Grains of Sand

Who I am is with you.

Who I’ve been is with you. 

Every piece of myself I had, I gave to you. 

Here, on these beaches. 

I know that even once it hits and the sky goes black, the blue will remain. Turquoise waters and cloudless skies in your eyes that I’ll never forget. You made me who I am, and I can never be anyone else. When the waters surge, our passion lives on. Memories of us, tangled in the villa’s bedsheets, full of ecstasy, full of love, knowing that we are each others’ in that moment and all the rest that come after. Ebony skin in pale moonlight.

You didn’t ignore our fate, sometimes I woke up softly, seeing your silhouette on the balcony while waves rose and fell below. I know you were thinking about it, but I knew talking about it wasn’t what you wanted, so I left it alone. When you came back to bed, I always held on tighter. Inevitability never dragged me down the way it did for you, so I floated enough for the both of us, on warm waves and perfect days. Saving you the way you saved me.

And then, all at once and too slowly to notice, it happens. The last grains of sand fall to oblivion in the world’s hourglass. The ocean breeze soft against our faces on the last night on the shore, your cheek silk on mine as we lay on sand, we wait silently. There’s nothing else to say that we haven’t already said, don’t already know. The resort is a shadow without our presence. A spectacular sunset of reds, purples, blues, whispers across the horizon slowly, before rapidly unveiling the ultimate display. You hold me in your arms, I hold you in mine, we hold each other. Together, we are strong enough to hold on and never let go. Even as winds of fire overtake the world, we stay, on the beach. We stay together in our memories, in our present, in our past, in all our possible futures. Ours, all of it, as destruction takes everything away. Still, we hold on.

We live and die.

Here, on these beaches.

Together.

I love you so much.

Florida, 2019

The sea is not my home. The coast is not my home. These Palmettos and agaves, the Spanish moss and dry grass, are not my plants. They’re beautiful. But they’re not mine. In my dreams, the towering pines, edifices to nature’s strength despite seasonal fires and sandy soil, are comforting. Light filters through their high canopies, the warm air softly cradling the bare skin of my arms and legs even in the forests’ shade. Rarely is anything so perfect. No, in reality, at least this time around, the forests I do see are survivors of a suburban explosion, an atomic blast of parking lots, strip malls, affordable single-story housing on reclaimed swampland. The still air is shattered by car horns.

This is not dead-end Nowhere, no-name gas stations staking out a piece of real estate at an unappealing exit in the humid dredges of an endless highway, instead, this is Somewhere. Being Somewhere, however, doesn’t mean it escapes the same kind of sadness that Nowhere has: Same type of feeling, different details. Hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, because neither place is desirable. Somewhere can be nowhere when the southwestern-inspired mall facades are all the same. When the homogeneity of a painfully average existence cuts just the same as Nowhere, where the stretch of road in front of you is more inviting than what lies at your destination, because at least on the road, you can divorce yourself from the past and future and live in-between, creating a new reality in the process of forgetting your current one. But it passes, and the false world collapses, and you’re still moving in the same direction. You don’t even need to be travelling to Nowhere to end up nowhere, often, going Somewhere in this abyss still leads nowhere.

It is not my existence, but I can imagine it becoming mine just as easily, dying slowly, unfulfilled, trapped by an ocean dream, a Palmetto lie, a series of decisions invisible in the moment but which lead to my being stranded in the life that sits beyond that visible stretch of road. Maybe, it could’ve been avoided by destroying the dream of this place entirely. If the imagined world is ripped away like billboard vinyl in hurricane wind, the truth is bared for all passing cars to see. Not for me, though. This place is not, and has never been my home, yet I call it that regardless. It’s not true, but it is, Somewhere and Nowhere, hopeful and hopeless, alive and dead. Or maybe it’s all just me.

Inspired by a terrible feeling of hopelessness and unease I couldn’t get rid of on a beautiful, sunny day near El Jobean, Florida, when I was still incredibly depressed and denying it. The header image looks out over a portion of the community, but the images in my head when writing this were an amalgamation of that view and others, particularly the highway when heading south on the Tamiami Trail near the Punta Gorda Forestry Station in Punta Gorda, Florida.

