I mean, he couldn’t really tell anyone. How could he? Who would believe the poor guy? So, Sam Appleby told me. I didn’t believe it and Sally Withers didn’t either. Who was she? Well, she was…never mind. I’ll tell it later.
You see, there was that something about the whole thing…
It was just an ordinary suburb, you know. The kind where you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all: tree-lined streets, brick veneer houses with no front fences, and neatly mowed lawns. Kids kicked footballs around parked cars and dogs chased the mailman. You could even see the Dandenong Ranges beyond the broken city skyline – when the smog wasn’t around.
Anyway, Sam lived in a modern house of his own design in a quiet road lined with white gums and wattles. The neighbors didn’t have bothersome kids underfoot and they mostly left him alone. He didn’t mind it at all. It was a place where you would expect to find a rocking chair, not a civil engineer in his early thirties.
You see, Sam was kind of shy and withdrawn, and saw no practical use for women – much to the exasperation of one particular woman. The quiet life he led made for looks of respect from his neighbors, but Sam did not enjoy the comforts of his work. His gray eyes often held a glazed, vacant look as they roamed far horizons. His was the true spirit of a romantic. He yearned for adventure, daring and feats of physical courage. That explained civil engineering – physical activity. A hobby in electronics and computers satisfied his more natural inclinations.
Sam dreamed, a lot. Perhaps that’s what started it all. Well, the only way to achieve his desires, if he couldn’t have the real thing, was in dreams. Right?
* * *
Sam wheeled his restored Mazda RX-7 into the driveway. With a squeal of tires, he rocked to a stop before the garage. He removed his black leather gloves, stepped out of the car, greeted the old geezer next door and waved to the woman across the road; something he did on most days. Once inside the house, he got the percolator going and changed into something more casual. Despite his apparent good humor, Sam wasn’t happy.
The new building he was working on downtown was falling behind schedule. The chief architect had nothing pleasant to say about it. For the most part, Sam agreed with him. It was partly Sam’s own fault anyway. He was too easygoing to handle tough, one-track-minded construction gangs. They walked all over him. He had tried to be stern. It was laughable. They knew he was a fake and that made him angry. Sam didn’t have the backbone God gave a cockroach.
Drinking his coffee – black – he puzzled over sheets of circuit diagrams. The basement was quiet, the silence disturbed by the soft sigh of computer cooling fans. Frowning, he reached for the keyboard, called up the program and began coding the changes. It was almost ready. The computer hummed and the cursor blinked at him.
Next to the server cabinet was a bunk. Where a pillow usually stood lay what looked like a large crash helmet. Cables of thin multi-colored wires trailed from the helmet and disappeared behind the server.
At that moment, unknown to Sam, a certain pretty brunette chemist chose to visit her reluctant victim. She had it in mind to put some backbone into Sam through physical experience, with her if she had anything to say about it.
The doorbell rang and the repeater in the lab clanged. Sam frowned and passing a hand through his hair, then walked up the stairs into the house. He opened the door and groaned as Sally Withers gave him a sunny smile and brushed past him. It was that girl again! Without pausing for breath, she maneuvered him onto the couch. They sat down, Sam uncomfortable, Sally predatory.
The next hour passed in agony. They talked about his/her job, the weather, smog, but nothing about their relationship. Sometimes she wondered why she bothered. Sally stood up, placed her hands on shapely hips and glared.
“Look, Sam. We are friends, right?”
“Sure, Sally.” He grinned, nodding, wishing she’d go away so that he could finish his program updates.
“We’ve been friends long enough. It’s time for the next step.”
“What step is that, Sally?”
She left, disgusted.
Sam let out a sigh of relief and happily went back to his lab.
Next morning, his neighbors saw him cheerful and chipper – whistling, a thing Sam never did in public. They wondered if Sally and he…and Sally wondered if he and some other floozy…
Sam didn’t bother with explanations. He had his dreams and he was happy. The machine was a success! All it needed were a few minor adjustments to the cognitive sensor booster.
So it went on for two weeks and Sam began to change. He was more outspoken, more sure of himself and less embarrassed, a new man. On Friday, he didn’t appear for work. In fact, no one saw him until late Saturday when Sally paid her call to check what was going on and have it out with him.
* * *
Sam opened his eyes and looked about him in terror. He sat up and swung his legs to the warm floor, holding the edge of the bunk with both hands to stop his trembling. He breathed deeply, willing himself calm down. A glance at his right arm convinced him of the appalling truth.
