Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
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Dream Assassin

by Barry Sykes

"We need you to do this for us, Morgan. We really do. I wouldn't have brought you here if I thought there was another way."

Morgan looked away from the man as she spoke. "I don't want to go back. It's not safe there anymore. It's not like it was when I was a kid. Back then it was perfect." She smiled. "Back then I had friends. But now, now it's all shadows and whispers. I can't trust anyone there. My guide told me not to go back."

Agent Mather shook his head at the girl. "Our psychoanalysts think your guide is just a manifestation of your own mind. Sort of an imaginary friend to help you do -- well, whatever it is you do. But the important thing is we don't think you're in any real danger."

"She is real," Morgan said. "I don't care what they think. And she told me I need to be careful, especially after last time." Just the thought of her last journey across the rift sent shudders through her whole body. It had been so cold then, so desolate. And someone had died. Morgan couldn't get that picture out of her head no matter how hard she tried. Someone had died, and she was the reason.

Morgan's face hardened. "I'm not going back. I don't care what you threaten me with."

The agent sighed and gave Morgan a tired look. "Do we have to go through this again? You know what we're capable of. With one flick of my pin I could have you committed. No more free time. No more visits with mom. You won't leave this facility unless I say so."

Just the thought of her mother started to bring tears to her eyes. "Please. Don't take her away again."

"Look, Morgan, I don't want to do any of those things. I just want you to do what we trained you to."

"What do you want from me?"

"We need you to locate a target for us."

"Who is it?"

"They call him La Spada, which means "the sword" in English. He's an influential gangster in Italy currently selling arms to a number of terrorist groups in Northern Africa. He was also instrumental in getting Italian troops pulled out of Syria right after the invasion. We're also pretty sure he's trying to acquire the materials necessary for a dirty nuke. All that combined makes him a top priority, I'm afraid. Unfortunately, his political connections in Italy are keeping us from getting too close to him. That's where you come in."

"So you want me to go in beyond the rift and gather information about him?"

Agent Mather gave her the kind of look her father used to when she said something nave. "We need you to go beyond the rift and eliminate him. Just like last time."

Morgan's heart sank. Just like last time, she thought. The last time was an accident. The man she'd killed was a low level con man; a computer hacker whose power beyond the rift had been weak. And even that wasn't easy. He had died fighting and screaming, and the memory of it kept Morgan awake at night.

This would be even worse. La Spada was a powerful man. And the more powerful a man was in life the more powerful his reflection would be beyond the rift. His fortress, whatever it was, would be strong. It would be like nothing she'd ever seen before.

"I can't." She pulled herself up in the chair and tried to look confident. "I'm not strong enough."

"Morgan," the man frowned, "you realize you don't really go anywhere when you cross the rift, don't you? You have the power to project your mind into someone else's. That's all. Whatever you think you see between your mind and theirs is an illusion. It's what happens to people when they experience an altered state of consciousness."

Morgan knew arguing was pointless. She'd have to do what she was told. But she knew the truth, or thought she did at least. She knew the place she traveled to was no altered state of consciousness. It was real. She also knew there were things in that place no one could possibly understand, and probably shouldn't try to.

"When do I have to go?"

"ASAP. You can take tonight to gather your thoughts, but I'm going to need you first thing in the morning."

When the meeting was over she was taken to a "comfy" one room cell where she spent the rest of the night trying to ignore the fact that she couldn't sleep. In the morning he returned and took her to an empty cafeteria for breakfast. Afterwards he escorted her through a network of cold, lifeless hallways until they reached a small sterile office at the foot of a poorly lit stairwell.

Standing next to a hospital bed was her old friend from training, Dr. Shama. He smiled casually and gestured towards the bed. "Hello, my child. Why don't you climb up on the bed and relax for me." Morgan climbed into bed and closed her eyes. Within seconds she was getting the Frankenstein treatment.

She was hooked up to more monitors than she could count. There was a headset, an IV, and every inch of her body seemed to be covered by little round sticky pads. Morgan never knew what it was all for, but it seemed like every time she did this they added a new machine.

Dr. Shama touched her wrist gently and whispered, "If it gets too difficult I want you to come out. Do you understand? We'll send the Marines instead."

"I don't think we can do that," she said, fighting back a smile.

Agent Mather cleared his throat. "Are we ready yet? We don't have all day."

"No," said Morgan. "I need to know more about him. You know, what are his likes, his dislikes, who does he love? That sort of thing. Do we have anything personal of his? Anything to make it easier to find him?"

Agent Mather handed Morgan a small photo. Staring back at her from the picture was a beautiful, young olive-skinned girl with intelligent brown eyes. "That's his daughter, Anna. She rides horses. Other than that we know he was an officer in the Italian army. He's also supposed to be a huge Greek and Roman history buff. You think any of that will help?"

