According to a 1976 NASA study, living in a space colony might make us feel as though nothing is real; a self-contained, artificial world could trigger a solipsistic syndrome in its residents "where everything is like a theater stage." To counter the problem, NASA suggested ensuring that everyone is able to contribute to something which grows—namely, children and vegetables. But what happens when the children are the ones lost in a dream? —The Eds.
"I had a dream last night," the girl told me. Honestly I was only half listening, busy setting out our breakfast plates and arranging, as a centerpiece for our table, some shiny scraps of fabric from an old exterior suit that I had sewn together. Unlike others in this community, I'm not scared of a little old-fashioned beauty.
"Oh really? Was it the dream about flying through space in a metal ship again?" That was what I always dreamed, every night, a perfectly appropriate dream, as it's precisely what we are doing. "Or was it the dream where you're floating along a corridor that leads to another corridor? Lots of folks have been having that one lately. I wonder why," I said with a knowing wink. We all used to talk like this about our dreams—common dreaming can help ground a community of people, such as ourselves, who still tend to wake in a panic every morning, wondering where we are and what we've done. It had been comforting to think none of us were alone.
"I didn't dream either of those things," the girl said.
"Then what did you dream?"
"Of a fire."
"Like in the galley?" There was, in the galley, a virtual flame that we turned on in the evenings as a treat. It let out a warm gentle-scented breeze that helped settle the children before bed.
"No, not like that. It was larger, and hot. It started in a place that was green then it moved into a place that wasn't. A city? The fire was orange and some parts were red and it ate up the rooms and the people."
I didn't know what to say. A city? Houses? Forests? I dropped my fabric scraps and hurried down the second corridor to where Alia was crouched beside the cot of another newly awakened child, a look of alarm and perhaps terror on my friend's face, a mirror of the expression on my own, as we thought such words, such images, were behind us.
In the beginning, we'd been pleased with the children's dreams, because they were the same as our own, but then the children's dreams began to change. There comes a point in time—here, where we are—when a child of a certain age begins to dream of home, meaning our home, the home we left. A home which isn't even theirs because all the children were born on ship. They dreamt of fires, as I've already mentioned, and of oceans smashing down cities, and of starving refugees begging at the borders, all images familiar to us, as that had been our world. Then the dreams became nicer, meaning the children began to dream of our childhood homes, and then of homes in the times before we even lived, happy dreams of all the good we thought was gone. These dreams are carrying the children away from us, and all we seem able to do successfully is watch them be carried away, which was never supposed to happen.
We tried to correct them.
"What did you dream last night?" I asked the girl, who didn't want to tell me at first. I needed to bribe her with a red drop, which she placed immediately in her mouth.
"I dreamed it was dark but it was a gray dark filled with blinking lights. The lights were creatures that glowed off and on. There were children, like me, but lots more of them, running around trying to catch the light in their hands."
Fireflies, of course. I'd only heard about them from my mother. They were gone by the time I was old enough to pay attention. I longed to hear more—what color was their light? what did it feel like to hold one?—but monitoring had begun by this point so I did what I was supposed to do. "There's no such thing!" I told the girl. "Ridiculous! What you saw was a group of far off stars. Perhaps the children were trying to catch a star, which is a silly thing to do. Or maybe they were playing a game where they imagined they were catching stars. Like we play Be-ops sometimes in the afternoon."
The girl, for now, ignored my interpretation.
"Then far off," she continued, "down a small hill, there was water which went on forever. The water went up and down forever and made the gentlest noise."
"Ah, a hydroponic tub!" I said.
The girl began crying. "It was not a tub," she said.
"There are lots of different kinds of tubs," I offered. "A tub can be really large too."
"I know what a tub looks like. It was not a tub," she sobbed, and I could understand her grief. No one likes to be told they're making something up, especially when they know they're not. And it must be lovely to believe that, in some world, there are still endless bodies of water and living lights you can clasp in your hands. I gave her another drop and wiped her face with my sleeve.
Despite our efforts, the dreams continued, and soon we had to admit that arguing with the children was doing little good. So we stopped that approach. Our hearts weren't really in it, anyway, and as time went on, and the children's dreams increased in detail, we became hungrier for them, despite the danger. All the old people, everybody, all the people here, began coming out when a child recounted a dream. We jostled each other to pet the child's hair as we listened to her describe a world she's never seen, not even in pictures, which we did not bring. When a child told us a dream, I made sure to stand very close. I was not above elbowing or using my official status, waving the scarlet scarf and so forth, so I could look into that child's eyes when they began to speak. To look into a child's eyes when they are speaking to you of such matters: it's the closest you can get to being there again. I must remind myself that if we had wanted to be there, none of us would have left.
