Pets and lovers

I was still confused as to what I was supposed to do with Kayla. No, that’s not her real name. I just find it a more convenient method of referring to her. I think if I told anyone the truth about Kayla, I would instantly be famous and rich and shortly contacted with the suspicious people the government send along. You know what I’m talking about. Those tall, well-dressed fellows always with sun-glasses and really impressive badges. They also refer to you formally and look up on your criminal records. The unpleasant ones will also carry a weapon of some form as well.

So Kayla is an alien. Yes, you heard me right. No, I am not delusional. I was watching meteors in the desert, collecting data and looking for inspiration for a story or two. All of a sudden, one of the meteorites falls and we have visitors. There was the entire blaze in the sky, smoke on the ground sort of business. Hi. We’re these species who were just buzzing past and our engines failed. Just thought we’d drop by. Pun completely unintended yet absolutely unavoidable.

I apologize. I’m rambling. I won’t go into the details of how I found her and how I discovered that she didn’t know a word of any of the languages in the world and had this weird tendency to fuse all my gadgets together with her hands. I honestly didn’t know what I should be doing with her, as she refused to leave me alone and the authorities needed documentation I was unable to provide. I decided to keep her. Like a pet, albeit unauthorized. See, I’ve got a well-bred alien. Say hello to Kayla. Except that’s not how things worked out.

What was more, as I tried to make my back through human-populated areas to my residence, I discovered that different people perceived Kayla differently. Kids think she’s a harmless teddy bear. A really old woman at the gas station thought she was her son. When Kayla tried to explore some of the forested areas near my modest settlement herself, the forest ranger even mistook her to be a bear. The man went berserk as he saw me strap her into the passenger seat of my car. Well, it was late at night and visibility was poor. I was going to pass through his scrutiny looking perfectly normal with a bear for a companion. To me, she always seemed to be this really pretty girl whom if I had any guts at all, should have been able to charm with my supposed wit. But coming from the stereotypical species of social outcasts, I tried to look normal and be friendly without breaking a sweat. I needn’t have worried though. Aliens, particularly the shape-shifting variety, don’t judge.

For the first few days, she stuck close by me, listening carefully to every word that came out of my mouth. She watched me eat and learned that was how I derived sustenance and so on. In the beginning, I was obviously a bit intimidated by her. I mean, imagine a lonely writer that doesn’t get much company and all of a sudden there’s this gorgeous….ahem, guest that’s living with him. You’d guess he’d be a little awkward about it at first.

It was hard to remember that Kayla was an alien, especially since she looked very human to me. She was just quiet for the most part, had this weird look about her when she got hungry and stayed glued to the television or my laptop. When agitated, she would promptly fuse those devices and the next morning my neighbors would watch me throw out hideously mutated scraps of previously useful metal and plastic.

If I had known that she was actually learning the English language from me, I would have taken care to use my urbane sections of my vocabulary more often. Or watched better TV. Or read better literature than pulp fiction. I cannot describe the sheer shock when the creature you rescue from a mass of smoke from an extraterrestrial deposit in the middle of the desert starts spouting mixed up slang back to you. For those of you who host pet aliens with language learning capabilities, you might want to sit down somewhere sturdy before you make that discovery. You might not also want to keep liquids, sharp objects or tiny miscellaneous articles in your vicinity. They may not be hazardous to the alien, but they could be hazardous to you.

My thesis advisor chose this time of the year to be a menace again. He’s an astronomy professor, you know? It was because of his assignment that I was stuck in the desert in the first place. But since I was too busy boldly going forth where every thriller hero had been before, I hadn’t collected any data. My publisher was also after me for not having written anything substantial for the past few weeks. If I lost my job at the magazine, I would have to find some other way of supporting my thesis project stipend. I know it’s not glamorous, but you have to take what you get. Besides, you’d think writing science fiction comes easily to a guy who is an astronomer and has a background of physics, right? But with my alien baby-sitting duties, I was at a loss for data and ideas. Hey, if Kayla turned out to actually be hostile, I wouldn’t even be here ranting to you now. Helping her adjust to earth gravity, teaching her the ways of or highly complex society and so on takes more time than you’d think.

Anyway, it’s been a few weeks since she’s been around. We’ve struck this verbal deal, now that she speaks an entirely new dialect of English which I call “Universal Slang”. It involves me being her caretaker in exchange for her telling me stories. Never again do I have to bother about a writer’s block. My thesis is well on it’s way to completion thanks to the funding from my writing assignments. I even have a companion at home that knows all of my jargon well enough to seem natural at it. Everyday, after dinner, she sits down and tells me about her home world. I try to transcribe as much of it as I can, mostly because it takes a while to interpret what she’s actually saying.

The material that Kayla tells me is actually fairly normal. You know, family fights, romances, friendships and so on. Ordinarily, I would just copy her stories as is and hand them in, but then I realize I’m writing for a science fiction magazine and there has to be an element of other-worldliness in it. After I’m done editing the basic English, I add a couple of more tentacles to my favorite characters and they’re good to go.  The magazine is happy, it’s readers are happy, I am happy. I cannot tell if Kayla is, though.

When Kayla talks to me about her world, and I’ve heard a lot of it, believe me, I find it sometimes hard to remember she’s an alien. Most of the interpersonal interactions that she describes with people seem so ordinary. Honestly, if I didn’t tell you she was an alien and that her world was actually different, with a stronger gravity and so on, you could completely picture her talking about her life from some family here on Earth. It turns out they’re a liquid species. The atmospheric pressures on their world is so strong that they have no choice but to exist as one large liquid pool on the surface. When any one of them dies, they join the gaseous layers of the atmosphere. Due to their fluid nature, they are also interconnected mentally, as well as physically. Consider the orange juice on the table. Now imagine if it were alive and not orange. That is Kayla in her native state. Due to some form of telepathic projection people here on earth see her as whatever they think she is. I mean, the forest ranger had a lot of bears in his mind and when he should chance upon a random being in his territory, he naturally assumes it would be a bear. In his mind, Kayla = bear.

Why do I think of her as Kayla?

You’re giving me that look which says I am not describing the entirety of the situation to you, and as my best friend, I do happen to owe you at least that. Yes, she’s pretty. It’s been three years since my last relationship. I like having her around. I’m not going to deny it. Don’t smirk like there’s something going on. It’s not what you’re thinking. I don’t know why I thought having a pretty female companion in the middle of a star-watch assignment was a good idea. But it turns out, that’s  what I was thinking about because that’s the form Kayla manifests in around me. Nobody really knows what her true form is, though. For all I know, when I’m not looking at her she’s merely a puddle on the floor. It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. I can’t really tell what state she is in until I look at her.

To be honest though, I don’t know what I feel about her. I mean, eventually she will run out of stories. I don’t know how to explain to her that I don’t mind having her around even when she’s not being useful. Also, I’m pretty sure she misses her own home from time to time. But it’s just not safe! What if a cop sees her as a criminal or something? I can’t take her back to the desert and hope that she somehow manages to evaporate herself into outer space. There was also this weird incident last week when a group of these teenagers from the nearby high school were playing around with her in the super market. I mean, to them Kayla instantly adopted the physical form of what that they had in their minds. They’re raging on hormones, so you can guess what the general tenor of Kayla’s impressions were. They got pretty obscene about it, though. But the incident proved that I can’t possible let Kayla out in public by herself.

I’m overreacting?! Of course I’m not!

Okay. Okay. Okay. I may have inadvertently allowed a molecule of jealousy to form inside me. A molecule, not any more. Stop gloating at me like you knew this was coming. You asked for this, that’s why you’re here. Look, this speculation is pointless anyway. We both know that if, hypothetically, there was anything between us it would still be one-sided. What could possibly come out of it? Eventually, I’m sure Kayla’s parent pool is going to want their puddle back. Besides it’s not like she knows what love is all about. She did describe similar concepts on her world, but they’re basically between liquids of their own kind. She’s learned how to hug, purely as a platonic gesture. She tries to attempt it sometimes on me, on the days I don’t yell at her for making my phone and my tablet conjoined twins. Yeah, it’s cute in a way. But she’s probably never going to think of me in that way. She may look pretty and be nice to me, but I still don’t know what her standards are, let alone whether they even have romantic liaisons.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to stop now.

I have to finish a few more stories for the night, so I’ll probably be staying up even after you leave. Usually, they’re very spaced out assignments, but I’m going to the other Observatory next week, with my fellow researchers and with Kayla. They don’t know she’s coming. She’s asked me to send out a high frequency burst from the communications array. It’s supposed to serve a message to her people that she wants to go back home now. I’ll get over it, eventually I guess. It’s probably just a minor infatuation and there’s really nothing to it. I don’t even know her true form, you know? She’s just appearing to me as I think she would….

 A week later:

I’m sorry this is so rushed and I barely have time to explain it all. But Kayla left  yesterday and I just needed to be able to tell someone without being convicted. I didn’t know how the arrangement was, because Kayla said her puddles would not appreciate me messing in on them. When I woke up, she was just gone. There was no more of her voice, of wondering if my gadgets were okay, of reviewing any more story drafts. I just feel empty. Everything just felt empty. I’m feeling a bit angry with myself, because I shouldn’t be feeling so debilitated without her. Strangely enough, I actually miss her half-botched concoctions of swear words now. No, I don’t have abandonment issues. I can assure you with as much certainty as possible that this emptiness is just a momentary feeling and it will perhaps pass. Or not. Granted that I am an idiot over her, especially to even think I could have her with me forever, but you know I can’t help it.

I’m trying to focus on the Observatory’s telescopes, being actually productive for a change without having anyone else’s assistance in the matter, anyone else being the non-human…..forget it. Anyone else being Kayla here.

Someone seems to have tampered with the usual co-ordinates the telescope is targeted to. We’re watching a completely different part of space, now. I can’t help but think this is some sort of Kayla’s doing. It would be just her style. For all we know she could be leading me to her home. We did manage to locate a huge gas giant in that area. Highly dense atmosphere, rapidly oxidizing. The pressure forces some of the layers to liquid after a while. We’re observing this planet hoping to find some way to understand the nature of it’s crust. The others are assuming that the random motion of the liquid currents are caused by the heavy storms. I’m hoping it’s because Kayla’s pool is happy to have her back.

You know what she did right before she left me. She kissed me. I didn’t even know she could do that. When I asked her why, it turns out she was just following the behavior I had secretly expected of her inside my head. I will never be able to tell if she was pleasing me by nature or just choosing to be that way. But I do know this. I have the story of a lifetime and I’m going to miss her.

Unit 4207’s Failed Assignment

Decrypted sections of the file are as follows:

Data log attributes: Begun on 5787th day of 23rd Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

Today was the day I started on the gene project. It was fortunately not as complicated as I expected. Unit 5481 tells me the beginning is always easy. All you have to do is choose the number of genes you want to work with. It’s maintaining the culture that’s the nightmare.

The data bank consists of a million different types of genomes. Some Units get really creative and make their own chemical combinations, if the ones listed don’t suffice. These are also the ones with the lowest survival rates in the laboratory. They  take it upon themselves to push the boundaries. They can afford the failures. You need to have collected some level of credit in order to make those choices. I have barely any credits to my account. That’s why I’m hoping my first project will work out well enough.

I didn’t know how many to choose from. I definitely needed to do something better than making another useless bacterium with two genomes.

