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Vernor Maxwell grew up in a Dreamtown high-rise. When he was thirteen his father took him in to get his plug installed, and the family was awarded a new receiver for the Hollownest. At first the plug frightened him, and he would lie awake for hours while the alien images and sensations trickled into his brain from the Dream Machine. Soon, however, he began to feel a certain pleasure, almost sexual, at the dark nightly joining of his mind with all the others. Sometimes he would imagine bright impulses passing out of his plug, through the Dream Machine, and into some young girl's pure brain. The older kids bragged about actually plugging their brains directly into their girlfriends' brains, and they would show Vernor the short lengths of co-axial cable which they used.
There was no school; the Hollows' morning line-up of kiddie shows provided all the education that the Users' children would ever need. No one checked if the kids watched the shows, but they didn't have to. The shows were fun, and Vernor rarely missed them. When he got bored he would fool with the controls on the Hollow receiver until the Nest was filled with flying blobs of light and fragmented images. After awhile his mother would come in and yell at him to fix it. He would retune so that the Hollows took on their normal wavering and grainy appearance, then go out in the street to play with his friends.
By the time he was sixteen, the "play" consisted mainly of getting twisted on tranks and seeweed. Users generally took the two together, trans-steroid tranquilizers and reefers of seeweed. Seeweed was a mutated aquatic strain of cannabis sativa. All you hadto do was drop a seed into a bucket of urine, and six weeks later you had a half-pound of seeweed. The grownups said you'd go crazy if you smoked it without taking tranks to smooth the trip, and they may have been right; but the kids continued to function pretty well after they discovered that tranks just took the edge off the weed.
A lot of Dreamer kids were into electricity, too, feeding it raw in through their skull plugs. You could hook a regular dry-cell battery to your plug; it would make you come for half an hour if you did it right ... and pass out in convulsions if you did it wrong. Of course, batteries were illegal, but they weren't too hard to get. Not much harder than the drugs, which were legal for anyone over eighteen. Legal and illegal were not, after all, very important concepts in Dreamtown. The City had a police force, known collectively as the loach, but the loach tended to stay out of Dreamtown. The Hollows kept down any large-scale unrest which the Dream Machine detected, and most Dreamers didn't own anything worth stealing.
The more sophisticated kids sent pulsed electricity from hand-cranked dynamos in through their plugs and called themselves electrofreaks. Vernor tried it a couple of times, had an epileptic fit, and gave it up. He had begun to wish he didn't have a plug at all. There was a passive, addicted feeling to plugging in every night, and lying there hooked in with all the other Dreamers, fleshly components of Phizwhiz. After spending a night with the soft knob at the back of your neck, while thoughts and feelings ebbed and flowed through the coiled cable, you never really knew what they had put in and what they had taken out. Some mornings you felt like you had dreamed everyone's dream, all tangled together, and you couldn't meet peoples' eyes ... but no one talked about it.
When he was twenty, Vernor started hanging around the library. Since there were so many people and so few real jobs, there was no encouragement to be anything other than a Dreamer, but if you were interested, you could study just about anything with the recorded Hollowcasts in the library. Vernor was interested in science, and he went through most of the introductory science courses which had been saved on infocubes. Physics and mathematics attracted him in particular, and soon he had exhausted the library's supply of infocubes in these areas.
It became necessary to learn how to read. The Hollow shows had taught him letters, numbers, and the phonetic reading of short words, but he had never actually read a book. The first book he read was Abbott's Flatland, and its archaic language and bizarre ideas fired his imagination. Months ran into years as he pursued his studies of Quantum Mechanics, General Field Theory, Geometrodynamics, Relativistic Cosmology, Mathematical Logic, and the Philosophy of Science. And sometimes, for a break, he'd study the history of Dadaism and Surrealism--he was a particular fan of Marcel Duchamp.
He discovered that if he slept on a table, the cleaning robots would not disturb him, so he began spending his nights in the library. That way he no longer had to plug into the Dream Machine. If he slept at home it was impossible not to plug in, for the bed had a weight sensor which set off a "reminder bell" if the bed's occupant wasn't properly jacked in.
