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.