Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 17.1


    Paul Chavez pulled his car into a gap in the pines alongside the dirt road. According to the road map he’d picked up at the last gas station, this was the only way to the abandoned mine system where Hector and Elizabeth were supposedly being held. There were fresh tracks on the road from heavy vehicles; something serious had come this way recently. But there had been no sign of the FBI, the National Guard, or even local law enforcement. Not so much as an elementary school crossing guard.
    The call he had placed to his boss to find out what the hell was going on had been positively surreal. The head of the field office had listened as Chavez reported on the total lack of follow-through by the local Bureau, and then told Chavez that the DEA would not press charges against him if he returned to New Mexico immediately. When Chavez, incredulous, reminded his boss about the attempt on his life, his boss had replied in a shaking voice that it had all been a “misunderstanding,” and that it would be a serious career mistake to pursue the matter further. Then, his boss, a twenty-year veteran of the Bureau, had begged him to return home.
    Chavez had hung up without responding. Whatever was going on, whoever was putting pressure on his superior, it was clear no help was coming.
    The map suggested that it was about ten miles from where he had left the car to the mine; it would be easier to evade security on foot. Chavez already knew that his badge would be useless, so he double-checked his sidearm and began walking parallel to the road.
* * *
    Elizabeth was still glaring at Professor Harte when she heard the bolts on their cell door thrown back.  The door opened and the muzzles of three rifles entered, gesturing at them to come outside.
    In the hallway, a small group of guards waited, led by the man who had commanded the squad at the hotel.  The man...Kilpatrick, Elizabeth thought...seemed ill-at-ease, as if the black-and-silver jumpsuit he was now wearing didn’t fit quite as well as the navy blue DEA uniform and body armor that he had worn earlier.  The new outfit was, she had to admit, rather ridiculous.
    “Move,” Kilpatrick said irritably, gesturing with his rifle.  “Mr. Black wants the three of you to see something.”
    They wound their way deeper into the mine complex.  Hector was sweating a bit; maybe he didn’t like enclosed spaces.  They followed a descending spiral ramp around many turns, ignoring doorways to either side, until the ramp ended at a wide natural cavern.
    Robert Black was standing at the entrance, a broad smile on his face.  “Welcome to the Engine Room,” he said.
    The cavern floor sloped gently down from the entrance to form a shallow bowl.  Banks of computer hardware were arranged in concentric circles around the center of the room, linked to each other with a web of greenish-black cables that glistened greasily.  In the middle of the cavern, a wide cylindrical metal cage rose to the ceiling.  There was a circle of hospital beds, or examination tables, arranged within the cage so that the heads of the beds all pointed inward.  Intricate machinery of some sort was suspended from the roof of the cavern, pipes and wires snaking down to a person lying on each bed.  Elizabeth could see, through the wires, a desk at the very center of the cavern.  Someone was sitting at the desk working at a computer terminal.
    “This is the heart of the operation,” Black said with a grand wave, leading them toward the center of the room, Kilpatrick and the other armed guards behind them.  “And these,” he said, gesturing toward the figures on the beds, “are our field operatives.  Our most treasured employees.  The people who make it all work.”
    As they drew closer and stopped just outside the cage, Elizabeth could see the people on the beds more clearly.  The operatives were naked, gaunt, wizened...faces sallow and drawn, limbs atrophied to mere sticks, bodies thin to the point of emaciation.  Dozens of wires appeared to be implanted directly into their shorn heads.  A pair of tubes ran to each of the figures’ arms -- one feeding a clear liquid, the other a fluid that was a virulent purple.  Their nether regions were fitted with catheters.  They were strapped to the tables, but the straps hung loosely about thighs and biceps, wrists and ankles.
    Elizabeth realized that the operatives must have been tied down when their bodies were considerably stronger.  She began to feel sick; the stench was horrible.  Hector looked green.
    Professor Harte’s face was twisted in horror.  “What have you done?”
    “Like it, Tim?  It’s really pretty clever, if I do say so myself,” said Black.  “We maintain them at the balance point between aleph-one and aleph-two – just like what you were trying to do with Lily Breckenridge, if the notes we retrieved from your lab are accurate.  What you missed in your own research is that the patient’s own subjective emotional state, and not their purely neurochemical condition, is what tips them over into aleph-two entirely and traps them there.  But with a rigorous regime of electroshock therapy and pharmaceutical treatment, we were able to suppress the emotional response.  The balance is preserved.”
    “Did you do that before or after you strapped them to the tables?”  Harte hissed.
    “I assure you, they were all volunteers.”  Black paused for a moment.  “Well, at least at first.  But they got over it.  The treatment does severely limit the ways in which they can interact with aleph-two...they can’t do much without our guidance from here except watch and respond to preconditioned stimuli.”  He nodded at the woman in the lab coat sitting in the center of the array.  “And they’ve been unable to transcend to aleph-three or bring back any tangible objects from aleph-two.  But we’ve managed to achieve some spectacular effects by channeling the energies of the dream world into our system.”
    “Channeling the energies of the... that makes no sense at all,” Harte said.
    “Really?  Perhaps you need to broaden your concept of ‘sense,’ Tim.  Let me demonstrate.”  Black turned to the woman at the desk.  “HR, bring up the holding area.”
    The woman typed at her keyboard, and something like a cloud condensed above the heads of two of the operatives.  Black led the three of them around the cage to the nearest one.  Shapes began to coalesce within the cloud, an image of a room with four people sitting very still.  Elizabeth recognized one of them immediately.
