“I love this place…” Your voice is gentle, almost grateful for what surrounds us.

You’re leaning against the bridge’s railing. Your look is lost in the lights reflecting on the water, moved by colorful ripples. Blues, reds, yellows, greens float and flow slowly, glittering in your brown eyes.

Voices and laughs, lost in the night, give profoundness to the moment but concede us an idea of intimacy.

I see the dream you’re lost in, desiring to kiss you, hoping to grasp even just a pinch of the powerful life hiding inside you.

That powerful life I so desperately need, that powerful life feeling like the last chance to slip out of all the darkness around me.

***

Our fingers tangle and then rest on your leg as we drive in the night. Headlights struggle to pierce the thick fog embracing us. It wants to steal the warmth that we have inside us, but it’s useless. We’re strong together, warmer than sunlight, brighter than a star, more powerful than the very Big Bang.

You look at me, I look at you, and your smile tells me, “I love you.”

Even though I can’t see anything through the fog, I can see everything now.

And all I see is you.

 

This story also appeared on Medium.

Hospitals tended to be strange places. One could find the most varied examples of humanity, from the elder dying of natural causes, to the kid who had just been run over by a bus. Andrew’s grandmother was just old and slowly walking her final path toward eternal peace. Nothing special, nothing loud. Just life and nature, running their proper course. Making room for new life, freeing molecules and atoms for new beings, not necessarily human, not necessarily animal.

Andrew had these inappropriate thoughts in his mind as he entered the room. He opened the door cautiously. His grandmother was sleeping. He fought disappointment away, but he was unsure on what to do. Waking her would be rude. Going away would mean wasting his time. Part of him just wanted to run. In hospitals, every option became inappropriate, as if nothing one did ever felt right.

He looked around the room. He could sit on the chair and wait for his grandma to wake up, but what if she wouldn’t? Visit time was strict and he had to leave in half an hour. He looked at her. An odd expression was on her face, one of peace mixed with boredom. She was not sleeping soundly, Andrew thought. It was afternoon. She had probably fallen asleep because she had no other things to do, no one to talk with. Elders tended to do that. Was she dreaming? Of her youth perhaps.

Andrew left the room, heading for the cafeteria. Walking by other rooms, he glanced inside, imagining stories about their occupants. Feelings and lives mixed with plastic tubes and steel needles. Soft and hard. Room after room, most patients were elders, he noted. They all ended up dying in a cold hospital room, surrounded by nameless strangers. Peacefully, if they were lucky, or in unbearable pain, if they were not.

His grandmother was among the lucky. She had no particular illness; she was just aging to death. Was she lucky? Was it a good thing, dying slowly in a hospital bed? That was the question. Andrew didn’t have an answer. It was not his life on the brink of the end. One could not decide for anyone but themselves. One’s hopes were not necessarily someone else’s. It was the same for her. Andrew hoped she would die peacefully, but that meant she would have to live an existence on a slight slope, ever skidding toward the bottom but never reaching it. She should be allowed to decide for herself.

At the bar, Andrew ordered a coffee and sipped at it standing in a corner. Doctors and nurses crowded the cafeteria, but there also were visitors, like him. The two sides of death, he thought. People trying to prevent it, and people sorely waiting it. People reacted in different ways when they confronted death. Not theirs, but that of others. Many cried, some didn’t. Others preferred mourning in private. Some became icebergs, like Andrew. They built a façade, one of ice and coldness that showed little of what was behind. They were not cold—far from it—but they were scared. So scared, in fact, that they had to protect themselves from the blow. They braced, they crouched not to fall to the ground, dragged down by their own feelings. But that was not the case, he thought. Not yet. His grandmother was getting better and she would soon return home. So that everyone could get back to soothing daily routines.

Andrew knew it, but he felt guilty nonetheless. No one cried because their grandmother had died, but because they would not see her ever again. Religion gave very little comfort. The illusion that loved ones were waiting in the heavens was puerile and useless. The doctors and nurses in the cafeteria knew it very well. They watched those very mechanisms in action every day. Patients came in, only some got out. He admired them for their tenacity, but wondered whether their apparently thick skin would protect them when they would face death. A relative, a son perhaps. No. No one could prepare for something out of their control. Like feelings.