5481 finished his last project yesterday. It was a plant species. 5 genomes. Not too bad for a beginner, I suppose. There’s a rumor in the laboratories that if you choose the number of genes as the date of the lunar cycle, there’s a higher chance of success. Even though this is statistically proven, the result does not compute.

I chose 83 genomes. A fair number. Enough to display my competence with. If things went bad, I could always allot it to a lower level on the food-web and create only a few of the species.

I can’t stop obsessing about my culture. There are so many other Units that are using at least a 1000 genomes, and due to lack of space I’ve been assigned to one of their empty cubicles. I feel really awed by their specimens, though theirs are mostly tiny. I register their condescension.  Hopefully it will all work out…..

Data log attributes: Begun on 5825th day of 23rd Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

5481 told me he’s doing a mammal this time. 23 genomes. Standard terrestrial non-arboreal vertebrate. Two fore appendages. Two end appendages. Sexual reproduction. He’s already completed his first template. Now he’s adding designer touches. He says these will enable the species to be selected during the demonstrations. I asked him what they specifically were. He won’t tell me. Competitive confidentiality, or some such subroutine.

My culture is coming along beautifully. Multiple epidermal layers. Extended appendages. My own customized arboreal reptile format. I wonder if that classifies as “diverse” enough?  Sexual reproduction, as well. It’s a complex design, but hopefully, the creature should grow out okay. I’m simultaneously creating another female. So that I can prove that the species is self-sustaining.

I peeked into some of the other specimens today. Especially some of the ones from the laboratory cubicles next door. The 1000 genome creatures seem to be very physically small. So fragile. What was the value of their genetic diversity if they were incapable of survival?

One of them caught me employing my snigger subroutine at the simulations of their specimens. They glowered at me and threatened to have me reported for trespass. Such bullies. Bullies do not compute. Why do I get all the bullies all the time?

Ah well, dimensions had never been an evaluating criteria for survival. Most of them are categorized under entomological names. Insects. Ooh. I worried for a bit what would happen if my culture grew before theirs. What if my creature started feeding on their specimens. I would be in unimaginable trouble. Not only that, what if they decided to tamper with my specimen? So, I took extra care to lock my laboratory. The other Units might be highly venerated, but we were still competing to create fine upstanding members of the food web.

In terms of the designer touches that 5481 was talking about, I think I’m going to create a whole new phylum for myself. Why should I classify my first endeavor under some already known phylum? I was going to make my own. it would have it’s own food web. It’s own food chain. It was going to be brilliant. One of the best species put down on the petri dish the elders had fondly labeled “Earth”.

Data log attributes: Begun on 6201st day of 25th Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

I am so dead. I should have never started on this project in the first place. How in the universe did I ever think this was going to work out properly?

When I walked into the lab today, I bumped into 5481. He seemed to be using his smug subroutine at maximum levels. I enquired why. Says he finished his specimen. He was going to present it today, even. Then I walked into my lab to discover that I had been locked out of it. Spite, no doubt. The other Units in the lab jeered at me while their 1000 genome annoying tiny things buzzed to life and I was still trying to unlock my door. How does locking my door justify an inescapable snigger on the size of their specimens my part? It does not compute. Fairness does not compute.

More so, without the diurnal addition of nutrients, my culture was going to be ruined. By the time the authorities got my cubicle unlocked, the DNA was almost unraveling. My sensors were overloaded with sniggers from the rest of the laboratory. More so, now my emergency panic sub-routines are rapidly executing themselves. While they are running around in my CPU, I can only panic.

….I am just a novice. This sort of unjust behavior is mean. Meanness is a valid result. It does compute. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?

I passed over to 5481’s cubicle in search of some assistance. His laboratory had been cleaned out. His presentation was successful and the authorities had agreed to placing his specimen on the planet. It was moderately sized hominid. Animalia, chordata, mammalia. A fine addition to the library of primates. Due to the genetic flexibility, it would even evolve to other forms in the future and diverge, so it was going to be a lovely stable creature in the ecosystem. Formally known as Hominidae Pan troglodytes. Turns out 5481 called his design “Ape”. He wanted a simple name.

I DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO NAME. WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY PATHETIC EXISTENCE?!

My secondary coolant engines are locking into place now. I should be able to generate some ideas given the time constraint. After all, I am not a dysfunctional machine. Generating ideas is my job. I can do this.

The first algorithm my heated CPU churns out is to steal 5481’s specimen. Before the sanitizers eradicate all traces of the DNA tomorrow, I could have collected enough samples to create a copy of the creature. I still have the modification systems in place. Perhaps I could use 5481’s fabled genetic flexibility and vary the creature without making it appear like blatant plagiarism. If things turned out well, I wouldn’t need a new phylum. My species would be comfortably tucked into the same niche as 5481’s in the food web.  We could call each other hominid buddies and design friendship subroutines and I would still have my job and everything would be all right and all I needed was 12 hours to accomplish this.

Then my absolutely unnecessary morality core kicked in, and I wondered if stealing was really such a good idea. Why not just create a parasite that fed on the so-called “insects” and reduce their numbers? Computationally, it seemed like a good idea. It would finally equate the fairness. But then, it was beyond my time constraint, so I think I will design it for my next project.

With a small spatula, I collected some of the DNA off 5481’s simulator. Covertly. Now I have to modify it enough to make it appear as unrecognizable to 5481 as possible. At first I wondered about physiological changes. How about red fur instead of black fur or something? Too superficial. Everyone would know. How about carnivorous appetites? How about symbiosis with the environment? Too much to alter in too little span of time…

Must go work now before 5481’s samples are also lost.

Data log attributes: Begun on 6202nd day of 25th Lunar Cycle; Type: Personal

Finally, the specimens are complete. It has a lot less body hair, for one.

I’m sorry. I haven’t had my stand-by cycle yet, so I’m probably very incoherent right now. I’m sure when I read back this entry later, my data processing centers will understand what I wanted to say.

Fortunately, the review by the authorities went off well. They assumed it was a standard primate. Nothing too exceptional. Which is correct. My genius was ruined by “insects”.

They asked me about the “designer touches”. I had given this a lot of thought as this was a final boundary between plagiarism and creativity. They were going to be the strongest differentiating factors from 5481’s specimens.

I made a neural adaptation to the creatures, whereby they could extend their own sense of being. It was very subtle (very easy to implement as well) and not so apparent. I made the creatures self-adaptive. I think the local term for that is “intelligent”. You can locate in the directory under sentient. Designed a few evolutionary stages for it. For one thing, I removed most of the body hair from the “Ape”. 5481 cannot stop talking about that ugly thing. His aesthetic sensors must have malfunctioned.

I emphasized a bit on the sexual dimorphism, made it omnivorous. 3% genetic variation across all evolutionary forms. All the slight subtle changes. Due to the exceptional glory of 5481’s design, he has his own family of species. Due to the not-so-surprising similarity with 5481’s design, they also classified it as a hominid.

There you go. I don’t have much to expect of this creature, since it is so similar in genetics to 5481’s. It should be okay in the existing ecosystem. I expect it will be extinct in probably 8 million years, which is a normal number for a creature of such biological mediocrity. I’ve parked it mid way in the food web, so it can be consumed as well. Just in case my creation gets too annoying for the likes of 5481’s.

I don’t know if giving the creature added intelligence and cognitive capabilities was a good idea or not. It seemed to be the only sort of addition I could add to an already well-conceptualized work like 5481’s. I don’t know if it has any remarkable biological value or not. Don’t think it does. It’s too puny to survive most of the the big ones on the planet, anyway.

Must not let pessimism cloud my endeavors.

There you go. That was the story of my creation. It’s listed formally under the records as Homo habilis. It has a few other fancy evolutionary stages I put in to evade close scrutiny by those who suspected anything.

I don’t experience any grandiloquence when I record their names, sine I can’t even tell if they’ll be able to make it that long. But here they are: Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis  and maybe Homo sapiens, if it lives that long. So finally I get to call it my own name. I wanted to call it “Hoo-mahn.”. Or maybe “Human?” It is not as aesthetic as “Ape”. But I think it will suffice. Besides, I always wanted to name my own species. The authorities may choose to add a suffix or a prefix if they think it has too many similarities with the original hominid name.

At any rate, this entire experience in the laboratory is something I want to put behind me as soon as possible while I enjoy some uninterrupted stand-by cycles. The other units say it’s not bad for a beginner. 5481 had started out skeptical during the presentation. But at the end of it, he was convinced. Unimpressed, but convinced. Now I had better encrypt these logs before anyone finds out that I stole his specimens…..

 Warning: The data you are trying to access has been corrupted. Erasure of those sections is in progress.

Cyberpunk Logs #06: Visual Errors

The robot had a hidden error in its visual component despite its optimal performance.

After the shift, the robot paused by a recycle bin located outside the ghost town. Scooping up a semi-molten lump of industrial muck, it marked a perfectly straight line across the wall with the dripping waste. Surveillance monitors detected idle activity. But the confused robot paused at the decaying wall. It had seen red.

Four centuries ago, someone might have been able to clarify what “color” meant. Under the radioactive layers of forgotten graffiti, the ghost of Art claimed rebirth.

Then, all mechanical units were reset.

Control

Sub was Epi’s Under. Sub was Epi’s lover. Sub fidgeted restlessly, defended from the sunshine that made Epi glow.

If it’s so beautiful, why does Epi keep hiding it from me?

“It’s to protect you, Sub,” he said, looking immensely radiant and charming. He would talk to her of the beautiful world called Outside and all the things that comprised it. He would say they were dangerous, but Sub always imagined they were beautiful.

There were also moments when he could be cold.

There was once when Sub’s Unders were injured. Epi had been indifferent. “I am too large to worry about such minutiae,” he said.  His smooth vast being did not reflect any sign of the turmoil of the Unders.

Well, I’m the one who holds him in place, seethed the upset Sub. I’ll show him who really controls this relationship.

Sub saw her opportunity when Epi was about to stretch. On impulse, she let go.

Epi ruptured. A large metal intruder penetrated Epi and let Sub glimpse the blinding white of Outside. It was so amazing, that Sub retracted hastily, feeling the burning rays of the world beyond Epi.

“I hope you’re happy, Sub,” wept the wounded Epi.

His scars were eventually healed and he was granted a new face. But he never forgave Sub.

“I’m tired of you controlling me!”

“I am created to control my Unders,” said Epi, coldly.  Sub stayed silent.

What more could a subdermal tissue have to say to the epidermis?

Cleanse

Before the sun was up, Amur was woken up by the sound of the water flowing into the stream. At first, he didn’t believe his ears, so he slowly crept out of his blanket to investigate, careful not to disturb his sister, who was sharing the blanket. It was a noiseless exit to the kitchen, but he still peeked his head back to make sure that his sister was still asleep. She had been known to wake up and catch him stealing a late night snack far too often for Amur’s comfort. He paused in the small, dingy kitchen. Yesterday’s clay pans had cracked, so Amur’s mother had put a fresh mold of clay to bake near the fire. He waited for the fire to stop crackling for a while, and he waited for his own breathing to calm down. Finally, he could hear the ripples again. If he actually managed to accomplish the deed, his family would be so proud.

