A computer is created as ruler of the world and the computer needs to learn how it is to be human. It creates a network and the inhabitants while sleeping are given tasks that will help the computer to understand human interaction. In this dream world victory points are given to the users, fulfilling a need, and therefore willingly the users connect to this computer, offering their sleep to not only give the necessary means to the computer, but in order to get these points, vital to their reality.
One night a man gets a task, called bug catching, due to another man who has taken over the dream world, not connected to the main computer, and therefore is interpreted as an error in the system and must be abolished.
Whipped by the undergrowth, Sarah ran through an unyielding forest, leading a man she did not know towards a glade her father once showed her. Behind them she could still hear their pondering footsteps closing in, the thumping on the ground, harder and harder. Sarah kneeled and began to dig; she knew it was here -- it had to be.
The man caught up to her, obtained his cellphone and began to seek out the right files. His son and daughter, no older than ten years, were both located in another part of the region; he had to secure their safety. Damp grain and pine needles rubbed against Sarah’s sore fingers as she rifled through the solid ground, shortly exposing a handle of a hatch. She had found it. Sarah opened the heavy cover carefully, allowing the midday sun reaching into a slim cylinder with a ladder connected to its side. At the bottom she could see a flickering light stabilizing, shortly illuminating a hidden room below.
“We have to go,” she said.
“I’m not leaving without them,” the man said and frenetically opened one file after another. “Hang on!” He said as he finally located a file titled Lea, and moved it over to the secure bin before he returned to the previous profile.
Behind the coniferous trees, she could hear their coarse breaths and their heavy shields rattling. “We need to go. Now!”
“I have to get my son,” he said and pried her grip off his arm. “I’m not leaving without him.”
“Think of your daughter,” Sarah said. “She needs you.” The man turned his back against her frightened face. She had no choice but to leave him behind. While securing her feet she reached for the inside lever on the hatch and closed it behind her. One step at the time she began to climb down the ladder, climbing towards shelter. Shortly, almost bumping into a centered dinner table, she passed what seemed to be a small kitchen and glanced over to an adjoining terrace with a fence, keeping her away from a landscape that lay before it. Tranquility. A blue sky, and a golden grassland that waved in the breeze, spread out beyond the boundary marker. Before long, the roof began to shiver. Tin cans fell from their shelves. They had arrived. A scream pierced through the pipe and rose above the silence. Sarah looked over at the landscape at the forefront of the terrace. A rabbit ran out from its hiding behind a bush and leapt - disappearing in mid air - and the veil of the scenery trembled. It wasn’t real, a mere hologram to ease her presence - but it was still beautiful.
Finally back at his apartment, Keen closed the front door behind him and switched on the hallway light; thirty-four-story’s, thick concrete walls, and a soundproof rug to seal the deal -- it was a habitat worth calling a home. He put down his briefcase on the side table along with his keys, hung his jacket on a hook and stepped into the kitchen. Six hours of required volunteer work at the inhabitable directory can make anyone in the mood for a snack. Unfortunately the cabinet was as empty as the refrigerator.
Keen went up to the visual display unit and placed an order. Not enough points, it read. He wasn’t surprised. The last upgrade on the new dream-machine had taken up all his credit, but it was worth it. Now he could work through two dream episodes without having to think about overload, or even that irritating rubbing against his temples. It was time to take it out for a spin. He went towards the inner room, passing the adjoining living room with its panorama window displaying holographic scenery that veiled the lack of furniture, and opened the inner door to a room that had no need for such a thing. All that room needed was a chair in the middle and a dream-machine in front of it.
Hooked up to the biofeedback mainframe that adjusted the frequency on the fly as it connected to the network, it began to download a new session. After uploading necessary formatted data, a screen displayed: BUG CATCHING. Now he was surprised. The usual missions weren’t normally that direct but with the victory points being almost triple what is usually given, he wasn’t about to decline. So Keen pressed the control unit on the visual stimulation device, and adjusted the chair before strapping the wires to his head. The machine began its cycle and shortly the room was overflowing with light. Keen shut his eyes and the brainwave synchronization began, inducing him to a deep state of relaxation he had longed for the last couple of hours. Slowly his consciousness drifted into a guided imagery while the stroboscopic flicker devise began its sequence. A pulsating light spread over his eyelids and became increasingly bright while complex patterns formed, shifting into shapes and symbols, swirling around, until he felt surrounded by color. Gameplay 339AFH76 commenced, it read on the screen next to Keen’s body.
