Part 1: The Sounding
I stood at the edge of the chasm. Looking just beyond my toes, the blackness of the wound in the earth threatened to swallow me whole. At the bottom of that seemingly endless depth, I could barely identify the glimmering blue circle. Little tongues of electricity from its perimeter lapped at the edges of the dark.
This alone might have been sufficiently strange, but then there was the sound.
The deep, resonant roar rose up through the dirt and into my feet. As it cascaded through my body, it reminded me of a powerful engine revving up.
The sound had a duration of ten seconds, during which time it built to a bone rattling crescendo before ebbing away. And after only thirty seconds of reprieve, it would start all over again. While I was in the hospital, I had all the time in the world to analyze it. It was quieter then, but everything else about it was identical. Even when I managed to sleep, it was still there in my dreams. I came to know it better than I knew anything.
Then again, I didn't know much as it was.
What did I know? Only what I was told. On my medical charts I was listed as John Doe, age 25-35. My nurses also mentioned that the lack of skin tone and scars on my body meant I must have led a pretty sheltered life before my accident. The only markings I bore now were left by the wreck that landed me in the hospital in the first place. Oh, and that I was crazy because I was hearing things that weren't there.
They explained it as an aftereffect of the car accident that wiped my memory, some kind of post traumatic stress that had a physical manifestation. They inundated me with medication after medication trying to make the sound disappear. I spoke to a psychiatrist on an almost daily basis, though recalling nothing of my history made the sessions feel less than pointless. After weeks with no results, the doctors seemed discouraged. And since I was found with no identification and no family members had come looking for me, I was in limbo. The hospital wanted rid of me, but they had no idea what to do with me.
Knowing they would never release me until they saw results, I faked what they wanted to see. Though I couldn't tell them who I was, I acted normal in every other way I could. I emulated the thoughtful smiles I saw around me. I tried to make polite conversation, and I avoided any mention of my affliction. I acted as if my restless nights of sleep weren't making me feel like a zombie.
There's no way my acting could have been that convincing, but I think they were secretly glad of the excuse to send me away. With only a couple of sets of donated clothes to my name and information about a state-run program that could look after me, they happily sent me out the door.
I didn't even bother. I just walked. The sound wasn't in my head. It seemed to be coming to me from somewhere else, a fact I only foolishly mentioned to my doctors once. Crazy or not, I had little else to act on, so I followed it. The sound was pulling me toward its source, and I didn't try to stop it.
Days of walking with the occasional hitchhiking left me with sore feet and a decision to be made. I had no doubt that the source of the sound was inside that otherworldly light. But there was no way to reach it, save one. I could either give up on it and resign myself to a life plagued by the sounding of this terrible thing. Or I could do something that would only confirm my insanity.
What did I have to lose? Nothing I could remember.
Drawing in what could very well be my last breath, I raised my arms high over my head and dove over the edge.
The motion came easily. I briefly wondered if I'd ever taken a dive like this before.
The wind blew my long hair away from my face as the sound swelled up and assailed me all over again. It was louder than I'd ever heard it.
I wondered if this was perhaps a bad idea as the blue circle rushed up to consume me.
Part 2: The Blank Slate
Warmth engulfed me as I passed through the hazy blue. A faint electric charge in the air made my skin tingle. I closed my eyes, knowing that if I was about to meet my death, I didn't want to see it coming.
The wind on my face seemed to be slowing down. Gravity was losing its hold on my body. My physical weight slipped away like layers of clothing. After a time, I hardly seemed to be moving at all. That's when I noticed something else I couldn't explain.
I was certain I dove off that edge head first. The direction from which the wind had buffeted me confirmed that much. But now the wind direction had changed, and I felt like what little momentum I still possessed had my feet moving ahead of me. I considered opening my eyes to get my bearings, but I still couldn't forget what would be looming below me in the world I knew. I couldn't risk it.
Then it came.
