CHAPTER 4

Tom woke several times during the night, to the point where he felt he’d been lying awake longer than he’d been asleep. He had a few very definite recollections of what had happened in the hours since they’d returned home, but they were muddied by confused, alcohol-induced dreams of running through storms and alien ships.

He clearly remembered falling into bed with Siobhan, wanting to make love to her, but not knowing if he physically could with all the beer still sloshing around in his gut. He remembered how those doubts had immediately disappeared when she’d slipped beneath the sheets and had started stroking, nibbling and licking. He remembered her sitting on top of him, the covers having long since fallen away, looking up at the ceiling and biting her lip as she held onto his shoulders and pulled herself down onto him. He remembered her face, barely illuminated but completely beautiful, and the shape of her arched back and perfect breasts. The warmth of her body…

He’d fallen asleep after sex but had woken a short time later, dizzy with booze, bladder about to burst, unsteady on his feet. He remembered leaving the light off in the bathroom because it was too bright, then missing the toilet and pissing up the wall because he couldn’t see properly, then tripping over his discarded jeans on the way back to bed. He remembered Siobhan getting up for work and leaving just before eight, but what had happened since then was largely a blur. He didn’t know what time it was now. He opened one eye and tried to focus on the clock next to the bed, but the bedroom was filled with light and he could barely make out any of the numbers. Instead he grabbed his phone and checked the screen. Eleven thirty-eight. Bloody hell, it was late. He had a message from Siobhan. Short and sweet:

is it me or the beer u can’t handle?

 get up u lazy fucker x

In contrast to the ferocious weather yesterday afternoon, today was a gloriously hot summer day. The air in the bedroom was stifling. With considerable effort, Tom forced himself up. He swung his legs off the bed and sat up too fast, then screwed his eyes shut and waited for a wave of self-induced nausea to pass. His head was pounding, and for a moment he wasn’t sure if he was going to black out, vomit, or both. It was a relief when the sickness faded enough for him to get up and stumble over to the window.

And then he remembered: The run… The alien ship… Last night in the Badger’s Sett, watching mankind’s first confirmed contact with intelligent life from another world…

His hangover immediately forgotten, he picked up his phone again and checked the news headlines, genuinely concerned that something terrible might have happened while he’d been asleep. Surely I’d have heard, he thought as he waited for the page to load. Wouldn’t Rob or Siobhan have woken me up if it was the end of the world?

It was hard to focus on such a small screen with his head so fuzzy. Satisfied that it wasn’t the end of everything just yet, he pulled back the curtains and looked out over Thatcham.

The village looked very different; as busy as carnival day, but without the flags and floats and bouncy castles. The streets were teeming with activity – more people around than he’d seen all summer, and there were no free parking spaces either. The car parks were full and there were vehicles parked up on the grass verges with still more arriving. From his window he could see the road coming into Thatcham from the north, and it was unexpectedly busy, clogged with a queue of slow-moving traffic. There was no doubt about it, Thatcham was the place to be this morning. It was no surprise, really. He guessed this entire stretch of coastline would probably be the same.

Tom took a clean T-shirt and a pair of shorts from the wardrobe and kicked his dirty clothes into the corner. He stumbled through into the bathroom where, after doing everything he needed to do and cleaning his teeth twice to get rid of the taste of last night, he got dressed and gradually began to feel human again. Human, he thought as he looked into the mirror. Doesn’t seem to have the same impact as it used to.

He headed for the kitchen to get coffee and toast to settle his still volatile stomach, but Rob had beaten him to it. Tom found him leaning against the back door, looking as bad as he himself felt. The kettle was boiling. With much moaning and groaning, he made drinks and passed one to Tom.

‘All right?’ Tom asked. Rob grunted something he couldn’t make out. He tried again. ‘Feeling rough?’

‘Fucking terrible. You?’

‘Same.’

Rob went through to the living room, dragging his feet along the carpet as if they were too heavy to pick up. He crashed onto the sofa and groaned again as he reached for the TV remote.

‘You seen how busy it is out there today?’ Tom asked.

‘It’s been like that all morning.’

‘Have you been up long?’

‘Don’t remember going to bed.’

‘Idiot.’

‘Thanks.’

‘So has anything happened?’

