Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Mental Illness, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Bugs (lakeworms), Chronic Illness
Intro - Still Shadows
You are afraid of the dark, which means you are afraid of yourself. You shudder at the sight of your hands, shy away from your reflection, light lamps at night to keep your soul at bay.
Only you can get lost in an abyss of thoughts. Only you can fill your head with chittering fears. Only you can peel open dark doors to places unseen by any sun.
People say you see what is not there—that you are afraid of nothing. You smile when they say it. It is a slight comfort to know that they enjoy such lives of peace. That they are spared from staring into shadows, that they do not see the kind of things that live in the nothingness, the worming fingers and the formless grins reaching out.
And yet, you cannot leave the lights on, for your mother is a greater shadow still, and she demands you practice and learn and excel. You wish, sometimes, when the exams are about to start, that you could fall through one of those pits in reality, plummet into freedom and darkness, lit only by strange moons singing Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I am sitting in a house. Half of it is underwater. Its single occupant places objects and removes objects, hoping to turn it from a house into a home. He is loud as he goes about it; too loud to notice the wings beating in the air outside, and the storm about to arrive. His thoughts are elsewhere, with a person he hopes will arrive after the cleaning is done, a person he hopes is coming at all. The theme of tonight’s episode is Tests.
Story 1 - You Can't Make Home Again
Nolan rapped on the wall another time to be sure; there was no gurgle of worms from inside, and with any luck they had left the decaying timbers in search of quieter homes.
“No shleps, check,” he said, and turned back to inspect his handiwork. “Candles from Alice, check. Dusting, check… I’m going to have to live with the holes in the wallpaper.”
The half-sunken house was shaping up alright after all. He’d begun by removing the piles of soggy belongings from the flooded hallway and depositing them in an unceremonious pile by the side of the porch. Wet papers and mouldering books, soaked cardboard boxes, children’s toys. He’d kept a set of building blocks and a small plastic boat out of nostalgia. Or perhaps someone would bring children to visit sometime. Did he want children, he wondered? None of his own genetics, certainly—his family was a curse passed down through the centuries, and from what his mother had said, it was hell to raise an invisible child. But to adopt?
Ricou would need time to adjust to the idea, probably, if ever, so there was no point in wondering about it now—not when the floors were half-mopped. Nolan dusted off his apron; rare for him to wear anything visible, but this place belonged to him. Not to strangers, not to one shadowed family after the next, not to anyone who wanted to hurt him. It was his own, and if he wanted to wear an apron with a crude joke stamped on the front, he could. That was what homes were for.
He stepped through the rooms, looked over each in turn. The bedroom was half filled with water—he’d even shoveled in mud from the lake floor, lined the shallows with some of the tchotchkes and trinkets he’d collected from the house shelves. He hoped Ricou would find it comfortable.
A couch in the living room could fold into a mattress that was only slightly damp, and felt to Nolan like a luxury. Lighting was important, of course, and Alice had helped him set candles up on mantelpieces and cabinet-tops; there was hardly a sputter of fuel left in the generator, and he didn’t want to rely on it.
The kitchen wall was covered in pictures, and he had left those up. They were comforting, in some odd way. He’d grown up surrounded by pictures of strangers, a ghost in the houses they made for themselves. And besides, it wasn’t like he could replace them with photos of himself. Alice had painted a few portraits that she insisted were his likeness. To him they just looked like landscapes, but he’d been supportive nonetheless. Maybe she saw something he didn’t.
He grabbed a mop, and began to wash the bootprints from the kitchen floor, when there was a knock at the door—a sharp and deliberate tapping; it could not be Alice, as she never knocked. Perhaps a large amphibious boyfriend who would like to apologize.
He tossed the mop to the corner, and was at the door in an instant, undid the lock and swung it open.
“It’s about time you…” he began, but the sentence he’d been planning for days did not finish, as it was not Ricou on the other side of the door.
It was a storm of black feathers, beaks like obsidian knives and soulless eyes, and the flock ripped through the outer screen door with piercing cries, and rushed into the foyer. Nolan shrieked, and fell back off his feet as the cloud of shadow poured over him.
“We have found you, invisible Nolan,” cried the birds in rasping voices, and the wind beat him down as the hallway filled with thunderous wings, ravens clinging to stairway banisters and picture frames. “Surrender!”
