Saturday, November 05, 2005

Fifth Day

In which we meet Julian P. Oddbury. I was hoping to charge well ahead on word count today, but I've been tired and getting slightly sick, which slows things down. I did manage to keep up, though, and do a little extra. Hopefully I'll be able to write more tomorrow, and get a nice buffer for week nights when I might not be able to write as much.

Chapter 6

Jaden slept self-consciously that night, if such a thing is possible. He kept waking up at varying intervals, as though subconsciously trying to avoid having any dreams that might get broadcast around from mysterious equipment to random computers. For the most part it worked, aside from one incident around four in the morning. He found himself standing in front of the dark mansion again, this time without it reverting to an abandoned construction site. From outside the cast iron fence, he watched the pool of black water. Dark, slippery things would occasionally break the surface, then vanish again. Then the door of the mansion opened, spilling greenish yellow light out into the night. A tall figure stood there, a cape swirling around it in a dramatic wind that Jaden couldn't feel, its face invisible in the backlighting. It reached out its hand, and Jaden felt the pain shoot through his right arm and hand, as before. It was enough to wake him up.

At long last his alarm clock went off, leaving him mostly unrested, but at least free of dreams. Though when he noticed the book where he had left it on his dresser he did a quick reality test by reading the title, just to make sure. Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, by Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D. Twice in a row. Good.

On his way out the door to go to work, Jaden realized that he hadn't checked his mail since before the accident, so he made a stop by the bank of mail boxes by the apartment manager's office. Reading along the list of names on the boxes, he recognized many, with a guilty shiver, from the dreams he had watched the night before. He found his own box and opened it, pulling out a small stack of mail containing a couple bills, a catalog he had never subscribed to, and a get well card from his sister back East.

On top of the mail, there was a business card. It wasn't clear how it had gotten there, since it wasn't stamped mail, and the mail boxes were all kept locked. Jaden picked it up and read:

Prof. Julian P. Oddbury, Esq.
Socio-Hallucinological Researcher
and Retired Oneironaut.

Jaden recognized the name instantly, but what on earth was an oneironaut? The rest of it just sounded like someone trying to put his experimental LSD days from college on a resume. The address given on the card indicated his own apartment complex, unit #113. Jaden scanned the mailboxes, but couldn't find "Julian P. Oddbury" listed anywhere. The number 113 itself didn't even seem to exist, with that name or any other. He scrutinized the card again, wedging the rest of his mail under his arm so he could hold it in his left hand, but there were no more clues.

"Excuse me?" a voice behind him said. Jaden turned around to see a small, round, middle-aged woman holding a mail box key.

"I just need to get in there to number 120," she said apologetically, "just behind you…"

"Oh, yes. Of course. Sorry." Jaden stepped aside, tucking the business card away in his pocket. He needed to be getting on to work anyway. He put the bills and the get well card in his bag, threw the catalog in a nearby trash can, and headed out.

Work was fairly uneventful, though working one handed was getting old really fast, for all that he was starting to get a bit better at it. He left again for home in the evening as soon as he could legitimately get away. It was still light out, and the house at 250 Richards looked as boring and unfinished as it had that morning. He tried squinting at it from a few different distances, but it remained determinedly mundane, so after a few minutes he gave it up. Perhaps it would be better to come back at night. He reminded himself, though, that it wasn't necessarily a good idea to assume it could all be taken seriously. He could still be crazy.

At home, Jaden heated himself up a can of chicken corn chowder and pulled the business card out of his pocket. It was nicely embossed, and the letters had an ephemeral quality to them, as though they had only appeared the instant you looked at the card, and could vanish again at any moment. They said the same thing each time, though, so Jaden knew he wasn't dreaming, but didn't learn anything more about Mr. Oddbury.

Jaden put his spoon down and picked up there card from where he had been staring at it on the kitchen table. He rubbed his thumb over the embossed letters and idly flipped it over. Were those faint markings on the back, or just some dust? He ran a finger over it again, and rather than being brushed away, the markings grew darker. He rubbed more vigorously and a message faded into legibility, handwritten in a old-fashioned looking style.

Meet me, #113, 7:30p.
Three turns CCW on the O.

Curiouser and curiouser. The words started to fade away again, so Jaden gave them another quick rub to make sure he had read them right. A glance at the clock showed that it was a quarter after seven already. He bolted the rest of his soup and went to put on his shoes. There still remained the problem of apartment #113's existence, but Jaden was positive that it could only be the apartment with the mysterious balcony across from his window. He had no idea what to expect, so he just took the card and went.

