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]