Elisabeth doesn’t know what’s happening. How could she? She’s just a farmer, a pioneer in a claptrap, old, all-terrain van dating back to the first days of the colony, with rusting engines to match her throat, rusted by age and too much dusty Callian air. She skipped out here when her husband died, and her kids think she’s nutty and want nothing to do with her. No-one warned her about the strange things that happen out here. She wouldn’t have taken any notice if they had.
She’s brought a couple of chickens and a slightly scrawny cockerel and some vegetable seeds, and three year’s supply of hydrated rations, after which time she’ll have to be completely self sufficient. She’s made her home along a subsidiary to a larger stream, which in turn, somewhere far from here, is a minor subsidiary to the great Attonnian River, and constructed herself a sort of lean-to cottage, though she sleeps only in the security of the van.
Weird things happen in this remote part of the universe, miles from anything resembling civilisation, light years from Earth itself. But she ignores all the signs. The light patterns in the sky are part of the wonders of nature, her nausea and sense of déjà vu just her body and mind adjusting to this new independence, and when the clocks speed or slow or run backwards or stop altogether, it’s just a sign that she doesn’t need that technological nonsense anyway.
She doesn’t see me now as I stroll past the edge of her vegetable patch. She’s feeding the chickens, as she always does around this time. She never notices me, but I still feel an obligation to drop by, as do many of us. She was, after all, the first.
Outside her lean to and her rusted van and her vegetable patch and her chicken coop stretches the city, mud brick buildings, green parks, open roads. Elisabeth doesn’t know it is there.
Only metres from Elisabeth’s vegetable patch is Lisa. She calls herself Elisabeth too, but Anita shortened it because otherwise it gets confusing. It’s morning now, so she’s only just starting to work out something’s wrong. Later she’ll cry and shake and spend hours sitting on a rock by the large cabbage tree. I wish I could comfort her, but she doesn’t know that I–or anyone else in this city with the exception of Elisabeth herself–exists. She’ll get through it though. She always does.
The sun is now bright, the rays of morning sharp. How am I going to spend this day? The day is precious, given by some force I will never understand. It is all I have, and it is not mine to fritter away. What occupation shall I choose for myself? There are many places where I can pick up where others have left off, earn my right to existence in this city. There are roads that need paving, roofs that need constructing, or if I like I could do something decorative, carving or mosaic. Or start planning something entirely new.
But for the first time in many, many hundreds of days, nothing presents itself. We’ve built this city, simple in its way–because although we have infinities of time, although we are all the same age and never become older, although there is now a population of thousands, we can do nothing that requires four hands at once, that requires two bodies to steady it into place. We’re an infinite conveyor belt of production, but never a team.
As I walk, I pass Anita. She’s industrious as always, desperately mixing mud and straw, shaping bricks to dry in the hot sunlight. Others will take those bricks from her, the next day, as she is making more, and others will create buildings from them. She will never see any of this, never know for certain, but she has vision.
She’ll never know, either, that there’s a statue of her in the square at the centre of the city. I’m of two minds about it; to me the whole city is her monument. But on the other hand, it’s nice to have something not only for practical usage, something that gives the city the sense of having grown up like any other city, with a culture and heritage and great leaders. Besides, it has the added advantage that if we ever decide to commemorate any of our other citizens, we can carve from the same plans.
I walk towards the city centre. It’s becoming busier, noisy. Some are creating food which others will eat. Others are building residences. All of them will work all day, because this is their chance to make a mark, this day is all they have–all they will ever have–to prove themselves.
How will those still to come see me? Except for Lisa and a few who came after her, before Anita made that critical decision, everyone is industrious, hard working, productive. They will see me, more and more of them, just wandering round, doing nothing, and that is how they will think of me, that is what they will judge me for.
But I’ve been all of them. I’ve been Elisabeth with her chickens and Lisa with her fear and Anita with her mud bricks. I’ve been the builders and the roofers and the sculptors and the pavers. I’ve been all of them, in their own little worlds. The only one I really want to be, though, is Anita. Not because I want to bake mud bricks–there are plenty who do that, and I could just as easily. Not even because I want a statue to me erected in the city square – after all, I’d never get to see it. But because she changed things.
The realisation’s been growing for a while now or, more accurately, Zoe realised it a little and Gail more and now for me it’s finally crystalised. I’m lonely here in a way that Elisabeth isn’t. Elisabeth is completely isolated, here with her vegetables and her chickens and her van and her lean-to. She drove out here to avoid other people, and it is only rarely she misses them. As far as she is concerned this landscape, punctuated only by plants of varying density and the odd rodent, is all that surrounds her.
