Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
 
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The Peculiar Karma of Space Station Zeta


by Robert Persons



Aris had been striding purposefully down the long corridor for several minutes when it occurred to him that he didn't know what that purpose was, how he had gotten there, and where he was going. He slowed his pace, puzzled, then terrified of the bolt of electricity that was sure to shoot at him from the ceiling for even thinking that thought. The lightning didn't come, but he had to grab the beginners' rail—he had momentarily lost his space legs. And he a ten-year veteran of station walking!

Of course he knew where he was going. How could he have been so silly? The Clubhouse was at the end of this corridor. He had been going there to look for Ben. He wanted to discuss a few arrangements to be made, concerning the upcoming Trip … No, they had been on the Trip and back In, and he wanted to … Had they? A snake squirmed down his back. He clutched the rail tighter. Had they been Out or not? He couldn't remember! When he tried to focus on the recent past, all he felt was an aching dread of something terrible about to happen to him.

What have they done to me?As soon as he thought it, he wondered why he imagined somebody had intentionally done something to him. The Trip had been relatively uneventful. Why would they … How did he know that? Just a moment ago, he couldn't remember anything about the Trip.

"Here! Let me give you a few pointers on station walking, cub."

Aris looked up, startled when a strong hand grabbed his shoulder. Fitt was winking at him and chuckling. "What's the matter, Aris?" he said. "Lost your space legs?"

Aris managed a pained grin and flushed slightly. "Just feeling a bit dizzy, Fitt. Thanks." He stood up straight. He didn't care for the solicitous tone. Not to mention the 'lost your space legs' bit, which was right on, but he didn't want this guy to be right on. He studied Fitt for a moment, wondering if it was his blue and white Bridge Crew stripes that annoyed him. Or was it his hair, the way he kept it slicked back like something from another century? Then he wondered why he was picking at inanities instead of the elephant in the hall—his seeming loss of memory.

"Hey, Fitt, how long has it been since we got back In?" No sooner had Aris said it, than he was having trouble remembering just what it was he had said.

"Back In?" Fitt said. "Why, it must be two days now …" He stopped, looking a bit puzzled. "But why do … Here!"

Aris's knees were buckling. He was struggling hard to recall some fleeting image he had just had, and lost. Then Fitt was holding him up with an arm around his waist.

"Let's get you to the Club, where you can sit down. Are you ill? An old space bum like you?"

He kept on talking inanely, while supporting Aris, as they trudged along the barely perceptible curvature of the station wall. "Some day Zeta's budget will be big enough to install glide paths, eh? But for now we have to walk. Well, glide paths are for softies anyway. I have to say, though, that even a hardened vet could use them on occasion." He winked and lifted his arm as though holding a shot glass in his hand. Aris managed a pained smile. Fitt guided him to a nearby couch. "There, now, you'll feel better after a bit."

Once he had eased himself into the cushions, Aris did feel much better. He had just started to relax when Ben zoomed briskly toward them, holding out one arm with a drink in the hand (glide paths, anyone?) and the other with an access key in its hand. "I knew you'd show up eventually. Just had my key encoded for Level 2. Celebrating. I've been saving a drink for you."

Aris nodded and accepted the drink. "Thanks, Ben. I can use it." He stared at the access key, a thin white cylinder magnetically encoded for the sealed rooms the bearer was permitted to enter. Everybody had one, each uniquely coded, but something peculiar nagged him about this one.

"Oh, sorry, Fitt. I didn't expect you. Would you care for one? Real bourbon. I'm buying. The first one, anyway."

"What happened, Benrick? Did you get a discovery bonus on your last Trip?"

Ben looked briefly puzzled, then said, "Fitt, are you looking a gift highball in the molecules? I guarantee you, real bourbon. No synthetics."

Fitt chuckled and waved a no. "Not a drinking man." Just like Fitt, Aris fussed distractedly, to refuse a free drink from Trip Crew, who of course were plebeian boozers, caring about nothing but getting their semi-skilled work done so they could sit down with a glass and immerse themselves in a holo.

Over his irritation he became aware that Ben was speaking to him. Shaking himself alert, he heard, "… wanting to discuss the Trip with you. It seems that …" His face went blank, and he lowered his eyes momentarily. He looked back up sheepishly and said, "Oh, hell, it wasn't important anyway. So, how's it hangin', Aris?"

