Dreams of Elsewhere
[From the author: the usual disclaimers apply here – the copyrights belong to 20th Century-Fox and whoever else. . No profit is being made from this story other than some emotional satisfaction if readers enjoy it! . Thanks to Jane, for being my chief cheerleader, to Kass for including the story on her site, and to the other members of F&F for providing constant inspiration. . Please don’t post the story on other sites without asking permission. . And lastly, feedback is welcome and encouraged, at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
“Colonel?” the nurse said. “You can see him now.”
Alan Virdon put down the year-old copy of Popular Mechanics he had been leafing through and got up from the waiting room chair. . The chair, suffering from a loose leg, creaked when his weight left it.
This was a hell of a place to make people wait, he thought, with its faded carpet, water-stained ceiling tiles, and wobbly chairs. . The room was barely large enough to accommodate six chairs and the two end tables that didn’t match them; people entering and leaving would almost be tripping over each other. . Anyone sitting here frightened about whether their loved one would survive another day certainly would not have their hopes boosted by their surroundings.
“We’ve upped his pain meds, so he may not be awake very long. . He’s really not all that awake now.”
Virdon nodded an acknowledgment. . “That’s all right.”
He followed the woman around a corner, down a hallway decorated with ugly lavender-and-green abstract paintings, through a set of automatic doors, and down another hallway into the intensive care unit. . None of the rooms had doors here, just curtains, and as Virdon walked along behind the nurse he caught glimpses of the patients—some of them elderly and frail, some of them terribly injured. . The man he had come to see was one of the latter.
The nurse smiled at him and pointed. . “There.”
He thought he was prepared for this place, for what he might see, but the image of Peter Burke lying in the narrow ICU bed took his breath away. . Less than a week ago, Burke had been laughing, smiling, whole. . Now his face and the part of his neck and chest visible above the neckline of the hospital johnny were tapestries of overlying bruises. . A row of thick black stitches decorated his hairline, and his left eye was swollen nearly shut. . His left leg, wrapped in a cast from ankle to knee, lay propped on a pillow. . His arms, very pale under the fluorescent lights, were also heavily marked with bruises and stitched-up lacerations.
Two days ago he had undergone five hours of surgery to mend his internal injuries. . Yesterday, Virdon had been told, fluid had begun to build up around the surgical site, and now a clear plastic tube drained blood-tinged liquid into a container sitting on the floor beside the bed. . Another tube ran from an IV pouch on a rack to the back of Burke’s left hand; a third connected him to an oxygen feed.
He looked like a team of giants wearing metal cleats had used him for a football.
“He’s a little better today,” a voice said from behind him.
Startled, Virdon turned toward the speaker, a young male nurse with a smiley-face button pinned to his smock.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he thought. . Better?
He was considering turning around and walking out when Burke stirred a little and let out a soft moan. . Virdon grimaced at the sound, then shifted his shoulders and walked into the small room.
“Pete?” he ventured.
Burke’s right eye, the one that wasn’t swollen, opened halfway. . “Alan?” he whispered.
Producing a smile that he hoped looked convincing, Virdon approached the bed. . “Yeah, it’s me.”
Burke’s face twitched. . “Home.”
“We…got home.” . Another twitch. . “You ’kay?”
“’S’good.” . The eye drifted shut and for a moment Virdon thought Burke had gone back to sleep. . Then Burke flinched, hard, and let out a sharp cry of distress. . In his peripheral vision Virdon could see the nurse with the smiley button look up from his paperwork, but Burke settled back down without help. . “Hurts,” he mumbled.
“You’re pretty banged up,” Virdon told him.
The eye slide open again. . “Feel like hell.”
A chrome and green plastic chair sat nearby, obviously intended for visitors. . Virdon pulled it over near the bed and sat down, listening to the peculiar sound of the machine draining the fluid out of Burke’s belly. . Burke’s right eye followed him, although it was hard to tell whether it was focused on Virdon or something else.
“Who?” Virdon asked.
“I—I don’t know.”
The younger man’s face tightened. . “Whadda mean, y’dunno?”
“I don’t know anyone named Galen.”
Burke started to protest that, but before he could put words together, the pain medication took over and his head lolled to the side. . The nurse with the smiley face, who had been watching from the nurses’ station, came up to the bed then and took a closer look, then checked the myriad of monitors to which Burke was connected. . “Asleep,” he told Virdon. . “You should head out now. . Somebody’ll give you a call if his condition changes.”
“Thank you,” Virdon murmured.
He was awakened in the middle of the night by the raucous jangle of the phone on the bedside table. . Sally, nestled in beside him, muttered a protest but went on sleeping as he picked up the receiver and said quietly, “Alan Virdon.”
Half an hour later he was
at the hospital again, wearing the clothes that were the closest at hand: the
sweatpants, t-shirt, and sneakers he had laid out for his morning run. . Unshaven,
hair uncombed, he felt like one of
Since this was a different work shift, he didn’t expect to find anyone familiar among the ICU staff and was surprised to be greeted by the smiley-button nurse. . This time he looked closer and found a nametag that said DAVIDSON, H.
“Harley,” the nurse explained.
