Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

By Garth Bunse All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 16

Phlox stepped through the carnage with Calyx close at his side. Little remained of the dead: fur and lizard skin and an intermingling of alien bloods. Noorum and many others were brave in battle but their bodies were torn apart. Scores of others were just gone. The doctor wished there was a strong rain to pour through ripped open shuttles, to wash out the blood, but the sky was an uncooperative bright blue, the white sunlight laying everything bare. Somehow Kinsal had survived. In battle he regained his strength and mental agility. He barked orders that made sense and personally trapped three lizards in a fiery explosion that destroyed a shuttle. Now he gathered some Primalans to bury the remains of slaughtered malans; they left the Drinians to rot in the sun. But not all his former crew fell into line. Some could see no farther than revenge, and left the safety of the compound to pursue the lizards. These disorganized hunting parties stumbled out in a sleep-deprived craze. They could find none of the escaped reptiles, and they managed only to shoot at each other.

Violet Xal: I hide and this blood sack weeps. I cannot see my fellow warriors but smell fear and flesh exposed.

Toral Blue: Warriors, you were strong and brave. But we will envision the next battlefield.

Yellow Kyryl: We searched our enemy’s frequencies. Dreamscape reveals many mental weaknesses. These machines must cross over to us every day. They try to hide in the sunshine but we will adapt and follow their fragile dreams into the daylight.

Violet Xal: I want fertile ground for rapid eye movement, to kill them in their sleep.

The Primalans with all their technological advances could not see past the psychology of their physical, brutal cultural context. They could not comprehend that an attack could be purely one of mental warfare. The smooth-skins had been a known quantity, lightning quick and poisonous, but highly visible: an enemy and a being that could ultimately be crushed. And once they realized they were being attacked within their own thoughts, it was incomprehensible to their epistemology to face off in this territory. They could not muster the will to live in dreams, let alone to fight within them. Malans were right to fear the dreaming process because at any moment their unconsciousness minds could be hijacked. Only Phlox allowed the benefits of dreaming to consciously inform him, but even he did not understand Kora’s origins or her relationship with their new enemy. Nor could he sense that the Drinian strategy was shifting again to lure Primalans into a dangerous wave-pattern sleep. The pack did its best to function but they had to sleep, and their enemy would always have the upper hand in the dreamscape.

Little had changed for Cal, and although he was disturbed by the attack and was less out-spoken, he was still being nurtured through the Quorum’s focus. As the Drinian worldview became crowed with murderous colors and the contagion of obsession, Calyx was the recipient of the Quorum’s only positive outlet for creativity and exploration. He slept long hours, happy to be buried under their continued psychic medication.

The doctor no longer dreamt of green mists and swamp fog. He did not know if those monochromatic dreams had been premonitions, but his dreams were no longer washed in the color of grass and tall reeds. The wet and the green. His current dreams turned concrete, to stark flashes of bright contrast. To his relief, these new dreamscapes were rich in the reds and yellows of Akkacia—the weather was always perfect and the trees radiant. He increasingly looked forward to sleep and to the possibility that he might dream. The real landscape outside was monotonous, but his dreamscapes were painted in optimistic colors where his soul breathed and created. Kora did not talk to him directly, but he was convinced of a constant presence, a proximity felt not seen.

Phlox began to see dreaming not as a disease but something safe, perhaps even natural. He had been taught that dreaming was a curse; the result of smooth-skin potions and poisons or maybe just a sign of madness. Here on Ettiquin, he was forced to confront his mind as it dreamed out of control. He took solace in memories of his grandfather’s bold stance. He had urged his parents not to trust Dream-Out. He had howled and strutted, but after a few short years, they had given in to societal pressures and medicated their children. His grandfather never forgave them. Had his grandfather fully understood that dreaming was just a natural process? Phlox now understood why it was difficult to eradicate: it was complementary to the conscious thought process. His brain and body were proving a need for these dreams, and contrary to societal beliefs, there were no bouts of insanity. Instead, his healthy sleep meant that when he was awake he could concentrate well and the hallucinations never interfered. Dreams formed a deep layer to his consciousness, a comfortable source of reference or pleasure during his waking hours.

Phlox walks between his mother and father. He is a skinny adolescent. He’s not sure where he is, but it feels like Akkacia. He can smell a forest behind him—farrlin trees in low, yellow season. Stretching in front of him, however, is a wide unfamiliar plain, and in the distance, is a broad mountain, a silhouette in blackish purple—a hundred miles away yet imposing. His tongue feels thick, coated with something familiar.

Corrlin, Tamm, and Tonhdes flew survey missions every afternoon. The captain, who had been injured in the battle, wanted it and had demanded it, with chest pounding and spit flying, but the scientific rationale seemed hollow. Splinter and previous shuttle flights had already gathered extensive geographical data. Kinsal did his best to hide his hallucinations, but he dreamed of only one thing: to shoot lizards down. He was obviously unwell, but obeying his request was an easy way to placate him. And besides, flying was a satisfying distraction.

Calyx loved to listen to the roar and boom of shuttlecraft as they fought against strong gravity. The ground would rumble—the last bit of technological normality in their primitive world—and then a shuttle would blast high in the sky. Most malans stopped and stared while a shuttle lifted and streaked off. Some looked up for reasons of nostalgia, others wanted revenge; or for some, it meant a chance to proudly beat their chests. The harvesters taking off and landing each day continued to map the surface and pinpoint any deposits of crystals, however small. It reminded everyone that a rescue vessel would really come. It gave them some hope. Then one evening, the Trall did not return from its daily mapping run. Anthullo explained that there had been some minor problems with the electric power-flow to non-essential systems and a distress signal. Then radio silence. The craft had fluttered in awkward hesitation, shot up inexplicably to almost seven thousand feet, spun in a tight circle and then disappeared off the radar and heat scans.

“This shit is not just bad luck,” the captain spat. “Somebody’s out there. And if they can take down a freighter, then a small shuttle is doomed. No. We are still under attack!” The others in the room gave him a look, their confusion synchronized by the captain’s insistent use of “they.”

“There were no energy-source readings. Nothing hit it from the outside, at least that the spectral sensors could detect,” Guvvat said, tapping too many times on the screen in front of him.

“How much of Splinter’s back-up information did we download? Can you retrieve and analyze the freighter’s general scan logs? Shortly before breaking into the solar system, we were hit with three energy waves. Something big. Splinter never did figure it out.” Tii was pacing in the captain’s ship, leaving a muddy trail.

“Send another shuttle. They could have survived the crash. We owe them that,” Lann said. Kinsal coughed but didn’t say anything.

Ladin and Balnna volunteered. Twenty-five minutes into their flight, Ladin’s voice came over the radio, loud and frantic. “Saw a bright blue and white flash. Now the electrical system is tweaking. We’re taking it down. Can’t chance it.” Then from the background Balnna was swearing. “I’m pushing down, but we’re climbing. We’re turning. Controls are locked!”

A dead radio.

“They must have been real close to where the Trall went down, but it looks like the craft began to gain altitude and then was plotting a course directly for our camp.”

“It was pre-programmed to return to its take off point.” Tii said quietly not wanting to contradict the captain’s enthusiastic paranoia.

“No, that was not part of the design of the Touy model.” Kinsal was almost pouting. He limped energetically across the room. “They’ve got control of our shuttles. We’ve got to plan a defense if they already know where we are.”

“Let’s tie additional landers into the power grid. And run that shield full strength all night,” Guvvat added.

“Was there any data on our side regarding the lightning flash that they reported?” Tii stood still, feet wide.

“Just some scattered gamma radiation spikes, but nothing powerful enough to explain what happened and too dispersed to triangulate,” said Lann.

