Within its watery lair, the creature known to some as Oneiroi lurked.
Prone in its oily pool, feelers extended, senses probing the surface, it searched. It waited. It is difficult to say for how long it so waited, as the creature inhabited a realm in which time was mostly a matter of perception, and the creature was not, as a whole, all that interested in time. Time belongs to those with purpose, and the creature known as Oneiroi lacked one, or at least any purpose that could be recognized as such by any other living being. What fueled the creature, what pushed it to silently contemplate its thought-basin with such single-minded intent, was only… desire.
The scent of fear-dream was about, and the creature known as Oneiroi intended to be the first to seize it. For a while it waited. Then… a ripple in the pool. A breaking of the oily water surface. An image, a momentary glimpse of fluttering emotion, trapped in the torpor of restless slumber. The hint of a… taste, and something more. The creature known as Oneiroi was incapable of humor or true pleasure, but nonetheless it found some satisfaction in this next discovery; this prey was in the hands of those who poked in the dark, those who sought to stop it from feasting. Those it hated. The meal would be all the sweeter if the morsel was stolen straight from their hands.
Rising from the thought-basin, the creature known as Oneiroi retired to its face vault to prepare itself. The pattern of the thought-basin told it much about its potential target, and as the creature sank its many-jointed limbs into the soft clay of the face vault it began shaping itself, taking a form more suitable for the task at hand. For the creature known as Oneiroi to fulfill its desire, an emotional bonding must be facilitated with its prey, and a sense of trust established. Though the creature lacked the emotional faculties to truly understand its potential targets, it was nevertheless a cunning thing and well familiar with the behavioral patterns of prey.
The shape it took reflected this well. Feelers disappeared beneath a layer of tanned, well lined skin. Empty sight orbs replaced with warm brown eyes, made to twinkle in the light. Muscles bunched and straightened, bone and blood vessels replaced mucous and transparent membrane. The clay of the face vault transformed the chitinous visage of creature known as Oneiroi into that of a man. Not young, for youth often inspired envy or competition in others. Age demanded respect, or at least pity. Clothing simple but not threadbare. A straight posture, confident without appearing threatening. With the final, most crucial touch, the creature weaved a kindly smile into its clay face and etched it with laughter lines and crow's feet, set the eyes to a thoughtful, considering gaze. Its prey would be in a vulnerable position, and nothing would serve better in pushing it over the final edge than the illusion of kindness. The creature known as Oneiroi felt a vague sense of pride in the fullness of the illusion it had created. Soon, it would feast.
Satisfied with its new form, the creature returned to the thought-basin, sinking its feelers (now thin threads of silvery hair tumbling from a weathered brow) into its depths. The scent of the dream reflected in the basin was… intoxicating. Bitter isolation and sweet terror, the tang of vain hope and and the acid bite of claustrophobia. Everything about this fear-dream felt tailor-made to the creature's personal tastes. Though the creature known as Oneiroi was usually as cautious as a roach and would spend many days probing and feeling the mind of its would-be prey, the lure of this dream proved too much for it to resist. The creature will have it tonight, it had decided.
Gathering its essence, the creature known as Oneiroi began to fold itself inward. Skin into bone, hair into blood. With a sickening crunching sound the creature pushed itself into itself again and again, its vision growing ever more compact and focused even as it broke itself. The way into the dream-roads and the dreamer it sought permitted no physical essence. The creature's mind would have to keep it intact as it traveled. The pain of this process was beyond description and sanity, but the creature known as Oneiroi thought as its essence swirled and oozed through the narrow channels of sleep, it would all be worth it soon. What were pain and dissemination when compared to the chance at a fresh mind? Not much at all indeed. Not much at all.
The prisoner awoke to a grey landscape. He no longer wondered at this, as this was the same place his dreams took him to for the last… he no longer remembered how long. Distant mountains slashed at the overcast sky, a rough hand closing the horizons of his world with its ashen fingers. Despite the familiarity of his surroundings the prisoner cringed from them, teeth rattling in his jaw, hands shaking. This place managed to convey a sense of massive distance and overwhelming size without the airs of openness and freedom such places should have also inspired.
The prisoner sank to his knees and covered his head with his hands, willing himself not to see. The grey world of his dreams was materialized oppression, imprisonment made manifest. In that, it was little different from his waking world. He briefly wondered why his captors took such great care to subjugate his sleeping hours as well as the waking, but this thought escaped him in an instant. Though he did not know it, he was not allowed to ponder such things. For some time the prisoner could do naught but weep and pound the dry earth with his fists in a childish tantrum as he bemoaned the cruelty of his fate. The grey world accepted his cries and wails with utter indifference. The prisoner shouted vehement accusations and venomous curses at the sky and the mountains and the gritty grey earth. The world cared even less. The prisoner dug a small hole in the ground, vainly searching for a hint of moisture beneath dry surface. If the world could yawn and shrug, it would have done so. Finally, the prisoner did what he did every night prior to this one and simply began to wander in no particular direction. He did not truly expect to find anything, but it was a way to pass the time until his inevitable waking. This night, however, was different.