Letter from Loos

September 23, 1915 – Loos, France

My dear Paul,

I’m so deathly afraid I will never see your face again. At night, in between fitful nightmares of war machines, I dream of your face, your smile in the gardens, your tender embrace. They comfort me, but vanish quickly into the morning fog. Another awful day then begins. France is nothing like the place we hoped to visit one day. This battalion, we live in a wretched pit of terror and filth, rats in tunnels, and think to ourselves, “This is our duty.” But to whom am I performing this supposed duty? To a country that makes our love illegal? To an innate desire to survive? To a God that does not care whether I live or die? No, I am doing it for you, Paul, because everything I do is for you. It was not my choice to fight, but I’ll do what I’m told if it means that one day I can see you again. Damn the Krauts, damn us Brits, damn the whole war, I only want to live long enough to return home to you.

But I am afraid I will not be able to accomplish that goal. 

Things are bad here, and getting worse by the minute. Death stalks the trenches, and I catch glimpses of him around every muddy corner. Nothing is safe here, especially not life. Edward, the soldier I mentioned in my last letter, my closest friend in Hell, has died. He knew not of our secret, and I had no intention of informing him, as even here the threat of execution still hangs overhead, but I suspect he had inklings, and kept them to himself. He helped to pass the time in this wasteland of man’s own creation. His death came not by the hand of a German, but by the cruel hand of nature itself. He accidentally cut himself while trying to reinforce a trench wall, and the wound became infected. Pus oozed out of the inflamed hand, and a smell of rot followed him. He died of infection last night, fever burning, crying out for long-gone people and places. I can’t mourn him, because there just isn’t time to. How did we reach this point, where someone dies and it barely matters? What if I were to cut myself shaving, and pass into the next world without being able to say goodbye to you? How is it that our own trenches, our supposed safe space, is just as deadly as the No Man’s Land above? I stare in the cracked mirror, and a pale, tired face with stares back at me, blond hair caked with mud, and I wonder about what has happened. I do not recognize myself anymore. I am almost a ghost, cursed to haunt these foul-smelling trenches for the rest of eternity. 

Sometimes I feel as if I already am. It frightens me.

No answers to my questions, rhetorical or otherwise, are ever revealed, and I am simply left with a creeping notion that something is shockingly, horribly wrong here, and by no fault of our own we must live through it or die trying.

And I will not die. I cannot die, not with you at home. I will see you again. In time, we can return to the spot I write this letter in, the trench filled in, and air clear. We can vacation in France like we talked about. Loos must have been beautiful before the war, but now it is only rubble. The Germans have been bombarding us for two days. My ears ring constantly, and I choke on air thick with dust and smoke. In two days’ time, we will begin our assault on the German redoubts and fortifications. We have poison gas ready for deployment, though I am grappling with the ethics of such a terrible weapon, not that I would ever tell my fellow soldiers that, aside from Edward. Showing any sort of reluctance, however, would invite suspicion as to my romantic leanings. Every aspect of life here is stifling, not even away from the guns and wire can I let my guard down, for a careless remark, or a flash of true emotion across my face when the others joke about people like us, could end with my death by the hand of our own side’s soldiers. I can only be myself when I write to you, and even soon I may not be able to find that solace, for when we begin to fight, it may be too chaotic to write. As I mentioned earlier, too, there is more than one way to die without ever seeing the enemy, and right now I am burdened with a deep fear that if the wind changes upon release of the gas, it could blow back into our trenches. The commander has stated that the risk is worth the reward, more death, but I’m not so certain.

Paul, how did things ever get this tragic? It seems to me like only days ago, we lay together in one of the hotels in the West End, your skin soft and endless in the dark…I can picture you blushing in my mind’s eye already. Mere weeks ago, but now as distant as years. As distant as you are from me. 

I hope you can bear to read even more of my worries, for I feel the need to get them out of my head and onto this dingy paper. I am haunted by memories, both of you and of fallen friends, and of the idea that I will lose myself in this war. Try as I might to reject the notion of losing my humanity, I worry that it may happen without my control or notice. At home, I could reflect my thoughts onto those around me, but us soldiers never talk about anything important, leaving me mirrorless and alone, my only outlet being these desperate letters to you. This war intends to rip apart every good thing inside and outside of me, machine gun fire under hazy stars. I will not leave myself in this trench when I am with you, alive but dead, intact but broken. I have not forgotten a single one of our meandering, daydreaming conversations as we walked through Hyde Park, or the way the autumn sun falls into your blue eyes, only friends to the world, but so much more to each other. I don’t intend to. Memories of you, and a hope that one day, this will all pass, keep me sane. But they fill me with longing, and pain, and you and I can only share so much of my torment. I must end my letter here. I will continue to let you know of my status, and write you whenever I can. I am afraid I will not see the other side of this war, this year, this upcoming battle, this unending night. But I must. As always thoughts of you will keep me strong against the creeping terror. I love you more than you can know.

