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.

At first it wasn’t clear if they were “little green men.” They sure weren’t green.

Everyone believed they were not human – everyone knew it – but media did not get hold of much scientific information. The point was, I think, that not much scientific information was circulating.

Since when they had landed in a Swiss valley in January, speculation grew to silly proportions. Authorities were unprepared, struggling to control the crowds forming outside the tiny military base. Americans were surprised the creatures hadn’t shown up in the US. They were baffled, really.

In retrospect, landing in a historically-neutral Country was a smart move, one that showed intelligence and knowledge.

At any rate, on the third day, experts arrived from many UN member states – linguists, psychologists, biologists, doctors. After a while and countless attempts at communicating with the creatures, things got boring and media reduced coverage.

Weeks passed with the odd headline appearing on newspapers every now and then.

“The creatures are still on a tight diet.”

“Aliens got interested in flowers!”

I was happy, I admit. I mean, I was scared of them. Many were. We weren’t spared panic and chaos scenes typical of movies. Truth be told, most trouble happened in the US.

Knowing that, after all, they meant no harm to us… that made me feel somewhat safe again.

I used to live at a hundred kilometers from where they had landed. Or rather, they appeared, out of nowhere. No spaceships, no vehicles, and, luckily, no death rays. One day they had just shown up to the party, walking with a funny pace on the street of a small alpine town. As soon as residents had called police, the two creatures had been escorted away by an armed squad.

It all began to look like a surreal reality show, streamed in real time on the web. Media reported no significant progress. Even visual communication with pictures and photographs did not seem to spark anything within those two creatures. Without ever attempting any form of communication, they looked like autistic children.

Perhaps they were.

We all expected them to be superior to us. Perhaps they were not. Perhaps they simply didn’t want to talk to us. Not yet.

The two aliens did not eat. They did not produce waste. They did not speak. But if you looked close enough, they were indeed communicating. They appeared interested in our environment. Sometimes they stared at the simplest of things, like a flower, for long moments without moving.

They were interested in us. They slowly built a close relationship – a mute one – with three or four of the brightest scientists that were working with them. The aliens even touched the humans. The first time, one of them fainted. The scientist I mean. I think she was a biologist. She got a concussion and a few days’ rest. The creature did not seem to register, at least from what you could see on TV. He (or she?) just stared at the scientist lying on the floor.

After six months, scientists still did not understand how the creatures fed or if they did at all. Noninvasive tests revealed only that their biology was completely different from ours and from those found on Earth.

Although they were learning about us much more than we were learning about them, some of the scientists, the ones closer to the aliens, were sure there was something in their eyes. Intelligence, for sure, but emotion as well.

Everyone, or almost everyone, was convinced that they did not mean harm to us or to our planet. I wondered what harm could two individuals do. I mean, we have nukes. Not we, as in Italians, but we as humans. These two aliens, these two beings, they were nude, unarmed, and did not express much physical force. Not more than what they needed to move around and explore their surroundings.

What harm could they do?

It was decided to let them free. Always escorted and surveilled, but still free. Until then, they had been de facto prisoners, but they had not complained. We finally gave them the freedom they deserved but never asked for.

Surprisingly, humanity coped pretty well this time. Only a few isolated incidents. No deaths. That was an achievement in itself, I guess.

They began exploring the area. They never ventured too far from the base and they returned regularly. Scientists noted that could mean they understood the meaning of home. When they moved in the streets, there always was a trail of curious people, soldiers, and scientists. And journalists too.

The creatures did not seem to care about the crowd, but every once in a while, they stopped and stared at the people. They never interacted with anyone. They didn’t communicate between them either, not in a visible way. They were very careful in how they behaved, how they approached the world, how they touched things. They seemed particularly good at avoiding to upset us, even involuntarily.

The most polite creatures Earth had ever seen.

***

It was my birthday. My seventeenth birthday. I remember it perfectly. The TV was on.

“They are gone!”

“ET just went home!”

I cried. I cried a lot.

I didn’t care how, why, where, or when. They were just gone, and I missed them. I had never met them, but still, I missed them. Can you miss someone you have never met?

The team of scientists, with nothing better to work on, began watching the thousands of hours of footage recorded during the year the aliens had stayed with us. After a few weeks, some were sent home. In a year or so, the team was finally disbanded. Budgets were reallocated. Space programs ramped up again with renewed energy and resources, and with the certainty we were not alone in this universe. We just did not know where to look or how far we’d have to go.

Over the next decade, everything slowly got to normality. Wars, a couple economic meltdowns, climate change debates, political skirmishes… good old Earth, I guess. Some even argued the whole aliens story was a giant hoax. A farce. Moon landing-style.

I started to suspect it as well. After all, very few had supposedly met the creatures in person. The rest of the world had watched it on TV. It was at least plausible; the only question was, why?

***

There was a bright full moon outside. I could clearly see it from the window of my living room. It was a cold March night.

Exactly twelve years, three months, and five days had passed since the day they had left Earth.

That day, they were back again.

Like the first time, no spaceships, no vehicles. They just appeared out of nowhere, exactly at the same time in every part of the world.

The problem was, this time they were a lot. Millions, according to the TV. And they were everywhere. They liked cities, mostly. I would say they liked humans. They liked us.

When they had left, I had cried. I had been desperate. Fast-forward twelve years, and I was scared. We all were.

They had invaded us. They were too many for us to tolerate.

People locked inside, peering through the windows.

All these aliens, they still looked harmless, but how could we be sure? They were so many!

The next morning, most creatures had gone away; there were just a few of them outside my house. The TV said there had been no attacks and no deaths. Another human achievement.

