Chapter eleven of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
“Tell me about these dreams,” Luci whispered, pushing her daughter’s hair back over her ear.
Luci was perched on the edge of Sophie’s bed, a night light the only illumination in the room. Beyond their apartment, the city was always active, but here it was quiet and dark. Sometimes it seemed almost too quiet. Sometimes Luci could hear Sophie breathing in the next room or—as in the case at hand—whimpering quietly.
“They aren’t scary,” Sophie replied dreamily. Her eyelids blinked heavily; she wasn’t sure why her mother had woken her up.
“What do you think of Mr. Bransen?” Luci wondered, not sure how to direct the conversation.
She had met with him twice in the last week, as he tried to convince her to drop her current clients and start work at PISA immediately. The first meeting, she’d taken Sophie along. The last meeting, which she’d just got back from, he had asked to meet with her alone—it was the hard sell for her to join PISA and forget everything else. Three meetings with the infamous Bransen, and most people would have done anything for just one. She thoughtfully brushed a wayward strand of hair off her daughter’s brow.
Bransen Labs was like the Vatican to scientists, except in place of rules, regulations, and supplications for the advancement of dogma, it offered absolute academic freedom. It was the brainchild of Derek Bransen (but if anyone other than his mother knew his first name, he’d have been amazed) who, at the age of 24, had already made himself a multi-millionaire in the entertainment industry. His concept was to treat scientists like the artists on his record labels, and give them everything they needed to thrive without government or shareholder interference, which also helped Bransen Labs rise above insinuations surrounding black budgets, defense spending, or elitism.
The catch was simple and borrowed whole-cloth from his record labels: Scientists were handpicked by Bransen himself; they were employed forever or until they no longer wanted to be employed; they must be willing to work on projects their peers deemed too risky or improbable, or both; and they had to lend their expertise to Bransen’s pet projects, when asked to do so.
“Call the salary a retainer, if it helps,” Bransen had explained to Luci at dinner. “And I get first dibs on whatever you come up with—after we come back from Mars.”
“He seems nice,” Sophie answered her mother. “Ana-loop said he was going to help us get to her, to meet her in person.”
“Ana-loop…?” Luci asked, trying to hide her shock.
Bransen had told her at dinner to ask Sophie about her dreams—about Ana-loop and the forest. She’d been skeptical when he’d come clean with his hard-sell, and the revelation that his team had been in contact with an alien being on Mars named Ana-loop, who was also in contact with other people, like her daughter and Henry Jacobs, through dreams of a forest.
“Sure. She’s the one they’re talking to,” Sophie replied slowly, aware now that there was a subtext to her mother’s visit. “She knows Daddy, too.”
“Ana-loop knows Daddy? She told you that?”
Tears welled in Luci’s eyes. She didn’t talk about Nate much, not out of trying to hide anything, but because she never wanted the conversation to turn too serious; she never wanted Sophie to think his death had been in any way her fault—so the less chance she had to misunderstand the circumstances, the better.
Sophie shook her head slowly.
“No, he told me. Daddy did. Daddy knows her.”
Sophie’s brow furrowed and she propping herself up on her elbow. “He said he talked to you, too, sometimes. Why didn’t you ever tell me you dreamed of Daddy?”
Luci’s back straightened. Sophie was waking up now—it was too late to tell her to go back to sleep.
“They’re just dreams,” Luci mumbled instead, looking off into the darkness.
But Bransen had said they weren’t dreams—weren’t only dreams. That Dr. Carlos Resua called them remote viewing—going somewhere else, outside your body. Bransen said they had to understand what was going on, and Luci was integral to the mission. The dreams said so.
Luci didn’t know much about all that—or think much of it, to be honest—but she’d humored him. And like testing a good psychic with certain questions, the coincidences were starting to pile up too high to be passed off with resolute scientific denial. Quite the opposite: The evidence was starting to suggest there really was something to look into, scientifically.
“They aren’t just dreams,” Sophie whispered with a secret smile. “I knew you wouldn’t believe it. You don’t even believe yourself!”
“Sometimes I don’t even see him, I just feel like he’s there,” Luci protested weakly.
“That’s because you meet him in the time between.”
“Where do you meet him?”
“In the city, usually.” Sophie bit her lowered lip. “He said that’s where we all go when we die.”
Luci turned away and sucked in a sharp breath. She didn’t want Sophie to see her crying. It was too difficult to believe. Nate had mentioned a city to her, too, and to meeting Sophie there. She always woke up and wrote them off as dreams and never mentioned them to her daughter, and the thought of it all being real created a mixed bag of emotions.