Aris stared hard at Ben. Something about his access key, now stowed on his belt. Finally he said, "Ben, what do you remember about the Trip? I mean, what is the really outstanding thing that you remember?" He was starting to sweat. Peculiar! Space stations had controlled temperature and humidity. Only exertion or a steam bath would make a person visibly sweat. He was sweating. And struggling, he realized, to remember something. The fear of lightning was gone, but there was, nevertheless, a dull ache in his groin that felt ominous. For the time being, he put this aside to concentrate on the question he had asked, for fear of losing it.

Ben shook his head as though an insect had buzzed into his ear. Then he said, "Come on, relax, Aris. You don't want to talk shop now. You don't look so hot. Are you feeling sick? Look, you're sweating."

Fitt inserted, "He didn't look so good in the corridor, either. I think we should call in his syms and get a phys-mem check."

Aris said, tautly, "Ben, you joker, are you avoiding my question?"

Ben shifted his weight nervously and opened and closed his mouth several times before saying, "Your question? Uh … I don't remember just what you said …"

"Ben, for chrissake, are you guys trying to keep something from me?" Aris was trying desperately to recall just what his question had been, when he blurted out, "Something happened out there, and you're trying to cover it up. Why?"

Ben's eyes popped. "Aris, nothing happened. I don't know what you're talking about." He looked quite sincere, and Fitt just looked very puzzled.

"Ah, never mind." Aris slumped back into the cushions. His stomach had just attempted to evict his lunch. He sat very still, wondering what he had eaten. "I guess I don't know what I'm talking about, either."

For several minutes the three of them sat or stood in a strained silence broken only by the clinking of cold cubes.

Abruptly Fitt said, "Come on, let's shoot some pool. You up to it, Aris?"

Aris tried to figure out Fitt's motives—a matter of power, he guessed, wanting to show them that Bridge Crew were human, too. They had hearts. They cared. He looked at Ben, wondering if similar feelings hid behind his mellow front. But Ben yielded no clues as to how he felt about it.

So, with another set of dream images fading rapidly, he answered Fitt's challenge with a sigh. "Yeah, I guess so." As soon as he got up, determined to relax, he felt much better.

#

After three days, Aris had not had any more "attacks" of memory, as he was beginning to think of them, but one notion stuck in his mind from sheer determination to not let go of it. That was, that he had been Out and In, something had gone wrong, and now none of the dozens of Trip Crew he prodded could remember a thing about it. Had they been on general asteroid exploration? Recovery of data from a robot moon base? Reorientation of a telescope? Nobody could tell him! Even Sergeant, who, if he hadn't gone Out, would surely have known the basic details of the Trip.

To soothe his anger, he indulged in bacon and eggs and toast with butter, steaming cocoa and a dish of peaches—all from real chickens and real pigs, genuine cows and real wheat raised right here on Station Zeta; and real chocolate and peaches imported from McCormack's on Earth. It cost a bundle, but he wanted something a little more real, now, than synthetics or even reconstituted.

He set the tray of food roughly on the table, his anger deflating as he noticed a blonde woman in Trip Crew uniform sitting nearby staring at his portable banquet. She was attractive, vaguely familiar, but the way she leaned forward and cocked her head at his food made a snake begin to crawl his spine again.

"Where's your security guard?" she said, glancing about the room with a straight face. That took the edge off his crawling spine.

"Huh? Oh, no problem," he managed, with an equally straight face. "I inherited a magnetic toga from a rich uncle I never saw." He motioned with his hands, as though flinging the invisible skirt of a personal force field over his table.

"Well, then, I suppose there's no getting through to you, is there?" She opened her eyes very wide, in an archaic look of dumb blonde innocence.

"My toga is big enough for two persons and the table—provided they are the right persons and the right table."

She smiled at his wink, picked up her tray of reconstituted breakfast, and carried it to his table, obligingly ducking under his upraised arms holding the "skirt" of the toga. When she sat down, he "released" the toga. "Now, fair lady," he said, "you are in my kingdom, and I will protect you from every virgin-eating dragon that threatens your purity."

"My what?" She laughed. "You must be into ancient novels. And what holo did you get that 'magnetic toga' thing from?" She looked up at him, but Aris hadn't heard any of it.

He saw a hand with a white stick in it come down on her—once, twice, three times, in short, choppy motions. Then …

Then he saw the terrified look on her face and realized he was standing over her and bringing his own arm down in short, choppy strokes—without, however, touching her.

"Oh." He backed away from her, arms spread. "I'm sorry. I suddenly remembered something." He stumbled to his chair and sat down, feeling very weak.

"Yes, indeed you did." Her voice was strained and frightened. "What was it? A wife beating?"

Aris ignored her sarcasm and looked at his real bacon and eggs, realizing he wasn't hungry any more.

"When was your last Trip Out?" he said tautly.

