An Archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle
I used to be a ferryman.
I had a good thing going, too, until SMOKE threatened me with a prolonged stay in a suite more ferrously framed than I prefer. That and the abrupt hold on my bank account convinced me to contemplate a quick change of occupation.
For readers seldom venturing out from ‘neath stony ramparts, SMOKE stands for Suppressive Materialism and Obtrusive Knowability Enforcement. They go after fantasists and faith holders. They turn symbols into stop signs. They smash idealism where they find it.
When fuming fundamentalists rose up around the world to calcify everything magically intangible, including myths, hopes, and dreams, the archetypal entities once known as gods left their natural haunts—temples, ceremonies, holy wells and grottos, creative cosmologies—and hid in human beings.
Deities like a change of scene now and then, give or take a millennium, and this time they were headed back into nature. But first they needed to be extracted from their confining fleshy containers. Imagine riding a two-legged pony, only to find yourself stuck in the saddle.
I never met the extractors, but my lucrative enterprise provided rafts and directions to human-clad fugitives seeking coastal extraction sites. One moment, Aphrodite animated a lovely human form; the next, post-pony, She glistened in lovely sea foam while some bewildered former host entered therapy to explore why she suddenly wanted lovers to commit.
And so it went: brighter noons and dimmer wits; stronger steeds and weaker jocks; warmer hearths and fewer nuns…
So it went until my operation went up in SMOKE and I had to move on. Who ferried the gods after that? Beats me. I only work here, or used to.
I drove down a California highway in a fog-colored truck almost as blocky as an old Tesla prototype. (Nobody remembers bland boxy vehicles.) I was on vacation, I decided, until I figured out the next move. Plenty of $ in reserve. Memories of past gigs drifted through my mind: for instance, posing as an inventor long enough to part a foolish billionaire from his e-money. How silly of him to believe in that fake gold-making machine. Creative, if unpatentable…
The smart house scheme, in which soundproof, AI-enhanced, and abusively vocal abodes sold by my unreal real estate office offered to open doors and windows locked for a week, allowing their bedraggled super-wealthy prisoners to go free—for a price…
One of my favorites was selling “select” Calculator’s Catechisms to SMOKE personnel. The standard-issue version of these booklets linked the user to text, audio, and video resources for tracking creativity crime. I felt the Catechisms would be more entertaining if they accessed the bedroom security cameras of random high-ranking officials. Nor was I entirely alone in this thinking. Amazing, what goes on behind the closed doors of people obsessed with purity and morality…
By the time I got out of the reeducation work camp I had learned enough inside to really go to town. Then a wily stranger used as a human taxi by Hermes came around and paid me many an obol for the ferrying job. “What do you really want?” he had called out over the water as his raft floated toward an extraction site.
I pulled off the highway, grabbed my travel bag, and checked into a hotel under the name Ishmael H. Starbuck. Here on the fringes of Santa Barbara County, the landscape burned less in the wind-dried fall than elsewhere around the state. Appropriate that they never called it “autumn” here. How easily Paradise could fall into Underworld. Suppress the indigenous land-tending regimens of a place and see what happens.
Long, copper-colored hair framed the green eyes that appraised me. I guessed her age at 30, which made her about a decade and a half younger than the black-haired and -jacketed man across the polished counter from her.
Bright red lips pretended to pout. “What’s the H stand for?”
Almost against my will, my mouth and eyes smiled. I hadn’t been flirted with lately.
“Harold,” which was close enough. Her name tag said Diane.
She handed me my key and a chocolate chip cookie and actually winked.
“Enjoy your stay.”
Once in the room, I set my bag on the drum-tight bedspread and fetched forth a device resembling a stylus, which I stuck to the door frame near the lock. I don’t like unexpected visitors. Next out of the bag came my bathroom kit, a silvery shirt I hung up in the closet, and the contraband book Mutants & Mystics by Jeffrey Kripal. Pinching the cover a certain way would reduce the tome to powder. The pellet I pressed onto a corner of the closed window would beep my third-finger ring if anyone aimed a listening beam through the glass.
