Awakening: Dead Forever Book 1

by William Campbell

Copyright © 2010 William Campbell. All Rights Reserved

Chapter 3

Grass. I feel grass. It tickles my back and makes me itch. And moist, the ground is cool, but there is heat coming from above. I open my eyes to see a gorgeous pink sky full of puffy white clouds, sunbeams slicing through it all.

A tree towers overhead, its leafy limbs shading the meadow as I lie here gazing into the sky. Sunlight burns past the clouds, the branches and leaves, and pours down to warm my skin. A perfect day.

Light wind rustles leaves high in the tree, one breaks loose and rides the breeze. I am fascinated by this simple action, a fallen leaf making its way down to the meadow. The journey seems to last forever, in long sweeping arcs, back and forth.

I hear children playing. Laughing. A wonderful sound of carefree life as kids play their imaginary games. I’d like to find them and play too, but it’s so nice here, spread out on the cool grass, soaking up the warm sunshine.

Something is different about my body. It’s little. I am a small boy. I spring up and test my legs, bursting with energy, sending me high each time I jump. I have shoes with little red lights that blink when I shake my feet. Cool! My arms are new and move easily. Nothing hurts. I dance round and round and round again. This fresh body is a thrill.

The tree seems to stare down at me, telling me to stop playing and be serious. An imposing sight, its trunk is bigger around than ten of me. I like it. The tree can protect me, its mighty trunk, umbrella of leafy limbs, and most of all, its years of wisdom. It breathes, slowly in, then out. Roots wiggle beneath my feet, burrowing through the soil. The tree is alive, just like me, except it knows everything I don’t.

Out from under the tree, I bring a hand over my brow and search the sunny sky, pink and white with clouds in so many shapes. One of the clouds looks like a truck. One is shaped like an airplane. Another looks like an angry old man with a long beard. Maybe that one is God. Another could be a flower, a white rose. I draw in a deep breath, searching for the fragrance. I can smell it, delightful! My imagination is new and ingenious, bringing the scent on command.

An unusual noise is getting louder. A machine, a truck or train, spoiling my perfect day. Go away! I hear the children again, but this time they’re not laughing. This makes me sad at first, then afraid. The children are screaming. They’re not having fun anymore.

I climb a small hill and search for the source of the noise. Growling machines are creeping across the grassy land, surrounded by men wearing black coats and holding sticks. They’re chasing after the children. The bad men are hurting my friends. Stop that! The children stop screaming. They make no sound at all, only the growling machines, tearing up the grass. I hate those bad men. They’re taking away our fun, and taking away my friends. Their noisy machines are getting louder. They’re coming to hurt me with their sticks.

I need somewhere to hide. I hurry back to the tree, my wonderful tree, my best friend in the whole world. The tree will help me, I know it will. Where will I hide?

Standing under the tree, I’m surprised to hear a girl’s voice.

“In the tree,” she says.

A young girl is clinging to branches high up in the tree. She must have escaped the bad men. But how did she get all the way up there? She reaches a hand toward me. That’s silly, I can’t stretch that far. But she has the right idea. We’ll hide together.

I climb after her and she goes higher, then she stops. She looks down at me and smiles. What a great smile, and her blue eyes look magical. I want to catch her. She swings around, flinging her rusty ponytail, and climbs faster than I can keep up with. She’s really good at climbing trees, even better than me.

A roaring machine passes under the tree. Men are down below, searching the meadow. We have succeeded. When I look up to smile at my friend, I can’t find her. I’m afraid to climb any higher, I might fall. She isn’t scared. She has climbed farther than I ever would have.

One of the bad men looks up and points. Oh no, he can see me. I’ll pretend to be invisible. That’s what my friend did, and so will I. No one can see me if I keep my body perfectly still. Works every time when I play hide and seek.

He looks. He looks again. Maybe my invisibility isn’t working today. Please! Work today! I need to be invisible! He walks away and looks somewhere else. See, I am invisible. I knew I could do it.

The roaring machine rams into the tree and all the branches shake. Oh no, my friend, are you hurt? The tree has no mouth to scream, but I know it hurts. My friend, I am so sorry.

My invisibility must have worn off. The bad men are pointing at me and shouting words I don’t understand. The growling machine strikes again and the tree shakes too much. My foot slips off the branch and my fingers scrape past bark.

I shouldn’t have climbed so far, it’s a long way to the ground. I go tumbling down, faster and faster, so scared, then crash onto the cool grass below the tree. It doesn’t hurt, but I think it should, or maybe it did and I missed it.

On my back, I’m right where I started. But this time I am tired, very tired, and the grass doesn’t tickle. I can’t feel anything, and I can’t move. All I can see is the sky, and that same cloud, the one that looks like an angry old man. Is that you, God? Why don’t you like me? Why do you let the bad men hurt me? Please, God, tell me why.

* * *

“Adam, we’re done.”

A moist cloth cools my forehead. I know that voice—Madison.

“How are you doing?” she asks.

When I try sitting up, it doesn’t go so well. Feels like someone jackhammered the back of my skull. I reach around and discover ooze seeping out. “Done doing what? Playing doctor?” To hell with the pain, I’m sitting up.

Matt is wearing a pair of bloody surgical gloves and holding a tiny object between his thumb and forefinger. “All better now,” he says, pleased with himself. “We took it out, like I almost told you, but you know, the risk of side effects and all. It’s safe to talk now.”

“Yeah, and what did you remove it with, a hacksaw? You got a license for this kind of thing?” I can’t believe this. Had I known they were going to chop a hole in my head, I would’ve told them both to screw off. Then I realize, the pain of having my skull invaded is minor compared to what is missing—that slow, low, neverending pulsation of my brain trying to bust out. That excruciating pain is gone.

“What did you remove?” I ask.

Matt steps closer and holds out the tiny object.

I’m instantly tortured by a high-pitched chorus wielding hammers. I slap both hands to my skull.

“Oh, sorry,” Matt says. “I didn’t realize it was still working.” He steps away and the pain turns off like someone threw a switch. He goes to a workbench and digs through a small toolbox. After fiddling with the object, he turns back. “That should do. Here, have a look.”

As he comes near, I cringe, but no, the pain is absent. The object is a slim capsule constructed of smooth metal, about the size of a painkiller. But the resemblance ends there.

“That was in my head?”

“Yep,” he says. “That’s what makes your head hurt. I mean, made it hurt. Not anymore, I disabled it. Well, besides taking it out of your head, of course.”

“What in the world? Are you serious?”

Madison sits down beside me. “Adam, I’ll explain. But first, let me finish up.” She leans closer, angled behind me, and swabs the back of my head with a moist towelette. An icy sting hits my scalp a second later.

“Let’s start with the name,” I say. “Why are you calling me Adam? My name is Carl.”

She pulls around to face me. “Oh, Adam, why did they give you such a silly name? Carl? Just look at yourself. Do you look like a Carl?”

She may have a point. I never cared much for that name.

I reach around to check her work and discover a tidy bandage. No more goo, and whatever she did, the pain of cranial invasion is fading. And my hand, wrapped in gauze and taped, no longer radiates that burning tingle.

Could these be the people the old bum was talking about? Those I should trust? They haven’t actually tricked me, at least, not beyond what is necessary, or so they say. And each result has not equaled pain, rather its removal. More importantly, they have saved me from the ultimate pain—death. Perhaps even a fiery trip to Hell. The last group detaining me was clearly otherwise. And that’s another thing—no one is detaining me, are they? These two haven’t said anything about me having to stay.

