Stars snap into place outside Lura’s cockpit. A red giant twenty degrees off her ship’s nose has visibly shifted position. The nebula above her has grown more diffuse. She exhales, clicks the button to log another successful breach, and lets herself blink while the flight computer calculates the next FTL jump. She never closes her eyes during the breach. Whether or not it helps doesn’t matter. What’s important is to maintain her sense of self.
She reviews her mental inventory. She is Captain Lura Maraj. Her parents are Ama and Sondi. Her brother is Ravi. Her mission …
She shakes off a wave of dizziness. Her mission is her mission. She can’t let herself forget. She eyes the button that would inject her with a dose of Reboot, then pushes it out of her mind. She prefers other ways of keeping a grip on reality.
The monitor on her left displays a random slideshow of family photos, places from her past, snippets from training manuals, and facts about her homeworld. The screen on her right confirms that she’s breached twenty-three times since leaving Quetzal. It doesn’t show the enormous number of breaches remaining. Lura doesn’t know who the programmers thought they were fooling by withholding that bit of data.
In between, above, and below her monitors are dates that Lura etched into the bulkhead. Her birthday, the day she graduated flight school, the day she kissed Sara Novak at a football match, the day of her first combat mission … The list goes on. She checks and confirms that each memory is solid, locked, and strapped into place.
She glances at the stars. She isn’t used to seeing them with naked eyes. The combat ships she usually flies don’t have transparent canopies, but a team of psychologists had decided that being able to see outside would help with the strain she’d be under. What did they know? They’d never flown a mission like this. No one had.
Her ship is barely a ship. It has no thrusters, no maneuvering jets, nothing but a breach drive big enough for a heavy cruiser. The ship’s only payload is her life support capsule and several hundred redundant memory cores, each holding a vast library of history, science, art, and literature.
The flight computer beeps at the end of its cycle. With so little control over her journey, Lura feels like a monkey from the early space programs. At least, what with her years of flight experience, she’s allowed to pull the trigger that initiates the drive. She finds the star that moved on her last jump, stares at it, and breaches.
The doors slide open to the Planetary Defense Command and Control Center. The non-com on duty salutes her. Lura’s been here many times, but she’s never been summoned with such secrecy and haste.
“In the wardroom, sir,” the young soldier says. “He’s expecting you.”
She nods and steps inside.
“Captain Maraj,” the general says. “At ease and have a seat.”
She does as directed after a moment’s hesitation. She isn’t accustomed to sitting in the presence of a general. No, make that three. Generals Pacheco and Saldor are at the table, as well as a cabinet member whose name she can’t place. Also seated are two junior officers, Lieutenant Almaty from Panther Squadron and another whom she doesn’t know.
The last person at the table, sitting on Corvall’s left, is a civilian in a suit that’s slightly too big for him. He has the harrowed look of a man desperate to explain himself while at the same time sick of having to do so. It takes Lura a moment to recognize him from his author photo.
“Dr. Travis?” Unsure of the protocol, she turns to Corvall. The general slouches and waves to give her permission to speak. Lura straightens her back. In addition to haste and secrecy, she adds informality to this meeting and decides it isn’t going to end well.
“You know our guest, Captain?” the general asks.
She nods. “I know his book on probability mechanics. I recommend it to all the pilots I train, sir.”
Dr. Travis gives her a bleak smile. “Glad to be of service.”
“Captain Maraj,” the general says, “why don’t you tell Dr. Travis how many FTL breaches you’ve logged?”
“Duty breaches or total, sir?”
“Ten thousand, four hundred and seventy-seven.”
Travis’s mouth falls open. “How is that even … Pardon me for asking, Captain, but how are you still sane?”
Lura shrugs, but the general answers.
“Captain Maraj is our sharpest pilot. No lapses, no mental breaks. She’s the best. The only reason she’s still a captain is because we can’t afford to promote her. All apologies, Mr. Maraj.”
“None needed, sir. I love to fly.”
“But to breach with no lapses?” says Travis. “How much Reboot do you use?”
Lura bristles, though she knows she shouldn’t. Almost all pilots use the drug, especially during combat.
“None if I can help it, sir.”
Travis shakes his head, mulls something over, then asks, “You think she’s the one?”
“She’s the only one,” Corvall replies. “There’s no one else I’d even consider.”
Travis looks at Lura as if she shouldn’t be real. Her jaw tightens, but before she can ask what the hell this is about, Travis cuts in with a question of his own.
“Captain Maraj, what’s the earliest thing you can remember?”
