The ground feels slick and sticky simultaneously in that special way that only blood can manage. The coppery sweet smell of it wafts everywhere, nauseating and repulsive. Though darkness reigns, one can move by touch and it makes one glad for the darkness. The walls are smooth and yielding like flesh, and have the same sticky-slick feel as the floor. Over it all beats the sonorous thump-thump of a heart.
Mike takes a deep breath, trying to ignore the smell that threatens to turn his stomach. He reminds himself precisely who leads this dance. A moment later he feels his feet slide out from underneath him, and he lands in a small pool of warm blood. His control slips briefly and he loses everything in his stomach. Funny, he doesn’t remember having that large of a dinner....
Sitting in a pool of blood and his own vomit, he ruefully acknowledges the true master here. It isn't him. Still, this has been going on for far too long and the bastard has to have some weakness. No one can be invulnerable; certainly not someone as deeply kinked as this guy!
"Okay, focus. I'm the Master here. I can do this.” Mike thinks of water. Warm, clean water. Not blood, don't think about blood. Don't think about where the blood came from. Think about water.
Slowly the darkness lifts, and Mike finds himself sitting in a shallow pool of warm water. He breaths a sigh of relief. The walls around him are padded cloth. But he can still hear the thump-thump of a heartbeat. He frowns and concentrates. It doesn’t go away. He pounds the floor with frustration. The tempo increases slightly. Who is this guy?
Mike stands up slowly, carefully, and makes his way down the corridor he finds himself in. To the left there should be a door that swings out...there. The tempo of the heartbeat slows down slightly. He frowns. Something feels out of place here....
He looks around, but can’t find anything. The cloth of the walls feels dry and smooth under his hand, and when he looks closely he can make out the individual threads in the weave. Amazing detail, he realizes. Incredible attention to detail, but that shouldn't be surprising; this guy makes millions through art. Paying attention to the details made him his fortune. Damn the man!
Mike swings open the door and steps through. Nothing happens, but the heartbeat stays with him. He breathes a sigh of relief. And falls into darkness once more. He feels the acute sense of falling and his gorge rises once more. He screams involuntarily as he plummets into unknown depths, feeling and hearing the wind tear his scream from his mouth and carry it on behind him. All the while, that damned heartbeat stays with him, now pounding madly.
Clawed hands reach out and arrest his descent; multiple pairs of hands that scratch, pinch and abuse his flesh. He screams again, this time in pain as he twists wildly to get free. The hands keep a firm grip on him, pulling him this way and that with no discernible destination in mind. He bellows his rage and frustration, then bursts free in a surge of strength. The floor meets him with the unyielding quality of cold stone, and the shock of impact jars his spine. He lies back, still except for a low moan. The heartbeat gradually slows.
Mike sits up, ignoring the rush of pain that sweeps through his body. He grabs for his wrist and feels for his pulse. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump...the bastard is using his own heartbeat to unnerve him! Worse: it works perfectly!
A deep, ponderous laugh echoes through the room. He hears the crash of metal against stone, then again and again. Footsteps. Metal-shod footsteps approaching him. Mike scurries to his feet and looks around frantically. He reachs down and picks up a torch, letting it illuminate the room around him. Fifty feet away, he spots the Knight marching toward him with a determined stride. On the Knight's shield is a starburst of eight arrows pointing in all directions. The Knight's armor gleams with darkness, tipped with dripping blood. In the Knight's hand is a mace similarly covered in gore. But in the visor...madness. Pure madness.
Mike sits up in bed, screaming at the top of his lungs. His neighbors pound angrily on the wall, but he won’t stop. Can’t stop. They cart him away in an ambulance an hour later, still screaming.
I sit in my favorite bar, hidden in my favorite corner, drinking my usual soft drink of Coke Classic. Drinking soda in a tough bar has always been one of my favorite quirks, mostly because I enjoy watching peoples' reactions. When people see the bar I frequent and compare it to my gangly appearance, they wonder why I'm not missing any limbs. It's because I know the owner, and he's the toughest one in the bunch.
The owner is a big, burly guy who should own a leather jacket, cowboy boots and a Harley, but he doesn't. He just looks like he should. His name is Doug Boroski, and he's a member of that very small group I consider my groupies.
It's maybe a quarter to midnight when I look up and see him walk into the bar. I groan and sink a little lower into my chair. I don’t know his name, but I recognize his face: I’d weaved for him earlier in the week. I’m surprised he found me so quickly. Doug notes my reaction and peers in the back, trying to figure out what’s bugging me. Once, before I knew about the mirror he keeps back there, I teased him about always facing the rear. There’s no entrance in back, and even I could take on anyone thin enough to get through the bars on the windows. He humorlessly informed me that even thugs have to piss. Doug knows the caliber of his regular clientele, and while they don’t worry him, he hates his insurance premiums.
“Trouble,” I say before he can ask. “One of my…clients.”
Doug mutters something impressively obscene and reaches into his pocket. I shake my head. “No, wait. Let’s see what he does.”
The man under our scrutiny is barely out of his teens. He’s tall and blonde, impressively muscled but still lacking the innate confidence of age and experience. He doesn’t look the type to pick a fight, but his back is straight and shoulders squared in the manner of someone committed to his purpose. I’ve seen that pose countless times before and it always spells trouble for me.
The man I’d described as my client walks to the bar and shouts something at the bartender. That’s the only way to get anyone’s attention by the bar of the Dancing Girl because of the noise level. The regular patrons aren’t concerned with keeping a polite tone of voice. I watch Mira pause in mid-reach, frown and shake her head. The man shouts again, his body language insistent. Mira shakes her head again and shouts back at him. The man shouts once more and Mira shrugs, pointing in my direction. The man follows her gesture and locks eyes with me. I look away, uncomfortably.
Hair gets in my eye, and I brush it away irritably before grabbing my Coke and taking a long drink. Doug spares me a glance before looking back to watch the young man approach our table as quickly as the crowd will allow. I don’t want to look up; I hate confrontation. However, the man’s voice finally comes to me over the din.
“Are you the King?”
I look up at him and favor him with my most intimidating frown. Unfortunately, my physical attributes can hardly be considered intimidating. “No, I’m Dave. Who are you?”
“David Bender, the King of Nightmares?” the man persists, placing his feet in a stance that suggests he won’t be moved by anything short of an act of God.
“Insulting me won’t get you invited to tea,” I grouse. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
Doug snorts and I notice his hand leave the pocket of his jacket. I’m glad to see he’s decided this fellow won’t be enough trouble to require drastic measures. Of course, I’m surprised that Doug thinks anyone needs anything other than a look at him for encouragement to be polite. I’m not intimidating, but Doug most certainly is.
“I’m Tim Drake. I’m the guy you gave a nightmare to.” Tim’s folds his hands across his chest as if he’s just announced there should be light, and found it good.
I kick a chair back from the table and gesture to it. “Have a seat, Tim. I’m Dave, the guy who gave you a nightmare. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I’m not drinking with you, you bastard.” Tim’s hands clench into fists. Rather impressive fists, I’m sorry to note. “Who the hell do you think you are, doing that to me?”
Doug starts to rise, an evil grin plastered across his face. I think the Devil himself would flinch away from that grin. Tim isn’t nearly jaded enough to keep the concern from his face. For a brief moment, he forgets about his righteous wrath against me in favor of fear for his own life. “Have a seat, Tim,” Doug says in his quiet voice. “Dave wants to buy you a drink.” Doug can accomplish more with a whisper than I can with a shout. I’m always in awe of him for that.
Tim hesitates only briefly, then quickly settles himself in a chair across from me. Not the one I’d pushed out for him, though. He scoots it over a little farther from Doug.
“Tim, meet Doug. Doug owns this fine establishment.”
I wave to Jasmine, one of the waitresses being harried by some moderately drunken regulars. She slaps a hand away from her graying tresses and hurries to our table in a flash.
“Another Coke for me, Jas. A beer for our friend, here.”
Jasmine shoots a look at Doug, who nods. She turns to Tim. “We got Rolling Rock on tap. That all right with you?”
Tim’s head bobs in assent. He is mute as he throws uncertain glances toward Doug. Jasmine disappears in the crowd to handle our order.
Finally, Tim finds his voice again. He directs his statement to Doug, this time. “This is between him and me.”
“Relax, Tim.” Doug responds, the grin still on his lips. “You can Dave can talk all you want. I’m just here to make sure it stays polite.”
“He your bodyguard, King?” Tim sneers at me. I resist the temptation to snipe back at him, and finish my Coke before I answer him. A dozen thoughts mill through my brain on how to approach him, and I haven’t a clue where to begin. Hand me a fuzzy vidscreen and I’ll have it clear shortly. Defusing a tense situation makes me tongue-tied and flustered.
“You had a nightmare recently,” I begin. “A nightmare that curled your toes and made you wake up sweating and breathing harder than you ever have in your life. Probably upset your girlfriend, too.” Tim flushes, but doesn’t say anything. “You think I gave you that nightmare, along with every other Tom, Dick and Harry who wakes up with the sweats.”
Jasmine returns with our drinks, and Tim accepts his with a quiet word of thanks. He takes a long pull at the beer before setting it down and staring into the dregs. “You didn’t do it?”
“No, I did.” I shrug uncomfortably and take a drink of my Coke. “You’re a football player. Half-back. Pretty good at it, if you say so yourself. Then last week you met me, and you had a dream. You dreamed you were on the field and made a play that left you an open field to make a touchdown. You ran like the wind. You could hear the crowds chanting your name. You were going to be the hero. Then you realized they weren’t chanting your name, they were laughing it. Because you were naked, and you were about to get tackled by three burly guys.”
As I talk, the blood drains from Tim’s face. His expression shifts freely through rage, frustration and shame. Had I been alone, he might have started swinging at me before I finished. He still might if I describe what those three burly guys did to him in the dream. And how he had reacted.
“Tim, do you know what a Dream Master is?” At my question, his head jerks and he stares at me intently.
“Dream Masters are those freaks that feed on dreams.”
I stifle a groan and look imploringly at Doug. He shrugs and winks at me.
“I won’t argue with the ‘freaks’ part, but Dream Masters feed just like everyone else. We don’t feed on dreams, we balance them.”
Tim chokes back a laugh. “You expect me to believe that?”
I shrug and meet his eyes. “You don’t have to take my word for it. Look it up. After I gave you that dream, I was exhausted. I didn’t feed on you; I wasted a lot of energy doing…what I do. I don’t know what was wrong with you. I don’t know why your mind needed those images before I could get some rest. All I know is that I bumped into you last week, and I started feeling an itch. Nothing physical, it’s an itch inside my head. That’s the only way I can describe it. That itch meant I was going to be drawn into your dreams after you fell asleep, and that I would have to weave a nightmare for you before I could leave.”
“How do you feel?” Doug asks suddenly, interrupting. Tim stares at him while I smirk. Doug used the same question I’d asked him the first time we met.
“What are you talking about?”
“Last week you were feeling pent-up, irritable, probably had difficulty sleeping. I bet you’ve slept like a baby since then.”
“How the hell do you know that?” Tim demands stridently. This is not working out the way he expected, that much is clear. He hasn’t a clue how he lost control.
“Because that’s what Doug realized was happening to him, after I wove a nightmare for him,” I say quietly. The look of shock on Tim’s face is almost comical, but only because I could have set my watch to it. Very few people ever realize why Doug and I are so close, and Tim has just figured it out.
“Are you two….” He swings his finger back and forth between us. I shake my head before he can finish his question.
“No, he’s still married to his wife and I’m not really interested in that.” I don’t volunteer the fact that the thought of even approaching a romantic relationship scares me to death. “After Doug realized what I’d done and what he would have done to me if I hadn’t talked him down, he decided to take me under his wing. I still get beat up, but never when he’s around.”
Doug’s evil grin returns in force, and I let him enjoy it. I know how seriously Doug takes his role of protector for me. I also know what he would have done to me if I hadn’t managed to miraculously talk him down that day.
Tim’s expression turns thoughtful for a moment. “I should have gone pro,” he says as much to himself as for our benefit. “I was good enough. I could have done it. But I never got noticed. None of the agents picked me up. Now that you mention it, I was miserable last week. Jenny and I were snapping at each other and I thought she was gonna leave me. Now…now it doesn’t bother me. I haven’t thought about it since that dream. I was so focused on finding you and getting revenge for…what you did. But you did something, didn’t you? You fixed me somehow?”
