THE LABYRINTH OF SLEEP. By Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey was born on the night before Halloween, and he’s been in love with monsters and the macabre ever since. Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, his first collection of supernatural stories, is coming soon from Evileye Books. You can find him online at: www.orringrey.com.

BEYOND THE WALL, the first moon has already risen. Kendrick stands still for awhile, getting used to the changes to air, to gravity. He can taste the last bitter dregs of the cigarette he stubbed out just before hooking up to the machine, can still smell the antiseptic tinge of the room he’s left behind, as a breeze perfumed by distant and unnamed glades carries it away.

Down below him, at the bottom of the hill, is a forest of tall, white trees and, beyond that, the beginning of the Labyrinth. He’s been here before, maybe not right here, but near enough. He’s seen this moon before, stood under its light. He’s been in that forest, even if maybe some other part of it. He’s seen the split-headed giants that live there, the doors that they build in the ground, the men with cloven hooves and the heads of dogs, the black shapes that occasionally flit in front of the moon. All of this is familiar to him, but something about the night, this night, feels different. A smell in the air, like the ozone smell before a storm. Something.

Maybe it’s because this trip is different. Not some hapless dreamer he’s riding in, this time, but another rider, another professional. McCabe, lying in a drugged coma in his hotel room. McCabe, a few milligrams of noxitol short of dead, lying there on his bed, hooked up to monitors and IVs and to the machine. McCabe, waiting somewhere in the Labyrinth for Kendrick to come in and find him, to learn why he’d gone to the needle instead of his oldest friend.

The company is paying for the hotel room now, for the monitors, and paying Kendrick double his usual rate, but this one he’d do for free. He has to know what happened, what changed. Or, the worse answer, if nothing has, if this was always what waited at the end of McCabe’s street and he’s just been blind to it until now.

One way or the other, he has to know, and so, he starts down the hill, toward the Labyrinth.

 ? ? ?

It probably started with the drugs, the new kinds of sleep aids to help a world full of light and motion find the time to dream. But it was the machine that ultimately did the job, that brought the wall of sleep crashing down. And what we found on the other side wasn’t what we had expected, not at all. Not a changing jungle of Freudian symbols, not personal, not subjective. An actual place: the Labyrinth and the lands that surrounded it.

It took the machine to find it. The dreamers themselves never remembered, somehow, that they all went to the same place. On their trips back to consciousness, the details of the dream world were lost, their minds replacing them with the minutiae of their memories and their own imaginations, the things that they remembered as their dreams. Always keyed to events in the Labyrinth but never identical to it.

The machine was the silver key. With it, another person, a rider, could piggyback in on the dreamer’s trip to that secret world. Not asleep, not really, and therefore, not subject to the forgetfulness that true dreaming entailed.

It became a fad, a drug, an industry. In the waking world, there were dream parlours in every mall, where you could hook into someone’s sleeping mind and take a ride to the Labyrinth. But most people were nothing more than tourists in the dreamlands, children stumbling along the turns of the Labyrinth. Kendrik and McCabe, they were professionals.

Or they had been, before McCabe tried to make himself sleep forever.

 ? ? ?

The walls of the Labyrinth are always black. Basalt, or something that can pass for it; the dreamland equivalent. They always rise up too high to scale, too high to jump. Once you’re in the Labyrinth, you’re in it, submerged, blind to anything except the next corner, and then the next.

Countless efforts have been made to map it. Kendrick has never known a professional who didn’t have at least one in-progress map tacked up somewhere. But no one has ever managed. You can’t see the Labyrinth from anywhere except the top of the hill, near the wall, and from there, it all looks the same and once you’re in it, well….

There are landmarks. Some have been seen by more than one person. He and McCabe had compared their lists late one night. They’d both seen the fountain choked with moss. They’d both seen the doorway in the middle of the courtyard, the ground on the other side of it darker than on this side, but neither of them had been brave or stupid enough to step through. Kendrick had once seen a river, miles down, that cut a roaring chasm through the midst of the Labyrinth. McCabe claimed to have found a building that looked like an abandoned mosque, with no one inside, but an altar set in the back, with some kind of mummy in an alcove behind it, one he couldn’t quite make out without getting closer than he suddenly found himself wanting to.

