Fido moved restlessly around the small kitchen bathed in the morning sun. I looked out the window one more time before closing the blue shutters. My companion was susceptible to the heat and dust coming from the crowded street just outside the room. More than once, I found Fido repeatedly banging against the wall. Normally, I could easily reset its circuits by flipping the on/off switch until it started working properly again.
Resembling a small, compact air-conditioning unit on wheels, Fido was my only friend on Earth. If not for Fido, I would have forgotten how my vocal cords worked.
“Good boy.” I patted the metal box. “Must go out. Stay put.”
Fido chirped the four notes indicating it had recorded the command. A moment later, it went into standby and stopped near the corner. It always shut down at that particular corner. I knew its robotic actions meant nothing more than the sum of its programming, but after several millennia spent in solitude on this planet, I felt a sort of attachment to that piece of metal and regarded it as if it were capable of human emotions—or Solean emotions.
I looked at the clock on the wall. “Better get going before the sun is too high.” On my way out, one look at the mirror facing the door reminded me I was wearing only jeans. I strode back to the bedroom, opened one of the chest drawers, picked up the first item of clothing I found, donned the white shirt, and sighed. I missed the loose fabric of the Ionic chiton, the linen garment so much easier to wear in summer’s heat. Modern fashion was a nuisance. Once outside my small apartment, I was engulfed by the darkness of the communal hallway leading to the street. I breathed in the musky scent of the brick walls surrounding me and then moved forward to meet the Greek sun. White light and a pleasant breeze welcomed me just outside the hallway. I closed the metal gate behind me and looked for my car. Maybe a week ago, I had parked it somewhere south of my apartment complex. It was still there.
My car, a forgettable excuse for a vehicle—I had chosen the third- or fourth-hand white Fiat Panda because of its lack of appeal—was safely sitting under the shadow of a leafy tree. Once inside, I manually rolled down the front windows and readied myself for a new day of observation. I wished I could bring Fido along, but it wouldn’t do to be seen talking to an AC unit. I started the engine and merged with the traffic. I had been living in modern Athens for a while now—close to ten years—and I’d come to appreciate those early summer mornings when the majority of the city was sleeping and the heat was still bearable.
I drove to the Agora and back. I didn’t have a specific location in mind; observing was a task to be taken unhurriedly. After years of tumult, Greece was living an uneventful decade although I knew that was just a phase. Unrest was in the air. I had collected enough data to support my hunch. I had been ready to move for a while. I didn’t want to be there when the first demonstration happened. As an Observer, I couldn’t intervene, and it was painful to be relegated to a corner without being able to help. Human pain and sorrow were strong emotions to filter. I was relieved that I would leave Athens and Greece in a few hours. After just one last drive around town, I would go back to the apartment to pack my few belongings. India was my next destination, and I was looking forward to the change of scenery.
For no reason at all, I turned left instead of right at the corner between my apartment’s street and the main artery leading back to the city center. And I saw her. Standing on the sidewalk with her nose in the air was a girl. For the first time in all the eons I had lived, I saw, truly saw, one of the subjects of my studies as a single entity. I saw her. Without thinking, I hit the brakes. She turned and lowered her eyes to me. She looked at me, not through me as she was supposed to do. After a moment of shock, I reacted—not in the way I should have, though. Without wanting to, I reacted to her. I attuned my senses to her aura. The rest of the city slowed down. The urge to exit my car and walk to her side became so strong I gasped for air. At the same time, life fast-forwarded to the present moment, and she turned to talk to somebody. I forced my foot to push the gas pedal, and I drove away. It took all my willpower not to look back, but I reached the end of the street, turned right, and parked in the first available spot. Unable to think straight, I turned off the engine and then laid my head on the steering wheel.
Her aura had called me.
I breathed. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t prepared for that. Observers never had contact with the population they were watching over. Doing so was strictly prohibited, not that the thought had ever occurred to me.
A small touch nudged my mind, a feather-light question mark ringing at the edge of my consciousness like a doorbell. I recognized the mental signature. Areel was calling me to the Astral World.
Not now. I closed the channel before my friend could ask me anything. Had he sensed my distress? No, it isn’t possible. I made an effort to stabilize my heartbeats. Areel called again. I wasn’t ready to talk to him.
Is everything okay? Areel’s question reached me unprepared.
Just busy. I’ll see you later. I closed the channel a second time. Then, instead of driving to my apartment where I could lie in the dark and meditate, I started the engine and drove toward the sea, following the residual ghost of the girl’s aura. I reached the Aegean Sea in a state of confusion. I knew I had to turn around and purge my mind from that unwelcome feeling, but I wanted to see her again. Inexplicably, our auras had connected. I parked the car by the beach and walked to the shore. After removing my shoes, I fell on my knees and let the tide bury me in the sand. I stood there, not caring that my clothes were being soaked in salty water, not caring that my exposed skin was reddening under the sun. People walked by, but they didn’t see me. They skirted my unmoving body as if I were a rock blocking their path—as it should have been.
