I peer with her at the horizon, or what’s left of it. As the storm moves in, it swallows the visible terrain, creating the illusion that we are on a shrinking island of reality being consumed by the Unknown. Less than two minutes have passed since Phethala last spoke, and already the world around us could easily be mistaken for another planet. I am cold, for the first time since I arrived. The sky is blood-red, grey, and black, with angry flashes of orange that delineate the monstrous, opaque clouds that surround us. The Temple now seems a tiny, fragile structure, hardly suitable for protection against this raging phenomenon. Without another word, Phethala hoists her pack over her shoulder and enters the main building, beckoning for me to follow.
As I take cover in the archway, I look back. On the stretch of terrain still visible, I see a horizontal line of darkness emerging from the cloud bank. It broadens to a band, then widens still further, consuming all the terrain at a pace much faster than a person could run. As it approaches, I hear the violent hush of a myriad drops of water hammering into sun-baked sand and earth. It is a wall of rain.
“Wow,” I cannot help exclaiming, as the torrential curtain overtakes our island of refuge and hammers down on the sheet metal roof, loud enough to resound through the great hall as a reverberated chorus of brown noise. My eyes meet Phethala’s, and I realize I am cowering like a primitive ape in the face of the mighty storm. She calmly regards my awe, and a smile crosses her face. I smile with her, and then laugh aloud at myself. She laughs too, and our voices momentarily compete with the roar of the storm.
As though some god of weather is listening with ire, the rain doubles its intensity at that precise moment, and the drumming on the metal dome becomes deafeningly loud. A blinding flash splits the air less than a hundred meters from the archway, followed almost immediately by a sforzando crash of thunder. I recall seeing numerous towering metal rods surrounding the Temple at about that distance. Chawmi’s followers must have encountered storms like this too. I imagine them now, working diligently at their studies and experiments, perhaps listening to the incantations of a mystic leader or a reading from one of Chawmi’s books. I wonder if they ever had a casualty of lightning, before the rods were installed.
The fury of the storm lasts for over an hour before it dies down to something more resembling a traditional heavy rainfall. Phethala and I are seated on simple but comfortable mats on the floor of the hall, with a heat lamp between us like a campfire. We have blankets wrapped around our shoulders, but the cold winds are already dissipating, and I can just barely feel the humid heat of the sun feeling its way through the clouds, eager to kiss the ground once again.
“You have rain like this on your world?” she asks amiably.
I smile. I am about to say no, but then I remember that I have explored very little of my own world. “You know,” I say truthfully, “I really don’t know. I’ve heard some places get pretty wild. I’ve spent so much time travelling in space, I don’t think I’ve seen more than one percent of the surface of my own planet.”
Phethala laughs at this, and I am stricken by how beautiful she is. The soft yellow glow of the heat lamp, the sound of the rain, the primitive feeling of huddling inside a cave-like structure together against the storm—all of these factors combine to make me notice her in a much different way.
“Have you ever travelled to another world?” I ask her.
She shrugs, her eyes meeting mine with a softness as she replies: “No. Sometimes I am curious about the other worlds, but my life is very happy here. And there is much to explore here.”
I notice her grasp of Core is good, but clearly not her first language. I mentally dust off my Trinordian and try a phrase or two. “Would you prefer if I speak in your language?” I offer.
She smiles at my valiance. “Tell you what,” she says in fluid Trinordian, and the words sound like honey dripping off her lips. “I’ll speak in Trinordian, and you speak in Core; that way we’ll both be at our best.”
It is like magic. The clumsiness of language melts away as we talk, and I am introduced to a more intimate version of this remarkable woman. An hour easily elapses as we trade our stories, she of her world, and me of all the worlds I’ve visited. I realize, in this conversation, that the richness of a person’s experience is not dependent on the number of places they have been, but rather on the awareness of that person. I always thought my stories of the Peripheral Worlds were tremendously interesting, but when Phethala describes a single conversation she had with a wise woman while watching the sun set over the desert, it is more interesting to me than my most exotic adventure.
“I feel as though I’ve experienced so much,” I say, “yet you have truly lived.”
Phethala smiles widely, and I think I see the hint of a blush in the lamplight. “It takes a wise man to recognize wisdom.”
She leans over the lamp, and her hands gently tug my blanket, coaxing me towards her. Before I know it, our lips are pressed together in a kiss.