Chapter 1 The Dream

He did not remember coming that far, nor recalled how he ended up in the middle of the snow. He was standing on frosted land, wearing only his soldier uniform, and held his rifle, the weapon of defence against any hostile creature that he might stumble upon. However, in contrary, he had hoped for at least something to appear, no matter its hostility, to assure that there were still signs of life going on at that place. However, there was none.

He trod along the snowy path, hardly lifting his feet because of the thick snow. Moments later, a huge, leafless tree came into view. His despair ended. His pace quickened, approaching the tree. There was still hope of finding his friends, and a way to return home.

A hollow gap found at one side of the tree bark turned out to be an entrance. He entered. Nothing was inside, except for a huge crystal display at the far end of the room. Then he heard a voice.

“Who are you, stranger?”

The voice startled him. He pondered for an answer, but incidentally, he did not know his own name.

“You don’t know yourself, do you?” the voice sneered.

He was left in the lurch. How possibly could he not know himself? Panic or anger, he could not quite place his feelings. “Who’re you? Show yourself!” he screamed.

“Touch it, and know the deepest of secrets….”

As if driven by reflexes, he moved towards to the screen on the voice’s instruction. While his finger came in contact with the surface, the screen shimmered, and transformed into a mirror. The mirror reflected the room well, but the image before him was totally weird, beyond his comprehension. It was not he in the mirror, but a hideous face of a monster, bore sharp fangs and bloody eyes.

Hundreds of these screens began to crop up, each showing the same macabre face. He looked on with horror as the images started to swarm around him, and the terror intensified when worms suddenly crawled out from his skin, his mouth and nostrils, devouring his flesh. He collapsed in agony, while watched the crawlers wriggled and dropped off, until he saw nothing of himself when his eyes began to rot away….

Keith awoke from the strangest dreams he ever had for the past few days. The dreams, they seemed too real, until he had come back to realise it. He tried to pass it off as a nightmare; after all, nightmares were normal in this traumatic situation of war. However when it happened for consecutive days, he became suspicious of the message behind these dreams.

He was not in the mood of getting up but as the captain of a squadron, he must show some self-discipline. He went to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. For once he thought he would see the monster again, but the tired and haggard appearance of himself comforted him. Dressed neatly after wash, he stepped out of his cabin and headed for the canteen.

The usual breakfast, toast and ham and a cup of coffee, was on a tray when he carried them away from the counter. His usual place, table four, was seated with a few fellow comrades of war. He went to sit with them without a word, and munched gloomily on the toast.

“Got up the wrong side of the bed, huh?” asked Gerard sitting next to him.

“Hmmph!” was the crude reply.

“Are you okay, Gunter? You look like you’re having those dreams again. Don’t you two start irritating him!” said Sarah.

“Oh, please not the lecture again, Sarah,” pleaded Reuban, “no one worries that much about him. Only Crystal does.”

The name Crystal caught his ears. Crystal was his steady mate, personnel in the paramedical field. He disliked anyone mentioning her name, probably thinking that he was the one who ‘owned’ the name. “That’s enough!” he cried, and went into a silence. Then he smiled, “sorry, I know you all are concerned about me, but I’ve no problem. Relax.”

“It’s good to hear that,” said Sarah.

“Report to Lieutenant Gunter,” a man broke into the conversation, “the training squad is ready and waiting outside.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” said Keith, sipping his last drop of coffee. “Ah! Looks like I’ve to complete this session with the boys in the morning before I can get to go out with Crystal in the afternoon!” he exclaimed.

His friends smiled, assured that Keith was still all right.

The outdoor was bright. Keith wore his sunglasses and stood before the squad. The uniform inspection run through a little while before the drilling session began.

“This is the last time I’ll be seeing you in this training squad,” he announced, “the following session will be a tactical operations training. Now I want every one of you not to lax. You’re all chosen into the Special Ops field, so you need to work many times harder than the rest of the troops. You all have a great responsibility on your shoulders, clear?”

“Yes Sir,” the team replied.

He had mixed feelings after his announcement: of ease, because he would have fewer urchins to handle; on the other hand, of reluctance to part with them, after six months of friendship forged.

“Hey Boss!” one of the trainees interjected, “that lady’s there watching you!”

Keith turned his head over to behind. A distance away, he could make out a figure of a woman, a personnel in a paramedic uniform. He was sure the girl was Crystal when she waved at him. Bashfully, he did not know how to respond but waving back at her. The squad giggled.

“How nice if lady boss’s to stay near to us,” one whispered, but loud enough to be heard on the other side. “That’s right, the way she can pacify Boss, we won’t have to do all these vigorous training,” another remarked. “Makes you wonder how Boss can turn into a shy little boy whenever she’s around,” came another naughty remark.

“Hey, hey! Cut that out!” he shouted madly, hands on both hips, meaning very cross. Then, staring at everyone in a most annoyed manner, he made the squad rolled their eyes, afraid of making an eye contact with the furious lion. He did calm down finally, and continued, “I haven’t been very strict to you all, and this calls for some serious discipline: starting today, this one and only time, I will. For starters, run around the track a hundred laps. Those who cheat will receive severe punishment.”

