This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The sky was a heavy blanket of darkness that thwarted all attempts made by the stars to pierce through it and display their brilliance to the world below. A sickle moon sliced its way through the gauze of clouds, travelling from one end of horizon towards the other at a lazy pace.
In the world shrouded in darkness below, a white marble clock tower overlooked a dozen houses that belonged to the city’s residents, all sleeping peacefully then. One such structure crowded close to one of the smaller rough-hewn walls of an ancient stone temple. On this roof crouched a black cat with a small felt bag round its neck. Its pale green eyes shone with the dull glint of weather emerald. With a cautious air, the cat craned its neck in all directions to see if it was being followed, and then stealthily crept up the red tiles with its soft, padded paws.
If I hadn’t been fast asleep wrapped up in my quilt, I’d have been amazed at the agility the black cat displayed as it jumped in through my window, landed on the carpeted floor, and did a small pirouette as it surveyed its surroundings. Only when it maneuvered itself up on my chest and started scratching my face lightly with its claws did I open my eyes.
That was when I let out a stifled scream.
The cat seemed taken aback at my reaction, and retreated to a corner of the bed near my feet, every sense in its body atingle. Groggy with sleep, I tried to kick it away, but it would not budge. Instead, it sat itself down and regarded me with its pale green eyes that looked upon me with a yearning I found disturbing, as if they hungered for answers far greater than any I could provide.
I sat up, chiding myself for harbouring such ridiculous thoughts. This was just a cat, and cats don’t demand answers from you in the middle of the night, irrespective of whether or not they had a funny little pouch slung round their necks. I was about to kick it away yet again when it opened its mouth and let out a low snarl. In a voice so ancient that it sounded as if every emotion had been eroded away from it, the cat spoke. “Greetings sleeping girl,” it pronounced the words slowly.
I could only stare as it adjusted itself in a relaxed position and said – “My voice shocks you, I see. Perhaps this animal that I impersonate is not able to communicate with the most intelligent life-form on this planet? My apologies, but this was the only DNA I could acquire in the short while that I have been on Planet AC-P1051 – The place you call earth.”
“What are you talking about, cat? I am dreaming, right?”, was all I could manage to speak, to fill up the shocked silence that followed.
“Earthling, I see you are called Sneha Sharma- 44; all the book labels on the table suggest so,” it said as it gesticulated towards my bookshelf littered with note books that I had dumped there after a rather hectic day at school. Slightly embarrassed at the state of disorder my room was in, I looked the cat in the eye and said, ‘Who are you, cat? Is all of this even real or is it just happening in my head?”
“This is all very real, though I cannot guarantee that most of it isn’t happening inside your head.”
Certain that this was one of my weirder dreams, I played along – to get the most out of it before the night waned towards dawn and my sleep was disturbed. “But what is all this? Will you please start at the beginning?”
“Sneha Sharma– 44,” it said again, rolling the words in its mouth like wine, a light smile touching its lips. “A curious name indeed.”
“My name is just Sneha Sharma. The 44 beyond that is my registration number at school. It is not a part of my identity.”
If this new piece of information confused the cat, it did not show. In a slow drawl weighed down by painful memories of the past, it started to speak – “I am from a far off planet, a blue-green globe very similar to the one we’re in presently, yet quite different. It is called Eufav, and the only inhabitants there were Eufavians – my friends, my family.” Something in its own words appeared to trouble it, because it stopped and gulped for air, maybe buying time, wondering what to say next.
“What do the Eufavians look like, cat? Surely, they are not all furry, four-pawed, long-tailed creatures like yourself?” I asked, suppressing a giggle. The idea of an entire planet filled with cats sounded preposterous.
It let out a low mewl of indignation as if this very suggestion outraged it.
“The Eufavians were noble people – all of them. We had four limbs indeed, but we used all of them to walk, much like this creature I resemble for now. To hold things and have food, we had our tentacles. Do you want to see my real form, Sneha Sharma – 44?”
I nodded with enthusiasm, although the way it kept referring to its people in the past tense made me wary of a great sadness soon to creep into its narrative when it continued. Without warning, the cat on my bed jumped to the floor below and burst into flames.
It was all I could do to stop myself from letting out a terrified scream that would wake my parents up. “What on earth -” I started to say, but I was stopped mid-sentence as I saw the ashes on the floor wriggling, slowly taking form.
They resembled a furry baby, covered with soot. The ash-covered mass on my floor grew in size steadily; my eyes were transfixed on its ever-changing form. Four pairs of limbs grew out from the body and supported it firmly on the floor – the pair of hind limbs were muscular, while the two fore limbs looked slender and fragile. I gasped in horror as four pairs of tentacles sprout out from the body – thick as tree-branches, and flailing dangerously inside my small room, threatening to knock things over. I realized that each of the eight tentacles had round projections over the length of them, not unlike the suckers of octopi here on earth. Three eyes in a triangle formation popped up on the rounded, now pale green leathery-skinned body. A thick tuft of its black cat-fur remained near the eyes, I noticed. The alien standing in my room had no neck or mouth, nor did it seem to have the need of these.
