's 2019 Horror Write-off:

On a distant shore

Submitted by Crab (Formerly Nelke)

A door opened and shut. A needle of light pierced the darkness, and disappeared. The soft, startled awakening of the early hours in the morning. Susannah checked the hour in the phone; it was 4 AM. She wondered, for a few moments, when would her wife come back from the bathroom, before drifting back into sleep.

There are no exact words for the emotion she felt hours later in the morning, when she woke up and Adriana’s side of the bed was cold. It was not exactly surprise and not exactly disappointment, but something in the vicinity of these two concepts. She called her. There was no one at the end of the line.

Sue got dressed and made breakfast for one. She had always been the cool, quiet side to her wife’s heat and noise, hoping to be the counterweight she sorely needed. In the last year, as success engulfed Adriana, and money rolled in, she managed. Her wife’s working hours grew longer and more hectic, and all of a sudden, their life together became short oases of calm between Adriana’s travels. However, she had not cracked. She appeased her innate appetite for self-destruction in less terrible ways than she used to when she was younger. Instead of resorting to looking into the bottom of a glass, she left the house at night, sometimes for hours, to drive along dark roads, trying to soothe a formless, causeless rage.
Were things OK between them? Was Adriana’s escapade the result of an old argument that came back to the surface. It was true that in the last weeks (months!) there was something in the relationship, a restlessness on both sides. Maybe they had both grown up in too different shapes. But they were trying.

They had planned pancakes and smoothies for breakfast. Sue put the ingredients back into the cupboards and had some stale cereal, telling herself that she had to finish the bag, that she was not punishing herself for her wife’s shortcomings. She had a right to be frustrated, yes, but to what degree? Their house had been, after all, built with Adriana’s money.
Years ago, Adriana had tried to explain her job, patiently. She designed instructions for computers that did not yet exist. Sue had listened, struggling to understand. Sometimes, she managed to have a glimpse of what the other meant. To her, the algorithms looked like a work of wondrous simplicity; a purity so radiant that required a mind of exceeding complexity to contain them. In the last year, they had found applications for them in the financial field.

Boredom started to set in. Sue had deleted all her social media accounts during that year, as she found the constant feed of news too depressing. However, she missed having a distraction, some mindless activity to take her mind from where it was.

Birds were chirping outside. The neighborhood was not the nicest, but it was as far away from the decrepit dwellings of Sue’s childhood, that it might had been another planet. Their house looked like a toy of brick, wood and glass, with a little porch and an attic they had rebuilt into a reading room. They could hold hands in public, even kiss, cautiously.
It was a nice day. Sue had called her wife several times, and she gave up. She texted her that she was leaving the house and that she would probably have lunch at one. An unnamed dread made her check the garage. The car was there, exactly where they had parked it two days ago. Both bikes were also inside. She went back into the bedroom. Adriana’s phone was still by her side of the bed, silenced.

Sue shook away the first trickle of real fear. She looked for the half-finished bottle of cooking wine in the pantry, the only alcohol in the house, and let out a sigh of relief when she found it intact.

Another person would have started to panic. Sue soldiered on, and decided to leave the house anyway. Adriana would show up again, hopefully not drunk (God, please, not that), maybe just pissed off and tired, rambling about the pressure at work.

She stepped outside, and the sun hit her in the eyes. Someone had knocked down the sign for their political candidate in the porch, and she put it up back again. When she looked up, there was someone looking at her.

The stranger was standing against the light, so their face was bathed in shadow. It took Sue some seconds to recognize her wife, but she did not understand her expression. She looked tired. Somehow, disheveled.

“Where have you been? You left your phone behind!”

The other opened her mouth, but she just shook her head, dejectedly. She rose her hands, trying to express something too big and too heavy for words. Then Sue noticed.
She had never seen her in that clothes. She had never seen anyone in that clothes. Her wife was wearing something that appeared almost normal: black trousers, a red shirt. However, somehow the pants were too tight and smooth, the shirt had no visible seams, and the cut was the strangest she had ever seen. And she always dressed so sharp!
Adriana’s hair was also different. It had been shortish the previous night, a cut that made her look like a naughty child sometimes. It was almost completely shaven in the morning. However, it was her wife’s face what made Sue gasp.

Sunken eyes looked back at her. Two deep worry lines ran at the sides of her mouth, and her eyes were dull, with a sadness she had never seen before. She looked much older.
“Just come inside”, she told the other, who obeyed without a word.

Adriana sat down by the table, still incapable of speech, and she let her wife cook her breakfast, in a sheepish countenance that was so unlike her. Only after she had wolfed down an omelet, a salad, a dish of cold cuts and half a loaf of bread, only after her wife’s silence became unbearable, did she talk for the first time.
“I have not been in this house for ten years.”
Adriana slept seventeen hours. On Sunday morning, her voice was still raspy, but at least she dared to look into Sue’s eyes again. She held her hand for a moment and took it back, almost scared. With her new wrinkles, she just looked sick, or hungover to death.

She thanked Sue for not calling the doctor and for waiting for her to wake up. Hesitatingly, she told her she had woken up to go to the restroom, ten years ago. A blinding light took her as she left the bedroom, and she found herself in the presence of strange people.

Adriana let her story trickle, constantly checking on Sue’s expression to see when she had gone too far, how much further she could push the fragile structure of plausibility of her tale. She had made a long pause after “strange people”, as if she was implying that the description fell way too short, but not daring to say anything else.
Adriana told her how she had been recruited by an unthinkable organization that spanned across spacetime and dimensions, of creatures she met that barely deserved that name, of an unknown purpose that she had to fulfill.

Sue listened by the side of the bed, her heart hurting. Something had happened to her Adriana. Maybe the engine that always sustained her, powerful but fragile, had finally broken down, and she was spinning away from reality, confabulating fantastic stories to cover for a night wandering aimlessly, the last defense of a failing brain against madness.
“We have to go to the doctor”, Sue said when the other fell silent. “If you traveled that far away, you might be carrying diseases”.

Her voice did not break. She had lost her parents early, as well as a lover in her teenage years. She had lost the country she grew up in, and her native language, and so many possessions.