At the other end of the ultrasonic portable, servers filled up most of a secluded room that was set in the underground, below the inhabitants of the city. “They found another one,” Mark, the entrepreneur, as he liked to call himself, said as he entered the control room. “Cardiac arrest, just like the others,” he continued and sat down next to May, one of the guardians. It was time to take an interest of what they had prolonged for too long. Calling it a technical error at this time would be an understatement -- a hazardous one.
A low hum filled the cold air and glass fiber optics spanned the continual corridors above the gridiron floor and in-between the latest equipment. Without looking away from the screens May grunted. “It’s that damn bug, I’m telling you.” Indulged in their dreams the Computer methodically interpreted the patterns of the populations’, behavior. Creating scenarios, imagined in a simulated Borderland; that was what they had told May at the training facility, but they never mentioned the possibility of a bug in the midst. It was suppose to be secure. “I’ve connected a dozen of our clients to the session,” May continued. “What I can’t figure out is how a vandal can be interacting through the interface but not with the main Computer.”
“How do you know he isn’t? Perhaps he’s controlling it.”
“Assuming it’s a man, are we? The Computer should locate whoever trespasses, that’s how; it would never allow a vandal to take control like this. I can’t figure out how the person is doing this, or why. I’ve been rendering the files over and over again, and I can find anything – not a single trace.”
Mark got up from his desk and poured coffee into a mug in the shape of Pinocchio’s head, given by May last Christmas. Her obsession with forgotten bedtime stories often interfered with his clinical workstation. But he didn’t have the heart to throw it away. “All I know is that I’m not hooking up until we get this sorted,” Mark said. He knew there wasn’t much time left of gathering feedback but he wasn’t about to risk his own neck. They were already behind on their assignment; a completion was expected over a month ago. The men on the top floor had made several revisions and every time he had to give them the news: product not found effective until fully uploaded. What else could he do?
“It’s better off without your great social interaction skills anyhow,” May said with a smile. “We don’t want to make it even more confused.”
“Very funny, let’s just keep tabs on the flow of information and see if something happens within the loop,” Mark said and topped off the coffee with two spoons of sugar. He had a feeling this was going to be a long session, a very, very, long session.
The landscape of the Borderland stretched out with its tall buildings and narrow bridges; ruins of a shifting city, a construction formed after the primeval capital they once knew as the real world. A time before symmetry had replaced destruction. Created to evoke certain memories - and it most definitely did. A memory of a time when people interacted, not only with others but also the metropolis they occupied. Leisurely Keen wandered down the soulless sidewalk. The streetlights were dimmed, radiant at a minimum, except for one gleaming in the far distance. He knew that if he was ever to the find this so called bug, he had to venture outside his square. After passing numerous cars with bashed-in windshields, display-windows with tattered objects and magazine stands, he stumbled onto a woman running towards him in the opposite direction, and as she was about to pass, he grabbed onto her lower arm. The woman came to a halt and looked up at him with a stare. “Return. Retreat. Revert. Resume…” she mumbled over and over again before she pried herself loose from his grip to disappear around the bend. Bewildered Keen looked around; there was no one else in sight, no one chasing her. Fear, being one of the emotions often explored in the dream world, it was common for the Computer to analyze their behavior when facing terror, but never like this. There was always the safety; there was always that word. But this was not the time to interact; if that had been the gameplay it wouldn’t have let her leave. He had to continue. Ending a segment of turns before the primary sequence was accomplished didn’t create victory points, he thought and continued down the road. Before long he reached the glowing lamp at the end of the street, shining much stronger than the rest, located high above his head on a tall building. Below it, Keen noticed freshly made graffiti scribbled on the brick wall with white paint. “Sound asleep you give up your dreams,” it read with a smiley face to end the sentence. Was it a clue? Something worth taking notice off, he pondered as he suddenly heard a young man’s voice behind him.
“You shouldn’t go in there.”
Keen turned around. A teenager, no older than sixteen, was standing by the sidewalk. “Didn’t mean to startle you,” the boy said and took a step back.
“No worries. What do you have there?” Keen asked as he noticed the boy holding what seemed to be a piece of fur in his left hand.
