by David McLeod
Time Flies Like an Arrow
In which Paul and Larry encounter monks who are not religious; a boy with green hair and pointed ears; summer in winter: Paul and Larry face these puzzles and more when they awaken.
Paul woke, blinked his eyes, and saw a blond boy bending over him. He nearly cracked heads with the boy when he sat up abruptly. "What . . .?"
The boy stood. "One's awake," he called to another boy who was standing by the door. The second boy darted away.
Paul looked around. He was in a small room, on a low bed, and covered by a thin blanket. Three sides of the room were unadorned and unfinished wooden planks. An open door was centered in one of those walls. The fourth wall was stone, pierced by a window covered with wooden shutters. Larry lay on a second bed—
"How is he?" Paul asked. He tried to get out of the bed. The boy pressed his hand firmly on Paul's chest.
"Asleep, like you were. Please do not try to sit—" the boy began, before he was interrupted when two men entered the room.
"How do you feel?" one of the men asked Paul. He did not wait for a reply before adding, "You did not seem to be hurt, only asleep."
Paul took an inventory of his body. He realized that he was naked under the blankets and that his bladder was full. "Uh, I think I'm fine, although I do need to use the restroom."
This statement was greeted by blank stares and multiple eyebrows raised in questioning.
"What?" the blond boy asked.
Huh? They don't understand, Paul thought. "Urinate?" he said.
The man who had spoken lifted his hand in an unmistakable command to the blond boy. "Artie will show you," he said.
"My clothes?" Paul said. "Where are they?"
"You were wearing only small clothes," the man said. "They are being cleaned. They will be returned."
Paul tried to push aside the fog that smothered his thoughts. He and Larry had been wearing winter-weight flight suits—fire-resistant, and heavily insulated. "Small clothes?" he mumbled.
The boy who had been named Artie handed him a robe. Hospital johnny? Paul wondered. No, it's not open in the back, only at the arms and neck. He slipped the robe over his head and stood, allowing the robe to fall over his body. Artie offered a pair of slippers.
Despite his urgent need to urinate, Paul stopped by the bed where Larry lay. "Are you sure he's all right?" he asked. He touched his friend's cheek, and then felt his carotid pulse. He seems to be . . . asleep? In a coma? No apparent injury.
"Yes," the man said. "I am a healer, and have examined him. He sleeps, only."
Healer? Paul wondered. Only then did he realize that the boy—Artie—and the two men were wearing robes and slippers like the ones Artie had given him. The only difference was that their robes were belted—No, that's not a belt, it's rope. We're in some kind of religious commune! Paul's thoughts were interrupted when the boy—Artie, Paul remembered—took his hand and led him toward the door.
Still holding Paul's hand, Artie led him down a hallway. The walls alternated between wood and stone; the floor was stone. They passed a dozen doors. A few were open. Paul saw more rooms like the one in which he'd wakened. The rooms contained a bed or two. Most also held a table and a pair of chairs.
Paul took comfort from the touch of Artie's hand. He looked at the boy, and received a smile.
The air grew damp and warm. Artie opened a door and led Paul into a communal bath. Large shower stalls lined two walls; shelves holding folded cloth made up a third. In the center, tendrils of steam rose from a large tub, sunk into the stone floor. Artie led Paul through another door into a toilet room.
Paul stood in front of a stone trough through which a stream of water flowed. He lifted the robe, looked down, and thought, What the heck?
When Paul had finished urinating, Artie led him back into the shower room and offered Paul a handful of clothes from one of the shelves. Paul recognized his and Larry's underwear—cotton briefs and t-shirts, and wool socks. "Was this all?" he asked the boy.
"I was not with them when they found you," the boy said. "But Brother Sebastian said this was all. This was all you were wearing when I helped put you to bed."
Brother Sebastian? Brother? This is a religious commune. And this boy—Artie—helped undress us? Concerns more immediate pushed those thoughts from Paul's mind. "Did he say anything about the wreckage? We need to return and activate the crash beacon if it didn't go off on its own."
"They said nothing about wreckage or a beacon fire," Artie said.
Before beacon fire registered in Paul's brain, they had reached the room where Larry lay, still asleep. "Who is Brother Sebastian?" Paul asked.
"I am he." The man was still there, and was taking Larry's pulse. "He will wake, soon, I think."
Paul hefted his and Larry's underwear and socks. "Artie said these were all the clothes we had on, but we would have frozen in minutes, I think," he said.
"Frozen? In the middle of summer? Not even in the deepest hour of night," Brother Sebastian said.