He was still wearing the apron, he realized, and peeled it off, but a dark ring of birds had surrounded him, crowing on the floor, embers in the air. He remembered it from the spring—a stranger in the night, a thief of books. Where it had come from, he did not know, but he wished it was anywhere else.
Nolan still remembered his mother’s advice, and he said nothing, watched the ravens. Although he knew they could not see him, they seemed to stare into his soul.
“Much work to find you,” crowed the birds. “We know you are here. No more hiding. We have come to collect you. The Omen will bring you back to Ricou! Ricou, who has Walter Pensive’s books! Ricou, who moves things with his mind! You return to him now. No running!”
Nolan stared for a moment. Don’t react, he thought. Don’t speak. Don’t breathe. Wait for a moment to escape, and slip away. It can’t follow you far, not if you get a head start. For a moment he felt was not in his thirties, anymore, building a life for himself; he was ten, and it was time to leave another home behind.
And yet, there was a fire rising in his chest, as hot as the flame that flickered in the wings of the Omen.
“Ricou sent you?” Nolan said; broke all safety and precaution. He stood invisible in the half-drowned hall, watched by an unkindness of smoldering ravens. “Whatever you are? He’s trying to drag me back up that mountain?”
“We do not drag,” said the Omen, impossible words from little sharp beaks. “If you cooperate, you will walk. If you do not, we will carry.”
Nolan felt his heart crack like old china dropped carelessly from a cabinet. The only person he’d ever met who could truly see him wanted him shut up in a dark little cabin away from the world. Not so different, really, from the old attics. Maybe from the high cliffs of the Shuddering Peaks, some days, he’d just be able to see the world below, passing him by like neighborhood games in forbidden backyards.
“I won’t go,” Nolan said, standing up.
The ravens twitched in their multitude, flapped their wings as they felt his weight shift on the floorboards. Their little heads scanned the air as if searching for his eyes.
“You can tell him we’re done,” Nolan continued, readied to move. “He can get lost in a blizzard for all I care.”
“You will return!” the ravens shrieked together, and fire was in their wings, a heartbeat of flame that pulsed in a whirlwind around him. Nolan had faced danger many times in his life before, people reaching out with wavering arms or swinging wildly at the air, but he had never run for his life from a storm of cursed birds before. His strategy was not that different.
The Omen shrieked, and scattered through the air, black talons searching for him, seeking purchase in his unseen skin. Nolan dropped immediately to the ground, hit the floor with a shudder, and the birds scattered through the house above him, searching for him. The fire that trailed from their smoking forms singed his hair, lit corners of the wallpaper, burned pictures, set the candles alight, scattered porcelain figurines and knicknacks to break against the floor.
You’re ruining everything, he wanted to say. This is my home.
But he said nothing more, and when the ravens had mostly left the hall to seek for him in the kitchen and the living room, he rolled through the open doorway. The ravens were pivoting as soon as the screen door flapped open, but by then he was sprinting, bare feet in the muddy yard.
“Reveal yourself!” the birds shrieked, and smoke poured through the windows of the little house on the shore. “Invisible Nolan! We must return you! We must have books! It is our mission! One book we have already lost, more we cannot! This is doom for us! Doom!”
Nolan could barely understand the crowing words, and after a few moments was into the woods beyond the property, and laid in the roots of a gnarled tree, and waited until the last of the raven’s cries were gone.
He wept, then, for the life he was destined to keep on losing, although nobody in the world would have seen him cry.
Interlude 1 - Educational Opportunities
If you are a child, and you wish to get an education in this modern landscape, your best option is to join a Dreaming Box. Teachers were some of the first to lay down their lives and sleep, and many still have knowledge to share in sterile programs and artificial learning environments. The Ivy League Conglomerate is strong.
But if you’d like to consider less horrendous options, there are some still available. There are those who do not yet sleep who are knowledgeable on many subjects. What do you wish to learn about? Seek out a mentor, and follow them around until you understand what it is they do.
If you are gifted with a supply of books and a lot of time not spent fighting for survival, you may be able to teach yourself certain topics. Both of these, however, are luxuries in the modern landscape.
Of remaining educational institutions, there are few. Some communities, like Scoutpost Two, cobble together educational programs based on the staff available. They are often more focused on utility, survival skills, and wilderness knowledge than scientific theory, for the world is wild again. Others, like Fort Freedom, feel it is a family’s responsibility to teach, and so some learn more than others—and what some learn, they must relinquish if they are to confront the world beyond.
