As usual, the very first thing Alison did when she arrived home was turn on the PC. In the minutes it took to whirr and beep through its elaborate boot up sequences Alison changed out of her office clothes, fixed a sandwich and made herself a cup of coffee. She was sat at the keyboard before the screen-saver kicked in.
A rapidly executed sequence of key strokes took her into the 3D virtual realm she had been so carefully crafting these past eighteen months. Perhaps "realm" was a little grand. A year and a half of too many too-late nights had bought Alison rather less virtual real estate than her parents' back garden. But it was hers. The one "place" she felt she belonged.
Settling back in her seat, she ran the animated sequence that had taken her top-of-the-range PC a week to render. The sequence that ran in her head most times she closed her eyes and every night in her dreams.
The camera started out high over the forest, panning slowly around the undulating arboreal landscape. The forest appeared to stretch on forever and in a sense this was true: Alison had applied the bumpmap foliage texture to an infinite plane. But there was no detail - no reality - except within her little garth.
And now the camera had found that one opening in the endless canopy. Down, down it took her in a dizzying spiral of virtual leaf and bole to the grassy clearing beneath. Alison took another sip of her coffee. Her heart was racing.
The camera came to rest in the south-east of the clearing, precisely four feet above the velvet lawn. It began to pan smoothly. Everything within the arena had been individually, painstakingly crafted in 3D and rendered using the most realistic procedural textures Alison could find.
The high hedge encircling the lawn. Each tree up to twenty feet into the forest. Every rock and plant.
Late afternoon sunlight slanted down, filtered to green by the trees above. It should be starlight, really, but when Alison had tried that everything had turned out too dark. Sunlight would do.
A silver stream flowed through the garden. The plug-in had cost Alison most of a month's wages but it was worth it. There was even a small waterfall.
Panning along the stream the camera arrived at the centre both of the garden and Alison's world. Upon a low pedestal of stone stood a wide silver bowl half-filled with water. A mirror that reflected not its surroundings but a swirling, star-studded sky. Alison planned eventually to animate the mirror to show a range of intertwining visions but that was for the future.
After a minute or two the sequence ended. Back to reality. Draining the rest of her coffee and wolfing the sandwiches, Alison opened up Poser. Hers was a slightly out of date version of the software but nonetheless it was an incredible product. Poser enabled the creation of realistic 3D people. Animals too, but it was people Alison was interested in. One person in particular.
Alt-file-open and there she stood. Tall, fair, beautiful. The Lady Galadriel. If possible, Alison had paid more attention to detail with the Lady than with the rest of her creation. Her stature, bearing and attire were as true as Alison's technical skills and the software could achieve. As true, that is, to the descriptions she knew by heart.
Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord: and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold ... but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.
But true also to Alison's imagination. In a number of areas she had allowed herself a degree of creative licence. To begin with, the model represented Alison's own ideas of bodily perfection and was rather fuller-figured than most might have imagined the Elven Queen. Most women, anyway. Curvaceous. Voluptuous. Sexy, even.
Secondly (and perhaps this was not unrelated) the face of Galadriel, the face of the Lady which gazed out at Alison from the screen, was her own. This had been surprisingly easy to achieve: a photo of herself wrapped onto the mannequin's features. A few tweaks and it was wonderfully, startlingly, realistic. Her own mother would have recognised her.
But in the matter of the rings Alison had gone further, pushing creative licence to the limits. Nenya she had modelled closely upon the recorded description.
... it glittered like polished gold overlaid with silver light, and a white stone in it twinkled as if the Even-star had come down to rest upon her hand.
Desiring the accomplishment of all her desires, Alison had conceived a Dark Purpose
But then, desiring for her alter ego the accomplishment of all her desires, Alison had conceived a Dark Purpose. It had taken the last three nights, labouring away at her 3D arts, to craft a perfect gold ring unadorned by any stone. An hour on the Internet had yielded the fine Tenwar font she needed to complete the task.
Alt-file-open and there it was. A ring of liquid gold spinning lazily on the screen.
An admirable thing and altogether precious.
