Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 18.3

   Harte, standing outside the central cage, looked around in amazement.  The Engine Room was a shambles. Sirens blared and red lights were flashing.  The machinery on the ceiling was still shooting out blue-white sparks from the spots where Larkin’s bullets had struck.  Several of the “operatives” had been toppled off of their beds, a few looked badly mauled.  The woman who had been at the desk was collapsed on the ground.  Her lab coat had been changed from white to orange and black stripes; her hands were bloody. 
    There was something on his face.  He removed it - a round rubber nose.  He felt Black’s guards seize him by the elbows.
    Black threw his top hat to the ground and shouted, “HR!  On your feet!”  The woman in the cage hauled herself up at the corner of the desk, and looked at the gore on her hands dizzily.  Black entered the cage, grabbed her by the shoulder, and slapped her face.  “We’ve just had an incursion – I need a damage report!”
    The woman, HR, nodded shakily, and wiped her hands on her coat.  She moved around the fallen operatives, crouching by each of them in turn; then, she sat at the computer terminal. 
    Eventually, she said, “The damage to the hardware isn’t bad – it’s mostly cosmetic.  But we’ve got two dead operatives and five incapacitated.  We can’t run the system on just nine minds.”
    “How many do you need?” Black asked.
    “Ideally, fourteen, if you want operatives active in aleph-two.  But I can keep the system going with ten until the survivors recover.”
    Black frowned, then nodded slowly.  “Right.  All right.  Your people make trouble for me, Tim, they can help fix it.  We need some volunteers.”  He pointed at Ojeda and Wright.  “Process them.”
    The guards forced them into the cage at gunpoint, and HR began preparing the beds.
* * *
    Twenty minutes to the southeast, Nina Rodgers was sipping Krug as the limousine took her to the airport. With her extremely respectable bonus from this operation safely transferred to her offshore account, it seemed like a good time for an extended vacation.
    Maybe even a permanent one, Nina mused. The bonus alone was enough to retire on, never mind the savings (declared and otherwise) that she had amassed while living out her humble role as Harte’s housekeeper.
    No more cutting corners for her, she decided. She poured herself more champagne.
* * *
    I didn’t know if Lily was right – for all I knew, someone who was hallucinating might be able to affect the real world unconsciously while technically awake here. But how are you supposed to tell if someone is insane if whatever they hallucinate actually happens?
    Still, if Captain Forrest was somehow causing what was happening to Betsy, or to us, I had to stop it. Lily was apparently thinking the same thing. She pointed at Forrest, and spread her hands. What are we going to do about him?
    “I’m not sure,” I replied. That wasn’t exactly true; I had an idea. “Why don’t you see what’s up with Mina...she seems upset about something.” It was difficult to tell when a sleepwalker was preoccupied – I mean, they always seemed preoccupied with something – but Lily’s friend did seem more withdrawn than usual. Lily dropped back to where Mina was lagging behind us.
    I picked up my pace, gradually drawing away from them. I knew it was risky giving Lily a suggestion like that, but I didn’t want either of them nearby when I did what I was thinking of doing.
    As I closed on the Captain, I removed the stone from my pocket and wrapped my fist around it. Something told me he wasn’t just going to let me tap him on the forehead with it.
    Forrest stopped abruptly when a single flagstone separated us. I prepared to sprint the last few steps.
    “I’m very disappointed in you,” he said without turning around.
    “Captain,” I said as levelly as I could, still bracing myself to jump, “we’re concerned that you might be doing some things you don’t mean to.”
    Then he turned, and smiled sadly. “Matthew. Are you really accusing me of not being in control of my actions?”
    His voice was confident, he looked healthier than anyone I’d ever met. Who was I to question him? I started to go back, to tell Lily she was wrong. But then I thought about Betsy. I had to at least check, as foolish as it was. I faced Forrest again, but could only bring myself to look at his feet. “Um. I don’t mean what you’re doing here. But maybe back home.”
    “We’ve talked about that. That’s why I sleep on the boat, remember?” He looked at me with concern. “I think I see what’s happening. You’re still thinking about what Dr. Harte said, aren’t you? He’s just a confused old man.”
