”

            Nobody seemed to miss these when they were gone.  Rats and insects may seem unpleasant to you, but they, too, have their place in the scheme of things.  Those that consume garbage and filth, those that spread disease, have thrived in the world we’ve created.  What does that say about us, I wonder?

            “Nobody wants a guilt-trip Dream.” I pointed out.

            Nobody wants to face Reality, either.

            “Then come out of here with me.” I offered, remembering my purpose, “Surely there must be somewhere left on Earth where this fantasy can be made real.”

            There is nowhere.  What few places there were have long since been destroyed by those few who still understood how precious they were.

            “That doesn’t make sense.” I protested, “If people understood how precious these places are, surely they would be preserved.”

            How?  For what purpose?  Even those who wanted to see the animals preserved wanted them for their own reasons.  Humans poison what they touch, even if they mean well.

            I started to contradict him, and then I saw the tiger’s eyes.  They seemed so sad, so ancient.  I had to admit, Tora was a total genius when it came to Dreams.  Even knowing the craft involved, it still pulled at my heartstrings.

            It isn’t too late, you know.  Not here, and not in Reality.      

            “What do you mean?”

            The truth is, even those animals that are gone can be reborn.  So long as they are remembered.  There is a great power in Dreams, Mr. Blake, a power greater than any you’ve ever imagined.

            “Dreams are just images in the mind.”

            Then dare to Dream with me.  Walk into the water and be transformed.

            “I can’t swim.”

            Don’t be ridiculous, of course you can.  This is, after all, a Dream.

            The tiger padded off toward the water’s edge, and looked back at me impatiently, prompting the rest of the creatures to climb off of me.  I took the hint and followed her.  I realized that every time I’d seen her transform, she’d been in or near the water.  Perhaps Tora had an algorithm set up to permit shapeshifting of Dreamforms?  I’d heard of lucids who could do that, and I wouldn’t put it past Tora to find some way to mimic it.  I set foot in the water.  Nothing happened.

            Well, I’m not going to do all the work, Mr. Blake.  Let yourself become… whatever your heart desires.  Look on the shore, at the animals.  You can be like they are, innocent, free… without guilt or shame.

            I looked at the animals gathered on the shore, watching me.  One in particular caught my attention, and I decided that it was as good a choice as any.

            “What do I do?”

            Just will yourself to change.  Your Dreamform is of your own choosing.

            “The Dreamform is a product of the subconscious mind.  It isn’t something anyone has direct control over.”  There was no reply.  With no other obvious options, I gave it a try.

            It started at my ears, my nose, and the base of my spine, simultaneously.  A tingling feeling.  My entire being rippled, and I felt the need to close my eyes.  When I opened them again, I was low to the ground, on four legs. 

            You make a very nice coyote, Mr. Blake.  Now you can go many places your human form couldn’t.           The tiger waded farther out into the water, and I hesitated to follow her.  With the form comes the function, Mr. Blake.  All creatures instinctively know how to swim.  It is only your conscious mind that tells you otherwise. 

            “You’re starting to sound like a bad hippie trip.”  Again, he didn’t answer me.  He was making it pretty clear who was running this show, and all I could do was jump through his hoops.  I carefully stepped out deeper into the water, feeling the soft sand under my paws getting farther and farther from my head.  I strained my neck back to keep my long nose out of the water for as long as possible.  Then the ground in front of me suddenly dropped off, and I plunged below the surface.  Panic consumed me, and I began flailing all four of my legs.

            Much to my surprise, it worked.  In very little time at all I hit on the right way to move my paws to push myself up and forward.  My head broke the surface, and I panted, gulping in air.  The tiger circled around me, and when she saw that I was afloat, she turned and continued toward the far end of the lake.  I followed her, albeit slowly.

            Halfway across, we passed through into another layer of the Dream.  The far shore vanished, replaced with the edge of a swimming pool.  The pool had a gradual slope on one side, and I used it to climb out.  I stood there and dripped for a moment, then shook off, a very odd feeling.  Tora’s program was fantastic.  It really felt as though I’d acquired the instincts to go with the shape I’d taken.  The house next to the pool looked solidly middle-classed, if well cared for, and I wondered what Tora intended by putting a swimming pool there.  Was he trying to make a statement about class?  Or was it just a convenient transition point?  It was clear that Tora wasn’t trapped in this Dream as a result of an accident.  This was very deliberate and planned out.

            The door to the house was open, and the tiger was nowhere in sight.  Something inside smelled delicious, and I realized that I was hungry.  Dreamtime is totally subjective, so there was no telling how long I’d been in, but I was definitely feeling like it was time to get fed.

            “Larry, I’m not sure what time it is, but I’m starting to get hungry.” I hate the mush they feed you while you’re out.  You can’t actually taste it while you’re Dreaming, so they don’t bother flavoring it.  I wouldn’t mind, but it leaves a horrible after-taste when you wake up.  “Larry?”

            I’m afraid he can’t hear you this deep in the Dream.  They’ll feed you when they feed me.  It’s about time for that, anyway.

            “How do you know what time it is?”

            Now that you’re this far in, I don’t mind telling you that I’m not totally immersed in the Dream.  I can see what’s going on around me.

            “Impossible.”

            You seem fond of that word, Mr. Blake.  It’s a shame I’m going to have to take it away from you soon.

            “What do you mean?”

            Why don’t you go inside?  It helps if you eat in the Dream when they feed you in reality.  Keeps your mind and your body on the same rhythm.

