Saturday, May 19, 2012

“In the Not-Flesh of Dreams” by Jeanne Haskin













Once the Earth’s poles stopped moving in spiraling, circular wobbles over shifting seven-year cycles, the world of 2013 was devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis, colder winters, and super-storms. People were told to expect an Ice Age, but the proponents of preparedness were never as deeply entrenched as the lobby on global warming.



Not that lobbying mattered by 2017, when the Ice Age began in earnest.



There were few ways to cope and nowhere to put the snow. No way to deliver fuel. No way to shop for groceries. People froze, starved, or committed suicide. And six million people vanished overnight.



Governments called it the Rapture.



The abandoned knew they lied.



***



As she emerges from cryosleep, Silvana opens her eyes to darkness. For one heart-pounding moment, she fears she’s been blinded, but then she perceives her aura, glowing like a bruise.



“Waking,” the computer says in a crisp, feminine voice. “Restoration stage nine: tested and complete. Proceeding to stage ten: full consciousness.”



Silvana wiggles her toes and fingers, which burn as if on fire.



“C-c-consciousness restored,” the computer says. “Stage ten: c-c-complete.”



“You’re stuttering, Phoebe. Why?” Silvana frantically works her mouth until the numbness leaves her face.



“I-I’m n-not sure,” the computer replies.



Chill sweat beads on Silvana’s lip and wets the back of her shirt.



The bed of the cryo-unit slides out of its housing, preparing her for discharge. Luckily for Silvana, she’s bedded at ground level, as are all the custodians of the six million people buried underground.



The computer says, “P-p-please w-wait for the remainder of the sequence.”



“Override,” Silvana says. “I’ll get out by myself.”



After waving away the vapor amassing around her face, she unscrews the couplers to ports in her arms and legs. She presses the panic lever, which parts the cryo-ceiling, then scrambles out of the unit, trembling with unease.



Her legs shake as she lurches through the aisle with one hand on a wall, twenty cryo-units tall and fifty units wide. Both knees buckle and she falls. She pushes herself off the concrete and, wincing, hurries on.



Each wall is part of a maze, hundreds of feet deep and thousands of yards wide. At the first intersection, she trips motion sensors that activate amber glow rods. Their light leads to the control block, where she passes a retinal scan and lays her hand on an access panel. When the vault door swings open, she steps into deeper darkness, despite the tiny indicators blinking signs of progress on the computer’s banks of components.



“P-p-please wait,” the computer says. “Approaching s-s-stage eleven, s-s-stage ten, stage nine.”



Silvana bites her lip and sits at the only console. She types a command on the keyboard to open the user log, then squints as the screen turns brighter.



11:04:17 User 322207754 has logged off.



12:17:01 User 111000876 has logged on.



12:17:01 Multiple users are logged on.



Silvana types a request:



12:18:05 Show all users currently logged on.



A fan whirs into action as hard drives click and hum. The screen remains motionless until she types her request again. Then the computer reports:



12:20:34 One other user is logged on.



Now that all of her senses function, Silvana smells fresh-cut flowers. On a shelf directly behind her lies a purple jungle bloom.



But that's impossible. Unless…



Silvana rubs at the worry lines furrowing her forehead.



First the log-on, now the flower. Somehow, someone has accessed the facility from the not-flesh of dreams.



***



The bunker was built in Germany, where geographical stability and a rock-solid economy made such an enormous undertaking both possible and practical. But living underground for more than a matter of weeks required a team of global researchers to master cryogenics. There was no other means to save so many people, keep them fit and keep them nourished, for as long as a decade, if necessary.



There was, however, a problem.



Preliminary tests showed that subjects kept stable at extremely low temperatures had no capacity for dreaming. The longer they were in stasis, the more it lowered their intelligence and impaired cerebral functions.



To preserve thought capacity, five hundred superintendents were cycled through cryosleep, so their dreams could be projected to those in cryostasis. The volunteer superintendents gave them life, structure, and meaning. In the not-flesh of dreams, they also changed the world above them.