“Have another beer,” I suggest before finishing my Coke. “Let’s talk.”
Three nights later, I sit in the pub just after work waiting for Doug to finish his shift. Tim sits next to me, well on his way to becoming a regular as I satisfy his curiosity about Dream Masters. I don’t mind, particularly since I’ve broken him from calling me “King.” I hate that name with a passion. Everybody in the city knows about the “King of Nightmares,” but few people actually know actually know me. They only care about what they think they know about me.
“Just what does the White Foundation do?” Tim asks as he starts into his second beer. “I mean, I know it was started by Sharon White after she retired from politics. I know they publish all sorts of propaganda about Dream Masters. But what do they actually do? How do they figure this stuff out?”
“Well, the Foundation does a lot of lobbying for Dream Master rights. Sharon White’s legacy was protection for the Masters, and every bit of research helps increase that protection. But even more than lobbying, the White Foundation is a research center staffed by Masters to try to figure out exactly what it is we do, and why. It was the Foundation that figured out some of our better known limitations. We can’t weave for just anyone, after all. And we can’t weave the wrong dream for someone who has given us the itch. What’s even more important, once the purpose for the dream has been fulfilled, once you’ve achieved balance, the dream ends and the Master is thrown out.”
“You’re thrown out of the dream?”
“Completely. Out of the dream and out of your mind. Once the reason for your nightmare went away, I couldn’t have stayed inside your head if I wanted to. It’s as if something in your brain invited me in, then once you got what you needed I was kicked out.”
“I always heard you guys stalked people and picked your victims like apples in a market. That one’s too soft, that one’s too green, and so on.”
“Um, no.” I don’t bother to elaborate, given my past and the reason I suspect I earned my nickname. There was a time when I had stalked my victims, even if it wasn’t as easy as Tim suggested. I used to hunt for people so I could weave nightmares, and I don’t like to think about it. I see no reason to share that with him.
Unfortunately, Tim seems to pick up on some of my thoughts. “So, how come they call you the ‘King of Nightmares,’ anyway? Why not the ‘King of Adventure Dreams?’”
“I wasn’t given a choice,” I answer and drain my glass. When I don’t continue, he prompts me to go on.
“Masters don’t get to pick what kind of dreams they have to weave. When someone gives me the itch, they always need a nightmare. I can’t weave anything else for them; if I try, it twists out of my control and becomes something bizarre and hideous. The only time I can weave a dream that isn’t all horror or embarrassment is when I’m setting the scene for what it is that I need to do. Most of the time, your mind will guide me where I need to go. Sometimes, occasionally, I won’t get any hints and I’ll have to wing it. Your dream was something of an exception. I don’t normally do erotic dreams, and by the time it got to that point, I was on my way out of your mind.”
It’s Tim’s turn to look uncomfortable, and he stares into his beer. “I never knew that about me. Or maybe I did, and it just took your nightmare to get me to face it. I mean, being a jock meant I had to be straight, right? And I never had any trouble in the sack with women. I still don’t. But now….”
I shake my head and wave for another Coke. There’s a new waitress on tonight, and I don’t know her name. I think she’s been avoiding me because I don’t look like I belong in this bar.
“Don’t worry about it, Tim. If I’d been a Master like one guy I know, I’d have focused on that portion of the dream instead of the nightmare. Who knows, maybe you needed a bit of both? You’ll figure it out.”
I roll my glass between my palms, trying to think of something else to say. Nothing particularly intelligent comes to mind, so I go back to the old topic. “Anyway, all Masters specialize in one type of dream. Some, like that guy I know, do erotic dreams. Some do adventure and some do sad dreams. All I know is that I do nightmares. I used to weave a lot of dreams. People started talking, and someone put two-and-two together. Next thing I know, people are talking about a ‘King of Nightmares,’ and before long I realize they’re referring to me. You have no idea how much I hate it. I hate the nickname, and I hate what I do. I get no pleasure in causing people pain, and neither does anyone else who weaves nightmares. We’re not that kind of people.”
“If you hate it, why did you weave so many nightmares? What clued people in?”
I have to think a moment before I can answer. I can’t think of any other way to put it, so I say, “I didn’t always hate it. I do now, but I didn’t then. I didn’t really appreciate the responsibility that comes with this power. I didn’t appreciate the impact it could have in people’s lives. I would prolong the experience as long as I could. I was never really popular. Nobody wanted to talk to me unless they wanted something from me. Kids would tease me because I was ugly or different. I grew my hair long because the other guys kept theirs short. I had pimples and was clumsy. Even when I got past puberty I wasn’t popular. When I first discovered what I was and what I was meant to do, I thought karma had provided me an opportunity to get back for all the horrible things that happened to me. Instead, karma is paying me back for all the horrible things I did to people who never deserved the torture I put them through. Now I try to get in, weave the dream and get out as fast as possible. That’s what marks a good Dream Master from a bad one: the good ones are quick. According to Spider, another Dream Master I know, I average at least half an hour less than he does, and he’s faster than anyone else he knows.”
Tim manages to get the attention of the waitress where I’ve failed; it makes sense, since he’s got those jockish good looks I lack. After buying the next round of drinks, he turns back to me. “How long did my nightmare last? I didn’t think to time it.”
I shrug uncertainly. “Ten or fifteen minutes. It only took one dream for you. Usually, Masters weave several dreams in succession to set up what needs to be done. The average human dreams in ten to fifteen minute bursts. That isn’t always enough to get the job done.”
“What happens if it doesn’t happen the first night? Do you keep trying until the job is done?”
Again, I shift uncomfortably. “I’ve never heard of a Master who took longer than a single night to weave a dream. Once the weave is begun, the outcome is pretty much assured.”
Doug, who has just finished his shift, interrupts us. “Evening, gentlemen. Are you enjoying my hospitality?”
I kick at the chair nearest to him. “Pull up a chair. We were just talking about Tim’s favorite subject.”
Tim blushes and mumbles something into his beer. I don’t bother asking him to repeat it. Doug just laughs and sits down with his glass.
“Dave, one of my suppliers has a shipment of soft drinks from Argentina. I’m not familiar with any of the brands, but they might be worth buying. Want me to order a batch and see what you think?”
“Argentina? Where in the world is that?”
“South America, you idiot. Right next to chile, toward the South Pole.” Doug shakes his head at me, as if to chide me for my ignorance. “This is the Age of Information, Dave. Where have you been?”
“I spent most of my geography classes trying to avoid getting my ribs bruised,” I respond sullenly. “What kind of soda do they make in South America?”
“I don’t know,” Doug explains with exaggerated patience. “That’s why I’m asking if you want to try it. There are three brands I can have delivered next week, if you want.”
I shrug and nod. “Okay, I suppose. But if I don’t like ‘em, I’m not going to drink ‘em all.”
Tim looks fit to burst out laughing. “You don’t get out much, do you?”
I glare at him. “Just because I like to tinker at home doesn’t give you any right to criticize me.”
“Hey, I’m all for doing what you like to do. But that’s an awfully tiny cave you live in, Dave.”
I suffer in silence as Doug and Tim enjoy a good laugh at my expense. Then I look up and see him.
I recognize Mike immediately, and I grimace. Doug notes my reaction and peers in the mirror in the back, trying to figure out what's bugging me.
"A Master," I say before he can ask. "Nightmare weaver."
"It doesn't work that way."
Doug turns his face to me, his eyes locking onto mine. He's very clearly annoyed by my reticence. "So what's the problem, Dave?"
I take a long sip of my Coke before I answer him. How do you talk shop to a layman? Doug's a good, loyal friend, and he’s familiar with everything Tim is trying to learn. That doesn't mean he understands me any better than the rest of the world. "The problem is that we don't gather very often. We don't like to be reminded of...what we do."
Doug shakes his head, not comprehending. It doesn't bother me, as I never ask him to understand. Masters live in a world apart and I've learned not to expect much.
Tim’s curiosity is brimming over at the moment. “Another Dream Master? Where? What’s he doing here?”
“Relax, Tim. He’s not here for you. It doesn’t work that way.”
As I watch, Mike spots me and makes a beeline for my table. I know him best as “Spider”; I don’t think I ever caught his last name. Matching his nom de guerre, he's a thin, sickly man with pale skin and hollow cheeks. He looks like a bad wind could topple him.
The look on Spider’s face confirms the suspicion I’ve been harboring, and I let out a groan. I really don't need this. Doug glares at me, but keeps quiet since he knows I won't speak my mind until I'm ready.
When Spider reaches my table, there's a short silence. Neither of us wants to broach the topic of what's bothering him. Finally, he clears his throat nervously and says, "King -"
"Don't call me that," I immediately snap. "I hate that name."
"I'm not the King of Nightmares, I'm Dave Bender. I’d appreciate it if you remembered that."
He looks at me in silent surprise. I think he really hadn’t considered what that name means to me. Although we've met socially now and again, he doesn't really know me and doesn't know what to expect. He starts over. "Dave."
I motion toward a chair. "Go on, sit down and tell me what it is."
Doug makes a loud noise in exasperation as his patience comes to an end. Tim seems to agree. "What the hell is going on?" I sometimes have to reassure people that Masters aren’t telepathic in the stereotypical sense. We don't read minds as if looking at a newsvid. Events like this don't help my credibility.
"I don't really know, but he's going to tell me."
Spider straddles a chair and quirks an eye at Doug and Tim. "They’re cool," I tell him. Spider seems to accept this, and stares at the floor as if hoping he'll find something there. I wait patiently for him to begin. Doug seems to resign himself to his fate and watches us over the brim of his glass.
Finally, Spider looks up. "Have you ever seen the Keller pieces in the Kestrov Art Museum?"
I shake my head, surprised at the non sequitor. "I rarely get to that part of town. It itches too much."
"I don't know about that. But this artist, Keller . . . have you ever seen him or his work? He's on the vids all the time."
"Art never really interested me."
"Keller's got it bad. There's something buried in him, something that has him so unbalanced that I'm amazed he's not totally loony." He gives a small shudder that doesn't escape me.
Tim can’t resist a joke. "I thought all true artists were supposed to be loony. I thought that's how they make great art."
The look on Spider’s face pains me, and I gesture at Tim to keep quiet. Spider continues. "I picked him up last month. I tried to weave him five times. I failed every time."
I'm on my feet, but I don't remember moving. Spider is supposed to be good, damned good. But good or bad, no one has ever failed to weave a dream that I’ve heard. And yet, it explains the look on Spider's face: the look of a man obsessed. It's the look of a man with the itch who can't make it go away. Normally, that's because they've lost their nerve, or their sanity. This is completely new. "What kind of man is he?" I whisper.
"He's an artist," Spider tells me. "He's also a machine. A cool, calm, collected and utterly emotionless machine. Nothing can touch him because he won't let it. I almost burned myself out fighting him, but he never lost his cool."
I force myself to sit and take a drink until I calm down. My mind races endlessly, asking: what kind of man can block the weave of a Master, any Master? I find no answers.
"You're the best," Spider says sotto voce. "You're the King." I give him a sharp glance.
"If you can't do it, I have to kill him," Spider finishes, undaunted. My eyes catch his. "You know I have to. He's in my head, and I can't get him out. One way or another, it's gotta end."
Tim looks like he’s going to burst from the need to ask questions, but a glance from me stills him. Doug frowns and begins to rise. "Hey," he says in a low, dangerous voice.
I place a hand on his arm. "No, Doug, it's all right." I give Spider a long look, regretting what I'm about to say, but knowing it has to be said. "I'll do it. I'll weave him."
Spider looks instantly relieved, as if his problems are over because I've stepped in.
I hate my reputation.
You'd think that to weave a proper dream for someone, it's best to get to know who that person is and what they're like. You'd be quite wrong. The material necessary for a proper dream is already there; I merely have to search the mind for what I need. Having a preset bias against that person can actually make the job harder. Thus, there is no need for me to research Keller, and I shouldn't be going to the Kestrov Art Museum to see his work. It could be detrimental. The fact that I'm naturally lazy means I avoid research whenever possible, but in this case my curiosity has the better of me. Who is this man who frustrates talented Masters, what is his foundation, what makes him so powerful? Perhaps there is a clue hidden in his art.
