The late afternoon air was extremely heavy, pregnant with the promise of rain. Clouds gathered, their undersides a shade of bruised purple. Electricity crackled on the breeze and the sky turned an uncomfortable grey-yellow. Newt shivered and pulled his sopping wet beach towel closer to his clammy skin, leaning on a concrete sign that scratched against him. In tired, chipped, faux gold letters the sign proclaimed Seneca Falls Public Pool.
Newt’s mother had promised to come get him after swimming lessons. They were going to go to Dairy Queen for a dip cone; he had been looking forward to it for a week and a half. His stomach grumbled painfully and Newt bounced on the balls of his feet, trying to ignore the approaching storm. The smell of moisture in the air mixed with the sharp scent of pool chlorine. It smelled like perfume, a special fragrance he would remember the rest of his life.
His mother wasn’t coming. Water dripped from Newt’s saturated hair and the first plump drop of hot June rain struck his shoulder. He wasn’t going to taste vanilla ice cream or tell her about his first dive into the deep end. All the other kids were terrified, but Newt had leapt fearlessly into the unnaturally blue water. He could still feel the sting of the spectacular belly flop in the muscles of his stomach. He was the smallest six year old in his class but they would remember he had jumped first. Another shower-warm bead of water hit his nose and splashed the lens of his coke-bottle glasses.
She wasn’t coming.
Something tickled in the back of Newt’s brain and the whole world shifted, a feather of thought stirring behind his eyes. He heard something that could have been a voice sigh into his ear and realized he couldn’t be here. He had to move on.
The aquatic center from his childhood blurred, dribbling away like an image captured through watery glass. The sky turned a vibrant orange and the simple oaks and birch trees around Newt shot up into redwood skyscrapers. Looking down at his hands, which had been the small stubby fingers of a child only seconds before, Newt found the sleek, razor-sharp curls of claws, dark as obsidian and chipped from use.
Giving a clucking noise Newt lifted up his head and twisted it from side to side. Power flowed through his muscles and he chirped at a creature emerging from a thick stand of curling ferns at his side. The thing returned his call, the frilled feathers around its neck waving back and forth in greeting. He could see more of them waiting in the trees; the sleek shapes of their bodies were mostly hidden by thick camouflaged skin patterned to look like dapples of light on a dark forest floor. With a soft guttural call, Newt joined them. The pack moved together easily, slipping through the primeval forest like shadows.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten anything; his stomach felt hollow. The creature…the raptor beside him paused, sniffed at the ground, and clicked its claws together. Food was close. A belling groan echoed through the trees. Newt was instantly on the alert, muscles tensing as his head swiveled, searching for the source. The second raptor made a series of rapid clicks and zipped forward as the ground began to shake.
Newt could smell the food now, the musk earthy and vaguely acrid. The stegosaur plodded slowly through the clearing beyond the trees. Each step caused the world to shake, leaves and pine needles jarred from the trees by the impact. There were scars threaded across the creature’s hide- some fresh, some old. Newt’s jaw worked hungrily and he dug his foot claws deep into the fragrant loamy ground skittering through the underbrush.
Another raptor from Newt’s pack hovered close by, lips pulled back from its teeth as it gave a soft hiss. Heads held low, the pack circled their prey, ready to catch it unaware. The stegosaur grazed on fern with its back turned to them, tail waving slowly and the tip nearly scraping the ground from the weight of its spikes. Newt and the second raptor observed it warily for a moment, debating the best way to strike.
The stegosaur raised its head from the ferns and spotted them. Its dull eyes widened and it gave a coarse bellow, the tail thumping hard against the ground in warning. Newt and the second raptor screeched in response, splitting up and darting in front of the stegosaur as it tried to turn its bulky body. They flanked their prey, avoiding the thrashing tail as its spikes whistled through the air. Newt crouched and leapt, claws ripping and tearing as he drew blood. The mammoth creature howled in pain, the sound rising into the ancient humid sky.
He could taste its flesh and feel the last struggling thrashes as the dinosaur bled out beneath him. The other raptors were swarming it in droves. They called to him and together they celebrated the kill, singing their triumph in growls and screeches. He took a mouthful of hot viscera and turned to…
The world went completely black. After an immeasurable time in utter darkness Newt heard three beeps followed by a ringing tone and a voice.
“A man of words and not of deeds?”
Newt knew this. His brain scrambled from the edge of sleep to fill in the blanks and finish the poem.
“Is…like a garden full of…full of weeds.”
The silky female voice spoke again, dragging his brain back across the threshold into reality. She continued the rhyme, waiting patiently for the correct reply.
“And when the weeds begin to grow?”
The answer came easier this time and Newt took a deep breath opening his eyes, pushing a heavy blanket from his bare chest.
“It’s like a garden full of snow.”
The smoky female voice didn’t answer. It was a rougher and more brutish voice that spoke to Newt now, the purr of a cat replaced by the growling of a lion.