“We’re sitting ducks out here. Whatever this is, they can pick us off one by one.” The captain ranted without looking anyone in the eye.

“Give me a battle with those fucking lizards any day over this shit. An enemy that you can see, you can shoot,” Anthullo said spitting onto the dry ground.

“Let’s figure out the correlations. I know we can fucking learn something from these two crashes.” Tii was resolute as he walked back to the computer interface.

“We need to send one more rescue team.” The captain said, leaning next to Phlox as Guvvat and Lann moved to stand with Tii in a tight circle next to the computers.

“One high. One low.” Tii said, face open and calm.

“What? You can get them off the ground but there is no telling how far you’ll get them out. Or if you can land either of them in one piece.”

“No, Lann, we’ll double insulate our smallest craft, and we’ll have it fly as low as possible. At the exact same time, we’ll send one more large harvester up into the sky—both pilotless. We’ll program one to reach five-thousand feet and come right back down. We’ll keep sending it up. If the captain’s right, we’ll see if this confuses these fuckers or at least see if it’s powerful enough to simultaneously attack two shuttle pods.”

“Send it here, Tii. Both craft were attacked at approximately forty-five hundred above sea level. Both as they flew northwest.”

“Good. We don’t know what we’re up against, but let’s figure out how they are doing this to us.”

A decoy vessel was prepared and sent up unmanned. It was destroyed as soon as it reached forty-six hundred feet. Nothing had seemed to attack, but it simply registered “fuel depleted” and then crashed. Tii had fully charged the vehicle himself; their enemy was getting smarter. They somehow got into the craft’s computer system and cut, or shut off, the fuel lines. Luckily, the other craft fared better as it flew extremely low, taking extensive photos of both the crash sites. Ladin’s craft could be seen strewn in large pieces. There was no sign of the Trall.

“Keep manual controls over the cameras. The thrusters were on full for a full thirty seconds as it headed straight down. The pieces could be pretty small.” Lann and Anthullo each manned a camera. They couldn’t find the first crashed shuttle.

“Can we risk a perspective from a little higher?” Lann said, without taking his eyes of the computer monitor.

But before Tii could answer, the shuttle fluttered awkwardly on the camp’s radar screen, shot up inexplicably to almost seven thousand feet, then spun in a tight circle and just disappeared off their radar and heat scanners.

Tii, with a nod from the delirious Kinsal, sent a group of five malans to reach the location of the crashes. The heavily armed volunteers, led by Daani, would fly but stay a comfortable distance from the crash zone. They would have to walk the rest of the way in.

“I should go too.” Phlox spoke directly to Tii.

“No. We need you here. We’ve got too many sick.” Tii gestured subtly towards Kinsal, who did not understand. Phlox swallowed his protest and Tii set up powerful radio transmitters and a base of operation at the center of camp. Everyone was nervous about sending crewmembers so far from the power shield.

It was midnight when they set their shuttle down, but the crew decided to start walking.

“Daani. I want you to report every two hours—more often if you see anything.”

“We can’t see a fuckin’ thing. There’s a heavy fog hanging everywhere…We’ve got a strong metallic signature, so we’ll go on.” Static. “I’ll report in two.”

That moonless night, the rest of the healthy malans paced at the center of camp with all ears tuned into the silent radio. Then it snapped on. “Hell, no one wants to make camp in this soupy shit,” Daani spoke in monotone.

“The night sky is really dark, and through this thick fog, we can’t see shit. Not a goddamn star. We can hear the fucking boom of thunder and the air just crashes in, but we get no warning. Even the flash of lightning can’t get through this muck.”

Silence.

“My transmitter is losing power. But I got another solid read about a quarter mile northeast. Something metal and the correct amount of mass to be the Trall. Still can’t see much, and the swamp fog is heavy.”

“Keep low to the streambeds. If there is lightning, stay off the hills. Remember there are no trees out there.”

Communications ended. After about an hour, the radio came back on. There was a lot of interference and Daani’s voice sounded strange. “We gave up looking for the Trall but we found Ladin’s shuttle. The roof is… open. There’s a lot of… and Balnna are dead. They’re still strapped into their flight chairs. Their eyes are… must have been the constant humidity. Looks like… didn’t… the impact.”

“Look. If you have no more magnetic signals, then start back immediately. I’m afraid the Trall was also destroyed.”

“Yes, sir.” Silence.

That night everyone huddled around the radio, but Phlox couldn’t keep his eyes open. He made excuses and went back to the hospital. He took the risk of deep sleep. His dreams were dark and fog-filled. He heard multiple voices but none of them were Kora.

Loud mouths and weapons of energy. Hungry dreams of fur tails. These masses of neurons bounce gently. Each frame rises, falls, rises and falls. They are on the move and we are unprepared. Search out each energy source and drain it.

Early the next morning, the camp received one emergency transmission on all bands. It was Daani. “Lizard loose in the camp. Weapons are useless.”

The radio channel was left open and they could hear howls. Something grunted and then nothing.

“Daani here. We killed it. The fucking laser rifles were drained by something. We beat the fuckers back with the butts of our guns. Taauk got cut, but he jumped it and we drove a rifle barrel through the eye. We’re exhausted but we’re moving on. Suspect we’re being tracked.” The Drinians could not see them on the ground, but could only sense the energy signature of their high-powered weapons and had drained them not knowing that when awake they were also engaging with the flesh of monkeys.

The next morning, the four Primalans trudged for nine hours straight, found their shuttle, and made it safely back to camp. Daani reported directly to Tii. “We dug them shallow graves. They were so heavy. We got flowers from the nearby pools and sprinkled the dirt and mud with petals.”

“Go to sleep while it’s still light.”

Taauk walked up to Tii, “Whatever is out there, it hasn’t drained our weapons in this compound. How long do you think that will last?

“I don’t know, but we know their power has limits. Makes me think their center of power is somewhere in the direction of the downed harvesters. Let’s take a look again at those flight records.” Tii paced but his voice was newly calm and confident. “Anthullo, pull up Splinter’s initial scan reports as well.”

Phlox slept, but his dreams were never of home or never wholly his own. The colors swirled and images competed. It was all senseless, until a floodgate opened and everything was washed in turquoise, and a pale blue voice, reinforced by black vocal cords, spoke:

I have the same dream. I dream that I woke outside the dream. There are monkeys on an open plain. They taunt me. Their coughing throats and whistling breath—is that how they talk? Even without fire, they beat me back. They pin me and…

Often Swenno woke up feeling emotions that were foreign to him. Were they his own feelings just long buried? He did not understand.

The rest of the malans continued to dream when they slept and hallucinate more during the day. The acceleration varied, but everyone was destabilizing. Phlox could see that many were losing the ability to concentrate again and that the worst struggled to walk across the camp. Their lids would be open, but dreams spun behind their eyes. The captain was now very sick. He could no longer sleep during the day, and whenever he closed his eyes he would wake up screaming minutes later. He fought too hard, could not adjust to the images swimming in his subconscious.

Motivation to do anything productive or resourceful was destroyed. No one ventured from the camp’s perimeter. Everyone had started to do the math. There was no longer any threat of running out of food. There was no real motivation to grow crops. They had had enough food for more than one year when they were seventy-five strong hungry malans. Thirty-seven malans remained, and no one knew how many could survive the somnolent coma.

“Look, you know how many are left standing. And almost everyone is getting sicker; there’s no telling who will decline.” The words deserved more force, but Phlox’s voice was soft. He stood with Tii in the center of the camp. The white sun was straight above them staring down and their minds were sweating.

“The epidemic, the disease. We need to pay attention because something has shifted. It’s no longer fatal insomnia because they’re already inside. We are under psychological attack.”

