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"I’m in a very strange, archaic hospital, where they open your skull and give you brain damage, apparently."
Something was off about the timeline. Jayna Duran knew it the minute she heard the story, and if she, a high school student, knew it, something else was going on. Physics wasn’t her worst subject in school, but she was far more interested in ancient history, culture, and music. She’d paid attention in physics class, though.
The story, as the media was telling it, went like this: the ancient artifact had been discovered in the Kappa-363 system by a young wrecker pilot and his teenage sister. The discovery that had the entire sector buzzing was a three-hundred-million-year-old alien habitat that had been sitting derelict in space collecting dust and debris for so long that everyone had mistaken it for an asteroid. Its discoverer, Reid Oster, had gone inside and gotten lost for several days. His sister Nia, sitting in their ship outside the alien habitat, had presumed him dead, because on her clock, Reid had been inside so long he’d run out of oxygen. Nearly two days passed before, miraculously, Reid Oster re-emerged, claiming that he’d been inside the alien artifact’s power source—a black hole or something of the like. For him, only seventeen minutes had passed, or that was the story they were selling.
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Jayna Duran wasn’t buying it.
She was like that. A contrarian. Her classmates thought it odd that she made no effort to fit in. In every class their teachers would give the most commonly accepted viewpoint and it had become the expectation that heads would turn to Jayna next, because inevitably, no matter how universally accepted the viewpoint, the science, or the behavior, Jayna would have serious questions about why people believed, accepted, or acted that such was the case. This one she knew.
It was exactly backwards. The time distortion couldn’t have affected Nia Oster and the universe outside the habitat, only Reid, inside the habitat, whatever the nature of the power source. A time dilation would have made the young man’s experience longer, not shorter. It was confusing, but she was pretty sure. Almost certain. It couldn’t have been a black hole, yet everyone on the ring seemed to be taking his report at face value. The researchers, the Osters, the media—they were all either wrong or they were lying. Someone was.
Jayna and her brother Byram were in the hotel lobby in New Corinth, several hours outside the Athosian capitol. Even on a family getaway to the Athos ring, Jayna couldn’t let things like that slide. She wouldn’t take her eyes off the video feed on the wall.
“Would you just let it go for once, Jayna,” her brother Byram said. “We’re on Athos. Can’t you just appreciate what’s happening around you rather than analyzing something pointless going on a thousand light years away?”
“But they’re wrong, Byram. They’ve got it backwards.”
“Then maybe you should apply to a university where you can study the artifact and prove them wrong.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Better yet, Jayna, you should go up to your room and get ready. The concert’s in forty minutes. We promised not to be late.”
“I won’t be late,” she said. “Will you watch the news for me while I’m changing?”
Byram shook his head.
“It’s important, Byram. Alien civilization. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“Why? You seem to know everything about it already.”
“No. I just know they’re wrong.”
Jayna left Byram in the lobby and returned to get ready for the concert—something their mother had suggested, a performance of ancient Earth music at the New Corinth Cultural Center.
Thirty minutes later, Byram was still waiting for her in the sitting area of the hotel lobby, finishing up a coffee.
“About time,” he said when Jayna approached. “They still think it’s a black hole, by the way.”
“Still wrong,” she said.
“Imagine that. A whole half hour and they haven’t figured it out yet.”
Jayna and Byram arrived just in time for the show, drawing looks from their parents as they sat. Jayna hadn’t expected much from the show, which was advertised as a tour into the musical styles that originated on Earth still being played in some form. Jayna was immediately captivated by the quartet, a group that was led by the senior member, a gray-haired contrabass player named Ben Waller. Every piece was beautifully arranged and even more expertly performed. Watching these four musicians play was like watching a master artist create a scene or a sculpture in real time, and to know the music had been played time and again for thousands of years had captured Jayna’s imagination in a way she couldn’t describe to Byram later when they discussed it. He was largely unmoved. Jayna found herself looking up each song, sampling countless recordings to add to her playlists. Her favorite piece from that night was the encore, a jazz standard from North America titled “September in the Rain,” which Ben himself had sung in a warm, light baritone Jayna adored. Afterward, she listened to that song so often she learned every word.
