I usually felt a sense of relief when I walked through my front door but, today, circumstances had conspired against me. Bleep, my parrot, spewed a stream of obscenities at me that would teach even the saltiest profaner something new. Normally I’d stop and let him verbally assault me and trade insults, as was tradition, but I didn’t have time. He trailed off with some horrific phrases about my mother, as I headed upstairs to my office.
I couldn’t remember if James had ever been in my office, but it didn’t seem to bother him when I gave him a silent request to stay in the living room, as I headed up the stairs. I could hear Bleep’s tinny voice as he cycled through his dirty vocabulary with James.
In my office, every available wall space supported shelves, containing various artifacts, ingredients and books used to create ties to the dimensions I frequented. Jumping involved very complicated math. The paraphernalia acts like a calculator, freeing you from the calculations and allowing you to focus on application.
One side of the cluttered room stood out from the rest. It held the only arguably modern piece of technology… My Apple IIc. The green text and audible keyboard click was soothing to me. And, oddly enough, it’s the only computer that will connect to the material and Alter planes… With more than just a little supernatural coaxing, of course.
I lit the candles scattered around the room, and sat in my marginally comfortable rolling chair. I stared at the blinking cursor. If there was one person in this realm that could help me, it had to be Stephan Randolph Mully.
In the Alter, he is known as the Scholar… and with good reason. His knowledge of every when and where was absolute. Sometimes he didn’t know he knew the answer to something until he was asked, but you could take it to the bank that he would be able to give you something. Sometimes, it was a less than helpful something, but still better than nothing.
I launched my IRC client, and began typing.
‘Mully, you there? I have a small issue…’
‘I expected as much. Welcome back,’ Mully’s text appeared on the screen, all at once. I filled him in. A googly-eyed surprise emote appeared on the screen.
‘The Dreameater isn’t a small issue. He’s one the Pantheon. They are essentially gods in the Alter.’
Oh. A god. I wish I could be atheist. At least whatever he was doing wasn’t a part of any ongoing plot against the material. In the Alter they could do whatever they wanted. They were kept in check by the other Pantheon. Sometimes they would breach into the material, but it generally didn’t amount to much. They are formidable, but the physical and supernatural laws here severely crippled their power, as it does with any Alter. The entire dimension reacts against the intruder, similar to how an oyster reacts to sand. Why it was here made no sense. By now, it had to be far too weak to return.
‘How do we kill it?’
‘Well, you can’t actually kill it, per say. You can banish it though. There is an easy way and a hard way…, but you’re not gonna like the easy way.’
‘Killing Jane is not an option,’ I slammed my hands on the desk. I swatted back and forth at the ensuing dust cloud.
‘I said you weren’t gonna like it.’
‘So, what’s the hard way?’
‘Well,’ Mully somehow gave the impression of scratching the back of his head, ‘that’s something you’re not going to like, either.’
‘Mully!’ I was really tired of not knowing what was going on, and I’d been back for less than an hour. ‘Why does everyone think they have to tiptoe around me?’
‘Because you become wholly irrational when your friends are in danger.’
‘Alright, no need to be bring that up…,’ I sighed, and rubbed my face.
‘Someone,’ Mully’s text continued, ‘is going to have to go in there and get him out.’
‘Alright, so I need to – wait, go in where?
‘Into her head. Where else would you expect to find the Dreameater?’ There had been many times since I’d met Mully that he’d been flippant and vague with me, it was just his way. His vast knowledge of everything made him take just about everything very matter-of-factly, but it was grating on my nerves more than usual today.
‘Okay, tell me everything you know about this guy.’
’The Dreameater is a creature of significant power. He is ancient, and probably one of the original Pantheon. It exists by feeding on the energy of dreams. There are theories that material and Alter dreamers become an astral copy of themselves and actually enter a shared dreaming dimension that is just as real as either. Explains the old wives tale that if you die in your dream, your body dies in the waking world.’
’So this thing just feeds on everyone’s dreams all the time? And no one has noticed?’
He paused for a beat, then continued. ’This thing feeds from any human or other animal capable of dreaming, all the time. It always has. No one notices because, the Dreameater takes only a little of what it needs from each creature. Most living things in this realm aren’t self-aware enough to even notice when anything goes missing.’
’Wait.’ I rubbed my eyes in exhaustion, ’It actually consumes the dream itself?’
’If the theory about the dream dimension holds true, then each dreamer creates a world where they play out their dream scenarios. This ’world’ exists only briefly… Most dreams are only a few seconds long, after all.’
