Alan lay on his side, listening to the frenzied squeaks of his upstairs neighbors’ bed. He heard it bang against the side of the wall, which left an echo that pounded in his head. The woman moaned louder until it almost sounded like a scream. He covered his ears and closed his eyes, trying to shut out the sound. The edge of the bed hit the wall again, reverberating throughout his apartment. They were going at it again. To no avail, he willed them to turn on their sound dampeners.
He sat up. He felt the stale heat of the air, the summer season caressing the city. The sound of aircars screeched outside, until he heard their reverberations right next to him. People talked in murmurs and shouts, laughing and crying and yelling. He heard screams, too, mixed with the rupture of metal. They kept on increasing in intensity and dread filled him like a valley after a dam breaks. He curled into the fetal position, a fruitless effort to stop the sonic assault. If only he could go somewhere else, he thought. If only he could escape. If only he could die and be rid of this suffering forever. The room grew dark.
His face flushed as he ran from the restaurant, panting and sweating. The streets lighted up, noting his passage. He ran through a crowd. Even after bumping into one or two people, none of them even raised a voice in protest. As he continued without direction, he tripped on an uneven step and fell down on the permacrete. He lay there for a moment, feeling the pain throughout his body from the impact with the ground. He got up and sat at the edge of the street, staring at the scratches and blood spreading across his hands. He looked up at the hazy purple sky and screamed, a pathetic wail emanating from his throat. No one paid attention. He screamed until he could scream no more, his breath exhausted. The patter of rain started to thud on the ground as the planet’s atmospheric processors began their daily cycles. He lay down and closed his eyes.
He felt his body weigh down on strong arms. They swayed a little bit back and forth. Wherever he was, quiet and calm permeated the air. For the next few seconds, he heard only his breathing. When he opened his eyes, he saw his father carrying his toddler body up some metal stairs. The smell of fry bread spread throughout his senses and his mouth watered in anticipation. The man’s grip loosened. Alan felt afraid that he would fall, but his father held on. They finally reached the top of the stars and into a bare white room. Rough arms placed him into the bed, its softness tempered by a firm underbody. Alan closed his eyes again. He felt the rough hairs of the man’s chin along his cheek. Please, someone to watch over me, he thought. He listened to the footsteps echoing down the stairs. A great weight lifted from his shoulders.
A slow breeze passed through his hair. Cold water lapped at his skin. Opening his eyes, he found himself floating in a mountain lake. Around him, snow-covered peaks ascended into the air. Mists rose around him, smelling of morning dew and lilac flowers. An avalanche erupted on a far mountain, its rumble electrifying his body. Plumes of snow and rock covered the landscape. He lay back, feeling his body glide along the surface of the lake. An arc of light appeared over the horizon, like the fallen wing of an angel. At the end of that arc, a large mass fell towards the surface, its hulk radiating flames from friction with the planet’s atmosphere. Its carcass screamed as it hit a nearby mountain with a thunderous clap. His vision filled with light, obscuring the mountains and the sky. A ripple in the lake brushed against him. He looked forward. There, on the surface of the water, stood a figure of purple light. It walked toward him. He reached his arms toward it and the light blinded him.
Sunflowers dotted the empty landscape. Birds tweeted in the background. The moonlight fell directly over him, providing a pale light on the field. He traced his foot over the bare earth. It then trembled violently, causing him to slip and fall. He saw the ground open up. Swarms of spheres in a kaleidoscope of colors emerged from underground, shooting up into space as if launched by a hangar catapult. More and more came out, until it seemed as if their mass would block out the sky. They left smooth white contrails as they escaped the atmosphere to parts unknown. He briefly caught a glimpse of a Republic warship sailing far up above, trailed by bright green flame. As if guided by a strong hand, he felt his vision move up.
Two suns rode in concert, sharing streams of nuclear reaction. His breathing echoed through his spacesuit helmet as he watched their ancient dance. A barren planet crept into the edge of his vision. A ship he could not identify materialized from gridspace. He saw gas and flame expelling from openings in its hull. Injured, it limped along to the atmosphere of the planet. But rather than land, it afterburned, using the planet’s gravity well as a slingshot to head deeper into space. It soon disappeared from sight.
It was then that his rational mind finally caught up with him. There was a pattern to these dreams, this vision. Each represented an event, separated by time and space. Were they real? Did they really happen? It did not matter. He attempted to grasp the meaning behind these formless perceptions. They had no apparent connection, but there had to be a pattern somewhere. His mind conjured up hypotheses and theories both reasonable and outlandish. These visions, these objects of the mind’s eye, mixed and twisted his history with someone else’s. Perhaps he could trace their path?
Alan tried to remember the last vision. The ship, the one in Danube system, was heading somewhere. He imagined its course into deep space and followed it in his perception. The stars swept by until he stopped. He could go no further. Pushing down the rising swell of despair, he attempted to think up another tactic. If he could not go forward, then maybe backward? Yes, that was a viable answer. He followed the path back to Danube, back to the point of the injured ship’s materialization. There, he felt a rhythmic beating throughout his body. It emanated from the tesseract. Somewhere in the space between the grid and the real, a beacon called out to him. He reached forward with his hands and, guided by an unknown force, created an opening through space and time. It engulfed him.
He found himself on an Earth beach, the same one he dreamed of on Carnarvon Station. But this time, the landscape was different. The sky up above radiated an intense blue. He kneeled down, cupping the clear water in his hands. The frothy waves lapped at his legs. Far off in the distance, two giant stone legs stood, all that remained of a mighty statue. He heard the sound of whistling to his left. A few hundred meters away, a man in a flowing white shirt and loose black pants sat on a rock standing alone in the water. The man raised his head and the intensity of his green eyes struck Alan. He paused, unsure what to do. He remembered the pain from their mind-merge, the voices probing into his mind. He remembered their countless hands pulling at his consciousness. He remembered how that man abandoned him. He walked back, stopped, reconsidered, and then ran toward the whistling figure. When he approached, the man ceased whistling and jumped down from the rock.
