“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 there...it’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.”
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?”
“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]