He left the cafeteria, throwing the paper cup into a trashcan. He found his grandma still sleeping in her room. Glancing at his watch, he noted he still had twenty minutes’ worth of visit time, so he sat on the chair near the bed. He looked at his grandmother, at the furrows on her face and hands. He went to shake her awake, but something stopped him midway.

Egoism. The desire to avoid an unpleasant, trite conversation. He knew the script too well. She would ask him how he was doing, how was work. He would give her fake answers, not wanting to load her with even more dark thoughts, because she had enough already on her own. She would complain about her health—and righteously so—but Andrew did not want to listen, not once more. Nodding, faking soothing words while thinking about running away. How was that any better than simply ignoring her?

Then, Andrew remembered why he was there. The real, hidden reason of his visit to his dad’s mom. He didn’t know it when he crossed the threshold of the room, his mind had buried it deep, but he understood the motive as he sat there, watching her. He had a specific task, but he had seen it only when he removed the thick curtain of egoism that he had built around him, a glimmer of unselfishness slipping through it.

His grandmother deserved not to feel alone. She deserved to feel loved and important and missed, however harrowing that was to him.

He skidded the chair closer to the bed, trying not to make too much noise. Her head was slightly bent toward the other side of the bed, facing the window.

Andrew gently shook her shoulder, whispering her name.

She did not move.

 

This story also appeared on Medium.

“Take him.”

“Activating tractor beam… now.”

A soft, deep humming sound could be heard, even from the bridge. The lights dimmed a bit, as the tractor beam sucked the bulk of the ship’s power.

“Subject locked, coming away nicely. This guy’s fat, weights a ton.”

“Keep it going, we should have enough power.”

“I hope you’re right.”

The lights flickered for a brief moment, and an alarm went off.

“What the hell! What was that? Did we lose the subject?” Rind panicked, but only just a bit. He was not supposed to panic. Not visibly at least.

“Nope, we still have it, but it seems we’ve hit something.”

“Like what?”

“Let me see. Kill that alarm please.”

Rind obeyed, although it was usually the other way round – Gek obeying to Rind. At any rate, the alarm ceased. A red light kept blinking on the main command module console.

“It looks like we went through an aerial power line. We have cut it.”

“No! Damn it, not again! You know what that means?”

“Yeah,” said Gek, visibly worried.

“We’ll have to suit up, go outside, and fix it.”

“I know.”

“Then we’ll have to come back and decontaminate. It’ll take forever.”

“I know.”

“Oh, you know?”

“This is not my fault! The beam driver did not detect the damn wire.”

“Ok, listen up,” Rind said, “we’re going to clean up this mess. Fix things. Avoid contact with humans. Cover our traces.”

“Yes, I know the drill.”

Ding! Another alarm went off. Ding! Ding!

They both looked at the command console. It was relaying video from an external camera.

“Oh no. A human is shooting at us.”

“Freeze that sucker,” Rind said, now almost pissed off.

“We don’t have enough power. We’re still running the tractor beam.”

“Damn. How far is our original subject?”

“Thirty-three meters.”

“How high above the ground?”

“We can’t do that.”

“How high?” Rind was almost shouting now.

“Three meters.”

“Drop him.”

“Are you serious? He could get hurt.”

“Do I look like I’m joking? We must catch the other one and wipe him.”

“He will at least wake up.”

“I know. As soon as he’s on the ground, we’ll freeze them both.”

“Right. Killing tractor beam… now.” The fat man fell on the ground. Predictably, he woke up with a fair amount of pain and a couple of broken bones.

“Good. Freeze them.”

“Doing that now.”

Zzaap! Zzaap! The two humans froze in place, with their eyes open and looking toward the spaceship, with a mixed expression of awe and fear. Probably less awe and more fear.

“Now, let’s land and clean this mess up.”

The ship slowly descended while landing gear deployed automatically. The ship touched the wet grass below. Cows mooed while running away, either scared or just annoyed. After all, they were happily sleeping before all these “sentient beings” started making awful noises.

Gek and Rind went to the EVA preparation room. They helped each other wearing suits, and then they checked power, life support systems, and finally their radios. Everything seemed fine, at least for what they could tell. One never knew when things unexpectedly stopped working.

