Nalia floated in a misty lake. She felt the smooth water brush against her skin. Around her, snow-covered mountains rose to cover the sun. The wind screamed as it coursed through the peaks. A scent of dew drifted around her and the light faded behind the mountains. Her breath came out in deep, then shallow bursts. She heard an avalanche roll down a nearby mountain. She let herself down deeper towards the lakebed. The water filled her nostrils and ears. Small bubbles emerged from her mouth as her body struggled to breathe. She did not try to save herself. Her feet touched the muddy lakebed. Something below grabbed at her ankles and she sunk into the ground. She tried to yell, but the water prevented her. The world grew dark.
She walked in the evening light, carrying her fake leather briefcase and workbags. The sound of aircars roared over her head. Birds and insects sang songs. She listened to the echo of her shoes. Occasionally, a far-off roar went off as a shuttle payload lifted off into orbit towards the waiting space hulks. The trees rustled from the summer breeze. She passed an old couple holding hands, then a man with genetically engineered horns and bright red skin engrossed in the faint white light of his data pad. Two children ran past her, playing their own games with the permacrete lights. A holo advertisement showed images of a pill and played an ancient Earth song extolling the wonders of the female form.
Outside a tall pyramid dotted with lights, she stopped. She reached down and adjusted her shoes. A jogger running with jagged breaths passed her. He followed the slowly illuminating permacrete sidewalks. With one last glance hazy air, she stepped into the pyramid. The decorated lobby welcomed her with cool air, bright lights, and a soft music piece reminiscent of the 23rd century. The security guard played a game on his data pad that involved dressing up virtual avatars. She hoped he wasn’t paying too many satoshis for those costumes. A woman in a green dress nodded at her as she headed towards the elevator.
In the elevator, the gravity field activated and boosted her up at high speed. Two seconds later, she got off at the 80th floor. Her feet brushed the carpet as she reached her door. She heard the distant sound of metal clanging on metal as the door’s DNA scanner worked. Inside, her apartment smelled of fresh soap and apricots. The housekeeping robot had cleaned it with its characteristic thoroughness. The lights turned on, revealing a neat, but sparsely furnished room. She dropped her bags on the floor and sat on the couch. Sighing, she checked her chronometer. It was early. Too much time. She turned on the entertainment viewscreen. A Human Union political advertisement played praising the virtues of human purity. Irritated, she changed the channel. She stared unfocused as she went through the cavalcade of images. Nothing engaged her. She went through more channels, her brain hungering for stimulation. The viewscreen gave no such succor.
Nalia found herself in a dark expanse. Far off in the distance, a small band of light stretched across the void. A lighted green square appeared before her, then a red square, a yellow one, and finally a blue one. With a rushing in her ears, a giant surge of blood-rusted gridspace energy swirled around her. It split into four parts and each of them coalesced into faceless figures on the colored squares. She could not make out any of their features. A young girl’s voice began to sing a song in a language she could not understand, though it filled her with melancholy. The figure on the green square extended a hand covered in white light to her. She stepped back, but she felt an invisible force push her forward. The figure on the green square grabbed her hand. She froze. The other figures floated above her. The young girl’s singing distorted and began to die down. With its other hand, the cloaked figure reached back towards its head. It exploded in a flash of light. She felt, rather than saw, the word Eternity. The world faded from vision again.
Nalia felt a wave of irritation as Alan and Mihaela started putting their hands all over each other. She wanted to splash her drink all over them. They were in public, for God’s sake! She stared at her chronometer and adjusted the hem of her evening dress. She hoped she wouldn’t have to endure this for the next few hours. The bar was lively, too lively. She felt it closing on her. The crowds swelled and the shouts became louder. She thought she heard a fight break out. Finally, the couple stopped, but not before Mihaela brushed Alan’s hair and blew him a kiss. Nalia noticed her metal bracelet, one with a blank metal face.
“And the angel met her human prince in the depths of space,” Mihaela said.
Nalia rolled her eyes. She cleared her throat. “If you two have had enough, I want to tell you something.” They looked at her with slight interest. With all her strength, she attempted a grin. “I passed my test! I’m a certified officer now!”
Alan’s eyes lighted up with delight. “Congratulations!” he said.
Mihaela smiled. Her bracelet jiggled as she raised her hands and clapped once. “That’s great! At least one of us is a VIP now.”
Tracing her hands on the rim of her glass, Nalia said, “I’m going to be assigned to one of the diplomatic ships. The Yasothon. I believe. It’s named after an ancient city on Earth.”
Alan whistled. “Those are the big times. It’s one of the most decorated ships in the fleet. I’m really jealous.”
“Are we going to see an Admiral Sargire soon?” Mihaela teased.
Before she could answer, a wave of panic emanating from her gut passed through her body. Her body felt like it was about to burst. The bar crowd, a mass of indistinguishable people grew larger and seemed to surround them. The noises they made rose to an almost unbearable volume. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking. When she looked up, Alan and Mihaela were nowhere to be seen. Then the bar seemed to fade off into the distance and she found herself suspended in the air. All around her, she saw only white. Her hair waved around her like silk curtains. Then her feet touched the surface.