She used to picture a future with her wife, a life cobbled together from their bouts of happiness between the ever more frequent arguments. They would have adopted cats, and in Sundays they would partake in silly activities such as mini-golf. They would have grown together, old and grey and contented. This dream was first cracked when she found out that Adriana had been allergic to cats and hated everything whimsy, but the main elements still stood.

What would happen if her wife was delusional? Would she ever get better, would she need medication? Maybe the story was a foretelling of something worse, a tumor encroached in her skull like a spider, feeding in her thoughts. Maybe she had a degenerative disease, and she would lose her job, and they would have to sell the house. They would be all alone in the world.

Adriana looked at her, and her expression softened. There were tiny wrinkles in the sides of her eyes.

“You do not believe me”, she said.

“That’s is not it”, Sue replied, with all the fake honesty she could muster. “If what you say is true, and, if you understand, it is hard to believe, you still need to go to the doctor”.

Adriana sighed, and ran her hands through her scalp.

“I am scared. Can you take my hand?”

Her fingers were so much thinner, and blue veins crossed her hands. Sue accepted. Adriana muttered something very fast.

Geometric lights lighted up in her skin, in a pattern that was as regular as nauseating. They extended through her whole body, enveloping her.

A gigantic impact blew the air from Sue’s chest. Her instinct made her kick back, and she struggled to breathe. Around her, there was only blackness. No noise came out of her mouth when she screamed.

A hand grabbed her by the hair and she could suddenly breathe again. She saw Adriana’s face in front of her, as she mouthed something incomprehensible. The bright lines covered her again, in a soft touch that felt like a tickle. They extended through her body, drawing a labyrinth of light, almost invisible.

She blinked, and she found herself on a metal floor, looking at a starry sky. They were both lying, panting in the cold air. “Stand up”, said Adriana, helping Sue up.
They were both covered in patterns of light that surrounded them, as if projected from the lines in their skin. They looked like translucent astronaut suits.

The first thing that hit Sue was the unimaginable sense of height. They were standing on top of something, overseeing a landscape of blackness. Crooked structures stood against the dark, labyrinthine shapes standing on thin legs that became invisible way before they touched the ground. The wind howled beneath them and around the legs of the constructions, but it did not touch them.

“Where are we?” Sue yelled. She was crying.

“In another world”, said Adriana, looking at the horizon. Her face was crossed by a lattice of light. Sue shivered in the cold.

“I don’t understand”, she sobbed. As a reply, Adriana looked up to the sky.

There were stars. Overcoming the terror, Sue forced herself to look at the constellations, and familiarity looked back at her. The Milky Way cleaved the sky.
Adriana was looking at a black patch in the sky near the horizon. Sue realized that it was not empty; it was occupied by something larger and darker than the moon.
The alien satellite filled almost one tenth of the sky. Although she struggled to make out the details, Sue could not make any details. However, something told her that there was something in the surface that she could not see, just beyond her sight.

She screamed.

She blinked, and she found herself again lying on her bed, with Adriana by her side. They hugged for the first time, and Sue noticed the protruding bones in her wife, her new smell. She buried her face in her chest, not daring to look up.

“I was not lying”, said the other, softly.

The body is an animal who craves routine; give it sleep, give it food, and it will get up again in the morning, enthralled by the rhythms that keep it alive. Sue slept on Sunday night, under the clumsy attentions of Adriana. She took the pill her wife gave her, and on Monday morning she went back to work at the daycare.

“You OK?” asked Adriana before Sue left, sitting at the kitchen table. She had burned breakfast.

“I think I need this.” She had put her hair up in a ponytail, which she had not done in years.

It helped. The kids were kids, and the other teachers lived in their usual microworld of alliances, enmities and gossip. Sue allowed herself to get lost in the trite politics of Sunshine daycare center.

“I think you need to know more.” Said Adriana when Sue came back and sank on the couch, still in her outdoors jacket, clutching the mail.

“Please, talk to me.” Pleaded the other. Sue sighed, and opened the first of the two letters.

“This one is a coupon from the place you got your glasses last year. We can throw it away.” Said Sue, looking ahead.

“Please.” Adriana kneeled down beside her. Sue did not dare to look up to her.

She wrinkled the paper, and shredded it slowly, barely aware of what she was doing.

“This one is from the homophobic creep who always writes to us. This time is a drawing. I think we should report it to the police, even if I do not know who he is.”

“Come with me tonight.” Adriana’s voice sounded far away.

The coupon in Sue’s hands was torn in a myriad little pieces on her lap. I will have to clean this up, a part of her thought.

Sue cried as Adriana picked up the pieces of paper one by one and put them in the bin. She kept crying as the other ran the shower and guided her towards it, as she got dressed with the other’s help. She sat by the kitchen table, weak as a doll, while the other clumsily stroked her hair and served takeaway dinner still in the box.

“I tried to make pasta”, said Adriana, apologetic “but I forgot how to use the stove”.

They ate Pad Thai in silence, and shared two glasses of wine. Sue went to bed and the other followed, unusually subdued.

“What was that, yesterday? Was it a trick?”

“It is not.” Said Adriana. “I can show you again.”

“Scary.” Sue managed to blurt.

“I can make it easier. I took you somewhere else. Somewhere better. Just come with me.” Adriana’s voice sounded half-asleep, as she would sound during their study years, when they had just met, and they spent hours talking about the universe together.

Sue nodded, as her wife took her hands and brought them towards her.


A blue-white sky, so luminous that for a moment Sue just saw red, was above them. They were still lying, on a bed of fragrant grass, that seemed to irradiate heat. They stood up.

“Is this Earth?” Sue asked. The translucid astronaut suit was around them again.

Around them, soft hills rolled in the distance, fading into the blue. Everywhere there was grass, verdant and wild, swaying in the sweet air.

“Yes” replied Adriana finally “But not ours.”

“I don’t understand.”

“In this world, homo sapiens and the other big apes were wiped out by the Toba catastrophe, 75,000 years ago.”

Sue had read about the Toba catastrophe during her studies in Anthropology. A ten-year volcanic winter, that reduced the human population to less than ten thousand individuals. A genetic bottleneck.

“Do you understand now?”

Sue nodded.

“Was it really a volcano?”

Adriana smiled.

“Not really. Something happened, both here and in our Earth, that I do not fully understand. Don’t you notice something weird?”

