Other People's Dreams
The whole thing reminds Will of a nightmare he’s never had.
He knows other people have had it. It’s one of the traditional ones, like falling and waking up before you hit or being stuck in a room you can’t remember why you entered in the first place. Will’s nightmares were never that prosaic. They all involved a monster eating his mother, the general idea that the beast might finish up with him for dessert, and a soft British voice assuring him that everything would be okay, even when it really, really wasn’t.
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t trust her.
But those are his nightmares. He’s never had the one where you show up to school or an important meeting naked, but he’s heard it described a few times and read about it in textbooks. Classic anxiety response, the clinical part of him says, and even though he’s not sure what he’s feeling is anxiety, he knows it has to be pretty damn close.
It’s sunny out (in?) which he can’t understand. Apparently if you give Helen Magnus a century and a bit, not to mention a healthy bank account, she can break the laws of nature. He can’t say he’s surprised. He is surprised by the way everyone looks at him, though. Like he’s a legend, or something. At first he thought it was all in his head, but by the end of the first week, he knows he’s not imagining it. Every single person who works for Helen in her new underground Sanctuary looks at him like he’s the second coming of...something.
It takes him another week to figure out why.
He’s settling in, getting adjusted to all the differences in living underground and he spends most of his time on the phone with Abby, freaking out about how amazing everything is. She’s still with SCIU, officially, but she’s going to be his liaision to the upperworld (they really need to work on terminology), so she’s working for the Sanctuary, like she wanted: another line of communication if something goes wrong, or if they run out of milk. He falls into his job of being Helen’s second-in-command like he never stopped, kept busy by a job he find he likes so much, it feels like it was designed for him.
Because, of course, it was. Everything, including his Joe DiMaggio baseball, which she must have stolen before she blew up the Old City Sanctuary, is set up exactly for him. It’s a perfect fit, like the Harvard Scholarship, and so of course it feels just as fake.
But that’s not the worst. The worst is that everyone else knew he was coming. There are scientists here in their eighties, Jewish minds Helen saved from a burning Europe and the like, and still others who look too young for the titles they hold. There are humans and abnormals, and more than a few Will can’t tell the species of. And they have all been told, apparently, that Will Zimmerman was coming, and that Helen had made a place for him.
It is incredibly unnerving.
It’s Tesla who finally sets him straight. The vampire saunters into to Will’s tastefully appointed office one night after the sun has set. Helen hasn’t found a way to approximate stars or the moon, and it’s the one thing Will misses. Tesla has a bottle of wine and two glasses, and Will realizes that, once and for all, he really has been promoted.
“It was strange, coming back from the dead,” Nikola says, filling one glass and then the other. “But you know what the weirdest part was?”
Will’s no stranger to rhetorical questions, so he lets it pass unanswered and swirls the wine around in his glass instead.
“There was all this fiction,” Nikola continues. “I was a public person, before I died. James and Nigel, and John, if we’re honest, had fiction, but I was a respected scientist. When I came back, though, steampunk was all the rage and I was randomly showing up all over the place. It was incredibly odd.”
Tesla might not be a villain, this week, but he can monologue with the best of them, so Will doesn’t bother asking questions that would only encourage insults and biting remarks.
“I imagine that’s what it’s like for you.” Nikola looks directly at him, and Will resists the urge to squirm under the vampire’s too direct stare. “Helen’s been playing you up for a century, and now you’re here.”
“Now I’m here,” Will whispers, mostly to himself even though Tesla is right there. He takes a sip of his wine. He has no idea what kind it is or where it’s from. And he really doesn’t care.
“So live up to it,” Nikola says. “Or don’t. The choice is yours. You wanted to be her partner, not her student, and this is the cost.”
“Becoming a story?” Will asks, even though he already know the answer.
“There’s no red pill, blue pill, William. You can walk away whenever you like, no hard feelings. Nigel ran across an entire ocean and died, for goodness sake. I walked out on her for six decades and, leaving aside the part where I tried to kill her a little bit, we’re just fine now. We all have to start somewhere,” Nikola says. “Though, of course, we don’t all end up where we intend.”
“I don’t have as much time as you did,” Will points out. He means James, but he’s also talking about Druitt. He’s not sure he wants to pay John’s price for staying close to Helen all this time.
“True,” Tesla says. “I’m not suggesting you copy any example in particular, mind you, but keep an open mind. You’re living in an underground metropolis built mostly by one woman’s refusal to accept the inevitable. Something might come up.”
It’s scary, but it’s true. Will is still bracing himself for more casual revelations like Oh, by the way, here is Rana Seneschal and You know that meteor from Tunguska in 1908? Not so much!.
“How come there are no stories about her?” Will asks. He’s pretty sure he knows the answer to this one too, but he wants to hear someone else say it. The look of complete disdain Tesla shoots him tells him that he guessed correctly.
“Helen?” Tesla says. “There are stories about her everywhere. Every nightmare you’ve ever had, every fantasy you’ve ever dreamed. Every plan you’ve ever made. She is there. Once you’ve accepted that, if you can accept that (and not everyone can), then you’ll be ready to stand amongst the giants.”
“Did you ever have doubts?”
“Not from the moment I saw her.” Nikola sets his glass down on Will’s desk. “You’re no one’s replacement, Will. You never were. She just finds people as she needs them, and uses them as best they can be used.”
“You know, nothing about what you’re describing is healthy,” Will points out.
Tesla laughs and puts his feet up on Will’s desk. “Of course not, Wilhelm. If you’re expecting sanity, you are in the wrong line of work. But it is fun. And you’ve probably got at least another three decades before you try to kill her.”
“Thanks,” Will says dryly. He’s never felt more certain about anything in his life, which makes him incredibly uncertain about the whole thing.
“I guess I have a few more chapters in me,” he says finally.
“Here’s hoping.” Tesla stands up. “I’ve only just got you housebroken. I’d hate to have to start again.”
“Get out of my office,” Will says. He’s starting to understand how this game is played.
He looks at the bookshelves that flank his office window. They are floor to ceiling, and he hasn’t filled them all yet. She saved his Sherlock Holmes books along with his baseball, and he gets up to take a closer look at them in their new home. There are streetlights outside, and his office is well lit, but it’s not quite the same as before. He runs a finger down the leather spine of “The Sign of the Four”. That hasn’t changed at all.
No health plan, no raise.
Will is ready to begin.