Byram was being irrational. She kept telling him that, but psychology was a funny thing. Jayna was listening to music as they crossed into the passively monitored space and headed into the vast restricted area in the Kappa-363 asteroid belt. The siblings had dropped their transponder just outside the system and were wearing a stealth skin on the hull. Jayna was certain they were in the clear, and besides, it wasn’t like anyone outside the ship could hear her music. She could sing at the top of her lungs and the only soul in the universe that would hear her was Byram.
She’d figured it out. Seven years back, the archeological commission in the sector had decided—all on the word of a young wrecker pilot—that the artifact’s location should be concealed and left unexplored. But Jayna was not going to write a flawed, incomplete dissertation on the word of a teenager and an amateur explorer. The commission had decided to monitor the entire asteroid belt and place it off limits rather than monitoring the specific asteroid, because they figured that keeping the exact asteroid’s location secret would add another layer of protection. If no one but commission officials knew which asteroid the artifact was, it left a field of millions of possible asteroids to search, and no one could scan that many before getting caught by passive monitoring.
But Jayna, in her second year of post-grad work, had stumbled upon one of the earliest interviews of the Osters, right after they’d returned from the Kappa system. They didn’t exactly say how they’d found it, but Nia mentioned that some form of modeling was involved, and with the other information that had come out, that piece was enough for Jayna to deduce how they’d done it. Her models had narrowed it to five possible objects, and further research had her convinced. A54-3Z4X was the location of the artifact, and no one was going to stop her from having a look herself, and most importantly, proving everyone else wrong.
“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Byram said. “We’re going to get caught.”
“You dropped the transponder when I told you, right?” she said, trying to reassure him there was nothing to worry about.
“Of course I did.” he said.
“Then there’s no way we’re going to get caught. They’re not even monitoring the site.”
“You don’t know that for sure, Jayna.”
“We’ll know for sure in an hour when we get there.”
“Do you have to listen to that music so loud?” he said.
“Nobody can hear us, Byram.” Jayna began to sing. “The sun went out just like a dying ember, that September in the rain.”
“You know, I hope that someday you’ll actually get sick of that old Earth music. For the sake of everyone in your life, please.”
Jayna kept teasing him, singing to the melody even louder. “They can’t hear us, Byram, we’re in space.”
He shook his head and pulled up the navigational monitor, charting their progression toward A54-3Z4X.
Sure enough, when they arrived at the asteroid, there were no EM signals and nothing passive that could report their presence. If the commission had maintained a monitoring system, a clever spacehand could just scan for that and figure out where the habitat was pretty easily.
They had to circle the asteroid twice to find the landing site where the Osters had made ingress. Jayna had read every file, every article, every review. She’d watched every interview and attended as many lectures as she could on the artifact. She knew its layout and how Reid claimed the artifact responded to his presence.
“I’ll talk you through it on the way in,” she told Byram. “I’m setting my alarm for seventeen minutes exactly.”
“And then I’ll sit here for two days, waiting, just like they said.”
“Not if I’m correct. It’ll seem long for me, instantaneous for you.”
“I’ll be here in two days, Jayna.”
“No faith still.”
“Regardless,” Byram said. “I’ll be here still. Don’t get lost in there, little sister.”
Jayna activated her helmet and pulled herself into the rear airlock.
At the outer door, a light came on, just as the Osters had reported, and Jayna found that the door was also activated with her mind just as Reid Oster had said. It was strange, a little like having limited psychic powers.
She progressed through the structure directly, hardly stopping to observe her surroundings. Jayna’s one-track mind had her heading directly for the head of the scepter-shaped structure, where Reid Oster had his physics-defying run-in with the universe’s timeline. She didn’t bother activating the structure’s spin gravity. She just flew down to the cylinder directly.
When Jayna arrived at the scepter’s head, she called Byram and told him she was starting her clock. At the center wall where Reid Oster had vanished into the inner chamber, she reached out with her hand and thought about the vast hidden room behind it.
She was confused.
When the woman kept calling her Mrs. Thompson, she wasn’t sure she was being addressed. She recognized the look of concern on the woman’s face after she responded clearly, “I’m not Mrs. Thompson.”
“I’ll get the doctor,” the woman stated.
While the woman in white was gone, she noticed the archaic room. It was so unfamiliar as to seem bizarre. There was an incredibly bright light outside in the window and the freshest air she’d ever breathed, almost impossibly light.
