by E.S. Strout
If it wasn’t for time, everything would happen at once. — Albert Einstein
Wednesday 28 August 2019. 0600 hours:
A Mozart piano trio nudged Kevin Pauley to grudging wakefulness. He levered an eyelid open.
“Sara, it’s only six a.m.”
A blink of dark eyelashes over intense brown irises. She brushed tangled auburn tresses back from her face and drew the bedclothes to her neck. “Busy day. Gotta get rolling.”
Kevin eyed an exposed, slender hip. “A tattoo? I never noticed.”
“Ancient history. I chose the Space Corps logo on a dare after a few too many brews at a Delta Tau Chi frat party. It’s the old NASA emblem.”
She tucked the decorated extremity under the sheets. “Show’s over. Gotta go fix a bit of gray.”
Kevin gaped a cavernous yawn. “Prematurely gray is sexy.”
Sara stomped to the bathroom, trailing a bed sheet. “Come on, Kevin. I’m only thirty-four.”
He nodded. “I’ll make coffee.”
“Toast me a bagel too, love. Gotta be on the 0745 space station shuttle. First sublight trials with the G-prototype today.”
“Why are you doing this? You’re a Section Chief.”
Dr. Sara Iverson dunked the bagel in her coffee, took a bite. “I’ve been Dr. Lynch’s associate for four years and I have supersonic flight training. She okayed me for the test flights.”
A blue and silver Air Force sedan pulled up outside.
“Your ride’s here. Drop me a subspace note, okay?”
30 August. 1330 hours:
“Dr. Iverson asked for me. What’s happened?”
“Can’t say, sir,” said the security man.
Kevin blinked at the retinal laser ID flash. “I work here. Subatomic particle research. Dr. Iverson is a colleague.”
The man nodded. “Please come with me, Dr. Pauley.”
A second agent sat at a desk in another office, eyes riveted on a digitized plasma screen.
“Kevin Pauley, chief. He has Omega-7 clearance.”
“Good. He can see this, then.”
The man extended a hand. “Tony Wolcott, Head of Space Corps Security.”
“Sounds ominous. What did she do this time?”
“Please sit, Kevin. This is a weird one.”
He turned the monitor screen. “Security camera view. Real time.”
Dr. Iverson was propped up in a Space Corps Infirmary bed, tapping on her laptop’s keyboard.
“Those bruises. You guys beat her up?”
A wry grin from Wolcott. “She can explain better than I. You need to see this recording.”
He tapped the remote.
“Dr. Iverson has been here almost forty-eight hours since her emergency MedEvac from Delta Echo. This is from 0938 hours day before yesterday.”
On the screen Sara dozed, an IV running in one bandaged arm. There was a sudden blink and she lay sleeping on her opposite side, the detached IV dripping clear liquid on the tile deck.
“Time lapse mode?”
“That’s what I thought.” Wolcott back-skipped the recording.
“Note the time log, lower right-hand corner.”
There was no gap.
“Beats me. Watch for any similar changes when you visit.”
“And if I do?”
“Astrophysics folks will want to know.”
Kevin’s eyes widened in dismay. “Lovely shade of purple, Sara. You collide with an asteroid?”
“Rapid deceleration. Every square millimeter of my body aches. I have two cracked ribs and a busted kneecap.”
“You broke the light-speed barrier, right? We’re months away from getting the bugs out of the inertial dampers.”
“Saturn and back in forty seconds. Aren’t you impressed?”
“You could have been squashed flat.”
“Good thing I wore a flak jacket. Now what’s with the spook asking about time lapses?”
“I saw the playback. It’s real.”
Her expression was one of genuine puzzlement.
“Weird. I do remember an odd chill, then the nurse restarting the IV. Must see that nanochip. I’ll be outta here in a couple of days.”
“More like a week, Sara.”
“See this?” She tapped the IV line with a fingertip. “Ribosomal RNA augmented instant soft tissue regenerative proteins.”
“But the fracture?”
“They hammered in a couple of titanium-steel pins. So bring me some clothes, please? They had to cut me out of my flight gear. And sneak me in some wine. The hospital menu sucks.”
Kevin said, “I saw no skips, Agent Wolcott. She wants that chip.”
“Too late. Astrophysics folks just grabbed it.”
1 September. 1130 hours:
“Ta-da! Just like new.”
Dr. Iverson stood and hoisted the hospital gown to mid thigh. Her skin gleamed a healthy pink with only an occasional faint yellowish reminder of the contusions.
“MRI and CT scans are normal, too. Got something good for me?”
Kevin placed a styrofoam cooler on the bedside table.
“California Chardonnay. Agent Wolcott agrees with you about hospital food.”
He produced a brown paper sack. “Your wardrobe.”
