“ Come...dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg.”
Sometime in the future, as Dan Dreiberg is sitting down to his cold dinner of leftover take-out, Dr. Jon Osterman is sitting down to a televised interview on the relativity of dreaming.
The unit in Dan’s kitchen is small, the picture prone to static. Something is wrong with the Technicolor, making the tiny people trapped within it appear to glow blue no matter how much he fiddles with the knobs or smacks at its sides half-heartedly.
“In his five-volume Oneirocritica—” says Jon, in that detached, terrifying monotone of his “—the Greek diviner Artemidorus was careful to stress that the interpretation of dreams is nothing other than the juxtaposition of similarities. It is impossible to understand the meaning of a man’s inner mythology without knowing his past, his present, his own theories about his future.”
It’s a simplified echo of the lecture Dan first heard him give almost two decades before. He tries to change the channel, but the broadcast is being picked up by all the major networks.
“Yet Artemidorus does not completely abandon the possibility of a universal symbology. For a traveler to dream of owls foretells of shipwreck, but absent the context of that personal mythos there is no telling on what metaphorical island he shall be stranded, nor for how long.”
“What of ideals?” asks the host. “How would you go about analyzing something like the American dream?”
Jon blinks, expression unchanging but vaguely puzzled by the question.
“Dreams have no national identity,” he says at length. “A nation cannot possess a dream. It is us who is possessed, if anything.”
The sauce-congealed rice sits cold and sticky in his mouth, and he swallows it down with difficulty. There’s pressure building at his temples, hot and throbbing, and if the over-familiarity of his routine fills him with quiet fury it’s the persistent headaches that occasionally bloom into migraines that frustrate him the most.
When Dan lays down his sagging, increasingly ache-ridden body that night (and every night), he doesn’t dream about his partner, their once-shared mission, or the night it had all gone horribly, terrifyingly wrong.
He doesn’t dream at all.
When they were young, unjaded, Walter had enjoyed accessorizing, been fond of cravats and finely-tailored suits of deep purple. Gloves of matching leather even though there was no need to worry over fingerprints, old-fashioned fedoras pulled low over his eyes, shielding him from the stares of the subject’s projections. Gorily lavish, unnecessary details to the scenery, beyond the small luxuries and blemishes needed to maintain the illusion of reality: cats screaming in the night, water burbling in the gutters, dark as old blood, a dog carcass in the mouth of an alleyway, stomach burst and spilling viscera.
After, his dreams were stark, black and white, their shifting blueprints unpredictable and dangerous.
It was easier, Dan rationalized, for him to take over the role of architect, let Walter shoulder some of the responsibilities as point man. Safer, but far from perfect.
“You need to get this under control,” he whispered as a faceless little girl in black Mary Janes flitted in and out of the maze’s periphery, giggles mixed with the echoing, distant bark of dogs. They were following their mark through the endless stacks of Dan’s clumsily literal recreation of the Harvard library, and few of the subconscious shades around them were looking up from their books, faces cross with suspicion.
Walter gritted his teeth, ducking quickly down the familiar row that housed the oversized ornithology texts. A few more turns like that and they’d be at the walkway connecting the main building to the rare books collection beyond, where somewhere—if their information was correct—their mark would have shelved the locked diary containing the information they need.
“Am in control. Perfectly.”
Dan eyed the flapping tails of his trench—dirty, missing some buttons, reeking of remembered soot and old blood—with wary unease, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it now. He bit his lip and forced his attention back to the mission at hand.
Dan has always been well-versed in the ways of research, but it was Hollis who taught him how to extract information from the reluctant or flat-out unwilling.
“A good police officer isn’t his badge, his gun, his goddamn uniform,” he’d said, turning the half-empty bottle of beer slowly between his fingers. “Policework is in your brain, your feet. Rarely your fists.”
They were bent over his kitchen table, old case files spread out between them.
“Before you can interrogate, you gotta read. Goddamn everything you can get your hands on about your guy. Or gal.” He grinned, crookedly, eyes drifting briefly towards the ceiling as if remembering. “You gotta walk, talk, listen. You gotta find out who your man is, who he thinks he is, before you can even ask him the price of tea in China.
