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]