OUTPOST OF PLANET XV719L,
SETERDAE NIGHT 10:43
The glaring headlights of Peter Miller’s car sweep across the rain-swept road like a homing beacon from an alien spacecraft scanning the terrain to pick up unsuspecting humans for their scientific experiments, a bright patch of gold in the vast emptiness of black. What started as a drizzle has become a downpour, making navigation difficult. The howling winds have picked up speed. As Peter drives home, a thought keeps nagging him at the back of his mind – will he reach home before midnight, before Sendae arrives and the world shuts down, literally? He has heard the rumours but he does not believe them. Could such entities really exist? There has to be a rational explanation for the bizarre deaths that have spread across the colony like a swarm of locusts and gripped the colonists with a strange, vice-like fear. There are two common threads in all the deaths. One, every death has occurred on a Sendae, when the colonists are devoid of all senses, like vegetables kept inside a refrigerator waiting to be chopped. On other daes, life goes on as usual. Second, the cops have found every victim in the open, outside the confines of their homes. Is there a coincidence in that? A deep sense of foreboding envelops him.
He steps on the accelerator but the rain does not help. He can only go as fast as the wet asphalt allows his tires to go. The GPS indicator shows that he is still 16 miles from his destination. He sighs. It has been raining since he left his sister’s house at Sector 26. A postcard bearing the smiling faces of his 6-year old nephew Jack and his 8-year old niece Beth looks up at him from the dashboard. He returns the smile. He is coming from Beth’s birthday celebrations. The children love their bachelor uncle dearly. Peter wishes to visit them more but his work does not allow him. Besides, he cannot understand the seismic change in the behaviour of his sister and brother-in-law ever since he recovered from his injuries sustained in the crash. His sister, who was once so close to him, feels distant now. She does not discuss his marriage plans anymore. Whenever he is around, she tries to avoid eye contact. Her conversations are formal, lacking the warmth they once did. The children had pleaded with their uncle to spend the next two days with them, but Peter’s brother-in-law had only said, “Children, say good-night to your uncle. He has to return home tonight so that he can report for work on Wendae.” As if, spending time with Peter is a bad omen for the children. What has happened to them? Why have they changed so drastically? Clasping his steering wheel, Peter gives a shrug. The answer is as perplexing as the recent spate of deaths.
After an hour of careful driving on the desolate roads, Peter reaches a roadblock on the road to Sector 53, where his home is. One cannot call a one-room barely furnished flat a home, least of all when there is no homemaker to take care of it, but at least the concrete enclosure provides Peter safety from the elements, most of all the strange entities. Peter has never been outside his home on a Sendae. That, however, is about to change.
The strong lights of his car revealed a picket with a banner running across the width of the road. ‘Caution, men at work,’ reads Peter. Oh dear! A man carrying an umbrella is standing on one side and watching a group of men working feverishly on something. He must be their supervisor. Bright lights illuminate the middle of the road where the men are working. Peter rolls down the side windows of his car and calls out. The man comes closer.
“Hey, mate, what is going on there?” asks Peter. The electronic timer on his dashboard shows one hour to go before midnight.
“A sinkhole has appeared in the middle of the road. Damn rains. We are trying to fix it and get the road up and running. It will take a few more minutes. Are you going to Sector 53?”
“Yes, I must reach there before midnight. Do you know of any motels in this stretch of the road where I can spend the next day in case I do not make it?”
The supervisor scratches his head and says, “Nope, no motels anywhere around here. Still an hour to go eh, plenty of time I say. Sector 53 is like ten miles from here. You will make it. In case you don’t, you can spend one whole dae in your car. The sense-stealers don’t hurt people in their car.”
“Sense-stealers! Where did you get that name?” asks a bemused Peter. Could they not think of something less cheesy?
“Heard the name on TV, in that interview with Dr Herman Ezekiel. Heard many new things there. He said that they are cosmic spectral entities that suck the energy and life force from their victims. They can neither be seen nor heard. They can only be felt. They work on only one principle – ‘Senses can neither be created nor destroyed. They can only be transferred from one being to another.’ That is why they only hunt on Sendaes when the colonists do not have any of their five senses. You see our senses are transferred to the sense-stealers for one whole day,” the man says with a straight face.
“Bullshit! I do not believe such hocus-pocus. It must be the work of a serial killer or aliens. Maybe some scientific phenomenon,” Peter retorts.
The man takes out his torch and shines it on Peter’s face. Peter twitches. His work uniform with the logo gives him away. The man says, “Ah, I see. You are an engineer working in the Rocket Project. So tell me, why it is taking so long to build the rockets that can get us out of this goddamn colony?”
“We can only work for three and a half daes a week. On Sendaes, none of our senses work. On Mendaes, we cannot see. On Tusdaes, we cannot hear. Now construction work cannot go on without sight and hearing, you see. We manage by working overtime on Wendae when our taste disappears, Thorsdae when we cannot smell and Fraedae when we are devoid of our touch. Seterdaes are the only time all of our senses work perfectly together. Now even the crew needs some time off to be with their families. They are not machines. Moreover, we only have 12 hours in a dae to work with. But what has this got to do with your theory?”