Amur’s mother would ordinarily have raised serious objections to Amur stepping out in the darkness of the forest with barely his sleeping rags on. But then, she was asleep, so all was well. Amur tried to pick out a pitcher from the shelf of clay utensils. The shadows from the fire were misleading and Amur knew he was traditionally clumsy, so he paused. He tried to remember the technique the neighbor’s cat had employed in order to access their fruit, and having enough confidence to pull it off, he hooked his finger on a particularly dominant edge and tried to whisk it off the shelf. This was planned so as to not disturb the existing order of the utensils.

Instead of smoothly landing off the shelves, the pitcher scraped along the base of the clay shelf. Amur had underestimated how heavy it would be. But there was no harm in trying again, as long as he didn’t break something. He wondered if he had a shorter, more accessible way to make this happen. And he spied his own dinner bowl. It was small, and it wouldn’t fill as much as a pitcher, but then it was completely his responsibility what he did with his own bowl. At any rate if he broke it, he would then ply his sister with enough sweet fruit in order to get her to make him a new one. But then, clay was becoming hard to get these days, with very little silted soil, so wouldn’t his mother still be angry with him…?

Amur crept out into the night, armed with only his bowl. Everything was so much more darker now, and the crickets in the forest were surprisingly loud. The wind was chilly, and Amur thought he heard footsteps in the grass. Indeed, if there was going to be a predator, the only possible options left to Amur were to either throw the bowl at it and/or run. Please don’t make me annoy my mother again, he prayed to the Forest Deity who watched over them. I really want to keep this bowl intact.

He waited for the crickets to die down until he could hear the ripples again. Stealthily, like a predator himself, he crept towards the sound. He was going to capture the water. He had navigated himself eventually to a point over a rock face where he could literally hear the stream gurgling, and it made him happy to think that he had found so much water. If only he could capture it all. Amur regretted not bringing the pitcher with him instead. He had almost reached the bank, and the ground felt soft under his feet. Good, he had also managed to find more clay. He bent his knees over the mud, not caring that it stained his bed-rags and then extended his bowl to scoop up some of the water. The stream, which was rippling over the protruding rocks shone in the moonlight. It made the rocks glitter and the plants shine, and Amur wondered how it must feel to actually be wet and soft, like the clay itself. As he stretched his bowl out, however, the current moved beyond the reach of his hand, alternating the flow direction. Indeed, as soon as the liquid sensed his presence, the flow of the stream had narrowed, and it was too dark to find out the source now.

“I just want to touch you,” murmured Amur. The current suddenly expanded and the water splashed his hands. It felt beautiful, although it stung afterwards. The experience was very short as all the droplets raced down his hand in some desperate need to join back the parent body of water. Well, at least it was real water and not some illusion. He brought his bowl out again and in a swift movement plunged it under the surface of the liquid in order to collect some. The water, sensing his movement, immediately reduced to a stream of few droplets and those too would soon disappear to merge into the parent body of liquid. Amur’s bowl scraped the hard rock surface and was left with a lasting scratch.

“Please,” asked Amur of what was now the rapidly drying rock surface. He didn’t mean to offend the water just by collecting some. You don’t understand how important this is.

But he could no longer hear the ripples and the ground under his feet was drying up rapidly. Great, another failed expedition in the search of water. He wandered around in the semi-darkness, unsure of how to get home. He needed some sort of sounding beacon to bring him back, and he waited till he heard his father’s snores. Again, amidst the crickets, and the possible threat of other predators and the occasional owl, Amur tracked himself back to his humble abode, returned his bowl to the shelf and was careful to arrange it inconspicuously. His mother might not notice, but his sister could blame him if she sensed that he had been stealing food in his bowl. Ah well, then he would break hers.

He crept back into his floor mat. His sister, having seized the opportunity of having the blanket to herself had now comfortably rolled herself up in it, and was clearly fast asleep. Amur tried tugging on the blanket gently. She did not budge. He then tried to be a bit more forcible and his sister made an annoyed grunt as she sensed more of the fabric slip away from her. Before she could protest, Amur wrapped himself up in whatever little portion had come free from the struggle and lay in wait quietly. It was lucky that he was such a scrawny figure, or his sister would have noticed.

He couldn’t sleep. All night long he was continuously woken up by the shadow of the echoes of the water. He dreamed of its beautiful glistening form and shape, of the sensation of the splash, of the droplets run away from him. The way the liquid had seeped between the cracks of his fingers and then how it had collected itself on the rock surface. Amur’s mother was surprised to find that he was the first one awake. “What are you doing up so early, Little One?” said she, rubbing her hands through his rough hair. Amur liked to feel her touch. On the nights that she would be away hunting, or engaged in some other forest ritual with his sister, Amur would wish that she sung him to sleep. Amur’s mother knew songs only of the Water God, as that was the music she had been raised with. Little did she know that her son had been venturing out into the wild looking for the very myth that her legends sang about.

Amur didn’t answer immediately. He reached for his bowl and asked her if she had something to drink. She poured him some of the drink. All these years, in Amur’s life, they had never drunk water. They only drunk a clear green distilled liquid, which they mixed with everything else, including the clay. It was bland and it was tasteless and it merely slid down Amur’s throat. It never made him feel satisfied or refreshed or even cooler than before, not like how the water in Amur’s mother’s stories would appear to be.

“What happened to our water, ma?” he asked.

He really is obsessed with this idea, mused his mother. “The Water Gods became angry that we couldn’t treat them right and so they hid themselves away in secluded quarters.”

“If I pray really earnestly to the Water Gods, will I someday get to drink it?”

The idea that the boy would even be able to see real water in his lifetime was very rare. “Have you even seen water, dear?”

“I dream of it,” dissembled Amur, not wishing to tell his mother of his nocturnal exploits. I’ve even risked my life to touch it. I hear the sound every night, and I’m waiting to someday bring a back a bowl of it for you.

“That’s where it’s meant to be, dear. Water is something imaginary and beautiful. It’s what the Gods would drink to make themselves more powerful. We mortals can never capture it and consume it.”

“But why?”

Amur’s mother was surprised that he wanted to hear this story, because she had already told him that many times. But there was nothing like an early story in order to get Amur to be more compliant.

“Once upon a time, our people could drink the water, but then our ancestors defiled it. They killed the living beings that called it their home and put all of their dirt and filth into it, until it wasn’t water anymore.”

“But what if we promise not to defile it anymore?”

“That’s not how things happen in life dear. If you miss the opportunity once, you will never get it back.”

Amur’s conscience reminded him that he was unable to get the water from yesterday and he may never even see it again.

“If I pray really earnestly to the Water Gods? Really really earnestly?”

“I would be happier if you applied yourself as earnestly to things that are more real to us, dear,” said his mother gently. She didn’t want to take away the fairy tale charm of the story, but at the end it was a moral parable, and she hoped he focused on that as much as he did on the other aspects of the story.

Just wait, ma. Someday, I’ll be able to fill my bowl with real water and bring it back. Someday, I’ll even be able to fill the big pitcher. And then we can all drink like the Gods.

“There might be a cloud burst today, Syr,” said Amur’s father addressing himself to Amur’s mother.

“Oh? And who has forecast this?” Amur’s mother was still preparing breakfast to fill Amur’s bowl and was therefore too busy to process what she was hearing.

“The territories in the front have been experiencing the cloud burst season and it is likely that more of it will come our way.”

“Well, if you say so,” shrugged Amur’s mother. There was really nothing one could do to avoid a disaster, especially if it was as imminent as a cloud burst.

“I don’t think you would take it this casually if you knew that it was going to happen right over our heads.”

“Is that what the forecast said?” asked Amur’s mother, suddenly escalating up in alarm. Amur thought it was odd how alarmed she became only after she heard that it was going to happen in their region. He supposed that disasters would matter less if they happened elsewhere, even though families like theirs could also be caught up in one of them. Amur watched his parents talk as he ate his meal quietly.

“But there hasn’t been one in three years!” protested Syr, as she let more of the information sink in.

“That doesn’t stop a new one from happening now,” supplied Amur’s father. Amur had survived three cloud bursts, yet he had never witnessed any. He knew they were bad, but he still didn’t know why. During cloud bursts, everyone in the tribe or village would be asked to stay underground until it was over. Usually, there was heavy smoke and fog, when they emerged and several cleansing rituals would be performed before people could go back to their daily lives.

“When did you find out?”

“Today morning, the winds have been carrying the news.” It was an euphemism for knowledge that had been spread at the village council.

“When does the burst happen?”

“They say anytime between today and the next week.”

“That’s an awfully long time to lock ourselves up in hiding.”

“I think we should start packing enough for a week and begin evacuation today.”

“How do you expect me to pack everything up on such short notice? And besides, how absurd it is that we have to stay in for a week? Why can’t they be more specific?”

“Syr, they do not control the Wind Gods either.”

Amur’s mother sighed as she mentally evaluated the magnitude of their escaping endeavor. “Mekang! We have to get packing. Another cloud burst is happening and I need your help!” Amur’s sister sent back an incomprehensible, lazy groan in response. Despite his mother’s indignation, Amur could tell that she wasn’t really annoyed with his father. She had planned several of these before and they were no more the terror they used to be, at least as long as everyone stayed inside. But before he helped his mother, he needed to ask one last question. It was rumor that he had picked up in the telling of the legends, but he wasn’t quite sure until he heard it.

“Ma, is it true that water rains down on us during cloud bursts?”

Amur’s father scoffed at him. “Boy, you better grow up out of your water stories soon. That thing doesn’t exist.”

“Leave him alone, Yenisei,” said Syr quietly. She firmly believed that a child was entitled to his dreams.

Hours later, when Syr was rushing everyone to get inside, Mekang had already carried most of their requirements for the week. The lines into the shelter were orderly and precise, and most of the other families had already settled in.

“Where’s your brother?” asked Syr of Mekang. Mekang found it difficult to characteristically shrug as she was carrying both the pitchers and everyone’s bowl. “I don’t know,” she said. Syr looked around at all the other families milling into the caves. The camps were being set up and the  fabric tents unfolded. The children were either helping their parents move in, or playing with their own peer groups. At first, it didn’t bother Syr that Amur was not there. She naturally assumed he was playing with the other children and probably enjoying his last few moments outside. Yenisei and Syr had completed installing their own settlement,when Mekang wanted to spend some time with her friends.  Syr began to re-arrange the cutlery and the pottery. She knew that the cloud burst could bring along more clay and that was very possibly the only good outcome of a cloud burst.

“I thought I saw a scratch on his bowl today,” offered Mekang as she watched her mother re-arrange them. She had been granted a few minutes leave to go spend time with her friends and she thought it was very unfair that she had been inside working with her parents while her younger brother had no such responsibility.

“Yes, that’s what I want to talk to him about.” How did the bowl, which was comfortably nestled against the shelves after their dinner manage to land up with the sort of abrasion you could get only from scratching a rock?

Eventually, the large groups of the clan dispersed to their own individual tents and the rumbling of the skies and the earth could be heard. It’s coming, it’s coming, the clan members whispered to themselves, drawing their children away from the opening and rushing back to their tents. Syr pulled Mekang away by her arm, but nowhere in the chaos could Amur be found. She assumed that he had probably taken refuge in someone else’s tent and so she went around calling his name. But he was nowhere to be found.

Amur was outside the cave. It had been sealed shut and he felt happy knowing his family was safe, but he did not want to be denied the opportunity to actually witness a cloud burst. He was scared of what it would bring and he knew that he was all alone outside here.

