Rivers of Time
It was the last week of March and Katie Mertz had just given me my first kiss. It was awkward, terrifying, exciting, and all of these things at once. When the light washed over the school bus, our lips broke apart and we shielded our eyes.
And when the bus drove off the bridge and into the creek that ran beneath it, she smiled at me. In the weightlessness it was just us, just children of a small town who’d never known anything beyond it’s borders, lovers to be in a life cut short.
She held my hand as the bus hit the water.
The invaders had arrived while I was falling in love. Grief was a luxury only the dead could afford and I laid her to rest with my childhood.
“Arm,” the rhino said.
I held out the requested limb without thinking and the alien let the spindly legs of the scanner crawl along my dark skin. The scanner retracted it’s probes, satisfied, but my flesh still felt their touch, even after all these years of routine.
The rhino grunted. Inspection done. Interest lost. And I continued, another tiny moment of my life stolen away from me like the decades before it.
The worker city was in the pre-dawn shuffle of third-shift giving way to first and I watched them trudge to their beds and their deaths in the mud. The workers and the unworkable. This wasn’t Earth and these people weren’t humans.
Every day we made the implements for another war against another people so they could join us and begin the cycle afresh. A mass of slave labour from every conquered planet, and the rhinos watched over it all, the same for the thousandth planet as the first.
Dupresh waved and called good morning in his old language from across the stream of bodies and I angled towards him. The flow gave at our presence, carving out a space amongst the aliens. Some species I could recognise. The hunched shoulders of a Mellenite, or the feathers of one of the hundred avian races. We’d been many, humanity, when they took us. Now I saw Dupresh and smiled at seeing a familiar human face.
“Any news?” I asked.
“Some my friend. The rhinos found a new deposit in the eastern mountains, they moved most of our kin from the second shift over to mines.”
“Because we make good workers,” I said with dulled pride.
“The very best,” Dupresh said, gripping my arm. His grip was weaker than I remembered when we first met. Was my own so feeble nowadays? “Most of these folk,” he said, waving a hand at the mass around us, “will die in weeks. But not humans. Not us. That is why they keep us around my friend. We can work longer into the night, for less food and in harsher conditions, than any of them. We are born to break our backs.”
“You’ve got a brilliant way of looking at the world Dupresh.”
He released my arm as we passed beneath the watch of another rhino. The huge creature recognised me but chose to do nothing this day. Maybe he was as tired as I was.
“And the other thing?” I asked, the gates of the production halls fast approaching, our short conversation coming to an artificial end now we had been assigned to different divisions.
Dupresh shook his head sorrowfully as he was carried away by the stream.
I looked down at the invader, the blood still real.
It was a week since the aliens had made landfall. A week since I sat on a bus and held Katie Mertz’s hands and watched the world tear itself in half.
My first kiss.
So quickly followed by my first kill.
The thing was big, stretched out across the floor of the same kitchen I’d eaten a meal in every day. The grey skin seemed to shift and pull over huge slabs of muscle. It’s breathing was shallow, the folds of skin whistling as it’s rattling slowed. The knife had stopped moving in it’s side, one hand clawed around it in a death grip.
It looked up at me as I looked down at it, surprise on both our faces. A lone patrol, checking for stragglers and it had found one. One that had got the drop on it. There was nothing to be found in this house for either of us now.
I buried my decency that day, but left the alien to rot in my family home.
The murmurs started in the production hall and I kept my head down.
When the murmurs turned to urgent whispers, still I kept my focus on the work before me.
And when the whispers became shouts and the rhinos ran from the room, I watched them go but I stayed behind.
I was an old man. It was getting harder to meet my quotas, making instruments of war more powerful than any earth had had to wield against her attackers. The days passed, marked in charcoal on the wall of my bunk, each year another year since last I saw her. My planet and my love.
Slowly the faces that remained in the hall turned. Alien alike, they turned from the great doors to the long lines, and their gazes and their eyes and their fear, turned to me. Human, they whispered. The oldest worker in the plant.
My body ached, but my grip was tight against the cane I walked with. In the darkening sky of the outside I saw the rhinos clustered together. He turned and looked back at me, the rhino from that day, a lifetime of imprisoned learning letting me read the expression on his face.
It smiled and my cane slipped away into the mud and then I joined it.
This wasn’t my home.
I had set foot on an alien world. My first time out of my town, out of my state or my country. And onto terra firma that was anything but.
The portal left me feeling sick and I retched until one of the grey beasts pushed me onwards.
