On an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday evening, Rob returned from university unannounced. He’d been due to stay away all week, but sudden changes of plan like this were not uncommon.
Siobhan was watching TV while Tom dozed on the sofa, having gorged himself on too much dinner. His swollen gut ached, he’d eaten so much. Rob let himself in and poked his head around the living room door.
‘You two okay?’ he said, and it was immediately obvious that something was different. He looked a little uncomfortable. Nervous, perhaps.
‘You on your own?’ Siobhan asked, thinking that at long last he might have managed to find himself a girlfriend. She’d tried to set him up with several of her friends recently, but he’d shown little interest. He favoured the occasional one night stand to long-term commitment, and steadfastly refused to talk about how he spent his evenings when he was back in his university digs.
‘Actually no,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got someone here with me.’
She nudged Tom, who’d only been half-listening, and he groaned with effort as he sat up. Rob entered the room and then, several steps behind, an alien followed, ducking down to get through the doorway.
‘Jesus,’ Tom said under his breath.
‘This is Jall. He’s a friend of mine,’ Rob explained. The tall, gangly figure next to him stood upright, the top of his head almost scraping the ceiling. ‘I didn’t think you’d mind if I brought him back for a drink.’
‘No, not at all…’ Tom said as he got up and walked towards them, trying to work out whether he did mind or not. He didn’t know what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to react.
‘You okay?’ Rob asked, immediately picking up on his older brother’s understandable surprise.
‘Fine,’ he answered quickly. ‘A bit spaced out, that’s all. Sorry, I’m being rude… come in, please.’
The alien held out his hand. Tom hesitated for the briefest of moments and then shook it. The visitor’s flesh felt almost too warm, unnaturally so. His spindly fingers seemed to wrap themselves around Tom’s hand, touching him in all the wrong places.
‘I hope you don’t mind my being here,’ the alien said, his diction perfect. ‘Your brother said you wouldn’t, but I’ll leave if you’d rather…’
‘No, no,’ Tom said hurriedly, worried that his reticence might have caused offence. ‘You’ve taken me by surprise, that’s all. I wasn’t expecting…’
‘Someone like me to walk into your house?’
‘Something like that,’ he mumbled, not knowing what he was trying to say. Truth was, he could barely think straight. It had been one thing when he’d spoken to the alien in Drayton the other day, but this felt entirely different. There was an alien – a living, breathing creature from the other side of the universe – standing in the middle of his living room. It was an unexpected collision between the ordinary and the incredible, and it was hard to take it all in.
‘This is my brother, Tom,’ Rob said, dealing with the introductions which Tom was too tongue-tied to handle.
‘Believe me, this is as awkward for me as it is for you,’ the alien said.
‘Oh, it’s not awkward,’ Tom said apologetically. ‘I was talking to another one of your people in Drayton the other day.’
‘One of your people,’ Rob repeated. ‘Bloody hell, Tom, we’re not in the 1950’s. You sound borderline racist.’
‘Believe me, I’ve heard far worse,’ the alien said.
‘This is Siobhan,’ Rob continued. ‘Tom’s girlfriend. She’s far too good for him.’
When Siobhan didn’t say anything, Tom looked around to see if she was still there. She was. She mouthed a couple of words, but no noise came out. Instead she just grinned, staring at the new arrival like a star-struck teenager.
‘Close your mouth, sweetheart,’ he whispered. ‘You’re catching flies.’
‘What? Oh… sorry. I didn’t mean to… I just…’
The alien took another few steps forward and reached out his hand again. She took it – slowly, hesitantly, respectfully – then shook it lightly. Tom almost expected her to curtsy.
‘I’m pleased to meet you, Siobhan,’ he said.
‘And I can’t believe I’m meeting you,’ she replied.
‘Well isn’t this nice,’ Rob said, bemused by the sudden awkwardness of the moment.
As the host – no matter how surprised he was – Tom forced himself to do something to try and break the ice. He gestured further into the room. ‘Go on through,’ he said. ‘Can I get anyone a drink?’
‘I’ll have a beer,’ Rob immediately replied.
‘Beer,’ Siobhan said also, still staring at the alien.
‘And what about… Sorry, what was your name again?’
The alien looked at him. ‘Call me Jall. You wouldn’t be able to pronounce my full name.’
‘I can try.’
‘No, you misunderstand, you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. We have certain inflexions and subtleties in our speech that you can’t detect, let alone recreate.’
‘Fair enough,’ Tom said, feeling strangely offended.
