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 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


    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 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.”
            “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]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 16.2

            Black reclined on the couch in his office.  His meeting with Tim had been...unsatisfying.  Hollow, somehow.  He had been hoping to relive some of the glory days, reminisce, bring back some of those old memories that had slipped his mind.  He was having more and more trouble remembering the details lately.
            The intercom buzzed.  “Sir, Monitoring here.  We’ve got a problem with Larkin.”
            “I’ll be right there.”
            When he arrived in the Tracking Hub, the SubMonitors were racing around in confusion.  “Lead Monitor!  Report!” he shouted above the din.  The room quieted instantly.
            The Lead Monitor approached.  “Larkin escaped.”
“You heard me, sir.”  Definitely demoted, Black thought.  “Tore right out of a dead end, the coma victims in his wake.  Playing all sorts of hell with our system.”
“I’m getting a little tired of this young man ripping holes in the dream world.  That’s our job.  Where is he now?”
SubMonitors scurried around the LM.  “Getting that for you...looks like a nightmare fringe...yeah, they’re in the swan marsh.”
“HR, how many operatives can we get into the field?” Black asked a tech at a station on the other side of the Hub. Unlike the Lead Monitor, Human Resources showed no emotional reaction to anything he requested of her.  It was probably why she worked so well with their field operatives; she might even be suitable for promotion to the field herself one day.
“We have three reliables, including the two guarding the prisoner,” said Human Resources.  “Two others we could probably raise to active status.  I advise against risking it with another four, but it’s possible.  We should leave the remaining seven dedicated to system functions.”
Black thought for a moment.  “I want the six potentials activated immediately.  One reliable and one new active on Forrest, the other reliables and the remainder that survive activation on Larkin.  Bring him in.  The others who are with him are secondary targets; get rid of them if they prove difficult.”
“Yes, sir.”  Human Resources rose from her station.  “I’ll need to work from the Engine Room for this.”  Black dismissed her with a nod. 
* * *
            If not for the sucking mud and soaking damp, I would have been flying.  I kept replaying my reunion with Lily whenever my mind wandered.  The sensations and memory almost overwhelmed my thoughts. 
            Almost; every so often a nervous, suspicious corner of my brain would interject a question.  Why could Lily write plainly but speak only in vague metaphor?  Was she actually here, changed by the dream world, or was she dreaming, only believing herself to be awake?  Would her affection for me turn out to be real if we ever got back?  I tried to silence the voice, but the swamp encouraged unpleasant thoughts to fester.
            The exit from the hospital room had led directly to this stinking chaos of green, grey and black.  The colors blended into one another; the shades of the uncontrolled vegetation seemed to seep into the clammy haze, which thickened to become the slick of dark water around our ankles and the biting flies around our heads.
            There were things (soft things, hard things, rounded things, pointed things) under the water, trapped in the mud.  I stumbled – my other new companion, Mina, caught me by one arm and kept me upright.  She was strong, and taller than I was.  I still wasn’t sure why she had apparently decided to follow us of her own accord, and wouldn’t follow suggestions the way that a normal dreamer would.  Too many questions...once again, I wondered what Forrest would say,  what had happened to him.
            There were other dreamers in the swamp, struggling and batting at the insects.  I thought about trying to hitch a ride away from the muck, but I realized that Lily – in her current state – might not be able to follow.
            “Did the professor have any idea how to get us back once you found me?” I called ahead to Lily, who had taken the lead early on.
            “Tie a thread to a wet lollipop and drop it on the floor?” she replied.
            Mina frowned and said, “You called for the taxi a half hour ago.”
            “I can only look at my own cards,” Lily told her.
            I don’t know what I’d been expecting.  Lily clearly thought she was making sense, but she knew I didn’t understand except when she’d write things out for me.  Yet, for some reason she’d left the clipboard behind in the hospital room.  Meanwhile, Lily and Mina apparently understood one another perfectly.  They’d exchange gibberish every so often, sometimes with an odd (or in one case faintly wicked) glance at me.
