Why do people dream of having super powers?
Noel had been training to run the London Marathon that year.
Every Sunday, he caught the train to Lewes and jogged most of the way back to Eastbourne, along the South Downs Way. Today had been going really well. He'd got into a good rhythm early on, and hadn't got caught behind any large groups of people on pavement sections.
He reached his home, a converted flat in a grey terrace on a nondescript road. Rushing through the door and straight to the kitchenette, he poured himself a glass of water and downed it desperately. Yeah, he was absolutely going to be able to run the marathon this year. He might be divorced and losing his hair, but he could manage this one thing.
One of the best things about training was how well he slept after a session. He used to toss and turn in bed all night, then wake up early feeling exhausted. Now he could go to bed and be out like a lamp. And the dreams! It almost felt as if he'd learned to fly as well over the last year. Early on he'd dreamt merely fleetingly of soaring along past traffic, but he'd improved: last week he'd been darting along the Thames, looping around the Shard and then diving back down through Tower Bridge before landing atop the Tower of London.
He could barely wait for bedtime tonight.
Leon checked in early to work. Megan was there; she always seemed to be there.
"Eight o'clock on Monday morning? You're either getting paid too much or too little."
"You're one to talk," he flashed her a smile, walking past her desk to the coffee machine at the back of the staff room, grimacing. As if Megan would ever reciprocate his crush, even if she wasn't gay. He was shockingly out of shape. Too much flying instead of walking.
His boss got up, grabbing her own mug from her desk, and tossed the cold liquid from it into the sink. "This one got cold. And I need another one anyway."
"Tell me about it," Leon sighed. Coffee percolated gradually into his cup. "D'you ever get those dreams where you're just constantly running? I feel exhausted after them."
Megan considered it. "I'm usually hunting in mine," she said after a moment. "My dream self has a propensity for skinning and cooking rodents on a campfire. I bet a psych would have a field day on me."
Leon took his mug, now filled to the brim, and sipped on the mediocre brew. Almost anywhere did better coffee than this, but at least it was strong.
"I doubt that any—" he started to say, but was interrupted by the office alarm. "Goddammit, already?"
He rushed over to his computer terminal, and muted the unpleasant noise. Details of the 999 call, this time from the fire department, flashed up on his screen. "Yup, this one's for me."
"Need my help?"
"No, the building's already on fire quite enough. Sharon's on holiday this week, isn't she?"
Megan was scanning her own screen now, displaying a copy of Leon's. "Yup. You'll have to manage without her."
"Right." Leon walked to the window, and hit the button to open it. In the time it took to slide open, he'd stripped down to his figure-hugging council uniform, then jumped out the window, soaring into the sky. It was still dark out; Leon wished his office had been issued with the new thermal-lined outfits by now.
As he looped back around, he noticed the strip lighting illuminating the sign on the front of the building had broken: the "Services" of "Camden Council - Superhero Services Dept." was flickering. He sighed. They'd only just got around to fixing "Dept." last week. So much for getting a new super suit any time soon.
Work was dull as always, but Noel could usually handle it. Today, however, he had just been getting progressively more worn out as the morning went on. He'd yawn, Lea on the desk next to him would yawn back, setting him off again... it was a horrific loop.
He watched the time on his desk clock tick over to 12:00.
"Right," he stood up and announced to nobody in particular, "I'm going home for lunch and a nap." His walk to work was only ten minutes; he could grab a sandwich on the way back, nap for half an hour, then walk back in.
Lea gave him a thumbs up, and he left promptly.
Leon's day had finally come to a close. The fire had burned more ferociously than expected; Leon had needed to summon help from Barnet and Brent councils too, and even then he was going to be filing a lot of overtime. He crashed into bed immediately after getting home at about ten in the evening, and fell into a deep sleep.
Some time later, his dreams began. This wasn't like his normal dreams of running through the hills or having lunch with dream friends; instead, he was alone in a black borderless void.
Then he realised: he was aware that he was dreaming. Was this a lucid dream? He'd never had one before. He raised up his arm and looked at it. Arm hair. Hand. Fingers. Well, he could move at will. Could he control anything else?
