“The Beyond Within”
“The Elders expect us at the Temple by nightfall,” Rixx said. “Where’s your gear? I’ll fetch it.”
I pushed myself out from the roamer’s wide undercarriage across the hard ground, blinking at my twin. Her sturdy figure glowed in the ocher morning light of Clarannas’ sun, with our small habitation dome looming behind her like a broken moon. Khompan Elders could expect whatever they wanted; I was not their pet to groom. Rixx, though, I wasn’t eager to dismiss. I avoided looking at her as I stowed my tools along my belt.
A thick black line marred the tawny horizon. Another dust storm, the third in so many days. This one would swallow the whole plain before noon. I wanted her safely away without argument so I could cover the garden.
I grunted, pointing toward the distance, then started the roamer’s engine. “The clouds will follow the storm again,” I said, judging the storm’s shadow and the stubby grass patch that surrounded our dome. “Maybe this time with rain. I’ll stay and guard the grain.”
“I—Badan, please.” Her liquid gaze pinned me to the dirt. “We’re alone, brother. You may look more Ajh than me,” she flicked a finger at the horn on my chin, “but we’re the same.”
She meant from the same Khompan experiment. Raised in the same sterile tank. The first and only hybrids with the native Ajh, born to watch the planet die.
I stared past her at the golden sky. Five stars burned to the north—what Khompan Elders called The Martyr, and Ajh, The Friend. I called them the Reminder. ‘There is more,’ the Reminder promised. ‘More to you. More to Everything.‘
“Come with me.” Rixx’s voice softened with unspoken pain. “Let’s find out what else we are. Together.”
I wanted nothing more than to blast off this wretched, dry planet toward those stars. Beyond them. Where life less haggard, less divided, beckoned.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
Her slender fingers reached forward, pleading, to grip my shoulder, but, in that moment, I felt a pull–not from the stars but from within–and I followed it, slipping inside into another world beyond, and her hand transformed to stone, carved of a time removed. Here, between, all possible paths of present time collided—frozen in place.
A sharp breath stuck in my throat, and I clutched my middle, preparing for my stomach to turn, but the telltale cramp of leaving the world never came. I had slipped many times into the beyond, but never with so little discomfort.
Rixx had faded, colorless. Her features shined like foggy glass, connecting her to all that was her present—the dome on the plains, the roamer, the tunnel beyond. All was glass, except for me.
I pinched her nose. It was like squeezing rock. “Stay here, sister,” I said and stepped away, searching the glass for another texture, for a time that wasn’t mine.
There. A slender white vein crawled across the ground toward the tunnel several paces past the dome. I touched a finger to the white line.
A familiar pearly white world took shape—the dome on the plains, the tunnel gate—and another me, from this separate time, a pace ahead, frozen mid-run toward the tunnel.
When I laid my hand on him, he sprang to life. Tall and broad-shouldered like me, his thick skin brown, and his chin horn black. We were identical, down to our boots and our belts.
His dark eyes caught on mine. “Thank the stars you found me,” Not-Me said, straightening and catching his breath. “I swear, I may not survive the day.”
“Were you hoping to slip?”
Not-Me grunted, squinting at the eastern sky. “If you could see it, you’d understand.” He faced west. “This sun is done. It could happen any day for you too. It happened in waves. Ajh that remain have been underground for months.”
I nodded. The sun of Clarannas was in its death throes; nearly every possibility led to this.
“My Rixx…didn’t make it through the last wave.” When I shuddered, he clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Enough of that. You don’t need my troubles yet. What’s new with you?”
He was not the me I’d hoped to find. “You’re never surprised when I call you here,” I said.
He chuckled. “And we always wonder about that. What’s new?”
“The usual. Rixx wants to drag me to the Elders.” I cast my attention back to the pearly white stone. “For now, I want to find a surprised me.”
“A third?” Not-Me drew back. “You must be the bravest me.”
“Help me find another?” I asked. “And tell me about your time.”
Not-Me searched with me. As we wandered over the plain, he spoke in short whispers. “My Rixx was hard like bone,” he began. “True Ajh, despite her lack of horns.”
“Always?” My Rixx is soft like feathers in the wind, all heart and dimples and kindness.
“Since her first blood.” Not-Me cringed. “I should’ve taken her to the Elders then.” He stroked his horn. “Did you? Take your Rixx?”
“Of course,” I answered. “It cost me a season’s grain to keep her there.”
“The better Badan you are then.” Not-Me kicked at the hard ground. “She lost something after.”
“Is that why yours didn’t make it?” I couldn’t bear losing Rixx.
His horn hung low. “She was out in the open with friends when the last solar wave hit.”
Not-Me pointed to a hint of black in the distance, near what was a small Khompan shrine in my own time. Here, in the white beyond, there was nothing but bare ground and a blot of black where the shrine belonged.
When I touched the web of black, our surroundings shifted again, pearl to shining rock. This time’s possibilities took shape. The shrine here was larger, made for two, with another me sitting calmly in the center.
I approached. His build was slighter than mine or Not-Me’s, and I laid my hand on his black stone head. Color spread over his Khompan robes like slow-moving water, but he did not rise; he merely opened lazy eyes.
“I’m a third?” Not-Us said, his voice smooth. “How interesting.”
Not-Me crossed his arms. “He’s not surprised either.”
“You’ll find no surprise from me. Not about the slips, anyway.” Not-Us lifted his horn, and his voice sharpened like a sword. “You’re both unstudied?”
Not-Me glared at Not-Us. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“With the Elders,” Not-Us added. “You haven’t. I can tell.” He eyelids drooped. “Steer clear of the Khompan. Do not go to them. I must return. Be well, myselves.”
Not-Me and I locked eyes and grunted.
“Wait, you.” I pulled him to his feet. “Explain first.”
“I know things I shouldn’t,” Not-Us whispered, and sank back to the floor. “That you shouldn’t.” Before I could probe further, Not-Us melted to black.
“He’s a cryptic one,” Not-Me said.
“And you’re a master of the obvious.”
In the corner of the shrine, a spot of foggy glass glittered.
I touched it, activating my own time stream to take form before setting off toward my dome and my Rixx. She wanted me to study our Khompan heritage, as Not-Us must have been doing for years. The alternative, Not-Me’s Rixx, estranged from the focus of her passion, was dead. Death by starfire.
Not-Me and I walked in silence back to my Rixx, her hand still reaching for a me that wasn’t there.
When we came near her, he asked, “Will you save her?”
“And myself, I hope. I’ll try to leave.” I pointed my chin at the Reminder, and he nodded in understanding. “What about you?”
Not-Me cast his gaze across the plain to the eastern sky. “I’ll wander awhile then try not to die.” He grabbed my arm. “Only Khompan ships survive the sun flares.”
“Thanks.” That could be useful information.
Not-Me pinched my Rixx’s nose and kissed her cheek, then he touched another vein and vanished.
I took my position before Rixx and reaffirmed my decision to neither join her cause nor steal her from it, to remain myself. A self that stood a chance to save us both from the sun.
I settled my thoughts and willed myself to return, blending into the present. I gulped a dusty breath.
Rixx’s warm hand finally closed around my shoulder. “I don’t want to leave you.”
I covered her hand with mine. “I know, but you will.” Squeezing her hand, I led her to the roamer’s platform. “Go learn for both of us.”
“But what about you?” Tears swam in her blue eyes but did not spill. She climbed aboard and slipped a sand-scratched helmet over her head.
I smiled until she smiled back, her dimples my badges of honor. “I’ll learn for both of us, too,” I said. As her roamer sped over the brown plain a minute later, my heart skipped a beat. “I’ll learn from myself.”