The Princess and the Peak
Dreaming Up a Solution
In which Dodger entertains an odd idea
The train hauled her caboose toward the west coast with Ched manning the helm, his experience and supernatural senses proving themselves tenfold as he managed to keep a clean and firm grip on the train’s footing. The rest of the crew gathered in the professor’s laboratory, with yet another difficult task at hand. Lelanea and the Celestial were seated together on a bench by the work table, with Boon pacing the floor nearby. Dodger—still sore but not as battered, thanks to a lower powered but effective medicinal compound—and the doc stood on opposite ends of a cot placed in the center of the lab. On the cot rested the problem in question; the sleeping young lady, Sarah Baker. According to the clue left by Rex at the reservation, the kid knew exactly where on the Californian coastline Rex was hiding out. If they wanted to find the little cuss of a mutt, they would have to somehow glean the information from the comatose child. Professor Dittmeyer had a solution, but Dodger reckoned his hearing was going wonky in his old age, because what the doc just suggested made absolutely no sense at all.
Not that the doc’s plans ever made any real kind of sense, but this idea was particularly bizarre.
Dodger poked his finger in his ear and wiggled, cleaning it out a bit before he asked, “You want me to do what?”
“Go inside,” the doc said.
“Inside of her head,” Lelanea said.
Dodger looked back to Sarah again. “I don’t think I am quite getting a handle on what you’re saying.”
“It’s fairly simple,” the doc said. “We connect the Dream Reviewing, Enhancing and Manipulation machine to her brain, as well as yours, and with a flip of a switch you will be able to see inside of her subconscious. This will allow you access to her sleeping mind and thus allow us to gain the knowledge we seek.”
“You mean you plan on using that thing?” Dodger asked, pointing to a large metal ball beside the cot.
“Yes,” the professor said. He grabbed a pair of handles that protruded from either side of the ball and gave them a twist. The ball split in two, cracking like a giant metal egg, with the shell coming away intact in the doc’s hands. He pulled these pieces away, revealing an interior filled with wires and gears and all manner of flashing colored lights. The doc held the metal sections aloft, waggling them at Dodger. “This goes over your head, like a cap, one for each of you. The machine taps into your brain, allowing one mind to project its subconscious into another’s.”
Dodger rubbed the back of his neck and drew a sharp breath between his teeth. “I guess when you said you made a machine to manipulate folks’ dreams, I didn’t think you were being quite so literal.”
“I never said I made a machine to manipulate dreams,” the doc said as he puffed up in defense. “I said I made a machine that could peek into dreams, thank you very much.”
“I’m sorry for the assumption, sir, but the word manipulate is right there in the name.”
“Contrary to the title, the DREAM machine wasn’t designed to manipulate dreams. Its original purpose was to record the output of my nightly mental meanderings. I find I have the best ideas in my sleep, don’t you?” He paused for a moment, taking on a wistful look as he tapped the metal caps together, probably contemplating past dreams. “Seeing as how he doesn’t require sleep, I entrusted Ched to review my dreams each night, making a note of the various ideas that arose. It worked wonderfully … at first.”
Dodger had been aboard the Sleipnir long enough to know where this was going. “What went wrong with it?”
Somewhere in the tangle of the doc’s thick beard, a small frown emerged. He sat the caps down on either side of the DREAM machine with a sigh. “The manipulation portion came later. I found that not only was Ched able to review my dreams, he managed to insert himself into them. He was able to affect my subconscious. I began having nightmares of working for him. Mixing drinks for him, feeding him, dressing him. It was terrible. I thought I was losing my mind. It was only by luck that Lelanea overheard him bragging about it to Mr. Torque.”
Lelanea nodded. “He offered Torque the chance to control Uncle’s subconscious for a bottle of gin.”
“A bottle of gin,” the doc echoed. “To think that is all my mind is worth to the man.”
“Did he?” Dodger asked.
“Did who what?”
“Did Torque get the chance to run your dreams?”
“Certainly not. He never got the opportunity, nor will he. You see, the offer was pointless seeing as how Mr. Torque fails to possess a subconscious. He barely possesses a conscience.” The doc let out another small sigh. “I’m still not sure which I find more disturbing; the fact that I created a machine that can manipulate another’s dreams, or the fact that my driver had his way with my mind for a week.” The doc shuddered, as if truly horrified by the idea.
Dodger couldn’t fault him. “If it is such a horrid thing, why not destroy it?”
“Destroy it? If I destroyed everything that proved a failure, Mr. Torque would’ve been at the top of the heap.”
Thankfully, the mechanical manservant was blessedly absent, either recharging in his cubby hole or off doing some menial task assigned by the doc.