“Now, you sound like the captain.” Tii was angry, but his eyes were unfocused. “It’s okay. I believe you. I’ve heard voices too, and it’s not just hallucination.”

Sometimes, Phlox would wake from a dream and wonder if he had awakened. He’d stomp through the mud, going from shuttle to shuttle, tending to the dying and wonder exactly when the nightmare had begun? And Kora hadn’t spoken to him in weeks, and strangely he found that he missed her voice, her images. His dreams had shifted and taken a turn for the worse, becoming less varied, less enjoyable and instead anxious and compulsive. A dark mountain, an angular silhouette was always there, somewhere off in the distance but looming. It consisted of black, shiny obsidian flanks precisely cut like a giant diamond. It glittered, an ancient fragment from the moon above.

A large snake slithers through blanched boulders. Its skin camouflages with multi-colored lichens. The serpent curls around a pile of smaller rocks and finds its own tail. The forked tongue and scaly tail dance and flick about. Then its mouth folds wide-open and engulfs its own tail, pulling itself inward in awkward pulses. Caught in the same convulsion, the whole landscape jumps.

Phlox was startled from his sleep as Cal shouted, “I’m standing below the moon. I can see its straight edges and its jagged top. I’m standing below the moon.” Phlox just rolled over and went back to sleep.

Later that day Phlox found Tii talking to a group of ten malans gathered in a rough circle. They were the last that remained of the engineering and command groups. “We’ve got a huge unexplained energy-drain on the whole system, electric shields, everything. Solar’s not enough. We’ll eventually run out, and we’ll have to go nights with the shield down.” The captain was there too or at least half of him. He sat on a crate with unfocused eyes. He looked around and his head bounced a little too often.

“Anyone got any ideas?” Tii said impatiently.

“What energy’s left in the remaining shuttles?” Phlox asked, with some authority.

“There is some, but it would only buy us a few more nights. I’d rather leave them powered up. It will be our emergency standby.”

“Emergency standby. This is a fucking emergency!” Taauk shouted but at no one in particular.

“You want to burn it all up now? Trust me. It’s going to get worse, and we’re going to need that juice for something.”

“Digging our own graves you mean.” Tii ignored Taauk but stood up straighter, tried to stare them all down, to offer reason to an increasingly desperate group. Phlox looked around; Splinter’s crew was different now. The physically strongest were, to a great degree, not the ones left standing. They were struck down by dreams, the sleeping disease or their own heroism when the lizards had attacked. Those that remained had survived out of mental stubbornness or at least an endurance that was not rooted in pure physical ability or aggression.

“What about adapting a basic steam generator?”

“Fuel is the problem. We have to forage for brush and that means going farther and farther into the lagoons. The lizards love those fucking swamps. No, it’s not worth it.” The brainstorm that had just begun to spark stuttered and stopped. The malans stood still, unable to look at each other, their tails hanging low.

“No more ideas? Then you all better start shitting your pants a lot faster ’cuz the methane generator is the only way we’re going to get more power.” Tii stomped off, frustrated because he didn’t want to give up, and he sensed that most of the malans had.

“Lann shouted to Tii, “What about that symmetrical signature to the north.”

“Show it to Kinsal. He’s the captain!”

The captain heard his name and perked up his ears. He stared down at the screen as Lann pointed. A large smile broke across his drawn face. “Call everyone together in one hour.”

Kinsal stood rigid in front of all the malans. He strained to balance his body and keep it from gyrating excessively, but he could only slow the reeling sensation. This was the best he could do. He was thin and looked old, as if suddenly all the jump years had caught up with him. His fur was matted and dirty all over. Only his tail was still strong as if it held the last of his pride, and now he leaned back on it for stability. Below the very thin hair of his brow, beads of sweat were dripping into his eyes, and his nictitating eyelids were blinking rapidly.

“Brought you together, here together. We have a plan, a real good plan. We have no more options. Eventually those fucking lizards will find a way in. What good malans are left… See we’re half the Primalans, one half what we used to be. This is no way to go.”

Phlox stood at the back of the small crowd. It was the couple dozen or so left who could still stand. The captain showed all the signs. Soon he would be too sick. And he might already be unable to get the facts straight. Phlox had the feeling that everyone in the crowd felt the same way, but they stood and listened to the details of a wild goose chase.

“Tii and I know where those voices are coming from.” Tii shot a puzzled look at Phlox. “Studied it. Studied the last low altitude scans. There is a massive geode reading four hundred miles from here. We found many irregular—well really they’re incredibly regular—symmetrical patterns in the rock and ore under the mountain. Must be a buried ship or city. That’s where the fuckers are hiding. We’ve triangulated the foreign frequencies, and this is where they’re beaming from. Straight from here to our goddamn heads.”

The captain stabbed his finger at the display-screen that he had been reading. It depicted a map, but he had neglected to display it in a manner that permitted others to see it. There were so few healthy malans left to pay attention, and he didn’t need to show them anything to convince them, just needed to point the direction. They were ready to snap; they begged for an enemy that they could fight or for some clean end. No one believed that the lizards were the real enemy.

But for Phlox, the tapping on the map made all the difference. The thin screen spun, and Phlox could see surrounding photos of the area the captain was discussing. He saw quite clearly even from fifteen feet away the silhouette of a black mountain. The exact mountain from his dreams. He stepped closer.

“I’m sending a team out there. Here is the list. Taauk, Tamm , Guvvat, Anthullo, Youlf, Gaull and Daani.

No one said anything. Gaull had long since been incapacitated. He was alive somewhere beneath a zombie shell and somehow spared by the lizard attack. But Youlf and Tamm were dead. Tamm had gone down in the Trall. There was no excuse; the captain should no longer be in command.

Phlox found his voice, “Captain. I have to go too.”

“No. Stay with the sick.”

“I can’t do anything here, except watch them die. You don’t know what you’ll find out there. You’ll need all the malans you can get. Calyx and I are some of the healthiest crew you have.” Grumbling rolled through the small crowd, but it was stale, only a weak echo of earlier prejudices.

Tii spoke up and the malans shut their mouths. “You’ll leave tomorrow. One shuttle flying low. It’s too far away so you’ll burn exactly half your fuel. Then you’ll have to walk the rest of the way.”

Later as the group broke up, Phlox caught Tii by the arm, “Are you staying behind? You have to go with us. I’ve dreamt of this same mountain. Calyx feels it too. It cannot be coincidence. We don’t know what is out there. The captain wants revenge and maybe you do too, but I think whatever’s out there might be what saves us. Someone or something is out there. I think it can help us to survive this planet.”

“What? Phlox if I didn’t know you, if you hadn’t saved us, gotten us to sleep during the day… Dreaming is one thing, but believing in those dreams?”

The Doctor stood still: aware for a second that he was changing tactics. “No, you need to lead this. Aren’t they already killing us? We don’t know how they live or operate. Maybe there are limits to their power. We don’t know what’s out there, and we don’t know how to fight these bugs in our heads. This is our chance to confront it, fight it.” He told him what he wanted to hear.

“Mad virus. Bad virus.” Calyx shouted hopping a short distance behind them. “Dream demons,” Calyx spit and then laughed, one finger stuck in his ear. Then he winced and laughed heartily. “Dream demons just dreamons to me.” He was chortling, spit flying in joyous globs from his fast flying lips. Tii turned away from them both.

“The fatal insomnia is my proof. We can wait around for slow death. Or this near death—one where you don’t even get the relief of dying. Again, I’ve got half a dozen malans like that in the hospital and none of us is safe.”

“Coma. Coma. Come with me, with me!” Cal plugged his mouth with food, crumbs spilling out of a grinning face.

“You have a better plan, Tii? Something is out there and we need to crash the party.”