“Some of the guys down at the precinct’ll tease me about it, call me a real night owl, and they’re the guys who’ll just slap a snitch around until he starts singing a tune they can dance to. They don’t care if he can stay in key, if he shifts his story later on the stand. If the charges stick.”
This is how Dan will always remember him, leaning forward, weathered hand reaching suddenly to grasp him by the wrist, grip tight enough to grind his carpals, eyes glinting with predatory mirth.
“You want to get the truth, the honest-to-Jesus and Mother Mary truth, you gotta know where your informant’s hiding it, and then you gotta trick him into giving you the goddamn key to the front door.”
It was supposed to be an easy assignment. And it was, to a certain extent. Grice’s attempts at hiding in the physical world were utterly laughable, and his secrets in the dream-world were certainly easy enough to spot: an abandoned dressmaker’s shop, the window haunted by fat felt forms (it was, after all, technically Walter’s dream), the mud-churned yard surrounded by a tall wooden fence and guarded by two snarling german shepherds.
Their client had only had one (very understandable) question: where?
They’d done larger jobs, of course, brought in Eddie, Adrian, even little Laurie Juspeczk (15 years old but already forging dangerously deceptive specters, her skill honed with long dream-hours training with her mother). But things got complicated with more than two, so Dan far preferred smaller jobs like this one, easily worked by himself and his partner.
Walter had never actually said it, but he preferred them, too, obviously uncomfortable with having too many people running around inside his head.
It wasn’t about the money, never had been. It was about the knowing. And sometimes, when Dan was being completely honest with himself, the opportunity to delve out healthy, wholesale violence without real-world consequences.
Even dim as Grice was, they did not go entirely unnoticed. Down the darkened street, a set of bar doors swung suddenly open, spilling light and rough-looking patrons onto the sidewalk. Dan watched them with purposefully casual interest. “What’ll you have tonight? Frisking duty or crowd control?”
Walter shot him a look, exasperated but with the faintest hint of a grin haunting his rough features. He knew how much Dan had been itching to try out his latest weaponry, avian-motif designs unfettered by the constraints of physics.
“Have fun,” he’d said, breaking down the door with one practiced kick. “Won’t be gone long.”
Dan has examined that moment from every angle, rebuilt it in his mind and walked its parameter a thousand times, looking for an escape, a way out of their fate, a way to save his partner, the girl, the entire world as he’d come to know it. But no matter how he bends perspective, what Escher-esque contortions he forces onto reality, this is one maze he cannot solve.
The laser had worked beautifully, as had the grappling hook, pulling him to the top of a crumbling brick building a few blocks away when the hoard got too close, too numerous. It had been a merry enough chase—his muscles were burning pleasantly with the effort of running and climbing, his knuckles scraped and fingers dotted with fight-bites from the few too-close encounters–-but it was time to head back.
Walter had planned ahead for his rooftop return, built an open skylight into his design. There were wide sweeps through the dust where his partner had searched, but the building was empty, quiet but for the incessant barking of the dogs.
He’d finally found his partner in the kitchen, braced in the doorway leading out to the yard, silhouetted by the harsh streetlight beyond.
Long stretch of silence, long enough that Dan wondered whether his partner had even heard him over the snarling and snapping of the dogs. Eventually Walter ground out a single, strained syllable: “Yes.”
“Where was the safe?” Dan peered over his shoulder, thinking it might have been out there the whole time, but nothing stood out as immediately of note. Walter was watching the dogs fight over something, an old bit of bone, from the look of it.
“Wasn’t a safe. Hid it in the furnace.”
“Huh.” He remembered it from his pass through the front room, had presumed the large, black monstrosity was Walter’s creation. “That’s a first.”
He waited for a response, for Walter to share what he’d found, but his partner stood motionless, quiet but for his ragged breathing, the creak of his leather gloves digging painfully into the doorframe.
Something was wrong, Dan realized, finally taking in the scarred countertops, the stained butcher blocks, the glint of steel in the open cabinets. Very wrong.
“Walter—” He kept his tone low, quiet, like the trembling man in front of him was a horse on the verge of spooking. “Where is she?”
He turned, finally, enough so that Dan could pick out his profile, the flat reflection of the light in his eyes, but before he could answer they were interrupted by the creak of the front door on its rusted hinges, followed by heavy steps down the hallway.
