For a brief moment, the pain of her loss, was overshadowed by faint images of past, pleasant evenings with Bronq, strolling, her arm wrapped around his, about the crystal green lakes of home, millions of light years away. A slight ghost of a smile flitted across her shiny face.
The yellow sun dipped into the far horizon, illuminating the surrounding green fields, sprinkled with sprigs of wild flowers. The level monotony broken by the occasional tree or a wild shrub caught by a passing cool breeze.
Drifting back to reality, she bent her knees and sprinkled the last of the shimmering golden dust over the burial where her mate lay, at least what was left of him. "I've got to find out what happened to you, my beloved. It's a promise. Will always miss you very much." She rose, and with bowed head, crisscrossed her shiny, spindly arms, and chanted a customary final parting. The image of his upper shiny torso will always haunt her for the rest of her life. Tossing her head back she blinked, stretched her arms and spindly legs, then dragged herself back to the empty craft.
Inside, Loquina, a thin, young hairless female of her species, with golden eyes, considered short at seven feet, prepared a simple meal and sat down on a thin floor pad, cross-legged, to eat. The ceiling's soft glow reflected stone still echos from the sturdy, metallic walls.
If it hadn't been for the detested Crudarkans, she mused, they wouldn't be here at all, and Bronq would still be alive. Instead they, along with millions of other Prasmians, would be on their own home planet, Prasm, raising families, and living out their lives in tranquillity. The memory of their beautiful world lost to the enemy etched a deep throated pain that refused to go away.
Prasm had never been a match for the more powerful, ruthless combat machines of the Crudarkans. After the 5-Revolution bloody war, the hideous brutes emerged as the conquerors, they the vanquished. The Crudarkans wanted Prasm for their own expanding settlements. If they were in any way to survive, the Prasmians had to abandon their home world. That was the only option available. It meant the survival for their own race, and their own peaceful culture. The thousands who refused disappeared.
A handful lingered on Prasm, virtual slaves, to assist with the hated Crudarkan colonization. She and Bronq were among the selected few to stay behind.
Nevertheless, the Crudarkans forced the reprehensible transport of millions to an undesirable planet, Azrek, discovered in ancient times. The planet's size and distance from its life-giving star was comparable to that of Prasm. Two revolutions of persistent study failed to detect any biological life forms let alone higher, intelligent inhabitants. That was three and a half billion revolutions ago. What a shame, at the time no one even considered the discovery of any consequence and no further research had been pursued. Things change.
"Come on honey. The coals are just about ready for the burgers. I'm gettin really hungry. Bet the kids are too," Derek said as he spread the pile of coals, heaped in the middle of their old-fashioned barbeque, evenly around. He wiped the perspiration with the back of his hand as it trickled down his forehead.
A bluebird, chirping a pleasant song, settled on a branch of an elm tree shading their picnic table, painted forest green. A bowl of potato chips graced the center. From above, a wisp of a summer breeze broke the radiance of the cloudless blue sky.
"Yeah, come on Mommy," said five-year-old Janet, twisting her dark braids between chubby fingers. "My tummy says it's starving."
"Me too," said her twin brother Jason, crinkling his nose.
With that, the two children, dripping wet, jumped out of their plastic swimming pool and raced to the table and began sipping orange soda and munching chips.
Patty came out from the kitchen carrying a platter piled high with beef patties and raw peppers, sliced thin. Her deft hands placed the food on the barbeque rack. A sniff of beef fat dripping onto the hot coals, elicited one of her pleasing smiles.
"Yum," she said, feeling the fidget inside her stomach. She snatched a happy look at their twins. "I'm starving for lunch, too. While Daddy grills the burgers, I'll toss a yummy garden salad together."
A half a revolution ago, a Prasmian representative from the Extra-Transport Department contacted them. The orders came from the High Crudarkan Commander.
"Something peculiar is going on," she said and proceeded to explain the critical situation. Loquina detected hysteria and desperation in her voice. "Millions and millions of Prasmians have vanished from the planet Azrek. There's no explaining it."
They had no choice in the matter, and left Prasim for Azrek two days later to investigate. From the outset, the Crudarkans denied any responsibility; an issue everyone questioned.