“Wake up, creampuff. Check-out time’s in ten minutes.”
Newton Geiszler blinked a few times and reached up drowsily to paw at the uncomfortable metal prongs digging into the skin of his neck and forehead. The dim lights in the stuffy circular room brightened in slow increments. Bulbs flared over a darkened door, illuminating walls of thrumming machinery that surrounded the overstuffed bed Newt was lying in. It had always put him in mind of the slab where Dr. Frankenstein had made his monster.
A pane of electronically tinted glass cleared in a wave of interconnected hexagonal light panels, revealing a control room above Newt’s head. It sat high on the glossy wall, a great vantage point for anyone interested in watching him in the bed; which was exactly why it was there. Vague shadowy figures moved behind the control room glass; there was a fizzle of static over the sleep bays intercom but no more instructions.
Newt rubbed a thumb over the glowing light of the squid-cap in his hands. The non-standard issue Pons-helmet was still warm from his body heat. He had a difficult time waking up from recording sessions; everything coming through a confusing haze, a sensation of being in several places at once. He ran meandering hands over his face and through his tousled hair. Grabbing his thick-framed glasses from the low side table, Newt glared up and whined loudly at the control booth.
“Goddammit, Liang. How much Mab did you give me?”
The intercom gave a subtle click and Liang Fang, the owner of the sinuous female voice that had coaxed him into wakefulness, chuckled low.
“Please, Doctor Geiszler. I’m a professional. I gave you exactly the right amount and not a drop more.”
Newt grumbled in irritation and stretched until his spine gave an audible pop. Slipping his legs over the side of the bed, he waved her off languidly.
“Yeah well sometimes I forget to trust people…especially gangsters. It’s a side effect of being drugged all the time.”
Fang gave a laugh that had real bite behind it. She brightened the lights faster, bringing the dull metallic sheen of the round room into sharp focus.
“Well. If you disagree with our methods perhaps you should find another way to get your Panel fix, eh? Doctor?”
Newt gagged, an ugly jagged headache squatting behind his eyes - just one of the fun-filled residual side effects of Pons recording. Newt felt a flush in his cheeks when he saw that his clothes had been folded while he was unconscious.
“You guys doing turn down service now? Did the hired muscle rifle through my pockets while they were folding my pants?”
Liang didn’t answer, the booth eerily silent. Newt shrugged and padded across the smooth stone floor. He pulled on his pants and t-shirt, struggling a moment with his socks and the laces on his boots. He knew he was supposed to wait to put his shoes on outside but did it anyway, feeling his moment of childish defiance totally justified. Looking back at the rumpled bed Newt debated making it, and then rolled his eyes. This was an illegal dream-recording studio…not a hotel. He didn’t need to make his bed to be polite to the maid. Let the gun-wielding crime lackeys straighten his sweaty sheets.
Newt had sold his first dream three years into the war. It had been about a group of tiny people that lived in the walls of his childhood home, stealing potato chips and battling spiders. He hadn’t sold it for the money; although his job didn’t pay great he had everything he needed. He had done it the first time out of pure curiosity. That was just the way he was.
Liang cracked over the speaker system, her voice less jocular.
“Hannibal wants to see you in his office, Geiszler.”
Newt swallowed and a prickle of nervousness worked its way down his back.
“Did I do something wrong? I thought he liked dinosaurs. Big-seller, yeah? Everybody likes dinosaurs.”
Fang paused and the door leading out of the sleep bay slid upwards with a hiss. Newt normally loved that Star Trek sound, but now it filled him with an anxious giddiness. Hannibal usually came to his sessions and gave the odd comment like he had today… but an office visit was not the norm. It was not the norm at all.
“He has your new Panels and your money…I suggest you don’t question it and I don’t think it wise to keep him waiting. “
The round sleep-recording rooms, which were purposefully designed to be perfectly circular with dome shaped ceilings, were called Dream Catchers. It was cheesy as shit and Newt loved it. He loved most things about it aside from the massive hangover-like headaches he would get after recordings. He liked watching his dreams played back and he liked the idea that other people would see them. He liked getting paid. About the only thing he didn’t like was working for Hannibal Chau.
Grabbing his messenger bag from a hook just outside the doorway, Newt made his way slowly down the hall past five other Catchers. Hannibal had a thriving business and the cushy interior of his headquarters attested to that. It was nearly impossible to tell his whole operation was hidden away in a rundown warehouse. But then…it was easy to make money on something the whole world wanted but couldn’t have.
Pausing and giving his forehead one more aggravated rub, Newt pushed open a polished wooden door and staggered into the tastelessly ornate confines of Hannibal’s office. There was a fire in the carved marble fireplace. A painting of a greyhound so tacky it had to be insanely expensive hanging above the roaring hearth. Shelves lined with rows and rows of Panels soared up towards the ceiling and Newt eyed them hungrily. Every plastic Panel cartridge held up to ten thirty-minute dreams. Ten dreams per Panel, and Hannibal had to have two hundred Panels in a single mahogany shelf.