Lulu keeps her eyes open as the colony ship breaches one step closer to their new planet. Daddy explained about planets, and how their new one would be better than Earth. He gave her a picture book about Quetzal and its three little moons. The pictures are so pretty that she can’t wait to get there. Their ship will land on her birthday and Mommy will make her a cake with five candles. So she keeps her eyes open through each breach, each time hoping this will be the one that brings them to her birthday planet.
She, her parents, and her baby brother Ravi all lay in their cabin’s funny couches. Mommy puts a patch on Ravi’s arm to make him sleep, and then Mommy and Daddy both close their eyes. Lulu thinks the breach must make grown-ups dizzy. But not her.
The ship twists around her. The cabin flips without flipping and everything ends up right back where it was. Lulu hiccups, then giggles. Green lights flash and the all-clear sounds.
“Ama?” Mommy asks. Ama is Daddy’s name. Mommy sounds funny. Her eyes are still closed. “Did Ravi wake up already?”
Daddy slides off his couch and looks at Lulu.
“You all right, sweetie?”
“I feel sick,” Mommy says. “I hate those nausea drugs, but I think this time …”
Mommy opens her eyes and looks right at Lulu. Her mouth twists into an odd shape.
“Mommy!” Lulu says. “I kept my eyes open the whole time. It’s easy. The whole room flipped and I burped.”
Mommy looks afraid. Her eyes shift towards Daddy. “Ama, what’s going on? Who … Where did this girl come from?”
“Sondi?” Daddy climbs out of his couch. “Are you okay?”
“It’s me, Mommy!” Lulu runs to her mother. “Are we there yet? Is it my birthday?”
Her mother pulls back. “Ama, what’s going on?” Her voice rises in a way that Lulu’s never heard before. “Who is this?”
“Mommy?” Lulu is scared now. Daddy takes her by the shoulders and whispers.
“Lu, go check on Ravi. Mommy’s just confused. I’m going to help her.”
“What do you mean I’m confused?” her mother shrieks. “Ama, who is this? Where did she come from? What’s going on?”
“It was one of the first cases of post-breach amnesia,” she tells Dr. Travis. “My mother could remember my father and brother, but not me. This was thirty years ago before we had Reboot. She never regained the first five years of my life.”
Lura bites her lip as she finishes the story. She doesn’t tell it very often. It had taken her a lot of angry years to outgrow the bitterness.
Dr. Travis taps his fingers.
“Captain, I’m going to ask a horrible question. What if it wasn’t amnesia? What if your mother wasn’t wrong?”
Her impulse is to roll her eyes. “You’re talking about the Discontinuity Hypothesis. I don’t buy it.”
Travis sounds in earnest, and with all the generals present she decides not to brush him off.
“Personal experience. I’ve breached over ten thousand times. Not once have I landed in some alternate reality. If we truly wound up in a different universe every time we used FTL, I think I would have noticed by now.”
Travis nods. “All right. But you must realize that you’re an outlier. How do you explain the effects that others have experienced? Alternate realities, to use your words. Like your fellow pilots?”
Lura grips her fists under the table. She’s lost more comrades to the psych ward than to enemy action and she hates speaking against their fitness.
“It’s a question of willpower and focus. The breach affects the mind. It takes strength to hold on.”
“All right, granted,” says Travis. “Going through FTL can damage memory, which is why Reboot works. But you can’t deny the increasing level of historical mismatch from pilots coming out of the jump. Different versions of reality are being reported more often. I mean, you’ve talked to your colleagues. Can you think of any historical fact from the past hundred years, any single point of reference, that all the victims agree on?”
Lura doesn’t like this line of questioning and she hates the word victims. She’s heard it on talk shows and from conspiracy nuts for years, spewed from the mouths of people who’d never known the pilots she flew with, never witnessed their panic and confusion first hand. She wants to shout Travis down just like those other idiots.
Instead, she thinks of an answer. “The Aswara probe. Everyone agrees on that.”
“I’m here to check on Captain Heath,” the newly minted Lieutenant Maraj tells the duty nurse. He shows her into the observation ward and directs her to the captain’s private room. Lura knocks, then lets herself in.
Natia Heath sits with the back of her hospital bed tilted up. They’ve let her change into jeans and a t-shirt. She flips through the shows on her mini-screen, scowling at each program. Lura bites her lip and wonders if Natia’s forgotten her.
“Captain?” she says.
“Don’t call me that.”
Lura pauses. “Natia … I came to see how you’re doing. If there’s anything you need.”
