It’s a dream.
A silent, old figure pervades the space around a calm garden clearing. Within and sitting atop charming white Victorian chairs are a white rabbit, a toad with a top hat, and a small boy, the figure’s target. Bating his breath, the figure in the brush draws back his bowstring.
“It has been a wonderful day, hasn’t it?” says Dr. Pollywoggagus with a contemplative ribbit as he laps up a sip of tea with his long, dexterous tongue.
The boy, Marco Valdez, nods. “It certainly has, Doctor. I must say that I don’t think I’ve lived a finer day in all my li-” skewing his sentence, Marco is pierced with a black, glintless bolt to the back of the neck— killing him instantly and waking him up at 7:24 A.M. just in time to get ready for school.
The figure leans back as the dreamworld degrades into nothingness around him in a visceral, blinding flash. Doctor Pollywoggagus and Mister Smeeps shroud out into their respective elements in the collected subconscious, and in only ten seconds more there’s nothing but pure whiteness and a locked door. The figure steps up to the door, knocks three times, and the long deadbolt is withdrawn from the other side.
A tall, rather dashing young man with a clipboard opens it for him. “Nice job, as usual.”
“Thanks, you too,” the shadowy, cloaked figure steps through the door into a bustling office center filled with pairs of people going from place to place. The tall man motions the shorter one to follow along.
“I’m telling you, the name ‘Jack the Second’ is so firmly planted in the minds and imaginations of the dreaming public at large that it’s not long before physicals’ll start writing stories about you— making movies, even!”
The figure, Jack, shrugs as they turn a clean white hallway. “Thanks, but I don’t do it for the recognition. I’d prefer people didn’t know; that’s how I know I did a good job, after all.”
The tall man scoffs. “Well deal with it. You’re going to be the best the Society’s got, so you can expect people to glean a little bit of you each time you end a dream.”
The man puts his arm around the short figure. “Cheer up, Jack! I know it’s hard work, but you’re doing a great service for the world!”
“I just never thought this is what I’d end up doing, Frank… dream work and all th-” Jack’s cut short by a blaring siren and red, pulsing lights.
Frank adjusts his glasses. “Looks like we have a black alert. Let’s go.” Frank looks down to his clipboard as words appear on it, then nods. “And looks like you’re the one on call. Must be serious.”
Jack smirks under his hood as the two rush along to the door in question. “If you say so, but I’ve only been doing this a week, I don’t see why they can’t get one of the higher ranked-”
“There he is!” one bystander exclaims to a growing crowd around the door.
“It’s the Rank One; it’s Jack!” says another to her younger protégé.
Jack and Frank are flooded in cheering and applause as they make their way to the door. Standing at the knob is none other than the vice-president of the Dreaming Society himself.
“Glad you could join us, Jack,” the vice says with a raised, snow-white brow.
Jack looks around with an awkward disposition. “Wait… I’m the Rank One?”
The vice nods as a few people laugh. “Of course ya’ are, son! You have a perfect detection ratio!”
“A perfect wha-”
“Allow me to explain, Jack,” Frank says with a cough. “I didn’t tell you about this because I thought it’d affect your rather… unique method of concentration, but Endmen are rated based on their ability to end dreams without being spotted or stopped. Remember what you were told in training, that an Endmen can be ‘killed’ out of a dream just like the dreamer?”
Jack nods with a wider, slightly less-confused look now— it’s breaking through to him.
Frank continues. “Right, so that’s happened to Endmen before. Something in the dream, or even the dreamer himself killed ’em.”
“So dreamers can kill Endmen; big deal?”
Frank and the vice share a knowing glance. “About that, son,” the vice says, crossing his arms. “This one’s just ousted his fifth Endman.”
Whispers and gasps murmur through the crowd, and Jack hums. “Okay. So that must mean the dream’s been going on for quite a while, at least five days.”
The vice nods. “That’s right—this door belongs to a coma patient. He’s been in a coma for two weeks now.”
Frank nudges Jack. “Yeah, you ever thought about how a dream doesn’t end until you kill the person?”
