Zara had had the Wisdom build us a rose garden. I'm not sure why, except that it had something to with some sort of gift to Yvonne. Whatever the motive, it had appeared after a day or two, perched above a dramatic and strangely earth like vista – the hills and lakes of an alien planet visible through a panoramic window of something that probably wasn't anything remotely like glass.
I'd taken to spending a lot of time up there, not least because Zara had also specified a random breeze to add – hah! – atmosphere to the place. The scientist in me had developed a secret obsession with calculating the processing power required to generate the necessary gusts and eddies, while my human side merely belatedly recognised how much I missed the subtler pleasures of life on earth. Hell, our accommodation here was comfortable – luxurious – beyond imaging, earth wise, but it was artificial – sterile – ultimately inhuman.
Well, I thought, that was certainly true: The alien product of an alien mind, designed to meet mere humans' every need but alien nonetheless. I was wondering if I could get the AI to lay on some rain showers, too – maybe even a thunder storm or two, I'd always liked a good storm – when Yvonne herself came into the 'garden'.
"Hi, Xav," she said, seeing me. "Got a message from the Big W for you – seems we have a new arrival on the way, another one of yours apparently."
I was about to ask why the AI hadn't just told me directly – it was hardly shy in the general run of things – but she anticipated the question with a knowing grin.
"I think you've got the thing a bit paranoid around you, what with the tricks you pulled in Switzerland – that or its actually taken Zara's request not to be disturbed up here seriously. Anyway, the woman's name is Queta Munoz – ex student of yours, I'm told. Seems she's going to get into trouble and the Technology thinks she's worth a look, recruitment wise."
I was surprised by the name, did indeed remember the woman – not actually a student of mine but a post doc I'd worked with, maybe would have done more with if it hadn't been for a Fatal Difficulty. But that would hardly matter here, I thought – hell it could hardly survive the shock of being here – and it was true, she had skills. I began to run through them in my head, gathering my stuff together prior to heading to our seminar room to bring Zara and Patrice up to speed, decide what we should do next. Just as I gave Yvonne the nod that I was ready, just as she turned to leave the area, I felt it: A drop of rain, then another and another in a perfect simulation of a spring shower. Somewhere in the distance, I'm sure I heard something almost like thunder...
Zara and Patrice – both looking tired but relaxed, having just returned from an 'intervention' earth-side – were sitting round the conference table when we we got down there. Both already had data feeds open, so I pulled one up myself, got a rapid update on the situation. Which was interesting: Queta – she'd made it to full professor, the bastard – was up in the Alps, in a mountain hut with a few of her colleagues and students. Seemed that this was a regular event – an annual fortnight in the hills, spent discussing ideas and future prospects. Difference was, this year the hut was going to be carried off by a mudslide, triggered by a major storm due – the Wisdom informed us – in seven hours (earth-time) from now. I checked the data behind this – just to annoy the thing, not because I, or the greatest geophysicist at 'home', had a hope of understanding the maths involved. Seemed to check out, anyway, and the AI had a pretty good track record, prediction wise, so the question was – what were we going to do about it?
Actually, the question very quickly resolved itself to be: Who were we going to save? The Wisdom, with typical pragmatism, thought we should just pull out Queta at the last moment, let the others take their chances. I could see its point, to an extent – one body missing in a mini disaster was hardly likely to attract comment, a hut being carried away without a trace of the victims ... that could spark some interest, if only on the lunatic fringe.
Needless to say, the human side of the debate didn't see the logic quite so clearly and so we argued. Could we get all of them out of the way of the event? Zara suggested engendering some sort of medical emergency to get them to evacuate, so we could save a few lives and give ourselves a bit more time to consider whether Q would actually be useful to the Project. Unfortunately, the W pointed out that the storm that would cause the problem had already been predicted and it was unlikely to that the group would venture away from the 'safety' of the place in any circumstances. I wondered about setting fire to the hut – rather bluntly forcing their hand – but apparently it was quite a storm and the Wisdom would have to intervene to such an extent, to keep such an inexperienced party alive in the open, that we'd be as well to extract the lot anyway.
So we came back to the central dilemma: Extract all six, take just one ... or leave them all and pretend we hadn't noticed in the first place?
We began to review the data we had on all the participants in Professor Munoz's meeting.