“Have you seen the photos of the dead people in the news? No. I have. The shrivelled corpses with bulging eyes and open mouths, with all the vital force and energy, sucked out cannot be the work of a serial killer. Neither can aliens do this, as we would have spotted or heard their spacecraft. No, I tell you, these sense-stealers are something else. Dr Ezekiel explained everything perfectly. You see, on the daes when we lose our senses one by one – Mendae to Fraedae, they assimilate them. It takes them one whole dae – Seterdae – to incorporate all the five senses within themselves. That is when they are at their weakest. On Sendaes, when we do not have any of our senses, they attack us, completely dissipating their senses in the process. And the cycle repeats. No one knows who they are, how they look like or where they come from. They are just one of the many dark secrets of this godforsaken colony. Even the close-circuit cameras, motion detectors and the infrared cameras have been unable to pick up their presence. The electromagnetic sensors have only shown sudden spikes when they are nearby. Their only weakness is that they cannot penetrate concrete,” says the beaming supervisor. The more educated stranger in the car seems to have understood.
Peter shakes his head uncertainly and says, “I don’t know. If Dr Arthur Crawford were alive, he would have solved the problem.”
The man lets off a snickering laugh. “Ah, Dr Crawford, our saviour. The greatest scientist of our generation, a visionary. The reason why we are stuck in this hellhole. The reason for the rise of the sense-stealers in the first place.”
Peter cannot believe his ears. He cannot understand why people consider Dr Crawford a villain. If it were not for him, they would all have died. It takes a number of miracles to place a man in the pantheon of the Gods but only a minor mistake to brand him a devil. He points to a reddish dot in the night sky, their own planet that was once their home but is now a barren wasteland of radioactivity. “You see that planet there. Dr Crawford helped you escape or else you would have been lying face down in radioactive shit. Your politicians bring misery upon your people but you label a good man a villain. How was Dr Crawford to know the deepest secrets of this colony? What would you have done in his place? It is a miracle that we are alive. His science, his rocket technology helped us escape. His genetically engineered, drought-resistant seeds give us our crops. His medical research helped us adapt to the harsh conditions of this outpost. Now his repulsor technology is helping us build rockets that will take us to distant habitable lands at the speed of light. His only mistake was that he took us, the survivors of the nuclear holocaust and brought us to this outpost without prior recon. But did he have the time? We came on a Wendae and did not realise until Sendae the secrets of this place. By then, the rockets that brought us here had burnt upon entry into this atmosphere. I sustained heavy injuries in the crash and would have died had it not been for the great man.”
The long lecture from Peter does not appear to have any effect on the man who says nonchalantly, “Who do you think activated the sense-stealers in the first place? During the daes when we were establishing our colony, there were no deaths. Then the good doctor converted the whole of Sector 41 into his personal laboratory and started his experiments on energy, electromagnetism and other scientific shit. Somehow, the sense-stealers who had been dormant all this while fed on the energy surges and became powerful. You know who the first victim was – the doctor himself. Will you call it a coincidence?”
Peter tries to interject but one of his workers calls the supervisor. Peter tries to make sense of what he has heard. Is Dr Crawford to blame for all the deaths? After a brief conversation, the men pack everything up hurriedly, climb in their truck and drive away leaving Peter in the wilderness.
Peter gets down from his car and calls them back but he only sees the taillights vanishing in the distance. They have failed to repair the road in time. Peter mutters a curse under his breath and returns to his car. Only thirty minutes to midnight. He scans his surroundings. The desolateness hits him with the full force of a speeding truck. He is in the middle of a dense forest. On both sides of the road are tall trees that rise like sentries dwarfing him and his car. He looks for an alternate way out but gives up. The forest is too dense to allow his car to pass and turning back will get him nowhere. He is doomed, confined to 12 hours in his car. He searches his glove compartment for food and finds a packet of biscuits that he has stored for an emergency. It will help him on Sendae, provided he is still alive. He rolls up the windows of his car and prays. The man said that the sense-stealers do not hurt people in their car. It is time to find out.
Just at the stroke of 12, the world turns black.
SENDAE EARLY MORNING 2:52
They come as the silent gusts of wind, shapeless figures made of pure energy. They have devoured every soul unfortunate to be out in the open on Sendae, their day. However, their hunger has not been satiated. They want more. They see a man sleeping inside his car in the middle of a forest. His soul seems ripe for the taking. The three sense-stealers keenly look at each other with their human sense of sight. They swoop down on the car and together they lift it up as if it were a toy. They may be formless but they are not powerless. Then they let go of the car as it lands with a loud thud on the asphalt below and turns turtle. The sound of crunched metal and broken glass is music to their ears. The man wakes up with a loud jolt. They see him making a dash for the forest. Devoid of all senses, he is running haphazardly. Killing him instantly would dampen all the fun. They want to spice up their little game.
One of the energy surges attacks the man from behind, lifts him up and tosses him into the tall trees. The man still gets back on his feet and runs ahead. This one seems tougher than the rest. The game is becoming interesting.
After an hour of running, the exhausted man reaches a cemetery and collapses clutching a tombstone. The three hunters have had enough. They swoop down on their prey and open their mouths to suck all the energy from their hapless victim but nothing happens. They try with all their might but this one does not seem to have a soul. Feeling defeated, they leave.
MENDAE EARLY MORNING 3:35
The first rays of the morning sun fall on Peter as he feels the warmth on his skin. The world is still black but his other senses have returned. He feels the cold touch of a stone. It must be a sacred stone otherwise; he would have been dead by now. He must be in a church. He prays to God for saving his life. Unsteadily, he gets up and makes his way back to his car. A splitting headache has enveloped his skull. He taps the back of his head lightly. The microchip carrying Peter’s consciousness slips back into its original place. He cannot see the deep gash on his arm and the metallic skeleton beneath. The self-healing skin, one among Dr Crawford’s several inventions, will heal within an hour. He also cannot see the inscription on the tombstone – ‘Here lies the body of Peter Miller, a loving brother, a devoted uncle and a brave soul who died in the crash of the first rocket.’