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The Silver Dream, Page 2

Neil Gaiman

  And something wasn’t right.

  That probably seems like a pretty ridiculous statement; after all, when is anything ever right about the In-Between? It’s the essence of wrongness, entropy’s landfill. Saying there was something not right about it was like saying there was something a little scary about Lord Dogknife.

  But the feeling was unmistakable. Furthermore, it wasn’t going away.

  Jo opened her eyes then, and by the look on her face, I could tell she felt the same way.

  J/O looked accusingly at me. “Where did you take us?”

  “Hey, I didn’t take us anywhere! It was that girl,” I said. Technically, Jai was our senior officer, but after a training mission had gone awry and I’d rescued them from the clutches of HEX, most of them tended to look to me in a pinch. There are drawbacks to being even an unofficial team leader, the biggest of which is getting blamed for everything.

  “Fine, then where’d your girlfriend take us?” Jo’s voice was as accusing as J/O’s glare, and it probably didn’t help my case that I was crimson again, but I tried to protest anyway. “She’s not my—”

  Before I could finish, several members of my team gave little reactions of surprise, looking past me. I whirled as the unfamiliar voice sounded from behind me, my hands coming up in a defensive position. I know it sounds like cheesy kung fu movie stuff, but you learn to think fast in the In-Between.

  “Yes, I’d say that is rather premature,” said the mysterious girl, giving me another wink, “since we’ve only just met.”

  “Who are you?” The question was clear and strong, the voice of someone not at all intimidated—unfortunately, it was Jakon’s voice, not mine. All I’d managed to do was stutter. My tongue felt like it was tied in a Gordian knot.

  “A friend,” she answered easily, giving a little shrug of one shoulder. When I’d still been home—before my life became cluttered with Multiverses, Altiverses, and versions of me sporting fur, fangs, wings, and bionic implants—I had a wild, passionate, undying crush on a girl named Rowena. Rowena had sometimes done that artless little shrug when she was being silly or coy. I’d come to covet it, to take it as proof that I could amuse her in some way, even if all I’d said to prompt it was “That test was murder, huh?” or “Do they really expect us to run a mile in eight minutes?”

  “Not good enough,” I said. I stepped off the miniature world and onto a bright red cube the size of a steamer trunk that was busily engaged in turning itself inside out. It stabilized as soon as my shoe touched it. Gravity shifted to accommodate, and behind me the “planet” collapsed into a point and vanished. I hardly noticed. Oddly, the memory of Rowena had strengthened my resolve a bit. I’d never been able to talk to her because, really, what do you say to a girl like that when you’re just one guy in a school of hundreds? There had been nothing special about me then.

  Now, however, I was more than just a high school kid—I was a Walker. (Although, when you get right down to it, now I was essentially one guy in an army of a few hundred different versions of me, but thinking of it like that wasn’t conducive to my self-esteem right then.) “Tell me who you are, where you’ve taken us, and—”

  She looked at me with what might have been something akin to respect but was more likely just surprise that the blushing idiot was able to form sentences. Probably the latter, because instead of actually answering me, she said, “You honestly don’t recognize the In-Between?”

  “Of course I recognize—” I began, only to have her talk over me again.

  “Then that renders your second question a little superfluous, doesn’t it?”

  I kept talking, going right over her as she finished. “—but it’s not our In-Between.” As I said it, it became clearer to me that whatever was wrong about the In-Between was her doing. She was an unknown, and quite possibly an agent of either HEX or the Binary. But even so, I was inclined to trust her—and that really scared me. I couldn’t risk her finding out the way back to Base. The notion wasn’t likely; it took a specific formula to get back to InterWorld, and only Walkers knew it. She was clearly not a Walker. Yet, she’d traversed the In-Between….

  She gave me a considering glance. “You’re right. And wrong, but mostly you’re right. I’m sorry about that; I needed to make sure the Binary were off your trail.” She gave that same one-shouldered shrug and a wink. “Not to worry; it’s fixed.”