With a savage jerk, he tore the helmet off his head and straightened. Without a backward glance, he climbed the stairs, locked the lab and staggered into the kitchen. A stiff jolt of bourbon brought some color to his face. In the living room, he sank onto the couch and sighed. He glanced at the wall clock. It’s been thirty-two hours.
Sally rang the bell, no answer. She opened the door and walked in. Sam faced her without recognition. A cold chill ran down her spine at the sight of his dishevel form and stifled a biting remark.
“Sam, is anything wrong? You look terrible!”
He stared at her, blinked, ran a hand through his hair and strode toward the couch.
“What happened? Are you ill?”
Absently, he rubbed his arm. He tossed back the last of the bourbon and waited for her to sit down. He sat on the edge of the couch and looked at her.
“I suppose you know about my tinkering in the lab?”
“Must be something important that you never let me see it,” she confirmed darkly.
“Well, I’ve developed a Synaptic Response Synthesizer. Or more simply, a dream machine.”
“A dream machine,” Sam explained patiently. “A machine that excites the brain synapses and induces dreams; dreams indistinguishable from reality. You must have noticed the change in my behavior lately.”
“Yes, and I don’t know whether I approve,” she said primly.
“It was the SRS. I programmed it to make me dream about things I wanted to experience in real life, but never could. The machine built a synthetic personality for me and it worked. But it worked too well. By tinkering with it, I went beyond a mere dream,” he declared, staring at her.
“What do you mean, beyond?”
Sam took her hand in his. “Instead of a dream, I created reality.”
* * *
It felt very much like metal and his head pulsed with pain. There was a shudder. Something tore at the cloth of his right sleeve and he fell. He blinked at the cork-like floor a centimeter from his nose just as the pain began to burn in his arm. There was noise and shouting and a smell of high-powered machinery shorting.
He couldn’t get up. When the floor stopped heaving, there were hurried footsteps and gentle hands moved over his body. He winced, groaning at the pain in his arm. A voice was talking urgently and it seemed important, but Sam didn’t understand any of it.
Hands moved under him and turned him on his back. Unrecognizable faces hovered above him. He looked at them with alarm.
“Shock. There is a bump on his head the size of a fist,” someone said. “And he has a cut on his arm.”
“That’s just great!” another voice snarled. “Get him to Sickbay and see what you can do, doc. I have to get that raider before it reaches the shuttle.”
* * *
Sam didn’t know how much time had passed, but he felt snug and lazy. He was intensely curious about the gadgetry, and what looked like computer screens, around him. There was also a faint odor of antiseptic. He pulled out his right arm from under the sheet and looked curiously at the orange material of the sleeve. It looked metallic, yet was soft and warm.
He remembered the corridors, the uniformed figures hurrying and the intercom sounding orders; everything so military. A ship under way – a warship? Judging by the sophisticated technology, it did not look like any warship he had ever seen. Strange, he felt no movement of the deck.
A figure dressed in light green appeared in the doorway and walked toward him. The man glanced at the display beside the bunk and smiled with satisfaction.
“How do you feel, Captain?”
Captain? Oh, God!
“Don’t worry about a thing. It’s only mild concussion and a lacerated arm. You’ll be up and about in a few hours. Tankard isn’t very happy, though.”
What the hell was the man blabbering about?
“It seems that our first officer is findings things rather difficult at the moment.”
“How is that, doc?”
“It looks like that Dee raider will catch the shuttle after all. The ambush they pulled on us, which knocked you out, by the way, gave them just enough time to do it.”
Sam sighed and sat up. “Doc, I –”
“Wait a minute.” The other put out his hand. “You’re not fit for duty yet. I –”
Sam ignored him and pushed back the covers. “Stow it. I have to find out what’s going on. Get the first officer for me.”
The medic looked like he was about to say something, then shrugged. “Have it your own way, then. But don’t blame me if you fall flat on your face on the bridge.”
Sam grinned as he pulled on the orange uniform lying beside him. The doctor snorted, gave him a passing glance and walked out. He sat on the bunk, staring at a blinking console when a young man wearing a deep frown walked in.
“You wanted to see me, Sam?”
Sam was torn between opposing forces. One wanted to deny what his senses told him, screaming at him to snap out of the SRS-induced nightmare. The other told him to reveal himself as an impostor, face the truth and its consequences.
But this was only a dream, right?
“What’s been happening while I was taking my nap?” he demanded crisply, allowing himself to play out the charade.
Rolan Tankard relaxed, and with a tired smile, sat on the edge of the bunk.
