A noise. Again, but quieter. An echo, dispersing into silence around him. His body ached in some vague way that he didn't feel a need to contemplate. He couldn't persuade his eyes to open. He tried to move his hands and, finding that that didn't cause him too much trouble, ran them over the rest of his body, checking if the parts of him that felt missing really were. Strange sensations flooded him—he felt much larger than he remembered. His torso, arms, legs, and neck were all thicker, more defined; his hair was much longer, and his hands themselves were strong and calloused, the feel of a long summer's work under a hot sun.
He was all there, if broken in a few places. He brought his hands up to his face, finding a thickness of dust that his numb skin had ignored. He wiped it away and forced his eyes open.
The world that bade Zallus Kanite welcome was not familiar, nor welcoming. A line of light cut down the center of the sky, blue daylight closer to it, pink dusk and star-lit darkness further away. To his left and right, and behind, the world seemed to have clear endpoints—to drop sharply away, leaving darkness. Horizon was visible only in the direction he faced.
In the distance before, the land was reft, one terrain giving way to another as if a bordering patch of quilt. The land preceding it was barren and rocky, and covered in a thin sand of spectacular color. After the rift came a more natural looking area of browns and greens. Both, however, were completely featureless, devoid of either natural or man-made structure as far as he could see. There was nothing to do here but sit and contemplate his present, or leave. And he was getting hungry.
Sitting silent for a moment, he brushed away the spots of dirt remaining on his clothes, and pushed to stand up. Strands of azure fell to his face, matching those hanging limp at his shoulders behind him. He ignored them and smiled. His hair had grown as well, he thought—it's longer than his sister's, now. Zallus stepped out of the crater, and began in the only direction that held itself from extrapolation by his eyes: toward the world-seam.
As he walked, he could see the thread of light in the sky pushing itself eastward, streaming daylight in tow. Darkness would soon blanket him. Though not much different from the current monotony, the landscape might soon be home to more dangerous things than presented themselves in light. Without thinking, he took his pace to a sprint. After each step, the sandy ground resisted his feet, giving his strides extra height and length.
Crawling into view from the horizon were two odd-looking structures: one squat and long, and built poorly; the other tall and sleek, but with large parts torn out of it. The shorter one had an entrance, so Zallus increased his pace further and sped towards it, almost gliding as he ran. He arrived at the nearer building—not managing to break a sweat—and examined the surface. As he slid his fingers slowly along the wall, he was lost in thought; from closer up, he could see that the taller structure was actually missile-shaped, a compartment with seats and controls atop it. The sections missing from it appeared to make up the majority of the siding and roof of the other ramshackle building.
Zallus crept across to the entrance of the short building, and called into its darkened interior. He stood for a moment before turning to leave. With a sudden approaching rhythm of footfalls, he was pushed against the wall, his nose slamming into the door-jam. He turned sharply, pinching the bridge of his nose in hope that it would not begin bleeding.
A man was staring Zallus in the face, fear burning in his dark, ruby-red eyes. Zallus paused for a moment, then grinned widely, and said, delicately,
The man looked both shocked and confused for a moment, then erupted in laughter. He opened his mouth with the appearance of speaking, but instead produced only shrill squeaks. Zallus shook his head slowly, not helping but to giggle slightly at the odd sounds. The man waited a few moments, then tried speaking again.
Hello. This… is… the man struggled to connect words,
English, …right? My… name is… Zackley.
And I'm Zallus. Where… he turned to face out the entrance of the shack and called into the distance,
Zackley seemed delighted by this response.
Zallus, he prompted, his eyes now polished to a shimmer,
know… Pearl, right? I know English… from… Pearl. Pearl sometimes teaches. It is… fun… hobby. Zallus also, right?
Zallus spoke, this time more slowly,
Sorry, I don't know a Pearl, and English is my only language, not my hobby. What language do you usually speak? And, for that matter, where in the world is this place? It's the most interesting place I've ever been, but I have no idea how I got here, and-
He could see from Zackley's furrowed brow that he was struggling to keep up. He paused.
I don't… speak. I live here, alone. Nobody… to speak… with. However… otherwise… I speak… Zackley searched for the right word for a moment, then said simply,
thoughts. Zallus… cannot, right? Living here… everyone… can. It is… evolution. Zallus is… foreigner, right?
Zallus nodded and said, now one word at a time,
I would… assume, given the area. I'll ask once more, in simple words: Where is here? What is this place's name?
This place has not… real name. Around here nothing has real name. Pearl …gives names. It is Pearl's hobby. Pearl, this place is… Equus, said. However, Pearl's name is not from Pearl. Pearl's …birth, ever since, Pearl has name, said, Zackley finished, and then added,
English is difficult. My head… hurts.
I don't mind, Zallus said, sitting down on a box,
you're the first person I found here, so I appreciate any effort you're making to help. Still… I'm from western Teksa. I don't think this place is anywhere near there, but-
Teksa, right? That is… Earth, right? Pearl, about Earth, …always …talks…. Zackley said, sitting down as well, and pulling up a makeshift table.
