Authors: Jody Wallace
For Natalie and her boys. The boys will never know it, but Natalie might.
Zeke crushed the letter into a ball and hurled it at the wastebasket. He wished he could have crushed the courier, but that would have been killing the messenger, and even he didn’t make a habit of that.
On the other side of the base’s Spartan common room, Rhys glanced up from the sword he was sharpening. “Did you not save money on your car insurance?”
“I’m being reinstated for mentorship.” Zeke leaned against the back of the shabby couch and sighed. A wide-screen television played a nature show quietly in the background. “Next neo that pops up in area scans is mine.”
Rhys laid the sword across his lap, his eyebrows arched in surprise. “You’re shitting me, right?”
Zeke propped his boots on the coffee table. “Wish I was.”
“Why didn’t the vigils tell us when we met to discuss the boundary adjustments?” Rhys jiggled the whetstone. “That’s not a minor decision. They had to have known.”
“Probably didn’t want to hear us argue.” He, Rhys and the other five East Coast sentries had met with Gus Bachman and Adishakti Sharma last week, two vigils from the North American headquarters of the Somnium. “While it does explain Sharma’s nosiness about my mental health, it doesn’t explain why our sainted employers are making such a fucked-up call.”
After the Harrisburg incident a year ago, Zeke figured he’d never mentor a new dreamer again. All the better. He hated that part of the job, and Harrisburg had proven he wasn’t cut out for it. He could scan the dreamsphere. He could geolocate. He could track. He could trance. He could identify signatures. He could dispatch manifestations. He could do all the crucial things dreamwalkers needed to do, even function as an orator when needed. Mentoring, however, was not his forte. Yet here he was, being shoved back into it without so much as a visit from an assessor.
What in the terra firma was HQ thinking?
“Did the vigils send any other stink bombs with the courier?” Rhys asked. HQ used Somnium messengers for certain confidential information, not trusting it to computers, the USPS, and other unsecured delivery methods.
“No, just the official boundary updates and my reinstatement.”
“With the increase in manifestations, we need mentors even worse than we need funding, but not bad enough to put you back on the roster.”
Zeke didn’t argue. It was the truth. “They’re fooling themselves. After what happened I got no business going near a neo.”
“The way it went down, everyone says could have happened to anybody,” Rhys said, watching him. “The Somnium has records of similar instances in the past. Other attacks.”
“Now it’s got one more record. Yay me.” He’d been a cocky fool a year ago, and now he had regrets, a colossal blemish on his record, and a dented brain that would never heal right. Metaphysically speaking.
“You could appeal to Global.”
“Right. I’m going to call up the Orbis and demand to speak to one of the curators.” Zeke resisted the urge to tug his hair. He didn’t like the feel of his styling product on his fingers. “If they deign to acknowledge me, all they’ll do is remind us of the Somnium’s need for mentors. Everyone’s overbooked. Every division, every area. Hell, how many disciples are you teaching right now? Three?”
Rhys always had someone on his docket. He had political aspirations in the Somnium Zeke sure as hell didn’t share.
“Four.” Rhys ticked them off on his fingers. “Charles, but he’s near graduation. Heather Greenam and Heather Edwards. I boosted Ellen—that little gal we collared in Norfolk—out of nightly rotation. The kid doesn’t take up much room, but damn it felt good to sleep alone last night.”
“Definitely not looking forward to that part,” Zeke agreed.
“Are you going to want me on the field team for your neo?” Rhys had been there for Harrisburg, and sometimes Zeke wondered if he was holding a grudge. The blowback had affected them all.
“I don’t give a shit.” Zeke shrugged. “Sit home on your ass and hold hands with the Heathers. Meanwhile, I’ll be out collecting all the hazard pay.”
Rhys grinned. “You misunderstand. I want in. Somebody’s got to keep an eye on you.”
Several other agents clomped into the common room, fresh off weapons training from the looks of them. Another of their fellow sentries, Lillian Hotchkiss, raised her eyebrows when she spotted Zeke and Rhys.
“What’s going on?” she asked immediately.
“Zeke’s been reactivated as a mentor,” Rhys told everyone.
“Christ.” Several men and women shot Zeke sympathetic, worried glances—a couple bordering on fearful. Harrisburg was fresh on everyone’s mind.
“They must have their reasons,” Lillian said. “It was Adi, right? Did she offer an explanation?”
“The vigils think I’m ready.” Zeke shrugged, a big sour ball rolling in his stomach. “It’ll be on their heads this time.”
Lillian sat next to him on the couch, close enough that he could see her crow’s feet—and her concern. “That was a fluke. That’s not going to happen again.”
“Shouldn’t have happened the first time.” His error in judgment—his failure as a mentor—had forced their team to make the most difficult decision any dreamwalkers faced, but not before people had died. They’d done the right thing in the end—cold comfort as the entire North American division of the Somnium had had to scramble to keep the incident hidden from the rest of humanity. Their media specialists were still dealing with the fallout.
“How likely is it another L5 is going to break through on your watch?” Sean asked. An orator-slash-mentor on loan from the Aussie division, he’d been assigned to the East Coast area for six months. “We’ve had an infestation of L1s and L2s, most of them blokes. That’s what you’ll get too. Don’t sweat it, mate.”
“I’m not sweating. I just don’t want to mess with disciples.” Zeke smirked at Lillian. “I don’t need the bonuses to buy cookbooks.”
She waved him off. “A girl has needs.”