Sue looked around her, the blue skies, the tall stalks lolling in the breeze. There was nothing but silence. No bird crossed the air, no insect sung a raspy song.

“Where are the animals?”

“They are gone, except for the worms and some bugs living underground. No trees either. No more fish in the sea. All was gone with the winter.”

They walked around in the green world. Some dandelions poked their heads in the strange grass, and Sue wondered how did they reproduce. It felt like a still life, over and over.

“Look at this.” Said Adriana, poking at something black with her foot. Sue went to her.

“This is slime mold,” she continued “living off the rot and the bacteria.”

“What is it?”

“A single cell, that combines and recombines when food is in short supplies. It reproduces like crazy here. Check it out.”

She pointed at another lump on the grass. Now Sue could see them everywhere.

“They are doing great. I do not know what is going to happen with them, but they are the only moving lifeform above the surface of the earth.”

They strolled, for a bit, and it felt like walking on an empty part. The talks of the weeds caressed her ankles, and Sue contained the feeling of alarm; she felt oddly relieved there were no ticks there.

“This would not be such a bad place to stay, but it’s empty” Mumbled Adriana through gritted teeth, “just empty.”

She took Sue’s hands, and they were back in their house. They took the empty takeaway boxes in silence.

“Do you want to sleep?”

“Not really.” Said Sue. “I want to know.”

She sat down in the living room, while Adriana made tea. She came back and sat down with her.

The windows were open. It was a lovely summer night, and crickets chirped outside. A lonely person passed their window, whistling.

“I can travel across realities.” She said. “I can also travel through time, but it is harder.”

“How does it work?” Sue took a sip of her tea, and it burnt her tongue.

“Chrono-tech has been implanted in my body,” she said, and with her words a silver web of threads lighted up in her skin. “It runs on my own energy.”

“What the hell is that.”

“It is my portable universe-jumping machine. Not only it allows me to travel, but also it makes me invisible to any living, sentient creature wherever I go, and it allows me to breath, although only for some minutes. I wanted to bring another one to you, but I just share mine whenever we jump together.”

“There are many presents, many futures, many pasts.” She continued. “The multiverse is a cloud, expanding in a fluid, every decision bringing another cosmos into existence.”
“How did you know that?”

“The Palp told me. That’s how they call themselves. This is the most approximate translation in our language. We are a conglomerate of species from several realities. Most of them are… not humanoid, but all our species are compatible. Convergent evolution. They keep track of things, help each other throughout realities.”

“But why you?” Sue’s voice cracked. “Why did they take you?”

“They recruited me. I was on the verge of figuring this out.”

Adriana took a notebook on the table. She ripped the first page, where there still was last week’s grocery list, and scribbled something with a pen.

Sue looked. There was a formula, alarmingly simple, that she did not understood, and an intricate drawing of a knot.

“It was not a part of my research. My work focuses on quantum complexity theory, on how to make an algorithms so a computer somewhere in Wall Street can scrape a second of advantage for its owners. This was just an interesting byproduct of some of my theories. A couple of results that did not match, that hinted at some truly weird mathematical properties. Either something was amiss with my calculations, or reality was not what it seemed. That problem had been scratching the back of my mind; the night I left, I could not sleep. And then, Formotos and Aruléh met me, and took me away.”

“You went with them.” Sue said.

Adriana covered her face with her hands, shy in her vulnerability.

“I thought I would come back earlier, at first, that I would stay just for a couple of days. I did not think I would be gone for so long. And then they told me they had seen my future, and that I would stay for longer. So I stayed, and stayed.”

She sighed. Her voice shook as she continued.

“I went on to survey new worlds with them, to find new civilizations. There are so many things to see, Susannah. So many wonders. The two who picked me up looked almost human. With time, we became almost friends. And the Palp! All species in it share a sense of grandiosity. They have a Great Hall, somewhere in a tiny parasitic cosmos, bigger than our earth. I helped them. They needed my research, they said, to send it back in time, to another cosmos, to make sure the Palp was born.”

Sue said nothing. There was no thought, no combination of words, to express was she was going through.

“It is not that I do not believe you, love. For me, you were only gone for a few hours. You showed me these places. Dead worlds. I feel I fell into a movie.”

“Those worlds were not dead.” Whispered Adriana. “The life they contained was very different.”

“You understand, right? Last Friday, my main concern was that you would start drinking again! And now, this… happened! What am I supposed to do?”
Sue recoiled at her wife’s hand.

“I am not going to take you anywhere you do not want to.” Her face looked gaunt in the candlelight. “I am sorry, Sue. I will tell you more as you are ready to know. For now, I just want you to know that I am sorry. I know what I did wrong.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. For you it was just a few hours, but for me it was a decade, and in that period, I have seen abysses of time. I changed. And I am sorry.”

“Will you leave again?”

Adriana blinked.

“Maybe. I am not sure. The future is a map set in the sand. If I leave, you will not be ignorant of the fact. And I will always come back to you.”

Something in the way Adriana said that words set Sue’s alarms off.

“Do you still love me?”

There was a silence that lasted forever. A rare drunk yelled something in the street.

“I think so. What I do not know is whether you can love me back.”

Normality crept back again. Adriana went back to her job in a skyscraper, leaving the house every morning in a crisp suit that she would iron the evenings before. Her workplace did not demand a dress code, and most of her colleagues showed up in hoodies and jeans, but she had always had a compulsion to show her value. She came back after beers with her colleagues, where she was treated as everybody else. In the following weeks, Sue joined nervously, taking glances at whatever her wife was drinking.

To Sue, the whole story became some kind of dream, only there were real changes. The hard edges of Adriana softened, and her bouts of rage disappeared. She listened to Sue talk about her day, her job, like she had not done since college. When some parents complained to the daycare that Sue had mentioned being married to another woman, Adriana stood up to her. “Assholes!” She mumbled, and passed her hand over her scalp. And then came the end of the month.

“I am not supposed to talk about this.” Said Adriana over the remains of the dinner. “But I have been applying some of the things I learned in my time with the Palp to work. And I got this e-mail today.” She stood up and arched her back over the kitchen table to show Sue something in her phone.

Sue gasped.

“Is this real?”

