The Worlds of My Desire
An active fantasy life isn't always such a healthy thing.
All Gaul was divided into three parts--and I was about to lose them all. Which was not the way it was supposed to happen.
I was reliving the conquest of Gaul (the interesting parts, anyway), and for a while things had gone my way. I had just taken command, you might say, of the armies of Caesar, when the Aedui--treacherous brutes--renounced their alliance, took my base at Soissons, and prepared to drive me back to my--I mean, Caesar's--province. All of which had my men mightily disturbed, stoic Romans that they were.
The situation looked grim, but of course I knew what was to come next--the conquest of Gaul, and later, Rome. But I wasn't interested in that part at the moment. As Caesar had once done, I gave orders to march on Alesia, where word had it that an army of Gauls was gathering.
And as I had wanted, I found myself caught up in the moment: the desperate march of an embattled army, racing through country filled with foes--quite exhilarating, even though I always knew, deep down, that I was never going to be in any physical danger at all. When was the last time you were truly hurt by your fantasy?
Things began to go wrong after we reached Alesia.
My army and that of the Gauls were of about the same size; that made the Gauls reluctant to fight. Instead, they holed up in their city, hoping that help would arrive. So far, I had followed known history to the letter (even though that was not really necessary). As my army laid siege to the town, I called my lieutenants together, to prepare for the great battle to come.
I had just had my headquarters set up--a big, leather tent, half my living quarters, the other half a workspace, mostly taken up by a large table covered with maps of Gaul and recent dispatches. A half-dozen of my aides and I were seated around this table, discussing tactics, when a messenger rushed in, still breathing heavily.
"There's an army of Gauls coming," he gasped. "And it's big."
I raised an eyebrow. I knew this army would come, but this was sooner than I expected. "How many?" I asked.
"Almost two hundred thousand," he said, wincing.
One of the officers--I didn't see which one--gave a low whistle at this figure. Mostly they remained calm, but I could see by the flicker of their eyes that the messenger had certainly gained their attention.
"General?" said the one seated to my immediate left.
"Yes, Marcus Antonius?" I don't remember if Mark Antony had actually been there or not, in history, but it pleased my fancy to think that he might have been.
"I hate to say this, but perhaps we ought to retreat. The men will fight to their last breath, of course, but against so many..." He left it there, clearly uncomfortable.
I frowned; it seemed out of character for Mark Antony to make such a suggestion. (Though of course, he was a good general in his own right, and was perfectly capable of counting.) At any rate, it jarred my suspension of disbelief, and I didn't like making mistakes like that.
So I sighed, and said, "That would indeed be prudent. However, we have already been forced to retreat once. All of Gaul is now in open revolt. If we retreat now, we have lost Gaul. And we must not lose Gaul--at the very least, Gaul must serve as a buffer against the Germans. Not to mention that the Gauls have shown themselves capable of attacking Rome on their own account. Gaul must be pacified, and it must be pacified now." Then I smiled at them. "Do not fear too much, men--remember that Caesar's fortune is with you."
The men filed out, unexpectedly cheerful at that pronouncement. They really believed that stuff.
Now, what happened in real history was that Caesar's army sandwiched themselves between two walls of earth, the inner wall surrounding the city, which was still besieged, and the outer defending against the Gauls coming to lay siege to the present besiegers. After about a week of futile attacks, the Gauls outside gave up and left, being relatively feckless and low on supplies. The starving Gauls inside the siege then gave up their chieftain, and Gaul was from then on territory of Rome.
Well, this time it didn't turn out like that at all.
My hackles went up immediately when I saw how quiet and disciplined they were. In previous battles, I had seen them wild and barbaric, reckless, quick to attack but also quick to run away when outnumbered or outfought. These Gauls took their time arraying themselves against our ramparts, waiting for the word to attack.
Then all at once they charged us, silently. They usually screamed bloody murder. Two hundred thousand screaming Gauls would have been bad enough, but this was worse, somehow. The way they charged, all in step together, and silent, like zombies--truly creepy.
Then they opened up on us. With rifles.
Can you picture a barbaric Gaul, trousered, wearing torcs and ornaments of gold, hair and beard streaming behind him as he charges you--with a fucking rifle in his hands?
I despise anachronisms. Some people enjoy them, but God, I hate them.