Some people say that the Labyrinth changes and, certainly, Kendrick has never known two pros whose maps ever really lined up. Most people have an opinion on the subject, once they’ve put a few beers in themselves at the end of the day, but Kendrick never really thought about it before. To him, the Labyrinth was what it was. It was always there, on the other side of the wall, and it was always the same, really. Even if the paths changed, its nature never did and that was enough for him.

 ? ? ?

He stands at one of the gates to the Labyrinth. All the gates he’s ever seen looked identical. No horn or ivory, just unadorned clefts in the sides of the Labyrinth. Others have tried to mark them, he knows, but the markings were always gone when they came back. Either that, or no one has ever gone to the same gate twice.

It should be impossible, what he’s doing. Going into a place that can’t be mapped to find someone who’s been lost there, already. It should be, but it never is. Something’s different about the dreamers, maybe, or about the pros. Something in how they approach the Labyrinth, or in how it approaches them, but he’s never gone in after a dreamer, never once, and not found them.

It isn’t by any conscious art that he does it, though, at the same time, he knows it’s not something everyone can do. He walks the Labyrinth as blind as if he were a dreamer, himself. No one really knows how the professionals do it, the dreamhounds, the oneiroi, as some in the industry have tried to dub them, though the name never stuck. Kendrick has this theories; all the pros do. To him, it’s all in the thinking. Dreamers don’t think while they’re in the Labyrinth, not really. They can’t. They’re caught up in the black, forgetful rivers of sleep. But the riders, those who follow them in, can think and, by thinking, by keeping their minds on their quarry, they can track them down, whether that’s by changing the turnings of the Labyrinth itself, or simply by knowing which way to turn their own steps, Kendrick doesn’t know and has never bothered to care.

Though time has no meaning here, still he knows that this is the longest he’s ever been under. Out of the corners of his eyes, he sees what might be landmarks down curving paths, but already, his feet are carrying him in another direction. He wonders how much time has passed out there in the waking world. It could be hours, minutes, days. They were prepared before he went under. IVs to feed and hydrate him, so that he could stay down, no matter how long it took.

How long will they let him stay? How long before they pull the plug, before they decide that this errand is costing more than it’s worth? He wills himself to hurry.

There are things that live in the Labyrinth. He’s always known it. Not the giants nor the dog-headed men nor any of the other things that live outside. These are different, he knows, even though he’s never seen them. He hears them, sometimes, their hopping, shuffling gait just on the other side of a wall, just a few turns away. Sometimes, in the waking world, he tries to picture them, to imagine them as he goes about his day. He always sees them as pale, eyeless things, adapted to a life lived deep underground, though, of course, the Labyrinth is always open to the perpetual twilight of the dreamlands’ sky.

When he’s here, in the Labyrinth, he tries not to think of them at all, because he believes that thinking here has power. Even now, as he hears them behind him, he tries to think only of putting the next foot in front of him, then the next. Of going faster, not of why. Even when they sound like they are right behind him, just around the next turn, not even that far. That if he turned his head, he would see them, see them at last as they are and not as he imagines. Even then, he keeps his eyes forward, keeps his thoughts only on McCabe, McCabe, McCabe.

And then he turns a corner and he’s somewhere he’s never been before. Normally, in the Labyrinth, he can’t say that, not with certainty. Most of it looks the same, excepting the occasional landmarks. But this is something else entirely. More than a landmark. This is the landmark. He knows it without even having to look around, knows even before his mind has processed what he’s seen, knows with the faultless logic that is sometimes the province of the dreamlands, that this is the center of the Labyrinth.

The things behind him are forgotten and, as if they are driven back by some invisible barrier, or as if it really has been his attention, however indirect, that held them here, the sounds of their pursuit cease. Or was it ever really pursuit? Were they herding him here?

What would he call the structure that he sees before him, this extruded building of green stone, with its soaring towers and many gaping windows, if he saw it in the waking world? A castle, a tower, a house?