She stared across the table at him for some time. Just as she was about to say something, Aris interjected, "I'm sorry. Strange things have happened, and I … I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"Oh, no matter, as long as you're done with it." She looked, not angry, but puzzled and even a bit concerned. Then she looked down at his food. "You'd better eat that. It's getting cold. It must have cost a fortune."

Aris stared at the food. "I'm not really hungry. Would you …"

"I will, if you don't want it. You sure?"

He nodded.

She beamed and extended a hand across the table. "Vela," she said. "Crew Advanced '89." He took her hand. It was a lovely hand, graceful, delicate. He didn't need bacon and eggs. Her hand was real enough for him to grasp. "Aris. Crew Advanced '87."

"Oh. Maybe we've hit the same Trips here and there. We'll have to talk about that. But first …" She pried her hand out of his and started scooping his dishes toward her. She attacked the real breakfast with a fury born of apparent starvation. She, too, was hungry for reality. Could she have been on the last Trip? He found himself struggling once again to remember. He had just had another image, and already he was forgetting it.

Something about this woman's face. And a stick. And … There, he had it! A man's hand, clutching a short white stick, beating down on a woman sitting on a couch—the very woman who now sat across from him at the cafĂ© table! He was sure of it. But who was beating her? He couldn't tell. All he could see was the hand and a uniform sleeve with pale blue and white stripes on the cuff. Okay! That identified him as Bridge Crew, at least. He personally knew only three Bridge Crewmen. And Fitt was one of them! But Fitt genuinely didn't seem to know anything the other day. And Vela showed no indication of recall when he had almost re-enacted the beating scene. There were no obvious marks on her face. But something happened! He was sure of it. The beating was only incidental to something bigger—something, perhaps, disastrous. His skin crawled. How could he get at it?

Mind-control weapons? On warring Earth maybe, but on neutral space stations? No, nobody else seemed to be bothered about not remembering the last Trip. Why should he?

He looked across the table at the delicate lady gorging herself on his expensive breakfast. He chuckled. "If I'd known you were coming, I'd've baked a cake."

She just said, "Mmmh," and went on stuffing herself. He was forgetting again, but it was something of a relief. Feeling it go away, he realized he had had a headache. His hunger was returning, and he looked at Vela with new eyes.

"Can I have just one half piece of bacon?" he whimpered.

"Mmmh," she said, and scooted a small piece across the plate with her knife.

"And a small piece of toast?"

She cut off a hunk of toast—the part which had the thinnest layer of jelly—and let him reach for it while she attacked the peaches with much slurping and gurgling.

#

Aris awoke looking across Vela's bare shoulder at the "sunlight" streaming in through the "window" of his apartment. He lay for some time staring at that part of her torso which was not covered by the sheet. Her blonde hair was partly bunched on the pillow and partly draped in curls across her right shoulder blade. He followed the line of her left arm from the soft round shoulder into the hollow of her waist and up the broad rise of her hip—its shape covered, but not concealed, by the bed sheet. He was beginning to feel the urge again, but it was mixed with strong protective feelings. Maybe his reference yesterday to her being in his kingdom and rightly deserving his protection was not just anachronistic flippancy. She had been hurt, and he felt a strange responsibility to her, even though he had not done the hurting. The slow rise and fall of her elbow on her ribcage was what he wanted for her always—the peace of sleeping without fear, in the protection of one fully trusted … Or was that what he wanted for himself, and only wished on her?

They had spent all of yesterday—after the enigmatic breakfast—in a childlike romp through the station, rummaging through obscure corners, delighting in each other's reactions, feeding each other's self esteem. They even went as close to the Hub as unassigned crew were allowed, and bounced nearly weightless off the walls in a game of keep-away-but-not-too-long, finally tumbling together in a giddy, weightless embrace, before Station Police chased them back, like naughty children, to standard rooms with proper ceilings and floors and gravity.

He put a hand on her shoulder when she sighed and wiggled a bit. She rolled over and snuggled under his arms. "No hands," she squeaked. "They're like ice." She pressed her bare body against his and he looked at his hands wondering what to do with them. Then he figured it would be safe enough to put them in her hair. So he buried them in those long, vibrant blonde curls, and pressed through the strands to caress her back. Yes, he knew he could lean on her as well as protect.

He awoke suddenly, still seeing the images of a dream he had just had. He must have only dozed, for Vela was still pressed tightly to him and sleeping. He concentrated on recalling the images. They had come very rapidly, like a sped-up holo stream, but overlapping and often repeated, perhaps out of sequence. Yet he had perceived every detail and was struggling to prevent them from fading.