The tips of my toes gently came into contact with some kind of solid surface. My feet were soon planted on the ground. The sound revved up again, but it was different now. It rang out from some indistinguishable point above my head, and there was an echo to it that it never had before. Much of the noise seemed to be dissipating before it reached me, reducing it to the level it had been in the hospital. Back there it was driving me mad, but after hearing how loud it could truly be, this came as a relief.
I finally opened my eyes.
The room I occupied was enormous. At least it seemed like a room. The walls were all incredibly distant, yet still visible. When I looked down at the solid surface beneath my feet, I jumped back. The floor was made of some kind of transparent material. Far below, I saw a landscape of shifting colors: pinks, blues, reds, yellows, greens. None of it matched up at all with the kind of patchwork landscape you might normally see. This seemed more in line with an abstract water color, and seeing it below me only added to my disorientation.
I had to look up again to stop my knees from shaking. Another look around the room showed that it was devoid of any other presence.
I had no clue where I was, and I was alone. Yet this wasn't much of a change.
"It's good of you to join us."
I spun around to see a tall, bald man dressed in white. A lab coat covered the white shirt and went halfway down his white pants. He held out a device that fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. It made a few beeping noises as he ran it up and down the length of my body. I watched in awe as he worked. "Us? I only see you."
"The others are waiting."
This still didn't answer my question, but I didn't bother with a follow-up.
Once he completed his scan, he analyzed a little readout that popped up. It was holographic and hovered in the air in front of him, though it was written in a language that I didn't understand. He nodded to himself. "Follow me," he said without looking away from the data.
He waved with his free hand, and the air swirled and irised away, leaving a hole in the world. He stepped through it without a second thought, while it felt like my feet were frozen to the floor. I leaned forward, trying to discern what awaited me on the other side. I only saw the light blue haze of this newest portal.
Come on, I urged myself. This isn't any worse than jumping off a cliff.
This realization turned out to be what I needed. My feet began to move, but this time I didn't close my eyes as I walked through the doorway. The blue haze grew around me, obscuring my vision entirely for several seconds. When I set my second foot down on the other side, the haze began to dissolve.
As the new room came into view, the only noticeable difference was row upon row of office desks, and each desk was occupied by someone in the same uniform that my escort wore. I spotted him several paces ahead of me, and I hurried to catch up.
I soon found myself standing beside one of the desks. I could see nothing unique to distinguish it from the others. Another man, also with no hair, greeted the first man with a nod. "We have a new blank slate," my escort said by way of introduction.
"Blank slate?" I asked.
Neither of them gave me a second thought. "Do you know what his file says?" the man at the desk inquired.
"Just a drone. Worked as an actuary. Bored with his life, generally dissatisfied. Slate wiped clean in a car accident." The words came out devoid of emotion.
"We need to wipe his memory of being here. Rebooting him should drown out the sound of the engines." The new man leaned over to pull something out of a desk drawer.
"Engines?" I don't know why I even bothered saying this aloud. No one was at all concerned with me.
"We need to make sure there's no trace left before I take him back," my escort insisted.
"You can't take him back."
This new voice jarred me. A young woman had suddenly appeared right beside me, so close we were almost touching. She had long red hair tied back in an elaborate braid. Jewels adorned her hair, making her sparkle in the unnaturally bright light of the room. Her clothes made her look like a parrot exploded on her.
"Jester." My escort sounded annoyed.
"Don't talk to me like that," the young woman insisted. "You promised I could keep someone." She looked over and flashed me a brilliant smile. "And I want him."
Part 3: The Infinite Jest
After another minute of arguing, during which time Jester threatened to camp out at the desk all day until they let her have me, the two men finally acquiesced.
Triumphant, the beaming young woman waved her hand to open another portal. Instead of asking me to step through, she promptly pushed me into the iris. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground, a searing hot pain rushing away from my elbow.
The pain only consumed me for a brief moment before I realized that I was in outer space, hovering directly over Earth, which looked to be the size of a small beach ball. Stars hovered around it, stunning me with their multiplicity. I tapped the transparent material of the floor to ensure it truly was there, the pain of my landing suddenly not enough to prove its existence.
