The doctors and technicians at the cryogenic labs tell you not to panic if you wake up and don’t know where you are. I am sitting alone on a bench in an urban park with high rise buildings in the background. The mission must be over, but someone should be with me during recovery.
Not a single car passes by the road just beyond the park gates. No rumble of traffic. No one jogging or picnicking in the park. No ducks in the pond or birds in the trees. Only an empty whistling wind.
Don’t panic, I remind myself.
I’m still wearing my flight suit. I suspect I just climbed off the ship and walked to the nearest city and sat here before passing out.
A man approaches. Grey hair. Unhurried steps. The relaxed pace tells me everything is alright. He ambles down the path like my father. It is my father. I completed the mission and he’s taking care of me. Family members are crucial to memory recall after long missions.
Then I remember a message I received on the ship, weeks after takeoff. A regretful note from mission control. He had passed away. Which means that I…that I…White light overwhelms my vision. A ringing hits my ears.
I remember my training. Deep breaths. The ringing stops. My vision comes back.
The man stands before me and waves hello. The same gesture I’ve seen of myself in a graduation video, at my sister’s wedding, before my first little league game. That wave is me. That walk. That face. The blue eyes and smile. Only the gray hair is different.
“Good morning.” He says in my voice.
My vision starts to fade.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. A voice in my ear. “Whoa. Take it easy. Inhale slowly.” The hand is holding me up. “You must be new. Did you just arrive?”
A drop of sweat rolls down my forehead. The ringing returns. The voice disappears.
When I come to, he is sitting next to me. Arm around me. Holding me up. The ringing stops. I take a deep breath.
We sit quietly until the light-headedness goes away. Until I feel concrete again. I stamp my feet on the grass and sit up.
“Who are you?” I can only whisper. My throat is fine. Fear holds my words.
“I am you. About a decade later, I imagine.” He squeezes my hand so it feels real. “You see those kids playing ball over there?”
I follow the shouts and laughter of boys on a basketball court. They shoot the ball and miss every time. None of them can dribble very well—like me.
“Those boys are you, too. The eight-year-olds, I believe.” He holds my shoulder in case I pass out again. “We estimate there are thirty thousand instances of us living in this abandoned city.”
“Roughly one of us for each day of our lives.” He takes a long look at me. “Do you remember the mission?”
A vision comes to me of my ship and the crew. Just four of us. A dangerous experiment. I was the pilot.
“I am astronaut Derrik Case.”
“We flew between two collapsing stars orbiting around each other. And then we…” What happened after doesn’t come.
We sat quietly watching the kids play. Every breeze across my face brought a new wave of memories. An experiment. An astrophysicist had discovered two giant stars at the end of their lives, collapsing in on themselves. Primordial black holes. Intense gravity pulling everything in. Scientists wanted to know what effect the two giants would have on objects passing between them. They sent probes—rugged unmanned ships. They colonized a planet on the other side to capture what came through.
The first probe to make it through crashed landed on the destination planet. They found it completely intact—except—a second crash site was found with the same probe completely intact. It had duplicated itself. Other objects sent through showed up in duplicate, triplicate, sometimes ten copies arrived.
When they sent a living thing, they had their answer. A probe with a Devil’s Ivy plant stowed inside landed in five places. In one, the plant had shriveled up, almost dead. Another was completely healthy with lush, green leaves. Two had only sprouts. The fifth had disappeared until they dug in the soil and found a seed.
Any object passing into a black hole gets stretched to its limit and breaks apart. Our physicists theorized an object passing through two collapsing stars of intense gravity maintained the integrity of the object but stretched and split its spacetime continuum. That is, the journey broke apart its life into distinct pieces.
“That is the theory.” My older self said. “We are the proof.”
“And the rest of the crew? What about Chief Astronaut Cheryl Jansen?” It was selfish to ask about her first, but I was talking to myself. He would know my intent.
“We haven’t found anyone else. We don’t know why.”
She was different from the rest of the crew—a scientist with a strong desire for field work. She had been stuck in a lab for ten years under the protection of her father. When he passed away, she signed up for the first mission.
I, too, had volunteered. It was the only way to break the cycle of prison life. Why wait to finish another sentence when all that awaited me was the unemployable life of an ex-con and a return to crime to survive. As an astronaut in training, I got special treatment. Better living quarters, better food. They even treated me with a certain amount of respect. It didn’t take long to train me for what they thought would be a one-way, dead-end trip.
My future self helped me off the bench and took me around the park to meet the kids. I already knew their names. We introduced ourselves by age. I was forty-five. They ranged from five to seventeen. The adults were busy working elsewhere.
