They call it vreaming. VR plus dreaming, see? Dreaming another world while still awake. It's the newest thing amongst the homosapien part of the community, though the natives have been using a form of it for decades. But it's only in the past few years that kids – teenagers of both species – have been modding the VR so that it's portable. We all wear dark 'specs outside, goggles that allow us a full field of view, protecting our eyes from the ever-present snow glare. People like my girl and her beast friend have been working on them so that they black out the real world and display what they call the Vreaming instead. Mods to the software mean that VR city plans match those of our own town, making it possible to walk snowy streets while seeing a desert oasis. The 'specs are linked in with our surskins, our undermost layer of head-to-toe clothing, allowing the wearer to feel the heat of the desert sun, the wind whipping around them…
They call it vreaming.
I call it risky.
"I still think it's risky."
"'Salright, boyo, you're not the one doin' it, only me." I pulled on my surskin gloves and straightened up, bringing the vidscreen into view. He had a worried look on his face, a little line between his brows that made me laugh. "Ah, c'mon, alls I'm doin' is takin' it on a test run over to your house, takin' the long route. Mebbe forty minutes."
He scowled as I pulled on another layer and snagged my 'specs from the table. I fiddled with the connecting wire as my boy continued sulking quietly, and then went on, "Beast took hers for a dry run yest'day – the mods all worked fine. I'll see you when I see you. Kisses." I blew a kiss and shut down the vidscreen, snorting under my breath. I flicked on the 'specs – the vreamers now, with their mods – and put them on before pulling my facemask on over my head. It was bright today, but bitingly cold, and I'd need all the layers I could get. Since I was still indoors, everything was the same through the vreamers, only in grayscale; I'd yet to config the inside of my house, though the outside had the look of a desert dwelling.
I stepped outside, feeling one blast of cold air before the techie gear took over. The world shimmered once, reddish sand overlaying starkly white snow, and then all I could see was desert, and all I could feel was the sun on my body. I glanced down at my hands, checking the 'skin' I'd made for myself. It seemed all right; tanned skin, a snake bracelet curling around my right wrist, long fingers. I looked up and around, at the low mud brick houses and the path that would take me out of town. There were two paths to the boy's house, one short and quick, the other looping around, out into the shimmering desert. That was the one I chose, as Beast had run the vreamers in town the day before.
The heat was intense, but it was a thousand times better than the usual bone-numbing cold. I could feel the sand under my bare feet; it was still early in the day and the chill of night clung to the sand. The desert was quiet, not the dead quiet of snow but the living not-quite-silence made up of the tiny noises of myriad creatures going about their lives. It was much easier to listen to, this silence, and Beast agreed, for all that she is bred for a snow-bound world. As I walked, I met only one other person, a tall woman with intricate black tattoos winding around her arms and along her collarbones, clear even against her dark skin. She nodded at me, but said nothing, and so I had no idea if she was another vreamer like me, or if the program had supplied her. I shrugged to myself, and went on.
I was well out of sight of the town now, with only the desert in front and behind, a seemingly endless vista of red sand. Suddenly, a glint to the left caught my eye, perhaps ten yards off the path. I hesitated only a moment, and then turned off towards it. I didn't have time for a Vreamer's Quest right now, but if the glinting object seemed interesting, I'd come back for it later.
A mirror lay in a little hollow in the sand, the sun gleaming off the surface like tamed fire and sliding over the simple polished-wood frame. I crouched down, changing the angle so that the sun didn't reflect quite so strongly and I could see my face. I grinned, seeing my new features for the first time, the dark blue tribal tattoos on high cheekbones, the dark, slanting eyes, the full lips. I reached out to touch it; the iridescent surface seemed to pull me towards it. There was a cry from somewhere to my left, but I ignored it.
The instant before my fingertips could brush the mirror's glass, something, moving fast, slammed into my body with a roar. I hit the sand hard, and the Vreaming's sensations were briefly replaced by the unyielding cold of the real world's frozen earth and snow. Although what I saw didn't change, my vision blurred for a moment, then cleared. I struggled to sit up as the creature that had knocked me over rolled off of my body, and then crouched next to me. I stared into its golden eyes.
"Who…" I gasped out, furious and more than a little scared, "who t'hell are you?"