“Things in finance move fast, and they are very interested in locking down a patent. This will mean…”

“So much money” Sue’s heart sank.

“Think of everything we will be able to do with it!” her smile was strained. “We’ll have a good house, one with two floors! We’ll pay your student debt at once!”

“Yes, I suppose we will.” Sue smiled weakly. The other saw her expression. In another time, she would have shot an angry remark, but this time she just went to Sue’s side of the table and hugged her.

“I know it is hard. I appreciate you being here.”

They met their friends, as usual, almost every weekend. All of them noticed the changes in Adriana, that she blamed to lack of rest now that her career was taking off. Almost always, they met at a pleasant, quiet pub in the hipster part of town. The gang had dwindled with the years. However, they had always managed to keep their meeting going, to pull at each other’s threads, to check on each other.

It was a night at the end of September. Outside, the wind carried the first chill of the season.

The newcomer sat down and took off her jacket while already sitting, letting it fall on her shoulders. There was something feral in her posture.

“Jesus, Jessica. You OK?” asked Adriana.

“I am.” She said. “For a couple days I wasn’t, but David took care of me.”

Jessica was tall, and too thin, and tired. Half her face was bruised.

“Protestors at the abortion clinic this time. They have a rule not to touch you, of course, so we cannot sue them for harassment, but there was this guy, and he was new. Seeing me got him into a rage.”

“That’s awful.” Adriana was sitting rigidly at the table, Sue noticed, and she was staring at Jessica with febrile intensity. She normally was not too fond of her. Before, she would have just sighed and mumbled a platitude about the other’s ordeal.

“I charged back. He was slow. The next thing I see, he was on the ground yelling at me, and the other guys were holding him. He might sue.” She shrugged. “But we caught it on camera.”

“Do you think you will need money?”

“The donations covered the bills, thank you.” Jessica smiled for the first time, and she drank a sip of beer. The other two sipped on their sodas.

“We can help financially, you know.” Said Adriana, and the rest of the table stared at her in shock.

“Things are becoming ugly.” The voice of Jaime came from the other side of the table, but it seemed far away. He wore a button-down that covered his tattoos. “I do not know what is happening.”

“Things were always ugly.”

“I mean worse.” He continued. “Some dude tried to assault David and me last weekend coming back from the club. It had been a while.”

“Assholes. Losers. Unhappy people, who look for weaker ones to torment.” Said Axe, who was coming back with drinks.
“Yes, but they are emboldened this time.”

There was silence on the table until Adriana intervened.

“To us! We will prevail!” she said, and her voice sounded hollow.

“You two look like you are doing great”, Axe said to Adriana and Sue, with a genuine smile. She used to be one of the regulars at the meetings, until she got her twins.
Embarrassed at her new clothes, Sue nodded.

“Things are going well at the company.” Intervened Adriana. “Fucking up the world is profitable.” She laughed, but nobody else did.

The evening continued and it was pleasant, like it always was. They shared nachos, the cheapest item in the menu, and quietly both Adriana and Sue paid for the dish. Jessica and David were unemployed.

The following Friday, Adriana took Sue to a world that was a vast, empty labyrinth. The sky over them seemed to be a duller shade of the off-white of the walls, that melted with the floor. High above them, so far away Sue could not really tell if they were real, creatures glided in the dry, rarefied air. It was impossible to make out whether they were big or small, or what color they were.

“Do you know who built this?” Sue touched one of the walls of the maze. It was warm.

“This was not built. It grew.” Adriana was carrying a lantern, despite the brightness around them, that did not seem to come from any sun.

Sue examined the walls closely, and she could make out that they were made of tiles, smaller than a fingernail, all bone-white and smooth like bone.

“Is this coral?” As an answer, Adriana shushed her, and looked to the front.

Something came in their direction, down the corridor, something not humanoid and not jellyfish, but that had things in common with both. It was black, and leathery, and swollen. There was a globe bobbling atop, like a head, but from close up it did not look like a head. Tendrils floated around it. It glided past them with a soft hissing noise, like a balloon being slowly deflated.

“Hum. This is the first one I have seen up close. Nice thing.” Adriana was smiling, but there was a startled look in her eyes, and she was holding a hand behind her back.
They walked for a little while, and Sue could not stop seeing how her wife turned her head at every corner, how her shoulders tensed. After a few minutes, she spoke.
“Let us leave this place, huh? Not much more to see.”

They hugged and appeared back into their living room. Adriana, who had taken up cooking, put a lasagna in the oven. They spent the rest of the evening playing a happy couple, making light-hearted comments, pouring glasses of wine, and huddling on the couch to watch a movie. However, Adriana’s smile was thin and frail, and her hands were clammy and elusive.
By the end of Autumn, Adriana appeared on the news. “THE BRIGHTEST LIGHT IN QUANTUM COMPUTING”, she was called, and she scoffed at the headline. They treated all their friends to dinner.

Sue checked the article about her. There she was, looking gorgeous, dapper as always, with a smile that looked like she had no care in this world. She talked about her advances and their future applications in science, about her team, about being a woman in STEM. Unwisely, Sue read the comments.

“DYKE” said the first one. “FAT” was the other. The thread devolved into a discussion on whether only unattractive women did follow intellectual careers, and to which degree.
She closed the tab, and looked for her wife’s name online.

Some news agencies echoing the first article, her academic citations. And, amongst the five first results, a thread in a forum.

She had heard the name of the website, always with derision. “The posters are incels”, “They have no life”, “The worst of the internet” were the kind of comments that always came with the mentions. The thread started with pics of Adriana, zoomed in until she was unrecognizable. In the replies, someone had photoshopped a pig’s snout in her face.

Other posters debated how much alcohol they would need to take to fuck her. Another one theorized she produced an excess of testosterone, that explained her skills in math and her unattractiveness. Others commented that she was married to a woman. How did they know? Sue thought. They never shared anything personal online.

Another poster argued that probably she was not the discoverer of the algorithms, and that she was probably leeching off a male researcher. In the following page, the tone of the comments shifted, from derision to hatred. Some of the comments asked for personal information on Adriana, and someone published pictures of her, from her old blog account. She had not written in it for more than ten years.

