Time Islands is the third installment of the Stories of Elektra series. (The first two were People of Light 1 and Dead Memories.) This one is fairly long, so I am publishing it in three parts on three successive days. Here is Time Islands – Part 1.
He squinted his eyes in concentration and began to speak, almost recite, as I tried to figure out if this story could possibly be real. At least in my monitor, he looked so genuine. I found myself wanting to believe him, despite the fact that he was repeating what I had heard yesterday, word for word.
We had gone as far as we could, or so we thought, in our exploration of Elektra. We were one of hundreds of teams that had fanned out across the land masses to identify optimal sites for settlement and catalogue everything we found – bio, geo, soils, minerals, aquatics, atmospherics, all of it. A thousand of us had also volunteered to remain to await the next arrivals. So we were to be the first settlers.
He stopped there and looked disoriented again. The alarm in his eyes, the quick looks around the hospital room, the stroking of his forehead as if recalling where he was with difficulty, all that looked authentic enough. I wasn’t sure. It was very unlike me to be unsure.
As he spoke, he looked alternately at the two physicians monitoring his brain activity, but neither was paying him much attention. The woman, Dr. Del Alma, passed a scanner over his scalp. To follow the protocol she had to lean quite close, often over his face, so he had to turn to one side to avoid touching her. But no response, no joking. Dr. Inikos, an utterly self-confined man, stood beside the bed focused on the read-outs in a hologram that hovered over the patient’s midsection. Neither betrayed any interest in his narrative style of speaking. As soon as Del Alma pulled away from him, he resumed.
I was out on a solo, all-instrument flight to explore a new area we had found in the closing days of our mission. Our team of four had completed mapping the western coast of the northern continent when we detected an unexpected island group about a hundred klicks off the coast.
He stopped and stared at the view through a wide window on the far side of the room, as if he hadn’t noticed it before. My monitor projection didn’t show me what he was looking at, but I knew the view well enough. There was a cluster of buildings that comprised other parts of the medical complex. Beyond that were gentle hills covered with the strangely twisting, low-growing trees distinctive to this region of Elektra. Then he asked, “What is this place?” Without looking up from the apparatus she was putting away, Del Alma said matter of factly: “Elektra City.”
“Elektra? We’re on Elektra?” She nodded slowly still without looking at him. “When did all that go up?” He motioned toward the window. “Or is it a projection?”
“No, it’s real enough,” she said. “”I’m not sure. This is my first year rotation.”
“This section of the city goes back ages,” said the bushy-faced Inikos focused on analyzing the read-outs from the brain scan as he spoke.
He looked genuinely shocked. “Ages? What does that mean? Ten years? 20?”
If his story were true, then, of course, everything outside the window would be new to him. His experience of the planet would have been limited to the pre-settlement phases.
Del Alma finally focused on him. She moved the apparatus tray to one side and stepped beside him. “You don’t remember what we told you yesterday?”
He looked at her blankly. “Yesterday? I was here yesterday?” He looked almost pleadingly at her. “Look, just tell me. How long?”
“Your chip indicates an identity that goes back in our records a long way. Before the city was built.” She paused, as if reluctant to go on.
Inikos spoke up. “200 years, or 191, to be precise – Elektra years, that is. That’s from the last mission date indicated in your record.”
He sank back in the bed, stared at the ceiling. “No. No, that’s not possible.”
“I’m sorry you don’t remember yesterday,” Inikos said. “You were briefed at some length by Commander DeHaven. She – we all thought you were retaining the information.”
He kept staring at the ceiling, at nothing. If this was real, I thought we might not hear anything more from him. How do you take in the idea that a vast period of time has passed, more than could be possible in a human lifespan, even these days? I saw him react to this same news at my briefing yesterday, but he didn’t seem to be in shock then. I suppose his mind hadn’t fully grasped what I was saying.
His expression was so blank, I was afraid he might be lapsing into coma, or that absent state when he only appeared to be fully conscious but wasn’t taking anything in.
Then he started talking again. He still had that empty look about him, and he was almost mumbling the words.
Those islands didn’t look like much, perhaps a dozen tiny ones in a compact archipelago, the largest only a few square klicks. The problem was that this group had not shown up on any of the many orbital scans of the coast, and we had not seen them on earlier flyovers. We needed to see if some recent vulcanism or other phenomenon had suddenly pushed these islands to the surface. As leader of an exploration group, I decided to take one plane on my own to the largest island.