The man himself stood up, sauntering meaningfully from behind his gilded desk. Hannibal was just as chintz and tawdry as everything else in the place, the firelight wavering on his thick goggle like sunglasses and off his golden teeth. He didn’t waste any time; Newt knew from years of experience that Hannibal never wasted words. It was one of his few admirable traits.
“We talked about the pool thing last time. You said you were over it. You said you were seeing a shrink. This is strike five, small-fry. My patience can only be stretched so far, and you know the rule. I pay for magic, not memories. You leave that trauma with your mama at the door when you step in here.”
Newt avoided looking at him, eyes sliding over a white marble bust of some Greek god and on to another bookshelf full of Panels. It was embarrassing enough that a crime lord was privy to one of his worst memories, and now he was being berated about it like a toddler.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m still looking for the right psychiatrist…”
Blood dribbled from his nose and before he even noticed, Hannibal’s thick fingers were gripping his jaw and jerking his head roughly upward.
“This carpet is worth more than your skin, shithead. You get a drop of blood on it and I’ll take it out of that pretty brain of yours.”
Newt gagged glasses askew, eyes bugging out at the sudden pressure on his aching skull. He was not a tall guy and Hannibal had a good four inches of height on him. He put his hands on Hannibal’s arms, tugging hard at the velvet coat. Hannibal tutted unsympathetically, reaching into his pocket to draw out a handkerchief. Chau jammed it forcefully up Newt’s nose, jerking his hand away with a dismissive wave.
“I don’t like giving warnings, half-pint. I don’t like repeating myself. You know how much a session costs to record? You know how much money I dump down the drain every time you take a trip down memory lane?”
Newt felt anger flush in his cheeks. Recordings didn’t cost that much. Hell, the new portable recorders could be used by anybody. The quality wasn’t as good but who was really paying attention? Hannibal was full of shit, berating him just because he could.
Hannibal ambling across the garish Indian carpet to a well-stocked wet bar. The decorative metal scales on his shoes jingled musically with each step. Newt snorted and sneezed, a fresh rush of blood dribbling into the cotton wedged up his nostril. There was a sound of ice clinking on glass and Hannibal poured himself a tumbler of whiskey from a crystal decanter shaped like an elephant.
“I keep you on payroll because your dreams sell. The Jurassic Park crap especially.”
Newt glowered at the ground, putting a shaking hand to his nose. No, he wanted to say, you keep me because I’m probably only one of a hundred people in this whole damn city that can dream anymore. He didn’t say it. Newt could admit to himself he was an impulsive loudmouth on occasion, but he wasn’t an idiot.
Well… not all the time.
“I…I’m trying to get it under control, Chau. But like, no matter how good I get at lucid dreaming the Mab makes it hard to control. Maybe if you didn’t give me so goddamn much of it every time we record!”
Newt’s head was splitting wide open now and he whimpered miserably, pressing shaky fingers to his sensitive scalp. Hannibal watched him, swirling his booze around and playing distractedly with a diamond pinky ring.
“If you don’t take Mab you might give us a black screen. You take Mab and we got guaranteed HD dreams in glorious Technicolor. It’s not Cane or Liang’s fault you built up a tolerance and now we gotta double dose you just to guarantee some product in the can.”
He sighed and almost managed to sound magnanimous.
“Don’t I always treat you right, Doc? I give you what you want, don’t I? Look… I got the latest right here.”
Picking up a small pile of Panels and an envelope wrapped with a rubber band Hannibal waved them suggestively. Newt stared and felt the old junkie urge rise up in the back of his throbbing brain. His fingertips itched and he wiped unconsciously at his mouth.
“All new right? You put any recycled stuff in there?”
Hannibal’s face split into an oily grin.
“Nah. The first two are all new shit. Uncensored, good quality. The third one is just some odds and ends I picked up. Wasn’t planning on using most of it, but maybe you can give me your opinion. You know how much I value you your opinion…right, Doc?”
Hannibal held out the Panels and Newt lunged despite himself. He didn’t want the man to see how desperately he wanted the dream tapes…didn’t want to admit to himself how badly he wanted them, but what could he do? He was weak. The crime lord pulled them away at the last minute eyebrows raised.
“No more swimming pool bullshit, Geiszler. And no more Kaiju dreams, those sell about as well as popsicles in Antarctica. You didn’t do it this time, but I know you and I know how you think. I don’t want either of those things again. Capisce?”
Newt grabbed the front of his t-shirt and gripped the old material. He nodded wildly, if Hannibal had asked him to stop breathing he would have agreed without a second thought.
“Yeah, yeah! Sure man. Sure.”
