Always make a backup - Editor
by Terry Light
A flash of tangled crimson wrapped around Julianne’s legs so tightly she couldn’t escape the dark man approaching her bed. She covered her eyes with her right forearm, screwed her eyelids shut more tightly and whispered, “No!”
In her mind, she heard a shout.
An ominous “thump” announced each step as the faceless man drew closer. She heard his high-pitched wheezing and the dull bass of his heartbeat - then heard a click and two soft reports that sounded like a cobra spitting.
Red sheets. A cocking pistol. Suppressor. Gunshots.
Julianne woke suddenly, screaming, fists clenched, elbows bent, curled tightly in a ball on her side with a thin sheen of perspiration coating her skin. Her bed was hard. No. It was the floor. She opened her eyes and saw a flat surface of black and white tiles stretching endlessly to infinity. White clouds drifted in a gentle breeze across a sunless blue sky.
“A lucid dream,” said Jon, her artificial intelligence implant.
“Better than my last nightmare.”
“I don’t remember your last dream.”
Julianne’s implant was beneath her skull, in her head, with her all the time. The only reason it could not know about her previous nightmare was because she turned it off. But she didn’t turn Jon back on. So why was he in this dream?
“You weren’t in my last dream,” she said. “Not as an AI, not as a participant, not as an observer.”
“I don’t know.” Julianne did not know lots of things, but knew she wouldn’t react like the timid woman in her nightmare. If someone tried to kill her, she would go out in a hail of gunfire.
Jon switched subjects. “We have another problem. My internal clock has a receiver that relays data via satellite from the atomic clock in Cern. For ninety-one hours, I have no memories. Just a gap. Did you turn me off for that long?”
“No. What’s your last memory?”
“Updating your positronic brain.”
“That’s not a good sign.”
“No. It’s not.”
Once a month, Julianne downloaded her memories into a positronic brain intended for a backup android body. If her natural body died, she could switch to the android. Only her lawyers and the AI knew about that plan.
A soft wind tugged at the wispy white dress that stretched from Julianne’s shoulder to mid-thigh, slightly more substantial than a spider web. The garment wasn’t from her closet.
“In the nightmare before this, I was shot.”
“Obviously, you weren’t killed.”
Julianne thought about that, too - but first, which way? She couldn’t sit still and all points of the compass looked the same. Two-foot-square black and white chess tiles as far as the eye could see. She turned and walked into the wind. “Why do you say I wasn’t killed?”
“Dead people don’t dream.” responded the AI. “Why this direction?”
“No reason. Why are you speaking so informally?”
“I didn’t realize I was.” He paused to reflect on the change. “Finally, your settings must have taken effect. Either that, or it’s part of the dream.”
Julianne laughed. “Probably the dream.”
She marched toward the edge of the endless plain.
Jon tried to converse. Julianne ignored his attempts as blather and considered changing the implant’s setting so he would respond only when spoken to. Nothing broke the flat line of the horizon in any direction. How could she escape the dream?
Julianne remembered an inquisitive long-haired black cat, Buddha, with a white nose. His memory made her smile. Abruptly, she was an animal, eating up distance with feline grace, gliding toward the horizon, muscles beneath loose skin and fur. She became a larger cat, then human again.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You thought about a cat. Then, you became one.”
Julianne experimented. She thought of a lion. Almost immediately, she transformed into the beast, then a tiger, a horse, and a humongous silver ball bearing. She rolled endlessly toward the horizon but never got any closer to the edge. The ball became transparent, made of crystal, then hollow and Julianne rode inside a spherical shell with her legs crossed.
The dream converted thoughts into reality. Well, not reality. It was a dream, after all.
Suddenly, like a switch was thrown, the dream went away. There was no light. Julianne found herself shrouded in darkness.
A jolt rumbled through her body.
From above, a woman said, “I thought we’d lost her.”
“Not yet,” said another female voice.
Julianne’s eyes were closed. She opened them. Instead of floating inside a transparent ball, she found herself flat on her back with a woman in blue scrubs and a white mask leaning over her. Behind the doctor were blinding lights in an off-white tile ceiling.
“Wha…?” Julianne tried to speak. Her voice sounded weak and confused, unlike her.
“Your natural body died,” the doctor said. “We pulled your positronic brain and uploaded it into this body.” There were others in the room, too - nurses, doctors, technicians, engineers.