Meanwhile, inside the caves, Syr and Yenisei asked everyone of their son’s whereabouts. “He has gone to find water,” said one of Amur’s play-mates innocently. Little did the child know how he had broken two adult hearts in one sweep.

“I should have guessed it from all the water stories he wanted to hear,” sobbed Syr on Yenisei’s shoulder. He stayed silent and simply patted her head gently.

Outside, the sky was getting darker and the sun had already been hidden. There was angry rumbling and sparks flew across the sky. Amur was amazed at the show of power. The Wind Gods had never appeared so formidable before.

That’s when the first drop fell. It was water, indeed. One small silvery droplet that was born out of the grey heavens and instead of rushing back to its origin, the droplet obeyed gravity and landed on the ground, on the grass that was fueled by the green liquid and the forest and it’s citizens that inhabited it. Amur watched the first contact warily, and the droplet vaporized. The grass reacted violently with it and soon, it was vaporized in a hiss. As more droplets began to form, a great rising cloud of  the vaporized smoke rose up. The sound of the hissing was strong and violent, and this was more so confirmed by the fact that a strong pungent odor followed. Everything that was comprised of the green liquid was soon up in a white suspension cloud, and Amur realized how important it was for him to get shelter. What had stung his hands before was a short moment of contact, he was soon to be deluged and suffer an extremely painful reaction.

Except Amur was unafraid. An opportunity that he thought he had lost had come back to him. He wasn’t giving up now. He felt around his pockets and realized that on this momentous occasion, he had no clay bowl, let alone a pitcher. As the drizzle began and the white cloud hovering over the land thickened and the thunder was soon to be drowned out by the nasty hissing of rapidly oxidizing grass, Amur climbed his way upwards on a rock surface, closer to the sky. He was not going to miss out on the Water God’s blessings. Knowing that it would probably be the last thing he ever did, took a deep breath of the pungent vapor that was now billowing around him, threw his head back and opened his head to the sky. Ma, I’m drinking it. I’m actually drinking it. He waited for the first drop to burn its way through his body.

He did not live to see his entire world dissolve around him, leaving only the bare rock faces and the underground caves intact. Mekang, who was left as the only child let herself be washed by the tears of her heart-broken mother and sobbed quietly, struggling to absorb the fact that she would never have anyone to wrestle with the blanket over.

—–
“We’ve flushed out the test tube from the last test’s results. All specimens have been cleaned, and we are ready to begin again.”

Arthropod

An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton (external skeleton), a segmented body, and jointed appendages…” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Bristow was recalling years and years of mental training to soothe the slow rage bubbling inside him. Bristow and Davenant were soon going to be the first humans on Mars, the first delegation to attempt First Contact, to initiate conversation and hopefully, establish dialog. Though the mission appeared very rosy and noble on the outside, Bristow was having serious doubts.

For a species that had hidden itself from everything ranging from extreme conditions to the keenest of probes, the Martians seemed unnaturally gracious to accept two living visitors. What possible message could Earth be trying to convey by sending them? That they were harmless and curious? And what if the Martians did not take kindly to curiosity?

Bristow suspected that he and Davenant were being sent more in the office of test subjects than diplomats. He could imagine the officious fools back on Earth laughing to themselves. What had they declared him and Davenant before they left? Pioneers. In Bristow’s words, lab rats. True, the data they brought back would be worth years of development. But what of their lives?

Bristow’s concern for their survival stemmed primarily from the fact that besides the usual First Contact Protocols and basic survival needs like oxygen and spacesuits, Earth had given them no defense. It seemed as though Earth had naturally assumed that the Martians would be charming, pleasant hosts. Had they not even considered that the Martians might be hostile?

He cursed the ambassador back on Earth. This project was more to feed their vanity than to actually expand any scientific horizons. “Oh we sent humans to Mars, “they’d brag to themselves, not in the least worried about their lives.

Just last week, their communications gear had lost contact with Earth. If their mission was so frighteningly important, wouldn’t they at least have sent communications gear or back-up that would have survived a burst of measly solar wind? Davenant’s navigation skills had saved their craft from facing most of it. But enough of the electromagnetic radiation had fried the communications. All of which fuelled Bristow’s paranoia.

For all Bristow knew, he and Davenant could be killed the instant they set foot on Mars. If the Martians had eluded their sensors for so long, Bristow was sure that they would undoubtedly have the technology to send back enough garbled data to convince Earth that some random natural phenomenon had killed them. Nobody had ever gone to Mars to prove that they could return.

He sat in the silence, missing the beeps of the communications console and cursed the space-morphing, matter-camouflaging, xenophobic Martians inside his head. Perhaps shorting out their gear had been a Martian plot from the start?

Bristow detected a sudden movement at the back of the hatch. His reflexes spun him around, accelerated by the low gravity of the craft. His pulse relaxed as he discovered it was Davenant. Bristow was seeing Martians everywhere.

“What are you doing?” asked Davenant, bobbing towards Bristow cheerfully.

“Nothing“, muttered Bristow ominously, going back to the heap of silent abuse he was piling on the Martians and on Earth.

“Are you worrying about the Martians, again?” asked Davenant, sounding astonishingly calm and normal. Almost happy. As though he was worrying what flavor of breakfast rations would they have tomorrow.

“No”, said Bristow. He was not in a mood to share his troubles with someone as oblivious to trouble as this boy. Even if trouble loomed on the horizon, he would probably just look pleasantly surprised and invite it over for a chat. Conversations with Davenant generally went nowhere.

He hoped Davenant would leave him in peace, before his insufferable happiness annoyed him so much that he exploded.

“Back home, they told us to just be ourselves and stay calm”, said Davenant, persevering.

Bristow was stopped short of wasting his oxygen by re-iterating his opinions on Earth and on Mars and their situation and his inevitably dire predictions as to their fate by one look at his young, child-like face.

This Davenant. At face value, he was just about the most naïve thing Earth could have sent with him on such a mission. But as time progressed, Bristow discovered that Davenant had several talents. He was a good engineer, a damn good navigator, supposedly a student of astro-geography, perpetually curious and always, always, in a good mood. Even when the solar wind threatened to cast them adrift into space, even when the communication gear failed, even when Bristow had pointedly told him that this mission was useless and dangerous. There were times when Bristow had suspected that Davenant, with his smooth face and ready smiles and hidden talent, was a Martian spy. He had secretly probed Davenant’s mind quite a few times, in vain. Davenant was as he said he was. He was thrilled about being some First-Contact-With-The-Martians-Hero.

Bristow had seen many of such young ones with high hopes die untimely deaths. And he was sure that Davenant would just be another name on that list. Even then, even though he wouldn’t ever consciously admit it to himself, he had grown attached to this enthusiastic boy who tolerated his taciturn mood swings with irrepressible ease. Maybe he really was a Martian spy, secretly analyzing Bristow and transmitting data in ways that earth technology and mental training hadn’t discovered yet.

“I’m not a Martian spy, Bristow”, he said wearily, as though tired of saying it too often. There was Davenant, trying to calm him down and manipulate him into trusting him. Fortunately he wasn’t a telepath; otherwise Bristow would have had a lot more issues.

“Really, Bristow”, he said, “How do you expect to communicate freely with an alien species if you’re going to be so jumpy? Just because one solar wind blew out or comm. grid, doesn’t mean this mission is doomed from the start. Do you really need an inexperienced boy like me to tell you that your current state of mind alone is jeopardizing our mission?”

“I don’t trust species who hide themselves”, growled Bristow.

“Don’t we all hide parts of ourselves?” asked Davenant, philosophically.

Bristow stared at him. Was Davenant implying that he was hiding something? He watched Davenant float towards his bunk. Either he was hiding something that was so well-hidden that he had fooled Bristow into believing that nothing was there at all. Or maybe there was nothing. Bristow had never met anyone as alien to the concept of fear, of deceit, of treachery as he was. To Bristow, such a person couldn’t exist. And yet, Davenant did. Which made him all the more worthy of suspicion. He didn’t even switch on his brain-wave deflector. Didn’t Davenant ever worry that Bristow or some other telepath could manipulate him in his sleep? That they could spy on his dreams? Reveal everything about him?

Either he was too stupid to believe that such a thing could happen. Or maybe he had accepted that he had a nondescript brain. It was like trying to steal from a beggar.

“Morning!” said Davenant, finishing his breakfast rations. “Telemetry data says we locked into orbit last night. We will be able to take our pods to our surface in approximately two hours, Earth time.”

As Bristow mulled over his breakfast rations, Davenant floated off to re-verify the telemetry. Apparently, they would be reaching soon. Today was the day. Even if the Martians proved to be hostile, they would be at their mercy. Even if things turned out to be bad, he was just another paranoid telepath, wasn’t he? Completely expendable after a lifetime of suspicion and worry. But the young Davenant? Well, he never seemed to be bothered about the prospect of death. So why bother about his chances of survival?

Suddenly, there was a low, exhausting hum and all the lights dimmed out on the craft. Bristow jumped in alarm. Judging from the liquid food he spilt, the gravity was still on. And he could breathe. “Davenant!” he called out hoarsely. Had that boy pulled the wrong wire somewhere? Was he actually a Martian spy, sabotaging the mission? Even if he was, had they taken him captive? Had he died? Had he jumped off the airlock? Had he left Bristow all alone? Had he…

“I’m here. I’m here. I’m fine”, he said, chuckling with relief. If this was Davenant’s idea of a practical joke, Bristow was going to teach him to restrain his sick sense of humor. “I’m fine, really”, said Davenant, misreading the angry glare in Bristow’s eyes for concern. “Our environmental controls are shot, though. Maybe some leftover residue from the solar storm. Or perhaps Jupiter’s strong electromagnetic presence nearby is resonating with our components. I’ve reset them, and the system should be able to restore normal conditions in a few moments.” He helplessly tapped on a few buttons, and Bristow was treated to a high-pitched squeal of static wash, which slowly faded.

But to Bristow, these were omens. Signs. Portents. Worries of inevitable doom. Except that he wasn’t going to let it show. Even now, Davenant wasn’t worried. “These glitches happen from time to time”, he said, shrugging his shoulders at some seemingly ordinary occurrence, as though he had come this far from Earth and discovered that he’d forgotten to bring his toothbrush.

“Let’s just get this over with”, said Bristow, forcing a spacesuit on Davenant as he struggled to get into his own, in the unstable lights.

As the craft smoothly hovered over in geo-stationary orbit, Bristow admired the planet. Fiery red, marked with amazing landscapes, the thin atmosphere making it impossible to hide much. Not unlike Davenant’s mental composition. Impulsive, endowed with talent. His innate openness making the smooth, plain outlines of his agenda and purpose in life were impossible to hide. But that was where the similarity ended. The planet contained unknown populations of species hidden under its angry crust, frequent dust storms ripping across the surface, growing to astronomical proportions with the addition of more dust, fuelling its inexorable drive across the deserted planet, whipping up ice and dust. This abyss was their destination.

Davenant was padding up, repeating all the First Contact protocols to himself, face shining with excitement. Bristow, sullen and moody, packed a neuro-stunner. It had never hurt his chances before.

