For Lauder, the first thought of the day was, "Yes." Nothing more, and no matter how he really felt; just this simple affirmation. He wasn't much of an optimist, and the word was autogenic if anything. It was followed by a short meditation, a clearing of the mind, as if he were preparing a playing field for the day's activities.
Lauder was an inventor, specializing in design patterns for ship parts, and was employed in the research section of his corporation. He was in his late twenties, a brilliant designer who'd spearheaded the recent invention drive and been primarily responsible for a good part of the datacores coming out of his company.
He also suffered from depression. And he clung to prayers like lifeblood, but they weren't religious ones, leastwise not in the traditional sense. He'd have loved being religious, to give his mind over to an outside force and trust in that force to put things right, but he simply couldn't. It wasn't in the nature of engineers to trust in faith and blind luck. If something wasn't working, you went in there and fixed it yourself.
Instead, he used autosuggestion. He told himself, in the repetitive, monotonous chanting of a pious monk, that the day would go fine; that all was well, all was well, and all manner of things would be well. It was a litany of positivities, and he knew it really wasn't that far removed from actual prayer, but despite his slight uneasiness at doing it in this manner, he persisted. It was a stepping stone, a rung on the ladder, and nothing more.
Once he'd get to work, he knew, everything would improve. His job was highly cerebral: He worked with abstract models and pattern relationships, and spent most of his time discovering connections between them. He had a highly developed visual system for these patterns, one that virtually permitted him to pick out seemingly unrelated units and string them together, like beads on a string, to discover that they were in fact related in some cryptic but potentially useful manner. He loved doing this, and when it was going well he was almost acting out of his own body, watching himself pick out the patterns, then watching the way they interacted and clicked with one another to make some new thing of beauty. When it was not going well, every action of the day could turn into a choice. "Should I piece together this collection of patterns," he'd think, "or go blow my head off in the hybrid testing room?"
So his morning environment, that one place he had to face before he could go to work, and the major factor in his mood for the rest of the day, he kept as positive as possible. A plasma screen in the kitchen showed sunrise over farmland, and the borders of the screen even displayed a painted wooden window frame, giving rise to the illusion that the watcher was sitting inside his own little farmhouse. Soft music played, a mix of birdsong and ambient tones. There was a myriad of electronic and mechanical equipment in Lauder's kitchen, remnants from countless late-night experiments, and he often had to dig through a pile of strange-looking metal objects to get to his early-morning coffee and cigarettes. These days he was working on improvements to the new armor rigs, the antipumps in particular, and as a result had, in his kitchen, several test canisters of the liquid used as a pressurant in the pump hydraulics. It was a tarry, scentless concoction, and he'd been very careful not to accidentally pour any into his drinking cups. The liquid didn't taste too bad and even had some mildly intoxicating properties, and thus, by regulation, was laced with an antabus reageant. A good sip of it would make you wish you'd brought more reading material.
That plasma screen on the wall was put to good use, too. Once Lauder had set the coffeepot gently bubbling away - it could be done instantly, but this was a ritual - he stood in front of the screen, in a spot kept clear of any mechanical contrivances, and said out loud, "Unfocus."
Before him, the image on the screen began to fade in and out of focus, one minute crisp and clear, the other slightly fuzzy around the edges like a painting. Not only that, but the positioning of certain elements was adjusted slightly, so that the cattle on the left seemed to drift outward to the edge of the screen, the fields on the right shifted and undulated, and the farmhouse in the middle receded ever so slightly towards its own vanishing point.
Lauder unfocused his eyes, relaxing them and trying to see into and past the screen. He tensed up a number of muscles, in his hands, in his abdomen and at the back of his neck, and felt his customized optic implant activate. It took him a little while to drift off, until he at last found himself outside his quarters, outside everything, and inside the picture itself.
He stood there, surveying the land and taking his time. Eventually, he knew, he would have to turn and start his preparations, but for these brief moments of unreality he was content to watch the landscape. He stood on a small grassy plain in front of the farmhouse, regarding it, the trees that grew beside it, and the sun beyond. The sun was bright, but not so much that he couldn't look at it. A gentle wind fanned the leaves on the trees. To his left he heard the cattle trudge through the grass, its tails swishing at flies. Somewhere in the distance, a brook babbled. It was perfect, really.
He sighed, not so much from exasperation but from simple enjoyment drawn to a close, and turned.
