The deceleration of the engine interrupted his dreams. Within seconds, he heard a reassuring, if oddly mechanical, voice.
Keyop rubbed his eyes and stumbled down the ladder from the upper left-hand bunk. He navigated the tight quarters of the sleeping chamber and fumbled for the light switch.
What now? he wondered.
Typical missions aboard the Phoenix didn’t leave time for using their sleeping quarters, but this trip had been different from the outset. Days earlier, 7-Zark-7 had reported an anomaly in one of the furthest reaches of known space, in a seldom traveled part of Galaxy 4520 known as the Theta Region.
Keyop knew that Chief Anderson had initially written off the anomaly as one of Zark’s malfunctioning circuits. But after another sensor in the monitoring array indicated a similar problem, the Chief had called his team together for a meeting.
“You are to enter the Theta Region and check for any signs of Spectran activity,” the Chief had said. Keyop remembered that he didn’t look any of them in the eye.
“What?” Mark had blurted, failing to hide his astonishment. Keyop recalled his blue eyes growing even wider.
Jason’s sarcastic snort had quickly followed. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Princess had calmly voiced what they all were thinking. “But Chief,” she had said, using a tone normally reserved for silencing incompetent junior officers, “there’s nothing out there but a small asteroid cluster.”
“I realize that, Princess,” the Chief had answered abruptly. His tone had ended all conversation. “You have your orders.”
And they had followed those orders, Keyop thought, traveling at warp speed for what seemed like days, until they finally arrived at their destination -- the middle of nowhere. Then they began a routine, if terribly boring, surveillance.
The Chief had required their presence in the Theta Region for a minimum of 24 hours, an inexplicable internment they all resisted. Mark set them up in shifts, more to break the monotony than anything else. Keyop and Tiny took a short excursion in the Space Buggy to get a closer look at the largest asteroid, but there was really nothing to see.
So it wasn’t surprising that Keyop hadn’t been tired during his assigned rest time. He had bounced around the flight deck trying out a new cordless yo-yo (thoroughly annoying everyone except Princess, who found it fascinating) until Mark finally ordered him to bed. Keyop couldn’t remember falling asleep, but here he was, wide awake again.
He listened to the slightly irregular rhythm of the Phoenix. It always felt different when Tiny wasn’t flying. Surely, this was some sort of drill. Or maybe Tiny had to use the bathroom (it was always a pain to get out of their suits) or perhaps Mark had finally ordered the big pilot to bed, too. But, if that was the case, where was he?
“Tiny? You … OK?” Keyop called as flipped on the lights, wishing for the millionth time that he didn’t have a stutter.
There was no answer. The remaining beds were empty, untouched.
Keyop peered out the door of the sleeping chamber and looked down the hallway. “Mark? Princess?” His words echoed down the hallway and faded into nothing. The silence was eerie.
Something’s not right, Keyop thought. Heart pounding, he raced to the flight deck, footsteps echoing behind him as he ran from the sleeping quarters.
The Phoenix appeared to be circling the same asteroid cluster. The view screen showed the same boring images as before. But there was no one in sight.
Keyop grabbed the nearest communicator.
“Chief! We have … erp … brrt … problem!” The link opened successfully, but revealed an empty command chair at Center Neptune.
Everyone was gone.
The green wisp radiated heat. Again? Try the soothing procedure.
It was distasteful to form such a link with a foreign being, thought the green wisp, but it was necessary. The mental energy generated by the solids in this Thoughtplane allowed wisp culture to survive. There simply weren’t enough wisps left to generate each of the necessary wavelengths. The seemingly endless array of Thoughtspheres, which a solid might describe as looking like undulating crystalline bubbles of light, had solved that problem.
The wisp of blue light surrounded Thoughtsphere 72 and began to form a telepathic link to the alien within the sphere. The blue wisp pulsated to begin the sequence.
You are safe here. You are loved. You are …
Thwap! Suddenly, Thoughtsphere 72 was on its side.
The blue wisp flashed a distress call. Sire! Sire! The alien is resisting!
The rest of the wisps relayed the call. Dissipate! Dissipate! they cried.
Vapors of all colors swirled around the Thoughtplane trying to avoid the fracas.
