Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 18.3

   Harte, standing outside the central cage, looked around in amazement.  The Engine Room was a shambles. Sirens blared and red lights were flashing.  The machinery on the ceiling was still shooting out blue-white sparks from the spots where Larkin’s bullets had struck.  Several of the “operatives” had been toppled off of their beds, a few looked badly mauled.  The woman who had been at the desk was collapsed on the ground.  Her lab coat had been changed from white to orange and black stripes; her hands were bloody. 
    There was something on his face.  He removed it - a round rubber nose.  He felt Black’s guards seize him by the elbows.
    Black threw his top hat to the ground and shouted, “HR!  On your feet!”  The woman in the cage hauled herself up at the corner of the desk, and looked at the gore on her hands dizzily.  Black entered the cage, grabbed her by the shoulder, and slapped her face.  “We’ve just had an incursion – I need a damage report!”
    The woman, HR, nodded shakily, and wiped her hands on her coat.  She moved around the fallen operatives, crouching by each of them in turn; then, she sat at the computer terminal. 
    Eventually, she said, “The damage to the hardware isn’t bad – it’s mostly cosmetic.  But we’ve got two dead operatives and five incapacitated.  We can’t run the system on just nine minds.”
    “How many do you need?” Black asked.
    “Ideally, fourteen, if you want operatives active in aleph-two.  But I can keep the system going with ten until the survivors recover.”
    Black frowned, then nodded slowly.  “Right.  All right.  Your people make trouble for me, Tim, they can help fix it.  We need some volunteers.”  He pointed at Ojeda and Wright.  “Process them.”
    The guards forced them into the cage at gunpoint, and HR began preparing the beds.
* * *
    Twenty minutes to the southeast, Nina Rodgers was sipping Krug as the limousine took her to the airport. With her extremely respectable bonus from this operation safely transferred to her offshore account, it seemed like a good time for an extended vacation.
    Maybe even a permanent one, Nina mused. The bonus alone was enough to retire on, never mind the savings (declared and otherwise) that she had amassed while living out her humble role as Harte’s housekeeper.
    No more cutting corners for her, she decided. She poured herself more champagne.
* * *
    I didn’t know if Lily was right – for all I knew, someone who was hallucinating might be able to affect the real world unconsciously while technically awake here. But how are you supposed to tell if someone is insane if whatever they hallucinate actually happens?
    Still, if Captain Forrest was somehow causing what was happening to Betsy, or to us, I had to stop it. Lily was apparently thinking the same thing. She pointed at Forrest, and spread her hands. What are we going to do about him?
    “I’m not sure,” I replied. That wasn’t exactly true; I had an idea. “Why don’t you see what’s up with Mina...she seems upset about something.” It was difficult to tell when a sleepwalker was preoccupied – I mean, they always seemed preoccupied with something – but Lily’s friend did seem more withdrawn than usual. Lily dropped back to where Mina was lagging behind us.
    I picked up my pace, gradually drawing away from them. I knew it was risky giving Lily a suggestion like that, but I didn’t want either of them nearby when I did what I was thinking of doing.
    As I closed on the Captain, I removed the stone from my pocket and wrapped my fist around it. Something told me he wasn’t just going to let me tap him on the forehead with it.
    Forrest stopped abruptly when a single flagstone separated us. I prepared to sprint the last few steps.
    “I’m very disappointed in you,” he said without turning around.
    “Captain,” I said as levelly as I could, still bracing myself to jump, “we’re concerned that you might be doing some things you don’t mean to.”
    Then he turned, and smiled sadly. “Matthew. Are you really accusing me of not being in control of my actions?”
    His voice was confident, he looked healthier than anyone I’d ever met. Who was I to question him? I started to go back, to tell Lily she was wrong. But then I thought about Betsy. I had to at least check, as foolish as it was. I faced Forrest again, but could only bring myself to look at his feet. “Um. I don’t mean what you’re doing here. But maybe back home.”
    “We’ve talked about that. That’s why I sleep on the boat, remember?” He looked at me with concern. “I think I see what’s happening. You’re still thinking about what Dr. Harte said, aren’t you? He’s just a confused old man.”
    There’s a phrase, “covered in shame.” At that moment I understood what it meant. I hung my head, feeling like my father had caught me doing something unclean with the family dog.
    Where did that come from? I couldn’t remember my father ever lecturing me. I mean, I’m sure he did, but I couldn’t remember it. Lily had commented on that at length.
    The weight in my right hand grew. My fingers opened, and the feeling of shame dissipated. I raised my head, and Forrest didn’t look so healthy. He looked more... terrified.
    And yet, I noticed that his hand still twitched ever so slightly toward the stone.
    “I told you, that thing is dangerous. It doesn’t belong here. Just toss it over the side and we’ll be done.”
    “It doesn’t do anything people like you and me,” I said. “Just set my mind at ease here. Then we can get back to figuring out how to throw a wrench in Black’s plans.”
    A wind picked up. The cloud bank on which we were standing shifted, the flagstones separating slightly.
    Forrest’s eyes narrowed. “They’ve gotten to you, haven’t they? That was why you took so long to join us in the holding cell, you were communicating with Black!”
    The clouds above us were gathering gray and heavy; droplets of rain carried by the wind struck my face.
    “No one has ‘gotten’ to me, Captain.” I shouted over the wind. Gusts caused the flagstones to bounce up and down like boats in a rough sea, and I staggered. I risked a quick glance behind me to make sure that Lily and Mina were all right; they were on their feet, but were approaching quickly. I had to end this soon. I couldn’t let Lily get near the blue stone.
