The Road in the Middle

The house was built at the end of the road. The road had had many names throughout the years and most of them made reference not to the road itself, not to its destination, but to those who lived next to it. As time passed, however, people started leaving the place, heading towards the cities, further somewhere else. The process was slow at first, but the less people remained, the bigger the urge to abandon the road. Soon, people forgot what to call that trail of land that lead to nowhere and started to call it the Road in the Middle. With time, the road was also forgotten, and its name became another echo in an old-wife tale.

Perhaps for that reason they chose that place to build the house. It was said that a very rich man and his wife, both outsiders and descendent from a political caste of momentous importance off-world, had come from far away to this particular system, looking for a quiet place where they could settle down and bring up their child.

As soon as it was known that the couple was wealthy beyond imagination, they were sent offers from every single corner of the system. Entire landmasses, grandiose mansions sprawling whole mountains and ranges and even a small fleet of self-contained, self-sustainable spaceships were offered to them.

Of course, it was not all about the money. Although people and sellers-to-be knew that the couple was willing to pay astronomical sums for the right place, they were more concerned about what would happen after the outsiders settled down. For some, for too many, their presence in the system was more than a chance to make a good deal; it was the chance to bring back to life their own business. So desperate were they, that an asteroid miner company even offered them a fully operational asteroid habitat. In an attempt to appeal to the feeling of self-importance characteristic to most highborn, they even carved a near exact replica of their faces on the outer surface of the habitat, so that their heads would always hang proud and high among the stars.

The outsiders refused every offer. As they turned down one offer after another, frustration became a general feeling among the sellers, and new rumors about the couple started circulating. Many were the voices that claimed that, perhaps, they were escaping from their past, or from the law, or from many other things equally shady and wrong.

For the outsiders were not looking for a home; they were looking for a place.

 ◊

Ada knew she was pregnant as soon as her husband got out of her. They had made love countless times, and this time had not been better than many others, not special in a clearly noticeable way. But when Ada looked at Patrick and saw that timid light in his eyes, she knew it.

 Ada watched Patrick’s eyes as they closed slowly, and turned to observe him lie on the bed. The golden lights of the city drifted over his body, half turned, half naked, under the half dark of the room. They were not young any more. Ada had known that for some time, but now that she watched Patrick sleep and heard him breathe, she realized that it was not the same breath that had whispered her name the first time they had made love.

Nor she was the same. Their lives had effected many changes on them. They both had changed in ways that many would deem unrecognizable. Their bodies had aged, their minds had settled, but still they were not old.

Ada glanced one last time at Patrick’s closed eyes before closing her own and fell asleep.

That night, Ada dreamed with the road.

She was walking along a dusty path, her left hand half raised to touch the stream of wheat that rose at her side. The sky was a dark colour between grey and black and casted a dull light over the fields. Storm clouds were gathering over the horizon, far in the distance, just above the road.

As Ada walked along, she realized that the clouds were not gathering, but rather hanging there, quiet, as if waiting for the right moment to shatter the earth. She could see strings of lightning frozen in mid-air, suspended like some kind of luminous thread that joined the clouds. Silence was absolute.

After some time, Ada reached the end of the road. The earth on that side was flat and empty, as if the sky itself had been pressed against that patch of land, rendering it even and smooth. When Ada bent down to touch the surface beneath her feet, she realized that she was looking at the sky. The polished mirror that was the earth reflected perfectly the impending storm above her head only that, below her, lightning had already struck.

Without warning, the skies shattered and a pillar of light broke the earth some steps away from Ada. It all happened within a fraction of a second, a contained instant of noise and chaos, and then it was gone. Although Ada knew that the piercing shriek had almost blown up her inner ear, she was unable to recall any sound. It was as if all memory of the noise had been expunged from her mind.

She didn’t care. She knew now why her vision had taken her there.

The lightning bolt had opened a hole in the mirror, wide enough for a person to lay there curled up. Oddly enough, no smoke rose up from the hole. Ada realized that no other signs of aftermath could be seen nor felt. It was as if the hole had been there all along, waiting for Ada to find it.

