Blaring sound cut through the threshold. It ripped open the insulating wall between consciousness and the security of sleep. Morning. The time for waking and working had arrived, as punctual as it was oppressive. The dreamer was torn from the womb and reborn into the cold, demanding world of schedule, appointment, and expectation.
Alex Osterman hated going to his job. He hated riding the metro, he hated when he had to take a cab, or, even worse, trudge through the morass of early morning foot traffic to get there. His job was no better than the journey there. It was monotonous. The entire building must have been dedicated towards creating one contradictory memo after the other to pass down the line of brain-numbed employees. There were so many redundancies that it was only by the marvel of modern capitalism that the company even existed. All it seemed to do was reorganize its own paper refuse. Alex hated it. Already this week he had received thirteen different iterations of the same notice from his supervisor
with a follow-up note dictating he forward the notice to his own direct subordinate and so on.
Today was no different. They were never different.
Well, maybe today was the same, but with a dash more misery than usual. Alex overslept, as he was wont to do. Why hurry to something you hate? He missed his metro circuit because he overslept. He then couldn’t get a cab as there was a traffic jam outside the metro that he couldn’t take because he had overslept and missed his circuit. With shoulders slumped in resignation, Alex began the twenty minute walk through the noisy, crowded downtown. At least he would be late to work.
The office wasn’t a sanctuary from the trials of the morning commute. Rather, it was another stinky layer further down the onion of life, riper than the one before. Danté hadn’t mentioned boredom as a sphere of Hell, but Alex thought he really should have. He tried to pass his time in his office layer of stinky, onion-Hell by day dreaming. Unfortunately for Alex, staplers and stacks of notarized spreadsheets make for poor inspiration. Beyond his little cubicle was a sea of fellow uninspired drones who were somehow content to reading the same memo thirteen times a week. Alex probably hated them more than his walk to work. It was close, that’s for sure. He was certain that they were some sub-race of humanity, grey and mottled, that fed off others’ free-will to sustain themselves and their repetitive memos. He was certain that this is why he had been hired, to be the victim of their parasitism. There’s no other explanation as to why he could only imagine spreadsheets while at work.
Mind you, the office really wasn’t that terrible of a place. Alex had been working at Champion Mutual for almost seven years now. The most taxing action of his day was to raise a rubber stamp and deny someone’s insurance claim. Thump. All in red. ‘DENIED.’ He had full corporate dental and health insurance, he only worked from nine to five with weekends off, and, unlike most places in America, had three weeks paid vacation a year. Thump. It was just so damn boring. Thump.
What Alex’s mind craved was adventure. His body certainly didn’t. He was stricken by poor bowl control (or so he thought), hemorrhoids (again, hypochondria), and he couldn’t recall the last time he had actually broken a sweat. If he tried anything daring he had no doubt that it would end with him lying on the floor in a pile of his own filth, cramping up terribly. Instead, he settled for imagining the greater life that he knew his job was cheating him of when not occupied by spreadsheets or the thump of his rubber stamp. This wanderlust had nothing to do with the 21 weeks of paid vacation he had on stand-by.
Late yet again. One would almost think he was doing it on purpose. Alex had to slink into his cubicle like a dog with its tail between its legs. The apathetic eyes of his co-workers bore into him with a paradoxically judgmental viciousness. Unless things were out of the ordinary, nothing registered to them. Too bad for Alex Osterman that he was out of their ordinary. As much as he tried to blend into this gray place he always felt that he couldn’t quite match their shade of indifferent subjugation. In reality, by trying so hard to avoid being noticed he ended up attracting more attention to himself.
“You’re late. This is becoming a habit, Osterman.”
Don. The Supervisor.
He perched on Alex’s cubicle like a vulture at the gallows. He always knew he was going to find some satisfaction by waiting at that spot.
“Yes, sir. I missed the metro and then had to walk. Traffic was jammed as well, so I couldn’t get a cab.”
