Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Seconds Lost...

by Roderick D. Turner


"I just don't remember," said Jan. "It's like my mind went blank. Freaky feeling."

Doctor Gil Raphson eyed her speculatively. "I'm not so sure," he said. "The scanner shows memory continuity over the past twenty four hours. And an elevation in your vital sign traces." He adjusted his glasses carefully, perching them rakishly across the bridge of his narrow nose. "I conclude, Ms. Wynhoff, that you are either consciously or subconsciously blocking out the incident."

"You're a typical product of scientific mediocrity," Jan retorted. "What the instruments say, that's all there is. If it's not recorded it never happened. Couldn't happen. No wonder there are so few real discoveries in science these days."

Raphson harumphed and peered contemptuously down at her through his archaic spectacles. "My dear, you are in no position to dispense insults. Your report is entirely unsatisfactory. Rest assured that a thorough and exhaustive investigation into this incident will be carried out. You will be scrutinized in the utmost detail. And if you do not cooperate fully, you will find the process more than a little uncomfortable."

"And you, shit face, can shove it up your ass," Jan muttered. She stood, strode past the shocked scientist and headed for her quarters. It had been a long day. A very long day, if you counted Raphson's arrogant interrogation. And despite her aggressive demeanor she felt unusually drained. Not right. Something had happened to her during that brief period of memory lapse, something that had changed her. She had to find out what it was.

####

"What do you want?"

Jan sat bolt upright in her bed, snatching her baton from its place at her side in one smooth motion. Her room was dark and eerie, flickering shadows flitting over the walls as the trees swayed outside the window, stark against the brightly lit courtyard. Someone was there, a still black figure at the foot of her bed, leaning forward, reaching out a hand....

She reacted, swung the heavy baton smoothly over and down, hard against the outstretched arm. There was no impact. The weapon continued its arc, pounded the bed just beside her right leg and thudded jarringly, wrenching itself from her grip.

Jan scrambled awkwardly to her feet beside the bed, her eyes wide with fright. The insubstantial form glided silently towards the window, its silhouette flowing as it moved. Directly in front of the window it stopped, hovering, as if to give her a clear view.

It had no definable shape, an amorphous translucent figure with an outline that shifted erratically. And, strangely, the fear was gone. Or perhaps she understood it better. More a sense of awe, an awareness of power, an appreciation of her own weakness and fragility. Jan felt a sharp tingle in her arms, a sudden chill that flowed up into her shoulders and across the back of her neck. A blur of images flashed through her mind, running together in a stream of unconscious thought, barely perceived. Like searching for a memory. Like scanning a video on fast forward. She snapped alert, realized that she had lost her focus, had become entirely introspective. The room was empty.

####

She was in a small boat that was sinking, struggling to bail with a huge bucket that weighed more than she could lift, yet held nothing. The water flowed in through numerous invisible rents in the gunwales, swirling darkly about her feet, thick and viscous like wet blood. Panic was a sour metallic taste in her mouth, and her exhausted arms ached with fruitless exertion. Yet as despair slowly took her she became aware of a faint glow, a tenuous radiance that dulled her pain and rekindled hope. Across the sluggish sea of darkness there grew a feeble light, like the distant dawn struggling to overcome the night. And within the glow a shifting grey shape, growing larger, taking on features....

The telecam's irritating squeal roused Jan from tortured sleep. She sat stiffly, exhausted as from a long night of hard labor. There was a dull ache up her forearms, and her biceps tingled. The tank top she wore as sleeping garb clung wetly to her back, and her palms were clammy and cold.

"Some fucking rest," she muttered. She glared at the telecam for a moment, then brushed back her short brown hair and rubbed knuckles in her eyes. "Speak," she said at last.

"Had a rough night, Jan?"

She gave a sarcastic smile. "I'm sure no rougher than you, asshole."

"Who, me?" David Mayhew gave her a look of shocked indignation. "I could have you fired for that."

"Yeah, and then you could shut down the entire agency," she laughed. "You know, a smart boss never makes idle threats."

"OK, I commiserate," David said. "Now tell me about it. This is something big, isn't it?"

