Can reality be projected from one mind to another through a common household appliance?
Vision of Mars
I wore myself out, trying to make a decision. Did I keep exploring, hoping to find an exit? Did I take the risk of putting on the tiara headband where Yonee’s mysterious “owner” might still lurk? And what should I do about the stone egg that seemed to hold Yonee’s magic?
Nervous exhaustion struck suddenly. I barely had time to drag myself near a wall, away from all the corpses, before I passed out. Sleeping on bare rock doesn’t even sound possible, but I seemed to be developing a talent for it.
I kept the egg in one hand, and the tiara lay nearby. Of course, I dreamed.
* * *
Hiram and I had found a swimming pool in a crick behind the doctor’s house. I knew how to swim but Hiram didn’t.
“I’m afeared,” he said. He stood on the bank of the stream and danced from one foot to the other, his chubby little legs pumping with excitement.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go first.” I stripped off my shift and dove in, a flat dive in case it was much shallower than it looked. The water was cold at first, and I felt goosebumps all over, with two particularly large ones on my chest. I ducked my head under and came up laughing.
“Is it safe?” Hiram asked. “Can you teach me to swim?”
“Sure,” I said. “Put your clothes with mine and come on in.” I stood up to show him that it was not that deep near the shore, not more than a few feet.
Soon we were splashing back and forth in the shallow, muddy water. I showed him how to dog paddle and how to float on his back and warned him that he must never go in the water without me or someone my age who could swim with him.
The summer heat made us both drowsy after a while, what with all the violent exercise, and we crawled out of the water and napped in the shade, letting the air dry us.
In a dream within a dream —or was it a dream within a memory?— I heard music coming from the little pond. I dove back in to try to find what was making the strange familiar tune. Under the surface, crawdads, turtles and catfish were having a lively shindig.
A golden carp wearing a straw hat and playing a banjo invited me in. “Dance, Betty,” he said. “Dance and sing, you know the words….”
I did, too, but when I swam to join them, the creatures moved deeper into the water, just out of reach. The music changed, too….
* * *
It wasn’t calypso. It sounded like a Muzak version of “Under the Sea.” Instead of dancing, I trudged down a hallway with green walls and beige doors on each side.
The long corridor made me think of a hospital. People in pastel uniforms with urgent purposes rushed by me. I tried to stay out of the way. The murmurs of speech I heard were mostly incomprehensible. I did not hear anyone paging, “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard.” It was too solemn for that, even if almost absurd enough.
Reflective surfaces showed me my red hair and hazel eyes. I was still Betty, but instead of a slave’s light brown shift, I wore a hospital patient smock, off-white with a blue-figured pattern. It opened in the back and a couple of strings made of the same fabric held it closed. Stylish — not.
The dream-place looked and sounded like a typical hospital, and it even smelled right. Disinfectant, fear, and that faint, almost certainly imagined whiff of corrupted flesh. I wandered around for some time, in a timeless sort of way.
I kept looking around, seeking a clue as to why my mind had chosen this dream-place. I didn’t have a clue what to look for, but when I found it, I had to puzzle it out. Betty didn’t know her figures or letters real well, but something was not right.
A room number, out of sequence, 42, with the doors on either side labeled 23 and 25. The name tag slipped into the door marquee clinched it. I stared at it until it made sense.
Art Gannon had been our gamemaster years ago, and he had designed and ran the Fantastic Mars campaign before he died. I checked the door tag again. The diagnosis said Congestive Heart Failure. That sounded right too, though I don’t think I had ever heard exactly what had killed Art.
I started to open the door and realized I still had the green egg in my left hand. And yes, in the dream—in the too bright, too blue, hospital light—it was definitely green. Jade perhaps, but maybe not. There seemed to be a lot of black matrix around the too-green colored part. I stopped staring at the egg, opened the door and stepped inside.
Typical hospital room with a standard hospital bed, but the windows behind the bed showed the landscape of Fantastic Mars outside—an aching vista of red rocks, pink sand and a magenta sky. A pinhead of a sun hung low on the horizon and a single moon—I couldn’t tell which one—glistened in the Martian twilight with stars beginning to appear above and behind it.
It looked damn realistic, and I wondered how I could be so sure that it was Mars. So far, I couldn’t recall having seen the surface of the planet.
Artie lay in the bed, tubes sticking out of his left arm and a 2x2” bandage on his neck, held in place by that funky paper tape they use. He scribbled something on papers that lay on the sort of hospital table that sticks across the bed before looking up. His graying blondish hair stuck out all over his head above his receding hairline. His thin lips looked pale, but his watery blue eyes had a lively animation in them.
“Hey, girl,” he said. For a big man, he had small hands, and he waved one limply at me. He wore the same black-framed bifocals he had worn the last time I saw him. “You must be Mojo.” He grinned. “You look like one of his characters.”
