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Into the Nth Dimension

by David D. Levine

The fence around Dr. Diabolus’s lair is twenty feet tall, electrified and topped with razor wire.  I’d expected no less.  From one of the many pouches at my belt I pull a pair of acorns and toss them at the base of the fence. 

I exert my special power.  Each acorn immediately sprouts, roots digging through asphalt as the leafy stem reaches skyward.  Wood fibers KRACKLE as the stems extend, lengthen, thicken, green skin changing to grayish bark in a moment.  Leaves SSHHH into existence; branches reach out to the neighbor tree, twining themselves into rungs. 

Before the twin oaks have reached their full height I spring into action, clambering up the living ladder as it grows, creeping along a limb even as it extends over the razor wire.  It’s a dramatic, foolhardy move, but I can’t delay — Sprout is in peril!  The branch sags under my weight, lowering me to within ten feet of the ground, and I leap down with practiced ease. 

 
 
Full transcript after the cut:

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 22 for February … 20th, oops. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you!

Our story today is “Into the Nth Dimension” by David D. Levine, read by… David D. Levine.

David is the author of novel Arabella of Mars, which will be out from Tor Books in July 2016, and over fifty science fiction and fantasy stories. His story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the Hugo Award in 2006, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and Sturgeon. Stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, numerous Year’s Best anthologies, and his award-winning collection Space Magic.

Oh, just one more thing! While I was putting this episode together the SFWA Nebula award nominations came out, and David JUST, as in, literally minutes ago, received a Nebula nomination for his story “Damage,” which was released on Tor.com. Congratulations!

GlitterShip would also like to congratulate some of the authors whose stories appeared in previous episodes: Ken Liu (Episode 15), was nominated for best Novel for his book “The Grace of Kings”, Rose Lemberg (Episode 7) was nominated for her novelette “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds”, and Sarah Pinsker (Episode 2) was also nominated for a novelette, “Our Lady of the Open Road.”

Ok. NOW you can listen to the story.

 

Into the Nth Dimension

by David D. Levine

 

 

The fence around Dr. Diabolus’s lair is twenty feet tall, electrified and topped with razor wire.  I’d expected no less.  From one of the many pouches at my belt I pull a pair of acorns and toss them at the base of the fence.

I exert my special power.  Each acorn immediately sprouts, roots digging through asphalt as the leafy stem reaches skyward.  Wood fibers KRACKLE as the stems extend, lengthen, thicken, green skin changing to grayish bark in a moment.  Leaves SSHHH into existence; branches reach out to the neighbor tree, twining themselves into rungs.

Before the twin oaks have reached their full height I spring into action, clambering up the living ladder as it grows, creeping along a limb even as it extends over the razor wire.  It’s a dramatic, foolhardy move, but I can’t delay — Sprout is in peril!  The branch sags under my weight, lowering me to within ten feet of the ground, and I leap down with practiced ease.

Again I concentrate, and the two trees wither away behind me, a gnawed patch of asphalt and a few stray leaves the only sign they’d ever existed.  I feel their pain as they wilt and die, but I don’t want my intrusion discovered sooner than necessary.  The loss of their green and growing lives is just the latest of the many sacrifices I’ve made.  I press onward.

Slippery elm makes short work of the side door lock; mushrooms blind security cameras and heat sensors.  These bright corridors, humming with electricity and weirder energies, are cold places of steel and concrete, offering me no plants or plant matter to leverage my powers.  I’ve faced worse.  I prowl quickly, silently, keeping my head down, all senses alert to any trace of the kidnapped Sprout.

Voices!  I duck into an alcove as two of Dr. Diabolus’s goons round the corner.  As soon as they’ve passed I spring out behind them, tossing seeds at their feet.  Fast-twining English ivy ensnares one before he can cry out, but the other evades its tendrils.  “Phyto-Man!” he gasps.

POW! my fist responds.  He drops cold beside his still-struggling comrade, whose eyes glare with hatred above his smothered mouth.  I direct the ivy to bind the unconscious goon as well, so he’ll raise no alarm when he awakes.

Even their underwear is synthetic fiber.  Dr. Diabolus is thorough, I’ll grant him that.