He decided to will a door into existence, to take himself somewhere more interesting. A sturdy wooden door appeared a few metres away, mounted inside a thick frame, and he drifted over to it. He reached for the brass doorknob, but just before he grasped it, it turned and the door swung open away from him.
Through the doorway stepped... well, himself.
The other man looked as startled as he did. They peered, mouths agape, at each other. Same face, same short-cut black hair, skin the same shade of brown. The other Leon was in better shape than Leon himself. And, unlike Leon, he was standing on some invisible ground rather than floating.
"You're the runner!" Leon blurted out in sudden realisation.
"You're the one who's been flying!" the other man said, almost simultaneously.
Both men started chuckling nervously. "Well, I'm Leon," said Leon, feeling somewhat foolish.
"Oh! I'm Noel," said the other self. "Well, that makes things easier."
"Am I dreaming you?"
"I don't think so. This is my dream, but then I suppose you think it's yours."
"How come this hasn't happened before?" Leon asked.
"I don't know," Noel replied, scratching his stubble thoughtfully. "Though... I don't usually nap at lunch."
"Oh? It's lunchtime there?" Leon asked. "Weird. It's the night here. Look." He willed a clock into existence, somehow knowing that it would be accurate for him. "Twenty-five past one in the morning."
Noel did similar. "We're twelve hours out of sync. Twenty-five past one in the... shit! I need to get back to work; I must have forgotten to set an alarm before—"
Noel turned blurry to Leon's eyes, and, vapour-like, drifted quickly back through the doorway. As he faded into the darkness, the door slammed shut and also disappeared.
Leon stirred in his bed.
Did that actually happen? He'd have to try to get back in contact with... what did he say his name was?
Puzzled, he fell back to sleep.
It was several seconds before the disorientation of being yanked out of a deep sleep wore off. Megan fumbled for her work tablet on the bedside table and blinked a few times to focus on the screen before muting the alarm. She only usually got these emergency alerts when nobody on the night shift was around to take the call.
However, the message on the screen wasn't a night shift problem. It was a Breach Alert.
She turned on her bedside lamp and sat up in bed, immediately fully awake. These weren't supposed to happen any more. The Agency had been all but shut down, leaving her and other agents "deactivated" in their cover jobs. It must have been someone she knew for the alert to come to her.
Ah no. Megan liked Leon. He always had a smile for everyone in the morning. It didn't seem fair to eliminate him. Everyone dreamt of their across-the-rift selves from time to time; it was only the unlucky ones that actually met their Other.
Maybe they could just go talk to him, explain that continued meetings would open up the breach in space-time further. The prospect of the end of all reality ought to be a good enough deterrent.
She sighed. This was why she'd had her own schism link reconfigured to leech from someone way back in human prehistory rather than her direct counterpart in the Other. Though her counterpart would also be activated. She'd have to talk to her, she supposed. Perhaps Carla could be persuaded to drop the case, or even induct the Leon pair into the Agency stub.
Yeah, right. Carla would have to be in a reasonable mood for that to happen.
Megan hauled herself out of bed to go and brush her teeth. Better to get up now; it would make it easier to drift off during Carla's nighttime later that morning.
Carla looked up at her computer monitor, which had started bleeping a familiar rhythm. She checked nobody else at Camden Security Services' offices was looking over her shoulder, and pulled up the message.
Breach Alert: Noel Anderson.
She scanned the personal details of the man. Eastbourne? Why the hell was she getting alerts for Eastbourne? It was miles away, a good couple of hours by train. Ah, he'd moved there from Camden a year or so ago. That probably shouldn't have happened; it probably hadn't on the other side of the breach. What a fucker.
Well, she'd have to get on with it anyway, except... she and her girlfriend had cinema tickets tonight. She'd never get back in time if she left now. And she really couldn't afford to stand Eva up again this week. Okay, then, first thing tomorrow. Carla pulled up the Agency's site and booked herself a train down to the south coast for the next morning.
Megan strapped herself into the rift chair, trying not to let it remind her of her last visit to the dentist, or to think too much about how expensive some of the components in it were. "Rare" didn't start to cut it. There was a reason they didn't just give one of these to everyone at risk to sleep in. Still, it was necessary to hold back the breach in order to have cross-rift discussions with her counterpart.
