Garima Jain didn’t know how she got aboard the spaceship or why its crew appeared to be unconscious and injured. They were in their chairs or on the ground with scorch marks on their backs or chests. There was an object on the ground that reminded Garima of a pistol. She was wearing a helmet with a tinted glasslike face-covering. She was in some kind of spacesuit but didn’t remember putting it on. The fallen crew had similar gray and white protective outfits which exaggerated their proportions, making them look overly tall. The overhead lights were low and flickering. The smooth obsidian-colored walls had embedded vertical columns of digital readouts using symbols and other markings she was unfamiliar with.
Garima felt nervous, flush with adrenaline. She needed to ascertain what she was doing here and if there was danger; there could be any number of threats to her on this vessel. Not being able to understand the controls or screens made it even more frustrating. She felt like she should be doing something, anything. She just wasn’t sure what. At the front of the cabin was a wide screen with rounded glass-like edges. She believed it was displaying the view ahead of the ship. She recognized the planet in the distance as Earth.
An abrupt pressure in her forehead made her squint her eyes. She leaned forward with the growing sense of discomfort and dizziness. There was a moment of weightless disorientation. And when she could see again, she was back at the North Carolina State University lab with her two colleagues. One of them was removing her test helmet. Then both of them peered at her with a mixture of curiosity and concern. The team leader, Jared Mackenzie, a thin bald man with a brown goatee and blue eyes, spoke first.
“Garima, can you hear me? Are you alright?”
Garima drooped forward in her chair and rubbed her temples. The light felt too bright and everything still seemed a second or two out of sync with her body.
“Yes, I can hear you,” Garima replied, sounding irritated and tired. “I’ll be alright, I just need a minute.”
She looked around to get her bearings and was glad when Patrice Calhoun helped her stand up. Patrice was a few years younger than Garima, who was twenty-five. Patrice was tall, dark-skinned and athletic, a fellow graduate student at the university.
“What did you see, Garima?” Patrice asked, still helping to steady her.
“I was on a ship -- some kind of alien craft. I seemed to be the only functional member of the crew,” Garima responded. “And the ship was approaching Earth.”
Jared sat down in a rolling chair and scooted forward to face Garima. He stroked his goatee and looked at her with intense eyes filled with possibilities and unspoken questions.
“Do you think you could write a detailed journal of the events?” Jared inquired, grabbing a pen and notepad from a nearby table. He didn’t hand it to Garima but he looked ready to.
Garima wiped some sweat from her brow, feeling more stable. She looked at her smartphone by her purse; its digital clock read 6:45 PM. Hearing the hum of the air conditioner, looking at the white walls of the small lab with various safety and procedural posters, the unopened boxes of server and other computer components, it all helped her recall the purpose that had led her to this point. She remembered that she had agreed to meet with Jared and Patrice here after her last class. Jared had explained to her that the helmet was supposed to create a virtual environment.
“Jared, I think you may have created something different than you intended,” Garima said.
“What do you mean?” he replied, ready for the critique. He laid the pen and notepad in his lap.
“I’m no scientist, but I am your friend and I believe your work is amazing. I liked the idea of using someone’s own biology to fashion a VR setting,” she continued. “I volunteered to test this because that sounded cool and intriguing.”
Jared thanked her with a humble nod.
“Could your device possibly tap into not only the test subject, but someone else’s mind as well?” Garima asked.
“I -- I don’t see how,” Jared replied, again stroking his goatee with aplomb. “The artificial intelligence I designed should be capable of generating a shifting algorithm, only based on what it detects from the subject’s brain synapses.”
Patrice shifted back and forth uncomfortably, leaning against one of the tables with her arms folded.
“Theoretically speaking, what would be the connection with some other mind?” Jared continued.
“What if this helmet is making a bridge between the two? Could the test subject see what the other person is seeing?” Garima added.
“Even if what you’re suggesting is possible,” Patrice interjected as she approached closer to the two of them. “How would we prove that’s what’s happening?”
Garima reached over and grabbed the helmet. “To do that, I need to go back in.”
Jared stepped forward and raised his hands in a warning gesture.
“Whoa, Garima! Are you serious? That thing threw you for a loop a few minutes ago,” he said emphatically. “Your heart rate and blood pressure were rising too quickly, that’s why we disconnected you. I’ll work on making some fixes before we try again in a day or two.”
“I think that’s the way to go, Jared. Garima --” Patrice began.