Deeper and deeper into the cavernous lair I probe, keeping an eye on the pipes and conduits that line the ceiling, smaller leading to larger, following the branch to find the trunk.  I know Dr. Diabolus; wherever he’s holding my sidekick it will be near his latest contrivance, and all his inventions require massive amounts of power.

If only he’d gone solar instead of stealing plutonium, we might have been allies.

At last I come to a massive, vault-like door, all steel and chrome, set in a concrete wall into which many thick conduits vanish.  But nothing is more persistent than a plant.  I tuck dozens of tiny dandelion seeds into the crack between door and jamb.  Their indomitable roots reach deep, swelling and prying, until with a WHANGG of tearing metal the door bursts from its frame.

With my own muscles I wrench the shattered door aside and burst into the chamber.  Dr. Diabolus turns to me, cape swirling.  “You disappoint me, Phyto-Man,” he sneers, his artificial eye glowing red.  “I expected you here half an hour ago.”

“Traffic was terrible,” I quip.  The chamber is dominated by a complex machine, seething with arcane energies that make my head swim, but there’s no sign of Sprout.  “What have you done with my sidekick, you fiend?”

“I sent him to… the Nth Dimension!”  He pulls a lever on the control panel before him.  A ten-foot iris of blue steel in the center of the machine SNICKs open, revealing…

Looking into the opening makes my eyes feel like they’re being pulled out of my head.  It’s as though all the colors of the palette have somehow been smeared together with… others… forming impossible combinations of hue and tone that swirl sickeningly.  But worse than that, the weird amalgam of color seems to bend… around a corner that isn’t there.  It’s painful to see, even harder to look away.

CHANGG!  Something hard and cold fastens onto my bicep, breaking the spell.  “What?” I cry.  Before I can move, a second steel claw CHANGGs onto my other arm.  CHANGG!  CHANGG!  CHANGG!  I’m caught like a fly, steel bracelets ringing my arms, legs, and neck.  Jointed metal arms haul me off the floor, suspend me in the air before the gloating Dr. Diabolus.

“HAHAHAHAHA!” he laughs as I struggle in vain.  “You’ve foiled my plans for the last time, Phyto-Man!”

“If you’ve harmed Sprout–!” I growl through clenched teeth, straining against the imprisoning metal.

“My dear Phyto-Man, I must confess… I don’t know!”  He works the controls and the arms propel me, none too gently, toward the yawning portal.  The uncanny colors swirl crazily, filling my vision, seeming to tug at every fiber of my being.  “But whatever has become of your Sprout, you will shortly be joining him there.  Bon voyage, Emerald Avenger!”

The arms thrust me forward.  With a SPRANK! the five claws open simultaneously, flinging me into the swirling abyss.

 

A hard, gritty surface presses against my side.  I’m cold, my head is spinning, and everything hurts.  There’s a thin, rushing sound off in the distance.  Traffic?

I sit up and open my eyes.  And immediately I wish I hadn’t.

There’s nothing to see but a cracked and filthy concrete floor and my own hands, but they’re all wrong… seriously wrong.  The floor curves away from me in every direction — the same impossible curvature I’d seen in Dr. Diabolus’s portal — despite the fact that it looks and feels flat.  And the surface looks like… like concrete multiplied by itself.  Cracks are crackier.  Grit is grittier.  It’s all realer than real; it pounds on my eyes as though I were staring into the sun, though there’s barely any light.  And the color is not just gray, but a weird amalgam of thousands of different grays blended smoothly together.  A whole shining rainbow of grays.

My heart is pounding.   I’ve faced death many times, fought monsters, escaped from traps, but I’ve never experienced anything this disturbing.  Always before the threat came from outside, but now it’s me — my own perceptions — that have changed.

