Larry Kettelkamp felt the electrodes glued to his bald head. All the lights on the server rack beside his bed were green. He tapped the Execute button on the tablet beside his right arm. The third time had not been the charm. Nor the seventeenth. Tonight? The pulsors began their polyphonic warble into the electrodes, and Larry slipped into grayness.
It wasn't sleep. He remained aware of hovering in gray nothingness, rotating and tumbling while watching for a target. There, below him: a haloed point of deep violet. Larry willed himself there, and watched the halo expand into a very old dream.
# # #
A boy was running in terror, by turns stumbling and looking over his shoulder at his pursuers. Larry could not quite make them out: They were the color of dust and flowed at their edges, with arms holding bright metal. The terrain was uneven, sculpted into small hills and gullies. As Larry descended, he watched the boy come up against a tall fence topped with razor wire. Not a small child but a young teen. 13? 14? About right.
Larry landed silently on the scrubby grass, only an arm's length away.
The boy's head whipped to one side, and fixed Larry with wide eyes brimming with tears and terror. "Run! They'll kill you too!"
Larry crossed his arms and shook his head. "They won't kill anybody. They can't kill anybody."
"They killed my dad and they're coming for me now!" He was breathing quickly, staring at the crest of a small hill.
From beyond the hill Larry heard cries that reeked of bloodlust. "Hey, I can help you."
The boy wasn't paying Larry any attention. He was staring at the top of the hill. The cries were coming closer. He turned and looked at the fence, all the way up to the coiled teeth of the razor wire. "Run! We're trapped in here with them!"
Run? Like hell. That, in fact, was the problem. "No. They're trapped in here with us."
"We can't fight them!"
Larry nodded. "No. But you can." Larry looked up and down the run of the razor-wire fence. A few yards to their right were several rolls of chain-link fencing and a disordered pile of galvanized iron fence posts. Larry grasped one of the posts and handed it to the boy. "Hit them. Hit them hard. Hit them until they splatter."
The boy looked at him with something akin to horror.
"Take it. Look, I knew your father. I know he taught you never to hurt people. They're not people. They're your own fears. They're holding you back. Hit them."
The boy reached out and grasped the fence pole. On his face was confusion and indecision.
"Your father was a warrior. He used his fears to calibrate his own courage. Had he lived, he would have taught you that skill. Hit them."
Something was cresting the hill, running and howling. The boy tightened his grip on the pipe. The creature was dressed in a dirty robe tied with rope. It had no face. Two appeared behind the first, then three, then five.
The boy took a breath, and spoke softly: "I'm ready."
Larry shook his head. "No. Don't wait for them. Run right at them."
Larry saw a tear fall into the dirt.
"They're using your memories against you. They're mocking your father! Run right at them! Take them all down!"
The boy's hesitance broke. He inhaled and screamed out his fury, matching bloodlust with bloodlust, and ran. He ran up the side of the hill, screaming. When he reached the first figure he screamed again, and swung. The monster's head splattered, its robe billowing out and down, green smoke streaming from its arm holes, its machete bursting into green flame and melting. The boy swung again, howling, and caved in the chest of the second. Its robe filled with smoke the color of filth and vomit, and collapsed. Four more crested the hill. The boy took down two with one swing. The fence pole dripped green slime that curled away into the air, burning.
The boy stood at the top of the hill, swinging as the monsters charged him. He bashed in their skulls and their ribcages, broke their legs and their arms, and the smoke from their ruined specters formed a green pillar that writhed into the sky, screaming as it burned.
Then the last fell, and there were no more. The boy turned and looked at Larry, and hoisted the pole into the air in salute.
Done. Larry touched one temple. The pulsors changed their warble inside his head. The boy, the fence, and the hillside faded away.
# # #
Larry Kettelkamp opened his eyes. This wasn't his room…but it was. He no longer saw another crumbling four-flat through his bedroom window. Instead he saw the vastness of a new Chicago below and beyond him, from a point hundreds of feet above the streets.
The server rack was gone. No matter, he knew how it worked. If he needed it again, he would build another. He had proven that dreams were objectively real, that they lay outside of time, and that they governed the unfolding vastness of the Multiverse.
By his right hand was his tablet computer, showing his appointments for May 12, 2031. Bet they were different now. Beside the tablet was an old photo of a tall man in uniform holding a boy on his shoulders. Larry touched the image of the man. "Good job, Dad." He touched the boy. That hair had always been an unruly mop. It wasn't a problem he would have for long. "Good job, kid. You learned to dream big and hit hard."
Larry Kettelkamp heaved himself out of his bed. Out on Lake Michigan, the Chicago wind was whipping up whitecaps. Larry tucked the ragged photo of himself and his father in his pocket over his heart. "Now let's go see what kind of a world we've dreamed up, huh?"