    There’s a phrase, “covered in shame.” At that moment I understood what it meant. I hung my head, feeling like my father had caught me doing something unclean with the family dog.
    Where did that come from? I couldn’t remember my father ever lecturing me. I mean, I’m sure he did, but I couldn’t remember it. Lily had commented on that at length.
    The weight in my right hand grew. My fingers opened, and the feeling of shame dissipated. I raised my head, and Forrest didn’t look so healthy. He looked more... terrified.
    And yet, I noticed that his hand still twitched ever so slightly toward the stone.
    “I told you, that thing is dangerous. It doesn’t belong here. Just toss it over the side and we’ll be done.”
    “It doesn’t do anything people like you and me,” I said. “Just set my mind at ease here. Then we can get back to figuring out how to throw a wrench in Black’s plans.”
    A wind picked up. The cloud bank on which we were standing shifted, the flagstones separating slightly.
    Forrest’s eyes narrowed. “They’ve gotten to you, haven’t they? That was why you took so long to join us in the holding cell, you were communicating with Black!”
    The clouds above us were gathering gray and heavy; droplets of rain carried by the wind struck my face.
    “No one has ‘gotten’ to me, Captain.” I shouted over the wind. Gusts caused the flagstones to bounce up and down like boats in a rough sea, and I staggered. I risked a quick glance behind me to make sure that Lily and Mina were all right; they were on their feet, but were approaching quickly. I had to end this soon. I couldn’t let Lily get near the blue stone.
    Forrest had not been thrown off balance at all, rising and falling on his flagstone, totally unaffected by the disturbance. “You and your friends, you’ve been Black’s people all along!” he said viciously. “Black sent you to aleph-two, so you could lure me out of hiding!”
    That was when I knew Lily was right. Maybe I had been used to get the Captain reveal himself. But as I listened to Forrest, I became sure that it was Forrest himself who had used me. Perhaps he’d somehow even had a role in drawing me into the dream world in the first place, to create an excuse for him to leave the boat where...where he had been trapped, I realized. I had not recognized it at the time, but I had seen Forrest’s sailboat in that moment of collapse in the maze just before I found Lily. The boat had been Captain Forrest’s dead end. And in escaping, he had set off a chain of events that could destroy the barriers between the real world and the dream world.
    He had to be stopped.
    “Think, Captain. If I wanted you captured, why did I just help you escape?” The sky was darkening.
    “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out!”
    Lily was close, leaping across the widening gaps in the path. We were out of time.
    With a wordless cry, I leaped to the next flagstone, took two quick steps, and launched myself at the Captain, stone outstretched.
    “NO!” His roar was inseparable from the bolt of lightning that ripped through the cloud, blasting a wide gulf between us, and the deafening clap of thunder that hurled me backward.
    I tumbled across the last flagstone, the blue stone rolling away from me on the slab. Unable to halt my momentum, my body slid off the far side; I just barely caught myself by my fingertips. I dangled above the abyss, as Forrest’s mad howls echoed through the storm.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 18.2

    The two of them sat at the security console as the sirens blared.
    “Aw, man, what is this?  Another drill?  Didn’t we just have one yesterday?”
    “Uh-uh, not this time.  Tech Control’s going ballistic.  Panel’s lighting up like a gang of teenagers behind the high school.”
    “Nice image.”
    “So what do we do?”
    “Same thing we always do, sit here and watch the monitors.”
    They watched the guards rushing around for a while.
    “So, will you make the match this weekend, or has Debbie got you sorting her laundry for her?”
    “Shut up.  I’ll be there.  Hey, who’s that?”
    “That guy, there.  The one with the gun who’s not in one of these stupid jumpsuits of ours.”
    “Should he be there?”
    “What do you think, you idiot?”  He thumbed the comm switch.  “Uh, Mr. Kilpatrick?  This is Security Station Three; I think we might have just seen an intruder in the base.”
    The crackling reply was acidic.  “You don’t say?  Look, we’re just a little fucking busy down here.  Show some initiative and deal with it!”  The line cut off.
    They looked at one another.