Keller's sculptures are -- to be blunt -- masterful. I walk through a labyrinth of genius where sculptures of intense imagery flowing from the floor and walls like a living testament to the wonders of one man's mind. One piece above all others catches my attention: an engine of some sort that causes cleverly sculpted pieces to orbit the nucleus in an endless variety of patterns. The dance is chaotic and flawless, unpredictably organized in a way that dazzles my senses. I lose track of time watching the spectacle, until all at once the pieces fall into place, and I stand before a perfect cube. Eternity passes while I explore the vast disarray of colored patterns joined in a precise geometric state. My mind sways between confusion and comprehension, making me unsteady on my feet. Then the cube breaks, and the world resumes its normal flow. I'm suddenly uncomfortably aware that a crowd has joined me.
"Amazing, isn't it?"
I jump, startled. "What?"
"Orbital Chaos." A perfectly ordinary-looking woman stands next to me with eyes riveted to the sculpture. "It's absolutely amazing. No matter how many times I see it, I'm always in awe of it. He spent three years making it, you know. Started with the solid cube and broke it down with a hacksaw. Absolutely incredible."
I manage to murmur noises that are appropriately reverent, but privately I wonder how this is so amazing.
"He used the very first of the Danzler Fusion Reactor models, tailored to his needs. The government hadn’t yet approved those early reactors, so he took a real risk there. He seemed to know what he was doing; he always does."
When my surprise at this sudden conversation fades, I take a good look at the women that has joined me. She's a short, petite woman with short brown hair and unremarkable features. Her clothes are of the finest material in the latest fashions, but she doesn't look like she belongs in them.
"Uh . . . don't take this wrong, but who are you?"
A girlish giggle escapes her lips. "I'm Jan, Janice Keller. I'm Sean's sister."
I blink slowly, thoughts racing to get organized in my head. Since I generally don't get to plan my contacts, this is an opportunity I can't pass up. "Sister? I -- didn't know he had any close family with him."
Jan favors me with an indulgent smirk. "New to this, huh? Sean is always talking about us in his interviews. He positively gushes about how blessed he was to have a family to support him during his Starving Artist years."
I give myself a mental kick. I should have checked this out at Action News, where I work. I've never seen any of his interviews. "Oh, uh, of course. You're right. Hey, do you think you could introduce us? I'd like to meet the man who can create such . . . images." I wave my hand vaguely toward the sculpture that had enthralled me. "Or would I be imposing?"
"Why?" She narrows her eyes in suspicion. "You think maybe his genius will rub off on you? Are you this week's undiscovered artist?"
When it comes to weaving dreams, subtlety is a strength I enjoy -- not so in social situations. This woman is sharp, and I'm just stumbling through the scenario. "Because . . . because I don't know anything about him that I want to meet him. One of my friends told me about this exhibit and suggested I come see it. I...uh...don't get out much."
She folds her arms and silently challenges me to test just how far I think I can get with her. "I believe that."
It’s amazing how quickly people come to that assumption about me. It isn’t fair. I decide that perhaps a frontal assault is in order. "Okay, my friend told me that Keller was having some problems, and told me that I could probably help him. I'm here to see what I can do."
She backs off, her arms uncrossing defensively. "Sean said he'd been having some strange dreams lately. Are you a Dream Master, or something? Did your friend try to give him a bad dream?"
I have no idea how to respond to this, and this only serves to heighten her suspicion. "You are one of them, aren't you? God damn it, I should have known your kind would show up sooner or later!"
There are reasons I prefer the company of machines, and this is one of them. Jan Keller is obviously a bigot where Masters are concerned. "Okay, you've got me. Yes, I'm a Dream Master. No, I don't know what his problem is, but I do know that he needs help. A friend came to me for help because he couldn't solve the problem. He thinks I can finish what he started."
She glares at me with considerable heat. "I thought so! I knew Sean couldn't keep the scum away forever. Well, let me tell you something: my brother is a good man, and he doesn't deserve the kind of treatment you people deal out. Just because he's talented and successful doesn't give you the right to try to leech off him! I won't let you blackmail him for some petty ransom!"
So much for the direct approach. "Lady, what are you talking about? I never said anything about money. I'm here as a favor, not to gouge him. You think I get paid for this? Who do you think I am, anyway?"
"For all I know, you could be that freak I hear about, that ‘King of Nightmares’ guy. What you do is immoral, and it's evil! I don't want my brother to have any part of you!"
I feel my face flush hotly at both the mention of my hated nickname, and the way she's described me. I start to protest again, then stop myself. During this lull, I notice that art patrons are staring at us and whispering excitedly among themselves. This might be the high point of their week. Happy to oblige, you ghouls. They've probably already called for security, but I hope not.
I'm about to launch into a tirade about Sharon White and the White Foundation and the true nature (so far as anyone knows the truth) about the Masters, but the words just won't come. Opening my big mouth is what got me into this argument in the first place, and there's really no point to arguing anyway. Maybe logic will open a door that prejudice has closed. "I can't tell you why I do what I do; I don't know. It isn't money, I promise you. I only know that when something goes wrong with people's lives, I help them. Your brother lost his balance somehow, and I can do something about it. That's how it works."
"I don't believe you." She says, and abruptly turns to leave.
"I don't want to hurt him," I call after her. "I don't want to hurt anyone. Please understand, if I don't do something, he'll suffer even more."
She walks away from me, pointedly ignoring my plea.
Something is compelling me to win her favor, to get her on my side, and I don't know why. Go with the inevitable, I always say. "Ms. Keller, I'm not asking you to understand this. I only ask that you accept it. Accept the reality."
My words touch her, but not the way I had hoped. She turns and glares at me with truly ugly and unpleasant eyes. "Truth? Reality? You deal in dreams, in nightmares. You cause pain and agony, and you want this for my brother! I can't accept that, and I won't. Stay away from him, Mr. King of Nightmares. Stay away from the people I love."
I let her go after that. What else can I do?
I spend a few minutes more looking at the intricate, seemingly impossible puzzle, mesmerized by its complex motion. Then it seems as though the room stinks of hatred and prejudice, and I head for the door. As I make my way toward the subway, I'm still pondering the nature of a sculpture that creates logical order out of seeming chaos and the mind that can conceive it. Then I feel a headache coming on, so I give up and hurry home. Philosophy is a dangerous path for me.
A few days pass and I come to the conclusion that Sean Keller is a recluse. For all my efforts I'm unable to reach him, and thus unable to establish the itch that will draw my mind to his dreams. Part of the problem is that I haven't hunted anyone since my early days, and I'm out of practice.
Whatever my own failings, I also believe Jan is doing her best to frustrate me. I trying to not resent her for it, but I can't help being annoyed and more than a little angry. I have a colleague who is in a bad way, and getting worse every day. Spider's taken to showing up at Doug's bar every night and driving us nuts with his psychotic tics. Last night he decided he wanted to take a taste of every Coke I ordered. I don't know if this is normal for him, but I'm starting to think one possible solution is to kill him instead of Keller.
As for Keller, I've run through all the interviews that Action News has on file, and I've even exhausted the archives from some of the other agencies like Art Digest and Celebrity Hunters. My supervisor is wondering why I'm pretending to be a news hound rather than the technician she hired. So I stop hunting and take the direct approach. I activate my vidphone and get Keller's unlisted number from the news archives. A moment later, my call is accepted by a receptionist.
"May I help you, sir?" Her face is bland and polite, typical for people in her trade. I should have known Keller would screen calls even through an unlisted number.
"My name is David Bender, and I wish to speak with Sean Keller."
"He's not available at this moment. May I inquire as to the nature of your call?" The dispassionate inquiry matches her bland countenance. Even her mousy brown hair does nothing to attract any attention to her. I briefly wonder if she has any romantic encounters beyond smut books. Then I realize I'm just tired of getting the run-around, so why not try pulling rank...such as it is.
"This concerns Dream Masters. I have reason to believe that he has need of our attention, and it is imperative that it be dealt with immediately."
For the first time, a flash of emotion comes to the surface. I feel like grinning, but I don't. It would be rude. "I -- I'll pass along a message that you called, sir." She breaks the connection with great haste.
I frown and turn off the screen. I suppose I hadn't really expected success, but I've run out of options. There's nowhere to go from here. I decide to get a Coke and think about it some more.
Halfway to the cooler, the phone beeps. I walk back and answer it. A young, dark-haired man with a plain, expressionless face looks at me.
There is a brief pause before he speaks. His lips move without disturbing his granite features. "Mr. Bender."
I nod, waiting for him to get on with it.
There is another pause. Then, "You talked to my receptionist a moment ago."
My eyes open wide. "Mr. Keller? I...I'm sorry, I didn't expect you to...I've been trying to reach you for several days. You caught me by surprise."
If anything, his face shows less expression than his receptionist had. Even his eyes betray only complete control. "I was unaware that you wished to speak with me."
"I spoke with your sister, briefly," I explain. "She seemed...opposed to the idea of my contacting you. I prefer physical contact over remote, so I didn't try the phone before now."
"You are the King of Nightmares, then." Seeing me bristle, he adds calmly, "I mean no offense. Jan told me that you had met, but did not give any details of your conversation. She only mentioned that she does not trust the Masters, and does not like you. I did a little investigating on my own and discovered who she had been talking to. I wish to assure you that I do not share my sister's paranoia that you are looking to blackmail me into giving you money."
I find Keller to be as fascinating as his art. I can find nothing about him that could be considered a strength or weakness. His speech is precise and there is no wasted movement in his actions. His control is so inhuman that I wonder briefly if he isn't a computer simulation of incredible sophistication. After seeing his art, I would believe him capable of almost anything.
"Mr. Keller," I say after brief thought. "A week ago a Dream Master made contact with you and found you unbalanced. He failed, for some reason. Could you offer any explanation as to why?"
"Why am I unbalanced, or why this Masters failed to balance me? I can answer neither question. I can only tell you that I have not had a successful nightmare since I was twelve. They have always turned into something less frightening."
I lean back and ponder this. Keller remains as before, solid as stone. "Are you aware that you're the only person in known history to have foiled the efforts of any Master?"
He gives a dry chuckle that has the appearance of humor, but I suspect is more for effect than anything else. His expressions are less emotional responses than calculated projections. I'm coming to admire him and his control. "The history of the Dream Masters is both short and unreliable, Mr. Bender. I'm sure there's no need to remind you of that fact."
"All the same, you take my meaning."
"Yes, I do. You have a strong reputation among your peers. I know you didn't earn your title for nothing, and it now appears that you disavow the mystique."
I don't try to hide the disgust from my face. "It doesn't convey the impression I want to make. I make no secret that I don't like it.
"But the Master who failed to balance you faces an additional problem. He feels an urge to balance your mind, and that urge won't go away until balance is achieved. If it takes too long, he could go completely insane. Insane Masters usually try to kill the people they're originally driven to help. Do you understand?"
Keller is silent for a while. It occurs to me that he's carefully weighing his options, looking for the best solution. Finally, he nods. "What do I need to do?"
I hear a shrill cry in the background, but I choose to ignore it. So does he. "Let's start by meeting in person. Then we'll see."
Keller nods again. It's the most energy I've seen from him since the beginning. "Meet me at the Art Museum tomorrow at four, since we both know where it is. We can talk more, then."
I close the connection, and sit back to think. Oddly, all I can think of is that I'd better be as good as people think I am. What scares me most is that I know I'm not, and I have the feeling that it's going to get me killed.
About thirteen minutes after four, I finally make it to the entrance of the Kestrov Museum. Keller stands by the door with folded arms. His eyes, as he picks me out of the stream of well-dressed art connoisseurs, are cold and sterile. Although I am not a particularly remarkable man, he manages to identify me with no difficulty whatsoever. "You're late," he says with no trace of annoyance. He gestures for me to precede him through the doors. I anxiously tug at my hair briefly, and do as he suggests. I'm a little out of breath for having run most of the way from the bus. Buses are not my favorite way to travel.
