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February 23rd, 2020
The desk chair creaked as Lucilius leaned forward. He gave his cigarette a flick and landed the ash in a porcelain tray on his desk, then he leaned back again, dragging the cigarette as he squinted at the holographic digi-screens that floated before him, all of them arrayed with moving lines of symbols - text that had grown out of a long unused Latin alphabet, morphing with emoji’s that had grown more and more complex, more subtle, until language itself and these news feeds had become again just efficient hieroglyphics. Lucilius waved a hand at the digi-screens, speeding their auto scrolls. The screens, the whole room – everything was in black and white.
“I.R.L.” he mumbled to himself. “Who meets IRL any more these days?”
An old analog phone rang on the desk. Lucilius picked it up.
“Your client is here,” his secretary said.
“Send’em in,” Lucilius barked. He waved lazily at the digi-screens and they faded to nothing.
The door to his office rattled and the tin venetian blinds clacked against the glass as it swung open.
A brunette, walked in on heels. A stern and driven look on her face. Suddenly taken aback by the scene, the lack of color in the room. She looked down to see she was wearing a black dress, and shawl about her shoulders.
“What is this?” the woman said.
“My office, my rules,” Lucilius said.
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Can’t say I approve,” she said as she turned a heel out on her toe to look at the shoe.
“See if I care,” Lucilius said, dragging slowly on his cigarette. He looked sideways at this woman, sizing her up.
“I don’t need the work. Only reason I agreed to meet is because you know a good friend. A good friend who knows which one of my ears is the sweet one.”
He looked past her at the coat rack with a dark fedora hanging on it. He shrugged a little with a slight smirk. “Plus, I’ve been watching a lot of ol’Bogey movies lately. Really been feeling that style.”
The woman sighed, a bit perturbed. “They say you’re the best.”
Lucilius’s eyes gently shut, a half smile pulling off at a low corner as he shrugged again. “Like I said, I don’t need the work, which means I haven’t worked in a while, so who knows how good I am.”
The woman walked toward the desk and put down a tiny data dot.
“What is that?” Lucilius asked.
“200 Sophobytes of dreamcode.”
Lucilius shrugged. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
“It was designed for. . . “ the woman hesitated, emotion thick in the root of her voice. “it was coded for someone very close to me, and now he won’t wake up.”
“Why you call me? Go call health services.”
“I’m worried… I’m worried what might be in the code. What might have been requested.”
Lucilius eyed the woman suspiciously. He stood up and walked to a small table against the wall. The crystal decanter clinked as he removed the ornate top. He poured himself some whisky, replaced the top, and then brought the glass to his lips. After many years the hot poison still smelled sweet. He took a sip, savoring it a moment, and then he took a long breath.
He turned to look at the woman. “This a boyfriend? A husband you got sleeping on the job?”
“I guess you could say that,” the woman said.
Lucilius nodded. “Ya, huh…” he said, feeling the tug for his eyes to roll. “so what am I going to find on that thing?”
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “That’s why I brought it to you.”
Lucilius frowned. “This is going to cost you,” he said as he picked up the dot. He went back around his desk and hesitated after he sat. “And I ain’t cheap, so you better have a faucet you cant turn on and off at my discretion, otherwise this isn’t going to work.”
The woman nodded. “I can pay.”
But Lucilius looked unconvinced. The woman puckered her lips in cramped anger. In annoyance she waved a hand and a digi-screen quickly displayed in front of her showing an amount of money that she was allowed to release without IRL authorization. The number was the largest release amount Lucilius had ever seen.
“Ok,” Lucilius said. “dreamcode,” he said, as though announcing the subject. “Everyone wants better dreams.” He fed the dot into his computer and a digi-screen emerged. A panel in his desk flipped, revealing an old-school keyboard.
“Ever since Night Corp. introduced memory enhancement for dreams, everyone is just chompin’ at the bit to squeeze a little more fun and entertainment out of their day - well, night.”
