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The Return of Imagination

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                 Dean Finder slid himself out of bed and nearly onto the floor. A tired hand fumbled about, nearly knocking over a glass on the nightstand before it found the snooze button. The hand then located a rounded pair of old spectacles and latched onto them, reeling them in like a lazy fishing line. Now that he could see, Dean stumbled into the bathroom, nearly tripping over a pile of clothes. He held his fingers under the tap, waiting patiently for the rusty pipes on his building to wake up and deliver warm water. His gaze caught the mirror as he waited. A beard was yet again trying to grow from his stubby chin, tinged an amber orange. Dean frowned as he glanced at the blinking clock on the toilet, calculating the difference in time and coming to the conclusion he had no time to shave.

                The rest of the morning was a whirlwind of brushed teeth, acceptable clothes and a breakfast consisting of two pieces of toast, chewed on as he made a peanut butter sandwich with one hand and fumbled for the TV remote with the other. The picture on the old junker of a TV had barely begun to die as Dean slipped out the apartment door.

                Down the stairs and out to the street below, the morning damp already starting to evaporate in the Florida sun. Dean picked up his feet as he made it to the street corner just as his bus did. He hopped on, swiping his card and collapsing into a seat as the bus started to move.

                "Cutting it a little close today?" asked the man sitting next to him, laughing as he pulled out an earbud. He looked just a year or so younger then Dean, with short curly dark-brown hair and a black-and-grey striped shirt.

                "Thanks for saving me a seat, Alan."

                "Anytime, D. Us commuters gotta stick together. Oh, looks like you remembered your lunch today."

                "Tired of the Institute cafeteria food," Dean explained, shortly.

                "I hear that," Alan replied as he held his phone back up. Dean leaned over, trying to get a look.

                "Another visual effects tutorial?"

                "Oh yeah. Seen this one a dozen times before. The guy narrating this one is missing out on several key facets of the illusion-"

                Dean let him talk. Once Alan got started, it was hard to stop him.

                The bus lumbered from stoplight to stoplight, brakes hissing like a grumpy snake as it stopped and started, vying with the early-morning traffic. The herky-jerky movement made Alan’s exposition sound a bit like he had hiccups. He wound down soon enough on his own, smiling a short self-conscious smile at the mom with a pushchair across the aisle, who was close enough to potentially-maybe-almost be in earshot.

                “Are you okay?” he asked Dean. “You’re kind of quiet this morning. Quieter,” he corrected himself. “Than usual.”

                "I'm fine," he sighed after a long moment of seeming to think rather hard about something. Saying nothing else after that Alan had figured he was done, and his earbud had barely been replaced when Dean spoke again. "You ever get that feeling that you had a dream the night before, but you can't remember what happened in it?"

                Alan shrugged. “Uh, yeah, all the time. It’s something to do with your sleep patterns, I think, or what point you wake up… wait, didn't you say you don't dream?"

                "That’s just it." Dean lifted up his baseball cap, combing his orange hair under it before setting it back down. He hadn't even had time to brush it this morning. "I don't dream. Never had one that I could remember. But it feels like I did last night." A sigh passed his lips in time with the hissing of the bus’s brakes as it reached another stoplight. "I'm probably thinking too much about it."

                “Everybody dreams, dude,” said Alan, watching Dean trying to force his hair back under his cap with a touch of amusement. “I mean, unless you’re secretly an alien or something. You probably just forgot.”

                He circled a vague finger at the area of Dean’s ear. “Uh, you’ve got sort of... a tuft.”

                "Thanks." He fumbled, tucking it under as the bus started to move again. "How are things in the... where do you work in the Institute, again?" he asked, embarrassed.

                “Things in Systems Support are just fantastic,” said Alan, in the tone of voice he tended to use when he meant things were not very fantastic at all. He was staring out of the window. Open lakes and marshy tree-tangled culverts rolled past under the rising sun. “Sometimes I’d rather work for the alligators. There’s the chance of being eaten, but at least they don’t think they know how to use computers.”

                "I dunno, give a thousand alligators a thousand typewriters and they might come up with something," Dean said with a smile as the bus passed through a gate and deep into theme park property.

 


 

 

                The Imagination Institute was certainly an unusual workplace. It looked as if someone had taken two perfectly normal glass office towers and stuck them haphazardly in the earth like a 3-year-old stuck candles into a cake; diagonally. The result was a pair of glass pyramids hugged by buildings containing labs. In the 90’s, the Academy Scientifica-Lucidus had hit hard times, and was threatening to close. Disney had stepped in and cut a deal; a second campus was created separate from the original Academy, and relocated to be part of a joint venture with their amusement park. The result was the Imagination Institute, an open tour that tried to get some science accomplished in the meantime. Neither of the boys bothered to look up as the bus rolled to a stop at the employee entrance.

                "You might want to wait for the next stop ma'am," Dean kindly told a couple who had started to gather their things. Maps, cameras, backpacks; clearly tourists.

                The morning was warmer now as they stepped into the sunshine, Dean checking to make sure Alan was behind him before they headed for the doors.

                The bag check on the doors was mandatory these days. There wasn’t much of a line for the staff entrance, and the security guard barely poked at Dean’s bag before waving him through. He’d never been pulled aside or chosen for a search in all the time he’d worked in the place, although it was supposed to be random. Evidently, Security just didn’t consider him very interesting.

                He left Alan at the stairs where the way to their respective departments split. As a ‘junior’ member of the building’s IT support team, Alan seemed to spend most of his day being paged to different parts of the building, but whenever nobody was having a technical crisis he tended to keep a low profile in Systems Support’s ground-floor hub. Maybe that was part of the reason why the two of them had become friends- both certainly had a knack

 for keeping a low profile.

                After dropping his lunch off at the break room, Dean grabbed one of the show labcoats off the hook, tugging it on and pinning his badge to the front.

                'D. Finder,' it read, and the picture was just as unassuming as he was, the expression of how lucky he was to have landed the lab assistant job still on his face. Dean didn't remember much of college. All the nights of solitary studying and the occasional awkward social events had all blended into a grey lump of memory. His grades had been average, but the Institute had gladly taken him on mere days after he applied. While it had only been a few months ago, the memory was already starting to feel like a yellowing photograph in his mind.

                He'd been remembering all this as he walked absent-mindedly out the door, and straight into someone else.

                "Oh goodness, Dr. Channing, sir, I'm so sorry-" His hand came out to steady his boss. Dr. Channing was the head of the Institute, even if the man did seem to wear the title very reluctantly. At the present moment however, he seemed to be occupied with yet another of the million things on his shoulders.

                "Ah, yes, good morning, Devin."

                "Dean, sir," he patiently corrected. Channing seemed instead to be looking at the vent mounted close to the ceiling, as if keeping an eye out for something

                "Is everything alright?"

                “Slight pest control problem,” said Channing, without taking his eye off the vent. “Nothing for you to worry about.”

                You. Something about the way he said the word was mildly derogatory, an offhand reminder that he, Dr. Channing, was indeed worrying about whatever-it-was because it was something important enough that it was his job to worry about it, of all people, and therefore the whole situation was far, far over the head of some peon in a lab coat.

