Returned | Invulnerable pt 2 ch 7

Each time rising was worse. The dreams grew darker.


Part 2 - A Believer's Visitation

Chapter 7 - Returned

I woke, lying on something soft, dim light glowing gradually brighter beyond my eyelids. What was that I had been dreaming? Dad had a camera and was taking a picture… a movie? …of me. With Mom. And my sister. My sister!

I open my eyes to a gray ceiling close above. To my left is a small glowing panel.

As I touch it, the dream gets lost and Doctor Bluewings is in my mind, hurriedly explaining.

"You are on your way home.

"This ship is quite small.

"We will sleep through the journey.

"You cannot.

"You must rise and eat and drink several times on the journey. Then you must sleep again.

"This way we will make the journey, and have energy to go on."

As she said "go on," there was unsureness.

"Now you should go, eat, wash, expel, and return to sleep state. We will rise when you are home."

So I went, ate, washed, expelled, as best I could figure out. The TV dinners were unrefrigerated. The room was cold. I had water. I hope that was supposed to be a toilet. At least I had my spork and knife to eat the cold, gelatinous gristle. I was used to that. The microwave in my cell had quit working after about two days.

When I slept, sometimes I would dream, just as I was waking. Not dreams. Memories. School. Dog. A name, Julie. Playing with my friend... friend... name won't come to me. Then the screen would pulse with light and I'd awaken, remembering fragments.

Awake, alone, I ate, I washed, I expelled.

I thought about how even though I was supposed to be escaping, it was like the worst of back when I was in my cage. I got angry all over again. Lonely and angry and lonely.

I thought about a great war coming, where whole worlds might be exterminated, including my home. I had seen the smoldering hole in that world.

But more than anything, I thought about our little Community. Was it safe?

Andy! Doctor Tom! Lucy, dear Lucy! He thought of so many others. He even remembered me asking him if he was divine, asking him what to do about the gangsters.

He had felt really confused by my questions. He had doubted that our feeling safe was enough for him to do. He felt like he should know whether or not he was a god, or something, but he realized he had no clue who or what he was. When he was supposed to come up with some stratagem to deal with an army of murderous thugs, he really had no idea.

It wasn't like he was scared. He just felt inadequate.

He had let everybody down. Whatever kind of prophet, or leader, general or genius he was supposed to be, he wasn't.

So he had retreated. It felt safer.

Each time rising was worse. The dreams grew darker. The food wasn't holding up well. All he could think about while awake was gangsters threatening the community of peace, and a star-spanning war threatening our world and so many others.

You were that tiny hope, said General Silverbreast.

The leaf with the twig stuck through it swirled and vanished under the surface of the brook, never bobbed up, even though I watched and watched.

There was Something. I had it. They took it but they couldn't use it. Now, nobody has it, whatever it was, quantum morphowhatever.

Nobody's safe. Not at all!

Dad is driving.

We're on our way home from the lake. The car smells like fish. Baseball on the radio. We're laughing about… Dad's friend lost his fishing pole.

Trees rush by.

We're going on a big vacation next week. The four of us.

Sister… I always call her Sis, or Little Sister. Name…? We haven't had a family vacation for three years. With my job helping, we had saved enough.

I drop a pack of gum on the floor.

I reach down to pick it up.

I hear dad say, "One big fish or OH NO!"

I'm erect in my seat.

A semi rushes by on the wrong side.

Why are the trees sideways?

I look at Dad.

He's scared. He's yelling.

I hear a whistle, a chirp, and a long, bony finger brushes my cheek. I jump up from my spinning passenger seat and hit my head on the ceiling of my low chamber.

"We must go," whistles Doctor Bluewings.

I am unshaven, ragged, dirty, ill-nourished, sick to my stomach, headachey, and in a very foul mood.

I remember the space war.

I remember my community.

I remember my family!

How could I have forgotten my family?

I was sick with horror.

What had happened after the car wreck?

What had happened to Dad?

