I was standing on a hill, facing a slender valley, with a forest at my back, along with the beginnings of a mountain range. Peeking over one of the mountaintops was a huge orange moon. As I turned myself back to my original position, I saw a second moon, fat and silver. Although it seemed the silver one should be brighter, it was in fact the orange one that was giving all the illumination. 'Odd,' I thought, 'that the lighter colored should be giving out less light.' Even in the midst of this thing that had happened, my brain continued to try to make rational sense of everything.
The valley was long, and the river that created it glimmered faintly golden in the moonlight. Near to it were several clumps of orange and yellow light, that I thought must be dwellings of some kind. I wasn't about to go exploring in the dark, so I began thinking of what to do next.
A sudden snapping to my right made me spin and crouch down, even though there was no cover where I was standing. A tall cloaked figure walked out of the brush, spear in one hand, lantern in the other. A hood hid the face of the person in shadows. When the figure noticed me, the spear was raised slightly, and I tried to flatten myself further in to the ground. A chuckle came from the depths of the hood.
"Al'whey noctra my shalu'ra?" said a deep voice. "Micta zalegra bia'nar?"
I shook my head. "I don't understand," I said, feeling foolish for thinking he would.
"Ay!" he exclaimed. "En`guri! En`guri! Me oy'na keta’en en`guri. Sho'ta."
With this last word, he gestured for me to follow him. Hesitating at first, I did so.
He led me down to a trail that was marked on either side by faintly glowing blue flowers. This we followed until we reached the first group of yellow lights, which was a village, as I had thought. My guide went to one of the houses, and called, "Ste`ban! Ste`ban!"
The door opened and another man came out. The two talked together quietly for a few minutes. Once I heard en`guri again as I was pointed to. They stopped talking and walked towards me. The new man, Ste`ban, I assumed, bowed slightly to me.
"Hello," he said, and my jaw dropped.
"Hey!" I said, "You speak English!"
He nodded. "They call it 'En`guri' here."
"And where is here?"
"This is Sina`let," he said, gesturing around.
"Is that the name of the village?"
"But where is here?" I asked, gesturing grandly to include the entire area. "What planet?"
"Oh. I am sorry. This is the planet Ter`set, Masheeva system, Laxian cluster, Ad`aln'e galaxy."
I sat down, hard. "What galaxy?"
"Well," he said, "Astronomers on earth know it as M105, but these people call it Ad`aln'e." He helped me to stand up. "My name is Ste`ban, derived from Stephen," he said, smiling.
"My name's Alex, derived from Alexandria," I grinned. Even in shock, my sense of humor raged on. "So you're from Earth, too? How did you get here?"
"I found a book in a library," he started, when my guide nudged him.
"Yawer suni ma`lacro?" he said, "No`ran olo`sa morin."
Ste`ban nodded. "He said that it is time for sleep. Would you like some?"
"Oh, I couldn't possibly," I said, or tried to, because I yawned. I must have walked longer than I thought.
Ste`ban smiled again. "Follow me," he said. He led me to one of the huts and opened the door. I followed him into a cozy room that smelled of cinnamon. A bed was in the corner, covered in bright fabrics. A desk was against one wall, as well as a wardrobe. There was another door opposite the one we entered, the bathroom I presumed.
"You can stay here if you like. The, ah, owner won't mind. The bathroom is through there," he said, motioning to the other door, confirming my suspicion.
"Thank you," I said gratefully. The last thing I remember was falling into the soft cloth on the bed.
After the woman (Alex, my mind reminded me) was asleep, which took about 30 seconds, I stepped closer and looked at her. It had been so long, seeing one of my own kind. It felt strange, stranger still to have to speak English after so long speaking Ca`mat. I wondered where she was from, where the book had been. I knew it had to be the same one I had touched, all those years ago. The green leather, and the gold. I smiled at her, and knelt to carefully remove her shoes. She muttered something and then sank deeper into sleep, snuggling into the kreth’a on the bed. I went to the desk and sat for a moment, listening to her breath. I wondered what year it was, back home. Did time pass differently there? Perhaps now I could have some of my questions answered, questions that had been raised when I touched a picture in an old book, in 1928.
