The Dark Zone
A Galahad Book
By Dom Testa
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2011 Dom Testa
All rights reserved.
There was no sound in the room other than muted sobs. No laughter, no whispers, no private conversations. More than two hundred teenagers, crammed into a sterile space, yet completely quiet. It was an unnatural silence, which added to the somber mood. Occasionally a cry escaped from one of the teens, which provoked a similar response from another, then another. Then once again the deathly veil dropped, and silence reigned.
The shroud-covered body lay alone on the table, identity disguised. It held the attention of every person in the room, for it represented what none had believed possible.
Galahad's first death.
A crew member separated from the crowd and trudged up the steps to stand behind a hastily arranged podium. Choking back tears, they spoke quietly, reciting memories of their late friend, offering words of encouragement in a vain attempt to make it seem that everything would be okay.
Nobody responded. They stood silently, most with hands clasped behind their backs, filling most of the available space in the Spider bay of the ship called Galahad. As the speaker walked slowly back down the stairs, music began to drift across the room. It brought about a fresh wave of tears.
Silence dominated again. Then, slowly, the crew members began to disperse. One by one they approached the body; some reached out and placed a hand upon it, others simply stared. After pausing for a moment, they shuffled past, across the vast hangar, and out the door. It took almost thirty minutes for everyone to pay his or her respects individually. In the end, five people were left, huddled together, not wanting to believe it could have happened, not wanting to say good-bye. They embraced, then together approached their fallen comrade and placed upon the shroud a bouquet gathered from the ship's farms; not true flowers, but the closest symbol they could manage.
A minute later they convened in the Spider bay's control room, sealing it off, and stared sadly through the glass. With a spoken command, a door opened in the hangar, exposing the room to the icy vacuum of deep space. Starlight cascaded through the opening. It was a simple reminder: we are far from home.
There was hesitation, a collected feeling of loss, and a reluctance to let go. The next move would send the body into space, to drift for eternity. No one wanted to move, to take the next step, to banish his friend to the depths of empty, lonely space. But at last the word was given, and the ship's computer began the final sequence.
The robotic arm, until now concealed below the table that held the body, extended toward the bay's open door. With a gentle shove it was done; the shroud covering the body fell away, revealing a cocooned human form, layered in specially treated wraps. It cleared the opening and began its endless journey. Within a minute it had receded from view, first a small white object slipping away, becoming a faint pinprick of light, and then gone.
Once again the five companions in the Spider bay's control room embraced, allowing their grief to mingle, physically holding each other up. They remained that way as the bay's outer door closed, blocking out the starlight, sealing them once again into the warmth of their metal nest.
And then the scene froze ... and faded away.
It was a familiar smell, but Alexa Wellington couldn't place it at first. Still disoriented from the deep sleep, she lay on her bed and kept her eyes closed. The misty line between wakefulness and dreams had dissolved, but once again the vision had been so strong, so intense, so ... real ...
She was, as usual, reluctant to let it go. In the last six weeks her dreams had become more and more vivid. They didn't come often, perhaps only two or three that she could remember each week; but they were unlike any dreams she had ever experienced before. For one thing, there was no dreamlike quality to them. In one of her quiet conversations with Bon Hartsfield, Alexa had likened them to minimovies, only with the screen inside her head in full 3-D and high definition. Until she awoke and opened her eyes, her mind would not interpret them as anything except real.
On top of that, they were complete dramas; they had a beginning, middle, and end, unlike the typical dream that generally jumped from place to place as well as backward and forward in time. These were stories that played out as if scripted. Often they were quite pleasant, while others were very unsettling. This particular dream was the most disturbing yet.
Taking a deep breath, Alexa opened her eyes. Other than the soft glow from the computer monitor across the room and the faint emergency light above the door, the room was dark. She could just make out the still form of her roommate, Katarina, sleeping. All was quiet. The scent that had greeted her upon waking was artificial; Katarina had apparently dialed up her favorite sleep aid, a soft fragrance of lavender that seeped through the ventilation ducts.
Alexa resisted the urge to glance at the clock, for she had found that her mind would then only focus on the time, mentally calculating how long it would take to fall back asleep. It might be midnight; it might be 5 a.m. She didn't want to know.
Of course, concentrating on the time might distract her from the troubling dream that had unfolded minutes ago. The nightmare's tragic setting was only one concern; the fact that her dreams had lately started to come true was terrifying.
