Antietam Battleground, Keedysville, Maryland
Mike Pinocchio looked up at Lieutenant Tom Hobbes through the bloodshot eyes that signaled the end of his first watch of the night. "Hobbes," he dismissed the question in his usual way. "You're a soldier, you know what to expect. Goes with the insignia." Pinocchio heard a muted crunch beyond them in the dark, and he knew--without even thinking--that Hobbes' question had awakened Florence, and that even now she was listening for his reply--would probably give him grief about it later when they were alone. Same way her eyes scolded him over that damn dog. Like Pinocchio'd slighted her best friend if he cleaned his own plate--didn't hand over a scrap or two to the mutt.
"Nah, not talkin' about nightmares," Hobbes argued, crouching down next to Pinocchio, ready to take over his position for second watch. "Talkin' about dreams, real vivid dreams, when you can almost touch stuff. Where you wake up surprised you're not still in 'em."
Hobbes' eyes looked spooked, if Pinocchio would have noticed--had been looking at his friend--instead of off into the distance, finishing the last ticks of his stint at guard duty.
"Yeah, I got dreams, Hobbes. In fact," Pinocchio started to think of something clever to say for the benefit of Florence, "I had a dream." As a rule he didn't like eavesdroppers--though he minded her less--but he definitely couldn't stand the way Florence's listening in weighed on him like he had to watch his words with Hobbes--somehow treat him special. He was bushed beyond good manners, and in a mood to give Florence's Chosen One a little shit, and he'd be damned if Hobbes wasn't gonna have to take it.
"Look," Hobbes persisted with his train of thought, persevering through the tired Pinocchio's sarcasm. "Just had this dream. I'm in a mall--like in Jersey--and I'm shopping for something. I dunno what, just window shopping, I guess…"
Pinocchio rolled his eyes. Sometimes, he really had to remind himself that he had come to this place to escape people like Tom Hobbes.
Oblivious to the other man's thoughts, Hobbes continued to recap his dream. "And I end up in this--this lingerie store."
Pinocchio's ears perked up at that.
"Victoria's Secret, I guess. And, and I meet up with this woman."
"Tall, leggy--blonde?" Pinocchio asked, the first glimpse of a smile crossing his face in more days than even he could remember. He clutched mockingly at his heart through his Kevlar vest, "Send her my way."
Hobbes was beginning to lose patience. "You're not getting it, Pinocchio. This woman wasn't Sophie." His eyes showed the stark betrayal of his fiancée that he felt had occurred within his subconscious.
Realizing that there wasn't much fun to be had in continuing to listen to Hobbes, Pinocchio threw out one last suggestion before heading toward his bedroll. "You're a healthy guy, Hobbes." Pinocchio moved through the brush, closer to where Florence and Dexter slept near the hours-dead fire. "Sounds to me like you just need a good lay."
As he reached them, Mike Pinocchio didn't miss Florence's opened eye--just the one, the other still shut--staring at him across their make-shift fire pit, and he scowled for an instant. In defiance, he threw a last one off in the direction of Hobbes. "And what I need? Is for you," he avoided that un-winking eye, "to give that blonde my digits."
Florence's eye closed--probably from rolling somewhere up inside her head--in the middle of Pinocchio's request for Hobbes to direct the mysterious lingerie-buying blonde to his dreams, but he pretended not to notice. Moments after he closed his mouth he was already slumped against the nearest tree, in his light slumber calculating how many clicks the blonde's journey would take.
No matter what Pinocchio might say, Lieutenant Tom Hobbes knew that something was wrong. He couldn't exactly say what it was, but he knew one thing for certain. In all the time he had been in Harsh Realm, he had never not dreamed of Sophie. On the good nights--when they came, and he could relax enough to close his eyes, it was always Sophie that he saw, no matter the context of the dream. Sophie running the dishwasher, Sophie painting their new house, lying next to him in bed, mailing a letter. Sophie browsing through the library. Always Sophie. It was the only constant here. And it made waking up every morning like falling into a nightmare.
