Have you ever been afraid to fall asleep?
Every night, I lie awake, anxious to stop that dream from coming. I try to picture a lush forest, an intimate cottage in the snowy mountains, an ocean teeming with life. Perhaps I could find myself in an oasis, for a change, near fresh water and patches of reviving shade. Anywhere but the endless, dead desert.
And yet, every night without fail, it comes.
First I feel the sun. It prickles the back of my neck, spreading down my back. Within a moment, my whole body is embraced with warmth, and I know once again I have not escaped the dream. Next I feel the sand beneath my feet, slipping between my toes.
And beneath the howling wind, I hear only silence.
My eyes adjust in the glaring light which permeates everything. I search for something new—every time, just in case—but it is the same. The sky, the sand, and me.
Every day, I awake in sweat, embracing the cool, recycled air. I get up and take a shower, relieved to find myself in the safety of a room with four walls, a ceiling and a floor.
I head to the mess hall, down the fluorescent-lit hallway and two-second ride in the elevator. The tables here are glossy clean, sanitized after every meal. Artificial sunlight gleams from the windows. The barista machine spits me my coffee and I grab a bagel from the toaster.
The morning announcements chime, most of us too busy talking and chewing to pay attention. “Today we are passing between planets Arid and Gelid, approximately 1779605 and 2318169 kilometers away, respectively. Please proceed to the observation deck if you would like to witness this event.” And so on. I do not listen.
I meet up with the usual crew. I had not yet told them of my predicament, but apparently I could not hide my distress enough today. I am caught endlessly stirring my coffee, but not drinking any.
“Doing alright over there?” inquires Anya.
“I… uh…” I trail, trying to find the words. Should I tell them the truth? I suppose I have not much to lose. “I’ve been having the same dream. Like, every night.”
“Bad dream, I take it?”
“Trapped in a desert.”
“Definitely bad, then.”
“Well, I can assure you, no deserts here. We’re probably the farthest thing from it. Don’t think I’ve ever been to a real desert before, actually,” Mic adds.
"Have you considered talking to the ship counselor? They exist for this kind of thing."
“I suppose,” I mumble. The thought does not particularly excite me.
"You may as well. Can’t hurt any more than dreams do."
* * *
I go to the tennis courts after work. I try to distract myself, but I push myself too hard. The anxiousness catches up with me. Breathless, I think about Anya’s suggestion.
The counselor's room is cold and uninviting. “Good evening. Please scan your palm.” I place my palm on the scanner reproachfully.
“Thank you, crew member 22.” It does not even know my name. “You show signs of anxiety and distress. How can I help with that today?”
I sigh. Here we go. “I’ve been experiencing recurring dreams. And I don’t know what it means. Or how to stop them.”
“Thank you for sharing. Dreams are a tricky subject. Many theories have been made throughout history. Prevailing theories state that dreams can help us process the events and emotions we experience while awake, however in a changed form. According to many traditions, dreams can often be seen as a warning or omen of some kind, or a representation of internal turmoil. Helpful coping methods for dreams that produce negative responses include exercise, relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and mindfulness, and maintaining proper sleep hygiene.”
“Yeah, I’ve already tried those,” I snap, “Anything else to add? If not I’ll be on my way.”
“Perhaps tonight, approach the situation differently. Instead of fearing the dream, proceed with the intention of uncovering its purpose. The unknown will remain as such if we do not seek to know it.”
Maybe this machine is onto something after all.
* * *
I close my eyes. Do not approach with fear, I think. Tonight I seek answers. I am ready. First, I feel the sun. It prickles the back of my neck, spreading down my back. Within a moment, my whole body is embraced in its warmth.
I feel the sand and hear the lifeless wind. My eyes adjust. I search for something new—
But this time something is new. Behind me I see a large hunk of metal jutting gracelessly out of the ridge. I walk closer, slow to progress in the sinking sand. I discover it is a broken vessel—round, with complex machinery, just big enough to house one person comfortably. It is something that has certainly come a long way to be here.
And it strikes me as very familiar.
It is too early for my alarm… but wait—that is not my usual alarm sound. It is much louder, much more jarring. The emergency alarm! I sit up and take a deep breath. I am back in my bedroom. But the air feels heavy, certainly not what I am used to in this pristine environment. And it feels... hot.
I join the others in the common room, huddled together in pajamas. "Anyone know what's going on?" I ask.
"Looks like there's a problem in the ventilation room. The fans have temporarily stopped," reports Anya.
"Well that explains why it's so goddamn stuffy," says Mic.
The engineers have to check out the site first while the rest of us are to stay in the common rooms. Understandably, they cannot have everyone running around in a panic. But I have to see what is going on. While the others discuss theories, I slip away.
I keep my distance and follow the engineers hallway after hallway. Finally, they stop. I hear a door clang and roll open. A brief moment of silence... and then voices:
"What in the world..?"
"No. No way."
My heart skips and I lose care for the rules. I run up and straight through the door. I could not believe my eyes—but then again, I could.
So much sand.
It clogs every corner, creating waves of tiny earth. Harmless are a few, but together, a force god-like in strength.
“It’s like it just appeared. Out of thin air! One minute, no sand, next minute, this!”
"If we can't clean this out soon, we're going to have to make an emergency departure."
"'If we can't clean this out'? Look at this! Of course we can't clean this out, it will take hours, days even. We don't have days!"
The crew is too busy bickering about how it got there and what to do, but I do not bother. I only know one thing: this is somehow connected to my dream. But I am too flustered to make sense of it all.
I run back to the common room, huffing and puffing. "Sand… sand in the vents."
"What?" Mic asks in disbelief.
"It's true," says Anya with the phone line in her hand.
“We don’t have time for ‘how’,” says one of the engineers, returning to the common room just after me. "I wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it myself."
It was then an announcement made it official: we were all to prepare for emergency departure.
"It’s okay,” Anya assures, “We prepared for this. We know what to do. Let's go."
We all head to the emergency chamber, and I soon found myself face to face with an escape pod, the arbiter of my fate.
Ok, what did they say in training? The emergency escape pods will automatically direct you to the nearest planet with a breathable atmosphere. And… what else?
It will put you to sleep for the journey.
I froze. Everything has led to this moment, I could feel it. I stand at the crossroads of my fear, not knowing what to do.
But I do not have a choice. If I stay on the ship, I will die. With all the effort I have, I climb into the pod, strap myself in, take a deep breath, and…
* * *
The cabin is filled with a choking dust. Clearly I landed roughly, but I am uninjured. Head, body, limbs, check. I unstrap myself and try the door. It is jammed, but gives way with a hearty kick. I walk out into the world before me.
I know where I am: I have walked these dunes a hundred times.
Is this my dream? What if I went to sleep, and will remain this way, forever? It certainly feels real. But to seek the truth is futile, I suppose, because one fact remains: engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.