Beads of perspiration dripped down her face and back. Mrs. Peabody, outfitted in a dark blue and pink polka dot summer dress, tight around the waist, wobbled behind her miniature white poodle as the animal took the lead down the cobbled trail winding through the park. Limited by a leash secured to its collar, it darted in and out among nearby bushes. The dog paused beside a sapling and sniffed around, then lifting its hind leg up deposited its signature upon the trunk. A crisp cool breeze wafted through tree branches above.
Watching her dog with embarrassment, Mrs. Peabody gave a broad smile to a passerby, emphasizing wrinkles around her thin mouth and large eyes. Afterward, the two companions continued with their stroll. A few feet away, the gurgling waters of the park's single fountain splashed into a sparkling, circular lagoon. Panting, she waddled over to a bench placed long ago, in the shade of an old oak tree and plopped herself onto its seat. It creaked. Folding sagging arms across her lap, she gave a complacent yawn and drifted into a light slumber.
The following morning, after updating the log-recorder with her observations, Loquina paid respect to the recent burial. Outside, the bright sunlight reflected the gloomy glow of her skin.
Loquina settled her gaze on her mate's grave. "Good morning Bronq," she said. "The last two days have been most bizarre. Remember that town we located last week? I explored the far end of it, searching for clues. It was incredible. Everywhere was deserted."
Despondent, she brushed back a shoulder scarf as a gentle current flapped it into her shiny face. She recounted the lifeless scenes she saw. An uncanny feeling nagged her. The first was a yard of some sort. Off to the side, beneath a tree, stood a green wooden table, an apron draped on the side, and a few yards from it, a barbeque piled with cold grey ash. Dried chips of some kind, sprinkled the lawn. In the middle rested a three-ring plastic swimming pool, half filled with water. A handful of leaves floated on top. It was dead still and chilled her to the bone.
"I wish you were with me," she said. "Remember Bronq, how you claimed we always made a brilliant team? We accomplish so much more together." She took a deep calming breath, lowered her head and wiped a few translucent tears from sad eyes.
The side exit doors swung wide open and a throng of movie goers emerged from the brown colored theater and out into the bright dazzle of sunshine. Dazed, a few of the patrons rubbed their eyes adjusting to the brilliance. Several jubilant comments about the old film sprang up from the crowd. Some carried half-filled cartons of popcorn, others left empty handed.
A small group of teens, all of them, without exception, dressed in slick leather jeans and silk tee shirts, stood on the crowded sidewalk looking around for their ride home. A girl, with auburn curls draping her forehead, waved to a red van parked at a curb across the street, not very far from where they stood. The driver waved back. "There's Dad," she shouted over the racket of the others. "Let's go." In clumps, the carefree bunch shuffled over to the vehicle.
"Just yesterday morning I decided to explore the central district of the town; we hadn't before, remember. You wouldn't have believed it, Bronq." In undertones, Loquina recounted how every street spelled the same scenario, each barren of activity. Abandoned vehicles paved the curbs of all. Scraps of cloth, shredded shoes and pieces of shopping bags cluttered the sidewalks. Another memory gripped her attention like a vise. Popcorn, half-filled cartons and candy wrappers littered the walkway beside a tall, brown building. There were several piles of ripped clothes, foot wear, bags and wallets scattered around. Pieces of leather jeans and tee shirts, sandals and more popcorn cartons formed a crooked line from a brown building to a red van parked across the street.
"The images I saw, Bronq, were grim." A shudder rippled through her body.
Loquina returned to the control portal of the craft. She sat down on the floor pad and took stock of the collected data. She sensed that the sun washed landscape held an eerie, grotesque secret. What it was, she could not even begin to fathom. It alone knew what had become of everyone. Whatever happened it happened to the several millions of transported Prasmians.
Soon after docking, when Bronq was still alive, they selected an area north of their site to examine. From their vantage they saw, against the silence of the peaceful bright sky, the illumination of several tall formations, buildings of some sort. Each boarded a GUT-glide and cruised down a ribbon of roadway that broke the usual stretch of fields and made their way toward them.
Along the route they stopped by a deserted Crudarkan receive-module, used to materialize Prasmians from a mother transport ship to the planet's surface. Weeds and vines choked the base of the structure.
"It's strange how everywhere there seems to be only plant-based life," said Loquina. "Nothing else."
"I'd give anything to know why," said Bronq, in his usual somber way. "So strange."