“Where am I,” she said as the woman returned with a man in an equally white coat.
“You’re in the hospital, Jane,” the man said.
“I’m not Jane, and I’m not Mrs. Thompson either.”
“Can you tell us your name then?” the man in the white coat said.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Are you supposed to be a doctor of some kind?”
“Yes, very good, Jane. You’re in the hospital, and I’m a special kind of doctor called a neurosurgeon.”
She put her hands to her head. It was wrapped in a soft fabric with a rough texture.
“Now be gentle, Mrs. Thompson,” the woman in white said. “You mustn’t touch that bandage. You’ve just had a surgery on your head.”
“You’re a very lucky woman,” the doctor said. “You were bleeding inside your brain and we were able to stop it in time. It seems as though you’ve suffered some memory loss, though.”
“Bleeding in my brain?” she said. “That wouldn’t have been an arteriovenous malformation of the parietal lobe?”
She could tell by the doctor’s stunned look that it was.
“I think I remember.” She shook her head. “That was repaired when I was a child.”
“That’s impossible,” the doctor said. “There’d be no way to tell it was there until it ruptured.”
She disagreed, grimacing.
“Can you tell us where you are?” the doctor said,
“I’m in a very strange, archaic hospital, where they open your skull and give you brain damage, apparently.”
“Yes, you’re in a hospital. Very good. Can you tell us where the hospital is?”
“No, I cannot.”
“I’m going to tell you where we are,” the doctor said, “and I’d like to see if you can remember, okay, Jane?”
She nodded, but said under her breath, “Not Jane.”
He smiled. “You’re in Louisville City Hospital?”
“Louisville City? I’ve never heard of Louisville City.”
“Louisville, Kentucky?” the doctor said.
She shook her head. “I’ve never heard of Kentucky. Is that the name of the star system, the planet, or both?”
The doctor and the woman in white looked at each other.
“That’s the name of the state you’re in,” the doctor said. “The State of Kentucky.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m not sure where it is, but I know I’ve never been here before.”
“You grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, Jane, about a two-hour drive from here.”
“No, I did not,” she said. “I can’t remember where I grew up, but it wasn’t here.”
“You can’t tell us anything about, Lexington?” the doctor said. “Think very hard. Take your time.”
She shook her head. “Kentakey, you said?”
“Kentucky,” the doctor said, seeming to strain to puzzle out this unique form of neurological damage. He’d never seen anything like it.
“Do you remember horses, maybe?” the woman in white said.
“Why should I remember horses?”
“Because it’s the horse capitol of the world,” the woman said.
“This world has horses?”
The doctor and the woman looked at each other strangely again.
“What world am I on?” she said.
“You’re on Earth,” the woman in white said, fighting back laughter. “The planet Earth.”
“Okay. Yeah, of course we are,” she answered, laughing. “We’re on Earth. Sure.”
“I’m going to call your husband,” the doctor said. “He’s going to want to know that you’re awake.”
It all seemed wrong. She was told it was 1967. She knew it wasn’t, or at least she wasn’t. She was in the wrong place, the wrong time. She couldn’t say why, but she knew it. And she’d never met the man they introduced as her husband. His name was Emery Thompson. She told him that he didn’t have to come see her anymore, but he didn’t stop coming. He was quite nice. He didn’t mention the two children for several weeks. He told Jane that he was trying to prepare the children, and that their mother had lost her memories. Brian, who was seven, was their eldest, and Elizabeth, a precocious five. When the children finally arrived, they seemed beautiful but unfamiliar. She didn’t tell them, but she told Emery they weren’t her children. She said many odd things like that which the doctors couldn’t explain.
Over the course of the following weeks, as she re-learned how to walk and was treated for lingering headaches, Emery kept bringing the children. They seemed like a lovely family to her. When it came time to be discharged, she had nowhere else to go and not another friend in the world.
They did have horses in Lexington. Fields and fields of green grass and more horses than she could count. She begged Emery to stop the automobile at nearly every field to look at them. Everything seemed like a dream.
Over the following months, as she pretended to be Jane, she became aware of the way people whispered behind her back, “such a pity,” they would say, or something of the like. “Those poor Thompson children.” Jane did her best to remember, and when that failed, she tried to act like she remembered.
One Saturday morning several years later, as they were leaving breakfast at the diner on High Street, Jane was overcome with a sudden outburst of joy.