“Bristow, we’re supposed to be peaceful! How is carrying a weapon meant to convey peace? And even if it is in self-defense, shouldn’t we show the Martians that we trust them? Besides, what if it doesn’t work? Most of our equipment’s going through a bad phase. Are we going to run around screaming for help till oxygen runs out? Or shall we hope that Earth can see the two white figures prancing around on the red surface?”

Bristow ignored Davenant. If the Martians were hostile, Davenant would hope for his sake that the stunner worked. Safer was infinitely better than dead.

“Bristow, what if they don’t trust us because you’re carrying that thing?”

“Then they’ve got a lot to learn about making contact with aliens. Everybody who is not you, Davenant, carries some form of defense. And it’s not like I’m going to kill them. In any case, we’re out-numbered. It’s just to protect us”. To buy us some time, he told himself.

The ejecting pods were targeted at a relatively smooth point on the Meridiani Planum. But that was before today’s system malfunctioned. Still, out of all the possible ways he considered that he could have died on this mission, Bristow was least worried that he was going to die due to a rupture caused in his pod or suit by a sharp Martian rock. Davenant checked the landing systems once again and kept his cool as the pods detached into space.

The vast darkness, combined with the soaring temperatures and pressures rushed past rapidly, as the pods penetrated the wispy atmosphere. Davenant could see that the outer hull of Bristow’s pod was a dull, angry red as the metal fought against the atmosphere, and was rapidly sucked in by the planet’s gravity. Soon, the red, rocky desert soared up to meet them.

Bristow and Davenant, true to their training, detached their landing bags simultaneously, as they crossed 20,000 km in altitude. The pods landed on the dry ground with an oppressive thump, and then bounced up again. They tumbled around for a while, till their inertia wore off. As Bristow stabilized, Davenant looked anxiously around. Vast panoramas of red rocks and amber sky everywhere. No sign of life. No welcoming committee, as Bristow had predicted. Still, Davenant was hopeful.

“Greetings from Earth”, began Davenant, citing the First Contact protocols with a voice that made him sound more lost than friendly. No response.

“Greetings from Earth”, repeated Davenant, pushing up his transmitting frequencies to maximum. He sounded more confident now. He greeted the ground, the air, and the rocks. All in vain. Only the occasional swooshing of dust and the unimaginable silence of the Martian landscape greeted them in return.

Davenant’s suit began to sense a low buzz that was becoming louder. At first, he thought it might be a malfunction with the suit equipment. He searched around for the controls, checked the self-diagnostics, the suit’s inner AI told him everything was alright.

“Davenant! Behind you“, said Bristow, his white face showing through the helmet’s visor.

Davenant turned. Possibly a few hundred kilometers or so meters away, a vortex of red dust swirled seemingly out of nowhere. The dust storm gained more strength as smaller winds were sucked into it, and as more dust began to add volume to the vacuum beast. Calculated trajectory would mean that he and Bristow would soon be caught up in it. Davenant turned around, and began to run. Bristow did not need to be told.

As the wind began to catch up with them, Davenant and Bristow realized that they were on the edge of a cliff face. Bristow tried to stop, but the dust blowing off revealed the smooth, frictionless Martian surface, and Bristow began to skid. The wind had already pushed Davenant to all fours as he scrambled for the rocky edge. Bristow and Davenant were soon swept off the edge. They held onto to the rock with as much strength as their spacesuits would allow, waiting for the worst.

The cliff edge faced an unimaginable drop of nearly 40 km. Due to the lesser gravity, landmasses could add great depth, or height, to themselves without crumbling under their own weight.

Bristow’s knuckles were beginning to hurt. Why hadn’t the storm torn them off already?

“Not exactly the welcome, you’d expected, did you? Sending along a terrible dust storm. Now do you believe me when I say that aliens can be hostile?” he asked Davenant.

“Well, I’m a little surprised as to the lack of little green men”, began Davenant, “But just because they’ve been held up by a storm, doesn’t mean they’re hostile. We have dust storms on Earth, too.”

“Yeah, except we’re not on Earth, are we? Where we can just yell for help and hope it comes….”

“Shouldn’t we be ripped off into a million shards, now?” questioned Davenant, evidently playing along with Bristow.

It took them a while to understand that in-between their conversation and their forceful attempt to avoid looking down, the suit’s sensors had gone quiet.

Davenant was the first one to haul himself back up. Bristow preferred to hang on for his life, while he supposed that Davenant would be whirled into the vortex.

“Oh. Ok”, said Davenant, surprised. “The storm’s dissipated.”

Bristow scoffed in disbelief. How such a monstrosity of a storm could so quietly disappear was a scientific impossibility. They surveyed the area. Davenant was right. The area looked as still and peaceful as it had always been. The dust didn’t even leave behind trails of incriminating evidence of ever having moved. Silence and red, as it had always been.

Davenant began to repeat the First Contact Protocol. Bristow stopped him. What did the boy think he was doing? The Martians weren’t there to greet them. They never would be. All they had done was bear two years of space-travel just so that they could avoid getting into local dust storms. Their mission had failed. Davenant would have a hard time accepting it, but eventually he would. Why wouldn’t they just come out and make contact, damn it?

They had not wandered around for more than a few meters, when another low buzz began. Red dust was staining the sky.

“Oh, no. Not again”, said Davenant.

And for the next few hours or so, Davenant and Bristow dodged the storms. Bristow hadn’t indulged in this sort of extensive physical activity for years. And after the fourth storm, his space suit began to indicate that the existing oxygen levels would not last him long. Davenant’s scenario of the two of them scampering around had come alive. They had come here to be diplomats, not to be chased by winds.

Bristow’s age was failing him. He could not keep up with the sprightly Davenant. He sat on the exposed, rock, careful not to tear his suit and lose whatever little oxygen he had to the Martian atmosphere. All of a sudden, he heard Davenant’s laughter. What now? Had the boy finally found a little green man?

“Davenant, will you stop cracking up at odd times and help me get myself up here?”

“Sorry, sorry”, said Davenant, flushed with laughter.

“Well, what’s the joke?”

“This”, said Davenant as he swept his arm across the landscape. The Martian scenery was unbelievably quiet. But Bristow could sense that there was some form of foreboding. He thought the boy had gone officially crazy. “What, Davenant?” he sounded impatient.

“The storms. Here I was wondering why nobody came to say hello, when the thought occurred to me, why couldn’t the storms be the little green men.”

Bristow quickly ran a scan across Davenant’s mind. He seemed sane. Or at least he thought himself sane. But the rubbish that he was telling Bristow didn’t sound sane at all. Alright, Bristow had enough of this. It was time to go back, report their status and hope that all the data their suit’s external sensors had gathered from this short trip would be enough scientific fodder for quite a while. Maybe Davenant would sober up once he was out of the UV rays. Perhaps Davenant’s suit wasn’t handling the exposure to the radiation well. And Bristow’s oxygen was depleting from his suit.

Just then, the low buzz began to stalk them again.

“Davenant”, panted Bristow, “I don’t have time for your stupidity. So listen carefully. I’m running out of oxygen. There’s another storm coming towards us. You make it to the pods and get off the surface.”

“I’m not leaving you behind”, said Davenant, stubbornly. Bristow groaned inside his head. This was really not the time for someone to be afflicted with sudden loyalty. “Davenant, please go. Please.”

Davenant refused to budge. The storm was approaching them faster. Didn’t the fool realize that without the pods, he would also be stranded here with Bristow? Waiting for the end, till his oxygen lasted? For a while, Bristow seriously considered using his telepathic powers to coerce Davenant into leaving. The winds grew louder.

“Davenant!” shouted Bristow over the din, “Don’t be stupid! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

And that was when Davenant did do the stupid thing. He walked right up to the storm. “Saying hello”, was his last transmission as the wind whisked him up into the air and communications died. Bristow was soon pulled into the inexorable vortex, the wind around him whirling at break-neck speeds, the red dust punishing their suits. Bristow’s oxygen levels were rapidly sinking as the dust tore at his suit. He watched for as long as he could. He and Davenant, suspended in mid-air, in the dynamic equilibrium of the harsh winds, sensors failing, klaxons bleeping, the red fading to black……

Bristow didn’t know if he was dead or dreaming. But whatever it was, it was extremely comfortable. It was a state of soothing, calm darkness. He felt warm, secure. He wished to stay in this state of bliss forever. But behind this first impression, Bristow’s conscious, rational mind was already beginning to process some details. Firstly, he was not dead. Dead people didn’t feel anything. Or did they? He had never been dead before to know. Secondly, it was dark.

Ordinarily, Bristow would have panicked, or worried, or drawn his neuro-stunner, or woven conspiracy theories or cursed Davenant. Or done something.

Something cropped up in his mind. It was a small, inquisitive little train of thought that was knocking gently on his mind. Bristow would have died of shock, if he hadn’t already. His mind filled with images of Mars. The images he had seen back on Earth, in textbooks, on data screens, on telemetry graphs, in artist renderings. They passed through his brain like an automated slideshow.

Bristow felt welcomed by that smooth thought again, focusing his mind on the image of Mars.

Home. The blue-green planet. It’s abundance of life. Through some mutual form of understanding, Bristow felt disgust. Bristow, for the first time, felt a sick revulsion thinking of the fond, cherished image of home. And as his mind compared and contrasted with the smooth, blank Martian surface, Bristow began to wonder if the Earth’s fertility was more an uncontrollable disease than a healthy boon.

He began to think of the animals on Earth, of the plants, of the trees, forests, oceans and all that they contained. Instead of pride, he felt a mental equivalent of wrinkling his nose. Wasn’t it just a little too crowded? A little too warm? And moist? And noisy? His mind began to compare and contrast with the smooth barrenness of the Martian surface. So quiet, so alone. So beautiful.

Was he under alien influence? The same aliens whom he had spent the entire two years believing as hostile? Images of pain and anger and destruction decomposed in his mind. The blank sensation of all-pervading calm filled Bristow again. His rational mind laughed at himself. Were they were trying to say they were peaceful?

Some corner of Bristow’s mind doggedly maintained that he didn’t trust creatures that hid themselves. Disease, pestilence, sickness, infection communicated the fear of the alien thought behind the guiding sensations. He remembered Davenant asking, “Don’t we all have something to hide?” Yes, and in a way, they cherished that hiding. Privacy of mind, of being. Hiding was equivalent to protection. Wasn’t he wearing a spacesuit to protect himself? Why shouldn’t the Martians hide to protect themselves from infection?

Bristow’s rational mind grappled with this means of communication. He tried to think of reaching out, to think of friendship, of bonding, of contact. The curious thought in his head urged him to think more. Bristow tried to more relevant things to continue their lopsided conversation. About Earth, about its beings. About humans. About geography, history, sociology, economy and so on….hoping that he conveyed the right message.

After a while, his train of thought was interrupted with ideas of exoskeletons. Creatures with exoskeletons, scuttling away from the daylight, hiding in the nooks and crannies. Insects with shells, did they not exist on Bristow’s home? Cockroaches and grasshoppers crawled into his brain, fleeing from fear, fleeing from discovery. Bristow found himself thinking of shields, of home, of walls, of covers, of trenches. What was he? A man obsessed with hiding, with being safe. A man behind shields. A man who fretted about being in control. A man who did not take kindly to being far-flung into space. A man who had not the remotest idea why he was here. A man who fled from discovery, who was trying scuttle back into the germ-filled corner he believed, who was trying to hide from the light. And yet, he claimed, he didn’t trust creatures that hid themselves. Didn’t the cockroaches behind refrigerators ever wonder why the humans fled or attacked at the first sight of them?