They proceeded into the airlock and closed the inner hatch. A green light appeared on the roof, signaling that the ship was sealed.

“You go first,” Gek said, hopeful.

“No, this time it’s your turn. I don’t want to get shot at again.”

“Shot at? They were throwing rocks at you.” Gek tapped on his portable command module, strapped to his middle wrist. The outer hatch opened with a thud and a short hiss. He reluctantly stepped outside and slowly descended the narrow ladder that was below. When he reached the last rung, he noticed that the ground was almost a meter below him.

“Ship’s too high. We must request a landing gear recalibration as soon as we get back.”

“Roger that. Just jump.”

Gek jumped, underestimating the weight of the suit and equipment he was carrying.

“Ouch!”

“Oh, come on, it’s not that high.”

Rind jumped as well. “Ouch!”

Gek let go a short laugh.

“Shut up. Let’s get to work.” He gestured toward the fat man. “Wipe the fat one. I’ll do this other one with the gun.”

“Right.”

The air was still. Stars shone bright in the sky, as the moon had not yet risen. The house was in an isolated area just outside town, and no one else was around. It was a perfect night for an abduction.

“Keep your eyes open, there could be other humans around.”

They parted, each walking towards one of the two men.

Gek reached the fat one. He was laying on the ground with his eyes wide open in fear. “This one peed in his pants.”

“Just wipe him.”

“I hate this job. I’d rather work in the mines on Mars.”

“You know we’ve shut mines down when humans have started landing rovers and crap on Mars.”

“You know what I mean.”

Rind said nothing.

Gek pulled the Memory Wiper from his toolbelt and pointed it at the head of the human. He pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. “This thing doesn’t work.” He pulled the trigger a few more times. “Crap.”

“Mine works. Just a second.” Rind wiped the human-with-gun’s memory and walked towards Gek. When he got there, he wiped fat-human’s memory. There was a one-in-three-hundred chance that memory wiping didn’t work, but that was not their problem. They were just following the procedure.

“What now?” Gek asked.

“We take this one and bring him onboard manually. We can’t run the tractor beam while on the ground.”

“What about the other?”

“I don’t know. I guess we can take him as well. Two for the price of one. Besides, we can’t leave him here.”

“I hate this job.”

“You said that already. Go get two stretchers.”

Gek walked back to the ship. Rind kept his eyes open on the scene. “Oh, and take some AnyMat for repairing the power line,” Rind said over the radio.

“Right, I almost forgot about that. I’ll take a couple bags, should be enough.”

After a few minutes, Gek was back. He was pushing two hovering stretchers. “There’s a problem. We have no AnyMat pellets on the ship.”

“This is ending badly.”

“Supply’s so messed up that I’m surprised we even have enough fuel to get back.”

“Hmm. Do we have enough fuel to get back?”

“Actually… I haven’t checked.”

“Awesome,” Rind said. He paused for a moment. “We’ll take care of that later. Now we have to get backup for this. Call the mothership and request another squad. Let them fix the power line, we’ll just take the two humans.”

“They won’t send another squad just for that, it’s too expensive, and even if they did, it would take hours. It would be morning by the then.”

“Shit!” Rind was now genuinely worried, but he knew the suit hid most of his expressions.

“I have an idea,” Gek said reluctantly.

“You have an idea.”

“Yes. Do you think you’re the only one capable of thinking?”

“I’m listening.”

“We go inside the human house and see if we can find something that’s made of copper. We can use the Molecular Blender to build the couple meters of wire we need. We should find plenty of plastic for insulation.”

“As much as I hate to admit it, that might work.”

“You’re welcome,” Gek said sarcastically.

“Right, let’s get these two in cryo on the ship first.”

They loaded the two bodies on the hovering stretchers and pushed them back to the ship. Gek tapped on his portable command module and lowered an elevator from the belly of the ship. It stopped a meter and a half above ground. They loaded the stretchers on the platform, not without some difficulty. Fat-man fell from the stretcher. His left arm bent at a funny angle. “Without a scratch” was bound to interpretation after all, especially if logistics got in the way. The ship would repair the two humans while they were in cryo.

After a couple more tries, the two bodies were “safely” on the elevator platform. A few taps on Gek’s command module, and the ship retracted the platform.

“I’ll get the ship take care of the humans,” said Gek while tapping on command module.