            I sighed.  It was more or less like every other interaction I’d ever had with women.  I told Lily about my adventures so far while we walked along; she acted as if she understood me, nodding excitedly at certain points although I had no idea why.
            I had just reached the part of the story where I arrived in the tower when the vegetation and mist around us thinned out abruptly; the water around our ankles spread out before us, broad and glassy.  It was also shallower, and I could begin to make out shapes under the surface.  Bulbous whitish masses, tapering to hoselike extensions.  I nudged one with my foot, and disturbed a flat section of the thing, which drifted out from from the main mass.  It expanded, lazy motion under the water, and I recognized it as a wing.
            I looked at the main bulk of the thing, and the shape clicked in my brain.  It was a bird, a swan.  And another.  And another.  I was standing on one. 
Revolted, I splashed backward, and stepped on another carcass.  I looked around for a safe spot, but found none.  The whole surface was a thin scum of water over an endless tessellation of dead swans.
            “Jerry Garcia!” Lily cried out, seeing it herself.  I picked my way over to her, and took her hand.  Mina’s face was grim, but she didn’t seem as affected.  She cut a sloshing course across the mire.
            Lily looked up at me.  I squeezed her hand.
* * *
            The wailing was beginning to get to her, Lily realized.  The sound had started as a keening edge to the buzz of the swarming insects; but as the three of them kept moving, the sound grew, taking on the tone and texture of voices crying out in despair.  The sound was coming from the dreamers around them.  Not all at once; most of the dreamers moved silently and listlessly, barely causing a ripple.  Every so often, however, one of them would, without warning, lift his face and howl.  The sound never ended; by the time one dreamer let her head drop and resumed her hopeless pacing, another had begun.
            It would be more bearable, Lily thought, if they had some idea of where they were going.  She took Matt’s hand; he squeezed hers gently.
            A cry somewhere off to her left cut off abruptly.  Lily glanced to the side.  In the distance, a figure was standing still in the marsh, facing them.  The landscape seemed to expand and bend in that direction, ripples in the air as well as the water.
            Lily took Matt by the elbow and pointed.  The figure began drifting toward them.  The figure’s movement was graceful, its cloak swirling like a visible contour of the breeze, a sharp contrast to their own clumsy steps and the depressed plodding of the dreamers.
            Matt’s grip on her hand tensed.  “Damn,” he breathed.  “Run!”  He pulled her along; she stumbled and lurched after him.  They ran in great splashing strides, but the figure gained steadily, unhindered by the water and what lay beneath.
            “What is it?”  Lily asked Matt, hoping her tone if not her words would get the question across.
            “It’s a killer,” he gasped in response.  “Tell your friend she needs to move!”
            Lily looked back – Mina was standing stock still, facing off to their right.  Another figure was closing in from that direction.
            God, Lily thought, she thinks they're like those monsters in the meadow.  But this was something else...even at a distance, she could see that the figures had the same eye-watering solidity that Matt possessed.
            Lily shook loose from Matt, and called back through her cupped hands.  “Mina!  You can’t play dead with these things!  Come on!”
            Her words had no effect.  Lily waited just a second before starting back towards the other woman.
            “No!”  Matt shouted.  She felt his hand graze the back of her blouse.
            Suddenly the world distorted in front of her...two more figures shouldered their way into existence directly in her path.  Lily plowed to a stop, nearly fell, and caught herself by pushing off a dead swan with one hand.  Crouched in the muck, she watched in frustration as one of the figures went back towards Mina.  The other woman was now pinned down from three directions, still frozen in place.
            The other new apparition was gliding toward Lily swiftly, its red cloak streaming behind.  Something glittered in its hand. 
            “There’s nothing we can do.”  Matt said urgently, coming up behind her.  He helped her to her feet.  “Lily. We have to leave, now!” 
            A cry of anguish escaped through Lily’s clenched teeth as she looked away from her friend.  She felt something shift inside of her, something give, as she turned...they had to leave, so they left...
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.3]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 16.1

            Matt was there. 
            He was solid -- everything else was light and shadows.  As he caught her, lowered her to the ground, Lily felt like she was made of feathers...if he spoke, if he even breathed, she thought she would fly apart.
