Big Echo

Critical SF

The War of People

written and translated by Mileva Anastasiadou

Placed third in the science fiction category at FantistiCon 2016 in Athens

The eclipse found me at work. I still had work to do back then. We had been warned not to look at the sun with bare eyes, however glorious the event might seem. It was glorious indeed. Things like that do not happen every day, and even if they do, life circumstances do not always allow us to watch. Especially in the past, when everyday life was more intense and full of obligations, I did not even notice this kind of news about eclipses, strange planet alignments, or other strange phenomena of the kind, like comets or falling stars. I would not have noticed this time either, if I had not been on the street. These are things for lazy people, or anyone wishing to focus anywhere else than on his job.

I was on a five month contract as a refuse collector in the town I live. This has not always been my job. I have a degree in business administration, but for the time being, there are no businesses around willing to accept my services. In the old times there were enough of them. I used to work in one of them, long hours, so that everything functioned the way it should. Nobody ever complained about my performance, I did everything right. Yet even if everything is done the right way, things can go wrong. This is something that I learnt along the way, something I did not know from the start. So, the company I worked for went out of business, due to the crisis in the country, and I became one of the unemployed, waiting for the compensation money that would never come.

My parents found me the refuse collection job. They knew the right people who spoke to the right people to ensure me this graceless job, so that I could make a living until things get better. I presented my objections, since I always want to do things my way, yet I could not risk refusing their help. My five-month contract ended yesterday, but things are not better yet.

So, when the eclipse began, I was on the street working. I was determined not to look up, but when it started getting darker and darker, even as a new day had dawned, I turned my head towards the sky, not because I wanted to see the strange phenomenon, but because in my work I had forgotten all about it, and was puzzled by the sudden and strange darkness.

It was an incredible spectacle. The sun was slowly covered by a shadow. It seemed like the world was coming to an end, so I stood still, watching in awe, holding a full garbage can in my hands, until the driver of the vehicle, who had a permanent position and considers himself to be the boss, yelled at me to concentrate.

“Stop being lazy and get on with your job!”

He did not scare me, yet I obeyed, rather than starting a pointless conversation.

My eyes burned when I got back home. You should not look directly at the sun, this is not only common sense, it had been widely reported prior to the eclipse. Specialists on TV had explained the correct way to watch the phenomenon the previous day. I had no excuse. I lay down, telling myself if the burning sensation in my eyes did not stop by the evening I would visit a doctor.

One could claim that what followed was a dream, or a nightmare, and that is what I thought as well, in the beginning, when I found myself on that deserted landscape, surrounded by high walls. For a while, everything around me was dark, and the sky was full of strange lights and flashes. One of these lights descended towards me. In my confusion I thought I was watching the eclipse all over again, until I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw a stranger, who cried as loud as he could:

“Stop being lazy and get on with your job!”

It was not my boss but he stared at me the same way, so I decided to obey. I was ready to run about collecting garbage bags, but there were not any garbage bags around. There were people on the ground, unconscious, maybe dead, blood on their bodies, and soil was red, but I could not be certain whether it was painted red by blood, or if red was its natural colour. I wanted to do my job, but I did not know what my job was.

“If you are hit, go to the doctor,” said the man, in a softer voice this time, as if talking to a child, and he gestured to the distance. “Or else stop acting like you have never seen a bomb before, and focus on the target”.

It was at that moment that I realized I had a gun in my hands. In my panic, I headed in the direction he had indicated.

“Use your wings,” he told me. “You will get there faster.”

Before I even had the time to wonder, I felt two wings growing out of my back.

The doctor saw a wound on my forehead, I had not been aware of. He wiped all blood away, applied some strange fluids, and recommended several days of rest.

“We are not sure yet how severe your trauma might be and unfortunately we do not have the proper equipment for a full investigation, as you very well know”.

I mentioned that I was not even aware I had been hit and he frowned. He started asking simple questions which, bewildered as I was, I could not answer.

“Things might be serious,” I heard him telling his colleague. “He is not even oriented in space or time.”

He suggested exemption from duty and further reevaluation after three days. The date on the paper he handed me: 5/7/2525

When I opened my eyes and recognized my living room, my wings were gone. For a moment, it was as if I had truly just come back from the front, as if I had truly been in the battleground. I studied myself in the mirror but I did not see any wounds. It all seemed like a bad dream, but it had been so vivid, and a terrible headache had followed me back.

I was recently divorced and uncomfortable in my small apartment. My wife had thrown me out of the house, which the bank would be foreclosing on soon enough.

The telephone rang.

“You need to come back to work.”

“What happened?”

“Dean is sick. Tonight you have a double shift.”

I did not object. The boss was the oldest of the permanent workers and nobody dared deny him anything. The temporary ones had no chance of renewing our contract if we objected to his treatment of us.

I saw her for the first time at the doctor’s office. She explained she had been wounded on her left wing. It would take her a couple of days to get back to battle condition.

“Have you ever been wounded on your wings?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“It hurts a lot. It’s like breaking a rib, only it gets better much faster”.

She talked to me about her life. As soon as the war started, her house was bombed. She lost her family in an instant. She was recruited as a frontline soldier. She was lucky to still be alive, a frontliner was no better than dead. A small injury such as hers only delayed the inevitable. She did not care; everything that had ever been close to her heart had already been lost, life did not seem that precious anymore.

“Don’t you ever think of running away?” I asked.

