Last NaNoWriMo post, I promise.
Xenophilius Zelo was neither tall nor short, or fat, or thin. He was the sort of person whose features slipped your mind as soon as you turned away from him. His only distinguishing features were that he was bald and incredibly wealthy.
He’d made his money in waste management, procuring one waste company after another, until finally he owned not only every waste treatment center, garbage truck, dump, sewage plant, and recycling organization on Carth, but on 2A and 3A as well. Early on he’d bought a small planet and settled it in orbit around a nearby star, and since then he’d exploded and reformed the Waste Planet three times.
Xenophilius was not a rememberable man, but he’d made himself someone you couldn’t forget.
The words I’ll do it were unexpectedly the first words that Marie said to Alice that evening, even before the anticipated pour me a drink or even I really need to shower.
Alice blinked twice before recognition flared in her eyes.
“Really?” she asked.
Alice smiled – a rare, full face, eyes crinkling kind of smile.
“Thank you,” she said.
Marie shrugged. She had the strong urge to say something sarcastic, but nothing came to mind.
“I want my planet back,” she said lamely.
She retreated to the shower, passing a snoozing Milo – who was apparently old again – on her way out.
Over dinner that night – delicately cooked shrimp tacos with a spicy mango salsa – Marie felt relaxed. Perhaps it was a feeling carried over from her day at the beach, but she felt oddly at ease in a way that she hadn’t before. Her skin was starting to color from days of being in the sun, her sunburn was fading, and she’d finally come to some sort of terms with her presence on the island.
Galen had concocted some sort of refreshing, fruity cocktail, and she leaned back in her chair and sipped idly on it as the others chatted idly about what they’d been off doing all day. Hershel had apparently had an Encounter (their term for running into somebody who was not, technically speaking, supposed to be there), with a woman whom had long since moved to a different planet, and they’d passed a pleasant hour weeding the garden until she’d finally disappeared. Alice and Milo went on a walk. Elsy had gone shopping.
“Shopping?” Marie asked. “Where the hell do you go shopping around here?”
“There’s a town not far from here called Town 5F. I was out of oil, and I wanted to see if they had anything good that was fresh. Hence the shrimp.”
“I see,” Marie replied, tactfully ignoring the horrific town name.
“You’re going to have to go shopping too, in the near future,” Alice said. “You can’t exactly pull off wealthy Carthigian dressed in salvaged clothes.”
“I can take you tomorrow,” Elsy said. “They may have fabrics, but there’s almost certainly not going to be anything made.”
“That I can deal with on my own.”
Marie slowly took her hands down from her face and snuck a peek. Galen was floating in the water like a starfish, his eyes closed. Marie huffed through her nose, and he opened one eye and looked at her, unconcerned.
“You know, you’re kind of a Debbie Downer,” he said mildly. “You’ve basically done nothing but cry and whine since you got here. You might as well pull the stick out of your ass and live a little bit.”
Marie gritted her teeth.
“It’s funny,” she said dryly, “Alice gave me almost exactly the same speech two day ago.”
“Hmm,” Galen replied, in a tone that implied that he approved.
They were silent for a long moment; Galen floating effortlessly in his soggy boxers, Marie with her arms clasped firmly across her chest. She stared out across the perfectly formed crescent mouthed bay, watching the waves crash poetically against the sea cliffs far in the distance, and distantly, felt annoyed at the single trickle of sweat leaking from her neck down under her shirt to her lower back.
“Fuck it,” she said, ripping off the emerald green tank top she’d stolen from one of the empty houses. She was wearing a bra that had cost her nearly $300 back on Earth, but whatever, she was in a sea on a copy of a copy of a planet far from people who would care about that sort of thing.
“Atta girl,” Galen said. Marie tossed her linen pants aside and dove into the water. The sea felt like a caress after so many sweaty days in the sun, and despite the initial sting on her mild sunburn, Marie felt better than she had since arriving on Carth 3-A. She floated with Galen until her ears were waterlogged and her skin was pruning, and then they walked down the beach until they grew hot again and felt like taking another swim.
They stayed on the beach until their stomachs were growling and the sun was starting its descent. Galen had thoughtfully packed some mangos, which they devoured as they dried off in the sun, leaning their backs against a young palm tree. Staring off into the distance, Marie realized that what she thought was a mountain was actually just a group of trees. She pursed her lips.