Natia looks at her for the first time. “I know you. You’re that captain from Stingray Squadron. I heard you were some kind of badass.”
A weight like a stone drops in Lura’s chest. Natia’s been her friend for years. Lura had hoped they were growing into something more, but now that person may be gone. She sits, a dozen similar losses throbbing in her head.
“I’m just a lieutenant. You’re the captain.”
Natia shakes her head. “No, don’t say that. I’m a trainee. I was on a training exercise, then I breach and suddenly I’m in a battle? And everybody’s saying I’m a captain? Everyone else has lost their goddamn minds and it’s driving me nuts.”
Lura tries to keep her voice from shaking. “No one’s lost their mind, you’ve just forgotten some things. God, I wish I could help you remember.”
“I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m not missing years of my life. I remember it all and I’m telling you that everything is wrong.” She jabs a finger at her screen. “That asshole senator on the talk show? He was busted out of office five years ago for having sex with a minor.”
“Natia, that’s the Prime Minister.”
“Jesus God,” she says. “It’s not just that. It’s on every vid. The wrong actors on the wrong shows. The wrong lyrics to songs I’ve known my whole life. It’s like someone’s rewritten the world.”
Lura fumbles for some way to bring her Natia back.
“Do you remember the two of us going to flight school together?”
“Of course not. I only signed up for Planetary Defense ten months ago.”
“Do you remember growing up in New Kowloon?”
“Balboa,” she says. “My parents moved out of New Kowloon before I was born.”
Lura fishes for something major, some huge point of reference they can both agree on.
“What about the Aswara probe? Do you remember that?”
Natia stares at her. “Of course I do. How could I forget?”
“What do you remember?”
“I was in seventh grade.” She turns off the monitor. “I streamed the news every day. I watched every report.”
“What did they say?”
Natia thinks for a moment.
“An object entered the Aswara system at five percent light speed. They thought it was an asteroid until it slowed down. It entered orbit around Aswara B while every scientist from a hundred light-years breached there to analyze it. Then it broadcast that message about a civilization orbiting the core of the galaxy.” She smiles sheepishly. “Please tell me that’s still the same?”
Lura feels something prick at her eyes. “It is. Every bit.”
She pulls the trigger and breaches. More stars slip into new positions. She’s inching across a galactic spiral arm, though not the one she grew up in. She left that behind, what, two hundred breaches ago? In between, she’d crossed a gulf of brown dwarfs, rogue planets, and the wispy ghosts of long-dead giants. After one breach, she’d stopped to watch a supernova whose light wouldn’t reach Quetzal for ten thousand years. Would anyone be there to see it? If a star explodes in a forest and no one’s around to hear …
She closes her eyes, recites the dates carved in her cockpit, then looks to make sure that none have changed. A message on the board to her left tells her that one of the ship’s memory units has corrupted.
There’s a stiffness at the base of her skull, a nagging intuition that she’s missing something important. She’s felt it before after multi-breach flights and she knows it’s a symptom to watch. She takes a sip of water and waits for the computer to run its numbers. As soon as it’s ready, she pulls the trigger and breaches.
It’s as if Lura and Travis are the only people in the room.
“Yes, the Aswara probe,” he says. “That’s a constant, as are the locations of stars, the number of planets around them, the number of breaches it takes to get from one to the other. Here’s another you may not be aware of: the invention of the breach drive itself. All the breach amnesia cases I’ve interviewed agree on the details, at least those in the history books.”
“That proves my point, doesn’t it?” Lura says. “The breach doesn’t alter reality or send us from one to another. Reality is fixed. The breach merely causes a dysfunction of the mind.”
“You’re almost right,” says Travis, “and that’s what makes it hard to see. Reality does appear to be fixed—right up until the invention of the breach drive. The stars and planets were here already. The Aswara probe? That was launched two hundred thousand years ago. No alteration of recent history was going to prevent its arrival.”
“History isn’t being altered.”
Travis goes on. “Don’t you think it’s interesting that the Core Civilization doesn’t have the breach drive? Or if they do, they choose not to use it? According to the probe, their culture is millions of years old. They could easily have spread across the galaxy in a matter of centuries and yet they limit themselves to slower than light travel. Why do you think that is?”
“If it was important, don’t you think the probe would have told us?” Lura counters. “The simplest explanation is that we’ve stumbled on a discovery they haven’t.”
“Simple, but unlikely.” Travis taps his fingers together then turns to the two junior officers. “Captain, do you know Lieutenants Almaty and Sumner?”
