Three cocooned figures walked down the ramp. Rose colored alien sedges rose up around them, almost to the full height of the tallest two figures. The air was filled with spores and pollen floating lazily on the breeze.
"What do you think, son?" his voice clicked on and off over the radio.
"I feel like I've forgotten something, dad," said the shortest figure. He stood ahead of the others and looked side-to-side, his helmet glinting in the starlight.
"It's just a bit of disorientation from the faster-than-light travel," said the woman. "You'll feel better soon." She put a heavily-gloved hand on her son's shoulder.
"I dunno. Something's not right. I can feel it." His parents behind him exchanged silent glances.
"Well, what shall we name this planet?" said the father. "Your choice."
"Don't I always name the planets?" The son turned around awkwardly to look at his father directly.
"Not always," said his mother. "Don't you want to go off exploring? I bet there's all sorts of exotic animals out there."
The boy looked at her with brow furrowed, then turned forward again and took a few bouncing steps before stopping.
"It just, it feels like we've done this a million times. I dunno, it's kind of boring."
"Nonsense!" said his father, walking up to join his son. "You've always wanted to do this--be a famous explorer of planets. We suddenly got the technology to do it, and you leapt at the chance. You love doing this!"
"I guess. It's just that it all seems so similar. I kind of miss life back on Earth. I just--I want to grow up like a normal kid. And somehow--I don't know. Something's wrong. Something's off. I feel like I should be grown up by now."
"Sweetie," said his mother, "it's just the travel. Many more years have passed back on Earth than you've lived through. I think that accounts for the--"
"Accounts for the what?" asked the boy. He stared out at the rippling pink sedges waiting for an answer. He thought for a moment that his radio had gone out, and he turned around. His parents were gone. "Mom? Dad?"
He traced his path back through the sedges to the ship. The ship was gone but the ramp was still there, violating the law of gravity by leaning up towards nothing. His heart raced. The inside of his helmet started to fog with his rapid breathing. He looped around the ramp, waving his hands around where the ship should have been. He met only the resistance of air.
The boy ran up the ramp to the top and hopped, but the ramp didn't collapse. He jumped off and landed on his knees. He fell face forward then rolled onto his back.
"Mom? Dad? Where are you? Come in!" his voiced trembled. One of the planet's stars started to set rapidly and afternoon turned to evening. The breeze stilled.
He sat up, and reached for the latch on his helmet. He held his breath. He fumbled, then popped the latch. Earth air rushed out to the lower pressure outside. It was a subtle, gentle difference. He twisted the helmet, then removed it and cradled it in his lap. His lips were still pressed together. He exhaled slowly then inhaled sharply.
The humid air was fragrant, even spicy. The boy let his breath normalize. He unzipped his gloves and wriggled free of their bulk. He fiddled with the radio inside his helmet. Something hooted in the distance. The boy looked up, his face drained of blood. The sedges in his peripheral vision rustled. He stood quickly and circled around. Always the grass just at the edge of his sight moved. A chorus of chirps warmed up.
"Stay away you all! I've got a laser gun!"
"No you don't," said a deep voice within the veil of pink grass.
"Who are you?"
"I'm not a 'who' little human."
"Where's my parents?"
"You know where they are." The sedges right in front of the boy shook.
"You took them."
"No. That would be physically impossible."
"They can't just disappear! Where are they?!"
"Where they always are."
"Where's that?" asked the boy, his voice cracking.
The grasses parted and a short figure stepped out in front of the boy. Its body was painted with red mud and it wore a cloth made of woven grasses about its waist. Its eyes bore into the boy.
"You look familiar."
"You're...you're me? Older?"
"Not older. More experienced. More aware."
"I don't really know the answer to that." The other boy, the painted boy, took the boy's hand in his own. "Come with me. I have a fire. It will be night soon. It get's cold."
The painted boy pulled the other along through the grasses and away from the ramp.
"I don't want to get lost," said the boy.
"You can't get lost, not here."
"I want my parents to be able to find me. I should stay by the ship."
"There is no ship."
"Trust me. There is no ship."
"Of course there is a ship! How else would I have gotten here?"
"You often feel confused."
"Yeah, it feels like I've just woken from a dream. Mom says it's the faster-than-light travel."
"Well, this isn't a dream."
"No. At least not quite. I haven't figured that part out yet."
"This must be a dream. I'm talking to myself."
They arrived at a crackling fire in a pit in a clearing. There was a small tent to the side of it. The painted boy sat down cross-legged on the ground. The boy stood and watched him.
"Is this where you live?" asked the boy.
"Yeah. I like roughing it." The painted boy poked a stick into the fire, stirring up sparks. "Might as well sit down, dummy."
The boy squinted at his counterpart, then sat down next to the painted boy.
"How did you get to this planet?"
"Same way you did," said the painted boy with a tone of amusement. "That's really the question you want to ask?"
"Well, you're human. My dad and I built the first faster-than-light spaceship in our backyard. No one else has our technology. I'm curious how you got here."
"Wow," said the painted boy, laughing. "You know, we'll need to work together to get out of here. And you need to retain information better."
"Your brain's a sieve. Or maybe that's the wrong word."
"I don't understand."
"Something happened tonight--or whenever this is," said the painted boy. He stood up quickly, cocked his head, then dove headlong into the grass and disappeared. The boy stood up.
"Hey--you! Whoever you are!" There was silence, then suddenly a struggle. Something squealed. A loud crunch. The grasses moved and the painted boy walked back into the clearing holding something scaly and limp in his had. He tossed it onto the fire and sat down again.
"I call them alligator toads. I mean they aren't toads, but close enough. The meat's stringy but they're not bad eating. Really dumb suckers. Easy to catch."