The Panels and the envelope flew through the air, chucked the short distance into Newt’s hands. Newt snatched them and examined them excitedly, turning over the blank cartridges in quivering fingers, his words flying out in a frantic rush.
“Any flying dreams on here?”
Hannibal made his way back to the chair behind his desk, sinking into it with a snort.
“Ha. I wish, but it’s nothing so valuable. Most of its local talent but there’s some new Nemos on there.”
Nemos - people who could still dream - were rare as unicorn dandruff. Newt didn’t corner the market but he sure as hell didn’t feel any job insecurity. He looked around the stifling room and wanted very much to make a break for it. He had what he wanted now; he just wanted to get home and hook up.
Hannibal seemed to sense this and put down his drink. Pulling a butterfly knife from his pocket, he turned it over and over in his callused fingers thoughtfully. Newt knew he couldn’t leave until he got permission and his whole body fidgeted, eyes flickering back towards the door.
“When’s your next recording session, small-fry?”
Newt opened the flap on his messenger bag and put the Panels away, handling them like they were solid gold.
“Week from now…unless something happens at the Dome. I mean, sometimes I get busy.”
Click, click, click…Hannibal wove the knife through the fingers of one hand, his lined face stoic as he considered.
“You be a good kid and lay off the recreational Mab. There’s extra cash, I want you to spend it on something useful…like therapy. Not Panels and definitely not drugs. We square, nerd?”
Newt assented mumbling under his breath. He jittered and inched unthinkingly towards the exit.
“Oh yeah. We’re quadrilateral, dude.”
There was a sharp thunk as the butterfly knife flew through the air and buried itself deep into a wooden pillar in the center of the room, the end shivering with residual force inches from Newt’s nose. Hannibal started to laugh as Newt jumped a good foot in the air, letting out a high-pitched squeal. Chau pointed towards the door, picking up his drink to take a long, drawn out sip.
In 2014, people stopped dreaming. It didn’t happen all at once; in fact, it happened so slowly people didn’t even notice at first. It happened in that painful, gradual way that cancer kills. By the time anyone even began to catch on, only one in every five thousand people could still dream.
The dreams were one thing, but it was the lost sleep that really started to cripple. Newt often thought about just how quickly the world had fallen apart. It started with San Francisco, one of the first cities to stop dreaming. The shitstorm rippled out from this small seemingly harmless condition; the lack of flashing images during REM sleep quickly turned into something worse. No sleep at all. Aside from the Nemos it was like everyone within a hundred miles of the San Fran town center had caught simultaneous insomnia, and then…Trespasser.
Newt walked out into a blue-black world full of falling snow. He shivered as the warehouse door slammed behind him, echoing down the empty back alley. Glancing around, he pushed a trembling hand into his messenger bag, fingers caressing the edge of his new Panels. He needed to get going. Crime bosses didn’t typically keep their lairs in the swankiest neighborhoods and it was getting dark. Getting dark…whatever. The winters in Kansas lasted about eleven months of the year. It started to get dark at five o’clock in the afternoon on a good day. Getting dark? Yeah, try always dark.
Clutching his bag tight under one arm, Newt took off at a run. He navigated steaming back alleys and the loud crowds of the Morse Street flea market. The red light district was yawning to life, just opening up for business. It was almost seven and most of the little curtain-shrouded, hole in the wall restaurants were full of people looking for a cheap dinner. The brunt of them were just getting off work from some blue-collar factory job, something that left them sore and slow and covered with grease. Newt’s footfalls down the street were muffled by the coating of fresh snow and the slush of salted ice. Hannibal’s handkerchief was still up his nose, going crusty with drying blood.
He snorted around it, breathing through his mouth his breath fogging his glasses. Escaping the loud cluttered confusion of Morse Street, he passed a stall selling live chickens and paused, backtracking. The last train to the Shatterdome didn’t leave till ten…he had time. Newt scanned the masses furtively before he ducked behind the adjacent cages of screeching hens and cawing roosters. Counting doors, he made it to the back of an old concrete building that had once been a funeral home. Wiping cold beads of sweat from his forehead, he knocked a complicated tattoo on the door and waited bouncing on the balls of his feet.
A narrow window slid open high in the door and a pair of very unfriendly grey eyes glared out at him. A woman spoke, her voice a raspy and unfriendly French.
“<Geiszler. You looking to buy?>”
It took Newt a minute to answer; he spoke maybe ten words of French total and the ones he did know he pronounced wrong.
“Um…Hey Dinorah… <I am, Sergio here?>”
The eyes considered and spoke slowly so he could keep up.
“<No, he isn’t. How much do you want?>”
Newt shivered, looking nervously back over his shoulder, reaching into his bag and touching the envelope wrapped around the three Panels. Still puffing for breath he yanked it loose and pulled a crisp hundred dollar bill from it, waving it at the door.
“Just…just give me hundred bucks worth. Look, I even have cash!”
