Part 1 – Awakening
Rejoice ye mortal souls; the gods walk among us once more
From the darkness of sleep, Sam awoke into the world of white. The abyssal silence of his dreams — the eternal blackness that always met him whenever he closed his eyes — was such a stark contrast to that white, disinfected world which was his reality. Sam woke up from his dreamless sleep and was once again faced with that all-encompassing whiteness that characterized his existence: white sheets, white floors, white walls, white ceiling, white clothes, white, white, white.
How anyone had ever gotten the idea that white was a good color to thrust into the face of the ill and unhealthy, Sam would never understand.
Instead he found solitude within the dark realm that had always been his dreamless sleep. He heard stories of how other people dreamed of magnificent scenes and tales, but for as long as he could remember he had never had any such experience. Instead he was always met by soft and soothing silence.
However, now he had opened his eyes, and so it was only proper that he resigned himself to stay within this sickening light for as long as he could.
“You’re awake,” said a soft voice beside him, and Sam managed, through great effort to move his head to the side and look at the speaker. There sat Liz, his sister — twin sister — and smiled warmly; her curly brown hair held back by two thin braids at her temples while the rest felt freely down upon her shoulders. She had dimples — curse her — and they showed whenever she just slightly twisted her fine mouth into a semblance of a smile.
She had blue eyes with a hint of steel in them, like Sam. However, while his had always had a somewhat dark tone, hers made her irises shine with an unbelievable brightness, competing with the white walls for first in ‘reflecting the most light’.
All in all, Lizea Welbourne was a beautiful and delightful young woman in the prime of her teenage years, top of her class, social center point of any gathering she deigned to partake in. Granted all that; what was she doing with all of her promise and potential?
“You know,” said Sam, croaking the words with a dry throat, “You don’t have to visit me everyday… I can survive one day of you enjoying yoursel-“
He got no further before a coughing fit sucked the strength out of him, leaving him writhing between his lungs’ rejection of fresh air and his throat’s refusal to follow the simple survival strategy of not choking him. Liz acted accordingly, without panicking, calling for the nurse while pushing Sam onto the side so that breathing would be easier, slapping him on the back, gentle but firm.
The nurse rushed in, following the call, and was administering the proscribed medicine in response to this regular occurrence. Once Sam was stabilized, she padded Liz on the back and said, “Good work, Miss Welbourne, you’ll be a fine nurse one day.”
Liz’s cheeks reddened from the compliment and she said something unintelligible, while Sam gathered his wits enough to croak out, “Thank you, Selma.”
“Just doing my job, Samuel,” said Selma sweetly and gave him one of her wide and matronly smiles, “We’re not giving up on you, young man, so hang in there.” Sam nodded gratefully, but was unable to muster the strength to respond. Selma had been keeping a special eye on him for as long as he could remember, probably because she had a son his age. When she couldn’t keep an eye out for her own progeny, she had taken Sam on as a substitute.
“But I’ll have to tell doctor Rain about this, and you, Miss Welbourne, are going to have to cut your visit short. It’s important he reserves his strength for the surgery, you know.”
“Yes,” said Liz and bowed slightly to the older woman, “I won’t be long, I promise.”
“Ahh such a good girl. You should meet my Timothy sometime, I am sure you would get along very well!”
Again Liz blushed, and looked down on her feet. Selma laughed and gently clapped Liz’s cheek, before turning about and leaving Sam’s room with her wide gait. Liz resumed her seat at his side, “I like her.”
“Me too,” said Sam with a smile.
“So, brother dearest, how are you doing?”
“Rainbows and unicorns,” he said, “That’s what it feels like my guts are filled with.”
She raised one eyebrow before responding, “Now, there’s a mental picture I won’t get out of my head for a while…”
“Try living it, then…”
She smiled sadly and placed a hand on his wrinkly and leathery own. “I am sorry, Sam.”
“Don’t be, it’s not your fault,” He answered, while desperately trying to twist his stiff face into a deathly pale grin, “I probably pissed off some divinity in my previous life.”
She chuckled and shook her head at his silliness. Then she reached down into her bag and withdrew something from inside: a high school textbook on mathematics. “I got this for you from the library; its next years material. Think it’ll do?”
