Back | Next


Fordon Raskin settled himself in a reclining chair before the Kumitso 5000 and jacked in. A long hallway appeared before him, white-tiled floor and walls glowing in comforting light green. Ahead of him was a door marked WAITING ROOM. He reached out a hand more slender than his own and opened the door to find the construct waiting for him on a white angora couch. “Hello, John,” he said.

“Is it time, Doctor Raskin?” asked John.

“Yes, it is. Are you ready?”

“Oh yes. I’ve been looking forward to working with you again.”

“Then let us begin,” said Gordon.

The woman slouching in a wheelchair in his waiting room was still pretty, despite her recent ordeal. Shoulders hunched, she stared down at bandaged wrists crossed tensely in her lap. Beneath the bandages six carefully stitched slashes were beginning to heal, remnants of a serious attempt to end a life of only thirty-two years. “Good morning, Meg,” said Gordon brightly. “Ready to do some real work today?”

Megan Oslar did not look up. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I don’t think I’m up to this today.”

“Well, it’s your choice, but I think we need to move ahead as quickly as possible. Where’s David?”

She looked up at him with light blue eyes in a delicately-boned face. “He had to go to work. I don’t know why he bothers with me anymore.”

“I think it’s because he’s fond of you, Meg. It shows in his eyes when he’s with you.”

“Well then he’s crazy, too.” She looked down again. “I seem to attract crazy men.”

“Like John,” said Gordon.

“Yes — like John.” She looked up again, with tears in her eyes. “I will try again, you know. You can’t keep me here forever, and sooner or later I’ll —”

“— join a seriously ill, suicidal husband in his grave. Is that what you really want, Meg?” asked Gordon.

“Why not? I killed him.”

“He killed himself. You didn’t pull the trigger, and neither did I. I worked with John for three years, but his illness was too advanced. I did what I could, but it wasn’t enough and I own no guilt for that. Neither do you. Will you let me help you?”

Tears were streaming down her face. “If it will get me out of here, then go ahead. I don’t care anymore.”

Gordon wheeled her down a short hallway to the Virtual Therapy lab and closed the door behind them. An air-conditioner hummed in the cramped, dimly-lit space, a salty odor coming from the stacks of biochip modules forming the parallel processing network of the Kumitso 5000. Walls and ceilings were acoustically insulated with white poly-foam, and there was a chill in the room. Gordon turned off the air-conditioner as Megan got out of the wheelchair and settled herself into one of two recliner chairs before the keyboard of the Kumitso. Each chair was equipped with input gloves, boots, bust box and body blanket. Megan pulled the bust box down to her shoulders, inserted hands and feet as Gordon smoothed the body blanket over her, pressing gently to meet the contours of her chest and legs. “Okay?” he asked. “No discomfort?”

“No,” said Megan, voice muffled by the bust box.

“Relax, then, while I get myself ready.” He sat down on the adjoining chair so she could hear the fabric crunch under his weight and imagine him settling himself as she had done. She would not see him lift the flap of white hair and plas-flesh at the base of his skull to patch in directly to the matrix, a sight he had learned early in his long career was horribly disturbing to patients. “Ready, now,” he said. “Let’s take a little tour of the matrix.”

Gordon’s fingers played the keyboard. He sat on the edge of the chair and closed his eyes. “Here we go — together, this time.”

They were standing on a sidewalk before a wooden house painted white with terra-cotta trim. Flower beds fronted the house and the lawn was neatly clipped. “That’s my house,” said Megan, turning to look at him. “Doctor Raskin? You — you look different.”

Gordon laughed. “About fifteen years different. I’ve taken some liberties with the program, a little therapy for myself you might say. Shall we look around inside?”

Megan nodded, they went up the walkway to the porch and climbed three steps. “Muffin!” cried Megan.

A dark gray cat, tail raised, pranced up to Megan and mewed for attention.

“I think she wants to be held,” said Gordon.

Haltingly, Megan reached down, then swept the cat into her arms, holding it close. “Hello, Muffin,” she said, and the cat purred. “I can even feel her warmth.”

Gordon smiled. “Shall we go inside?” He opened the door for her and followed her into a room with thick, white carpet and furniture upholstered in vine tendrils and colorful flowers. There was a fireplace, paintings and shelves of knick-knacks lining the walls. Megan looked around in wonderment. “It’s all here,” she said. “Even my frogs.” Still holding Muffin she reached out and touched a tiny glass figurine on a crowded shelf.