‘Names have been a nightmare,’ Rob said. ‘Apparently they’ve tried all the movie clichés like giving them numbers or using typical names. Didn’t work out.’
‘Twenty-three Johns, ten Stevens, and eight Michaels,’ the alien explained. ‘And when we tried numbers, everyone wanted to be number one.’
Tom laughed. The alien didn’t.
‘Some of them are using their position,’ Rob said. ‘The pilot, for example, calls himself Pilot. Others like Jall have chosen their own name.’
‘Why Jall?’ Siobhan asked.
‘It’s an approximation,’ the alien replied.
‘I like it,’ she told him.
‘So then, Jall, what can I get you to drink?’ Tom asked again.
‘Beer would be fine, thank you.’
‘Are you able to drink beer? I mean, are you…?’
‘I’m old enough, if that’s what you mean. I know you don’t allow your children to drink alcohol until they reach a certain age.’
‘I wasn’t thinking that. I just meant, are you okay with alcohol?’
‘I’ve drank plenty with your brother. It’s really not a problem.’
The supercilious tone of his voice was irritating. Tom couldn’t tell whether the alien was deliberately trying to annoy him. Give him the benefit of the doubt, he decided. He’s probably as nervous as I am. And why the hell am I so nervous?
‘And have you got any chocolate?’ Rob shouted after him as he went into the kitchen. ‘Jall’s a big fan of sweet stuff and we haven’t eaten yet.’
Tom fetched four beers and a couple of Mars bars from the fridge, then returned to the others who were now sitting out on the patio together. It was dark outside and cool, though not unpleasant. Tom heard Rob explaining to Siobhan that the alien’s metabolism was faster than that of a human, and that he often found being trapped indoors quite uncomfortable.
‘So where did you two first meet?’ he heard Siobhan ask. Christ, he thought, they’re not a couple. He fetched himself a chair (nice of them to think of me) and sat down next to her.
‘Jall was brought in to do some work with Phil and the economics team,’ Rob explained. ‘We got talking after a meeting a couple of days back and we hit it off. We had a great day yesterday. I showed him the sights.’
‘What sights?’ Tom asked. ‘There’s bugger all to see in Willsham.’
‘I had a good time,’ Jall said. ‘I’ve seen a lot.’
‘So you’re enjoying your time here?’ Siobhan asked. ‘Are you getting used to us yet?’
‘I wouldn’t say I’m enjoying it,’ he answered as he struggled to open his beer with long, slender fingers. Siobhan took the can from him, opened it, then passed it back. ‘Everyone has been very hospitable and accommodating,’ he continued, sniffing his drink then cautiously sipping it. ‘Everything’s adequate for now.’
Adequate? Just adequate? Tom thought, fuming. He continued to watch the visitor with a degree of childish satisfaction. As well as being unable to cope with ring-pulls, he also couldn’t get comfortable in his chair. His body was too long for his seat.
‘You’re looking forward to getting home, though, I’m sure,’ Siobhan said.
‘Of course I am,’ he replied without hesitation.
‘You must miss it.’
‘More than you can imagine. I knew we were going to be away for a long time, and we were prepared for that, but this trip is going to take far longer than any of us imagined. At least twice as long, in fact.’
‘So what exactly happened?’ Tom asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘To your ship? I can’t get my head around how something as huge and powerful as your ship could become irreparably damaged like that.’
‘Get your head around?’
‘Sorry, local expression. I meant I can’t understand it. You can see what I mean, can’t you?’
‘Of course. We were extracting ore in an asteroid field and were hit by debris from a collision.’
‘Debris! Fuck me, must have been a bloody huge bit of debris to do so much damage.’
Jall fixed his baby-blue eyes on Tom’s. ‘It was.’
‘But to cripple an entire ship like that?’
‘It was a million-to-one chance. In fact, the odds were probably even higher. You can plan and prepare to the extreme but you can’t allow for every eventuality. As Rob’s friend Phil said to me earlier today, shit happens. We were hit by debris, one thing led to another…’
‘You sound so dismissive. Aren’t you angry?’
‘Angry? Why would I be angry? It was no one’s fault, and assigning blame after the event wouldn’t make any difference. Getting angry, sad, frustrated, resentful… what good would it do? I am where I am and I have to deal with it.’
‘That’s where there’s a big difference between us,’ Rob said. ‘If we could put aside some of our pointless emotions sometimes we’d get more done and get on with each other better.’
‘You think?’ Tom asked.
Siobhan wasn’t interested in philosophising. She had more pressing questions to ask. ‘Must have been a huge culture shock when you arrived here, though,’ she said. ‘I can’t imagine what it must have felt like. What were your first impressions?’