He got to the hallway on the second floor of the building opposite his, and yes, this seemed to be the right place. He passed door #116, then 115, 114… and then that was the end of the row. Just a janitor's closet next to the stairs. Another wing angled off from there, and Jaden poked his head down that way. 112 was the first apartment there. He knew that ground level apartments had sub-100 numbers, so no use checking there. He went back to the stairs and the janitor's closet.

Whereas apartment doors had their numbers in metal letters on them, the closet simply said "Janitor al" (the "i" had fallen off). But looking closer, Jaden could see a faint outline on the wood behind the letters. A slight discoloration marked the place where the wood had for years been covered by the numbers 1, 1 and 3. This was it. Jaden checked his watch, it was 7:29.

He knocked at the door and waited. No response. What else was it the card had said? "Three turns CCW on the O." Feeling a little silly, Jaden reached out to touch the "o" in "Janitorial." It was loose, but in an odd way. It didn't seem to be nailed in at the top like the other letters, but could rotate around in its circle. He twisted it slowly three times around, counter clockwise.

The door and the adjacent section of wall shimmered, like a reflection on a rippled pond. It was replaced by smooth, gleaming metal door. A panel in the ceiling of the hallway slid open, and a small, spider-like robot descended on a wire, trained a miniature video camera eye on Jaden, then shot back up again. A second panel, this one to the right of the door, lit up with the glowing outline of a hand print. It flashed at him impatiently.

Jaden stepped hesitantly up to it. It was a security mechanism, apparently, that wanted to scan his hand. The outline required a right hand, so he had to hoist it up there like a dead weight, then use his left hand to arrange the fingers and thumb within the outline. Once he had done so, the screen beneath his palm flashed violet, then green, and a row of lights on the opposite side of the door flickered in a complicated pattern.

Then a crack appeared in the center of the door. A web of hairline cracks, in fact, all spreading outward from the center, like a spider's web. They reached the edges of the door, and just when it seemed that everything would have to collapse under the fractures, the door twisted slightly to the left, nipped behind Reality's back, and vanished.

A tall, thin man stood there, his long hair and beard both stark white. He had an old, worn suit that he seemed to not so much wear as be a part of. His eyes had a sharp sparkle, and he beamed when he saw Jaden.

"Ah, excellent! Knew you'd make it, of course. Bright lad. Come on in, come on in! Don't want to hang about in doorways. It'll look suspicious."

He ushered Jaden in as he stuck his head out to peer cautiously up and down the hall. Apparently satisfied, he pulled his head back in and the door rematerialized out of thin air. Jaden was a bit too surprised and overwhelmed by everything to come up with anything terribly intelligent to say.

"You're, um… Professor Oddbury… I assume?"

"Yes, yes. I'm afraid Her Majesty the Queen had other engagements tonight, so you're stuck with me." He busied himself poking at an array of buttons, dials and blinking lights next to the door.

"Um… what? The queen?"

"Never mind! Wasn't funny! Hold on a tick while I get the security back up properly. I had to loosen things a bit to get you in. It's not ordinarily that easy. There."

He pushed a final button and looked at a small video screen. It showed the door as it appeared from the hallway, now an ordinary janitor's closet once again.

"How did you… do that? With the janitor closet, I mean?" Jaden asked. It seemed as good a question to start with as any of the myriad others banging around inside his head.

"Cloaking mechanisms, m'boy! Invest in them now – they'll be all the rage in a few years, mark my words. Deuced useful things. Come along now."

He swept them out of the entryway and into a room which Jaden was sure must have been several times the size of the janitorial closet they were supposedly inside. It larger than Jaden's living room, and there seemed to be doors leading off to additional rooms as well. Bookcases lined two of the walls, though the density of books and papers did not seem particularly higher there than on the floor or the other furniture. Another wall and a half were lined with tabled and shelves of strange equipment, some wired up and running, with flashing lights or small beeps, some in various stages of assembly or repair. The opposite wall also contained a sliding glass door, leading out to a balcony. Jaden could see his own window through it, looking across the courtyard. They picked their way through papers and file cabinets and unidentifiable objects to two battered armchairs in the middle of the room. Prof. Oddbury pushed some books off of them and waved Jaden into one, taking the other for himself.

"Now," he said, "I expect you probably have a few questions."