“I still can’t get over this place,” she said.
Two days passed after Alice had initially asked Marie to spy on Xionsyes.
Two long, hot days.
After conferring with Elsy, Marie went into a few of the vacant houses to savage for clothing. The picking were slim, but she did find a few items that would work, as well as a crazily futuristic looking sewing machine – the first evidence of technology Marie had seen. Marie praised her fashion background for the first time in a long time and tailored some clothes that, if not perfect, actually fit her, including, mercifully, a few more pairs of underwear she made from scratch from a breathable, silky textured fabric she couldn’t name.
She went sunbathing for about an hour before discovering that the sun was extremely fierce, and spent the following hour trying to figure out whether or not Carth 3-A had aloe plants. They did not, but they had a distant cousin called verthra which, as Elsy showed her, secreted a milky sap.
Once, she thought she spotted young Elsy out of the corner of her eye, but she didn’t try to track her down again, having had quite enough the first day, thank you.
Marie excused herself from the table shortly after that and went for a walk outside. It was finally cooling down a bit after the hot day, and the temperature outside was quite pleasant. Milo followed her outside, gamboling aimlessly around her legs as she walked.
The sun seemed to go down early here, possibly because the trees were impossibly tall, but the sky was still bright enough to go by. Marie headed down a side street on a whim and walked slowly, looking at all the plaster houses. There were a few styles of architecture she recognized from somewhere, and a lot she was unfamiliar with. She missed the different materials of the houses back home. God, there were certainly enough trees around to build a whole house out of wood.
Milo barked, and Marie turned her head to see what he was looking at. There was a little girl, maybe eight or nine, sitting alone on the steps of one of the houses, watching Marie from the safety of the gaudy green guardrails up the sides of the steps.
“Hello,” Marie called to her. “I didn’t know there was anyone else here.
The little girl held out her hands to Milo, who ran to her without hesitation. She was a skinny little thing, all elbows, with two long, thin braids framing her gaunt face.
“You have a dog?” she asked Marie. “You must be really rich.”
“It’s not my dog,” Marie explained. “I’m just talking him for a walk.”
The little girl nodded sagely.
“I want a dog, but Mam says we can’t have a dog because dogs cost too much money,” the little girl said. “What’s the dog’s name? Is it a girl dog or a boy dog?”
“His name is Milo,” Marie said. Milo thumped his tail enthusiastically against the ground a few tails.
“He’s funny,” the little girl replied.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“It’s Elsy,” the child responded, absentmindedly flicking one of her long braids behind her. Marie felt a chill run through her spine. The girl did look remarkably similar to the cook Elsy – dark hair and eyes, ember skin, a dainty nose on a large face.
“And how old are you, Elsy?” Marie said, trying to keep her voice steady. She like her heart was beating out of her chest again, and she wondered almost hyserically if there were any heart doctors in the vicinity.
“I’m seven, almost,” Elsy said proudly. She stood up off the steps, still clinging to Milo. She was barely as tall Marie’s shoulder.
“Can I walk with you a little ways?” the girl asked hopefully.
“Of course,” Marie said in her most convincingly cheerful voice
“She is, but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking,” Galen joked.
“Cool it, peanut gallery,” Marie hissed. “If the time thing bothers you guys that much, why don’t you just leave?”
“Because it’s not that simple,” Alice replied.
Marie opened her mouth to respond, but Alice cut her off.
“Listen,” Alice said urgently. “We know that it’s not uncommon for people from Carth and Carth 2-A to visit the mainland here. They think the time rules here are fun, for whatever reason. It’s becoming a fairly popular vacation spot for rich people, for whatever reason. It wouldn’t be unfeasible for you to pose as a rich Carthigian on a trip, snoop around a little, and figure out what the hell is going on.”
“And why on Earth would I want to do that?” Marie asked, exasperated.
“Because you’re not on Earth anymore,” Elsy said quietly. “And if you do this for us, we’ll help you get back there.”
Marie’s stomach gurgled loudly, and Galen snorted. Marie flushed red.
“I’m not used to eating like this,” she said defensively, as her digestive system complained loudly again. Hershel got up and fetched his med kit from the other room. He fished around for a second and pulled out two shiny, bright yellow pills, long, skinny ovals.
