Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Rosa jumped, spilling her latte as the man dropped heavily into the seat across from her, long hair mussed, his face a shadow in the halo cast by the late afternoon sun at his back.

“Lovely place this, yes?” His accent almost familiar.

“The café? Yes, it’s nice, but I was…” He cut her off abruptly.

“No, no, I mean yes, the establishment is fine, but the world, the world is a lovely one.” He paused, pulling on his long chin with the spider-like fingers of one pale hand. “Reminds me a bit of another, the name of which escapes me.”

“Another world? Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested…” Again he spoke over her.

“Of course you’re interested, who isn’t really?” He spread his hands flat on the table and cocked his head to one side. “How’d you fancy a trip to another planet. Don’t worry, I’ve done this dozens of times.”

Rosa smiled placatingly, “My mother always told me never to accept rides from strangers.”

He grinned. “Jhesehetza, stranger than some, but no stranger than most,” he kept his head turned, a strange visage half in sun, half in shadow, “you can call me Jhes.” She couldn’t help but laugh.

“Ok, ok, so I’d love a trip to another planet,” she cradled her coffee in both hands and sipped, “as you say, who wouldn’t?”

“Wonderful, wonderful.”

He pinched his fingers in the space above the center of their table, then drew out a spinning universe of lines, stars and planets a shoulder’s width wide. Rosa gaped. Spinning the model in the air with his hands, and sliding it from side to side he paused at a flashing point in space that Rosa recognized as Earth orbiting around its sun. He reached into the model and touched Earth, dragging a line with his finger as he retracted his hand, then began shuffling the model again all the while keeping his one finger raised in the air with a blinking line snaking away into the model.

Jhes licked a free finger and held it up in the air for a moment. “Eighty twenty, nitrogen oxygen or thereabouts.” He kept spinning the model, suddenly stopping and jerking it back. “There we go, right there.”

Jhes reached across the table and grabbed Rosa’s arm, then stabbed his upheld finger into the model again, dragging the line to the dot he’d located. There was a blinding flash of light, and a moment later Rosa felt Jhes let go of her. It took a moment to realize she’d closed her eyes, and when she opened them, the cafe had disappeared. The table, two chairs, she and the strange man sat in the middle of a meadow, long blue grass undulating in wave-like ripples around them as a deep red sun dipped below the horizon far off in the distance.

Rosa opened and closed her mouth several times soundlessly, then realizing her coffee was still clutched in her hands, put it down and stood up slowly, turning to look at the strangeness that surrounded her on all sides.

“Beautiful, isn’t it. We should walk somewhere, see if there’s anyone about.” Jhes seemed entirely at ease, though his excitement was palpable.

“We, how…” she stammered, “I can’t stay here, long at least, I’ll need to go home and…” Once more, her sentence was waved away.

“Only forward, never back. There’s not enough fuel left there for a second jump.”

“Fuel,” Rosa followed him around the table and into the grass as he struck off, “what kind of fuel?”

“Core fuel, there’s only enough mass in any planet’s core for a single jump, once it’s used up, well, nothing. Not like we can pull the planet up to the depot and fill ‘er up now, can we.” He dragged his long pale finger tips through the grasstops as he walked, as though wading through a lake.

“Core mass, you mean you use that up for travel?” Rosa stopped, realization sinking in as the sun dipped finally below the horizon, leaving her in almost complete blackness.

“Hm, yes, well, seen them once and all that.” In the darkness Jhes began to fluoresce, and Rosa couldn’t help but wonder where that energy was coming from.

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