Morning came in a haze of memories from the night before. Leon savored the feeling of relaxation that blanketed his mind, the way his bed seemed to embrace his body in a comfort he never wanted to leave, the warmth of Elle beside him. He glanced at the clock face set into the opposite wall—it was just past 0800, over an hour into first shift. He knew he had an appointment at 0900, and several more following. He was going to pay for his recent lack of patients, it seemed, all in one day. Reluctantly, he slid from beneath the covers, leaving Elle to sleep into the morning, and readied himself to leave.
As he walked the ship’s corridors to his office, Leon made a conscious effort to avoid thinking about anything that had happened to him in the past few days. Elle, the sphere—the mountain that had so called to him, the chasm whose mere sight nearly brought him to his knees. The blueprint, Damien’s willingness to chance the sphere’s destruction, the prospect of what Elle might find in her father’s record. He knew they would merely prevent him from doing his job— for the next few hours he had to forget himself and remember his patients.
The day’s first patient was a young man, tall and slim, with soft eyes and a pervasive case of depression that, as he described, sapped him of the will to connect with those around him. Another man, older than Leon, told him of an undirected anger that seemed always to bubble beneath the surface of his thoughts and actions. A woman who reminded Leon vividly of his mother came next, complaining of recurring nightmares in which she was repeatedly the cause of Covenant’s destruction, and the deaths of all its passengers.
The final two patients came to him with the same issue he had heard from so many before: perceived lack of purpose, hopelessness, inability to find joy in life aboard the ship. As he listened, the mere shadow of an idea occurred to him. He could not yet put it to words, but there was something there, just outside the boundary of his consciousness—a shape in the mist, approaching slowly.
“We’re not even sure there’s going to be a home for us when we get there,” Leon’s final patient was saying. She was about Leon’s age, a nurse in the ship’s hospital. “Not us, but you know what I mean. Whoever is alive when Covenant reaches the new star might not even find a planet that they can live on. What happens then? What if this entire thing turns out to all be for nothing? The Pioneers might as well have stayed on Earth if that happens.”
“And if it doesn’t? If there is a planet waiting for them?”
“Then they survive. That doesn’t change the fact that I won’t be there. I know it sounds selfish—I can’t help it. I just feel so empty thinking about it, but I can’t get it out of my head.”
That appointment followed Leon home, dogged his memory, and became a stream of thought that would not let him fall asleep that night. He wondered how many of Covenant’s passengers thought the same as the nurse. Many of those who came to see him did, but how many others never sought to discuss their feelings with someone else? How many simply went about life trying their best to ignore questions of purpose, hope, meaning to existence?
He had heard so many say the same thing, but never had Leon shared the feelings of hopelessness that seemed to pervade the ship’s inhabitants. Now, in the darkness of his bedroom, far from sleep, some part of that empty dread was creeping upon him. He thought of himself as a point in relation to Covenant, then of Covenant in relation to space. He had never felt smaller, even when faced with the vision of a behemoth within the sphere. The simple truth of his tiny, short life pressed in on him like a heavy weight. He felt close to tears.
Desperate to escape the dread, Leon jumped out of bed and went stumbling through the darkness to the living room. He went to where he knew the table stood in the room’s center. His hands groped at its surface, searching for the sphere and quickly finding it. As soon as he had it in his grip, the darkness of his quarters was filled with the light of Earth.
He was surprised to find himself in the same place the sphere had first taken him. The stream babbled happily past him, and immediately he felt his anguish beginning to fade. The breeze that played around his head coaxed him gently back to serenity. He sat on the bank of the stream, removed his shoes, and dangled his feet in the frigid water. Gradually he became able to relax. Covenant seemed far from that happy place, out of sight and mind, beyond reach and growing ever further away.
Leon lay on his back, focused entirely on the dream world around him, awash in its beauty. The forest stretched upward, rustling in a breeze he could not feel. Above him the tree with leaves of fire swayed in the current. Time left no mark in its passing.
Eventually Leon moved on to new depths of the sphere, searching for something he had not yet seen. He found it through the mists, and once again felt himself shrink beneath the immensity of Earth’s creations. He stood before an arch carved in rock, leading into a blackness that both lured him toward it and terrified him with thoughts of what he might find within. Far above the arch was a forest, thicker than those he had seen before, draped with green curtains and sprouting jumbled from the ground. The same forest loomed behind when he turned to look. He felt the wall of trees as a force, pushing slowly toward him, urging him closer to the arch. He walked over a floor of cracked stone and entered the blackness.
Inside the arch was a world of rock and sounds like nothing Leon had ever heard. The ceiling far above released unceasing a steady patter of cold, wet drops. Every surface was wet and shining with the light from outside. Leon stopped only a moment, then walked on into the depths that were pure night ahead of him. When he turned a corner, the light disappeared. Never had he known such darkness—even the void of space had distant stars to fill it. Here there was no hint of the outside. He looked down and saw nothing of his body—he might merely have been a floating speck of consciousness.
Leon went no further. He stood still and silent, listening to the sound of Earth’s inner depths.