There have been countless attempts to map the Labyrinth and even more to explain it. Is it the first step of an afterlife, a tiny taste of death that we get each night when we close our eyes? Is it a representation of something from the collective unconscious, an enormous symbol housed in all our psyches? Is it literally just the maze of our own neurons? These were things Kendrick never thought about, not outside the Labyrinth and certainly not within it, but he thinks about them now.

What does it mean, this structure? No map of the Labyrinth has ever found its center. No rider, no dream hound has ever come this far and returned, at least, not that he’s ever heard of. In the mind of every sleeping man and woman, a maze, and in the centre of the maze, this place. And inside this building, he knows with that same faultless logic, McCabe.

Without hesitating any further, he goes through the front door.

 ? ? ?

Inside, the house is like a castle, though strangely sparse and unfurnished. There are no guttering torches in sconces on the wall, but it isn’t dark, either. The green stone seems to provide its own illumination.

When he passes windows and looks outside, what he sees isn’t the Labyrinth and that doesn’t surprise him. Out one window, massive storm clouds gather into an anvil-shaped thunderhead, crackling with multihued lightning. Out another, he looks down upon a misty valley, where golden statues nestled in peaks watch some kind of gladiatorial game on the distant floor below.

He walks here as he walked in the Labyrinth, one foot in front of the other, keeping his mind focused always on McCabe. This house isn’t separate from the Labyrinth, he knows. It’s part of it, maybe the greatest part, and here, more than ever, he must be very careful.

He tries to clear his mind of expectations, and so, he is surprised when he suddenly stops walking. He’s standing in the doorway to a room. At first glance, it’s not different than any of the other rooms he’s passed, but then it is. It’s furnished, with a fireplace and a single, high-backed chair, and the window in the far wall is covered with a thick, velvet curtain. Kendrick stands in the doorway for a long moment, holding his breath, and then he steps inside.

“McCabe,” he says, because he knows that McCabe is sitting in the chair, turned away from him, facing the window. He knows in the same way he’s known all along which way to turn his feet to find this place.

There’s no answer, not right away. Instead, the figure in the chair stands slowly and turns to face him.

In the waking world, Kendrick isn’t a handsome man. He was, once, when he was young, but a poorly-healed job of plastic surgery done to repair a face mangled by a broken bottle left him much the worse for wear. In the dreamland, though, he has greater control over his features and he always looks as he did when he was a young man, the way he still sometimes sees himself in his own dreams.

Kendrick has never seen McCabe in the Labyrinth, before, and he had never thought to ask what the other man looked like here. He’s surprised to see his friend looking old, worn, tired beyond his years. His hair, which is still black in the waking world, is grey, here, and wrinkles of worry mar his eyes. He looks, Kendrick thinks without being able to stop himself, like a man who might welcome death.

“I had hoped they wouldn’t send you,” McCabe finally says, when they’re facing each other across the suddenly-small room. “Though I knew they would. And, to be honest, once I failed the job, myself, I needed them to, because I knew there was no one else I could trust.”

Kendrick hasn’t rehearsed the lines he’ll say now. He’s kept them out of his mind, just as he keeps everything out when he’s inside the Labyrinth, everything except the thought of his quarry. “Why?” he asks and he’s surprised, himself, by the notes he hears in his voice, the betrayal, the hurt.

“I’m sorry,” McCabe says. He doesn’t step forward; he stays standing by the chair and Kendrick can see the effort it takes him not to turn his eyes back toward the curtains. “I suppose I should have come to you, first, but I wanted to spare you. I see now that I couldn’t, that, no matter what I did, you’d have found your way here, sooner or later. I wish I could have, though, that there’d been a way. Now, more than ever. Now that I know what you would do for me, how far you’d go.”

Kendrick feels like he should be confused by what McCabe is saying, but it makes a strange kind of sense. McCabe learned something. Of course he did. Something that he wanted to keep secret. But men like he and Kendrick were in the business of finding secrets, of running them to the ground, even in places like this, places made of secrets. So, he tried to hide in the one place he knew that no one, not even dreamhounds, could track him: death.