Tii turned back and they stared at each other. Tii flicked his tail to the right. “We’ll take Cal’s tug.”

Whether it was sacrifice or treaty he was not sure, but he had to follow his dream to find Kora, to prove she existed. He was convinced that he would find her and that she could help. Unless, unless the voice had always been simply a symptom of the disease, the same disease that had wasted the minds of so many of the crew. When had he started to believe that he was actually talking with someone else? Hadn’t it been at the same time that other malans had become infected and to lose their grip on reality? Kora was just a symptom of the infection. He was just as crazy as the rest. But no, somewhere deep within, a core of optimism remained, and hell, finding her was the only way to prove he wasn’t bi-polar. As he prepared to leave, Lann agreed to respond to the sickest survivors, to any bio-alarms, and to shut off the machines when they were no longer needed. It was noon and time to get some sleep before they left that night.

Melody of dream. Harmony drowned out by the pounding rhythms of claws on the ground. Tails drag as they leave the cave behind the hill.

He saw the pilot-less decoy bolting skyward; it was their bluff, their thin camouflage. Then they lifted off and shot low across the swamp. Phlox saw the pale stripes of malan tails moving away from the runway, just a glimpse before they disappeared. Tii was flying and Calyx was in the copilot-seat as they sped low, dipping low when the ground fell away and skimming across the plains. Phlox rubbed his temples while Taauk, Guvvat, and Anthullo sat stiff-tailed in the back.

The decoy shuttle reached four thousand kilometers and was closing on five. On a monitor they saw it stop suddenly and then plunge. It was gone. No one moved in the hollow cabin.

“Tii, air pressure pocket in point five,” Cal barked.

Tii turned his head quickly to look at Cal and back out the windshield, managing a muffled sound resembling a question mark.

“Adjusting buck thruster four.”

“Okay?”

Tii recognized that Cal was reading the instruments more quickly, more expertly than he could. He gave in, seeing that if they used Cal’s help they could maintain a flight path even lower than they had planned. Tii maintained direction while Cal focused on the altitude. He held the ship steady more carefully than the computers, staying constantly forty-five or fifty feet off the ground. This could be done on a planet without trees and rock towers that could be avoided like a slalom course. This was his craft, and somewhere deep inside, he knew it intimately; sitting in that seat, at those controls, he was a whole malan.

“Quarter fuel load down. We’ll have a half cell in two and half hours.” Calyx said nonchalantly, as if he’d been a part of the mission planning all along. Except for Cal’s flight specific speech, the occupants were quiet. Phlox stared up at the night-sky through the overhead portholes. Blue sparks shot by and the stars held still. It was still dark when they touched down, but they stayed inside, waiting for the sun to rise before marching out west, twenty-three degrees northern.

The portal swung open and the cabin flooded with the smell of sage and the buzz of flies. The ground was a patch quilt of broken, rocky ground and soft soil covered with delicate low grasses. Tails rigid and shoulders straight, they marched in single file.

Calyx kept them talking as they slogged along. No longer at the shuttle’s controls, he reverted to a cryptic-sounding baby talk.

“Hungry. Yup. Hungry.” No response, but Cal didn’t care.

“When’re we stopping? Lunchtime is now. Next creek?” Pause. “Next pool?”

“Sure Cal, next pool.”

“Water’s good for drinking.”

“Sure is Cal.”

After making camp and eating, Phlox found Cal climbing a low hill, searching for something in the grass. He looked puzzled or annoyed because his routine, the quiet of their rooms and their surrounding camp had been disrupted. He was, however, adapting to both the hiking and the camping and proving once again that his mental capacity was still improving. That night, tired from walking all day, they all had to sleep and brave full dreaming during nightfall.

Crater dreams. Shining pale moss edges. The slow march of the remaining quiet Quorum. All dream of motion, moving. The step up and down of paw, claw to stone. The movement of souls in rhythmic intensity. Visions of revenge strike to this beat and the fabric of the Dreamscape trembles. Phlox slept and heard many distinct voices. Then it was quiet and he dreamt of home. His mother is in the kitchen with her hand on her hip. She is turned away but Phlox knows she is watching him. He is playing on the floor building space-freighters out of plastic blocks. Swirling light and it is years earlier. He is swinging in his toddler hammock laughing with joy as his mother rocks him gently with her foot. Somewhere behind him he can hear leaves rustling and his sister giggling.

His dream is interrupted. Images of Ettiquin invade. He sees two giant lizards circling on dusty ground, one a brilliant yellow and the other gray. They hiss and spit. They begin to attack each other. The yellow lizard gets its mouth around the neck of the other. Blood sprays everywhere. Soon the attack is over, and the gray lizard is dead. But the horror does not end as the yellow lizard rips open the limp body and tears off pieces, eating them in hungry gulps.

Blackness engulfed him—an answer to his prayers to end the hallucinations—or was something larger interfering? Phlox woke. The roof of his mouth was rough and dry. He looked over and in the light of dawn saw that Cal was gone. Then he saw him at some distance walking in a straight line away from their tents. He could feel that the large malan was not truly awake, that he dreamt on his feet. He did not stumble or ramble, as those inflicted with the sleep disease did, but instead each move was methodical, even graceful. He disappeared behind some brush and re-emerged with a large bone. Flesh dangled from its socket as he walked back to the others. He ran his hand along its length, and tested its weight. He already knew it was important and had been drawn to the skeleton as if it could talk. He poked Anthullo’s sleeping bag and waved the bone like a club, but it was drama not aggression.

Not amused, Anthullo drew his pistol, and pointed it square at Calyx’s face.

“Wait! He’s sleepwalking. He’s harmless.” Phlox shouted.

“Great. Crazier than usual.” Anthullo scrambled out of his bag but lowered his weapon.

Calyx laughed and danced away from the others. “I saw an elephant,” he shouted.

“An ele-what?” Phlox rubbed his eyes.

“Yeah, it was pink with big fishy scales.”

Rays of sunlight struck their camp and the entire expedition was awake and listening. Anthullo paced close by but his eyes never strayed from Calyx. The large malan marched in a circle, his movements sober while he continued to shout joyous nonsense. Phlox knew he needed to ask him some questions and decided it was time to stop hiding their secret. When they both dreamt profusely, talking about those dreams had become a necessity. The rest could ignore their conversation, or dismiss them as insane, but the dreams, the code, needed to be addressed.

“Are elephants always pink, Cal?” He was grabbing for straws but he wanted to try to focus his companion’s ramblings.

“Never pink. But larger than ever and she is always tired.”

“Why does an elephant get tired?”

“What are you two talking about?” Anthullo’s voice was accusatory.

“Give it up Anthullo. You know you’re dreaming too.” Tii was getting up. He wanted to get everyone moving again.

Guvvat snorted, his alliances unclear.

“What are you saying, that it’s destiny? I say it’s sorcery: that it’s a trap.” No one looked at Anthullo. If they believed him they didn’t speak up.

They walked for a second day: a hard hike across swelling hills always accompanied by Cal’s barrage of questions and never-ending banal observations.

“Pools are green and streams are blue.”

“Where’re we going today?”

“I’m tired. Tired, ti-red.”

“I miss camp. Camp was good.”

Progress was marked by a steady growth on the horizon, and the terrain became steeper, lifting as they marched through the day.

“Walking, walking, walking. Why aren’t we flying?”

“Cal, you know why we aren’t flying. You said it yourself. There, at the controls of your own ship. You want to go back to our base camp? Gotta have fuel.” Tii was getting snappy. “And quit asking why we’re here. I fuckin’ forget why.”

“Fuel. Aren’t we going to get some more fuel?”

Silence.

“That’s what we’re doing.”