            Whatever was in there did smell good, and I let my hunger guide me.  The door led into a hallway, and off from that hallway was a dining room.  The cat I’d seen before was at the head of the table, in her anthropomorphic ocelot form, and there was a smaller cat beside her.  A child.  Both were wearing Millennium-era costumes.

            “It’s good to see you face to face, Mr. Blake.” The child said, speaking with Tora’s voice.  “Perhaps you would like to join us?”  He gestured at the table, which was the source of the scents that had led me in.  I could see steam rising from the table, and I tried to climb into one of the chairs.  “We don’t usually let wild animals sit at the table, Mr. Blake.  They have horrible dinner habits.  Why don’t you take a more appropriate form for this Dream?”  From that I gathered that the water hadn’t been the agent of change in the last Dream.  Either that, or the code was distributed in this Dream layer and localized in the previous one.  I went though the process of transforming.  “Stop!” I opened my eyes, surprised and disoriented.  “Why give up that form just so you can have opposable thumbs?” He asked, “I would be well pleased if you would join us as you are.”  My Dreamform was blurry and indistinct, and I willed myself to solidify into a man-shaped coyote. 

            I pulled out a chair and sat down, noticing that all of the chairs were open-backed to allow tails to hang free.  A very clever detail.  As I tried to adjust to my bizarre new shape, I was also trying to decode Tora’s Dream symbolism.  Why was he a child?  Why was he a cat?  What was the meaning behind the setting?  The pool made sense if the setting was sometime before or slightly after the turn of the Millennium, but I hadn’t read anything about talking animal people when we went over that time-period.  Nothing but some old artificial video characters. 

            “Please, eat.” Tora urged, obviously in control of the situation despite his small size.  And why not?  In every meaningful sense, he was the god of this domain.  “Our bodies are currently being fed.”  There was more food on the table than I’d seen in more than a year.  My normal diet consisted of flash-cooked frozen dinners, caffeine, and sugar.  Before me I saw a beautifully prepared meal, steamed vegetables, grilled pork, fried chicken.  The meat was served on the bone, like they do in expensive restaurants, to prove that it came from a real animal and not a tissue farm.  There are a lot of people now who find that disgusting, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest.  I could feel my mouth salivate, and I knew that I wanted the chicken in a way I’d never experienced before.  Tora must have seen my attraction to the meat.  “As I said, with the form, comes the function.  You are in the body of a carnivore, Mr. Blake.  Consume what you want.”  I loaded my plate with chicken, and began to devour it.

            I was beginning to get an idea of how Tora’s program worked.  Like any Dream, it relied on the dreamer to fill in inconsistencies and gaps in the scene, but he was developing a suspension of disbelief that was incredible.  I was willing to bet that the induction of theta waves had a lot to do with that.    So the chicken tasted like chicken, but not quite like chicken, because I had a coyote’s tastes at the moment.  By taking a personal role in things, he was able to direct me in certain ways to interact with his system predictably.  If I’d been a human, the chicken would have had to taste perfect, but since I’m engaged in this fantasy body, so many inconsistencies became meaningless, or even enhanced the illusion. 

Surely all this was more than just a desire to give a guided tour, though? 

“Tora, we really need to get out of here.  Your Dream is fantastic, but if you never come out they can’t verify that it’s safe for the public.  Nobody will ever see it.”  Tora smiled, and I remembered an old still-frame I’d seen, from one of those old celluloid animations.  It took me a moment to place the reference, an old children’s story called “Alice in Wonderland.”  I realized that I fit the role of Alice rather nicely.

“You’re seeing it, Mr. Blake.  For the moment, that’s all I require.”

“Please call me Tony.  When you call me Mr. Blake I feel like I’m talking to a lawyer.”

“’Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night…’” Tora recited, then shook his head.  “Nobody reads the classics anymore.  Nobody reads anymore, for that matter.”

“You’re talking about William Blake.  I still read.” I pointed out.  Tora smiled again, a smaller, less menacing smile.

“I know.  Have you finished?”  I realized that I’d continued to eat between words, and I had a small pile of bones to attest to my hunger.  I nodded.  “Good.  Would you help us clear away the table?”  He was stalling, and I knew it, but I also knew better than to push the issue.  Tora obviously had something planned, and I was part of it.  He’d reveal it to me when he wanted to, and not a moment sooner.  I would have felt as though I’d totally lost control of the situation if not for the knowledge that I’d never been in control in the first place.  

            We took the leftover food, mostly vegetables, into the kitchen, which was so antique it almost hurt.  The chiller had two compartments, one for frozen foods and one for chilled, and the oven had a natural-gas range built into it.  I was willing to bet that the house had a garage with an internal-combustion car in it, too.  Tora stood on a stool to reach the sink and wash dishes, and I dried them.  I decided to try and pry a little more information of out him.  Perhaps I could get some idea of his purpose here.

            “So… Why did you make your form so small?” Tora smiled up at me.

            “Because I’m just way too damn cute this way, aren’t I?” I smiled back.  I needed to continue to build rapport and gather information.  I was in way over my head, and I was pretty certain that Tora could flat-line me without missing a speck of food on one of his dishes.  He did stop, though, and he seemed to really think about what he wanted to say for once.  “Seriously, though… this is the most appropriate Dreamform for me.  For anyone, really, if they’re honest with themselves.  We’re all just children deep down, Mr. Blake.” He smiled up at me then, and I knew at least one reason he chose the form.  His form demanded trust instinctively, in the same way that mine craved chicken and knew how to swim.  “I mean, Tony.  Sorry.  If you understand your place in the great scheme of things, you’ll see how very helpless you are.  Why not admit it?”

