Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 14.3

            Lily’s new companion was unlike any other dreamer she had met so far.  For one thing, the other woman had not vanished after being rescued from her nightmare on the meadow path.  Instead, she had wandered vaguely along behind Lily as she set off across the meadow.
            For another, she was talkative.  The woman was definitely trying to communicate, albeit incoherently.  It reminded Lily of Ian, when he had tried to carry on a conversation while he was falling asleep.  He would struggle to make sense, but his words would turn into a jumble as exhaustion won out.
            “When you avoid what you deserve, it comes after you,” said the woman at that moment.  “I could have reached him.”
            Lily was pretty sure it wasn’t just random gibberish.  At times, Lily found herself nodding along as if she understood, but as soon as she realized she was doing it, any sense of comprehension fled.
            Six months, thirteen days, and five hours.  Beep, beep, beep, clear.”
            If some of it meant something, did all of it mean something?  There was no way to know for sure; the woman wouldn’t answer her questions.
            Wisps of fog began drifting across the meadow.  Up ahead, it got thicker, a wall of mist across the landscape.
            “What?”  Lily turned.  The woman’s gaze wandered blankly.  “Is that your name?  Mina?”
            “I could have saved him.”
            “Who, Mina?  Who could you save?”
            Before the woman could answer, the ground started vibrating.
            Lily saw a writhing line of shapes in the distance, back the way they had come.  The line surged closer; she could feel the pounding of thousands of feet through the earth.  A few more seconds, and she was able to see the creatures that made up the charging horde.
            Lily didn’t immediately notice that she was the one screaming.
            “Oh.  They’re here,” said Mina.
* * *
            I kept moving until the tower was out of sight.  It had taken a long time; it was huge, and the twists of the maze kept turning me back towards it, but eventually its peak dropped behind the walls and did not reappear. 
            I was hoping that the dragon would not leave its vicinity.  There was no really good reason for that hope, except that, in all of the quest legends I had heard, the great big monster tended to wait around for the hero in one place.  It wouldn’t really be fair, after all, if the monster flew out and slaughtered the hero before he had a chance to find the magic sword, the ancient wisdom, or whatever.  Smart, but not fair.
            But the monster was normally supposed to be dead by the time the hero left, so we’d probably already left the standard plot.  Still, I needed to catch my breath, and it was an excuse.  It wasn’t until I was standing there huffing that I got a good look at the walls. 
            Of course, I knew they were there, in a general not-dashing-my-brains-out-by-slamming-headlong-into-something-solid kind of way, but I hadn’t paid them any attention other than to avoid them.  At first, they appeared to be nothing more than massive panels of rough-cut granite, anywhere from five to twenty feet in length.  After a moment, though, the chisel marks and fracture lines, the embedded crystals and pitted hollows, began to relate to one another and form patterns.  As my eyes adjusted, I saw words emerging on some panels; on others, images. 
            Walking onward, I was startled to see some of the carvings move; it was an effect much like lenticular printing, the images shifting as I viewed them from different angles.  Once I had seen it, I could not ignore it, and the scenes became clearer.  With every step, I was surrounded by motion; I felt as if the narrow confines of the maze had opened to reveal expansive vistas, and at the same time as if I had been dropped back into the claustrophobic chaos of the marketplace.
            A lot of the writing seemed to be quotations from the Bible, or some other religious text; lots of “Thou shalt” do this and “Thou shalt not suffer” that.  Some of it was more modern, language that was legal (“...shall be punishable by a term of not less than fifteen and not more than twenty years...”) or cautionary (“DANGER – HIGH VOLTAGE”).  The images showed greater variety, but the theme was consistent...a bank officer turning down a loan; a student staring hopelessly at an exam question; a collapsing bridge; a woman standing before a huge audience with an expression of horror.  All around me were barriers of compulsion and frustration, fear and anger, punishment and rejection.
            At that moment, I wanted to be anywhere else.  And that was when I started to see images that were familiar.
            The next wall panel offered a view of my dorm room.  Apart from the supplies in my studio locker, everything I owned was in that room.  It wasn’t a long list.  When I arrived at Harkness, I had gotten rid of every last piece of junk, every last stitch of clothing that I had left from my time wandering, and started over.  Much of what I had now was the same stuff I had bought three years ago.  Three button-down shirts, supplemented by an assortment of t-shirts given away at campus events.  Three pairs of slacks and a pair of jeans.  One medium-weight jacket, one sweatshirt.  A week’s worth of underwear and socks; a single tie; a pair of sneakers; a pair of dress shoes for interviews (by far the most expensive thing I owned).  A toothbrush and a razor, some laundry detergent.  I had two sets of sheets for the bed, a book from the library on the floor next to it. 