    Forrest had not been thrown off balance at all, rising and falling on his flagstone, totally unaffected by the disturbance. “You and your friends, you’ve been Black’s people all along!” he said viciously. “Black sent you to aleph-two, so you could lure me out of hiding!”
    That was when I knew Lily was right. Maybe I had been used to get the Captain reveal himself. But as I listened to Forrest, I became sure that it was Forrest himself who had used me. Perhaps he’d somehow even had a role in drawing me into the dream world in the first place, to create an excuse for him to leave the boat where...where he had been trapped, I realized. I had not recognized it at the time, but I had seen Forrest’s sailboat in that moment of collapse in the maze just before I found Lily. The boat had been Captain Forrest’s dead end. And in escaping, he had set off a chain of events that could destroy the barriers between the real world and the dream world.
    He had to be stopped.
    “Think, Captain. If I wanted you captured, why did I just help you escape?” The sky was darkening.
    “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out!”
    Lily was close, leaping across the widening gaps in the path. We were out of time.
    With a wordless cry, I leaped to the next flagstone, took two quick steps, and launched myself at the Captain, stone outstretched.
    “NO!” His roar was inseparable from the bolt of lightning that ripped through the cloud, blasting a wide gulf between us, and the deafening clap of thunder that hurled me backward.
    I tumbled across the last flagstone, the blue stone rolling away from me on the slab. Unable to halt my momentum, my body slid off the far side; I just barely caught myself by my fingertips. I dangled above the abyss, as Forrest’s mad howls echoed through the storm.
***

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 18.2


    The two of them sat at the security console as the sirens blared.
    “Aw, man, what is this?  Another drill?  Didn’t we just have one yesterday?”
    “Uh-uh, not this time.  Tech Control’s going ballistic.  Panel’s lighting up like a gang of teenagers behind the high school.”
    “Nice image.”
    “Thanks.”
    “So what do we do?”
    “Same thing we always do, sit here and watch the monitors.”
    They watched the guards rushing around for a while.
    “So, will you make the match this weekend, or has Debbie got you sorting her laundry for her?”
    “Shut up.  I’ll be there.  Hey, who’s that?”
    “Who?”
    “That guy, there.  The one with the gun who’s not in one of these stupid jumpsuits of ours.”
    “Should he be there?”
    “What do you think, you idiot?”  He thumbed the comm switch.  “Uh, Mr. Kilpatrick?  This is Security Station Three; I think we might have just seen an intruder in the base.”
    The crackling reply was acidic.  “You don’t say?  Look, we’re just a little fucking busy down here.  Show some initiative and deal with it!”  The line cut off.
    They looked at one another.
    “Send the bot?”
    “Send the bot.”
* * *
    Chavez gradually made his way deeper into the complex. A short way into the mine, the rough walls of the entrance passage had become something more like a modern military installation, with rooms with doors and side passages off of the main corridor. So far, he had been lucky; whatever crisis had put the base on alert, the people here weren’t trying to tread softly. He had heard the approaching footsteps and been able to duck out of the way before he was spotted.
    He was currently holed up in what looked like a briefing room, planning his next move. Chavez had searched for a floor plan or a map, but had come up with nothing; the only information that he had about where he was relative to anything else had been a sign on the wall indicating that he had reached “Level 3.” His best thought was to keep moving downward, figuring that prisoners would be held in the most secure part of the base, which logically would be the deepest.
    The concrete floor began to shake. Chavez heard a metallic rumble that grew steadily louder; it sounded like a tank was rolling down the corridor right outside the door. The lights suspended from the ceiling started swaying, and the rows of folding chairs in the room began to dance with the vibrations.
    Then, it stopped. Chavez held his breath.
    With a tremendous bang, the door, torn off its hinges, sailed inward. It swept within inches of Chavez’s head, scattering the array of chairs before embedding itself in the heavy metal desk at the front of the room.
    In the doorway, an eight-foot-high robot on metal treads retracted the head of the pneumatic hammer mounted on its chest. It crashed slowly but inexorably through the door frame, the camera mounted on its head swiveling from side to side.
    Overcoming an instant of incredulity, Chavez dodged. He dove behind the desk, the only point of cover in the room, as twin machine guns on the robot’s shoulders opened fire. Bullets ricocheted off the desk, around the room, and off the robot again.
    The SIG 9mm in Chavez’s hand was starting to look awfully small. He risked a look over the top of the desk, and snapped off a shot at the camera on the thing’s head. His aim was accurate, but the bullet was stopped by some sort of plastic in front of the lens. Another blast swept across the top of the desk, and he ducked again.
* * *
    I woke up suspended in Mina’s arms, hanging above a stone path which itself appeared to be hanging above nothing at all.
    “Wait, I’m awake,” I said.  They stopped; Mina put me down. My head ached from the clout I’d received back on the subway train; it was in the same place as the whack on the head I’d received way back when I first arrived in the dream world.
    I looked around.  It’s really amazing how you could become used to just about anything.  The fact that we were apparently hiking across a cloud bank, by this point, fazed me not at all.  Well, almost not at all.  Still, it was better than most of the places I’d found myself lately.
    “Where’s Forrest?”  I asked Lily.  She nodded ahead on the path, and I could see him in the distance ahead of us.  “Not waiting around, is he?”  Lily shook her head.
