I looked at Block as if he had grown an extra head. I think this was justified, the man had just claimed that we had traveled two thousand years into the past. The airplane around us suddenly seemed to close in on me.
The pressure kept changing, making my ears pop, and I wondered when this vehicle we were lock in would settle down somewhere.
We did just that in mere seconds, then the crew was up out of their seats and filing out of the two exits the aircraft had. Meg came over to me and freed the stretcher, then moved it toward the closest outside bulkhead, pushing it over the raised lip and dragging it down a ramp.
We were on a cement tarmac, an air-control tower on the other side of the runway. It was a sunny morning, in contrast to the late afternoon we had just left. The acid rain was replaced by sunny skies.
Meg wheeled me from the ship into a low building on the edge of the tarmac. The walls moved with the wind, a temporary base composed of tents.
Not for the first time I wondered where we were. Still can’t tell if I said this out loud or not.
The tent we had entered had the look of a field hospital. Single occupancy bunks lined the walls, a quarter of them held people in various stages of repair. Some were surrounded by clear plastic partitions, others had casts on their arms or legs, one had an air hose running from the patient’s mouth to a bulky white machine on the side of her bed. A variety of similar boxes were scattered throughout the tent.
Meg wheeled me to an empty spot between two unoccupied bunks and now my stretcher had become my bed. Not much of an improvement, I probably said.
“You’re not going to be here long enough to be uncomfortable,” she replied.
“Better prognosis than the others?” I nodded to the woman with the airtube.
Meg looked over and frowned. I was worried, for a moment, that the two were close and I’d just put my foot in my mouth.
“She’ll be fine. Her extraction didn’t go too well. It was an ambush.”
“Extraction? Can you please tell to me what’s going on?”
“First things first, the memory loss you’re experiencing is normal. You’ll start to remember things soon. This little guy should help,” Meg said, wheeling one of the ubiquitous white cubes over. She pulled a bundle of cables from the box and started attaching them one by one to the ports on the bodysuit I still wore. It didn’t hurt, didn’t really feel like anything.
“What happened to me? Why can’t I remember anything before…”
“How did you know that?”
“You’ve been narrating more of your experience than you realize. Anyway,” she brushed it aside, “we call them Suits. You don’t remember anything because you didn’t exist then.”
“I find that hard to believe. What the hell do you mean I didn’t exist?”
“The human inside the Suit looked like you, but that’s about it. When you gained consciousness in the Suit, just three hours ago, that was the first time that Ben ever existed. You weren’t you before then, just as a corpse of you isn’t really you.”
“How? Why? Why was I in that Suit in the first place?”
“That’s a longer conversation. We’re waiting for more rescues, then the Padre will explain it all.” Meg sighed and fiddled with the medical box. “It’s a lot easier than trying to convince you one at a time.”
An emotional force slammed into me and seemed to pulverize my brain. I slept for a while.
It was morning when we landed in the strange makeshift airbase and Meg put me to sleep. When I woke up it was early evening. The sun had set, but the sky was still tinged a dark orange.
For a while I lay there, my head on the pillow, facing the medic tent’s open doorway sillouetting the sky. I watched as the sky went from orange to light purple and night descended on the compound.
I was largely paralyzed, but could at least move my neck. So I watched and thought, and tried to remember.
There were no memories before the Suit. I could believe that I hadn’t existed until today. Obviously my body did, I was a full-grown adult, and something did occupy my head, long enough to impart a knowledge of language and history, but I couldn’t recall where I picked these up, who my teachers were, any of the stuff people take for granted.
I didn’t even know if the memories I did have were real. It was possible, I reasoned, that they were implanted in me.
And if they were, was I? What happened to the person who operated the Suit?
Who was it who learned the language I possessed and filled my head with faint knowledge of Earth and Pittsburgh and… it took a while, but I think I could at least remember the last decade I was aware of. 2230s sounded familiar. The 40s felt surreal and in flux, as if they were the domain of dreams and hopes. The 20s tasted – actually tasted – like moldy food, and brought up a revulsion in me.
While I lay there and pondered this, I watched the tent and the base around me. There weren’t any more patients, I was still the newest member of this strange time traveler’s hospital.
I was quiet, had only moved my head, rolled it back and forth on my pillow the get a partial view around me, so no one had yet noticed I was awake.
Men and women walked past the tent, so after I’d remembered as much as I could, I focused on them. No one at the base wore uniforms, though I did see some firearms, handguns and rifles, usually carried in a holster or slung across the back. Clearly we weren’t in an active warzone. That made me happy.
I would have to go back and think on the implications of that. My body had a very specific response to this external stimulus, perhaps I could gleam more insight from the subconscious responses than from my fragmented memories.
“Hey,” I called out, and the words came out in a hoarse whisper, “anyone there?”
“I can hear you, Ben,” Meg’s voice rang out around me, then I saw motion in a corner of the tent and she walked over.
Meg was wearing civilian clothes, a black t-shirt and tan pants, so unlike the bulky armor she had on when I was rescued, but still serious and imposing. Must be something in her eyes, though the pistol on her hip may have helped.
“How are you feeling?” she asked me as she skimmed the display on the medical cube I was hooked into.
“Can’t move,” I replied.
“The Suits pumped you full of paralytics,” she explained as she typed at the med pod “They wore off, but we’ve kept most of your body offline to minimize the chance of trauma. Did you have dreams? Nightmares?”
I moved my head side to side, Meg punched in a few more keystrokes and nothing much happened.
“We call this the Thaw. It takes about a quarter of an hour.”
I started to ask what she meant, but a tingling in my toes startled me and I just nodded.
The imagery helped. My body felt like a human-shaped popsicle that was left under the warm summer sun. Parts of me began to melt.
Never thought I’d be happy at the thought of melting.
While this went on, Meg ran me through some word association games and quizzed my memory. The latter didn’t take too long, as I’d had just a few hours’ worth of them, but it seemed that Meg expected that.
She was surprised, though, to hear that I remembered being inside the Suit for so long.
“Usually people’s first memory is of the torch, as we slice into the armor. Seeing the Light, some call it. The fact that you remember anything before that is unusual. Doctor Headly is going to want to talk with you in the morning.”
I nodded and absentmindedly raised my hand to scratch at my cheek, and only after a few seconds noticed that I was finally able to move.
“Slow down, be careful,” Meg warned, but her tone was kind and not overbearing, she knew I’d be alright.
I moved my arms, slowly, stretching out, then propped myself up and shifted to sit up in the stretcher, my back against a pair of pillows that Meg brought over and placed helpfully behind me.
My legs were still numb and refused to move, so for a bit we just sat there and Meg continued asking me questions.
A voice boomed out around us.
“Meg, would you mind bringing Ben to see me now? I’m curious to talk to him, and he might want to find out about himself, sooner than later.”
“Guess you’re meeting the Doc tonight. Can you walk?”
“Don’t care if I can walk, I’ll crawl if need be. I need some answers.”