So the loneliness that troubles me is not a simple lack of people. No, it’s the impenetrable boundaries around each of us, these walls of time that I still can’t entirely get my head around, separating each of us from any kind of reciprocal communication. It’s living in a city so populous, with roads that are supposed to connect us to each other, and yet it may as well be a city of fences.
I breathe, deeply. If I want to be like Anita, well, here’s my chance. Here’s the decision.
It’s a wonder the van still works, but it dates back to early colonial days, when the ships from Earth took decades to get here and they had no factories, no chance of spare parts. Built to last. There isn’t enough fuel to get me all the way back even if a day was enough–she started with a full tank, and it’s now only a quarter full. A bit of searching reveals a small supply in a rusted can, but with or without it a good part of the journey will still be on foot. That won’t be my problem.
I’m gentle as I deconstruct the lean-to. It feels almost sacrilegious, as if I’m destroying some integral part of my heritage, my family, myself. Elisabeth won’t know any different, of course. She’s immune to any actions of her future selves. For her that day is as she always lived it. When time skips back, when Elisabeth goes back to the start of the day, and sees herself, and freaks out and is, for convenience at least, Lisa not Elisabeth, then the original Elisabeth keeps on with that day, not knowing it has been before–because for her it hasn’t. But for those who come after me, they will see Elisabeth’s steps in and out of the van as some bizarre dance in air, witnessed with a slight amusement. It just seems so disrespectful.
I take the provisions I think I’ll need, leaving the rest for anyone who may need them in the future. I practice reversing, turns, but not too much because every drop of fuel is precious. The van has large wheels suitable for uneven terrain, and is near impossible to overturn. I should be okay. I drive.
Outside the vegetation thins as I drive further from the river and dust flies up from the wheels. I have no maps, only my memories and the stars. I hope they’ll be enough, but there’s a very real chance of my becoming lost out here.
I pause, take a careful sip of the water I have brought with me. The sun is hot, about to begin its descent. I think of the city I left behind, and the city to which I am heading. I wonder, will my sons be there? For them, less than two years have passed, a stretch of time short enough to be repairable. For myself, I am unsure if I will even recognise them or if they are even my children rather than just Elisabeth’s.
I drive. There are still no stars and I can judge my pathway only by the straightness of the tire tracks behind me. The truth is, I have no idea where I am. I see features I think I recognise, then others I don’t, all adding to the confusion. I’m going to die out here, I think. I left this city in which I could do what I wished, only to die out here.
I squeeze my hands on the wheel, tightly. I’m not going to die. I keep driving. I have to get as far as I can before the day ends, because that’s as long as the van will be of help. Tomorrow, I’ll be starting again, leaving the city, leaving whoever I become to continue on foot. She won’t reach civilisation, but if I’m on the right track, she should come within range of an outpost or even a farm where she can obtain food, water and possibly transport.
And what then? That will be up to her, I suppose, but her desires are likely to be mine–she is of me, after all. And for me, I do not want to stay; that is an old life, no longer mine. Instead, I hope to convince a few others to come back with me. We’re all of pioneer blood, only a couple of generations back, and that urge is strong. And what are our basic human desires, after food, water, oxygen? To live forever, and to produce heirs. I can offer both, those and a comfortable city just waiting for them. With others, our abilities will be multiplied; things too heavy for one person can be carried, the need for constant industry will be removed, we can picnic in the city square.
The day seeps into twilight. I speed up, knowing my hours are numbered, knowing I have to cover as much ground as I can before the dark cuts in. A wind is picking up, and clouds of dust stir in front of me, but there are also trees, their density increasing from occasional to frequent. If I am correct, we are not far from the Attonnian River, which has made its journey under and above ground, through steep sided canyons and over waterfalls and now gushes across the plains. I think, even, that I hear water in the distance, but that is most likely just the wind. There’s still a way to go.
At last, the day dies and I can safely go no further. I eat some dried food which tastes uncomfortably of fish and bed down for the night, hoping I have made enough ground.
When I wake, I find I have not fallen to through to the sandy soil as I expected. The van is still here and I am inside, wrapped in blankets, still sleepy. I wonder if it is still too early, but the sun’s rays are starting to bounce off the clouds and so, only half awake, I begin my search for Alyson, but there are no footprints, and no sign. The truth hits me as I wake. I am still Alyson. Closer to the settlements, closer to the realm of normality; I’ve crossed a line that divides where the normal laws apply, and where stranger things happen.
But back in the city are all the other invisible lines, all those women segregated by time, the city of roads that may as well be a city of fences. I haul myself up into the seat. This is my second day, and that day is also precious. I drive.