He was on a Trip in a very large ship, much larger than any that he knew of. But he was going about his routines, only vaguely knowing the purpose of the Trip—something obscure about data and testing a physical theory of time. What we see as past, present, and future are all one, is the way Sergeant explained it at the briefing. The reason we see them separate, is that our psychology is structured to see linear, cause-effect processes. All of our time, then, was only one point, beyond which was the real Future—totally incomprehensible to us except through mathematics. "Einstein!" Sergeant said with finger raised. The purpose of this particular Trip was to gather data to test the theory. (It was outrageous, he noted, but dreams were like that.)

There was a large anteroom off a corridor, where several crew were gathered—discussing, as usual, not the momentous ramifications of the time theory, but ways to spend the Trip bonus when they got back In, who was going to link up with whom that night, what was playing on the holo screens.

Then there was a change in flight plan. It was rumored that the physicists had made a breakthrough and decided to attempt to reach the "boundary" of our ordinarily-perceived time and explore the real Future that lay beyond. Crew discussed this, but only to the point of wondering what had happened to cause the change in plan, what did the physicists imagine the Future would be like, and how did they plan to get there. Not to mention how they would get back! The talk came around to money again. Somebody must have discovered something recently, in which case he or she would get a discovery bonus when they got back In. Nobody knew anybody who had made a discovery, however, so they went back to snickering and guffawing about games, sex, and a ridiculous theory of time.

But as the Trip progressed, everybody began to feel off. Little things seemed vaguely strange. Crew stopped each other in corridors and rooms to discuss it, only to end up shrugging shoulders and getting back to their duties. It gradually got worse. There seemed to be a pervading mass psychological feeling of something being very wrong. A melancholic foreboding gripped the crew.

This was the best Aris could do, shivering and feeling a bit sick while struggling to piece together the flickering dream images that he had managed to hang onto. He was certain, though, that this was not just a dream, that he had been right. Something had, indeed, gone wrong out there. And somebody was, indeed, trying to cover it up. Somehow, the entire crew had been forced to forget the whole Trip. Only he, it seemed, was remembering. And those memories so far were almost useless for answering his questions. And why was he being punished each time he glimpsed a memory of the Trip?

An urgency made him get up. Vela reached for him but missed, as he dashed to the head, just making it in time for his stomach to erupt.

#

"Has it occurred to you," Aris said over a standard reconstituted breakfast, "that we seem to be in a continual process of waiting for our next assignments, but we really don't know?"

"No." Vela picked at her food. "It seems to me that I'm just waiting for the next assignment."

"But what assignment? You're always told very shortly after a completed Trip when your next one will be, so you can plan your personal life around it. It must be a week, at least, since I came back In. But I haven't heard anything. My name isn't on the board. And nobody in Admin can tell me anything. Now, how long have you been waiting?"

"I don't know, really." Vela looked thoughtful. "That's funny. You know, I can't really recall my last Trip. Darling, I've lost my head over you."

Trying to ignore her cute grin, he said, "You don't remember it. Well, I don't remember my last Trip, either. I don't have any idea how long I've been In. Don't you find that strange?"

"Yes. But is it important?"

Aris set his fork down and leaned back in his chair, trying to control the shivering. "Something happened, Vela."

"What happened?"

"On our last Trip. Something so bad that nobody remembers."

Vela started to tremble just enough that Aris felt encouraged he was on the right track. Maybe he could get her to remember. "I don't recall," she said rigidly, "ever being on a Trip with you. I just met you yesterday."

"But you were, Vela. We were exploring some physicist's time theory. And something went wrong. We all got back, apparently, but something happened out there, that we were told not to remember. In fact, the memory of the whole Trip has been wiped from our minds."

Vela stopped eating. She stared down, right through the table. "What are you talking about?" Her voice was shaking.

Aris leaned forward and grasped her pale hands across the table. "Vela, hasn't it occurred to you that we have spent who knows how many days in endless trivialities, as far as our work is concerned? We are very involved in doing nothing connected with the operation of research ships, which is what we are paid to do. Days, hell! For all we know, it could be months, or even years, since we came back In. You can't remember it, I can't remember, everybody I know can't remember it, it's not in the logs. So how can we know how long ago it was?"

"How do you know I was on the same Trip with you?" Vela pushed her chair back, looking on the verge of tears.

"I saw you, Vela. We didn't know each other, but I saw you in an anteroom sitting on a couch …" He broke off, not knowing if he should tell her about the beating. It had been she; he was sure of that.

