Chapter 1

-2 hours

There was something about this morning’s headline that was supposed to cause alarm. But 26 year old Anna read it in bed, and now while groggily preparing breakfast she can’t for the life of her remember which one was supposed to strike some fear. In a way, they all were supposed to. Murders, scams, love horoscopes, all tumbling together like clothes in the washer.

She plops some eggs in hot water, toasts some bread, sets the butter and jams, prepares tea for herself and boils cola in a saucepan for her sister, Aera.

Was it about yet another new contagious virus? About London wanting to exit Britain? No, Lexit was old news. Or was it that bit about a teen who jumped out the window in a blind panic just to avoid being caught with her boyfriend? Anna certainly understood that fear. Despite being the obedient doormat, somehow she was always the one in trouble with her parents. Because she always found herself being conned into covering up for her sister’s honorary roster of boyfriends. Aera was three years younger, definitely far more popular, and anytime Anna even thinks about her- there she manifests.

Was it about yet another new contagious virus?

“Morning. Alive are we?” Aera mumbles, looking like she just got into a fight with an alley cat. Dragging a chair out as roughly and noisily as possible, she heavily plonks down and yawns. The sun catches her tongue piercing and makes it glint. Anna neatens her own hair and tugs at the uniform she has on for her shift at a high-end grocery store. The sisters sit across each other, sipping their hot drinks- a milky tea and a steaming cola- until they feel they can string words humanly again.

“I’ll be late tonight, but tomorrow I promise we’ll go for that movie you wanted.” Anna says kindly while picking up a piece of toast.

“Doubt it.” Aera scoffs and scratches her chin. Anna looks up sharply, a dull thought at the back of her brain tells her it has something to do with the headline she should be worried about. It’ll come to her. Too late as always, but it’ll come.

-1 hour 30 minutes

The grocery store looks like a war zone. Posh people have a hidden crude side that emerges when the organic vegetables run out. But the mystery headline finally came to her as she observed the chaos in front of her.

Why, just why, did the star appearance of tomorrow’s world-ending asteroid have to occur in the same week she finally got promoted to manager? Two years of slogging her flat bottom off, and this is the celebration she gets?

Through the operatic chaos of clashing trolleys and melodic abuses, she checks on the sparse fruit aisle. This would be the first summer without mangoes. Apples and bananas in some countries were considered exotic fruits now. Rumours swirled of cows about to go extinct, chicken was already luxury meat. Sometimes it felt like rationed living without a war. Surely this was a bigger concern and a much more pressing issue than yet another over-marketed, fake doomsday?

It’d turn out to be just like last year, when the newspapers wanting to make a quick buck had hyped up the imminent crashing of an asteroid outside Navi Mumbai. It had generated such a buzz that the whole world had flown into a tizzy. International space agencies had rushed to India, big money exchanged hands, everyone was suddenly into buying telescopes and eating ‘space ice cream’ -aaaand –

Then some new rubbish had made next day’s frontpage.

Typical.

In any case, if tomorrow’s asteroid did miraculously turn out to be real and cause the end of the world, Anna’s sure frozen peas weren’t saving anyone.

While stacking Twining’s tea boxes, the only headline stuck in her head is about the teen. It makes her grin and think of Aera.

“No! Stop it.” Anna scolds herself. She didn’t need Aera popping out of thin air in this store from which she had been banned for life. (It had a lot to do with matches and alcohol.)

“Think of anything else Anna please. Like, call up Mom and Dad during lunch break. Pune probably hasn’t jumped the gun like Mumbai. And-and-”

Oh no. Too late.

On cue, there’s a cheeky Aera, strolling through the crowd. “Hello!” she says brightly, ignoring the mess and her sister’s distraught face. “Chalo, Let’s go.”

“Excuse me? I’m at work.” Anna says firmly.

“Pointless work.” Aera shrugs.

“This ‘pointless work’ pays our bills.”

Aera looks bored and turns away. “Watch this- Oi! Free sardines!” she hollers, grabbing a couple of tins and tossing them across the floor making them noisily clatter. Within seconds a rabid crowd descends on it like piranhas.

