Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Hereafter

Come back to me.

― Elise McKenna, in Somewhere in Time, Richard Matheson

ONE
September 15, 2006

That autumn she’s back in Toronto, staying at her mom’s place, before deployment. At Queen’s Quay Terminal, her two girlfriends go inside to grab a coffee, to stave off the late afternoon chill. She stays outside to check in, but the phone at her mom’s rings four, five, six times, and she flips her phone closed before it goes to voice mail.

There’s a soft crush of wind, and she hugs herself in her jacket. Time for that coffee. She turns, and that’s when she sees him. All in black, reminding her of Steve Jobs with his turtleneck and slacks, except didn’t Steve wear Adidas, and oh my God doesn’t he remind her of that lead in the Bryan Singer movie, and—

He collapses, crumples on the ground. She runs up the steps to him, but already he’s pulling himself up, bracing himself against the wall of the terminal building.

Just as she reaches him, he looks up, and their eyes meet. Suddenly, a feeling overcomes her: that this face is familiar, that she knows him, that they’ve met before. In his eyes there’s a similar flash of recognition.

At his feet, a glimmer catches her attention, and she picks it up. A silver medallion, in the shape of a spiral nautilus, on a chain. She holds it out to him. “Yours?” she asks.

He takes it, holding her hand for just a fraction of a moment too long. “Oh God, I hope so,” he says.

They break off, both now blushing. She’s just decided she should be running off, when his knees buckle again and he hits the pavement. This time she has to pull him up and lean him against the wall herself. Nothing on his breath. Clean-shaven.

“I’m sorry,” he says, when he’s recovered. “It’s just been a long journey.”

She hesitates a bit before deciding. “Listen,” she says. “I think you need to sit down and get something to eat. Why don’t you join me and you can catch your breath? I’ll buy.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Caitlyn.”

“Sean Forrest,” he says. “Happy to meet you.”

Rotini in marinara sauce at the restaurant inside, and she’s chattering away, about the closing of the Lord of The Rings stage show at the Princess of Wales Theatre, about Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, about Spenser and the difference between Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets—and wouldn’t he like to read one she’s written, which she happened to carry with her?—and when her phone rings, an hour has passed. It isn’t her mom, it’s her friends—wondering where in the world is she?

She tells them she’ll catch up with them later at the club, turns back to him, and they pick it up as if she’d never left off.

She talks about James Blunt and Kelly Clarkson, about Gilmore Girls and 24, about conspiracies and terrorists, about North Korean politics, about Middle Eastern food, about how her family makes their own tomato sauce.

He talks about rotini, about patterns in nature, about Gödel and Escher and Bach, about Rachmaninoff and Paganini, about nautilus shells and hurricanes and satellite orbits, about integer series and golden means.

Over coffee and dessert, she asks if he’ll accompany her to the Rex, the jazz bar where her friends are going that night.

“I’ve got to go home tonight,” he says. “This was supposed to be a one-time trip. But I’m thinking—” And he stops here, for what feels like a long, long time. Then: “I’m thinking that I want to make it back next year.”

“Oh no!” she says. “It’d be amazing, but I’m headed to Kandahar.”

He looks stunned, like he doesn’t know where that is.

“Afghanistan. I’m with the Canadian team at the R3MMU. Combat operations field hospital.”

He’s still speechless.

“Oh heck, it’s only for two tours,” she says. “I’ll be back in a couple. How about we make a date for the future?”

That seems to break the trance. But what he does next is unexpected. He takes off his medallion, takes her hand, and presses it into her palm.

“Yours,” he says.

TWO
September 17, 2007

Southwest of Kandahar. Earlier that day, helicopters streamed like tremulous wasps into Zhari District, ferrying back remains from a shattered infantry battalion. Under her breath, another whispered prayer. Sometimes prayers are answered by a different god.

Behind blast walls ten feet high, at the edge of the runway of the Kandahar Airfield, the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit, or R3MMU, is an assemblage of field-deployable hospital structures, shipping containers, canvas tents, and leaking plywood buildings.

Despite this, the Canadian Forces Health Services team tasked with command of the R3MMU is on its way to the highest survival rate ever recorded for victims of war.

But Cpl. Caitlyn McAdams, in the middle of her first nine-month tour, isn’t at her regular station that night.