Switching to wire-frame mode Alison took up the ring and carefully, carefully, slipped it upon the Lady's finger. She invoked a previously defined animation template. The wire-frame Lady turned to face the camera and slowly raised both arms to the sky. Perfect.
Flicking back into Preview, Alison half expected Galadriel to have disappeared (so deep was her virtual belief!) but no. There she stood in all her glory, arms aloft. The two rings upon her hand.
Alison felt a chill of anticipation and excitement pass down her spine. It was almost done.
She saved the figure and switched back to the landscaping package. Pasting the Lady into her little kingdom was the work of a moment but it took Alison a couple of hours to locate her precisely and adjust the camera and lighting. Preview stills looked promising but the animation would have to be re-rendered with the Lady in place. The full thing would take days and Alison was impatient to see the results of her handiwork.
Working as rapidly as she could and with trembling hands she copied the full animation sequence and edited it down to a 30 second clip that should render overnight. Starting from the head of the stream the camera would pan to the mirror then pull back to capture Galadriel raising her arms to the sky.
If she had positioned everything correctly the light from above should catch and refract in the Nenya stone. The camera then would zoom in to frame the face of Galadriel-that-was-Alison, Queen at last of her own Realm.
She rebooted the PC from cold to ensure every scrap of memory was available to the rendering engine. A final check and a couple of mouse clicks set it away. There was nothing left to do but wait.
Alison felt drained: exhaustion coupled with the stress of anticipation. Over the past months there had been times when she'd wondered why the garden had become so all-consumingly important to her. There were no certain answers. Tolkien's Middle-earth had captured her heart many years ago and it had seemed natural to apply herself towards realising one tiny portion of that realm, if only within the virtual space of her computer. Part of her feared she was taking it all rather too seriously but she had invested too much of her time - and herself - to give it up now.
She had begun dreaming of her little realm and found her mind wandering there in idle moments in the office. Then she had come by a copy of Poser and conceived of introducing Galadriel into the setting. It was, after all, her garden.
But it was Alison's garden too and as work continued the figure and face of Galadriel had been moulded into Alison's perfect image of herself. Herself as Elven Queen of a magical realm. Mistress of the Mirror of Visions and wielder of the Ring of Adamant. Eldritch beauty and unfathomable power. It was a tempting combination.
Alison read and reread Chapter VII until she could quote from it by heart. The testing of the Halflings was central to the Tale as a whole but to Alison they were of peripheral importance. More and more she focused on Galadriel's rejection of the One Ring, and her reasons for doing so.
Noble as they might have been, as more and more Alison took on the persona of Galadriel she came to doubt her motives: the wisdom of her choice. The dire warnings of corruption by the One Ring that ran through the Tale were surely open to question.
In history only Men and the loathsome Gollum creature had succumbed to its evil potency. The Halflings Bilbo and Frodo - even the half-wit Samwise - had resisted its corruption. Surely one so great in wisdom and grace as Galadriel might wield the Ring to no harm.
And so at last Alison had dared the making of the One Ring that her Lady might realise her utmost potential, if only within the confines of her little kingdom. It was with such thoughts running through her head that Alison lay down on her bed to sleep, the PC rendering away in the next room. Power failures and fatal abends excepted, she should have something to see by morning.
Three days later, at the insistence of a neighbour, Police Constable Martin Parish let himself into Alison's flat. She had not been seen since Tuesday and the milk was piling up on her doorstep.
The flat was empty, and silent apart from the humming of a computer in the box room Alison obviously used as a study. On the monitor a movie clip was running, over and over. To the young Constable it looked computer generated - what did they call it? Intrigued, he went over to take a closer look.
But it was the woman that caught his eye, dressed as she was in a white flowing gown that did nothing to hide her figure
The camera panned along a silver stream that twinkled in the sunlight. Amazing what you could do, these days. Now he could see a woman, standing alone in a clearing in a wood. Every detail of every tree was clear and distinct - Hyper-real - but it was the woman that caught his eye, dressed as she was in a white flowing gown that did nothing to hide her figure.