Colors bled into each other. Consciousness drifted away. “We’re losing her!” Julianne slipped from the medical facility back to the infinite chessboard plane again, just her and the AI.
“This isn’t a dream,” she told Jon.
“Nor a nightmare,” said the AI.
“I’m not dead.”
“That’s not true. You died.”
“This is someone else’s dream.”
“Maybe, but you died. This ‘dream’ may be nothing more than a surrealistic construction inside your backup positronic brain.”
“Or it may be someone else’s dream. I wouldn’t think up an endless chessboard with a blue sky. I don’t even play chess.”
“Did you play checkers?”
“Not since I was a child. My father always beat me.”
“Perhaps that has something to do with it.”
“No. This has something to do with my death.”
“If you say so.”
“Why can’t they charge the artificial brain, load it into my new android body, and wake me up? I want out of here. It shouldn’t be hard. That’s why I do uploads, right? So I can live forever?”
“It’s not you.”
“It’s supposed to think like me. That’s the same.”
“It’s a replica.”
“How come the ‘replica’ doesn’t wake?”
“Someone is trying to stop you.”
“I don’t know. Your murderer?”
“You think I was killed?”
“Your natural body was twenty-nine. Odds indicate your death may have been accidental or purposeful, not that you died of natural causes.”
“And I’m stuck here? With a chessboard and blue sky?” she asked.
“Do you have a better explanation?”
“Not yet. I have some control. What I imagine becomes true. In a way.”
“In this world.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Figure out who killed me. If possible, I’ll find out. I’m a cop.”
“You’re a private investigator. That’s different.”
“I used to be a cop.”
“The chessboard is different.”
No longer did the horizon stretch as far as Julianne’s eye could see, but there were features in the distance on top of the black and white squares. In one direction, a structure looked like her apartment building. In the opposite, a building looked like her workplace.
Without forethought, she struck out towards her apartment. As she drew closer to the stone building, brownish-red in color, she could pick out details. Large bricks of stone, an apron on the third floor, decorative light-colored art-deco wings. It looked like someone plucked the building straight from the city without the street and the next door neighbors. She ran up the exterior stone stairs and found the front door unlocked.
The carpet crumbled against her bare feet like it was made of thin dried sponge. The banister wood would soak up oil and moisture if given the chance. Canvases from paintings on the wall had turned to fine dust and fallen to the floor, the frames still hammered into the wall.
It seemed like eons had passed.
“Be careful,” said Jon.
Crying, Julianne paid no attention. Something familiar, home. It could not be real, but she must have imagined home and this was a warped part of the dream or memory. Power was out in the building. Her apartment was on the fourth floor. With no thought of the elevator, Julianne ran up the wooden stairs. When she reached her floor, the door to her apartment was wide open, “4G” printed in faded letters on the cracked surface. The turquoise paint had blistered.
Time was wrong.
Julianne paused in her living room. Loveseat faced away from her, two chairs in the opposite corners of the room, a small table for munchies, snacks, and old magazines in the middle. She pulled a book from a shelf beside the door. The pages crumbled and fluttered to the floor like confetti.
Timidly, she ventured into the bedroom. The covers were pushed to the foot of the bed as if whoever last slept there got too hot at night. A forgotten body lay on the bed, half beneath faded red sheets, dried skin on the face pulled into an evil tight grin, the skin dried out so much.
Julianne recognized the body.
She was shot in her sleep, one small hole in the skull, another through parchment thin skin into her heart. Julianne’s chest racked with sobs. She collapsed and slid down the wall, tears flowing down her cheeks.
"I didn't believe it was true."
Jon, smart AI that he was, kept his silence.
It may have been ten minutes later, or it may have been half an hour.
“Someone shot me, Jon.”
“You cannot conclude that is true."
“What do you mean?” she asked, tear tracks on her cheeks. She stood and leaned against the wall by the doorway. "I recognize my body."
“Our memories end four days ago. This is our future.”
“We’re seeing the past.”
“In real time, this may be the past. Inside your positronic brain? This is the future.”
“Inside the murderer’s dream, this is the past. Since I woke up in the middle of the chessboard, a lot of things have happened that we can’t explain. Why should this be different?”
“It still doesn’t make sense.”
“Being shot in my sleep doesn’t make sense, either, unless someone has a reason to kill me.”
"Assume it happened."
“Okay. Then, if you're right, your killer didn’t know about your positronic brain - that you planned to resuscitate yourself.”