“See.” she grins triumphantly. “Who’s going to notice if one bland manager has slipped out?”

-1 hour 15 minutes

This always happens. Anna wearily resigns to the fact that Aera always gets her way and now her car’s hurtling down to God knows where, at probably the speed of light.

“Um…Aera.”

“Yes Anna?”

“We didn’t have a car this morning did we?”

“No, we did not.”

“And how are we in one currently?”

“I stole it.”

“Lovely.” Anna states drily, trying to swallow her growing panic. “And why is the backseat stuffed with chocolates?”

“All your favourites. Go out with a bang. The Earth is. Last chance to eat everything and snog everyone.”

Finally Anna gets the reason behind the urgent impromptu road trip. Why didn’t she see it before? Of course her little sister’s worried! And now she’s reaching out for some older-sibling confidence.

“Aeroo, will you relax? Nothing’s going to happen tomorrow.” She coos in that insanely patronizing voice that Aera secretly detests.

“Yeah, of course nothing’s happening tomorrow. It’s all over in an hour.”

Finally Anna gets the reason behind the urgent impromptu road trip.

Anna doesn’t like the ominous tinge in Aera’s voice one bit. In her head she goes through every response she can possibly have for a situation like this. But what even is this situation?! There is no way to handle this. Just like the poor tiny car they’re in that shakes like a leaf, not built to handle this speed. A thought crosses Anna’s mind, an absolutely insane thought- Could Aera have rigged the car?

Impossible! Aera might be a touch weird, but she’s not a complete lunatic.

As though her thoughts are being broadcast loud and clear, Aera suddenly lets go off the wheel to search for a lollipop on the backseat. Anna shrieks as the car swerves dangerously, while Aera lights up the pop like a cigarette and takes a drag.

“What the HELL you dick!” Anna screams grabbing the wheel.

“Finally. I thought you’d never drop the bloody Mary Poppins act.” She threads the lollipop through her four fingers, forcing Anna to remember the car accident during a childhood family trip that led to Aera losing a finger on either hand. Now Anna wants to break the remaining.

“Where are we even GOING?!”

“Navi Mumbai.”

-10 min:

One can ignore and disbelieve a great number of things. Flattery, gravity, Botox. But not the presence of a giant rock hovering gently as a cloud, a few inches above the ground. It wasn’t so much a rock, more like a bunch of boulders haphazardly slapped together by a drunk. A drunk who’d temporarily forgotten that boulders, by definition, cannot float and therefore in his obliviousness had actually broken the laws of physics and created this monstrosity.

Just a few moments ago it had looked like just another lumpy mess at the abandoned construction site they were at.

One can ignore and disbelieve a great number of things. Flattery, gravity, Botox.

Spaceship. That’s what Aera had said she would show her. The word rolls around Anna’s head like tumbleweed, senselessly.

“Isn’t my Cello a beauty?” Aera asks with a manic glint in her eyes that makes Anna keep her mouth shut about why this- spaceship- was named after a musical instrument. In fact everything about Aera right now seems new and strange. Where was this buzzing energy yesterday when Anna asked for help with the dishes?

“Alright, thanks for everything.” she turns to Anna cheerily. “Bye then.”

“Hang on! Where are you going?” Anna calls out in alarm.

“Off this planet obviously. I’m useless when crispy.”

“Is this a joke?!” squawks Anna.

“My Cello is no joke Miss.” Aera says crossly.

Anna clutches her forehead. It’s too much to take in so suddenly. “How long have you had this…this…”

“Spaceship.”

“-thing! This horrible, confusing thing. How long have you had it for?! And when were you planning on telling me?”

“Was I supposed to tell you everything?”

“Yes!” Anna thunders.

“Why?” she asks infuriatingly simply.

“Because I’m your sister!”

“Ok, can I be honest? I haven’t totally figured out what a ‘Sister’ is. Seems like a mostly Milky Way slang since I haven’t come across it before. But you’ve been such a lovely butler, security guard, and ATM this whole year and I thought I owed you a decent goodbye. Hence the chocolates. Cheerio”

This was it. Aera had finally snapped. Anna takes it upon herself to bring her back to reality, so she urgently grips her by the shoulders and shakes her violently. “Aera!! Knock. It. OFF!”