    My heart clenched.  “It’s happening again, isn’t it?”  Lily grimaced and nodded.
    “Well, we’d better get going then.  I know he walks fast, but we can catch up with him.”  I started off, but Mina caught my arm and held me back. 
    I turned around; Lily’s teeth were clenched and her eyes were shut.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.
    She grabbed my hand, and said.  “Hurts...to...talk.”
    “Don’t try.  We can figure it out later.”
    “Nyet.”  Her grip was starting to become painful; I tried not to flinch.  “Carrrrful of...trees, lots of trees...Forrest.  He’s...nn...not...aquifer...damn it...nnot well.  Idea...think...he’s...duck, duck, goose...no, gah, loon...ah...insane.  He is asleep/notsleep dream/notdream... same...time... same bat channel...”
    “You think he’s dangerous?  Hallucinating?”
    She nodded. “The only the lonely...only way...black magic...” She took a deep breath. “Black’s magic...can work...is if someone here...someone here is dreaming that...it does.”
    “He doesn’t seem crazy.  I know his story’s incredible, but have you looked around us?  He’s the most normal person in this world.”
    Lily sighed, flipped my hand over and started drawing letters.  W...O...U...L...D...S...E...E...
    “Would see?”  She shook her head in exasperation.
    ...M...
    “Would seem.”  Nod.  I stopped trying to jump ahead and let her finish.
    ...S...A...N...E...I...F...H...I... S...D...E...L...U...S...I...O...N...S... B...E...C... A...M...E... R... E...A...L.
    She looked up at me.
    “Oh, hell.”
    Emphatic nod.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 18.3]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 18.1

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
Divergence
    Chavez crouched low in the brush. The dirt road he had been following had ended at a wide overgrown area around the iron mine’s entrance; the entrance to the mine itself was a shadowed hole cut into the base of a rocky hill. At a casual glance, the mine appeared to be abandoned. However, stumps here and there indicated that someone was keeping the grassy zone free of trees and bushes, and the wheel tracks from the road cut a path of crushed vegetation toward the mine and then off to one side.
    Dusk was falling; there didn’t appear to be any lights to illuminate the area after dark. Chavez had been observing the entrance for about half an hour. Although they were discreet, Chavez had been counted four armed men just inside the entrance, and four more moving around the wooded slope above.
    Very faintly, he heard an alarm or siren from the direction of the mine.  Moments later, the guards inside the entrance had disappeared, and the ones on the slope above had come down out of the trees – five, not four; he had missed one in his count.  Three of those ran inside, while the remaining two took up positions in the open in front of the entrance. They put on pairs of dark goggles; night vision, Chavez thought.
    This was as good as it was going to get.  Not knowing how long the alert would last, Chavez made his way around the clearing to the hillside, sacrificing stealth for speed.  Despite the noise he made, he remained undetected; Chavez figured the guards were probably concentrating more on whatever was happening inside the mine than outside.  He climbed up the broken rock, moving more carefully as he approached the guards, who were now below him. 
    Soon, he was directly over the entrance.  The guards stood about thirty feet out from the opening, enough to give them a field of view unobstructed by the irregular face of the hill.  From here, Chavez could see the details of the guards’ uniforms; they were bizarre, almost futuristic, he thought, if you were looking at the future from the 1970’s.
    The opening was at least fifteen feet high, and there was no way to climb to the ground.  He was going to have to let himself drop and hope for the best. 
    He began lowering himself over the lip of the entrance.  His height proved to be an advantage; with his arms extended, his fall would be less than the length of his own body.
    Too late to turn back, he thought, holding on by his fingertips.  He let go, bending his knees at the moment of impact to cushion his fall and reduce the noise when he landed on the dirt.  The guards didn’t turn around.  Chavez drew his pistol and swiftly moved into the mine.
* * *
    Lily’s transition back to her body was instantaneous.  Without warning, she found herself sitting on the couch that she had seen from above.  Stiffly, she stood up.  Mina and Captain Forrest were doing the same.  Lily felt her consciousness start to fade into the dream state almost immediately; fiercely, she pushed it to the back of her mind.
    Matt was sprawled in his chair, his eyes closed; he was snoring gently.  Where the guards and the door had been was now just an ugly rip in space; beyond was nothing but clouds and blue sky, above and below.
    Forrest walked over to the rip; Lily watched him warily.  Something about what Professor Harte said, about the impossibility of this person Black’s technology, was troubling her. She had seen so much that was impossible since Matt had entered aleph-two...
    “It’s a way out,” Forrest called back to them.  “Come on.”  He jumped through the hole, and she expected to see him plummet out of sight.  Instead, he stood on a cloud.
    She looked through the rip, and saw that the puffy white mass was imbedded with a path of wide flagstones, ten or fifteen feet square, which extended into the distance.  Next there’d be a castle and a goose laying golden eggs, no doubt.
    “You don’t want to stay here, do you?”  Forrest said, and set off.
    She didn’t want to let Forrest out of sight, but she needed to get Matt.  Mina was standing next to him; the other woman looked distraught.
    “What’s wrong?”  Lily asked.  She felt the words twist into something else in her mouth.  Here we go again, she thought.
    “I don’t belong here,” Mina said.  “I should never have left the hospital.  I’m not ready.”
    “I need your help,” Lily said. “I can’t carry Matt, and I don’t want to wake him up if he’s keeping that hole open. And I think Captain Forrest may be dangerous.” Mina did not move. “Please. We can’t escape without you.” 
