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By B.K. Bilicki
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The Shades of Gray
by B.K. Bilicki
Derek thrashed restlessly as another barrage of night terrors raced unchecked through his mind. Behind his tightly closed eyes he saw flashes of the past, visions that continued to plague his every moment of slumber.
* * *
Five hours later, Derek stood shirtless outside the ship. Sweat poured down his muscular chest and he grinned at the newly-installed bulkhead. "And that's the way it's done!" he said both to himself and the assembled weavers. "Break time!" he called out happily, at which the scene started to dissolve quickly into a swirl of colours. The weavers surrounding the bulkhead's seams, which had provided the intense magnification Derek needed to properly see the welds he was making, resumed their normal colouring and density and drifted away, as did the ones acting as the many suction-grip handles that dotted the bulkhead's surface. The welding torch in Derek's hand dissolved as well, becoming the bright blue ball that was Daz.
"We did well today?" Daz asked, almost hopefully.
Derek laughed. "You guys do well every day!" he said happily. Daz sparkled at the comment and Derek stretched his arms out and yawned. "Rest stop?" he asked.
Daz pulsed once and replied, "Parameters?"
He pondered a moment before answering. "A field of green grass. The back of my house in the background, about 100 meters away. An oak tree right here." He pointed to the ground beside him. "About 20 meters tall, fully leaved. Warm and sunny spring day with a light breeze."
Daz shot down into the planet's surface and suddenly the area surrounding Derek started to change into the exact scene he had just described. His house sprang up in the distance, as did the tree beside him. Grass sprouted all around and its scent surrounded him, carried aloft on a delightfully warm breeze. The sky turned blue and small white puffs of clouds were sprinkled along its expanse as the sun's radiance shone down upon him. Derek smiled and sat down beside the tree before stretching out on the carpet of grass and sighing happily.
A portion of the tree's trunk above Derek's face dissolved and Daz floated out of it. "This is correct?" it asked.
Derek opened his eyes and saw Daz floating overhead. "Oh man, 'correct' doesn't even begin to cover it," he replied with a smile. "This is absolutely perfect! Just the way I remember it." He stopped and thought over his words. That's right. This is exactly the way it was when-
"This setting is familiar?" Daz asked suddenly, its voice a touch quieter than before.
Derek nodded. "Yeah, it is. This is exactly how it looked-" He stopped abruptly. No. No need to tell Daz about that. "This is how it looks behind my house back home," he said quickly.
Daz watched him carefully. "You miss something else?"
He looked at Daz and noticed that its colour had changed to a shimmering violet. "Yes," he replied as his mind suddenly started churning, bits of his dream flashing past his mind's eye.
Derek's brow furrowed slightly. This is new. Daz never asked me much about home before. "There's just someone I left back there. Someone who I need to talk to." His eyes closed and he sighed. And someone I need to apologize to, his mind added.
Ripples of purple sparks flowed over Daz, causing small bursts of light to flash every time they hit one another. It sent a wispy translucent tendril of itself down until it just barely brushed Derek's temple. At the moment of contact, it whispered, "You miss a woman?"
Derek's eyes popped open. "How did you know that?" he asked, staring into the hypnotic pattern of sparks now racing over the brightly glowing blue ball. He tried to sit up, but instead felt himself held almost immobile, as if the gravity around him had increased dramatically.
Daz didn't reply. Slowly the small piece of coloured paper that it still held emerged and rested upon its surface, right above Derek's face. "This is the woman?" Daz inquired, its voice now a close reproduction of Derek's.
Derek gasped when he saw the photograph. It was a woman with long night-black hair and incredible crystal-clear blue eyes. "Suzi!" he breathed in wonder as he gazed upon his favourite picture of her, the one he thought he had lost in the crash. His hand shot forward, breaking the invisible force holding him, and he snatched the picture. "Where did you find this?"
Daz didn't answer. Its colour changed again, this time to a deep forest green. "Time to rest," it called out.
"No!" Derek cried, quickly dropping the picture and lifting his hand over his face, but he wasn't fast enough. The puff of gas Daz released seeped through his fingers and rushed into his lungs. It spread throughout his body in less than a second and with a soft grunt he fell asleep.