‘What, apart from a ship full of aliens turning up in the skies over Thatcham.’

‘Yes, apart from that.’

‘Well they’re not here to kill us, if that’s what you’re worried about.’

‘How do you know?’

Rob turned up the TV sound on one of the news channels. At first glance it looked the same as usual: the forced smile of an overly made-up, plastic-faced presenter, the ticker-tape running across the bottom of the screen, distracting graphics and icons constantly appearing then disappearing… but the headlines were anything but usual. It was still bizarre to hear the newsreader talking about alien contact and ‘entering a new era for mankind.’ Was there anyone left alive on the surface of the planet who hadn’t heard what had happened here? In these days of the Internet, mobile phones, digital TV, and everything else, when information was harder to avoid than to come by, could there be anyone who still wasn’t aware of the arrival of the aliens? More to the point, he thought as he waited for the headlines, there’s no way anyone could keep something like this quiet, even if they wanted to. The picture cut to a montage of shaky phone footage of the arrival of the ship, taken from various locations. How many thousands of people have video like that on their phones?

Back to the studio. The woman on the screen was annoying him now. Was that a smile or a grimace? Her skin was too perfect, her lips too red, not a hair out of place. Can I trust you? Are you an alien?

Midday. Headlines. The monumental events of the last twenty-four hours were condensed into two minutes of sound-bites and recycled footage, much of which he’d already seen, but that was sufficient. A little more information followed: an observation station in Southern Australia had, apparently, been the first place to pick up the distress signal (and Tom still wasn’t sure how they knew the aliens were in distress), and from there the progress of the ship had been continually tracked until a coordinated military task force under the command of the United Nations had guided the vessel out over safer waters.

Old news. What had happened since then?

The newsreader explained that direct contact had been made with the occupants of the ship shortly before they’d reached the Earth’s atmosphere. Just after midnight UK time, agreement had been made for a representative of the aliens to be taken into custody to explain their sudden and unexpected arrival here.

Tom couldn’t quite gauge the level of bullshit at play. This was mainstream TV news, so he knew there’d undoubtedly be some spin being put on the story somewhere along the line, but where, and from which direction? It was impossible to tell. But Christ, he thought, it all sounded so perfect. Too perfect, if anything. Maybe it was just him being a cynic?

Truth was, Tom was scared. He wanted answers no one was yet in any position to provide. He couldn’t say anything to Rob or Siobhan – he didn’t think either of them would understand – but he didn’t feel particularly good about any of this. Maybe it was the lack of control that troubled him. Whatever these bloody aliens decided to do, there was bugger all he could do about it.

In comparison, Rob didn’t seem to give a damn. He lifted his backside to fart, then groaned again.

‘Dirty bastard,’ Tom said.

‘Hold up, this is new,’ Rob said, ignoring him.

‘What is?’

‘This,’ he said again, nodding at the TV. ‘Haven’t seen this guy before.’

The man on the screen wore a well-decorated military uniform and spoke in heavily-accented, clipped English. Like the bewildered politician they’d seen on TV yesterday, this man also struggled to make himself heard over the noise in the briefing room where he was standing. He stood at a UN plinth, waiting impatiently for quiet. Eventually the noise subsided enough for him to continue.

‘Since the alien representative gave himself up to us in the early hours of this morning, we’ve been discussing the on-going situation constantly. They have complied with our every request, and have given us no reason to believe they will not continue to do so.

‘We are aware that these developments have incredibly wide-reaching ramifications, not just for countries and governments, but for every individual person on the planet too. With that in mind, the Security Council has authorised the following statement in the belief that honesty and transparency is the only way forward given the circumstances.’

‘Sounds ominous,’ Tom said.

‘Not necessarily.’

The UN representative continued. ‘Since the days before mankind took its first tentative steps beyond the atmosphere of our planet, we have dreamed of the moment we make contact with intelligent life from another planet. That day was yesterday.

‘Our science-fiction writers and film-makers have, unfortunately, always tended to put a rather dark and overdramatic slant on such events, portraying them as the beginning of the end, rather than anything more positive. Let me reassure you all today, we have no reason to be afraid of these visitors.’

‘Visitors!’ Tom laughed. ‘Reminds me of that old programme we used to watch. Remember V? I’ve been thinking about that show a lot today.’