            “There’s more to it than that.” I prompted.  It was an obvious truth.

            “Of course.  Adults… being an adult is living a lie.  You have to expect other people to lie to you, and they expect you to lie to them.  Nobody dares to tell the truth, and most of the time, nobody really wants the truth anyway.  People get killed for telling the truth.  It all comes back to the same basic issues.  Security.  Trust.  Adults live with fear, guilt, and hostility.  They grope blindly in the dark trying to find something to believe in.  By taking this form, I can distance myself from that.”

            “But it’s still another lie.  Another self-delusion.” I pointed out.  He nodded.

            “Of course.  But as a child, I can learn to trust again.  I can break the cycle of pain.”  He smiled up at me again,  “You’re thinking about how corny that sounds, aren’t you?  I can tell.”

            “It does sound kind of packaged.” I admitted.  “I’ve heard the same thing in old psychobabble self-help lectures.”           

            “The truth is always obvious and easily accessible.” Tora said, “That’s the problem.  We’re taught that only that which is difficult to obtain is worthwhile, but the best things in life, the greatest joy, the greatest wisdom, is that which is right in front of you.  Try it.”  I decided to see what would happen if I didn’t follow his lead.

            “I don’t think so.  I’ve played along with you long enough.”  He shrugged.

            “Fair enough.  Thank you for helping me with the dishes.  I’m going to go play.” He hopped down off his stool, and started to run off.  I grabbed his arm, and lifted him up by it, ignoring his cry of discomfort.

            I picked myself up off the floor, my ears ringing.  I looked around to find Tora shaking his head and the cat-woman standing over me, her expression angry.  I’d probably lost a lot of ground with Tora, but the experiment was valuable.  It confirmed that I could be seriously hurt, possibly even killed, in this Dream.

            “If you do that again, I suspect Tasha here will probably feel compelled to punish you quite severely.  I’m not sure what effect gross reconstruction of your Dreamform would have at this point, so I’d suggest you not push your luck.”  He came over and offered me his hand.  I let him help me up.  “Do you want to come play with me?” He asked, as if to show that there were no hard feelings. 

            “Do I have a choice?”

            “Of course.  I’d be very disappointed if you wanted to leave, but I’m not going to force you to stay against your will.  I can send you out of here anytime you wish to go.”  He paused for just the right amount of time, “Of course, I can’t promise I’d let you back in again.  Not knowing as much as you do.  I might have to be very aggressive in keeping you out.”  That was about as clear a threat of a deliberate wipe as I’d ever heard.  If I took Tora at his word, and I was inclined to, then leaving was an option, just not a very good one.  I wasn’t sure how my client would react if I left and Tora turned his Dream into a fortress. 

            “Ok… I guess I’ll play with you.” The ocelot woman smiled approvingly, and Tora took my hand and led me through the house.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were really getting off on this little kid thing.”  He turned around and giggled.  I mean, giggled.  Not a chuckle, not a guffaw, not a polite titter, but an honest-to-God giggle. 

            “I’m an adult, as you were so kind to remind me, Mr. Blake.” It was back to Mr. Blake, and no apology, I noticed, “But why does that mean I must be rigid?  What right do you have to expect me to conform to your notions of adulthood?”  The words might have sounded self-righteous once, but they’d obviously been used enough that all the sharp corners had worn off.  Now they sounded tired, almost resigned.  “C. S. Lewis once said, ‘When I became an adult, I put away childish things.  Including the fear of being thought childish.’  So perhaps, by showing this part of myself that others hide, I’m being more adult than anyone else.”

            “Perhaps.” He sounded as though he was getting defensive.  “Or maybe this is all just a childish prank.  You’re too important to lock yourself in your room and refuse to come down for dinner, so you locked yourself in here, and made me come in after you.”

            “Is that what you believe?” He asked, sounding amused.

            “I’m not sure what I should believe.” He laughed then, an entirely adult sound.

            “Good.  That’s the first step to wisdom, Mr. Blake.”  And with that, the situation was back firmly under his control again.  If it had ever been otherwise.  “There is a lot to be said for dignity, you know.  And pride, if pride is an honest sense of self-worth.  But stubborn pride, foolish pride, only carries you farther away from the truth.  Pride leads to ignorance.  It is only through humility that we can learn anything.”

            “So being a child is part of a process of humiliation for you?” I asked, trying not to sound aggressive.

            “A little humiliation can be good for the soul, Mr. Blake.” He smiled that toothy grin again.  He pulled me along a little further, then darted into a room off the hallway, opposite the dining room.  The ocelot woman, Tasha, followed him in.  Her feline features made her expression difficult to read, but the look in her eyes was pretty clear.  So far as she was concerned, I existed by Tora’s grace alone.

