Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 10.3

            Lily had a fixed route in her jogs around campus: through town to the chapel; down the east side of campus past Stevenson Theater to the river; follow the tow path along the canal back over to the stadium; up past the engineering school and then bear right toward home.  Sometimes she’d do it twice, if she was feeling ambitious.
            Today, though, she started feeling lightheaded as she approached the theater.  She didn’t usually run out of steam this quickly, especially when she’d had a large breakfast.  She dodged out of the way when she heard a car horn, but then couldn’t see any car nearby.  Her head spinning, she sat down on the blocky granite steps of the theater and rested.  What was it she had eaten this morning?  Harte had served something, well, hearty, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember what it was.
            Lily took hold of a brass railing and hauled herself to her feet; black spots flickered at the edge of her vision.  So much for the rest of her run -- she wasn’t even going to be able to walk back like this.  She needed an energy bar, or something with sugar.  There was probably a vending machine somewhere in Stevenson; they seemed to be everywhere on campus these days.  Failing that, she could call the campus police to pick her up from one of the bluelight phones, but the last thing she wanted right now was to go back to the Trask Center.
            Luckily, the theater door wasn’t locked.  Like many of Harkness’s non-academic buildings, the theater only really came to life in the evenings after classes let out, but it seemed that there were people around.  Someone should be able to help her.  The lobby was empty, but the lights were on and she could hear the sounds of construction from the stage. 
            She pushed through swinging doors covered in red leather and into the auditorium itself.  A massive set piece rose from the back of the stage, extending out and upward to incorporate the proscenium and reach toward the audience.  At its base was an open door, flanked by demons frozen in the act of playing a fanfare on brass trumpets; rising from the top of the door were billowing clouds in which angels spun.  As Lily watched, a section of cloud broke free and descended to the stage, lowered to the ground on a rope.
            “Impressive, isn’t it?  Too bad we’ve got to strike it before anyone gets to see it.”  Lily turned; a slightly plump blonde woman wearing a tool belt and coveralls had come up behind her.  “Watch it!”  the woman shouted in her ear.  “I don’t care if the show’s off, we didn’t build that thing so that you could smash it to pieces!”
            Lily’s legs went wobbly, and she clutched at the back of a row of seats to prop herself up.
            “Hey, you don’t look so good,” the woman said.  “Why don’t you sit down?”
            Lily did so.  “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.  My blood sugar just crashed.  Is there someplace here I can get a candy bar, or a Coke?”
            The woman opened a pouch on her belt, and took out a pair of wrapped candies.  “Here.  Hope root beer is okay.”
            “Perfect.”  Lily unwrapped the little barrels and popped them in her mouth.  She felt better almost immediately.  “Thanks,” she said, rolling the word around the mouthful.
            “No problem.”  The woman sat down next to her.  “So, what do you think?”
            “What, the set?  It’s big.”
            “Tell me about it.  We spent weeks building it.  Now one lead’s disappeared and the other one refuses to show up, so we have to take it all apart.  Guess the understudies couldn’t hack it, or something.  Hopefully we can reuse it for something else.”  The woman held out her hand.  “Lily.”
            Lily blinked.  “Yes?”
            “That’s my name.  It’s how we greet one another on planet Earth.  Need another beer barrel?”
            Lily shook her head, smiled, and shook hands.  “I’m sorry...I was just...that’s my name too.”
            “You don’t say?  Look, one Lily to another, can I give you a ride someplace?  I’d rather not have you keeling over in my theater, and watching these jokers wreck my hard work isn’t my idea of a good time.”
            “I’d appreciate that,” Lily said.
            The other Lily stood up.  “Rich!”  she called out.  “I’m taking the van -- you’re in charge until I get back.  Try not to knock the building down!”  The blonde woman turned to her.  “Come on, let’s go before they do something I can’t ignore.”
            Lily levered herself up; the candy was definitely helping.  She moved to follow her namesake, but stopped when she saw a shadow cross the stage and disappear into the ornate door.  It wasn’t obvious what cast the shadow.
            “Did you see that?” Lily asked.
            “Nope,” the other Lily said, without turning around.
* * *
            “...decide to work with Professor Harte in the first place?”
            Lily looked up.  She was in the passenger seat of a van, winding its way along the perimeter of the Harkness campus.  The other Lily was driving.
            “I’m sorry...I must still be a little fuzzy,” she said.  “I missed most of that.”
            “You were telling me about switching labs.  What made you decide to work with Harte, if he’s such a flake?”
            “He’s not a flake.  He’s brilliant, and the work he’s doing is revolutionary.”
            “Was doing, you mean.”
            Lily bristled.  “Maybe.  But it was a once in a lifetime experience.”
            “So, anything else you do at Harkness would probably be a bit of a letdown, huh?”
            “What choice do I have?  And why do I have to explain myself to you, anyway?”
            The other Lily shrugged.  “You seem like you might need to justify it to yourself, is all.”
            “Isn’t it taking you a long time to get to the other side of campus?” Lily asked waspishly.
            “You want to go home, we’ll get you home.  We’re just taking a shortcut, is all.  See, there’s your building.”  And there it was; they must have taken a right at the stadium and cut up at an angle.  Or was it before that?
            The other woman pulled the van up in front.  “Thanks for the ride,” Lily said, as she stepped down to the sidewalk.  “I’m sorry I lost my temper.”
            “That’s nothing.  Try dealing with a cast full of prima donnas in permanent snits.”
            “Good luck with taking down your set.”
            The other Lily frowned.  “Time’s running out.  Take care of yourself, Lily.”
            “You too.”
* * *

[Go to Chapter 10.4]

