After a miserable night of little sleep, I dragged myself upstairs to find the morning sun glinting off the sodden disaster that was our street. Mama went out to survey the garage and check in with the neighbors while I shoveled down my cereal.
Even through the cracked kitchen window, I could see that the damage was extensive. Every other roof across the street from us looked like it was going to need repairs and any car left outside had been reduced to a battered hunk of metal. Boulevards and sidewalks were littered with trashcans, tree branches, and lawn chairs; the Franklins’ plastic kiddie pool was on the Hamiltons’ garage roof.
According to the news, the inexplicable super storm had only hit our neighborhood and the area around the airport where Papa had landed, which seemed suspicious. Was this somehow connected to Daniel and his father? Did it have to do with the ‘dangerous stuff’ Daniel had mentioned yesterday? Or was it just an especially violent case of Wisconsin weather acting up? I wasn’t sure which I wanted to believe as I rubbed at my arms and stared out the window at the bright gray sky.
On the one hand, I couldn’t stand the thought that everything I had seen and felt last night had just been a trick of my imagination. I wanted it—I needed it—to mean something more than that. On the other hand, if it did mean something, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what.
The air wasn’t particularly cold when I stepped outside, but for some reason I felt a chill seeping through my sleeves into my skin. Pulling my sweatshirt tighter around me, I looked up into the sky with narrowed eyes. I could still see that strange figure, outlined in lightning so far above me and yet seemingly close enough to touch.
“Bye, honey,” I barely heard Mama say as I headed down the driveway past her. “I love you.”
“Love you too.” I paused to let her kiss me on the cheek but my eyes never left the sky.
The damp morning sunshine didn’t last long. By the time I got to school, a wall of clouds had gathered to close up the sky behind me. I didn’t know why, but I kept feeling the need to look up at them over my shoulder, like they were following me. As soon as I got inside the building, I maneuvered my way through the crowds of other students, making straight for Daniel’s locker. I found him unpacking his books in a confused, haphazard way.
“Joan, hi,” he smiled when he saw me. “How’s it going?”
“Daniel, I need to know what’s going on. What—”
But before I could start, he held up a hand. “Here’s the deal. I’ll tell you anything you want to know, just not here around all these people. So after class, or at lunch,” he said brightly. “If we can find a table away from everyone else I’ll explain everything, but until then no questions.”
“So, your dad said it was okay?” I asked excitedly.
“I just told you not to ask questions. But yeah.” He smiled. “Yeah, he did.”
Just then Katie came sauntering up to lean against the locker beside Daniel’s with her flirting face on.
“Okay, bye,” I muttered before she could notice me and ducked away.
There was a reason I avoided girls like Katie. She wasn’t a bad person—I mean, sure she engaged in the same mild bullying and cattiness that most of the popular kids did, and her incessant flirting was gross, but she was nothing especially evil. What Katie was was a social person and I had to be careful around those. I had to be just mousy enough that they didn’t feel threatened by me, just boring enough that they didn’t want to be my friend, and just strong enough that I didn’t become the target of any bullying. It was a fine line and I had learned to walk it perfectly. Daniel, I got the feeling, wasn’t aware that such a line existed. But he was on his own there. I was happy to help him with his books and his viola, but he wasn’t worth my invisibility. Nothing was worth that.
Drew was the perfect almost-friend—interesting but way too wrapped up in the weird little world in his own head to register much of what went on around him. He didn’t even notice that I was practically bouncing in my seat with anticipation, or that Daniel and I were awkwardly avoiding making eye contact, until a good three classes into the day when he asked, “Hey, are you guys okay? You seem a little weird.”
“No,” Daniel answered too quickly, punctuating it with an exaggerated shrug that came off as more of a spasm. “No, we’re fine.”
“You sure?” Drew asked, raising one eyebrow.
“Yes,” I said. “Daniel’s just off his meds this morning.” And still a terrible liar.
“Oh,” Drew nodded his understanding. “Been there, buddy.” And he returned to the monster doodles in his notebook without pursuing the matter any further. This was why Drew was the only person I ever talked to.
I tapped my foot all the way through history class, and when the lunch bell rang, I was the first one out of my seat. Making a bee-line to Daniel’s Spanish classroom, I managed to grab him as soon as he stepped out the door.
“Come on,” I said, pulling him after me. “Let’s get to the front of the lunch line.”
The sooner we got our so-called ‘lunch,’ the more time we would have to talk. I speed-walked Daniel in the direction of the cafeteria until I noticed Katie and some of her friends coming out of a classroom ahead of us and stopped abruptly.
“Oh no. Katie. Hide,” I whispered and tugged Daniel off into a side hallway.
“What? Why? What’s wrong with Katie?”
“Nothing,” I said, sticking my head out to make sure she had gone. “Let’s go.”
“Why do you do that?” Daniel asked as we resumed our brisk walk to the cafeteria.
“You always hide when Katie’s around. Do you not like her?”
