Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




A Place Without Portals

It was only then that she woke up in her nice warm bed and discovered that her entire adventure in the land of Nys had been nothing but a dream.

Everything she had experienced from the very beginning, starting with the ancient soothsayer with the parchment skin and beclouded eyes appearing at her door to brush those gnarled fingers against her cheek and murmur, “Yes, you are the one, you are the chosen one, you are the one destined to defeat the great evil,” her indignant demand that the old man explain himself, and the old man’s infuriating response, “To tell more would be to challenge fate,” and that old man’s immediate disappearance in a cloud of ochre mist, had been the creation of her subconscious imagination; it had been the invention of her sleeping brain, as had been the subsequent invasion of her family home by a squadron of heavily-armored pig creatures with pushed-in scowls and sharpened tusks, smashing their clubs against her furniture and reminding each other that it was their holy mission to go after the only being in the multiverse capable of destroying the great evil, and her own terrified flight up the stairs with them coming after her, howling dread promises about how they would decorate these halls with her entrails as a fit tribute to their master, the dark lord.

She had not barricaded herself in the attic, sweat pouring down her cheeks as they wreaked destruction on the floor below, snarling that they could smell her, that they knew she was still here because the scent of her coward’s blood was still assailing their nostrils, even if their collective brain matter was somehow not up to the task of analyzing the environment and putting together the deduction that she was above them, hugging the floor, afraid to breathe. No. Not a single moment in that incredibly vivid sensory experience had happened.

Nor had she spotted the great golden mirror in this dusty space, an artifact that had never graced the attic before, not on any of her other infrequent forays into this place, which, though stuffed with the bric-a-brac of a lifetime, was still finite and unlikely to harbor an item that large and that distinctive that had nevertheless gone unnoticed.

She had not found herself drawn to that mirror by some primal instinct, even though she normally would have had other things to worry about with all these inhuman monsters roaming the house intent on murdering her; she had not reached out with one tremulous finger to touch it because that would have been the behavior of a toddler to whom mirrors were still novel and mysterious objects and not useful artifacts of her everyday life. She had not found her fingertip and then her hand drawn into its musty surface, and she had not found herself tumbling, over and over, through a skyscape of spiral clouds. All of that had really just been her sleeping mind, adding fresh details to the random imagery already provided, not really having a narrative plan at all, intent only on honoring each new image with its next associative one, without following any specific route.

Honestly, if all that stuff had really happened to her, the waking her and not the dream-protagonist, who was no more than a half-formed and idealized self-image, she would have completely lost her mind by that point. Her sanity would have cracked like a raw egg, spilling out the yolk of a still-forming intellect even before she could have noted how ridiculous it was for this still-hypothetical dark lord to send his pig-soldiers after her in her home in what for argument’s sake could be called another dimension when, as a complacent suburban girl minding her own business and almost never venturing into the attic, she had never been an immediate threat to him, vague prophecy or no. If any of that had really been happening she would have been too busy screaming like a ninny to put together all of this discordant information and object that it would have made much more sense for the fiend to simply send somebody into her house when she was not at home, to smash that mirror, or steal it, or to just burn the place down so that even if the mirror could not be destroyed it would just be one last surviving object in a structure that had otherwise been reduced to blackened frames and ash. She would not have reasoned that all of this would have made more sense than assaulting her with pig barbarians in plate armor and driving her to the exact place where any dark lord fearful of prophecy would not want her to go, which is to say up those stairs and into that attic and beyond the mirrored portal into the very dimension he had conquered and was ruling with an iron fist, the only real worry being the prophecy that she might get there and muck things up for him.

But, of course, in a dream, one’s critical faculties are indefinitely suspended, and one can fly thinking nothing more analytical than, Oh, look, I’m flying, and one can meet dead relatives and think nothing more amazed than, Oh, look, there’s grandpa, and one can be chased into one’s attic and from there into a magic mirror without thinking, The world has gone insane and I might as well go insane with it, but instead only taking all that at face value and thinking, How will I get away, how?

