Sarina is back! In Book Two of The Dreamer Chronicles…
And the unlikely 12-year old saviour of a parallel world is plagued by anxiety.
She cannot afford to miss what might be her only opportunity to fulfill her dream, and win a place at a prestigious art school in Paris. But when she experiences dizzy spells and starts blacking out, she becomes convinced she has inherited the same mental illness that confined her two great-aunts to an institution for most of their lives.
Her good friend, Nathan, is working with his new mentor, Professor Harrison, at the mind-power lab, when the Professor reveals his shocking discovery. A series of disastrous events exposes the entire world to a terrible fate—one that Nathan believes only Sarina can help avert.
But Sarina has the finals of the National Young Artists Breakthrough Competition on her mind. If Sarina does decide to help, will she be able to retain her sanity, save the world—and still make the competition by Saturday?
The Dream Killer, Episode II in The Dreamer Chronicles, is a fast-paced science-fiction thriller filled with twists and turns to keep you guessing until the very end.
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
~ 1 ~
The inky-black likeness of a malevolent eye stared down at Sarina, dominating the middle of the canvas.
She glanced at her brush, dripping black oil-paint, and back up to the eye. No doubt about it, the horrible image was all her own work.
The trouble was, she had no recollection of painting it, nor of switching from pastels to black oil paint. She’d been sketching a beautifully delicate image of a young girl smelling flowers, when she’d blacked out. And now, looking back up at the canvas from her vantage point on the floor—where she had come back to consciousness just a moment ago—the pensive figure was almost obliterated by the large, ugly eye.
She’d been looking forward to spending more time with the pastels. The idea of practising a new style of sketching had attracted her for months; a style that she hoped could give her a significant advantage in the competition finals. She’d immersed herself in the girl’s wistful personality, letting it infuse the colourful image. The picture of the young girl poured directly from her soul and onto the page. So satisfying, as it usually was when she was in full creative flow.
But at no time had she envisaged adding a large ugly eye in black oil paint. Not good.
She sighed and rubbed her eyes. Was this how it started? Moments of blackness? Mysterious things happening around you?
She tried to remember things her mother had mentioned about her great-aunt. Great-aunties actually. Both of them. Locked up in mental institutions for the rest of their lives. Her mother had found it difficult to talk about.
“Well dear,” her mother looked down and plucked at her skirt. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nowadays mental issues are more openly discussed, but …” She looked around before settling back to look at Sarina. “I just didn’t think you needed to know, that’s all.”
“That didn’t stop you involving that awful Dr Timms though did it?” Sarina had been angry with her mother for allowing her to be forcibly taken to Stratfords Mental Health Institute. Though the situation wouldn’t have been terribly easy to explain, she thought. Parallel worlds; strange powers; battling sorcerers—they probably would have thought her even more mad if she had tried to explain it.
Of course, that was all behind her now, but it had brought her family’s mental health history out into the open, and she had to admit, it wasn’t pretty. Quite distressing really, now she knew the details.
She remembered reading in her art studies about the great artists who went mad. Cut off their ears or worse. Maybe she was one of those creative types. The kind that went mad from their genius.
She shuddered and caught herself. Thoughts like this, in the middle of a composition when her focus had to be on practising for the upcoming competition and creative workshop, were definitely not useful.
Feeling the tightness in her body, she stood up and stretched, moved the ruined drawing away and placed a fresh, blank canvas on her easel. This was the part she loved. That moment when her imagination ran hot and what was inside her could flow onto the board. She breathed deeply and reached inward to check if her new-found strength was still there. It was.
She smiled and straightened, shook her head to clear away the silly train of thought and focused on the canvas.
As she usually did, she began with a soft pencil, bringing forms and shapes into being, lightly caressing the surface, willing the figure to life. After a few minutes the flower girl was almost alive on the canvas again. This time Sarina felt connected to the girl and sensed her creative mind coming alive.
A minor throbbing in her temples caused her to lift her pencil mid-stroke, pause and frown, seconds before the shooting pain bounced through her head, and she blacked out again.
When she came to, she was on the floor once more. She looked down at her hand. The pencil was still there.
She dragged her gaze away and back up to the canvas, hoping she would be wrong.
Taunting her from the canvas was another large, pencilled eye.
She forced herself to breathe. It must be true. She really was going mad. But if anyone found out, she’d never have the chance to finish what she started and make it into the final of the competition.
What she needed to do was confront her mother again and try to learn more about how the madness of her great-aunts had started. She’d have to be careful not to give anything away and show her anxiety, but one way or another, she had to know. Perhaps her last great work before she descended into the depths of insanity would win her the competition, and assure her of an invitation to join the place of her dreams; the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, just across from the Louvre.
She picked herself up, gritted her teeth and resolved to be strong. After all, wasn’t she the great Orange Witch, who had battled a powerful sorcerer and defeated a dratted bird-monster?
