I continued bashing away at that button until at last, the page was in English. I don’t know what I expected. For some great mystery to be revealed? That being able to at least read what was written, apparently everywhere, might clue me into something the professor was keeping from me. “Backstoppers”, I muttered. The girl’s head whipped around to face me, pupils dilated. “What did you say!?”
“Backstoppers. That’s all it says, over and over. Backstoppers backstoppers backstoppers, page after page of it.” A bead of sweat formed at her hairline, then traced its way down around her nose, collecting on her upper lip. “The Backstoppers”, she whispered, face contorting in a mixture of terror and agony. “Backstoppers. Backstoppersbackstoppers. Stoppersback.”
The two men, arguing until now, suddenly took an interest in the commotion and came racing over. “What have you done, boy? What have you done?” The girl was crying now, but couldn’t stop saying it even through the tears. “I told you to give him a simpler remote”, Travigan’s superior barked at him. He looked wounded. “We don’t have any simpler than that. I hardly thought he could get into any serious trouble with it.”
Professor Travigan sighed, deep sadness in his face. He put a hand on the girl’s shoulder as she hunched over, head in her hands, rocking back and forth as she babbled. “I’m sorry dear. So, so sorry. It always destroys me when this happens, but you know what comes next. There’s no other choice”.
“Stoppersback” she frantically blubbered, reaching for the drawer. “Backstoppers. Backstoppersback. Stoppersbackstoppersback. Backstoppers.” She withdrew a pistol, stained with black sticky oil. “Backstoppersbackerstoppersbackstoppers” she cried as she reluctantly raised it to her temple. “Stoppersbackstop-”
Before I could stop her, she pulled the trigger. A startlingly loud report. Her blood and brains sprayed across the wall just under the clock, and her soon to be lifeless body slumped over on the desk. Travigan laid into me while the other fellow hung back and muttered “She knew the risks.”
“Do you have ANY IDEA what you’ve done? Any inkling at all of what went into her training, you clumsy fool? The countless years she dedicated to The Institute, just to be here as a greasemonkey? Did you even find out her name?
It was Julia. She had promise I can’t even quantify for you in a way that you’d understand. And what did you do, despite careful repeated warnings, but wander right into the minefield and get her killed! It’s all your fault, boy. All your fault.”
Killed? Surely not! But he affirmed it. “We’ve all got pacemakers. Something that works similarly anyway but for the opposite purpose, to stop the heart should it be necessary to ensure that one of us does not wake up. That what you exposed that poor girl to doesn’t leave the Manifold with us. Do you now appreciate the dangers involved?” I sensed genuine fear from him. Even from his superior. What had I stumbled onto, exactly?
“Can you destroy it?” Truly curious but also seeking to defuse their anger. “In here? Easily. It’s basic maintenance, like pruning the hedges. Otherwise it just spreads until it consumes everything. Here, watch.” He pointed his own remote at one of the apparitions and pressed play.
The faceless ghostly figure sat down at the desk, withdrew the gun from the drawer, and shot itself. Professor Travigan then pressed stop. That was it. No reversal, no repetition. It faded away, leaving only the platform, desk, wall, and clock behind.
“Of course you have to do it one by one, so it’s quite a chore. Still, a much simpler endeavor than if it were to escape the Manifold. We’d then have to track down every instance of their name in print, or spoken aloud in audio recordings or videos and destroy it all.
But they don’t make it that easy, either. Otherwise, especially in the era of internet searches, identifying every instance of their name would be trivially easy. You could have a list of all the works you need to destroy compiled in an hour or less.
So, they tie themselves to something. Attach their name to it. Something big and influential usually, that people cherish. So you cannot set out to destroy it without your whole city, country, or species allying against you.
Where I’m originally from, they used a children’s hospital. It was the last name of the guy they’d dedicated it to. In another I’ve visited, it was the name of a holy city. It’s always something you can’t destroy.
Countless have tried. Mail bombs, suicide bombings, arson. Always condemned by the media as unhinged losers out to harm the innocent. They really stack the deck against you any way they can. They have a great many powerful enemies, after all.”
As he led me to the far end of the room, I dwelled on the girl who’s life I’d accidentally destroyed. However vivid, all of this must still be a dream, so I felt torn between guilt and skepticism as to whether anybody had actually died.
I knew better than to say so in light of how they’d reacted. Whatever all of this really is, it’s under their control. I dare not provoke them under such conditions. Soon we arrived at a grand pair of wooden doors with polished brass knobs.
“This is who you’re looking for”. He handed me a photograph of a pale girl with long black hair, wearing a faded, frilly green dress. “She’s beautiful” I gasped. “Who is she?” Professor Travigan tucked the photo into my pocket with the glass orb. “Her name is Violet. At one time, a rising star in The Institute’s oneironautics division.”
I struggled to pronounce the term until he set me straight. “Oneironautics. The exploration and documentation of dreams. What you’ve been doing for many years now, with startling success for an amatuer. It’s why you were chosen. We saw your posts about the foundry. That barren, cursed place in which you’ve been trapped every night until recently.
We run a continuous automated search for mentions of keywords related to it, investigate those who post about it and delete all mentions of it thereafter. It was one of ours who tipped off your mother about the sleep study.”
I complained that it still wasn’t clear what I was meant to actually do. “Violet’s been taken hostage. Someplace even we cannot reach her. The man responsible isn’t one of ours, but he is accessible through the Manifold whenever he sleeps. Somewhere in the recesses of his unconscious mind are the coordinates and authorization codes we need to extract Violet. Her condition is stable for the time being but there’s no telling how long she’ll last.
Find Violet first. She’s under instruction to guide you to Dr. Bizen, your target. He is nowhere near as seasoned an oneironaut as either you or Violet, so between the two of you it should be possible to outsmart him. You already know how to locate orbs, and Violet will be in contact with you through your remote. Do try not to get her killed as well? Off you go.”
Click Here for Part 6!