“I’m not chickening out,” Alix said.
She pulled the glove up over her elbow. The elastic band inside was sticky, and it bit into her upper arm. But its satin was smooth against her skin.
“Didn’t say you were, but….” Svelen shrugged, and fidgeted with the goggles on his lap. “It’s not the end of the world if you don’t practice now.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Alix breathed out, and pulled the other glove on. The fingers crumpled and flexed. “The sooner I learn how to dreamrun, the sooner your boy can rest easy.”
“He’s not my boy-”
“Will you two shut up,” Nvara groaned.
Alix glanced over at her.
Nvara lay on the bottom bunk of the left-most bed, wrapped in a sheet so patched that it was nearly a quilt. She squinted up at Alix through a curtain of hair.
“Sorry, Nvara. I thought the pills would have kicked in by now,” Svelen said.
“Well, they ain’t. So vexxin’ can it already.” Nvara pulled the sheet up over her face and curled up into a ball.
Alix pinched the bridge of her nose with her ungloved hand.
“Maybe we should go into the other room,” she said.
Svelen nodded, and opened the door.
It was late morning, but the main room of the rat runners’ bunker looked much the same at ten o’clock as it did at twenty. Daylight couldn’t come this far underground. The only real difference was that the fire in the barrel in the centre of the room had burnt to coals, and the radio on a pile of boxes in the corner let out faint music instead of static.
“You’re sure you’re ready for this?” Svelen said.
“Positive.” She folded her arms. “Why are you giving me such a hard time?”
“This isn’t ‘a hard time’, Alix.” Svelen sighed. “You’ve seen me give you a hard time.”
“Fair, but- you’re goin’ all mother hen. ‘Are you sure you wanna do this? Are you really sure? Really? Can I quote you on that? Get that in black and white for the Snvitla?'” Alix sighed.
“If I wanted to be sure of somethin’, I’d ask the Snvitla to not print it,” Svelen said. “They never write anything but propaganda.”
“You know what I mean, Svelen! I know what I want, for Vari’s sake!”
“Fucking right, I’m shouting! Don’t you get it-”
“You’re shouting, and you’re gonna wake up Nvara.”
Alix pinched the bridge of her nose again.
“Svelen. You said Mama could be alive.”
“What’s that have to do with this?” Svelen’s voice always got squeaky when he was upset, but it was reaching the point that only mice could hear. “I told you, it was a really lousy ditto copy, I could barely read it, I made out her name and the date-”
“Which is why I need to learn to dreamrun!” Alix threw up her hands.
“If we can go into dreams- can’t you pull memories out of people’s heads? Information? I could find out for sure. And then we could rescue her.”
“And I want to do that!” Svelen’s shoulders hunched up. “I want to help you do that.”
“So why are you trying to stop me?” she said.
“I’m not. I’d be crazy to fight you on this. I’m just worried about you.”
Silence hung in the air. Even the radio signal had faded almost to nothingness. Svelen stayed hunched over, clenching the band of the goggles in his fist. Alix glanced back at the door- if Nvara was still awake, she wasn’t saying a word.
“…are you mad at me?” Svelen asked.
Alix bit her lip.
“I’m not mad.” She breathed out, long and slow. “Not at you.”
He relaxed, some, but his gaze still reminded Alix of a hunted rabbit’s.
“You said it yourself, Sve,” she said. “This isn’t the end of the world. It’s a practice run. You don’t gotta worry about me this much.”
“…Don’t be so sure about that.”
Svelen’s fingers knotted together, twisting the band of the goggles between them.
“What’s there to worry about?” Alix asked.
“It’s the dreamscapes. They’re scary places. Especially-“
He stopped short and hissed through his teeth.
“Especially Nvara’s?” Alix said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Were you going to?”
He looked away.
“Why do you two even keep her around?” Alix scowled.
“I didn’t mean it like that!” Svelen threw up his hands. “She doesn’t want to hurt you.”
“That’s not an answer, Sve’, and you know it.”
Alix leaned back against the wall, folding her arms.
“She hates thoughtforms,” she said. “You’re a thoughtform. Vashe’s a thoughtform, far as I can tell. She hates my guts.”
He couldn’t meet her eyes.
“So why do you keep her around? Seems like it ain’t helpin’ anyone.”
“That’s like asking me why I keep you around,” he said.
