That Distant Dream
Laurel Beckley © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The shuttle jerked violently to the left, shuddered as both engines made the distinct whine of crystal overload, shrieked, and died.
Someone in the back screamed as the craft tumbled, rolling wildly through the atmosphere.
Melin gripped her armrests, squeezed her eyes shut as she willed her breath to remain steady. Hyperventilation would kill her faster.
She tried focusing on what that quack psychoanalyst claimed were “soothing” mantras as the onsetting gravity of reentry sucked her into her seat at a pace faster than the cheap civilian gravity suit could compensate. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
A distant corner of her brain—the one not occupied with breathing, muscle tension, and avoiding G-LOC—remembered a military-grade ship suit wouldn’t have had this problem. Her old space armor would have allowed her to carve a hole out of this blasted shuttle and free dive planetside. She sucked a tight inhale through clenched teeth, chest burning. Think of the positive.
Then she remembered she’d never link in with a set of space armor ever again, and she was back where she’d started.
On a free-falling shuttle with a one-way ticket to the ground.
The shuttle flipped, gaining a moment of antigravity that triggered a spate of relief—and retching and sobbing and fervent prayers—for its passengers.
The shuttle rolled again, nose pointing down.
Melin’s vision tunneled, graying at the edges.
I will not die like this.
A jolt of energy passed through her, setting her fingers on fire and dissolving her vision into sparkling blue light. An engine sputtered, hissed, and restarted with a ferocious roar.
As quickly as the onset had begun, the shuttle leveled in its descent, catching before it hit too steep of a reentry and turned them into a smear of fire and ash across the sky.
The shipboard gravity slackened to a bearable weight, and Melin heaved in a grateful sigh. Her chest hitched as she inhaled too far, and she leaned forward, instinctively slapping her chest to release the five-point harness as her lungs burned and shuddered with a coughing fit. The gravity was still too heavy, and she tumbled forward into the seat in front of her, wheezing.
“You all right, sero?” her seatmate asked with all the sincerity of a corpse. His gray face looked like it had aged thirty years in ten seconds.
Melin waved a hand between coughs, focusing on breathing. In and out and in and out, settle your chest, you aren’t going to die. You just survived a weird shuttle mishap. A little coughing fit is nothing. And when you get your shit together, you can tell this asshat to address you as an adult, not a child.
Eventually, her inhales matched her exhales. Unthinking, she wiped her mouth with her left hand—the flesh still new and tingly from the regen. Fuck. Everything felt new and fresh and raw. She sucked in a rattling breath.
The last set of skin grafts had done wonders to fix the burn scars. She looked like new. On the outside. Her insides were old, brittle, and breaking with every wracking cough, every interminable second. At least she had control of her bodily functions again. Melin shook her head and rubbed her temples with her right hand, feeling the calluses of her finger pads brush against her forehead. She carefully tucked her left hand against her side. A cobbled together golem, that’s what she was now.
“It’s like this on every jump,” her seatmate said. He straightened in his seat as if trying to gather his composure. Melin grimaced. Of course he hadn’t passed out.
Melin ignored him, leaning into her seat and fumbling with the straps.
He had introduced himself as Diplomatic Corpsmember Undersecretary Obidiah Calderon when they’d first boarded after he’d squeezed his body into the jump chair beside hers. His thigh touched hers even now, oozing over the seat. He’d been assigned to a backwoods planet of minor significance that would make or break his career. As if to emphasize his importance and larger stature, his thighs were spread wide, invading her space and pushing her further into the cramped window seat.
“Almost like the planet doesn’t want us here,” he added when he had obviously failed to pique her interest. “But we still land safely—80 percent of the time.”
She nodded absently and turned to the windows, which were untinted now they were in the upper atmosphere, revealing more gray clouds. At least this shuttle had windows. Tactical combat shuttles had no windows, and—Melin shook her head, trying to physically toss aside those memories. Those times were long past, and she was on a clean slate.
What clean slate she had left.
A fresh start, she’d resolved to think of it when she’d boarded the starship to this sector of Intergalactic Association of Sentient Species space.
A fresh start, take eleven or so.
She’d lost count somewhere around clean slate number five.