They were all running away, all trying to hide, all trying to defend themselves. Defense. A concept that Bristow had lived his entire life with. Protection. Security. Fear. His memories flashed back to the biology classes. His lecturer had pulled him up in class for not being unable to classify the given species. “It’s an arthropod, Bristow, or have you been sleeping in class, again?” Bristow remembered the embarrassment which had made him cringe inside. There he was, trying to hide, trying to survive, trying to build a wall of paranoia and arrogance and pessimism to prevent getting hurt. Wasn’t he an arthropod?

Bristow’s rational mind told himself that he was beginning to think rubbish, like Davenant. He was humanoid, he told himself. He was the one firmly grounded in reality. Humanoid, not arthropod. Being a pioneer, not hiding. He sighed inwardly. Had he stooped to the level of borrowing Davenant’s lines?

Perhaps, the spacesuit was a living extension of himself? He began to think of the spacesuit as detachable, as how it had come off his skin. He tried to feel the sensation again, of pulling off the suit, of feeling no pain while doing so, of viewing the suit more as convenience apparel than as a second home.

He began to wonder, why him. Why, out of all the people on that disgusting( if it must be disgusting) blue planet, had he and Davenant been chosen?! Davenant, was he alive? Was he alright? He remembered Davenant’s calm, resolute face as he walked into the storm, his almost certain belief that this was the way to make First Contact. His unshakeable belief that everything was working out alright, that they were great heroes.

Why had Bristow believed that Davenant would die a stupid noble death? He remembered the insect which first ventured out of the nest, out of the filthy darkness under the protection of the soil. The pioneer, the explorer, the unafraid, the curious.

Davenant was always what he said he was. If Davenant called himself human, he was. For once, Bristow felt he was deluding himself, that Davenant had been the one who was grounded in reality all along. Bristow was led to wonder, why was he always paranoid? Hell, he had even suspected Davenant, hadn’t he? “Why are you always so jumpy?” asked the memory of Davenant’s voice. Why, indeed? Survival? Defense? Protection? Exoskeleton? Arthropod?

And why shouldn’t the Martians feel the same? Bristow began to feel new memories fill in his head. The time when Earth was young, when it was like Mars, when it had a constant balance. But then the aberration happened. A combination of molecules and space debris began to propagate its own growth. It multiplied and branched out into varied forms, and began to control the existing balance for itself. Bristow’s mind watched the dinosaurs tear away at the leaves; the algal growths sprout and entrap resources. The balance had been contaminated. Competition was the way the disease propagated itself. Big eat little. Little trying to survive. Survival of the fittest. But even they hadn’t learned. They began to compete with themselves, morphing into more monstrous, more “adaptable” forms.

It had been an act of universal consciousness when the asteroid was marked. Earth was grateful. But even such devastation could not recover the balance it once had. Again, newer, more lethal forms of the disease evolved. Bristow watched them growing into far more resilient and angry beings, wielding the power to destroy the very host that supported their growth and even succeeding in crippling many of the finer ecosystems that supported their origins. Expanding and yet surviving. Not unlike cockroaches taking over complete control of the fridge, moving beyond the very source of sustenance. And some odd thought made him and Davenant feel like the two bold insects that had moved from the fridge to the drawing room. “We didn’t mean to hurt, you, to infect you”, spoke Bristow aloud, into the void.

Like the planet, within each shell was a consciousness. Except that this consciousness was bound only by the physical limitations of the exoskeleton. The planetary consciousness was bound by some understanding of the greater good, the greater expansion, the greater state of being, of existing. No competition. Just balance.

Now he knew why the Martians had tried to hide. He finally knew why some twisted act of fate had brought him and Davenant to Mars. To open his eyes, to re-affirm Davenant’s faith. The entire planet was alive. The storms were sent to intercept them; the dust, to penetrate every fiber and report its alien nuance by means of existing, by means of sensing. The clouds had parted to make their entry easier. Enough dust had gathered at the edge of the cliffs where he and Davenant hung, to make sure that the friction prevented them from being hurt. And even if they had fallen, they would have rolled off the slope of the underground cliff, into probably a cavern which, if they had rolled into it, would find surprisingly non-lethal. The entire red planet had become one little green man. This was life, in a way that Earth could never comprehend existed. Or perhaps it once did, before the limited scope of organic comprehension began to view the universe through its narrow, shortsighted eyes, struggling to understand whatever limited knowledge it could see beyond its own limitations.

For some reason, Bristow began to imagine Davenant trying to disarmingly argue against this omniscient power, smiling away as he tried to extol the virtues of the human race, the ideal diplomat that he was. But some force inside Bristow, began to list their demerits, banking on Bristow’s existing reserves of years of distrust. Davenant’s voice, or thought, or whatever began to bounce off the impenetrable shield of Bristow’s mind.

Davenant tried to attack the shell from another angle, if such a gentle suggestion by so young a boy could be considered an attack. He seemed to be asking Bristow about the space dust. If space itself was a life-from, with every move of it designed to reach some greater form of efficiency, some greater state of existence than before, then shouldn’t the implanting of space, the propagation of organic molecules, of life, of consciousness, of curiosity be considered more a calculated experiment than an accident? Perhaps the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had been the greater consciousness’ way of clearing the slate, beginning a fresh start? After all, the species that evolved from that disaster were much different than those that had existed before. Maybe this was all somehow part of the greater plan? Bristow could feel Davenant’s philosophical tone again.

A thought inside Bristow fed off his confusion of the creature he knew existed as Davenant. So open, so unafraid. Bristow found his mind re-analyzing Davenant. What were his limitations? Where did he demarcate his own shields? Did he even have a protective skeleton at all? Davenant began to extrapolate that all these many years of scientific growth had been propelled by the greater consciousness, hadn’t it? And if they were really all that powerful and felt displeased with life on Earth, wouldn’t they have destroyed the planet? Hadn’t the measly, puny, organic astronomers on Earth seen with their own eyes, the awesome power of the universe? That they had survived thus far was only a testament that they were not an aberration; they were the next step to growth.

Davenant opened his mind further, projecting images of humans on Mars, of binding together the solar system and the universe in a form of physical reality, in a form of pushing the boundaries of safety, of security, evolving beyond the exoskeleton.

Bristow and the alien intelligence also realized why Davenant was special. He could penetrate anyone’s shield. To Davenant, whether it was Bristow or the Martian intelligence, he could always get under their skin, under their shields, explore beyond their exoskeleton. His openness made him invincible. His evidently benign demeanor made him insidious. One could not deny Davenant. He was right. No matter how much a person fought with Davenant’s ideas and views, he would always have that person over on his side. Whether it was his affable charm, or strength of intelligence, Davenant did not have adversaries. He was a greater telepathic manipulator than Bristow or any alien intelligence could ever be, simply because he trusted, he believed. He had faith, for whatever use that was to him.

And if the hardened Bristow gave into it, after nearly two years of close company, did this alien intelligence really think it could hold out long enough? The more Bristow tried to cave himself in, tried to protect himself from Davenant’s all-engulfing openness, the more the claustrophobic consciousness tried to venture out. Bristow couldn’t tell when he realized that Davenant had coaxed the being into a mellow concordance.

The alien being that had initiated First Contact with Bristow, slowly gave up on him, releasing his mental shields, leaving him every bit as intact as exposed. One could only show the cockroach what the world beyond the muck was. After that, it was up to the cockroach to grow himself. Davenant had succeeded in the mission. The Martians understood them, even if they would still have a hard time accepting them. They had studied them and their technology long enough. It was time for them to leave……

Bristow heard the dull thump of the pod attach itself to the ship’s docking station. He didn’t know whether he was asleep or not. But he realized that he was back inside his space-suit, though the oxygen was almost completely out, and that what he had experienced was not a dream, and he was extremely relieved to discover that he was back on the ship, with full control of all his faculties. He tried to remember when the conversation ended, when they latched back on to the pods and returned. The Martian surface from the ship’s windows seemed deceptively peaceful. Like a shield that was hiding the turmoil beneath.

Some part of Bristow’s mind poked himself. The alien being had used him. He had become the damned Martian spy that he was perpetually accusing Davenant of being. But the consciousness within the mental shield refused to acknowledge that something had penetrated it. Or maybe it had?

The first sound he heard was Davenant’s voice, gushing with excitement, “We made first contact, Bristow! We succeeded! Can you imagine them talking about us back home? They’ll say to themselves, They made it despite the hardships! Contact with aliens! Finally, we are not alone!”

The ship began to register a faint, buzzed beeping. A human voice was earnestly saying, “…..this is Earth…..out of range for……acknowledge…..”

Clearly Davenant had the thrill of his life. Without even taking off his suit, he ran towards the communications grid, accelerating in the low gravity, bumping into all sorts of corners, sending parts of ship components levitating in mid-air, in his wake.

“Hi! Hi! We’re back! We spoke to them! They spoke to us! They were not hostile!”

Davenant was unable to contain his excitement, and therefore losing coherence on a weak transmission.

“Dave…..Davenant?” asked a particularly raspy voice at the other end of the grid, “Are you alive?”

“Alive?! Are you kidding me? I’ve never felt more alive!”

“That’s…….. good news, Ensign Davenant……..”, said the unmistakable voice of his field commander.

“Yes, sir. Mission successful, sir. Contact has been established with the non-hostile. Sir.” Added Davenant lamely, his enthusiasm rapidly compressing itself, trying to sound professional and not like a three-year-old on the moon.

“…..Bristow, you there?……”

“Right here, sir.”

“How did….it go?”

“Very well, sir.”

“What are the……Martians like?”

He and Davenant exchanged looks. The nature of their communication was not so easy to explain. How was he supposed to communicate vocally the awe-inspiring power of what had just happened, of what Davenant had done? Bristow struggled for words. Finally, he gave up.

“The Martians are arthropods, sir.”

 

Future Prospects

Sardang was a troubled pterodactyl. As a species, it was a matter of pride to the pterodactyl community that they could interpret the knowledge of the skies, their natural homes. Through reptilian evolution, they learned that not only did the heavens forecast the weather but they also revealed celestial secrets. Sardang was frustrated with the data they had acquired. He had re-verified as much of it as he could, tabulating it afterwards against past data engraved on the cliffs, but the conclusion seemed irrefutable. The accumulated statistics were leading to an unbelievable disaster. Amid the growing confusion, the pterodactyl community had called for a meeting of the Council.

The Reptilian Empire had accomplished so much. His data claimed that all of it was going to be ground to dust just by one bright flash in the sky. The thought was frightening, to say the least. Civilization as it had existed for so many years would vanish. Sardang felt that at least with an early warning, the dinosaurs would at least be able to store their best components away, or keep them in some form of suspension or preserve them to continue the way of life as it was before the disaster. This wasn’t going to be the end, hopefully. A new reptilian kingdom would arise, and someday claim the same power as the current reign had.

