**Note: Although the following is part of a previously self-published eBook, portions have been modified. However, it has not been professionally edited and likely contains typos and other errors. It is offered as an example of raw science fiction storytelling.**
There was general wrongness Paul felt in their departure from the past. First he lost their images and then the touch of their hands. He did not want to be right about paradoxes but immediately believed he was.
Isolated in a void he decided was non-existence, dread overwhelmed him, engulfing his presence and consumed his essence. His soul served from his physical form, just reward or punishment for meddling with past events upon which existence depends. Lingering consciousness stretched across limbo and connected at both ends of infinity, he was a singularity – a tiny, insignificant point between the vast and the infinitesimal. He was his beginning that concluded in the same thought of being, life evaporated into the wisps of unrealized probability.
There was no pain, no sensation at all except for separation. If there were a floor where he could have collapsed he would have. However, it was impossible for him to discern real from surreal as he lost consciousness, giving up in the process as he yielded to the oblivion he fully anticipated, a place he decided might be called Never.
Shocked, and suddenly immersed in cool salt water he flailed arms and kicked legs in panic, going over in his mind the principles of swimming – when had he learned them? Struggling to reach the surface, the light from above and beyond the brilliant blue, cloudless sky. He broke through to the sudden sensation of wind in his face. He gasped. It was his first gulp of air that led to immediate panic – an errant thought of the risk. But then he wondered why he would ever think such a thing. How could breathing air be dangerous?
As he tread water, he opened his eyes, but it felt as if it were for the very first time. Looking toward the shore he recognized everything, the thought of strangeness rapidly evaporated under the gross volume of intense memories that foundered his mind and almost instantly reestablished identity, role, purpose and obligations.
He swam a ways coming up closer to the breakers. His toes touched the sandy bottom there. He stood for a moment, allowing the waves to crash around him. Then he walked through the surf onto the shore.
Disoriented but remembering everything about him it was troubling that he had no memory of how he arrived at the beach.
Ahead of him was a white sand dune with some vegetation growing to cover some of its surface. It was likely an attempt to resist beach erosion. It was a problem, wasn’t it? He recalled hearing something about it, the balance between protecting beaches and property along the coast from storm surges while accommodating the public’s desire to enjoy their time in recreational pursuits.
Continuing his confusion he pivoted, trying to reconnect with disassociated memories. He saw the community beach house, recalled emerging from there sometime earlier. Remembered having showered before dressing in his swimming trunks and applying sunscreen to his overly sensitive, exposed, lily-white skin. Over his shoulders he draped a towel as he walked out to the beach. Locating the same towel he picked up from the hard pack directly in front of him. He dried off as best he could and left his hair damp.
The beating rays of mid summer warmed his shoulders as his back was turned toward the ocean. He wrapped the towel around the back of his neck in an effort to protect from the intensity of the local yellow dwarf’s radiation.
Automatically he replaced the protective UV lenses over his eyes, the ones he found on a lanyard along with his towel. The ocean breeze swept over the dampness of his skin and trunks as he tentatively progressed back toward the beach house.
A flash of memory came of being at the office having another rough day. Clare called him and told him she was going to the beach with Chase and Julie. She invited him to join them whenever he got off work. He even slipped out a little early just so he could swing by the apartment to collect his swimming trunks, sunscreen and a couple of extra towels.
Going to the beach was a fantastic idea. He really needed to unwind. It was just he felt strange, like until a few minutes ago he might have been dreaming. It wasn’t a new sensation for him, but it always left him feeling unsettled.
There were some images of a nightmarish set of circumstances worse than anything he endured at work. His imagination was vivid. It helped him in his work, coming up with warped story lines for video games to be played over world viewer. At times it was almost like he had two sets of memories, one his real life and another the fantasy worlds he fabricated in a digital universe.
