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Andrew walked down the gallery, watching the slowly bobbing reflection on the waxed floor from the bright artificial windows to his left. Looking out as he entered the wide, clean foyer, it was hard to believe he had just stepped through a grit-caked airlock that opened into darkness. Comfortable furniture lined the walls in bright colors, upholstered in a synthetic material made to look like weaved cotton. The rubber-soled boots of his EV suit even squeaked as he walked; the dust collection system was still working at full capacity. The automated maintenance system was top-of-the-line; it would be years before it needed its own round of repairs, and the reactor that powered the colony would likely take centuries to die. Andrew reminded himself of this as he looked at the details of human life around him.
This section was the school. A book sat on a nearby work table, closed and abandoned, ignored by the robots and machines that cleaned the room… Andrew couldn’t guess how many times they had passed it over. On a nearby bulletin board, there were pinned a variety of drawings depicting scenes that were more-or-less earth-like: children playing on grass under a yellow sun, rain and rainbows, castles and cars on busy streets. Odd, considering that it was likely none of the children had ever seen Earth, any other garden planet, or even a bright yellow sun for that matter. Andrew paused and looked around himself, and thought it likely none of them ever would. But there was a chance, or else he wouldn’t be here. He spied on one of the nearby desks another drawing, and his eye became fixed on it.
He walked toward it, looking down at the floor of artificial maple, each section printed to be as unique as real wood, and saw a black scuff mark that had stood up to the passage of the cleaning machines.
Andrew looked up and felt suddenly queasy.
The large room was full of children of all ages, sitting on the neat couches or working at tables. From a distant hall, a teenage boy careened toward him on old-fashioned rolling skates. A young woman – a teacher, by her professional dress, stood at the entrance to a nearby classroom, her arms crossed seriously, though she smiled slightly as she watched the youth. Her light brown hair blew around her shoulders as the boy passed her. Another teacher – a middle-aged man – slipped behind another door, pretending not to notice the boy.
The young teacher called to the teenage boy, “Astin!” and though he knew she was looking to the rebellious youth, Andrew could have sworn the teacher caught his eye. “Astin what do you think you are doing?!”
She’s pretty. The thought careened into his consciousness unbidden, though not as unwelcome as other sentiments that intruded so. Andrew could suddenly see the details in her eyes, as if he were looking into them just centimeters away. They were blue, and reflected the artificial day of a skylight above in a bright white halo.
The image disappeared as Andrew came back into himself. He flinched as the boy on skates tried to stop in front of him, but tripped, scuffing the floor with the rubber brake on his skates, falling onto his side and sliding away, grunting softly. He slid into, or rather, through, Andrew.
And then the vision faded. The sounds of playing children turned to hallow reverberation, and the beautiful teacher turned translucent as she stepped toward him, intent on helping the fallen teenager. Then she was gone.
“Damnit,” Andrew said to himself, forcing the word out of his mouth. His visor was fogging up with his rapid breath. He checked the computer on his wrist and, seeing that the air was clean and clear, he pressed the release button at his neck. His helmet and visor split into tiny ribbons, then disappeared into his collar. He breathed deeply.
“Damn fool, getting distracted like that,” he said aloud to himself. With the helmet removed, he was suddenly aware of the reverb of his voice in the empty room and the soft clicking of a fan’s bearing somewhere in the ventilation system. The wonder of the vision was quickly replaced with his usual sense of unease. He looked down and checked the receiver of his rifle – an antique weapon, but one that he knew functioned better within atmospheres than his plasma gun, which he kept slung on his back. It was toggled over to auto. Andrew shook his head and toggled it back to safe, distrusting his instincts.
He stepped toward the picture on the desk, hoping to provoke another vision (which he had, ironically, intended to avoid by staring at the faux-wood floor), and hoping also that if he were to slip back to the past, he could, with his wits more about him, actually look for his quarry. He let his rifle hang and picked up the picture. It was of a castle, colored with grey pencil and highly detailed, but there were little modern colony buildings instead of a medieval village surrounding it.
Probably better if I don’t slip back, he said inside himself. I need to find her in the present. A past vision does nothing. A void echoed back, and Andrew sighed.
Andrew looked to the manila door from which he had seen the young teacher emerge. It was shut. He could see through a small window a few empty desks. He felt a strong compulsion to open the door and look around, provoke another vision.
She’s likely dead, his voice said to himself. He knew the voice – part of his fractured self – was right. They had played too long at that once already. Andrew nodded his head.
He couldn’t control the power, at least not yet, but he was beginning to understand what would cause it to present itself. Perhaps in the future, he would be able to look back in time at will, not be thrust into it at the behest of some echo in his brain and lose all sense of what “the present” meant. Perhaps… but such experiments would have to wait. Andrew put the picture back down and stepped away from the desk. He walked through the open school toward where his readout said the primary elevators were. This sector had to be empty. He walked down a long and narrow hallway, the rustle of his suit and his soft steps the only sound.
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