And now I have to admit that I am really no general. By the time I caught my breath, half my army had been mowed down, with hardly a Gaul injured. Even when a Gaul did go down, felled by the occasional javelin or arrow, the others paid no mind, but just kept firing. And just then those bastards inside the city charged out to join the battle. And yes, they had rifles too.
Up until now, I had done nothing really extraordinary, aside from re-creating the battle in the first place. Now, I did what I could to resist the Gauls, though the attack was so swift the battle was already nearly lost.
I found that if I concentrated, hard, on a group of my soldiers, the bullets would do them no harm, and they could attack the Gauls. But there were still just too many barbarians attacking, and I couldn't focus on all my soldiers at once. Here and there, desperate bands of soldiers held out for a time; but there was no victory to be had here, only a brave death.
Inside an hour, the battle was over, lost. I was the only Roman left standing. All the others were dead.
The Gauls didn't celebrate, though. In fact, they made little noise at all; they just slung their rifles over their shoulders and began drifting away.
Except for two, who approached me, rifles trained on my midsection. Not that weapons would do them any good against me--I had already been through the thick of the battle, unscathed.
"Come with us," said one.
"Where?" I said.
"Our leader would meet with you."
"Your leader, eh?" I said, sardonically. I had a pretty good idea who this might be.
After a moment, I said, "All right. I have a few things to say to him myself." Outwardly calm, I had the desire to commit serious mayhem on their busybody leader.
"Follow us," they said, and we left the field of carnage. It all seemed to dissolve into mist behind us as we walked.
Gradually, we approached a cluster of tents--one of the Gallic camps, no doubt. It had been bright and sunny out, but as we approached the camp the sky seemed to become more overcast and gloomy. A perfect match to my mood.
We passed through the camp. I saw more silent Gauls about, eating, drinking, some incongruously cleaning their weapons. As sour as my mood was, I had to grin wryly at that.
The largest tent seemed to be the headquarters of their leader. Two men, big even for Gauls, guarded the entrance. One of them nodded to my escort as we passed within.
Two tent flaps had been pulled back to light the interior. There were two more big Gauls, flanking a crude wooden chair. And seated on this chair was a rather small man, clean-shaven (unlike the Gauls), leaning back in rumpled tweed, eyes twinkling at the sight of me, clearly pleased with himself.
I felt like decking him. Instead, I let my breath out in one long, exasperated sigh, and said, "Dr. Friedman."
"Hello, Dan." Then he said, a bit melodramatically, "So, we meet again!"
I couldn't help it; I had to wince at that awful old line. The man just has no imagination at all.
The first time I met Dr. Friedman, I was building a city in ancient Egypt.
I was being Pharaoh for a little while. I had begun at Cairo--not actually an Egyptian city, but I wasn't being picky about historical accuracy--and passed through it to the road leading to the Pyramids; I stood on the summit of the Great Pyramid of Cheops for a long time, gazing out over the sand. I also saw the Sphinx--I didn't like that it didn't have its nose, so I put the nose back on. Then I sailed down the Nile at my leisure, down to Memphis, the most ancient capital of Egypt, then to Luxor, and finally down to Karnak, sixty acres of the mightiest temples ever dedicated to any gods. And everywhere I went, I made Egypt look not as it does now, but as it must have in its days of glory. I strained my imagination to the limit. And when I returned to Upper Egypt, I decided to try building my own city. Why not? It was my Egypt; it was my dream.
I assembled a typical complement of slaves and granite blocks and architects, but I could see right away that building my city would take about twenty years. Well, that wouldn't do; so I made some of the slaves "super size," and made the others work much, much more quickly than humanly possible. The city began to grow before my very eyes.
By noon, I could see the outlines of my city. The giants were stacking up great blocks of granite, and the other slaves were blurs of motion, raising obelisks and covering every available surface with hieroglyphics. There was going to be a great wall around the city when it was done, with sphinxes guarding every gate, temples and palaces faced with marble and filled with gold, lush and intricate gardens crammed with statuary, and beyond the city walls, to the west, solemn tombs suitable for the greatest of long-dead kings. A fitting city in every way for a Pharaoh, and one I would explore by evening, perhaps.
That's about when Dr. Friedman arrived.
He came dressed as an explorer--khaki shirt and shorts, pith helmet. Very similar to what I was wearing, really. I suppose we both looked out of place, what with all the slaves running about in their loincloths, and the overseers and architects in their Egyptian gear, but I couldn't bear to put on the Pharaoh outfit in this heat (I honestly didn't think of lowering the heat at the time). This guy who just didn't belong was coming right toward me. I supposed I would hear his story before long.