There was even a Dreamfood tap in the library's lounge, so he soon stopped going home entirely. When he told his parents he was living in the library, they were proud ... until they discovered that Vernor was not learning a technical skill which might give him a chance of someday having a job. Being a Dreamer was, of course, a job of sorts ... every day's Hollowcast to Dreamtown ended with a slogan intended to encourage this belief: "Us needs you 'cause you're Younique!" But no amount of propaganda, no number of Hollows of the President saying, "Us is Users. Dream Us our tomorrow." could erase the Dreamers' sad and hidden knowledge of their uselessness.
But to study physics and mathematics? What was the good of that? There were no physicists any more, although being a physicist was not expressly illegal. What was illegal was to conduct experiments in a laboratory. It was too dangerous ... dangerous to the experimenter, and dangerous to the society that he might use his new discoveries on. Mathematics and theoretical physics were legal, but no one would pay people to do them; the common conception being that Phizwhiz was much better at science than any human could be.
Like all common conceptions about science, this was false. Phizwhiz was not much of a scientist. He knew enough to question old hypotheses, but he had no access to that inner vision of the Absolute which shines through the work of the true scientist.
Vernor had heard of the Us's attempts to give Phizwhiz soul by plugging him into certain Dreamers' minds, and he sometimes felt that if anyone would ever be able to survive such an experience it would be Vernor Maxwell. He took many strange trips lying on his library table, smoking seeweed or tripping on LSD. He had seen the world go solid and shatter into dust, leaving only a pure shimmer of abstract relations. He had watched the gnat of his consciousness speed urgently across his inner landscape as another part of himself tried to catch and dissect it, naming all the parts for once and all. He no longer could tell the difference between a good trip and a bad trip ... or rather this artificial distinction had fallen away.
One day the news spread that a man had entered into full communication with Phizwhiz and survived. Vernor watched him in the Hollownest of a bar near the library. The man's name was Andy Silver. To the viewer in the Nest, Silver appeared to be leaning against one wall.
Silver had blond hair and a funny way of holding his elbows out from his body. He smiled often, though not necessarily in synchronization with what he was saying Occasionally he did not appear to know where he was, but this did not seem to disturb him. An invisible voice, which the viewer could imagine to be his own, interviewed Andy Silver.
"Are you the guy that plugged into Phizwhiz last week?"
Silver glanced around, then stared at a spot to Vernor's left. "You bet your ass," he replied.
"What was it like, Andy?"
Silver began pacing around the room, "What's anything like? Real compared to what?" He paused, then continued, "Let's say it's like walking in a garden of light. And every flower is a number. And every number is your name..." His voice trailed off and he sat down, looking quietly across the room like a man with all the time in the world.
"How is it, Andy, that you managed to come unscathed through an experience which has shattered the minds of all the others who attempted it?"
"You call this unscathed?" Silver shot back, bursting into laughter, "No, seriously, gate, it was no big deal for me. I've been getting high every day for ten years now so most of my brain's gone anyway..." For an instant his eyes rolled and his head seemed to be on fire, but then he continued. "All kidding aside, Jim, I've been studying metamathematics, and actually I was in just the right place to get on top of Phizwhiz. LSD and a good scientific training's all it took. Couldn't have done it without the Professor, though."
"Which Professor are you referring to, Mr. Silver?"
Silver seemed puzzled at the question, but then he gathered himself to recite, "My beloved teacher, Professor G. Kurtowski, without whose writings and conversations I could never have reached this point."
"Thank you, Andy Silver, the first man to survive a full brain interlock with Phizwhiz. And now, Users, it is our great privilege to welcome the Governor."
The Governor's Hollow walked into the Nest. He was an amazingly evil-looking man who perpetually held his teeth bared in what he imagined to be a smile. Silver gave him the finger, but the Governor brushed past him and stepped forward to buttonhole the Users.
"Always glad to see you," he began, "You're Younique!" His standard opening. He continued, "We are fortunate to have in our fine City a man whose courage and strength of character open before us the exciting vista of a revitalized Phizwhiz."
Silver had turned around so that his back faced the Governor. Curious, Vernor walked across the Hollownest to get on Silver's other side so as to see his face. That was one of the nice things about Hollows, a complete three-dimensional image of the actors was always there in the Nest with you.
