When I was a child I dreamed of the stars. When I was a man the stars stole my dreams.
A man who cannot dream becomes nothing but an empty shell, but the thing about empty shells, there’s nothing left inside to corrupt. Space ate my dreams, tore them right out my head and left a gaping hole where my soul had been life. My life ended a long time ago.
Which is why I was the only one who survived.
“What happened on Atlas?”
The question woke me up. It didn’t matter. As usual, my sleep was empty. I wasn’t missing anything good.
“Please, Mr. Chang, we have to know what happened on Atlas.”
The desperate voice was coming out of the blank wall of my tiny cell. They thought I’d been exposed to a potential alien biohazard so I’d remained in quarantine. My clothing had been burned and my body had been scrubbed, attached to tubes and machines to be monitored in every way possible, isolated from the world of flesh and imprisoned in a totally sterile environment.
The precautions wouldn’t do them any good.
My words came out raspy and weak. “I don’t know.”
“The survivor’s awake. He’s talking!” She forgot to turn off the intercom. “Get the Captain. Hurry.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re onboard the Alert in orbit over Atlas. You’re safe now. Please, Mr. Chang, we need you to try and remember what happened to your colony.”
I remembered, but remembering and understanding were two different things.
It began with a news report.
I didn’t know at the time that this particular blurb would mark the beginning of the end of the world but I followed a lot of news. Useless talking heads, pundits, bloggers, hoaxers, malcontents, and a handful of actual experts, millions of channels streaming in from two hundred solar systems and downloaded in the few seconds whenever the gate cycled open and we were briefly connected with the rest of the universe—even if it was all months out of date—and then I followed Atlas’s local streams when the gate was closed, which was the vast majority of the time.
Galaxy, system, world, or local, I followed it. War, politics, business, science, sports, entertainment, it didn’t matter. I had nothing else to do, so I listened as other people actually did. I was a pensioner, a useless parasite on the system, popping crazy pills and streaming feeds. On more pragmatic or desperate colonies they would have recycled me. On Atlas, I wasted away in my apartment and filled my brain with other people’s lives.
The local blurb had been an update on the Dark Side Dig, commemorating the sixteenth anniversary of the discovery of the ancient ruins that had changed Atlas from a backwoods mining colony to an archaeological mecca. Even though the natives had been extinct for millions of years, humans had only discovered a handful of planets with intelligent life so far, so it had been a big deal, even if the odd winged cucumbers depicted in their carvings had been relative primitives compared to some of the species we’d found on other worlds.
The Dig’s science team had found a new chamber to crack open. They’d dubbed it the Temple.
It should have pissed me off, because that was supposed to have been my job before a quirk of interstellar travel had ripped out all the creative parts of my mind and left me a useless, drug-addled husk, but anger just got in the way of my news addiction, so I kept listening. The report closed with an interview, just some puffery with one of the newly arrived archaeologists, about how the weird geometry favored in the alien’s architecture had given a few of them nightmares.
Nightmares… I would have killed for a nightmare.
Captain Hartono brought up the hologram. It showed a nearly skeletal man sitting on a slab, arms wrapped around his knees, rocking back and forth, slowly muttering to himself. “What do we have on the survivor?”
“All colonists’ DNA is on file. His name is Leland Chang, contract transfer from Calhoun, been on Atlas for fifteen years.” As Dr. Riady spoke all of the pertinent tabs came up on the edge of the hologram.
The Captain opened the career data. “Xeno-anthropologist, supposed to be brilliant.” He went back to the holo. “The guy looks awful.”
“Malnutrition and dehydration, mostly. The servitors found some other minor injuries, but no serious trauma.”
“I listened in while the drop team lifted him out, lots of crazy babbling. Whatever happened down there drove him batshit insane. I need you to get in his head straight fast.”
“I don’t know if that’ll be possible.”
“Make it possible, Doc. The evidence the drop teams have recovered so far doesn’t make any sense. Command needs to know who did this and he’s our only witness.”
“I’m afraid Chang wouldn’t have made a very credible witness even before whatever happened down there.”
Hartono brought up the medical history tab. He swore under his breath. “Keziah’s Disorder? That poor bastard…”
“It’s extremely rare.”
“Thank God for that,” the captain muttered. “It doesn’t matter. Get him talking. I don’t care what you have to do. We need information and we need it now. Crack him and do a memory lift if you need to.”
“That’s not exactly ethical, sir.”
“At the last gate cycle, Atlas was a thriving colony. Thirty days later, it’s back online, we cycle through and somehow six hundred thousand colonists have gone missing and we don’t know why. So right now I don’t particularly give a shit about ethics.”
“I can’t memory lift an innocent man, Captain,” Riady stammered. “That’s—”
“There are no messages, no recordings, no notes, no vids. Nothing. Every AI on the planet is crashed. We’ve got ghost ships in orbit with their systems scrubbed. The forensic evidence doesn’t make sense. There’s battle damage, but no invaders. Over half a million humans vanished in thirty days, Doctor, and the only living thing we’ve found more advanced than a house plant is your survivor.”
“Give me a chance,” she begged.
Hartono frowned. They were stuck for now anyway. “The next available gate cycle isn’t for two days. You’ve got one…”
[“Dead Waits Dreaming” by Larry Correia is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, coming soon!]