What Dreams May Come
Black.Absolute smothering darkness.
Cold sweat broke out on the sleeping form.
It was the most horrifying part of the dreams. They were always in the dark. Not the dark of the Black. It was worse. The Black -- space -- was infinite. There were pinpricks of light in it even at the darkest of times. Illumination given by a hundred million stars in the vastness. This was a blackness that muffled, made the perceptions of the ears sharper. The sensory deprivation of nothingness, not even pinpricks.
Her breathing took on a ragged edge, her heartbeat drummed inside her chest. Panic assailed Nika’s body, but still she couldn’t break from the dream that held her in its grip.
Sounds in the darkness. Abrupt, disjointed images flash disconcertingly before her mind’s eye. Each of the crew, beat up, bloodied. War-torn landscapes. A barn, the scream of fighters overhead as it exploded. The sight of a small village, nearly leveled but for a band of stragglers. Mostly children, their faces dirty. Begging for help. The bloodied bodies on the ground well dressed. Core-side planet. And their children.
Flashes of standing over those same children as one of a band of Independent soldiers. Rina next to her. Holding weapons on the kids. Shooting at them, watching them die. The battle cries of other Independents killing, burning the village. Knowing that this village was *rumored* to be a haven for an Alliance spy.
Disorienting shift in viewpoint. Becoming one of the adults trying to help the stragglers. Being shot at by people with familiar faces. Shyla. Harry. A band of marines led by Brian Connelly. Trying to shield the children with her own body. Failing miserably as she and they bleed out.
Harbinger, whole and unscathed, sitting on the ground on Miranda. Brian holding a diamond out to her. His face contorting with rage when she regretfully says no. The ship leaving. Desolate Miranda landscape. She looks down at the diamond still in her hand and dispassionately uses the sharp edge to cut into her own arm, making marks. Shredding her skin with hash marks. Counting the days.
And so the dreams of horrifying imagery continued until finally Nika jolted awake, her heart trying to escape her chest. Drenched in sweat, breathing heavily, she threw off the blankets and bolted for the toilet in her bathroom. Dry heaves wracked her body for what seemed an eternity. When she finally shoved herself off the floor, Nika gathered up her workout gear and headed toward the gym. It was 0307. Rina wouldn’t be up for hours yet -- she would be safe down there if she closed the door.
It was becoming a ritual. Nightly images of blood, death. Disjointed, unclear pictures of people she knew and loved on both sides of a brutal conflict. Not that that was all that difficult to figure out -- although she didn’t really worry about it anymore since even Nala was on the side of the Independents these days. And as she’d done for the past six or seven nights, Nika set up the sparring dummy and started pounding on it. Some nights it was only for an hour or two. Other nights, tonight likely among them, it would be until she heard other people stirring. Her hands were a mess, though she’d managed so far to keep anyone from seeing that by virtue of simply remaining in the bridge a lot. Keeping her hands behind her head or tucked in her pockets.
Joshua stirred in his sleep, disturbed by dreams not his own. He could always tell when someone’s dreams bled into his own. There was an odd sharpness to them that gave them a reality beyond that of his own. He only was getting images, most of them unhappy. And he could feel...something sharp and bright cutting into his flesh.
He awoke with a slight start, thankfully not waking Rina, who had been sleeping a little restlessly herself the past few weeks. Joshua wasn’t even sure Rina was aware of it, but he was just happy that she was still sleeping. He carefully extricated himself from their shared bed and slipped into some casual clothes. Too early to fix breakfast, too late to go back to bed.
But that was okay. He had a good idea whose dream it was, even as fragmented as it was. Not surprising, Joshua thought, considering how many of Nika’s dark dreams he had been inadvertently exposed to over the last few months. He went in search of his Captain, not expecting to be able to help, but needing to offer regardless. When he found her in the gym, she was already dripping in sweat. _How long has she been at this?_ There was only one way to find out.
“Hi, Nika,” Joshua said quietly from the entrance of the gym. “Mind some company? I’m up and could use some human contact.”
