In Tom’s isolated little bubble, the week passed slowly but without further incident. The unusually inflated population of the village meant that, surprisingly, he saw fewer people than usual. The recruitment agency was as busy as she’d expected – both as a result of an influx of people looking for casual work and existing employers looking to take on additional temporary staff – and he saw hardly anything of Siobhan. Tom didn’t care much for the crowded streets – his quiet local pub was no longer quiet, instead filled with so many out-of-towners that it didn’t feel particularly local – and so he spent much of the week either lounging around the house or out walking. He walked for miles one day, following the coastal path he usually ran along. He walked for several hours in one direction, before turning around and coming back again, just because he could.
Tom grew to hate the twenty-four hour news channels. He thought it strange how, in the space of less than a week, footage of the alien ship had begun to appear remarkably mundane. It was beginning to bore him as much as the politics, war reports and other news stories it had temporarily usurped on the screen. It was all mind-numbingly dull when played on a loop.
Rob returned to Thatcham from university early on Friday morning, complaining that he’d had to wait hours to get on the train. It seemed that more people than ever had descended on the village today, but it came as no surprise to anyone. The reason was obvious: today was the day the aliens’ crippled ship was to be launched towards the sun. No one knew exactly when it was scheduled to happen, nor if they’d be able to see anything from the shore, but that didn’t deter any of the thousands of people who came. According to the world’s media (almost all of whom continued to report live from the village and surrounding area), sometime this evening the massive machine’s engines would be fired for the final time.
Space in and around Thatcham was already at a premium, and the situation had deteriorated markedly today. Tom had heard from John Tipper that people had been renting out their spare rooms, such was the demand for digs near to this historic event. By late afternoon Tom himself had accepted fifty quid from a man to pitch his tent and let his family of four spend the night camping on his small front lawn, much to Ray Mercer’s disgust. Rob said Tom could have held out for double that price.
Certain aspects of the bungalow afforded them a reasonable view over the ocean, but the largest windows overlooked the village rather than the water, and like everyone else it seemed, Tom, Rob and Siobhan chose to head for the cliff-tops to try and get a better view. Tom had taken a little persuading, finding himself unable to match the enthusiasm of the others. They’d been on the verge of heading out without him when he’d spotted John Tipper coming up the road and had gone out to speak to him.
‘What are you doing out here?’ Tom asked, mindful of the fact that this was the first Friday night in an age that he himself hadn’t been hunkered down in the lounge of the Badger’s Sett. ‘Who have you got looking after the pub?’
‘No one,’ John replied, sounding uncharacteristically downbeat. ‘I’ve shut up shop. There’s no one there, Tom. I was waiting for you, truth be told. I left it as long as I could in case it started to pick up, but the place was empty. Don’t know what all the fuss is about myself. Betty’s already somewhere up on the hills with the rest of her bloody WI clan. She phoned me and said I should come up myself. I said I couldn’t leave the pub, but she reeled off the names of more than half the regulars she’d seen on her way up there.’
‘I’ll probably see you there then.’
‘You going too?’
‘Looks that way.’
‘No idea if I’ll be able to find Bet, mind,’ John said. ‘Have you seen the crowds? Reckon I’ll hover around until it’s all over, then get back down quick and see if I can’t get a few people in before last orders.’
‘Good luck,’ Tom said, and then watched John disappear into the masses before setting out himself with Rob and Siobhan.
Regardless of whether or not they saw the alien ship tonight, what Tom witnessed out on the cliffs was an impressive sight in itself. An unimaginable number of people were gathered there for as far as he could see into the distance, an unending mass. The media had been building the launch up all week as an incredible, once in a lifetime event. Tom wondered how much of a spectacle it was really going to be.
Tom looked back as they climbed, and saw that more people were still heading in this direction from the village. Further back, even more cars were trying to get into Thatcham, so tightly packed together now that the headlamps of each car did little more than illuminate the back bumper of the one in front.
