by Regina Clarke
Shelter Bay. This place used to be a resort. My parents brought me here as a child and we slept out in the open, the stars and three moons for company. Waiting for the voices, my father said. I never heard anything but the wind across the open sea.
Then two of the moons imploded and took away the tides. The powers that be made the place into an outpost that served as a rehab prison, since all the old buildings were intact in what was now a desert too dry for rot to set in. The land stretched out to the horizon without a boulder or a bit of brush to show for it. In the daytime, anyway.
Karlens came by two hours ago to report on his routine tour of the perimeter, done on his own time. It was just past midnight, the ground a dark line against the ambient light that seemed to stick around a long time after the sun went down. Sudden flashes often erupted from the region outside the fence, peculiar and intermittent. He asked me what they were.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” I said to him, “but look, what you’re doing is a waste of your time and my patience. We already have everything inside the barrier showing up on monitors, and all of it gets captured and sent back to base. They screen it all and that’s enough.”
“Just following orders, sir.” He left after snapping a salute at me.
“What orders?” I yelled after him. “I’m in charge here, I give the orders, and I say you don’t need to do a damn thing!” I felt a twinge of regret after that, but not for long. I was entitled. I hadn’t slept more than four hours a night for three months. The strain was beginning to tell on me. I tried lying down after he left, hoping that for once I’d be too tired to dream. It was more a nightmare that came, the same one over and over and I couldn’t seem to make it stop. The isolation was taking its toll.
None of us really looked forward to sleep on the outpost. We were all night watchmen.
The Iowa boy, Ellerton, was getting under my skin, too, always asking as regular as clockwork, as if I hadn’t answered the question a dozen times before, “What are we supposed to be doing here?” This was his first time out, same as Karlens. I had a lot of babies on this trip, and I wanted them to go back to base wiser than when they arrived. They weren’t brought here because they were saints.
There was only the one moon above us now, its silver light flooding the landscape in the hours before dawn. I missed the soft blue and amber light from the other two that I remembered from my visits to the place as a child.
Half asleep, I thought of Rose and before I could catch myself and erase the image in my mind a holograph of her filled the tent. Intense feelings always got projected and recorded. No way to stop that, either. No privacy. Another programming perk from base personnel. I knew they saw it each time.
“Sure, we watch the holos,” the communications guru, a guy named Clems, told me once when I’d asked about it. “Nothing new, hey, Simon? It’s to help. It’s really for your own protection. We have to know what everyone’s thinking and feeling out there, the place being what it is. That way we can give you a heads up, anything seems a problem. But it’s all or nothing in the code. We can’t cut you out of the mix.”
“Simon, are you listening to me?” Rose was there, in front of me. Something more than recollection. Palpable. Anyone came into my area, they’d have seen her in shadow, indistinct, but they’d have seen her. Same as Clems did. It was embarrassing.
But I needed to answer her, even though I knew she wasn’t real. I’m listening, my love, I told her, yes.
The blankets were too warm, but as soon as I threw them off the air was too cold. There was no rest again. I closed my eyes and tried to think of something else, anything but Rose. Know the joke about the scientist, the business exec, and the ordinary man? The first two are boring so I won’t go on. Rose always laughed when I told that one.
I shifted my focus at last and the projection faded. I had one major problem to think about, anyway. Parnell Moore was still missing. We’d only been here three weeks when his absence was discovered. It was his turn for lockup. No one was watching, including base, who’d given all their attention to another outpost where the prisoners had attempted a mutiny. They’d left us in the hands of an intern who hadn’t grasped how to handle the monitoring screens.
It wasn’t until lunchtime that anyone realized he was gone. He hadn’t taken care of Healey, who’d managed to develop a potentially lethal reaction to the meal injections. That meant we had to give him prepared food, and Moore had volunteered. Better than fine with me. It meant less work for the rest of us. But then someone noticed that Healey hadn’t been fed and was howling about it.
There was nowhere inside the fence for Moore to go. We went over every inch of the transparent barrier. Everything looked sealed. But the alarms weren’t operational, thanks to the intern’s confusion. The prisoner had found a way out.
Moore had been a loner from the outset, prickly with me and condescending toward the others. He’d been a last-minute addition to the group. I didn’t like his solitary ways, but we were far from home. Conflict on an outpost prison could turn deadly very fast. Like that mutiny, for instance.
