The noise jolted Zara awake. A massive boom, like distant thunder, but somehow different. She listened in silence, but hearing nothing more, she relaxed and closed her eyes, trying to regain the blissful peace of slumber.
A kind of distant humming became faintly perceptible, but it took her a while to realize it was steadily growing louder. She got up. Slipping her feet into her slippers, she glanced at the plush hot pink pompoms adorning them, and scurried to the window. She squinted outside, not knowing what she expected to see but certainly expecting to see something. Not even a breeze stirred the dusty desert landscape.
The noise became an echoing, ear-ringing buzz. The ground trembled. Was this an earthquake? Having never experienced one, she was unsure. The buzz grew to a roar, and the vibrations worsened. The entire cabin began to quiver, then shake. Zara was scared. She braced herself in the doorjamb. The noise was deafening. She thought she heard pieces of ceiling crashing down behind her, but dared not look. She noticed a dark shadow settling over the land. Wait a minute… it was still sunny over there…
She stepped outside and looked up. A massive object was falling from the sky, headed directly for her.
With a scream, she dove into a stumbling run. Getting crushed to a pulp by an object four times the size of a house was not on her bucket list today. One of her slippers went flying, but she barely noticed. Her heart pounded like a marching band, and her breath came in ragged gasps. She had never known such panic. She felt a rush of air as the monstrosity towered above her, and took one last flying leap. Landing in a heap, her momentum carried her forward at a roll. Then there was blackness.
When Zara came to, she did not open her eyes, afraid of what she’d discover. She randomly wondered what it felt like to sit on a cloud in Heaven. Was it soft and fluffy, like it looked? Or sturdy and mushy, like a water bed? She reflexively stretched out a hand to feel for herself. Hot dust met her touch. No…please no…not there, she hadn’t been that bad…
She jerked her eyes open. The desert met her vision. Hulking high above her was a gigantic structure; its rapid descent had sunken it deep into the earth, causing displaced dirt to be mounded up around it. Constructed of a metal-like material unfamiliar to her, the bottom portion glowed red and radiated such intense heat that she staggered backwards. The object ticked, creaked, and groaned as it settled into its new position.
She eyed it warily. It did not seem immediately threatening, so after staring slack-jawed, she tried to figure out what to do next. She took inventory of herself. She was wearing a light brown wrap over her undergarments. One slipper was missing. And everything else that she owned in the world was buried under thousands of tons of alien space junk. No change of clothes. No phone. No vehicle. No way to return to civilization. She frowned. Of course, this had to happen to her.
A high-pitched whine assaulted her ears, sounding like a tow-truck winch, but of much greater proportions. With a crack, a whoosh of foul-smelling air, and a prolonged creeeeak, a drawbridge-like door opened in the side of the spacecraft.
She looked for somewhere to hide, and seeing a pile of displaced dirt and rubble off to one side, she darted behind it. She watched the door with dread. In her mind, she pictured hundreds of terrifying creatures, some gleaned from popular culture, others of her own fantastic creation. Those ones scared her worst. The only commonality the monsters had was that they were invariably green. Okay, so pop culture had some influence on her after all. Shaking, she stared at the opening, gaping dark and malevolent. Minutes passed. She strived to see within, to end the building suspense, but all she saw was blackness. Nothing stirred.
Just as her tension reached its breaking point, she heard movement. Thud. Thud. Thud. If those were footsteps, they must belong to a giant. Thud. Thud. Thud. The sound came closer. Thud. Thud. Thud. It stopped just inside the yawning doorway. Zara held her breath. The seconds stretched like hours. And then in one giant bound, the creature was through the door and on the ground.
For all of Zara’s mental fortifying, she was unprepared for this giant monster, unlike anything she’d pictured. Three times her height, he sat hunched over on the ground, peering around with large, keen eyes perched prominently atop his head. Black nostrils flared as he breathed deeply. When he swiveled in Zara’s direction, she ducked behind the mound, catching sight of a massive mouth with wide, fleshy lips that could easily devour her.
She snuck another peek. The strength of the monster must have been enormous, for he propelled himself forward in great leaps… a grand feat for something so big and heavy. The monster was green, but not a green that Zara had pictured. He was a dark, brown-mottled green, with a light, sickly green coving his front. He wore no clothing, and his skin was creased and pockmarked, giving Zara the impression that he had fought many fights. If the alien attacked her, she knew she stood no chance at defending herself. Glancing around, she found a fist-sized rock and picked it up. Woefully inadequate, it was all she had.
She saw something move in the doorway, something even larger than the first alien. She braced herself for anything. With a whirring noise, a towering object filled the passageway, so large it made the first alien comparatively puny. It pulled itself down the ramp in jerky contractions, like a worm. Its body appeared strong and impenetrable, as though covered in armor.