‘Funny, that,’ Rob said. ‘Suppose visitors is as good a word as any.’

The man on the screen had paused for the assembled throng of reporters to absorb his words and calm down again. He continued, ‘As you already know, the alien ship is currently surrounded by an international military force which will remain there as long as necessary. The visitors have made no attempt to respond to their presence with anything less than complete humility.’

‘Odd choice of word,’ Tom said. Rob grunted.

‘This first contact between our two worlds was not planned, it came about by chance. I can tell you that the aliens were on a mining expedition on the outskirts of our galaxy. Their ship was damaged in an accident, leaving them unable to return home. It seems that we are the only other intelligent life-forms in an almost incalculably vast region of space. The aliens have, therefore, come to us for help.

‘This is not an invasion, this arrival is not a precursor of doom for our world, this is an opportunity for all of us. Despite being a considerably more advanced race than ourselves, the visitors are at our mercy. Their ship is incapable of making the return journey back to their world. Put simply, without our help, they will not survive.’

‘Do you buy that?’ Tom asked. ‘All that intelligence and technology, but they can’t fix their ship?’

‘Why not?’ Rob quickly replied. ‘Remember when you had that blowout on the motorway the other month?’

‘What about it? Hardly the same league.’

‘Same principle, though. You didn’t have a spare, so you were stuck standing on the hard shoulder for hours until the recovery truck could get to you.’

‘So?’

‘So, you know how to replace a tyre, but you didn’t physically have one, so there wasn’t anything you could do.’

He had a point, but Tom’s head still wasn’t clear enough to be able to see it. He tried to concentrate on the TV again, but the UN official had drifted into rhetoric about ‘new beginnings’ and ‘the dawn of a new age’, and he lost interest.

‘So how come they’re able to talk to us?’ he asked.

‘What?’

‘That’s one of the things I could never work out from Star Trek. Wherever they went and whoever or whatever they met, everyone spoke English.’

‘Newsflash, mate,’ Rob laughed, digging his brother in the ribs. ‘Star Trek’s made up. This is real.’

‘I know that, you prick, but that just makes it even harder to swallow, doesn’t it?’

‘Why?’

‘Because it does. Christ, we don’t even bother learning new languages when we go abroad. We just shout louder and hope the locals understand us.’

‘Well maybe we should make more of an effort. Anyway, if they can build and pilot a ship like that, something like Google Translate will be a piece of cake for them. They’ve probably got it implanted in their brains or something like that.’

‘Now you’re just taking the piss.’

‘I’m not! I’m serious. You can get things for your phone that’ll give you a translation if you take a photo of a sign written in a foreign language, and you can get software that understands speech. Put the two together and you’re not a million miles away. It’s a logical next-step.’

‘There’s nothing logical about what’s going on around here.’

‘Like I said, mate,’ he sighed, ‘they’ve got a great big, fuck off spaceship, remember? If they can manage that, I’m sure they can out-Google us too.’

‘Suppose. You’ve changed your tune. You didn’t sound so sure about all of this last night.’

‘I’ve had time to think about it, that’s all. Your problem, Tom, is that you’re a bloody cynic. I reckon it’s all those years spent shafting people in your job, all those takeovers and acquisitions. You need to start being a bit more altruistic. Not everyone’s always out to get you, you know.’

‘I know.’

‘When we were little, you always said you wanted to go into space. Well now you might have a chance. Imagine that! They’ll share their technology and there you go, the sky’s no longer the limit.’

‘I hope you’re right. I already know how it’ll pan out though. They’ll show someone how to build a ship, then someone else will want to build a better one, then we’ll be racing to build bases on the Moon and on Mars…’

‘I know what you’re saying, but let’s hope this is different, eh?’

‘Why should it be? In fact, why should they show us anything? Why not just take what they want then leave us broken and in pieces? When has a superior power ever truly given a damn about the people they’ve conquered?’

‘You’re still looking at this all the wrong way, Tom. It’s not about battles and fighting, is it? These aliens aren’t here because they want to pick a fight. They’re not here because they want to be here either. Their ship is fucked, and we just happen to be their only hope, even if all we’re doing is offering them bed and breakfast until they can get back. Thing is, when you step back and look at it, it looks like they need us far more than we need them.’

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