by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Lorelei Signal, January 2023
Franzi swung her long, giraffe-like neck from side to side, surveying the tightly filled shelves of the grocery aisles on this asteroid shop-mart. There were too many brands of jangleberries to pick from — she didn’t know which kind she’d like best, and somehow, the existence of so many brands made her feel like she shouldn’t have to settle for anything less than her absolute favorite type of jangleberry.
It had been a long day for Franzi. It had been a long cycle. Her latest trip between the art district in Sinuria’s ice rings and the market district under the uppermost layer of Jortan’s gas clouds had drained her more than she’d let on to the rest of her crew.
And right now, all she wanted was a taste of jangleberries — sweet and sour on the tip of her tongue. She felt like it would be enough to rejuvenate her. Enough to give her energy to lead her crew onward, get the art they’d picked up sold at a profit, and maybe get out of this racket forever. She didn’t want to be a mercenary — a middleman. She wanted to be an artist herself, but the artist residency program in Sinuria’s ice rings would always be too expensive for her. She’d have to settle for being an artist somewhere less picturesque than surrounded by glittering balls of ice, circling above a beautiful sea-green ocean world.
That was okay. She didn’t mind settling. But not this much — not all the way down to being a middleman instead of an artist herself.
Franzi reached out with a hoof-hand toward the closest jar of jangleberries, and as the rough tips of her keratinous fingers brushed the glass holding the ripe, red berries, she felt a fracture in her world.
A single sub-atomic particle rattled, shifting its orbit, and for a moment, Franzi felt her consciousness split across time, or maybe universes… She wasn’t sure.
She stood perfectly still; yet her whole body shook, from the bottom of her long legs up to the tips of her conical ears. She felt a tingling in the ossicones atop her head, and she saw too many images with her eyes, all of them superimposed upon each other. She shouldn’t have been able to tell them apart, but somehow, she could.
In one universe, she took the jar of jangleberries, opened it immediately without buying it, and dipped her prehensile tongue into the morass of juicy balls of fruit, only to find them too sour. She spat them out and dashed the glass jar angrily upon the floor.
In another universe — or maybe just an imagined universe — she held the closed jar close to her face, peered at the tiny print, and carefully considered the listed ingredients before concluding this brand used too much Zevusian vinegar and putting the jar back.
Those were just the closest universes.
Farther and farther out, her mind stretched, like an accordion played by an overly enthusiastic child, or like the images in two mirrors pointed directly at each other. The farther her mind slipped through the universes, the stranger everything got:
Dozens of short arms sprouted from either side of her neck, each one reaching for a different jangleberry jar. As her mind slipped into that universe, suddenly, all the extra arms didn’t feel strange — didn’t feel extra — they were simply how she’d always been.
In another moment, her consciousness slipped into a reality where her whole body was covered in thick, plated armoring. She’d shifted from being a giraffe crossed with a centipede into being a giraffe crossed with an armadillo, and she only knew what those creatures were because — in yet another reality — she became a smooth-skinned primate with a funny, flat yet knobby face, and hair growing only from the top of her head.
Wait, she wondered, am I truly a human dreaming of being a bizarre alien giraffe, shopping for groceries in an asteroid belt? Or am I the giraffe, dreaming of being a human?
Or were they both the dream?
A giraffe, dreaming of a human, dreaming of a giraffe, dreaming of a human, and on and on, forever, until the universe was filled with giraffes and humans, uncertain of how they related to each other.
A sharp cry came from the front of the store — a voice Franzi recognized as one of her crewmembers, probably fighting with a grocery clerk, insisting on being given a line of credit when both knew full well their ship wouldn’t be back by this asteroid again for months. If ever.
The moment of self-reflecting eternities ended, and Franzi found herself still standing — fingertips resting on the glass jangleberry jar — filled with a sense of possibility.
And yet, even with seeing all those realities and all the possible and bizarre ways her life could be…
She still didn’t know which brand of jangleberries to buy.