“This is becoming a habit, Osterman. Didn’t you get the memo, Osterman? We need to all be a team, and a team has to be made of members with productive habits. Showing up late is a counter-productive habit. Work on this habit, Osterman. Or I’ll cut you from the team.”
Don seemed particularly pleased with that last bit. He had obviously been waiting for Alex to show up so just he could try it out. Don was worse than the cruel boy with a Red Rider waiting for birds at the feeder. Like all his lot, the cowardly, predatory type, he instinctively knew how to pick out the weakest link in a chain and exploit it. Don was the malicious imp in charge of his little sphere of Hell and he made a point to remind Alex of that fact.
“Yes sir. It won’t happen again, I promise.” Osterman chewed the inside of his cheek, hoping that Don felt he had made his point.
Alex hated Don more than the morning commute. He hated the way Don over-emphasized ‘productive.‘ It was probably the longest word Don knew.
The day continued along this trend of tediously worse with each progressive second. Stale donuts, no coffee in the machine, out-of-order bathrooms. As tempting as leathery Boston cream donuts are without mouth-scalding coffee to wash them down, Alex knew he couldn’t risk any food until the bathrooms were up and running again. Today was going to be another hungry day until lunch, so long as that fat cow, Suzanna from marketing, didn’t steal his sandwich again. For some unfathomable reason she seemed to think her name was spelled ‘ALEX.’ Come noon, Suzanna had surprisingly not eaten his tuna salad. Don took that honor.
Fortunately, it was Friday. Oh, yes, by the heavenly host, it was Friday! While all the other employees twittered about their weekend plans, Alex counted the passing hours until the best part of his week. His delirium from starvation helped wash time past him. Only one obstacle remained before the freedom of the weekend. He was in the middle of imagining a perfectly bland spreadsheet detailing the additive cost of walrus care with a three-year payment plan when-
“Hey, Alex! Anything exciting this weekend?”
It was Dave. A man who felt it was his duty to be everyone’s friend. Were anyone to be described as embodying Facebook, it was Dave. He remembered every photograph, every quote, and always knew the latest office gossip. Bluntly, he was a busy-body. Though good intentioned, the verbose mass was still another demon in Alex’s Hell. He was broad, balding, and mustached. Alex was sure that Dave grew the mustache in an effort to compensate for his receding hairline. It somehow kept a tight grip on his face even though Dave tugged at it when stressed, which was often. The poor bastard looked under constant internal pressure, as if someone had jammed the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man into a high school wrestling coach’s too-small skin.
“Hi, David. No, I will be staying at home, I think.”
“Alex, call me Dave, we’ve known each other too damn long. C’mon, me and the boys are going to BW3’s after we punch the clock. Come with us!”
Alex shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his imaginary hemorrhoids burning again.
“No, David, I’d rather not.”
Alex turned his chair around and hoped that Dave would just walk away. He never did. This ritual acted itself out every Friday. Alex hated it almost as much as Don. At least it only happened once a week.
“It’s not like you’re doing anything! You need to get out, dude, or you’re going to miss the best years of your life holed up with your cats!” Dave leaned forward and smacked Alex on the back. Osterman thought he was far too old to be saying ‘dude’ seriously. “Live a little!”
“I don’t have any cats.” Alex said the same thing. Every Friday.
“Even better! Grab a brew with us, for once.”
“No, David, I really shouldn’t.” He could have brought a script and simply read from it. By the third ‘no’ Dave usually got the hint and relented. Today, unfortunately, was unusual.
“If you don’t get yourself out there more you’re never gonna get some action. When was the last time you had a good lay?” Dave was now uncomfortably close to Alex’s face. He winked slyly at the last part, as if going to the bars to find a hook-up was some great secret. The smell of sardines was palpable. Alex figured it would take several beers before anyone would go near Dave, let alone sleep with him.
“No, David, I do not drink. It affects my sleep cycle.”
