Short story written February 2015 for T.Allen.Smith's Paint a Thousand Words Challenge (edited to add content & clarity)
"I know what I saw," she told Ahmed.
"The ancestors’ minds are dead," he said slowly. "The archive was destroyed in the evacuation of Demeter. The collision—” He’d slipped into his second-lieutenant voice, and caught himself. “There isn’t a chance. We'll find another way to Earth."
It was such an empty phrase by now that neither of them heard it.
"Listen, you know I'm hooked in to the ship, all the time. That jolt, it connected me—and I saw." She sucked in a deep breath. "They're not dead, they're dreaming."
Ahmed gave her a steady look, and she saw how worried he was. "I know you go deeper than anyone, Cass. And I know it's not good for you."
"I know what I saw," she told Sergeant Zhan, trying to keep the plea from her voice. "If I go up the core shaft with protective gear, a contact insulator—"
"Casandri, you're my best technopath. I need you to keep the ship together, not go off after a...hallucination." The sergeant lowered her voice. “I covered for you for a long time. Don’t ask for this.”
"I'm not lit up!" she hissed, feeling like she'd been punched in the gut. "I've been clean for two years. For f*ck's sake!"
"I know what I f*cking saw," she snarled at the psych aide, who blinked at her and tapped resolutely on his screen. Probably not ticking the box for ‘cooperative,’ or ‘perfectly sane.’ She sank back in her chair in smoldering resignation.
An hour later, she slouched on the crisp white sheets of the med-bay bunk in much the same attitude. Frustration seethed under her skin. One more question, one more polite look, and she was going to clock someone in the mouth.
It wasn't just the force of the vision that had descended on her when that loose cable connected her and her poor fried lightbox to the core. Those images weren’t coherent enough for neural projection, though she'd tried. It was the emotion that had come with it, the deep unceasing yearning that made her chest ache. It was the glimpse of clouds when she could barely remember the sky.
Every time she closed her eyes she saw echoes of it: strange beseeching faces and the curve of a planet under an indigo stratosphere. The images were fading as the hours passed, and she was losing something precious. Something everyone thought they had already lost.
Demeter's radiation had destroyed old colonist tech; the ancestors' memories were the only data of Earth they had left. Then an asteroid, part of the same barrage that had cracked Demeter and turned the atmosphere to ash, had smashed into the hull. The archive sector had been sealed off to keep the rest of the ship alive, but it was still hooked into the core--the brainstem to engineering's upper cortex, a deep-level biotech hub that ran the ship's insides behind all the human surface-level wiring. Something could have survived in there.
But even if she didn’t get put on psych hold, nobody would let her chase this. Without gear, she couldn’t access the depressurized remains of the archive.
Not in the flesh, at least.
She stared at the tattoos on her right arm, black lines against her olive skin, the marks of a technopath. If she got taken off duty, they’d revoke her neural access code.
Cass lunged up before she could think too hard and slapped the door, forcing the lock circuit to fire. She felt along the starward wall for a panel and popped it out without touching it. Inside, a coil of red-wrapped wires branched into darkness. Her pulse was leaping in her wrists. The core powered everything, so everything could be accessed through the core... If you were willing to try.
She gripped the naked cable and, with the magnetic force of her mind, peeled away ten filaments and plunged them into the back of her hand.
Expected pain always hurt worse. She swore tersely, her muscles cording with the exertion of keeping still as the wires wormed deeper, connecting metal to nerve. She was bleeding—but she was in.
Her mind swam faster than thought up into the blackness and roaring sub-aural noise. Too fast, and too rough—the core had never been designed for neural floating. The engineers would call it impossible, but she never accepted shit like that. She was a technopathic preternatural, which meant she didn’t have to code or translate or even think, which was good, because she sure as hell wasn’t thinking right now.
The connection crackled and strained. The damaged cable near the archive couldn’t sustain her whole body-mind link. She glimpsed a flash of blue, heaven-pure blue and bright sensation, and jolted back into her body, gasping. Searing pain spasmed through her hand; she smelled burning hair.
Cass sat there, forehead pressed against cool steel, trying not to scream. She didn’t want to be locked up again, she didn’t want to be called crazy, but it was more than that. Lying awake at night she could feel the skin of the ship against the void of space, and the loneliness closed in on her, the crushing isolation of their voyage. How many generations could the ship support? If there was a chance, she had no choice. Someone had sent her a message. And she couldn’t live with knowing that she’d let it slip through her fingers.
