What if everything you knew about your life was wrong?
What if your memories were fabrications?
What if familiar faces were merely shades conjured up in a foggy dream?
Carl Johnson must wrestle with his concept of self on a journey to discover his past and save his sanity … and maybe save Earth in the process.
I've worked with Jean Rabe on many of her anthologies as a contributor, and she very much wanted to be part of the WordFire Press library. We've published two of her urban fantasies so far, as well as her imaginative SF novel THE CAULDRON, coauthored with the late Gene deWeese. She is such a trooper and promoter I wanted to give her a chance to show off her book as part of the Adventure SF bundle. – Kevin J. Anderson
The Cauldron is a stunning effort, aglow with interesting venues and incidents, and three characters I wish I knew personally. A fine job by Ms. Rabe and the late Mr. DeWeese.– Mike Resnick, Hugo Award winning author
Compelling from the very first page—a tangled puzzle of Identity, memory, and history that questions the very concept of 'self'.– Gail Z. Martin, bestselling author of the Deadly Curiosities and Chronicles of the Necromancer series
The Cauldron is a gripping, fascinating journey through what seems at first like one man's nightmare—impossibly far-fetched yet eerily plausible. I couldn't stop reading until it was done. Wow, what a book!– NYT Bestselling author Ed Greenwood
The Cauldron sizzles and boils with action and inventiveness that will keep you reading to the final page. It's too bad Rod Serling's Twilight Zone isn't on since The Cauldron would have made a great feature-length movie with all the TZ twists turns and emotion-engaging characters. The Cauldron by Jean Rabe and Gene Deweese is top flight sf handled beautifully that digs into both the alien and the very real human characters.– Bestselling author Robert E. Vardeman
Freida was purchased from an outfit in Birmingham and towered over the other elephants, dwarfing even Trilby the Ponderous Pachyderm. She weighed nearly nine thousand pounds, and the flies attracted to the considerable amount of dung she produced made Petey cringe. At least he didn't have to shovel it.
The lead clown, Petey had to work with Freida as part of his act, and she seemed more than amiable enough.
Petey'd just gotten his picture in the News-Sentinel, November 20th, 1935, in full painted-on frown makeup with his curly wig, red sequins for tears, bulbous nose, garish overalls, and shoes that on the outside looked eight sizes too big. Freida was in the background. He bought three copies of the issue and folded them away for safe-keeping. Newspapers throughout Indiana and into Chicago were printing reports about the Cole Bros. Circus, which had just established its winter headquarters in Rochester, Indiana. Clyde Beatty was getting most of the ink. A world-famous lion tamer, he was a star attraction with the Coles, but Petey didn't get on too well with Clyde, or with John Smith, the horse trainer who drilled the Ponies from Powder River and the dozen cream-colored stallions that had recently come down from a show in Canada. He thought that some of their techniques were too harsh. Petey had a fondness for all creatures. Perhaps that was why he favored Freida and the Divine Bear and all the other animals.
His greatest fondness, however, was reserved for Claire Carstairs, who went by the stage name of Tina. She was one of the aerialists, and on most nights she shared her trailer with Petey.
Clowning was a tough life, choreographing routines, the physicality of staying in shape, and with it went other tasks: toting tenting and equipment, checking the cages, and taking a turn at the bucket brigade, carrying water from an open well two blocks away to the elephant troughs, as closer water lines had not yet been laid and probably wouldn't be until late the following spring. Petey had enough clout with the Coles to avoid the truly onerous work.
There were often two shows Saturday and Sunday at the winter headquarters, and visits to the children's wing of the nearby hospital. There were newspaper interviews … though he was only quoted and shown in the one issue that he'd noticed. And there was teaching the growing cadre of clowns how to be funny.
Tough, but a good life, Petey knew. The sweet, playful strains of the calliope, the feel of sawdust between his toes, the musky scents of all the animals, the sun that sometimes beat down warm enough to run his makeup, and above all that the fragrance of Tina's favorite perfume—Caron Fleurs de Rocailles … all of those things made up his perfect world.
It was a year later things started to tarnish. Petey was behind the bleachers, waiting for his turn in the ring.