            He was there.
            Lily had not expected to find him like this.  Some part of her had not expected to find him at all; she had been convincing herself that the decision to look for him was all that was really important. 
            But he was there.
            For him suddenly to appear, out of nothing...she would have been overwhelmed even if the walls, the floor, the entire room had not been rippling like a flag in the galewinds of his arrival.
            She heard herself say something to him, something like hello, but not exactly.  The words she was saying still weren’t the same as the ones she was thinking.  What was that look on his face?  Surprise?  Why did his smile seem sad, now?  What had she said?
            Matt helped her to her feet.  The touch of his fingers was irrefutable.  Lily kept hold of his hand, and his smile brightened a bit.  He looked...he looked awful, in fact.  He was still wearing the red shirt and jeans that he had worn on the day he vanished, but the shirt seemed sun-bleached and crusted with salt, while his jeans suggested that he had waded through an abattoir.  There were scrapes and bruises on his hands and face, and there was something deep and wild about his eyes.  His hair was even spikier than normal.  Without thinking about it, she reached up and ran the fingers of one hand through it; it was stiff, and crackled ever so slightly...
            He flinched slightly, and the sadness crept onto his face again.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “That tickles a bit.”  She pulled back her hand, wondering if she had done something wrong.
            Then he closed his eyes for a moment; when he opened them, the sly grin that she had been thinking about for weeks was there as well.  “Oh, what the hell,” he said.  “If this is the only way I get to see you, I’ll take it.”
            Before she could wonder what he meant, he swept her into his arms.  She reached around the back of his neck, drew his face down to hers; their lips met, and she tasted infinity.
* * *
            “If you’re planning to have that kind of dream, would you mind using someone else’s room?” a voice said.  “This bed’s occupied.  If you were going to bother with the bed, that is.”
            Startled, Lily remembered they weren’t alone.  She felt herself blush.
            “Going to introduce me?”  Mina asked.
            Lily turned, but kept on arm around Matt in case he decided to vanish.  “Oh...I’m...sorry...this is Matt.  I was here looking for him.”
            “Of course you were.”  Mina got up, and stuck her hand out at Matt.  “Good to meet you, kid.  You’re an odd one, aren’t you?”
            Matt looked puzzled, but shook Mina’s hand briefly.  Then he turned to face Lily again, and took her by the shoulders.  Looking straight into her eyes, he said, “Lily, listen to me.  I know this is hard, but I need you to focus.  I need your help.  You’re dreaming.  When you wake up, I need you to tell Professor Harte that I’m alive and that I’m waiting for help.”
             “I’m not dreaming,” Lily said.  “I’m really here.  I took the Visulex.  Harte sent me to find you and bring you back,” she thought, but said something completely different.
            “That’s right, I took the Visulex, and entered the dream world,” Matt replied.  “Now you’re seeing me because you’re asleep.”
            She shook her head, and tried again, but when she tried to force the right words out, her mind fogged and her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth.  Matt just watched her, a sad smile on his face.  Of course, she realized.  He thought he had stumbled across her in one of her own dreams. 
            She didn’t know why she couldn’t speak to Matt properly, but there had to be some way to communicate.  Could she write?  If she had the visual feedback on motor skills that writing provided, maybe she could control herself more easily. 
            “Mina – is there a pen or something in here?  Anything to write with?”  She made a little scribbling gesture.
            “Not that I’ve ever found.”
            Matt tapped Lily on the shoulder, and made the little scribbling motion himself.  Lily nodded, and he took a purple crayon, broken in half, out of his pocket.  He handed the pointy half to her.
            Lily looked around, and took the chart off the end of Mina’s bed.
            “Hey!” the other woman protested.
            “Sorry, I need the paper. I’ll use the back.”  She flipped the chart over on the clipboard, and began printing letters.
            Lily felt like an idiot child; her hand kept trying to twist in weird directions, and her letters looked pre-literate, but she was able to get them out: NOT AZLEEP.  TOOK VISL DRUG.  HERE II RESQ U.  She presented it to Matt.
