The woman called Human Resources watched the live feed intently, switching back and forth among the points of view of the four operatives she had in the marsh.
Of the six operatives she had activated, five had survived, a better percentage than she had hoped for. With three already active, that was a total of eight; two guarding Captain Forrest and six for the targets.
So far, it was looking like it was going to be easy, and HR wondered why Black had been so insistent on risking activation of the dormant operatives. One of the targets looked like she was going to offer no resistance at all, while the other two were stumbling around like complete novices. HR doubted that she’d even need the two operatives she was holding in reserve.
Then, without warning, the other two targets vanished. She tapped her comm without urgency. “Tracking Hub, please report.”
“Tracing a parallel segue now. Looks like one target hitched a ride with the other. Will update.”
HR allowed herself a rare grin, as she tapped the two reserve operatives on the shoulder to send them in. So, the targets had a skill or two. Maybe it would be a chase after all.
* * *
She noticed someone in front of her. He was waving his hands in front of her eyes. Had he been there before? Of course, right, he was the one who had said they needed to leave, so here they were in the airport, carry-ons stacked around them. The waiting area was too small for the plane, and people were sitting in the aisles. The flight was running late due to weather over Ohio, and there was no telling when they’d be boarding.
“Do you recognize me?”
She nodded, although she wasn’t at all sure. Was that her boyfriend? He looked so familiar...
“It’s me, Matt. Come back, please!” He snapped his fingers in front of her face.
Matt, right, I knew a Matt...oh...
Lily started. The sensation was like waking up without opening her eyes. Nothing changed; Matt, the other passengers, and the airport gate stayed exactly as they were, but suddenly she perceived them with her waking mind. The other perception, the dream state, was not gone...it lingered at the back of her mind, tantalizing, and seemed ready to leap forward if she let it.
She held it at bay and tried to focus. Where was the swamp? Where was Mina?
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that would happen,” Matt babbled. “I wasn’t trying to tell you to...I mean, I was, but not like that...” He paced frenetically.
Lily waved to get his attention. Then she turned her palms upward and, arms bent at the elbow, spread her hands slightly in the universal gesture for “What the hell is going on?”
“You brought us here. Like a dreamer would. I think you’re turning into one of them, a sleepwalker.”
She grabbed Matt’s palm and laboriously started tracing letters. T...O...L...D...Y...O...U...I...A...M...A ...W...A...K...
“I know,” Matt interrupted, sitting next to her. “But this guy I met here said that the dream world can do strange things to you if you’re not careful. It’s like, if you act on your desires, or try to force the dream to do something, it can fight back by changing you.”
“I don’t really know. Captain Forrest said that his team disappeared or were killed. If you’re becoming a dreamer, and don’t exist in the real world, you’re in danger. Dreamers vanish all the time here.”
Lily felt a sudden chill. Just the A/C in the gate area kicking in. She thought back to how she had gradually become able to understand Mina, the shift that took place after she had struggled clear of the nightmare path.
M...A...Y...B...E...W...A...K...E...U...P...A...T...H...O...M...E, she wrote with her finger.
Matt shook his head. “If you’re here awake, like me, I don’t think you’re back in the real world too. I don’t think there’s anyone there to wake up. You could just disappear in a blink.” He gripped her hand harder.
Off behind Matt, she noticed a man and a woman in the uniforms of airport security approaching. They were scanning the crowd around the gate, faces carefully neutral. Lily turned, looking for anyone suspicious. Was that unattended luggage, two rows back? She started to wave to the guards, then jerked her hand back down.
What was she doing? God, it was happening again. She squeezed her eyes shut, concentrated on Matt’s hand in hers. It helped to feel something solid. When she opened her eyes, the pair of guards had moved closer; she could see now that their expressions weren’t so much controlled, as blank.
Resisting the urge to run, she put her hand on Matt’s shoulder and swiveled him around. She kept him down with a firm grip when he started to leap from his seat, and pointed along the aisle, gesturing for him to stay low. He nodded, and slid out of his seat to the floor. She crouched down and began to gather their assorted carry-ons.
“What are you doing?” Matt whispered, with a puzzled look on his face.
Damn it, she thought. This was getting to be a problem. Of course the baggage wasn’t real. She left it behind and followed Matt, who was making his way on hands and knees toward the security door that led to the plane.
As they were creeping, the speakers in the gate area crackled to life. “Thank you for your patience. We will now begin the boarding of Flight 2718 to Wembley Stadium. We will be boarding this flight by section and zodiac sign. Please wait for your sign to be called before approaching the gate. At this time, we invite our passengers in our Aquarius-class cabin to board, as well as any passengers with small children, stars in conjunction, or who might need special assistance in boarding the plane.”
As one, all of the passengers in the gate area surged to their feet and rushed the gate.
Matt pulled her upright. “Come on, that’s us.” He began pushing through the line toward the door.
“You didn’t get the upgrade! I told you to use your miles!” Lily protested.
“Think all of these people did? Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Behind them, Lily saw the two security guards take notice of them and start forcing a path through the crowd.
People shouted at them angrily as Matt elbowed his way to the front of the line, dragging her along behind. “Premium Elite Diamond-Studded Platinum Charter Imperial Expanded Leg Room Better-Than-The-Peons-In-Coach Sky Members, you don’t need to see our tickets, these aren’t the passengers you’re looking for,” Matt rattled off as they swept past the gate agent, who nodded them through the door with a slight curtsy.
“Always hated people who did that,” Matt grinned as they pelted down the gangway.
* * *
HR watched the projections above the heads of the two operatives following the remaining targets, the images shifting with the operatives’ perspective. Larkin and the other, whom they’d identified as Lily Breckenridge, Harte’s lab assistant, disappeared beyond the press of bodies at the gate.
HR briefly considered driving the operatives into the press and simply hacking her way through to the targets. However, there were actual dream people – extensions of the dream world – mixed in with the sleepwalkers, and she’d lose time if the operatives inadvertently provoked a response by attacking the fabric of aleph-two itself.
No, something more subtle was required. The third target from the swan marsh had been moved to holding, so HR recalled the four operatives from the swan marsh, pulling them out of aleph-two entirely and re-channeling their minds to the central engine.
Tech Control was proud of the new toys they’d developed – she’d see if they had reason to be. “Tech, this is HR. I’m going to give the Construction Kit a field test.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 16.4]