                Dean could feel his brow raise sceptically before he could stop it. He turned, following the doctors gaze. The vent stayed as it probably had every day since it was installed; silent and pumping out vital air conditioning. "Lizards again?"

                "You could say that..." Channing trailed off before he seemed to remember Dean was there.

                The vent was certainly an ongoing focus of attention. Before too long, a couple of security guards had joined Channing in looking up at it, although in their case it was with a slight sense of bafflement and side-glances at each other, neither being entirely sure what they had been summoned for. After a little while, the group was joined by a middle-ranking scientist or two. One of them had brought a broom, but it was a deal too short to reach the vent. By the time Dean left, unnoticed by anybody and smiling quietly to himself, there was intense discussion about the nearest possible place to loan a large stepladder.

 


 

 

                Dean wore the smile through most of the morning, the grin threatening to renew as rumours of a disturbance in the air conditioning system rippled through the building later that morning. Filing papers and categorizing lab reports made the morning go rather quick, and soon Dean found a suitable breaking spot for lunch.

                In one corner of the complex, surrounded by sun-baked administrative buildings and away from the prying eyes of the hundreds of daily Institute guests, was a small green space. It was quite like Dean himself, always there but never really useful or eye catching enough to stand out. It was practically always deserted, making it the perfect place for some peace and quiet. In the shade of a stubborn old tree, Dean set himself on his usual spot, undoing the latches on his lunchbox. Out came a can of soda, a baggie of potato chips, and lastly, the sandwich he’d hastily made that morning. Unwrapping it from the plastic baggie, he left one triangle sitting atop the lunchbox as he started to munch on the other half.

                He waited.

                Perhaps five minutes passed. It was a warm, breezeless day, and the branches of the tree over Dean’s head were stone-still, but as he quietly ate his sandwich, a funny surreptitious sort of rustling shivered through the leaves just above him. Another moment, and then in a sudden all-in-one tumble, a small purple confused blur of a creature fell out of the foliage on a single frantic downbeat of its tiny orange wings and dove straight under the bench at Dean’s feet, grabbing the other half of his sandwich on the way.

                Dean flinched back at the sudden disappearance of the other half of his sandwich. His eyes followed the blur of purple as he bent, straining to look under the bench. Nothing but scraggly patches of grass greeted him. Suddenly, there was a weight on his head as something pushed on his hat, making the brim fall over his eyes. Dean laughed, stretching his arm out to keep his sandwich out of reach of whatever was assaulting him.

                "Nuh-uh!  This one's mine!"

                “Shhhh,” whispered Figment, his large and luminous yellow eyes staring earnestly into Dean’s from his upside-down perch on his hat. “Dean, you gotta hide me!”

                He whisked up onto the bench and pulled the loose end of Dean’s labcoat up over his head. With the material draped over his horns like the poles of a small, dragon-shaped tent, he started to eat his half of the sandwich.

                Dean couldn't stop another short chuckle. "This wouldn't have to do with rumors I've heard about the air conditioning, would it?"

                "Maybe," replied the lump, between bites of peanut butter.

                Dean sighed. "What did you do this time, Figment?"

                “It’s so hot inside today,” said the little dragon, indistinctly, through his sandwich. “Everyone’s so discombobulated… there’s a weird feeling, isn’t there? Everyone’s snapping at each other. I figured it must be the heat.”

                He swallowed. “I just wanted everyone to feel cooler. Maintenance aren’t allowed to turn the air conditioning up any more, but I thought, I’m not Maintenance, right? I’m Figment.”

                A thoughtful, peanut-buttered pause. “I guess Dr. Channing doesn’t see it that way. Also… I might have turned it up a little too much.”

                "Dr. Channing’s always like that. But now that you mention it, Ellie seemed a little cold to me when I said hello to her this morning." Dean drew back his lab coat, revealing a small purple dragon licking peanut butter off his stubby claws. "But points for trying, Figment. A noble effort. I think I have something that'll cheer you up."

                "A present?" Figment seemed to light up like a bulb. "For me? Oh goody!"

                Dean opened his lunchbox again, laughing and gently nudging the dragon away as he tried to poke his hooked snout in. "Easy, buddy," he said as he pulled out a brightly wrapped piece of candy. "You can have one, OK? I still don't think the third-floor bathroom is working after what happened last time."

                Reaching eagerly for the candy, Figment stopped momentarily and winced. “I sort of hoped everyone forgot about that...”

                He turned the neon wrapper over in his claws. “Thanks, Dean. You know I don’t mean to mess stuff up. Somehow...” He puffed out a small sigh. “My ideas never work out how I mean them to anymore.”

                "Personally, I would love to have a miniature water park on the third floor," Dean said, his face falling as he saw sadness cross Figments face. "The only one we have nearby is the overpriced one for theme park guests." One hand started picking at his potato chips as the other scratched at the spot right under Figments steer-like horns. "I still don't see why Channing is so obsessed with keeping you under wraps. Yeah, I get that showing people how we store and recombine ideas is good and all, but I think the guests would love you."

                “Really? You think so?” It didn’t take much to lift Figment’s spirits. He perked up and leaned into Dean’s hand as the helpful fingers hit that hard-to-reach sweet spot. “I’d love to meet them too. Everyone in the lab is great, but all those thousands of guests come through here every day from all over the world, and I never get to talk to any of them.”

                He grinned, his eyes taking on the faraway dreamy sheen that usually meant that some heavy-duty daydreaming was going on inside. “Hey, Dean, imagine if you were in charge of the Institute. I bet you could get Dr. Channing to give me a chance.”

                Dean inhaled sharply, coughing as a potato chip almost entered his windpipe. Figment nearly dropped his candy, tiny wings lifting him up as he thumped Dean on the back. "Gosh, is it really that exciting to ya?" he asked, as Dean cleared his throat.

                "Me? Head of the Institute?! Figment, I'm already barely noticed as it is, there's no way could I hold the attention of an entire facility!"

                “Sure you could!” Figment landed on his shoulder, any idea of staying hidden completely forgotten, the flared end of the wrapper sticking up from his small fist like a microphone. “You’d be great! Ladies and gentlemen, presenting for your avid listening pleasure, the unparalleled Head of the Imagination Institute, the one, the only, Professor Dean...”

                He stopped.

                “You know, you’ve never told me your last name.”

                “Mr. Finder,” said a very dry, very unimpressed, very British voice, behind them.

                Figment bumped against Deans head as his shoulders shot up to his ears while Figment’s shot up to the middle of his long neck. He moved quickly, engulfing Figment in his baseball cap, wild orange hair flaring as the dragon made a small noise that sounded like a cross between an 'oof' noise and an echo of 'Finder?'

                "D- Doctor Channing! What a surprise to see you here-"

                "I could say the same of you, Dean, and Figment. I know you're under there, you little troublemaker."

                “We were just having lunch,” halted Figment, scootching out from under Dean’s cap. Channing focused on the bright candy wrapper in his hand.

                “So I see,” he said, coldly. “Dean, I seem to remember a specific memo about feeding our little friend here sweets. Shortly following the incident regarding the third-floor bathroom. Do you need me to jog your memory?”

                Dean hid the roll of his eyes by putting his cap back on. "No, sir. But it's just one, and it's not like there's anywhere else in the Institute where you can get them."