    “Send the bot?”
    “Send the bot.”
* * *
    Chavez gradually made his way deeper into the complex. A short way into the mine, the rough walls of the entrance passage had become something more like a modern military installation, with rooms with doors and side passages off of the main corridor. So far, he had been lucky; whatever crisis had put the base on alert, the people here weren’t trying to tread softly. He had heard the approaching footsteps and been able to duck out of the way before he was spotted.
    He was currently holed up in what looked like a briefing room, planning his next move. Chavez had searched for a floor plan or a map, but had come up with nothing; the only information that he had about where he was relative to anything else had been a sign on the wall indicating that he had reached “Level 3.” His best thought was to keep moving downward, figuring that prisoners would be held in the most secure part of the base, which logically would be the deepest.
    The concrete floor began to shake. Chavez heard a metallic rumble that grew steadily louder; it sounded like a tank was rolling down the corridor right outside the door. The lights suspended from the ceiling started swaying, and the rows of folding chairs in the room began to dance with the vibrations.
    Then, it stopped. Chavez held his breath.
    With a tremendous bang, the door, torn off its hinges, sailed inward. It swept within inches of Chavez’s head, scattering the array of chairs before embedding itself in the heavy metal desk at the front of the room.
    In the doorway, an eight-foot-high robot on metal treads retracted the head of the pneumatic hammer mounted on its chest. It crashed slowly but inexorably through the door frame, the camera mounted on its head swiveling from side to side.
    Overcoming an instant of incredulity, Chavez dodged. He dove behind the desk, the only point of cover in the room, as twin machine guns on the robot’s shoulders opened fire. Bullets ricocheted off the desk, around the room, and off the robot again.
    The SIG 9mm in Chavez’s hand was starting to look awfully small. He risked a look over the top of the desk, and snapped off a shot at the camera on the thing’s head. His aim was accurate, but the bullet was stopped by some sort of plastic in front of the lens. Another blast swept across the top of the desk, and he ducked again.
* * *
    I woke up suspended in Mina’s arms, hanging above a stone path which itself appeared to be hanging above nothing at all.
    “Wait, I’m awake,” I said.  They stopped; Mina put me down. My head ached from the clout I’d received back on the subway train; it was in the same place as the whack on the head I’d received way back when I first arrived in the dream world.
    I looked around.  It’s really amazing how you could become used to just about anything.  The fact that we were apparently hiking across a cloud bank, by this point, fazed me not at all.  Well, almost not at all.  Still, it was better than most of the places I’d found myself lately.
    “Where’s Forrest?”  I asked Lily.  She nodded ahead on the path, and I could see him in the distance ahead of us.  “Not waiting around, is he?”  Lily shook her head.
    My heart clenched.  “It’s happening again, isn’t it?”  Lily grimaced and nodded.
    “Well, we’d better get going then.  I know he walks fast, but we can catch up with him.”  I started off, but Mina caught my arm and held me back. 
    I turned around; Lily’s teeth were clenched and her eyes were shut.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.
    She grabbed my hand, and said.  “”
    “Don’t try.  We can figure it out later.”
    “Nyet.”  Her grip was starting to become painful; I tried not to flinch.  “Carrrrful of...trees, lots of trees...Forrest.  He’s...nn...not...aquifer...damn it...nnot well.  Idea...think...he’, duck,, gah, loon...ah...insane.  He is asleep/notsleep dream/notdream... same...time... same bat channel...”
    “You think he’s dangerous?  Hallucinating?”
    She nodded. “The only the lonely...only magic...” She took a deep breath. “Black’s magic...can if someone here...someone here is dreaming does.”
    “He doesn’t seem crazy.  I know his story’s incredible, but have you looked around us?  He’s the most normal person in this world.”
    Lily sighed, flipped my hand over and started drawing letters.  W...O...U...L...D...S...E...E...
    “Would see?”  She shook her head in exasperation.
    “Would seem.”  Nod.  I stopped trying to jump ahead and let her finish.
    ...S...A...N...E...I...F...H...I... S...D...E...L...U...S...I...O...N...S... B...E...C... A...M...E... R... E...A...L.