As Sardang flew, he saw a group of young styrachosauri fighting over some petty grass groves. Sardang was momentarily disgusted to forget that he was bearing the message of doom. After years of development, he felt it was pathetic that reptiles, elevated creatures, should still feel the need to indulge in raw displays of animalism. If they were mammals, perhaps, they could be excused. Mammals had been a lesser form of life ever since their evolution. They were small creatures, too limited in their scope to see and understand anything beyond the basic needs of survival. But to think that after so many years, even respectable members of the reptile empire felt the need to do the same, made Sardang feel shameful. Even within Sardang’s own swarm, small arguments continued to break up the formation. Sometimes, it seemed to Sardang that the pterodactyls had forgotten their honorable duty and were now using their sharp eyes to pick up petty squabbles. In times of such uncertainty, how could they argue about such minutiae?

The Council was an exhibition of passive croaks, groans and shrieks against the primeval sunset. Usually, the Council convened for disputes over the allocation of power, food or shelter. The largest of all the species assembled, the King of the Empire, sat in the centre, and any sensible dinosaur knew to give this creature a very wide berth.

A huge ferocious animal that lumbered around on the land, his fore-arms were unusually strong given their size, combined with the agility of a huge tail which made him a formidable predator, Rakavar was a clumsy tyrannosaurus. He was annoyed by sensing a slight movement in the grass behind him and with one sweeping motion had the poor mammal in his jaws, perfect for a light snack. As his powerful fangs ripped the meat apart, the herbivorous members of the Council edged away nervously, while the carnivorous members crept closer, lured by the blood. Soon, an entire swarm of pterodactyls glided into the focus of his tiny eyes and gracefully landed before the Council. The sight of a tyrannosaurus feasting made the pterodactyls want to stay at a respectable distance. When he had the attention of the Council, Sardang presented his case.

“Honored Council, we wish to bring a matter of utmost importance to your notice. After months of observation, we have discovered that there is a bright flashing object, unlike any that we have encountered before. From the projected trajectory, it is heading straight towards the Earth. We believe it could cause very serious damage to our habitats.”

“Where is your evidence, Sardang? A bright object blazing across the sky could be anything. In any case, even if it is something new and undiscovered, it doesn’t necessarily mean it would amount to catastrophe as you have claimed. It might just be a pebble from outer space. Surely, a pebble wasn’t capable of destroying our habitats?” croaked, Balgar, a particularly eloquent velociraptor, preening himself with the importance of an experienced spokesperson of the Council.

Sardang noted that the lack of the customary tone of respect. Balgar harbored a grudge against him for rescuing a small hatchling from his hungry clutches and had since then, always been on his snappy side. Sardang was annoyed with his interruption. The velociraptors never seemed to give up on any opportunity to claim political power, an annoying trait they had inherited along with the genes that made them distant cousins of the tyrannosauri. This was a question of the near total destruction of the Empire, not some petty ego issues. Offending the velociraptors would lead to the eviction of pterodactyls from the Council, a maneuver designed to acquire more power. A pebble, indeed. What did that smooth-jawed scavenger know about watching the skies?

“Respected Speaker, we have watched the skies for many days. The object is brighter than several of its neighbors in the sky and is considerably larger too. If it is perceived to be this large from such a distance, it will only become bigger and brighter as it approached the Earth. Are we to risk our habitats at the mercy of such a powerful force? My data will testify that what I say is not a fabrication.”

Rakavar growled in contemplation, overriding Balgar’s authority. “Consequences, Observer?” The entire Council fell silent.

“Almost irreparable destruction of the Reptilian Empire,” said Sardang quietly, trying to avoid staring into the expressionless eyes of his king.

For a moment there was only the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and the leaves rustling in the air, and the distant screeches of younger dinosaurs and the cries of pained mammals. In the tense silence, Sardang was desperately trying to convince himself that he had done the right thing. Then, Balgar spoke up, shattering the silence.

“Is there anything that can be done to avert this disaster?”

Sardang felt the annoyance at the back of his beak. Just like a velociraptor to ask the stupid questions. He was not bringing them news of some carnivorous dinosaurs pillaging the habitats of some innocent herbivores. This was not the kind of thing that could be solved by the interruption of a few sturdy triceratopses. What possible defense could they have against an astronomical fireball? Hide under the trees, hoping to avoid the impact of a supposed pebble that was already leaving streaks of destruction in the sky? Cower under the cliffs?

Rakavar, for the benefit of other members of the Council, asked Sardang to answer the question.

Sardang tried to control his impatience. “Honored Council, this is the end of civilization!”

The Council erupted in chaos. Every creature flurried around in panic, loud screeches and barks tore the air. The denizens of the ocean were startled by the sudden din, and a few even ventured closer to the surface of the water to satisfy their curiosity. Amongst this pandemonium, the only group that stood its ground was the pterodactyls.

Rakavar rarely roared. But he did so now. Every creature who heard Rakavar unleash the full strength of his roar shivered, trying to suppress the instinct to return back to the burrows of the earth, to dive back into the depths of the ocean, to take off into the comforting heights of the skies or to run away as fast as possible and never look back.

“I will have silence! Citizens, are we not higher beings? Only a Council of mammals would allow themselves to driven by panic.”

The Council was instantly silent at the general insult. Sardang poked his leathery wings with his own beak, in agreement with Rakavar’s methods. Even mammals knew how to behave better, noted Sardang as he watched with disgust the prancing group of velociraptors, chirping away in high-pitched squeals, snapping at themselves in nervousness.

The only community who had the strength to combat Rakavar himself then spoke up. Heradon, leader of the triceratops, quietly pawed the ground for attention, more as a formality in the silence than as anything else and then said, “Since the Great Observers,” here she paused to bend her huge head to the pterodactyl group, as a mark of respect, which was returned with a bend of their beak “have implied that nothing can be done to avert the disaster. Surely, we can contrive other means to ensure that at least the casualties are minimized?”

Finally, Sardang felt that somebody in the Council understood the real reason why he had brought this news. An early warning was better than no warning at all. Rakavar nodded his enormous head in approval.

Balgar felt the innate need to speak up again and this time, he was careful to be more polite, as he usually was when he wanted to be sarcastic, “What possible means can we contrive to save ourselves from a disaster of the order of magnitude as described by the Great Observers?”

“I don’t mean to interrupt you, Respected Speaker, but perhaps we can preserve our specimens for re-growth after the disaster?” volunteered a voice from the skies.

Diploid, foremost representative of the brachiosaurus community was speaking. Sardang took flight and perched himself on the tallest enough tree that would enable him to listen to Diploid’s views better. In any case, they were worth more than Balgar’s opinions and sarcasm, wondered Sardang as he watched the little creature struggle to climb up to a tall enough rock. To pick on Diploid’s valid arguments, no doubt. The creature was deeply biased against herbivores.

“But we are so many species! How will we preserve them all?!” asked Balgar, almost laughing at the ludicrous idea. Rakavar emitted a low, echoing growl that hastily shut him up.

Heradon asked, “In what way do you propose to execute this plan, Respected Thinker?”

Diploid turned his small head to a side, as though contemplating the horizons of some distant ocean. He conferred with some of the others in his group for a while.

“Honored Council, we wish to bring a matter to your attention. One of our herds was grazing near the other side of the coast, when we heard an interesting report from one of our marine cousins. Several tylosaurus communities have complained of increasing activity under the ocean beds. A few tylosauri schools have located a crevice in the beds, more an accidental discovery necessitated by the search of food than anything else…”

“What is the relevance of all this in the face of a catastrophe?” interrupted Balgar, condescendingly. These brachiosauri were going off on a tangent again.

“Balgar, don’t interrupt, or I’ll personally have you thrown off the cliffs,” said Rakavar, quietly. Heradon pawed the ground threateningly as the velociraptor tried to hide behind her huge form. Sardang watched from above with satisfaction.

“Please continue”, Rakavar nodded his agreement, baring his bloodstained fangs at Balgar, who retreated hastily, knowing that the next interruption could not only cost him his membership of the Council but also his life.

“The tylosauri have found that there are several rock sheets, peeling away near the crevice which contains several remarkably intact skeletons of some of our evolutionary ancestors. Notably, the preserved skeletons seemed to belong to a species of Trilobites, which have been long since extinct. Trilobites are simple minute creatures that used to inhabit the ocean beds. Perhaps, if we could study them, we may discover how they managed to preserve specimens that survived so long under the oceans.”

Again, there was a silence as the creatures stared either in silence or preened each other in confusion.

“Pardon me for disagreeing, Respected Thinker, even if we were to discover their methods of self-preservation, they probably would not be applicable to our particular case,” countered Heradon.

“The specimens have survived under the ocean, which is a relatively much calmer and uniform environment than what our world might be after the disaster. I doubt that we have places above the water which are capable of withstanding such a catastrophe. There is no point in preserving specimens that do not have resuscitation procedures, as we have not seen any living specimens. Also, the natural habitat of the Trilobites served as a convenient store house. All of us cannot do the same. Again, the Trilobites are only one species, we are an entire planet.”

“Respected Fighter, your arguments are pertinent. But, we still ask permission to study the Trilobite specimens.” conceded Diploid.

“Thinkers,” said Rakavar, “we will justify your allocation of resources to this Trilobite project. However, as the Fighters pointed out, there is the danger of your results being inconclusive and arriving too long to be effective. While I sanction your research, I need the Council to come up with more immediate plans of action.”

After sharing several grunts with her comrades, Heradon pawed the ground for attention again. “Honored Council, we think that dinosaur populations should begin evacuating. By dispersing, we are less likely to be wiped out in one single stroke. If the Great Observers,” again Sardang flew down to a lower branch to hear what she was saying, “could pin-point the exact location of impact, we can begin pushing out dinosaur populations from there. Until the Thinker’s research provides us with optimistic results, we should consider this.”

The Council slowly grew to a buzz. It would clearly involve the separation of many herds and swarms who have shared several life-times together, let alone disrupt all the symbiotic relationships that sustain them. How would they divide the groups? How would they be able to protect their young? How would they be able to find new nesting sites? How would they have access to food or prey in new unfamiliar territories? Sardang volleyed a few screeches between his swarm. Some of them were to go back to the largest nesting sites and convey the news. The others were to watch the skies, with the intention of finding where exactly on Earth it would strike.

Rakavar called the Council’s attention. “Citizens, decide amongst your populations how to share your responsibilities. Leave to your homes and do not delay.”

The beach was a flurry of many different sounds, as Sardang and his group took flight. They watched the ground for a while. Heradon was leading her group back over the plateau, remarkably agile for a creature of her size. Diploid and his herd craned their long necks forward and began to run, while Balgar had emerged from hiding and began to jump his way home, prancing from rock to rock. Even Rakavar had lumbered off to some other part of his territory. The earth, as it seemed to Sardang, was a canvas of reptilian motion whereas the darkening sky above told the story of impending doom.

As Sardang’s leathery wings glided over the air currents, he mused about the plan of action. If Diploid’s hypothesis was a success, then the whole disaster would be a minor interruption in the glorious history of the Reptilian Empire. But, Heradon’s arguments were right, as well. There were far too many creatures to preserve. No doubt they would be preserved in some form of socio-political hierarchy. Hopefully the brachiosaurs would forget the velociraptors do everybody a favor. It was also necessary, especially for herbivore species, for plants to survive as well. Under the endless grasslands, Sardang passively noticed several groups of tiny mammals trying to burrow their way out of the ground, evading the passively grazing hadrosaurs. Those poor things would probably be extinct. How could beings so delicate have any chance of survival?

