Dream Lord Wars - Chapter 1
BTS: The Science Behind "Who"
Teddie Thorn has created something that will revolutionize the world, but only if the people she brought on to help build her dream will allow it. Meanwhile, Harley is made aware of something that is actively eating dream dust.
Big Lake, California, Para West
The sun glistened through the leaves of our backyard tree. I stepped into the beam and remembered the warm caress of the Louisiana sun first thing in the morning. Touching the swing’s rope, I recalled how it had felt, digging into my soft hands.
Joey stepped out of the house and stagger-stepped off the porch, looking around. “Why are we here, Teddie?”
Because I didn’t know where else to bring him. I’d tried everything else. If I didn’t get through to him here, I didn’t know where else to take him. “This was the only place we felt safe.”
He snorted. “Are you serious?”
There were so many happy memories in this dilapidated farmhouse. This was the last place we’d been when Mom had been alive.
“Let me show you what I remember,” Joey said with a snarl. He spun around and headed back into the house, ripping the screen door outward forcefully and stomping silently up the stairs. He blasted into the blue bathroom and stopped at the pink tub, yanking the sunflower shower curtain back. “This is what I remember.”
I knew what he was looking at and I didn’t want to face it. I had completely forgotten about—
My mind recoiled.
“This is where I found you, Teddie.” He turned to me, his black hair in a wild disarray, his brown skin darker in the low light. “Bathing in your own blood.”
I looked into the mirror, staring into my brown eyes so much like my brother’s and trying desperately to forget this moment. However, for what I was trying to do, forgetting wasn’t the answer. I had to help my brother face his pain, and that meant facing my own.
Loosing Dad had been tough on me. I’d been four. Joey hadn’t even been born yet. It was just me and Mom and this kid who was going to come and make our lives harder.
Mom’d done what she had to. She’d put herself through nursing school, working crap hours and studying hard while raising this kid who didn’t understand what was going on except that her mom needed help. Then when Joey’d been born, I did everything in my power to make Mom’s life easier.
We’d become this dynamic duo of super human strength. It was us against the world, raising this boy who would never know how amazing his dad had been.
Mom’d gotten real sick when I’d been in high school. Like, real sick. She’d barely made it to work and then when she was home, she couldn’t get out of bed. I’d done everything I could think to do. I’d researched herbs and medicine. I’d begged her to talk to doctors.
I’d found her, high on the hopes of another thing to try. She’d died peacefully in her sleep.
As much as I’d tried to push the grief down and just do what needed to be done, I— Well, I had a few low spots. And, uh, yeah. I got… Well, I got really low. More than once, actually. I don’t even remember how many times I’d sat in that tub with a knife in my hand, fantasizing about what it would feel like for the pain to just… stop.
“I tried to.”
“By using alcohol.” I didn’t want to accuse him. I just needed him to acknowledge it.
“If that’s what worked.”
After healing, I’d made a choice to stay and make my life better. Our lives better. I pushed through the pain. I worked through pain. I built our lives using my pain.
That was the difference between Joey and me.
I raked my top lip with my teeth. “Okay. Then, where do you want to go?”
“Nowhere, Ted.” He closed his eyes and pushed out of the bathroom. The door soundlessly hit the pink sink as he went by.
Fuck. What was I missing? I stared into that tub, realizing I was the reason he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. Letting him find me in here?
I remember waking up in my bed afterward with bandages on my arms. Not my wrists. Mom’d been a nurse. She’d taught me how to do it right by telling me about the ones she couldn’t save. Joey’d kept me alive. No doctors. No hospital visits. We both knew that if I’d gone in, we’d both’ve been lost to the system.
I’d cleaned up my act after that. I got a job that gave me more hours. I got my high school degree. I put aside all thoughts of college. Joey needed me and I couldn’t allow myself to get that low again. I put one foot in front of the other and just kept going.
And then it was me and Joey against the world in the crappy studio apartment I could barely afford. He got good grades, and I brought home groceries. We were unstoppable. He found courses I could take online to keep my studies up because one day, he said, I’d go to college and become the engineer I’d always wanted to be.
With a sigh, I went downstairs to the kitchen, altering the floor with the dream architecture I had programed into my headset to make the trip faster. His hand was on the door.
I kept it closed with an eye-flick command.
He growled and turned on me.
I put one hand to the white refrigerator and shifted the scene.
The kitchen shrank to four dark cabinets, a small fridge and stove top with a sink beside it. The room beside us opened into a well-lit studio apartment with a red curtain cordoning off one corner and grey sheet the other.
“What about here?” I asked.
He released a sharp sigh and went to the TV tray table with two folding chairs that we’d used as a dining table. “You left.”
“You made it happen.” He’d put forth my application to Caltech without my knowledge, so it’d been a huge surprise to discover I had a scholarship. It wasn’t a full ride or anything, but it had certainly made things more reasonable for me.
I’d ignored it, of course. The scholarship had been good enough if I wasn’t also taking care of him, but he’d found it, brought it out, told me what he’d done, and said that he’d talked to one of our long-distant aunts who was willing to take him in for his remaining two years in high school.