The window slammed shut and Newt was left with his teeth chattering in the cold. After five agonizing minutes, the metal door slid all the way open. He scurried in and a lean older woman with a thin weary face watched him impassively. More unsavory underworld characters, Newt thought rather fanatically as he melted under her glare. Dinorah’s pale eyes traveled from the snow in Newt’s hair to his uneven pupils and finally to the stained rag in his nose. Her heavy accent was hard to plow through with his head hurting, but Newt managed it.
“Just come from Hannibal’s then?”
Newt grinned sheepishly.
She didn’t smile back. She looked at him a minute more before beckoning him to follow, plodding down the narrow entryway. After a ways she parted a beaded curtain and they entered into the dream den. It had all the charm of a high-class opium den; Newt stayed in the doorway wringing his hands, unwilling to take another step forward. He glanced uneasily around at the maze of sofas and beanbag chairs. The room was purposefully dark, people lying around him in a haze of incense and classical music. Most of them were asleep, either torpid from the effects of Mab or hooked into archaic sleeper-rigs.
The people lounging about in a half-delirious stupor in Sergio D’onofrio’s Mab parlor probably weren’t Nemos, just the average civilian trying to escape reality for an hour or two…maybe catch a quick nap. They were probably watching Panels they had experienced a million times before, the same old chased down the hall, falling off a cliff nightmares that were the easiest to come by these days; the standard IDDC issued material that wasn’t hard to get your hands on.
They had released a surplus of the mediocre stuff at the beginning of the war and still made a couple new ones every few months. That was back before the attacks escalated, back when sleeper-rigs were being mass-produced and anybody could buy one. Those days were long gone. If you wanted the good shit you had to go through a dealer, an underground one- a highly illegal one, like Hannibal Chau.
Newt was so buried in his own thoughts he didn’t even notice Dinorah at his elbow until she laid a hand on his shoulder in a bear-trap grip. He whirled around, glasses falling down his nose as he wriggled, trying to get away from her. She narrowed her eyes.
Dinorah held a small metal case out to Newt, but pulled back when he reached for it eagerly.
“You don’t take it so fast this time. You die, Chau will hold us responsible…”
Newt gave an exasperated groan, reaching for the case again only to have the woman grab his wrist and twist it until the bones started to grind.
“Ah! FUCK! Ow ow ow!”
She didn’t flinch at his cries of pain letting her arm slowly sink down with him as he sank to the ground.
“I am not joking. You overdose, Chau loses a Nemo and we are blamed. Promise.”
“God, I promise! I PROMISE!”
The woman’s neon-blue painted lips finally parted in a smile and she let him go, her voice turning sickly sweet.
The Topeka Shatterdome was the largest IDDC base in the continental United States. It was second in size only to the Moscow Dome, which was borderline ridiculous in terms of sheer mass. Newt shivered into his wet leather jacket and watched the signs outside the train window. The first rust-ridden sign threatened as it blurred past; No Unauthorized Personnel. Another read: All staff must display appropriate identification. The words glared almost in accusation as the train entered a tunnel. Newt bit at his nails and bounced his leg, humming to himself.
The last of the Mab Liang had given him was wearing off. The nosebleed had long since stopped but the headache showed no signs of abating; it wouldn’t. Not until he took another dose.
“…just another fifteen minutes…maybe twenty and I’ll b-be home.”
The spasms up and down Newt’s spine sent waves of scalding pain behind his eyes. He hissed through his teeth, glad he hadn’t made any social plans with Tendo. The encounter with Dinorah had left a bad taste in his mouth. As nice as it was that Sergio gave him discounts on account of his connection to the IDDC, it didn’t seem worth it if they were going to start limiting the amounts of Mab he could buy. He would probably have to find another dealer soon. Or, the little voice in his head suggested, maybe you could just lay off the stuff…go sober for a while. It wouldn’t kill you, Geiszler.
Newt let a bitter chuckle slip through his clenched teeth. Yeah, right.
He was the only one on the train; the commuters had gone home hours ago. A fair number of employees lived in the city surrounding the Dome rather than inside it. Newt saw no reason to keep a filthy, rat-infested apartment outside when he had a perfectly good, filthy, rat-infested place to live so close to his lab.
Fiddling nervously with his ID badge, Newt sprinted off the train before the doors were even completely open, passing more brightly colored warning signs; Contraband Will Be Confiscated and the bizarre Shatterdome-Issue Shoes Only.
Newt swore under his breath when he read that particular sign. He almost always forgot to change before he went in the halls and the last thing he needed was another reprimand; he was skating on thin ice with Marshall Kushner as it was. The locker room where he had stuffed his soft-soled Shatterdome shoes was five hallways off. He opted for the easier and colder option. Leaning down Newt pulled off his damp boots and slung them over his shoulder by the laces, making his way to his room in his socks.