            On the desk, the phone, lamp and alarm clock were thrift store purchases; the textbooks were second-hand, and would be third-hand when I was done with them.  A mug full of pens picked up here and there, a couple of notebooks for my courses in which I wrote in tiny handwriting.  And a single battered suitcase under the bed, which could fit virtually all of the above.
            Aside from my portrait of Lily, I had never brought any decorations into my room; the walls were bare, even of posters.  College life, I had always thought, was meant to be lived outside; all of the activity was in the community areas, not private spaces.  It was a lot like living homeless, in some ways, and I’d found the transition easier than I'd expected -- a lot easier than for some of my classmates from “normal” homes. I thought of the dorm simply as where I went to, well, not sleep, not lately, but at least to wait for the world to wake up again, and it served its purpose.  But seeing the room rendered in stone made it seem cold and empty.
            The wall across from the image of the dorm was full of writing.  I scanned through the first few sentences and felt a rush of blood to my face, realizing it was from one additional possession that I’d forgotten about – the old porn magazine under my mattress.  Not all of us have Internet access in our rooms.
            I kept moving.
            The panels continued to show scenes of my life, each more bleak than the last.  That one was me being picked up by the cops after being kicked out of a bar in town; turning a corner, I saw the music store in Manhattan where I sold off the CDs I had brought with me when I fled home.  That was me on the one Christmas I spent on the street, too ashamed to go to a friend’s place and too afraid to go to a shelter or a soup kitchen.
            There were a lot of events in my life that I didn’t want to remember.  Thanks to the sessions with Lily, I was even vaguely aware that there were certain things that I couldn’t remember, but I tried not to let it bother me – after all, we all forget things, right?  How much of the person you are now is things you actually remember, and how much is just the stuff you’ve created to fill in the gaps?
* * *
[Go to Chapter 14.4]

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 14.2

            The stone was slightly cool, of unremarkable weight, and more or less fitted into my palm.  I tried wishing on it, but nothing happened.
            I was turning it over and over in my hand when another heavily-armed sleepwalker flickered into the room.  This one seemed to have stepped out of a fantasy novel, all leather and scars, a sword in one hand and a shield in the other.
Glancing at the empty pedestal, some survival instinct kicked in; without thinking, I quickly jammed the stone into the back pocket of my jeans.
            The beatific smile with which the sleepwalker had arrived faded to confusion, and then transformed to anger, as he stared at the empty space in the middle of the room.  Slowly, as if only then recognizing that there was more to the room than the vacant pedestal, his head turned, and his eyes locked on me.
            “Where is it?” he roared, raising the machete.  “I have fought the armies of Arvadesh!  I have bested the champion of the Plains of Zu-gi!  I have won my way past the Guardian of All Things!  WHERE IS THE CROWN?”
            I backed toward the window.  “I don’t know!  There’s no crown here!”
            “It MUST be here!  The sages of Tolologog showed it to me in a vision!”
            “I’m sorry,, the last guy got it.”
            “The last guy through.  You know, we only had the one.  He camped out all night.”  I had a sudden inspiration.  “If you hurry, you might catch him.”
The sleepwalker spun as if to leave, and I readied myself to jump after him.  But he stopped, and looked at the walls.  He turned backed to me and loomed.  “Is this a trick, worm?  Is this the final test?  How do I leave this place?”
I drew myself up to my full not-quite-impressive height and improvised, “Yes...o...great hero, right...this is a test.  The door will present itself to one who is...,” I scrambled for a suitable adjective, “...ah, tall.”
The hero-in-his-dreams raised an eyebrow.
“And mighty!  Tall and mighty!  Turn, oh tall and mighty one, and open the door!”
At last, I thought, I’m getting the hang of it.  The dreamer turned, grasped the knob that was there when he turned around, and opened the door to reveal a spiral staircase descending into the tower.  He ran down the steps; I nipped through behind him, just before the door slammed shut of its own accord and vanished.
There was no light; I heard the hero bellowing somewhere below me, his war cries diminishing as he outpaced me down the stairwell.  I kept one hand on the wall, going a step at a time, constantly testing for loose or slippery footing.  I tried counting steps for a while, but gave up when I found myself involuntarily including numbers like “eleventeen” and “mumblety-two” in the count.