“Please -- hold on a moment. I think there’s some misunderstanding, so let me explain something,” Garima interrupted. “When I was there before, it was stressful. I thought I’d end up by myself with a virtual view of the mountains or Hawaii or something. Instead, I wound up on some spacecraft with an incapacitated crew. I couldn’t read the language on the walls. I had no idea what was going on. But we know what to expect now. We can handle it.”
Jared and Patrice exchanged glances with each other. Patrice looked somewhat skeptical while Jared was thoughtful, apparently considering Garima’s view as well as Patrice’s. The two of them seemed to have a wordless conversation over several seconds.
“I’d like to hear more about this,” Jared decided. Patrice didn’t look pleased but she conceded the point, relaxing her shoulders.
“If you’re right about that other person, wouldn’t they be aware that something happened?” Patrice countered. “How would that affect things?”
“We won’t know until we try again,” Garima answered.
Her friends looked like they sympathized but weren’t entirely convinced. She stood up and pleaded with her eyes.
“If you’re right, Jared, I’m just seeing a virtual environment and no harm done,” Garima continued. “But if we can confirm that this is real, that I’m seeing through someone else’s eyes -- well, we can determine what to do from there. I just need five minutes in that environment...please.”
Jared gently put his hand on Garima’s shoulder and viewed her with some lingering worry.
“Okay, but not five minutes. Three. Then we pull you out. Got it?”
Garima smiled. “Sure. I understand.”
Garima sat back down in the chair, donned the experimental helmet and closed her eyes. She could hear Patrice turning the device back on while Jared tapped keys on his laptop at a nearby table, humming some tune to himself. Garima felt a rushing sensation and then found herself in the control center of the spaceship. Earth looked closer. The rest of the crew was still unmoving.
“If this is a virtual environment, then taking off my helmet won’t do me any harm,” she thought. “But I need to see if I look like me -- or someone else. If this is real and there’s no air, I guess I’ll see how long I can hold my breath!”
She felt a tingling sensation as she released two small latches on either side of the helmet and lifted it off her head. There was air, even if it was cold and stale. She turned the helmet around, using its reflective surface to try and look at her face.
What she saw was nothing like what she expected: Her face was vertically elongated. Her brown eyes were now hazel and larger than normal. Her light brown skin had more of an orange tint to it. Her hair remained black.
She felt her heart pulsating faster and faster in her chest, a result of her fear and shock. It took quite a few seconds before she could coherently think again. Not wanting to hyperventilate, she began to take slower, deeper breaths.
“It’s -- like this is a different existence! I’m an alternate version of myself,” Garima thought. “Is the helmet the connection? Did Jared’s experimental device somehow tap into the technology in this spacesuit here -- wherever here is?”
She looked down at the helmet in her hands and felt a pang of dread.
“And what happened when I took off the helmet??” she thought.
“Jared, shut it off! She’s convulsing!” Patrice shouted.
“I did when the alarm sounded,” he replied in frustration. “Take the helmet off!”
Patrice removed the experimental device from Garima’s head. Her eyes were still closed and she was shaking uncontrollably. Jared took out his phone and called 9-1-1 in a panic. Patrice felt Garima’s forehead.
“She’s feverish and having trouble breathing!” Patrice added.
Garima opened her eyes and looked around. She was sweating profusely but her tremors were diminishing.
“You -- are base humans?” Garima said, her voice strained and barely above a whisper. “Where’s...the portscape?”
“Garima, you’re in the lab. We’re getting you some help,” Patrice soothed. “Hang in there, okay?”
“How do you know...my name? You can...treat Humanii?”
Her eyes began to widen, as if responding to some physical symptom.
“Hyoo-mah-nee?” Patrice repeated. “Jared, I think she’s delirious!”
“The 9-1-1 operator said the ambulance is four minutes away,” he replied.
Suddenly, Garima hissed and a massive seizure enveloped her whole body. Her hands locked and her back arched. Patrice’s face was frozen in horror for an instant. Then she snapped out of it and tried to hold Garima in place but was barely able to. Seconds later, Garima went limp in the chair, her head leaning to one side. Patrice heard herself repeating the word “no” over and over. Garima’s eyes were still open but unresponsive and she was no longer breathing. Jared rushed over and lowered Garima to the floor. Desperately, he administered CPR until the two paramedics arrived. They continued attempting resuscitation, then used a defibrillator to stimulate her heart but it was too late.