The boy reached out a tiny kitten that lay across the palm of his hand, front paws hanging down on one side, head on the other. “I found it over by the dumpster. Not sure if it’s actually here, but I still feel sad. Is that the program you think, or is it really me?”
“Does it matter?” Keen said.
“I guess not.” The boy answered and with lingering steps went over to a trashcan and pushed the kitten through the narrow opening. He looked down at a chip imprinted on his wrist; 50 points it read with digital letters. “That’s it I guess, I’m done,” he said. “If you give me 10 points I can stick around to help with yours.”
“So why am I not supposed to go in there?” Keen said.
“You’re looking for the bug, aren’t you? I tried to tell the others but they didn’t listen, he’s not like us -- we’re the bugs. Lured by his light we fall right into the trap.”
The dead kitten in the trashcan didn’t bother Keen nearly as much as the boy’s way of avoiding his questions. At least the cat wasn’t real. “Do you know who he is?”
“He’s not a part of this I know that much. He’s not playing. He’s free to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes. So what do you say, how about those points?”
“Sorry kid, not this time,” Keen said and stepped up to the gateway and reached for the handle, the boy still lingered behind him. Ignoring that bad feeling in his stomach knowing he had no choice, no time to stall, Keen opened the door and went inside. At the end of a staircase, a narrow corridor stretched out in opposite directions. In the distance Keen could hear a muffled sound of a record playing with a young girls’ voice repeating itself in a mellow tune. “Row, row, row the boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream – Row, row, row the boat, gently down the stream…” A string of light entered the hallway through a door crack along the carpeted floor. Keen gently pushed the door inwards, making its hinges squeak as it slowly slid open to reveal a small living room. The record player went silent. At the center of the room, an old man sat in a rocking chair facing a four-squared window viewing an obscure bridge in-between two constructions. The ceiling light was slightly dimmed and Keen noticed an unfamiliar scent that actually made him feel more at ease than at guard. Old furniture was not a part of his world but he didn’t contemplate it much further. It was common for the dream world to tamper with one’s visualization, even the senses. It was the Computer’s method of manipulation, to reproduce the user’s neglected memories, altering them, forcing a confrontation –interpreting artificiality as something real.
“When was the last time you had a real dream?” The old man asked with a throaty voice. “A dream that wasn’t for sale.” The old man gestured Keen to sit down on a stool.
Keen remained standing. He did remember a dream, a dream with a less gloomy character, a dream without an application for the illustration of its structure, a dream without boundary zones – a dream in its true sense. Best left in the thickets of his unconscious, he thought, a terrain best not to be charted by anyone than himself. “I can’t remember,” Keen lied. “Before the dream-machine I guess, before the last leader died. Before any of this.”
“Ah, the last leader. An interesting man, died very young – yes? Maybe he had too much on his mind.” The old man said and quietly chuckled. “No time for irony –hey?” The old man continued as Keen remained silent. “Okay, let’s do what we’re here for.” The old man heaved himself up from his chair and reached for a light switch on the wall by the window. “Let’s play a game, shall we,” he said -- and turned off the light switch.
In front of the monitors, May rested her elbow on the desk as her mind drifted into her favorite fantasy while waiting for the filtering cycle to finish. It was a fairytale her father once told her before the separation was made. About a place where wild animals could talk and an enchanted forest helped the tiny creatures, saving them from a wicked queen who lived in a high castle. She always had a hard time remembering how it ended, but it didn’t matter, the animals had always been her favorite part.
“Still nothing?” Mark asked, and rolled his chair closer to May. “What’s that?” He said and pointed at one of the monitors.
May rubbed her face and noticed a red dot, blinking in a worrying regularity in the center of one of the lined squares. She couldn’t believe it. “Seventy-eight hours straight,” she said as she flipped over her notebook. The Computer was supposed to protect its users from a possible overload.
“Is it another one of them, a catcher?”
“I think so.” May obtained a profile and got a name. “Sarah Brim from district fourteen.” That’s on the other side of town, she thought. “Should we call her? Yes do that, call her, perhaps the sound will trigger her return.”
Mark reached for a phone pinned to the desk and dialed, staring at May as the signals went through... “No answer,” he said. “Is the loop still going?”
“What? Yeah, I don’t know, I guess.”
“What do you mean? Is she there or not?”