Eventually, I saw light below me; the floor leveled out, and a massive steel door stood open, looking out on a narrow grassy space between the tower and the surrounding maze. 
I stepped out into the odd reddish glow from the glassy sky above.  The air smelled of iron and smoke.  The hero was nowhere in sight, although I could still hear him shouting from somewhere off in the distance.
The walls of the maze were at least twenty feet high; a wide archway stood opposite the door of the tower.  Carved on the archway was a phrase: “It Can Only Remain As A Representation Of What It Was.”
I crossed the open space to the maze entrance.  The ground was wet, and my sneakers squelched in the mud.  It was difficult to tell in the weird light, but from the stains on my shoes it seemed as if the earth was sodden with something other than the morning dew.  In fact, it looked a lot like blood.
Then, from around one side of the tower, I heard a cacophony of scraping metal.
There was always something waiting at the center of the maze.  A monster of some sort, a guardian, a minotaur...
It came into view.
...or, right, of course, a dragon.
I felt a guilty twinge, and glanced upward to the top of the tower and its windows high above.  I looked back at the slavering mass of iron scales and fury that apparently made its lair at the base of the tower.
Yes, it looked pissed.
* * *
The dragon advanced in a shower of actinic light, sparks struck from the walls of the maze and the tower by the great beast’s shoulders.  I was paralyzed for a moment by the sheer size of it...I’d never seen something that large that was alive.  It was like being snarled at by an apartment building.
The next bellow, complete with a blinding flash of magnesium flame, snapped me out of my trance, and I bolted for the arch leading into the maze.  Blood splashed my jeans to the knee.  I dodged wildly as a sizzling line boiled its way across the turf, and threw myself through the entrance.
I rolled across cobblestones...the killing field had ended at the archway.  I didn’t risk a look back, but got to my feet and ran through the maze, turning and turning at random, shifting my weight desperately to avoid breaking an ankle on the uneven ground as I tried to put distance between myself and the dragon.
There was a sudden hurricane wind from above, which threatened to knock me over, and a cry of boundless rage.  My legs suddenly went to rubber and I cowered against the wall, as the beast tore through the sky, its iron wings slicing apart the air, its mirror-bright scales flashing red in the weird light.
The walls were flat planes fifteen feet high, and the same distance apart.  There were no overhangs, no cover.  If the dragon passed directly overhead, there was no way it could miss me.  Unable to move, I waited for the shadow to fall.
Then, without warning, the beast folded its wings and plummeted out of the sky at least half a mile away.  Another shout of rage echoed back, but it wasn’t the dragon.  The beast had found the adventurer who escaped the tower ahead of me. 
The battle, if it could be called that, ended quickly, with another blaze of molten light.  Still, I waited until I saw the dragon fly back toward the tower, one talon clutching a smoking carcass, before I stood up and pressed onwards through the maze.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 14.3]

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 14.1

“Alpha target has been contained, sir,” reported the Lead Monitor.
            The thin man leaned over the LM’s shoulder, and watched the screen closely.  “Who would have thought we’d see the good Captain again?”
            “You did, sir.” 
            “Don’t suck up,” the thin man snapped.  “Besides, there’s a difference between setting a trap and actually expecting to catch something.  Spending almost four decades over’s amazing he isn’t stark raving mad.  What about the beta target?”
            “He segued, sir.”
The thin man turned to where three more techs stood before a wall-sized monitor.  “Tracking, do you have him?”
One of the three said, “Sort of, sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We’ve got a narrative trace, but the readings make no sense.”
            “Show me.”
            The shifting patterns on the wall coalesced into a single twisting line that spread out and faded away in the middle of the screen.
            “Damn...he’s jumped ontological levels,” said the thin man.  “We still haven’t been able to get an operative up to aleph-three?”
            “No, sir.”
            “Then we’ll have to ask Mr. Larkin how he did it.  Tracking, set up a signal matrix on aleph-two; Larkin will drop back down sooner or later, if he’s not back already.  Network, patch me through to Security.”
            The thin man, who sometimes went by the name Robert Black, sighed.  He had let Tim Harte and his group play long enough.
* * *
            The world was an endless maze.  The walls stretched and intersected and twisted, an infinite mandala curving away in strange directions. 