But the girl swats her away.

“Oh Galacta, why is this so hard for you to grasp! Look! I got stuck here! On this flacking backward rock without any flacking fuel!”

“I have an education too ok? You’d have burnt up entering our atmosphere!” Anna hopes this bit came from some long-forgotten chapter at school and not from the dramatic junk she consumed on TV.

“What atmosphere? You mean the one you brilliantly stupid lot kept chipping away at?” Aera bellows. “Thanks to everyone wanting things to look sexy or whatever it is that you people do that is making Venice drown and everything go to shit, your planet hardly has any layers left to protect you with! But I suppose-” she calms down, her mood switching like a whiplash “Unlucky for you, but really lucky for me. Because there’s nothing to stop that asteroid now, and just as it crashes massively I’m going to ride the force of that impact straight outta here! No fuel, no problem! Nice right?”

“So…I never had a sister.”

Not quite the response Aera expected. The sudden coldness in Anna’s voice is hard to miss.

“I’m afraid not.” Aera admits.

“Who are you and how did you get inside my head?”

Feeling like she’s being compared to a space virus, Aera winces. She has never heard Anna address anyone in this tone before. Something vaguely akin to remorse flows through her for the first time and she says “I’m so sorry, I really am. I did it for survival. It’s nothing personal.”

A lot of things happened then at the same time. The cheery blue sky suddenly turned a blood red, as livid as Anna at the betrayal. Combat vehicles and over a dozen men in hazmat suits sprang out of their hiding spots. An electromagnetic crane crackled to life to reveal the spaceship had been latched to it all along- But the only thing Anna noticed was Aera writhing in excruciating pain on the ground under a metallic mesh blanket thrown on her that shot bolts of electricity anytime she moved.

“Move in, move in. Operation ET is a go.”

Even through her pain, Aera manages to roll her eyes at the name.

Anna notices that each of their suits had a little flag stitched onto the front pockets. Russia. India. China. America. The newspapers didn’t lie, the tv channels hadn’t been wrong- every space agency had indeed pooled in and covered the whole operation up. The ship had been bait, they had bided their time. It all feels like it’s happening in slo-mo as a soldier menacingly walks towards Aera, towers over her and then roughly slams the end of his gun into her knee.

SLAP!

Everyone stares at Anna. Anna stares at her hand.

“Sorry, force of habit.” Anna bleats. “And…well…you did hit my sister?” she completes weakly.

“Arrest the accomplice!”

Aera looks at Anna helplessly, but notices the human briefly glance at the sky. In the far distance is a streak of white…and a very angry looking lump of hard grey rock shooting through the clouds.

“Wait! Look! Spaceship!” Anna exclaims suddenly, pointing at The Cello.

The advancing men don’t stop.

“No, seriously! I can’t possibly be more interesting than a whole spaceship! Look at how weird it is, and that’s just the outside.”

The men stop in their tracks and Aera’s face falls. She knows they’ll force her to open up the Cello next. She could skin Anna alive.

The advancing men don’t stop.

-30 seconds.

With a weapon held to her skull, Aera inserts an ordinary key into an ordinary lock to open up a very extraordinary ship. The Cello was a beauty. Expensive, intelligent and somehow…alive.

-20 seconds.

“Come on Aera, start it up. Show them how it works.” Anna orders and turns to the men. “You’ve got it hooked up, we’re going nowhere, so I mean why not?”

Aera tries to process Anna’s betrayal while she’s coerced into the pilots seat in the center of the deck. Recognizing her presence, five rods smugly rise up from the ground. The gathered hazmats are mesmerized. When Aera wraps an arm around them and uses one rod as a bow, Anna understands why it’s called the Cello. Flying it is exactly like playing it. The ship sways lightly from side to side, powerless to do anything more.