Very sexy! Martin thought, smiling to himself and feeling his body respond to the woman's sensuous curves. Not bad for someone - something - that wasn't even real. Knocked spots off Lara Croft.
What was she doing now? The woman raised both arms to the sky in a gesture that only further accentuated the swell of her breasts. Dimly, his mind on other things, he noted how cleverly the sunlight glinted on the rings on her upraised hand. A glint of gold and a crystal-thrown rainbow of refracted colour.
The camera shifted again, focusing on the woman's face as she turned to stare straight out of the screen.
The movie flickered, then began again at the start. Moving towards the computer the young Constable stumbled against the table. The movie stopped.
Do you want to save the changes to GALAD.AVI?
About to hit No, Martin thought better of it and clicked Yes. After all, this was a missing persons case and, however unlikely, the movie might be evidence. The Zip drive whirred. A moment later he was looking at a mess of coloured lines that might just be an outline version of the scene he had just witnessed. So that was how it was done! Very clever.
Alison's brain began preparing body and mind for another day of activity. Only gradually did brain and mind cotton on to the fact that this was not Alison's body. It wasn't wearing the cotton night-dress in which she had retired to bed. And this was definitely not her bedroom.
The body - Alison - stood in the centre of a clearing in a wood, her arms at her sides. Maybe a forest, for no light could be seen between the trees that surrounded her.
For the time being at least, within the dream, she was Galadriel in her garden
Attempting to stem a rising panic Alison assessed her situation. Obviously, she was still dreaming. This body was not hers but seemed to be the one she had modelled for Galadriel. The draping clothes. The voluptuous form beneath. The distinct lack of underwear. Okay. For the time being at least, within the dream, she was Galadriel in her garden.
And she was dreaming this, tonight, because in the next room her PC was working away at the animation. The panic subsided. Alison had no clear sense of time but the computer was probably a fair way through its task by now. She ought to wake up and take a look.
In a minute.
The rest of the animation opened like a broad path before her and this body - her body now as she laid claim to it - began physically to relax into the sequence.
Smoothly she raised her arms to the sky, feeling the flush of sunlight on her skin, a sense of belonging and inner power coursing through her veins. Her arms. Her skin. Her veins. There was a sudden rainbow flare of splintered colour and Alison turned her head to the source of both the power and the light. Two rings upon one hand. Her hand. Crystal and gold.
She stood like that for some time (how long?) in a stylised gesture of - what? Defiance? Triumph? Power? - then lowered her arms to her sides. Slowly, majestically. She was in Galadriel's - her - little garden, just as she had been a hundred times before in her obsession-soaked dreams (though never before in any body but her own). But no, that wasn't right.
Previously the sub-created environment had seemed good enough, impressive even, but still artificial. Unrealistically regular: incomplete and unfixed. But now all was clear and realistic: hyper-realistic. Everything she had crafted - the gently undulating lawn, each stone, plant, tree and leaf - was so much more than she had ever achieved before. More even than she had imagined.
It was as though they had taken on the business of their own creation and from her wireframe templates had wrought themselves into being. It was captivating and for a long time Alison did little but look around.
And listen. For there was music in the garden. Giddy with excitement Alison took her first tentative steps towards the tinkling stream. The perfect body seemed to be under her control and she took delight in the way it moved.
Kneeling, she dipped her hands into the water and brought them to her lips. The water was icy cold. The sensation registered sharp and poignant in her mind as though for the first time in her life she had come upon cold and knew it as something wild and alive.
She stayed a long time beside the silver waters, marvelling at what she had wrought (or what had wrought itself of her conception). Then she arose and light upon the grass followed the stream to where it fell in gentle cascade beside a flight of stone steps.
The waterfall had been a project in its own right. It had taken Alison the best part of a week to complete the closed-loop cascade and apply it to the bumpmapped transparent plane. She had been pleased enough at the effect. But now she was stood beside a living cascade. The water splashed and sparkled down the uneven rock face, a fine mist drenching her feet. It was incredible. Literally incredible!
