Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 12.1

The Open Hand and the Fist
            “Excuse me...?”  Elizabeth had been standing at the reception desk for a few minutes; the duty nurse hadn’t seemed to notice her yet.  She tried to calm her brittle nerves, and tried again.  “Excuse me?”
            A voice behind her said, “That’s not the way to do it.”  On the way in, she had taken note of the tall Hispanic man sitting in one of the waiting area chairs  – now there he was, standing behind right her.  She backed up, bumping into the desk.
            He held up both hands.  “Easy there.  Sorry for startling you.  But you need to be a little more assertive to get their attention.” 
            Keeping one eye on the man, she turned slightly, and said again, “Excuse me, miss?” 
            The nurse kept on with her filing.
            “Here, let me.”  The man leaned past her, over the desk.  “Hey – we need some help here!”  Elizabeth cringed at the volume of his voice.
            The nurse wandered lazily over to the desk.  “Yes?”
            “We’re here to see Matthew Larkin.  Can you tell us which room he’s in?”
            Elizabeth’s eyes darted toward the exit, but the man waved something in front of her face and drew her attention back.  A badge.
            “Mrs. Wright?  I’m Special Agent Chavez with the FBI.  Shall we go see your brother?”
* * *
            “He couldn’t have done it, you have to believe me.  He wouldn’t do something like that.”
            Chavez examined the empty room where Larkin was supposed to be; he had sent the nurse to find either Harte or his assistant, Breckenridge.  Elizabeth Wright was pleading with him.
            “We just have to find him, I promise there’s an explanation.” 
            Oh, and I bet it’s quite a story, thought Chavez.  The room was on a floor apart from the other patients, and seemed to be in the midst of construction.  It was empty of furniture.  The linoleum flooring had been pulled up to reveal the wafer board beneath; Chavez ran his hand over new drywall installed on one side of the room.
            “What are you people hiding?” Chavez mused aloud.  He walked into the hallway, and pushed open the door into the next room over. 
            Wright followed him.  “Nothing, I swear, I know nothing about this.  I came here because they said he was in the hospital and I was scared.”
            There was construction in the next room as well; a drywall panel was leaning against the wall, uninstalled.  Chavez shifted the panel to one side, and revealed a hole leading into Larkin’s room, blocked by the new wall on the other side.  He ran his fingers over smooth edges.
            He looked back at Wright, who was standing in the doorway.  “Think they’re covering up an escape route here?”
            “What?”  Wright turned and looked at the door, then darted out into the hallway.  She came back a moment later.  “N-no...look... there’s no lock.  There isn’t one next door either.”  She seemed to shrivel as he looked at her.  “I mean...he wouldn’t have needed to go through the wall if the door was open, right?” she asked in a small voice.
            Chavez watched her for a moment, then nodded.  “Absolutely right.  Besides, the edges of the hole look melted; I doubt your brother had a flamethrower in there.  Ah, Ms. Parsons,” he said, looking over Wright’s shoulder at the nurse, who was peeking into the room behind her.  “I trust that Dr. Harte will be here shortly?”
            “I’m sorry...neither of them is here today,” the nurse said.  “They haven’t been in for a few days now.”
            “You don’t say.”  He took a last look around the room, and went back out into the hall.  “I’m going to need their home addresses, please, and any other contact information you have.” 
            She just stood there for a moment.  “Now, Ms. Parsons, if you please,” he said.  He shooed the nurse down the hall, and she bustled away.
            Chavez turned to face the nervous woman next to him.  “So, what are your plans now, Mrs. Wright?” he asked.
            She looked at the floor.  “I’ll keep looking for my brother, I guess.  He can’t have just disappeared, can he?”
            “Happens all the time, I’m afraid.  Don’t you want to go home to see your husband?”
            She was silent for a moment.  When she looked up at him, there was a spark, the tiniest spark, of defiance in her eye.  “No.  I’m going to look for Matt.”
            “Good.  Frankly, your husband isn’t worth your time or your concern, and I could use your help.  I believe you, by the way.  Something very strange is going on here, but I don’t think your brother is necessarily to blame.  So, Mrs.  Wright, are you willing to assist the FBI?”