“Michael, what—” Alan began to gasp before Michael put a finger to his mouth. The gentle sound of the waves punctuated his silence. Alan feared blinking, for doing that could make Michael disappear forever.
“Long time no see, Alan.” The green-eyed man smiled. He led Alan to a spot further up on the beach. They sat on a discarded log, its bark stripped bare by the sea.
“How did I get here?” Alan asked, feeling his heart catch in his throat.
Michael looked away, staring off to the horizon. He then looked back, his eyes rimmed with red. “I led you into the darkness, so that you could be free.”
“I don’t understand.” Alan shook his head. “Is this a dream? Are you real?” The other man grabbed his hands. At first, they dug in like claws, and then the grip loosened as they relaxed.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with sleep.” Michael spread his arms out. “You will understand. I promise you.” His intense green eyes glimpsed into Alan’s own. “Let’s enjoy this one moment together. Just one moment,” he whispered. He took Alan into his arms and they collapsed onto the ground.
Alan fell silent, letting his head rest on Michael’s chest as they lay on the sand. A light rain began to fall on them. He blinked as a drop fell on his eyelash. A seagull cried above, circling for prey. A few minutes passed. Alan heard the other man’s slow steady heartbeat.
“Do you know why I did what I did?” Michael asked. His feet made a circle in the sand.
Alan thought for a moment. “You always said you wanted to reach the edge of the universe. To see beyond what’s possible.”
Michael stared off into the sky. “Yes, that was one part of it. Underneath all that, I wanted one thing. Freedom.” A lightning arc appeared off in the distance. “They let me go once, out into this real place.”
“To find candidates?” Alan asked in a whisper.
Michael sighed. “Yes. It wasn’t freedom, not truly. I knew someday that it would all end.”
“Your disappearance?” Alan stared at his hands. He could almost swear he heard the distant roar of a ship engine.
“I didn’t want it to end. I found wondrous things in this universe. Things that would be lost forever if I continued. I ran. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” He stroked Alan’s hair. “I couldn’t go away forever. They forced me to come back, under the cover of deception. There were a number of those like me in that ship. I was to spread them around the Republic, through the front lines. I instead came back to you.”
Alan shut his eyes, failing to curb the rush of shame. The vision of the refugee ship exploding came vividly to him. “And I killed you.” He couldn’t stifle the memory.
“A mistake in the past. You couldn’t have known. Let it go.” Michael reassured him. “Those words I said. I wish I could have said much more. But they found me and fought me. We are fated to leave so many things unsaid. I hope you understand.”
Alan asked the question that he knew Michael could not answer fully. “Why? Why all this?”
“They think you will help them. You and the Observers.”
“Those that came with us after the end. Those that came from… outside,” he whispered the last word.
“Outside? There’s more like you out there? What could they do?” Alan stood awed at this revelation.
“All of us, everyone in this world, is an actor. We play our parts, but we do not give ourselves meaning. Only the audience can do that. My role, your role, and all the candidates’ role is to help this audience understand, to experience this world through your eyes.” Michael touched his chest. “They are with us now, observing.”
For a moment, his mind came up blank. This was too much. Alan looked around him, as if he could will these watchers into manifestation. “You said they would help. Help with what?”
Michael’s arm dropped to his side. “Stopping the End Time.” He looked towards the horizon again. “My time’s run out, Alan. I can’t tell you anymore.”
The sun started setting. The dim light started to fade from his face. “I was really glad to see you.” The engine noise became louder.
Alan sat up. “No. Please. Stay a while longer.” He faced Michael and squeezed his hands. The rain stopped and the clouds started clearing. Stars appeared in the night sky.
The other man shook his head. “I can’t. My destiny was written long before you were born.” He also stood up. “I want to say goodbye,” he said, his eyes downcast.
Alan gripped his hands harder. His gaze centered on Michael’s face a little longer, and then he relaxed his grip.
“I have one final gift for you.” Alan felt a tingling in his hand. A vision flooded his mind. It showed the Gate crystal floating in the air. He saw Vendrian observing a technician inserting a portion of it into a ship missile. He saw it collect the energy of a star to build an alien structure. He saw the barrier between the grid and the real dissipate, so that pure thought could form. He saw the vast and terrifying beauty of a united mind. And he saw even more possibilities, ones that would be crucial in the events to come.
The vision ended, and before him stood Michael and the purple figure from before. Michael let go of his hand and stepped back. Behind them, a large ship landed, its hull marked by extensive damage. Etched on its nameplate was the word Argos.
“Godspeed, Alan.” Michael walked with the purple figure towards the damaged ship. Out of it emerged figures of light, in the thousands. They gathered in a crowd. Alan stood in silence as his vision started to fade to white.
He jerked his head up sharply, reaching toward the disappearing figure. “Wait!” he shouted. He ran towards them, but they kept on moving farther and farther away. The ship and people and the people faded from view. Soon all he could see was white.
Alan woke in a med bay. His ears picked up the noise of medical equipment around him. He reached towards his head and felt the heavy gauze bandage around it. He opened his eyes and saw that he was on a bed. Sitting up, he felt his body ache. Feeling slowly returned to his fingers and toes. He lay back down, listening to the beeps of his monitor. He heard the hum of engines. I’m on a ship, he thought. In the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a distortion. The ship shuddered, interrupting his thoughts. Something large and powerful had hit it. Red lights flashed from the ceiling and alarm klaxons rang throughout the med bay. The ship shook some more and pain shot through his head. He fell unconscious.