In which Dodger readies himself for the plunge
The doc managed to work up a third helmet for the DREAM machine in just under an hour, while Feng prepared a pot of chamomile tea laced with a bit of melatonin for the two living participants. Lelanea, Dodger and Boon gathered in the common’s room to receive a long and exhausting lecture from the Celestial about the do’s and don’ts of running around in someone else’s dreams.
“Have any of you had experience with lucid dreaming?” Feng asked.
Dodger raised his eyebrows over his cup of tea at the Celestial.
“What dreaming?” Boon asked.
“I will take that as a no,” Feng said. “Have you ever realized a dream was just a dream, and taken control of it? Directed it? Like a movie?”
“Like a move what?” Boon asked.
Feng let out a huff as he looked to the ceiling. “Sorry, I keep losing sense of what year this is.”
Lelanea raised her small hand. “I’ve experienced such a thing. Sometimes I realize I am dreaming and I find I can affect the dream. Especially close to the full moon.”
“I am not surprised. Dodger, have you had any luck with such things?”
“I can’t say as I have,” Dodger said.
“Is it some sort of magic thing?” Boon asked.
“Yes and no,” Feng said. “Think of it as a kind of magic anyone can do. With practice, you can train your brain to recognize when it is dreaming. And when you do, you can control the whole outcome. Play around with your fantasy, do whatever you want, and best part is you remember everything as if it had happened in real time.”
“Sounds interesting,” Dodger said. Though in truth, he reckoned he had his fair share of dreams he’d rather not remember.
“Sounds like more trouble than it’s worth to me,” Boon said.
“Are you kidding me?” Feng said. “Anything and everything is possible in a lucid dream. Need a weapon? Poof, you imagine it and it’s real. Want to fly? Just think about it and it happens.”
“And we can do this inside of Sarah’s mind?” Dodger asked.
“No,” Feng said. “Because it isn’t your dream.”
“Then why are you bringing it up?” Boon asked.
“Because once she realizes it isn’t real,” Lelanea said, “Sarah can control the dream.”
“Exactly,” Feng said. “I knew you’d get it.”
“Well, I still don’t,” Boon said.
“We need to find Sarah’s wandering spirit,” Dodger said, “and convince her that she is stuck in a dream.”
“Once you do that,” Feng said, “she should be able to reseat herself and wake up. Make sense?”
“I guess it makes as much sense as the rest of this,” Boon said.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Feng said. “For Pete’s sake, whatever you do, don’t let the visions you run into know they aren’t real.”
“Why not?” Dodger asked.
“You let the characters of her fantasy know they aren’t real, and it will get back to Sarah. Once she figures out she is dreaming, boom, she will drop the whole thing.”
Boon opened his mouth, then closed it again, then narrowed his eyes at the Celestial. “But I thought that’s what we wanted?”
“Not like that. If she cuts the whole dream cold, before she has a chance to tether her spirit back to her corporeal form, there is no telling what may happen. She may just wake up as normal. She may be forced from her body, like you. She may just vanish. No, you need to get to the source, the dreamer. Find her, gently convince her she is dreaming, and she should be able to take control of the dream to do what needs to be done.”
Lelanea let out a small yawn. “Seems easy enough.”
“On the surface,” Feng said as he poured her another cup. “But I think you’ll find it quite the challenge, all things considered.”
“You think Rex is using her dream as a trap?” Dodger said.
Feng nodded. “I’m afraid so. There is no telling what kind of post hypnotic suggestions or other mental blocks he has subjected the child to in the time he had her under his control. For all we know, he’s created a whole imaginary gauntlet for you to run.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”
“Yes,” Lelanea said. “But we have an advantage on his tiny behind.”
“Which is?” Feng asked.
“He won’t expect two of us.” Lelanea smiled at her beau as she added, “Much less three. And with Boon’s ability to come and go, we have access to the whole crew.”
Lelanea turned her palm upward on the edge of the couch’s armrest. Boon held his hand over her open palm, holding it as best his spirit would allow. Her skin crackled with bright lights in the places they touched.
Feng stepped away from the mooning pair, waving Dodger over to him.
“You need to keep an eye on those two,” Feng whispered.
“Why?” Dodger asked.
“Because the doc wasn’t kidding when he said it’s easy to get lost in a dream. Especially when you’re as distracted as those two love birds.”
Dodger looked back to the smiling couple. “Gotcha. Is there anything else I should know?”
Feng took a careful look at Dodger. “There is nothing left for me to tell you.”
“I have no doubt you’ll solve everything else in due time.”
“Everything else? What else is there to solve?”
Before Feng could spout some witty comeback, Mr. Torque leaned into the doorway of the commons cab.
“His royal highness begs your audience,” the mechanical man said.
“Are you three ready?” Feng asked.