“If the person never dies in their dream, their body won’t wake up. Some people’s dreams have become such death zones that Endmen won’t even try to enter the dream— considering that if you get killed in a dream, you get resurgence sickness.”
“I heard of that, weeks of nausea… like a month-long hangover,” Jack says, looking cheerful that he knows at least that much.
“Yup— or they just die,” Frank adds.
Jack draws back. “Okay— yeah, that’s news to me.”
“If the resurgence is too hard, the trauma proves to be too great.” Frank looks over to the vice, and the vice nods.
“Well, son, we’re telling you this because that’s precisely what’s happened.”
More whispers resound from the crowd as Jack squints an eye. “What’s happened?”
The vice sighs. “Of the five Endmen we sent into this door over the past two weeks, four of them resurged… and none of them made it. All of them were ranks higher than you.” The animated crowd becomes silent as the vice clears his throat. “You’re now the new highest rank, the new number one. It’s your duty to tackle this door, kill the dreamer, and wake him up.”
Jack’s unmoving, as if the news didn’t quite get across to him. “I… Is it worth it? Waking people up, I mean. People are dying, just for them to live their day-to-day lives.”
There’s a solemn, depressed silence before the vice speaks up again.
“Kid, that’s just how our line of work goes; we haven’t had a case this bad in years. It’s simply your job now, son. Are you ready?”
There’s a glint of hesitance in Jack’s sunken eyes, but it dies out in only a moment’s time. He salutes rigidly. “I’m your man, sir.”
The Vice smiles. “Alright. Your target is an overworked, under-paid white collar office drone named Ishii Shigenobu. Our intel says he started hating the day-to-day grind even more than usual, and began researching lucid dreaming.” Frank shakes his head as if disgusted. The vice continues. “So by some disaster he figured out about us during some of his sessions. He found out that if he killed the endmen he could just go on and on dreaming. He’s tried a few times, but now it’s serious. He’s gone through four of our boys and we have no idea what’s happened to the fifth. We’re sending you in next, and if you fail, another after you— onward and onward, until we wake this guy up. Because it’s our job,” the vice says, half speaking to Jack, and half to the crowd. The Vice opens the door; a dark, wrecked wasteland zone is on the other side. “Alright, son. Make us proud.”
Jack takes a breath, steps to the doorframe, and looks back with a grin. “Goodnight, everyone. See you in the morning.”
The cheers and goodbyes are as thick as clay as he enters the dream and closes the door shut behind him. The door disappears, not to reopen again until either the dream’s finished, or he’s finished. It’s time to get serious.
Jack checks his bow, checks his knife and pulls up his hood to take in the surroundings.
Around him is a smoking, dilapidated cityscape— filled with wrecked cars, buildings hewn asunder, and fires as far as the eye can see.
Jack closes his eyes and brushes his black stubble for moment as he listens carefully. He took his time while tracking down dreamers when he was starting out; it proved to be a very educational waste of time. His hawk-sharp eyes open and he moves to action immediately.
He ducks into an alley and makes his way to another office building, one of the few that’s still standing upright. With silent, practiced stealth he checks the blown-out window, to see if anyone’s watching, and he moves forward. He repeats this careful procedure of advancement for about five minutes until he’s at the entrance. Jack enters and creeps up the stairs. The presence he felt is nearby, close enough to breathe on. He rounds the corner, and spots a gun endman— insignia and all— getting some shuteye in a closet.
Jack looks over the guy; this must be the missing endman. ’Sure is taking his time hunting down the dreamer,′ Jack thinks. He leans over and notches the man gently with his boot. “Hey,” Jack whispers. “Wake up.”
The endman with a huntsman’s cap flinches as his eyes open to slowly reorient themselves. “Ah… Ah! What!?” The man jolts to action with his hand on his pistol, staring up at Jack as if he were The Reaper.
“Relax. I’m Dreamer Society.” Jack shows him his badge. “You must be the last guy.”
The man stares on a moment, takes a deep breath, and sighs in relief. “Y-yeah, yeah it’s me.”
“Are you alright to walk?” Jack offers his hand.