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 10.2

            Lily had worried that, overnight, Harte would come up with some excuse to keep her involved.  But he drove her back down to Connecticut as promised, without objection or attempts to persuade her.
            As on the ride up, they didn’t talk much.  Lily had plenty of time to castigate herself for abandoning Matthew.  But, she told herself, there was no way that she should be the one going after him; it was insane to have tried.  She wondered much of her decision to take the Visulex, and for that matter how much of her loyalty to Harte, was just displaced anxiety over her avoidance of her responsibilities to her own parents.  Her mother heaped guilt on her, so Lily responded by avoiding the negative stimulus, while simultaneously trying to prove herself more than responsible in other situations.  It was so obvious.
            And on top of that, Matthew, all troubled and artistic and vulnerable, had been a perfect storm after her failed relationship with Ian.  Of course those long sessions sharing his innermost thoughts and fears led to a sense of intimacy. 
            She felt herself blushing, thinking about his portrait of her.  When she discovered the page missing from Matthew’s sketchbook, she suspected that something on that page must have involved the closeness that was developing between them, the things that Matt clearly wanted to say to her but would not.  He had respected her desire for a professional distance, and Lily appreciated that, but she also realized that what she told Matthew -- that she needed the page for his treatment -- was a pretense.  Some part of her wanted him to speak out loud and cross that line.  But Lily had in no way been prepared for the portrait, the sheer emotion it conveyed.
            It wouldn’t have been good for Matthew, she told herself sharply.  It wasn’t right, she was practically his doctor.  Well, sort of.  There were rules against that sort of thing.  Best thing she could have done for him was to get out of the situation, get out of the way.  It wouldn’t have lasted once he was out of the hospital, anyway. 
            Probably.
            Get a hold of yourself, girl.  No more starving artists for you.  Your whole life is ahead of you, your real life.  Time to get on with it.
* * *
            It was around eleven a.m. when she finally got home.  Lily turned her key in the lock, and then stopped before turning the knob.  There was a noise from inside her apartment. 
            Breathing softly, she listened.  Petty thefts, even the occasional burglary, were nothing out of the ordinary near campus, and her place was only a couple of blocks away.  Harkness also had a perennial problem with sexual assaults on women, which, like many universities, it tried to deemphasize.  Lily had avoided roommates – she could afford an apartment to herself, and she rarely got along well with other people in her space – but living alone had its risks.
            She slid her phone out of her pocket, checked the time, and waited for five minutes; there was only silence.  If someone inside had heard her unlock the door, the intruder was probably doing exactly the same thing that she was, waiting and listening.  But had she really heard something, or was it just in her head?  It could easily have been an after-effect of the Visulex, a minor auditory hallucination.  Besides, they were on the third floor.  Someone breaking in would have had to use the front door or the fire escape; the front door looked fine, and in the morning the fire escape was plainly visible from the street.
            Her instincts still bothered her, though.  She knocked on the door across the hall; Fran did Internet marketing from his living room, and was usually around during the day.
            “Fran?  It’s Lily from 3-E.”
            “Hold on, be right there,” a voice responded inside.
            Fran opened his door.  Lily couldn’t remember ever seeing her neighbor when he wasn’t wearing a terrycloth robe over a t-shirt and sweatpants, or when he was wearing anything on his feet.  Today was no exception.
            “Hey, Lily,” he said.  “What’s up?”
            “I feel ridiculous for asking you this, but would you mind coming into my apartment with me?  I thought I heard a noise inside.”
            He blinked.  “Uh, yeah.  Sure.  Should I get my bat or something?”
            She nearly said yes, but then had visions of Fran flailing away at her plants.  “That’s okay.  I think you’ll be enough to scare them away as you are.”
            “Whatever you say.”
            Lily removed her key from the lock, and opened the door slowly.  Fran loomed over her shoulder, peering into the apartment.  She flipped the light switch; it took a moment for them to flicker on.
            The apartment was only three rooms, bedroom, bath and a living area with the kitchen separated by a counter.  It took Lily all of two heart-thumping minutes to be certain that no one was there, even checking the closets and under the bed.  The window in the living room that led to the fire escape was shut and latched, and nothing had been disturbed.
            Fran was standing in the middle of her sparely furnished living room and craning his head, looking around in that way people do when they’re in a new place and aren’t sure where they’re allowed to go. 
            Feeling like an idiot, she said to him, “I’m sorry about this.  I must have been imagined it.”
            “Oh, uh, no problem.”  He smiled awkwardly, his head bobbing.  “Glad to help, right?  I guess I’ll just, um, go back across...”
            “Do you want a cup of tea or something?”  Lily interjected, realizing that she didn’t want to be alone in the apartment.
            Fran’s expression froze in panic.  “Ah, thanks, but, I, um, should really be checking on my...yeah.”  He practically ran out of the room.
            Lily closed the door behind him, and made tea for herself instead.  She had that effect on some guys.  Irritated, she wondered what he thought she was going to offer him besides a cup of Bewley’s finest. 
            She settled down in the overstuffed chair she bought in place of a couch, and sipped.  Lily knew she was attractive, but sometimes it seemed like her appearance scared off everyone except rich guys who thought that money made them interesting or would-be male models who were too stupid to realize how shallow they were.
            The few normal guys whom she had managed to date didn’t last long, either.  It wasn’t Lily’s fault that her IQ was off the far end of the bell curve.  She didn’t think less of them because of it.  Remembering the story of what happened when Gertrude Stein met Charlie Chaplin, she went out of her way to make mistakes so that they’d feel at ease.  But when Ian, her last serious boyfriend, had dumped her, he had accused her of never letting him do anything and making him feel useless.
            Something flitted across the floor, breaking Lily’s concentration; the shadow of a bird outside, probably.
            Enough daydreaming.  A run, a shower, and a change of clothes, she thought, and then we figure out how to transfer to another program.
* * *

[Go to Chapter 10.3]

