Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 15

The shimmering blue planet turned one more time, rotating as it had for six billion years and skewed ever so slightly towards the center of the galaxy. The differential in its axis was a foot, maybe less. The Primalans could not detect it, could not feel it in the skin of their minds as the Drinians did. The malans did not know why the rains stopped, they could not know that a summer of three years was beginning. They just saw the sun and felt its warmth on their fur. Each day was new and unknown. Some waited for the rain, some waited for other horrors. The sky turned a deep blue and the white sun bleached the ground. The grasses on the plateau steadily wilted, and the abundant vernal pools on the plains below shrank or disappeared completely. The irrigation project lay unfinished and non-native crops struggled as the once plentiful moisture deserted them.

Rotation 115/Revolution 9754

Toral Blue: They seem to boil in chaotic circles just as microbes in a petri dish. They spin and pluck, leave waste behind.

Xal Violet: We can’t let this infection grow. Conscious into fight we must go.

Toral Blue: Kora we need you. If you still shimmer shine, join us in our new plight. As our planet turns to light, join us in wide-awake fight.

Xal Violet: Invaders stalk our green surface—Quorum meet tonight.

Toral Blue: Dream tonight for tomorrow we fling eyes open, and rage in daylight.

Xal Violet: We must wake up and wage a war of claws and teeth.

In a beam of hot alien sun, Calyx drifted off to sleep while the doctor watched him from across the room. It was a rare occurrence. Swigg consistently slept through the whole night; he didn’t need the daytime shuteye. For Phlox and the others, sleeping during the day had suppressed the disease, but the onslaught of nightmares continues. His hospital remained full of malans who had never recovered. The progress of the disease in the captain had been arrested but the serious mental debilitation he had suffered was not healed. Kinsal droned on in a never-ending monologue. He never asked anyone any questions, but spoke in lies and nonsense, spinning fabrications. “When the enemy flew into view, just above the horizon of Ettiquin, Splinter blasted ’em with cannon fire.” For him these events had really happened.

The doctor toggled controls to spy on Cal’s sleep-state. He watched as the large malan breathed through slow wave sleep and flickered in REM. His body remained loose, his heart rate steady. Dreams did not embattle Cal, but in his nescient mind, they were not a confrontation, and instead he took their influx in stride, and when he shared them, it was with a sense of wonder, even joy. Phlox didn’t know how he felt about dreaming as he both enjoyed and feared the uncontrolled visions. From his checkups and subsequent interviews, he knew that everyone else suffered the hallucinations as if they were a siege, fearing that the dreams were just another dangerous symptom of the same disease. Except for Cal and himself, no one could sleep soundly during the day and everyone had trouble staying awake at night. Before meeting at the central tent, the doctor still made rounds to the other Primalans, but besides forcing them to eat and drink, there was not much he could do.

Their denial has come back to bite them. Now the Quorum wants to take me back? I no longer know their rhythms. We no longer see eye-to-eye or dream head-to-head. They wish to strike as dragons do. I refuse to answer their call. The voices in Phlox’s dreams now could invade his head at any hour. He was attempting to tend to an older malan named Carluut but voices in his head were clamoring. Then a remote alarm beeped twice. Calyx had just jolted from deep sleep and his heart was racing. Phlox dropped his tools, ran across camp, jumped the hospital steps and bounded across the lab floor. He found him stretched out straight and screaming at the top of his lungs, but his face serene. Air rushed in and out of his body but his chest barely rose. “Invaders stalk our green surface. Invaders stalk our green surface. Tomorrow we fling eyes open. Invaders stalk our green surface. Tomorrow we meet in daylight.” And he kept repeating the same phrases with slight variations. His voice was deep and getting hoarse. His breathing slowed, and he tilted his head slightly and looked at Phlox. In his eyes, panic was rising, but except for his mouth slamming wide and then shut, his face and the rest of his body were relaxed. He grabbed a tranquilizer needle and injected a double dose. Calyx’s mouth went slack and slumped closed.

