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Stuff of Dreams

by Cheryl W. Ruggiero
and Susan A. Hagedorn

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

“Who cares? Won’t be another human on this continent for another century. Whatever got to Wurly and the others came from this stinking place. It can go back. I got what I came for, and now I want to get out alive and well. You want to leave in that condition too? Get me some answers. All you’ve got so far are questions.”

“Yeah, well here’s another one: Do you want Pyrush to die? Because he will if we don’t get him to a good facility. The base clinic was stripped when it was shut down. The ship’s medberth isn’t much more than a cold-keep with fluids on tap. He needs intensive care.”

I need to know if I’m safe, that what got him can’t get me. And can’t get me deep-sixed at home.”

Mike started to answer, but shut his mouth.

Personal log entry, Deem, Michael, Lieutenant

Bahr’s only worried about his own ass, but he’s right: until we know what this is and how dangerous it might be, we can’t leave. Am not getting anywhere with sampling. None of the expectable pathogens or toxins. Can only do basic contact EEGs — might as well be back in the twentieth century — but a lot of something is going on in Pyrush’s brain. If it’s like my dreams... Boy, the guy’s in trouble. At least I can wake up.

Dreams so real... some weird stuff is going on in my head.

Last night I ran through razor-edged foliage to get away from fire, smoke stinging my eyes, embers burning my back, and flames leaping ahead of me.

And the night before, I stood staring up while lines of green and red and violet light rippled in the black sky, an aurora like I’ve never seen awake.

And the night before, I huddled in the dark with her, my small, warm, and smelly someone. We crushed ourselves into a gap in cold rock, hearing yowls and the sounds of ripping flesh outside. I just wish they’d talk to me, whoever — or whatever — they are. Or talk to each other. There’s no talking. It feels unnatural — and completely normal.

When I wake up, none of it acts like a dream and drains away. No, my small-and-hairy nightlife stays with me like a childhood memory... hey, not that my childhood was that interesting. Or terrifying.

But I know without reasoning that the dream memories are real. I can feel them clearly only when I slip out of the structure of daytime reality in sleep. My logical mind rejects them, but my primitive brain embraces them. They are getting stronger, more detailed. Will they start to take over my waking self as well? Is this what happened to the others?

“I’ve got another question, sir. What were Wurly and the others doing before they went nuts?”

“I’m not going to tell you that, Deem.”

Mike took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Well, then, where were they doing it?”

Bahr glared. Then he shrugged. “They were along the edge of the shelf. They brought back some red stuff Wurly and Gambell were curious about, along with what they were sent to find.”

“Got any red stuff left?”

“Hell, I don’t know. Look around.”

Personal log entry, Deem, Michael, Lieutenant

Bahr’s red stuff is the kind of life-slime that’s been found on this continent for more than two centuries in several melts. But in it I’m finding what look like meningococcal forms. Their genome is close to what existed some decades ago before it was mostly wiped out by the epsilon phage. Some differences. Some virus-like inclusions.

I just read a report out of Hopkins-Lunar that they’ve found some new meningococcal strain among workers there. The baddies pass bundles of genes packaged like viruses to their milder bacterial kin, whereupon the newbies go on a powerful bacterial rampage. Fast, deadly, and hallucinogenic. Nasty thing is, they pick up stuff from their hosts and bundle it in too. Maybe the data helps the next generation fool immune systems in future hosts.

Could that be what’s going on here? Could some ancestral form of the same thing be what killed off these small furry hominids, which is what I seem to be in my sleep? Could that be what got to Wurly, Pyrush, and Gambell? I need to test their tissues again, now that I have an idea what to look for. Standard assays don’t include the like these days.

Damn, I’m tired! Have to slice up more frozen brains tomorrow. Have to tighten this log up, put the data in. And make sure I code and cache it so Bahr won’t find it. Tomorrow.

“Fever’s down. That’s gotta be good, Pyrush. Let me just get another blood sample here, and we’ll be through, and I’ll leave you at peace in your dreamy land. Hope in your dreams, at least, you’re staying warm and safe.”

Mike bent to insert the needle in Pyrush’s arm. A fist flashed toward his eye. He ducked away.

“Uhhh... uhhh... glaghh.” Pyrush slid off the table, wrapping an elbow around Mike’s neck as they fell. Mike’s left shoulder crackled as they hit the concrete floor.

