Space Aliens and All That

Summer is waning.

When I was a kid, late July and early August were the long, hot dog-days of summer vacation. Boredom was setting in, along with an encroaching excitement mixed with dread about the beginning of a new school-year. It was the perfect time for ghost stories, science-fiction, and books about UFOs.

In that childhood tradition, I watched a documentary on Netflix the other night called Unacknowledged, about the government UFO cover-up. Good production values, for a documentary of its kind. But it was nonetheless disappointing, and left me with all the wrong sort of nagging questions.

My education in asking these kinds of questions was the Antichrist Handbook, by Fred Clark, which is a bit like a literary form of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, focused not on bad movies, but on the bad books of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins — the famous (or infamous) Left Behind series.

The one thing that LaHaye and Jenkins accomplished in their books is to demonstrate that the Rapture and Tribulation at the center of their plot could never happen. It isn’t that their scenarios gratuitously break the laws of physics, or that they are theologically incoherent, though they excel on both counts. The real problem is that people simply don’t behave like that. When a father’s child vanishes in the middle of the night, he doesn’t go back to work the next day, much less express enthusiastic interest in the football betting pool. When a billion people’s children vanish, you don’t have rush-hour traffic the next day: you either have no traffic at all, or the mother of all permanent traffic snarls, followed pretty swiftly by mass suicides and the collapse of civilization. When your plot depends on billions of children vanishing, and then life continuing on with all the usual daily grind, including stocked grocery stores and regularly scheduled international passenger flights, you have a lousy story.

There are similar problems with Unacknowledged.

The basic premise is simple. There are indeed extraterrestrials, and they’re visiting the Earth. There is a secretive shadow government that has known about them for seventy years. The eventual goal of this shadow government is to unite the world with a false-flag “alien invasion,” and they do this with all the usual motivations of every all-powerful secret organization, namely to obtain personal wealth and power under the guise of nobly “doing what must be done.”

They have documents that prove all this.

Let’s start with the extraterrestrial hypothesis, specifically the Grays. These are the big-eyed, spindly-limbed, “little grey men” that figure so prominently in abduction cases. I’m not going to question their existence, nor any of the abduction tales: let them all stand as written. My question is this: what makes everyone so sure they are extraterrestrial?

They’re described as upright bipeds, bilaterally symmetric, equipped with two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two arms, fingers, and skin (not fur, scales, feathers, or spines). What are the odds that any extraterrestrial species would end up looking just like slightly weird humans?

I’d say damn near zero. We’ve got starfish, octopus, cuttlefish, and whales just on this planet alone, and the last three are demonstrably intelligent. That something from clear across the galaxy would appear so essentially human strikes me as flatly unbelievable.

My first guess — given that I’m deliberately not questioning their existence — is that these guys are entirely terrestrial, and further, that they’re genetically related to us. Maybe they’re an offshoot of homo, maybe something more distant, but they’re closer than the point where we parted from the chimpanzee line. Technologically advanced, to be sure, and good at hiding all traces of themselves from us, their more vicious cousins.

If they’re extraterrestrial, they have to break the laws of physics as we know them to get here. Ignoring that, and given the necessary technology to do regular round-trips, they aren’t dependent on the Earth or its ecosystems for their own survival: they just hop back to Grayworld and stop at a galactic Flying J for some fuel and some alien nachos and a Coke. There are billions of worlds for them to choose to exploit for their own needs, leaving no obvious reason for them to be here, in our faces. There are Earthlike worlds all over the galaxy being swallowed up by their own suns at this very moment: novas, supernovas, and gamma bursts that destroy entire planetary systems and everything on them or near them. I can’t see how the aliens would care about our itty-bitty troubles, like ecological suicide or nuclear self-annihilation.

If they’re terrestrial, however, they live within the same ecosystem that we do. They depend upon the same resources — air, water, food. If we kill the world, they die too. They have an obvious interest in our behavior. And we get to keep the laws of physics, or at least the big ones, like conservation of energy.

Before we settle that conundrum, let’s step over into the world of this shadow government, because it raises more possibilities.

Again, I’m not going to question the existence of the shadow government: let that stand. But I will point out that by definition, they lie. They lie about everything, including their own existence. They fabricate coverups: that was their original task, and it is at the core of their continued existence. It’s what they do. Misdirection. Deception. Lies.

So as the documentary trots out government document after government document claiming this or that about the extraterrestrials and UFOs, I have to ask whether these documents themselves are part of that lie. As they interview former “inside sources” who have apparently had a change of heart and now want to reveal the truth, I have to point out that these people have, according to their own accounts, made a career out of lies and coverups; there’s no reason in the world to believe them when they say they want to “come clean.” It’s far more likely that they are continuing in retirement what their former employers paid them to do — perhaps for a little “consulting” income.