’What? That doesn’t seem possible.’ I said. I started the evening not knowing too much about the Dreameater, and suddenly, I felt like I knew too much. If I knew Mully, there was more to come.
’Really? You travel to another dimensions on a daily basis. Is it that much of a stretch?’
’Fair enough,’ I typed.
’Answer me this,’ there was a long pause. ’You sleep occasionally, I assume, yes? How clear is the memory of your dreams?’
’Can you remember them clearly?’
‘Yes, I can remember some.’
’Alright. It’s a complete sequence of events, or does it jump from one scene to another with no apparent connection?’
I paused for a moment, then sighed. ’Yeah. I see what you’re getting at.’
’When you dream, a world of your creation pops into existence in the dream realm. The stuff of that dimension becomes the sights and sounds that make your dream a reality for you. When that happens, energy is expended and released. Though the rules that govern things in other, but similar, dimensions are sometimes wildly different and bizarre, conservation of energy is the one, universally true constant. Think of it like a campfire. The fire has no recollection of the heat that its lost; it’s just gone. The Dreameater just warms itself by the fire, so to speak.’
I shuddered at the thought of what must be going on in Jane’s mind right now. I shook it off. I had to focus. Mully was right; I get irrational when my friends are in danger.
’There’s something else… It’s not just dreams. Dreams are tied to memories in a very intimate way. Everything we dream stems from some memory or combination of memories.’
“Wait, so you’re saying that the reason our memory fades with time is because the Dreameater can consume those as well?”
’Not directly, but yes…’ Mully’s ellipsis had me worried. ’Its actually not a bad thing. Normally, it’s beneficial. The human mind doesn’t function on a level where it can keep every little memory. Most people would be insane by twelve.’
I pinched the bridge of my nose and took a steadying breath.
’You said, normally.’
’Yes. If the Dreameater has taken residence inside Jane’s mind, it wouldn’t have access to other people’s dreams. It would still need feed in order to survive, until it found a way from the dream realm back to the Alter.’
’What happens to Jane?’
It could have been my imagination, but I got the impression that Mully was sad.
’Could be nothing. Maybe she would lose some old memories, if they were connected to the consumed dreams.’ As the type appeared, I became more anxious with each word.
I let out a curse and kicked at the desk. It hurt, but I let the pain fuel the anger I felt over how helpless I felt. ‘So my options are to violate her mind, or do nothing and let her die.’
‘She wouldn’t die. Her body will continue to live; it’s not affecting her physical self. In its quest to return to the Alter, it’ll consume everything that makes her Jane.’
‘So, I have no choice but to go inside Jane’s head, to get at this thing?’
‘Yes and no. You can’t Jump directly into her mind, but you can Jump into the dream instance she’s created. It’s probably holed up somewhere in there feeding on her memories and dreams, as it looks for a way to cross back into its home Alter.’
‘We need to figure out why it attacked Jane.’
‘Likely, it didn’t go after her for any particular reason. More likely, because of the way the material world affects it, it was simply too weak to return to the Alter through traditional means.’
‘According to James she saw it and called him because I wasn’t available. Then she got in its way.’
‘I see. So are they your personal Jumper apprentices now?’
‘No. James is stronger than most of the stuff that can cross over. If there’s anyone I want watching Jane’s back while I’m away, he’s it.’
My words must have surprised as Mully as much as it did me, but that didn’t make them any less true. James was my brother, and the most trustworthy individual I have ever met. He knew the Alter world as well as I did, and he’d saved my hide a few times. I’d never tell him that to his face. He’d never let me live it down.
“Didn’t know you cared,” James’ weighty voice carried into the attic. I looked down the ladder leading to the hall. The rectangle through which the ladder passed framed his grinning face, like some goofy family photo.
“It’s impolite to eavesdrop?”
“Never stops you,” he shot back, still grinning. “Can I come up?”
“No,” I said. “Look, can you fill Bleep’s food bowl?” James just grinned back and nodded, unfazed by my refusal. When he was gone, I reached down and pulled up the ladder before turning back to the conversation with Mully.
‘Tell James hello for me.’ Mully typed.
‘Wait,’ I typed, ‘how did you know?’
‘It’s what I do.’ Mully typed.
I leaned against my desk with both hands and hung my head, taking deep breaths to clear my thoughts. I knew what I needed to do, but charging into Jane’s dreaming mind would take finesse and subtlety; two things that were conspicuously absent from my repertoire. But if I did nothing, Jane would be lost. I took one last deep breath and made my decision.