Alison ascended the steps and passed through the high hedge that surrounded the garden. Here she had paid less attention to detail but as she passed tiny golden flowers winked up from the deeper shadows. She moved on, following the stream to where it entered the wood.
It was much darker beneath the trees, though here and there shafts of sunlight lit the floor green and gold.
She walked on, the bare earthen path cool beneath her feet. The air was cooler too, cold in fact, but that was not the only reason for the shiver Alison felt pass through her.
The trees should have given out twenty feet or so from the hedge. Instead it seemed as though a veritable forest of trees stretched out before her, and to either side of the path. No light could be seen between their smooth boles. Alison halted, uncertain for the first time. Unnoticed, the gold band sat plain upon her finger. Beside it the crystal ring burned with a secret amber fire.
Constable Parish had completed his tour of Alison's flat. There was nothing to suggest foul play.
Maybe she had decided on a last minute holiday (and not thought to inform her office?) Or perhaps a friend or relative had been taken ill (ditto?) When he returned to he station he would write up the missing persons report. It would be circulated around the country but there was no sign that anything untoward had occurred and the case would probably remain on the books. Alison would become just one more amongst the hundreds of people that disappeared every year.
He was about to lock up when he thought again of the PC. It might be best to turn the thing off. It would be a shame if a power surge - or a power failure - damaged the detailed computer model Alison had been working on. If and when she did return she would certainly want to continue with it. Alt-File-Exit ...
Do you want to save the changes to GALADRIELS_GARDEN?
Martin hit Yes and this time it was the hard disk light which flickered into life. The application closed down and he was back at the PC's desktop. A flurry of icons scattered across a plain green screen. Alison clearly didn't believe in wallpaper.
Galadriel's Garden, though - wasn't that from Tolkien?
Galadriel's Garden, though - wasn't that from Tolkien? He hadn't read any for years but there had been three or four shelves of fantasy books in Alison's bedroom and - yes, open flat on the desk beside the PC, a battered copy of The Lord of the Rings. Martin picked the book up and turned it over. It was open at a chapter entitled "The Mirror of Galadriel". He read a few lines.
In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'
That must have been what Alison was creating on the PC: Galadriel's speech about what she could do - what she could be - if she had the One Ring. Despite himself, Martin realised he was getting aroused again. It was partly the words but mostly images from the movie that the words recalled.
He shouldn't, but he had to take another look. Martin checked the front door was locked and threw the bolt. He'd have trouble explaining his actions if Alison or anyone else walked in right now.
His heart was racing as he seated himself at the desk and navigated his way to the Zip drive. Sure enough, there was the file he had saved earlier. He double-clicked and a window opened up. For a moment all was dark and he thought he'd wrecked something ... no - there she was. The Lady Galadriel. Oh, but she was something else!
He watched as the movie looped round and round, allowing his body to respond. Part of him felt detached from what was happening; alarmed, disgusted and ashamed. Less at what he was doing than the intensity of it all. He'd watched a few blue movies in his time but nothing had ever affected him as strongly as this.
Why should that be? She had a body to die for but there was nothing remotely erotic about what Galadriel was doing. What was it then? Something in her movements, her bearing. The way she stood there in the clearing in the woods declaimed the possession of some absolute power. And that, he found, was profoundly exciting to behold.
All shall love me and despair!
Exhausted at last Martin closed down the movie window. He ejected the Zip disk and slipped it into his pocket, replacing it with a blank disk from a box beside the PC. Shutting the computer down, he let himself out and returned the neighbour's key. There was nothing to worry about, he reassured her. Nothing to worry about, he reassured himself. Maybe Alison wouldn't notice the missing disk. Maybe she would never return.
Alison woke from a very strange dream to the sound of a twig cracking underfoot. Or maybe the sound of her front door being carefully closed. The first sign that there was anything amiss was the brilliant sunlight streaming into her room. It should have been seven am but the bedside clock proclaimed closer to midday. What had happened to her alarm? She was late - very late - for work.
