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.
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.
“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?!”
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…”
“-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.
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.
Written by Anmol Malik
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.
Written by Rheea Mukherjee
Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Unnamed Press /Penguin India 2019) which was shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live First Book Award. Her work has been published and featured in Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vogue India, Out of Print, TBLM, and Bengal Lights, among others. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore, India. Rheea has an MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts.