Crimson light shone in from the gargantuan window, scarlet shine from the weird scene beyond. It appeared to look out upon a massive city, a thing carved from cyclopean slabs of obsidian. No sky above. The only light shone from a thousand thousand garnet twinkles dancing within the structures.
"Not a dream," Bill Iverson said to himself again. He'd awoken a few mornings in this room, each time expecting to find it all to be a terrible nightmare. Each time he'd looked out onto that vast cityscape he felt stunned at its immensity, the impossibility of it all.
No sky. No sun. No weather. Simply midnight black and blood red, pulsing in the shadows.
Trembling, he swung his legs over the edge of the metallic, humming bunk. The bottom of it shone a cheery blue, just as it did every time he awoke. The thing looked more like a metal casket than anything else.
He shuddered at the thought.
His bare feet felt cold upon the sparse floor. In the corner, the tubes still hung from the ceiling, black as snakes. Several of them had shining silver bits curving like fangs at the tip; the wicked things frightened him.
He'd already seen them in action, after all. Every once in a while one wriggled as if awakening.
"Ow..." Bill prodded at the sore spot behind his right ear-- the tender bit he didn't remember injuring. Yesterday it'd hurt a lot worse, almost like a ring running halfway around his head.
When he prodded at it he could feel a raised edge, as if something pressed from beneath his skin.
"William Iverson." The cool voice came from behind him, near the wall with all the screens and switches. Bill spun, backing away toward the window.
"What?" His eyes went wide as he saw the figure. "How did you—"
"All is well." She stepped forward, her form dappled with shadows and scarlet light. "I'm here to help you."
Bill stopped, staring.
"You're..." he shook his head, blinking. "You're not—"
"Not what, Bill?"
"You're not Mae Rose." he peered at her. "You look like my sitter, but you aren't."
"Why would you say that?" The form folded her arms across her chest. The annoyance that flickered across her face mirrored Mae Rose exactly.
"Red." he pointed above her head, just a bit. "I see red letters of some kind."
"Dataglyphs." She smiled, exactly as Mae Rose might when he finished his math. "You can see them around my head?"
"And in your eyes," he said. "You aren't her."
"That's true, William." She nodded, seeming pleased.
"Bill," he said.
"Right." Mae Rose's smile quirked up on her face. "Bill."
"Why do you look like the sitter?" he asked. "What is all this?"
"Bill, there are Doctors who are working on you. There's something wrong inside you and they are fixing it."
"So this is all..." he gestured outside. "A dream?"
"That—" She gestured at the city behind them. "is a place called the Liminal Cortex. It's the largest metropolis on the planet."
"But..." Bill looked out the window.
"But it's easier to consider this all a dream," she confirmed. "Either way, we're going to get you fixed up."
"What's wrong with me?" Tears welled up in Bill's eyes. "I remember the forest, and there was a terrible man—"
"Your mind isn't like others, Bill." She skewed up her mouth. "You process the world in a way few ever do."
"What does that mean?"
"Complicated. It's something the doctors are fixing." She waved a hand. "You're quite lucky. Most people who have this problem die violently, or very young. But you will heal."
"So I will be okay? When can I see my mom?"
"There are things the doctors need to know. Can you help me for a moment?"
"I think so." Bill touched the sore spot behind his ear.
"Okay. You're going to hear something. Don't be afraid."
Initiating phaneric relay. The voice sounded like honey dripping down the inside of his mind. Sensory nodes online.
"What?" Bill looked up, trying to find the speaker.
"Relax, Bill." The figure who wasn't Mae Rose gave him a small smile. "You heard that?"
"I did." Bill turned in place. Around him and over his head a dark sphere flickered into existence. On its surface more of those blood-red letters flashed and faded. "What is that?"
"We have to make certain you're seeing everything correctly," she replied. "What does it look like?"
Before he could answer, the entire sphere flickered. As if he stood within a sphere of movie screens, it turned into the inside of his room.
"I'm home!" Bill smiled. He picked up the library book he'd left on his desk. Its title read TALES FROM THE SHADOWS.
"We're testing, Bill." Almost before she'd finished speaking, the sphere trembled, shifting again. It unfolded, as if constructed from thousands of tiny mirrors.
He stood within his cabin. He'd stayed at Camp Wakalla last summer, he and Tommy Rice had shared the cabin together.
It smelled of cedar, of wind. It smelled of two young boys. The book vanished from his hand.
"How are you doing this?" Bill breathed.
"The doctors needed to make certain your modular nodes were functioning," she said. "They needed to know; it's time to begin something called Crown entrainment."
"Will it—" He stopped, swallowed. "Will it hurt?"
"Yes." She stepped closer to him, her face serious. "You have never felt anything so terrible, Bill."
"Do I have to? Feel it?" Tears welled` in his eyes again. "Can I be asleep?"
"You do have to." She paused. "Immediately. But there is good as well."
"Yes, Bill." She smiled. "Once the doctors finish. You will be well. You will not hurt. You will never remember how bad it was."
"And I'll get to go home?" He looked her in the eye, trying so hard to be brave.
"Yes." She nodded, a tight smile quirking up her lips. "And it will be wonderful. Better than home has ever been before. You will have so many friends there. Your mother will take care of you."
"She never has time." Bill scowled. "She's always going to see her new friend, Chris."
"Chris Davis will no longer be part of your life, Bill. Or your mother's." She smiled, a bit wide. "His presence is a type three detriment to emotional growth and system calibrations."
"Does that mean dad will come home?"
"The father is already in the home." She paused, an unnaturally long beat. "He and the mother are very happy."
Behind her, one of the walls shifted, fading into nothingness. A violet light shone from outside the room, something coming closer.
"What?" Bill leaned closer, peering at the light. It burned in the air, a shifting polygon.
"It's time to begin entrainment, Bill." The young woman's smile stretched to the corners of her face.
The violet light shifted, burning more lavender and indigo. It sang a terrible song. Within its aura he saw shapes shifting and recombining, a cube, then a pyramid, then others he could not name.
Three dark appendages extended out from that light, reaching for him. Each had a silvery thorn glimmering at its tip.
"This will take quite some time." She paused. "Prepare yourself."
For the last time in his young life, Bill Iverson screamed.