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 the final section: Time Islands – Part 3. Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.
When I went back in, I decided to get more aggressive, in one last try to see if I could break his story. But in my heart I knew this wasn’t a fake. This impossibility was real. I strode up to his bedside, only to watch him shrink back from the advancing force he could sense in me. That ate away at my resolve immediately. What kind of threat could this guy pose? Of course, it wasn’t him, it was his story. He looked like a bewildered victim, but of what or whom?
“Have you been told that we can’t find any trace of an island group such as you describe anywhere near that coast? We have a very complete scan of the ocean floor there too. There’s no trace of structures like those underwater either.”
“I don’t remember what I’ve been told before today, but how could I be surprised after all this? That’s just a detail compared to the rest of it.”
“No, it’s not a detail. It means there’s no evidence whatsoever that what you’re telling us is true. Not to mention the fantasy that you experienced all that 200 years ago.”
“Believe it or not, I know what happened. And do you mean to tell me that nothing else strange or unexplained has taken place on this planet in the last two centuries? Nothing?”
He had a point there. I was newly assigned to Elektra, but there had been other reports from time to time. But nothing factual had turned up, just a lot of strange stories. Maybe not this strange but usually understandable given the stress of unusual circumstances surrounding each one.
“Listen.” He grasped my hand again, and I felt another force, a subtle one like a warm flow moving up my arm. It gradually strengthened and held me to him. The pose of an aggressive interrogator seemed to dissolve with it. I had to give in to hearing out his story.
I felt an urgency to get back to the plane. Once there, I felt sure everything would be normal, whatever that meant now, and we could get out of this crazy place. So I ran as hard as I could and tried not to hear behind me the outcries and yells of my mates. At that point, I couldn’t trust anything around me. That flyer was the one thing I needed to believe in. But then, for some reason, instead of heading downhill, as I expected, to get back to the plane, I was heading higher, running to what seemed the pinnacle of that strange formation. Suddenly, the sense of standing in a crackling EM field intensified. The tunneling in my vision that I’d felt briefly early on returned with a vengeance.
I could only see clearly in a narrow band, a small arc of the field of vision. If I turned my head it was like clicking past one frame of sight to another, each narrow field separated from others on either side by blurred barriers. At first, it was so confusing I had to shut my eyes, then open briefly to see if my vision was back to normal and kept blinking open and shut like that. No use, everything remain splintered, like looking through cracks in a fence. I don’t know. I can’t describe it.
After a few minutes, though, I realized that if I focused more intently on one of these slivers, I could see the whole landscape, the crew, the parts of that crazy patchwork landscape, the plane in the distance, all of it. Turning my head from one sliver to another, I found each one opening out in the same way, but the crew was in different locations, sometimes right near the base of the hill where I’d left them, sometimes moving away toward the plane, but then eerily moving toward my position. And it wasn’t just the one group, my crew, it was all the ones we had met, a different one in each view. Not only the few I had crossed over to but many more, and sometimes I was alone. That is, I was looking at myself moving around on that island. It was like standing at the center of a panopticon of all the possible versions of this place and of us, of me, that there could possibly be. I had to bite down hard on something inside me, forget that it was all impossible and just move, act, take a step. So I shifted my view back to the one I thought I had just stepped from to get here and walked into it.
As soon as I got off that spot, the island in front of me opened up again. I mean my vision was normal again. I ran down that hillside, focusing on the plane in the distance, tunnel vision gone. I plunged past the crew and ignored their questions. Then I hit another one of those static invisible boundaries but just kept going.
I ran up a small rise to where it leveled briefly then dipped down on the far side to form a bowl-like depression. I stumbled and almost fell into the midst of another crew that was checking and setting up equipment. They looked up at me as I hurtled downslope, but I kept going, even though Kuma called my name and tried to catch at my sleeve. Then I ran around a row of jagged boulders and past another group in the midst of an argument about what to do. I tried to avoid looking directly at them to make time toward the plane, but Mishkov ran after me and tackled me right at the knees. I went down but scrambled up, pushed him aside and kept on running. Suddenly, a woman I hadn’t seen before was running at my side yelling that I had to stay put and get hold of myself. I was starting to get drawn into her version of the group, remembering that she was Graciela, an astrobiologist friend, but I shook her off too and left her trailing behind. Clumsy as I was, I felt like I was flying past everything, my sole focus on the flyer ahead.
Finally, after one last rocky hillock, the plane was there in front of me. I hurled myself at the hatch and reached for the mechanical safety panel, not trusting the bio control after all these changes. Then I froze for a moment because my arm, my hand reaching for the panel was suddenly … multiple. It was like my vision splintered. There were all these hands and arms in different suits or uniforms, all the versions of me that I had seen, all reaching for that same spot. All I could do was shut my eyes and plant my hand on the safety latch. I didn’t feel multiple inside, thank god, or I would have gone completely out of my mind. I felt the mechanism in my grasp and yanked at it as I opened my eyes again. All the many hands were one again, and the hatch hissed open.