            Inside, the room looked remarkably like my own living space, at least in the amount of sheer clutter that was strewn across the floor.  There were building blocks from a tumbling castle, plush animals of more varieties than I’d ever seen, a rocking stand that had a horse’s head for a handle, and several other toys, some of which I’d never seen outside an antique show.  I stood in the doorway and admired the artful arrangement of the different elements.  Tora was being a royal pain in the ass, but I couldn’t help but recognize the skill that had gone into the design.  The castle formed by the blocks tugged at my memory, calling up images of crumbling Eurasian hulks, while the letters on the blocks were arranged semi-randomly, suggesting a pattern that was almost but not quite there.  The animals also seemed to be randomly deployed, but on closer inspection it created the impression of a battle-field, every head lolling in mock-death, rips and tears and missing plastic eyes, all obviously from normal wear, but also suggestive of a slaughter.  The painted expression on the horse’s face was both a sneer of contempt and a rictus, depending on what angle it was seen from.  I felt an irrational urge to plow through it, to scatter it all, to make seemingly random into truly random.  But was that what Tora wanted me to do?  Tora sat down at the castle, and held out a block to me.  I crossed the room and sat down next to him.  I sighed inwardly, knowing what I’d probably have to do to win his trust.  I just hoped it wouldn’t prove to be a painful mistake.  I hadn’t heard anything about Tora having any weird kinks like this, but L.I. could certainly afford to cover for him if he did.  I’ve never had my Dreamself violated, though there were plenty of Dreams that would give you that experience, and I wasn’t eager to change that. 

            “So… how does this child thing work, anyhow?” I asked.  Tora’s ears twitched, and I knew I hadn’t hid the reluctance in my voice well enough.  For that matter, he probably had a cipher program running to analyze my brainwaves.  It would explain how he manipulated the conversation so well.  That was one of the first hacks I usually made to a program, and I should have expected Tora to use it against me.  As he said, he’d clearly done his homework.

            “You think this is all about sex, don’t you, Mr. Blake?” He asked, in a frank tone that seemed shocking coming from his Dreamform.  “If I wanted that, I could have it any time I want.  If I wanted you like that…” His skin seemed to rip, and something dark and terrible came out of it, something ripped straight out of a primordial nightmare.  It refused to resolve into something recognizable, but grew and pulsed and bore down upon me, threatening me.  It triggered every panic instinct I had, and I stood transfixed, paralyzed by fear.  And then it was gone, and Tora was there, still playing with his blocks as though nothing had happened.  “This isn’t a power-trip, as I’ve said before.” He considered the block, and put it into place.  The one block changed the entire character of the castle.  “The transformation is just the same.  It should be even easier, in fact.”

            He was right, the transformation was simple, painless, and much less disorienting than the previous times.  When I was done, I stood just below Tora’s eye level.  He looked me over.

            “Very nice.  Need to work on your wardrobe, though.  Your clothes clash with your image.”  My Dreamform was still dressed in my work clothes, a second-hand brown leather jacket, blue jeans, and a silk shirt.  “Ditch the jacket.  I think you’ll find the room is a comfortable temperature without it.”  I took off my jacket, and immediately began to feel less confined.  I realized that I’d been overheating, between the jacket and the fur.  “We’ll have to work on getting you another shirt.  You can’t play in silk.”  He handed me a block, as though transferring the responsibility for the castle to me, and walked over to talk quietly with Tasha.  I strained to hear what they were saying, but they were either too far away or they were sub-voc’ing.  Tasha nodded and left, and Tora bounded over to rejoin me.  We completely rebuilt the castle, under Tora’s direction.  I let myself relax for a few minutes, engrossed in the patterns that were emerging as we placed the blocks.  When it was done, the blocks were in an almost perfect pattern.  Almost.  Two blocks were out of place, and I debated whether I should tell Tora about it.  I looked at him, and saw that he knew already.

            “Are you just going to leave it like that?” I asked.  The idea seemed almost blasphemous. 

            “Why not?  It’s just a block castle.”

            “It’s a work of art.” I argued, “Everything here is.”

            “You know that everything here is artificial, and you strive to find meaning in every speck of dust.” He observed, “But if you did the same in reality, you’d drive yourself mad.”

            “There’s no proof that reality is shaped by any intellect.” Tora laughed.

            “Of course it is.  It’s shaped by every mind and every hand on the planet.  That’s the Grand Design, if you care to look for it.”  I couldn’t stand it anymore, and stormed over to the castle and switched the blocks.  The castle seemed to hum with rightness somehow.  “Very good.  What do you want to do now?”

            “I don’t know.” Tora smiled.

            “You’re the guest here, you get to choose.  We have all the time in the world.”  I looked around.  The horse-head on the rocking stand had, if possible, grown more menacing while we’d worked on the blocks.  “I know!  Why don’t we finger-paint?”  Tasha had returned, and I trembled as I felt her huge, leather-padded hand on my shoulder.  I turned, and she knelt down in front of me, putting herself on my level.  I stood frozen as she unbuttoned my silk shirt, but her eyes were warm now, not angry.  I’d apparently earned myself some breathing room somewhere along the way.  She rolled the shirt she’d brought for me up to its sleeves and had me slide my arms into it, then pulled it over my head and settled it on me.  Then she handed us both aprons, and set up a pair of canvases for us.

            “What should I paint?” I asked, when the jars of waxy color were set in front of me.  Tora was already busy working on his masterpiece, and he shrugged as he glanced over at me.  He already had paint spattered on his face.

            “I don’t know.  Whatever you want.”  Acting natural would have been a lot easier if I didn’t have the feeling that my painting was going to be psychoanalyzed.  I dipped my finger in the vat of red, feeling the curious sensation of the paint against my chubby little digit.  I ran it across the canvas in a wide streak.  “Hey, Tony?” I turned, and Tora dabbed red and orange on my nose.  I snorted.

            “What was that for?” I asked.

            “If you mix red and orange, you get brown.” He explained. 