“Get up,” Jester said hurriedly as she walked past me. “I have a lot to show you!”
Judging by her tone, her rush wasn’t motivated by fear or desperation, both feelings that I could relate to. She sounded excited.
Anxious for answers, I jumped to my feet and pursued her. I couldn’t help but notice the way her tight neon green and orange striped pants clung to her curvy hips. It wasn’t enough to distract me entirely, though I forgot to be angry with her for pushing me.
“What do you want me for?” I asked as I finally matched her stride.
“They send all of the nameless back. I was the only one they couldn’t return, so I’ve been alone. I’m tired of having no one to talk to.”
“Why couldn’t they return you?”
She gave me a conspiratorial glance. “They tried, but my brain is ultra-resistant to programming. In the world you just came from, I was one of the most unstable people my doctors had ever seen. That’s how I ended up as a nameless in the first place. The programming that let me function in the world just wore off.”
“Nameless?” This much was accurate for me. “You have a name though.”
“I chose it. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life here without a name. And here, we live a long time.”
The slight skip in her walk caught my attention. Her shoulders bounced, and her long braid swung from side to side.
The distinctive sound became audible again, though it was even quieter than it was in the first room. I felt it more as a background vibration. “Did you end up here because you heard the sound too?”
She nodded. “The sound led me to a gateway that brought me here. They keep the gateways open so they can fix anyone that’s in danger of figuring it all out.”
“What is the sound? I heard someone say something about engines.” Even as I asked this question, I had my eyes focused on the ground. With the initial shock fading, I was able to take in the incredible sight below me. After only a few moments of walking, I noticed a large yellow sphere with beautiful rings. Something in the back of my mind recognizes it as Saturn. I had no idea who I was, but some bits of knowledge were still intact.
“You could say it’s the engine that drives that world,” Jester said brightly. “I, on the other hand, call it the absurdity.”
“What?” It occurred to me that I might be repeating myself too much with the bewildered questions, but I couldn’t help myself.
“The absurdity of life.”
Looking around me, all I saw was absurdity. “I think everything in my life is absurd,” I agreed.
Or at least I thought I was agreeing with her. Jester suddenly threw back her head and let out a high-pitched squeal of delight that made my eardrums ring. My hands flew up to protect what was left of my hearing.
“What’s wrong with you?” I demanded.
Her laugh subsided and remained only as an occasional hiccup through her reply. “That’s not what I meant, silly! The thing you call life is the absurdity! You’re only hearing the engines that generate it because you’re seeing through the thin veneer.”
“So. . .” I looked around me and tried to soak in the implications. “Are you saying this is reality?”
She shrugged. “I think it is, anyway. No one can ever say for sure, but it’s the only place where I make sense.”
Blank slate or not, I still had more experience in the other world than I did here. My mind wanted to resist what she was telling me. “I jumped off that cliff. Maybe I’m dead, or maybe I’m still falling and this is a hallucination.”
Jester smiled, and I noticed how startlingly green her eyes were. They matched some of the jewels in her hair. “I doubt you’re dead,” she assured me.
Now I felt a laugh coming on. “You only doubt it?”
“I’ve learned that it’s impossible to know anything for sure,” she said playfully.
I didn’t know whether to take her seriously or not, but I found myself sliding my fingers across my neck until I felt the comforting throb of my pulse. “Well, my heart’s still beating.” Looking down, I guessed we were well beyond the solar system by then. I only saw a few scattered rocky objects floating in the void.
Jester laughed again, but my eardrums were better able to withstand this assault. “You can put stock in that if you want, but experience tells me that having a heartbeat isn’t as reliable an indicator of being alive as you might think.”
I just gaped at her.
She grabbed my arm by the elbow and tugged me along. “Come on! There’s a lot to see.”