I frowned. When I bought the dream chip, I had been warned that things like this might happen. "The Ultimate in Virtual Reality," they had called it, and the implant almost lived up to its hype. But, I had been warned, occasionally my subconscious would spontaneously throw up images out of sync with my dreams. Obviously, this man was such a character.
I watched all this from a seat upon a high dais I had made. There were seats for maybe two or three people, and a low table upon which rested a tray of suitably royal delicacies, and of course my queen sat beside me, watching the city rise. She didn't seem to mind the heat, royal outfit or no.
My new arrival walked right up and sat down next to me, without even asking, which annoyed me to no end. "Hello, Dan," he said.
I drew myself up haughtily. "Who are you, to address Pharaoh as a familiar?" I felt I had to stay in character, even with this oddball.
He smiled at me, and spent a few minutes checking out my city. Up close, I could see that he was actually a short, wiry guy, with moist, brown eyes that seemed to bug out slightly. Actually, he looked a little bit like me, even if you don't consider the explorer outfit. "That's quite a city," he said, finally.
"It will be."
"I'll bet the real Egyptians could have used a few of those fellows," he said, pointing to one of my giants.
"They seemed to do all right on their own."
"I suppose they did at that."
"You know," I said, "you really don't belong here. So you may go now." Brusque, I know, but it was my dream. Besides, simply dismissing out of place characters often worked.
But not this time. "Dan," he said, "do you know where you have been for the past three weeks?" He said this in a very unctuous tone--like when a talk-show host tries to draw out a reticent guest.
I was going to get tired of this guy real fast, I could see. "I've done a lot of traveling. China. Paris. Mars. And now Egypt, as you can see."
"No, Dan," he said, smiling sadly, "for the past three weeks you've been in a coma at Massachusetts General Hospital. You're suffering from dream-chip addiction. And it's way past time for you to snap out of it."
"Says who?" I sneered. I hate being patronized by my own dream.
"I'm Dr. Friedman. I'm a psychiatrist. And I'm not part of your dream, Dan. I'm interfacing with your implant, through my own. Here, let me show you." Suddenly, the desert was gone, and we found ourselves standing in a hospital room. Very dim, after the desert, and hushed, save for the beeping of some medical gadget or other. I turned and saw myself lying in bed, IV needle dripping into my arm; a second Friedman sat in a nearby chair, this one not in explorer khaki, eyes closed, head back in slumber. Our dozing doppelgangers both had electrodes stuck on their foreheads and temples. A very concerned looking nurse stood nearby, monitoring a computer console.
I didn't like this scene, so I shut my eyes and began spinning.
After several seconds of this, I heard Friedman say, "What are you doing?"
I stopped and opened my eyes, saw I was still in the hospital room. "I was spinning. You know."
But I could see he didn't.
"Sometimes spinning is enough to trigger a change in the dream scenery," I explained, suddenly feeling foolish.
"Oh. I didn't know that."
"You must not be much of a doctor, if you don't even know that about using your dream chip."
"Well, to tell you the truth," he said, grinning sheepishly, "you're my first case of dream-chip addiction."
"Wonderful. And I'm not any `case' of yours. You're probably part of my dream too."
Friedman raised a finger, as though conceding the point. "But even if I am just part of your dream, what harm is there in listening?"
I thought it over. "All right," I said, finally, taking a seat. "I'll listen--for a while. I want to be back in Danopolis by nightfall, though."
"Oh, of course." Friedman rested his chin in his hand for a few moments, then: "Consider this, Dan. Ever since the invention of the dream chip, people have been able to control their dreams, almost absolutely. You can be anything you want--a rock star, a king, a private eye, anything--and go wherever or whenever you wish. And, you can do this for as long as you wish."
"What of it?"
"What do the ads say to you, Dan? You can have dreams more vivid, more real than real life. `Dreams so real, you never want to wake up.' " He paused for a beat, and then said, "And that is just what we are finding, with people like you, Dan. You just don't want to wake up."
"Well, it's great fun, of course," I said. "And I can see how it can be addictive--like TV, in my grandmother's time--but three weeks..."