I ask Madison, “What if I want to go now?”

Her mood darkens. “If you want to, but please, I wish you wouldn’t. I miss you.” She gets up and enters the corridor leading to the cockpit. I can hear her talking but can’t make out the words. The mellow whine that has filled the background changes to a low roar, the aircraft slows to a hover, and then it drops. There is a whirring sound, metal slapping, and we touchdown. She told the pilot to land?

She emerges from the corridor and goes to the exterior hatch. The door swings open to reveal a cool evening outside.

“If you don’t trust us,” she says, “you can leave.”

I get up and peer out. We’re in a clearing surrounded by forest. Below the hatchway, small steps fold out and reach to the ground. I venture down and farther into the grassy clearing. The night is perfectly clear, not a single cloud, a sheet of solid black dotted with starlight. A marvelous sight, with moonlight glancing the treetops. No concrete in any direction, I like that. Fresh air fills my lungs, a cool sensation that is calming. It reminds me of a better place, a better time, somewhere I’ve been before.

“You see?” Madison says. “You’re not our prisoner.”

I swing around to see her in the hatchway.

She looks sad. “Adam, please. We’re here to help you.”

I wouldn’t know where to go anyway. I’d probably end up lost in the woods. They passed the test. She has offered freedom.

“Okay, you can call me Adam, for now.”

That should make her feel better, but I’m still keeping my guard up. I’ve been tricked enough lately. I’ll be the Adam she wants, and we’ll see how it goes.

Actually, the name Adam does sound better, and imagining it as my own has a strange effect. I feel stronger, calmer, and oddly confident. Realizing this, a tingling surge of energy flows throughout my body, as if it’s pleased with the name as well and happy to have me back.

Yeah, I like you too. Settle down.

* * *

Madison is back to smiling as she stands waiting in the hatchway, but I’m distracted by all that surrounds her—the aircraft that brought us here, which resembles no aircraft I’ve ever seen before. A sleek oblong shape, shiny black, it has angular projections but all so minor none could possibly serve as wings. How does the thing fly? And where is the exhaust? I see no ports astern or openings along the hull, other than the hatch and small windows at the nose. There are no rotor blades, it couldn’t be a helicopter. But then, it is night, the moonlight faint. The details are masked by darkness. Besides, the wings could be retractable and the exhaust muffled by screens to provide stealth. Yes, that explains it. Not to worry. Obviously, the craft is capable of flight, or we wouldn’t be here.

I climb the steps. “Okay, I’ll stay, but it’s time for some answers. No more screwing around.”

Madison lights up with a glowing smile and reaches out to pull me in through the hatchway.

From the corridor leading to the cockpit, another odd character emerges, though not quite the fashion nightmare that Matt portrays. This new fellow dresses similarly casual, but at least he understands something about color coordination. He wears khaki shorts that are not excessively large, though comfortably loose, black sneakers and a solid black tee-shirt free of any silly advertising or undecipherable artwork. His hair is blond, well, more like yellow, above dark roots. He’s bleached out the color, producing a mess of plastic yellow doll hair that pokes out all directions, but loaded with gel, a mess styled to appear random on purpose.

“Adam!” He flies at me with arms outstretched.


He captures me in a big bear hug.

I know this guy, he’s my friend. But where did we meet?

Dave leans back and rattles my shoulders. “I wasn’t going to leave my best friend behind. Good to see you, man.”

His enormous smile gleams white. He’s very happy to see me, but his stare is distracting. What is it? Something about his eyes, they look… sober? That’s good, he’s doing the driving, he had better be sober. But I’ve seen those eyes before, plugged into a face where they didn’t belong. That stinky old bum. And Madison was the girl in pigtails.

“You two were under the bridge.”

“Not really,” Dave says.

“What do you mean? Was it you or not?”

“That was a couple of holograms.”

“Holograms? What the hell for? And why a bum?”

“Our transmission was being monitored, so we projected something that fit the scene. They probably didn’t understand all that, but they would have for sure if I showed up like this.” He points in at himself. Indeed, the goon squad would be quick to stamp out that sort of fashion, especially the spiky yellow hair.

“What about Madison?” I ask. “She looked pretty much like she does now.”

She smiles. All I have to do is say her name and she smiles.

Dave explains, “I wanted you to see Maddie the way you know her, thought it might spark your memory, maybe. But we couldn’t get her sound to work, probably a good thing, you know, all that sappy babble of hers.”

She glares at Dave. “Hey!”

“Not now, Maddie, later.”

“Now hold on,” I say. “What about the stink? You smelled like the sewer, mixed with a truckload of alcohol. Holograms don’t have scent.”

“Mine do,” Matt says.

I swing around to meet his proud grin.

Dave asks, “Do you think we overdid it? You know, the smell.”

“It was disgusting. Was that much odor really necessary?”

“No,” Matt says, “but it was kinda cool, a neat trick, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, neat. So how about you, Matt? What costume did you wear? The garbage lying next to me?”

Apparently not, judging by his frown.

“Matt was running the gear,” Madison says and pats him on the back.

His goofy smile returns and he launches into an animated explanation. “Yeah, I networked the system through a spectral randomizer, riding a hundred-sixty-two gigahertz, then two-ninety-eight, back down to sixteen, that kind of thing. A couple nanoseconds here, a couple there, no way they could triangulate that action.”

This guy is one hell of a nerd, and proud of it.

I ask, “And what were you hoping to accomplish?”

Dave slaps me on the back and points that big white grin my direction. “Like I said, we thought it might spark your memory. Figured it was worth a try.”

A bunch of goofballs. Where do they come up with this nonsense? I shouldn’t ask—I have a strange feeling I know the answer. Reminds me of the sort of goofy thing I would do.

“Let’s say you did spark my memory. Then what?”

Dave fumbles for an explanation. “We didn’t really finish the whole plan, exactly. We probably thought maybe talk you into going somewhere safe, then figure out how to pick you up, I think.”

Confidence like that makes me wonder—who’s in charge here? No, don’t tell me.

“But that didn’t happen,” I point out. “No, you sparked my memory all right, then I said the magic word, whatever that was, and the goon patrol showed up.”

“It might have worked,” Dave says, “if not for that thunderstorm.”

“Yeah,” Matt says. “It’s tricky guiding that kind of photon energy through a lightning disturbance, really, it’s tough. All the ionization fouls things up. I tried though, really, I did.”

Madison says, “Don’t worry about it, Matt, you did fine. Adam, none of that matters. Everything worked out okay. We got you back, all that counts. Actually, things worked out pretty good. Snatching you out of the body reduction flue was a great idea. As far as they know, you didn’t escape.”

“Worked out good?” Arms out, I turn and turn, calling attention to the soot covering me, then tap the base of my skull and wave my bandaged hand. “You call any of this good?”

Dave’s gleaming smile melts. “It could have been worse.”

Madison gazes at me with sad eyes, and Matt stares blankly, stringy hair crossing his brow. I know these people, but not like this. They really miss me, and dread what might have happened.

“Okay, so you have a point. I’d be dead right now.”

Dave and Matt exchange puzzled glances.

Madison studies me curiously. “Adam, you realize—”

“Not yet,” Matt says. “He doesn’t remember.”

“Remember what?” I ask.

Dave brings an arm around my shoulder. “Take it slow, Adam, one step at a time. Let’s sit down and I’ll explain everything, at least, all we know.”