“Nobody can escape this place, you know that,” she answered showing me the walls. I had forgotten all about the walls.

“But once your wings get better, you will be able to fly high and run away.”

“I still haven’t met the person who can fly that high,” she stared at me, crossing her arms in front of her breast, as if she needed to distance from me.

I told her the truth. Not that I thought of her as a figment of my imagination, or a character in one of my nightmares, but that I was not from there, that I was from another season, from the past, and that I managed to reach her because of a strange dream.

Her eyes sparkled.

“We were taught in school about time travelers,” she said. “They appeared some years after 2000, after an eclipse. Are you really one of them?”

I told her I was certain I was not. She laughed out loud and ignored my remark.

“I think that your kind was extinct too soon. To tell you the truth, we were taught that you could travel only to the past, being able to watch, but not to intervene. Laws of nature would not permit such interventions.” She thought about it for a while. “Well, if you travel in the future, these laws do not apply, as the future has not happened yet.”

I did not know how to answer to that, but I thought that she might not be right, since my future will someday be the past of another generation, yet I kept quiet, because I do not know much about the laws of the universe. I only know how to manage other people’s businesses, not so successfully, truth be told, and how to collect other people’s garbage.

As if she could read my mind she said:

“Unless there is no longer such thing as a next generation at this point of time, in which case you can no longer influence the course of reality.”

Then a man who had just entered the doctor’s office waved at her.

“He is the boss around here,” she told me and ran to his side.

I stepped a little closer.

“Get ready to come back to the front,” he said.

I saw tears in her eyes.

Several days went by, and Dean was still sick, so I had to work overtime. One morning as I reached my doorstep exhausted, I heard the phone ringing. It was my ex-wife.

“The house will be auctioned off next week.”

I had expected this would happen, although not so soon. My thought went back to the girl from the future who had lost everything. It would not be so strange to claim that we had a lot in common. She lost her family and her house in an instant. I too lost my family, although in another way, and now I was to lose my house as well. Even if all this did not happen in a single moment, as in her case, the result was the same. I was lucky of course, not to have experienced a real war, at least not in my current reality. I wondered whether history was just a matter of acceleration, humanity did not develop civilization so much as it gathered speed.

The phone rang again, just before I decided to rest. It was the boss again, but his tone was a bit gentler this time.

“Dean didn’t make it. His wife just called”.

“He didn’t make what?”

“Dean committed suicide. He took some pills. He was in a coma all these days, but unfortunately his body was too weak.”

“Too weak?”

“It was as if he didn’t try at all. That’s what his wife told me. He was deep in debt.”

After some seconds of silence, he became his old savage self again.

“Don’t be late this afternoon. We won’t be able to replace him soon.”

They say that what does not kill you makes you stronger. I think it is now proved that this is false. It may not kill you immediately, but you do not get any stronger either. It does not kill you, until it does.

A few days later, my contract ended. It has not been renewed, as promised. The house was auctioned off. My ex-wife took the kid and went to live with her parents. Sometimes it happens; when you do not have anything more to lose, you feel more embattled than ever, yet you fear nothing.

I was beside the girl again. I was holding her hand, while she lay on the bed, barely breathing.

“It didn’t go that bad,” she said, her voice trembling. I had not visited that place often, but at that time it looked familiar. It looked much the same as the reality of my origin.

“You know, when the first mutants appeared, those with the wings I mean, not those of your kind who traveled in time, we all believed that was the beginning of the utopia we had been dreaming about. That all our problems would be solved, that the wings would free us.

The planet was running out of fuels, and despite the fact that the new technologies had been developed, the greed of the few prevented further investigation of the issue, so the problem was not promptly solved. But when the wings came we no longer needed fuels. We would move freely and fast, wherever our heart desired, to warmer or colder climates, according to our needs and mood. The wise then claimed that that was the end of history.”

I tried to stop her from wasting her energy aimlessly, explaining her world to a time traveler, who would soon go back to his own place, but she would not stop.

“We were naive enough to believe that human history would have a happy ending. What I now realize is that history will end, our species will disappear, but without experiencing a paradise first, without reaching the promised land for which humans have hoped since the beginning of time. Humans never really fought for a better life. They only fought out of greed. The world was filled with walls little by little. So high, that not even the winged humans, the homo volans, could cross. If someone observed us from afar, they could claim that our civilization was a civilization of walls. That was its main purpose. Such observers would likely not be able to explain why. I cannot either. Walls do not protect. They just trap and kill”.

“We could have at least tried,” I told her, “to run away, I mean,”

But she no longer listened to me.

They took her away. Whatever was left of her I mean. I do not know if I will return to my time, if I can, or even if I want to. There is a war here, but another war is happening in my time as well. Different, less obvious, yet it is happening. It has not been officially declared, as in this time. It is secret, hidden and sneaky. Yet it has its own victims, like Dean. It has its own bosses, bossing around. It has walls, built higher and higher. Perhaps history is all about this endless war of people. What does not kill you does not make you stronger. It deprives you of hope. You cease to care about life. Not even your own.

“It’s you turn,” says the boss.

“I am ready,” I tell him.

I am flying outside with the gun in my hands. I am a frontline soldier. I am the prey. I am the sacrifice on the altar of history. I throw my gun to the ground and I hang there still, motionless in the air, waving only my wings. I look at the darkened sky. A dark shadow is obscuring the sun. Until all is dark and my wings have not any strength left to keep me high.