“You should have told me,” Kendrick says, taking a step forward. “I could have helped. I could’ve protected you.”

McCabe shakes his head, takes a step back to match the one that Kendrick has taken forward, which makes him freeze. He’s made a mistake, he realises. He’s misunderstood something.

“I’m not protecting the secret, Kendrick,” McCabe says sadly and Kendrick can see that there are tears in his eyes, this man whom he’s seen shot, who he’s seen kill, and never seen shed a tear. “I was protecting you. But I can’t, not anymore. You’re here, now, and even if I could make you leave without explaining, without showing you, you’d come back. Again and again, until you found out. Wouldn’t you? Even if I asked you to leave it alone? Even if I asked you to walk away?”

“I’d try,” Kendrick says, softly.

“But you’d fail, yes?”

A nod.

“I know. I would, too, if our places were reversed. I’d come here, eventually, to see what it was that had taken you from me. So, I’ll show you, I will, but you have to promise me something first.”

Kendrick nods again, knowing already that he’s lost, somehow. Lost a friend and more than that. “Anything,” Kendrick says, and McCabe tells him the secret, and then he pulls down the curtains and shows him.

 ? ? ?

The men guarding the two bodies are bored. It’s been three hours since Kendrick plugged into the machine and dropped away from the waking world, and since then, they’ve had nothing to do but stand and wait. There’s nothing here to guard, not really, but their jobs depend on them staying, so they stay. The technician who monitors the readouts on the dozens of screens connected to McCabe and Kendrick is asleep in a chair. One of the guards stares out the big picture window; the other plays solitaire on his phone. Neither is prepared when Kendrick suddenly wakes up.

Normally, riders coming back from the Labyrinth are sluggish, half-drunk from the things they’ve seen, their senses still attuned to the dreamland. But Kendrick is a professional, one of the best, and he’s gotten accustomed to acclimating quickly. He’s on his feet before the machines can give their warning beep and he’s crossed the room before the guard has even looked up from his phone. Before the technician has come awake, Kendrick has the first guard’s gun out of his shoulder holster and is using it to kill the second guard, whose phone drops to the floor and shatters. The first guard tries to elbow him, but Kendrick steps back, faster than he looks, and shoots the guard twice, once in the back and once in the side.

If the technician hadn’t been asleep, he might have had time to run. Might have made it as far as the door of the hotel room. But as it is, by the time he’s gathered his wits enough to be afraid, Kendrick is already standing over him, his finger already squeezing the trigger. Then he walks over to McCabe and begins unplugging machines. McCabe will die on his own, given time, without the machines to keep him alive, but there will already be more men coming and neither of them has that much time. Kendrick touches his friend’s cheek, puts the gun under his chin, and pulls the trigger.

The door of the hotel room is already locked, but he pushes a chair under the handle to slow the men who’ll be coming to break it down. Then he walks over to the window and looks out and down, down all those many stories to the street below. He could do for himself the same way he did for McCabe and he will, if he has to, but he wants a few more minutes, first. He can hear the men out in the hallway, already, hear their muffled shouts and the banging on the door. It won’t be long until they’re inside. He looks down at the gun in his hand.

Three shots are enough to shatter the window and then he steps out. For a moment, he’s flying, flying as he sometimes does in his own dreams, and then he stops dreaming for good.

 ? ? ?

“We’re so goddamned arrogant,” McCabe had said in that room, in the heart of the Labyrinth. “We think we’re the masters of this place, the makers of it, that it sits out here for our entertainment, our enlightenment, our edification. But we’re fools and we’re wrong. That’s the secret, Kendrick, just that.

“Look at this place. Look around. It doesn’t seem familiar, does it? This isn’t something we made with our thoughts, our wishes, our prayers. This place is a dream, of course it is; what else could it be? But it’s not our dream.” And here, he had pulled down the curtain, torn it from the wall, and Kendrick had felt himself carried to the window to look out across a vast expanse, like an alien planet, with hillocks that darted at the movement of the eyes beneath, and vistas that rose and fell with gigantic breath. He had seen the great, dreaming, cyclopean thing and he had finally understood.

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