But with the controls back in her hands, feeling the gentle hum of her ship and the comforting purr of the active engines, Aera feels the power surge through her. Power that one human cleverly nestled back in her hands. She understood then what Anna had done for her.

A snap decision is made.

-10 seconds.

“Feet felt.” Aera says through pursed lips.

Ever since the car accident, a paranoid Anna had always instructed her sister to put on her seat belt. But with her kiddish lisp, it always came out as-

“Feet felt?” Repeat the hazmat suits. “Feet felt. Note it. Possible Start Up code.”

But Anna immediately understands the urgency behind the instruction, and as the men greedily observe the active instruments, she quickly finds a seat with straps she can understand.

-5 seconds.

It’s only now, when the world around them starts to shake violently, that a few scientists look

worried and reach for the exit- even though there’s nowhere on Earth left to escape.

-3 seconds.

Reaching an ominous crescendo, the sickening whine of the asteroid harmonizes perfectly with Aera’s playing. The ship is singing, the world is breaking, the universe is calling.

BRACE-FOR-IMPA-

Silence. Utter and complete. Like that time Aera and she held hands and dived to the bottom of the lake behind their grandmother’s house. The smell of burning fills the air. Something cracks. Anna prays it has nothing to do with her. Darkness. Floating. In a womb. Black out.

+3 seconds

Anna slowly opens her eyes. There was fire. Fire that tossed the spaceship like a paper boat in choppy seas. Spaceship. The word floats lazily in her throbbing head, unable to connect with anything that made sense. Human instinct dictated that she was alone in the dark stillness. Deciding against moving, lest it lead to traumatically discovering that everything in her body was broken, she lets her eyes roam, slowly.

A giant TV seems to be playing a screensaver of starry lights streaking past. In one corner of the screen she spots a tiny blue marble engulfed in flames. Or it could’ve just been a smudge. It gets harder to tell as the smudge gets smaller and smaller until it winks right off the screen.

A sickening chill settles into the pit of her stomach as she realizes- that’s no TV or screensaver! It’s a windshield! Outside which were very real stars and a genuinely very-much-on-fire Earth she had just escaped from.

It all comes rushing back! Adrenaline surges through as she makes to stand, only to be twanged back into her seat. Damn these straps! Thankfully nothing hurt terribly, except for a stinging pain on the nose which was-

“A piercing?!”

“Morning. Alive are we?”

Anna looks wildly to her side and spots Aera, still in the pilot’s seat, leaning back contentedly.

And then she mockingly sticks out her tongue!

“Aera!!”

“Relax. My piercing helps me speak your language. Yours should help you breathe out there.”

“Out where?!”

“Hopefully.”

“Hopefully?!” Anna gawks, then looks wide-eyed at the soot all over her.

“Yeah, sorry about that. It was the angling of the thing.” Aera says.

“What thing?”

“Well the Cello is pretty clever. And if you’re not strapped in, you must be an enemy or trash. So it just incinerates everything. Lost a couple of really good takeaways that way.”

“I’m covered in dead scientists?!”

Aera shrugs. “We’ll be stopping for fuel soon. I couldn’t really control this thing, so the force flung us somewhere towards quadrant 5. Possibly near a Sette.”

“A sofa?” Anna struggles to keep up.

“A pit-stop. Gas, food, good place for you to hitch a ride.”

“Wait, what?”

“There it is!” She swerves the ship sharply, shoving the questions back down Anna’s throat.

+ 10 minutes

That’s how long I’ve been alone in space.

Anna finds the thought bizarre. She rolls the sentence around in her head a few more times, but the words strung together in that order sound daft. Something pricks through her pocket- a Twining’s tea bag. The last Earth tea bag.

Hot water, a useless liquid not widely consumed, had been the most difficult thing for the Sette diner to procure. Tasted like nothing, did nothing. It took them a while to understand what Anna wanted, and in the end they brought five steaming tumblers of different clear liquids. The first one Anna grabbed thinking it was hot water, was apparently a popular drink called ‘Tonguehole’ which Aera claimed would kill her in seconds. After that she left Aera to do the choosing for her.