"I got held up in traffic," I say as I step into the building. He says nothing and takes up position at my side to lead me through the chaotic swell of people milling about the museum floor.
After a few minutes of silence between us, I venture to ask, "Where are we going, anyway?"
"I thought we might take a look at some of the more classical works of art. Modern art requires several educational degrees simply to comprehend."
"You see your art that way, then?" I ask, wondering if there's any way to punch through the imperturbable aura about him.
He looks at me and gives me a calculated wink. "I did not say that."
"But isn't your work considered modern art?"
"My work is considered my art. It does not conform to any accepted forms, either past or present."
"Maybe your art is the future, then? Do you see young artists learning from your vision?"
He doesn't answer, but skillfully leads me through the crowd, past little groups of people blocking the flow of movement and through large flocks of art lovers who appear oblivious to the world around them. It's my impression that Keller looks upon all this chaos with distaste, as if he regrets having to deal with rabble like them to make his living. I wonder if I can use that somehow.
In less time than I expect, Keller slows down and begins to pay more attention to the art that surrounds us. Following his lead again, I inspect a few paintings and sculptures, not really understanding what I'm seeing. I don't dare ask what we're doing or why we're here, and he seems to consider it obvious. Finally, I point to one outrageous painting and ask, "Why are the people depicted like that?"
"The painters of that era cared little for spatial relationships in their work. They preferred to paint the world as they figured it should be, rather than how it was. It was this type of thinking which prompted physicians and scientists to believe the established writings of ancient philosophers rather than their own eyes. The small men in line are ordinary, common folk awaiting ascension to a higher plane of life. The larger men are kings and nobility, angels and supernatural folk who are considered to already exist on that higher plane. You'll note that the artist depicts the line of small folk queued up behind an arch or doorway. Those who have already passed through have suddenly grown to giant size, and are greeted by Heaven's Host."
I brush a stray lock of hair out of my eyes and look closer. There appears to be little practical detail in the painting, but what he tells me makes sense. The small men look pitiful and wretched, while the giants have the bearing of proud, holy beings granted the status befitting them. I shrug and move on to a sculpture of a half-naked man in repose.
The afternoon drags on like that, with nothing in particular happening. We chat about trivial things, admire various works of art and discuss possible sources of inspiration. In a way, our work isn't that different since they both stem from the depths of the mind. All in all, I'm bored stiff. Art still doesn't interest me. Not once do we discuss the real purpose of our meeting, except as we part.
"Your sister doesn't approve of this," I say bluntly. "Why do you accept it so easily?"
He chooses his words carefully before speaking. "My sister loves me, as I love her. But what I do must be done. If there is no other recourse, then it shall be done."
I extend my hand in farewell. "I wish I had said that."
His pale eyes betray no nothing, but I'm aware that I'm being scrutinized carefully. Finally he reaches out and shakes my proffered hand briskly, then leaves me without another word. The significance of our handshake hasn't escaped him. Contact has been made, and I feel that familiar itch in the forefront of my mind.
The dream trance is an instinctive state for Masters connected with the itch. There is no preparation, no decision, no conscious effort to it at all. It simply comes upon us whenever we're alone and relaxed, and it always brings us directly into the dreams of our target. It's sort of like a heightening of the itch that tells us it's going to happen, and if it's not convenient, it requires a conscious act of will to avoid falling into the trance. That's at least one reason we're aware of that Masters go over the edge. If they push away the trance for too long (or, in Spider's case, can't finish the job), the itch will drive them crazy. Literally. Doug doesn't like it when I enter the trance, because I'm utterly vulnerable. My consciousness leaves my body and doesn't return until the trance is over. A siren blaring in my ear can't bring me out of it, because I'm simply not there. Doug constantly frets about my safety, and I certainly can't argue with him while I'm in the trance. He usually sets a guard by my door as I weave.
I prepare for bed, going over a small checklist as my body goes through the motions. I've called work and warned them I might not be in tomorrow. The news station's wiring and machines are in good shape, and I'm actually caught up for once. My boss doesn't mind the day off. I've warned everyone that tonight is the night, so no one will be worried if I don't answer the phone. As I've said, I have very protective friends. I'm not used to it yet. I never had friends before, but I'm not sure if I appreciate the circumstances. By the time I'm finished, I've gone through the checklist and have satisfied myself that everything is in order. I lay down to wait. Then I sit up and fluff my pillow; it's always too lumpy for me. As I lay back down, there comes a gentle knock on the door. Another friend of mine pokes her head through the opening. "Dave, you still here?"
"C'mon in, Sandy. I'm not blanked out, yet."
Sandra eases her lanky body through into the room and settles into a chair by the bed. "Thought you might have a minute to chat."
Sandra is the only one of my friends whom I don't consider a groupie. I never wove a dream for her, and she doesn't seem to care that I'm a Master. I don't even really know what she does, I just ran into her at another news station three years ago when she was looking for an expert on electronics for something or other. I assumed she was a news reporter, but that turned out to be wrong. I can imagine her first impression of me: tall, painfully thin and nervous guy talking more to the machines surrounding him than to her. I get along really well with machines, and I always have. Machines don't pull me into their minds and force me to discover secrets I'd rather not know.
I don't claim to understand Sandy, but I don't really care. There's something different about our relationship, and I cherish it. It has nothing to do with love or sex. In fact, there is no love or sex involved. To her alone I'm not The King, I'm just Dave. That's priceless to me. She says that she started talking to me because she found me with a book in my hands: The Collected Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. I had borrowed it from Doug, and to be honest, I found it remarkable bore. I don't have the courage to admit it.
"I don't mean to insult an old wound, but I kinda wonder 'bout something." Sandra pauses thoughtfully, and I wait for her. Eventually, she continues. "I know you agonize over what you do. A little piece of you dies every time you do it. This time, I think there's something else. I think there's a reason Spider couldn't balance Keller, and it's something you should consider."
We've talked about my feelings at length before. A lot of Masters think God oversees us and tells us what we need to do and whom to do it for. Perhaps He's the author of that infernal itch. Maybe everyone has a personal guardian angel that nudges a Dream Master their way if their minds become imbalanced. My pet theory along these lines is that our powers come not from God but from the Devil. I think He managed to inflict a curse upon us, that we must bear this burden upon our souls. It fits my worldview perfectly. It's one reason why I can't look in a mirror and ask myself what kind of monster I've become.
When she doesn't go on, I sit up to look at her carefully. Her bony face is tight with emotion. I see worry, not only for me, but also for something else. "I'm not following you. What are you trying to say?"
She sighs deeply. "I have a confession to make. I knew who you were before I met you in the basement of Action News. I'd been hearing about you at all the parties all over town. You were the new media and society sensation, and everybody was just scandalized to know you lived here. I might even have something to do with the nickname they ended up giving you."
My mouth is suddenly very dry. I swallow painfully a few times and run my tongue around my mouth to try to evoke a little moisture. It feels like I've just been stuffed full of cotton, both in my head and my mouth. Somehow, I manage to ask, "How is that?"
She looks absolutely miserable, and I'm sure my expression isn't helping any. She still continues doggedly. "I was at this one party where I heard nothing but this 'nightmare guy.' I swear, it was all anybody could talk about. Finally, I just blurted out, 'if he's so great, why doesn't someone crown him king?' Next thing I knew, Andy had written a column about you naming you The King of Nightmares. I didn't think about it until I came down and saw you with that book of Poe in your hand. I felt so bad after that.
"What I'm saying is, I believe things happen for a reason. I think there's a reason I bumped into you when I did. I believe there's a reason for Dream Masters, and why they didn't exist before this century. I don't know what it is, but I don't believe in coincidence. I think they represent a fundamental change in the world, and in humanity as a whole. That makes this thing with Keller even harder, because if the Dream Masters are here to serve a purpose, then there's also a reason Keller can't be helped by one. I think maybe his imbalance may be some sort of balance. Maybe he's supposed to be like that, and if you interfere, you could change something very important. You could destroy something he depends on. You could even destroy him."
Sandra and I have talked many times, staying up into the wee hours of the morning to do so (especially difficult when you know you really have to be into work the next day, but you can't bear to stop). We've poured our hearts out to each other countless times, but I've never had even a glimpse of this side to her. On one side I'm horrified that she was (is?) one of the people I've always hated, one of the people who make me feel small and insignificant. On the other hand, she's deeply moved by this thought of a cosmic fate, and that what I'm involved with now has something to do with it. The room blurs slightly, and I'm possessed with equally powerful desires to deck her and hug her all at once.
Finally, I say, "What do you suggest I do, Sandy?"
She slumps in the chair and gives me a sad smile. "I don't know, man. I know what you say when you talk about that itch you get. I did heroin for years, and I know what it's like to have something gnaw at you so bad you've gotta do something about it. But I can't shake the feeling that this whole thing is, well, wrong somehow.
"Have you ever seen his work? Have you seen the documentaries about him?"
Glad for a change of topic, I shake my head. "Only recently, and I haven't really digested them yet. I'm not a researcher. I saw a few pieces that were in the museum, though. One of them really struck me, called Orbital Chaos."
"Impressive, isn't it?" Sandra gives me a mirthless grin. "And orderly, too. It's very precise and controlled, just like the man. There's inspiration and genius behind it, but there's no passion. There's no humanity to him. Art is supposed to imitate life -- they tell secrets about each other. You know what I'm talking about; you're an artist, in your own way. The secrets you find include depth and meaning. Keller's secret is that life is a series of metabolic chemical reactions, existence without purpose."
I blink, beginning to see what's going on in her head. "Keller is, metaphorically speaking, an unmovable object. I am, in the same sense, an unstoppable force. Is that what you're getting at?"
She shrugs. "I don't think I'd put it that way, but yeah, that paradox says it all. You're a man who deals with life at its worst, and comes away with his humanity intact. Keller's a guy who lives in a life without hardship, but he has no humanity, or at least nothing I recognize. You're both unknown forces about to hit each other head on. Nobody knows what a Dream Master really is, or what force they represent. You're the best of the Masters. Keller is beyond anything you've ever seen before. Spider wasn't good enough to scratch his awareness, but you might be able to pound at the door. You could crack something, and that could be dangerous."
"To you both."
I absorb this in silence. Sandra shifts uncomfortably, but I see she feels better. I wish I did. She's right in some respects: Masters really aren't a known force. We don't know our own potentials, since most of the public research has gone into what we can't do, rather than testing the limits of what we can. I'm pretty sure of my own, but what is that? How accurate can that be? People call me The King because somebody remembered a nightmare I gave them and drew media attention. I knew a reporter at Action News put two and two together, and that resulted in a job for me. Now to find Sandra at least indirectly responsible for it; I don't know how I should feel about it. I realize after a moment that I can't. I can't feel anything about it now because I've got other things on my mind, so I have to focus on what she really came to talk about.
I don't know the limits of other Masters, so how can I compare my knowledge with theirs? Words simply can't describe my experience or my pain. I honestly don't believe I'm anything special. I hate what I have to do. I'm sometimes tempted to let the madness take me away, so I don't have to think about it anymore.
I look at her directly. "You know I can't turn away now. Even if I didn't have the itch, the Spider is depending on me. This has gone past choices."
"There are always choices," Sandra says quietly. "But...I know what you mean. I guess I wanted to be sure that you knew my thoughts on it."
I lean forward and clasp my hand to her shoulder. "I hear you, and I appreciate it. Thank you."
She smiles brightly as the tension leaves her face. "Good luck. I'll be outside if you need anything."
She leaves quietly as I lay back down to relax, and wait. This conversation is far from over, but I can't afford to deal with it now. Not right now.
The pillow is as soft as air, which surprises me. Either I'm far more exhausted than I thought, or Sandy switched pillows on me. Then again, the bed also feels intangible, as if I'm floating like a feather. The sensation doesn't pass, so I open my eyes. To my astonishment, I'm already in dream trance, having fallen into it so swiftly there were none of the customary feeling of transition. I become aware of a faint echo in my ears, the steady thump-thump of a beating heart.
My ears are assailed by a multitude of dissonant sounds, making me grit my teeth reflexively. Voices chatter endlessly, the multitude of them drowning out anything comprehensible. Underneath the cacophony beats a steady clang, like a hammer on an anvil, or a chisel to a rock. A noise like a host of horns and whistles sound off with a single long note, eventually fading out to leave only the steady heartbeat thumping endlessly. If I let it, it could become remarkably unnerving.