    Mina looked at her, nodded, and gently cradled Matt in her arms.  They stepped through the rip.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 18.2]

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 17.2

    After a while, the dark dreamlessness lifted. I was at a high vantage point over a brightly lit room, a living room or lounge with a couple of comfortable-looking chairs and a long overstuffed couch arranged around a coffee table.
    Four people were sitting in the room. Lily sat on the couch with ankles crossed and her hands in her lap. Mina was next to her, her feet up on the table. The bulky figure in one of the chairs, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands under his chin, was Captain Forrest. I couldn’t identify the guy in the fourth chair, who had his back to me. None of them were moving, just sitting there.
    “Hello?” I called out.
    “Matt? Is that you?” It was Lily...but she didn’t look up, or move.
    “Yes, I’m up here, wherever that is.” I tried to see where I was – I felt like I was hovering over the room – and realized I couldn’t move my head. Was I in restraints? “Can you see me?”
    “Of course,” said Captain Forrest’s voice. “You’re in the other chair.”
    I felt a mixture and relief and confusion at Forrest’s words...I was glad that he was alive, and might be able to help Lily. But what he said made no sense. He hadn’t moved a muscle, either. And I was sure his lips hadn’t moved.
    I tried to turn my head again, and couldn’t. I couldn’t even feel my head, or any other part of my body. “What the hell is going on? What happened to me?” I couldn’t feel my lips or tongue when I spoke.
   “Matt, try and relax,” Lily said. “I think we’ve been separated from our bodies.”
   “What part of that statement is supposed to help me relax?”
    “It’s just a dream,” Forrest said calmly. “One of those where you’re watching yourself from outside.” I focused on the person in the chair with his back to me. So that was what the back of my head looked like.
   “Well, how do we get back inside?”
   “We don’t,” Forrest responded, “for now at least. This is the enemy’s version of a prison cell. Fairly effective, no?”
    “What enemy?”
   “Robert Black, of course.”
   I was beginning to realize how tightly words and gestures were tied together; I wanted to shake my head at Forrest’s statements, but couldn’t. “I thought you said that was like forty years ago...it couldn’t still be him, could it? Captain, what happened to you?”
   “You know most of that. Black had been hunting for me for decades; he’d never give up the chase. I fought his operative in the marketplace to help you escape. I was defeated, and found myself here.”
   “And, following your usual philosophy, you’ve been waiting here all that time.”
    “Of course,” Forrest said. I could hear the smile, even if I couldn’t see it. “At least until your friends arrived. We have been talking over your experiences, waiting for you to recover.”
    I thought about how hard I had been hit – and how much it would hurt if I returned to my body. Maybe I wasn’t in such a hurry after all.
    Then I remembered I hadn’t heard anything yet from the last member of our group. “Is Mina all right?”
    “She’s here,” said Lily. Her voice was concerned. “She just hasn’t been saying much.”
    “You sound...normal.”
    “Yes. But maybe it’s you who’s changed...if the Captain is right, we’ve all been absorbed into a dream for now.”
    A dream. “I wish I could reach the stone. Hah, I wish I had hands to reach with.”
    “Where did you get it, Matt?” Lily asked. “When I first saw it, it was strange, it looked like something else. No – it looked like lots of other things. There was music...”
    I told them how I had found the stone in the tower, and my escape through the maze, although I left out what I had seen on the walls at the end. That was for another time. Forrest interrupted as I was describing how I arrived in the hospital room.
    “You were on an upper plane,” he said. I kept wanting to read emotions into the voices I was hearing; I thought Forrest sounded tense, but that could just have been my mind trying to compensate for the lack of facial expressions. “Aleph-three, at least. That stone is a higher-order object; you shouldn’t have taken it from where it was. There’s no telling what might happen.”
    “I didn’t have a choice. Besides, it’s never done anything to me. All it seems to do is end people’s dreams.”
    “No, Matt,” Lily said, and this time I was certain her voice sounded awed, or haunted. “I think it is the end of people’s dreams. It’s like the representation of every goal and desire. I think you might have accidentally stolen the Holy Grail.”
   “Figures,” muttered Mina.
   Something was happening in the middle of the room; a hazy blot was forming in the air.
   A familiar voice drifted out of the haze. “Matt?”
    “Betsy? Is that you?” I shouted.
    “She can’t hear you,” Captain Forrest said.  “That’s someone in the real world talking.  Black can use his infernal machines to talk to us, but they can’t hear us.”
    The cloud was resolving into an image; I saw Betsy...and Professor Harte, and Hector. Where were they? What were they doing there?
    “Yes, Ms. Wright,” said someone I couldn’t see. “You are looking directly into the dream world, aleph-two, right now.  As you can see, we have your brother.  And Ms. Breckenridge and, I am tremendously relieved to say, Captain Forrest.  We’re not sure who the other woman is, but we’ll find out soon enough.”
    “That’s Black,” Forrest said. “He was taunting me before you three arrived. Not that I’d ever forget his voice.”
    “What, he’s got Betsy? Let her go!” I yelled at the image.
    “They still can’t hear you. Just listen.”
   Hector had turned to Harte. “You sent Lily in there? Are you insane?”
   Harte ignored him. “Can they hear us?  Are they all safe?” he asked.
    “Yes and mostly yes, for now,” Black replied.  “They can’t talk back, but that’s a limitation of the space they’re in rather than the technology.”