            “That’s not funny!” He giggled.  I flicked a glob of green on his apron.  It didn’t really stand out from the rest of the paint already smeared there.  As I watched, Tora carelessly wiped his hands on the apron, smearing new colors into the apron and his fingers.  He considered his hand, and added some rainbow swirls to his canvas.  I dabbed the paint off my nose with the edge of my apron, and went back to painting.  “Ok, you’ve explained why you chose to be a child, but why an animal?” I stared at the swath of red on the canvas, added a splash of blue, and ran a finger-full of purple down the center.  Visually striking, but it needed something.  I swirled in some white curves through the blue splash.

            “Isn’t it obvious by now?” Tora asked, sounding surprised, “I’m a misanthrope.  I’ve decided to disown humanity and reject adulthood.  I don’t like human beings, as a whole.  I got to the point where I couldn’t stand being a human.  So I stopped.”

            “And you felt compelled to bring me along for the ride?”

            “You’re the one invading my dreams, not the other way around, Tony.” He reminded me pointedly.

            “Why a cat, then?” I asked, as I put the finishing touches on my painting. 

            “Very nice.” Tora commented from behind me, ignoring my question.  “Don’t forget to sign it!” He demonstrated by leaving his multi-hued hand-print on the corner of the canvas.  I did the same, and Tora grinned at me approvingly.  Tasha appeared behind us, and I followed Tora’s lead in handing her my apron.  “Uh-oh.  Looks like it’s bath-time for both of us.”

            “What do you mean?  I’ve got a little spatter on my nose, but nothing like the mess you made!” I protested.  Here it comes, I thought.  I tried to think of some way to make myself avoid the thought of being violated, but there was no way.  I was sure Tora wasn’t going to let me leave if he intended what I thought he did.  Tora giggled.

            “Well, you didn’t get much paint on you, but… I think you’re probably getting cathetered in reality about now.” I looked down, and saw that he was probably right.  My Dreamform was wet, which meant that my real body had probably lost control as well.  I hoped the nurse was going to be gentle about it.  “Come on, the bath won’t be so bad.  I’ll even go first, if you like.”  I blinked.

            “You mean… separately?”  He giggled again.

            “Of course.  You’re obviously not comfortable with the idea of bathing together.  Besides, I’m messy enough to need a bath all to myself, isn’t that right, Tasha?” He grinned up at the ocelot, and she smiled back fondly.  The program for the ocelot alone would have won every award for Dream design that had ever been established, I realized.  He must have spent ages getting her just right.  Tasha reached down and snagged me under my shoulders, hefting me against her hip with my wet pants facing away from her, and I was tilted back to face the ceiling as she reached down to scoop up Tora onto her other hip.  She carried us into a water closet that had to have been spacious even by Millennium standards.  She sat me down on a flat counter across from the sink, and put Tora on the floor.  She started running a bath, and helped Tora change out of his clothes.  I saw, with some surprise, that Tora’s under-clothing, while not wet, was very thick and covered in small designs.  He saw me looking, and though his fur hid any blushing he might have done, he looked down and away, a shy smile on his muzzle.  I studiously looked in the other direction as she put him in the bath.  The last thing I wanted was for him to get any ideas about me.  Tasha left him splashing while she dealt with me.  She moved to unfasten my pants.

            “I can do that.” I hastily assured her, but she gently batted my hands away and shook her head, though she smiled to let me know she still wasn’t angry with me.  Nonetheless, I wasn’t going to push my luck by defying her.  She laid me back, and slid me out of my pants and underclothes, then cleaned me off with a warm wash-cloth.  The entire process was charged with emotion, I could feel the tenderness in her movements as she cleaned me off, and, to my pleasant surprise, I remained un-aroused throughout the process.  She had me sit there while she turned off Tora’s water, then she laid out several thick cloths for me to sit on, which was a welcome relief from the hard counter.  She gave me a couple of toys to try to occupy me while she dealt with Tora. 

            I took the time to assess my circumstances while they were occupied.  If Tora was going to abuse me, he was certainly taking his sweet time about it.  I began to think he might have been telling the truth when he said he wasn’t planning to.  Then what was the point of all this?  If he wanted a playmate, he could have conjured one up when he wrote the program in the first place.  Unless he was enough of an aesthete to believe that even a Turing-worthy AI wasn’t as good as the real thing.  Tora was trying to preach to me, that much was clear.  But what was the sermon?  I crashed the red spaceship into the blue sailboat while I pondered it. 

            “Why me?” I asked.  Tasha turned to look at me, and I realized that Tora had his head underwater, rinsing it.  He flung his head forward, and shook it to clear the water out of his ears, slinging drops of water in every direction.  Tasha seemed to sigh, although I got the impression she’d expected it.  Tora became aware of me looking at him.

            “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

            “Why me?  It’s pretty obvious you had all this in mind from the beginning.  So why did you pick me for your little lecture?”

            “The key to good showmanship is to know your audience well… or better yet, choose it well.  You were the obvious choice for an extraction.  Despite being semi-retired after…” He glanced at me, not quite pitying, “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t bring that up.  But, I got access to your profile, and you were a good candidate.  Really, you were just the right person at the right time.”  He waited a moment before admitting, “And I’ve spied on you a great deal, Tony.  I knew you were the most likely person to be sent in after me, and I needed to know what sort of person you were.  What I found did not displease me.  I think that you’re a good man, Tony.  What happened wasn’t your fault.”

            “But why?  Why all of this?”  Tora thought about it.

            “I’ll tell you while you have your bath.”  Tasha turned her head to look at me, and I knew that resisting her was a bad idea.  She let the now colorful water out of the bath, and ran some clean water to give Tora and the basin a final rinse.  When she was done, he shook off, and she wrapped him in a towel.  She picked him up, and we traded places.