Framed with that consideration, one set rapidly dissipated to the point that he wondered why he was even trying to recall anything about any of it. It wasn’t like it belonged to any project he was currently working on. Still, at the moment even the more plausible set of memories did not feel real enough for him to grasp and call it his own.
He looked past the beach house to the evidence of the thriving community back on the mainland. A causeway was the way back there from the beach. A high arching bridge spanned the navigable channel in the river of brackish water between the mainland and the barrier island where the beach was located. It did not look right to him but then he wondered how it should look. The towering skyscrapers of a second largest city on the planet sprawled out to either side of the bridge along the mainland shore. It was exactly what he expected to see but, in another way, it seemed strange.
Paul turned back into the sea breeze to drink in another deep, refreshing breath hoping somehow it would magically clear the confusion from his mind. Maybe he had been working too hard. He could be having some sort of breakdown that caused everything to feel surreal.
Seagulls hovered overhead, suspending their mass by the lift they maintained from the steady sea breeze that flowing over their carefully positioned wings. He always envied bird their ability to fly.
He felt a presence nearby but turning around, he saw no one. Still there was a definite presence but then just as suddenly as the sensation came it was gone.
Paul continued on along the beach. Clare stood up when she saw his approach, and then bounded over the white sand, seeming to barely even touch the surface as she proceeded toward him. At the moment of her arrival she launched herself, leaping toward him then wrapping her arms around his neck as he caught her slight weight in his arms. He swung her around as he spun to keep from falling. She offered and he accepted passionate kisses in welcome greeting.
“I missed you all day long,” she said as she pulled back from his lips leaving him almost breathless. Then he leaned toward her and kissed the tip of her nose. She giggled giddily like a schoolgirl as he continued to hold her close, staring into her gorgeous green eyes.
To him she was the epitome of the perfect woman, perfect for him in every way. What did he care if the events around him were still swirling a little and his mind was dizzily unsettled? As long as he was with Clare everything else could seem tentative. He did not care if in an instant the world might change completely. Then he realized how silly it was to have such a thought. Was tentative not how the present moment should feel?
He liked the liberating power of his newfound confidence, feeling as if he could make decisions that mattered. Clare provided him with the strength to endure anything while he sought his creative potential. She believed in him and, in turn, he believed in her.
Smiling across the short distance for the interval her response took, kissing him on the cheek he decided to just allow the flow of events to take him wherever they would for at least the remainder of the day.
“You couldn’t wait to jump in the water?” She challenged as she realized his towel and trunks were damp.
“It was kinda hot when I arrived.” He responded in a way that was hard to argue. It had to still be in the upper thirties, Celsius.
“I already brought towels enough for both of us, silly man!” She playfully punched him in the arm as he returned her to her feet.
“You can never have enough towels, especially at the beach,” Paul replied.
She shrugged, but as she led him down from the dune and closer to the hard pack where she and the others had been sitting and talking while they awaited for his arrival.
Paul knew Chase but he did not recognize Julie at first, even though he knew her name and was certain that talked many times before. The disorientation lingered, nagging at him. Sure, he knew her for even longer than he knew Clare. Julie introduced the two of them! She arranged for the only blind date he ever consented to in his life – based solely on her recommendation. Amazed it worked out so well, Clare was just as Julie promised, perfect for him.
“So, Paul, are you and Clare coming over tomorrow?” Julie asked even before Paul had a chance to shake her hand or Chase’s for that matter.
“It depends,” he replied. It was a safe, noncommittal answer to something he knew nothing about, yet.
“Well, tell those assholes you work for that it is your niece’s birthday party!” Clare said with a laugh, causing everyone to laugh as well. Julie was sitting on a towel between Chase and where Clare resumed sitting to take a swig from a bottle of cold water she opened only a few moments before she noticed Paul down the beach from them.