“Now, now,” Feng said. “No need to get nasty. We’re all just frustrated and tired.” He blinked in a slow and sleepy way.
“Some of us more than others,” Dodger said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I feel like a million bucks.”
“You look like a wooden nickel.”
“You’re funny man, Dodger.” Feng winked at Dodger, but even that was slow and weak.
“Speaking of tired,” Boon said, finally ceasing his pacing to join the conversation, “how do we know she is actually asleep?”
“You mean how do we know she isn’t like you?” Feng asked.
“Like who?” the doc asked.
“Like Boon,” Dodger said.
“Who said anything about Boon? Wait, is he here?” The doc snapped up the SAW and wiggled the widget onto his glasses, inserting one end of the SAW into his ear. “Now, what is all of this about Boon?”
“I was asking if we are sure Sarah is asleep,” Boon said.
“Of course she’s asleep,” the doc said. “You can look at her and see that much.”
“Actually,” Feng said, “I don’t think she is asleep. I did some digging while you lot were tied up with the reservation.”
“Digging?” the doc said. “What kind of digging?”
“I see.” At the change of topic, the doc shifted in his stance and patted his hands together nervously. “Well then, I’m sure you know what you’re talking about.”
Dodger could understand why the doc was uncomfortable. This whole conversation was out of his range of experience before it even started. “What did you learn?”
“She isn’t asleep, per say,” Feng said. “But she isn’t like Boon either. She’s sort of in between. She’s been nudged from her corporeal form, but instead of wandering free—like our friend here—her spirit is trapped inside of her own mind.”
“How devious,” the doc said.
“What a terrible thing to do to anyone,” Lelanea said, “let alone a child.”
“Terrible but brilliant,” Feng said. “She’s trapped in her own subconscious, and chances are she doesn’t realize she has been unseated at all. She is stuck in a dream, probably a fantasy she’s enjoying the heck out of, with no reason to pull away.”
“Then it is just as well that Dodger is going in,” the doc said.
“What do you expect me to do?” Dodger asked.
“Go and free her from whatever fantasy she is trapped in.”
“But I don’t know anything about little girls, much less what makes up their dreams.”
“Neither do I.”
Dodger and the doc looked to Feng.
Feng shrugged his thin shoulders. “Don’t look at me. I may know the vast and various secrets of both the known and unknown universe, but what goes through the mind of a sleeping young lady eludes even my greatest wisdom.”
“What will we do?” Boon asked.
The doc huffed. “I suppose we are at a loss.”
“Excuse me,” Lelanea said.
The three men turned as one to the woman.
“Aren’t you forgetting someone?” Lelanea asked.
“I don’t think so,” the doc said. He wrinkled his nose. “Unless you think Ched would know what a young lady dreams. I suppose stranger things have happened. I’ll go ask him, shall I?”
“I think she means herself, sir,” Dodger said.
“Why should she ask Ched?” the doc said. “I am perfectly capable of -”
“You’re forgetting,” Lelanea said over the doc’s ramblings, “I used to be a young girl. Granted it’s been a number of years since I’ve experienced the dreams of a child, but I don’t think things have changed too much. Do you?”
The doc paused to think about this a moment, tapping his chin and humming aloud as he mulled the question over in his mind. “Consider how many years it has been, I would have to say yes. We are much more civilized now, after all.”
Lelanea cocked her head at her uncle as she narrowed her eyes.
Dodger could hear the grinding of teeth from where he stood. “I don’t think the years matter when it comes to the fantasies of a kid. Does this mean you would like to go in my stead, Miss Lelanea?”
“In your stead?” she asked. “No. Accompany you, yes.”
“Both of you go?” the doc asked.
“Is it possible?” Feng asked.
“I don’t see why not. I can always work up a third beanie. And truthfully, it might be for the best. There is no telling what dangers lurk in this child’s subconscious. Especially considering she has been under the influence of that maniac.”
Dodger didn’t like the sound of that.
“Dangers?” Boon asked. “What do you mean dangers?”
“You know, dangers. Hazards. Perils. Threats. Come now, Wash, it is a simple enough word.”
“I know what dangers means,” Boon said with a scowl.
“I think what the professor is trying to say,” Feng said, “is that being inside of Sarah’s mind isn’t safe for someone else’s mind.”
“It certainly isn’t,” the professor agreed.
“But a dream can’t hurt anyone,” Boon said.
“Not someone’s body,” the doc said. “It may, however, damage one’s mind. If either of them should suffer a traumatic shock while exposed to Sarah’s subconscious, then their brain may never recover.” The doc waggled a finger at Dodger and Lelanea. “Which means the two of you need to be extra cautious. Don’t go destroying your psyche while in there. Neither of you will be any good to anyone if you’re brain dead.”