  Then that purple light enveloped us again, before we could react, and that same sense of severe dislocation, worse than anything I’d ever experienced before—

  And then we were home, back on the base that we all recognized. Everything was as it should be. We’d made it back to InterWorld.


  She was with us.



  If your principal and your sternest grandparent had a child born on the last day of summer before school starts, and that child grows up in the moment you realize you’ve been caught filching a cookie from the jar. In other words, he exists simply to remind you of all the bad things you’ve ever done, all the things you’ve ever failed at, and all the mistakes you will ever make.

  At least, that’s what it feels like. Especially when you’ve failed a mission.

  Which we had. We all stood there in his office, hardly daring to breathe as he looked at each of us in turn. Even the new girl was silent.

  “I don’t think I have to tell you again how important this mission was, or how miserably you botched it.”

  His bionic eye glittered accusingly as he talked. No one’s ever figured out what that eye is made of—some say it’s a Binary construct, some say it’s a regular glass eye magicked by HEX—but we all pretty much agree it could see into our souls.

  Part of the reason I find it so unnerving to be run through the ringer by the Old Man is that, out of everyone at Base Camp (including J/O), the Old Man looks the most like me. Except he looks like me in a few decades, a few wars, a handful of personal tragedies, and a couple of reconstructive surgeries. He’s like your conscience personified; he knows you could have done better, because he pretty much is you.

  He also has room in his cranium for amounts of data that seem to be bigger than the combined memory clouds of all the computers on any thousand different Earths.

  “I sent you to Earth FΔ986 for a very specific reason, and you returned in less than an hour, empty-handed save an unauthorized visitor.”

  I opened my mouth—why, I wasn’t sure. I still didn’t even know her name, so it’s not like I could introduce her.

  Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about it.

  “Acacia Jones,” she said confidently, though she didn’t offer her hand to the Old Man. “And don’t,” she said, before I or anyone could do any more than blink. “Ever.”

  She was looking at me, so I don’t think my response was overly paranoid. “Don’t what?”

  “Don’t call me ‘Casey,’” she said, although her devil-may-care attitude was a mite tempered in the presence of the Old Man. He could ruffle the smoothest of feathers, and his look of tolerant amusement caused her to amend her statement with “Uh, sir. Please.”

  He assured her, in the most acidic way possible (to my ears, anyway), that he never would, and then ignored her while we gave our report. Though he didn’t move, and in fact hardly seemed to even be breathing, his glare grew more and more intense as we told our story.

  The silence hung heavy in the air for a few moments after we finished, and we knew enough not to break it. At least, most of us.

  “I’m sorry, sir, but it would have wound up the same way, regardless.”

  “I’ll thank you to keep your mouth shut, young lady, and your nose where it belongs.” The Old Man turned his glare on our stowaway, who straightened up slightly under the force of it.

  “I am sorry, sir. But—”

  Sitting there quietly, not moving or raising his voice, the Old Man nevertheless managed to give the impression that a bomb had gone off ins
ide his cramped and cluttered office. Out of the corner of my eye I actually saw several of my colleagues flinch, as if seeking shelter from the incoming shrapnel. “Sorry about what, Ms. Acacia ‘don’t-call-me-Casey-on-pain-of-retribution-too-horrible-to-be-contemplated’ Jones?”

  Acacia drew herself up slightly under the Old Man’s eye, taking a breath. I expected her to start talking, but she didn’t. She just looked at him, visibly keeping hold of her nerves. After a moment the Old Man said, “Walker, you and your team are dismissed to showers and mess.” He sounded bored. He shuffled some papers on his desk, pretending not to notice as we exchanged a glance and stood there for a moment before we headed for the door, including Acacia.

  She didn’t get far. “You are not on his team, Ms. Jones. Sit.”

  I caught a glimpse of her face, full of equal parts surprise and trepidation, as she started to sit. Then the door closed behind Jai, who was the last to leave the office.