But there was no true fresh start for someone who’d received the highest awards in the IASS not once but twice. It had been two years since she’d woken from cryo, and the novelty of her circumstances had worn off. At first, she’d been shepherded from place to place; the long-lost treasure recovered. Although it certainly hadn’t helped IASS fleet when she’d punched that reporter immediately upon her release from the swank veterans’ hospital they’d stashed her in during her long recovery. And the state dinner where she’d spazzed when the servers popped the bubbly. One of the poor busboys wouldn’t walk ever again.
The brass stopped trying to mold her into a puppet, had stopped trying to point her along a destined path. Reporters stopped following her when they’d realized there would be no story.
She was all past with no future. She was even ruined for further military service. No one wanted to work with an operator who couldn’t even use a suit. Who couldn’t do five-dimensional math. Who couldn’t take an implant ever again.
Melin closed her eyes, forehead resting against the cool plex-glass.
She’d failed at every single thing they’d set her to since her waking.
Now, more than ever, she wanted nothing more than to just slide off into the background. She wanted to be something less than a footnote in history.
She wanted to be nothing.
Because without an implant, she was nothing.
Cranial implants had been enhancing humanity for generations. Nearly everyone had one—generally put in at birth or when they took their qualification exams upon entering adulthood. Few people failed to take an implant—although there were several religions focused on maintaining the purity of the human body.
Unimplanted people were rare because there were no jobs beyond the most menial for them. Entire families would scrounge for years for the cheapest model to implant their children and send them to school for a better future and for their children to turn around and raise up their parents in return.
But no one at the upper levels wanted to chance the story of the heroine of the Redelki Wars mopping a floor—and she had no desire to return to her long-fled homeworld.
So, during those nine or ten previous fresh starts and throughout the year of rehab she’d…floated. Unable to face her future, to accept reality, she’d turned herself off. Half-drifting, half-asleep until the only time it seemed she was really awake was while dozing, and even then, she’d wake unrested, troubled by the damn dreams.
They began in cryo-sleep.
The shrinks had insisted she hadn’t—couldn’t have—dreamt, that dreams were impossible because she had been effectively dead, but she had. She had dreamed, those long years as an ice cube. Weird dreams, muddled and glorious and filled with swords and dragons and monsters and creatures from fairy tales and nightmares. Dreams that mixed her life with her great-grandmother’s stories, but it had all been so real.
They had been more real than the monotonous reality of flex this, good, now bend your index finger, good, rotate your wrist, good. Of sterile gray walls and the hot-metal stench of recycled air.
The dreams had faded a couple months after she first woke. When she’d regained words in a language her therapists understood. But she kept seeing flickers of people she had never met in real life but felt so familiar out of the corner of her eyes.
They’d remained intermittent during the never-ending horrors of the grafts and regrowing her arm and the physical therapy, but after she’d been discharged, they grew more persistent.
Months, weeks apart, then quicker, every night, pulling her to a place she’d known only from childhood stories.
With nothing else left than the desire to stop the dreams, she had set her sights here, and who would have refused her? She was a hero. The hero. Besides, at that point the IASS wanted her out of their hair. She was a liability, an embarrassment waiting to happen.
Satura had seemed the best place to send her.
It was the end of the line in every sense.
The undersecretary yammered on while her thoughts wandered. Melin ignored him completely and focused on the gray haze outside the window. She didn’t even bother making the half-vocalized sounds of pretended listening.
Like a firm stroke from a painter’s brush, the clouds cleared, removing all musings of war, remorse, and dreams. Brilliant blue water sparkled, an ocean glittering like a jewel and stretching beyond the horizon. A cerulean she’d never seen before, not on all the oceans on all the planets in the galaxy. The shuttle banked, and she stared at her great-grandmother Anikki’s homeworld, growing more and more transfixed at her ancestor’s homeworld.
Thick greenery covered rolling hills, blurring by so fast it took her eyes a moment to figure out they were trees. It was not the overpopulated extravagance of a jungle—she forced herself not to think of jungles and focused on the emerald green below. Everything was a green so bright it hurt her eyes. A river snaked its way through sprawling plains. A distant mountain range cut a blue smudge along the horizon.
It was as if no human hand had tilled the land, cut the trees, or made their mark. A ridiculous notion since humanity inhabited the entire planet, treading so light as to not make an imprint from above.