My feet come to rest on something solid, and my eyes open with a snap. I'm not sure when I closed them. I am in a vast field of green, tall wheat. There is no sun in the clear blue sky, but the world is filled with daylight. Though the land around me is filled with growing things, I'm acutely aware of the lack of scent, as if this is a two-dimensional scene.
"This is my dream," a voice says behind me. "I don't know what you expected, so I decided to start simple."
A gentle breeze ripples through the grasses, but I never feel it.
I turn to find Keller standing calmly as ever, contentedly chewing on a stalk of ripe wheat. He is dressed in a loose, comfortable gray jumpsuit, his expression controlled and bland as ever. His hair doesn't move with the wind, nor do his clothes wrinkle when he moves.
"You're aware of me?" I ask, unable to hide my surprise. This not good for me, and I'm sure he knows it. I have an inkling of why Spider failed, and I'm internally cursing him for exposing me to the same danger. I have no wish to go insane.
"Not in the traditional sense. My mind is aware of your intrusion, but my consciousness is not. For all intents and purposes, you are merely part of another dream I am having which will go unremembered in the morning." He pauses to twist the wheat around in his mouth. "To put it in simplistic terms, you are speaking to my chi, or my life essence. You might even say, my soul."
He turns to view his creation, and I observe an odd aura around his form. I take note of it and file it away for later. I've never seen it before, and can only begin to guess what it means. I probe around with my dream senses, looking for something to work with. To my amazement, I find little. Only snatches of memory and vague impressions of thoughts come to me; he's deliberately shielding himself. I concentrate and make a focused search for the significance of this place he has constructed. I discover he once watched a movie depicting a similar scene.
"What do you think?" Keller asks after finishing his inspection. "You are, after all, the expert in dreams."
I consider lying to him, but discard the idea. Now aware of his spectacular intelligence and dexterous mind, I have no doubt of his ability to see through lies. "It's very impressive," I reply. "But you're missing a few details."
When I don't elaborate, he waves a hand to me. "Go on."
I shake my head. "I think it best for you to discover them for yourself. An artist learns more through experience than correction."
"Well said." He smiles his lifeless smile. "If, then, you would care to lead by example?"
I approach slowly. "Perhaps. First, though, I think we should walk awhile. Let's put your imagination to the test."
He nods solemnly. "Very well. This is your element, after all, not mine."
I wonder how true that is.
We set off in what I assume to be a random direction. He is too much in control, too prepared for me. To weave a successful nightmare, I need to get him off-guard. I know he isn't sure what I'm capable of, but I think his chi believes it can dispatch me with the same ease it took to beat Spider. My burden is to prove myself superior. Put simply, it's time to earn my title.
We walk for a long time through identical fields of unripe wheat. The day is warm, and the breeze serves to keep us from being uncomfortable. Still no sun or clouds appear in the sky, and Keller's hair remains untouched by any wind, though I allow mine to get in my eyes until I produce a hair pony to tie it back. He doesn't take the hint.
We walk in silence, absorbing the ambiance of the dream. Keller's behavior remains bland and unremarkable. I weave a mosquito to buzz about his head, and I'm unusually pleased at the success of the weave, though he ignores the effect. He ignores it as he ignores all that is unimportant to him. Out of spite, I turn the insect into an angry hornet to sting him.
Faster than I can follow, he pins the hornet's wings between two fingers and holds it away. Then he throws it on the ground and crushes it beneath a bootheel. No flicker of emotion crosses his face at any time, but he makes the effort to say: "Petty."
I shrug mildly. "It needed doing."
"Oh? How so?"
"Simplicity is good, to a point. But after a while it becomes monotony, and you lose your audience."
He nods, his expression now thoughtful and contemplative.
I stop, suspicious of his display. I realize his strategy is so simple I'd overlooked it, as it appeals to my ego and pride. He hasn't missed any details any more than he needs my instruction. The flaws in this landscape are deliberate and precise, designed to make me underestimate him. His cleverness is amazing, but it frightens me as well. The man has more levels to him than any I have known; most of them artificial. I have to break through them all.
I make myself invisible to him, removing myself from the dream without leaving his mind. The sensation is akin to watching a vidscreen through disembodied eyes. He walks on, unaware (or apathetic) that I have left his side. Suddenly, he stops and looks around as though searching for me. I don't know his intentions, but I don't believe the surprise he shows. He says nothing and betrays nothing, as always. Eventually, he resumes his walk.
The dream fuzzes out as REM sleep shifts into something deeper, something I can't touch. I wait patiently in a corner of his mind, still aware of him and his consciousness. I suspect he is still aware of me, however that may be possible.
Time passes. It's impossible to tell how long I wait between dreams, since I don't have the capacity to gauge it. Eons will pass in a second, while the next minute will take all eternity. I have no frame of reference, so I don't worry about it. Eventually, a new dream begins to form, and I make sure I'm not manifested in it. I must literally play God in this arena; getting too close could be fatal.
Keller walks down a corridor of doors, his footsteps echoing hollowly on the wooden floor. Smoking candles burn lazily in brackets between doorways. The low ceiling is high above his head, occasionally giving way to swirls of mist and light. I insinuate myself into the dream, subtly weaving my thoughts into the fabric of this reality. Before long, I am in full control of events.
I gradually end the corridor, narrowing the walls until his shoulders brush the wooden panels. This first attempt to unnerve him has no effect.
At the very end I place a small wooden door. Through it, he can hear faint grunts and exclamations of heavy exertion. He opens the door quietly and steps through.
The room is large, like a ballroom. Bright lights shine from large globes overhead, which radiate faint auras of heat. There are no windows, only continuous wooden walls. The floor is constructed of sturdy wooden planks with thick mats on top. Even with the mats the wood creaks slightly when weight is placed on them.
At the moment, the floor is creaking loudly, for two giants grapple with each other in the center of the room. They stand within a ten-foot circle marked by a silk rope. Before Keller's eyes, one giant heaves the other over his massive head, then smashes the helpless victim across his knee. The spine snaps with a sound reminiscent of green wood.
Small men in red kimonos scurry up to drag the loser out of the circle. The victorious giant turns ponderously to face Keller. The eyes are tiny and bloodshot, but there appears to be no discomfort after winning the match. Only the thinnest sheen of perspiration covers his forehead, and huge veins protrude from bulging muscles. He lifts a massive finger and beckons Keller to join him in the circle.
Keller accepts the giant's challenge. As he steps inside the circle, I realize he has dressed himself in a loose black shirt and an Oriental gi. He stops four feet from the giant and bows respectfully.
As formalities are observed, I make a determined probe and discover that Keller is a master of the art of tai chi, an ancient and powerful martial art. I kick myself for not considering this possibility. After all, he had even referred to his own soul as the Eastern philosophers would: the chi.
A low rumble emanates from the giant's mouth, and he charges without warning.
Keller's aura flashes and he makes an impossible leap into the air, clearing the giant's head and landing softly just inside the circle's boundaries. Almost in the same motion, he twists and leaps again, his foot extended like the prow of a sailing ship. He connects with the back of the giant's head and brings the gladiator crashing to the ground.
Keller lands softly again, balanced and ready to re-engage. When he sees his opponent prone, he steps back and assumes a more relaxed posture. After a moment, the giant is back on his feet, glaring at Keller suspiciously.
My mind whirls. I struggle to remember everything I'd ever read or heard about tai chi, painfully aware that my knowledge is both sparse and probably inaccurate. However, one thing I know for sure is that masters of this art are expert in self-control. It fits the pattern. The next question is whether Keller's control stems from this, or if he learned it because it serves to reinforce his natural restraint.
The giant gets to his feet and makes another lumbering rush. I know this graceless oaf has no chance of beating Keller in a fair fight, so I weave extra cleverness into him. Keller sidesteps the onslaught and directs a powerful blow to the kidneys that makes the giant stumble. Thanks to my intervention, the giant manages to cast out a sweeping hand, which catches Keller across the side of the head. Now it's his turn to stagger, and I make sure that the giant doesn't let this opportunity slip by. In an instant, Keller is on his back, bleeding from the lip, pitifully vulnerable. I make the world spin like a top around him, making it impossible for him to get his bearings. I heighten the throb of pain and taste of his blood to distract him further. Then the giant brings his foot down with crushing force.
Again, that strange aura flashes, and Keller propels himself to safety before the foot can connect. He's instantly back up and on the offensive, throwing a flurry of kicks and strikes too fast to follow. The giant can do nothing except retreat.
Again I up the ante, and again, Keller sees it and raises the bid. We do it again and again and again. Long moments pass and the giant has done no more than cause Keller to work up a sweat. My champion is a heaving, bleeding mass, utterly ineffectual against Keller's impossible martial prowess. The stench of sweat and blood hang heavy in the still air of the arena.
Finally, I let the fight finish and the giant stumbles outside the boundaries of the ring after absorbing another one of Keller's devastating kicks. In a fit of perverse irony, I have the giant stand straight and bow to Keller.
"Good fight," he says. "Maybe next time, I not let you win, eh?"
Keller has no external reaction, totally in character. But inwardly, he lets slip a glimmer of surprise, and I catch it, my first victory. This is the first time I've seen him off-guard.
The dream dissolves into chaos and I settle into patient waiting, although my mind races with this new information. Keller's aura appears to be a manifestation of his subconscious. I'm becoming certain he's not even aware of it, or what it might doing for him. It seems to be an extension of the total control he has over himself; control so strong it hasn't had a proper challenge in a long time, resulting in powerful confidence. Thus, it only becomes noticeable when put to the test. I speculate that the only reason I noticed it before is due to his need to maintain the integrity of his dream arena.
His aura is important, there's no doubt of that. But how important is this to his psyche, and to his imbalance? Just how deeply rooted is it in his subconscious? Can he take conscious control over it when he needs to? Is he aware that it's there for him? Is he aware that he controls his dreams as he controls his life?
Control is the issue here. He has to be in control, if not directly, then as far as he can manipulate events to ensure the outcome. The dream arena showed me that he is both willing and capable of manipulating events to his satisfaction. The fight with the giant showed me that he's clever enough to know the minimum amount of manipulation needed to win. In the former, he took total control over the situation to try to deceive me. In the latter, he simply remained calm and used his abilities to their logical end. This all points to supreme self-confidence in his abilities and in his competence for making decisions. He is cautious enough to not expose himself needlessly, but aggressive (or arrogant) enough to take risks other people wouldn't.
My thoughts return to his mastery of tai chi. Again, I ask if the art is the source of his control, or merely a logical extension of it? My approach depends on the answer. The former means that his control is an acquired habit, a learned trait. The latter means that control is a part of his mind and soul, and to break it would be to break him completely. Sandra's words of warning come to mind.
I spend some time considering various strategies as I wait for Keller to come back to REM sleep. When he does, I am prepared.
The sea is endless. Gentle ocean swells lift the small sailing craft up and down in perpetual monotony, as regular as the ticking of a grandfather clock. The breeze is light and airy, filling the sails with a steady push and smelling of saltwater. The sky is dotted with white, fluffy clouds, distant and non-threatening. They move with the wind, occasionally passing overhead before racing each other to the horizon and beyond.
Keller stands at the helm with his back to the wind and his face to the spray of the ocean. With firm, confident hands he shifts into the wind, tacking as needed, always following magnetic north.
He sails all day, never wavering from his course. When he gets hungry, he finds an adequate supply of food below decks. He picks out an orange and a strip of jerky with a flask of fresh water to wash it down. There are no concerns in his mind, nothing to focus on or fret over. Occasionally, he secures the wheel to sit by the port railing, where he watches the light green water lick the hull as it passes by and froth in the wake. The occasional spray that showers him is cold and brisk. His thoughts are as inscrutable as ever.
The sun sets, throwing off a green flash before dipping below the skyline. Night falls swiftly to reveal stars that shine with uncommon brightness. He looks up at their winking lights and for a moment I think he's tempted to wink back, as if there's a cosmic secret they both share. He doesn't wink, but makes his way to the main sail to check the rigging.