* * *

For the first time in my short memory, I may have found others I can trust. That I actually have friends, or might ever trust anyone, are both difficult to believe. More odd is what creeps in from the void. No clear memory confirms the notion, but there is no denying it. Our small group earned each other’s trust long ago.

To one side of the compartment is a makeshift kitchen, little more than a narrow table opposite a counter below three metal cabinets. This craft is no luxury liner. On the opposite side are workbenches and bolted-down toolboxes, which have plastic drawers with translucent faces, giving hints to the contents, a variety of tools and other gadgets, perhaps spare parts. Mounted to the wall are large clear tubes that store yellow pressure suits, some with helmets. This aircraft must fly high, where the air is thin.

Dave suggests that we gather at the table. Madison carries a metal carafe from which she pours a cup of dark liquid, then hands it to me. The cup is warm, the aroma inviting.

Madison watches as I sip the beverage. “Better?” she asks.

“Yes, thank you. I haven’t had a good cup of coffee since—”

That’s not right. I’ve never had coffee before. I don’t even know what coffee is. What? Of course I do. I’ve had coffee many times. But when? Doorways are drifting open and clues to my identity are pouring out. Memories emerge, and one is the last time I had coffee.

“Since when?” Madison asks with a clever grin.

Strange—for every new question, there is more to remember. Within the mind, a dormant function awakens, that of an obedient servant prepared to fetch any answer, until this moment left lonely, waiting only for the questions. The question becomes the key that unlocks the door, and the servant ventures past the veil of certain knowledge to retrieve answers hidden deep within my darkened memory.

“When I left,” I realize. “We said our good-byes over coffee. You tricked me into remembering that.”

“Very good,” she says. “But it’s not a trick. I was hoping, but I didn’t trick you.”

The coffee is warm and flavorful, a delight I have sorely missed. “Thanks. I’ve been tricked enough lately.”

“Right,” she says. “Tricked by the Association.”

“The conformists,” Dave says. “Out to make everything the same, their same.”

“Yeah, I heard all about it, up close and personal. But why?”

“I guess they believe it’s the answer to social problems. Maybe it is, but damn, who wants to live like that?”

“Not me.”

“Right. And me neither, or Maddie, or Matt, or a lot of other people. And according to the Association, that means we get eliminated.”

“Why can’t they just do what they want, and we’ll do what we want?”

“Oh no,” Dave says. “They don’t see it that way. They’re totally unreasonable. All must conform or the grand scheme doesn’t work. I’m telling you, these guys are fanatics. They won’t stop until the entire galaxy is the same.”

“That’s insane. Someone has to stop them.”

“Right. Someone like you. Why they want you out of the way.”

“Out of the way?” A surprising choice of words. “That’s putting it mildly. Looks more like they want me dead.”

“No doubt they’d love that, but there’s one little problem—you don’t die.”

“What are you talking about? Sure I’ll die, someday.”

Madison jabs me in the chest. “No, Adam, that body will die, not you.

“Are you both crazy?”

Dave sighs. “I’m not talking about your body. When I say you, I’m talking about you as a being, a soul, an essence, whatever you want to call it. You. You’re not a body. You remember that much, don’t you?”

Another key turns and the door swings open. Of course I remember—being, body, and mind are separate entities. I have known this all along. But I’m confused. The memory exists, I am certain, but it was out of reach, hidden in a safe and the combination thrown away. But his words unlock the answer. The simple truth cannot be denied—I am not a body. I am me. I am I.

Old habits die hard. I reach for my head in a useless attempt to rub out pain.

Matt notices. “You don’t have to do that anymore, remember? I took it out.” He holds up the tiny capsule he removed from my skull.

He’s right. I’m chasing after a pain that no longer exists.

Madison says, “They can destroy our bodies, but they can never destroy us, what we feel, or believe, our thoughts, our passions, our love of life, or our way of life. And what they can never change is that we don’t agree, and we never will, no matter what.”

This is too much. We don’t die? No, we don’t, and more odd is that I already know that, or knew it, I just forgot. No, I didn’t forget. It was taken from me. I was made to forget.

Gathered around the table, my trio of friends stare at me, their long faces dreading a bleak future. But if what they say is true…

“If we don’t die, what are we worried about?”

Dave says, “They invented something worse.”

“Worse? What could be worse than dead?”

“I don’t know what they call it, but we call it dead forever.

* * *

Out the corner of one eye, I catch a glimmer of light. Past the open hatch, a scorching beam strikes the ground and explodes a fireball.

Dave and Matt scramble to the cockpit. Madison slaps the hatch shut and chases after them. The ship launches to the sky and I struggle for balance, then duck into the corridor leading to the cockpit, right on Madison’s tail. Along the passage are steel rungs like a ladder, but oddly, they run sideways. The cockpit is big, not at all what I expected. Roomy enough for a dozen crewmembers, and the ceiling is tall, covered with controls well out of reach.

As I stand gawking at the ceiling, a blast strikes and foils my footing. The craft rocks hard, tossing me into Dave and almost knocking him from his seat. He doesn’t notice. Besides strapped in nice and tight, he’s consumed with guiding our craft through a maze of fireballs lighting up the sky. To his side, Matt is buckled in facing a screen and terminal, keys clacking and fingers a blur.

“Who is it?” I ask.

Across the cockpit, Madison says, “Looks like a scout craft.”

Dave says, “Get the shields up, quick!”

“I’m working on it,” Matt says, no chance to clear the stringy hair from his brow. “They’re running circles around my calculations. This junk is obsolete.”

Dave asks Madison, “You got a shot?”

She stands facing another screen and controls below. “I might if you quit bouncing around. I keep losing it.”

“I have to!” Dave snaps. “Or we’ll lose it for sure, when we’re hit.”

“Can you outrun them?” I ask.

Dave stays focused on the view ahead. “I’m giving it all she’s got, and they’re still on our ass. It doesn’t look good.”

“But it’s only a scout craft, and we’re—”

Like mental adrenaline, the past feeds an analytical marvel that springs into action, computing our scenario and solution at a speed beyond human comprehension. I don’t know how and can hardly believe it, but I know exactly what to do.

I hurry to Madison’s console. The screen is mostly black with a small image of the pursuing craft. “I need to see that ship. Can you zoom in?”

“What for?” she asks.

“I have to see it to know what to do about it.”

“Okay, how’s this?” The enemy craft enlarges to fill the screen.

Come on, fire at us. Their weapons strike and our craft shudders. Another shot misses and confirms their weakness.

“Where are the weapons on this ship?”

Madison is puzzled. “Why? Are you going to hang out the door and shoot at them yourself?”

No! The ship’s guns. How are we equipped?”

“Two inducers forward, one aft, and—”

“Forward the most powerful?”

“Of course,” she says. “But don’t expect much. They have shields too. We’re better off making a run for it. We’re not riding around in a battleship, you know.”

“But could we do enough damage if we made a direct hit without their shields interfering?”

She stares at me like I’m a nutcase. “What makes you think their shields are going to stop interfering any time soon?”

My wacky plan has yet to impress her. It might if she stops being such a smart-ass.

I ask Dave, “Can you put us nose to nose with them?”

“What in blazes for?”

“Can you or not?”

“Sure I can, I can do a lot of things. Doesn’t mean I want to.”

“Fine, I’ll get back to you on that. Matt, can you match their shield frequency?”

“What are you up to?” he asks.

“Just tell me if you can.”

“Of course I can, I’m a genius.”