Mike tried to soothe, not easy while being choked on the floor. “C’mon... goo’ budhh. ’Member me? Not emnyhhh... frenz... ’member? Frenz?”

Pyrush’s grip weakened.

“Gud... les’ preshr... can he’p you. Frenz!”

Wham! Boom! Mike felt Pyrush’s body jerk and go still. He struggled out from under Pyrush and saw Bahr in the slammed-open doorway, saw the immense blaster in Bahr’s hand. Mike felt for the artery in Pyrush’s neck, but detected no beat.

“FLUX! Why did you do that? You might’ve hit me too! He was finally responding to me, not just to his dream world. Why didn’t you just stun him?”

Bahr swung the blaster toward Mike. “Looked like you were getting the worst of the argument and I saved your sorry ass, and the mission too. You said yourself it was dicey whether he’d make it. I solved several problems with one shot. Get back to work. I want this over! And then I want you to fly us out of here.”

Personal log entry, Deem, Michal, Lieutenant.

Well, Rosie, things got intense two days ago. Bahr blasted Pyrush when I might have been able to save him. Can’t blame Bahr totally. After all, he is career military with a knee-jerk reaction to solve conflict with a blaster, and he did break in when Pyrush was attacking me, but all my work would have been easier with Pyrush alive.

Can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Bahr, alone in his isolation suit, with no one to talk to. I’ve got you, my mechanical love, but he has only his covert paranoia as a companion. Sorry for him but not enough to trust him. But... with the new info I’ve ferreted out since then, I’m about ready to pass on my educated guess as to what’s been happening. I’ll have to talk to him again... but I’ll make him sweat.

“What are you doing, Deem? Get away from me with that!”

“I va-a-nt to su-u-uck your blo-o-od, mor-r-rtal.” Mike bared his teeth and leered, though his bio suit faceplate probably spoiled the effect.

Bahr blinked. “You’re not breaking this suit seal!” Bahr stumbled from the control chair and backed away.

“You have no sense of humor, Bahr. You’re gonna go nuts if you can’t laugh. Just put this thing through the nutrient port and let it sample your tongue. And then tell me about your dreams.”

Personal log entry, Deem, Michael, Lieutenant

Well, Rosie, Bahr eventually admitted that he’s been doing something as human as dreaming. Wish I didn’t have to report that his dreams are like mine: no words, no talking, but scents, sounds, sights, and shocks of life through eyes and ears and nose about three feet off the ground, running and hunting and hungering, day and night, and sometimes deep in the dark inside somewhere.

SHE sleeps with him, too. Can’t even say she’s faithless, because I think maybe Bahr and I are the same guy, critter...whatever... in these dreams. Gotta quit this job before Bahr and I turn into the same guy in waking life. And what did Wurly dream? Was she HER? But, Rosie, I think I’m beginning to get a handle on the cause.

Bahr was not intrigued with the smelly senses, microbial genomes, or viral insertions that Mike explained. “Boss, we’ve now got the viral packets from the red goo in us too, just like Wurly and the rest.” His best shot at what was going on wasn’t refined yet, but he was aiming it straight at Bahr and hoping it hit something vital.

“They’re in the red stuff that’s melting out now, though they don’t seem to survive in salt water. With better equipment, we’d probably find traces of the hominids we’ve been in our dreams. How they came here in one of the interglacial periods I don’t know. What happened to them? Don’t know. And unless we report this, or somebody else breaks the 2199 Antarctica Human Presence Accords, nobody may ever know, because by the time anyone is allowed to come back here, our dreamtime will be melted into the sea, dispersed by the waves.”

Bahr simply sat and stared at him, so Mike went on. “You hear any conversations in your dreams? No. Why? I think these hominids were pre-verbal but shared each other’s feelings and sensory images in ways we can’t. Maybe they didn’t need language. And maybe that’s why they couldn’t survive whatever changes came at them; they could pass the experience around in a kind of shared waking dream, but they couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t think about it, couldn’t make plans. Just experience it.”

“I’m dreaming their dreams?”

“Their memories. I think we’re taking home a permanent hominid memento, Boss. It made the others crazy even when they were awake. Gambell deep in a cave? Wurly running from fire? Pyrush trying to gut some big nasty beast? I did all that in my dreams. You?”