“I’m glad to see you back in action, Sam. Have you been told?”
“That ambush cost us Leerod’s ship. It’s just a gutted wreck now. Nothing left. We were damn lucky to get away with only a shaking up.”
Sam stared at Tankard and felt his skin crawl. What was he supposed to say? And who the hell was Leerod?
“No, I didn’t know,” he muttered, straightened his uniform. “What’s our status?”
“Some twenty minutes behind the Dee raider. The bad news is that the shuttle will be in its range long before we can get there. You know what that means.”
Sam didn’t, but couldn’t very well ask. “What do you suggest?”
“We have to catch that raider and take it out before it can get within comms range of Dee patrols.”
“How far are we from him?”
“Bit over two light-years.” Tankard shrugged.
Two light-years? Sam could feel color drain from his face. This was not a ship. It was a starship!
Tankard reached out with his arm when he saw Sam’s face. “Hey, you don’t look so hot. The doctor told me you’re not fit for duty.”
“I’ll be all right. Just dizziness. Let’s get on with it.”
Sam had his hands clasped behind his back when the elevator doors closed before him. The polished metal revealed a stranger. He expected it, but the shock of looking at a hard chiseled face almost broke him down. Why carry on? What was he proving?
The control room was something he didn’t even attempt to understand. Faces looked up briefly, then bent over their consoles. To his horror, he automatically walked down the small ramp and sat down in the lone command seat. On the curved bulkhead before him, a huge screen showed stars, naked space and a tactical window overlay. A blue and a red blip were slowly drawing closer. Beneath them, columns of figures flashed.
“Tankard, what’s our present speed?”
“We’re pushing maximum boost now, Captain,” Tankard replied evenly.
“Go to overload.”
Tankard looked at him briefly then nodded. “Helm, go to 110 percent boost.”
“Aye, sir. 110 percent.”
There was no protesting whine from the engines and the deck did not shudder. Everything seemed normal and Sam was disappointed.
In silence, they watched the Dee raider close with the shuttle, the enemy shields enveloping it to prevent it jumping into normal space. Five minutes later, the raider pulled away, leaving the shuttle an expanding sphere of cooling gas.
“ETA on intercept, Tankard?”
“Four minutes. That’ll leave us eight minutes before they reach comms range.”
“What do you suggest?” Sam looked at his first officer with interest.
Tankard hesitated and raised an eyebrow. “There is not much that we can do. The raider has its prisoners and the information they were looking for.”
“We can destroy them,” Sam said simply.
Tankard opened his mouth in astonishment. “You cannot do that, Sam! You know the stink it would cause with the Admiral if we wiped out those VIPs?”
“They’re as good as dead now anyway. When we get into range, you will open fire and maintain it until the enemy has been destroyed. Regardless of cost, copy that?”
“I don’t like this, Captain.” Tankard shook his head.
“You don’t have to like it,” Sam snapped. “Just do it!”
It didn’t take long. When they overhauled the Dee raider, Tankard glanced at Sam and nodded. “Commence when ready,” he said quietly and waited.
Sam watched the screen trace two yellow tracks of energy toward the pulsing blip. As they merged, a halo flared around the blip. The Dee raider fired back and the ship shuddered around him. The deck heaved under Sam’s feet and he went flying. He crashed against something hard and lay sprawled on the deck. He could not feel his body and his mind went mushy. He welcomed the darkness as it settled over him.
* * *
Sally was silent, watching him with concerned eyes. For once, words did not come easily. Finally, she laughed uncertainly.
“Sam! What you just told me is pretty fantastic. In fact, it’s so fantastic that the simplest explanation is the one most likely to be true. It was all a dream. A bit weird, I must admit, but still a dream.”
“That’s what I thought when I woke up.” Sam looked at her soberly. “But for one thing.”
Sam smiled faintly, then slowly rolled up the sleeve of his right arm. From elbow to wrist, a pink scar marked tender flesh.
Sally stared at his arm and her head whirled. It was impossible! “What are you going to do?” she whispered at length.
He looked at her and gathered her in his arms.
* * *
His laughter echoed in the empty Sickbay.
“You sure can spin a wild one, Sam,” I grinned.
“It was incredible, doc! It seemed so real. Anyway, I better get back to the bridge. Tankard just called. We have a faint echo on our starboard beam and I told him to send Leerod to investigate. That Dee raider won’t get away this time.”
“Right, I’ll see you later, then,” I said, watching him disappear into the elevator and shook my head.
Two minutes later the alert sounded.