I had a dream the other night, that made me wake in tears. Actual tears. Partially tears of sadness and mourning and loss. But also partially tears of immense joy and pride.
For my whole adult life, I’ve been a ridiculously light sleeper, and thus I barely ever dream (or at least, barely ever remember dreaming). So, every time I do dream, I make a concerted effort to analyse and dissect it before the memory is gone.
This dream was so layered, detailed, and vivid, that I didn’t have to make that effort. It was burned thoroughly into my conscious mind. In the morning, I tried to tell my wife about the dream, but I couldn’t get through the retelling without bursting into tears again.
So I’ve decided to write it as a short story. And without any further padding from me, here’s my feeble attempt to do the memory of the dream justice…
It was dark. Not a low-light kind of dark, but a pure, black-as-pitch kind of dark. A complete void kind of dark.
There was only me. Or at least, I thought there was me. I couldn’t see or feel my own body, but my mind was there in the middle of whatever this darkness was. I felt clouded. It was hard to think clearly, like I was waking up from a deep sleep.
Then, a voice. “Hello, Brad.” It sounded male, and was sort of human, sort of not. It was larger than human, if that makes any sense. It reverberated around the dark void, almost as if it was the darkness.
A few seconds passed, before a small pinhole light appeared a few feet from me, and quickly grew into an amorphous glow roughly the size of me. In the darkness, the glowing figure was blinding at first, but my eyes soon adjusted enough to see it had a humanoid shape, but no discernible features.
“Hello, Brad.” The same voice again, only now smaller. Definitely emanating from the creature in front of me, despite its lack of anything resembling a mouth. “What do you remember?”
“I… uh…” I stammered. I had no idea where I was, what this creature was, or why I was there. Was I supposed to remember something?
Almost as if sensing my utter confusion, the creature grew – for lack of a better word – a pair of eyes and a mouth, then smiled at me. It was a gesture that should have been horrifying, but strangely it actually helped to put me at ease.
The truth is, I wanted to be terrified. I felt like I should be terrified. But I just wasn’t. Instead, I felt an unnatural calm.
“My apologies,” the creature said, this time moving its brand new mouth, and offering a smile that wrinkled the corners of its eyes. “I fear I may have come at this too bluntly. Allow me to start again, will you?”
“I… uh… yeah, I guess.”
“Excellent. I am called Charmiss. I am a data keeper. It is a pleasure to meet you, Brad.” The creature – Charmiss – extended a glowing, arm-like appendage, in an attempt at a handshake.
I looked down and my right arm appeared in the darkness, as I reached out to shake his – was it a he? – hand. His grip was warm and comforting, like an embrace from an old friend or loved one. When we released, my arm immediately disappeared back into darkness. Well that’s unsettling.
“I should probably explain a few things.” Charmiss said, as if reading my mind. “Firstly, my people are a race of observers and archivists. Your people have taken to calling us Ghosts.”
He let out a rumbling sound sort of like a low chuckle. “It’s probably due to our appearance. You humans are so imaginative.”
I studied him up and down, and sure enough a ghost was probably the best comparison I could make.
“Secondly, you’re here, but you’re also not here.”
“I don’t understand.” I said.
Charmiss closed his eyes and hummed, as if trying to think of an articulate way to explain what was happening to me.
“Where am I? What is this… place?” I wasn’t sure if place was the right word to describe it, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
“Ah, yes. That part is very simple. Let’s start there.” Charmiss said, opening his eyes and smiling at me again. “This is a data bank.”
“A data bank?”
“Yes. You see, Brad, my people have spent many years collecting enormous amounts of data from your planet.”
“Wait… did you say planet?”
“Yes, a planet is a large celestial body.” Charmiss replied, looking somewhat concerned. “Your planet is called Earth. I had really hoped you would have retained at least that level of information.”
I know what a planet is!” I snapped in return. Charmiss looked offended, which immediately filled me with guilt, for some reason. “I’m sorry. Please just… I just want to know what happened to me. Where’s my family? Are they here?”
“Ah, right! I did read that you had a wife and two children back on Earth. The youngest was a baby, correct?”
Back on Earth? “Yes, her name is Poppy.” I nodded vacantly, just trying to process what had been said so far.
“Your family is well and healthy.” Charmiss said. At that, he gestured to his left, and a rectangle of light appeared in the darkness, like a television screen, displaying a picture of me posing with my wife and daughters.
“Are they here? In this… data bank?”
“Oh my, no. Of course not. They are alive.”
Alive? “What do you mean? Am I…”
Charmiss waved his hand and the photo of my family dissipated into the darkness. “You are deceased. Well, your body is. And your mind, I suppose. We managed to preserve your consciousness before the end… which actually brings us to why I activated you today.”
“I’m dead? You activated me? I’m sorry, Charmiss, but this is a lot to take in.” I took another look around at the dark void, then back to the glowing face. “Is this some kind of dream?”
