Reena cringed as the bag of chips crinkled loudly in her hand as she picked it up. She held up the bag, making a face when she realized it was BBQ-flavored chips, before turning her body toward the end of the aisle. She tilted her head, pretending to pore over the ingredients list, as her eyes tracked behind the bag and to the woman a short distance behind it.
The woman continued to peruse the dips, oblivious to Reena’s attention. She reached for the ranch dip and pushed back wavy locks from her face as she inspected its ingredients. The woman tilted her head, her face scrunched in a familiar manner.
Familiar, because this woman was an impossibility. A deviant. A glitch in the system that was Reena’s universe.
Reena had seen her doppelgänger twice before. The first time was when her doppelgänger jogged past her through the town square. Reena had spun around, but couldn’t get a good glimpse before she turned the corner. The second time was at Anna’s Cafe, when Reena was using the cafe’s WiFi before her condo had internet set up. Reena had watched from her corner booth as her doppelgänger ordered a matcha latte to go. She kept her distance, lest the universe resolve their paradox in an implosive way.
Selunia Falls was, after all, an odd and mysterious place.
But there was no doubt about it. From her vantage point down the aisle, she could tell her doppelgänger had strikingly similar features as her: same wavy locks, same heart-shaped face, and even an exact outfit right down to the black Converse that were staples for Reena’s off-duty attire.
And her doppelgänger had picked out ranch dip. Also Reena’s favorite.
Her doppelgänger put back the dip and slipped out of the aisle. Reena jogged along the aisle. She looked left and right, but her doppelgänger was nowhere to be seen. Reena walked toward the store’s exit, trying to look casual, peering down each aisle as she went.
Perhaps she went outside? Reena shoved through a group of people entering the store.
Reena spun around. A lanky attendant approached her, an apologetic look in his face. Reena snapped. “What?”
The attendant pointed at the bag of chips Reena clutched in her hand. “You’ll need to pay for that.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry!”
The attendant hesitated, his eyes fixated on Reena’s police badge, as if it were a shield that made her impervious to having to pay. Reena was tempted to return the bag of disgusting BBQ chips. There was no way she was going to finish the bag of chips, let alone by herself. But her pride got the better of her and she allowed the attendant to ring up the bag. She then hastily shoved the bag in her backpack and strode to the exit.
A refreshing breeze helped clear her head outside. She headed toward the town hall, where her current assignment was today. She paused before one of Selunia Falls’ churches, one of a handful of religious centers for the town’s practicing denizens. The building was constructed from the same ubiquitous material of the houses, with the same mold as a bowling alley, just with a cross plopped on the top. Reena scratched the back of her hand anxiously, idly wondering if religious tenants extended across the universe. Did heaven open its gates to all creatures? Did hell? Reena gave the cross one last look before pulling up her jacket’s collar and turning away from the church.
At the town hall, Reena tapped her foot impatiently as the security guards inspected the credentials in her laminated card before waving her through the security line. She took the stairs up and prowled through the hallway toward a large balcony. A man leaned on his forearms against the rail, his back towards Reena. He turned when she approached him and beamed a crooked smile. “Good morning, Reena.”
“Arden.” Reena nodded at him. She peered over the rail to the courtyard below, where several people were congregated, their voices filling the space. To any other observer, the crowd would appear to be a normal crowd.
But Reena knew it was anything but normal.
“Are you ready to finally meet them?” Arden asked.
Them. Reena nodded her head, keeping her face impassive.
These people were Karazai. From another planet.
Arden’s eyes followed her gaze before returning back to her. “I take it you read the briefing?” His voice was tentative.
Reena let out the breath she was holding. “I have.”
Several weeks ago, Reena had sat on the floor of her furnitureless living room and pored over pages and pages of documents, signing NDAs until her hand was sore. The NDAs were just a formality really, as Reena’s penchant for secrecy was what landed her this job in the first place.
Not that she wanted to talk about any of her past service as a spy. The lives taken. The lives ruined. Reena scratched her hand again idly. Secrecy was the easy part.
But another species? That shared this universe? That looked similar to us? She couldn’t wrap her head around any of this.
“Any thoughts about your assignment?” Arden asked.
“I’ll admit it’s a lot to process,” Reena confessed. “An extraterrestrial race living among us. That’s something you only read about in science fiction books.”