There is of course one school still in operation, and that is the arcane program at Downing Hill Public Library. Their selection requirements are stringent, however, and their curriculum punishing indeed. For them, there is only one grade that matters.
We go now to a student at Downing Hill Public Library.
Story 2 - The Five Stages of Decomposition
“What are the five stages of decomposition?” Clara’s father said.
Clara stared at the page, and twisted the broken pencil in her fingers, and lowered her head close enough that she could make out the words.
“What are you doing?” her father said from across the table.
“It’s hard to read,” she said, put her fists on the table.
“It’s not hard to read,” he said, and crossed his arms, leaned forward a little. “My handwriting is good.”
“It’s blurry unless it’s right here,” she said, picking up the page and bringing it close. She lowered it to find her father staring at her over the edge of the paper, eyebrows raised.
“Is that why you bury your nose in your books?” he said. “How long have you been getting by like that?”
“I didn’t notice so much until the last few months,” she said, and crossed her arms on the table. “With all our tests. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine,” her father said, and waved his hand. “Reading is most of what you do around here. You should be able to do it comfortably at least. Let’s go visit your mother.”
He stood up, and stepped away from the bare dining room table. Clara glanced between the doorway and her unfinished test for a moment, and then rose and followed—through the gloomy halls, lit only by the dim blue sun, and into the heart of the house where her parent’s bedroom was, with its covered windows. A single red candle cast shadows through several half-full glasses of water and across her mother’s blanketed body; her father sat on the edge of the bed.
“...would be good to try,” her father was saying as she entered. Her mother took a second to look up to her; a smooth face drained of its warmth, hair in limp braids her father had put in.
“You want my glasses?” her mother said, and glanced over to the pair of round lenses on the nightstand. It was the first Clara was hearing about it, but her father cut in.
“Just to borrow them for school,” her father said. “If they work well enough.”
Her mother gave her a look that she had grown accustomed to—a wordless regard. Clara shuffled over to the nightstand, and her mother reached out a veiny hand for her arm. Clara felt her touch, there, for a moment, cold and pallid.
“I’m proud of you,” her mother said quietly, and smiled. “You’ve got my spirit and your father’s brains. I think you’ll use them for more than we did.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” her father said with a look that was not a frown. “We went far. If we could find a school to send you to, maybe you could do something great. But at least now you’ll know your forests. Try these on.”
He reached out for the nightstand, and handed Clara her mother’s glasses. Clara held them in reverence for a moment, and put them on.
“It’s so much clearer,” she said, examined her hand. “That works.”
“It won’t be perfect, most likely,” her father said.
“And it’ll strain your eyes if you use them too long,” her mother added.
“I understand,” Clara nodded, and reached out to hug her father—his face was more severe in focus; a little more sadness and calculation in those eyes than she had expected to find. He stood up, and walked past her for the door.
“They look good on you,” her mother whispered, and put a hand on her head. Clara kissed her mother’s forehead.
“Are you feeling okay?” Clara whispered.
“Just the usual,” her mother said, and pulled a glass from the nightstand, emptied the rest of it as if discovering the water after a desert journey. “Keep it down out there, please. And close the door on the way out.”
“Yes mom,” Clara said, had to glance twice in the shadow—there were dark rings around her mother’s eyes, but then again, it could have been the candlelight. Clara shut her mother in the darkness; blocked out the dim blue light of the outside world. Her father was waiting by the dining room door, and reached out a hand with her papers.
“Now,” he said. “Let’s get back to your test.”
Clara touched her bent glasses, a reminder of it all, her parents and their high hopes—but she was in a dark pit now, an unknowable shadow beneath the library, and she beheld clearly two old women sitting in an office that was warm in all but temperature.
Director Blackletter stared at her with abyssal eyes, and glowed in the dim light like the moon on a hazy night. Beside her sat Winona, wrinkled and wry, smiling pleasantly as she sipped her tea.
“I told you,” Winona said, and might have kicked Director Blackletter under the table.
“‘Test’?” Clara said, clutching her bird-carved broom for support. “What do you mean, ‘test’?”
“The summer program,” said the Director, and nodded expectantly. “You passed.”