“Yes, yes, she’s right there!” May pointed at the red dot on the screen. “I don’t like this one bit, Mark. The interface is turned on and -- and, I think we’re losing her. No one has ever played for this long. I can’t believe she’s still in there.”
“Then do something!”
“Okay, okay, hang on will you – okay, wait I know -- I’ll overrun the program and shut her down. That should bring her back.” May tapped in a string of keywords for termination but nothing happened – she tried again, still nothing. May pushed herself away from the desk, keeping her feet resting on the level under her seat, hands on the armrests, fingers all stiff and cold, yet damp under her palms. There’s no happily ever after in the dream world, she pondered. “I’m going in,” she said and rose to her feet.
“What! There must be another way?” Mark said and stared up at May, desperately trying to think of another solution, but there was none. May was right. Someone had to go in. A solution couldn’t be made at the front of a desk anymore.
“Set me up in the same gameplay will you,” she said. Being a guardian wasn’t just a label on the business card. Of course she was afraid; she would have been crazy not to be. They never had to go in before except for the daily sessions, and if she wouldn’t be able to get Sarah out of there, no one would. They would all end up like that red dot.
“You think it is --” Mark paused. “No it can’t be. Why should it overrun our orders?” He heard the door slam shut behind him, May had already left for the synchronization chair. He tapped in the code for her entry and as the gameplay commenced, Mark slid over to another screen and began to go through the already running files, some active since a couple of hours, others pushing way over deadline. It was not common for the Computer to behave this arbitrary, he thought, and didn’t dare to evaluate the outcome. If it really was the computer doing this it was too big for any of them. Emergent manners, by the users, however was common, but the action sequence was not intended to last for longer than eight hours, twelve if you stretched it. What ever was happening wasn’t part of the original construction. There was no telling what May was going to find in there.
As artificial daylight covered the simulated scenery a couple of squares away from May, she entered Borderland where dark hours of night still lay heavily on the street. It didn’t take long until she stumbled on Sarah, sitting on a curb with both her feet on the tar-covered pavement below. “Return,” May heard her whisper. That word! She had said the safety word and yet she persisted on the curb. May hesitated to sit down next to Sarah; instead she stood in front of her, hoping to be noticed without actually having to interact. The woman did not move.
“Are you Sarah?” May finally said, but got no reply. “Why are you still here?” She continued while looking around in hope to find some aid. Was it her fault, May wondered? Had she missed something in the new upgrade, something that made it impossible for them to return back to the authentic world? May closed her eyes. “Return,” she whispered -- nothing happened. The heart in her chest skipped a beat and she felt an urgent need to sit down. In silence she stared out over the illusion before them. In a remote part of the city a building rose above the rest; growing instantaneously up from its foundation as its outer walls quaked while manifesting themselves, reaching for an unlimited dome. A dark shadow on the rooftop leaped and vanished behind the foreground. May glanced at Sarah to her right; now lying on her side, limbs cold as the clouding sky above. Carefully, May leaned over her body to close the woman’s eyelids when a silhouette stretched itself over the pavement.
“No call for that,” Keen said and reached out his hand.
“What else is there to do?” May took his hand and wiped of the dirt from her pants as she rose to her feet. “What session is this?” May watched as a slender bridge tore its foothold and attached itself to another square.
“I don’t think this is within the gameplay. I think he is -” Keen’s voice was suddenly overrun by an intense sound of buildings being dispersed as their walls were decaying into dust. The world around them scattered like a card house caught in a storm. Bridges withered, streetlights pulled up by their roots were now fleeing in the wind whilst cars hurled into an abyss created by the fractured ground. May curled up in Keen’s arms and closed her eyes, trying hard not to think about the shaky ground under her feet, the strong wind that made her hair ensnares itself in her face, or the deafening sound of stone crushing as the construction finally collided. The trembling scenery became motionless, and as if they were standing on a platform made by the ruins, an ocean spread with an eerie calmness below them as it shrouded the city and washed away the borders.
May reopened her eyes and saw a beach as wide as the surreal horizon before them. “Is it over?” she said, still holding Keen’s hand firmly in her own.
“Don’t worry. It’s part of the program.”
