“Yeah, it takes some getting used to.”
“You’re not from around here?” Marie asked, surprised.
Galen shook his head.
“I’m originally from Darth. I’ve done a good amount of planet hopping in my 31 years.”
“What’s Darth like?”
“You remember what Hershel was saying the other night? About all the planets looking the same, structurally, but ultimately being different?”
“Aarth, the First planet, is a planet that values wisdom over everything. They strive to know everything there is to know about the universe. Barth loves food. Carth is ruled by the incredibly wealthy. Earth is creative.”
“Darth loves war. And I do not.”
“Yeah. My husband and I were going to move out together, but things got complicated.”
“You were married?” Marie asked, looking for a ring, but his finger was empty. Galen turned and showed her his back. It was inscribed all in white with a design Marie couldn’t put a name to, made up of tiny dots and lines gently intersecting one another.
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
He smiled. “Arkon did it. That was my husband’s name.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died, in a battle on Darth.”
Marie gingerly put her hand on his shoulder.
Galen sighed and leaned back into the tree.
“It’s weird,” he said softly. “I came here trying to get away from what had happened. But when the time thing started to happen, he was the first person I ran into.”
Marie didn’t quite know how to respond.
“That must had been… weird,” she said finally, and Galen laughed.
“Yeah, it really was,” he admitted, “but nice, too.”
“If the time warp stopped happening, would you miss seeing him?” Marie asked seriously.
Galen was quiet for a long moment.
“I don’t know,” he responded. “I mean, yes, obviously. But it’d be a hell of a lot easier to move on if he would stop fucking showing up.”
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.
They started walking down towards to end of the road, in the same direction Marie had been going originally. Talking to Elsy without looking at her turned out to feel a lot more normal, and Marie was able to calm down considerably, when she started to stop thinking about it at all. She pretended she was on a stroll with a friend’s child, or perhaps her niece, if she’d had a niece, and they were on the verge of one of those heartwarming conversations of the nature of life that always turned out so well in movies.
It turned out that Elsy as a child was considerably more talkative than adult Elsy, and also that a heartwarming conversation about life was not what she was intending to have. She had the charming grammatical style of someone who was just starting to figure out how to use a language with any level of fluency, and no apparent boundaries on what she would tell a strange woman with a dog. Marie wondered momentarily where the hell Elsy’s parents where, and how they’d managed to find a community so safe they didn’t have to warn their children about talking to people they didn’t know.
“That’s where Steve lives,” Elsy was saying, pointing out a blue Victorian with red shutters. “He’s got a mean older brother named Darden.”
Elsy gestured at the yellow house beside it.
“And that’s where Missus and Mister Darven live, although you have to be careful not to confuse them with, because they aren’t families with Darden even though they sound like they should be. They got a cat because they’re rich. But they don’t got any kids. And that’s where Hershel lives, too, but he’s on Carth 2-A right now at school, Mam said,” Elsy finished, a little sadly.
“Are you close friends with Hershel?” Marie asked.
The little girl nodded emphatically. “Hershel’s the smartest person I know,” she explained. “Hershel told me about the houses on Carth and how big they are and how they’re made out of trees.”
Elsy apparently thought that this concept was incredible.
“Elsy, do you know why all the houses are made out of plaster here, instead of trees?” Marie asked.
“Because they are,” Elsy replied enigmatically. “These trees are too big to cut down, Hershel says, because they’re so old. He said they’re almost two planet lives old. I guess on Carth, they grow trees special just to made stuff out of them, and if you want anything made out of a tree, it costs like a billion dollars even just for a little thing.”
“Hmm,” Marie said. “Don’t you use paper? Paper’s made out of trees.”
“Paper’s way too expensive,” she said.
Marie was dumbstruck.
They walked in silence for a little while, down to the end of the road, which just ended unceremoniously in jungle, and turned around. Elsy started telling Marie about all her friends in school – of which there were many), and what she was learning, and how she’d gotten top marks in computer programming and astronomy this quarter.
“Do you know anything about Earth?” Marie asked suddenly, latching on to the thing about astronomy. They were almost back to Elsy’s house, and Milo barked and raced ahead.
“Oh, that’s easy!” Elsy laughed, “I learned about the other planets in school. There’s nine of them, Aarth to Harth, from oldest to youngest, and they made them all so the rich people don’t have to live with the poor people anymore.”
“What do you mean, the rich don’t have to live with the poor?” Marie asked as they got to Elsy’s porch, looking down, but the young version of Elsy had disappeared into thin air.
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.”
They let her pity party for three hours before Alice went in to drag her out of her room again. She was clean this time, and had washed her hair, possibly with shampoo. Without a dense layer of dirt clinging to her, she almost looked like a pleasant, trustworthy human being.
“Get up,” Alice said from the door. She had Milo with her, who seemed to be tired, and who curled quietly at Alice’s feet and tucked his paws under his chin for a pillow.
Marie didn’t respond. She’d decided to ignore her surroundings until they went away, and besides, she now had a killer headache.
“I said, get up,” Alice said, crossing to the bed and pulling Marie out onto the floor by her wrists.
“Ow! What the hell?” Marie yelled.
“We’re done with your pathetic displays, okay?” Alice said, unfazed. You’ve been here for almost three days. You can’t wish yourself out of here by crying and acting like a damsel in distress. No one’s going to save you. Start acting like a goddamn woman and take responsibility for yourself.”
Marie drew herself up, stung.
“Fuck off,” she spat.
“Yeah, that’s real nice,” Alice replied. “How about thank you, Alice, for saving me from the middle of the fucking jungle? Or thank you, Elsy, for giving me food and clothes? Or even, I don’t know, thank you, Hershel, for tending to my wounds because I’m apparently an incompetent child?”
Marie said nothing, and stared at a long crack in the yellow plaster in the wall. She thought about how frankly, Alice was being somewhat of an ass, and also, how badly she wanted a glass of water and some ibuprofen.
“That’s what I thought,” Alice said, taking her silence, mistakenly, for complacency. “Now put your shoes on, we’re going for a walk.”
Word Count 16502