The alarm rang at five in the morning. I woke up with the first blare and sat up amidst the rumpled bedcovers. The klaxon wailed four more times, so loudly that the windows rattled in their panes, and the very floor seemed to vibrate with each rising note.
But by the time the last somber sound faded I had already brushed my teeth, splashed cold water in my face, and pulled on my jogging shoes. I was just tying up the left laces when the screeching alert-tone cut through the crisp early morning air.
“Good morning, happy campers!” Director Drury’s voice managed to somehow simultaneously hurt like fingernails on blackboard and thunder through the empty streets, her attempt at being dulcet clearly not having been successful.
“Left crossed over right, right looped back,” I thought stubbornly, as she continued blaring out of the megaphones set four each on every street corner.
“I hope you’ll have a good, productive morning beginning with taking care of your health! Regular exercise is key!” trilled Drury, still with the same sickening saccharine tone as always.
“Right goes under left, tighten, make a bow” I continued tying my laces with deliberate calmness. My left hand, the last two fingers, they still felt stiff after three years. Solana had given me that particular injury, not the Director, but the Director was a much readier target for my frustrations. Solana was just doing his job after all, one which he hadn’t exactly chosen.
Director Drury concluded her monologue about keeping fit, and began her piece about meditation and training the mind to cope with loneliness. I began my stretching.
Touch toes ten times. Arch backward. Hold for thirty seconds. Relax. Twist. The godforsaken woman had moved to proper nutrition and the importance of avoiding eating any strange animal species that one could not recognise. I began my yoga. Sun Salutation today. Okay, begin.
By the time I was done, Drury had already ended her idiotic morning announcement with an uncouthly chirpy ‘Duty and Integrity!’ and the shocked streets had started to recover. It was a quarter to six. Still dark. Perfect and on time, like clockwork. In fact there was just one working clock on the whole island and it had been ticking since time immemorial, and it hadn’t left its place in all those years. The Clock, we used to call it, with great gravitas.
I finally set off for my morning run. I closed the door firmly behind me, merely habit, there was no real purpose to the action, and hopped into a trot, soon finding the perfect cadence. After a while, like it usually happens, the running became relegated to the back of my mind as it became blank and unthinking. Observe, don’t interpret.
I observed without interpretation as I ran. I had mastered the art. Director Drury, the old one, Drury, Sr., father to the woman whose voice rang out each morning to traumatise the empty island, the original Director Drury would’ve been proud of me.
As I jogged along the pristine, wide open road, I allowed myself to slip into reminiscence. It was really a long time ago, before it all went to hell, when I had been here in a happier time. I remembered everybody from back then, but…I stopped myself, because that was not a good path to be going down. I refocussed on not focussing, and jogged on.
Soon, the road turned gently but irretrievably to the right, and I veered off it onto the beach, turning left again as I hit the sand. As I went, I scanned my surroundings, looking at as many things as possible, but not thinking about any of them. Usually I kept my eyes on the little hillock that marked the point where I had to veer left onto the large main road, but today I felt like a challenge. Drury’s cutting morning speech still rang in my ears, and the thought of my family and friends was too painful.
To the left though, there was nothing interesting to see, just the boulevard, the bicycle track and the trees beyond. Finding anything even vaguely interesting in that direction would require me to jog two blocks over, where the stone and masonry wrecks and the soot-blackened metal shells were strewn all over the place. So I turned my head slightly toward the sea on the other side. Much more to see.
I had always loved the ebb and flow of the waves, the constant, happy sound they made as they collapsed on themselves to give birth to smaller gushing splashes which fused together again in a foamy blanket as they reached up the beach. I watched them dancing toward the sand and then playfully away again. This happy view was unbroken for about a hundred yards, and then, a half punched in and decimated hull, the rivets rusting away, the metal plates sea-polished. Then another. And a few feet ahead and farther out to sea, one of the Towers, leaning on its horizontal arm like some giant emaciated man desperately clutching onto the last delusions of his long lost grandeur. I could see the weird coral, the stuff that they had brought, growing on its many and varied metal appendages. Those were antennae, which had been meant for receiving and sending information and instructions.
That was the sinker, I thought. ET, the hook. Global communication breakdown, the line. Coordinated attack, the sinker.
I shook my head again. No thinking. No interpretation, no association, no memories. Must stop. This clearly wasn’t distracting me from morose thoughts, so I decided to revert to my usual pattern and shifted my gaze to the large hunk of land rising squatly above the surrounding area.
I listened to my feet for a while, whump, whump, whump, hitting the sand and erupting off again. Then a loud gurgling sound drew my attention toward the surf, and I slowed slightly, wanting to watch what I knew would follow. This wasn’t anything unpleasant, oh no. As I watched, a large piscine creature breached the water and flew what must’ve been nearly twenty-five feet into the air. Even though the thing was way out to sea, comfortably beyond one kilometre out, it looked big enough to swallow a man whole. It gleamed like a chunky armour-plated javelin, flashing a bright purple in the just-risen sun. I knew that its skewer of a snout was aimed precisely at the heart of an even larger ray-like animal which was its main prey. Both these things had been brought by them too. The Sea-Glider let out a loud, primal, thrumming call which made loose sand jump visibly with each vibration, and which caused a ruin of a building to collapse on top of the last fragile column that had held it aloft, before the Spearfin ran it through cleanly.
Good, I thought. Spearfins are good eating. And they’re dead dumb for all their showy hunting. I made a mental note to come back later in the day, and take it down. Or, more literally, haul it out of the water. Rich meals for a month. Excellent. I picked up the pace again and ran on, slightly more cheerful.
Soon I hit the hillock and turned sharply left onto the boulevard, going toward the bridge that joined the island with the mainland. The sun was properly up now, but I was almost at the bridge. It was only a couple of minutes before the trees on either side of me stopped and the suspension cables began. Even though the road here was as pristine as any and I didn’t exactly weigh a ton, my footsteps always sounded different on the bridge. Maybe it was the space opening up around me that amplified the noise.
But a low whining, buzzing sound drew my attention toward the end of the bridge which was fast approaching. I smiled. Solana was waiting for me, I could see him waving one of his pairs of spindly, mottled red and green arms in the air above his long, shapeless head. His eyes, brilliant spots of white even in the full sunlight, were dancing around too. He was the only living thing I saw daily, the only sapient being I had met in the last few years of my futile posting on this forsaken island. Yes, Solana was one of them too, but he was friendly enough, more or less, if you discounted that day three years ago when he had taken a swipe at me with the long, sharp nails of his second, longer pair of arms. But he had soon realised I was by no means a violent man, and had taken to greeting me everyday in exchange for water (which is, for his kind, like the best Scotch whiskey but ten times better) and company. I waved back as I approached, and he began windmilling his solitary fifth arm above his head too. I grinned wider.
He buzzed and chittered as I slowed to a halt, hands on my knees as I caught my breath. Sol tilted his head to the left and hummed quizzically.
“No, no, I’m fine. I have the water I promised, too.” I waved a small plastic bottle full of the stuff in his direction before I tossed it across the twenty-foot long chasm in the bridge that had been made to stop his superiors marching right in. He caught the bottle, unscrewed the top and swigged. When he withdrew the bottle, his taut, placid face had a transported expression, and he swayed giddily on the spot.
“Slow down, buster. You’ll knock yourself out,” I chided with a wide grin. He watched me for a moment and then the muscles on either side of his small oval mouth stretched, as he tried to smile back. It made me laugh, it was so grotesque. I pulled out another small water bottle and drank from it myself before settling down on the wooden bench I had attached to the railings on my side of the bridge. Solana mirrored.
I knew as I sipped from my bottle that the only thing holding this happy acquaintanceship in place was the fact that the aliens, Solana’s people, had no sea-faring vessels; many who had landed in the seas on Arrival Day had either drowned or ruined the engines of their ships trying to drive them amphibiously, being mortally and unchangeably afraid of the oceans anyway; and their anatomies did not allow them to jump more than a couple of inches however hard they tried. And the fact that they too were intelligent enough to feel loneliness as acutely as any human. It helped that they had evacuated most of their martial technology when they moved out to attack other planets, and so the remnants had long since run out of anything remotely akin to guns.
Presently, I stood and stuffed the bottle back into my pocket. “Did you get what I asked for?” I called across.
The strange patterns on Solana’s skin danced as he nodded (something he had learned from me too) and gave me an affirmative chirp. He shuffled over to his tiny cabin which he had built right in the middle of the road, not that there was ever likely to be any traffic.
I had asked for him to send a human companion, any age, any gender, but he had refused to even contemplate the matter. Then I had asked for a puppy, which I had to follow up with an extensive and painstaking combination of speech and pantomime to explain to him what a puppy was. He had acquiesced to that, though he made no promises.
He had told me a month ago that my request would be fulfilled, and consequently presented me with a tattered stuffed toy iguana. More explaining had followed then but today he had clearly managed to procure what he thought was a puppy. I watched apprehensively as he emerged again, and held up a fuzzy little creature with a small tail waving uncertainly in Solana’s hands. I grinned and nodded as I felt a rush of relief. It was a real live puppy this time, a collie by the looks of her.
And then to my horror, Solana, who had taken my obvious joy for confirmation, tossed her across the void toward me. I scrambled forward and scooped the warm, furry bundle out of midair. I held her close, savouring the feel of her warm breath on my neck as she nuzzled into my collar. Gradually, her heart rate equalised again. I cradled her carefully as I held up a hand in a grateful salute, before turning to leave. Solana mirrored me again but I knew he would not turn away before I was far enough that his eyes could not discern me from the haze of the horizon.
I felt a pang of guilt and empathetic sorrow as I walked away from the lonely alien, not even on his own world, but then the little collie wagged her tail powerfully and yipped happily in my arms and my smile returned.
I was not alone any longer.
Bruhad Dave is a Zoology student at St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad.
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