The green wisp wished to leave, but team leaders were required to stay. The solid’s consciousness had broken though the Thoughtsphere. Protocol demanded that, at a minimum, the alien’s questions be answered. It didn’t take a telepath to know that this one was angry.
“Where the hell is my team?” the solid bellowed.
“Rise and shine, Little Buddy,” Tiny said, shaking his teammate’s foot. Keyop murmured slightly and moaned. The little boy quickly resumed the fetal position.
“Keyop! Time to get up!” Tiny lifted the small frame into a sitting position, but Keyop was a dead weight. Unable to support himself, he quickly slid back under the covers. Tiny tried slapping him gently on the cheeks, but there was no response.
“Jason, get in here!” Tiny hollered so loudly that his wrist communicator wasn’t necessary.
“What’s wrong?” Mark asked him over the wrist-com.
Tiny switched on the intercom link in the sleeping chamber. “I’m not sure. Keyop won’t get up.”
“What’s new?” Jason growled. “Just drag his ass out of bed.”
“I don’t think I can.” Tiny stood next to the bunk and smoothed Keyop’s hair from his eyes. Jase, he doesn’t look good. I need you *now*.”
Now, just calm down and I can answer your questions. The green wisp hoped the words from the protocol would soothe the stranger. Breakouts from a Thoughtsphere were rare. Practice drills were nothing compared to this. Solids were so peculiar. This one appeared as a shimmering red cylinder.
“Where is my team? Where is G-Force?” the hologram demanded again.
They aren’t here. The green wisp tried to project an air of confidence.
Red shimmers flashed dangerously around the holographic cylinder. The green wisp continued quickly, hoping a thought barrage would silence the stranger.
You are the only one of your party here. Your teammates are safe in your world. Only you are here visiting. We mean you no harm.
“Where am I?” the red cylinder demanded. “And where is my body?!”
The green wisp sighed. This part was always so hard to explain to creatures that were tied to form. You needn’t shout. We use telepathy here. My chosen name is Verdant. What is your calling?
My name? I’m Keyop, answered the red cylinder, fading slightly. Where am I?
The Theta Region.
I know that. Where in the Theta Region?
Verdant sighed. Where is irrelevant. I only use the place name to suit you. We are in a Thoughtplane.
The solid radiated disbelief and confusion.
Verdant tried to recall the exact words from the protocol. You visit Thoughtplanes every day. This is where you go when you fall sleep. Normally you don’t resume consciousness here. It’s more common when you encounter a Thoughtlink. We believe there’s an open channel in one of your galaxies.
Are you joking? Keyop’s shade of red, which had been fading into magenta, turned crimson.
I am not. Creatures such as you sometimes feel tired upon waking, do you not? This is because you have been working here during your slumber. We harness the mental energy from your dreams. Verdant couldn’t hide the pride.
You do … what? That’s crazy! Keyop was turning pink.
Verdant was nonplussed. But your thought waves would just dissipate otherwise. We channel your wasted energy by harnessing your dreams on the Thoughtplanes. Once we place you in a Thoughtsphere, you are fully protected and safe. You never even know you’ve been here.
So, what happened this time? Keyop was indignant. And where, exactly, is my body?!
Verdant tried to project an air of calm. You are asleep. Your body is right where you left it. Verdant was happy to recite the protocol word for word. This was just like a training exercise, nothing to worry about.
You’re telling me that I’m dreaming? My teammates aren’t really missing?
That’s right. But I’m sure they are worried about you. You need to go back into the Thoughtsphere now so that we can send you home. This was the final step, Verdant knew. Then this solid could return home and this little incident wouldn’t affect Verdant’s color standing. Verdant desperately hoped to avoid shifting frequencies again.
But the solid began to change shapes rapidly. I won’t surrender to you, Zoltar! You can try your mind control tricks but they aren’t going to work on me! The crimson cylinder flattened and started to pulsate erratically. The edges of the cylinder began to solidify and then fade. It was clear to Verdant that the solid was in distress.
Vermillion! Vermillion! Verdant shimmered as deeply as possible. A Vortex is forming! I repeat, a Vortex is forming! Send the Thought Guards now!
Jason peered into Keyop’s eyes with a penlight. “How long has he been like this?”
Tiny shrugged. “I don’t know. I just came in here a few minutes ago. See his skin?”