My instinct was to tell him no. I’d wait. I’d find a way to get in after he graduated. He reminded me that I would never have this opportunity again. I’d gotten into Caltech. Caltech. Any other school by any other name just wasn’t the same.
He pressed his full bottom lip with his tongue and released it, shaking his head. “You can’t save me, Teds. Not this time.”
But I had to. He was my job and had been since the day he was born. “I refuse to believe that.”
A dark shadow flitted across the door of the yellowed fridge beside me, and a chill sliced through my fingertips. I yanked my hand back with a yelp. “Emily, check ambient temperature. I just got a weird spike.”
All systems normal, boss, Emily’s voice said in my ear.
Joey sighed, looking resigned. “Sorry, Teddie.”
He whipped his head around and opened his mouth wide, rage filling his dark eyes and infusing them with a scorching orange flame.
I blinked the architectural controls and shifted our studio apartment into a peaceful park in the middle of the city, the predesigned sunset rolling quietly over us.
He leapt at me, a wild roar escaping him.
He shouldn’t have this kind of control still. The reset should have affected him. With another blink, I sent us tumbling into an architectural void, darkness enveloping us and shrouding us in visual silence.
The light from the fires in his eyes lit up the space, casting shadows of ravens as they flitted through the darkness, their feathers reflecting blue.
“Let me go, Ted!” His fingers pointed into claws as he reached for me.
A tiny, red ladybug flew past me, offering escape. With a cry of frustration, I touched it.
The dream slid away like water, and the frantic beep of my heart monitor reached my ears along with the dull hum of the analyzer. I ripped the visual reality headset off and unbuckled myself with my free hand, taking in the soothing reality of the clean, organized, white lab. “How did he get control?” I demanded as I stepped off the inversion table.
“I don’t know,” Emily said, her dark eyes narrowed as she studied her screens.
“Interference,” Tony said behind me.
I turned, stepping to the side as I yanked off the heartrate monitors to see him.
His white lab coat was crumpled on the back of his chair as he stared at his bank of eight screens. “You’ve got to come see this.”
I was halfway around the equipment and to his desk before he started speaking. “What?”
“Look at this.” He dragged the bar backward and released it to play. “Right there.” He froze the playback, each screen seeing a different angle of the dream we’d just been in.
The shadow on the fridge was a face.
A man’s hawkish face with a jagged scar over his right eye.
A chill washed over me. “What is that?”
Tony shook his head. “The clearest visual we’ve had of the anomaly yet, that’s what.”
“We’re tapping into something beyond science,” Emily said beside me.
“This isn’t God, Em,” I gritted out, but I didn’t know what it was either. We’d been having glitches like this for over a year now, ever since we’d launched the dream architecture onto the larger server. I knew this had to be something scientific, that we could define this mathematically or…
But that face threw me.
I shook myself. It wasn’t anything. It was just face pareidolia, seeing faces where there was none. Nothing more. At least, not until the facts stated otherwise, and the information hadn’t been disseminated yet. “Run the analysis and let’s find where this is coming from. If someone’s hacking us, I want to know who.” My bet was that this was some slip in the architecture. I was attempting to frame a construct for the human mind, which was an extremely complex tool that I didn’t understand fully. I wasn’t a neuroscientist. I wasn’t a psychologist. I was just the survivor and a tinkerer of software.
But this could also be Barry Brady at DreamLink, Inc, my main rival, trying to steal what I’d created. Again.
“Ms. Thorn,” Wanda said from the door. “Mr. Perkins and Mrs. Hammond are here.”
Crap. I’d forgotten they’d be by that day to see our progress. I was overdue to give them something new. They understood that it took time to come up with new ideas and technologies and I was a small team. I had, actually, two teams; the dream architect team and the toy team.
I took off my lab coat and hung it on the coat hook next to the door and straightened my dark braid, slipped on a smile, and opened the door.
An hour later, and we’d finally made it to Jim’s room. Jim Montgomery had come to us after failing rehab three times. He was addicted to meth and alcohol and had been since a young age. A year ago, he’d had no job skills, no life skills, nothing. I knew where to find dealers and steal stuff for drugs. That’s what his life goals had been.
He had three tidy rows of bookshelves on one wall, two tasteful pieces of art over his bed and desk, and the bed was made with tight corners. His shoes were stored neatly under his bed and his clothes were crisp.
“And how long have you been working?” Mrs. Vivian Hammond asked, her hands folded in front of her pink pantsuit.
“Four months now,” Jim said with a smiling nod. “I couldn’t have done this without Teddie’s help.”
Vivian looked unimpressed, but she smiled at him anyway. “Well, continue to do well, and you’ll live a very happy life.”
Jim grabbed her gaze with the steel of his grey eyes and held it. “This isn’t small, Mrs. Hammond.”
“I’m aware, Mr. Montgomery,” she said, her shoulders shifting slightly from discomfort. “You’re doing well. You will have a good life.”
“Someone like me wouldn’t even have a life if it wasn’t for her.”
She nodded slowly. “Yes, Mr. Montgomery.”
“You can’t shut her down.”