More and more links. Her LinkedIn, her profile in the company’s website. One poster declared their intentions to track down their personal address, and asked to be given “a few days”.
Sue took screenshots and shut down her laptop. Harassment had been a constant in her life, since she was thirteen and she met her first girlfriend. Time had dulled it, but somehow, sometimes it managed to break down her defenses.

She did not cry. She waited for her wife to come back, and convinced her to file a report for online harassment. They went to the police station and a sleepy officer told them they could not really do anything.

“Damn waste of time. You worry too much.” It had been forever since Adriana did not have an outburst.

“You worry too little.” They had left the station and they were walking in the cold. Sue shivered under her coat. Her wife looked at her. A gust of cold and wetness brought some dead leaves to their feet.

That night, they had sex for the first time since Adriana had come back. Her body was bonier, older. Her demeanor was more aggressive than usual, almost like it used to be in college, when she would look at Sue with hunger. They stayed in bed, twisted in a knot, for the rest of the night.

Afterwards, things did not really go back to normal. They bought an alarm system, at Sue’s behest. They still left the house to get groceries, or to work, or to meet friends, but there always was a moment of tension stepping outside, as well as stepping back inside. They stopped kissing on the street.

Sue checked the forum thread again, a week later. The comment of the person trying to find their address had been deleted.

To Adriana’s annoyance, Sue told their friends about the ugly comments. All of them nodded.

“I got a thread into one of those forums too, when all that shit with my blog went down.” Axe said. I got some messages. Some idiots tried to steal my passwords. Be careful around there.”

Adriana chewed her drinking straw and said nothing. She left to order another round from the bar. After all these years, they had to change the venue after a very unpleasant incident in which another patron complained that Jessica was using the bathroom “with the real women”. The owner had refused to take sides, so they took off and found another place, slightly pricier, but still within the acceptable prince range.

“Elections are coming. You should join the committee, support our candidate…” said Jaime.

“We already have a yard sign. It has been knocked down so many times.” Adriana cut them. “I can donate some, but we have no time.”

“A donation would be good, thanks.” Jaime said, but they looked taken aback.

“I will be happy to go help canvassing the neighborhoods-“ Sue began, but another voice spoke over hers.

“I know politics are not your forte, Adriana, but you should really pay attention.” Jessica sounded angry. “I know you are getting rich, and famous, and whatever, but fame will not protect you indefinitely.”

“Who says that I am not paying attention?” Adriana leaned back with her arms crossed. “What tells you that I am not doing nothing?”

Jessica sighed, and for a moment she looked just sad. Sue tried to make a light-hearted comment, and Axe followed. The conversation continued, and at the end of the evening everyone hugged each other and exchanged apologies. Adriana never went back to the meetings.

Adriana spent longer hours at work. At home, she was still loving, still joyful, but her words of love rung hollow, as well as her joy. She insisted on jumping dimensions weekly, sometimes even more often. “I was here five years ago, with my colleagues from the Palp”, she would say about an ocean planet, both of them floating a meter over the surface, “we rode the waves on a jellyfish we tamed. Look, there’s one of them”. She pointed at a bluish, translucent blob, bigger than their house, drifting away.

The night of the election came, and it was as bad as they expected. However, it was a blow. Sue went to the weekly meeting, while Adriana stayed home.

She was not the only one. When she arrived to the bar, only Jessica was there. Axe had stayed with her children and her partners. David and the others were too depressed to leave their homes.

“They are scared.” Said Jessica, drinking from her beer bottle.

“I do not blame them. How are you?” Asked Sue.

“Scared, as well. And angry.” There was something in Jessica’s eyes that made Sue recoil. “It is not about you.” She said, gently. “But things are going to become so much harder to me in the next years. Yesterday morning, they told me they would not renew my contract at the women’s gym.”

“Oh, no!”

“I have been working there four years! And nobody has ever complained! However, I think the owners got a strongly-worded letter from someone, and they got afraid.”

“This fucking sucks.”

“Tell me about it.” Jessica emptied her bottle and went for another round.

“What about Adriana?” She asked, pointing at the empty seat next to Sue. “Is she scared too?”

“Not really.” Replied Sue awkwardly. “She just felt tired.” She looked away from Jessica’s eyes. She was aware of the rift between her wife and her friend, but she did not like to acknowledge it.

“Look, I am not going to lecture you about what she is supposed to do, but she has been super odd in the last weeks. Is she OK?”

“Yes. It’s just the stress, and the newfound fame. You know she is a private person.”

Jessica scoffed.

“Yes, I have seen them. Jesus Christ, the headlines are cringey. I read one that said she was the new Einstein. I bet that pissed her off. She is the old Adriana.

They both laughed. Jessica went on, her expression serious.

“For real. I want to be sure she is OK.”

“I think so.” Sue was aware of the smile in her face, that felt drawn with a sharpie.

“I remember when we studied together in college.” She handwaved as she talked, as if she was pushing away a distant past. “I was with her in class. She was scary smart.”

“She still is.”

“I have read some of the papers she has been uploading lately. They are truly groundbreaking.”

“If you tell me so!”

“No, for real. I have never read anything like that. The things she writes about… is as if she came from a hundred years in the future.”

Sue arched her eyebrows.”

“What I mean is, she is going to become a big-time celebrity if she goes on like this. It’s not that she does not deserve it, but… she will have a bigger influence than any of us. She might be able to give interviews, to speak about our struggles.”

“You know she is apolitical.”

Jessica sat back, and studied Sue’s face for some seconds. Then, she leaned sharply forward, and spoke in a lower tone. With deliberate slowness, she took out her phone and switched it off. She put it on the table, and then made a gesture towards Sue with her eyebrows.

Unsure of what to do, Sue imitated her.

“I am doing something.” She said, conspiratorially. “I am organizing in a new group. For direct action.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I want to push back, that’s what I mean! I want to fight this tide of hate.”

“This is dangerous.” Whispered Sue.

“You do not have to do anything about it, if you don’t want. You do not have to mention it to Adriana. But I want you to know that we exist.”

“How many of you are out there? What do you plan to do?”

Jessica shook her head.

“I am not going to tell you, unless you want to be a part of it.”

“I would rather stay out, for the moment.”

Jessica sighed.

“Just think about it, OK? Meanwhile, you only have to know that we exist.”

“Thank you for telling me this.”

