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 2. Be sure to read Part 1 first.
After a hard few minutes walking up and down the halls and a quick drink, I returned to the room and sat a few feet away from him.
He started narrating again.
All we could do was slowly get to our feet and move ahead, silently agreeing never to look up, only straight in front of us. After a few minutes, we found ourselves on a slight rise of ground. As we reached its highest point, we were looking out from a height a few meters above a wild and steep slope that dropped on one side into a deep gorge. I stared hard across that distance, which seemed out of proportion with what I thought had been the bounds of the island, and could see a group coming toward us along the rim of the gorge. I could make out four figures and thought with a rush of excitement that it must be another exploration party that had found the same island group, though I hadn’t been aware of another team in the vicinity.
As they got closer, I felt myself getting more and more anxious. I didn’t want to think about what I was seeing, but when the group was only a hundred meters off, I could make out the faces and tried to remain calm. Observe, record, that’s it. They looked like us. No, they were us, attentively searching the terrain, taking readings, as we were, but showing no sign of seeing us. This was more than my mind could take in. I stopped in my tracks and watched silently as they slowly reached the top of the rise where we had spread out our gear. They were unaware of our presence, as if we were separated by a wall. They couldn’t hear us, despite my effort to yell a greeting and then to reach for them. My arms grasped nothing, and I watched my counterpart – another me – walk right by only an arm’s length away. We couldn’t communicate. They appeared to be moving in a separate world, invisibly walled off from us.
“What’s up with you?” Billington looked worried as she turned to me, expecting me to explain – what exactly? Couldn’t she see them? I stood there, my mind racing to make sense of what was happening. I covered my eyes for a moment to shut it all out and felt another shock wave passing straight through me. When I opened my eyes again, I wasn’t standing still. I was walking. My hands were holding a scanner to check the terrain for mineral content. I was no longer leading the group. I was the last one in a straggling line. Ahead, Mishkov was in the lead, pointing to something in the distance. I looked back but saw nothing of my group – the original one. I was part of the new crew that had just reached the hillock. I experienced a kind of split, half of me in panic wanting to run, half of me deciding to hold still and follow this insanity like any other strange phenomenon. Observe. See where it goes. Find out what it means.
The new group was strange. Everyone was different, not physically, but it looked as if they had changed in a decisive way. Mishkov in the lead made no sense. He was usually the first to pull back or flip out at the unexpected. He liked everything orderly, in place, predictable, each mission clearly defined and achievable. Yet that’s what I was doing now, following an instrument in front of my nose, and he was out there wanting to be first to meet whatever was coming. I checked with Kuma to see if she realized what had happened, but when she turned to me, I could see she was different too. She had Billington’s weapons and insignia, a field engineer of the Black Star unit, an all-purpose commando detailed to protect this group in any kind of emergency and also assess potential construction sites. Her look was wary, eyes scanning the terrain constantly. Irritated at my interruption, she asked me with a frown what I wanted. I shook my head, silently mouthing a Nothing to her. She turned back to her vigilant lookout. I tried to shake off the idea that we had all changed because part of me knew that each of us had always been exactly what we were at that moment. Part of me knew at the same time that this was impossible, but I decided to let it go, not to question what was happening but keep going with whatever this lunatic place was doing to us. It was either that or break into pieces, so I held on.
His hand had slipped out of mine as he concentrated more on his story. I gestured for him to pause.“I’m not sure I understand. You became part of this new group but you knew at the same time that everyone was different, including you, while also knowing that you had always been this different you? That’s hard to follow.”
“But that’s what it was like. On one level, I could feel in my bones that I had always been this person. There was a whole set of memories that this new me had, but I could still feel an awareness of my other self, this self here talking to you now. The real me. But that was just the first switch-over.”
“There were more?” He looked away from me and resumed.
I could see another group approaching up ahead, but when I yelled up to Mishkov about it he stared back at me quizzically. “You got spots in your eyes?”
“No!” I tried again with a sinking feeling. I didn’t want to see another group coming our way, another group of us. “Can’t you see? It’s another team.”
