By Edward Cowan
Read by Bruce Busby
- For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our sortable Wikipedia page
The First Book of Flaccid Swords
by Edward Cowan
It was a snake–and Gods, what a snake it was. Fifty feet from sweeping tail to flicking tongue, its eyes as cold as deepest space and dim as the farthest star, its fangs dripping poison so vile the stench alone would kill a lesser man.
This, then, was the dreaded Doom of Lla Haathra, into whose black maw the unlucky and damned were fed to the Impotent God. Never having counted myself among His faithful, I saw no reason to submit meekly to His wrath.
His priests had made one crushing mistake when they lured me onto the trap door: they failed to relieve me of my blade. _Wind,_ they called it, those for whom that name was the last word to leave their lips. I rushed the foul altar, upon which lay my Darinda, black chains coiling about her supple form, her body purest alabaster against the crimson stone marbling her flesh. Tsutu Kalai, highest of the wretched priests, cackled as I approached, throwing the lever that opened the trap. Darinda’s scream followed me down the endless, serpentine flue. Beyond that, darkness.
Rolling to my feet, I stood in the shaft of light piercing the abyss from the chamber above, Wind held before me, daring the almost tangible shadow to draw near. Within moments came a rasping omen, as of a great mass dragging itself awake after a slumber of eons.
Now the Doom reared before me, thrusting its head into the light. We goaded one another to strike–it with the insolence of the predator that has never known failure, I with a rage that would never be clenched till the serpent’s blood coated my blade from point to pommel. From above echoed the laughter of the priests and the muffled screams of my Darinda. Here there was only silence–the sweet anticipation of the moment before death.
Finally I saluted the beast with a nod and spoke: “At least your masters have granted me a worthy adversary. Very well; let us have at it. I will not pretend to the ancient patience of the serpentfolk.”
It hissed its reply.
At that I lunged. Its mammoth head darted forward quicker than mercury, but primal speed avails not against human cunning. I ducked its strike and gripped my blade for the piercing jab: up under the jaw and through the skull. I sprang up, mighty thews tensing for the killing blow–
And found myself holding a wet noodle.
Static shrieks as Jessica tears off her headgear and hurls it to the floor. Test pattern jackhammers my eyes and ears.
That’s the thing about couples therapy: when one quits, she drags the other with her. And you can’t do it unless you do it together.
Repeat ad nauseam and there–you’ve got a bead on the entire experience.
She glares at me from her couch. “You died _again,_ didn’t you?”
Clearing his throat, Dr. Freundlich removes his own headgear with none of his patients’ violent frustration. He regards us across the vast mahogany plane of his desk, steepling his fingertips, tap-tap-tapping them together.
“We are not making the progress we had hoped for, hmm?”
Jessica and I shift on our couches–the same vivid red as Lla Haathra’s altar–searching for comfort or at least a spot of dignity in what she calls the “birthing position”: feet level with head, ankles parted. This posture is designed for optimum relaxation, says the doctor. I say it’s designed to keep us permanently at bay; from these positions we gaze up at him as children to father.
Jessica shushes me when I mutter things like that, but the doctor doesn’t disagree. _It is in fact necessary; in the realm of the neue psychology, patients no longer want friends or confidants. In these times of broken homes, late marriage and early divorce, they desire discipline, order. Fathers._
That would be _Vaters,_ coming from him. It seems we, the therapeutized masses, having been conditioned by decades of preprogrammed cliché, also expect our therapists to speak in guttural Teutonic lisps. Or so Dr. Freundlich says.
“God, Joe,” Jessica snaps, rubbing the red welts left on her wrists by restraints designed to protect us from injuring ourselves while in virtuo–so the doctor says, but really, I think, to reinforce our submission to the treatment. She rakes goosebumps from her arms. “I can feel all that, you know–the chains, the freezing altar–”
“How do you think it feels to fight a dozen hyena men and then be dumped down a forty-foot shaft?” I retort.
“Well at least you weren’t naked.” Some of the heat leaves her with that–she can’t maintain her volcanic fury when she looks so great in my Immersions. “And when you die, I die too,” she adds petulantly. “I’m going to have to start seeing a psychiatrist to deal with the nightmares I get from couples therapy! Altars, chains, tentacles, oozing proboscises–and _Darinda?_ What kind of a name is that?”
“Children,” the doctor chides. “This shouting, it accomplishes nothing.”