My hands, too, are a disconcerting, amplified version of themselves.  I turn them before my eyes, and as they rotate I seem to see both sides at the same time as the front.  In color they are… kind of an ultra-pink, not the plain pink I’ve seen every day of my life but an eye-hurting blend of unnatural shades.  Pinks that don’t exist, have never existed.  And as I look more closely I see disturbing swirls of texture in my skin, spiraling like microscopic galaxies, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

I swallow and rip my attention away from my own fingers.  Have I been drugged?  I shake my head hard, but that just makes the headache and dizziness worse.  I pound my fists on the ground, but though I feel the impact and the pain there’s no comforting THUD, just a muffled thump so faint and distant I might as well be imagining it.

“Hello?” I call.  No, nothing wrong with my hearing; my voice bounces back to me from the darkness, echoing off the distant, unseen walls.

To my surprise there’s an immediate reply.  “Michael?”  The voice is heartbreakingly familiar.  I feel a twinge of hope.

“Sprout?”  I peer into the darkness, hoping for a glimpse of green tights and pointed shoes.  It’s a ridiculous outfit.  Why have we never changed it?

And why have I never wondered that before?

“It’s me, Michael.  Richard.”

A familiar figure appears in the dim distance, but with everything so strange here I can’t afford to relax.  “Is this a secure area?  We should stick to code names…”

“No need.  There’s no Sprout here, and no Phyto-Man either.”

Worries spring up in my mind — impostors, hypnosis, possession, brainwashing — but I decide to bluff it out in case there are unseen observers.  “Well, I’m here now, Sprout.”

“This all seems very strange, I know, but don’t worry.  Everything will be all right.”

Despite his reassurances, there’s a strangeness about Sprout as he approaches.  He’s wearing street clothes, in colors and textures as hallucinogenic as everything else here, and his face combines familiarity with an alien super-reality exactly as my own hands do, but the really disturbing thing is the way he moves.  Each step flows into the next with a weird gliding motion that propels him forward seamlessly, without transitions.  It’s like he’s rolling toward me on a treadmill, constantly cresting a hill that isn’t there.  I push down feelings of nausea and… and fear.  Never in all my adventures have I faced anything as disquieting as this place.  “Where am I?”

“Dr. Diabolus called it the Nth Dimension, but the people here just call it the world.”  He’s reached me now, and the mingled concern and relief in his face match the conflicting emotions in my own heart.  “I’m so glad you’re finally here.”

He bends down and helps me to my feet, a disturbing reversal, and I find that I move with the same unnatural glide that he does.  Even more disturbing, I find I’m naked.  “My costume!”  I cover myself with my hands as best I can, but the loss of my belt pouches, my carefully nurtured collection of seeds, leaves me feeling not just nude but defenseless.

I reach out with my powers.  Perhaps a seed from a discarded Fig Newton lies in a crack on the floor, a seed I can grow into leaves to cover my nakedness.  But there’s nothing; my powers are dulled almost to nonexistence.  I can feel wood beams supporting the ceiling high above, but I can’t warp them to my will.

I’m helpless.  For the first time in… I can’t remember when.

“Don’t worry,” Sprout says, “no one here wears costumes.  I brought you some clothes.”  He turns, the motion revealing sides and back, width and depth and thickness, all at once.  I groan and nearly lose my balance.  “Oh!” he says.  “I’m sorry.  Try closing one eye.  It helps.”

I do, and it does — the colors are still wrong but the disorienting sense of everything being too far away and too close at the same time is greatly reduced.  Sprout — Richard — reaches into a rustling paper bag and hands me a folded bundle.

Putting the clothes on is a challenge.  Each trouser leg recedes like a portal to another world; buttons and zippers feel much larger, more detailed than they should.  I close my eyes completely and let my instincts take over.  It makes a big difference.  How many times in my life have I dressed myself?  But this still feels like the first time.

I sit on the filthy floor to tie the unfamiliar shoes.  “That’s better,” I say.  “Now let’s get to work.”  Maybe action will still the trembling dread in my heart.  “There’s no time to lose — we need to get back to our own dimension and defeat Dr. Diabolus before it’s too late!”

Richard smiles and shakes his head.  I’m starting to get used to the weird multi-dimensional effect.  “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time.”  He puts out a hand.  “Come on.  I’ll explain over coffee.”

Sprout’s lack of concern raises anew the questions I’d had about drugs, hypnosis, imposters.  But, lost in a strange, incomprehensible world, I have no better alternative to offer.  I take his hand.

