by Alex Irvine
Kyle heard the hiss and rattle of a small air compressor, punctuated by periodic beeps from somewhere near his head. He wondered why he couldn’t see them; then he realized his eyes were closed. So he opened them. Shari was right there, face tight with worry. He saw bandages on her hands and a stippling of cuts on one side of her face.
Behind her, blank walls. White sheets covered Kyle up to mid-chest. Hospital? Why was he in the hospital? What had happened to Shari?
A voice from behind his head said, “Awareness seems pretty good. He’s coming out of it. Give him a minute to orient himself.”
“What happened?” Kyle croaked.
He turned his head and confirmed his initial impression that he was in some kind of hospital room. A nurse technician wearing a big name tag—JORDAN :)—swiped at a tablet and studied a monitor on an instrument cart near his bed. “Don’t go too fast,” he said. “There are always little inconsistencies at first. It can be confusing.”
“Kyle,” Shari said. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yeah, babe,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
She looked over at Jordan. “I don’t remember the next question,” she said, like there was an agenda she was supposed to follow. Jordan came around the side of the bed and spoke quietly into her ear. Kyle noticed a company name on the badge, but he couldn’t make any sense of it. ResuRx. He felt like he should be able to understand it, but the meaning kept slipping away from him, and anyway Shari was asking him more questions as Jordan went back to his instruments.
Last name: Brooks.
Place of birth: Livermore Falls, Maine.
Current occupation: Logistics coordinator.
“Aren’t these the kinds of questions you ask when someone has a brain injury or something?” Kyle asked. He craned his head around to see Jordan. “And why is Shari asking them instead of you? Are you a doctor?”
“I know it seems a little strange, Mr. Brooks,” Jordan said. “Please just bear with us for another couple of minutes while we get some baseline readings.”
“Baseline readings of what?”
Shari sat on the edge of Kyle’s bed. “Babe. Just . . . be patient, okay? We’re supposed to do this a certain way even though it’s confusing.”
“Okay. I feel pretty good though. Nothing is sore. What happened, some kind of accident?”
“Now,” Jordan said.
Shari put a hand on Kyle’s chest. The small weight of it calmed him a little. “What are some of the last things you remember?”
He considered this. He remembered walking through Monument Square, smells of food cooking, foreign music, languages he didn’t understand. He was angry about something, his guts in turmoil, but he tried not to pay attention because he had to stay focused. . . .
What do you think, lilies?
Lilies are cool, sure. Long as it isn’t roses.
“I remember being in Monument Square,” he said. “I remember hearing somebody—a couple, a man and a woman—talking about flowers.” Shari got a strange look on her face. She looked over at Jordan.
“Keep going, Kyle,” Jordan said. “Talk it through.”
“Then . . . shit,” Kyle said.
He remembered the bomb going off, the sound so huge it wasn’t even really a sound, like a physical blow straight to his brain. Then he remembered lying on his side, seeing blood and bodies, smoke swirling up from the base of the old Civil War statue in the middle of the square . . .
“Someone set off a bomb,” he said. “Is that—”
He looked at his arms and hands. No cuts or burns. Also no scars. Not the scar on his elbow from a bike accident six years before. Or the tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, 06-18-41, from his parents’ death four years ago. He touched his ears. Neither was pierced.
“Wait a sec,” Kyle said.
Then he remembered. ResuRx was a recompiling clinic. “Shari, what—”
“Back up,” Jordan said. “You said you remember the bomb?”
“Yeah, it was horrible, there were people lying all over the square, like . . .” he trailed off, not wanting to give the horror life by describing it.
“That’s—no, Kyle. You couldn’t remember the bomb. I was there. I saw you. You were . . .” She closed her eyes and heaved a shuddering sigh. “You couldn’t remember the bomb.”
“How is that possible?” Shari asked. Kyle looked up at her and saw she wasn’t talking to him.
He looked over at Jordan, who was still tapping and swiping, but now he had a worried frown instead of his previous mask of professional focus. “Looks like we got a little glitch here,” the nurse said.
by Greg Egan
Tirell stood on the platform at the edge of the forest, looking out at the banks of red clouds. As he waited for Anna’s glider to come swooping down, his eyes were drawn to the swirling patterns below, where stronger winds set the thicker clouds roiling, spinning off vortices in thrillingly strange hues: deep blues, rich browns, grays shading almost into white.
