An echo. Was it in his ears, or only from his memory?
Zallus bolted upright, and felt a thin film of dust slough off him. He winced as his eyes adjusted to the light.
There were stars. Nebulae, and galaxies, and—where was the Milky Way? He searched upward, and found it: a bright band of gas and stars cutting down the sky.
It was too bright, blindingly bright—Zallus shut his eyes and pointed his gaze to just beyond the light, only opening them again to a hard squint.
It was the sun. The line of light wasn't the distant arm of the galaxy, but right there in the sky with him; the glow around it was daylight, and the nebular reach its own kind of sunset, a thin, pink border between day and night on both sides. The sun was all the way across the sky.
Zallus took this opportunity to leap to his feet, pump both fists into the air, and make exactly the sort of noise one makes a moment after cresting the top of a hill on a rollercoaster.
Zallus Kanite wasn't much like anyone he knew. It was on purpose.
When Zallus had been six years old, his father had come to him with a proposition.
Zallus, now, I know this doesn't mean much to you now, but there are two types of people in the world: those that try to fit in, and those that try to stand out. When you fit in, people like you, but when you stand out they remember you; Zallus' father said slowly but with what Zallus could now recall as a measured gentleness in his voice,
which kind of person do you think you'd like to be?
Zallus paused. He was used to his father asking him these sorts of questions—
philosophical, he called them—but this one seemed important, like he was going to use Zallus' answer to make a decision of his own.
What did Prismii say? Zallus replied.
I didn't ask your sister yet, although I will. Asking what she thinks, though, Zallus, sounds a lot like you want to answer Zallus' father said, raising a finger in the air,
fitting in. But think about it,
if she were to answer
standing out, would you be fitting in with her by agreeing? Or would that really mean you were disagreeing?
Tricky, dad. You spent a while thinking of that one, didn't ya? Zallus said, smirking.
You're right, I did—because it's important that you answer this for your own sake, not for your sister's or your mom's or mine, Zallus' father said, his eyes steeling and becoming unreadable, though still keeping a smile.
Now, he said in an absolutely quiet voice that usually meant he knew exactly what he was about to say,
when you look at what other people are doing, do you get a strong desire to join them—or a desire to go do the opposite, and show them how much better your way is?
Zallus put the knuckle of his forefinger to his lips, something his dad would recognize from his own mannerisms: a signal that his train of thought was on a very precarious bridge, and an interruption would result in all the passengers plunging to a rocky grave.
He didn't really have a
way of doing things. He generally was happy to play with his sister, or to help his dad with his work, or to do anything else that was asked of him. But it wasn't about fitting in… the things he did were always new, always exciting, and so he would have done them either way. He couldn't imagine spending his whole life doing the same things. But he couldn't imagine constantly looking for something better, either.
Zallus looked up, his eyebrows raised.
But isn't there a third way? he said.
What do you mean? his father replied.
Your two options were to do the same as everyone else, or to look at what they're doing, figure out what kind of thing that is, and then do something that's the same kind of thing, only different and better, Zallus said in a single breath, then paused to gasp and inhale.
Do you see what's missing there?
Zallus' father nodded, an amused grin showing below his still-ineffable eyes.
There are some books you brought home a while ago, which are about having fun. They aren't about games or anything, they're more… philosophical, like these conversations we have that mom gets so annoyed by, Zallus said, and watched as his father broke his stare for a moment to laugh out loud.
They have some rules in them….
Zallus took in his environment. The ground around him looked a bit like coral, broken into pea-sized bits and stuck back together. It stretched on, a flat expanse of pastel blue, yellow and pink, all the way to the horizon. There weren't any landmarks to keep his bearings against, although he could be sure whether he was tending toward or away from the sun-line in the sky, as different parts of the ground were lit as bright as day or in bluish twilight, and further out were completely in shadow. One part of the shadow seemed darker, and closer, and, Zallus realized, in the wrong axis to the others. It was directly under the line, and should have been lit completely, but instead there was pure, starry dark.
There, he said, pointing toward the darkness for the benefit of no-one in particular,
Zallus took a step forward and fell immediately onto his face. He had tripped on something, which seemed, he thought, quite improbable, given how few somethings there were about. It was then that he noticed, perhaps a bit late, that he was standing in a smooth, hemispherical indentation—a crater—carved two feet deep into the ground. He stepped out of it, and his view of the landscape changed.
I'm …tall, Zallus said.
Yes, this is quite a bit taller than I remember being. The view before seemed more….
Zallus stepped back into the crater, looked out into the darkness, and began to wonder just whose body he had woken up in.
It did look like his own: the mole on his arm was the same, his hair was the same odd shade of blue—though he lacked a regular noon-day sky for comparison—and his chin retained its inability to grow even slight stubble. However, besides being taller, his hands were larger and more calloused, his skin more tan, his hair longer—perhaps as long as his sister's, at this point—and his frame wider to the point that his arms seemed impossibly far apart. This body, Zallus realized, was older than him.
Well, he said, addressing the air once more with an ecstatic smile,
an adventure and a mystery.
Zallus shook the rest of the dirt from his clothes, stepped away from the small depression in the ground, and set off at a sprint toward the shadowed horizon.