by Stuart Gathman

The Mission (original)

I often have vivid dreams.  These dreams form a consistent virtual reality, and despite having various powers (usually flying and an energy ray), I know it is a dream, and when it gets to the point where it is not fun anymore (and I sometimes endure quite a bit of pain before getting to that point), I wake up.  Waking up from one of these dreams is like two sensations at once: first, swimming up from the bottom of a lake; second, the surroundings dissolve and blur, then become dark.

The subject of my dreams has changed over the years.  Early on, they were much more exciting, colorful, and hopeful.  One of my favorites takes place on a planet covered with warm, shallow seas.  The sea is filled with brilliantly colored fish.  I am an agent on a mission to rescue a political prisoner from some nameless despotic empire.  I have no super powers, but a small number of carefully chosen pocket sized tools.  After climbing down from the shuttle which has brought me down from orbit, I wade though the sea filled with the shifting colors of fish, looking for a secret entrance.  The sun is hot, and the reflection off the water hurts my eyes.  I wish I had brought sun glasses, but am content knowing that I won't need them where I am going.  

Finally, I spot it.  One of the occasional algae covered rocks protruding above the water is actually the camoflauged splash guard of a ventilation shaft.The researchers have done their job well. It is just big enough to squeeze through, and soon I am on top of a grille in the ceiling of the cell where the prisoner is kept.  The prisoner is an elderly woman, about 60 going on 70. Her hair is white and thinning, but straight, neck length and combed. She is thin, but not frail, with a look of quiet determination on herface.  I keep still, the interrogators are giving her the same choice they give her every day:  renounce your crime publicly, and you can return to your job.  Her job?  School teacher.  Her crime?  Telling a student that there was a book called the Bible before all copies were destroyed by their government.

Finally, the men interrogating her leave, and I whisper gently from the grille. She looks up with a startled expression, but does not cry out or give any audible indication of her surprise.  She brings the lone chair in her cell to stand on, and I hand her some small tools through the grille.  Between the two of us, we manage to remove the grille.  I reach my hands down to pull her up, but she shakes her head.

"Come down here, and leave the grille on the table," she whispers.  "Let them think I have escaped to the surface.  The seas will soon be swarming with skimmers." I start to protest, but she continues, "I knew you would come.  I have been praying and asking God to show me what to do, and he has shown me a vision of caverns under the seas."  Her voice is low pitched with age, but serene.  There is something about her manner and voice that convinces me to obey rather than give the orders.

I climb down carefully, but something tips off the guards, and we hear footsteps and shouts in the halls.  "Quickly!" she says, taking my hand and pulling me toward the wall and lifting a hinged cover.  I am amazed that a prison cell would have a garbage chute.  I help her in first, and jump in after her before the footsteps get to the door, pulling the cover closed.  I hope there is something soft at the bottom.

There is.  After sliding down the chute for several seconds, we fall briefly through a vast, dimly lit space, and land with a schmuck in something soft, squishy, and smelly.  It is kitchen garbage.  We sit for a few moments, the wind knocked out of us.  "My cell was not built to be a prison," she says after a while.  "It was originally a utility room for the janitors. No one would think of coming down here," she adds.  "All attempts to explore the caverns have met with death, and superstitions have arisen to amplify their fear to irrational levels."  Armed with this information, I begin to peer into the dim surroundings with apprehension of my own.  The stench is unbearable.

A few stories above, chutes emerging from a rock ceiling are barely visible.  Below the chutes, garbage piles in mounds.  Our mound is joined with another covered in a layer of old matresses.  "Why couldn't we land on that?" I mutter to myself, before considering the possibility of being impaled by a mattress spring.  By carefully "swimming" over the glop, I am able to reach one of the mattresses without getting sucked further in.  I pull myself on top of it, and then gather several more to make a path to my white haired companion waiting in the muck.  She reaches out with hands that are aged, but still strong.  I pull, and the muck releases her with a protesting slurp.  

We crawl over mattresses for a bit.  They are filled with rot and mold, but greatly preferable to the sewage.  We wipe off as much of the muck as we canon the disintegrating cloth as we progress.  Most of the mounds are farther apart than the pair we landed on, and after descending from the mattresses, we walk on a floor of rock covered with some sort of soft wet moss or lichen. Scattered among the mounds are massive but eroded pillars of rock, holding up the rock ceiling, and the base and shallow sea above it.  The moss underfoot glows faintly blue-green.  We are heading toward a soft red glow, which seems to be the main source of the dim illumination.  

I know the name of my charge from my briefing.  It is Marian Long.  She still doesn't know mine.  I am not sure who is in charge, actually, since things are not going according to plan.  We are supposed to be racing to the shuttle above, not spelunking below.  Both sides are probably looking frantically for us on the surface.  Eventually, the bad guys will think to look down here. Although apparently afraid of the caverns, the soldiers are even more afraid of their masters.  We need to get away from the base as soon as possible.