“Fine, suit yourself! More for me, I guess,” Dave tossed back as a he waddled down the cubicle aisle. He really didn’t need more.
At last, the final bell tolled. The journey home was always a blur. Alex never remembered the rush as he sped from the office. He gathered himself into his jacket and was out the door. Free! People were insignificant shapes. Time lost meaning. The trip was more like falling than walking or riding. There was a gravity to his resting place that simply drew him in like a magnet. He could have found his bed from across the globe with pinpoint accuracy. Alex Osterman did not live as other men do.
While his job may seem awful to him, the environment droll and the people grating, Alex really didn’t care all that much. His waking life was hardly a reality. Rather, in a topsy-turvy manner, Alex lived a fulfilling life within himself worlds of imagination while dreaming of a boring little man who thinks about spreadsheets and fears soiling himself. He was Alex without fault and a little more. Stronger, fitter, dressed like a science-fiction Shiva, this avatar bore little resemblance to the runt in the waking world. Alex dreamed himself perfect.
It was difficult for Alex to know which memories were awake or dreams. The dreams were far more vibrant, colorful, and alive than his memories of the world he would leave behind. On the weekends, without work to attend to, Alex would stay in his dream. He fought with blue man-apes on Venus one day, visited the black bones of sand-whales whose skeletons sang their last words as the wind blew through them another. It was his little vacation home inside his mind. So detailed was his imagination that everything was fabricated down to the molecular level. Over the decades he had built wonders that stretched out into the horizons, a world populated by fragments of his own mind. It was a world with a permanence and consequence that rivaled the physical. His creation was certainly more alive than the co-workers of the waking life. It always seemed to grow and change while they grayed and wilted with each passing day.
It was while on a stroll through the surreal outback of hovering quicksilver lakes and cyclopean clock-towers on either Saturday or Sunday (time was a silly thing here), when Alex felt something that was not supposed to be. This place wasn’t the waking world. Things that Alex didn’t know about weren’t here. Yet, there it was. Something he didn’t know about. He could feel a presence, like when motes of dust are disturbed by the wind. Something external was affecting his dream. It was now a matter of following the disturbance to its source.
It was a door. Not an elegant door, like his own. Alex had exquisite taste in architecture. No, this door was hard edges, coarse steel and bands of iron, with a carved, rude-looking troll sitting atop its frame. Two ovalesque arches crossed over each other to form the doorway in a strange, Gothic peak. The portal tugged at his mind, as if there were a hook in his brain. A completely new sensation overtook Osterman. He had to follow this beckoning thread that drew him through this passage.
So, Alex opened the door. He didn’t twist a knob or push or pull. He simply opened it. Surprisingly, the other side was not the desolate outback or a drifting puddle of airborne mercury. Rather, it led into what appeared to be a crayon drawing of a room. Poorly controlled lines and angles from another dimension of non-Euclidean geometry jutted about to construct the furnishings and the walls. The effect was a of seven-year-old child’s attempt at drawing their grandmother’s living room in a nauseous pastel that twisted the edges of sanity.
“Oh, what the Hell.” Alex, for all his adventures in his own dreams, could not really fathom what he saw before him. “What is this, Elmo’s World?” He stepped forward into the pastel room. Where his foot made contact with the ground his own substance appeared to overlay, replacing the spastic material with meticulous, detailed order. Earth tones and a organic matter flowed out from the footprints and the outback followed in his wake. He could feel his world still, connected to it by a psychic umbilicus. A spasming creature (it was apparently a creature, though only eyes and a mouth were identifiable) sat in what appeared to be a rocking chair. It spouted quotes from the Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune between garbled, sing-song gibberish set to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.”
“Is there anyone here?” Alex called, both into the room and to himself.
“What’d you do to my wall!?” A strange caricature of Burt Reynolds in a Superman outfit burst from a stray squiggle and ran to the doorway that had opened. He examined the damage in simultaneous horror and confusion. Clearly, Super-Burt didn’t have many visitors.