That week they’re short-staffed at the forward operating base at Ma’sum Ghar, so Cpl. McAdams and Cpl. Paul Francis are on temporary rotation there from R3MMU, twenty miles away.

It’s a tiny clinic on the side of a hill near Bazar-i-Panjwai township, a stopgap measure in an area without another hospital for miles, where anywhere you turn might be a roadside bomb or an improvised explosive device, where snipers are as numerous as wasps.

There’s a helipad down the dirt road, where a medevac chopper flies serious cases to the R3MMU.

The statistics here, they’re not quite as good as back at the airfield.

This is how she remembers that evening: the night air sweet, the sky bright with stars, the wind blowing warm across the desert. And then, an explosion from somewhere not far from the forward base. Minutes away.

She drops her copy of Cien Sonetos, and everyone is running to their posts. In a spray of dust, there’s an all-terrain vehicle jamming down the road, stretchers barely hanging on to the front. The gates open within seconds, and the soldiers are unloading the two casualties from the Canadian ATV.

In the cramped area, a team of about a half dozen works on the first casualty.

Cpl. McAdams and another team join Warrant Officer Ian Patrick, who’s stripped down the second man on the stretcher-table and wrapped a foil blanket around him.

The man is half-conscious, quivering, babbling something over and over. McAdams is passable in the Pashto dialect, but she can’t quite understand what he’s saying.

While they work, stabilizing his breathing, bandaging his leg, someone’s talking in the background. “IED hit. The Afghan was driving supplies for our road construction site. That other one, he’s not from here, but he’s not one of ours.”

Not Afghan. She looks again, and beneath the grit and sweat and blood the face is unmistakable. Her heart twists inside her. Leaning forward to incline her ear nearer his mouth, she understands what he’s saying—

Her name.

Work fast, fast, she tells herself. She should be detached, concentrating. Oh God, keep my hands from shaking. A chest wound, serious. Collapsed lung. Need to do an incision. She can hear gurgling as they open him up. Get a tube in, release the excess pressure.

His body is torn, ripped apart by shrapnel. Left hand amputated—the one that held her own, one year ago, for just that fraction of a second too long. One leg gone from the knee down, the other from the hip. They can’t stop the bleeding.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it!”

At her voice, his eyes suddenly open. He sees her, and there’s recognition, and then he closes them. He doesn’t open them again.

“Medevac!” she hears herself shouting.

But it’s too late.

THREE
September 19, 2009

Honeycrisp apples, from a basket from her brother Joe, who’d served two previous tours of duty himself, and knew instinctively that for her this would mean home.

A week ago, Joe had come out to meet her at the Forces base at Trenton, after her final tour. He’d driven up in his shiny new blue Astra, and waxed eloquent about the immensity of the deal he’d gotten on it, because the company was shutting down. Everything was shutting down—car companies, hospitals, banks. She wished she could shut down.

Two and a half hours to her mother’s home in Port Credit. She’d piled everything in the back of the hatchback—everything that might remind her of the war, of comrades fallen and lost, of the horrors she’d left behind—wanting to focus only on her brother’s voice, the highway winding ahead, and home.

A half hour into the drive, she realized she’d been playing with the chain around her neck, winding it and unwinding it around her fingers. On its clasp, the silver medallion roller-coasted down to her thumb. She began to weep.

Honeycrisp apples. The one she bites into is lovely: tart and tangy. She finishes it, laces up her running shoes, and goes out the back, to the woods behind the house.

The neck-chain swings underneath her shirt. She runs.

Sean’s Canadian Forces identity disc had survived the blast. She could see it still—two rounded rectangular halves joined in a square, one half meant to be detached and sent to National Defense, etched in her mind like a gravestone:

823-509-653
S P FORREST
NP O/RH/POS
CDN FORCES CDN

And on the reverse upper half:

DO NOT REMOVE
NE PAS ENLEVER

When they found that it wasn’t a genuine I-disc, someone at the med unit thought he might have been from one of the intelligence agencies, but it turned out the I-disc wasn’t even a good counterfeit. The metal was wrong, too soft, the embossing uneven across the letters. The number had been easily traceable to someone else, an I-disc splashed out for sale on eBay.