“I don’t think you understand,” Clara said. “Winona abandoned us. Harrow is hurt. Arnold is… maybe dead, I’m not completely sure. Victoria and Friday are missing. We need the Omen, and anyone we can get for a search party—can those static librarians leave the library?—and I said I’d be back by nightfall…”
“Leave you? Yes,” Winona interrupted, and moved a hand at her side—the shining red gem of her khopesh handle glinted from her robes. “But abandon you? Of course not. We’ve been keeping a close eye on you all.”
“You knew?” Clara said, and felt as though the world was contracting around her, drawing in like a hungry predator. Like a squirrel in the RV headlights, she could barely move. “You knew what was happening out there?”
“That is the function of the test this year,” said the Director, and folded her bony hands together on the desk. “To see how you would handle the stresses of a crisis situation.”
“You were just going to see who died out there?” Clara said; could not tell if the way the world rushed and ebbed around her was in her head or part of the environment. “What is wrong with you?”
“If anyone was really dying, I would have been right back,” Winona said, raised her hands. “Victoria had a close encounter with a spider, but Arnold took care of it.”
“Arnold is one single hand right now,” Clara said, trembling in the wavering light. “I watched him get ripped apart.”
“It is a test of his survivability unlike any we could do here in the classroom,” the Director said placidly. “You dissect a few frogs in every school.”
“So this was all a sick experiment,” Clara said, leaned on her broom for support. She felt sick to her stomach.
“I’d advise you to collect yourself,” the Director said with a twinge of a frown, “so as not to dampen what should be a proud moment for you. You are the first of the group to make it back to the library, and the winner of this year’s summer program. Arnold will grow back. Victoria has had an opportunity to confront herself; I hope it will prove beneficial in the term to come.”
“She’s already found Harrow again,” Winona mumbled, eyes rolled back for a moment. The red light from the khopesh hilt shone through her hand and lit up all the veins.
“Harrow was… disappointing,” the Director continued. “I had hoped they would take steps to control their power. Obviously, they were one of the best-equipped to return you all home. But there will always be the summer program next year.”
“I… that’s horrible,” Clara said. “Harrow has been so much braver than they were at the start of this. They’ve stuck to the plan even though all their friends were dying. You should be proud.”
“A plan which you made,” the Director said. “You outperformed my expectations. You learned that these friends, these interests—you can’t cling to them. You distanced yourself from Friday to build rapport with the rest of the group. And when the time came, you made compromises for the betterment of everyone involved. It was you who stepped up to make the life and death decisions. You passed the test on those grounds, before you ever stepped foot on the library stairs.”
“Friday,” Clara whispered. “Is she okay? Can you see her?”
“Oh, should be able to find her without too much trouble,” Winona said, and gripped her curved blade again, and seemed lost in a distant place for a few long moments.
“I can’t see her,” said Winona, relinquishing the hilt. “That’s unusual. I’ll have to do some proper hunting.”
“How unlucky,” the Director muttered. “Now. We’ll bring everyone else home. And when the next semester begins, Clara, I want to put you in an advanced track. Real missions. Real work of importance. Less time in the classroom, and more in the air. You will help lead Downing Hill into our future.”
Marketing - Testing, Testing
Is this working?
Anderson, can you hear me?
Yes, can you hear me?
Ugh. First the amplifier and now this spotty thing. No it’s lovely that it’s portable, but if it doesn’t work it’s hardly… alright, that’s better.
Yes. I wanted to extend my thanks for use of your little tracking chip. Yes, I know it wasn’t personal, but even so. That hastened things. Made us look very decent after putting Melanie back where she belongs.
Well I didn’t like her. But you’re allowed your mysteries, Anderson, as long as you keep delivering.
Obviously the Stonemaid issue is still ongoing. Desperately. Which is wonderful. We haven’t needed to work on any more collaborations; they really manage a reputation on their own. I’m thinking one more announcement from Valerie and Riot—the real one this time.
Of course they’ll ruin it. Why do you think I give them airtime? I’m working up to my crescendo, Anderson. So be ready. There’s going to be fire in the streets for a little while, and I’m going to make some room in the top floor office in Box Orion.
Yes of course, you’ll be safe.
I think you’re overstepping. Do what I tell you to do and I’ll make sure you get fed. But don’t expect to be lying around working on a Stepford husband or something; I’m going to have work for you. A new paradigm, a new focus, and we’re going to push our technology to match.
Anderson? Can you hear me?