“Yeah.” Bahr squirmed inside his suit as if he itched. Mike hoped it felt like ants crawling.

“You and I, Bahr, we haven’t had waking dreams. Or have you?”

Bahr just glared.

If Bahr was seeing prehistoric predators while awake... Mike felt himself start to sweat. “Maybe you and I, Bahr, we’re integrating the images instead of fighting them. Or maybe we’re protected a bit by the immune fractions I was experimenting with last month. You took ‘em before you came here, right?”

Bahr nodded.

“Or maybe we got a lighter dose of the junk. You, because you sat on your butt in the control room while everyone else worked, and me because the ship filtered the air or whatever Gambell was breathing out. Somehow, we only dream when we’re asleep, but the others couldn’t wake up out of it. Need real research to know why.”

Bahr stared into a space beyond what was there in the lab. Then he said something that showed how little Mike really knew the malicious sonofabitch, after all. Bahr’s voice was almost a whisper: “Or maybe we’re still asleep.”

Personal Log entry, Deem, Michael, Lieutenant

Rosie, ole gal, this is superb! At least, technically.

Are the bacterial forms I found doing something radically new or older than history? Is this biological mass seeping out from under ancient glaciers a new organism or an ancient slurry? Does it have an affinity for humans, setting off a long-dormant memory sense?

Hah, it sure is a good thing I’m not an anthropologist, or I’d want to stay here in a fog forever! This is the find of the century, of the millennium, and I can’t even take credit for it! Only you with your metallic heart, me, and crusty old Bahr know now, but we’ll be long gone by the time anyone else figures it out. If they ever do.

“None of it’s free-floating any more, Chief. It’s all sunk into our genes like an old virus. I’m 99% sure we can’t shed any or contaminate anyone else, though our offspring will have the stuff, also securely inside their genes. How’re your dreams, lately?”

“Who’s sleeping? Haven’t slept since you told me my brain’s gone ape. You telling me we’re safe? You can lift us out of here?”

Mike had slept, better each night for a week, and for the last two nights, with no hominid dreams. “I’m telling you we’re not nuts and not contagious, though maybe we’re the next rung on the de-evolutionary ladder.” He was sorry Bahr was too uptight to chuckle. Mike thought it was funny.

Bahr stood up and hit a fistful of switches.

“OK, Boss, but seriously, we can’t leave it to chance no one will come here and end up exposed to this stuff. We have to warn—”

Mike saw anger harden across Bahr’s face, saw Bahr’s blaster in time to launch a kick at his boss’s wrist.

He had a second to wonder what Bahr saw in him — insubordinate officer? big-toothed beast? — before a bolt from the stunner in Bahr’s other hand crashed into Mike’s ribs. The lab sizzled around him, or he was sizzling inside his skin. And then he wasn’t.

Mike woke hurting in every muscle, strapped into the pilot’s chair in the ship.

Bahr’s voice growled beside him. “We’re not warning anyone. What part of covert do you still fail to understand, Deem? You’re going to lift us off before the fire gets to us, or you’re going to die here.”

Mike tried to still the shaking, at least in his arms, which felt like bubbling ice.

“Wha... wha’ fire?” Mike’s mouth felt and tasted like iron.

“The one I’m starting now.” Bahr keyed one digit into a hand unit. “You’ve got about ten minutes to live, unless you lift this bucket.”

Flux. Should’ve known: Bahr was even worse sane. Mike’s numb fingers managed to touch the right places on the screens and the cloaked ship recognized his croaking orders, though it did advise him sweetly to seek medical attention.

He hovered the ship high and doused the control-cabin lights to watch the rolls of fire destroying the station, the bodies, and the collected red goo. Mike wondered what the satellite monitors would make of the blaze.

Arcs of light flickered and roiled across the frozen waste — green, violet, and red — as chemistries consumed each other, stretching, weaving, leaping.

Bahr murmured. “Deem?”

Mike turned. “Yeah?”

“You sure we’re awake?”

Mike didn’t answer. It felt so familiar, crouching in the dark, seeing the great sky snakes dance.

Copyright © 2012 by Cheryl W. Ruggiero
and Susan A. Hagedorn

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