Authors: Aileen Harkwood
Ninety-eight percent of all runners required one crucial element before they could start a run, a specific destination in mind. They could go anywhere they desired, but only if they knew what that place looked like beforehand down to the last detail. Neither drawings, maps, nor verbal descriptions could ensure a successful run. A photograph was the absolute minimum. Prior to the advent of photography, few dreamrunners dared to twin themselves, restricting themselves to what Jack was doing now, traveling the fields without attempting to bilocate. It was only after photography came into its own in the later half of the 19th century that the risks of materializing inside a wall or floor or other solid object were reduced to the point that twinning became commonplace.
For the majority of runners, that is. Jack belonged to the rare two-percent of the dreamrunner population who could run blind. He didn’t need a photo to guide him to a location. His sight within the fields was superior to most. Whereas the typical dreamrunner couldn’t see well enough through the barrier between the dream world and the physical world to bilocate without knowing the exact placement of everything in the target environment, he could pierce the barrier and create his twin on the fly, avoiding solidifying inside tangible objects in error.
Jack was also adept at seeking out and tracking dream signatures through the fields. The in-between world might reek of the cast-off thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams of average human beings, but finders could pick apart and unravel these psychic strands well enough to detect the distinct signatures belonging to runners. Gavin sent him out to follow those signatures back to their owners, the Lost Ones. It was a finder’s duty to render assistance, understanding, teaching and protection with the goal of bringing each newly discovered dreamrunner safely into the community. The Society had a rule. Never abandon a Lost One once found. Sadly, that rule had been violated more often than it should in the last two years. For Jack, once was too often. He’d be damned if he’d give up the girl with the haunted eyes. He
bring her home. Immediately after he found Taylor and discovered if there would be a home left to give her.
His body and mind were ready. He focused and cast his will into creating an opening for himself into the fields. He watched the transparent barrier between physical and dream worlds form. He could just see the swirling golden fog waiting for him on the other side.
Gathering his mental strength, he pushed at the membrane between worlds.
It pushed back.
A second later the barrier blew apart with concussive force. The force of its disintegration shook the cabin like a sonic boom. Instinctively, he reached for his weapon on the nightstand and was startled when his hand went through it. Damn. He’d been too close to leaving for the fields, and had stepped out of his body without realizing it. It lay insensate and vulnerable on the bed, while the conscious part of him could do nothing but stand beside it and observe the coming attack.
But an attack never came.
He looked up and saw a figure standing at the end of his bed.
His Lost One.
You can’t be here
Not here. This wasn’t possible.
Dressed in an oversized T-shirt that didn’t quite cover her only other article of clothing, a pair of delicate cotton panties in pale pink, she appeared dazed. Her fine blonde hair was mussed, uncombed strands tangled about her face, which was even thinner than he remembered. Blood oozed and crusted on her cheek from an open cut. One eye was blackened and her lip split. More blood splattered the T-shirt, cast-off from the injuries she’d sustained. Her muscles quivered, her knees and shoulders trembled, whether from fear or exhaustion or both, he couldn’t say. Blankly, she stared at the room around her, and he could actually feel the maelstrom of hurt and confusion inside her. She didn’t know why she was here, or even understood how. Nor did Jack understand why her emotions spilled into him with the force they did. He’d never experienced this type of connection with anyone else in his life.
Her eyes showed the worst of it. Exquisite and unforgettable, they looked into him and past him, literally lost. Yet her gaze left behind an indelible mark. The male protector in him instantly wanted to rush to her, grab her up and hold her tight.
The Greys would pay for this.
The barrier hadn’t just shattered at her entrance. It gaped open and refused to close the way it should. How had she found her way here? He hadn’t left any signature for her to follow because he’d never stepped through the barrier into her bedroom during his earlier attempt to reach her. Nor was she a finder like him. One look at her was all he needed to confirm that.
Except, he was struck again by the idea that he knew her and always had. It felt like the recognition one finder had for another while in the fields, but not. More than that. He couldn’t place the sensation.
His breath caught. Something was wrong. She was wrong.
She wasn’t whole.
In places her body was solid, in others it was translucent, the wall paneling behind her visible through her. Surrounding her, golden light leaked into the room like a beautiful toxin.
Did she not realize what she was doing? Didn’t she know the danger she was in?
She started to take a step toward the room’s nearest window.
“Stop!” Jack shouted. “Don’t move.”
She froze in place.
“Not a muscle,” he said. “I’m deadly serious. What you’re doing, you’re not doing it right. You’ve put yourself in danger by coming here like this.”
