Tom Winter sprinted down from the exposed hillside, gravity dictating his speed more than any conscious control. His heart pounded, his body racked with exhaustion and fear. Up ahead, Thatcham remained visible through the inclement late-afternoon gloom, more lights being switched on in houses and shops by the second. Despite the atrocious weather, the streets were teeming with frantic movement. Cars raced down the main road, aquaplaning through the rainwater, brake lights burning through the haze as they caught up with those in front and bunched together. Faces were pressed against almost every sea-facing window, all looking upward for the return of that thing – whatever the hell it was – they’d all seen moments earlier. Some foolhardy souls braved the squall and gathered at the sea wall, looking out over the waves. A few more even dared venture onto the windswept shingle beach. Others ran through the streets in small huddles. Holidaymaking families looked for shelter, their temporary tent and caravan homes suddenly feeling hopelessly insecure in light of what they’d witnessed.
Everything looked the same as when Tom had left the village to start his run, but suddenly everything had changed.
He pounded down off the dirt footpath and was glad to finally be running on pavements again. He glanced back over his shoulder at the cliffs and the ocean, all of it appearing reassuringly normal. If it hadn’t been for the chaos unfolding in the village all around him, he might have convinced himself he’d imagined what he’d seen; a sweat-soaked, storm-addled hallucination of epic proportions.
He sprinted across the road to run up the final hill to the house, hardly paying attention, when his sudden burst of speed was matched by a swerving car coming the other way around a corner, all bright headlamps, clattering wipers and barely controlled acceleration. The driver blasted the horn at him and shouted abuse.
The bungalow loomed ahead of him now at the top of the climb. Even from here he could see his brother Rob in silhouette, standing at the living room window and staring out to sea, transfixed like everyone else. Tom dug deep, half-running, half-walking up the steep footpath rather than following the meandering slope of the road. Tom reached the front door and crashed inside, barely able to breathe. He leant against the hallway wall and kicked off his sodden trainers.
‘That you Tom?’ Rob shouted.
‘It’s me,’ he just about managed to reply.
‘Did you see it? Fuck me, did you see it?’
Tom limped into the living room, his legs unresponsive, shivering with cold. Or was it nerves? He wasn’t sure anymore. ‘I saw it,’ he said, still fighting for breath.
Rob swallowed hard. He looked as bad as Tom felt.
‘What the hell was it?’
‘You tell me.’
‘I mean, I know what I think it was, but where did it come from? Why here?’
‘How am I supposed to know?’
‘Do you think we’re safe? Fuck, is it still out there? Tom, mate, are you all right?’
Tom slid down the wall, legs finally giving up. ‘Drink,’ he said. He felt faint, bright lights dancing in front of his eyes despite the room being dark. He tried to control his breathing and steady himself, but he could still hear the screaming of the jets, could still feel that intense white light burning his skin… and now, suddenly, all he could think about was how exposed and vulnerable he’d been up there, close to the edge. The storm had been so powerful, and whatever it was that had flown overhead had been so huge… It reminded him of the time he and Rob had been messing around on scaffolding on a drunken night out a few years back. They’d laughed about it at the time, but when he’d returned to the scene next morning and had seen the height they’d climbed – the stupid, unnecessary risks they’d taken – it had shocked him rigid.
Rob returned with a mug of coffee and an energy drink which Tom drained dry in a series of quick gulps. Rob returned to the window. The worst of the storm had passed now and the light was slowly beginning to improve. The sky was dirty yellow, the colour of a fading bruise. There was nothing to see out there, and he shifted his attention to the television instead, picking up the remote control and searching through the channels for one of the news stations, all the time talking nervously.
‘I was in the kitchen when I heard the jets. Bloody hell, there were so many of them I thought we’d gone to war or something.’
‘Maybe we have,’ Tom suggested. Rob gave his comment a few seconds consideration before continuing.