It was light when I awoke. I stretched, luxuriating in the soft fabrics that I was buried in. My shoes were off, I realized. I rolled over, sighing deeply. The fabric had a scent to it, one I couldn't place exactly, but smelled good, and comforting. I sat up in bed and looked around. The very first thing I noticed was that Ste`ban was sitting at the desk, his head down on his folded arms, breathing deeply. I stood up quietly and went to look out the window.
There was a forest right outside. The trees were not so close together they prevented visibility, but there were enough of them to dapple the ground with light and shadow. The window was hinged at one side, and I opened it carefully. The air smelled clean and fresh, like it had just rained.
"Do you like it?" I whirled around. Ste`ban was standing, looking at me. I hadn't even heard him get up.
"It's...lovely," I said, and meant it. I missed the forest back home...I'd been too much in the city for my own good.
"Would you like some breakfast?" he asked.
My stomach answered for me by rumbling loudly. He smiled and said "Sho’ta," and turned to walk out.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It's a slang word. Basically it means 'come on'," he explained. He led me to an open pavilion that had several long tables under it. On the tables there was food. Lots, and lots of food. Quite possibly the most food I had seen at one time short of being in a grocery store.
"What is this place?" I asked.
"It is the arsu’cha. The public food. Anyone who wants to can eat here."
"Wow," was all I could say.
Suddenly a bell began to ring, a deep resonate tone. And like magic, the pavilion was filled with people. So many people, in fact, that the hum of their voices drowned out everything else. I looked, and then looked again, sure I had been mistaken the first time.
The people were not … human. They had the heads of cats, as well as tails. There were tigers and lions, panthers and pumas. I was speechless.
Ste`ban must have seen my mouth agape, trying to form words, for he said, “How about I get some food and we eat elsewhere?”
“Tha-that would be nu-nice,” I stammered, still staring at the cat-like beings.
Ste`ban left me standing where I was and vanished into the crowd. When he finally came out from under the pavilion, he had two trays full of food. He walked back up to me, and motioned for me to follow him. I noted with some amusement that his mouth was full.
He led me to a hillock that was on the verge of the forest. He set the trays down, then pulled a piece of cloth from his pocket, and spread it on the ground. I sat down and looked expectantly at the trays.
“All right,” he said, handing me a wrinkled, blue fruit. “This is a mic’cha. In taste, it’s basically a plum and apple combined, with the texture of an orange.”
I tried it, and it was delicious. Over the next 45 minutes, he handed one food after another to me, describing what to expect. It was all tasty, if a little unusual looking.
After the meal, I leaned against a tree trunk and stifled a burp.
“Pardon me!” I said, grinning.
Ste`ban smiled at me. “Your mannerisms are very peculiar, Alex. What year is it, back home?”
“It’s 1999,” I said, then when I saw Ste`ban’s look of shock, “Are you okay?”
“1999? I…I had no idea it had been so long. Well, this confirms my suspicions, at least.”
“What suspicions might those be?” I asked.
“For every year that I’ve been here, 5 have gone by back home.”
“Wait, what year was it when you…left?”
“When I found the book (and I am sure it was the same one you did) it was January 19, 1928.”
I was dumbfounded. “1928! Incredible!” I looked at him more closely. “You couldn’t have been very old, if you’ve been here 14 years and still look like that.”
He smiled again. “I don’t seem to age here. I was 25 when I found the book, so by rights I should be 96. I look pretty good for my age, don’t I?” He winked at me.
“So, what would happen if you returned? Would you age suddenly? Or would you just start up where you had left off?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “That hasn’t even come into play. You see, I don’t think I … WE, that is… can get back.”
“What? What do you mean, can’t get back. Isn’t there something… there has to be something!” I was a little scared now, and it showed in my voice.
“If there is, I’m afraid I haven’t found it yet. There are ways to get to other worlds, but I haven’t found anything to get back to the Earth that you and I know.”
“But…but…” I burst out crying. I couldn’t help it. I was afraid. I didn’t know what was happening back home. What would happen to my house? My animals? My family? How much time had passed already? 4 days? 5?
Suddenly warm arms enfolded me, and I turned my face into Ste`ban’s shoulder, as he held me close. From some part of my mind I realized that the wonderful smell of the bedding, the one I found so comforting, was his. I smelled it now, surrounding me. It was just as comforting.
“We’ll find a way,” he was whispering into my hair. “I promise.”