The aliens’ release was agreed with a surprising lack of legal wrangling and political manoeuvring. In essence, apart from a few lone voices of concern, the decision was met with very little opposition. The visitors were, however, given a first-hand demonstration of the frustrations of civilized life on Earth, as many days were subsequently wasted with discussions about “human” rights, and whether or not the term could be extended to include the aliens. Whilst they were inarguably inhuman, they were also inarguably equal to humans, if not superior in many respects. Of course no lawyer or leader would deign to commit career suicide by suggesting anyone or anything could be superior to man…
The irony was that once the necessary medical and scientific tests had been carried out and it had been concluded both that the aliens presented no threat to man and that living on Earth presented no threat to the aliens themselves, the actual event took place with little fanfare. Most people saw it as a logical next-step.
Tom kept one eye on the headlines. The expected deluge of pro-alien, pro-working together propaganda continued, and yet it didn’t feel like there was any hard sell. People’s questions were answered, their concerns satisfied. A steady stream of footage was available on TV and online, all designed to smooth out the differences and stress the many similarities between the two species: the aliens at work, them meeting with diplomats, celebrities and scientists, them relaxing in their accommodation… Further footage was also released showing things from their perspective: images of their home-world, the insides of their now-jettisoned ship, and more. Perhaps in an attempt to illustrate how dependent on mankind the aliens now were, with their help a space telescope was recalibrated and realigned in order to show a live feed of their ship ploughing headfirst into the sun. Tom watched that particular broadcast with interest. The visible loss of their transport seemed somehow to redress the balance a little.
There may have only been around three hundred and fifty of them here, but the media oversaturation made it feel like there were many more. By the last Wednesday in September, just over a month since they’d first arrived, the aliens were officially handed their freedom.
On the day of the aliens’ release, Tom and Siobhan lay in bed together, watching a documentary which celebrated the occasion and summarised the events of the preceding weeks. It was hard to believe so long had passed since their first unannounced arrival in the skies over Thatcham. The time seemed to have flashed past.
Tom thought it funny how, in these newly enlightened times, the human race still stuck to its guns and refused to deviate. No one seemed to have much of an issue with the aliens being here, but when it came to having to make subtle changes to accommodate them, that was a different matter entirely. No attempt was made to use the aliens’ indigenous names or languages. It was English or nothing. That didn’t present too much of a problem, because the physiology of the aliens was broadly similar to human; their airways, lungs, vocal chords and circulatory and auditory systems were surprisingly alike, and it followed that their speech patterns were too. Although occasionally more guttural, and yet with a surprisingly wide vocal range, their language was far more difficult for any ‘non-alien’ to fully enunciate than it was for them to speak ‘human’. And also, as an alien had pointed out in an interview earlier in the film, they were the visitors. As such, they thought it right and proper that they restricted themselves to only communicating in ways their kind and gracious hosts would understand. ‘We’re at your mercy,’ he’d heard the alien say. ‘Without you, we’d be lost.’
The precise location of their home-world was revealed, but its coordinates meant little to Tom. Which galaxy it was in, how many planets were in the same solar system, how large the star it orbited was, how many trillions of miles away and how long it would take to get there… in Tom’s opinion these were all unnecessary details, and most of the population seemed to agree. In typically blinkered English style, they were content to simply say the visitors were from ‘somewhere else’ or ‘the other place’.
The documentary was dragging now, bogged down with trivialities such as the aliens’ predisposition towards eating overly sweet foods – something to do with their metabolism, he understood. Like most TV, the programme was padded out unnecessarily with clips and sound-bites he’d seen countless times before. These final scenes were intercut with talking head interviews with some of the key aliens. They all looked the same to Tom. They sounded the same too. And yet, despite being so unintentionally dismissive, he had to admit that he found them fascinating. There were subtle expressions they pulled, unexpected noises they made, unnatural (to him) movements and ticks… watching them made him feel like he was witnessing a bizarre collision between something inescapably ordinary and something completely unknown. The differences were striking, the similarities even more so.
‘Shame about that, isn’t it?’ Siobhan said.
‘Shame about what?’ Tom had only been half-listening.
‘The acidity in our air’s different,’ she replied. ‘They might have to take medication while they’re here.’
‘Oh, right,’ he said.