With his fingers he motioned for her to place it before him and flip through the pages. Most of the problems were basic, and Sam merely had to glance at them before a near-automatic process in his head solved these in an instant. With shaky hands, he pointed and whispered the answers.
Though he made no major movements, the pointing alone was exhausting. After a while, Liz withdrew the book and shut it with an audible ‘smack’. “I really miss cheating off you.”
“As if you ever needed to,” rasped Sam with a laugh.
“Ugh, you’re just no fun…” She placed the book on his table, next to his copy of the Iliad. “You’re still reading this?” She asked, pointing at the cover of the old book, which had belonged to their older brother. Sam received it for his twelfth birthday, sent to him from overseas without a note. “I like the characters,” Sam answered noncommittally, knowing Liz resented almost anything with their brother’s mark on it.
She scoffed, but did not start the argument again. They’d had it before.
“Anyway, I actually came because of this.” She retrieved her phone and opened the browser, flipping through a few pages until she found what she was looking for, then turned the screen towards him. On it was a video rapport of the seventh manned mission leaving for Mars, and Sam ate it up with wide open eyes.
“With the settlement of Haven growing steadily, sheltered in the great Valles Marineris canyon, and with settlers laying the groundwork for further expansion, this newest mission will provide the frontier with valuable experts and supplies,” reported a senior voice over while images depicted the crew boarding the vessel that would transport them to their new home.
“Numbers released from the Free Space Settlement Committee – FSSC – show that over ten thousand individuals have applied for a suitability assessment, in accordance with the guidelines for the Mars Initiative, but until now only 42 applicants have been approved, including these latest eleven. The level of competency and mental fortitude required is a very high bar to overcome, although officials are promising that the requirements will lower as the settlement expands, transport costs decline, and a bigger workforce becomes necessary. Until then, many will have to put on a lid on their space-faring dreams…”
The rapport droned on, but Sam stopped listening for a while to just admire the spaceship that was on the screen. This was the 3. generation of the Mars Initiative’s Icarus model since the initial five settlers were deposited on the red planet in 2033. It was a simplistic design, in the same characteristic tube-formed concept that had been common for a few decades.
What made the Icarus interesting was its ability to expand once it was out in space, forming wide circular ‘bubbles’ which would rotate and simulate gravity for the crew on their six-month journey. It was nowhere near perfect — they had been unable to reach an entire g’s worth of simulated gravity — but it kept the people acclimated to gravity without losing too much muscle mass or bone density in the process.
Once in Haven, the Mars settlement, they would again find themselves with simulated gravity, since the entire station was a slanting, rotating wheel designed to provide a full g of force in order to keep their biology stable in the low gravity of Mars. It was an incredible human achievement, and it was Sam’s dream to one day take that trip as well.
He smiled sadly to himself; sure, he would go one day, when he got better.
That was what he kept telling himself, but it was really a pipe dream. Something to hold onto while his body decayed slowly, but surely.
He was about to close the rapport down, when it continued to cover more domestic issues. “Reports of new riots in old Europe are surfacing, as food shortages has caused many to take to the streets. Armed conflict has increased, and last night three bombs went off in embassies to the Naval Nations. The president of Flotsam has ushered the following statement in response to these attacks…”
Sighing, Sam handed the phone back and said, “The world sure is a dangerous place. If it goes on like this, then the Mars colony will be too late.”
Liz nodded gravely as she received her phone. “Yeah… Dad’s is getting worried you know. Although he doesn’t say it, I’m sure it’s because Warren is over there, the ungrateful bastard.” Sam elected not to comment; it was a sore subject at best, how their brother had left on his own volition, without as much as a word.
“I’ll do as Selma said and leave you to gather your strength,” Liz said, gaining her feet. She leaned forward and kissed him on his forehead — an extremely embarrassing gesture that he would have fended off if he had the strength — then waved goodbye and left him alone.
Sam smiled slightly as she left, grateful that she still came to visit him everyday, even as he felt guilty about holding her back from the youthful escapades she was supposed to be enjoying. Then his eyelids lost their ability to stay open, and he immediately fell into exhausted sleep.
Returning to the deep darkness, he felt its invigorating peace envelop him. Even here he could feel that constant sapping of his strength, but at least he did not have to deal with his failing body whenever he occupied this space.
He was sure that this was how his subconscious dealt with the overwhelming existential determinism dominating his bed-chained reality — by providing him with bit of mental solitude from the pain.