Without warning, the boat capsizes, throwing him into the water. He is caught during exhalation, which makes him take in a bit of water when he lands. Though the taste of the saltwater is unpleasant and the cold water hits him like a shockwave, this doesn't phase him and of course he's an excellent swimmer. I don't catch even a hint of his aura as he makes his way back to the overturned boat. What he hasn't realized is that the boat has begun to sink, and it disappears under the surface when he draws near. The undertow drags him down as well.
Keller doesn't panic or lose his composure; he's made of sterner stuff than that. With strong, swift strokes he kicks for the surface, his arms and legs propelling him with remarkable speed. His aura becomes visible to me, although still faint.
I increase the tug of the undertow, forcing him farther down. He doubles his efforts. I double mine. He doubles his again. The aura glows a little brighter.
I let the rigging come lose in the boat, and part of the sail swings around toward him. He ducks the boom, but I tangle him up in the cloth, forcing him to turn his attention to it for a moment. It's all I need. Suddenly, he's turned around so his head is facing the ocean floor and his feet are toward the surface. I release the pull against him, and allow him to slowly drift up.
The result is better than I'd hoped. He fights his way back down toward the depths, unaware that he's going in the direction he was struggling against earlier. I suppress my elation and tease him with a brief tug in the opposite direction. He stubbornly resists.
Now I can afford to detach myself and simply watch. His face is red, turning blue. I can see the first hint of desperation in his eyes, and his aura is glowing brightly. His environment is not under total control due to his desire to let things play out as naturally as possible. But his efforts toward manipulating events are failing, because in order to manipulate them, he must also manipulate me. This, he cannot do.
The thump-thump of a heartbeat reaches me, but I ignore it. I don't know if it's part of the dream or if it's something he's sending to me, but I can't let it distract me.
His aura flashes, and his head breaks the surface. He takes in a large breath of air to restore oxygen to his badly deprived body. My mind sways between amazement and outrage; this scene is supposed to be under my total control. He was heading in the wrong direction, although he wasn't allowed to realize it. When his subconscious was not allowed to win, it changed the rules.
Of course, I'm quite used to changing the rules.
In the next exhale, something cold and slimy wraps around his ankle and drags him down again. I see him involuntarily gag before restoring control. He kicks decisively and slips free of the unknown danger, but two more cold somethings grab him, one around his upper thigh, the other around his stomach. The latter gives a quick squeeze, and what little air he has left is lost. His eyes bulge out for a moment, and the look of desperation returns to his face. The warmth of his body is rapidly draining into the icy cold water, and the even colder grip of the creature that has him in its clutches.
His aura flashes, and something else rises from the depths. Monstrous bubbles. I manage to burst most of them, but he sticks his head in one and snatches a breath of air. It pops after his body is refreshed, and he renews his fight. He frees himself, and kicks for the surface once again.
The thumping heart beats a little faster, and the volume increases dramatically.
I bring the squid into full view, letting him look into dark eyes that gaze on him unrelenting. It's a monster, of course, fully twice the size of the ship he had been sailing. The beak-like mouth snaps shut in anticipation of an easy meal. Four more tentacles reach for him; three catch hold. Quickly, more and more of them slip through the darkness to entangle him.
Again, the aura flashes, and he is free. He seems to have squirmed his way successfully out of the squid's grasp and slaps away another tentacle. He pumps his legs vertically to get distance from the creature, having decided to worry about air later.
The heartbeat is almost deafening now, but I let it wash over me and focus on the event before me.
I'm not going to let him get away that easily. The squid is in its element, and is alongside Keller in an instant. More tentacles find him and latch on, frustrating his efforts to break away. His aura flashes and he bursts away, only to be caught by a second squid. The beast holds him tight and rolls, coming between him and the surface. The suction cups gripping him pull and tear at his skin. The first squid rushes up from underneath to reclaim its prey. A mouth closes on his neck.
The next flash is utterly blinding, drowning out everything else. I feel a hideous pain in my head, and I open my eyes to find myself staring at the ceiling above my bed. I am no longer in the dream.
I let my hands explore my surroundings. I feel my thin mattress beneath me, the lumpy pillow at my head, the coarse blanket wrapped around my legs. There is no doubt about it: I had been kicked out of my trance, and specifically out of Keller's mind.
"Impossible," I whisper to myself. I can't believe it -- but I do. It happened, so I must believe it.
Then I can't contemplate it anymore, because my fatigue overcomes me. I sleep like the dead.
I am anything but an organized man. I can't even be bothered to cut my hair or keep it from falling into horrendous disarray, but I feel the need to visualize my thoughts. After a late morning meal, I sit at my computer and begin to type out what I know.
Keller is a very orderly and controlled man. It shows in his art, in his life, and in his dreams. Aside from outside influences, his dreaming is technically accurate, precise in detail, and for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from reality. I found no need for fantasy in his dreams. Fantasy is too...frivolous.
Keller resists loss of control, even if it violates the integrity of the dream or breaks the rules. I believe he doesn't like my involvement in his affairs any more than his sister does. When I sought to make contact, he acceded to control the situation. Had he forced me to establish contact when he didn't expect it, it would have been beyond his control. His reaction was to control the situation. He must always be in control. I feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck as I contemplate this. Something about it pricks the edge of my consciousness, and I have the feeling I don't want to know what it's trying to say.
Keller has superhuman control over his dreams. That aura was an incredible force, generated either by his formidable subconscious, or by something even deeper within his psyche. I pause to consider this. I hadn't given this much thought before, attributing the entity that had challenged me to the part of him that identified itself as "Sean Keller." However, something about the hypothesis doesn't fit. The force is at once subtle and unsubtle, powerful and irresistible. It takes whatever steps are necessary to defeat me, and when this fails, it resorts to something previously unknown in all the history of Dream Masters. It throws me out of the dream. Reflecting on this for a while, I finally put these thoughts into words. I was not just fighting Keller and/or his subconscious, I was fighting something buried very deep in his psyche.
Keller does not display human traits. He seems to be more like a robot than a person. I'm not implying that Keller isn't actually human, but that he doesn't want to be human. To quote from Sandra's book, everything happens for a reason. I decide that Keller has buried his humanity deep inside himself, trying to lock it away so that only cold, inhuman perfection shines through. The next question can only be "why?"
Keller is hiding something so overwhelming that he can't let anything get past his personal shield. If he does, he fears that whatever he needs to hide will be let loose, possibly with explosive results. That pretty much summed up the matter.
I switch off my terminal and turn to the vidphone. I call for Sean Keller, but Jan answers, instead.
"I thought I told you to stay away from my family, Mr. Bender," she tells me icily before I can say a word. Her mousy brown hair is done up in a fashionable bun, and she looks for all the world like she's about to go socialize with the mayor. "Why didn't you listen to me?"
I frown, a little taken aback by this twist. "Why are you on the phone? I don't want to talk to you, I want to talk to your brother."
"I don't think so. You've caused enough trouble already. You have no right to disrupt my brother's life, or anyone else. For the last time, leave him alone or I'll be forced to stop you."
"His life, Jan? Or yours?" I stare her down, not an easy feat through a video screen. "Are you afraid I'll bring your wonderful life to an end?"
"You're hardly in a position to judge me or -- "
"You have no right. Your brother's whole life is in imbalance because of something I can help to heal. You talk about love, but it sounds like greed to me. If you truly love him, put him on the phone right now. Otherwise, I'll go find him myself."
Jan looks off-screen and gives a startled yelp. I see her hand dart for the off switch, but she fails. A moment later, her face is replaced by her brother's.
"Mr. Bender, I wish to apologize for my sister's behavior. Her concern for me often precludes her better judgment."
"I understand completely."
To my surprise he asks me, "May I assume that you were successful last night?"
"Why do you say that?"
"I woke up in the middle of the night with an intense need to urinate. That is very rare for me. I can only attribute it to your work."
Curious. "To be honest, sir, I failed to achieve balance, but I have made significant progress. There are some things I'd like to discuss with you, one of them being the fact that you managed to throw me out of your dreams last night. That's never happened to me before. Would you tell me what you remember of your dreams?"
Keller pauses for a moment. Then he says, "I cannot think of anything. The only unusual event was waking up holding my breath, and needing to urinate very badly."
"What can you tell me about your childhood? Something that isn't mentioned in your bios or interviews?"
He shakes his head, smiling. "There's nothing hidden in my past. Everything that I was, or am now, has been as accurately detailed in the bios as is humanly possible."
Okay, new tact. "How about family or friends? Has anything unusual happened to someone close to you?"
For the first time, I think I see him hesitate. The pause is very brief. "I don't know if this is what you want to know, but....”
"Yes," I prompt eagerly. "Go on."
"My grandmother suffered a stroke when I was twelve. She was visiting us and suffered a seizure one evening while playing chess with me. She was rendered fully senile by the experience. As I said, I don't know if that is what you wanted, but it's the only thing that comes to mind."
It is, but I don't know why yet. It doesn't strike me as the sort of thing to cause an imbalance, but I never claim to understand the process in the first place. However, I recall his statement that he hadn't had a nightmare since the age of twelve. This makes a satisfying click in my mind.
"Is there anything else, Mr. Bender?"
"No, thank you very much. You've been very helpful. I'm confident that we'll be able to conclude this tonight."
"Very good, I shall see you in my dreams, as it were." He breaks the connection.
I turn off my phone and think for a while. Then I dial up Action News' mainframe to hunt for references to Keller's senile grandmother. It takes me the better part of the day and cross-references to three different databases before I find what I'm looking for.
Evening rises with a quarter moon, finding me at rest in my usual spot in Doug's bar. I half-heartedly sip at one of the soft drinks from South America. Like the other two before it, it tastes unpleasantly like glue paste.
Doug sits across from me, a mask of restrained impatience on his broad face. He nurses a gin and tonic and quietly quotes Poe. Other than Tim, we're all being rather quiet, due to Spider's annoying behavior. He nervously shells peanuts and pops them into his mouth with annoying guttural sounds. While we sympathize with his plight, he has us on edge. It could also be that I'm being more judgmental than normal, as I'm starting to feel the itch more than usual, but until I feel Keller go to sleep, there's nothing I can do about it.
Sandra is also part of our group tonight, but she's not exhibiting any nervous (or obnoxious) behavior, so we barely notice her. She sits slightly apart from our table; her long, gangly legs propped up in another chair. She's wearing one of the skintight jumpsuits that outlines her body, which is unfortunate because she doesn't have enough meat to hide her bones. I don't pay attention to what she's drinking. We haven't yet finished our discussion about her role in my dubbing of The King of Nightmares. Both of us are avoiding it, at least for now.
“What about the stories I’ve heard, about Masters who went on killing sprees?” Tim asks bluntly. He seems to ignore the way Spider and I involuntarily flinch. “Is that just part of the paranoia people have about them?”
He would bring that up. Not all of the stories told about Masters are fairy tales.
“Those Masters were driven insane,” I answer quietly.
“Why?” Tim wants to know. “Did their own dreams drive them over the edge?”
Spider opens a peanut shell with a loud crack and pops the meat into his mouth. He crunches the nut loudly as he attempts to answer the question. “It happened because they didn’t know what they were.”
Tim looks confused. “I don’t understand.”
I shrug helplessly. “Tim, when Masters first began to be noticed, nobody knew what was happening. Even the Masters themselves. When I first felt that itch, I honestly thought I was starting to go insane. I’d start feeling light-headed at the oddest times, and I got the thought in my head that if I actually fell asleep, I might never wake up. After a few days of staying awake, the itch became so obnoxious I took painkillers for it, and they knocked me out. That’s when I realized what I’d become. Those homicidal Masters didn’t realize they were weaving dreams for people, they only knew that every now and then they’d start feeling strange and they’d have the oddest dreams of their lives. Some of them realized that the strange feelings started when they bumped into certain people. If they made those people go away, so would the strange feelings. That’s what started public hysteria about Dream Masters.”
Tim looked aghast. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
Sandra speaks up suddenly. “That’s okay. Neither did they. It wasn’t long before people suspected of being Dream Masters got publicly lynched. If it hadn’t been for Sharon White, I don’t think Dave would have survived puberty.”