            I sat down in the bath and realized that it was deeper than I’d thought it was.  Tasha began running the bath, and thoughts of drowning crept into my mind.  I began to fidget before I remembered that Tora could have flat-lined me easily at any time.  Tasha finished drying the little ocelot off, then threaded his legs… and his tail, I noticed, into another pair of those thick underpants, and let him sit back up wearing nothing else.

            “I’ve been very dissatisfied with my work for quite some time, Tony.  I mean, sure, I make a lot of money, and people know my name, but that can wear pretty thin.  I think you know what I mean.”  I nodded, as Tasha turned off the water and began cupping water over my back and shoulders.  “But the company doesn’t let people walk away.  Especially not people who make them a lot of money.  I wanted to take my work in a different direction, and I wasn’t afraid to go to another studio to make that happen.” He shook his head, while Tasha lathered me with liquid soap.  “I should have been.  Retiring might have been acceptable, but working for someone else… they’d lose the competitive edge, and that couldn’t be allowed.  The other studios offered protection, but I’ve seen what L.I. can do.  I think you’ve gotten a hint of it your…” He was cut off as Tasha abruptly leaned me back, rinsing me off.  She pulled me back up, and I gasped.  “Yourself.” Tora finished, “I was less of a loss dead than competing with them.  But they knew I was working on something new, and they want very much to have it.” He gestured at the world around us.  “All of this.  So here I am.  If I leave, I die.  The only way I can survive at all is if I am inextractable from this dream.”

            “But they can still pull the plug on you.  Total wipe.” I pointed out.  “And if I get wiped in the process, then that’s a witness they don’t have to silence.”  I was really regretting taking the job about then.

            “I know.  Except that they can’t wipe me.  Because I’m not really here.”  I blinked at that.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I’m sure you noticed the Theta waves my program generates.”

            “Of course.”

            “You know what Theta waves are associated with, right?” I shook my head.

            “They’re associated with bad Soviet research from after World War II.  Even the Soviets denied the results.”

            “Of course they did.  Do you really think Stalin would let psychics exist?  He wanted to use them, but he feared them.  So, they do the Russian two-step.  Research, destroy.  One year psychic research is everything, the next year it’s out of favor.  Even after Stalin died, it continued, for all the same reasons.  Every time the research got too convincing, too reliable, the subjects “disappeared” or were discredited.”

            “So you’re suggesting that psychic powers are real?” Tora smiled.

            “You’re proof of it.”  Tasha drained the bath, and had me stand so she could dry me off.  “I must confess to having done you a great injustice.  I’ve led you into a trap, I’m afraid.”

            “What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly very afraid.

            “I’ve talked you into changing your Dreamform.  But did you ever stop to consider the consequences?” I blinked.  “No, I can see that you haven’t.  You said yourself that the Dreamform is a product of the subconscious mind, which is true, but the symbolic relationship works both ways.  And that is where I’ve wronged you.  I made a deliberate choice to take this form, but you… I tricked you, and I apologize.”  I looked down at myself, at the form I’d taken.  Every trace of my identity was gone.  I’d given up my adulthood, my humanity, my clothes, everything that I could cling to.  And the worst part was, every step had been more or less voluntary.   

            “For God’s sake, why?” I finally asked.

            “Because I need someone I can trust.  Someone who understands what I’ve become.”

            “I don’t understand anything!” I protested, “Any minute now they might decide to pull the plug!”

            “They won’t.” He assured me, “Not while there’s still a chance.  This program is a rather large unknown in their budget, and they are reluctant to make decisions when values cannot be quantified.  We have plenty of time.  Your friend Larry out there is watching you with contempt, and he’s willing to wait for days if need be.  The nurse you met when you came in has been replaced by another.  We’re going to be fed again soon, I think.”

            “How the fuck do you know all of that?” I demanded angrily.  I got a firm swat on my rear from Tasha, who gave me a disapproving look. 

            “I keep my eyes open.  And my mind.  I told you, I’m not really here.  This Tora is a copy, one of four.”

            “Impossible!  No computer has the storage or the speed to simulate the human mind!” Tora laughed.

            “I told you we’d take that word away from you before all was said and done.  You haven’t been keeping up with the technology.  Storage isn’t an issue.  Neither is speed, with the right buffers.  What really makes it work is the theta waves.  You see, transferring your mind into the machine isn’t just about data, it’s about… soul.  Spirit.  Things that can’t be quantified.  The computer can handle the raw data, and the algorithms, but for it to really be you, it needs to have the your essence.”

            “I don’t believe you.”

            “Ask Tasha.  She knows it’s true.”  I turned, and Tasha smiled as she sat me on the counter next to Tora.

            “Would you like some trainers like Tora is wearing?” She asked.  “I’m afraid all of your clothing is still wet.”  My jaw dropped.  I’d assumed that her program was mute.

            “Are… are you real?  I mean, really real and not a program?”

            “No way to really be sure, is there?” She slipped my dangling feet into a pair of underpants similar to Tora’s.  “But yes, I’m real.  Here, let me help with your tail.” She pulled them up, and patted me familiarly on my rear, near where she’d swatted me.  It was a remarkably different feeling.

            “Why are you here, then?”

            “Because Tora needs me.  I love him, you see.”  Things began to click into place.

            “You were the headhunter.  From the other studio.” She nodded.

            “I’m a corporate whore, basically.  Or was, I guess.  I was supposed to seduce Tora into leaving L.I.”