"Yeah, anything to help me feel his essence." She took one last look at the picture then closed her eyes. Everything in her mind went still. No lights. No voices. No worries, nothing but a warm black field surrounding her.

And then she was falling. It was the same every time. She fell for what felt like hours, deeper and deeper into the black, so deep she could feel the silence and distance washing over her as one. She fell until she heard the distant sound of breathing; her mother's breathing, calm and rhythmic like the inside of her womb. Then she splashed into a pool of warm dark fluid.

When she awoke she was standing on a beach next to a turquoise sea. Everything in the world around her was in shades of blue. She looked down the beach and saw a portly old woman dressed like a medieval peasant hanging sheets on a clothes line. It was her guide. When the old woman looked up and saw Morgan approaching her face became grave. "You look like a giant tarantula hunting for your next meal. Tell me, girl, why have you returned here?"

"I had no choice. They sent me here against my will."

"They will not be held accountable for your crimes. You will."

Shocked by the venom in her guide's voice, Morgan began to feel the weight of her loneliness pressing down around her. There was no one to help her anymore. Not here, not back home, not anywhere. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she spoke. "I don't have a choice! They control me. They can make it so I don't see my mom again. I came to you because I don't have anywhere else to go."

"Now, now, child," her guide said as she wiped away the girl's tears. "What I tell you now is for your own good. The gods are watching you, Morgan, and they're not very pleased with what they see. Come here, let me show you something."

The old woman touched one of the sheets, it shimmered a moment, then became a mirror. "Do you remember how beautiful we all said you were as a child? Now look at yourself."

Morgan looked at the reflection and was horrified. Staring back at her was a pale gray zombie with coal black eyes. She wouldn't even have recognized the creature if not for the bright red hair. Even worse, parts of the zombie were fading away, becoming like shadows. Morgan turned away to keep from screaming.

"That's what we see now," said her guide. "For once you do harm in this realm, some part of it stays with you forever."

Morgan regained her courage and tried to think straight. "You're my conscience, that's all you are, and you've done your job. For that I thank you. But now I have to do mine."

The last bit of warmth vanished from her guide's face. "Stubborn child. If I can't stop you I will at least warn you. You misunderstand your gift, Morgan. When you're in this realm you're not just a traveler here, you're a part of it. Everything you touch in this place can also touch you, and everyone near to you. You got lucky the last time you were here. You killed that man before he figured out how much harm he could do. But this creature you're hunting for now, he won't go quietly into that gentle night, I promise you that."

Morgan surprised the old woman by hugging her. "I wish I could do what you ask. I really do. Aside from my mother, you're my best friend. But I can't. I have to do this. Please, please understand. If you don't help me I'll have to find this person all by myself. There's no other way."

The old woman turned away from Morgan to hide her own tears. She then pointed to a small wooden ship further down the beach. "That will take you where you need to go, if the sea permits."

"Thank you," Morgan said. "I won't ever forget this." She climbed into the small boat and sat down. Then, with a gentle rock, the ship began to drift slowly out to sea.

As her guide waved good bye she blew Morgan a kiss that burst into a thousand monarch butterflies. "For old time sake," said the old woman. "I fear the next time we meet I won't recognize you." Morgan tried to ignore the words as the ship drifted further and further from the shore.

This was the furthest from shore Morgan had ever been. It was calm today, but she knew that was not always the case. This sea was capable of the most horrendous storms, for this was a place where ideas and emotions clashed together like treacherous winds. One mistake here and a person could be lost forever on an ocean made of vacant thoughts or vivid memories. The price back in the real world would be insanity. Morgan closed her eyes and prayed for clear skies. The calm winds carried her away until she forgot all her worries and closed her eyes. Time was forgotten, days past while she slept under the warm sun.

When she awoke again her body was chilled to the bone. Something was wrong. She opened her eyes and saw a large black island made of shadow and smoke looming before her. And the cold, the cold was merciless. It felt like winter's ghost had reached out and grabbed a hold of her.

Terrified, she closed her eyes and tried to think of something warm, her mother, anything to make the fear go away. This isn't real, she told herself. This is all in your mind. Remember what Agent Mather told you. Nothing here can hurt you. It's all an illusion.

Strengthened by that idea, she rowed the boat into shore. No turning back now, she thought. It's now or never. Ignoring the cold, she climbed out of the boat and started up a twisting gray path that wound its way up a steep hill. As she climbed, further and further up the trail, the old fear returned. Each step began to weigh more than the last. The words of her guide nagged at her now. "Everything you touch in this place can also touch you, and anyone near to you." That can't be, thought Morgan. She's not real. None of this is real. Morgan looked down at her feet and forced them to move.

When she finally reached the top she was stunned. Standing before her was a grand coliseum made of obsidian. Her heart seemed to stop as she drew in a breath. The place was huge on a scale only dreams can be, far greater than anything the Romans or Byzantines ever built. This was the dream house of a dark soul, a soul that was both a showman and a killer, a soul Morgan should fear.