                Figment seemed to straighten up a little, even as Dean shrank back with every word.

                “Well, that’s rather the point, isn’t it?” said Channing. His voice dropped, becoming quiet and heavily condescending, something which most of his staff had learned to take as a giant glowing danger sign. “It’s just one, because everyone else, is doing as I asked.”

                Dean shrank back so much further he nearly had to grab on to the back of the bench to keep from falling over.

                "Aw, c'mon, Doc," Figment piped up, those tiny orange wings beating and lifting him up from Deans shoulder. "If you want, we can share it!"

                “Figment.” Channing was clearly clinging to the last shreds of his patience. “I have told you an astronomical amount of times, to stay in the lab where you belong. You’re supposed to be the iconic symbol of this Institute, Lord help us, and this Institute is a place of science and learning, not practical jokes and consorting with clerical workers. You are supposed to represent something of worth. Please,” he said, between his teeth, “act like it.”

                “But- but Blair always said-”

                “Blair isn’t here, Figment!” The sentence shot out of the Director with the force of a slap, and for a second even Channing looked shocked to the core that he’d said it. He breathed a long measured breath and pinched his nose like a man in the grip of a sudden headache, but when he continued his voice was calm and cold and perfectly clear.

                “He’s gone, he’s not coming back, and sometimes I wish to God he’d taken you with him.”

                Dean felt his chest suddenly become tight. The weight on his shoulder increased as Figment slumped heavily. Those yellow eyes were wide, welling with thick tears, as the dragons small lower lip quivered a little.

                "Figment-"

                Dean felt the weight leave his shoulders as what felt like a small burst of air hit his ear. Figment was gone, Dean able to catch a quick sight of what looked like a small glowing ball of pink light disappear down the path back towards the Institute. Dean stumbled to his feet, eyes darting to his boss.

                "Did you really have to be that harsh?"

                "Look, Dean." Channing tucked a hand in his pocket. "You may have good intentions, but Figment is already unstable enough as he is without you encouraging him."

                Dean opened his mouth to speak, but Channing cut him off.

                "We'll discuss this later, in my office. Now, if you'll excuse me, I am very late to a symposium on Emerging Scepticism and Truth in New Media. I'll send someone to get you when we can talk."

                Channing turned, hands stuffed in his pockets as he went in the opposite direction of the spark’s fading trail. That left Dean alone in the shade of the noon sun, with a half-empty lunchbox.

 


 

 

                Alan was having the worst day.

                It had to be the heat. Systems Support could be stressful, often was stressful, but for the most part it was usually nothing more than solving a series of problems caused by people not thinking properly before doing things to their computers that the computers really didn’t deserve. People were usually happy to sit back and let him fix things. They didn’t usually want to comment.

                Today, things were weird. Everyone was in a foul mood. People were raising twice as many support tickets as usual, mostly little things and issues which were hardly worth an email, issues they should have been able to deal with themselves. People were demanding that someone come and fix their problem, now. People were ringing the phones in Alan’s fairly crowded little department off the hooks, and by somewhere around two o’clock, he felt like he’d walked about eight miles back and forth across the building, speed-walked like someone trying to pack in a week’s worth of cardio because having to wait five minutes for him to show up seemed to be making people worse.

                And people were being… blamey. Most issues were a quick fix, the kind of thing Alan tended to log as RTFM or TUI errors. He didn’t exactly expect heartfelt thanks. He really would have appreciated it, though, if the people he’d literally just helped didn’t turn around and start berating him for causing their problems in the first place.

                This guy looked about on the verge of a stroke. He was Project Coordinator In Charge Of Something Alan Didn’t Care About in the sound lab, and he was definitely doing a good job of testing the soundproofing above their heads. He was really yelling. Alan was desperate enough at this point to try to make eye contact with anyone else walking past the desk in the hope that someone would rescue him before the guy either stabbed him with a protractor or keeled over dead, but so far the only people to stop had just watched, as if they were enjoying the show.

                “-no, I want you to do it again! I want to see exactly what you did, so when it screws up again, I don’t have to wait for you to get off your ass and get up here!”

                “We- uh, we actually really prefer it if you let the support department resolve any issues for you, sir, the thing is that when people uh, try to fix things by just pressing random buttons it only makes things w-”

                 “Three times! Three times in one month this piece of crap locks up right when I haven’t saved- right at the exact moment- do you think I’m stupid?? I know that remote view thing you people can do! I know you’re watching me!”

                Alan could feel the familiar sensation of his throat closing up to a pinhole. There were more people around them, now. There were so many people listening.

                “Okay- sir- we are not watching you, we really have better things to- I- I mean, don’t you think you’re being just a little-”

                “Don’t try that with me! Everyone knows you people are just making work for yourselves to keep your jobs down there!”

                “Ev- sir, we definitely aren’t-”

                “You probably take it in turns to break these pieces of junk so your little buddies can fix ‘em, and you think we don’t know? You think we don’t know exactly what your game is?”

                Alan heard a shuffling noise behind him. He turned, and with a jolt of surprise saw that the audience, the group of silent onlookers, had somehow encircled the desk. They were murmuring. Quite a few of them were people he’d helped earlier that same morning. All of them, he realised, with a sickish sense of unreality, looked pissed.

                Faced with the growing crowd, and with the completely insane, hyperbolic and horribly fitting phrase ‘lynch mob’ refusing to budge from the very front of his mind, Alan did the one thing any sensible person would do. He backed away, pushed desperately through the ring of unfriendly faces, and ran like hell.

                He didn’t get far.

 


 

 

               The guest portion of the Institute was towards what employees considered to be the back of the complex. Open to the guests of the neighbouring theme park, it was a simple automated drive through tour that ran guests on a path through all the public areas of the sensory labs. Ellie Fleet was one of the lucky ones with the job of herding guests in and loading them on.

                It was the midday rush. Guests were starting to come back from lunch, and were looking forward to more relaxing rides to settle their stomachs, a need that the slow, People-Mover nature of the Institute tour was more than able to satisfy. Come they did, and soon the line was out the door. The motion sensor on the sliding door had jammed, and as the minutes went by the Florida heat seemed to be winning the battle against the air conditioning and gaining territory. Ellie was starting to desperately wish that she could take off her lab jacket, but she’d seen their supervisor chewing out Q earlier for being brazen enough to roll up her sleeves.

                Stepping out into the sun, Ellie set down the slender metal frame of a sign display, reaching up and feeling the heat on her face as she slid a printed piece into the frame.

                ‘60+ minute wait from this point,’ it read. It took everything in her to not respond to the groans of the guests in the line behind her as she sidled her way back inside. She was so close to getting back out of the queue when a voice called, “Excuse me.”

                It had that tone of patronizing patience that Ellie had heard all too often. “What’s taking this line so long?”

                She took a deep breath and turned. The guest was a woman who wore one of those haircuts that said she would definitely fight you at the PTA meeting if you turned down her offer to join the latest multi-level marketing fad. “I’m sorry miss. We’re moving everyone through as fast as we can- “

                “I’m sure you are,” the woman said, with a voice that said she wasn’t sure at all. “We’ve been standing here for at least an hour, and my kids are starting to get rowdy. We paid good money to come here, the least you guys could do is earn it. What, did the ride break down and you’re not telling us?”

