by Steve Brady
Witches rub me in the Magic Pool. My muscles fight each other—some yearn for the touch and some recoil. A witch about my age, thirty-one, rushes her hands back and forth over my chest and back. A stout-bearded warlock kneads my shoulders. A crone does something like reiki over my forehead.
The witches have lived at this hallowed mountain grotto since the 1950s, the days of Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves. Now I have come to this place from between worlds, to put myself back together and decide what to do with the rest of my life.
I hear those yuppie poser witches again in the surrounding wood, with their talk of contentment. Their chatter reminds me of the transience of this experience; when the real witches are done with my body, the pool goes to the posers for their “healing.”
The posers are oblivious. If they felt the powers they seek already around them, they'd be terrified. Yet however irritated I am with them, I am also grateful for them. They hearken to an innocence I don't remember knowing; did I ever know it? I feel like I'm a veteran of a war across space and time.
Am I? The pool pulls the filth of ten planets from deep in my pores and I drift into visions.
Before the space invaders I lived a few hours’ drive from the Magic Pool, in Oakland. I'd heard of the pool but it never caught my interest: some New Age fad. People came back from the mountains and talked about the pool at parties. It all seemed like some Burning Man thing, tainted by hard-core “channeling” types.
Sammy thought otherwise. He attributed his calm, his poise, his hotshot aim to his time in the pool. I grew to respect him over the two months since I met him, because he was the only one I knew who took the alien invasion seriously. So I tried to be more open-minded about the pool, especially after seeing Sammy fight in the Battle of Emeryville, a year after the Saurons had landed.
We were standing ready in a bombed-out lot in Temescal, the hip stretch of Telegraph in North Oakland, where four-story buildings offered some cover for our homemade anti-aircraft gun. Rather than fleeing, fashionable civilians strolled away from the war zone, some waiting for the bus.
“The Saurons are worse than their Tolkien namesakes,” I muttered over the rapid fire.
“That’s backwards; don't you see?” Sammy replied. “Saur means lizard like in dinosaur. Tolkien named 'Sauron' for the reptile mind, selfish creatures without family instincts who develop a cold-blooded intelligence. The aliens don't just look like reptiles; their minds are a reptilian perversion of consciousness! We instinctively, astrally fear them because in our collective unconscious we always knew they'd arrive.”
That Sammy would babble about etymology here and now intrigued me, as if my own seriousness betrayed my lack of a courage that Sammy took for granted.
When the Sauron ships moved overhead, I fired and Sammy fed the shells, until the gun jammed. As best as I could, I assisted Sammy's repair effort, wishing I had his calm and steady hands, although that wouldn't have helped. I found a hairline crack in the barrel where the ammo lay wedged. If we cleared it and resumed the tool would shrapnelize us.
“It's hopeless,” he said. “Let's meet up with the infantry.”
When we got back to the Avenue, we were thrown flat as a photon pulse hit the gun nest we'd just abandoned. Two women died running toward a Flying Combat Monster Truck. I took the keys from the hand of one of them, we jumped into their truck, and Sammy and I headed into aerial combat.
Sammy piloted and operated the 50mm cannons. I controlled the radio, and I still feel a tangible grief that I settled on a classic rock station that day. Though the Bay Area has a plethora of original and more interesting music, it's hard to find a good match for oneself with seek and search buttons. Our Human Resistance Radio had been destroyed this morning, but never mind that—we wanted good tunes, not critical info.
Sammy did what he had to, spinning, lurching, blasting, taking out three Sauron troop carriers, but I was near vomiting. “Where'd you learn to fight in the air?” I said.
“I'm AWOL from the air force.”
“Wha-huh?” In the two months I'd known him he'd rarely talk about his past, except for a couple references to his time in 'the service.'
“The Saurons foist scam wars on us through their puppets. The real total war of truth is against these aliens. That’s why I'm here with you and not carpet-bombing Turkey.”
Right. I'd forgotten that most people act like there ain’t no aliens. Apathy? Hallucination?
Even when avoiding anything non-musical on the radio, I still heard a news flash; the Saurons had cracked our encrypted microwave transmissions with ease but bizarrely, our intelligence confirmed, could not or would not hear broadcast radio. The news said our official meet-up point was in Emeryville, around the on-ramps and the train station. “Are we going there?” I asked Sammy.
“You are,” he said. “Grab the jetpack. And take this flash drive with you. They'll need it.”
