Bewildering Stories

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by Eric S. Brown and Gail Davis

Alan switched off the computer screens and moved into the burned-out fore cabin of the cruiser, settling into the cockpit chair to sit silently watching the sky bleed from red to a bruise-like purple. It was the same day after day. He stared at the computer screens all day, reading about the experimental drive and learning more about it than he had ever cared to know. It was the same night after night, too. The sky faded, the temperature dropped and he gathered the clothes and blankets he had managed to salvage from the wreckage, bundled up tightly in them and waited for the gleaming orange sun to return the sky to blood red so that he could start staring at screens again.

And all the while he wished that at least one of the others had survived.

There had been sixty of them, volunteers who had given up everything in order to do something that none of them had any clue about. They were told only that it would mean full pardons for all of them. After having already spent three years in prison, and knowing he had at least the rest of his life to go, he jumped at the chance to be free again.

He barked a short, harsh laugh. “Oh, yeah. Freedom. Wee...” Spinning around in the cockpit chair he rose to his feet and slammed his fist into the wall beside him, laughing hysterically when it began to crumble, sending black dust sifting slowly to the floor. “And this is what freedom means to me...”

His laughter faded almost as quickly as it had come on and he sighed softly. According to the marks on the wall next to his makeshift bed this was the end of his one-hundred-twenty-sixth day here and now and then he fell into a sort of madness that, thankfully, never lasted for very long. With every passing day, however, the spells came more often. It seemed insanity was inevitable... but he tried not to think about that.

He dressed quickly in the extra clothes and wrapped the blankets around himself, then settled into the cockpit chair again, his eyes moving slowly over the scene outside just as they did every night in hopes of seeing something, anything new. Nothing ever changed, though, and, as always, he fell into a sort of stupor. For hours he stared at the same old gray rocks, with the same old yellow moss creeping slowly over them.

Eventually he became aware of the lightening of the terrain and the fact that it was slowly starting to warm up. He loosened the blankets but continued to sit where he was, his eyes watching the blood return to the heavens. It was then that he saw it... a large, bright streak of light shooting across the firmament.

He sat up quickly, leaning close to the cracked but still intact window of the cruiser, watching the flame move toward the horizon. Just before it disappeared completely, the sound of explosion reached him and he winced, squinting his eyes against the resulting flare. It took only a few moments more for the rumble to sound and within seconds the cruiser was shaking violently around him causing him to have to hold onto the chair to keep his feet beneath him.

When the quaking finally stopped he stood for a moment, eyes fixed on the horizon where the blazing light still glowed brightly against the fading purple sky. His mind was working furiously, trying to determine just what he had seen and wondering if he should check it out. He wanted to, just to break the monotony. He knew the air was safe for him to breathe... better be after all this time... and he had yet to see anything at all moving outside the window that might be considered dangerous. He was sure that if anything lived on this half-baked piece of rock it would have found him by now and at least been curious enough to take a closer look.

“What the hell, Alan...” he muttered to himself. “What you got to lose?”

He gathered several food packets and filled a few water-cylinders. Food and water were two things he had in abundance as the cruiser had been fully stocked to support its sixty-five passengers, including the crew, for two years. Those compartments had, thankfully, been untouched during the crash. He put them into a pack along with his blankets and clothes, just in case he was unable to return to his shelter before the sun set again and left the wrecked ship behind.

The terrain was quite a bit rougher than it appeared to be from his window, but it was fairly easy to traverse and within a few hours he had come to where he could actually see the remains of whatever had fallen ahead. With the rest of the distance and the sun in his eyes it was still impossible to make out just what it was but he was sure now that it was indeed a crash site.

Hope swelled inside him, he couldn’t help it, and he began to run. Maybe there were survivors. Maybe a radio or some other means of communication had survived. It was a chance he hadn’t had a few short hours ago and he was desperate to find out if it truly existed or if it was just another tease.

When he finally arrived he stood for a moment, looking over the tail section of the M-Class cruiser, a near exact replica of the one he, himself, had been traveling in, before rushing forward and hammering his fist against the outside walls, calling aloud to anyone who might be inside. He had almost given up when he heard the muffled, desperate pounding of metal upon metal. He worked furiously, ripping at the wreckage with his bare hands, pushing aside and ignoring the body parts he came across, until he found the survivor.

“Let’s get you out of here.” he said quietly, lifting the man carefully and helping him from the wreckage. Settling him on a fallen cargo crate, he turned his attention to digging out a water cylinder. What he saw when he turned back, however, made him drop it. “Holy shit... What the hell’s goin’ on?”