“All right, Mister Genius, after we turn around, figure out their frequency and match it, quick.”

“Okay, but what are you talking about? After we turn around?

* * *

A mind is a great tool. I should have more. I don’t know where these crazy ideas come from, but put me in danger and the mind dispenses a solution, it seems without effort. Even stranger is the sudden recall of the craft’s capabilities, weapons, and shields. Yes, we have shields, as does our enemy, and that is the answer.

Following my command, Dave slows our craft to a hover. The pursuing enemy duplicates our lazy speed and pounds us with blasts. Matt maintains the shields, keeping us from harm, but we can’t stay this way for long. We’re far too vulnerable.

“Get on their nose,” I tell Dave. “And stick with them no matter where they go.”

He whips the craft around and aligns us nose to nose, hulls nearly touching. The blasts stop pounding us, and instead, the sizzling beams whiz past.

Our adversary is a scout craft, its armaments designed for defense, mounted to the sides. Like a prey animal with eyes set in opposing directions for a wide view of potential threats. But the design has a flaw—a blind spot in front where their weapons cannot reach. Our vessel, on the other hand, is an attack craft. A predator. A wild cat with eyes set tight.

We have rendered our enemy harmless as long as Dave can maintain this precarious alignment. Our adversary maneuvers for an angle of attack, shifting position and darting back, but Dave keeps us in their blind spot. Engines scream, crashing shields ignite sizzling arcs, and two craft dance across the sky, one struggling to break free, the other staring down its prey.

“Matt, you got it?”

His fingers torture the console. “I’m working on it.”

Dave struggles with controls. The engines howl.

“Matt, we don’t have time.”

“Almost, hang on.”

The enemy wiggles free and a blast grazes our hull. Dave quickly realigns.

“Come on, Matt, now’s the time.”

“Almost, almost… got it!”

The crashing arcs cease. Having synchronized our shields with the enemy’s, neither provides resistance, rather they blend together. With little distance between the two, the shields combine to form a single energy field surrounding both craft. We have slipped inside our enemy’s bubble of protection.

Madison awaits my order.

Whoever I’m becoming, I don’t recall him this bloodthirsty.

“Blow those fuckers out of the sky.”

She smiles. “My pleasure, boss.”

A scorching blast pounds the defenseless vessel dead ahead. A direct hit, how could it be otherwise? The enemy craft shudders. Oh shit. I failed to calculate all results of this crazy idea.

“Dave—make a distance, quick!

He veers our craft away, but it’s too late. The explosion showers us with fragments of our enemy and threatens to destroy our craft as well. However, our favorite techno-weenie saves the day. Matt has restored the shields and kept us from harm. His quick response is helpful, but not enough to escape our next crisis. A tremendous shock wave slams us across the sky, hurling our craft out of control. Panels moan and buckle, consoles spit sparks, and smoke flows into the cockpit. The craft rocks hard and sends me stumbling. I trip over the hatchway into the rear compartment, soaring headfirst through smoky chaos, and smash into a panel. I feel out my skull, expecting to find a bloody mess, but my fingers are dry. Still hurts like hell. I spring up only to tumble over and smack the floor, or was it the ceiling? They’re trading places, flipping end over end, throwing junk into a frenzy and me into panels while a fire rages—like the dream. But this is no dream, this is real. Have my dreams foretold the future? Except the female is missing. Where is the woman who haunts my nightmares?

The craft settles somewhat, at least the ceiling and floor stop trading places, but we’re still spinning round in a flat trajectory. Matt dashes in from the cockpit with a fire extinguisher and attacks the flames. Small motors whir, I’m guessing the landing gear, but our lateral motion remains great. This is going to be one rough landing.

Back in the corridor and heading for the cockpit, I realize a use for the silly sideways ladder—something to hang on to in all this chaos. I reach the cockpit to find Dave and Madison wrestling with controls. The engines scream as Dave fights to correct the ship’s attitude. Treetops slap the hull and branches snap, beyond the forward view is a forest whipping past, and we’re on top of it. Not the best landing site, but there’s not much choice. We’re soaring into the woods and all of Dave’s efforts to avert disaster appear useless.

The forest engulfs our craft. A cacophony rises as the ship slices through smaller branches slapping and cracking, then deeper thuds as heavier trunks pound the hull. Combined with the howling engines, the orchestra of noise progresses toward a crescendo, which I fear, concludes in one harsh bang when we smack to ground.

Madison races around the cockpit while Dave stays focused on bringing us in as best he can. The landing pads hit the ground, sending a concussion throughout the ship. Tortured metal screams, trees snap and splinter, shrieking landing pads scrape and rumble. The craft is coming undone—one sharp snap then twisting metal, the floor drops from beneath us. The sagging hull burrows into soil and a tidal wave of loose dirt washes over the viewports. The sudden deceleration sends me and Madison soaring across the cockpit, and the craft comes to an abrupt halt. After a thunderous finale, the torturous symphony ebbs into an eerie quiet.

A funny thing, each time we’re knocked over, Madison finds me as a place to land. Again she is lying on my chest, her lips just above mine.

Dave remains strapped in nice and tight, facing forward and shaking his head, his only view a wall of dirt past the cockpit windows. When he turns to notice us flat on the floor, he glares.

“I told you I didn’t want to.”

* * *

Matt rushes into the cockpit. “Everybody okay?” His concern shifts to disgust. “For crying out loud, Maddie, do you always find a way to lay on Adam?”

Her dreamy gaze stays with me. “My favorite position, on top of things.” She winks.

“You make me sick,” Matt says. “Get your mind out of the gutter.” He storms out of the cockpit.

Madison rises and offers a hand to pull me up. She is quite strong, yet her touch is soft. The fantasies begin, imagining all that is firm, wrapped in silky skin.

Dave unbuckles. “Be careful, Adam. You don’t want to be messing around with her.”

Madison glares at him. “Let Adam decide what he wants to mess with, that’s his business.”

Moving into the hatchway, Dave pauses. His brow tightens. “It’s not right, Maddie.”

She tracks his exit, and once he is gone, her deadly glare thaws. She returns to me, back to smiling, and slinks closer with passion in her eyes, her lips full, swelling with desire. We are alone, together. I could kiss her this instant, there is nothing to stop me, certainly not her.

Stop that. We just crashed. Why can’t I get her off my mind? It’s her fault, she’s that beautiful. She is beyond gorgeous, lips so sweet, that adoring gaze. She wants me.

No! Stop it. Not okay.

* * *

In the rear compartment, cabinets are flung open to let the contents scatter. Toolboxes are bolted down, but drawers are slid out and emptied. Crap is thrown everywhere. The flipping and turning of our descent tossed the contents of this ship like a giant salad. Salad? That’s a thought, and my empty stomach hears it, perking up to gurgle and groan, reminding me of the last time we dined, in more ways than one.

“Hey, you guys got anything to eat around here?”

Matt glares incredulously.

Dave says, “Man, you think of food at the strangest times.” He chuckles and gets back to cleaning up the mess.

Dave and Matt are more interested in their chores, but Madison is quick to provide. She bends over to reach between mounds of junk littering the floor. “Here,” she says, clutching a small foil packet. “Have some of this. It’s not much, or very exciting, but it’ll ease your hunger.”

She tosses the packet to me. The label reads Tasty Food Product. A flavor might be nice. Doesn’t matter, I’m too hungry to be fussy. But how does this work? It’s all slippery.