All that didn’t matter to Caitlyn. What was clear was this: he had come to find her, even if that meant going into the middle of a war zone. And now he was gone.

She runs.

The banks of the Credit River are embroidered with leaves. They crackle as she passes. The air is crisp, slightly chill as she breathes it in.

She runs.

She passes the birch at the halfway point, and pauses for a pulse check. Her heart is already pumping fast as she catches a glimpse of a man, dressed in black, standing on a promontory about fifty yards from her.

She stops, and shields her eyes from the sun. A man from out of her past.

It hits her like a defibrillator jolt, but her mind calms her down. Out of nowhere, he’d appeared before in another unlikely place, half a world away. If he was real back then, real in Kandahar—then why not right here, right now, in the middle of the woods behind her mother’s house, alive?

“Is it you?” she asks.

He comes closer. “Caitlyn,” he says.

She leans against a tree, breathing heavily. “Sean. You were dead.”

“I’m not dead. Not now.”

“But how?”

“Can I come closer?”

“How?” she shouts at him, backing off. “You’re not a ghost. I was there, two years ago. You were dead.”

He takes a breath. “I traveled into that time. And the first time we met.”

“Stay where you are.”

“I can’t,” he says, but he stops moving toward her. “I mean . . . that first time, when we first met—that started out as a one-time trip. But I could only come back a year later, then it had to be now, and tomorrow it will be three years from now, and five years from then . . .”

“Wait.” She puts up her hand. “Time travel. It can’t be done.”

“Not now. But tomorrow, yes. Well, to a degree. It’s a limited time travel.”

He stands there, not moving closer, not moving away, a steady point in space. But he continues. “You know how some satellites stay in the same place in orbit, where the gravity of the Earth and moon balance each other?”

She’s listening; not frowning, not confused, just listening.

“It’s not fully understood, but those perfect balance points exist in space and time. They’re where and when a person can go in the past without hitting a possible paradox.”

“Like the opportunity to kill your grandfather, meaning you’d never exist.”

“That’s right. You can’t travel to a point where that might occur. When we first met, that was a non-paradoxical point.”

“But you came to Kandahar. You died there.”

“Time and space, they’re intertwined. The second non-paradox point in time was then, and you were where you were then. And I came back because—because I wanted to see you again.”

She pushes herself off from the tree, turns, and runs. Past the birch tree, past the Credit River, home, home.

When she decides to stop and finally turns back, night has fallen, and he is gone.

FOUR
September 21, 2012

Three years later, she’s on a blanket on a beach in Salinas, California, unpacking a basket. Above her, gulls are beating their wings against a coastal spray.

Now that she’s waiting for it, when it happens, she realizes that she can sense the return. The wind picking up, subtly, like a whisper. A swirl of waves in the distance, a subtle spiral. A shimmer, like a lens flare, in the sunlight.

“You’re beautiful,” he says.

She ignores that, and asks, “How long are you here for, this time?”

“Sometimes it’s a few hours, sometimes a few days.” He shrugs. “There aren’t a lot of statistics.”

“Explain it to me again, these points of balance, how they work,” she says.

“S. C. Penrose, a professor at Oxford, worked out the theory of it. The next advance came twenty years after that, from a researcher at the Weyman Institute, Alex Morgan. He realized that practical transformation of the space-time sub-manifolds—”

She is frowning, and he laughs. Easy, comfortable.

“It’s complicated, but not,” he says. “The stable solutions are based on the Fibonacci series.”

He picks up a piece of driftwood, and starts writing in the sand—

1 1 2 3 5 8
13 21 34 55 89 144

She nods. “Every number is the sum of the two before.”

“When you travel into the past, as you come closer to your own time, the interval between balance points becomes larger; otherwise you eventually do hit a paradox.”

“But why does it work that way? With time, I mean?”

“Nature is full of symmetries and patterns. They may be invisible, but they’re there. The way trees branch, the way leaves are arranged on a stem, the way a fern uncurls, the way a nautilus shell spirals out.”

Her hands reach up to where her medallion hangs from her neck-chain.

On the sand, he draws a grouping of squares, then a spiral—

Peralta - Hereafter - spiral image

“The golden mean, the Fibonacci spiral—it’s the invisible pattern behind a nautilus shell. Why not time?”

“That’s beautiful,” she says.