‘Well, look at the bright side. If the Dreameater catches you, you won’t have to worry about Jane anymore.’ Mully typed.
‘That was not surprisingly unhelpful,’ I responded.
It occurred to me that I had not the foggiest of ideas about how to Jump into a dimension that was in a state of constant change. Even if I did, how would I target Jane’s dream among potentially millions of dreamers that could be present in the dream realm?
‘What do I need to do? How can I jump into a dream?’ I typed and spoke out loud. I felt helpless. I was letting Jane down.
‘Jumping is mostly about believing that you can do it,’ Mully explained. ‘Jumping is entirely possible without all the preparation. But the human mind, human-ish in your case, cannot cope with stepping into infinity. The preparation provides a small, manageable and tangible interface to leap into other dimensions. You could accomplish the same thing with a pair of ruby slippers, by clicking the heels together three times.’
‘I see.’ I didn’t see, but that was no reason to get Mully off on an instructional tangent, beyond my immediate needs at least. I think I’d keep my simple mind focused, and prepare for the Jumps.
‘My advice to you is this; get Jane over here. That house of hers could cause quite a bit of interference.’
‘I intended for it to protect her.’
‘I know, but that’s not what she needs right now. Arbitrary protection could prevent you from helping her at all.’
‘You’ll need to focus on her entirely and intimately, when you begin. Your material link to her is the only way you’ll find her dream.’
I hurried down the ladder and found James dozing on the couch. I only had the one bedroom, and when he stays with me he sort of takes over the sofa. I shook his shoulder and he opened his eyes sharply, not a hint of grogginess in them. Half-Aether’s didn’t actually require sleep. It was a comfort. Like eating ice cream when you’re not hungry.
“I need you to go get Jane,” I told him. “I can’t do anything inside her home without an invitation, and I won’t be getting one from her any time soon.”
“What are you going to do?” James asked, shrugging on his leather jacket even as he asked.
“Something stupid and dangerous, of course” I shook my head. “Don’t come back for an hour, but don’t come looking for me. I need zero interruptions. This is going to be difficult enough without having to prepare the Jump more than once.” James nodded in understanding and walked out the door. I made sure it was locked behind him and went to my room.
To say my bedroom is small was a bit of an understatement, but it served its purpose well enough. There was a full-sized bed against one wall, a small five-drawer dresser next to it, and a rug that covered most of the floor space. The tiny closet opposite the bed held all of my jeans and tee-shirts and a three piece suit that I hadn’t worn since my father passed away.
To the right was the bathroom, and I anticipated the shower. I could always focus a little better after a warm shower.
I cleaned the room, and pulled the rug out into the living room. Once I had enough space, I maneuvered my bed and dresser until the bed was situated in the center of the room. I changed the sheets and tossed the old ones behind the couch in the living room.
It took half an hour to clear doubt and fear from my mind. The only thing that mattered was that Jane needed me and I was the only one who could help her. That was enough for my mind to kick itself into gear.
I drew a chalk circle all the way around the bed, filling in the complex mathematical formula within the circle’s boundaries. I didn’t solve it, because I needed Jane. She was the remaining variable. I made sure the circle was visible enough so James didn’t smudge it when he brought her in.
When that was done, I pulled clean clothes out of the closet and lay them on the bathroom counter.
Preparing a Jump is the most tedious and arduous tasks a Jumper can perform. It required complete focus of will to Jump, and absolute concentration on the desired outcome. The slightest disturbance would mean a fresh start and I wasn’t sure Jane had that much time. Every movement I made was purposeful and determined.
I turned on the shower, pipes shuddered in the walls. I tested the water’s temperature before stepping under the warm spray. I felt alive, invigorated, and clear-headed when I stepped out of the shower.
I dressed in the clean clothes I’d laid out – soft cotton pajama bottoms Jane had gotten me for my birthday and my oldest t-shirt, black with a faded image of Darth Vader and some Storm Troopers being photo-bombed by Chewbacca on the front. As I slipped it over my head I felt completely relaxed.
Jane was lying on the bed when I came out. James had left the blanket folded at the foot of the bed, and I nodded a silent, unseen thank you to my brother. He understood the importance of even the smallest details in a Jump. Bringing Jane’s favorite blanket was evidence of that.
I unfolded the wool cover and draped it over my friend’s sleeping form. Her eyes were still open, empty and cold. I drew in a deep breath along with every ounce of my will. I concentrated on Jane, and drew in the solution to the formulas. The circle began to glow.