Madison plucks it from my clumsy fingers. “Let me help you, silly. Just tear the corner and squeeze it out into your mouth.”

Squishing goo out of a slimy packet isn’t exactly my idea of a meal, but hunger calls to anything edible. She hands it over and I fill my mouth with nearly half the contents in one load. Rolling the slop across my tongue, I hope to catch a flavor before it makes the short journey to my stomach. Bacon? Maybe. And turkey. Cheese, and lots of mayonnaise, I like that. Not bad. On the backside, the label reads Club Sandwich. Not much of a sandwich, more like soupy gel from a blender. Clubbed might be a better description.

“Thank you, my dear. Not too exciting, true, but still delicious.”

“My pleasure, Adam.”

“Are you two done?” Matt stands glaring at us. “You know, we could use some help. Come on, you’re fed, now get your ass over here and help clean up. You too, Maddie. Get your mind out of his pants.”

Smart-ass. But he’s right. Together we straighten out the mess and get everything back to where it belongs, at least, where I think it belongs. Good enough anyway. We’re done cleaning up, but Dave seems to be looking for something.

“First things first.” He picks up a hammer. “Where is it? Where did it go?” Sifting through toolboxes, he looks ready to bust some heads.

Matt starts toward Dave. “Leave that stuff alone.”

“Where is it?” Dave plunges a hand into Matt’s pocket.

“Back off!” Matt tries squirming free.

Dave pulls out a small plastic case. “Bet you put it in here.” He pops the case open and shakes it empty over a workbench. “There it is.” He raises the hammer.

No!” Matt screams.

Parts bounce, some tumble off the edge. Dave pounds the countertop again.

Matt is devastated. “Why? I wanted to take it apart and see how the rest works.”

“You have enough gadgets to fool with. Sorry, Matt, I don’t feel like having the Association sneak up on us again.”

The tiny capsule I once carried in my skull is now a splatter of miniature parts.

“It had a tracking device?” I ask.

“Among other things,” Dave says. “How do you think we found you?”

“Thanks to Matt,” Madison says and pats him on the back. “Nice job hacking the signal.”

“Right,” Dave says, glaring at Matt. “Except Mister Genius forgot to turn it off.”

Matt doesn’t look so proud now, staring at the smashed device, mangled beyond repair. All ties are severed, captivity a nest from which I have flown. The lifeline is broken, I am on my own. However, it is now clear—the enemy knows of my escape. Though one step closer, I am not yet free.

* * *

Dave opens the hatch and the small steps fold out, now cockeyed with the injured craft tilted at an angle. Morning sun sneaks over the horizon, bringing light to the surrounding forest. Down the steps, we turn around to view the craft, scarred by scrapes and dents across the battered hull, which is supported on hefty struts lacking any wheels, just flat metal pads in contact with the ground, sure to tear up any runway. But one of the struts is missing, leaving a corner to sag and bulldoze a mound of loose soil where the craft burrowed on impact.

A high canopy of trees masks our location well, except our descent gouged a path through the timbers, and actually, we’re not hidden at all. For someone searching from above, the long clearing we carved out of the forest points right to us.

Dave and Matt step around the craft, gauging the damage.

Matt says, “Nice job, Adam. You really thought that one through.”

“Hey, they’re not chasing us anymore. Give me a break.”

Shaking his head, he walks away.

Crouched on his heels, Dave inspects the tangled metal where our missing strut belongs. “Aw, shit,” he gripes. “That’ll be a bitch to get back on. And where the hell is it anyway?”

I look to the long trail of flattened trees we left behind. “Must be back there somewhere.”

He stands and gazes into the distance. “Man, this sucks. Matt, figure out what else is busted and get it fixed.”

Halfway up the cockeyed steps, Matt turns back. “Yeah, right. I’ll just wave my magic wand and it’ll all be fixed. You’re a menace, Dave. Between you and Adam’s bright idea, she’s busted up pretty good this time. You’d better hope I can fix any of this.”

“Whatever, just do it. Maddie, pull out a jack and figure out how to get under there. We need this thing back up on four legs again. We’ll go find the landing pad.”

Dave waves for me to follow, and we begin a trek along the path of descent. The morning sun feels good, and getting out for a walk on a day without overcast is a rare treat. Not raining for once, and a nice temperature, with patches of blue coming through the clouds as flattened brush snaps underfoot. The crash site fades behind us, and in little time I’m breaking a sweat, just from walking. I’m really out of shape.

As we hike, Dave scans the distance. “We have to find that thing, this is bad.”

“Sorry, Dave, I didn’t mean to—”

“Not you. Don’t worry, you did great.”

“I did?”

“Sure, like always.” His big white grin stretches wide.

“Not great enough. Now we’re stuck here.”

“We’ll find it,” he says, forging ahead at a steady pace. “And we’ll fix it. We have to, or we’re—”

“Dead forever?”

He glances at me and his pace slows. His gaze drops.

I stop to face him. “So what does it mean? What exactly is dead forever?”

“Like I told you, we don’t die. And the Association knows it.”

“They do?”

“Of course they do.” He points to the trail ahead and we continue hiking. “They fully understand that killing the body does nothing to actually kill a person.”

“So why stick me in a furnace?”

“That’s just to dispose of your body.”

“Right, make me dead.”

“No, make your body dead, remember?”

“Okay, make my body dead. What about me?”

“Well that’s just it. If you’re asking the question, you don’t know the answer.”

“Right, I don’t. Why I’m asking.”

“You’re missing the point. You don’t know the answer, that’s what dead forever is all about. Not remembering what to do when the body is gone.”

“Okay, so what is it I’m not remembering?”

“To come back and get another. In some manner of awareness, not—”

“What are you talking about? We don’t get another body. We go to Heaven or Hell after that.”

Dave laughs so hard he has to stop and hold his belly. “Wow, they programmed you damn good.” He fights to calm whatever is so amusing. “You actually believe all that crap?”

“Well, I think so. Shouldn’t I?”

“Adam, that’s idiotic, just think about it. You have a body, then it gets old or has some accident. Okay, now it’s useless and you’re done with it, so you leave it behind and go someplace else, but only one choice out of two? Heaven or Hell? Of course, depending on how good or bad you are.”

“That’s the way I understand it.”

“Come on, that’s ridiculous.” A hand to my shoulder, he coaxes me along, and we get moving again. “Check it out, Adam. You have a choice of final destinations, one that promises eternal bliss, the other, everlasting misery. So basically, do right, you get pleasure, do wrong, you get pain. What does that tell you?”

“I better be good?”

“Right,” he says. “You had better, or else. Don’t you get it? It’s about control, keeping people in line.”

“You really think so?”

“No, I don’t think, I know. There’s a difference.”

“But knowing right from wrong is important. We can’t just do whatever we want.”

“Sure, but what is right and wrong? Either could be anything, that’s a matter of viewpoint. What’s right for one is wrong for another. And when the other wants their definition of right to be the ultimate rule, they use concepts like Heaven and Hell to do it.”

“Concepts? Are you saying Heaven and Hell don’t even exist?”

“I never said that. Sure, Heaven could exist, so could Hell, both could be plenty real, but more important is their source. Concept or not, who do you think created them?”

“God did, didn’t he?”

Dave halts and stares hard. “Wow, you’ve been mind-fucked, and good. Adam, listen, God has nothing to do with it. Heaven and Hell are the creation of Man, and Man alone. Do you actually believe God would create a place like Hell? And then put you there? That’s like saying a parent wants to torture their own children. Sure, it may happen, but do you think any sane parent would do such a thing?”

