The dream was always changing, even though it always felt the same.
Aki jerked awake, coming up out of sleep like a swimmer gasping for breath. She brushed her shoulder-length hair out of her face and looked around the lab, letting the familiar surroundings ease the tension. She was strapped in her lounge chair in the research area of her ship. She was in orbit, headed for the right time and spot for reentry into the atmosphere.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The dream felt the same, time after time, yet every time she had it there were subtle changes. Changes she knew meant something.
The dream haunted her like an echo as she tried to push the images aside. She reached for the holographic control panel over her chair. The display read:
Dream File Save? Yes? No? 12/13/2065
Aki punched Yes and the hologram disappeared. With a click, the scanning device retracted into the panel over her head and the magnetic connectors holding her in the chair deactivated. She floated upward in the zero gravity from the released pressure of her body on the chair.
The dream dug at her mind like a mole, trying to show her something. It always felt the same. Always. But she had decided to try recording them, to see what the differences really were, and if she could find out what they meant.
She pushed herself across the high-tech laboratory toward the window, letting the moment of floating in zero g ease her tension. Her quest had caused enough problems without her sleep being plagued by the dream. If the Council knew about her dreams, they would shut down her research, she was sure.
But she needed to know what the dreams meant.
She eased herself into an upright position near the port, grasping a handhold to stay in place as she stared at the blue and white of Earth hundreds of miles below. It was so beautiful, it calmed her even more, and set her resolve to understand what was happening.
She let the images of the dream come back.
An alien sun and a massive moon shone through a thick, dusty sky, at levels too bright for comfort. She was standing in a barren wasteland that was clearly scarred from a massive battle. Under her feet seemed to be a lake, yet she remained on the surface, her own image reflecting back at her, as if she was standing on a mirror.
She was waiting for something. She had no idea what.
Then, over the horizon, a light started to outshine the hot sun, adding to the feeling of intense heat.
She knew something was coming.
She could sense it, feel it in the shaking of the surface under her.
The air around her rumbled louder and louder; the dust, swirling like a breeze, was kicking it up. Yet she could feel no wind against her face, no movement of her hair.
Something big was coming.
But she didn't know what.
She just waited, facing it, wanting to turn and run, yet not doing so. She needed to know what it was.
She needed to face it.
The air swirled, the dust choked her. The surface under her feet shook as the horizon got even brighter.
The unknown came closer.
Then she had woken up, the dream over.
Most of the dream was the same as other times, but this time it felt as if she was closer to understanding.
It frustrated her that she could not see what was coming at her over that horizon. She felt she needed to know what it was, but she could think of no way to extend the dream. She would just have to wait, let the dream explain itself to her.
But waiting was not something she did easily.
She shook off the feeling of dread and tried to calm her fast-beating heart. Just thinking about the dream got her upset. She desperately needed to know what it meant. And what she was waiting for.
She stared out the portal. Below her Earth spun slowly, beautiful from orbit. She hoped beyond all hope that she would be in time to save her wonderful home planet.
"Atmosphere reentry in fifteen seconds," The Black Boa's autopilot announced over the communication link, its metallic voice as calm as always. This was going to be a dangerous and tricky drop, and she needed to be clear and ready for it.
She pushed off the portal and floated up into the control cabin. Just as the chair there snapped her into position, The Black Boa bumped slightly and then leveled, the autopilot she had programmed taking her into the mission. Through the portal she could see red from the heat flaring off the hull as the ship sliced into the atmosphere. The pressure pushed her against the chair's restraints, but she ignored it. Now she had to think about the coming mission.
She was dropping in over the Atlantic, hot and fast, just as she had planned to do. It was dark where she was heading, the morning still over Eastern Europe, a long way from the East Coast of North America. With luck she would be in, get the sixth spirit, and be out before anyone, or anything, could even move to meet or stop her.
The thumps of the atmosphere reentry eased and she took a deep breath, forcing herself to relax. The feeling of gravity reassured her as she eased the ship in toward the target. She just hoped the sixth spirit was still there.
"Thirty seconds to landing," the autopilot said.
"Ready," she said to herself, ignoring the fact that she was talking to her ship's computer.
"Warning! This is restricted air space," the computer said.
She tapped her control board, overriding the restriction, not taking her eyes off the ground rushing up at her.
She wanted to take the controls in her own hands, but it was now pitch-black outside the ship. It was better to let the computer land her, right where she had programmed it to.
She could see something moving past the ship on all sides in the darkness, but the blast of the ship's propulsion wasn't enough to light up what it was.
The ship bumped and then settled, and the engines shut off.
She quickly checked the details. The ship had brought her right where it was supposed to. Now, to get what she was here for and get out.
She snapped off the safety restraints of her chair and headed out of the control room. Stopping for only a few seconds in the lab to grab her equipment, she stepped toward the closed hatch and took a deep breath. She was going to make this work. She had no choice.
She tapped the control on the wall.
The hatch in front of her clanged and slid downward.
Nothing but blackness faced her. It was almost as if she were looking into the depths of space, without the stars.
The hatch snapped into a horizontal position, becoming a ramp as she stepped onto it.
She took the flare gun from her belt and aimed it up and away from the ship, then fired.
The orange and white light of the flare lit an incredible black world around her.
She knew it had been called Times Square.
She had seen pictures of this area in its heyday, long before her birth, when the parties celebrating the New Year would fill this area with millions of people. It had been an area of life, of activity.
Now there was only darkness and ruin. The sight hit her hard, right in the stomach, making her take a deep breath.
Crumbling buildings loomed over piles of brick, mortar, and rusted old cars. All the glass in all the windows was long gone, leaving the holes as empty, dead eyes, the blackness too deep to even think about. This was the same kind of destruction she kept seeing in her dreams. Only her dream was of an alien world; this was reality on her world.
She forced herself back to the task at hand, scanning the area around the ship for any sign of the Phantoms, lit up by the flare. Nothing.
She pulled out her gun, holding it ready as she moved down the last few meters to the ground. Dust and debris