I saw the glint first, the telltale sign of a mirror in the desert. My first instinct was to look away, for my kind does not trust mirrors because of what they hide, but behind the glint I saw movement –
And I knew that way of moving. No VR persona could change that, and before I realized what I was doing, I had dropped to all fours and stretched out into a run. As I streaked towards the girl kneeling in the sand, I cried out a warning, but she ignored me. There was nothing else for it. I leapt, putting as much power as I could muster into the motion, and let a roar escape me as I flew through the air, hoping she'd be distracted, somehow.
I slammed into her an instant before her fingertips could brush the mirror's glass, knocking her down with the full force of two hundred solid pounds of muscle, though my current appearance belied it. She gasped, the breath knocked out of her, then struggled to sit up. When she'd regained herself, she stared at me like she'd never seen me before in her life, and got out, "Who…who t'hell are you?"
I reached forward, gripping her upper arms to steady her as I replied in as calm a voice I could manage, "Girl… girl, calm down. It is me. You know me. I look different, I know, but try to see past it; you can always do it in the Vreaming, if you try."
She looked me up and down, and I could see why she was confused. In the Vreaming, I was tawny with small black spots, and black tear marks running from the corners of my amber eyes to the corners of my mouth, long-legged, slim-bodied, and lean, with one upright ear adorned with three golden hoops. My normal shape was broader, a little shorter, with blue-gray fur and indigo eyes, built for cold, cold weather. A few heartbeats passed, and then she whispered, "…Beast?"
Relief washed through me. "Good girl. I was afraid I'd hit you too hard for a moment there."
"Why'd'ja hit me 'tall, then?" she cried, surging upright, her eyes glinting with anger. I was on my feet before she could move away, catching her by her arms again and making her look straight at me. "You were. In danger. You did not listen when I called you; it was my only choice." The girl had nothing to say to that, and the rage faded from her eyes, replaced by confusion as she took in the seriousness of my words. I let my grip relax, but didn't let go.
"I was'nt e'er in danger, Beast," she said, slowly. "'S just a mirror, after all, layin' in the sand – it can't do no harm ta me."
I felt a growl growing behind my teeth, and all my attempts to swallow it before I spoke failed utterly. "Goddess of wind and storm! Do you know nothing of my species' traditions and customs? You came into our world so high-and-mighty and settled beside us, built your houses on our land and claimed our technology for your own. We made a point to learn about you when you came, but Snowborne forbid you learn aught about us, the very people you lived among – we are little more than animals to you! Had you learned but a little, you would know the dangers of that." I flung out a clawed hand towards the little hollow in the sand and what it contained, but carefully kept my eyes away from it.
"But 's just a – "
"For godsake, girl! Take off your vreamers."
Again she simply stared at me, gaping, not understanding. Then she reached up, and the face of her vreaming self went blank. I pushed my own off of my eyes, and the glare of sun-on-snow reinstated itself. The girl was crouched down, staring in horror into the little hollow in the snow. I came to stand beside her, glancing briefly into the pool, then away. My stomach roiled from just that one glimpse of the shifting, oily colors.
"That is rayoac. Poison, and it would have shorted our your surskin before you could pull away. And as you are as mammalian as I am, I assume it would have killed you slowly had it touched your true skin, as it would for me. It is hard for me not to touch it; my kind is drawn and repulsed from it at the same time." I tried not to let rage creep into my voice, but it was hard so near the liquid that had claimed so many of my kin's lives… "Your species made it, generations ago, and dropped it here. They wanted to wipe us out and leave the world empty for them to move into. But we weren't the beasts they thought we were." I saw her flinch at the word 'beasts', and she wouldn't look at me. "Still, we lost so many that we began to develop something that would alert us early. That is where vreaming started, not from a cub's desire to play with technology. My kind associates mirrors with humans, as we had never seen them before your species met ours. A programmer coded rayoac to look like mirrors in the Vreaming, so that the sun would glint from them and warn us away from them before we came close enough to be ensnared.
"I do not know if those who made the rayoac realized it would affect their own kind, as you have just proved it does." I lay a paw gently on her back, and she turned guilty hazel eyes up to look at me. "Come away, girl. It is not safe to stand near for long."
We rose together and walked away from the hollow in the snow, pulling our vreamers back on. Once we were nearly back to the town's limits, the girl stopped and turned around, looking back to where the gleam of sun on polished glass was still just visible. I touched her cheek, drawing her attention back towards me.
"Leave it be. Even your species says that mirrors are liars, and a mirror in the desert is the most dangerous liar of all."