Rotation 116/Revolution 9754

Chorus: To wake, to war. To war, we wake. To wake, to war.

Xal Violet: Focus on the hunger, the need for flesh. Keep low. Stalk them from behind tall grass. We have dreamt this unguarded flank and seen the same putrid nest.

Toral Blue: I envision complete destruction. Is there another way to control the rest?

Xal Violet: We have lost control of the flesh callics. Organic chemistry is a complete mystery. It grows physically stronger and the link to us grows weaker. Pull the kill switch before it is too late.

Kyryl Yellow: We cannot waste the energy. On feet and dreams I will gather Drinians in the sacred hall.

Chorus: Dream tonight, for this morning we meet in daylight…

Pitch black and deep within the fissures of a cavern, thirty-one Drinians stirred and woke. Taut, shiny and green, their skin moved against reflective obsidian. The room was filled with light, but the only source seemed to be reflection as if the original light that had entered had been bouncing for years—absorbed and expelled again and again. Thirty-one organic silhouettes rocked back and forth, heavy feet dragging along a smooth marble floor. They walked from hallucination to the physical reality of light waves and refracted colors. They crossed unknowingly to a tunnel vision of the obsessed: they could not joy and revel in the brand new temperatures, or particulates of distinct odors. They squeezed their bodies through a small hole and stepped blinking and unbelieving into the light. They pulled their scales across the ground and felt every rock between their claws. They were truly conscious for the first time in their lives; they could not know that their awareness was numbed by a trance of vengeance. Stars sparkled across Violet Xal’s upper vision. He began to fall, not understanding what it is to faint in a world of hard shapes and gravity. And most of him wanted to fall, to sink back to blissful sleep. He fought and strained, however, and kept stepping one short leg in front of the next.

In the cold air of early dawn, Phlox had left the center of camp, finished rounds and was back surveying the sick confined to the hospital. He was walking between the narrow beds when he saw all of his patients’ faces loosen. One by one, mouths fell open, and they began to move their arms and legs. At first they twitched in uncoordinated jerks, but they steadily became more articulated and soon bodies that had been deep in coma made crawling motions in the air. Their tongues darted in and out, and they began to wiggle and twist. Their spines, previously rigid from illness, now bent back and forth with youthful fluidity. In a gravelly voice Tamm began to speak. They were his first words in weeks: “The ground will get wet. It will rain, Swen-no. Going to rain hard.”

There was a sound, something off in the distance—the cry of one of those hawks? He couldn’t pay attention. The sick malans were in full seizure, their movements no longer coordinated, and the bursts of their frenetic activity were exhausting to watch. Tamm went into cardiac arrest, and the doctor jumped over a table to reach him. He injected Inrojac and waited to see if it had an effect. Nothing. Tamm seized once more, his back arching unnaturally high, and then he fell flat and cold. Yorrig’s alarms rang too. Then the bells became indistinguishable as multiple patients seized in cardiac arrest. In less than five minutes, all ten were dead.

Phlox ran away from the beds, driven not by a fear of contagion but by repulsion. He waited at the far end of the lab near the entrance staring across at the now unresponsive bio-monitors. From the front door’s oval window came a murky light and a faint melodic shriek growing stronger. Swigg. He had just relearned how to whistle. Phlox opened the door and stepped forward to track the whistling sound: familiar and forbidden. Cal was walking quickly along the path towards the hospital. As his face came into view, his furrowed brow did not match the pleasant melody coming from his lips. His eyes pleaded with Phlox. He needed to say something. He stumbled and lost his footing and fell to his knees, but continued to crawl through the front door of his home. His mouth was moving but no sound was coming out, and Phlox—shell shocked by the massacre that he had just witnessed—could not imagine the frustrating images penetrating Cal’s head. He did not understand that his thoughts were not his own but put there, beamed there, dreamed there.