She wondered if Nathan would know anything about madness. Wasn’t he doing some project with the Professor about brain power? On second thoughts, best that he not know. It would only stimulate his usual scientific curiosity and the possible involvement of the Professor. No, she would have to deal with this one all by herself.
She began to erase the over-sized eye.
“But if it’s been deactivated, why do we have to wear these?” Nathan pointed to the two stainless-steel, dome-like devices on the bench.
“You can never be too careful, in my view.” The Professor stared at the wall, seemingly caught in a thought. He took a deep breath and looked at Nathan, his brow creased. “Nathan, you know as well as I do that humans have irrational fears that aren’t founded in the statistics—”
“You mean like the fear of flying?”
“Yes. As you no doubt know, someone is more likely to suffer a fatal injury crossing the road than flying.” His face resumed its usual smile. “In fact, the other day I was only reminding someone that there is a greater probability of dying from a bee sting than a plane crash. But to get back to my point, statistically I do believe the device is safe. Statistically.”
He picked up one of the sleek domed-headshields from the bench and handed it to Nathan. “But as we know, there are lies, darned lies … and statistics. Just because it isn’t very probable, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. So”—he shrugged and put on the other headshield—“I designed these. Better safe than sorry.” He leaned in to Nathan. “Of course, if you are concerned, we don’t have to do this. Just say the word.”
Nathan shook his head. “No. I mean yes. I mean … I’m not concerned, just curious.” Nonetheless, there did seem to be something out of character about the Professor’s explanation. As if he had left something unsaid. But the only way to find out more, and to have the chance to add something totally spectacular to his science scholarship application, would mean going along with the Prof. And he was pretty sure the Professor would not knowingly put anyone at risk. He held up the headshield and peered underneath. All he could see was a fine gauze of metallic material and the suspicion of densely packed microprocessors that lay behind. He turned the object in his hands looking for its source of power.
“Professor, if these are meant to protect us, how do they work? Where do they get their power?” He kept turning it, stopping every now and then to scrutinise each mirrored curve and bevel.
“Ever the curious scientist I see, Nathan!” The Professor laughed. “And please, call me Kingsley. The headshield construction can wait for now. I think we have more interesting things to explore, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir … er, Kingsley.” Hmm. That was the second time the Professor had evaded an answer. Maybe he was imagining it. Anyway, the Prof was right. They had more pressing things to explore. Like a certain mysterious machine—a particle collider. “Where do we go then? Is the machine kept in a secret underground bunker?”
Professor Kingsley Harrison grinned. “So my scare routine worked then? No, it’s not that dangerous that it needs to be in a bunker. Just well screened. In fact, it’s only across the corridor. Pop that on and we’ll check it out.” He pointed at the headshield and gestured to Nathan to put it on. “Follow me.” He turned and left the small workshop store and Nathan followed him down the corridor, where the Professor stopped outside a large white sliding door, next to which was a small keypad.
Nathan was surprised. He’d passed the door many times, but had assumed from the look of it that behind the door was a refrigerated cold-room, probably used by the bio-chemistry group for storage of specimens. “Oh, I thought this was a—”
“Refrigerated cold-room? Yes, it does resemble one. From the outside. Convenient disguise, don’t you think?” The Professor keyed in a sequence of numbers and pressed a button. The door slid open with a soft release of air, revealing a dimly-lit interior. He looked at Nathan, his eyes glinting. “Ready?”
Nathan had already let the last of his anxieties go when the door opened. When would he have another chance like this? He knew what his legendary great-great-grandfather, Nathan Rosen, would have said. Probably something like: “Try and stop me!” He grinned at the thought of his ancestral name-sake giving Einstein a piece of his mind. Now it would be his turn to be at the cutting edge of a science breakthrough. Yeah, okay, so he was only nearly thirteen. Wasn’t there that twelve-year old a few years back who had expanded on Einstein’s theories? And that dead French physicist, Pascal. Didn’t he create some new hexagram thing at age sixteen, then go on to invent the mechanical calculator at eighteen, and had numerous science theories named after him? Come to think of it, wasn’t he also the guy who kicked off the whole idea of probability theory? Well, watch out world, ‘Goldberg’s Hypothesis’ is coming to change the world as we know it.
“Nathan? Is everything okay? I hate to disturb your meditations, but for reasons of security, I can’t stand here with this door open all day.”
Nathan blinked. “Ah, yes. Sorry, Professor. Just er, caught up in the excitement of the moment actually. I finally get to see the ‘Harrison Collider’ eh?” He flashed a broad grin at the Professor, who was still holding the door aside, and he moved to walk into the darkened room.
“Shh.” The Professor’s expression was dark and he held up his hand to stop Nathan. “I think I made it quite clear that you are in my confidence. That means NOT shouting up and down the corridor.”
“Oops. Sorry Professor Harrison.”
The Professor dropped his hand and rolled his eyes. “In you go then.”