Was this safe? Was there any form of crowd control up here? He’d seen Sergeant Phipps and a couple of other officers, but that was all. Makeshift cordons had been erected all the way along the cliff-side of the footpath to keep folks back but they were little more than traffic cones with warning tape strung between them and the fact remained that thousands of excited people were gathering close to the edge of a hundred foot drop in the dark. Christ, he felt like such a killjoy, but he was already imagining the newspaper reports tomorrow morning. There was inevitably going to be some idiot – pissed-up, stoned or just plain stupid – who wandered too far forward. But no one else seemed to be bothered. It was like a bloody festival further up past the war memorial where the ground levelled out. People had set up barbeques and were selling food. Another enterprising guy was selling cans of drink he’d pushed up the hill in a wheelbarrow. Several others worked their way through the masses, hawking torches, glow-sticks and other assorted bits of worthless tat.
Despite the fact he found it difficult – impossible, almost – to match the level of enthusiasm of the hundreds of people all around him, Tom had to admit to feeling some genuine excitement now. The media’s hyperbole had been accurate to an extent – whatever happened here tonight, history was going to be made, one way or another. He didn’t want to miss it. The events of the next few hours would inevitably be written into the history books and be immortalised in photographs and film footage which would be pored over by every subsequent generation. It was remarkable, really. He felt privileged to be here, but at the same time, as just one of many thousands, he also felt uncomfortably insignificant. If he hadn’t been here, barely anyone would have noticed.
Siobhan found a patch of grass deep amongst the masses, just large enough for the three of them.
‘This do?’ she asked, already sitting down.
‘Suppose,’ Tom replied, still looking around for a better spot. ‘Will we be able to see it from here?’
‘Well, going on the basis that it’s a fucking huge spaceship we’re looking for, I guess so,’ Rob said sarcastically. ‘As long as you can see the sky, you should be okay.’
It all looked completely different tonight, of course, but Tom realised they were sitting not far from where he’d been when he’d witnessed the arrival of the alien ship. ‘I was just over there,’ he tried to tell Siobhan, but either she wasn’t interested or she couldn’t hear him. It was a still night with only a light warm breeze, but the collective noise of the crowd was astonishing. He glanced across at his brother, and saw that Rob had a pair of binoculars.
‘Where did they come from?’ Tom asked. ‘Were they Dad’s?’
‘You said you didn’t want them, remember?’ he replied as he scanned the horizon. He focussed on what he thought was the alien ship in the far distance, although he wasn’t entirely sure what he was seeing. The immense bulkhead of the vast machine remained almost entirely black. It seemed to blend into the darkness, its shape revealed only by occasional bursts of movement and light around it.
‘See anything?’ Siobhan asked.
‘I think I’ve got it.’
‘Let me see.’
Rob was about to pass her the glasses when an audible gasp from the crowds way over to their left distracted him. He looked out towards the horizon again, just in time to see an intense flash of white light near to the surface of the water, followed by several more in quick succession.
‘Bloody hell, that’s cool,’ he said. ‘Won’t be long now. I bet that’s the engine firing tests they were talking about.’
‘Either that or the shuttles,’ Siobhan said, taking the glasses from him.
‘What shuttles?’ Tom asked.
‘They’ve been stripping anything worth salvaging from the ship and transporting it all to the naval base down near Abertreach. It’s been all over the TV.’
‘Haven’t you been watching the news?’ Rob asked him.
‘Must have missed that bit.’
‘They’re using the shuttles to shift the stuff that’s too big or too heavy to be transported by water.’
‘What sort of stuff?’
‘Fuel cells and engine components,’ a man’s voice said from somewhere just behind Tom. He turned around but couldn’t see who’d spoken.
‘And how do you know?’ he asked, still not able to locate the eavesdropper.
‘Like your friends said,’ the voice replied, ‘it’s been all over the news.’
‘Shame about those shuttles,’ Rob said, speaking to the unseen man behind. ‘I’d love to have seen one of them close up.’
‘Oh, absolutely,’ the man said, shuffling further forward and making himself known.
‘What’s a shame?’ Tom asked, but no one answered.