“Not just her,” I said. “Everyone.”
“Why?” Daniel asked, uncomprehending.
“Maybe I just don’t want to talk to them.”
“Well, if you never talk to anyone, how do you make friends?”
“I don’t,” I said as we pushed our way into clamor of the cafeteria to join the lunch line.
“That’s silly,” Daniel laughed. “The people here don’t seem so bad, and everyone needs friends.”
“You sound like a My Little Pony episode.”
“Okay, I don’t know what a ‘pony’ is, but I know everyone needs friends,” Daniel said stubbornly, “even people like you.”
Instead of answering, I grabbed two lunch trays and handed one to him.
“You can’t just not talk to anyone,” Daniel pressed as we slid our trays down the line. “That’s not good.”
“I never said it was good,” I frowned. “It’s just the way it is. I keep to many secrets to get close to other people.”
“Secrets? You mean your…” Daniel looked around and then leaned in, lowering his voice. “You mean the thing you showed me yesterday?”
“Yes, that,” I whispered. What else would I mean? “Nobody except you knows about it and I need to keep it that way.”
“So, that’s the reason you hide in a giant sweatshirt, and frown all the time, and never talk to anyone? Because you’re afraid they’ll find out what you can do?”
“No—yes—well, sort of. It’s more complicated than that,” I muttered.
Daniel looked skeptical. “Look, I might not know a lot about you or this place, but I know that you can have secrets—even really big ones—and still have friends.”
“Really?” I turned on him in annoyance. “And what do you know about keeping secrets?”
It was Daniel’s turn to get indignant. “A lot, actually.”
“Okay, I kind of find that hard to believe.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “In my family business, secrecy is a matter of life and death.”
“Right,” I couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s why you couldn’t hide one thing from me for half a school day.”
“That’s just because—it’s—I’m off my game, okay? This place is throwing me off.”
“Why? Because you’re an alien who doesn’t know what a pony is?” I paused to look at him in confusion again. “How can you not know what a pony is?”
“I… in my… wh-where I come from, not everything is… I’ll explain in a second, okay?”
“Fries or tater tots?” a hair-netted lunch lady asked.
“Tater what?” Daniel said blankly.
She responded by dumping a mess of reheated tater tots onto his tray.
“Oh—thank you,” Daniel said politely.
But the lunch lady had already squawked, “Next!” prompting the line to shuffle forward.
“Is lunch like this every day?” Daniel whispered as we moved on to get our cartons of orange juice and our soggy not-really-green green beans. “How do you eat this stuff? I tried yesterday and it’s like eating sand.”
“Yeah, well, the school cares just as much about nutrition as it does about education.”
Once our trays were loaded, I took Daniel to the table in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. No one ever sat there because it was right under the noisiest of the ceiling vents. Settling myself across from Daniel, I folded my hands in front of me and leaned in.
“So…” Daniel sighed, staring down at his tray to avoid meeting my eyes.
“You said you would explain,” I pressed when several moments had passed with only the rattle of the vent above us.
“Okay, okay, I will. It’s just…” He moved a hand to the back of his neck, rubbing it anxiously. “I’m not exactly sure how to do this. Just promise you won’t freak out, okay?”
“I don’t freak out.”
“Really?” Daniel didn’t look convinced.
“Look, I’ll just listen, okay? Whatever you have to say, I’ll just listen. No freaking out, no yelling—”
“No calling me a liar,” he added. “Because I guarantee this is going to sound like the biggest, dumbest lie you’ve ever heard.”
Well, if I had been excited for his explanation before, now I was dying to hear it. “Okay,” I agreed. “No calling you a liar.”
Daniel eyed me for a moment. “You promise?”
“I promise,” I said impatiently. “Just talk.”
“Okay.” Daniel took a deep breath. “Well, for starters, I’m not an alien—not exactly, anyway.”
“Not exactly? Then where did you come from?”
“From a parallel dimension.”
For a moment, I could only stare at Daniel with my mouth open. That, I hadn’t been expecting. Now I didn’t know if he was lying or just out of his mind, but true to my word, I remained silent as he continued to talk.
As I sat there in a sort of stunned stupor, he explained that in this parallel dimension of his, there was a planet called Duna in a solar system similar to ours. Duna, Daniel explained, was like Earth’s twin. Our two planets were the same size, had similar geography, and shared many of the same creatures, including humans. The only difference in their human population was that most of them had some kind of powers, like Daniel and me. Apparently there were several different groups of these powered people—those who controlled fire, those who controlled water, and those who controlled air—but all together, they were known as theonites. People with no powers, people like the inhabitants of Earth, were called adyns.
I had read about the possibility of parallel dimensions, but for all the impossible things that were part of my life, I had never thought an alternate reality would be one of them. Even in a world where I could exist, an alternate dimension seemed like a stretch. And yet Daniel just kept prattling on about this Planet Duna that wasn’t—couldn’t be—real as though it were all perfectly normal. I could only stumble dazedly after him as he rattled off quick, disjointed explanations about these super-powered people called theonites, and their different powers, and countries, and their wars with each other.