Suddenly, Marian gives a little cry and walks quickly toward a nearby mound.  I hurry after her, looking anxiously around for the cause of her alarm.  However, she is not alarmed.  We are at the base of a mound of books.So this is how they 'destroyed' the Bibles.  Hundreds of thousands of them are piled haphazardly, lying mostly open from their fall from the chute, in varying stages of deterioration.  Marian has been searching, and has picked out a small volume with a leather cover that snaps shut, keeping it largely free from the rot.  "It has been decades," she whispers.  "Keep moving," I whisper back. "Superstition or not, they'll be looking for us down here soon."

Abruptly, the mounds of trash come to an end.  We have reached the edge of the base.  No longer obscured, a strange but beautiful vista opens.  In every direction, galleries of all sizes lead on through the rock.  Through some of the larger galleries, caverns beyond are visible.  In front of us is a wide gallery leading to a cavern of exquisite glowing beauty.  The seas above were colored with brilliant sunlit hues.  The caverns below are colored in glowing phosphorescent hues against a dark background.  Against the velvet black of darkness and burnt umber of dimly illumined rock, mosses, shrubs, and branching growths glow with colors ranging from blue-green to flame yellow to ember red.  The effect is in some ways like one of those flourescent paintings on velvet under a black light.  But instead of tacky kitsch, this is wild, fractal beauty.  

We hear sounds from the general direction of where we entered the mounds. Marian is beginning to look spent.  Apparently, there was not much opportunity for aerobic training in her cell.  I take charge, and lead her at a fast walk towards strange formations that look like they might provide cover.  There are streams and pools of water, keeping the glowing vegetation moist.  As we get closer, we also see volcanic vents.  The light increases and becomes red in color close to the vents, and decreases with distance from the vent becoming yellow, then blue-green.  The vegetation seems to depend on both water, and energy from the vents.

We have reached the shrub like growths, and I crouch down.  Marian gets down on all fours, stiffly and with some discomfort.  Happily, there is a soft moss underneath, and she is able to make slow progress on hands and feet. Crouching low, and running, I scout ahead.  Our shrubs approach the edge of one of the vents, their color changing from green to yellow green.  The temperature rises as I near the vent.  Away from the vent, the air is fresh. Near the edge, the yellow green shrubs abruptly cease, and a thick groundcover glowing fiercely red takes over, spilling over the edge of the fissure. The air at the edge is scarcely breathable, with a sharp sulfuric odor.  Looking up, I see above the fissure, a target on the distant ceiling, a glowing red core surrounded by yellow - like a frozen flame.  Apparently, the red and yellow vegetation absorbs the fumes from the vents.

Taking a deep breath away from the fissure, I crawl to the edge and carefully look over.  Heat rises like an oven, and far below the dirty red glow of very hot rock can be seen.  But I see something else - a recess under the lip of the fissure, filled with the glowing red spongy growth.

Just then, I hear voices.  The search party is getting closer.  I hurry back to Marian, who has followed me more than half the distance while I was examining the fissure.  She is crawling as quickly as she can, and the voices are getting nearer.  It is a gamble in this alien environment, but I know what we will try.  Peeking above the shrubs, I see that the soldiers are not yet coming in our direction.  I gently lift Marian on to my back, and run for the fissure, risking a brief exposure.  "Take a deep breath, I warn her as we leave the shrubs.  I set her down on the lip, lower myself to the ledge of the recess below, and lift her over the edge and into the recess.  Burying my face in the red growth, I dare to takea breath.  It is breathable.  It is hot, like a sauna, but we can breath well enough to stay down here for a while.

The voices get nearer, and soon we hear shouts and footsteps around the fissure.  As I had hoped, they leave without examining the fissure closely, considering it inhospitable to human life.  The voices gradually become more distant. We stay hidden as long as we can stand it.  After about 20 minutes, the heat and fumes are giving me a headache, and I know it must be worse for Marian.  Fearing that I won't be able to climb out if we stay too long, I lift Marian back over the edge, where she lies face down, gasping for breath.  I heave myself up after her and both of us crawl back to the glowing green shrubs.  We are too giddy to stand up.  For a long time we lie there.  The ground is a soft, glowing, damp carpet.  The air is warm, but not too hot near the crater.  Below the tops of the shrubs, we cannot see the rest of the cavern, and feel hidden and safe.  Gradually, we stop coughing, and drift into a state somewhere between asleep and awake, where time seems to stand still.

Suddenly, I hear an alarm clock ringing, and I rise to the surface as the velvet colors of the dream fade and dissolve.  It is time for school,and I feel a brief pang of loss.  Fortunately, this type is dream is often continued on another night.

Posted 10/6/2005 at 10:46 PM

wow. That's so cool. You're Talented! You should do that more often. And tell people on other xangs so they can read too!
Posted 11/8/2005 at 4:4 PM by pikljooce

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