"I have an uncanny feeling about this."
At the perimeter of the town, Loquina assumed it was a town, she activated the life-sensor strapped to her waist, hoping that some type of animal would be detected.
"H'm," said Loquina, disappointed. "The readout registers zero."
"The usual vegetation specimens?"
"Wish we knew what happened to the deportees," said Bronq, his eyes appraising the formations. "That raises more questions than it solves."
"Who created these structures anyway? What happened to them? Were they indigenous to the planet?" Loquina scratched the top of her bare, shiny head. "This is more than mystifying. The Crudarkan records never indicated the existence of any intelligent inhabitants."
"Somehow, at one time they existed. But where are they now? The Crudarkan records were substantially bleak, if you come to think about it."
"Something gruesome transpired on this surface," Loquina said in a level-headed way. "I wouldn't put it past the Crudarkans to have had a hand in all this. What animal population this planet had known, went to its grave dragging Prasmians right along. What a dark and peculiar mystery."
"Don't be so pessimistic. There's got to be a logical explanation."
So great was the propensity of the situation at hand, the two elected to explore the town immediately. They selected a narrow street, flanked on either side by boxlike structures, of various sizes and colors, as a starting point.
"These must be dwellings of some kind," said Bronq, after examining one.
"Who or what constructed them? None were built by either our own or those god awful Crudarkans. But here they are."
In front of one they found a red metal rectangular box with a handle attached to four wheels. An expanse of overgrown, dry grass had partially hidden it from view.
"Could be a child's pull toy of some kind," Loquina said. Beside it lay a large plastic ball. "And this," she added pointing to the ball, "Looks like the ones Prasmian children play with."
A few feet beyond lay a small dress and small sandals.
"Something's frightening wrong, Loquina," Bronq said as he spied the items.
She agreed. A chill crept down her spine.
Except for the vegetation, they saw or heard nothing alive or anything else that had once been living. Their footsteps quelled the shrills of haunting silence. It felt bizarre.
With a jolt Mrs. Peabody woke from her nap. She didn't know why. A peculiar sensation slithered through her body. She shuddered. Her poodle must have perceived something too, for it whimpered and, with tail tucked in, crawled underneath the bench. She took a deep breath, bent over and petted the trembling dog.
"Come, come my poochie. It's nothing more than the summer heat. That's all."
Their eyes met. The dog's trembles melded into violent shakes. Aghast, Mrs. Peabody stared in horror at the poodle. The animal exploded into an eerie cloud of thousands of crackling scintillations and brilliant streaks of light, and then, evaporated soundlessly into thin air. The collar and leash dropped onto the ground where the pet had been, scorched to blackened crispness. A wisp of smoke wavered in a stream of soft air ripples.
"Oh, my God!" she shrieked. Within seconds she followed suit.
Sudden bursts from the life-sensor grabbed Loquina's attention. Something moved. She focused her razor sharp eyes on some tall bushes, a short distance away, at the edge of a wooded area.
"Bronq, over there." Intelligence flashed through Loquina's eyes. "Let's see what it is."
"Be careful," Bronq said, steadying his long fingers on the small quarkium gun at his side, preparing for the worst.
They spied a two legged, wild eyed being crawling out from under the brush. He was thin and nervous with dark greasy hair and a few days worth of a beard on his face. An unkempt shirt and shorts covered his body. He inched a few paces then stopped. His eyes, red from lack of sleep, darted about as he listened for any perceptible living sound.
He broke into deranged laughter.
"There's an alien, Bronq,"said Loquina in undertones as they made their way toward him. "I wonder if it is native to this place."
"Possibly," said Bronq.
"Amazing, this alien has a basic form similar to ours."
The alien being spun on his heel, and faced the pair. His laughing stopped. A frightened expression clouded his haggard face.
"We need to establish some sort of contact," said Bronq, encouraged. "Hopefully, it can shed some light on what's going on here." Keeping one hand on the weapon, he began waving his free arm.
Perspiration dripped down the alien's face. He looked as if he thought he heard a rustle and some voices. Yet, he saw nothing except the woods behind and the empty street lined with houses, empty houses in front.
"Patty, where are you?" he yelled, running dirty, nervous fingers through his hair.
Loquina and Bronq halted, waiting to see how the alien would behave.