“Good.”

“It will get them to soft cryo. Just a sec.”

“Take your time.”

“Done, they’re decontaminating now. We can go.”

They walked back to fat-human’s house. Everything was dark and silent. They could only hear the cows mooing in the adjacent fields. They were calmly chewing now, and some were gradually coming closer to the ship, apparently no longer scared.

“Nice cows, uh?”

“We have plenty already. Let’s go inside.”

Gek tried the door handle. “It’s locked. Let’s see if there’s another door on the back.”

They walked along the wall of the house, to their right. They reached the far corner of the building, and Gek peered on the other side. “There’s a dog kennel. The dog must be somewhere around.” He scanned the area. “I don’t think it’s sleeping.”

“Do you see any movement?”

“Nope.”

“Ok, go on. Just be careful.”

After a few paces, something moved in the distance.

“Wait,” whispered Rind, although they were talking over the radio and their suits muted everything. “Did you see that?”

“Yes. It must be the dog.”

The dog barked.

“Freeze that damn thing.”

“I can’t, I don’t have the stunner. I can zap it with my laser.”

“No, no casualties, you know the rules.”

“It’s just a dog.”

The dog got closer. It wasn’t running, but with its brisk pace it seemed determined to understand what was happening.

“Shit. Don’t move. Don’t breathe.”

The dog reached them and started intently sniffing their legs. After it had satisfied its curiosity, it proceeded to pee on Rind’s left leg.

“Oh fuck. That’s great! Terrestrial dog pee on my suit.”

Gek couldn’t avoid laughing.

The dog trotted back to its kennel, seemingly happy.

“Don’t worry,” said Gek, still laughing. “Decontamination will clean that. Although I’m not sure the smell will go away, as it’s mostly ammonia. Probably decontamination will leave ammonia as it is harmless.”

“We’ll take care of this later,” Rind bellowed. “Go on now.”

They reached the door on the back, always keeping an eye on the dog.

Gek tried the knob. It unlocked and the door opened. It was dark inside, and everything was quiet. They went in.

“What are we looking for?” Rind asked, not liking being led.

“Something that contains copper and some plastic.” Gek looked around. It looked like a kitchen. “I’ll take that thing, it should be enough plastic to make the insulation for the wire.” He pointed at a large plastic bucket on the floor.

“Let’s see the rest of the house.”

They reached the bathroom and Gek pointed at the washing machine. “We could take the electric motor that’s inside this machine.”

“It will take forever.”

“Yes, but it contains a large amount of pure copper. It should be enough.”

Rind didn’t look impressed. “Ok, do it. I’ll have a look around,” he said as he walked away.

Gek took his multi-tool, which he kept attached to his belt. He tore off the side panel of the machine and looked inside. The motor was there, covered in a thick layer of dust and soot. He instinctively blew from his mouth. “That was stupid,” he said to himself. He reached inside with two hands, using the third to balance himself against the wall, and tried to wipe off some of the dirt. The motor came off suddenly, breaking its support bolts. “Shit!” Apparently, the machine was rusting to pieces.

“What?” Rind asked over the radio.

“Nothing. I’ve got the motor.”

“That was quick.”

“Where are you?”

Rind didn’t answer.

“Rind?”

“Yeah?”

“Where are you?” Gek put the motor in the plastic bucket, took the handle, and walked back to the kitchen. “Rind? We have no time for this.”

“I’m coming.”

Rind walked into the kitchen.

“What were you doing?”

“There were books.”

“Books? We can’t take them,” Gek said, then added with a mocking tone, “You know the rules.”

“I didn’t take any book. I was just looking through a few of them.”

“Found anything interesting?”

“Nope. Anatomy books. There were pictures of nude female humans.”

“We already have human anatomy in our computers. No need for that.”

“Yes, I know. I was just curious. Did you take the motor?”

“Yes,” Gek said, slightly raising the bucket.

“Good, let’s go. The power line is not far.”

They went outside. The dog was still sleeping in its kennel. They walked toward one of the two wooden poles. The wire hung loose, and it was clearly visible that a chunk of about one a half meters was missing, burned away by the powerful tractor beam.

Gek looked upwards. “I still don’t understand how a tractor beam burns everything in its path but keeps humans alive.”