‘I came in here to see what was going on, and that was when it flew over. It must have been a couple of miles long at least. Christ, Tom, did you see the size of it?’
‘I saw it,’ he answered, beginning to feel marginally more himself again. He stood up, coughed hard, steadied himself, then took his brother’s place at the window and looked down into the village. It was still mayhem down there. The petrol station forecourt had flooded, and several members of staff were doing what they could to block the kiosk door. The main street was still awash, drains struggling to cope with the sudden deluge. Abandoned cars had reduced the road to a single lane for much of its length, and the sudden volume of traffic still trying to get in and out of the village had caused a jam. Some pedestrians wandered aimlessly, others just stood there, watching. It looked like everyone wanted to try and get somewhere else, but no one was going anywhere.
‘So what do you think it was?’ Rob asked, still cycling through channels for the news.
Tom kept watching the people down below. It was easier to focus on them rather than answer his brother. He knew it was going to sound ridiculous.
‘I think it was a spaceship,’ he said finally. Regardless of what the immense vehicle proved to actually be, ‘spaceship’ seemed a trite and tacky way to describe the single most incredible thing he’d ever seen. ‘But it can’t have been, can it?’ he added quickly, doubting himself. ‘A spaceship. Bloody hell, that’s just stupid.’
‘Why is that stupid? What else could it have been?’
‘Come on… a spaceship? Aliens? Are you serious?’
Rob stood to one side so that Tom could see the TV screen. There it was: the incredible craft hovering out over the ocean. Is that real or CGI? he asked himself.
‘Give me another explanation then,’ Rob said. He pointed at the screen. ‘What else could that be? A mass hallucination? Dr fucking Who? Are there Daleks in that thing? Cybermen?’
‘But aliens?’ Tom said again. ‘Close encounters of the third bloody kind and all of that? I don’t know, maybe it’s something military? A prototype or an airship or something that—’
‘Bollocks,’ Rob snapped at him. ‘Look at it. It’s fucking enormous. Does that look like an airship to you?’
Tom walked towards the bathroom, still shivering, still nauseous. He hoped getting cleaned up and warm might help him make sense of everything. Countless questions and random thoughts continued to flood into his head. If it was aliens, it wasn’t so much the sudden proof of their existence he was struggling with, he just wanted to know why they were here. Thatcham was nowhere. The arse-end of everything. Nothing much ever seemed to happen in this place, and that was how he liked it. That was why he’d moved here, for Christ’s sake.
Rob remained in front of the TV, unaware his brother had left the room. ‘Hundreds of thousands of people will have seen this, millions even,’ he said. ‘There’s no way the authorities will be able to keep it quiet. I mean, it’s only ever been balls of light or flying hubcaps before, never anything like this…’
He turned around and shrugged when he realised he was talking to himself. He turned up the volume and flicked through a few more channels. Same picture now, almost every station: that machine – the spaceship, uncovered military secret or whatever it was – hovering motionless over the churning waters. A number of clearly well-armed boats bobbed and rolled in the shadow of the behemoth, and countless helicopters and jets buzzed around like relentless flies, their trivial size serving only to emphasise the unimaginable scale of the craft. Rob thought it surprising there was so much military activity in the water already. Assuming the footage he was watching was coming from somewhere not that far from here, then this was happening in waters where there was rarely any call for war ships and frigates. Thatcham was hardly a warzone.
‘They must have been waiting for it,’ he shouted, not knowing whether Tom could hear him. ‘They knew it was coming. That’s got to be a good thing, right?’
When no one answered, he turned the TV up again, loud enough to be heard throughout the small house.