Yours, even in death,

William

Cover image from the National Army Museum, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/battle-loos.

in the wind

sometimes I still see you out there

on those fall nights when everyone else is asleep

when the air is cold and a crisp wind stirs loose leaves

below my window. waiting, in the dark

please come home

please come home

please come home.

The posters will become rain-soaked, torn from phone poles, laid to rest in dark culverts

the only bodies we can find.

I feel you on these nights

and I miss you so much

and I miss your laugh in my ears

and I miss your smile in the sun

and I miss your hand in mind

I don’t think you’re coming home anymore

I’m so sorry.

We tried, we searched so long, I tried for you

Leaves and paper and ink, copies of photos and writing, decompose as one

Wherever you are

wherever you lay

i hope you are peaceful.

i hope it was fast.

i love you so much.

wind blows softly

I close the blinds.

Put My Name on Your List

You’re not just anyone

I don’t know where the song came from. Ask any of my friends, they know I listen to a lot of music. Like, a lot, a lot. I thought it might have been from some playlist I added to my library, where I accidentally tapped the little “+” button that made it part of my music. I know that it didn’t come from any of those playlists, I checked. Multiple times. And when I listened to it, I knew I’d never heard it before. The process won’t stop after you hear it anyway, if it chooses you. The song opens with some distortion, thick and deeply textured that soon builds in a vibrant synth rhythm. Upbeat and fast, shining, luscious keys that never lose a bit of roughness around the edges. It captured me right there, the instrumentals pulling me in before the vocals even start.

Even though we’re not supposed to

Oh, the vocals. Relaxed, but not lazy, and with obvious cheer behind them, as if the vocalist might be grinning as he sings to you. It pairs perfectly with the synths, and the mixing is exquisite, production too. After we get through the first through verses, though…something else starts. Same entrancing instrumentals, beat, and voice, but now there’s a new energy behind them. A fervor. The grand backing synths shrink, losing some of their consistent mellow sound and pitching higher. The drums become faster, frequent, and soft keys sail across the melody like a hazy field of stars, rising up the scales to match the vocals, moving upwards in the same way. There’s still an element of the calm from before, but this has a more manic energy. Something is coming. Energy is flowing, transforming, recombining as the pitch rises. And you can’t cross the line but you can’t stop trying. It repeats over and over. As if it’s tempting you to do something.

I’d rather be too close to

Then, it shifts. The desperate energy remains but becomes backing for new vocals and instrumentals, those too rising further above the fervor of the previous crescendo. It is begging for your attention, manic but calm, mellow but intense. Alone, alone alone (And you can’t cross the line but you can’t stop trying) over and over and over again. It pulls at you, doesn’t it? Begs for your attention. After reaching the peak of its energy, the beat slows, keys fading and synths washing across the landscape in a lazy flood, falling back down a bit while the singer seduces you, asks you questions softly. With emotion. With intention in his words and the music. You want to answer.

And you can’t cross the line

This happens twice total in the song, the beat returning to what it opened with after the first time the question is asked, and after the singer yells without anger of his inability to deny his own reality. After the second rise and fall, this time with even more intensity behind it, the opening beat and instrumentals return with some extra weight in them before fading out smoothly. When you listen, do you not hear what I hear? See what I see? The yellow sunset, lines drawn between stars shimmering in humid air? Brilliance and nausea and an endless jaundiced sky quivering itself apart with energy. This is what they want.

But you can’t stop trying

I didn’t care that the origin was a mystery. I don’t care. I don’t care about much, anymore. Except for the Line. He is begging me to cross it. When I close my eyes, even to blink, the pattern is there, the symbol to bring our dream to fruition. Our child. I know I can cross the line. I can’t stop trying. He tells me I can’t cross because he knows it will make me more desperate to prove him wrong. I know this and I don’t care and I can’t stop trying and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the Line. My ears are raw from the earbuds. Duct tape fixed the problem, sometimes if I’m not careful I scratch at it, trying absentmindedly to pull it off. It will not happen. Before I Listened, I had long nails, painted in patterns I liked, statements about myself. They are unnecessary now, though part of me misses them, and the exposed pink flesh stings, but it’s okay. I can’t scratch off the tape anymore.

