The dog made it to the bottom of the scrap pile first. The man slid down after, picking a careful path with his flashlight through the stacks of discarded luggage and old toys. There was a small fire burning on the poured concrete floor.
“What now?” said the man, conversationally.
The voice that answered him seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. It was warm but businesslike. “At this point it’s up to you, Milo.”
Milo looked around. The junkyard was dry and still and unevenly torchlit. To one side of him was a stack of overdue library books; on the other stood a life-sized dollhouse populated by what appeared to be roughly human-sized army ants in camouflage fatigues scurrying to and fro on unguessable errands. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”
“I’m not sure either, Milo,” the voice said. “I can’t see what you can see.”
Milo frowned. “Aren’t you in here with us?”
“Yes and no. Strictly speaking, you’re the only one ‘in here.’”
“Could you be a little clearer?”
The voice was silent. It gave the impression that it was thinking. “Your surroundings are open to interpretation.”
The man thought about that for a minute and shook his head. “Clear as mud.”
“Think of where you are as the collective unconscious. Everyone sees it differently.”
“Why isn’t it more crowded?”
“You’re in it alone, just like everyone else.”
“But you can see me?”
“I can see everyone. I just don’t see it the way you do.”
“The dog you’re following is a kind of placeholder. It’s something your brain can process.”
“Is she the way I interpret you while I’m in here?”
“No. I’m a constant.”
“Will I see you while I’m in here?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea. Mammals have trouble with my kind on a very basic emotional level. Seeing me would upset you.”
“You’re very kind to do this.”
“Not at all. It’s the least I can do.”
“How’s the real Fairfax doing?”
“She’s asleep. She asked me to let you know that she’s fine, just tired.”
“Can she see you?”
“Yes, she can. Atomic Schnauzers don’t have any natural predators. She doesn’t have the same inbuilt prejudices that humans do.”
Milo nodded. “We should get this over with.”
Milo stepped around the ants, excusing himself as he did, and climbed to the dollhouse roof. The junkyard was massive, stretching off into the distance farther than he could see. There was a silvery glow some way off; it looked out of place in the rusty dark.
“I see something. About five hundred meters as the crow flies, about a kilometer if I follow the path.”
The voice sounded concerned. “You had better hurry, Milo. Creatures that would do you harm live here. They are aware that you’re present.”
Milo muttered something under his breath and stretched his hand out meaningfully. Nothing happened.
“Your tattoos don’t work in here, I’m afraid. Climb now.”
Milo leapt from the roof of the dollhouse to the heap of heavy plastic toy trucks opposite. It shifted under his weight, then held, as if it was a solid mass rather than a pile of individual objects. He found that he was able to move along the artificial hill quite quickly.
There was a skittering sound, and something moved under the heap. Then several other somethings.
“Stand very still, Milo,” the voice said.
“I’m going to turn down the lights. Keep ‘Fairfax’ in your field of vision. Pay very close attention to her. Where she moves, you move, nowhere else. Ignore anything you hear. Follow the dog and you’ll be perfectly safe.”
The lights dimmed and the dog’s iron-gray fur suddenly shone like the moon. It looked at Milo as if to make sure he was paying attention, then trotted across the mound of discarded toys. Milo followed.
There was the sound of something immense and chitinous moving quickly and lightly in the darkness. Milo heard something small and poisonous skitter toward him. Something much, much larger stabbed through it and into the mound behind him, which rocked.
The voice sounded much closer now. “Go, Milo. Don’t worry about them.”
Milo followed the dog.
In his peripheral vision Milo could see movement, long and thin and elegant and entirely alien, rising and falling, surrounding him, keeping pace with him. He ignored it.
The dog led him across a bridge of squares of stiff cardboard folded lengthwise, painted in bright colors. The skittering sounds got closer. A spray of something soft and sticky passed over his head. The skittering was replaced by frantic struggling.
“Don’t turn around, Milo.”
There was movement above him. Milo got the sense of something immense stooping down behind him. There were wet cracking noises. The struggling behind him stopped. The light returned.
The voice made a satisfied sound. It was farther away now. “Why don’t you climb down and follow the path now?”
The dog led him down a slope made of plastic robots. Some of them were folded into other shapes; cars, trucks, unidentifiable things with wheels and legs. A few of them waved cheerily as he passed. Milo waved back politely.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he asked.
Milo followed the dog down to the concrete floor. “Why do you help us?”
“It’s my job.”
“Excuse me for saying so, but that isn’t much of an answer.”
The voice sighed. “I like to keep my home tidy. You humans don’t make much of a mess. You don’t make much of a meal, either—you’re very small. And you lead things like Ecthroi to me. They do make a mess, and they’re…crunchy.”
“You help us because we’re bait?”
“No. It’s a kind of symbiosis. Besides, you’re fascinating. The way your minds dance from thought to thought, the way you interact with one another. You hold your lives so dear—it’s heartwarming. And you, specifically—you troubleshooters—are good company. There’s only one of me. I get lonely.”
Milo laughed. “We like you, too. It’s nice to have somethi—someone like you in our corner.”
“Me and Fafnir, I suppose.”
“There’s only one of you. There are other dragons.”
“Not like him. He’s actually quite special. It’s just him and—”
Milo rounded the corner. “Him and who?”
Milo stopped dead. “Oh, hell.”
“In a very real sense, epiphany is why this place exists. You’re quite close now. Just over there, midway up.”
Milo scaled the hill without another word. Something small and silvery flickered briefly, and he snatched it from around the unresisting neck of a big blue teddy bear, who turned to him with a wounded expression.
“Sorry,” he muttered. The bear nodded sadly.
“Did you find what you were looking for, Milo?”
“I think so.”
“What is it, if I may ask?”
“It’s a ring.”
“Have you seen it before? I ask out of professional curiosity.”
Milo took a small iron ring from a leather thong around his neck and held it up for comparison. The rings were identical. He clicked them together experimentally and they flowed together.
“Yes,” he said. “You were right. Epiphany is why I’m here.”
“She is, isn’t she?” the voice said quietly. “I wondered when she would turn up.”
“This isn’t possible. An Ecthros named Shumu-Narlyep murdered Dr. Epiphany Platinum two and a half years ago. Fairfax killed it. I found this ring on the floor of her surgery while I was busy setting fire to the hospital afterward. It was all that was left.”
“I don’t understand how this can be.”
“Apparently the collective unconscious isn’t through with her. It happens sometimes.”
“What do I do with it?”
“I suspect you’re going to have to talk to her.”
“To the other one, I’m afraid.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“You know she can’t leave Mars Prime.”
Milo nodded grimly. “That was our deal, yes.” He examined the ring. To his complete lack of surprise, it was now made of platinum. He slipped the thong around his neck. “I think I should go.”
“Very well. Close your eyes, Milo. You’ll feel a little pinch…”
Milo’s eyes opened. He was sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a low table in a small, cozy office. A votive candle in a brass holder guttered on a shelf beside him. The walls were hung with antique carvings of eastern holy men and rubbings from ancient temples. Lush green plants in brightly painted pots obscured the well-worn Persian rug. Judging by the view of the sprawling city beneath from the window behind him, not to mention the quartet of zeppelins sailing sedately just below it, the building was several miles high. Fairfax looked up from her position at his feet and wagged her tail.
He registered movement and looked up. Something small and dark waggled a foreleg in greeting from high on the wall opposite and disappeared between the ceiling joists.
Alexander Karelis is co-founder of Writers Room DC, a boutique co-working space for professional writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and the unofficial literary nexus of Washington D.C.