“I wouldn’t think so.”

I would hope that any parent, sane or not, would have enough sense to love their children instead of torturing them. But then, a person may do as they please with their possessions, that’s their business. Of course, that only serves as valid justification if you believe children are possessions.

“Torture is a product of insanity,” he says. “So if Hell is God’s idea, and we get tortured there, God must be insane. Do you really think that’s possible?”

Could it be? Is the world crazy simply because God has a screw loose? That’s ridiculous. God is not insane. And he’s not afraid, angry, happy or sad, or desiring to punish. None of those things. They are all conditions of Man, not God.

“Of course not,” I say. “He wouldn’t be God if he was insane.”

Dave chuckles. “Look, Adam, I can’t tell you what to think about God, that’s a personal thing, and I don’t want to intrude on your relationship with God, but I find it funny that you keep using God and he in the same sentence. What makes you call God a he, like it’s a man?”

There is no answer, just how it’s always been. But his little sermon calls attention to something more important—my relationship with God, and how it’s a personal thing. He’s right. My relationship with God is not for another to dictate, not Dave, and certainly not members of the Association—not anyone. It is for me to decide. But what is my relationship with God? Not fear, it couldn’t be. Fear is a tool of the enslaver. God is not an enslaver. God should be a source of inspiration.

Is that my relationship with God?

Perhaps, but somehow the notion feels empty. There must be more.

* * *

The sun has escaped the horizon to join the soft blue morning sky. In the distance, rolling hills go on forever, blanketed by thriving green grass. Beauty surrounds this wilderness where the air is clean, yet people choose to dwell in their concrete castles that litter the cities. Perhaps they would venture to this place if not slaves to an ideology, drained of their free will, and denied all they truly find enjoyable. Or maybe we are wrong, and the citizens do agree, even enjoy their structured existence, and only we find it odd to conform. In either case, one’s path through life should be a choice, and right to conform or not, I choose mine—individuality, surrounded by diversity, and freedom to roam.

At last we locate the missing strut. During our hasty landing, it hooked on a cluster of exposed roots, and our valuable component was ensnared. A fierce contest the strut lost. Though victorious, the sprawling roots were ripped from the soil, but in time they will heal, as will our craft. What may not heal is the surrounding forest. Along the path of descent, countless trees are slaughtered. Considering their sacrifice, one broken strut is a small price to pay.

Careful not to inflict further damage, we claw at the dirt and unwind the strangling coils that have captured our strut.

On his knees, Dave props it up and gauges the damage. “We’re damn lucky,” he says. “It’s not too banged up, and the break is clean. This’ll be a bitch, but I think we can fix it.”

Together, Dave and I begin hauling the severed component back to the craft. It is heavy, requiring our full strength to set it in motion, and a sustained effort to keep dragging it along. As we forge ahead, my attention drifts across the distance we must cover before returning to the crash site, our destination. I imagine arriving there, and this act of daydreaming brings forth a detailed mental image. In the vision, Dave and the others are near the craft, examining the broken strut. The image is perfectly clear, like it’s real. As if viewing the future, but only within my mind, and somehow this act of imagination diminishes the effort our task requires.

I’m hauling this hunk of metal with more than my body.

* * *

As we drag the strut, my mind wanders, a welcome distraction from our tiresome chore, but the random thoughts only scatter and fade, overrun by another stream spawned by the last, and the last before that. Thinking is different now, no longer crushed by pain when I daydream. I have Matt to thank for getting that capsule out of my head, and Dave smashing it was a fitting end to that taste of Hell. However, all the free thinking arrives at little or nothing, failing to open a door to understanding, and I’m still without the countless answers I crave. To think at all only generates more questions.

“Dave, there’s something I still don’t get.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“What you said about coming back and getting another body. If what you say is true, it wouldn’t matter if I burned. I’d just get a new body, right?”

“Except you didn’t know that at the time, the whole problem. Not knowing is what makes you vulnerable, and that’s how it works. Besides, there’s not a body supply nearby. Well, a supply not controlled by the Association. So you tell me—after your body burned, where would you have gone?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I figured we went to Heaven or Hell after that.”

“Exactly the point. Not knowing what really happens is how they keep you from coming back.”

“So what really happens?”

“Anything you want, if you know it. But that’s the trick—you don’t. Instead you’re thrown into an endless cycle of living and dying, over and over, repeated without end.”

“Doesn’t sound so bad.”

“If you know it’s happening, but the cycle I’m talking about has a special feature—you don’t know. And let me tell you, it seems to be working.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re not alone, Adam. A few have escaped, but not many. Plenty of others have been captured, and now, nothing. They never come back.”

“Come back, as in live again.”

“To a life we know anyway, or to see any of us ever again. However it works, this memory wipe of theirs erases everything, even knowledge of repeating life, and swaps in the Heaven and Hell fairytale instead. Best we can tell, the goal is to eliminate a connection between lives, leaving a person to go on living, and go on dying, except convinced that each time around is the only time around.”

“So let me get this straight. We don’t die, but really, we do. And live again, just not remembering that we don’t die.”


“What does that accomplish? We’re still living.”

“You’re not thinking this all the way through. The Association screws you over, right? And you’re pissed off about it. But what happens when you forget all that? Okay, so you live again, but you don’t remember. In a short time you forget who the Association even is, much less that you’re pissed at them for screwing you over. Now they have what they wanted all along—to get rid of you, and everyone else like you, the only way they could.”

“Erasing memory doesn’t get rid of anyone. I’m still here.”

“But would you have been?”

Had those flames reached any higher, any sooner, before Madison plucked me out of that smokestack, who knows where I’d be by now. How soon I forget—I’m not supposed to be here.

“Stealing memory is just the beginning,” he says. “We may be ignorant of our former lives, but that doesn’t change how we behave in this life, and since they can’t stand us the way we are, they certainly don’t want us around.”

“Okay, so what does it mean?”

“They put us someplace else.”


He stops, and the strut sinks in loose soil. “Remember when I said I’d explain all this, at least, all we know?”


“Well, that’s the part we don’t know. None of us do. We don’t know where everyone is going. All we know is they’re gone.”

His sober gaze hints at regret. The people who have simply vanished may include fallen comrades. His friends, and perhaps even, friends of mine.

“Dead forever,” I realize.

“Right. Worse than dead for us. Better than dead for them.”

My thoughts drift back to that dreaded interview, those creepy businessmen, their strange questions and how pleased they were with my responses. More than pleased, they were proud of their elaborate deception and my complete ignorance. It almost worked, and certainly would have if my friends hadn’t shown up. I owe them more than my life—I owe them my self.

Dave tugs on the strut. “Come on. Let’s get this thing back and get out of here.”

We continue hauling it back to the crash site.

“Tell me something, Dave. Did I already know all this before they screwed with my head?”

“I can’t answer that, Adam, only you can. I can’t tell you what you know now, or knew then, or any time in the past, even though there’s plenty I’d really like to tell you, but then, it wouldn’t be yours to know. But I’ll say this much—knowing you like I have all this time, you’ve always been a smart guy, an aware being. I’ll leave you with that for an answer.”

“You want me to think for myself.”

He nods.

“Fair enough, but there’s one thing I can’t figure out.”

“What now?”

“The ice. That cube the crane pulled out of the smokestack.”

“Beats me,” he says. “You had a better view than the rest of us. You tell me. What happened down there?”