                “Ma’am, thank you for your patience, but like I said, we’re moving as quick as we can-“

                “If you are, you really ought to hire more people, if you’re going to work this slow.”

                The heat was building, and Ellie could feel her chest start to tense and a snap start to grow in her throat.

                “We are moving as fast as we can, ma’am,” she repeated, with tense patience. “Now, if you don’t mind, I-” Before she could say something regrettable, there was a hand on her shoulder.

                “Hey, Ellie.” Dean. Boy, was he a sight for sore eyes. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

                “A second, an hour, a year, just get me out of here,” hissed Ellie, sotto voce. Grabbing his arm, she swivelled him neatly between her and the fuming woman, smiling sweetly over his shoulder. “Sorry, ma’am, official Guest Services business, have a Disney day.”

"Oh, goodness," Dean muttered to himself as Ellie used him like a human riot shield, parting the crowd like an ill-tempered, mouse-eared sea. Using Dean as a sort of moveable barrier, she manoeuvred him through the atrium door and into the small equipment room she’d retrieved the sign from, slamming the door with a sigh.

“Shee-yeesh, is everyone just super-turbo-grouchy today, or is it just me?”

                "It’s not just you," Dean said, fixing his crooked glasses. "I just witnessed Channing getting the maddest I've ever seen him. He just told off-" the briefest of hesitations "-a very good friend of mine, a bit harsher than he should have."

                He leaned back against a caged shelf of cleaning supplies. "Listen, Ellie, I heard something earlier about a guy named Blair? I swear I've seen that name around here in the Institute, but I can't remember where. Help me out?"

                Ellie blinked at him. "You're- you're kidding, right? Blair? Blarion Mercurial?"

                She surveyed Dean's baffled face. "The Dreamfinder? The guy with the twenty-foot-tall statue out front? That Blair?"

                "Wait, he's that guy? I thought it was, I dunno, just some famous scientist, or a major donor or... something." He shrugged. "Look I'm usually not fully awake whenever I pass it in the morning. I guess I've just never really stopped to look at it."

                “Well, I can’t exactly give you chapter and verse,” said Ellie. “I flunked History. But… I did read the cliff notes on this stuff for my job interview, so… okay. This guy basically founded the Institute. When all those old-timey British scientists packed up and moved over here in, like, practically the stone age or something, they brought all his ideas and inventions with them. You know? ‘A dream can be a dream come true?’”

                She tapped a teetering pile of surplus promotional materials at her elbow. "It’s on the brochure.”

                "Have I really not been paying that much attention?" Dean muttered to himself as he took a brochure, peeking over the lenses of his glasses to read the print. "And he disappeared? Just one day up and left?"

                Well, that explained a lot.

                "And nobody knows where he went," Ellie said in her best mysterious voice, wiggling her fingers for emphasis.

                "Huh... okay-" He was just about to ask another question, when there was a pounding at the door.

                "Where's one of those damned cast members when you need them?" said a muffled voice that the two vaguely recognized as a man who worked in the Taste lab. Always kind and eager to show pictures of his grandkids. He didn't seem to want to do that right now, however. "Hey! We got guests out here! Stop lazing around!"

                “Alright, already!” Ellie seethed, smacking the metal grille of the door a solid thWUnNK with the flat of her palm. “I swear to Jiminy Cricket, Dean-o, I’m gonna wind up sockin’ some soccer mom right in the kisser before half-shift. Puh-pow.”

                She dealt the grille another blow, and recoiled, rubbing her knuckles. “Ow. Anyway, I should probably get going before Gramps out there has a conniption. If you want, I can-”

                Before she could finish, the ground- the dusty, tiled floor of the equipment room- bucked under their feet. A resounding sound- not explosion or siren but a deep, bassy knell that entered the brain through the ribs and bypassed the ears altogether- throbbed through the air, shaking plaster from the ceiling and sending Ellie reeling, grabbing the grille for support. Dean was knocked back as well, into a group of brooms. Their handles dug into his shoulder blades as he braced against a shelf. Both of them felt their ears pop.

                “What the heck was that??”

                The thrum in Dean’s chest dropped into his stomach as he found his voice. "Whatever it was, it didn't sound good-"

                The banging on the door began anew. "Open this door right now! I know you're in there!"

                "We need to find Figment," Dean voiced the first instinctual thought that came to his head. "I'm starting to think maybe this isn't just the humidity."

                The handle on the door was jiggling

                "Give us a second, geez!" Ellie replied. She was about to bang on the grille again, but clearly remembered the lesson she'd just learned minutes prior. This was the maddest Dean had ever seen the usually happy-go-lucky cast member. She grabbed a broom, and was about to hit the grille with it when he took her by the shoulders.

                "Ellie, I need you to stay with me and stay positive. We need to get out of here and find Figment."

                She blinked at him, then shook her head, hard, as if trying to dislodge a dense thicket of cobwebs, nearly whipping him across the face with her flying loops of hair. Probably, it had been the right thing for him to do. Definitely, as her head came up there was a strangeness about her pupils, a moment when her eyes had looked a fraction not-right, hazy, the pupils too small. She steadied herself on him, and put a shaky hand to her head.

                “Huh… whuh- find who-now? Figment as in... the dragon?”

                She looked up at him properly, and now she was one-hundred-percent Ellie again, her eyes wide and alive and full of curiosity and concern. “Don’t you think you’re taking that brochure just a teensy bit too seriously? Maybe that was an- an earthquake! Or a new fire alarm-”

                Dean squinted. He’d seen the look in Ellie’s eyes, before she’d suddenly seemed to be herself again. Now he knew for sure something wasn't right. And a part of him, one he wasn't fully aware of, was terrified.

                A fusillade of heavy thumps and what sounded like a few actual enraged kicks on the door behind them startled Ellie out of her guessing. “Orrr maybe we shouldn’t hang around to find out. Other door- c’mon!”

                She yanked Dean by the hand, and he had no choice but to let her drag him between a filing cabinet and an empty display case. A door, and Ellie threw it open for them to come face to face with a security guard. His eyes looked like Ellie’s had, his momentary surprise quickly setting in to anger.

                "Hey!"

                "Pardon us!" Dean said as they both broke into a run down the hallway, feet frantic against the linoleum tile.

                He felt it before he saw it. The faintest glimmer of pink out of the corner of his eye, rounding a corner and disappearing down the hall.

                "This way!" Dean grabbed Ellie’s arm and changed their course, chasing the ball of light.

                He could hear the guard’s feet thudding after them. From the noise, one angry pursuer had already turned into at least three. It didn’t matter a light that there wasn’t any reason why they were being chased, that they were both employees, that they’d done nothing wrong. Being chased was a basic human terror. In the moment, there was nothing to do but run.

                Together, they hurtled into the double-doors under the glowing green emergency sign, bouncing them open and spilling them both out into the hot sunlight. As soon as Dean slammed the heavy doors closed, Ellie rammed the broom she’d snatched from the equipment room across both handles, locking the security guards into the hallway behind them. The furious rattling and yells faded behind them as they jogged down the anonymous concrete backlot strip.

                “And I thought today was gonna be boring,” panted Ellie.