Through my shock, I could only process scattered pieces of what he was telling me: something about extinct animal species, and tiny elephants, and “jijakalu have telekinetic control over water,” and “fonyakalu control air,” and “there used to be people who controlled rock and sand, but I think they died out, like, a hundred years ago—The Yammankalu killed them. Oh yeah, the Yammankalu are basically the most powerful people in the world. They’re tajakalu like me—well, not exactly like me. I’m Disanka, so I’m not actually as dark as a pure-blooded Yammanka. Yeah, tajakalu are usually really dark skinned, like, a lot darker than me. So, that’s why I was so surprised that you could make fire. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a tajaka—or any theonite at all—as light-skinned as you. Of course, until I met you yesterday, no one thought there were any theonites on this planet at all.”
That shook me out of my daze just enough to stutter, “Th-there aren’t.”
“What?” Daniel paused for the first time in his ramble, looking half relieved that I had cut in and half nervous that I might faint or start screaming.
“There aren’t other theonites on Earth,” I said. “I’m the only one.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I snapped with more hostility than I realized until it had left my mouth. But was the kid who’d just told me there was a parallel dimension really trying to question my knowledge of my own planet? Did he honestly think I hadn’t looked—desperately, furiously, over years—for evidence of other people like me?
“Sorry.” Daniel held up his hands. “I’m sorry. I just… a-aren’t your parents… don’t they have any powers?”
“No, they don’t.”
“But—how can that be? Powers like yours are inherited, they’re genetic. Non-theonite parents never give birth to theonite kids—not theonite kids like you anyway.”
“Yeah, well, mine did.”
“And you…” Daniel winced before speaking, clearly aware that he was edging into sensitive territory. “You’re sure they’re your real parents?”
“Yes.” There was a birth certificate, there were photos, even a short video. I had checked everything. Multiple times.
“And your grandparents?” Daniel asked cautiously. “Could they have—”
“No.” I had checked that too, even digging far back into all the information I could find about my mother’s father, who had died long before I was born. No sign of powers anywhere in my family. “Just me.”
Daniel looked utterly baffled. “Then—how—”
“I don’t know.”
He opened his mouth to ask something more, but he was cut short by the sound of the bell, calling everyone back to class.
“Oh,” Daniel said as the people around us started getting up to dump their trays. “But I have so many more questions.”
“Yeah, well, same here,” I said. I hadn’t even gotten to asking about the storm last night, or about why he and his dad were even here in the first place. And yet it was all too much—and somehow too little—for me to begin to understand any of it.
“You can meet me at my locker after the last bell and we can walk home together, okay?” Daniel said as we got up to dump our nearly untouched trays of food. “That should give us some time to talk.”
“Oh. Sure.” That was right. Amid all this crazy talk of powers and alternate dimensions, I had forgotten that we were neighbors. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
Somehow, I felt like I was going to be able to come up with more than twenty minutes’ worth of questions about this parallel dimension and its super-powered inhabitants before the end of the school day, but for now all I could do was agree.
“My dad said it’s probably better that I walk you home anyway,” Daniel said, “or actually that you walk me home.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, yesterday you left before me and then I tried to walk back to our street by myself and got super lost. You know, all the houses in this place look the same—or at least they do to me. Can you tell them apart?”
“Not really,” I laughed, “but I’ll get you home. I promise.”
If the first half of the school day had passed in an agony of anxiety, the rest of it felt like it wasn’t even real. Somehow my whole world had slid into a fuzzy dream world that I couldn’t quite accept or reject, so all I could do was float through it with a blank expression on my face. As Madame Spencer discussed the book we were reading for advanced French, my eyes drifted to the sky outside the window. I wished I had talked to Daniel about the storm as the sprawl of gray clouds seemed to thicken before my eyes, closing off any suggestion of sunlight behind hard ripples of darkness. It looked like it wanted to rain. Why didn’t it just rain? What was it waiting for?
I didn’t even hear Madame Spencer until the third time she said my name. “Jeanne.”
“What—uh—oui?” I fumbled, snapping back into the classroom as several of my classmates laughed.
“Où est la deuxième femme pendant la quatrième chapitre?”
“Um…” I could only blink for a second before I managed to haul my mind back to the book I had barely read, tripping over my tongue. “E-elle est dans… dans la foudre—er—le fourgon.”
“Exacte,” Madame Spencer said, though she paused to give me a confused look before moving on to someone else.
Normally, I never missed a beat in French. A few of my stupid classmates were still snickering, probably pleased to see the fluent French speaker screw up for once, but I couldn’t muster any anger or even annoyance. I could only stare out the window at the waiting clouds.
