3rd Place Winner in the Spring 2017 Science Meets Fiction Contest, co-sponsored by SciCom: the College of Science & Engineering science communication initiative and eleven40seven: TCU Journal of the Arts
White-hot pain sears through my temples and I bolt upright, gasping.
Metal wires pull me back and icy fluid splashes against my ears. I clasp my hands on either side of my head and find brain-probing crystals jammed into my skull. Steel cords cage my forehead and tether me down against a cold glass surface. I claw at the crystals and yank on the wires protruding from them, but the pain only intensifies. I scream, my hands convulse. I let go and my arms splash back into the freezing blue liquid that surrounds me. Hyperventilating, I look down at my body. Another steel cord wraps around my waist. Fluid laps up over my knees and soaks into my clean white body suit, staining it dark blue.
“Tell us when you saw Earth.” A voice speaks from the darkness.
I struggle to turn my head. Through the glass, I see a tall figure standing just outside the reach of the light. Its shoulders are broad, widened with armor, and its face is concealed by a glinting silver helmet.
“Earth?” Shivering, I turn my head back up towards the light. Fluid leaks into the corners of my mouth. “It was a dream.”
Soothing images flit through my mind, bringing hot tears to my eyes. I remember the feel of the grass between my bare toes, the scent of roses on the gentle breeze. I swallow down a sob and shiver again.
He warned me this would happen.
I hear the thudding of heavy boots. The figure moves around to the foot of the tank that contains me, I see the shadow of his image rippling in the water. A click reverberates through the room and the crystals against my temples hum. I wince.
“You must have seen it in order to dream it. Think before the dream, Anastacia. When did you see Earth?”
I shake my head, closing my eyes. “It was just a dream.”
More thuds, another click. The crystals hum even louder.
“Describe the meadow.” the voice says.
The meadow. I remember running my hands through the grass and pulling handfuls of moist earth to my face, inhaling the scent. It was nothing like the packaged dirt distributed down at the green house, all dry and vacuum-sealed. It was alive, like flowing water and blooming flowers.
“The smell…” I whisper. “It smelled like…”
Just as I recall the scent and search for the words to describe it, the crystals against my head buzz. The smell vanishes, whisking away into the wind.
I gasp and try to sit upright. The wires keep me down. I push my hands against the glass.
“What did you do?” I cry.
Something grinds and whirs in the darkness.
“Describe the sunrise now.”
My hands shake as they fall back down into the water. The thudding of my heartbeat overtakes all other sound.
Darkness was the first thing I remembered. I walked through an endless night, pulling my arms tight against my chest to keep out the bitter cold. Then, light glowed on the distant horizon. It crept into the clouds and across the ground like a small, shy flame. Color leaked into the landscape, color so bright and vivid that it stung my eyes. I fell to my knees and stared up into the sky. Layer upon layer of gold flew high into the atmosphere, and it seemed as though it carried on forever.
I spun around and felt the wind rustle through my hair. Scarlet buds bloomed around my feet. As I watched, butterflies burst from the grass and danced on the breeze. Dewdrops wet my ankles as I raced across the meadow, chasing them. Music thrummed with the beat of their wings, and as I grew closer it swelled into a crescendo. The sun shined brighter, the colors quivered.
I awoke laughing.
I bolted straight up in bed and pressed my fingers against the beaded dream catcher on my temple. The dream images played again, overlaying themselves against the drab white walls of my room. I closed my eyes and lay back, playing the images again and again until tears streaked down my face.
Breathing hard with excitement, I slid the dream-catcher into its tiny pouch in my bag and raced out the door.
I bounced on my heels as I stood inside the monorail, swinging back and forth on the metal ring hanging from the ceiling. I flashed a wide grin at every passenger that gave me a quizzical look. They averted their eyes, absorbing themselves in their data pads. I stared out the window and imagined the golden sky in the place of the star-ship’s dark ceiling.
I arrived at the dream-dealer’s shop in record time. Hugging my bag against my chest, I ducked through the dream-beads hanging in the doorway. Dream catchers of every shape and size lined the shelves, and thousands of beads lay stacked in rows beside them. Round glass screens played images of dancing androids and swirling stars. I clasped my fingers against the tiny pouch where my dream catcher lay and paced at the counter.
Orion emerged from the back, tapping his thumb against a holographic blue data-pad. Dream-beads were braided into his shimmering dreadlocks and two glassy black dream catchers rested on either side of his head.