‘Something to do with the propulsion systems, isn’t it?’ Siobhan said.
‘That’s what I heard,’ the man said.
‘Do you even know what a propulsion system is?’ Tom asked Siobhan, bemused.
‘Of course I do,’ she replied, offended.
‘I heard it was something to do with the shuttles’ relationship with the mother-ship,’ the unknown man continued. ‘They’re powered by the main ship, as I understand it. They’ll probably last for a while longer, maybe as long as a couple of months, but after that they’ll most likely be useless.’
Tom looked at Rob and Siobhan. ‘Did you know that?’
‘Yes,’ Rob replied. ‘It’s no great secret, mate.’
‘Bloody hell, I need to start paying more attention.’
He sat up straighter and took the opportunity to turn around and get a better look at the man who’d muscled-in on their conversation. He appeared to be in his late-fifties, maybe early-sixties, and he was wearing a baseball cap and a long-sleeved formal shirt, buttoned-up to the top, the sleeves neatly rolled to just above the elbow. He wore a pair of thick, heavy-rimmed glasses, and had a dark little moustache. In the low light, Tom thought he looked bizarre: part-school teacher, part-Nazi.
‘You really should pay attention,’ he said to Tom. ‘This is important. None of us can afford to be left behind.’
‘He’s right,’ Siobhan agreed. ‘What’s happened has changed everything, Tom. I don’t want you to miss out.’
‘I haven’t missed out so far. Bloody hell, I was standing right here when the damn thing first flew over.’
‘You were that close?’ their uninvited friend babbled excitedly. ‘It must have been incredible.’
‘It was, I suppose,’ Tom said, belying any enthusiasm he felt, not wanting to prolong the man’s involvement in their evening.
‘Could you see much?’ he asked.
‘I saw everything. Like I said, it flew right over me.’
‘What was it like?’ he demanded impatiently. ‘I’ve watched the footage over and over on the TV, but to have actually been here when it happened…’
‘It was just like you saw,’ he said with a nonchalant shrug. ‘Big and black and—’
Tom’s attempts to wind the man up were halted temporarily by a sudden rush of wind and noise and a sweeping white light. The crowd reacted immediately, convinced that this was it, all of them up on their feet and shielding their eyes from the brightness overhead. But it wasn’t the aliens. The sound became more familiar – a steady chop, chop, chop – and a huge military helicopter flew out from over the village, skirting along the cliffs then heading out towards the intermittent lights flickering on the horizon. A subdued, disappointed silence took the place of all the sudden noise and bluster.
‘So you’re local?’ the man asked.
‘He lives just back there,’ Rob replied, gesturing in the general direction of Tom’s small house.
‘You’re not from around here?’ Siobhan asked as she passed the binoculars to Tom.
The man (who had his own set of well-worn binoculars and was busy looking into the distance) eventually replied, ‘No, I’m not. It’s taken me hours to get here today. I was on the train before seven this morning. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, though.’
Tom couldn’t understand why he’d gone to such lengths to sit in a field on a cliff-top along with thousands of other people just to watch a few seconds of alien activity. Perhaps he was just spoilt, living so close to the epicentre of all the interest. Maybe he’d feel differently if he was elsewhere and he hadn’t been subjected to the alien overload of the last seven days. Aliens, he thought, it’s old hat now. Passé, almost. It felt like it had been longer than a week, like they’d been here forever.
Tom peered through the binoculars and was just about able to make out the shape of the mother-ship, its endless bulk still hanging effortlessly over the sea. The longer he stared, the more he could make out. There were lights flitting to and fro from near the stern of the ship, the shuttles the others had been talking about, he presumed. He watched one of them make a quick, darting descent, perhaps to unload its cargo onto one of the many boats waiting below. Some of the ships were as large as tankers. He could see a line of them stretching back to the shore.
Rob nudged Tom to hand the binoculars back. He did as he was asked, then lay back on the grass and looked up into the sky. Siobhan playfully slipped her hand underneath his T-shirt and began to stroke his stomach.
