Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 14

There was a knock on Swenno’s shuttle wall.

“Doctor? You’ve gotta help me.”

Phlox knew what Zaal would say. They were coming everyday with bloodshot eyes and short tempers. “I’m sorry. We don’t have any sleeping pills. No REM-Stop, nothing.” Zaal turned on his heel, and he watched him hike clumsily up the dirt path. It was true—there was no medicine left to help the malans’ sleep, to buffer the hallucinations. Noorum Soff came later the same day. “I don’t believe you. You’ve got sleeping pills in there and you’re hoarding them for yourself.” He shoved the doctor to the floor when he could produce nothing for him. Cal bolted across the room and punched him hard in the snout. Noorum’s head snapped to the side and small drops of blood fell to the flat metal floor. He escaped out the still open door with Calyx in hot pursuit, but luckily for Noorum, he soon tired of the chase.

Wide eyed, Phlox shook his head.

Tetirkk let out a long groan. He had begun to scratch at imaginary sores. He had already worn off his fur in spots, and the sores were becoming real. It was one of the first symptoms of the fatal insomnia. At first it could be ignored but really it was one more pin in the voodoo doll, the attack’s psychological first wave. The seed of the disease festered and grew, and each host continued to sabotage himself. When Phlox felt that Tetirkk was suffering too much, he injected him with a powerful dose of antihistamine. He was running out of medical options. This time it worked, and Tetirkk dropped his head to the side and was snoring within minutes. His body, however, lay rigid and tense on the table. After an hour, he woke up howling so Swenno increased the dose until he fell asleep again. His breathing was steady and the doctor monitored his heart rate and other vital signs, wishing the whole time that he still had the freighter’s huge medical mainframe. He only had a small database with the recent searches and patient histories that had been automatically uploaded to his shuttle. Just as Swenno was turning to leave, Dekort’s heart-rate spiked and his brain waves shot up and then everything crashed. Within thirty seconds he was dead.

Swenno took a step back, and the shuttle’s quarantine room was painfully silent. Dekort’s machines, following frugal code, had turned off almost immediately. No heartbeat, no echo of brain waves. Smaller machines calculated that they were not needed and shut off. There were energy resources to protect, the higher call of digital protocol. Phlox switched on one of the computers. He looked back at the monitoring records, but there were no clues regarding the cause of death. The computers knew nothing. There were still no foreign viruses or pathogens in the blood, and no spores in any of the membranes. Nothing. Zero data and another dead malan.

No one except Calyx and Phlox was sleeping through the night. Tii said he was doing all right, but he, like the rest, stumbled about with swollen eyes and an exhausted mind. The entire crew exhibited symptoms of sleep-deprivation torture: paranoia, short tempers, violent mood swings and an inability to concentrate or to think rationally for any extended period.

In the back room of the hospital, Dekort’s body was laid open. Blood was splashed on Swenno’s surgical coat, on the table, and across the floor. The autopsy had not gone well. His death had revealed nothing. Tetirkk had died early that morning from what looked like a brain hemorrhage and the only thing he found in common between the two were nictitating membranes that were wide open while the outer eyelids were firmly closed. It did not occur naturally. Both victims had eyes filled with blood and pupils dilated to the fullest. It was as if these unlucky malans were awake even in death.

Scans revealed that some of his tissues contained a foreign crystal, arranged in highly intricate and beautiful patterns. It was the same substance but in lesser quantities that he had found during that first lizard necropsy. He looked deeper into the readings. These crystals reacted to light and electricity, opening like binary switches. When he had cut open their skulls, he had found the same crystals in high concentrations around certain sections of the cerebral cortex. He ran electrical currents through them and they were very complex. They appeared to be quaternary electric toggles working in multiple combinations and directions. He suspected that this non-toxic compound was building up in everyone’s bodies.

The news of Tetirkk and Dekort’s deaths spread through the camp. It hit harder than the attack on Daani and the disappearance of Gantta. At least the giant lizards were an enemy they could see, an enemy that they could battle against. This disease was invisible, unfathomable. Tensions rose. Many malans admitted to being unable to sleep. The fortunate ones could get a few hours of sleep every night, but because they had no more dream-suppressants, more and more began to dream. The news of the resurging disease triggered a wave of paranoia among malans who were already exhausted. Everyone was completely drained of strength, and they no longer watched what they said.

“The Doc’s poisoning us.”

“It’s some sort of hex.”

“Yeah. Look. He doesn’t look sick. He’s just down there in his lab stirring up trouble.

“Never did trust him—him and his guard dog.”

Phlox ignored them all. He had lived his whole life afraid of more aggressive malans, but now he wasn’t afraid. His head hit the pillow and every time he woke after a full night’s sleep, he forgave their abuse.

Deep dreams. He wasn’t afraid of those anymore either.