“I’m not sure. After the fire, some blasts shot out and made a giant ice cube. If I burned, my remains would be trapped inside ice now.”

He brightens up with a sudden realization. “So that’s how they do it.”

“Do what?”

“The ice. Like you said, it’s the trap. You found it.”

“Trap? I’d be dead. Who needs a trap? Dead people don’t escape.”

“Of course they do. They escape the body and find a new one. But not if they get trapped in something else first.”


“Sure. Just like a body, if you don’t know you can get out—you can’t.”

“But, Dave, you’re contradicting yourself. So I’m burned alive and my ashes are stuck in ice. But you said I’m not a body, right? I’m not there, just my remains.”

“You have to consider how people behave when they lose a body. It may be dead, but they still follow it around. Normally, burning is good because there’s nothing left to follow.”

“Burning is good? No, Dave, I have a strong instinct to avoid fire.”

After death, not during. If you know you’re dead, it’s like there’s your old body burning up, a nice release. But burning alive is something else, bad news. The sudden loss of an anchor point, the physical pain and shock of dying, all at the same time, next thing you know you’re mixed up and can’t fix a position in space. When you’re fighting the Association, and you’re in their territory, it’s risky to lose a body that way. They’ll suck you into a trap during all the confusion. It’s standard training in our line of work to avoid death by fire, don’t be alarmed by that.”

“Our line of work? And what is that?”

“We’ll get to that when you’re ready. The ice is way more important, now that you’ve figured it out.”

“Me? Sounds like you got it all figured out.”

“Give yourself more credit, Adam. You’re the guy who discovered the trap, and escaped.”

This is all backward. But I can’t exactly argue. I was there, he’s right. And the picture of what happens there is perfectly clear. Too clear, of an event I would rather soon forget.

“Okay, let’s say you’re right and it’s a trap. So I would’ve been trapped in ice. Then what? What happens to the ice?”

“Most likely it goes bye-bye, to that someplace else I was talking about earlier. We’ve made an important first step. Now we know how, thanks to you, my friend.”

Someplace else, but none of us knows where.

A memory tickles, an unfinished task.

* * *

Back at the crash site, Madison uses a shovel to clear loose soil at the nose of the craft. It remains half-buried, but she has managed to make enough room for a jack. Dave examines the strut, and Matt is busy with a portable arc welder, repairing damage to the hull. He turns off his equipment, starts toward Dave, and slaps up his welding mask along the way. Madison plants her shovel in the dirt and joins them. All three study the damaged strut.

A strange thing hits me—the scene of my crewmates as they examine the landing strut. It might otherwise be meaningless, except—I am seeing a precise duplicate of the earlier vision, while daydreaming as Dave and I hauled the strut. An odd sensation, to view a reality that moments before was only an idle thought. As if by imagining it, I created it. Or perhaps, I saw the future.

Madison says, “Adam, help me with this jack.” She goes to the sagging corner and sets the jack into position under the hull.

Sharp raps echo across the forest as Dave bangs on the strut with a sledgehammer, straightening its twisted form. He sees me watching and says, “I’ll take care of this. Go on and help Maddie.”

Her job looks impossible. It’s hard to imagine the craft upright, especially with a wimpy jack like that. “How’s this supposed to work?” I ask. “You actually expect that to lift this thing?”

She scowls. “Not with an attitude like that, you bonehead. Knock it off.”

True, I should be more helpful. Might have to kick my own ass, if only I could reach it.

The jack is a simple hydraulic lift with hoses running off into the ship. She has it all set up, ready to go, and seems to be doing fine on her own. What help is she talking about? She works a remote that activates a loud engine inside the ship, generating quite a racket. The jack groans, straining to lift the heavy craft.

“I need more help than that,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, I need you to see it.”

“See what?”

She stares at me, waiting for… what?

“Damn,” she says. “Why can’t you be smart all the time?”

The jack fights against the weight, but it’s going nowhere, and Madison is only getting more frustrated. Whatever she wants from me, I’m drawing a blank. But then, staring at the jack, I have another vision.

The craft is raised on the jack. Not in reality—in my mind. The image is perfectly clear. I’m standing beside Madison, dirt is sliding off the hull, and sunlight leaks through gaps between the craft and undergrowth.

“That’s better,” she says, snapping me back to reality.

As I watch the jack, it takes on new life, thrusting the heavy load upward. It continues to strain and moan but fights through its work nonetheless, and the sagging corner slowly rises. Dave stops banging on the broken strut and glances over at our progress. Matt flips up his mask and looks at the rising craft, then slaps it down and gets back to welding. A few moments pass, and the craft is fully elevated.

That strange thing hits me again—the vision from only moments before. Here it is, perfectly duplicated. But something is even stranger. There is the craft, now raised on the jack, and Madison standing there, but…

That’s me next to Madison.

But it can’t be. How can I see myself this way? I feel displaced, out of control, fumbling for a hold. Something’s not right, but the sensation is interesting, like floating free. But without weight, there is nothing to float, or float on. And my body, it looks blank, like I’m not there. I’m not—I’m over here.

“It’s okay,” Madison says. “Just relax.”

She speaks to my body, not me. Am I invisible?

Dave joins her and asks my body, “How are you doing?”

He deserves a reply, so I intend one and it seems to work.

“I’m not sure,” my body says. “What’s happening?”

Hearing myself speak while outside the body is strange. I don’t sound like me.

“It’s no big deal,” Madison says. “Just another way to look at things.”

Dave says, “Don’t be alarmed, Adam. It’s a choice. You can exist inside or out, whichever’s more comfortable.”

I wouldn’t call this exactly comfortable, more like I might step on my own toes, or bump into something since I can’t see straight. I might be able to kick my own ass now, except it feels like I’m going to fall over. There’s nothing to hang on to, or anything to hang on with. I would choose…

I’m whooshed back inside my head.

“What the hell was that?” I ask, the words reverberating inside my skull with the familiar tone I’ve always known.

“Out of body,” Madison says. “All better now?”

“I guess, but that was weird. Like falling from the sky, no control.”

“Yeah,” Dave says, “it can be disorienting when you haven’t done it for a while, especially if you’re not ready for it.”

Disorienting? Too much like being dead. My little adventure fades and the others show little concern, as though this out-of-body thing is an everyday experience. Perhaps for them, which raises another question—are they not in their bodies? I might ask, but they all get back to their chores and ignore me. Besides, exploring the topic could lead to another unexpected excursion, which is frightful. What happens if I can’t get back inside my head?

* * *

Dave drags the severed strut to the hull, and together we wrestle it into position. Matt arrives with his arc welder and sections of reinforcing steel. He flips his mask down and gets to work while the rest of us shun the bright sparks. After several welds, Matt switches off his equipment and steps back.

“Now,” Dave says, “the moment of truth. Will it hold?”

Matt slaps his mask up. “Hey, of course it will. That’s quality workmanship by an experienced professional.”

Dave ignores the cocky little twerp and says to Madison. “Let it down, easy.”

She works her remote and the craft settles until supported by the strut. A few creaks and groans, then quiet.

“Told you so,” Matt says.

Madison pats him on the back. “Nice work, Matt.”

Dave takes hold of the strut and rattles it good. “This will do. All right, you did okay—this time.”

Matt goes sour, glaring at Dave.