The man takes it. “Yeah, Samuel’s the name.”
Jack squints with perception as he looks over the man at full height. “Aren’t you…”
Sam chuckles. “Yeah, I’m the Number One.”
“Yeah, I thought I remembered seeing you in training. So where is this guy, do you know?” Jack ducks across the side of the hall to look out the window without revealing too much of his profile.
“Eh,” Sam looks around. “I guess you’re the new guy… the one they sent in?”
“Yeah… I guess you’ve lost track?”
“Naw, I have a pretty good idea where he is.”
Jack looks to Sam in surprise. “Yeah?”
“In this building…” Sam clears his throat. “But man, don’t you think we should just leave him be?”
Jack’s expression goes from curious, to shocked. “…Leave him be? Like, abandon the dream?”
Sam takes a deep breath and exhales again in uplifting relief. “Yeah, man— I
mean abandon the dream. Just hear me out.”
Jack notches into the corner under the window.
“I was sent out here third; the two other guys got killed by the dreamer. I don’t know what happened to them.”
“They didn’t make it,” Jack says.
“…Ah, I see…. I did guess as much—alright... So I’ve been hunting this guy for about a week and a half now. I saw the other two guys come and get destroyed too. He’s just too strong… but thing is, I don’t think I want to kill him anymore.” Jack nods and motions with his hand to go on. “I got to talkin’ with him, see? He said he’s just sick of life and wants to be left alone, and that us endmen need to know our place and should let people dream as they please.”
Jack sighs. “Yeah, but it’s our job to keep society running. People don’t know that they need to be killed in a dream to wake up, so it’s our job to do it without them noticing. We need to keep dreams gentle, you know, from becoming nightmares.”
Sam shakes his head and scoffs. “Well this guy’s life is a nightmare, man. How would you feel if your every waking hour was filled with work and condemnation from co-workers?”
Jack shrugs. “Not our place to ask, don’t you think?”
“I’ve been thinking, maybe it is our place to ask. I mean, come on— you’re not really going to just blindly follow orders without any consideration as to whether it’s right or not, are you?”
Jack and Sam share long, knife-sharp stare. “…You were in third— so two came before you and two came after you, right?”
Sam’s face darkens. “Yeah.”
“I bet you tried to talk them out of it too, didn’t you?”
Sam inhales. “Yeah, I did.”
“And after they said no, what did you do?” Jack asks. His eyes narrow.
There’s another silence, and Sam pulls out his gun. “Don’t make me do it to you, too.”
Jack raises his hands and tenses for movement. “No wonder the other two couldn’t get to the dreamer— you resurged them both.”
“Yeah— yeah I fucking did; and I’m going to shoot you too, if I have to. It’s time to leave him be, man. He’s innocent. Don’t send him back there.”
“The other two guys, the ones you shot— they’re both dead, you know.”
Sam inhales sharply. “No.... I heard you the first time, but I know you’re just lying!”
“No, I’m not, Sam. They’re dead. Do you really, really think that this man’s peace is more important than their lives?”
Sam’s aim is shaking. “I… It’s the principle of it.”
“You’re shooting your allies, out of principle? Think about that for a second.”
“Yes! I have. I’m protecting him, and you’re assaulting him. You really don’t get it—neither did the others!”
Jack smiles and shakes his head. “No, I get it. It’s okay, Samuel.”
A gleam of hope sparks in Sam’s eyes. He lowers the pistol just an inch. “You… you mean it?”
“Yeah. We don’t have a right to wake people up. For all I care they can just stay in dreams as long as they want. We just naturally try to wake everyone up because we assume they want to be awoken. You and I both know that The Society’s fallen out of place with that.” Sam’s gun lowers another inch as Jack continues. “We try so hard to keep people awake and working, that The Society’s started to think it’s about keeping society running— rather than giving people another day out in a world they love to thrive in.” Sam’s gun is lowered to point at Jack’s pelvis. “So I do get you. To wake this guy up would be wrong, and to wake up anyone who doesn’t want to be would be a mistake. We do this for them— not for society, or their friends, or their families— but for the personal, present dreamer. Don’t you think?”