“I see wet leather and sixty-two glistening eyes.” Swigg was serious and his words concise. “The dirt is close to my face, and reeds move in front of me. My stomach cramps.” He spoke in mature sentences and in a tone that turned hostile. “I am thirsty.” He fell to the floor exhausted. Suddenly, the power shut off throughout the hospital. The shuttle doors flew open and windows blew out. Phlox reached for Calyx, but all he could see was blackness. He felt a dry breeze as his shoulder hit the metal floor.

Out of the grass and brush they sprang. Their claws were drawn, gleaming and razor-sharp. Mouths open and tongues taut, they sniffed out their enemies around every corner. With large, unblinking eyes they lunged straight for the necks of the thin-skinned Primalans. In eerie silence they cut and slashed with the precision that procedural memory allows—no interference from intellectuality, morality. In graceful revenge there is no room for higher-level thought, for guilt or remorse. Just slash, rip, drink and tear.

Their muscular tails were especially deadly. They struck Primalans to the ground with broad sideswipes and impaled them with their sharp-spiked ends. And the malans ran, terrified monkeys light and agile, bounding for their lives. But there were no high branches, no farrlin sanctuary. These quick reptiles reared up and struck them out of the air as they ricocheted from crates, rocks and low rooftops. And when they landed, the Drinians were always there, long fangs drawn, their muscular tails whipping and tripping. The Primalans fell like rag dolls and their stocky enemy tore them apart. Only two or three of Splinter’s crew were armed. And they were taken out quickly; the Drinians knew this much. They also had attacked what remained of the alien yet living bio-network, found the frequency to confuse it to smother the electric grid and break open those metal nests.

They had planned well, but their shared visions extended only so far.

The deep red blood of the malans sprayed over the controls of their machines, over their sleepless cots, over the sandy alien ground. Their bright red hemoglobin spilled where it did not belong. The liquid DNA sank quickly into the dry and thirsty soil. The Drinians were quick along the trails between shuttles, dispersing and ravaging. They ripped into shuttles and tents—killing whatever they found. The comatose were the most delicate of drinks. The ill never saw it coming and found restful peace in death.

Calyx was coded as something less than alien and by luck or proximity, Phlox was too. They were locked in sleep and untouched.

The rest of the Primalans were loud; they screamed and howled and the dreamers had not envisioned this, did not understand about language outside the mind, could not understand its power, how the malans could shout meaning, coordinate strategy, and regroup. To evolve within the wake state means consciousness is your hometown advantage. But still it might never have been enough to stop the slaughter.

The Drinian, known in dreams as Violet Xal, bit down hard on the jugular of an alien and drew deeply, tasting that new red spring. He could not get his fill, even though the Primalan had long since stopped struggling. His only thoughts: kill, kill. Kill again. He could not extract his teeth and his mind was plunged as deeply as his incisors. He knocked over an invader as he tossed the body of the wilting malan back and forth with his double row of teeth clamped tight. He did not relax his large jaw until the body was dry. Xal needed more, and he ate and killed and attacked anything that moved, even stalking and attacking a reptilian form and only after biting into it, did he taste something calming and repugnant at the time. Akin to the odor of his own glands or excrement, it was curious and dangerous. He thrashed and tore, drinking without reflecting; Oshin Midnight would glisten on the Dreamscape no more.

Xal, in a blind rage, became a machine, a predatory instrument. Every ligament, each sheath of muscle over bone was one. He was nameless, caught in a crimson haze that he would not remember, that would only filter and fall out later in pieces of broken metaphors, gore and blood stirred in hallucination. He was lost in primitive reactions, and his former life forgotten. He and the other Drinians were physically unstoppable, but they had lost themselves to untethered desires.

Toral Blue dozed lightly, sensing the attack through a kind of daydream, but as the attacking Drinians lost control, he could view less and less pieces of the battle. He could do nothing to change the course of the attack or ask his Drinians to reconnect, to retreat. Those lizards on the ground could not remain lucid in the trance of the hunt or break free of the thrill of the kill. These brutal warriors were running out of time. Even on an individual level, they were losing the ability to plan or to think rationally. The Drinians had no way to discuss any changes in their original attack plan, and blood-lust kept them at the scene of the crime, eventually making them easy targets.