My attention was only pulled from the sky when I caught sight of the people gathering on the field beneath it. Gym class. Daniel was easy to pick out, being the only dark thing in the gaggle of pale arms and knees. He looked around in confusion as the gym teacher had the students begin their usual warm-up laps around the field. I could see him falter nervously as the class set off around the track, the competitive boys surging ahead, all but elbowing in front of one another while most of the girls hung back, trying to get away with a flimsy trot that wouldn’t mess up their hair while they continued their inane conversations.
Daniel was making a valiant effort to control his legs, to slow himself down, but he wasn’t very good at it. While he managed to keep himself a ways behind the fastest boys in the class, there was just more spring, more power, in his every stride than in anyone else’s. Masking something as subtle as running movements took practice, and I supposed on Duna no one ever bothered to try.
Duna. An alternate planet, a parallel dimension. I repeated the ideas in my head again and again just to see if they would become less strange to me. They didn’t. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like this parallel dimension must be real. Daniel may have been superhuman on the outside, but on the inside he was just a silly thirteen-year-old boy. He certainly didn’t seem smart enough to have made up all that stuff about his dimension. And even if he had made it up, he was so bad at lying, I would be able to tell, wouldn’t I? And anyway, what kind of reason could he have for inventing such an elaborate lie? Whatever this world was, it was real to him. So, either he was telling the truth or he was a very special kind of crazy—and crazy didn’t explain his superhuman abilities.
No surprise, when class finally ended and I got down to Daniel’s locker, Katie was there, flirting aggressively. Again, I waited patiently until she left for the bus, although this time I noticed that as she detached from Daniel, she deliberately strutted past Cameron, swishing her hair over her shoulder at him. Once she had flounced her way over to her giggling friends and left the hallway, I figured it was safe and slid through the jostling students to join Daniel.
“So, how are you doing?” he asked when he saw me. “Are you okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just—I know that when my dad told me we were going to jump to a different dimension in a machine his crazy friend built in his basement, I freaked out a little bit,” he smiled, “and, well, you haven’t.”
“I promised I wouldn’t,” I said flatly.
“Yeah—but I just told you a whole bunch of stuff that must sound completely insane, and you’re just okay?”
“I’m not sure,” I said honestly. “I’m still trying to decide if this is a dream or not.”
“Okay, I guess that’s fair.” He swung his backpack onto his shoulder. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah,” I said, noticing Cameron glaring murderously at us from his locker. “That’s probably a good idea.” The two of us made our way through the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building, but we weren’t quick enough.
“Hey!” a voice shouted. “Hey, you!”
Turning back, I saw Cameron storming out the front doors toward us, shoving smaller students out of his way.
“Oh great,” I groaned.
“Uh, who is that?” Daniel asked.
“Cameron,” I replied, grabbing his sleeve in an attempt to pull him along faster. “Come on, let’s go.”
But Cameron had already elbowed his way through the crowd to close the distance between us, his big hammy hands balled into fists. And this was exactly why I never messed around with the popular kids.
“You! Yeah, you! I’m talking to you, David!”
“Oh. It’s Daniel, actually,” Daniel said pleasantly.
“Shut up!” Cameron bore down on Daniel, ignoring me, and grabbed the front of his shirt. “What the hell do you think you’re doing with my girlfriend?”
“Your girlfriend?” Daniel repeated blankly. He didn’t seem remotely intimidated, lifted partway up on his toes by a boy a whole head taller than he was, only mildly confused.
“Yeah, my girlfriend. You do speak English, don’t you?”
“Um… yes?” Daniel said uncertainly.
“Look, I’ll say this slow so you can understand. You talk to Katie again and I’ll kick your ass all the way back to Mexico.”
“Mexico?” Daniel looked sideways at me. “What’s that?”
“Um—” I fumbled, “I—”
“Shut up!” Cameron started shaking Daniel. “Are you listening to me, you dumbass?”
“Hey w-wait—” I said in a small voice, taking a half step forward, but no one was paying any attention to me.
When I was younger, I had always seen myself as someone with a will as strong as my hands, someone who would intervene if I saw something bad happening. Sometimes I still wished I could be that person, but that fantasy had died a long time ago among the pieces of a splintered picket fence. In reality, I was no superhero, and I never would be. I was too afraid.
“Katie is mine, you got that?” Cameron was practically spraying spit in Daniel’s face. “If you ever go near her again, I’m going to… you better not go near her again! I’m warning you!”
Daniel just stared at Cameron for a few seconds. Then, to my surprise, he burst out laughing. It wasn’t a nervous laugh or even a mocking one. No, for whatever reason, he seemed to find the situation genuinely hilarious.
“You’re warning me?” he said incredulously, looking up at Cameron. “Are you serious?”
“You think this is funny?” Cameron demanded, his face contorting in rage.
“You threatening me?” Daniel laughed. “Yeah, that’s a little funny—no offense.”
“Oh yeah? You think just because you’re from the ‘hood or whatever I’m scared to fight you?”