My elder showed me a place to sleep—an apartment all my own on the fifth floor of a high rise overlooking the park. I took a shower and found some fresh clothes laid out on the bed, something from a department store nearby. Jeans, work boots, plaid shirt. He knew my size and style.
For lunch, he brought me to the place where we organized the food—all gathered up from the freezers of various restaurants. We planned to have sustainable crops before the foodstuffs ran out. Thirty instances of me studied up on agriculture and collected farm equipment. Beyond the city, they found plenty of fertile land. They expected to start planting within the year after tilling the soil.
A group of young men drove up in a truck and passed us on the way to the restaurant. They had just come from the fields and wore dusty overalls. They reminded me of the summer I spent on my uncle’s ranch. I was nineteen and had romanticized about running my own farm, wondering if I could do all that work by myself. By the end of the year, that dream died.
The summer before, I had just graduated from high school when some friends invited me to backpack through Europe. I chickened out—a regret I had for many years. Older versions of me sat with these kids and encouraged them to explore the planet. All of them traveled in pairs.
The elders asked a few of them to take a methodical approach to their journey. One group headed toward a setting sun. Others followed a specific star. I had a few rowdy nights that summer when I felt wild and chaotic. Those kids were told to explore randomly. Not that they would have listened to instructions anyway.
Two of these teenagers had been given a special mission. After working the farm, I had acquired some discipline and signed up for classes at a junior college. The elders remembered the day I aced my Trigonometry test and the late night before it. Those two were instructed to follow the horizon toward the collapsing stars. Intuition told us the answers lay in that direction.
After thirty days, random explorers trickled in. All of them described the terrain as dull—endless fields of rolling meadows and an occasional small lake with clear, drinkable water. Some trees, no forests. Plants and shrubs but no animal life.
After one hundred days, all the travelers had returned, except for one pair—the two that followed the path toward the collapsing stars. We sent an expedition of ten in that direction, asking them to send back two after a week to describe the journey and then return to meet the others. They would go back and forth every week like a team of ants reporting their discoveries.
We all worked on something: taking turns with the menial tasks of preparing and serving food, cleaning, maintaining the solar panels that powered the city. Many of us studied in the library, comparing our observations with books on astrophysics. Others studied mechanical engineering. As a team we began to repair the ship. We didn’t talk about who would fly it and abandon the rest of us.
In the weeks that followed, I kept to myself. It was unnerving to live with people who had the same gestures, voice, and thoughts. In time, I got used to it. I had always wanted to settle down in the country but living in an abandoned city with thirty thousand, quiet people was starting to grow on me.
Every evening a nearby planet the size of the earth’s moon lit the sky. A few of the thirty-year-olds studied it with telescopes. I preferred to sit on the lawn and romanticize that Cheryl was waiting for me there.
A twenty-three-year-old sitting next to me had a theory about that planet. Around his age, I had read a book called “Flatland,” so it was still fresh in his mind.
“I suspect that planet is this planet,” he said.
He explained further.
“Imagine a one-dimensional creature living on a line. It can only travel back and forth. If it journeys in one direction long enough and finds itself back where it started, it may not understand why. Since we live in a higher dimension, we can see that the creature lives on a circle.
“If we travel on a two-dimensional plane and go in one direction far enough until we reach our starting point, then we can conclude we are living on a sphere. But it can also work in three dimensions. If we fly in one direction and end up back where we started, we can assume we are in the same situation but on a higher dimension than a circle or sphere. We can’t conceptualize it, because we are stuck in our own dimension.”
He pointed up at the sky.
“I suspect if we send a ship to that planet, it will arrive on the other end of this planet. No matter which direction we go, we’ll end up back here.”
“Then how do we leave?” I asked.
“If we lived on a circle, we would try to warp the paper. Bend it and then fly off into a higher dimension.”
“But how are we going to warp our dimension?”
“Ask him?” The twenty-three-year-old pointed to one of the explorers.
“I think we are already warping.” An eighteen-year-old stood before us. “While heading out on my first trek, I looked back at the city. The sky over the buildings seemed to wobble like a bubble. I thought it was the atmosphere playing tricks with the starlight.”
“But what if that warping is happening because of us?” the twenty-three-year-old said. “The closer we get to one another the more warping there is.”
Someone by the telescopes cursed. My thirty-year-old self with an interest in astronomy took measurements every evening and tonight made a disturbing discovery. The other planet was getting closer. Early on, we had sent a team to the fields to calculate the size our planet. They did it again. Their estimates got smaller.
