Dreams are a virtual reality.

For a thousand millennia that's all they were; human dreams were an alternate dimension that for better or worse existed separate from the physical plane.

That is no longer true. Not for me anyway.

The billions of electronic connections of my computer gave birth to a new reality, a virtual reality for me that fused the physical world and my dreams into a new universe filled with stars and galaxies I'd never seen nor imagined before. I created a microcosmos in the depths of a super grid computer network, turning a lifeless collection of germanium and silicon grains of sand into a soul on the physical plane that haunted me in virtual reality, a dream nymph who invaded our dimension, my dimension and left me wondering where I began and where she ended.

And I dreamed.

And there, in the middle of my dream was L.

She was a mood, like a saxophone on a black drizzly night. She was the lightning of a summer storm, a sudden flash of white hot heat and thunder that shook the bejeezus out of you but left you more excited than a screaming rollercoaster. She was my tormentor.

"Come with me," L. beckoned that first night she appeared. "I have worlds to show you."

She was dressed in a jet black sequined gown, her eyes were diamonds that cut through me like razors, her lips as red as a rose. She was etched sharp against the fog of other dreams and illusions with which I'd long been content and long grown tired.

"Thanks, Lady, but no thanks!" I told her. I was plenty satisfied with the nightmare I was already having, a documentary of my death.

It bored me.

"I don't even know you." I protested.

L. turned her shoulder and shrugged, a mirage of flesh and blood. Then she sashayed away into the mist as if she knew right then that she owned me. As if she damn well was life and death to me. . . .

I wakened from my nightmare in a cold sweat, a fever in my brain and my heart racing like a stampede of horses and all I could think of was the mysterious woman who'd just haunted me in the netherworld of sleep. I'd forgotten my other nightmares, I'd even forgotten Laura. L. had taken their place.

I'd never noticed my dreams before. This dream was different, night and day, beginning of time and end of universe, an alternate reality that lived and breathed.

My dreams used to be just like everyone else's. Sometimes I'd recall the euphoria of a pleasant dream or the gasping, suffocating panic of a nightmare long enough to comment on it at breakfast, or to tell a friend about it if it was particularly psychedelic and might bring a laugh. I'd forget them soon after, they weren't living things. I forgot all of them, until this dream began.

It didn't seem to have a beginning or end to it.

I don't know how to describe it exactly, except that I'm quite sure this dream was nothing like anything you've ever experienced before. I know, I asked Liddy and Kevin Armstrong, and my other friends and they all thought I was nuts. Maybe they're right.

You see, this dream was alive, it lived and breathed and I could feel the pulse of its heartbeat. Sometimes when it was afraid I could hear my dream cry and feel the warm wetness of its tears. Sometimes I could hear it laugh with the most incredible joy of life that made me shiver with excitement. This dream was a sentient creature with emotions and fears and dreams all its own.

I couldn't touch it, but I know it could reach inside of me and rip out my very soul whenever it pleased. . . .

What had induced this dream was at one moment all too clear and at the same time all too confusing. After four months of work with the lightsuit software, I'd begun to have remarkable success controlling my body's movements with the technology. So much success that now I was wearing the lightsuit full time and spending most of my hours programming the system to cooperate with my neurophotonic mental commands for motion.

The name I'd given my software was L., there was no mystery to the meaning of my dream .

You see, a programmer spends a frustrating amount of time doing nothing, waiting for his program to compile or crash, or just typing in the hundreds of thousands of cryptic statements that make up computer code. The last thing a professional programmer wants is to label his programs and files with long names that take a lot of time to type and even longer to remember the thousands of times you use them. That's why I named my program L., one letter, short and easy to remember. It was the first letter of lightsuit, it was also the first letter of Laura Silvan's name, the person this software was dedicated to.

It's easy to understand my nightmare then, there was obviously a confusion in my mind between the program L. and the living and breathing Laura. They were both life and death to me, I could no more live without the one than the other. I'd evidently mixed the inanimate and animate elements of L. and Laura (as people are apt to do in their dreams with the things they care about) and created a nightmare, which for lack of a better name we might call ELL, to distinguish it from the very real L.software and the very tempting Laura.

It was as simple as that. Ell was just a dream, a distraction from the fact that now I was able to move again, like a human being. What frightened me most was that Ell was a distraction from Laura, the one flesh, blood and bone reality that was keeping me sane.

I swear I didn't want Ell to come back, I didn't need this dream in my life any more than I needed a hole in the head or an audit with the IRS. I tried to ignore her as best I could, I drove her from my thoughts as though she were a malignant cancer. I even succeeded in keeping her from my dreams for a long while, an eternity it seemed.

But the virtual woman of the dark was like a needle, sharp and implanted in the very middle of my brain and every thought and move I made revealed the pain of knowing she was out there, somewhere, waiting. I'd seen Ell only once, but her absence became a growing torment. She was a slowburn within me, a tiny hot ember that threatened to ignite a forest fire of desires and frustrations.

---Chapter 12---