Daz took another look at the dropped picture, studying the woman's features intently. Slowly its gaseous body expanded and then hollowed, forming a helmet that slipped neatly over Derek's head. The sparks that had covered Daz changed to a blinding light that seeped into Derek's mind.
* * *
The first sensation Derek was aware of was a bright light which tried to force its way through his closed eyelids. Grumbling in protest, he squeezed his eyes shut even tighter and tried to ignore the bright red glare. His mind reluctantly bobbed up out of his slumber and he took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet smell of warm grass which surrounded him, then released it in a long sigh. Suddenly the light that had roused him disappeared and a shadow fell over his face. His curiosity piqued, he slowly opened one eye.
"Hello, sleepyhead," the woman above him said with a grin. Her black hair hung down either side of her face and cascaded over her bare shoulders. She stood there with her arms crossed in front of her. A pure white halter top and cutoff blue-jean shorts revealed much of her lithe body, but Derek's attention was caught by one feature alone.
Points of clearest blue centered in almond crescents, they lit up with an intensity that easily matched the sun behind her. She looked down at his astonished face and smiled in satisfaction. "I take it you're surprised to see me?" she asked, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
Derek shot to his feet. His head seemed to want to turn in every direction at once as he looked around himself frantically. His house was off in the distance, far across the field in which he now stood. Behind him was the mighty oak he had carved his initials into as a boy. All around was a carpet of lush green grass dotted in places by clusters of wildflowers. Before him stood his truest love, who was still looking at him expectantly though now her expression was mingled with curiosity at his strange behaviour.
He launched himself at her, kissing her face madly as his arms wrapped tightly around her. Despite her squeak of protest, he pressed his lips hard against hers and kissed her deeply for several long, sweet heartbeats. Finally pushing him away, she took a deep breath and asked, "What's with you?"
"I'm here!" he cried. "And you're here! I'm home again!" Grasping her slim waist, he lifted her small body up off the ground and laughed, "I'm back!"
"Put me down, you goof!" she shouted down at him. He placed her back on her feet and stole another passionate kiss from her. Pushing him away again, she demanded, "What the hell is wrong with you? You hit your head? Or is this some stupid trick to get your way out of this?" She pulled a piece of note paper out of the back pocket of her shorts and held it up so he could see it.
Derek stopped his celebration abruptly as he saw it. Taking it from her, he scanned the tables and equations scribbled over every square inch of it in his handwriting. Suddenly his mind clicked. These are the notes I made-! "Where did you find this?" he gasped.
"On your desk with the rest of the pile," she snapped.
He flipped the page over a few times to inspect it. "That's impossible!" he muttered to himself. "This was shredded almost a month ago!"
"That'd be a good trick, especially since it's dated Tuesday," she replied, a little off-balance due to his strange behaviour. Her resolve stiffened and she asked again, "What's wrong with you?"
Derek looked at the date written in the upper corner and gasped. 2047 May 6. "Today's Saturday?" he asked, his voice small and scared.
"Last time I checked."
Oh my God. Today's the 10th. That was the last time I saw her. His gaze shifted from the paper to her face and he stared into her eyes. Oh God, I don't want to lose you. Not again.
His fearful expression softened her glare and she moved to him. "What's wrong?" she asked, her voice now tender and concerned. "You look like you've had a nightmare or something."
Her words hit him like a splash of ice water. "A dream!" he gasped. "It was all a dream!"
He hugged her and closed his eyes tight. "I had a dream about Jupiter," he said happily. "Oh God, Suzi! I dreamed that I lost you."
"That may still come true," she replied frostily. He backed away from her and looked at her face inquisitively. "You know I don't want you to go, but you're gonna do it anyway, aren't you?"
"It's my job," he replied without thinking, then he winced, somehow already knowing what her reaction to his words would be.
"Bullshit!" she cried. "You designed the ship. Since when do they send the designer along on the mission?"
Derek's face paled. What the hell is going on here? I remember having this argument before! It's like this whole thing is happening again! Before he could stop himself, instinct took over and mission objectives starting running rampant through his head as he snapped into engineer mode. "I have to go along to work the force-beam collector," he recited as he had done so many times before. "I'll be in charge of extracting the gas sample. I also have to keep an eye on the matter-drive so that the null field around the ship doesn't rupture."
"And you'll be millions of miles away from me and my silly talk of a commitment," she said, tossing her head in disgust and folding her arms tightly in front of herself. "Isn't that convenient?"