"Ladies and Gentlemennnnnn," the ringmaster cried. "Here is the world's greatest collection of beasts, wild and ferocious, from the jungles, plains, and veldt, brought together for a daring spectacle."
Petey watched Clyde Beatty strut into the center ring. Then came Nero, a massive black-maned lion that sprang to a pedestal and majestically seated himself. Caesar and Nuba followed, and then the Bengal tigers took an assigned spot. Pasha, a tigress that Tina claimed was her favorite, was ill-tempered today, refusing Beatty's commands. Petey sucked in a breath as Clyde approached Pasha, whip in one hand, chair in the other.
"Leave her alone," Petey whispered. "The lady is in a foul mood."
Beautiful Pasha shot at Clyde, roaring, slashing. Women and children on the bleachers screamed. Nero leaped off his perch and slammed into Pasha, saving Beatty and adding to the chaos.
Petey and the other clowns rushed in, pulling a torn and bleeding Clyde out as the crowd fled. Tina called for an ambulance.
The sight of the woman's angry, tear-streaked face emerging from the mist wrenched a painful gasp from him.
"I'm sorry," he managed, not knowing why or how he spoke, or who this guilt-inspiring stranger was. Her name, he thought abruptly. If he could remember her name, then surely everything else would fall into place.
But those names, appearing soundlessly in his cowering mind meant nothing to him except that they triggered waves of panic and sadness.
"At least stop lying to me," the woman said abruptly. "You could at least do that much."
Unfamiliar faces and shapes and colors crowded around her then retreated.
"I would if I could," he heard himself say, the words emerging haltingly in an accent and a voice that were surely not his own.
"Will you ever come back?" she shouted through motionless lips. "Will you—"
The rest of her words were driven from his mind as her features changed. Not just her expression, but the features themselves. Her lips became fuller; her cheekbones rose. Tiny crows' feet appeared around oval eyes that had already shifted color, from pale brown to sparkling green, as if they could be any shade she—or he?—desired. Tendrils of gray escaped a tightly wound bun of once-black hair that had, moments before, been shoulder-length and reddish brown.
"I don't want to go!" This time the words came in his strangled voice. His throat was tight, as if the mist had become suffocating, congealed and invaded his lungs with a cargo of death. "You have to realize that. I want—"
"Then don't go," she said, reaching out to him. "Stay here with me, forever. You can!" Her anger was now as strong in her voice as it had been in her eyes.
But as her fingers—short and work-worn, where moments before they had been long and slender—touched his arm, he knew with utter certainty that the choice was not his to make.
But if the two of them could work together …
Hope surged. He knew he possessed great mental strength. And somehow he knew she did too. If only they could pool their knowledge and abilities …
But he didn't even know her name, nor if she really existed anywhere but in the shards of his own shattered memories and in this mist. This dream or nightmare.
Once again he fought to grasp the recollections as they spun around him like leaves in a rising storm.
Shelly? Ellen? Sarah?
Only the pressure of her touch remained, and even that was just for a jagged moment longer. The sensation faded as his own body seemed to literally dissolve until he was little more solid than the fog itself.
A shadow in an ocean of mist.
What is happening? Where am I?
The questions emerged from a distant, rational corner of his mind, and with them came an icy wind, striking him from all directions, chilling him inside and out. As the wind grew to a keening pitch, the mist thinned and fled in tatters that evaporated as they swirled dizzily around him. He was lost, floating in an endless, icy limbo, where no one but himself existed.
Where am I? What am I?
Still the answers refused to come, and terror gripped him anew as he realized this was not the first time he had been lost—trapped?—in this place, whatever and wherever this place was.
And it had been not just for seconds, but for hours, perhaps even days.
But I wasn't alone …
Who had been with him? The chameleon-like woman who inspired the waves of anonymous guilt? She felt so achingly familiar. A former friend? A lover? His mother? A sister? No, she was—
He grasped at a trace of newly discovered memory, trying to bring it into focus before it could slip away like the mist. There had been countless shapes no better defined than his own swirling around him like waves of midnight fog on a slippery riverbank. He remembered the tendrils reaching out, curling around his arms, touching him, clamoring silently for his attention until, overwhelmed, he had retreated. But retreated to where? And from where? Retreated, and then—
Who am I?
The question tore another gasping breath from a body that had become suddenly solid. Shuddering, he surrendered and let the treacherous memories fall away like a discarded skin, revealing a swarm of the same ghostly shapes that had earlier clamored for his attention.
But this time one stood out from the others, hovering over him.
Like the other names, like the wind that still chilled him and stippled his back with gooseflesh, the name came out of nowhere.
No, in the same instant he clutched at the disintegrating memory, he knew instinctively it was not his, but even as it was rejected, he felt his tongue begin to form another.
"John. Johnson," he murmured, listening and remembering, "Carl Johnson."
The sound of his voice, the unexpectedly familiar syllables of his name, calmed him, helped reality in its struggle to emerge and take its rightful place around him.
A shadowy rectangle to his left, he realized, was his bedroom door. A chunky shape beyond the foot of the bed was the bureau, topped by the glowing numerals of his clock radio telling him it was barely more than three hours before he had to get up and start another day. And the wind, like needles of ice only a moment before, was now a pleasantly cool breeze lazily billowing the curtains, rustling the leaves of the oak just outside his window.
Carl—that was his name, he now knew with certainty, no question—pulled the sheet and blanket back over his shoulders, then turned on his side and snuggled into the warmth of the bed, the icy chill of his nightmare now a fading memory.
A nightmare, just a nightmare, and it made me throw the covers off, he thought. That's why I was cold. But as he drifted again toward sleep, the thought came: Or did I bring the cold back with me?
For just a moment the chill returned, fetching with it the fleeting memory of a hundred other nightmares and the unnerving prospect of countless more to come. He looked at the clock, glowing faintly. 4 a.m. It would not buzz until 7 … more than enough time to be drawn into the nightmare again.
He shuddered, and yet he did not reach for the light. Instead, he lay silently, registering the damp sweat that plagued his wire-thin body and, almost fearfully, closed his eyes.
O O O
The next day looked to be no better than the last.
By morning break time, Carl had been hunched over the computer terminal in his three-walled cubicle for more than two hours with nothing to show for his time but a boilerplate introductory paragraph listing what he was going to explain in the as-yet-nonexistent paragraphs that were to follow. A dozen hand-scribbled attempts to get past those opening generalities lay crumpled in the overflowing wastebasket under the worktable to the left of his desk.
Sometimes going briefly back to basics with pencil and paper would jar his thought processes, but not this time. At least a hundred more false starts, some as short as a single word, had succumbed to his overworked delete key, leaving the screen a pristine gray as uncomfortably murky as the landscape of his nightmares. Spread on the worktable were the engineering specs for the automated control system Harry had confidently handed to him Tuesday afternoon, three days ago.
"Rush job," Harry had said. "Terrel Systems is swamped with some classified crap they're doing for a new Air Force program, so they're farming out a lot of their industrial manuals, most of which are due day before yesterday. Which means if we turn this one around fast, there's a good chance they'll be sending us a bunch more."
Which of course was why Harry had dumped it on Carl's desk. He worked fast. At least he had.
Until this week.
What is the matter with me? he wondered angrily. I've been translating gibberish like this into readable English for eight lousy years, so what's different now? Tech writers don't get writer's block, for God's sake!
Abruptly, Shelly's face flashed before his eyes, so real it set his heart pounding.
The same face as in the nightmares that had started so insidiously a month or more ago.
The nightmares that had become almost unbearable after Sunday night, when he had—
His stomach knotted painfully as the memory, unlike those in his nightmares, obediently and instantly filled his mind, replaying like a taunting film clip of the worst day of his life.
Sunday night, when he had, inexplicably, backed away—slunk away!—from the thing he had wanted most in his life: Marriage to the woman whose face was now a nightly source of gut-wrenching torture.
Shelly, will you marry me?
He had rehearsed those five words a hundred times throughout the weekend.
But once she was actually standing in front of him, they had refused to emerge from his lips no matter how loudly he shouted them in his mind, no matter how desperately he wanted to speak them.