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 10.1

CHAPTER TEN
In Transition
                Lily had been drifting for several minutes when the bubble started to expand.  As it did, the pink membrane thinned and stretched alarmingly beneath her feet; she quickly lay down and distributed her weight across the base of the bubble so that it wasn’t concentrated in a single spot.  The air pressure was increasing, she could feel it in her ears.  More light filtered into the bubble as it grew and the walls lost their thickness, until the brightness illuminated the interior more brilliantly than the noontime sun. 
            A sick feeling twisted Lily’s stomach as she felt the gum tear beneath the fingers of her right hand.  She had just a moment to see a beam of pure white light shining through the hole, before the whole bubble burst around her and she fell into a shining abyss.
            She was plummeting backwards, her face and body turned away from the direction of her fall.  She closed her eyes tight against the searing brightness that surrounded her, flickering afterimages drifting behind her eyelids.
            Why did I agree to this, she thought to herself, as the wind drew tears from her eyes.  I had a future!  I could have left, like David and the rest of them...
            Her thoughts continued to spiral around her until she struck something, hard.
* * *
            When Lily realized that she was still alive, she kept her eyes shut; it was still bright, the light shining directly in her eyes.  Instead of looking around, she gathered what she could from her other senses.  The air was musty and cool; she felt cold.  She was lying on a smooth, soft surface; her fingertips felt something like leather or vinyl.  No, not lying; more reclining...
            Lily jumped as something on her face pried her left eyelid open.  She thrashed as the light momentarily blinded her, and swatted something away from her face.  There was a grunt from her left side, and the light on her face went dark.  She stumbled to her feet, and crouched with her fists in front of her, blinking rapidly.
            A voice came out of the dimness.  “Lily, please be calm.  I assure you that you are as reasonably safe as possible.  I had not been aware that you had reassociated to conscious sensory input.  I was attempting to gauge the dilation of your pupils to determine if the anti-nootropic I had administered was taking effect.”  A pause.  “I see that it has.”
            “Professor?  Is that you?”  She opened her eyes, and, by the light of a computer monitor, saw Harte standing on one side of the examination room massaging his arm.  A penlight was still spinning where it had fallen on the floor.
            She stood upright.  Harte turned the dimmer switch on the wall, and the room brightened.
            “What happened?” she asked.  “I was falling...”
            Harte tilted his head and looked at her with interest.  “Were you?  That would explain your elevated heart and respiration rates.  Your so-called ‘vital signs,’ if for the sake of brevity you would overlook my use of such a misleading term, were varying significantly from my pre-established acceptable parameters for the experiment.  As such I believed it prudent to act as we had previously agreed on the contingency plan of administering an anti-nootropic in the event that you appeared to be, within a reasonable margin for error, in danger.”
            That was convoluted even for Harte; it took her a minute to parse it out.  “You saw I was in trouble and pulled me out of the dream.” 
            He looked discomfited.  “Well.  Yes.”
            “Thank you.”
            “Oh.  Well.  You are welcome.”  He seated himself at the computer keyboard and clicked a few windows shut, then swiveled the chair back to face her.  “Did you locate any trace of Mr. Larkin?”
            She shook her head.  “No.  Well, maybe.  I don’t know...I mean, I saw some things, but I don’t know what they meant, if they meant anything at all.”
            “Would you be willing to record your experience?”  He held up a dictaphone.  “It would be best if you could narrate your sense impressions now, before intervening events lead to memory decay.”
            Lily sighed.  “Sure, I guess.”  She looked down at her feet, took a deep breath, then looked up at Harte again.  “After that, I’m out.  This is crazy.  It’s too dangerous.”  She took the hand-held tape recorder from Harte.  “I’ll give you your narration, but then I want you to take me back to campus.  Today.”
            “All right.  I understand.”  He stood up.  “But it’s after dark already.  Perhaps I could drive you back in the morning?”
            Part of her wanted to say no, take me back now, but she nodded.  “In the morning.  First thing.”
            “Of course.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 10.2]