            Her tone was formal as she said, “Yes, sir.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 12.2]

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 11.4

            I looked down at the endless bustling past the base of the temple steps, listened to the monotonous roar of the market, and sighed at the thought of having to rejoin the mix with no idea about where to go next.  “I would have preferred a big glowing portal home.  Or at least a map with ‘This Way to Reality’ in big letters.”
            Forrest didn’t respond; he seemed lost in thought.
            “Ground control to Major Tom?”
            “Hmm?  Oh, I was just wondering if our meeting was really a...”
            The attack was so swift that I only saw it in flashes.  A glimpse of red.  Captain Forrest grappling with a man in a cloak.  A curved knife flashing.  The two of them rolling down the steps.
            Any normal crowd would have cleared a space around the fight; here, the mass of people simply swept around them as they reached the street.  I couldn’t see them at all, couldn’t hear the struggle over the noise.
            Then, I glimpsed the red cloak again.  Shouting Forrest’s name, I forced my way into the crowd.  
            Blurred faces swarmed around me, and I was shoved in every direction simultaneously.  I shoved back as hard as I could, trying to clear a path toward where I had seen the man in red. 
            A flash to my left became a gleaming blade sweeping toward my neck.  Twisting away, I stumbled, and caught the folds of a passing toga with one hand.  My fingers tingled, and I realized I had grabbed a sleepwalker.
            He opened his mouth as I got my feet under me, but before he could speak, his expression of confusion changed to one of agony.  He flickered out of the dream, revealing the man in red standing where he had just stabbed the sleepwalker in the back.  
            The man brought the knife low and moved forward; my back pressed up against the press of bodies behind me.  My mind froze; some part of it was screaming at me to move, while the rest, detached, latched onto details about my attacker.  Like Forrest, he stood out from the background like someone from the real world; that must have been why I noticed him earlier, though I didn’t realize what I was seeing. 
            But what froze my heart was his face.  It was utterly expressionless.  Not a snarl of hatred, not a tightening of the lips or a crease in his forehead to show that he was concentrating on what he was doing.  Neither pleasant nor cruel.  He didn’t even seem bored or disinterested, just...blank.
            The hand holding the knife hovered.  My knees felt weak.
            The forward thrust was fluid and perfect.  Time slowed as the blade moved in a slight upward curve, directly toward my heart.
            Then Forrest was there, driving into the narrow space, striking the blank-faced man’s wrist.  Bone snapped, and the knife skidded across the uneven paving stones, disappearing under the feet of the crowd.
            Forrest and the attacker faced one another, less than two yards apart.  Standing behind Forrest, I could see that he was hurt; one fist dripped red from between his clenched fingers, and his t-shirt was soaked with blood.  The man in red appeared uninjured, except for his right hand, which hung bonelessly.  His expression had not changed.
            Then the attacker flicked his wrist, and his hand straightened as if the bones had been shaken back into place.  He flexed his fingers, and the knife reappeared in his hand.
            Then time started moving, faster than before; the nightmarish inevitability of the killing thrust that Forrest had intercepted became a delirious rush of movements nearly too fast to follow, in an arena less than ten feet across walled with the shifting bodies of the crowd. 
            Forrest blocked a sweep of the knife with one arm, and snapped a quick jab at the man in red’s face with the other.  The blank-faced man dodged back, dropped, and launched a sweeping kick at Forrest’s legs that forced the captain to dance aside.  Forrest pushed off of a man with a tiger’s head to launch himself forward in another attack.
            I kept dodging, always one step behind the fight, always unable to help.  I knew how to handle myself in a street fight, but that primarily involved running away as soon as possible.  Forrest and the other were moving so quickly that anything I might try was only going to interfere with Forrest’s defense.
            Even as I could no longer make out the individual blows that were being struck, it became obvious that Forrest was losing.  He landed solid hits, staggering the blank-faced man momentarily, but his attacker would shrug off the blow and come back as strong as before.  Then the recurved knife would flick out.  While Forrest was blocking or dodging most of the strikes, he could not avoid them all.