“Yeah.” Jason held up one of Keyop’s hands. Tiny green and blue blotches were visible up and down his arm. “Like he’s been stamped with ink.” Jason shook his head. “Weird.” He lifted the bed sheet. “Does he have it on the rest of his body?”
“I don’t think so.” Tiny shrugged. “But I just got here.” He gave Jason a worried look. “Do you think it’s contagious? He looks so … strange.”
“I’m not sure.” Jason frowned and put a hand to Keyop’s cheek. “He’s not feverish.”
Jason spoke in a louder tone. “Keyop, I’m going to check your pulse.” Jason put two fingers to Keyop’s wrist and then repeated the gesture at the boy’s carotid artery. He looked at Tiny and shrugged.
“His pulse is steady.” Jason shook his head again and sat down on the lower bunk with a thud. “I have no idea. Our inter-planetary disease class didn’t cover colored rashes.” Tiny could almost see the waves of frustration radiating from him.
“Mark, I don’t know what we’ve got down here.” Jason’s voice was grim. “Keyop appears to be stable, but I’ve got to get him to Medical so I can run some tests. You and Prin need to stay the hell away till we know what’s going on.” Jason looked at the small, inert form in the bed and his eyes narrowed. “Tiny and I will stay here. We’ve already been exposed to whatever this is.”
Mark’s voice had risen a full octave. “What’s wrong with him?”
Jason ignored the comment and continued his train of thought. “Get the Chief working on it. We’ve got to figure out what he’s got and fast. And get us the hell out of here. I don’t know how much time we’ve got.” With that, Jason began to recite Keyop’s signs and symptoms. When he got to the green and blue blotches, Tiny heard Princess gasp.
“You know something about this?” Jason pounced. Tiny heard the undercurrent of fear beneath the fury. “What do you know?”
“Not much,” Princess admitted. “Just a newspaper article. A space explorer was found unconscious aboard his ship recently … ” Even through the intercom, it was obvious she was trying hard not to cry. “… covered with a blue rash.” The ship was so quiet that Tiny could hear her swallow. “They weren’t able to reach him in time. He never regained consciousness.”
Verdant had only seen one Vortex, during The Time of the Great Void. On a Thoughtplane, death of a solid formed a Hole of Black. Many wisps had disappeared into the previous Hole of Black. Verdant couldn’t bear to experience the absence of light again, this horrible negation of self. It was an unthinkable horror.
The Thought Guard arrived, carrying arcs of light shielding to contain the solid. Verdant’s job was to keep the alien occupied until they could form a new Thoughtsphere around him. It was risky, dangerous work. Only the strongest wisps could work as Thought Guards.
Keyop. Verdant tried to rouse the solid. Tell me upon which planetary body this Zoltar rests.
The red cylinder began to take shape. Verdant could sense Vermillion congratulating him. Keep him focused on you, Vermillion was projecting.
Zoltar is from Planet Spectra, Keyop answered. He’s here … I can feel him. Tell me where he is! The cylinder began to flatten dangerously again.
Verdant could sense the Thought Guards drawing closer. The time to gain information was short. Keyop, Zoltar is not here. But he is a common Thoughtwave on this plane. He disrupts our dreamers as a purple pyramid. We know he is dangerous. Is he your rival?
Yes. Zoltar is … Aaargh! The Thought Guards surrounded Keyop with arcs of white flashing light. They held the arcs in place until the alien’s solid form began to fade from view. The Thought Guards did not move until swirling red vapor appeared inside the Thoughtsphere.
Keyop awoke with his head to the floor.
How did I get here? he wondered. Something had jolted him awake, but what? He stood slowly, grasping the console for support. The scene before him on the bridge looked exactly the same: an empty view screen (save a few asteroids) with an equally empty flight deck.
Or was it?
Why’s the asteroid belt glowing green? he wondered. And what’s that noise? The loud buzzing slowly resolved itself into voices.
“... Chief said it’s rare but not unheard of. It usually lasts a day or two. It doesn’t appear to be contagious, but there’s no known treatment. When he spikes another fever, we just bring it back down. Otherwise, we wait.” A male voice.
“I hate this. If it weren’t for the Chief’s stupid wild goose chase, he wouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place.” A higher pitched male voice, angrier than the first.
Mark and Jason! Keyop thought happily. But where are they? And why aren’t they talking to me?