Sam releases a deep sigh as he moves his gun to the holster. “Alright… you are on my side. Thanks man… what was it?”
“Thanks, Jack. So will you help me?” Sam asks as the gun presses in and his hand is taken from the handle.
In a flash, Jack has Sam by the neck, pushes him into the wall, and takes up his gun in a single move. “No.”
“Because we can’t talk to The Society about this issue if we stay trapped in here forever. Are you just going to let others suffer while we protect only one?”
“And also did you really think I would halt the due process and not arrest a murderer?!”
Sam trembles under the short man’s compact, muscular grip. “L-look, Jack, I really wasn’t going to kill y-”
“I’m not interested in your excuses.”
Jack utters these last words as Sam’s body, clothes, gun, and everything else dissipate into complete nothingness in the process or resurgence. “A week ago you were an endman, like me— but if you turn away, you get shot. Them’s the rules,” Jack says, mocking his drill sergeant.
The last of Sam disperses into the same sort of swirling white nothingness one experiences when forced out of a dream just like its landscape. See ya, Sam.
Jack spends a moment to draw a breath and listen closely, and then he starts down the hall to where he felt the other presence. At the tenth floor, he eases his vision around an abandoned cubicle room, the view of the entirety of the ruined city stretching out like a plane of obsidian-glass. He’s here; Jack’s certain he’s in here. He takes a moment to analyze the situation, but Ishii’s perfectly concealed, as if only his aura is obvious— but it pervades the entire floor.
Jack feels woe, anger, contempt, uselessness, and a sorrow as deep as a pit as he steps inside. As a professional, it is his opinion that he should try an off-the-books tactic for this one.
“Hey, Ishii,” Jack says.
As endmen speak the same language as the dreamer when in their mind, Jack is heard clearly. “Yes, what do you need?”
Jack’s features sharpen— the voice came from everywhere around him. “I’m an endman. I’ve come to end your dream.”
Ishii sighs. “Mmm, I’m not sure if that’s such a good idea, sir. I’ve heard endmen who try to end my dream end up in pretty dangerous situations. Maybe it’s not the best plan?”
Jack begins pacing around the large, round room. “Yeah? Do you kill ’em?”
Ishii scoffs. “You’re an idiot, aren’t you?”
“Maybe— an idiot with a job that he has to do, at least… I bet you’re an idiot with a job too.”
Ishii laughs. “Maybe—but I’d rather not go back to hell. This is heaven, and I’ll stay here for a while, I think.”
Jack looks over an outdated fax machine with some interest. “Do you have any friends, or family back in hell?”
“No. My whole family’s either dead or have left me… there were a couple guys at the office that I drank with from time to time— but just not dealing with it at all is way better. I can make as much beer as I want in here, and enjoy it all myself— I don’t even have to pay a bill, so I won’t have to work! I’m happy, here.”
Jack takes a seat at one of the hundred desks— opens a drawer, gets a pen, and starts doodling something. “So you think it’s better to live without neither pain nor joy, rather than to risk pain at all?”
Ishii hums pleasantly. “Yes. I have all I need here.” The landscape, everything but the desk, chair, and the materials in Jack’s hands, is changed to a sunny beach in Okinawa.
“What’s this?” Jack asks.
“A place I went to a lot as a kid. We stepped through the shoals a bit to find sea creatures we could prepare for dinner.” A pair of small kids with buckets pass Jack by while they sing kindergarten songs. “I always will remember that Summer fondly. Just Koga and myself and our parents— but now I have all this work, and all these things to do; I’m afraid it’s just gotten to be too much for me, mister endman. I know it’s your job to wake me up— but Koga’s dead, and my mom is dead; my dad told me I was a bastard that would never amount to anything. It’s just too much— please understand.”
Jack takes in the sea-breeze as he considers how he should put the tail on his dinosaur picture. “I’m not asking you for much, Ishii.”
“It’s much for me, I think.”
Jack sighs and starts sketching it out. “Alright, well let me tell you about my job.”