This raises the possibility that there are not, and have never been, any aliens at all.

There are the lights and objects in the sky, of course, and too many people have photographed, tracked, and chased them to say they never happened. But observing them only underlines the U in UFO — unidentified. We know that they are — we have no idea what they are. They could be advanced military technology, or even illusions set up by this shadow government, which could help explain some of their “magical” behavior. Given that the alleged end-goal of the shadow government is to pull off a full-scale “alien invasion” scam, it would really make a lot of sense that they’ve been trying out different approaches.

The up-close alien encounters are somewhat different, in that they are essentially private first-hand observations. After all, we don’t have a regular public experience of little gray men getting on the elevator on our commute to the office; we have “Big and Tall” sections of clothing stores, but no “Short and Gray” sections. I don’t think there are even any space alien hate groups. (If there are, I really don’t want to know about it. My opinion of people is low enough as it is.)

Furthermore, it seems that the repentant professional liars have claimed credit for at least some of these encounters: they kidnap people, pump them full of Versed and LSD, stage a terrifying little “encounter,” then turn them loose to see how they behave.

Maybe the shadow government is behind all of the alien phenomena. It’s an obvious plot hole in the documentary.

But the biggest plot hole comes up toward the end, when they start talking about how dangerous this shadow government is. At this point, the documentary goes full alt-right: they drag in the Kennedy assassination, and talk about how anyone who spills the beans ends up dead. Which raises a bloody obvious question: how did these guys get away with making this tell-all documentary in the first place, much less getting it distributed on Netflix? Unless, of course, the shadow government wanted them to make the documentary… (cue eerie music).

Edward Snowden leaked real secrets, and pissed off the real shadow government. He’s now living in exile in Russia with an arrest warrant pending if he ever sets foot on American soil. Dr. Stephen Greer, the main figure in Unacknowledged, who is exposing a coverup that makes everything Snowden disclosed look like grade school playground gossip, is filmed walking around in Washington, DC, in front of the Washington Monument. He’s not even wearing a hat to disguise himself. His deep-cover repentant liars don’t have their faces fuzzed out, and there is no indication that they are using fake names.

Honestly, guys. Get a better scriptwriter, and run this past some beta readers.

Of course, they can’t do that. “UFO literature” is a genre, and like any genre, it has its rules. You can’t write a thriller without some bad guys chasing some good guys. You can’t write a bodice-ripper without some bodices and some ripping.

At root, UFO literature is a form of carnival side-show — the bearded lady, the painted man, the snake with two heads. It is intended to evoke the thrill of seeing the unknown and the unnatural. At a slightly more elevated level, it is intended to challenge comfortable dogmas about the nature of the universe, and our place in it.

The root problem with the UFO genre is that it has become a comfortable dogma in its own right. It really hasn’t changed at all in the last seventy years: the same tropes, the same pacing, the same clichés.

Which is probably why I tuned in and watched Unacknowledged, though I have to confess that I nodded off at one point in the middle. It was a nostalgia trip: revisiting those dog-days of summer when I was a boy. Like finding an old board game in the attic that you enjoyed so much as a child.

Then finding it isn’t nearly so much fun to play now.

Saint Jake – Epilogue

Rudric crouched on the ground, fingers locked in a death grip around the shattered haft of his hayfork, still-warm horseflesh pressed tight around him, holding him upright. Several of his companions who had been in the second rank were still alive. He was the only survivor from the first rank, the one on which the horses had broken for the critical seconds it took for the Jakes to destroy their riders with their fleschette rifles.

When the foot soldiers realized they were up against two Jakes, they had broken and fled, and a few of them had doubtless escaped. But only a few. The Jakes had pursued them, and wherever the Jakes went, Death followed.

His friends helped him out of the tangle of horseflesh and corpses of men, and helped him pry his fingers from the hayfork shaft. As if releasing his grip had loosened all the tendons in his body, he fell to the ground and the world went dark.

He recovered just as the Jakes returned, and rose slowly to his feet.

One of them rode up to him, and dismounted. The late afternoon sun, tinted almost blood-red by the dust in the air, gleamed off the Jake’s silver armor. Rudric started to kneel, but the Jake gripped him by the arm.

“No,” he said. “You do not kneel to me. I slew your enemies: I sat on a horse on a hill and spat Death at them from a safe distance. But you saved my life, and your village, and you did it with naught in your hand but a stick of wood, facing certain death. You displayed more bravery and honor today than I have ever possessed. You do not kneel to me. I kneel to you.”

