This could not be a dream, Alan decided. It was too vivid. A yellow haze formed from centuries of pollution obscured the rising sun. Long abandoned cityscapes dotted the land, black corpses disintegrating with the rust and decay of time. Occasionally, remnants of the millions of satellites in orbit fell roaring down to the planet in a blaze of ash and dust. The air shimmered in eternal summer, prevented from ending up as a poisonous atmosphere by the long slow efforts of the terraforming machines. Earth had been through some bad times.
Yet even in this ruin, millions of humans still inhabited their dying homeland. Unwilling or unable to leave, they picked through the ruins as scavengers, explorers, or bored tourists. Cities of a sort still existed, arcologies that stood on the barren landscape, oases in the desert of human waste. Each was owned by separate corporations, company towns for any business still conducted on the planet.
Alan watched one inhabitant walking with care through a landfill, picking up pieces of scrap and placing them somewhere in her brown robes. He stood on a seashore lapped by sludge-grey waves, observing the horizon.
“This place is beautiful, in its own way.” Michael arrived next to him and wiped his green eyes. The wind blew into his hair, carrying a gentle whistle. Alan turned toward him. His hands moved forward. Michael gave him a wide grin. Their fingers clasped each other, and he imagined them dancing a slow waltz in a grand music hall. Their bare feet touched the cold sand. And then, as if by a miracle, the air became blue, the sea clear, and the dead cities slunk beneath the ground. Grass and trees grew in lush and vibrant colors. The sea breeze comforted him with its cool breath.
After a time, they let go of each other and lay down on the warm sand. Alan breathed that unfamiliar sea air, feeling a warm glow radiating from his body. He could imagine his ancestors doing the same thing. He basked in the beauty of it all.
Before Mihaela and Nalia, beauty eluded him. Not just beauty in terms of the physical, but also that ineffable quality of meaning given by others. Alone after the tragic events of Danube, only the abyss faced him, that exit from fear, pain, and loneliness. Mihaela found him, and then Nalia. They both helped him, but Mihaela was the first. She freed him from that dark prison. Brought him joy and peace of mind. Brought him close to the meaning of existence. She showed him the struggles and triumphs of the underwater people of Temperance during a hyperstorm. She guided him through the great arguments expressed in the gymnasiums of Beta Arete. Through her, he found the history of his own ancestors from Earth’s archives, their hopes and dreams waiting in far off lands.
He feared the return to that abyss, the precipice of nonexistence. He thought of her as his anchor and he sought her out. Gathering much courage, Alan asked her to spend the rest of her life with him. She was at first reluctant, as if some different destiny pulled her away. She never told him what bothered her. It didn’t matter, she said yes the next day and thus he ignored that small speck of doubt. Yet in this pseudo-dream, the doubt crept back. He pondered the thing that she could not tell him. It only made the doubt grow worse.
He looked toward her, now Michael, him, whose existence defined freedom. Michael smiled back and they leaned towards each other.
Alan’s vision went dark.
A red light in the darkness pulsed. Alan tried to move, but his hands could not grasp anything; his feet found no ground. In time, the pulsing red light coalesced into itself. Once it reached a singular infinitesimal point, it burst out in blinding blue light. He closed his eyes to protect himself. When the afterimage started to fade, he opened them again. Before him floated a burning rust colored sphere, pulsing as if it had a heartbeat. From the periphery of his vision, he saw points of illumination. They were stars, really, that converged on the sphere. They circled it, reminding him of satellites orbiting a planet. He then saw the galaxy materialize behind them. It rotated, and stars burst out with illumination. Beneath the galactic plane, lines of light connected star clusters like a spider’s web. The sphere pulsed faster, shockwaves emanating from its center. Alan heard the beat of a giant heart, and it went faster and faster. The noise became so fast that it was almost continuous. As it threatened to deafen him, the pulse stopped and the stars disappeared.
The noise of utensils on plates interrupted the strange vision. Alan found himself on a white chair shaped in round contours and blue stylings. Around him, handheld electronics beeped in tune as if in a synthetic band. Diners ate and conversed in murmuring voices. The vat-grown fish on his plate smelled of wood and rain. Across from him sat Nalia in a red and orange evening dress. Her eyes locked on the personal digital assistant next to her untouched food. She typed on it and the only noise came from the tap of her fingers. His eyes locked themselves to her forehead.