They confirmed that she was dead.
Garima put her helmet back on but aside from pumping in fresh oxygen, nothing else was happening. She tried to will herself to return to her body in the lab but there was no change. She fought against a growing fear gripping at her heart.
“Something is very wrong! I should be able to get back. Jared and Patrice would have tried to pull me out,” she said to herself. “Unless...they couldn’t?”
She looked down at her gloved and unusually long fingers.
“Am I trapped in this body?”
A long high-pitched shrill sounded at one of the consoles towards the front of the cabin. She looked up at the viewscreen and saw that Earth was dangerously close. It filled most of the screen and the ship did not appear to be slowing.
“Is this thing on autopilot? Doesn’t it have any emergency procedures?” she said aloud.
“Corpswake Garima Jintayos identified,” a computerized voice responded. “Do you wish to invoke emergency landing protocols?”
It took a moment for Garima to comprehend that the ship was “talking” to her in English.
“Yes! Invoke emergency landing protocols.”
“Please select destination: Northmost Carolok or Parisay.”
She thought the first location sounded like a strange alteration of North Carolina, her home state. The other sounded like Paris, France. Considering she had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving either way, the decision was relatively easy.
“Northmost Carolok,” she answered.
“Destination confirmed. Be seated and prepare for emergency landing. Energy lattice will activate ten seconds after protective straps are locked.”
Garima felt like she was in a dream but she forced herself to step forward. She moved the incapacitated occupant of the nearest seat onto the floor. Before she sat down, she wanted to know something.
“Are any of the crew alive besides myself?”
There was a brief pause before the artificial intelligence responded.
“Corpswake Jintayos is the only lifesign on the portscape Mizhfar.”
Even though Garima didn’t know any of these people or how they died, she felt bad for them. To her, all life was precious. Realizing that the descent and landing could get perilous, Garima dragged the bodies of the crew to another compartment and sealed the door. Then she took a seat and watched as the chair secured her in place with belt straps across her lap and chest. Then the energy lattice surrounded her with a sparkling red tint.
She could see through the viewscreen that the ship had a similar lattice. As the vessel descended, flames from friction surrounded it, filling the view. Garima’s helmet mask darkened automatically to protect her from being blinded by the intensifying illumination.
When she was a teenager, Garima's parents had taken her and her sister, Zoya, to India. It was to show them where their grandparents had lived before coming to America. She remember being scared of landing during a thunderstorm, though it all turned out okay. But that plane had experienced pilots.
Today, there were no pilots. Only a machine. And she knew the only way she would survive this was to pray immediately.
“Lord, please -- I know I’m impulsive. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this,” she said. “But I need Your help right now! If it’s Your will, let me survive this! In Jesus’ name --” The portscape jolted suddenly, banging loudly at atmospheric turbulence, shoving her to the right and back.
Garima had grown up with Christian parents but she had made her personal decision to give her life to Jesus Christ just a few months ago. She was still learning Biblical principles and what her faith entailed.
She was literally feeling the impact of her current rash choice: satisfying her curiosity.
The portscape leveled its descent and gradually slowed. The lighting through the viewscreen returned to normal and her helmet’s protective layer became translucent again. The vessel was cutting a gentle path through the clouds. Under different circumstances, it would have been breathtakingly beautiful instead of terrifying. Even at this speed, the surface seemed to zoom up at her. From this height, she still knew these incredible giants of soil and stone before her, the Great Smoky Mountains. The familiarity brought a small sense of comfort but she was still apprehensive, knowing all she could do was sit there and hope for the best. She grabbed the armrests in a viselike grip. Garima heard some kind of thrusters fire, causing the craft to rumble as it protested gravity itself.
Seconds later, the initial hit nearly tore consciousness from her, even with the active lattice on all sides. The final collision sounded like a barrage of ancient cannon fire. It halted the portscape and abruptly threw her body forward, pushing her seat restraints to their limits. With so much pressure against her, she couldn’t breathe. She wondered if her ribs were breaking, it hurt so much. Then the control center ripped away from the rest of the craft, exposing the back to open air and flipping the section forward. The lattices immediately shorted out as the portscape lost all power. The rest of the frame, including the other Corpswake bodies, tumbled away from the control center, triggering several small explosions as it fell out of view.
