Janice sprinted as fast as her old legs would carry her between the rows of crystal balls. The portals flashed past her, spherical windows into other people’s dreams.
The new kid had just dropped a dreamlight bulb into an orb, and he was craning his neck over the dream to look for it. As she reached him, she realized with horror that she knew this particular orb. Her fingers clamped around the handle of the metallic cover, pulling it down in front of his face before he could fall in.
“I dropped it,” the kid said as he climbed down the short ladder.
“I saw,” Janice said, her tone cold as she held out a hand. “Give me the old bulb.”
The kid’s face turned as red as his hair. He dug in one pocket of his apron and pulled out the old bulb he had replaced.
Janice climbed the ladder to stand on the concrete pedestal and pulled the bulb-net into place, fuming that the kid had taken none of the proper precautions. She slid the old bulb into the lamppost above the pedestal and spun it with practiced efficiency. The dreamlight flickered to life, then shone a penetrating white. She unhooked the net and reached to lift the cover when the bulb popped and went dark.
Janice thought she could feel her last brown hairs bleed to gray as she stared at the dead bulb. Her breath came faster as she pulled the radio from her belt. “This is warehouse G. I need a dream team.”
The radio crackled. “Warehouse G, all teams are performing sampling ops. ETA to your location, 10 minutes.”
Janice swore and climbed back off the pedestal. “Didn’t they tell you not to replace any bulbs without the net?” she demanded as she jogged to a rack of equipment along the wall of the building. Her fingers tightened on a dreamlight suit and she started pulling it on over her shoes.
“Yeah, I just forgot,” the kid said.
She turned to look at him, and for a second imagined her grandson standing there. It had to be the fiery hair, but the kid could have been Robby in the right light, though ten years older. Janice grabbed a flare rifle off the rack and slung it over a shoulder. A descent cable followed. “You don’t have to come, but I’m going.”
“You’re going into the dream?” the kid asked, shadowing her as she stalked back to the orb.
“You shouldn’t have been replacing that dreamlight,” Janice said as she climbed up and hooked the cable into a large ring embedded in the lamppost shroud. “You don’t replace a light anywhere near the red zone.”
“Yeah, I remember that. I just forgot the net,” the kid said.
“No, you forgot a lot of things.” Janice pulled the cover up to reveal the orb that sat recessed in the pedestal. She dropped the coiled cable into its surface. “The dreamlights protect people from nightmares, but they also keep nightmares in. If he falls asleep with the dreamlight off, his dream will grow dark and could escape into our world.”
“I know all that. But they told us never to go in alone.”
“Oh, now you remember training? The dream team won’t get here in time. If I don’t make it back, destroy the orb. Nothing gets out. Remind me of your name?”
“Chris,” he said. “You want me to blow it with you inside?”
“Wait, we could just use a backup bulb.”
Janice hooked the motorized ascender built into her suit to the cable that dangled into the dream. “The dream team is the backup. The bulbs we have are custom for each person’s phobias. If we install a different dreamlight, it will have almost no effect.”
“We should just blow it then,” the kid said.
Janice tested the controls on the ascender and she bobbed in the air. She pulled the rifle up to her cheek and launched a flare straight into the dream. It shrunk upon hitting the surface, like a tiny comet streaking through a dark snow globe. “If we destroy it, he will be locked inside an endless nightmare until a new orb can be made. By then, his mind could be lost.”
“But if the dream starts, something could escape, right?”
“Right. So you will have your finger on the button. But I have a promise to keep. I’m not sure what the odds are that you picked this dream to screw up, but it belongs to my grandson.”
The kid responded, but she ignored him. Her finger hovered over the descent button on her suit as her breath quickened. She hated this part, and she had never gone in without a dream team. Eyes closed, she took a deep breath. Then she held the button and jumped. She dropped, feeling a strange distortion of her body as she passed through the portal.
The space lay barren without Robby’s dreams to fill it. Blackness stretched in every direction; an empty dimension waiting to be imbued with life. She hit the bottom next to the burning flare and activated her light suit. Dreamlight poured out from it, illuminating nothing. Even the ground she stood on appeared black and devoid of reflection. Janice shot more flares into the darkness, creating a circle of burning light, but found no sign of the dropped bulb.
She jogged along the springy ground in a circle, widening her search each revolution.
The next step Janice took landed on sand, the granules giving way beneath her foot. She froze in place, looking around her as the dream materialized. A rock cliff loomed out of the darkness on her right, and the sound of the ocean roared to her left. She could smell the salt in the air as panic tightened an iron fist around her throat.
Hearing a thump, she spun to find another figure in a dreamlight suit running along the beach away from her. The dreamlight from Chris’ suit illuminated a small patch of dream surrounding him, imbuing the sand and water with vibrant color.
“Chris, no!” Janice screamed as she sprinted toward where he had just landed, her old knees threatening to give way. “The dream is starting, it’s too late.”
“No, I can see it,” Chris yelled over his shoulder.
Janice cursed under her breath, but couldn’t help a small admiration for Chris’ courage to enter an active dream. Or perhaps he was just a damned fool. She hooked to the cable and mashed the button on her suit to start her ascent, heart hammering in her ears.
When she hung several feet off the ground, she heard a rumbling roar and her eyes snapped to Chris. He sprinted toward her with a bulb clutched in his hand and a creature of pure shadow and nightmare thundering along behind him.
An unseen force struck the cable above, jerking Janice about like a swinging puppet. She screamed, unable to regain her orientation for several terrifying seconds. When she looked up, she saw nothing except the portal growing ever closer. She broke the surface of the barrier with a cry. Not bothering with the ladder, Janice swung herself to the side of the pedestal and dropped the three feet to the floor. She landed hard on one leg, eliciting a gasp of pain.
Righting herself, she stared into the orb, seeing the dream play out in miniature. Chris had started his ascent, leaving the massive shadow behind on the beach. Janice let loose a held breath; he would make it. Then the beast unfurled leathery wings and with one flap surged toward him.
Her shaking fingers found the plastic shroud over the fail-safe. If she destroyed the orb, Chris would be trapped along with Robby. But the primal nightmare of shadow and darkness that pursued him could not be allowed to escape. The creature’s eyes blazed red and menacing as its wings beat the air. If she closed the cover as soon as Chris got out, it might buy them precious seconds to replace the dreamlight.
Time seemed to slow as Janice made her choice. She pushed the button. One final glimpse of red hair wrenched at her as a tiny charge blew, shattering the orb.
The weight of the decision crashed upon her as she choked on a sob. Stumbling back, she crashed into another pedestal and collapsed to the floor.
She wept there, knowing it should have been her stuck inside. Her fury at Chris for forcing this decision upon her was dwarfed only by her admiration for his courage. A deep growl rumbled through the warehouse and all other thoughts fled as she looked up to find a second nightmare hanging from the roof beams, eyes burning like the fires of hell itself. Janice didn’t have the strength left in her old legs to run as it opened its jaws wide and plummeted toward her.