I was back in the familiar Gray Nowhere. My head felt like it was stuffed with cotton; the last thing I remembered was... Odd; I couldn’t remember the last thing I remembered. I had been listening to Dad, wondering if he was pulling my leg about Gareth descending from the clouds in a balloon... Did the dog start barking? Was there a distant rumble of thunder? And then Eloi must have zapped me here.
I felt like I had a concussion. I’ve never had one, but once when we were maybe fourteen or so I was standing right next to Gareth when he got knocked out by an ill-flung baseball bat. Rapped him right between the eyes, and he went down like his legs had turned to Jello. He came around after just a few seconds, and talking to him for the next half hour or so was frankly hilarious; he had about a twenty-second memory span, and then everything was new to him again. I felt a little like that now; I kept trying to focus on what Dad had been saying, but the damn dog kept barking.
The Gray seemed different somehow; it had a grainy, smoky quality I’d never noticed before. I took a deep breath—it even smelled faintly of wood smoke. I sensed shadows shifting, and I turned, expecting to see Eloi. Instead I saw a woman sitting at a small gray table. She wore a silver turban and nothing else. In the surreal way of the Gray, she seemed quite distant, yet it took only a step or two to approach her. She looked up at me—it was Donna, her dark eyes somehow both warm and reproachful. She held a finger up to her lips and gestured to a gray chair that was now on my side of the little round table. I sat. I wanted to speak to her, but she put that finger to her lips again.
I followed her glance as she looked down at the tabletop. There was now a deck of large cards there, perhaps five by seven, with a beautiful double-spiral design on the back, like an abstract fractal of the Milky Way in golds and greens; they looked as if they’d been rendered in tapestry. She fanned the cards across the table, and then looked up at me, silently inviting me to pick a card, any card.
I once saw a play in which two characters sat at a table, pantomiming a card game while they had an enigmatic conversation. Finally one guy declares, “Gin!” The other guy frowns, looks up and says, “I thought we were sorting envelopes.” I wanted to ask Donna what game we were playing. Was she telling my fortune? Setting up a magic trick? Three Card Monty?
It was hard to concentrate; the cotton in my head seemed to be turning to sludge. I looked across the table at Donna. Her eyes were on the cards. I couldn’t help it—my eyes were drawn to her bare chest. Her olive skin seemed burnished in gold. The nipples on her perfect little breasts looked like they’d been dipped in bronze. The splash of freckles across her upper chest—an endearing feature I’d seemingly spent hours admiring in the past—now seemed to form a pattern, if I could only crack the code.
Finally, I tapped a card. She immediately flipped it over. It was a Tarot card, of course; I guess I’d known that all along. Here in front of me were the twenty-two cards called the Major Arcana, the Greater Secrets. The Trumps. At the top of this one was a roman numeral twelve. The picture itself might have been designed by William Blake; it was a beautifully rendered watercolor etching of a strange tree—a Joshua tree, I think—in the shape of a gnarled cross. Suspended from the main branch was a man hanging by his right ankle, clad in medieval tights and tunic, all silver. A legend at the bottom read “The Hanged Man.” I turned the card over to study the man’s face, and while I was not surprised, still I felt goosebumps rise when I recognized myself.
Donna turned over another card. Number I; the legend read “The Mountebank.” It showed an old man in wildly-colored harlequin clothes juggling balls of fire. He stood behind a table piled high with books. At first I didn’t recognize him, but eventually it came to me: it was J. Hal Merriman. Another card; number VII, “Le Chariot,” with Eloi in glittering armor in a golden chariot holding the reins to two sphinxes, one white, one black. The sphinxes had Abdiel’s and Zagzagel’s faces.
She flipped another card, number V: “Jupiter.” Sitting atop a fantastic throne, apparently carved from one massive piece of wood and covered in Nordic runes, was Papa Nick, looking altogether resplendent in silks and fur, and grinning under his amazing white mustache. Next came XX, “Judgment.” In the most elaborate artwork yet, Gabriel flew in a stormy sky with trumpet in hand above several naked figures wading through a gray quagmire. Among them I saw poor Leslie and Big Zac.
By now, even as the erstwhile cotton turned from sludge to concrete in my head, I knew I was dreaming. So it came as no great surprise when I looked up and saw that the fortuneteller was no longer Donna. Sitting in her place was Millicent Spence, or at least an idealized avatar of her, with a magnificent mane of chestnut curls, eyes an impossible shade of jade, and a completely incongruent, garish suit of men’s clothes, like something out of Guys and Dolls, or maybe Sammy Davis in Porgy and Bess. What was his name? “Sportin’ Life,” that was it, the Bible-doubting cocaine pusher. It was an incredibly tight-fitting garish suit, almost as if it was painted on. And upon closer inspection, I decided that really was the case: this checkered suit was body-paint, right down to the pink carnation in the wide lapel.