It's still not real, she told herself. It's all just a projection of his unsuspecting mind. She walked forward and stopped just before entering the massive gates. Hanging above the entrance was a great banner with the Latin words Qudentes Fortuna Iuvat written upon it in gold. Fortune favors the bold, thought Morgan. Then she wondered how many people in history had suffered at the hands of men wielding that philosophy. This man was definitely brutal, and now it was time to bring his brutality to an end.

Morgan entered the gate and walked through a long, black corridor lined on both sides by grotesque pillars painted with the faces of tormented souls. When she emerged from the hall she was standing on the sandy floor of the coliseum. Seated across the stadium upon a white marble throne was a giant Minotaur warrior, glaring at her.

Morgan looked into the stands and saw an endless sea of shadowy faces. Thousands of ghoulish shades watched the arena floor, waiting for the inevitable battle. Fear gripped her as an icy pain crept up her spine, forcing her to tremble. Stop this! She told herself. Stop this at once!

Slowly, the beast stood, grabbed its axe, and the crowd roared to life. The Minotaur let out a terrible yell and charged forward. Morgan was out of time.

What would David do? She thought, as the beast came at her. A sling appeared in her hand and she began to whirl it over her head. Closer, she thought, just a little closer. Then, just like the Bible story, she hurled a stone at the oncoming giant.

Unfortunately, unlike the Bible story, the beast swatted the stone away with the flat of its axe. Morgan dove aside just in time to avoid death. She heard the monster snarl as it sliced the empty air with its axe. Why didn't I picture a grenade? She thought. But she already knew the answer. This was his dream house and she'd have to play by his rules.

The beast turned and came right back for her, axe swinging wildly above its head. Morgan had to draw in all her strength. Weapons in this world had to be forged from ideas or emotions; the stronger the emotion, the more powerful the weapon. So she closed her eyes and tried to imagine the one person who could still infuriate her; her father. She thought about all the years he'd been away, all the things he'd done to her and her mother, everything he'd forgotten to say or do. All the rotten memories came flooding back to her like a giant crimson wave.

When she stood up again she looked like a Celtic nightmare, like Queen Boudicca reborn. Her green eyes blazed with ancient fury as her red hair flashed in the fading sun light. A giant spear appeared in her hands and she thrust it hard at the oncoming beast. Howling in pain, the Minotaur slammed into Morgan and sent her flying through the air like a lifeless doll.

The beast stopped and looked at the spear protruding from its chest. Then, with an angry grunt, it held out its arms and began to draw in shadows from every part of the arena. Morgan watched as the beast became stronger, feeding off the dark energy of the place. Apparently, anger with daddy wasn't going to be enough, not for this soul.

Morgan got up and tried to run but it was too late. The beast threw aside its axe and came at her savagely. It caught her and began to beat her ruthlessly with its fists. She fell to the ground and covered up, trying to muster the last bit of her power. She was out of time now for sure and had to think fast. Then it came to her; the photograph of the young Italian girl.

Morgan conjured up the last of her strength and changed form into the girl from the photo. Weeping, she turned over and looked up at the beast. The creature, stunned, stopped its assault and glared down at the girl. Its face contorted in horror as it staggered backward.

Morgan knew what she had to do. She leapt up, seized the end of the spear shaft, and thrust it further into the monster's body. The creature slumped forward and clutched at Morgan's shoulders for balance. Then its eyes peered into hers for the last time. She could feel its hatred burning into the darkest places of her mind. And then, Morgan thought she heard the sound of a distant car slamming on its brakes. A slow cruel smile crept over the beast's face as it let go and fell to the floor.

As it hit the ground the crowd of shades burst into applause. Blood red roses filled the air as the phantoms shrieked with amusement. Morgan's head began to swim. The images and sounds began to blur, and then she was falling.

"Wake up!" She heard the gentle voice of Dr. Shama. "Morgan, wake up. You've been out for three days. It's time to wake up."

"Is he dead?" She asked.

There was a pause and then she heard the voice of Agent Mather. "Yeah, Morgan, he's dead. He died of a massive heart attack yesterday. You did it." But there was something wrong with his voice. Something heavy seemed to hang in the air over the room.

"What's the matter?" She asked.

"Morgan, I'm sorry, but there's been an accident. Your mom wrecked her car on the way here last night. She'sshe's gone."

He kept talking but his words were soundless now. Nothing in the world mattered to Morgan anymore. She closed her eyes and tried to picture her mother's face, and saw nothing but blackness. She then tried to remember her voice, but everything was silent. She could hear nothing, nothing but the dreadful sound of distant applause.


© 2009 Barry Sykes

Bio: Barry is a former United States Marine with a Bachelors degree in Political Science. He enjoys fencing, studying ancient history, and reading speculative fiction. He lives in ST.Louis where he is slowly but surely compiling the necessary components for his first novel.

E-mail: Barry Sykes

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