Later, Zara and I were in the living space we more or less shared, drinking wine and reviewing, yet again, the discussion. We'd decided to grab them all, of course, the Wisdom having reluctantly agreed to smear enough simulated body parts and DNA around to assuage the doubters. We still had to decide what to do with the supernumeraries – Yvonne's suggestion that we could always use some suicide bombers of our own having been met with stony silence – but that was something, I was sure, that we could resolve in time.
For the moment, the question was whether Q herself would prove to be useful – and whether she, or at least her sanity, would survive the transition.
"So," Zara said, summing up as she emptied her glass, "she's a holy-roller, a genuine, fundamentalist, born again christian. Which is why you never got your wicked way with the poor woman and why, in a nutshell, you think that the realisation that the nearest thing to a higher power hereabouts is a very, very clever bit of machinery might send her completely doohlally..."
I nodded, accepting a masterful summation, and added a thought of my own. "And, of course, there's the fact that 'hereabouts' is, in fact, an alien plant in an alien universe – not a lot of them in the bible. I think her faith is about to be rather severely tested, though whether she goes completely to pieces or does one of those weird mental back-flips that theists are so good at – well, either way, she's not going to be a lot of use."
"So why aren't we just letting her drown in a sea of mud and rock?"
"Because she has a brilliant mind, however odd her belief system, and – hell, even the Wisdom sees potential utility there, else the thing would never even have mentioned the situation in the first place."
"So," she replied mischievously, "the fact that she's also a rather striking woman has nothing at all to do with it..."
"Well, you have Yvonne to fall back on – so to speak – when I'm not around, Yvonne has Patrice when he's not pining for Wife on Earth, while I..."
She stuck her tongue out at me.
"Enough. Let's sleep on it. Or, at least, go to bed on it..."
Patrice and I did the meeting and greeting, Yvonne having chosen to put in some gym time, preparatory to her next foray earthside, and Zara having delegated herself to ... well, watch her do it.
We used a bigger than usual space for our Arrivals, still with the same reactive padding so that no-one hit any of the walls too hard, still with the same old message on the wall – not dead, not dreaming, etc. etc. – but it probably wasn't quite big enough. Well, six relatively senior academics, sitting in a mountain hut arguing one minute, then everything starts to shake, the world goes very bright and suddenly they're sliding over foam rubber and shouting at each other even more. It was an impressive range of languages, I'll say that, and with some particularly choice vocabulary in use in all of them. We waited for a while until they'd all actually become stationary – even the Wisdom can't juggle all the vectors involved in such a complex transition completely perfectly – and then we waited for a while more to see if any of them would actually stop talking.
Eventually, Patrice concluded that this wasn't going to happen anytime soon and keyed in an intercom circuit.
"Ah ... ladies and gentlemen", he began, politely enough, "if I could perhaps have your attention?"
His voice, appearing disembodied and direction-less to our guests, had the opposite effect from that intended. Shouting reinvigorated itself, direct arguments broke out and actual fights appeared a possibility. Well, OK – these guys were probably scared out of their wits and panic makes people behave strangely. Patrice tried again, rather more assertively.
"OK, people," he said, firmly. "Sit down and shut up!"
This did have an affect. Not that anyone actually sat down, but the volume of noise fell considerably until only a few angry murmurs remained. Grabbing the opportunity, he continued, asking for Professor Queta Munoz to identify herself – as if he didn't know that she was the one on her knees, praying – and for the others to stay calm.
No-one reacted at all, this time, and P shrugged at me, saying into the feed. "OK, just because we ask for co-operation doesn't mean we need it. Professor Munoz will therefore now be taken to a reception area, the rest of you – oh, hell, you can all go into stasis while we work out what to do with you."
Cutting the link, he muttered a request to the AI to 'make it so' and we went off to meet our latest potential recruit.
Queta had aged, of course, since I'd last known her. If she noticed that I hadn't – or that Patrice, who'd ignored my suggestion that he might wear more than his customary pair of shorts for the occasion, now had the sort of physique not otherwise seen outside of steroid ads – she didn't comment on the fact. In fact, what she did – after a brief look of shocked recognition as I came in – was mutter away to herself, presumably praying or reciting her rosary or whatever the fuck.
So we sat and stared at her for a while, Patrice seemingly waiting for me to take the lead, given that she was my 'contact', until even his apparently limitless patience finally broke.