They strolled through the house: a dining room with crystal chandelier, a dimly-lit study smelling of leather, the bedroom with brass bed and oak furnishings, a digital kitchen in white. When they reached the back of the house, Muffin suddenly squirmed and Megan put her down, the cat trotting down a hall and around a corner ahead of them. They passed a mirror and Megan was startled. “That’s me?”

“Yes,” said Gordon, his image appearing beside hers. “No tricks, Megan. That’s what you look like to me, David, everyone who knows you. You’re a very attractive woman, you know. I don’t look bad myself, come to think of it. Hi there, handsome.” Gordon licked a finger, ran it over a dark eyebrow and Megan smiled. “Lovely,” he said. “Lovely and young, with everything in the world to live for.” Gordon took her by the elbow and they started down the hall again. Suddenly, Megan froze in place.

“Can we leave, now? We’ve seen everything and I’m getting tired.”

“Well — there’s the sun room yet.”

“I’ve closed it off. There’s nothing to see there, and —”

“I’ve opened it again, Megan. What are you afraid of?”

“It’s where John spent all his time. It’s where he...” Her voice cracked.

“That’s in the past, Megan. Nothing can hurt you in there. Nothing.” He grasped her arm warmly, urged her ahead and around a corner. The back door to the house was directly ahead and halfway along the hall, to the left, a glass double-door, one ajar. Muffin sat in front of the doors, mewing at them. She squeezed through the narrow opening and out of their view.

As they approached the doors Megan grabbed his arm and held on tightly. “Please — please, I’d like to go back. I don’t want to go in there.”

“Trust me, Meg, I’m with you all the way and you’re never alone. Never. These are electric dreams, Meg, matrix dreams, and dreams can be good. Dreams help us sort things out, get new perspectives, solve problems. We’re here to solve a problem, so let’s do it. No more pleasant games, but real work.” Gordon reached for the double doors, Meg leaning away from him, eyes wide. He pushed the doors open and guided her inside a bright room lit by sunlight streaming through two large windows facing east and south. Beyond the east window were vine covered fir trees and undergrowth spotted with red and yellow flowers. A bird darted past the window, hurrying south. Packed bookshelves lined the third wall and before these was an oak desk. A handsome man in his thirties sat behind the desk, holding Muffin to his chest with one hand, the cat purring loudly, eyes closed.

“Hello, Meg,” said the man. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again.”

Megan screamed — and bounced off walls in her flight down the hallway.

“Oh, dear,” said the man.

Gordon looked up at the ceiling. “Pause!” he said.

Gordon jacked out.

Meg had freed one hand and was tearing at the bust box, her shrieks of terror continuous. The lab door flew open and Nora, his nurse, stepped inside. “One cee-cee of Phanistine-two-fifty stat,” he ordered, and Nora fled from the room. He grabbed Meg’s hand and held tightly, sliding the bust-box up so she could see him. “There we are, real-time, no dreams. I’m here, Meg, I’m here. Take it easy. It’s all right, nothing can hurt you.”

She was crying softly, pitifully, when Nora came back with a syringe and gave her an injection, Gordon all the time talking in soothing tones, holding her firmly. In a moment the hysteria was gone, her breath coming in little hiccups.

“How could you do that to me?” she said. “You said you wanted to help. You said —”

“I said we needed to get to work and that’s what we were doing. All right, I didn’t warn you we’d be meeting John in the matrix, but if I had warned you, you wouldn’t have made the trip! The things you have to work out have to be worked out with John, Meg. I can’t do it for you, and neither can the sim you just ran away from. You have to take an active part, and as soon as you’re rested a little we’re going back in there. Okay? You with me on this?”

“He was so real,” said Megan. “It — it frightened me.”

“I understand. He is John, really, the product of three years of interviewing, a sum of all the rational moments when I could really get him to talk. All the feelings, memories, good and bad are there. Beneath the illness he was a good man, Meg. I want you to talk to him, tell him what you feel, what has happened to you. He’s a construct of a man you once loved, a man who loved you back and then put you through hell. Talk to him about it, Meg. Talk to the rational, loving John you didn’t have the last three years of your married life. Do it for yourself!”

Her breathing had slowed. She sniffed and looked at him solemnly. “In a few minutes, if you’ll wait with me. I’m just now relaxing a little.”

“Okay, I’m sitting right here until you’re ready.” Gordon squeezed her hand, and she sighed.

Ten minutes later they reentered the matrix.

They were in front of her house again and went inside without a word. Muffin trotted ahead of them, down the hall and around the corner to the sun room where someone was whistling a tune by Bach. Gordon opened the glass doors and ushered Megan inside to face the sim now perched on the edge of the desk, smiling. “Hello again,” he said. “Hope you can stay a little longer this time.” He laughed a rich sound, eyes twinkling.