Start by getting this dreamcaster in working order! I want this functional by tomorrow…
Story 2, Continued - The Five Stages of Decomposition
No. By all means. Continue using the power of dream for your personal messages. If that was meant for just Anderson Faust, I have bad news—you are grossly inadequate at speaking in dream. Best leave it to those who trained in the undreamt darkness with the master for a few aeons.
We return now to Clara Martin.
“You seem confused,” said the Director, with a disappointed click.
“I’m not confused,” Clara said, ground one boot into the floor—the aesthetic said hardwood; the texture said rough stone. She made a fist so tight that her nails cut into her palm. “You put us in danger. You hurt us as… a project. Like a lab experiment.”
“It sounds like you two have some things to discuss,” Winona said, rising in a gust of purple robes. “I’m going to bring your students back. Do you want them in here?”
“Upstairs is fine,” said the Director with an idle wave. “I’ll talk to them shortly.”
Winona stopped before passing Clara completely, flicked out her bony hand to produce a small copper card.
“This is yours,” Winona said, with a sparkle in her eye. “Keep a closer eye on your things, mm?”
“Why would you let her do this to us?” Clara said, snatching her card back. She glared at Winona, and was met with infuriating calm. “I could understand before you met us. But you spent weeks with us. And you still chose to hurt us.”
There was a pang of a different expression in Winona’s face, then, hidden from the Director by Winona’s scarf.
“I know a lot of things, Clara,” she whispered. “And among them, I knew that you would be alright. You can believe that. Maybe not the specifics. I’m sorry about Arnold, I really am. We are all putting ourselves back together, one piece at a time. Maybe some day, you can drop by for tea, and I’ll explain. But in the meantime, the sun is setting, and I’m going to go fetch your friends, and see if I can track down Friday for you. I have a few suspicions as to where she’s gotten off to.”
Winona was gone, then, a billow of purple fabric into the darkness that bordered the office, and Clara was alone with the cold little woman perched behind the desk.
“I could understand,” Clara said, and turned towards the table, stepped closer into the light. “If you only saw us as tools to sharpen. But Harrow is your child.”
“That does not excuse them from responsibility,” said the Director, straightening up a little. “If anything, it raises expectations.”
Fresh, Clara thought. The first state. Wounds bleeding out.
“What happened to you?” Clara said, and sat down at the desk, broom in her lap. She stared into the director’s abyssal eyes, looking for any lost trace of humanity drifting inside. “People don’t start off heartless.”
“Bleeding hearts are dying hearts, Clara,” the Director said, with a sigh. She reached out with pale fingers and plucked a peppermint from the dish, unwrapped it carefully. Her breath, Clara realized, smelled sweet like death. “Let’s take you for example. When faced with a crisis, you put aside your feelings to save everyone. In the same way, we cannot allow sentiment to interfere with our mission. Because if our mission at Downing Hill fails, there will be no more people left to care at all. Peppermint?”
Bloat. The second stage. Fetid air for an inflated sense of importance. Clara leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms.
“No thank you,” she said. “I want to ask a question. And I want you to know it’s not me trying to be rude, or prove a point or something. I mean this.”
“Please,” the Director said, and placed the peppermint in her mouth, and folded the wrapper in a neat square.
“Does the mission actually matter?” Clara said. “So much that you would hurt all these people? Your own kid? Or have you just told yourself that it’s okay so many times that you’ve started to believe it?”
“It was explained to you at the start of your time at Downing Hill that this would not be easy,” the Director said, with a little frown. She leaned forward, hands crossed beneath her small cold chin. “Are you afraid that you won’t be good enough, Clara?”
Putrefaction, Clara thought. The thoughts drained away until only a blackened husk remained.
“I am good enough,” Clara said. She felt as though each word was a chess piece placed on an unseen board. “I won this test. I can win others. But this isn’t teaching. This is cruelty.”
“I promise you,” the Director said, and Clara had never heard her so quiet, or this tone that bordered on sincerity. Her breath smelled now like sweet mint. “When you and I and the staff at Downing Hill have completed our purpose, have guaranteed the survival of the human race, you will look back on this and understand why it was so important. I cannot give you that perspective yet. But you will have it by then.”
Clara was quiet for a moment, and could find nothing in the Director’s eyes.
“You have parents, yes?” said the Director, clasping her hands and changing her gait. “Hallowed. Transformed.”
“Yes,” Clara said, taken a little aback. “Have I told you that?”