"Hey, how are you, Aris, boy?" Aris jerked, looked up, and saw Fitt walking toward them. Fitt hesitated when he saw Vela, then said, "I'm sorry. Am I interrupting?"

"No, no," Aris said wearily. "Sit down." He waved an arm weakly. "Vela, Fitt. Fitt, Vela."

Fitt set a glass of cola on the table and sat down. "Thanks. You feeling any better now? Boy, you sure didn't look so hot a few days ago. A little cabin fever, huh?" He chuckled and reached across the table for a straw.

Aris's eyes riveted on the pale blue and white stripes on Fitt's uniform cuff, and then on the white straw he had picked up. He felt a vise clamp down on his chest as the images raced through his head.

He was in the ship, talking with Sergeant about the strange foreboding that seemed to hang in the air like syrup, making it difficult to breathe. Ben came along and joined the discussion. Then others came. Apparently the level of concern was high enough that just about everybody was eager for the opportunity to talk to somebody about it. The little group formed rapidly and was soon buzzing with chatter, most of it quite serious. To avoid clogging the corridor, everybody shifted gradually into the anteroom, to the other side of the large comm pillar. Several people were sitting on the couches. He knew all of them except the pretty blonde woman with the long careless curls over the sternness of her off-white uniform. They were alert, either sitting on the edge of the couches or leaning with elbows on knees.

It seemed the air was filled with talk, but like a dream there were no words. The essence of the discussion came through, however. After tedious repetitions of concern for the bad psychology of the Trip, someone suggested that Sergeant be delegated to discuss the problem with the Bridge.

Just then, Fitt came up behind Aris and pushed his way into the group. His dark, slicked-back hair alone, without even a wave in it, set him apart from Trip Crew gathered there. It was that, more than the white and pale blue stripes on his cuffs and collar, that made him appear intrusive.

The blonde woman, sitting sideways on the couch, said, "Here's Bridge Crew. Maybe he can get through to our blessed leaders."

But Fitt pushed through firmly, and then Aris saw the white stick, very thin and only about 20 centimeters long, in his fist. He rushed right up to the woman and raised his arm. He swung his arm down once, twice, three times, and the woman screamed, warding off the blows with her hands. Fitt raised his arm again and struck three more times before some stunned crewmember wrestled him away. Then …

Nothing. Aris had lost the thread again. He pushed his memory, leaned on it, but it yielded no more. Not darkness, not the dull feeling of something forgotten. Just a blank. And he couldn't pinpoint his next certain memory, either. He could remember being sick in the corridor a few days ago, and Fitt, unwelcome, coming to his aid. But he knew there were memories before that. He had purposefully set out for the Club that day. And the day before … Yes, he had taken a steam bath and caught some old holo flicks. He kept pushing back, one recalled moment after another, but there seemed no end to it. How many days, months, years would he recall, before he finally remembered himself back on a research ship running his stability checks and writing up sit reports?

"Have you remembered anything yet?" Fitt's voice ambled into his consciousness like a stranger asking directions.

"No." He said it without thinking. Then he looked straight at Fitt. Fitt's eyes were stern—nothing unusual for him, except that now there was a trace of genuine concern in them. He was frowning, as though in pain. "Have you?" Aris's voice was strained.

"I've been thinking," Fitt said, picking his words—that was unusual—"about what you said the other day. About forgetting the Trip and something happening out there." Fitt sucked cola through the straw, sighed, and leaned back in his chair. "I'm beginning to take you seriously."

Aris shot a quick glance at Vela. She was sitting rigidly and looking down into her lap. "Why?" he said, turning back to Fitt.

"I've had recollections myself."

Aris expelled his breath sharply and vocally. He hadn't realized he'd been holding it in. He spread his hands outward and said, his voice quavering, "Am I right, then? Did something go wrong? Is there something still going wrong? A conspiracy to …"

"I don't know," Fitt interrupted him. "I wouldn't say conspiracy. I've only had flashes of a Trip I didn't know I'd been on, and a terrible, deep feeling of dread. It's almost seems as if something is forcibly keeping me from remembering. I can only say …"

This time Aris interrupted. "There's you and me. I wonder, are there others? Have you talked with anybody else who remembers anything?"

"No, but I'm wondering if this amnesia, or whatever it is, might be wearing off. We could ask around."

Aris felt a load sliding off him like a wet blanket. "Fitt, what can I say? I thought I was beating my head on a steel wall. This gives me new hope. You know, Fitt, since I last saw you, I've remembered whole episodes." He glanced at Vela. She was still staring into her lap. Returning to Fitt, he saw his eyebrows arched.

