Tom’s plans for a quiet night in with Siobhan were thwarted by her decision to stay late at the office so she could try and get away at a decent time tomorrow. He ate half the meal he’d cooked, then threw the rest away. Too full of food to run, he decided to walk off his dinner along the cliff-top path he’d followed so many times before.
It was still pleasantly warm, and although he passed a couple of dog walkers close to the village, there was no one else about. Good. That was how he liked it.
He passed the war memorial, then stopped a short distance further along, close to where he’d been when the alien ship had arrived, and where he, Rob and Siobhan had stood and watched it disappear again. In contrast to both those times, it was peaceful and quiet out here tonight. It was still hard to believe what he’d seen, even harder to imagine the odds against him being in the right place at the right time to witness such historic events. He craned his head back and retraced the route the alien ship had taken when it left the planet’s atmosphere. There was still a little light on the distant horizon, but overhead the sky was deep purple. The longer he stared, the more individual stars he was able to make out, peering down at him from millions of miles away.
It’s all about perspective, he decided.
The contrast was obvious, but it still made him think: he could see hundreds of stars now, and if he stayed out here longer, he’d be able to see thousands more. And yet, from any one of those individual stars, he would be invisible. That was because of his comparative lack of size, of course, but the same was also true of the planet itself. In relative terms, the Earth was just a pinprick.
He walked on.
Along with the rest of the world, he’d had a month to get used to playing host to visitors from another planet. Like everyone else, he’d also managed to get used to the fact that the human race was nowhere near as all-powerful as it had long believed itself to be. He wondered how the people at the top were coming to terms with their newly adjusted position in the scheme of things. They’d been the leaders before – the teachers. Now they’d been demoted to being kids in the class, taking instructions from elsewhere. He thought about the Prime Ministers and Presidents, all of whom had gone from being the most powerful people on the planet, to the most powerful people on a planet. The difference was subtle, but important.
The technological advances the aliens had promised to share would no doubt have a profound impact on all aspects of life on Earth. Was that something everyone would welcome? What about the mega-rich, overly influential bastards who looked down on everyone else from a position of often undeserved privilege? Would they be content to play second fiddle to the aliens? Would they be willing to see their hold on power and influence lessened? He’d heard talk on the TV earlier of trying to harness the quieter, safer, and more efficient energy source which powered the alien ships. All well and good, he thought, but the oil barons, politicians, billionaires and dictators might not be so keen to give up the fuel and money-based stranglehold on power they’d maintained over everyone else for so many years.
Tom continued to climb the hills away from the village, although he stopped several times and considered turning back. He felt unnaturally tired. It was stupid – the less he did, the more effort everything seemed to take. Was he vegetating? He thought maybe he should be running. Maybe he’d start again tomorrow, if he could be bothered.
His increasing apathy was beginning to genuinely concern him. Everyone else seemed fine – happier than usual, if anything; buoyed up by the unexpected optimism of the events of the last month. He was beginning to feel more and more like an outsider, almost as if he’d been left outside in the rain, looking in at the party through the window. Too tired to go any further, though not yet ready to go home, he stopped walking and sat down.
The crashing of the waves on the rocks below was the only sound. Everything was dark save for the twinkling lights of the village he’d left behind and, further in the distance, the faint orange air-glow over Drayton. He felt separated from it all. Detached. He hated feeling this way.
Is there something wrong with me?
Depression, someone had once told him, always boils down to a person having a lack of control. So how can I be depressed? I get up when I want to, go to bed when I’m ready, and do whatever I want in between. I’ve got more freedom than anyone else I know.
But was freedom the same as control? He wasn’t sure any more. It felt like something was missing. Tom had Siobhan and Rob and their small circle of friends, but beyond that he had very little. They all had their jobs to keep them busy and in regular contact with other people… what else did he have? Nothing. Not even any hobbies to speak of now he’d lost the impetus to run regularly. And yet the thought of getting a job or trying to find something else to do made him feel even worse. He wondered if the career he’d walked away from had given him a sense of purpose that he was now missing, or whether it had simply disguised the fact he’d never had one? Did he feel guilty because, as Rob had succinctly put it one drunken night, he was pissing on their parents’ grave? One thing was for sure, whatever the reason, his life was in real danger of becoming a vacuum.
Recognising the problem was one thing. Doing something about it, another thing entirely.
He lay back, the dry grass tickling his neck, and looked deeper into the heavens. He found himself thinking about his conversation with the alien earlier. If anyone had a right to be depressed, it was them. Talk about a lack of control… Christ, they clearly had it far worse than he did. Separated from everything they held dear by an impassable gulf, no way of getting back to their loved ones for the foreseeable future, if at all… He pictured the visitor’s face, the clear sadness in her eyes and the melancholy tone of her voice when she’d spoken about home. Bloody hell, in comparison to them, did he have anything to complain about?
And then it struck him that all of this might be the very reason why he found it impossible to connect with the aliens in the same way as everyone else. He didn’t understand them. More to the point, he didn’t understand how any of them could have allowed themselves to be willingly manipulated into leaving everything that mattered to them behind.
And then it struck him – maybe I’m the one who’s got it all wrong?