The Jake went to one knee before Rudric, removed his shining helm, and bowed his head. The other Jake had rounded up Rudric’s surviving companions from the hayfork line and brought them to stand beside Rudric. Then he, also, knelt beside his fellow Jake, and removed his helm, and bowed his head.

After a moment, the two Jakes replaced their helms on their heads, and mounted their horses.

The village mayor stepped forward, and behind him the rest of the village drew close.

“Won’t you stay and celebrate this great victory with us?” he asked.

The Jake’s expression could not be read beneath his helm, but his voice was gentle and tired.

“This is your victory, bought at a dear cost to you. You should well celebrate, and then mourn your dead. It is not our place to join you. We have merely done our duty, following the rules of our order. Duty now bids us leave. Be mellow.”

“Be mellow,” the people answered, and the Jakes turned and rode away into the shadows of the east as the last rays of the sun gleamed on their armor.

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Saint Jake – Pilgrims

The old woman shuffled toward the attendant, her pilgrim’s passport in her palsied hand.

“Welcome to the Shrine of Saint Jake,” the attendant said in a bored voice, and flipped open her passport so that he could stamp it with the Mark of the Shrine. He stamped hundreds of these every day, week in and week out, and as great an honor as it was to attend the Shrine, it was hard to keep one’s devotion at peak pitch all the time.

The first page was full, so he flipped to the next page. Then the next. A small crease appeared between his brows, and he flipped to the last page. There was only one space left in the lower right corner. He flipped back to the beginning and examined the pages more carefully.

He’d never seen some of these stamps. His eyes grew wide as he slowly realized she had done the full Pilgrim’s Route, following Saint Jake’s route from the Door to Nowhere, to the Blue Lady’s Garden, to the Bank of the Damned, to the Shrine here on the shores overlooking the submerged ruins of the Great Apple, where Saint Jake had finally faced and defeated all twelve Dragonlords in the Arena of Fate that lay beneath the waters in the heart of the ruined city. His eyes, full of wonder, rose to meet the old woman’s.

“You must be very devout,” he said.

She smiled.

“I knew him.”

The attendant nearly dropped the passport.

“You… you knew him?” He looked at her more closely. Yes, she was old enough — it was possible, however unlikely.

“Yes. We met walking the old highway. I was a young girl in the company of my brothers, and we all walked together for a day. I heard the Tale of Eris from his own lips as we walked. He had just decided to seek out the Blue Lady, and I wanted to join him on his quest, but he told me he had to go alone. That he had amends to make before he met her.”

The attendant slowly turned the passport back to the first page, and his hand trembled. Her name was there on the first page.

“You are Miranda.” His voice was a whisper.

The old woman smiled.

“I am.”

The tale of the star-crossed but undying love of Jake and Miranda was known to every child. Overcome, the attendant sank to his knees.

“There, there, young man, there’s no need for that. I haven’t that many hours left in this world, and I’d hate to have them run out while I’m waiting for you to put the last stamp in my book. Be mellow.”

“Be mellow,” the attendant murmured, and then rose to his feet and carefully, reverently placed the Mark of the Shrine in the exact center of the last space in the book.

“May I assist you to the Shrine, my lady?” he asked.

“Yes, I’d rather like that.”

He took her arm and slowly led her to the Shrine, and the final resting place of Saint Jake.

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Saint Jake – In Time of War

Jake never saw the men who captured him.

He’d come this far north to try to find the fabled Big Apple. He wanted to see it before it collapsed into rubble. Between the ocean level rise and the fierce Autumn hurricanes, the great coastal cities of the past were vanishing like sand castles on a beach, and he thought he ought to pay tribute to them before they were gone.

Or before he got too old to make the trip. He’d been thinking that this might be his last trip on the Road. He was over sixty, now, and a lifetime of walking had done his knees no favors. It was probably time to settle down.

He’d been walking up a tree-shaded highway, and then he was suddenly here, hands tied behind his back, head pounding with a headache like he’d never had before, clothes dripping wet from the cold water that had been thrown in his face. He coughed and shook his head to clear his eyes.

It was a room dimly-lit by a single oil lamp on a rough, stained table. Two men in worn army fatigues stood in front of him, one with a bucket that he set carefully on the ground, upside down. The other saw that Jake was awake, and walked past Jake. He heard a door open behind him.

Be mellow.

It was harder than usual to be mellow. This was not a good situation. Jake had heard tell of a vicious war brewing between the Yanks and the Grays in this part of the country. He’d given it wide berth to the west, expecting to pass by the troubles and approach the Apple from the north. Seemed he hadn’t gone far north enough. Or maybe the battleground had moved.