Garima’s elbow unintentionally hit the release button on the chair’s armrest and she was ejected from the rear of the control center. She felt completely helpless, like a speck of dust in a hurricane. She hurled through the air and landed on her side, rolling a few times before her head slammed into the stony ground, cracking the front of the helmet. With the last of her strength, she pulled her helmet off and passed out.
“She is stirring at last,” a mid-tenor voice said.
Garima opened her eyes. Her vision cleared and she noticed the dark expanse with more stars than she had ever seen with her naked eyes. She noticed she was laying on blankets in the open, surrounded by tall blades of green grass.
“Beautiful,” Garima heard herself say. She sounded weak.
“What do those stars mean to you?” the other woman interjected. “I heard you’ve always liked them.”
That voice belonged to a type of being Garima didn’t know, sitting next to her. Even illuminated only by the natural light, Garima noticed that the woman was tall and had orange-hued skin. She also had long, maroon-colored hair tied back. Her eyes, easily twice normal size, had deep green pupils. Garima couldn’t determine her age. Strangely enough, she also had a large, jagged “H” scarring her left cheek. It did not look like a recent injury -- or was it a tattoo?
“What -- where-?” Garima asked.
“Welcome back, Garima,” the other woman replied. “Your mission was a success but you barely survived it. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for two days.”
The orange-colored woman walked into a gray tent about ten feet away. It was roughly the size of a single-story shed. Garima could see the silhouettes of mountains behind it and other shapes nearby. She couldn’t tell if they were other tents or boxes. She wondered if there were any other people here. Before she could determine that, the orange-colored woman returned with a small gray bottle in her hand.
Then an older human woman with dusty brown hair and dark clothing walked up from nearby. She smiled when she made eye contact with Garima and started to speak, but the orange-colored woman tapped her shoulder and shook her head.
“Not now, for anyone, until I say so,” the orange woman quietly commanded. “Tell the others.”
The human looked slightly bewildered but accepted it. “Alright.”
She turned and went to enter the tent instead.
The orange woman sat down next to Garima and helped her lift her head. She was glad to receive fresh water. Garima looked away uneasily as she laid back down.
“Not up to talking?” she heard the orange woman say.
Garima wasn’t sure what she should do, so she stayed quiet.
A brunette-haired man who was part-human like Garima, approached the orange woman. He was also wearing dark clothing.
“Gynivrea, my team finished salvage on the Mizhfar,” the man reported. “We made it out with no problems. Actually, the military recovery operation should have arrived by now. But we saw no sign of them.”
“That is unusual. What could be more important than their new portscape?” she replied. “Still, this was noteworthy of your duties, Maltikk. Tell the others we’ll return to the Caverns at first light.”
“I will,” Maltikk confirmed. He turned and walked in the direction he had come from, disappearing into the nearby woods.
During the conversation, Garima had observed the two, especially Gynivrea. She noticed additional scars on the woman’s legs and arms. She also could see how physically strong she was. Gynivrea radiated confidence and fighting experience. The stress lines on her forehead and below her eyes also revealed that she carried terrible burdens and had seen much loss.
“Rest some more. We leave in the morning,” Gynivrea said, crouching beside Garima. “I need to contact your mother and let her know you’re alive.”
Gynivrea walked away towards some other part of the camp.
“Mother?” Garima thought.
Garima imagined her parents and family worrying about what had happened to her back home. Was her original body unconscious, hospitalized? Was the other Garima awake in her body? That was too troubling to consider, so she blocked it out of her mind.
She tried to shift positions but she was stiff and sore all over. Some angles intensified her pain. Many of her efforts seemed futile but she kept trying with whatever energy she had.
During this time, she prayed for a way home, all the while fighting the growing sense of panic from being stranded here.
Sleep did not come easily but exhaustion and weakness eventually claimed her.
Several hours later, Garima awoke. She wondered how her “new” body was so resilient. She was still sore all over but her strength had returned and she felt more focused. She was also very hungry.
It would be a few more hours before the sun rose and a chill was still in the air. She saw other people in dark shirts and pants like Maltikk’s. Some were human and the rest were like her. They were loading supplies into what appeared to be antique trucks, ones she had seen in photos from the 1950s and 1960s. She also noticed that she was able to see such details clearly in the dark.
She stood up, walked a few paces and tried to get her bearings. Her center of gravity was more than a foot higher than she was used to, so even standing still was strange, awkward. She looked at her hands with the long palms and fingers once more. She slowly wrung those hands together. She put them behind her neck and felt how it was a few inches longer than the one she’d known all her life. She placed her fingers on both cheeks and traced downward until they met her chin. Everything made her want to run away from herself but that wasn’t possible.