A boy collapsed beside me, his years counted on a single hand, and he began coughing and curling into a ball as the pain wracked his body. I didn’t recognise him, just as I didn’t recognise anyone else. The portal had scooped the dregs of humanity up and spat us out equally, with no care for divisions that had seemed so important back home.
The boy rolled in the mud and cried. So young.
One of the invaders, one of our jailers, approached. Huge, brutish, and grey. The resistance had come to call them rhinos, the name sticking and passing across every survivor’s lips.
The rhino lifted a foot above the boy and he screamed. My youth told me to barrel into the monster. Just like the fools had who fought against them back home, their necks broken a heartbeat later. I snatched up the boy from the mud instead.
The rain never ceased and I stood there. Holding a kid I’d never met, before an alien who would remember my act of defiance, and I waited.
When the rhino turned away, I took my first breath. I set the boy down but he clung to my leg and never let go.
I had planted the seed of friendship on that day. Something I had hoped was buried so deep it was beyond the reach of any beast. Until they broke my world looking for it.
Dupresh lay on the ground, curled into a ball like he had all those years ago when we both arrived. He didn’t cry in the rain. They had taken that from him.
The rhino looked at me, just as he had on that day decades before. A young man holding a small child. Now an old man standing over a broken dream.
I picked the body of my friend up and carried him behind the halls to the waste pits and none of them stopped me. Not the jailers nor the prisoners.
I dug the hole with what I could find and when the rain grew too hard I used my hands and I lay Dupresh down in his shallow grave.
In his hands I found it. The answer we had been looking for for so long, clutched between his fingers so tightly his skin had broken where he held onto it in his final anguished moments.
I buried my friend for the last time and stalked into the rain.
“I have an idea,” Dupresh said, his face glowing.
He worked beside me in the halls. There were other humans, but our numbers were thinning out with each passing week, new faces and new races filling the gaps in the assembly lines. We kept out heads bowed low and talked quietly.
“The portal,” he said. “It’s a wormhole. I’ve heard the Mellenites talking about it. A bridge. One end anchored here, the other wherever they want it to go.”
He grabbed my hand, stopped the tiny machinations my fingers had grown accustomed to in the few short years since we had arrived, and I turned a sideways glance at him. We would escape in weeks I had said to the small boy. And when the weeks turned to months, it was him who kept the hope for us.
“Wherever they want it to go,” Dupresh said. “And whenever they want it to go.”
“It’s a bridge through space and time. All you need is the destination. We can go back to when they found Earth.”
“How?” I asked.
He went back to work. His hands were still young. Time he said. It would take time to find one of the rhino’s devices. Time to find the proper co-ordinates.
Time was all we had.
None of the rhinos paid me any attention. I was just an old alien to them, one who had been here too long to worry about causing any trouble now.
Time had passed and in it’s wake it had dulled the edges. The memories of a world I hadn’t seen since my youth were now just feeble bumps against pale recollections.
I remembered the fear, when I stood before the rhino on an alien world, clutching Dupresh to my chest, and the relief that came after.
I remembered the fear, when I fought against that first monster in my home, and the realisation the world could never go back to what it was before.
I remembered the fear, when I leaned across on that school bus, and Katie Mertz gave me my first kiss. Safe in the knowledge we would grow old together because our love was special.
I remembered, because it was important to remember. Our actions had an impact on the world. Each choice rippling outwards and affecting others. Katie holding my hand. The alien dying as I watched. Dupresh clinging to my leg.
But it was how we chose to remember those things that mattered.
A first kiss. A first kill.
I clutched the weapon to my chest, wrapped in rags like my own body was, bomb hidden against bones, and I marched on towards the portal.
These things, these actions I had done, were not new. The universe had shown me that time repeats all things. A thousand men had fallen in love a thousand times. And just as many had taken a life rather than fall for another.
The portal came to life as I approached. The co-ordinates Dupresh had found dialled in my home world. I watched the blue wash flicker and then grow steady.
An anniversary meant nothing to the atoms and their orbits in the expansion of all things since the big bang. But to the people who experienced them, these tiny, completely un-unique events, they meant everything.
I stepped through the portal and the old bones ached. Before me, she floated.
Earth. My home.
Before the war had begun.
And as the rhinos on the ship, orbiting the target of their next invasion, turned to look at me, I only had eyes for her. The tears had been hidden in the rain for far too many years.
The weapon detonated. More powerful than anything humanity had tried when I had lived these days for the first time.
Far below, on the surface of the Earth, people looked up at a flare in the sky. And a bus driver, in a small town like a thousand others, carrying children of whom two were deeply in love, took his eyes off of the road.
And he crashed through the rails of a bridge.
And into the creek that ran beneath it.