“Are you interested in talking? I assumed you were, because you were talking.”
“Uh…oh, yes, I would like to hear about your job, mister endman.”
Jack leans back in his chair as he watches the young Ishii gather seaweed with his friend. “Well, it starts at ten P.M. first, so I can hit the dreams of people in my timezone— and it goes all the way to noon. That’s a fourteen-hour workday. Now, us mind-folk don’t need to sleep as long as you physicals do, so I guess it’s a little easier than you’d assume.”
Ishii hums. “You wake up and go to sleep like real people?”
“You’re not just figments of my subconscious imagination?”
“Hell no. We go to bed, have dreams, and have to get out of bed to go back to work every day— just like you. Now that I’m a higher rank, though, I’m given high-profile jobs on the hour. You’ve given us a huge headache back at the office.”
The landscape flickers back to the office for just a second before being pushed into a verdant forest. Jack, desk and all, plop onto the lowered ground. “The… office?”
“Yeah. We got people on the books running back and forth because of you. People are working overtime, and a few folks died. It’s serious business, these dreams.”
Ishii sighs deeply with the rolling wind of the trees. “I must really be worthless, then. I get in the way even in my own head.”
Jack puts aside his doodle and stands up to speak to the trees. “You wouldn’t, if you just treated a dream as it should be—as just a dream. They’re not permanent escapes— they’re only visions, moments of beauty, or even clarity. It’s meant to be a time in which a part of yourself that you don’t get to see often walks right up and talks to you; but your dream has gone on so long that your subconscious is tired. I know your real life isn’t easy— hell, I’m sure it’s painful; but you need to understand just how damn hard we work to keep you in reality. We’re all rootin’ for ya’, kid! So because I can’t really make you do it, I’m gonna have to ask you. Please, man, wake up. This isn’t what… Kogi would’ve wanted. He’d want you out in the world!”
Ishii scoffs. “… You think Kogi would want me to hurt like this?”
“I know for sure that Kogi would want you to be the best you can be—to get up in the morning and do your job. Will you honor his memory, help us all out, and end this nightmare once and for all? Can you go back?”
The trees sway and the birds sing as a bright ray of sun smashes out through the canopy of leaves. “... do you have a name?”
“... it’s Jack.”
“Well, Jack, you got my friend’s name wrong. His name was Koga.”
Jack clears his throat. “Alright.”
“That’s fine though. It’s all fine. You’re right, I think, mister endman…. You’re all rooting for me, after all.”
“We sure as hell are, Ishii. You have all of us from the Dream Society behind you. So let me see you and let me wake you up. Please show yourself.”
The woods breeze on as the ray of light pulses to almost blinding brightness. From the hidden fold of the forest out steps Ishii Shigenobu— well-dressed and with geometrically-perfect hair as he always appears when he comes to the office. His eyes are wide with fear as he looks over Jack; such a short, old man holds more awe than the first glance would tell.
“You can wake me up?” Ishii asks.
Jack nods. “If you’ll let me.”
Ishii smiles at Jack with a warmth neither of them have experienced in years and Ishii turns around to stare up at the trees. “Okay- I’m ready to wake up, then. Thank you, Jack.” Ishii says.
Jack has his permission. He wastes no time to draw his trusty knife and step up behind Ishii. Like all the rest, his dream flesh bends around the knife as the dream collapses.
In the next second, Ishii Shigenobu opens his eyes in a Tokyo hospital. Flowers, cards, and gifts of all sorts— from his co-workers, his grandmother, and his father; all are piled at his bed-side table. A half minute passes and a nurse bursts into the room, expecting a heart attack, but instead finding an emaciated Ishii sitting up in his bed with tears in his eyes. In the same moment, Jack steps out of Ishii’s head through a white door— returning to the uproarious applause of his fellow Society workers.
The president of the Society, an older man looking about Jack’s age, rushes up and shakes his hand. “You’ve made us damn proud, sir. Real damn proud! You’ll be even more famous than ‘Jack the Ripper’ one day!”
Jack smiles. “All in a night’s work, sir.”