“Juun wake up. Juun, time to wake up.” The little ball of white fur does not stir. She only moans, her eyelids fluttering, the orbs beneath bouncing in REM. “Juun!” Finally, she stretches and yawns. She opens one eye, but she’s frowning. It’s a school day and she doesn’t want to get up, doesn’t want to get ready and go. With some more coaxing from Phlox, and a promise that she’ll get her favorite breakfast, she pulls herself up and jumps out of bed. She falls the small distance from the bed to the soft, carpeted floor. The dream flickers and then he nudges her towards the bathroom while her mother calls gently from the other room.

Your fertile hallucinations follow me and fill my heart. They soothe my bitter thoughts.

Tii skirted the longest puddles, the channels of water flowing where footpaths had been worn, and approached the hospital carrying a small box. Noorum Soff, his footfalls masked by loud splattering rain, sprang on him, and before he could react, Noorum grabbed Tii by the neck. Phlox heard Tii bark and howl and ran from his desk to the front door.

“You’ve been hoarding supplies! I’m short two boxes of rations!” Tii’s body bent as Noorum increased downward pressure on his neck. “I’ve seen you sleeping peacefully—your belly full of food.” He pushed Tii to the ground and stomped hard on his chest. “You’re the little fuck whose been taking my food.”

Tii called him by name. Noorum paused for a second then kicked him hard again. Another malan started howling. It was unclear if it was a howl of support or condemnation.

Phlox jumped through the open shuttle door barking violently, saliva flying. Noorum ignored him and pulled Tii up off the ground. The engineer thrashed around, kicked Noorum with one foot, and then both at the same time. While squeezing Tii’s neck, Noorum moved his legs quickly to avoid his kicks and the two of them were spinning around in a dangerous dance.

“You hairless shit. Stealing vitamins and protein makes you feisty-strong.” He growled as he squeezed tighter. Tii continued to kick, but Noorum would not let go. Tii twisted and spit in Noorum’s face. He stumbled and released one hand to wipe his eyes, but Tii was still unable to get completely free and soon both of Noorum’s large hands were joined around Tii’s windpipe.

Someone shot a laser rifle into the ground. Noorum flinched but still did not let go. “Where the hell did you put ’em? Or did you already eat them all?” Insomniac malans were howling and shouting. Crazed by dreams they poured down the hill. Thrilled by the physical display, they were drawn to the spectacle, but most seemed unaware of the real violence being played out in front of them.

Phlox rushed back into the lab and grabbed a needle. He popped the protective cap off and jumped onto Noorum’s back, causing the large malan to stumble but not knocking him to his feet. With one arm around the large attacker’s neck, he pulled Noorum’s head slightly to the side. With the other hand, he pricked the skin of the still spinning malan.

“Feel that asshole? That’s fifty cc’s of Pentar. It’ll kill you in three seconds.” Noorum froze but did not let go of Tii. Swenno jabbed the needle part way into his neck. His finger on the plunger, “Drop him or you’re dead.” They stood perfectly still, and except for Tii’s desperate gasps, the camp fell silent. Then Noorum dropped Tii who fell to his side coughing.

Immediately, there was a laser rifle sticking in Noorum’s face. The tall and wiry Guvvat was no more or less stable than the malan on the other end, and he began to bob up and down, his knees bending deeply, but he was keeping the narrow barrel of the gun steady on the flat of Noorum’s black nose. Phlox knew the gun could blast right through Noorum’s head and kill him too.

“Listen. We’re all hungry, tired… testy. Look at me I’m fucking wired.” Guvvat paused for a second, looked briefly into Phlox’s eyes, then his tone changed.

“Keep it together. We ain’t going to live long if you fuckin’ choke everybody.” Guvvat started hopping up and down, his stub-tail flaring, showing three black and white rings. Now the rifle had begun to move, angling up and down, but the barrel’s tip had hardly shifted and was stationary inside Noorum’s left nostril.

“See, on the count of three, the kind doctor’s gonna yank that needle out of your neck, and, I’m not gonna shoot you dead.” Phlox pulled the needle from Noorum’s bulging neck. He sprang backwards five feet raising his hands in fists and making sure to hold the empty vial deep in the palm of his closed hand, the needle exposed.

Noorum kept his hands at his sides.

“Noorum, you’re going to take a long, long walk. And you’re going to bring me back a dead lizard. Want you to strangle it with your bare hands, bare hands, bare hands!” Guvvat was still hopping up and down. Mud and dirty rainwater splashed everywhere. The gun was no longer in Noorum’s face but instead swinging wildly around; and it, too, acted like it hadn’t gotten any sleep, hadn’t had a chance to cool down. It waved dangerously in the air as Guvvat sprang on top of crates and debris, spinning and screaming.