The two men shift in their seats. Lura can only imagine how uncomfortable they must be in this setting.
“Lieutenant Almaty is the top pilot in Panther. I haven’t had the pleasure of serving with Lieutenant Sumner.”
“Beg pardon, sir,” says Sumner, “but we flew together against the Andrew Tanninger. I was in Cormorant.”
“My apologies, Lieutenant.” Lura feels a pang at the memory of that battle. The Tanninger breached in from the Galbraith system and opened fire on Quetzal’s defense satellites. Stingray, Wolfhound, and Cormorant responded, with Cormorant, a trainee squadron, taking the brunt of the casualties.
“Captain Maraj,” says Travis, “are you aware of what prompted the Tanninger’s assault?”
Lura breaches into the midst of a firefight. All around her, exhaust plumes and explosions blossom like newborn suns. The others in her squadron are breaching into the field of engagement as well, but she doesn’t have time to check on their status. Her mission is to kill the Tanninger. No disorientation. She looks for the Tanninger’s drive and reaches for the panel to launch her missiles.
But the panel isn’t there. She fumbles in the space where her weapons console should be. Instead, she finds … field rations? A water filtration unit? What happened to her fighter, and why can she see through the hull?
Exhaust jets and explosions are frozen in space around her. She looks again and sees that they’re stars, shrouded in glowing dust. She’s breached into the heart of a stellar nursery. The battle with the Tanninger was nearly a year ago. She almost grasps what’s going on, but it quickly slips out of her mind. Why is she so far from Quetzal? What is her mission?
Her mission is her mission. She curses herself for weakness and exhaustion, then thumbs the button to inject herself with Reboot. A needle pricks her neck and the drug floods her body. Unused to it, she grits her teeth to hold back the bile in her throat. She focuses on the dates in her cockpit. Her birthday. Her brother’s. The day she earned her wings. The day she accepted this assignment.
Too many breaches too fast, she decides. The count stands at 2,491. She checks the readings on her ship’s memory units. Thirty-five percent have been corrupted. She needs to plow ahead, to complete the mission, but a pilot must know her limits as much as she needs to push them. The flight computer calculates the next breach, but she sets all systems but life support on hold and lets her ship’s engine spin down.
She breaks out a ration bar and reads a random file from an uncorrupted memory bank. She watches a recording of a football match. She drifts to sleep in the dust cloud of a fledgling sun, trusting that she will wake with the memory of who she is, and why.
“It was my understanding that the Tanninger’s attack was an attempt to cripple our orbital shipyard,” Lura says. “As to why a former ally like Galbraith should turn on us, I haven’t been informed.”
“An ally,” says Travis. “Mr. Sumner, would you describe the Galbraith system as one of Quetzal’s allies?”
Sumner looks as lost as Lura feels. “No sir. The Galbraith system broke off diplomatic relations when their Unionist Party came to power. They’ve been a dictatorship for years.”
“No,” says Lura. “I’ve been to Galbraith. We signed a treaty with them and Navarre to impose sanctions on New Minsk.” She glances from Travis to Sumner. “A mental lapse? But which one of us?” A chill runs along her skin. Perhaps her mind isn’t as sound as she thought.
“Relax, Captain,” says Travis. “I remember that treaty too and I haven’t breached for a long time. Mr. Sumner, why don’t you share how many breaches you’ve logged?”
“Me, sir?” the lieutenant asks. “None.”
Lura slumps. Nothing makes sense. “But if it isn’t post-breach amnesia …”
“It was never post-breach amnesia,” says Travis. “And no one’s ever breached into an alternate reality. I’m afraid what’s really happening is worse than you’re going to want to believe.”
General Corvall finally raises his voice. “Captain, Lieutenant Almaty was recently sent on a reconnaissance flight to the Galbraith system to determine which version of history was accurate. Son, tell the captain what you discovered.”
Almaty coughs before answering. “Galbraith is dead. Galbraith B and C were bombed from orbit and all off-world stations were also destroyed. An analysis of the debris shows that both Navarrine and New Minsk warcraft were involved in the engagement.”
“The whole system?” Lura’s never heard of destruction so vast, nor how such a battle could have gone unnoticed. “But … which version of the system was it? The ally or the dictatorship?”
Almaty shakes his head. “No way to tell. Every satellite, every fueling station, every structure on a planetary surface, anything that would have held a scrap of data had been atomized.”