Dodger glanced to Lelanea, who then looked to Boon. Boon nodded, as did the lady.
“We’re ready,” Dodger said.
Everyone fell in line behind the clockwork butler, following him all the way back to the guest quarters, where Sarah, the doc and the DREAM machine waited.
“Come in,” the doc said. He stood beside of the sleeping child, at the head of the cot, sporting a pair of SPICS on his forehead. “It’s a bit cramped, but I have seats for both Ludda and Mr. Dodger.”
Lelanea stepped inside first, squeezing her way past the doc to take the seat behind him. She lifted the towel on the waiting seat, but before she could sit the doc spoke.
“Leave the towel,” he said.
“I’ll be plenty comfortable without it,” she said.
The doc looked over his spectacles at her. “It isn’t about that sort of comfort. There is no telling how long you will be asleep. The mind is willing but the bladder can be weak.”
Returning the towel to the chair, Lelanea sat atop it without further argument.
Dodger took the chair parked at the foot of the cot. Boon drifted into the corner of the room, beside his lady love, where he waited with an anxious look on his ghostly face.
“Do you need my help?” Feng asked from the doorway.
“I think I can manage it on my own,” the doc said.
“Good,” Mr. Torque said from the hallway. “I’ll get back to my own business then.”
“You’ll stay until I tell you otherwise,” the doc commanded.
“Will the punishment never cease?”
“Not for you.”
“I’m going to see how Ched is holding up,” Feng said. “He hasn’t had a drink or a break in a couple of hours.”
“Make sure he doesn’t swindle you out of more than he needs,” the doc said.
“Yes,” Torque said. “Gods forbid someone gets something from Professor Grubby McGrubsalot.”
Feng snickered as he left to check on the driver.
“Torque,” the doc said. “Button your lip and fetch my wheel.”
The metal man’s sigh echoed down the hallway as he wandered off to presumably do as asked.
“Here we are then,” the doc said, rubbing his hands together. “Are you two sleepy yet?”
Lelanea let out a soft and delicate yawn. “I’m getting there.”
“I’m a touch weary,” Dodger said as he stretched. “But nowhere near needing a nap.”
“Not to worry,” the doc said. “I am certain once I am finished you won’t be able to keep your eyes open, much less remain awake.”
“Just what do you plan on doing, sir?” Dodger asked.
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s perfectly painless. Think of it as counting mechanical sheep.” The doc pulled the goggles down over his eyes. “Boon? Are you … there you are. How does this work for you?”
“I guess I sort of just go in,” Boon said.
“Can you go now, and come right back to tell us what the terrain is like?”
“I suppose so. I’ll be right back then, shall I?”
The doc nodded to Boon. “Off you go.”
Boon wrung his hands together for a moment as he took a tentative step toward Sarah. He paused to close his eyes, then relaxed, falling toward her sleeping form. In a flash of crackling light, Boon disappeared.
“Oh dear!” the professor said. He yanked the SPICS off of his face and blinked a few times. “I probably shouldn’t have watched that.”
“Are you all right?” Lelanea said, getting to her feet.
The doc held out his hand, motioning for her to stay put. “Yes, I’m fine. Just a bit brighter than I expected. Phew. Lesson learned, eh?” The professor giggled at his own foolishness.
“Here is your precious wheel,” Mr. Torque said as he rolled a thin wooden podium into the room.
The doc rubbed at his eyes. “Place it between them.”
Torque pushed the podium in between Dodger and Lelanea and stepped back. “Anything else, sir?”
“Of course there is something else, you metal nitwit. With Lelanea occupied I’ll need you to assist me in monitoring their vitals.” The doc grabbed up one of the caps hooked to the DREAM machine and offered it to his niece. “Here you are, dear. Just pop this on and we can get started.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Lelanea said. She took the cap and slipped the thing over her head, affixing the strap just under her chin.
Dodger snorted at the silly sight.
“Hush,” Lelanea said.
“I didn’t say anything,” Dodger said.
“Here you are, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said as he held out a second cap.
“Thanks.” Dodger accepted the beanie and cautiously slid it into place, tightening the strap under his chin.
Lelanea fought back a laugh, and lost. “Sorry, Dodger, but you are quite the sight.”
“You both look like idiots,” Torque said.
“Torque,” the doc scolded.
“Forgive my manners. They both look like idiots, sir.”
The defiant quip set Dodger and Lelanea to chuckling, a sure sign that they both were a lot sleepier than they let on. While they giggled and guffawed, the doc unfolded the top and sides of the podium, revealing a pulley system attached to a wheel with a black and white spiral painted in the center.
“Mr. Dodger,” the doc said. “This little object is the Mesmeric Induction, Relaxation and Examination Apparatus. I created it when I was considering taking on the work of a physician. I found patients were far easier to examine when they relaxed completely.”
“You mean far easier to fondle when they were asleep,” Torque said with a snort.