The elders gathered in the park for a meeting.
“We’re collapsing in on ourselves. We’ll continue collapsing until we reach a point of singularity.”
“What happens then?” A boy peeked out from behind a bush. He must have been ten—a curious phase in my life when I wanted to be a part of every grown-up talk because I sensed it affected me. A year later my parents divorced. At twelve, I wanted nothing to do with adults.
“No one knows.” A fifty-year-old tried to reassure him.
The search for a way out became top priority. We requested everyone’s help. More heads to solve the problem, more bodies to implement a solution. We sent more explorers along the path of the collapsing star. The elders debated every theory.
One day during kitchen duty, I found myself cutting vegetables next to an instance of me who was close to my age. We worked out who was older. He beat me by a few days. I noticed a cut on his hand and asked when he had done this. He said yesterday.
I rubbed my hand. “Does that mean I’ll be cutting myself the same way tomorrow?”
He said the only thing that seemed appropriate, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault anymore. It’ll be mine.”
An elder interrupted us. “No. It doesn’t work that way. Once we arrived here, our lives branched. We are not an assembly line doomed to repeat the same mistakes. We branch off in different directions.”
I rolled up several leaves of lettuce and cut them into strips. Cheryl taught me to do it that way. It was faster than ripping pieces and throwing it in the salad bowl.
I slammed down my knife. “That’s it! We need to gather ourselves. Put ourselves back together.”
I explained my idea to the others and we quickly came to a consensus about what to do. We would get everyone together in a two-by-two line, matching the youngest with the oldest and continuing chronologically until the last two middle aged men.
We recalled all the travelers. They still hadn’t found the original pair who had journeyed toward the collapsing stars.
The elders went to the nursery. I had never gone to see the babies. I can only guess that by old age my paternal instincts kicked in.
I had not gone to see the elderly. I had been afraid to find out when I would die. Afraid of the days leading up to it. Afraid of senility. Incapacity. Of needing help to survive. I was told those in their seventies took care of the older ones.
As we began to gather, the horizon started to warp and wobble. We stood in two lines that stretched down the main road through the city and held hands with those one day younger and one day older. A link that created a circle. I found myself standing at the end of the line. A horn went off and we leaned over to touch the forehead of the person across from us, folding the circle on itself.
The ground split, stretched and twisted. Earth merged with sky. The ringing in my ears started and white light filled my vision. I could hear the breaths of many lungs and then…just a single sound of my own breathing. The echoes had disappeared. I opened my eyes. I was alone.
The ship had been repaired and ready to go. Above it was a warped hole in the sky. We’d done it.
As I prepared the ship, a figure appeared on the horizon walking towards me. One of the missing pair. He approached clutching one arm. Tears had dried on his cheeks. I didn’t have to ask.
“He died,” he said. “The other.”
“I’m sure it was an accident.” But I knew the recklessness of my youth.
“I watched myself die. My last breath. I saw how it is to pass away.” He let his pack fall in the dirt.
“It’s okay. It’s just the two of us now. We can take the ship and get out of here.”
He pulled out a knife. Blood had dried on the blade. “I’ve been carrying this with me. I don’t know why.”
I backed away. “You killed him? Is that our blood?”
“He made me so angry. He said I couldn’t have her.”
Tears filled his eyes.
“What did you do?” I recognized my father’s hunting knife. “Where did you get that?”
“It’s from the party.”
“At the college. Just off campus. That guy had already slept with her.”
“No. She would never do that.”
“He was bigger. He knocked me down.”
“No. That didn’t happen.”
“People laughed. I pulled out Dad’s knife.”
“No. You aren’t real.”
“I stabbed him in the back. Where the kidneys are.”
“You aren’t real! That didn’t happen! I went to prison for robbing a liquor store.”
He snarled at me, “They don’t send you to prison for stealing cigarettes.”
“Why? Why did you do it?”
“Because he laughed at me. Laughed like he could get away with it. I got so…so…”
My life had ended then. My future gone. My identity forever marked as unsteady.
A voice spoke to me. We sent those two on that path for a reason. Remove the sin. We can finally be clean. Leave him now before it’s too late.
He stood in front of me like a withered soul about to dry up and disappear in the wind. I grabbed him and held on.
“It’s okay. It’s over.”
“Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me here alone.”
I hugged him tight. Squeezed with all my heart. “I forgive you.”
I embraced my past, my sins. He did not disappear. He returned to my soul. I embraced who I was. And became whole.