The community is under attack.

Was under attack.

My whole world may be about to be under attack. So small a world. So vulnerable.

And I've failed everybody.

Doctor Bluewings and Ike are hovering over some panel.

I stare at the last dinners and knock them on the floor. They don't even notice.

I don't… I want to… I'm sick!

Suddenly, they're both excited, rasping and singing and trilling and… laughing?

How can they laugh when everything is about to be destroyed? They could be laughing at me. I failed their whole civilization. All the civilizations! I wasn't there to protect the community. What if they weren't safe without me?

I wasn't there for Dad. I couldn't protect him.

I'm a sick, horrible, worthless nobody who failed at everything.

Several panels began flashing as an urgent screech sounded.

Ike chattered at Doctor Bluewings and they looked at me.

Doctor Bluewings rushed toward me, that mad manic gaze I used to think was a smile. I recoiled slightly at her approach.

"Works!" she tried to say, amid tweeting and clucking, too excited for clear English.

"Thank! Thank!" she cried, as Ike herded me toward a corner, toward a panel on the floor, two vertical panels connected to it in a corner, half a box. I stood on the panel on the floor at Ike's urging.

Doctor Bluewings was breathing rapidly, exhaling with a little whistling.

"Wait! Delay!" she said to me, and chirruped something like that to Ike, who began cawing back urgently. The plate beneath my feet glowed. My feet stuck.

Doctor Bluewings turned toward the short hall, reached into my sleeping chamber, and peeled the screen off the wall.

She closed her eyes, holding the screen for a moment, then thrust it at me.

"Ever ever safe!" she managed to say, with that gruesome smile.

Oh, I thought. That. No, not safe. Not anymore. Never anymore. None of us. My fault!

The panels beneath my feet and behind me glowed brighter. My skin began to tingle.

Ike was cawing.

Doctor Bluewings blinked at me uncomprehendingly, holding out the panel I wouldn't touch.

She began to reach toward me. Ike yelled and jumped and she stopped.

They began to fall apart in front of me, like a shattering mirror.

Doctor Bluewings moved forward and screamed.

All senses vanished except the all-over inside-and-out feeling of tingling numbness.

Then I am breathing again, but the air tasted acrid, bitter. Bright light like a photoflash fades to deep darkness, and I'm falling. I try to spread my wings, but I don't have any.

I hit the surface hard. It's uneven. I twist my ankle, hit my head. A cloud of ash and dust hits my nose.

A young girl -- I think I know her! -- comes rushing up.

I say, "Am I back?" Wherever I am, it's a ruin. "Is this… Earth?"

I feel so horribly sick.

The girl just looks at me, says nothing, just falls to her knees.

She's — I know her?

I stood up, shaky, unsteady. The gravity is different than I remember.

I look at the kneeling girl, I grab her arms and pull her to her feet. She has the strangest, distant expression, a dreamy smile.

"You look human!" I say. Then I remember her. She was standing right there when I left.

Ruins. Why was I standing in these ruins?

She said, "Paul! It's okay! You're safe! You're home!"

It didn't make any sense. We're not safe. This isn't home.

I ask, "Where am I? What is this place?"

She pauses, then says, "Oh!

"This was the Center. This," she says, pointing at the rubble beneath us, "was your room. There was an attack...."

Oh no! My heart is flooded with dread, my stomach aches with despair.

"The gangsters," I whisper.

All the worlds I've failed, all the communities and civilizations and families, especially my own.

I find I'm sitting down again. I don't feel anything anymore. My body is heaving, like a laugh or a cry, but there's no laughter and no tears.

There's nothing left.

My hand uncurls. I've been holding my screen, curled up in my fist. It's dropping from my hand as I see the girl reaching out for it.

Then I lived the diary again. And again. Over and over and over. Finally, gradually, I was myself again, I'd swear it had only been a moment, but Paul was gone. I looked in all directions, but I must have been out longer than I thought.

It was almost dawn.