I no longer have to breathe, but I’m still out of breath.
Since the last time I contacted the Fourth World, I’ve been dealing with dozens of Personal Pocket Realities every day for months. 684 and counting.
Sometimes Rabbit likes to come along, but I made him stay with the other kids for the last one, since I had a bad feeling as soon as I heard it.
Rabbit doesn’t let anyone call him by his given name anymore. The Chief begrudgingly approved the ceremony to make Texie and I his official guardian, over the outcry of his Grandmother. His parents had been caught up in a nasty PPR a few years after Texie arrived, and they never came back out. They’ve been assumed lost, as close as you can get to dead in the Structure, so much so that no one has spoken of them for ages. That’s the way they do it – once someone dies, you no longer mention them, lest they come back to haunt you from the Island of the Dead. Usually they come back in dreams – it’s very bad luck.
Anyway, Texie has been looking after Rabbit more and more, but once she was fully initiated as Shaman she hasn’t had the same amount of time. The other kids treat him like he’s cursed, tainted by the rogue reality that took his parents. The adults… well, they give him a wide berth, and no one really complained when I started to look after him. When he chose me.
His Grandmother was originally from a neighboring tribe – there’s just enough marriage outside of the village to keep the overall Bay Area society running smoothly. She spoke another language when she arrived decades ago, even though she was from about a dozen miles away, near what I used to call Hayward. Over time she integrated with her new tribe, and her eldest daughter eventually had Rabbit. She blames me for taking Rabbit away from her, even though she couldn’t look him in the eye after the loss of her daughter and her husband, who was the second eldest son of the Chief.
Not that it really matters any more. Rabbit made his decision, and now Texie and I have made him our own.
Like I said, he likes to come along when I go hunting for lost spirits. It’s not like it’s particularly dangerous – he’s way more powerful than I am, and doesn’t have to worry about matters of the flesh.
All of the constant hunting and gathering the tribe does daily is not because they have to, even though their ancestors in the Fourth World did. It’s for continuity’s sake, to maintain the reality and mythology that they hold most true, despite the fact they never have to eat again. Their world is bountiful, yet just hard enough to make sure everyone finds the worth in existence, rather than frolicking in neverending fountains of youthful bliss. It’s their Heaven, but one they constantly work to maintain with all of their body, mind and soul.
We’re trying to raise Rabbit according to the vision of the tribe, but it’s hard. He has been infected after all, and he tells amazing tales to his fellow boys and girls, of other worlds filled with gleaming glass and metal, where everyone wears clothes made out of the tiniest ropes, where whole buildings are filled with baskets of fruit and cold cabinets of meat – too much for any one person to give away properly. I’m afraid that his heart has already been turned, perhaps irrevocably, and that he’ll become lost in the transitory tastes of the broken society I was born in.
It’s like chugging a two liter of Mountain Dew, versus sucking on a handful of Manzanita flowers gathered by hand. I don’t want him to dissolve in the acid of over-abundance, but I also don’t want to deny him a taste of the pungent sweetness that I was raised on.
So he won’t get lost like his parents, the first thing I taught him is how to call upon the Golden Sphere to protect himself, and to open doors in the PPRs so he could get back to the tribe in an emergency. He caught on really quick, and he usually calls forth a flaming rabbit stick or a bow that’s a bit too big for him. He’s not yet 8 years old, but he desperately wants to be an adult, so all of his dream weapons are giant sized.
I’ve been teaching the other men of the tribe how to deal with PPRs as well, but they still haven’t gotten used to the toxic environments. In the sweat house most every night, they tell tall tales about the strange things they see when they quickly jump in to test the waters. Some marvel at the women with so many layers of colorful clothes on, or at the men who smoke stale tobacco for minutes on end, rather then a few rare puffs. Others spend hours on the paved cul de sacs of half-foreclosed housing divisions, looking for game to hunt, to no avail.
None of them have managed to free the owner of a PPR, although a few have gotten close. That means I’m constantly jumping from dream to dream, disrupting their phantom bodies by sheer force of will.
At first, the tribe tried to take care of the rescued dreamers, but it quickly became apparent that they needed a place of their own, while they healed and grew accustomed to the Structure. We’ve resettled them in nice homes on the other side of the Oakland Hills, near Orinda. We’ve sheltered them from the Bay Shore for a few reasons – to appease the various tribes that distrust anything associated with PPRs, and to protect them from what’s been happening with the water.
Simply put, tendrils of The Black have been coming in with the tide from somewhere across the Bay, past Marin. The affected tribes have put up any number of barriers, but every night The Black manages to eat through them. Texie says Coyote has managed to slow down the assault, but she expects the waves of caustic darkness to eventually make it up to us in a few seasons. Our tribe relies on the Bay for so many things, from the tule that makes our homes, and boats, and baskets, to the heaping handfuls of sea life, and the innumerable clouds of birds.