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 9.4

The Ocean
            Forrest must have seen the look on my face.  “I take it you didn’t know.”
            I stood up and started pacing the deck.  “Damn it, I took the drugs so I could sleep normally.  I should have just lived with the insomnia.”
            “So what were you, a volunteer for a drug trial?  I gather you weren’t military.”
            Forrest’s use of the past tense irritated me; he was acting like we were already dead.  “I’m a student.  I have, had, chronic insomnia.  One of the psych professors was running an experiment that was supposed to help.  They gave me something called Visulex, said it was supposed to induce lucid dreaming, help me see what was keeping me from sleeping.  I guess they got the dosage wrong.”
            “Visulex.”  Forrest looked thoughtful.  “That’s not what we were given.  Or at least, it wasn’t called that.  What was the professor’s name?”
            “Harte.”
            “Timothy Harte?  Talks like a thesaurus, no social skills?”
            “You know him?”
            “He was the project’s expert in NLP.”  He looked at my presumably blank expression.  “That’s neuro-linguistic programming.  It’s what Harte called the mojo we were supposed to be able to work on the enemy.  He basically ran the project before Black took over.”
            “What happened to him after that?”
            “I don’t know.”
            “You think he might be trying to continue your project now?”
            He shrugged.  “It’s been a long time.  But if Harte’s involved, there’s definitely more going on than an academic drug trial.”
            “Have you ever heard of something called aleph-two?” I asked on a sudden inspiration.
            “You’re standing in it.  That’s what Harte called this place.  He thought it was a higher level of reality, or an abstraction from our reality.  I never got that straight.”
            I kept pacing.  I needed to get home.  Both of us needed to get out of here, before someone died in the real world.  But the Captain seemed content to loll on his deck chair.  I turned on him.  “How can you just sit there?”
            He blinked slowly, stretched his arms, and folded them behind his head.  “I told you.  Desire leads to suffering.  Doing nothing is the best option.”
            “You’ll have to do better than Zen bullshit if you want me to stay here.”
            “You’re still not listening.  I don’t want you to do anything,” he said.  “Sit down.”  He waved at the other deck chair, and I found myself settling down.  “After the treatment, when my men started appearing around the base like delusional poltergeists, what do you think I did?” he asked.
            “Let me guess – nothing?”
            “Smartass.  No.  I got the remaining members of my team together, and we went in after our people.  We even found most of them, still in the spot where they first appeared.  Then we tried to get home.”
            “What happened?”
            “It was a disaster.”  He looked up at the stars.  “I don’t really know what this place is.  I don’t think everyone who dreams comes here, at least not all the time.  Maybe it’s a backwater of humanity’s collective unconscious, but I think it’s someplace far stranger than that.  In many ways, like a dream, it reflects your own thoughts and feelings, the ones you don’t even let yourself know you have.  And every desire, every want, is inextricably intertwined with fear.”
            He was losing the thread again, or I was, but I was still intrigued.  “Fear?”
            “Every time you want something, really want something, at least half of what you feel is anxiety over the possibility, however remote, that you won’t get it.  And if you’re not afraid of that disappointment at all, if you really don’t care, can you truly say that you want it?
            “We wanted more than anything else to return home.  But when we tried to manipulate the dream world to get us there, it pulled those fears and anxieties right out of our minds and turned the dream into a nightmare.
            “Some of my men vanished in the border zones.  Some tried to will themselves out of the dream, and found themselves chased and devoured by hordes of monsters.  Some tried to use lucid dreaming techniques...”  Forrest shuddered.  “We found them with their heads turned inside-out.”
            He shook his head.  “You’re damned lucky you didn’t know what you were doing when you fell through the mists.  Had you been trying to get somewhere, you probably wouldn’t have survived.”
           “So,” I said, “not just a bizarre otherworld, but an endless landscape of death traps and pitfalls.  Perfect.”  My eyes narrowed; there was something about Forrest’s story that bothered me.  “How did you survive when the rest of your men didn’t?”
            “I remembered the Four Noble Truths.  I was with the last group to try to escape, the ones who tried to use the border zones.  We stepped into one, holding the idea of home firmly in mind.  The mists went wild, transformed into howling vortexes that swallowed my men whole.  When I knew I was going to die, I closed my eyes and tried to meditate, to clear my mind of fear and the desire to cling to life.” 
            His expression became peaceful.  “I floated in Samadhi for a timeless moment; then I opened my eyes.  I found myself in a vast marketplace filled with dreamers, and knew, just knew, that I would stay in this world unless someone rescued me from the outside.  
            “After a while, I made my way to this boat.  So long as I’ve been in aleph-two, my dreams have tended to be set in the same type of place as where I fall asleep.  I figured I couldn’t do that much harm if I’m materializing in the middle of the ocean.”
            The words “Bermuda Triangle” crossed my mind, but I held my tongue.  Instead, I asked, “How did you get to the boat if you can’t want to go anywhere?”
             “What I said was that we can’t try to manipulate the dream world to get places.  But the dreamers, that’s another story.  They’re very susceptible to suggestion, so if you tell them they need to take you somewhere, they usually will.  They can’t take you out of the dream – if you tell them to wake up, they’ll eventually just disappear – but you can catch a ride to other places.”
            I remembered the girl who brought me from the School to the Cliff House.  “It’s just part of the dream to them,” I said.
            He nodded.  “Exactly.”
            “I don’t think I can just stay here,” I said.  “I mean, I hear what you’re saying, but I still feel like I have to try something.”
            “I understand,” Forrest said.  “You’ve got a lot of anger in you about something.  I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t think you’ll be able to find peace here until you figure that out.”
            I certainly felt a flare of irritation at his presumption, but bit back a retort as I realized I was proving his point.  I smiled ruefully.  “Fair enough.  Look, I’m going to have to move on.  Do you have any suggestions as to where I could go?”
            He nodded again.  “In the morning we’ll catch a ride to the marketplace.  That’s where I found my path; perhaps you can find yours there as well.”
* * *

[Go to Chapter 10.1]

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 9.3

The Ocean
            Captain Forrest cooked the fish in the boat’s small galley.  We were sitting on deck chairs under the stars; there had been no sunset, just a dissolve from blue sky to black.  The deck itself was suffused with a warm glow that seemed to have no source, and did not outshine the starlight, but which allowed me to see as if we were sitting in a well-lit room.
            Forrest shook his head.  “So the world survived the turn of the millennium.  Never thought we’d make it.”
            “Yeah,” I said, around a mouthful of bluefish.
            “You’re the first real person I’ve talked to since the rest of my team was killed,” said Forrest.  “I didn’t age.  I had no idea it had been so long.”
            “I’m sorry,” I flailed inwardly, “Um, you look awesome for someone in his mid-sixties.”
            “If it’s still the year when you left.  Maybe I’m seventy by now.  And you passed through a border zone – you might have been in there a day, or a week, or a year.  Or a century.  Are you sure you haven’t lost track too?”
            It took me by surprise.  Could I be racing into the future without knowing it?  If I ever got back, would I recognize it?  I had an image of Lily married, with kids.  Grandkids, even.  And I would never have the chance to ask her out. 
            Hell with that.
            “You must have tried to get back to the real world before,” I said.
            “Remember the Second Noble Truth: desire is the source of all suffering.”
            I blinked.  “You’re a Buddhist?  And you’re in the army?”
            Forrest sighed.  “So, the grand experiment was a failure.”
            “You lost me.”
            He smiled sadly.  “You think a U.S. Army soldier can’t be a Buddhist.  If that’s what people from your time believe, I can only assume the principles of the Subliminal Warfare Project never really caught on, and the U.S. Army is still on its endless death trip.” 
            “I can tell you I’ve never heard of subliminal warfare,” I said.  “Advertising, yes.  Warfare, no.”
            He nodded.  “If they believed we were all dead, I’m sure they terminated the project and classified everything.”  He leaned back in the chair, and watched the stars.  “See, we weren’t like other military units.  The big difference was in how we were supposed to fight.  What was that phrase they came up with?  New Age, that’s it.  We were supposed to be a New Age unit.”
            “Hippie soldiers?”  I was starting to wonder if Forrest was just another bizarre construct of the dream world.
            “Not quite peace and love, no.  But the goal was to create a force that could fight without bloodshed, to win over the hearts and minds of the enemy without violence.
            “We were supposed to be psychological warriors.  We were trained so that everything about us – how we traveled, how we looked, how we spoke - would communicate an irresistible impression of, and I quote, ‘overwhelming force held in check by benevolent intent.’ 
            “We studied Eastern philosophies, and used experimental drugs to achieve higher states of consciousness.  It was all supposed to put us in the right frame of mind to resonate with the enemy’s own thoughts.  The idea was that we would create this net impression that would go straight to the target’s hindbrain, so they’d be laying down their weapons without a shot fired.”
            I snorted.  “Using the alien technology from Area 51, I bet.”
            “Oh, they declassified that?”
            “What?”  My eyes opened wide.
            “Gotcha.”
            “A hippie soldier with a sense of humor, even.”
            “Yeah, I know how it sounds.  But the results of the initial experiments were encouraging.  We went through a lot of goats, though.”  His face darkened.  “But then Robert Black joined the project.”
            “Who?” I asked.
            “I don’t know for sure.  CIA probably.  Maybe DIA, or NSA, or some other kind of spook.  Anyway, Black suddenly gets sent down from stratospheric levels to take over the project, and brings a whole team of doctors with him.  And he says to us, why worry about trying to make an impression on the mind of the enemy, when we can get you in there directly?”
            “Oh, no.”
            “You got it.  That’s when the whole thing went to hell.  Half of my team disappeared in the third test.”
            “What do you mean, disappeared?”  I’d been half-hoping that this was all a delusion and that I was just unconscious, and would eventually wake up assuring people that no, really, I could hear everything they said to me while I was out.  Of course, listening to someone I met in a delusion wouldn’t really resolve that question, but not for the first time I felt sick at the thought that this might all be real.
            “Just what I said, poof, gone.  But it was when they reappeared that all sorts of strange shit went down.  They showed up four or five times a day, mostly during the night, and that’s when the fun started.”  Forrest shrugged.  “The docs eventually realized that the timing of the appearances corresponded to the average length and timing of REM sleep.”
            “So all we need to do to get home is go to sleep?”  I shook my head.  “I’ve slept several times since I’ve been here, and I’m still here.  All I had were weird dreams.”
            “No.  The real world is our dream world.  What you dream actually happens back there.”
            Except for a feeling of immense relief, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that I’d been able to sleep again since I came here.  There had been too much else to think about.  Now I tried to remember the things I had dreamed about since I arrived here, and felt a growing horror.  I couldn’t remember much; compared to the startling clarity of Visulex experiences, my recent dreams had been vague, disturbing blurs that quickly evaporated when I awoke.  What had I done?  God, had anyone been hurt?