Her body jerked suddenly. At first he thought the convulsion had something to do with her partially formed body. When it happened again, however, he changed his mind. She was prodded by external stimuli Jack couldn’t see. The way she twitched in pain resembled someone reacting to the application of electric current. It looked like invisible hands were torturing her.
He’d never actually seen this before, the half-formed body, a barrier held precariously open, but he had a good idea what it was.
Only half her twin had made the journey to this room. The other half remained with her body, wherever it was being held. That was why the barrier stayed open. It also explained the odd jerks and twitches. This half of her was actively connected to her body. Wherever they held her, she wasn’t out cold for the run. She was awake and she could feel everything they did to her.
She cringed and pulled in to herself suddenly, leaning away from something.
The Greys were coaching her, threatening her this very moment.
She glanced at Jack’s bedroom window again. She turned toward it, began to move. He looked at the Lost One’s bare legs, incredible, perfect. A mental picture of Zeke and his missing leg flashed in Jack’s mind.
Lara opened her eyes and found herself standing at the foot of a bed with a rust-colored spread. She recognized this place immediately as
, the one in the photograph they’d shown her. Pain radiated up her right arm to her chest from the last touch of the electrodes, reminding her what would happen if she didn’t obey. She’d already been through two sessions with Grey Man, that she could remember. With the drugs swimming in her system, a cocktail they’d already changed several times, she’d lost all perspective on time and place.
How had she gotten here? Was this yet another dream? A hallucination? She saw the same matching drapes, pine paneling and yellow lamp as in the cell phone photograph. All of it looked so real, felt real, like she was really here. Why would they want her to dream about this room?
“You see the window?” someone said to her.
Lara started nervously, the voice rattling her. It sounded as if he was inches from her ear, but when she turned her head to look, no one was there. She knew the speaker. How could she mistake the flat, expressionless voice of her torturer, Grey Man?
Though she couldn’t see him anywhere, she tried to answer him. She couldn’t. Something was wrong with her voice, her body. The only way to describe it was that while the room felt real, she didn’t, not completely. Part of her was missing. She nodded her head, hoping that wherever she was, dreaming or hallucinating or not, the nod would be understood.
“Look around,” the man told her. “Go to the window, open it and look outside.”
She didn’t know what time of the day or night it was back where they held her, but here it was nearly lightless, the only illumination coming from...
She lifted a hand toward her face. It shimmered with a golden glow. It didn’t just glow, however, the light moved over her skin, animated, alive somehow. It crept and glimmered and snaked around her in tendrils. Watching it entranced her, sucked her in.
She heard a noise, so slight she thought she might have imagined it, but it snapped her out of her trance-like fascination with the light. She glanced at the bed.
Someone was watching her. A man.
She cried out in surprise, or tried to, but again, nothing came out of her mouth. Her voice didn’t exist here.
From a prone position, head on a pillow, he bolted upright to a sitting position. His hand shot toward the nightstand. Lara saw a gun there and shrank back in fear, but when he reached for it, he couldn’t grasp or pick up the firearm.
He tried again, but could not lift it free.
Frustrated, he turned back toward her. He was in the darkest part of the room and she couldn’t make out his features.
“The window,” Grey Man’s disembodied voice hissed in her ear. “Go to the window.”
Lara was in a near fugue state, her mind overwhelmed. She didn’t know where she was. Was she here in this place that seemed so real? Or back in the cell with Grey Man? She didn’t feel right. She didn’t feel real. Panic ignited along her spine, telling her she was about to die. It stripped away any coherent thought.
. She didn’t know what she begged for, only that she begged.
“Go. To. The. Window.”
Lara started to obey.
“Stop!” the man on the bed shouted. He leapt to his feet, but didn’t come closer. “Don’t move,” he ordered.
Deep, rumbling, his voice startled her. She froze in place, apparently willing to take orders from anyone now.
“Not a muscle,” the man said. “I’m deadly serious. What you’re doing, you’re not doing it right. You’ve put yourself in danger by coming here like this.”
He took another step forward, edging into the golden light.
The man she’d hallucinated in her bedroom.
Like the first time she’d seen him, he wore jeans and nothing else, the ripple of toned abs on display as he stalked toward her. She’d glimpsed only a little of his face the first time, but she saw the same panther-black hair and granite set to his jaw. Only this time she noticed that one of his cheeks, the left one, wasn’t quite right, the bones slightly out of alignment with the rest of his face. It didn’t look entirely natural. Had he been in an accident? His cheekbone shattered some time in the past?