Again, that flat tone of reciting – almost like replaying. That tone had led me to think he had an implant that might also be a recording device. But that was much more recent tech, capable of capturing subvocals. They didn’t have that 200 years ago, so far as I could tell. When I pulled up the brain scan to see exactly what kind of implant he had, I asked Inikos to walk me through it. He told me there was no implant, just the ID chip. I couldn’t believe that at first and urged him to increase the resolution down to individual neurons. I was sure there had to be some device, hoping that I might find one of recent technology that wouldn’t have existed when this man claimed to have explored Elektra. No, he said, there was nothing. His team had been over all his scans. There was nothing that could possibly serve as a recording device or any other sort of enhancement.
If there was no mechanical recording device, then what had happened to instill this story in his memory in such a way that he could repeat sections word for word? He might have the sort of perfect memory that enabled him to see what he composed in his mind. But why this near trance-like state, the recitation, as if he had learned a script, one that he seemed compelled to repeat? Or were all these memories not really his, but something implanted in his mind by neurological means? Who could have done that? I could tell enough from the latest scan that he plainly believed he was telling the truth. If someone had made him believe a concocted story, what purpose would that serve?
At times, he looked so pained. I reached out as if I could touch him through the screen.
I had to get away from the monitors and instrument read-outs and talk to him face to face again before making any final decision.
When I entered the room, he immediately perked up. I ushered the doctors and their equipment carts out the door. Pushing himself up in bed, he asked me at once, “Have I met you before? You look familiar.”
“I did give you a briefing yesterday. My name’s DeHaven.”
“I don’t recognize the uniform. Do you mind telling me who you’re with – again?”
“I’m Commander Peri DeHaven of ICON.”
“Strange … Excuse me, it’s just that I can’t help but think you look familiar – I mean from before all this.” He waved his arm briefly and let it fall.
“You’ve been through so much,” I answered. “Everything must seem strange, and who knows what might stir up your memory.”
“Yes, I guess so.” He looked puzzled, still trying to place me, then relaxed. ” What’s ICON?”
That shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. He seemed so genuinely ignorant. “Sorry, I keep forgetting. You say you’re from a different era.”
“Say?” A flash of, what?, fear, pain, anger? winced across his face. Then it passed. “I suppose you’ll never believe me.”
“Well, how would you react in my place? It’s hard …”
“Harder for me than for you, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Just tell me, what’s ICON?”
“It performs a lot of functions but mostly it’s the interplanetary intelligence agency.”
“I thought it must be something like that.”
“I understand that you’ve been alert and cooperative for the past ten days, but this is the first day you seem to retain information for even a short period of time.”
“They tell me I was walking, talking, and all the rest, but it’s true, I don’t remember any of that. Was I under some anesthetic that has that effect?”
“The medical staff says you were in a highly agitated state when you were found, and they gave you something that may have suspended memory. I’m told that effect doesn’t usually last so long.”
“I’m glad you’re here …” He paused.
“Frankly, it’s just good to have another human being to talk to. Those doctors – they mean well enough, but it’s like they’re part of a medical procedural. You know what I mean? You stop existing for them as a human being. You’re just a case. They didn’t pay much attention to what I was saying. Wrapped up in their machines and read-outs. …But you, you just seem so familiar.” He looked at me carefully. “I suppose you’re here to take a statement?”
“Oh, not so formal. Mostly, I’m trying to understand what happened to you.”
“You’re in intelligence. So it’s a threat assessment?”
“Not a threat so much as an anomaly. You have to admit someone turning up in your circumstances isn’t just unusual. It’s never happened.”
“I keep thinking I”ll wake up from this and get back to …” He shut his eyes against his memory, I suppose, of what he had lost. Or maybe he wanted to close off the present. I could sense the turmoil in him. If this was an act, it was beyond good.
He opened his eyes again. “I suppose this is some sort of time dilation?” He looked at me almost hopefully.
“I don’t have any explanations. I’m no scientist. Why don’t we focus on what happened, whatever you can remember. That’s the only place to start figuring this out.”
“OK, but tell me this. That doctor referred to a record. You must have all the data from the exploration of Elektra, what did you find about my specific group or about me?”
“There is a record of you, or someone with your name, Gaetano Kepnis. Astrobiologist III, assigned to one of the units working on the western coastal region of Central Continent, as it was referred to then. Sound right?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s me. I”m called Tano, by the way. Anything else?”
“So you do remember your past. ” He nodded. “Besides the data your team recorded, there are notes that you had joined the initial settler corps, but then it says you disappeared on an unauthorized flight.”
“Unauthorized? Everything I did was logged, and I had latitude to change plans if we found something unusual.”
“Well, that’s what it says. They lost contact with you somewhere off the coast, and you were never heard from again.”
“So, I just disappeared? They couldn’t find me? What about the plane?”
“No trace of that either.”
“I didn’t disappear. I blacked out, and it didn’t seem that long before I woke up. Shit … I can’t think about this.”
He sat back in the bed, half-closed his eyes in concentration and began repeating, or as I thought replaying, what he had said before I entered the room. Then he kept going.