I couldn’t agree more. “Well, I–”
“Jessica is somewhat correct, though.” He nods, the sharp symmetry of his bald scalp barely disrupted by ears and nose and lips. Throw in gleaming red eyes, pointed yellow teeth, and a crimson robe scrolled with cackling serpents, and he’s the high priest Tsutu Kalai.
The doctor wears the headgear only for observational purposes, but recently he has found his way into every dream. “And always as the nemesis, hmm? First as the mad scientist on planet Nymos-5, then as the rogue ex-KGB agent plotting to destroy the world’s rain forests, then . . . ah, but the list goes on and on, does it not? We must get to the bottom of this. Why is it, Joseph, that you fear the therapy so?”
Because, I begin to think (but never dare say), every session is one giant emasculating excoriation of my–
“And while we’re at it,” Jessica cuts in, “let’s figure out why I’m always being kidnapped, tortured or experimented on. And naked.” . . . But again the fire cools–just a little–as she pictures the way I picture her.
It’s the only thing that’s saved our relationship since we started here.
I have a problem, see, don’t deny it, and Jessica saw the ad, and–you get it. It’s an experiment, and technically we’re volunteers, though the doctor certainly doesn’t accept our feedback as payment. I could be saving up for a motorcycle or a drum kit–or, hey, an engagement ring–but instead I spend my Saturday mornings here in an Alice-through-the-looking-glass travesty of therapy. The kind where I’m asked why I hate coming here and then can’t even get a word in edgewi–
“I mean, first I was abducted by the slime-beings of Y’Nor, _then_ I was trapped in a submarine at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, _then_ I was tortured by the demon queen of the Ninth Level of Hell!”
“Yes–always the victim, the damsel in distress–”
Dr. Freundlich wags a finger. “Ah ah, but that is good. It tells us Joseph’s problem is not one of physical attraction.”
“Well then, I’m afraid of what it is. I’ve been whipped, probed, suffocated, bound, gagged, pinched, pricked–what’s next, Joe? When do I get tied to the stupid railroad tracks?”
“And you never save me!” (I never get further than “I” once the post-Immersion discussion begins.) “The aliens just probe away to their hearts’ content–and I _know_ they don’t have hearts. The Russian drowns me, the only person who can disable his doomsday device. The demon queen makes me her eternal pleasure slave–and what do you do? You die every time! Oh, I know–it’s not your fault. Your blaster jams, your oxygen tank explodes. Your sword turns into a freaking wet noodle?! And now I’m a human sacrifice in your dreams?”
“This is good, this is true, Jessica. We must examine why Joseph repeatedly fails in his efforts to save you, and, in this the real world, please you.”
You know the feeling of being punched in the stomach? That’s me all over. All the time. “I’m–”
“Or how about this: we get away from his fantasies and let me do the rescuing for once. I’m sure as hell not going to fail. Or not rescuing–Jeez, can’t we just be having a romantic dinner in Paris or something?”
“No, Jessica, the fantasies must be his, and the resolution. The problem is his, and therefore he is the one who must act–must overcome, if you will. But you have hit on one aspect: these incessant fantasies. We have journeyed to alien worlds, from the halls of the pharaohs to the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps we must address this constant denial of the real and examine why reality has been unable to attract Joseph’s full attention, hmm?”
“Or to put it another way: why can’t Joe get his head out of his ass?”
I’m ten and my parents are arguing at the dinner table over which summer camp to ship me off to. All I can do is watch the interplay like a spectator at Wimbledon, my name served and volleyed between them.
“No, Jessica, this is not constructive. This problem requires the soft touch–”
“I can’t do the soft touch anymore! I can’t be the victim or the damsel or the screaming naked helpless girl. I’m not the one who’s helpless here. I’m perfectly fine!”
“Just the same, the Immersions cannot function unless both of you agree to them. If Joseph’s are the fantasies we see, then you have accepted his as the dominant vision–”
“–And yours as the submissive in this relationship.”
_”Submissive!”_ Jessica shrieks, springing half off of her couch. Surely the next couple, waiting in the lobby, can hear. “Him, dominant? Look at him!”
“And me, submissive? I’ll show you submissive–we’re leaving!”
Dr. Freundlich’s fingers tap-tap-tap his displeasure, but his voice barely rises above a hiss. “Jessica, please sit down. You are being unreasonable.”