“Torque! I thought I warned you to never repeat that horrible woman’s words. I’ve never fondled another person a day in my life. And you would do good to remember that the court saw fit to agree with me.”
Dodger shot Lelanea a curious look. She shook her head in response. There was no telling what story was behind the gadget. Unfortunately, Dodger didn’t have time to hear this one out. Or maybe that was fortunately?
“As I was saying,” the doc continued, “the MIREA is designed to put you into a state of total relaxation, which I am hoping will assist you to achieve a deep and peaceful sleep. Just the kind of sleep the DREAM machine prefers.” He pointed to the swirl painted on the wheel. “I will set this wheel in motion, which will act as a point of focus. This combined with verbal guidance should ease you both into slumber. Understand?”
“Just look at the wheel and listen to you?” Dodger asked.
“Well, listen to Mr. Torque, yes.”
“I reckon I can handle that.” Dodger yawned into the back of his hand.
“Go ahead, Uncle,” Lelanea said. “We are both more than ready.”
Without warning, a bright light flashed to Dodger’s left, signaling the return of Boon. The ghost stumbled away from the sleeping girl, passing through the MIREA with a soft crackle until he stood in the center of the small room. There, he coughed a few times as he waved his hat in front of him. Streaks of black covered his face and clothes. Plumes of ethereal smoke rose from the shoulders of his jacket.
“That was a close one,” Boon said between coughs.
“Ah, there you are, Boon,” the doc said. He retrieved the SPECS and slid them over his eyes. After taking a brief look at the specter, the doc asked, “Shivering Shakti, what happened to you?”
“It’s a long story.”
“You’ve only been gone a few minutes,” Dodger said. “You haven’t had time for a long story.”
“It’s been a couple of hours dreamside.”
“I forgot to mention,” the doc said, “time works differently in the dream state. You can dream a whole lifetime’s worth of events only to wake up and find a mere hour has passed. This is one reason I want Boon with you, so he can keep you abreast of the real passage of time.”
“Speaking of dreamside,” Boon said. “We need to scoot on back there. I left someone in a bit of a jam so I could come get you two.”
“Who?” Dodger asked.
Boon glanced to Dodger, but didn’t answer.
“Is it Sarah?” Lelanea asked.
“No,” Boon said. “It’s a fellow from inside of her dream, and he sure needs a hand.”
“A hand with what?”
With a perfectly straight face, Boon said, “Fighting a dragon.”
“A what?” Lelanea and Dodger asked together.
“No time to explain,” Boon said. “I only popped out to tell you to hurry it on up.” The spirit moved toward Sarah, closed his eyes and fell into her dream once more with a bright flash and soft crackle.
For a moment, no one said anything. Dodger sure as heck didn’t know what to say to that, and he was fairly sure the others were just as stunned.
“Well?” Torque asked. “What are you fools waiting for? You heard the man. Chop! Chop!”
“Mr. Torque,” the doc said with a gasp. “What has gotten into you?”
Torque took on an odd look—slanting his eyebrows while his mouth drooped at the corners.
It took Dodger a moment to recognize it as concern.
“I may be a mechanical man, sir,” Torque said in an unusually soft voice, “but I’ve read enough to know that if a little girl is dreaming about a fire breathing dragon, she isn’t having a fantasy. She’s having a nightmare.”
The doc sighed as he patted Mr. Torque on the shoulder. “Just when I think you are nothing more than an irritating, lifeless husk of metal, you show me that I programmed you with a sliver of kindness after all.”
“That’s right, sir. You’re to blame. For everything.” Torque lost his sorrowful look. “And I do mean everything.”
“Yes, yes, you irritating, lifeless husk of metal, ruin the moment for all of us.” The doc returned his attention to the MIREA, flipping a switch on the side. “Torque, play message thirty four.”
“Don’t temp me, you walking ash tray.”
Torque let out a beep, followed by a series of clicks and clacks. “Message thirty four, hypnotic suggestion to accompany the use of the MIREA. Begin message.” Torque’s voice shifted to a lower octave. “Please focus your attention on the center of the spinning spiral.”
As if on cue, the wheel set to spinning, drawing Dodger’s attention at once. He stared at the turning spiral, watching the swirl of shades fade back and forth, from black to white, over and over. Somewhere in the background he heard Mr. Torque’s monotone voice, droning on and on.
“Draw in a deep breath … and exhale … deep breath … and exhale. You should find your body relaxing more and more as you keep your attention on the spiral.”
Dodger yawned again as his muscles began to go slack.
“In your mind’s eye,” Torque continued, “see yourself standing at the top of a flight of stairs. Ten in total. As you descend the steps, one at a time, count them to yourself, starting from ten and going down to one. Count with me as we descend together. Ten … nine …”
Dodger didn’t get as far as eight.