“We’ve got a contact...oh, you’re going to love this, sir.” said the Lead Monitor.
Robert Black had always liked the Lead Monitor. So many of his personnel lacked a sense of humor; it was generally a benefit in their work, but it could be so dull. The LM had a dry wit that Black found refreshing given the terror with which most of his staff appeared to regard him. Exactly why the LM was not afraid of him was a valid question, though; it could either be excess confidence as a result of his elevated position, or the sign of an impending psychotic break, which was also not uncommon in their work. Black made a mental note to have the LM demoted, once this current crisis was over.
“Report,” Black said cheerfully.
“Larkin tripped the matrix on level two. He’s in an oubliette.”
“Excellent. Is there a nightmare cycle?”
“Yes...calculating that now. Ooh, it’s a fast one – only fifteen to twenty subjective minutes between nightmares.”
“Fast indeed,” Black said. “That should keep him occupied until we can collect him. Any sign of this third trace Ms. Rodgers tells we should be looking for? This Breckenridge woman?”
“Not that we can be sure of. There was a flicker earlier, but it never resolved properly. There are two coma-type traces with Larkin’s, no surprise in an oubliette. Possible Breckenridge could be one of those, if she’s been absorbed by the dream state.”
“Keep watch anyway.” So much to do today, Black thought. Soon, he would have a meeting to attend with an old friend. It was a conceit, he knew, to think Tim would be glad to see him. Still, Black liked to believe that they were friends, and that the other man simply hadn’t realized it yet. “I’ll be in my office. No interruptions. LM, you’re in charge.”
“Yes, sir,” the Lead Monitor said smugly.
* * *
Some hours after his interrogation of his would-be assassin, Chavez was driving along Route 44 in Connecticut. He had called into the Albuquerque field office to report the attempt on his life, the apparent kidnapping of Elizabeth Wright and Hector Ojeda, and the location in rural New Jersey that the false DEA agent had provided. The SAC had promised to route the information to the field offices in New Haven and Newark; those offices would then take over and coordinate with local law enforcement to investigate the site.
Chavez himself had been ordered back to New Mexico; he was headed back to the airport now. His boss had decided that the assault on Douglas Wright was unconnected to the strange events in Connecticut, and that the matter was best left in the hands of the Bureau’s local offices. As far as Albuquerque was concerned, Larkin had been cleared by Harkness University’s confirmation that he was a patient in their hospital at the time of the attack.
Chavez had protested, but without anything in the way of proof to back up either Elizabeth’s fantastic story or Hector’s description of the Visulex catastrophe, there was little he could say beyond asking for more time to look into the case.
A sign passed by, informing Chavez that he could reach “Satan’s Kingdom” via the next exit. Wouldn’t be a bit surprised, he thought to himself. Chavez wondered when he had started to accept the unlikely scenario playing out around him. The weird thing was that his instincts told him that it all fit together, that everyone’s actions made sense so long as Hector and Elizabeth and the original police report were all accurate. It just depended on the world itself being insane.
It wasn’t the first time, of course, that he had evaluated suspects’ behavior based upon outlandish assumptions; the whole trick of profiling was figuring out the beliefs and perceptions that motivated a criminal, when those beliefs and perceptions might have little to do with reality. But none of the people Chavez had met in this case seemed out of touch with the real world. They had simply seen something beyond their comprehension and behaved like normal people would: the local PD in Albuquerque, passing the buck and then ignoring it; Hector Ojeda, running away; Elizabeth, trying to figure out what happened, but not telling anyone out of fear that she would appear crazy. And wasn’t he doing the same thing himself, not telling his boss what he actually suspected was going on?
Whatever the Newark office found in the Hibernia iron mines, he doubted that it would be anything they were prepared to handle. It made no sense for him to leave now, when he might be the last person who had even a hint of what they might encounter.
Chavez pulled over at the next rest stop, and punched Hibernia into the car’s GPS system. He could get there in a few hours, and help when the other agents went in. And damn it, he had to be there to see it for himself.
* * *
The door to the small interrogation room opened, and Harte looked up as a man in his mid-to-late sixties walked in, the guard outside holding the door for him. The man looked fit for his age, and was neatly dressed in a dark turtleneck and beige corduroy pants. His white hair swept back from his forehead, as if his face were moving forward leaving condensation trails in its wake.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” the man said, sitting in the chair on the other side of the table.
“Should I be?” Harte replied.
“Well, it has been over twenty years since we last spoke, Tim. I can’t imagine that you were expecting me here.”
“I do not recognize you. Have we met?”
“My God, Tim...it’s Bob Black; I can’t have changed that much. You’ll make me think all that time on the cross-trainer was for nothing!”
Harte’s eyes widened. “Robert Black?”
“Ah, there’s the surprise I was looking for! I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed at how blasé you seemed to be.”
“I know who you say you are now,” Harte said grimly. “You are correct, I was not expecting to see you. Is Captain Forrest is still alive?”
“Always so practical. I’d hoped we might be able to catch up a bit before getting to business, but there it is. Yes, Tim, the good Captain is still with us, I have him in a, well, let’s call it a temporary holding area in aleph-two, for his own safety.”
“Why have you abducted me?”
“Because I wasn’t sure you’d come, otherwise. After all,” Black said, spreading his hands, “we did have a bit of a falling out. But it strikes me that you and I have the same problem. We both want to be able to retrieve conscious subjects from the dream world and return them to base reality. I thought we might work together to make that happen.”
“You are looking for a method to restore the Captain to aleph-one?” Harte asked.
“Well, I didn’t say that, exactly. He’s been there for a long time, and for now he’s fine where he is. Really, at this point I’d be more interested in bringing Matthew Larkin home.”
Harte felt the air leave his lungs in a rush. “What do you know about him?”
“More than you, most likely. For example, I know that Matthew Larkin is alive and well, at least within certain parameters of ‘well,’ and has been performing stunts in the dream world that my operatives have never been able to accomplish. I’d be interested to know how.”
“How did you obtain that information?”
“I can’t reveal all of my techniques until we’ve decided to work together, now can I? So, what do you say?”
Harte’s hands began to shake. “I...I will need to consider it.”
“Of course,” Black replied with a warm smile. “You’ll understand that I cannot allow you to roam freely, of course. Someone will show you to your room until you make up your mind.”
Black stood, then knocked at the door. It locked behind him after he exited. A few minutes later, three guards in black and silver uniforms entered, and escorted Harte to an elevator which took them down several floors. The elevator opened to reveal a brightly lit corridor with heavy steel doors on each side of the hall.
The guards opened one of the cell doors and shoved Harte inside. He stumbled; strong hands caught him before he fell.
Harte righted himself as the cell door slammed shut. He looked up into the bruised and battered face of Hector Ojeda. “Professor?” the big graduate student asked, “is that you?” A woman Harte did not know was stretched out on the narrow bed in the cell.
“Yes, Mr. Ojeda.”
“Everyone’s been looking for you. Do you know what’s happening here?”
“No,” Harte said. “But I have certain suspicions.”
“Care to let us know?”
“Yes. To put it in simple terms, we may very well be trapped in the mind of a madman and, for the life of me, I cannot see a way out.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 15.5]