Sensitive content: mistreatment of indigenous people; mental health
It started with the nightmares.
Jed was jerked out of sleep by a frantic hammering on the door of his house. Stumbling a little in the darkness, he fumbled for his pants. He couldn’t let the townsfolk see the sheriff in his long johns.
Hal Avery’s boy stood there. Wild-eyed. Staring. Behind him, his mother clutched a shawl about her shoulders with one hand, the other soothing Tom the way you’d gentle a horse.
“It’s mighty late for a social call,” Jed remarked, noting the half-crazed look on Tom’s face.
Mary Avery sniffed. “This ain’t no tea-party, Jed, and you know it. Tom fair woke most o’ the neighbors with his hollerin’ tonight. He’s had bad dreams before, but this…”
He could smell fear beneath her motherly concern.
“You’d best come in,” he said, wondering what she expected him to do about it. He wasn’t a doctor – and even if he were, he doubted he’d have a remedy for nightmares like these.
“See how he is now,” she continued. “When he wakes up, he don’t know where he is – starts talkin’ crazy ‘bout lights in the sky and strange vehicles that move without horses.”
Jed nodded absently, as if barely listening; but a cold dread gripped his stomach. He’d had those dreams too. Was it something in the water, maybe? The pump got a little rusty from time to time, and contaminated water might cause delusions…
He came to with a start. Mrs Avery was still speaking, her face a worried mask. “Sometimes, it’s like he ain’t even my boy anymore.”
“I’ll do what I can, Mary,” Jed promised. Stifling a yawn, he added, “Now, why don’t the two of you go back home and try to get an hour or two of sleep?”
The incident played on his mind all day long as he dealt with routine tasks. He pondered the matter while keeping the peace between a pair of landowners who disputed where one property ended and another began; and when he stopped by Herb and Zach’s feedstore to investigate complaints about them giving light weights, he thought about Tom and his nightmares and wondered whether any other people in the town might be affected. His own dreams had seemed innocuous at first: lights in the sky like shooting stars that had then turned into shimmering spherical objects that hovered over the town before landing in some of the neighboring fields. He could still picture it now: the gash that had appeared in each one as metal walls slid apart and strange beings stepped out. He wasn’t quite sure what these creatures were – not human, he was sure of that. Although humanoid in shape, their limbs were elongated and their skin was a pale golden color.
Something elusive fluttered at the back of his mind, just out of reach. A dream, or a memory? He couldn’t be sure. All he knew was that it had something to do with those… things and their long, spindly limbs.
“Will you walk into my parlor?”
Said the spider to the fly.
He pushed the thought from his mind. He’d be spooked by shadows if he kept on like this. Dreams were dreams; that’s all they were. But he slept with his rifle next to his bed that night, just in case.
It was maybe a week later when young Avery got into trouble again. Jed heard the screams long before he reached the old disused mineshaft a little ways outside the town. By the time he reached Tom, the boy had stopped yelling and was rocking back and forth on his heels, his eyes wide and staring like before.
“Tom…” Jed spoke softly, keeping his hands by his sides to let the lad know he meant no harm. “Tom, it’s me, Jed. Why were you shouting?”
“They’ve come back.” The boy’s voice was a whisper. “I’m scared, Jed. They’re in my head and I can’t get rid of them.”
They? But he didn’t need an answer: he already knew. The glowing golden creatures from his dreams were watching them. He could feel their presence even if he couldn’t see them. They wanted something.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” he said. He was the town’s lawman after all. But how could he promise to deal with something so insubstantial, so invisible?
Perhaps it was this place: there was something… not right about it. If you turned your head quickly, you could almost see something shimmering in the dusk. A trick of the light, maybe.
No, it was more than that. As his eyes squinted in the fading October light, his other senses were sharpened. He could hear voices. Busy-ness. For a moment, he was reminded of how Yellow Creek used to be – back when he was a boy and the town had stretched all the way out here.