There was a man standing on a small grey hillock. His tall frame was robed with fabric flowing and purest white. The eyes set deeply in his kindly and weathered face were the color of moist earth, warm and comforting and twinkling with sourceless light. He was old but not frail and his posture radiated quiet confidence. The ground on which he stood was gleaming, bright gunmetal grey replacing the dull ash of the rest of the prisoner's dreamtime gaol. The prisoner could only gape as the man slowly began to descend from his vantage point. Every point of the ground touched by the strange man's bare feet was made an aurora of steel as he made his way towards the prisoner. The smile never left his face as he approached, and as he came closer to the prisoner he lifted a sinewy brown hand in greeting, as if the two were the oldest and dearest of friends. The prisoner froze in place as the man finally reached him and laid a companionable hand on his shoulder. It felt right.
"Ah, my boy. It's been too long. Too long by far."
"Ha! Loquacious and sharp as always, I see!"
"Er. I'm, I'm sorry and- who are you?"
The man frowned at this, and leaned closer to peer into the prisoner's eyes. Apparently whatever he saw there horrified him, for he shook his head and quickly leaned away.
"Oh. My poor lad. What have they done to you?" In his voice was great sadness, but not surprise. The prisoner briefly wondered at that, but his suspicion was quickly banished by the man's disarming smile. He was a friend to be trusted. Yes.
"Can you remember who you are, my boy?"
The prisoner didn't know how to reply to that. His mouth opened, but his words were swallowed by flashes of needles, of voices endlessly whispering commands through ceiling speakers, of blinding flashes of light. He stayed silent instead. The man seemed to understand anyway.
"Easy, lad. Don't stress yourself. I'm here now, no harm will come to you while I'm here."
The prisoner had no reason to believe this, but he found that he did. "Can you help me then? Can you… can you get me out of here?"
The man shook his head, his entire being sorrowful serenity. "I cannot undo this. You know I can't. Your flesh… it's beyond my grasp. For them to sink so low…" he stopped, seemingly reconsidering. "There might be something I can do, if you are willing."
"Anything! Please, anything to get out of here! The grayness, the dullness of it all, I can't take it anymore! I can't can't-,"
"Easy now. Easy. What I said before was true. I can't get you out of here. Even if I would, you'd still be at their hands. They'll just throw you right back in."
"But… you said you could-"
"What I can do, if you are willing to pay the price, is change what 'here' is."
"What do you mean?"
The man glanced at their grey surroundings for a moment, sighed, then dropped to a sitting position on the ground. He gestured the prisoner to do the same. "Look around you. What do you see?"
The prisoner frowned. "I already told you what I see. It's damn obvious what I see! Grey and grey and fucking more grey!"
The man smiled and shook his head sadly. "You see the surface of things. What they're making you see, through drugs and psychology and torture. But you do not see the actuality."
The prisoner said nothing. The man continued. "Look at the ground on which we sit. It is different from that which is around us, no?"
It was. The gleaming gunmetal which surrounded the man's footsteps earlier now spread to encompass the entire hillock. The ground was warm to the touch, almost malleable.
"What you see here is the true soil of the dream, laid bare and raw from the false grit of your captors. Observe."
The man lowered his hand to the ground and cupped a fistful of shimmering earth. Shaped between his thumb and index finger, the soil soon began to take shape. Metallic earth was worked like wet clay at a potter's wheel and was… transformed. With a final twist of his hand, the man revealed his new creation. A shining purple plum now rested in his palm. The prisoner stared at it incredulously. The man offered him the plum and the prisoner took it. It was fragrant and sour-sweet and more wonderful than anything he had tasted for months. The man took another fistful of earth from the ground and continued speaking:
"This terrain holds within it infinite possibility. Imagine what you could do if you were not imprisoned as you are. It is not only a matter of your current predicament, you see. Your prison isn't concrete or chains or people. You are trapped in flesh, in hunger and weariness, in sin. Consider what you could be if you were freed from all of those." The man's hands continued working as he spoke, shaping earth.
"Now consider no longer, remove yourself from yourself. Live in the dream and only in the dream." The man opened his hands and a bright blue bird emerged from them and took flight, "Do."
The prisoner found he had not the will to resist this notion. He didn't mind much. Taking a handful of shining dirt in hand, he drew himself open. He flew.