Our 684 new guests don’t really have any idea what’s going on. Most are in a huge halfway house, which is more like a tech company campus combined with a condo skyscraper. I tried to come up with architecture that was innocuous yet opulent, filled with enough creature comforts that they would feel at home. True, some of the hardcore punks escaped, and took off who knows where – we lost them on Mars. We’re not worried about the safety of others, it’s just that everyone is stuck in their old lives, not realizing that they’re 5 minute old infants when it comes to the larger, infinitely complex Structure.
Unlike Texie and I, they actually died back in the Fourth World, so they’re ready for any eventual spiritual ascension they decide to take. I’m just worried that they won’t realize that how much potential shines before them, and they’ll start to generate familiar PPRs to escape into.
Not that they’ll have a chance if Jenny breaks through and has her way with everything. That’s what I was reminded of yet again, when I entered the 684th PPR.
I could hear it from miles away as most of the tribe gathered acorns. It sounded like a jet engine, combined with a car that was already running, that nevertheless was started over and over and over with horrible clanks. Rabbit heard it too, and kept yelling “Airport! Airport!” – he was entranced by an earlier adventure we had at Narita outside of Tokyo, where we had to free an almost suicidal Traffic Controller.
I had a feeling that this one was different, and so I took him on my back, and jumped the few miles back to the village. Texie was still looking after a few recent rescuees, along with Bridget – the first girl I freed from Portland. Rabbit ran up to Bridget and gave her a hug – she was busy assisting Texie with some meridian surgery.
“I’m leaving him behind for this one. Be back in a few.”
Texie brushed aside her long, blond hair, with ample brown roots. She smiled a bit longer than what I was used to, but I didn’t question my luck. We had been fighting on and off for a few months, usually over Rabbit and how he was too young to hunt.
“Don’t get cocky. Hummingbird came last night in my dream, with songs filled by warnings and chaos. Be careful.”
I took her warm, right hand for a few moments, and then rushed out of the door only to bound up into the air like a grasshopper.
Before I shot through some low-lying, freezing, cumulous clouds, I oriented against the screeching sound, and found it centered a bit lower in Berkeley, in the marsh lands at the end of area where The Black would come in a few hours. My OS confirmed that the PPR was about a mile away from my old apartment, near Highway 80.
I landed a few dozen feet away, hovering in the tule reeds as I scouted out the PPR.
It looked like there were a few women inside, wandering through the hallways of a shadowy storage center. They were walking away from me, so I couldn’t see their faces, but as they passed the orange doors of each unit, I could sense a strange familiarity. They didn’t seem like the normal dreamers at all, and their etching was surprisingly complete.
I slipped in as they turned around a corner, and silently moved forward so I could get a better look at them. My flaming sword was already unsheathed – I usually went for the “kill” as soon as possible.
“We’re too late. The transition has already been made.” I knew I heard that voice somewhere before… as soon as it hit me, it was already too late.
“Don’t worry, more than one is already infected. They’ll eventually come to us.”
I didn’t want to believe it. I turned around the corner, weapon leading, only to see Susanna in a plain white dress, sticking her arm into an open storage locker. It disappeared as she did, and her companions muttered to themselves.
She turned around to face me after a few seconds, with a look of bemusement.
“There you are – naked and unashamed. Have I introduced you to my sisters?”
I wasn’t paying close enough attention. The three women who were next to her were of identical height, and even with the differing clothes and hairstyles, it was clear they were effectively clones. Not clones – Variants.
“We hear you’ve been gathering nuggets in May. All of those poor little broken etches.” Bald Susanna in the white dress.
“Did you ever wonder what happened to all of the Collective members that Helena slaughtered at the Universal Prom? Bingo.” Blue-haired Susanna in black jeans and a Joan Jett t-shirt.
The other two Susannas rushed to me in a blur, and before I could move they had their own swords to my neck and back.
“Listen. You can’t free us, because this is not a dream.” Bald Susanna walked over to me and placed her open palms on my cheeks. One was colder than ice, the other boiling.
“Jenny is gathering the Collective of Collectives, and there’s nothing you can do to stop her.” Blue-haired Susanna poked her index finger through my forehead, and I felt a warm rush.
“They’ll be a place for you at her table, dear Douglas.” They all speak in unison. “Stay out of our way until the feast is ready.”
With that, the four Susanna variants folded away, taking the screaming PPR with them.
I found myself knee deep in the water, as tasty fish darted between my knees.
It would be a shame not to grab them, I thought. It would be a shame to let them slip through my fingers.
I no longer have to breathe, but I’m still out of breath as I reach down into the water.