The captain—who’d been barking loudly from across the plateau but not making an impression on the malans directly involved—arrived, with Anthullo and Lann right behind. Anthullo grabbed Guvvat by the arms and got him to lower his gun. The captain strode up and stood in Noorum’s face.

“We’re a long way from Akkacia and now you’re gonna be a little further away from civilization.” The captain smacked Noorum across the side of the head, delivering more shame than pain.

“Tonight you’re out. Come back in the morning when the alarms are off. And you can beg. We’ll see if we’ll let your wet ass back in.”

Phlox went to Tii, who was still lying on the ground rubbing the fur of his forehead. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be alright.” But the rain was pouring hard again and his voice was low and rasping. “He just caught me completely off guard. If I could just get some sleep—might have heard him coming.”

“No, malan, he was ready to crack. It could have happened to me, anybody, and just like you, we wouldn’t have had time to react.”

“Nice trick with the needle. I didn’t think he was going to listen.”

“It was empty. I grabbed whatever I could find. Are we all going to have to wear holsters?”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it Fur-Butt.” Phlox stood steady, even though he was in shock like the rest. Maybe he didn’t trust how euphoric he felt at this moment, but he felt proud. He had faced Noorum and hadn’t backed down. He had met violence and successfully fought it. He wondered what he would have done if his pistol had been closer. He could have executed him with vigilante righteousness, but no one had killed Noorum Soff for the same reason. Almost everyone else was a better aim than he was and some more precise than Guvvat, but they were still Primalans, not animals. They were stranded on a planet without trees, hunted while they slept, but didn’t they still have something, something that held them together? As he helped Tii to his feet, he thought about the struggle to keep their pack together, and if he could hold his own when things got worse.

He returned to his lab, to the neglected data, hoping that he could figure out a defense against this insomnia.

Not a disease, but poison seeps. Within your mind, a thousand cuts to disrupt fragile synapses and slowly asphyxiate your thought process. Insomnia is your defense but it cannot give immunity, and Drinians will continue to penetrate your sleep-season. Place trust in green where Kora sings.

A few weeks later and Swenno’s hospital was full of breathing, slurping, wordless Primalans. He took refuge in the plunk of rain on the metal roofs; the white noise drowned out the strained breathing and the relentless wailing. When two malans carried Saan to the hospital, he showed them the Primalans who were already laid out on the floors. He sent them back to Saan’s shuttle with an anemic promise to visit regularly. All the crew that was left standing showed signs of nausea, fever and lack of focus and he surmised that many who were showing a brave face were already suffering hallucinations. As the disease worsened, its victims talked less, began mumbling incomprehensively, and stopped making eye contact. The interrupted sleep patterns were paramount. He was sure that all the symptoms were linked to the relentless sleep deprivation. The captain had argued that their ailments were all caused by extreme stress. In fact, all of the superficial symptoms could be explained by normal malans thrown into abnormal situations, a strenuous environment creating tension across the body and mind. But it was spin. Very few malans were stabilizing but instead slipping closer to a coma-like state. Neither its origin nor cause was identified, but everyone could see that there was an epidemic.

Their enemy was smart if this was a deliberate attack. Hadn’t she suggested it? Whoever she was. They battled truly foreign powers that no Primalan could comprehend. And was her invasion of his mind—begun so long ago—all part of their plan too? The clear memory of those unclassified energy bursts striking Splinter flashed before his eyes. It was egotistical, lunatic, to think that those waves had crossed millions of miles to pierce straight into his head. Who else had been awake back then?

Swenno started an informal survey of the survivors. Those few that were the healthiest were still sleeping pretty-much normally. Of course, they slept lightly because these were difficult times, but in general they could sleep four or five hours without interruption. He examined the captain, and although Kinsal lied about his ability to sleep and his appetite, he could not mask other signs of the manifesting illness. His voice was strained, his eyes were puffy and his mind unfocused. “Splinter was attacked! They thought they’d get us all… but we’re strong, strong. The bastards can’t hide forever. We’ll find them.” The captain was exhausted, but he could not sit still. He swung his arms at nothing, and to the survivors, he gave directives that were blind jabs at the problem. He avoided eye contact and stared at the ground, sometimes turning and bobbing low for no apparent reason.

But was it just the lack of sleep? Tii also had difficulty concentrating; he had just begun his struggle to sleep. “One night I woke up screaming. I didn’t know why it happened, and I wasn’t sure when I had stopped sleeping and when the screams began. I wasn’t able to go back to sleep that night. Normally, I fall asleep easily. But I swear now I can only sleep for about twenty minutes at a time. I wake up a hundred times a night, anxious, my tail twitching. It’s almost as if someone is shaking the shit out of me. Sometimes I look around as quickly as I can, and I half expect to find someone standing over me. I want to find something supernatural—it’s better than the truth.”

“Tii, how is your appetite? Have you been eating normally?”