Flustered, Alison leapt out of bed and turned on the radio and kettle en route to the shower. Five hours, as it turned out, was nothing. Yesterday had been Tuesday. Today ought to have been Wednesday but was, so Radio 4 was informing her fuddled brain, Saturday. No work then: a minor blessing in the circumstances. Alison sat down in her kitchen with a cup of strong black coffee and tried to think. That had been one hell of a dream, but she couldn't possibly have been asleep for three days. Could she?
The dream. It still felt incredibly vivid and real to her. Like remembering the events of the past few days, in fact. Ridiculous.
Jumping to her feet, Alison went through to her study. The little room looked just the way she had left it. No - the computer was turned off. That was wrong. Surely she had left it running, rendering the animation of Galadriel in the garden? Perhaps she'd only dreamt about leaving it on ... No way, she decided as she sat down and powered up the machine.
She might have lost three days out of her life but she was certain she'd left the computer running before she went to bed.
So, someone had been in her room. That was decidedly creepy but nothing seemed to have been taken. For now her only priority was to discover what had happened to her animation. If someone had turned off the PC in the middle of the rendering cycle the animation - even the garden file itself - might have been corrupted. She had back ups but all this week's work would be lost.
The first thing she did when the computer had finished its arcane whirring was access the Zip drive. There was an outside chance that the movie file had been saved to disk ... no, the disk was empty. She would just have to start the animation over again. Damn!
The garden file itself, though, was still on the hard disk and seemed okay. Wait a moment. The time stamp on the file was around half past eleven this morning.
Or maybe the sound of her front door being carefully closed.
She sat back, momentarily deflated. It was beginning to hit her. She had been - what? unconscious? asleep? for three days and during that time someone had gained access to her flat and messed about with her computer. At the very least. She felt a shudder pass through her body at the thought. She would have to report it. And change the locks.
Sometimes - most of the time if she was honest with herself - Alison was not happy with her life. Not the part of her life that involved living here in this flat, in this world, going to work, shopping, cooking ... Only in her head, in the worlds she created for herself out of her imagination, could she really feel free. All the rest-of-it, the "real", everyday world, was like being in Exile from her true home. Galadriel would have understood.
Martin Parish was on his way back to the station when the call came through. His missing person had not only reappeared but had phoned through to report a break-in. Within half an hour - confused and not a little alarmed - he was standing again outside the door to Alison's flat. This time he knocked.
Alison let him in and led the way through into the kitchen. She sounded as though she would rather not be doing this. That was pretty normal. People rarely felt comfortable talking to the police. But she was embarrassed too: she'd not expected anyone to follow up her report so promptly and was still in her dressing gown. She pulled the belt a little tighter about her.
Leaving aside for the time being the question of her disappearance, Martin asked his questions and noted down the young woman's responses.
Had anything been taken?
No, Alison didn't think so.
Had the lock been forced?
Who else had a key?
Was her own key missing?
Alison hadn't thought to check, but no.
Martin continued his questioning, more or less on auto-pilot. One thought only running through his head. Sat opposite him was the woman in the movie. The woman he had lusted over.
He hadn't thought of her as a real woman, just a computer generated image. But there she was. It was her face, definitely. The heavy cotton dressing-gown hid more than it revealed but beneath it he could imagine - found himself imagining - the body he had seen displayed so alluringly on the computer screen.
The computer. Alison kept coming back to that. Someone had been in and messed with her PC. She started going into details then, seeing his blank look and interpreting it as confusion, took him through into the study.
Martin felt very strange. Anxiety and guilt at his invasion of her privacy, virtual or otherwise, and his theft of the computer disk. Confusion over her story. It didn't seem to fit in with her disappearance.
When did she discover the break-in?
This morning - well, nearer midday - when she woke up. She heard the door to her flat close, so it seemed the intruder had only just left.
Martin noticed Alison was looking at him strangely. Did he look pale? Gathering himself together, he took Alison back through the events of the day. His day. Her neighbour's call to the police that she had not been seen since Tuesday. Three days' milk on the doorstep. His search of her flat: this flat. Everything. Nearly everything.