“Nothing yet, sir. We’ve been scanning beyond the barrier.” Karlens reported when the initial search for Moore ended, a search I’d officially ordered. He asked me what to do next.
“Wait three hours,” I told him. “If there’s still no sign, that’s that.”
“We just leave him? I mean, he’s got to be out there somewhere, right?”
What could I say? What could I tell any of them? They all became edgier after Moore’s disappearance, but I couldn’t help that. They wouldn’t have been able to handle the truth.
Anyway, the unknown was as good a threat as the barrier itself. Keeping the prisoners worried was part of the setup, after all.
I hadn’t seen rain since we’d left home. I missed it and the changes in temperature, in the atmosphere, in the way the clouds moved across the sky. This sameness here, exactly the same thing day after day, it got on my nerves after awhile, even though I knew what to expect.
I wanted to sleep, but resisted it again. The few times I’d been able to do that longer than a couple of hours, the nightmare repeated itself in exact detail.
A web came first, a transparent grid pulling at me as I tried to walk through it. When I finally broke free, I was standing in a room, a small, circular room with high walls made of a peculiar stone that seemed to move in and out, like a bellows, as if the walls were breathing.
There was one window halfway up, overlooking a grassy area. As I looked out, the trees and grass began to wave wildly in a sudden wind. The sky was overcast, and I heard the spit of rain against the glass.
Then I saw a book on the floor. I moved closer and realized it had my name on it, just as a flock of gray birds rose out of it into the air, filling the room with their fluttering sound. I ran to open the window to let them out. When I turned back, the birds were gone, and so was the book and the room, and I was in a place without color or form or substance or weight of any kind. Intermittent flashes of light appeared in the middle of this, like the sparks of a dying current. It was then, inside the nightmare, that I began to scream.
Did base see that, too? I doubted it. I was pretty sure they could only see our thoughts when we were awake, and even then only the ones that were especially intense.
Those flashes of light went on all night beyond the perimeter, like fireflies filling the landscape out there. Moore had been the first one to notice them and tell the others when we arrived. Tiny slivers of light in the ground, like broken glass. But I knew that wasn’t what they were.
“Let me go out and take a look, okay?” Moore had said to me. No, I’d answered. He knew it was a rule from base that no one was allowed past the fence. He was testing me. Ready to make it something that was larger than life. Always the big drama for him.
Harris, the quiet one in the lot, approached me two days after Moore disappeared. He had a theory, he said, about what had happened. I asked him what he meant. He told me what he’d seen.
“Parnell, he was really bothered by that heat lightning. Or whatever it is that’s blinking on and off all the time everywhere out there.” Harris swept his arm in an arc toward the distant landscape. “He couldn’t think about anything else. He didn’t sleep.”
“Who does?” I offered, but Harris didn’t seem to hear me.
“And he’d stopped dreaming,” said Harris.
That got my attention. “How do you know that?” I asked him.
“Because he said so. He laughed at us, at the way we tried to stay awake. ‘You’re fools’ he said to us. ‘I don’t dream anymore. I don’t need to. No nightmares for me. Go ahead. Ask me why not.’”
“And?” I prompted him. Harris was a slow speaker, maddening in his hesitations.
“And, well, nothing. We didn’t believe him, so we didn’t ask him what he meant. I think that surprised him, but he didn’t push it anymore. Most of us would fall asleep eventually the usual way. He’d go on night walks and show up hours later, looking like hell.”
“Right. Like the rest of us don’t?”
Again Harris went on as if he hadn’t heard me. He was a humorless guy. “But then this last time, he just didn’t come back.”
Maybe because he found out where the dream came from, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“So what do you think happened?” I asked.
“He got lost out there. I think so. He needs us to find him.”
I told Harris to forget about it, the same as I told Karlens.
But I knew what had happened to Moore. After all, I’d been on this outpost before, a lot of times before.
The sun rises eight minutes after seven in the morning, every day. So much was predictable. Our work was repetitive. There wasn’t that much to do besides shoring up the old buildings and clearing out debris from sandstorms. I knew our schedule was recorded faithfully on the base logs. Any divergence, base would notify me.
Every prisoner was viewed as being an unlikely rehab, maybe beyond redemption. This outpost was their last chance. Moore had killed six men and two women in his time. He hadn’t felt a moment of remorse. Who knows why he’d volunteered to help Healey. Now he was one of the ones who wouldn’t get saved. But some of them could be, or I wouldn’t have kept trying.
