River & Skylar were identical, down to the Ireland-shaped mole on their right buttocks. They had done everything in tandem their entire lives. Their parents, if honest, could scarce tell them apart. So where did the will for self-differentiation begin? Did Skyler, having come into this world 3.25 minutes ahead, feel the need to go farther or age less? Did River tire of being in the shadow and encourage Skylar away with a cooling shoulder? Or did they simply disbelieve, deep down, that even the incommensurability of time could affect a bond such as theirs?
Sklyar did not choose the fastest trip to Alpha Centauri (from the traveler’s frame of reference)—the one designed to make the most difference in order to be gone hardly at all but return to a whole new world of technological innovations bordering on magic. No, the trip Skyler chose, in typical fashion, was just long enough to go and find out what all the fuss was about then return back home—where not much would have changed—to report the results.
They were so convinced of this, they hardly bothered to cry on their last morning together, standing in the tiny kitchen in the tiny house in Vermont where they had always lived. River did the breakfast dishes; Skylar dried them off.
“Anyway, it’s just for four years,” Skylar said.
“Nine,” said River, playing it off.
River dropped Skylar at the spaceport with a brisk hug and a peck on the cheek. Skylar boarded the ramp with the other travelers and took a seat by the window for the initial ascent. It was not that different from the plane trip to Iowa to visit their grandparents. There was the runway, then the town, then the forest, then the clouds. But there was also a feeling like the one time they had tried deep-sea diving and their heads felt like they might pop. Then the ship broke the atmosphere and the clouds resolved themselves into a little blue marble. The whole planet small enough to be held in one hand.
The whole trip was a little like that, to be honest. Space food from little packages that tasted like aggressively chalky protein bars. And, though gravity was technically turned on, an almost lightness to every movement. And then there were the people. Skylar had never bothered to settle into communication with other humans. They never understood the way River did. But River wasn’t there, and it was a bit lonely. So eventually Skylar made other friends and told stories and shared dreams in the mess with the more adventurous types who had made trips like this one before. In time, there were even dalliances—a girl who smelled like talcum, a boy who sang like the moon.
The strangest part of the journey was the dark. Skylar had not been prepared for this. River & Skylar loved the outdoors, loved taking their hound Papi down to the quarry to chase the squirrels or to the brook for swimming. But there were no trees in outer space. Coffee, but no sunrise to enjoy it by. Outer space was a vast, ink-darkened page with pinpoints of possibility dotted here and there. It was both thrilling and terrifying and Skylar, who was not used to being alone to sort out thoughts such as these, took to poetry. By the time they arrived at Proxima B, Skylar had read every volume on board and had written reams, as well. Skylar even let the moon-boy read them. He said they reflected a “global consciousness.” Skylar flushed.
Then, in what felt like no time, they arrived.
They stayed just long enough to see the main sun rise, rust-red and immense, over the horizon and to then watch Alpha AB flash across the sky like headlights. Skylar didn’t sleep at all but sat with a cup of coffee beneath an unfamiliar type of tree on a mountain in a UV dome on a foreign planet throughout the whole thing—many hours from an Earth perspective. Each new star cast different types of shadows as it made its presence known, added depth and complexity to the rocky landscape. Three suns. Skylar had never once thought and could not capture it all in words, only knew there was more in the universe than either River or Skylar had ever suspected.
Skylar barely spoke on the journey back home. Just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, waiting to see River to spill it all out. To explain and talk over and make sense of and digest.
Skylar stepped off the platform back at the Burlington spaceport and looked around. River was supposed to be there, but where? There were families gathering and embracing. But no single person. No singular other half.
Then someone stepped forward. Not someone, someoneS. A family. Partners, holding a baby between them. Surely, not? But that wrinkle in the left eyebrow and the half dimple. Those were Skylar’s own. Even if there was grey in the hair where Skylar had none. River. And their next-door neighbor.
And a baby.
Skylar watched them for a moment, saw three stars flashing across the night sky, then walked down off the ramp.