“No, Cal. Shut up!” It was Phlox’s turn to snap.

They camped on a wide-open plateau, feeling lost and exposed. Tired and sore-pawed, they snored together underneath light, plastic tarps.

An egg-shaped pool of dark water shimmers below obsidian banks. Near the center of the pool, bubbles erupt at a steady rate. Stalks growing from underneath pierce the water’s surface, and the bright green bamboo reflects in too many directions as if there is a second sun—a view through eyes that are not his own. Glistening on the even banks are thin-toed tracks leading from the water. He focuses the many refracting images but after five long minutes the footprints do not evaporate.

Phlox. Water, we live in water. But they’re on their way to the mountain.

At dawn, before anyone else had begun to stir, Cal started talking. He still knew nothing of pragmatics; he didn’t think to check and see if others were awake or listening.

“I dreamed I had a mama.”

“You did have a mama, Cal.” Phlox managed to say while still essentially asleep.

“Did I? Was she a lizard?”

“No, Cal. But I’m sure she was a big, furry-assed malan.” Tii joined in.

“Was your mother a lizard in your dream, Cal?”

“Yeah. Big tail. Big teeth.”

“I dreamt about my mother too, Cal. She wasn’t a reptile. But that was only the first dream. Every night I’ve been dreaming about lizards, moving in long columns. They are on the move, always marching.” Phlox was sitting up now.

“Yeah. They march in mine too.”

“Could they be tracking us?” Tii said, trying to move the conversation onto something solid.

“I don’t know. The shuttle got us pretty far. But I guess any one of them could have picked up our scent along the way.”

Tii played along, accepting on some level that a dream discussion wasn’t completely ridiculous. “Everyone, sleep with your pistol close. These shared hallucinations might not mean anything, but it can’t be a good sign.”

Anthullo grumbled, but said nothing.

A quick breakfast and they were walking again, and by midafternoon they began to follow a fast flowing creek and its rough granite banks. They camped close to the water and Phlox dreamed in liquid visions.

A volcano spews hot ash and crackling lava. The lava turns into a river. The dream flips, and he stands on the bank of the river Sulla from his hometown. The images shift again and Juun appears, laughing and running among huge farrlin trunks, disappearing and reappearing except for her constant laughter pealing across the soft and deeply-shaded forest floor. Then Phlox realizes that these are the southern forests. He’d visited this very district, but Juun had never been here. He finds her lying in a small patch of sunlight. He squats down and rubs her belly. The hair is soft, unbelievably plush; as it had always been. Flash. He sees his wife. It is years before. Her belly is blossoming and round, her eyes beautiful and clear.

On the fourth day, as they marched up a steep ravine, Phlox could hear new voices in his head. They were the sounds of Drinian reverie leaching over. They spoke in a combination of music and voice, rising and dropping in volume. Individual words would surface but the dialogue was indecipherable.

Then a calling bird broke out in song, and in his head the same trill turned into one crisp, distinct voice. Tonight we see the same landscape. And then the croon fluttered back to the static of a thousand voices.

Late in the afternoon, after walking all day, they crested a hill and on the plain below saw hundreds of rock pillars decayed and toppled. “These aren’t natural. Too perfect to be organic.” Taauk had hardly said anything the whole trip, but now he was animated, pointing at separate designs that the pillars followed. “Look, if those two pillars were still standing you’d see the whole structure used to form a perfect square.”

Two hawks circled above one of the towers. They seemed to disappear as they flew below the umber background of the mountain just beyond.

After an hour’s walk, they were in the valley. They stopped below one of the first towers. It appeared to be a fusion of metal and obsidian. On Splinter’s scans it might have registered the same as any of the planet’s stone pillars. Dark squares, like windows, stared blankly from above.

“It’s a city.” Tii whispered, and everyone nodded—their mouths open.

“Don’t worry malans. Nobody’s home.”

“Shut up Cal.”

“Keep him gagged, Swenno.” But Guvvat wasn’t angry, just nervous.

They walked the broad boulevards among the towers. Short stiff grass pushed between their toes. The air was warm and calm.

“No heat signals, no gas readings, but I’m getting biomass readings from high above on one of the towers to the left.”

“Ignore that. It’s the hawks.” A confident Phlox spoke up.

“How do you know?” Tii sounded annoyed.

“When I landed on Ettiquin for the first time, I ran into three huge birds. Scary how much they look like Cortt. I saw one land up there. They nest on these towers, they’re just convenient cliffs.”

“Still, I’m not convinced. It could be the readings we’re here for.”

“It’s not. I’ve seen these vultures in my dreams. What we need is up there.” He pointed to the mountain.

The group spread out and wandered among the empty boulevards.

“If these are buildings, if they’re hollow, you sure can’t tell from down here,” Taauk said, patting the smooth side while his eyes scanned up the two hundred foot structure. “It’s only a fossil of a building.”

They regrouped on the northern side of the city.

“No, we need to camp. Why not here?” Anthullo’s tail flared.

“Here? No, it feels like we’re being watched.” Guvvat spun in a slow circle.

Everyone was quiet.

Cal could not tolerate the silence, “They don’t watch us from here. Not from here.”

“When did Cal get so dramatic?” Tii shook his head as he led the tired Primalans out and down the last boulevard of stone. In twilight, they began to climb the side of the mountain. That night they all kicked and twitched in unison, unaware that they were sharing dreams.

On luminescent pillows, nested in brightly colored blankets that roll as if floating on water, hundreds of neon colored lizards sleep on their backs with mouths open. Coded only in dreams, each reptile glowed in his unique frequency. Tonight we see the same landscape. What are the chances it doesn’t exist?

Phlox dreamt of his companions: a young Guvvat sitting in class. It is the first day of school. A preschool aged Tii hides with his pillow, afraid of the dark. Then he sees crowds of unknown mothers, daughters, sisters but not his own.

Phlox woke feeling convinced that what he’d seen was historic fact and hoping for no more exposure to such intimate fears. As he stretched out from a tight curl, a loud voice began. “Tonight we see the same landscape. What are the chances it doesn’t exist?” Cal was pacing in a tight circle repeating the same words over and over again.

“I’m tired of this smooth-skinned crap.” Guvvat was on edge.

Anthullo sat up and slammed a fist into his left palm. “Look you two assholes are either crazy—and then fuck we’re screwed ’cuz this whole march has been craze inspired—or you’re dead on, and then don’t these same fuckers know we’re coming? Aren’t we just walking into a trap?”

Phlox stood up, his tail bristling. “A trap? Think about it. Back at camp they already had us trapped and fuckin’ helpless. I think if they, or it, wanted to hurt us they’ve already been trying. I mean they already have direct access to our heads. And on this planet, the miles aren’t a factor.” All the components of Phlox Swenno: the malan, the scientist, and the dreamer were pushed to the edge, uniting to make a stand. “We’re close. We have to keep searching.”

Tii shouted from his sleeping bag, not even bothering to get all the way up. “He’s right, Malans. We’re using all our resources here. And you’re free to march back anytime.” The others were quiet. Settling back into his bag, he muttered, “We’re all fuckin’ sleep-deprived. I trust the one who’s been able to sleep all along.” He looked over at Phlox with a thin smile. An hour later they set out with Phlox in the lead. Cal bit his tongue and kept to himself at the back of the line.

They hiked for three hours, circling the coordinates that Kinsal and Anthullo had marked, but Phlox grew nervous. He felt they were close but how long would the group follow him? They rested on the muddy bank of a slow-flowing stream. “Where’s Cal?” Tii barked his name, but he was gone. The group got up and spread out searching from side to side. Guvvat shouted to the rest, “I see him. Looks like he found something. He’s waving or… ” They ran to Calyx who lay on his side with an ear to the ground. There was a large grin on his face. He held one arm along the ground in a straight line that extended the length of his body while he held the other arm perpendicular to the ground, his fingers flaring, rolling out in slow rhythmic flexes and equal measured contractions.