            He took the clipboard, and looked at her again, sharply.  “You’re here awake?”
            Lily nodded with relief, but he looked worried.  “You look like a sleepwalker to me, like your friend there,” Matt said.  Lily shrugged and turned her palms up.  “I don’t know much about this place, but I don’t think that’s such a good sign,” he said.  “I wish I could talk to Captain Forrest.  He might be able to explain this.”  He seemed to be drifting off in thought.
            Lily poked him on the arm and looked at him pointedly, tapping her foot.  He looked at her.  “What...oh.  What a jackass I am.  Thank you...”  He hugged her again; it was very nice.  “I don’t know what to say...”  She reached up and patted him on the head.
            He let go of her, and now it was Matt’s turn to blush.  “Oh...oh, before, when I thought you were asleep, I...”  She reached up, took his face in her hands, and kissed him again soundly.  “Really?” he said.  Lily smiled and gave him a thumbs-up sign, and now his smile was unabashedly joyful.
            This relationship should be easy, Lily thought – all I have to do is keep my mouth shut and he’ll do whatever I say.  She kissed him once more, just for good measure.
            After they came up for air, she picked up the crayon again.  KNEED TOO GET OUT OF HAIR HEAR.  NITEHORSESMARES COMIGN 4 HER/US.
            “Right, then,” Matt replied.  “Hold on tight.  If you haven’t done this before, it can be a bit of a jolt.”  He slipped his arm around Lily, looked at Mina, and in a firm voice said, “You have to take us to the marketplace, right now.”
            “Love to.  Let me know when you’ve found the door,” Mina responded.  Matt couldn’t understand her, but it was obvious he’d expected something else to happen. 
            He put his hand on Mina’s shoulder.  “Take us to the schoolhouse.”
             “Mitts off, buster.”  She slapped his hand away. 
            He peered at the other woman.  “Is there something unusual about your friend?  Did she come with you from the real world?” he asked Lily.
            “I guess that might do it,” Matt said, but didn’t elaborate.  He looked around.  “Um.  Have you noticed there’s no door?”
            “He’s a quick one, isn’t he?” asked Mina.
            “Be nice, he’s had a bit of a shock,” Lily said. 
            “I can tell,” Mina replied, grinning.  Matt was looking between the two of them with suspicion.
            How were they going to get out, though?  Lily wondered.  According to Mina, it was only a matter of time before they were drawn into another nightmare.  Would they even realize what had happened, or would they simply become part of it, the way Mina did on the path in the meadow? 
            Lily bounced the crayon in her hand idly.  Cartoons were often dreamlike, right?  Both dealt in archetypes and twisted logic.  She moved to one wall and pushed a metal trolley out of the way.
            “What are you doing?” Matt asked.  She wasn’t about to take the time to sign out a response, and would need the crayon for this, so she ignored the question.  Instead, she just drew the outline of a door on the wall, and a circle for a knob.  She tried to grasp the knob, but her hand just slid across the surface.
            Matt watched her with interest.  “Maybe you need more detail?”  He moved in next to her, and, with the other half of the crayon, started adding features...panels, hinges, the dimensionality of the knob.  He tore the paper off of the crayon stub to slide it sideways across the white wall, and then used his fingers to work the wax into shadows and contours. 
            Lily tried to help for a bit, then stepped out of the way as flecks of purple fell to the ground.  She had never really seen Matt work before.  He started slowly, but soon was attacking the wall; when he stepped back to look at his work, he was breathing heavily, almost panting.
            He nodded with satisfaction.  Matt had the emotional defensiveness typical of someone with his history, but at least in the context of his art he could look at himself honestly and see something of value.  Not for the first time, Lily found herself thinking that Visulex really would be the perfect treatment for him, if only it worked properly.  It was a pity they’d probably never get the chance to refine its use.
            “It looks great,” she said, and meant it; she hadn’t been aware you could do that kind of thing with crayon.  Whatever it was Matt heard, he seemed to get the point, because he smiled and reached for the knob.
            And his fingers scrabbled at the wall, just like hers had.  Lily’s shoulders sagged, letting go of anticipation she hadn’t realized was building.