                Dean sped ahead, having to fight to see the spark in the Florida sunshine. It moved in a darting, fluttering manner, as if it was just as eager to get away as they were. He didn't know how he knew it, didn't have time to think if how he knew it, but he knew it was Figment. Scared, alone, hurt- and the thought made Dean’s heart feel the same.

                "Figment!!"

                A small whuff of pink and a spark or two, and Figment stumbled into sight like a small lavender DeLorean, tumbling orange horn over wing. He seemed surprised.

                “Holy macaroni,” breathed Ellie, scrabbling for her phone. “He’s real??”

                “Dean!” Figment dropped onto Dean’s shoulder, grabbing both his cheeks and staring into his eyes. “You’re okay? You look okay...” He pulled up one of Dean’s eyelids with a small paw, then set his head against the side of his temple, listening intently. “You sound okay. You’re okay!”

                Dean blinked rapidly as Figment knocked his glasses askew in his inspection. "Yeah, I'm okay, I'm me. I'm glad you're okay-"

                “Hey, Figment!” Both Figment and Dean looked up, only to get a dazzling eyeful of Ellie’s camera flash. “Whoops. Sorry. I guess it’s kind of dark… all… of a sudden…”

                It was. The sunshine that had been so blinding just a few minutes before had faded to a leaden hush, like the false twilight before a storm. Dean looked up. The clouds were crazy, dark loops and whorls of thunderheads gathering over the glassy peaks of the Institute as if the whole place was some awful lightning rod. They hardly looked like normal clouds. Purplish-greenish and sullen, they barely looked… real.

                The sky rumbled like a dark laugh as they felt the air grow heavier. Dean voiced what both of them were thinking aloud.

                "What the heck is going on here?"

                "Blair's machine would never do something like this," Figment said, from Dean’s shoulder.

                "Blair- oh! Dreamfinder! I know who that is now-" Dean’s pride lasted only a second. "Wait, his what?"

                "The thingamabob! Dreamfinder made this nifty machine that made his imagination come to life. It's how he found me!" The little dragon smiled at the memory "I thought it was gone, but I saw it in there! But I've never seen it do that."

                "How have I not heard of this guy?!"

                "I was going to get help, but then I found you!" Dean got his cheeks squished yet again. "And-" Figment zipped over to Ellie, offering a hand. "That's me! I'm Figment! Nice to meet’cha!”

                “I’m Ellie!” Ellie shook the small paw enthusiastically. “Salutations, Figment, it’s an honor to meet ya! I’ve got a hat with you on and everything!”

                "Aw, neat!" Figment said. "I asked if I could get one, but they don't fit me-"

                Another deep rumble lumbered its way through the air.

                "Figment, you have any idea what this is all about?" Dean asked.

                The little dragon drew a deep breath.

                “Well, I guess I was a little upset...”


 

                Having no physical form was a little like being in a dream. Figment could see everything around him, was aware of everything, but there was a vagueness to the world- a softness to the edges of things, and a tantalizing sense that if he reached out he would be able to touch them… but he couldn’t quite reach out.

                What Doctor Channing had said felt heavy inside of him, in the stomach he didn’t currently have. He drifted, not particularly heading anywhere, only aware that he was in the Institute. It felt like home, the only one he had… now.

                Where did you go, Dreamfinder?

                Why did you leave me behind?

                The one thing Figment could be sure of was that Blair was okay. He had to be, because he, Figment, still existed. When being apart felt hard to bear, he held tightly to that fact- in himself, he was proof that Blair was alive and well… somewhere.

                Not heeding where he drifted, the unhappy little dragon might have pondered the whole day away, if a sudden pang, almost a pain, hadn’t struck out of nowhere. Snapping out of his funk, he focused- as much as a little pink ball of dream energy could focus, at least.

                Something was terribly wrong. Usually, the Institute felt alive, buzzing with thought and energy, the minds of the scientists and guests and cast mingling to make a bright glow of human potential that Figment often thought must be visible from space. But as the humidity rose and the clouds started to gather, the sulky snappiness he’d seen in everyone earlier in the day grew into something worse, something tense and oppressive and nearly painful. Figment had felt something like it before, once.

                Once… or twice.

                The little glow trembled uncertainly over the taller of the two pyramids. Doctor Channing would probably still be mad at him, but he needed to know- if he didn’t already- that something was wrong, wrong, wrong. The only thing Figment could think of was Blair, and the last time he’d felt something like this. He had to warn people- he didn’t have a choice.

                Blair would… if he was here.

                So Figment zipped towards the main atrium, and was just about to make a beeline for Channing’s office when it struck him how quiet and still the space was. The few people in sight stood here and there in weird, slumped poses, hardly moving. They all seemed to be watching the dais- a raised half-circle platform for events and announcements- but the stage was empty.

                Then-

                A terrible crackling, a jagged spiky bassy noise that hurt to listen to. The air above the dais flickered. There was a shape- nothing- two shapes- a moment of eye-hurting bewilderment when there seemed to be both at once- and then all at once there was something, something that struck a bolt of terror straight to the heart of what Figment was and sent him racing, speeding for help.   


 

                “It was Doctor Channing,” said Figment, who was flitting back and forth anxiously, biting on his small paw, “but he had- he was holding Blair’s thingamijig- his Mesmonic Converter- except it looked weird- and smelled bad- and Blair smashed it to pieces! And- and his shadow was all... werrrrrghhh.”

                “Werrgh?” tried Ellie.

                “No, no, werrrrrghhh.” insisted Figment, waggling his fingers urgently. “All kinds of spooky, and eeuuugh."

                “Eeeaugh?” Dean had his own go at it.

                “Exactly!” Figment inexplicably snapped his fingers.

                “Channing can have his moments but-” Dean stopped talking for a moment, as somehow the sentence tried to grapple with his heart. It passed as quickly as it came. “But I don’t think he’d do something like this.”

                They all looked up at the clouds for a moment.

                “So, what do we do now? Call the police or something?” Ellie asked, pulling up her phone again as Figment sat on her head, head tilting as he watched her try to open it. “All my bars are gone, Dean. No reception.”

                The clouds overhead seemed to thicken.

                “I think… I think we need to go back in there,” Dean concluded. “Figment, do you remember where you saw the mesm- mesmo- the thingamajig?”

                “In the- the atrium of Doctor Channing’s lab,” Figment jittered. “Last time, Blair destroyed it to release dream power across the whole place! If- if we can get hold of it again, I bet we can fix this. Even if it is-”

                He cut himself off, shuddering, and launched himself from Ellie’s head to hover above them.

                “It’s this way!”

                The two followed the imaginary dragon as he zipped along the building, around the back of what Dean figured had to be Dr. Brainard’s lab. His thoughts couldn’t help but turn to Alan. He hoped he was safe, for more reasons than if he was under, it meant Dean would be out of a best friend. They came to a freight door up the metal walkway, and Dean grabbed the handle. The garage- like door wouldn’t shift an inch. “Great.”

                “We can just find another door,” Ellie started to say, looking back. “If we go around to the back of Szalinski’s lab-"

                Dean didn’t hear her, nor did Figment, whose attention had been caught by Dean. Figment knew that look anywhere. Dean was getting an idea.

                "Figment-" He pointed up. "Can you get in through the air conditioning?"