I leapt up those steps and on board, the door closing automatically behind me. I took a moment to look around the cramped cabin, mostly filled with remote sensing equipment. I was home at last. I realized there was no crew, had been no crew with me, and that seemed right. Of course, there was no one else. These were mostly automated sensing and mapping flights. That felt right. I settled in and started the engine, putting controls on manual and got ready to go as soon as environmental showed the right pressure and air composition. The air had a tang of staleness, but it was good enough to breath and I drew it in deeply. It was my plane, my air, and I wanted to own it all like it was part of my body.
His hand had slipped out of mine. “So everything felt real again after what you’d been through?”
“You bet it felt real. I’ll never forget that sense of being in command of the plane and myself. …”
“It didn’t last long.”
What happened next is harder to put together in my mind. I remember the need to get off that island and break the crazy time cycle or whatever it was I was caught in. Then I’m piloting the plane, gaining altitude but suddenly hearing the collision warning. I was heading right into the path of another plane, just like mine. It was too late to avoid a collision, but instead of impact as I sailed right into the nose of the oncoming craft, I felt nothing but a floating sensation. Then the air that held me became thicker, heavier, and began to turn. I spun with it, faster and faster, until a vast cyclone formed around me whipping into its turbulence everything I had seen on that island.
“You mean memories of what you had seen?”
“No, not memories, the place, everything.” He waved his hand again, the gesture weak, as if he could hardly move his arm.
Whole sections of landscape, hills, trees, volcanic terraces, beaches, even the people I had seen, everything caught in a tornado. But nothing seemed really solid. It all flew past me. The whirlwind got so fast, things blurred into a mass of mixed times and people and places. Cast into this maelstrom, I felt nothing remained itself for long, all connections ripped out, erased.The only thing I could still feel was some primal sense of continuity to a stripped down me. I could only give myself up to this mass. It was like falling underneath all the thinking, feeling, experience, consciousness of myself to something even more basic, all the while churning out of control in a vast furious movement.
Then it all started to slow down. I felt like a roulette wheel catching just the edges of hundreds of things flipping past, but they weren’t solid things. Instead they were connections to places and people, relationships streaming by. I was filled for an instant with each one, each person, each me I was somehow part of, as if this same individual, this me, could be filled with different people. And I could hear the voices of all of them, just quick shouts, a word, a whisper here or there. The effect was overwhelming, like hearing a vast torrential flow of sounds, each one intelligible for an instant as it linked to its source and could be heard distinctly from others. Yet my mind was pulled too quickly from one thing to lock momentarily onto another, I kept shifting to a different moment in this chaotic flow.
I was desperate to hold onto more than one fleeting moment at a time, trying to see how they could cohere and lead me on to some larger structure. I couldn’t make it all stop and hold these multiple selves in a single me. All I could do was flow furiously amid these raging, radiant streams of energy, light, sound and meaning, like a drowning man captured by ocean currents.
“How did this settle down? How come you weren’t just torn to shreds?”
“I don’t know,” was all he could say.
The storm stopped. I was piloting the flyer again heading straight toward an oncoming plane. I was repeating the moment before the collision, but this time as I was about to smash into it, I could see the other pilot’s face. At first I thought it was another me, but then I realized it wasn’t. It was only a glimpse but one that burned into my mind.
He stared at me. “You.”
“What about me?”
“It was you.”
That forced a laugh out of me. That had to be a lie, or at least a fantasy, something his broken brain wanted to see, to link his chaos with the here and now
There was a long blackout. Then I was sinking, sinking until my eyes could see again, and I was here in this hospital bed. People telling me it is 200 years after our exploration of Elektra. I am in its major city, a place of millions, they tell me, having been stranded here unconscious. I am haunted by the feeling that if I leave this room, this building, I may step into a different time and world. No one can explain what has happened to me. And who could believe my story?
He looked at me, the strength ebbing from his face, his arms now lying limply at his sides. “You won’t believe …”
“Maybe I can’t,” I said. “I’ll be honest with you. But for some crazy reason, I want to.” I took the case out of my pocket and looked at the neural netting it contained. Without looking at him, I said, “I can help relieve the torture this is causing you, but I want you to agree to this.”
I took the device out and held it up for him to see. But it was too late. His eyes were open but glazed over, and I realized that he had slipped back into a coma. Whatever had forced that story out of him had finished and let him sink away into oblivion, or sleep, or whatever emptiness he had been in before. I stood over him and said goodbye to Gaetano Kepnis and put the netting back into its case. He might wake up again, or he might not. Impossible to say. But ICON would never let the story out and would never let him go until his mind had been turned into a blank slate. Thank gods I wasn’t the one who would have to do that. I felt, though, that I had absorbed something from him. I don’t know what it was, but I just wanted to get out of there and never have to deal with anything like this ever again. He would have no tomorrow in his mind, but something of him lingered in me, as if I could see this world of Elektra, so new to me, through his eyes.
Copyright 2023 by John A. Folk-Williams