            If this were a movie, Forrest would have been able to improvise a weapon to even the odds, a chair, or a broomstick, or something.  I ducked and shifted again as a high kick cleared the space where I had just been standing.  Leaning on the broomstick, I pushed myself back upright, and helplessly continued watching my guide being sliced apart.
            I had been feeling the rough wood under my hand for several seconds before I realized that there was something new in my world.
            “Captain!” I shouted, and tossed the wooden staff into the combat.  Forrest snagged the broomstick out of the air, and brought it whistling around, knocking aside the knife and driving back the man in the red cloak.
            “Never do that again!” he said, as he held the man in red at bay.
            As far as I was concerned, Forrest’s hands-off philosophy was going to get him killed, so I ignored him.  If a broomstick, why not a gun?  I shut my eyes and wished for a Glock, but nothing happened.
            Opening my eyes, I saw the man in red glance at me for an instant before turning his attention back to Forrest.  The faintest of smiles crossed his face, as he lazily extended his left hand and took a quarterstaff out of thin air.
            “Get out of here!”  Forrest said, as he and the man in red met in a clash of staves.
            I didn’t move.  I closed my eyes again and wished hard for a tank, but the armored cavalry failed to arrive.
            “I said go!”
            Then Forrest crouched, and seemed to surge with a burst of strength.  With two sweeps, he knocked the man in red to the ground.  But instead of pressing his advantage, he turned to me.
            He lurched forward, and I thought he was going to push me out into the crowd.  Instead, he reached past me, and grabbed a passing figure, a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and large, thick glasses.  A sleepwalker.
            “Take him somewhere safe.  Do it now!”
            I started to protest, but it was too late.  The dreamer followed Forrest’s command, and we were gone.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 12.1]

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 11.3

            As we kept moving through the crowd, I began to notice a few people in modern attire, a woman in a suit here, a nameless horror in a little black dress there.  More and more twenty-first century outfits appeared, until those wearing the garb of the fair stood out as the minority in the crowd.  The scent of baked goods and farm animals became mingled with exhaust and motor oil; the ground became harder beneath my feet, the unpaved paths transforming into sidewalks, and I found myself trailing Forrest through the deep valleys of a modern city.
            I was puzzled.  “I thought we couldn’t move between places on our own?”
            “We’re still in the marketplace.  It would change around us if stood still and waited long enough; the walking just helps move things along.  And the exercise will do you good.”  
            Forrest pointed at a long window as we passed, an elaborate array of jewelry that looked as if a spider had spun webs of gold and platinum to catch a gemstone flies.  Beyond that was a display of what was probably better called “couture” than clothing, since it didn’t look like it was meant to be worn by real people.  Elves, maybe.  Thin elves.  Store after store displayed the whimsical, beautiful, but frivolous and ultimately useless toys of the extremely rich.  “Every culture, real or imagined, is represented here somewhere,” said the Captain.  “That’s one of the reasons I brought you here; you can find dreamers from anywhere in the world to take you where you need to go.”
            I realized that everywhere I’d been so far had seemed stereotypically American, the dreamers mostly English speakers if they spoke at all.  It was probably a reflection of my own cultural bias.  But this was a nexus of sorts, where different societies came together.  It made sense; where else did the world come together, except in trade and commerce?
            I still wasn’t sure where specifically Forrest was taking me.  I’d expected that he would drop me off in the middle of his mystic market and then high-tail it back to his boat, so that he couldn’t be accused of doing anything.  But when I’d asked where we were going, he’d simply said that there were people he wanted to talk to me.  The way he said it, I got the impression that it wasn’t a matter of me talking to them.
            The transition of the shadowy figures around us was nearly complete.  The city shoppers wore severe blacks and grays, and many carried black umbrellas, although the sky was a strip of bright blue between the buildings. The remaining fair-goers were obvious in the crowd, a flash of red or yellow here and there.
            Forrest led us in a straight line, never turning his path, or even his head.  I could see a cross street ahead of us, and could just make out the names on the signs...Cupido Street intersecting Satis Avenue. 
            We never reached the corner, but somehow the shop windows gave way to columned porticos, and tunics and togas began mingling with the business attire.  We soon reached the edge of a Greco-Roman style forum, all shining white marble, packed with people.