On hot afternoons, cooling down in the water shop was an ideal spot, especially for couples, drinking cold lemonade or cocktail while relaxing under a shady umbrella designated for each table at the open air. Keith and Crystal often visited this particular place where romance often sparked for no particular reason.

“Keith, you look gloomy today. That dream again?” asked Crystal worriedly, as she caressed his strain-seasoned hands, providing comfort, if it was the most she could offer.

“Never mind, dear. I’m still fine.”

“You’ve become like this since returning from that expedition. How am I not worried? How am I not troubled should you contract a virus from that foreign land and…. Oh, I don’t want to lose you, Keith!”

Keith held tightly her hands. “We have some return fires with the Arzankan minorities. This is the first time I stumbled upon that race. And since then they kept returning to haunt me in my dreams. I don’t know why, I never had this kind of problem with other aliens before.”

“You decide to seek her again, Keith?”

“You mean, Abriel?”

Keith paused for a moment, looking into Crystal’s glistening eyes, “I’ll go, if that comforts you. But let’s not talk about it now. We should really spend this precious time for some fun, don’t we?”

Crystal nodded and agreed.

His appointment with Abriel was due at nine o’clock in the morning the next day. Abriel was actually an Oracle, a race who possessed an ability to interpret dreams. They were a special kind of race who slept for more than half of their living days, and believed in their phantasm rather than reality. Their ideology was worth putting some thoughts for: if we do not put our physical senses in account, then our soul may exist in both the harsh reality and the fantastical, escapism world; it is up to us to follow either.

“Sit down, Gunter,” Abriel invited when Keith appeared, even though she did not have eyes to even see.

Keith rested himself on a couch near Abriel. Abriel put her hand over his head and said, “the same dream again? How did the pacifier I gave you worked out?”

“Not effective,” replied Keith.

“Then it’s really a sign of things to happen. What do you want to know?”

“Everything. The meaning behind my dreams.”

“Good. But be warned. Realists don’t believe in this kind of things, and they regard the Spiritualists as strays. Sceptic or believer, which one are you?”

“I just want to know!”

“Alright, then I’ll start. You talked of being alone in the cold; this could mean you’re the odd one out in your social circle. That, I don’t know. No offence intended.

“Next, you talked of a huge tree. A huge tree appearing in the middle of nowhere signifies life. But this is also called ‘uncanny life’. As you know, no life form can exist alone; plants and animals must always coexist, no matter how versatile they are. They just cannot live alone. In this case, the tree is living unnaturally, as if there’re some supernatural forces suspending it.

“The voice is obviously the warning of your future. The Arzankans you saw were reflected in mirrors, therefore implying that you’re somehow related to them in some way. As for the worms eating your flesh, it symbolise a plague that can lead to destruction. They may all seem vague, but when time comes, you will know, eventually.”

War escalated between the Terrans and Lotuns, fighting over a planet that they both had just discovered. The body meant nothing to both powerful forces, but the battle was more for the sake of pride and respect from the other races. As the Terrans geared up their attacks and defences, they hired mercenaries from different races, some including Nyueks, Poltarists and Gochamouts.

Crystal was informed of her mission that was scheduled somewhere three days later, serving as a paramedic. The following day, she went for a medical check-up at the war health centre, a compulsory procedure to gain a fitness certificate.

She waited, among the hundreds of paramedic recruits who were assigned for different missions, all waiting for the certificate to be approved. After some time, the man in front of her in the line went into the clinician’s room on being called by the nurse-in-charge.

“Sit down, Mister,” the grey-haired doctor gestured as he checked over the records, “alright, Mr. Shanaumboum. I’ll have your pulse now.”

They were all alone in the ward.

“No, you shall have none of mine, but I shall have yours!” the man sneered as he rose from his chair. Then, from his clothes he produced a sharp knife, and moving behind the doctor, with one swipe, he cut the doctor’s neck. Blood flowed from the wound, as the doctor lay dead on the seat without even knowing what had happened to himself. The man was quick to act by hiding the dead body into the cabinet. Next, he occupied the clinician’s seat, and then his face changed, completely transformed into the doctor’s face. He was ready for the next patient.

Crystal was called into the room shortly after that. Not sensing anything wrong, she sat face to face with the man impersonating the doctor. The man peered over the records and greeted, “how’s everything, Miss Griffin?”

“Fine. I’m off to a mission to an unexplored satellite located near Neo Gamma, my team is supposed to have it charted.”

“An explorer team, eh? Then you’ll need a vaccine. I’ll give you this little jab right now.”

The man took out a syringe from his pocket and approached Crystal. The needle stabbed into her arm, and the injection of green fluid into her bloodstream, all happened quickly.

“That’ll do the trick, and soon everything will be fine,” said the man. As Crystal left, the man broke into silent laughter to himself, and from his pocket he took another syringe, awaiting the next patient.

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