Part 4: The Third
After walking around above the universe for what must have been hours (at least from my perception of time), I’d seen supernovae remnants, nebulae, and even a black hole. We spent several long minutes watching the black hole. I couldn’t help thinking that the covert nature of it, the way it waited in the fabric of space-time while the rest of the universe continued to operate without being aware of it, was like this place I now inhabited. Before I began to hear the sound, I never knew this world was here. A now I’d been pulled in, and Jester had cut off my only way out. Yet, I wasn’t sure I should be upset about that.
“The power of the black hole is impressive, but I wouldn’t recommend thinking about it too much,” Jester warned. Even as she said this, a quick glance showed that she too was invested in the sight. Her vibrant green eyes seemed to be descending into the singularity along with the heavenly objects below. “I’ve seen worlds inhabited by billions pulled inside. Part of me wonders if they were real. I could never be sure, and I didn’t really want to know. Having knowledge of that kind of loss can overwhelm you.”
“I can only imagine,” I muttered.
Jester’s hand was suddenly grasping my elbow again. “Come on. There’s more to see. We’ll have plenty of time to explore this room later.”
I blinked uncomprehendingly. “This is our entire universe, right?” There were no visible boundaries around me, so I could only imagine this indeed encompassed everything of the universe I came from.
“Of course, it is.”
“And this is only one room?”
Jester nodded. “It is a lot to take in at first,” she admitted. “That’s why we need to use shortcuts to get from one room to another. By foot it would take forever.” She casually opened another gateway.
“You need to teach me to do that,” I said.
“I will,” she promised, “but one thing at a time. You need to see more of this place before I can do that.”
Gripping my hand, she pulled me through to the next room. I had no idea what to expect, but this next room still managed to surprise me.
We stood on the edge of a dense forest. Behind me, there was nothing but water. In front of me, two paths originating at the same point snaked away from one another. One of the paths was solid dirt without any overgrowth. The other was covered with patches of weeds and fallen branches. It would be a difficult one to traverse.
“Where do we go?” I asked.
Jester smiled, though it felt like a nervous gesture. Her eyes had lost the spark I first noticed in them.
“That’s up to you.”
I hesitated. Why had her attitude shifted so suddenly? “Is this a test?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I suppose you could call it that. It’ll tell me if you’re ready to see the rooms that lie beyond this.”
“And if I fail?”
“Then you need to decide if you want to stay here based on what you’ve seen so far, or if you’d rather go back,” she replied softly. As if the prospect of this decision being made right away worried her.
I looked at the two paths. The one that looked well-worn had obviously seen a lot of traffic. Had she tested people before? Who used that walkway?
Then I looked down the other. No one went that way. If others had taken this test and failed, then they certainly hadn’t gone that way. Did that make it the right choice?
My mind started ticking over the various possibilities. I found some semblance of the analytical mind I must have had in my previous life. Yet, for all the reasons I found justifying each choice, something felt wrong. No matter which I chose, it seemed too simple. For a place this strange, no answer could be that simple.
I took a deep breath as a new option came to life in my mind. “All right. I think I’m ready.”
Jester watched apprehensively as I stepped toward the tree line. Instead of setting foot on either of the paths, I cut down the middle, stepping through the underbrush between the two. I looked over my shoulder. “Are you coming?” I called out.
When Jester stopped beside me, her grin was wider than ever. She grabbed my hand again and held it tightly. I barely knew her, but then again I barely knew myself. Yet I knew one thing for certain. I liked the way her hand felt in mine.
Part 5: Portals
It felt nice to stroll through the trees. Though we hadn’t encountered anyone else during our time together, I liked the sense of seclusion they provided. I finally felt like I could relax.
Jester seemed perfectly content to continue holding my hand as we walked. I didn’t know if she actually liked me, or she was just starved for human contact after being alone for so long. I figured, if I was lucky, it would be a bit of both.
When we emerged on the other side of the woods, we stood at the edge of a vast desert. “There’s nothing subtle about this change in landscape,” I observed.
“This place can be dramatic,” Jester acknowledged. “Some parts of it can also be very subtle. So far you seem to be able to recognize both.”
“I’m guessing that’s good.”
She nodded. “That’s very good. So good, in fact, that I think I can teach you how to move around this world.”