Lucilius scanned the metadata for the dreamcode. “Fancy stuff, no ads.” He looked up at the woman through the digi-screen with a dry look. “Must have been expensive.” But the woman made no movement, no recognition.
“Night Corp made a killing when they figured out how to apply their transmission to time in the dream world. Near infinite time, but only to make space for ads that’ll leave an impression on you in the waking world. Course,” Lucilius shrugged, smiling with the cigarette bouncing at the side of his mouth. “there’s ways around that BS too. And then of course everyone just got lazy. First there were just the subject pokes, code that just nudged your dreams in certain directions, leaving the rest of it to the sleeper’s mind. But everyone got so lazy, and the code requirements expanded. Everyone wanted everything spelled out for them, every last detail. So inefficient.”
Lucilius leaned back, sighing smoke as one of his applied programs began to scrape the dreamcode. “I do not miss those grunt days. Course I had a knack for it. Well a hack really since I could go lucid whenever I wanted”. Lucilius grunted a dead laugh at the likeness to his own name. “Lucid Lucy, they used to call me.” He glanced at the woman. He didn’t really care if she was interested or even listening. He was feeling the role more than anything, and this job was probably something quick and easy. Girl’s man probably has an encoded mistress or something. Just doesn’t want to know. Scared she’ll have to find out.
“You see, building dreamcode is tedious stuff. But I figured out that if you can go lucid yourself, you can just build the dream in your own mind and record it, then you just transcribe that recording with a simple back-propagator, and boom. I made a few trillion before Night Corp and all the independents figured out how I was doing it. But by then I was set. Got into this end of the business more out of boredom than anything else.”
The scrape-program finished and Lucilius leaned in at the results. His eyebrows raised as he looked up at the woman again through the digi-screen.
“You, ah, know what you’re boy’s passkey for this dreamcode is? Cause the only other way I can get into this stuff is to dive in myself, and well, considering your boyfriend is still sleeping, that’s not exactly an option that excites me. No matter the price.”
“But I thought you were the best? That you could handle that sort of thing?”
“Yea, sure I can do it. Doesn’t mean I want to. Who knows what sort of messed up stuff your boy-toy is into – legal or not. You think I wanna close my eyes and suddenly find myself waist deep in something gross? Like I said lady, I don’t have to work. This is a favor to a friend, and because, well to be honest I was a little curious – no one these days is so paranoid to want a meeting IRL. But I’ve seen this sort of expensive encoded stuff before. I went into plenty of them when I still did contract work for the authorities. Put a lot of bad people in rehabilitation cycles, and nearly had to commit myself after all the crap I saw. And not just saw, mind you - you drop into one of these high-fidelity dream codes and you aren’t just witnessing it, you’re not just in it, you’re taking part in whatever they’ve got going on. And frankly, the tropical weather at my beach house up north in Scammon bay sounds a lot more accommodating to my present desires than going down some sick sociopath’s rabbit hole, not to mention some of this new stuff that I’ve been hearing about, this stuff about mouse-trap comas, rehabilitation code that’s been pirated to reverse condition people? Bad stuff. Either you don’t wake up, or you wake up a monster. Some part of you trapped behind your eyes just gets to watch as you zombie your way into some shoot out or into a rehabilitating cycle, and that’s only if you’re lucky. It’s why I stopped. Taught a few colleagues what I could do and saw one of them go down. Went down hard, and never made it back. ”
The woman looked more nervous. “So you can’t help?”
Lucilius shrugged. Funny way to phrase a paid service, he thought. “To be honest, I’ve never tried with this new terrorist stuff that’s coming online. And frankly, I don’t want to. Sure I’ve looked at the code, but approaching it from something that feels IRL, even in a dream that you can control, that’s a different story. There’s just no way to know what that’s going to be like.”
“I can pay anything you want.”
Lucilius smirked. “Sweetie, what’s the point of the money if I’m not around to use it?”
“So there’s nothing you can do?”
“If I had that passkey, I’d be able to find a weak detail in the dream code, write some of my own, inject it into the dream your boy toy is having and the whole thing would unravel naturally – he’d just wake up. But without access to the code, I’ve got nothing to work with.”
