After a while, the dark dreamlessness lifted. I was at a high vantage point over a brightly lit room, a living room or lounge with a couple of comfortable-looking chairs and a long overstuffed couch arranged around a coffee table.
Four people were sitting in the room. Lily sat on the couch with ankles crossed and her hands in her lap. Mina was next to her, her feet up on the table. The bulky figure in one of the chairs, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands under his chin, was Captain Forrest. I couldn’t identify the guy in the fourth chair, who had his back to me. None of them were moving, just sitting there.
“Hello?” I called out.
“Matt? Is that you?” It was Lily...but she didn’t look up, or move.
“Yes, I’m up here, wherever that is.” I tried to see where I was – I felt like I was hovering over the room – and realized I couldn’t move my head. Was I in restraints? “Can you see me?”
“Of course,” said Captain Forrest’s voice. “You’re in the other chair.”
I felt a mixture and relief and confusion at Forrest’s words...I was glad that he was alive, and might be able to help Lily. But what he said made no sense. He hadn’t moved a muscle, either. And I was sure his lips hadn’t moved.
I tried to turn my head again, and couldn’t. I couldn’t even feel my head, or any other part of my body. “What the hell is going on? What happened to me?” I couldn’t feel my lips or tongue when I spoke.
“Matt, try and relax,” Lily said. “I think we’ve been separated from our bodies.”
“What part of that statement is supposed to help me relax?”
“It’s just a dream,” Forrest said calmly. “One of those where you’re watching yourself from outside.” I focused on the person in the chair with his back to me. So that was what the back of my head looked like.
“Well, how do we get back inside?”
“We don’t,” Forrest responded, “for now at least. This is the enemy’s version of a prison cell. Fairly effective, no?”
“Robert Black, of course.”
I was beginning to realize how tightly words and gestures were tied together; I wanted to shake my head at Forrest’s statements, but couldn’t. “I thought you said that was like forty years ago...it couldn’t still be him, could it? Captain, what happened to you?”
“You know most of that. Black had been hunting for me for decades; he’d never give up the chase. I fought his operative in the marketplace to help you escape. I was defeated, and found myself here.”
“And, following your usual philosophy, you’ve been waiting here all that time.”
“Of course,” Forrest said. I could hear the smile, even if I couldn’t see it. “At least until your friends arrived. We have been talking over your experiences, waiting for you to recover.”
I thought about how hard I had been hit – and how much it would hurt if I returned to my body. Maybe I wasn’t in such a hurry after all.
Then I remembered I hadn’t heard anything yet from the last member of our group. “Is Mina all right?”
“She’s here,” said Lily. Her voice was concerned. “She just hasn’t been saying much.”
“Yes. But maybe it’s you who’s changed...if the Captain is right, we’ve all been absorbed into a dream for now.”
A dream. “I wish I could reach the stone. Hah, I wish I had hands to reach with.”
“Where did you get it, Matt?” Lily asked. “When I first saw it, it was strange, it looked like something else. No – it looked like lots of other things. There was music...”
I told them how I had found the stone in the tower, and my escape through the maze, although I left out what I had seen on the walls at the end. That was for another time. Forrest interrupted as I was describing how I arrived in the hospital room.
“You were on an upper plane,” he said. I kept wanting to read emotions into the voices I was hearing; I thought Forrest sounded tense, but that could just have been my mind trying to compensate for the lack of facial expressions. “Aleph-three, at least. That stone is a higher-order object; you shouldn’t have taken it from where it was. There’s no telling what might happen.”
“I didn’t have a choice. Besides, it’s never done anything to me. All it seems to do is end people’s dreams.”
“No, Matt,” Lily said, and this time I was certain her voice sounded awed, or haunted. “I think it is the end of people’s dreams. It’s like the representation of every goal and desire. I think you might have accidentally stolen the Holy Grail.”
“Figures,” muttered Mina.
Something was happening in the middle of the room; a hazy blot was forming in the air.
A familiar voice drifted out of the haze. “Matt?”
“Betsy? Is that you?” I shouted.
“She can’t hear you,” Captain Forrest said. “That’s someone in the real world talking. Black can use his infernal machines to talk to us, but they can’t hear us.”
The cloud was resolving into an image; I saw Betsy...and Professor Harte, and Hector. Where were they? What were they doing there?