The creature known as Oneiroi could almost taste it now. It had not imagined it would be so easy. The captors took things too far this time, made the life of their prisoner too unbearable. To disconnect him from his reality was almost a mercy. The creature had no notion as to why the captors would wish to torment their prisoners while they were sleeping. From its knowledge of them, the captors were not usually prone to acts of senseless cruelty. Perhaps if the scent of an open and vulnerable mind was not so tantalizing, it might have wondered more. Perhaps it would have been more cautious. But it did not wonder as it shook away its human guise and pounced on the hapless prisoner, shredding his already battered and tormented being like steel shears taken to soft hide. Only as it took the first delicious bite and found the trap beneath it did it realize its mistake. By then it was far too late.
Two figures watched from behind a reinforced glass panel as the gaunt, wasted figure of the prisoner writhed and screamed. The tall dark woman and the short pale man looked impassively at the creature's futile attempt at escape.
"It is trapped. We have done it," said the woman, adjusting the thin wire spectacles on her sharp nose.
"Yes, the experiment was a complete success. It cannot leave the host body now," said the man, smoothing his slightly too white lab coat over his plump form.
"And the subject?" she asked.
"Gone, it would seem. So we expected."
"Once again we have protected the world. But at what cost?"
"No cost is too great for our mission. We secured the creature, we now contain it. We protected the world. That is all there is to say."
"This was a human being. We are turning ourselves into something less than human. Into monsters."
The man turned to the woman. Their eyes met.
"How can we be monsters if I still love you?" he asked, gazing at her blankly and seriously.
"I have told you before, I cannot love you back. I am too awfully scarred by my tragic history." she replied, equally blankly.
"We have lost so much in our duty, have we not?" Something twitched just beneath the plump man's eyelid. A smile was slowly creeping to his pale face.
The woman answered him with a smile of her own. "It has been difficult. Humanity has suffered… er. Suffered so much, yes. We must protect it. Yeah."
"Securing and containing and protecting. For the good of all. Sacrificing and such. Procedures and grimness. We have all felt the… the grimness of our fate. Hehe."
"Much and more. I know you too have felt the grim mark of tragedy on your life. Was not your sister *snrk* mauled to death by an anomalous lemur?"
"Yes, this is true. My family could not recover from this event. Indeed, my father, who too was a researcher, went on a *hehehe* blood vendetta after that day. He vowed to kill all primates of preternatural origin."
"Ah, so I recall." The woman paused, then gasped theatrically. "Wait! I did not realize this until now! Your father *pff* ahm, your father was the one to cause the Stripetail Blood Wars of 68! IT IS BECAUSE OF YOU THAT I LOST MY HUSBAND TO THOSE RACCOON MARAUDERS!"
"HE DID IT FOR US, LINDA! FOR US!"
"DON'T CALL ME LINDA, YOU-pfff hahaha! Jesus, man, your goddamn face!" laughed the woman, all traces of seriousness gone. She smacked the man heartily on the shoulder.
"Ow! Hahaha! I'm sorry, couldn't help myself anymore! Bloody Foundation, how do they keep up with this bullshit?"
"Don't ask me, man. Sounds damn exhausting to me. Think we fooled them there for a bit?"
"I dunno. Probably not. I think we were way too obvious about it, made it more of a farce than the actual thing."
"Ah well, I think it counts as a twist anyway. Make them think it was the Foundation who caught the thing then it turns out it wasn't and all that. That's the important bit, right?"
"Hrm. Not sure, actually. Could be a good idea to check."
"I guess it wouldn't hurt to bother it. It's all for the goal after all. Here, let me get to you. Hold still."
With that, the woman leaned down until her forehead touched with that of the man. As they did, a missive was passed between them, so fast that even the nigh omniscient eye of the reader could not quite see what it contained. It did catch a sense of satisfaction, however. The woman leaned back, and she and the man clasped each other's arms.
"Ah!" she said, "the Consortium Independent is happy, hehe! We have made things interesting! The readers will take note now."
"Aye, and the Consortium Independent is us!"
"We live to tell and be told another day. Pretty damn awesome as far as I'm concerned."
"Hmm. You think we can do something with that creature though? Seems like an awful waste to just flush it after all that work."
"Well, it's a wee bit purple, but we can train it, I think."
"Ooh, we can use it for a feature! It will be great for that."
"Better than great. Interesting."
The two stood silent for a moment, basking in their mutual contentment. Finally, the woman patted the man on the head. "Guess we're done here then."
With this, the two began to leave. As they did, they threw down their overly white lab coats to the floor and stepped on them with vigor. As they left the chamber and the still screaming prisoner in it, the man asked:
"Do you think they got the deal with the initials?"
"Eh. They can always just look below."