Chapter 4
Dreamless - Chapter Four
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Portrait of Kata by James Neff. Graphics by Tobin James Mueller.
The following is a collaborative story in progress.
If you would like to participate, contact ArtsForge.
For a discussion of plot and characters, see D-Plot.

For a list of authors, illustrators and planned illustrations, see Dreamless Team.
Chapter Four appears below. Click here to read Chapter One, Two, Three or Five.
Illustrated Novel Project:
CHAPTER FOUR - The Border Lands
I've forgotten how many stars the sky holds. How big the world can seem. How getting out from under the cliffs of brick and steel can rekindle boyhood visions of freedom and possibility. As the car races out of the City's sprawling sphere of influence, I nod to myself. Maybe this surreal drama isn't merely a fiasco in the making after all...

The girl snaps upright, as if startled from some escape-and-pursuit dreamvid. Can't blame her, really. Makes me wonder if I'll ever snap out of this low res vidclip I call my life.

The clear sky makes me strangely optimistic, though. I conclude: Maybe my life is just a product of bad editing. That I can deal with. That I can grok into sense, with the right narrative spin, anyway...

I try to swallow away the taste of dried dog shit from my mouth and search for a breath tab.

Hell, maybe things are on the uplink. Slumming as a reporter has definitely cached skills for The Rebel's Life, if that's what I end up outputting after all this goes down. But the girl, I still don't know her story. And I try not letting the fictional one I've drafted for the NetRags replace whatever truth I might be able to de-encode from her later.

She stares like a wild animal out the window, glued to the rhythmic shadows. It's as if she's trying to make sense of a conversation in a foreign language, trying to comprehend a completely alien world. Maybe she'd make a good reporter. Nah, probably too honest.

Ana's wrist-pc chirps, breaking the mood. Man, how many times did that happen when we were together? The sound makes me shrivel right up.

Ana listens to some message vibrating her little red crystal earpiece, which, I must admit, looks very sexy the way it fits into just the right place among those dark folds of hair. I decide to look the other way, shrugging with my best air of indifference. Looking out the window again, I wonder, What would this crazy world look like through the eyes of an innocent?
Tobin James Mueller

Even in the dark the trees seem wrong. Too tall for the landscape. Too straight against the hothouse winds. Not trees at all. I look over at Ana. Where the hell is she driving?

"What is that, a Wisconsin windfarm?" I ask, trying not to sound tense. The metal necks of the giant turbines dance by in rows, Wisconsin's latest crop. Symbol of the New North. "This looks like the Demilitarized Fringe. What, you actually taking us on I-94?"

"Don't mention old Fed numbers to any of the OCF," she hisses, then goes back to her secret subvocalizations.

"Why? Are we planning on talking to any?" Just what I need to add to my growing outlaw résumé. Consorting with the Ojibwé-Comitatus Federation. One more reason to fry when I'm finally snagged.

Ana pushes some buttons on her pc, clicks her tongue, and pulls a dog-earred printout from her unzippered top. She grins, handing it to me, smiling in a way that says, Take that, Brain Boy! Two can play your Dumb Ass Reporter Game.

I smooth out the image, trying not to jump to conclusions.
Tobin James Mueller
Bio Room Scanned Printout
Andrew Paul
"Bio Room"
click here to view
a clean hi-res image

click here for Andrew's
offsite URL

"Looks like a digicam capture," I say, stating the obvious.

Ana smiles nice this time. Patronizingly nice.

"From a security cam, we think. A download. Don't know who sent it. But it just may be that somebody else out there wants to hack into Nuid-Rama's dirty little secrets, too."

I look at her with unfiltered shock. Check it: I upload my bogus brain post human wired story and in one hour the thing has taken on an absurdist's life of its own? Talk about Frankenstein reborn...

I'm just about to tell Ana that the scan must be a fake, that I made up the whole stupid Nuid-Rama plot line, that the whole thing is etherware. But as I set the printout on the dash, I see the look of terror in catgirl's eyes, peering silently from the back seat, and a shiver runs up and down my shoulders.
Tobin James Mueller

This is what reporters live for. And die for. Telling a real story. Unraveling a true mystery. And I already got my own Deep Throat somwhere on the inside.

A story that might actually mean something. It takes a few moments to sink in.

"Christ," I say, trying to stay even, "we gotta find out who this spek is. Then we gotta get the kid talking. Then we gotta... Wait a second. Where you turning off? This is not helping..."

"Just a little side errand. There's stuff in the trunk I need to drop off."

All I can imagine is a suitcase full of true pharmaceutical contraband. Stuff Nuid-Rama would like to get its hands on... Maybe even more than catgirl here. If my skin was shivering before, it now ignites into a complete crash and burn brush fire. Like somebody just yelled, Torch on.