“It was like that when I came in.”
“Oh. Then, who let you in?” He hadn’t decided whether to bring his unexpected guest some tea like a good host or show him the door. The door was such a new thing, though, that the Bizarro/Gator-hybrid was still trying to factor it into the equation.
“The door was open.”
“Oh. Wait. What?” Super-Burt started tugging at his mustache in confusion. That’s when Alex recognized him.
“You are David, yes?” Where-ever Alex touched shifted the world, matching the material of Alex’s own dreams. Color and form spread as dye through water in a dark bloom. Blobs of liquid metal began to condense in the air. Alex wandered into the room, tracing his finger along its walls, studying his surroundings like a pacing tiger.
“My friends call me ‘Dave.’”
“You want a beer?” Dave had evidently decided that a beer was more appropriate than tea.
Osterman couldn’t help but smile at this. “You know I don’t drink, ‘Dave.’ It affects my sleep schedule.”
“Alex?” The fear crept into Dave’s tightening voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I found a door. I went through it, and here I am.” Alex was still probing the Dave’s room. He placed his hand on what appeared to be a lamp. It refined in his grasp from a mauve atrocity to a concrete, violet light, a strange juxtaposition of reality within the abstract world. “This is an odd little world you have made for yourself, Dave. Pretty imaginative, if I do say so, I never really pegged you as the artistic type.”
Alex turned around from a particularly intense interpretation of a wall-socket back to Dave, who was occupying himself by running on a green and red treadmill. Hanging in front of the machine was an image of a bank robber gang running in place. They wore the cliché black and white stripes with a domino mask, guns and dollar sign bags in each hand. Alex couldn’t help but chuckle.
“That seems like your stride,” he said aloud.
Dave, suddenly remembering that there was someone else present, hopped off the machine and over to Alex. “Who are you?”
It dawned upon Alex that perhaps Dave was not aware in his dream-state. While most dreamers are not aware of the dreaming around them, Alex was completely lucid, to the degree of forming memory and sequence. Dave, obviously, had the memory of a goldfish here. This realization opened all sorts of possibilities.
“Why, Dave, it’s me, your friend! Did you forget me already?” Alex twisted his face into as genuine a smile as he could. The effect was a disturbing, Oni-mask of fictitious emotion, but Dave apparently didn’t have the sophistication to tell the difference. “I was just about to tell you all about our day at work.”
Alex wrapped his arm over Dave’s shoulder. At his touch, Dave’s substance boiled and reduced. He yelped and twisted in pain beneath the arm.
“Listen, Dave, I’d really like it if you didn’t talk to Alex any more. We are friends, Dave, but, you and Alex, you aren’t friends.” Alex touch continued to cause Dave’s body to react in a caustic manner, while the substance that composed Osterman’s dreaming spread like an infection. “If you keep bothering Alex at work, I’ll have to come back and pay you another visit. I really think you should leave Alex alone, Dave, and take a breath-mint every once in a while. You stink of rotten fish.”
“I… I… D-don’t understand!” Dave sputtered. He was shrinking like a burning candle, the bloated, grotesque superhuman-physique withering into a child hiding behind a mustache. The loose Superman costume became a snare of red and blue. Teeth fell from the mustache like hailstones. He dropped away from Alex to the floor and pitifully tried to crawl away in a panic.
Alex watched in fascination at his victim. “No. But I think I am beginning to.”
“Stop! I’ll do whatever you want! Please, just STOP IT!” Dave spat out between falling enamel. He was a small pile of jumbled squiggles and shrieks by now.
Alex leaned in close, his darkening countenance pulled tight to his skull. The hand that stuck to his chest pulled into him, adding to his mass. His normally lean appearance took a sharper quality that drew his face into daggers. Dave tried to crawl away, but Alex bore down, hawk-like upon him Fingers blackened and tapered out to talons as Alex placed his hand around the cartoon neck. From that point of contact, the substance of Alex flowed outward. The whole world convulsed. A smile split his face.