The interior of the Shatterdome was always full of echoes, even when it was completely empty. The world wavered with the far-off drip of water and the distant rumble of voices, a ghostly stream of constant noise that made Newt want to stop and look nervously over his shoulder every few paces.
He passed some mechanics and a tech he didn’t recognize but none of them bothered to give him the time of day; they were either just getting off work or heading in for night shifts. The walk to his quarters took a good thirty minutes. Newt could have made the effort and hitched a ride with one of the soft-wheeled golf carts that were constantly sniffing the halls for intruders, but what if the security guards just decided it was time for a random bag check? They could do that. They would do that.
Newt was not a popular resident. He was the kooky spooky Kaiju-man way out in Hall O-10. He was nothing but a scraggly mad scientist who had lost the support of just about everyone in the Jaeger program and a reputation - not undeserved - of drug abuse. Even the Marshall would have dumped him if he could.
The Topeka Dome halls ran in a snail shell’s spiral pattern, winding downward one on top of each other in huge rolling circles. About twenty floors down the spiral would branch off into little bunkers or larger rooms, and at the heart of the whole mess was the Hangar Bay. Newt would only head that direction if there were an attack. The only other reason he would have to be there was to see Tendo; his last true-blue friend worked on the golden bridge itself, LOCCENT, last bastion of freedom and security…-cue salute and fireworks.
By the time he reached his own corroded iron door Newt was about ready to collapse. His head was aching so badly he could barely form coherent thoughts. Spinning the thick wheel-like door handle he muscled his way into the dark hallway and up the short flight of stairs to his room. He lived above his lab in what had once been a glass observation deck. Before he had ever come to Topeka they had used the room for experimental Jaeger testing; the walls were still lined with radioactive shielding as proof of its history.
The entire wall opposite of Newt’s sleeping quarters occupied by sunken fans the size of minivans. Newt wasn’t sure what they had been used for exactly-he had never turned them on. Hell, he didn’t even know if they still worked, but if they did one flick of one switch and all his samples and equipment would have been blown into a flat pancake pile under the elevated observation deck.
Newt didn’t look down at his quiet lab now. He couldn’t be bothered to think about all the work he needed to catch up on. Struggling into his improvised living space, he made sure the blankets he had put over the glass windows were firmly in place. Minute flickers of colored light squeaked into the sides but it was barely noticeable. Clicking on a dim table lamp, he blinked against the brightness, his head giving a dull angry throb. Newt cringed rubbing his temples for a very uncomfortable minute or more. He could feel vomit attempting to climb up the back of his throat.
Tamping it down he crumpled into a trembling heap on a tatty old armchair. All his furniture was salvaged from the rest of the Shatterdome’s trash, held together with duct tape and crossed fingers. Taking deep breaths, Newt stared at the crossed metal beams of his ceiling. A half dosage… he could take half a dose and sleep this off. Hands now shaking violently, Newt reached into his bag and drew out the Panels and the metal case that Dinorah had given him. Flipping it open he let out a soft, furious whisper.
The metal case was full of tiny fluid-filled glass vials, each about the size of a peanut. Six of them glowed with the warm embryonic pink light of pure Mab but the final two were a dull orange. The bitch had slipped him straight up Sunset. Nemos took Mab to make them dream but everyone, Nemo or not, eventually used Sunset. It was what had, albeit temporarily, saved the world. When people had stopped sleeping worldwide, it was the orange wonder drug that had knocked them all out and induced a false REM sleep that allowed the civilized world to keep its sanity. While non-Nemos could enjoy Mab as a powerful opiate…Sunset did nothing for Newt but knock him out into a restless, dreamless sleep.
He had paid for a whole case of Mab and she had slipped him useless orange Kool-Aid. Sergio had most likely been there the whole time - he probably thought it was just hilarious. Newt ground his teeth and immediately regretted it, putting his head between his knees and moaning deep in his throat. Things could be worse…he could deal with this. He still had six hits and the Panels. He would just have to make them last. Newt straightened slowly rubbing at his eyes tiredly. Standing unsteadily he pulled off his wet coat and stripped down to his underwear.
His sleeper-rig was beautiful. Newt had built it himself from scratch; it had taken him nearly a year to get the custom parts and some he had made himself. He picked it up and ran his hand over the blue-metal squid cap, thumb rubbing slow circles over the skull cradle, the prong lights. Setting Hannibal’s latest Panels on the blown out speaker that served as his nightstand, Newt murmured fondly to the rig.
“Hey, gorgeous. You ready for lights out?”
The first Panel was the most promising; the good stuff, probably full blown narratives. Hannibal was well known for his strong surreal dreams but he was also known to dabble in narratives. Newt liked the plotty ones alright, especially if they were first person points of view, but he was a connoisseur of the sensation dreams; flying, swimming, floating…that kind of thing. He craved it.