Even as he thought about it, the scene unfolded in front of his eyes, so real he could have reached out and touched it. He was thirteen again – a skinny thing, all arms and legs, walking along the street with his ma and pa, heading for the makeshift showground on Daniel McGinty’s field. There was pig wrestling and a greasy pole, but what he wanted to see more than anything else was the real live mermaid in her tank of water.
That was what he thought until he saw her.
She wasn’t a mermaid: she was an Indian girl, not much older than he, with her legs fused together so that she couldn’t walk. She sat on a rock inside her tank, her long hair not quite covering her breasts and a look of such abject misery on her face that it had made him hurt to look at her. He sometimes wondered now whether that was why he had become a sheriff – so he could protect other people from suffering.
The sun was high overhead as he and the other townsfolk toiled to complete the stockade. Jed didn’t think there’d be a problem with the Indians – although they resented the way the Yellow Creek community had taken over their land, they’d adapted by moving further into the forest, leaving their crude huts for the white men to use or tear down as they chose. Jed had spoken to one or two of them – hand gestures had compensated for the lack of a shared vocabulary – and thought they bore the townsfolk no malice; but John Pritchard had disagreed with him and talked the others into building the high wooden fence. Jed knew they were concerned for their families and friends, but a part of him wondered who was protecting the Indians.
He was tracking a deer in the forest, his mind focused on finding the creature in time. The Wise Woman had said the fever would be followed by death before the moon goddess rose again in the sky. Warm breeze tickled his bare chest; it was mottled with the stains of plants – the way his father, Running Wolf, had taught him. He and his brothers were the best hunters in their tribe and the deer horn would make good medicine. He had a responsibility towards his people and he would make sure they were safe.
“Jed?” Tom had stopped rocking and was staring at him. “They’re in your head too, aren’t they? Making you see things. Things you remember.”
He and his tribe were hunting buffalo when they saw the bright lights overhead. The glowing silver globe drew nearer as if the moon were falling from the sky. Several of his brothers raised their spears to ward off this strange threat, but he stopped them, some distant memory telling him that this shining thing meant no harm.
He glanced at the boy sitting beside him in the hovering metal box. “You ready, Tom?”
His apprentice nodded eagerly. Every boy grew up wanting to be a pilot – hell, Jed could still remember when he’d been Tom’s age himself and had idolized the town’s fliers.
“Are you really going to let me control her?”
Jed concentrated for a moment, feeling for the boy’s mind, then carefully directed it to get the crate a little higher.
“Slowly does it,” he warned. “You have to be gentle with an old girl like this one.”
The younger pilots had newer, sleeker models, but Jed always maintained that a classic craft never went out of fashion.
“Jed,” Tom said after a bit, “is it true that the government wants to train people to use these planes as weapons?”
Jed thought for a while before answering.
“There’ll always be rumors of war,” he said slowly. “Heck, people were talking about it when I was younger than you. But I reckon it’s people that are the real weapons – not machines. They can’t go anywhere without a pilot to guide them.”
He felt the plane shudder and promptly wrapped his mind around her controls, soothing her. She didn’t like this talk of war any more than he did.
“Jed!” Back in the present, Tom’s voice was frightened. “It’s the mine shaft. It’s pulling us in.”
Instinctively, Jed opened his mind the way he had done just moments earlier, feeling for something he hadn’t realized he’d forgotten. Something was calling to him: a long lost memory akin to the ones he’d just relived. They were memories, not dreams; he was sure of that now.
“Go back home,” he told Tom. “I can handle this one on my own.”
And then he stepped into the mine shaft and let himself fall.
It wasn’t a mine shaft after all. He didn’t know what it was, but he wasn’t falling – at least, not after the first few feet. He hung suspended in the air, something unseen keeping him motionless. After a while, he became aware that he wasn’t breathing and that his heartbeat had stopped. It was as if life had paused but his mind was continuing.
“You visit us again, Child of Earth.” The words formed in his consciousness: he heard them without them being uttered by an audible voice.