"Professor Munoz," he said, physically pulling her round so that she couldn't avoid looking at him, "I don't know what you think is going on, here, but trust me – it really isn't a dream and it really isn't going to end any time soon. You seem to me to be an intelligent woman – and I know a hell of a lot about you – so try to engage that brain of yours. The sooner you talk to us, the sooner we get to decide what happens next..."
He left the thought hanging, so that even I couldn't tell whether it was intended as reassurance or as a threat. Q, however, seemed to take some sort of prompt from the statement as she pulled away from him, looked down at the floor and said, in an eerie, distant voice, "I ... I thought it was ... was ... the Rapture – the shaking, the sudden light, then the darkness. Then I saw my colleagues had been Taken, too, despite ... but God works his wonders..."
She was sobbing by now, while we waited for her to continue. Which she did, pointing a vehemently accusing finger at me.
"And then I saw him – the beast – and a black devil and ... Oh ... what have I done ... what did I not do..."
She began to wail wordlessly, shoulders heaving as her breath came in great gasping gulps. Well, I thought, nice to know that I'm a harbinger of hell – and that Patrice is the devil incarnate – but what the fuck did we do now? I was on the point of asking the W for some tranx when Patrice once again pre-empted me ... by throwing a glass of water directly into her face, pulling her round again and saying, none too kindly,
"This isn't hell, Queta, though I have no doubt that we could make it a pretty good simulation if we chose to. Actually, we just saved your fucking life, Professor, and we saved it mainly because we thought we might be able to offer you a job – a job which might do more good for humanity than your fucking god ever did..."
I wasn't sure how genuine his anger was but I gently pulled him away from the woman – crying silently now, I noticed, eyes wide in shock and fear – and interposed myself between them.
"My colleague is right, Queta. He's not the devil and I'm not the dangerous pervert you so fondly remember. Round here, in fact, we're pretty much the good guys." I paused for a second, not because I expected a response but just to see if was hearing any of this. She still looked totally awestruck but her eyes followed me as I moved about the room. Good.
"Patrice is also right that we'd like you to help us help – well, everybody really. But we need you to do so willingly and if you won't – or can't – well, then we'll have to think of something else. In any case, I think you need some rest, time to think. So we'll get you to an accommodation unit of your own, you can get some sleep and then we'll provide you with every bit of data we have to explain the situation, get a colleague who doesn't have the misfortune to be either me or black to come and talk it over with you, OK?"
She nodded dumbly and one of the AI's semi autonomous servitors came and took her away – already showing signs of the hypnotics it had covertly administered.
When she'd left Patrice looked at me significantly.
"And, what," he said, calmly, "alternative did you have in mind?"
"God knows," I replied, suddenly sick of the whole thing, "but I suspect that there might be opportunities available for her in hydroponics. Well, for her constituent molecules, anyway..."
Life, as they say, goes on. We left the others in stasis – the AI could keep them that way pretty much indefinitely and it saved having to think about another problem just at the moment – while Yvonne did her stuff on Planet Earth and I had another stint in Deep Immersion – data-mining the earth's computer networks to inform and plan our future operations. So that left Zara and Patrice to deal with the Q situation.
Both were in sombre mood when I emerged from the Recovery Suite, both conspicuously anxious to ensure that I'd had enough time to recuperate, that I wasn't still disorientated from the petabytes of data I'd been dealing with. It took time, but eventually I got Patrice to give me the condensed version. Queta had taken us up on our offer of unrestricted access to our data, had seen the conclusive evidence of the existence of the multiverse, viewed the many, many skins of this particular cosmic onion and ... had become more religious, to a degree that even the AI had begun to consider psychotic. As well as accessing facts, P told me, she'd had the machine teach her Hebrew, Greek and Latin, uploaded half a hundred different bibles, testaments and sundry apocrypha and was busily trying to construct some sort of 'explanation' from it all. It didn't look good.
"Of course," Zara put in as an afterthought, "it doesn't help that the AI is so spectacularly cagey about where it – or they – actually came from, where they got their – umm – godlike powers from. And that seems to be the 'loophole' that Queta is working away at."
I felt quite profoundly gloomy, knowing that we'd all wondered about that point, all tried in our various ways to find out, all without success. As Zara had once said to me, only half joking, it was as if the AI was embarrassed by its origins – or, perhaps, I thought, now – just guilty about them.
Be that as it may, we still didn't have much to go on vis a vis Queta. I said as much and Zara gave me an appraising look.