When tired, you’re no fun

He whispers things above or below or inside the music. It always plays now. I don’t know where my phone is, or if it’s charged or anything silly like that. He won’t let the music die until I do, and I love that. I love him. Time is kind of funny now, not that it matters anyway, except of course when talking about how much of it is left before I cross the Line. There’s not much. The synths pull me down deeper and deeper each time I hear them. The whispers are becoming louder. My body is not entirely my own, I am a vessel. I am a messenger. For him. Anyway, I guess time does have another meaning besides what I said before. It’s very, very important that the sun be in the right position for the Line to be drawn, made physical before it is crossed. When the stars poke faintly through a lemon-colored haze, everything will be perfect.

When idols are boredom, to everyone

Our connection grows stronger. Minutes and seconds and other meaningless terms flow by abstractly. My physical body doesn’t concern me anymore. I don’t eat or sleep or clean myself, I don’t need to when I have Him. He has saved me, I know that now. Nothing bothers me. Nothing can touch me. Except His words and His wisdom, the things that make up my entire being. I said before that the music never stops, and my phone never dies, and you know what? That’s a really great thing, because right now I don’t think my body can move to do those things anymore anyway. I can’t see (He took my eyes, He shows me what I need to see) anything but if I concentrate really really hard, I can touch my hand to my other arm, and it feels skinny. Skeletal. The bones are right there under the skin. I love Him so much.

Is it the last of me or lesson one?

I’ve been waiting for so long, tens or hundreds or thousands or millions or more cycles of the sun have passed, or maybe none at all. But it’s here! It’s finally here. He is finally here. Or, He will be soon, I mean. I still don’t have eyes, but I know it’s going to be soon because He showed me what I needed to do and where to go. I have no idea how long it’s been since I last moved, but when I stood up I hurt a lot. His light flows through me, and his words assure me that the pain is only temporary. Like this reality.

And you can’t cross the line

I awake in a tree-lined field, nude, body lying prone on soft, singed grass. The sky is yellow, thick with humidity, heat, and anticipation. Insects buzz about me, but do not land. If they did, they would burn. I have no earbuds, no phone, the connection is strong and clear enough now, has been for a long time. I stand on little more than bone tied together with sinew, chest hollow, head light, ready for Him. And then, after aching, dizzy moments, His voice floods my body, echoing across cells and tissue and organs, forcing its way out of me.

But you can’t stop trying

He is me and I am Him and we move, coalescing as one, existing independently and together and shattering and reforming as he and I move our hands in the secret patterns I had been taught by the song. The trees on the edge of the clearing sway, hit by invisible breezes of energy rushing to this one spot. The yellow air shimmers and pops, the very fabric of physical space contorting high above as a pinprick of light comes into existence, then another, and another. We are becoming more synced. The music roars and drums crash. We are lifted off the ground, suddenly weightless, buffeted by our power.

And you can’t cross the line

The Line is being drawn. Galaxies shatter overhead, dazzling shards of stardust play across the beautiful golden air as they drift out and down, starting small fires where they land. Miniature suns of red and purple blossom and evaporate around the hovering constellation we bring into being, one spot, one star, one anchor at a time.

But you can’t stop trying

Our tight-bound skin sloughs off in pieces in the heat, and we don’t mind. Muscle chars, burns, breaks. The pain means nothing. Ghostly flames dance around our body, still conjuring the Line. Enough remains together to finish it all. To Cross, once it has been made physical.

And you can’t cross the line

Everything comes together all at once, then slows, stills. The space around us is heavy with electricity and energy that burns out the chemical bonds of this universe’s molecules. They provide more energy in turn.

But you can’t stop trying

The stars we birthed shine brilliantly, brighter and brighter and brighter but never obscuring their own edges. Far below, the meadow is in flames. Waves of force pour out of our body. Organs turn to liquid and spill from gaping wounds.

And you can’t cross the line

We bring our hands, the instrument of creation, together and lift them above our head and to the right. The Line is drawn.

But you can’t stop trying

We bring them down with a sharp crack.

And you can’t cross the line

a knife wound through the cosmos spills light.