“I remember!” she shouted, letting go of Elizabeth’s hand and dashing into the record store’s open front door.
Emery and the children stood in the entryway stunned at the bizarre scene their mother caused as she sang along at the top of her lungs to the final verse of “September in the rain.”
“I remember this, Emery!” she said.
“You remember Sinatra, Janie?” he said.
“Frank Sinatra, Jane? The name of the singer.”
“He does have a lovely voice.”
The children were horrifically embarrassed as everyone in the store glared at their eccentric mother.
The manager came over and said to Emery, “May I help you, sir?”
“She’s had a head injury,” he explained. “We’ll just be going.”
“We’ll take that record,” Jane said. “That Sinatra. Please.”
She was losing her marbles. That’s how she liked to put it to the nurses. She’d been saying it to her family for years now, but it seemed truer by the day. This world was slipping away from her. But as the veil of the mundane setting of the nursing home seemed to dissipate in concreteness to her, other things that had seemed obscure—yet always remotely present—those faint memories began to punch through. On the morning of her final memories of that family—her family—the big nurse, the friendly one, she told her that her family was coming to visit today.
“Your family, Jane,” the big nurse answered.
“Byram is coming?”
“Byram? Who’s Byram, dear? You mean Brian, your son?”
“Brian’s not my son. I don’t have any children. Byram’s my brother.”
The big nurse looked confused. She had that look on her face.
“I’m losing my marbles,” the old woman said. “But I’m not wrong.”
“Okay, Janie,” the big nurse said.
“What, you’re Jayna now?”
“Yes. That’s always been my name.”
“Okay, lady,” the big nurse said. “Just so you know now, some lady named Jane’s family is coming this afternoon, and something tells me they’ll be looking for you.”
“What am I gonna do about it?”
“Don’t you get fresh with me, lady,” the big nurse said with a smile. “You have a lovely morning, dear.”
She sat in the wheelchair by the window where the air conditioner blew out. It made it feel like there was fresh air coming in at least, even though it was old air, recycled air, familiar air. She watched the weather patterns repeat in thirty-minute increments on the television and had no idea how many times the cycle had gone past. She just kept trying to name the states when the man put his arms near them. She’d learned them all, and most of the cities too. Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, rain in Minnesota, thundershowers over the Great Lakes. Huron. That was the one she always forgot.
“Look who’s here,” the big nurse said.
“You’re not Byram,” she said. “Which one are you?”
“It’s Brian, Mom,” the man said.
He looked so familiar. She recognized the facial structure. But he wasn’t her son. She remembered telling him that at some point. She couldn’t remember when, but she didn’t think he’d believed her. The children said hello. She wasn’t sure whose they were, but they seemed to know her. Everyone seemed to know her, but no one really did.
“Hi grandma,” one of the girls said. She was a beautiful young girl, the old woman thought.
“Am I your grandma?” she said.
The young girl nodded. “Do you want to see something?”
“Sure, dear,” the old woman said.
The girl pulled out a glass sheet and turned it on. It was a tiny little television with beautiful colors and the clearest picture. The girl began tapping it and pulling up different scenes.
“I had one like that when I was a child,” the old woman said.
“You did?” the girl said. “I’m not sure they were invented yet. But dad told me you liked jazz music a lot, so I thought I could bring my old iPad so you could listen to all this old music. I put this icon here, and all you have to do is push it, like that, and it will bring up a playlist of every jazz song you could ever want.”
The girl tapped the device and it began playing.
“Oh, that’s wonderful, dear,” the old woman said. “That’s how it should be. Not like all those cumbersome disks and records.”
“I would have thought you’d like records,” the girl said. Aren’t you supposed to say how much you like the things from your time?”
“I say a lot of things I’m not supposed to say,” the old woman said. “Plus, those things aren’t from my time. I’m not even from this time.”
“No,” the old woman said.
There was something about this granddaughter. She wasn’t condescending, like the rest of them. She listened without the disbelieving smile. She seemed like she wanted to hear. So Jayna told her.
She told her she was born on the planetary ring of the gas giant Iophos, the fourth planet of Dreeson’s star, a star system home to nearly seven trillion people, tens of thousands of light years from Earth. And she told her she’d had a brother named Byram and a whole other life she couldn’t remember and that the young girl’s father was a wonderful son, but he wasn’t her son.