I, for one, prefer the privacy of hearing the dreams of the girl who lives in my room as I set our breakfast table in the early a.m. Easier to believe the child's dreams were my own when we were alone. So when I can, I wake her before anyone else expects children to be awake and, kneeling by her bed, I ask her, in a whisper, to tell only me.
This is how the children say they dream of a world they've never looked upon: everything is bright in the sunlight. The sun is always high up in the blue sky. The light is neither too hot nor too cold. Nor is the sunlight searing the skin off anybody's necks. The roads are orderly. There are not too many people yet. Everybody has food to eat. The woods are rich with animals. Where are the fires, the grain shortages, the water burials? The people the children dream of walk around with relaxed faces smelling the sparkling flowers. At times, it can be a little much. "Will you shut up already," some of us have been known to say.
When the children's dreams reach back into our history, it feels like nothing is lost yet, like there must be resurrections going on in their brains. Or rewildings. There were so few animals when we left. We can guess the names of certain animals the children describe from their dreams, though some we have no idea. What is the black bird with an enormous orange head. What is the bearish animal with the dirty white fur. "I want to go there!" the children whine. They want to see the animals. They have never seen an animal in their lives. "Well, you can't," one of us snaps. "None of it exists anymore." Which might be true. We intentionally didn't look back. Our home became very small, and then it was gone. The children cry and we rub their backs as if we hadn't been the ones to make them cry.
Sometimes a child returns from a dream with a specific place that one of us may have left behind a long time ago. A boy might describe someone's plump mother in a yellow kitchen plucking leaves from a windowsill plant. Or a brown-haired child running through a dead orchard. Nobody is supposed to mention our real children. We look furtively at each other, wondering whose memories are whose.
Some of us can barely stand it, though we continue to listen.
When Alia confided to me that she wished to call the community together for a vote, I told her that was a ridiculous idea. What good would it do. Alia wouldn't look at me. Her eyes were wrecked by tears and I don't think she heard me, and she went ahead anyway with her plan. So instead of our evening work, which still had to be done, we wasted an hour crowded in the galley, slumped on benches around long tables. We looked so worn. None of us were getting any sleep. Someone had turned on the virtual flame. It filled the room with a sweet, sad scent I could no longer identify.
The vote was about their dreams, of course. That was all we cared about anymore. After several of us spoke to the long-term hazards of such continued dreaming, Alia stood beside her bench and asked that whoever believed the children's dreams to be unacceptable to raise their left hands.
I did not raise my hand but many others in the room did.
Unacceptable. What could we do with that. As if jettisoning the children off into the vastness of the universe is an option. Although that evening, when we talked options, one of us did bring it up. The dreams are affecting our ethics as well as our work, tipping us off balance, possibly spinning us off course (do we even have a course?). The dreams infringe, in any case, on our intentionally sterile home.
We have tried halting the children's dreams using a number of methods. Others in the community—I am not including myself here—have punished certain children through old-fashioned means I don't approve of. We have tried treating the dreams like a fever, ensuring the child is quarantined with lots of rest and plenty of cool liquids. Nothing works. In fact, the dreams appear to be increasing in length. The children have begun to require, or at least request, longer nights. It's difficult to wake them in the morning, if we can wake them at all.
"Where are we going?" the girl asks, drowsily, in her brief period of waking. I've been watching her sleep for the past several hours. If we hope to remain close to them, then this is what we must do now, pull up a stool and place it beside their cots, stroke their hands, watch their eyes move under closed lids. Right now, we're alone in the room, but the green signal will go off soon, and the alarm will sound, and the others will come running to hear what the girl I chose years ago dreamed. I never gave her a name. I touch her hair, which reminds me of another child's hair.
"Someplace very nice," I assure the girl, though I have no idea whether we are headed anywhere at all. All we knew when we left was that the end was coming soon, we had to go, and we wanted to forget. We left our own children in the middle of the night while they slept. It was the only way we were allowed to leave. There were promises of new and better children for us in the future.
"Like the place in my dream?" the girl asks.
This is Terraform, our home for future fiction. We're proud to say that this story is a finalist for the first annual Canopus Award for excellence in interstellar writing. Art by Rebekka Dunlap.