  “Did you see that?” J/O whispered once we were safely down the corridor. “She stood up to him. And won.”

  “I believe that may be an exaggeration of the events that transpired,” murmured Jai. “Though it was certainly disconcerting and unprecedented.”

  “And weird,” Josef added.

  Jai nodded. “Oh, yeah. Definitely weird.”

  There’s nothing like a shower and food after going out on a mission. The In-Between somehow makes you feel grimy, like all those sights and sounds and sensations and smells have stuck to you, like you’ve been rolling around in a preschool art class’s trash can. And plane travel is always disorienting on the stomach, so it’s usually better if you haven’t eaten a lot beforehand. Yep, there’s nothing better than a hot shower followed by some hot food, especially if you’re able to revel in the congratulations of a job well done.

  Which we weren’t, this time. But the shower and food were still good, and we were also the most popular table in the mess, since word had gotten around to everyone that we’d brought someone back from a mission.

  Someone who wasn’t one of us.

  And the fact that my entire team was now referring to the first non-redheaded J-named real person to have appeared on the base in—oh, ever—as my girlfriend was making me both very popular and very not.

  Now, it’s not that InterWorld relationships are forbidden, really. It’s just that they’re not done. Why, you ask?

  Because it’s weird.

  We’re all from different planets and dimensions and realities, sure. But we’re also all just similar enough that it would be like hooking up with your first cousin. Whom you’ve known all your life. Who looks so much like you it’s impossible to pretend you’re not related.

  Besides, we’re busy. We’ve got places to go, worlds to save, first cousins to recruit. Those of us who may have been interested in romance of some kind just don’t have time to worry about it.

  But this new girl…

  “She’s really not one of us?” someone asked for the umpteenth time, talking over someone else asking where she was from. The questions were flying like laser beams or fire-tipped arrows or plasma pods, and a dishearteningly large proportion were aimed at me.

  “Why’d you bring her here?”

  “Where’d you find her?”

  “How old is she?”

  “Where’s she from?” The questions were endless, and I couldn’t answer any of them—except one.

  “Is she really Joey’s girlfriend?”

  “No!” I said finally, loud enough to be heard over all the questions. My volume earned a temporary reprieve from the chatter long enough for me to add, “She’s not my girlfriend, I don’t even know her.”

  “Yet,” Jo offered smugly, which set off a round of laughter loud enough to wake the Binary, if it ever slept in the first place. My cheeks were burning like those of a squirrel hoarding jalapeños, and I busied myself with my vitamin-enhanced protein cake as though it were real dessert.

  My team was enjoying this far too much.

  The questions continued. Things like “Can we meet her?” and “How long is she staying?” and “Why is she here?” as well as a hundred other ones we couldn’t answer and maybe two or three we actually could. I let my team answer those, intervening only when I heard the g-word and my name (which was apparently still “Joey,” incidentally) in the same sentence, and finished my “dessert.” It was only just past lunch, but I was thinking I might have been ready for a nap. I’d been up since dawn on a world with two suns, and it had been a tiring day.

  I made my way to my quarters, discovering upon the way that, despite how it had seemed, not everyone on Base had been crowded around our table. There were a few stragglers in the hallways and, after answering several more questions with “I don’t know” and “She’s not my girlfriend,” I took to peering around corners before I actually turned them.

  The theme from Mission: Impossible kept playing in the back of my mind.

  It took me twice as long to get to my quarters that way, but at least I avoided any more questions.

  Hue met me at the door, changing from a kind of warning red to a confused beige and back again as I entered. My little mudluff friend—that’s MDLF, or multidimensional life-form for those not in the know—spent most of his time in the In-Between but occasionally liked to come find me on Base. After scaring a few of the newer locals and almost getting fragged a few times, he tended to keep to my quarters, venturing out only when I was with him.

  “What is it, Hue?” I asked tiredly. I was ready for that nap. “Did Timmy fall down the well again?”

