It’s looking up at the stars. Or is it looking down at them? It could be either one, I suppose. It’s also hard to say what, exactly, it is. It’s an alien, of course, we’ve already figured that out — but anything beyond the vague label of ‘alien’ is out of our current grasp.
It has a thin, spindly body, hunched over, crouching. It’s bipedal and has a roughly humanoid shape — the sort of body we can recognise, more or less. It’s not completely dissimilar from us, but it’s different enough to be recognised as other. Its knees are bent, hands resting on its thighs. If we ignore the long, delicate fingers with too many joints, we might think that the posture is quite human. Like an archaeologist, looking down at fossilised find. Or a detective, observing the blood-splattered scene of a crime.
The head of the alien is the biggest difference to our own form. It is large; seemingly too large for its reedy body — it looks as if it might topple over at any moment. But it doesn’t. Somehow, it is perfectly balanced. It has no nose, just two small holes in its face — but they are in the location where a nose would be. It also has a mouth, positioned beneath the nostrils, lips eerily identical to our own. The eyes of the creature (is that a fair word, ‘creature’? Would we like to be described as a ‘creature’ by another sentient being?) are huge, and without pupils. They look like oversized versions of the eyes possessed by flies and bees — few features, as ours have, just large orbs, sitting at the topmost section of its face. As different as this being’s countenance is to our own, we can surely recognise the emotions on display — pensive melancholia, resigned acceptance, longing nostalgia, wistful reminiscence, aching heart. If such an alien possesses a blood-pumping organ like a heart, that is.
The alien is not clothed. Perhaps this race has no such thing as shame or embarrassment. Or perhaps this particular individual is a nudist. Both are equally plausible, wouldn’t you say, my friend? You laugh, but shouldn’t we accept that such beings likely have a wide range of behaviours and states of feeling, from the comical to the serious? Isn’t it egotistical to think that we are the only creatures to have invented such things as being clothed and being naked and being embarrassed and being a nudist? Perhaps the society to which this fellow belongs to shares such similarities with our own societies. After all, it’s got two arms, two legs, two hands, two feet, two eyes, two nostrils and one mouth. It’s even got two ear-like things either side of its head — I missed those before! If we have so much in common, why not more? Granted, there will be differences, as there are in our respective physiologies, but I am sure there will be mirrors and parallels, all the same.
But there’s something wrong. Don’t you feel it, can’t you sense it in the air? It’s also visually apparent — look at how our bug-eyed friend here is gazing to the heavens. What does it see there? Hope? Rescue? Escape? What are its strange eyes searching for, on that alien horizon?
Whoa! What was that? Did you see it? It just whizzed past us! Look — here come some more! Look at their shiny metal exteriors, look at the way they fly through the air, hear their engines humming, their electronics buzzing. Off they soar, upwards into the sky, disappearing in seconds. What are they? They’re so small — clearly not vehicles. Where are they going? Attempting to escape the planet’s gravitational field? We’ll come to that in due time, my friend — all in due time.
For now, shall we return to the previous focus of our attention? Grand. If you recall, I said that this chap was naked, but that wasn’t entirely true, as you can see. It isn’t wearing clothes in the sense of something you’d clad yourself in at the start of the day — no matter how extra-terrestrial we’d expect this attire to be. No, this being is covered in something else. Something white. Something silky and sticky. Something vaguely fluffy, but not in a pleasant way. If you were to see such a thing back on Earth, you would most certainly have a word for it.
Is that a frown I spy, starting to furrow your brow? Because it should be. Oh yes, it should be.
Let us pause time, you and me. Let’s also pause space, too, whilst we’re at it. What does that mean? I hear you ask — ha! What doesn’t it mean? Whilst I let you chew on that; shall we take a closer look at this place? I think we should, and I’m the one who’s in control of this ride, so, please, hold on tight and humour me, as I twist the metaphorical knobs and dials of the microscope, scouring this strange planet, zooming in on the curiosities. I promise it won’t take too long. Forever or so, I reckon.
Let’s start with the worst, and then work our way up from there. Well, perhaps not ‘up’, but — at the very least — laterally. Like entering cold water, better to jump in entirely than to slowly ease in, it’s horrible but quicker, and ultimately more bearable.
I know you don’t want to see this, and — for the record — I don’t want to show you this, but, hey, I don’t make the rules, I just follow ‘em. I’m sure you’ve spied that uncomfortable looking pile in front of the ruins of the city. Yes. Corpses. They look fairly similar to our crouching friend over there, don’t they? Apart from the fact that their eyes are dim, like extinguished lightbulbs. I guess we’ve learned something about the biology of this species.
Please, save your questions, there will be time in the tour to ask questions later. For now, just see.
Now, tell me, my passenger, why have they not disposed of them? Is it, perhaps, that this species does not bury their dead? No, no, that isn’t it. It could be it but, somehow, it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps, they simply haven’t had time to do so? But then, why leave it until there are so many? Perhaps there’s been a recent tragedy? The rubble of the city in the background certainly attests to the logic of that, and yet, some of those bodies are rotting. They’ve been there a while, haven’t they? So, why no burial? Unless…
Unless there’s too many to bury, you say. Correct. And yet, only half correct. There are too many too bury, and there are also too few remaining to do the burials. Or whatever funeral rites these beings perform. I see the question forming on your lips, but — again — I must insist that you hold your ponderings a little while longer. Humour me.
Look at the burnt-out shells of buildings on the horizon, the smoking ruins, the twisted metal skeletons of factories and structures now dead. Look at the earth beneath our friend’s feet (no, not the Earth, but the soil). Does that look right to you? Yes, yes, I know, it’s an alien planet, how would you know what ‘normal’ looks like? But just take a cursory glance. It looks… off, right? Poisoned? Polluted?