"There is one thing", she said. "Quite why does Q have such animosity towards you – why did she call you a beast and a pervert when she first arrived? I mean, you don't seem all that perverse to me..."
"There's not a lot I can tell you," I said, shrugging. "She was a post-doc with an old friend of mine in Germany, she came to the UK to do some work on a new synchrotron we'd built, he asked me to look after her." I paused as both of them looked at me keenly.
"Well, she was a lovely woman – bright, engaging, gifted – and we ended up spending a lot of time together. Then one evening – we'd been to a faculty party, then on to the pub, you know the scene – I over-stepped the mark, I guess ... tried to kiss her, She slapped my face, started spouting god at me. I was shocked, to be honest – she'd never mentioned religion before – and I never saw her again. Flew home a couple of days later."
"Interesting," Zara said, eventually. "Partly because she obviously made an impression on you, subconsciously – she'd not be on your Protected list, otherwise – but also because it might shed light on a little experiment I've been running."
Patrice and I swapped looks, both wondering what Z had been playing with this time but for a change she explained quickly enough.
"I've been monitoring the Professor very closely on a lot of different levels – hey, you both know I like to watch – and she seems to be the most sexless person I've ever come across. Not only does she not masturbate but the only time her hands even come close to her genitals is when she's washing and then briefly and, I swear, with her eyes firmly closed."
She paused and we waited. This was, perhaps, interesting information ... but not an experiment per se. There had to be more. There was.
"So I thought I'd check out her sexual reactions, got the Wisdom to start bleeding aphrodisiacs into her environment – subtly at first, the sort of levels that might make the likes of us a bit frisky, a bit more aware of things sexual, but then in increasing dosages. As of now, I've reached concentrations where – well, if you go into that area, go masked, else we'll have to tie you to a post for a few months for the safety of all the rest of us ... and the furniture, come to think of it."
I sighed. "OK, so you've been fucking with her head in a way that's probably immoral, plausibly dangerous and, at least IMHO, completely out of order. So what have you found? Got any good vids of her wanking, yet?"
Zara shook her head, completely failed to look contrite.
"That's the point. That woman should be horny as hell – crissakes, the physio data says she is as horny as hell – but not one sign of it appears in her visible behaviour, her activities – they're all exactly as before."
"Oh, except for one thing – there's a huge increase in brain activity in her amygdala and areas of her frontal cortex associated with fear ... and the suppression of fear."
"People, this woman is a true phenomenon. Professor Munoz is terrified ... utterly, completely, shit scared ... of sex."
So we had another conference, all agreed – even the AI – that the erotophobia that Zara had uncovered was likely to be the cause of the religious mania rather than an effect of it. The question was, what to do about it.
Zara was all for adding some disinhibitors to her witches brew – basically making it impossible for Q to resist the impulses she had to be feeling – but I vetoed the suggestion. I thought there was just too much risk that getting Q to act out her sexuality while still holding onto her religious ideation would result in a dangerous psychic conflict – risking a major breakdown, perhaps even an attempt at suicide.
Which I felt we couldn't risk, given the AI's observation that even the questions that Q had been asking of its data had suggested whole new areas of analysis – implying a talent that we could not afford to lose. What we needed, I felt, was a way of allowing Q to express herself sexually – to conquer the fear – from within her religion. If we could do that, safely, I hoped, the rest of the edifice would fall away. Queta was just too fine a scientist to accept all the mumbo jumbo without an overwhelming need for her to do so.
Patrice suggested thinking mythologically ourselves – and in particular about all the stories of gods (and goddesses) cavorting with mortals. I thought for a moment that he was suggesting that one of us should dress up as a swan or something – or maybe just an angel, in the circumstances – but the idea was a tad more sophisticated than that,
In fact, he asked the AI directly whether it could influence the dreams that Q – and, by implication, of course, all the rest of us – were having. Perhaps just slightly reluctantly, the Wisdom opined that it probably could ... third party lucid dreaming, it called it.
So we sat down as a group, again, and we designed some dreams. Yvonne was initially keen on including a lot of fish and snakes and things, having been exposed to rather too many Freudians in her many stays in rehab, but the rest of us kept things rather more focused. The AI provided a precis of the juicier bits of the bible – a longer document than I'd have imagined – as well as writings of the church fathers and similar on sex, the aim being to root the finished 'product' as fas as possible in Professor Munoz' existing ideology. Sadly this meant we had to lose some of the more graphic images Zara and I had recalled from Greek and Roman myths – let alone the entertainingly zoophilic stories that Patrice had learnt as a boy – but it did give us something to work on.