He sits down beside her. “Look, I’m sorry for Kandahar. I didn’t know it would end that way. I just wanted to be there.”

She doesn’t answer. It’s still something she wants to forget, along with many other things from that era of her life. She thinks of something, takes the driftwood, and crosses out the first four numbers in the sand—

1 1 2 3 5 8
13 21 34 55 89 144

“So after this time, the next time I can see you will be in five years? On this day?”

“Well, there’s a precession . . .”

“Okay, I know. It’s not well understood.” She looks at him. “You guys haven’t figured out everything about this, have you?” It’s a statement, not a question.

“We’re trying.”

She sighs. “Well, now that you’re here, make yourself at home.”

She holds out a honeycrisp apple.

FIVE
September 23, 2017

She’s on the Bloor-Danforth subway line, on her way home late from work. Except for the conductor in his compartment, the carriage was empty when she got on, so she’s a little startled when someone sits down beside her.

“I have a present for you,” he says.

She flicks off the touchscreen of her ereader, and looks up.

He’s holding out a book. It’s a slim volume of poetry, an edition published—she notes with amusement, as she opens it—just a few years previously.

“Where’d you get this?” she asks.

“Bespoke Books,” he says. “Their motto is ‘Antiquities and print on demand.’ Paper is still pretty popular.”

She turns to the page he’s marked with a ribbon, and reads:

The Time Traveller’s Sonnet
And there you are, at last: your eyes, your face.
Just as swiftly, only a memory,

a star irresolute, the lightning’s trace,
a half-remembered verse of poetry.

Still, you are what keeps my atoms in place
against life’s centrifuge of anarchy:

your smile, in its sadness a hint of grace,
my hope, my manifold geometry.

To be with you again, I would cross space,
and time, to where began this circled journey:

And there you are, at last: your eyes, your face.
Just as swiftly, only a memory,

a star irresolute, the lightning’s trace,
a half-remembered verse of poetry.

The train rounds a curve without slowing down, and for a second the cars jiggle around their connection and the lights go black. The train straightens out and the lights go back on.

“Marry me,” he says.

“Are you crazy? The next time we meet, I’m going to be older than you are.”

“You’re not married, are you?”

“That’s beside the point. Why?”

“Because ‘you are what keeps my atoms in place against life’s centrifuge of anarchy,’” he says.

“Sonnets,” she sighs.

SIX
September 25, 2025

She’s sitting on a park bench at Ron Searle Park, watching the children on the playground. Behind her, the sounds of volleys on the tennis courts. She’s scattering the remnants of an egg sandwich to the pigeons on the grass.

When he appears, she flings herself at him, beating him on the chest. “What the hell are you doing here? Get away from me! I hate you!”

As he backs away, a little girl hops off of the slide and runs toward her. “Mommy, Mommy!” She’s crying.

Caitlyn hugs her, shielding her from the stranger, speaking to her softly. The little girl is still weepy, but she’s nodding. After a while, she’s back on the playground, this time at the swings. She swings in a wide arc—high, down, and back—kicking her feet down as they graze the ground, legs up again as she swings up, high, down, back.

Her mother is still fuming as she sits back down on the bench.

Sean waits a few minutes before joining her—taking care to place some space between them. “I’m sorry,” he says.

She says nothing for a long time. Then—

“Shauna turned seven in June. And she doesn’t even know her father.”

He’s not sure what to say. “Shauna,” he repeats.

“Shauna Catherine. She doesn’t deserve this, Sean. She deserves a father who’s there for her, who can carry her on his shoulders, read her bedtime stories, teach her how to drive, give her away at her wedding.”

He can’t say anything, hadn’t expected this.

“It’s not fair to me.” There, she finally said it. “It’s not even as if you’re in Australia or England, and I can get you on the phone or fly to you. When you’re gone, you’re gone.”

“Caitlyn, if I could come back and be with you here and hereafter, I would. I would move heaven and Earth to be with you. I would die if that would bring me to you.”

She is crying now, remembering Kandahar.

“But I can’t,” he says, taking her in his arms. “This is our hereafter, this is our forever. To the limit of what God and physics allow, I will be with you.”

The little girl swings high, then low.

“I may go—but I’m still here. Love remains.”

The little girl swings low, then high.

