Chapter 1 - Intro

Jungle was the word for what it looked like.

Although perhaps by close approximation, the word 'jumble' would do in a pinch.

A dense mass of leaves; exotic flowering plants; and strange, twisted vines. The air had this heaviness to it, it was full of moisture and static with insect activity. Quagmire hit you the second you entered the forest – literally hit you, if you weren't careful, which we never were. Every misstep came with the possibility of tripping over some impossibly complex root system; every turn a new opportunity for some giant flapping leaf to come at you, full force.

It was exciting, but it was also terrifying.

You might ask why it was so daunting. You might think that it sounds like some kind of utopia; a fantasy land cooked up in a moment of escapism from the dull ennui of adult life.

Well, not quite.

Imagine this: you're a thirteen-year-old kid who grew up in varying degrees of Philadelphia suburbia. Some not-so-distant future where the soil is tarmac, the trees are lamp posts. Grey blocks are so familiar as to become creature comforts. Similar looking houses dotted around sleepy neighborhoods calm you. The closest thing you've seen to real nature is the artificial green a few blocks down from the high street, where you'd sit and waste every summer making daisy chains and talking about inconsequential things.

You know that they've done studies on those tribes that live totally away from what we know as civilisation? Well, turns out that humans aren't actually naturally inclined to process geometric shapes in the way we do. Think about it, if you've lived your whole life and never seen a straight edge – well, of course you aren't going to realise that it's a straight edge. The way we process geometry now, that's something humans picked up from staring at square things all day.

Ever wondered if it works the opposite way?

If everything you see is all square – square screens, square buildings, square furniture - well, then getting a glimpse at the sheer variance of truly untouched natural biomes would probably make your head explode. It's… a working theory, anyway.

Now imagine being plucked from your meagre urban existence and airdropped into the Amazon rainforest. No adults, no rules, no supplies, no tarmac - and certainly no squares. And we weren't even plucked - all we did was fall asleep in our world, and wake up in another.

When you put yourself in that position, you start to understand how alien it really was.

I'm getting off topic.

"How many cups is that, now?" I heard the question coming from the doorframe, but I don't tear my eyes from my screen for long enough to find out who's asking it. I only have two roommates, so that narrows the odds quite substantially.

"Four," I answered. It's a lie. I've actually had two, but if it's Nadine asking then I'd rather get my lecture sooner rather than later.

"Hm," came the reply, after which I could faintly hear a set of tiny footsteps.

It must have been Clem, then. Clem was the sort of person who communicated mostly in 'hm's' and padded gently around the apartment with no shoes on.

The less favourable alternative was Nadine. She was the kind of person who wore fluffy pink slippers but somehow made them sound like steel-toed-boots on top of our decrepit wooden floors. She's also partial to telling me that I am drinking too much caffeine, or wearing too much black, or not flossing properly, or any other inordinate amounts of bullshit that doesn't affect my life one iota.

My mother always told me to keep two friends. One that was sensible, and one that was fun. Apparently, I really took that to heart when choosing who to live with in my fifth year of college.

Which is surprising in itself, when you consider the amount of things my mother told me which I still ignore to this day. Namely, that studying a master's in botany at university would be a total waste of time and money. To which I argue, ad nauseum, that even NASA need botanists. There are whole teams of scientists up there, trying to figure out how to grow plants in regolith, or survive in extreme conditions.

Astronautical botanists.

Botanists in space.

And of course, she never failed to remind me that I get travel sick from being in the backseat of a car for one hour, so space seemed like a pipe dream.

I just like plants, I told her. Well, it's the honest truth. I do like plants. Plants don't give you shit about not flossing, or about studying a useless degree. They don't cheat on you, or betray you, or hurt your feelings. They don't eat the last slice of cake in the fridge. They don't nag you about your ever-increasing caffeine consumption.

And they make so much sense. It's an easy formula, give or take some complications. When exposed to the proper conditions, a seed sprouts roots and begins to germinate. If one or more of these conditions is not met, the plant doesn't grow. Simple.

They're easy to read, too. If they're yellow, they need magnesium. If they're etoliating, they need sunlight. If they're dry and crispy… well, you get the idea. I'm like Dr. Diagnosis with my friend's houseplants. Bring any plant to me and within two weeks I'll have fixed it. Or at least concluded that euthanasia would be the best course of action.

At the moment, I'm writing up my methodology for a study on the potential medicinal qualities of several species of aroids, which are herbaceous and terrestrial jungle plants.