“Here,” he said, and Marie held out her hand.
“What are these?”
“It’ll help with the digestion. Chew and swallow.”
Marie hesitated, but her upset stomach made up her mind for her. She complied. The pills melted on her tongue and she gagged, reaching for her glass. Milo nipped consolingly at her ankle.
“Thanks Hershel,” Marie said. He nodded.
They sat in awkward silence for a while as Marie’s stomach began to settle.
Within five minutes she felt fine.
“That was a miracle pill,” Marie said, breaking the silence.
“It is remarkably efficient, yes.”
“Why don’t you guys have any technology here?” Marie asked suddenly.
“What do you mean?” Elsy asked.
“You know, computers and stuff like that. I figured since you were apparently advanced enough to duplicate planets, you’d have computers everywhere, and automated stuff, and walls made out of lasers and stuff like that,” Marie explained lamely.
“Why?” she asked.
“You know, so you don’t have to do things by hand as much. Like, where you even get all this food?”
“I have chickens out back,” Elsy said. “One of the people who moved back to Carth 2-A planted a lovely orchard. Hershel gardens, Galen and Alice hunt and forage from time to time. There’s also another town not too far from here, with all the technology and what-not you’re probably expecting, but we’re fairly limited out here in terms of supplies and things like that, and we enjoy life that way.”
It was by far the longest speech Marie had heard from the older woman thus far and she considered it carefully.
“If there’s a town not far from here, why don’t you move there?”
“This is home,” Elsy said simply.
“We do have some technology here,” Galen added, “computers and the like, but we don’t use it much.”
“You guys are like futuristic Amish people,” Marie quipped.
Galen snorted. “Sort of.”
“I don’t understand, though,” Marie said seriously. “This place is so much like home. You all speak English, for heaven’s sakes. The food is the same, from what I’ve seen, the animals are the same. The only thing different so far, really, is the trees and the houses. And the freaky time thing.”
“Think about it this way,” Hershel said gently. “When Barth was created by Aarth, it was essentially a clone of the First Planet, similar in every way, and the Aarththons wanted it that way. Why wouldn’t they, when they were planning on using it as a second home? So on with Carth and Darth, all the way down to Earth and onward. So yes, we speak English – it’s because Aarthons taught us English, and brought down all their various languages and cultures to all the cloned planets waiting to soak it all in.”
“So Earth isn’t original at all,” Marie said sadly.
Hershel shook his head.
“Don’t misunderstand me. We all are similar, yes, but Earth has a distinct flair all its own. Darth checks in from time to time, but the way Darth’s influences affected Earth was all you. No other planet has vegetarians, for example. No other planet has quite such a fascination with music and performance. You’re quite an artistic planet, really. That’s at least something.”
Marie closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The smell of the food was intoxicating, and her stomach growled loudly.
“Oh Elsy,” she said appreciatively, “those smell delicious.”
Elsy blushed and set the tray down as Alice handed out plates and utensils.
“Dig in,” she said. Galen pulled three off the platter before Marie could move.
“Do they all have meat in them?” Marie asked, hopeful that Elsy had remembered she didn’t eat meat. Elsy nodded firmly.
“Oh,” she replied, making a face.
“Sorry Marie,” Alice said, helping herself to a particularly large one, “if you want to blend in on this planet, you’re going to have to eat meat. We don’t have vege-whatevers here.”
“Besides,” Galen chipped in, “meat is spectacular. And full of protein. You look like you could use some protein.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” Marie protested.
“It means, eat up,” Elsy said, putting two palm sized quesadillas on Marie’s plate.
Marie sighed, picked up her fork and knife, and cut herself a tiny bite. She inspected it warily. It did smell good, although she hadn’t eaten meat in years.
She put the morsel in her mouth.
“Oh my god,” she said, chewing, momentarily forgetting her long years in various manner schools on Earth. It tasted like a reward for many long years of dieting. Also, like steak.
After that, she happy and ravenously consumed her two quesadillas and half of a third. Hershel quizzed her while they ate, asking about Earth, how she got here, and what had happened to her before Alice had found her. She told them everything, including the gunfire, the woman who had pushed her out of the way, how she’d lost her shoes and her phone and everything. Hershel nodded from time to time, but the rest of the table was silent and listening intently.