“You know how it changes them, being in that place,” Annabeth always said whenever I prepared to leave base, after she handed me the last data units. “Anyone who gets to come back, they don’t want to go out there again. They behave, know what I mean?”
“I think so,” I would answer. She’d catch the sarcasm but ignore it. Annabeth was a programmer with zero people skills but some fool thought she should become a manager because she’d found a way to put everything—I mean everything—we needed into what she called “the Tell.” We never saw it on the journey. It was some amorphous entity I likened to dark energy that clearly took up space because we were restricted from visiting its cave out in C-deck, but she gave me the controller and once we arrived at our destination, all I had to do was sweep it in a small arc in front of my face. Our supplies appeared like a conjuring trick, emerging out of Annabeth’s creation like some invisible creature giving birth. I’d been using it for almost two years for seven different sets of prisoners without a flaw, as far as she could tell. Her joke.
“You do good work with those prisoners,” Damien had said, just before I left base. He’d come down with Laura this time to see me off. My sister had a habit of hooking up with losers, but I had a feeling about this latest boyfriend. They’d been together over a year—that’s a year longer than usual for Laura.
“You always come back, I know, but every time, Simon, I’m afraid you’ll get stuck out there in that awful place!” Laura said, her face pale and anxious.
“And this is your idea of giving me a sendoff?” I said to her.
“He’ll be fine. He always is,” said Damien, wrapping his arms around her for a second and then releasing her.
“Yes,” she said. “I know. I mean, I guess I know. But it’s lonely for you. I mean, it has to be. Maybe if you’d stayed with Rose…I know she’s out of reach now. Can’t your base people find her for you? I’d still miss you but at least I’d know you were happy.”
I didn’t want to go there. And I knew that even if they wanted to help me find her, which they didn’t, base couldn’t access alternate worlds. Like the one where Rose was.
“I manage,” I told her, as I waved goodbye to both of them. Annabeth had already installed her Tell on the ship. I didn’t have to think about it, for which I was grateful.
There was a short delay in lift-off. I had time to think. Too much time for my own good, for I felt a difference. It had been harder to say goodbye to Laura, harder to come back to the outpost, even though I knew I had no choice, not really. I thought about the house near the lake that she shared with Damien, the two-month-old daughter they were raising far from the city, the way the rain had fallen there in that secluded place, warm and soft, when we’d all sat together on their front porch. It was the shape of life they seemed to prefer, that they chose to create from the programs they’d been given. I understood why. I wanted that peace, too, even though it wasn’t mine to have—not with them, anyway. Maybe not with anyone anymore.
It was nearly 4 a.m. before I finally gave up on sleep and left my tent and went out to the barrier. It was marked with light rods that glowed in a dim, deep blur around the camp. I had already changed the security algorithms, so I stepped through the transparent wall without setting off a single alarm. Piece of cake. I knew that even back at base they wouldn’t know. They’d know I’d left my tent, yes, but that was all. Annabeth’s perfect configuration had one flaw after all. The Tell couldn’t read a single bit of data about anything that wasn’t part of the original payload. It was blind to anything beyond the perimeter. That meant base couldn’t see anything out there, either.
The moon was high as it always was three hours before sunrise. I looked out and saw what was there, a million shards of glass that could have been scattered by a giant’s hand, dazzling, flickering points of light, as if the stars were reflected in an unending black pool. But that’s not what they were.
If Moore had stayed where he was supposed to, maybe I wouldn’t have had to go out there to look for him. Only I knew that was a lie. I’d have gone into the starfield anyway. It was something I couldn’t help doing just before the end of every assignment. But there was very little time. I needed to get back to camp before dawn.
Fifty yards out I stopped walking and bent down and picked up one of the shards and held it in my hand. A perfect, thin wafer of light. I saw my own reflection and then it cleared, and I saw the room in my dream again, the wind outside rushing through the grasses, and I felt the breathing pulse of the walls. I saw this clearly, and the feeling of emptiness seized me. I belonged there. Not standing on the plain in this godforsaken place. I should be in that room, I thought. In the gateway. For that was what it was. That was what haunted my dreams. The way out. The way back. My choice. But the book was closed.
Very gently I laid the glass down and picked up another. It showed the room for only a moment, and then the worlds in it raced past, too fast for me to perceive any detail. I didn’t have time to sort them out, to let the random scenes unfold. I needed to see what I wanted to see again, what I missed, what I felt bereft without, what I could tell no one.