[Go to Chapter 9.4]

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 9.2

The Ocean
            I came to in a fit of coughing, gouts of seawater pouring from my mouth.  I rolled over onto my side, spilling the contents of my lungs across a surface of varnished wood.

            A figure crouching over me stood up, silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky.  “Try and remember next time: drink water, breathe air,” the silhouette said.  “There’ll be a quiz.”

            I propped myself up to a sitting position.  This was a boat, a sailboat.  My eyes were drawn to the man grinning over me, a well-tanned figure in a t-shirt and chino fatigue pants.  He stood out from the world around him, like he had been painted in oils on a watercolor background.
            “You’re not...,” I faltered.
            “Not a sleepwalker?  No.”  He extended a large hand and hauled me to my feet.  “Captain Todd Forrest, U.S. Army.  Last surviving member of the Subliminal Warfare Project.  It’s mighty good to meet you, whoever you are.”
* * *
            I had never been on a boat before, and I guess it showed.  After I introduced myself, Captain Forrest tucked me in an out-of-the-way part of the deck to recuperate, and went back to his casting.
            There was yet another strike, and he fought to reel in his line.  “Back home, you’d never catch fish like these in this water.  Blues like bays and shallow areas right off shore.  Of course, I never had this much luck surf-casting, either.  But here, where there’s water, there’s fish.  Lucky for me.”
            Right off shore is something we definitely weren’t; there was no land in sight in any direction, horizon to horizon.  Not many dreamers, either; just one or two pacing the deck at any time. 
            “Where’s home?” I asked.
            “Originally?  New Jersey,” Forrest said.  “It’s a good thing I was nearby to haul you out.  Plenty of sharks around, and you’re not much of a swimmer.  How’d you get out there, anyway?”
            “I fell off a cliff.”
            “Like to take chances, do you?”  He gave a sudden heave, and yanked a large gray fish out of the water.  It thrashed on the deck.  “So, what’s the plan for extraction?” he said.
            I was still in a daze, vaguely wondering why the gray fish was called a “blue,” so I had to ask him to repeat the question.  It made no sense the second time around, either.
            “I’m sorry, I don’t get it.”
            “You’ve found me, congratulations.”  He picked up a wooden club, and, stepping on the fish’s tail, whacked it on the head.  He tossed the stunned fish into a bucket.  “So, how are we returning to the real world?”
            “I’m open to suggestions.”
            “When you came in here, didn’t you have a plan for getting out?”
            I laughed hoarsely.  “‘He’s the brains, sweetheart.’”
            Forrest frowned.  “Who is?  Was there someone else with you?”  He turned and looked out over the water.  “If you got here by falling through a border zone, there’s almost no chance your friend is nearby.”
            I shook my head.  “No, I’m alone.  Sorry, I thought you were quoting Star Wars.”
            Forrest looked nonplussed.
            “Star Wars?  The movie?  Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope?” 
            He shrugged.  “Must have come out after I got here.”
            I felt a sudden chill.  “How long have you been here exactly?”
            Forrest cast a distant look toward the horizon.  “I don’t really know.  They don’t have what you’d call real time here.  No real days and nights.  The clocks tend to melt.  But I left the outside world in June, 1976.”  He looked at me.  “Why, what month is it now?”  When I didn’t respond, he frowned, and asked, “What year is it?”
            I told him.
* * *

[Go to Chapter 9.3]