Most hotel rooms have built-in surveillance now, but I ignored it, not caring what the staff saw or heard. Intruders were another matter.
You probably expect me to say next that I drew forth a pistol and tucked it under my pillow. Beyond the fact that near one’s head is a stupid place for hardware, I don’t like guns. It has been my pleasure to practice financial predation on carefully chosen members of the resplendently rich, every one of whom supported oppressive social programs of the type I’d like to see dismantled. But I’m not ready to kill anyone over value differences. If I were, I’d be a fundamentalist, a sociopath, a soldier, or a revolutionary, and I’m none of the above. Sometimes I wonder what I am.
I didn’t feel social, so I got dinner at an auto café, came back to my room, took a bath, and went to bed.
…A forest clearing, at night. A very short young woman approaches. Light from the largest moon I have ever seen turns on the shine in her blonde hair, dances along the metallic fringe of her crimson cloak.
“Hello, Haros,” she greets me. She is barefoot, insteps covered with hair. Her left hand clasps a staff of gnarled wood with a glowing red gem at its tip. Although my brown face must blend with the shadows behind me, she looks upward directly into my eyes.
“I seem underdressed for the Renaissance Faire,” as I glance down at my black jeans and the silver-gray shirt I had just hung in the closet. The night smells pleasantly of pine and of odors more mysterious. “How do you know my name?”
“I should tell you mine. I am Firiel the Silver, a wizard in training. My magic draws its force mainly from words and names.”
The red stone winks. I realize I am dreaming.
“We haven’t much time,” she tells me. “I need to explain some things to you.”
She gestures around. “My world is called the Dreamvale. Yours is the Coaguum. You can think of ours as the world of imagination.”
“As in make believe?”
“More like believe make. You can’t accomplish anything in your world, can’t initiate a single action, without one of our fantasies behind it. For instance, we told the gods about you, Haros, so you could help them transform.”
I enjoy hearing my name spoken. It has been a while; few know it.
Some dream. I play along: “And how did you find me?”
“My mirror pool. You appeared there. Think of it as a scrying.”
“Our worlds do not communicate enough. I will explain in later dreams…for now, know that upheavals and calamities in our world are echoed in yours, and yours in ours. Wars, droughts, famines, outbreaks of madness…like the one that prompted the gods to hide and flee in your world.”
“Something bad happened over here as well?”
“This is all a longer story, but the point is that people from both worlds need to create a kind of embassy so we can talk to each other more.”
“That is one way. Fantasy is another…there are many ways. Many portals.”
“Why me? I’m just an out-of-work ferryman and vacationing outlaw.”
“The gods trusted you, and with good reason.”
“I didn’t trust them, though.” The disappointment in my voice surprises me.
The gods. What good were they? Sure, the world was more exciting with them in it. Turn the corner and see a couple’s kiss swell into a Heiros Gamos. A taxi paused at a light like the Tarot Chariot. A first day at work adorned in the trappings of Initiation. But I was no worshipper and never had been. In fact, I was comfortably agnostic until They knocked on my door to ask about seaside excursions.
Actually, it wasn’t that I didn’t trust them. What do you really want? I realized I had expected them to tell me that: the underlying, unthought reason for becoming their ferryman. Instead, they had asked me, and I had no answer.
Pretending I cared only about money and staying two steps ahead of the pursuit seemed less and less appealing. More and more of how I lived—on the road, on the sly, trusting no one, committing to nothing but my own peculiar kind of existential and literal mobility—had come to feel like adolescent protest. I broke laws not only because I hated the zealots who had taken over the world and made their injustices legal; I did it because nothing sacred had appeared to stake its claim upon my heart.
I had taken big risks to serve the gods, and all I was left with was myself.