“Yes, Ms. Wright,” said someone I couldn’t see. “You are looking directly into the dream world, aleph-two, right now. As you can see, we have your brother. And Ms. Breckenridge and, I am tremendously relieved to say, Captain Forrest. We’re not sure who the other woman is, but we’ll find out soon enough.”
“That’s Black,” Forrest said. “He was taunting me before you three arrived. Not that I’d ever forget his voice.”
“What, he’s got Betsy? Let her go!” I yelled at the image.
“They still can’t hear you. Just listen.”
Hector had turned to Harte. “You sent Lily in there? Are you insane?”
Harte ignored him. “Can they hear us? Are they all safe?” he asked.
“Yes and mostly yes, for now,” Black replied. “They can’t talk back, but that’s a limitation of the space they’re in rather than the technology.”
“Captain Forrest needs treatment,” Professor Harte said. “Artificially modifying his conscious state will only exacerbate his condition.”
“What was that?” Lily asked.
“It doesn’t mean anything.” Forrest said. “You can’t trust him.”
“The holding cell is perfectly harmless, I assure you,” Black said to Harte. “We are able to manipulate the dream space to quite an impressive degree of precision. At least, that’s what the fellows in the Tech section tell me.”
Harte was shaking his head. “Whoever you really are, this cannot work like you’re saying it does. Aleph-one and aleph-two are ontological constructs, variant perceptions of superordinate and subordinate categorization, not separate dimensions. You cannot alter the superordinate category as a whole by manipulating discrete elements of the subordinate category!”
“He means you shouldn’t be able to change the dream world by what you do in the real world,” Lily said.
Betsy suddenly said, “Matt, Hector says that your dreams become real when you sleep.”
“That’s enough,” Black said. “I have all of you, both here and in the dream world. You are going to do exactly as I say. Professor, you are going to find me a way of duplicating Matthew Larkin’s feats in the dream world. We have already substituted your Visulex for our prior formula. Aleph-two is a place of infinite resources and unstoppable power, and we will wield that power here.”
“It’s impossible. You shouldn’t even be here!”
“But I am, Tim. And I suggest you find a way to make what I want possible, or else your friends will...well, need I say it? HR, shut down the link.”
The haze dispersed. We waited, but there was nothing more.
After a minute, Lily said, “He’s wrong, though. There is a way Black’s system could work.”
“I wouldn’t pay any attention to Harte,” replied Captain Forrest. “I don’t think he ever really understood what is possible here.”
“You know Dr. Harte?” Lily asked.
I tuned out as Forrest started speaking; I had something else on my mind.
Betsy had spoken to me directly for a moment. I knew, of course, that when I fell asleep in the dream world, my dreams came to pass in the real world. That was one of the reasons that I hadn’t slept since...well, since Captain Forrest and I were on the boat, if you didn’t count my recent bout of unconsciousness. I was acutely aware of the irony of finally being able to sleep, but still trying to avoid it.
Then why would she try to remind me? Was it a warning...or a clue? I couldn’t move or feel my body; all I had right now was my mind. But my mind was very, very tired; could I go to sleep?
Forrest said that when we dreamed here, we appear in similar places in the real world. If I was in some sort of prison cell now, where would I go? Ignoring the voices of the others, I tried to relax my mind. It wasn’t easy, since I couldn’t close my eyes, but my inability to shift my perspective and the monotonous inertia of the scene below were almost as effective. I let my exhaustion take me.
Well, that didn’t work, I thought after a few moments. I sighed and cracked my whip at the tiger atop the pedestal across from me. She edged around the vast cage that surrounded the ring, seeking to flank me; I fired my gun in the air to warn her away. There were flashes of light all around me, someone called my name. My adoring public...flash bulbs wouldn’t work at this distance, but still the audience tried, lord bless ‘em.
The tiger crouched and sprang; I was ready for it. I ducked underneath her, and nearly bumped into a clown as the great cat crashed into several of the sunbathers. What the hell was the clown still doing in the ring? Firing my pistol again (more flashes, they always love it when I fire my gun), I grabbed the clown by the arm and took him to the door of the cage. I opened the door and shoved him out while the tiger snarled and padded closer.
Someone else fired a gun, putting a hole in my pith helmet. What was this, audience participation? The ringmaster was running towards us, shouting, and no wonder. They were making a total shambles of my act! Then I heard what the ringmaster was saying.
“Wake up, you damned fool! WAKE UP!”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 18.1]