As Paul sat down he looked out at the undulating surface of the ocean. The steady sea breeze whipped across the tops of the two to four meter swells. White caps crashed into the shore with enough force that even from where they were sitting he felt the refreshing chill of the spray. Some kids were attempting to ride short boards closer in to shore while a couple of hardcore surfers were lingering out a ways offshore warming up while really waiting for the evening’s double-moon effect to prevail. It was the time of the season when, toward the evening, the gravity of each of Pravda’s two moons amplified the other’s effects while the two celestial orbs were virtually aligned. It produced some serious waves that sometimes even rivaled the ones that preceded an approaching seaborne storm.
Chase leaned back, reaching for the ice chest, saying something about being thirsty. Then he sat back up and glanced over at Paul as he was sitting on the far side of Clare. “Are you feeling okay, dude?”
“Yeah, I’m fine?”
“You’re not thirsty?”
“There’s plenty of water on ice. So when you need one, help yourself.”
“Thanks,” Paul said.
“So, is Cristina still in Emerald or is she on her way back home to enjoy her break?” Julie asked.
“She called me a few days ago,” Paul said, having immediately recalled a phone conversation with his sister. “She had an audition two days ago. She said if she got the part she’d be staying in Emerald for the summer. I sort of expected her to call me by now and really thought she would, especially if she got the role in the musical. But I have not heard from her. So, I’m concerned she didn’t get the part.”
“I hope she’s not discouraged.”
“She’s tough – a true artist. She handles rejection well,” Paul said proudly, but then he dealt with something strange and alternative. He experienced a momentary flash of her singing on stage before thousands of frenzied fans, fronting a rock band of all things. It amused him. “I don’t think anyone has given her a chance to demonstrate her fullest potential.”
“Obviously,” Julie said. “Her voice is simply amazing. I keep telling Chase to hook her up with a talent agency at least. I mean, with her voice she could take a so-so pop band right to the top.”
“Or a rock band of great musicians to legendary status,” Chase said as he stood up and stretched. “It’s not like I haven’t offered to help her. Paul has resisted giving her his opinion.”
“It isn’t that as much as she’s headstrong.” Paul confirmed even as several examples came immediately to mind in support.
Chase walked around the two ladies and nudging Paul with his foot as he passed by. “Follow me. You and I need to talk,” he said as he turned back and looked toward Julie and then Clare who both wanted to know why the boys were going off on their own. “It’s a guy thing,” Chase excused.
“As long as it doesn’t involve other women,” Julie warned.
“It involves business and Cristina. Is that okay?”
Julie smiled. “I’ll let that one slide, I guess, since my best friend is engaged to her brother and all.”
When Paul and Chase arrived at a place Chase figured was beyond earshot of the ladies, he sat down on a bench and waited for Paul to join him. “You are just as headstrong in your way as Cristina. You think you know everything?”
“I doubt what I know is even remotely close to everything, so maybe your assessment needs revision.”
Chase chuckled for a few moments, but then he stared into Paul’s eyes. “You are going to continue pretending?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re good. I’ll give you that. No one plays dumb like you can.”
“Maybe it’s because usually I’m don’t need to play.”
“I was in New Milan two weeks ago.”
“I think Clare mentioned that.” He guessed.
“Do you remember Pete?”
“Yeah, Pete, the percussionist I introduced you two at The Stable in New Milan.”
“When was that?”
“Last fall when you and I were there.”
Paul shrugged, struggling for the memory that felt vaguely accessible but not quite within his grasp.
“Damn it, Paul! You and Pete shot pool for over three hours after you met. You even beat him, rather badly at that. I offered to give him a ride home because he didn’t have bus fare after you finished taking his credits.”
“Okay you remember or okay you don’t?”
“I remember some of it,” Paul confessed. “Look Chase, I have the world’s worst memory for people’s names.”
“You have to remember this. He kept hitting on the waitress, asking her out and she kept saying no to him, but he was relentless. He thought she was playing to get him to buy more drinks from her, but she was genuinely getting annoyed. That distraction was probably part of the reason why you beat him at shooting pool ‘ ‘cause you aren’t that good.”