  “You named him ‘Hue’? That’s adorable. But who’s Timmy?”

  I didn’t even bother to turn. Hue had made himself metallic, affording me a distorted view of my own reflection and that of Acacia Jones sitting behind me in my reading chair, one of my books open in her lap.

  I sighed. Would this day never end?


  From Acacia’s Journal

  Really, there are some advantages to being me.

  I got to Earth FΔ986 with perfect timing, of course. Okay, I admit it; I like to make an entrance. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of flair now and then, no matter what my brother says. Besides, a timely rescue from certain death tends to get people to trust you—at least, usually. Joseph Harker is proving to be a little more difficult than most of my clients.

  I mean, I get that he hasn’t had it easy. I’ve done the full research; I know he got a rough start at the InterWorld academy, what with his handler getting killed. That whole thing was glossed over a bit in the archives, but I can read between the lines; he Walked by accident the first time, like most of them do. Unfortunately for him, Binary and HEX were having it out on a neighboring world, so both of them caught it when he ripped through the dimensions. The Walkers may not be able to do much in stopping the war, but every little bit helps—and their powers are still useful enough to the baddies that they’ll snatch up a Walker whenever they can.

  There’s a footnote in his file that says he’s one of the more powerful Walkers we’ve seen in a while; apparently someone here gave InterWorld a heads-up, and they sent a field officer named Jay after him. Jay got him through the In-Between and a little closer to Base, though not without some snags; that’s where the log gets a little muddy. I guess he got nabbed by HEX and Jay had to recover him. He was a good officer, that one; his death really upset a lot of people on InterWorld. I take back what I said about Joseph Harker not having an easy start—that’s kind of an understatement. Not that I can really be sympathetic. I can’t even let him know he has a file with us, let alone that I’ve read it….

  He really stepped up his training, though; wanted to prove himself, I guess. I can’t really blame him—I know I was chomping at the bit to get my sea legs when I was old enough to go for my first voyage. I never got captured by a Tech, though, the way he and his team did by HEX.

  That part was pretty well documented. I don’t know if we had an Agent there
, or if we just did interviews; Agents are more reliable than firsthand accounts, but there weren’t any records of one being deployed in the travel log.

  Anyway. To the best of my knowledge—which is extensive, believe me—he’s the only Walker to have ever been booted from InterWorld. Sent him all the way back home, just because he was the only one to make it back to Base with the full story of how his team got captured. They take no chances on that boat, and if you do anything to raise suspicion even once, your name may as well be Jonah. Escaping from a trap your entire team got caught in is kind of a big deal, no matter what the truth is.

  Not that it was his fault, though. That little MDLF of his saved him—and a good thing, too, since I’m pretty sure it’s also the reason he got his memories back. I don’t know exactly how InterWorld does those brain wipes, but I’ve seen them done before. They last. His didn’t, and it was because his MDLF friend came to find him after he’d had his memory wiped of anything related to InterWorld. After that, he remembered he could Walk and single-handedly rescued his team from HEX. I was pretty impressed to read that part, I’ll admit.

  That MDLF, though…The story kind of makes me want to befriend it, too; who knows how useful it could be? There’s almost nothing about it in the archives—then again, not a whole lot is known about multidimensional life-forms in general. They’re dangerous, but we have more important things to worry about. Which is why I’m even sitting here in the first place.

  I’ve already read through Joe Harker’s entire file—at least, the part that’s not classified. Yeah, it miffs me a bit that there’s something in his file that’s classified. I mean, come on; I may be young for an Agent, but I’ve got high clearance, and the guy isn’t exactly upper deck material. Besides, I volunteered for this job; it’d be nice to know what to expect. I’m sailing blind almost as much as he is, not that I’m gonna let him know that. Heh…I have to pretend I don’t know anything about his past, which I do, and make him believe I know all about his future—which I don’t. I’m sailing into a storm, here.