"My grandfather fought in the great war," the taxi driver said.
"Oh, really? On which side?"
That stumped the driver for a second.
"Well, the Germans, of course. He maybe fight with Russians too, but he was killed by one of your people before we change side."
The red and white taxi negotiated the narrow streets of Alba Iulia, en route from the train station to a hotel. Its single passenger, a man in his late thirties, with short cropped hair and green eyes, looking quite fit for his age, pulled out his HTC One and checked it again for messages. There were none.
He inspected the driver's ID card, which was hanging from the rearview mirror. The driver appeared to be in his sixties. Old enough to have had a grandfather in World War II? Maybe.
"How did he die?" he asked.
"At the oil fields, in Ploiești," came the answer. "He was an anti-aircraft, how you say? Shooter?"
"Gunner. Well, I don't think he was shot by my ancestors, then," said the passenger. "It was mostly the Yanks who bombed your oil fields, back in forty-two."
"And what are you? Not American?"
"Definitely not American, mate. I'm British. English, actually."
The taxi driver was disappointed.
"I thought you were American."
"Sorry," said the passenger, wryly.
Long, drab apartment buildings with four floors and shops at ground level, remnants of the Communist era, lined the street on both sides. People, most of them carrying colourful plastic bags, walked hurriedly on the sidewalks. The city was generally clean, and obvious efforts were being made to keep it beautiful -- trees had been planted and were being looked after, colourful flowers adorned the roundabouts, and everything seemed to have been repainted recently. There was much construction going on too, with cranes and heavy equipment visible everywhere.
Bank offices and mobile phone shops abounded; there seemed to be at least a couple of them every hundred metres. On the road there was no shortage of big, expensive cars; he had counted more Mercedes, BMW and Audi logos than he had seen since... That he had seen in a long time.
But the taxi was a Romanian car, a Dacia. He inspected it further, with some interest. It looked maybe a little cheap, but functional. The engine seemed to be running fine, and it didn't make any strange noises. He looked around himself. The upholstery was definitely cheap and stained, but the doors closed well and the windows were electrically operated. He glanced at the odometer: it read over six hundred thousand kilometres. To the Moon and back, he thought.
"Are you happy with this car?"
Glad to practice his English on a subject he actually knew something about, the driver took the ball and ran with it.
"This Dacia? This is Dacia Logan. I had this in taxi for six years. It was four hundred thousand kilometres when I buy it. I give it GPL and oil, and it give me money."
The Brit didn't understand.
"GPL? What's that?"
The driver gesticulated with one hand, trying to explain.
"Is, what you call it? Gas, but liquid. Liquid gas, understand?"
"Oh, you mean LPG? Liquefied petroleum gas?"
"I don't know. Big tank in the back, yes? Pressure tank?"
"Yeah, that must be it. Interesting, I didn't know LPG was so popular in Romania."
"Is very popular. Especially with taxi. Because is cheap."
The Brit had seen Dacias all over Europe. It was indeed a popular car, inexpensive but reliable, but he was pretty sure it was sold either on petrol or on diesel. He knew, however, that LPG could be fit relatively easily to petrol engines.
"How much is a Dacia Logan here in Romania?"
"New is maybe six or seven thousand euros. But like this, maybe one thousand."
"Wow. That's really affordable."
The driver stopped at a red light, leaned out of his window and started a lively conversation with a taxi driver on the next lane. The passenger tried to catch a few words, but couldn't; they were speaking too fast, and probably in the Transylvanian dialect. He pulled his phone out and checked it again for messages. There was still none.
The light turned green and the taxi got moving.
"So what you do here?" asked the driver.
"I teach English," said the other.
"Really?" said the driver. "What you think of my English?"
"It's very good," said the Englishman politely. "Where did you learn it?"
"I work for two years in London, taxi driver. Four years ago."
"And then you returned and bought this car," completed the passenger.
The road started climbing and the Communist era buildings made room for trees and parks. On top of the hill he could see a stone fortress.
"Is that the ancient citadel of Alba Iulia?" he asked the driver.
"That is the cetate," he answered. "I don't know the English word for it. It was called Apulum and if you look at it from up, is like a star, understand?"
"Yeah, I get it. How old is it?"
The driver shrugged. "The oldest part, Romans. But then they build it again, and then again. I don't know, hundreds of years, or maybe a thousand or maybe two."
Not impressed with the driver's knowledge of his hometown history, the Englishman made a note to look up some dates on Wikipedia. It certainly seemed like a place worth visiting, once he got set up. Whoever had renovated the fort had known what they'd been doing, he thought. Old portions of the wall had been carefully preserved and outlined, and the modern masonry was tasteful and in line with the original architectural intent. High up on the walls he even saw a man dressed in what he assumed was a historically accurate uniform, complete with a musket with bayonet on.