Newt debated, and then set the first aside. He wouldn’t enjoy it as much in the state he was in. Even when he did take another hit this was the kind of Mab hangover that ruined a good dream, and he wasn’t going to waste the experience. Turning the second Panel over in his hands Newt found a thin, barely discernible strip of red tape stuck to the interior of the Panel’s plastic casing. Red tape meant only one thing: wet dreams.
Newt stuck out his tongue and put this one aside as well. Wet dreams were okay; they sold like crazy but they weren’t really his thing. Sure, he had to admit he was in the mood for one once in awhile but it was weird in the same way porn was weird. Even when he was ‘participating’ he wasn’t really the one doing it. Plus most of the sex dreams had a tendency to feature post-war movie stars or people that he knew were real and existed somewhere. That was about as far from a turn-on as he could imagine.
He leaned the red-tagged Panel against the lamp on his side table and picked up the last cartridge, the one Hannibal had told him contained odds and ends. Probably only five to ten minute dream fragments and not full on half-hour segments. Newt didn’t bother with these most of the time. Sometimes if he was strapped for material Hannibal would have his people edit different fragments together into longer streams of consciousness; the bargain bin sample tapes of the recording industry.
Newt sniffed, shrugged and popped the slab of grey plastic into the rig’s computer set-up. The sleeper-comp was about the size of a boom box from the early 1990’s and just as portable, covered in gleaming buttons and multicolored readout-screens.
“Ah…what the hell, Chau. Let’s see what we got.”
A heads-up display appeared above the boxy rig and Newt examined it. He was surprised; there were four tiny chunks of ten minute content but a large twenty-five minute long recording at the end. That was almost a full experience. He could easily stick that on a regular Panel. Newt speculated about it curiously. Maybe it was blank in places? That happened sometimes. The brain just forgot it was in the middle of a dream and went black for minutes at a time before resuming.
Newt queued the five-minute shorts and the longer dream into a feedback loop and placed the squid-cap over his head. Buckling the round cylinder of the spinal relay to the back of his neck, he burrowed into his tattered quilt and made himself comfortable on a mound of wadded blankets and flat pillows; his bed was a pile of Shatterdome issued mattresses four thick on the bare floor. He even hadn’t bothered with a bed frame.
The room was silent except for the faint electric hum of his rig and the buzz of his lab just beyond the darkened windows. Newt wrestled with the tiny metal box and pulled out a vial of Mab. Pressing a button on the bottom of the little thing made a retractable needle shoot from the top, transforming it into a dart. All he was missing was an unaware Indiana Jones and a blowgun and he would be set.
Newt giggled gleefully at his own joke and ran questing fingers over his collarbone and up to the back of his neck. He found the tiny bump of the medical port under the tattoo near his clavicle. He was lucky; not everybody could afford a port. There were plenty of everyday citizens just injecting their Sunset and ending up with roadmaps of track marks over their arms. There were pills now, but they were harder to find and easier to counterfeit. Better to stick with what you knew worked.
The familiar prick of pain as the needle slid into the port was a relief. Newt counted to five as he pushed the plunger switch on the side of the vial with his thumb, yanking it away before he could drain it. Setting the leftovers back into the metal case he placed it on top of the unwatched Panels and settled into his unwashed sheets, trying to empty his mind. His heart stopped for one beat…two. Started again. He felt his chest shake as it pounded, knocking hard to get back into an even rhythm.
Everything went indistinct and blurred as his thoughts turned to syrup. Newt took a lengthy breath and held it, reaching up to touch the activator on the top of the squid cap. His room dropped away, the stale air and muted noises of the waking world disappearing into the fine azure mist of dreaming. Mab crawled through his veins relaxing every muscle into the consistency of a limp rubber band. The headache was snuffed out as the drug soaked sponge-like into his brain, and every shit problem he might have had only moments before lost any shred of meaning or importance.
The Pons hummed and the Panel started to cycle, vibrating through Newt’s skull. The snippets were sub-par even by the basest standards; the first a simple stress dream involving rotten teeth. Newt looked at his reflection in a mirror at a face that wasn’t really his. It was an older woman in her fifties; he looked down at himself…herself…themselves. It was their dream now. He reached into his mouth and felt his teeth come loose; they clinked into the sink one at a time with the ting of enamel hitting porcelain. He picked up one of the molars and desperately tried to jam it back in wiggling it around in the gum. It didn’t hurt…but it wouldn’t stay. He felt it fall out and put it back in over and over again…He could taste the iron tang of blood and feel a thrill of fear. The Mab amplified it and he forgot himself in the experience, picking up tooth after tooth just to lose them again.
