Chapter 212

               The space looked much the same as it had when Alice last saw it: the re-visiting of the memories that Professor Stone had shown her. Attendants still wandered about, and there were tables for massages, pedicures, and just about any other luxury treatment that could be imagined. The place had expanded, though, and now a new section was adjacent to the old. It was filled with weights, treadmills, and general training equipment. Throughout the gym/spa there were also familiar bits of furniture scattered about, ones whose real life counterparts lived in the Melbrook common room or girls’ lounge.

                Alice had no idea how long she’d been there when she felt her awareness snap back. She simply found herself standing at a free weight rack, dumbbell in each hand, when suddenly she knew what was happening. Rich had put her under, dropping her into her subconscious, and she had begun doing some light training while planning a post work-out massage. There had been no slow realization, no gentle journey to retaking control of her consciousness. That alone told Alice that breaking partially out of the delusion wasn’t her doing, which could only mean one thing: she was not alone in her mind.

                Slowly, she lowered the dumbbells back onto the rack and turned back toward the central area of her spa. There he was, just as he’d been in her memories: dark skin, gentle eyes, and a strangely self-assured smile as he helped himself to a smoothie from the juice bar. He met her gaze without wavering, though an expression of curiosity did twinkle in his eyes.

                “You’re gotten much more self-aware since last year. Even as we talked last time, you weren’t fully aware of your circumstances. Now I barely get a foot in the door and you’ve snapped to full consciousness.”

                “That’s the thing about us Hero Certification folks: we’re always getting stronger.” For a moment, Alice searched for a towel to wipe the sweat from her brow. Then she realized where she was and moments later she was as clean as if she’d freshly showered, and was dressed in her Lander HCP uniform. She’d only wanted something familiar; something that made her feel safe, but that was what her gym clothes metamorphosed into. The significance was far from lost on her, just as it was immediately filed away for later contemplation. Alice had more pressing issues to deal with.

                “Quite a quick change. Few people are so adept at controlling their dream worlds.”

                “I’ve got a friend who’s taken me on more than one mental journey.” Alice crossed the room in few steps, too few in fact, and stopped inches away from her guest. “Abridail, wasn’t it? That’s the fake name you use while invading people’s minds.”

                “Our first meeting was an invasion, I’ll admit that,” Abridail replied. “I had a message to deliver, and doing so took priority over certain formalities I might usually observe. This time, however, I took your current state as an invitation. This level of the subconscious is quite difficult to reach, I assumed you’d come here hoping for another chat. I deeply regret the misunderstanding, and I will take my leave.” Abridail set his smoothie down and rose from his bar stool, pausing only to give a shallow bow to Alice.

                “Wait!” The words left her mouth before Alice’s brain was even considered for input. “I’m… sorry. It’s a little jarring to suddenly someone in my head. I didn’t do this to intentionally invite you, but I’d like to talk with you, now that you’re here. I have so many questions, and you might be the only person in the world with the answers.”

                “No, Alice. There are several others in the world who know at least part of the information you’re after. Though you are correct in that I am the only one who knows every piece of the story. It took me quite a long while to follow all of the strings to their sources, but I was blessed with an abundance of free time.” Abridail raised his head from the bow and met Alice’s gaze once again. “Though there is a great divide in what I know and I what I can divulge.”

                “Why? Why won’t you just tell me what happened to my mother?” Alice did not, would not plead, but neither did she demand. Abridail was here at his own discretion, she could no more force him to answer her than she could keep him in this place if he chose to leave. Diplomacy was the single weapon in her arsenal, and she was determined to wield it carefully.

                “Partly because she doesn’t want you to find her, and as a dear friend I will honor her wishes, but also because telling you the whole story would change the world as you fundamentally know it, and that is not a thing I would do to someone lightly.”

                “I… I can’t say I understand, since I clearly don’t, but I’ll respect your conditions.” Alice could all but feel Professor Pendleton whispering from her memories.

                Not every interrogation involves torture and threats. Sometimes getting information is as simple as keeping a conversation going until something slips.

                “So, what can you tell me? There must be some things; you wouldn’t have accepted what you perceived to be an invitation otherwise.” Alice took a seat at one of the unoccupied stools around the juice bar, then motioned to an attendant. An instant later a strawberry and champagne concoction was being set down before her. “How about we start with your name? Why use a fake one? It’s not as though others can hurt you in here.”

                “Perhaps not, but there is a world outside of dreams, after all. While I am not a Hero, I do share their enjoyment of anonymity.”Abridail sat back down next to Alice and picked up his own smoothie. In the time his hand closed around it, the drink went from being half empty to completely topped off. Alice noted this, but made no mention of it. Her time with Mary had already shown her that some dream-walkers could control the world just like the dream’s owner.

                “Let’s go with something a bit deeper this time,” Alice said, giving Abridail warning so he could begin considering responses.

                Show as much civility and warning as you can when you ask about the subjects you don’t need answered. That way you can catch them all the more off guard during the important questions.”

                “You were the one who escorted Globe into Vince’s dream, right? Or was that just a lie that he told Mary?”

                “No, Globe spoke the truth,” Abridail confirmed. “He almost always does. I’m guessing your next question is going to be why I would do such a thing, right?”

                “Bingo,” Alice said.

                “The short answer is that I owed him a favor. The slightly longer answer is that I owed him a favor and I saw no harm in helping a father and son share a reunion. The longest answer would be telling you what favor I owed him, and that bit I won’t be divulging.”

                Alice nodded. “I understand and respect your need for privacy.”

                Abridail smiled and gave a quick shake of his head. “Were it just you and I, Alice, I would be willing to share that story. But we are being listened to, and I do not trust the ears that linger around us.”