Satura matched Nana Anikki’s descriptions, the images the same as the brochures buried deep in in the net’s archives.
Beautiful, lush, and magical.
Her hand touched the plex-glass. All the terror of minutes ago vanished.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Calderon asked. “Almost makes it all worthwhile.”
“What do you mean?” Melin didn’t want an answer. All her attention was riveted on the beautiful, beautiful landscape. She wanted to run through the plains, cavort through the forests, hike the mountains, and swim in the oceans and rivers. She wanted to find the source of her dreams.
“Satura is dangerous. It’s rated as a C5A, the most dangerous,” he explained like she didn’t already know. Like all the passengers hadn’t attended the mandatory safety briefs. “I wouldn’t recommend sightseeing. People who do, even the missionaries and scientists who manage to finagle a pass here, often go missing.”
“Missing?” The safety briefs had explicitly told them to follow the instructions of embassy security and not leave the embassy grounds but hadn’t mentioned why that was important.
“The natives are intent on removing us.” He smiled. “Of course, we have the city and access to the space station and shuttles. With those, we hold all the cards.”
Melin stilled, trying very, very hard to remain neutral and not punch him in the mouth. She’d read everything possible about the tiny, backwater planet of Satura, trying to understand the IASS’s atypical annexation.
The planet itself was politically unimportant. Scientists came in droves to examine what they described as a triplicate magnetic shield causing frequent and random technology disruptions. There were also dozens of research articles by xeno-anthropologists on the impossible planetary language, developed by the long forgotten, recently rediscovered penal colony and their alliance with the sentient indigenous life.
These reasons, however, weren’t what interested the IASS.
Located on the edges of IASS controlled space, Satura and its system were near an obscure but strategically significant wormhole providing a one-way ticket straight to the hub of IASS space. As the critical vulnerability of Byron’s Gate had to be protected at all costs, the IASS rejected Satura’s petition for sovereign status and incorporated it into a protected territory two hundred years ago. The Saturans had not liked the change or the following occupation—and who would—but for all of Melin’s research, she had found next to nothing on the indigenous history—or why the IASS kept a diplomatic hub onplanet.
“Wormholes, girl, is what the IASS is after.” Calderon tapped her left forearm with a finger.
Melin withdrew her arm, tucking it close to her body. The new flesh burned from his touch, extremely sensitive.
“That’s what we fought the Redelki Wars for—but you’re too young for that,” he continued, oblivious to her narrowed eyes. “You were what, six? Seven? When the wars ended?”
She frowned, about to open her mouth to make a sharp retort on age when the shuttle dipped. Gasps rippled through the passengers. Melin, used as she was to combat maneuvers, fought to keep her bile down.
Calderon tapped her arm again. She had placed it on the armrest as a grip, fingers attempting to find half-remembered buttons for the eject sequence. “Don’t worry,” he assured her. “I fought in the Redelki Wars. This is nothing like a combat drop.”
Melin attempted to hide a moue of distaste, knowing it would be misinterpreted, and wished these armrests came with control buttons so she could launch this fool into lower atmosphere.
Before she’d dismissed him entirely on the all too long shuttle ride from the space station, he’d told her all about his grand military service, fighting for the IASS’s survival. She’d fact-checked his information on her palm-pad when he was taking a nap before the reentry sequence.
Obidiah Calderon, third and superfluous son of the CEO of Calderon Banking and veteran of his planet’s Home Fleet with a commission bought by his daddy’s money only after the IASS dipped into the university reserves for fodder at the height of the wars. The closest he’d come to action was through war games on his planet’s higher atmosphere—billions of parsecs from the real fighting.
Melin bit her cheek to avoid pointing out that unlike him, she’d served the full length of the war. Plus seventeen years if she counted the cryo. The military certainly had even if it hadn’t translated to back pay.
“What made you come to this place?” Calderon asked in a moderately disinterested attempt at making her talk or perhaps thinking her nervous about this wild and barbarian planet where missing people were a routine occurrence. “A young sero like you should have had the pick of hundreds of planets in the roster.”
She bristled at the condescending sero. We’re the same age even if we don’t look it. “I speak a little Saturan.” There. The simple answer. Never mind that the language experts had listened to five sentences of Anikki’s Saturan and laughed in her face.
