You are the first to dream. In the dream, you are shaping coarse sand with your hands. You lift a handful, and it feels like the shifting of mountains. You drag your fingertip through the dirt to make a twisting line and hear the roar of moving water. You breathe and feel the rush of clean, bright wind in your hair. Suddenly, you are far, far, far up in the air, higher than you've ever been. You have gone to the very top of Freehold's tallest skyscrapers, but this is much higher, and you see the world below with much greater fidelity. It is a beautiful green world, much greener than any place you've ever seen before. It looks like home. --- I am the first to dream. The dreams can happen at any time. A veil drops in front of my eyes and I see strange, moving images. I am someone else, or I am myself, reimagined. I can't say. In the dreams, I shape planets with my own hands. At first, I believe I am mad. The clinicians at BrayWell call it "interplanetary relocation maladjustment psychosis": a psychobabble catch-all for mental disturbances that they can't explain. Other people, searching for certainty, call it "prophecy." But all I can offer is a loose, tangled connection that I painstakingly unravel when I dream. || I am drawn to a bright and attentive star. I speak to it through movement, through feeling. It understands implicitly. || Now, I stand before a crowd. Their murmuring is the bone-deep rumble of shifting tectonic plates. A screen behind me plays looping, blurry footage of the Traveler terraforming Venus. The images radiate with pale light. We've watched this footage many times. || I glide through space as if through water, tugged in nine directions by nine impulses. || In front of the crowd, I sway a little, a copse of trees bending in a dream-wind. I can't help it. I'm dreaming more often than not. || There is whispering from the deep-dark, alluring and terrifying—a reminder of things left behind, bittersweet and abhorrent. || A crackle of static on the screen behind me brings me back to earth, resettling my feet firmly on the ground. These people have come here for my insights. I lean forward and speak to the crowd. Four tenets, aching with truth: The Traveler is a force of benevolence. The Traveler is a sentient being with free will, dreams, hopes, and fears. The Traveler will save us. The Traveler will leave us.
You feel it before it happens. It has happened before. You feel deep in your bones that this thing has chased you across galaxies like an unshakeable dread. It strives to undo. It will undo you. It will undo all of us. First is suffocation, and then pain. The pain isn't localized to any part of you, but to all of you and beyond you. You want to run, but you are pulled in all directions by opposite and equal forces that hold you perfectly still. It is inescapable this time. You are losing everything that you were. You are bleeding silver into the air like the air is water, and you watch your silver-blood float away from your body. Empty. Empty. Empty. --- I am the Speaker who witnesses the end of the world. Through it all, I am overwhelmed by torrents of sharp, static images, sometimes so fast and constant that I can't see or hear. The Traveler is babbling: telling me everything and nothing all at once, in fast, stereoscopic, waking nightmares. I am myself and not myself. And I || am stuck in a web of black spider silk, frozen in the mind-numbing silence of space || have no answers. The fall isn't quick. It happens over weeks and months: cataclysmic disasters, natural and unnatural, flattening human settlements on every planet || that I have made, I have shaped, my work, laid flat ||. Earthquakes. Tidal waves. Solar flares. Cyclones, sinkholes, exploding lakes, wildfires. Unknown, untreatable plagues raze populations in hours. Water goes black with unknown poisons || forced down my throat ||. The ground opens up and swallows entire cities || and I am sick sick sick ||. This has happened before. I'd watched in my dreams the cities that fell, alien cities, torn down by a wind so fierce that it flattened an entire world || and it is not my fault ||. But this is different. The Traveler has not left us. Something new || half-remember and wished-forgotten, this false-sister || has arrived. I || don't want to abandon you || watch on crackling video feeds as people try to escape the outer planets. Exodus ships burn || like I will burn || up with thousands upon thousands of souls aboard. We gather in frightened, huddled || trapped, stuck, doomed || groups in relief outposts, hoping against hope. I try to aid the relief effort but my thoughts || run || become more and more scattered. I can't || run || keep separate my own mind || run || and the || run run RUN RUN || Traveler's. Then, suddenly, silence. And it's the silence that truly breaks me.
I am the first Speaker to see a Ghost. The way we tell it, after the Collapse, the Traveler cut itself into a thousand tiny pieces and sent them out into the world. These tiny pieces are drawn to me, and to others like me, like moths. The first time I saw them, I thought they were surveillance drones, but up close, they were nothing like our old technology, not really. The way they move seems organic and natural. They spin their shells like they are ruffling feathers; their little forward-facing lights blink like eyes. "We're called Ghosts," one of them said to me once, hovering at my shoulder as I tended a cook-fire. "Why?" I asked, gentle, casual. They're all different, these Ghosts. Many of them are like children, curious and friendly. Some are world-weary from the moment they're born. The Ghost spun his silver petals, considering. "Because we're searching, I think." It's a good enough answer for me. I'm searching, too. I let the little Ghosts follow me. We talk about what the Traveler was like before the Collapse. They like to hear it, and I like to remember. Deep in their core, they remember, too, I think. They remember a time when they were all one piece. Still, they like to ask what the Traveler told me, and I recount all the dreams I can still remember. I haven't dreamed since the Collapse, and this is almost—almost, almost—like dreaming again. Today, at twilight, one of the shy and quiet Ghosts who has been lingering at my side asks if I will follow her out into the valley. I should say no, but she sounds hopeful. And I am curious. We travel for several hours. The land here is recovering—not just from the Collapse, but from the time before it. Resources for our settlement are scarce, but nature is creeping back in, and nature is cruel now. It's been starving and confused for decades, jostled out of its natural order, and now we reap the consequences. Wolves steal our livestock. Mange-ridden bears wander through our compound late at night, pawing at our doors. The land is so thick with the memory of poison that it won't grow crops. We protect ourselves from this recovering world as best we can, and we rarely go out at night. But I'm drawn by a curiosity that feels beyond me. The Ghost leads me to a barn with a sagging roof. She asks me to wait out of sight—she says, "I think you'll scare her." I don't fully understand what she means. I crouch and watch as she hovers over the years-old remains of a person, barely recognizable as something that was once living. The Ghost floats over the body nervously, and then scans it with pale light. In front of my eyes, flesh grows over old bones and tattered rags stitch themselves together. The person, a woman, gasps and sits up. I can't believe it. The Ghost hovers close to her new companion and says something quiet and reassuring. I can't hear. I feel amazed, and then jealous, and then ashamed.