“Fred!” called a voice, rough, slurred with alcohol. “Barney! Jesus, can’t ya shut yer goddamn yapping fer just one—”
Grice stumbled into the kitchen, dream-drunk and obviously surprised to see them, but Walter was already moving, taking up an abandoned cleaver in one smooth motion.
Dan wasn’t entirely sure what he was thinking when he reached out to his partner, moved to place himself between them—he was acting primarily on blind instinct, a delayed attempt to save Walter from himself, maybe—but Walter was fueled by instincts of his own. He twisted in Dan’s grasp, crouched, and kicked out with an enraged growl. He hit Dan low in the abdomen, using the contact to launch him back into the air, back towards the still-stunned Grice, cleaver held high and gleaming.
What happened next Dan didn’t see, he was stumbling backward, through the door and off the narrow concrete stoop. The dogs were charging toward him, the smell of old blood churned through wet earth reeking in the air, and he was falling—
He came to with a gasping lurch, flailing embarrassingly in the room’s dim light, but there was nobody awake to see him shaking like a child suddenly wrenched from nightmare (it’s dangerous to go under like this, both of them down with no one to stand watch over the equipment, the time, but who can they really trust?). Walter and Grice were still linked and dreaming on the other cots, motionless but for the rapid twitching of their eyelids.
Dan was on his feet, cursing, and scrambling to the blinking suitcase of controls before his eyes really had time to focus, painfully aware of the gaping chasm of the time difference between them, how laughably slow his actions would appear to their current reality.
Dan didn’t know how far down they’d gone into the dream-space, how long they’d spent there, but when he gave them the kick Grice came up screaming like his skin was on fire, eyes wild and darting rapidly between invisible terrors and the distant, uncaring stars beyond the broken glass of the room’s sole window.
He was still screaming as he was being loaded into the ambulance, the red, blue, red again flash of police lights making the greasy skin of his pocked face shine. Blood splattered across the white sheets from where he’d already pulled his wrists raw yanking against the steel cuffing him to the gurney.
They watched from the safety of the roof, two looming figures in the night. Walter kept his hands in the pockets of his trench, saying nothing, not even smiling with his usual grim satisfaction.
When it was finally time to go, Dan avoided meeting his gaze, afraid of what he might see. Afraid of the distant, glassy blankness of one who dreams while still awake.
All of the important parts of Dan’s life have existed on the questionably fuzzy side of legality for a long time now, but the passing of the Keene Act pushes everything into focus.
Adrian got out of the business a long time ago, turning his chemical expertise into a pharmaceutical empire. Eddie’s working with the military, burning information out of the brains of captured Vietnamese operatives, and rumor has it that Jon’s been roped into some other big project for the government spooks, dragging Laurie along for company.
Dan guiltily considers his options.
He can’t stay, not with the way Walter’s been acting, like the real world around them is one of his labyrinths, all paths spiraling downward.
Leaving is only rational. It means sanity, it means stability.
It means never dreaming again.
Hell, he thinks. Before he got tangled up in this gig, it’s not like he had any actual dreams of his own in the first place.
It’s easy to lose yourself in New York, to try and forget. Dan is certainly more at ease amongst a sea of disinterested strangers, their gazes turned anywhere but him, than is probably healthy, but some parts of his old life are harder to shake than others.
It’s been years since he’s seen Walter, but as he rounds the corner from Fortieth onto Seventh one painfully bright autumn afternoon there’s no mistaking the sudden flash of red hair, the hard set of his shoulders under his ever-decaying suit, even from half a block away.
He’s carrying a sign over his shoulder like an assault rifle—a battered thing of scrap wood and whitewash—and talking with a newspaper vendor. From the look on the old man’s face, this isn’t the first time they’ve haggled.
Dan ducks back around the corner before Walter can turn, before he can read the sign’s message, catch the expression on Walter’s own face.
It’s easier for them both, he rationalizes, if he does his best not to be reminded, if he tries to forget.
He remembers his last dream—his last real dream—all too well.
Like many dreams, he was fuzzy on how they’d gotten to this point, tearing at each other’s skin and clothes in some anonymous bedroom. Clearer was the heat of his partner’s mouth, the pulsing ache low in Dan’s belly as Walter had turned, parted his legs.