“Just tellin’ the truth. Anyway, as the club was closing she gave in to his offer to buy her dinner. You graciously transferred back the credits that he lost so he would not be financially embarrassed.”
“I’m a nice guy like that,” Paul offered.
“It was actually funny as hell. I can’t believe you don’t remember it.”
“Well, I sort of do and he still owes me the money,” Paul said as he recalled it was not a gift but a loan.
“Or there needs to be a rematch.”
“That would involve going back to New Milan.”
“Well, there is a convention coming up again, same as last year.”
“There you go.”
“It’s even better.”
“Why?” Paul inquired.
“I was thinking. We could get the same special rate as the last time we went together, discounts on the railcar as well as the hotel. Julie can arrange all of that for us.”
“And maybe you could ask Cristina to come to New Milan and spend some time with you while you’re there. I mean it’s only three hours by railcar from Emerald.”
“I don’t know about that, Chase. She’s kinda on break right now, but by then she’ll be pretty busy with college again.”
“Well I was thinking that while she’s there she could audition for Pete’s band. They aren’t really new just they got back together. They were a band when they were all still in junior high. Pete and Alix, the bassist, share an apartment. Keith and Tim, the guitarists are also sound engineers at a recording studio, which makes getting a place to do demos and have auditions really pretty easy. I mean, I sort of contacted Pete already about auditioning her.”
“I’m not sure she would want to do that.”
“Well, ask her. The guys are great musicians, but frankly, no one in the band sings well enough and they know it. They are looking for a lead singer and really prefer the vocal range of a female.”
“And you immediately thought of Cristina.”
“Honestly, Paul I’ve sent several female vocalists their way, but no one clicked for them. Their voices were good, just they didn’t have the personality the band needs.”
“You think Cristina has what the others lack?”
“She wants to do musicals, Chase. That’s what she’s been studying.”
“Well, it was just an idea. But really what I was thinking was no one I know doesn’t like Cristina.”
“She’s a charmer.” Paul allowed. “I don’t know if she likes that sort of music. She’s classically trained. Dad and Mom paid for her lessons from the time she was able to talk.”
“The band doesn’t play the usual fare, not at all. Their style’s unique. I don’t know your sister’s tastes in music, but maybe she would actually like their sound.”
“I’ll mention it to her. I’ll let her decide. That’s all I can do, Chase.”
Chase turned back toward the ladies, listening from the distance to see if he could eavesdrop on their girl-to-girl conversation. Paul looked out at the ocean waves trying to fill in the remaining gaps of his memory. He still felt there were important things he’d forgotten.
“I guess it’s all gone,” Paul said.
“What?” Chase asked as he glanced at Paul.
“No, really what, I didn’t catch what you said.”
“Have you ever had a dream, and when you wake up, you think it was a really important dream? You want to remember it, but it’s gone.”
“Yeah, that happens. It happens a lot, actually.”
“It’s like you’re certain you are going to remember it, but then regardless of your intentions, you forget what was so great about it. Or why you wanted to remember it in the first place.”
“Yeah and trying to write it down doesn’t work all that well either.”
“You had a dream recently that you wanted to remember?”
“I’m not sure what it is, Chase. Ever since I got here I have felt really strange, like I had something important to do but I can’t remember what it was. It’s almost like I have forgotten everything I knew, but then, I remember other things. It’s just not complete.”
“Like you forgot about shooting pool against Pete.”
“Yes, things like that.”
“Maybe you hit your head or you had heat stroke.”
“I don’t know,” Paul said.
“Maybe you’re getting old.”
“Chase, I’m three months younger than you.”
“Well, then I need to watch out, too.” Chase corralled his shoulders. “Come on, you’ll snap out of it. We need to get back to our women before they conspire to make us go shopping with them on the way home.”
Paul smiled as he continued along beside him.