His hand is warm and soft in mine.  When was the last time I’d grasped it without gloves, without haste, without danger all around?

He leads me across the floor — now that my eyes have adapted a bit to the darkness and strangeness I see that the space is a cavernous, disused warehouse — to a corroded metal door.  It opens with a muted squeak of rusty hinges, not the SKREEK I would have expected, but once we pass through it to the street I’m assaulted by a cacophony of sounds, visions, and smells more intense than New Year’s Eve in Metro City.  Cars in an astonishing variety of designs and colors careen by, with the same seamless motion as Sprout’s walk but a hundred times faster.  Each one seems to zoom in from the horizon and vanish away to infinity all in a moment, but even as they speed by I can’t help but notice their scratches and dents and chips in the paint and a hundred other details.  It’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of color and detail.

“Whoa!” I cry out as Sprout hauls me back from the curb.

“Careful, big guy.”  He pats my shoulder.  “You’re not invulnerable here.”

“Well, I’ve never been in Dynamic Man’s league…”

“No, I mean you can really get hurt easily.  It doesn’t take much, and it takes a long time to heal.  Look at this.”  He pulls up his sleeve, revealing a hideous scab on his elbow.  “I scraped this on a brick wall when I first got here.  Just a little scrape, nothing I’d even have noticed if I were in a fist fight with the Demolisher, but it hurt like a son of a bitch –”

I’ve never heard such language.  “Sprout!”

“– and a month later it’s still not all the way better.”

A month?  Immediately I’m on high alert again.  Has the imposter slipped up?  Sprout only disappeared the day before yesterday.

But he notices the change in my expression — faces here seem more subtle, more expressive — and puts up a hand.  “Sorry.  We’re on a monthly schedule.  One or two of our days, more or less, is a month here.  I should have told you right away.”  His eyes dip to the sidewalk.  “There’s a lot I should have told you, before.”

My suspicions are only slightly allayed, but I still have little alternative but to stick with this person, whether or not he’s the Sprout I know.  Whoever he is, he just saved my life.

We walk to a coffee shop.  Safe from the chaos of the street, I can begin to appreciate the wonder of this world — the colors and textures, the tears in the vinyl seat’s upholstery, the individual grains of spilled sugar on the laminate tabletop.  My spoon makes a tiny tink, tink noise as I stir my coffee.  The flavor is astonishing — rich and sweet and dark.  “So you’ve been here a whole month?”

He nods.  “I showed up in the same place you did.  It’s the closest analog in this world to Dr. Diabolus’s lair.  It took me quite a while to figure this place out, but I finally did.”

“You always were the brains of this partnership.”  Before Sprout, there had been no Phyto-Computer, no chemical lab, no advanced cross-breeding program in the Hidden Greenhouse.  I’d really been little more than a thug with a green thumb.

“This world… it’s like a layer above our world.  Everything here is… bigger.  More complex.  More detailed.  Even the color spectrum… there’s an infinity of different colors here, Michael.”

I think back on the time I fell into the Hollow Earth, and how I had to help the downtrodden people there throw off the tyrannical overlord Karg before I could return to the surface.  “Then they must have even bigger problems than we do.  More villainous villains!  More despotic despots!  More disastrous natural disasters!”  I find myself grinning with anticipation.  “This could be our greatest adventure!”

“You might think so, but I haven’t seen any sign of it.  There aren’t any villains here.”

“It’s some kind of Utopia, then?”

“Not really.”  His face squinches up the way it does when he’s thinking hard.  “There are people who do bad things.  But every time someone does something that seems entirely villainous to me, a whole bunch of other people come along and say it was really the right thing to do.  I’m kind of confused, really.”  He shakes his head.  “Even bank robbers have their defenders here.  And there are tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes, but they’re… diffuse.  I mean, yeah, people get hurt, but you never see the President’s daughter trapped under a collapsed building or someone racing to get the secret plans to the hidden base before the whole Eastern Seaboard becomes uninhabitable.”

“Sounds… boring.”