He heard quick footsteps behind him. A short, muscular man strode into view, then turned and sat on the overturned bucket. His head was bald or shaved close; his face was broad and fleshy, marred by a deep scar that ran from his right eyebrow to his lip. His right eye socket was empty. His expression spoke of disgust and boredom.

He looked so much like Captain Renfrew from the Keep of the Northern Dragon Waste, that Jake nodded to him without thinking and murmured, “Captain.”

The other man grew very still.

“Should I know you?” the bald man said, his one eye sharp with sudden interest.

“Jake, sir.”

The one eye blinked, and the man took a quick breath, then held it.

“Jake? You claim to the Jake?”

“I’m the only Jake I’ve met in my travels, sir.” Which wasn’t exactly true. But he was the only Jake he’d met who was anywhere close to his age. Though he’d met an uncanny number of children with that name.

A slow smile spread across the man’s face, pulling at the scar. It was not a pleasant smile, but a cruel one.

“The Jake who has inspired a thousand rebels, ten thousand thieves, and a hundred-thousand discontented citizens of the Lawful Nation of the Yewsay. The Jake who is wanted for crimes of propaganda and treason. The Jake who has a gold price on his head. The Jake who will make me a full Commander, if you are — indeed — who you say you are.”

Be mellow. God help me, be mellow.

Jake had been in a few serious scrapes before, but he’d always been able to talk his way out of them. Nothing like this, though. He knew there were times to keep his mouth shut. If ever there was such at time, it was now. He turned his mind to the ignominious defeat of Captain Renfrew in the Dragon Wastes, trying to run from rabid chipmunks with his pants around his ankles, and stared back at the bald man with a level gaze and a faint smile, though his guts felt like water. The silence stretched out.

“Well,” said the bald man at last, “we shall have to see if you are who you say you are.”

He stood and spoke to the soldier who still stood behind him.

“We won’t be needing that just yet,” he said, gesturing to the bucket. “Take this prisoner to the VIP accommodations, and make sure you don’t damage him. Then see if you can find Vince. Vince will get the truth out of this bastard. And if he IS the Jake….” He pulled a toothy grin, then strode out.

The soldier dragged Jake to his feet, then marched him down a series of concrete hallways to a cell with a door made of steel bars. The bars looked familiar, and Jake had a sudden memory of his youth, visiting a bank with his mother. They were in an old-world bank.

The soldier untied Jake and pushed him into the dark room beyond the steel bars, then pushed the gate shut. He had to put his weight against it to get it to close, but it closed with a mechanical click that sounded complete, and final. Then the soldier left, presumably to fetch Vince.

Jake sat on the floor. There was a faint, flickering light that filtered through the door, doubtless from some candle or lantern down one of the corridors. The floor was smooth and cold. He remembered the floor in the bank, some shiny black stone, polished until you could see your reflection in it. Banks had been made to keep money safe for the bankers, as he recalled, so they were like fortresses. There would be no escape from here.

Jake’s hands sought his pockets, and he realized they hadn’t searched him at all. He still had his pouch of Tangerine Dream, his pipe, and his flint. He set about the comforting ritual, hands working easily and automatically in the dark. Soon, the familiar musky scent filled the close confines of his cell, and he let his terrified mind rest. Time passed without markers.

A sudden commotion in the hallway pulled Jake out of his mellowness. Running feet. Dancing light that grew brighter. Shouting.

The bald man was suddenly at the bars, surrounded by men in fatigues, his face stretched in a grimace that his scar made into a leer. He was shouting for someone to get the damn door open. There was a muted bell-like sound followed by a whickering like a whole swarm of flying insects, and then there was blood all over the steel bars as soldiers fell. The bald man, showing sudden bone-white patches on his skull, shrieked and ran down a corridor into darkness.

Jake’s guard appeared at the door, produced a key, and then pulled the door open. A small group of people bearing torches surged into the cell, and then stopped to stare at Jake, still seated on the floor.

Jake blinked at them.

At last, he took a deep breath, and said, “Be mellow.”

“Be mellow,” they chanted back in unison. Then one stepped forward.

“Jake, begging your pardon, but we have to go, and quickly. We’re here to rescue you. Will you come?”

“Fuckin’ A,” Jake muttered and put out a hand.

The next hour was a blur of running and hiding. Two of the men carried heavy backpacks and long tubes with a grip and a trigger. They were only used once, to get through the guarded main gate of the compound. Standing so near, Jake could hear the preliminary high-pitched whine, and then the bell-like sound of the discharge, as hundreds of sharpened metal slivers were propelled out the muzzle at just under supersonic speed, to flay anything in their path.

