“So, was this the stupidest possible thing I could have done?” I asked Pen, each of my selves pointing at the other. I was only half joking. He was looking at me like I was a five year old who was holding a stick of dynamite in one hand and a flamethrower in the other.
“If I say ‘yes’ will that compel you to try to top it?”
“Depends on how hard topping it would be.”
“Not hard enough unfortunately.”, Pen said with a small smile.
“I kind of figured that was the case. Want to just spill the beans and tell me what I’m really seeing here?”
“Want?”, Pen laughed, “It’d take a dozen maps and a team of Sherpas to get from where we are to anywhere close to what I want.”
I was surprised by the bitterness that lay under his words. He was better at dream speaking than I was, more able to mute the feelings that accompanied the thoughts he projected, but even so I could feel that this was tearing him up.
“Why? Why does this matter to you? You’re only going to be here for the three days right? Anything after that is my problem isn’t it?”
“That’s not it.”
“Is it because you needed me to be normal? To be powerless? Am I not a good enough hiding place for you now?” I asked, frustrated at not being able to see what was wrong. Frustrated at the prospect of not being good enough after all.
“No. This isn’t about you.” Pen insisted. He was frustrated too, choking back his words in fear of letting anything else out that he couldn’t take back.
“How can it not be about me? This is me we’re talking about.” I said in stereo, both my dream self and physical self reacting with a flush of anger.
Moving my physical body around took effort when I was projecting myself into a dreamspace but strong emotions made it easier. I’d have to watch for that or it would look like I was having a shouting match with thin air whenever I argued with someone via dream speech.
Pen sighed and paused for a moment, picking out out his words carefully.
“Have you ever killed a planet full of people?”, he asked without preamble. I tried to read his expression. It was a ridiculous question, but he didn’t look like he was joking at all.
“No.” I answered, struggling to work out how that could be relevant.
It wasn’t so much a confession as a cold statement of fact.
“Why?” I asked softly, still struggling to understand.
“For the greater good. That’s all I can remember.” He was still and the glow of his aura had faded away almost completely.
“So you’re trying to protect me to make up for that?”, I guessed. He wasn’t a planet killing monster. My meta-awareness confirmed that. It also said he wasn’t lying. I couldn’t see how both of those could be true but somehow they were.
“I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you can make up for. I’m trying to protect you so you won’t have to do the same thing.”
“I could kill the planet?” That didn’t seem even vaguely possible.
“Not now. Not like this. Knowledge is power though, so if you knew what I did?” he let the question stand between us.
“Even if I could do that, why would I? My family’s here! My friends are here! Why would I want everyone on the planet to die?”
“You wouldn’t need to want it. Just knowing how to do it would make you a target like I am.”
“It can’t be that easy to kill a planet.” I objected.
“You’re right. It’s not that easy. It’s impossible in fact.” Pen replied.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“So is what you’re doing now.”
I frowned, feeling as confused as ever.
“This is just astral projection or something like that isn’t it?”
“And you can’t tell me how it’s different.”
Pen smiled sadly and shook his head.
“How much damage will I do by experimenting to find out?”
“Maybe none. Maybe a lot.”
“Then how do I forget this? How do I leave it behind?” I asked. I didn’t want to say those words. It wasn’t that the lure of power was intoxicating or corrupting me. It was the respite from feeling helpless. From feeling like I was a tiny ant in a world of giants. That was the drug that was making a part of me scream to hang onto the one thing I’d found that could make me special.
I’d read so much about the meta-humans of the world and always picked up on how horrible their lives could be. How much of that was seeing the reality behind the glamour and how much of it was sour grapes? Faced with having powers of my own, I couldn’t say.
There were other temptations too. The good that I could do if I kept whatever powers I had. The regret I’d feel if I let them go and something went wrong that I could have prevented. Even just being able to fly. I’d miss that terribly if I gave up my powers.
Balanced against that was the whole of my world. I knew Pen wasn’t lying or exaggerating. He’d done what he claimed. There were humans who would sink to the lowest depths of depravity to acquire a power like that, so I could only imagine what non-humans like the Shadow Court would be willing to do.
I saw what Pen meant when he said getting eaten by sharks was one of the better outcomes if things went towards the worst case scenario. I wasn’t brave at all, but even I’d chose “eaten by sharks” over letting someone kill everyone, everywhere. The trick was, with a lot of the things who would want a power like that, I probably wouldn’t even get the choice. Mind control would be the gentlest way to rip a secret like that from me. The real monsters could do a lot worse.
Taking on that kind of responsibility was too much. I couldn’t trust myself with it much less expect anyone else to. Looking at it like that, it was easy to quiet the screaming need to be special and accept that I had to be the same normal, unimportant Jin I’d always been.
“I don’t know if you can. There might not be any going back.”, Pen said, “Maybe there never was?”
“What?”, I mumbled. Having accepted that I needed to give the powers up, the prospect of being stuck with them left me with a sick feeling in my stomach, “Do you mean this was destiny or something?”
“No, or not in the sense of ‘predestination’. Destiny is what you make for yourself. Anyone who tells you different is running some scheme of their own.”
“Ok, so does that mean that this is my fault?”
“In a way, yes. You rescued me.”
“No good deed goes unpunished?”
“More like ‘everything has consequences’. You have a natural talent for this. I’d guess from a strong imagination. You chose to rescue me. Put those two together and we wind up here.” Pen said.
The sourness in my stomach rose. I couldn’t escape this and I’d brought it on myself.
“I need to know then. There has to be a middle ground between ‘destroy the world’ and ‘blind to everything’. I’m going to go nuts otherwise. I’m barely holding it together as is stands. If I need to walk around with the chance that I might blunder into killing everyone on Earth I’m going to lose it completely.”