“Already?” As anxious as I was to learn this trick, I assumed it would take longer to prove myself.
“Well, if you don’t want to, I guess we could walk through this desert instead,” Jester said playfully. Her eyes sparkled, and it was unexpectedly difficult to look away.
“On second thought, now isn’t soon enough.” Though I knew Jester was joking, that desert didn’t look all that pleasant. The sun beat down relentlessly on the sand, and the light reflected harshly back, threatening to blind me.
“All right, John Doe. Hold out your hand,” she instructed.
I made a mental note to choose a good name. My given name meant nothing to me.
Once I extended my hand, Jester grabbed it and ran a light finger across my palm. A shudder ran through my body in response. “You need to pay attention to every sensation. When you reach out to open a portal, keep in mind that reality is layered. Feeling out the layers in reality is like turning the pages in a book. You just need to know which page you want to go to. Finding it, however, is more a matter of instinct.”
Instinct. This meant either it would come to me, or it wouldn’t. I let Jester position my hand with my palm out, and she guided it to mimic the little wave I’d seen her do. After a few practice waves, she seemed satisfied that I had the motion down. “Now what?” I asked.
“Now, think back to the big room where we saw the universe together. Remember how it felt. With that feeling in your mind, wave your hand.”
I tried to do as she asked. I just didn’t really understand what she meant. The room was vast, and I felt so small while I was in there that it was unreal. Yet, even with that smallness, I also had an unprecedented power. In that room, I could walk anywhere and see anything. There was a limitlessness that I’d never known before. With these recollections prominent in my mind, I swept my hand through the air.
The sensation startled me at first. I wasn’t expecting it, but I felt my hand catch on something. As my hand continued to move, I realized it was prying the layers of reality back like an onion skin. Left in awe by this remarkable thing I’d done, I stepped through.
The black hole that held us captive earlier with its raw power was once again below my feet. “I did it!” I exclaimed. I could open doorways in thin air. I could stand over the most powerful forces in the known universe and walk away unharmed. The feeling of power coursed through me, and I felt more alive than I could ever remember feeling.
Then a power of an entirely different kind seized me from behind. I found myself spinning around, and Jester’s arms looped around my shoulders. The black hole may not have had any hold over me, but she certainly did. Balancing on nimble toes, she stretched until her lips locked on to mine.
The force with which she held me there in that kiss could only be described as gravity. Her kiss was firm and demanding, and I felt it all the way down to my knees. I didn’t have the ability, or the will, to pull away. Her body was pressed up against me, and my hands came to rest on delicious curve of her hips. I promptly forgot about everything else as my enthusiasm drove me to lift her off the ground. Her powerful legs were soon wrapped around my waist, and my arms caged her in with the same fervor.
Then she leaned back, and her flushed cheeks showed that she enjoyed that just as much as I did. Unfortunately, her expression was all business again. “You need to see something.”
Part of me wanted to resist this change in tone, but I said nothing as she released her grip and lightly hopped back down. “What do you want to show me this time?”
“I guess you could call it the end of the line,” she replied. “After that, you’ll need to decide whether you want to stay or not.”
Part 6: The Dream Reader
When Jester opened the portal, it took a moment longer for her to find it than the rest. I wasn’t sure if it was harder to find, or if she was simply hesitant. The hole in the world finally appeared before us.
“Good luck,” she whispered as I was about to step through.
I stopped. It sounded like she was dismissing me. “Aren’t you coming?”
She shook her head, her waterfall of fiery hair waving elegantly behind her. “No. This is a journey you have to make on your own. Only you can decide what it means.”
Her cryptic response made my chest tighten as I tried to puzzle out what it could mean. Here, in this world, it could mean absolutely anything. And though I had only just met her, I didn’t want to leave her. “How will I find you again?”
“I’ll wait here,” she promised. She waved good-bye, sporting a hopeful little smile.