            The transition to this place had been bizarre, even by this world’s standards.  I had felt like I was expanding and shrinking at the same time, until I contained the whole universe and disappeared entirely from it.  And then I was here.
            A red sky like frosted glass glowed softly above the expanse; a small moon the color of aged ivory hung unmoving, set into the dome of the sky halfway between horizon and zenith.  Given the symbolism, the tower was probably at the center of the maze, but I couldn’t know for sure.
            I was standing at one of five open windows evenly spaced around the room at the top of the tower.  I thought about what Forrest had said to the dreamer that brought me here.  “Safe,” hah.  There was no way out. 
            I had fully intended to order the dreamer to take me back to the fight, but there was no time.  As soon as we arrived, the dreamer’s face was transformed with a look of surprise and awe.  Ignoring me entirely, he stepped toward the pedestal in the center of the room with one hand extended; with each step, he faded away, until he vanished entirely before reaching the center.
           Again I turned from the window and examined the pedestal, a broad cylinder of dark metal about a meter tall.  Around the top of the cylinder a sentence was engraved in simple block letters: “EVERY HERO SEEKS ME, BUT NONE MAY GRASP ME, UNLESS THEY ALREADY POSSESS ME.”
            Atop the pedestal was an irregularly shaped stone about two inches long.  A pretty enough thing, I thought.  It was mostly blue, shading from deep cobalt to the near white of a sunny day in winter.  The delicate color was mottled with dull gray and brown, so that it seemed as if the blue sky was hovering just beneath the surface of the rock.  It had the smooth but not quite glossy polish that stone acquires by passing through many hands.
            In contrast, the encircling wall of the room was highly polished black metal, covered from top to bottom with names in tiny print.  Some I recognized...”Gilgamesh,” “Juan Ponce de León,” “Sir Perceval”; others I did not: “Qin Shi Huang,” “Albertus Magnus.”
            Every so often a sleepwalker would appear in the room, usually clad in armor, bedecked with charms and amulets, or brandishing weapons from swords and clubs to ray guns.  To a one, they looked like they had just been dragged through a hedge sideways, and then chewed on.  Without a glance at me, they would stand gazing with awe at the blue stone, take a step or two forward, extend a hand...and then fade away before grasping it, just like the man who brought me here.  Over and over again, I tried to get their attention and hitch a ride out, to no avail.
            Climbing down the outside of the tower was not an option.  It was the same slick, almost oily, metal as the inside wall, with little if any slope from the top to the base.  A dreamer who jumped out of one of the tower windows would probably wake up on the way down, or learn to fly; I was fairly certain that I’d just leave a mess for the groundskeepers.  I tried wishing for a hang glider, or a rope, but I had been unable to repeat my trick with the broomstick. 
Time and again, I found my attention returning to the blue stone.  Given what it had done to the assorted questers who had appeared, I’d avoided touching it.  Things that woke up dreamers didn’t seem to have the same effect on me, of course.  Usually, it was worse. 
            But I was starting to get hungry.  As long as I’d been in the dream world, I’d still needed to eat and drink, and take care of those other biological functions connected thereto.  I’d already used the window for a purpose for which I’m sure it was never designed.  I hoped there hadn’t been anyone at the foot of the tower. 
            With no other options, I reached out and picked up the stone. 
* * *
[Go to Chapter 14.2]

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 13.3

           Lily heard a sob from somewhere below her, and, looking down, saw another hiker clinging to the ground, prone, just a few feet below her.  I’m trapped in a nightmare, Lily realized.  The woman below, all of the ones in trouble, they must be the ones sleeping and dreaming.  And the hikers who aren’t affected are just making it worse.
            “Whoops, miss a step?” came a mocking voice.  “How’d you trip on your shoelaces when you’re wearing sandals?”
            “Piss off,” she said absently.  There had to be rules to this place.  She had studied dream interpretation, she just needed to apply that to what she was seeing.  So, metaphor.  I’m on a path, and it’s getting steeper.  And colder.  I can’t feel my fingers.
            Focus, focus.  A path.  A beginning, an end, at first you have choices but they all look the same.  It keeps getting harder, and some people have it so much easier than you do, and make it seem like the problem is you.  Then you find that you have no choices at all, but you can’t go forward, and you can’t go back.
            What is that?  It seemed familiar, like something from childhood...then she had it.  A dead-end job, a failed career.  And Lily knew why she was there.