They’ve build their own fleschette rifles. Just like the one I used against the Dragonlords. Only bigger. Clumsier. Real.

They eventually reached a flat cart on steel wheels with what looked like an old see-saw on it. Jake was glad to stop running. His lungs burned.

The men jumped onto the cart and pulled Jake aboard, then two of them began pumping the two ends of the see-saw. The cart began to move, and quickly built up speed.

Jake sat with the wind in his face as a late crescent moon rose in the sky and the horizon in front of them turned gray, then pink. The men took turns pumping the handles, and would not allow Jake to take a turn, but instead passed him strips of salted meat and a leather skin filled with a surprisingly good beer. There was no conversation, and all of the men were watchful and tense as the light grew.

In mid-morning, the men suddenly relaxed and allowed the cart to slow. One of them called out a long string of nonsense syllables, and there was an answering cry from the woods around them. They drifted to a slow halt. A moment later, they were surrounded by people, including women and children.

A tall, thin man in a clean uniform pushed through the crowd. His face was as sour as a wedge of lemon.

“What in Hell’s name is going on here?” he shouted. “You’re not supposed to be here. What’s gone wrong?”

“Nothing, sir!” It was the soldier who had taken Jake to his cell. “Something has gone right.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” the thin man snapped. “Report, damn you.”

“It’s Jake, sir. We found Jake. The Yanks had him. We rescued him.”

A dozen emotions chased themselves across the officer’s face. Disbelief. Astonishment. Concern. Horror. Anger. Disbelief again. He scanned the passengers on the cart, and his eyes locked on Jake. Disbelief tinged with anger warred with something in his expression that looked like hope.

“Is it true?” he asked Jake. “Are you Jake? If you’re lying, God help you.”

Instead of answering, Jake rooted through his pockets, and pulled out the last of his Tangerine Dream and his pipe. He carefully packed it, lit it with his flint, and then extended it toward the officer, stem-first.

“Be mellow,” he said.

The crowd, grown silent, breathed a great sigh in reply, “Be mellow.”

The officer took the offered pipe with fingers that trembled, and there were tears in his eyes. “Be mellow,” he whispered, and took a long pull on the pipe.

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Saint Jake – The Blue Lady

There was still a path under his feet, but it was overgrown with rank grass, and the ground was turning soggy. The air was thick, almost unbreathable. Tall, leggy trees grew sparsely out of a sea of chest-high bushes on either side of the path that stretched as far as he could see. Insects of some sort ratcheted in a continuous roar of sound that filled the air in all directions, muted slightly, perhaps, by the cloud of silent biting insects that surrounded him like a churning fog.

“Aiiieeeee!” Jake yelled and waved his arms, uncharacteristically un-mellow.

Something large splashed nearby. The roar of insects, and the voracious cloud around him, continued without pause or notice.

Jake turned in the direction of the splash. He’d heard of the Giant Caimans that were said to guard the Blue Lady’s secret garden — some kind of prehistoric reptile, they said, bigger than any ordinary alligator or crocodile, fierce, aggressive, and equipped with poisonous fangs. Completely loyal to the Lady and obedient to her voice.

Though he wasn’t fond of the idea of dying in the jaws of such a creature, he was down in this pest-ridden swamp to search for the Blue Lady, and he figured he’d have to face one of the beasts sooner or later. Between the heat and the bugbites, sooner would be much better than later.

The bushes were too thick to see through. He could not even guess where the water lay: one step away, or a hundred.

Jake sighed, turned, and trudged onward. He was already through a quarter of the water in his skin, and had no idea how much further this path went. The adults in the last village he’d been through had turned away when he’d mentioned the Lady, but one of the children had finally set him on this path, and assured him that you could get there in half a day.

It was mid-afternoon when he at last came to the end of the path. The trees had grown tall and dense, and though the sun was still high, he walked in green twilight. The path made a sharp turn, dipped slightly, and then opened into a clearing.

Jake stopped walking, struck still by awe.

The clearing was ringed by the tall trees, which formed a dense canopy overhead that continued to filter the sunlight to a deep green; but the sun cut bright, slanted shafts of golden light through gaps in the canopy, reflecting sparkling light off the mix of dust, flying insects, and humidity in the air. As he watched, faint breezes in the leaves high above caused the shafts of light to dance.

The sound of insects was muted here, and he could at last hear a faint trickle of water: at the center of the clearing stood a ring of carefully-fitted, grouted stones, enclosing a small pool of water fed by an artesian spring that bubbled up from its center, which then overflowed and vanished into the thick mat of mossy growth that covered the floor of the clearing. The stones around the pool were almost hidden by brightly-colored scraps of cloth, shiny man-made metallic objects, woven bundles of sticks decorated with feathers, and old photographs. A cleared path through the offerings allowed access to the pool.