Steeling myself for anything, I stepped through the portal. When I emerged into a new room, I had trouble getting my bearings. The ceiling and floor were black with a sprinkling of dim stars. Turning on the spot, I saw that little square images formed a patchwork quilt all around me. The colors within each square were shifting, some slightly, others more dramatically.
What were they?
Squinting, I was able to see people were moving inside each one of them. It was an endless patchwork of people’s lives. Everywhere I looked, there was a different scene. As I approached the nearest wall of pictures, I saw a young man walking down a hallway with an armload of books, an elderly woman reading a book in her backyard, a young child toddling across a toy littered floor. Not only were these people, they were perfectly ordinary. Were these real people back in the world I’d come from?
“None of them have any clue I’m watching them.”
I turned and was startled to see a short man. He was also bald like the others I’d seen upon arrival, and he wore the same uniform, but he didn’t even stand up to my shoulder. “You watch all of them?”
He nodded. “It’s a big job. My official title is Dream Reader. I spend most of my time trying to make sense of the named in the world. It’s amazing to see how having a name settles people down. Having an identity lets you overlook the absurdity of it all.”
I looked at this man, and I suddenly felt exposed. If he watched everyone in the world going about their lives, that meant he might have also seen me. That would mean he knew more about who I was than I did. What could he have seen? Even I didn’t know that. “Why am I here?” I asked, my voice rendered unstable by nerves.
The little man looked up at me, and his eyes seemed to pass straight through my body. “Another part of my job is to track the people who lose their names. I can only pay so much attention to everyday people, but it’s important to track the ones that are deemed ‘insane’ by the named. Most of nameless are hospitalized or are heavily medicated. They don’t cause much trouble beyond that. Only a few make it as far as you, and those are the ones I need to study in more detail.”
I felt like I was shrinking. Though this man was so much smaller in stature, he seemed larger than me. He had access to my past, and I didn’t.
“I know how you lost your memory,” he continued. “I watched the footage of your accident several times. You should be amazed that your body survived that impact.”
“What caused it?” This was something that the police were never able to determine, and my memory loss only hampered their investigation.
Those words hit me, and it took several moments for the meaning of them to really dawn on me. “What?”
“When you first arrived, you heard someone say you were unhappy in your old life. That is what you might call an understatement.”
He didn’t need to say anything else. Even with my memories gone, I couldn’t mistake the tone of his voice. “You mean I was trying to kill myself?”
“We see that sort of thing a lot around here, if it makes you feel better.” He looked around the room, eyes touching thousands of people with one quick scan. “The world as you knew it was a crazy place. You weren’t the only one who tried to opt out.”
My head was still spinning. “Do you know why I did it?”
The Dream Reader nodded. “I do. I watched the highlight show for your entire life after your little stunt turned you into one of the nameless. It would be dangerous to tell you, though.”
“Any detail surrounding the accident might trigger more memories to resurface. If were to happen, we’d have to finish the reprogramming and send you back. Otherwise the memories of your old life would plague you and contaminate this life.”
That was it. I had to make my decision based on an extremely limited amount of information. “So I can have this, where I can go anywhere and see anything, but I’ll never be able to know about my past life. Or I can go back blindly to a life that I wanted to leave in the first place. That’s not really a difficult choice.”
The Dream Reader nodded. “And judging by what I’ve seen of you, you are making the correct choice.”
I laughed. “I guess since you’re like God in this room, I should be relieved by your endorsement.” And truth be told, I was.
Now the little man laughed. “Oh no, I’m nothing like God. You’d never believe me if I told you what God was like.”
I nearly choked. “What?”
Part 7: The Deity's Bedroom
“He isn’t God in the sense you’re probably used to thinking of deities,” the man said. He tapped his chin thoughtfully, and his eyes widened to the point it seemed they might pop out of his head. “Would you like to see?”
The prospect flooded my body, and I felt like I might drown in it. Though I remembered so little about my identity, I had the opportunity to learn something that others could only guess at. The prospect of uncovering the biggest mystery of existence frightened me, but I couldn’t turn away from the opportunity.
“Yes.” My voice sounded so small.