Never mind that Melin had stared deep into a star map and picked the furthest point from humanity, the point that had scurried through her subconscious in the long dark, that had practically screamed, here, go here! She shook herself again. Wake up.
Calderon blinked. “Practically impossible language to pick up.” He paused. “Even with implants.”
So, he noticed she didn’t have one. Of course he did. He’d probably tried to synch with hers to get her information—name, age, birthplace, the works. If she’d had an implant he wouldn’t be asking as many questions. She frowned, revised her mental assessment. No, he’d be asking more questions. The wrong ones.
“I grew up speaking it. My great-grandmother taught me.” They were about to land, nearing the ground with surprising speed. Small houses dotted the landscape, moving closer and closer to what she assumed was Satura’s capital, Jidda. Anikki had regaled her of stories of the city by the sea and its rose-walled palace of Veskia on its island in the bay. The palace had hanging gardens and a vast, mirrored throne room where the king had gathered his dukes, or damirs, as they were called here. Melin had hardly believed Anikki’s stories—and those cursed cryo-sleep dreams—had been true until she’d stumbled across an ancient brochure in the vid-library. The castle, the city, and the rose-colored walls were all there.
“Her family traveled here?”
Melin blinked. Had he been speaking this entire time? Or was this a new question segueing from what she’d said however many minutes or seconds ago? The shrink explained the absentmindedness was wrapped about the trauma of it all, and Melin had replied it was complete bullshit. She’d had her implant ripped from her brain, and her brain now spent most of its energy struggling to catch up and think for itself without a computer doing all the work. Nothing more to it. Worse things had happened to other people—the people she’d fought with—than having an implant torn out. Worse things had happened to her than the implant—
Melin shook her head, remembered the conversation. The expectation of response. “They were refugees of the incorporation.”
“Curious. Makes sense as to how you got here,” he said. “What’re you assigned as?”
His eyes said it all as he dismissed her completely. In a tech world—even one with odd glitches—general assistants were the unskilled labor. She self-consciously rubbed her scalp, fingering the fourteen-centimeter-long scar behind her left ear where her implant had been. Regen hadn’t fixed that scar. She wanted to remember that loss.
Calderon focused on that spot. She knew he wanted to ask what she had done to lose her implant. She doubted he would connect the dots—it was so obviously not surgical, so haphazardly scarred and running down her neck at angles. He probably thought she’d had a horrifying accident. She doubted Calderon had ever seen a victim of the Blood Sun Empire’s most famous torture method.
There weren’t many survivors.
Most died within years of rescue, unable to cope with the loss of half their mind and unable to accept another implant. The lingering few were all strapped down to hospital beds, pumped full of happy drugs with open eyes staring into nothingness. None had had her advantage of time. Some advantage that had been. She’d lost some memories and gained…some very odd ones.
During the first few months of her recovery, the doctors parading in and out of her room had been fascinated by the implant removal and subsequent rewiring of her brain. They were intent on studying what had happened in cryo, amazed over her claim to have dreamed. She had a lot of gaps in memory and cognitive ability—of course there were gaps; she’d had an implant enhancing everything for seven years—but overall, her brain was fully functioning.
But it would never accept another implant. She would never be able to go back to combat. Assimilate with the population. Hold down a normal job. She was, in polite terms, a nonaccepting human. In impolite terms, a nube.
The shuttle bumped down, brakes squealing as it hit the long runway.
“Well, we’ve landed,” Calderon announced unnecessarily. “It was bumpier than what we’re used to.”
She raised an eyebrow and looked him square in the face for the first time. His eyes widened. Gen-modded features weren’t uncommon, but apparently, he hadn’t been expecting eyes like hers on someone without an implant. Cat-slit pupils were uncommon even on the more adventurous moddies.
“I could have sworn this flight was the norm.” She stressed the final word to emphasize the rudeness of his prolonged gaze. He focused on the seat in front of him, reddening.
“Shuttle preparing for planetary gravity,” the pilot cut in over the comm.
Pressure pounded down on her shoulders, pressing her into her seat once again as full grav—and then some—cut in.
1.25 Standard, near the upper limit of gravitational force an unmodified human could endure for long periods of time. Melin thanked her ancestors’ scientists that she had been built for higher grav even if the long dark had eroded her tolerance for much of anything. She eased upright, letting her bones do the work as Calderon grunted beside her in pain.
