Friday night. The Badger’s Sett. Punter levels in the pub had reduced to almost normal. Tom was relieved. Drinking sessions were becoming much more pleasurable again.
‘Business good, John?’ he asked.
‘Mustn’t grumble,’ the landlord replied as he pulled Tom’s pint. ‘To be honest, I made so much over these last couple of months, it wouldn’t matter if no one else came in here for the rest of the year. I’d still be quids in.’
‘I’ll be here,’ Tom smirked, ‘don’t you worry.’
‘I knew you wouldn’t let me down,’ John laughed.
Tom returned to the others. Siobhan and James were waiting for him, Rob was due shortly.
‘Work okay, James?’ Tom asked, regretting his words the moment he’d spoken them.
‘Ah right,’ he said, supping his pint and hoping that would be the end of it.
‘Got me on a bloody disciplinary now, haven’t they.’
‘Disciplinary,’ Siobhan said, ‘what for?’
‘Thought that was just if you were in the army,’ Tom said. ‘What did you do?’
‘You see, that’s what really pisses me off. You’ve already assumed I’m guilty. What chance have I got if my own mates turn on me like that?’
‘I haven’t turned on you,’ Tom said. ‘I just asked what happened. All right, I’ll rephrase it. What have they alleged you’ve done?’
‘Oh, I did it all right,’ he replied, barely concealing a self-satisfied smirk. ‘I told Sachs he was out of his fucking tree.’
‘You didn’t,’ Siobhan gasped. ‘Your boss?’
‘I did. Right in the middle of a bloody staff meeting. Well, it was his own fault. He pushed me too far.’
‘You idiot,’ she said.
‘Couldn’t help myself. There’s only so much I can take. I’d had enough.’
‘But your boss! And with all those witnesses. You divot. What did Steph say?’
‘Haven’t told her and I don’t intend to. I’ll probably just get my wrist slapped.’
‘I hope so for your sakes.’
‘Well, the hearing’s on Tuesday morning, so if I come knocking on your door looking for a job on Tuesday afternoon, Siobhan, you’ll know things didn’t go well.’
She looked over at Tom and shook her head in disbelief. James was about to speak again when, to the others’ relief, the pub door opened and distracted him. Rob came inside, followed by Jall.
‘Here they come,’ James said. ‘Glad I’m not getting the next round in. He drinks like a fish, that boy.’
‘No, Jall. They all do. They can certainly take their beer.’
Rob and Jall got their drinks at the bar then joined the others. James was right; the alien had two pints to everyone else’s one. And two bars of chocolate.
‘Evening,’ Rob said, pulling up a chair next to Tom.
‘Everyone all right?’ Jall asked, sitting down across the table. Tom watched him, and he couldn’t help but think how much the alien had already changed in the short time he’d known him. It was a given that the Earth and its indigenous population would have been affected by the arrival of the extra-terrestrials, and that had certainly proved to be the case. He’d seen footage of fields of crops being grown in the desert, for example, and a test spaceship which had been launched last week that looked like one of the old, decommissioned space shuttles, redesigned by alien eyes. But Tom hadn’t counted on how the aliens too would have been altered by the experience of being here. He remembered the night he’d first met Jall, when they’d sat out on the patio and Tom had given him hell about various aspects of the visitors’ lifestyles. He’d seemed cold and distant that night, understandably guarded. Now that guard had most definitely been dropped. He leaned back in his chair, overlong legs crossed casually, wearing a bizarre amalgam of alien and human-style clothes. Maybe they were selling them in the shops now, next to the displays of alien preferred food. For a moment he was gone, daydreaming about seeing new signs in department stores: menswear, womenswear, childrenswear, alienswear…
‘Did you hear that?’ Siobhan asked, nudging him.
‘No, sorry. Did I hear what?’
Rob answered. ‘The stuff Jall’s been doing at the uni today. It’s incredible.’
Rob looked at Jall, then continued. ‘The staff there have been using some of Jall’s lot’s medical tech, and the results have been remarkable. You tell him, Jall.’