Arden nodded. “It’s both scary and exhilarating.”
“Exhilarating” isn’t the word I’d pick, Reena thought as she returned her gaze back to the crowd below. Reena wondered who she was sworn to protect—us, or them?
Reena ran her eyes over the crowd. They look just like us.
“Maybe more scary?” Arden offered, as though sensing her discomfort.
Reena snapped back to attention. She shifted nervously. “It’s just a little… freaky.” She looked at Arden beseechingly. “Don’t you think? We have no idea their past, yet we’re supposed to welcome them with open arms.”
Arden leaned back against the rail and sipped on his coffee. “They come in peace.”
Reena sighed at Arden, her eyes darting back to the crowd. “This isn’t some E.T. crap. This is real life. With real consequences. And—” She froze.
It was her again. Her doppelgänger stood in the middle of a crowd, laughing and smiling with others.
Reena sucked in a breath. Could it be? Could her doppelgänger be Karazai?
No. It can’t be.
Arden turned to Reena. “Did you say something?”
“Nothing,” Reena said quickly. A thought crossed her mind. “Do Karazai have shapeshifting abilities?”
Arden gave her a quizzical look. “That’s an odd question. None that we’re aware of.”
“Or none that they would tell you,” Reena muttered, unable to suppress the sneer that laced her words.
Arden squinted at her. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Reena said sharply.
Arden fell silent at Reena’s brisk response. He casted his gaze at the crowd below, his eyes searching. Reena’s eyes were locked on her doppelgänger as her doppelgänger chatted and laughed with a levity in her movements and a smile that came easy.
How did she fit in so easily, given she’s from a different planet? What was her secret? Reena bitterly wondered if her doppelgänger had seen the same ugliness that Reena had in her lifetime.
Reena watched in brooding silence as the crowd below slowly began to disperse toward the exits. After a few more shared laughs, her doppelgänger headed toward an exit.
Arden straightened up, gulping down the last of his coffee. “Looks like their event is over. I’ll grab their leader—”
“I have to go.” Reena ran toward the exit before Arden could say anything else. She raced downstairs toward a double door that led to the parking lot, where her doppelgänger had disappeared. Through the doors, Reena quickened her pace from a jog to a run. She didn’t have to look far to spot her doppelgänger walking toward the street.
Perhaps it was Reena’s labored breathing, or the pounding of her boots on the pavement, or the universe about to implode. Something caught her doppelgänger’s attention, causing her to turn her head toward Reena. Eyes wide in fear, her doppelgänger turned back around and scrambled to a run.
Reena’s had seen this scene hundreds of times in her ten years of espionage. Yet all her training and composure went out the window. “Stop!” she yelled as she took off in a sprint after her doppelgänger. I must know how you exist! She quickly closed the space between her and her doppelgänger—universe be damned!—“Wait!”
A loud HONK rang out and reverberated down to Reena’s bones. Reena froze, her eyes wide at the truck barreling straight toward her. Her brain screamed at her to move, but her body stood petrified.
Then someone yanked Reena forcefully, sending them both flying across the pavement. Reena landed hard on her left arm, sharp gravel cutting her skin. The car screeched to a stop past where she had stood. The smell of burnt rubber assaulted her nose.
Reena turned to her back, too stunned to get up from the pavement. The blurred shapes hovered over her, their concerned voices muffled as though underwater.
Her savior stumbled to her feet beside her, her voice firm as she shooed away onlookers. Then, her savior kneeled over her, her face coming to view through the haze.
Reena blinked, not immediately recognizing the face that peered down at her, even if it did haunt her the last few weeks. Bright brown eyes pierced and probed hers, before slowly pulling away. Could her doppelgänger see it, too? Reena braced herself as her doppelgänger opened her mouth to speak.
“Are you okay?”
Her doppelgänger’s voice was deep—deeper than Reena’s—and husky, with a slight tinge of an accent Reena couldn’t place. Firm, but comforting—alarmingly so.
“Yeah.” Reena groaned as she sat up. She brought her hands up, inspecting the deep scratches in her raw skin from the gravel on the pavement. “Ow.”
“Come.” With a mighty heave, her doppelgänger pulled Reena to her feet and ushered her to the Edge Bar nearby.