“This part is the worst,” he wheezed. “Damn, damn place.”
“External pressurizing complete. Attendants, unseal the door.”
Melin’s ears popped as unrecycled air rushed into the cabin. It was sweet and fresh, causing a thrill to run unexpectedly over her, jolting from her extremities like a bolt of electricity. The hair on her arms stood up. She scanned the cabin to see if the effects had been general or localized. Beside her, Calderon’s nose wrinkled as if he found the pure scents unappealing.
“It always smells like this,” he complained. “This isn’t your first planet, is it?”
Melin snorted. He thought she was a spacer. “No,” she replied. Her body tingled pleasantly from the effects of … whatever it had been.
The other passengers filed off the shuttle, and Calderon stood up with effort, gripping the backs of each chair for support as he moved ponderously down the aisle. One of the attendants took his luggage before Melin rose, cutting in front of her and following the undersecretary.
She took her time gathering up her lone carry-all from the overhead compartment, letting the few remaining passengers stagger out before her.
“Do you need help?” one of the other attendants asked. His tone indicated he would rather not exert himself unless it would get him off this planet and on the spaceport faster. He’d pulled down the grav suit to his waist, and already sweat stains dampened the armpits of his tunic.
“I’ve got it, thanks.” She slung the sack over her shoulder and walked down the ramp, noting the gentle slope instead of the usual stairs.
A small crowd had gathered at the bottom, and the man at its center had cornered Calderon into conversation. A cluster of grav-chairs stood beside them, two unoccupied. Melin’s stomach sank in anticipation, and then everything went out of her head as her feet touched down on the smooth jetway.
A second burst of energy burned through her, the shock dropping her to her knees. Her sight sparkled with blue and her ears roared. The pain vanished as rapidly as it hit, leaving prickles down her spine and fingers.
She stood, feeling more energized than she had in years. Decades, even. Her entire body buzzed as if every strand of hair in her body stood on end. She smoothed down the fine strands floating about her head.
A gentle breeze rumpled her hair, immediately destroying her efforts, and she stared up into the brilliant blue of the sky. Tinges of purple and red sat at the edges of the horizon, but the upper heights were pure cerulean, barely lighter than the ocean they had passed over. She glanced down, taking in the gently rolling hills covered in blue-green waving grass. There were trees in the distance and stumps of trees on the fields near the airfield. Tall, razor wire topped fences surrounded the airfield, and a number of guards were positioned on strategically placed towers, all pointed outboard toward the fields and woods as if expecting an attack from nature itself.
“Are you okay?” asked the attendant who had offered to take her bag. “Do you need me to get you a hoverchair or a medic?”
Melin nodded, still transfixed on the security spread across the airfield before shaking her head as his question sunk in. The attendant tossed his hands up and retreated into the shuttle.
“You were the last one off?” someone asked, breaking her attention away from the scenery. It was one of the aides from the main group—none of whom had seen her stumble.
Melin sighed. Time to face reality and join the rest of the group.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t end in disaster.
“Of course, Joe.” Calderon settled into a grav-chair with a sigh. “You were expecting someone besides myself?”
“Someone? Of course I’m looking for someone. Didn’t you read the manifest?” the man asked. Melin recognized him as Ambassador Joe Koshkay. He was tall, distinguished, and his lined, light-skinned frown was in desperate need of another face-regen. “Are you sure you didn’t see a woman about your age on the shuttle? Scarred?”
Melin bit back a groan. She’d hoped this far into the Outer Rim, however militarily and diplomatically significant, no one would know her, but apparently news travelled fast—or remained news. Her desires to slink into oblivion were being scuttled faster than an imploding starship.
She turned to the man who had asked the question and walked toward the group as Calderon explained that no one fitting that description was on the shuttle.
“How could you have fucked this up so badly?” Koshkay snarled. His attendants cringed. Melin frowned slightly. All the reports she’d read had praised Koshkay’s amiable, easygoing nature. Judging from the redness of his face and the veins bulging on his neck, he had excellent press agents.
She sighed and stepped forward, right hand extended.
Fresh start number ten or eleven, ready or not, here I come.
“I’m Melin Grezzij. I believe you’re looking for me?”