“Do not think yourself disillusioned only,” Firiel says. “You have lost something important that you were meant to lose. How many in your world can say they have spoken directly with the gods? They left when you took into yourself what each of them represented to you. They blessed you, and it was still not enough for you.”
I shake my head, but it feels right somehow. Was I trickier because of having known Hermes? Softer because of Aphrodite? It would take sorting out.
In any case, blessed or not, I was in the same place as before. The gods had seen me paid, but they had their own agendas.
A small pool of water lined with small stones, right there at my feet. I hadn’t noticed it before.
“Look inside it,” she says, motioning. I crouch and stare into dark waters. They shimmer. The pool expands until my consciousness swims in it, my body left behind…
If I were able to tell you what I see next, I would. I have tried.
With a god’s eye view, I behold the Tetraverse, an incalculably vast layering of realms, from Coaguum at the periphery to Dreamvale to an Infraworld of intangible archetypes to the Source of it all, hidden away in the cosmic dark lest its grandeur and power blast our sanity. The multidimensional filaments of glory streaming out from the Barrier that hid it inflame my vision, set me inwardly trembling; it is all I can do not to run away from the power and immensity of it all.
Behind the Barrier, a great Heart beats in the center of all the universes, each too deep and far-flung for any attempt at conscious encompassing. I am lost in them, my mind drifting among gigantic structures, some gaseous, some starry, some humming with unguessable planes and spokes and lattices of cosmic force.
I glance toward the Heart of All, imagining it rather than perceiving it directly; and as I do, It opens Its eyes, terrible and joyous to behold, and looks at me, fixing me so firmly I cannot not even look away. I would scream in ecstatic fear if I still had flesh. You are seen.
A sound too deep for hearing rumbles continually outward from the Center, bulging galaxies, spinning black holes, subtly shaking stars and planets. And all of it, from quanta to quasars and beyond, in every realm, pulses with intelligence, knowing, aliveness…
A slender hand passes over the vision, and my eyes stare once again into fathomless waters. I pass shaking dream hands over my face, unable for the moment to speak.
“It takes time,” she says gently. I stand up slowly. If I were to die now, at this moment, then at least I have had the privilege to see a little of…THAT. The Source. The meaning and purpose and living heart of the whole.
“The dawn is coming,” Firiel says. “One thing more, and very important: You will wake in peril of your life. You must remember, at the appropriate moment, to say the words ‘Wonder Woman.’”
My imaginal eyes slowly blink. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. I will see you soon in another dream.”
I woke in bed sitting up, my back against the headboard. A gray cuff at each wrist and ankle interfered with my ability to move my limbs. After a few attempts I stopped trying.
At the foot of the bed sat a thickset man in a red necktie and a suit the color of ash. Stiff stubble topped a white head so large I guessed it would make creases on the back of his neck. He placed a phone he had been playing with in a coat pocket.
“Those cheap hotel chairs will make you stiff in no time.”
“I won’t be here long.” His rough voice sounded like a heavy handsaw cutting into a log. “Neither will you.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure.”
“Oh, I am sure you recognize me. I direct an organization whose cameras malfunctioned thanks to you. One of them was in my bedroom.”
“Tech is always risky,” I noted. He did not blink, and his large hands were still. He seemed scarcely to breathe. “Better check the warranty.”
“It expired. But that is as it should be. You see, expiration is the theme of this visit.”
“Revenge is such a primitive emotion.”
“But profoundly satisfying to indulge on occasion.”
“I must admit I didn’t expect any visitors.”
“So I saw when I entered. Once I had tracked you to this hotel, I explained to the staff that you were a wanted man. They turned off the mics and other such paraphernalia, and my agents put sleep gas into the air vents to this room. You seem to have slept through your alarms.”
“But I’m not a wanted man.” At the moment, anyway.
“Certainly you are. Wanted by me. Your sophisticated anti-surveillance devices were an unexpected bonus. I plan to study them.”
“And so now?”
