“And then I wake up,” I said.
My half-clothed body hung in the suspension cylinder, my arms outstretched toward its curved walls like a crucified man. I could feel my heart-rate decelerating, and my breaths were longer and deeper. The cylinder was doing its job well.
“Does the dream ever change?” A soft feminine voice asked me. I knew this session was being recorded, possibly even being viewed by an unseen live audience.
“No,” I said. “It’s the same every time.”
My voice lacked inflection, a result of the cylinder’s vocal modulator. The monotonous tone was designed to produce a calming effect on the speaker. When my time came to be placed in the cylinder, I was surprised by the modulator’s immediate effectiveness in regards to myself… it made me feel like I could say anything without fear of consequence. A dangerous feeling.
“That concludes this session, Lieutenant Allon,” the female voice said. “Would you like to remain in the cylinder for a while longer?”
“No,” I said. Too much of a good thing was never a good thing.
The holding field within the cylinder slowly dissipated, lowering me gently to the ground. I stepped through the door as it was opened and retrieved my clothes from the table in front of me. I said nothing to Gwen as I put on my pants. I watched her without appearing to watch, and I could sense that she watched me with the same acuteness—a glance showed me that her eyes were on her note tablet… then another and her eyes met mine. It had been a careless exchange on both our parts.
At the same time we both looked away, hoping that the people monitoring the room hadn’t noticed. I quickly put on my shirt and left. We would not attempt to meet again that night as we had on previous nights. It was too close to the hour of departure; no need to risk our one ticket off this cold, rotating derelict of a city.
She was the psychiatric officer enlisted for the voyage; her responsibility was to analyze all crewmembers prior to the launch, excluding Captain Dominic, who was analyzed by a separate committee. But the rest of us were approved or denied based on her professional assessment.
If anyone knew that we were seeing each other…
Captain Dominic was her father, an honorable man for whom I held the greatest admiration. He respected and trusted me. Like everyone else, he had no knowledge of my relationship with his beloved daughter.
As I walked the transparent floor of the ultra-glass corridor, I looked out over the city, upon the long rows of metallic towers varying in height and structure—they glowed with a blue radiance under the light of Geira’s gray star. There were no trees or plants above the surface on this world because they could not survive in such lifeless light. Instead, we kept them in underground greenhouses, where they thrived in artificial survival conditions. I’m not entirely certain as to how the greenhouses functioned but I know that the oxygen was harvested from the plants, where it was then ejected into our shielded atmosphere and continually recycled. The elementary basics of offworld civilization.
I had never seen Earth—I’d been told for most of my life that it was a place far worse than Geira. But now, for the first time in my twenty-four years of living, I was going to find out for myself.
When I was young, I remember asking my mother about it. She said it was nothing like the paradise it had been at one time, said it was a place to rob men of their souls, where the once glistening blue oceans had now become saturated with the blood of her own children. At the time it had sounded like an exaggeration.
I think she hated it, Earth I mean. My father died there… there in some cold, sunless desert or in some cavern outpost at the hands of the Unseen Enemy. Little news had come to us of his death. Little news ever came from that place many had come to know as Deadland. Now, I often wondered if there was perhaps more truth to my mother’s words than I had originally suspected.
I heard footsteps in the corridor behind me, but I didn’t look back to see who it was. I listened to the pattern of the footfalls, the rate of movement, the clicking of heels against the crystalline floor. I slowed down and waited for him to get closer.
“Hello, Tertius,” I said without looking at him.
“Good morning, sir,” he said in a voice that sounded remarkably human, more so than usual. “I sense that you are troubled. Do you wish to speak of it?”
“No, thank you,” I said calmly. “It’s nothing serious anyway… it’s just I haven’t been sleeping well the past few nights and I’m nervous about my first spaceflight. I spoke of it already to Gwen.”
“It is normal to experience apprehension prior to taking a deliberate life-altering course,” Tertius said.
“Life-altering?” I asked. Something in the way those two words had been forced together unsettled me. But then I guess it just meant I was normal.
“Yes,” the halfman said. “You have been here for the entirety of your life, brought up as a soldier but also kept within reach of your loved-ones, with whom you have fostered a safe attachment, an attachment that has served its purpose and now must be severed.”
I nodded but said nothing. No point in contending with a halfman on the matter of severing attachments.
We walked through the spiral glass doors and emerged onto a balcony overlooking the main lobby, where once it would have been normal to see over a hundred people going about their business. Since the Exodus, such a bustling community was not so common. The lobby was nearly empty but for two armed guards watching the entrance.