"Summer?" Paul said. He sank onto the edge of the bed while his mind whirled. "Summer? It was the dead of winter! How long have we been here?"
Brother Sebastian looked at Paul and frowned, but it was only in thought; after a moment his face brightened. "You were brought here only this morning. I cannot say how long you were in the forest, but you were barefoot save for the socks. Your feet were not calloused, nor were they injured. I think you could not have walked far. And midsummer day was just a tenday ago."
Someone stole our clothes and boots? And it's summer? That's not only illogical; it's impossible, Paul thought. There must be another answer.
At that moment, Larry woke and sat up.
"What?" The boy looked around and saw Paul. "Paul? Where are we? Where's the p . . .p . . . plane? What happened?"
Paul and Brother Sebastian nearly collided in their hurry to reach Larry. Paul won the race, and took Larry's hand. "I think we crashed," he said. "These people found us and brought us here. You've been unconscious for a while. So was I." Paul's touch more than his words reassured Larry.
"You were found a few hours ago, in the forest, and brought here," Sebastian reiterated for Larry's benefit. "We were concerned. You were deeply asleep, but not in a coma, yet we could not rouse you."
He seems sincere, Paul thought. And we came to no harm while we were unconscious. I trust him. I must trust him. "Larry, what's the last thing you remember?"
"The search . . . we'd found the beacon . . . I was calling it in to 911 . . . " Larry said.
Paul nodded, and squeezed Larry's hand more tightly. "Brother Sebastian, you should know that the last memory we have is of winter, yet you say it is summer. Something is very wrong. Where are we? Who are you? What is this place?"
"This is the Community of Light in Derry," Sebastian said. In response to the boys' puzzled looks he added, "It is located a little west of Carter, and just south of the border between Arcadia and Elvenholt." Paul and Larry's gasps interrupted him.
"Elvenholt? Carter? Arcadia? These are not places we know," Paul said. "Community of the Light? Are you a religious order?"
"What is religious?" Sebastian asked.
At that moment, a boy a few years younger than Paul and Larry came into the room. "The senior wants to know how our guests—" Paul and Larry stared at the boy's green hair, pointed ears, and almond-shaped eyes. "What?" the boy asked.
"Elvenholt?" Larry asked.
"Urbis Romana, to be precise," the boy answered.
There was a profound silence before Paul said, "Larry, I don't think we're in Wyoming any more."
Larry gasped as he realized the impact of Paul's words. Before he could gather his thoughts, Artie spoke. "Where is Wyoming?" the boy asked.
"Um, it's where we're from," Paul said. "But as to where it is? That may be a little hard to answer."
He turned to Larry, and asked, "How do you feel?"
"Um, a little confused," the boy said. He squeezed Paul's hand. "Actually, I'm a lot confused. Did you say it was summer?"
Paul briefed Larry on what little he'd learned in the few minutes he'd been awake.
"It's summer? And our flight suits? No wreckage?" Larry asked.
Paul nodded. "So it seems. And, one more thing. You hadn't shaved before the mission. Feel your face."
Larry ran his hand over his face. "No stubble? Smooth. Who shaved me?"
"No one, I don't think," Paul said. He looked closely at his friend's face. "It doesn't look as if you ever had whiskers. And, there's no hair under your arms." He turned to Brother Sebastian. "You didn't remove our body hair, did you." It was a statement, not a question.
"Body hair? No one has hair except on the top of their head—and eyebrows, of course," the Elven boy wiggled his green ones as he spoke, and then giggled.
"Larry, we didn't crash. The p . . . p . . . plane probably did, but we weren't in it. We came here."
"We're not dead, are we?" Larry asked.
"No, I don't think dead people have hangnails, and the one I had this morning is still here." Paul rubbed his right index finger. "It's summer, yet no time has passed."
He turned. "Brother Sebastian, we are grateful to you for bringing us here and caring for us. Would your courtesy extend to taking us to the place we were found so that we might look for our other clothes and possessions?"
"Of course," the man replied. "Do I understand that you believe you died?"
"No, not at all," Paul said. "We are clearly alive. But we are not on the world in which we were born and on which we lived until a few hours ago."
"That's silly!" the Elven boy said.
"No, it's the simplest and most logical explanation," Paul said. "It requires fewer assumptions than any other I can conceive at the moment. I'll call it a hypothesis for now. I don't have enough information to formulate a theory."
"You are certain in what you say about winter and summer. You are truthful in your statements," Brother Sebastian said. "But I do not know those words, logical, hypothesis, theory?" The question was apparent in his voice.
"I will be glad to discuss—What, Larry?"
"Uh, I need to use the restroom."