“I guess so. I’m not entirely sure. Anymore,” I admitted. I came farther into the room. It had a single bed of the kind with cranks to raise and lower the head and foot. On the wall opposite the bed, a flat screen television hung in a sort of cradle. It was on, an image flickering like a dream-within-a-dream but the sound was muted. From the angle where I stood, I could not see the screen well enough to guess what Artie might have been watching.
He waved around at the room. “Not exactly the afterlife they promised me back in Sunday School, but it’s better than the flaming pits of hell, I guess. Ozone smells better than sulfur dioxide, I suppose.” He grinned at me, again, amusing himself like always.
I stepped closer to the bed. Artie indicated a hospital chair, and I sat in it. I could see the television screen now. It appeared to be some old black-and-white adventure movie. I thought I glimpsed a very young Van Johnson chewing on a piece of scenery. “Ozone?” I asked.
He nodded. “One of the things that make up hospital smell. All the fluorescent lights and their electric ballast transformers make small amounts of O3, ozone. It’s a powerful smell and flavors the whole experience.”
Definitely Art Gannon, full of acute observation and obtuse explanation. I grinned at him. “It’s good to see you again, Artie.” I giggled and then squirmed on the chair when I realized how I sounded.
He smiled fondly at me. “You always played the girl roles to the hilt, Mojo, but maybe you overdid it this time?”
“You should see my other avatar,” I said, smirking.
“I have,” he said gesturing at the television. “We don’t have cable in the Afterworld, that’s a monitor.”
I looked up at it, realizing that the blond man I had taken for Van Johnson was really Seejay, holed up behind a few rocks and firing an antique-looking long gun at some Green Martians. Transfixed with the image, I stared, wondering if it were a live feed. Was Seejay in trouble right now? For some value of now?
“We’re all dead, you know,” Artie said.
“I—” I almost got whiplash looking back at him.
“Heart failure for me, though I didn’t die in a hospital like this one. I just fell over dead when I got up in the night to go get a drink of water.” He nodded vaguely. “You and the rest of the Swampers apparently died in a head-on collision with a wrong way driver.”
“Sonnuffabitch!” I said. The Swampers, Swamp Crew, Gaming Crew, or Dungeon Crew was our sometimes name for our group of gamers. Or just Crew. Not very imaginative but not super-dorky either. Swamp originally came from our devotion to the M.A.S.H. television show. We hadn’t used the name much after Artie died I suddenly realized.
The screen on the wall pulled my eyes back to it. The ugly tusked face of a Green Martian in grayscale glory filled the view. Trike, I realized. He had a worried grin and was firing the oversize pistol Seejay and Hote had found for him. Again I wondered, when was this?
“I have a theory,” said Artie. “I think the whole universe is just a gaming simulator.”
I waved a hand at him and distracted myself by noticing that it was Betty’s hand, slender, freckled and scarred from hard work. “If it’s a simulator, are we players or just code?” I asked. Actually, this was an old argument and Hote, Artie and I could go round and round, taking different sides, until Trike and Seejay were ready to scream with boredom.
“Nevermind,” we both said at the same time.
We smiled tired smiles at each other. The joke was too stale for outright laughter, and the monitor attracted my attention again.
On the screen, two naked Red Martian girls lay in a heap on a stone floor. Dolly and myself? Was this the last fight in the corridor when the voice in my head made me play dead?
Artie picked at the sheet covering him then pointed at my left hand. “You’re wearing the body from your character’s backstory, and you’re carrying her egg.”
I glanced at the green stone. “Betty’s egg or Yonee’s egg?” On screen, Yonee wore all the jewelry in the world and lay limply while Dolly poked and prodded at her then tried to drag her into cover. I didn’t remember this part, I realized. It must have been after I passed out from stopping my heart.
“Both. The same,” he said. “Betty arrived on Mars and used the egg to become a Red Martian.”
“She did? I did?” I looked back and forth between him and the green stone and the monitor. “How do you know this?”
He gestured at the television. “I’ve been watching you.”
I turned back to the video action. A wave of Green Martians poured over Yonee’s limp body, my body, as Dolly leaped out of the way, taking cover with Seejay who stood up with his shotgun blazing. The sound faded in, or maybe Artie turned it up with the remote.
Seejay’s shotgun boomed, Hote’s pistols cracked, and Trike made a noise like a whole wolf pack. Some of the local greenies had firearms, too. Seejay dodged, Trike took a hit in his upper left shoulder, and I distinctly saw a bullet bounce off of Hote. Magic?
Seejay switched weapons, using the double-barrel for two more shots. Green Martian bodies fell left and right. Hote fired two six guns, and Trike waded into the monsters who looked like him with sword, spear and gun—his four hands all occupied with killing and his face a grimace.
But when the tide of grayscale greenies had passed, my body, Yonee, was nowhere to be seen.
“Sonnuffabitch,” I repeated.
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