    “Matt,” she whispered.  Something tickled the back of her mind.  Something she was supposed to do? No, something she was supposed to say...
* * *
[Go to Chapter 17.2]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 16.4

   I had been out of my depth since I arrived in the dream world, and the whole place seemed bent on finding new ways to make me feel useless and helpless. Lily kept fading in and out on me, and all I could do was pull her along. I still had no idea where we were going, how I could save her, how we could escape. Running felt as futile as my flight from the dragon in the maze, but still we ran.
    The maze – something about the memory tickled the back of my mind, and I felt an idea forming. This experience, right now, running down the boarding ramp, felt more than just similar to the maze...
    The tentative thought was put on hold when the ramp suddenly shifted to one side. Someone must be disconnecting it from the plane, I realized; Lily had already stepped up our pace. How long was this ramp, anyway?
    Then suddenly, sickeningly, it felt like the whole corridor was yanked upwards. Lily and I sprawled to the floor as the boarding ramp began to spin; we held on to one another and tried to brace ourselves.
    “Quid nunc?” Lily shouted.
* * *
    HR cursed softly as the boarding ramp spun on the touch screen. Again she tried to move the ramp, dragging her index finger across the screen, but the ramp refused to connect with any of the blinking red points where she was hoping to lead Larkin and Breckenridge. Tech Control had said they hadn’t ironed out all the bugs; it was vaguely disturbing that higher reality was acting like a beta release.
    Scrolling the window down, HR saw that one of the points was flashing green instead of red. Well, that explained it. She looked at the icon next to the green point. Hmm, she thought. That had possibilities.
    She dragged the ramp to the green point, where it locked into place with a cheery digital burble.
* * *
    Without warning, the boarding ramp stopped spinning. Our excess momentum slammed us into the wall. Lily recovered quickly – she was back on her feet while I was still sorting out my limbs and counting my bruises. After confirming that no major harm had been done, we kept moving down the ramp. 
    At some indeterminate point, the off-white jet bridge walls became dark red tile.  I grimaced as I smelled a musty odor, something like damp concrete with a rancid organic edge, the flavor of low tide or landfill.
    The passage soon opened out onto a broad concrete expanse.  A row of overhead lights stretching to either side made a chain of harsh, bright circles on the floor, surrounded by deep shadow.  I heard shuffling and muttering, skittering, from the darkness.  Eight meters or so ahead of us, the far edges of the circles of light were cut off as the floor dropped away on the other side of a grimy yellow border.
    A subway station, I realized.  Planes and now trains -- I didn’t suppose it made much difference, so long as we kept moving.  But the station looked disused, empty except for whatever was hiding in the shadows.
    Lily wandered to the edge of the platform and leaned out, looking down the tunnel.  Somewhere she had acquired a skirt suit and a briefcase.  “It’s running late,” she said with irritation.
    When we were kids in New York riding the subways together, Betsy had teased me by leaning over the edge; it always scared the hell out of me.  I moved quickly to pull Lily back.
    It was then we heard the sound of a train approaching.  The rumble and screeching of the cars as they rounded some turn in the tunnel echoed the dragon’s charge in the killing field before the dark tower, and once again the similarity – no, not just similarity, somehow I was sure it was identity – of the situation struck me.
   “This is dangerous,” I said, tugging at Lily’s sleeve.  “We need to go back.”  The look she gave me frightened me more than whatever was approaching – a look that conveyed that she had no idea what I was talking about.  I started pulling her toward the passage we had entered by; she tensed as if she were going to resist, but then, thank god, she let me guide her.
    We didn’t make it.  People were pouring out of the passage, completely blocking the exit.  We moved down the platform to avoid the rush, taking care to stay in the lighted areas, but the crowd spread out from the tunnel and kept coming.  As the approaching train grew louder, the wall of bodies forced us backward toward the edge of the platform.
    I thought about telling Lily to take us away, but I couldn’t risk it.  She was getting worse; using her to hitch a ride could only accelerate the process.  I pushed her behind me and braced myself as best I could, digging in my heels against the press. 
    The grinding and roaring of the dragon, or the train, grew, a sharp pain running through my head from ear to ear.  I didn’t know what would be coming out of that tunnel, but I didn’t want to meet it down on the tracks.  I was being steadily shifted backwards, an inch or two at a time.
    The dragon and the train.  There was something there.  If they were the same, what did that mean?  I ran from the dragon before, we couldn’t now.  There hadn’t been other dreamers there.  No – that wasn’t right, there had been, but they’d all disappeared…
    The blue stone from the tower.  It was still in my pocket.  I pulled it out and held it in front of me.
    Instead of a gradual press, the dreamers started a stampede.  I saw individuals pulled down under the mass of bodies and disappear.  I fought a sudden urge to turn and jump down onto the tracks and run away, as a thousand eyes gleaming with avarice rushed us.  None of them reached us.  Steps, inches away, they all faded like the adventurers in the tower, arms outstretched toward the stone.  In seconds, the crowd had evaporated.
    I turned to make sure that Lily was okay, and saw her gazing at the stone intently.  She began to lift one hand toward it, and, startled, I backpedaled, shoving the stone in my back pocket.
    “Sorry, not for you,” I said.
    A light flared behind Lily; the train pulled into the station.  The roaring had faded away without my noticing. The subway cars glided to a halt in front of us, and the doors slid open.
    I took Lily’s hand, the one that was still half-raised, and led her onto the train.  “Time to go.” 
    The last things I saw before blacking out were the two cloaked figures standing just inside the car, and the massive clubs they were swinging towards us.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 17.1]