She ticked off the configuration checklist, too sleepy to trust herself to remember all the stages without prompting. She'd killed some time in the rest of the night playing online games and re-bleaching her hair. At eight she'd called in sick to work, then caught the tube into central London.
The Agency had kept skeleton operations running in their tunnels beneath the Thames. She'd only had to show her ID to one security guard on the way in at Embankment tube station. Now she just wanted to sleep, which was good, because the Agency never had figured out how to trigger REM sleep during anaesthetic.
She flicked the red-bordered switch on the right armrest, and closed her eyes.
Good. She'd timed it well; Carla was also asleep. A moment of disorientation in the blackness, then she summoned a portal and stepped through.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," her counterpart, Carla, cried out furiously. "This is a simple job. There'll be barely any waves to clear up afterwards. I knew I should have just gone down yesterday evening."
"Good to see you again too, Carla," Megan said, deadpan.
"What do you want?" It was strange looking at oneself angry, and even stranger seeing oneself not mirrored. Carla's hair parting was on the wrong side, and remained its natural dark brown. Megan tried not to think about how, for just a few changes in her life, she could have ended up as this thoroughly dislikeable person.
"We need to talk about the targets."
"Christ. Is he a woman on your side? You fancy her or something?"
"What? No. He's just a decent guy. I'd figured—"
"No more inductions. The Agency is closed, for God's sake."
That hint of exasperation, coupled with religious swearing. That was something Megan did recognise in herself. She bet Carla had just split up with her partner. Probably with a colossal argument. She took a slow breath in, and tried to sooth the situation.
"I'm sorry about your girlfriend."
"Jesus. Miss Fucking Intuition here. The fuck you're sorry. You and me haven't even talked since Eva and I got together. And we shouldn't even be talking now; I don't care how fabulous your version of this guy is. We broke up after a stupid damn argument last night and right now the best thing I can think of doing is nuking someone hard enough to close a breach twice over."
Megan sighed. "Then I really am sorry." In the rift chair, her left thumb twitched, pressing the button she'd rigged up for this situation. As she'd hoped, a second portal opened up silently behind Carla, its purple edges shimmering in the darkness.
Megan leapt at Carla and planted her right foot directly into Carla's stomach. Carla gasped, winded, and doubled over. Megan grabbed her counterpart's shoulders and pushed, hard. Carla stumbled back, and disappeared into the portal with a cry of anger.
A moment or two later, the prehistoric woman Megan shared her schism link with ambled through the portal, looking around curiously, confused. Unlike Carla, this woman shared very few features with Megan. She'd merely been a compatible consciousness at the time Megan had reconfigured her link.
She said something in a language Megan didn't speak, but recognised from her dreams.
"Sorry, my lovely friend. I'll get you sent somewhere off-grid you'll like. There's still rainforest left on Earth, just about. I couldn't think of any other way to stop Carla from killing someone."
The prehistoric woman turned ethereal, and drifted out of the dreamscape to take control of Carla's body. Before the portal closed, Megan summoned the doctored message logs and sent them back along with the other woman; ghostly fibres travelling back to the real world.
Carla would be fine in human prehistory, anyway. They were both survival-trained. She could go shout at some Neanderthals, perhaps.
Now one final thing before she could wake up. Re-seal the breach between Leon and his counterpart. It wouldn't be a "permanent solution" like Carla wanted, and she'd get a bollocking from her superiors for doing this, but it should hold fast for the duration of Leon's lifetime.
She summoned Leon's breach into her field of view, and went about suturing it closed.
Noel gasped over the finishing line, and grabbed a water bottle from the cheering organisers. He looked at his watch. Five hours eighteen... well, he'd made it, even if that was nowhere close to the time he'd been hoping for.
The last few weeks of training had just gone so badly. He'd even considered giving up a couple of times. Lost his mojo, his colleagues had said. Maybe. But for some reason, he associated it with something else.
He hadn't dreamed of flying again since that hallucination of meeting himself.