I jumped out of the Flying Combat Monster Truck. I'd seen one of these jetpacks operated, and watched an instruction video twice. But none of that could prepare me for the challenge and terror of balancing thrust and freefall while aliens might shoot at me. I managed a slow descent onto the bridge over the rail lines. Now to find out who to give the data to.
The Flying Combat Monster Truck went supersonic out over the Pacific. Would I ever see Sammy again?
These visions, which might be memories, seep into my mind with each lap of the warm pool water against my neck, my ears. I only notice and dwell on them when my surface mind is calm, when over so many hours in the pool I believe I am safe and I stop twitching.
The witch leader steps around the edges of the pool, her bare feet in an inch of water. Her long leg sticks out of her evergreen gown toward me, as her curious eyes settle on me.
“Are these my memories?” I ask of her. “Or is it the pool that tells me a story?”
“Or both?” says she. “Even if the story the pool tells isn't literally true, it is still your story.”
My personal reality? Is that true of everything I’ve ever known?
In Emeryville, we were losing. Besides a thousand Saurons with their pulse blasters and inertia suits, reinforcements warped into our solar system every hour.
Several fighters and I slipped away and hiked to the 19th Street BART metro station. The passengers here seemed content and friendly, but no one moved, no one rode on the escalators, and people on stairs just stood there. This puzzled me—fighting our way here from Emeryville, we saw destroyed buildings and cars, and waded through toxic smells. What would get people to notice?
The loudspeakers announced that service at the station had been interrupted to facilitate and support an alien invasion of the Earth. People continued to chat amicably, until Sauron infantry stormed the station. A handful of people who made sudden movements were broiled by ray guns on the spot.
The rest of us had our chance to lie flat and be captured. While most people cheerfully queued to explain their business being on public transit, I was, by technology unknown to me, identified as an Earth-defender. I quivered and my raw teeth chattered while they injected me.
I came to at their base on Treasure Island, where we waited on their procedures. When it was my turn, with a sadness one can't imagine without the experience, I submitted to cryo-stasis.
So I'm one more person who remembers an alien kidnapping. Was Sammy my friend? Did he exist? Regardless of whether this human connection is real, the witches want me to believe that my remembrances still matter. Whether I'm an interstellar adventurer or it's still 2020.
I get out of the pool and I shiver, thinking about where one might buy cigarettes or vodka in this county. On my way into the grove I stop, turn around and take a few steps back. I become unsteady and slow.
“Don't be embarrassed by exhaustion, nor confusion,” says the witch leader. “Breathe your confusion in and out.” I've heard that sort of thing before in my life, but this time there is no hint of silliness, cynicism or gaudiness.
Five witches bear me back to the pool. I recognize these women; they are all dancers and acrobats, wearing the same white tunics. Though their steps are bouncy and their hold on me is firm, their touch is tender.
I remind myself that here I will heal, become strong and destroy the Blob Emperor, whom the Saurons serve. Did I think that? I wonder what a Blob Emperor is. I jerk out of the water. “So really, have I ever been to outer space!?”
The witch leader has left. Only one of the five witches speaks at a time, but a train of thought continues between them, so they sound darn close to speaking with one voice. “You have never been physically further out than Mars.”
“Our enemies are imaginal.”
“You mean imaginary?”
“Not. Negative. Sorta. Our universe consists of overlapping realities, each internally consistent. What we experience is based on our viewpoint. When our imagination is active, we can perceive relevant details from neighboring realities. If our imaginations don't reach out, these things still affect us invisibly. Because we depend on our imaginations to see their effects, yet the effects are real, we call such things imaginal.”
Even I think this is weird. “Does that mean the paranoid myths I tell myself are manifestations of an underlying, more basic reality?”
“You're getting the idea. Myth: our conflicts tell a story—‘why’ is greater than ‘how.’ The metaphorical significance of the nebula is more importance than its actual pseudo-neurotransmitter components.”
I remember when I was young and we drove around the U.S. and Canada. I also remember interstellar wandering when ten different sentient species thought we were psychotic bums. And there's my life I don't remember, and I'm in a pool with people who say if I do remember I'll miss the point.
I get over my regrets. A young witch is stroking my chest with her mystic hands, the energy swirls in my throat and I try in earnest to sort out the years.
They held prisoners, including us humans, on Gamma Sagittarius 4, using us as entertainment. We'd race the scooters—many would die, be maimed or go mad—on a racetrack of unpredictable gravity. I hoped, I think all racers did, to gain an edge by taming the implanted AIs of the scooters; Dogbrains we called them.