            I’d picked up a little about Greek and Roman art.  Many of the marble statutes that had survived to the modern era, staring into the distance with their blank eyes, had originally been painted with vibrant pigments.  This place should have been a riot of color; instead, the dream world presented us with the B-movie interpretation.  In fact, between the growing number of togate Romans in white and the gradually dwindling city dwellers in black, the only spot of color was one fair-goer in red who had wandered out of his area.  I stopped and watched him for a moment, but I quickly lost him in the crowd.
            Forrest’s hand on my shoulder startled me.  “We’re here.”
            We were standing in the shadow of a massive temple.  Beneath a peristyle of towering columns, the figures who stood on the temple steps were diminished by the scale, mortals on the front porch of a god.
            We passed between the columns and through doors carved from ivory, into the sanctum.  Servants closed the doors behind us.  As they shut, the thousands of voices outside engaged in buying, selling, haggling, peddling, busking and begging were suddenly cut off, leaving a quiet broken only by the crackle of the braziers that lit the interior of the temple, the low drone of priests at prayer, and the ringing in my ears.
            The braziers were spaced throughout the wide central hall of the temple, but the fires seemed to cast more shadows than they dispelled.  At the far end of the room was a statue three times the height of a man, seated on a curule chair.  The image of the god leaned forward in its seat, with one elbow propped on an armrest and the hand supporting the figure’s chin.  The other hand held a short wand entwined with two snakes.  The expression on the god’s face was one of wry amusement.  At the base of the statue, a group of twenty or thirty robed priests knelt in worship.
            “Mercury,” whispered Forrest.  “Roman god of commerce.  Also travelers, thieves, advocates, and all the rest who make their way in the world by their wits and their tongues.”
            “These are the people you wanted me to talk to?”
            “No.  These are the people I suggest you listen to.  Outside, you can find people who will sell you any tangible thing you can imagine.  In here, they trade ideas and information.  And you’re about as clueless as they come.”
            I bristled, but he was right.  I had no idea where to go next.  “What do I do?”
            “Make them an offer.  Tell them something you think is worth hearing.”
            I approached the statue; the assembled priests did not turn around to face me, although a murmur ran through them as I drew near.  What on earth would dream priests in a fictional temple be interested to hear?  Baseball statistics?  Recipes?  I couldn’t see why anything interesting to me would be interesting to them.  Somehow I didn’t think a lecture on great painters of the late 20th century would do the trick
             “Uh.  Hello.”  I said, awkwardly addressing the backs of their heads. 
            “Greetings.”  The response was a susurrus of low voices, overlapping one another.
            “My name is Matt Larkin.  I’m trying to return to the real world.”
            The murmuring of the priests grew intense, then stopped.  They spoke. 
            “We provide this in exchange for your name. 
            “The second consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus saw the death of the natural philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus and the posthumous publication of his most famous work, the Epicurean treatise De Rerum Natura. 
            “In the second book of the work, Lucretius describes the origin of the world arising from the collision and accumulation of atoms.  Lucretius saw atoms as irreducible particles, sleeting endlessly side by side through the open void, neither slowed by wind nor stopped by earth, none faster, none slower.  But how then could these atoms collide, if they all fell in parallel courses?
            “Lucretius held that each atom must be inherently capable of changing its own direction, to swerve ever so slightly, just enough to collide with other atoms.  In fact, this swerve, which owed no allegiance to outside impulse, was for Lucretius no different than that which drives a man to choose one course or another regardless of the forces pressing upon him.  That is, the Lucretian universe arose from, and could not exist without, free will.
            “And yet, the slightest swerve of a single atom would be enough to set off an infinite chain of impact and recoil, particles accumulating into ever larger masses, forming earth and air and water and fire, land and sea and stars.  Collisions become no longer impossible, but inevitable.
            “One thousand seven hundred forty-two years later, another natural philosopher would posit that all bodies, from particles to planets, move in the open void according to rules of mutual attraction.  The more solid an object is, the stronger its pull on other bodies.  No choice is necessary, or even possible. 
            “All things will be drawn together.  The only question is how.”