‘You okay?’ she asked.
‘I’m fine. You?’
‘Very good,’ she laughed. ‘Very, very good!’
‘What are you doing tomorrow?’
‘Work first thing, but I’ll be done before noon. There was some talk of James having a barbeque, wasn’t there?’
‘Oh, that’ll be great. Screaming kids and food that’s either half-cooked or burned to a crisp.’
‘It’ll be okay. It’ll be nice to see them. I’m sure it’s at James’. Might be Clare’s… tell you the truth, with all this going on I’ve hardly thought about it.’
‘I think this might be it,’ Rob said suddenly, rising to his knees and straightening up as if a few extra inches height was going to make a difference.
‘What’s happening?’ the flat-cap wearing man asked anxiously, desperate not to miss anything. He glanced at Rob to see where he was looking, then angled his own binoculars accordingly and spoke again. ‘I think you’re right,’ he said. ‘The rest of the ships look like they’re starting to move out. There’s definite movement down there…’
‘Just the aliens themselves to get off now then?’ Tom said, propping himself up onto his elbows.
‘Most of them will already be long gone, I guess,’ Rob said.
‘They going to quarantine them or something like that?’ Tom asked.
‘Something like that,’ he replied. ‘They’ll have already been checked for diseases and bugs. There’s probably more chance of them catching stuff from us than us getting sick from them.’
It was another ninety minutes before anything significant actually happened. The ever-expanding crowd on the hill had continued to grow and had reached such a size now that it was standing room only. Tom was uncomfortable. He needed a piss, but he didn’t dare move. It – whatever it was – could begin without warning at any moment. Siobhan and Rob weren’t going anywhere. He was sure he could find a bush to pee behind or even run to the house and be back out on the cliffs fairly quickly, but he didn’t fancy his chances of finding Rob and Siobhan again when he returned. He wished he’d brought a radio with him. He had his phone, but the signal was poor up here and when he did manage to get online, updates were sparse.
‘Here we go,’ Rob said suddenly, the binoculars still pressed to his face.
‘What can you see?’ Siobhan asked. ‘Come on, Rob, let me look.’
He passed the binoculars over, knowing that they wouldn’t be needed much longer.
‘The shuttles have almost stopped,’ he explained. ‘They’ve been slowing down for a while, but it looks like they’re finally done now.’
Siobhan watched as the white lights from the rear of the last two shuttles sped across the water, quickly catching up then overtaking the slowest few human boats in the ragtag fleet now heading back to land. Around them, those people who had radios and better Internet connections started to react to events.
‘Dad would have loved this,’ Tom said to his brother, his voice tinged with sadness.
‘I was just thinking the same thing,’ Rob replied.
‘Remember how he used to go on about little green men and stuff like that? Got it all wrong, didn’t he? They’re not little and they’re not green.’
‘I don’t think he was being literal, you idiot. But you’re right, he’d have been lapping this up. He’d have been in his element, right in the middle of it all. Knowing Dad he’d probably have been out there on one of those boats.’
‘Never one for sitting at home watching TV, was he?’
‘If he hadn’t been able to get here, he’d have been online researching every aspect. He’d have known more than anyone.’
‘You think?’ Tom said. ‘You lot seem to know a fair bit yourselves.’
‘They’ve made it easy though, haven’t they? Imagine what it would have been like if we hadn’t had access to all that information? There’d have been panic on the streets. If there hadn’t been so much on TV recently, people would have assumed the worst, wouldn’t they? They’d have assumed we’d been invaded.’
Tom considered his brother’s words. He was absolutely right, of course. To have withheld information about this most visible of close encounters would have been a huge mistake, doing infinitely more harm than good. He was actually looking forward to it easing up now, to seeing more typical news stories again. He longed to have a conversation with someone which didn’t feature aliens in one way or another…
The noise of the crowd was increasing as news spread like wildfire from those following events on radios and computers and phones. The launch of the ship was imminent. People scrambled further up the hillside to get a better view. Excited kids were hoisted up onto their parent’s shoulders. Others climbed trees or stood on walls.
