An Archetale of the Assembling Terrania CycleThe Assembling Terrania Cycle
“I can’t picture you wanting to carry a pistol.”
Montu was my go-to man for gadgetry. The arrangement had begun in dollar signs, but over the years we developed a liking for each other. He was bold, black and from Baltimore; I was blue-eyed, olive and from Sparta, although I grew up mainly in the States and had relatives from all over the globe. Our running joke was that we had been twin brothers millennia ago in Hermopolis.
We sat at his workbench in a secret room below his living room. I had funded some of it, and he had fitted it out. He was a no-talk tech genius in coveralls who turned out masterpieces. Cars that could smell, neckties that could see, name it. The latest example of his work sat gleaming in the shop lights in front of us.
Police and SMOKE agents were the only ones allowed to carry guns now. The latest models induced funny currents behind the chest wall. The low setting made the heart jump and the body faint. The high setting killed.
“Let’s go over this,” Montu said as he picked up the piece and handed it to me. It was light and flat and grey, with a barrel that stopped an inch beyond my fingers. I jiggled it like a rattle.
“That a whole gun,” he said.
“You print this up from scratch?”
“No, did it with a modified SMOKE template.” I didn’t ask him how he had obtained it. Same way I obtained things, no doubt.
He peeled off his thin work gloves, stuffed them into a chest pocket, and pointed. “Squeeze the grip once for setting one, twice for two. Power gauge here on the back.” I saw it between my thumb and forefinger. “Plug it in to charge. That’s it. Simple.”
“I understand these guns normally adjust charge intensity and spread depending on the distance to the target. No need for any fiddling.”
“Tell the dummy how to carry it.”
He turned, picked up a dark sheath, handed it to me.
“Holster. You wear it inside your waistband. Back or belly.”
“Which would you pick?”
“Back. A less obvious reach, and you won’t slip and bang your sausage.”
“What would I do without you?”
“Maybe be a worm farm. You take a lot of risks.”
“Excellent workmanship, as always.”
“Thanks. Hope you won’t need it long.”
For those of us who grew up otherwise, it’s strange to live under a world government at war with everything fantastical. Sacred tales, provocative plays, science fiction or fantasy in books or film, most of the literature of the past: all banned on pain of “reeducation,” meaning imprisonment. Kids who even seem like they are daydreaming in class get written up for it. Poets, bards, magicians, and mimes work underground.
Plato got his way: the theaters are closed, and self-appointed kings of rationality rule the world. Nobody sings anymore except in commercials and political rallies. The only god allowed now is Efficiency, with Progress the only valid path. After centuries of competition, scientism and fundamentalism finally hooked up and rolled out a police state full of literalists.
“So Wonder Woman was thought up by a psychologist,” mused Diane. We drank coffee aboard my sailboat Acheron. I swept for bugs regularly, so we could speak freely here.
“As inspired by Margaret Sanger and other feminists of the time,” I added. “The idea for her came from Elizabeth Marston. Wonder Woman was a response to how, in the States, comic heroes of the early 1940s were all muscle-bound males.”
I had learned a few things about Diane after meeting her at the hotel where she saved my life. She worked there for the reading time the job allowed. Like me, she downloaded illicit books onto her phone. She embraced causes, women’s causes in particular. When they skirted the law, she flouted it. She liked aquajogging, parasailing, practicing various martial arts, and getting lost in forests. The government had tried to roll back women’s rights, but she wasn’t having it. A line of concentration linked her green eyes when she thought things over.
“Comics,” she repeated. “Weren’t they mainly for kids?”
“Kids read them back then, but the material went much deeper. Besides, there’s no age limit on love of fantasy and fiction.”
“Well, I have to admit I was shocked when a fictional character showed up in my dream the day we met.”
“Yep. The short woman in red and silver. She’s the one giving you the nightly lessons, right?”
“Even with you explaining, I’m not sure I get it all yet. Tetraverse, Dreamvale…”
“Same here. I’m still digesting it.”
“Or how the Director of SMOKE showed up over there. How the hell did that happen?”
“I don’t know. But I know one thing, and it’s important: You’re in danger for making that compromising recording of him. He’ll want not only you, but everyone who might have seen it. Me as well.”
“So what do we do?”
I felt the rub of the gun at my back under my shirt. “We be careful, lay low, avoid attention, and try to formulate a plan. Do you have any vacation time coming?”
After Diane left I took paddle in hand and my smaller raft out for a harbor jaunt.
The cries of gulls sang the sun down seaward. The beauty of this daily miracle failed to lighten my doubts.
The plan itself felt workable. It wasn’t that.
It wasn’t the risk to myself. I was used to taking risks. Risks were my business model.
Even while occasionally teaming up on a scheme, I had never put someone else’s life at risk. That bothered a part of me which others would refer to as their conscience. Did I have one? After all my predation upon the established and the ultra-wealthy I wasn’t sure if I did. If so, it smarted.