                “Okie-dokie-smokie!” The grille, presumably designed by people who had watched at least one action movie in their lives, was too small for a human, but it wasn’t too small for something the size of Figment, especially not when that something could fly. The little dragon fluttered up to the hatch, prised the flimsy plastic slats up on one side and pushed it the rest of the way with his snout, and shouldered inside.

                Less than a minute, and the freight door clicked open to reveal a chilled and shivering Figment, who shot through and wrapped himself up in the loose fold of Dean’s labcoat. “I-i-it fuh-feels a lot c-c-colder whuh-when you’re i-i-inside it!!”

                The air-con wasn't the only thing that was cold. As the door opened, a billow of mist poured out in a way that neither human nor dragon should have been surprised by, given the theatrical amusement park they were standing in. The difference was, this was a dingy backlot freight truck access, and secondly, the mist was a sickly, damp green. It seeped into Dean’s socks and made his shoes feel like he’d just stepped into a swamp, and it clung to the floor while never seeming to fully dissipate. He swallowed thickly, holding Figment close.

                “Can we do this?” Ellie said, sounding more like she was trying to convince herself than the others. “We can do this, right?”

                “O-of course.” Dean found the words, stepping inside. “Simple, we just get to Channing’s lab, turn the thingamajig off, and boom, day saved.”

                Making sure to roll the door shut behind them, the team ventured in. Figment wiggled out of Dean’s arms to float close to his shoulder as they went.

                “We just have to get through here, and up the main stairs,” he whispered. The room ahead was a relatively small open-plan office, full of computer workstations. Most of them had two monitors, the wide banks of the screens shielding the occupants from view. Dean crouched and ventured forwards, Ellie following his lead, as they slowly navigated the twists and turns of the cluttered floorspace.

                The hush in the room was eerie. Through the desks, Dean could see motionless legs, dangling shoes, the occupants sitting in their chairs as if anything was normal, except they were hardly moving or making a sound. The only noise was the racing click of keys from all sides. Motioning for the others to follow, he eased up against the corner of a desk and peered gingerly around it, and was just about to give the all-clear when he happened to glance up and spot, just inside his field of vision, the desk’s occupant.

                It was Alan. He was awake, at least as far as his eyes were open and his hands were moving, rattling across the keyboard at full speed. His shoulders were slumped and his eyes- the pupils pinpricks- were riveted to the screen, and there was a dead and distant glaze in them, like the windows of an empty house.

                "Alan-" Dean covered his mouth the moment he said the name, but Alan didn't seem to notice. No one did.

                "Dean?" Ellie said, somewhere behind him. "C'mon, let’s go!"

                "Hang on-" Dean peered over the edge of the desk again. He couldn't see what Alan was typing, just a glow that seemed to match the fog around them; a bright, eerie green that made his friend’s face look sullen.

                "Alan," Dean whispered. A pair of yellow eyes followed, also peering over the edge of the desk as Dean raised himself up. "It’s me, Dean. Can you hear me?"

                “Go away, Dean,” said Alan, and the small purple snout hooked over the edge of the desk at Dean’s side started in surprise. The fog, the horrible heavy feeling in the air, the passive captive people… Figment had seen this all before, but last time the victims of the fog had been moaning, speechless zombies. He hadn’t expected words.

                Dean’s friend didn’t look at either of them, didn’t look away from the glowing screen. His voice was low and expressionless.

                “I’m working. I have to get this done.”

                Checking to make sure the coast was still clear, Dean rounded the desk, craning his head to see what Alan was working on so intently his fingers hadn’t stopped moving even as he spoke to him. All Dean could catch was Alan seemed to be on a forum of some sort, the header on the green tinged screen was one of those all-seeing eye symbols. Dean wasn’t very computer-fluent, but talking to Alan had given him more than enough info to know how to recognize a conspiracy site when he saw one.

                “Alan, what the heck are you doing? This isn’t you-”

                “Isn’t it?” asked Alan, in the same blank monotone. “Sooner or later you have to ask yourself, who am I kidding? A bachelors’ in film production, a student loan the size of a small country’s budget deficit, and I’m sitting here every day helping people six times over my pay grade find their login password. And then I don’t sleep because I’m going home and agonizing over stuff I can’t make because I can’t talk and nobody would care, anyway. I mean, why even bother? If I ever had a shot, I missed it.”

                He hit post on the wall of text he’d been writing, and immediately shifted to a new tab. This one seemed to be full of blurry photos of celebrities. POST YOUR REPTILIAN ELITE PICS HERE!!

                “I don’t know why it took me so long to realise,” he mumbled, beginning to type again. “Maybe because I didn’t want to. Anyway, you should go. I’m behind enough as it is.”

                Dean’s face fell, remembering the times Alan had confided those exact fears to him, mostly on particularly raw bus rides home. “Sometimes the path we think we should take isn’t always the one we end up following-”

                He touched Alan’s arm as Ellie fidgeted on the ground behind them. Figment smiled as Dean started to remind him of a certain someone. “The Alan I know is clever, smart and funny. Who cares if you’re charismatic? If you have something you care about and do it with passion, people will listen- but first, we need to you get out of here. Alan, listen to me-”

                “This isn’t...”

                The miserable blank on Alan’s face started to crack, a small frown landsliding into a bigger one as he stared at the screen. Now, he sounded like he was struggling, fighting to answer a question he couldn’t quite remember. “This… this guy was yelling… and then everyone went all Romero on me, and I… don’t know what I… what…”

                He blinked hard, shook his head, then all of a sudden started and pulled his hands off the keys as if they’d turned red-hot. “What the hell am I writing?? Chemtrails, the moon landing-” He switched tab after tab, frantically. “Subliminal advertising, creationism- flat earth theory?? Dean!”

                He swung round on his friend, grabbing him by the shoulders. His eyes were their usual grey-green, horrified and bewildered and alive.

                “We’ve got to get out of here!”

                Dean had never been so happy to see Alan freaking out. “Wait wait wait-” His grip on him tightened as Alan tried to get up out of his seat. “Hang on a second-”

                “Hey!” Figment spoke up as Dean dragged Alan to join their hiding place behind his desk. “You freed him!”

                Dean knew exactly what was coming. “Figment, no-”

                Too late, the little dragon was already up in Alan’s face, offering a hand. “Hi! I’m Figment! Dean’s told me a lot about you!”

                Alan went very still.

                “Dean,” he said, very calmly. “Are you seeing a flying purple dragon in front of me right now?”

                "Yes I am, and before I go on, I need you to know the flying purple dragon can hear you too," Dean said, as Ellie snapped a picture of Alan’s face.

                "This is Figment. And he's real."

                "As real as an imaginary spark can get!" the little dragon boasted, proudly.

                “That’s… great,” said Alan, weakly, watching Figment like someone might watch a loose bear wandering towards them. “Cool. Definitely… the kind of thing I expected when I got out of bed this morning.”

                “And I’m Ellie,” whispered Ellie, shaking his hand from her hiding spot under the desk. “You work with Dean, right?”
                “Uh, no, I’m actually in IT-”

                “Oh, neat! Hey, can you take a look at my phone? It keeps doing this thing where-”

                “Sorry-” interrupted Alan, “-it’s very nice to meet you, I don’t mean to be rude, but- could one of you maybe tell me what the heck is going on?”