“You are quite correct about the risks of technology. Those cuffs will move your arms and legs at my command.” A thick index finger pointed toward his jacket pocket. “In a few moments you and I will leave the building together. Your remains will then be found in a fiery car wreck. An appropriately SMOKy intervention, wouldn’t you say?”
It’s a common error to believe that self-righteous people live up to their stated principles. SMOKE fostered a public image of rationalism and decency, and the return of power to the common person hounded by the ranks of superstitious dreamers and fantasists. Only zealots would join such an organization; and in the end, zealots are nearly always willing to kill those upon whom they project their own darkness. I can’t say, then, that his talk of assassination greatly surprised me. I mainly wished he had found another target.
“I seem to be in a pickle. I wonder what Wonder Woman would do.” Why not?
“A shame for you that she isn’t here to help.” So he had actually read the literature SMOKE burned. “Is there anything else you’d care to add to the conversation? Begging for mercy, though futile, would be particularly welcome.” He stood and reached into his coat.
At about this time I waxed, like Hamlet, desperate with imagination. Would dream cavalry arrive in the nick of time? I doubted it. Every close shave and escape in my misspent life had come about through my own quick thinking. Nobody had ever rescued me, neither human nor divinity. Dream or no dream, nobody would this time either.
The room’s phone rang.
The Director looked at the nightstand. Tried to ignore it. Walked over to it.
“Were you expecting a call?”
“No.” Little point in saying, “Yes” and making something up. He seemed too smart for that.
The phone rang. He stared at it, frowning. Then he picked it up without saying a word. He listened.
After fifteen or so seconds, his already craggy face had hardened to granite. He put the phone down.
“They say repressing emotions is bad for your health,” I put in helpfully.
Bringing out his own phone, he touched it. The cuffs on my extremities sprang open. He collected them, then glared at me.
“This isn’t over.”
The door closed behind his massive gray-clad shoulders.
The phone rang. I rose and picked it up.
“Hi Harold,” blurted the expressive voice of the redhead at the desk. “Are you OK?”
“Evidently.” I drew a deep breath. So I would live to bunko another day.
“Whew! I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or not. Have you ever received instructions from a dream?”
Nothing could surprise me now. “As a matter of fact, yes. Why?”
“Last night I dreamed that a blondie in a wizard’s costume told me that if someone asked about Wonder Woman, I was to make an important phone call. She didn’t say who I should call, though. I woke this morning thinking it was just a bizarro dream…
“Look, we don’t surveil much, but when SMOKE agents came in yesterday, I knew they weren’t just wanting the two-day-stay-with-breakfast. I can’t stand those bastards! Anyway, I turned on the equipment just to spite them.”
“Good move! The best. What then?”
“Well, you were the latest guest, so I got curious and looked in on your room. I saw and heard that big guy threatening you. I wasn’t sure what to do until you mentioned Wonder Woman, and then it came to me. I called the room and told Stoneface I had recorded everything and would call the cops and the press if he didn’t leave asap.”
“Diane, may a thousand blessings alight upon thy coppery locks. Your Lasso of Truth just saved my life.”
A pause. I pictured her blushing.
“Thanks, but it was the dream lady with the hairy feet who told me what to do.”
“Yes, but you did it, and then some. Your quick-witted actions were worthy of Wonder Woman herself.”
“Who is Wonder Woman?”
“I’ll tell you later.” SMOKE had been thorough in its war on fantasy and imagination.
“Well, what happens now?”
“How about lunch? I’m buying.”
“Oooooh! I’ve never been asked out during a crisis before.”
“Not for a date. There’s a lot we need to talk about.”
“It involves setting up a very special kind of embassy…”
Night, in the dream forest. Firiel has given me another lesson and walks into the darkness between the trees. I expect to wake up, but instead another figure, large and nearly bald, emerges from the other side of the clearing and saunters toward me.
Stopping a few paces away, the man smiles.
“Good evening,” says that graveled voice. “You seem surprised to see me here. Didn’t you know that we too now have access to the Dreamvale?”