“Think of the odds,” Sean encouraged. “It’s simple math.”
Zeke was thinking of Harrisburg, not numbers. The temptation to quit his job as a sentry and become a funder occurred to him, but he’d never do it. He’d been an alucinator so long he had no idea what kind of job he could land in the normal world. “Nothing about dreamwalking is simple.”
“Sean’s right, you know,” Rhys chimed in. “I’ll be the first to agree you make a shitty mentor, but you’re better than no mentor. You can handle anything up to L3, I’d say.”
“L4,” Lillian said.
“L2.” Zeke snatched his hand away from his hair again. “I’m perforated and we all know it.”
His coworkers nodded. Returned to their weapons, the television, and their discussions with enough naturalness Zeke knew their agreement wasn’t meant to humor him.
They believed he could swing it. Up to a point. They weren’t concerned.
He gave up the struggle and stuck his hand in his hair. Fisted it. The pull on his scalp soothed his anger and frustration—a habit he’d had, according to his mama, since he’d been a baby. He wasn’t happy HQ had made this decision but activating all mentors had been inevitable in the current climate. He wasn’t the only mentor who’d screwed up, and his overall stats were in the black.
As long as you measured by the number of dreamers he’d transitioned and not by the scale of devastation of his final mistake.
In all likelihood his next dreamer would be small potatoes. And the one after that, and the one after that. Two-weekers. Stable citizens. Cooperative folks relieved to know why they’d been suffering such inescapable nightmares and grateful Zeke and the Somnium could help. For a price—but a fair price, all things considered.
Nothing to rip off his scabs, skew his sense of reason, and force him to neutralize another human being who’d become closer than a friend.
One week later. Richmond, Virginia.
Margaret Louise Mackey, feet icy in wet tennis shoes, hesitated at the mouth of the shortcut she always took home from the coffee shop. Fresh snow blanketed the ground, having piled atop the old layer while she’d sipped mocha lattes and postponed bedtime. There were no footprints in the narrow alley between the townhouses, no tire tracks, and not much light except the gibbous moon.
There was nothing to fear in that darkened alley. She’d walked it every day for the past month. Growing up, she’d skipped up and down it on a regular basis.
Yet tonight terror locked her joints, dried her mouth and made her heart pound. The crisp scent of snow in the air, the painful bite of winter on her exposed skin, and the angle of that gibbous moon had all happened before.
Last night, in the nightmare.
Not her first nightmare since the funeral, but this one had been different. This one had felt real. If dreams came true—which she’d seen no proof of in her life or anyone else’s—halfway down that alley, she was going to die. Ripped to pieces by vampires straight out of the television shows she’d been glomming to keep herself awake at night.
Maggie considered returning to the sidewalk and heading for the house that way. Longer but...safer? And more pathetic. And she didn’t trust Richmond drivers in this late winter snow. In any snow. Wouldn’t take much for one of those idiots to skid onto the sidewalk and into her.
She’d lost enough family members to bad drivers lately.
A gust of wind slammed her from the side, snow swirling into her face, sticking to her hair and cutting through her fleece pants to freeze her legs. The coffee shop was a fifteen minute walk from the house and it alarmed her that she could barely feel her fingers and toes.
Much more of this and she’d be nursing frostbite in addition to insomnia, bad dreams and grief. She wanted to be safely home, tucked under the comforter on the couch, eating something junky and watching television.
The therapist had assured her grieving was necessary but she couldn’t allow her nightmares to dictate her behavior. Dreams were only that. Dreams. The brain working through its garbage and stress—a mental colonic.
With an eyeroll at her own melodrama, Maggie headed down the alley at a quick pace, her half-numb feet crunching through the pristine snow.
Zeke hated it when the dreamers were Joss Whedon fans. Based on the pixel-perfect accuracy of the vampires she’d conjured—vamps who were now attempting to eat her—this dreamer had memorized every incarnation of
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
, from the show transcripts to the books to the comics.
Cursing, he flung his knife at an oncoming vamp and whirled to stake a second. The ugly mother snarled its way up the spike before exploding into a million particles of dust. How the hell many were there? The density of the pack wasn’t a good sign.
In fact, it was very, very bad. Especially for him.
The neo they were here to collar huddled in the alley behind him, brandishing a gigantic pocketbook like a flail. Blood from a small wound at her throat trickled down her skin and stained the collar of her coat. He had to hand it to her. She had moxie. And a seriously overactive imagination that had to be harnessed before it got her and everyone else killed.
Well, at least she’d stopped screaming.
“Zeke, five o’clock!” Rhys called. The vamp with the knife sticking out of its shoulder barreled into him, knocked him down and attempted to sink jagged teeth into his neck. His vest and coat protected his torso but not his throat. He grabbed the monster’s head. Yellow, goat-like eyes gleamed in the shadows of the buildings that lined the alley.
The rest of the field team was a minute away. His arms trembled with strain and his vision tunneled as he concentrated on keeping himself whole. As many vamps as they’d had the past ten years, they should add gorgets to their field gear.
Not that they could afford it, but it was a nice fantasy.
“Shut your eyes,” commanded a female voice. The dreamer. His dreamer.
“Stay out of this!”
She didn’t. A hand clutching pepper spray appeared between him and his attacker. Desperately, Zeke shoved away the vamp right before a noxious blast hosed its wrinkly mug.
With a howl, the monster convulsed, clawing its head. Zeke rolled the other way fast. Fire bloomed all over his face anyway.