‘…we’ll be staying with this story for the time being,’ a clearly flustered newsreader’s voice explained. She sounded as dumbfounded as everyone else, tripping over her words with uncharacteristic regularity. ‘Once again, these are live pictures you’re seeing here. We repeat, this is not a hoax. The UN statement we brought to you a short while ago confirmed that there is no cause for alarm…’
In the bathroom, Tom turned on the shower. The pipes groaned and, after a brief pause, air cleared from the system and water began spitting out of the shower head, stopping and starting, then running steady, silencing the TV noise. Tom stepped under the flow and felt the water beginning to massage him back to life. And it was then, when the effort of his run and the initial shock of what had happened began to fade, that he finally began to comprehend the enormity of what he’d seen out there today. It was one of those life-defining moments, he realised, like all those years ago, when he’d sat between Mum and Dad and watched the twin towers collapse in stunned silence. One event with incalculable repercussions. Whoever was in that ship and whatever they wanted, the importance of what had happened today was already unquestionable. The only thing he knew with complete certainly was that nothing was ever going to be the same.
He switched off the shower and could immediately hear the TV newsreader again: ‘…there is no cause for alarm…’ Yeah, right, he thought as he towelled himself down then went to the bedroom to get dressed. If we’re all still here this time tomorrow, I might believe you.
He found Rob sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, a look of child-like disbelief on his face. A ticker-tape stream of information ran across the bottom of the screen:
CONFIRMED FIRST CONTACT WITH ALIEN VESSEL… FIRST OFFICIAL WORD FROM DOWNING STREET DUE SHORTLY… GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN ADVISES POPULATION TO REMAIN CALM… UN SECRETARY GENERAL TO MAKE A STATEMENT ON THE SITUATION WITHIN THE HOUR… NO EVIDENCE OF HOSTILE INTENT. THOSE PILOTING THE SHIP HAVE COMPLIED WITH ALL INSTRUCTIONS…
‘You okay, mate?’ Tom asked. Rob glanced up, then immediately turned back to face the screen, as if he was too afraid to look anywhere else.
‘What d’you think Dad would have made of all this?’ he said.
‘I know exactly what he’d have been doing,’ Tom replied, ‘he’d have been digging a bloody shelter. Either that or he’d have been at the supermarket, stocking up on supplies while everyone else was glued to the TV like you.’
‘Probably. He’d have been in his element. Mum said he used to love a good crisis.’
‘And is that what this is? A crisis?’
‘I don’t know yet. Ask me again in a couple of hours.’
‘In a couple of hours I want to be down the pub, getting pissed.’
‘That’s if there are any pubs left by then.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Rob protested, glancing back again and sounding genuinely concerned. ‘Anyway, there’s a government briefing on in a few minutes.’
‘Oh, that’ll help,’ Tom said, not even bothering to try hiding his cynicism.
‘What do you think they’ll say?’
‘They’ll say a lot, I expect. Well, they’ll use a lot of words, but probably won’t actually say anything, nothing of any worth. You know politicians – it’ll be ninety per cent bullshit, ten per cent facts, that’s if there are any facts in there at all.’
‘But this is big, Tom, too big. They can’t cover up something like this, can they? Too many people have already seen too much. They’ll have to come clean and tell us everything they know.’
‘You think? Since when has any government ever done that? You wait, they’ll probably arrange for us all to disappear. Thatcham will become the new Area 51. Area 52.’
‘Fucking idiot,’ Rob cursed. ‘This is different. Can’t you feel it?’
‘I’m knackered, Rob. I can’t feel anything right now.’
‘You’re such a bloody pessimist.’
‘I’ve got good right to be. We both have.’
‘When are you going to give it a rest? What happened to Mum and Dad was out of our control.’
‘And so is this.’
‘It was an accident, Tom. A freak accident.’
Tom wasn’t listening. They’d had this argument too many times before. He got up to fetch himself another drink, groaning with pain as his legs began to stiffen. When he returned to the living room, he saw that the picture on the TV had changed. The ship over the sea had been replaced with the image of an uncomfortable looking stuffed suit – some government minister for something or other. The normality of the scene was reassuring. The faceless politician was bathed in a non-stop barrage of camera flashes. Tom didn’t recognise him and he wondered who he was and why he was the fall-guy today? Where were the bigwigs? Holed-up in some secure bunker somewhere no doubt. So who was this guy? Minister for Alien Invasions? Secretary of State for Unexplained Phenomena? What did they call the odd-job men of Westminster? Wasn’t it Minister Without Portfolio or something like that? The man’s over-educated voice sounded understandably unsteady. He shuffled his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot.