‘A while back,’ the alien began, ‘we made a series of breakthroughs which allowed us to work on the individual components of any molecule at any level. I won’t bore you with the detail…’
‘But it means you can cure cancer and turn coal into gold,’ Rob interrupted.
Jall nodded and finished his first pint. ‘Pretty much.’
‘So what are you saying, that you can turn anything into anything?’ Tom asked.
‘Not quite,’ the alien replied, ‘but the potential’s there.’
‘And that’s what they were doing in the medical centre today,’ Rob added. ‘Changing cancer cells back to healthy cells again. Oh, and they’ve already been fixing broken bones and damaged nerves.’
‘We have to be cautious,’ Jall said. ‘It might be that there are complications when adapting our processes to humans. That’s why we’re only working on people with terminal illnesses, and physical injuries that aren’t otherwise going to get any better.’
‘But that’s not the best bit,’ Rob continued. ‘You’ll never believe this. He took me into the lab this afternoon. They’re only growing someone a new fucking arm! It’s amazing. There’s this kid who lost his arm in a bomb blast in Afghan or somewhere, and they’re growing him a new arm!’
Even Tom had to admit that was impressive.
‘The implications are vast,’ Siobhan said. ‘People might never get sick again.’
Tom thought about what she’d just said, but resisted the temptation to respond, worried that she’d see any questioning as a thinly veiled attack on the aliens. That was never his intention, but he knew that was how he’d probably come across. Tom used to bullshit for a living, but since leaving the corporate world he’d definitely lost his touch. Since coming to Thatcham he’d found it increasingly difficult to be anything but completely honest, and that wasn’t always for the best.
‘Good technology gets smaller and smaller, and once you can manipulate things at the most minute level,’ Jall continued to explain to his enthralled audience, ‘you start to look at the universe in a whole new way. Anything becomes possible.’
‘It’s a whole sea-change,’ Rob said. ‘You wouldn’t believe the guys in the labs, they’re going crazy for this stuff. It’s a fundamental shift.’
‘We were talking earlier,’ Jall continued. ‘One of our colleagues said it felt like the invention of the silicon chip and the development of the microprocessor.’
‘How so?’ Tom asked.
‘Think about it… you start by using those discoveries to create computers. Fast forward twenty or thirty years, and you have the descendants of those computers everywhere, affecting every aspect of your lives. Transport, communication, entertainment, healthcare…’
Rob felt obliged to state the obvious, more for James’ benefit than anyone else. ‘So one major discovery, or set of discoveries, has almost infinite repercussions.’
‘Like changing cancer cells back into healthy cells again?’ Siobhan asked.
‘Exactly,’ Jall said. ‘Back home we’ve long since stopped thinking about medicinal care purely in terms of the individual parts of the body. We’re more concerned with the individual parts which make the individual parts, which make the individual parts. Does that make sense? I remember saying to you a while back, Tom, every problem can be reduced to a yes or no decision if you drill down far enough.’
‘So what are you really saying?’ Tom asked. ‘Are you saying you can change everything?’
‘Theoretically, yes. But being able to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it.’
‘This is getting too heavy for a Friday night booze-up,’ James said, putting down an empty glass and getting up to go to the bar. ‘I can’t keep up with it all.’
The others were distracted by his interruption. Tom wasn’t. ‘How many people would have that kind of power and not use it?’
‘You’re thinking in human terms again.’
‘They’re the only terms I know.’
‘We’re different. Very different.’
‘So why do you die?’
‘Oh, don’t start this again,’ Siobhan groaned.
Tom squeezed her hand. ‘I’m not. Honestly, I don’t want to pick a fight. I just want to understand.’
‘We die because it’s all part of the plan. There has to be progression. We can’t keep bringing new life into the world and not let the old lives go. It wouldn’t be right. We still age.’
‘But you could sort that little problem out if you wanted to.’
‘Theoretically we could, but there are incredibly strict ethics codes which control such things.’
James was back with more beer. ‘Drink, chill out, stop talking bollocks,’ he ordered.