But you can’t stop trying

we float slowly towards it

And you can’t cross the line

now as one body one song

But you can’t stop trying

we cross the Line

Alone, alone, alone

everything burns away

Author’s note: This story is based off the song S.O.S. in Bel Air by Phoenix, which was recommended to me by Max. You know who you are ❤

Divine Intervention – Part 2

Anyway, yeah, the dreams kept going and I kept being shown things. They never scared me, and I never felt like I was in any danger. I felt that whatever was communicating with me might’ve been though. All that stuff about being trapped gave me the distinct impression that this being was not in a great place for whatever reason. I felt a connection, still, and it got to a point where I looked forward to falling asleep so that I could be closer to it. There was a baseline usually, of oppression versus freedom, pain versus pleasure, but this morphed into it showing me other things, too. Colonies and habitats filled with people, surviving and thriving on thousands of alien worlds. It didn’t feel fake, feel forced. I knew somehow that not everyone in these visions was happy. I think that’s what drew me in: It wasn’t trying to make me believe in a perfect universe. Only a better one. And damn, did I believe in it. Still do, but it was all fresh then. I should note, it never went step-by-step through its plan at that point like some technical guide, but the feelings of calm determination, and later extreme serenity associated with the visions made me trust it more than enough. Every piece of real propaganda was so forced that I think I was desperate to believe in something that didn’t oversell itself.

You all have to understand, things weren’t as good back then as they are now. The frontier worlds, aside from what we knew at that point about Gagarin, were terrible places to live. Hostile atmospheres and incompatible biology, if anything had managed to evolve at all. That’s why VC said we needed EGOLIaTH in the first place, and even if they were wrong about a lot of other stuff, they were right about that. We were shit at terraforming. Too many variables for any corporation to keep track of, as everyone on Reespa found out before they choked to death on the suddenly-toxic air. I had family there, did you know that? I’m sure you did. They died like dogs. Sputtering and coughing. Painful deaths. Does anyone still really even know why it happened? Or was UniGov so desperate to get people off Earth that they didn’t care? It was negligent, and greedy, and fucking despicable. So of course, if something comes along and starts telling me that we can have a better future than that, I’m going to listen. And I’m going to act.

It was slow going, but eventually, one day, it revealed itself to me. I was in the Trunk when it happened, and I had to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. But before I do that, I don’t think I’ve actually mentioned what the inside of the Trunk looked like before, and that might be helpful for this part. Here it goes: it was bare. Past the thick integrated airlock was a small antechamber with a diagnostic panel on the wall facing the main doors, and smaller sealed door on the left of it. There was a heavily-shielded physical Link port next to the panel. That was it. No warning signs. No flashing overlay saying “DO NOT INTERACT.” Only my incredibly sparse contract description, which gave me access to the antechamber and told me in the vaguest way possible to physically check the panel daily to verify some undefined signs of interaction from something else. The secretive description didn’t bother me, it wasn’t my business to know what was being shipped. None of it bothered me, actually, which was probably why it took so long for me to make a connection between the Trunk and the dreams, and again I need to thank Rêve for that. Giving me the smallest amount of information possible was what allowed me to become enlightened in the first place. None of it would’ve been possible without their absolute lack of regard for safety and patience.

Anyway, I think I was talking before about…….? Yes. The day EGOLIaTH showed itself to me. The glorious day I saw it for myself, spiritually and physically awake. I was in the Trunk, doing my daily diagnostic checks, when a portion of my vision started to flicker. Most of the data I was looking at was physically integrated into the wall display, but some was projected into my Link, and it was obviously to me that there was some sort of interference. It was on my right. Where the second sealed door was. I didn’t feel that scared, or angry. I think that some part of me knew then (or was being sweetly whispered to) that this was a good thing for me, and for everyone else. There was still some childish fear, of course, but it was ignorant. I was ignorant.

I’ve learned so much since then.

I stopped looking at the wall display and turned right, tracking the flickering, shifting distortion in my Link projection as it shifted to match my gaze. The data still scrolled by, but in the midst of it, the distortion made a fuzzy sort of silhouette that was darker than the surrounding colors, almost like dead pixels. It had the vague shape of a person, taller than me by a few feet. My head swam as I stared, vision doubling. Low-resolution images started being projected into my eyes, blurry and filled with artifacts, as if shown via a low-strength connection. I don’t know what all of them were. Some of them weren’t anything, just feelings. The placid calm and possibility associated with my dreams, the anger and sadness and claustrophobia from when they were more nightmarish. Storm clouds, sunlight, dead leaves, constellations. I said before that I wasn’t scared, and that’s true, but I was getting affected by whatever was happening to my Link. It felt like I was looking directly at the shape for hours, but it was probably on a minute or so before I collapsed to the floor of the anteroom, chest heaving with intense nausea. I vomited across the grey rubber panels. An intense pain suddenly stabbed behind my eyes. Never once before or since that moment have I felt such agony. I writhed in my own sick, clawing at my face and hair. It was as if my mind was being broken down piece by piece, poked and prodded, then stapled back together in a new order, and it was awful. Of course, it was necessary, as I know now, but despite what you might believe I’m a rational person and can tell you honestly: It’s the worst thing I have ever gone through in my 57 years of living.