Jan frowned and rubbed her arms. "To be honest, I don't know. I've been feeling truly strange ever since I visited the site. And my arms -- " she looked at her aching forearms, " -- they hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Not muscles, either. More like nerves, if I remember my physiology." She shot a piercing glance at David. "Did you ever have a dream about a sinking boat? You know, going down in dark water, and bailing like shit but not getting anywhere?"

"Jan, I'll be out there in Nevada by this afternoon. I want you to stay put, and don't let Raphson get near you." He smiled slightly. "Yes, I heard all about your interview yesterday. Nice work. That makes over half the Oracle Agency you've alienated."

"Including you, right?"

David's smile faded. "I'm serious, Jan. Stay in your room, and open it only for me. If it makes any difference, that's a direct order."

"Yessir, chief. I'll just sit here and order in room service. Watch a few videos, play cards. You know, the way I always spend my mornings."

"I'll see you in four hours. Be there."

David's face was replaced by the Agency logo.

"And that, dear operative, is that," Jan said.

####

When she opened the door, David stood alone in the hallway. His Agency uniform was crushed and sweat-soaked, his tie loose and crooked. She took him firmly by the arm and hauled him into the room, then closed and locked the door.

"What in Hell happened to you, bright-eyes?" she said.

He seized her by the shoulders, spun her to face him, and stared into her eyes. Long seconds went by, then he pulled her to him and held her, letting out a slow shuddering breath.

"Shit, you had me worried," he whispered.

"Yeah, me too," she said. "You look like you've seen a ghost. No, change that. You look like you spent a night in a haunted mansion. And slept with a ghost."

David laughed. "I spend the most agonizing morning of my life flying back here, and you turn it into a joke." He sighed. "I guess I needn't have worried so much after all."

"Let's wait until after we run a few tests before we decide," she said. "So far as I know, I'm still the same obnoxious, domineering, foul-mouthed bitch I've always been. And if you're the same old wimpy, submissive jerk, then my future looks rosy."

"Right. But however things work out, this is your last field mission. At least, as long as you're working for Oracle."

"That's no problem. I can easily work freelance. I hear the Chinese are looking for a good UFO hunter -- "

"Jan, cut it out," David interrupted. "Listen, I've reserved the lab for the afternoon. Suppose you tell me about it on the way."

"As you wish, O Master of the World."

They left the room and took to the halls. The Oracle Agency headquarters housed one hundred and eighty when fully staffed, but almost half of those were field operatives like Jan. They met only a few people, and these merely saluted and stepped aside as David and Jan approached.

"You really thrive on that shit, don't you?" Jan said.

"Somebody has to be in charge," David replied. He gave her a sidelong look. "And even if it's really you that's in control, at least I can appear to be the boss. Everyone needs to have a sense of purpose in life."

"Just as long as it makes you happy," she said. "Personally, I can't stand people looking at me like that. Deference is like a sickness. I prefer fear -- or a combination of that with distaste, disgust, resentment, and anger. Maybe even a bit of respect. Just so long as it's not humble love and devotion. Ugghh."

David shook his head and sighed. "OK, Jan. Tell me about yesterday. I need to know what to look for once we get to the lab."

She smiled at him. "Got your goat, didn't I? See, it comes naturally with me." She glared at a young male operative as they passed him, grinned in satisfaction as he cowered against the wall. "What do you want to know?"

"It was a meteorite, right?"

"It read as one on the instruments. We tracked it all the way in from satellite and ground stations. Trajectory, rate of deterioration, temperature variation, everything the way you'd expect. The energy release on impact was a little high, but within tolerance."

"How many eye witnesses?"

"Four that called in. I talked to them all, and each confirmed our readings. A small meteorite, spectacular visual. Closest observer was about twenty kilometers away, and felt the shock wave. Nearest habitation a farm forty K to the north."

"OK. So now what about the site visit?"

"I took Paul Biggs with me, the trainee. Seemed like a standard job, so I thought he could learn a little without any danger. I knew something was strange as soon as we got close. There was no impact debris, no sign at all of surface damage. I got Biggs to bring the chopper in at about one K up, so I could get a good view. We scanned the whole area within a ten K radius of the impact site." She stopped and looked at David. "There was nothing. No crater, no rubble, no core material. Even when we landed and walked the site. Not even a rock out of place. As if it had never happened."

