The Beyond Within
By JR Creaden
“The Elders expect us by nightfall for lessons,” Rixx says. “Where’s your gear? I’ll fetch it.”
I push myself out from the roamer’s wide undercarriage across the hard ground, blinking at my twin. Her sturdy figure glows in the ocher morning light of Clarannas’ sun, with our small habitation dome looming behind her like a broken moon. Khompan Elders can expect whatever they want; I’m not their pet to groom. Rixx, though, I’m not eager to dismiss. I avoid looking at her as I stow my tools along my belt.
A thick black line mars the tawny horizon. Another dust storm, the third in so many days. This one would swallow the whole plain before noon. I want Rixx safely away without argument so I can cover the garden.
I grunt, pointing toward the distance, then start the roamer’s engine. “The clouds will follow the storm again,” I say, 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 pins me to the dirt. “We’re alone, brother. You may look more Ajh than me,” she flicks a finger at the horn on my chin, “but we’re the same.”
She means from the same Khompan experiment. Raised in the same sterile tank. The first and only hybrids with the native Ajh, born to watch our planet die.
I stare past her at the golden sky. Five stars burn to the north—what Khompan Elders call The Martyr, and Ajh, The Friend. I call them the Reminder.
“There is more,” the Reminder calls. “More to you.”
“Come with me.” Rixx’s voice softens with unspoken pain. “Let’s find out what else we are. Together.”
I want nothing more than to blast off this wretched, dry planet toward those stars. Beyond them. Where life less haggard, less divided, beckons.
“Are you coming?” she asks.
Her slender fingers reach forward, pleading, to grip my shoulder, but, in that moment, I feel a pull–not from the stars but from within–and I follow it, slipping inside into another world beyond, and her hand transforms to stone, carved of a time removed. Here, between, all possible paths of present time collide—frozen in place.
A sharp breath sticks in my throat, and I clutch my middle, preparing for my stomach to turn, but the telltale cramp of leaving the world never comes. I have slipped many times into the beyond, but never with so little discomfort.
Rixx has faded, colorless. Her features shine like foggy glass, connecting her to all that is her present—the dome, the roamer, the tunnel beyond. All is glass, except for me.
I pinch her nose. It’s like squeezing rock. “Stay here, sister.” I step away, searching the glass for another texture, for a time that isn’t mine.
There. A slender white vein crawls across the ground toward the tunnel several paces past the dome. I touch a finger to the white line.
A familiar pearly white world takes 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 lay my hand on him, he springs to life. Tall and broad-shouldered like me, his thick skin brown, and his chin horn black. We are identical, down to our boots and our belts.
His dark eyes catch on mine. “Thank the stars you found me,” Not-Me says. “I swear, I may not survive the day.”
“Were you hoping to slip?”
Not-Me grunts, squinting at the eastern sky. “If you could see it, you’d understand.” He faces 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 nod. The sun of Clarannas is in its death throes; nearly every possibility leads to this.
“My Rixx…didn’t make it through the last wave.” When I shudder, he claps a hand on my shoulder. “Enough of that. You don’t need my troubles yet. What’s new with you?”
He is not the me I hoped to find. “You’re never surprised when I call you here.”
He chuckles. “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 draws back. “You must be the bravest me.”
“Help me find another?” I ask. “And tell me about your time.”
Not-Me searches with me. As we wander over the plain, he speaks in short whispers. “My Rixx was hard like bone,” he says. “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 cringes. “I should’ve taken her to the Elders then.” He strokes his horn. “Did you? Take your Rixx?”
“Of course,” I answer. “It cost me a season’s grain to keep her there.”
“The better Badan you are then.” Not-Me kicks at the hard ground. “She lost something after.”
“Is that why yours didn’t make it?” I couldn’t bear losing Rixx.
His horn hangs low. “She was out in the open with friends when the last solar wave hit.”
Not-Me points to a hint of black in the distance, near what is a small Khompan shrine in my own time. Here, in the white beyond, there is nothing but bare ground and a blot of black where the shrine belongs.
When I touch the web of black, our surroundings shift again, pearl to shining rock. This time’s possibilities take shape. The shrine here is larger, made for two, with another me sitting calmly in the center.
His build is slighter than mine or Not-Me’s, and I place my hand on his black stone head. Color spreads over his Khompan robes like slow-moving water, but he does not rise; he merely opens lazy eyes.
“I’m a third?” Not-Us says, his voice smooth. “How interesting.”
Not-Me crosses his arms. “He’s not surprised either.”
“You’ll find no surprise from me. Not about the slips, anyway.” Not-Us lifts his horn, and his voice sharpens like a sword. “You’re both unstudied?”
Not-Me glares at Not-Us. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“With the Elders,” Not-Us adds. “You haven’t. I can tell.” His eyelids droop. “Steer clear of the Khompan. Do not go to them. I must return. Be well, myselves.”
Not-Me and I lock eyes and grunt.
“Wait, you.” I pull him to his feet. “Explain first.”
“I know things I shouldn’t,” Not-Us whispers and sinks back to the floor. “That you shouldn’t.” Before I can probe further, Not-Us melts to black.
“He’s a cryptic one,” Not-Me says.
“And you’re a master of the obvious.”
In the corner of the shrine, a spot of foggy glass glitters.
I touch it, activating my own time stream before setting off toward my dome and my Rixx. She wants 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, is dead. Death by starfire.
Not-Me and I walk in silence back to my Rixx, her hand still reaching for a me that isn’t there.
When we near her, he asks, “Will you save her?”
“And myself, I hope. I’ll try to leave.” I point my chin at the Reminder, and he nods in understanding. “What about you?”
Not-Me stares across the plain to the eastern sky. “I’ll wander awhile then try not to die.” He grabs my arm. “Only Khompan ships survive the sun flares.”
“Thanks.” That could be useful information.
Not-Me pinches my Rixx’s nose and kisses her cheek, then he touches another vein and vanishes.
I take my position before Rixx and reaffirm my decision to neither join her cause nor steal her from it, to remain myself. A self that stands a chance to save us both from the sun.
I settle my thoughts and will myself to return, blending into our shared present. I gulp a dusty breath.
Rixx’s warm hand finally closes around my shoulder. “I don’t want to leave you.”
I cover her hand with mine. “I know, but you will.” Squeezing her hand, I lead her to the roamer’s platform. “Go learn for both of us.”
“But what about you?” Tears swim in her blue eyes but do not spill. She climbs aboard and slips a sand-scratched helmet over her head.
I smile until she smiles back, her dimples my badges of honor. “I’ll learn for both of us, too,” I say. As her roamer speeds away over the brown plain a minute later, my heart skips a beat. “I’ll learn from myself.”
JR Creaden can be contacted through her blog
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—- Personal Notes —-
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