***



When there aren’t any worms, bugs, or viruses to explain the mysterious log-on, Silvana looks for a parasite. She shuts down the voluntary systems to track Phoebe’s involuntary functions and studies the information. 



Red code flashes and scrolls quicker than she can follow. Then something grabs her attention. It’s a string of foreign characters piggybacked to a log-on, which starts vanishing as soon as she perceives it.



She tries freezing the screen and isn’t quick enough. The parasite is gone and so is the second log-on.



***



After clearing the cryo-complex of compromised integrity, Silvana downloads satellite images of the snow veiling the world. All is lost, buried, beneath featureless peaks and drifts rimed with glittering ice, except for the Central American village where she is able to block the snowfall.



She types Pantera’s coordinates, but the view has to be magnified several hundred times before the lush growth of a rainforest appears on the nearest monitor, the sole spot of green in a world the color of death.



It is where she was transformed and where she needs to go. If there’s trouble there, so be it.



In the not-flesh, she can fight.



***



No one knew that cryosleep would release the dreamers’ auras, freeing them to manifest, not in the virtual reality designed by the scientists, but in the extrasensory dimension spanning the world at large. It is an alternate existence, where some have elemental powers, and Silvana’s is not the least of them. They call her Daughter Storm.



***



Silvana leaves the vault and returns to her cryo-unit. Stepping in, she adjusts her program and sets it on manual override. Until Phoebe can be trusted, she’s not taking any chances.



“Please, please,” the computer says. “R-r-rec-comencing sequence.”



“Hush,” Silvana says. “I want you to run diagnostics until I wake again. Fix the speech impediment. If you can’t, then tell me what caused it.”



She lies on her back and closes the cryo-ceiling, thinking about the intruder. Her father wouldn’t have come here, nor do her siblings have such power. They’re constrained to the village their father made for them, just as Silvana is.



She types in the coded sequence to inject a sedative before engaging in cryosleep. It makes going under less painful, less like death and a little less frightening, but she still feels the cold. Her skin burns and prickles as her body grows heavy and sluggish. The dark gorge of her aura swirls free like a rushing river.



***



In the not-flesh, Silvana arrives at the house of meeting, a domed wooden building with arches and soaring ceilings set on a verdant hill apart from the homes of the people. The villagers painted the walls with snowscapes. Mica makes them sparkle.



She holds out her hands to the families who have come with handmade presents: baskets, woven garments, pottery, and paintings.



Eyes the color of ochre track tears on brown-skinned faces.



“What’s wrong?” Silvana asks.



A woman wipes her nose on her hand. “A beast is hunting our children.”



Silvana strokes the woman’s hair, then gathers her in a hug. Here, in the not-flesh, she knows they will bear no new children. “I’m sorry for your loss.”



A man kneels and grasps her skirt. “Will you save them?”



“Yes,” Silvana says. “I’ll do whatever I can.” She knows of only two who manifest as beasts. The culprit can’t be her father, but she needs his permission to kill. She takes a machete from one of the villagers, then heads for the ritual pool.



***



At the edge of the rainforest, where deep, murky waters form a graveyard of want and need, Silvana strips to her underclothes so her garments won’t weigh her down. She immerses herself in the pool that is home to Water Child, long hair fanning out, her feet sinking in sludge.



The water leaches at her being, sifting through her thoughts and assessing her beliefs.



She shudders for good reason.



The villagers once came here seeking miracles and powers from her long-estranged father, but no matter their need or nature, they were swallowed by the water.



It is a live and murderous thing, testing motives, making judgments, impervious to pain and even less rewarding of virtue. Innocence saves no one, though purity is sacred as the measure of light’s true power.



The spark of a newborn babe is stronger than Sister Sun. The wondering eyes of a child shine brighter than Brother Moon.



She believes this is truth, but here is how it is.



In the village of Pantera, where her family holds power, there is never-ending hardship. Benevolence comes at a cost, and life is not what the lore teaches as innocence protected. Her father does not gain strength from the naiveté of newness. Rather he thrives on struggle, particularly when innocence would remake the world in its image. Disillusionment and defeat rebirth determination. Death comes swiftly to those who give up trying.