He led me across the room, past the lives of thousands of people I would never meet, but my mind was too busy to notice them. Would I still want to stay after this, or would this be so overwhelming that I’d need to forget?
Large though the room was, it was also more deceptive than it initially appeared. It seemed to be contained by the square images as they wrapped around the room, but as we walked, the wall of pictures morphed and twisted around us. We kept walking long after we should have reached what appeared to be the other side. The shifting started to turn my stomach, so I stopped looking.
When The Dream Reader stopped, we still seemed to be standing in the middle of the room. I watched carefully as he reached a hand toward one section of wall. The tapestry of images split and slid aside, revealing a door set into a solid wall. A mundane sight nestled in amongst the insanity of all the other things I’d seen.
The door seemed to be several yards away at first, so when I took only one step forward and found myself standing right in front of it, I was momentarily taken aback.
The Dream Reader was suddenly beside me again. He read my reaction perfectly. “This room has its quirks. It takes time to get used to it.” Then he laughed. “Besides, shouldn’t you feel off balance before meeting your creator?”
Yes. Yes I should, I thought.
The door opened onto a little observation platform. Just beyond that, there was a glass wall. Thinking back on it, the setup was like something you might see in a zoo. However, at that moment, this recognition was nowhere in my mind. All I could see was what resided just beyond the glass.
There was nothing extraordinary about it. A wooden dresser stood in the far corner of the room. A bed was pushed up against one wall. The window just above the bed showed the deep dark of night. A few stray moonbeams filtered through and faintly illuminated the bed’s occupant.
A human boy.
He couldn’t have been any older than twelve. A few dark locks of hair fell across his eyelids, and a thick blue comforter was pulled up to his chin.
“What’s this?” I asked, stunned.
“This is the source of life as you once knew it. All of the images you saw back there are fed to us from this room. If you trace anything back to its origin, it comes from here.”
No. How could it be? “Are you saying . . . is he dreaming everything?” It sounded so ridiculous coming out of my mouth that I could hardly believe I said it.
He nodded. “Yes. The world I watch so intently, the world you come from, is all a byproduct of a young boy’s dreaming. Knowing that, suddenly all of the absurdities of that world make perfect sense.”
My comprehension was still faltering. “That can’t be God.”
“It is if you define God as the creator of you and everything you know. I’ve tried to see beyond this room to what may have created him, but I can’t. The layers of reality are permeable between here and your world, probably because he’s dreaming them both, but this is as far as we can go. You’re at the end of the line.”
The end of the line? Jester said that. I realized she knew about this. All of it.
“How can anyone dream all those lives at once?” I asked.
“He’s in an entirely separate layer. Things work differently there. From my analysis of this room, each minute there translates to millions of years here. I’ve been here since the beginning, and he has yet to wake up.”
“What happens to us when he does?”
The Dream Reader shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll continue to exist in his mind. Maybe we’ll wink out of existence.” His words sounded offhanded, as if merely an afterthought.
If it’s all so dependent on this, I started thinking to myself. Then I shook it off, unwilling to believe it. “I exist. I know I do. I think, I feel. I have to be real.”
“Even if you exist as a dream, that doesn’t negate your reality,” the little man replied confidently. “If this little boy has the power to dream us all, his imagination is extraordinarily vivid. So vivid that he dreams not only us, but our consciousness as well. The world he dreams is quite insane at times, but also startlingly lucid.”
We were silent for a long while after that. I found myself imagining an infinite regress of deities, hopelessly trying to make sense of it. Was there only one God behind this boy’s existence? Ten? Twenty? None?
When I spoke again, I felt like the slightest breeze could disintegrate me. “What do you think lies beyond that room?”
“My beliefs should not influence yours,” the little man replied. “I suggest you focus yourself on something that feels right to you. Belief is a personal thing. It’s not to be forced. Even if this is truly all there is and this boy is everything, you still have to live your life.”
In that moment, I only knew one thing with any certainty. I needed to find Jester.
Part 8: Explosive Ecstasy
“I think I have all I need,” I said quietly.