“I just feel we gotta do something. Also, look.” She smiled. “I came out with a sign for us.” She joined her thumb and index finger in a circle, and did the same with the other hand, interlocking both circles as links in a chain. “That’s how you tell us apart.”

Sue looked at her frizzy water, and her stomach sank. She just nodded.

The rest of the evening went into a blur of noncommittal conversation. When she went back home, there was light in the kitchen.

Adriana was awake, sitting by the table, eyes red and wild. There were three cans of beer, empty and crushed, in front of her.

“Adriana…” Sue started.

“Do not get hysterical on me now, I am not drunk. It has just been a couple of beers.” Her tone of voice was a familiar one, the one she had in their arguments, before she left that night, long ago.

“You should not do this.”

“I needed to unwind! You went out with your friends, I have my own ways of relaxing!”

Sue went to the table and pushed the cans away, startled at her own anger. She stood in front of Adriana.

“This” she said, her voice cold. “has to stop.”

“What do you mean? It’s been so long since I had my last little drink!”

“I do not mean that. It’s… everything!” Sue’s tone was raised. “This last months have been crazy! You just take off, take me away to your dead worlds. Is this a trick? Am I going insane?”
“The multiverse is real.” Adriana looked subdued.

“I do not care! All this sci-fi stuff, it has no bearing in our life! You have to stay here, to pay attention at what’s going on around you!” Her breath came out of her in rags.
“Why do you say I am not paying attention to what is going on? How you dare say it?”

“Then, why don’t you want to talk about politics? Why don’t you join us when we meet? Jessica was kicked out of her gym this week!”

“Sorry to hear that.” Said Adriana impersonally.

“All this talk about the Palp or whatever it is, is it just a dream? A delusion we share?”

“Come with me.”
Adriana stood up, a little wobbly, and took Sue’s hands. A pop, and they were somewhere else.

It felt underground. They were standing in a maze of cylindrical, transparent tunnels, around and above and below them. The air in there was heavy, and dry, and it seemed to disappear into a blue mist.

“What is this place?”

“This used to be the Palp.” Said Adriana.

They walked along the crystalline corridors, sometimes jumping, sometimes crouching. There was a network of shiny veins running around them, that looked almost organic.

“Is this… the headquarters?” Adriana nodded.

She pointed to a dark stain in the wall. Something had been smashed against it.

“What happened?”

“Let’s keep walking.”

As the tunnels became bigger, Sue saw more and more stains, like long-ago dried puddles. In some places, there were tiny pieces of machinery and circuits. Sometimes, there were remains that looked almost organic. She avoided looking at them directly.

The tunnel ended and opened into something. At first, Sue thought it was some kind of outside, but then she realized that it was a room, built with the same transparent material as the walls, so big there was no echo.

Some steps in front of them, there was an almost-human skeleton, disarticulated on the floor.

“I left the Palp because there was a civil war.” Whispered Adriana. “I do not even understand the reasons. Some factions just started fighting over something I cannot really comprehend, and then we were all killing each other. I did not want to be a part of it, Sue. I have always been an angry person. I did not want to be angry anymore.”
“What the hell?” Said Sue. She walked up to the skeleton.

It looked even more human from up close. Only the skull was different, pointier, and the ribcage looked deformed. Or maybe that’s how he or she were killed, Sue thought, crouching beside it.

“I understand the enormity of what I am saying.” Said Adriana from above. “Take time to assimilate it.”

“So, that’s what happened? That was what it took, to bring you back to me?” She whispered.

“Please, do not be unfair.”

“I will be as unfair as I want!” Yelled Sue. “You say you understand the enormity, do you, really?” She was yelling in the empty room with invisible walls. Her heart was pounding in her chest. An empty, almost impersonal rage filled her.

“Let’s go home.” Said Adriana dejectedly, and suddenly they were back into their kitchen. Their chrono-tech suits vanished, as they always did.

“I also feel crazy sometimes, crazy and delusional.” Said Adriana, looking at her hands. “But then I published my results. I see the new wrinkles in my face, and I know it is all true.”
“Was it worth it?” Said Sue, bitterly.

“Yes. To a degree.” Answered the other carefully.

“And now that you saw the multiverse, that you saw a war beyond the worlds, you are above the concerns of our little life?”

Adriana looked up to her.

“No, it is not that.” She said, her tone firm. “I am not ignoring the politics that surround us. I am getting involved my own way.”

“What do you mean?” Asked Sue, her voice softer.

“Look.” Adriana’s hands lighted up in technomantical runes. An incorporeal screen appeared in front of her.

Sue walked next to her. A line of symbols blinked into the screen.

“What is this?”

“This is called Agathean notation. It’s an equation.”

“For what?”

“It tells you the likelihood of a technological civilization imploding.”

Adriana touched the screen. The symbols unfolded and became a diagram. There was a confusion of lines, an illusion of space, a kind of path marked in the middle.

“It would take months to explain you all the concepts, but this is the meat of it. Every sapient species evolved from a simpler form, and carries within the very flaws from its previous incarnation, just like a vase shares kinship with the formless clay. This equation takes into account hundreds of variables: a tendency to proliferate beyond the existing resources, excessive or insufficient aggression, focus on the short-term; all these are traits that were useful in their time, but that now hold them back. As they expand, or their number grows, these flaws become more and more apparent, and there is a population collapse.”

Adriana pointed at the white path that some lines followed.

“Only 5.47 percent of the species who form a civilization manage to survive to space exploration. Of them, another two percent dies out before they figure out interdimensional travel.”
“Where are humans in that line?” Sue asked, dreading the answer.

Adriana pointed at an almost invisible line in the diagram, running downwards, and pinched it. It zoomed.

“We score very high on selective aggression. We see the world through narratives, and we allow them to control us.”

Sue looked at her, mute.

“As a result of our own symbolic intellect, we thrive in cruelty. Paradoxically, we abhor it, so we inflict it on what we consider lower creatures at first. Toads, insects, spiders.”

Sue nodded.

“This goes on to members of our own species. We look for anything that is different from the cultural norm and latch into it. We assign the deviants negative qualities, just like we do with the toads and the bugs, so we can hurt them without risk for our consciences. With our higher numbers, with our tendencies amplified through social media, we are reaching a tipping point.”