“Everything working properly?” Gynivrea said from behind her.
She turned around to face Gynivrea, this alien stranger who knew her. Garima always felt shy around new people. She gently gripped her arms and forced herself to nod sheepishly.
Gynivrea scrutinized Garima with her eyes for several seconds. There was an intimidating hardness in that gaze.
“Are you hungry? There’s food and water in the shelter,” she told Garima, who nodded in response.
They went inside the tent and sat on wooden stools at a small table where the food was waiting. There were wooden crates filled with other supplies, four plastic gallon jugs of water and a couple of other empty tables. Turning her attention to the food, the apples and grapes she knew but there was a blue rectangular fruit with smooth white stripes that was unfamiliar. It was softer and sweeter than the apples when she tasted it, which was surprising. There was a cold yellow soup with rice noodles and diced vegetables. As she took in a few spoonfuls, she recognized the tastes of celery, carrots, red onions and potatoes. It had a spiciness to it as well from some black and cayenne peppers. As Garima ate, she also had water, which she poured generously from one of the jugs. Gynivrea stood by silently the whole time, her mood a mystery.
“Are you well enough for a walk, Garima? I want to talk to you.”
Garima nodded nervously.
The two left the shelter camp and traveled about a mile away, in silence the entire time. Garima wondered why they were going so far from the others but was too timid to ask. They passed a field and entered a forest area before stopping at the base of a mountain. Gynivrea pulled a short knife from her belt and threw it into the ground in front of Garima.
“Be very careful how you answer me next -- and you’d better use words,” Gynivrea said slowly. “Depending on what you say, you may need that blade.”
Garima was stunned. “What?!”
“Who are you?”
For the first time, Garima saw the true steel behind Gynivrea’s presence.
“I didn’t get where I am by being careless or stupid. I’ve been around you a long time,” Gynivrea divulged. “You’re smart, cunning and brash. I was expecting you to hand-deliver me a portscape. You had already assassinated the crew. What went wrong?”
Garima’s eyes widened considerably at that revelation and she shook her head, mouth open.
“There it is again! That innocent look,” Gynivrea snarled. “I haven’t seen that since you were a kid! I have a hard time believing the military would send such an incompetent imposter into my ranks. So, I’ll ask again: who ARE you?”
Garima took in a deep breath, praying for the right words to say. Then she put her right foot on the hilt of the blade and slowly pushed it flat to the ground. She did not lift her foot from the knife.
“I’m...not the person you knew. I am Garima Jain, not Garima Jintayos -- and I was born human.”
A heartbeat later, Gynivrea was in her face. Her hand was closed around Garima’s throat and she had a different blade in her other hand.
“Explain...slowly,” she insisted.
Garima’s heart was like a jackhammer and she thought she might be hyperventilating. Then a focused sense of calm filled her. She felt assured that she would not be killed by this woman. A moment later, she told Gynivrea what she had pieced together since her participation in the experiment on her Earth. She related her theories about what had happened. She also described what she tried to do to go back and how it hadn’t worked. Finally, she shared how she survived the crash.
Gynivrea said nothing but she looked furious. She was teary-eyed as she let Garima go, opening her grip. Garima coughed as she stumbled backwards, slightly massaging her tender throat. The other woman picked up her short blade from the dirt.
“You’re saying my Garima is either trapped in a human body in another universe,” Gynivrea said. “Or maybe she’s dead.”
“I don’t want to believe she’s dead.”
“It doesn’t matter what we want, does it?” Gynivrea snapped. “She’s gone and you’re here. That’s the way it is.”
Garima refused to accept the possibility of the other Garima’s death. It was too final, like being exiled to this freakish body and locked into this existence. She had to get back! Couldn’t she just wake up in the lab and laugh at this crazy dream? Jared and Patrice should treat her to pizza for scaring her like this. Thinking about these possibilities made her see that, as grateful as she’d been for her life, she appreciated it all the more now. She felt cut off from everyone, even her humanity. She started to feel faint and quickly sat down on the ground, letting her arms fall at her sides, her neck almost limp.
“All you have is Me.”
She didn’t hear the voice so much as feel it. It resonated within her and she knew it was the Lord: a spark of hope in the midst of her mounting despair. She grasped at it with her whole being, feeling a profound solace as tears streamed down her long cheeks.