I remember clearly the approach to the island, the dark waters turning lighter, then turquoise as the underwater sands, boulders, even corals became increasingly visible in the rapidly shallowing water. Crossing the shoreline, I found dunes and green bushes dotting the sand, then an abrupt shift to a higher, rockier terrain. It looked so familiar, like any coastal island on earth. The flyer slowed as it scanned for a good landing place. I pulled my gear together into a small pack and slung it over my shoulder as the plane settled down in its vertical landing pattern.
I stepped off the lowered hatch stairs onto a hard surface that resembled desert pavement of the deeply baked terrain of earth deserts. That was strange for such a mild-seeming climate close to the Elektra equator.
The hatch sealed up behind me as I set off to explore over a one-click radius. I was probing the ground, feeling the heat and a slight sense of movement under my feet. Was there some kind of tremor here, possibly volcanic? Ahead, the ground rose gently to hillock formations in bright, clear air, but off to either side everything appeared hazy, at least in peripheral vision. When I turned to focus, the terrain looked clear enough but only in the direction of my line of sight. I made a 360 and found the same thing, clear ahead, hazy peripherally. Was that the result of a pressure change on my eyes. Was I getting tunnel vision?
His language was formal in an old-fashioned way. That was to be expected if he was speaking 200 year-old Anglisine. But it was like a style of writing, not speaking, a narrative too polished to be coming out of spontaneous memory. The thing is, he drew me into his story. I started feeling something in response that I couldn’t quite identify.
I was no more than half a klick from the exploration plane when I felt disoriented, as if the force of gravity had suddenly veered off a little bit. My insides churned, and I felt like heaving. It was like a shock wave quickly passing through me, and I struggled to reorient myself. I looked around, and there was the crew, looking at me expectantly, waiting for direction.
“Crew?” I had to interrupt. “You said you were alone.” He nodded and with a gesture of his hand was telling me to let him go on.
I must have plunged off the plane ramp without a thought to them. They had caught up and were wondering what had happened. Then it hit me. Where had the crew come from? Wasn’t I alone? I stood there trying to remember. At first, my mind felt emptied out, and my brain struggled to find something familiar to hold onto. All at once the blanks filled in my memory. Of course, we had crews of four, along with all the instrumentation, exactly for this purpose of exploring surface features more efficiently than robots or a single person could. So here they were.
“You mean you thought at that point that they must have been with you all along? Even though at first you were quite clear that you were out of a solo mission?”
He was looking a little more relaxed and was able to respond to me. “That’s what it feels like when I tell you. That was just the first of many things that kept changing.”
He went on.
Billington, was one of the few soldiers on these flights, a communications specialist but also armed against whatever strange creatures we might encounter. She had a fixed gaze which I found a bit unnerving. Mishkov, precise and organized by nature was the physical chemist and geologist. Kuma was the engineer managing the instrumentation. She kept everything going and often had the most helpful ideas on planning each mission. She was also the only one of us with a sense of humor.
I was about to ask if they had felt anything strange, when Billington pointed over my shoulder. I turned and saw the land rising a little at a distance of about a kilometer, or maybe two, it was hard to tell, and kept lifting until we could all see the land that had been flat appearing now as a set of low hills. The ground under our feet and for some distance around us was flat enough, but everything felt enclosed now, as if we were suddenly on the inside of what had become a great curving surface, like a habitat in space. It was too much. My head was spinning. It was like stepping into an empty pit when I tried to stand. I bent down and put one fist on the ground to feel solidity under me. I was staving off panic, not caring what the others were thinking. When I looked up, I could see they were reaching for support too, searching for the same sense of anchoring that I was.
“So you had a series of disorienting experiences – first with your vision, then with your memory and with your sense of balance. I can understand if that made it hard to …” I was groping for a word, suddenly aware that I was sounding too clinical. “…to accept …” I stopped because he grasped my hand and suddenly convulsed. I felt a sharp pain from his grip, as if his own spasm were shooting into me.
His back arched up once, then relaxed. He still clasped my hand. “Not the half of it,” he said. “Not the half – disorienting? – weird – like what happened to the last 200 years? When does this stop? When does my life get back to normal?” His eyes were so bleak as he said this, his body tensing up again, his hand squeezing mine more tightly.
“Should I get some help?”
He just groaned and grasped my hand. As he held onto me, I felt a slow wave of a kind of buzzing energy passing through my arms and into the rest of me. I had to sit down. I couldn’t grasp what was happening, but it felt like a force was traveling from his hand right through me. It scared the hell out of me, and I don’t scare much. I pulled away and left the room. I needed to walk off whatever that feeling was.
(Continue reading Part 2)
Copyright 2023 by John A. Folk-Williams