The wave of excitement was just beginning to die down to a hesitant hum of expectation when, at precisely eleven-seventeen, it began.
Without warning, in a fraction of a second, the ocean for miles around the rear of the immense alien ship was illuminated by a flood of searing, incandescent brilliance as the engines were fired. Rob watched in wonder as it began to move, turning a slow and graceful three-quarter-circle towards the shore. Billions of people observed from every last corner of the globe as the beautiful black machine lifted its nose to the stars and began to climb at a ferocious speed and an impossibly steep angle. All telescopes and binoculars were discarded as it approached. For a few seconds it was so large that it filled the entire sky, appearing almost near enough to touch. And then it accelerated with incredible force, and the whole world seemed to shake. People steadied themselves as the air pressure changed and as a hot, downward wind buffeted them. Necks craned as it climbed higher and higher, unnaturally quiet and incomprehensibly fast. And then it was gone. In less than two minutes the incredible ship had disappeared completely from view.
Tom continued to stare into space, genuinely overcome by the scale of what he’d just witnessed. It had somehow surpassed the spectacle of the ship’s arrival. He wondered if that was because this time he’d been surrounded by other people and not out here on his own, exposed.
As a huge wave of spontaneous cheering and applause filled the air, Siobhan grabbed his hand.
‘What did you think?’ she asked. He struggled to find the right words.
‘Incredible…’ was all he could manage.
‘Fucking amazing, wasn’t it?’ Rob said. ‘Did you see the size of that thing? And the noise – the lack of noise, I mean – Christ, how could anything that big be so quiet?’
‘And the light,’ Siobhan enthused, ‘did you feel it? It was warm. It was beautiful. You could feel it on your skin. I’ve never known anything like it.’
They both looked at Tom expectantly.
‘It was like that last week when I was out running,’ he said finally. ‘I thought I was done for when I saw it.’
‘Come on, would they really have let all these people be out here like this if they thought it was dangerous?’
‘No one knew anything about it last week, though. I could have been buggered, burned to a crisp.’
‘Oh, but it was huge,’ Siobhan continued, barely listening to him. ‘I mean, I’d started to think there’d been so much build up it was going to be a let-down, but it wasn’t. If anything, it was even more amazing than I imagined. Didn’t you think, Tom?’
‘I kind of knew what to expect.’
‘And that was what I got.’
‘Bloody hell, you could try and show a little enthusiasm at least,’ Rob sighed. ‘What did you want, more lights and lasers? A few explosions? Star Wars music?’
Tom didn’t bother to answer. All around them the crowds began to shift. Still gripping Siobhan’s hand tightly, he began to lead her back towards home. She pulled back.
‘What’s the rush?’
‘Need a piss,’ he answered honestly. ‘If we go now we’ll beat the bulk of the crowds.’
‘I want to stay for a while,’ she said. ‘It’s great out here. You go on ahead. Come back out when you’re done.’
Much as Tom didn’t want to leave her, he couldn’t wait any longer. Rob sensed his predicament. ‘We’ll stick together,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, she’ll look after me!’
Before he could leave, Siobhan hurled herself at him and wrapped her arms around him, squeezing tight.
‘Tom Winter,’ she whispered, ‘you’re a miserable bugger but I love you. Now go and have your piss then get yourself back here!’
‘I’m not miserable,’ he protested, ‘I’m just—’ She interrupted him with a kiss and a playful shove away.
Tom began walking back home, weaving through the sea of meandering figures. Many people were still rooted to the spot, standing motionless and looking up into the clear, star-filled sky, perhaps hoping to catch one final glimpse of the alien ship before it was gone forever. Some people were in tears, others grinning like idiots. He wished he could match their emotion, but the discomfort in his bladder was getting worse. In fact, he decided as he pushed his way through a bottleneck by the war memorial, he now felt positively anti-climactic.
‘Well that’s it,’ he heard someone say, catching a snatch of excited conversation as he tried to push past a group of revellers, ‘they’re here to stay now.’