            “What happened?”

            “Well, I knew what would happen when Tora left.  We could keep him safe long enough for him to finish one or two more major Dreams, but after that he was as good as dead.  You can’t evade a company like L.I. for very long.”  She picked Tora up, and held him in her arms.  “I couldn’t let that happen to my little Tora.”  Everything was becoming clear.  Everything except how to survive having my mind erased.

            “You shared a Dream with him.”

            “He showed me the prototype for this Dream.  When he told me I could be anything I wanted, this is what I picked.  Ever since I was as small as Tora, I wanted to be an ocelot.  By the time I was a teen, they were gone.  The last one died in captivity in Brazil.”

            “Where is your body?” I finally got up the nerve to ask.  She frowned.

            “Just like the ocelot, I’m afraid.  But I’m here… and in a couple of other places, as well.  Tora showed me how.  Come on, it’s time for you two to lay down for a while.”  She picked us up again, and carried us upstairs.  There was a faint ripple in the world, so slight that anyone else would probably have missed it.  We’d passed through another layer of the Dream.  Despite his apologies, I realized then that Tora wasn’t done reshaping me yet.  But what else could there be?  I thought of the layers of padding between my legs, and had a sinking feeling in my gut.

            “Tasha…” I don’t know why I called out to her instead of Tora, who was really running the show.  “I’m scared.” I admitted.  “I think we’re all going to die.” She smiled, and carried us into a dimly lit room.  She put us down and sat in a rocking chair, and took us both in her lap.  “Trust me, it isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is.  I’ve felt it before.” I could feel my lip trembling.            

            “So did I.” I blurted.  “It was horrible!  It was endless nothingness, darkness…” I started to cry uncontrollably.

            “It was an artifice of the inducer,” She soothed, “What you felt was just a bad Dream.” She rocked us gently back and forth.  “Just a bad dream.”

            “What are you doing to me now?” I asked, feeling myself grow tired.  I knew it was ridiculous.  How could I be falling asleep?  I was already in the Dream.

            “It’s time for us to sleep.” Tora explained, “The mind needs time to put everything in order, to make sense of things.  Dreaming an artificial Dream doesn’t do that for you, it only fools the mind into thinking it’s done it.”  Tora was beginning to salivate in anticipation.  “Trust me, you’ll love this.”  The strange thing was, I did trust him.  “We’re about to be fed in reality.”  Upon hearing that, Tasha lifted her shirt to reveal a nursing bra.  She exposed her nipples, which were moist.  I found that by that point I was also eagerly licking my lips, almost drooling.  We sat in her lap and drank from her breasts, and it was a feeling of peace, of completeness, too sublime to describe.  I felt myself drifting off to sleep, suckling contentedly next to Tora.

           

            When I woke again, I was imprisoned.  I stared out at the world from behind a row of thick bars, and I struggled into a sitting position.  By grasping the bars, I was able to pull myself unsteadily to my feet, and I found that I could just see over the top of the bars.  Nearby, Tora was doing the same, though his bars only came to his chest.  He was dressed in a jumpsuit, and he waved at me when he saw that I was awake.  Tasha came in and tousled my head as she went over to get Tora out of his crib.  She unzipped his jumpsuit and pulled him out of it, revealing a heavy-looking diaper.  I realized that I was dressed the same, but without the jumpsuit.  I was so embarrassed I actually started to whimper.  Tasha looked at Tora, who nodded.  She put him down on the floor, still in his diaper, and dealt with me instead.  She plucked me up from the crib and put me on the table in Tora’s place, and proceeded to get me cleaned off.  I felt strangely self-conscious about not feeling self-conscious, if that makes any sense.  She put me in another pair of those printed underpants, and put me down on the floor while she changed Tora.  Everything in the world seemed bright, and cheerful, and I found myself filled with euphoria from simple contentment.  I knew right then that I was hooked.  I would do whatever I had to do to return to this place.  I wasn’t ready to live here just yet, but I certainly needed to visit. 

            “You’re free to change your shape anytime you want.” Tora informed me when Tasha was finished with him.  “And you can leave, as well, if you like.”  I didn’t have it in me to be angry.

            “By all rights I should walk out of here and let them wipe you.  And I don’t mean the way Tasha does.” Tora giggled at that.  “But I think we both know I won’t do that.  I hope you understand what you’ve done.”  He nodded, looking as though he almost regretted it.

            “I do understand, and I am sorry.  Though I think you’ll find that it isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is.”

            “Isn’t it?  If I leave…  tell me the truth.  It’s going to be horrible, isn’t it?”  He nodded.

            “Parts of it will be, for a time.  But I wasn’t intending to condemn you to a lifetime trapped in a body you can no longer accept.  I’m not that much of a monster.”

            “Then tell me what your plan is.”

            “The plan is relatively simple.” He shrugged. “We walk out of here together.  You get your money, I get killed.”

            “What about Tasha?”

            “She has several backups elsewhere.  Plus, the program is what they really want, and she’s a big part of it right now.  By the time they untangle the outer layers of the program, we should all be together again.  Then she can destroy the program from the inside.”

            “So you’re content to survive as a ghost?  As an electronic presence on multiple machines?”  Tora shook his head.

            “Oh, no, not at all.  If I wanted that, I wouldn’t need you.  What I need from you is a body.  Two bodies, to be precise about it.”  I tried to whistle, but my lips couldn’t quite make the right shape.

            “That’s a pretty tall order.”