And yet he could not. He was paralyzed, literally, his entire body trembling with the effort to speak.
And why hadn't he phoned her since, just to hear her voice, even if he couldn't speak the only words that mattered? Nearly a week had slipped away—no, had been eaten away by those damned nightmares, and he hadn't so much as called her!
He shivered, remembering the way the dreams were driving the whole feel of her away. Each time his dream-self couldn't remember her name, she seemed a little more distant. Each time her face was transmuted into that of a total stranger, his memory of her was a little less certain. Each time Shelly—or whoever she was becoming—vanished into the icy fog, she seemed a little less real, and his remembered love was a little less certain. Even his own existence—
Twitching guiltily, he looked up to see Dave Hatcher standing on tiptoes, looking over the top of the translucent partition between their cluttered cubicles.
"Hey, sorry," the other tech writer said with a grin. "Didn't mean to derail your train of thought, but you look like you could use your morning caffeine injection. Ready to flip?"
"Always," Carl said, summoning up a faint smile to hide behind as he stood and shoved a hand into his pocket and fished out a quarter. Hesitating when he saw it was a brand new 1979 coin, he dropped it back in his pocket and pulled out an older, well-worn one. Old habits, he thought with a grimace, remembering how his father had always kept a few shiny coins he used to pay neighborhood kids for errands.
Rail-thin and three or four inches over six feet, Carl could see across all of the warehouse-like office except for into the boss's corner cubicle, where the partitions went all the way to the ceiling, or as close as the exposed pipes and ductwork allowed. Despite its size, the office seemed claustrophobically small, filled with its half dozen technical writers and illustrators and one overworked typist, ready to implode and crush the breath out of him. Too long on this job, an out-of-the-way corner of his mind remarked, making him almost drop the coin as he flipped it and slapped it down on the back of his bony hand.
"Tails," Dave called. Carl uncovered the coin and nodded silently, almost dropping it again as Dave's phone jangled. Grimacing, Dave sank back into his chair and grabbed the receiver.
"I'll get the coffee," Carl offered, surprised at the relief he felt, not even sure what he was feeling relieved about.
Dave nodded, already clamping the phone between ear and shoulder, and Carl went alone to the coffee machine at the far end of the room. As he watched the second cup drop into place a thought pounced, as if it had been lurking around a mental corner: Take a vacation. Start tomorrow.
Get away from his problems for a while, drive most of each day and stop wherever he happened to find himself, leave behind the nightmares and Shelly and all the rest. Part of him wanted to get up and leave this very moment, to just take off without a word to anyone. Maybe if he could just get away for a week or two, put some distance between he and Shelly, give him time to think things through objectively, he could figure out what the hell was the matter with him.
He pictured himself driving aimlessly, his spirits began to rise, and for once there wasn't a pitched battle going on inside. Get rested up, sort everything out, and then, when he finally came back … everything would be better. The nightmares would be over, he and Shelly would work things out.
"Take a vacation? Take a hike, more likely, if I don't shape up," he muttered, waiting for the metallic clunk that would shut the brown stream of coffee off.
Back at his cubicle, Dave raised an eyebrow at him. "Harry just drifted by," he said. "Wants to see you."
Carl glanced toward the corner cubicle and handed one of the not-quite-steaming Styrofoam cups to Dave. "Did he say what he wanted?"
"Not a word, but you know Harry. You got any idea?"
Carl attempted a shrug. "Probably the Terrel job." He glanced at the blank computer screen and the piles of specs and diagrams on his desk and table. "I've been having a really shitty week. Can't sleep. Can't write. Couldn't blame him if he fired me."
"You?" Dave snorted and took a sip. "Promote you, maybe."
"Oh, sure. 'Congratulations on not finishing a really bad job, here's a raise.'"
Turning toward Harry's office, Carl started to pull in a breath, but it turned into a yawn. Lack of sleep? Or tension? As he walked, a scrap of the nightmare twisted through his mind: Something—several somethings—had reached for him out of the fog. The ghost of a chill traveled down his back. He glanced up. Just walked under the air vent.
Or someone walked over my grave.