His dark eyes remained in shadow, refusing to tell her whether or not she could trust him. The glow she’d seen around him in her bedroom was still there, but less evident. No. Perhaps he didn’t glow at all, and the golden light spilling into the room from behind her was responsible, reflecting off his smoothly muscled chest instead.
Pain shot through Lara. Back in the cell, Grey Man used the car battery again. Her muscles and joints contracted, convulsed, the fire of electricity burning its way up her arm, reaching for her brain. Her heart stopped. She couldn’t breathe.
Then as suddenly as it had grabbed her, the fire released its hold on her. She felt her heart start up in her chest again; air filled her lungs, though they felt too weak to push it out again. Her body continued to twitch in the aftermath.
“The window, Lara,” Grey Man said. “Or this continues.”
“Yes,” she said, but it was only her lips moving.
She started toward the rust-colored drapes.
The man with black hair vaulted over the bed and suddenly blocked her way. He put a hand up to gesture for her to stop, but didn’t touch her.
“Your body isn’t stable,” he said. “I know you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but every step you take while you’re like this has the potential to kill you. You can’t touch anything here.”
Though taller than most women, Lara was forced to look up into his face. Their eyes met, and as had happened in her bedroom, recognition clicked. She knew him. She’d found him without ever having known she was looking. He was really there. Standing in front of her.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I want to help you.”
Joy soared through her for the briefest fraction of a second.
“An evil man lives in that room,” Grey Man whispered in her ear. “A terrorist. You’re there to find out his location, where he’s hiding.”
What? The man standing in front of her was a terrorist?
No. She shook her head. He couldn’t be. Not this man.
“He kills people,” Grey Man’s voice hissed in her ear. “He’ll kill you.”
“I’m Jack. Can you tell me your name?” the man asked her. His were kind eyes, caring. They held no malice. How could he be evil? “Please. If I’m going to help you, I need your name.”
“Lara,” she answered, but unless he could read lips, he wouldn’t understand.
“Lara?” he repeated. Miraculously he had gotten it.
“Thank you, Lara. I know you’re in trouble. I know some people took you. They’re hurting you right now, aren’t they?”
She nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Do you know where they’re keeping you?”
She shook her head.
“Okay. That’s okay. You’re doing great, Lara.”
“He’s there,” Grey Man said. “With you.”
It was maddening. She couldn’t see him, but she felt her captor’s breath hot on her skin, so close his lips couldn’t be more than an inch away.
She squeezed her eyes closed, tried to ignore him. If she could just shut him out, close everything down.
“Open your fucking eyes,” Grey Man shouted at her.
She did as he asked.
It was all still there, the room with the paneling and rust drapes, and the man who called himself Jack. Anger marred his features. His hands clenched into fists. Would he strike her, too?
As if he’d heard her thoughts, he took a step back, made a visible effort to relax. Regain some calm.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not you I’m angry with. It’s them.”
“The window,” Grey Man said.
Since Jack had retreated, she could take a step toward her goal. Jack’s attention riveted on her bare foot, shuffling forward across the wooden floorboards. Tension tightened the muscles in his chest. He was agitated.
She’d taken a step and nothing bad happened.
He looked up from the floor into her eyes, disbelieving.
“No,” Jack said. “You can’t be here. You aren’t whole. You have to go back before you hurt yourself.”
Another step. Again, calamity didn’t strike.
“Stop,” he said. “You don’t believe me? Look in the mirror.”
He gestured at a mirror on the wall next to the window. She looked at her reflection and sucked in a frightened breath. Parts of her weren’t solid. She looked half-ghost.
No. That’s not me
He saw her self-denial.
“It is. That’s you. You didn’t form fully when you came here,” he said. “You’re extremely vulnerable like this. If you touch something and you pass through it, you’re going to loose body parts. Back there. Where they have your true body. You’re going to wake up without a foot or a hand.”
What was this? What was going on? None of it made sense. It had to be like her dreams. That was it. This was just another of her nightmares, only she wasn’t viewing violence done to others. She was the recipient. She was still asleep. Had been all along. Jack wasn’t real. Grey Man wasn’t real.
It didn’t mean dreams couldn’t be dangerous. She knew she was at risk of losing her life. Or her sanity. Back at home, in bed, her brain had to be in crisis. It was the only explanation. What was happening to her to cause this? A stroke? Aneurysm?
Wake up, Lara!
she told herself.
You have to wake up
She couldn’t. The dream wouldn’t end. Jack still stood there. Grey Man spat orders in her ear.
“Lara, listen to me,” Jack said. “You can’t give them what they want even if you try. The drapes aren’t the only thing blocking the view. Every window is covered from the outside. I’d show you, but…”