“Is this… what is happening to us?” Sue asked. “I always thought that the people who hate us are just ignorant.”

Adriana shrugged.

“The numbers speak for themselves. In any civilization, if the result of the equation is above one, it will survive. Below it, it will self-destruct. Humans are sitting at 0.84.”
Sue sat down. There was no emotion inside her.

“That’s what I am trying to do. Things are going to get worse for us here. I am trying to find us a new home.”

“That’s what we have been doing in the last months? All our little excursions? You have took me house-hunting?”
Adriana nodded.

“I do not understand.” Said Sue, her mind working fast. “You said there were infinite universes, a new one with every new trajectory of a particle. Yet you just took me to these weird, desolate places. Why?”

“I never said there were infinite worlds, I said there were many. There are infinite, but not that many. The principle of chronic pruning. Two similar temporal branches tend to converge in time, and the bigger branches connect to each other eventually. That’s how other universes were first discovered.”

“So, there is a finite number of universes.”

“Yes. And the ones more similar to us, they are within the reach of the Palp. I have been looking through the outskirts, the places nobody bothered to look, trying to find a place we could stay.”

“It is not really working.” Said Sue bitterly.

“There are peoples living beyond the shores of time, and for them their world is as wondrous and strange as theirs is for us. There are places with no sun in the sky, where a sun is a concept as alien as a timesink is to us. Particles, floating in the fluid of spacetime. Maybe there will find a place.”

“Do you think we will be able to?”

“I hope so. Because the future of this world scares the shit out of me.”

They laid together on the bed, immobile, sleepless. They did not touch each other, and they did not talk to each other, until the first rays of dawn came through the window.
They left the bed and started making breakfast. Like a well-oiled machine, they worked well together. Adriana made coffee, Sue made toast. The latter broke the silence.
“How sure you are that humans are going to self-destruct?”

“As I said, pretty sure.” Adriana looked at her above her coffee cup, despondent.

“Have you seen it?”

“I did not have to.”

“But I do.” Sue said. “You said the chrono-tech allows us to become invisible, and invulnerable. You said that you could also jump into the future.”

“Yes” Adriana started. “But it is harder.”

“What does it mean, harder? All the jumps happen in a blink! Will the journey take us two blinks?”

Adriana sighed.

“I will think about it.”
“OK. But I am not coming with you before seeing the future of our world.”

They both went to work, sleepless. Sue taught the children like an automaton.

“I will do it.” Said Adriana during dinner. “I do not like it, but for you I will do it.”

“Thank you.” Whispered the other.

“I am afraid.”

“Me too.”

They stood up and held hands. Adriana murmured an instruction.

The jump was harder this time. Sue felt as if she were in a car crash, and the impact shook her body into the airbag. Breathless, they landed, and they looked around.

“When are we?”

“Two hundred years into the future.” Said Adriana, appreciatively. “At this point, our likelihood of going extinct was eighty percent. Things are not looking too bad.”
“See?” Said Sue smugly, although she did not feel smug.

They were standing on a sidewalk. At first, Sue thought there was daylight, but then she realized that they were surrounded by a muted, grey light given by the buildings.

As they strolled through the sidewalk, untouched and unseen, Sue started to notice differences between the present and the future. Architecture did not look so different, but there were many details that took them out of reality, that made them realize they were in a truly different place. Exaggerated arches, windows that were too big to be sustained by a normal wall, excrescences out of the buildings. Despite the phosphorescence of the buildings, there were streetlights, hovering over the crowd.

The air was wet, and dirty. There were no cars in the street. People were dressed in garish colors and hairdos, to the point the crowd gave the vibe of a carnival party.

“I wonder how people move around. I see no vehicles.”

“Traveling is probably a thing of the past. Why would you want to bother going somewhere, if you have the possibility of visiting any place virtually?”

They looked for a place to sit, but there were no parks, no benches. Shops were open, or at least something that looked like shops, exhibiting wares that looked oddly mundane, or completely alien.

“This does not look that bad.” Conceded Adriana, speaking very slowly. “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe humanity has managed to overcome its worst instincts.”

They walked down the street, holding hands under the fantastic lights of the future. They saw light-up shoes, and people surrounded by holograms. They saw trees, or illusions of trees, glitching in and out of existence. They saw buildings tall as mountains, that disappeared away into the fog.

“What is that” said Adriana, stopping suddenly. Sue looked at where she was looking.

Floating a meter above the ground, there was a glass cube, shorter than half an arm. There was a hologram over it, that had some kind of moving figure. People stopped sometimes close to it, and did something to the shape, and then they left. The couple went closer.

There was a human crammed inside, limbs twisted and deformed like a broken doll. Their face was smashed against the glass, eyes bloodshot, toothless mouth open in a silent scream.
A kid stopped by and took something from their pocket, some kind of needle, long and sharp, and stuck it into the cube. It pierced the surface and went straight into the person’s skin.
The unfortunate one wiggled around in pain. Their mouth opened and shut, as if trying to talk. The kid stabbed again, and again, each time with a new needle. He parted, and left the needles stuck.

“What is that?”

“Maybe a criminal?” Said Adriana, noncommittally. Her expression was unreadable under her suit of light.

They kept walking close together, turning back regularly to look at the cube prisoner, until they walked around the corner. Sue looked up, and shivered.

Hanging from the streetlights, almost invisible under the beams, there were bodies, hanging upside down. Their shadows were projected onto the pavement. They are dead, thought Sue. Then she saw one of them twitching.

On the sidewalk, at regular intervals, there were niches as well. Inside them, naked bodies were also lying down. Passersby walked on them, stepping on them as if they were cobblestones.

They stopped. Sue gagged. Adriana put an arm over her shoulders.

“What is going on? What did those people do?”

“My best guess is nothing.” Answered Adriana, her voice perfectly neutral. “They have run out of enemies, so they look for random characteristics to punish. That was what we theorized in the Palp.”

A man wearing a bright green jacket stopped by one of the prisoners, and started urinating on him. The crowd cheered.

“Jesus.” Said Sue flatly.

“I did not think things would be so bad.” Adriana was looking ahead. “I would have us extinct, rather than this.”

“Can’t we change the future?”