So Daniel was black now? Apparently Cameron couldn’t decide which minority to use to insult him. To be fair, Daniel was pretty ethnically ambiguous, but Cameron’s response to that seemed to be to run through all the nasty stereotypes he could think of until one struck a nerve. It wasn’t going to work.
“Wait—where’s Hood?” Daniel asked. “I thought I was going back to Mexico.” He looked to me again. “Is Hood in Mexico?”
“Listen, I’ve had just about enough of your crap!” Cameron growled, drawing his fist back. “You’re going to be sorry!”
“Oh.” Daniel turned back to Cameron, looking mildly concerned for the first time. “You don’t want to do that.”
But Cameron had already swung his fist. I winced, expecting it to smash dead into Daniel’s face—but there was no smash, no impact at all. I uncurled from my wince to find a bewildered Cameron was standing with his fist extended past Daniel’s ear.
At the last second, Daniel had moved his head to the side, neatly avoiding any contact by a fraction of an inch. The movement had been so quick and so subtle that even my sharp eyes hadn’t registered it.
“Seriously,” Daniel said from where he stood with his head tilted slightly to the side. “You don’t want to do that.”
“You!” Cameron snarled. “Don’t fuck with me!” He drew his other fist back and let it fly.
With a resigned sigh, Daniel closed his eyes and stood where he was with his hands in his pockets. Cameron’s fist crashed into the side of his face with a hideous crunching noise. A horrified squeak escaped me and my hands flew to my mouth, but I needn’t have worried. The crunch had come from Cameron’s knuckles.
“Ow,” Daniel said dully.
“Oh GOD!” Cameron doubled over, clutching his hand. “Shhhiiiiiiiit!” He ran off screaming in agony, firing off every swear word and racial slur he seemed to be able to think of. “My hand! He broke my fucking hand!”
Amazed and a little horrified, I turned to look at Daniel. There was a faint touch of red on his cheek where the blow had fallen, but the impact of the football player’s fist hadn’t been enough to leave a proper bruise. Daniel barely seemed rattled as he turned to me.
“We should go now, right?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, realizing how many people had turned to stare at the commotion. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” Daniel said as I took his arm and hurried him down the sidewalk. “I didn’t think he was going to hit me that hard.”
“Yeah, well, you underestimated how much of a jerk he is. Are you okay?” I asked, leaning closer to look at the mark on his face, which was already fading away as I spoke.
“Of course I’m okay,” Daniel said. “A punch like that could never hurt me.”
“Your body… Is it just stronger than other people’s?”
“Than an adyn’s, yeah,” Daniel said, as though this were quite obvious.
“So, people with powers—theonites—are always stronger than people without powers?”
“That’s generally how it works, yeah. I mean, not all theonite powers come with the same level of physical strength. Tajakalu usually have the strongest muscles. Then fonyakalu are usually a little stronger than jijakalu, but that’s just on average. It really depends on the person. Do you—are you—”
“Stronger than regular people? Yes.” How much stronger, I didn’t actually know. I hadn’t tested my full strength since I was little.
“That’s weird,” Daniel said, looking me up and down as we passed the buses and headed across the street.
“Why is that weird?” I thought he just said it was normal on his planet.
“Well, you…” He paused as though struggling to articulate something as his eyes followed my steps. “You move like an adyn.”
“Yeah, that’s because that’s the way everyone here moves. I have to.”
“What? You mean you taught yourself to do that?” His eyes widened.
“Yeah. Pretty much as soon as I learned to walk.”
“That’s amazing!” he marveled. “I didn’t even know a theonite could do that.”
“It wasn’t easy,” I said.
“Yeah, I bet. But—why would you want to hide your strength?”
“It’s the only way I can blend in.”
“What makes you think you have to—”
“It’s my turn to ask a question,” I cut him off. I wasn’t in the mood to discuss my childhood of choking down my powers. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I would know how to talk about it if I tried. “So you come from this parallel dimension planet full of—of jijakalu, and tajakalu, and fonyakalu, and theonites—”
“Jijakalu, tajakalu, and fonyakalu are theonites,” Daniel corrected. “They’re all just different kinds of theonite.”
“Okay, great, I got that. But you never explained how you got here, or why.”
“Oh—well that’s kind of complicated. As you probably guessed, our planet is a bit more technologically advanced than yours—in some ways, anyway.”
“How is it more advanced?”
“Well, we have space travel for starters.”
“Earth has space travel.”
“Yeah, not like we do,” Daniel smiled. “My dad told me you guys went to the moon and stuff, but Duna’s had a whole transportation system of different space stations in its orbit since I was a baby. We have whole tourist cities up in space.”
“Wow.” Okay, that was more advanced than Earth’s space travel technology. “Plus, you guys have the ability to jump dimensions,” I said slowly. “Our scientists don’t even know that another dimension exists.”
“Oh, neither do most people on Duna,” Daniel said. “Our scientists—the ones people actually know about this dimension—are still trying to get proof that it’s is a real thing. And most people who believe the theories think they’ve just discovered proof of the Laaxara.”