“If you fall, it won’t look so pretty,” Selik joked.
“That’s true.” You could only see the patterns from above; if you were down among them, at any one point you’d be surrounded by a monochromatic fog—while being crushed to death with nothing to show for it.
Tirell took a few steps back from the edge.
“Here she comes,” Rada announced.
Tirell followed Rada’s gaze and caught sight of the glider, descending in a broad, shallow helix that brought it almost directly above them before carrying it away again. He knew that Anna was an old hand at this maneuver, but he couldn’t help feeling a visceral sense of how terrified he would have been in her place, if he’d been the one controlling the rudder.
On its second approach, the glider was much lower. For a moment Tirell thought it might miss its target, but then he realized he was blind to the true curvature of its path, misjudging it by its foreshortened appearance. The glider flew directly into the mouth of the clearing, shot straight past him and the other onlookers, and dived into the wall of soft foliage that some ancestral aviator must have cultivated generations ago, and a thousand grateful successors had tended ever since.
The three of them ran toward the site of the impact, but before they could reach it Anna had already clambered out, apparently unharmed. As Tirell drew nearer, he could see that the glider, though strewn with leaves and tangled in the vines, had suffered no real damage either.
Everyone worked together to pull it free, then they dragged it across the platform and secured it in its proper place—using thicker vines, in a more orderly arrangement.
With the job done, Anna turned to them and announced, “I think the cousins might be back.”
Tirell strove to interpret her demeanor, wondering if she was teasing her friends. As far as he could tell, she was perfectly serious, but he would have thought this claim was something only a child could believe.
“The thing’s still up there?” Selik asked warily.
“Absolutely,” Anna confirmed. “But now there are three of them. All in similar orbits.”
Selik hesitated. “Are you sure you’re not just seeing different asteroids every time, coming and going from the equilibrium point?”
“Not if they’re doing it at random,” Anna replied. “There’s an object of the same size and brightness in the same orbit as I saw on the last trip. So either it’s the same thing as before, or whatever took its place managed to mimic its appearance and slip into exactly the same trajectory. I can’t speak to the fate of the other two yet, but if they’re still following their present course when I return, that would stretch the bounds of coincidence.”
Rada said, “With three asteroids all disturbing each other, it would be absurd to expect them to remain in the region at all, let alone retrace their orbits.”
“Of course,” Anna agreed. “If these are natural objects, moving under gravity alone, they couldn’t possibly hang around much longer.”
The group fell silent. Tirell could almost hear a collective rejoinder that only tact was keeping anyone from uttering: If these are natural objects?
Anna scowled. “So do you all think the cousins are dead?”
Selik snorted. “Dead or alive, I can’t say I’ve been expecting a visit.”
“Why not? Because it wasn’t sooner?” Anna brushed an insect off her shoulder and sat down on the platform, gesturing to the others to do the same. “I’m serious! If our own ancestors struggled with the Changes, why wouldn’t the cousins have struggled just as much? They could have lost everything and had to start over, as many times as we did. And if we still lack the means to visit them, why should we be shocked that it took them this long to make the same journey in reverse?”
“But we don’t know that they survived at all,” Rada stressed.
“That’s true. But we survived what they thought was unsurvivable, so we could have been as wrong about their chances as they were about ours. And that’s just the way we tell the story now: because we didn’t die, we pretend we always knew that we’d made the better choice. But maybe at the time, both groups were glad that the other would be trying a different strategy—improving the odds that at least one would succeed.”
Selik was unconvinced. “All these ‘maybes’ have been plucked out of the sky before. That’s the trouble with invoking the cousins: you can call on them to explain anything.”
“So how do you account for these observations?” Anna demanded.
“The observations could be wrong,” Selik replied. His tone was respectful, but Tirell was still shocked by the bluntness of his words.
“I know what I saw,” Anna said mildly.
“Anyone’s eyes can deceive them.” Selik looked uncomfortable, but he wasn’t retreating.