            Then, just as she started to relax, she jumped at a new voice from behind them.  “What do you think you’re doing?  I’m going to have to scrub that off, you know.”
            A previously unseen door had opened in the far wall; a man in a grey jumpsuit with a mop and bucket stood there glaring at them.
            “Quick!” Matt shouted, but Mina was already moving.  She brushed the outraged janitor out of the way with the sweep of a heavily muscled arm, and blocked the door from closing as Lily and Matt ran through after her.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.2]

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 15.5

            Elizabeth had expected the man responsible for Matt’s disappearance to look like a mad scientist, a wild-eyed, shock-haired Dr. Frankenstein with a white lab coat and glossy black rubber gloves.  Not this fairly well-groomed older man in flannel and denim with a sad face.
            Still, there were less than a ten seconds between Elizabeth’s realizing who the new prisoner was and her slamming him against the wall of the cell.
            “What did you do to Matt?  Where is he?” she shouted in Harte’s surprised face.
            “Oh, Professor?” interjected Hector.  “May I introduce Matt’s sister, Elizabeth?  You’ll want to watch out for her left hook.”
            “Young lady, please release me.  I will explain what I can, subject to the potentially inherent...” Harte was cut off as Elizabeth twisted her grip on his collar.
            “Do you go by a nickname?” Hector asked her suddenly.  “Beth?  Liz?  Betty?  There are lots of options – sort of the opposite of Ed, you know, lots of Ed names, Edward, Edwin, Edgar, all get shortened to the same thing. Al’s even better; Alfred, Albert, Alvin, Alistair, Alphonse, um...oh, of course, Algernon, how could a psychologist forget Algernon?” 
Elizabeth loosened her grip and looked at Hector; Harte gasped a breath.  “What are you talking about?” she said.
“Just wanted to get your attention before you choked the guy with the answers, champ.  I can understand the urge to throttle him when he’s talking, though.  Low-level Asperger’s, or something like that, isn’t it, Professor?”
            “Mr. Ojeda,” Harte wheezed, “my condition is not a matter for discussion.”
             “After the day we’ve had, Professor, I think we’re entitled to talk about whatever we want,” Hector said.  “Why don’t you let him go, Eliz... – actually, what do you prefer to be called?”
            “Elizabeth’s fine,” she said.  She liked the way Chavez had said it, at least.  She released Harte, and he staggered over to the cot.
            Hector leaned over him.  “So, explain.”
            Harte hung his head for a long moment before he spoke.  “All right.  In 1976, a United States Army Captain by the name of Todd Forrest volunteered for a certain experiment.  It involved administration of certain psychoactive substances in order to modify the awareness of soldiers in combat.”
            “What does this have to do with Matt?” Elizabeth interrupted.
            “Patience,” Hector said.  “I expect the Professor is about to tell us he administered the experiment.  Right?”
            “Wrong,” Harte snapped.  “I tried to help the Captain afterwards.  The substances he had taken in the experiment had drastic effects upon his brain chemistry.  He experienced hallucinations and paranoia.  Many of Captain Forrest’s delusions derived from popular fiction of the time, stories of spies and secret agents. 
            “Captain Forrest’s particular delusions centered around the belief that he was the leader of a team of super soldiers, all of whom had been part of the army’s experiment.  In fact, Forrest alone was the subject. 
            “I was brought in to consult on his case.  I tried standard therapies, but they were ineffective.  So I was forced to turn to other, stronger, more radical treatments in order to control his condition.  While those treatments were potentially risky, they had been extensively tested, and I judged the risks acceptable.
            “What I did not anticipate was that the military had not been honest with me about the true nature of the drugs that they had already given the Captain.
            “It took me over a decade to figure out what had happened.  As I am sure you have guessed, the combined effect of the drugs was similar to that which we call Visulex, only much more potent, and uncontrolled.
            “Captain Forrest disappeared in front of me, but he reappeared at various times and places, much in the way Mr. Larkin now does.  Where he appeared, he could alter reality.  His delusions became manifest.
