On day three of his week-long contract aboard the Encounter, Natius showed up for his first session with Camilan. The Ghilostri researcher had set up an acoustically live studio three decks below the ship’s bridge, where they could work in peace. As promised, the alien fitted Natius with odd headgear.
“We will make the most precise measurements of human brainwave patterns ever achieved,” said Camilan.
Natius was surprised to hear the pride in his/er voice. Normally, the Ghilostri worked hard to sound objective. Once the device was in place, the alien gave Natius a quantum tablet loaded with melodic lines and other musical patterns. He then asked Natius to play them on his Oscillot.
From then on, when Natius wasn’t either rehearsing with the band or performing for weary soldiers, he would rejoin Camilan and continue the data-collection phase of the experiment. Each time, the musical patterns that the Ghilostri asked him to play were more extended and more intricate than before. The experience reminded him of his student days, during which he’d practiced the most recondite music of the old masters.
Camilan’s music, however, was unlike any he’d heard before and its effect on his psyche was profound. Most intriguing, in a terrifying kind of way, was the music’s ability to trigger deeply buried memories. Vivid images swirled before him, until he lost contact with his surroundings. It was as if the music were playing him. These sensations intensified over the next two days until, in a final session, Natius felt untethered. Had hours passed, or weeks? It was disorienting to wonder if the sensations filling his senses were real, remembered or anticipated.
“Where am I?” he heard himself cry out.
“When is the question,” said Camilan. “You honestly don’t remember?”
“Wait … that voice, your voice,” said Natius. “I know that from … from now. I’m still on the Encounter, aren’t I?”
“You are genuinely confused,” said Camilan. “That is a very good sign.”
“Glad you think so,” said Natius. “That’s it. This has to be the last session.”
Camilan’s android shell took a step backward as the young musician ripped the alien headgear out of his hair and threw it to the lab’s white-tiled floor. Though the Ghilostri called after him, the human was already halfway down the corridor, on his way to his quarters. Without missing a beat, he entered his rooms, sealed the door and flopped down onto his comfortable bed, which was lined with the finest high-count sheets. Within seconds he was asleep.
To say his dreams were troubled would be an understatement.
For starters, it was rare for his nocturnal visions to feature so much vivid detail. On top of that, he discovered that he could step in and out of different eras of his life with no effort. He saw himself as a toddler, walking upstairs for the first time. He saw his first music lesson, given by a young woman on an electronic keyboard. That night, he traveled the length and breadth of his life moving back and forth like the shuttle of a loom, through Time.
The next morning when he awoke, he wondered that his school uniform was missing from his closet. Little by little, present reality seeped back into his mind. Though his day proceeded as usual, he felt as if he were witnessing it, rather than living it. Fortunately, after tumbling into bed at the end of that day, he slept untroubled by bizarre dreams, awoke feeling refreshed and looked forward to a normal day.
Nevertheless, at his daily meeting with Sasso, to discuss the song list for that evening’s performance, the Lieutenant began by patting Natius on the back.
“Mr. Tomlin,” he said. “I want you to know how pleased the Commodore is with you. You’ve also made the Ghilostri research team very happy. You’ll find a nice bonus in your pay packet at the end of this week.”
“Camilan almost killed me,” said Natius. “So I hope it’s very nice. Tell me, are the Ghilostri making progress with … whatever this is?”
“I’m told Camilan’s test results are still being evaluated,” said Sasso, “though I personally have never seen our guests so excitable. I believe they will enter the next phase of their project shortly.
“Next phase?” asked Natius. “You mean like, launching a probe?”
Sasso’s eyes widened.
“Well, of course, the details are top secret,” he said, “except I believe Camilan gave you the gist. I can’t blame you for thinking a probe might be involved. Now, about tonight’s….”
“And where will the Encounter be during this test?” asked Natius. “Don’t tell me….”
“I won’t,” said Sasso. “I won’t tell you anything. That’s what ‘top secret’ means.”
An insistent chime rang out of the Lieutenant’s left breast pocket. Natius couldn’t help noticing the slight tremor in his hands as he fished a slim, rectangular comlink out of his crisp uniform and put it to his ear
“Yes, Commodore?” he asked. “Main briefing room, ten nodes? Yes, Sir … he’s with me now … are you sure … I see. Right. Sasso out.”
“Something wrong?” asked Natius.
“No,” said the Lieutenant. “The Ghilostri have a major announcement and I gather that you made such an impression on Camilan that s/he wants you to hear it first-hand. I have to dash. Main conference room in ten nodes.”