A low mound rose behind the pool, smooth and earth-colored.

Jake cautiously entered the clearing. He saw no movement, save the slow bubbling of the pool. He approached the pool, and tasted the water. It was clean, fresh, and cool, though it had an odd flavor — slightly sweet and sharp, like a fruit or blossom, with a faint hint of not-unpleasant bitterness.

He breathed a sigh of relief. His water was almost gone, despite his attempts to ration it, and he’d been worrying for the last two hours how he would make it back out of this jungle. He drank his fill from the pool, and then filled his water bag.

There was nothing else in the clearing but the pool with its ring of offerings, and the mound. He rose and circled the mound, slowly.

It appeared to be made of clay, something like stucco. It was low, a little more than chest-high to Jake, and perhaps ten feet in diameter. A ring of small holes encircled the mound about halfway up the sides, each overhung with a lip that would keep rainwater from draining into the hole.

On the back side he found a small, round door, painted bright blue.

“Hello!” Jake called. Only the endless insect ratcheting and the faint burbling of the spring answered.

He knocked on the door, and then stood back, respectfully. Nothing happened.

Jake sat down, rolled himself a joint, and considered his options.

This was clearly a local shrine of some sort, and the blue door suggested that the child had been right — this was a shrine to the Blue Lady. But it didn’t seem at all like the Garden he’d been hearing about. He looked up at the canopy, and was surprised to see the shafts of sunlight cutting a shallow angle through the tops of the trees, the day nearly spent. Somehow, the rest of the afternoon had slipped away without his noticing.

Jake didn’t know much about jungles, but he knew he didn’t want to sleep on the open ground — that was just an invitation to become dinner. He felt suddenly certain that the mound was for travelers, exactly like himself. Without much thought, he stood, opened the blue door, and then crouched and wormed his way into the mound, not even thinking about anything that might already be inside. He pulled the door shut behind him.

His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. There was just enough light slipping in through the ring of holes to see that the interior of the mound was clean and featureless, and unoccupied by anyone or anything else. The was a sharp, bitter smell in the air that reminded him briefly of antiseptic from the old world he’d grown up in. Which perhaps explained the lack of denizens: someone maintained this space, kept it clean and clear. His eyes started to droop — it had been a long day.

He was jolted back to awareness by the sound of singing, outside the mound: a woman’s voice, clear and beautiful, singing a sweet melody. He could not make out the words.

There was more light inside the mound now, bright, clear daylight coming through the ring of holes, and he could see that the inside walls were painted in bright colors. A yellow sun hung in a blue sky, surrounded by stars, facing a shining full moon. A mountain rose to one side; blue sea on the other, edged by white sand. A ring of toothy monstrosities surrounded him, frighteningly realistic.

Jake admired the painter’s skill for a moment, then pushed the door open and crawled out.

He stood in the middle of a lawn of short green grass. A cool sea-breeze blew in his face, from across the ocean that spread before him all the way to the horizon, surf rolling in languidly, a bright morning sun already high in a clear blue sky. He turned slowly to face the tall, green mountain that rose behind him.

He saw movement from the corner of his eye, and turned to look. It was a tall woman with raven-dark hair braided tightly in corn-rows and piled high on her head. Her clothing was a simple robe of clean white fabric that draped in folds. The most startling thing about her, of course, was that her skin was blue. Not the mottled purplish blue of a drowning man, or the gray-blue of someone with chronic metal poisoning, but clear, unblemished blue, a little darker than the sky, but lighter than the sea.

Jake went to one knee. “My Lady,” he said.

She laughed, and her voice confirmed that she was the singer he had heard earlier.

“Rise, Jake. None that I allow on my island need bend a knee.”

“So you are real, after all.”

She smiled, and did not answer.

“But… how…?”

“No, Jake. Your time here is precious, and you should not waste it on unimportant questions. Ask me what you came to ask.”

Now that he’d come to it, Jake found himself suddenly speechless. Tears sprang to his eyes. The Lady’s eyes showed sympathy, and she continued to smile at him.

“Do I have a purpose?” Jake blurted out.

“Yes,” the Lady said.

“Then what is it?” Jake’s voice shook, his face twisted in an agony of pleading and anger.

Her smile faded, replaced by a kind of sadness. “I cannot tell you.”

“Why not? Because that’s for me to discover?” His voice dripped sarcasm.

