Short Story: “Common Ground”

Sometimes the headlines write the stories themselves. (Note: If you missed the canceled class, read about it in “Orientation“.)

“Common Ground”
By P. Orin Zack

“What do you mean, ‘the lab’s been cancelled’?” called a voice from the crowd.
Kelmar stood in the hallway in front of a door that was rapidly morphing into a cream-colored stretch of wall. He glanced over his shoulder in time to see the lettering, ‘Contextual Target Practice’, fade from view. His class had been a regular feature at the Great InterDimensional Library for as long as there were waking contexts to synch up with.

He scanned the crowd of disappointed dream-selves who’d come to practice keeping up appearances in their outer lives while maintaining continuity here, and shrugged. “I’m sorry. The consensual reality we’ve been using for dream-leaping practice has gone horribly awry. Someone’s spent a great deal of time and effort shattering the confidence the people carnating in it have that their instance of Earth was a sane place to wake up to each morning.”

His questioner, who’d adopted the form of a young woman, pushed to the front. “How is that possible? Isn’t consensual reality just a stable area of subjective overlap – a convenient way for selves to share a viable dreamscape?”

“You’re right, Ankora. But whoever it is that’s mucking things up there has shattered the context. To tell you the truth, I just tried dropping out of dream there myself, and it’s like catching a ride on a fire-hose.”

Judging from the blank looks, the imagery trailing his thought fell on deaf ears.

“Oh, come now, Kelmar. I always thought you were expert at herding beetles.” A hefty portion of the crowd turned to see the heckler behind them, who was expressing his selfness as a rotund cherub in a business suit. “Admit it. You enjoyed the challenge.”

The crowd split, offering each a clear view of the other.

“Challenge? Is that all you think you’ve created?”

The interloper stepped closer, and was now flanked by anxious, flickering faces. “Sure. That housebroken reality field you depend on to offer no resistance to people drifting in and out of flat, two-dimensional lives was so utterly boring. So now, I’ve fixed it for you, stirred it up a bit.”

Someone in the crowd muttered a quick prayer of protection and winked out.

Kelmar frowned. “Is that what you’re after? Scaring people back into their skin?”

He nodded his satisfaction. “Doesn’t take much. The only reason most of these sheep are here is because they think it’s not real.”

Two more students vanished.

“Losers!” he shouted. “All of you!” Then he raised an arm threateningly, and waved it across the crowd, which vanished in a wave of eye contact, leaving only Kelmar and Ankora standing against him. “See what I mean? They’re worthless. Worthless.”

Ankora stepped towards to her teacher and spun around to face their assailant. “Who are you anyway?”

He smirked. “Why should I tell you?” With that, he ran straight towards her, planted his foot for a leap, and blinked out scant inches from knocking them both to the floor.

* * *

One of the advantages of a place like the Library was that it was infinitely mutable.

Newcomers, people who chance into it through dream, drugs or meditation, experience only what’s safe for them, what their beliefs will allow them to see. So, for instance, if you sought out a special book from what you thought of as the Akashic Records while ensconced in incense and candlelight, you might find yourself before a single shelf in a room which suited your expectations. A deeply religious person might experience it as a great cathedral. And if you were on an undirected spiritual browse, it might seem more like an endless college campus.

This last possibility was closer to how Ankora experienced it right now, except that it was a suspiciously vacant, endless college campus. And also except that one of the buildings had just transformed itself into a high-ceilinged conference center. There was a rectangular ring of lighted table in the middle, and seats ringed round it in the relative darkness of the perimeter. She’d attached herself to Kelmar after the confrontation, and tagged along as he passed the word of the big meeting that was about to begin.

A man of indeterminate age stood by his seat at one end of the table-ring, and addressed the room. “Thank you all for laying aside your other activities so that you could participate.”

Ankora nudged Kelmar, and whispered. “Who’s that?”

He leaned close. “He calls himself Yova. The consensual reality I use for the lab was originally one of his. Haven’t you heard of him?”

She shook her head, and resumed listening.

“By now, you’ve all become aware of what has happened to the reality the people inhabiting it call Earth. Undermining the consensus that forms the structure of their shared dream is not only dangerous for the billions living inside it, but if not checked, it can also irreversibly and irretrievably damage the context that we share here today. That is why you have all been asked to attend.”

He glanced at Kelmar, standing to his right, and then looked slowly around the room. “The being whose presence has scared a multitude into dreamlessness, whose misuse of the knowledge freely given to all who visit this place, has led him to self-reinforced delusions of mastery. He has fled into what he believes to be a heavily protected circle of followers with control over enough channels of action and knowledge to render him untouchable. Through subterfuge, manipulation and deceit, he has caused to be destroyed the very idea of there being a common good, and covertly undermined the documents which denote the reasoned structure which an earlier generation of those living in my created reality set out as the basis for a consensual sharing of power and knowledge in their waking lives. He must be stopped.”