Back in that pesky world of white, he found himself staring up into two dark, bespectacled eyes. Doctor Rain was leaning down over him, observing as he came back to reality. “Hello Sam,” said the soft spoken man in his gentle voice, the kind that somehow automatically radiated authority and calm upon anyone who heard it, “I see you’re still having problems with waking up.”
“Hello, Thomas,” mumbled Sam drowsily in return, “I honestly just prefer the quiet of sleep.”
Doctor Rain was a handsome man in his late 30’s, with curly dark hair framing his face perfectly, who had been treating Sam since his first symptoms appeared at the age of four. He nodded solemnly and jotted something down on a notepad.
“I also hear you had another episode earlier, when your sister visited. How are you feeling?”
“A bit thirsty, in fact,” Said Sam, and was grateful for the cup with water Doctor Rain held to his lips a moment later. The soothing liquid brought a bit of energy back into his body, although it would be temporary.
While he drank, Doctor Rain observed him carefully, before beginning a cursory checkup. He put a hand to Sam’s forehead, listened to his heart rate, then helped him to sit up and listened to his lungs through his back. After this, he asked Sam to wriggle with different parts of his body, until finally he grasped his wrist and asked him to ‘make a fist’.
Sam tried as much as he could, but barely even managed to touch his palm with his fingertips. Doctor Rain observed calmly, without commenting at all, before jotting down some more notes. Then he placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder and smiled, although it was a bit of a sad smile. “You’re not worse, but you’re not exactly better either.”
“Color me surprised,” muttered Sam, half joking.
“It could be worse,” reminded Doctor Rain, “When I saw your symptoms for the first time, I feared you would only have months left, and yet here you are — still holding on. You’re resilient, Sam, that’s important.”
Sam smiled at that. He remembered the first time Doctor Rain had checked up on him. He remembered this because his first attack had come during a visit to the Mars Initiative’s exhibition on the many objects they had brought back from Mars when returning from shuttling settlers. It was one of the greatest days of his life — and one of the worst.
“I know, Thomas. Thank you for your help.” Doctor Rain waved his hand, as if to dismiss the notion that any thanks were required, then looked at his notes for a while before looking back up. “At least you’re in good enough condition for us to push forward with the surgery. Are you still certain that you want to go through with it?”
Sam nodded. Had he been able to, he would have done so energetically.
“I am sure,” he said, underlining the vague bobbing motion he barely managed. Doctor Rain smiled at the certainty in Sam’s voice, and said, “I’m glad. Considering the effort it took to convince your parents, it’s good to see that you’re still certain.”
This was an understatement. Sam knew how much his parents loved him, despite his successful older brother, Warren at 26 with his own tech firm, and his popular older sister — by 12 seconds — they had doted more on him than any of his siblings. It probably had something to do with him being sick since he was four years old, and Sam could understand how hard it was for them to agree to the surgery.
For one thing, it was highly experimental. Sam’s disease was genetic — his body was simply shutting down all essential functions one after another entirely on its own — to which the only solution was to mess with his DNA.
He had initially been treated with a bone marrow transplant, which had allowed him to complete elementary and middle school, but when he was about to enter high school his entire body started to break down again. The surgery he had been offered would directly target his DNA, by planting molecular robots in all vital organs; organic robots that would work to correct the errors that were causing his body to shut down.
However, the sheer scope of the necessary invasive procedures was enough to make the whole thing very dangerous, even with modern medical techniques. The risks of dying were high, but Sam knew that avoiding the risk would just mean a slow death. He would die if he did nothing, which made the choice moot. His parents had not been happy about the chances, but had relented in the end. They knew that he did not want to be chained to this bed forever, not if there was just the slightest chance…
“I’ll check back on you later, Sam,” said Doctor Rain, as he clapped his patient on the hand, “There’s two days ’till surgery, and I intend to keep you in good condition until then.”
Sam smiled and waved weakly with his hand on the blanket over him. Then overwhelming exhaustion hit him, and he returned to that dark and empty space where he could feel so much more alive than real life.
On the day of the surgery, all of his family came to see him. All except Warren, of course. Sam’s older brother had been estranged to him ever since he first showed symptoms of disease, for some reason. Warren had never really explained himself, but Sam barely knew him at this point, and so he just enjoyed having his mom, dad, and sister at his side before his fate would be decided.