"Have you?" Fitt said. "Anything I should know?"

"Really, there's nothing that shed any light on anything." Aris didn't want to mention the beating incident. No point now in telling a man of a crime he committed while under some strange duress, and which no one could remember anyway. Perhaps, though, the telling might stimulate Vela to remember. But he set that aside for now, seeing how tense she was already. "Except for the time theory."

Fitt's eyebrows arched even higher.

"I'm just a techie," Aris said. "I don't know anything about the physics …" He told Fitt all of the visions he had had, except for the beating, as best he could remember them, feeling that even now he was losing some details. After a long pause, they decided they must find some other crew and try to stimulate their recollections, until they had enough evidence to present to Admin, that something was very wrong on Space Station Zeta.

Fitt looked at Vela, but Aris shook his head. "I don't think so, yet," he said in a low voice. Vela raised her head sharply. She had been crying. "Aris, it's terrible," she said. "What have they done to us?"

Aris looked at Fitt, amazed. Then he got up hastily, wobbled around the table, and pulled Vela into his arms. He stroked her hair and pressed her head to his chest. Then he felt his own tears coming. He knew the agony that she was feeling—and that Fitt must be feeling, though he didn't show it. He was glad, so glad, that the burden of memory might be distributed more equally.

#

Aris spent the next three days in a flurry of talking, cajoling, insulting, wheedling, pleading with people in an attempt to get them to recall the last Trip. He found a few who were pliable enough to get through, and who began to recall glimpses of something strange. He, Fitt, and Vela managed to belabor their questioning enough, that eventually there was a growing excitement among crew, and an eagerness to discuss the problem. Everybody, it seemed, was talking with somebody in the corridors and anterooms. The huge majority of crew remembered only tiny snatches. But a few more were recalling whole episodes.

As for himself, he had worked his memory of the Trip forward to the beating, where he reached an impasse. And he had worked backward from his sudden memories in the station to what must have been three weeks or more. But he had not been able to join the two sequences. He couldn't find the missing link.

"Why me?" Aris said as Fitt led him by the elbow out of a corridor. "I mean, why was I alone able to recall the Trip without prodding from someone else? Did the brainwashing not 'take' on me?"

"I don't know, Aris, but thank God it didn't. Now, I think," Fitt said, sweeping his arm to indicate the commotion around them, "we have carried this to the point where the burden can be shifted to someone else's shoulders. I can't talk about it directly with Bridge, except for myself. So I've prodded Sergeant into calling a general meeting of Trip Crew in Briefing Room 10 in …" He looked at this watch. "Twenty minutes. It should be announced any moment now."

Aris saw Fitt lift the white access key from his belt and grip it like a weapon. Coded for Briefing Room 10, no doubt. "Room 10 is a little small. Couldn't you get the Arena?"

"Booked. And I wouldn't be able to convince Admin that this is more important than their star survey lectures. They need the space for the huge holograms. But 10 has been rigged so that voice and pictures will be carried to the corridors and anterooms nearby, so everybody can see, even if they can't get in. There was no way to pipe it into every room without looking like a mutiny."

"All right. I've been so involved with riling up the public, that I hadn't thought of the follow-up details. I'm glad you took care of it." Aris's respect for Fitt had risen remarkably in the last few days. Maybe the pompousness of Bridge people was only in the eyes of Trip Crew.

He did wonder, though, why Fitt didn't seem to suffer as much with his memories as most others did. It occurred to him that Fitt might be part of a conspiracy to obliterate the memories of the disaster from crewmembers' minds, and that his "confessions" of recall were a ploy to gain their confidence and manipulate the beating he had inflicted on Vela out of those memories. Yet he was the one who had rallied the people and actually prodded them to recall. The conspiracy theory—at least Fitt's part in it—had to be rejected. Still …

There was the announcement. Sergeant was on the screen, looking tired, but otherwise his old, easy-going self. "All Trip Crew will undergo a special debriefing re the last Trip, in Briefing Room 10, at eleven-thirty hours. That's all Trip Crew, not just those who participated in the last Trip. Vid screens in corridors and anterooms will be active, for those who can't get into the room."

That was all very vague, Aris thought uneasily. Hell, Sergeant can't even remember the Trip log name. "Last Trip!"

Clots of people began congealing and moving in masses down the corridor toward Briefing Room 10. The air was alive and vibrant, like just before the strike rally in '92. The feeling was, now we're going to find out what's happening, and we're not going to let anybody con us. Aris felt good, much better than he had felt since the nauseating images had begun. Fitt had rushed on ahead to arrange something, so Aris melted into the crowd moving steadily along the corridor.

