Half an hour later, Dr. Harte, the President and the others reassembled on the fifth floor of the Trask Center. Harte missed his office in Eldridge Hall; the dark wood and classical style had always felt pleasantly organic to him, a place for ideas to spring forth naturally. But some overgenerous alumnus had decided to fund a hospital, all of the professors with actual medical degrees were shifted into clinical white boxes, and Eldridge was razed to make way for yet another gymnasium.
Dr. Harte spoke briefly to the duty nurse, and started to head down the corridor. “We’re in luck,” he said to the small band of academics following him. “He’s here. He is in aleph-two about sixty percent of the time now, maybe a little more, so the odds were against us. Which makes sense.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said the University's chief counsel.
“Um, you understand that as far as we can tell he’s dreaming when he’s here?" Harte asked. "Most people spend the third part of their lives asleep, and the dream state can occur throughout those times. As his condition progresses, it would be logical that Mr. Larkin would come to spend only about a third of his time as you’ll see him now.” He stopped at an open door, and peered inside. “Yes, here he is.”
They gathered at the door and peered at the young man sitting on the bed. Harte heard one of the others groan nauseously; he had forgotten the effect Larkin had on first sight, having become accustomed to the boy’s appearance himself. There was, after all, nothing superficially wrong with the way Larkin looked: a young man, in his early twenties, his spiky brown hair unkempt. He was in the jeans and red button-down shirt again, for which Harte was thankful – all he needed was for the boy to be in one of his more elaborate outfits. Even in this basic attire, however, it was difficult to focus on the details of his clothing. The shirt might have five buttons or six; the denim might be deep blue or bleached; it was impossible to decide for sure.
What really tortured the vision, though, was the lighting. The light in Larkin’s room was the same fluorescent glare as the rest of the hospital, washing out everything it touched. Larkin himself, however, seemed to be illuminated by the rays of a setting sun, tones of gold and rose that were definitely not coming from the bluish tubes above him. The shadows on his face were all wrong, and the whole inspired vertigo in the unprepared, as if you were going to fall into him.
Larkin gazed back at them vaguely. “Can we speak with him?” asked the President in a thick voice.
Harte nodded. “But the interpretive filter through which he experiences the world is not standard, by any definition. As far as we can tell, he comprehends his environment as if the elements of his perceptual matrix were archetypes drawn from his own unconscious, and treats them accordingly.”
The President looked across at the department chair. “Did you get that, Otto?”
The chair nodded. “He can hear you and see you, but he might not understand who you are. He’ll see you as part of his dream, just like you perceive people you dream about.”
Harte held his breath slightly as the President stepped into the room, but Larkin did not seem to react adversely. His eyes did follow the President’s steps, though.
“Matthew? Can you hear me?” asked the President.
“Yes.” The boy nodded.
“Do you know where you are?”
Larkin frowned slightly. “In your office.” And around them, the walls seemed to recede and ghostly shelves seemed to appear; a vague suggestion of a large desk appeared behind the President.
“What...?” said the President, startled. The chief counsel gasped.
Harte quickly said, “Please, um, try to remain calm, sir. It’s imaginary, we think. Or perhaps pseudo-real is a more accurate term. But it’s probably not wise to become too agitated around him. His actions are somewhat, er, unpredictable.”
“Is he violent?” the President hissed in a whisper, the implied threat of violence against Harte’s own person spiking on the connotative axis.
“Not in the sense you mean, sir. At least, not that we’ve seen. But he is unlikely to be bound by societal restrictions on behavior. He is dreaming, after all.”
“Wonderful.” The President gingerly turned back to Larkin. “Matthew, I’d like to ask you a few questions; is that all right?”
“I’m not going anywhere without Betsy,” said Larkin. His face creased with a deep frown. “You can’t send her away.”
The President shot a look at Harte. “What is he talking about?”
“He appears to be interpreting you as one of the social workers with whom he met after his parents were killed,” Harte said quietly. “Mr. Larkin harbors severe anxiety over those events, more severe than would be explained by the family history he provided. It is likely that he has repressed memories, but he is emotionally unready to cope with whatever he is hiding from himself. Essentially, his subconscious was trying to communicate via his dreams while at the same time his conscious mind was refusing to listen. His conscious mind is preventing him from sleeping in order to prevent him from dreaming.”
“And how does that explain this?” the President hissed in response.
“One of those undisclosed factors in his psyche appears to have resulted in an atypical response to the treatment.”
“‘Atypical response’? You old fool, you’ve...”
“Stop whispering!” Larkin shouted, and the floor trembled. “I want see my sister!” His words were thunderclaps of sound, and the assembled administrators covered their ears in pain. Phantom objects shattered.
“Your sister isn’t here,” the President shouted desperately. “Mr. Larkin, we’re in the Trask Center at Harkness University. Can you see that?”
Larkin frowned. The illusory furniture faded slightly. “What?”
“This is not...this is not a good idea,” Harte said.
The President ignored him. “There was an accident in an experimental treatment you were receiving for your insomnia. Do you remember?”
“Don’t do that, sir!” Harte warned.
Larkin’s mouth opened slightly, and he shook his head.
“As I understand it, Matthew, you’re sort of dreaming right now; none of this is real.”
Larkin shook his head again.
“So if you could just try and focus...,” the President started.
The weird illumination around the boy suddenly grew more intense. Harte grabbed the President’s arm. “You have to leave, sir!” he shouted, and dragged him out into the corridor as the entire room filled with a silent explosion of light.
When they stopped blinking, they stepped back into the room, or what was left of it. Part of one wall was gone, and they could see into the next room. The bed appeared to have melted slightly; the sheets which had been white linen now had patches of paisley. The black and white checkerboard linoleum was swirled, as if it were stirred paint. There was no sign of Larkin.
The President whirled on Harte. “Where did he go? What the hell happened?” he demanded.
“You woke him up,” said Dr. Harte.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 6.1]