Gyniverea balked at Garima’s unexpected emotionalism. She made a huffing noise and looked away.
Garima was a little hurt by Gynivrea’s response but she kept that to herself. She decided not to hold that against her. She was feeling better and wanted to hold onto that. She exhaled in relief and wiped some tears from her eyes.
Kebron Olostor was running out of patience. The seven-foot-tall Withstanding operative had finished cataloging everything that had been retrieved from the crashed portscape. He was waiting at the edge of camp for his leader to return. He did not know why the group was not underway already, since Gynivrea had told Malikk they would be leaving at dawn. That was already forty minutes past.
He spotted Renee Corithar sprinting out of the woods. Olostor had sent her to do a final reconnaissance of the area. She was nineteen, one of the fastest runners and had unparalleled martial arts skills. Her expression was cold but she didn’t seem stressed.
“What’s out there, Renee?”
“Nothing but forest, mountains and soil, Kebron.”
“No military presence at all? Not even any flyovers?”
“Nothing,” she said with a hint on unease. “When are we getting out of here?”
Olostor looked over in the direction of the mountain to the east of camp and back at Corithar.
“As soon as Gynivrea gets back with Garima,” he replied.
Corithar looked like she was about to walk over to one of the trucks, but she turned her head to look at Olostor.
“What’s going on with Garima and Gynivrea?”
“I have no idea. Whatever it is, Gynivrea will handle it.”
“Right,” Corithar nodded.
Olostor knew what he’d told Corithar was correct but it didn’t make the waiting any easier.
The walk back to the shelter camp seemed longer than before. The first hint of sunlight was appearing on the horizon. Birds were stirring or flying over the trees nearby. Insects were heard all around, buzzing and making various noises. Gynivrea saw a few alighting on rocks and branches as they continued their stroll. Both women remained quiet. Garima appeared to be in deep thought. Gynivrea wasn’t sure if Garima was doing better or had gone mad. Finally, she spoke up.
“Where you come from, you -- humans have never seen or met my people?”
“No,” Garima replied. She paused briefly. “What are your people called?”
“Are the Fentawnii from this world?” Garima asked.
“Not originally, no. My sister and I were born here but our parents were not.”
As they followed a dry creek bed through an otherwise very rocky terrain, Garima spotted a large hawk gliding slowly downwards from the mountain. She considered that it was probably looking for a meal on the ground. She heard the other woman clear her throat. It seemed that Gynivrea expected some kind of response from her. Garima peered down at her long legs. She had on dark gray pants she’d been wearing since she first woke up after the crash. The question returned that had been burning at her since she first saw her changed face on the portscape. She felt frustrated, embarrassed and utterly conflicted about herself.
“What am I?!” Garima exclaimed as she stopped, her eyes pleading for an answer.
Gynivrea continued on, unmoved by Garima’s emotions.
“You are Humanii, the offspring of a Fentawnii -- my sister -- and a human,” she replied.
“Your sister married a human and they had me?”
Gynivrea stopped and looked at Garima with a mixture of derision and amusement. She sighed.
“No, nothing so romantic as that,” Gynivrea answered. “All humans have been forced to give blood samples since The Cessation. The DNA in human blood is compatible with the Fentawnii. She was given an injection and you were born seven months later. She had no idea who your father was and didn’t care.”
Garima was confused. “Wait, why would Fentawnii want to do that?”
Gynivrea looked further up the creek bed, pondering the best way to reply.
“I only know what I learned from the history files,” Gynivrea said. “The order to create Humanii was originally issued from the Quorum, the Fentawnii ruling body, after The Cessation. Now Humanii outnumber both humans and Fentawnii.”
“How is that possible? Are there eight billion of us or something?!”
“Last I heard, Humanii numbered at least three billion worldwide.”
That was stunning to Garima.
“What happened to everyone else? On my Earth, there’s over seven billion humans!”
“The majority were killed prior to The Cessation,” Gynivrea replied calmly.
Garima clenched her fists in renewed frustration. “That’s the third time you’ve mentioned ‘The Cessation.’ Can you tell me what that is?”
“It happened on October 31, 1968. It’s when humans ceded control of this world to the Fentawnii.”
Garima shook her head in disbelief. She next spoke at a very low volume. “Why?”
“They didn’t have a choice.”