“That’s- that’s different. I’m not like that,” she said. “Not all the time. Not at you.”
“She ain’t like that all the time either.” Svelen breathed out hard. “You caught her at a bad time. Got a bad first impression.”
Outside, thunder rolled. Static fizzed the radio’s music.
“Must have been one vexin’ bad time.”
“It was. …Nvara doesn’t hate thoughtforms. Not really. She hates shapeshifters.”
Svelen held up a hand, cautiously.
“And no- no, I’m not saying you’re one, okay, don’t look at me like that.”
“Didn’t say you were.”
Alix scuffed her foot against the ground. Her toes caught the edge of the burlap rug, and crinkled it up.
“News report came on right before you came in. It was propaganda. But it set her off,” he said. “She gets all… tense when she’s like that. All brittle. Same way you do sometimes.”
His voice and his expression stayed mild. So mild that Alix got the feeling he was trying to talk her down. If it had been anyone but Svelen, she would have been annoyed. As it was… she was still annoyed, but she restrained it.
“So she doesn’t hate you.”
“No. She’s Vashe’s best friend. You really think he’d trust someone who hated his guts?”
“…From the way you talk about him, no,” Alix said.
“Well- he wouldn’t. It’s not her fault she got like that. It’s just- sometimes the inside of her head’s a bad, bad place. And it shows in her dreams. You run into stuff that, well… you don’t wanna see. But she’s the only human we’ve got to practice with.”
Alix glanced through the door. It was dark inside, so she couldn’t see much of anything, but she could hear Nvara’s breathing, soft and slow.
“So you’re not worried that I’ll fuck up. You’re worried she will.”
“Something like that.” He nodded.
“Well, I’m gonna have to learn how to do this sometime. Isn’t it better if we do it now?” she said. “She’s not riled up, I’m not riled up, and nothing’s at stake.”
“You’re right. I just- I feel like I’m puttin’ you in danger,” he said.
“Svelen? I’m putting myself in danger.” Alix grinned. “I’m just gonna need you to get me out of it.”
“Ain’t that just the way.” Svelen smiled; the corners of his eyes crinkled up. “Let’s get this over with, then. Before Nvara wakes up.”
“Thanks, Svelen.” Alix started to pull on the other glove.
“Wire me,” she said.
Svelen held the goggles up and cursed under his breath.
The goggles shone bronze, even in the dim half-light of the oil lamp. The lenses looked thin and wispy, as real as opium smoke. Thin wires hung down the sides, like the straw hair on an old shadow-play mask. Each one was capped by a thin metal circle. And – as wires tend to do when left alone- they’d tangled together like a peasant woman’s braids. He started to untangle them.
Alix pulled her hair back, took the rubber band from her wrist, and tied it into a bun. It was a little comforting, doing something so familiar.
Svelen pulled a little bottle from his pocket and screwed off the cap, smearing glue that looked like clear butter onto each of the metal circles.
“What did you call those things again?”
“The electrodes?” Svelen held up one of the circles by its wire.
“Yeah, that was it.”
Alix closed her eyes. Svelen started to work- sticking an electrode to each of her temples and one to the center of her forehead, just over the bridge of her nose. They stuck on firm, tugging at the little hairs on her cheeks and the edge of her hairline. The glue-jelly felt cold and tingly against her skin, and it smelled awful. She tried not to pull a face, though- it might make them fall off. .
The first time at anything was always the hardest, she told herself. The faster she learnt to dreamrun, the faster and easier it’d be next time, and the time after that. Soon it would just be normal. And once it was normal, she could do it with no problem, until she got what she wanted.
Svelen crept forward and opened the door. He peered around the corner, and then motioned Alix over.
“She’s out. Don’t put those on until I tell you, ai?”
“Ai.” Alix’s fingers curled around the frames. The lenses’ edges were solid under her fingertips.
She followed after him, walking quiet as a cat. Nvara was fast asleep on the bed- a splayed out mess of wild, tangled hair and long awkward limbs. Her face looked different when she slept- calmer and less guarded than Alix had ever seen her.
Alix sat down beside the bed.
“Get closer to her head,” Svelen whispered. “Helps the connection.”
She nodded, scooted forward, and tucked her knees into her chest.
“Right, Svelen said. “You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Alix said.
“On my signal, then. Three… two… one… clear.”
Alix pulled the goggles down over her eyes and slid into the dreamworld.
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