“Wow!” The light spilling in from the corridor shrank to nothing as the Professor pressed a button to close the door, leaving Nathan’s eyes adjusting to the dark. He stared at the array of screens and blinking lights. “Wow!” he said again.
The room was no bigger than a single garage. In the centre was a raised brushed-metal platform, about one metre high, on top of which was a cube-like device—about the size of a soccer ball—festooned with multi-cable connections around its perimeter, all connecting back into the platform below via computer ports.
Atop the entire structure and affixed to the black-metallic cube was a strange-looking keypad. On the left-side of the keypad one solitary orange LED blinked on and off. Slowly.
Nathan looked at the Professor in awe. “That’s it?”
The Professor nodded.
“But it’s so—”
“Small? Yes. When most people think of particle colliders, they imagine a massive, concrete-lined underground structure, kilometres-wide and packed with power generators, electronics. But that’s what happens when you study the power of the sun—you need physically big experiments”
The Professor bent down to peer at one of the arrays of LEDs on the side of the cube that Nathan hadn’t realised was there. He studied it for a moment, then nodded to himself.
He straightened and turned back to Nathan. “But when you are dealing with the mind’s power …”
“You don’t need physical space?” Nathan ventured.
The Professor smiled. “On the right track, as usual, Nathan, on the right track. Now let’s get to work. Over here, let me show you some data on the long-term stability tests.”
Stability tests eh? There’s only one reason the Prof would be running those, especially long-term. And that’s if instability was a threat. He wondered what would happen if the machine became unstable. Still, some of the greatest science breakthroughs had involved taking risks. No point being a girl about it; time to dive in, right?
Thinking about being a girl reminded him he hadn’t seen Sarina since the school holidays had started. He was sure she would have taken him to task immediately if he’d told her he was behaving like a ‘girl’. “Behaving like a ‘girl’, Nathan Goldberg”—she always used his full name when she was angry with him—“does NOT mean being a scaredy-cat. After all, wasn’t it a GIRL who saved us from disaster before? Anyway, if you really want to behave like a girl, you should wear a dress. Can I lend you one?” He could just imagine her mischievous grin as she held out a long, frilly number for him to wear. He smiled. He’d see her tomorrow, and despite the mutual teasing that usually occurred, he was looking forward to it. She’d said she would drop by on her way to some arty-malarkey retreat. He’d have to tell her about the Prof’s project of course—
“Nathan? Is everything alright. You seem to be drifting off a lot today?” The Professor was looking at him, his brawny arms folded across his chest.
Nathan awoke from his reverie. “Oh yes, nothing. I mean, I was away in my thoughts about the very idea of a ‘dream-collider’. So how stable is it, er … exactly?”
Professor Harrison turned to the terminal next to him and ran his finger across the touch screen; scrolling the figures rapidly. “Over the last six years since … since the accident, it’s been stable within acceptable parameters. There have been some spikes here and there, including a very sustained one a few weeks back, but nothing that would really affect anyone, unless”— he bent down to examine a particular row of figures on the screen, pausing the scroll to trace his finger across—“Hmm, odd.”
“What’s odd?” Nathan walked over to join the Professor and peered at the same row of figures, which meant nothing to him. He realised he’d need to do a lot more study of this machine and its function if it was going to help win him his science scholarship. He smiled as a name for his studies came to him. ‘The Goldberg Project’ did have a pretty neat ring to it.
The Professor grunted, deep in thought. “If … Hmmm. If these spikes are to be believed, then we must have had a recent rem-particle event. But that would have been reported …” He shrugged, then remembering Nathan, turned around with a smile. “It’s nothing, just an unusual spike in the numbers. Nathan, as I already said, these devices”—he tapped his headshield—“and the Faraday Cage built into this ‘cold-room’, would contain any spike. That’s why we take these precautions.”
“But I thought the collider was switched to standby mode?”
The Professors face dropped. “It is. That’s what that flashing orange LED on the side of the keypad denotes.” He pointed to the top of the machine. “What we have here, as Agent Blanchard might say, is a ‘containment situation’. We watch, monitor and investigate. This field of research is why kids like you are here in the first place, Nathan, and I’m not going to stop now. Not when we are on the verge of an incredible breakthrough. One that may well make a fundamental difference to all our lives. But safety is paramount. Especially if I’m to save us from—” He checked himself, as if he had said something he wished he hadn’t. His expression lightened, and his eyes twinkled at Nathan. “It’s just a guess, but with your own ‘dreaming skills’ and your apparent genius with maths and science, wouldn’t you want to be one of the scientists credited?”
Nathan’s jaw dropped. “You want me to be one of your …”
“Research fellows? Yes. Absolutely. I can’t think of anyone more suited.”