“You hoped you would find a way to help them here,” said the Director. “There was a client of ours, a Joshua Fishell. He sought the same. Unfortunately, he could not return his books on time. But we do have a record of what he checked out from our collection. I can get you that list. A side project when not in your main course of study.”
Clara understood, then. Advanced decay. Deep and all-consuming, the last traces of humanity rotted away. She was being baited. She could turn her back on Downing Hill, she could fly from Director Blackletter, she could even convince herself to leave Victoria and the rest, maybe. But could she leave her parents behind, knowing that she could have helped? Would she stay long enough to become a skeleton like the one in front of her, devoid of love or heart or understanding?
“I need to get some air,” Clara gasped. The Director simply nodded.
“You have your library card,” she said. “Take your time to think this through, Clara. Just be back in time for the start of the fall semester.”
Clara steeled herself, rose from the chair, and hiked a leg over her broom; began to ascend into the darkness.
“And Clara?” the Director’s voice echoed after her; she did not slow, did not turn back. “Well done!”
Interlude 2 - The First To Listen
This is the longest story I have told yet, dreamers, but it is not the first. I once had a very dull existence, you may remember. I watched the gates of the heavens, waited for the members of the council as they came and went, kept the darkness from creeping too close. But for centuries at a time, there would be nothing to see, and so I wandered—looked beyond the grounds. Found a little distraction in the worlds so small, rising and fading in moments, as you might observe ants crawling on a desert sidewalk.
I remember their stories fondly, dreamer, although it would be impossible for me to tell them. Their kind of life, their culture, their conflicts and manners of communication would be incomprehensible to you, and each one was different from the next. There were heartbreaks in dimensions born of living fractals, and great loves doomed on asteroid worlds where life crept between cold stones.
And later, when I laid with the one I love in a grove of starlight, I told him stories that I saw in the universe above. He was the first to hear my narration, dreamer. He was the first who cared to listen.
We go now to one who has also left her occupation behind.
Story 3 - An Unscheduled Life
Three knocks in sharp succession, and the door swung open. Brooklyn folded away her little piece of paper—a poem Marco had scrawled, so worn at the edges that it had begun to fall apart into smaller squares.
“Any news?” Brooklyn said, and looked up to the gaunt woman who was certainly her rescuer and questionably her captor. She’d first met Cindy in the back of a helicopter whirling away from Box Cassiopeia, but it had been Marco they’d been in contact with after all, and Cindy seemed not to be sure yet of Brooklyn’s intentions.
“Yes, but not from Box Cassiopeia,” said Cindy, and pushed a strand of hair back towards her ponytail. “But I think we have found a way you can help with that.”
“I’m ready,” Brooklyn said, and stood up, dusted off her skirt—she was still wearing her polite grey plaids; she had not asked about how to acquire the Stonemaid leathers. Or if she was ready, yet, to don them.
“Come with me,” Cindy nodded, and turned like an anti-aircraft turret, and departed for the door at the end of the hall. Brooklyn followed quickly—she was used to keeping up with fast bosses, given Lady Ethel’s gait.
The halls smelt of dust and rotting rubber components; the walls were painted in various bland beiges, and hung with photos of smiling wrinkled people shaking hands in front of Cessnas. She wondered if the private airport was only a Stonemaid hideaway on account of the hangar.
“Whatever I thought Stonemaid decorating would be, this wasn’t it,” Brooklyn remarked as she followed Cindy. She was unused to the quiet, and regretted her remark immediately.
“Safe house,” Cindy said. “Not a headquarters. We leave things as they are, as much as possible. When we’re gone, there’s no trace.”
“Is Boco hunting you?” said Brooklyn, following Cindy through another turn. “Beyond just the normal advertising? Until Marco told me, I didn’t know you had people on the outside…”
“If they’re not hunting us now, they will be,” Cindy said grimly, and stopped at one of the beige doors in the beige wall, and opened it. There was a brown little office inside, with walls of medals and commemorative coins and a calendar with a pontoon plane. A person in an overlarge spiked jacket sat in a wheelchair at a table, behind an array of dead equipment—some pieces that Brooklyn recognized; the shell of a Dreaming Cube, but the black wires branching from it were connected to aviator headphones and unfamiliar monitors.
“This is Danielle,” Cindy said.
“If something is broken, I didn’t do it,” Danielle said, jolting upright.
“Danielle, this is Brooklyn,” said Cindy. “Brooklyn was a personal assistant to Lady Ethel Mallory until a recent escape.”
