Across, p.1Elizabeth Edson
Copyright 2010 by Elizabeth Edson
Two moons lit the sky.
It was the first thing Marie noticed when she opened her eyes. One moon was waxing, and the other was waning. Together they looked like one orb an angry god had split in half. The stars were different here, too. Brighter and bigger than those of Earth, they hung like shining, luminescent pearls against the dark purple sky. Marie stared at them, awed and dazed, till an inky shadow blocked her view.
She shrunk down into the grass instinctively.
“Miss Nettleson,” a voice rumbled from above her, “If you would kindly vacate the transport zone.”
Marie blinked, and the shadow morphed into the clearly-defined features of a grim-faced man. She scrambled to her feet, trembling, before glancing down to make sure all her limbs remained intact.
“If you need to throw up,” the man said, gesturing, “there are some buckets over there. Some people do it when they first come Across.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Marie shakily, even though her stomach lurched ominously. She stumbled away from him, her eyes sliding over her surroundings. Seeing the Gate, she felt a twinge of alarm. Though she had anticipated this Gate being more basic and austere than its counterpart, she hadn’t imagined it would be to this degree. Back on Earth, the Gate had been sleek and modern, like something out of Star Wars. Here, the Gate looked like it had been assembled in 10 seconds with materials from computers made in the 1980s. Its landing pad was merely a cordoned-off circle of grass surrounded by a mess of wires and tubes. This junk heap was what had catapulted her Across? Marie glanced back down at herself, stunned she had made the journey intact. She examined herself more closely just to make sure. Had her fingers always been that long?
“Miss Nettleson!” a woman’s voice called, snapping her out of her examination. Her head whipped up.
A woman in a black bodysuit had detached herself from a group of her colleagues, who were all sitting on the sidelines gazing intently at a computer screen. She approached Marie briskly.
Marie acknowledged her jerkily. “What do I do?” she asked shakily. Her hands flew up to the metallic vest the prep team had snapped on her. Suddenly she wanted to get it off as soon as possible. What if something went wrong and it shot her back to Earth when it wasn’t supposed to?
“Be careful!” The woman slapped away Marie’s hand. “These are expensive! Didn’t anyone tell you that you can’t take it off yourself?” Muttering to herself about the incompetence of SpiritStar personnel, she spun Marie around and started snapping at the latches in the back.
Marie stood still, accommodating her. Well, she thought wryly, it wasn’t a warm welcome, but it wasn’t as bad as she had expected.
Marie had known before coming most people on the expedition would resent her presence. Her limited contact with the expedition members back on Earth had been proof enough of that. Indeed, back home, when she had been getting ready to go Across, the scientists prepping her hadn’t exactly been gentle. They had snapped on the vest without a word and had jabbed her with that darn needle, injecting her with some drug that had made her woozy and weak. The effects of it, Marie noticed, seemed to have disappeared as soon as she had traveled Across. It was a relief: Earlier she had barely managed to make it to the transport zone without tripping over her own feet. She didn’t want the same inhibitions in an alien world.
Once the woman had successfully removed the vest, she spun Marie around and pointed. “As I’m sure you’ve been told, you will be sleeping in tent 12. Your overnight necessities have already been brought there. Your nonessential belongings will arrive later tonight with the last of the expedition members.” She pushed Marie, as if propelling her in that direction, and Marie’s feet stumbled forward of their own accord.
Marie started walking. She didn’t know what else to do. All of the questions she had planned to ask once Across had vanished from her mind. It took all of her concentration to just force one foot in front of the other. Her heart hammered away in her ribcage, and nerves made her limbs jittery and tingly. She was really here. She couldn’t believe it.
Beneath her feet, she could feel hard, matted dirt interspersed with clumps of grass that stuck to her shoes like gum. Each step required effort. In front of her, an insect the size of a bee flew from its place on the ground, buzzing in her ear. Pop! It lit up in a blaze of electric blue, circling her for a moment before buzzing away, its light snuffing out abruptly. Marie stopped and stared at it.
“Straight ahead, Miss Nettleson!”
She started and staggered forward into camp. It really happened, she thought, dizzy, I’m really here.