“Someone dreaming. Someone screaming. Mad? Angry? No. No, just fear.”

“What are you doing?” Phlox asked, but of course he knew. There was one consistent dream that came during daylight, and that was Green Kora and her fragmented, musical screams. And he knew what the others would think: survivors didn’t fight their nighttime dreams, but the messages that came through during the day, that was different. They were pure hallucination, and to give them credence was proof that he was as delusional as his reincarnated, half-wit ward. Phlox put his fears aside and watched Calyx carefully and any remaining doubt washed away: he was listening for Kora, just tuning her in. The sense of relief was profound. Someone or something real had been talking with him ever since they made orbit around this rock. He decided to accept the un-requested receptivity, Calyx as antennae, and sat down with his back to the other malans and his tail brushing Cal’s side. He closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and focused on the landscape images that she had sent him. He saw only scattered pieces of a puzzle. Kora, the voice on the other side, where was she? Was she really something solid with home, territory to roam? And there, there’s that rhyme, that meter, the sing-song words running in my head. He decided not to fight that either. If his mind—down to his very speech patterns—was being completely commandeered then so be it. He let his body rest, let his thoughts flow outward and did his best to just listen, to channel.

Suddenly imagery came to him in rolling, olive waves. The same hill and a semicircle of rocks below. The same bubbling pool of spring water and thin-toed tracks in the slippery mud. He steps into the water unafraid. A voice guides his hands into paddles and he swims freely, gracefully.

Phlox opened his eyes. The sun was dropping low, about to sink below the mountain’s ridge. He smelled the sweet smell of smoldering grass. How long have I been sitting here? Calyx hadn’t moved but had lowered his right arm. Standing up, Swenno surveyed the area in a slow circle but nothing was familiar, only absurd. Then the large malan’s arm shot high again. What makes Cal so receptive? Maybe he never woke from the dreams of deep hibernation. Calyx’s eyes are half-opened, unfocused. Is he asleep or awake?

“Cal, can you hear me?”

He blinked his nictitating membrane and said in a steady un-modulated tone, “I don’t sleep. I don’t get up early, don’t go to bed late.”

Phlox was getting used to what to ignore and what to listen to. Calyx’s speech was hallucinatory, overflowing with detritus that often reinforced but sometimes clouded the message. It was best to take what you could and run with it. “If you got up early where would you go?”

“Kora doesn’t get up early, why would I?”

Phlox held his breath. He had never shared that name with anyone. He decided to play along, act as if they’d talked about her before. “Where does Kora sleep, Cal?”

“Sleepy head, sleepy head, my mommy always called me that.”

“Can you ask your mommy where Kora sleeps?” No answer.

“Maybe you can ask Kora’s mom.”

“Kora’s mom iridescent red.”

Off in the distance, a hawk screeched. Cal waved his hand in the air but said nothing more. Phlox waited.

Then Swigg’s face tightened and in a deep voice he stated confidently, “Kora’s an egg, egg-mom now.” Phlox gave up. Maybe Calyx could hear Kora, but that didn’t mean he was cognizant enough to help them find her. And what did it matter? Even if she did exist, what good would it do to see her in the flesh? If he did come face to face with her—or with it—what could he possibly gain?

“Eat what they eat. Eat what they eat.” Calyx was up and jumping around sniffing the air and running off to the campfire where the others were gathered. Phlox got up, shook his head, and knocked the dust from his furry ass. He was hungry too, so he walked towards the group smoothing his tail fur with one hand. The sun set. The others had been resourceful and small ground-dwelling animals, now skinless, roasted above crackling flames.

“No time for sleeping or lizards. No time for lizards or sleeping.” Calyx smiled as he grabbed at the meat. He yelped in pain as his fingers grazed the flames.

“Cal you’re gonna have to wait.” Tii pushed him away from the fire with a thin stick. They all waited until the meat glistened black and then they huddled in a circle eating with their bare hands.

“Why are we out here? These are the fucking coordinates. Right here! Here at the base of nothing!”

“Shut up Guvvat. We’re going to find it,” Tii said before tearing into another strip of meat.

“I think the mapping was fucked up. We could be miles off, and how would we know if we were right or wrong?”

“Where’s your faith, Anthullo? Eckorr pours a lot of money into mapping technologies. Even the worst shuttle can spot a juicy flower from low orbit.” Phlox looked the griping malan in the eye. “And believe me. We’re in the right area.”

Tii spoke up. “Guvvat’s got a point. This is the epicenter of those findings. We can’t really go anywhere else. Tomorrow we’re splitting up. I’ll give each of you a sector to search for any sign of those huge circles.

Anthullo and Guvvat were quiet.

“Down. Down!” Mud hit the ground and splattered everywhere as Cal smacked the ground with a large stick.

“Cal. Quit that shit.”

“Down.”

Anthullo yanked the stick from him but then had to start running fast to keep away from Cal who dashed after him. Luckily for Anthullo, Cal might have been the strongest but he was not the fastest. Later that night, Anthullo radioed camp and told them they would search for one more day. Deep sleep was difficult to find. Phlox’s legs ached, and Cal, tossing and turning, kicked everyone.

A perfectly round mouth with loose pale lips, and Phlox is gliding, maybe flying, straight into that gaping orifice. It is light inside and he sees deep ridges on the cavernous roof extending towards the throat. The teeth are huge boulders. They are cracked and worn. Phlox hangs upside down falling slowly towards darkness.

“I saw a cave of crystals and restless lizards.” It was dawn, and Calyx was bouncing like a spring.

“I dreamt of a cave too.”

“Then get up. Follow me.”

The rest stirred as Cal danced in a circle. He taunted Guvvat who was the last to sit up. Tii started gathering his things but the other three were not convinced. “Geet up. Geet up!” Calyx’s large body jumped up and down within inches of Guvvat’s head.

“Yeah, this is just about right. I mean we’re marooned, the captain’s infected, and were getting led around by our favorite dead boy and crazy-assed doctor.”

“Anthullo, it beats staying here and whining about it. The exact coordinates didn’t pan out. I’m willing to give this fool a try.” Tii said, still sounding like a leader, although he was scampering to get his things and watching Cal out of the corner of his eye. Everyone else followed suit, gathering their things as Cal skipped away in large bounding steps. They ran to keep up with him. Their aching muscles struggled against the heavy gravity except for Cal who seemed light on his feet. He knew they were all following him so he cackled and snorted; it was all a great game. He scampered and jumped and intermittently crawled—but with equal enthusiasm. His body snaked close to the ground with his head cocked awkwardly to the side. Sometimes he would stop and turn to stare each of them down and then smile wide before hopping back to his role as pathfinder.

While four Primalans followed a clown along a small stream and up a narrow ravine, a pack of Drinians was calibrated and coded to wake in a crystal-lined cave.

Surmounting the ravine, they found themselves on a narrow plateau crowded with grass and brush. The plateau ended abruptly where a shoulder of the mountain dominated. Cal did not wait, and he pushed through dense clumps of sharp-edged grass and burrowed deftly through thickets. The taut branches whipped back as his large body twisted through, but his bulk moved with grace and speed. The others could not keep up, but he didn’t want to lose his audience, so they would always find him in small clearings sitting and cleaning his toes, waiting in mock impatience.

