Daniel wakes in unfamiliar surroundings, a warm, dark and moist place. The air carries a strong odour somewhere between mold and manure. As they open their eyes, they see that they’re in a large, natural-looking rock chamber lit by dim glow. They’re lying face-up in soggy dirt next to a shallow and murky pool from which phosphorescent tendrils extend to the dirt-roof ceiling of the cave. They suspect they’re somewhere underground; the tendrils are probably the roots of the fungus-trees on the surface.
As Daniel’s eyes adjust to the low-light, they take the opportunity to sit up and have a look around. Next to where they were lying, they find what looks like a rudimentary stone table upon which sits a multiply-chipped china tea set decorated with a blue floral pattern. One of the pink-grey hexapods appears to be performing some kind of ritual with the teapot, carefully swirling the liquid within as it messes with tea-strainers. There’s a faintly citrusy scent detectable, almost completely masked by the more earthy smell of the cave. Surely not..?
Taking their first opportunity to look more closely at the creature, Daniel sees six limbs comprising four broadly-spaced legs and two slender arms. The pink-grey skin has a leathery look about it similar to the egg-sacs on the surface, and it sags away from the creature’s bony thorax and face. Whatever genitals it has are mercifully covered by a patchwork garment made from thick cloth in various yellow-brown hues that extends from the rear end of its body to halfway between its arms and forelegs. The creature’s head is roughly egg-shaped, with four eyes and some sort of mouth with three chitinous tusks that loop inward from each side.
If Daniel were forced to give a quick summary, they would probably describe it as “a bug-centaur gone wrong”.
“I see you’re awake,” the creature says. “Thought we could have a picnic while you recover. Would you like some tea?”
The creature’s voice is a baritone that Daniel would assume as male if it were remotely human. It resonates in strange ways through the creature’s airways with an insectoid rasp. Somehow, impossibly, it has a mild West Country accent. How this thing can know English — not to mention pronounce it — is completely unclear, but Daniel’s not particularly sure they want to know right now. This is far too weird; maybe unconsciousness was the more rational option.
“This place is one of the most beautiful places I know,” the creature says. “Not sure how much of that beauty is visible to human eyes, mind.”
Daniel’s pretty sure the answer is “not much”, but they don’t say it. Frankly, the desolate forests on the surface were like the Garden of Eden compared to this place.
“You speak English?” they ask, nervously. This is probably a pretty stupid question, but under the circumstances they can’t think of anything better to say.
“I spent a while among your kind,” the creature says in its inhuman tone, “though not in this form, I’ll admit. The name’s Garl.”
(“Garl“‘s the best approximation that Daniel could possibly hope to write; the creature’s name sounds like a cross between a throat clearing and a crab’s shell breaking.)
It seems like Garl expects Daniel to respond with their own name, but they’re not sure what name to give. They’ve read oodles of stories where names have special power. Yarn said to use pseudonyms as well, right?
“Penny,” they say, with a quiver in their voice.
“Penny,” Garl repeats. “I seem to recall that that’s a name for girls?” It pauses. “Do I have that right? You’re a girl?”
Daniel’s heart leaps, but they manage to suppress it into a shrug. “I guess. Can’t you tell?”
Garl makes a grinding, shuddering noise, something unearthly and vaguely terrifying. After a moment, Daniel realises: it’s laughter. “Can you tell what I am?” the creature retorts in a tone that vaguely approximates teasing. “My kind don’t tend to work within your systems of classification, you know.”
“Oh,” Daniel says. Well, of course they don’t: gender is a concept that makes sense on Earth, but who knows what kind of social structure these creatures have. “Sorry,” they add, hoping to smooth over any offence they might have caused.
“No harm done,” says Garl, sounding unperturbed by the exchange. It makes a gesture toward the tea set with one of its arms. “Would you like a cup?”
Daniel nods dumbly, and Garl pours an orange-brown liquid from the teapot into a delicate china cup. Daniel takes the cup and has an experimental sip, the citrus scent from before playing on their lips and tongue. It’s Earl Grey. Of course it is. Daniel mutters their thanks and drinks a little more. It’s a strangely familiar and comforting flavour, and better than it has any right to be. Out of the corner of their eye they see Garl set down a plate of inexplicably bread-like triangles with green fillings. Are those cucumber fucking sandwiches?
Earl Grey tea and cucumber sandwiches is definitely not what Daniel would have expected from first contact with an alien species, but this particular alien seems to have been educated from a Victorian etiquette manual. It probably has something to do with the time Garl spent on Earth; Daniel’s just about managing to listen to the creature’s story through the shock and from the sounds of it, Garl visited Earth some time in the mid-to-late 1800s. As politely as they can manage (which isn’t much), Daniel asks how Garl could possibly have passed for human enough to live among them for so long.
“The thing about projecting yourself to other worlds,” Garl says between inhuman gulps of tea that leave Daniel feeling deeply unsettled, “is that you can pretty much take any form you like.”
“So you could have looked however you wanted?” Daniel asks, almost forgetting to breathe.