A song came on the playlist the old woman recognized. “I love this song,” she said. “I don’t know this singer, though. Look at her. Isn’t she a doll?”
Annie, the granddaughter, scrolled down to the text under the video. “Oh, this is recent,” she said. “I think she’s Spanish.”
“Oh, don’t get her started,” Brian said. “Mom will sing your ear off.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” his wife said.
“I suppose,” Brian said. “At least we’re not in a record store.”
Only he and the old woman knew what he was talking about. She ignored him and hummed along to the melody. Annie was looking at her curiously, in a way only the big nurse ever seemed to look at her these days, like she cared.
“If you’re not from this world, grandma, what’s the thing you love about it the most?”
“About the Earth?”
“That’s enough, Annie. Don’t lead your grandmother on. She’s confused enough as it is.”
“You mind your business, Brian,” the old woman said. “I know mine. It was Big Red. The most beautiful sight I ever saw was Big Red.”
“Big Red?” the girl said. “What’s Big Red?”
Brian shook his head. “He was a racehorse, kiddo. That was Secretariat’s nickname.”
“Fifth of May 1973,” Jayna said, “your grandfather had read about him in the paper, dear, and we got all dressed up and went to the track for the Derby. Secretariat was the most beautiful creature ever to draw breath on any world in all of creation. He strutted past everyone like he knew he was a divine being among mortals, and when he ran past in full flight, angels wept for the glory of God.”
Brian shook his head. “You can’t be from another planet, Mom,” he said. “Only a proper Kentucky woman could put a string of words like that together.”
“I’d swear she was lucid,” Brian’s wife said as though the old woman wasn’t right there listening, “if she wasn’t talking about being from another planet.”
“Mom had a head injury when we were young,” he explained. “She used to say stuff like that a lot when I was a kid. A lot of things got scrambled in that old noggin.”
“You were always embarrassed by me,” the old woman said. “Imagine if you really knew who I was all this time, you wouldn’t be ashamed of me.”
“Oh, I know, Mom,” he said. “The mad woman from the moon.”
Emery had been concerned about Janie for weeks. Elizabeth was two months old now, and Dr. Radley had said it wasn’t that uncommon for new mothers to become melancholic. But Emery had told Jane directly it wasn’t only that she was depressed. It was some of the crazy things she was saying. That sometimes she didn’t think the children were even hers, as though she hadn’t been there in the room and struggled to bring them out of her own body and into the world. Still, Dr. Radley didn’t think she needed a psychiatrist. Just time.
For her part, Jane didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Of course she remembered giving birth to them, that didn’t mean it was real, though. Not really. The green of the paddocks in the spring outside the city, could anything that green be real? Could something that beautiful exist except in a dream? Not in her experience. And when she said things like that to Emery, rational things, he’d get that look on his face and say something like, “You grew up in this town, Janie. You talk about Lexington like it’s a foreign country.”
They had to teach her how to breast feed again. That was strange, Emery thought. Like a new mother. Two years with Brian and it was like she’d forgotten everything about it. She’d thought it was strange too. She didn’t remember a thing. And this little daughter wasn’t hers, she thought at times, not really, but at the same time, if not hers than whose?
Emery let her drive one Saturday on the way back from a picnic at the Kentucky River, and for a moment, when there was no car in front of her, Jane’s mind went blank. She panicked, swerving all over the road as though she had no idea what to do or even how to drive the vehicle, and then suddenly, like a broken circuit had popped back on, she said the street name, “Oh, Old Richmond,” and everything clicked back into place like nothing had happened. With the babies in the back, no less.
Some days, she forgot to cook dinner. Emery didn’t mind taking the family out to eat, but it was concerning. Then she would sit in the living room watching television when the baby was crying. Again, he didn’t mind checking in on Elizabeth, taking care of their daughter. But did she do that while he was at the firm? How long would she let the baby cry?
“I’d never do that, Emery; I’m not a monster,” she said when he asked her about it in bed that night. “I was just watching the television and I didn’t hear her is all.”
“Shatner’s just that captivating?” he said. “Seriously, Janie, I don’t know how you watch that garbage at all. Space aliens and all that.”
“You don’t think it’s interesting, Emery? That one day we’re going to go out into the stars like that?”