Such a silly name but an inspiration to me. Living in the Terran zoo, I had access to an actual Terran dog, as well as neuro-nano-equipment to prepare for the races. So I scanned her brain, overwriting the Saurons' “Dogbrain.” Lacking the Saurons' “game-balancers” my scooter climbed to bloody victory over the remains of my fellow racers; when they begged for mercy, my real-dog scooter mind ignored my commands, following hunting algorithms from the real-dog mind-imprint.
Escape was easy, like old TV; we went through a vent in the ceiling to a system of air ducts. So many obscure things are obvious to an alien species, and here we were the aliens. The air ducts, apparently for pumping essential xenon to alien engineers, led through a metropolis to a spaceport. Three score of us scooter slaves escaped, ten of us human.
Like me, the other humans were all old-school rebels who'd faced lives of frustration through the Sauron conquest. A locksmith, a fighter pilot/biker. An African rebel soldier, a dominatrix, a fired professor, a stuntwoman, an archery instructor, a space pirate and an accountant. Together, we jacked a shuttle craft and flew to the Wisdom Belt of the Red Spider Nebula. When we had waited outside the shuttle base for dawn, the talking stones of Gamma Sagittarius 4 had uttered prophecy that we'd find a solution in the nebula.
Our craft decelerated to a static location in the legendary Safe Part of the nebula. Because of the strange gas cycle, this area had abundant O2 and a mean pressure of 0.84 Earth atmospheres, while the surrounding cloud absorbed harmful radiation.
While the physical surroundings were calm a trillion miles across, the mental landscape featured both opportunity and danger due to the disembodied Nebuloid consciousnesses, which arose from ion synchronicity across the vast cloud. The trick here was that once the airlock was open, the Nebuloids could bombard our central cortexes with wisdom, but if the door stayed open for more than 20 seconds our brains would fry.
I asked the encyclopedia for info on 'fried', and the digitized galactic elders just said “overloaded and sticky.”
I was the only one who realized the guy operating the door mechanism, the space pirate, was too mesmerized by the wisdom to shut the door. Even though I too was entranced, I ran over and conked him on the head and pulled the door lever.
The neurologist cleaning up the mess said I'd come within nine milliseconds of brain-fry. Though the spectrum of realities I perceive expanded, I’ve never had much focus in my life since then.
A witch, whose ponytail shows occasional strands of grey, approaches me holding a baby in her arms; her posture is perfect. Drooling a bit, but with curious eyes, the baby turns to me and says, “Sir, does it make sense yet?”
“I get that impression that in reality, I've been to Mars, and perhaps other places in the inner solar system, but that my more fantastic memories—interstellar travel and a religious underworld—have some inspiration from my life but are nonetheless delusions—”
“Alternate realities I would say,” says the baby.
I feel both relieved and scared that the baby's words ring true. “All equally real?”
“That is subjective. The less ‘far-fetched’ reality is more real to you because you grew up with it. For some reason, perhaps drugs, brain damage or crossword puzzles, you shifted into what I call the Sci-Fi Reality, and perceived the Saurons as physical invaders from another solar system.”
“And if I hadn't shifted, they wouldn't be a problem.”
“Negative,” says the baby. “Even though the Saurons don't translate well into your Dominant Reality, their influence was still felt, as imaginal phenomena, an insidious, invisible influence at the edge of known reality. Similarly, not everything makes sense in Sci-fi Reality. Why did so few of you fight the Saurons while humans persisted in silly local wars? You could not know this because when you are in Sci-fi Reality, from your perspective everyone else seems to be perceiving Sci-fi Reality as well.”
I think about all this. While I can't just swallow everything anyone says about anything anymore, I choose to play along. “So I'm in Sci-fi Reality, and you're an engineered mutant baby—”
“My primary reality is what I'll call the Fantasy Reality, where I'm a wizard. In your Dominant Reality I'm a strange but not inexplicable baby, and I don't exist as far as I know in Sci-Fi Reality.”
“But you are aware of it?”
“Magic is about choosing states of consciousness. Thus I have an edge on the Saurons, who don't experience Fantasy Reality at all.”
“Then right now I'm in—”
“Fantasy Reality. The purpose of the Magic Pool is to draw people in that direction. Our counsel has determined that the Blob Emperor can be best accessed in Fantasy Reality, where we are strong and they are weak. In fantasy, the Earthlings have the benefit of our collective mythic memory, and the Saurons are oblivious to their own avatars.”
“Yes. I came here thinking to connect with my archetypal self.” Was I that different than the yuppie posers?