Possibly real, she reminded herself, gritting her teeth.
Sophie spoke of it so naturally—so sure it was more than just a dream. But Luci couldn’t help wondering if it was a complex coping mechanism; faith that Nate, father and husband, was still around, to keep them going. Luci was drawn again to the one thing she never wanted to ask her daughter: If Sophie blamed herself for her father’s death. She changed the subject slightly to divert the conversation.
“Do you think about dying a lot, Sophie?”
Her daughter shrugged. “Not really. It didn’t seem so important after I found Daddy again.”
She shrugged again and sat up all the way, spotting the tears Luci was trying to hide. She touched her mother’s hand softly and met her eyes.
“Are you afraid of dying, Mommy?”
Luci laughed despite herself and palmed the tears forcefully from her eyes.
“No…no…Soph. I’m afraid of you dying. I don’t care what happens to me.”
“Yes you do,” Sophie disagreed gently.
Luci looked deep into her daughter’s eyes and realized that the girl understood more about all of this than she could convey—just as Bransen had said she did. Sophie knew things by experience and by feel, but lacked the vocabulary to translate those feelings into something others could understand. Sophie was unafraid because she understood. That notion terrified and comforted Luci.
“Your dad…?” Luci suggested, helping her daughter find the words. “He helps you? He makes you unafraid?”
Sophie considered this for a few seconds then half shook her head as if her mother was only partly wrong.
“This isn’t about dying, Mommy. Daddy said Ana-loop is worth saving because she’s the only one willing to come to us, to teach us. That’s why we have to go, Mommy—me and Henry. We have to help Ana-loop so she can help everyone else, not to see Daddy.”
“Go where, Sophie?”
“Mars!” her daughter declared with the disbelieving huff of a child explaining something she thought her mother should already know. “With Bransen!”
Luci’s brow furrowed; it all sounded too close to what Bransen had said. She wondered angrily if Bransen had somehow been talking to her daughter without her knowledge, then instantly dismissed the notion. Bransen was nothing if he wasn’t trustworthy, that much she did know.
“Didn’t Daddy tell you that?” Sophie wondered, unable to interpret her mother’s expression.
“I don’t know,” Luci replied with a sigh.
In a dream the night before, she’d dreamed of Nate. Not of him physically, but of his essence; of his pull; of his energy. This depth of realism in her dreams had only happened occasionally before then—she had woken up once or twice feeling like he’d been there—but last night had felt more complete, like he really was there, perhaps because this time there were others there, too.
She was in a lighthouse, then a rose garden, then an endless forest. Then Nate—or what felt like Nate—spoke to her in the darkness between dreamscenes: “This is the mission, hon. You must go.”
She’d started to wake up, uncomfortable with the reality of the dream. She’d stirred and moaned; even in the dream, it didn’t make sense.
“Ask Sophie,” Nate had suggested in the same calming tone he always used when she was upset. “Ask her. You need to go. It’s okay.”
“Mom?” Sophie asked timidly. “Are you okay?”
Luci’s eyes flicked back to her daughter’s face and her breath stopped in her nose. It was something like shock, but also joy. She hadn’t remembered the dream so fully until just now, and now it felt like Nate again, and Nate wanted her to go, and he wanted her to take Sophie. Now it made sense—even as it didn’t make any sense at all.
“Yeah, honey… I’m fine. Mars, huh?”
“Yep—he said I should go to Mars with you to help you. He said it was our mission, not just yours.”
“It seems pretty crazy. Aren’t you afraid to go Mars, Soph?”
“No, Mommy, are you?”
“But Daddy told us it was okay, so that means something, right?”
“Yes,” Luci whispered. “It would be like taking a long ride on the best airplane in the world,” she added, quoting what Bransen had said to her so many times that she smiled now when she realized his repeated message may have actually got through.
Sophie lay back down and Luci gave her forehead a peck before going to bed herself. As she drifted off to sleep, she prayed to him, to her husband, as she had often done since he’d died. She told herself she was merely talking to her husband as if he could answer, as a way to work through whatever problems had arisen, but it seemed a lot like prayer to her, which was something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl who was afraid of the universe and her place in it.
“And if we don’t come back, at least she won’t be an orphan,” she mumbled to the pillow beside her—the same justification she’d been trying out since Bransen had first approached her and she’d tentatively accepted a position with him—on Earth.
“Is that better?” she wondered aloud. “Is it better that she dies happy with her mother than have to live as an orphan? Or is that selfish?”
She stopped and thought for a few seconds, then sighed heavily and rolled onto her back.
“Nate, is this an accident I can prevent? Or is this living?”