It was like going from day to night. The vista before him had no single light source, but there were luminous paths leading everywhere, and the buildings - no, not buildings, the constructs - that dotted the landscape also seemed aglow with a soft, pulsating fire. The area was a patchwork that shifted as Lauder's gaze roved over it: Here, a patch of desert, on which lay a series of interconnected brick shacks, each one of their tan surfaces decorated with murals of maroon clay. There, misty swampland, beset with wooden cabins that seemed to float on the grungy water and that, every now and then, would arise on massive but spindly legs and reposition themselves. In the distance, forested hills, over which towered massive stone castles, their spires aimed to pierce the sky. Everything was low-tech, and everything shifted, like reflections on water droplets. Lauder concentrated and the swampland disappeared, replaced with a series of a promontories, each holding a tall tower that looked half like a lighthouse and half like a minaret. From the corner of his eye he saw a few paths that seemed to go nowhere, and frowned, but paid them no more heed for the time being.
This was his unconscious mind. This was the place where his eyes didn't go.
He walked down a path to one of the lighthouses. In reality the trip should have taken him hours, but distances were deceptive here, and he was by the front door in a split second. Before opening it, he looked up; the tower was so tall that he couldn't even see its top section.
He looked back down at the door. It was made of wood and decorated with multitudinous carvings, ones that, the closer you looked, the more detail you saw. Lauder took a moment to look them over, taking in only the most general of details. Then he opened the door, and walked into the lighthouse.
On the inside it was more like a gallery. The walls were covered with objet d'arts: Paintings, etchings, carvings, collages, any style one could think of. The ground was littered with sculptures, and even the floor itself was a mosaic of abstract patterns. What was especially odd about the mass of art was that it followed no period, no theme and really no style at all. A realist painting of a space station hung beside a child's drawing of a family sitting in their car, and beside it, fluttering gently on some barely detectable breeze, was a jagged cutout from a picture book on general mechanics.
Despite the apparently haphazard selection and ordering of items, they each had a definite purpose. Taken one by one they were useless, but it was their sequencing and their precise placement that did the trick. Taken together, the objects in each house formed pattern collections, mnemonics of the innumerable design patterns that Lauder had to work with. He didn't even think of the buildings as houses, but gave them their proper term instead: Memory palaces. If all went well, Lauder would travel through several palaces before his breakfast was done, and by the time he was finished, he would be well prepared for the day's design work, able with ease to call up from memory a myriad of patterns with a rapidity that astounded his coworkers.
The technique was old and had long since fallen out of popular favour, but Lauder had found that by privately modifying limited optic and memory augmentations he could put it to good use. It could be argued that a proper memory implant would do just as well, but they were so expensive that Lauder hadn't been able to afford one at the outset. Once he'd finally made enough money to buy one, he found that he didn't much want it. The mnemonic linking techniques stood him in good stead. And besides, there were other reasons why he wanted to come here.
He travelled through the gigantic tower at high speed, slowing only to momentarily inspect a few of the newer sequences. Once done, he flickered back to the door and left the tower, intending to travel to the next one in line.
Except that the paths didn't lead there anymore. There was nothing left of the original pathways except faint, thin lines. The new paths, glowing and pulsating, stretched across the land and into the distance, towards dark clouds and darker territory. Lauder looked around and saw that the paths to every one of the other palaces had reconfigured themselves accordingly. They all led straight into the shadowlands.
Lauder sighed and rubbed his eyes. The palaces were his memory, but the paths were, quite literally, his thoughts. And if he didn't do something about this, he knew he was going to have a very rough time.
There sounded a faint but insistent beeping noise, and Lauder vanished.
He came to in the kitchen. The beeps were issuing from his oven, which had heated up to the proper temperature. Lauder opened his fridge, took out a couple of prepared sandwiches, unwrapped them and put them on a metal tray, then slid the tray into the oven. This same process could be achived in ten seconds by a microwave, but Lauder didn't care. He needed the slow mornings, not only to familiarize himself with the pattern data, but to deal with crises like the one now looming on the horizon. He checked on the coffee, which he had set to an extremely slow drip, and found that the pot was half ready. He'd have enough time for what he needed to do, without having to break routine.
He sighed again, and steeled himself. He hated having to do this. But already he could feel the darkness creeping into his conscious thoughts, like drops of ink into water. The very dread at having to go back into the other world and face the shadowlands told him that he'd better do it while he still could.
He looked at the plasma screen again. The scenery was the same, and gave him some small comfort. He unfocused, activated the implants, and after a moment's disorientation he was inside.
The sky was overcast now, full of menacing clouds. There was noticeably less light among the palaces, and the pulsing pathways, all of them leading to the same shapeless void, did not ease his mind.