            What the hell, I wondered.  I felt certain Forrest was somewhere behind me stifling a laugh.  “How is that supposed to help me get home?” I asked the priests.
            “You gave us the value of a name.  When you learn what that value is, then you might understand the value of what we have provided in exchange.”
            “Thanks a bunch.”  Mercury seemed to be smirking at me.
            “You are welcome.  It was nice to meet you.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 11.4]

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 11.2

            The old woman’s eyes twinkled.
            “Ah, you have noticed the have the eye, yes you do!  This watch, it is a treasure beyond imagining.  I would not part with it, but times are hard, yes.  My poor husband, lost to the war, my children fatherless and hungry.  What is a poor woman to do?  Even our dearest possessions must be sacrificed, for what good are keepsakes to the starving or the dead?
            “No, kind sir, let us not talk about cost, not yet.  It would be meaningless to speak of price before you understand what you hold.  It is a pretty thing; yes it is, see the engraving on the case?  And do you recognize the maker’s mark?  The movement is the work of the Master of Fieschertal.  Twenty years alone in his workshop the shadow of the Strahlhorn; just thirteen watches constructed; each one the finest timepiece the world had ever seen, surpassing even the Master’s own prior work.  This...this is the thirteenth and most prized of the watches, the culmination of a life of solitary genius.
            “But if this watch, merely for its construction and beauty, would be a bargain at twice what I assure you will be my modest asking price, for its history it is worth a thousand times what I ask.  It was this watch that Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen, carried into battle against the ghosts of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Beelzebub, as he rescued Marie Antoinette and defended the honor of Germany against the depredations of the National Assembly.  It was this watch that Baron Munchausen pressed into the hands of Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France, when Marie Antoinette presented the child for the Baron’s blessing.
            “And when the Dauphin and his mother were taken to Temple Prison during the Revolution, it was this watch that purchased his freedom.  Knowing that the boy was doomed as soon as his father died and the Dauphin became the King, his mother produced the watch, which she had secreted about her person – I need not go into indelicate detail as to where – and offered it to her jailers if they would substitute another boy for Louis-Charles.
            “Oh, can you imagine the horror...the greedy and lustful eyes of the guards as they beheld such a priceless treasure in the hands of such a beautiful lady.  Yet even the brutish revolutionaries, whose fortunes were tied to the destruction of all that was refined and civilized in France, were struck by the craftsmanship of the watch and the nobility of the Queen.  They acceded to her offer, substituted a peasant child for the young King, and transported Louis-Charles out of the prison into the hands of royalist sympathizers.
            “The young king lived the rest of his life in exile, under a new name, but never forgot the watch that had saved his head.  He eventually became a clockmaker, driven by his memory of the finest timepiece ever to exist, next to the celestial clockwork of God’s heavenly spheres.
            “The watch itself passed from hand to hand, bartered, bought, stolen, always moving as if it recognized the ignoble hands into which it had fallen, and refused to settle until it had found its way to one worthy to keep it.  It was this watch that Tsar Nicholas the Second wore on that evil night in July, when the Bolsheviks came for the Emperor and his family in the cellar.  Some say that the watch cost Asaf Jah the Seventh his rule over the Princely State of Hyderabad, when India invaded for the sole purpose of obtaining it.
            “Now it is in my hands, but I am simply another who must pass it along without truly possessing it.  It is the token of a hero and a king, and it is said that it will grant its true owner the qualities of true nobility.  Is that not a thing worth having?  Is it not worth everything one possesses?
            “So, my fine young man, what say you?  Will you purchase this treasure, and seize your destiny?”
* * *
            Forrest reappeared by my side from out of the crowd, took the watch out of my hand and gave it back to the old woman. 
            “He’s not interested,” he said, leading me away into the press and shuffle of bodies that filled the paths of the fair.
            I struggled to stay close to him.  The country fair extended beyond sight in every direction, colorful tents and cheap stalls packed side-by-side along dirt paths, as a teeming crowd jostled its way from one vendor to the next.  The merchants shouted at us as we passed, spinning legends and tall tales about their wares.
