In which Dodger demands to dream
Falling to his death wasn’t as terrible as Dodger feared it might be. Sure, at first there was a fair amount of flailing and grasping for support and lolling about in the inky blackness, but after a few hundred feet, Dodger remembered that this was indeed a dream. And, as they say, it isn’t the falling that’s the problem; it’s the landing that got you. He took comfort in the fact that there was a very real possibility that the dream abyss was endless, though a possibility wasn’t strong enough medicine to completely ease his worry. The doc warned that no one could spontaneously awaken from a session with the DREAM machine, yet Dodger wasn’t just anyone; he was a marked man, and he didn’t suppose the fates would keep him alive this long just to trap him in a young lady’s bad dream.
Dodger pondered his options for a moment, and decided that if he couldn’t wake himself internally, he would have to get the doc to wake him from the outside. But how? As he continued to fall, Dodger mulled this over, reaching for any viable option. In the distance of his memory, he heard the doc commanding his metal manservant.
“Of course there is something else, you metal nitwit. With Lelanea occupied I’ll need you to assist me in monitoring their vitals.”
This flash of memory sparked an idea. Calmness be damned! He returned to his struggle against the abyss, kicking and screaming and flailing about, but this time with focus. He boxed with the darkness and hollered at the emptiness and lashed out with his legs at the nothingness, hoping his sleeping body displayed the effects of his dreaming efforts. Dodger fought and fought for what seemed an eternity, until his arms began to tire, his legs grew heavy, and his hopes for rescue started to fade.
“Wake up!” someone cried in his ear.
He jerked awake and sat bolt upright. He glanced to his left, then his right, and it took less than a second for him to realize he didn’t know where he was. He leapt from the chair and backed himself into a vacant corner of the crowded room, his hands searching his waist for his guns but coming up empty. He raised his fists before him, ready for an attack as he scanned the area for anything he could use as a weapon. The room was small wit a cot, two chairs, one sliding door, one shuttered window. Four people filled the cramped room; two elderly males—one Caucasian, one Chinese—and two sleeping females— both Caucasian, one preteen and one in her mid twenties or so. A metal statue stood near the door, while a strange piece of unidentifiable equipment sat between the chairs. The room seemed to rock ever so faintly, but movement was definitely there, which meant he was aboard a vehicle of some kind. The narrow nature of the cabin suggested train, though the subtlety of the movement said boat. With no real weapons in sight, he kept his fists raised high.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Oh dear,” the Caucasian male said, in a light British accent. “I was afraid of this.”
“Dodger?” the Chinaman said, with a surprising lack of accent. “Do you know who we are?” The Chinaman motioned between the pair of strangers.
He stared at the men, wondering who in the hell this Dodger was. “Answer me or I will kill you where you stand.”
“I don’t think he knows who he is,” the Brit said.
“Where am I?” he asked again.
A tinny voice issued from the metallic statue. “Trust me, we’re in hell.”
He backed further into the corner at the sound. “Did that thing speak?”
“No,” the statue said, “I’m not speaking. I’m baking a cake.”
“Lay off,” the Chinaman said. “He is bad enough without the wisecracks.”
“Shame, because they are the only wise things around here lately. What is wrong with Sergeant Hardhead?”
“Just a bit of memory loss,” the Brit said. “Seems he has forgotten the last few days. And weeks. And possibly years.”
“Trust you to send him back into assassin mode,” the statue said.
“I believe the effect is temporary. Unlike your failures, you copper nincompoop.”
He kept his fists high, in case one of these crazy strangers tried to jump him. “What is going on here? Answer me!”
“If I had a number eighty-one I could right this,” the Brit said. “Otherwise, I don’t know what else can be done but wait him out.”
“We don’t have time for that,” the Chinaman said. “Rodger Dodger, look at me.”
The name sounded as familiar as it did silly. He glanced to the Chinaman, trying his best to keep the other man in his peripheral vision, and failing. Once he locked gazes with the dazzling eyes of the Chinaman, everything else seemed to melt away. The room, the other folks, the strange talking metal man. And all the while the Chinaman never moved, never wavered, but his eyes … those eyes lit up brighter than a switchman’s lantern on a foggy night. They just shined and shined and shined. In the depth of that luminescence, Dodger recognized the flickering images of his own memories.
Dodger blinked a few times, then winced. His head ached fiercely, leaving his temples pounding with pain. “What happened?”
“Dodger?” the doc asked. “It is Dodger, yes?”
“Who else would it be?”
This drew a bright grin from the doc, but the humor of the moment passed as quick as it came.
“Sir?” Torque asked far too politely.
Dodger glanced over to find Feng dangling from the arms of the clockwork man, either passed out or near as damn it.
The doc scooted across the room to the Celestial’s side. He stooped to pat the man’s cheek a few times. “Feng? Old friend, are you still with us?”
Feng stirred and groaned. “I’m not dead yet, if that’s what you mean.”
“Thank Freya for that.”
“What happened?” Dodger asked.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Feng said. The Celestial leaned away from the metal butler and tried to stand of his own accord, only to tumble back into Torque’s outstretched arms.
“Looks like you need a rest,” Dodger said.
“You should rest a while too,” the doc said. “Your brain has suffered a tremendous shock.”
Dodger rubbed his aching head. “I do feel a bit fuzzy around the edges.”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember you attaching me to that machine. I went to sleep and woke up in a forest. I think Boon and I fought a dragon.”