After an unknowable length of time Leon turned back to the light and went looking for a new landscape in the trees. He passed through the familiar mist and emerged in the most alien world he had found in the sphere thus far. Around and above him were what looked to be great metal spaceships, standing on their ends and towering high into a milk-white sky. Though he did not know why, Leon felt sure that these were no creations of Earth. He walked to one and placed his hand on its smooth face, searching with his fingers for some truth hidden on its surface.
The path between the base of all the structures was wide, seemingly made from stone, lined with strange markings, stretching into the distance and branching at regular intervals into crisscrossing offshoots. Each corner was marked with a sign, a name seemingly random—Pine, Pike, Union, University, Seneca. Leon walked along it, hardly daring to breathe in the perfect silence of that place. His footsteps echoed off the metal skeletons and returned to him jumbled, like an invisible procession following behind. He felt like an intruder. The windows above stared down at him, empty eyes hiding worlds of darkness. More signs affixed to the buildings themselves revealed hints of what might lie within—food, drink, clothing, and many things whose name held no meaning to Leon. This was a place for people, devoid of its substance and filled with only a single soul.
Leon turned down a random offshoot and began walking down a steep slope toward the unknown. He caught glimpses of what might have been the ocean ahead, though it seemed somehow smaller in this place. Before he could reach it, the mist came, and he passed out of the steel labyrinth and into yet another strange new world.
He was still standing on a stone path, though narrower and less marked than the last. This one ran between more structures, much smaller than the metal giants, each surrounded by a carpet of green. The path was lined on either side with trees like the one he had seen by the stream. These too had leaves of fire, some bright orange, others a deep red, yellow, or mixture of the three. The wind that swept down the path brought with it a handful of the leaves with each gust, scattering them over the world in swirling dances that brought them to rest over everything. Leon walked along the path, and he soon became aware of a feeling within him that he had not known for a very long time. When one knew only a life aboard Covenant, the feeling faded with the years. Here, it grew stronger with each structure he passed. As he looked at their wood and stone walls, the windows sometimes lit from within, sometimes dark, the glimpses inside that showed him furniture and warmth and promises of comfort, he felt like he was home.
Leon suddenly realized that the world around him had changed. He no longer walked an endless path between neat rows of the structures. Instead, the path had narrowed to a walkway barely wide enough for him alone. It led away from the world toward a single building—larger than the others, blue and gray and seemingly alive, pulsing with light and energy. This place, he knew suddenly, had been waiting for him.
A door loomed ahead, with a wide window lit brightly from within. Behind that door was the most beautiful truth he could ever know—Leon was certain of its existence, waiting for him to enter and find it. He longed for it like he longed for air. He had only to open the door and it would be his. The path was straight and narrow, and as he passed over it, he saw it change once again. To his horror, it was lengthening, narrowing, distorting and stretching away from him, carrying the door with it. He began to run, clawing at the air ahead of him. When it seemed that the door was on the verge of vanishing, he felt his hands hit hard against its surface, brought suddenly to rest looming over him. Joy flooded through him, and without a thought further he grasped the doorknob and wrenched it open.
The mist that poured out of the doorway overtook him before he could escape. It enveloped him, carried him away, and set him down in a barren hellscape.
Leon was caught in a world of fire. Wind scorched past him, relentless, pouring air over him in unstoppable currents of heat. He tried to walk and lost his footing in the loose ground, stumbled, reached out his hands to break his fall and felt them sink to the wrists in solid flame. He struggled to his feet, turning away from the tortuous sun to retreat through the door, but it was gone. His hands opened and closed on empty air, unwilling to accept what his eyes saw. Leon turned away from the place where the door was not and tried to make out some landmark that might offer him refuge—or perhaps the gray mist that would take him some place, any place, other than this land of pain.
There was nothing but shimmering heat. He lifted one foot from out of the shifting ground, carefully placed it, and found himself able to walk with some semblance of balance. Go far enough in any direction and he knew he would find a way out. The muscles in his legs seemed to have caught fire in the heat of the land, made worse by the exertion of trying to move. Each step brought more pain. He was quickly forced to give up, and as he fell to his knees in a torrent of exhaustion the way out became clear to him. He had so far sought only to escape further into the sphere—he had only to go the other way.
This isn’t real.
The sky descended in blackness, or perhaps he rose out of the fire and into the world above.
When he emerged, he was not aboard Covenant.
That simple fact was enough to strike terror into his heart. Wild eyes drank in his surroundings—unending emptiness in all directions, stretching to a meet a sky that was reflected on the earth below. The world a giant mirror beneath deepest blue, and he in the center of nothing. Leon fell to his knees and realized that the floor was covered with water—not a mirror but a shallow sea. He reached outward with his mind once more, seeking the way to Covenant and again unable to find it. He stayed where he was. He realized that he lacked the strength to move.
How long have I been inside?
Try as he might to count the minutes that had passed, there was nothing behind him but a series of muddled glimpses—nothing to give him an answer to the question.
Leon realized that his throat hurt—had been hurting for a long time. He felt the exhaustion that had long been dragging him down now spreading its iron grip to the last free corners of his mind. The darkness he so desperately sought was there, bleeding in at the edges of his vision, then sweeping in to fill his eyes, his mind, his body with its impenetrable shadows.
He did not awake in his living room. For a long time, he did not awake at all.