He was early! Nika’s innate sense of time told her that it was only 5:23am. Rina and Joshua didn’t normally rouse before 6:00 unless the crew was running full shifts. Her body taut at the sound of the voice, she had to force herself not to whirl to face him. Instead she dropped her hands from their fighting stance and walked toward the towel sitting on the bench against the wall. “Morning, Joshua,” she replied in a quiet murmur. “I don’t mind company, no.” Her foot shifted, trying to hide the blood spot that landed on the floor before her towel could wipe it off her hands, but there was nothing she could do to hide the sparring dummy’s “scars.” The blond turned to look toward him, hoping to divert his attention to her face. “Having trouble sleeping?” she asked casually.
“I should ask the same of you, Nika,” he said calmly. He had noticed both the blood spot before it had vanished beneath Nika’s foot and the damage she had done to the dummy. “Can we maybe just agree that I sense way too much and skip to the part where I’m worried about you?” He motioned to the dummy with his head. “And dreams are one thing, but that concerns me even more.”
“Nothing to worry about,”Nika replied mildly. “It’s been a long time since I worked out so much on my karate. My hands have gotten soft, so I’m bloodying them a bit. They’ll toughen up.” She paused, though. Lying to a man who could sense emotion was likely not the brightest move. And she sighed. “Fine... what do you want me to say?” she asked in a resigned tone.
At least she was being honest with him. He walked over to where she stood next to the dummy and took her hands in his. He turned her hands over, looking at the bloody knuckles and the callused skin. “I know very well that there is no such thing as _normal_, but maybe you could reassure me that you know that *this*,” and Joshua held up her hands, “is not good for you?”
As he waited for her response, he could feel something nagging at the back of his brain. Something about the dream fragment and Nika, but he couldn’t quite place it. It was important, but he would just have to hope talking to Nika would tease it out.
It was worse than he’d perhaps expected. One of her knuckles has been broken a couple of days, split and bruised so deep a purple it’s nearly black. It is the source of the new blood, as well. “Well, it’s not the best thing for me, I suppose,” she acknowledged. “But it’s a good stress reliever.” She kept her tone light. “What do you have against a taking a little aggression out on something inanimate?”
He let her hands go without a fuss, slightly shocked by how ugly her hands looked. “Nothing wrong with some healthy stress relief. But aren’t you worried about your hands? I thought you needed them for piloting...”
And then Nika shifted slightly and the light of the gym glinted off her ever present diamond that hung around her neck. Something clicked in Joshua’s head. Sharp. Bright.Painful. It was that diamond that had centered in that dream bit.
“It isn’t just one thing. It’s a broken hand, combined with dark dreams. Dreaming about being cut with that diamond...I’m afraid for you, Nika.”
“They’re fine,” she dismissed. And then she looked down at them, those blue eyes that bore no resemblance to the ones she was born with dispassionate. “Eh,” she finally acquiesced. “I suppose I’m being a bit harder on them than I need to be. I’ll take it easier. Give it a few days off.”
“You are stretching yourself tighter and tighter, Nika. Mentally, emotionally, and now physically. It’s all one piece, Nika.” One piece that was going to snap, he thought. “You know you don’t have to put up the defenses with me.”
“If I were putting up defenses with you, I’d have lied to your face,”Nika told him baldly. Her eyes came back up to meet his after she took a long pull of her water. “Things aren’t good. I refuse to back the Alliance because any government that experiments on its own people deserves to go down. I’d almost settled my head around the idea that the Independents were doing what was right. Something I could get behind, the right of self-determination. And they went and attacked a military academy full of kids who just plain don’t know anything except what they’re told. Tactically? It’s a good move. It kills off personnel who could man vessels. Personally? I ain’t about to run out there and condone killin’ kids and civilians. A scorched-earth policy ain’t something I’ll get behind.” She paused.
“Problem is, now that war’s breakin’ out all over the place and there’s been an official declaration of independence, what the gorram hell are we goin’ t’ do out here? Cuz they’re all going to be of the ‘if you ain’t with us, you’re against us’ mindset. Which makes us a sitting gorram target out here.”