She breaches with her eyes closed. She can’t stand the view through the canopy anymore. When the breach is over she reads nothing but the numbers on her cockpit walls. She doesn’t watch history vids or look at the flight computer. She scratches another mark on the bulkhead next to her harness. After every tenth mark, she injects herself with Reboot. Only two more until the next dose.
She makes herself recall a scene from her childhood: a friend’s mother’s wedding. She can’t remember the friend’s name or what her mother looked like, but she remembers the gaudy pink wedding cake.
The computer chimes ready. She swears that it’s getting slower. Seventy-two percent of the ship’s memory stores are gone. Her mind will hold together. It must, dammit. She exhales, closes her eyes, pulls the trigger, and breaches.
“You know the problem I’ve always had with Schrödinger’s Cat?” says Travis. “The cat’s neither alive nor dead until the box is opened and its status is observed. But the cat’s life or death is being observed, constantly. By the cat.”
“What’s your point?” says Lura.
“The breach drive splinters reality. Not much, just a little, but the effect is cumulative. Every now and then someone wins the lottery—or loses the Russian roulette, I guess—and ends up with a major fracture, such as your mother observing a reality in which you were never born.”
“But two realities can’t exist at the same time.”
“Exactly,” says Travis. “The universe won’t tolerate it. Yet the breach drive forces it to do exactly that every time we use it. We are the cat in the box, Captain. It’s only a matter of time before the universe resolves all the paradoxes we’re creating. It already did so on Galbraith.”
Lura takes a long moment to let Dr. Travis’s suggestion sink in.
“The easiest way to resolve the different versions of reality,” she says, “is to erase all of our history since the invention of the breach drive.” She shakes her head. “Then we’re dead. As soon as enough people observe a reality in which humanity destroys itself, we’re dead.”
“Perhaps not,” says General Corvall. “We’re sending Dr. Travis’s findings to all the other colony worlds and we’re taking steps to curtail our use of the breach drive. But more than that, Captain, there’s something we need to do and I believe you’re the only one to do it.”
“We need to be observed,” says Travis, “before the universe erases us for our sins. We need an intelligence outside ourselves to acknowledge that our species exists before the universe decides that we don’t.”
“I can’t order you to do this,” says the general. “There’s probably no coming back. It has to be your own choice. But if you accept a word of this, we want you to breach farther than anyone before. We want you to contact the civilization at the core of the galaxy.”
She breaches and remembers the day her father died. She breaches and remembers visiting Natia in the hospital. She breaches and remembers her mother closing a door. She breaches. She breaches. She breaches.
She floats in the vastness of space. Hundreds of suns crowd upon her. She can’t see her cockpit. She can’t see her body. All she can see are the stars.
She reaches out toward them. She can’t see her hand, though she feels it press against something like glass. As soon as it does, the feeling fades away. She doesn’t know how many breaches it’s been. She can’t remember the last one. She can’t remember when she stopped remembering.
She can’t remember her name.
“Be calm,” says a voice behind her.
She turns to see who’s speaking, finding nothing but a giant blue sun. A whirlpool of fire larger than worlds drains a funnel of gas from its surface.
“What’s happening?” She feels the panic rise. She’s seen it in other faces, though she can’t remember whose. Her heart doesn’t quicken, but she wants it to. Her breathing isn’t shallow, though it should be. She can’t feel her heart or her breath. She can’t hear her voice, though she feels herself form the words. “Why am I here?”
“You came,” says the voice, still behind her. “You said it was your mission.”
A mission? What mission?
“Where am I?” she asks. “Why can’t I feel anything? Where’s my ship?”
Her ship, she remembers. Her ship to take her … somewhere.
“Your body and your ship did not survive your journey. We were able to preserve your mind and some data from your craft. Do you require further sensory input?”
What was the voice talking about? Her body and ship had … what? Hesitating, she answers, “Yes?”
She feels her hands, her chest, her face again. She sees herself in something like a hospital gown, adrift in space. What happened to her flight suit? If only they’d let her change into civvies like Natia …
Memories flood back, sharper than any Reboot: Quetzal, the Tanninger, her squadron, Corvall, Natia, Dr. Travis.
I am the cat in the box.
“Oh god,” she says. “The memory banks …”
“Seven survived long enough for us to read them,” says the voice. “Your flight was not in vain.”
Triumph slides away in the rush of history. Her years in flight school. Her brother’s graduation. Her father’s death. Her mother.
Her mother forgot her name. She wants to cry, but the tears won’t come. Why did her mother have to forget her name?
“Your name is Lura,” the voice behind her says. “We will not forget you. You will never be forgotten again.”