He wasn’t even half the imposing height of the hooded specter he had replaced. A fringe of curly red hair clung to the edge of his head, which was otherwise bald. Thick, rimless glasses perched on a small bulbous nose that presided over a bushy red moustache. Beneath the glasses, small beady eyes flashed in anger and resentment.
“Professor Nimnul!” gasped Chip in surprise.
“You know this man?” asked the Muse.
“We’ve tangled with him before,” Monty confirmed, “but never anything like on this scale.”
“I am the Nightmare King!” Professor Nimnul asserted, though even his voice had returned to its normal tone, an audible denial of the professor’s statement. “I am the darkness of this world, and I will have my vengeance on you all when I have regained my power!”
“He is mad,” the Muse observed sadly.
“Boy, I’ll say he is,” said Dale.
“I think the Muse means that Professor Nimnul is insane,” said Gadget.
“Oh,” Dale replied.
“How sad,” said Foxglove.
“Mad or no, I cannot allow anyone with such extensive knowledge of the world of dreams to go unfettered in it. Already the consequences have been disastrous.”
“And you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Nimnul promised. “Just wait till I get a new machine together!”
“For reasons which should be obvious,” said the Muse ominously, “I will not. You who would be lord of nightmares, face now the wrath of the true king of dreams and nightmares both,” he said, pointing a finger at Professor Nimnul, “Let’s just see who you really are.”
Nimnul winced in apparent pain, then shut his eyes and put his hands to his head, as though he were suffering from a terrible headache. Suddenly his eyes flew open, his expression one of fright. “GET OUT OF MY MIND!!!!” Nimnul howled, clutching his head. An echo picked his words up and flung them around the room, mocking him over and over again. He fell to his knees, as the air around him seemed to swirl, and phantoms began to take shape, crowding around Nimnul’s form. Soon he was obscured from view by the wraith-like apparitions. One, then another, then still another flew aloft from the center of the group, each bearing with it an image or a sound, then raced across the room to the Muse’s outstretched hand. As the phantoms raced about, the tower began to shake violently.
“W-w-w-what’s happening?” Dale asked.
“The boilers!” cried Gadget.
Monterey Jack seemed to be having trouble keeping his feet. “Feels like the whole place is coming apart!”
Loose stones began to fall, reinforcing Monty’s theory. The air began to fill with dust. Through the noise and dust, though, the phantoms continued their work, bearing away Nimnul’s experiences. Some images, stronger than others, could be plainly seen, others were mere voices and sounds, and could only be heard.
They saw the dream world nexus, slowly circling its sun on the back of the tortoise.
Prison bars, a straight jacket, and long, long hours of mind-numbing boredom. In this void, the mind races in circles, until it finds new ways to achieve its ends. They would pay, oh yes they would. Those fools who mocked him, the multitudes who laughed at him, the Police, those rodents who foiled his plans, ha-ha, wouldn’t it be funny if everyone were a rodent?
A stern judge faced Professor Nimnul from atop his imposing bench. “Due to the unusual nature of the crimes committed, and your unorthodox defense, it is the decision of this court that you be remanded to the custody of the State Psychiatric Hospital, there to remain until such time as a determination can be made regarding your fitness to stand trial.” The gavel banged.
Arrested, like a common thief! The indignity! To suffer confinement at the hands of the police, those uniformed buffoons! Because of those wretched rodents, he had been made a laughingstock, a joke!
His most brilliant plans foiled, and his highest hopes for achieving recognition, dashed over and over again, by a pack of rodents? How? His plans were perfect! There was no reason that they should not have been successful . . .
The construction of his hilltop laboratory was expensive; it wiped out his entire inheritance and left him with a mountain of debt. But he was sure it would all be worth it, he would show those fools once and for all the validity of his theories! The laughter would stop!
Klaudaine seemed like the perfect benefactor, but even he was only using his genius for his own ends. Oh, he’d been paid handsomely, but would share in none of the glory, none of the credit for his work. The masterful plot he had conceived would make Klaudaine’s name famous, while his own would be merely a footnote to the greatest caper of all time. But even that small satisfaction was denied him.
A nameless clerk at the patent bureau, explaining in bored tones, “Well professor, I’m sorry you feel that way, but the simple fact of the matter is that no one is going to take the theoretical work behind your invention seriously. I suspect that even to conduct such an experiment might violate some sort of law, or at least get you in trouble with the ASPCA.” That was the most polite answer he had received. Others had laughed in his face.