Ada approached the crack in the mirror with short steps and knelt towards the blackness. It was then when she saw it, lying at the bottom, flat and round, grey and blunt, a hole in the hole. The stone was there. It was not a dream. It was real. The road, the clouds, the wheat, the silence.

Ada reached for the stone and everything vanished.

The next morning, when Patrick woke up, he found Ada staring at him, watching him closely. It was something he was used to, for it was something he used to do too. But when he saw that look on her face, that precise, exact look, he sat up immediately and asked her about her dream. Ada talked as if she had been telling the same story to different persons too many times. Patrick sat still, listening to every word, gazing at the deep of her eyes in the sleepy light of dawn. When Ada finished, Patrick reached for her hand and made his choice, a choice he had already made long ago.

The first thing they did was making sure Ada was pregnant. Although there was no need for them to check anything, the only act of having someone tell them that they were going to be parents brought some reality into what they were about to do.

They departed the next day. No celebrations were held, no goodbyes were said. They sold everything they had and bought the fastest ship they could find. They had to do it fast, before anyone could notice what they were about to do. They lost a lot of money in the process, but they didn’t care. The only thing that mattered now was finding the road.

 ◊

The outsiders finally settled down in a dusty, lost corner of the system whose name no one remembered. It had been a road long ago, and as such it had at some point lead to somewhere. But all that now remained was a forgotten path, a journey to nowhere. When it was known that they had chosen such a place, people started to lose interest quickly. With time, the outsiders became part of that old story of the road, that road whom everyone had heard about but no one remembered.

 ◊

Some months after they had found the road, Ada died giving birth to Manfred. Patrick buried her deep in the forest they had started to grow and marked the tomb with a stone, grey and flat. He visited her every day, carrying Manfred with him. With time, the forest grew around it, a mound of dark earth amidst the dark green wild.

One day, Patrick realized he was unable to recall the way to the tomb. He tried many times, from many different sides, until it became dark and Manfred started to cry and he had to give up.

Soon, the trees also forgot her, and the only thing that remained was a grey, flat stone in the heart of the forest.

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Time

The Witness stood on the grey, ashen cliff as the last line was severed from existence. After centuries of expectation, he was almost disappointed to see that nothing, literally nothing, happened when the creature exhaled his last gasp. He had always imagined some kind of eventful display, the horizon turning upside down perhaps, or maybe the sky crashing into the ground. Something, anything that proved that the universe still cared about what happened in it.

From the rocky cliff in which the Witness stood the sight was that of a grey, dusty carpet made of vaguely humanoid shapes hurriedly stitched together. Far beyond the battlefield, the remnants of what had once been a city stood against the horizon, oddly shaped buildings deformed by heat and shockwave. Silence crept over the dead landscape, wandering aimlessly among the thousands of corpses randomly massed. The very same silence he had experienced before in countless worlds, after the Hooded Ones had finished their job and before moving on to witness but another end.

The Witness started to turn when something caught his eye. Down below among the corpses, a Hood lay kneeling, holding the scarred body of a dead soldier. Slowly, almost tenderly, the Hood put the soldier on its lap and then turned its face hidden by cloth towards the dying horizon. It was not the first time he saw one of them doing that. Sometimes, in some worlds, they would just do that. When all the killing had taken place, when all the lines had been harvested (if that was what happened, for he still was not sure about anything) they would lie among the dead and hold them close.

The Witness observed the Hood as it lay still, its robed shape a black fold in a grey carpet. After too many centuries, he still didn’t know what moved them. He had been puzzled at first, but then, as worlds and extinctions succeeded, he simply had stopped caring. Like the universe, he didn’t give a fuck anymore.

The Witness turned and started his way back to the place he had been ported to. The Hoods always chose places like that, high enough so that he could take most of the landscape in with a single glance, but close enough to the events so that he would not miss a thing.

The Hoods were already waiting for him, silent among the sharp rocks. He knew that they wouldn’t move until he approached. The killing was over, the job was done, extinction was complete, and now it was time to move on. But still, they would not move a single muscle (or whatever they had under their dark robes) until he approached. They needed him. And he still wasn’t sure why.

“I am ready.”

The Hooded Ones stood still.