“Look, you know people. You can do something about this. I know he’s out there. He must be alive! You need to believe me. There were no traces of explosions. No body. He can’t be gone. Help me find him!” His voice came out tight.
She continued her unknown conversation with the screen for a few seconds. His legs fidgeted. Without looking up, she answered, “All we have is an empty ship. He’s been missing for months now. Command can’t do any more.” She touched the screen again.
Alan took a swig of wine, the real kind, with his hands shaking. “Please, I’m begging you. I need your help. Talk to someone. Talk to your captain. Talk to the admiral. We need to mount a rescue mission!”
She stopped tapping and looked up into his eyes. Her expression was hard. “This is war, Alan. We can’t just drop everything to go on a wild goose chase. We know the MO of Warlord Batu with regard to prisoners. It’s unlikely that he’s alive.”
Clenching and unclenching his teeth, Alan said with a low voice, “He’s your friend, too. How could you be so heartless?”
They were interrupted by a silver robotic waiter. It laid a plate at his side. “Careful, sir. It’s hot. Enjoy our authentic Centauran cobbler pie,” it chirped. Alan glared at its back as it rolled away.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but for your own sanity, forget him. Forget him and focus on your mission. Focus on doing your part to win the war. It’s the only way you’ll stay alive.”
Alan didn’t reply. Slowly, he stood up, not taking his eyes off Nalia. The moment passed in long, torturous seconds. Then, he picked up his dessert plate, felt it burning his hand, and threw it at a nearby wall. It shattered into a dozen jagged pieces. No one reacted, least of all Nalia. His vision flushed with red. He kicked the table over, spilling food and drink all over the restaurant floor. Still, no reaction. He looked up to face her. But rather than seeing her, he saw Mihaela standing in her place. He froze as she caressed his cheek. She drew closer; he smelled a trace of lavender. She raised her mouth to his ear and whispered, “Open the Gate.”
Without thinking, he asked, “What Gate?”
“You really don’t know?” She pointed up. “Look to the stars and find what—” The scream of a grid drive activating interrupted her. Then he was somewhere else, alone.
He floated, suspended in mid-air. He felt the force of the same artificial gravity generated in all space ships. But he was not on a ship. All around him was blank space. He flailed around, but there was nothing to anchor him. “Where—” The laughter of children interrupted him. Trying to find the source of the noise, he tilted his head back. Above, he saw a desert surface, bare and cracked on a flat landscape. Suddenly, eight chimes sounded in quick succession. Below him an atmosphere formed, followed by vast rainclouds. Torrents of water ‘fell’’ to the ground. They engulfed the land, so that there appeared to be a mighty ocean. Then the cracked earth absorbed the water and he saw the desert again.
The earth rumbled and pale hands breached the ground. Out emerged white humanoid shapes absent of any distinct features. Dozens, then thousands, then millions stood, a sea of beings. When the emergence completed, each of them held hands. A cry came out, in pain or ecstasy he could not tell. Then the shapes became distinct: skin color, mouths, hair, eyes, changes in height and weight. They all became humans. A babble of noises erupted from their mouths, high and low, quiet and loud, angry and calm. They then let go of each other’s hands.
The humans segregated. Distinct groups similar in physical features started to form. A few appeared to argue for the others to stay together, but eventually, they too left. As the separate groups huddled together, they looked at others with envious eyes. Soon, one threw the first rock, then spears, then bombs. Tidal waves of bodies crashed into each other. After the carnage ended, only a handful remained. They looked at each other with soulless eyes.
Below he heard the sound of distant thunder. Looking down, he saw the skies open and tendrils of blood-rusted gridspace energy stretched down toward the surface. They formed tornados, tearing the landscape in a swath of destruction. The survivors ran together to escape their imminent doom. There was nowhere to run; soon, the grid would consume all. The wind howled as if in mourning.
