Feeding the Universe
By Allison Rott
First Published in 72 Hours of Insanity: Anthology of the Games, Volume 7
The writing challenge? Write a story about first contact in 72 hours.
John stepped over a rotting log, breathing in the smell of bark and grass. He ducked under a pine tree, scooping up a few of the fallen dry branches. His callouses protected his hands from tiny scratches as he stripped the needles.
Weaving between trees John whistled, looking for more sticks. He tucked each of them under his arm as he walked. Grinning, John crunched through autumn’s first fallen leaves.
The chirping of birds and the gentle wind rustling the branches was gone. In the moment of silence John froze, tilting his head. Then the cracking sounds erupted, gaining speed and intensity like a drum solo. The sticks fell to the ground as John jolted forward, pumping his arms, picking up speed. Or at least, he tried, but then the ground underneath shook, the toe of his hiking shoe caught in a hole, sending him into the leaves and packed dirt.
John waited a moment before he pushed himself up. He dusted off the debris and then he looked around. To his left, was a trench of dirt with a trail of broken trees. But at the end of the trench was nothing. John gulped.
“John!” His best friend’s voice warbled, but didn't portray any pain.
“I'm okay Emily!” John shouted over his shoulder. He hoped his voice carried as far as hers did.
“What was that?” The voice was a little closer. He ran a hand through his hair with a quiet sigh.
“Stay there Emily!” John looked between the way Emily was, and the strange trench lined with broken trees. John walked towards the trench, slowly. He followed it to the end, where broken branches and trunks stuck out of a mound of dirt. John tilted his head at the empty space. The sounds of birds returned as John stared.
John stretched a palm out, inching closer to the dirt. He was still about a foot away, when a low hissing sound made him jump back. His eyes scanned the mixture of dirt and leaves, finding no snakes or other animals nearby.
Metal scraping against metal brought John’s eyes up, back to the space. As the scraping sound continued the greens and browns of the trees were being replaced by white light gleaming off silver tiles and control panels. The dirt and the bottom of the trees were visible, as well as the top branches and the blue sky. But the middle section was gone, replaced. John swallowed.
A thin see through tube curled around the edge of the rectangle. It contracted and other tubes appeared. John shook his head as his eyes widened. They were clear tentacles grabbing at the edge and pulling. The roughly cylindrical body lurched forward and slopped from the rectangle, attached tentacles wriggling in the air. It sounded like someone threw a whole lot of slime on the ground. John watched as a cluster of darker blue shapes inside the creature shifted around as the creature’s body undulated.
Two of them pulsed in sync; wrinkled ends pointed towards each other. A darker blue ellipsoid moved unlike the wrinkled shapes. It pushed up and there was a slurping sound as part of the body ripped open, the shape wedging itself in the slit.
It was indeed a dark blue, with a crease horizontally down the center. It had tiny wrinkles too, on opposite ends of the ellipsoid. The crease split, revealing a dark blue oval surrounded by opaque white. John's breath hitched.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as the dark blue oval scanned John from top to bottom. John heard another slurping sound, and just underneath the eye, a small, sky blue beak pushed out from the squishy body.
Strange clacking noises emanated from the creature. Almost familiar, in the way John liked to pretend he understood what the birds said.
“W-what are you?” One of many questions fighting to be spoken. John watched as the creature's beak twisted ninety degrees. John stared at it for a moment, before the movement of tentacles caught his eye. Two tentacles stretched out, back through the lit silver rectangle. John pursed his lips unsure if the body had gotten a little smaller, or the tentacles were just really stretchy. One tentacle came back wrapped around a small silver rectangle with rounded corners. The other one was wrapped around a black strap, which was attached to two ends of a long object.
John found himself backing away slowly as he eyed the object. One end was fatter and more blocky and then it tapered off into a thinner oval end. There were a few colored buttons on the side John could see: red, yellow, blue, and green.
There was rustling behind John, and he paused. His eyes didn't leave the creature in front of him, though he struggled to hear what was happening behind him.
“John! Where are you!” The creature's eye shifted focus, and John held his hands out to his sides.
“Emily,” John's voice was tight, “don't move.”
“You didn't answer my question.” Emily shifted the leaves as she moved closer. The eye moved back and forth between looking at Emily's approach and John.
“Emily, get out of here.” John could hear his pulse in his ears. Then he felt Emily's hot breath on the back of his neck.
“I can't do both idiot.” She mumbled. John shifted, feeling his back brush against Emily. He looked down at the creature, narrowing his eyes.
The creature's eye was the only thing moving for a moment, besides the pulsing of the wrinkled organs. The tentacle holding the thin rectangle lifted up, rustling the leaves, and stretched out towards John.
“John,” Emily whispered, placing one of her hands on his shoulder, “what's happening?” John considered lying, but that would be a betrayal to his friendship with the girl at his back.
“I don't know.” John whispered back, barely moving his lips.
“You don’t know what you are seeing?” Emily huffed as the tentacle rose to John's chest height. “Or you don’t know how to describe what you are seeing?” Her hand tightened on his shoulder.
“Both.” He mumbled. The tentacle cupped the object resting on its long side. John glanced between the rectangle and the possible weapon at the creature's side.
The object started to glow. The creature tilted the screen at John’s face. The screen flashed three times, and then a green laser line went up and down John. John held his breath as words started appearing on the screen.
On the device was a scrolling list. Slowly, with five words on the screen at a time, the words moved up. John thought he saw hieroglyphics, but he wasn't sure why the alien device would have an ancient human language. Then he saw humano, one of the few words John remembered from Spanish class.
“Hey,” John whispered as the words continue to scroll. “How do you spell human in French?”