“Unreasonable? I’ll tell you what’s unreasonable: signing up for a quack’s experimental therapy and getting fleeced–”
“That will be quite enough, Ms. Tanner,” the doctor breaks in icily, planting a bony finger on a red button atop his desk. With an eager hiss the restraints slither from their dens and jerk Jessica back to the couch. Her rant cuts off with a gasp, her eyes flooding with sudden fear.
Me? I’m staring, slack-jawed (as I am during most of our sessions, admitted). It’s like Dad just reared back and decked Mom across the table.
A grin spreads over Dr. Freundlich’s narrow skull, the kind of V you expect to see perforated with fangs. “You will submit, Ms. Tanner–not only to your lover’s flaccid fantasies, but to every session you volunteered for. Therapy demands the absolute obedience of its subjects. You must embrace the dream. You _will_ embrace it.”
Jessica’s panicked eyes roll to me. “Joe . . .”
The desperation in her voice snatches me from my shell-shocked stupor and ignites a furnace of rage deep within me. I push myself up and grate: “Doctor, you have two seconds to let her go before–”
His finger dances to another button, snaring me. Uselessly I struggle against the restraints. “One second too many, Joseph. That is the flaw of all your weak, pitiful kind–always one second too late. Ahem. Now–” He leans back, steepling contentedly. “We will examine, in great detail, every facet of your problem. I hope you are quite, ha ha, comfortable, for this will take some time.”
–And, in a droning, somnolent tone, he begins–in _great_ detail. Endless detail. Your driest professorial lecture bred to your longest parental sermon, times ten. Times a hundred. We writhe, our fingers aching to plug our ears, our ears crying to be plugged.
“You must understand, it is the very essence of Immersion to surrender to the vision, to let every sensation flood the virtual body so that it may heal the physical mind–”
“Joe,” Jessica sobs, “please . . .”
As I squirm, my fingers dip under the couch and brush something beneath–something impossible. Something of shagreen and steel honed sharp as the morning sun breaking the far horizon. An electric jolt passes up my arm as my hand grips a familiar hilt. Dr. Freundlich drones on, heedless of the absurd light flashing in my eyes, mindless of all but his pompous harangue.
It’s impossible. But it _is._
_Embrace the dream,_ the doctor says.
Jessica weeps. Rage floods every vein. Impossible.
_Embrace the dream._
With a deep-throated roar I snap the restraints like so much twine, lunging forth with Wind aimed at Freundlich’s black heart. He screams and rolls back, scrambling to escape the luxurious confines of his chair–one second too late. My blade impales him to the hilt.
“Embrace that, you son of a bitch,” I growl.
The doctor tears off his headgear, hurling it to the desk with an infuriated snort.
“That,” he rasps as one would if he’d just had a lung punctured, “was uncalled for.”
I barely hear him. As I lift the gear from my head with shaking hands, I look to Jessica. Trembling, she stares from him to me with eyes so wide they threaten to swallow her head. And when they catch mine, the fire–that rage–
It burns. It _burns._
“Doctor,” I sputter, as astounded that I’m finally free to speak as I am by the furnace within. “That was amazing! I feel, I feel–do you feel it too, honey?”
Jessica nods, unable to speak.
I’m ready to kiss this man, this genius, this unplugger of all things blocked. “How did you ever think to–I though you were only an observer . . .”
“I am! I was!” he shouts. “It was not I who inserted myself into that . . . that . . . _lächerliche_ delusion!”
“But it wasn’t mine. I–”
I stare at Jessica. A slow, doubtful smile bends her lips. “I thought, maybe if we were somewhere real, somewhere you felt passionate about,” she murmurs with a guilty look at the doctor, “someplace you really hate, then you’d . . . well, something.”
“That was completely unreasonable!” Dr. Freundlich rails. “A total travesty of everything psychiatry stands for! A mockery of Immersion therapy–”
“I love you,” I stammer.
“I love _you.”_
I lurch to my feet and, ignoring Dr. Freundlich’s objections, scoop my Jessica up into my arms, swallowing her surprised gasp with my kiss.
“Dr. Freundlich,” I announce, “we appreciate your efforts but will no longer require your services.”
Jessica reaches around me and pulls the door to, shutting off the doctor’s shrieking protests. She giggles in my arms. “‘Embrace that, you son of a bitch?’”
“You liked that, didn’t you?”
She blushes. “A little.”
Again I kiss her and, clutching her with those mighty thews, we leave the Helmut Freundlich Center for Experimental Immersive Therapy forever. Or at least until the premarital counseling.