Chapter 26

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The five humans awoke almost simultaneously. Unbeknownst to them, the artificial reality they had been living in had suddenly and unpredictably collapsed. Four of them came back from a close approximation of death. The feeling of oblivion is a difficult one to grasp, even harder to come to terms to, so these four were incapacitated for some time after waking. The fifth had been the catalyst for the simulation's collapse. He was simultaneously terrified and glad to be in a reality he recognized and understood.

Each was in a separate corner of Gaea. George Archer hung among the remains of his dropship, the helmet locked snugly around his head. Nadya Shimata was one of the few left in the aftermath of the eruption that destroyed Eridu, and James Masozi roamed nearby, looking through the wreckage. Amit Gabriel and Yan Liu slept in the cabin of the Iapetus rover, surrounded by Gaea's dust.

They all came back at nearly the same time, stirring slowly as they tried to come to terms with the new reality that faced them.

Liu and Amit came back from the dead to find that the sandstorm had destroyed the Iapetus. The rover sat at the crest of a small dune of sand, its polish stripped away by the abrasive wind. The interior had been spared the worst of the storm, but was still severely damaged. The cabin was filled with powdery dust that cascaded down at the slightest touch. The desert around them was rippled like an ocean, rolling with waves of sand. The volcanic tower stood imposingly over the dunes, looking no worse for wear.

Far away, the remains of Eridu were silent but for the footsteps of two humans. The rubble was not very impressive. There were no bent steel rods or hills of collapsed brick, just strewn tent fabric. Some of the more established structures, such as the cinder block command building and the half-completed fabricator, had simply been knocked over, like giant dominoes. Scattered among the collapsed tents were slouched, oblong lumps. The first one Caroline studied was angry red on one side, ivory white on the other.

Not too distant, on the other side of the hill, two of the oblong lumps stirred quietly. The more lucid of them ached all over, and was blinded by the thick tent fabric that had saved him. He refused to move, instead lying still and feeling the pressure of Gaea's gravity fight his attempts to breath. He grabbed a fistful of the alien sand and began to slip back into the more logical reality he now occupied. Nadya was blind for other reasons, and lay exposed. Her survival was not as sure a thing.

Finally, hanging in the unfathomable distance above them all, was George Archer. When he came back, he found himself strapped to the wreckage of a recently destroyed spacecraft. Sharp, deadly shards spun around everywhere, glinting in the sun. Gaea shone from behind them, huge and brown. George extricated himself from the wreck and finally saw the massive hulk of the Facem in the crisp distance. His air was going to run out eventually, so George pushed off the inert dropship and soared in the direction of the starship, aiming slightly above it. From this distance, it would be a miracle if he even managed to skim the thing. But he didn't have to worry about that for at least another three hours.

At Eridu, Caroline and Hernandez finally spotted the tentative movements of the two other survivors. They ran to help.

Caroline stopped at the twitching lump under the tent flap while Hernandez continued to the other. She flung the fabric away and found James staring up at the afternoon sky. He grumbled as if disturbed from sleep. His hands were clenched into tight fists full of dust. James still wore the white lab coat from the

"Are you hurt?!" cried Caroline.

James shook his head. "Not physically, no." He struggled to his fist, still grasping the sand. He looked at the ruins scattered everywhere. "What happened?"

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