The Lady’s sad expression did not change. “I cannot tell you, because if I do, the knowledge will prevent you from fulfilling your purpose. I can only say that you have a purpose. And I think I can tell you this much as well: it is an important purpose.”

Jake’s anger broke like a wave against the shore, and rolled away. He sat, suddenly, shoulders drooping.

“Then what am I supposed to do?”

The Lady’s smile returned, and she laughed, lightly. “That question I can answer, Jake. You are supposed to do exactly what you are doing. Travel where you wish to travel. Do what you wish to do. Walk when you are restless, sleep when you are tired, eat when you are hungry. Settle down somewhere when and if it suits you.”

“But how does that…?”

“Shh,” the Lady said, putting her finger to her lips. “It is my turn to ask a question of you.”

Jake braced himself. “Okay.”

“Are you still carrying any Purple Haze?”

Jake blinked. “Um, no. But I have Tangerine Dream.”

“Would you mind sharing?”

Jake stared at her for a full thirty seconds. Then his wits found him, and he reached into his pocket. The Lady sat on the ground next to him while he packed his pipe for her.

“Ahh…” she said, slowly exhaling after taking a deep draught of the fragrant smoke. “Thank you. It’s embarrassing to have to ask. But my visitors have started ‘purifying’ themselves before they come. Empty pockets, empty minds, nothing to share but their ‘spiritual purity.’ It’s a crying shame.”

They sat in companionable silence. Jake’s eyes began to droop.

“Be mellow, Jake,” the Lady said, and kissed him gently on the cheek.

Jake woke, feeling well-rested, with green light filtering through the holes in the mound. He could just make out crude images painted on the inside walls of the structure: a sun, a moon, a seacoast, a mountain. Some kind of toothy creatures. It was far too dark to distinguish colors, almost too dark to see the images at all. He sat up and pushed the door open into the endless insect racket and the soft bubbling of the pool. The light suggested that it was shortly after dawn, but the heat was already building.

Jake drank at the fountain, and then set out on the path back to the world he knew.

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Saint Jake – Hippies

Jake leaned back from the table with a sigh of contentment. He used the cloth napkin they had given him to make sure his beard was tidy. It was beginning to show some gray, now, though his hair remained dark.

“I cannot tell you, ma’am, when I’ve last eaten so well,” he said.

All four sets of eyes were fixed on him. Pride gleamed in the farmer’s wife’s eyes at his compliment. Her husband’s eyes were narrowed, and her children’s were wide.

“Don’t normally invite travelers into our home,” the farmer said.

“Jonathan!” his wife scolded. “This is Jake.”

Says he’s Jake,” the farmer said. His wife’s cheeks flared bright red, and she glared at her husband.

“Jake is my name, sir,” Jake said.

“Aye, but are ye the Jake my wife seems to think you are? The one that battled two Dragonlords in the Forest of Garnacha?”

Jake paused. He didn’t often tell that story. It was one of the darker tales with a sad ending, and it usually left his listeners distressed.

“The Forest of Garnacha is a depressing place,” Jake said. “It’s an old forest, ancient, and full of spiders and death beetles and deadfall. You can’t see where you’re putting your feet, and sometimes you step on things that… squish.”

The children — a boy and a girl — both squealed.

Halfway through the story, the farmer leaned back and lit his pipe. He offered Jake a pinch of weed, and Jake gratefully accepted. He finished the story, which put tears in the farmwife’s eyes, and then told the story about tricking the Dragonlord Opus out of his entire treasure, which had them all laughing out loud.

As his wife took the children to put them to bed, and the farmer clapped Jake on the shoulder with a smile.

“I can’t say I believe a word you said, young man,” he said, “but that was the best storytelling I’ve heard. If you ain’t the Jake, you might as well be. You’re welcome in this house any time.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jake replied.

“Then I’ll bid you good night. You’ll be comfortable in the barn?”

“Yes, sir. Been on the road most of my life. I don’t think I’d be comfortable sleeping in a house. The barn will be a luxury.”

“Breakfast is sharp at sunrise. And maybe you can help me with the windmill, afore ye go out on the road again. It’s two more weeks until the harvest workers come through, and I need someone on the ground who can lift.”

“Be happy to help, sir.”

“Aye. Well, then, good night.”

After a hearty farm breakfast at dawn, Jake went out with the farmer to fix the windmill that pulled up water from the well for the animals.

When the farmer climbed down from the windmill tower, Jake pointed to a row of metal posts with solar panels on top.

“How come you don’t use those?” he asked.

The farmer glanced at the row of panels and snorted.

“Them things? I ain’t had time to pull ‘em down. They’re useless.”

“Busted?”