“Each time,” another speaker chimed in, “the cycle is a little shorter. We find ourselves resetting you before you and your fellows have reached the end of your journey.”
Bright lights in the sky. Shimmering spherical objects. Strange creatures emerging. He had walked forward, drawn to something he could not explain.
Reaching out with his mind, he let the Guardians take on solid form in front of him. Their bodies were tall and slender, almost spindly, and their translucent skin emitted a faint golden glow.
“You are strong, Child of Earth.” Their voices sounded now, blending together. “Our mind-shields are impregnable to others of your race.”
Not dreams. Memories. He had done this before.
Again, he reached out with his mind, searching for the key that would unlock those elusive bits of his past that hovered just out of reach.
The air shimmered around him and solidified into walls of shelves. Thousands of boxes lined each shelf: small and tightly packed. Some of them emitted a low, faint hum.
“This is your memory repository,” he said accusingly. “You’ve trapped our memories – all of them.”
One of the Guardians bristled. He could sense its anger. As for the others… Was that disappointment?
“I need to understand,” he told them, focusing his thoughts on the box that called to him the loudest. And then, as he took off the lid, he was overwhelmed by everything he had seen in his dreams and more.
Millennia of memories flooded his mind. He had lived all of these lives one by one – with all their pain and suffering and joy and laughter. So had the rest of Yellow Creek. Their lives shimmered in the atmosphere, stretching into the past like the concentric rings of an onion. Babies were born, grew up, married, had children of their own – over and over again. Humanity continued for decades, centuries, just as it had before – people he knew repeating the lives they had lived and relived and lived again. And he was part of it too. He was their caretaker – always had been; always would be. He had lived his life a thousand times and each one was a variation of the life he was living now.
“Why?” he asked once the shock of it all had faded. “Why do our lives keep repeating? And why the hell have people’s memories been leaking out recently?”
“Look deeper, Child of Earth,” the voices said.
And Jed looked.
He saw a world like the one he knew, but older, heavier. “That was your Earth,” the voices told him. “This planet is a newer one. Smaller. The old one had too many people. Too many wars. Too much death.”
Jed stood outside his humanity and saw with the Guardians’ eyes. Civilisation had reset itself too many times upon the old world. This new world was a chance to get it right: to begin again.
“We came from the stars,” the voices said, “and we saw the pitiful existence of the race called humans and decided to help. We harvested your memories and brought you to a world where you could live peaceably.”
“You had no right.” Jed could feel the anger building inside him. His whole existence was a lie. Humanity’s existence was a lie.
“Not a lie,” the voices corrected him. “ We built this repository to keep your memories safe, so that you and all the others could relive the lives you had before but live them better.”
“And who are you to decide what’s better?” Jed asked.
The Guardians seemed taken aback. “We modify your memories,” one of them said. “We remove the parts that would lead you to fail once more.”
“Maybe we need to fail sometimes,” Jed argued. “It’s how we learn. You need to let us live in our own way, instead of injecting us with the memories you want us to have.” Had other memories leaked into dreams because they wanted to be set free?
“You cannot survive without us,” the Guardians said quietly.
“Then allow us to die in freedom.” The image flickered in his mind of the mermaid in the tank.
“That is how you see yourselves?” The voices sounded incredulous.
“We’re as trapped as she was,” he agreed.
“And what of you, Child of Earth? You are your people’s caretaker. You have been reborn, over and over again. You have made this journey to see us many times, and every time, we reset your memory and let you think your current life is your first.”
“No more.” Jed’s tone was quiet. “You need to let your children grow up. We have to do this without you.”
One by one, the golden figures winked out like fireflies embracing death. Still he hung there, suspended between reality and memory. He accessed his own memories once more, diving into the twenty-third century, a time in which his brain had evolved to manipulate flying machines with his mind. Humanity’s past needed to be liberated. If he could just reach out and unlock those boxes…
Memories fluttered away like dragonflies, finally tasting freedom. Humanity would have to make new memories, but that wasn’t a problem. Mankind was resilient.
He was resilient.
He would sleep now.