Breathing heavily, Phlox broke through a clump of green blades and saw Cal spinning circles. The wall of the mountain cast him in shadow. Three broken pillars in dark stone, like the mountain backdrop behind, formed an isosceles triangle. He stopped spinning, the smile gone from his face. He crawled to the side of the pillars and started pushing leaves and debris from the hillside. He licked his fingers. Phlox winced. Would the others keep following him? He looked at their faces. They were all drawn and tired, but only Anthullo’s face wrinkled in disgust. Suddenly, Cal’s hand disappeared, then his head and his torso. His legs were left kicking and the edges of the opening broke apart, the hole widened. Anthullo stared in disbelief. They heard a resounding laugh, low and hollow. Calyx Swigg had found it. Phlox knew there would be a larger cave within, and they all pulled at the mud packed walls and created a wide opening. There was no discussion, no turning back and he crawled inside. As he entered the cave, Phlox could hear Cal giggling, then as his eyes adjusted, he could see him spinning circles in the center of a round room about twenty feet across. He was kicking up damp debris, and the smell of decay flowed through Phlox’s nostrils. The cave felt small as roots crowded from the ceiling and hid the edges of the room. As soon as he was fully inside, Phlox’s head began to pound and the veins at his temples swelled. He found himself clutching at the dangling roots, bracing to fall, and expecting at any moment to slumber uncontrollably, but it didn’t happen.

Cal stopped spinning and went over to the left side of the tunnel and pushed a large group of vines aside to expose oily soapstone walls surrounding a circular opening. All the others were inside by now, and Tii shone a flashlight in Swigg’s direction. He had found the entrance to another tunnel and was squeezing his large body through the tight opening. Inside they could hear him shouting. “Been here, seen this. I’ve felt here!” Phlox went after him. He knew they should be quiet, but he was not sure why or if it made any difference. Didn’t they know they were coming? Those dreams were being sent, beamed to them. They were messages not hallucinations. He grabbed Calyx by the belt. “It’s time to eat. Come back and we’ll have something to eat. It’s gonna be good.” Cal backed out and crossed the room with a bounce in his step. Phlox had just enough time to note that the narrow passageway quickly opened up, quartz crystal shimmering as it continued towards the center of the mountain. He was not surprised: he’d seen it before, felt it subconsciously.

Tii was inside and studying a map on his computer. “If this tunnel keeps heading in this direction we might get close to those original surface coordinates.”

“Okay. Cal’s done a good job so far, but with him up front, there’s no sneaking up on anyone or anything.” Anthullo said without arrogance.

“If we keep Cal at the back—maybe some gum root in his mouth—we can keep him quiet.” Among his provisions, Phlox found some dried root strips and Cal was amiable to chewing, to staying at the back as the party filed into the tunnel. It constricted periodically, although it was never too narrow to pass through. The walls were rough-hewn, but the floor was smooth with a thin groove running its length. The thin channel could not be natural; it was too perfect. Had their unseen enemy carved it and for what purpose? The tunnel’s angle of descent increased slightly and the group hurried on. They walked silently on soft padded feet, their heads brushing lightly as the tunnel’s ceiling occasionally lost height, and Calyx had to bend over to avoid banging his head. The walls turned from a mixture of quartz granite and other rocks to dark, shiny obsidian. The tunnel no longer smelled of dirt or plant decay. But instead there was a singular scent of deep musk. The group walked on. They used only one flashlight at the front. Everyone followed closely. Phlox could hear Cal slowly chewing and slurping as he brought up the rear.

After fifteen minutes, the tunnel widened and the ceiling rose. Tii froze in his tracks with his head twisted to one side. Wordlessly, they all stopped in a close huddle, and they heard a humming, low and unmodulated. It was barely perceptible but not to be missed by large malan ears. Without speaking, they stood and moved together forming a tight huddle. The hum seemed to stop. They continued, but now they crept slowly, their paws meeting the floor gently. But soon they could hear the same sound again, stronger and deeper. Was it organic? Was it the whir of machines? It was difficult to detect what direction it was coming from. The humming seemed to seep from the flat walls themselves. They stood perfectly still, looking at each other, not daring to speak, not knowing what to say. Even Cal was speechless.

Then Calyx’s ears perked, and he pushed Tii aside, nimbly snatching the flashlight from his hand, and without so much as a break in his stride he continued down the tunnel. Tii quipped, “Okay, you lead.” There was nothing to do except run after him. And as they marched ahead at a steady pace, pressure built in Phlox’s ears. They had not descended more than a few hundred feet, so air pressure wasn’t to blame. He clenched his jaws and strode forward, ignoring the feeling that clenched his throat, ignoring the fact that to him the walls had turned purple and had begun to shimmer. Did Cal see this too? His breath quickened, and he struggled to slow the expansion of his chest. Their leader turned a corner and the beam of light he was directing disappeared. With a few more careful strides, the doctor saw that they had entered a huge rotunda. Above them spread a rough-hewn, domed ceiling. Clearly intelligent hands had been here. They were standing on the lip of a path that circled down and to the right. Their small flashlight was too dim to fully illuminate the other side but small sparkles kicked back in distorted reflection. Cal peered down, holding the lamp with two hands, as he stood rigid at the edge. No light bounced back, but Phlox knew that far below, something was waiting for them.

Calyx shrugged his shoulders, looked back at the rest with a smirk and began skipping down the path. Phlox was the first to follow and suddenly the hair across his entire body stood on end. There was a static charge in the air, and then after he took another step it went away. He looked back at Tii, who close on his heels, had not seemed to notice. Looking ahead he saw Cal staring at his chest and then running his hand slowly across his arms, playing with his now bristling fur. Another step forward and Phlox smelled the salty odor of reptiles. He pulled his pistol from his belt, released the safety, and set it on the highest degree.

“Hundreds of lizards sleep below, breathing and dreaming in unison.”

“Shut him up, Swenno.” Anthullo rasped with nostrils flaring. A malan never forgets the scent of another animal, and the air was impregnated with reptilian oils. This was not what Phlox had hoped for. Maybe it was the enemy that the others needed to find, but Kora could not be here.

They had passed through some barrier or shield, or stepped into some kind of pocket sealed by energy, and it had masked their odor. As they continued marching downward, the stench grew more repugnant. Phlox felt nauseous. He understood that they would find, not just one lizard, but many. He looked down over the edge, and swore that he could see a flickering light. The humming grew louder, buzzing like a dull saw. The room was warm and humid. The obsidian walls and floor must have been slick with the humidity. The slopping path had circled back, and now they were some thirty feet below where they had entered the room. They still could not see the bottom; although he was convinced he could see faint sparks.

“Cal, you better turn off the flashlight. It will get really dark, but it’s going to be like a game. Feel the wall and walk carefully.” He complied without a sound. At first, the room was a pure black, but steadily the shadow dissolved, and they could make out rounded puddles of light in the dark pit. As they descended the cumulative luminescence grew. A feeble blue glow surrounded them. It enveloped them yet offered no warmth, no red light. They continued to circle down. Peering towards the floor, Phlox could now distinguish separate forms glowing ever so faintly. It was difficult to gain perspective, but it looked as if they were still about forty feet above the cavern floor. The neon shimmering surrounding them seemed to flicker like an old computer monitor, but the light level increased as they crept down the spiraling path. “Ambassador on the dark floor,” Cal said abruptly. It was not loud, but his voice reverberated in the dark room echoing off the far wall. Phlox looked down, but none of the shapes moved. They continued on. “Right Cal. We’re ambassadors. Not food.”

They reached the bottom, and a new cave extended far to the north, but a shimmering blue mist and vibrating sparks of brighter light obscured its dimensions. It was impossible to make out the center of the room. It was littered with crystals. In fact ultra sapphires jutted from the walls around them—the very precious element that had brought them across hundreds of lightyears. The crystals were protruding, literally falling from the obsidian walls where they should not have been found naturally. They had found a dense pocket on a planet poor in deposits—the edge of the mapped circles. The signature readings from these crystals must have lead the captain’s aerial survey team to this mountain in the first place, and then to the artificial design embedded deep in the rocks.