"Janet, Jason stop playing games with me." He seemed to be begging. "Kids, where ever you are come to Daddy." Exhausted the alien dropped to his knees; dejection and worry lined his face.
"Did you understand that, Bronq?"
"No. Strange sounds. I've never heard such a dialect before."
"It didn't seem to be aware of you, either."
"I know. It looked straight through me."
Panting, his face ashen with fear, the alien rose and inched a few steps forward, then stopped. He tensed, as if he felt a strange unseen presence before him.
"Who's out there? I know you're there." Hysteria clouded the alien's voice.
"I'll try again." Bronq advanced a few steps toward the alien, now shaking uncontrollably. From a short distance away he waved his hands high above his head.
The alien blinked his eyes and again did not respond to Bronq.
In a shrill voice Bronq shouted, "Hellaa."
Startled, the alien twisted his head from side to side and saw nothing. He heard the shout. His eyes flickered. A slow roll of laughter escaped from his lips. He began shrieking hysterically. An instant later he calmed down, collected his wits, turned around, and with surprising swiftness, ran. He headed for the copious wooded terrain. The two Prasmians took pursuit. Darting between a few trees, he advanced toward a thin, winding stream, a mile ahead. Being taller and stronger than the being, they kept pace and never lost sight of him. Bronq remained ahead of Loquina.
Twigs snapped under the alien's running feet. In a frenzy a foot got caught under the root of a large, dead tree and he stumbled onto some wild underbrush. Before he could twist free, his arms and legs tripped the still running Bronq. The warm air seemed to quiver. Loquina stopped dead in her tracks, stunned. It happened too quickly. Her screams filled the air. The explosion was more than she could bear.
Soft summer breezes enveloped her body as Loquina stood beside the grave. Even after eleven Azrek days since the horror of Bronq's death, she found it difficult to comprehend the recent events. Tinted with solemn rectitude she crossed her arms and whispered a few parting words.
Detached, Loquina dragged herself back to the vacant control portal. Inside she sat cross-legged and stared wide eyed before her, not seeing anything, but reflecting upon the situation. With mounting evidence a troubled, ugly scenario began to take shape. Shock etched into her face as she shuddered at the horrid truth. The Prasmians, her people, were gone. The alien was gone.
A convenient way to rid a planet of its inhabitants. No war, no casualties for the Crudarkans, a clean-cut brilliant military plan. They couldn't lose. They didn't. Billions of explosions transmuted the surface of planet Azrek into one thunderous mausoleum. The catastrophe claimed anything of animal origin. No one escaped.
No Prasmian ever suspected anything like this could or would ever happen. But the Crudarkans knew. How shrewd. They kept it classified, top secret. When they realized what they had at their disposal, Loquina could only guess. She clasped her hands in revulsion.
It was simple. Like chameleons, they the Prasmians remained invisible to the inhabitants of Azrek. Communication between the two never occurred. Seeped in ignorance, neither culture stood a chance. Like a thunderbolt of lightening, the holocaust transpired too fast.
Something happened to their own biological make up. But what caused it? Loquina began to speculate. Could it have been the transfer process from Prasim to Azrek? She crawled over to the log. With a gesture of her hand it flicked on. Pulsating pixels lit the screen as her fingers raced across the translucent keyboard.
'I know the dark, dirty secret the Crudarkans harbor in their mist. The transport procedure must have altered our biochemical composition in some way. It remains similar after the transport as before except for one thing. At the quark level, transmutation of biological matter to anti-matter essentially occurs. That is why no Crudarkan ever accompanies a transport.'
She flinched but continued.
'The aliens are composed of matter, living matter but we, anti-living matter. And when the two of us collide . . . Annihilation. Anti-living matter annihilating living matter.'
Loquina shivered and closed her eyes giving herself a break from the awfulness of it all. Suddenly, she opens her eyes and whacks the delete button. The screen clears. Determined, she resumes her work:
'More Prasmanians will come. I'll meet with them. We'll establish communication with the remaining intelligent beings of this planet. We'll survive...'
Najla Ann Al-Doori lives in Davis California with her husband. Besides writing short stories, she writes screenplays and listens to Rock & Roll. She is the author of The Quaint Coffee Cafe which appeared in issue 14 of Aphelion.
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