David Bernard sits alone in the conference room, trying to focus on the pitch-black sphere floating before him.
The sphere wobbles and dips in place. The surface ripples, bulges on one side, then rights itself.
The sphere dips again, then begins to drift away from him, leaving trails of black wispy smoke in its wake.
YoU mUSt frEe mE masHEuDH, YoU mUSt usE ME
David forces the voice away, pushing it deeper into his mind as he focuses on the sphere, maintaining the sphere, restoring it to its proper place and shape.
Focus on the task, David. Build the sphere. Keep the sphere. It is here, it exists, because you will it. You control the dream.
masHEuDH I cAn HeLP yOu
His concentration breaks. The sphere dissolves into a mass of black, tangled threads before disintegrating completely. David grunts in frustration, rises, and jams his fists in his pockets as he stalks down the length of the table. Behind him he hears the portal door open. He turns to see Robert Thorpe standing in the doorway, looking surprised.
“Oh…” David feels warmth spreading to his cheeks. “Dr. Thorpe.”
The scientist recovers from his surprise quickly. “Please, call me Robert. Am I interrupting anything?”
“Oh. Uh…” David shakes his head. “No, I was just… practicing. It wasn’t going well.”
Robert nods, stepping into the room. “Now that my office is effectively the bridge of our ship I’m forced to find other places to work.” He holds up a tiny laptop, folded closed.
“Please.” David gestures for him to come in. “I can go somewhere else.”
“Not necessary.” Robert steps into the room, limping and leaning heavily on his cane. He makes his way over to the nearest seat and gingerly eases into it. “The truth is I don’t have much to do at the moment. I just wanted an excuse to be off the ‘bridge.’ Tell me about what you’re practicing. I’d like to learn more about that, if it isn’t prying.”
“It’s not.” David chooses a seat that leaves a few chairs between them. “I’m never sure how to talk about it without sounding like a lunatic, but that’s probably for the best.”
Robert smiles slightly. “It’s for the best that you sound like a lunatic?”
“Yeah,” David says. “The stuff in my head is legitimately crazy. The scary kind of madness, not the amusing, harmless kind. It’s probably safer if the people I’m working with know exactly how dangerous it is.”
Robert nods approvingly. “I’m glad you’ve decided to avoid that particular cliché.”
“Which one is that?”
“The ‘I can’t let them know how dangerous this is, or they’ll never trust me’ one.” Robert sighs. “That one bit us on the ass more than once, back when the Guardians were still a group.”
“If there’s one thing the Sky Commando program did well,” David says, “it was drilling into us the idea that we weren’t tough enough to just suck it up and keep it to ourselves. Day one, they told us we would break, and that we had to tell them any time we thought we might. Covering it up wouldn’t make everything OK. It would just wind up getting people killed.”
“That’s… remarkably insightful,” Robert says. “There’s a lot about the Sky Commando program I admire.”
“Best job I ever had.” David lapses into gloomy silence.
After a moment, Robert decides to change the subject. “So what were you practicing?”
David holds out his hand, fingers spread, palm up. A moment later a small, pitch-black orb appears, floating just above his palm.
Robert looks at it with interest. “What does it do?”
David shrugs. “Nothing special.” He closes his hand, and the sphere disappears. “It’s more of a proof of concept than a practical application. But I figure the better I get at maintaining it, the more likely it is that I’ll be able to do more interesting things.”
“This is the ‘dream magic’ Artemis mentioned?”
David laughs. “Yeah. It’s not a bad description. Not completely accurate, but close enough for government work. When I was on the island I discovered that when I was lucid dreaming I could manipulate the environment around me. I think it’s because of the spell that permeated everything. Adopting a similar mindset allows me to interact with the piece of magic that came along for the ride when I stole some of Artigenian’s memories.”
“And Artigenian is…”
“…the madman who taught Artemis how to destroy the world,” David says.
“Ah,” Robert says. “Right.”