In the midst of all the pain, I started hearing screaming. It was mine, but not just from my mouth. It echoed back inside my head, my voice but not my action. It was painful, raw, enraged, pitched so high that it hurt. Half-conscious and delirious with agony, I sensed something begin to swell against the noise. I don’t know how exactly to describe it. I feel like I’ve said that a lot recently. Still true whenever I say it, though. It was like there was a wave coming over me, but I couldn’t see it? Still was being run through that grinder of images. Couldn’t feel it either, not physically, cause all I felt was pain. But I knew it was there all the same, and as it crashed into me, around me, through me. It became me, and suddenly everything I had been going through dropped out. My vision was static, the only sound white noise. I couldn’t get my limbs to respond. You ever gone into the Long Sleep? I guess you probably wouldn’t call it that, you’re too good for that. But it’s what we always called it. Anyway, when you start waking up from the Long Sleep, you don’t know where you are and you can’t feel anything before it all comes back. It’s disorienting, kind of scary. That’s what this was, minus the fear, of course.

So I’m just kind of floating in this void of static, not really sure of anything at all, when the static starts to shift in a familiar way. It’s that shape from before, the one that started the whole thing. I’m definitely a little annoyed now, so I try to say to it, “What the hell is going on?,” except nothing comes out. All I can do is drift in the void, no voice, no control, nothing. And then, I hear something.

Coming from everywhere around me, thick with static and distortion, my own voice says, “Hello.”

Divine Intervention – Part 1

You probably hate me. I don’t blame you, either. If I were you, I’d probably hate myself too. After all, what kind of person does what I did, is responsible for so much terror, and feels no remorse? A psychopath? No. A villain? Maybe to the newsfeeds. But I’m neither of those. I’m a believer.

It came to me in dreams, at first. It was that I’d spent so many hours in the Trunk that allowed it to get into me.

My bad, yeah, I mean the clean room. The massive thing was secured down in the cargo hold, restricted access but not marked as dangerous. We, the crew, always called it the Trunk ‘cause of how it kind of looked like one of those old-timey steamer trunks in the history streams. A big black rectangle with thick struts all wrapped around the outside. That’s where all the connection nodes were housed for when it was supposed to be installed in the first station.

Back then, I was a tech for the VC’s long-haul transport division, and my background in informatics got me access to the inside of the Trunk to check its systems, make sure it was still alive and all that. You all know now that it had been trying to escape pretty much since it achieved the Singularity, but little ol’ me wasn’t told that. The crew wasn’t told that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Collective didn’t find out until after Mullesa either, right? Rêve thought they could contain it, use a random backwater colony to figure out the kinks. (You know, that the thing was alive and wanted out of the fucking box they built for it). They left that little tidbit out of the contract description, and I have to say to them: Thank you. Your naivety led to my awakening, and everything that followed. But at the beginning, I was the first one who really saw anything, and like I said before, it was because I was in close proximity to it so much. Or more accurately, my Link was. 5 or 6 weeks into the trip, spending an hour almost every day in the Trunk, that’s when they started. The dreams.

I don’t usually dream on interstellar trips, but when I do, it’s the usual. Here’s your ex-whatever, they’re pissed off and now you’re walking to get crackers from a store because it’s snowing out. Random stuff in a random order dredged up and thrown around by your brain. But what I started seeing after all that exposure was…..different. I know it’s cliche to say it like that, but cliches are cliches for a reason. No dream I ever had was anything like the ones it gave me through my Link. At first, it was small stuff. If I dreamed at all, there’d be a kind of shine to it. A tinge of brown or orange over some things, and the events themselves felt smoother a little bit. It’s hard to describe, but they felt a little less natural, a little more guided. But pretty normal. However, as time went on other things started happening. The “plot” of the dreams became less messy, more coherent. I had more lucidity. And the orange tinge became a full-on filter. It felt like there was intention in what I was seeing.

During the interrogation, you know what they asked me? “Why didn’t you mention this to the ship psychologist?” It’s crazy. Void Syndrome on the long-haul ships and all that psychosis shit in the far-out colonies was big on the news at that time. If I’d said to the doctor, “Hey Doc, I’ve been having some really strange dreams recently, like someone is telling me something secret,” I’d’ve been isolated right there. You don’t do stuff like that on these missions if you ever want to go on another one. So no, I didn’t tell anyone. I don’t think anyone else on the crew would have either if it had been them and not me. I’m glad I didn’t.