Inside the bar’s restroom, her doppelgänger fussed over Reena’s wounds, running water while wiping and dabbing at Reena’s face. Reena had to shoo her doppelgänger away so she could tend to her own wounds. When she looked passably presentable, Reena said, “I could use a drink.”
Finding two empty seats at the bar wasn’t hard. It was, after all, only ten in the morning. Her doppelgänger sat at the far edge of the bar and signaled the bartender, who eyed them suspiciously—maybe even a little judgmentally. “Two whiskeys, please,” Reena mumbled.
If the bartender had any reservations about serving whiskeys in the morning, he kept it to himself. He grunted his acknowledgement before plopping two glasses in front of them and pouring. Reena knocked her glass back in a single breath before signaling for more. She grunted an apology to her doppelgänger, who stared at her in awe. “Sorry, I really needed that.”
“It’s okay,” her doppelgänger said. She held her hand out. “My name is Malina.” When Reena looked at Malina’s hand suspiciously, Malina flashed an apologetic smile. “I heard this is what humans do when introducing themselves.”
“Reena.” Reena shook Malina’s hand. No implosion of the universe, just rough callused hands pressed against her scarred hands.
“So, Reena.” Malina sat back on her chair, her eyes sizing up Reena. “Why were you following me?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Reena gestured to her face. When Malina gave her a blank stare, Reena explained, “We look alike.”
Malina squinted, her eyes running across Reena’s face. “I guess I see the similarities.”
“You guess?” Reena snorted. “You didn’t will your appearance to look like me?”
“‘Will’ my appearance?” Malina laughed. When Reena didn’t laugh back, Malina asked gently. “What madness is this?”
“You must have shape-shifting abilities,” Reena said firmly.
Malina chuckled. “And even if we did, why would I do that?”
“To— for—” Reena fumbled with her words. “Because!”—she groaned— “To pretend you are me!”
Malina blinked. “Why?” she repeated.
“To gain access to top secret places! To escape here!” Reena grasped for words, flustered that the right words eluded her.
Malina just stared at her. “You must know how crazy you sound, right?”
“You have no idea what I’ve seen people do,” Reena said, her voice dark. “What people would do to accomplish their goals.”
The air of levity around Malina deflated, as her infectious smile pulled down to a frown. Reena settled back in a satisfied smirk, expecting Malina’s real character to shine through like the phony Reena knew she was.
In a hoarse voice, Malina said, “I’m sorry for what you’ve seen.”
The sincerity of Malina’s croaked voice disarmed Reena. Guilt flooded in where Reena’s defenses used to be. Reena shrugged, her voice faltering as she said, “It’s a lot to take in. A whole new species, with a culture we don’t know.” She peered at Malina. “I need to understand what motivates you. Is it science? Is it religion? What keeps you from doing bad things?” Reena’s eyes fell. “How do you know if you’re a good person?”
Malina leaned back, her arms crossed. “It’s a lot for us to take in as well. Being abandoned by our planet. Trying to make do with what we have.” She paused. “I guess what keeps us from doing bad things is that we are still people, after all.”
Reena opened her mouth, and shut it, unsure what to say. She lowered her eyes to her glass, her voice quiet. “I guess I never thought about it from your point of view.”
Malina shrugged. “If you’re interested, I can tell you more about my home planet.” Wistfulness tinged Malina’s voice, but with a flicker of a smile failed to meet her eyes.
Reena raised her glass to Malina. “To Karazai.” When Malina eyed it suspiciously, Reena explained. “You tap your drink to mine.”
“What for?” Malina asked.
“Yeah.” Reena tilted her head thoughtfully. “I believe it’s a gesture to cheer for the future, while also acknowledging the past.”
Malina hesitated. A smile spread across her face. “To Earth.” She tapped her drink against Reena’s with a solid clink. “Did I do that right?” she asked sheepishly, her face scrunched.
“That’s right,” Reena said, a smile tugging her lips. She sipped her drink, letting the liquid warm her as she watched her doppelgänger over the rim of her glass. It was as if she really saw Malina for the first time. Malina’s features were sharper than Reena’s. She had appeared petite at a distance, but up close she was actually tall with a slight frame.
Reena chuckled to herself as she put her glass down. Her doppelgänger—no, Malina—was her own person, with her own history. The cracks on her hand, the freckles on her nose—those told a story much different than Reena’s.
Malina placed her glass on the counter. She folded her hands together and smiled. “So. Where would you like to begin?”