“So where, exactly, do I fit in to this?” Marie asked over her second glass of white peach sangria when Hershel’s questions seemed to have run out. She was starting to feel the grease turn over in her stomach, her system unused to eating heavy foods and meat after so many years of denial, and she tried to find a comfortable spot in her chair.
“We’re not exactly sure,” Alice admitted. “We don’t know how you got here, and if you’re here on accident or on purpose. However, if you are here on accident, then we can be sure that Xionsyes and his gang of cronies don’t know that you’re here.”
“And that’s important?”
“Yes. Because you can go figure out exactly what they are doing and why.”
“Woah, woah, woah now,” Marie spurted holding up her hands. “There are many, many loopholes to that plan, including, but not limited to, are you insane?”
“When Xionsyes Xelo took over this planet,” Hershel began in his melodious narrator’s voice, “he started screwing around with how time works on this planet, and we’re not entirely sure why.”
They were back in the house Marie was beginning to consider Elsy’s. Elsy herself was bustling around in the kitchen and the room was starting to smell pleasantly of simmering butter, caramelized onions, and some sort of searing meat. Alice had explained to the other what had happened with Milo – although Marie still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, she couldn’t deny the puppy chewing contentedly on a toy under her feet.
Marie spread her hands wide over the plaid red, pink and yellow tablecloth and felt the slightly scratchy material under her fingers. She was still having trouble believing this whole situation was real. Touching solid things helped – although she still hadn’t ruled out a long-term coma, or even a hefty dose of LSD.
“About seven or eight years ago, we started noticing the wildlife was acting strange,” Hershel was saying. “Our pets were aging and getting younger, un-aging, if you will-“
“I won’t,” Galen interrupted, entering from the kitchen with a pitcher of sangria.
“On a weekly basis,” Hershel continued, unfazed. “If that wasn’t weird enough, after a few months, there seemed to be multiple versions of our pets running around, young and old versions, even if the pet in question, the original one, was still quite young.”
Marie accepted a cold glass of sangria from Galen and took a long swig.
“Okay, weird,” she said.
“It gets weirder. One day, about a year or so after this started happening, a woman who used to live here ran into herself – a much older version of herself, out in the woods, collecting mushrooms and flowers and things in the same place where she usually foraged.”
“What?” Marie asked loudly. “How is that possible? How do you run into youself?”
“We don’t know,” Alice said, “but it’s happened to all of us. Some of us more than once. I went to a party which I was already at once. It was terribly disconcerting.
“Milo’s died now probably close to a hundred times,” Alice said tiredly. “Always peacefully, and he always disappears almost right after.”
“That’s extremely freaky,” Marie replied.
“You get used to it.”
“You don’t,” Galen disagreed. “Poor dog. What’s worse is running into people who have left the planet. Or running into yourself as a kid. Or running into yourself a few minutes in the future, because then, you walk away, and you end up running into yourself a few minutes in the past. ”
“I ran into two of me once,” Elsy said in her quiet way, bearing a tray full of quesadillas. “It was not one of my better mornings.”
“What?” Marie sputtered. “Wait, what?”
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Alice said, turning away and peering intently into the trees, as if looking for something.
“What happened? He had so much energy earlier,” Marie said, stepping back. She’d never seen anything dead. She felt like her heart was beating out of her chest.
“It’s hard to explain,” Alice sighed.
There was a rustling in the bushes.
“For fuck’s sake!” Marie swore, flinching. Alice looked toward the source of the sound and whistled.
“Come here, boy!” She called, and an exuberant dog burst out from the foliage and bounced, tail wagging furiously, over to Alice.
Alice caught him in her arms and gave him a furious head scratch.
Marie looked down at the dead dog at her feet and back up at the dog in Alice’s arms. There was no question that they were the related, because Milo was the most distinctly ugly dog Marie had ever seen – patchy grey and black fur, long snout, stubby legs, long, floppy ears. This dog was a disturbingly similar coloring, albeit at least ten years younger.
Marie looked back down at Milo, but the body at her feet had disappeared.
She made an involuntary sound in her throat somewhere between a yelp and a whimper, and staggered somewhat on her feet.
“Don’t you dare faint on me,” Alice growled.
Marie sat down heavily instead. The dog-who-had-recently-appeared wriggled from Alice’s arms and came over to lick her face. She inspected him carefully and instantly recognized the spotty black flecks of fur around his eyes.