Kuma stopped for a moment and stared at me. “You better grab on when they fly by.”
“OK, OK” I pretended to go along. “I’m seeing things. Who wouldn’t flip out in this place?”
But then they were walking right past us in the opposite direction, not ten feet away. My eye caught Kuma’s, or I thought it did, in the new group. She was in the lead, looking right at me, but I realized she wasn’t seeing me but staring through to something in the distance. I, that is, the next I followed her, cradling the rifle. Billington was doing what I had always done, the biological monitoring, and Mishkov was last, scanning soils and minerals. They were so close, I could reach out and touch them, smell the sweat in their clothes, hear their scuffing steps and heavy breathing as the heat, which seemed more intense now, started to wear them down.
How could I let them know what was happening? How could I stop this, get us back to the plane and out of here? They couldn’t see me, and they didn’t have any recollection of anything being different. Whatever this island was doing to us, I couldn’t reach out to touch them from this side. As soon as I stepped through the space I was in, I would slip into that other me and no one else would sense anything different. I checked the chrono in my visual field. It hadn’t advanced more than three kilosecs from the time we left the plane. We were replaying the same time span but with these changed roles. We got to one spot, not at the same place (at least I couldn’t recognize anything distinctive in our path) but the same time, or interval after leaving the plane, and then a new group appeared.
I had to interrupt again, and he was still able to converse with me when not reciting. I couldn’t understand how he could flip in and out of his story-telling mode. I wanted to push him. “Did you believe, at the time I mean, these different groups or versions of your team were really there, or did this feel more like subjective experience?”
“You think I was hallucinating. But, no, it wasn’t subjective at all. Look, I know it sounds crazy, but just hold off on judging this for a minute. Assume that it’s true. That’s what I’ve been doing because I know for a fact that I went through all this. Yet I can’t explain it in terms of logic or science.”
“OK, go on. I’ll only interrupt if I need to clarify.” But there was something disturbing about everything he was saying, not so much the content, which was strange enough, but the words themselves. I could almost feel them making contact, like tiny weights or pressure against my skin. The flow of his story was getting inside, and I felt the danger of losing detachment. I knew I would have to keep interrupting him to keep that from happening.
I stepped across the unseen divide and felt at once the quick wave pass through me, this time more like the bristling tension inside an electrical field. There was the heft of the rifle in my arms. It felt so familiar and reassuring, though I had never touched one of these weapons before. Yet as soon as I thought that, I knew I had because I was a career soldier, Black Star commando. I checked the chrono and started keeping track of the time. My sense of where I had just been, even who I was, felt vague somehow, as I stepped into this new version of the crew.
Just then, I had a thought about how to stop this craziness. Perhaps if I could change the sequence, vary this trudging along, give it some near destination before the next group showed up, then it might stop. Perhaps we could get back to the plane, which I could no longer see. It also occurred to me that if all this was inside my head, I ought to be able to tell the others what to do, even if I’m not in command.
“So there were times when you thought this might be an illusion of some sort?” I could relax for a moment while my words and voice displaced his. That was a relief, but one that made me nervous. I was too close to the edge of losing objectivity.
He waved my comment aside and kept going.
“Kuma,” I called out to her since she was in the lead. “That hill just ahead. We can stop up there and take some readings and get our bearings on the plane. I can’t see it anymore on the locator screen.”
She stopped, thought for a moment and agreed. I added, “We can fan out from there and get the samples we need.” I know I said that because I felt a need to get away from the crew. I was not only fearful of meeting another version of us, I was also feeling in jeopardy of some kind if I stayed with this one. I guess it was just dread. Mishkov at first didn’t want to split up, but I convinced him we needed to divide the terrain into assignments first. We would be able to do that better once we had a clearer view of where we were. I was nervous about getting to that hillock before anything else happened, before I lost the feeling of connection with who I was. The real me seemed like a fading image, and I was terrified I would lose myself completely. It was about half a klick, and I pushed them to move quickly. Billington and Mishkov were a little ticked off that I was giving this direction instead of Kuma, but they went along with it since everyone was feeling disoriented and hot. The hillock seemed like a good idea. I was sure they would do what I suggested.