“It’s still good. But that’s next isn’t it? Isn’t that what’s been happening to everyone else?”

“No,” he lied. “Sure it has happened to a lot of the crew—but not everyone. And anyway the food is different. We’re all enduring a lot of changes.”

“Yeah, turns out that lizard meat sucks. Is Calyx still sleeping like a baby?”

“That lucky bastard. Sometimes I think he understands that almost everyone is getting sick. But he sleeps like he hasn’t got a clue.”

Phlox didn’t have the heart to tell Tii that he was sleeping well.

I open my ears to listen in. Mind to my skin and skin to mind. Phlox, what kind of melody is that? Sway-no what frequency do you emit? Do you know that you can block as well as peer? Like your eyes, close your mind or squint to filter right.

Calyx thrived being outside. He freely explored his physical environment, growing and learning daily. He found plants growing in the ravine below their camp, and when he brought some bright red roots to Phlox, he knew immediately how they would taste. A voice inside the doctor’s head told them they were safe, and if he closed his eyes he could almost taste them as if from memory. Still, he took them all from Cal, who complained mildly, and put them through several tests. The roots were safe with minimal traces of silicon and no detectable toxins. He gave them back to Swigg who in turn ate half and left the other half on Phlox’s bed.

Calyx, roaming through camp, became a welcome distraction from the daily monotony, and many malans were too weak, too unfocused for prejudice. His energetic barking was the only noise to break the dull pounding of constant rainfall. He played as if every day were sunny, and his face and mannerisms were never marked by loss of home. He brought smiles and laughter during dark storms and cold weather.

The doctor monitored Swigg’s brain waves day and night. His charge always woke refreshed, full of energy and with typical brainwave patterns. During the middle of the night, his neural chemistry often changed. As he slept, he appeared to tune in to highly patterned atmospheric activity, and regions of the brain, that were usually active only during the conscious state, registered regular bursts of brainwave fluctuation. Early in the mornings, he would often describe fantastic stories, and before becoming completely distracted by each day’s routine, he struggled stubbornly to describe the smooth-skins, trees and dragons that had filled his nocturnal visions. At first, Swenno thought it was only playful language, more made up words and nonsense. But, eventually, he understood that Cal deeply believed these narratives.

Through the next month the Primalans bravely fought against the insomnia as the unseen Drinians drove their minds at a fever pitch, making dreams as bright as high noon. Those with little resistance to this form of psychological warfare wasted away to a coma-like state, their eyes vacant circles. Lost, they no longer could detect the seam between hallucination and dream. The most affected would never truly sleep again, never wake.

Swenno stood in the frame of the shuttle’s doorway as Calyx galloped playfully to their home. He was smiling widely and clapping his hands in the large gesture of an excited toddler. He was soaked and shook his back like a wet dog, but otherwise paid no attention to his own dampness as he slogged across the floor, waving madly to Phlox. His growing affection, the level of his enthusiasm, was hard to accept. Everything about him was hard to believe. Ever since he had pulled him kicking and fussing from the doomed Splinter, this obnoxious malan had matured rapidly. He was reacting beautifully to all the new stimuli. And in some ways he was the healthiest malan they had. But none of this mattered to Calyx. He was oblivious to self-reflection, his emotions were nescient and unbound as he bent over the doctor’s smaller frame swinging his long arms heartily to embrace him, but Phlox dodged slightly to the left and patted him on the shoulder never stopping as he carried a tray of food towards the table.

“Are you hungry, Cal?”

His large companion moved towards the exit and started pounding the door loudly, jumping up and down. As always, it was hard to tell if he were listening or just enjoying himself.

“You always did like banging on doors.” Phlox paused, and he could feel his skin crawl. “Hey, be careful with that scalpel! Cal, come over and eat something.”

He wasn’t sure exactly when he had started calling him Cal. He told himself it was not for the sake of affection but to help see a vicious malan as wholly new. This was not the marauding brute named Calyx Swigg but a new creature. His memories had been drained, wiped clean, and while some of the pathways or knowledge of the Primalan language remained, he still had no memories and any social skills he had, he had learned here on Ettiquin.

He perched on a high stool. “Look. I’m on the stool.”

“That’s right, are you going to eat your food at the table?”

“Yes, I’m a good Primal.”

Phlox brought more food to the table. Cal lifted his head, sniffing the air, turning his body slightly to the side, acting as if he didn’t know where the food was.

“Cal? Do you want any of these berries?”

Calyx didn’t respond, but closed his eyes and sat calmly on the stool. He opened his mouth slightly, and a high pitched trill sounded, but in an octave higher than he thought his vocal cords could replicate.

“Hey! What are you doing? You alright?”

After Phlox had begun to eat, Calyx looked up and stared him straight in the eyes. He spoke calmly, as if he’d been contributing to the conversation all along, “Yes. Berries please.”