None of this ever really happened to her. She was lying in the same bed throughout, her lids shut, her eyes rolling back and forth rapidly, watching all this like she would watch a CGI-driven blockbuster on a movie screen. She was snoring lightly, wholly safe in her bed, wholly insulated from the intolerable dangers of the world she lived in, not to mention the wholly imaginary and one must also say completely derivative world her gray matter put together out of fairy tales and fantasies and wish-fulfillment, with some help from the half-formed anxieties that we all possess and that she as a young girl had yet to process. She was never befriended by a befuddled tree-man who functioned as deliverer of exposition and who was able to tell her everything she needed to know about this strange new world in which she found herself, including the best route to the castle that famously contained a golden mirror exactly like the one she described, which might, theoretically, provide a portal back home just like the one she’d found in her attic had provided her with a portal here. That never happened, because if it had she would not have taken this rather extreme stretch as gospel, even at her young age; she would have reasoned that if the universe actually were perverse enough to scatter mirrored portals about, then the next one she happened to run into might not be kind enough to deliver her back to her home address but might instead drop her off someplace more deadly, like the surface of the sun. It’s also highly unlikely that if the real her were told in such helpful detail about all the perils that stood between her and this still wholly hypothetical portal back home, places like the Valley of the Grasping Claws, the Labyrinth of Secrets, and the Prairie of The Savage Frog-Men, she would have asked more pressing questions before setting out, gotten more information about the lay of the land, as it were. She was not the smartest girl in the whole wide world, but she was not stupid. She got mostly As with only a few Bs. She was smart. The real her, if she retained any sanity at all, would have asked more pressing questions. But of course, this was a dream, an exercise in the mind making up any old stuff it wanted to, and not an actual adventure written by somebody professionally responsible for making sure that the protagonist always did the next believable thing.

She was awake now, and so the dream that detailed her journey across a treacherous but still highly whimsical landscape that took her and the tree-man through a series of frightening but still largely harmless adventures in which she always appeared to be in danger but was at no point wounded nor ever faced with an enemy who could not be tricked by some clever stratagem, a dream in which the evil conqueror of a vast fantastic landscape was somehow unable to muster enough in the way of ruthlessness to do things like outright slaughter the villages of exotic creatures who sheltered her, and who upon her arrival in his midst didn’t tell his armed guards to just chop her head off right now, which would have been the sensible thing, but instead expounded at length about how unstoppable he was, even though, if he really believed all this, he would not have already put so much stock in the prophecy that precisely this girl was coming to kill him, thus giving her the chance to exploit the one fatal weakness she had found out about along the way, that dream, that dream, which, the nature of REM sleep being what it is, actually all took place in a couple of fleeting seconds and must have been the creation of her waking mind trying to make sense of the random-association images that flitted across her mind at a lower level of consciousness. That dream was now over, having played out in its entirety with her as captive audience, and so none of it really mattered at all. None of it changed her. None of it was an opportunity to learn or grow. None of it would still be detectable in the girl she was or the woman she would grow up to be.

It would be different, of course, if any of this experience had really occurred, had she been tested by forces beyond her usual comprehension in a realm normally beyond her own, if it had permitted her to return to her own realm having found out what she was capable of. It would even be different if, overcome by the impossible conviction that all of this had been more than a dream, she went back up to the attic and found a certain indentation in the layers of dust that precisely matched the imprint of the grand golden mirror she had found and traveled through to experience the adventure of a lifetime. Were she to do that, she would have experienced the wonder of a human being whose very understanding of reality had been challenged, and whose very comprehension of her own limits had been shattered forever. She would have gone on to the rest of a life spent knowing that limitless magic could be found around any corner, and that adventure could always be found by anyone with the courage to look.

But that was not going to happen, because the dream was going to fade completely by the time she finished brushing her teeth, and even if not, even if she did go back to the attic to look for that golden mirror, she would never find that indentation in the dust, because no golden mirror was ever there, and there was never any imperiled magical world nor prophecy of her destiny. This was not a case of It-Was-Just-A-Dream-But-Not-Really. It was a case of It-Was-Just-A-Dream, No-Kidding. It just wasn’t. She really did just dream it.

No, what was going to happen, after she blinked and rebooted the waking knowledge of the world as it was, after she swung her legs over the side of the bed and inserted her feet into their slippers prior to making her way to the bathroom, was that she would do all the things that a suburban American girl in our world had to do to get ready for life as it was, a state of being that included wars in a dozen countries, melting polar ice caps, acidification of the oceans, and the bleaching of coral reefs; a world with some madmen taking their homicidal mania into kindergarten classrooms, some stalking girls her age to savage, and still others in charge of nukes; a world with torture and rape as weapons of war, and a country turning more and more to ripping itself asunder out of racial and political divisions; in short: the end of her own world coming at her from a dozen separate directions faster than even the adults of her real world could comprehend it. This was what she woke to. And she was not fated to wake in another bed, the phantoms of her imagination dispelling to find that all of that awfulness was a dream. It was real. And it was a place without portals.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro. A sixty-year old bearded white male showing extreme love for a cat of siamese ancestry.

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, his The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam will be an Author Guest of Honor at 2023’s World Fantasy Convention. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.