The man sitting before him looked as confused as he felt, and little wonder. He was having hell getting his head around it, too. It wasn’t everyday he found himself faced with someone who was, as far as he could see, his own mirror image, but there he was, bearing the same injuries he, himself, had when he crashed there one-hundred-twenty-six days ago.

His mirror image looked up at him with his own blue eyes with a bewildered stare. “Who... Who are you?”

“I’m you!” he snapped more harshly than he’d intended.

“What’s going on?” the other man stammered, his expression suspicious.

“Good question.” Alan said. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but I do know we have a chance now. We might just be able to get off this rock. Tell me what happened. What caused you to crash?”

“The drive malfunctioned. Overload.”

“No shit.” Alan chuckled, already staring at the door to the engineering section. Being left alone in this Hell with only the rocks and the ship’s computers for company he’d had a long time to study the drive.

As the other man pulled himself to his feet, Alan noticed the man’s right hand. There was a small cut across his palm, just like the one he had suffered, but there was no blood. Several live wires dangled from the broken hand. Alan looked down at the scar on his own palm and remembered fully how much it had bled and hurt like Hell.

“Your hand... Is that a cybernetic replacement?” Alan asked.

“Yeah, I was in prison fight. Didn’t go like I planned it, ok? What’s it to you?”

“But I never...” Alan fell silent, staring up at the man who was him, but wasn’t. The guy looked like him, sounded like him, hell, he even smelled like him, but that hand... His mind started working over the facts of what he was now faced with. Two crashes, two survivors, mirror images of one another with identical injuries to the same hands — hands that were totally different.

“What were you saying about the drive?” the twin asked impatiently.

Alan snapped back to his burning goal of getting home. “The drive... Don’t you see? This prototype is supposed to be FTL, eliminating the need for cold-sleep in interstellar travel, right? But it doesn’t achieve FTL speeds. It tears holes in space-time to get around the Einsteinian universal speed limit of light.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think I understand it all now. If we can get the drive functional, we can not only get off this world but we can change everything. No prison, no crash, it’ll be like we were never here. We could even be rich if we wanted.”

The other man stepped between him and the door to engineering, drawing a small EP pistol from his pocket with his good hand. “I may not understand what’s going on but you can’t go in there. I don’t have that kind of clearance and you sure as Hell don’t. For all I know, you’re some kind of bug-eyed alien messing with my head. My orders are to destroy this technology before letting it fall into non-Alliance hands.” he stated calmly. “Move away from the door.”

Alan blinked. “Where did you get a gun? I never had a gun.”

“All security officers get one, but then you’d know that if you were me, wouldn’t you?” He waved the gun, gesturing towards a nearby chair in the control room and Alan backed toward it.

“Alan,” he said quietly as he went, watching the expression on the man’s face carefully, noting the slight squinting of his eyes that spoke of surprise. It was then that Alan realized he wasn’t looking at a mirror image of himself, a twin. He was looking at another man named Alan who had his own life and his own past in his own world.

No, it couldn’t be trans-linear. Trans-dimensional, that was the answer.

“Why were you in prison?” Alan asked quietly.

“I punched a senior officer.”

“I was in prison. Killed my wife. Caught the bitch cheating on me and I guess I kinda lost it. Hacked her into pieces and dumped her out Geo station Two’s airlock in the docking port.”

His double looked at Alan as if he were crazy. “Sit down,” he ordered looking around for something to tie Alan up with. “My wife never cheated on me.”

“No... I don’t suppose she did.” Alan smiled, a mad gleam in his eyes. He sprang at his other self, knocking the gun out of the man’s grasp. It clattered along the metal floor as Alan crashed into him and the pair went down in a jumble of sprawling limbs.

Alan felt the rage take him over as it had so many times before and suddenly he was sitting straddled over his other self’s waist, his fists striking the man again and again. The man struggled violently, his hands grasping and clutching at Alan, trying to throw him off. Alan was insanely strong during these ‘spells’, however, and held him down easily.

Blood smeared his double’s face, a horrible choking sound erupted from his lips as Alan bashed his throat in. Alan continued to batter the man long after he lay still. At last, he leaned back, grinning, his fists aching and soaked in blood. A deep laugh rose up inside him and boomed forth, echoing in the silence of the compartment. This time everything would be perfect. He’d never get caught. He knew how to stop that now. He’d never go to prison or be here. He’d finally be free to whatever he wanted. Whatever he wanted...

Copyright © 2003 by by Eric S. Brown and Gail Davis