When Leon returned from his stay in darkness, his first thought was an ache in his throat, a yearning for water.
He opened his eyes. The world was blurred, but undoubtedly real—he was aboard Covenant again. All around him were slight details that he had not noticed before, but which now glared at him from seemingly every surface—minute imperfections that somehow suggested reality. Blinking cleared his vision, and he took in his surroundings with greater clarity. He was in his quarters, laying supine on his own bed. His memory in the first seconds after waking consisted of shadowy figures moving around him, touching him, coaxing him further into the light. The first face he saw with clarity was Lena’s, who bore such a look of fear that his own heart began to beat faster. Something, he knew, was terribly wrong. Perhaps it was the reason he found himself too weak to stand, to do much more than raise himself a few inches. As seconds dissolved into minutes, however, he felt himself improving.
Someone helped him sit up and placed a cup to his lips. He drank and felt cool relief wash down his dry throat. It flowed deep inside him, then radiated out to the edges of his body, filling his fingers, toes, even his mind with a new sense of bliss. He felt himself drawing still further from the darkness he had left behind, and when he could finally sit up on his own power, he saw Damien and Lena sitting beside him.
“Leon, what were you thinking?” Damien asked. His voice quavered, his head shook in disbelief.
“What happened?” Leon asked.
“You don’t remember?”
“I was in the sphere.”
“Yes, Leon, you were in the sphere—for almost three days.” Leon tried to speak and found no words. Impossible was his first thought, but it did not come with any conviction. It had been his longest use of the sphere so far. He tried to travel back through the visions that had come and gone, seeking some measure of the time he had spent wandering, and all that returned to him was a feeling of long absence, as though thought had left him and was only now returning to observe the effects of a mind abandoned.
“I—I didn’t…know.” It was all he could say. Leon looked at his other siblings. Lena’s face was ghostly white, silent tear tracks glistening down her cheeks.
“It has to stop, Leon,” Damien said.
“Stop… what do you mean?”
“The sphere. These trips, or whatever you want to call them. Lena told us about what happened when she came to see you—when he found you with the sphere. It’s consuming you. You can’t spend so long away from the real world.”
“No. Earth is a dream. Whatever the sphere shows you, it was lost a long time ago.”
“Dad made it.”
“Yes. Dad made it. Do you think he wanted it to do this to you? You were using it so long you became dehydrated. You weren’t eating, you weren’t sleeping. Who knows how long you would have stayed in there? What would have happened if we hadn’t pulled you out of it?” Leon did not answer. “Dad knew Earth,” Damien continued. “The things he might see in the sphere—he’d seen them before. He couldn’t understand what they might do to someone who only knew Covenant. We all felt its power, Leon. It might have been any one of us who got lost in it.”
“It’s my fault,” Amon whispered. “I told you to keep it. I should have known what was happening last time I found you. I’m sorry, Leon.” Leon saw his sister’s shoulders tremble and reached a hand out to her.
“No, Lena. It wasn’t your fault. I wanted the sphere…wanted it from the beginning. I just didn’t say it.” Leon looked at Damien, forced himself to retreat from his fear of losing the sphere. He saw the pain on his siblings’ faces and knew he could not go on. No matter the cost, he could not hurt them any further.
All three of them turned at the sound of the outer door opening, footsteps coming toward the bedroom. Elle appeared at the door, her face flushed, breath fast from running to Leon’s quarters.
“Leon, oh God…are you alright?”
“We’ll talk more later,” said Damien to Leon. He gestured to Lena, and the two of them stood to leave. Damien glanced at the sphere, which had been placed on the bedside table. Leon followed the direction of his gaze, then looked back at his brother. He felt the wall within him that must be breached, felt its foundation crumble and fall, releasing a numbing tide of peace.
“Take it,” he said. Damien crossed to the sphere, took it in his hands, and left the room.
“Leon…” Elle said. She was sitting on the edge of his bed, watching him with concern.
“I’m sorry, Elle.” He tried to smile, ashamed to see tears he had caused welling in her eyes. “I’m okay, I promise.” He held his arm out to her and she lay by his side.
“I wanted to see you but couldn’t reach your communicator. That was two days ago. I got worried and asked around about you. Damien told me something was wrong—that it had something to do with the sphere. It didn’t make any sense…” she trailed off into expectant silence, waiting to an explanation of his near disappearance.
Leon searched for the words to explain his story to her, but as he looked at her, felt her body pressed against him, his thoughts strayed to a strange place. He felt her breath against his cheek like a gentle breeze rustling through a forest. Her hair was the color of the sand that lay as a barrier between earth and sea. She tilted her head up to look at him and her eyes were so like the storm-gray ocean of Earth that swirled like a living force, and the iron sky that loomed over mountains reaching almost to space.