Gynivrea began to walk again, stepping out of the creek bed and onto a grassy path that led into the woods, since the camp was on the other side. Garima followed but her slow pace and downward-facing expression broadcast just how emotionally numb she was feeling.
Knowing the truth about how the Humanii had come to be was morbid all by itself. She was the byproduct of an alien invasion. She felt desperate to look to God for answers, but didn’t know if she would ever get used to how she felt in this skin.
Gynivrea halted abruptly and turned her head in irritation. “Garima!”
Garima was startled to attention.
“Look, you and I need to reach an understanding! Like it or not, you’re in my niece’s body, so that makes you family, in a way. I need to be able to trust you and you need to trust me, too.”
Garima looked skyward then closed her eyes. She took a deep breath.
“Alright, I’ll put my trust in you,” she said with a slight tremble in her voice. She continued to silently pray even more earnestly. “I am doing all I can not to be scared of this world. And I’m terrified that maybe you’re right, maybe your niece did die. Maybe that’s why I can’t get back. If -- if that’s true, it means my body, my real body, is dead, too.
“I have a soul -- we all do -- but my soul is in this body now. If my human body is dead, then -- then that makes this Humanii body like a prison to me!”
She couldn’t believe she had said those words, but they reflected her raw feelings. Garima gripped her arms and looked away for a moment. Her eyes were tearing up when she met Gynivrea’s gaze again.
“I may look like your niece to you, but to me --”
For the first time, Gynivrea appeared somewhat sympathetic. She stayed where she was but her anger and frustration were gone.
“You think you look like a monster,” Gynivrea acknowledged somberly. “My people must seem like that to you, right?”
Garima’s lack of a response was its own answer.
“Would it surprise you if I said I agreed with you?” Gynivrea admitted.
Garima’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Eighteen years ago, I accepted the blood of a human and had a Humanii son. In him, I saw the good of both of our peoples and I could no longer accept either species as ‘lesser.’ I found others who felt as I did and we took our concerns to the Quorum.”
Gynivrea sighed and then pointed at the scar on her cheek. “It...did not go well. I lost everything, except my son. And I gained the people in this Withstanding. The Fentawnii consider me a traitor.”
Garima looked Gynivrea in the eyes and knew she was being sincere. She also perceived that the “Withstanding” was some kind of resistance movement.
Gynivrea took the longer knife from its sheath on her belt and held it chest high. The sun’s red and yellow light began to glimmer off of the metal. She tossed it in the air and effortlessly caught it with the same hand. Without hesitation or looking, she hurled it to her left. The blade impaled a wild dog in the head. It barely had time to yelp before it collapsed in a heap on the grass. Garima briefly screamed in surprise, staring at the bloodied animal. Then she looked at Gynivrea, realizing she had saved them both.
“When you don’t have much, you protect what you have,” Gynivrea added.
She offered her hand to Garima, who skittishly reached out and took it. She led Garima back to the camp in silence.
The caravan of four trucks drove off from where the camp had been. A Humanii on a motorcycle had left before them to scout ahead. He had instructions to radio Gynivrea concerning any potential threats or obstacles. She and Garima were in the leading truck. It was now almost mid-morning. The skies remained sunny and there were few clouds. She told Garima the Caverns were two days’ journey in front of them, if they didn’t run into any delays.
The old trucks didn’t absorb shocks well but Garima almost didn’t mind. It was reassuring in its own way to be in a vehicle she was familiar with, even if it did look like something from another time. It was as out of place here as she was, but still functional and being put to good use.
“Is it the same for me?” Garima thought. “Lord, is this why I was torn from my body and abandoned here?”
“Who has abandoned you?”
The voice was once again only for her to hear. She reflected on it as she looked out the vehicle window, following the majestic mountains. They reminded her of God and His strength, the foundation He gave to her. In that moment, she realized that while she had taken comfort from His presence, she had not been leaning on Him. She had been letting herself flail about, fighting what had happened, resisting something unique He had done just for her. She didn’t understand it but she didn’t have to. She only had to trust God. And that meant letting go of her preconceptions, fears and doubts.
She had to accept that she was supposed to be here.
Garima felt like she had been balled up inside ever since she found herself back on the portscape. She had been struggling to keep her sanity and control over her emotions. Initially, that had been to stay alive and find out what was going on. But she hadn’t released that grip. And now it was time to.
