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?”
“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.”
“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]