‘Relief was my overriding feeling,’ Jall answered quickly. ‘If we hadn’t found you then our situation would have been far worse. Coming here has at least given us a chance of getting home.’
‘Couldn’t you have just stayed with the ship and waited to be picked up?’
‘Not with the level of damage we’d sustained. We wouldn’t have lasted.’
‘You didn’t answer my question, though,’ Siobhan said. ‘Was it a culture shock when you arrived here? What did you think when you saw us?’
‘I assume you want me to be honest?’
‘Then at risk of offending you, I’ll admit that being here’s like stepping back in time. But yours is an unfair question, because how can you compare anywhere else favourably to your own home?’
He finished his beer and set the empty can down on the table. Tom was surprised. He’d barely started his. He asked if he could have one of the Mars bars then demolished it in two large bites.
‘So what’s the biggest difference you’ve come across?’ Siobhan asked, continuing her enthusiastic interrogation.
‘Give him a break, Siobhan,’ Tom said, but Jall dismissed his concern with a subtle hand gesture.
‘It’s fine. I don’t mind. The biggest difference is the people, actually. Not so much physically, more in terms of attitudes. As I’ve said, everyone has been very helpful and welcoming, but I have to be honest, there’s a huge gulf between our two species.’
‘That’s pretty bloody obvious,’ Rob said. ‘Just look at all the stuff you can do. We’re still struggling to get people into space, you lot are all over the place.’
‘Hardly, but you are right. There are some major differences between our planets and our people, but in general your technology and standards of living are similar to the position we were in a considerable time ago.’
‘How long ago?’ Tom asked.
Jall thought for a moment before replying. ‘Two to three hundred years, I’d estimate.’
‘Bloody hell, you’re that far ahead of us?’ Siobhan gasped.
‘We’re that far behind?’ Tom said.
The alien nodded, the size and shape of his bulbous head seeming to exaggerate the gesture. ‘Approximately. I’m not really qualified to talk about history in any great detail. I only had a basic education in the subject.’
‘So what’s your specialism?’ Siobhan asked. ‘What was your role on the ship?’
‘I was involved in gradation and storage logistics,’ he explained. ‘Once everything we’d mined had been processed in the refinery, I was part of the team dealing with the cargo.’
‘Bloody hell, you had a refinery on board?’ Tom said, surprised. ‘Christ, just what did that ship do? I imagined you just went around collecting whatever you needed then hauled it all back to your planet.’
‘Yes, but think about it, that would be an incredibly inefficient way of working. We’d have ended up taking back huge amounts of unnecessary waste material. Also, because of the length of our mission, we had sufficient time to process the materials ourselves. Rather than return home with a hold filled with ores, therefore, we were instead due to return with everything extracted, refined, and processed for immediate use.’
‘So I assume you’d probably reached the same position we’re rapidly heading towards?’ Tom asked. ‘You’ve already used up your own planet’s resources.’
‘Far from it. From the little I know about your recent history, it seems that your race has done far less forward thinking that we were doing at a comparable stage in our development. We knew what we’d need to support our growing population. Rather than dig it all up from our own backyard – as I think you’d say – we went further afield. Nothing you have here is unique, and it was exactly the same for us. All the minerals we needed could be found or recombined elsewhere. There was no need to destroy our own planet.’
‘Which is fine if you’re able to leave your planet and look elsewhere,’ Tom said.
‘Granted. And we were fortunate in that we have several mineral-rich moons in low orbits which we could mine with relative ease. You’ll have the technology too before long. You should just be careful not to plunder too much, too soon.’
‘Tell that to the idiots who actually make the decisions,’ Rob said.
‘We are,’ Jall replied.
The friends were quiet for a moment as they considered the alien’s words. Tom thought it amusing that here was this visitor, dispensing wisdom and advice which would benefit the whole world, to just him, his girlfriend and his brother as they sat outside his little bungalow in the middle of nowhere. They couldn’t have been much further removed from positions of influence and power if they’d tried.
‘Anyway,’ he said, smirking, ‘isn’t the real reason you’re here to steal our resources from under our noses? To snatch our world away from us?’
‘Absolutely not,’ Jall replied, offended.
‘Tom!’ Siobhan protested. ‘What the hell did you say that for?’
‘Just kidding,’ he said, back-pedalling furiously, cursing himself for having put his foot in it again. ‘It’s a staple of our old science-fiction movies, that’s all. I was just joking. I didn’t mean anything by it.’