"That's another new word. It means to piss," Artie said. He looked at the expression on Larry's face. "What?"
From the "restroom," Artie led Paul and Larry to a large room filled with trestle tables, benches, chairs, people, and food. "The refectory," he said. "The senior wants to meet you. Then we'll eat." He led them to a corner table at which sat four men.
"Senior, these are our guests, Paul and Larry of Wyoming," he said.
Startled that the boy had remembered Wyoming, Paul nearly missed the response, "Welcome. I am the senior of this community," the man said.
Paul and Larry managed to stammer their thanks.
"Artie, please bring them to my chapel after lunch." The senior's words were a clear dismissal.
"Chapel?" Larry asked after they had been seated. "I thought you said they weren't religious." He looked at Artie. "What is a chapel?"
"Uh, it's a cleric's workshop," Artie said. He passed a bowl of roasted potatoes to Larry.
"Cleric?" Larry asked.
"Larry," Paul interrupted before Artie could speak. "Say that word again, and think about what you're saying."
"Just do it. Please?"
"Cleric. Cleric. Oh." Larry's eyes grew wide. "It's not English, and the word isn't what I think it is. What's happened to us?"
Paul took his friend's hand. "I don't know, Little Buddy. I really don't know. But we're alive. We're not hurt. We're together. We are among friends. And we will find out what's going on."
Larry nodded, and squeezed Paul's hand.
The senior's chapel looked like a combination library, den, and chemistry laboratory. Neither Paul nor Larry had been inside a church in years, but both recognized a chalice and paten. Those implements and several pieces of glassware sat upon a large stone cube. "Altar," Paul said to Larry. "And it's not the same word, either." Larry thought for a moment, and then nodded.
The men who had been at the senior's lunch table were there, as were Sebastian and the Elven boy they had met earlier. Sebastian gestured for Artie and the Elven boy to remain. "Artie, you and Alan will be their hosts; therefore, you should hear this."
Sebastian addressed the senior. "Others and I were in the forest gathering herbs less than a mile from here. We came upon these two boys in a glade. They were lying together, holding one another as might lovers. They were wearing only small clothes—short pants and a light tunic of cotton, and foot coverings of wool. They were asleep, and did not waken to our calls or, later, our touch. I examined them closely. They did not appear to be injured.
"We made stretchers from saplings and our tunics, and brought them here. They were put into a probationer's cell where they woke after another hour and within a few minutes of one another. They expressed amazement that it was summer, saying that their last memories were of winter. They indicated that they believed that only hours had passed since they were in winter.
"They expressed the belief that they were not on their own world, but another. They speak the common tongue, but use some words I do not know. There are some words they do not seem to understand."
Paul and Larry looked at one another. Larry had blushed when Sebastian said they had been lying together as lovers. It was not until Sebastian finished speaking that both boys realized that there had not been a hint of censure in his voice, and not any sign of disapproval from the others in the room.
Maybe we are dead, and this is gay heaven, Larry thought, and as quickly dismissed the notion. This is real. And the only heaven people ever know is the one they make for themselves, on Earth. Or—_he felt a chill—_wherever this place is.
"Why do you think you are not on your world?" the senior asked.
"Why do you not think we are insane?" Paul countered. "It's the simpler explanation."
The senior frowned. Uh oh, Paul thought, I've pissed him off.
"Had you been insane, Brother Sebastian would have seen it, and would have told me," the senior said.
Paul sighed with relief. The man was not angry, merely puzzled. "Oh," he said. "He's that good?"
"Yes, but please, my question?"
"I gather that Alan is an elf. There are no elves on our world," Paul began. He gathered his thoughts and then continued.
"The language we are speaking is not our own; we hear and speak different words and understand them in familiar ways, but they are not what we think they are.
"I cannot prove that we are not dead. I cannot prove that we are not dreaming. I cannot prove any of a number of more fantastic hypotheses. The simplest answer is the more likely answer. We are on another world."
The silence that fell when Paul stopped speaking was broken by Artie.
"I can prove that you're not dead, because I'm not dead and I held your hand. I felt you." He giggled. "I watched you piss."
"Artie, you're a fledgling solipsist," Paul said.
Artie frowned. "Is that a good thing?"
Paul laughed. "It is, indeed, and someday, if your senior allows, I'll explain it to you."
Paul sobered when he addressed the Senior. "We are not from this world. Someone brought us here. I do not know who or why, but I intend to find out."
The Senior looked at Paul, and saw the boy's determination. "You have the right of it," he said. "I do not know if we can help, but I promise that we will do what we can."