I would never openly say it, but I liked the city better now that half of its inhabitants had left to seek out other worlds, presumably never to return. Mankind had always been a divided species; it only made sense that we should break apart into distant factions.
“I find the quiet relaxing,” Tertius said, as if in tune with my inner thoughts.
“Yes,” I said. “So do I… whatever anybody else says.”
When we had descended a flight of stairs, we turned away from the main entrance and headed toward the elevator. I did not wonder that Tertius was with me. Likely he was due to report at the command center just as I was, and anyway I was glad of the company whether human or half. Turning down the central corridor, I saw a man at the end facing the elevator doors. His hands were in front of him, hidden from view. I then noticed that the elevator was not active. He could have entered at any time but he just stood there and waited.
“Tertius…” I spoke under my breath.
“Yes, sir?” He lowered his voice to match my own. I knew he could sense my feelings, but whether he grasped the reason for them I could not guess.
“What is this man doing?” I asked.
We were approaching more slowly now. The man was a little less than ten meters away from us, idling. I saw Tertius analyze the scene, watched his face grow solemn.
“It is odd,” was all that he said, but I could see that his guard was up.
Neither of us was armed, at least not in the external sense. We moved toward the man from behind, not attempting to hide our presence from him. He would’ve had to be deaf not to know we were there.
“Trying to decide on a level?” I said. We had stopped about six paces from him.
He stood motionless with his back to us. There came no reply. I glanced at Tertius, saw that his eyes were locked on the man like the crosshairs of a theron’s diamondpoint. I knew the halfman was analyzing the stranger’s every subtle movement, every minute gesture that I in my limited human ability could not detect.
I stepped two paces closer. “Turn around and face us,” I said. The time had come to put aside pleasantries. The man slowly turned, but in an abnormal fashion… it was as if his body was being unwound by a coil of thread.
When I saw his face, I became certain of my death. His mouth and chin were washed in blood, which had run down his neck onto his clothes. Where eyes should have been, there were two red sockets staring back at me. I could see that the blood around the eyes was still fresh. In that fleeting moment, I could feel the man looking through me, reaching into my mind and sifting through my thoughts in search of something I did not possess. But he found other things.
This child is like the other. A son of dissonance.
I could hear his voice—frail with a fluctuating pitch. I had been taught about this creature but never before had I encountered one. The Skoll they were called. Tertius was rushing forward at a speed which no living thing could counter, but I was not aware of his movement. My death was wrapped up in this moment… and so the moment lingered. No man abided long the presence of the Skoll.
The non-human will defeat us. Depart now. The voice thundered in my mind, paralyzing me. I watched as blood began to stream from the two sockets and the open mouth in vast quantities… the first and only sign of what the Skoll referred to as departure. Tertius stepped between me and the thing that held me immobile. His movements were beyond my ability to calculate. I felt the halfman’s irremovable grip on my ribs, his thumbs almost converging at my sternum.
He threw me back the full length of the corridor and in the same movement launched the Skoll with a heavy thrust of his left palm, battering him against the elevator doors.
On impact the creature detonated. The force of the explosion threw Tertius some twenty feet down the corridor. A rush of fire surged along the narrow channel of the hall and then dissipated in another breath.
For a long time I could not hear anything. I lay for several moments, struggling to regain my breath. Slowly, sounds were becoming more and more distinguishable. I could hear the flames crackling near the elevator. I finally found the strength to roll onto my stomach. One of the guards was standing over me, saying something. I know I heard him but I never registered the words.
I saw Tertius lying a short distance from me, his form almost hidden in smoke. Another of the guards had seen him and had rushed over to him, obstructing my view of his motionless body. I wondered if he were dead or merely unconscious.
I felt my body being lifted into a suspensor field. The time passed quickly, and there were moments when I didn’t know where or even who I was. The next moment, I opened my eyes and saw Gwen hovering over me, taking me somewhere.
“Tertius,” I heard myself say. “Is he… alive?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“He saved me,” I said. I felt my mind slipping. I wasn’t sure if they had drugged me or if I was suffering the aftereffects of my encounter with the Skoll.
“Yes,” Gwen said. She and another medic led me into the rehabilitation room and began performing a number of tests. I lost track of their movements—lost track of time altogether. I awoke several times during the course of the day. Sometimes Gwen was there, but then sometimes I was alone. Finally, late in the evening I suppose, I fell asleep and did not wake until the following morning.
I dreamed something but I don’t remember what it was… I only remember that Tertius was there, in the dream.