She dumped it on the bed. “Good. Slacks, blouse, cardigan vest, running shoes and...” A demure grin. “Black panties and bra? Enjoy yourself rummaging through my underwear?”
A defensive shrug. “Just grabbed what was on top. Tony says Astrophysics Division snagged the chip.”
“Damn. Its gotta be space-time continuum related. Where’s Stephen Hawking when you need him?”
One day later:
“Heard they grounded you.”
Sara took a swallow of wine. “The inertial damper problem. Please tell me you’ve fixed it.”
“Got it covered.”
He booted up his laptop on Sara’s coffee table, tapped keys. Complex equations scrolled down the screen.
Dr. Iverson drained her glass as she watched.
“My flight recordings. So?” Then she gaped in surprise.
“Wait one. Hold it right there.”
Kevin highlighted the page.
“Your in-flight systems chip isolated an up-quark instability problem. We’ve modified the subatomic particle matrix of the shields to better protect organic tissue.”
He allowed himself a perceptive grin. “You can withstand the turbulent velocity changes encountered in FTL travel now without body armor.”
“I love it when you try to snow me with technology, Kevin.”
She gave him a seductive wink and undid her top blouse button. “Come here.”
“Your ribs? Your kneecap?”
“Check them out yourself.”
The next morning. 0730 hours:
She raised her head, wedged an eyelid open. “You still here?”
“Your tattoo. It’s changed.”
“Your, ah, left buttock. The Space Corps logo. It’s different.”
A flush of annoyance. “Not funny, Kevin.”
She padded to the bathroom, wearing only a robe. “Mess with my head, Pauley, you’re a dead man.”
Minutes passed. Kevin gave a soft tap on the door. “Sara?”
It cracked open a centimeter. Her face was ashen, eyes wide with foreboding.
“This is weird. You’re right. Logo is the same, but the legend reads NASA, not Space Corps. I’ll show you something else, too.”
She pulled hair back from her forehead till the skin stretched. “See anything odd?”
“Jesus Christ, Kevin.” She yanked a handful of tresses straight up. “Ow, dammit. Look now. Closer.”
“You switched from Lady Clairol?”
She grabbed him by the shoulders and gave a vigorous shake.
“I haven’t used hair dye in a week, Kevin. Sherlock Holmes you are not.”
“No gray? Weird.”
“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Iverson,” Tony Wolcott said.
She returned his handshake with a determined grip. “I know you keep a nanochip copy. Show me.”
Wolcott rubbed his receding hairline. “Highly irregular, but...”
“Can you enlarge specific locations?”
“I can do a molecular scan on every pore, Professor. Where should I start?”
“My face. Right before the first skip.”
Wolcott tapped at the keyboard. “Got it. Oblique angle, partly hidden in the pillow.”
“Move up to the hairline. Closer. Good. Right there. Maximum enlargement. What do you see?”
“You’re prematurely gray, Professor. It happens.”
Sara punched a closed fist into an open palm with a resounding smack. “Yes! Now right after the glitch.”
Wolcott punched more keys. “You’ve turned over.”
“Damn. Get the temple. There.”
“Yikes. The gray is gone, Dr. Iverson.”
The next morning:
Kevin gulped black coffee. “Didn’t hear you come in last night.”
Dr. Iverson booted up her laptop, studied graphics, poured more coffee.
“Head knocking with Dr. Dubrovny and the astrophysics geeks till after one. I’ll update you.”
“Dubrovny is who?”
“Alexis Dubrovny. Astrophysics Department Head. She evaluated my flight data. Gave me a theory about transposed components of a counterpart from an alternate time line. Delayed side effects of faster than light travel.”
A dubious shrug. ”Over my head, Sara.”
“Stephen Hawking once proposed a theory of multiple space-time lines and probabilities. Parallel histories within our universe. She thinks I may have tapped into one. Pretty freaky, huh?”
Kevin moaned as though in pain.
“You’re telling me there’s another you out there in some interchanged cosmic reality wondering what happened to the tattoo on her ass?”
A giggle. “Something like that.”
Kevin uttered an agonized groan. “What next?”
“Dubrovny’s concerned that more delayed changes could occur. Wants time to run more tests.”
“I screamed and yelled a lot. Got a new mission approved.”
“How’d you pull that off?”
“I got Dr. Lynch to yell and scream.”
Kevin’s shoulders slumped in resignation. “Sara, I want to see the FTL data too, but suppose Dubrovny is right?”
“I’ve got to know, Kevin.”
Three days later. 2030 hours:
“What do you have, Tony?”
“Dr. Iverson looks okay. Her flight suit is intact and she has no bruises. Forty-four hours of surveillance recordings and just a single skip this time, less than a microsecond. The tattoo still says NASA and her hair is natural dark.”