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 9.1

CHAPTER NINE

Downtown
            The tourists gave Carl a wide berth as he made his way down Greenwich past the park, but he was used to being ignored.  They ignored him when he lost his job, they ignored him when he got sick and couldn’t pay his bills, they ignored him when the bank repossessed his house.  Carl didn’t blame them; he had been one of them not so very long ago, afraid of the economy falling apart and wanting to keep every last dollar he had for himself.  When you were afraid, you didn’t want to think about those who had already become casualties of the recession or about helping them out; at any moment you might become one of them, and you’d need whatever you had for yourself.  It was short-sighted, but understandable.
            Part of Carl was miserable, he knew that.  He avoided looking at his reflection in the windows that he passed, knowing that he’d just start inspecting his clothes and hair again, trying to convince himself that his appearance wasn’t really as appalling as he felt it was.  Instead, he tried to get outside of himself.  It was a beautiful late summer morning in Manhattan, warm and dry; it was a gift, the best kind, no matter who you were.  It was important to be able to let your mind roam free of your body, he’d decided.  Otherwise you’d go crazy.
            He smiled broadly.  A woman pulled her children closer and scurried past.
            Carl took a left onto Chambers Street; there was a restaurant at the end of the block where he used to eat, back before, and the morning waitress still set something aside for him sometimes.  She didn’t let him sit inside, of course, but breakfast was breakfast. 
            But the restaurant wasn’t there when he got there.
            Instead, there was an alley cutting down from Chambers to Warren Street.  Carl looked around again, in case he’d somehow wound up on the wrong block, but no – there was the bank, there was the wine shop and the bookstore.  The restaurant had simply gone, and this narrow street – an old sign at the corner called it Bishops Lane – was in its place.
            Carl stood at the end of the alley and looked down its length.  The whole thing was in shadow, with the sunlight on Warren Street a bright rectangle at the far end.  It was littered with garbage, dumpsters lined up along its sides.  “Where did you come from,” Carl muttered, and then regretted it.  He had tried to avoid talking to himself.
            He heard something – someone crying.  Walking down a mysteriously appearing dark alley wasn’t a good idea, Carl knew.  But he couldn’t ignore someone in trouble.
            As soon as Carl stepped into the alley, a bitter cold seeped through his old coat.  Sun must’ve been hotter than I thought, he mused.  He looked up between the buildings; clouds obscured the sky.  Pulling his collar tighter around his neck, Carl moved toward the weeping sound.
            He found the source next to a dumpster, on a grate that leaked chlorine-scented steam.  The kid looked to be about fourteen or fifteen, maybe a bit older; he was curled up against the grate, huddling for warmth.  For some reason he was soaking wet.
            Carl stopped several feet away.  Helping was one thing, but you never wanted to get too close to someone you didn’t know.
            “Hey, kid,” Carl said.  “You, ah, you don’t want to be back here like this.”
            The boy glared up at him through tears, shaking; Carl knew from experience that it wasn’t just the cold, it was also fear. 
            “I’m not going to hurt you.  Look, you should go somewhere else.  It’s a lot warmer out in the sun.”
            The kid didn’t say anything, just kept shivering.  He didn’t look like he’d been on the streets for long; he was clutching a backpack that seemed pretty new.  Maybe he was just a runaway.
            “It’s just, places like this aren’t safe,” Carl said.  “Do you have a home?  Someplace to go to?”  The kid shook his head.
            Carl sighed.  The last thing he wanted was to get mixed up with an unattended minor.  He knew what people tended to think when someone like him was around kids, and didn’t want any trouble.  Carl started to back away, but said as he was leaving, “You shouldn’t be where no one can see you.”  He remembered the name of the alley.  “You, ah, should go to a church or something.  Bad things can happen to a kid like you out here.” 
            “Too late,” the boy said.
            Carl shrugged and turned away.  He looked back just once as he reached the sunlit streets.  It was hard to say with the sharp contrast in light, but it appeared that it was snowing in the alley.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 9.2]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 8.3

The Smoke Shop
            One moment she was clinging to rusted metal rungs in the side of the shaft; the next, she was in the shop.
            The place reeked of tobacco, permeating the magazines that sat dusty on long racks down the aisles of the store.  Dirty plastic filtered out every color but a sickly yellow from the harsh fluorescent lighting.  Shadowy figures in long coats skulked the aisles, disappearing periodically into an alcove at the back of the store under a sign saying “UNDER 18 STRICTLY PROHIBITED.” 
            Lily fought not to gag on the tarry stench, hardly better than the miasma of the hags’ cave.  Looking around the dismal space, she felt like she had arrived at a temple of male vices: porn, cigars, and comic books.  If this was part of Matthew’s dream world, she didn’t want to know about it.
            She approached the checkout counter, avoiding the indefinably seedy figures that moved around the aisles.  No one was there by the old beige NCR register, smudged with decades of fingerprints, but the shelves under the counter caught her eye.  Each held foil-wrapped packs of movie trading cards...Fatal Attraction...The Crying Game... Schindler’s List.  She picked up a pack of Night of the Hunter cards.  No one seemed to be paying attention to her, so she pulled apart the foil and removed six cards and a petrified stick of bubble gum. 
            She dropped the gum on the counter, and flipped through the cards.  The black-and-white images looked more like something from a Tarot deck than trading cards.  The first was titled “The School,” and showed Robert Mitchum as Reverend Powell standing in front of a chalkboard.  The next was entitled “The Fall.”  It depicted the boy from the movie hanging from a window sill above an abyss, while Powell leaned out above him, the “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos visible across his knuckles.  The third card was called “The Time Traveler,” and showed Lillian Gish helping the boy into a rowboat.  “The Temple” showed Powell chasing the boy through a crowd. 
            The fifth card was untitled; it was one of those cheap plastic “holograms,” the kind that sometimes show a winking eye or a changing picture.  This one was either a tower or a moon, depending on how Lily tilted it.  None of the characters from the movie appeared on the card.
            The last card was “The Meaning of a Name.”  The boy held his sister cradled in his lap on a checkered linoleum floor.
            It had been a long time since she had seen the movie, but Lily was virtually certain that these weren’t scenes from the film.  She flipped them over, and discovered that the card backs each had a rectangular fragment of a larger image on them; it was one of those puzzles where, if one had the whole set, they could be re-arranged to reveal a bigger picture.  The card backs were in color, brighter than seemed possible in the dingy light. 
            Lily pushed the stick of gum out of the way and spread the cards out on the counter, trying to see how much of the picture was there.  It was obvious that she had much less than half of the puzzle, but there was something familiar about the pieces that she did have.  It was someone’s face, that was obvious.  There was a shock of brown hair, and that was an eyebrow and part of an eye...
            She blinked, and quickly moved the other four cards into their logical positions.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough.  It was Matthew.
            Lily looked back below the counter to see if there was another pack of the cards she could open; if Matthew was connected to the deck, she thought, then maybe the images could help her find him.  But before she could find another pack, she heard a bell ring.
            She looked up, and saw two police officers entering through a glass door she hadn’t noticed before.  They were black-and-white, like the cards, and walked straight toward her.
            One of the officers raised a gray eyebrow and nodded at the cards on the counter.  “It’s usually customary to pay for the cards before opening them, miss.”
            “I was going to pay, but there’s no one at the counter,” Lily said.  “Look, I need your help.  Do you know where I can find this person?”  She pointed to the partial image.
            The other officer snorted.  “Like we’re in the business of finding missing persons now.”
            “You’re cops, aren’t you?”
            The first officer sighed.  “Now, why don’t you just be a good girl and chew the gum?”
            “I don’t want the gum.  I want to find my friend.”
            The second officer said.  “Oh, she doesn’t want to pay.  Makes all the difference in the world, that does.  Look, you opened the cards, you have to chew the gum.  So get on with it before we have to take you downtown.”
            Lily picked up the stick of gum.  It felt brittle, but the artificial, vaguely fruit-like scent was still strong.  “You want me to chew the gum?  Fine.”  She popped the stick in her mouth.  It cracked into pieces as she bit down on it, but the shards softened quickly.  “Now, will you help m...”
            Suddenly, she couldn’t talk.  The wad of gum had expanded, the soft mass filling her mouth.  The police officers nodded with grim satisfaction.  Desperately, she tried to spit it out, but it was too big to fit past her teeth.  She tried to chew it down, or push it into her cheek, but there was just too much of it.
            “You’d better blow a bubble before you choke, honey,” said the second cop.
            If only I could talk, you pig, Lily thought.  She inhaled through her nose, as deeply as she could, opened her lips, and blew a bubble.  It grew and grew, becoming wider and wider.  When she ran out of breath, she inhaled again through her nose and kept going.  The soft orb stretched ridiculously, now larger than her head, her torso...now it was touching the floor, and still it grew. 
            The smell of the gum was cloying, and the pink membrane filled her vision.  It expanded until it somehow curved back on itself, and she found herself inside the bubble.  With a last exhalation, she spit out the rest of the gum, which was absorbed into the sticky sphere that surrounded her.
            Great, I’m in Topps rebirth therapy, Lily thought.  She reached out to touch the wall of the bubble, expecting it to stretch or part under the pressure of her fingertips.  Instead, she felt a sudden pressure as the bubble started to rise, carrying her with it.  She didn’t know what happened to the ceiling of the store, but it didn’t stop her; the bubble just kept going up, on a blind flight to who knew where.
* * *