She slammed back in and did what they were never supposed to do, and stretched the link to her body until it snapped.
Heat blossomed on her face. The air smelled like something she couldn’t describe, not the green damp of hydroponics or the sweet sting of disinfectant… Summer, said a voice from her childhood. Cass opened her eyes.
She had walked into the vision. Vivid sky stretched all around her, and within it drifted green patches of land, islands in a sea of air. Precious grass rustled beneath her feet. Beside her stood a tree, not a systems tree in titanium and polymer, but one of living, breathing wood. The solar star flashed through its branches. She reached up, and the leaves tickled her fingers, intricate with tiny veins and serrations. A fuzziness to the sensation, a flicker in the corner of her eye warned her that this wasn’t real, but...it was so close.
Far below lay the dizzying curve of a planet, forests like moss and pale sands and the vast slow-moving ocean. Clouds spun like glittering foam over the blueness.
She turned, and the world unfolded around her, vast and bright in every direction. On the island behind her stood a castle of synth-marble and glass, crowned with a silvery dome. She heard voices, fragments of conversation. They weren’t speaking to her, but to themselves. This was their dream.
Through the archway was a hall of blue shadows. Murals lined the walls, too dim to make out but beautiful in their impression. The voices were clearer, and faint fingers brushed her shoulders, guiding her. Figures came into focus around her, like light caught in a lens. Old, young, sharp, soft, every color of the human genome. They gazed past her with bright eyes. A tall black woman stepped forward and looked up, and Cass did too.
In the darkness of the dome a million points of light glittered. Cass stared, stared until they burned into her retinas. She knew what this was. The view of the galaxy from Earth, clear as the memories of a thousand navigators could make it. Voices murmured around her, one for every star.
Heat lanced through her arm. She looked down, into the face of the ancestor before her. The woman’s eyes suddenly met her own, clear and dark as jet. She spoke, and she had a mother’s voice.
You need to go, honey.
The ancestors’ memories flooded into her like someone shouting goodbye, a last rush of goodwill. Everything that their dreaming minds had held on to. Hope, regret, happiness, longing…
She felt herself begin to dissolve. The black void opened up behind her, and fear suddenly seized her. She flung out a hand towards the ancestors, and pulled their world into focus again, pulled herself up. But they reached out to her, and as she called for help they pleaded with her. Cass closed her hand and let go, and fell a long, long way into darkness.
The redness of her eyelids. Pain. Overwhelming pain. Her right arm burned as though it was clamped against white-hot metal, but she couldn’t move. Someone held her down, and when she tried to scream, a guttural sound escaped her. The sharp pressure of a hypo on her neck. That helped.
She cracked her eyes open. The world was so dim. The starlight had gone out. Something lay next to her. Charred meat. It was an arm, because there were finger bones.
Someone vaguely familiar swam into view, clutching a handheld screen. With all the stubbornness she had left, Cass reached up with her responsive hand, grabbed the screen, and shoved an image onto it.
The psych aide’s eyes widened.
They wrapped her arm in med-foam, and got her on her feet. She held onto what she had seen so tightly that she couldn’t see anything in front of her. All she had to do was stay upright, and remember. That was all she could do.
Somehow they were at Command, amid the lights and busy hum of the deck. Someone was talking rapidly. They wouldn’t believe her. Not until they saw it.
Cass broke loose and staggered to a terminal, planting her left hand on the glass and projecting everything so sharply and wholly that it felt like emptying her head. She relived those bright moments, trembling with relief as they crystallized on the screen. It was all there.
In the ringing silence, an engineer overlaid her stars with the corrupted fragment of a map that was all they had from before evac. Even through the fog of pain and meds, she could see the beauty of that match, and watched the number of possible systems tick down as triangulation pulled in a thousand points instead of six, down to one, one yellow star on the outer rim.
Captain Hall stood before her, all the lines of weariness smoothed from his face by awe. And hope. “This is it,” he uttered. “This is what we needed.” An echo of the ancestors' farewell washed over her.
"They loved their world so much,” she whispered. “They’ll never forget it.” Tears were leaking down her numb face.
An arm wrapped around her, and she heard Ahmed’s voice very close by. “Cass, we need to get you to the med-bay.”
She nodded, and passed out. As the ship turned in the darkness, she dreamed of blue sky and starlight.