His arms, wiry with muscle and dotted with track marks—the trademark bruises and scars of their profession—had trembled with the effort of keeping still. Freckles splattered across the wide, pale span of his back like old blood, and Dan had tried to lick them clean, tongue finding no copper, only salt.
And maybe it had been real, because it had felt like falling, like the drop of an elevator, but there’d been no waking up, no kick, only the warm, wet tumble, deeper and deeper.
In the future, he still doesn’t trust Adrian Veidt (the man might have single-handedly revolutionized the approach to chemically-induced dreaming within lucid dreaming, may be the sole manufacturer of many of the compounds used for extraction, but Dan hasn’t entirely forgotten the time he saw fit to kick Eddie out of a 30 story window, leaving the rest of them hanging in the eternity before he finally hit the pavement), but occasionally they have dinner.
He hasn’t changed much, in all this time, Cheshire smile still gleaming white and billboard perfect.
“Dan.” He stands, extends his tanned, perfectly manicured hand. They shake—professional, but warm. Like they were once friends.
“I took the liberty of ordering the wine. I hope you don’t mind.”
“As if I’m going to question you on taste.” The restaurant is Adrian’s choice: gleaming crystal and mirrors, waiters in formal black, low music floating gracefully around the seated patrons. Chopin. Not piped in, probably a live pianist tucked somewhere unobtrusive.
The wine is waiting for him, the red nearly black in the soft lighting. He takes a careless, untasting swig, distracted by other thoughts.
“I saw him today.”
There’s no need to specify whom.
“Near Bryant Park.” Dan frowns, remembering. “He looked homeless.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me. An unfortunately high percentage of the homeless population suffers some form of untreated mental illness.” Adrian leans back from the table, crossing his legs. “My sources tell me he’s thrown his totem away.”
It’s a leading opening, politely if not well-concealed. This conversation is heading places that Dan’s not entirely comfortable with. He wonders where Adrian’s deliberately casual interest lies.
He takes another gulp of wine, knowing it won’t do any wonders for his headache, shrugs. “I wouldn’t know, one way or the other.”
It’s the truth. He’s seen some of the others’—Eddie’s smiling button, Adrian’s own elegantly complex knot of silk rope—but whatever Walter’s totem had been, he’d never seen fit to tell him.
“Has he tried to speak with you?”
He pushes up his glasses, tries to rub away the ache that’s settled between his eyes.
“Not that I’m aware.”
Adrian sighs, shakes his head.
“You’ve made a good life for yourself, Dan. Not many in our old line of work manage that. He’s a dangerous man, trapped in a limbo of his own making. Drowning in his own mind, and he’ll pull you down with him if you let him get too close. I wouldn’t trust him.”
Their waiter is hovering at a polite but expectant distance. Dan signals him and orders with a blind jab at the menu. His head isn’t feeling any better, and without his glasses the menu is too blurry to read.
“Don’t worry,” he lies. “I don’t.”
Visits with Hollis aren’t as enlightening as they used to be, the old man tip-toeing around the topics that had first drawn them together in deference to Dan’s retirement. All that’s left are the same handful of safe stories that Hollis repeats over and over, week after week, but his beer is good and cold and Dan always leaves feeling—if not better—at least too numb to care.
Tonight is no different.
On his way home, he stops for a copy of the Gazette, only to have his attention captured by an entirely different paper.
TWO-HEADED CAT BORN IN QUEENS screams the lurid yellow font of the Examiner. There’s a drawing, grotesque as it is adorable, and in smaller, sans-serif font promises of exclusive photos within.
Dan finds himself drawn to the rag even as something about it repulses him. The paper beneath his fingers feels too soft and vaguely damp, warm despite the coolness of the autumn evening.
The newsvendor looks up from his interrogation of the young man crouched by the power hydrant—it was awful late, did his poor mutha know where he was?— notices his interest, and breaks out into a broad, toothy grin.
“It’s the enna the world!” he chuckles, tipping the brim of his orange cap as if at some private joke. “I’ve got it on good authority.”
The whole night feels charged with electricity, the shadows around him unnaturally crisp, distant police sirens howling like a threat. Dan’s senses feel sharp, useful in a way they haven’t for a long time. He isn’t even that surprised to find his front door kicked open.
