“Where am I?” Ponter knew his voice sounded panicky, but, try as he might, he couldn’t control it. He was still seated in the odd chair that rolled on hoops, which was a good thing, because he doubted he’d be very steady on his feet.
“Calm down, Ponter,” said his Companion implant. “Your pulse is up to—”
“Calm down!” snapped Ponter, as if Hak had suggested a ridiculous impossibility. “Where am I?”
“I’m not sure,” said the Companion. “I’m picking up no signals from the positioning towers. In addition, I’m cut off entirely from the planetary information network, and am receiving no acknowledgment from the alibi archives.”
“You’re not malfunctioning?”
“Then—then this can’t be Earth, can it? You’d be getting signals if—”
“I’m sure it is Earth,” said Hak. “Did you notice the sun while they brought you over to that white vehicle?”
“What about it?”
“Its color temperature was 5,200 degrees, and it subtended one-seven-hundredth of the celestial sphere—just like Sol as seen from Earth’s orbit. Also, I recognized most of the trees and plants I saw. No, this is clearly the surface of the Earth.”
“But the stench! The air is foul!”
“I’ll have to take your word for that,” said Hak. “Could we have—could we have traveled in time?”
“That seems unlikely,” replied the Companion. “But if I can see the constellations tonight, I will be able to tell if we’ve moved forward or backward an appreciable amount. And if I can spot some of the other planets and the phase of the moon, I should be able to figure the exact date.”
“But how do we get back home? How do we—”
“Again, Ponter, I must exhort you to calm down. You are close to hyperventilating. Take a deep breath. There. Now let it out slowly. That’s right. Relax. Another breath—”
“What are those creatures?” Ponter asked, waving a hand at the scrawny figure with dark brown skin and no hair and the other scrawny figure with lighter skin and a wrapping of fabric around his head.
“My best guess?” said Hak. “They are Gliksins.”
“Gliksins!” exclaimed Ponter, loud enough that the two strange figures turned to look at him. He lowered his voice. “Gliksins? Oh, come on …”
“Look at those skull images over there.” Hak was speaking to Ponter through a pair of cochlear implants, but by changing the left-right balance of his voice he could indicate a direction as surely as if he had pointed. Ponter got up—shakily—and crossed the room, heading away from the strange beings and approaching an illuminated panel like the one they were looking at, with several deepviews of skulls clipped to it.
“Green meat!” said Ponter, looking at the strange skulls. “They are Gliksins—aren’t they?”
“I would say so. No other primate has that lack of browridge, or that projection from the front of the lower jaw.”
“Gliksins! But they’ve been extinct for—well, for how long?”
“Perhaps 400,000 months,” said Hak.
“But this can’t possibly be Earth of that long ago,” said Ponter. “I mean, there’s no way the civilization we’ve seen would have failed to leave traces in the archeological record. At best, Gliksins chipped stone into crude choppers, right?”
Ponter tried to keep from sounding hysterical. “So, again, where are we?”