The ex-sisters sit across each other, sipping their hot drinks- a black tea and a hot cola…

Aera watches her closely, trying to calculate when to start talking. She waits for the tea to settle Anna’s frayed nerves.

That’s how long I’ve been alone in space.

“Look, I know all this might be a bit of a shock-” Aera begins cautiously. ‘Might’ was the understatement of the century. “And I suppose you’d like to know when-”

“I’ve known you all my life!” Anna wails “How can that be if you crash- landed only last year?”

“Planted memories.”

“But the accident? You only have four fingers because of the accident right? Remember I was in the back seat and you were-”

“Normal amount for my kind. So I had to plant a fake memory of an accident to explain it.”

Anna sniffs and slumps into the squishy diner seat. The material seems damp and cold and Anna tries not to think of why it’s damp and cold. “Good that Mom and Dad aren’t alive to hear this… They’d be heartbroken.”

“Um…about that…” Aera rubs the back of her neck sheepishly. She really doesn’t want to confess this next bit. “Sorry, but Anna…they never was a ‘Mom and Dad’.”

Anna looks up sharply. “What do you mean?”

“They- well, they never existed.” Aera says quickly. Best to rip it off like a bandage. “It was a bit extreme, sorry, but your planet was so in the flacking back-of-beyond that help would never come fast enough. And humans are barbaric enough to slice me open in the name of science. That’s why you were the perfect candidate to hide it out with. Orphan, single, alone.”

The weight of her emptiness hits Anna completely now. The only companion she’d ever had her whole life, the only one who had ever felt like home…was this thing. This thing who filled her head with a haze of fake memories.

“You fabricated your whole existence to scam me, just as easily as opening a can of soda.” Anna rues.

“If it’s any consolation, it wasn’t easy. I’m just particularly gifted.”

But wait! That means then- “So my miserable life was all fake?” she asks hopefully.

“Oh that? I’m so sorry. That was very real.”

Fantastic. Anna thinks hard. “But that can’t be just it. You couldn’t have haphazardly chosen me, there must be some connection. Just like there must be a reason Earth’s on fire. It couldn’t have been for nothing!”

“The thought that everything is random and nothing actually happens for a reason is obviously unsettling for a primate. Unfortunately, that’s the truth. You mustn’t take anything seriously. That’s my great advice to you for surviving out in this universe…‘It’s nothing personal.’”

Anna keenly feels the sting of the dismissal. “So now what? You’re just going to leave me here?” she asks quietly after a few moments.

“Yes.” Aera announces brightly.

“I’ll be killed in two seconds.”

Aera frowns. She thought she’d repaid Anna for her hospitality by pulling her off the doomed planet. Was she supposed to adopt her now? But it was Anna’s tone that made her frown more. There was a certain sense of… defeat. A weariness in her voice. It began to gnaw like a yaxelworm at the back of Aera’s mind.

While Anna’s thoughts drifted to other things. Particularly, how strange it was to realize what all you miss when it’s finally gone forever. She thought she’d miss her co-workers and parents, soft green grass, floating clouds, Beethoven, Shakespeare. The entirety of human history, all the inventions and creations that were gone in a snap. Like it never mattered.

She thought she’d repaid Anna for her hospitality by pulling her off the doomed planet.

But none of it seemed to cause more than a passing pang in the heart. It was only when she finished the final dredges of her tea that it finally hit her- she’ll never have a good hot cup of this refreshing brown liquid again.

It was this- this thought that finally breaks her heart. And she sobs.

‘Ok, this is uncomfortably new territory.’ Aera thinks. In all of Anna’s memories she has peered into and fabricated lies on, she doesn’t remember Anna crying even once. And yet here she is, shuddering over an empty cup. It’s all getting a bit too pathetic. Isn’t it amazing that she’s sitting

here perfectly alive while the rest of her species has been turned to crisp bacon?

‘You know what?’ Aera nods to herself. ‘I’m not supposed to care, and I’m not going to start now. This one fragile meatbag’s problems aren’t mine to share.’

“Aera?” Anna says suddenly in a very calm voice. Much too calm, Aera notices. “You’re right, this is my problem.”