The pathways were an abstraction, he knew, but they were close to the real thing. He was looking at the actual neural pathways in his brain, as near as he could ever get to true self-analysis. Were he to let enough time pass, he would find himself propelled down the paths and into the murky depths of depression, pulled by the unseen hand of his deeper self. And once he had been sucked in, there was no easy way back, except to survive the best he could until the paths allowed him safe return. It was absolute hell.
He'd managed to avoid it for weeks now, with proper diet, exercise, enough sleep, the right amount of challenging work, and a host of little self-congratulatory acts he performed whenever he could: Smiling at his success in some tiny little task, buying good food for himself, silently reciting mantras of positivity and cheer whenever he felt a downturn. And it had done him good. He felt strong, and very annoyed that his mind was trying to take him down that ugly route.
If he got stuck in the shadowlands, the palaces back here would start to fade, until, if it took long enough, he would have to rebuild most of them from the ground up. The thought of all that work reduced to rubble pushed him beyond annoyance and frustration, and made him feel very angry indeed.
And somewhere in the midst of that anger, the realization came to him that perhaps this time he could successfully fight back.
There had been times, so many times, where he tried and failed. But not always. And he'd done well for so long, built up so much strength...
He decided to stop analyzing it. The more he thought about it, the more he'd fear the failure, and worry about the extra expenditure of energy when he might need it all for the onset of depression. If this went wrong, he'd be utterly powerless.
He stood very still, took one last look at the palaces and at the ever-growing shadowlands that threatened to engulf them, then closed his eyes. Back in the real world, his body tensed up and activated a little-used function of his brain implants, one used only in dire need. It was a wetware reset.
The world grew black. He could feel the pulsating warmth of the path he stood on, and hear the crackling sounds as the shadowlands, with glacial speed and inexorability, tore up all that he had created. He quieted his mind, emptied it as best he could, and waited.
For how long he stood there, he didn't know, but at least he heard it. The small but unmistakable trickle of water. The trickle turned to a gurgle, which escalated to a steady drip, a pour, a gushing that got louder and louder, until at last it seemed as if he were standing in the middle of a massive river, its overflowing torrents washing away everything in their path. He felt nothing on him, no pressure, but yet the sound got even louder, as if he were standing on the breaking point of a tsunami that held, held, held ... and now crashed down, like a sweeping hand of God, clearing the lands at last.
The sound faded away. He stood stock still, not daring to move. Any action on his part could reawaken neural paths that had to be left alone, and the reset could only be done once in a row without risking his very mind in the process.
It was a faint but unmistakable scent that helped him rejoin the world: He smelled the freshness of the land after rain, the olfactory confirmation that everything had been washed clean. There would be no more reassurances, he knew. He took a deep breath, and opened his eyes.
The swamp had returned in place of the desert, and all the landscape had a decidedly drenched look. In the distance, the flags from the castle spires hung limp and heavy. The sealine at the promontories had definitely risen.
He took in these details in brief desperation, trying to prove to himself that the shadowlands had been washed away without having to look in their actual direction. But it didn't last; he had to look.
They were gone. They had been eliminated. The skies were clear all around; the void had, for lack of a better word, vanished; and all the pathways that had once led to oblivion were washed clean, not disappeared but left inert, unused, dim.
The path he stood on was straight and narrow, leading only to a focal point on a nearby hill, where Lauder saw that it crisscrossed with a number of other paths that all led safely to a palace. Aside from the reappearance of swampland, the palace grounds and buildings seemed safe and undamaged.
Lauder felt immense relief. The only worry that remained was what he'd done in the real world. The reset played havoc with his head, and would at times activate neural pathways that probably should have been left untouched. It also broke his safeguards, so he wouldn't return to consciousness even if he'd been in an accident. Most of the time his behaviour bore passable similarity to his daily routine, so he fervently hoped he hadn't done anything stupid like take off his clothes and walk naked to work.
The world faded, replaced by reality. Lauder found himself lying on the floor in a fetal position. He got up, brushed off his clothes and looked around. Everything seemed in order. Better than that, even. The sandwiches had been taken from the oven - using the oven mitts, thankfully, so his fingers were unblistered - and put on the kitchen table alongside a coffeecup and some juice in a carton.
Lauder was flooded with relief. All had gone well. It was amazing. And nobody was pointing, taking pictures, covering their children's eyes, or anything.
He sat at the table, mind awash with gratitude toward nothing in particular. Impulsively he reached for the sandwich and nibbled on it. It'd be a good day, he thought. And the sandwich was just right. He was just about to head out for work when he grabbed the coffeecup and took a big swallow, and in that instant realized two things: one, that the coffeepot was still full on the stove, and two, that an open canister of the antabus-laced armor rig hydraulic fluid stood on the kitchen table.