“No. Not before.”
"You think he knows now?"
"Do you know who?"
“At first, I thought it must be family, but they would try something legal, like a ‘do not resuscitate’ order. Initiating an android body should be routine. So is popping in an artificial brain. All you need is money. My parents left me plenty of money. You said it earlier. Someone is trying to stop me."
"Suppose you’re right. Why would someone want to kill you? Twice?”
“I was running an investigation and discovered something.”
“What was the crime? Who was the murderer?”
"I don't know.” Julianne switched subjects. “Why did you say the murderer was a ‘he’?”
“You did. Just a figure of speech.”
“You use incomplete sentences and contractions. I’ve tried to teach you to speak ‘normal’ before, Jon. Why did that lesson sink in now?”
“I don’t know.”
“If my human body is dead, Jon, so are you. I don’t have an Artificial Intelligence in my positronic brain. I’m my own AI.”
Jon paused. An AI didn’t have to pause. “It took you long enough, don’t you think?”
“I’m not at my best.”
“You’re my murderer, Jon.”
French windows flew open and smashed against the wall, glass tinkled from the panes, a cloud of fog massed and compacted until it solidified into the shape of a dark faceless man. The silhouette's 'chin' moved when it spoke. "I have one theory left to test," it said.
"If I kill you in my dream, does that kill your positronic brain, too?"
Julianne had no weapons. None appeared when she willed them into existence. Then she realized he said something key. It was his dream. He controlled what happened, not her.
She turned and ran from the ominous figure, dashing from the bedroom, past her living room, out the door. In the hallway, there was no longer a dry carpet but black and white tiles on the floor, just like the ones on the endless chessboard below. She sprinted down the hall, reached the stairs, and raced up to escape the madman. He cackled, seeming to run effortlessly behind, chasing. His hand reached out to grab her, but his fingertips barely brushed the wispy thinness of her dress.
His laughter echoed all around.
The squares grew smaller, the floor shrank, drawing the walls closer to each other like they were riding atop the diminishing tiles. The ceiling dropped lower. Everything shrank except her and the faceless man. Impossible to flee from his laughter, it got even harder to escape his maniacal madness.
The walls brushed her shoulders, light fixtures in the ceiling bumped her head. The dark man chasing was bigger, and it was more difficult for him. She crashed through the ceiling, tore through wood like it was balsa and saw through a window. The horizon reared up like a gigantic tsunami prepared to crash her to the surface of the chessboard.
As the building crunched around her, the only way to escape was up, up! Floors ripped apart as they grew smaller and she reached through ceilings and grabbed onto whatever she could, blindly pulling herself up! Finally, she broke through to the roof and saw how rapidly the building was shrinking to nothing.
The horizon climbed skyward, curving upward not in just one direction, but all directions. Soon the edges would join at the top, creating a hollow ball of darkness and she would be trapped inside. Then it would shrink and as it shrank, Julianne would be crushed.
Gleeful howling speared the air. The faceless man stood, dark, legs apart, hands on hips, mouth open, staring at her with red eyes. He raised one hand, finger extended, thumb raised, pointing at her.
His thumb fell forward.
He disappeared, like smoke does when a hand passes through and waves it away, thicker here, thinner there, wispy like her dress, until it dissipated and no part of the faceless man remained.
Growing gloom alerted her. She looked up and could barely see the blue sky as the chessboard edges raced toward each other to close off the dream world. She stood atop the rapidly shrinking building and it was soon gone, merged into the shrinking black and white tiles. Her world grew smaller, winking out.
Julianne needed to escape.
The ends reached each other and closed. Darkness. She was closed inside a shrinking ball and it was getting smaller, stifling, her air stuffy and leaking away, gone, gone.
Where did her building go?
If he was gone, was she in control now?
In the floor, Julianne created a tube, floated down like a helium balloon that started to lose its gas. The tube was like the inside of a well, with gray light at the bottom and darkness at the top. She stuck out her hand and could feel the inside surface, dim light allowing her to see. The wall was covered with black Mayan hieroglyphs.
Julianne did not know what they meant.
She realized then, there was no way for her to control every aspect of the dream. Only parts of it.
The bottom of her slow fall became the top, and she wasn’t falling, but slowly floating upward. She emerged in the night sky among dark gray clouds, lightning, and thunder. Rain soaked her as she flew, only the moon providing illumination as its light diffused into the clouds.