Nathan grabbed Harrison’s massive hand and pumped it up and down. “Thank you, Professor, I don’t know what to say! I—”
“No need to breathe a word, Nathan. In fact, I’d prefer it that way if you please. Let’s keep this between you and me—and possibly Sarina when she drops by. She’s the most advanced dreamer we’ve ever discovered, and she may be the key to uncovering the power of the collider.”
Nathan’s thoughts again went to Sarina. The Prof’s mention of Agent Blanchard reminded him of the FBI’s involvement in their recent escapade, and the Prof had just made the connection in his head to what they were doing in this very room.
“Ah, Prof … er, Kingsley, um, before, you mentioned something about a ‘rem-particle event’? What’s that? And when you said Agent Blanchard would have called it a ‘containment situation’, what would happen if it wasn’t ‘contained’, so to speak?”
“Ah, questions, questions. Always the questioner, eh, Nathan?”
Well that is the basic premise of good science, he thought, but decided to keep it to himself and waited for the Professor’s answer.
“I see that you won’t be satisfied until you have an answer. Tomorrow I’ll put your curiosity to the test and see if you can put two and two together. But for now, let me explain in brief why we need the device shielded.” The Professor sighed, and his brow creased as if remembering something painful. “If it wasn’t ‘contained’, then a possible spike could cause a rem-particle event, but suffice to say, as long as the collider is in here, and whoever is in its proximity is protected”—he gestured to their headshields—“then there is no risk.”
“Zero risk? Or just a very low probability?” Nathan frowned.
Harrison smiled. “A very, very low probability. Almost nil. And anyway, it could only possibly affect someone unprotected and even then, they would have to have an incredible sensitivity to rem-events—on a scale that we haven’t witnessed before.”
“And just to humour me, Professor, in the absolutely incredible and unlikely probability that it did happen and a rem-particle spike did affect someone, what do you think would happen? After all, sometimes planes do crash.”
The Professor looked back at Nathan with a gentle smile. “I think you are catastrophising, Nathan. To be honest, we don’t really know. Since the accident, we haven’t risked any full testing. Even at the time, it was only me, Malden and Agent Blanchard who had security access, so exposure has been limited. The reason I have taken the decision to include you now is because there comes a time when we must …” He trailed off and looked over at the collider, blinking its reassurance. “… when we must make breakthroughs; knowing that if we don’t, we remain at risk.”
Nathan wondered what they were at risk of. He took a deep breath and let it out noisily. It was about time he put his concerns to one side and acted like a proper scientist, and even though he had no idea who ‘Malden’ was, now was not the time to ask. “Okay, maybe I’m overreacting. What’s our next step then?”
“Well,” the Professor pushed up his headshield slightly and scratched his head, “what I want to do is to ever-so-slightly advance the wave-factors and then run some tests with a suitable subject.”
“What tests? And what suitable subject? You don’t mean me do you?”
“Ah. I was hoping you’d volunteer, Nathan, good man. The tests don’t mean much at this stage. We just want to confirm the interrelationship with someone with strong dream-powers. Such as yourself. And what with you being an excellent scientist anyway …” The Professor’s eyes were twinkling again.
Flattery will definitely get you places, Nathan thought. And still there was the sense that the Prof wasn’t telling him everything. “Okay. I’m in. I’ve lost count how many times scientists have been the subjects of their own experiments.” He shuddered as he remembered the old story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde where a scientist—Jekyll—experimented on himself and accidentally turned himself into an evil murderer—Mr Hyde—by night. Not a story that ended well. The thought prompted a question. “Tell me straight. When you say you ‘don’t really know’ what the side-effects of these might be, and since I’m to be a potential experimental subject, I think I deserve to know your best guess, don’t you?” He held the Professor’s gaze.
“Yes. You’re right, Nathan, you deserve that, at the very least.”
The Professor leaned back and rubbed the back of his neck. “At this point, all we’ve really seen from rem-particle spikes are black-outs in the subject. Only for a few minutes, then everything returns to normal.”
Nathan nodded. It didn’t sound so risky when you put it like that. He still had the slight tingle in the back of his neck warning him that the Professor may not have been completely straight with him. But what a machine! He looked again at the gleaming black cube. He’d have to find a way to make the project work, and at the same time, find a way to discover what the Professor wasn’t telling him. He couldn’t wait to tell Sarina about it when her saw her tomorrow. But for now, he’d spend the rest of the day getting stuck in. He grinned at the Prof.
“One guinea-pig, volunteering for duty, sir!”
Sarina was excited by the prospect of finally heading off to her art retreat, but she had one more thing to do before she set off. She had promised to visit Nathan and the Professor on the way through, and her mother had taken the opportunity to drop her off at the lab in the morning, while she went to gather supplies, drop the car back home and return by cab to pick up her up again.