            The vast majority of the crowd was made up of the background extras of the dream world, blurry, ill-defined figures who only took on form and feature when I focused on them for any length of time.  The faces shifting around us leered and laughed, pouted and grinned.
            Not all of them were human, though; or at least, entirely human.  I had bumped into one man with a nest of writhing snakes in place of his left arm, which spat at me as I drew back.  Another woman had miniature police car on her shoulders in place of a head, lights flashing and sirens blaring.  Others were entirely alien, gelatinous blobs mingling with weird animal hybrids.  They all wore outfits appropriate to the period – even the blobs, who were oozily wrapped in Renaissance finery, with ill-defined protuberances in place of arms, legs and head.
            There were also dreamers, more of them than I’d seen in one place before.  I constantly jostled against them, and the bizarre not-quite-déjà-vu sensation of touching sleepwalkers sharpened my disorientation in the chaos of the marketplace.
            The woman who offered me the watch had been mostly normal, except for the slightly bluish cast to her skin.  I was miffed that the captain had interrupted her spiel; a watch that worked in this world could have been very useful.  “I just wanted to ask the price,” I said.
            Forrest said something, which I lost in the noise.
            “I said, she told you the price.  Everything you have.  I told you, it’s dangerous to want things.”
            I thought darkly about what I wanted to happen to Forrest.  “She didn’t have her facts right, anyway,” I muttered.
            “You’re going to need to let go of concepts like true and false.  One becomes the other quickly here.”

[Go to Chapter 11.3]

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 11.1

Aleph-Three: Lily x Matthew
Living History
            “So, you’ll be there for the game on Saturday, right?”
            “Can’t.  Debbie’s mom’s in town.”
            “Are you kidding me?  We’re up against Boonton!  You hate those guys.”
            “I know, I wish I could, but...hey, is that light supposed to be flashing?”
            “Which light?”
            “It says ‘CFA.’”
            “Lemme look that one up...yeah, here it is.  Huh.  Well, that’s not right.”
            “What’s not right?”
            “Says here it stands for ‘Cognitive Function Alert.’”
            “Like, brain activity?  That can’t be right.”
            “That’s what I said.”
            “So what do we do?”
            “Probably a wire crossed; those monitors are ancient.  Try tapping it.”
            “Yeah, okay... nope, still lit.”
            “Hit it harder.  Give it a good smack.”
            “You give it a good smack.  I’m not going to be the one who breaks it.”
            “It’s broken already, it has to be.  There hasn’t been so much as a belch out of the veggies in twenty years.  Probably not enough brain left to fill a shot glass.”
            “Maybe we should go check?”
            “I hate going down there, it smells like the crooked rest home we stuck my grandfather in.”
            “Real nice.”
            “Oh, piss off.  He was a mean old son-of-a-bitch.”
            “So, we going or not?”
            “Just send the bot.”
            “What if something’s going on down there?”
            “I told you, nothing’s going on.  But if there is, you want to walk into it?”
            “Good point... all right, bot’s up and on its way.”
            “I wish we could take it outside sometime – swap in a paintball gun.  Can you imagine what it would be like in a woodsball match?”
            “Oh, man...they’d crap themselves seeing that crashing through the forest toward them.”
            “The bot’s there.”
            “Right, let’s settle this.  Put the feed up on the monitor.”
            “All right.  There it...whoa.”
            “Holy crap.”
            “Maybe we’d better...”
            “Call him.  Right now.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 11.2]

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 10.5

The Lobby
            Lily ran for the theater.  The world was almost pitch black, but in the distance she could see the glow of the bluelight phone outside Stevenson, and she sprinted towards it heedless of anything else.  As Lily ran, a grin spread across her face.
            She hauled open the heavy front door of the theater, dashed inside, and burst through the doors into the auditorium.  On stage, the entire set had been dismantled except for the door itself and the devils on either side with their trumpets.  A bright white light spilled through the doorway.
            The other Lily was waving a nail gun around, keeping at bay a gang of carpenters brandishing saws, crowbars and sledgehammers.
            “It’s about bloody time!  Get down here!” her other self shouted.  Lily ran down the aisle and around the orchestra pit, pulled herself onto the stage.  A blast of nails cleared a path for her, and she joined her other self.