It didn't make any sense
Now it was Alison's turn to feel giddy. It was a policeman who had been in her flat: there had been no "intruder". She had woken in this flat as he closed the door behind him. Yet the policeman was saying the flat had been empty. It didn't make any sense.
It didn't make any sense. Suddenly Martin found himself answering the questions.
Had he checked the bedroom?
Of course. Everywhere.
Had he touched the computer?
Was it switched on?
Martin hoped he was a better liar than he felt. There was no way he could have missed this woman, awake or asleep, in the tiny flat. What was going on?
Alison's head was swimming. What could have happened to her for three days? All she had to cover the intervening time, the intervening days, was her oh-so-vivid-dream. She decided not to mention that.
Get rid of him. Try and figure it out.
Get out of here. Try and figure it out.
They were both relieved when, five minutes later, Martin left the flat. Alison had agreed to forget about the "intruder" and the police could close the Missing Person report before it had ever been filed.
Alison went straight back to her computer and opened the garden file into her landscaping package. She sighed out loud when she saw the familiar network of multicoloured lines. Everything seemed where it ought to be.
No. The figure of Galadriel ought to be where she had left it, stood in the centre of the lawn beside the Mirror. Arms at her sides. It wasn't. In fact at first Alison couldn't make sense of where the Lady had been moved. She didn't seem to be inside the garden at all. Alison flicked to an overhead view - and gasped out loud.
Galadriel was stood beneath the trees on the earthen path that ran alongside the stream, some hundred yards out from the garden. Exactly where Alison had been standing when she woke from her dream.
But never mind Galadriel, there shouldn't have been anything there at all. The trees should have ended twenty feet beyond the clearing, the path and stream a few yards further out.
What was going on?
And it was even stranger than that because the "new" trees were not evenly distributed but ranged in a band either side of the path, up to and a little way ahead of where the figure of Galadriel stood.
Where she had stood ...
Alison zoomed in. It was difficult to work at this magnification because the wireframes all overlapped but a few mouse clicks cut the confusion down to just the Lady and the nearest trees. Another rapid sequence and the screen cleared into preview mode. Line by line, the image began to appear. She could barely think, barely breathe.
It would only take a couple of minutes but, shaking physically now, Alison forced herself to walk to the kitchen and make another cup of coffee. Strong. Black. When she returned the image almost filled the screen.
There she stood. There she stood. Not the 3D mannequin of Galadriel with Alison's bitmapped face but Alison herself as she had been in her dream, in Galadriel's oh-so-perfect body. Beneath the trees.
And there was something wrong with those trees. No, not wrong, impossibly right. There had only been three trees in Alison's computer model of the garden. Three distinct tree objects. The forest was populated with copies of these three trees, height and density randomly varied by the computer within bounds Alison had set.
But on the screen in front of her the Lady - Alison - was surrounded by trees that not only lay beyond their prescribed boundary but appeared to be individually, impossibly, unique.
Alison checked the trees closer to the clearing. They were the same. Each individual, distinct from its neighbour and every other tree within the forest. Unique and perfect. She remembered how, in the dream-that-maybe-was-no- dream, everything had seemed so vibrantly and individually alive. Stone, plant, tree and leaf. It was impossible. Totally.
Somehow her presence had transformed the model itself, from the inside
The only explanation that made any sense made no sense at all. Her dream had been no dream. She had not lain asleep in her bed but had been inside the computer model of Galadriel's garden. For three days! She had become Galadriel. And somehow her presence had transformed the model itself, from the inside, rendering everything she saw into individual reality.
Crazy as it sounded, it explained a lot. The missing days. The perfect trees. The star-flowers she had never planted. The fact that the mannequin had ended up in precisely the same place as she had been when she awoke.
But it wasn't just missing time, was it? If the policeman was to be believed, Alison herself had not been in the flat. Until he left. Until she returned.
How had she disappeared? Why had she returned?
The policeman had told her the computer was switched off when he entered the flat but that made no sense: made even less sense than her own crazy theory. He must have turned it off just before he left. That's what had brought her back. She had to speak to him again.
To be continued ...