"Just a bartarware stop," Ana says. "Don't worry. The Vocodo will cover my tracks."
Tobin James Mueller

I can't decide what's worse, being chased by the IntraFeds, carrying illegal drugs into the Ojibwé Comitatus border lands, or hearing my ex-girlfriend admit that she actually believes any of this cult-of-the-month-club Vocodo crap.

Bartarware is this netwide black market commercial scam that is sort of like a huge decentralized auction site, minus currency exchanges and discussion boards. You enter something you want done or something you want delivered and the software anonymously hooks you up with somebody (or several somebodies) who'll do whatever you wanted. It keeps track of how much your errand is worth through some sufficiently mystical algorithm, so that when a request is made that might balance your account, you get a call from the Bartarware gods to go do it; if you don't, you get dropped from the system. (Rumors have it that worse can happen, that people who break the link and don't balance out their account run into a sudden stream of bad luck, but nothing has ever been proven.) It's like doing favors for perfect strangers without knowing who or why, all mediated by faceless code hiding out on rogue servers scattered around the planet. There is no discernable company behind any of this (none yet uncovered, anyway), only thousands of devotees who would give their lives before they'd divulge what servers are hosting any of the data, so there's nobody to sue. And since no money changes hands, none of it is subject to taxes, tariffs, licensing restrictions, IntraFed regulations or any other legal oversight. It is very anti-establishment, which probably adds to its appeal.

The beauty of this scheme is that, in an era that can track your every move, profile your every interest and chart your every mannerism, most errands fit right into a guy's daily routine. If a package has to be sent cross continent, the software can have it passed between a hundred travelers, effortlessly getting it to where it needs to go. And you almost never have to worry about being let down, unless you request something like the murder of your ex-girlfriend. At least, I hope that's the case. There is very few request weird enough to not have a series of takers in this outright bizarre world.

But what started as a cute yet lawless charity gimmick turned fantastically twisted when people started revering the Bartarware algorithms as actual personalities. Good things were happening to people that never had experienced goodness before and they needed to invent a God to thank for it. That's the way I see it. It seemed so magical. Thus, the Vocodo were born.

Lately, people do way more errands than they need to, doing stuff just to appease the Vocodo gods, thinking that fortune will shine on them as a result. I refuse to even write about it. I figure what's really happening is that someone has hacked the old algorithms and has secretly adopted the identity of bogus virtual deities just to get lots of free errands. Errands and god knows what else. Either that, or people are just so gullible, they'll believe anything that'll make their world into a bedtime fairytale.

Maybe the weirdest thing about this flashpan phenomenon is that a whole segment of the population has quit their regular jobs to become fulltime Bartarware Bots, driving around the country doing good deeds. Or, at least, desired deeds. And most of them seem happier because of it. Go figure.

Tobin James Mueller

So I bite my tongue, not wanting to spark some new tirade from my converted ex, but totally stunned nonetheless. Except, employing the radar of a jackal, she senses my chagrin.

"It really works, you know," she explains, with just enough defensiveness to make me hope that she isn't swallowing the entire charade. "I've just installed the new version, 8.4. No bugs, totally intuitive. And when it comes to payback, it's way better than working in the regulated economy."

Payback. Now there's something she's an expert on.

"Okay," I say. "But just leave me out of it when you talk to these OCF guys. If any of them recognize me, we could all be dead meat."

I did a piece on the man most responsible for carving out this independent territory between the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, bordering the two greatest of the Great Lakes. Said he was aligned with the emerging Swiss Nazi Pacifist movement. He took exception to the pacifist part and put a bounty on my head.

Actually, I admire the guy. Had the balls to stand up to the U.N. and keep the Great Lakes from becoming a fresh water source for the Southern Axis. I think "bloodletting" was the term he used. Plus, he had the political savvy to align himself with the Greens in the Ojibwé Nation movement, putting him on the good side of all the rich liberals. Sort of a pre-emptive bloodletting of the bleeding hearts. Former Posse Comitatus ex-con makes good as the eco-anarchist chief of the best tax haven on the continent. And those bio landmines along the OCF border have done a pretty good job keeping out the IntraFeds.

Maybe I'll be safer here than I thought.

"I'll just stay in the car," I suggest. I turn my attention toward my mystery girl in the back seat, wondering what worlds revolve in that head of hers, and trying not to image what Ana is hauling out of the trunk or what she'll get in payment from her Algorithms on High.
Tobin James Mueller
CHAPTER FIVE - The Fray Zone
To read Chapter Five, click here.
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All text edited by Chris & Tobin Mueller.

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