Drums were beating mercilessly; the air was thick and stifling, making every breath feel like his last. People were shouting somewhere in the distance, an argument of some kind. The accents were strange, but he could understand the words. His eyes were shut as though with glue, leaving everything in terrifying blackness.
"What have I done?"
"You've brought me an elder. What a delightful gift, Gabrian. The relic, now, if you please."
"Come and get it."
"If you insist." That voice rose precipitously: "Lashas su hur ciel!"
A mighty crack like thunder split the air, and Aurelius woke with a start. Before him he saw nothing but white plastered across the canopy, white with specks of brown and gray that looked like broken tree branches. It looked like packed snow. Aurelius's head swam dangerously. The last thing he remembered was being in space, the ISS interceptors chasing him through an asteroid field, a dark tunnel . . . and then here. Somehow, he'd crash-landed back on Meridia and lost all memory between the asteroid field and the planet.
The voices he'd heard while dreaming continued still. Aurelius thought to wonder why he could hear them, and then he noticed that his flight helmet had flown off its hook and smashed into the controls, flicking a number of switches, among others was the one for the external audio pickups.
"Blinda ter seer!"
A quick look at damage reports told him that his shields were completely overloaded, artificial gravity the same, but between the two they'd mostly protected both him and his ship from the crash. Unfortunately, now both systems would probably need expensive replacement parts before they'd start working again, meaning that his ship was all but crippled. He would be limited to low-G maneuvers, and while also completely denuded of shields, he may as well paint a target on his hull. Aurelius grimaced. Repairing those systems would take a giant chunk out of his profits for this run.
"Arevela mer seer!"
Aurelius frowned, now listening more attentively to the voices coming from outside. They're not speaking Meridian. He couldn't tell what language it was, but it was extremely rare to hear anything other than Meridian. The continental languages had been all but extinguished, and now they only existed in ancient books and as useless topics in academia.
Snapping out of his seat restraints, Aurelius stood and waved a hand over the doors leading from the cockpit to the rest of the ship. The deck was sloping at an angle which made walking back through his ship like walking uphill, but in a few quick strides he made it through the galley and to the port airlock. Aurelius waved his hand over the door controls and the inner airlock doors slid open. Suddenly remembering who he was and what he did for a living, Aurelius patted his hip and found his gun belt missing. With a grimace he hurried back to the cockpit and retrieved it. Novice mistake, he chided himself as he strapped on the belt and his forearm gauntlet. Last of all he fetched his helmet from the dashboard and snapped the seals shut around his neck with a hiss of air. Between his gauntlet, helmet, and armored flight suit, he could defeat ten suitless gunmen without even breaking a sweat.
When he returned to the airlock, he triggered the inner airlock doors, just in case someone tried to sneak into his ship while he was gone, then he armed his plasma pistol and held it in cool readiness as he slapped a palm against the outer airlock door controls. He was ready for whatever might greet him on the other side.
Or so he'd thought.
The doors slid open to reveal a splintered forest drenched in dirty snow. Two figures with staffs and cloaks were yelling at one another in that strange language he'd heard. They had their staffs outstretched and their hands curled like claws as they gestured angrily at one another. Flashes of roiling light bounced between them, eventually careering off to one side or the other, vaporizing snow and splintering wood with explosive force. Aurelius's ears rang from the noise. Between the two men lay a glowing orb. Both of them seemed to be trying to get to it, but whenever one set foot toward the orb, the other fired a flash of light--plasma?--to explode at his adversary's feet. Aurelius had trouble seeing what weapons the men were using. The bolts didn't look exactly like plasma, and from what he could tell, neither man held a weapon. The fire seemed to spring directly from their hands.
Even more impossibly, whenever a shot reached its target, it mysteriously bounced away, as though reflected by some type of armor or shielding, yet he could see no armor, and personal shields were usually only good for one or two hits, not half a dozen.
Despite their prior standoff, the two men began making great strides toward one another. As he watched, one man dove for the glowing orb, and the other pounced on him. They began wrestling in the dirty snow, growling and shouting at one another. The tips of their staffs glowed strangely, as though with inner light.
Aurelius took a step forward and a ramp extended automatically for him with a rolling clunk, clunk, clunk . . . he frowned; yet more damage from the crash.
Speaking to his suit, he said, "External speakers on," and then, "Put your hands up! Both of you!"
Both cloaked figures abruptly turned his way, momentarily distracted from one another and the glowing orb. He couldn't make out much of their features from the distance, but he was surprised to see that they both looked alike, both were old men--wrinkly, with white hair. One of the men spared him only a second of attention before turning to the glowing orb and declaring, "Traspara mer alu segera!"
And just like that, he vanished, and the glowing orb, too, leaving the other man pounding the dirt with his fists and screaming yet more alien words.
Aurelius gaped and blinked furiously. This had to be a dream.