“Anyway, I was encouraged at first. I thought I might be able to use this lucid dreaming trick to do something useful. To be able to contribute. But so far all I’ve managed is the sphere, and I’ve hit a wall with that.”
“You’ve already contributed,” Robert says. “We wouldn’t understand how the virus is transmitted without your insight.”
“Yeah.” David makes a face. “I mean, I know, sure, but… look, Robert, I’m not stupid or anything, but I was never particularly scholarly. I have basic engineering skills—I had to know enough to talk to the techs if I thought there was a problem with the Sky Commando unit—but I’m not a researcher, or an inventor. I mean, there’s no way I can do what you do. Research, figure things out. I’ve got borrowed memories of an evil wizard, and I can look through those memories to dredge up facts about how magic works, but… I was good at being Sky Commando. At being a front line guy. So I was kinda hoping this was a second chance.”
Robert hmms as he looks at David thoughtfully.
“Sorry,” David says. “I didn’t mean to start complaining. Obviously I’ll help however I can…”
“Do you know how metahuman intelligence works?”
David stops short. “Uh. Well, no, not really.”
“Not many people do,” Robert says. “Most people assume it gives us the ability to gain insights and find connections that other people overlook. That’s not exactly true.”
Robert shakes his head. “It looks like it sometimes. But mostly what it does is allow the brain to process and retain information very efficiently. Not always quickly—we’re still biological organisms, after all—but when we learn something we integrate that knowledge into our consciousness at a level most people never can. So we learn quickly, and we master that learning quickly, and that is what allows us to make connections others can’t. I was able to achieve cold fusion because I observed a biochemical process that I thought I might be able to recreate with technology—I knew both so intimately that I was able to make a connection a lot of people who knew one field or the other couldn’t.”
“That makes sense,” David says.
“But there’s another aspect to it,” Robert says. “Something that isn’t a part of metahuman intelligence at all. Something that is just a regular human quality. Creativity, combined with a willingness to look for connections. Qualities every single human being has, and can be taught to improve. I am considered one of the most developed metahuman intellects on the planet—at least among those of us who have actually taken a Dyson-Ferris Assessment—but I’m not the guy who discovered antigravity. The man who did barely registered on the DFA.”
“That was, uh, Gray Falcon, wasn’t it?” David asks.
Robert nods. “In terms of metahuman ability, he actually didn’t have much. What he had certainly helped, but what really helped was his willingness to immerse himself in ideas and possible solutions. His antigravity models… well, I would never have thought to make the connections he did. The first time I ever saw his research, it was humbling.”
“So the moral of the story is that he did more with less,” David says.
“No,” Robert says. “The moral of the story is that having metahuman levels of intelligence isn’t as important as having other qualities that aren’t affected by it. Just a little metahuman potential and a lot of creativity and discipline can unlock the secrets of gravity.”
“Yeah,” David says. “OK. But I don’t have any metahuman potential at all.”
“I…” David falters, then frowns. “Well, I mean—”
“Yes, you don’t have metahuman intellect,” Robert says. “Instead, you absorbed the memories of a madman who, I assume, was a very powerful… evil wizard.” It takes a little effort for him to get the last two words out. “You don’t need the metahuman gift. You have already assimilated the information—or are in the process of doing so. All you need is the creativity and discipline—and, in this case, courage—to make connections no one has thought to make. When you can do that, I don’t think you’ll be limited to conjuring spheres of darkness.”
David stares at his hands, not saying anything.
Robert gets to his feet, grabs his cane and his laptop, and heads for the exit. “Artemis told me how you freed him from the… magic tattoos this Artigenian had placed on him. How while you were in your dream form, you essentially invented a spell from scratch. Basing it on project requirements was very clever.”
The portal door opens with a hiss, and Robert half-turns, looking at David over his shoulder. “One other thing. I’d go with ‘Doctor Enigma.’ If you don’t, ‘Doctor Weird’ will probably stick.”
He steps into the hall. The portal door closes, and David sits alone again: alone with his thoughts, and the thoughts of the madman screaming in his mind.