    “Captain Forrest needs treatment,” Professor Harte said. “Artificially modifying his conscious state will only exacerbate his condition.”
    “What was that?” Lily asked.
    “It doesn’t mean anything.” Forrest said. “You can’t trust him.”
    “The holding cell is perfectly harmless, I assure you,” Black said to Harte. “We are able to manipulate the dream space to quite an impressive degree of precision. At least, that’s what the fellows in the Tech section tell me.”
    Harte was shaking his head.  “Whoever you really are, this cannot work like you’re saying it does.  Aleph-one and aleph-two are ontological constructs, variant perceptions of superordinate and subordinate categorization, not separate dimensions.  You cannot alter the superordinate category as a whole by manipulating discrete elements of the subordinate category!”
    “He means you shouldn’t be able to change the dream world by what you do in the real world,” Lily said.
    Betsy suddenly said, “Matt, Hector says that your dreams become real when you sleep.
    “That’s enough,” Black said. “I have all of you, both here and in the dream world.  You are going to do exactly as I say. Professor, you are going to find me a way of duplicating Matthew Larkin’s feats in the dream world. We have already substituted your Visulex for our prior formula.  Aleph-two is a place of infinite resources and unstoppable power, and we will wield that power here.”
    “It’s impossible.  You shouldn’t even be here!”
    “But I am, Tim.  And I suggest you find a way to make what I want possible, or else your friends will...well, need I say it? HR, shut down the link.”
    The haze dispersed. We waited, but there was nothing more.
    After a minute, Lily said, “He’s wrong, though. There is a way Black’s system could work.”
    “I wouldn’t pay any attention to Harte,” replied Captain Forrest.  “I don’t think he ever really understood what is possible here.”
    “You know Dr. Harte?” Lily asked.
    I tuned out as Forrest started speaking; I had something else on my mind. 
    Betsy had spoken to me directly for a moment.  I knew, of course, that when I fell asleep in the dream world, my dreams came to pass in the real world.  That was one of the reasons that I hadn’t slept since...well, since Captain Forrest and I were on the boat, if you didn’t count my recent bout of unconsciousness.  I was acutely aware of the irony of finally being able to sleep, but still trying to avoid it. 
    Then why would she try to remind me?  Was it a warning...or a clue?  I couldn’t move or feel my body; all I had right now was my mind.  But my mind was very, very tired; could I go to sleep?
    Forrest said that when we dreamed here, we appear in similar places in the real world.  If I was in some sort of prison cell now, where would I go?  Ignoring the voices of the others, I tried to relax my mind.  It wasn’t easy, since I couldn’t close my eyes, but my inability to shift my perspective and the monotonous inertia of the scene below were almost as effective.  I let my exhaustion take me.
    Well, that didn’t work, I thought after a few moments.  I sighed and cracked my whip at the tiger atop the pedestal across from me.  She edged around the vast cage that surrounded the ring, seeking to flank me; I fired my gun in the air to warn her away.  There were flashes of light all around me, someone called my name.  My adoring public...flash bulbs wouldn’t work at this distance, but still the audience tried, lord bless ‘em. 
    The tiger crouched and sprang; I was ready for it.  I ducked underneath her, and nearly bumped into a clown as the great cat crashed into several of the sunbathers.  What the hell was the clown still doing in the ring?  Firing my pistol again (more flashes, they always love it when I fire my gun), I grabbed the clown by the arm and took him to the door of the cage.   I opened the door and shoved him out while the tiger snarled and padded closer.
    Someone else fired a gun, putting a hole in my pith helmet.  What was this, audience participation?  The ringmaster was running towards us, shouting, and no wonder.  They were making a total shambles of my act!  Then I heard what the ringmaster was saying.
    “Wake up, you damned fool!  WAKE UP!”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 18.1]

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 17.1

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Convergence
    Paul Chavez pulled his car into a gap in the pines alongside the dirt road. According to the road map he’d picked up at the last gas station, this was the only way to the abandoned mine system where Hector and Elizabeth were supposedly being held. There were fresh tracks on the road from heavy vehicles; something serious had come this way recently. But there had been no sign of the FBI, the National Guard, or even local law enforcement. Not so much as an elementary school crossing guard.
    The call he had placed to his boss to find out what the hell was going on had been positively surreal. The head of the field office had listened as Chavez reported on the total lack of follow-through by the local Bureau, and then told Chavez that the DEA would not press charges against him if he returned to New Mexico immediately. When Chavez, incredulous, reminded his boss about the attempt on his life, his boss had replied in a shaking voice that it had all been a “misunderstanding,” and that it would be a serious career mistake to pursue the matter further. Then, his boss, a twenty-year veteran of the Bureau, had begged him to return home.
    Chavez had hung up without responding. Whatever was going on, whoever was putting pressure on his superior, it was clear no help was coming.
    The map suggested that it was about ten miles from where he had left the car to the mine; it would be easier to evade security on foot. Chavez already knew that his badge would be useless, so he double-checked his sidearm and began walking parallel to the road.
* * *
    Elizabeth was still glaring at Professor Harte when she heard the bolts on their cell door thrown back.  The door opened and the muzzles of three rifles entered, gesturing at them to come outside.
    In the hallway, a small group of guards waited, led by the man who had commanded the squad at the hotel.  The man...Kilpatrick, Elizabeth thought...seemed ill-at-ease, as if the black-and-silver jumpsuit he was now wearing didn’t fit quite as well as the navy blue DEA uniform and body armor that he had worn earlier.  The new outfit was, she had to admit, rather ridiculous.