"But just think of all the places you have been to already! When is the last time you remember waking up, hmm? Tell me that, does it feel like only one night, or longer? Maybe a lot longer?"
"Time can feel different here," I said. "And the implants aren't supposed to allow more than eight hours of dreaming per day, real time. Besides, I've never heard of such a thing happening."
"Some people can learn to override that restriction, sometimes without even consciously wishing it. You have already shown you are skilled in the use of your implant." He paused a moment, then said, "Of course, they are trying to fix that in the latest versions. That doesn't help you, I'm afraid."
"Then just shut it off, Doctor," I said, laying on the sarcasm.
"That's too risky; the shock of it would be too great. They've tried it before, you know. It could kill you. Certainly, you'd be a real vegetable then--worse off than you are now. No, all I can do is talk to you, try to convince you to wake up on your own."
"You have an answer for everything, don't you? But I'm not convinced."
"Why do you resist the idea so, Dan? Maybe because deep down, you sense it might be true after all?"
I smiled. "No, Dr. Friedman. It's because I am, as you said yourself, skilled in the use of my dream implant." I stood up suddenly, and clapped my hands together, and we were back in the desert, outside my city.
Dr. Friedman looked dazed by the sudden transition; I had caught him on the hop, as I intended. The queen gave a start at our sudden appearance, but immediately covered it over with royal hauteur. (As for the overseers clustered near the dais, they said nothing, because obviously, Pharaoh can do as he likes.)
I continued, "I have seen my unconscious throw up some pretty weird stuff while I've been here, you know. Frankly, you're small potatoes, compared to some things I've seen." I called out to a couple of nearby guards. "Take this man from my presence, and don't let him come back." They leapt forward at once to obey.
As they dragged him away, I heard Friedman shout, "Dan, stop this--you need help, listen to me--"
I turned. "Doctor, listen to me. Even if, by some miracle, what you say is true, I'm not ready to go back."
I ceased to listen as they took him away. I sat back down, next to my queen, and watched my city rise in splendor as the sun set.
Of course, I saw Dr. Friedman again.
On three other occasions, he appeared at totally inappropriate times. (On one occasion, I happened to be in bed with an actress whom I have often fantasized about. You can bet I was particularly irate on that occasion.)
And each time, he was more difficult to eliminate. I could never again have a dream underling get rid of him--he learned that same invulnerability trick I learned long ago. So I had to get rid of him myself, which frankly, meant killing him--or at least, his dream image.
To be honest, I've killed many times in my dreams, but this was a lot more disturbing--it's usually some monster I've dreamed up, not a person. And he did plant the idea in my head, that he was a real person, outside of the dreaming... just supposing it was true, did it hurt? But he never talked about it--he just became more difficult to vanquish.
He was learning, you see. That's something that also should have disturbed me. I don't know why it didn't.
And now for the fifth time we met, in a Gallic camp after battle, and this well-meaning putz had just cut down thirty thousand of Rome's finest.
"Dr. Friedman," I said, "you are a real shit! I put a lot of work into setting up that battle you just ruined."
"I'm sorry, Dan," he replied. "Though I have to say, it interests me that you often re-create these detailed historical scenes. Not everyone does that. To be blunt, a lot of people just go for constant fantasy sex. You seem to have more imagination."
"Hey, I go for the sex plenty--you know that quite well," I said heatedly.
"I know, I know. I just find your other fantasies interesting. I suppose if I were here as long as you've been, I would construct ever more elaborate fantasies as well."
I refused to respond to this.
He sighed. "Look, Dan. It's been almost six weeks now. Aren't you getting tired of this?"
"Don't you miss your friends? Your family?"
I let out a sharp breath. "Even if I believed you... Those aren't really good enough reasons."
"Oh, come on. I know you have a sister; she's been here to visit."
"Yeah, maybe... but I'm not close with the rest of my family, and my friends... well, I think they can manage without me--Wait a minute! What am I doing, talking to some dream shrink in the middle of ancient Gaul? Jesus!"
"Stranger things have happened. Now, what about your health? Aren't you concerned about your body? After all, whatever is going on here, you're a vegetable Outside. Would you like me to explain, in full medical detail, what will happen to your body if you spend months or even years in a coma?"
"Oh, please, not on my account. I was never a health nut anyway."
"You're whistling in the dark, Dan."