Virdon hiked a brow. . “Harley Davidson?”
“What can I tell you. . My parents thought they were funny.” . With a shrug, he led Virdon away from the check-in desk, down the first corridor. . “Sorry we had to wake you up. . But there’s nobody else listed on his forms, and he’s been asking for you. . We would’ve waited until morning, but he’s—well, he’s kind of freaked out.”
“He doesn’t have a family, huh?”
frowned, remembering his call to Burke’s mother two days ago. . It had taken
him three tries to get through to Kate Powell at her home in
“No,” he told Davidson. . “Not really.”
He found Burke wide awake this time, nervous and anxious. . The medication had largely worn off, it seemed, because Burke’s face showed the strain of fighting what must have been constant pain. . Shoving his hair away from his own face with the fingers of one hand, Virdon found the green plastic chair and again tugged it over to the bed. . Sinking into it, he leaned toward Burke and, in an attempt to avoid disturbing the other patients, asked softly, “What’s the matter?”
“Where am I, Alan?”
“You’re in the hospital.”
That didn’t seem to be the answer Burke wanted. . His gaze, what little of it was possible coming out of the one eye, shot around the room, taking in what he could see of the hallway and the nurses’ station. . “Why are you not in the hospital?” he demanded.
“If we crashed—”
We? Virdon thought fuzzily. . “Pete, what do you think happened to you?”
“I don’t know. . I don’t know how we got here. . I don’t know how we got home. . Why can’t you tell me?”
“Home? . Home from where?”
Exhaustion settled over Virdon like a damp blanket. . “I’ll ask the nurse to give you some more stuff for the pain. . Try to get some rest, okay? . The doctor says you’ll be okay. . It’ll take some time in rehab, but you can handle that. . Nothing worse than what they dished out in training.”
“What?” Virdon sighed.
“Pete, I don’t know anyone named Galen. . Do you?”
“He—we were—” . It took Burke a minute to find some equilibrium. . “We ran into a storm. . Out near Alpha Centauri. . The homing device brought us back to Earth, but it wasn’t our Earth, it was in the future.”
If the younger man had not been so pitifully earnest, Virdon would have laughed at him. . Unsure how to react, Virdon rested his face in his palms and rubbed hard at his eyes, trying to wake himself up. . “Alpha Centauri?”
“It was 3085. . Don’t you remember? . The apes—?”
Harley Davidson was in the doorway, beckoning. . With a gesture to tell Burke to hold on for a minute, Virdon pushed himself out of the plastic chair and shuffled over to the nurses’ station, where Davidson had retreated. . “That’s why I called you. . He’s been going on about that since or so. . Talking about going into the future and being chased by gorillas. . They gave him some new meds after the surgery, stuff that’s supposed to work pretty well, but I guess the side effects are kinda wild. . Alpha Centauri? . How’s he figure you were gonna do that? . Have Scotty beam you up?”
“Does the doctor know he was hallucinating?” Virdon asked.
“Yeah, we told him.”
“What did he suggest?”
“Just try to keep him calm, and try to talk him back down to Earth—ha, ha, to Earth—a little bit at a time. . I bet the Major saw that new Star Wars movie, huh? . Maybe next he’ll start talking about swapping stories with Chewbacca.” . Davidson’s tone was mildly mocking, but the look in his eyes belied it. . He felt badly for Burke, and had called Virdon in hopes of finding an ally to help quiet the troubled man in his care. . Being an astronaut, even one who might never actually fly, had a certain cachet to it, something Virdon had been aware of since he was Davidson’s age, and seeing one of NASA’s golden boys messed up as badly as Burke was had put a serious crease into Davidson’s forehead. . “We could have just knocked him back out and hope he sleeps it off, but he was so—”
Virdon nodded. . “I’ll talk to him.”
He sank back into the chair feeling older than dirt.
“Alan?” Burke asked him in a small voice. . “Am I crazy?”
“No. . No.”
“The mission. . It was you, and me, and Jonesy. . Jonesy was killed when we crashed. . We were on Earth, but in the future, and everything was run by apes. . The head ape wanted to kill us, but this chimp named Galen helped us get away.” . The younger man’s expression turned sad and plaintive. . “That didn’t happen?”
Down in the corner of the screen
of one of the monitors was the time: . .
Am I having this conversation? Virdon wondered. . “There was no mission, Pete. . The first shuttle doesn’t launch until next spring,
and it’s certainly not going to Alpha Centauri. . We don’t have any way of
going that far. . You know that. . And Jonesy isn’t
dead. . He’s in
“Then what happened to me?”
“You don’t remember.”
The plaintive look didn’t waver as Burke shook his head the little bit that his injuries would allow. . “No.”
“You were driving too fast. . You rolled the car.”
“But it was real.”
Virdon rested a hand on Burke’s right forearm, the only visible part of him that didn’t seem to be hideously trashed. . “No, Pete. . You were unconscious for two days. . They gave you medication that gave you some wild dreams, that’s all.”
The younger man looked away. . “You—all you wanted to do was go home. . Everywhere we went, that’s all you wanted to do was go home to Sally and Chris. . Me,” he murmured, his voice dropping to a barely audible level, “I didn’t have anybody to come home to.”