[Go to Chapter 9.1]

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 8.2

The Schoolhouse and the Cave
            Lily closed her eyes as the needle slid into her vein.  Harte had dimmed the lights in the lab to help her ease into sleep  Over and over again, Lily told herself that she had to be the one to do this; she didn’t sound convincing. 
            How long did she have before the drug started to take effect?  Her pulse rate was up, she thought; that was probably just normal anxiety.  Most of the Stage One patients had reported that Visulex had a calming, euphoric effect, so it couldn’t be happening yet, right?
            She remembered her first session with Matthew, when he asked whether she’d ever tried Visulex.  She didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to tell him that she had backed out of the opportunity to try it before the study began.  There had been too much to do, that was all, and she would be the one who had to do it if Gloria, Hector and David were off tripping.  Besides, she didn’t do drugs; she rarely even drank alcohol.
            She wasn’t ready yet, that was all there was to it.  She’d tell Harte to reverse the process, give her the anti-nootropic now.  They had to wait until they had more time to plan, and she had time to think this through more clearly.  Harte’s ideas about how to find Matthew boiled down to little more than thinking hard about him and hoping.
            A sudden panic gripped her.  Was she drifting off already?  Reviewing the events of the day was a pre-cursor to the dream state.  Was her racing heart speeding the progress of the drug?  She tried to take stock of each part of her body, testing if anything felt odd or numb.  Were her toes tingling, or was her foot just falling asleep?  Oh God, what if her foot crossed over before the rest of her?
            She labored to breathe, but felt like she had metal bands strapped around her chest.  It could be an adverse interaction with her allergy meds.  What was she taking now?  Over the years, she had had so many prescriptions; but she should know what her current one was.  Fexofenadine, maybe.  No, that was an older one...  Would there be allergens in the dream world, she wondered?  Maybe there would be pharmacies... dream pharmacies.  Would they sell sleeping pills in a dream pharmacy?
            The examination chair pitched forward like a roller coaster car cresting a hill, and she gave a little whoop of exhilaration as she clutched the hand rests in surprise.  Like Space Mountain, she thought.  Hypnagogia, here we come.  Her whole body began to vibrate; the chair twisted through strange directions just as someone barked a word with no meaning into her left ear at the top of his lungs.
            Lily opened her eyes.  The lab was darker, though Harte himself seemed to shine in the darkness, trailing afterimages as he moved around the room.  She stood up, but even when she was on her feet she could still feel the leather of the examination chair pressing against her back.  Harte was no more than a smear of color now, spreading out to nothingness as he moved.  Then the only color was black.
            The same part of her that still felt like it was in the chair experienced another surge of panic, but it didn’t seem to reach the rest of her.  She peered into the darkness, and as she did, shapes began to emerge.  A swing set, a sandbox.  She turned, and saw a little red schoolhouse behind her.  The white door of the schoolhouse was inviting, and as she approached, the bell in the tiny cupola on the peaked roof began to ring.
            A flood of children rushed past her, crowding through the entrance.  Three stragglers brought up the rear; two larger kids were chasing the third, a scrawny kid in a rather embarrassing shorts and button-down shirt ensemble. 
            “Where ya going, ya little queer?” one of the bullies shouted.  “Gonna go give your boyfriend a kiss?”
            She had never had much patience for that kind of thing, especially back when she was a skinny kid herself.  She waited until the three were passing, then stuck out her foot.  Mature?  No.  But satisfying.  The biggest kid went flying face first into a mud puddle, which hadn’t been there a moment ago.
            The pursuit froze into a tableau, and both pursued and pursuer turned toward her.  She broke the silence.  “Get lost, you two.  Unless you want to try picking on someone my size – you want to get the snot beaten out of you by a girl?”  She grinned, showing as many teeth as she could.    
            Without any warning, between one moment and the next, the bullies were just gone.  Where the nerdy kid had been was now standing a pudgy, middle-aged man.  “Thank you,” he said.
            “Don’t mention it,” Lily replied.  “Hey, have you seen a guy named Matt around here, about so tall...?”  He seemed about to reply, but faded away before he could answer.  The schoolyard faded with him, and Lily was somewhere else.
* * *
            She stepped out of the darkness.  Walls of rough stone curved over her; the air was rank with sweat and filth.  A dying fire at one end of the cave threw off sepia sparks, washing out all other color.  Three old women crouched behind the embers.
            “So, you come to us wanting,” the middle one said, her shadow looming on the wall behind.  “Wanting and wrathful.”
            “I’m looking for someone,” Lily said.  “Medium height, sort of thin, spiky brown hair?”
            “Wanting is dangerous, daughter,” said the one on the left.
            “Wrath will turn upon you,” said the one on the right.
            “I’m not your daughter, and if you want to see wrath, keep ignoring my questions.  Have you seen him?  His name’s Matthew.”
            “Unwise, to decide on a destination without considering the path,” said the one on the right.
            “Unwise, to walk the path without knowing the destination,” said the one on the left.
            Unwise, to be wasting time with the B-cast of Macbeth, she thought.  She turned to leave, but found that there was no exit...the cave was just a bubble of air in the rock.
            “Let me out of here,” Lily said.  “Now.”
            “The only way out is in, daughter.”  The one in the middle pointed to the sparking firepit.  “You must lose what you seek to find what you have.”
            Lily stalked closer.  “If you want to befuddle someone into performing a pseudo-ritual immolation as a method of achieving personal enlightenment, pick someone without a psychology degree.”
            The middle one met her gaze steadily, the crone’s finger still pointing to the fire before Lily’s feet.  Lily broke first, and looked down.
            And then she saw it.  The burning embers rested on a metal grate; a wide hole lay below.  Singeing her fingers, she pried up the grate, scattering coals across the floor of the cave.  The hags grinned as she climbed down.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 8.3]