She stumbled through the maze of tents, which to her dazed mind looked like strange crosses between Mongolian yurts and grey boulders. Here and there between the tents someone had dumped strange iron machines with spindly legs, narrow wheels, and steaming vents. Scientists in long coats and military personnel in dark uniforms scuttled back and forth between them, muttering to themselves. To Marie’s right, a group of scowling men in their mid-forties grumbled loudly about the “utter lack of discipline among those SpiritStar scientists.” A man in a lab coat threw them a nasty look.
She passed them and soon came upon a large paddock holding around forty dogs, many of which barked angrily at her as she passed, glaring at her with beady eyes. She shivered. She had never spent much time around animals. She scuttled away, shooting the dogs a quick, nervous look before rounding the corner.
The camp was alive with noise. The large, iron machines hissed menacingly as they worked. Every few minutes came a startling zapping sound, signaling the arrival of another team member. Everywhere people were talking: in tents in hushed whispers, around scattered campfires telling bawdy jokes. Not too far away someone had struck up a tune on a guitar and was performing a horrible rendition of Sweet Home Alabama. The clattering of silverware and the dim rumble of conversation issuing from a nearby tent told Marie she had just found the mess hall, and she lingered longingly outside of it, inhaling the tempting aroma of bread and some type of meat. Her stomach clenched; when was the last time she had eaten?
She pulled herself away and forced herself to move on. She had no idea where she was going, but figured she had to run across tent 12 eventually. Though big, the camp wasn’t impossibly large, and she was sure she could learn her way around it quickly enough. As she walked, her eyes inadvertently flicked back up to the stars, and her breath once more caught in her throat. The stars were just so big and so bright, at least twice the size—
A man shoved past her, and Marie tripped, falling to the ground. “Hey!” she protested.
She scrambled to her feet, wincing. She peered around, searching for the man…and her eyes fell on a small sign proclaiming “12.” Marie stared at the sign for a moment, then the grey tent next to it. Her heart suddenly thumped nervously. She hesitated a moment before ducking inside.
She could tell immediately it wasn’t meant for permanent habitation. It was the type of tent designed to be set up and taken down quickly, and was empty save for ten sleeping bags rolled out on the floor. Her eyes zeroed in on a blue one in the back corner, onto which someone had dumped her backpack. She stepped closer and saw the same person had tacked a sticky-note with her name to the sleeping bag.
“Home sweet home,” Marie mumbled.
She unzipped her backpack, rifling through it. As she had suspected, someone had searched her belongings. Whoever had done so hadn’t even bothered to hide what they were doing. Her clothes were in the wrong place, and they had been refolded poorly. She took the time to take them out and fold them correctly, making sure as she did that nothing had been
Confiscated…that word implied that the search had been officially-sanctioned, but she wasn’t certain that was the case. While it was certainly possible that all bags were searched and someone had merely neglected to tell her—she had been given precious little information before being beamed Across—it was also possible she had been singled out. It was stupid and juvenile, but she had come to expect it in the few days she had been signed on as an expedition member. Her mind flicked back to the past week, and she scowled, her thoughts flying fast and furious like they always did when she thought of how utterly unfair and stupid the whole situation was, and she had practically worked herself into a mini furor when her stomach growled abruptly, and she realized she needed to eat dinner.
Trying not to gape too openly at her surroundings, she exited the tent and made her way down to the mess hall, once more hesitating outside of it. The roars of laughter and the excited jabbering issuing from within abruptly reminded her how alone she truly was. Her heart fluttered. Just how many people would dislike her?
At last she swallowed and steeled herself. She was used to being resented. This was nothing new. She reminded herself why she had come Across in the first place, then stepped inside.
The expedition members had gathered into clumps on the ground, where they chatted with each other between mouthfuls of what looked like mutilated chicken casserole. To Marie’s right a group of scientists with dirt all over their white coats huddled together, arguing away in what sounded like Latin. Next to them, a group of soldiers threw them dirty looks as their argument grew more and more obnoxious. To Marie’s left, a circle of SpiritStar personnel in dull brown uniforms loudly discussed the importance of the shipping industry to Ancient Rome—“Anthropologists,” muttered a redheaded woman in disgust—while next to them a group of young soldiers argued just as loudly over the Steelers’ chances of making it to the Super Bowl that year. Directly across the tent, a line of bored-looking cooks handed out small boxes Marie assumed contained the casserole. A man in a white coat grabbed his and muttered something, looking squeamish. One of the cooks glowered at him.