His ambitions of making a name for himself in academia were slowly eroded away. As brilliant as Nimnul was, he had no understanding of workplace politics. After several years of watching less diligent, but savvier colleagues get promoted over his head and have their work published, he tendered his resignation, determined to make his mark in the private sector somehow, no matter what it took.
Norton, dressed in his best and only black suit, watched his older brother Ned reading the Kaddish over their father’s coffin. His sister-in-law Nancy was there too, cradling their infant son, his nephew Norman. As his brother finished, the Rabbi stepped forward, and began the funeral. “And so we are gathered here to bury a respected member of our community, Doctor Nathan Nimnul, sure in the blessings of the afterlife, as God has promised to us. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The Rabbi began to read in Hebrew from Psalm 90.
His expulsion from graduate school for plagiarism put an end to his doctoral studies. Nimnul knew that his ideas were original. It was he who had been made the victim here, by a wealthier (and sneakier) student, but he had little proof. Nevertheless, the Trustees refused to reverse the Academic Board’s decision. Worse still, Norton knew he had to face his father with the news, and truthfully, he was not sure how the old man would take it.
“Stop laughing at me!”
An isolated student in college, he applied himself relentlessly to his studies and earned excellent grades, but had no friends. He had to succeed, had to be perfect!
“Stop laughing at me!”
His father angrily waved the report card at him. “That’s not good enough! You have to do better than that! I know you have the mind to become whatever you seek to be, but you must apply yourself harder.” Success was the only acceptable outcome in his father’s house, perfection the only acceptable result.
“STOP LAUGHING AT ME!!”
The images began to blur together, there were now too many of the phantoms flying around to make any sort of pattern of it. The rumbling sound turned into a cracking, as massive chunks of the floor gave way, crashing into the depths below. Chip began to worry if this was the safest place to be just now.
Massive pieces of the bizarre clockwork, looking as though they had torn themselves loose from the mechanism, crashed upwards through the disintegrating floor. They tore away huge chunks of the Tower’s walls and rocketed skyward, disappearing into the boiling clouds above. The walls of the Tower began to fall away in crumbling pieces. The phantoms flew faster, overwhelming all their senses. Distinct images melded into a blur, and then into whiteness, growing painfully bright . . . distinct sounds melded together into a hubbub that built into a crescendo until it sounded like an anguished cry of rage and despair, and finally collapsed into a cry of guilt and failure. The Rangers covered their ears against the onslaught of noise, shut their eyes against the monstrous light . . .
And then it was gone.
Chip opened his eyes. The whiteness was still there, only not so bright now, simply featureless, empty. The horrible sound was gone as well. Dumbfounded and not understanding, he looked around and spotted Dale very close by, still holding his ears. Chip tugged his elbow, and Dale opened first one eye, and then the other, and looked around, unblocking his ears.
Gadget had curled up in a little ball; the sound alone was more than she wished to bear. Now that it was gone, she felt slightly silly lying on the ground like that, and pulled herself to her feet, and looked in wonder at the silent, seemingly infinite whiteness. Had the boilers exploded?
Monterey Jack picked Zipper up from the ground where he lay, and patted him comfortingly. Zipper opened his eyes, and was relieved at the sight of his old chum. Together, they surveyed the blank space around them
Foxglove picked herself up from the ground where she had fainted, or perhaps merely fallen. She didn’t like to think of herself as the kind of girl who fainted. All the same, she was glad those phantoms were gone. She searched the whiteness around her, looking for Dale. Her echolocation didn’t seem to be working; there was no sound to be heard.
Someone was crying.
Gadget heard the crying child, and turned towards the source. Yes, she was certain it came from this direction. She wasn’t exactly curious, so much as she was anxious to help whoever was crying. They sounded so sad . . .
Monterey and Zipper heard the crying too. They looked at each other, sharing a moment of silent communication of the sort possible only between the deepest of friends, and then went to investigate.
“What’s going on?” Dale asked.
“Sshhh, listen,” Chip replied. The sound of a crying child could be heard. “This way,” and Chip and Dale also walked towards the miserable sound, until they saw the boy.