He scooped his fingers into the bowl that Swenno set in front of him.

“I thought you were going to be good and use a spoon this… ”

“Yuck, what’s this?” A yellow flow of partially eaten berries splattered everywhere as he spit them out all over the table.

“Cal, don’t do that. We don’t have food to waste. We’re a long way away from where these berries come from.” Calyx didn’t listen and instead grabbed for some other food.

“You’ve got a lot to learn, Mush-Mouth.”

An alarm sounded in the other room. Phlox ran to the beds. Trevv showed no vital signs. Even his brain waves were flat lined. He had never worked with a disease that could kill so quickly. Trevv had suffered a cardiac arrest, although he was young and his heart had been perfectly healthy. The speed of death suggests a poison, but I can’t find any toxins! In frustration, he stomped back to the front rooms. Anyway, he could hear Cal banging something on the table, and compared to the mess behind him, with this he could take action and see results. But he only stared at him spilling food all over the floor, unable to stop thinking about all the malans who had died since they arrived. There must be something in common that he had missed. He sat and studied the recent data, and because he could tell that Trevv had been asleep when he died, he looked deep into the brain-scans. He had entered REM sleep just before his heart attack and when he looked back at the bio-records of Tetirkk and Dekort, he saw that they too had flashed high in subconscious eye movement shortly before expiring. Swenno’s head rang in the concussion of epiphany. He checked all the medical records thoroughly and his theory panned out. Originally, he had been confused and hadn’t seen that it was the exact same disease because different organs had failed each time. Often it had been heart attacks, but others had suffered stroke, or complete failure of the respiratory system. Now it seemed that a rush of elevated dream cycles at the time of death connected every malan’s death in a way that had not been clear before.

Phlox ran to find Tii. He found him muttering to himself as he was taking apart a heating unit. “We had another death.” Tii hesitated slightly but kept rotating the wrench; he did not look up. “All along, our bodies have been on the defensive. If you’re unable to sleep, it’s only because it’s too dangerous to be unconscious. We’ll have to sleep some, but it’s important that we don’t sleep too long.”

“Well, that sounds fun. I mean, who needs to sleep. Sleeping’s for babies and babies… ”

“I’ll need to do some more tests.”

“But now you’re saying that the insomnia is good for us. Real good for us.”

“I don’t know exactly. We know it’s torture too. I’ll let you know when I figure more out. Tell the captain that I think I’m on to something.”

“Sure, ’cuz he loves talking to me.”

Phlox shouted back, “Right, forgot he doesn’t like anyone. And come to the lab tonight. I need a baseline.”

“Okay, Doctor.”

That afternoon, he set up sleep-tests for all his patients, and he included Calyx, who did not protest this time to having wires taped to his body. The five malans strapped to tables were already wired for monitoring and required only a few adjustments. He was not sure what he might observe in these terminal patients. He set alarms to warn against elevated REM activity. They were all in various stages of coma and maybe the disease had progressed too far. After configuring Tii’s settings and sending him to his shuttle, he plugged himself into the system. He lay in his bed and shut his eyes.

Fffflox. I dreamt you ate the meat of mythical dragons. You must trust what you cannot see and don’t eat the meat. The meat is me.

And then comforting melodies swam through Phlox’s slumbering mind. Interrupted.

“Angry. Little greens. They’re angry. They live in the green and plot in the green. Funny how they don’t listen when listen is all they are. Big black ears they are.”

Phlox opened his eyes and found Calyx standing at the foot of his bed, rambling. The doctor had overslept and did not know how long he had been hovering there. Swenno got up and pored through the records of last night’s sleepers. He was focused, his mind racing hard because both the science and his own intuition told him he was close to something. The data bore activity in unique regions of the malan brain that were usually underutilized. And the waves of bioelectricity manifested in distinct patterns. What was even more of a mystery was why some of the same patterns were occurring simultaneously, but with slight variations, in the other patients. It was as if they were breathing at the same time, their heartbeats synchronized—a Morse code beating through their minds.

But thinking the same thoughts? Impossible.

He noticed that Calyx Swigg had logged many more hours in deep REM sleep than the rest. He showed activity in that underutilized part of the brain but the patterns that were arising were not shared with the others. Phlox checked his own data and was confronted with the fact that he had been in REM for long periods of time, too, and his patterns were distinct from everyone else. But he put this aside; it was easier to analyze the disease in others. He went to find Tii next.

“You have severe sleep apnea. Your body is resting but your mind never reaches a deep or healthy unconsciousness. If this represents a typical night for you, you’re successfully fighting the attack.” Tii gave him blank stare. “How do you feel?”

“Like shit. Can you help me?” Tii paced with his arms still at his sides, tail dragging through the mud. Phlox said nothing. He had theories but no workable solutions. No medicine for his sick brothers.