Zara got to put the plan into practice – Yvonne claimed a lack of improvisational skills, Patrice was frightened that his very different cultural heritage would be unhelpful and, frankly, I found the whole idea of manipulating someone's thoughts on this sort of level just too freaky to contemplate. Zara, on the other hand, appeared to think of it as almost the ultimate in voyeurism – plausibly the apotheosis of some of her deeper fantasies – and didn't even try to look reluctant.
We/she started slowly. The idea of angels in the Greek translations of the bible – and subsequent representations of them as big blokes with skeletally implausible wings stuck on their backs – is pretty much a mistranslation, the Hebrew version using a word meaning something more like 'wind'. So Queta found herself dreaming of a fairly stereotyped desert environment, dressed in what she thought were authentic biblical era robes – the AI was pretty scathing about the accuracy of her knowledge – and, well, having trouble with wind. Not in the digestive sense of the word, but rather a pseudo meteorological one. It was a wind with a message, of course ... this was a dream, we could add subliminal content to our hearts' content ... but also a strangely mischievous way of penetrating those voluminous robes. Sort of between the legs, caressing the vital regions in a sort of wind-like way. Whilst simultaneously implying that it as a Holy Wind, a Good Wind ... and a relaxing Wind. And that was all. Basically, we used a phantom breeze to tickle the poor woman's genitals. And then we left her alone – let her get on with the dream all by herself.
Zara carried on riding piggy back, though, observing the inner working of her subject's imagination whilst also closely monitoring all the various physiological data. All of which kept her too busy to communicate directly with the rest of us but I kept an eye on her biometrics and ... well, the results looked interesting. Admittedly, Q didn't seem to react overly much to our 'stimulation' but Zara was clearly engrossed with whatever she was observing, seemingly experiencing a degree of residual arousal but also some degree of fear ... and anger. Which was curious.
When Q left her dream state, Zara was able to disengage safely but she seemed in no great hurry to share anything she'd learnt. In fact, she looked a bit worried, so I gave here a hug and Patrice found her a drink which she drained in a gulp.
"I think it may be working," she said, finally. "But its going to be a slow process. She got into the wind thing, for sure, got into it sexually, I mean, might actually have been enjoying the sensations, but as soon as we dropped out of the circuit – when the AI let her get on with it, I mean – she started to get more into ideas of snakes and temptation and all that shit ... started to resist the excitement, fall back on her learned precepts. I didn't want to interfere again ... even without doing so she was dreaming solidly for about 40 minutes, which is a hell of a long time ... but I'm not sure where all this will go next. My suggestion would be to let her wake normally, see how she reacts ... then maybe have another go – take it to the next stage – tomorrow."
Which seemed to be that for the night, but actually Zara needed to talk a fair amount more when we were in bed, a while later. In fact, she was worried, worried in a way that she hadn't wanted to explain in front of the others.
"Queta's more than frightened," she said, eventually, burying her head in my shoulder and pointedly not looking at me. "And there's more to it than some sort of subconscious hang up. In fact, its almost like there's something else in her brain, someone else in there..."
Well, that was a surprising thought. "You mean like some sort of secondary personality", I queried, "maybe the result of some early trauma – probably sexual trauma, given the external presentation?"
"No." She laughed, bitterly. "I think I would recognise that. I know this sounds crazy but I think its something real, not a subconscious artefact – I've been gambolling merrily through her bloody subconscious, remember – and whatever it may be she's not only frightened of it but despises it, too."
I hugged her reassuringly, waited for her to continue.
"Thing is, she seems to have built some sort of construct around it – like an oyster making a pearl, perhaps – made it into her own personal satan but ... I think it might be an implant of some sort. Some sort of mind control programme".
She paused again, and I finished the thought for her. It sounded somewhat implausible, of course, her idea, but ... she'd been there, knew what she'd experienced.
"And," I continued, "given that we are currently talking about this in a bed which happens to be on an alien planet in a novel strata of the multiverse ... and which has been provided by an apparently omnipotent AI... and that said AI has just conclusively demonstrated that it is capable of both reading and influencing our very minds ... well, maybe its not all that implausible after all. You think that this 'implant' was put there by the Wisdom or something like it, don't you?"
