The girl moved quickly along the rubble-strewn path. Tony struggled to keep up, despite his sudden health, but she didn’t even seem to notice the rocks impeding their progress and stepped on stones in her bare feet as though she had soles made of metal. Every now and again she would glance back at him with undisguised curiosity, but as soon as she realised he had seen her she would turn away. Without the bandana, her hair was perhaps shoulder length, and tangled as though she didn’t have access to a decent brush, although it was clean and had obviously been cared for.
“Natesa?” he said, stumbling over the unusual name. She did not pause, so he continued, “Where are you taking me?”
“You are newly arrived,” she said. Again, that seemed to be significant, and Tony couldn’t disagree. He hadn’t been here before, and must have come from somewhere. “I am taking you to see my mother.”
That sounded rather ominous. “Where am I?” he said, hoping that for once she would give him a straight answer.
“You are here,” she replied. “And here is where you are.”
“But what is this country?” He was growing impatient. “Natesa, what country am I in?” A horrible thought occurred to him. “What planet am I on?”
She smiled over her shoulder and sped up slightly. “You will see. They call it Grade.”
“Grade?” She hadn’t contradicted him. “The planet is called Grade?” Her silence told him everything. “I’m on another planet,” he said. It was fast becoming evident that he hadn’t died, and nor was he hallucinating, because his imagination wasn’t up to something like this. Even in the oddly vivid, drug-induced dreams he’d had during treatment, he’d never been well enough to walk around. They’d always been focused around sedentary activities that he didn’t have the strength to do, and never had there been unhelpful native girls dressed like clowns.
“If you are from Earth, then this is indeed another planet. If, however, you are from Grade, then it is not. It is your Earth. Planets are only ‘other’ if you do not come from there.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” said Tony. Her riddles were irritating. “Why do I need to see your mother anyway?”
“She will perhaps tell you why you are here.”
“I don’t care about why I’m here!” he replied. “I want to know how I’m here and how I can get home again. I want to know why one minute I was dying and next I’ve got both my legs and my hair back and I’m wandering around as though I was never sick. I want to know what the actual hell is going on here!”
“You speak strangely,” she said, her voice calm and accent more defined than ever before. “Is that an Earth accent?”
English accents, he thought to himself. I used to get annoyed by ‘English accents’ or ‘British accents’ because the term was so inaccurate and broad and could refer to thousands of accents. And now someone is asking me if I have an Earth accent. But it didn’t seem like a good idea to correct her when she could easily abandon him here, and he had no idea where he was.
“It’s one of them,” he said.
“Ah, I am wrong,” she said. “You have languages, do you not? Many languages. You are speaking Inglish, you said.”
“We speak Ingils here. Our people came from Earth a very long time ago, and our words are yours. You know this, I expect, because you are understanding me.”
“Mostly,” said Toby, though he still had to think for a minute after each of her pronouncements to check that he was catching everything. “Your people came from Earth, did you say? But your accent; I haven’t heard one like that before.”
“It has, I suspect, developed.”
“So how long have you been here?”
“Oh, I would estimate one thousand years. That is what my mother says. But it may be wrong. Records are lost.”
“I’m on another planet,” said Toby, trying to establish the few facts he was sure of. “The inhabitants came from Earth a thousand years ago, to the point where an accent – although not a language – has developed. Somehow, I’m here. Are you trying to tell me there was space travel a thousand years ago?”
“Perhaps nine hundred or fewer,” she said. “You can tell me. We travelled here in 1990. How many years is that for you?”
Toby stared at her. Then, very deliberately, he picked up a rock from the floor and thumped it against his leg. It hurt, so the leg was definitely there and was definitely real and full of nerves that were very definitely sending signals to his brain. Insistent ones, that told him to desist with this pain-making. He was not dreaming.
“Oh, my god,” he said.