The foggy landscape billowed on as far as the eyes could see. It was nothing, not land, not foliage, not even light, only white fog curling about. The fallen cloud danced and swirled, despite the lack of wind, sometimes as low as the knee while in other places as high as a hip. In every direction it stretched, an endless sea of smoky white mist.
“Well, this is obviously a dream,” Nicholas declared as he surveyed his surroundings. Even if the surroundings hadn’t been obvious, he actually remembered going to sleep. After his unexpected run-in with Alice, he’d had Jerome and Eliza over to talk strategy, done a few hours of work, and gone to bed. It was impossible to know how long had passed since he slipped into unconsciousness, but to him the transition from waking to fog-world had been instantaneous.
“Of course it’s a dream,” said a voice that was perfectly familiar yet hauntingly different. Nicholas turned around to find a person sitting on a chair next to a coffee table, despite the fact that neither had been there moments prior. He wore unassuming garb: shorts and a t-shirt that would have been uncomfortable had this been an actual place rather than a mental image. The only remarkable things about him were the sunglasses on his face and his mirror-like resemblance to Nicholas.
Nicholas arched an eyebrow, then made his way over. As he approached, the fog swirled upward, and moments later another chair waited. This one was leather, with fine craftsmanship. It resembled the chairs Ms. Pips kept in the more prestigious areas of the casino. In contrast, the sunglasses-clad young man sat in an over-stuffed green one that Nicholas recognized, yet could not place.
“It’s from the Melbrook common room,” said the young man, clearly reading something on Nicholas’s face.
“I see.” Nicholas took his own seat, enjoying the sensation of a well-crafted piece of furniture. After a moment of savoring, he leaned forward and set his eyes on the man before him.
“So,” Nicholas Campbell began, keeping his expression inscrutable. “What is all this?”
“You act like I’ve got all the answers,” Nick Campbell replied, eschewing inscrutability in favor of a wickedly-wide grin.
“This is too lucid and logical for a dream, which leaves hallucination or mental invasion. I’m confident enough in my self-awareness to know if my mind has been compromised, and must therefore conclude this is something triggered from within.”
“Don’t be too cocky about that self-awareness,” Nick warned. “Rich swept the rug out from under me last year.”
“Yes, I read it in your notes. Forgive me, but I feel perhaps that happened because you were a bit… unfocused,” Nicholas retorted.
“Jesus, is this what it’s like talking to me? No wonder we didn’t have many friends.”
Nicholas scowled. “We do not have friends. We have marks and The Family, nothing else.”
“Aren’t you just a breath of fun,” Nick sighed. “Here’s the deal, Mr. Serious. From what I can tell, I’m a vestige of your memories, of the self you became in your two years at Lander. I have all the memories you can’t access, and I’m a different person because of that. Now, the plan was for me to get wiped out, but it seems there was a small metaphorical crack left in the wall around your memories. Hence, me.”
“Unexpectedly sloppy work, from a Lander professor,” Nicholas noted.
“No, you should assume it was intentional,” Nick corrected. “The staff here are not the sort of people that should be underestimated.”
“Very well then, that begs the question of why.”
“My best guess is they figured I might know something they’d be interested in, so they kept it accessible.”
“Don’t be daft, that much was obvious,” Nicholas scoffed. “I meant why you are only now appearing. The procedure occurred months ago.”
“Look who is calling whom daft,” Nick scoffed right back. “Why am I now appearing? THAT is the question with the obvious answer.”
Nicholas let out a long breath, watching the fog at his feet dance from the breeze. “The girl. Alice.”
“Ding-ding-ding let’s give the me a prize!” Nick declared.
“You’re something of an ass,” Nicholas informed him. “So the girl triggered your appearance. What does that tell us?”
“It tells us that my coming here is either based on intense emotion or meeting back up with our friends,” Nick ventured.
“Emotion… yes, we need to discuss that. I cannot help but feel that your notes were somewhat lacking, given my unexpected reaction to Alice Adair.”
Nick’s face grew serious, his smile vanishing as easily as the fog floated across his legs. “Are you surprised? Did you really expect me to put something like that down? Our vaults are secure, but nothing is impregnable. If it got out that I was indulging in such sentiment what do you think would have happened to us?”
“Point taken,” Nicholas acquiesced. “Are you sure you weren’t worried about someone using her to get to us, though?”
Nick’s smile returned, bringing with it a small wave of nostalgia. It swept across the table between them, washing over Nicholas, filling him simultaneously with longing and confusion. “Alice can take care of herself. On top of being the daughter of a man with more wealth and power than some countries, she is a powerful Super. No, someone would have attacked her through us long before they’d have ever successfully endangered Alice Adair.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Nicholas sighed. This version of him was irritating. It had his mind and his training, but it was clearly clouded with attachments and emotions. No wonder it had decided to self-terminate and reset to a more efficient model.
“On her strength, yes, but not on everything,” Nick said. He reached into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out a small, glowing orb. “The rest you’ll have to earn, but the first one is always free.”
“What is that?”
“You know what it is. Something I smuggled over from across the divide. A clue to the puzzle I left you with, or perhaps a trap to lead you away from the answers. It’s a memory.”
“One of my memories,” Nicholas said, eyes wide as he stared at the orb.
“No,” Nick told him. “One of mine.”
Nicholas felt the urge to reach forward and take it, but he pulled himself back. “How do I know I even want that thing?”
Nick laughed at him, clear and hearty and with far more exuberance than Nicholas believed he’d be capable of managing.
“Of course you want it,” Nick said, still chuckling lightly. “Curiosity is our biggest weakness. We always want to know more than anyone else, to be a spider in the center of a web spun from information. You want it so badly that you're suppressing the small twitch in our right eye we get when excited. Even though you know it might be dangerous to have, you still want it. And guess what? It’s all yours.” Nick reached out, setting the golden orb on the table between them.
“You’re trying to goad me into action,” Nicholas accused.
“I’m trying to cut the bullshit,” Nick countered. “We both know you’re going to take it, and seeing as the only person here is you there’s no need to pretend you’re resisting.”
Nicholas contemplated debating him, then realized Nick was right. He would take the orb; all he did by delaying was burn time. In certain situations, that was a valid tactic. This was not one of them. Nicholas reached his deft fingers forward, pausing inches from the orb’s surface.
“You said I’d have to earn the others.”
“Only the first taste is free,” Nick confirmed. “You know how these things work.”
“Should I be worried about what they will entail?”
“You’ll worry no matter what I say. Take the damn orb.”
Nicholas grabbed it in his fist, surprised at the unexpected warmth flowing from it. His world began to melt away, fog replaced with sand, emptiness with twinkling stars, and silence with the sound of crashing waves.
“See you next time,” Nick called from an unseen location. Then he was gone, and Nicholas fell completely into a memory of him and Alice walking along a beach at night, and the conversation that followed.