It swiveled in my direction and brought one of its tentacles close to me, as if to touch my forearm. Terrified, I jumped out of its reach. The big green thing blinked, looking confused for a moment, and then burst into flames for the second time. I watched in shock as it turned to ashes once again, and the familiar figure of a cat reappeared. I couldn’t help noticing that the colour of the eyes on this feline matched perfectly with the skin of the creature that had just combusted in flames. With a twinge of regret, I looked at my carpet – there was a burn the size of a small table on it. I’d have a lot of explaining to do in the morning. I flopped down on the bed with a sigh.
“My poor carpet! But never mind that. Why did you try to touch me with the huge scary tentacle of yours, cat? It looked formidable enough to be able to suck out my blood.”
With a feline snort, the cat brushed off this suggestion as absurd. “In our natural form, we Eufavians have no way of producing sound. All we can do is touch each other’s skin to transfer our thoughts into their minds. That is how we have evolved over the thousands of years.”
I nodded, trying to keep shut. My curiosity got the better of me. “What use are eight tentacles then? And those monstrous suckers on them?”
“All Eufavians are tree dwellers, and since our bovine hind limbs do not aid us in any way, we use the tentacles for climbing. The suckers are there to hold us in place so that we do not slip down. We do not eat with them, as you call it. But yes, our fore limbs have a porous layer beneath them, that absorbs all the nutrients that we need from the ground that we walk on. The surface of Eufav is made of Chatredium, Blakenivium and Pardenium – the three basic minerals needed for our survival.”
“Okay, makes sense. Now tell me, what do you look for on Earth? And, more specifically, what brings you to my room?”
“I come here to save you,” it said simply. I almost laughed out at the idea of this furry little pet being my savior. I stopped myself just in time; not wanting to hurt its feelings, lest it should stop the very interesting story it was beginning to tell. “Ummm, okay continue,” I said, picking up a half-eaten bar of chocolate from the bed side.
“Eufav – Our great planet was under attack by the Ukonis, but sadly we realized it only too late.”
“Ukonis. The tiny parasitic dwellers of the planet Ukonite. They are small, so small that they avoid detection by the naked eye. On their own, Ukonis are harmless, but they creep up the bodies of other sentient species, and settle in any hair or fur that they possess.”
“Hair-dwelling parasites? You mean like headlice?” I asked, amused.
The cat searched its memory for any semblance of the word I had just uttered, and spoke at length – “Yes, almost like headlice, as you call them. Ukonis have eight legs but no eyes or mouth on them. They invaded our planet and infested our people. These lice lived in our hair and took complete possession of our brains and bodies – feeding upon us from inside, damaging every function we were capable of, resulting in an untimely death of so many of my people.
“At first we thought it was some form of epidemic that had ravaged our planet, but only after prolonged studies lasting several of your Earth years were we able to conclude that this sudden inexplicable sickness was due to infestation by a parasitic species of headlice from Ukonite – a vile muddy planet we had earlier taken to be uninhabitable. You see, we Eufavians were an isolated bunch – our planet housed no other sentient species, and only when disaster struck, did we realize how ill-equipped we were against an external invasion.”
I gulped, trying not to wonder if Earth was in the same pitiable condition. Something told me the answer was yes. Brushing this depressing thought aside, I listened to the cat in rapt attention.
“The Ukonis,” he continued, “multiplied at an alarming rate, claiming the lives of millions of my people in a short while.”
There was a loud sniff, and it struck me that the cat was probably choking up. My own eyes were wet, I realized. It went on, its voice barely a whisper – “Try as we might, we could not develop a poison that would kill the Ukonis once they attached themselves to a suitable host. The closest we came to thwarting their invasion was developing this Flesh-eating Louse Repellant.”
Saying so, it reached into the funny felt pouch it was carrying, and brought out a small brightly coloured cylinder. I reached out to hold it in my hands – the surface was cold and strangely heavy. The outwardly appearance was similar to a can of deodorant, albeit much smaller.
I looked at the cat again and blinked. It was still speaking– “The few of us that were safe, we applied it regularly on our mane to keep us safe. But we could do nothing to save the rest of the Eufavians from dying out. The Ukonis were furious because we were immune to their persistent attacks, and that was when they must have decided to set out in search of other planets with more hospitable sentient beings. They wanted food, and would go to any extent to get it.
“And that, dear Sneha Sharma– 44, is what brings me to you tonight.”