“Brain dead?” Dodger said. “That’s a hell of a way to put it.”
“I should add that once you enter the dream you cannot wake up of your own accord. Should you face a traumatic situation you won’t wake on your own, because you are no longer in your own mind. You must either wait until the dreamer awakens or are removed manually by disconnection from the machine. So please be careful.”
“What happens if you don’t have a brain?” Boon asked.
“Don’t be preposterous,” the doc said. “Everyone has a brain. I know some people act as though they don’t possess a brain, but I assure you one is there. Somewhere.”
“You don’t understand me, sir. What if the mind wandering around in another’s subconscious gets hurt and there is no brain to injure?”
Dodger blinked in surprise. He hadn’t considered the fact that Boon could traipse about in other folks’ minds whenever he liked. Boon already proved himself capable of the task at hand by unintentionally peeking in on Dodger’s dreams.
“You can’t be serious,” Dodger said.
“I’m being perfectly serious,” Boon said.
“Serious about what?” the doc said.
“You’re not being serious,” Lelanea said. “You’re being crazy.”
“He’s not crazy,” Feng said. “He’s insane.”
“Insane about what?” the doc said.
“It makes perfect sense,” Boon said.
“What makes sense!” the doc shouted over the arguing group.
Everyone fell quiet. Dodger looked to Lelanea, but she kept her anger filled gaze glued to Boon, who in turn stared at the floor.
“Well?” the doc asked. “Is someone going to let me know what is going on here?”
“I can move through folks’ dreams,” Boon said. “Just like you want these two to do, only without the machine.”
The doc seemed taken aback by this revelation. He turned his desk chair around to face the others before he sat down, slowly, as if the weight of the knowledge was too much to bear. “Can you?”
“Yes, sir. I never mean to, but I have, on occasion, been drawn into other folks’ dreams. When I’m there I can interact with the dreamer, if I so choose.” Boon looked to Dodger again as he added, “Or I can just keep quiet and observe.”
“How exciting,” the doc said. “But you can do this intentionally as well?
“I believe I can.”
“With no trouble?”
“It takes a bit of effort, but nothing I can’t handle.”
The doc spun around, snatched up a pen, and set to scribbling into a thick journal. “That settles it then.”
“Does it?” Boon asked.
“No,” Lelanea said as she jumped to her feet. “This settles nothing.”
“Of course it does,” the doc said, without looking up from his notes. “Boon will accompany you and Dodger.”
“That isn’t necessary.”
“I disagree. You are both familiar with Boon. That will come in handy.”
Lelanea all but growled in disgust. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
The doc finally looked up from his writing to gently smile at his niece. “The price, my dear darling Ludda, is your sanity. While I never worried about Ched’s rotten mind when using the DREAM machine, I am concerned about the pair of you.”
“You ain’t gotta concern yourself with me, sir,” Dodger said.
“Nor I,” Lelanea said. “In fact, I’ve changed my mind. I’d rather go alone, if it is all the same. I am best suited for the task, and I assure you I am capable of handling myself without an escort. I certainly don’t need two.”
“I have no doubt about that,” the doc said. “But what you fail to understand is how easy it is to lose one’s self in the vast landscape of another’s mind. How easy it is to become integrated into the fantasy. Boon’s presence shall provide a common thread to which the pair of you can refer when reality begins to slip away from you.”
“Use him as a point of reference,” Feng said. “A place to ground yourself when things get too weird.”
“We can refer to each other,” Lelanea said.
The doc ignored her argument. “Then there is the fact that Boon is able to come and go as he pleases. Which means he can nip out every now and again to keep the rest of us updated. He can also seek our council should the three of you find yourselves unable to resolve an issue.”
Dodger immediately thought of Rex’s recent penchant for mind boggling riddles. “He has a point there.”
“I don’t care how many points he has,” Lelanea snapped. “I won’t agree to it until Uncle answers Boon’s question.”
“What question?” the doc asked.
“What will happen to Boon if he suffers a traumatic shock while occupying the child’s mind?”
The doc’s eyes filled with worry as he said, “I suspect he would cease to exist. That his spirit, for lack of a better word, would just disappear.”
“I see,” Boon said.
The doc nodded to Boon. “I understand if you do not wish to join them. While your input would be useful, there is no reason to put yourself in harm’s-”
“I’m going,” Boon said over the doc.
“Washington?” Lelanea said. “Are you certain?”
“I have to—no, I need to do this. I’ve waited for so long to be of use to you again. All of you. If I can help in any way, no matter how small, then I am going with you.” He smiled softly at Lelanea. “Besides, how dangerous can a little girl’s imagination be?”
“You have no idea,” Lelanea said as she grinned in return.
Dodger had no idea either, but he didn’t like the looks of that grin.