Twenty-two

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Robin sat quietly at the wooden table, next to Rufus and Ramin, who were busy debating the meaning of life. Robin was only there because Harry hadn't been anywhere to be seen that morning. Ordinarily Robin would get dressed, perhaps grab some breakfast from the supply store, then accompany Harry out on whatever mission he had that day. Instead, he was still in the village, pondering what to do with his day if Harry didn't appear.

Rufus and Ramin were nice enough, even if they were obsessed with escaping the world or trying to unpick it. Robin had nothing against them as such, but couldn't avoid being frustrated by their continual dissatisfaction with the world around them. Rufus always had his head in his own made-up stories, which he'd share with anyone who would listen; Robin didn't understand the point of stories that weren't about real people and real events. Ramin was trickier, being so intent on understanding the world that he left no time in which to simply be present in it. His mind was always racing - sometimes Robin thought he could hear it whirring - and he had a determination to disprove reality which Robin found disturbing, and not a little dangerous. That's why he liked Harry: he was easy to understand, simple in his motivations and spent every day appreciating what they had at Cragside. Rufus and Ramin, in contrast, seemed to Robin to be nearly disrespectful in their cynicism.

Not that he wished to be judgemental.

"What about this, then," Rufus was saying. "What if all of this isn't real? What if it's somebody's dream?"

Ramin laughed appreciatively. "Whose dream? Yours?"

"Or maybe yours. Or Robin's."

"Leave me out of this," Robin said, waving a hand.

"So in that hypothesis," Ramin continued, "only one person is real. They're the prime, and everyone else emerges from their imagination?"

"Right. So you, Robin, everyone else, might be something I've made up in my head."

"Making stuff up in your head is definitely something you like to do," Robin muttered, raising his eyebrows as he spooned his porridge.

"Yeah, but that's not the weirdest," Ramin said. "What if it's none of us? That we're all part of someone else's dream entirely. Tommy, maybe. That could be why he's in charge."

Robin could see Rufus' excitement levels rising with each addition to the theory. "Or, maybe it's none of us in the village? What if there are people out there, somewhere else in the world, and we're stuck in their dream, and they don't even know we're here?"

"Ah," Ramin said, pointing a chunk of bread at Rufus, "well, then you're getting into a whole other thing. Can dreams conjure a universe beyond the direct experience of the dreamer?"

Rufus nodded thoughtfully. "Good point."

"Or," Robin said, finishing his bowl and setting it aside, "perhaps everything is exactly as it seems, and we're all living here together in the world and there's no need to think too deeply about it."

The other two groaned and Ramin threw the remains of his bread across the table. "You're no fun."

*

Erik was in the midst of an escapade. He hummed an exciting little tune to himself as he crawled through long grass, then jumped to his feet when he reached the path and scampered to cover, crouching down beside one of the yurts. He pressed a finger to the side of his forehead, though he didn't entirely know why he made the gesture, and whispered a report. "This is Hunter Erik. I can see the boar. It looks very yummy. Going into sneaky mode."

He tiptoed across the courtyard in front of the Temple, looking left and right to make sure he wasn't being followed by evil bunnies or armoured crows. Those were his favourite made-up baddies. The coast was clear, so he darted into the Temple, his eyes slowly adjusting to the subdued light. "I've reached the lair," he said, again touching a finger to his head.

Being six years old, Erik couldn't remember much past lunchtime. Despite that, the memory of first entering the Temple was distinct. He couldn't recall a time when he hadn't lived in Cragside, but believed the others who told him that he and the other little ones had arrived unexpectedly from beyond the valley's border, the smaller children carried by the slightly-less-small. Perhaps the Temple remained fixed in his memory because of the feeling it always gave him: of safety, of comfort, of belonging. To Erik it was a constant guardian, with the presence of the building at the centre of the village being a sign that all was well, and all would be well.

He didn't put any of this into words, or even into coherent thoughts, being that he was six years old. Standing in the Temple's cool, smooth interior, he felt that same flush of warmth. All he could compare it to was when Eva gave him a hug, or when Ramin carried him around the village on his shoulders.

As comforting as the place still was, the Temple had gone quiet on them for ages. Eva had said it had only been weeks, although Erik wasn't really sure how long that was. He knew it was longer than days, but maybe not as long as lots of hours? And then months were more like years: that he knew for certain. Time was a confusing, big person thing that he hadn't yet wrapped his head around. Instead of regular lessons, the Temple would only show them what it had already revealed. Nothing new had been presented to the settlement, with even Eva's prodding and tinkering revealing nothing.

Except when it had shown the map to Erik. He'd been in the Temple on his own, in the middle of a long game of hide-and-seek with Harry and some others, and had taken refuge in the relative gloom of the Temple. While in there, quiet and hunkered in the corner, the knowledge board had lit up, casting its glow over the chamber, even though he'd not been anywhere near the query button. Twisting around to look up at it he'd seen an odd pattern of colours: patches of blue and green and brown, intersected with thin, curved lines. It had flashed up for only a second or two, then vanished just as abruptly.

Erik had thought little of it until it happened a second time, a week later. The same picture, or similar, but that time a different pattern. Again, only visible for a couple of seconds. He recognised it as a map, though it didn't look like any of the pictures of Mars he'd examined.

The third time it was back to the first picture, this time with a large arrow pointing downward. He'd mentioned it to Eva and Ramin but they hadn't seemed bothered or interested, so he'd forgotten all about it. There had been more than enough distractions with Tommy and Harry's games and celebrations to scrub a six-year-old's mind clean of any other thoughts.

As he stood in the Temple, still breathing heavily from his imaginary game, the knowledge board bloomed into life, again without prompting. A map, and Erik realised with surprise that he was looking at Cragside from above - he recognised the lake, and the layout of the buildings, even though it was from a weird angle. The picture shrank, zooming out to show more of the map. The arrow appeared, this time wriggling its way along the map like a worm, pointing towards a different area.

The board went dark, as if nothing had happened. Erik looked around to see if anybody else was in the Temple who might understand what was happening, but he was alone. He decided that he should probably tell Eva again; though whether he would remember that by the time he got back out into the sunshine was highly debatable.



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