Silver was leaning forward confidentially over his cupped right hand. "Hey, man, glad you were hip enough to come over here," he whispered. The Governor was still extolling the bright future in store for the lucky Users in his care. Silver raised his hand and continued, "You know what I got in this hand? ZZ-74, man. That's what really put me on top. ZZ-74." He winked, then turned back to his original position facing the Governor's fat, talking back.
ZZ-74? Vernor had never heard of it before. No one else in the bar's Nest had bothered to go hear Silver's secret message, but surely many others in the City had. ZZ-74? His attention was drawn back to the Governor's speech.
"We need more Andy Silvers. I urge any citizen who feels able to withstand the titanic mental pressure of merging with the greatest computer the world has ever seen to come forward. Andy Silver is going to put together a team of Dreamers willing and able to get Phizwhiz moving again. More than ever before ... Us is Users and Users is Us!" The Governor seemed about to leave, but struck with a sudden afterthought, he turned to Silver, "Andy, what do you want to call this team?"
Silver looked at the Governor coolly, "The Angels," he said, "We'll be the Angels."
They gave Silver a floor in the main Phizwhiz building downtown, and the next day Vernor was there. Half the Dreamers in town seemed to have gotten there before him. After waiting two hours to get into the building, he gave up and went back to the library. It might, after all, be wise to study some more science and ride out a few more heavy trips before putting his mind on the line. Maybe the whole thing was a hoax, a trick by the Governor to get acid-heads to volunteer for some kind of brain obliteration. Although LSD was legal, it was clear that the Governor disliked freaks.
But Andy Silver's feat was not a hoax, as became evident over the next few months. New gadgets began appearing in the stores. The shows on the Hollows improved greatly. There was a rash of exciting fads. The laws against gardening and painting were dropped, and many people took up these enjoyable, but slightly dangerous hobbies. One man went on a rampage, killing six with his gardening tools, and paintings and slogans which were not good for the public to see began appearing on the sides of buildings and in the walktubes; but Andy Silver prevailed upon Phizwhiz to let the gardening and painting continue. There was even talk of legalizing laboratory science again.
The Us was not entirely happy with all the changes in Phizwhiz's behavior which Andy Silver was bringing about. For his part, Silver made no secret of his revolutionary sentiments ... occasionally going so far as to state that Phizwhiz should be destroyed. But the public was so enchanted with the life and excitement which he had brought, that it would have been politically impossible to arrest him--even if the Us had been sure it wanted to.
Silver had assembled a core of four other Angels from the many who had volunteered: three men and a woman. Most people never made it past the initial screening, and all the rest, except the four we're talking about, failed the actual machine test ... losing their minds in the process. Applications for a position with the Angels dropped off drastically as the word of this got around, and Vernor could now have gotten in for a test easily enough, but he hesitated to do this. It would probably be better to get some ZZ-74 first.
A number of other people had heard Silver mention ZZ-74 on the Hollows. Lots of people, including the loach, were looking to score some, but there wasn't any around. The general consensus was that ZZ-74 must be a drug which was being manufactured in an underground laboratory ... perhaps by the mysterious Professor G. Kurtowski.
Since the Us had not yet been able to obtain and analyze a sample of ZZ-74, they could not be sure that it was safe, so it was declared illegal, although the government was all too eager to legalize ZZ-74, if only they could find the formula and swing into production. A good demand for the stuff had built up on the strength of Silver's mention of it, and the Us was not adverse to making hay while the sun shines. They asked, then demanded, that the Angels surrender their cache of the illegal substance, but to no avail. Finally a raid was staged, but no unfamiliar drugs were found in the Angels' possession.
Vernor followed all this with interest, and he began looking into the writings of G. Kurtowski. His early papers were concerned with ironing out various imperfections in the Everett-Wheeler many-universe-interpretation of quantum mechanics. Toward the end of his publishing career, however, a number of surprising empirical predictions had begun to appear in his papers. Vernor was unable to discover if the experiments which Kurtowski suggested had ever been carried out, and Phizwhiz seemed to have no information at all on what the Professor had been doing for the last twenty years. Evidently Kurtowski was alive in an underground laboratory somewhere.
Again, Vernor was tempted to try to join the Angels, but again his caution held him back. He was twenty-three. He might have spent the rest of his life in the library, preparing for an ever-receding future, but one day Andy Silver came to see him.