The woman sighed, deeply. She moved to take back the data dot. Lucilius raised a hand.
“Leave it with me, I’ll see if any ideas come to mind.”
“I’m going to take it to someone else.”
Lucilius gently shook his head. “There is no one else. Anyone stupid enough to take the risk is just going to hurt themselves, end up in a bad way, and you’ll get no answers either way. I’ll call you if I figure anything out.”
The woman turned to walk out. She aggressively opened the door, the tin blinds flying out and clacking back against the door’s window as she held it fast, looking halfway back. She looked as though she had something to say, but she clamped her lips and left, pulling the door shut.
Lucilius dragged his cigarette, tasting the sweet tobacco, eyeing the door to see if it would open again. After a few moments he gently picked up the analog phone.
“She gone?” he asked. “Ok, let’s go into full lock down.”
Lucilius hung up the phone and revived the digi-screen with the dreamcode. This was probably it, he thought. Lucilius had been tracking one particular coder, independent of the authorities that used to contract out his skills. There was someone out there coding some nasty stuff, promising to rid people of their secret perversions with private rehabilitation dream cycles. Cure by altered exposure. Stuff that attracted the wealthy, the famous, people who didn’t want to have the publicity of state rehabilitation. There was plenty of this stuff that was legal, essentially the dream version of cognitive behavioral therapy, getting rid of ticks, exposure therapy for PTSD, but for those who had inclinations that violated pornography laws or flagged insula dysregulation, or an entire host of other neurolaws, there was no legal way to address the problem without the fanfare of a state mandated rehabilitation cycle. Lucilius had been approached by plenty of these cases, and he took a few contracts to full term, but one particularly harrowing case clued him into something sinister that was happening. He began to come across dreamcodes that had been designed to ramp up people’s problems into addictions of such severity that it not only altered brain chemistry but was beginning to tamper with the shape and form of large scale brain structures. Whoever it was, Lucilius knew this coder was getting better, faster, and creating powerful programs that could augment brain activity to farther extremes. Lucilius was certain almost all of the coma cases and zombie terrorism cases stemmed from this single coder. Despite wildly different constructions and coding styles, Lucilius had been able to find subtle markers, sometimes things that he wasn’t always conscious of, but a hunch that it was all the same source, the same designer.
A woman, requiring an IRL meeting and flashing a release amount that big? No question this dreamcoder had gotten ahold of someone very important.
Lucilius opened a drawer in his desk where two interface electrodes sat in a custom inlay. Lucilius removed the dots and adhered them to his temples, he stood up briefly, and as he did the room disappeared, the lazy spinning fan, the coat rack, the embossed door, his desk, the liquor table, all vanished and Lucilius was standing on a pristine surface of water that extended to a brilliant horizon where a recently set sun cast up it’s final glow into a darkening sky. Lucilius floated as he brought his legs up from the water until he was suspended in a lotus position. From within the water a wide stone pillar emerged from beneath him, the water spilling away from the rock as it rose to Lucilius until he sat in meditation. With his eyes open, he initiated the foreign dreamcode.
Hours later he sat again at his desk, removing interface electrodes from his temples. He rubbed his eyes, breathing heavily. He’d barely made it out. It was the closest he’d ever been to getting lost.
“Sicko…” Lucilius breathed to himself. He removed the top of a heavy metal box and took out a cigarette. He pulled a rod from a silver ornament on his desk and the tip of it emerged with a spark and a flame. He kissed the flame to the end of his cigarette and then replaced the metal match. Then he leaned forward, flipped his keyboard open, called up a blank digi-screen and began his work.
The woman was quick to return when Lucilius’ secretary called to have her back in. She asked if she could come immediately, but Lucilius made her wait a day.
When the door finally opened, Lucilius pretended to be busy with other work, inspecting some elementary code as though it were confusing him. The woman was in red this time, the room in color now, the lazy fan above a deep black. She was unflustered by her instant change in attire, but went straight at Lucilius before his desk.