And he was home, feeling the searing desert heat near Tanisi. But now, the tornados were also here, swallowing up the people running past him. This was no longer dream, pseudo-dream or vision, but a long buried memory. He gazed in wonder as an explosion of light and ash erupted among the crimson winds. It rose higher and higher, far into the atmosphere. Its shockwave enveloped him, rattling his teeth. He thought he could see a figure amongst the fire and debris. It reached towards him. Then, his vision filled with white.
Alan woke with a start, his sheets covered with sweat. Mild panic set in as he stared at an unfamiliar ceiling. He calmed himself down with controlled breaths, realizing that he was in his quarters on Carnarvon Station. He could hear power generators below him hum at a low ebb. He tried to process what he had just seen. Nothing. He searched his memory. Nothing. He sighed and looked at his surroundings.
He remembered the sight of the station on the shuttle monitors. Hanging in geosynchronous orbit over the planet Danube, it was quite large for a station at the frontier of human space, with enough stores to service a standard battle fleet. Its top consisted of a clear dome, protected by reinforced glass and force shields. Under that dome, a small city bustled with explorers, lost souls, and bored soldiers. The Ramanujan Expanse attracted an eclectic group of people, especially those looking for adventure and excitement. Below the dome extended four arms, filled with hangars and industrial machinery. It contained a small complement of Hawking ships, although no one was quite sure who they would ever defend themselves against.
He groggily got up and dragged himself to the bathroom. Fumbling around for a cup, he found one on the floor and sonic washed it in the sink. After he deemed it clean enough, he set it in the liquid fabricator and requested synth tea.
He ordered the station’s AI to turn on the news. A screen projected onto a nearby wall.
“-call for calm as defense fleets search for the rebel Kenzenken incursion. A spokesman for President Haines earlier made a statement urging anyone who sights the rebel fleet to immediately contact authorities. In other news, the final Kenzenken military transport landed on Osmith Prime yesterday. Six hundred thousand troops now occupy the rebel-controlled world following a brief but bloody battle in orbit. We go now to our military correspondent…”
Alan gritted his teeth. He needed to be out there, to help catch the rogue Zenks. They had dared to invade the Republic again! And most important of all, he needed to redeem himself. He told himself to calm down. It was too late to do anything about it now. He took a sip from his cup. It tasted like lukewarm water.
The pilot’s organ provided a small dose of stimulation to dissipate the grogginess. He did a few stretches and push-ups, warming up his body. After a few minutes of exercise, he walked to a window and stared out into space. He quite enjoyed this ritual. Alan realized that he had spent too many years in dark enclosed spaceships and not enough time moving around. He sometimes forgot his terrestrial heritage. He watched rain clouds form on the planet below.
That dream, though, it meant something. As he finished his thought, he felt a presence watching him. He turned around to confront the intruder. Nothing was there. Nothing, except… Was that a trick of the light? For a microsecond, he thought he saw a small distortion in the room. He could almost feel the presence emanating from it. But before he could look at it any further, it was gone. Could be a ghost. No, that was a silly thought. Just a mixture of nerves and boredom. He checked again. The distortion was gone.
Dismissing it as a product of his imagination, he looked back out into the formless night. He pushed the thoughts of dreams away and wondered then about his next course of action. He remembered seeing an ancient holo when he was a child. The great man narrating it observed that all of humanity lived on a pale blue dot inside an infinite universe. In his wisdom, he demonstrated the pettiness of their fears and of their desires. Alas, they could not transcend those urges. It is difficult to disentangle human reason from human passion. No higher form of thought could quell the instincts developed from millions of years of evolution. Thus, they carried their chains with them in the journeys beyond the Solar System, albeit disguised as ideology and history. Now they inhabited a fraction more little dots in a corner of the galaxy. Would they continue to hunt and kill each other, this time with dreadnaught and railgun? What was his struggle in the face of this grand universal conflict? In a few centuries, he and everything he knew would return to oblivion, to churn again in the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Maybe it would be best to give up, enter the abyss yawning ahead of him, to acknowledge his powerlessness in the face of humanity’s ceaseless war with itself. He shook his head. No, he thought, I must survive. I must exist. I must focus about what his happening now, at this singular moment. He did not know where to focus. The clouds of his mind swirled like the dust storms at home. He did not know what to think. No clear answer and no great insight came to him. He stared out, beyond the twin stars. The night stared back.