Oh, I suppose I could argue that Diane had put herself at risk by entering my life at an awkward moment. By recording the Director threatening me, she had taken sides, and, evidently, without hesitation. It wasn’t just that she liked me. She hated abuse of power in any form. That was core for her.
No, what bothered me was that the risk to her bothered me. I was surprised to discover, lurking backstage behind the mental scenery, a nugget of caring for her. If I polished it some…but I wouldn’t. Even untouched, though, it gleamed enough to get my attention. How annoying.
Was there a safer plan that left her entirely out? Unfortunately, she would be in jeopardy until we resolved things with SMOKE. No getting past that. I gritted my teeth as my paddle dug into the restless brine. I should have been more careful in that hotel. Then she would not have had to involve herself. But she had, and saved my life into the bargain, which meant that in addition to the nugget, I owed her some kind of repayment. Shit.
What a world. When would we humans learn not to let the worst among us rule it? “Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down…” What else had Ahab said? “There can be no hearts above the snow-line.” He wasn’t all crazy. At least he knew enough not to expect any help from wayward gods.
Sink or swim: our human prerogative as we try to navigate life’s treacherous chop. And a new, if reluctant, learning for me: When others risk sinking, we must help them swim. All we have, in the end, is each other. A truth that the go-it-alone existentialists and the Ahabs of the world never seem to grasp. Nor had I, not fully, even if I do occasionally sign my name as Ishmael.
How they captured us exhibited an elegant ease. One moment the taxi was heading toward the coast; the next, to an undisclosed destination in the hills. The doors locked. Shatterproof windows. We waited.
The taxi’s new programming led it to an underground garage, where it stopped. A speaker came to life: “Please take the phone from your pocket and the pistol from your waistband and leave them in the car.”
Once the doors opened, two SMOKE agents with expressionless faces and oiled-down hair escorted us to a room with a heavy door that closed behind us. The office contained three chairs, one behind a desk. The room was bland and gray and pictureless and reminded me of where one used to go to get a passport renewed.
We sat and waited again.
Presently, the Director entered, closed the door, and took the seat behind the desk. Upon its gray surface he placed my gun.
“You insist on enlarging my stock of impressive toys,” he said. “I will enjoy examining this one, although at a glance it seems just a standard pistol. Well-made, though.”
“Do it right or don’t do it at all.”
“Indeed.” He looked at Diane. “I regret your involvement in this unpleasant business. I’m afraid it won’t end well.”
“What do you want?” she asked.
“The obvious. Who knows about the recording you made? Where is it stored?”
She shook her head. Despite the situation and the Director’s ominous presence, her fear did not show.
“I’d like to know something,” I put in. “How did you end up in the Dreamvale?”
“Most curious,” his log-sawing voice acknowledged. “A character who called himself Kluni began appearing in my dreams. Quite a scamp, I gather. He told me about the worlds and the Dreamvale and said he knew a way in. He was right.”
“Last time I saw you there, Firiel returned and banished you.”
“Temporarily, perhaps. Kluni told me that someone called MG was returning, and that things would be different soon over there. I plan to learn whatever useful magic I can to make some of it work over here.”
The names meant nothing to me. Firiel hadn’t mentioned any Kluni or MG.
“Any other questions?” he asked. Diane shook her head.
“Just one,” I put in. “You are old enough to remember how life was before it went up in SMOKE. You are obviously articulate, well-read, intellectually cultivated, and technically apt. A man, evidently, of many capabilities.”
“Listening to stalling is not one of them.”
“My question is: Why would someone like you direct SMOKE, let alone work for them? You who know so much and could be the freest and most creative soul of all.”
I didn’t expect him to be moved, and he wasn’t. I really was just curious.
“Creativity,” he explained, “always ushers in disorder, doses of chaos, and unexpected change. Perhaps that worked in times long passed, but today, humanity has finally achieved a planned and regulated world society. The majority of people have enough to eat, enough work to do, and enough entertainment to distract them. Now and then, one or two prove highly capable, whereupon we condition them to take our places in the managerial hierarchy one day. Orderly governance, orderly transition—and no more war. Before SMOKE, the world had not known one year of real peace. Now every year is peaceful. I regard that as worth working for.”
“I see. A machine’s idea of paradise. Everyone is regimented, but nobody is awake. Except for ‘deviants.’ Meanwhile, the spirit dies.”
“There is no spirit, only outdated romantic notions used to justify another illusion: free will.”
“Someone once said that it’s not the wolves of the world we should worry about, but the sheepdogs gone wrong.”
“Someone has to keep the herd together.”
“In the end, then, what you offer is programming.”
“And what’s wrong with that? Programming is about to stabilize the system by removing two of its most troubling deviations.”
He rose, holding the gun. “Would the two of you please stand up and push those chairs back? They will be in the way otherwise.”
Once we had done that, the Director took up a position in front of the desk with Diane a few feet to his right and me to his left.
The gun glittered in his large fist. One squeeze to stun, two to kill.