“We have no intention of—”
“—keeping this going,” he finished for her. “People like me are nothings. Society wants to be rid of us, so we’re a bad investment.”
“That’s not what—”
“I know.” His words were heavy though he said it quietly.
This was a fight I battled with every day. The people I worked with—Jim, Joey, Ruth, Cari—didn’t feel they had any value. Not because they lacked it.
But because they’d been proven by society and those around them that they didn’t have it.
“Okay,” Vivian said simply, and then turned and walked out of the room.
I followed her, wishing Jim hadn’t said that. Keeping the lab funded was a balancing act that was getting harder every day. “This helps,” I said as soon as Jim’s door was closed.
“It looks like a cure,” Mr. Alan Perkins said.
“It’s not a cure,” I said. “Nothing cures this, but it does make things manageable. It gives them a chance.”
“A very good chance,” Vivian said with a sigh. “And that’s the problem.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head, already knowing I wasn’t going to like what she had to say.
“We can’t make money on cured people, Ms. Thorn, and there aren’t enough people with this disease.”
I let my head fall back and stared at the ceiling, counting to ten. Finally, I met her gaze and gritted out, “We have a laser pointer.”
She smiled politely and gestured for me move. “Lead the way.”
I would continue to find ways to fund my project because I’d succeeded with Jim.
I’d save Joey. I would. One way or another. I wasn’t losing him like I’d lost everyone else.
“M’Har-boo,” Roshni’s female voice shrieked through the air a moment before the creator appeared in the organized and yellow-lit shop.
Harley looked up from the snake she was fixing, reaching to catch the tangle of wire her friend pushed off her crowded table. “Ro? What’s wrong?” Creators didn’t come down to Mechanic’s Row. If their creations were damaged - which sometimes happened - then mechanics were summoned. In Harley’s case, she was still a mechanic’s apprentice. At least she was for now. The only reason she was getting called was because Roshni was her friend.
“I have needs of you! Quick!” Roshni’s long, thin blue-tinged fingers gripped Harley’s arm hard.
Harley pried her friend’s daggerous fingers out of her arm, alarm rising through her. Roshni was a big emoter, but even this was severe. “Ow-ow. What’s wrong?”
The creator’s blouse trembled as she released a shaky breath. “Is terribly bad, M’Har-boo.” Her voice cracked. “Please.”
Things were never “terribly bad” in Dreamland. Interesting? Broken sometimes? Frustrating for a person like herself. Yes to all of those things. But terribly bad? “Take me there.”
Roshni disappeared, her hand becoming air under Harley’s fingers. Wondering if she should leave her master a note, she followed Roshni’s Who through Place, letting the dark chill slip over her without paying much mind to it, instead focusing on the feel of creating creatures and situations from dream dust and the joy of feeling the immense depth of Dreamland. Roshni understood this place better than Harley ever would. Harley might be able to fix anything or anyone, but Roshni could tap into the heart of Dreamland and create something new.
The darkness were parted by lines of light until she spilled out on a dreamplane. It wasn’t much of a plane yet, which was odd. When a new dustman came to be, they typically at least created one thing to start from. Sometimes, it was a house, or a toy. One dustman chose a rather odd looking horse. This one had nothing but yellow light as far as she could see as her booted feet sank into thick sand. “What am I looking for, Ro?”
Roshni spun slowly, her pink curly hair elongating and turning blue as her eyebrows grew longer and became pink. Her iridescent dress morphed into a tight-fitting red bodice as she calmed her breath, blinking her large yellow eyes. “Something is wrong, M’Har-boo,” she whispered, her voice quivering.
Nothing looked wrong. It just didn’t look started. Harley stretched her gift out, searching for something crying out to her to be fixed. Silence greeted her. “Everything is working.”
Roshni shook her head, her eyebrows shifting to yellow and cascading down on either side of her large eyes. “Something was here.”
That got Harley’s attention. Roshni had been a traveler before she’d become a creator, so she spoke in the traveler’s odd present tense. The travelers who still worked the in-between spoke a broken language that seemed out of time, but Roshni had been grounded in the now of the dreamplanes long enough that she, at the very least, made sense.
However, she still never spoke in past tense. Meaning, what she’d felt was gone. As in, no longer existing. Roshni spoke in life and only dealt with the living.
“What did you see?” Harley asked, trying to see what she couldn’t.
“A monster,” Roshni whispered, grabbing Harley’s gaze. “And it ate everything.”
Again with the past tense. “Like Lady Storm?”
The creator shook her head, her hair shrinking back up and turning white as she looked around. “No, M’Har-boo.” Her voice choked in the quiet tone.
Lady Storm would come through and swallow a dreamplane when a dustman had become forgotten, but the creations she took were repurposed and reclaimed in other planes. And when Roshni spoke of her creations that had been taken by the storm, she still used the present tense.
“They’re all gone.” She shuddered, her breath quivering.
Harley didn’t know of anything that could destroy dream dust. This was something new, something Dreamland had never seen before.
Can you take a moment to tell me what you thought of this?
Was there something you didn’t understand?
Was there something you couldn’t see?