He hesitated, thinking about the prospect. “Well, I suppose if Kennedy gets his way we may get to the Moon before the Russians do.”
She started laughing uncontrollably.
“What?” he said. “What’s so funny?”
“You said the moon with such certainty, like it’s the only one in the universe, like there aren’t trillions of them in this galaxy alone. The Moon.”
“Honestly, Janie, I don’t know what’s gotten into you.”
“Maybe a space alien got into me and took control of my mind,” she said. “What if I did come from another planet? Would you still love me?”
“See, it’s when you say things like that it makes me want to call Dr. Radley and have him refer you to a psychiatrist.”
She shook her head and turned and kissed him on the lips.
“You worry entirely too much, my love,” she said. “It’s just these passing moments. I promise you I’d never leave the baby crying if I didn’t know you were in the house.”
Emery wished he believed her, and then he began to doubt himself. She had always been a bit whimsical. He’d probably always just looked past it because there wasn’t a baby in the picture.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” she laughed, mimicking Kennedy’s Boston drawl.
He burst out laughing. Janie did do a good Kennedy.
She was floating. Floating, but she wasn’t in space, but where was she? Something about the cavern seemed familiar. She wondered if she was dead.
“Jayna, you there?”
It was a familiar voice speaking directly into her ears, but there was no one else there in the dim cavern.
“Byram?” she said. “Is that you?”
“Who else would it be?”
“I’m confused. Where am I?”
“Are you joking. You don’t sound like you’re joking?”
“This is Kappa,” she said. “I remember now. The artifact. How long have I been gone?”
“Fifteen seconds,” he said. “You just flashed off the screen for an instant, your feed went down, and then you just came right back. Are you okay?”
“No. I think I died. I got dementia and I died, in a nursing home. It was horrible. How am I back here now?”
“I think you should come back to the ship, Jayna,” Byram said. “You need to get out of that alien habitat. I think it’s messing with your mind.”
“Can you guide me out?” she said.
“I’ll talk you back,” Byram said. “Take it nice and slow.”
Byram guided Jayna back down the cylinder to the exit. He had to remind her how to open the doors. Along the way, she said several times, “I remember this, flying like this.”
Of all the strange things to say. Something was terribly wrong with Jayna.
When she got to the ship, Byram had to help her switch off the nanosheet helmet and deactivate her clothes. It was like she’d forgotten the simplest things. Then when she was there before him, she was floating clumsily.
“Byram,” she said, breaking out in tears. “You’re just like I remembered you.”
“What did that thing do to you?” he said as she clutched him around his neck and held onto him for dear life. He could feel her chest rising and falling as she sobbed.
“Byram, are you real? Are you really, real?”
“Of course, I am,” he said, searching for her hand and then squeezing it as he rubbed her back. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
“I thought I’d lost you forever,” she said. “And then I died.”
“Jayna, you were only gone for a minute—less than a minute. Can you tell me what happened? Did you see a black hole in there?”
She paused to consider.
“That place,” she said. “That time, it’s getting foggy, and this one is getting clearer now. Byram, how old am I?”
“You’re twenty-four,” he said. “How old did you think you were?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m trying to remember, like waking up from a dream. I need to talk it through or I’ll forget it all. I don’t want to forget. I had a life there.”
“Where, Jayna? Where did you go?”
“I went to Earth. I lived a life on Earth just now.”
“Tell me everything you can about it,” he said. “Tell me what you remember.”
“I remember horses,” she said.
She nodded. “It was so real, as real as this. And now I’ll never know.”
“Know what, Jayna?”
She had a sullen look on her face.
“I’ll never know whether I ever really came out.”
Jayna had been following Byram around Katherineberg like a puppy for several years. As much as he adored his little sister, both he and his parents were beginning to recognize that it couldn’t go on like that for much longer. Byram was a teenager now, and his parents knew that as much as she wanted to be around him and his friends, there were things teenage boys wanted to do that they couldn’t or at least shouldn’t be doing with a nine-year-old little sister in tow. One of those things was the Mercury Gardens on the other side of Sowenia. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust Byram with her, they certainly did, but she couldn’t skate with the boys, and their mother was worried about her wandering off if she got bored watching the games.