Sarina stopped for a moment to gaze up at the modern building with its sleek black windows glinting in the morning sunshine, and obscuring the interior, then stepped through the automatic doors. The security guard ushered her through the security barrier and scanned her—twice—by having her step through a door-sized metal-ringed opening similar to those found at the airport. He led her to a sumptuous lounge area where she sank into a plush couch and waited. She wondered why the Professor’s lab building needed such extreme security measures, but dismissed the thought. Right now what she needed to do was forget all the palaver to do with ‘dream power’, parallel worlds, and a certain sadistic half-man, half-bird. But being back in the lab made that hard.
So instead, she thought about where she was going, immediately after catching up with Nathan and the Professor.
Her mother had arranged for the two of them to travel by train to a village a couple of hours away, where they had rented a quaint cottage overlooking green rolling hills. The best thing about it was the custom-built artist’s studio in the conservatory of the cottage. She drew in a deep breath as she thought of the serenity. A beautiful view, no TV, no radio, no internet, no mobile phone coverage; and plenty of time and space to paint. Peace and quiet. This year had been so stormy that she was really looking forward to spending some exclusive time on what she loved most. Art. She was hoping to be considered for an ‘invitation-only’ intake to the fine-arts school in Paris. She had her heart set on attending, but she would really need to hone her skills and tap into her deepest and most imaginative work, if she was to have any chance. Winning the Young Artist’s Breakthrough Competition would virtually assure her a place. Oh the glorious thought of it! Surrounded by skilful artists; inspiring mentors—and across the road, the Louvre, where she imagined she would spend dreamy hours wandering and soaking up the magnificence of the grand masters—
“I said, knock knock, anyone home?!” A familiar voice roused her from her dream-state.
“Oh! Sorry, Professor! I was day-dreaming. Miles away actually.”
The Professor smiled. “Maybe miles away, but you are in exactly the right place for day-dreaming.”
Sarina shot a dark look at the man. “Not your kind of day-dreaming, Professor.”
His eyes were doing their usual twinkling. “Really? What’s the difference?”
“When I day-dream of art, it’s …” her eyes glazed, and she looked into the distance as she reconnected with her love, “it’s beautiful and inspiring; rich and wonderful.” She pulled herself back with difficulty and looked squarely at the Professor. “It’s not conjuring parallel worlds and unleashing magic powers.”
“Fair enough, Sarina.” The Professor sighed. “You have had more than your fair share of exposure to the more extreme elements of our dream-powers, I grant you that. But all-in-all, I don’t think we are too far apart. What both you and I are trying to do amounts to the same thing: To access the deepest, most exciting creative parts of our minds. Something we still don’t know much about.”
Sarina shook her head. “I don’t think so, Professor. Since I’ve had the time to think about this—and don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate what you did to help me and Nathan—but to me, it’s like watching something exciting on TV and trying to find out what happens next by taking the TV apart. Creativity and inspiration don’t work like that. You can’t just take them apart and see how they work. If you do that, you destroy them.”
“Lecturing Professor Harrison again, are we?” Nathan walked up, grinning.
“Hi, Nathan!” Sarina stood and hugged her friend. “Yes, I was getting on my high-horse again, I think.” She looked at the Professor. “Sorry, Professor. I’m so excited at the thought of finally getting to the finals of the competition that I don’t want anything to take away from it. Coming here …” her face fell, “well, it reminds me of recent events.”
The Professor nodded. “Nothing to worry about, Sarina. Believe me, I cop a lot more flak from my so-called scientist colleagues who simply dismiss my work, so I know what it feels like to really believe in what you are doing, yet feel that no-one else understands. And, please call me Kingsley, I’ve been on about it enough. ‘Professor’ just makes me feel old.”
“You are ol—ah, I mean you are older than us,” Nathan winced at his lack of tact. “At school, we’re not supposed to call our teachers by their first name, so it’s just habit, er, Kingsley.” He turned to Sarina, who was trying not to laugh. “You’ve got your smile back at least. And you finally decided to grace us with your presence.”
Sarina poked her tongue out at him. “I already told you that I’d wait to pop by on my way to the country. The lab isn’t far from the railway station and Mum will come past and pick me up in a cab.”
“Where is your mum? A certain Agent Blanchard would be delighted to show her around, I’m sure!” Nathan grinned, then flinched when Sarina kicked his shin. “Ow! Sorry I spoke!”
“One day, Nathan Goldberg, you will tease someone too far. Mum just dropped me off here. She’s gone to get some supplies for our trip, take the car home and call the cab. She should be here in a few minutes.”
“Then, there’s no time to waste,” the Professor said, “come with us to the café and we’ll catch up. There’s someone who is absolutely busting to see you—her words not mine—so let’s go.”
The three of them headed down the corridor towards the lab’s own cafeteria and Sarina wondered who could possibly be ‘busting to meet her’. Nathan interrupted her thoughts as they walked side-by-side, following the Professor.
“So what’s this place in the country you’re going to with your Mum then? A holiday?”