“You saw... all of her?”
“Goes with the job, Kevin. You’re a lucky man.”
“So everything’s all right, Sara?”
“Lab tests, x-rays, augmented MRI, molecular bioscans, DNA check, you name it.”
She paused. “Well, not exactly everything.”
She held out her glass. “Little more wine, please?”
Kevin filled both glasses.
“Watch this.” She set her glass down, extended her legs and gave two vigorous kicks. Her black flats impacted the window ledge and flopped to the carpet.
“You learned kickboxing?”
An exasperated sigh.
“No, you nerd. I wear size seven footwear. Snug fit. No way I could kick them loose. My feet are a size smaller. That’s not all. I’ve lost five pounds, even with the pre-flight hi-carb push.”
A covert grin. “The alternate me will be shopping for a new wardrobe.”
“Does Dr. Dubrovny know?”
“I deleted it from the chip.”
“G-probe got me to the Sagittarius-A anomaly and back in less than two hours. Think I’m gonna quit now? Rim of the universe is waiting.”
“If Dubrovny finds out...”
“The volume of recorded data on our galactic black hole will keep that astrophysics ratpack salivating for months. They won’t know I’m gone.”
“You can’t be serious, Sara. There could be more delayed changes. Suppose you come face to face with your doppelganger?”
“I’ll kick her right in my Space Corps tattoo.”
“Why all the secrecy, Tony? Dr. Iverson has been missing for six weeks, Dubrovny is accusing her of hijacking the G-probe, all that alternate time and history garbage.”
Kevin collapsed in a chair next to Wolcott’s desk, his face drained of color.
“Is she okay?”
“They could be identical twins,” Agent Wolcott said as they viewed the two isolation rooms through one-way glass.
"They were pissed; we had to separate them to prevent violence. Each one is convinced she’s Professor Sara Joanne Iverson. Their G-probes are identical, down to the last molecular transistor.”
“Speech patterns, inflections, accent identical. Same orthopedic pins in the kneecap. Identical lab results, MRI too. Same DNA. Molecular and subatomic structure analysis identical.”
Kevin asked, “My Sara’s tattoo said ‘Space Corps’ and she had a few gray hairs. Isn’t that proof, Alexis?”
The theoretical physicist tugged at a stray lock and whispered in her soft Slavic accent.
“What if the first one to return was the altered original? Both of her believe the other is the copy.”
“None,” Dr. Dubrovny said. “Same postgraduate degrees, same research experience. Identical family backgrounds, friends, associates.”
“Suppose we had a positive I.D.” Tony ventured. “Couldn’t we send the copy back?”
Dr. Dubrovny took a deep breath, exhaled through pursed lips. “The compilation of flight data from Dr. Iverson’s last trip suggests that we could get another replica instead.”
Wolcott scratched his head. “Greek to me, Kevin.”
“Me too. It’s all theoretical as hell. But imagine a third Sara. Or a fourth, a fifth.”
“Or an infinite number,” Dr. Dubrovny added.
“Hasn’t the alternate time line been interrupted?” Kevin asked. “Their Sara Iverson is here.”
Dr. Dubrovny said: “I suspect they are dealing with an identical problem. Their Dr. Iverson and ours. Her duplicate.”
Tony clapped both hands over his ears. “Stop it, you guys. You’re making me crazy.”
“Are you okay with this, Kevin?” Alexis asked.
“I’ll let you know.”
The two Saras sat with Kevin in a conference room with two alert Security persons standing by. Kevin poured wine, passed the glasses around.
“Sara... and Sara, you two have created a unique problem for me.”
Each took a sip of Chardonnay.
One Sara said, “Not a problem, love. You’ve seen my change in hair color. And the rest of me as well.”
All helped themselves to more wine.
The other Sara said, “Not a problem, love. You’ve seen my change in hair color. And the rest of me as well.”
Kevin drained his glass in two gulps.
“I’ve seen both hair colors, plus the odd tattoos. And the shoe size change and weight loss.”
“Then you know I’m your Sara,” each replied as they glared at their respective copies across the conference table.
“This is going nowhere, Saras. I may have a solution.”
“What happened to Kevin?” Security Chief Wolcott asked.
Dr. Dubrovny breathed a deep sigh, dried her hands on her lab coat. “Kevin has a plan. Too dangerous, I told him. But he promised me first copies of all the flight data.”
“Has he left?” the Saras asked.
Alexis consulted her computer monitor. “He’s just exiting our galaxy in one of the G-prototypes.”
Tony Wolcott leaned back in his chair with a smirk of amusement. “How many Kevins will return? You ladies must be a little anxious.”
They smiled, slapped high fives across the table. "We’re just beside ourselves, Tony.”
Copyright © 2009 by E.S. Strout