    She looked up at me.
    “Oh, hell.”
    Emphatic nod.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 18.3]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 18.1

    Chavez crouched low in the brush. The dirt road he had been following had ended at a wide overgrown area around the iron mine’s entrance; the entrance to the mine itself was a shadowed hole cut into the base of a rocky hill. At a casual glance, the mine appeared to be abandoned. However, stumps here and there indicated that someone was keeping the grassy zone free of trees and bushes, and the wheel tracks from the road cut a path of crushed vegetation toward the mine and then off to one side.
    Dusk was falling; there didn’t appear to be any lights to illuminate the area after dark. Chavez had been observing the entrance for about half an hour. Although they were discreet, Chavez had been counted four armed men just inside the entrance, and four more moving around the wooded slope above.
    Very faintly, he heard an alarm or siren from the direction of the mine.  Moments later, the guards inside the entrance had disappeared, and the ones on the slope above had come down out of the trees – five, not four; he had missed one in his count.  Three of those ran inside, while the remaining two took up positions in the open in front of the entrance. They put on pairs of dark goggles; night vision, Chavez thought.
    This was as good as it was going to get.  Not knowing how long the alert would last, Chavez made his way around the clearing to the hillside, sacrificing stealth for speed.  Despite the noise he made, he remained undetected; Chavez figured the guards were probably concentrating more on whatever was happening inside the mine than outside.  He climbed up the broken rock, moving more carefully as he approached the guards, who were now below him. 
    Soon, he was directly over the entrance.  The guards stood about thirty feet out from the opening, enough to give them a field of view unobstructed by the irregular face of the hill.  From here, Chavez could see the details of the guards’ uniforms; they were bizarre, almost futuristic, he thought, if you were looking at the future from the 1970’s.
    The opening was at least fifteen feet high, and there was no way to climb to the ground.  He was going to have to let himself drop and hope for the best. 
    He began lowering himself over the lip of the entrance.  His height proved to be an advantage; with his arms extended, his fall would be less than the length of his own body.
    Too late to turn back, he thought, holding on by his fingertips.  He let go, bending his knees at the moment of impact to cushion his fall and reduce the noise when he landed on the dirt.  The guards didn’t turn around.  Chavez drew his pistol and swiftly moved into the mine.
* * *
    Lily’s transition back to her body was instantaneous.  Without warning, she found herself sitting on the couch that she had seen from above.  Stiffly, she stood up.  Mina and Captain Forrest were doing the same.  Lily felt her consciousness start to fade into the dream state almost immediately; fiercely, she pushed it to the back of her mind.
    Matt was sprawled in his chair, his eyes closed; he was snoring gently.  Where the guards and the door had been was now just an ugly rip in space; beyond was nothing but clouds and blue sky, above and below.
    Forrest walked over to the rip; Lily watched him warily.  Something about what Professor Harte said, about the impossibility of this person Black’s technology, was troubling her. She had seen so much that was impossible since Matt had entered aleph-two...
    “It’s a way out,” Forrest called back to them.  “Come on.”  He jumped through the hole, and she expected to see him plummet out of sight.  Instead, he stood on a cloud.
    She looked through the rip, and saw that the puffy white mass was imbedded with a path of wide flagstones, ten or fifteen feet square, which extended into the distance.  Next there’d be a castle and a goose laying golden eggs, no doubt.
    “You don’t want to stay here, do you?”  Forrest said, and set off.
    She didn’t want to let Forrest out of sight, but she needed to get Matt.  Mina was standing next to him; the other woman looked distraught.
    “What’s wrong?”  Lily asked.  She felt the words twist into something else in her mouth.  Here we go again, she thought.
    “I don’t belong here,” Mina said.  “I should never have left the hospital.  I’m not ready.”
    “I need your help,” Lily said. “I can’t carry Matt, and I don’t want to wake him up if he’s keeping that hole open. And I think Captain Forrest may be dangerous.” Mina did not move. “Please. We can’t escape without you.” 
    Mina looked at her, nodded, and gently cradled Matt in her arms.  They stepped through the rip.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 18.2]