    “Move,” Kilpatrick said irritably, gesturing with his rifle.  “Mr. Black wants the three of you to see something.”
    They wound their way deeper into the mine complex.  Hector was sweating a bit; maybe he didn’t like enclosed spaces.  They followed a descending spiral ramp around many turns, ignoring doorways to either side, until the ramp ended at a wide natural cavern.
    Robert Black was standing at the entrance, a broad smile on his face.  “Welcome to the Engine Room,” he said.
    The cavern floor sloped gently down from the entrance to form a shallow bowl.  Banks of computer hardware were arranged in concentric circles around the center of the room, linked to each other with a web of greenish-black cables that glistened greasily.  In the middle of the cavern, a wide cylindrical metal cage rose to the ceiling.  There was a circle of hospital beds, or examination tables, arranged within the cage so that the heads of the beds all pointed inward.  Intricate machinery of some sort was suspended from the roof of the cavern, pipes and wires snaking down to a person lying on each bed.  Elizabeth could see, through the wires, a desk at the very center of the cavern.  Someone was sitting at the desk working at a computer terminal.
    “This is the heart of the operation,” Black said with a grand wave, leading them toward the center of the room, Kilpatrick and the other armed guards behind them.  “And these,” he said, gesturing toward the figures on the beds, “are our field operatives.  Our most treasured employees.  The people who make it all work.”
    As they drew closer and stopped just outside the cage, Elizabeth could see the people on the beds more clearly.  The operatives were naked, gaunt, wizened...faces sallow and drawn, limbs atrophied to mere sticks, bodies thin to the point of emaciation.  Dozens of wires appeared to be implanted directly into their shorn heads.  A pair of tubes ran to each of the figures’ arms -- one feeding a clear liquid, the other a fluid that was a virulent purple.  Their nether regions were fitted with catheters.  They were strapped to the tables, but the straps hung loosely about thighs and biceps, wrists and ankles.
    Elizabeth realized that the operatives must have been tied down when their bodies were considerably stronger.  She began to feel sick; the stench was horrible.  Hector looked green.
    Professor Harte’s face was twisted in horror.  “What have you done?”
    “Like it, Tim?  It’s really pretty clever, if I do say so myself,” said Black.  “We maintain them at the balance point between aleph-one and aleph-two – just like what you were trying to do with Lily Breckenridge, if the notes we retrieved from your lab are accurate.  What you missed in your own research is that the patient’s own subjective emotional state, and not their purely neurochemical condition, is what tips them over into aleph-two entirely and traps them there.  But with a rigorous regime of electroshock therapy and pharmaceutical treatment, we were able to suppress the emotional response.  The balance is preserved.”
    “Did you do that before or after you strapped them to the tables?”  Harte hissed.
    “I assure you, they were all volunteers.”  Black paused for a moment.  “Well, at least at first.  But they got over it.  The treatment does severely limit the ways in which they can interact with aleph-two...they can’t do much without our guidance from here except watch and respond to preconditioned stimuli.”  He nodded at the woman in the lab coat sitting in the center of the array.  “And they’ve been unable to transcend to aleph-three or bring back any tangible objects from aleph-two.  But we’ve managed to achieve some spectacular effects by channeling the energies of the dream world into our system.”
    “Channeling the energies of the... that makes no sense at all,” Harte said.
    “Really?  Perhaps you need to broaden your concept of ‘sense,’ Tim.  Let me demonstrate.”  Black turned to the woman at the desk.  “HR, bring up the holding area.”
    The woman typed at her keyboard, and something like a cloud condensed above the heads of two of the operatives.  Black led the three of them around the cage to the nearest one.  Shapes began to coalesce within the cloud, an image of a room with four people sitting very still.  Elizabeth recognized one of them immediately.
    “Matt,” she whispered.  Something tickled the back of her mind.  Something she was supposed to do? No, something she was supposed to say...
* * *
[Go to Chapter 17.2]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 16.4



   I had been out of my depth since I arrived in the dream world, and the whole place seemed bent on finding new ways to make me feel useless and helpless. Lily kept fading in and out on me, and all I could do was pull her along. I still had no idea where we were going, how I could save her, how we could escape. Running felt as futile as my flight from the dragon in the maze, but still we ran.
    The maze – something about the memory tickled the back of my mind, and I felt an idea forming. This experience, right now, running down the boarding ramp, felt more than just similar to the maze...
    The tentative thought was put on hold when the ramp suddenly shifted to one side. Someone must be disconnecting it from the plane, I realized; Lily had already stepped up our pace. How long was this ramp, anyway?
    Then suddenly, sickeningly, it felt like the whole corridor was yanked upwards. Lily and I sprawled to the floor as the boarding ramp began to spin; we held on to one another and tried to brace ourselves.
    “Quid nunc?” Lily shouted.
* * *
    HR cursed softly as the boarding ramp spun on the touch screen. Again she tried to move the ramp, dragging her index finger across the screen, but the ramp refused to connect with any of the blinking red points where she was hoping to lead Larkin and Breckenridge. Tech Control had said they hadn’t ironed out all the bugs; it was vaguely disturbing that higher reality was acting like a beta release.
    Scrolling the window down, HR saw that one of the points was flashing green instead of red. Well, that explained it. She looked at the icon next to the green point. Hmm, she thought. That had possibilities.