"No, I've been thinking about what you have been saying. If you really are just a part of my dreams, I will eventually wake, after a normal eight hours of sleep. But if you're for real... in a weird way, I'm free. I don't ever have to go back to that life--I can have adventure, excitement here, for a long time." I shrugged, and asked, "Why give that up?"
"See, I'm hopeless, Dr. Friedman. Might as well give up and move on to some other, more promising patient."
Dr. Friedman was shaking his head slowly. "Oh no, Dan. We aren't finished yet. Not nearly finished. You need even more help than I thought." He sighed, and slowly rose. "You people just don't listen to reason. You always have to go to an extreme."
It was time to end this. The Gauls hadn't bothered to disarm me; I drew my short sword and prepared for combat.
But he didn't bother to arm himself. Instead, he looked to the Gauls. "Seize him," he ordered.
Each Gaul beside me grabbed one of my arms. I twisted about, but astonishingly, their grip held. I struggled some more. "Unhand me!" I cried, as they forced me to drop the sword.
The Gauls ignored my orders. I struggled uselessly in their grip. Slowly, it was beginning to dawn on me--that I was unable to either order or overcome these dream characters.
I gave up struggling; I could feel the blood draining from my face, as I stared at the doctor in wonder.
He shrugged. "I've been learning too, Dan. And, of course, the chip manufacturers have managed to augment my dream chip. The world--the real world--does not stop, simply because you shut yourself off, Dan. I think I am as adept as you are, now. I think I can make you leave this place."
"You said it was up to me--you couldn't pull the plug, or force me to leave--"
"You'll leave of your own free will. It's just that now, I have the power to help you more effectively. Now, if I can't bring you to the hospital, I can bring the hospital to you." Now he looked at the Gauls, who had changed into hospital orderlies while my attention was on the doctor.
"Bring him," said Dr. Friedman.
He drew back the tent flap and stepped outside, and the former Gauls dragged me out as I cursed them. Instead of being outside, I found myself being dragged down a hospital corridor. I looked back where the tent had been, and saw instead a pair of swinging doors.
I looked ahead, and saw Dr. Friedman standing next to a gurney. I shouted and cursed now, trying futilely to grab at passing doctors and nurses, to at least get their attention, as the two orderlies lifted me up and strapped me down. The straps were drawn tight by my useless struggles; I could already feel the blood to my arms and legs being cut off. They even pulled a strap over my forehead, so I was as immobile as possible.
Then they pushed the gurney down the hall, fast. I still tugged at the straps as I watched the hall lights passing overhead.
Finally, they turned right, and I heard a door being opened. I was in a small, white, bare room, as far as I could see. There was a bright, white light directly overhead. And that was really all.
I heard Dr. Friedman say, "Leave him here for a while. Sometimes this is enough to send them back." He and the orderlies filed out of the room.
It was when I heard the lock turn that I began screaming in earnest.
So, that is how I come to be here, in this dream "hospital." (Yes, I know it seems real--that's the whole point, isn't it?)
Now, I'm no fool, and as soon as I was strapped to that gurney, I tried to end the dream program. Dr. Friedman said it is up to me, when I leave, right?
Except it's not working. I keep trying to wake up. I know how to do it; it's hard to describe just how it's done, but I know how. It feels like surfacing when you've been underwater. Except I can't do it, now.
Something has really gone wrong.
Dr. Friedman says some part of me is still resisting the idea of going back and is still stronger than my conscious wish to return. I keep urging him to check my implant for a defect, but he says that has already been done, and that they can find nothing wrong with the implant itself.
Maybe he is right. Or maybe they messed up the implant and are being quiet about it. Who knows, maybe he is just a sadist.
Or a dream character who has gained control.
He figured out, at any rate, that solitary confinement wasn't going to do the job. So I get to wander this "hospital" at least, and I talk to Dr. Friedman a lot, and I tell other people my story. I keep looking for patterns, something that will get me out of here. And to keep my spirits up I tell the story in different ways, or I talk about other dreams I have had. I try, at least, to be entertaining when I tell these tales.
But now that I have reached the end of the tale, I have to tell you: I dread the next "treatment" Friedman comes up with. Because he thinks I have to be broken before I'll let myself out of here.
He's wrong. I want out now.
I really do.
Stephen Doe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a resident of the Boston area, where he works as a software developer. Before that he lived in New Mexico, where he pursued a degree in astronomy. He is now at work on his first novel.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 Stephen Doe.