Like the villagers who drowned here, in the pool that ripples with pleas, smothered loss and dreams.



Like she, too, could be a victim for trying to save their children.



Darkness gathers in whorls as she crawls out of the pool into the overgrown grass. Steam licks the trees, ancient, vine-looped. Their roots overtake the landscape, breaking earth in twisted schemes. Three levels of foliage conspire to hide the stars. The birds fall silent, as do the beasts. Silvana inhales the humidity beading on her face and skin. The smell of mulch coats the back of her throat, musty, muddy. Frenetic insects race in a circle around her feet.



Silvana listens, waits.



A breeze carries his voice, whispering sibilant sorrows, remorse, disgust, regret. Disgust hurts the most.



She draws a shuddering breath. "You said I must never come." Why, she doesn’t know.



"But you have, after all." Her father slips free of the shadows, feline, feral, a panther the color of snow. Eyes like lapis lazuli regard her without love. "And you chose not to change."



The words hang on the air, unshaped by her father's mouth.



Silvana drops her gaze. She could have come as Daughter Storm, bringing chains of lighting, hurricanes and hail, but she denied herself protection so he might at least respect her.



Instead, he is unsympathetic. "There are lives you would save."



"Yes." The desire of her heart expressed in a single word - a reason to rebel, as Silvana always has. She’s been the keeper of the lore and the victim of false hope. But no storm has harmed the village since she grew into her power.



From necessity, she kneels, her legs too weak, her nerves too taut. "Mario feeds on the village children.” Her voice cracks, falters. “I come for permission to kill him."



A wave of electric current thrums over her skin, punishing, searing. Silvana gasps. "My need—"



"Is greater than it was. Kill him,” her father says. “But I forbid you to change again."



Tearful, she rises. Outcast. Stripped of power. Against Mario of all creatures, who is worse than Water Child.



***



Born of fire and cold when the elements fought for the world, her father neither loves nor hates, but does what he must to control.



Because vice makes him weaker, what he needs from her is courage. In sacrifice lies virtue. Through faith he gains power. Before, he gave her nothing to defend the lore of Pantera. Now he has taken from her to make the battle harder.



Silvana feels his judgment as she steps back into the water.



Her limbs have the weight of selfishness. Her heart covets. She flounders.



Bones stir in the deeps as skeletal fingers reach for her. The dead cry out lost needs.



My son, my only son.



My wife.



My brother.



My baby.



Heal me.



Help me.



Save me.



She tastes their bitter pain. Their agony dulls her sight. Burdened with untold failures, she claws and kicks toward shore as the water becomes frigid.



Around her legs, the current swirls, trapping them like arms. She pants, gulping breath, before it drags her down.



The cold stings, so many pinpricks in her eyes. She squeezes them closed, descending, pressure in her ears.



“Surrender,” says Water Child. “Not that it will matter.”



His voice is a series of wavelets, lapping at her skin, each surge impossibly colder, turning her limbs brittle. The breath she holds is explosive.



Her fingers snag on a trailing vine and for seconds, she opens one eye. She exhales a stream of bubbles, trying to get her bearings, then pulls hard at the vine, lurching hand over hand, kicking, suffocating. She sucks in water and chokes, but her feet brush higher ground.



Pushing, she breaks the surface, then throws herself at the bank, coughing out brackish water that burns, smelling of leaf rot. Like a wind chime of sticks, her teeth clash together.



Mosquitoes descend in clouds as she finds and dons her clothes. Sounding their tinny war cries, they plague her with bloody welts. Even in the not-flesh, there is hurt, pain — and possibly, true death. But her blood is repulsive; the attack does not last long.



Silvana gathers her hair to wind it behind her head. Then she steps into her sandals, retrieves her machete, and retreats through the rainforest where cuttings frame the path.



