Voices drifted around Nura, soft and muffled as though through starship bulkheads. Then all swung astray underneath her, and the waking universe called, but then came gentle cushions against her weary back, and a new quiet all around, and she drifted back into something that could not quite be called sleep. A trance, as she would later recall it with an aching head and deep confusion. A deep trance.
In this trance, she dreamed of memory. She was back on the planet Jhedd, back on her pilgrimage across the holy homeworld of the Wandering Fleets. Harsh gusts of dust-laden wind rushed around her robes, bestowing upon her and the other pilgrims a likeness of dark, rippling spectres, and in the dust she began to see shapes. A face here, a figure there, and at times, if only for an instant, a towering demon of childhood tales with eyes of crimson red. They were all indistinct, and shifted many times in each moment. Like dreams within a dream.
It was cold. And when the dust began to clear, and the twilight sky shone through in haunting shades of dark blue and deep violet, the glimmering arches of Jhedd’s rings saw her shuddering as the air grew colder. They did not care for her plight, and neither did the stars higher above, those vain jewels beyond reach.
When the dust finally settled, something remained. Unlike those shadow-mirages so temporary, it stood still and tall, tall and unmoving. Nura froze and stared. Surely her eyes would not lie, would they? Indeed, there stood a monolith of pitch black in the far distance, reaching far into the sky.
She took a step toward it. Away from the pilgrims. Someone called out to her; perhaps it was the lead priest. She did not listen. The monolith beckoned. She took another step. Then another. Soon, she was not headed to the ancient walls of the Dead Salts, or the lone minarets of the drained Hilan Sea, but into the open desert.
Suddenly, Nura found herself at the foot of the monolith. A dull ache began to throb in her skull, a bright red behind her eyes. She felt a deep unease, as if she were not meant to be here, not meant to see this.
She looked up. She could see no end to the monolith’s height, only a space-black rift that pierced the very sky. And all across its surface, curved glyphs had been etched in endless lines of ivory white.
The aching in her head grew stronger, and soon it turned to pain.
Turn back, said the monolith, in a tongue understood by no one and everyone.
And yet, it was mere paces away. And so despite the pain, Nura inched towards it.
Turn back. BACK.
The pain became unbearable. She collapsed onto the cool sand.
And reached out her arm to touch the glyphs.
The moment her finger grazed the monolith’s smooth black surface, she saw the Silver River outstretched before her. Not the bright streak in the Hyades Cluster’s night sky, but a great spiral of many arms, each one laden proud yellow and humble blue and stalwart red with billions upon billions of stars. The grandeur of the galaxy passed far beyond what she could fathom, and she could only stare in silent awe.
And then it began to bleed. From the brightest stars in its centre opened a gash of dark crimson, and there it spread across the galaxy, fine tendrils reaching toward every edge. A sickness. A disease. A culling, and as natural as the monolith from which the vision came.
The Silver River began to scream. The pain in Nura’s head burst into searing flame. And all around her, shards of broken glass rained.