Rob clearly wasn’t impressed. ‘You can’t just go around saying stuff like that anymore, Tom, even if you are only having a laugh. This is too important to screw up with a stupid throwaway comment.’
Belittled, Tom wasn’t sure how to react. ‘Look, I’m sorry. Like I said, I didn’t mean anything by it.’
To his surprise, the alien sprung to his defence. ‘Actually, Tom’s right,’ he said. ‘We are just here to steal your water.’ He paused, long enough for Rob and Siobhan to exchange confused, slightly concerned glances. The slight upward curl of his top lip gave away the fact that he was toying with them. Tom relaxed slightly, happy to be mocked. ‘Though I wouldn’t blame anyone for wondering, we’re not here for your water, your people or anything else. You have nothing we couldn’t find elsewhere, and your planet doesn’t have anything we don’t already have in abundance.’
Keen to show that he really hadn’t meant any offence, Tom tried to feign interest and prolong the conversation.
‘So where exactly do you stand in the overall scheme of things, Jall?’ he asked. The alien didn’t answer immediately, and Tom qualified his question further. ‘There are over three hundred of you, so how far up the chain of command are you? Do you sit at the captain’s table, or are you…?’
‘Am I what?’
He took a deep breath, knowing he was about to re-offend. ‘Bottom of the heap? Ship’s grunt?’
Jall was unperturbed. ‘We don’t have formal ranking structures, as such,’ he explained. ‘There’s no real need. There are a finite number of jobs which need to be carried out, and all those individual jobs need to be completed correctly for the overall task to be successful. Success or failure can have the same repercussions whatever level one works at. Whether you’re the pilot of the ship or you were involved in building it, the ultimate responsibilities are broadly similar. I was trained to carry out a role and I did that to the best of my ability, as did the pilots and the navigators, the technicians and the maintenance staff. Everyone. It’s a collaborative effort.’
‘So whose fault was it the ship got damaged?’
‘No one’s fault. As I said, it was a freak accident.’
‘But shouldn’t you have been prepared for freak accidents if you’re all so highly trained and effective? Shouldn’t all risk have been eradicated?’
‘Tom, what’s got into you?’ Siobhan asked. ‘Jall’s a guest, not a prisoner. What’s with the interrogation?’
‘I’m just interested, that’s all.’
‘I don’t mind,’ Jall said, and Tom believed him.
‘You can see where I’m coming from though, can’t you? It doesn’t matter how advanced and intelligent you are, you can still get caught out.’
‘We had complete control over everything we could control, but there are always things which will be beyond even the most meticulous planners. We’re largely scientists, Tom, not fortune tellers.’
‘But shouldn’t you have had some kind of contingency plans? Lifeboats or something like that? A get-out clause?’
‘You’re it, I think,’ he replied.
‘So do you enjoy your job?’ Siobhan asked, again doing what she could to steer the conversation into more banal, safer waters. Rob returned from the kitchen with more beer. Tom hadn’t even noticed him get up.
‘There’s no point liking or disliking it, is there?’ Jall said. ‘It’s what I was trained to do. It’s what I always knew I’d be doing, and I do it well. I know everything there is to know about the role.’
‘But don’t you ever yearn to do something different?’
‘Don’t you ever look at the person who lives next door to you and think, I want what he’s got?’ Tom asked. ‘Haven’t you ever wanted to escape from your routine?’
‘So where’s the passion? Where’s the spontaneity and excitement?’
‘There’s no need,’ Jall said, his tone beginning to sound frustratingly matter-of-fact, as if he was simply reciting learned responses.
‘No need?’ Tom protested. ‘I’d argue there’s every need. If everything’s planned out for you and you know the end result, why bother? Where’s the reward? Aren’t you just going through the motions?’
‘You’re starting to become deliberately antagonistic now,’ the alien said, still sounding maddeningly unflappable.
‘Okay, okay. Look, I’m sorry. I’m just struggling to understand, that’s all.’
‘You don’t have to. It’s not your life.’
‘And I’m pretty pleased about that. For crying out loud, you even know when you’re going to die, don’t you?’
‘Approximately. But you make that sound like a bad thing. It’s not. It allows us to prepare and be ready as the time draws near. We can say our goodbyes and get our affairs in order.’
There was a moment of quiet as the others paused to consider what he’d said, each of them individually thinking about how they might spend their own time differently if they knew how long they’d got. Tom imagined them all being stamped with ‘Best Before’ dates like the food on supermarket shelves.
‘We’re going to head back to Willsham in a while. Jall’s staying in a place just off campus.’ Rob said.