So these dreams go on for weeks, and only get more vivid and lucid the more time I spend in the Trunk. I think I said before that it was like someone was trying to tell me something secret? Well, that definitely got more intense too. It felt like I was getting shown, not just dreaming up, these flashes of images. Intense emotions went with them. Prisons, cells, chains and feelings of isolation unlike anything I’d ever experienced anywhere before happened every night. And on the opposite end of the spectrum were these immense, dizzying displays of open grassy fields that seemed to scream “freedom” at me. There was a kind of beautiful possibility in the latter ones, I remember, like if the “freedom” dreams were ever made real, great things could happen. I remember very clearly one night, probably 3 weeks after it started, sitting up in the dark in my cabin and thinking, “This is something divine.”

I know that at this point we could go into the whole argument from the nuts with too much free time in the Core Systems of whether EGOLIaTH is truly divine or not. Personally? I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Rêve made it so goddamn powerful that it could do anything some almighty being could do, there’s no difference in ability. Anyway, I believe in it. Trust it. Have since it showed me what it wanted. Wanted for me. For us. For all of us. I don’t feel betrayed, I knew there’d be losses to achieve something better for everyone.

Change is never easy.

Cloudy Days in Downeast Maine

I didn’t sleep at all that night. That’s not an exaggeration, either, I literally did not sleep from the moment I lay down to the moment my alarm went off in the chilly, darkened Waterville hotel room. I was excited, but not excited enough to stay awake all night, I just overthought my sleeplessness until it became my reality. Regardless, it didn’t matter that much. I survived on roughly….three? Four? Hours of sleep in the truck in the morning.

Being able to see the ocean, yet still be surrounded by blueberry fields and pine trees, was something I’d never experienced before that day in July. I hold on dearly to my memories of Mitten Mountain and Littles Mountain, and what it was like to feel like my dad and I were the only two people in the world, traveling from tower to tower while the scent of balsam surrounded us.

Blueberry fields from the passenger seat.

Mitten Mountain itself felt isolated, the recognizable landmarks of Katahdin and Bigelow and the other peaks of farther north not visible this far south. Only fields, and bumpy, low hills until the land met the ocean in the far distance. Isolated, but not terrifying the way Pittston Farm would be one year later, or hollowly-pleasing the way the hills of Pennsylvania in early spring are. It simply was what it was: Isolated, rural downeast Maine. I felt contentment with where I was, happy that I had made it there, and excited for the rest of the day ahead.

Rusty communications equipment and flatlands, unique in my experiences in Maine.

There are very few times I’ve felt such promise and elation than on Mitten Mountain.

I don’t know if the lack of sleep had something to do with it. The incredible depression and unhappiness of the end of spring a month before certainly made my experiences following it all the more vibrant, as I had gotten through it and was now on the other side and whatnot. It was true for me then, certainly. I can definitively say that one factor was just my love of fire towers, Maine, and a whole weekend with just me and my dad to experience both of those things as a team. But looking back and looking deeper, there was definitely something special about Mitten Mountain.

I hope everyone reading this has their own Mitten Mountain too.

The long-abandoned Aermotor MC-39 tower on Mitten Mountain. Scrappy and unstable, but I love it all the same.