“It’s something about it being focused properly. I don’t know. It just works that way.”

Gek exhaled, letting the matter slip off. “Levitation modules?”

“Yeah. I don’t see any other way.”

“It will be tight. We have a few minutes’ autonomy with these old suits.”

“I know. We must be quick.”

Rind walked to the other pole, fifteen meters away. They powered the levitation modules on their suits and slowly got to the top of the two wooden poles.

In a few minutes, they fixed the power line, using their Molecular Blenders – which worked surprisingly well – to melt and reshape the materials they had taken from the house.

“Very good. Let’s go home,” Rind said, satisfied with the job.

“Yep.”

“Are we forgetting anything?”

“Hmm. I think we’re fine.”

They walked back to the ship, climbed the ladder, and jumped inside the airlock. The outer hatch closed, and the automatic decontamination procedure started. Something hissed. A red light blinked overhead.

“I hate this job.”

“You said that already. Two times, if I am not mistaken. Instead of whining, why don’t you remote-pilot this wreck back to the mothership while we decontaminate?”

“Right,” Gek answered. He started tapping on his portable command module. After several long minutes, something beeped, the red light stopped blinking and the inner hatch opened. They went outside the airlock, removed their suits, and proceeded back to the bridge.

“The ship says we’ll arrive in four and a half hours. Oh, and we do have enough fuel,” Gek said.

“Good. You know, all this could have turned out much worse. At least no one else saw us.”

The doors opened and they went inside.

“Yes, except them.” Gek pointed at two humans, standing in front of them on the bridge.

 

This story also appeared on Medium.

I feel her.

She’s in the same crowded subway car I am. I can feel the energy flowing in her veins, powerful, unstoppable, almost uncontrollable. I can sense the sharpness with which her brain perceives the fourth dimension, ticking at unison with every atom.

We’re not many now. Those of us who can jump. Those of us who are unstuck in time.

Who is she? Maybe the redhead girl. I’ve always had something for redheads. Yes, it must be her.

She can feel me, I’m sure. And yet she doesn’t know who I am. We’re so close to one another, in space and in senses. We’re as rare as two identical snowflakes, and as ephemeral.

It’s been a while since the last time I sensed another jumper. Four years, give or take a couple months. It was a kid, he might have been fourteen. One moment he was walking a dozen yards in front of me on a street, the next they were shoving him into an unmarked black van. Nobody would see him again. I jumped and saved myself, but they saw me.

The normals think we’re dangerous. And maybe we are. We humans are not supposed to travel in time. We can make strange things happen. Dangerous things. World-falling-apart things.

The train stops at the station with a jerk.

From the other side of the car, the redhead looks at me, her eyes piercing. Yes, it’s her. I knew it. Our timelines sync for a fraction of a second, just enough to tell each other “Hey. It’s me.” We don’t need words. It’s so powerful and intimate that it reminds me of sex, every time. It’s a bit weird if the other is a man, but you get used.

The doors open.

This time they’re here for me. They’re swift in placing the antijump cuff on my wrist. They’re strong as they drag me away.

I resist for a second, kicking and screaming, just enough to resync my timeline and tell her “Jump!”

Everyone is looking at the show I’m putting on. A blink of an eye and she’s gone, unseen.

She’s the last jumper I’ll ever sync with. But that’s quite all right. It was a matter of time.

This short story also appeared on Medium.

I wake up, my eyes wet with tears. It’s dark and the place feels unfamiliar, but I am alive. Another day, the same nightmare.

I stretch my limbs and look up from my cot. The ceiling is low and grey, patches of rust and soot marking it here and there. I get up and grab some stale bread to munch on as I browse through the night’s reports. Two attacks, nine casualties and twelve wounded. A few more weeks like this and there won’t be anyone left to hold position. There won’t be anyone left at all.

They are winning and we are losing. We are losing everything. Our homes and our loved ones. Everything.

My wife is gone. My friends are gone. I am alone in a battered land of strangers. I don’t even know why I keep fighting. Perhaps because it’s what my soldiers expect of me. Yes. I do it for them, even if I know it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any difference. We have no hope left, but only few are strong enough to admit it to themselves.

I dwell for a moment on the dream still clouding my thoughts. I know it too well, but its meaning drifts away from me.