More specifically, I'm trying to understand the best way to extract and isolate glycosidase inhibitor a-homonojimycin from various species of aglaonema treubii, which is otherwise known as a Chinese evergreen…

I know, I know. This is boring, and you're bored.

Look, everyone thinks their PhD is super interesting, and everyone is wrong. Accepting this fact… it's a part of growing up.

But here's the really crazy part. The first time I ever saw this plant, the first time I ever saw an aroid – it was that first time. In the other place. When I was thirteen, in those lush acres and acres of jungle woodland, that was when I first laid eyes on the Chinese evergreen. At least, I think it was. I'm about 90% sure. It sure looked the same, but I wasn't a botanist at thirteen. I remember how jarringly beautiful it was, with its painted, patterned leaves. Existing in a tangled rosette, that explosion of green and paler green out of hideous brown roots. I was fascinated.

Screw being an astronaut. Screw medicinal science, and screw plants being easier than humans.

The other place made a botanist of me.

"Are you still working? You know it's…" Nadine squinted at her watch. "Ten past nine, right?"

I glance up from my stack of papers to look at her. "Uh… yeah. I'm finishing up now, don't worry."

"Well, don't overwork yourself. I'm serious! You'll end up burning yourself out, and then end up in the hospital or something." She paused. "And then I'll have to deal with it."

I just snorted and carried on. It wasn't anyone's job to worry about me, except me. "How's your report going?" I asked her, hardly bothering to send a passing glance her way.

I know her well enough to know that she shrugged. "Fine, I guess," she hummed, tapping on the edge of her coffee cup. "It'll probably scrape me a B+, but that's fine."

"What's your average?"

"I'm not sure, probably a B," she admitted, raising her cup to her lips and taking a loud slurp. "As long as I graduate, I don't care. I just want to get out of here."

I laughed. "Don't do a PhD, if that's how you feel."

"You don't have to tell me twice!" she raised her eyebrows, padding over to behind my laptop and narrowing her eyes at my screen. "What's that?" she asked, pointing at a random graph.

"Just a reference showing antimalarial properties of glucodisase inhibitors," I responded quickly. I don't know why I bothered, in retrospect, because it only made her screw her face up in confusion. I sighed and leaned back in my chair, pointing at the screen with the tip of my biro. "See this axis?" I asked.

"Nope, nope. Don't explain. I don't care," she shrugged, backing away. "Forget I asked."

"But it's-"

"No, Lucy, my brain is too full of… renaissance history to understand what you're saying to me right now," she shook her head. "Whatever it is, I'm sure it's fascinating."

"Botany always is!" I protested half-joking, but she's already on her way out of the room. "Goodnight," I called after her, hearing her heavy, plonking footsteps down the wooden hallway.

"Go to bed!" she calls back, lovingly. I assume.

I don't dream.

I used to dream, obviously. I used to have all sorts of crazy vivid dreams; even before I discovered the other place.

The funny thing about dreaming is that it has this power to evoke such strong emotions in me. Sometimes even the strangest dreams can leave me tearful, or overjoyed, or confused, or jealous… you get the idea.

Most of the time, the emotions don't even come from the events of the dream itself. Of course, it feels like they do, at the time. And then you wake up, and you wonder why that dream you had about having a fish head upset you so much – or why that dream about leading a colony of cats had left you so happy and wanting more.

Now, I have a theory about this, and it basically boils down to this: dreaming isn't real, at least not in the way that we perceive it to be. Dreaming, at least according to my theory, is our brain's way of sorting and organising information and thoughts into memories. While we sleep, our brains are still active and firing neurons all about the place – but consciousness forces us to somehow perceive these random neuron fires as actual thoughts. This is why dreams rarely make any sense – it's because they're just our brains trying to make sense of stuff that doesn't actually make sense.

Yeah, yeah. It's hokey, I know. Sue me! I'm a botanist, not a neurologist.

Sometimes I wonder the same thing about the other place, too. Did it really happen? Or was all of it just a bunch of neuron misfires that I'm mistaking for memories?

And are the two mutually exclusive?

I'm getting ahead of myself, now. Sometimes my brain likes to play tricks on me, run away with a thought until I'm forced to chase it back onto a straightforward path. I mean, of course the other place was real.

You wanna know how I know for sure?

Third party perspective.

If it had been just me there, in that thick jungle, I'd have dismissed the whole thing as a lucid dream years ago.

But the chances that all five of us – Me, Jacobi, Wex, Greg and Lola – had all had the same crazy fever dream at once, and all including one another?

No dice.

While it's true that it's technically possible for all five of them, and our entire lives up to that point to have been some sort of figment of my imagination – I refuse to entertain that version of events. It's been done before, and besides… if there was no way of knowing either way, what was the point discussing it?