Zallus sat blinking, expression blank, for several moments. His mouth hung open slightly. He looked down at the table: a small pile of blank cards and a strange brush, a jar of green pellets… a candle—something familiar. He didn't lift his eyes from it as he spoke,
You mean… Equus… is a…
Zackley interrupted, beginning to speak more quickly,
Planet, right? Yes. Equus is galaxy …peace …symbol. Artificial planet.
Zallus grimaced in concentration at the candle's wick, then looked up and smiled, the candle flaring to life.
That's… cool. I don't suppose we're anywhere near Earth? I'd quite like to go back-
Zallus choked. He was no longer looking at Zackley, but through him—in the light, he was only half-visible, the room around him passing its image right through him. The flame of the candle on the table grew stronger. Zallus calmly spoke,
That's an interesting effect you have. What… happened?
It is not …important. It is not… harmful; I am healthy, Zackley stuttered quickly, seemingly annoyed by the topic.
He continued, less defensively,
Earth is very… distant. Pearl, people do not speak thoughts there, said. So, that place is not around here. Pearl wants to go there, but Pearl cannot. United Galaxy's …law, going to places like Earth is not allowed, says. Pearl cares not about that. If Pearl gets …faster ship, Pearl can go to Earth. Other than that, the …trip is …too long.
Well, that sucks. Will this Pearl get a faster ship any time soon, or am I stuck here forever? Zallus asked wistfully.
That's a bit… Zackley glanced around nervously, then spoke, almost whispering,
Pearl is working. Pearl sometimes makes money, but, for repairs, must spend most. Money is …dangerous. Nobody is… allowed… to have, but Pearl must have. If Pearl cannot get money, Pearl will never get faster ship than Pearl's current one. United Galaxy wants nobody having fast ship. If person does, and United Galaxy knows, United Galaxy …monitors. Sometimes United Galaxy takes ship, sometimes takes… person.
This U.G. doesn't sound like something you'd want angry at you. Does Pearl really want to get to Earth so badly? Zallus said.
Zackley pondered a moment, then recited in a stilted feminine tone,
I hate Earth. Really, I do. But I want, no, need to see it one more time, before I die… or it does. Besides, once I get that ship, I can travel the galaxy. It's gotta be more fun than this.
Always, when I ask, Pearl, that same thing, says, Zackley finished, returning to his natural, baritone pitch, and standing up.
Zackley walked over to one corner of the room and retrieved a pitcher of water. He took one of the green capsules from the table and dropped it in. The water drained as the pill enlarged, until it almost filled the pitcher. Then, with a sudden loud, wet pop, it changed shape, size and color completely.
Zackley retrieved the new object from the pitcher and held it out to Zallus. He said shortly,
Pearl, this is named
bunch of bananas, said. It is food. Zallus is hungry, right?
Zallus pulled one from the bunch, peeled it slowly, and took a bite. There was nothing wrong nor unfamiliar about the taste of it. He spoke,
I wouldn't imagine there would be such a coincidence as there being the same fruit here as on Earth. Where did you get these?
Zackley shook his head, and said with a glow of pride,
This is my …present. Pearl has bag of Earth things. I get… banana. Behind house, I have trees. Grow bunch of bananas, then put inside capsule. After that, edible forever. United Galaxy's food is tasteless. Over that, this is amazing.
He put the bananas down on the table, took one, and started peeling it. The sun-line had set, and now the only light was from the candle, giving his fingers an odd look as they pulled away the peel. He looked back at Zallus.
Mr. Zallus, he said,
what is Zallus' hobby? From what can Zallus become happy?
Zallus leaned his head back, staring through a hole in the rusted ceiling. He sat like this for quite some time, making no attempt to answer. He seemed to be thinking, and also seemed, by his expression, to be beginning to worry.
Zallus had tried to ignore it, but there was a gap in his mind—the things he was saying to Zackley felt like they weren’t his own words. He had an answer, of course, and it seemed natural enough, but none of his opinions, or, at least, his memories of his opinions, supported it. His mind was still lingering on the change in his appearance. trying to recall something for each year to see what he still had, and what had been exorcised. He clearly recalled many things from his childhood, though the years were jumbled: there was his twelfth birthday, spent away from home; a bitterly cold morning of his thirteenth year that he nonetheless claimed was warm enough to run out into in his pajamas; Hallow’s Eve from fourteen, and a quiet night in a paddle-boat spent on his fifteenth summer. And then… and then… it was clearly not that he had been fifteen recently, for the memories seemed as far away as those of six or seven.
He sat that way a long while, then looked straight at Zackley and shrugged.
I don't know that, Zackley. I… used to know. I feel like it was yesterday. It might have been. But I'm not the same now. In my head, there’s something… missing. Quite a lot, in fact. I remember growing up, I remember…
I remember being 15. It seems like that’s as far as it goes. I don't know anything about me, this me, yet. It feels… free, he said, pausing to allow another smile to cross his lips.
Zackley didn't reply. He looked exhausted. Zallus looked around the room, seeing if there was any place to sleep. There wasn't.
I'll rest here, if you don't mind. Then, can you take me to meet that Pearl person? he said, looking over to find Zackley already asleep where he sat.