She stood in a winter forest barefoot and in her evening dress. A metal on metal clanging noise broke through the silence. It went on in a rhythmic manner, like a twisted bell. She took a step forward. The coldness of the snow stung her feet. She shivered and held her arms around her chest. On the ground of her, she saw bloody footsteps. She ran forward following the footsteps, her bare feet crunching the ice beneath her. A wolf’s howl echoed throughout the wood. Her throat gave out ragged breaths as the woods closed in on her. Finally, she entered a small clearing where the footsteps ended. In the middle of clearing lay a human skeleton leaning against a lone stump. Around the arm was wrapped a metal bracelet with a blank face.
Nalia gasped and woke up to the sounds of beeping medical machines. She sat up and looked around, almost blinded by the fluorescent light. A bead of sweat rolled down her head. She recognized the gurneys and surgical equipment. Carnarvon Station’s medical bay. She lay back down, sighing. This had to be the end of that strange dream. The rhythmic beating of the respirator accompanied the medical monitor’s chirps. Her gown and bed felt rough against her skin. She closed her eyes. She remembered the black faceless figure rushing at them, its invisible weapon cutting down the Zenks. The sounds of battle echoed around her. She was running down a brightly lit metal corridor with Alan, the words of the warlord echoing in her ears. And cradling the crystal in her palms, feeling the warm pulses of some sort energy emanating from it. Then the explosion, the burst of heat and flame licking at her back. The crystal! Where was it? She stared at her hands and saw the already healing burns.
Eventually, voices came from outside her room in Med Bay. One she recognized as Admiral Atranas and the other an unknown male voice. The room door slid open after a few seconds of their discussion. In stepped the stocky frame of the admiral and a portly man with a mustache.
“As you can see, we gave her top-of-the-line medical treatments. She’s as good as new,” said the man.
“Commander Corwin, I’d like a moment alone with Captain Sargire, please.”
Corwin looked at Nalia, and then nodded to Atranas. “Of course.” He left and the door slid closed with a hiss and dull thump.
Atranas sat beside her on a nearby stool. The red rims under her eyes sunk deep. “How are you feeling, Nalia?”
Nalia tried to croak out an answer, but could only cough. Atranas went to a nearby sink, found a cup, and filled it with water. She sat down again and gave the cup to Nalia, who gulped it in one pass. The water eased the roughness of her throat.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m pretty well, all things considering.”
“Good,” Atranas smiled. “It was looking pretty touch and go for you and Alan out there. Both of you were looking pretty bad when we found you. The grenade burned most of your bodies and scrambled your insides beyond recognition. It took all the efforts of the medbots and regeneration chambers to repair your injuries. The wonders of medical technology.”
Nalia sat up. “Where’s Alan?”
“Recovering, he took the brunt of the damage. If you all had just been a little slower…” she shook her head. “It will take a few days before he fully heals.”
“How did you find us?” Nalia asked.
“We detected weapons discharges in the sector where we found you. A security team rushed to your location, but they were too late before the explosion went off. We believe it was some kind of high yield grenade, standard on Zenk troopers.” Atranas paused. “I hate to do this, but can you tell me what happened?”
Nalia thought a bit. She still remembered the warlord’s story. She swallowed. “We found Batu. He told us something about a threat facing the Republic and the Kenzenken Coalition. Then he gave me an object.”
“You mean this?” Atranas pulled out the crystal. “I figured. You can trust me. Before we landed on the station, Zhang told me about the rebellion plot. I didn’t have time to tell you before all this business occurred.” She shook her head. “A damn foolish plan by them. I suspect that it was all for this little thing, too. Nevertheless, let’s keep this between ourselves. There are many prying eyes out there.”
“Presumably vaporized. Security is gathering evidence from the area right now.”
“There was someone… something else there.” Nalia described the black-suited figure.
Atranas put her hand on her chin. “This is troubling. We didn’t know anything about this.” She sighed. “Our list of enemies just keep on growing.”
They sat in silence for a few seconds. The machines beeped. “So what happens now?” Nalia asked.
“Now, you rest. I need to make some arrangements to get us out of this mess. I’ll hold onto this until you’re fully recovered.” The admiral appeared lost in thought. “Vendrian’s not responding to my communications. I’ll need to square up with him, soon.”
“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him since the battle,” Nalia said.
“No need to worry. I will take care of it.” Atranas pocketed the crystal. “Stay well, captain.” The admiral stood up, looked at her again, and left the room.
Nalia stared at the ceiling as the respirator continued its rhythmic beat. The beat paused. A distortion in the light appeared above her. It floated, its spherical shape reflecting its surroundings. She tried peering into it, but something made her lose focus. Then, it grew larger, large enough to cover the ceiling. Nalia’s eyes widened and her jaws dropped open. She blinked. It was gone.