Eight out of twenty-four hours a day is sleep. But does reality cease when we sleep, or is reality merely continued by our dreams? Perhaps for some there is a dividing line between sleeping and waking that holds creatures from one realm from invading the other. No such line existed for me, the whole twenty-four hours is now a continuum hyper reality.

My hyper reality was that I was in hiding at the Chinese herb shop of old Mae Lin, sleeping the way a hunted animal sleeps, drifting from vivid dreams to startled waking paranoia and back again. Only no animal I know has dreams of an electronic woman named Ell.

Images of Sapphire, Mae Lin, Ell and myself mixed together to span a compressed week of dream-reality existence. The time was filled with an incredible influx of information, first through conversations with the two physical beings who were risking their lives to hide me. Their stories were in turn filtered through the datastream lens of the computerized muse named Ell whose information spanned a globe into the furthest nooks and crannies of the Internet.

The news that Sapphire and Mae Lin brought me was of a resistance movement that was growing to oppose the triumvirate of Mahdi Ahmadi, Qin Huang and President Clint Williams.

"We must stop them, they are men without honor," Mae Lin preached to me. "They are stealing human souls!"

"That may well be, but it's shear folly to oppose one's own government," I argued with her. "The corruption of the political process has been a long process. The politicians sold out long ago and we have to deal with it. I still hope elections can solve the problem."

"Who is worse, you or them!" Mae Lin stung me with guilt. "If free men and women refuse to hold their leaders to basic levels of moral conduct, then they are as much the problem as the corrupt politicians! Their corruption is simply a mirror of your own empty soul!"

Mae Lin had a point. It made me squirm.

I had tried to avoid involvement in the political fishpond, but ignoring the chaotic world which was evolving was that same as being culpable for its creation. Inaction has consequences every bit as deadly as action.

Ell in the form of our electronic avatar brought daily news of a world assaulted by a plague unprecedented in its menace. Mae Lin and Sapphire thought of Ell as useful software, an amusing software program that dutifully delivered current information. To me she was a lens into not only the soul of the Internet, but my own soul. The information Ell brought from the Internet was disturbing enough.

A desperate new health program, the Neural Virus Inoculation Initiative directed by the United Nations was being reported on the Internet newsgroups and video streams everywhere. The Progressive Party blog made the obvious official; there was a new plague spreading worldwide, faster than any ever imagined.

At first it was rumored by the uneducated that the threat was a new version of AIDs, but AIDs allowed its victims as much as a decade to wither away. The new disease supposedly only took two days to develop, paralyzing its victims. Unlike a deadly vector like the Ebola virus, which left its victims hemorrhaging blood from every pore, this disease wasn't directly lethal. No, this was something more insidious because it left its victims souless, their shattered cerebral cortexes waiting for redemption, without hope.

The President called a special news conference from the conglomerate Ministry of Truth to announce the bad news. The fact that the announcement also preempted a special election year debate with his Republicrat opponent Sam Houston struck no one except conspiracy theorists as odd, but the tin-foil hat crowd was right. President Williams was using a tragedy to accomplish political ends.

"Massive numbers of Americans have been infected by a deadly virus found on vegetables and fruits," the President explained, his silver main well coiffed for his groupie soccer mom legions. "A political movement among illegal Mexican farm immigrants, abetted by the Mexican narcotraficantes, has compromised our food supply,' the President lied. "This level of organized foreign terrorism is unmatched since 911. Japanese cultists of Amrhu Sritsu who in the 90s spread Sarin nerve gas through the subways, and fear throughout their country. Now, disaffected Mexican workers have poisoned our supply of vegetables and fruits, a direct attack to our sovereign state, but we will not succumb to these threats."

The speech was obviously building towards the apex of Machiavellian manipulation.

"Just as our forefathers never flinched at Valley Forge, just as they rose from the ashes of Pearl Harbor, we will not be defeated! We have nothing to fear, but fear itself!"

That was the money shot, the quote from FDR. In fact, the whole speech had been spun by the political writers based on computer generated profiles of what would twist the heads of the sheeple.