SEVEN
September 27, 2038

She’d been waiting for him at the church at St. Alban’s Road, looking back once too often at each of the faces filing in.

Then she’d looked for him at the reception, at the mansion and conservatory at the northwest corner of the university.

Finally, when all the party and most of the guests had gone, she saw him in the garden walk outside Cecil Green, and went out to meet him.

“You’re late,” she says.

“I’m sorry.” He looks around, taking in the afternoon sun and the color of the leaves, the mountains in the distance framing the coastline of Vancouver. “I missed something.”

“Only your daughter’s wedding,” she says, wistfully. Then throws her arms around him. “I’ve missed you.”

They stay there a breath, holding each other, and for a moment there is nothing but the flowers and the trees and the chirp of birds. And the world whirls around them, the world of spirals and hypercatenoids, of tesseracts and planes.

“Oh God, you don’t look a day older than when we last met,” she says. “And look at me . . . Men are lucky; you go gray and you don’t have to do a thing.”

He smiles. “Where I’m from, we don’t have to go gray.”

They’re walking now, through the amazing gardens and terraces, the panoramic sweep of cliffside architecture, and she’s telling him everything about the wedding—about the florist who was able to find enough Oceania roses just in time, about how long it took to find the bride’s gown and how eventually they settled on a Cecilia Wang design, how one of the bridesmaids dove to the floor to catch the bouquet, how the newlyweds were flying to Paris before heading back to Oxford where they now lived.

“How long do people live, where you are?” she asks.

“Longer, but not forever.”

“Have you cured cancer?”

“It depends on what kind of—” He stops, stares at her for a long time.

“Come into the ballroom,” she says at last. “Come and dance.”

EIGHT
September 29, 2059

She is sitting on a collapsible canvas chair in the middle of a field, a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Veinte Poemas open on her lap, a bouquet of flowers on the grass in front of her—when he appears.

In the distance, a man watches in a blue spinner, not moving.

Sean walks up to her. She drops the book, and turns.

The hair, the eyes, the face. It’s her, but it isn’t.

The woman stands, walks toward him. “I was never sure you were real, or someone her mind made up, because of the war,” she says. “But it is you.”

Sean can’t breathe, stares at her in wonder.

“Shauna Penrose,” she says. “I’m Caitlyn’s daughter.”

“I met you when you were seven.”

“She told me everything, finally. She told me how you met, how you died, how you lived.”

Only then does he realize that the field is marked by small, white slabs—flat, raised-top stone markers—as far as the eye can see.

“I’ve been coming since last week, on your anniversary. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I came because of her, because she asked me to.”

She holds out her hand, palm up, a neck-chain hanging from the medallion.

“She wanted you to have this,” she says. “She lasted a long time. Also—she wanted you to know, she waited for you as long as she could.”

He takes the medallion and touches her hand—his daughter’s hand. And suddenly they’re crying, holding each other across the vastness of time and space, comforting each other in the way that only two people can, two people who share something dear that they have lost.

“I’ve got to go now,” she says, finally, gesturing to the man in the spinner.

“Wait,” Sean says, but she keeps on walking.

She stops only before she gets in, then turns to him one more time. “There’s so much I want to talk to you about. So much I want to know that I don’t know,” she says. “But I do know one thing: She did love you. Maybe that’s all that matters.”

And she is gone.

He drops to his knees in front of the space where the bouquet and marker lie, and traces the words in a whisper—

CAITLYN McADAMS FORREST
July 1985 – August 2059
Hereafter, only love remains

— For AD

Samuel Peralta

Samuel Peralta by Antosia Fiedur Photography

Samuel Peralta is a physicist and storyteller. An Amazon bestselling author, he is also the creator and driving force behind the “Future Chronicles” anthologies, whose titles have hit the overall Amazon Top 10 Bestsellers list. Recognized in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, he has ranked as one of Amazon’s Top 5 SF Authors, Top 40 Authors in e-books, and Top 100 Authors overall. His poetry has ranked #1 in Amazon, in Goodreads’ list of Great Small Press Books, and been discussed in articles on Best American Poetry. Awards include from the BBC, the Digital Literature Institute, and the Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. An award-winning PhD, he’s designed nuclear robotic tools and co-founded several software and semiconductor start-ups.