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 8.1

CHAPTER EIGHT
Santa Fe
            Agent Chavez turned his car into the neighborhood where the victim of the attack, Douglas Wright, lived.
            As soon as Chavez had started looking into the Wright case, it had became obvious that there was actually something weird going on – and clear why the local cops had passed it off.  Wright had been terrified when Chavez had interviewed him at the hospital, barely coherent; he was neither composed enough nor smart enough to lie.  The reports of the neighbors had been no help.  Every single one of them claimed that they slept through the event, even though Wright had not been gagged and must have made an almighty racket. 
            And the woman at the lab, Breckenridge, was hiding something, he was certain.  But he could find no evidence that Larkin had flown into any regional airport, rented a car, taken a train, or even used a credit card west of the Mississippi. He could conceivably have driven across the country using cash, but the victim’s description of the crime didn’t sound like one with that degree of premeditation.  Bizarre, yes, but not premeditated... someone who took that degree of care to hide his activities wouldn’t normally leave the victim able to identify him.
            Now it looked like the wife might have been lying about Wright being drunk.  The ER docs had ordered a tox screen, as was typical where the victim had a history of alcoholism and might have self-inflicted injuries.  It had come back negative -- no alcohol, no narcotics in Wright’s system. 
            Chavez turned onto Wright’s street.  Elizabeth Wright had claimed to have been asleep, and not to have witnessed the incident.  Now he wondered what exactly she had seen.
            The house was dark when he arrived, and there was no car in the driveway.  Probably at the hospital, he thought.  He had considered calling ahead, but had decided against it.  A surprise visit was often more effective when a witness was having problems with the truth. 
Just in case, however, he walked up to the front door of the house and knocked.  There was no reply; but as he turned to walk back to his car, a voice called out to him, “She’s gone.”
            He turned, and saw an older woman sticking her head out from behind the screen door of the next house over.  “So I see.  Thank you, ma’am,” he replied.
            “No, no, I mean she’s gone, left.  Went back east to see her family or something.  Good for her too.”
            Chavez stopped.  Elizabeth Wright’s parents were both deceased.  The only family was her brother.  “When did she leave, ma’am?” he asked.
            “This morning.  Packed up her car and went.  You a cop?  You talk like a cop.”  She squinted at him, and nodded in the direction of the Wright home.  “That dirtbag gonna pull through?”
            Chavez was flipping through his notebook.  “Mrs... Ruiz, isn’t it?  What did Mrs. Wright say to you about why she was leaving?”
            “Oh, she said that she needed to make sure her little brother was okay, or something.  You ask me, she was just getting out while the getting was good, hey?  Nice girl, but you know the bastard used to slap her around something awful.”  Chavez had seen the photos of Elizabeth Wright, taken at the hospital after earlier incidents with her husband.  Awful was a pale term.
            He jotted down what she said and put his notebook away.  “Thank you, ma’am, you’ve been very helpful.”
            “You should arrest him,” she said, nodding to the house next door again.  “Give us all some peace round here.  Nice and quiet since he's been gone.”
            “Goodnight, ma’am,” he said, walking back to his car.
            Pulling away from the curb, Chavez tried to put the pieces together.  A woman like Elizabeth wouldn’t just leave her husband, especially not when he was in the hospital.  According to the prior incident reports, like so many women in long-term abusive relationships, she had been afraid to defy Wright even when she was surrounded by police and he was unable to reach her.  If she suddenly left to see her brother, it could only be because she was even more frightened for Larkin than she was for herself.
            Chavez found himself trying to calculate when Elizabeth would arrive in Connecticut if she left this morning, and whether he could get there first if he caught a red-eye that evening.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 8.2]