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.”
“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.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 10.2]