The eases it open, careful to remain silent. Inside the brownstone is dark but for a sliver of yellow light, racing out from the cracked kitchen door.
Adrenaline high, heart loud in his ears, Dan curls his hands into fists. He can almost feel some of these past, aimless years slipping from his shoulders.
He opens the kitchen door.
“Hello, Daniel,” says the figure sitting at his table, cloaked now in his more familiar trench and fedora. “Been waiting for you.”
“Walter.” He’s got his back to him, collar up and brim of his hat pulled low. One of his dog-eared journals is spread out over the table, open to reveal a schizophrenic blueprint of one of their old mazes, a heavily-modified version of the sewers they used to trap Big Figure, if Dan recalls correctly.
There’s an odd, rhythmic sound, like metal being rolled back and forth across a hard surface. Dan lets his eyes seek it out. His kitchen cabinets are flung open, obviously ransacked, and a few dusty cans are scattered across the countertops. Walter has carried one to the table, is passing it slowly back and forth between his hands.
“You, uh, hungry? Want me to heat those up for you?”
“No need.” His voice had always had the rough edge of gravel, but now it’s nothing but a hollow rasp. “Pointless.”
Dan sighs, rubs his thumb along one eyebrow in frustration. This sounds like one of the classical openings to Walter’s particular brand of objectivist philosophical bullshit, and that’s a can of worms he doesn’t feel like opening any time soon.
“What are you doing here?”
He grunts, shrugs. “Used to come here often. Back when we were partners.”
And here Dan thought—after nearly a decade—that he’d managed to escape this conversation. He turns his back on Walter, sets about straightening the mess the man had left in his wake.
Really, he muses bitterly, things haven’t changed that much.
“I haven’t forgotten, Walter.”
“No. You have.”
Scrape of chair legs across linoleum. He stands up, tosses something small and metallic onto the Formica tabletop. It hits with a ringing clatter, like a coin.
The whole world seems to shiver at the sound.
Hollis had helped him make it, using the metalworking machines in his garage, totems of a lifelong love affair with the gas-powered automobile. Dan owned no real tools of his own, all of his designs being confined to paper and the workshop of his own mind.
It was a simple thing, a gold metal crescent, crudely cut and only later sharpened to this polished, deadly blade, as balanced as it was beautiful.
When it was finished, Dan had gone out into the night and held it up—this thing he’d made—and compared it against the real moon.
He’d considered it an improvement.
“Hid it well.” Walter’s voice is rough, exhausted, but there’s a note of pride buried within it. “Had to infiltrate many buildings, break many fingers.” He pauses. Dan isn’t looking at him, but he knows him well enough to imagine the tilt of his head (the way his cravat would slip, briefly exposing the long line of his neck). “Sorry for the headaches.”
Dan grips the counter, suddenly dizzy. Outside the kitchen window, the wail of sirens seems to grow louder, turn toward them. “What are you talking about?”
Walter’s directly behind him, he can feel the heat from his body, hovering but not touching. “Edgar Jacobi. Wanted on multiple counts of patent theft, weapons trafficking, and drug possession.”
“What does any of this have to do with—”
“Edgar William Jacobi,” he repeats. “Also known as Edgar William Vaughn, also known as William Edgar Bright… also known as Moloch the Mystic. Specializes in illusions. Dreams within dreams.”
Dan feels like he’s going to throw up. What the hell, the sink’s right there, and maybe he’ll feel better, think clearer, after.
The contents of his stomach are black, unidentifiable. He laughs helplessly, wipes at his mouth. “You’re insane.”
Rumble of almost pride. “Have heard what they say about me. What Veidt says.”
His voice darkens.
“He knows,” Walter growls. “Isn’t like the others, isn’t you. A trick, a virus, left behind by Moloch, meant to distract us—”
“You need help,” Dan says. “Christ, we need help.”
“Need you,” he whispers, raw, pleading. “Need you to come back.”
“No.” Gloved hand on his shoulder, pulling him gently around. “You’re not.”
He can’t do it. He can’t face his partner, can’t look into the face he’s worked so hard to forget. He squeezes his eyes shut as tightly as he can, until blue and red flashes dart across the black, echoes of the police cars screeching to halt on the sidewalk outside.