“Milo?” Marie whispered. The dog head-butted her agreeably.
“Yup,” Alice said, standing back up. She seemed, typically, unwilling to divulge any more information than she had to.
“Huh,” Marie said faintly, “okay. Okay then.”
The dog who was apparently Milo sat down on Marie’s leg and belched loudly in her face. Marie didn’t move. Alice crossed her arms.
“Are you okay?” she asked will the air of someone who only asks that sort of thing because it’s expected of her.
“Hmm.” Marie intoned tonelessly.
“Okay then. Get up.” Alice said, almost cheerfully.
“But, Milo?” Marie said weakly.
“I’ll have Hershel explain it explain it to you over dinner,” Alice replied, pulling Marie up by her armpits. The puppy barked and ran around in three tight, concise circles, sniffed the ground, barked again, and peed on top of where the previous Milo had just peed. Satisfied, the new Milo suddenly charged pell-mell in the direction they came from, barking like mad.
“Oh,” Marie said, letting Alice drag her after him.
They walked through the center of town, although town was probably a generous term. It was more of a mismatched collection of houses in a bizarrely mismatched collection of styles. The house Marie was sleeping in looked almost like a Spanish or Italian casa, orange on the outside, with large open doorways and a tiled roof. The house next door, however, had sliding paper walls straight out of Japan, and the one next to it was almost an English colonial.
Everything was made, however, of the same plaster, and most of the houses looked poorly maintained. Marie wondered if they had any concept of gardening on this planet or if that was an Earth thing.
Alice led her straight out of the town, back into the forest. It was brutally hot, and Marie could already feel her shirt gluing itself to her lower back, but under the trees it was a little cooler. They kept walking, and the trees kept getting bigger. Milo trotted patiently by their side, his gait a little awkward, like he was stiff.
“Did something happen to Milo?” Marie asked, used to his usual frolicking presence.
Alice said nothing.
“Okay then,” Marie muttered, flipping her hair out of her sweaty face for the umpteenth time.
Soon, they were entirely surrounded by trees, and although Marie was by no means a botanist, she couldn’t name any of the species. Although the trees seemed to be getting more numerous, the leaves seemed to be getting thinner around them. She realized the trees were actually quite far apart from each other, and that actually, the tree trunks were the widest that Marie had ever seen.
They kept walking and the trunks kept getting wider. The air was completely still and hot, and the jungle was silent apart from the occasional cry of some distance and unrecognizable species.
Alice stopped by one and put her hand on the truck, which was about as wide as a small house.
“Look up,” she said quietly.
“Good god,” Marie said quietly, craning her neck as Milo sat down next to her and leaned against her leg.
It was a height she couldn’t fathom, perhaps taller than any skyscraper she’d ever seen. The canopy was so far above them, Marie couldn’t distinguish between the leaves. All she saw was a yellow green sky, slightly blurred as if the canopy was moving in a wind she couldn’t feel.
“This single tree,” Alice said, “is older then your planet. Much older. There are others in this forest older by two or three times, measured by a unit of time you don’t even have.”
“Wow,” Marie said, having nothing else to say.
“I know you’re freaked out right now,” Alice continued, “and that you don’t want to believe that this is real. But the evidence that this is real is right in front of you, so the quicker you can come to terms with that, the quicker you can find a way out of here.”
“There’s a way back? I thought you said you couldn’t send me back.”
“We can’t, no. But there are plenty of people on this planet who can.”
“And where are they?”
“On the mainland, mostly. We’ve managed to track down a general location, but we aren’t entirely sure.”
Marie sighed and absentmindedly reached down to pat Milo, who was now leaning the vast majority of his weight onto her leg, on the head. At the touch of her hand, however, Milo promptly over, his front legs akimbo and his neck oddly twisted.
“Milo?” Marie asked.
Alice bent down and put her hand her hand on Milo’s chest. The dog was extremely still, and at the touch of Alice’s hand, he started to pee. Marie jumped back.
“What’s wrong with him?” she cried.
Alice shook her head.
“What does that mean?” Marie asked heatedly.
“He’s dead.” Alice said in an matter of fact tone, as if Marie could have obviously come to that conclusion herself.
Word count – 16502