“What if it isn’t true, Nika? What if it is Alliance lies? Not like they haven’t lied greatly and frequently. But even if it is true...” He paused a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. There was a big idea here that was at the center of what he believed.
“Were you completely helpless at 18? You going to invalidate their choice to stand up what they believe in, even if we disagree with that choice?”
Her brows pulled together. “No,”Nika said flatly. “But I’m not goin’ to condone decimation of a school. No matter that it was a military school. If they were armed and knew they were a target or already flying ships in space, fine. But if their thought process is just ‘get rid of all the trainees so they Alliance can’t have more soldiers’ and it means killinn’ kids? That’s just wrong. I’m sorry, but it is. There’s just... there’s got to be a line somewhere. That’s mine.”
Nika shook her head and moved to go around him. “Look, just drop it. I’ll get over it. It isn’t like there’s a whole lot of choice, is there?” She set her water on the bench again, using the towel to dab gently at her broken knuckle. It hurt like a sonuvagun. “What else do you want me to say?” she demanded softly. “My principles may not be everybody’s -- but I’m the one’s got to live with my actions, right? And if my principles don’t fit in the Verse.... well, then I guess I’m destined to be unhappy.” She paused and looked around the cargo bay. “I always believed we were, at any given point in time, right where we needed to be. Kinda like the Buddhist’s wheel and all. Karma. I figure the whole gorram lot of us must have made one doozy of a mess or something for things to go this far off-balance.”
“Maybe I’m making excuses for the Independents, maybe what the Alliance is doing is striking too close to home. “ The way the Alliance thought they had the right to make choices for people made him angry. But even with that...
”But mostly, I think I think I’m not expecting perfection from them.” Joshua looked directly, unapologetically at Nika. “You expect them to be perfect. Kind of like you expect yourself to be. Maybe you could cut both a little slack.”
Nika’s jaw goes tight. “I don’t expect perfection of anyone, Joshua. No one’s perfect,” she objects. “I’m not even sure where you’re coming up with this, but I promise you... there isn’t a single gorram PERFECT thing about me.” Her tone is adamant. It actually.... made her angry. That he’d think that of her. Perfect?! That’s a laugh. If she were laughing. The blond shoved her hand up to push a strand of hair that had escaped her braid back behind her ear, the reaction all out of proportion but unable to be stopped once it started.
“Perfect? Good heavens, man, have you seen what goes on in my life? I was a crappy daughter -- left home and never looked back. Just ask my father or Harry!” Do you know what it's like to know you've got a wayward daughter flitting irresponsibly around the Verse in need of guidance but too gorram pigheaded to accept it from the people who love her most?
Nika shook her head a little, Harry’s voice ringing in her ears. “I was a horrible sister -- ask Nala how she felt about being left alone on Boros to raise Kevin alone!” she continued, the festering darkness inside of her finding an outlet finally in pointing out to someone just how AWFUL a person she is. “I was a disaster as a lover -- the only two people I’ve ever loved enough to try to put their welfare first both went gorram insane! And more and more I’m getting the notion that I'm not doin’ this ship or this crew any gorram good as its captain either!”
By the time she hits the end of the tirade, she was shouting. Breathing heavily. And so bloody angry in her despair over her performance in any arena she was almost literally seeing red. She whirls around and throws the towel with all of her strength at the sparring dummy, for all the good that really does, and then looks at him. “Why the hell would you think that I think *I* of all people was anything close to perfect??!”
His voice had a wonder in it, an amazement that she couldn’t see what he saw. “Why would I think that?” He stepped in close to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “Because when I look at you, I see a beautiful woman, a fantastic friend, and a Captain that I would die for. And you can’t see it at all. What else am I supposed to think?”