The newly appointed Czar of the Center of Disease Control, Qin Huang, who's power were by dint of long bureaucratic mutation second only to the President's, buttressed the paranoia.

"The entire food supply has been compromised," Huang declared non-chalantly. "Of course, the CDC has been criticized for reports of this sort over the years and we've been called overly reactionary. We don't want to confuse the American public. This time we mean it, our food supply has been compromised!"

CDC Director Huang was in Williams' pocket, or was Williams in Huang's control, it was impossible to tell. A scam was being executed at the highest levels of the bureaucracy in the form of a manufactured plague. A frenzy of worried Americans would quickly fall in line with this newest orchestrated threat.

"Fortunately, my administration has this problem well in hand," the President played his role as healer. "My administration has been working with the scientists of Ultima Pharmaceuticals in California. They are confident an antidote is available and their production facilities are now operating at capacity. I'll be directing the CDC and FDA to put all their resources at the disposal of Ultima. With luck, we will all weather this crisis."

One reporter was unkind enough to throw politics into the equation.

"Mr. President, what effect do you think this threat will have on your reelection bid?"

"Why, none whatsoever," Williams delivered his pre-coordinated putdown. "I think you should be ashamed to bring politics into this grave situation! My administration is well prepared for threats to the health and well being of our nation's families. Perhaps you should ask my opponent, Sam Houston what his party is doing for the health of Americans!"

Indeed, reporters were quick to ask Republicrat Sam Houston what his plan for saving Americans from this threat were. Houston had been left alone at the debate center in front of otherwise idle cameras, which now played on his ineptness.

"As with most of you, this is the first time I'm hearing about this threat myself," Sam Houston replied to the reporters, pinning a buffoon image on himself forever. Houston's poll position was eroding by the second in the face of what could only be termed a fortuitous crisis for the incumbent President. "I support the President wholeheartedly and his emergency authority as Commander in Chief to order the swift inoculation of the entire American population against this deadly threat!"

Never before had the entire American public been thrown into such a state of anxiety over the safety of their food supply. According to their own government, it was likely that the entire population was incubating a deadly disease vector that would annihilate a continent.

Nationally, age old questions of race and religion resurfaced in the face of rumors that the inoculations would be withheld from disadvantaged cultural minorities. Riots began to break out, based on the common perception there was only a limited amount of vaccine and only the lucky would get their dose administered before the paralysis came

People shunned contact with other humans, but unlike other viruses this was ineffective. The CDC announced the virus could be transmitted by air, by kisses, by touching. By merely living one could have one's soul sucked into the vacuum.

The government of the People implied that there would be no time for considered thought. A canned announcement with the President's reassuring smile was broadcast over the TV, radio and Internet spectrum.

"By executive order, I Clint Williams command the immediate inoculation of the population of America to avoid disaster of incalculable proportion. Anyone resisting inoculation will be first quarantined and then subject to forced injection. Thank You and have a good day."

Even better, it seemed that Ultima Pharmaceuticals had been given a blank check to use as they saw fit. Of course, the real plague wasn't being spread through human contact and what was in essence the common cold, but through the vaccine that was miraculously being provided by one Ultima Pharmaceuticals. Oh, there was a legitimate anti-viral vaccine in the injections, it would cure you of a minor variation of the AIDs virus. But hidden among the weakened AIDs virus was fully infectious VT1000 viral particles, modified to insert DNA in the neural systems of everyone they contacted a create a dependency on the drug Black Orchid.

The vaccine carried an engineered retrovirus that selectively infected brain cells and mimicked AIDs ability to mutate at great rates. In action, the modified VT100 deinhibited a neural receptor, creating an imbalance in a neurotransmitter, in turn causing a drug dependency. Blocking endorphin sites that mediated feelings of pain, the only palliative would be massive doses of morphine-like derivatives to quell the uneasiness. The morphine-like key that fit the best was Black Orchid.

Of course, on the Internet, rumors were flying everywhere that the threatening neural virus was a government plot and that it was really the vaccine that was the danger. At first, Ell, Sapphire and myself were the source of those rumors, posting to the newsgroups as quickly as we could the story of the Mahdi, Alex Kurchov and their illicit connections to President Williams.