Phlox stood back rubbing his pounding temples.

“These are the hugest sapphs I’ve ever seen.” Tii ran his hand along the wall and across one of the geodes. There was a spark and an electric pop. “Fuckers are hot-wired. Something is wrong with this room. No way did lizards build this.”

Calyx walked on to the main floor, but as soon as Anthullo reached the dusty floor he received a strong shock and was thrown slightly backwards. He fell down hard but lay with his eyes open, the dull film of his nictitating lenses blinking rapidly. Tii helped him up, and then stood trying to see Cal through the blue mist. Phlox’s head throbbed but he began to worry that Cal was wandering too far so he stepped forward. He felt a low-dose electrical shock but could still move ahead, but then an excruciating throbbing struck him between his eyes and stopped him in his tracks. He was blinded with pain. Guvvat and Tii received similar electrical shocks so they did not enter. They circled left and right and cautiously tested the border of the powerful cocoon of energy. Anthullo tried to enter again but was thrown hard against the near wall.

Phlox winced in pain as jade-colored flashes shot behind his closed eyes. Calyx took three more steps and squinting his eyes he could see Calyx tiptoeing among reptiles. The heads of large lizards rested at regular intervals against pulsing crystals. He was ignorantly blissful as ever as he wandered gleefully through a lizard bedroom. His knees rose comically high as he slinked from one slumbering alien to the next. He was a kid at play seemingly unaware of any danger. The large lizards lay on their backs with rounded bellies exposed as their short legs struck upwards bent and relaxed. Their mouths hung open and slack. Their forked tongues, bloated and swollen, expelled moisture into the already humid air, the organic vapor increasing the conductivity of the room. There was an overriding pulsing as the giant reptiles breathed in and out in symphony.

Strangely Phlox’s fear was gone; he wanted to walk among the lizards, too. Why? He walked forward again. His head felt compressed as if by a clamp, and everything skewed to turquoise. He took a couple more steps but struggled to concentrate. He stopped walking and looked down with wide eyes. The crystals on the ground were laid out in intricate spiral patterns. There was a collective snoring, low and forbidding. It sounded almost malan. The hum of breath was harmonizing, the sound waves gently building upon themselves so that the air was completely filled with the vibration of intertwined breath.

Phlox reached the closest slumbering lizard, his body tense but his mind engrossed, focused and clear. He was careful not to step on any tails or to disturb the hive. There was a slight crackling, a gentle popping and the static electricity in the air increased as he walked toward the center of the room. A bolt of light shot upwards and Phlox’s fur stood on end, his skin taut with the charge. His temples pounded.

Chorus: Field vibrates with curious light. Field vibrates with dangerous light.

Toral Blue: They will unravel our dreams.

Kyryl Yellow: INVADERS.

Then a singular image slammed into Phlox Swenno’s head: a gaping lizard’s mouth filled with blood.

“No!” He managed to get one word out of his mouth before the room spun, violet. He saw Cal slumping forward, the lizards blurring out of view, and Phlox crashed to the floor.

Toral Blue: One here radiates differently. The creature we healed is here.

Kyryl Yellow: DREAMSCAPE IS IN DANGER.

Chorus: Wake now and strike them where they stand! Wake now. Annihilate them!

Phlox’s eyes flew open. They are one and the same. He jumped up yelling, “Get out now! They’re waking!”

Everyone except Calyx turned quickly and ran up the path. Every second counted. Phlox darted between lizards hopping over the ones who were beginning to stir. Their snake tongues slipped back into their mouths, their teeth glistening in a room suddenly bright with light. A green and blue lizard struck quickly, snapping and clawing into Phlox’s right leg. It whipped back and forth, thrashing its small mouth full of fangs. Phlox bounded clear, hit the ground, and bounced high again. He heard pistol fire as he leaped for the exit. Phlox felt low doses of electricity passing through him. His hair bristled as he sliced the energy shield and hit the path limping. He quickly looked around. “Cal!”

Behind Calyx a bright yellow lizard rose up on its hind legs. Its slick tail snapped backwards, groping for counterweight. It twisted its head, the eyes spinning madly, blinking in disbelief. It stretched out its long neck with tendons hard like rails. Cal rose up too. Unafraid. Their faces were two or three feet apart, and the Drinian swayed a foot taller.

Kyryl Yellow: He is soft hairs, hidden skin. Cal-iks is not under our control. He is murderous fur-flesh just like the rest. Disconnect, disconnect!

With their weapons drawn, the other malans surrounded Phlox. Anthullo and Tii each grabbed an arm dragging him to his feet, while Drinians darted out of the light towards them, some near ground-level, others rearing up. Taauk held the lizards at bay, a pistol in each hand. Proficient and calm, with every squeeze of the trigger, a direct hit. The energy shroud burned and sparked with increasing numbers of exiting lizards. Flicker. Flash! There were too many at once and Taauk was struck down: his throat cut open by razor sharp claws. The room flared, and it became impossible to see clearly. Calyx disappeared. Tii stumbled and they both dropped Phlox, but the doctor was right back up running with a limp. They all retreated up the narrow path with laser pistols burning. Anthullo had his pack open, pulling out a heavy cylinder: a triiad blast charge. Guvvat was pointing to the cavern floor. They had prepared for this.

“Blast the fuckers!”

“No! Cal’s still in there.” Phlox screamed.

But lizards were everywhere, spitting and hissing and crawling over each other to close the gap. The pistol shots slowed them down, but a dozen poured up the path slashing without mercy. Tii’s stomach was ripped open by the long claws of a gray lizard. Phlox pulled him back as Guvvat and Anthullo trained both their weapons on the advancing Drinian.

No one saw Cal at first. He held a bloody yellow tail, letting it drag in the dirt behind him and lizards froze or backed away. He walked straight to Taauk’s motionless body, and pulled the Vall pistols from his hands. He fired a laser bolt into a large ultra sapphire, and jumped clear as it sparked and went black. The whole room flickered, dimmed and relit. Everything stood still for a split second. Then everyone and everything ran.

“I’ll get ’em!” Guvvat screamed, grabbing the blast charge and pushing Anthullo farther up the path. The room flashed on and off, night and day. Phlox struggled to haul Tii up the slope. He heard the clunking sound of dense metal against rock—the explosive charge bouncing. It was difficult to see anything clearly as the room pulsed with frenetic light. Suddenly someone was sharing Tii’s weight, and they rushed up the path.

Guvvat, still in love with guns, remained closest to the cavern floor. He was jumping up and down, howling and firing randomly. Then he stood still, took careful aim at the charge on the floor and fired. The explosion was intense, blinding, and it blew his misshapen body back to them. Phlox saw his head roll by. Anthullo snagged the weapon from his severed hand and kept running.

Up the trail they raced. In blackness they scurried through the long tunnels—their ears perked, and their breath labored. Nothing but fear chased them.


Rotation 134/Revolution 9754

Chorus: Blue green dream, green blue dream. Green dreams blue.

Toral Blue: Precious stones stripped from our Quorum, plucked from our very eyes. The turquoise auditorium was destroyed.

Xal Violet: It stinks of fur, reeks of dirty war. Their skulls are strong but their minds are weak. We have superior numbers. Awake, we will attack again.

Toral Blue: They are too well adapted to the light. Only if Kora led us could we win.

Chorus: No, better yet, turn the atmosphere into a magnifying glass. Sear our vision into their heads or dissolve all that connects us.

Toral Blue: You combust in anger and no longer think. We risk our atmospheric link.

Chorus: Burn them down.


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