She passes through tender fronds that brush against her arms in shades of yellow-green and twists away from stalks with broad, glossy leaves. Wary of soundless serpent coils, spiders, and poisonous frogs, she walks in a half-crouch, her eyes ceaselessly searching. Birds trill and flap their wings, preening but sometimes warning. Something large rattles the underbrush. Its snarl raises gooseflesh.



Silvana backs away.



A black jaguar emerges, gray-flecked and spotted, with eyes of molten amber.



Her heart stutters as she holds the machete tighter.



Mario lies on his stomach, purring a contented rumble. “I have no wish to kill you, Silvana.”



She straightens and lifts her chin. “Then stop feeding on children. The lore demands compliance.”



Mario laughs, an almost pleasant sound, like the gusting of wind through trees relieving a hot summer day. “The lore is the path to power for those whose eyes are open. Consuming the children makes me stronger but also weakens your father, who has shackled us to Pantera and would limit our range forever.” He stands, twitching his tail. “Did you lose family in the storms? How many did you abandon to be where you are now?”



Silvana hefts the machete, steeling herself to use it. “I would save the world if I could, but I can’t let you go on killing.”



“Ah, Silvana.” Mario waves a paw in dismissal, his words impatient and scornful. “Do you imagine you can hurt me?” He begins to circle around her, his gaze locked on hers.



She turns to keep him in sight, the machete held out between them. “What do you want?”



He slinks into striking range. “Your power.”



Weight presses down on her eyelids. Her skin flushes scarlet. Heat suffuses her brain, distorting perception and judgment. Still, she asks the question. “Why?”



Mario closes the gap between them. “Because I left brothers, children, and it isn’t too late to save them.”



Silvana closes her eyes in anguish. “Don’t you think I want to?”



“How can you, if you’re not allowed to change?”



The machete shakes in her hands and dizziness blurs her vision. Her knees smack the earth. Sharp pains shoot up her thighs and lance into her hips. Her heart slows, every beat a ponderous note in a rhythm of deep distress. Head bowed, she clutches the grass, trying to stay upright.



Mario’s paw slaps her, knocking her onto her back. His body crushes her chest. Hot breath washes over her neck.



Her heart continues beating after he rips at her throat. Long enough to feel pain and smell the iron wash of her blood. Enough to watch him feed and realize she isn’t dead.



***



White-hot terror sears her nerves and shocks her mind. Unconsciousness eludes her, though the pain is unendurable. To stop it, she’d offer anything.



Murder.



Madness.



Massacre.



But these are lies, all of them.



She throws her arms around Mario’s neck, desperate to finish her death, and as his muzzle brushes her throat, their auras are torn from the world.



Silvana is slammed back into her body with the force of a hurricane. In the underground cryo-compound, her body is warm and pliant. Somehow Mario is gone.



She pushes the panic lever, frantic to get some answers. “Phoebe?”



“Yes?”



“Did you cancel my override?”



“No.” the computer replies. “Cancellation was unnecessary because life-support is involuntary.”



“You’ve stopped stuttering.” Silvana gingerly touches her throat. “Did you figure out what caused it?”



“Yes. There was no other way to tell you that someone tampered with my systems.”



Silvana nods her head. It should have already occurred to her that whoever planted the parasite would have erased his trail and made it all but impossible for Phoebe to give him away. “I assume the offender was Mario. What did you do to him?”



“He has returned to his cryo-unit, where I placed him in cryostasis. I also retrieved your father, to deliver the same outcome.”



“Why, Phoebe?”



“His decrees have lost their force. You are now free to change.”



Silvana grows dizzy, just thinking of possibilities. “We keep six million souls from literally losing their minds. But in the not-flesh, we changed a village. Was Mario right? Can we do more?”



"God is faithful,” Phoebe replies in a voice not her own, “and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with your testing, He will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13).



***


Returning to the not-flesh in the glazing of cold morning, Silvana spreads her arms and soars above the frozen world as a heavy, driving downpour with the heat of Heaven’s love.



- - -


Want to learn more about this author? Look Jeanne Haskin up on the Contributors page, where you can see everything that each individual writer has contributed, visit their personal webpages, and more!

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