Marie grimaced as she weaved her way through the clumps of people. Now that she was inside, the food didn’t smell nearly as appetizing. In fact, the odor was a little too strong. She sneezed. Loudly.
The conversation lulled, and a number of eyes flicked to her. She blushed and kept going. The conversation picked up again, but it was more hushed this time.
“Citizen…” she thought she heard someone whisper. Her blush, if possible, darkened even more. Of course her entrance would make a scene. As she approached the food line, the whisper turned into a full-blown rumble. “Citizen…citizen…citizen…”
A scowling cook slapped a carton into her hands, and Marie reluctantly turned to face the crowd. A sea of unfriendly faces stared back at her, and she floundered. She didn’t have anyone to sit with. It felt like the first day of high school, but worse.
She swallowed, her heart sinking. She had hoped at least a few people would accept her. Then irritation flared. It wasn’t like she had asked for the job! It had been offered to her! And if she hadn’t taken the position, someone else would have, which would have delayed the expedition for weeks, if not months—
“Hey! Marie Nettleson!”
Marie’s head snapped around, and her eyes flew to a girl sitting in the corner. The girl waved, flashing a quick smile. Marie hesitated, but the girl smiled again, and Marie approached her cautiously. She could still feel several eyes on her.
She stopped a few feet away. “Yes?”
The girl patted the ground next to her and smiled again. It was a pleasant smile. “Sit down with us,” she invited. “Trust me, it’s better than sitting on your own.”
Marie lowered herself slowly, her eyes running curiously over the girl. She looked like a thoroughly bubbly specimen, not much older than Marie, with large blue eyes and bouncing golden curls. She was big-boned and probably a few pounds overweight, but she had an excited energy that made her glow.
“I’m Jennifer,” she said quickly, “Jennifer Kingston. I’m one of the dog handlers here, work for the government, age 20.”
Marie blinked. “Nice to meet you?”
Jennifer’s eyes glinted with amusement. “Ah, a newbie,” she said with a fond sigh. “I see you haven’t yet figured out how this expedition works. Let me fill you in.” She leaned in close. “Whenever you introduce yourself to someone new, you have to give your job title, your employer, and your age. That way people can decide how important you are, and therefore how condescending they can be towards you.” She smiled brightly. “I have found it both easy and accurate to compare this place to high school”—so someone else had noticed the similarity!—“because it has high school’s social structure. For example,”—she cleared her throat—“you’ve got the SpiritStar scientists, who are, of course, the nerds. You’ve also got the military personnel, who can be subdivided into three categories: the jocks, the bullies, and the Eagle Scouts”—she jerked her head—“They self-segregate.” Marie glanced across the tent, and sure enough, there seemed to be three distinct groups of soldiers. “Then of course you’ve got your animal handlers, like me, who are the closest thing this expedition has to hicks, and you’ve also got your documenters, the artsy kids.”
“And what am I?” Marie asked, amused.
“You’re the new kid. The small one that immediately gets picked on.”
Of course. “Good to know.”
The redheaded boy sitting next to Jennifer leaned forward. “She’s right,” he said, “and to continue with that analogy, right now you’re being accepted by the only group in high school that easily accepts newcomers—the losers.” He grinned wryly. “But here we’re called the Babies.”
Marie wrinkled her nose. “The what?” Babies? They weren’t very creative with their nicknames here, were they?
“The Babies,” Jennifer repeated, grabbing a bottle of water and twisting its cap off. “It’s an unfortunate label, but we’re all called it. A Baby is anyone under the age of twenty five. As you can see, there aren’t many of us.” She motioned to the people in their clump, which Marie suddenly realized was composed solely of young people. “And,” Jennifer added, “since you’re only 18, don’t expect to move up the social ladder anytime soon. You’re stuck at the loser’s table.”
The boy next to her chuckled.