Megan swallowed hard. “Hello — John,” she said.

“Ah, that’s my girl,” said John. “A bit strange, all of this, but I’m as real as you want me to be, and you — well, you look real to me — just the way I remember — when I was remembering things, that is.” His laugh seemed nervous this time, movement jerky as he shrugged his shoulders. “Well, would you like to talk to me now, or some other time? Gordon can stay if he likes, but I’d prefer to at least feel as if we’re alone. By the way, doctor, your new persona is quite flattering.”

“Thank you,” said Gordon. “Meg, if it’s okay with you, I’ll sit out on the porch and just listen. I can see and hear everything from there and you need to go one-on-one with John.” Her hand was trembling when he squeezed it.

Gordon backed out of the room, around a corner, a step to the door construct which led to nothing but white light. He outlined a box shape by the door, fingered a sequence of four numbers with one hand and a ledge appeared on which he sat to listen.

There was a pause, then John said; “This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Megan, “it is. What are we supposed to do now?”

“Talk,” said John. “Get to know each other again, remember some good things, then find out what really happened to me that night.”

“You know about me, what — what I tried to do?”

“Yes. That’s the problem we’re here to solve, but not too quickly. Tell me, Meg, do you remember the good times we had before — well, before the illness first showed itself?”

Another pause, then Megan said; “Yes, I remember some things, but they seem a long time ago.”

“Tell me about the good memories, Meg, and I’ll tell you mine. Good things before the bad.”

Gordon leaned forward as they began to talk, slowly at first, then early memories of courtship and marriage coming forth in a rush. Soft talk, and he could feel the smiles, hear Meg laugh at a joke they shared. For nearly an hour they went on like that, Gordon feeling a little guilty, an eavesdropper peering into private lives. The program seemed to be proceeding without flaw until suddenly the sim’s voice seemed to fade and he heard Megan gasp. “Oh, no,” she said. “No!”

Gordon jumped to the room. Meg had backed up to the door, hands covering her face, staring at the construct now slouched in the chair, chin down on its chest. “No, no, no...” cried Meg, and the sun-lit garden beyond the window flickered wildly, replaced by blackness rolling in like fog, swirling, something huge and winged swirling with it, striking the window, then gone. Gordon reached for Megan, but her image dissolved before his eyes, her terrified face the last part of her to disappear.

Gordon sighed. “I think you’re doing creative things with the program again, John,” he said.

The construct’s chin didn’t move from his chest. “Trust me,” said John.

Megan sat on the edge of the recliner, feet dangling above the floor, fingers twisting together in her lap. She had spent the previous night sedated and restrained in bed, nurses scurrying twice to answer her screams in a restless sleep. Gordon took her hand. “You’re a courageous woman, Meg. If you want to wait some more, I understand.”

“No,” she said, and the fire in her eyes encouraged him. “It was real, the way it really was, one minute lively and charming, the next totally withdrawn. I just wasn’t expecting it — in there.”

“It surprised me, too,” said Gordon, “but it isn’t the first time. The sim is taking a direction I haven’t programmed, Meg; it’s functioning like any good AI system should, synthesizing, adjusting to new input. I don’t know what to expect when we go in there again. Do you remember saying something special before John changed character?”

“Yes,” said Megan instantly. “I had just said I wished we’d had children. It was as if I’d struck him dumb. He folded up, went into his shell— just like he used to. He never could talk about having children, even when we were first married, before — before things started getting bad. I don’t think he wanted to be a father.”

Gordon patted her hand and smiled. Despite a horrible night of tortured sleep, she was alert, a little angry, no longer withdrawn. Finally there was a will to fight, perhaps even a will to live. “Ask him about that, Megan. Have the courage to wait out his response, no matter what. He’s trying to tell us something in a way I’ve had no part in determining. Let it happen. I’ll be right there with you.”

Megan sighed, her lips pressed together in a thin line. “Let’s do it, then,” she said grimly.

Gordon prepared her for entry to the matrix, and jacked himself in —

— to find them standing exactly where they had left the sun room, light dim, swirling inky mist beyond the east window. John was where they had left him, slouched in the chair behind the desk, chin on chest. He raised his head slowly and Gordon felt Megan huddle close, grasping his arm with two hands and holding on. John’s eyes were dark hollows in a sallow face, his voice a monotone, without emotion.

“There was a question to be answered,” said John. “A question about children, I believe.”