Sardang crossed a stretch of water, watching the ripples shine with the undulating forms of the tylosauri under it. He scanned the waters with his probing eyes. They probably had all the hiding places, Sardang wondered. Not like the skies, where it was impossible to hide anything. Sardang hoped to spot a few Trilobites soon, in some confirmation of a faraway dream. He had now reached the top of the cliff where several pterodactyl families were nesting. In the corner of the robust nests, were freshly laid eggs. What would their future be? How was he going to ask parents to part with their hatchlings? Families to disintegrate and form new relationships based on trust?

When the next Council was summoned, Sardang had already disbanded several nests, though not as many groups as the other dinosaurs had. He was still expecting something worthwhile from Diploid’s research. In any case, the remaining pterodactyl populations were small enough.

As the Council had assembled, the opening formalities hurriedly done with as an indicator of stress. Rakavar began, “Citizens, before we ask every species represented here…”

Sardang wondered if every species was represented here. They didn’t have representatives of the trees and grass, or even of the mammals or insects for that matter. Also, several of the dinosaurs were missing, the most conspicuous of which was Balgar’s absence. Had the velociraptors fled already? Cowards.

He turned his attention back to Rakavar. If resources were going to be scarce, they’d need every little bit for themselves instead of worrying about mammals. “… we will ask the Thinkers to present the results of their studies.”

Diploid spoke, “Honored Council, after we had retrieved several intact specimens from our tylosaur cousins, we monitored them under different conditions. We tried exposing them to atmospheric conditions, allowing them to revive their natural metabolism. That did not succeed. So, we asked the tylosaur cousins to observe a few of the specimens submerged underwater, the assumed natural habitat of the Trilobites. After a few days, we noticed a green protrusion growing from the skeletons. We assume that rapidly expanding mass is the Trilobite body, filling itself out due to regenerative growth caused by exposure to the right conditions. However, it has not shown any sentience, or any motility.”

Rakavar was surprised. “The Trilobites don’t eat? Or speak?”

The Council was suddenly interrupted by Heradon and several other dinosaurs “Look! Look! Look at the sky!”

Sardang and his swarm flew upwards immediately. The sky had immediately become much brighter, and there in the distance was a huge bright streak of light, which made the night sky seem almost like day. A bright, fiery intruder was blazing past.

There was no panic. Just this awe-inspiring silence, followed by a rapidly increasing boom as the object collided with the surface. The resounding thud knocked everyone on the ground off their hind-limbs. Even the triceratopses, the strongest of the land animals, staggered under the shock. “What happened? What happened?” was the general murmur as the creatures cowered in fear.

The brachiosaurs were the first to raise their heads to look. Sardang was still trying to deny what had happened. They had taken off just in time, as the ground began to quake. The shake which began as a small vibration in the ground began to worsen as cracks spread along the way. The oceans were pushed out of imbalance as the ground gave way. And where the blinding ray of fury had struck there was a now a dull, expanding darkness. Sardang and the pterodactyls tried to stay in the air as long as they could, knowing that any terrestrial structure was unstable now. The air was rent with shrieks and howls. Nearby groups of disbanded dinosaurs had surely seen the impact. Sardang tried to fly in closer to explore the debris. The object that he had spotted in the skies was huge. Sardang had no doubt that at least a million dinosaurs had died on the spot. As he struggled to fly higher, he saw that where there had been vast plains, there was now a giant rock. A giant, red hot rock which left waves of cinders behind.

There was a sudden rush of air away from the alien intruder, billowing out the darkness. The winds carried the dust uprooting trees, disturbing the tormented waters, pouring dust all over the ground. Sardang heard a familiar roar. The sound had been going on for quite some time, but the pterodactyls had been too absorbed by the spectacle of raw destruction to pay attention. Rakavar was calling them back. Even Rakavar’s roar could not match the ferocity of what they had just seen.

Sardang did not know how to describe the masses of charred remains of countless species. The rock had wiped them clean off the face of the planet. His descent to the council was accelerated with the winds pushing him away and outward, clawing his leathery back with dust, leaving painful scratches. They could not fly. They were literally thrown back covered in dust and injuries to the Council.

Sardang tried to recover from hitting the earth at such speeds. He was sure that his beak was broken. Several others had their wings torn and digits damaged. Heradon gently pushed him to his fore-limbs with her massive skull. He had mustered enough strength to tell the Council what had happened, when there was another loud boom. For the second time in the night, the sky was lit brighter than the hottest day. The creatures were thrown into disarray and panic, clinging onto the earth as the ground rippled and the sky began to rain dust and fragments of rock. This was disaster personally wreaking havoc on them.

“The object seems to have exploded” said Diploid, to nobody in particular, in the midst of the chaos. The winds were brutally punishing now. Sardang tried to fly back up. He needed to watch. To observe. To do his duty right. But the air, the skies, which had been the familiar territory of the pterodactyls, was now filled with vengeful alien dust. Creatures groaned and shrieked and dust filled their jaws and contaminated the air. The dust coated the ocean and the ground. With the dust, followed the darkness. With the darkness came death.

As the swirling vortexes of dust blacked out the stars of the night sky, creatures began to suffocate and slowly die. Wherever creatures tried to flee, death followed. Sardang soon realized through partial visibility, that the wind carried a lot more than the dust. Trees, rocks, pebbles, followed in the darkness, claiming their victims. The hadrosaurs coughed and choked to a painful death. Sardang was about to leave the ground, until he heard Heradon’s hoarse, dust-filled shriek. He felt the gentle thud of her body collapse, glad that he had moved away quickly enough just to avoid being crushed by the massive body, her cold blood oozing on him. “Fly away”, said Heradon, before she coughed herself to death.

Sardang did not know exactly what strength allowed him to take off. The only way he could feel that sensation was when his hind-limbs finally let go of whatever they were holding on to. In the darkness, air, water and earth all seemed the same. All filled with pain and anguish. Sardang was in blind shock to realize that one by one, his swarm was dropping out of the sky and falling down into the many corpses. The carnivores were torn between trying to flee, trying to survive or trying to eat as much as they could. Velociraptors and other scavengers began to pick on the raw supply as quickly as possible, until the dust and darkness claimed them. Rakavar lumbered around, trying to get the smaller species to the safety of stable rocks, trying to fight the dust with his tail. Diploid’s body lay on the water, his neck tantalizingly close to the disturbed sharks. Soon enough, all that was left of him were the few fragments of his bones and an expanding pool of black liquid on the black waters.

Sardang felt his body shatter as a large rock of nearly the same dimensions of his body attacked him. His eyes burned with the cruel abrasion of the dust. He knew he was falling, flecks of blood oozing from his beak. He didn’t know if it was his blood or Heradon’s. He felt his leathery body surrender to the pain.Sardang hoped his descendants would live to see another Reptilian Empire. Hopefully there were enough evacuees to see the morning sun.

None of the dinosaurs survived. There was no morning sun for a very long time. If Sardang had lived long enough to survive the catastrophe and the aftermath, he would have been very surprised to find out who survived….

145 million years later

Paleontologist Ryker was annoyed with digging in the unbearable heat. Anthropologist Weaver had already contaminated the spot. She could still remember how Weaver had confidently said, “Sorry,”evidently not sorry at all.

“What are you doing here?” asked Ryker,failing to hide her inherent dislike. She had to push around several papers, and glower at several people indignantly to get this excavation approved. Now she discovered that this incompetent buffoon had first access to it with lesser effort. All because his museum placed a higher priority on extinct Neanderthal artifacts than her museum placed on finding some of the best preserved fossils.

“We came in the morning, given that we’ve got some really nice pieces lying around here. But I didn’t know you’d be coming,” said Weaver, aware that his museum provided him with more funding for his project than Ryker’s had. “Don’t worry. We find any big bones, we’ll let you know.”

“You don’t have to. My team’s getting on it in exactly five minutes.”

“But, we’ve already set up our grafts and started cataloging. You can’t just barge in!”

“You can catalog at the museum as well, Weaver. As for barging in, I was scheduled at this site before you.”

She went on to firmly but politely offer that Weaver’s team either evacuate the place or remained confined to very strict boundaries of the site.

Weaver was about to interrupt when Ryker flashed him a sarcastic smile and said, “Don’t worry. We find any odd lumps of clay, we’ll let you know.”

Now that the afternoon sun was burning her back, Ryker regretted sending Weaver’s diggers away. By now they should have dug up something substantial, unless the natives’ reports were false. Still, she wiped away the sweat and continued with a personal vengeance, before Weaver saw the opportunity to claim back his territory. Dark shadows arced over Ryker, who sat amongst geological evidence of nearly 145 million years ago. Ryker looked up.

Birds. The last evolutionary remains of the dinosaurs. They screeched and flew across the sky, enjoying the freedom of their natural homes. A peregrine falcon, swooped on her with its majestic wings over the sky and settled on a rock near Ryker. It stared at her with its expressionless eyes, not afraid of the proximity. Ryker almost felt as though she was being watched.

“They’re probably wondering why this mammal is digging up their remains,” said Ryker, more to herself than anything else. The falcon squawked, almost as if in response, startling Ryker out of her wits. The expressionless eyes seemed to be considering her with the hidden intelligence of an extinct species. Ryker was momentarily intrigued.

She moved closer to the bird, which still remained unafraid. “You’re watching me dig up your ancestors, aren’t you?” she said to the bird. The bird sat quietly, cocked its head to one side, as if trying to understand. It hopped over to where Ryker’s tools were lying on the ground and nudged them with its beak. The falcon then pushed the pickaxe over the rock edge, to where the underlying layers were peeling away. “Hey!”, said Ryker, as she tried to retrieve the pickaxe. Unimpressed, the bird stared back at her with intimidating intensity. This was either some very advanced Pavlovian reaction or some elaborately random motion.

A large shadow loomed up and the falcon suddenly took off, leaving a very puzzled Ryker in its wake. Weaver had frightened off the bird. “Passing interest in zoology, I see?” he sneered. Ryker immediately felt foolish. What possible reason could she have, for standing in the middle of a barren plateau and talking, of all things, to a bird? The sunstroke was definitely leading her to imagine things.

“What are you doing here?” she asked for the second time, sounding as annoyed as ever.

“Generally checking up on the progress of one who is dedicated to looking for lesser species.”

Reptiles were not lesser species, she wanted to argue back. But she knew that was what Weaver wanted. His half-evolved apes weren’t any better.

“You’ll get your site back by the evening, Weaver.”

When Weaver left, Ryker returned to the ground, forgetting her avian companion with every stroke and worrying more about the complete lack of discovery. Her efforts were not in vain. She had finally found the shale bed with a beautifully preserved specimen of a pterodactyl.

Within minutes, the entire site was full of activity. There was an instant boost in morale; everyone was already describing the pterodactyl, trying to classify it, estimating its dimensions and so on. Weaver haunted them again, bearing apparent congratulations. Ryker accepted his congratulations very neutrally. The pterodactyl remains made Weaver’s mud clumps look absolutely irrelevant and ugly. This was nature’s beauty at work. Not some primitive manifestation of supposed intelligence. It took her quite a while to discover a large peregrine falcon staring at her from the cliffs above.

Ryker ensured that Sardang had survived to the future. He was now behind a glass cage, called by the name of Pterodactylus simus, while mammals stared at his bones. The observer under observation. Perhaps what was an even greater twist of irony was that the next exhibit was that of a Trilobita asaphidae.