“Oh, it’s not!”  His eyes brighten and he grabs my hands across the table.  “It’s the most wonderful place, Michael.  There’s art and culture and nature like nothing you’ve ever seen.  Not just stuffy charity balls where the only exciting thing is when The Rutabaga tries to steal the debutante’s diamond necklace.  I can’t wait to show you Turandot.”

I pull my hands from his.  “Whoa, whoa, whoa, kiddo.  We’re not here to be tourists.  We’re here for a reason.  And once our job is done here, we’ll go back where we came from.  That’s the way the world works.”

“Not this world.  In this world you can do whatever you want, make the best of what you’ve got, succeed or fail or just muddle along… you’re not limited to playing the role you were born into, fighting the same villains and foiling the same plots over and over again.  Not like our world.”  He reaches into his hoodie’s front pocket, pulls out a slim colorful magazine.  “To the people here, we’re fictional!”

The title of the magazine is The Amazing Phyto-Man, issue 157.  On the cover, a hulking over-muscled brute with a ridiculous green outfit and a caricature of my own face smacks a tentacled monstrosity in the beak.  The pages inside are divided into squares and rectangles, each bearing a picture and some text…

It shows the whole story of how I got here.  Over the fence, down the corridors, the confrontation with Dr. Diabolus, the metal arms flinging me into the portal.

I feel as though the world has been jerked out from under my feet.  “This is impossible.  Absurd.  Some kind of hoax.”

“It’s no hoax.  There were ten copies of this one on the rack I bought it from.  All our friends have their own publications too.”  He taps the final panel, showing me screaming as I fall into the swirling colors… but the colors on the page are the flat, limited palette of the world I came from.  “This is how I knew you’d be arriving here.”

I stare at the page.  It’s wood pulp with vegetable inks.  My powers are weak here, almost nonexistent, but I can feel the minuscule thread of green life in it.  In some ways this stupid little magazine is the only thing in the whole chromium-and-vinyl coffee shop that’s real.

The only thing that’s real…

I turn back a page.  It’s one large panel, with Dr. Diabolus laughing “HAHAHAHAHA!” as I struggle in the grip of the metal arms.  I stare at his flat, cartoonish face.

I exert my power.

It’s not easy.  What I’m trying to do is unlike anything I’ve ever done before.  My teeth grind together; my pulse pounds in my temples.

This is as hard and as strange as the very first time I ever made a seed sprout.

It had been an apple seed, a discarded pip from my lunch, that happened to be lying on the floor the day that eerie green-glowing meteorite had crashed into the experimental greenhouse with its stocks of Growth Serum X.  That tiny seed, and the potential apple tree within, had been all that stood between me and certain death as the heavy beam had come crashing down toward me.  As though in a dream I’d sensed its potential, I’d reached out, I’d pulled harder than I’d ever pulled on anything before… and the tree burst into being, root and branch and leaf cushioning the beam’s fall and saving my life.

That had been the first time I’d felt that green power flowing through me.  Now I feel it again, a thin green thread of life pulsing in the dead, flattened wood pulp before me.  But this time it’s different somehow, pulling at me even as I pull at it.

Sweat stings my eyes and runs down my nose.  I keep straining…

And then Dr. Diabolus blinks.

The caricature face turns fractionally toward me, its look of triumph beginning to change into one of astonishment…

It’s more than I can sustain.  I collapse, my breath rushing out in a whoosh as I fall back into the padded seat.  The page before me reverts to its previous form, but I feel a sense of triumph.

Sprout snatches the magazine away.  “What did you do?”

“I used my powers.  I touched our world.  I made a change.”

“So what?”

“We can use this!”  I pound the table.  “I don’t know how, but somehow we can use this magazine to get back to our own world!”

“Hush!” Sprout pats the air with his hands; I notice that the server and the other patrons are staring.  I sit down, noticing as I do that I’d surged to my feet.  “Michael… I don’t want to go back to the world we came from.”

“We have to!”

He looks at me for a long moment, his expression unreadable.

And then he bolts from the table.

I stare stupidly at the door as the little bell over it tinkles, then take off after him.

