Two decades could dim the memories, but Leland had never forgotten the recurring nightmares that had troubled his childhood. Night after night the dream had returned, of sheets of fire racing his field of vision, of a man's face wreathed in flame. Each time, eight-year-old Leland had awakened soaked in sweat, gasping for breath.
After a few iterations he discovered one good thing – by the time he recovered his wind enough to cry out, he would be awake enough to know he'd had another bad dream, that he was safe in his own bed. And to a child of eight, very proud to be a big kid and in real school, not blubbering or crying for his parents had been an important thing indeed.
After a few repetitions, Leland realized that the flames looked so strange because he was seeing them twice, one image a reflection of the other. Once he understood the glass on which they reflected was curved, he knew that it was the visor of a space helmet.
So this man was an astronaut. Determined to know who he was and what was happening to him, Leland read every book he could find on the space program.
When he had exhausted the sources in his school's library, he asked the librarian. She'd smiled and answered that such a harrowing event wouldn't be included in books for children. Wouldn't want to give them nightmares, after all.
Leland had to bite his tongue. Pointing out that he was asking because he was already having nightmares would only get him in trouble for disrespecting an adult. So he thanked the nice lady for her help and considered how to get his hands on books that told the whole story of the American space program, even the scary parts.
The sheer persistence of Leland's efforts drew his parents' attention, and they tried to redirect his attention to more pleasant things. When he refused to be dissuaded, his father, a theoretical physicist, took him to the university library. In the big reference room they looked through a volume of astronaut biographies in search of the face that haunted Leland's nights.
As each page brought them closer to the back of the book with no sign of the face he had come to know so well, Leland wondered if this effort would end like all the others, in failure. His father turned the page, and Leland had to quick suppress a yelp of astonished delight. Yes, there could be no mistaking that long, angular face in the photograph. Now at last his astronaut had a name: Edward Higgens White II.
Together Leland and his father had read the brief biography – White's Air Force career, his history-making spacewalk, and the routine training exercise that had gone terribly wrong. Yes, he'd busted himself and his crewmates out in the very nick of time, but the image of them piling out with flames licking across their spacesuits might well give some kids nightmares.
"But he wasn't escaping." The words came blurting out even as Leland realized they'd make no sense. At his father's frown, Leland appended, "Not in the dream, I mean."
There was no doubt in his mind, not after having the dream keep replaying itself before his helpless eyes night after night for the last three months. Leland knew it would not end in heroic escape. Although sometimes Leland would wrench himself awake before it reached its inevitable conclusion, several times he'd seen that brave man slumping forward, overcome by the foul vapors swirling around him.
Struggling to reconcile the images seared into his memory with the authoritative text on the page before him, Leland recalled a day the previous winter. His school had cancelled classes because of the weather, but the university hadn't. His mother couldn't take him to her job in the administrative offices with her, so his father had taken him to class. Leland had sat in a corner of the lecture hall reading about jet planes and fire engines while Dr. Andersen had lectured about quantum physics. Most of it had bored Leland to tears, but the cat that was both alive and dead had sounded really cool.
Except there'd been more. Why did the boring stuff always turn out to be important, and the important stuff have to be so boring?
Something about the cat splitting...
No, not the cat, the world splitting into one where the cat lived, and one where it died. "What if there's a world next door that looks a lot like ours, except in it, they didn't get out?" Leland wrestled with half-grasped concepts in an effort to apply them to the images that had made bedtime something to dread. "If they couldn't get out, wouldn't it look like my dreams?"
Leland's father smiled, lips quirking upward, but eyes remaining solemn. "Well, Leland, the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics does predict that such a world could exist. But it's a theoretical concept, and there's no known way to transfer information between worlds." He shook his head. "That's the sort of foolishness you hear out of places like the Institute of Noetic Science."
Leland had nodded and forced out some appropriate-sounding words. Relieved as he might be that his astronaut hadn't met the fiery doom he'd witnessed night after night, knowing it was just an ordinary dream, no different from the other bad dreams he'd had, still came as a disappointment.
The dreams didn't come back, as if discovering the identity of his flame-wreathed astronaut had removed their impetus. But Leland's researches had ignited a ferocious interest in the space program. The more he learned, the more he knew he wanted to be an astronaut.
A decade later, as the secrets of America's Cold War cloning program came out, two men from NASA had visited the airbase where Leland was stationed at the time. As he listened to them tell him that his resemblance to Ed White was no coincidence, that he was in fact made from a cell taken from the future Senator when the Nine were selected as astronauts, Leland recalled the nightmares that had set his life on this course. Might there be a connection?
But he said nothing, not to these men, and not to anyone in his Air Force unit. An astronaut could not afford any hint of mental instability. Already one man had been drummed out of the astronaut corps for an excessive interest in parapsychology. Leland had no desire to crash his career before it got off the ground. Even after selection as an astronaut brought him to Houston and regular invitations to his ur-brother's home, he maintained his silence on the matter.
And now the dream had returned in all its awful vividness. Just days before he was to be CAPCOM on a vital mission to repair a military satellite in orbit, when he needed to be rested to guide the crew of the orbiter American Eagle through the series of delicate procedures, he was waking bathed in sweat, gasping for breath. And in his ears echoed the desperate shout, "Will someone get us out of here?"