“Tacia!” He grinned and laid his data-pad down. “Someone just sold me a flyer yesterday. You’re going to love this one, you speed through every hallway in the ship. Here…”
He reached across the counter towards a rack of beads. I jumped forward, taking his hand.
“I have something even better.” I gave his hand an extra squeeze, and reached back into my bag. “Look at this.”
Fingers trembling, I withdrew the bright green bead from the center of my dream catcher. Orion closed his eyes and I slipped the bead into the black web of his own dream catcher on his temple.
He gasped. His hand clenched against the counter.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I whispered. “Can you hear the music?”
He let a slow breath out and nodded his head. “Yes, I hear it.”
“And the smell?” I leaned closer, standing on my tip-toes. “You can smell the flowers? And the dew?”
The corners of his lips twitched up. “Yes. All of it. It must be… It has to be…”
He took slow, steady breaths. His eyes flickered back and forth beneath his dark lids. He jerked back from my hand, his eyes shooting open.
“Earth.” he breathed.
“Earth?” I laughed, drawing my hand back and rolling the bead between my fingers. “How would you know anything about Earth?”
Orion slowly shook his head, shrinking back behind the counter. “What else could it be?”
I held the bead out in the palm of my hand. “How much would a copy be worth?”
Orion blinked, his mouth opened. He looked back towards the door and then leaned in close, lowering his voice.
“Tacia, if I gave you everything I have, it wouldn’t be enough. But I can’t buy that dream. We need to destroy it.” He reached for the bead. “Don’t tell anyone you ever had it.”
I snatched my hand back. “What? No!”
“Tacia, that dream is dangerous.” Orion whispered, glancing back at the door. “You can’t be caught with it.”
“This dream is beautiful.” I pulled my hand in close to my heart. “I won’t give it up.”
“Give it to me!” Orion lunged across the counter, grasping at my arms.
“No!” I fell backward.
My shoulder collided with a rack of beads, sending them spilling across the floor. Orion rushed around the counter, reaching out for me. I thought he meant to help me up. I tried to take his hand, but he grasped at the fist I held close to my chest. I twisted over, crawling away from him.
“No!” I shouted again.
“Tacia, I’m trying to protect you.” He clasped my shoulders and pulled me back.
“Don’t touch me!” I slammed my elbow into his stomach. He grunted, doubling over. I scrambled out from beneath him and bolted through the door.
“Tacia!” he cried out after me.
I kept running.
For the rest of the day, I lay curled in my bed with the bead pressed on my temple. I played the dream over and over again, until I had memorized every color that saturated the sky and every scent that wafted through the breeze. I fell asleep watching the sunrise.
I awoke in the early morning to the screeching of metal. My door caved in and two armed enforcers charged into the room. I threw the blankets back and cowered against the wall. The first enforcer seized me by the hair and pulled me from the bed. My dream catcher fell from my temple and spun across the floor.
A steel-toed gray boot slammed down on the dream catcher.
I cried out and reached across the floor towards the splintered pieces. The enforcer yanked me backwards.
One last enforcer walked through the doorway, his armored fingers clenched around Orion’s shoulder. He shoved Orion down on his knees.
Blood dripped down from the corner of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, Tacia.” he said.
The enforcer raised his weapon and fired. Red engulfed my vision.
Red, like the petals of the flowers drifting through the gentle breeze. I try to capture them in my hands but they slip through my fingers and spiral into oblivion. Digging my nails down into the dirt, I try to cling to the grass. It wretches from my hands like rope in a cruel game of tug-of-war, burning my skin as it tears away.
“Stop!” I scream, fisting my hands and pounding on the glass. “Give it back!”
The crystals whine, and it seems as though fire ignites behind my eyes. Notes of discord disrupt the beautiful music playing in my memory.
“Tell us when you saw Earth, Anastacia.”
My back arches, my eyes plunge beneath the water. I cling to the butterflies, holding their fluttering wings caged in my fingers. They split apart in my hands, the torn pieces slipping out through the spaces between my knuckles.
I gasp, and the fluid worms its way down my throat. I clasp the edges of the tank and pull my head up out of the water.
“I don’t know!” I shout. Tears drip down through the blue liquid clinging to my cheeks. “But I remember it.”
Somewhere, in the far reaches of my mind, a door unlocked. A dream stirred through a memory of another place, another time, a different me. I lay back against a blanket of soft grass and stared up at an endless golden sky.
“I remember.” I whispered, falling back against the glass and staring back at the dark figure, pleading.
He steps towards me, into the light. I can almost make out the soft blue of his eyes behind his dark visor.
He shakes his head. “It’s better if you don’t.”