That evening, Phlox found Cal playing on the cliff’s edge below the lab. “Get away from the edge, Calyx!”

“Look Phlox, there’s a dreamer down there.” His large ungainly body leaned far over the edge, his large hand pointed downwards, and his tail shot out straight in the opposite direction.

“Cal. Listen to me. It’s not safe.”

Swigg did not move but responded, “I’m listening. ‘Not safe, not safe.’”

“Come here, Calyx, right now!” He looked back at him but did not move. Phlox was frightened and angry in the combination that only a parent can be. He grabbed for him while his ward turned again to stare down the cliff, trying to track something below. When he caught a hold of his arm, Calyx reluctantly complied. As he dragged the distracted malan by the wrist, there was a strange ringing in his ears and his heart pounded. Phlox locked Swigg in the medical shuttles and walked to the center of the camp. As he trudged up the muddy path, he didn’t hear Calyx howling or tossing anything around.

He saw the captain sitting outside his shuttle drenched by the unrelenting mist and rain. He was stretched out like it was a sunny day, his eyes barely blinking. As Phlox approached, he started to speak immediately, not to greet him, but as if he was continuing a conversation already in progress. “Rocks are cold trees, but it’s good to have something overhead. All the data suggests that we picked the right spot. Barjkus would have agreed.” Swenno said nothing, but the captain continued undaunted, speaking fluidly, even as rain splashed his face. “The planetary data collected said that we’re in high summer, and the tilt of the axis suggests mild winters. We’re near the Equator—don’t expect much temperature variation. Given how green it is, you can expect a lot of rain. The crops, Phlox, have you seen the crops? They’re growing green like weeds.”

“Go inside Captain.”

“Oh, what? Yes. Looks like it started to rain. Damn. I’ve got to go inside. You’ll come by tomorrow. I can address your report then.” The captain got up, folded up his chair and went inside. Swenno just watched.

Back at the hospital, he found that Cal had eventually curled up in a ball and succumbed to a nap. The sleep monitors were still set up so they had turned on automatically. Calyx’s activity appeared low and very different than his nighttime displays. The doctor cross-checked the recordings with the last three times that he had recorded the brain waves of Cal’s sleep. As he slept right now, his brain activity was almost normal. Swenno stomped outside, away from the sleep-monitoring electronics. The rain had stopped, and he could see the sun breaking through gray clouds. The rays of the light were coming in at low angles, but it was the first real sunshine that he had seen in two weeks. The rays on his face felt warm and friendly.

Suddenly Phlox was running through the mud to Tii’s shuttle. He found him standing in the sun, his arms stretched high above his head. It was hard to get his attention, but he was able to convince him to come to the hospital. He used some of the last antihistamines, and his friend dropped into a deep sleep. He achieved REM sleep but no dangerous levels, no stimulation in uncharted regions of the malan’s lobes.

Then as if to prove the captain sane, or at least strangely prophetic, Swenno prepared a short formal report for him the next day. He was almost shouting as he finished explaining it to him. “The disease attacks you at night. You can fight it for a while, but if the body finally gives up, and gives in to sleep at night, that is when it gets you.” The captain muttered something and then stopped. He raised his hand to wave his approval or to just dismiss Phlox.

With the captain’s authority—if not comprehension—he started a campaign to convince every malan to sleep during the day. For those that could still sleep he warned them not to sleep at night. The captain pulled himself together and gave what would be his last great speech.

“Listen up wet furs. Been watching you all for a while. And you sissies are really fucking up. You got one chance. The doctor’s right. No one sleeps at night. We are going to finish the central hall and everyone’s going to have to report at eleven and stay until five in the morning. Questions? Talk to my double-barreled rifle.” He waved the gun around. “Come a bit closer. The left side’s a little deaf, but it all works out ’cuz the right one shoots off at the mouth.” The captain stood silent, his jaw set hard and slightly to one side. Except for a slight swaying which he struggled to disguise, he appeared strong. No one was in any condition to disobey him anyway.

Some malans were already too far gone and could not sleep at all regardless of the time of day. For the sickest, Swenno concocted a powerful narcotic from what were essentially poisonous ingredients. It was a risk but it worked. Most slept at least for a while that afternoon. The next day, the daylight hours were divided into two sleeping shifts. Within three days a majority of the surviving malans showed great improvement. They could concentrate better, think rationally, and work together. About one quarter of the survivors were so thoroughly inflicted by the disease that even with the dangerous sedatives they could not sleep. Sleep cannot come to those who are never really awake. Each was trapped, instead, in a zombie-like state. Not dead, but not truly alive. Lann and Daani inventoried the entire camp for the gravely ill and found two dead and three comatose malans. Two more were ambulatory, but nearing the final stage. They carried the sickest by stretcher and led the other two to the medical lab. A few others were locked in their shuttles to be fed and monitored daily.

