Chapter 94

                When Nicholas came to in the fog-covered field, he didn’t even bother muttering a complaint. It seemed this was what it was, and no amount of protest would change it. Instead, he rose to his feet, scanned the area, and located Nick. His sunglasses-clad doppelganger was sitting in front of a medium-sized table, bright red cards dancing through his hands as he shuffled. The grin on his face said more than any greeting could.

                “At least this time it looks like we’ll play a proper game.” Nicholas took the other chair, sitting directly across from Nick. As he did, a small mound of chips shimmered into place. They were identical to the ones used in Ms. Pips’ casino, so Nicholas could tell from glancing at the colors that roughly a thousand dollars now sat before him.

                “Texas Hold 'Em,” Nick replied. He set the cards down in the center of the table and motioned for Nicholas to cut.

                “How touristy.” Nicholas cut the deck a little more than halfway through. He was tempted to palm a few cards, but Nick would probably catch him. Nothing was worse than being called out on cheating, even if it was by one’s own self.

                “Don’t blame me.” Nick scooped up the deck and began to deal.

                “Then who shall I blame?”

                “Roy and Hershel.” Nick finished his deft-dealing, two cards in front of him and Nicholas with five face-down cards in the table’s center. “Roy loves this game; every now and then we’d play a few hands in the boy’s lounge.” He threw in the small blind, to which Nicholas countered with the necessary big blind.

                “So your notes indicated.” Nicholas checked his hand, then looked across to Nick. “I realize the futility of who I’m saying this to, but I don’t suppose there’s any way you’d level with me and tell me what all this is about? You pop up every few weeks, give me cryptic sass, then leave me with a memory that I shouldn’t be able to access. It’s very annoying.”

                “I know, right? No wonder no one really likes us; we’re kind of a pain in the ass.” Nick looked at his own cards, keeping the smile he’d been wearing fixed firmly in place. No need to give Nicholas any clues to what he was facing. “And honestly, I don’t know a whole lot more than you do.”

                “Not a lot is still some,” Nicholas pointed out.

                “Most of it is only theory at this point,” Nick warned. “But I think right now we’re essentially opening a combination lock in our head. These dreams? They’re clicks of the tumblers falling into place.” Nick threw a few chips into the center, which Nicholas quickly matched. That done, Nick turned the first three flop cards over.

                “That theory raises an abundance of questions. Why is it here, what purpose does it serve, and most importantly: do we even want it opened?”

                “Come on now, this isn’t that hard,” Nick said, shaking his head. “We know who did it: Professor Stone. Now since she has no reason for doing such a thing, we look a step beyond. Dean Blaine is the one who calls the shots. He’s known about my prodigious mind since freshman year, and he’s one of the few people who doesn’t underestimate me. The smart guess is that he saw all the effort I went through to get my brain purged and assumed I might be trying to bury something he’d want to know.”

                “An assumption that was wholly correct,” Nicholas added. He threw in a single chip to raise the pot.

                “Like I’ve said before, the staff down there is pretty quick. Anyway, that’s the ‘Why’ of the lock. As for the purpose, it seems like they wanted me to have my brain back, but not automatically. I’ve got to earn it.” Nick matched the bet and raised a few chips of his own.

                “Reconnecting with your old friends seems the current key to the system,” Nicholas noted. “Each time I meet a new one, these dreams occur.” He matched the new bet, but didn’t raise.

                “Obviously. Right now it looks like you have to get the others to trust you enough to speak with you face to face. Them caring enough to put their HCP positions on the line shows strong friendship. But we’d be idiots to assume that’s all it will take; it’s too easy. My guess is that after you meet Vince, the next phase begins. And I doubt it will be as simple.” Nick flipped the turn, leaving only the river card still face-down.

                “I’ll acquiesce that your assessment seems plausible, however you’ve left out one aspect of my question. Do we want to undo this lock in the first place? You clearly had good reason for enacting it, and just because we have the opportunity to unmake it doesn’t mean we should.”

                Nick pressed the edges of his card into his thumb, ever so lightly, feeling the tension of the force against his skin as well as the slight tingle of pain. “When you aren’t here, I don’t have form or substance. Not really. I thought the mind-wipe would be a complete reset, turning me back into the person I was before Lander, before those hopelessly-wonderful idiots I call my friends, before I actually had an idea of what friendship was. I thought I could turn it all back, make myself into the old me and go back to my old life.”

                “It worked,” Nicholas reminded him. “I sit here before you, everything you wanted to be.”

                “No, it didn’t work at all. Don’t you get that? I’m still here, Nicholas. I can still be conjured from the depths of your psyche. That means I exist somewhere within you. Only now I’m trapped, lost in the ether of our mind. I know you still feel twinges of me leaking through. You’re an incomplete reset, burdened with my emotional predilections but not gifted by the insights they provided. And honestly, seeing you objectively like this instead of through the pride-tinted lenses of memory, I realize how stupid an idea it was to try going backwards in the first place.”

                “You want to come back.”

                “I do. Whatever awful thing I uncovered, those morons are better off facing it with me at their side, not stuck in a mind-prison of my own engineering.”

                “And what if I don’t want you back?” Nicholas asked. “Perhaps I see things more clearly, and realize that you made the right call in creating me.”

                “That’s certainly your prerogative,” Nick conceded. “But once I win this game, you’re getting another memory and I’m getting one step closer to breaking out of here. As always in our world, it’s the victors who make the rules.”

                “You overlook something. I can wake up, pack my things, and drive back to Vegas. No meeting with Vince, no setting off the next key in the lock; I could halt the entire process and you couldn’t do a thing to stop me.”

                “Except that running home without finishing the job would make it look like you were running from Nathaniel,” Nick said. “Ms. Pips might not have liked the idea of us coming out, but there is no way in hell she’d tolerate you taking a coward’s actions. Besides, even if you really could go home, it wouldn’t make a difference.”

                “How do you figure?”

                “Because now other people know you’re here, and sooner or later one of them will tell Vince. The only thing that kept him away was me asking him as a friend to respect my choice. As soon as he learns you were reaching out to old friends, nothing short of the gods themselves will stop Vince Reynolds, and even then I’d give him decent odds.”

                “You have a lot of faith in him,” Nicholas said.

                “You’ll learn a bit why when you lose. The memory I’ve got is mostly Roy and Hershel, but Vince makes some appearances too.” Nick tapped the table twice, creating a deep sound that echoed out into the foggy world. “Now hurry up and make your bets. We’ve got a lot of poker ahead, and I want to enjoy beating you.”

                Nicholas threw in a few more chips, then glared at the man whose eyes were hidden by gaudy sunglasses.

                “Let’s play.”