The first Primalan to fire off his weapon was slow to reload and was killed with one slash. The next malan realized just in time that one laser pulse was not enough. Both sides learned that it took multiple blasts of a Vall pistol to put a Drinian down. Three shots and they fell to the dusty ground. Lizards writhed in pain, their screams gasping through throats without vocal cords. These fur-covered monkeys brought burning light and spoke in guttural howls. Drinians could not warn others on the battlefield, and the dynamics of oral speech became a tipping point for the Primalans.

“Fall back.”

“Form a circle.”

“Over there—to the left.”

“I’m out. Throw me an ammo pack.”

“Fire. Set those canisters on fire.”

Once they lost coordination and the element of surprise, the Drinians could not win in this sunlit theater. The Primalans found their weapons, laser pistols spat, and hard leathered backs singed and burned. They beat the lizards off with every tool they could use. They swung metal beams, threw rocks and turned laser torches into weapons. The blood frenzy was too strong and most Drinians could not bring themselves back from their animalistic selves, and continued attacking against all odds. Only those reptiles suffering the most pain were able to loosen their long jaws, unclench their teeth, and flee instead of fight. Violet Xal and a few of the others now fled as wild animals. They ran downhill and took refuge deep in the marshes, quickly slipping through the high grasses to cool their overheated bodies in the scarce but forgiving mud. Only their eyes protruded. Just eight pairs of eyes remained.

The field hospital was far from the center of attack, and Calyx was still of interest to the dreaming tribe. His dreams and thoughts were held in the Quorum fold. They had placed his mind in a pocket of safety not fully understanding that his body walked on two legs, that he was covered with fur just like their enemy. They had drawn a circle, created a nest that fellow Drinians would not attack. Kora sensed it too and kept Swenno asleep, keeping him in that circle and off the battlefield.

There was a pounding and a deep thud, flesh against metal. There was a loud blast near the back of the lab. Phlox woke to the smell of smoke, the sound of wires crackling. He stood up and careened towards a window. He could barely stand and couldn’t make out anything. He rolled Calyx over with his foot, “Go to the opposite window. Can you see anything?”

“Don’t want to, don’t need to,” he mumbled, as he rolled back on his stomach.

“We need to know what’s going on, you little fart.” But parental instincts ran deep and Phlox crawled back to Cal and dragged him by the scruff of the neck towards the exit. The doorway was blocked. The blast shield had dropped and was jammed by the broken interior door. Maybe with Calyx’s strength they could have pushed the door open, but he was out cold, snoring hard. Curls of smoke came from behind them. Phlox could hear his comrades yelling in the distance. He shouted at the top of his lungs, but no one could hear him. The shouts from outside sounded miles away.

“Behind the generator!”

“Tii get down!”

“Save pulses. Aim for the head.”

There was a soft explosion, and a howl from way across the camp. Silence. Phlox pounded on the door and the banging finally woke Cal from his stupor and together they kicked their way free. They stumbled out into the dry morning air. Ettiquin’s star hung low on the smoky horizon, and vultures flew above.

Rotation 117/Revolution 9754

Toral Blue: I suffered a terrible nightmare.

Xal Violet: No; it was bitter reality.

Toral Blue: Knives of bone that slashed and tore—it was the dragon’s lore.

Xal Violet: It was the best and worst of us. In that hell, I proved powerful. Will I ever sleep in peace again?

Chorus: Kora saw, kora knew, kora saw. Green kora warned us. Kora knew, kora saw, kora knew.

A quiver ran through the dreamscape and the fabric of the Quorum pulled thin.

Chorus: Large yellow eyes and split tongue face; we are a brutish mortal race.

Toral Blue: Yes, we are the primitives when awake. We must find a way to defeat them.

Yellow Kyryl: We will never surprise them with a physical attack again. We must dream a new solution.

Chorus: Tonight we eulogize each bright color now faded and code the names of our dead in cooling lava.

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