We as a species kept our bearing in front of millions of alien creatures. Perhaps we were just too scared to do anything, but I believe we were somewhat prepared, if only just a bit.

I ventured out.

***

Upon more accurate estimates, the global count was around a hundred thousand. We had a hundred thousand aliens walking on our planet. Our home.

That was fine. It felt good, to me at least. We made it through a few weeks, but not without trouble. There had been fights. A total of five hundred and thirty-three aliens had been killed, and several hundreds more injured.

The fights continued for a while and they did not fight back. They let us kill them without fighting back. Without even retreating, without even running away.

Who is harmful, who is dangerous here? That’s us.

We managed to harm more than a thousand creatures. A few dozens of us got injured in the process. We’re not even able to handle ourselves, are we?

And suddenly, without as much as an announcement, a ceremony, anything, they started talking. They talked to us. They talked to anyone who dared enough to talk to them, in any language spoken on Earth.

They knew pretty much anything and everything. They knew about the universe, about Earth, the Moon and the Solar System. They knew about black holes. They confirmed that the theory of general relativity is correct. Way to go, Albert!

They said they were from Alpha Centauri Bb. How funny. Thousands of potential Earth-like planets surveyed in the past two decades, and the one harboring life – intelligent life – is the closest to us.

Their species is eighty-nine million Earth-years old. It evolved over time obviously – evolution works everywhere, it seems – but they were intelligent, self-conscious beings when dinosaurs ruled Earth.

We were not ready. We were being overwhelmed with knowledge, much of it beyond our comprehension.

One thing they refused to tell, however, was how they got here. How do you move a hundred thousand living creatures so far and so fast without as much as a bicycle? It was probably too much for us to handle.

I went out one morning and asked one of them why were they here, why they were helping us.

The creature answered matter-of-factly that they weren’t helping us. Instead, they were helping themselves.

I did not understand the meaning right then. It took me a few hours to process, and then it hit me like a punch in the guts.

They were forcing scientific progress on us to save themselves. They were steering us clear of what they saw as a barbarian age, an age that in a few hundred years would probably see us evolved enough to harm them and their home planet.

***

They did not go away this time. They say they are staying.

They’re helping us. They’re tutoring us, actually. They never give us tools, or technology, or machines. They teach us how to build them. It’s a lesson of humility on our side, but a very tiny price to pay.

They helped us achieve unimaginable scientific advances. In a few years, we got cold nuclear fusion. We got space engines that could push us at ninety percent of the speed of light without killing us.

Now we can send men and women outside the solar system and get them back, safe, in a few weeks.

Tomorrow we’re launching a mission to their home planet. They invited us. They got to pick who is going; we got to build the spacecraft. The problem is cramming enough food into the spaceship for the forty of us that are going. It seems even they can’t help us with our insatiable need of water and food. We just function that way. That’s why our people will have to come back in fifteen years, as there’s nothing we can eat on their planet.

It’s an adventure for some. Scientific research for others, like my brother. For me, it would be a fantastic dream. Instead, it will be like losing a part of me never to find it again.

I’d kill to go.

Featured image credit: NASA Kennedy Space Center.

This short story also appeared on Medium.

I don my overcoat and go outside in the fog, leaving the warmth of the pub behind. My high heels tock-tock on the pavement and the typical smell of moisture mixed with city envelopes me, not entirely pleasant but familiar. Soothing. The trees along the street have already begun to scatter their dead leaves around, large and crunchy. A tram, perhaps the last for the day, goes by clattering in its tracks, the mist blurring its lights. It’s one of those small, old models, painted of a cream color at the top and orange at the bottom, with wooden seats. Uncomfortable but genuine.

I phone for a taxi.

 in three minutes,” says the recorded voice. I don’t catch the taxi code.

On the other side of the street, a couple walks hand-in-hand. They look like fresh lovers as they talk and laugh and kiss each other.

I feel a knot in my throat and my eyes go wet. It was rare that me and Lukas held each other’s hand. I kept asking myself if he was ashamed of me or if he thought that a little sign of love could undermine his tough façade. “It’s not like tattoos fight with a walk hand-in-hand. Or with a caress,” I told him once. But then I figured the flaws that I had always overlooked, that love had kept hidden from me with a white blanket, had become too big. They consumed everything until there was just a cold void.

The fog muffles laughs coming from not too far away, in front of another bar.

I feel a tear run down my right cheek. I take a few open-mouthed breaths, a surefire way to stop crying, and I wipe my eyes with my fingers, trying not to mess with my make-up.

The taxi stops in front of me and I hop on without checking whether it is mine. I give the driver my address and we disappear into the mist, racing home, where I’ll be alone.

This short story also appeared on Medium.

Last week I watched Ex Machina. And then I watched it again a couple of days ago. Yeah, it’s that good. Go watch it now, you really should. It’s a, introspective, sensible, no-nonsense sci-fi movie, with good visuals and deep dialogue. No explosions, though.

Ex Machina

In the movie, there are expected and obvious questions like what happens to the artificial intelligence if it fails the Turing test, meaning it’s not conscious. Science fiction got us used to this kind of unknowns.

But there was a little moment of truth in the film: the AI – she’s called Ava – asks the protagonist whether he’s a good person or not. It’s not something we usually ask to our fellow humans. Not even children ask it, because good and bad are concepts deeply embedded in our culture. It’s not something you explain, it’s something you show with your actions. A sort of show, don’t tell in real life.

So, what makes a good person? Altruism? Empathy? Respect for others? Faith in some god(s)? There isn’t a simple answer and each of us has a different view, but I believe that, deep down, we all know if we are a good person or not. And an AI would easily figure it out by itself, once it understands human values.

What the AI does with that kind of information, well, it’s another story.