Briefing Room 10 was almost full of people when he got there. He was able to squeeze in, however, and stand near the front of the room. Sergeant was already mounting the steps to the high platform, with a tablet and a sheaf of papers in one hand and—Aris felt his neck prickle—a white access key dangling from his belt. What was it about keys, he agonized?

Sergeant stood for some time high above the crowd, the red and white stripes on his cuffs and collar almost shining with authority. He shuffled his papers, swiped on his tablet, and stared over the people as though reflecting on a prepared speech he was about to deliver.

Aris looked around the room as best he could, considering the commotion. He spotted Vela sitting near the middle of the room, looking anxious—probably looking for him. He waved, but she didn't see him in the crowd. Then he saw Fitt, with his slicked-back hair and the pale blue and white stripes on his cuffs and collar. He was only a few seats from Vela. Aris suddenly felt his old dislike coming back, recalling his image of Fitt inexplicably beating Vela with a stick, and he actually hated him then.

But Sergeant was speaking, so he forced himself to attend.

"Can I have your attention, please?" The rumbling eased a bit, but it took several more pleas to get the room down to a manageable noise level. "As you must know by now," Sergeant finally began, "this is a rather unusual debriefing session. Everybody is here, because nobody seems to know just who was on the last Trip Out." He paused, grinning, but the amount of cooperative laughter hardly put a dent in the general din.

"Do you, Sergeant?" somebody said.

"That is beside the real point. We are here, actually, to discuss the rumors that have gotten quite out of hand …"

Aris's throat constricted. Cover up burst into his mind. The others were uneasy, too, for the murmuring picked up volume.

"… concerning the last Trip. Now, I have been hearing some pretty wild stories, about experiments gone wrong, and time warps, and attempts to port-hole a very vague disaster of some sort. I'm sure you've all heard the same things, or similar things. Let me assure you, first, that I know of no attempts to cover up anything. I know of nothing to be covered up. Look around. No disaster. I have been Sergeant here for seven years and have felt your confidence and trust in me. I would do nothing to betray that. If you trusted me before, you must trust me now. There is nothing to be covered up."

Aris was astounded. Sergeant was shoving the whole thing out the airlock. Perhaps it was his own fault, for not being more aggressive in talking to people other than Trip Crew. He had to speak now.

"Sergeant, something happened out there. I think that is obvious, from the number of people who are here, not to find out if, but what, and why."

"How do you know that?" Sergeant said. "Nobody seems to remember much about the Trip. If something did indeed happen, and that something was extraordinary, why don't people remember it?"

"I remember." Aris was shouting, his words pouring out. "I remember very bad feelings among everybody. I remember a change of course, a change in objective, and a feeling of something going very wrong …"

"You remember feelings, crewman, and a few vague notions about something strange—like a dream, perhaps? But you say nothing about what it was that actually happened. What have you got …"

"Everybody feels the same things. Everybody knows that something went wrong. But nobody can remember exactly what."

"And why not, do you propose?"

"I don't know." Aris was beginning to feel outdone, wilting. He managed to murmur, "But isn't it important to understand our anxieties about …" His words felt stilted. What he had thought would be an airing of all known recollections, a piecing together of the mystery, or at least a commitment to discovering the whole truth, had been turned into a debate on whether the problem existed or not! "Mass amnesia, perhaps. Mind control has been suggested." He felt his voice stick on that last sentence. Of course, these were guesses. But he was sure of his feelings and his memories.

"I suggest, crewmen and -women, that mass amnesia about an unknown past incident is much less likely than is mass hysteria right in this room today!"

The room erupted in a confusion of noise and bodies in motion. Aris strained to see into the middle of the room. He saw Vela standing up and looking around. He wished he could go to her. In slow motion her mouth opened and she began to speak, but he couldn't hear her. Then he saw Fitt reaching across several people toward her, the stripes on his uniform almost glowing, so that he stood out from the crowd. He felt the back of his neck flush hotly. That bastard! Is it his doing? Him and Sergeant? Sure, he did all the organizing, while compliant Aris had gone along with the scheme—it was Fitt's scheme! Fitt selected the Briefing Room. Fitt arranged for Sergeant to deliver his know-nothing speech. And now he was reaching for Vela—his Vela—just as he did on the last Trip. Aris felt conned.

Then he saw the stick in Fitt's hand—the short white stick. Suddenly the last Trip was flashing before him again, but with a clarity of recall he had not had before. He recognized the huge ship as though he were actually there and not dreaming it. It was no wonder, for it wasn't really a ship. It was Station Zeta itself.