“We can’t know that for sure. The last case of Theta sickness was reported outside of the Theta Region.” That was Princess.
“Yeah, and that guy died!” Jason fumed. “We’re damned lucky the Chief reached us when he did.” Under his breath, he added, “I can’t wait to leave this rat hole.”
I’m dreaming, Keyop realized. I’m dreaming and I can’t wake up. He desperately tried to wave his arms.
“At least we now know to travel slowly. The Chief said they don’t know why entering warp speed causes complications with Theta sickness. But you’re right, Jason, that’s what they think killed that guy Princess read about.” Mark sighed. “The Chief said Keyop should be fine to travel once he’s conscious. I just hope we don’t get called out before then.”
He is contained, Vermillion assured Verdant. Your thoughts have served you well. Vermillion bowed to Verdant.
Verdant swirled in response. I thank you for your help, Sire. But, if I may be so bold, I am concerned about this Zoltar. I fear there is trouble brewing between the solids. If they continue to damage each other, there will be fewer dreamers to provide energy for our people. Should we send another distress call?
As you wish. Vermillion faded from view. Verdant bowed to the disappearing form. Once the superior wisp had exited the Thoughtplane, Verdant concentrated on the given task.
“Hey! I think he’s coming around.” Princess cried. “I just saw his arm move!”
“About time. Poor little guy.” That sounded like Tiny.
“Can we hit the gas now? I hate it here. It’s like we’re sitting ducks.” Jason still sounded angry.
Mark laughed, the sound of pent-up tension finally uncorking. “That doesn’t sound like the Jason I know. Afraid of a few asteroids, are you Jase?” There was the sound of a punch being thrown followed by another taunt from Mark. “‘Fraidy cat.”
Keyop, hearing the scuffle, finally opened his eyes.
“Hey!” Mark said, fending off another blow from Jason. “Welcome, back, Sleepyhead.”
Jason gave Mark a final slap as he moved to Keyop’s other side. “How’re you feeling?”
Keyop licked his lips and tried to stretch. “Tired.” He started to sit up, but Jason put a hand on his chest.
“Not yet, Keyop. You need to take it easy. You had us really worried.”
“What … happened?” Keyop looked around at the solids … his teammates … “Where’s Verdant?”
The rest of the team traded glances. “Verdant?” Princess asked politely.
“Yeah, and Vermillion and …” Keyop gave his teammates an expectant look. “They’re like … brrt … doot …doot …vapor people. I think … in danger from Spectra.”
Jason tried unsuccessfully to hide a smile. “It’s okay, Keyop. We’ll take care of your little friends for you. You just get some rest now.”
“Oh,” Keyop answered, “OK.” His eyelids were growing heavy again.
Keyop saw Mark gesture to the rest of the team and soon his friends were huddled at the back of the room. Keyop thought he heard the word “hallucinations” and the phrase “normal for Theta sickness” but he couldn’t be sure. He saw Jason, Tiny, and Princess file out of the room. Half-asleep, he listened to the scrape of a chair as Mark sat down in front of the sick-bay view screen and clicked opened a connection.
“Great news, Chief! Keyop’s finally awake! His fever broke about an hour ago and that rash is almost gone. I think we should be able to head back soon.” Mark sounded jubilant.
The Chief’s voice didn’t return the joy. “I’ve analyzed the data from your mission and I’m reluctant to admit this, but I have to agree with you. I’m sorry. This boondoggle was my fault. There must have been a flaw in the sensors. Zark and I were unable to pinpoint any new disturbances in the Theta Region during your mission.” The Chief sighed. “I just wish …” His voice trailed off.
Mark’s voice now, softer. “What is it, Chief?”
The Chief’s voice sounded peculiar. “I just wish we had found something to support that first set of anomalies. I have this feeling that we’re missing something important. I’ve been staring at the data for so long that I’ve been dreaming about the Theta Region.” The Chief paused for a moment, then laughed.
“That’ll teach you to eat at Jill’s right before bed,” Mark teased. “Catch you later, Chief. We’re going into radio silence now.”
“Try to get some sleep, Mark. You all should get some rest. You never know when Zoltar will strike next.”
“Big ten.” Mark stood up, yawned, and patted Keyop on the shoulder before lying down on the adjacent cot. “Sweet dreams, Little Buddy.”