“Then you’re as blind as I was,”Nika retorted heatedly, tears springing to her eyes. “And you should open your eyes, Joshua. I have failed at every relationship I’ve ever had, be it sibling, parent, or lover. I have hurt every single person who’s ever given a damn about me in pursuit of ....what? Flying? The Black is a harsh mistress, and I chose her over everyone in my life. Multiple times. I deserved to be blinded. It gave me time to figure out what a miserable human being I am. And how utterly insignificant everything I’ve done is. Because the most important thing in the Verse is supposed to be family. And it was never a priority for me. I’ve walked away from not one but two families, and this one? This one I’m going to destroy or walk away from because I can’t gorram well figure out any way to actually be happy. You all asked me if we were going to war -- you all looked at me like I had the answer!”
If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.... And what will it see when it does? The abyss is a yawning black hole in the blond, and it is slowly swallowing her.
“I don’t have any answers. I don’t even know the questions, Joshua! I’m flying as blind out here as I was when I couldn’t see. And if you choose to follow me, you have to understand that you’re likely going to get killed. It’s your choice to make. But I’m telling you right now, there is no right side. There is nothing but the hope that somewhere along the way we try to make life better for the people in our path. I want a clear-cut reason to choose a side. More than that, I need one. And it’s not going to happen. So the best you’re going to get out of me is this.” The tears turn her dark blue eyes into drowning pools. And she doesn’t pull away from him, but the fight has slowly seeped out of her, leaving that emptiness again. That detachment that brings with it dreams of diamonds.
What *did* he want from her? Joshua just knew that she was desperately unhappy and had been for a very long time. He took just a second to gather himself and then just said what he *felt*. “Nika, that's what is killing me. You look at the big picture and think that nothing you do matters. I look at the small picture and see that *everything* you do matters. And you do so much good. Just as one example, the girls may have been my crazy crusade, but without you, none of them would have been rescued, none of them would've gotten the chance at a better life. And like I said before, I owe you everything...a debt that can never be fully repaid.”
But none of that was really what he wanted to tell her, was it?
“Nika,” he hesitantly said, “I just wish you could forgive yourself for whatever it is you think you’ve done. I wish you could love yourself as much as we all love you.”
And that comment was enough to set off her temper, on such a short leash lately that she was the first one to suggest spacing someone. Rage, blistering hot, roiled through her tied into Gordian knots with anguish, unfocused and sharp as seawater on savaged skin. And then that, too, is shunted deep. Swallowed by the gravitational pull of inky black despair. “I’m not getting through to you. I’m trying, but every time I open my mouth, it just gets worse.” Nika shook her head, looking down at her hands. “I’ll go see Arden when he wakes.”
Joshua shook his head, half in acknowledgment of her seeing Arden, half in frustration of his failure. Nika was broken in some way but Joshua just didn’t know how to fix her. Never had he more wished that he could open up his mind to Nika and just gorram show her how he felt. “I’m sorry, Nika. We just seem to be talking past each other. I wish I were Christian.” He simply acknowledged that despite all his mental powers, he wasn't half as good at understanding people as the Companion was. Pretending to be them? Sure. Making them right? A whole other ballgame.
“Maybe Arden can say what I’m trying to say in a way that makes sense.”
Nika frowned at him. It hadn't occurred to her that seeing Christian, in this state, might be something she ought not to be doing either.... until right this moment. And now she had to go face the doctor and let him see that she busted her hand and it wasn’t just this very moment either, gorram it.
She breathed a litany of curses in Chinese, inventive ones, and then said, “Great. Just great.Yet another person to tell me how gorram wonderful I am. That's not helping, Joshua!” She pivoted on her heel and stalked out of the room.
"And a pleasant Chwee Ni Duh to you too, Captain!" Joshua said it so she could hear it, but not so anyone else on ship could. No point in making it worse.
He picked up her towel and threw it in the hamper. Noone in the Verse made Joshua feel quite so much like a failure as Nika these days. He knew she didn’t mean it, but he constantly tried to help her and constantly failed, like a bad poker player constantly returning to the felt hoping that *this time* would be the one where everything turned around. Which, he guessed, was clear proof how much he loved his JeiJei. Otherwise, he would have given up a long time ago.