The dream ended. The next short was another stress dream; Hannibal must really have been strapped. He probably hadn’t even recorded these…maybe he had bought them from another dealer…or some amateur with a portable recorder. Newt looked at his feet; there were snakes everywhere. It was the lawn of some suburban house…the dreamer’s, most likely. Wrapped around the patio furniture and the grill were thousands of snakes. Newt knew he had to walk across them. Compelled to get past the swarming curling bodies, he took his first step covering more ground then was physically possible. Each step was a mile but he was making no progress. He was getting nowhere and the snakes bit at him, snapping wide tooth-filled jaws. They bit him over and over again as he made his way across infinite grassy yard, the smooth black bodies of the vipers somehow doubling in number with every failed attempt to advance. He was running out of places to step…before long he would be resting his feet on snakes, soon he would have nowhere to go.
The next two were more of the most common crap that Newt could find anywhere. He was lost in a house that became a school…there was something following him he could almost see. He knew he had to get somewhere but there was nowhere to go. Now he was walking through ground that gripped at his ankles; more anxiety dreams. Well, with the current state of the world everybody who could still dream was having these things. His mind rolled through the darkness and there was a small gap before the very last dream on the Panel started to cycle.
The vague, half-conscious part of Newt’s mind, the part that was still somewhat alert on the other side of the Pons and the Mab, knew immediately that this was different. There was a hiccup, like the film had been cut unevenly and he caught a brief glance of …something. A black and white room. It was gone before he could even identify what he had seen and now he was staring up at a sky full of stars. They were red and the spaces between them a bizarre, dark violet. These were not the colors of a sky found on Earth. The world had a strange smell- sulfur perhaps, or methane. It burned when Newt took a deep breath and he-the dreamer raised their eyes to the heavens.
Planetary bodies revolved overhead but they were nothing identifiable from Earth’s solar system; Newt was damn sure of that. From over some dim watery horizon a golden moon rose into the sky. It was shattered down the center and rocky pieces of its own body hovered around the crack. It was so close it seemed to touch the surface of the planet where Newt stood, so huge and heavy he could almost reach out and touch it.
An ocean boiled near his feet and Newt realized he was on a beach. The waves didn’t lap gently so much as crash and pull in a savage irregular motion, the thrust and drag of the black water erratic and violent. The moon tilted slowly and a great distance away where the inky ocean met the battered purple sky light appeared. A red sun was rising, coating with world with sticky radiance the color of blood. Newt raised a pale long-fingered hand in front of his eyes and turned his face away taking a painful step towards a cluster of slick obsidian rocks.
A dead fish had washed up on the shore but like the broken moon and scab-colored sun this thing was unlike any fish found on earth. It flopped weakly, the horizontal gill slits running down its stomach slamming open and shut as it gasped for air. The wide eyes the size of bicycle wheels stared blindly at the dreamer as they approached. The fish was easily the length of a man…as big as a cow. The luminous light in its skin flashed as it died. Newt could smell more of the hot chemical odor blowing off it. It seemed to be made of more light than flesh. It was just like …
A noise startled him-the dreamer-them. Far out at sea where the swollen supernova of a sun was rising, some animal cried out. High over his head in the caustic yellow clouds a megalith moved closer. The world shook with its steps and one by one the foreign stars disappeared, eaten by the tainted morning light. The monster roared again, its coughing voice filling the alien world. The dreamer took a step back.
Newt felt their body shaking, their lungs burning. He took a step back and the Mab told him that it was real. He was here and this dream was the most real he had ever seen. More enormous fish washed up on the shore. More noises stabbed his brain…and then…
The rig computer shut off the Panel automatically when it reeled to the end.
Newt’s eyes burst open and he sat up, gasping for air. Sweat ran in thick rivers down his neck and spine. He felt cold and hot at once, disoriented and for a long moment unsure of where he was. It was one of the most intense dreams he had ever experienced. Even on only half a hit of Mab, it had felt like he was there. Not just there-but THERE.
Newt panted looking around his dark room, holding himself and rocking rhythmically back and forth. The glow of his alarm clock told him that barely an hour had passed; the length of the Panel almost to the minute. He pressed his knuckles to his scalp and let out a hysterical laugh. Eventually the worst of the high wore down and he managed to pull the squid cap off, sprawling back in bed. Looking at the Pons in one hand he scrubbed the other over his face. The last tremoring after-shakes stopped and he was left with more questions than he knew what to do with.
Someone had created that. Who? How?? Even in what were quite literally his wildest dreams Newt had never seen anything that vivid. His gaze wandered over to the metal vial-case. There was no way he was going to sleep now, not with all the manic thoughts bouncing off the sides of his skull. Maybe being slipped a few doses of Sunset wasn’t such a terrible thing after all. He needed time to decompress and really figure this out. For the first time in months he had a sudden painful desire for dark blackout sleep.
Just as he made up his mind and reached out to grasp the case, the distant clamor of an alarm sounded. The entire Shatterdome was a gong being struck by an enthusiastic toddler. Newt rolled off his sweat sopped bed and roughly pulled a blanket covering his window aside. The screeching alarm and flashing emergency lights at the far end of his lab could only mean one thing.