“I have to ask a little more about that,” I said, needing to create more space for myself, to break up the flow of the story again. I had to talk aloud to assure myself that I was still able to think clearly. “Why would you think they’d follow your lead if you were no longer guiding the group?”
“There was no strict rank, especially off the aircraft. Most of us were scientists, not military. There could be tension if someone was trying to boss the others around, but we usually followed the idea that made the most sense.”
“But you said you knew they would do what you suggested, or you thought they would. Why was that?”
“I don’t know. What I said just made sense. Why? Are you suggesting this was all in my head anyway, like a dream?”
“You’re sure it wasn’t?”
“You bet I’m sure. You’ll see. This was way out of my control, beyond anything I could have dreamed up. I had never run into anything like this before. What human being had?” I wanted to keep him out of his narrative mode for a while longer, but he slipped into it again.
As soon as we turned in the direction of that hill, or rise, I could see it was a bit farther off than I had imagined. We had to cut through a black volcanic field to get there, full of sharp edges and deep pits. It started tearing at our boots right away. We found a smoother ledge that skirted the worst of it. What I had thought was a simple rise in the terrain was looking more like a volcanic plug, a sheer slab of rock thrown up at the end of an eruption eons ago. The whole thing had been covered with various layers of soil and vegetation since then. Maybe the area had been through ages underwater, but that didn’t make sense so close to the lava field, which looked like it had never been touched by silt or anything else. What if the whole place really was a habitat? But how could that be? Nothing made sense.
Here I had to stop him, relieved at my reviving ability to pull out the details I needed. “But what happened to the time sequence? You seem to have broken the repeating pattern by changing direction.”
“Yes, I hadn’t thought of that. Trying to get up that hill changed something, but I wasn’t done with new groups yet. Look, I have to get through this. Just let me finish.”
Before I could say another word, he was reciting again. His eyes fixed again on nothing in this room.
When I had good footing on higher ground, I turned and could make out the plane about two klicks away. There was a group of hills that rose behind its profile, curving up into the distance of the far side of the island, or whatever it was. Those hills gave me a marker to aim for, even if the plane dipped out of site when I descended again.
I thought I had him on another detail. “Hills behind the plane? So that was the direction you came from?”
“Yes.” He answered without looking at me.
“But I thought you had come in across open water and landed not far from the shore. You didn’t mention hills. Were they on another island across a channel?”
“What?” He paused. “I guess you’re right. The plane didn’t navigate around any hills. I don’t remember them from the landing.”
“Nature doesn’t behave like that, does it?
“Nature? We don’t understand nature in this place. There’s something different going on here.”
“But all our other measurements, all the exploration data and 200 years of experience, none of that contains anything like what you’re telling us.”
He looked at me askance. “Are you really so sure of that? Is there absolutely nothing else that is strange or even impossible to explain on this planet?”
“Look,” I said, “I need to step out for a minute. I’ll be right back.” I suddenly had to get out of the room. I didn’t like it, but I knew ICON would never let this man out of here with a story like this. I paced up and down the hospital corridor. I pace a lot, especially when I don’t like what I have to do. I knew what ICON expected. Take the recording of everything he said, archive it at Central, then remove all traces of it that might linger anywhere else. Including from the man’s memory. Whatever that might take.
I had the lace-like device with me in a small metal envelope. It would not take long to work and would take care of the past, the identity that was causing him so much pain now to remember. I tried to think of it that way, relieving the torment. Giving him a new start, like a blank human ready to take on new impressions, new possibilities. Sure. Just kill off everything he had ever been. As nervous as his story made me, I also felt a kind of bond growing with him. Or was I being taken in by the strange impact of his words, the physical feeling of them flowing over me, into me?
I paced all the harder, marched away miles, it seemed, among several floors. When I finally stopped, I realized I was on the wrong floor and had to think how to get back to his room. This whole thing was driving me crazy, and I’m just not the type of person to let an interrogation get under my skin.
(Continue reading Part 3)
Copyright 2023 by John A. Folk-Williams