Wait, what? There’s no way Anna can possibly hear her thoughts.

“And you’ve done more than enough. I’m the one behaving like a child. So, thank you for everything and this is where we must part.” She flashes a smile at her, the one Aera knows is usually reserved for an annoying customer who ‘wants the manager’ while their child throws an almighty tantrum in the background.

But hey, she knows a chance when she sees one. So she returns the plastic smile, quickly drops some Earth money on the table, hope it converts to enough and hurriedly slides out of the booth. Because Humans can be very pesky with this whole ‘emotions’ business. It’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to con, survive and mutilate everything around them. Besides, she was eager to restart her life after this year-long detour.

“Quicker, quicker’. She urges her feet to move as fast as they can out of the Sette.

‘Don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t look back.’

“Now remember Aera, you’ve done your bit. She said so herself. Saved her life, paid off your debt.” She mumbles to herself as she feels her pockets for her keys. “That’s just how the universe works. You keep moving ahead.”

While she’s psyching herself up to get on with it, a mysterious beeping makes her flinch. At first she thinks it’s the absolutely random guilt that’s making her antsy, but then she realizes the beeping seems to be coming from something on her wrist. An archaic object she forgot was still strapped to it, something the humans called a ‘watch’.

‘Watch what?’ she had always wondered, but that’s just what it was called. Earth idiots had always been terrible at naming things. After all, this was the lot that named a green patch Iceland and an ice slab Greenland. But she had worn the watch anyway because Anna had gifted it to her on some festival where she’d been forced to light up some really dangerous and poorly made chemical sparklers and eat lots of sugar until she gagged.

The beeping continued in its soft annoying monotone, but to Aera it somehow seemed to get louder. It reminded her that their favourite series Angry Men was supposed to be on, and the two ‘sisters’ would be sitting right now on their tattered couch eating Maggi doused in cheese straight from the pan. Louder and louder, until it seemed to be shouting at her.

+15 minutes

It was probably all those years of travelling solo and developing a very fine survival instinct that made Aera take in everything at one glance. From the gas station psychos who could sense which weakling was totally alone and helpless, to the giant tumbler of Tonguehole being delivered to Anna’s table.

Aera rolls her eyes at this pathetic human. Chance of a lifetime, surrounded by stuff she has never seen, and here she is- ready to kill herself. Typical. Turn her back on her fake sibling for a second, and she was always surrounded by trouble. She walks over, smoothly flashing a strange object at the slugs who had been eyeing Anna. Whatever the object was, it seemed to have the desired effect, making them recoil roughly.

Knocking on the table, she grabs the Tonguehole from Anna’s hands and downs it one go. Anna simply gapes at her in shock. “You came back?” she says, startled.

Aera thunders through the burn. “Quit being depressed about one planet just because you’ve no idea how many cooler ones are out there.”

“I thought I wanted to die, but it’s not easy, this dying business.” Anna admits sheepishly.

“Of course it isn’t. Always go out in a blaze of glory instead of pissing it away.”

“Oi, hey!” says their server who looks vaguely like a crustacean. “Why do you look familiar?”

“How the flack should I know? Anna, let’s get out of here.” She hisses urgently.

Within seconds they’ve briskly walked out. Almost every head has slowly turned to look at them, but Anna puts it down to her imagination.

Aera seems unperturbed as she unlocks The Cello.

“I finally figured out what a ‘Sister’ is.” She says, distracting Anna.

“Ah, you did?”

“Yup. It’s the gum stuck to the back of your shoe you can never truly get rid of.”

“That’s…sweet..ish?” Anna says as she carefully straps herself in. Aera’s driving skills had always been questionable. At best. “So, where are we going?”

Aera grins. “Everywhere.”

—-

This is an excerpt of a longer work.

Anmol Malik aka Audrey Piano studied Creative Writing from the University of Warwick, England. After working at Leo Burnett and UTV-Disney, she went on to look after the Script Department at Yash Raj Films. Author, singer, songwriter, she’ s honestly just a girl doing the best she can.