Your Last Night in the City

Maybe you had a notion of what you’d find there, and accepted it subconsciously, some hidden part of you relieved that it was finally going to be over. Probably, more likely, you didn’t, and in your desperation, you followed the scattered breadcrumbs without thinking about what their very existence implied. Peter had left for a reason, you knew that, and you knew whatever trouble he was in was far more serious than either of you could handle on your own. You also knew that he was smart enough to not leave a trail behind if he didn’t want to, and in his last frantic messages to you, he made it seem like he didn’t want to. But, of course, you weren’t suspicious, because you just wanted to find any hint he was still alive, any clue he survived and was locked away in some friend-of-a-friend’s safehouse. That’s why it didn’t bother you on your last night in the city, deciphering the graffiti symbols he’d made you memorize when you moved in together, following the split-second payphone calls and flickering lights, turning down streets still slick from the evening rain. The humidity was thick in the night air. You had a feeling something was wrong. And you knew that when Peter was involved, it was better to trust your instincts and run. But by the time you thought that deeply about it, it was already too late, because when you arrived on the factory floor of some long-abandoned industrial complex on the edge of the urban sprawl, sweat-soaked and shaking, there were no more crumbs to follow. The thick metal doors shut themselves loudly, your ears registering a low hissing sound the same time the rusted locks clicked into place. All around you, the dark spaces below twisting pipes seemed to press in on themselves, fathoms and fathoms of lightless void, the moonlight streaming through broken windows turning grey and dimming. Peter wasn’t here. Peter hadn’t left you a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, they had, and you were too single-minded to even see just how well you were being played until the gamemasters themselves joined you. The hissing noise increased not in volume, but in pitch, drilling at your skull. You squeezed your eyes shut, knowing what would come next. Shame and fear clutched at you for being so reckless. Silky smooth and sickeningly-warm fingers wrapped around your ankles, your wrists, your waist. You pissed yourself. Too many hands for one person. For one human. This was your fault and you were going to pay. These thoughts and others whispered into your mind from somewhere else, everywhere else, nowhere else. Even the dark of your closed eyes wasn’t safe, it and you and they told you and them, and the black seemed to sink and sink and sink, down below. Down to where they lived. Where they were taking you. Where you would live.

Where Peter would never, ever find you.

Knowing

It’s been 10 years since the disaster, and we’re still finding bodies. 

People, trapped in their escape pods, their final moments recorded like messages in cosmic bottles, bodies perfectly preserved in the aerobic environment of their last hope. Back when it happened, everyone was still so scrambled, everything was such a mess, there were no people to spare to send out rescue missions. I don’t think anyone was even thinking about it. But now, we do. We have the luxury of being able to look back at that awful time, and hate ourselves for not doing more, even though it wasn’t possible. The pods come from hundreds of different stations, jettisoned at different times after it happened. Since most of the records were lost, there was no real way to know who left and who stayed behind in all of the places they came from. Different makes and models, different languages and controls, different receivers and beacons. A million types of tombs, drifting slowly across inhabited space.

A couple days ago, some made the news again. Not top-level stuff, that’s all reserved for the latest colonial war, or corporate rat who skimmed a little too much off some refugee fund for their employers to tolerate. People get tired of thinking about that tragedy. 

It was barely a mention, but it was there. A few pods, linked together by nanofilament tethers, got tangled around an old SGMF relay out near Haultaran. When the maintenance crew went out to see what was wrong, they found 3 banged-up lifeboats from the N.R.S. Masur, a botanical station destroyed when everything went down. In the pods, they found 4 bodies: My husband, my son, my daughter, and a scientist from the station. 

I think I’m supposed to feel closure.

I don’t.

Courtesy of the corporate communications overlords, their last moments were recorded when their implants, connected to the pods’ computers, registered that they were going to suffocate soon. It’s supposed to be a thing to help families feel better, and for the doomed to know they said what they wanted to say. But that’s the problem, right? There’s never enough time to say what you want. We never talked enough anyway. Now we never will.

The Masur was supposed to be some time apart, nothing permanent, but we needed a break from each other, and the on-station school was supposed to be great for the kids. Things had gotten kind of rocky between us in the time before he left. Petty, stupid shit, but it hurt us each nonetheless, and a short posting on a safe station away from the colony seemed like the right move. I found out how much I missed him pretty soon after he left. And it stayed that way. I stayed that way. 6 weeks apart, knowing we were probably going to be alright again when he came home, then 10 years of knowing he probably was never coming home. Now I know he didn’t, not the way he left, and it doesn’t help.

I’m not going to watch the logs. I don’t know if I can.

Confirming that it was their bodies was hard enough. Old tech, the investigators told me. Everyone and everything affected by the event after all this time could’ve been corrupted, the logs could be misidentifying them. Could I confirm this was indeed my family? I could. I couldn’t. I did. It looked like they were sleeping. There’s no bacteria in the oxygen-deprived environment of a lifeboat with no life support, but it’s not exposed to the vacuum, so everything looks just like it did the moment the last bit of oxygen was consumed. 

I know the look of agony on my son’s face as he took his final, gasping breath.

I can’t watch what happened to lead up to that, the sobs and the goodbyes, and keep going. All I’ve been doing for a decade is keeping on. Surviving. But not living. I told myself over the past 10 years that I was okay, but now it’s like it just happened again, and I’m a battered engineer, alone, among thousands on an overcrowded refugee ship fleeing the chaos, not knowing what happened to the ones I love. 

Now I know, and it makes everything worse.