"Suzi, I don't want to-," he started, but then he fell silent again as his Jupiter dream came back to mind. Damn me for an idiot, he thought. She's exactly right. After all, didn't I fight with the Agency just to get assigned to this flight? Didn't that happen right after we had discussed our future together? As much as he wanted to deny it, she had him dead to rights. He was running. Running from his fear of commitment. Running from the overwhelming feelings that he had for her because they scared him to death. And if his dream held true, that running would get him stranded millions of miles from home where he would spend every single moment wishing he had made a different choice.
His mind finally returned to the moment and he looked at her standing before him and trembling. Her arms were still folded tightly and now a tear was trickling down her cheek. "So what's it going to be?" she asked, her voice straining.
He knew the words that came next, if his dream was truly accurate. I hate long goodbyes. Once he said them, she would turn around and storm out of his life forever. He would get into that ship and go to Jupiter, where he would barely escape death and be stranded there for months. But did it have to happen that way? Was he locked into this madness, or could he change what he somehow knew must be? He opened his mouth and started, "I-"
No! his mind shouted. I can't do this again! I won't! He closed his mouth and he teetered on the brink of indecision, but the sudden faint glimmer of hope in her dazzling blue eyes threw him over the edge. His dream of Jupiter was discarded like a scrap of paper in the wind, no longer the pattern to which he would live his life. "I love you, Suzi," he blurted. In a flash, he pulled off the sterling class ring he wore and got down on one knee before her. Grabbing her left hand, he pried it away from her chest and blindly slipped the ring onto her finger, all the while still staring up into her eyes. "Will you marry me?" he breathed.
Suzi stared down at him, stunned at his actions. She almost turned away anyway, so sure she was of his probable reply, but this unexpected question completely destroyed her composure. Her left hand flexed in his to feel the ring he had placed there to make sure her mind wasn't playing a cruel trick on her. Her blue eyes softened and filled with tears as she looked into his eyes to see if he was truly serious. The tears running down his cheeks were proof enough and she nodded emphatically. "It's about damn time!" she said with a laugh. Raising her hand before his face, she joked, "But make sure this thing's replacement is the right size, okay?"
Derek looked at the ring, which encompassed both her tiny middle and ring fingers, and he laughed loudly with her. Just like that, the future was no longer etched in stone for him. Mission or no mission, his life was now linked to hers and he laughed at all the suddenly trivial fears that had kept him from this moment. Leaping back to his feet, he cried out in joy before taking her into his arms and kissing her madly. His hands slid beneath her halter top and massaged her bare back as they continued their kiss, their tongues now dueling lustily as she moaned into his open mouth. A thought flickered across his mind and he shivered in anticipation. In all the time they had been together, he had discovered that the only thing more physically demanding than fighting with her was making up afterwards.
Right on cue, she took the initiative and quickly undid his belt. Feeling him smile against her voracious mouth, she pulled back and grinned naughtily at him before tugging his pants down over his thighs. A playful shove was all the urging he needed to lay back on the soft grass and await his love. Stepping over his semi-nude body, she looked down at him with those dazzling blue eyes while she quickly stripped off her top and dropped it on his smiling face. With the agility of a dancer, she slipped out of her shorts and was back standing over him by the time he had uncovered his bemused grin.
The grin turned to a smile of pure lust as he watched her standing above his body. Her delicate hands ran up her thighs to her small breasts and her fingertips teased her nipples erect, running in quick circles around the darkened flesh. "God, Suzi," he breathed, watching her prepare not only herself but also him for their loving. She always knows exactly what I want, even before I do, he thought. Her body replied to his next fevered thought and she ran one finger through her cleft, tracing her wetness through the tiny patch of night-black hair dotting her mons. The fingertip dug into the soft flesh and she pulled up with a soft moan. Her excited clit emerged from its hood and a single drop of moisture fell from the distended bud, landing on his throbbing manhood and drawing a low rumbling moan from between his clenched teeth.
