War was never pleasant, and Michael never expected to find himself smack-dab in the middle of one.

But that was exactly where he was.

Michael looked down at his military uniform and cringed. A second ago, Michael had been in his bed, asleep. Now he was standing in the middle of a Picasso painting of chaos. This was madness!

Michael squeezed his eyes shut. I’m dreaming.

He waited a few seconds then opened his eyes slowly. He was still standing on a battlefield. Gunshots fired around him and people shouted.

I’m dreaming, he thought again. Where the hell am I?

“Becks, what the hell are you doing?”

Michael turned to stare at an older man with dirt and mud and blood covering him.

The man was barking at Michael, “Becks, this is a war! Fight, soldier!”

Michael was wildly confused, but he lifted his gun obediently and who he assumed was his commanding officer ran off.

I think I’d remember enlisting in the army, Michael thought dazedly. Then there was a stinging pain in his arm and his next thought was I’m not dreaming.

Michael was dimly aware of screaming and an ache in his throat. Am I the one screaming? Michael supposed he was.

“Michael Becks, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” A man growled as he barreled past. “Defend my ass, bonehead!”

Michael obeyed sluggishly. His mind was still trying to catch up. How had he gotten here? Who were these people and how did they know his name? What war was this? What was going on?

Suddenly, everything got super quiet, like right before a storm.

Something big’s coming, Michael thought to himself as everything around him moved in slow motion.

Then Michael was blown backwards.

He hit something hard and tasted blood.

Everything was chaotic again. Fast-paced and loud.

Michael heard a ringing in his ears and his right leg felt numb. Glancing at it briefly, Michael supposed legs were not supposed to bend that way.

It must be broken, he thought. He figured he should be screaming in pain, but mostly he felt numb all over.

What had hit him? Michael looked around, but no one was looking at him. They were all trying to shoot each other.

Something fluttered by Michael’s side and he picked it up. It was a letter of some sort, probably from a girlfriend to one of the soldiers. Michael was about to drop it when he noticed the name on the outside:

Michael K. Becks.

The ‘K’ made it real. Michael Becks could have been anyone. It was a common enough name, wasn’t it? Michael guessed there was more than just him with that name. But how many of them could say their middle name was Kellin? Michael supposed the K could have stood for Kyle or even Kristophe, but it didn’t. Michael was sure this note was meant for him. He opened it.

Dearest Michael, it read. I know you don’t understand what’s going on, but just try to listen. You were chosen to participate in a study. I don’t really get it, either, but they said they’d pay us a lot of money and you had the best success rate. I don’t know how they measure your success rate, or even success for what, but it seemed important. Please don’t hate me. They said the subject had to be completely unaware, so I drugged you at supper. I slipped it into your milk. They don’t know I gave you this letter. I’m not sure of all the fancy rules they listed (I zoned out halfway through), but I don’t think they’d approve of the letter. They said this test was to help them pick out the Specials from the Unoriginals. I’m not sure for what. They were all official-looking, almost FBI or CIA or Russian Mafia. It was quite scary. They’ve put our house on lock-down until this trial is over. Try to be safe, okay?

It was the last line that struck Michael hard enough to make his breath leave him painfully. Love, Chloe.

Chloe? Who on earth was Chloe? Still, even as he couldn’t remember, his heart constricted and did a weird little flip-flop at her name.

Michael wracked his brain, trying to remember. He could tell she was somehow important to him, but it irked him that he didn’t know how. Was she his sister? Cousin? Best friend? Girlfriend. Michael was barely twenty, so he supposed he was too young for her to be his fiancée or wife, and her diction sounded too young to be his mother’s, though he couldn’t remember her either.

Michael’s head ached and he rubbed his temples in frustration. He supposed Chloe’s letter was to clarify what was happening to him, but he was still just as lost as before, if not more so.

Michael wanted to throw back his head and yell to the skies, “What the fucking, goddamn hell is going on?” But his head ached and he was gaining some feeling— sharp, agonizing feeling— back into his legs, so he didn’t.