For someone at the bottom of the social ladder, Jennifer seemed to be enjoying herself. “Okay, Babies,” she said merrily, “Introduce yourselves to the newest member of our group.” She took a swig of water and thumped the boy sitting next to her. “Joseph, you’re up.”
Joseph spluttered for a second, his ears turning red. “Um,” he said, his eyes darting from Marie’s face to the carton in front of him. “I’m Joseph Connelly. Botanist. Work for SpiritStar. Age 21.”
Jennifer turned to Marie. “Really,” she informed her, “He’s being too modest. Joseph here is a bona fide genius. Graduated from college when he was seventeen. Got his doctorate last year, so he’s Dr. Joseph Connelly. He’s here to investigate—study—whatever—all the plants we run across.”
“And where does that put him in the social hierarchy?” asked Marie, amused. Next to Jennifer, Joseph turned bright red. It clashed horribly with his orange hair.
Jennifer gave it some thought. “Oh, he’s still a Baby—but the most respected Baby. Less of a loser than the rest of us.” She shook her head. “But enough about Joseph! Marie, meet Dustin.”
Marie’s eyes slid to the boy sitting across from Jennifer. She didn’t need anyone to tell her his occupation. His shaven hair and dark uniform said everything: soldier. His name was Dustin Gainnes, said Jennifer, and he was 23. Obviously employed by the government. Marie’s eyes lingered on him a little longer than necessary. His shorn hair somehow accentuated the angles of his face, and she couldn’t help but notice it looked very good on him.<
“Don’t let his age fool you,” mock-whispered Jennifer. “He’s got like a bazillion medals. I swear he’s more decorated than half the soldiers twice his age—which is why, of course, he’s on this expedition.”
Dustin, who had stayed silent during the entire exchange, snorted at this.
The last Baby was a stocky young man named Raymond Sanxay, age 22. His dark black eyes and hair contrasted sharply with the pallor of his skin, and Marie vaguely wondered how badly he would get sunburned in the upcoming days. He, too, stayed quiet, so Jennifer happily introduced him. “His official title,” she said smugly, “is Documenter, but in reality he’s just a photographer. His sole job is taking pictures. I assure you it will get annoying after a while.”
Raymond rolled his eyes.
Marie turned to Jennifer, somewhat amused. “And where is everyone else in the social ladder?”
“Well, you’re at the bottom, sweetheart, being the new kid and all. But that has the ability to change with time. I’m only just above you.” She smiled tightly. “Animal handlers aren’t seen as having the most difficult job.”
Her tone made Marie pause and eye her speculatively. Maybe she had just found someone who thought this whole social structure was as juvenile as she did.
Before Marie could say anything to her about it, Joseph cut in. “So—Marie—let’s hear your intro.”
Jennifer nodded quickly. “Yeah, Marie, go for it!”
Marie arched an eyebrow. O-kay. “Marie Nettleson, no job other than observing, work for neither SpiritStar nor the federal government, age 18.”
Jennifer considered it for a moment, then shrugged. “It’ll pass.”
Marie briefly wondered how it could have failed.
“Or,” suggested Dustin quietly, smirking, “she could just call herself Citizen.”
Jennifer glared at him. “There’s no need for that to catch on.”
“Too late,” interjected Joseph. “It already has.”
Four pairs of eyes turned to Marie.
“You’re going to have to—”
“—put up with—”
“—people calling you—”
“Since that’s essentially what you are,” added Joseph. “That’s why you’re on this expedition, anyway. You’re a neutral party. Sort of.”
Marie shrugged. “Could be worse.” She had expected a nickname and had feared it would be more derogatory.
“True,” muttered Raymond, a dark look on his face. Marie wondered what they called him.
Her eyes fell to her food carton, and she yawned, suddenly exhausted. Jennifer grinned at her. “Well, Marie Nettleson, someday soon—say, tomorrow at breakfast—you’re going to have to tell us your story, how you got here, all that jazz, but right now it looks like you’ve had a long day. Eat up, go back to your tent, and get some sleep. Trust me when I say you’ll need it.”
Across by Elizabeth Edson / Fantasy have rating 2.4 out of 5 / Based on39 votes