Natius watched Sasso leave, wondered at the chill that ran down is spine and, with no idea what to expect, hurried after him. He arrived at a brightly lit conference room already packed with the Encounter’s chief officers, the leaders of the Ghilostri delegation, and a smattering of the ship’s crew. Notably absent were any of the other entertainers that the Commodore had hired for the mission, including his own band mates. As he gazed out over the room’s intricate array of high-tech view screens, digital readouts and security cameras, he felt as if he’d entered a war zone.
Soon Commodore Stetson walked in, with Ambassador Zillnet Jolion a few steps behind. Natius once again marveled at the strange beings who had come into his life without warning. The Commodore held up his hands for silence.
“Officers, crew members, and distinguished Ghilostri partners,” he said. “Ambassador Jolion has an important announcement that, I think you’ll agree, has made all of your hard work worthwhile. Ambassador?”
Natius’ stomach clenched as the alien’s mobile tank clanked up to the conference room’s slim podium.
“First,” said Jolion, “I would like to acknowledge the tireless cooperation of the human Natius Tomlin, without whom this momentous occasion would never have arrived. Please, let us have what I believe you call a ‘round of applause.’ ”
Though the accomplished performer in Natius responded instinctively to the applause, his heart sank. The entire scene filled him with deep foreboding and reminded him of sensations he’d felt during his recent nightmares. Had they been premonitions?
“I will leave the technical details to our specialists,” said the Ambassador, “but I can safely say that the pioneering research carried out by the team led by Camilan Draxilet, again with the help of Mr. Tomlin, has ‘borne fruit’ as you say. Within the next half rote, aided by the crew of the Encounter, we will launch a series of probes that, once activated, will alter local space-time in a way that has never been attempted before. Camilan, would you care to comment?”
As the Ghilostri researcher spoke, Natius fought hard to remain calm and failed miserably. The probes, it turned out, would execute the plan Camilan had outlined when they first met. Forces released by the probes would interact to distort space-time and create an anomaly in which the normal flow of Time came to a standstill.
“We will create a temporal oasis,” said Camilan, “which researchers may enter to conduct lengthy experimentation without the effects of aging. The creative lifespans of our greatest minds will increase exponentially. The benefits to society, are perhaps obvious.”
Scattered applause from the Encounter’s human crew died down quickly under the Commodore’s stern glare.
“How did we accomplish this?” asked Camilan. “We studied the tendency of the human mind, while listening intently to music, to shift into a so-called psychological perception of Time. I hypothesized that the sensations they experience are no mere illusion. In fact, our project will prove that a real distortion of Time occurs within the human brain and that, with careful modeling and extrapolation, we can put this curious natural phenomenon to practical use.”
The mixed audience applauded so thunderously that Natius wondered if the hull of the Encounter might crack. To regain his composure, he looked down at the room’s deep blue carpeting, while Commodore Stetson returned to the podium.
“There you have it,” he said. “Testing commences in thirty nodes. I want every member of my crew at battle stations. Non-essential personnel are confined to quarters until further notice. Sorry Ambassador. This is a standard TellusCorps Fleet precaution.”
The fluid in the Ambassador Jolien’s tank took on a warm yellow glow.
“We are not in the least offended by this custom,” he said. “Though I am confident that it will prove unnecessary.”
The crowd began to disperse as the Commodore escorted the Ghilostri contingent out of the conference room. For his part, Natius was happy to hide in his quarters. His hands shaking, he ignored the buzz of his comlink, which he was sure came from Quinsy or one of the other members of his band.
Instead, he slunk to his rooms as fast as possible. He was in no condition to reassure anyone about what was to come. He dared not let his agitated state inspire panic. Besides, he told himself, what if he were being irrational? The Ghilostri’s grasp of Science was far more secure than that of any other species. Though as much as he wished that thought was reassuring, his harrowing last test session with Camilan continued to haunt him.
If they do to space-time what Camilan did to my mind, he thought, the stars won’t know which end is up.”
Mere minutes later, the Ghilostri probes had rocketed into position, transmitted their designated energy patterns and shaken local space time to the core. Unknown to the Ghilostri, they’d unleashed forces more powerful than their sedate mentalities had anticipated. Far from creating a tightly contained pocket of anomalous space-time, the probes’ initial impact blossomed into a vast, tangled network of temporal effects.
An upheaval of everyday reality began soon after. At first, it was hard to see how the inhabitants of the Encounter or of any planet within three cubic light years of the ship could survive. In one sense, they did not, at least to the extent that any living being is defined by a unique set of quantum signatures. And yet, survive they did, in new, irregularly overlapping timelines and within an unprecedented zone, in which several eras were intertwined.