The moan turned to a tortured gasp as she suddenly descended upon him and stroked her wetness against his length, moving her body up his so that her velvety nether lips licked his balls and on up his shaft until the swollen head of his cock lay poised at her soaked gates. Her eyes stared directly into his as they moved together and claimed one another, his steely hardness filling her body as her fiery heat devoured him. They moved as one, their thrusts and parries gathering strength and speed as they became one body, one mind. Instead of being the end, this time had become their beginning. From this day forward they would each be a permanent part of the other. Derek, through the haze of intense pleasure clouding his mind, stared into his beloved Suzi's eyes and gave himself fully to her as she screamed out her climax. Exactly one heartbeat later, his body succumbed to her attack and his gift spilled into her, setting their hearts aflame.
Collapsing atop him, she whispered, "I love you, Derek."
"I love you, Suzi," he breathed in reply as fatigue overwhelmed him. "I will always love you and I'll never leave you again." His arms came around her and he held her tightly as they drifted off to blissful slumber.
Suddenly the tree beside them vanished, changing into a pillar of swirling gas and sinking back into the ground.
The entire scene dissolved soon after. The field, the sky, the house in the distance - all changed back into randomly shifting patterns of blue and green and brown before disappearing into the background. All that remained was Derek and Suzi, still wrapped in each others arms. This too changed, as her body started to glow with an azure light. She became ethereal and drifted away from Derek, who gave a small grunt as his arms fell empty to his chest.
Suzi looked down at him, her piercing blue eyes tinged with sadness and regret. So this is why he always appeared so distracted, so sad. Her body quickly transformed into a small blue globe of gas named Daz who sighed softly and detached the nearly invisible tendril connecting itself to Derek's head. Floating down to him, Daz noted the traces of a pleased smile playing at the corners of his mouth and it smiled to itself. "I'm glad I could help cheer you," it said quietly before picking up the photograph of Suzi laying next to him.
Daz carried the photo back to the ship and laid it atop the computer console in front of Derek's seat. Looking out the ship's small forward windows, it sighed and wondered what the others in the crew had left behind on Earth. Lovers? Friends? Good memories or bad? But Daz had learned that it did no good to wonder, since no amount of reflection would return them from what had happened, the fate that only Derek had escaped.
Daz watched as the weavers carefully carried Derek's limp body into the ship and placed him in his chair. The safety harness was secured and Daz looked at Derek's peaceful face. Why didn't I tell you? it wondered with a heavy sense of regret. Why didn't I tell you that we knew of your ship's arrival? The radio waves blanketing your planet and issuing from your ship were easily read by us. We knew why you were coming and what your intentions were. We even knew the exact location where the force-beam collector would be activated, so making sure that none of us were in that spot was an easy enough precaution.
But no one expected that one curious weaver would disobey the planetary edict. No one knew that once caught up in the force-beam, it would panic and send a surge of energy winging skyward that would cripple the ship and send it plunging toward the Jovian surface. To its credit, the weaver responsible had managed to save one of the crew, surrounding him and protecting him from the cruel death that had claimed the rest of his mates, but that weaver was now an oddity among its people. It was the first of them to meet a human. The first to kill a human.
The first to have a name.
Daz watched as another small storage tank appeared in the ship's cabin, the cloaking field around it disappearing. It had been completed very early in the ship's repair, but Derek knew nothing about it. The tank was Daz's creation, made for a very specific purpose. Daz would accompany his human friend back to Earth to explain to his people what had happened. It would tell of how it had caused the disaster which claimed the others and it would present itself to whatever form of punishment they saw fit. But first, Daz had something to do.
Floating past Derek's unconscious form, Daz instructed the weavers around him to keep him asleep until take-off. He would be told of Daz's deeds once they were on their way back to Earth and not a moment sooner. Emerging from the open hatch, Daz watched while the remaining bulkheads were attached with supernatural speed. They could've completed the repairs several days ago, but Daz wanted to find out the reason behind the aura of regret that surrounded Derek first. Floating to the upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere, Daz looked down upon its home. Amazing, it thought as its human friend had done so many times during his stay.
The thoughts of humans were read as easily as any other electromagnetic signal and it was this that allowed Daz to send a message to a specific human back on Earth. The next time she slept, a woman named Suzi would have a dream, a dream of her beloved coming back to her. He would make her his own and the two would live forever as one. Daz smiled at thoughts of her probable reaction to the dream it had sent before descending to the planet's surface. The ship had been completed and was already in launch mode. Right before the hatch closed behind it, Daz looked around its home again for possibly the last time and said quietly in Derek's voice, "I hate long goodbyes."
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