            Lily’s father had been a successful attorney at a firm in San Jose.  He was all the clichés: a solid provider, a good father, a loving husband.  But as Lily grew older she realized that some part of him was miserable and always had been.  He had gone to law school straight out of college; his first real job was at his first firm.  The impressive starting salary led to financial commitments and lifestyle improvements that required that his income continue at that level.  And the rewards were substantial: a very nice home; her mother being able to pursue volunteer activities rather than a second income; private school for his daughter.   
            The only problem was that her dad had realized too late that he hated the law.  Had he figured it out when he was younger, he could have switched careers without a severe pay cut; but as a junior partner at his firm, the barriers to changing jobs were just too daunting.  So he found himself under constant pressure to build a book of business he did not want, so that he could rise to a more senior position that he did not care about.  And when he finally succeeded and became a full partner, the demands only increased.
            Lily and her mother hadn’t seen the breakdown coming.  Her father simply shattered.  One day he was a person trusted with settlements and court cases worth millions; the next, he couldn’t find his way downstairs to the kitchen without help.  The confusion and terror of those first days, when none of the three of them really understood what had happened, eventually transformed over the weeks and months of constant care into pity, layered thickly over an underlying horror at his condition.
            Lily loved her father.  She was angry at her mother and herself for their passive role in keeping him in that job, and she hated herself for wanting to be nowhere near him.  And she was afraid of what might happen if she followed the same path.
            Her grip was beginning to weaken.  Leaving the path.  If she was going to do it, it had to be now. 
            Lily looked to her left, toward the edge of the path.  She thought there was a foothold on a rock about a foot over and six inches up, and she sought for it with her left toe.  Then, bracing herself, she let go with her left hand, flexed her aching fingers and tried to breathe warmth back into them.  Her fingers tingled and stung, but she reached her left hand out, and dug her fingers as deeply into the gravelly stone of the path as she could.  She swung her right foot over to the spot her left had just occupied, then breathed on her right hand and flexed those fingers... 
Slowly, Lily inched her way across the path, dodging the feet of the nightmare hikers, quickly snatching her fingers out of the way before some alpha power walker stepped on them. 
            At last, her hand touched a patch of scrub grass, and the world instantly righted itself.  With a lurch, she rolled the rest of her body off of the path.  She lay on her back and squinted at the bright sun overhead.  Tall golden stalks waved in the summer air, and she drank in the light and the warmth of the meadow for a long moment.
            “Aaah...oh God, no...,” came a frantic voice from the path.
            Lily stood up, and saw the dreaming woman who had been below her before still face down, clinging to the track.  She had lost her grip with one hand, and was swaying back and forth. 
            Lily walked alongside the dreamer and said to her, “You need to get off...jump to the side if you can!”  But the woman either couldn’t hear her, or was too terrified to let go with her other hand.
            Then one of the dreamer’s feet slipped, and the other followed; she was hanging on only by the fingertips of one hand.  The dreamer howled for help.
            “Finish line’s just around the corner!” said a hiker, striding by with a broad grin.
            “Hold on!  Just hold on!” said Lily.  She didn’t know what would happen if the dreamer fell, but she couldn’t let it happen right in front of her.  She knelt down at the edge of the path, and said, “Swing your other hand over to me!”
            But the dreaming woman continued to ignore her, straining to hold on with one hand.  Then, in a final effort to regain a toehold, the woman attempted to haul her whole body up with just her fingers.  For a moment, her arm bent, she sought for another handhold,and then she lost her grip.
            With a scream, the dreamer fell.  To Lily, it looked as if she were being yanked backward by her feet along the path.  Lily threw herself flat, and managed to grab the dreamer’s outstretched arm with her own aching fingers.
            Lily nearly let go when they made physical contact.  The dreamer’s hand seemed at once to be insubstantial and at the same time yanking down on Lily’s arm with the entire weight of a full-grown woman.  More than that; the woman was tall, and had the muscles of a bodybuilder.  But Lily braced herself, and heaved backward.  The weight disappeared as the dreaming woman cleared the edge of the path, and they both sprawled in the tall grass.
            Lily massaged the hand she had used to rescue the dreamer.  Touching the woman had set off a host of indescribable sensations in her cramped, frozen fingers.
            The woman was sitting up and looking around in confusion.  “Are you all right?” Lily asked.
            The dreamer’s head turned this way and that, until she finally fixed Lily with a glassy stare.
            “Now you’ve done it,” the dreaming woman said.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 14.1]