Calyx entered a new phase. His attention-span was expanding, but he also stopped talking. Not completely, but before he had been sputtering on about anything, sometimes it was nonsense, but more and more he was on topic, with an adult lexicon and the chatter unstoppable. Now he tended to speak only for basic function, not out of curiosity or joy. Generally, his face remained cheerful, but his mouth stayed shut. He was by no means incapacitated because without speaking a word to Phlox, Calyx pulled beds from empty shuttles and built bunk beds and quickly doubled the capacity of their makeshift hospital. It was not his mental capacity or developmental functions that were shifting, only his playful language.

Sleeping during the day allowed the Primalans to avoid the outright attacks and interference wrecked by the Drinians. But getting enough sleep provided another challenge: they still had to face their natural dreams. These ever more isolated malans had to sleep without their precious medications like Dream Out and once these unrestrained visions gained momentum, they flowed without boundaries. These foreigners all began to dream to some extent but each believed it was unhealthy. Some blamed their own organic process, their personal weakness, but others, out of a culturally engrained paranoia, feared a mystical unseen enemy and felt that the onslaught of dreams was a form of attack.

Swenno can you see my form, my face? I’ve only seen it reflected in dark pools. Do we confuse dream and reality, psychology and physiognomy? Don’t be delicate. Paint what you see, not what you feel. Search the landscape and describe each beast.

In the late afternoon, Phlox woke to cries, loud and gasping like a child’s. He walked quietly to Calyx’s corner of the room. He was curled in a tight ball covering his ears, his jaw trembling. The big malan, his black hair grown back thick, still had a way of looking small, especially when his movements and mannerisms were those of a young child. When he saw Swenno approaching, he looked up with wide innocent eyes that forgot to blink. He rolled over on his side, his hand went instinctively to his mouth, and he started to chew on the fleshy part of his thumb.

“Bad dreams?” Phlox trembled to hear himself speak such a question.

“No. Loud Dreams.” Cal didn’t look right at him, but he could tell he was listening.

“What do you dream about?”

“I don’t dream. I listen.”

“What do you hear?”

“Music. Words breathing. Translucent radiation in the ivy.”

Without thinking, Phlox free-associated with his patient. “I see the green scenes. They sing to me too Cal.” He said this without really believing that it could be the same thing; it was only an attempt to relate to his simple companion.

“Close your eyes. Try and get some sleep. I’ll need your help tomorrow.”

After they finished constructing their great central hall, the malans began a ritual of locking themselves inside each night. Forty-five, maybe fifty were left standing, and able to function to some degree. Kinsal barked roll call; but it wasn’t necessary; no one wanted to be alone at night. The dark hours were passed playing yuggut and drinking distilled flower-gin. Phlox locked his critical patients in the hospital, so he could be there, too. Cal often came but would always fall asleep early on. Sometimes he refused to come at all and stayed back at the hospital, instead, but the doctor checked to see if his neural output was spiking on the monitor he had convinced him to wear fulltime.

Tonight Calyx was at the hall, but he had fallen asleep after dinner. Then, two hours later, he twitched violently and sprang up, turning his head back and forth with wide searching eyes. His mouth opened to large circles as he shouted, “No sleep, no sleep, no sleep!” His knees were bent ready to spring again, as he turned 360 degrees and came slowly to a standing position, surprised that he hadn’t found anything. Everyone burst out laughing. Swigg laughed it off as if it was scripted, accepting his role as jester. He began to clown around, jumping and dancing while the whole pack laughed.

It still rained everyday, but the malans stopped building onto their village—there was no need for improvement. Everything was as waterproof as it was going to get. A few determined and resilient farmers stumbled down to the fields every morning before sleeping to rescue the drowning seedlings. They did their best to shore up the plastic and protect the crops and planted soil from washing out. Gaull was sure that all of the uncovered seeds had been lost while the captain kept rambling in variations of, “Show ’em something other than moss will grow on this rock.” The few that continued to tend the crops did not, however, dig in the dirt out of allegiance to the captain. Increasingly, malans lived in a state of disconnection, their minds overstimulated by nightmares and hallucinations.

The next morning, while Phlox walked back to the hospital, Pettal stumbled toward him, the stench of fermented manto juice increasing. The white circles of fur around his eyes were stained with grime, and the ragged malan seemed to be saying something, but he couldn’t make out any words. Then he stopped, stood straight, and stared directly at Phlox with strange electric-blue eyes.