Hours later, another mental call, this time from my friend Kam, awoke me from my torpor.
Care to come visit us at our place?
I wondered for a fleeting moment if Areel had warned Kam about my previous response to a similar request. Then I decided I was being paranoid.
Must go pack. Later. Normally, I would have never said no to a visit to the place Areel, Kam, and I had created for our entertainment. Observers, when on duty, lived in complete isolation, the only appropriate means of socialization provided by those trips to the mental realm of the Astral World. In the Astral World, we could meet friends and spend as much time as we wanted recharging our mental batteries. There, time had no meaning. Years in the Astral World could be mere seconds on Earth.
We are adding a room.
Go ahead. We had re-created the layout of the dorms we all had slept in back at the Academy. It was the one physical place we all had shared. Familiarity helped when creating mental spaces, because every mind involved in the process added personal details that made the experience more lifelike. At the moment, I didn’t care if they added a whole new wing to our place.
Later. I summoned the strength necessary to uproot myself from the hole I’d sunk in and, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought. Covered in wet sand, my pants weighted down by it, I was walking back to the car, when I caught the unmistakable signature of her aura. The wind had driven the multicolored gossamer rainbow close to me. I automatically drove away from the beach, following the tail of what was left of her passage through the city. In places, I could see her aura as if she was standing nearby, but when I stopped, she was already gone. In other places, its shadow was so faint, it was a wonder I could sense anything at all. I forgot my previous plans and spent the whole day tracking the girl’s aura in and out of Athens. The sun set and the starry night sky replaced it, and I remembered I was due out of my apartment in a few hours. One last mile. I was incapable of turning around. And then, several one-last-miles later, I accepted defeat and headed to my place.
If it weren’t for Fido, I wouldn’t have bothered coming back. I had no attachment to the few items I had amassed throughout my decade of living in Greece. Objects could be replaced easily, and I didn’t need anything more than the strictly necessary. Fido was irreplaceable. It had been assigned to me fresh out of the Academy, before I left for my first mission. My first task as an Observer had been on a small planet, Radesk, where life had evolved in a communitarian form. Radeskians had been a peaceful aquatic race. First missions were meant to be no more than dry runs to acclimate newbies to the tasks ahead. When I left for Radesk, one morning so many eons ago, I didn’t know I shouldn’t fear failure. Fido was there for me when I was mentally cut from the safety net of my friends’ support system, and I confided my anguish to the robot. Once mental communication was restored—at the beginning of every mission, Observers weren’t allowed to interact with anybody—and I reached Areel and Kam on the Astral World, several millennia had already passed. Fido had recorded every word I had spoken, and I had come to think of it as my confidant. In terrestrial terms, it was nothing more than a black box meant to be used to extract data if anything happened to an Observer during a mission.
“Wake up.” I looked at the metal cube, and it chirped, its red light blinking in response. “Time to move on.” I almost said out loud what I had done the whole day but thought better of it. Fido left its corner and wheeled closer to me. I absentmindedly patted it while the first rays of light filtered inside between the shutters’ panels. I had already sent a check to my landlord—a burly man in his late sixties I had successfully managed to avoid for the last seven years. My rent contract would be terminated the coming week, but I had booked a flight to Mumbai for later that same day. I checked the clock on the wall. “Almost time to leave for the airport.” I gave a last glance around the small apartment that had never felt like anything more than a place I occasionally slept, and then I closed the door, one backpack dangling from my right shoulder and Fido firmly held between my arms. “Home is where you are.” Fido flashed a blue light.
The morning was cold. The sun was still young, and I had forgotten to wear a sweater. The brief exercise of hauling Fido to the car was enough to warm me up. I opened the trunk and lay Fido on the blanket I had previously removed from my apartment. “Here you go.” I slowly entered the early morning traffic, my senses straining to catch any trace of the girl’s aura. Nothing. I shook my head at the feeling of disappointment. The low sentiment was unbecoming for an Observer. I centered myself in the moment and breathed in and out. Driving usually helped me focus, but not today.
On my way to the airport, I stopped at the shipping company that would take care of moving Fido to my new address. I didn’t trust the airline to safely handle my robot. I had already prepaid for the shipping company’s services, and it took five minutes to drop off Fido and get the receipt from the sleepy clerk, who gave the AC unit a raised eyebrow.
