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The Centurion

C.M.F. Wright is a research scientist by day and insomniac writer by night. Her short stories have appeared in Syntax & Salt Magazine, Microfiction Monday, Fifty Word Stories, and the VSS365 Anthology. When she's not writing, she's bemoaning failed lab experiments, binge-reading fantasy, and trying to stop her cantankerous rabbits from initiating World War III. You can find her on Twitter @cmf_wright.

It's the loathsome vibrance of his skin that clues me in--that, and his strange fascination with clocks. Most Federation aliens have varying degrees of tentacle iridescence, but only centurions possess that strange, almost obsessive preoccupation with time.
The morning after she brings him home, I watch my sister's boyfriend. I watch him comb his hair in the pre-dawn light, fingers morphing into the rippling branches he wields as a brush. I watch him scrutinize the clock when my sister sleeps late, watch his eyes track the minor hand's 100-second cycle. I watch him study my reflection in the clock's glassy surface, and I wonder what he's plotting as I tie off my braid--what dark thoughts suffuse that hideous carapace, behind his slitted eyes.
It's twenty minutes before our shift starts, and Sarah's not downstairs yet. She'll have barely enough time to ready herself if she wakes now, and the field masters punish us for being late. I'm about to fetch her, when the centurion's reflection shifts. His eyes shimmer, kaleidoscopic, like dust from a supernova. Their color blossoms, then darkens to black.
The clock's minor hand decelerates, slower and slower, until it's barely moving.
The centurion's eyes meet mine against the clock's frozen surface--waiting. Watching me.
"You have some nerve dating my sister," I tell him.
"I only desire her happiness."
"If you want to make her happy, go to 2257 and bring back our dead parents." It's only half sarcasm, because I'm sure he could. With his bizarre control of time, I suspect he could do anything.
He smiles politely, but he doesn't leave, and I don't move. We stand tense and waiting, and the next minute that passes is not a single minute, but ten minutes condensed into one. At the end of the grotesque expansion of time, when the minor hand has finally reached the 100-second mark, my sister barrels downstairs, bleary and smelling of soap.
"Man, did I oversleep!" she says. "We gotta go!"
My sister packs books into boxes. Her clothes, normally scattered, lie folded in neat piles on her bed. Knickknacks join the clothes: brushes, oil paints, the genetically-modified rabbit's foot she won at a carnival when she was six.
She doesn't touch the photos on the mantel, the ones of Mum and Dad. She wouldn't leave forever without taking a memento--at least, that's what I tell myself.
She needs to go. She deserves a better life, away from the wastelands of Occupied Alpha Centauri. She's too bright for the fields of our planet, too good, and she deserves a life that's bright and good like she is.
But not with him.
Not like this.
We tiptoe round each other. My sister is usually so free with words, but now she chooses her sentences carefully. The walls of our house brim with silence. Until that evening, as we're finishing dinner, when she reaches across the table to take my hand.
"I'm going on a journey."
"Okay."
"In 2307, the occupation of Alpha Centauri will be over."
She looks away. "I've asked him--I've begged him--to take you along, but he says you're not ready to go yet."
Frozen, I sit, barely breathing. In that moment, I remember how we would hoverbike down the old quarry trail when we were kids, Sarah leading our small pack of friends--how when I fell, she didn't notice, but rode on unaware--always leading, always laughing, never once looking back.
The world moves again. I push back my chair, reach toward the mantel. "You forgot Mum and Dad." The frame weighs down my hand, cool and heavy, like granite. "If you were really leaving--if you were serious--you'd bring them along with you."
"Carrie...."
"I wonder how they'd feel if they knew about your boyfriend. Mister Time-Traveling Tentacles--or whatever his name is. What would they say if they knew?"
I expect her to cry or her lower lip to quiver, as it does when I bring up our parents. I expect her to say she's not going, not really, she wouldn't leave me for him. Instead, she plucks the frame from my hands--delicately, as though scared it might singe her--and sets it back on the mantelpiece. Then she smiles at me--a sad, pitying smile--and drifts from the room. Her voice wafts down from upstairs:
"You know, his name's actually..."
I don't catch the name.
I corner the centurion the next day, drag him to a secluded spot beside the cornfield. He doesn't resist but comes along limply, though I know he could crush me if he wanted. Against his glowing skin, my hand looks grimy, crusted with dirt from the fields.
"I want you to leave," I say. "Leave Sarah. Go away--leave our house--leave us alone. If you don't, I'll get my parents' old shotgun. We can test the theory that a lead-copper alloy can pierce the carapace of a centurion during molting season."
He shrugs, tentacled arms rippling outward in a "you're welcome to try" sort of way. "Sarah will be happier on future Alpha Centauri, once the Occupation's over and the Federation's kept its promise to recognize humanity as a race. You'll be happier too, if you ever make it there."
His arm leaves my grasp. For a moment, I stand stupefied. When the world makes sense again, I'm holding air, and he's a thin silhouette gliding back down the road to our house. I wonder--for the second time that week--how many seconds I've just lost to him and his unnatural control of time.
They're both gone when I wake the next morning. A note on the table reads, "Come forward." It isn't signed, and the writing is messy, but I recognize my sister's hand.
Mum and Dad still sit on the mantel. Sarah didn't take them. She left their accusing eyes and hardened souls and memories all for me.
Fewer people tend the cornfields. We dwindle day by day. With each worker lost, our toil increases. The rumors say the Federation is picking us off one by one, to weaken us and ruin our spirit, but I suspect a different truth. The ones who leave have a quality about them--a sort of readiness, a kind of hope. It's they, the bright ones, who are taken, and we, the bitters, who remain. We speak less, because there's more work to do, and I don't know what hurts more--the loneliness, or the memory of what we once had.
One morning, after hours of hoeing, I look up to find the centurion staring at me.
I've lost track of time. It's been years, perhaps more. I've aged, but he hasn't. His eyes--the same kaleidoscopic swirl like desert sands--track me across the dirt.
I barely remember how to speak. One word emerges, cracked:
"Sarah?"
"She's asleep," he says. "In stasis. Scheduled to wake in 2307."
I cough out mucus choked with dust. He watches, silent. Waiting.
"You," I croak. "You have to help me."
I've thought about this hard, beneath the accusing eyes of Mum and Dad in the living room, and when I'm out in the fields with nothing but my shovel, and the corn, and the endless waste to keep me company. There's been a lot of time.
"I want--" Coughs take me. I hack out the words, chest heaving. "--want to go to the past, to 2257, to the year the Federation came, to the year they killed my parents. Can you do that for me?"
A pause.
"Please," I say.
"No."
His eyes are sad.
"We can see the future, bend time to our will, but we are not gods. Time only flows one way. The laws of physics prevent reverse travel."
All my plans turn to cold wisps of nothing--another thing to mourn, another thing to hate him for. I try to dredge up loathing, hatred, passionate defiance, but find only emptiness. Longing.
"Then--" I choke. "I want to join my sister."
"Not yet."
He wraps my hand around my shovel. Perhaps the crust of dirt protects me, perhaps my lack of contact with other humans makes me weak, but I don't recoil from the brush of his skin on mine.
"You're not ready to go," he says. "You are trapped, Caroline. So dig your way out."
He leaves, and I'm left standing, huddled over my shovel, tears making tracks through the rust.
Someday, perhaps, I will pick up the pieces of my shattered life and join Sarah and the others. Until then, I will toil with the humans on Alpha Centauri, as our numbers dwindle and the dust claims our health. I will till the earth grieving, until the dust eats my tears, until I've buried them beneath layers of Alpha Centauri soil.
One way or other, I will be free.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 18th, 2021
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