“Yes and no. It will be more than a holiday really, much more. Mum’s organised a cute cottage in the country for a couple of weeks—but, Nathan, the best thing is it has a purpose-built art studio! It’s amazing! I’ll be able to paint for hours every day, no interruptions, just me and my canvas and …” She trailed off remembering the strange eye on the canvas and her blackouts. Should she confide in Nathan about her fears and the family madness? She wasn’t sure he’d even understand, or maybe he’d think she needed to see a doctor. And no way was she going to let another horrible man like Timms rummage around in her brain. No way. This art retreat was not going to be stopped for anything.
“Sarina?” Nathan’s brow creased. “You OK? I thought this place was amazing, but now you look like you’re about to head to Stratfords?”
“Bah! Don’t mention that name around me again! I hate that place. Anyway, I was only wondering if I would have enough canvases for my plans.” She forced a smile and resolved to change the subject. Nathan had just confirmed exactly why it was best to keep her concerns to herself. For now. “But that’s enough about me. What are you doing here anyway?”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “OK. Sorry I mentioned it. If there’s anything you need to talk about, then just get on the phone, or the internet, whatever.”
“Thanks. I mean it. But I forgot to tell you! You know the next best thing about this place Mum’s rented? No phone, no TV, no radio, no internet!” Sarina beamed at Nathan. “It’s perfect!”
Nathan stared at Sarina. “Yep. Perfect. Sure. My idea of a perfectly horrible holiday. How could anyone even think about not having the internet?”
Sarina stuck her tongue out at him. “You are such a geek. But you still haven’t answered my question. What exactly are you doing here?”
Nathan leaned towards her and lowered his voice. “Can’t really talk about it in the corridor. Or in public really. Wait until it’s just the two of us in private and I’ll fill you in. It’s really amazing. More than amazing. Big. I think it could be the answer to my scholarship project. I feel like great-great-grandpa Rosen is taking a personal interest in my future.” He grabbed her arm, his eyes sparkling, “Sarina, you should see this—” but he was cut off by a small ball of girl energy that rushed past the Professor and was now jumping up and down in front of Sarina.
“Yes! Yes! You came! Professor Harrison said you would! Oh goody! I’m so excited to meet you!” The dark-haired girl flung herself at Sarina and grabbed tightly.
The Professor had already stopped and turned, laughing at the scene happening behind him. “I see you’ve already introduced yourself!”
The girl disengaged from Sarina and looked up at her, solemn-faced. “Sorry, Daddy. Shall I try again?”
“I think that would be a good idea.” He laughed. “At least tell Sarina your name this time.”
The girl’s face crinkled into a smile. “I’m Lena and I’m almost six.”
“Hello, Lena.” Sarina bent down and held out her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Lena shook Sarina’s hand, and resumed her ever-so-serious expression. “I’m a Dreamer Kid too. When I dream, I meet up with all sorts of creatures. In the forest, like you did. I’ve met unicorns, heffalumps, mermaids—but they were in the sea, not the forest—a grumpy minotaur, giant birds, and I’ve also met a really funny baby-dragon, whose name I’ve forgotten”—she looked around with her lips puckered, then lit up again—“oh yes, and now I can tell all my friends that I’ve met the Orange Witch! Come on, let’s get a drink,” and she dragged Sarina past the Professor and down the corridor into the café.
Nathan looked at the Professor. “‘Daddy’? You’ve kept that well hidden.”
The Professor smiled. “Long story. I’ll tell you both when we get to the café. I’ll have to conjure something to occupy Lena elsewhere though. Somehow I think it will be hard to tear her away from ‘The Orange Witch’.”
Nathan laughed, and they walked together to join the others.
When they arrived, Sarina was in the middle of explaining something to the girl.
“It wasn’t me that came up with the name, and I’m not really a witch. It’s just a … nickname the people who lived in that place gave to me.”
“Well I like it. And don’t you lie to me, Nathan told me about your special powers.” The girl folded her arms and looked at Sarina, who laughed.
“Okay, okay! You’re right. In that world I had special magical powers.”
The girl jumped up, smiled and stamped her foot. “I knew it! I knew it! Tell me about painting the orange wall and how—”
“Lena.” The Professor put his hand gently on her shoulder. “Sarina doesn’t have much time. She’s about to leave on a painting holiday to practice her skills for a special competition. She’s dropped in to see us before she leaves, so while we chat, why don’t you run to my office and bring some of your favourite pictures you’ve drawn. Maybe she’ll have a chance to look at them on her way out—or maybe”—he whispered in her ear—“there’s one you’d like to give to her?”
Lena’s eyes widened along with her smile. “Good idea, Daddy!” and she raced off in a flurry of arms and legs.
“So,” Nathan said, sitting down next to Sarina, and gesturing to the empty lounge chair in front of them, “you were going to tell us about ‘Daddy’?” He raised an eyebrow.
The Professor sat down. “It really is a long story, one you both need to know, as it directly impacts on my research here—our research now actually.”