            “Thanks for everything,” Lily said.
            “Hell, this isn’t goodbye,” the other Lily said.  “I’m going with you.  I’m part of you, remember?”  She dropped the nail gun and took Lily’s hand.  With a smile that was as familiar to Lily as her own reflection, she said, “Ready?”
            They jumped into the light.
* * *
Great Barrington
            Timothy Harte was not at peace. 
            Maybe his judgment had been compromised now that the end was in sight.  He had spent decades keeping his public activities innocuous, so that he could keep his real work moving forward without interference.  He spent year after year publishing pedestrian articles in redundant fields of study (which won him entirely undeserved acclaim -- just because he had realized certain truths before anyone else didn’t mean that the rest of his colleagues wouldn’t have figured it out on their own, eventually).  He had moved from state to state. 
            Taking the position at Harkness had been a risk, but a necessary one, if he was to overcome the final obstacles.  Even after joining the University faculty, he had waited for more than a decade before starting the groundwork that would culminate in the Visulex trials, all the while continuing his research in Great Barrington.
            When he had decided to bypass standard procedures and accelerate Stage Two of the project, the risks had seemed acceptable.  He was so close to finishing the work, and redeeming his original failure.  Now, the situation was worse.
            A loud whine from one of the sensors startled Harte out of his reverie.  He spun in his chair to see Lily Breckenridge’s body beginning to glow brightly.
            Not again, he thought, diving for the hypodermic on a nearby tray that would bring Lily out of the trance.
            He knew he wouldn’t be fast enough.  With a soundless flash, she faded from view.  Harte was left standing with a needle in his hand, by the empty examination chair, in the dark.
* * *
The Marketplace
            The figure in the red cloak stared at the two men walking through the winding paths of the market.  The younger one was unfamiliar, but the older one...
            It was him.  After all these years, it was him.  The target had revealed himself.
            The man did not smile; he rarely smiled.  But as long-dormant orders rose up in his mind, he felt something that others might recognize as satisfaction.  He would finally complete his mission.
            The man in the red cloak extended his hand, and a wickedly serpentine knife materialized in his grip.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 11.1]

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 10.4

            The phone on her nightstand rang almost as soon as she got out of the shower.  The red light on the handset had been glaring at her since she got home; she knew she had to stop ignoring her mother.  She wrapped a towel around herself and ran to pick up the receiver.  
            The table lamp next to her bed flickered as she sat down damply.
            “Hello, Mom?”
            “Hi...Lily, is that you?”
            Lily’s brain shifted gears.  “Ian?”
            “Oh, good, I was worried that you’d moved. are you doing?”
            Where to begin with that one.  “Life’s hectic as always.  It’s funny, I was just thinking about you earlier.”
            “Really?”  The voice on the other end of the line brightened.  “I was hoping that we might talk, get together for coffee or something.”
            “What did you want to talk about?”
            “I’ve been missing you lately...I was wondering if you might be willing to give it another shot.”
            A host of conflicting emotions ran through her.  “As I recall, it was you who dumped me.”
            “Yeah, I know.  I had a lot going on then; I made a mistake.  Look, I just want to know if we can sit down for a bit.”
            She paused.  It still hurt to think about him leaving.  But she had liked Ian, really liked him, and there was a certain elegance to it...her relationship with Ian had ended shortly after she started with Dr. Harte, and picking up with him again now would in some sense be like excising the Visulex debacle from her life.  It might be just what she needed.  She wondered what she had to wear; everything in her closet these days was the same well-made, practical attire she generally favored.
            She realized that Ian was still waiting.  “Yes, all right.  Felicia’s at 7?”
            “I’ll be there,” he said.
* * *
            The year was turning toward fall, Lily thought, surprised at how quickly the night gathered.  Three weeks ago, the sky would still have been light at this time.
             She was wearing jeans and a light sweater, a combination that she knew looked good on her but was casual in a non-committal kind of way.  She stood outside the coffee shop, watching for Ian, unsure of whether to stay or go.  Lily was about to leave when he came into view.