“I only said I wished we’d had children,” said Megan softly. “I didn’t intend for you to —”

“The window looks into my soul. Search for the things hiding there and you’ll understand. You’ll understand my illness, my death, all of it.”

Gordon stared at the window and saw nothing but swirling mist, but something else had been there before, hitting the glass, trying to get through to them. “There’s nothing there but fog, John,” he said.

“Listen — and watch,” said the sim. “Both of you.”

Nothing was there.

“Meg?” said John.


“That night you first said you loved me — I was frightened — terrified, really. I was frightened about what could happen to you — I wanted to run away, but — but Meg — I wanted you so badly — I loved you so much. You brought the first real joy into my life.”

Beyond the window the fog evaporated, sunlit trees and flowers appearing again, birds flitting to and fro. The constructs of a man and woman, without faces, appeared beneath the trees, pressed together in an embrace.

“I was selfish,” said John. “I thought that having you, loving you would change me — wipe out the past. I was wrong, Meg, horribly wrong. My parents were too strong, the thing inside me too — too horrible to pass on. I couldn’t tell you about it because I was afraid of losing you. So young and full of love and you wanted a child I couldn’t give you and couldn’t — no, wouldn’t explain why. It was cruel.”

“Your parents were dead, John. How could they influence you? Why couldn’t you talk to your wife?” said Megan angrily. “I went through hell with you! I have a right to know!”

The trees, flowers, the embracing couple outside the window were dissolving into shimmering pixels like crystals of snow, a gray fog swirling in to replace them. The light in the room dimmed, John looking down at his hands twisting nervously in his lap. “Doctor Raskin,” he said softly, “you once said you’d like to get into my head, and I told you no, you wouldn’t like it in there. Do you remember that?”

“Yes,” said Gordon, “and you wouldn’t talk about your parents. I had to get that from medical records. I think I know where you’re going with this.”

John looked up, a cadaverous grin on his face. “Ah, there you are. I’m the simulacrum of John as you understood him, as you entered him in the matrix, but there’s more to it than that, so much more to be found from the subtleties and innuendoes of the conversations. You are limited, Doctor Raskin, the matrix is not. I’ve put it all together for you and it’s out there now, beyond the window, waiting to show itself. Do you dare to look at it, either of you? Do you dare to get into my head?”

“I need to know why you killed yourself,” said Megan softly. “I need to know if I had anything to do with it.”

John gave her a questioning look. “Let us begin,” he said, and Gordon frowned.

The fog outside was now a black, suffocating mass sliding across the window, eddies appearing in bizarre shapes and hurrying on. Within the inky cloud something glowing green took form, moved towards them, swaying, then jerking in sudden, random spasms. Gordon felt Megan lean close, grasping his hand in an iron grip. The figure approaching the window was a man, eyes bulging from a bloated face, tongue lolling, and around his neck was a noose of fine wire, the end stretching out of sight above the window. The wire had cut deep into an artery and blood was spewing forth, splattering the window as the man fought, hands clawing at metal buried in flesh. His strangled cry echoed dully in the room.

“Help me! Get me down!” A violent convulsion, blood erupting from his mouth and streaming down the window.

Megan groaned, her image beginning to break up. “No!” shouted Gordon. “Matrix dreams, Megan, stay with it this time! John’s father was a paranoid schizophrenic who committed suicide when his son was only four years old. You found him like that, didn’t you John? You found him near death and you couldn’t help him, couldn’t lift his weight or move that oil drum he’d jumped from in the basement!”

John smiled.

The man who had been John’s father spasmed and bled at the end of his metal tether and behind him a new image was forming: a child, a boy, arms stretched above his head, held there by cords reaching out of sight, the child struggling, kicking his feet and screaming; “Mommy, Mommy! Noooo, Mommy!” A bat-winged creature hurled itself at him, striking again and again, leaving bloody tears on his face and body, flying close to the window one time and giving them a horrible grin.

It had the head of a woman.

Gordon squeezed Megan’s hand tightly as she groaned again. “Also in the record! You were five, your mother had no history of mental illness, but one morning she tied you to a light fixture in the kitchen and turned on the gas for the stove before she —”

— One final apparition was forming in the swirling cloud outside while the dying man danced and the child struggled, cries mingling together. The apparition was an obese woman staggering towards them, a huge knife in one hand. Her head hung to one side at a peculiar angle, nearly severed from her neck by a single stroke of the razor-sharp blade. She held the blade out before her, grinning crazily, saying; “Come with meeee... Come with mommiii...” The woman slammed against the window, attacking the glass, clawing and striking, the blade shrieking against the barrier before her intended victims. Gordon’s ears were bursting from Megan’s shrill screams as she clung solidly to him with claws that bit hard. The apparition slid down the window and out of sight, leaving behind a trail of red gore.