She took another deep breath, held it, and then slowly exhaled. Try as she might, she couldn't shake the vivid image of the deep-space funeral. Who had been lying beneath the shroud? Who were the friends clustered in the control room, grieving together? Their faces were obscured, their gender a mystery. She had felt that they were somehow close to one another, but that didn't help; there were 251 teenagers aboard the ship.
Another thought occurred to her: Should she tell someone? If indeed her dreams were somehow portals to the future, allowing her to glimpse ahead, was it irresponsible to keep this vision to herself? On the other hand, what purpose could it serve? The dream had given no indication of the cause of death, which meant that realistically no preventive steps could be taken. If word leaked out that Alexa was now predicting death for one of the crew members ...
And just whom exactly would she tell? Triana Martell? That would be the obvious choice; the ship's Council Leader would be understanding, and would treat Alexa with respect. But Triana had so many responsibilities, and dealt with more pressure than most teenagers could imagine. Why add to her concerns when there was nothing that could be done about it?
Lita Marques would also be very understanding, and, as Alexa's immediate supervisor in Galahad's clinic — lovingly referred to by the crew as Sick House — knew her better than anyone. Lita was a good friend, a good listener, and easily the most compassionate person Alexa had ever met.
And yet was it a good idea to burden her with this information? A mere eight weeks ago Lita had operated on Alexa and removed her appendix. In fact, the surgical procedure had inadvertently brought on the dream visions that now plagued her. Alexa had not awakened immediately after the operation, and instead had briefly lain in a coma. Something had happened to her during this unconscious stretch, something nobody could quite explain.
Although she had done nothing wrong, Lita blamed herself for the frightening turn of events. Alexa couldn't see troubling her with this new development.
Then there was Bon.
The quiet, somber Swede had few real friends aboard the ship. He kept himself busy with his work, running the agricultural program within the two massive domes that topped the spacecraft. Few people had ever been able to get emotionally close to him. And yet, over the last few weeks, he and Alexa had connected.
It began with a visit he made before she was discharged from Sick House. During their brief conversation she realized that he had sought her out because of something they had in common: both were experiencing bizarre mental flashes that had altered their worlds.
For Bon it was his tenuous connection with the alien entity that the Galahad crew had encountered while zipping past Titan, the mysterious orange moon of Saturn. That connection had eventually saved the ship from certain destruction within the debris-strewn minefield known as the Kuiper Belt. For Alexa it was her sudden prescient abilities.
It was a bond forged of their uniqueness. As Alexa had said to him recently, "We are the ship's freaks. Nobody else could possibly understand." Bon had scowled at hearing this, but had offered no argument.
She had shared many of her dream visions with him over the weeks, but not all. How would he take the news that a death aboard the ship might be imminent?
She decided to wait.
With a sigh she gave in and twisted her head to look at the clock, just as the time clicked over to 1:55 a.m. "Go to sleep," she whispered to herself.
Deep inside she knew it would not come easy.
* * *
The Dining Hall on Galahad was packed. Triana walked in at 7:15, late for her breakfast meeting with Channy Oakland and Lita. The three girls made it a point to start the day together at least once a week, occasionally to discuss Council business, but mostly for social reasons. She scanned the busy room and spotted Channy waving from the far corner. Channy was easy to pick out of most crowds; all one needed to do was look for the brightest T-shirt in the room. Today's choice was hot pink.
"Sorry I'm late," Triana said after loading a tray with some fruit, an energy block, and simulated juice, her usual breakfast combination. "It took me longer to answer emails than I expected."
"Everything okay?" Lita said.
Triana nodded as she sipped her juice. "Lots of questions about what's going on back home. Not that I could really offer much information."
"It had to happen eventually, right?" Channy said, a grim tone overriding her usual upbeat British inflection. "I mean, I'm surprised we kept contact for as long as we did."
"It's still tough to swallow, no matter how prepared you think you are," Triana said.
Lita looked thoughtful. "So I guess we can officially declare ourselves out of the nest. No replies to our messages must mean that Galahad Command has closed for good."
The three girls reflected on this for a moment before Triana said, "It's not that we really needed their help for anything in particular. With Roc we pretty much have the technical know-how. It's the ... uh ..."
Lita finished for her. "It's the emotional tie."
"Yeah." Triana looked around the room. "Although the crew seems to be in pretty good spirits. I can't remember when I last saw this place so busy in the morning."
Channy laughed. "It's because of this." She held up a small bowl with a sticky residue around the insides.
Triana raised her eyebrows. "You're kidding. We have oatmeal?"
Lita smiled. "Bon impresses again. He told a few people that it would finally be ready, and the word spread like wildfire."
