Black reclined on the couch in his office. His meeting with Tim had been...unsatisfying. Hollow, somehow. He had been hoping to relive some of the glory days, reminisce, bring back some of those old memories that had slipped his mind. He was having more and more trouble remembering the details lately.
The intercom buzzed. “Sir, Monitoring here. We’ve got a problem with Larkin.”
“I’ll be right there.”
When he arrived in the Tracking Hub, the SubMonitors were racing around in confusion. “Lead Monitor! Report!” he shouted above the din. The room quieted instantly.
The Lead Monitor approached. “Larkin escaped.”
“You heard me, sir.” Definitely demoted, Black thought. “Tore right out of a dead end, the coma victims in his wake. Playing all sorts of hell with our system.”
“I’m getting a little tired of this young man ripping holes in the dream world. That’s our job. Where is he now?”
SubMonitors scurried around the LM. “Getting that for you...looks like a nightmare fringe...yeah, they’re in the swan marsh.”
“HR, how many operatives can we get into the field?” Black asked a tech at a station on the other side of the Hub. Unlike the Lead Monitor, Human Resources showed no emotional reaction to anything he requested of her. It was probably why she worked so well with their field operatives; she might even be suitable for promotion to the field herself one day.
“We have three reliables, including the two guarding the prisoner,” said Human Resources. “Two others we could probably raise to active status. I advise against risking it with another four, but it’s possible. We should leave the remaining seven dedicated to system functions.”
Black thought for a moment. “I want the six potentials activated immediately. One reliable and one new active on Forrest, the other reliables and the remainder that survive activation on Larkin. Bring him in. The others who are with him are secondary targets; get rid of them if they prove difficult.”
“Yes, sir.” Human Resources rose from her station. “I’ll need to work from the Engine Room for this.” Black dismissed her with a nod.
* * *
If not for the sucking mud and soaking damp, I would have been flying. I kept replaying my reunion with Lily whenever my mind wandered. The sensations and memory almost overwhelmed my thoughts.
Almost; every so often a nervous, suspicious corner of my brain would interject a question. Why could Lily write plainly but speak only in vague metaphor? Was she actually here, changed by the dream world, or was she dreaming, only believing herself to be awake? Would her affection for me turn out to be real if we ever got back? I tried to silence the voice, but the swamp encouraged unpleasant thoughts to fester.
The exit from the hospital room had led directly to this stinking chaos of green, grey and black. The colors blended into one another; the shades of the uncontrolled vegetation seemed to seep into the clammy haze, which thickened to become the slick of dark water around our ankles and the biting flies around our heads.
There were things (soft things, hard things, rounded things, pointed things) under the water, trapped in the mud. I stumbled – my other new companion, Mina, caught me by one arm and kept me upright. She was strong, and taller than I was. I still wasn’t sure why she had apparently decided to follow us of her own accord, and wouldn’t follow suggestions the way that a normal dreamer would. Too many questions...once again, I wondered what Forrest would say, what had happened to him.
There were other dreamers in the swamp, struggling and batting at the insects. I thought about trying to hitch a ride away from the muck, but I realized that Lily – in her current state – might not be able to follow.
“Did the professor have any idea how to get us back once you found me?” I called ahead to Lily, who had taken the lead early on.
“Tie a thread to a wet lollipop and drop it on the floor?” she replied.
Mina frowned and said, “You called for the taxi a half hour ago.”
“I can only look at my own cards,” Lily told her.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting. Lily clearly thought she was making sense, but she knew I didn’t understand except when she’d write things out for me. Yet, for some reason she’d left the clipboard behind in the hospital room. Meanwhile, Lily and Mina apparently understood one another perfectly. They’d exchange gibberish every so often, sometimes with an odd (or in one case faintly wicked) glance at me.
I sighed. It was more or less like every other interaction I’d ever had with women. I told Lily about my adventures so far while we walked along; she acted as if she understood me, nodding excitedly at certain points although I had no idea why.
I had just reached the part of the story where I arrived in the tower when the vegetation and mist around us thinned out abruptly; the water around our ankles spread out before us, broad and glassy. It was also shallower, and I could begin to make out shapes under the surface. Bulbous whitish masses, tapering to hoselike extensions. I nudged one with my foot, and disturbed a flat section of the thing, which drifted out from from the main mass. It expanded, lazy motion under the water, and I recognized it as a wing.
I looked at the main bulk of the thing, and the shape clicked in my brain. It was a bird, a swan. And another. And another. I was standing on one.
Revolted, I splashed backward, and stepped on another carcass. I looked around for a safe spot, but found none. The whole surface was a thin scum of water over an endless tessellation of dead swans.
“Jerry Garcia!” Lily cried out, seeing it herself. I picked my way over to her, and took her hand. Mina’s face was grim, but she didn’t seem as affected. She cut a sloshing course across the mire.
Lily looked up at me. I squeezed her hand.
* * *
The wailing was beginning to get to her, Lily realized. The sound had started as a keening edge to the buzz of the swarming insects; but as the three of them kept moving, the sound grew, taking on the tone and texture of voices crying out in despair. The sound was coming from the dreamers around them. Not all at once; most of the dreamers moved silently and listlessly, barely causing a ripple. Every so often, however, one of them would, without warning, lift his face and howl. The sound never ended; by the time one dreamer let her head drop and resumed her hopeless pacing, another had begun.
It would be more bearable, Lily thought, if they had some idea of where they were going. She took Matt’s hand; he squeezed hers gently.
A cry somewhere off to her left cut off abruptly. Lily glanced to the side. In the distance, a figure was standing still in the marsh, facing them. The landscape seemed to expand and bend in that direction, ripples in the air as well as the water.
Lily took Matt by the elbow and pointed. The figure began drifting toward them. The figure’s movement was graceful, its cloak swirling like a visible contour of the breeze, a sharp contrast to their own clumsy steps and the depressed plodding of the dreamers.
Matt’s grip on her hand tensed. “Damn,” he breathed. “Run!” He pulled her along; she stumbled and lurched after him. They ran in great splashing strides, but the figure gained steadily, unhindered by the water and what lay beneath.
“What is it?” Lily asked Matt, hoping her tone if not her words would get the question across.
“It’s a killer,” he gasped in response. “Tell your friend she needs to move!”
Lily looked back – Mina was standing stock still, facing off to their right. Another figure was closing in from that direction.
God, Lily thought, she thinks they're like those monsters in the meadow. But this was something else...even at a distance, she could see that the figures had the same eye-watering solidity that Matt possessed.
Lily shook loose from Matt, and called back through her cupped hands. “Mina! You can’t play dead with these things! Come on!”
Her words had no effect. Lily waited just a second before starting back towards the other woman.
“No!” Matt shouted. She felt his hand graze the back of her blouse.
Suddenly the world distorted in front of her...two more figures shouldered their way into existence directly in her path. Lily plowed to a stop, nearly fell, and caught herself by pushing off a dead swan with one hand. Crouched in the muck, she watched in frustration as one of the figures went back towards Mina. The other woman was now pinned down from three directions, still frozen in place.
The other new apparition was gliding toward Lily swiftly, its red cloak streaming behind. Something glittered in its hand.
“There’s nothing we can do.” Matt said urgently, coming up behind her. He helped her to her feet. “Lily. We have to leave, now!”
A cry of anguish escaped through Lily’s clenched teeth as she looked away from her friend. She felt something shift inside of her, something give, as she turned...they had to leave, so they left...
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.3]