“I can still see you looking at me.” He barked, short and guttural. “Damn! You know why I drink. I got the fish swimmin’ in my head, around and around.” Phlox stared as the malan, turned in a quick circle, saying, “Can’t kill ’em. Can’t close the door. No, they keep coming back. You want to forget but… ” He slumped for a second, stopped spinning, and steadied himself. With his head curled close to his body, he started picking a scab on his left forearm as if he had never been talking. Then, with purpose, he looked upward, keeping his eyes open as rain fell steadily on his unprotected face. As Phlox passed, Pettal swung more booze to his mouth without lowering his chin. Then he dropped his head, hurled the bottle, missing Phlox by several feet, and stumbled away in the opposite direction.

After being stranded for two months, productivity and lucidity were elusive, and the regression in the captain was especially dramatic. He mumbled commands and strutted around with seemingly no purpose. He stood tall, pretending that he held the reins of control fast in both hands. A shell of his former self, he remained determined to at least look important. Most of his ability to rationalize and analyze was gone, but he stubbornly believed that the others needed to see him in control. And maybe the unbalanced and unfocused crew did need this figurehead, this lightning rod. When Kinsal found his third mate stumbling around—drool cascading from the corner of his mouth—he was decisive and violent as he attempted to retain control. Perhaps he had been in a state of delusion, or maybe it was the right military-command choice. He shook Achlis and shouted his name, but the malan pulled away from him. He strode towards a shuttle’s hull and stayed there, leaning his head against the metal wall, his feet padding slowly forward but his body unable to progress. Kinsal pulled out his Vall pistol. He yelled, spit flinging from his mouth, “I won’t let them take you. This fuckin’ planet does not win,” and shot him dead— desperate words that forced a temporary alertness.

Phlox slept lightly while new voices held his head hostage. Fur tailed monkeys still infest our sphere. We can’t hear them but know they’re near. Hidden from view, but we will find them. It’s just a matter of time. He woke, his fur damp and musty with sweat. It was early afternoon—he was sleeping when he should—and a white sunbeam lit the area around him like a spotlight. Sunlight. The rain had stopped! He was ecstatic, except there was a high-pitched peal puncturing his head, slightly mechanical, like engines racing far in the distance. Then the ringing increased in pitch and drilled louder and louder. He sat up rapidly setting his sling-bed rocking wildly back and forth as he tried to listen. The sound was coming from nearby, but the source of the ringing was hidden. He was sure that it was close, but its volume and point of origin remained elusive. He cocked his head and then turned it quickly looking towards Calyx’s bed. He couldn’t hear his usual lion snores but the unidentified sound seemed to be coming from that general area.

Pulling himself out of bed, he felt sluggish as if drugged, and as he felt his way across to the darker side of the room, he wondered if this was just another dream. He winced in pain as he stepped on something sharp. No, definitely not a dream: Cal hadn’t learned to put away toys. He took one step closer and could see that the huge malan was not in his bed but was lying on his back on the floor, his face in the dark shadow where the wall met the floor. He usually favored a fetal position when he slept, so seeing him stretched out flat on the floor made his body look freakishly long. The room grew darker. Clouds must have returned to block that fleeting sunbeam. The ringing changed too, becoming less mechanical and sounding more like a baby’s whine, but unmodulated—a constant push of air, never punctuated by the need for breath. As Swenno stepped forward, he swore the sound was coming from right above Swigg. Phlox was now wide awake. Was someone or something in the room? He stepped across to reach for a light switch, and he could see that Cal’s forehead was angled up and away from his body, his back arched. He flicked the light on. The whining immediately intensified, and Calyx’s face appeared, caught in the full extension of a wide yawn. The resonance seemed to be escaping from his mouth, but if it was, it was not in the modulation of Cal’s own vocal cords. Phlox jumped back, the hair on his back standing up. A malan possessed. The sound began to pulse while his mouth remained motionless, frozen in oval. Like a dubbed movie, where the quality of sound does not match the size or shape of the actor, the rush and cry seemed to move on its own. The reverberations did not belong to Swigg’s mouth or the twist of his tongue. Someone else was speaking through him.

Phlox backed farther away. He could not risk telling the crew about what he saw. Not even Tii. No one was ready. No one would believe him and Cal’s life would be at risk. Even during less trying times they would lash out at anything like this; this was witchcraft. If sentient beings were invading everyone else’s minds as well, he could not speak of it. He could never discuss Kora or the depth of the counter invasion.


Rotation 113/Revolution 9754

Chorus: Fur tailed monkeys still infest our sphere. We can’t hear them but we know they’re near.

Toral Blue: They bring death to unique frequencies. We have lost too many.

Xal Violet: Sink deep, dream on their destruction. Divine how they harm us. Strike back with electric force.

Chorus: They no longer sleep. We cannot reach inside their minds.

Rotation 114/Revolution 9754

Kyryl Yellow: We strangled their minds, but it was not enough.

Xal Violet: A few have retreated from our grasp, but they cannot hide for long.

Toral Blue:I have spun determinant dreams. There is another way to catch them.


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