In truth, though the other man wouldn't believe it, Tom Hobbes shied away from asking Pinocchio questions, recognizing that he probably wouldn't like the answers he was given. Questions along the lines of, What's the rest of America like--beyond this frontier and the United States of Santiago? How about England--or Australia? Africa? Did those places even exist in this game? And how difficult would it be to travel there if they did? And that woman--the one who gave him the keys to free all those people back in Santiago City--who had she been to Pinocchio?
The devil, Pinocchio had told him, but then straight answers weren't the other man's forte. And as long as Hobbes was cataloging verboten subjects, he added to his list one Florence. Who she was and what she was, and if one day she took a bullet in the wrong place, would she flutter and vanish, erased in a fuzz of blue? And was that even a question Pinocchio could answer? Or Florence?
And lastly, why did he, himself, write these letters to Sophie? Because he believed that somehow he would be able to reach her with one? That woman in Santiago City had given him a note in Sophie's handwriting--written on the day of his funeral, he was told. And in it there had been the promise of a baby, still on the way.
Did he believe that? If she was the devil Pinocchio claimed--and he trusted Pinocchio, mostly--she'd have no scruples or limits on fabricating anything--not here in Harsh Realm. But if making a deal with the devil could get him home to Sophie and the baby (real or imagined) wouldn't it be worth it? Some days it seemed as though it would. It seemed very much like it. In those fleeting moments of waking, when Sophie fell away into the reality his consciousness now called home, he'd sign over his soul--and sometimes he thought, those of his friends--to find home.
Hobbes shook off that thought--such desperation made him nervous when it threatened to overcome to him during waking hours--and he knew it was something he had to fight to keep at bay. If he were to let it grow he would pay for it not only with his own life, but also with the lives of others he had stayed here committed to rescue.
Hobbes thought for a moment again about the notion of communication between participants in Harsh Realm, and the real world. It seemed improbable. In response to dismissing this idea that he needed too much to believe in, he slipped his hand between his t-shirt and vest and felt the very real crinkle of paper against his fingertips in the snug location where he stowed the letters he had written--would write--to Sophie, knowing he'd have them with him--he balked at agreeing to 'indefinitely,' and settled on--a little longer.
Seymour's, Los Angeles, California--Sydney Bloom gasped as she tore off her VR headset, and Duncan, who sat in the nearby open window, found he was becoming increasingly convinced that her frequent reaction had deconstructed into habit. Nothing harmful, he was sure. Hey, he thought, it's like, at least, you know, a couple of steps removed from something potentially destructive--returning rented videos late, for instance--or heroin.
He turned his focus to the doorway sporting the neon Art Deco "Powder Room" sign as he heard the sound of a flush and water running into the sink. The door creaked open on its ancient original hinges, and Oliver Sampson entered the room. Duncan was pretty sure the draft he felt sweep in response to the addition of the Brits' presence was not simply imagined.
He didn't pretend to follow--or even grasp for that matter--this whole Committee/Secret Society business that Syd had fallen into working for, but he did know, that like his friend, they both preferred the less ambiguous (and recently deceased) Dr. Frank Morgan to his chilly replacement.
"Very well, Sydney," Sampson asked, as though he were calling on a student in a lecture hall. "You're back. What can you tell me about this Hobbes fellow?"
Sydney Bloom knew she was seldom proficient at inter-personal communication, never less so than we she had just come out of VR. She always stayed a little too connected to the simulations she had programmed, booted back into reality as if waking, only to find the colors a bit duller, the smell and textures not as sharp, and herself somehow less than she felt when she had been inside.
So she didn't answer Oliver's question, but instead stared concentratedly into the blinking eye graphic displayed on the main monitor of the five in front of her. If she let her gaze follow the reflection of the light coming in the window, she could see Dunc's shape silhouetted there, though it had not been there before she had dialed into her connection--the one she had cooked up for a number and a name Oliver had given her. As always she had only been away from reality for a handful seconds--though time passed differently when she was jacked in.
"Hey, Dunc," she offered.
"Hey, Syd," Duncan returned amicably, offering, "Goat's cream?"
"She doesn't want anything to drink, Duncan," Oliver said, his tone bordering on sharp, wishing that he could shoo away Sydney's ever-present houseguest--though from experience he knew it to be impossible. "What she wants is to make the Committee, and more importantly, myself, very relieved by telling us what she could find out about the health and well-being of Lieutenant Hobbes."