She flipped over one last card, the final Trump: a card with no number at the top; the legend at the bottom read “The Fool.” I immediately recognized the simian vagabond portrayed there as Gareth. He stood at the edge of a cliff carrying a bundle on a staff over his shoulder, a Renaissance hobo; Barney Fife nipped at his barefoot heels. In the background, the Golden Gate Bridge disappeared into the clouds, like a man-made Bifrost spanning to a mysterious Asgard.
I don’t ordinarily remember my dreams. For many years I honestly believed that I didn’t dream at all. I have no idea why I remember this one so clearly; maybe it’s something to do with the way the Angels have reprogrammed my brain. But every image on every one of those Tarot cards is still vividly clear to me, even now. If I had the skill I could render each one down to the least detail. I certainly can’t pretend to know what any of it means. Or indeed, if it means anything at all.
I don’t believe in clairvoyant dreaming, or for that matter, any kind of precognition. The future hasn’t happened yet, period. Of course, not long ago I would have said I didn’t believe in Angels, either. And Merriman had also covered dreaming of the future in Eudynamics; it was one of the Three Pillars of Scientificism. He called it QPS, Quantum Psychic Somnolence, and he claimed that certain dreams by certain enlightened dreamers tapped into possible future scenarios by peeking through a spiritual quantum curtain between the infinite facets of the Multiverse. (I know; I’ve told Gareth many times that Merriman was the All-Time Master of Meaningful-Sounding Bullshit. Eventually Gareth admitted that not only was this true, but Merriman would probably love the title.)
Still, I didn’t need an Oracle to interpret the obvious symbology; Merriman as The Mountebank, the juggling magician? Of course. Gabriel was right where he belonged, trumpeting Doom. Likewise Gareth, the scampering Fool. It was no surprise that I would see myself as the Hanged Man; isn’t he sometimes known as The Traitor? No, the odd thing was that I dreamed of Tarot cards at all; I don’t remember ever seeing one before, unless you count Jane Seymour telling James Bond’s fortune. When had I acquired this expertise?
As I looked at that last card again, the little dog etching seemed almost alive, barking a big throaty bark. I looked back up at Millicent; in my father’s voice she said, “Wake up, son. Trouble out front.”
Finally I opened my eyes. Dad was grabbing his shotgun from over the mantle. “Whoa,” I croaked. “What’s going on?” The real Barney was indeed barking urgently just outside the front door.
“Unknown. Take this,” he said, offering me the shotgun. “I’ll get the rifle from the—”
I sat up. “Wait a second. I have to think.” I waved off the shotgun. “I won’t need that.” I realized I was clutching something in my right hand; it was my silver eardrop. “Damn.” I had taken it out to show Dad, more of my mime act, explaining the constant surveillance I carried around. I’d intended to put it right back. Hadn’t I?
We’d sat in front of the fire as he’d told his story; I’d had a third, maybe even a fourth and fifth glass of wine. Obviously the alcohol had gone right to my head. I’d fallen asleep here on the sofa. I guess Dad had drifted off in his easy chair. I glanced up at the old pendulum clock on the far wall: almost midnight. Damn again; nearly three weeks away from the pyramid. I yawned, still trying to shake off my stupor.
The din outside suddenly amped up. The dog yelped in pain; the door was struck with several savage blows, probably kicks from heavy boots; in the absence of Barney’s barking, we could hear angry voices accompanying the pounding on the door. Then two silver giants, my Ishim guards, materialized in the foyer, their helmets almost brushing the ceiling. A heartbeat later, Eloi appeared. The door began to splinter; the Ishim turned towards it as Eloi stepped towards my father and me.
Too much was happening way too fast. Dad raised his gun at Eloi; I tried to leap up off the sofa, shouting out “Dad! No!!” The door caved in; in the instant that my eyes flicked in that direction, I recognized George Hanson from across the street—like part of the angry mob in a Frankenstein movie, he was even wielding a pitchfork. I reached out to pull the shotgun away from Dad, still yelling “No!!!”
I heard the Ishim weapons discharge; Dad swung his shotgun in their direction; one of the Ishim swung his weapon around at Dad—
Then Eloi raised his hand just before the Ishim weapon fired; I saw its flash as my father disappeared. His clothes collapsed onto his shoes as the shotgun fell to the floor.
And I was still screaming NO.