“I still don’t get it, about White,” Tim continues. “According to history, she managed to turn everything around within a decade. I mean, I realize she was a member of the United Nations when she came out, but how could she convince everyone that they were fighting the wrong bogeymen?”
“You’ve got me there,” I admitted as I started into my next Coke. “I’m not a historian, just an electronics tech. From what I’ve heard, if White hadn’t admitted she was a Dream Master and created the Foundation, she might have gone on to become the leader of the Free World. You don’t get that far without some serious social skills. All I know is that because of her, I could walk into City Hall and interrupt the Lord Mayor in a meeting just by claiming business as a Dream Master. I don’t know what White did, but I’m glad she could do it.”
Conspicuously quiet throughout this exchange, Doug suddenly murmurs, "But see, amid the mimic rout,/A crawling shape intrude!/A blood-red thing that writhes from out/The scenic solitude!" I look at him to ask what he’s on about, when I see him staring into the mirror in the back of his bar. I quickly twist my head around.
Janice Keller stands in the entrance to the bar, looking around calmly. It seems to me that her calm is a thin veneer; she looks ready to pull a gun out and shoot everyone in the room. Considering the average clientele, I have to admit that's probably a good guess.
She spots me and makes her way over to our table. Tim looks ready to intercept her, but I stop him with a touch. When Janice arrives, she plants her feet squarely in front of me in a bearing that suggests not even an earthquake could sway her.
"Good evening, Jan," I say pleasantly. I notice Spider staring at her with acute dismay, while Sandra favors her with a curious expression.
"I'm here to warn you for the last time. Stay away from my brother." Janice’s speech is delivered with as much venom as she can possibly muster. I see a vein throbbing in her temple. Her plain features are drawn up with pure hatred.
"Ms. Keller, I'd like you to meet Mike Zbock, known in some circles as the Spider."
He extends an unsteady hand, but she ignores him disdainfully. "I'm deadly serious, Mr. Bender."
"And this," I say, as if she hadn't said anything, "is Tim Drake, Doug Bozeman and Sandra Bozeman, friends of mine. They have no reputation I'm aware of."
"Hello, Jan," Sandra says quietly. Jan sweeps her eyes over the table, but focuses on me.
"You don't seem to understand the seriousness of the consequences if you ignore my warnings, Bender. I won't give you another chance." I see the muscles of her jaw working furiously as she visibly restrains herself from trying to throttle me.
Doug begins to rise from his seat, but I wave him back.
"I'm aware of the consequences of heeding your warning, even if you aren't," I reply. "But what happens if I don't?"
I watch her teeth clench tightly. "Then I'll see to it that you never torture anyone else with your evil mind."
"Have a seat, Jan," I say, stealing Sandra's footrest from her. She offers no comment, but glares at me as she fetches another one.
"I won't sit with you."
"Sit down," I say. This time, I let Doug and Tim assist her firmly into the chair I've offered. After she's firmly entrenched, I continue. "Does Sean know what you're doing?"
"No, and he has no need to know."
"What if he finds out?"
"He won't find out."
"But what if he does?"
"What will you do? Seek a court injunction against me? The courts already ruled that Masters cannot be interfered with in the course of their work. You can't stop me legally."
"There are other ways."
I sit back and rub the bridge of my nose. "Jan, if you have me killed, Sean will find out. He'll know that I never completed my task. He'll hear on the news that I was murdered. I have enough friends to ensure that. Both the Feds and the White Foundation will investigate the death of any Master. One way or another, he will know."
I've struck a chord there. She immediately casts her eyes down in her lap and watches her fingers twist together uncomfortably. "I never said anything about murder," she whispers quietly.
I raise an eyebrow at this. "Incapacitate me, then? Make me into a vegetable or a babbling lunatic like your grandmother? Claim it was my efforts to screw with Sean's superior mind that scrambled my brain?"
She says nothing, but continues to fidget with her hands in her lap.
"It would still be uncovered. The Foundation would still investigate, if only to find out what can do such a thing to a Master. And my friends would certainly tell all they know. Enough people know of my efforts to help your brother, and of your attempts to interfere. Sean will know. What do you think he'll do then?"
"He won't know," she insists, looking up again. There's a glint to her eye that reminds me of a religious fanatic. I seriously doubt she's in her right mind at the moment.
"He'll cast you out of his life."
"He can't find out."
"He'll cut you off from his success and prosperity. He'll banish you."
"I'll destroy you."
"You'll destroy him and yourself."
There is a long, strained silence. She gets up and heads for the door without another word. I can't help but notice that a path opens for her as she leaves. Everyone is glad to see her go. It's odd to see a small, plain woman command so much respect from men and women I could see happily mugging her or worse.
Doug relaxes visibly. "She's going to try to kill you, now."
I can only stare at him. How can he say such a thing calmly? Then I shake my head. "It wasn’t in her eyes. She won't risk giving up everything that her brother brings to her, everything that her brother means to her. We both know it, and she hates me for it. But she won't risk losing out of her brother's life."
Doug gives me a hard look. "What if she thinks she'll lose it anyway?"
I don't have an answer to that. I take a long pull at my drink, and regret it. I'm not going to listen to his suggestions anymore.
"There's something else," Sandra says in her quiet voice, and we turn to look at her. I see confusion in her eyes. "She's not herself at the moment."
"Why do you say that?" Spider asks, absently pulling at a lock of his hair. I grab his wrist in a firm grip and guide it back down to the table. He starts drumming his fingers on the wood, so I give up.
"She knows me." Sandra pauses, gathering her thoughts. "We're in the same circles. And--well...she made a pass at me not too long ago. She knows me. Tonight, she didn't recognize me any more than Spider or Doug."
We absorb that in silence. Tim finally speaks up. “What do you think it means?”
"I don't know," she says softly. “I just know it is.”
The world blinks, and I am no longer in my room, preparing for my trance. Again, I've been sucked into the dream without warning, and without transition. Fortunately for me, I expect this ploy.
Again, Keller stands in an endless field of new wheat, patiently awaiting my return. This time, he doesn't bother with petty trickery. A bright sun hangs low in the sky, occasionally obscured by thin cloud cover. A gentle wind blows through his hair and fills my ears with its soft whisper. There is a scent of earth and growth, with just the barest hint of decay. The ever-present heartbeat sounds off in the distance, ticking away the seconds of someone's life. I don't know if it's his or mine.
I note his aura in place and glowing brightly with the effort of maintaining the landscape. The message is clear to me: the gloves are off. There will be no more posturing, no testing or taunting. He will deal with me as an intruder, a threat to his psyche. In this, little has changed, so I wait quietly.
A long time passes as we wait. Finally, he says, "You are much stronger than I'd anticipated. Far stronger than the other."
I shake my head. "You deceived him, made him underestimate you. Even when he was beaten, you still hid your strength. He was too confident, too unsuspecting."
"You were not."
"I came in full of suspicions. Had I attempted to weave for you first instead of Spider, I would have fallen prey to the same tricks."
"Or perhaps not."
"And now, the time for trickery is past. We're too clever for each other, too strong in our abilities. I know that you are more skilled in dreamcraft than I, and more powerful in your weavings. But you also know that I am capable of subverting your efforts, and banishing you if I choose. Thus, we are at an impasse."
"I don't buy that. I was thrown out because you woke up. You said you didn't know why, and I believe it. You were about to lose control, and thereby lose the game. Had I been prepared, I could have reentered your dreams the moment you fell asleep and we would have started over. Eventually, the strain of having this itch in my head would drive me insane, and you would come out the victor. You're still trying to trick me into underestimating you, to keep the game continuing until I'm forced to withdraw."
"I can control my diurnal rhythms. I need not confront you to beat you. I can change my sleep patterns so that you cannot follow."
"That would alert your conscious self. But one way or another, I could slip sedatives into your food and drink, and force you to face me. The only way out of that would be to alert your ego, to warn yourself not to trust me."
"Suppose I do just that?"
I fold my arms together and stare him down. "Yes, tell me. What if you do?"
His eyes waver and break contact. He doesn't answer.
"Yes, I found out. You're hiding something from yourself. Something that must be hidden so badly that alerting your ego might shake loose something else, something that you've spent years holding down. That's why you're so inhuman. You don't dare let anything slip through the cracks."
He stares at me with raw contempt. "You presume to think you know what drives me?"
I transform into the image of his grandmother as she looked in the last representation of her bio. "I have an idea," I say mildly.
There is an instant of shock, which passes quickly. His face contorts as he visibly exerts control over himself. "You know nothing," he tells me. "You know nothing at all."
He winks out of existence, followed by the dreamscape. Only the heartbeat remains.
I drift through limbo, making an exhaustive search for a specific memory to use. I know I've scored another victory and made a chip in the seamless armor of his mind. Once the foundation starts crumbling, the rest should come down fairly quickly.
Once I find what I seek, my thoughts again turn to the formidable strength of his mind, both conscious and unconscious. Unbalanced minds are eager to find balance, to rid themselves of the spiritual chaff that accumulates. Keller, however, is quite the opposite. He welcomes his imbalance; he protects and cherishes it as a treasure and lifeline. I wonder if this is the root of insanity in us all. Instead of rejecting his horrors, he internalizes them and seals them away.
A dream begins to form; I instantly take it over and make it mine. I summon the memory I've selected from Keller's past and make it the focus of my weave.
The Keller house is small and spartan, typical of a working family with too many needs to be fulfilled by their meager income. All the same, there is a certain dignity and pride about the place. The walls are dotted with ancient photographs and paintings of family ancestors. The furniture is antique and part of a cherished heritage; matters of good repair and comfort have become secondary. The Keller house is not cozy, but it is home and it is proud.
Young Sean sits on the floor opposite his revered Grandmama, who perches in a high-backed chair with stately grace. They are playing chess, a game in which Sean finds he excels. Grandmama has the black army, and has just lost a knight to one of his pawns in a forced sacrifice.
"Control, Sean," she tells him in her authoritative, yet maternal voice. "That's the key. To win, you must always maintain control. If an opponent threatens you, you must remove the threat. If he is stronger than you, you must bend under him, let him underestimate you. Thus, he expends his effort without truly harming you."
She moves her remaining knight to Queen's Rook Four, making it a tempting target. "If you can stay in control of yourself and your situation, you can always overcome."
Sean takes the bait, and pounces on the helpless knight with his bishop.
Grandmama takes his bishop with her queen. "Do you understand the concept of sacrifice, Sean?"
"Yes, Grandmama." He instantly reaches out with one of his guardian knights to capture the offending queen.
"Do you?" She slides one of her rooks to King's Rook One, trapping his king inside a wall of his own pawns. "Check and mate."
He stares at the board, horrified. "But -- I....”
"It doesn't matter how many of my pieces you have, David. As long as I maintain my control, I can sacrifice everything until you leave yourself vulnerable to the winning move. Just by attacking me you made yourself defenseless."
Sean's face begins to turn red. His aura glows brightly, but it isn't part of the here-and-now. This is part of the memory. The heartbeat pounding in the background becomes a little louder, as if to protest. "That isn't fair! You tricked me!"
"Yes, I did. I tricked you to teach you the value of control," she tells him sternly. "You took the most obvious path without consideration for how much control you lost. I lost battles, but I won the war because I was always in control."
"That's not fair!" He yells, tears coming to his eyes. His parents look at him with concern and annoyance. His aura glows brighter by the second.
"Sean, restrain yourself! A show of temper will do nothing but make you hyperventilate. Control, Sean. Always remember to be in control, even in defeat." She places her hand on his shoulder. "Do you hear me?"
He strikes away her hand, blinded by his tears. "It's not fair! You cheated!" He screams.
His father stands up, visibly angry with his son. "Here now, I think that's enough."
Grandmama grasps his hand firmly, forcing him to focus on her. "Sean, listen to me. I.…" She pauses, and gasps for breath. "Sean, you . . . I . . ."
She topples, still holding his wrist in her hand. Sean snaps back to reality and his aura disappears instantly. He screams and tugs free of her grip, but doesn't move away from her. "Grandmama? Oh, Grandmama, please! I didn't mean it, honest! I didn't mean it! Please, don't die! I'll never do it again, I swear! I'll always stay in control, like you said! Grandmama, don't die!"