“The Laaxara,” Daniel said as though surprised I didn’t know the word. “You know, the realm of the dead, the place of the afterlife.”
“They think that Earth—that this dimension—is the afterlife?”
“That or the Rixaara, the place of not-yet-life.”
“The place of not-yet-life?” I had never heard of anything like that.
“Yeah, you know, the place where the future gets its shape, where all the unborn children are waiting.”
I made a mental note to ask about this Rixaara again sometime—after I had gotten answers to my more pressing questions. We ended up stopped at the neighborhood playground, sitting on the swings with our feet dragging in the gravel as I continued to grill Daniel about the nature of his planet and its alleged space stations and inter-dimensional travel.
“Okay, but if people in your dimension don’t even know Earth exists, how did you get here?”
“In a trans-dimensional space pod,” Daniel said, “the only one ever made.”
“Wow. So, who made it?”
“This engineer guy, Numu Koli Kuruma. He’s an old friend of my dad’s, designs all our high-tech stuff: the Firebird coat, the mercium detector, Hellbat’s banshee bombs. Honestly, I have no idea how Koli figured out how to build a dimension-hopping pod when Duna’s best scientists aren’t anywhere near crossing dimensions. He’s kind of special.”
“Kind of special?” That was how Daniel was choosing to describe a guy who built science-defying space pods?
“To be fair, my dad knows lots of people like that,” Daniel said, “people with crazy powers, and skills, and connections. You kind of have to when you’re in his line of work.”
“What line of work? What does your dad do?”
“Well, it… it’s complicated. I guess, the simple answer is that he fights crime.”
“He fights crime?” I said, unable to help the disbelieving laugh. “What, like a superhero?”
“Yeah,” Daniel returned with a smile. “Like that.”
“Like… with a secret identity and stuff?”
“Yeah. I know it probably sounds silly to you, but—”
“So, what’s his superhero name?” I was half kidding, but Daniel actually answered.
“Seriously?” I giggled. That was the coolest thing I had ever heard, but— “Wait a second, how does that work?” I asked after a moment. “I mean, you said most of the people on your planet have powers.”
“Doesn’t that mean shooting fire—or whatever you guys do—doesn’t actually help that much with fighting criminals?”
“Yeah, a lot of the time it doesn’t,” Daniel said. “That’s why there are only crime-fighters in certain, really specific places. See, in most countries on Duna, the population is more than fifty percent theonite. So those countries all have big, powerful, organized police forces, and militaries and stuff all made up of theonites, which makes it pretty easy to take care of theonite criminals. Our country doesn’t really have that. We have more adyns than theonites, which means that in big, kind of poor cities like the one we live in, sometimes there are more theonite criminals than theonites in the police force—or sometimes there are theonite criminals that are just way too powerful for anyone in law enforcement to deal with. And it doesn’t help that our police force is incompetent and corrupt and won’t even touch some parts of the city.”
“Because they’re so poor and such a mess that they don’t think it’s worth the risk. That’s where people like my dad come in.”
“Okay, so he fights criminals that the police can’t—or won’t—handle,” I said.
“Pretty much, yeah. He tries to take care of the whole city, but he focuses on the stuff the police and politicians don’t bother with: the slums, the gangs, the black market.”
“Wow. So, he must be, like, really powerful.”
“He is.” A proud smile lit Daniel’s face. “But mostly he’s smart. A lot of the time, he settles disputes and stops crime without using violence at all. That’s why everyone loves him so much. Even the police and politicians admit that the city would fall apart without him.”
“Then, what are you guys doing here?” I asked. “If your home city needs him so much, why come to Earth?”
Daniel’s face fell into a frown. “I wish I could tell you that, but all I know—all he’ll let me know—is that we came here following one of his old enemies, and considering Dad’s line of work, that could really mean anything; he has, like, a million of those. But I guess one of them somehow found out about this dimension and found a way to cross over and came here looking for something important, and we’ve got to stop him before he finds it. That’s all I know.”
“Oh.” Well, that didn’t sound good. “A-and your dad didn’t tell you what he was looking for or—”
Now it was Daniel’s turn to snap. “He doesn’t tell me anything, okay? He says it’s safer that way.”
“Well, what are your dad’s enemies usually like?” I asked.
“He has all kinds of enemies—your basic street criminals, the clinically insane wack jobs, the professional assassins, the corrupt power players who hire them. A lot of them I know because they were around causing trouble while I was growing up, but he was crime-fighting before I was born, and back then he had a bigger range than just our city. He was overseas for a long time, doing—nobody really knows what. So, when I say this old enemy could be anybody, I really mean anybody.”
“So, that storm last night,” I said. “Do you think that could have been your guy?”
“What do you mean?”
“Could this bad guy your dad is chasing have caused it?”
“What?” Daniel actually laughed. “No. There’s no way. I mean, I know people keep saying it’s pretty weird weather for you guys, but that’s not possible. No theonite is powerful enough to make a storm like that all on his own.”