The Dream Reader nodded. “I figured you would.”
I walked away from the Dream Reader, filled with more questions and confusion than I had when I arrived. When I followed him into that room, I felt so certain all my questions could be answered. That hadn’t been the case at all, but at least I had the answer to the most important question of all.
I knew where I wanted to be.
Once again in the Dream Reader’s lair, surrounded by the faces of countless people I would never meet, I waved my hand. I felt the familiar sensation of my fingers catching on my destination. When I pealed the fabric of the world back and stepped through, I felt an upwelling of anticipation.
I emerged next to Jester, though the configuration of celestial bodies below looked different from when I left. She was lying face down, spread-eagled, directly over a giant red star. Her long, jeweled hair was now unrestrained and fanned out around her. The starlight set the long strands ablaze, creating a fiery, multi-colored halo around her head.
“This star is going to go supernova soon.” Jester’s voice sounded distant, contemplative. Maybe even a little sad. “I feel like I’m flying over it. How often do you get to fly above a star as it dies?”
I considered that for a moment. “Here, where we have all the time we need and the whole universe beneath our feet, we can probably do it more often than most.”
She turned her head to the side and brushed her hair aside. Her eyes peeked out at me, though I couldn’t see enough of her face to get a good feel for her mood. Then she laughed. “You make an excellent point,” she conceded. “Still, I thought we might watch it together. I was hoping you’d get back in time.”
I dropped to my knees and stretched out beside her. “Here I am.”
The two of us lay side by side, and as I pressed my cheek against the ground, I found my fingers entwining with hers. My eyes focused on the big ball of dying light.
“When it goes, the power of the explosion will destroy the planets nearest to it,” she narrated. “Their surfaces will be burned away in seconds. Yet, in that moment of destruction, the star will generate new elements, the basic building blocks of life for the universe on the other side of this glass. The light from this will be visible for thousands of light years. More than a millennium from now, people will be seeing this light for the first time, and they’ll see what we’re about to see. They will be laying eyes on something that will have provided the building blocks for countless new species. It’s all pretty incredible.”
“It is,” I agreed. “Assuming that all of it’s real, of course.”
Jester squeezed my hand. “Real or not, I’d like you to enjoy it with me.”
“I can do that.”
Several silent minutes passed after that.
The change inside the star came suddenly. The colossal wave of energy unleashed by the collapsing core burst forth, hurling away the star’s outer layers. The billowing cloud of light raced out in every direction, filling the entire room with light. The star, undone by its own gravity, was now being scattered across the universe.
“Amazing,” I breathed. Then I turned on my side, and I saw that Jester had done the same. The explosion cast her in a crazy pattern of light and shadow, and she looked so hauntingly beautiful that my mind went fuzzy.
We reached out for each other at the same time. Though I’d already kissed her before, this time felt just as new and exhilarating as the last. Her tongue was more daring this time, darting out to push past my lips. Not that she had to try too hard. I was more than willing to allow her entry.
She wrapped her body around mine, and my hands explored every curve of her, searching for a way past her garments. Soon enough I found a point of entry and began to peel them away, revealing smooth skin. I knew she’d feel smooth to the touch, but the way she trembled in response triggered an urgency I never dreamed possible.
It wasn’t long before we’d both shed our outer layers, much like the star below. I hovered just above her, moving against her body as powerful waves of sensation crashed over me. The light behind her was so bright I couldn’t see her face, but I felt every inch of her, and I heard every moan and sigh. She touched me with eager hands, and I welcomed every moment of it.
The climax felt like an explosive release of warmth. It radiated from me like ripples in a pond.
Afterwards, I lay down beside Jester, and she rested her chin lightly on my shoulder. “How are you feeling?” she asked lightly.
Afterwards, I lay down beside Jester, and she rested her chin lightly on my shoulder. “How are you feeling?” she asked lightly.
“Transformed,” I replied. “I think my name should be Nova. It seems appropriate somehow.”
She smiled glowingly. “So you’re definitely staying?”
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”