Instead, Michael put the letter and Chloe out of his mind and focused on the war happening around him. Not the why or how, but the escape plan. Michael dimly recalled hearing in history class that deserters were arrested and disgraced, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get out. Once away, Michael wasn’t sure what he’d do. Maybe find this Chloe girl, maybe just run as far and fast as he could. Except Michael wasn’t even sure what war this was. Where was he?

Michael had never fought in his life, except with his older brother Jared when they were growing up together. He had never taken a life before, let alone even fired a gun.

I love you, Mikey. Please come home safely.

Michael started at the voice in his head. Great, now I’m hearing things.

It had been a girl’s voice and his heart had reacted without hesitation. Michael assumed it was Chloe’s voice. A distant memory, perhaps. Since Michael knew telepathy didn’t exist, he guessed it was her telling him to come home from something else safely, not the war, and his mind just pulled up the memory even though he didn’t remember it.

I love you too, babe. I’ll be home before you know it.

His voice, but Michael had no recollection of ever saying that.

A picture was forming in his head. A beautiful young woman, about nineteen, with messy black hair stood in the doorway of a big house, smiling at him. She had crystalline blue eyes that shone like cut sapphire. They sparkled with mischief. She was wearing a long, too-big shirt and no pants. Michael supposed it was his shirt and she had just woken up.

Michael saw himself standing just outside, on the doormat. “My first class is only an hour and five minutes. Go to sleep. I’ll be back before you can wake up again. Promise.” He leaned over to press a kiss to the woman’s face.

Michael assumed it was an apartment he and this girl had rented for college.

“Shayla is coming over later. I know you hate her, but please try to behave. I want you to get along with my family.”

“Your sister belongs in a psych ward, not our apartment, Chloe.”

Chloe sighed. “Get to class, baby. We’ll talk later.”

Michael was sharply tugged out of the memory and back into the war.

The sky was a dark gray, thick with smoke and debris and gunpowder.

Michael knew he was going to die. Michael was not a fighter.

Chloe’s letter sprung to mind again. A test…?

Michael squeezed his eyes shut and repeated that over and over in his mind. This is a dream. It’s not real. It’s a test. It’s only a test. I can’t get hurt. It’s a test.

Unfortunately, it was difficult to convince himself of that when he’d already been hurt and his body was throbbing all over. Michael had the fiercest headache.

A test.

Gunshots fired around him, sounding too close.

A test.

Michael wanted to curl up into a ball and cry.

A test.

A shooting pain bloomed in his shoulder.

A test.

Blood soaked his shirt, oozing out and staining his skin.

A test.

Suddenly the gunfire stopped. The acrid smell in the air vanished. Michael was almost afraid to open his eyes. His body didn’t hurt any more.

I’m dead, Michael thought with certainty until cool hands were on his face.

“Mikey, baby. Open your eyes. You’re safe. You passed. Mikey?”

Michael finally opened his eyes from his cocoon of silence and found himself staring up into that beautiful face. Stolen memories rushed back. He sat up too quickly and grabbed her up into a hug. Chloe.

“Congratulations,” a male voice said from behind him. Michael whirled to face a sharply dressed older man. “You passed. In record time, too, I might add.”

Michael stared at the man in confusion, still gripping Chloe tightly. “Who are you? What was that? Why am I being tested?”

“We would like to offer you a position in our institution, Mr. Becks. I can say with confidence I have never seen anything like that today.”

“Like what? I didn’t do anything.”

“Oh, but you did. You got out of the nightmare faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. We would be honored to have you among our ranks.”

“What ranks?” Michael was defensive, still clutching Chloe possessively.

“Dream Monitors. We watch over people and keep them safe in their dreams. There’s a war coming, Michael, and it won’t be pretty.”

“A dream war?” Michael was incredulous. This man had to be kidding. He had never heard of such a thing in his life.

“What do you say, Michael? Come defeat the sleeping darkness with us?”

Michael hesitated. His hands around Chloe pulled her closer.

“Chloe can come live at Headquarters, too, of course.”

That decided him. He still wasn’t entirely convinced he believed this man, but as long as Chloe was with him, he felt strong enough to battle anything.

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