“Even after the Captain’s appearances tapered off in the early 1980s, I continued to search for a way to cure his condition.  The danger he posed was still incalculable, and he was, is, my patient.  There were times when, to my shame, I hoped that he was dead, but I could not take that chance.  The Visulex experiments were part of my extended attempts to find a way to access aleph-two, the dream world, and retrieve Forrest.”
“And the men-in-black outside?” Hector asked.
“Central to Forrest’s fantasy was the belief that he and his team were being used or opposed by a nefarious and secret group within the government.  There was no truth to these beliefs, of course.  The man who supposedly led this secret group was named Robert Black.
“The commander of this base likewise identifies himself as Robert Black.  For reasons which I do not understand, this person is pretending to be, or actually believes himself to be, a man who does not exist.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.1]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 15.4

“We’ve got a contact...oh, you’re going to love this, sir.” said the Lead Monitor.
Robert Black had always liked the Lead Monitor.  So many of his personnel lacked a sense of humor; it was generally a benefit in their work, but it could be so dull.  The LM had a dry wit that Black found refreshing given the terror with which most of his staff appeared to regard him.  Exactly why the LM was not afraid of him was a valid question, though; it could either be excess confidence as a result of his elevated position, or the sign of an impending psychotic break, which was also not uncommon in their work.  Black made a mental note to have the LM demoted, once this current crisis was over.
“Report,” Black said cheerfully.
“Larkin tripped the matrix on level two.  He’s in an oubliette.”
“Excellent.  Is there a nightmare cycle?”
“Yes...calculating that now.  Ooh, it’s a fast one – only fifteen to twenty subjective minutes between nightmares.”
“Fast indeed,” Black said.  “That should keep him occupied until we can collect him.  Any sign of this third trace Ms. Rodgers tells we should be looking for?  This Breckenridge woman?”
“Not that we can be sure of.  There was a flicker earlier, but it never resolved properly.  There are two coma-type traces with Larkin’s, no surprise in an oubliette.  Possible Breckenridge could be one of those, if she’s been absorbed by the dream state.”
“Keep watch anyway.”  So much to do today, Black thought.  Soon, he would have a meeting to attend with an old friend.  It was a conceit, he knew, to think Tim would be glad to see him.  Still, Black liked to believe that they were friends, and that the other man simply hadn’t realized it yet.  “I’ll be in my office.  No interruptions.  LM, you’re in charge.”
            “Yes, sir,” the Lead Monitor said smugly.
* * *
            Some hours after his interrogation of his would-be assassin, Chavez was driving along Route 44 in Connecticut.  He had called into the Albuquerque field office to report the attempt on his life, the apparent kidnapping of Elizabeth Wright and Hector Ojeda, and the location in rural New Jersey that the false DEA agent had provided.  The SAC had promised to route the information to the field offices in New Haven and Newark; those offices would then take over and coordinate with local law enforcement to investigate the site. 
            Chavez himself had been ordered back to New Mexico; he was headed back to the airport now.  His boss had decided that the assault on Douglas Wright was unconnected to the strange events in Connecticut, and that the matter was best left in the hands of the Bureau’s local offices.  As far as Albuquerque was concerned, Larkin had been cleared by Harkness University’s confirmation that he was a patient in their hospital at the time of the attack. 
            Chavez had protested, but without anything in the way of proof to back up either Elizabeth’s fantastic story or Hector’s description of the Visulex catastrophe, there was little he could say beyond asking for more time to look into the case.
            A sign passed by, informing Chavez that he could reach “Satan’s Kingdom” via the next exit.  Wouldn’t be a bit surprised, he thought to himself.  Chavez wondered when he had started to accept the unlikely scenario playing out around him.  The weird thing was that his instincts told him that it all fit together, that everyone’s actions made sense so long as Hector and Elizabeth and the original police report were all accurate.  It just depended on the world itself being insane.
            It wasn’t the first time, of course, that he had evaluated suspects’ behavior based upon outlandish assumptions; the whole trick of profiling was figuring out the beliefs and perceptions that motivated a criminal, when those beliefs and perceptions might have little to do with reality.  But none of the people Chavez had met in this case seemed out of touch with the real world.  They had simply seen something beyond their comprehension and behaved like normal people would: the local PD in Albuquerque, passing the buck and then ignoring it; Hector Ojeda, running away; Elizabeth, trying to figure out what happened, but not telling anyone out of fear that she would appear crazy.  And wasn’t he doing the same thing himself, not telling his boss what he actually suspected was going on?
            Whatever the Newark office found in the Hibernia iron mines, he doubted that it would be anything they were prepared to handle.  It made no sense for him to leave now, when he might be the last person who had even a hint of what they might encounter.
            Chavez pulled over at the next rest stop, and punched Hibernia into the car’s GPS system.  He could get there in a few hours, and help when the other agents went in.  And damn it, he had to be there to see it for himself.
* * *
The door to the small interrogation room opened, and Harte looked up as a man in his mid-to-late sixties walked in, the guard outside holding the door for him.  The man looked fit for his age, and was neatly dressed in a dark turtleneck and beige corduroy pants.  His white hair swept back from his forehead, as if his face were moving forward leaving condensation trails in its wake.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” the man said, sitting in the chair on the other side of the table.
“Should I be?” Harte replied.
“Well, it has been over twenty years since we last spoke, Tim.  I can’t imagine that you were expecting me here.”
“I do not recognize you.  Have we met?”
“My God,’s Bob Black; I can’t have changed that much.  You’ll make me think all that time on the cross-trainer was for nothing!”
Harte’s eyes widened.  “Robert Black?”
“Ah, there’s the surprise I was looking for!  I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed at how blasé you seemed to be.”
“I know who you say you are now,” Harte said grimly.  “You are correct, I was not expecting to see you.  Is Captain Forrest is still alive?”
“Always so practical.  I’d hoped we might be able to catch up a bit before getting to business, but there it is.  Yes, Tim, the good Captain is still with us, I have him in a, well, let’s call it a temporary holding area in aleph-two, for his own safety.”
“Why have you abducted me?”
“Because I wasn’t sure you’d come, otherwise.  After all,” Black said, spreading his hands, “we did have a bit of a falling out.  But it strikes me that you and I have the same problem.  We both want to be able to retrieve conscious subjects from the dream world and return them to base reality.  I thought we might work together to make that happen.”
“You are looking for a method to restore the Captain to aleph-one?”  Harte asked.
“Well, I didn’t say that, exactly.  He’s been there for a long time, and for now he’s fine where he is.  Really, at this point I’d be more interested in bringing Matthew Larkin home.”
Harte felt the air leave his lungs in a rush.  “What do you know about him?”
“More than you, most likely.  For example, I know that Matthew Larkin is alive and well, at least within certain parameters of ‘well,’ and has been performing stunts in the dream world that my operatives have never been able to accomplish.  I’d be interested to know how.”
“How did you obtain that information?”
“I can’t reveal all of my techniques until we’ve decided to work together, now can I?  So, what do you say?”
Harte’s hands began to shake.  “I...I will need to consider it.”
“Of course,” Black replied with a warm smile.  “You’ll understand that I cannot allow you to roam freely, of course.  Someone will show you to your room until you make up your mind.”
Black stood, then knocked at the door.  It locked behind him after he exited.  A few minutes later, three guards in black and silver uniforms entered, and escorted Harte to an elevator which took them down several floors.  The elevator opened to reveal a brightly lit corridor with heavy steel doors on each side of the hall.
The guards opened one of the cell doors and shoved Harte inside.  He stumbled; strong hands caught him before he fell.
Harte righted himself as the cell door slammed shut.  He looked up into the bruised and battered face of Hector Ojeda.  “Professor?” the big graduate student asked, “is that you?”  A woman Harte did not know was stretched out on the narrow bed in the cell.
“Yes, Mr. Ojeda.”
“Everyone’s been looking for you.  Do you know what’s happening here?”
“No,” Harte said.  “But I have certain suspicions.”
“Care to let us know?”
“Yes.  To put it in simple terms, we may very well be trapped in the mind of a madman and, for the life of me, I cannot see a way out.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 15.5]