Dave doesn’t even notice. He walks away, better things to do, and starts picking through the scattered mess of equipment that accumulated during repairs—wrenches and spare parts, the jack and Matt’s welding gear, her shovel and various electronic gadgets, the purpose of which I couldn’t begin to guess. Dave takes charge, calling out to the rest of us, what to take, where to put it, and together we begin hoisting items back into the craft.

While gathering another load, Dave says, “So, Matt, everything else good to go?”

Burdened by a pile of tools, Matt stops halfway up the steps. “Yep, I waved that magic wand like always. Good thing you got me around, Dave, or we’d be stuck here for sure.”

“Hey!” Madison cries. “I helped too, you know.”

Matt chuckles. “Yeah, not bad, for a girl.

She ignites with scorn, drops the jack and shovel and more, flames may shoot from her eyes next. “Come back here, you little wiener. You’re getting your ass kicked.”

“Yeah, like if you could.” He springs up the steps into the craft, leaving behind a trail of laughter.

Dave and I follow after them, and halfway up the steps, a loud crash sounds like tools hitting the floor. When we reach the top, the scattered pile includes two bickering contestants tangled up wrestling. She wasn’t kidding about kicking his ass. Madison has him face down, one arm behind his back, and his neck pinned by her knee.

“Say you’re sorry!” she howls. “Say you didn’t mean it, or I’ll show you how not-bad-for-a-girl this girl can be.”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” he says, though not too hurt, he is still laughing. “I didn’t mean it, just teasing. Come on, lighten up.”

She releases his spindly arm and straightens up, hands at her hips. “That’s better, but you’re still a little wiener.”

“Enough fooling around!” Dave snaps. “Time to go, before more trouble shows up.”

Outside, dark clouds brew along the horizon. Night will fall soon and Dave is right—danger could be as near as the next breath. Everyone agrees, and quarrels among ourselves will have to wait. A few more trips down the steps, we work as a team and gather the remaining tools until everything is put away. Dave and Matt head for the cockpit while Madison secures the hatch, and once again I am alone with her. However, this time she ignores the opportunity and starts toward the cockpit.

I reach out to her. “Madison, tell me something.”

She pauses to listen.

“You and Matt,” I say. “What’s all that about?”

“What do you mean?”

“You two fight an awful lot. How come?”

She smiles. “You don’t remember.”

On that note, she deems our conversation complete and moves along.

* * *

Back to the cockpit, I plop down in the copilot seat. I’d help fly this thing if I could remember how, but even so, I don’t expect to be doing much other than getting some rest. I’m wasted.

The engines start with a low roar and rise in pitch until nearly silent, all but for a faint whine. The craft lifts off and weaves through the woods, then hovers just above the treetops. Dave punches the throttle and we’re sucked into our seats—hard. Beyond the side viewport, the ground blasts away and scattered clouds whip past.

As we soar higher, my thoughts retrace all that happened, in reverse. Crashing into the forest, tumbling helplessly, back to the explosion where it all began. Everything happened so fast. I don’t understand where the idea came from, or why any of them even followed my crazy instructions. But they did, like it was business as usual.

Madison asks, “Care for something to drink?”

Apparently she doubles as a stewardess, though I’d best refrain from any comment, or else find myself pinned to the floor with her knee crushing my neck.

Dave says, “Tea for me.”

“And you, Adam?”

“Sure, I’ll have some too.”

She looks at Matt and awaits his choice.

Tea?” he says. “What do I look like?”

Madison smirks. “Do you really want to know?”

He draws a swift breath, preparing for the joust, but reconsiders. “Nothing for me.” He swings around to face his console, and Madison exits to the rear compartment.

Once she is gone, Dave laughs. “You’re such a weenie, Matt. There’s nothing wrong with tea.”

“Oh? The big tough warriors drink tea?”

“Yeah, we do. So what do little wiener-heads drink?”

Dave and I laugh.

Matt spins around in his seat. “Real men drink beer!” He puts fists at his hips and tries to puff up his scrawny little chest.

I point out, “Must be why you ain’t drinking one.”

Dave roars with laughter.

Matt is not so amused. “Hey! I’m working here.”

“Yeah, Adam,” Dave says. “Beer’s not a good idea in our line of work. At least—while you’re working!” He howls like it’s hilarious, then acts out a drunken stupor, swerving the craft across the sky. Good thing we’re up so high. He laughs so hard he snorts and whoops, cracking himself up real good. Dork. Bad enough laughing at your own jokes, worse when they’re not even funny.

“And just what is our line of work?” I ask.

He sees that I’m not laughing and returns to level flight. “I hate to keep telling you how things are. It’s like I’m filling your head with my own ideas.”

“At least give me a hint.”

Arms outstretched, he says, “Just look around. Hints are everywhere.”

Following his advice, I scan the cockpit. Okay, so it’s a cockpit. This is an assault craft. We have weapons, tactical displays, shields.

“We are military,” I suggest.

“You’re on to it.”

But where are the uniforms? These characters dress like they’re on vacation. But of course—uniforms are part of the conformist ideal, with which we do not agree. We are not a mindless force of regimented drones, walking the same, talking the same, even dressing alike. We are individuals, each with personal ideas, though united toward a common goal—freedom from the Association. Even without a specific memory to confirm it, the passion is clear, a fierce notion deep down that drives me to preserve individuality for all. Apparently with such fervor that I am willing to fight. However, I would rather not, and more so, gladly forget that I ever had in any past. I hate war. In dreams, memory, or real life.

Madison returns and hands me a sealed container with built-in straw. “Here you go,” she says. “I added a little something extra to help you sleep.”

While sipping the tea, my attention roams, then I catch a glimpse out the side viewport. The sky has split into halves, darker above and glowing purple below, gently curving where they meet. We have reached a tremendous altitude. The tea is delicious and soon my eyelids grow heavy. Beyond the cockpit windows, all light fades. Night is coming, and with it, the call to sleep.

My thoughts wander, reviewing recent events. The abandoned warehouse, fighting the Bobs, escaping the furnace and taking down the scout craft. Deeds of a soldier, with combat skills born of experience. I’ve waged war before, against the Association. Was I? The bleary memories float across my mind, but soon they scatter, focus dissolving, thoughts fading. Reality slips from view and I begin to drift off, approaching a pleasant slumber.

* * *

Something smacks me in the face and I’m instantly awake. All I can see is smooth metal, point-blank, chilly against my nose. What is this, a steel coffin?

I thrash to one side and thrust against the panel, struggling to break free of this trap. My body careens away and spins like a top. What the hell is this? As the dizzy scene races past, I catch a glimpse of Dave and Matt above, looking down. I mean below, looking up. What?

Matt hollers, “Hey, flyboy! You’re supposed to strap in.”

Dave and Matt are laughing. I can hear them clearly, but each time around they’re just a blur. A hand smacks into mine and stops my spinning. Madison holds tight and keeps me steady. Her pigtails are sticking straight out each side.

“Quit jerking around,” she says. “Be gentle.”

We’re floating free, surrounded by the cockpit, suspended high above where Dave and Matt are seated… on the wall? The forward view seems to be on the floor. I turn to look, and Madison counteracts my twisting motion with a shove of her hand against mine.

“Adam! What did I just tell you? Don’t push off like that. There’s nothing to stop your inertia.”

Out the viewport is utter blackness, a void lacking all detail other than a purple disk about the size of the moon. But that’s no moon. A planet?

We’re in space.

“What are we doing in outer space?”

With a mild tug, Madison draws me into her arms. She holds tight, smiling as we gently spin, face to face.

“We’re going home, Adam. Home.”