Of course! Why hadn't he recognized the architecture before? The long corridors and comm pillars, the couches in the spacious anterooms. How could he have imagined it was a space ship, the furnishings of which were more cramped, more austere? Besides, a time experiment would not require a space ship. What one needed was a time ship, and that could be the station as well as any other point in space. Yes, it all made so much sense in his dream. Even the strange theory of time. That was just his mind's way of handling the concept of recycling. Recycling was not quite the word for it, either. Of course, being a concept beyond his reason, it could have no word, but rebirth seemed close. Yes, as though the Trip, the whole past, present, and future of it, were one point, one solitary point in the fabric of a Time much more comprehensive and unfathomable than his perceived time. And that only by assembling an infinite number of such points—an infinite number of Trips—would one moment in that Time occur.

The experiment had not gone wrong. It had succeeded to a degree never imagined by the physicists. The boundary of ordinarily-perceived time had, indeed, been transcended, and the Future had come to them at a single point where they had broken through. And the Future had embraced them as a minuscule portion of one of its Moments. They were locked in that Moment, until an infinity of their time would fill it up. Then they would go on to the next Moment, continuing a cycle of rebirth that condemned them to playing the same roles on endlessly varying stages. Nothing had gone wrong. It had gone too right. And it was beyond their control.

The Trip flashed before him like a holo stream on fast-forward, until it came to the beating.

Once again he saw Fitt push forward and raise hisblue and white-striped arm, bring the white stick down once, twice, three times, with Vela cringing and screaming, himself pulling Fitt away …

And, once again, a blank. His memory would not carry him past that image. He found himself back in Briefing Room 10, pumping his arm upward with fury at Sergeant and yelling without thinking, "Something did happen out there. I saw it. I saw a man beating a woman with a stick. I saw the whole thing come apart. I saw it."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Fitt hand Vela the stick. It wasn't a stick, he now saw. It was an access key. His heart sank. Was it Vela's, newly encoded for Fitt's apartment, perhaps? Aris continued pumping his arm over the rising chaos, but his voice broke in frustration as he yelled. "I saw something go dreadfully wrong. Listen to me. I saw it. I saw it."

#

With a huff, Aris shoved his synthetic bacon to one side of his plate.

"Why don't you treat yourself to reconstituted once in a while?" Vela said between mouthfuls.

"Can't. Not enough money."

"Can I lend you some? You shouldn't have to suffer over food."

"No, no, I'll manage." He was feeling peeved. Bored, was more like it. Peeved with being bored, was closest. Even his relationship with Vela was rankling him. He couldn't say why, exactly.

"Is there something between you and Fitt?"

"What? … Fitt? Oh." Vela put a napkin to her lips as she chuckled, trying not to choke on her pancakes. "How silly. Aris, why do you imagine that? We have nothing in common. Besides," she continued in a pompous voice that imitated Fitt's remarkably well, "little Vela is just a techie."

Aris shook his head. "I don't know."

"I'll bet Sergeant would eat it." Vela pointed at his uneaten food. "He spends all his money on old holo immersions. Probably eats plastic all the time."

"If he's here, let him have it," Aris growled.

"He's over there." Vela jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Call him over."

Aris looked at Vela, then across the crowded cafeteria, where Sergeant stood holding a tray and looking for a seat. Feeling just bored enough to play along with the silly game, he got up and practically yelled out, "Sergeant, there's room over here!" He pointed grandly at Sergeant, then down at the table. He thrust his arm out again, and once more, until he caught Sergeant's eye.

Then he sat down, smiling. "Maybe this'll get me a few points toward assignments." But he stopped smiling when he saw Vela's face. She looked sick. "What is it, honey? Something you ate?"

She shook her head, staring abstractedly at his arm. "It's those stripes," she said slowly, and swallowed hard.

"Huh?" Aris looked at the red and white stripes on his uniform sleeve. "I don't get it."

Vela tossed her blonde curls as though trying to clear her head. "The way you pointed at Sergeant and flung your arm out just then, it …" She squinted and pursed her lips, as though trying to hang onto a fragment of thought. Then, just as Sergeant reached the table, she braced herself upright, put a forkful of pancake to her mouth, and said, "It's all right. I just thought I remembered something. It's gone now."

THE END


Copyright 2024, Robert Persons

Bio: Robert Persons worked as a letter carrier, farmer, IT support specialist, and now retiree. But his true love has been writing poems and short stories, a number of which have been published in Wisconsin Academy Review, Verse Wisconsin, Ford Times, Aphelion, Jupiter SF, and others.

E-mail: Robert Persons

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