“What about Trisha?”
That startled Burke. . “She wasn’t in the car, was she?”
“No. . You were alone.”
“It was so real, Alan. . We were there for months. . A long time.”
Footsteps ticked along the linoleum, and before Virdon could say anything, a young African-American woman was standing at his shoulder. . She wore the white coat of a doctor, and a doctor’s confidence, together with a tinge of middle-of-the-night distraction. . “You should get some rest,” she told Burke. . “You’ve been through a lot. . Say good night to your friend, now, and we’ll fix things so the pain dulls down a bit.”
Burke tried to protest but had no willing audience. . Surrendering to that, and to the pain, he closed his workable eye and nodded.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, Pete,” Virdon promised him. . “We’ll talk some more.”
“Downstairs,” the doctor said. . “We’ll be moving him to a regular room in the morning.”
Burke’s condition didn’t seem to warrant that, but Virdon thought, What do I know? . “Thank you, Doctor.”
He was one step from the threshold when Burke said quietly, “Alan?”
When he turned, Burke was looking at him. . “I’m real,” Virdon assured his young friend. . “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Sally, in robe and slippers, was waiting for him in the living room, in the dim light from the single lamp she had turned on. . She got up from the sofa as he came into the house and went to him, questioning him silently when he pulled her into an embrace that seemed too fervent for the circumstances.
“Is he all right?” she asked.
“I guess so. . He had some kind of weird dream while he was out, and he thinks it really happened.”
She tried to step away, intending to get them some coffee, but he held onto her. . “What is it?”
“Nothing. . I just—”
What Burke had said had been on his mind throughout the drive from the hospital back to the house. . All you wanted to do was go home. . This last couple of years, he thought, he had done almost everything but go home. . Landing a spot on the roster of astronauts for the first few shuttle missions had been the culmination of twenty years of hopes and dreams. . If everything went as planned, in another year he’d be in space. . Not Alpha Centauri, but far enough. . More than far enough for Sally, given the dangers inherent in space exploration. . He’d caught her more than once biting back something she seemed to badly want to say. . Even Chris, who was thrilled beyond measure at his dad’s being an astronaut, had his moments of worry, especially after he’d been told at school about Grissom, White, and Chaffee, dead in a flash fire in their capsule back in 1967.
“Are you okay, Sal?” he asked.
He glanced past her at the heaps of books and papers on the dining room table. . She’d been preparing for a case for a couple of weeks now, and was almost to the point of non-stop focus on work. . Where did that leave Chris, he wondered. . Mom and Dad both pointed somewhere else. . Without explaining himself to Sally, he took her by the hand and led her up the stairs, opened the door of Chris’s room and went inside. . Chris, almost twelve now, was fast asleep, curled in his usual position on his right side, right hand shoved up under his head. . “Hey, buddy,” Virdon said softly as he sat on the edge of the bed and carefully scooped the boy up into an embrace.
Muddled, Chris peered at him, then at Sally. . “Whassamatter?” he mumbled.
“Nothing. . I just wanted to tell you how very much I love you.”
Chris snuffled sleepily and drooped toward his pillow. . “Luhyoutoo.”
Virdon tucked him back in and stroked the boy’s blond hair, bleached almost white by the summer sun. . When he stood up and turned to Sally, she was frowning at him in puzzlement. . Smiling, he reached out to caress her cheek, then kissed her softly.
“Make love with me,” he whispered into her ear.
“We should get some sleep.”
He shook his head. . “It’s not five yet. . We can still grab an hour or so afterwards, before the alarm goes off.” . Smiling again at her reaction, he took her hand once more and led her to their own bedroom, closing Chris’s door en route, and then theirs. . Once they were alone, he shucked his sweatshirt, then gathered his wife into his arms.
“Strange things make you romantic, Colonel,” she murmured into his ear.
He nodded. . “Will you come with me tomorrow, to see Pete? . It might help him to see something other than my ugly mug. . He—”
“Dreamed the weirdest collection of nonsense.”
“I’ll come.” . Sally paused. . “He’s got nowhere to go, does he? . When they release him.”
“We have room.”
Virdon hiked a brow. . “You honestly want Peter Burke in this house?”
“I calmed you down, didn’t I?”
“He said he dreamed that he and I landed in the future and were being chased by apes. . And that all I wanted to do was come home to you and Chris.” . His voice caught as he was speaking, and his eyes misted.
“Oh, Alan.” . Sally kissed his cheek, then rested her hand against it.
“He was adamant about it. . He thought it was real. . But that part—I wonder why he’d come up with that, in some drug-induced nightmare.”
Sally considered it for a moment. . “Because it’s what he wants? . Deep down?”
Virdon nodded. . “He’s going to need some help getting back on his feet. . He’ll get pushed back on the roster, but—”
“You helped get him on the roster in the first place. . You can help him stay there.”
Rather than let him talk more about Burke, Sally slipped out of her robe and kicked off her slippers, then looked expectantly at her husband.
“Apes,” he said wonderingly.
“Hush,” Sally told him.