Now it was her dream.
Only it was real.
Revenge was on Julianne’s mind. She flew, drifting down through the atmosphere, avoided street lights and could dimly see shapes and differing shades of darkness, assumed they were dark rooftops, trees, green grass, and blacktopped streets. She flew ever downward, aimed a blazer held in her right hand at her clothes, heating them up, and for some crazy reason, that slowed her descent. No surprise at the weapon in her right hand. It was there when she needed it. No shock that it slowed her controlled fall.
Her dream or her positronic brain leaked into reality.
Julianne found the house she was looking for and stood on the wet grass outside. The rain soaked her dress, seeped through to her skin, plastered her hair against her face, strands both bunching together and blowing apart.
Evil energy drew her to this house, her killer’s home. Pale in the moonlight, two stories, wooden structure, shallow pitched roof, double-paned glass – it beckoned. He prepared to sleep, her killer alone. A light on the second floor shined. The bedroom. Part of its luminance reflected on her and the lawn.
Julianne didn’t even know her killer’s name.
She leapt from the grass, landed on a patio on the second floor outside his bedroom and pulled open the door. Unlocked, or maybe she unlocked it with her will. Warmth. She was in a bedroom with lush green carpeting, gold headboard, an end table on each side of a queen-sized bed. Her target walked from the bathroom, wearing only boxers. When he heard the noise of the door opening, he reacted, saw Julianne, and shouted…
Julianne didn’t speak, but raised her right arm, straight, realized the blazer had become an automatic pistol, rapidly fired six bullets at the center of human mass, his naked chest. The bullets stopped in mid-flight, partway to the man.
“You’re dead!” he said.
Julianne smiled evilly. “Then I’m a ghost. You shot me while I slept. Am I dead from that, or did I die when the chessboard closed in on me?”
“From when I shot you! The chessboard? You saw that? It was a dream! A nightmare brought on by your death. My conscience!”
“No dream. And I am here, though not alive. I should know my killer before I take his life.” She dropped the pistol to her side.
“Deke Storson, but you can’t kill me because you’re dead. I was hired by your firm and you were in charge of the background investigation. I don’t know how, maybe bad luck, but you discovered I stole this identity long ago.”
“That’s why you killed me?”
“Yes. Are you a ghost?”
“I don’t know what I am. Yet. You told me you remembered the chess board.”
“The plane of black and white tiles? That was my nightmare. I killed you again. How could you know about that?”
“My consciousness is trapped in a leaky positronic brain. Part of it escapes. Into dreams. I sort of understand that. They aren’t real. This, though? Affecting the real world? I don’t know how that works. Not yet.”
“If it’s your artificial brain, that should end soon.” He laughed. “The power will run out.”
“You stopped my resuscitation?”
“I didn’t know when you last updated your backup brain. You may have known my secret. So I stole your body last time the resuscitation failed and stuffed it in a closet.”
“This will end soon?”
“Yes, thank god.”
“Then how did you stop the bullets?”
Julianne stopped the bullets in mid-air, not Deke. She willed them to continue. A nano-moment later, the rounds burst into his chest. Six entry wounds. The bullets tumbled, ripping pathways of destruction through the man’s body, much worse than the damage his puny gun did to her. Vengeance. Two bullets erupted and passed through his body into the wall behind, leaving large nasty exit wounds and spraying crimson blood across his wall.
Deke was dead before he hit the ground.
“That’ll teach you.”
She went over to his body, looked down, and saw no wounds. The pistol was no longer in her hand. She checked for a pulse. There was none. He was dead.
Vengeance wasn’t necessary anymore.
Her body turned to smoke.
Julianne woke in a dark place. It felt tight, enclosed. She climbed from beneath soiled clothing, realized she was in a large hamper, saw a crack of light beneath a door. It was a closet, dim, but she could see. She threw a light switch.
The woman was naked, but she found scrubs and slippers among the dirty clothes. They didn’t fit but were free of nasty stains. She put them on, started to leave, then stopped a moment.
Should she return to her old life?
She was dead.
She had a new unrecognizable android body. Julianne had learned things about manipulating dreams and the physical world when her body wasn’t actually there. This was an undiscovered power of a positronic brain.
Once again, she smiled with the realization she would create a new identity. What did she look like, anyway? It didn’t matter. For now, Julianne was…