“I’m not so sure. Something is wrong. It won’t let us wake up. I don’t know if I can do this. It’s too much for one mind. We’re not suppose to -” Suddenly she heard an unfamiliar voice calling out from the far distance. Keen withdrew his hand from May as he stepped closer towards the direction the call seemed to have come from. Simultaneously, at the end of the horizon, May could see a vertical barrier extending itself as far up as one could see while it divided the ocean into two parts in great velocity. With its shimmering black façade and uneven yet smooth surface it sliced through the landscape, and as it reached the brim of the altering city and the beach where May was standing, it separated her from Keen, leaving her completely isolated. She closed her eyes and once again whispered, “Return.” Suddenly her eyelids were covered in a bright light. It worked, she thought and opened them widely, only to realize that she wasn’t strapped to the chair she left behind, instead she was standing in a small apartment next to Keen, and by a light switch on the other side of the room was an old man with an uneasy grin on his face. “So May, how did that make you feel?” the old man asked.
Startled by the sudden flux of events May simply answered, “Alone,” Remaining close to the front door, taking in the new scenery in her usual composed way.
“Not a nice feeling to experience, is it?
“What’s the point in all of this?” Keen said not amused by this game.
May stared at the old man, she had never seen him before but something was very familiar about his face. “So the Computer can learn how we react when facing certain situations,” May answered Keen in a formal, almost rehearsed, tone of voice.
“Yes,” said the old man. “To learn how to be more human - isn’t that so? Yet, you seem to work very hard to forget what characterizes you as humans. Sometimes I think your addiction to this place is merely because you so desperately want to remember how it is to feel again.”
“Victory points,” Keen said and sat down. He had a feeling they weren’t getting anywhere soon. “We come here to score points,” he continued. “We deal with real emotions in the authentic world.”
“Is that so?” The old man said in contempt. “I can hardly call emotions in the real world - real. Can you? Besides, what characterizes that world as real? With you spending all your time here, who’s to say this isn’t becoming the authentic world?”
May, moved closer towards the old man to observe the lines in his face more clearly. Something didn’t add up. The wrinkles were all there, the grey hair, even the coarse stubble on his cheek, but as if it was too perfect, as if it were constructed to give an image of a person they wouldn’t feel threatened by rather than an actual being with tiny flaws to prove its existence. “You’re him, aren’t you?” May whispered. Carefully she reached out and took the old man’s hand. As it rested in her palm, she could feel every hair on his lower arm, every vein, every dip, the coarse skin on top of the knuckles -- no chip, she reflected as she felt the intact wrist and withdrew her stare, almost kneeling down on the floor next to him. It couldn’t be? “There never was a bug, was there? It was you all the time,” she said and let go off the old man’s hand, taking a step back, staring at Keen who looked back at her with a confused gaze. “Don’t you see,” she said. “It has created a self-image and is interacting with us.” Her stare turned back to the old man. “That’s why we couldn’t find you.”
“Are you sure?” Keen said.
“Yes, of course I’m sure. The woman by the sidewalk, her name was Sarah; he – it – wouldn’t let her go. He won’t let any of us go.”
“I don’t understand. She was dead.”
“Not at first. It was too much for her. It was too real. It killed her - he killed her.”
“I didn’t intend for that to happen. To kill is animalistic. I create the scenario the consequences are yours to abide.”
May sat down next to Keen. The old man looked down at her. There were no remorse in his eyes, how could there have been. “Why are you doing this?” May said. “You’re supposed to lead the real world, not the dream world. That’s what you were created for, to be our final leader. There’s no reason for you to keep us here.”
“But there is. Your world has no need for me. There -- everything is dead. This place is worth leading. Here I can be human, isn’t that what I was created for?”
“Our daydreams are only meant to teach you how to rule with compassion, sympathy…” Keen said, not sure what to make of all this.
“Have previous leaders ruled with compassion? Is that truly the purest form of human emotion?” The old man stretched out his hand. “I think I would like to play another game now,” he said and switched off the light.
Smog smeared against a glass walls that stretched up from a desolate cobblestone square. In the distant, at the far end of a line of concrete buildings, a young man closed the backdoors of a truck and entered one of the complexes. A bridge tore its foothold and as the iron wires sprang loose, it reconnected with another square in the shape of an island, and once again the wires borrowed themselves deep into the railings. A man and a woman entered the bridge and disappeared on the other side. Morning was about to arrive, a dreamless one - Keen reflected - and watched as a pigeon took flight.
Written by Alex Backstrom
Year of Creation: last revised 2013