“I think this is going to be a beautiful friendship, Dave.”
On Monday, Dave didn’t come in to work. No one knew why. Don swore up and down the cubicle aisles, screaming to no one in particular that if Dave didn’t answer his phone like a “team player” then he was was going to be “cut.” Don made quite a show of it.
On Wednesday, Dave returned to work. He didn’t talk to anyone, enough to let everyone know something was amiss. A haunted exhaustion seemed to pervade him as though an imp sat on his back, wearing him down. Don didn’t even reprimand him. The office was silent.
On Friday, Dave didn’t ask Alex if he wanted to get a beer. Alex glanced up as he passed. Like a startled hippo, Dave broke into an unexpectedly quick dash. His bulk sent papers flying in his wake and Dave was gone before they settled to the floor. Alex smiled and returned to daydreaming about spreadsheets.
Alex sat in meditation within his outback and probed outward. As he had before he searched for the pathways he had felt, the same threads he had tapped to enter the mind of Dave. He reached beyond the edges of his tangible dream-world. He could feel them, those outside his mind. Though beyond his scope of vision they had a pull, a gravity that affected his mind. He had never felt them before but now these bodies were as obvious as the moon, pulling upon the tides of his dream. Osterman was a child who realized for the first time the the stars were more than simple lights in the sky. This discovery left him with a desire, a need the had to be quenched.
He hungered for what was outside of his little world, this new frontier beyond himself. He was awakened to the weaving orbits of substance outside his consciousness that connected him to the greater worlds around him. He wanted those worlds. He wanted the unknown. Finally, the adventure his bored mind had craved. Now, it was a simple matter of reaching out… and… grasping.
He found it. He brought it to himself.
Before Alex rose massive door, one that dwarfed the previous passage into Dave’s mind. It materialized from seemingly nothing, but Osterman knew that there is really no such thing as nothing. It was composed of the everything that surrounded him. Cavernous overhanging arches swept skyward, as if to support the vault of heaven itself. It appeared to be crafted from a pearly alabaster, traced with flawless weaving patterns of jade. it was composed of single, great pieces without seam or mortar. This door was his exit. Alex stood from his repose, the triumph written upon his features. He walked to the passageway, the sweeping angles and intersecting archways beckoning him forward.
He was mere steps from the portcullis when it opened of its own volition. The substance tore from the center like a caesarian and a golden light blew through the aperture, blasting away the Alex’s world. There was only a vast blankness.
His first thought was that he was. Simple, but the fact that he existed was something. Better something than nothing, after all. Next, there was the sensation of company. It could only be described as the feeling when a stranger sits down beside you in a car with your eyes closed. You knew they were there without seeing them. But, when someone sits down next to you with your eyes closed, you’re bound to open them. At first, the vision was overwhelming, too much information too fast. The light was painfully loud in its cross-sensational intensity. Rampant energy slowly coalesced into a rational aspect of firmament. The being, the other, stood well over eight feet tall, with sweeping robes of a deep, royal blue floating about him. It appeared to be male as it wore a silver beard that hung past its armored chest-piece. Intricate patterns and knots decorated the plate visible beneath the rich cloth. Sun-discs, swastikas, and triquetra wove across the surface of golden armor. The bracers on his forearms were detailed by the gaping mouths of dragons. He held a spear with a ten-foot shaft of ebony, tipped with a head styled after ancient Roman lances. A corona encircled his time-worn face, a blazing star of divinity. On each shoulder perched a raven, both the size of a full-grown dog. Placing the butt of the spear on the same plane as his feet, the grey giant leaned on it like a walking cane to peer down at the new-comer. His single eye was a vivid pool of cerulean that at once saw him and beyond. He smiled down with the warmth of a father greeting a lost son.
“I am Wötan, the Demiurge. Welcome to the Fulcrum.”