“I heard all about that. You sound like you handled yourself with aplomb.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about all that. I remember we got kidnapped by dwarves. But Sarah helped us escape and followed that knight of hers to a chasm where …” Dodger’s eyes widened as he remembered the attack just before he fell. “We were under attack. I mean they were under attack. I was busy falling down the chasm, but the others were in trouble. They probably still are.”
“Ah, falling. Yes, that would explain why your heart rate jumped so high and your breathing-”
“You gotta send me back,” Dodger said over the doc.
The doc shook his head and clucked his tongue in disapproval. “No, no, no. I forbid it. You are lucky you survived with your brain intact this time around. I won’t subject you to the same-”
“You have to send me back.” Dodger grabbed the doc by the shoulders. “The others need me. I can’t just leave them like that.”
“Mr. Dodger, isolating your consciousness is not as easy as flipping a switch. It is an extremely dangerous process. Employing the DREAM machine is detrimental to the brain, not to mention the way I had to pull you out so quickly. Granted, those detriments are small and your brain will heal over time, but not unless it is allowed to heal. If you go back into Sarah’s dream moments after the way you exited, there is no telling what will happen. I can not, nay, I will not let you risk your mind in such a manner.”
“Sir, I ain’t asking. Send me back. Now.”
The doc lost his usual jovial attitude, and frowned at Dodger. “The answer is no.”
Dodger lowered himself to his knees as best he could, considering the room was so small and he was not a man prone to imploring another for help. “I’m begging you, Doc. Please send me back. I can’t abandon them like that.”
The doc stared down at Dodger, that cold stare not shifting in the slightest.
“Do it, Hieronymus,” Feng said.
“I can’t let him risk it,” the doc whispered without taking his eyes off of Dodger.
“What’s to risk? If he doesn’t help them get Sarah to wake up, it won’t matter either way.”
“He’s right,” Dodger said. “I have to help them, or we’re all doomed.”
The doc remained silent for a full thirty seconds, as if weighing Dodger’s submissive posture, as well as the words of his oldest friend. Finally, he said, “Torque, take Feng to his quarters and put him to bed.”
“There is no way I’m missing-” the metal man started.
“Now!” the doc yelled.
Dodger winced at the professors shout.
“Come on, buddy,” Feng said. “You don’t want to watch this anyway.”
The metal man grumbled to himself as he lifted the Celestial and exited the room. Once the sound of the door closing behind the pair drifted down the hall, the doc offered Dodger a hand.
“Get up from there,” he said.
“Thanks,” Dodger said, grabbing his employer’s hand and rising to his feet. “I understand it’s risky, but they need-”
“No,” the doc said over him. “You don’t understand. If you really did, you wouldn’t want to do this. I disapprove for a reason, young man, not just because I can. You risk losing your identity. Your whole personality. Everything that makes you, you. Do you think you understand that?”
Dodger did understand; especially after showing up in Sarah’s dream as a Tyler Crank look alike. He reckoned he ran the risk of losing his identity the whole while, but there was no way he would let the doc know. “Yes, sir.”
“I doubt you truly do, but I will go forward with this as my advisor suggests. Not because you begged me to, but because he said it was for the best. When this is successful—and I expect you to succeed after risking so much—we will discuss disciplinary measures, Mr. Dodger. I will not have my staff contradicting my direct orders. Or commanding me. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Dodger didn’t know what else to say. He had never heard the doc so upset. Hanging his head, he shifted from foot to foot, feeling every bit the scolded schoolboy.
The doc pointed to the empty chair. “Sit down. And for the love of all that is holy, stop pouting. You’re worse than that bucket of bolts.”
Dodger sat and did his best not to appear sullen. He didn’t mean to upset the old man, but damn it! He had to get back and help the others. The doc handed him the beanie, which he dutifully placed on his head. He watched as the professor yanked his bag from the floor and began digging through it. After some rifling, he came up with his syringe gun, and a vial of something vile.
“Since you insist on a speedy return,” the doc said, “I will have to put you to sleep by medicinal means. Is that acceptable?”
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said and rolled up a sleeve.
“This concoction will keep you asleep for a long time, and it shall be exceedingly hard to awaken from. Even when the dreamer awakes you may continue to sleep for several more hours. I can wake you by another injection, but I will not until I am certain your brain has recuperated. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Dodger supposed he could use to extra hours to get back in touch with his own mind once he was done with Sarah’s.
“There is also the chance that you may return in the dream to the exact spot you exited. And this time your sleep will be far too deep to use the same tricks to escape. You will have to wait for the dreamer to awaken and the effects of the serum to pass.”
While Dodger didn’t relish the idea of falling for a faux eternity, he was willing to chance it in order to get back and rescue the others. “I will do what I must.”
“I suppose you shall.”
The doc swabbed at the exposed skin, then pressed the gun against Dodger’s arm. With a grunt, the doc fired, sending the needle home. Dodger somehow managed to keep from crying aloud, even though it burned like the devil himself had jabbed Dodger with a red hot poker heated right in bowels of hell. As the doc pulled his gun away, Dodger snapped his hand over the man’s wrist, holding him in place.
“Thank you, sir,” Dodger said. “I won’t ever forget this.”
“See that you don’t.” The doc’s face softened, melting into a caring smile. “Now, Washington would say, go get ‘em.”
“I will, sir. I half ebery impentshun uhb dooo …” Dodger tried to say, but he didn’t quite get to the end before his lips gave out.
His body followed, sending him spiraling into darkness once more.