Pen looked at me for a long moment, evaluating not me but himself. He exhaled a slow breath and his features softened. He’d let go of something inside himself that neither my meta-awareness or mundane intuition could guess. The glow of his aura brightened as he looked back up at me, a faint blue fire flickering tight around him.
“You’re right.”, he said, “You were my beacon. It’s time I was yours. Ask away.”
I relaxed a little and marshalled my thoughts.
“I guess the first question is how likely is it that I’ll figure out your ‘destroy the world’ secret? And if it’s that obvious how could it be such a big secret?”
Technically that was two questions but Pen didn’t seem to mind.
“Under normal circumstances? Not very. Knowing alone isn’t enough either. If you really needed to? I have no idea.”
That wasn’t quite the answer I’d hoped for, but it was better than a lot of the alternatives. I’d just have to make sure I’d never need to destroy the world.
“Ok, next question what is this place? It’s not a dream, it’s not the real world, it’s something in between them, but what does that mean?”
“It’s called the ‘Dreamlit World’, but that’s a misnomer. Dreams are the way most people have contact with it but it’s more accurate to say this is the border between everything that’s real in your world and everything that’s not.”
I turned that over in my head and let it sink in.
“Ok, so this isn’t completely real, but things that happen here can affect the real world. Kind of like an echo. That’s what happened when Way’s beast destroyed the police station here. Back in the physical world it was just damaged a little.”
“It happened at the library too. The first time you slipped into the dreamlit world, you broke off part of the fence remember?”
“Oh yeah! So, wait, what about Samantha? If I was in the dreamlit world then, how did I pick her up? Unless she was just dreaming too?”
“No, she was physically there.”
I furrowed my brow. That didn’t add up.
“I’m missing something.”
Pen flashed me a mischievous smile.
“You have no idea how tempting it is to make sure it stays that way.”, he blew out a deep breath and let his smile soften, “The barrier between the dreamlit world and the worlds it borders is no more real than the dreamlit world itself.”
That sounded like the something he’d found in a fortune cookie but it clicked with something I’d already been thinking about.
“Does that mean…”, I paused, frightened by the implications of a positive answer to the question I had in mind, “Does that mean, that if someone can manipulate the things here, they can manipulate the barrier to the real world world too?”
“But that means…” I felt like I was struggling to close Pandora’s box and keep some hope alive for the world. “That means that the Shadow Court can break down the rules of what’s real whenever they want. There’s no way that the Task Force is going to be able to fight them!”
Pen looked at me askance.
“The Shadow Court? Oh, those guys who chased you at the library?”, he laughed, “There’s nothing to worry about there. They’re not dream shapers.”
It was my turn to look at him askance. If it wasn’t them messing around at the library then who could it have been?
“Then you manipulated the barrier?” I asked.
Pen laughed again.
I tried to think who else was there? Samantha? Maybe little kids could reach the dreamlit world more easily? I rejected that idea immediately. If kids could routinely suspend the rules of reality, we’d never have evolved past single celled organisms much less have a functioning society.
Still Samantha might be a special case, the Shadow Court had been trying to grab her for some reason after all. Somehow that didn’t fit though. If she could do that she wouldn’t have needed my help at all. The more I thought about it the more it seemed like it had to be someone else.
“Way.”, I said, “She was there from the start. It even looked like she was hunting the Shadow Court and she’s definitely powerful enough. It was her right?”
Pen smacked his forehead with his palm and left his hand there to cover his face. The way his shoulders started shaking I thought he was breaking down in tears.
When he doubled over I was able to hear the choked “sobs” he was making were actually laughs he was trying to cover up.
“I’m sorry.” he finally said, wiping tears from his eyes as he suppressed a few lingering giggles, “It’s not really that funny.”
And yet he couldn’t stop smiling.
“We should talk about this ‘Way’ though. What do you mean you ‘named’ her?”, he said, changing the subject.
I considered dragging the conversation back to what we’d been talking about, but learning what the story was with Way seemed critically important too.
“I would like the answer to that question as well.” said a harsh and inhuman voice that came from every direction at once.
Pen swore and glanced around us. He wasn’t laughing in the slightest anymore. He was scared.
“Maybe you’ll get it after a proper introduction. What’s your name.” Pen replied in a voice cool as a glacier and as loud as a thunderclap.
“We have none. Pendant.”
My meta-awareness kicked in there. I’d given Pen that name. Only the two of us should have known it. Whatever this thing was it wasn’t playing by the rules already.
“Ah, good. You know my name. That means you know what I do to things like you.” Pen’s voice had returned to a normal volume but had lost none of its frosty edge. “Tell you what, I’ll give you a headstart. How’s a ten count sound? You can start running any time you want.”
The entire building shook as the inhuman voice bellowed out its laughter.
“Once you might have been able to make good on that bluff. Not any more though.”
Pen turned to look me directly in the eyes. He said only a single word and packed so much urgency into it that it hit me with physical force.
Dream self and physical self were moving less than a second later but it was already too late. With a tortured scream of tearing metal and shattering brick, I heard the walls of the police station being crushed inwards. A section of the lounges exterior wall exploded toward me as an enormous finger punched through the shell of the building. My meta-awareness couldn’t tell that anyone was out there though. It was as blind to whatever giant was squeezing the building to pieces as it was to Way or her beast.
I tried to figure out where I could flee to, but the windows on the second floor were blocked by the giant’s hand and the stairs throughout the building would be unusable before I could get to them. Both my dream and physical selves felt the floor underneath me beginning to buckle and I instinctively knew what that meant.
The police station in the real world was being destroyed the same as the one in the Dreamlit world. I was about to be crushed under a collapsing building and the nearest exit was too far away for even my dream self to reach.