Lucas Duran had been back for a few days now from another long rotation on Kappa-363-B. The resort had been doing so well they’d commissioned another wing, and he was working through the survey data for the foundations. Nothing had been laid out, but much of the geographical data was already well established from a decade prior. He was caught totally unprepared for the scene that came barreling through the door of their usually quiet home.
First, Lucas heard a high-pitched scream, and then he could hear Byram’s voice shouting, “What, Jayna? What? What can I do?”
And she was hysterical. At first, Lucas thought that maybe Byram had sent her home and she’d pitched a fit, but that wasn’t a normal dynamic for either of them. Byram would’ve backed off the second she started screaming. When Lucas came out of his office to see what was going on in the front room, he saw Jayna step inside, scream, grab the right side of her head and then trip right over her own foot as though it were an obstacle in her path she was completely unaware of. She let out a howl as she hit the floor.
“What the hell happened,” he said to Byram.
“We were at Stevens Park, and she just started freaking out,” Byram said. “She said she started seeing lights and grabbing her head. I didn’t know what to do.”
Jayna was still bawling on the floor, writhing and grabbing her head.
“What do we do, Dad?” Byram said, shaking as a sense of panic set in. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Hospital,” Lucas Duran said.
Lucas had never been through a situation like that with anyone before, much less his little girl. They took her right out of his arms at the hospital, pushed him back and told him he couldn’t go in. He and Byram waited in the family area, and all Byram could say was that she’d just started screaming. Everything had been fine in the moments leading up to it. They’d been talking about getting ice cream.
As they were waiting, the intake AI confirmed their identities and directed them to a private waiting area. When the door closed behind them, the AI said, “Jayna Duran is in emergency surgery. Information on her condition will be available for you to review, and a counselor will be along to help you interpret Jayna’s prognosis as it becomes available.”
A string of medical jargon appeared on the wall in bold lettering reading: arteriovenous malformation of the parietal lobe. Lucas, an architect, searched his memory to see if he could make sense of the phrase’s meaning, but before he even began to struggle, an explanation in plain language began to scroll beneath it.
“Brain surgery?” Byram said, bursting into tears. “Dad, what if something goes wrong?”
Blessedly, it didn’t. Jayna was already out of surgery and into recovery by the time Anna got back from Abrams on the express tube. The express wasn’t supposed to stop at Katherineberg mid-morning, but they reprogrammed the mid-day schedule to get Anna Duran to the hospital. She joined Lucas and Byram just as the surgeon had come in to give them an update on Jayna.
“It’s something that should have been caught on seven-year scans,” the surgeon said, “so it must have progressed very rapidly. She’s very lucky it wasn’t fatal. If it had burst before we got in there, I’m not sure she’d have made it. Rest assured, though, we’ll be keeping a much closer eye on this little brain from here on out.”
“Is it…” Anna Duran hesitated. “Will there be?”
“I doubt there will be any damage at all, Mrs. Duran. She’ll be a bit confused, I’m sure, and she might not remember how she got here, but there should be no noticeable neurological deficit. We caught it in time and repaired the malformation. And in a little while, you’ll be able to see her, though she may be sleepy.”
When the family was finally allowed to see Jayna, she was groggy but fully aware of what had happened. She mouthed the name of her condition repeatedly, trying to memorize the medical terminology. To Lucas and Anna, she looked as she always had—their perfect little girl. There was absolutely no outward sign that Jayna had come very near death mere hours earlier, but time had been on her side. Only just.
Byram didn’t want to go home at the end of the evening when they sent family home. He wasn’t even happy leaving her in the hospital under the careful watch of professionals.
“What did it feel like?” he asked her the following day when Jayna got home.
“It was strange,” she said. “I could feel myself like I was here and somewhere else entirely. I could see you in front of me, and it was like you were real and both not real at the same time, and sharp lights. And then it was all gone.”
Lucas Duran was seated in the Set Top finishing a beer when a woman he recognized came in. She was slightly older than him, thin, businesslike. She sat down two seats away from him and ordered sweet-cha. She looked over at him and cast an obligatory smile. She wasn’t expecting him to address her, as she’d already turned her head to face front, but he’d been waiting to catch one of them.
“You’re one of the researchers?” he said.
She nodded. “Archaeologist,” she said.
“I’ve seen you in the head professor’s group,” Lucas said. “Must be exciting work.”