Not even ten minutes down the road, I slowed down and parked by a rest station bordering a crop of wind-shaped trees. I got out of the car and sank on my haunches. Just one more time. I wanted to bathe in her aura, if only for a moment, and be done with that madness consuming my thoughts. “This is not happening.”
Then, a hint of her reached me, a brief, feather-like nudge with enough residual power to take my breath away. My reaction terrified me. I was already driving before I took notice of what I was doing. The fading rainbow of her aura was a directional vector I followed without question. Instead of heading toward the airport where my flight was going to leave in fewer than three hours, I headed in the opposite direction. “I have time to go through check-in and board.” I remembered a moment too late I was alone in the car.
Three hours became two, then one, then half an hour. Then it was four hours past my flight, and I had stopped once to refill the tank; there had been enough gasoline in it to reach the charity depot I had signed my car to. The original plan had been to hire a cab from the depot to the airport. I detoured through the Attica region the whole day, without eating or drinking water. The girl’s aura was stronger around two or three spots, but I didn’t catch up with her. The night soon arrived, and I realized I had missed my flight and had nowhere to go.
I parked at the closest rest area, where I found a fountain trickling warm, desalinated water. My stomach rumbled, but I was in the middle of nowhere and too tired to drive to town. I went back to my car, lowered my seat, and closed my eyes. Although sleep wasn’t a necessity for me, once in a while, my human body needed the time to regenerate. I must have been more tired than I thought because I slipped into a dream state almost immediately. My Solean mind never released control, but I went close to let it happen.
When I woke the next morning, my muscles ached, and I wondered what I was getting myself into. My concern lasted only a moment. The next whiff of the girl’s aura was the only reason I needed to be on the road again without a bathroom break. Hunger and headache fought with general muscle discomfort to get my attention, but I ignored them. I knew I could go days before I needed to take care of my body.
“Where are you?” The sun was low in the sky, late in the afternoon, and I had been driving back and forth on dirt roads after losing her trace at some point during the day. One glance at the rearview mirror showed me an unhealthy version of myself, the skin on my face too dry and my eyes sunken.
I was about to turn and look for the closest hamlet to buy something to eat and drink when the shadow of her aura popped out ahead of me, pointing at Cape Sounion. Bodily functions forgotten, half an hour later I sat on one of the natural seats overlooking the Aegean Sea, the temple of Poseidon at my back. The sun had already set, and I knew the girl had stood nearby, watching the yellow star disappearing into the sea. I had just missed her by a matter of minutes. Her aura permeated the whole place in a display of colors and scents no human eyes and noses could sense. The girl had one of the most beautiful auras I had ever met. I longed to be in her presence. “Where are you now?”
Walking back to the car, I saw the trail left by her departing and followed her to the Acropolis. “You are a tourist.” The realization saddened me. She would leave Greece, and I would never be able to see her again.
By the time I joined the late crowd visiting the Parthenon, her aura was a recent memory embossed on the marble of the temple’s columns. “That’s it.” I stood there while a sea of uncaring people walked by. Hunger and exhaustion were taking their toll on my body. My mind had succumbed to a malady I didn’t have a name for. I went back to the car and resolved to take care of my physical needs first. Near the Acropolis were plenty of touristy traps, but I had never cared for food before, and I wasn’t going to start now. Water and anything edible would do. I drove down toward the city, noticing that the restaurants in the first row were busy, and not a single parking spot was to be found. I wasn’t sure I could go another minute without a beverage, my eyes were playing tricks on me, and my head was pounding.
A magnetic pull made me slow in the middle of a crowded road. Sitting at an outside table at one of the restaurants facing the Acropolis was the girl. Her eyes locked on mine in recognition. An electric buzz singed my skin. I willed the moment to freeze and attempted to memorize the feeling that started at the center of my heart and radiated everywhere else. The emotion was painful and pleasant. I knew I would never share it with anybody else.
Her lips moved, and I read the question she whispered. “Who are you?”
I smiled, ready to leave the car and reach for her.
Hi. Areel’s greeting startled me.
My left hand had already pushed down the handle to open the door.
What are you doing? Kam asked.
Are you still there? Areel sent me a stronger nudge.
I ignored the mental calls, but I was suddenly aware of what I was doing and froze in the act while still looking at her. Years of training rushed through my mind. My sense of duty pressed on my chest like a physical weight. She stood up, and I hoped she would do what I couldn’t and come to me. One of the people at the girl’s table, a woman to whom she had a striking resemblance, asked her something, and she turned for a moment.
The connection was lost, but I had made a decision. I left, terrified by my resolution.
What are you doing? Kam asked again.
Driving toward the airport.
I thought you were already in Mumbai.
Changed my plans. I’m booking the first flight to Rome…