***

The glass surface of the tall building reflects the sun, urging me to avert my eyes. The street is empty and the air is cold, but I am sweating slightly inside my clothes. I proceed on the sidewalk with a steady, fast pace, sure of my intentions.

I push open the large wooden door that leads inside. The hall is crowded and noisy and I must slice through the mob with my arms, working my way to the door in the corner. Shoulders hit shoulders, and I grunt before reaching the steel door to the staircase. I turn the big, black handle and pull. The door is heavy but moves smoothly, its hinges properly lubricated.

I start climbing the stairs, floor after floor. My calves ache, but I don’t stop. I focus on the soothing rhythm of my feet on the steps. It is surprisingly pleasant, swiping away all my thoughts until there’s just a constant thump-thump.

I ignore the signs hung at each landing. I don’t know how high I am, but I don’t care. I have to go the top. I will know when I am there. I just wish my pain could end like this stairway does.

I think about my life. I am beyond sad. I am resigned, aware that nothing will ever change, in an endless sequence of repeating voids. Sporadic illusions of hope engulf me with energy, only to stay with me for the blink of an eye. I am almost euphoric now, but perhaps it’s only a wicked version of a runner’s high. I want to question my feelings.

I reach yet another landing. I turn to my right, but a steel door lies in front of me. I push it open, the sun coming inside and instantly warming the grey air of the concrete staircase. I take a few tentative steps outside, thin gravel crunching beneath my feet. The cold air freezes the sweat on my face and turns my breath into smoke.

There are people outside on the rooftop. Who are they? Why are they here? Why am I here? They turn their blank expressions to me. I walk forward and a thud tells me the door has closed behind me.

The sky is impossibly blue, and the air is terse, without a hint of haze on the horizon. I see other buildings in the distance. I walk slowly and reach the end of the rooftop, just air between me and the streets below. I turn my back to the void.

I try to focus on the reason why I am here, but it still fails me. I can’t think straight. The others are just a few meters away when I move backward and my heels hit the outer ledge. I step onto it without turning back, only shooting a glance over my shoulder. I stand on the edge, arms slightly raised on my sides. I feel my heart racing fast in my chest.

There is something in the back of my mind, something that doesn’t work, something wrong. Damn. It’s only inches away and I can’t grasp it. The others are almost on me, and the door to the staircase is closed. I am defeated.

***

Will I jump one day? In my dreams? Perhaps.

I walk outside and distant gunfire welcomes me, as if to remind me of the world I live in. My lieutenant gives me the salute. She’s the formal type and keeps doing it even if I’m not military.

“No incoming fire, sir,” she says with proud voice.

I nod and walk forward to have a look at the battlefield beyond the trench line. We’re fighting a twentieth-century war a century too late. We are slaughtering and being slaughtered. Steel against flesh. Those who knew what happened are no longer around to tell us. We only know war. We only know death.

The battlefield is foggy, and the low sun makes it look ghostly. With my eyes I follow confused footsteps in the mud until they disappear in the fog. Whose are they? Is the person who left them dead? Are they mine? I look at my boots, old, black and dirty, fooling myself that it does matter.

I scan the horizon from east to west. Everything looks quiet, but the fog conceals the harsh reality of what lies in front of me. Hundreds of dead bodies, their dreadful stench defeating the winter.

I turn back and watch my lieutenant march down the trench. She has purpose in her movements. I wish I could get some of it for myself. Some strength. Other soldiers are scattered twenty yards behind the line, chatting and joking just outside their rusting barracks. One of them nods at me, and I nod back. What’s his name? Dan. Yes, Dan. Just another fool.

The slight breeze coming from the battlefield covers my skin in goose bumps. I stare through the mist for a few moments. I am missing something, like when I used to leave home for work without my wallet. That peculiar sensation telling me something is out of place, not where it ought to be. I look down, and I picture my assault rifle near my cot, inside the barrack. I like it being there, away from me. I like being away from it. I am free.

I take a couple of steps back, and then I lunge forward to the other side of the trench, walking briskly into the mud, into the fog.

“Sir?” someone calls behind me. “Sir!”

I don’t answer, mist already hugging me tight. I smile to myself and walk toward the end.

This short story also appeared on Medium.