Sprout’s fast, but ever since that day in the experimental greenhouse I’ve been stronger and tougher and faster than most people, and at least some of that seems to have come through the portal with me.  I manage to make it through the door before his heels vanish around the corner.

Running in this world is a kaleidoscopic, hallucinogenic experience.  Walls seem to rush at me, a riot of color and texture; cars veer and swerve, horns blaring.  But I keep my eyes fixed on Sprout’s blue hoodie as he dashes across streets, pushes through crowds of protesting civilians, runs down alleys.

Block after block, I’m gaining.  Sprout was always the smart one in our partnership, but I’m the one who battled The Piledriver to a standstill.  Soon I’m only a few feet behind.

We’re racing down an alley, dodging around dumpsters and piles of newspaper, when I get almost close enough to touch him.  He looks over his shoulder… and trips on a bundle of magazines.  He tumbles on the concrete with an “oomph” that sounds almost like something from our original world.

I catch up to him just as he’s sitting up.  Bright red blood runs from his nose; there’s a rusty smell.  “Guh?” he says.

I bend down, put an arm around his shoulder.  “Are you all right, old buddy?”

He stares into my eyes for a moment, blood painting his nose and mouth.

And then he kisses me.

I taste blood.  I feel his warm lips soft under mine.

I kiss him back.

Then, horrified, I push him away.  “What are we doing, Sprout?”

“Kissing.  And you liked it as much as I did.”  His bloody lips twist into an ironic smile.  “If you couldn’t figure that much out, I guess I really am the brains of this partnership.”

“But… but you’re just a kid!”

He glares at me.  “I’m twenty-two, Michael.”

Twenty-two?  It’s strange to realize that he’s right.  He was fifteen when I adopted him after Maniac killed his parents, but that was… seven years ago.  Where did the time go?  How had I failed to notice he’d grown into a lithe, attractive young man?  “Even so… it’s… it’s wrong.”

“Maybe where we came from.  Not here.”  He pulls a bandana from his pocket, wipes his mouth.  Blood still trickles from his nose but it’s slowing.  “This world is better than ours, Michael.  It’s complex and it’s mundane and it’s sometimes tedious, but it’s not just the same round of villains and fights and secret identities over and over again.  It’s… it’s real, Michael.  And here I can be what I’ve always wanted to be, instead of just playing a role.”  He holds out the bandana.  “And so can you.”

Sprout keeps holding out the bandana.

After a while I take it, and wipe my own mouth.

Then I stand up.

“I’m a hero, Richard.  It may be a role, but it’s the only role I know.”

Sprout just looks at me.  The expression on his blood-spattered face is a sick compound of longing, sadness, disappointment.  Perhaps I’m learning how to understand what I see in this world.

I wonder what the expression on my own face tells him.

“Give me the magazine, Sprout.  We’ll take it to the warehouse where we came in.  I figure that’s the best place to try going back to our world.”

“No.”

Sprout lies at my feet, looking so small and weak, the front of his blue hoodie stained black with his blood.  I could take the magazine from him easily.  “I’ll find another copy.”

“You don’t have any money to buy one.”

“I’ll steal it.”

He gives a weak little laugh.  “Liar.”

I have to smile myself.  “Okay, maybe not.”  I sit back down.  “Come back with me, Sprout.  You know it’s where we belong.”

He sits up, leans against me.  His shoulder is warm, the only warm thing in this cold, garbage-strewn alley, and I let it rest on my chest.  “Give this world a chance, Michael.  You’ve only just arrived.  I’ve already found a job at a nursery.  You could work there too.”  He looks up at me.  His nose has stopped bleeding.  “We could share the apartment.”

I consider the idea.  I put my arm around my sidekick, lean back against the filthy brick wall, and think very hard about it.  This world is amazing, with its details and colors and motions and flavors.  And to share it with Sprout would be… something I hadn’t even realized I desired.

But in the end, it’s duty that wins out.  “I’m sorry, Sprout.  Even if I wanted to — and there’s a part of me that does, believe me — it’s more than just you and me.  There are people depending on us back home.  If we don’t go back there, who’ll keep the Scimitar Sisters in check?”  I give him one last squeeze, disentangle myself, and stand up.  “Coming?”