“Of course not. I mean, it’s possible for thirty—maybe twenty-five—theonites to whip up a storm if they know how to coordinate. There are whole fonyaka battalions dedicated to making tornadoes. But one person? That just doesn’t happen.”
“Are you sure?”
“Why?” Daniel looked at me, suddenly interested. “Did you see something?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I felt something… in all that wind and hail… it reminded me of when I use my powers.”
“I don’t get it,” Daniel said. “Why would ice and wind remind you of your powers?”
“Well, I can control them, so—”
“Whoa, wait a second. You what?” Daniel looked at me, incredulous.
“I just said I can control ice and wind.”
“And fire?” Daniel’s eyes had gotten huge.
“Well, yeah. I showed you that, didn’t I?”
“That’s not possible.”
“What? Do most powered people—or theonites—not do that?”
“No,” Daniel said. “Most of us can just do one. If someone’s mixed race, sometimes, really rarely, they’ll pull off two. Like me, for example; I’m mixed, so I can control air a little bit. But I’ve never heard of anyone who was able to control water, air, and fire.” He laughed weakly. “Next you’re going to tell me you can also move solids.”
“Well…” I smiled.
Daniel’s eyes got even bigger. “No,” he whispered. “You can’t!”
In response I lifted a hand and pushed at the chains of Daniel’s swing. Not hard. Just enough to nudge it into motion.
“Whoa!” Daniel started, jumping from the swing in surprise. “What—what—how did you do that?”
“With my powers,” I said flexing my fingers and looking around nervously to make sure there was no way anyone could have seen my little demonstration. “I moved the metal in the chains.” The rubber seat of the swing was too difficult to get a grip on.
“Y-you… you can control metal?” Daniel said, still looking at the swing as though it had given him an electric shock. “That’s… Joan, that’s not normal.”
“Oh, you think?”
“No—I mean, that’s a power that no one has. Anywhere. Ever. See, on Duna, right now, we have tajakalu, who control fire, fonyakalu, who control air, jijakalu—”
“Who control water. Yeah, I remember.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot about your scary-good memory. But the point is, the only other people with powers are the littigiwu, who control light, the sondatigiwu, who control sound, the fankatigiwu, who are super extra strong, and gundumuwu, who are just… weird and gross.”
“But no metal?” I said.
“No metal. A long time ago, there were other theonites—kabakalu and senjakalu—who had power over rock and sand, but even they couldn’t manipulate metal. The only people with power over metal on Duna are folktales and cartoon characters, like the Phantom Numu or Sumanguro the Iron Sorcerer.”
“Well, that’s funny because metals are the easiest thing for me to move.”
“Seriously?” Daniel said. “Metals are the easiest for you? Now, you would make a good superhero on Duna,” he laughed.
“Wait. So, you also have superhero cartoons on Duna?”
“Of course,” Daniel said with a smile. “Tons of them: Kiyaare, Xamanxulle, Sunjara—I grew up on Basadenyaa cartoons, so she’s my favorite.”
“Really?” How did superheroes even work in a world where superhuman powers and anonymous crime-fighters were a part of everyday reality? “What are they like?”
Daniel shrugged. “They’re just made-up people with powers that regular people don’t have—telepathy, flight, walking through walls, that kind of thing. Of course, Dad says, in real life, it’s not the powers that make a crime fighter; it’s the conviction.”
“Where is your dad right now?” I asked. “How come he’s not around?” It seemed kind of weird to leave your thirteen-year-old kid to figure out school in a new dimension all by himself.
“He went to go investigate something in a different city. That’s all he told me, but he’s going to be back some time today.” Daniel frowned as a thought seemed to occur to him. “Unless he’s already back. Let me just check.”
All in one movement, Daniel stood up and jumped, grabbing the top bar of the play structure and swinging himself up onto it with the ease of a professional acrobat.
“I can see our street from here.” He crouched on the thin bar, curling his bare feet around it, perfectly balanced. “And the lights are still out at my house. Dad must not be home yet.”
Getting up from my swing, I jumped up and grabbed the bar. Daniel gave me a hand up and I awkwardly arranged myself so that I was sitting on the thin bar beside him. I didn’t feel all that steady, but it wasn’t like a fall from a mere twelve feet was going to do anything to me.
“Yeah,” I said, picking out my house among the dozens of nearly identical slate rooftops. “My mom’s car’s not in the driveway yet. I still have time.”
“Quiet,” Daniel mused, staring out the rooftops into the distance. “This planet is so quiet.”
“Well, some places are a lot louder than this one,” I said. “You’re a city kid, right?”
“No—I mean, yes, I am. But that’s not why this place is weird to me.” He tilted his head as though still listening for something more through the stillness. “This planet doesn’t… breathe.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. How did a planet breathe?
“I don’t really know what I mean. It just doesn’t have…” He paused and put his fist to his chest, pressing it there as he searched for a word. “Rhythm,” he said finally. “Everywhere on Duna has a sound to it, but here it’s all just quiet, like people don’t even live here. I don’t know how you stand it.”