When the new alien reached the desert floor, he stoically surveyed his surroundings, and she watched in amazement as his armor-clad head made a complete 360° rotation. Zara realized he had only one large eye. The creature looked down, searching the dust in front of him, his large pupil constricting. Zara squinted, trying to make out what he saw. Buried in the mound of upturned dirt, with only the hot pink pompom showing, was her missing slipper.
The alien extended a long arm towards it, and Zara saw his dagger-like claws flash in the sunlight as he scooped up the slipper in a handful of dirt. He then proceeded to wander about, probing the ground for other items he might find. Zara breathed a sigh of relief as he moved further away.
She suddenly tensed. She’d been so absorbed with the greater alien, that she lost track of the lesser one. In a panic, she looked around. Where was he? Where did he go? She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand upright, and slowly, cautiously, turned around.
Looming above her was the green monster. He assessed her with bulging golden eyes.
Zara considered running, but remembered how quickly the alien moved, and refrained. Instead, she decided her only resort was to act friendly and hope he acted the same. She tried to remember what people always said to aliens when they first met them in movies. She almost said, "Take me to your leader," but then remembered that was what they were supposed to say, not her. This alien must not have watched the same movies she did, because he said nothing. "Um, hi." She abruptly extended her hand. "I’m Zara." The right words finally came to her. "Welcome to our planet," she hastened to add.
The creature took a deep breath, filling his lungs with air, and let it out in a guttural bellow unlike anything Zara knew. The sound of his voice resonated off of the spacecraft, and echoed across the vast expanse. Zara screamed and threw the rock at him, hitting him squarely on the nose. He screeched pitifully, and then did a most unexpected thing. He began kicking backwards with his strong legs, throwing earth on top of himself as he dug, burrowing deeper and deeper into the hole until only his bulbous eyes showed. Then he lowered his head, and the earth fell in on him, covering him completely.
Zara, dumb-struck, had just watched a gargantuan-sized monster disappear.
He poked his head back up, one eye staring cautiously at her, the other eye fearfully squinted shut. She laughed at the irony of his comical pose. When he heard her laugh, he disappeared again beneath the dirt. Knowing she had nothing to fear from this cowardly creature, she diverted her attention to the roving alien.
An hour passed, then two. As the sun got higher, the desert got hotter. There was no shade where she stood, and the hot earth scorched her bare foot. She silently cursed that rambling alien for stealing her other slipper. Were they ever going to leave? The one remained buried at her feet, and the other still wandered around, showing no intention of returning. She couldn’t stay here forever. She needed to somehow make her way back to civilization. How she would do that with no food, water, or transportation was a different story. And even if she got back… and that was a big if… what then? If she came stumbling into town in her tattered wrap and underwear, babbling about aliens, she’d only be thrown into the loony bin. Who would believe her?
Zara finally heard the whirring sound of the greater alien growing louder. Carefully looking out, she saw that he was heading right for her, and ducked back behind the mound. He passed her, proceeding up the ramp.
Zara looked down at the lumpy dirt at her feet. "Well," she said aloud, "aren’t you going with him?" The dirt didn’t stir. The whirring noise echoed from within the spaceship, then ceased. "I think he’s waiting for you," she prodded. There was still no reaction.
The drawbridge started to close, and Zara went into a frenzy. She began digging with her bare hands, trying rouse the monster so that he could see he was about to be left behind. "Come on," she screamed. "Get up, you stupid beast. Move it. Go. Shoo. Git. Yee-haw. Why won’t you budge?"
She managed to dig through to a portion of the alien’s back. She poked it. It didn’t move. She poked harder. It still didn’t move. She slapped it. It dug itself in deeper. She sighed.
She suddenly heard a new noise, starting as a low growl, and escalating into a booming rumble. "Oh nuts," she exclaimed, scrambling to her feet. She started running away before the spaceship could ignite. She felt bad for leaving the creature behind to become Alien À La Char, but hey, every man, er, creature for himself. Or herself. Or itself.
She ran for her life for the second time that day. The noise of the spacecraft preparing for liftoff thundered in her head, and she held her ears in pain. A whoosh sounded as the jets ignited, and the blast of hot air and fire sent her flying. Dirt and debris rained down, and she hit the ground hard. She dug her fingers into the soil, wishing that she could bury herself like the alien and escape. The earth shook, and she thought she’d vibrate to pieces.
The spacecraft pulled loose; propelled upward by sheer force, it rumbled off into the sky. When she knew she was out of danger’s way, she collapsed completely, letting every fiber of her being relax onto the ground. Not fully conscious, neither fully unconscious, for as long as she stayed that way she simply was. And she was happy for her existence.