The boy could not have been more than three or four years old, and was seated on the end of a playground slide, crying as though his world had just ended. Though human, oddly he was about their size, maybe a little smaller. An unruly shock of red hair protruded above the balled-up fists that covered the boy’s eyes. One hand clutched a pair of thick glasses, recently broken and showing signs of prior repair. The boy’s clothes and tear-streaked face were stained with grass and mud, where by appearances it had been flung by others.
The whiteness around them faded to yellow, then to orange, and then to a dull red, and the world came into focus, resolving itself into a playground illuminated by the setting sun. The smell of wet earth and the presence of clouds were the solemn testimony of a recent shower. The slides, swings, jungle gyms and seesaws cast their long shadows across the damp grass in the late evening light.
Chip, Dale, Gadget, Foxglove, Monterey and Zipper were all there, standing in a semicircle around the playground slide, and its single forlorn occupant.
Chip though he recognized the lad. “Normie?”
The youngster looked up suddenly, visibly startled to see he had company, and squinted at Chip. “N-n-normie? Nuh-nossir, my name is Norton. N-norton Nimnul.” He sniffled and put on his abused glasses, in an effort to see who was addressing him, then produced a dirty kerchief from his pocket and attempted to wipe off the lenses, but given the condition of the kerchief, it wasn’t much of an improvement.
Gadget came up and knelt beside him, producing her own kerchief. “Here, let me.” The child seemed taken aback by this unexpected display of kindness, but submitted to her ministrations quietly, except for the occasional sob.
Chip rubbed his eyes and looked again, unable to convince himself that this child was Professor Norton Nimnul, the same mad genius whose plots they had foiled so many times.
“Here lad,” Monty asked gently, “what’s with the waterworks?”
Norton’s face reddened with shame at the memory. “Th-the other kids w-w-wouldn’t play with me. They—they said I was weird, and they threw mud at me.” He started to cry again. “They laughed at me!”
“That’s terrible!” Gadget interjected. She brushed as much of the mud as she could off of him.
Dale stepped up now, and knelt down so he could look into Norton’s face. “Aw c’mon, don’t cry kid. Hey, check this out!” Dale made silly faces at Norton, trying to get him to laugh, but he only half-smiled and turned away shyly. Foxglove came up behind Dale and put her wing gently on his shoulders. She didn’t really know who Norton Nimnul was, although she’d heard Dale and the others speak of him. Norton spotted her and reacted with an expression that was half-afraid, half-curious.
“Y-you’re a b-bat, aren’t you?”
Foxglove was as surprised as anyone, but smiled pleasantly. “Why yes, I am.”
“Are you g-g-going to b-bite me?”
Foxglove didn’t know what to say, she was crestfallen. “Don’t let her appearance fool you kid,” Dale came to her rescue, “there’s no sweeter or gentler creature in the world than Foxglove.” Foxglove squeezed Dale’s shoulder in thanks.
“Too right,” Monty added.
“Oh,” Norton replied, less afraid now but still unsure.
Gadget meanwhile had finished up. Though the result was not perfect, it was a far cry from the pitiful, mud spattered youngster they had first come upon. “There you go. You can keep the hankie if you like,” she added, offering it to him. Norton looked up at her, then down at the proffered kerchief, and took it hesitantly.
“Thank you m-m-miss.” He looked up at Gadget’s face again and smiled. “You’re nice.”
An old green station wagon drove into the parking lot. Norton stood up as it approached. The aged car came to a halt, and blew its horn. Norton backed up a couple of tiny steps. The driver’s door opened, and a man got out. They couldn’t see him clearly, because the setting sun was behind him, casting his shadow over the boy. “C’mon Norton, time to go.” The man said wearily.
The Rangers all looked at Norton, who backed up a few more steps. Chip broke the uncomfortable silence that had descended. “Is that your father?”
“Yes,” Norton replied, in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Aren’t you going to go with him?” Chip asked
The man spoke again, more insistent this time, “Norton, don’t make me come over there and get you.”
Norton shook his head slowly then said, “I don’t want to go with you! I want to go with Mommy!”
The man at the car shook his head sadly. “You can’t go with your mother. You have to come with me.”
“I want to go with Mommy!” Norton yelled, and with that, he turned and ran as fast as he could. The man in the car did not pursue, he just sighed wearily, lit a cigarette and waited.