Of the souls lucky enough to withstand the shock of the Ghilostri experiment most lost consciousness. Over a period of time no one could measure they reawaken to self-awareness. Even at that, many were lost during a haphazard struggle to eke out a living in a totally unfamiliar environment. A male from a technologically advanced society might wake up in the tents of a prehistoric village, with no idea how to hunt the wild beasts that were the main source of food. A female from a pre-industrial town might find herself thrust onto the Engineering deck of a space-folding cruiser, headed for a distant galaxy it would never reach. The damage to local space-time was too great for the ship’s engines to create a stable spacefold.
Many others, like Natius, regained consciousness in a curious zone in which different timelines overlapped at random. In the strange world he’d entered, a large manufacturing plant stood about five meters away from an ancient, water-powered grain mill. Without the complex infrastructure needed to support them, relics of “the future” like the power plant stood idle. Out of necessity, they were gradually dismantled for spare parts and raw materials. As Natius soon discovered, his survival depended on how quickly he could learn a new range of essential skills.
Fortunately, the terror and confusion shared by every survivor formed a lasting bond between them. It encouraged them to share insights, resources and training. Though language barriers were palpable, they evolved a common vocabulary of gestures, sounds and pictograms scratched into the soil. At the same time, against all odds, a few members of the budding community spoke some version of the CommonSpeak that had emerged at the dawn of interstellar travel to facilitate commerce.
In Natius’ immediate circle were upwards of twenty sentient survivors, mostly humanoid, with two exceptions: a female reptilian, called Kranil and a male avian named Solaan. Whereas Kranil was outgoing and chatty, Solaan kept almost entirely to himself, rarely spoke and left his favorite spot under a burgeoning deciduous tree when asked for assistance. To his credit despite showing symptoms of deep depression, he always pitched in.
This, Natius was dismayed to see, was in sharp contrast to a few of the humanoids, who were indolent and would not work unless coerced. Celia Paduan, however, a young woman from a Terran colony dating a little less than three centuries before his own time, turned out to be a valuable asset. Though somewhat acerbic, her past experience as an architect and a builder became more important as time went on.
At first, Celia’s pretty face, jet black hair and lithe figure made Natius daydream that here, in this fragmented new world, he might find the intimate, loving relationship that had so far eluded him. Sadly, because his attempts at conversation yielded no more than polite, perfunctory responses, he realized that he was fighting for a lost cause. After a few days, the realized that even if he could not find romantic love, he could feel the supporting embrace of community life, and he was grateful for it.
As is happened, Natius soon discovered that this fragile commonality was not enough to ensure his survival. Three weeks following the temporal cataclysm, he fell violently ill, along with a few of the others. Like them, Natius’ pampered immune system, adapted to the germ-free environment of his era, crashed — as a wave of bacterial and viral infections washed over the fledgling tribe.
Tending the sick were a young physician from an era five centuries earlier than Natius’ and an aging member of an ancient culture, who was steeped in the lore of herbal medicine. For nearly two months, Natius straddled life and death. Until, that is, one rainy summer morning, he awoke hungry, exhausted and cured.
Slowly, his prospects improved. In the coming weeks, his companions found a broad river a few miles from their encampment to supplement the bubbling spring that, previously, had been their sole source of water. Houses of stone, wood, mud and thatch were raised. Hearth pits were dug and kindling lit. Seeds were planted and, after a period of trial and error, traps were set. Throughout this time, Natius lent as much help as he could and occasionally added an insight of his own. Within a year, the longest of his life, their new village was viable and self-sustaining.
One evening around the central hearth, an elderly woman, who called herself “Eleanor,” asked Natius what he had done “in the back-thens.” On hearing that he was a musician, she smiled and led him to a narrow shed — where she’d collected some of the stray items that she’d found, scattered here and there in the vicinity of the village. In the dim light, she pointed to a slightly dented silver flute that she’d placed on a high shelf.
“Some wanted to melt it down for the metal,” she said. “I refused to let them. I know one makes magic with such things. There, I see it in your eyes. You know it’s true.”
In spite of himself, Natius wept. Eleanor placed the battered instrument in his trembling hands and, after a few halting attempts, he made it sing.
“Yes,” he said. “Magic. What else have you found?”
“Oh, many precious items,” said Eleanor. “Ever seen the like of this?”
Natius gasped as she placed a quantum data cube in the palm of his hand. Out of reflex he tapped the blue label attached to its top. For a brief moment, the cube drew on its last few wisps of power to call up a holographic image. He gasped again. It was an image of him and his band “Second Meson,” playing for an invited audience onboard the Encounter.
To be continued…. Read the next episode here
A new Episode of Anomaly appears every other Monday.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.