                Figment opened his mouth, but Dean gently nudged him aside. "Maybe I should take this one, buddy." Figment only looked sad for a second before he took to sitting on Deans shoulder. "Long story short, Figment says he saw Channing with some sort of mesmest-mosmi-"

                "Mesmonic Converter," both Ellie and Figment offered, at the same time.

                "Yeah, that, and while I'm not completely sure exactly what that is, we do know its probably what’s been making everyone cranky and causing all, well, this." Dean gestured vaguely at the fog around them. "We're heading to Channing’s lab to shut it down, and hopefully that will fix all this."

                He paused, surveying Alan’s face. "Take your time, I know this is a lot."

                “Maybe don’t take too much time,” said Ellie, nervously. She was watching the blank row of faces across the way, Alan’s mesmerized colleagues. They all looked pretty deeply under, but it wasn’t too hard to remember the furious expressions of the security guards, or the guests before that. “The locals seem kinda restless...”

                Alan scrabbled in his desk drawer, pulling out his ID lanyard. “No, no, I’m good, let’s go.”

                Dean exchanged a look with Figment. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

                “Okay?” Alan had already started to edge along the row of desks. “No, are you stupid? I’m scared out of my mind and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost my grip on reality, but I also don’t want to get lynched by a bunch of hypnotized Helpdesk nerds, thank you. We’re going now.”

                Dean gave both Ellie and Figment a look before got up, following after Alan. In retrospect this had probably been a brilliant idea. Systems Support had clearance to go almost anywhere in the building. If anyone could get them into Channing’s lab, it was probably Alan.

                Carefully the group crept towards the door, staying close to the fog that clung to the floor. Daring a glance, Dean could see everyone else in the room seemed to be doing the exact thing Alan had; typing long blocks of text on web pages and comment sections, all of them having to do with a pseudoscience of some sort. Remaining quiet, they seemed to be getting away without any of the living bots noticing them.

                A security guard passed outside the door as Dean reached for the handle. He waited for him to pass before turning to the other three.

                "Okay, so, Channing’s lab is to our left, down the hall, then to the right if I'm correct. I say we make a break for it."

                Figment gulped and nodded, sticking close to Dean’s shoulder. Ellie had been rummaging in the cable ties under the last desk they’d passed, and came up with a long blocky power strip, trailing a plug. It wasn’t the most deadly weapon, but with the cord wrapped around her fist, it looked like a fairly solid argument.

                “Ready,” she hissed.

                Alan didn’t reply right away. As Dean reached up to crack the door, he touched his arm.

                “Thanks,” he said, quietly.

                Dean gave a small smile “Glad to have you back, buddy.”

 


 

                Nigel Channing had been the most delicious meal Doubt had had in years. The man was practically a living breathing ball of anxiety, a spring wound so tight that even the slightest disturbance could set off. It had been that easy; just a little nudge and the Chairman unravelled, wide open for Doubt to sink in their icy grip. Once their new business partner had secured their shiny new food source, Doubt left the Chairman in a dense cloud of fear and uncertainty. They drifted to the floor, breathing in the green fear-fog, and the sharp inhale sent them upwards. Shadows twisted and curled together, forming human limbs and coat tails, all of it topped off with a top hat.

                That Dreamfinder had been the biggest hurdle Doubt had ever faced. But you had to admit, it thought to itself as its teeth curled into a smile. This form sure did radiate power.

                Doubt needlessly straightened its lapels before they formed back into its body, walking around to get the hang of having two legs again. The real Channing was silent, slumped over for now. Doubt had to admit maybe they had eaten a little more than they should have. He’d be up sooner or later. Then they could start asking the Chairman for what he knew about where their nemesis had disappeared off to.

                Their green eyes shifted to the other side of the lab, where another, different Nigel Channing stood in front of a large spherical machine, tossing a bulky helmet from hand to hand.

                “Zeitgeist...” Doubt’s voice was low, permanently set to sinister. “Have you figured that thing out yet?”

                “Oh, I’m getting there.” It wasn’t Channing’s voice. Maybe that voice was there, the set-dressing of each word, but it was layered with something deeper and far more unpleasant, a tone that crawled up the listener’s backbone to the brain and lodged there, giggling.

                The thing turned, flashing a grin with an intensity and venom that Nigel Channing had never approached in his life. There were too many teeth in it. “It’s outdated junk, but there’s such a lot of potential… we just have to bring it up to the now.”

                Doubt moved to his side, taking the helmet and turning it over in their shadowy hands. Doubt thought, thinking back to when they and Dreamfinder had been one and the same. Bits and pieces, they could remember that they had leeched off his mind. That sickeningly bright mind. But this, oh this machine would be put to far better use than creating dream power. The thought of guests unwittingly lining up only to be plugged into this made a giddy feeling bubble up in Doubts core.

                "And everyone in the building is under?" they asked their partner.

                “Will you stop worrying?” snapped the other Channing. “Normally, I’d be all about pointless misgivings, but in your case it’s really starting to get on my nerves. Of course they’re all under. Do you think any ordinary human mind stands a chance against such a potent cocktail of doubt and- well- me? Do I need to remind you that this is one of the smart ones?” He prodded Channing’s slumped body with a foot.

                "Need I remind you," Doubt replied, "that we don't fully know for sure if the one man who can potentially stop us is still out there somewhere?"

                The Zeitgeist rolled Channing’s eyes as he set the helmet down.

                "What is it with you and that guy?” he said. “He's no problem. He's gone, and there's no way that weak little spark could do anything even if it shows up."

                On the floor the real Channing started to stir, but both knew there was nothing the Chairman could do.

                Doubt was about to argue further when there was a loud thud just outside the door to the lab.

                Both entities turned, sharply, and the Zeitgeist hissed.

                “That’s not one of mine,” he snarled. “I smell… freethinking. Is that the spark?”

                Another crash outside the door, a muffled conversation.

                "Ellie!"

                "I was aiming for his shins!"

                "Oh my God- Alan!"

                "Just give me a second-"

                Another crash. A whiz of energy, and then the innocuous beep of an entry keypad.

                The double doors opened and three humans tumbled through, Dean somehow landing at the top of the pile as Figment charged in after the group. The legs of a passed-out security guard were visible for a moment before the doors shut.

                Doubt’s eyes turned to the Zeitgeist as Dean popped up. "Channing! Stop this right now!"

                “Oh, I’m sorry…” The thing wearing Channing’s form grinned even wider. His eyes looked like Alan’s had, like the guards’- too pale, hazy, the pupils inkspots at the centres- but there was something even worse about this. There was no touch of humanity struggling in those eyes. It was like looking into a well, all the way down, and Figment’s small claws tightened in the back of Dean’s shirt as he realised that this wasn’t Doubt or one of his puppets at all. This was something new.

"Dean," whispered Ellie, leaning in as they watched a drip of something black slide down the side of their boss’s face. "I don't think that's Channing."

                “Doctor Channing isn’t here right now, but if you’d like to leave a message...”

                “It is the spark,” whispered Doubt, spreading out dark fingers and rising behind the Zeitgeist like a living shadow. “Well, well. It’s been a while, you little monster. Where’s the Dreamfinder?”