“Whoah,” said Danielle. “Yikes. I can barely stand her voice for a minute or two—I can’t imagine listening to her all day.”
“You do get used to it,” said Brooklyn, and missed having a clipboard to hold. She stepped into the office, closer to the table. “She sounds different when she’s not on the air.”
“Here is the situation as we see it,” Cindy said, coming to the edge of the desk and spreading her hands over a few papers in neat stacks. “Botco has six targets we need to recover as quickly as possible.”
Danielle looked up at the ceiling tiles, and counted on her fingers.
“I think it’s only five,” said Danielle. “And that’s including Percy, who’s mostly a necklace right now.”
“The sixth is named Marco Torres,” said Cindy, glancing at her papers. “He was our contact in Lady Ethel’s department, and a former security captain. We believe he’s being held in Box Cassiopeia.”
Brooklyn felt a knot tighten in her chest at the mention.
“Yes,” Brooklyn added. “I don’t know where he is, though… or if he’s alive. What they’ve done to him. But I do know the Lady, and how she runs things when she doesn’t have help. I know Botco bureaucracy. And I know that without someone to manage her calendar, she’s probably in meetings 24/7 right now, which makes me think Marco might still be okay.”
“Good,” said Cindy, although her tone did not betray any excitement. “Danielle, please remind us what you’re capable of.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Danielle, and looked to Brooklyn. “I can help in a few ways. It won’t be easy, but… I can do stuff with dreams. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s from being hooked up to the Prime Dream as long as we were. But then again my brothers don’t… anyways. If our folks aren’t plugged in to a Dreaming Box, I might be able to send them messages. Let them know that we’re coming. Tell them what to do. They have to remember it once they wake up, though, and not everybody is good at that.”
“With… a Dreaming Visor, yes?” Brooklyn said, trying to follow. She could also send messages with a thought, if her glasses were in network.
“By myself,” said Danielle. “But if I’m plugged in to the Prime Dream, I can do almost anything.”
“Can you give me some examples?” Brooklyn said, held onto the edge of the table for support. Someone who could interface with dream without Anderson’s technology? It seemed impossible.
“There’s a back door,” said Danielle. “Like a control panel for everything Botco does, because you all need to operate stuff while you’re dreaming, right? And it’s like I have a master key. Because I can do anything I want. I messed up an amplifier thing. I opened all the doors in Box Andromeda. I even told the machinery to spit out my Dreaming Pod.”
“That was you?” Brooklyn said, eyes wide. Her head began to race. So many tech malfunctions still unexplained…
“Security risk numero uno, that’s me,” said Danielle, and pointed a thumb at herself.
“I think you’re exactly what we need,” Cindy said. “We connect you to the network and you can do these things?”
“I don’t want to go back to a Dreaming Pod,” Danielle said, looking down. “Or ever see a Dreaming Box again. But I will, if it will get our friends out safe. They risked that much to rescue me.”
“No need,” said Cindy, and flicked a switch on the pile of machinery on the table; a dozen red lights blinked on across the apparatus, and red eyes flickered on in the Dreaming Cube’s silver faces.
“We use these kinds of things to communicate with our people inside the Prime Dream,” Cindy said. “How we get messages to Dashiell and the others inside.”
Brooklyn stared at it—a travesty, a complete threat to Botco’s network. Still, all that machinery to do what her glasses could with a thought. But it, and the girl with the messy hair, and the woman with all the charisma of a rifle scope were the key to getting Marco back. The first steps to a new and unscheduled life.
“Alright,” Brooklyn said, and looked up at the two. “What are we waiting for? Let’s ruin the Lady’s day.”
Outro - Tests
Tests. Do you feel free from them now, dreamer? There used to be so many. Tests for language and algebra and history, an evaluation of your quality in so many metrics, capturing your worth with a few numbers and letters.
But the world of tests is gone. It lies beneath the water, and the test-takers dream of a red sun and the end of days. There is no one now who can tell you how well your life has been lived, no one who can put a grade on your existence.
You will still face challenges, dreamer. More than ever before. You will, like all life, rise to overcome them, and when the tectonic plates of time have finished crashing, you will walk on new ground. There is no requirement to pass. No standard which you must achieve to have been worthwhile or worthy. You always were, dreamer, as much as any living thing.
Placing golden stars upon your papers, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting invigilatorally for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Finders Keepers', and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!