There were a lot of things I couldn’t stand about living in this town, but the quiet wasn’t one of them. “Maybe it’s the sky,” I suggested.
“What do you mean?”
“The sky, it’s…” but I couldn’t quite describe what the sky was. Too heavy? Too close? “It seems like it wants to rain, but…” My eyes scanned the solid expanse of clouds, “…it’s waiting.”
“You’re kinda weird, you know that?”
“No,” I rolled my eyes. “Really?”
“Weird in a good way,” he assured me, and I couldn’t quite be annoyed. “Anyway everything on this planet is weird to me.” He closed his eyes for a moment and drummed an artful rhythm on the bar with the heels of his hands.
“Daniel?” I said.
“Even if all this stuff you’re telling me is true, then what’s the deal with me? If I’m a—a theonite then how did I get here? And why are my powers so weird?”
“Excuse me, your powers are awesome,” Daniel said, “but if you’re wondering how you got them, I’m just as confused as you are. If you were born here, and your parents are both adyns, and you don’t know about any other theonites on this planet, I don’t know. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“I know.” I felt my shoulders slump in dismay. “It’s never made sense.”
“Hey, what do your parents think of all this?” Daniel asked as though the thought had just occurred to him.
“My parents don’t know.”
“What?” Daniel looked shocked.
“I’ve never told them.”
“But—how? They must have noticed. Even if you were super good at hiding your powers when you were a little kid, you were still a baby once, you still had to be born. It’s not usually easy for an adyn woman to carry a theonite baby. They must have thought something was weird when your mom was pregnant with you.”
“Yeah, they did.” My mother’s pregnancy was actually something of a horror story in my family. I had been removed from the womb by cesarean section after a strenuous nine months that had had Mama bedridden and in agony.
I had almost killed her.
“And, after you were born, they just thought they had a normal adyn baby?” Daniel said in disbelief. “I mean, I know theonite nyamaya doesn’t usually come out until you’re six or seven, but you must have been way stronger than other kids. You must have crawled early, walked early.”
“Yeah.” My parents didn’t really talk about it, but when I’d asked my grandpa, he had painted a harsh picture of my infancy. “My mom couldn’t hold me. When I squirmed around, I bruised her.”
“And they didn’t think that was weird?” Daniel said, incredulous.
“My parents just don’t pay that much attention,” which was a nice way of saying my mom couldn’t cope and my dad was a neglecting bastard.
“What? But—how can you just not pay attention for your kid’s whole childhood?”
“It’s hard to explain,” I sighed. “You have to understand, my parents are the king and queen of denial. They would rather ignore me than have to deal with what I really am. I don’t know why…” I chewed on my lip for a moment, reaching back in my memory for something I could use to explain my parents’ behavior. My thoughts took me back to that day at the daycare, to Mama and Papa arguing outside the car.
“Neither of them are really very good at dealing with stuff that’s out of the ordinary,” I said finally. “My mom used to say we should get me looked at, I think, back when I was still too young to know how to hide my strength. My dad would shut her down and find some excuse to run out on us. It made her so sad, I guess she just got tired of fighting with him. She got tired of everything.”
“That’s not an excuse to ignore you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I mean, I can understand why they—”
“It’s not okay,” Daniel insisted with surprising ferocity. “They’re your family. They brought you into the world. It’s their job to look out for you, no matter how different you are from them. My dad had no idea how to raise a kid who was part fonyaka, but he didn’t just decide he was going to pretend I couldn’t control air because that was easier for him. He did his best to help me with my fonya. That’s what parents are supposed to do.”
Daniel folded his arms across his chest, stewing. I could feel the irritated heat rolling off him like an audible grumble. I had spent a lot of my life being angry at my parents, but I had never had someone else get angry at them on my behalf. I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to feel about it. It kind of made me want to hug him. I didn’t do that. But I did suddenly find unexpected words tumbling from my mouth.
“I was going to tell my grandpa.” It just came out before I realized it was on my lips. “He would have understood—at least I wanted him to. I wanted him to know.” I clasped my hands together. “I was going to tell him.”
“Well, why didn’t you?” Daniel asked.
“I just… never worked up the nerve. I always meant to tell him. For years, the whole time he was alive, I would tell myself ‘this summer, this summer, I’ll do it,’ but I never did. I always made some excuse for myself. Then he got sick and I—I knew there wasn’t much time left, but I just couldn’t do it. I was too scared.”
“Why were you scared?” Daniel asked.
“Bad things happen when people find out about my powers,” I said stiffly.
“You mean… someone has?” Daniel said softly.
Not trusting my voice to work, I nodded.
“It’s a long story.” I looked at the ground. Images of blood and splintered wood flashed through my mind and my hands clenched. But I had to tell him, I realized. I had shared this much of my life with him and I needed him to understand. I needed to tell him about Carson Masters.