                "Dreamfinder isn't here," Dean said, sounding about ten times braver than he felt. "So you'll have to deal with us."

                Doubt sunk into the shadows, darting like a shot between the Zeitgeist’s legs and across the lab, rising up and arcing over the two and giving Dean a straight look into its jagged, bright teeth.

                "Liar!! If that meddlesome spark is here, that means he can't be far behind!"

                “I told you,” sniggered the Zeitgeist. “Your precious nemesis probably kicked the bucket already. He’s human. Humans die all the time. They’re very, very good at it. Falling over themselves to come up with new ways to do it, take it from me.”

                “He’s not dead!” bristled Figment, into the Doubt’s shapeless face. “He’s- he’s just-”

                “Gone?” finished the Zeitgeist, advancing, his face a mask of mock-sympathy under the dark goo slipping slowly from his hairline, like thick blood from a wound. “What a shame.”

                Doubt scowled, but relented, easing back. Dean realized he'd been holding his breath. "And if he's smart," Zeitgeist continued, pacing a little and surveying the ragtag team, "he'll never come back. The world has changed too much, become far too complex for an old coot like him. Those ones are always the easiest to fool. Anyway-" They tucked their hands behind their back. "What makes you think some minimum-wage workers like you have the authority to stop us? Because you're righteous? Good? Because you believe the worthless sentiments a corporate company peddles under the guise of story?"

                Alan pushed Ellie behind him and stabbed a finger at the Channing-thing. He was shaking with rage.

                “You made me write lies on the Internet!!”

                “Um, the ‘righteous’ thing? I’ll go with that,” said Ellie, holding up her power strip like a tour guide’s umbrella. “But I’m mostly along for the ride.”

                "And I'm here because nobody hurts my friends," Dean declared. "Real or imaginary."

                "What he said!" Figment added proudly, straightening up on Dean's arm.

                "Now, I'm only going to ask this once.” Dean tried to look as menacing as he could muster. “Leave the Institute alone, and never come back."

                Doubt’s face did the closest thing it could to a buckle, and then it burst out laughing, a sound that filled the room with a deep bassy tone that went straight to the chest.

                "I was really hoping that would work," Dean muttered, as Alan gave him a pointed look.

              "Well, partner," Doubt said, once it caught its unneeded breath, looking to the Zeitgeist. "Forget Channing, I think we should break this one first."

                The Zeitgeist smiled and snapped his fingers. From the gloom, the corners and the odd angles of lab equipment all around, Dr. Channing’s staff stepped out in a dead-eyed, fog-shrouded ring. Ellie yelped as two of them grabbed for her. Swinging her makeshift weapon on its cord, she clocked one of them straight in the chin, but the other swatted it out of her hands and pulled her arms roughly behind her. Alan made a grab for the power strip as it clattered across the ground, but another lab assistant grabbed the back of his shirt and slammed him against the side of a solid generator unit, pinning him there.

                “Why not? I have to admit I was expecting more of a challenge.”

                He reached out and clamped his hand directly over Ellie’s mouth. She struggled furiously, squeaked a battery of noises under the blackened fingers, but eventually lost the fight and breathed out in a gasping huff.
                “Hah...” The Zeitgeist curled his hand around her escaping breath, and changed. The shape shrank, twisted, the colors shifted, clothes and hair ravelling down, and before Ellie’s appalled eyes another Ellie smiled back and winked at her with clouded, sharp-pupiled eyes.

                “Gullible, easily-led, totally incapable of appreciating how useless her one talent really is in this world. Optimism. Pfeh.” The Ellie-thing spat. “The last refuge of the sheep. ‘Maybe the slaughterhouse is a nice place after all! Can’t be that bad, right?’”

                The Zeitgeist whipped suddenly round on Alan, catching his shocked exhale in a fist that shifted and warped around it. A ghastly moment, and Alan found himself staring into his own smirking face.

                “Now, you could be one of mine. I can smell it. What’s wrong, little sceptic? Cat got your tongue?”

                “Leave- them- alone!” Alan managed. He sounded like he was hyperventilating.

                “What a hero,” said the Zeitgeist. He turned away, utterly dismissive, his shape sliding fluidly back into that of the Chairman. “So much for the ‘happiest place on Earth.’”

                Figment had been grabbed by a cloudy-eyed man who looked like he was a security guard. His massive hands pinned Figments wings to his back, and the strong grip made it impossible to wiggle out. Dean had been powerless to help, as another guard had grabbed him. Doubt whipped around up the dais, unable to hold back a small laugh as it pulled down a heavy switch. The machine hummed to life, pistons firing and gears clanking in a bellow of smoke.

                "Now, if you're all employees of this fabulous Institution..." The Zeitgeist’s voice was dripping with as much sarcasm as his face currently was just plain dripping. "You all must know about this hunk of junk. Using dreams to make matter, and all that bunk." He turned as the machine made an impressive chug, the fog in the room starting to deviate into an intake vent as the rickety machine pumped even harder.

                "Rhyme not intended. Obviously past its prime, but my partner had a fabulous idea."

                Doubt flicked a few more switches, and the machine turned over.

                "What about matter from fear?"

                Doubt beckoned with a slender finger, and Dean was pushed forward.

                "Hey! Let go of me!"

                "Or what?" The Zeitgeist smiled. "A sorry excuse for an Imagineer like you is a perfect test subject."

                Dean was tossed into a chair. Doubt stopped the rolling wheels with its foot, as it already had the helmet in hand.

                "No..." Dean struggled, but there was no breaking free. His heart felt like ice as the helmet slipped over his head, darkening his vision. Through the goggles, he could see Figment struggling, those yellow eyes wide as he tried to break free of the guard holding him.

                Dean sighed. He'd failed. Granted, his plan hadn't been the best in the first place. Charge in and hope for the best? Good strategy, genius.

                The helmet thrummed around him.

                What was he even doing here in the Institute, or even putting his life on the line for it? He was a nobody with a life barely worth remembering. He had three friends in this world, and one of them was his imaginary dragon.

                Wait, his dragon?

                Idiot, he wasn't yours, he was Dreamfinder’s, and if he could see him right now he'd probably be so disappointed.

                He was just Dean. Lowly, tired. So very tired. Why was he so tired? He felt like he was asleep, had been asleep.

                The helmet sparked.

                He had to wake up. He had to wake up. He couldn't go to sleep again. He was a dreamer. He was a doer. He was a bright spark that could not be repressed.

                "Shut it off!!" Doubt bellowed. "For Fear’s sake, SHUT IT OFF!!" The converter was shuddering and sparking, the green lightning licking it now a brilliant blue. The air was so charged that Ellie’s hair was lifting from her head.

                He had to wake up. He had to wake up...

                "Dean!!" Figment clamped his little teeth down on the guards hand, and the man yowled, letting go immediately in surprise. Figment pumped his wings harder than he ever had before, so focused on Dean that the dragon wasn't aware of the bright purple aura that had grown around him. He reached out a clawed hand, speeding for Dean.

The metal sphere buckled and groaned as its metal folded like paper. Contact between dragon and human, and then there was a bright flash and a sound that split the very air, ringing in everyone's ears.

                Then Blair Mercurial, the Dreamfinder, woke up.