I picked up a third one. I pressed it at three points and closed my fist over it. When I opened my hand the room was there, waiting, the book on the table, only this time, it was open. I thought of what I wanted and watched the glass move as if water in a brook had passed over it. We, our whole unit, our setup and barriers, were in the foreground, surrounded by the emptiness of the plain. Then, somewhere in the distance, beyond and out of sight of our unit, lying on the other side of another world, I saw it. In each facet of the sliver of glass, in its diamond shape, I saw the city I remembered, a fractal impression, a collection of ions brought into more than three dimensions, all of it blinding me, nearly bringing me to tears. It hovered there and I closed my hand over it again. Yes!
It would take one more journey past the barrier. There was no time now. But I would return to the starfield and stay with it until I merged into the gateway. The next time, at last, I would go home. I would find Rose. I had to.
Out over the plain, in the glittering dark space, there were so many worlds. I’d never be able to detect which one Moore had entered. I knew only that now, somewhere, some world had him, and would, I hoped, recognize what he was and take appropriate action, once they’d seen evidence of his natural tendencies. Whether they liked it or not, he was their headache now.
With each group I brought to the outpost, there would be at least one who decided he wanted to go through the barrier. It was usually the one who had done the most killing, but not always. I never knew why. It wasn’t my job to guess.
Most, like Annabeth said, didn’t want to have to come back to Shelter Bay. They had their own nightmares and wanted them to stop. So they stayed clean while they were on the outpost. They didn’t rebel. They were always being watched. They knew this, so the strategy worked. The program was a raving success, all things considered. I gave full value for the money I was paid. Maybe more. I always succeeded, so they kept sending me here. Even if for some reason I failed, I had the feeling they wouldn’t be willing to let go of me now.
Light glimmered on the horizon. I could see the thin green line signaling dawn. In the instant, the ground grew dark, appearing as nothing more than packed dirt and sand. Nothing more would show again until nighttime.
Yet the sound came then, so subtle in its tone that I almost thought I’d imagined it. I let it hold my mind for one brief moment, a whisper of sound rising from the ground. Her voice. Then, only silence, not even the wind blowing across the sand. Soon, Rose. Soon.
The light diffused over the whole sky and an early mist climbed out of the plains and rolled behind me toward the camp. I followed it. No one was there to see me return. The base holo wouldn’t be able to pick me up until I was back over the barrier. Then I reset the algorithms.
When I reached my tent, I fell on my bed and slept like the dead.
The woman walked across the desert and stopped. She stood very still, waiting. The darkness was total. Nothing moved in the cool night. It seemed a long time before the two moons finally rose and the desert floor flashed before her in a million points of light.
“I can’t do this again,” she said out loud, though she knew she would continue to leave the outskirts of the city and come out there again and again, just as she was doing now. With her foot she traced patterns in the sand.
“Simon, why did you have to go?” she whispered. There was no one to hear. “Where are you?” The questions were pointless. He’d accepted the assignment, he’d even volunteered. The mission first. That was who he was.
“Well, my darling, I have my own mission now,” she said softly.
She looked back at the city that lay in the foothills behind her and the mountain range that soared above. They had felt this together, she and Simon, in another time, the light of two moons at once, a warm wind caressing them. It was what they had loved most. What they had been able to share.
“Which one, Simon? Help me. You knew the code to use. Why didn’t you teach it to me?” Her last words climbed in a wail and echoed across the desert floor. “Why did you leave me alone?”
She studied the ground, the shafts of light flickering all around her. She leaned over and picked up a piece of the curious, opaque glass. As she held it, the surface cleared and she saw in it her own reflection. Then the room with the strange walls appeared. The gateway. Soon shapes emerged, the scenes shifted, and someone’s life passed before her in swift details she could barely register. But it was not Simon. None of them were. She tossed the shards down, one after the other, impatiently.
“Do you remember, Rose?” she shouted into the night. “Remember how you broke the one he gave you, crushed it under your foot in anger. You can never find him again. Only he can find you.” The pain went through her and she doubled over with it. “Why did I do it?” she cried out again.
“He’s a doctor. He accepted the job. When is that going to sink in, Rose?” her father-in-law had said to her. “No one here needed his kind of help. What else was he supposed to do? He needed to give service. You knew that about him.”