She looked at the deep crater the spacecraft left, and thought of the little cabin once residing there. If she could get to the cabin’s remains, she might find some water or canned goods that survived obliteration. When she reached the mound of rubble circling the crater like ringworm, she stared up at how high it was, and slowly began tackling it, hand over hand. After what seemed like an eternity, she looked up and noticed that she’d barely made any headway. Tears filled her eyes, and sobs wracked her body.
"Why me?" she cried out. "Why did this have to happen to me?" She made a fist and smote the land, as if wishing it would feel just the slightest portion of the hurt she was feeling. The earth began to groan and shift. She dug her fingers deeper into the soil. The ground gave way under her, and she fell.
Winded, she looked around. The burnt, mashed remains of her cabin lay pressed into the dirt, like a thousand-ton toddler stepped on his toy house in a temper tantrum. After a long, painstaking search, she gave up. All was crushed ashes. Shuffling some pieces of roofing aside, her face lit up at a small patch of fabric poking above the surface; a bed sheet. She tugged until it was free. She worked at it with her teeth until she had a small rip started, and tore along the grain until she had one long strip, then another, her idea being to make a rope to ascend the wall of the crater and thus escape being trapped in this pit forever.
She jerked abruptly when something big went flying overhead, landing with a loud thud. She stared in awe at the alien castaway, and he stared back.
"Well, I’m glad to see you made it," she said softly, not wanting to scare him. "But oh, you got hurt!"
Part of his side was badly burned, the thick skin black and peeling, the flesh raw. She cautiously approached to get a better look. When he saw her move towards him, he leapt away and began burying himself. She rushed up to him before he could go very far and laid her hand on his lumpy back.
"There, there," she cooed, stroking him. His skin was cool to the touch. "I’m a friend, see? Do you know that word? Friend?" He stopped burrowing. She continued rubbing his back, and after a while, she thought she saw him smile.
"You like that, don’t you?" she asked, tickling him. He raised his head, looking at her. He was smiling.
She looked at his wound again. The fire seemed to have cauterized it, but it looked painful. "Here, let me help you," she insisted. She very gently wrapped one of the widest strips around his large body, and then carefully climbed onto his back to tie it off. As she sat on his broad back, with the ends of the sheet in each hand, an idea dawned on her. A ridiculous idea, but an idea nonetheless. She smiled. It could work.
When Zara rode into town, chaos resulted. People inside their houses ran outside to observe the ruckus, and people outside their houses ran inside to escape it. Some people fainted on the spot. Zara paraded right down Main Street, clutching tightly to the reins of her homemade harness. She grinned. They had to believe her now.
As they reached the center of town, she tugged on the reins. "Whoa, boy," she ordered. Her mount continued forward. "Whoa, boy, hold it," she exclaimed, pulling harder. He ignored her. Worried, she began yelling every command she could think of to make him stop, but nothing worked. He continued uptown, and she had to duck to keep from hitting her head on terraces and low branches as he contentedly leapt through their yards, upsetting pots and statues as he went. His nostrils quivered as he inhaled, and he acted as though following a scent. He picked up the pace, and if Zara had not wisely tied herself down to his back, she surely would have been thrown off with each great bound. Suddenly, he gave a giant lurch, and landed with a splash in the largest swimming pool in town, instantly soaking the surrounding patio, people, and Zara with water.
"Well," she sputtered, looking down at him as he stretched out with satisfaction in the pool. "You must have been a very thirsty fella."
She made headlines. After all, it wasn’t every day that somebody rode through town to do their daily errands on their pet alien. Or kept him in their garage. Or sold tickets to have rides on him, and used the proceeds to put an Olympic-sized swimming pool under a dark canopy in the backyard. Nope, that kind of thing didn’t happen too often. Some people complained about birds mysteriously vanishing, but not very loudly.
Back on Earth:
Leonard Cooper, the project coordinator, watched the video footage retrieved from the returned space probe over and over. He was proud of his achievement, as the first to ever get back actual footage from a planet outside his galaxy. He even retrieved a sample of the planet’s flora, a minuscule pink pompom-like flower with an odd root structure. He had always known life existed on other planets. Now he’d proven it.
It was a shame their test subject escaped. Leonard had hoped to dissect and analyze it for side-effects from being subjected to the planet’s air and bacteria. Now their project was prolonged.
Using Bufo americanus was a stroke of genius. Leonard never heard of it being done before, but the animal was anatomically perfect for this mission. It had two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two arms, two legs, five fingers and toes, and could breathe with lungs, yet was so small and light it could be sent in the institute’s smallest unmanned space probe, with there still being enough room for a video reconnaissance robot.
Leave it to Leonard to send the average American Bullfrog into outer space.