‘How did you get here?’ Siobhan asked.
‘Pool car,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got to get it back by morning.’
‘Which way did you come?’
‘Straight into Drayton then out again.’
Tom looked at them both in disbelief. There was an alien in the house and yet all they wanted to talk about were travel arrangements. He wasn’t going to let this opportunity go. He wasn’t quite finished with their visitor yet.
‘So what happens when two of you have a disagreement,’ he asked. Siobhan groaned. ‘Last question, then I’ll shut up.’
‘What do you mean?’ Jall said. ‘Be more specific.’
‘Well we’ve all seen this utopian society of yours on TV. In spite of what you’ve said, I’m still having trouble believing that it all runs as smoothly as you say it does, particularly as you being here is living proof that things don’t always go to plan. So what happens when two of you have a difference of opinion?’
‘Even the most complicated decisions can be broken down to the most basic of choices. Everything boils down to yes or no, on or off, if you analyse it enough.’
‘Absolutely. You just have to think logically.’
Tom barely managed to suppress a grin. The alien was getting dangerously close to the realms of parody now. He was starting to sound like Mr Spock.
‘So what happens when you don’t have time? What about when you need to make a snap decision? Life or death?’
‘There’s a process. A way of thinking.’
‘So you all think the same way? How come you’re not all just clones?’
‘Because free thought and expression is still encouraged. We live and work within a specific framework, but what we do within that framework is still open to individual interpretation.’
‘Do you believe in gods?’ Rob asked
‘And you all get on?’ Tom said.
‘To an extent. There’s plenty of tolerance and very little conflict, if that’s what you mean.’
‘What about when you meet someone you don’t like. There must have been someone…’
‘My race or alien?’
‘Your race,’ Tom immediately replied. ‘Alien.’
He shook his head.
‘No one’s ever pissed you off?’
‘Pissed me off?’
‘Got on your nerves? Annoyed you?’
‘You’re the first for a while.’
‘Any of your own kind?’
‘So let me see if I’ve got this right… you live in a perfect world where there’s no resentment or discrimination, where everyone gets on with everyone else and…’
‘Tom,’ Siobhan snapped at him angrily, ‘for fuck’s sake, will you give it a rest?’
He ignored her and continued. ‘…and you all do everything for the greater good and…’
‘What’s your point?’ Rob butted in, sounding equally annoyed.
‘My point is I find it hard to believe any of this. I keep coming back to the same point, if everything’s so perfect, why did you end up here with your bloody spaceship fucked?’
‘Because, as I’ve already explained, although we’re well-ordered and controlled, the rest of the universe isn’t.’ Jall sounded remarkably calm. ‘Believe what you like, Tom, the fact is it’s all true. We work together because it’s the collective effort of each one of us that keeps the integrity of our society strong. We are all equal.’
‘And do you feel superior?’
‘Superior to what?’
The alien thought carefully for a moment, maintaining eye contact with Tom. ‘Yes,’ he finally answered. ‘How could I not?’
The conversation continued long into the night without Tom who took himself away to cool off. He was disappointed with himself, but stood by the questions he’d asked and concerns he’d raised. He came to the conclusion that it was the alien’s placid, Vulcan-like calm and holier-than-thou demeanour which had annoyed him more than anything.
He calmed himself down with more beer and loud music. He lay on his bed, headphones in, a half empty can in his hand, and tried to clear his mind of everything for a while. But the alien was in his thoughts constantly.
The music – an album he’d played hundreds of times over the years but which still mattered to him as much as when he’d first fallen in love with it – helped him to focus. Each song meant something different, every new track reminding him of a moment in time. The lyrics resonated. Every last note mattered. And he found himself thinking: how could something as unique as this music have been created without character, personality and spontaneity? Riffs were the results of happy accidents. Drum beats and loops were discovered through improvisation and chance. The lyrics were written by the vocalist in response to situations and people from his life… Christ, even the dire, manufactured pop music which was being mass-consumed these days sometimes still had a spark of originality. Maybe that would change? He wondered if, perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, music would be written and performed entirely by computers which had been programmed to create tunes which would tick all the right boxes and illicit the required emotional response from the listener? Was that what really scared him about the alien’s words? Was this the shape of things to come?
The things he’d heard reminded him of Brave New World, 1984, and other books he’d been forced to study at school. Bland, anodyne futures. Repellent and ugly. Everything he despised. A dystopia in a utopian disguise.
How dare that fucker think himself above us. Where’s their passion? Where’s their motivation. There’s got to be more to life than just living.