“The neighbors heard his screams,” shouted Gordon. “They broke in and found his mother lying below his feet in a pool of blood. She had taken her own life and would have taken his as well if —”

“John! What’s that for?!”

The construct was smiling at them, a snub-nose revolver cocked and pressed against his own right temple.

“No!” screamed Megan, sprinting forward.

The gun’s hammer fell— and there was a sharp click.

“Bang,” said John.

“Damn you!” Megan knocked the gun away furiously and grabbed John by the shoulders, shaking him. “I want to know about that last night! What were you thinking that last night?”

“You’ve just seen it,” said John, sitting up, alert again, and outside the window the flowers and trees had suddenly returned with a flood of light. “My nightmare was continuous at the end.”

“That night!” screamed Megan. “I came back from mother’s house and told you I couldn’t take it any more. I told you I was filing for a divorce. You just sat there while I packed and left! You didn’t even ask me to stay!”

John shook his head, looking confused.

“He doesn’t remember that, Meg,” said Gordon softly. “The nightmare had consumed him totally by that time, and also the next morning when he came in for his last session with me. What we just saw beyond the window is from that last session, just before John went home and shot himself, only an hour before you returned and found him —”

“Oh, God,” sobbed Megan, “you didn’t know — and I just told you —”

“Matrix dreams, Meg,” said Gordon. “John is dead.”

Megan leaned over the sim, her hands on his shoulders. “But I came back to tell you I’d decided to stay — to help you fight this thing. I couldn’t leave you...”

Megan burst into tears.

John stood up, hugged her. “Oh, Meg, dear Meg, willing to sacrifice her happiness for a man who’d been dead since childhood, locked in a dream of horror and blood. You would have stayed with that man. Isn’t she wonderful, Doctor Raskin?”

“Yes, she is,” said Gordon. “She’s an extraordinary person.”

John held Meg at arm’s length. “But you were wrong to come back. There was only one way out for both of us, and I took it. I made the choice, and I stand by it, and now I want you to make a choice. I want you to get on with your life, find what or who you want and grab on tight. Do it, Meg.” He shook her gently, then pulled her close again, his voice a near whisper.

“I’m only a construct, Meg, a simulacrum of a sick man who loved you deeply, but couldn’t show it, and I’m thinking — I’m thinking about how wonderful it would be to be real with you.”

“END,” said Gordon, and he jacked out.

Megan was crying as he removed the bust box. They talked for a while, then she brushed away her tears and hugged him tightly. He wheeled her down to the waiting room where David was waiting. As the young man stood up, looking worried, Megan leapt from the wheelchair and threw herself into his arms. “Oh, David!” she cried, crushing him to her. “David, David — take me home.”

She was released from the hospital at noon.

Gordon returned to the Virtual Therapy Lab after lunch, carrying a thick file under one arm. He placed the file next to the keyboard and jacked in.

John was waiting for him on the couch in the waiting room, looking up from a magazine when Gordon entered. “Where’s Megan?” he asked.

“Getting on with her life like you told her to do,” said Gordon, smiling.

“It worked out, then? I played the part well?”

“You did a fine job, John. You saved another human life today. Thank you.”

“And now?”

“I have someone new for you, a young man whose father died in a plane crash. They have an old hurt between them that needs to be mended. You will be Arthur Hoyle, the father.”

“So — disassembly, and rebirth. Will I know you, Doctor Raskin?”

Gordon chuckled. “You always ask that and you always know me, John. I’m a part of you.”

“Good. I really enjoy working with you, Doctor Raskin, but this next assignment — will it be soon?”

“I’ll begin assembly in one hour real time. That’s a long time in the matrix, John.”

“I don’t mind, Doctor Raskin. I have some dreams of my own to experience while I’m waiting.”

Gordon gestured with his hand, the blue wall opposite him brightening to a dazzling glow, then disappearing to reveal a wide hallway beyond, and at the end of the hall, silhouetted in bright light, was the figure of a woman. “Good-bye, Doctor Raskin,” said John. He got up from the couch and walked quickly into the hallway.

“Goodbye, John—and tell Meg hello for me.”

Gordon jacked out.

He settled himself before the keyboard of the Kumitso 5000, opened the manila file he’d placed there, and studied its contents for over an hour. And when he’d decided on what would be the most meaningful therapy scenario, he pulled his chair closer, his fingers poised over the keyboard.

“Now — let us begin,” he said.

Back | Next