    She dragged the ramp to the green point, where it locked into place with a cheery digital burble.
* * *
    Without warning, the boarding ramp stopped spinning. Our excess momentum slammed us into the wall. Lily recovered quickly – she was back on her feet while I was still sorting out my limbs and counting my bruises. After confirming that no major harm had been done, we kept moving down the ramp. 
    At some indeterminate point, the off-white jet bridge walls became dark red tile.  I grimaced as I smelled a musty odor, something like damp concrete with a rancid organic edge, the flavor of low tide or landfill.
    The passage soon opened out onto a broad concrete expanse.  A row of overhead lights stretching to either side made a chain of harsh, bright circles on the floor, surrounded by deep shadow.  I heard shuffling and muttering, skittering, from the darkness.  Eight meters or so ahead of us, the far edges of the circles of light were cut off as the floor dropped away on the other side of a grimy yellow border.
    A subway station, I realized.  Planes and now trains -- I didn’t suppose it made much difference, so long as we kept moving.  But the station looked disused, empty except for whatever was hiding in the shadows.
    Lily wandered to the edge of the platform and leaned out, looking down the tunnel.  Somewhere she had acquired a skirt suit and a briefcase.  “It’s running late,” she said with irritation.
    When we were kids in New York riding the subways together, Betsy had teased me by leaning over the edge; it always scared the hell out of me.  I moved quickly to pull Lily back.
    It was then we heard the sound of a train approaching.  The rumble and screeching of the cars as they rounded some turn in the tunnel echoed the dragon’s charge in the killing field before the dark tower, and once again the similarity – no, not just similarity, somehow I was sure it was identity – of the situation struck me.
   “This is dangerous,” I said, tugging at Lily’s sleeve.  “We need to go back.”  The look she gave me frightened me more than whatever was approaching – a look that conveyed that she had no idea what I was talking about.  I started pulling her toward the passage we had entered by; she tensed as if she were going to resist, but then, thank god, she let me guide her.
    We didn’t make it.  People were pouring out of the passage, completely blocking the exit.  We moved down the platform to avoid the rush, taking care to stay in the lighted areas, but the crowd spread out from the tunnel and kept coming.  As the approaching train grew louder, the wall of bodies forced us backward toward the edge of the platform.
    I thought about telling Lily to take us away, but I couldn’t risk it.  She was getting worse; using her to hitch a ride could only accelerate the process.  I pushed her behind me and braced myself as best I could, digging in my heels against the press. 
    The grinding and roaring of the dragon, or the train, grew, a sharp pain running through my head from ear to ear.  I didn’t know what would be coming out of that tunnel, but I didn’t want to meet it down on the tracks.  I was being steadily shifted backwards, an inch or two at a time.
    The dragon and the train.  There was something there.  If they were the same, what did that mean?  I ran from the dragon before, we couldn’t now.  There hadn’t been other dreamers there.  No – that wasn’t right, there had been, but they’d all disappeared…
    The blue stone from the tower.  It was still in my pocket.  I pulled it out and held it in front of me.
    Instead of a gradual press, the dreamers started a stampede.  I saw individuals pulled down under the mass of bodies and disappear.  I fought a sudden urge to turn and jump down onto the tracks and run away, as a thousand eyes gleaming with avarice rushed us.  None of them reached us.  Steps, inches away, they all faded like the adventurers in the tower, arms outstretched toward the stone.  In seconds, the crowd had evaporated.
    I turned to make sure that Lily was okay, and saw her gazing at the stone intently.  She began to lift one hand toward it, and, startled, I backpedaled, shoving the stone in my back pocket.
    “Sorry, not for you,” I said.
    A light flared behind Lily; the train pulled into the station.  The roaring had faded away without my noticing. The subway cars glided to a halt in front of us, and the doors slid open.
    I took Lily’s hand, the one that was still half-raised, and led her onto the train.  “Time to go.” 
    The last things I saw before blacking out were the two cloaked figures standing just inside the car, and the massive clubs they were swinging towards us.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 17.1]

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 16.3

            The woman called Human Resources watched the live feed intently, switching back and forth among the points of view of the four operatives she had in the marsh. 
            Of the six operatives she had activated, five had survived, a better percentage than she had hoped for.  With three already active, that was a total of eight; two guarding Captain Forrest and six for the targets.
            So far, it was looking like it was going to be easy, and HR wondered why Black had been so insistent on risking activation of the dormant operatives.  One of the targets looked like she was going to offer no resistance at all, while the other two were stumbling around like complete novices.  HR doubted that she’d even need the two operatives she was holding in reserve.
            Then, without warning, the other two targets vanished.  She tapped her comm without urgency.  “Tracking Hub, please report.”
            “Tracing a parallel segue now.  Looks like one target hitched a ride with the other.  Will update.”
            HR allowed herself a rare grin, as she tapped the two reserve operatives on the shoulder to send them in.  So, the targets had a skill or two.  Maybe it would be a chase after all.
* * *
            “Lily?  Lily!”
            She noticed someone in front of her.  He was waving his hands in front of her eyes.  Had he been there before?  Of course, right, he was the one who had said they needed to leave, so here they were in the airport, carry-ons stacked around them.  The waiting area was too small for the plane, and people were sitting in the aisles.  The flight was running late due to weather over Ohio, and there was no telling when they’d be boarding.
            “Do you recognize me?”