‘Earlier this week,’ he began before immediately pausing again to clear his throat, ‘various observatories and scientific outposts, both around the globe and in space, became aware of an unidentified object approaching the outskirts of our solar system at a remarkable speed. As the progress of the object was tracked, it slowed and changed course several times before heading towards Earth. The vessel was broadcasting a continual distress signal.’
‘Bollocks,’ Tom said, unable to help himself. ‘That’s how these things always start. How did they know it was a distress signal? Do they speak English or have we learned Alien?’
‘Shh…’ Rob hissed at him. ‘This is important.’
The politician paused again, just long enough for the mass of assembled photographers to fire off another volley of camera flashes and for a hundred reporters to ask countless variations on the same question at the exact same time. The defenceless spokesman lifted his hands in protest, attempting to restore some order.
‘Although there has been no direct communication with the occupants,’ he continued, ‘the vessel has so far obeyed our every instruction and is currently holding its position some fifty miles off the coast of the UK. An international air force is currently patrolling the skies around the region, and a number of warships from several states are also en route. At this stage we have no reason to believe the ship and its occupants are hostile, but no unnecessary risks are being taken.’
Rob looked around for reassurance from his brother again. ‘If they were going to blow the shit out of us, they’d have done it already, wouldn’t they?’
Tom shrugged his shoulders. ‘Who knows? Thing is, if they are here to take over the planet or wipe us all out, I don’t suppose there’s a fat lot we can do about it. We should find out where we go to sign up for the resistance.’
‘You’re kidding me?’
‘Of course I am, you dick.’
‘Anyway, they won’t try anything like that,’ Rob said.
‘Were you not listening? They were broadcasting a distress signal. Why would they have done that if they were going to attack? You’re right, if they’d wanted to they’d probably have already levelled the planet by now.’
‘You’re so bloody naïve,’ Tom said, getting up and crossing to the window again. ‘Did you not see Alien? That started with them answering a distress call.’
‘Yes, but that’s a movie, you prick. This is real life.’
Tom looked down into the village, no longer interested in anything either his brother or the government spokesman had to say. Neither of them were doing anything to calm his unease.
The sun peeked out through a gap in the thinning clouds, as if checking whether it was safe to come out yet. Down in the streets of Thatcham, more people had emerged from where they’d been sheltering from the torrential rain or the aliens or both. It seemed a little calmer out there now. A train pulled away from the village’s small station, the traffic was beginning to move freely again, and there were several small groups of cagoule-wearing people gathering in bunches by the sea wall. The reality of an alien invasion – if that was what this was – had so far proved very different to all those movies Tom had seen. He kept thinking about stories like War of the Worlds and god-awful films like Independence Day. Any minute now, he thought, and the war machines will appear on the horizon. Huge metal-legged striders will march across the land, crushing everything in their path and killing thousands with their deadly weapons. By this time tomorrow, he decided, there’ll probably be nothing left of any of us. He felt genuinely afraid. Helpless. He felt like he had the day he’d taken the phone call about Mum and Dad’s accident.
‘I think you’re wrong about Dad,’ Rob said suddenly. ‘He’d have loved this. He’d have been right in his element. I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about, Tom.’
‘I’ll remind you of that when we’re both in one of their slave labour camps, okay?’
‘Fair enough. But here’s the deal, if we don’t end up in a slave labour camp – which we won’t – then you have to start lightening up, okay? You’re in a good place now. You’ve got Siobhan, you’ve got your house, and thanks to Mum and Dad you’ve got more than enough cash to keep you going for a good while yet. Apart from the fact we might have just been invaded by aliens, your life is good!’