Friday, August 5, 2022

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 13: “Would Scarcely Know That We Were Gone” • by Jonathan Sherwood

INTRO: Welcome to Odin III, a grubby little mining world on the dark and dusty backside of nowhere. It’s a world where everything that’s worth having is already owned by Galactic Mining, and where people have come to squander their hopes and lives, working for the company and dreaming of striking it big. It’s also a world where some very strange and peculiar things have begun to happen, and it all started four weeks weeks ago, in a bar called Weber’s Place, when Ray Cornwall didn’t just warp the fabric of space/time, he completely bent it…

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine | Part Ten | Part Eleven | Part Twelve

“Would Scarcely Know That We Were Gone”

by Jonathan Sherwood

On the third day, Arthur ran out of water.

Just as the big sun, Odin, began lightening the dark sky and pushing the stars away, he shook the last drops of water from his canteen into his mouth and tossed it away. It clattered on the rocks and into those weird blue bamboo plants, raising a momentary jangle of wind chimes.

Wonder if these have always been here? he thought. Or are they all fake, too?

The thought stung. He wiped his eye.

The long trek from the little mining town had been tiring, but he hadn’t yet stopped. In the dark, he wasn’t sure this rock on the hill would be a good place to rest, but now that he was close and the night was ebbing, he saw it had a smooth, flat top and a good view. A good place to rest. For a very long time.

He sat on its edge and let his tired feet hang down so he could watch the brightening sky. He would have bet on the planet’s night predators. Not thirst. The last of Odin III’s aurora flickered across the welkin as he bent his head and let himself cry.

Arthur had never been the kind of man to cry, but the fatigue and the resignation seemed to wring it out of him. And the thought of Susan, lost to him, maybe lost to all, wrung him tighter.

She’d approached him in the bar one night. Strung out on mushrooms and babbling about how much she’d missed him. How they were married and in love. But in some other timeline. Not in this one. He’d told her to leave him alone. He barely knew her. He was married to someone else. That she gave him the creeps. And the look in her eyes when he’d said that… He felt that in his soul.

And a few days later, she was missing.

A week later, and Arthur couldn’t get her out of his mind.

Two weeks later, Arthur was eating those mushrooms. And starting to remember.

It came on in waves of confusion. Their sparse wedding, their sparse marriage, the struggles and the little victories that somehow made it so worthwhile. Even though he’d done none of it. But somehow they’d done all of it. And done it together. And now the emptiness in his chest felt like a hole the rest of him would just crumple into.

The last anyone had seen of her, she was walking out of the town one night, into the wilderness. And then nothing more. And she’d done it with his words in her head. You give me the creeps.

The blue bamboo swayed in the breeze, knocking together like little xylophones. He wiped again at his eyes.

The shoe next to him looked exactly like his, right down to the flecks of mud.

The jeans and the jacket also looked like his. And though in the back of his mind he knew he should be terrified, when he saw the person sitting next to him was… him, he felt only a mild surprise.

“Hey,” said the other Arthur. Right down to the tear-smeared dirt on his cheeks.

“Hey,” said Arthur, in rote reply. “You’re… me.”

“Yeah,” the other said, nodding. “It does seem that way.”

“I haven’t had shrooms in days. I’m not trippin’ right now.”

“Me neither,” said the other. “But… I don’t think I’ve been around that long…” His voice drifted off.

“Are you real?”

The other looked at his own lap with a look of confusion, then at Arthur, and then reached out an index finger and poked Arthur in the shoulder. “I guess I’m real,” he said. “Guess you are, too.”

Arthur stared at the other one. Studied his face. “What do you want? Why are you here?”

The other looked toward the sunrise. Shook his head. “I don’t know.” He looked at Arthur. “Why are you here?”

“Because I want to find someone.” He hesitated, but the other waited for him to finish. “Or to die.”

The other blinked several times, apparently in confusion, and then he nodded once. “Susan,” he said. His expression drooped and he looked again at his lap. “Oh, Susan.”

“Is it a timeline thing?” asked Arthur, a twinge of excitement, of hope in his voice. “Are you from the timeline she remembers? From when we were together? Are you and she—?”

“No. No, I don’t think I’m from another timeline or anything. I think I’m just… here.”

“Oh,” said Arthur. They were quiet for a while, both watching the edge of Odin creep above the horizon, heralding the double sunrise. Arthur kept wondering why he didn’t feel much more disturbed, but every time he started thinking about it, he found it hard to concentrate.

“You came out here to find her,” said the other. “But you knew you wouldn’t. You knew you wouldn’t survive long out here. You knew this was a one-way trip.”

Arthur nodded, and reluctantly said, “Yeah.”

“Because you’re lonely,” the other turned to look at him. “You’re so terribly, terribly lonely.”

“She was everything to me. A month ago, I barely knew her. But she came up to me and said we were married, and I called her a drugged-out creep and told her to get lost. And the look on her face when I said that.” He put both hands to his face. “And now I remember her and remember us and we were just so happy. And I barely remember my other life. And that was the last thing I said to her. And now I can’t go back to the way I was without her, and I miss her so—”

“Hey,” said the other, and Arthur felt a hand rubbing his shoulder. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I know. It feels, it feels awful. It feels… hollowing.”

Arthur sniffed. “Yeah. Hollowing.”

“Remember when she got the mop stuck in the garbage disposal, and it was spinning and throwing water all over the kitchen? And she was screaming and laughing and we tried to grab the mop and it slapped us square in the face, and our mouth was open and she laughed so hard she fell on the floor and puked? Holy crap she had a good laugh.”

“Yeah,” said Arthur. “I forgot about that, but yeah. That laugh was something else.”

The other put a hand on Arthur’s thigh, palm up. Arthur looked at it, confused, and then laid his own hand in it. It felt warm and rough, but reassuring and honest. Odin lifted nearly half above the horizon.

“Loneliness,” said the other. “I think loneliness is the worst emotion. You can talk to someone about every other emotion. You can feel like you’re not alone in your feelings. But loneliness…” He gave Arthur’s hand a squeeze. Arthur squeezed back. “Do you know what depersonalization disorder is? It’s when you think you’re not yourself. That someone else is you. I think that’s what’s going on here.” The other nodded toward the sunrise. “I think I’ve made you up somehow. I think I’m the real one.”

Arthur followed his gaze. It seemed to make sense. “I think you’re right.”

“You didn’t tell me. About Susan,” said the other. “You never said her name. But I knew. I knew. I guess I read your mind.”

“I didn’t know we could do that.”

“I didn’t either,” said the other, looking at the sky. “Huh. I wonder what else I can do.”

Arthur felt a slight pang in his stomach.

“Don’t worry,” said the other, still holding Arthur’s hand in an embrace both firm and soft. And genuinely affectionate. “I won’t leave you. I’m going to stay with you until the end.”

Arthur smiled, squeezed his friend’s hand, and watched the big sun lift itself over the edge of Odin III. The blue bamboo moved in the morning breeze and rang out a delightful, muted coda.


Jonathan Sherwood has written about science and scientists for research universities for more than two decades, and science fiction for even longer. He holds a bachelors in science writing from Cornell University and an MA in English from the University of Rochester. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and others.

Coming Monday: Episode 14 of The Odin Chronicles, “Love and Groceries,” by Carol Scheina.



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