So yeah, I had dreams before the other place. Vivid, internal, intense dreams, the kind of thing that can shake you to your very core or even occasionally alter your entire perspective on a whole person, or a whole event.

Now I don't dream at all. The long night seems to pass in a flash. In fact, my body hardly even registers being asleep before I'm suddenly awake again, and the clock has fast-forwarded seven hours. It's like a video game. It's repetitive.

After ten years, I'm more than used to it. I don't miss dreaming any more – in fact, I rarely ever even think about it, save for right now.

But not a day goes by that the other place doesn't cross my mind.

So where are the others, now?

Good question.

Well, I knew where Greg was, for a start. He was working at a law firm, last I heard. New York. All very fancy-pants. Greg always was the smartest of all of us – the most practical. Where I stupidly decided to use my smarts to study plant-ology, Greg was busy getting himself a useful, vocational degree that would snag him a bright and successful future.

I know, unfair, right?

Law suited him. Cold, calculating, ruthless at times… Greg was made for that stuff. Even when we were just stupid thirteen-year-olds, the kid had something in him. A sharp edge. Something about him never sat entirely right with me, even back then.

That said, I couldn't think of anyone better to defend me in court. If it ever came to that.

Then there was Jacobi.

Jacobi… well, Jacobi was just that. He was… himself.

He rolled with the punches. He took whatever crap life flung at him, and back then, life used to fling some crap his way. Orphaned at nine, gone from home to home and school to school. It had been pure chance that he'd been taken in by a distant relative and sent to the same middle school as me.

Jacobi didn't do anything for too long. He didn't like to stagnate.

Apparently, that included friends, too, because I hadn't heard from him in years. Social media wasn't really his kind of thing – which made him almost impossible to keep in touch with, in the digital age. It was lucky that upgrading his phone number wasn't really his thing, either, or else I wouldn't even have that.

In truth, who knew where that guy was, or what he was doing right now? I certainly didn't.

Besides, I don't want to think about Jacobi right now.

Who else…

Ah yes, Lola.

Of course, Lola. Wild, uninhibited, free. Those were three very apt words to describe Lola.

Unkempt, histrionic, flighty. Those were three more.

The last time I heard from Lola, she was travelling round South America, and distributing a smattering of very flattering photographs of herself looking very brown. I scoured them all, trying to figure out if Jacobi was with her, or if they still kept in contact. To my disappointment, there had been no trace of him anywhere.

I remember never being quite sure if even liked Lola or not, despite her being one of my closest friends. She certainly never liked me. I was always too cautious; too timid. I was too myself to ever really fit into her way of life.

Jacobi took a shine to her, that's how come she even ended up in our little group. I remember being green-eyed when she first started hanging out with us at recess and on weekends – Jacobi and Lola seemed to have this strange connection that none of the rest of us understood. Perhaps it was something that came from the fact that they'd both had tragic upbringings, or perhaps it was something else.

Either way, she had a quality that Jacobi always wanted me to have, but I never quite did. Something about her was so natural. So easy; like everywhere she went, she was immediately part of the picture. She was never out-of-place, that was her best quality.

Lola was fun, though, lots of it. She'd dream up these crazy scenarios for you all to follow, weaving together these insane patchwork snippets that she'd claim to have experienced. And then just when she had you; just when you started to believe that maybe it was all true, she'd top it with something too crazy to believe; or she'd admit it was all a lie. By the end, you couldn't believe anything that came out her mouth, but we still enjoyed the stories for what they were. Just stories.

You see, Lola may have had something that I did - but at least I was tethered by one foot in reality.

And of course, Wex. Sam 'don't call me Wex' Wexler.

Wex was pretty much only included in our group because he was a cousin of Greg's, otherwise we'd have never spoken to him. I know, I know. Kids are harsh. If I could go back and change it, I would.

From what I can tell, Wex is working in Boulder – only a few cities over from me. Something to do with data management, or that's what Greg told me. I should probably care more, but I don't. Wex was one of those people who had just flown under the radar at high school – he never really spoke to anybody except the four of us, never tried to bring anything new to the group. He was the other guy. Greg's weird, socially awkward cousin.

And that was us. That was the five of us. To my knowledge, we were the five only people in the world who ever saw the other place.

From day one, we were bound by that exclusive ability, that knowledge. It was something taboo - a secret that only four other people in the whole world shared. Other people at school probably thought we were strange, only ever hanging out with the same four people. We didn't care. To us, it was everything.

Who needed other friends when you could escape to another world in your sleep?