‘It’s nothing too serious,’ she continued. ‘Just a precaution, I think. If they were staying any longer then they’d probably have to do something about it.’
‘Aren’t they staying long enough?’
She dug him in the ribs. Siobhan shuffled, her naked body pressed up against his, legs entwined. He struggled to concentrate on the programme and not lose himself in semi-erotic daydreams. He hoped the hand she had resting on his chest would soon slide further down his body, but he knew there was no chance of that happening before the documentary ended. She was transfixed.
‘I like this one,’ she said when a particular alien appeared on screen. ‘He’s my favourite.’
‘Your favourite? Why?’
‘There’s just something about the way he talks… the things he says. If you listen to him, he talks nothing but sense. And the way he speaks is really sweet.’
‘Sweet? Bloody hell, just listen to yourself. He’s travelled millions of miles to get here, he’s probably more intelligent than you and me put together, and you’re calling him sweet?’
She ignored him and explained. ‘He’s got a family. I heard him talking about them earlier. The way he speaks about them is lovely. You can tell he really cares, you know. You can see that he’s devastated he’s so far away from them, but there’s no malice in his voice, no anger.’
‘I should think not. I expect they’re more relieved than anything. Imagine if they hadn’t found us. I bet they would have just ended up drifting forever.’
‘That’s exactly what would have happened, I heard another one talking about it earlier. She said we’re the first intelligent life-forms they’ve come across. This is as big a deal for them as it is for us, I reckon. They’re probably sat on their home-world right now, watching documentaries about us like we’re watching them.’
‘You really think so? Jesus.’
Tom gestured at images of the alien home-world on the screen. It looked like an idyllic place. ‘We get to see this, they get footage of Thatcham in return. Grey sea, grey sky.’
‘Beautiful though, isn’t it?’ Siobhan said as the camera swooped low over a pink-tinged ocean.
‘It’s not what I was expecting. When I heard they were on a mining mission, I just presumed they’d sucked the soul out of their planet and used up all their resources same as us. I thought they’d finished with their place and were moving on to trash somewhere new.’
‘You’ve watched too many movies.’
‘I know. Part of me still thinks they’re just here for our water or because they’re going to start harvesting humans as slaves.’
‘That’s just stupid,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to stop talking like that, Tom. It won’t do anyone any good.’
The documentary was finally drawing to a close, bringing the aliens’ story up to date. Tom had seen teaser clips of the footage now being shown, but this was the premier of the scene in its entirety. He watched with genuine interest as an alien speaker addressed the United Nations. Would they be afforded member status, he wondered? Nothing was beyond the realms of possibility anymore.
There was something undeniably monumental about seeing the alien, dignified and proud, wearing some kind of dress uniform, standing alongside the UN Secretary General, both of them all smiles and handshakes and positive body language. Negotiations between the aliens and world leaders had been on-going since their arrival. The Secretary General seemed to take genuine pleasure in detailing the agreements which had been reached.
‘Isn’t it great that this is all so open,’ Siobhan said. ‘Suppose they don’t have any choice really. If you don’t tell people the truth, they’ll make things up. That’s not going to do any of us any good.’
‘Since when have these people told us the truth?’
Siobhan thumped his chest and told him to shut up so she could hear. The unique double-act on the screen had begun to detail the formal relationship which had been established between the two peoples. Peoples, Tom thought… yes, that sounds about right. He’d been struggling with labels. Species, breeds, races, sides… it was difficult to think of an appropriate term which didn’t sound borderline offensive. Switching his attention back to the screen, he listened to how the key principles, strategies and objectives of an on-going relationship had been identified, agreed upon, and then formalised. There was even talk of humans eventually heading off-world. It sounded like an extreme version of the foreign-exchange trips he remembered from school. He’d spent a really dodgy couple of weeks living in La Rochelle with a nerdy French kid back in the day…
‘See,’ Siobhan said, ‘that’s what I’m talking about. This is a really positive thing, Tom. You need to stop with the anti-alien jokes and focus on the positives. Maybe having them here will help us sort ourselves out. Stop us blowing each other up, you know?’
Tom didn’t say anything. Tired of waiting for her to make a move, he slid down under the bed-sheets, human-alien relationships the very last thing on his mind.