"What do you want this guy for, anyway?" Sydney asked, embarking on one of her routinely frustrating question-no-answer sessions.
"You know very well that I can't answer that, even if I did know."
She sighed, quietly, so he wouldn't catch it. She looked over to Duncan for a moment's longer distraction, but he had left his perch, and she could only presume that the siren song of cool goat's cream had called him away to his refrigerator that sat, with his other belongings, on the building's roof--just beyond the floor to ceiling windows of her warehouse-like apartment.
Oliver Sampson began his enquiry with the usual twenty or so questions, from which, if you were to listen to him, you might think--she smiled to herself--that he could accurately diagnose the situation of anyone she took into virtual reality. But since she never (and she assumed neither had Oliver)--well, hardly ever--met the people she was asked to take into level five virtual reality (the playground of the subconscious) via her modem, they would never be able to gauge his personal success rate with any amount of confidence.
"Was he in danger?" Oliver asked.
"Maybe." She had come to realize those the Committee dealt with usually were, whether they revealed it to her or not.
"Did he tell you anything important?"
"I don't think so." Another trick question, since how could she tell what would be important to this new guy? Brief two-to-thirty second dips into VR and a fellow's name and telephone number hardly replaced even the most abbreviated FAQ--much less gave her license to determine what was important to the other person.
Characteristically, Oliver was getting frustrated now. "Well, was he alone--was there anyone else that you didn't know--someone he might have contributed from his subconscious?"
She thought for a moment. "No, no one."
"No women--woman? Medium-height, brunette?"
Oliver was speaking in the most specific of terms all of the sudden, and Sydney realized it was the first time that he seemed to have exacting expectations of what she would have encountered while swimming around in this man's psyche.
"Longer hair, attractive, with a penchant for vintage suits?"
Syd screwed up her face in response. "No," she answered, "no women." She paused, not meaning to continue, but, "just me," slipped out.
It was enough to retain his interest in re-hashing any bit of minutiae he could goad her into recalling. "Well," he removed his suit jacket and prepared to sit down on her large, dark leather sofa, exasperated with her lack of information and ready to grill her until he found something he could call in that was potentially fruitful.
Sydney was all too familiar with this phase of his visit, so she shuffled over to her own fridge to get herself the bottle of tomato juice--though she had no intention of offering him any. Sydney discovered she liked the idea of Oliver having a dry, scratchy throat. She found it difficult to imagine him ever uncomfortable, and sometimes found herself wondering as to how to bring that sensation about in him.
She walked back across the open floor and met up with Oliver at the sofa, where she slunk down onto it. It was large enough that she was still a good distance away from him.
"Tell me again where you took him." He almost always looked at her like that--straight on, his chin slightly tucked, an expression she couldn't translate.
"The mall, just like you said, somewhere he could have his pick of things--anything he wanted." She had thought it was an unusual request. A mall, with its un-realistic lighting and architecture hardly seemed the most fruitful place for hoping someone might reveal himself.
"And where did you end up?" Oliver was always big on the nosy follow-up questions, the kinds Sydney didn't like to answer about her VR experiences. But insofar as answering, she had learned she had little choice. "I just told you. The mall."
"Sydney," Oliver was growing tired now. "I know very well that where you begin in VR is not always where you end up. Don't treat me like a child. And don't act like one yourself."
"A lingerie store."
Oliver didn't think he'd heard her right. "Where?"
"And you were there?" He emphasized the 'you.'
"Yes," she answered glumly, wondering as well what had taken her there--she wasn't even sure the mall simulation she programmed had a lingerie store in it. In fact, she was pretty sure it hadn't. Pet store, yes. Automotive supply and Merle Norman Cosmetics, yes. But fancy, lacy lingerie placed on busty, perfect-but-headless-mannequin forms? No. "I was supposed to be the saleslady at whatever store he went into, but it seemed like I was shopping--with him."
"And then he said something about how stores like this--er, that, got us into this situation in the first place. And he said we'd better buy something for the baby instead."
"…the baby," Oliver echoed, making a mental note of it.