            Tall, handsome, not interesting to look at in the way Matthew was, but certainly pretty.  And he could be charming.  He smiled when he saw her.  He had a single rose in his hand.  Charming and predictable, she amended.
            “Shall we go inside?” he asked, handing her the flower.
* * *
            Lily sat down; Ian brought over their drinks.  They talked about unimportant things, then important.  Lily began to feel the conversation sliding toward the inevitable conclusion of their reuniting, when she noticed the lights in the coffee shop growing dim.
            It took a mental effort to focus on that fact, and she mentioned it to Ian.
            “Never mind that,” he said.  “It’s not important.  Only you are important.”  The room grew darker, and she felt as if she were falling asleep.  It seemed both right and wrong, somehow.
            “That’s right,” Ian said.  “Just relax.  Everything is fine now.”
            Bach cut brightly through the room, and Lily snapped back to herself.  Her cell.  She flipped the phone open.
            “Lily, can’t this be our time?”  Ian pleaded.
            “Just a minute,” she replied.  “I have to take this.  Hello?”
            “Lily?  It’s Lily.  From the theater.”
            “How did you get my number?”
            “Please just listen.  You don’t have much time left.  Your system is trying to fight off the effects of the Visulex, and if it does, you know you won’t be able to bring yourself to try again.”
            “How do you know about that?”
            “Wake up – no, bad choice of words – look, just use the brain God gave you.  You’re still in the Visulex trance.”
            “Harte brought me out yesterday.”  Ian was waving for her attention.  He looked irritated.
            “No, he didn’t.  Where are you now?”
            “At Felicia’s.”
            “How did you get there?”
            “I...I walked?”
            “You sure about that?”
            “I don’t remember.”
            “Do you remember telling Ian that he dumped you?  But it was the other way around, wasn’t it?”
            “Yes.  I think.”
            “What did you do between hanging up the phone with Ian and arriving at the coffee shop?”
            “I...must have...”
            “Do you even have a neighbor named Fran?  What did you have for breakfast?  I’ll tell you.  Nothing.  That’s why you nearly fainted when you tried to exercise.  You’ve only been living snapshots of a day.  All those shadows and noises you’ve been seeing and hearing are the edges of the dream crumbling in.”
            “Who are you?  Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
            “I told you, I’m Lily.  I’m the part of you that is closest to who you want to be.  Until now you hadn’t really noticed anything wrong with the world around you and there was only so much I could do, only give you a little help and watch as you dismantled the way back.”
            “Back where?”  Ian was standing up, a peeved look on his face.
            “Back to where Matthew is.  You’re in a transition state, call it a lobby, just your dreams and no one else’s.  But if you haul ass back to the theater, and I mean soon, we can get you back into aleph-two proper.”
            “And if I don’t?”  Ian paused with his hand on the door of the shop, looking back at her with a questioning gaze.
            “Then the shadows close in, and you wake up, for real this time.  You’ll give up, probably wind up with Mr. Boring there again, and I’ll cease to exist.  Is that what you want?”
            “Maybe it is.”  Lily looked over at Ian, and he smiled.
            “Why did you work with Harte?  You told me that earlier.”
            “It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
            “And why did you fall in love with Matt?”
            Lily’s face froze.  “I...”
            The other Lily continued.  “You can’t lie to me, so don’t try.  Why do you love him?  He’s sort of cute, but he’s been through a lot and he’s carrying more baggage than a transatlantic flight.”
            “That doesn’t matter.”
            “Why not?  Tell me.”
            “Don’t you know?”
            “Of course.  But you have to admit it to yourself or you’ll never get through the door.  I’ll give you a hint, though.  It’s the same reason you worked on the Visulex project.”
            “A once in a lifetime experience,” Lily breathed.  Matthew, his personality, his art, being near him was like listening to Bach.  Transformative.  His talent was something she didn’t understand, and there wasn’t much Lily didn’t understand.  He wasn’t afraid of her, and he cared about her.  It was a different world with him in it.  A better one.
            “Now move,” the other Lily said.
            Lily stood up, and went to the door.  Ian smiled more broadly when she stood on her toes and kissed him on the cheek.
            “I’m sorry,” Lily said.  “I have to go.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 10.5]