She fell to her knees with the grief of it. Yes, Simon chose to enter the other world time and again. His success at bringing criminals back into normal behavioral patterns was phenomenal. She knew he was glad to be able to do something, to make a difference. It was how he was made. She knew that. Why did they all keep talking to her as if she didn’t understand? It didn’t make surviving this loneliness any easier. It made it worse, because she knew they were right. Her own work mattered to her, but never the way his work mattered to him. It was what he craved. More than his need for her.
“No, Rose,” he had insisted when she’d said as much to him. “Nothing matters to me more than you. But this is something I can’t refuse. This one time. Then I’ll stop. I promise.”
But he had broken that promise, over and over.
“I have to find you, Simon. Hear my voice, please. Hear me! Simon!” Her cry covered the flashing shards of light before her and rose high into the star-filled sky. He had to find her!
“Simon!” she whispered. She stood up and turned around and walked toward the city. There would be another time. She would try again, futile as it seemed. She couldn’t give up. Not yet.
On waking, I went through the motions of the day automatically. We were scheduled to leave soon. The prisoners would have new lives waiting for them if the base was satisfied their stay on the outpost had been sufficient for the purpose. For myself, all I needed was one more night.
“Captain!” Karlens stood before me, breaking my train of thought. “You have to come with me, sir,” he said.
“Why?” To my surprise I saw it was already dusk.
Karlens’ clothes looked as good as new. He should be wearing them wrinkled and stained by now like the rest of us. This time his military attitude irritated me beyond tolerance.
“Stop that damned saluting,” I said. “Act like the rest of us or you’ll find yourself out there along with Moore.”
Karlens looked startled and started to say something, but stopped himself. He wouldn’t want to spoil his record of diligence so close to the end.
“I think you should see this, sir.”
I gave up and joined him as he headed to the edge of the camp, to the barrier. Everyone else was there ahead of us.
“It’s changed, sir,” he said, pointing and leading me closer as the crew parted to let me through. I felt fear his voice and in the men around me. It was rolling out of them in waves against me.
I turned slowly in each direction. The field at night always showed us the intermittent flashes, like some random, silent serenade. Now the lights were gone. No, not quite gone. The field before us looked as if it had been covered with a blanket of stardust. There was nothing left. The shards had been pulverized.
“What do you think, sir?” Karlens said.
I knew at once, even as the shock swept through me. Base had done it. They had seen me go out there, somehow, after all.
They liked to control outcomes. They’d sent me to the outpost over and over again. I had a good record. No failures, ever. Now they were worried about me, or more accurately, about the train of thought I’d had lately. They’d tracked it, after all. So they chose to destroy the only legitimate way the camp had to function the way it did. The dreaming would not come to the prisoners anymore in that place without a starfield. Base had pulled the plug.
“I think they’ll just have to assign me to another prison somewhere else, Karlens, that’s what I think,” I said. I wasn’t going to let on to the men what I felt, much less to base. “Time we packed up for the return trip. We’ve been here long enough. Get the men started in on that. My guess is transport will be here by morning.”
I patted the pocket of my shirt, felt the hard, sharp edge beneath the cloth. Yes, it was time to go home. The next outpost, wherever it was, wherever they sent me, I swore to myself, would be the last. I’d find my way back to Rose. It was her voice I had heard calling to me, I was sure of that.
The thing everyone knew was that every prison needed a starfield to work, to instill the right amount of fear in the prisoners through the dreaming that the shards of light created.
What mattered most to me was that all starfields were connected. The loss of this one wasn’t going to change that. They all came from the same source. They all had access to the gateway, like children to their mother. It was something I could count on.
Regina Clarke follows her passions for reading mysteries, watching film noir and 1950s science fiction B-grade (sometimes C-grade) movies, absorbing biographies of writers like a sponge, exploring metaphysics, and feeling reverence for nature and all wildlife. She now calls the Hudson River Valley her home, and it pleases her no end to live not very far from where Rod Serling grew up and Jane Roberts encountered Seth.
Her stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mad Scientist Journal, NewMyths, and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, among others. She has written a number of books in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery that are up on Amazon, both in Kindle and paperback formats (also available in iTunes and Kobo). In the spring of 2012 she was a finalist in the Hollywood SCRIPTOID Screenwriter’s Feature Challenge for her script about a mother seeking the disabled child she had abandoned, in “Second Chances.” In October of 2016 her YA fantasy MARI was a finalist in the ListenUp Audiobooks competition.