Sarina glanced at Nathan, who mouthed ‘Later’, and looked back at the Professor, who was looking around the café. They were the only remaining occupants. He nodded.
“Five years ago, Malden, my research partner in the labs here, and probably the genius inventor side of the partnership, had discovered a new method for tapping into rem power.”
“Rem power?” Nathan interrupted.
“Yes. I told you I would explain more today. Not long before Malden discovered this new method, he and I had finally proved the existence of a new particle. A particle not unlike the Higgs Boson particle, in that it lets us connect many different theories. Theories to do with the existence and use of creative thought. And dreams. We named the particle the ‘rem’, after R.E.M., or Rapid Eye Movement, which as you probably know is what happens to our closed eyes during dreams. We’ve kept our discovery hidden from most of the scientific community, which might make you be wonder why I’m telling you both. But I’ll get to that. For now, I need you to be sworn to secrecy with what you are about to hear. You won’t have to sign forms, but suffice to say when you hear what I have to say, you won’t want to tell anyone anyway. Agreed?”
They both nodded. It sounded so serious, Sarina thought, then she caught herself. This was Nathan’s world, not hers. She’d listen to the Professor—and yes, she’d keep his little secrets—but she had her own problems so sort out and she didn’t need any more to add to the list.
The Professor continued. “So. One night, five years ago, Ted—that’s Malden’s first name—was working late at the labs here, on a new project we’d started”—he shot a knowing look at Nathan—“when, as far as we know, he called his wife from the lab. After the accident, we were able to restore a partial recording of his side of the telephone call, and it was obvious he was very excited …” His gaze dropped and he sighed.
“An accident?” Sarina prompted.
“Yes. His wife, Maggie, arrived at the labs, I’m not sure why he wanted her here, but she had no-one else to look after their one-year old, so she brought her along.” He wiped away what looked like the start of a tear. “There was an explosion, a big one, enough to cause some local damage to neighbouring buildings, and substantial enough to destroy large areas of this one.”
He looked at both Sarina and Nathan, the pain obvious.
“When I arrived, Ted’s wife was pinned under a steel beam and the girl was next to her, unconscious. To this day, I believe Maggie had seen the beam falling and shoved the child away, but couldn’t save herself.”
“Couldn’t save herself? Couldn’t you pull the beam off her?” Sarina felt the tightness in her throat.
“I’m afraid not, though goodness knows I tried.” He grimaced. “It’s one reason why I resolved to build up my body strength.” He looked down at his muscular arms. “Back then I was a typical geeky weakling. No way could I move that beam. I remember her eyes looking into mine as she faded away. ‘Take care of Lena,’ was the last thing she said.” He blinked rapidly and straightened, his expression set firm.
“Does she? …” Sarina couldn’t quite finish the sentence, her throat was too choked.
The Professor nodded. “Yes. Now she does. Well as much as a six-year old can. I told her that her mummy had asked me to be her daddy from now on, and she’s accepted that. Actually, I think there’s more than a trace of Malden’s genius in her. I’d kept her away from my research here—which is why you’ve not met her until now—but just recently, she told me about some of her dreams. I was reluctant to involve her at all, but it turns out she’s one of the most powerful and imaginative Dreamer Kids we’ve come across, quite remarkable.”
He looked at Sarina and Nathan. “Nowhere near as powerful as the both of you though.” He grinned and seemed to recover. “Perhaps you understand why we’ve kept our ground-breaking discovery under wraps for now. And I don’t think I need to remind you why it wouldn’t be a good idea to share this with anyone.”
“I don’t get it.” Nathan’s brow was furrowed. “Why tell us in the first place? And why not involve a higher authority?”
Harrison nodded. “Fair point, Nathan, and one I will actually answer, for a change. We, as in me and a select few others from Agent Blanchard’s team, made a decision to keep our discoveries under wraps because”—he took a deep breath—“because if it got into the wrong hands—for example, a rival country or corporation—we think it could be dangerous. Even ‘weaponised’.”
A long, awkward silence hung over them, eventually broken by Nathan’s tense voice.
“And the answer to my first question?”
“Why tell you both? Because you may well be our best hope for an answer.” He held Nathan’s gaze.
“An answer to what?”
“I’ll tell you more tomorrow, Nathan. Right now we have a guest, who I’m sure is eager to get away to her retreat.”
Sarina couldn’t shake the image of the woman trapped and crushed by the steel beam, desperate to save her child. She spoke softly. “What happened to Professor Malden?”
The Professor’s face appeared to age and he went pale. “His body was never found. We have no idea what happened to Ted. He’s now listed as a ‘missing person.” He drew himself up. “Anyway, we may never know. Our best hope is to continue the project, tread carefully, and make sure when naturally powerful manipulators of rem-particles such as you and Nathan come along, we take you into our confidence and we search for answers. And a way to make sure this new discovery never causes anything like Malden’s accident again.”
“Is that a risk, Professor?” Nathan said.