“Among other things. Hailstorm a few years back broke three of ‘em. Ijits that built ‘em left no way to get up there to fix ‘em. Installed with a cherry-picker. Gasoline-powered. Ain’t seen one in years, now. Can’t afford the parts to fix ‘em, even if I built a big enough ladder to get up there. Plus, batteries is all fried. Lightning storm.”

“Who put them up?”

The farmer laughed. “Bunch o’ hippies, come out of the city. Set up some kind of homestead out here, hopin’ to ride out the end of the world. Have to admit, they had some nice ideas. Got more food out of an acre than I can get out of four, and they claimed it didn’t wear out the soil.”

Jake scratched his beard. “So what happened to them?”

The farmer spat, to ward off ill luck.

“City used to end about a mile from here. Supermarkets shut down one summer — some kind of gasoline crisis, they said — and word got out that the hippies had food. Thousands of people came out, raided the place, stripped it bare. Would’a taken the solar panels, if they could’a got to ‘em. Would’a raided my land, too, if it wasn’t off-season and the fields fallow. Don’t think any of them hippie kids got hurt, but they left and didn’t come back. I took over the land a couple years later.”

“Aren’t you worried they’ll do that again? To you?”

The farmer stared in the direction of the city for a while.

“Nah,” he said at last. “Things is different, now. Hippies were into some kind of ‘self-sufficiency’ deal. Raisin’ food and then keepin’ it for themselves so’s they could survive the troubles. I’m part of this community — I got no use for most of what I raise, and it goes to market every few days in harvest season. Just like all the other farmers around here. Ain’t no point in comin’ all the way out here to steal stuff I already sent into town. Plus, sheriff’s a lot more sensitive to our needs than he used to be. Town raids our farm, or our market wagons, lots of people go hungry. Sheriff won’t stand for that.”

Jake nodded slowly.

“No interest in stayin’ on as a farmhand?” the farmer asked. “Couldn’t offer you no pay, but you’d not go hungry a day in your life.”

Jake stared at the solar panels and thought of his old X-box Infinity. He thought about always having a full stomach, and a place to stay every night. He thought about maybe taking a wife, and raising children.

“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Your offer’s much appreciated, sir. But it’s not in my nature to stay put.”

“Well, you’re honest if nothing else, Jake. Makes me want to believe your wild stories.”

“I’ve seen these things with my own eyes, sir,” Jake said.

On a video game console, some part of his mind offered up. But those memories were fading, and the first-person tales he told had taken on the color of life. Sometimes, it was almost as if he had been there.

The farmer stared at him in silence.

“Well, good luck to you,” he said at last.

Jake nodded, then turned and walked away.

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Saint Jake – Survivalist

The razor-wire fence was mostly rust. A sign advised that trespassers would be shot without warning. Jake was inclined to respect such warnings, but he needed water pretty desperately, and he hadn’t seen any other habitation for miles. So he stepped through the gap where the fence had long ago rusted through and “sprung,” put both hands in the air, and shouted “Just visiting,” every few steps.

He spotted an old, rusty pump-handle in the middle of a small dip in the ground. He’d have missed the bunker entirely, camouflaged and dug into the hill, had the door not been ajar. A desiccated hand clutched the ground outside through the slit-like opening, picked clean by birds of all but a few leathery scraps of skin.

Jake carefully pulled the door wide. The owner of the hand lay just inside, face-down, dressed in Army camo fatigues. There was no smell — the man had been dead for a long time, and the dry air had sucked all the moisture out of the remains. This part of the West had become a dry, barren land, and any scavengers big enough to scatter the bones were long-gone.

Tatters of a dark-stained bandage around the extended hand told the story: he’d likely died of blood poisoning, from a cut. Dragged himself out of bed in a fever to catch a final glimpse of sky before he died. Hadn’t quite made it.

Jake returned to the pump and worked the handle until he was rewarded by resistance. After a few more strokes, clear water cascaded from the spout, and after tasting it, he drank his fill and then filled his water bag.

He left the body and the bunker alone. No point in disturbing the spirits of the dead. Besides, there was likely nothing in the bunker that he wanted. Guns and explosives, for sure — not something he wanted to be caught on the road with. Canned food, but after all these years, it was anyone’s guess if it was fit to eat.

But the real issue was booby-traps. Guys who’d built these sorts of places were usually not quite right in the head: like this fellow, building his razor-wire fence right out to the road, advertising there was something worth protecting to any passersby. Jake had heard of survivalists who’d blown themselves up because they’d booby-trapped the food, then forgotten to disarm it one morning before breakfast. There were people who knew how to get stuff out of these places, and made good trade selling it. Good luck to them.

He turned and walked back toward the road, whistling.

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