The boy looked at him unblinkingly.
"Well, sit down," said the painted boy. The boy sat down and looked at the little body roasting in the fire. Small appendages were starting to curl up in the heat.
"I'm not eating that thing," said the boy.
"More for me. Do you remember who I am?"
"I don't know," said the boy. The painted boy sighed. "How did you get here?"
"Same way you did. I'm you, dumbass."
"What? How can you be me?"
"I dunno, I just am. I think I'm the part with the working memory. You got short-changed."
"Are you me in the future? Does this planet have a timeloop? Maybe that's what my parents disappeared into."
"This isn't a planet. I'm not in the future, although maybe a timeloop is a sane way of thinking of things. Your parents, our parents, haven't disappeared. Let's just say they're not visible in this reality. If they come back, I'll disappear."
"How did you get here? We have proprietary technology."
The painted boy grunted and stood. He kicked a stone into the fire.
"Listen, I know it's not your fault you're like this, but you gotta try to concentrate for me, will you?"
"Don't push me around," said the boy, lowering his voice.
"Let me make this more concrete for you," said the painted boy. He closed his eyes. A low buzzing sound started up all around them. Darkness pressed in. All the stars blinked out, and in ten seconds there was nothing but black above. The sedges melted away. The tent folded in on itself until it disappeared. Then four round lights lit up behind the painted boy. An engine roared to life. The painted boy smiled and opened his eyes. He leaned down to the boy and offered a hand. The boy took it and the painted boy pulled him to his feet.
"Look," said the painted boy, with a flourish of his hand. A red car materialized behind the two pairs of headlights. The painted boy led the other one around the car, a convertible.
"Wow," said the boy. "A Ford Fairlane. Is this how you got to the planet."
"Sure," said the painted boy without missing a beat. "Why don't you get in?"
The boy opened the passenger-side and slid inside. The painted boy got into the driver's seat and adjusted the rearview mirror.
"How does a convertible work in a vacuum? How do you fly it without all your guts being sucked out of you?"
"Uh, force field." The painted boy put the car in drive and gunned the gas. He sped away from the fire and into the pressing blackness. The lights lit up cones of dark gray. "Listen to me carefully. Look around you. What do you see?"
"Um, nothing. Why is there nothing? Where did all grass go?"
"This is the natural state of things. There is no planet. There is not faster-than-light travel. No spaceships. Definitely no laser guns."
"Where are my parents?"
"I'm not sure exactly. They're not here all the time. They can't be here because they're really elsewhere. I want to join them, but I can't. You need to ask them about that when they come back. You need to remember that."
"You're driving too fast," said the boy, gripping the thick wall of the door.
"Don't worry. You can't ever come to harm here. You're safe. Listen, you have to remember to ask them. It won't be long. I can...feel it. Promise me you'll--"
"Everything all right son?" said the father over the radio.
The boy stood amongst trampled pink sedges in broad daylight. His helmet was firmly in place. He turned and saw his parents, smiling at him through the plastic of their helmets. He looked down at his gloved hands and swayed, dizzy.
"Something's not right," he said.
"Everything's fine," said his father.
"Don't you want to go exploring?" asked his mother.
"This isn't real," said the boy. His mother and father looked at each other quickly.
"Of course it is," said his mother.
"You're not really here. You're in my head, aren't you?"
The boy's parents wore expressions of shock, then both smiled widely. His father walked up to him and held him by the shoulders.
"Son, when did you...when did you come to this conclusion?"
"Just now, though I think I've been thinking about it for awhile. In the back of my mind."
"We should tell the doctors," said his mother.
"Shush!" said the father with slight anger. "Maybe we shouldn't tell him anything."
"Tell me what?"
"This is a milestone honey," said his mother. "I think we should let him know."
"It's too much of a shock."
"This isn't satisfying to him anymore," said his mother, waving her hand at their surroundings.
"He might not remember what we tell him."
Suddenly the boy hit his father in the chest with the palm of his hand.
"What's going on?!"
"Sweetie," said his mother, kneeling in front of him and taking his hand, "you're very sick. Part of your brain is gone."
"Don't tell him that part!"
"There are doctors trying to rebuild it. It's experimental."
"It'll work, son. It's just taking time."
"Your brain is in a device that reads its electrical activity."
"It's all very sophisticated, son. Basically it reads your thoughts, and uh..."
"Reinforces them. And we're in the same type of device. We're all hooked up together, sharing our thoughts. That's how we can be here with you."
"You went away."
"We had to talk to the doctors. We thought you were getting sicker."
"But you weren't. It seems like you're getting better."
"What happened to the car?"
"What?" asked his parents in unison.
The boy turned around and walked further into the grass. His parents warily followed. They came to a clearing with the red Fairlane.
"That's not in the simulation..." said the father under his breath.
"We can do anything, right?"
"That's not how...I mean, we should tell...honey?" The boy's mother looked at his father with worried eyes.
"Can one of you teach me how to drive? When I'm better, and awake, I'd like to know how to do it."
"Sweetie," said his mother, "you already know." She folded her arms awkwardly across her chest.
"You're right. I think I do know," the boy caressed the chrome on the driver's side mirror with a gloved hand. "I crashed. That's how I got into this mess."
"Yes. But you don't have to remember that," said his mother.
"But not a classy car like this. I'm impressed with your taste. The detail is remarkable."
"I made a model of it, when I was younger."
"Yes you did," said his mother.
"When will I wake up?"
"When you're ready. We'll be there, right by your bed sweetie."
"Our pleasure, son. Now are you going to take us for a ride or what?" They all laughed and climbed into the car. The boy revved the engine and drove off, leaving a wake of pressed-down pink grass.