The future was a panopticon, a fresh fresco of flesh and blood and suffering. They walked, awestruck at the horror parade that awaited on every corner. Every step there was some new punishment, a sickening surprise. They saw living people, hanging from garlands made from their guts. They saw ice spikes, and transparent prisons where people suffocated slowly, every gesture amplified on a screen for the onlooker’s derision.

“I think I have seen enough.”

“Me too.” Muttered Adriana.

They held hands and closed their eyes, wishing desperately to leave that place of nightmares. Adriana said her command to jump back into their past.

Nothing happened.

“What happens?” Asked Sue, panicking.

“I said jumping in time is harder. Let me try again.”

A crack. A sparkle. Their luminous suits blinked in and out, and they restarted.

“It is not working.” Muttered Adriana. “We have to go to a quiet place. Maybe I can repair it.”

She grabbed Sue’s hand and started walking briskly. However, something was wrong. She could feel the lines of light fading in and out of her vision. Was she still invisible? She wondered. There were startled looks from passersby.

They were almost running, and she could feel the suit malfunctioning around her, buzzing and vibrating. How could something made of light sound like that?

A burning sensation in her leg. A spark flew and burned her through her trousers. She complained, but Adriana kept pulling her through the crowd. Breathing hurt. She was exhausted. She looked at Adriana, and she saw she was panting as well.

“The tech is running on us as an energy source, and it is overloading now.” Adriana said, out of breath. We have to hurry!”

And then, without a warning, the light suits puffed out of existence. The sounds, that were muted, came back, piercing their ears. A cacophony of voices and whirrs and honks rose around them. She felt the crowd stopping around them, a collective gasp born from a hundred throats. In the corner, two people who were whipping another stopped.
People took a step back around them.

“What are you looking at? Keep walking!” Barked Adriana in her loudest tone, but nobody reacted.

“Who are you?” Saw a voice in the crowd, with an strange accent.

Adriana and Sue looked at each other. They had been together for a long time, and despite drifting apart in their last year, they had gone through a lot together. They had walked hand in hand in the midst of insults and catcalls. They had stood together in front of drunkards who considered their existence an insult. They had fought together when a company fired one of them when they found out they were women who loved other women.

They started walking resolutely, looking ahead. The crowd parted to let them go through, amongst whispers.

“We are making it.” Said Sue. “I cannot believe it.”

“This will not last long. We have to find somewhere to hide, so I can try to fix this disaster.”

She was about to say something else, but a scream before them cut her short.

People started to run towards them. Sue and Adriana steeled themselves, but the crowd pushed them, and elbowed them, and ran past them. The panic had nothing to do with them.
A beam of light blinded them. There was a machine hovering meters above the ground. Wherever it went, people panicked and ran away. They looked ahead. Something that looked like a tank was cutting the street.

They hid behind a column. The crowd was panicking. Some people started beating up the prisoners, and others joined with renovated savagery. Screams and dust filled the street.

“What is going on?”

“I think it is a raid!”

“Do you think they are coming for us?”

Adriana shook her head, and pointed at the people, panicking and crying, trampling each other. Some had started tearing the prisoners in the sidewalk apart.

“I think they are hunting for the new batch of prisoners.” She said, her face wild with fear.

In the street, from behind the tank-looking vehicle, people in uniforms poured by. They were dressed in suits of armor, black and chitinous, their faces invisible behind smooth cylindrical masks. They had batons, and something that looked like guns.

They made a line and started hitting people with the batons indiscriminately, women and men and children. They hit an old woman who was running back, and one of them started dragging her from her feet as she screamed.

“What is this kind of savagery? Are they not supposed to take prisoners?” And then she realized the answer.

The armored men were hunting for fun. There was joy in their brutality, like a child plays with a ball or tears the wings off a fly. They had to bring some of them alive, but it did not matter if most of them died.

A child fell in front of them. One of the figures clad in black stomped on him, with a sickening crunching noise.

Sue looked at the carnage as if through a screen, as if she was still wearing the protective suit. They were lost, there was nothing they could do. Adriana’s face was ashen, her expression resigned. They hugged each other as an agent walked towards them.

The man in black took out some kind of black trumpet. Sue stared into it.

So that’s how it ends, she thought. If we are lucky, this is how it ends, said another part of her.

The trumpet shot a cloud of white smoke, and in a second Sue’s muscles stopped obeying her. She collapsed.

The next minutes passed like hours. In the ground, she was kicked, and trampled, and dragged, but the pain was far away as well. She saw dead and mutilated bodies around her. Unable to turn her head, she tried to look for Adriana. Was she OK?

When there was no one standing, the agents left, and another group of people in uniforms showed up. They were wearing white robes and gloves, and their faces were covered in white masks.

They scanned the fallen bodies with small handheld devices, and marked some of them in red, while they left others away. They brought black bags, and started packing the corpses. She saw them packing one of them in the red mark, still breathing. Black plastic covered the woman’s face as her body convulsed in blind panic.

They took Sue by her forearms, and loaded her in a floating slab. To her relief, they laid Adriana next to her. She was looking at the sky, unblinking, but she was breathing. They were carried into a vehicle and thrown onto a pile of corpses, and three of the medics came in with them.

Sue fought to collect her thoughts, but it was in vain. What was going to happen to them? Had they been mistaken by corpses? Where they going to be incinerated, or destroyed somehow?

She shuddered, and wished she could cry. Maybe it was all an elaborate torture, and they were going to be carried to an unimaginable detention center, and stripped naked and hung from a lamppost, or shoved into a cube, or be subjected to any other kind of senseless torment?

One of the medics took her wrist and scanned it, their expression invisible. Sue wished for her pulse to stop. Then, she realized they were looking directly into her eyes.
“Do not try to talk.” Their voice was gentle beneath the mask. “We know you are awake.” The other two medics nodded.

Sue blinked. Two of the people brought two body bags, and started stuffing them inside it. They put Adriana inside and zipped it closed. They started closing Sue’s bag.
The medics looked at them from above. One of them was holding the zip.

“We know who you are, and we have been expecting you.” They put a finger on their lips, covered by fabric, and then their hands made a gesture, interlocking their fingers, like a chain.
“We are going to take you out of here.”

They zipped the bag close and everything went dark. The vehicle started moving into the unkwnown.