Monday, September 12, 2022

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 29: “The Light of Better Days” • by Jonathan Sherwood

Aisling stood at the window and wiped quickly at both cheeks. Outside, beyond the horizontal slats of the blinds that chopped lines through Odin III’s two setting suns, Mazaa walked quickly across the street away from Aisling’s porch and probably toward Weber’s for a drink.

Therapy was hard on people. It was hard on therapists.

She sniffed and wiped at her cheeks again. She was never sure if she really helped anyone. Life on a remote planetary mining colony was hard on everyone, and it wasn’t that rare that after her last client, she’d cry over her dinner plate, only to resolve the next morning that this day would be the one where she’d make a real difference. This would be the day she’d clearly, unquestionably help someone live better, be happier, find light in their day. It was such a vague profession that you couldn’t tell from one day to the next if you really helped people at all. It’s no secret that most therapists see therapists of their own. But on Odin III there was no one she felt comfortable talking to, and she knew the cracks of having no support system around her were beginning to break her apart.

She sniffed again and cleared her throat. Her last client of the day was next. And she was terrified.

She’d first seen Hans in his deli. She’d been eating the native koblyx mushrooms for a few months and fully believed the rumors that some people could see alternate timelines with them. Because she’d seen them. She knew it was real. She could sense who a person was in a variety of hazy other realities. She even used the mushrooms as a therapy tool, both for herself and others.

But Hans…

Hans saw her the same moment she saw him. They stared at each other with mouths open before she dropped her deli basket and ran out. She did her best to avoid him from then on because he was like an empty space. He was there, but there was no aura of alternate timeline around him. Something about him was very wrong. He was a ghastly emptiness.

And now he’d suddenly made an appointment. An appointment starting—

A shadow crossed her porch railings.

“Hello? Ms. Walsh?”

She cleared her throat. “Yes, hello Hans. Nice to actually meet you. Please come in. Have a seat.” She pointed toward the client couch, but did not shake his hand. Even though she hadn’t used mushrooms in weeks, she could still sense it—the complete absence that surrounded him. She sat, the coffee table strategically between them. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”

“Sure,” he said. “Sure. Okay, um. I died. About fifty years ago.”

Aisling’s mouth moved several times but no sound came.

“I was twenty and I was testing a Galactic Mining ship with a prototype engine with my buddy, Ray. Something went wrong, so I checked on the engine, only there wasn’t no engine. There was a woman, maybe seventy years old, with tubes sticking out of her. She smelled like those mushrooms. You know that smell?”

Aisling nodded, curtly.

“Anyways, I touched her and I got this shock, only it was way more than that. I suddenly knew things. Things about the future. I just knew. Galactic was going to use her, and use everyone here to do some really, really horrible stuff. So, I did the only thing I could think of, and I crashed the ship.” He swallowed. “And killed myself.”

“You seem in remarkably good health,” Aisling said with a smile, but it felt forced, and probably looked forced. It might have sounded sincere if she weren’t gripped by the emptiness around him.

“That’s the thing, Ma’am. I also remember, after I got shocked, I was suddenly outside Weber’s bar there. I went in, and there was Ray, only old, like he is now. He said he’d been expecting me, and it was the future, and that when I went back, I shouldn’t crash the ship, but let him land it. So I did. We still crashed, but not as bad, and I lived. That woman sent me into the future to meet Ray on purpose.”

“And the woman?”

Hans shifted several times on the couch. “She told me, she asked me, to pull out one of the tubes. To kill her. And I did. She was smiling, real sweet like, and she even said she was sorry to ask me to do it. She was dead before we crashed.”

“And… how do you feel about that?”

“Well, I felt awful about it for a long time. But that was fifty years ago, and as the years went on, I’ve been seeing how people are, but I can also see how they were supposed to be.”

“Supposed to be?”

“In the real timeline. In the first one. Every time I meet someone, I can match up their face to who they are in the other reality, even if there are changes. I’m real good with faces. And here’s the thing—the longer it goes on, the worse that other timeline gets. I mean, that lady showed me Galactic wanted these rock-aliens that live underground here. They can mess with time and space and Galactic was going to use them in just horrible ways. Just horrible stuff. I mean, wars and famine, and everyone here on Odin was basically slave labor. So, when I see someone here, they’ve got no idea how much better their lives are than they could be. I can see it. I can see people the way they coulda been.”

“That must be terrible to see.”

“So you believe me, right? People say you’ve used those mushrooms and know about timelines, right? Took me a while to get up the nerve to talk to you. But you know I’m not crazy?”

“We don’t use the word ‘crazy,’ but, I—” she wasn’t sure what to say, but she could still sense his eerie, overwhelming lack of presence. He lived in just one reality. “I believe you.”

He visibly relaxed. “That’s good. That’s good to hear.”

“Do you want to talk about how you feel seeing this other reality? I’ve seen some things. I know some of it is quite hard to deal with.”

“Uh, no Ma’am. No, I made my peace with it a long time ago. I’m okay. In fact, I’ve come to really realize how much better life is for me—for everyone—this way. Everyone is much better off. It’s a damn paradise compared to the way things were going to be. Makes me thankful every damn day.”

“I don’t understand,” said Aisling. “Then why are you here?”

“Well, I guess I’m here to say thank you.”

“We’ve hardly begun. Therapy can take months.”

“No, no,” he said, sitting forward on the couch. “No, I mean thank you. I’m really good with faces. When I saw you in the deli that first time, I knew. Put another thirty or forty years on you and you’re her. You’re the woman in the chair. In the ship. Fifty years ago.”

“I… What?”

“I don’t know if it’s because the mushrooms work so good on you or what, but somehow, someday, you go back and you use me to change everything. For everyone. Everywhere. I just know there’s probably nobody else, maybe anywhere, that knows how much you’ve done to help people. So I just wanted to say, on behalf of everyone who should be saying it, just… thank you, Ma’am. Thank you for making such a difference for everyone.”

* * *

Aisling stood at the window and wiped quickly at both cheeks, watching Hans make his way to Weber’s. He stopped and talked to Father Luigi and Shelley, hand-in-hand on the sidewalk. Constable Jenkins, nose in a rolled-up script, sang lines from the upcoming play, waving her arms as she walked down the street. Little Kira sat on the shoulders of the android, Sloane 51, as they and Daraja talked loudly about math. The Gruber brothers, laughing as they made their way into the bar.

Odin III’s smaller sun was all that remained above the horizon, bathing the little colony in ruddy light—light that split through her blinds and warmed the smile on her face.


Jonathan Sherwood has written about science and scientists for research universities for more than two decades, and science fiction for even longer. He holds a bachelors in science writing from Cornell University and an MA in English from the University of Rochester. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and others.