“Yes and no,” she said. “I’m Claire, by the way.” She reached out a hand.
Lucas shook it. “Lucas Duran. I’m a structural engineer, working on the Broad Bay.”
“That’s the Iophos group?”
“Are you from Iophos as well?”
“Born and raised,” Lucas said.
“Oh,” she said. “I want to see those rings. I mean, I’ve seen specs and VR, but there’s nothing like laying hands on a structure, feeling it under your feet.”
“You’re not from Dreeson’s, Claire?”
“Whoa! Long way from home.”
“Well, if we find a three-hundred-million-year-old alien structure in my backyard, maybe you can come back my way and build a hotel there. I guess till then, we’re both stuck here.”
“Funny you should say that,” Lucas said. “I’ve always wondered, and I guess I’ve heard people talk about it, maybe I’d like a professional opinion.”
“For whatever that’s worth,” Claire joked.
“Why don’t we find more megastructures like these Kappa segments? What do the experts say about that?”
She shrugged. “We say a lot of things about that, Lucas. In fact, we never shut up about it. I mean, I could summarize the literature for you if that’s what you’re asking? But so could a bot.”
“I was more interested in your take,” Lucas said. “Personally, what do you think?”
“I think two things,” Claire said, looking forward as the autoservice paused at her seat and opened, sliding a tall glass of cold tea in front of her.
“Cheers,” Lucas said, raising his glass.
She mirrored the gesture.
“Thing is,” she said. “Time is merciless. Even those rings of yours, marvels as they are of engineering and science. They supposedly operate autonomously. Is that true? Have you ever heard about a self-regulating system breaking down and human engineers having to intervene?”
“Actually, there was a case study in one of my mechanical engineering classes—a systems design seminar. The last legitimate failure was over thirty years ago.”
“So let’s be generous and say that’s a once in a century occurrence for a near perfect structure. That’d be ten potentially serious failures in a millennium. Now think of a million years and just keep adding zeros. That’s answer number one. Eventually, those rings will either crash into Athos and Iophos or go flying off into the depths of space, and good luck finding anything in infinity.
“Answer two, I think, is more probable. Not a lot of big things ever get built. As much as we biological beings may prize the old form, the truth is that many times I wonder if our ancestors didn’t get it wrong. I know what their arguments were, and sure, I understand them. But what’s real, after all, Lucas? Who’s to say we’re real or the Kappa Artifact is real? I think it’s a damn rare society that has both pathways in front of it and instead of creating their own infinite frontier of immortal computerized consciousness at a trillionth of the cost and a gazzillionth of the size, resources, and effort, we go out and build rings around planets and colonize star systems separated by thousands of light years? We could build another universe in this teacup that would last for a trillion years and we could program it to seem like it lasted for a trillion times more. I think most intelligent beings make the other choice. It’s just so much easier.”
Lucas shrugged. “So I guess I won’t be visiting you on Alba Mejor any time soon?”
“Unlikely,” Claire said, and she was about to say something else when Lucas’s collar pinged.
The relay was picking up the signal as the incoming shuttle entered the Kappa-363 system. He’d been waiting on word from Anna. She was due in four weeks and he was scheduled on the outgoing shuttle when it turned around.
“My wife is expecting our second,” he said, extending his display and playing the message.
Claire nodded as Lucas excused himself.
“Meet Jayna Grace Duran,” his wife Anna said as the video played. She was seated with their baby girl in her lap, a proud big brother sitting there beside her.
“Mom said she made up her mind to come in her own time,” Byram said.
“She was kicking up a fuss and couldn’t wait for her daddy to come home before making her way into the universe. But she’ll be waiting for you when you get home.”
“Mom says I have to watch her till you get back,” Byram said. “I already like being a big brother a lot.”
“Come home soon,” Anna Duran said. Byram waved as the scene flashed off.
When he retracted the visor, Lucas had to wipe back tears. The archeologist had been watching him.
“Baby came early?” Claire said.
Lucas nodded. “Jayna Grace Duran, my daughter.”
“Congratulations, papa,” Claire said. “The next one’s on me.”
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested, the structure of this story (hinted at in the title) is uncommon, if not unique. If you’d like to read about it, I have an author’s commentary that explains the structure in a fairly accessible way—no narratology degree required! You can check it out here: https://www.rowelit.com/kappa-paradox
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