“We’ve discussed this before, Nathan, and I believe you know my answer to that already. Great rewards are possible when one takes great risks. As long as they are properly calculated risks eh?” The Professor rubbed his hands together and stood. “Now, which of you fancies a hot chocolate from our super-amazing drink machine?”
“Me! I do!” A blur of arms and legs slid to a halt in front of them, clutching a hand-made envelope. “Here you are. I put them in a special wrapper I made! They’re my favourite two pictures!”
Sarina smiled and took the package. “Thank you, Lena. I won’t look at them now, I’ll save that for my painting holiday. I’ll take them with me, for when I need some inspiration.”
The girl beamed.
Sarina saw the girl in a different light now. Her own problems were trivial compared to the horror both the Professor and Lena had come through, and with flying colours. She resolved to be strong and fight for her own future, just as these two had. She looked at the Professor, over at the drink dispenser, already in intense discussion with Nathan. It was no mistake Nathan was involved in the Professor’s project. She supposed his great-great-grandfather would be smiling down on him right at this moment. But as much as the Professor might need her help, he’d have to wait for that.
Lena was tugging at her sleeve. “Your taxi. I think it’s here.” She pointed down the corridor to where the man in the smart black suit from reception was waving at her to come.
Sarina smiled. “Thank you, Lena. Your Daddy is right. You are a great help around here. I have to go—but thank you so much for the pictures. I’ll draw some for you while I’m away, would you like that?”
The girl nodded, still beaming, and hugged Sarina briefly and ran off to the back of the building.
Sarina, Nathan and the Professor walked to the reception foyer and the Professor stopped to face Sarina.
“Well, thank you for stopping by, Sarina. I’m glad I had the chance to shed a little more light on … our situation here, and thank you for listening. We will see you after your retreat. I hope all goes well for you, although, having seen your talented output hanging up in various buildings in town, I have no doubt you are already exactly where you need to be. Perhaps I might be better to wish you great creative inspiration, eh?” He laughed, shook Sarina’s hand and waved as he walked back into the building, stopping one more time. “Nathan. I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes, then come and join me in the cold-room. Knock if I’m already in.” He turned and walked off.
“Cold-room?” Sarina raised her eyes at Nathan. “Are you starting an ice-cream business? Or is this more of your cold-plasma nonsense?”
He grinned. “Not cold at all actually. Sarina, it’s incredible, you wouldn’t believe your eyes. There’s this amazing coll—”
She was barely aware of of Nathan’s surprised expression as everything went dark and her legs gave way underneath her.
Then nothing. Only blackness and time passing. How much time? She didn’t know, only that the ceiling lights were now swimming above her. She tried to get up and failed. Gradually her vision cleared and she saw a grim-faced Nathan kneeling next to her.
“What happened, Sarina? Please tell me it wasn’t another message from that crazy sorcerer.”
She shook her head, immediately regretting it. She sat up and put her hand on her forehead. “He’d have trouble doing anything after what we did to him, I hope. No, I think I must have had low blood sugar. Maybe I should have had a hot chocolate after all.” She managed a weak smile, hoping she had offered a plausible enough explanation for someone as inquisitive as Nathan.
He nodded, then looked outside. “Your cab is raring to go. Are you okay to walk? You’d better get something to eat quickly.”
Sarina nodded. “I’m fine now. Mum will have something for me in the taxi. I’d better go.”
The cab tooted its horn.
Sarina looked at Nathan, feeling guilty about withholding her fears; and still feeling extremely off-balance. “See you soon.” She walked out to the cab as steadily as she could, where her mother was waving to her from the window. She got in and waved once more back to Nathan, who had run outside, and was gesturing at her.
“Wait!” he shouted. “I didn’t tell you about the project! I’ll call you, OK?”
“No phone, remember?” she yelled out the window as the cab drove off.
The last thing she saw before they turned the corner was Nathan’s crestfallen face as he came to a halt.
That boy. Was there nothing more important to him than his dratted science project?
“Everything OK, Sarina?” her mother said, with a bemused look on her face.
“Oh. Yes, Mum. Everything is fine. Absolutely fine.”
Sarina turned to the window and watched the buildings go by in a blur, hoping her mother would not recognise the anxiety in her voice and the fear in her eyes. Please, let this pass. Let it not be the early onset of some horrible madness.
Nathan walked back down the corridor toward the cold room. He’d really wanted to bring Sarina up to speed on the research project, but that would have to wait. Maybe he could find out the address of the holiday cottage—that wouldn’t be too hard, for a boy of his talents—and send her a real letter. He drew himself up. Great idea. Get stuck into the Prof’s project and send Sarina a report card. She’d enjoy hearing from them, maybe give her a break from all that painting. How on earth could someone spend two weeks in somewhere with no TV, phone, internet anyway? He’d go crazy in one day, let alone two weeks.
He arrived outside the ‘cold-room’ and stopped in alarm.