“Did you figure something out?”
He didn’t even glance at her. “Yea, all good, just take the dot back and run it on your hubby with additional electrodes. Should crack his coma. He’ll be fine.”
“What…” the woman hesitated, Lucilius broke his concentration to look at her, seeing her eyes moving laterally along the back of the code on his transparent digi-screen, before they clapped to his own with nervousness. “What did you find?”
“You sure you wanna know?”
The woman thought for a brief moment, then nodded, as though with mustered courage.
Lucilius gently shook his head. “I seen this plenty, best not to know, and just hope he gets the treatment he needs.”
The woman looked perplexed. A little suspicious. “Can I at least know if the code he had commissioned was, well, was he trying to get better or was it… was it for…”
Her words trailed off as she let consideration of the worst to fill the space between her and Lucilius.
Dragging his cigarette, he ashed it, sighing smoke. He squinted up at her. “Well since this was malicious code, there’s really no way to tell what your boy toy was asking for. Could have been either way. You’ll have to ask him when he wakes up.”
The woman bit her lip gently, nervously. She picked up the data dot.
“What do I owe you?”
Lucilius waved his hand. “On the house, easy stuff, I didn’t have to dive or anything. I found a flaw in the encoding, cracked it no problem, no risk. Method actually came to me in a dream. Took 10 minutes.”
The woman looked perturbed, almost angry, and Lucilius smiled. “It’s an easy mistake for amateur coders to make. We got lucky, otherwise there would have been no way to bring your hubby back.”
The woman held his gaze with a look that was hard to parse. She turned and walked to the door. She hesitated again with it open. Unable to look all the way back at Lucilius as she stuttered.
“Thank you,” she said.
The door closed, and Lucilius chuckled to himself.
Hours later there was a knock at his door. It opened without permission and a mustached man waltzed in comfortably. Lucilius looked up, smiling.
“Chief?” Lucilius said in acknowledgement.
“Had a strange day,” the sergeant said as he poured a couple whiskies at Lucilius’ bar. But he left them there, and turned to Lucilius.
“Oh yea?” Lucilius playfully prodded.
The sergeant looked at him with annoyance. “Yea, had a woman walk in with over a thousand data dots of malicious dreamcode and turned herself in. Had a piece of paper pinned to her shirt that said ‘I is a coder.’”
Lucilius burst out laughing. “That certainly is a hell of a day.”
The sergeant was nodding in annoyance. “That was you, wasn’t it?”
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
The sergeant shook his head and picked up the whiskies, and handed one to Lucilius, and the older man sighed. “I had an entire department tracking her, how’d you do it?”
Lucilius shrugged. “I’ve just been playing the game longer, I knew what breadcrumbs to leave so that she’d come to me. The ones like that, they just want to prove they’re better, more clever or something. It’s not too hard to use that urge to get them to wrap themselves up.”
The sergeant nodded. “Predatory prey,” he said. “I sure do miss having you do it legal, but under this law, I guess it’s better to have you off grid.”
The two clicked glasses and drank, and the old friends sat and reminisced over the early days, catching up with new stories and wondering what the future held. Eventually the sergeant left and Lucilius was left to himself smiling at the deed.
He looked around the room. He’d had enough of this decor, this old smoke-room style. It was time to go back home, to the tall trees and gentle surf up north. He focused his intention on the setting that enveloped him, guiding his own concentration to the change that he sought to make. It was time to wake up, he thought, and he breathed deeply and slowly in order to bring this dream world to an end.
The edges of the room flickered, the walls fluttering in their place, and then they settled back, as though solid. Lucilius looked around, and then focused his attention again. The walls, their edges, the floor and the ceiling, all of it shuttered, as though vibrating, and the more he concentrated in order to disrupt the dream, the more violently the space shook in order to stay in place.
Lucilius relaxed and sat back in the chair, listening to it creak.
He looked around at this familiar room, now strange to him, and he slowly smiled.
“Interesting,” he said out loud to himself and to whoever might be listening.
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