“It's h-u-m-a-i-n.” Emily whispered back. “Why?” John watched the screen, seeing the French word float up to the top and disappear. John chewed his lip, watching words with unfamiliar letters and even the languages he couldn't distinguish any farther than 'Asian' followed the other words off screen. “Tell me something,” Emily shifted to John’s left, gently pressing her shoulder against his.
“You know the fruit jello your aunt makes?” John didn’t wait for confirmation. “Imagine one of those with an oval eye, a beak, and what kinda looks like duck feet with more toes and no webbing suspended instead. And a bunch of tentacles on the outside.”
Eventually 'human' appeared and John reached his hand out. He glanced at the creature, his hand hovering above the object. The creature blinked at him, and the eyeball moved up an inch, and then down an inch. John tapped on 'Human' just before it reached the top.
“You have such a way with words.” Emily poked his leg with her cane.
Species: human. Language: English. Would you like to specify a dialect?
John tapped 'yes'. He watched as four dialects appeared, one in each corner of the screen. He choose American English. “Hey,” Emily’s hair brushed John’s shoulder, “what are you doing with your arm?”
You have chosen American English as the preferred language of communication. Is this correct?
John tapped yes again. “The gelatin is trying to communicate.” John gave his best guess. Then the object dinged and the screen went black.
“Wait...it’s alive!” Emily took a half step forward before John slid in front of her again. The creature pulled its tentacle back. The device was pulled into the creature's body, and John watched as the object attached to the side of a walnut looking shape which had been hiding behind the triangular ones.
The object lit up, making the creature glow a sky blue. This time when the creature opened its mouth, it wasn't a series of clicks.
“Hello humans.” The alien's body shivered. Emily pressed closer to John's back and squeezed his shoulder. “It seems I have crashed my vessel.” The words were deep, the consonants a little softer than usual. Like when John and Emily would both dunk their heads underwater and tried to guess what the other person was saying.
“John,” Emily whispered, her breath hot against his ear. “Why do they sound funny?” Before John could explain the placement of the device to Emily, the creature continued to speak.
“Is John your name? Short haired blue eyed one?”
“Y-yeah.” John swallowed.
“Hello John.” The creature began to gather its tentacles underneath it. “Will you help me?”
“I'm not taking you to my leader.” John puffed his chest out, balling his hands into fists. The creature's eyelid scrunched to a point above the colored oval.
“I don't need a leader.” The creature pushed up, the soft body wiggling as it balanced on six tentacles resting on the ground. “I came only to collect samples of your edible plants.”
“Are you a botanist or something?” Emily shifted to John's side, keeping her hand clamped on his shoulder.
“Botanist?” The screen inside the creature flashed yellow a few times. “I do not study plants for a living. Though, I suppose my father fits that career term.” The eye of the creature bobbed up and down again, the rest of the body mostly stable now.
“Then why do you need samples of our edible plants?” Emily took a step forward. John wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her back. She nudged him with her elbow, but John didn't let go.
“The name's Emily.” And she didn't even sound offended or anything, in fact she began to crouch, leaning forward, bringing John with her by his arm.
“And you are?” Emily blurted. The creature's beak pulsed in and out. The item inside flickered green and yellow.
“My name is,” the beak opened and another series of clicks overlapped the songbirds. “But I suppose the human equivalent would be Skylar.” The creature said. “Anyway, back to my mission. My people, on the planet Qwortar, are starving. Our crops and native plants are dying off. I hope to find new plants not susceptible to the rotting virus.”
Emily turned to face John. Her dark sunglasses covered her eyes, but even John didn't see her without the glasses. Instead, John studied Emily's lips, her cheeks, her eyebrows. Her eyebrows weren't furrowed. Her cheeks were actually just barely puffed out, which John saw anytime they did homework together and she came upon something she would study in more detail later. There was a small smile on her lips. And the hand wrapped around her white cane was loose.
“Why Earth?” Emily asked.
“What makes you think Earth plants could withstand this virus?” John crossed his arms. Emily pinched his arm, but he pushed her hand away.
Skylar’s body pulsed up and down, the little device inside him a steady yellow glow. “Plant DNA on Earth is better protected than the plants on Qwortar.”
“We should help.” Emily said, not bothering to be quiet now. John blinked at her, holding himself still, trying to buy time to figure out how to handle the situation. “You don't agree, do you?” Emily's nostrils flared.
“It's not that I don't want to help!” John blurted, glancing between the alien and his friend. “I just,” John shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t want Earth’s plants-” He stopped talking when the little screen inside the alien started flashing yellow again.
“How can you say no!” Emily tugged at John's sleeve. “You volunteer at Feed My Starving Children every other week! Think of it as taking it to the next level!” Emily squeezed John's shoulder, tight enough her arm was trembling.
“I am not offended by hesitation.” Skylar said. “My database cites much of your literature being full of stories with alien invasions which don't always end well for your kind.” Emily flicked her hair, her replacement of an eye roll. “Earth’s plants will be fine, since Qwortar’s virus is unable to penetrate the nuclear membrane protecting the DNA.”
“Oh.” John blinked. “Unfortunately,” John shoved his hands in his jean pockets, “we don't have any seeds or much to give anyway.”
“Excuses.” Emily grumbled, slipping her backpack off her shoulders and letting it drop to the ground.
“We don't have much with us.” Emily unzipped her bag and reached in. “But, we have...” Emily pulled out a red plastic container and shook it the contents rattling softly. Then she pulled the lid back and smelled it. “Cucumbers and peppers in here.” Emily set the container down in front of her. “And,” Emily pulled out a ziplock bag, “clementines!”