And what’s that? Just over there, in the distance. Look, slightly to the left of that orange boulder that bears a resemblance to a hand reaching skyward. Do you see that dark burrow? That black hole in the ground? Do you see what’s emerging from it, creeping silently?
I can see the gooseflesh prickling up on your arm. You see it, I know you do. A creature you would recognise anywhere, in spite of its incongruousness.
Yes, you counted right; twelve legs, not eight. After all, this is an alien planet, is it not? Yes, I know it’s bloody huge! I’m looking at it as well!
Now permit me to ask a question I posed to you quite recently: does that look right to you? Look at its fangs, twisted and gnarled, protruding from its face like the overlapping roots of trees, dripping with quivering saliva. Look at its fat, bulbous body, covered in thick, black, bristly hairs. See the pus-filled boils that sprout up, here and there on its back. See the cancerous growths that bunch like grapes across its body — sore and veiny, throbbing and, in spots, cracked, crusty and bleeding. Look into its eyes, that cluster of black bubbles that seem to stare into your very soul — does that not feel like looking into the very face of insanity itself? See the pain there, see the confusion. See the rage, the anger, the hunger.
No, you tell me. It doesn’t look right. Ah, how very astute, my friend! Very astute indeed! This poor, wretched creature is not right. This is a thing that should not be. It should not exist. It is a freak, a monster, a mutation. Even in spite of the alien landscape, you can tell that it does not belong, can’t you? Look at it, go on, get up close. It won’t bite. It can’t, at least, not currently — I promise. We froze time, remember?
Yes, gaze upon this abomination, like the soil beneath, it looks poisoned, polluted. Now look back at our friend, crouching over there, strange eyes gazing skyward. He (or so I’ve come to think of him, but — honestly — I have no idea about its gender. It might be female. It might be both. It might be neither, any of these possibilities could be true) clearly belongs, it is clearly native to these lands. Now, back to our twelve-legged friend over here. There is a clash, is there not? The creature that belongs, the one that does not. The one that seems to have been borne from the very nature of this place, the other that looks entirely unnatural. Look at the soil beneath, laced with microscopic death.
I see your eyes widening even further. You catch on quick. Go ahead. Ask. Ask the question that’s been on the tip of your tongue. I know you’ve been dying to ask. Go on.
Yes, an excellent question, my child, an excellent question.
What happened to this place?
Ah, but you already know the answer, don’t you? You’ve already followed that train of thought to its logical conclusion — I can see it in your eyes. The factories. The smoking columns. The motionless flames. The crumbled city. The poisoned earth, toxins leaching into the soil. I don’t need to take you to the dried-up lakes and contaminated rivers and the destroyed flora and the devastated fauna, do I? You’re shaking your head, you know. You know. I’m glad you’re beginning to understand. It makes me happy. Well, not happy, but… y’know.
I don’t need to preach to you, I see that seeing this place has been enough. They’re aliens, yes, but they’re also very similar to us. Perhaps, even a little bit more advanced than us. And if it can happen to them… Yes, exactly. Why not us? They’ve got probes that can explore other planets — how clever. And yet, they still allowed this to happen. Smart enough to develop such ingenious tech, dumb enough to not care for their own home. Too idiotic too realise how important their own planet was until the very last moment, when it was too late. Okay, perhaps I am preaching. Hammering the point home too much? Well, if there’s something that’s important enough to hammer in repeatedly, it’s this.
Shall we resume time, then? I think we ought to. As harmonious as the universe appears, when nothing moves, it cannot remain so. Something might crack, if we leave it frozen for too long, and God (whichever particular deity you happen to subscribe to, if any — I don’t judge) knows I don’t want to be responsible for that.
Ready? Here we go.
Now, let’s watch our friend again. Look how still he is, watching the skies. Patient, waiting. Resigned. Look to the distance, where an industrial district once was — see the hungry flames reaching for the sky, see the plumes of black smoke billowing from the wreckage. Then look over there, where— No? You don’t want to? Well, that’s okay. I’m sure you can hear the scuttling though. Hear that gibbering, insectoid growling.
Now! Look out! Here they come again! Those metal flying things we spied earlier. Whoa, those suckers is fast, ain’t they? Figured out what they are yet? No? Well, that’s okay, buddy, you’ve done pretty well so far, it’s okay to not get ten outta ten. They’re explorative probes, sent out to search for habitable worlds. Cool, right? Well, the technology is cool, the necessity for the technology isn’t. Will they be successful? Well, who knows? I can’t see the future. This spacetime stuff is tricky, you know?
Besides, would seeing the grave for a once great society strengthen the point? I doubt it. I think seeing it mid-crumble is perhaps more effective. Besides, if they do make it, by some way or another — say one of their probes is successful — would that lessen my point? I fear it might.
I can tell you’re feeling ill by witnessing all of this, now. So, I think the tour ends here. I can see that makes you smile but remember this sight. Remember this feeling in your chest. Remember that burning skyline. Remember that scuttling, twelve-legged chap that’s stealthily edging out of his hidey-hole. Remember our friend here, crouching down, eyes to the sky, crumbling home disintegrating all about him, the decaying bodies of his friends and family not too far away, the tacky cobwebs of a mutated beast clinging to his bare skin. Remember his eyes, the sad tilt of his head, the longing, searching look in his insectoid eyes. But as I said — I think that’s enough.
I’ll leave you now (or is it you who is leaving?). Go back, return, you pretty little visitor. Head home. Tell the others what you’ve learned. Sweet child, let us not be blind any longer. Let us see the now and the future. Let’s alter our course, dear friend. Let’s see our place in space, our place in time.
We are looking up at the stars. Or are we looking down at them?
1st May 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest