(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
Zwar Cleb scroobed down to the water and oozed towards the shore. Behind him, the
ship floated, lightly touching the waves, her vast bulk light as a feather.
"Be careful, Zwar Cleb," the ship ziggered. "Please."
"Aren’t I always?" Zwar Cleb gronkled back, reaching out
with a tentacle to clutch at a wave. The alien city grew slowly closer, rising
white and grey out of the edge of the sea, as he crawled towards it. "Do you
remember a single instance when I wasn’t?"
The ship was silent for a long time. "Still," she ziggered
finally, when Zwar Cleb’s grasping tentacles touched the sand of the beach,
"you could, just this time, even by accident, you know –"
Tuning her out momentarily, Zwar Cleb bent an eyestalk to
look closely at an animal lying on the sand. It was small, smooth, streamlined
and glittering, as though it ought to be moving swiftly and gracefully, but it
flopped back and forth, an orifice in its front end opening and closing.
Watching it, Zwar Cleb transmitted a mental image back to the ship. "What do
you think?" he gronkled.
The ship, interrupted in mid-zigger, took a millishomoy to
change mental gears. "It would seem to be out of its element," she signalled
"Yes, the shape and the appearance of the limbs suggests it
ought to be in the water," Zwar Cleb agreed. "Therefore, it should be in the
"But just suppose it isn’t!" the ship worried. "Suppose it
is there because it wants to be, because it likes it there,
"...it wants to commit suicide?" The thing’s flopping was
getting weaker, its orifice’s opening and closing slowing. Zwar Cleb flattened
the end of one tentacle into a spatulate triangle, pushed it under the animal,
and flicked. The creature described a parabola through the air and splashed
into the water. For a moment, it hung motionless in the liquid, as though
unable to believe its senses. Then, with a flick of its tail, it dived towards
the wet, welcoming, shelter of the ocean floor.
"You took a big risk," the ship hambarred. "You might have
caused it irreparable harm. Just because it came out well this time doesn’t
mean that it’s going to work always. You know that huge mistakes were made in
the past trying to help, like Zwar Meegum that time when..."
Zwar Cleb tuned out the scolding. From so close to the city,
he could make out that the tall white buildings were empty and desolate, the
streets between them filled with detritus. "Ship?" he moggled.
"Remember that when we were in orbit we found there were no
electronic transmissions?" He sent back a mental image of the empty, deserted
streets. "We thought it was because the inhabitants had advanced to the point
where they didn’t need transmissions, but it looks like we were
The ship digested this for a full hundredth part of a
shomoy. "Still," she ziggered, "we have to check. There may after all be
Zwar Cleb groofed in agreement. He dragged himself over a
seawall on to a street, and scroobed along it. It was so full of debris that he
had frequently to squeeze himself to half his girth in order to get by it, or
even had to climb over it, which was of course time-consuming, and would have
been exhausting if he had to rely on bones and muscles for locomotion, like a
hamandistar hargiley or something. And as he went, his bottom tentacles tasted
everything he touched, looking for the slightest trace of life.
"No animate life forms yet," he informed the ship, "except
for some microscopic creatures too small to have thought processes. I am, of
course, leaving them alone."
Then at last he found life. It was a brown, shining creature
with six jointed limbs and a pair of long, thin tentacles at one end, which
flicked back and forth. Zwar Cleb stared at it for a half shomoy and then
decided it was probably too small to have any great capacity for
self-awareness, and was probably just urban wildlife, like a shohorer idur.
When he tried to reach out and touch it to make sure, it scuttled away from him
as fast as it could go.
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