I stumbled along the halls, dragged myself up and down steps, never finding an exit, and never noticing myself slipping closer and closer to the floor. I ignored my increasingly frequent yawns, and the heaviness of my eyelids, of my whole body.
When I eventually tripped and fell, sprawling at the top of a flight of stairs, I didn’t think twice about the musty smell of the heavy-duty rubber treads, or the coarseness on my face of the grit left behind by student sneakers. The only thought that lingered was, “I’ll have to tell Lily.” Then I fell fast asleep.
* * *
My dreams were troubled and vague, scenes of the hospital overlaid with other times and places. When I was just on the edge of waking, my eyes opened for a single terrifying moment to a fractured, whirling chaos of things that were almost objects but were really nothing but symbols of themselves.
I blinked, and the vision was gone. I awoke fully to find that I was still stretched out in the stairwell of the impossible school.
I had slept.
Refreshed wasn’t a strong enough word; I felt renewed, reborn. The shadows, the dullness had fallen away; I had been functioning at a reduced level for so long that I hadn’t remembered what feeling normal was like.
My stomach growled. Breakfast. I needed food, and went scavenging.
Rested or no, I had no better luck searching the school than I had before. The same classrooms, the same bizarre sunlight. I couldn’t tell that any time had passed, unless I’d slept for a full day. Which was possible, I supposed. The only food that I could find was the apple on the desk; it had somehow been replaced while I slept. I drank tinny water from a hallway fountain. I occasionally saw students in the hallways having their lunchboxes seized from them by bigger kids, but they vanished before I could steal their lunch for myself.
So where was I? Professor Harte had said something, right before whatever had happened... something about “aleph-two.” I knew “aleph” was a Hebrew letter, that was about it. I was putting some pieces together, though. While I wasn’t dreaming, it was becoming clear to me that everyone else here was. It was the classic anxiety dream, playing out thousands, hundreds of thousands of times.
But if this place, this “aleph-two,” was a dream world, it was still tangible to me. I could get bruises from bumping into things; the back of my head still hurt from where the lock had hit it. There was food and water that I could eat and drink, air that I could breathe. There was continuity of a sort – I could sleep (I could sleep!) and dream, but I would still be here when I woke up. And if I was someplace that was in some sense real, then maybe I was someplace that I could be found. And rescued.
I realized that I was best off just staying put until help arrived. However long that might be.
* * *
The mahogany-paneled room was quiet. Once, thought Dr. Timothy Harte, the silence would have had the grace to be broken by the ticking of a wall clock, or someone’s wristwatch. No one in the room was wearing a watch. Doubtless they would check their PDAs if they needed to know anything as prosaic as the time.
Harte himself was acutely aware of the time. Six days since Matthew Larkin had first disappeared.
The president of Harkness University closed the manila folder, and dropped it on the table in front of him. “Has he given any indication that he intends to sue?”
Harte shifted uncomfortably in his chair on the other side of the table, as the president, flanked by Harte’s department chair and the university’s chief counsel, waited for his answer. The dark wood of the table showed the signs of heavy academic use, carved initials and careless scratches sanded and re-stained like a wooden palimpsest. After decades of the cycle of abuse and restoration, it seemed to Harte to have become an indelible archetype rather than a mere example. It had a sense of permanence at the university which he sorely lacked at the moment.
“Well, Timothy?” The president’s tone was edging from disappointed mentor to irritated employer. About a point-two-five shift in the informational matrix, Harte estimated absently, and not in a positive direction.
Harte shrugged slightly. “I don’t think his, ah, condition, if you will permit that term, has left him capable of interacting with formal societal structures to that degree. You see, he no longer perceives institutions such as the justice system as tangible realities, but only as symbols of the concepts behind those institutions. While he doubtless understands the idea of justice qua justice, he does not...”
“So that’s a no,” said the chief counsel. “You haven’t contacted his family yet, have you?”
The department chair removed his glasses and covered his eyes. The chief counsel leaned across the table, the furrows between her eyebrows deepening. “Please tell me you haven’t talked to the family yet.”
“Well...” Harte hated dealing with lawyers; their connotative index never correlated with their denotative index in a coherent manner. “No, I couldn’t reach, I mean, I couldn’t get him to provide their contact information.”
The counsel leaned back. “Well, that’s a small mercy, at least.” She turned to the president. “I’d suggest that my office coordinate that contact, Fred. You’ll need to make the first call, but I’ll be in the room with you, and my people can follow up after that. Maybe by that point Mr. Larkin’s condition will have improved somewhat,” the counsel shot a look across the table at Harte, “and this will blow over.”
The president nodded. “Let’s hope so. We should talk privately about what I’ll be saying...”
Harte coughed gently, aiming for a low-grade interruption; as tense as he was, however, it came out significantly sharper than intended. They all turned to him.
“I should say that his condition is not entirely, well, stable at the moment. In fact, unstable would be a much more accurate term.”
“He’s getting worse, Tim? Are we going to lose him?” The department chair clearly conveyed that Harte’s own situation could get no worse.
“No, well, not in the sense you mean. To the contrary, he’s probably invulnerable while he’s in our care. It’s just that he’s not here all the time.”
The president stood bolt upright. “You let him go?” he shouted. “You...you...”
Harte shook his head rapidly. “No sir, no...not at all. Of course not. But we can’t keep him in the room any longer.”
The department chair frowned, and said sharply, “That’s no longer your call, Tim.”
Harte sighed. The informational disconnect was approaching 1.0 on the Murdoch scale. He made a last desperate attempt to resolve the confusion. “No, Otto, it’s not a medical opinion. We are physically incapable of restraining him at this point. You have to understand, he is shifting between ontological states such that he frequently has no conventional presence in this...” Harte disliked the next word, it was so inappropriate, but it would have to do, “...reality. He disappears without warning. Each time, we have no idea when he’ll come back, or if he’ll come back here versus someplace else.”
The president, still standing, stared at him. “I think it’s time we saw Mr. Larkin for ourselves, Dr. Harte.”
“That would probably be best, sir.” If we can find him, Harte thought.
[Go to Chapter 5.3]