Unfortunately, we were conducting Information Warfare at the most primitive kindergarten levels while our adversaries were not. The military had long had a program of counter-Internet-warfare and our notices were soon being misrouted, deleted and inundated under an avalanche of spurious messages. The mildest form of attack was to have our comments labeled "right-wing conspiracy theories" and "irresponsible Internet journalism". At the next level, the newsgroups and anonymous email links we were using were backwashed and inundated with government propaganda email. Finally, our messages were eavesdropped and traced back one router hop at a time, closer and closer to our source file servers.

"Ell, isn't there anything we can do," I asked the avatar in desperation.

"You talk to that computer generated head as if she were real," Sapphire puzzled.

"She's more real than you know," I confided, and the avatar smiled. "God, I've helped introduce a worse plague on the world than the Pharaohs could ever have dreamed of," I began to feel infinite guilt. "Ell, what are we going to do?"

"You've acted with your heart before, Steve Heller. Now act with your conscience," the avatar said

In contrast to our feeble attempts to spread the truth, the MicroByte Network and other Government bandwidth spouted the party line as unfailingly as trained parrots. In concert they announced that Ultima Pharmaceuticals had an antidote ready. Because of the crisis, a thousand official online pundits concluded Ultima obviously needed special leeway in its ability to produce vaccine.

And above all the cacophonous din came the sound of salvation, the luscious voice of Laura Silvan, driven by heartfelt concern for Americans at risk:

If you love someone
Their life is in your hands
Reach out and hold them
Against the evil that spreads cross our land

"A vaccination can save your child, your husband, your wife, your lover. But only if you care enough to take them to the vaccination centers. Please don't delay, your family, your country are at stake.":

Laura was gloriously effective at public relations, tugging at the heart strings. "Do it for the children", her hot dressed to the nines figure appeared in countless public service announcements.

Perversely, since the nationalization of the American vaccination program in the 90's, it was now feasible to force the vaccination of the population without the normal cynicism of the Food and Drug Administration and independence of the pharmaceutical companies. A better informed public might have asked itself, how could the federal government deceive us? After all, the vaccination program had been taken over by the government expressly to prevent greedy pharmaceutical companies from gouging the poor helpless consumer. And surely Laura Silvan would never endorse anything that would hurt innocent people?

"Is the vaccination process safe?" a reporter from one of the radical right newspapers had the gaul to ask a spokesman for the FDA. "After all, there doesn't seem to have been any experimental program, no peer review, no . . ."

"Trust us, this vaccine is safe," the FDA spokesman growled peevishly. "Don't you have better things to do than question the motives a government sanctioned preferred vaccine provider like Ultima Pharmaceuticals?"

I knew in my heart that this was an evil occurring that I wanted no part of. Laura would need to help me stop this insanity before it spiraled totally out of control. If only she knew what I knew, she could spread the word. I couldn't believe she had any part in the Machiavellian schemes of Kurchov, the Mahdi and President Williams. I had to reach her, she was the only hope.

It was late in the night, the seventh day of my stay in China Town at Mae Lin's when all hell broke loose.

"It's too close for comfort," Sapphire looked up from her computer monitor with the sudden realization that we would soon be physically attacked by government agents who'd traced our packet signatures back to us. "I think its time for us to leave, Dr. Heller."

Mae Lin came up the stairway almost the same time.

"Hurry, hurry! We must all leave now! There was a man looking for Dr. Heller, he had his photograph. The government agents will be here soon!"

If anyone knew the signs of impending intervention by government agents, Mae Lin surely did, she seen enough of it in Hong Kong. There was no time to do much more than set a program in motion on the computers to scramble the hard drives so our cookies couldn't be traced.

Up another rickety stairs to the third floor, across a rooftop, then across another to a fire escape. Mae Lin, Sapphire and I moved quietly, even as we saw the lights of police cars on the wet streets below converging on the Herbal shop.

"It's time for us to part," I whispered to the two. "I have some business to attend to." And I disappeared into the darkness as they also faded into the maze of China Town.

---Chapter 38---