“You have a broadband capacity for trans-reality experience; thus you can see the Saurons in their natural element, and fight them on more human ground. That is why we drew you to the Magic Pool, so you can use this power to go after the Blob Emperor.”
For two earth years after our nebula encounter we wandered, until we landed on Wasteworld and sold our ship. We lived at the Mutineers' Hotel overlooking the Toxic Gas Plain. Here my companion escapees took up Smorg hunting, and once dragged me along to the swamp with them. I'll never forget the eyes of that cute, friendly, furry blue beast as they laughed and filled it with spears.
And these were my esteemed traveling companions, my brothers and sisters in the nebula wisdom; I had thought we were all in the groove of a cosmic spirit. But now... and it wasn't the nebula frying their brains, they had sunk to this because they lost hope. I didn't leave my room for weeks, then I worked my way off Wasteworld on a freighter, carrying a load of condensed neutron-beast excrement.
My 'friends' and I dropped the neutron dung at the Hyper-Power Trans-Flickatron Station that flicked the energy via hyperspace to the Galactic Core cities, the stronghold of the Blob Emperor. I resumed my drifting. I heard of jobs on Mars, no papers needed, for the tweak-mushroom harvest.
Mars, I've always loved thee. Nostalgia as well as destiny had brought me here. I first came to Mars before the invasion, after the first terraforming. Now it faced martial law much harsher than anywhere on Earth. Anyone I'd hoped to meet up with had split for Titan, where the Saurons were more tolerant.
I worked fourteen-hour days gathering mushrooms in my pressure suit, saving credits for I don’t know what. How could I endure such a place, I who once battled the Saurons in the cities of Earth, and helped lead a band of escaped gladiators on a quest for power?
Was I broken, or merely confused? Either way, I had to connect to a source, an ancient font that would bely yet complement the brain-frying knowledge from the nebula. Otherwise I'd be trapped in memories of sad journeys, an aging drifter never seizing the future.
I realize I haven't slept in three days, but I do not feel tired. I get out of the pool and meet... Sammy. He is dressed like Robin Hood, except he wears a semiautomatic pistol by the cutlass at his waist. While I can't help but hug him, my embrace is awkward because I cannot believe this—neither that Sammy is here nor that these weapons are real, not costume pieces.
“There is not time to catch up, my brother,” he says. Behind him, five people similarly clad and armed appear. Three of them may be women but I'm not sure. “We will help you on a mission to get what you need.”
I dress myself in my usual 21st century black jeans and t-shirt. Sammy provides me with a pistol and cutlass which I hang on my belt. As I follow Sammy and his friends through the forest, I realize that I am not sure whether I am dreaming or waking—probably I am in a world between.
We enter a cave and board an elevator, embedded in a stone wall. Down down down we go. The doors open and we enter a twisty maze of passages, all alike.
There are orcs—they look just like the creatures in the Jackson movies—and we must fight them. Holy shit this is as real as anything and I might die. The others are brilliant with their swords, but I depend on the pistol. By the time my clip is empty, two of Sammy's friends have died, providing extra ammo for me—a full clip and enough rounds to reload the clip I started with.
I'm here because I love my friend Sammy, and would follow him to the gates of Hell, which I seem to be literally doing. I hope everyone else knows why they're here and what they're doing. Whatever our mysterious cause, my companions have no reservations—corridor by corridor, room by room, we move forward as soon as we can slay the orcs in our path.
Until at the end of a tunnel I see the light of an alien sun, scalding and at the same time nauseous to my eyes. “From here you must go alone,” says Sammy, with both the matter-of-factness and passion of a fighter.
When tweak-mushroom harvest was over, I looked at that brightest of planets twinkling hard o'er the Martian night; time to go home. Not just to the West Coast, but to the town of my birth, and the Magic Pool. Sammy's description of the pool had hung in my mind for some time—something somewhere that could still feel simple and natural in this chaotic universe.
When I boarded the liner to Earth they stamped my Interplanetary Migrant Worker Card “Hell via Earth.” At Shanghai Spaceport, my Interplanetary Migrant Worker Card had transformed into a US passport that said “Damned.” And the spaceport had become an airport. In retrospect, with the knowledge of the baby, I’d say I moved from sci-fi to ordinary reality. How?
On the flight to Toronto, the in-flight movie was a documentary about the underworld in myth and legend as a metaphor for transformation: Inanna, Orpheus, Dante.