I silently congratulate myself. Keller's aura glows as brightly as I've ever seen it, but he doesn't control it. There's nothing for him to control. This is his memory, not a fantasy, and I've gone to great pains to keep the memory intact. Even so, the scenario needs a little adjustment to accelerate the process. I know just the right catalyst.
Grandmama suddenly reaches out and grabs him by the hair. He shrieks with genuine fright, and the volume of the beating heart rockets up.
"Control, Sean! Remember what I said about control! Is this control? Are you in control now? Here I am, dying because of you, and still you fail me! Am I to die in disgrace because of your failure? Do you want my death on your head forever?"
"No, no!" He screams shrilly. "It isn't my fault! I didn't mean to! It just slipped out! It did! I'll never do it again, I promise! Never again!"
Wait a minute. What slipped out? Do what again? I can't stop to ask, so I drive on mercilessly.
"It is your fault, you little shit! Your fault! The Keller name is in disgrace, and it's your fault!" Grandmama's eyes bulge, the bloodshot orbs protruding hideously from their sockets. She slaps him, her brittle old skin abrasive against his cheek. When she shouts at him, her breath stinks of age and stale cigarettes. "Damn you and your lack of control! You should be the one crippled and dying, stinking in your own shit, not me! You should be dead!"
"NO!" Keller, the child, screams.
"NO!" Keller, the adult, screams.
The world explodes in a blinding flash of light and thunder.
When my vision returns, I'm in the middle of a dead, dry field. Brown stalks of decaying wheat lay on the ground, crisp and burnt under the fierce, blazing sun overhead. The smell of corruption is nauseating, but I acknowledge it and put it away. The heartbeat is running fast and hard, but the volume is bearable.
"My sister was right. You're the incarnation of evil."
Keller stands nearby, dressed in the same black shirt and gi he wore in the fight with my giant. He radiates danger, but I refuse to react to it.
"You were right, too. I don't know. Grandmama taught you control, but something else turned you into the android you've become. You were saying something about it being your fault, but I don't see why."
"I -- I hit her. I destroyed her."
"You never touched her."
"Not with my hands, fool! With this!" He points to his temple, then extends his hand in a sweeping gesture. The dead wheat turns to ash and the wind whips it into my face to choke me with the stench. "I struck out at her with my mind! I lashed out at her in my anger, and threw all of my uncontrolled emotions into her consciousness. I annihilated her sanity, and ended her life as she knew it."
I gape openly. "Then...that aura...."
"It is my strength!" His face twisted with rage, Keller launches himself toward me, his foot extended in that devastating kick of his.
I will myself out of the dream, out of my trance. I fail. The astonishment almost kills me. However, before he can touch me I become intangible. The shock of it all makes me lose my balance, but I am otherwise unharmed. Keller lands and screams with primal fury. Suddenly I am tangible again, and I can't phase back.
He rushes toward me, fists striking out with deadly accuracy. I draw on my own resources to block hastily; there is little grace to it, but it works. He continues his attack, driving blow after blow at me, forcing me back. I try to dance away, to find an opening to run and escape him, but he defeats me at every turn. Finally, he breaks through my defenses and drops me with a fist in my gut.
"Control!" He shrieks. "You see why there must be control?" He kicks me viciously, forgetting any training as he puts as much brute force into his attacks as he can. I feel a rib give way, and my left side burns in agony. "Now that you've broken my control, I'm going to kill you! Are you happy that you've won?"
He strikes me again and again, and all I can do is lay there and take it. Pain sears through my body with every strike, every movement I make, every breath I draw. The heartbeat pounding in my ears has increased in volume and tempo, beating out a staccato of death. The sheer intensity of his fury is enough to blot out any token of resistance I might have. He is truly killing me.
Strangely, I think of Sandra's paradox, and I regret that I can't tell her that the unmovable object had cracked, and the unstoppable force destroyed. Through the haze of pain I see her face as she tells me the dreadful story of how she bestowed that damned name on me. I can hear Doug's deep, gravelly voice quoting Poe while serving up drinks. I can feel the vibration on the table while Spider attempts to shed a manic energy that won't go away. I see my own homely face in the mirror as I realize for the first time that the world of nightmares is truly my home. The heartbeat stops.
All is still. The world is quiet. I look up to see Keller poised in mid-kick, an expression of pure astonishment on his face. I stand free of pain; the blood and bruises on my body are gone.
"This is a dream," I say quietly. "A fantasy. The only way you can touch me is if I let you. I won't let you anymore."
"But, my strength -- "
"Your strength is different from mine. It's awesome and unfathomable, but out of its element. You have no power over me here. This is my domain; I am the master here. I am the King of Nightmares, and you can't hurt me."
"I'll destroy you anyway! When I wake up -- "
"What?" He is caught off-guard, and his body relaxes. It's an amazingly effective question.
"Why when we wake up? What power do you have?"
"Why, it's . . . I --" he stops, uncertain.
"You're a new kind of Master, aren't you? A new direction for human evolution, or maybe an old one just now come into its own. I don't know. But you are unique, even apart from your strength of will."
He stares at me. His face is a mixture of horror and wonder. "It…you're right. I killed Grandmama with a power like none have ever known before. Her death heralded my ascension."
I shake my head, but there is a smile on my face. "There's more to it than you think. Grandmama was right: control is necessary, particularly when dealing from a position of strength such as yours. I now know the source of your imbalance. Your control has always been a facade. You've never been in control; you've been faking it so long that even your chi is afraid to face it. But now, more than ever, you must have control."
I shift my form, becoming Grandmama. "This was an accident," I say with her voice. "But it could happen again."
I shift into Jan's form, and assume her voice. "It could happen when you least expect it, to someone close to you."
I shift into Keller's own form. "In the end, it could destroy you." Quietly. "It almost destroyed me." He looks into my eyes, and I think I see understanding in him.
Keller stands motionless for a while. The dream arena dissolves into nothingness, but we remain as we were. Finally, he nods.
His aura flashes, filling my mind, my consciousness, my being....
I wake up with a soft pillow beneath my head. My temples ache, and my shoulder feels like it's on fire. There's a horrible taste in my mouth I can't even begin to identify. In fact, my whole body feels like the loser from a head-on train collision. I blink against the harsh light over my head, and groan.
I hear a chuckle. Then,
"Out -- out are the lights - out all!
And over each quivering form,The curtain, a funeral pall, Comes down with the rush of a storm,And the angels, all pallid and wan, Uprising, unveiling, affirmThat the play is the tragedy, 'Man,' And its hero the Conqueror Worm."
There is a sharp click, and the light dims down to a more bearable level. I gradually focus on Sandra standing over me, smiling down with the chain in her hand. I turn my head and see Doug sitting in a chair with his right arm bandaged and carried in a sling.
"Sandy? Doug? What the hell happened?" To my ears, my voice sounds harsh and brittle. It also feels like I've been gargling with shards of glass.
"Janice Keller is what happened." He grins at me and winks at Sandra. "She hired some goon to help her take you out. Bastard got me in the back before I shot him. Janice got a knife into you in the meanwhile. If Sandy hadn't been there, you'd probably be fit for basting in somebody's oven."
"Is she -- "
"She's fine," Sandra interrupts. "She's just got a headache from the bump I gave her, but she's screaming for your blood and Sean's. The Feds are holding her pending psychiatric evaluation. You, however.…" Her voice trails off in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
"What happened to me?"
"She got you good, man. She almost got you too good. Everyone thought you were dead. The knife pricked the edge of your heart. You died twice on the operating table, but the doctors say that some miracle brought you back. They say you shouldn't be breathing right now, but here you are." Sandra sits back in her chair and hugs herself tightly as she speaks. Her eyes have a faraway look of pain and memory.
I ponder this. "He sent her after me."
"You mean that Keller was -- "
"No, Doug, not in the sense that you're thinking. He didn't arrange for this to happen, not on any conscious level. His chi was in control of events, so...God I hurt. I'll explain it later." I promptly fall into a deep, peaceful sleep. I don't wake up for another twenty hours.
Keller and I stroll through the Kestrov Art Museum, admiring the various sculptures around us. We have come to mourn (or is it celebrate?) the removal of his work from the building. The impression I get from him is mixed; his career as an artist is over, but his life as a Master is just beginning.
"I'm the next evolutionary step," he is saying as we walk. "Just as you are. It takes a Dream Master to unlock the potential of a Mind Master. It shouldn't have been so hard with me, except for the guilt I felt with Grandmama. I spent my life attempting to control and hide it, only to discover that it had been controlling me. Soon there will be more like me coming into their own, and I shall be there to help guide the way." He tosses his lengthening hair out of his eyes in a gesture intimately familiar to me, but he doesn't seem to notice it.
"At least you won't have to put up with childish nicknames," I grumbled. "But I'm glad we were able to make this first step. If it weren't for my own problems with control, we could have avoided certain unpleasantries. Now, thanks to you, I can look Sandra in the face and forgive her."
We stop to look at a beautiful sculpture in marble. It is a depiction of Achilles as he falls from the fatal blow to his heel. Keller notices my gaze.
"Are you finding interest in the classical arts?"
I shrug, a little embarrassed. "Your personality fragmented in those moments when you were beating me to a pulp. It had to so it could reassemble into something capable of accepting the reality of your power. I suppose that, in the process, some of those fragments were imprinted on me." I run my hand along the smooth lines of Achilles' sword. Absently, my fingers tap out a staccato beat, and when I recognize it I force myself to stop. "I'll probably be spending the rest of my life figuring out what I picked up from you. The headache you gave me was certainly memorable enough."
Keller smiles an honest smile, which I am grateful to see. "Do you think you'll take up sculpture, as I did?"
"No, I think painting, maybe. I can't really afford the kind of space that sculpture requires, even for clay. Also, paintings would best convey the images in my mind. My world has always been less deeply rooted in the concrete than yours. My images are more...ethereal."
"Of course. Our type of genius requires the proper medium for expression. I started with rock, and I'm moving on to even greater things. Even now, I'm aware of things far less...mundane."
I smirk. "That sounds almost ominous."
He looks at me seriously. "My awareness is expanding constantly, sweeping toward greater and greater levels even as we speak. I am conscious of the universe at the very molecular level, and will soon be reaching the subatomic. On the other end, I'm aware of galaxies from one end of the universe to the next, and I'm getting glimpses of universes beyond, and other dimensions."
His face turns softer, and there is the glint of humor in his eye. "The possibilities for art alone are staggering."
"I don't doubt it," I say, chuckling. "And may you find your gifts to be a blessing. Far more of a blessing than I've found mine, anyway. But it's time for me to go. I still have to pack."
"The White Foundation wants me, now. I have to detail the work I've done with you, and help alert Dream Masters toward finding and uncovering the new Masters. You'll have our help in your search. The Foundation has also hinted toward a permanent position on their staff."
"Do you plan to take it?"
"Oh, I don't know." I wave my hand carelessly. "I've got the rest of my life ahead of me. You aren't the only one to come out of this changed. I need time to explore the new dimensions I find in myself, and decide where they can take me. I think for the first time in a long while, I can look in the mirror without cringing."
"I'm glad to know that. Our lives are changing in unforseen ways, and that's always a good thing. I don't know if Jan will ever forgive either of us, but there is always hope."
I suppress a grimace at Jan's name. She hasn't stopped spouting constant obscenities, cursing both Sean and myself for ruining her life. I don't know how much she knows of Sean's influence on her actions, and I don't care to discuss it; she's the second of Sean's family to suffer from his power. No reason to pour salt into the wound.
Keller smiles at me, as if reading my thoughts and forgiving me for them. He extends his hand toward me and I shake it warmly. His smile is just as warm, and I find myself enthralled by it. The next thing I know I'm grinning like an idiot and Keller has to forcibly detach his hand from my grip. "Good luck to you, Mr. Bender, and good fortune to you, always."
"Good fortune to you and yours, Mr. Keller." I watch him walk out of the building and disappear into the crowd, so much alike, yet different from them now.
We never speak again, but my thoughts return to him now and then. He, the unmovable object, had stopped me. But I, the unstoppable force, had moved him. We had faced each other in the arena of the mind, absorbed a part of each other and went our separate ways. When I think about it, I can't help feeling I got the better part of the exchange.