She shrugged, as well as you can shrug when nuzzling up to someone, said, "Not our Wisdom, no ... that doesn't make sense. But – that trouble Yvonne had in Switzerland – we know there are probably others ... maybe with different objectives ... different methods. The question is, can we do anything about it?"
We gave Queta another dream, of course. This time it had lots of doors, lots of twisting corridors, lots of hiding places. From Zara's reaction – not to mention Q's – it was, frankly, more of a nightmare, but it did sort of work. At least Zara told us that she was sure that the alien presence was there, sure that Queta knew – on some level – that it wasn't part of her. She also wanted rid of it ... and had been searching for a rescuer for most of her life. A male rescuer, a knight in sodding shining armour, would you believe. Blame Cervantes, blame the machismo in Spanish culture, blame ... whatever. God, to her, was a powerful man, the attraction the possibility that He could rid her of this turbulent beast.
And so, despite my strenuous objections, next time we fucked about in Queta's head, we decided, as a group, that it would be me doing the intruding. Which thought literally sickened me, but seemed logical: For one thing, unlike the others, I was able to do Immersion – connect to the Wisdom's data and its data sources on a neurological level – and that could plausibly be an advantage if we were going to try and neutralise whatever it was we were dealing with. Or so we hoped.
In fact, it took a couple of days to set up the next session, not least because we had an existing work programme that couldn't simply be abandoned. Patrice and I spent time discussing the issues with the Wisdom – P had absorbed ideas of possession almost with his mother's milk – while Zara and Yvonne talked as best they could with Queta directly. Interestingly, the W acknowledged Zara's theory as probable, though without giving us any hint about who or what the other mysterious entities might be, nor how much or how little it had known of them beforehand. Queta, on the other hand, was relatively forthcoming. OK, she gave Yvonne short shrift, but she seemed almost keen to engage with Zara. Maybe she actually recognised her as someone she'd (literally) shared a dream with, or maybe she just recognised Z as someone who'd had to battle more than a few demons of her own. We didn't know – but she was more relaxed with Zara than we'd seen her before, spouting jesuitical sophistry but communicating on a human to human level. She even let herself be given a parting hug or two.
I found this encouraging, in a way, intimidating in another. Watching the recording of Zara's interactions with her couldn't help but remind me of the brilliant young researcher I'd briefly known ... and made me realise what an asset she would be to the Project. Provided I didn't completely fuck her head up.
The AI insisted on my taking a test run of the interface it had designed for the experiment, the idea being that it could use elements of Queta's – and my – 'dream' to provide data and assistance to me surreptitiously. It claimed that this was an extension of work that I'd been doing on visualisation of protein/protein binding at the electron level – my day job back 'home' – but the results were light years beyond anything we'd been able to produce in the lab. It really was a full 3D, all-encompassing experience and, while my experience of Immersion in data gathering mode had been something like surfing an incredibly complex waveform, this was disconcertingly like the sort of virtual world video games designers strive for – except that it was utterly real, so far as my biological brain was concerned.
I was worried that I would be so literally wrapped up in the experience that it would be difficult to maintain objectivity. After all, I had to continue to absorb and manipulate Queta's thoughts, rather than simply get lost in my own, but the AI gave me the machine equivalent of a snort and pointed out that Q and I had so much in common, given the years we'd spent engrossed in molecular sciences, that the interface would be, in its opinion, trivial.
So we decided to give it a go.
This time the set up was simpler, back in the pseudo-biblical desert, again – Queta dreamt a lot about deserts, apparently – only with a large number of intimidating crags from which vulture like birds were constantly ascending into thermals in the cloudless sky. Queta was walking purposefully across the terrain, aware of a need to travel without – this being a dream – having a conscious goal in mind. I was simply observing, for the moment, could feel the tension within her – the fear – the wariness with which she watched the birds, sought for movement amongst the rocks.
She travelled for some time, as the sun grew higher in the sky and the heat became stifling, before coming to a river, flowing through a steeply sided ravine. Across the river was an ancient looking chain bridge, which she knew, it was imperative – but somehow incredibly dangerous – to cross. Well, it didn't look any too safe to me, either, but it wasn't the thought of falling off the thing that was bothering her – she knew how exposed she would be, how visible to whatever it was she thought might be lurking among all those cliffs. Which, from our perspective, was all to the good – we needed data, information about the mysterious entity that had infected her mind ... and that meant we – OK, Queta, it was her bloody dream – had to engage with it.