His mom cried — she had been doing that a lot lately — while his dad held her and smiled reassuringly to Sam. His dad had always been a stalwart pillar of calm to Sam, but he spotted the red-rimmed eyes and the flickering gaze in those steel-blue eyes he himself had inherited.
“You’ll be alright, son,” That was what he said, but Sam could not help notice the hollow tone of his voice. In comparison, Liz was cheerful and chatty. She kept talking about events from school, and how everyone was going to be surprised to see him when he got back, as if it was a sure thing. Sam smiled at that, noting his sisters desperation and the unshed tears she stubbornly refused to let him see.
Then he was ushered into surgery, and the anesthetics knocked him out in seconds. He fell back into the dark void he knew and understood so well. Here there was no pain, no exhaustion, no feeling of inadequacy or failure. No real thought either, just the gentle stream of existence which kept him longing for this place every time he was awake.
But something was different this time.
The usual dead-silence always surrounding him here was broken by something muffled, something… spoken? Then a violent ray of light blew up his world of darkness. Just a slight crack, as if the universe had split apart and revealed another dimension of pure light.
Surprised by the sudden conscious realization, and without that overwhelming weight of pain that followed waking up in the real world, Sam looked on in wonder as the crack widened and became a gaping hole. Slowly, ever so slowly, he got used to the new light, and saw the shape of the strangest creature looking down on him.
It was wide, and vaguely human — although its ears were definitely nothing Sam had ever seen on a human. It had a mane and beard of fiery red hair, which made Same think of it as male, along with two dark eyes that looked down at him with a hungry gaze. Did it want to eat him?
For a moment it just looked down at him, frozen. Then he saw its mouth move and heard it speak in a strange language. It came closer, moving in and revealing a thick, burly arm with which it reached down into his darkness.
The apprehension rising up within him was overwhelming. This was wrong. On a deep level he knew that this was a transgression which had to be punished – and he knew it would be. The next moment, an unintelligible shout from outside the narrow opening in his space caught his attention.
The strange figure above him turned towards the noise and raised its arms in a questioning motion. Now Sam saw how the red-bearded figure was clearly missing the hand it had just used to blaspheme, leaving only a bloody stump behind. Justice had been served.
Like a spectator in a movie, he felt his perspective change. His vision moved out beyond the edge of his dark dimension and into a new world – one that was markedly more dark than what he was used to seeing. There was no time to study his surroundings, because a dark object was thrust into his vision — just as the red-haired figure realized it was bleeding profusely. It opened its mouth, half a scream escaping it, before the dark object broke through the back of the creature’s head, reemerging on the other side through its mouth.
It was a surreal scene, and Sam was a helpless spectator to it. The blood poured out everywhere and captured his attention for such a long time he barely noted the flicker of color around impaled figure. The vision hovered upwards, the arm — because it was an arm, Sam now saw — holding the creature raised to the side of his view.
With the new perspective, Sam saw the little fat creature nearby, and recognized the tell-tale signs of pleading. This one had brown hair, neatly combed to one side. Its ears were decidedly smaller than the first, yet so narrow and sharp-edged that they were definitely not human either. It had small round eyes that looked almost comical when widened as much as they were able, barely a thumbs width.
Had Sam had any kind of control, he might have done something to stop what was about to happen, but as it were, he had to watch as another appendage reached down and grabbed the little fat creature by the throat and held it up. Dangling with its feet in the air, the creature stared transfixed into what Sam had to assume were his own eyes — since, how else was he seeing any of this?
Its mouth moved. It was saying something, but to Sam there was no sound. Every fiber of his metaphysical being screamed for this to stop; for the killing to end, for this intelligent creature to survive. Fighting for control, he felt helplessly detached from the body he was so obviously prisoned within.
He had fought his entire life for even the smallest movement of his sick body. Surely this could be no different, surely he just had to move.
The creature’s brown eyes were pleading. Its small hands clawed at the powerful force holding it up, grasping at the smallest hint of leverage. It was still fighting. He was still fighting. Together they fought the immovable object; one from within, the other from without.
Something clicked. It was like he had fumbled in the darkness for so long and finally found the latch he was looking for. The hand lost its grip, and the creature fell heavily down upon the ground. It did not move.