Turning to look over her shoulder at the serving line, Triana said, "Why didn't I see any?"
"Because it's all gone, that's why," Lita said. "I don't think anyone was prepared for the rush."
"I got here at 6:45 and scooped up one of the last bowls," Channy said. "Sorry, I guess I should have saved you some."
It was Triana's turn to chuckle. "Don't worry about it. I'm sure I'll have plenty of chances over the next few years." She looked around. "Who knew that oatmeal could bring so much joy?"
"If you ask me," Lita said, "it's not simply the fact that we have any particular new food. I think it's simply change, and that's something this crew could use."
"What do you mean?" Channy said.
"It's not healthy to fall into a rut," Lita said. "This is just my opinion, of course, but we could all use a shake-up in our routines. Tomorrow is the ten-month anniversary of our launch, and besides a few dramatic moments, and the switching of job assignments, we have pretty much all fallen into the same patterns, day in and day out." She looked at Channy. "It's no different than what you preach to us every week in the gym, about alternating our workouts. After a while your body adapts, right? It's not as effective."
Channy nodded. "Right. But you're talking mentally?"
"I'm talking about all of it: physically, mentally, emotionally." She indicated the food dispenser line. "A new food choice is a little thing, but look at the reaction. It's a welcome change; not all change is embraced, but it's almost always good for people."
Triana smiled. "Any suggestions, Doctor?"
Channy piped in before Lita could answer. "Oh! I know! What if we had something like, I don't know, um ... okay, how about Shake It Up Day, or something like that? You know, everyone has to do everything differently for one day."
Lita's laugh was gentle and pleasant. "I know that you love to plan special events, Channy, but I wasn't thinking about just one day. I'm talking about a lifestyle adjustment."
"I know, but at least it would bring it to everyone's attention."
Triana shrugged. "I'm probably the biggest creature of habit on this ship. I'm pretty sure it would do me some good to mix things up a bit. I don't know if we need a special day dedicated to it, but it's something that we should discuss in a Council meeting."
Channy grinned. "Just don't forget about tonight."
Her two companions went through the motions of adjusting the items on their trays, neither making eye contact. Finally, Lita said, "Tonight?"
"Oh, stop pretending you don't know," Channy said with a huff. "The Dating Game? This evening? Auditorium? Big fun? Remember?"
Lita and Triana looked at her, then at each other. Triana kept quiet, leaving it up to Lita to respond again. "I'm pretty busy with reports this week."
Channy crossed her arms. "It's one hour out of your life, Lita." She shook her head at both girls. "I swear, you two are the biggest wet noodles I've ever met. Would it hurt that much to put yourselves out there?"
Triana at last broke her silence. "I know you really want us to participate, Channy, but maybe next time." She offered a wry smile; Channy returned a pout.
"Fine. You could at least stop by and be part of the audience. I promise I won't bring you up on stage. But I could use some more bodies in the crowd."
"I'll pop in for a few minutes," Lita said.
"I'll do my best," was all that Triana offered.
For the next ten minutes the conversation drifted through a variety of topics, mostly with Channy's enthusiastic comments, Lita's thoughtful responses, and an occasional observation from Triana, who often chose to listen and quietly consider. During this time the room began to thin out, as more and more crew members cleaned up their tables and set out on their daily duties.
Galahad's crew worked in six-week shifts within the various departments on the ship, before rotating into a different assignment. It was understood that this would allow each person to become proficient in many areas. Along with the advanced schooling that accompanied their work, the idea was for Galahad to have a seasoned, well-educated crew when it arrived at the Eos star system, their eventual destination.
At any given time a group of about sixty people were on a break from work, but even then their education continued. Many found that the break only led to boredom, and when their next assignment arrived they gladly returned to the rotation.
Lita stood, stretched, and picked up her tray. "Back to work for me. Anything exciting for you guys today?"
"I'm going to ask Bon if we can clear a path around the outer perimeter of Dome 2," Channy said. "A few people in the afternoon workout group suggested that it might be more fun to run up there. It would be more like running outside. I think they're very tired of the treadmills."
Lita laughed. "Good luck. If I hear the walls shaking today I'll know that you asked Bon."
"I know he's very protective about his crops," Triana added, "but that's actually a pretty good suggestion. Let me know if you want me to go with you."
"What about you?" Lita said. "What's your day like?"
Triana stood and pushed back her chair. "This will be an interesting day in the Control Room. We are officially shooting out of the Kuiper Belt now, and I've heard some rumblings about what might be on the other side." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Dark Zone by Dom Testa. Copyright © 2011 Dom Testa. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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