I thought Sammy's magic pool would help me shake this hell meme. My very own appointment in Samarra I guess.
I say goodbye to Sammy and step into the open air. I am sure I am not dreaming, and I am horrified. Translucent caricatures of people wander everywhere, in a desert with sparse, hardy, ugly alien plants. Winged shadows patrol the sky.
A demon asks for my passport, so I unload my day pack and dig through it. My US passport has become a perfectly circular green stone, which I present to the demon.
The demon hands the stone back to me and waves toward a rock arch. Under the arch, a yellow road appears. I follow it for sleepless days, days with no night, and no light but the horrid alien sun.
I arrive at a huge mushroom, upon which sits a lithe, brown-haired, one-brown-eyed woman clad in a gossamer gown. She looks at me with that big brown eye and says, “You cannot free me from this place. You are only here to accept a gift.” She presents me with a bow. Three feet long, runes etched in white wood.
“I take this home? I am not sure of the way back, and I don't think I can survive the tunnels alone.”
“Please show me your passport.” I present her with the green stone. It catches fire in her hand and becomes a US passport again, which she hands to me. A hole opens beneath me and I fall.
I land in the pool with a big splash and bump my butt on the bottom. Yuppie witches scream and run away into the woods. A more useful witch takes the bow and my passport out of my hands, to try to keep them dry.
I sleep for two days and soak in the pool for two more. I think I have recovered from hell. I am alive, and magically armed.
“We call you Ready,” says an old witch. Her apprentices join her: “We call you Ready.” They lift me from the pool. I follow a handsome warlock with a short, peppery beard down the path.
Sammy is here. “In my hubris,” he says with his usual cocky voice and smile, “I thought I would be the one. But it is you whose mind flowered in the Red Spider Nebula, you who returned from Hell with passport in hand, you who will be our liberator.”
Waiting for me, hanging from a tree I see: my magic bow, and some arrows. I hold them, rub them. Wood and vine, stone heads, leather quiver. I know these natural materials will pass scanning as “foodstuffs,” even though I don't know whether it's the scanning of 1999, 2030, or interplanetary society that I must pass, in the life version of mine with the most... quantum substance?
Today I shall begin my journey to the city of the Blob Emperor, far toward the Galactic Core, which, depending on what's real, may also be the core of my mind, or the universal mind. But regardless of what lens I look at life and reality with, I've learned that the Blob Emperor has been the psychic constipation of the galaxy, that secretly led my world into its First World War, and cynically, covertly, ruled my life as an interstellar has-been.
They have terrible weapons from micro to mega, and I only this bow. But I have been to the Magic Pool, and after so many wasted days I am done with useless thoughts, and just like Sammy, my aim is perfect.
About the Creator
Steve Brady has been a student of engineering, an activist, a hobo, and a union trade show installer. He gives away food, bicycle repair, and computer help. He hopes to publish his novel, DIGITAL GRIT, a mix of cyberpunk and epic fantasy. He lives in Oakland, California.
Steve, if you had a hammer, would you hammer in the morning, and all goddamned day, or just idly as a novelty? What would you hammer?
With my real hammer at my day job, about once a year I use it to fix a shipping crate. A rubber mallet is used more, but I don’t have one: it’s bulky and I bike to work. So I use my meat mallet instead, known as hammerfist in karate. The term disturbs people: “Do you mean the thing for tenderizing meat?” [hold my fist up] “No, it’s a mallet made of meat.” [Look of shock and horror].
With Pete Seeger’s metaphorical hammer that changes the world, I set out to build a mansion for the people and came up with a rickety barn. My fiction is part of going back to the drawing board.
Which word do you think is most overused in the language right now, and which word is least appreciated?
Most overused is make/made, along with other junk verbs: took, gave, that are so versatile because they don’t have to mean anything. ‘Made’ is worse because can shift or downplay agency: “made me lose my temper.” It’s not so bad when it actually means to manufacture, though there are usually better synonyms.
Most underrated is ‘twas, along with ‘tis and other ‘t words. I’ve relented on ‘twasn’t but it’s a lot of fun. ‘Twas is good to distinguishing the cosmic “it” (it was a dark and stormy night, the best/worst of times, the night before Christmas) from “it” the neuter pronoun for an actual thing.
For additional context, we recommend you read Steve's Dear Aunty Stanky question.
About the Artist
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and you can get a free demo of his janky retro JRPG, which was formerly on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.
Source images from Pixabay creators imaartist, hungquach679png, and josethestoryteller.
My head hurts. Nicely done!