He squeezed twice. So he was really going to do it. My heart began to pound.
“Kill me,” Diane said, swallowing but brave, “and you lose the recording.”
“You underestimate our own technical sophistication. I asked about the recording only to prompt your thinking about where it was and who knew about it. Once you are dead, our laboratory will lift those recent memories from your brain.”
“My brain won’t be working anymore.”
“It takes time for the neural imprint to fade.” He raised the gun.
“Wait!” I called out, arms lifting.
He fired. She convulsed, fell, and lay still.
After a silent moment, my eyes lifted from her to him. He glanced at the power dial on the gun.
“Quite a surge. Plenty more for the final shot, though.” The barrel swung from her to me. I drew a deep breath and held it.
He fired. A startled look crossed his face. He fired again.
“In reference to our ongoing joke about technological risks,” I explained, “you have put your faith in the conviction that you hold a weapon. It won’t actually hurt anyone, though. When you squeezed it, a signal went out to the police. When you fired, it made a record of your attempt to kill us.
“That ‘gun,’” I went on, pointing at it, “is also recording everything we say and do.” Bless Montu.
He glanced down at it. When he did, one of Diane’s legs swept his from beneath him. He grunted as his backside hit the ground, hard: he was a large man.
She stood over him, snarling.
“Frisk him,” I said.
The police arrived just as she finished pulling various items from his pockets. He let her, having been stunned by the unexpectedly solid contact with our amazing planet.
He glared as they bundled him up.
“You’re thinking this isn’t over,” I told him, “but actually, it is. After they’ve charged and convicted you for everything, SMOKE has learned of your private murder project, I have sued you and SMOKE for it, and the entire mess goes public, many things will change forever. –I’ve appreciated your cooperation, ex-Director. Enjoy prison. Plenty of time to read in there.” He’d be lucky if they didn’t give him a neuro redo. Or lucky if they did, depending on how one philosophizes such matters.
Diane stood breathing deeply and seemed to want to punch something.
“How’s the adrenalin?”
“You were magnificent.”
“I was scared shitless that the modifications wouldn’t work!”
“Never doubt a scion of Baltimore.”
“OK. You want to buy me lunch again?”
“You can eat after that?”
“Sure. That wasn’t even a real workout.”
“Haros Anastasios,” Diane intoned. “I like your name. You should use it more often.”
“I never use it. I’ve gotten used to ‘Harry’ and ‘Harold.’ Greek parents do not name their children ‘Haros.’”
“Yours did. –Why, what does it mean?”
“Care for another beer?” I passed her a Mythos, glad for a harbor restaurant that served them. Hard to find outside of Greece sometimes.
Down the years, SMOKE had pissed off a lot of people. When the news broke, recording and all (Mantu had made sure the ‘gun’ would send him the copy I relayed to the press), voices of complaint, mismanagement, tyranny, malfeasance, and oppression rose on every side.
Although the government promised more oversight and a thorough investigation, serious talk of dismantling the organization now made the rounds. Nobody but zealots had liked having their imagination locked down. Real change was on the breeze. I drank a toast to wolfhounds.
“I hear we’ll be able to see plays soon,” she said.
“And read what we like….”
I grunted. “I do anyway.” I sipped. “I’m just glad you’re safe now.”
“You were worried about me?”
“Yes. Grateful for what you did for me, and also worried. I tried to figure a way to do it without you, but I couldn’t.”
“Such a hero. Don’t wince! Did it occur to you that maybe I could look out for myself and didn’t need saving? You, on the other hand…”
She set down her beer and looked at me.
“What will you do now? You can’t stay unnoticed with your face all over the news.”
“My ways of existing in this fallen world had begun to get old anyway. It’s time for a change of occupation.”
“Maybe I’ll get a job on the criminal reform side of things. If it doesn’t work out, at least I will have learned some new techniques.”
Her lips emitted a rude noise.
“More to the point, I have an inter-realm embassy to help found. Storytellers, assemble! Now that we can legally create again, maybe a good filter would be a creative arts program. That seems a natural forum for teaching truly visionary creatives how to be in touch with the Dreamvalers. Montu can run the tech and help me talent-spot.”
“That sounds nice, but what will it ultimately achieve?”
“What happens over there, fictionally, is what happens or will happen here, materially. Also, our realm is where their dreams manifest. Imagine how things would change here if more of us understood that the imaginal is real. And…the Dreamvale connects us to the Power roots of the gods and, beyond them, to their Source.” I felt an inner quiet whenever I recalled the grand vision Firiel had granted me in her pool. What I had seen still worked on me.
“They might also need help with whatever their Kluni and MG problem is,” Diane reflected. “We need to know more about that.”
“What about you?” I asked. “What are your plans?”
“Help you found the embassy, of course.”
“Good. Working with you will help me stay out of trouble.”
“Didn’t work too well this time.”
“Truth. But I am turning over a new paddle now.”
“Uh huh. —Meanwhile, got any comics I can borrow?”