When it did appear, I'm afraid, I was caught by a sudden feeling of utter absurdity ... as something that looked very much like a cartoon Devil – pitchfork, horns, pointy tail, the lot – suddenly appeared before her on the bridge. Not that Q was amused – a lot of very basic fear reactions kicked into action and things began to get rapid, dreamwise. First we were falling, not into the ravine but somehow down a narrow, intestinal tunnel, then – well, there were a lot of shifts in the scenery – and Q's velocity within it – but the terror, the pursuit remained consistently acute.
The problem was that I knew that none of this was within the programme we'd designed, and I was getting clear signals from the AI that it wasn't actually entirely Queta who was controlling things. Which I might have welcomed as confirmation that we did have something exotic to deal with ... except that I was a bit caught up in events – and the general atmosphere of sheer terror.
I did still have a link of sorts through to the technology – at least for the moment – so I did my damnedest to hang onto some sort of rationality, tried to drill through the rising chaos to extract what facts I could. Which were not exactly reassuring ... there was definitely something there ... something foreign ... something other than Queta, the Wisdom and me, I mean ... and it seemed like it was running the show – controlling the dream, anyway – in a way that the AI seemed incapable of influencing. Or maybe that was just me, looking for a saviour of my own, given that we'd never expected the AI to actually intervene – that was my job, why I was sitting inside Queta's fantasy in the first place – which was an oddly grounding sort of thought...
I realised that things were running away from me, tried again to assess the situation logically, get whatever insights I could from the weirdness going on all round me. It wasn't easy – we – Queta and I and whatever the fuck else it was – were by now in what you could only describe as a really cliched castle dungeon and being shepherded – by something unseen – down a particularly dank passageway towards ... I didn't know what, but I knew to the depths of my soul that it was bad, found myself wondering whether I did, in fact, know this or whether I was merely taking the emotion from Queta ... Not that it helped ... I was by now almost rigid with fear, could feel the changes in my corporeal body even as I was swept away by the pseudo-reality of the dream.
Some small part of my mind must have retained something like sanity, however, as I noticed one very odd aspect of the situation: Some of the spiders' webs – yup, it was that sort of dungeon – were regularly changing colour, cycling through red, yellow and green. Which was one of the last ditch codes I'd agreed with the AI, its logic being that colour perception was so integral to my sensorium that it should be the least problematic for it to influence. So it was good to be back in contact with the thing, I thought, even if it was a bit of a shame that that particular code meant 'pull out, NOW!' - or maybe just, 'you're on your own'...
Which I didn't find particularly helpful, given that I had no idea how to extricate myself. Oh, and the signal – if that's what it was – had the interesting side effect of alerting our mysterious Other to my presence in its little psychodrama. Or, at least, that seemed to be a reasonable theory as to why those same webs started looping and writhing around me. Not that I suffer from arachnophobia or anything but ... well, it just didn't think it was necessary, you know?
Particularly as it looked like we'd run out of dungeon – we were now in what looked amazingly like a cell - crumbling stone walls, some very rotten straw smeared across the floor and, of course, many, many more webs, now all a boringly natural grey in colour. OK, I thought, ridiculously, the Bogey Man is coming, it knows about you and you're on your own. Deal with it.
Except that I wasn't. On my own, I mean – I was with Queta ... even if she didn't know it ... and the AI had put a lot of effort into ensuring that she wouldn't find out. Nonetheless, I thought, fighting off yet another visceral wave of panic, we had to be better off working together, didn't we? So I started frantically thinking of ways that I might 'contact' Q, albeit with no very clear idea of where to start – telepathy never having been my strong point. Not that thinking logically while becoming overwhelmed with the idea that something indeterminate was about to do something inexplicably horrible things to me had ever been something I'd worked on, either, though...
I knew that I needed a link and the only link I'd ever had with Queta was the work we'd done together. So I tried hard to think about that – trying to remember papers she'd published, details of the experiments we'd co-operated on or discussed, even the design of that bloody synchrotron ... anything, really.
And struck gold, when I got one of the details wrong – and she corrected me.
Not that we started talking or anything, but I did get to have my own independent presence in her dream – I'd rather not comment on how her subconscious made me appear – which meant, I hoped, that I could act independently, too. Or, better yet, in concert with Queta – whose own self representation was going through some fairly rapid shifts, I noticed ... maybe trying to resolve the issue of how I had suddenly appeared in her dream.