“You’re sure I can’t change your mind?”

I’m so, so tempted.  “I’m sure.”

“Then I’m coming too.”  He stands, brushes himself off.  “I’d rather be a cartoon hero with you than alone here.”

We walk hand-in-hand back to the warehouse.  As we pass the coffee shop, I pause.  Sprout looks up at me, expectant.  “I, uh… I still have some of my powers here.”  I clear my throat.  “I wonder if there’s…. if there’s any way we can bring… some of this world, back to ours?”

“I don’t think so.”  He points to a small shield printed in the corner of the magazine’s cover.  “There are rules against it.”

Finally we find ourselves again in the dark, echoey space where we entered this world.  I think about how strange it looked to me when I first arrived, and I realize I’ve grown used to these new perceptions.  My old world will seem so flat and colorless by comparison.

Sprout stands beside me as I spread the magazine out in a patch of sunlight.  There is no joy in me as I contemplate the garish images full of POW and KRUNCH, only a dull sense of obligation.  “It’s not too late to change your mind,” Sprout says.  “We can make a life together here.”

“I’m sorry, Sprout.  Our world needs saving.”  But even as I say it, I know I’m trying to convince myself as well as him.  I hold out my hand.

Without a word, he takes it.

I bend down and stare hard at the last page, showing my cartoon avatar falling into the vortex between worlds.  I exert my will, block out all other sensations, focus my powers on the ink-saturated wood pulp.  Somehow, I know, I can use this image of the portal to return myself and Sprout to the world where we were born.

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I concentrate.  I work my power.  I push and pull and strain… this is as hard as the time I used pea vines to temporarily close up the Grand Canyon.  Harder.

I strain still more intensely.  The printed vortex begins to whirl…

I feel again, just as I did on that first day in the experimental greenhouse, the deep connection between my soul and the green life underlying the page…

I feel the warmth of Sprout’s hand in mine…

And I realize that the connection runs both ways.

With an unprecedented effort of will, I reverse my power.

Where before the meteor’s green energy had flowed into me at my moment of greatest need, now I send the energy flowing from myself into the printed page.

I scream in pain as the power drains from me like my life’s blood.

The image before me springs to life.  Just as the metal claws release, the cartoon me on the page reaches down and tears open his belt.  Seeds of all descriptions pour out in their thousands, most falling into the vortex, but many others sprouting and twining and filling the portal with leaves and stems and branches.  I bounce off the web of vegetable matter, springing right back toward Dr. Diabolus.  WHAM!  My fist connects with the villain’s chin.

Then all is blackness.

 

Later.  I open my eyes, and the first thing I see is Dr. Diabolus’s lab.  Everything is flat, static, in eight garish colors.  But then I blink, and realize I’ve fallen face-first into the magazine spread on the floor before me.

I sit up.  I’m no longer looking at the last page of The Amazing Phyto-Man issue 157.  It’s now the first page of issue 158, a single large panel.  In it Dr. Diabolus, threatened by an enormous Venus flytrap, cowers at the controls of his dimensional portal, through which a grinning Sprout steps to take the hand of Phyto-Man.  All’s well in Metro City.

“Michael?”  Richard is just awakening beside me.  “Wha… what just happened?”

It takes me a long, reflective moment to find an answer to his question.  “I… I sent the power back where it came from, I think.”  I look within myself.  It certainly isn’t in there any more.  “It’s with him now.”  I tap the page.

Richard’s eyes dart from the page to my face.  “But that’s you.”

“Not any more.  I’m just Michael now.”  I stroke the flat, cartoon version of myself with my fingertips.  “Phyto-Man is back where he belongs.  I don’t know how much of me went with him, but I hope… I hope he enjoyed his day in this world.  Maybe he can use what I learned here to make Metro City a better place.”

“But what about… us?  What happens next?”

I close the magazine.  “I don’t know.  Isn’t it amazing?”

 

END

 

“Into the Nth Dimension” was originally published in Human For A Dayedited by Jennifer Brozek and Martin H. Greenberg in 2011.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back on March 1st with “Je me souviens” by Su J. Sokol.