A murmur rose across the room, then two voices, almost as one, called out, “You can’t interfere.”

Yova held out a hand for silence. “One of you lay out the objection.”

After a few false starts, one of them, presenting here as a woman in chiffon robes, rose to speak. “Whether it be a danger to themselves or not, this being’s actions, as heinous as they may be, were undertaken wholly within the Earth context, were they not?”

“They were.”

“Then we have no impetus for taking action against a being in that context.”

“And yet,” Yova intoned after a pause, “those actions were predicated on knowledge learned outside of that context, knowledge gained right here in fact. This being – he calls himself something akin to ‘Wander’ in his self-defined waking life – this being even spoke of his plans openly in the place where he conducts himself, and challenged others in the Earth context with him to do anything about it. His challenge did not go unheard. Those words were repeated in all of the ways the people at the start of their 21st Century knew how to use. And they were discussed.”

The questioner raised a finger. “But what has he done? What has he caused to happen that calls for such drastic action as your request for this meeting implies?”

Kelmar cleared his throat. “May I speak? I was witness to the incident.”

Yova’s chiffon-clad questioner resumed her seat.

“When this being, this…” he glanced at Yova, “this Wander, was finished terrorizing the students who had gathered for my class, he left by jumping context. And although he did it while lunging at my student, here, the act was clearly intended for me. It was a show. A show of strength. Bravado. Wander thrives on manipulation. He draws energy from the fear he instills in others, and he wanted me to know that. He thinks he can’t be stopped, that he has complete control of everything around him.”

“I have taught dream-jumping here for as long as I can recall. The reality context that we have used – people who wake to it call it Earth, by one name or another – has a long history of stability. Over time, there have developed in this place many competing narratives explaining such imponderables as where Earth came from and how what they experience as life on it arose and changed. This is all done with varying resort to ideas that reach beyond the context they were trying to explain to themselves. However, in the past century, as they experience time, they have learned enough about manipulating consciousness to build entire lives around the practice.”

Yova drummed his fingers. “Are you coming to some point?”

Kelmar grinned sheepishly. “All of those things, even the manipulation, were acceptable, because they did not cause those within that shared reality to pull apart in the way that the work of Wander has done. Several of their years ago, people influenced by this man arranged an event that turned what should have been a safe, consensual waking reality into what I can only describe as a nightmare. They then proceeded to seed their world with contradictory explanations for what happened, and employed people to make certain that confusion continued to be the order of the day.”

The woman who spoke earlier leaned forward. “And is this all the justification you offer?”

“No. It is this. Any consensual reality, including this one, can survive only so long as those within it share a common set of beliefs about its existence. Wander has set loose competing memes that cannot co-exist. I have met dreamers from Earth who are struggling to rectify these mutually exclusive explanations for what should be a common, physical event — the destruction of some buildings. By solving their reality conflict through selection of one of these memes, the beings in the reality that Yova created are pulling their world apart. And if that were to happen, all of the beings who have extensions of themselves in that world — all of them, regardless of whether they are experiencing life in their Middle Ages or in their third interstellar diaspora, and that most likely includes everyone here in this room – they will all suddenly find themselves ejected from their world, ejected from their lives, with no explanation. They will not have a common field to find one another in. For them, for us, it would be an eternity of isolation. And we would all, every single one of us, go mad. That is why we must intervene.”

* * *

Ankora was sitting on the steps to the building which had once contained a classroom where Kelmar taught newcomers how to stitch their dream-lives together when her teacher stepped through the door. “Is it done?” she asked, hopefully.

He sat beside her and gazed at the distant mountains looming over the carefully tended courtyard. “Yes. We struck a compromise, though.”


“Yes. Wander had just resigned his post. Said it was to spend time with his family. But what he was really up to was starting his next round of confusion, using the competition to select his nation’s next leader as a basis. He’d arranged to have an acolyte helping each of the contenders in his political affiliation, assuming that they would hew to his call.”

She swallowed hard. “He was about to replicate himself?”

“In a way, yes. Anyway, that gave me an idea, and Yova just loved it. That guy has a wicked sense of humor. One by one, we located the beings whose selves had agreed to participate in Wander’s replication, and enlisted their cooperation. What we did was tweak the acolytes’ drive for power. Made them even more voracious than they already were. Their context selves were delighted at the prospect of having more power, of course, and that blinded them to the implications. So what you end up with is Wander, lost in an existential hall of mirrors, with reflections of himself fighting one another for supremacy. He’ll be spending time with his family, all right. Only they’re all him.”

Ankora relaxed. “And the competing memes? The controversy over how those buildings were destroyed?”

He grinned. “That’s where you come in.”

“Me? What can I do?”

“Tell this story when your extension on Earth wakes up. The common ground they need to believe in is right under your feet.”

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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