But Sydney had stopped speaking. She was thinking about what it had been like, being the object of this man's interest in the VR simulation, the surprised, but far-from-distant way he looked at her, like he knew her, like she was the one carrying his baby. It had given her--though she knew it was artificial--a feeling of belonging, like the feeling she searched for when she wasn't wired, but never seemed to find outside the space she had curtained off for her hard drives.
"Well--go on," Oliver had to prompt.
"Uh, we went to a toy store, and I picked up a doll that was on the shelf--it was a nun, I think."
"A nun doll? Well, that's interesting, I suppose." He did not sound as though he meant it.
"And Hobbes pulled the string in the back to make it talk, but it was broken, so we set it aside, and he picked up another doll instead. It was wooden, and it was from that story--you know, the one with the cricket, and the evil puppeteer named--" She concentrated, but could not quite find it. "Stromboli, I think."
"What?" Oliver asked, disappointed. "Really, Sydney, you cannot expect me to be familiar with folktales. It is hardly my area of expertise."
But she persisted. "The one where the doll's nose grows every time he lies."
"Pinocchio," Duncan offered, once again at the window, sporting a goat's cream mustache left by the glass bottle in his hand. "Meets the Blue Fairy, wants to be a real boy." He took a breath, "The Adventures of Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, originally in Italian." He cut off that sentence, and began a stream of what seemed to Sydney to be very passable--if not fluent Italian. Then he translated, moving across the floor until he was almost up against the shoulder blade of Oliver. "Lies, my boy, are known in a moment." Duncan's voice dropped, and if Sydney hadn't known he was acting now, she would have thought he was threatening Oliver. "There are two kinds of lies, lies with short legs and lies with long noses. Yours, just now, happen to have very long noses." And he squinted at Oliver's nose and bit down on his own lower lip.
"Very good, Duncan," Oliver said, without turning his back on Sydney--at whom he had been staring through the whole performance--or acknowledging Duncan's very pointed quotation. "So, what then?"
"Then I touched the wooden doll, and it booted me out."
Oliver waited a moment in silence, as if he was savoring the information she had given him, then stood to replace his coat. He pulled out a small PDA and jotted down some brief (and, Syd imagined, inspecific) notes.
"No women, though," he asked her again.
Syd looked down to the floor, bored, and tired of orally deconstructing her virtual trip to the mall. "No, no women. Nobody."
"Well, a nun, and a puppet from a folk tale. Surely they will be able to put that together into something," Oliver hoped aloud for the Committee. "Stay close, now," he instructed her. "I have a feeling I'll be dropping back in with another assignment after I hand this over."
He had only been gone a few minutes when Duncan flopped down belly-first onto the couch next to Sydney. "You know, Syd, the Italian Philosopher Benedetto Croce once said, il legno da cui Pinocchio è intagliato è umanità in se, that, 'the wood out of which Pinocchio is carved is humanity itself.'"
Sydney chewed the inside of her cheek for a second in reply, then spoke. "If you're trying to tell me that Oliver's a liar, Duncan, I already know that."
"I know, Syd. I know," her friend assured her. "I just think the trick here is figuring out when he's actually telling the truth."
...to be continued...
VR.5 belongs/belonged to Samoset and FOX (and now maybe Sci-Fi). The gist of which is, hey, I'm not dumb enough to think that they're mine, and I'm not charging an entrance fee. No harm (shout-out to JAG) no foul.
This story occurs as follows: on Harsh Realm, post "Inga Fossa." On VR.5, post "5D" and pre-"Escape." Though I'm treating VR.5 as though it is happening in the present, not 1995, particularly in regards to the hardware.
For those unfamiliar with VR.5, one day Sydney Bloom discovered she could use her home-created/souped-up computer to take unsuspecting people into a level of Virtual Reality she calls VR.5, through any land-line telephone connection. They do not remember the encounter, which takes only seconds in real time, but she is able to access things in their subconscious, teasing out secrets and weaknesses using tailored simulations of places or dialogue she has often created prior to dialing their number.
Sydney has been made to use this ability to service a shadowy secret society/organization called The Committee in their ambigious dealings to enigmatic ends. That's about all anyone would need to know to make sense of things.