For a long time nothing happened. The uneasy silence in the pub continued, punctuated only by occasional noise from the fruit machines. Barely anyone moved. John Tipper stood with his wife and watched the nearest screen, arms folded defiantly. Even Darren Braithwaite, the long-haired lad who worked in the petrol station, and his gang of mates were quiet. This time last week John had threatened to bar them because of the way they’d been taunting a group of blokes from out of town. Today they were subdued, clearly as nervous as everyone else.
‘I need to go,’ James whispered to the others. ‘Have you seen the time? I said I wasn’t going to be out late.’
‘It’s been a strange day,’ Rob whispered back. ‘Steph will understand.’
‘I should be back home with her and the kids. She’ll have my balls.’
‘She’s already had them, mate.’
‘She’ll be okay,’ Siobhan reassured him.
‘She’d have phoned if she needed you home. Tell her you just lost track of time. She’ll be fine about it. Anyway, she’ll only be sat watching this.’
‘No, I should be there,’ he said, pulling on his fleece. ‘I probably shouldn’t have come out. What happens if…?’
James didn’t finish asking his question. An audible collective gasp from around the pub silenced him. He turned back to the TV and saw that the smaller alien machine on the screen was moving again. It climbed to a slightly higher altitude, almost as if it wanted to be seen. Or was it being aimed?
‘Shit,’ Rob said quietly, ‘is that some kind of missile?’
The camera angle and the lack of visible references made it difficult to gauge the machine’s precise size and height. Tom was trying to estimate its proportions and guess its intent when, without warning, a series of lights appeared on the surface of the ship, all around its perimeter, all pointing upwards.
‘What’s happening?’ James asked pointlessly. He knew no one could answer, but it helped him just to ask. The relative silence in the pub was replaced with a low buzz of nervous voices when a hatch slid open on the top of the machine. And then, slowly – cautiously – a lone figure appeared, lifted gracefully into view on some kind of platform. There was a heart-stopping moment of confusion as the picture shifted and blurred, but it was only the camera operator struggling to keep up with events. As the picture came back into focus, they watched the figure step off the platform and take a few steps out onto the hull of its vessel.
Tom stared at an alien.
It was an undeniably unsettling and yet strangely inspiring sight. Standing somewhere between six and seven feet tall, Tom thought, it looked to him to be distinctly male, not that he had any reason to assume these creatures had human-like sexes. It had smooth, dark pink skin and he thought it looked burned, as if it had spent too long unprotected under the strong summer sun. Its head was unexpectedly disproportionate, and looked too large and heavy to be supported by such a gaunt frame. It had a light covering of grey, almost silver hair which was swept back at the temples, giving it a distinguished appearance. The alien wore a simple yet formal-looking uniform made of dark material with little in the way of decoration.
The creature stood still for the longest thirty seconds in history, its large eyes fixed straight ahead, apparently unfazed both by its exposed position and the fact it must have known it was now the sole focus of attention of the entire planet. Tom wondered what thoughts were running through its head. Whatever it felt, the creature (and that suddenly felt like too derogatory a term given its dignified appearance), remained regimentally stood to alert as it was scanned, scrutinised and inspected by the population of the planet.
‘Is that thing really an alien?’ Tom asked the question without thinking.
‘What else could it be?’ Rob replied.
In the hours since he’d witnessed the ship’s descent through the storm clouds, Tom had almost begun to get used to the fact that it was here. But this new development – this first confirmed and indisputable visible contact with an alien life-form – had made all the nervousness he’d felt out on his cliff-top run immediately return. Back to square one again in a heartbeat.
The alien on the screen continued to stand its ground, unperturbed by the chaos of movement and light which was now beginning to unfold all around it. What was it waiting for, Tom wondered? Was it going to surrender, or give the signal to attack? Neither option seemed more likely than the other. As he watched, it seemed to take in a long, deep breath, then tilted its oversized head back on its relatively slight shoulders and looked up at the mother-ship above. The TV coverage abruptly switched to a close-up of the alien’s head from another angle, and the similarities with a human face caught Tom off-guard. Other than an unusually pronounced forehead (which gave the alien an unfortunate Neanderthal-like profile from this angle), its basic facial features were instantly familiar. It had a wide, thin-lipped mouth, a small nose (too small, Tom thought), two ears which were quite flat and smooth and which were tilted back at a more obtuse angle than a human’s, and a pair of sharp, crystal-blue eyes. As still as the rest of its body remained, its eyes moved constantly, alert and intense, absorbing every detail.
When the camera angle switched again, the picture revealed that a boat had come alongside the shuttle craft. Filled with at least twenty heavily-armed soldiers, it bobbed and rolled with the waves, looking increasingly precarious in comparison to the unnaturally steady alien vehicle. The alien finally looked down from the mother-ship, took another deep breath of salty sea air (was it nervous, Tom wondered?), then raised its hands and struck an unmistakably passive pose. For a few seconds Tom was preoccupied with the unnatural length of the alien’s limbs – its elbows were lower down than expected, and it’s wrists higher – and he cursed himself for allowing himself to be distracted by trivialities at such a monumental, historic moment. The alien then began to move. It walked to the end of its ship, then stepped down onto the military boat. The soldiers all edged back slightly, leaving the new arrival standing alone in a small bubble of space on the deck. It continued to hold its hands up, keen to demonstrate that it was unarmed and had nothing to hide. The soldiers retook their original positions. For a few seconds longer the alien’s bulbous head remained visible in the midst of the crowd, then it disappeared as it was taken below deck. The small boat immediately began to move away from the scene at speed, banking hard to port. The camera operator scrambled to keep it focused and in shot as it raced towards the shore, desperate for a final few frames of alien footage.
On the TV, the news channel cut back to the studio. The anchor man whose face filled the screen looked lost for words. He was about to speak but was rudely truncated when all the TVs were switched off. John Tipper’s distinctive voice rose above the sudden noise of everyone else. ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, let’s have your glasses please. I think that’s quite enough excitement for one day. I’m sure you’ve all got homes to go to.’
Without complaint, the pub began to empty.