"What about Biggs' report? Did he say anything to you?"

"He didn't know what to look for. It was his first real site visit." She hesitated. "I don't think his observations count for much."

"But did he say anything?"

"He said he thought he saw a kind of glow. Blue, like Chernekov radiation. How he saw that in broad daylight I can't figure. I told him it was probably just a trick of the light off the trees."

"Anything else?"

"Nothing. He saw the same as me. Raphson said -- "

David tugged at her sleeve, pulled her along into the lab, and locked the doors. Then he turned to face her.

"Biggs told Raphson something else. The instruments and recorders bear him out. He said you were walking in front of him and you stopped, suddenly, as if you'd seen something. He followed your gaze, asked you what you saw, but you didn't respond. When he checked you he said your eyes were glazed, unfocused, like you were in a trance. Even when he shook you, you just stood and stared straight ahead. Twenty, maybe thirty seconds before you were back. I guess he was too shocked to say anything to you then."

Jan looked at him for a moment. "He did act a bit strange on the way back. I -- he really said I was out of it that long? A complete friggin' space cadet?"

"Let me do some scans. Maybe we can find out what it's all about."

Jan sat quietly, allowed David to conduct energy flow and brain pattern scans. She ran over the incident in her mind, again and again, but there was nothing there. No memory of any event, only a sense of something missing. Thirty seconds? So that's why Raphson had been so agitated. That's what....

"Jan!"

David's shout snapped her out of her reverie. He stood in front of her, looking down into her eyes, concern in his face.

"What is it?" she said.

"Jan, look at the monitor. Watch."

Jan watched the noisy image on the screen, and suddenly she was back in the boat, bailing. This time, though, it was on the screen, not in her head. A replay of her dream, as if it had been a recording all the time, and she'd seen it somewhere before. For an instant, causality flip-flopped and her head spun. Had the recording caused the dream, or the other way round? It sent a shiver up her spine.

"It's the dream, isn't it?"

"Where did you get this?" she asked.

"I was doing a pattern scan of your brain and the recording system suddenly showed coherent energy. This is what it picked up." He walked to the monitor and stopped the playback. "And Jan, there's something else. Have your arms been hurting you at all since -- "

"Don't tell me," she said. "You found bruising all along my forearms from too much karate."

"You're carrying some kind of implant in each of your forearms. It's tapped into your nervous system. I ran spectrometric analysis, and the system can't identify the composition."

Jan felt the blood drain from her face. Her mouth went suddenly dry and when she spoke, it was more like a croak. "What do you think it is?"

"Have you had any other lapses since yesterday?"

"Only that dream," she answered. There was something nagging at her mind, but she couldn't quite....

"Yesterday, during that lapse. That's when you received the implants. I've checked all your physical records, and there was a definite change on the site, at the time you had your trance." David strode to the scanning unit and toggled it to transmit. He turned to face Jan and watched her as he hit a switch.

Images. Impressions. She sorted them out, and saw a man with a cereal box, pouring into a bowl, milk, spoon....

"Jan!"

"What the Hell is going on?" she said.

"What did you sense?"

"A man pouring cereal and milk, getting ready for breakfast."

"Holy shit," David whispered.

"What -- what is it?"

"You saw that?"

"Like an image, in my mind. Where did it come from?"

"I broadcast it. You picked it up, translated it, and -- how do your arms feel?"

"They're tingling a little, like -- " There was that memory again, the one she couldn't quite grasp.

"Those implants are transceivers, Jan. Not only that, they perform complex format conversions. Nobody has the technology for anything like this. Nobody on Earth."

Suddenly it was there, the scene in her room the night before. The shape. The energy flow, the images, the pain in her arms. And more. From the site visit. She felt the pain of the implantation, the scream of agony as her arms glowed hot with fire. Saw the subtle blue glow, the dark grey shape that stood before her. The sense of reverence that had suffused her entire body.

And when she fell back exhausted, in the lab chair, she knew that at last humankind had truly made contact. And knew the humble nature of their place in the cosmos.

THE END


© 2010 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Roderick D. Turner says "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Better like it, or why bother? Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over the story, almost literally writing the story themselves. It's a rush." Several of Mr. Turner's stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Awakening, July / August 2010.

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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