            “Not really.  See, we aren’t really particular about what kind of bodies we get.  We plan to fix them up afterwards.  Yours, too, if you like.  Naturally, Tasha would prefer a young adult female, and I’d prefer…” He let the sentence trail off.

            “I think I know what you’d prefer.”  He smiled.

            “I know you do.  What we need are blank slates, Tony.  Bodies with brains, but no minds.  Then we can transfer our selves, our essences, back into the real world.  With your help.”

            “And we all live happily every after with our inducers and a copy of this Dream?” Tora smiled.

            “We all live happily ever after making reality the Dream.  We can bring the ocelot back.  We can clean it all up.”

            “How?  You’ve been saying that you can change things, but this is just a Dream.”

            “Dreams have power, Tony.”

            “Tora, I’ve heard all this before.  Around the turn of the Millennium, when the computer revolution was first getting big and everyone was trying to forge a new electronic reality.  The literature of the time is full of people who became gods of the old Internet and somehow reshaped the real world.  It didn’t work then, and I have a hard time believing it will work now.”  Tora sighed.

            “You’ve been using this technology to escape reality all you life, Tony.  Won’t you use it to change reality?”

            “I’ve seen you do a lot… but I’m still not sure you can change the world.”

            “I don’t have to.  I just have to change the way people think.  The way they Dream.”

            “Won’t L.I. come after you?” Tora smiled again.

            “By the time they realize what I’m doing, I’d invite them to try.  I’ve been Deep Purple for most of the past several months, Tony.  I can do things that you wouldn’t believe.”

            “Actually, I think I would.  I think I just might.  Tell me the truth.  Can you make this,” I gestured at the world around me, and at myself, “Real?”  Tora looked at me, very solemn, and nodded.  “Ok, Tora, you’ve got a deal.  Hell, it’s your funeral.”  Tora beamed at me, and shook my hand. 

            “I’m glad you feel that way.  After you get changed again, we can have breakfast.”  I stifled the urge to swear, and looked down at my crotch.

            “Am I wet again already?”  Tora had a look on his face, like he was trying not to laugh.

            “Well, no, you aren’t wet, but…” He wrinkled his nose, and I realized what he meant just as Tasha picked me up.  I had a feeling I was going to be waddling out of the Dream in diapers when she was done with me.  Strangely, I didn’t mind at all.

 

            I felt curiously numb as the inducer finally slid off my head.  Beside me, I could hear a team of meds working on Tora.  Another nurse came and removed my catheter, and gave me back my street clothes.  Larry helped me to my feet.

            “Great work, Tony!  Absolutely great!” He was shaking my hand, and I felt like falling over.  The whole world seemed gray and washed out, and it was every bit as horrible as I’d expected.  I wanted to rip my skin off.  “The Dream is intact.” Larry gushed, as if I cared.

            “Tora?” I managed to croak.

            “I’m afraid he’s totally brain dead, Tony.” If he wasn’t yet, he would be when the meds were done with him. “But you did your best.  You proved that you’ve still got what it takes.”

            “Did.” I croaked.  He gave me a glass of water, and I gulped it down.  Some of it was spilling down my chin, I realized, and I dabbed it with my shirt.  “I haved what it takes, but I’m going to retire.”

            “Retire?  After this?  Are you crazy?”

            “Yeah.  Yeah, I think I am.  I think I got a mild case of cyber-psychosis from that Dream.”  He was trying to decide if I was becoming a risk, “Don’t tell anyone.” I urged him suddenly.  “Tora would want this to go totally stellar, and I don’t want to spoil it.”

            “Yeah, but… cyber-psychosis?” He’d gone the other way, decided I was harmless.

            “Feel strange.  Dull.  I… I just can’t think straight right now.”  Larry was concerned and relieved.  Ten percent concerned.  Max.  “I wanna go home.”  I want L.I. to forget all about me, too.  “Can I go home now?” I found the voice I had in the Dream.  The little coyote voice.  It worked wonders on Larry.

            “Sure, buddy, sure.  We’ll take you home.” And he was thinking that, on the way, he could probably pressure me into staying quiet. 

            “Larry?”

            “Yeah, buddy?” I smiled at him.

            “Imma coyote.”  His smile turned fake, and he began to get uncomfortable.  Served him right, the bastard.

            “I know.  Come on.  Let’s take you home.  You did a great job, Tony.  Hell of a way to retire, you know?”  I nodded, and Larry had the nurse help me get dressed.  I sucked my thumb all the way home, and when Larry helped me to bed, he left with the firm impression that not only would I not tell anyone what had happened, I probably wouldn’t remember it myself within a few days.

 

            They watched me, of course, to make sure I wasn’t going to be a risk, but after a while they lost interest.  I haven’t touched the inducer since then, but that’s not too bad.  I don’t really need it anymore, anyway.  Larry comes over every now and again, though not as often after I wet myself that once when he took me out to dinner.  I don’t have too many accidents during the day, but that one wasn’t entirely an accident.  I went out and bought some toys, and I spend a lot of time these days just playing, not thinking about too much.  I miss Tasha, and I miss my Dreamform body.

I quietly bought a little bit of real estate down in Brazil, and I’ve been doing volunteer work, down at the cyber-psychosis wards.  The nurses there are real nice, and they recognized me as a partial wipe the moment I set foot in the door.  One of them reminds me of Tasha, and she comes over in the evenings sometimes and takes care of me.  I’m toying with the idea of asking her to join us in Brazil.  After I find Tora and Tasha, of course. 

She’d make a really great coyote.