“Daniel. Look at me.”
He shakes his head. The hand on his shoulder clenches like iron, and the flare of pain makes him gasp, makes him look up.
Walter has no mouth, no nose, no eyes. In their place is only smooth black bleeding onto white, swirling together but never mixing, like shifting sand, like waves crashing against the beach.
“No.” Dan gapes, horrified. “No—”
“Yes,” hisses the thing that he’s made Walter into, a Rorschach caricature out of nightmare. Over his shoulder, framed in the arc of the loose, curled shoulder strap of his trench, Dan’s totem rocks back and forth endlessly on its curved blade, perfectly, impossibly balanced.
The police are crashing through the broken front door, are pounding down the hallway in a thunder of countless angry feet. They’re coming for them— No. For him.
“Daniel,” he says. “My face.”
“Give me back my face.”
Hands everywhere, pulling, tearing, wrenching Walter away from him, the crowd of thrashing officers seeming to swallow him whole. Uniformed bodies are shoving themselves between Dan’s line of site and the gleam of gold atop the kitchen table, are patting him reassuringly, whispering rapidly about home invasion and a known vagrant wanted for viciously attacking a local businessman, a Mr. E. Jacobi, but it’s too late, Dan knows, and it was always about the knowing.
He nods, plays mutely along, until the detectives’ hands slacken enough for him to twist out of their grip. They’ve blocked the front door, but they don’t know about the basement, have left that side of the kitchen unguarded.
He makes a break for it, narrow door bursting open under his weight as he slams into it, momentum carrying him out into empty air, the slick basement steps disappearing into the nothingness his mind never bothered to fill, and he falls—
He jerks to wakefulness, heart pounding in his ears, only to find a strong arm catching him, guiding his panicking hands to his right front pocket, the warm crescent of metal there that slices into his thumb as he fumbles it into the light.
His totem clatters flatly to the cheap linoleum floor when he drops it over the edge of the cot, is still.
“Fuck,” he says. “Fuck.”
“Good morning,” says Walter, with his usual flat, darkly inappropriate humor. “Sleep well?”
His blue eyes are bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles, tired but there, his whole face creased with unspoken worry.
Dan scrubs at his face with the heels of his hands. “Is it still the 70s?”
“Good. The 80s kind of blow.”
Sound of a neon sign outside buzzing on and off, the cot he’s sitting on creaking with the weight of another. Hard, calloused hands are pulling at his arms, easing the IVs and jacks out of his veins with careful precision, wiping down the site with soothingly cool anesthetic.
Dan sits, concentrating on regulating his breathing, and lets himself be cared for. As memory returns, he realizes that something is out of place. They’re alone in the tiny apartment, their two cots flanking an empty bed. “Where’s Moloch?”
Walter’s hands are full winding up the tubing; he jerks his head vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. “Refrigerator.”
Through the doorway Dan can see that the appliance has been wrenched away from the wall, turned so that its doors are wedged into a corner.
“Won’t he run out of air?”
“Mm.” Walter sounds unconcerned. “Eventually.”
He moves to stand, to tuck everything neat and tidy into the battered silver case, but Dan reaches up, catches him by the elbow, and now it’s his turn to pull until Walter’s face is next to his, the ancient, sagging cot pressing their bodies close.
“Did you ever have doubts?” he asks, thumb lingering over the bruised, swollen flesh marking Walter’s own carelessly torn-out needles. How many times had he been kicked out of Dan’s dream, how many times had he jacked himself back in?
This kind of close physicality is rare between them, but Dan can’t really bring himself to care. He rubs up the tense muscles of his upper arm, the bony jut of his shoulder where his clavicle reaches out to his scapula, weighing the balance and weight of the joint. Walter’s fingers spasm against his thigh, as if he’s struggling with a desire to return the touch. “What happened?”
Walter hesitates, licks his lips.
“Lost my totem. Had to find it again.”
Dan’s stomach twists, like gravity’s been turned upside down, but he doesn’t reach for his crescent for reassurance. He doesn’t need to.
“Well, I’m glad you did.”
He doesn’t know how long they sit there, time measured only by the red flash of blinking neon, Dan hanging onto Walter’s shoulder like a touchstone, hard and warm under his fingers.
It’s all relative, anyway.