CHAPTER 32

Tom woke with a start, sprawled across Clare’s settee with her lying on top of him. He’d been drifting in and out of sleep for the last few hours. He couldn’t remember her coming and lying with him but he was glad that she had. For a long time he did nothing more than lie perfectly still and listen to the soft and reassuringly normal sounds of her gentle breathing. He took comfort from the closeness and warmth of her body. As long as they stayed like this together, he didn’t have to face what was happening outside.

The first grey light of morning trickled into the room. Tom closed his eyes and went over the events of the previous day again and again, trying desperately to make some sense of the bizarre things he’d seen and the inexplicable behaviour of the people he’d known and loved. He’d heard nothing in the night, so he assumed Penny hadn’t moved. Regardless, he’d have to try and get home this morning, that much was clear. He plotted his route in his mind: home first, then he’d continue out through the village to Siobhan, maybe calling in on James and Stephanie and those poor kids if time and circumstance allowed. He felt an obligation to try and get to them. Maybe he should have been doing all of this last night instead of hiding away in the darkness here like a fucking coward?

He slid out from underneath Clare, doing all he could not to wake her, but desperate to relieve himself and also to check on the little girl upstairs. She’d be his barometer, he decided. Whatever state Penny was in this morning, Siobhan, Rob and all the others would probably be the same.

Tom used the downstairs bathroom and looked out of the window behind the toilet as he stood over the bowl. Everything looked reassuringly normal through the small rectangular pane of frosted glass: the fence and bushes at the end of Clare’s garden and the fields beyond, the occasional bird darting through the dull grey sky.

He flushed when he’d finished. The cistern was taking its time to refill. Low pressure, he decided as he washed his face and hands in a trickle of ice-cold water.

When he returned to the living room, Clare wasn’t there. He heard her footsteps in the room directly above and went up to find her, hoping there’d been a change in Penny’s condition. He knew the moment he entered the room that wasn’t the case. Penny was where he’d left her last night. She hadn’t moved a muscle.

‘Any better?’ he asked hopefully, although he already knew the answer.

‘Same,’ Clare quietly replied, gently stroking the side of her daughter’s expressionless face. ‘What are we going to do, Tom?’

He walked to the window, desperately trying to think of something constructive to say but failing miserably. As far as he could see, their position remained unchanged from last night. There was nothing they could do. He looked out over the back of the house and saw something which made his blood freeze.

Clare, still crouching on the floor with her daughter, immediately picked up on his sudden unease.

‘Tom?’

He simply looked at her, unable to speak, then turned and ran. She sprinted after him as he raced downstairs, following him through the living room and kitchen, then out into the garden. He scrambled over the fence at the back of her property, then kept running until he was in the middle of the field immediately behind the house, sending a small flock of sheep scattering in all directions. He stopped and looked up.

‘What is it?’ Clare shouted. Tom pointed upwards.

Thousands of metres above them – maybe miles overhead – the hull of a huge alien ship was slicing through the cloud cover like a submarine.

‘What the hell’s going on, Tom? They got rid of that ship, didn’t they? We saw them send it away. For fuck’s sake, we watched it fly into the sun on live TV.’

Tom continued to watch the massive machine power down towards the surface of the planet. And, as more of the behemoth was revealed, he began to realise that this wasn’t the same ship he’d seen previously. The alien vessel he’d seen arrive was long and narrow. This machine was more dart-shaped, almost like a flying wing.

‘They must have faked the footage,’ Clare said, craning her neck as the apparently endless metal monster continued to glide effortlessly above them.

‘It’s a different ship.’

‘What?’

‘This isn’t the ship that was here before.’

‘But they’re not due to be rescued for another year or so, are they? Wasn’t that what they said?’

There was another one of them. Tom rechecked, certain he’d just got confused. He looked around and saw there were definitely two ships now. No, wait, there were more. He ran over to the far side of the field and climbed up onto a low stone wall to get a better view. From there he could see another five alien ships in total. They were all different shapes and sizes. Some moved, others were stationary. Some were close to Thatcham, others miles away.

Feeling exposed, Tom jumped down and ran back to the house, following Clare who was already on her way inside.

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