The first thing Riley noticed as they neared the bottom of the stairs was the icy chill emanating from the brightly lit area. Then she heard thrumming and pulsing sounds. When she looked around, she saw the cause, her jaw dropping open.
They stood in a large, cavernous room, which seemed larger than the gym at school. To her right were two rows of rack–mounted computers that stretched the length of the room, their cords running above them into a mass of wires that stretched to the other side of the room and attached to four large, round pods.
As Patty led her farther into the room, Riley saw that the pods weren’t whole. The front was open, containing an upright bed that contained restraints for the arms, legs and head.
Patty must have seen the alarm on Riley’s face as they neared the other end of the room because she quickly flashed a smile.
“I can only imagine how intimidating this is. It’s a lot to take in. I was so young, I have no memory of my first time down here. My parents, like most of the other parents associated with the program, brought me down here once I became a toddler. This was their daycare. Because most of our parents worked together, they’d drop us off, then go to work, sometimes for days.”
“Oh, no. There are rooms off to the sides.”
Riley looked around. “How large is this place?”
“I’m not quite sure. I know the town was built on top of it.”
“That’s a lot of computers.” Riley nodded to the rows of them.
“Yeah, well, we’re government funded, so who knows how old they are. I’m sure some of them are as old as I am. I keep telling them they could probably buy all new and it’d take up a tenth of the space.” She shrugged. “But what do I know.”
“Yeah.” Riley nodded as she tried to take it all in. Her gaze stopped on the pods. “So why isn’t Bruce in one of those?”
Patty opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, another loud voice cut through the chill of the room.
“Because that would be dangerous.”
Riley spun her head around to see a woman walking out from a door along the wall of the chamber. She had been so engrossed in looking around, she hadn’t noticed the doors along the side. There were more, but she didn’t take her eyes off the woman briskly walking toward them.
“Who is she, and why is she down here?” the woman asked, only giving Riley occasional glances while she stared daggers at Patty.
“H-Hey, Mrs. Phillips. T-This is Riley,” Patty stuttered, color quickly rising to her face.
“Okay… Why did you bring her down here? Do you want both of you locked away in a holding cell for the rest of your lives? You know you can’t bring people down here. This isn’t a game.”
She narrowed her eyes. “But what? There is no excuse for breaking protocol.”
Patty looked like a scolded dog. “But I only wanted to help Bruce,” she said in a small voice, her shoulders slumped as she looked at the floor. It was hard to see her eyes, but Riley saw the tears falling to the stone floor.
“Help? How is this little girl, who knows nothing of any of this…” She placed her hands on her hips, “unless you’ve been telling her things you shouldn’t, going to help?”
As the woman continued to yell at Patty, Riley took her in. She was a few inches shorter than Riley with long, dark hair, overly tanned skin, and dark, crimson lipstick, which did not flatter her at all. It was like the woman didn’t know how to use makeup, so she compensated by using way too much. Riley never used the stuff, fearing she’d just plaster it on and look like something out of a freak show. She had a hard time not thinking the same thing about the woman.
“She’s already been in Bruce’s dreams. I thought maybe she could get into them again.”
“Patricia, you know we can’t get to him. We’ve tried. That’s no reason to-” Mrs. Phillips stopped talking suddenly, the look of concern that had crept into her expression dropping as she realized what Patty had just said. She looked back and forth between the two girls, her eyes growing wide. “I thought you said you didn’t know who she was.”
“Then how did she find us?” Her eyes widened. “Oh no. This…” She looked around. “All this could be compromised. How-”
“No, no, it’s okay.” Patty held her hands up, trying to calm the woman, who had started backing away, shaking her head, her hand over her mouth.
“Raz told me,” Riley finally said, realizing Mrs. Phillips was ready to bolt for the door. That alone probably should have told Riley she really needed to get out of there. After all, what was going on down in the depths beneath the town that they were so worried would get exposed? Maybe this wasn’t something she wanted to get involved in, but the town was so boring otherwise. She needed something to hold her interest before she did something stupid, like try to skateboard down Deadman’s Curve again.
The woman now stood far away from the pair, studying the two of them.
“What do you mean Raz told you?”
“When I was in his dream, he told me about this place… Well, told me where I needed to go. I had no idea about this.” She looked around the room.
“It was while we were in the hospital. We shared a room. I heard him having a vicious nightmare and went over to try and wake him up. When I touched him, I was pulled into his dream where there was this dragon.”
Patty nodded, looking at the woman. “Yeah. There was a nasty dream wraith. I’ve never seen one so strong.”
“It had Raz, so Saber and I rescued him and got him out.”
Mrs. Phillips listened as they recounted what had happened, then finally interrupted with a wave of her hand.
“Did you just get him out, or did you kill the wraith?”
The girls looked at each other. Did they both not want to answer? Was that guilt they shared? Riley had just met Patty, but she felt like they knew what the other was thinking. They hadn’t killed the thing. They had just wanted to get away from it. They just wanted to save Bruce.
So… Was it their fault he wasn’t waking up? From what Riley saw on Patty’s face, she knew it was.
The woman blew out a breath. “Why did you not kill it?”
“I… We couldn’t. It was so strong, and…” Patty’s voice trailed off as she refused to meet Mrs. Phillips’ eyes.
“Bruce and I both woke up,” Riley said, her own voice soft in the large room as she thought about that creature still alive in Bruce’s head.
“Call him Raz, dear. Down here, we always go by code names. That is…” Mrs. Phillips turned her glare to Patty, “unless we need to have a serious discussion about a certain young lady’s actions that need to be dealt with.”
“It is our fault. The wraith was strong. The three of us could barely get away from it,” Patty said in a pleading voice.
“And now he’s trapped in his own head,” Mrs. Phillips finished.
“We have to go in and help him.” Riley looked past Mrs. Phillips to the room she had come out of.
“Maybe you didn’t hear the part where I said we haven’t been able to get through to him. Frankly, I don’t know what to do. Neither does my husband. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Mrs. Phillips was obviously upset, barely able to hold back the tears threatening. Something told Riley that this woman was not one who got upset easily. When she looked over at Patty, she saw how this affected her, as well.
Riley had to do something. She liked Bruce. He told her about this place, so he must trust her. Maybe he had even told her about it because he knew she could help him. It was a stretch to think that way, but what if…
She looked at them. “Let me try. Maybe I can help him.”
“Do you think you can?” Patty asked, a trace of hope slipping into her voice.
She shrugged. “I mean, I can always try.”
“I’m not saying I know anything about your dream walking, but have you done it any other time besides that once? Who’s to say it wasn’t a fluke?” Mrs. Phillips asked.
“Well, no. It’s only happened that once, but shouldn’t we at least try it?”
“What if you get in there and it’s worse than before?” Mrs. Phillips pressed her lips together, but Riley sensed she was more afraid than anything. It must be hard for her to send kids to do this dangerous stuff all the time.
“Then we fight it like we did before,” Riley said, more confidently than she felt.
Mrs. Phillips shook her head. “I can’t let you do that. Who’s to say we can get anyone else in there? There are no safety protocols. You would be alone, and we have no way to monitor you.”
“It would be risky,” Patty said, looking at one of the pods, thinking. “But… What if her going in gives us a link? Then maybe I could get in.”
“What would give you that idea?”
“Well… We had a hard time getting through last time. We thought it was a calibration issue. Maybe it was something else and the only way we got through was because…” Patty nodded at Riley, “she got us in.”
“There’s no way to know that.”
“Maybe there is,” Patty said, a smile forming on her lips.