With a wordless prayer, she took her figurative hands away from the wall she’d been holding up and let it collapse. In that moment, she was flooded with a torrent of grief, loss and fear. That manifested in the vehicle through her tears, heaving sobs and a look of anguish across her face and in her eyes.
But in the midst of it, the warmth of hope permeated her entire being. It didn’t stop the hurt but it helped her endure it.
Gynivrea had been stunned to see Garima burst into tears. Even though she knew this young woman was another personality, this display solidified that. Her niece had never been so emotionally expressive since joining the Withstanding. The Garima she knew was cold and ruthless, an excellent assassin and operative. Gynivrea had seen the pride her niece took in her work and helping their efforts. She wouldn’t let herself be weighed down by sentimentality.
The heartache this Garima was sharing was too real to be ignored. The reality that her own niece was dead and gone clawed at her viciously. It was inescapable. As was the fact that this was another Garima, one whose essence was human, not Humanii. And she was suffering even more than Gynivrea.
“Let it all out,” was all that Gynivrea could say, starting to choke up. She continued to hold the steering wheel with her left hand but put her other hand on Garima’s shoulder for few seconds. Shaking her head briefly, she fought off her own tears.
Garima cried until she fell asleep exhausted.
The next day passed almost entirely without incident. Then the radio squawked to life, startling Garima more than Gynivrea.
“Halt the convoy! I repeat: halt the convoy!” a panicked male voice said through the static-filled connection.
Gynivrea slowed the truck to a stop and the other vehicles did the same. Garima felt fearful as Gynivrea ripped at the CB radio microphone and pulled it close to her mouth.
“What do you see, Caleb?” she barked.
“Smoke in the distance and a rider on approach,” Caleb replied. “It looks like Beck!”
“Send my son to me, Caleb,” Gynivrea ordered. “We’ll wait here.”
A couple of minutes later, a man in all black clothing rode the dark gray motorcycle towards them at high speed. He swerved skillfully next to the lead truck and cut the ignition. When he dismounted and removed his helmet, Garima could see that he was in his upper teens. He was lean but strong, with long auburn dreaded hair. The epicanthal folds of his eyes and the shape of his lips made Garima wonder if perhaps his human father had been of Asian descent. He was handsome for his age but he looked worried.
Gynivrea approached and embraced him briefly by pulling him close and kissing his cheek. Her face appeared calm but her eyes displayed her relief that he was alright.
“What has happened, Beck?”
“The military has attacked the Caverns, they fell last night,” he replied gravely.
“How many did we lose?”
“I -- don’t know. Many. But Aunt Kess evacuated her group,” Beck continued. “We only confirmed ten more groups. Everyone is on radio silence now per emergency procedures.”
Gynivrea had to lean against the truck as her footing became unsure. Her son helped steady her.
“Only eleven groups...out of twenty-seven?” she whispered.
“Yes, Matra,” he replied, using his term of affection for her.
After Gynivrea stood up and walked back towards the vehicle, Garima finally felt able to approach her.
“We can’t go any further?” Garima asked.
“No. We’ve lost the Caverns,” Gynivrea said, mustering the strength she had. “We’re going to an alternate site. It could take us a week or more to get there. And there’s no guarantee it’s safe, either.”
Garima was getting used to hearing bad news like this. She now knew that nowhere on this world was truly “safe” for her or the Withstanding. But she no longer felt dread at that prospect. She felt something she didn’t expect: calm.
As she got back into the passenger seat of the truck, she understood something else. She had taken a great risk to support Jared in the research that ended up marooning her here. She was capable of taking such risks now, but for a different reason. Her counterpart had been a spy and assassin. But she was a pacifist who wanted to help people. It was an ironic juxtaposition of their lives.
Garima had landed in the middle of a savage and bloody revolution. She was biologically related to the leader of that revolution and had decided to trust her. She had to look beyond simple survival.
She locked her seatbelt into place. She looked at Gynivrea, whose face appeared pained but determined, as a friend now, no longer a stranger to fear. Garima reached over and softly put her hand on the other woman’s arm, conveying her sympathy. Now was not the time for conversation. Gynivrea looked over at her and relaxed briefly, conveying her gratitude in a nod. Then she started the truck and pulled forward, following the two motorcycles ahead of them.
About the author
Allen Steadham is a nondenominational Christian, happily interracially married since 1995. Father of two sons and a daughter. He and his wife have been in the same Christian band since 1997. He plays electric bass, she plays strings, they both sing. It's all good.
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