As the Rangers watched, Norton ran to the end of the playground. There seemed to be something there, just barely visible in the fading dusk, but they couldn’t make it out. With one accord, they all went to see what it was.
Norton ran to the figure, which looked like just a colored smudge against the backdrop of the trees, and clung fiercely to it, now crying again. The Rangers stopped a respectful distance away. They couldn’t make out the figure at all, but they all somehow received the impression that it was female, full of love and warmth, a figure of solace for a crying little boy. The hazy, indistinct figure seemed like the mere ghost of a memory.
Or the memory of a ghost.
“His mother died when he was very little, he barely remembers anything about her.” The Rangers all started at the sound of the Muse’s voice. They hadn’t even realized he was there. “From what I gather, his father was the sole driving force of his most formative years. He was a good man, I think, but a perfectionist to a fault.” As the Muse and the Rangers watched, the figure knelt and put its arms around the boy, and they got a quick impression of her face, care-worn but kind, and still too young to have left the world behind. The redness of the sunset, the playground and the trees faded away, leaving them all standing there with the Muse in a starry dark blue space, watching as the consoling figure gradually vanished, leaving the sobbing boy alone again.
“What is all this? What does it mean?” Gadget asked.
“This is the core of his psyche, the person he really is, deep down where he thinks he‘s hidden it away so even he couldn‘t see it. When all that makes a person what they are is stripped away, only then can you tell who they really are. It can be a painful process, but sometimes it is necessary.” The Muse shook his head sadly and glided quietly up behind the child that was Norton Nimnul. He waved a softly shining wing over the boy’s head, and Norton fell over quietly like an old tree, suddenly sound asleep.
“What’s going to happen to him now?” Chip wanted to know.
“He can’t be allowed to go free in this state,” the Muse replied sadly. “His madness combined with the knowledge he has gained of the mechanisms of this realm would make him too great a threat.” The Muse knelt and gently picked up the sleeping form, cradling him in one arm.
“You don’t mean to keep him prisoner here, do you?” Gadget asked.
“I’d rather not,” the Muse replied with distaste at the idea. “It’s my intention rather to repair his fractured psyche, and return him to your world. Perhaps I can teach him an appreciation of life. An education based on science and facts alone has produced a formidable intellect well acquainted with mankind’s works, but ignorant of its heart and spirit.” The Muse turned and looked Gadget in the eye before continuing. “There is a reason people create artistic works as well as practical ones, you see. It’s to remind themselves and their fellows what it means to have a heart, as well as a mind.”
Gadget mulled this thought over uncomfortably, reflecting on how long it had been since she had read a book that wasn’t interrupted every few paragraphs with a technical diagram or a mathematical formula.
“How long will it take?” Monty asked.
“That depends on a lot of things that, frankly, even I can’t foresee,” said the Muse. As he spoke, the stars around them began to go out, the light became dimmer and dimmer.
“When will you start?” Dale asked.
The Muse smiled. “I’ve already begun.”
The last star vanished.
The deep blue void around them faded altogether to blackness, leaving them momentarily disoriented, and then suddenly the world reassembled itself around them. They were in the grand courtyard of the Citadel. The Tower and its massive machinery had collapsed into a steaming heap of rubble, and the outer walls were in a similarly ruinous state. The marble floor that was all that remained of the great hall was filled with people . . . well . . . mice, rats, chipmunks and squirrels, whatever form they had taken upon entering this world. They were staring in wonder at the new arrivals, and at the decayed and broken tower that had formerly represented their prison. Others, new arrivals themselves, looked in wonder and fear at the broken and foreboding landscape around them, wondering just how they had arrived in this blasted and desolate place.
In a heap on the ground next to them, were Fat Cat and his henchmen, still unconscious. Foxglove shivered, remembering her encounters with the criminal mastermind.
“What are you going to do with him?” Foxglove asked.
“Send him back,” the Muse replied evenly, now once again wearing the form of the kindly old white rabbit, “he represents no threat to the world of dreams. In fact, everyone will be able to go home soon. There is just one small problem left. The gateways to the waking world are still closed, and I will need your help one last time to re-establish the connection between this world, and yours.” From somewhere, he produced a walking stick, and began walking purposefully towards a gap in the eastern wall of the crumbling fortress, still carrying the peacefully sleeping child with him. “Come with me, please.
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