“What is the last thing you remember, Brad? Do you remember the accident?”
A memory hit me like a cinder block to the face. The accident. I had been driving home from work and another car came into my lane, forcing me off the road, and full-speed into a pylon. “Did I die in the accident?”
“No.” Charmiss replied. “You survived. Barely. You were asleep for six months.”
“I was in a coma?”
“Yes. Your people do call it a coma.” He said. “You had a machine keeping you alive. Your family had to make a tough decision at the end, and turn off the machine.”
He paused, perhaps waiting for my response. I honestly didn’t know what to say. I mean, how do you respond to somebody telling you about your own death?
Charmiss continued, “A lot of things happened in the world while you were sleeping, Brad.”
He then told me about a political situation between the United States of America and North Korea that escalated to a boiling point.
He told me that his people saw a catastrophic nuclear attack was imminent, and entered into lengthy debates among themselves about whether or not they should intervene.
He told me that his people made a tough decision of their own. They chose to reveal themselves to us and stop humanity from destroying itself.
Knowing how the unveiling of their people would change the planet’s course forever, their leaders ordered a mass backup of data from Earth’s current state. To preserve what Earth had been.
Their data keepers, including Charmiss, began working on an algorithm that would collect all the information they need, without capturing the minds or consciousness of the planet’s sentient beings. They had almost completed their work, when President Trump initiated a mass nuclear launch on North Korea, and the Ghosts were forced to act immediately. They ran their incompleted algorithm, neutralised the missiles, and revealed themselves to the world.
“Part of that backed up information was your consciousness” Charmiss explained. “The data collection algorithm excluded the minds of every person who was awake. Unfortunately, it included those who were sleeping. Including you. Your family turned off your machine mere seconds after we stored the data.”
I began to piece together all the information he had given me, in a feeble attempt to understand it all. I had been in a coma. The world had come the very brink of destruction. I had died. Aliens – freaking aliens – had revealed themselves.
“Your world changed a lot that day, Brad. Your people were afraid of us at first, which I suppose is a natural response. But after a few weeks, they became convinced of our good intentions. That was four years ago. The year is now 2021, although the humans often refer to it as Ghost 4, or four years since the Ghosts arrived. It’s quite flattering, really.”
Four years. I had been dead for four years. Trapped in this… data bank. Just a series of code or something.
“Since then, the contents of our data banks has become known to your government. They have petitioned for us to remove any and all collected human consciousnesses.” He paused. “Our leaders agreed. After all, we never intended to collect them anyway.”
“And that means…”
“We have to delete you.” Charmiss said. I could have sworn there was sadness in his eyes. Or perhaps I was projecting my own feelings onto him. “This is why I have activated you today. The data keepers have spent the past few months sorting through our data, finding people just like you and removing you from our system.”
So, I died and now I’m going to die again?
“Is there anything else you’d like to know?” He asked.
“Yes!” I blurted out. “My family! You said my family are alive.”
“Yes, I did say that.”
“Can I see them? Can I see my wife and my girls? Please.” I had the sensation of hot tears on my cheeks, although it was hard to be sure if I actually had tears, or even cheeks in this place. I wanted to see them. I wanted to see them more than I had ever wanted anything in my life.
How many people get to see their loved ones, years after their own death?
Charmiss simply replied, “Yes.”
Then he waved his hand, and the screen reappeared. On it, I could see my wife. She was so beautiful. She was sitting on a chair, crying and hugging our two daughters next to a hospital bed.
Charmiss waved his hand again, and this time I could see my eldest daughter, Amy. She had been three when I died, but in the screen she was now five and getting ready for her first day of school. My wife gave her a big kiss on the cheek, outside her classroom door, and helped put her school bag over her shoulder, before whispering “I’m so proud of you.” More tears.
Another wave of his ghostly hand showed me my youngest daughter, Poppy. She was two. She was running and climbing and laughing at a local playground. And singing! Oh, how my heart skipped a beat hearing that sound. She had been a baby when I died, so I never got to hear her real voice. It was probably only for a second or two, but it felt like I watched her play for hours.
Over the next few minutes, Charmiss showed me moment after moment from my family’s lives over four years that I had been gone. Some moments were sad and full of mourning, but most were happy. I was so grateful for the wonderful gift I had been given.
Finally, Charmiss waved his hand and the screen disappeared. I felt like my heart had been ripped out.
“No!” I cried. “Please. Please show me more. I’m begging you. Don’t take them away just yet.”
“I am sorry, Brad.” Charmiss said. “Truly I am. But I have shown you all I can, and I have already spent more time with you than I intended. I have to move on to the next mind.”
I was numb, but I think I nodded in reluctant acceptance.
“It has been a pleasure, Brad.” He disappeared.
Then darkness. Then nothing.