The shape of Alice’s subconscious might have surprised people who were unfamiliar with her. It wasn’t the large, lavish estate she’d grown up on. That had felt more like a prison in her formative years, a place she was sealed away lest she get too happy and go floating off. It also wasn’t anything from her later life; despite her love of Lander and the people she’d met there, everything about it tended to bubble with stress and worry. Those elements made it unsuitable for a mental stronghold; such places are meant to be points of comfort and serenity. No, Alice’s subconscious was formed in the shape of the only location where she’d ever really been able to let the world and the worries all melt away.
Alice sipped champagne as the expert beautician worked feverously on her pedicure. She’d already sampled the spa’s mud bath and steam room, after this she planned on a lengthy massage to get that pesky knot in her shoulder out. Once that was done, well, who could say where her whimsy would take her? This facility was massive, gleaming white and thick with the scent of candles. It teemed with capable staff ready to accommodate her every desire. Certainly there were a few locked doors that led to deeper areas where things wouldn’t be quite so pleasant, but Mary had burst into Nick’s mind and restored awareness, not Alice’s. So Alice was just fine letting those doors stay locked; she had neither the inclination nor the capacity to go mind-spelunking.
“My, this is a strange scenario.” The voice came from behind Alice’s chair. It was foreign, yet refined and cultured. Alice prided herself on her ability to discern one’s upbringing from their speech patterns, and this one had been strongly influenced by the necessities of high society.
“I didn’t realize there were any other customers here today. Please, take a seat and join me.” Alice had no particular inclinations to share her space; however, someone with a voice like that probably had the sort of power and influence her father fastidiously cultivated. He’d be more than a little put-out if she inadvertently snubbed someone of influence.
“I appreciate the invitation.” The voice stepped forward to reveal the man it was connected to. He was tall, though not exceptionally so. His cocoa skin was clad in a well-constructed suit that eschewed the tie in favor of an open-throat shirt. He smiled at Alice with unexpected warmth and she had the strangest sense of déjà vu.
“My pleasure. Would you care for some champagne, Mr...”
“Abridail. Just call me Abridail.”
“Very well, would you care for some champagne, Abridail?”
“Gladly. Not often I see places like this. I feel like I should enjoy it.” Within moments a fresh sparkling glass arrived at his side. He sipped it thoughtfully, pausing to appreciate the quality of the bubbling wine.
“So, if I may inquire, your name is rather unique. Is there a story behind it, or perhaps a unique cultural origin?”
“No, it’s just a fake name I use when I’m off Walking,” Abridail replied, taking another sip. “On the rare occasion people remember me I don’t want them able to track me down.”
“Forgive me, what do you mean by ‘off Walking’?”
“Walking through dreams. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know this was one; most people don’t. It’s a strange one at that, even for dreams. Barely even qualifies as one. It’s more like someone stuck a blank canvas on display and called it art.”
“This doesn’t seem to make much sense,” Alice said, her relaxation bubble beginning to quiver as it neared a full on burst.
“Don’t worry, it will soon. Once you accept it’s a dream, you get a higher level of control. You tend to like that.”
“Tend to? How would you know that?”
“I’ve visited you in many dreams, Alice. Unfortunately, you’re such a deep sleeper you never remember them. I only keep plugging away because I’m a man of my word and I have a message to deliver.”
“What kind of message can only be delivered through dreams?”
“The sort that is so delicate no one is crazy enough to whisper it aloud, lest God himself should overhear.”
Alice hesitated, and the world around them seemed to flicker. “I’m not sure I’d want to hear a message like that. It sounds like a burden.”
“I won’t lie to you, that’s exactly what it is. But once you build up your courage with a few starter questions you’ll ask about it. You always do.”
“If you say so. This message of yours, who is it from, anyway?”
Abridail gave her another warm smile and finished off his champagne. “That’s the part that generally piques your interest in the first place. The truth of it is, I’m here on behalf of your mother.”
* * *
“So what is Nick trying to do that’s so dangerous anyway?” Mary’s words came easy despite the brisk pace at which she and Gerry were cutting through the hall. They’d taken a multitude of twists and turns and descended several more staircases in a very brief time. The scenery was changing as they progressed. While it was still only halls and doors, they’d ceased looking quite so inviting. Instead of red wood most of the doors now were made from steel with large locks securing their knobs in place. It was evident they were going into the more defended parts of Nick’s mind, which Mary might have felt some reluctance in viewing if she wasn’t being escorted by a part of Nick. It still felt a bit ethically sticky, however, she reassured herself she hadn’t seen anything but doors so it’s not like she was snooping.
“He’s looking for a memory that doesn’t exist,” Gerry informed her. “He’s working off the belief that while in his mind he can view parts of his past that he can’t recall while conscious.”
Mary remembered how easily she’d recalled the sound of knocking the change from the counter when she was three. “He might be right.”
“Of course he’s right. Still, there’s a threshold; a person would have had to be old enough to interpret all the various things around them and put them in context to form a valid memory. What he’s searching for goes beyond that point.”
“If it doesn’t exist, then why are you so worried?”
“Because while a real record doesn’t exist, he’s fantasized about it so many times that there’s a lot of realistic looking fakes down here.”
“Can’t he tell the difference?”
“If it were something he was more objective about, then probably. In this case, I have serious doubts.”
“Gerry, exactly what memory is Nick looking for?” Mary felt a cold tickle up her spine. There was a lot about Nick that spoke to more than was on the surface and hinted at a past with some misfortune and complexities. She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to get too close to something that made even the ever- detached Nick too emotional to use reason.
Gerry shook his head. “I can’t tell you that. I think you need to know it, but telling you would overstep the bounds of what I can do.”
“Won’t I see it when we catch up to Nick anyway?”
“We’re not trying to catch Nick. There are too many places he could be.”
“Then where are we going?”
“We’re going to most protected place in his entire psyche. If he senses anything foreign there, he’ll drop what he’s doing and come to intercept you,” Gerry explained.
“Won’t that make him mad?”
“Absolutely. But it won’t destroy him.”
“I’ll take it to mean this other thing could,” Mary surmised.
“Must be one hell of a day he wants to remember.”
Gerry nodded. “You’ll understand more when we arrive.”
“I thought we were going somewhere different than the place Nick is searching for.”
“We are, but the two are connected. That’s really all I can say. Sorry, but I’m only a piece of the whole; there are limits I can’t overcome.”
“I won’t say I understand, because this is all pretty insane, but I take your meaning.”
“That will do for now,” Gerry assured her. “Keep your eyes peeled. We’re almost there.”