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 finally.
“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 water.”
“But just suppose it isn’t!” the ship worried. “Suppose it is there because it wants to be, because it likes it there, because...”
“...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 mistaken.”
The ship digested this for a full hundredth part of a shomoy. “Still,” she ziggered, “we have to check. There may after all be survivors.”
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.
“Their buildings look like stacked boxes,” the ship observed. “Do you suppose they were lacking in aesthetic sense as an evolutionary trait, or simply gave it up as inefficient?”
“If the latter, no wonder their civilisation collapsed,” Zwar Cleb gronkled. He was beginning to imagine that the creatures which had built the city were extinct, and was just about to add that, when he heard the noise. It was a ululating moaning, punctuated by an occasional sharp cracking noise, coming from somewhere to the left. Scroobing slowly over the wreck of what had once probably been a vehicle, he went to have a look.
He saw a herd of the creatures gathered outside a building, pressing against it and beating on it with their upraised front limbs. They were obviously frantic to get inside. A few of the creatures were also on top of the structure, carrying what Zwar Cleb diagnosed to be primitive projectile weapons, discharging them haphazardly down into the herd.
“The herd at the bottom,” the ship ziggered, “must be so frantic with terror at the sight of you that it’s trying hard to get inside.”
“True,” Zwar Cleb agreed. “And the ones on top, so frightened of me that they’re unable to even control their aim, and are launching their projectiles at their own species.” He scroobed forwards. “So it’s clear what I must do.” Raising a siphon, he hooted the Prime Galactic signal of peace and friendship.
It had no effect. On the contrary, they seemed to become more frightened than ever.
As Zwar Cleb came closer, the herd on the street got so overcome with terror that it lost all self-control and scrambled over each other to bite and claw him. Of course, it had no effect on his substance – nor did the projectiles, which the creatures on the roof were now raining down, so wild with their own fear that they seemed even more incapable of aiming at him than before. Spreading himself out as a shield between the biting, scratching herd on the street, and the little projectiles that the ones on the roof were firing down, he considered for a full shomoy what to do.
“You have to help them,” the ship ziggered. “They’re so afraid they might end up harming themselves.”
“But how...” Zwar Cleb began, and then he noticed the entrance. It was barred by a heavy corrugated metal shutter, and was probably locked in some manner from the other side. No doubt the creatures on the roof would have normally opened it to let their fellow herd-members on the street enter, but they were all so afraid they had forgot.
Well, Zwar Cleb was there to do it for them. A mere metal door was no match for his tentacles, which – though gentle enough to smooth the dew from a leaf without disturbing it, could...
...wrench the entire corrugated metal barrier off its hinges, and fling it safely away over the heads of the herd so it hurt nobody at all.
“There,” Zwar Cleb gronkled in satisfaction to the ship, and scroobed aside to let the herd rush into the building as fast as they could go. “Look at them run back home!”
“The ones on top also went down,” the ship responded. “No doubt they’re welcoming their friends and relatives inside.”
“It’s a tender moment when creatures find each other again after great danger,” Zwar Cleb agreed. “I shouldn’t interrupt them. I’ll come back now, and we’ll try and talk to them again tomorrow. By then they’ll have realised that I mean them no harm.”
“Yes,” the ship ziggered, as Zwar Cleb made his slow way back down to the shore. “I am proud of you, Zwar Cleb. You handled the Prime Directive exactly as you should have. Nobody was harmed at all. I’m proud of you!”
And, meanwhile, inside the Last Redoubt of Man, the zombies, who had been denied so long, feasted and feasted.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016