            She nodded, although she wasn’t at all sure.  Was that her boyfriend?  He looked so familiar...
            “It’s me, Matt.  Come back, please!”  He snapped his fingers in front of her face.
            Matt, right, I knew a Matt...oh...
            Lily started.  The sensation was like waking up without opening her eyes.  Nothing changed; Matt, the other passengers, and the airport gate stayed exactly as they were, but suddenly she perceived them with her waking mind.  The other perception, the dream state, was not gone...it lingered at the back of her mind, tantalizing, and seemed ready to leap forward if she let it. 
            She held it at bay and tried to focus.  Where was the swamp?  Where was Mina?
            “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that would happen,” Matt babbled.  “I wasn’t trying to tell you to...I mean, I was, but not like that...”  He paced frenetically.
            Lily waved to get his attention.  Then she turned her palms upward and, arms bent at the elbow, spread her hands slightly in the universal gesture for “What the hell is going on?”
            “You brought us here.  Like a dreamer would.  I think you’re turning into one of them, a sleepwalker.”
            She grabbed Matt’s palm and laboriously started tracing letters.  T...O...L...D...Y...O...U...I...A...M...A ...W...A...K...
             “I know,” Matt interrupted, sitting next to her.  “But this guy I met here said that the dream world can do strange things to you if you’re not careful.  It’s like, if you act on your desires, or try to force the dream to do something, it can fight back by changing you.”
            W...H...A...T...D...O...E...S...T...H...A...T...M...E...A...N.
            “I don’t really know.  Captain Forrest said that his team disappeared or were killed.  If you’re becoming a dreamer, and don’t exist in the real world, you’re in danger.  Dreamers vanish all the time here.”
            Lily felt a sudden chill.  Just the A/C in the gate area kicking in.  She thought back to how she had gradually become able to understand Mina, the shift that took place after she had struggled clear of the nightmare path.              
            M...A...Y...B...E...W...A...K...E...U...P...A...T...H...O...M...E, she wrote with her finger.
            Matt shook his head.  “If you’re here awake, like me, I don’t think you’re back in the real world too.  I don’t think there’s anyone there to wake up.  You could just disappear in a blink.”  He gripped her hand harder.
            Off behind Matt, she noticed a man and a woman in the uniforms of airport security approaching.  They were scanning the crowd around the gate, faces carefully neutral.  Lily turned, looking for anyone suspicious.  Was that unattended luggage, two rows back?  She started to wave to the guards, then jerked her hand back down. 
            What was she doing?  God, it was happening again.  She squeezed her eyes shut, concentrated on Matt’s hand in hers.  It helped to feel something solid.  When she opened her eyes, the pair of guards had moved closer; she could see now that their expressions weren’t so much controlled, as blank.
            Resisting the urge to run, she put her hand on Matt’s shoulder and swiveled him around.  She kept him down with a firm grip when he started to leap from his seat, and pointed along the aisle, gesturing for him to stay low.  He nodded, and slid out of his seat to the floor.  She crouched down and began to gather their assorted carry-ons.
            “What are you doing?”  Matt whispered, with a puzzled look on his face.
            Damn it, she thought.  This was getting to be a problem.  Of course the baggage wasn’t real.  She left it behind and followed Matt, who was making his way on hands and knees toward the security door that led to the plane.
            As they were creeping, the speakers in the gate area crackled to life.  “Thank you for your patience.  We will now begin the boarding of Flight 2718 to Wembley Stadium.  We will be boarding this flight by section and zodiac sign.  Please wait for your sign to be called before approaching the gate.  At this time, we invite our passengers in our Aquarius-class cabin to board, as well as any passengers with small children, stars in conjunction, or who might need special assistance in boarding the plane.”
            As one, all of the passengers in the gate area surged to their feet and rushed the gate.
            Matt pulled her upright.  “Come on, that’s us.”  He began pushing through the line toward the door.
            “You didn’t get the upgrade!  I told you to use your miles!” Lily protested.
            “Think all of these people did?  Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”  Behind them, Lily saw the two security guards take notice of them and start forcing a path through the crowd.
            People shouted at them angrily as Matt elbowed his way to the front of the line, dragging her along behind.  “Premium Elite Diamond-Studded Platinum Charter Imperial Expanded Leg Room Better-Than-The-Peons-In-Coach Sky Members, you don’t need to see our tickets, these aren’t the passengers you’re looking for,” Matt rattled off as they swept past the gate agent, who nodded them through the door with a slight curtsy.
            “Always hated people who did that,” Matt grinned as they pelted down the gangway.
* * *
            HR watched the projections above the heads of the two operatives following the remaining targets, the images shifting with the operatives’ perspective.  Larkin and the other, whom they’d identified as Lily Breckenridge, Harte’s lab assistant, disappeared beyond the press of bodies at the gate. 
            HR briefly considered driving the operatives into the press and simply hacking her way through to the targets.  However, there were actual dream people – extensions of the dream world – mixed in with the sleepwalkers, and she’d lose time if the operatives inadvertently provoked a response by attacking the fabric of aleph-two itself.
            No, something more subtle was required.  The third target from the swan marsh had been moved to holding, so HR recalled the four operatives from the swan marsh, pulling them out of aleph-two entirely and re-channeling their minds to the central engine.
            Tech Control was proud of the new toys they’d developed – she’d see if they had reason to be.  “Tech, this is HR.  I’m going to give the Construction Kit a field test.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.4]