I slapped my palm to my mouth, but not quick enough to mask an audible gasp of horror. “Y-Y-You mean to say that these Ukonis are here now on Earth?” I stuttered.
“Yes and no,” it said. Its voice was grave, the implication clear.
“W-What do you mean?”
“Before settling down on any planet, the Ukonis send out five creatures from among themselves to conduct a test run on the planet – as in, try and latch themselves onto the most powerful being there and see if they are able to survive. They have an algorithm that selects five would-be victims for them. If the test Uknoi are able to survive after a week, they kill their host, move on to newer and better hosts and give the green signal to the other vile creatures lying in wait just outside the atmosphere of the doomed planet. That is when the strange inexplicable epidemic starts.”
A chilling note crept into his voice as he whispered the last line – “Another planet taken, another population wiped out.”
When he stopped, I realized that my mouth was open. I closed it quickly, waiting for him to continue.
“Although deadly, these Ukonis are not very smart. We Eufavians were expert hackers, and we have placed a bug in their system that lets us know beforehand which planet they are about to set out to, and who are the five new test-hosts. It takes longer sometimes, but over a period of 8012 of your earth years, we have managed to save 256 of the 304 planets they had intended to settle in.”
I let out a slow whistle. “Wow, those are some impressive stats! So I believe that these parasitic headlice have chosen Earth next, and out of the 7 billion people living on it, somehow their wretched algorithm has picked me?”
The cat could tell I was trying hard not to hyperventilate.
“Sadly, that is so Sneha Sharma– 44, but do not worry, I have brought this for you, as I have, for all of the four other victims.” His voice was emollient and wistful now.
“This flesh-eating louse-repellant will help keep all attacks from Ukonis at bay. You see, whenever a louse tries to latch itself to your hair, it will be killed that very instant. If none of their five test lice return to them, the host of Ukonis lying in wait outside will decide that Earth is not habitable, and move on in search of other planets.”
“Oh that is such a noble mission you people are on, cat. Thank you so much.” I said, and then added as an afterthought – “You had me scared for a while there, but now I am inspired. You say that only a few of you Eufavians were left to save the rest of the planets. Why don’t you recruit other willing aliens? I, for one, would be more than glad to join you on this mission, travel to other planets and save the life there from being wiped out!”
There was a flash of what looked like triumph in his eyes when I said this, but the next instant, it was gone. He sounded sad again when he spoke – “This mission might sound glamourous when I narrate it to you, Earthling, but it is not so. We spend more time hacking and lying in wait than in going to other planets to save the alien species there. Furthermore, we are not used to the gases you breathe in, or the conditions that you find suitable. The spaceships that we travel in have no supply of oxygen, and the atmospheric pressure inside is so high, that your bones will be crushed to powder the instant you step in.”
“Oh that’s a pity,” I said, crestfallen.
“This is how it was meant to be, Sneha Sharma – 44. The Ukonis killed our people, and now we will so starve them of new victims that they will be wiped out in entirety. It is our duty, you know, the only chance we get at retribution.”
I nodded. He went on – “There is only one thing I would like to ask of you, little girl with brown hair and big eyes. You were quite startled when I made my appearance as a four-legged feline, and I’m sure the rest of the Earthlings would be too, for they are not used to talking cats. It would help me a lot of I could appear in front of the other four humans in the form of a pretty girl, rather than an ugly black cat. Would you, therefore, allow me to acquire your DNA so I could take up your form next?”
I smiled at how awkward the cat had sounded when it phrased those words. “Oh of course, dear black cat. Why not?” I smiled.
With eyes long accustomed to darkness, the cat seemed to mark my face, burning it indelibly in its superb memory hidden behind its furry, expressionless features. It raised a paw to my outstretched palm, and remained in that stance for a few seconds before breaking away. Satisfied, it raised a bushy tail and turned to go. “Wait,” I gasped. “Aren’t you going to tell me your name?”
With what I could have sworn was an obnoxious smirk, it replied – “You can always call me cat.”
And then it was gone.
I woke up with a start, my thoughts lost in a maze of dead ends.
It took me a long moment to come to terms with the fact that all of last night’s extraordinary experience had been nothing but a dream – a vivid one at that.
With an audible sigh, I got up from bed. The details were already slipping away quietly as I made my way to the washroom to carry out my morning ablutions, but the memory of the cat’s pale green eyes kept flashing in front of my own, making me shiver in the morning chill. My room was just the way I had left it before going to sleep that night – there was no burnt hole in the centre of the carpet. Relief flooded my senses when I realized that there was no explaining I had to do to my curious parents later on.
I got dressed for school, preparing myself mentally for another mundane day, when a sudden glint under the pillow caught my eye. Instinctively, I pulled it out in a flash.
It was a flesh-eating louse-repellent.