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” it replies. It takes another gulp before continuing. “Yep, if you want to change your form, projection’s the way to do it. Mess with your real body, you’re liable to mis-connect your digestive system or something.”
Daniel’s heart sinks a little, though gently so; this isn’t quite the news they were hoping for but at least Garl’s breaking it reasonably gently, implied body horror notwithstanding. They’ve not yet told Garl what they want to change about themself but, to be fair, Garl hasn’t asked. It’s probably for the best; they’ve not even managed to tell their best friend about this stuff, let alone some alien from another dimension. And anyway, it’s probably going to be difficult to explain to such a creature.
Tentatively, Daniel eats a cucumber sandwich; it tastes bizarrely realistic. As the cucumber crunches under their teeth, they wonder how one could possibly get cucumbers or wheat to grow in this environment. Not to mention where to keep the cows for the butter. It must be a logistical nightmare.
Swallowing remnants of bread and vegetable matter, Daniel asks: “So how do I get back?”
Garl’s face contorts into an almost human-like expression of thoughtfulness. It’s not a pleasant sight. “Well, that depends on how you got here, I reckon.”
Daniel has no idea how they got here, so they tell the creature everything they’ve done since the beginning of their magic session with Yarn. According to Garl, when Daniel was focusing on their body in the mirror they most likely charged their self-image with energy; this energy allowed them to get knocked into a state of projection more-or-less by accident. Daniel’s real body is most likely still somewhere on Earth running on automatic.
“You’d be surprised what a body can do without a mind,” Garl says.
Daniel’s navigated enough days on autopilot that they’re actually not that surprised, but they keep that to themself. They just hope they get home before auto-Daniel has to interact with their parents: the last time they tried to handle that kind of situation on automatic it did not end well, and that was with their mind ready to take over at a moment’s notice. Fuck knows what could go wrong in this situation.
The conversation shifts to history as Garl asks what’s happened on Earth since they left. They’re not actually over a hundred years old, but time on different worlds is only very loosely connected as a rule. It’s very rare that there’s a fixed conversion ratio between one world’s time and another’s. At least, that’s what Garl says.
Dredging up forgotten history lessons and inferred facts from period dramas on TV, Daniel tells Garl what they can of events from around 1850 up to the 21st century. It’s quite a lot when you actually come to talk about it, though the whole process makes them acutely aware of the gaps in their knowledge. It’s around the time that they get to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that they start to wonder if maybe this was a bad idea. Garl seems oddly unperturbed by news of the atrocity, however. Perhaps the tragedy is lessened by the difference in species. Or, Daniel wonders, perhaps it’s just that Garl’s seen worse. It’s a sobering thought.
Once the picnic is over, Garl takes Daniel to one of the tunnels leading back to the surface. Apparently it should be easier for them to get home from a higher point, but they don’t really understand the metaphysics despite Garl’s best efforts to explain. Something to do with basis vectors and affine transformations.
The path itself is a walk-slash-climb through bizarre fungal root structures and mud-slick cave floors, dimly lit by the same phosphorescence as Garl’s “garden”. Daniel complains that their clothes are getting dirty; Garl responds by reminding them that their clothes are illusory and thus only as dirty as they picture them. Daniel tries to picture cleaner clothes, but it turns out imagining all that grime away is a lot harder than it sounds. Oh, well. At least they only slip and fall on their face twice.
The journey’s starting to get tedious so Garl decides to sing in order to pass the time. It says that the songs are the rough equivalent of human folk tunes, but Daniel’s never heard a folk song anything like it and they doubt they ever will. The alien harmonies produced by Garl’s larynx would probably horrify any teacher of music theory, but Daniel’s fascinated; they interrupt on several occasions to ask questions about rhythm and temperament.
After about fifteen minutes of ungainly clambering, the floor begins to dry out. Daniel takes this as an indication that the surface is near, a suspicion that is confirmed when they spot an opening up ahead. The low-light from the outside is quite unlike the bright sunlight or moonlight that you’d expect on Earth, but it’s definitely a different sort of light from the fungal lighting of the caves. It takes the pair four or five more minutes to reach the opening, after which Daniel staggers out into what passes for fresh air in this place. The ash-covered rocky ground and freakish egg-sacs are almost a welcome sight.
Daniel looks at Garl as if to say “now what?”, though they’ve not got the breath to ask.
“From here, getting back should be as easy as waking up,” Garl says. “Just try to feel the senses of your body in your home reality. Let your senses here fade away to nothing.”
Daniel closes their eyes and smells the pollen of the trees and the smoke of car exhaust. They feel the sensation of something metallic in their hand and hear the clicking of a lock. They open their eyes to see their own front door swinging open as they push it by the key. Inwardly, they breathe a sigh of relief; looks like they got home just in time. They make sure to dash up the stairs to their room before anyone sees them. They’re definitely going to need time to decompress.
As they get to their room they hear one last non-terrestrial sound. It’s Garl’s voice.
“You will visit,” it says, “won’t you?”