"Is very nice, you must go see. They do the, what's the word? Changing of the guards? Every day at noon. They change the guards and they shoot the cannons three times."
"Just like your granddad."
The driver laughed.
"Yes, just like my grandfather. Very funny!"
The Englishman smiled and pulled out the phone. He made sure it showed signal bars and that he hadn't got any text messages, then put it back in his pocket.
The sky was clear of clouds, and the summer air was getting pretty hot. The air conditioning in the car was turned off, no doubt to save LPG, and both front windows were open. As long as the car was moving, the draft made the heat marginally bearable. His shirt was already wet and sticky, and he couldn't wait to have a shower at the hotel.
"Look, see? That is one of the main gates. They have names, the gates. This one is called Dextra, I think." The driver leaned to his right, pointing excitedly up the hill, and almost hit the car in front of them. He slammed the brakes, and the Englishman's seat belt restrained him quite violently. He blinked a few times, literally taken aback.
"Fucking the fuck fucker and fuck," randomly cursed the driver through clenched teeth, and then continued with a long stream of Romanian profanities, all the time depressing the left-hand lever next to the steering wheel, which, it turned out, was where Dacia cars have their horn.
Suddenly, the doors of the car in front opened, and its driver simply took off running, leaving the keys in and the engine running. As they looked around, they saw many other drivers abandoning the cars, as well as pedestrians running or pointing excitedly, some talking on their phones.
The Englishman looked where people were pointing, and his blood froze.
A vertical, yellow ribbon of light, so tall that it was impossible to see where it originated, was scanning the street right in front of him. It seemed to hover for a second over each person it encountered, and it even seemed to be manoeuvring so as to not miss anybody.
The driver stared at the ribbon, then back at his passenger, dazed and stupefied, suddenly unable to remember any words in English. He made a vague gesture and a guttural noise, then he got out of the car, hesitated, and took off for the opposite sidewalk.
By then, the street was drowned in shouting and panic. The Brit saw a mother crouching to protect her two children, next to a wall. The yellow ray, almost two metres wide but displaying no halo, instead having sharp, well-defined edges, was impossibly tall -- as if it was coming from outer space, he thought for an instant. It found the mother and her children, and momentarily clad them in gold, before moving on. The family appeared, at first glance, to have emerged completely unharmed.
He was reminded, for another instant, of a sci-fi film. "War of the Worlds," or maybe "StarTrek," or some such. We're being scanned, he thought again. We're being fucking scanned. If the Yanks or the Russians are doing this from orbit... this could be how World War Three starts. And then, coldly: Good thing I'm not even scared.
But he knew exactly why he wasn't scared. In fact, at that particular point in his life, he felt he might have rather welcomed World War Three.
Dozens of people were running around him, some abandoning their cars, nearly trampling each other, some shouting into their mobile phones, some inventively trying to hide underneath the vehicles, and apparently he was the only one able to keep his cool.
It's looking for someone in particular, he determined. I guess it's time to be the grey man.
He reached underneath the car seat, found the front-back adjustment lever, pulled it and slid the seat all the way back. Then he lifted his feet up onto the seat and crouched.
Then he waited.
When the light came near him, he inhaled deeply. He assumed it would not be painful, because none of the people who had been scanned seemed to be hurting -- except for one or two who fainted, most likely out of panic -- but he was ready for anything.
He turned golden. Even though he was still inside the car, the light shone right through the roof of the Dacia, as if it were made of clear glass. He tensed instinctively, fighting the impulse to move. Be the grey man, he repeated in his head, not noticing the irony of the colour metaphor. Be the one that stays unnoticed.
But it wasn't to be. His clothes and his skin turned orange, then fiery red, and then the light turned into shade, and the shade turned into blackness, although everything around him was still being bathed in light by the afternoon sun.
This had not happened to any of the other people.
His instincts kicked in, but there was nothing he could do. It all happened in a second.
The blackness got blacker than black, and then there was a black flash, if such a thing can be imagined -- on top of the other unimaginable things that had just happened.
Then the ribbon simply disappeared.
People slowly unfroze, mothers slowly stood up over their kids, screams stopped and someone began to cry softly.
In the silence that followed, the taxi driver, who had only gone a few dozen steps away, returned to his car. Slowly and apprehensively, he checked inside it from a safe distance, expecting to see a charred body at the very least. What he saw instead took him completely by surprise: the car was completely empty.
The Englishman was gone.