Chapter 10

In spite of the huge and sudden increase in the population levels of Thatcham, no-one in the village went to The Badger's Sett that Friday evening. Ray Mercer wasn't even there. In fact, for the first time in living memory (apart from when the cellar had flooded two winters back) the pub was closed.

Exactly one week had passed since the arrival of the alien visitors and preparations were well in hand for the jettison of their useless, crippled transport away from our planet and out towards the sun. Although no exact time scales were available, we were assured that it would happen tonight. Across the world the media reported that, within the next two or three hours, the massive machine's silent engines would be fired for the final time.

A vast crowd had gathered on the sprawling hills and cliff tops overlooking the ocean to watch the monumental event. During the last few days the flow of bodies into Thatcham and the surrounding villages and towns had been relentless and had increased still further once the launch date of the ship had been revealed. Even now with only hours to go and with the entire area heaving with people I could still see apparently endless columns of cars snaking along country roads towards the coast. They were so tightly packed that the headlamps of one car did little more than illuminate the back bumper of the one in front. Many had simply stopped and parked up on grass verges. Everyone wanted to be as close as possible to the alien ship when it finally left our atmosphere. People clamoured for a chance to see an alien or, at the very least, some distant alien activity. Everyone wanted to be there to witness history being made. Although I hadn't seemed to match the excited fervour of most people, I too didn't want to miss anything. This was a chance to be a part of something that would be permanently etched into our history books and, in all probability, into the alien's history books too.

Robert and I sat amongst the excited masses on the cliff-top not far from where I'd stood and watched the ship first arrive. We crouched down together on a small patch of dry, brittle grass and waited impatiently for something to happen.

'Bloody hell, did you see that one?' Rob gasped as a jet of brilliant white light suddenly shot across the distant horizon from left to right.

'I saw it,' I replied, finding it increasingly difficult not to sound bored. I had seen the last flash of light, and I had also seen the last twenty or thirty identical flashes before it. The aliens were stripping their ship - removing anything of value and using their small, silver shuttles to transport it back to the shore.

'There can't be much more left for them to do now,' Rob said, babbling like an excited child. 'Christ, they've had all week to empty the bloody thing.' 'Think they'll keep those shuttles here?' I asked as I lay back on the grass and looked up into the clear, dark sky. My head was suddenly filled with images of the incredible, sleek ships struggling to fit in with the flow of our own clumsy, ground-based traffic.

'They can't,' a loud and cocksure voice said from the darkness just behind and to the right of me. I sat up and turned around to try and locate the owner of the disembodied voice.

'Why not?' I asked, aiming my question in the general direction from which the last answer had come.

'Because the shuttles are powered by the mothership,' the voice replied. 'They would be able to function for a couple of days, but after that they'd be useless.'

'Did you know that?' I asked Rob.

He nodded his head with some surprise.

'Course I did. Everybody knows that. Christ, haven't you been paying attention?'

A middle-aged man wearing a flat cap and a shirt (with the sleeves neatly rolled up to just above the elbow) and brown tie shuffled awkwardly down the gentle slope towards us and squeezed himself in between Robert and myself. He had a pair of thick, heavily framed glasses perched on the bridge of his proud, pronounced nose, and had a dark little moustache nestling above the middle of his top lip. In the low light he looked bizarre - the bastard son of Adolf Hitler and a pigeon-fancier.

'The shuttles were only designed to be used for short distances,' he continued, uninvited. 'They're nowhere near as well shielded as the main ship.'

'They're stronger than anything we could ever make, of course,' Rob said, picking up where our visitor had left off, 'but compared to the mother ship they're nowhere near as robust.'

'Bloody hell,' I sighed, 'have you done anything this week except sit and watch the TV?'

The other man interrupted again.

'I don't think I've missed a single piece of news yet,' he said with some pride. 'I've travelled almost two hundred miles to get here today. I was on the train before seven this morning.'

'Were you really?' I sighed, neither impressed or interested.

'I was. What about you two? Have you come far?'

I shook my head nonchalantly.

'No. If you stand up and walk to the top of the hill you can see my house.'

'Really?' he gasped, suddenly appearing to be both rabidly interested and insanely jealous at the same time. 'Did you see the ship when it first arrived?' he asked excitedly. 'Where were you when it first appeared?'

'I was just over there,' I replied, pointing over to my right in the general direction of the twisting path I had been running along when the storm had broken and I'd watched the ship fly out over the ocean.

'Could you see much?' 'I saw everything,' I answered, taking some sadistic pleasure in taunting our new friend.

'What was it like?' he demanded impatiently. 'I've watched the footage again and again on the television, but to have actually been here when it happened...'

'It was okay,' I mumbled, deliberately trying to wind him up. 'You know, big and black and...'

I was interrupted as a helicopter suddenly reared up from behind us and screeched through the air above our heads, causing a shock wave of noisy, slightly nervous excitement to quickly spread through the tightly-packed crowds like a massive Mexican wave. The unexpected deluge of sound and light was confusing. For a second or two just about everyone gathered on the hillsides thought that something had started to happen.

'Damn,' said the man sitting between Rob and I, 'just a helicopter.'

I turned and noticed that he had a pair of battered binoculars hanging around his scrawny neck.

'Could I borrow those for a second?' I asked.

He thought carefully before reluctantly taking off the glasses and handing them to me.

'Here,' he mumbled. 'Watch what you're doing with them won't you. I've had them for years...'

Staring out over the ocean and out towards the horizon I was just able to make out the shadowy shape of the alien mothership. Its smooth, black fuselage still hung steady and motionless over the calm sea. As my eyes became accustomed to the low light where the purple-black sky met the sea I could see hundreds of tiny lights which pinpricked the bulkhead of the ship and shone out into the night like the countless stars above me. A steady stream of busy shuttles poured out from deep within the bowels of the ship. Each one of them swooped down towards the surface of the water, unloaded their cargo onto the decks of a fleet of waiting boats, and then quickly disappeared back up into the dark safety of the cavernous ship again. Then, after I had been watching for a minute or two, they suddenly stopped.

Conscious that the man next to me was keen to get his binoculars back, I deliberately ignored him and turned my attention below to the gently rolling waves in the shadows of the colossal ship. I could see a long line of boats which were now travelling back towards land. The flotilla virtually stretched from the ship to the shore.

'Looks like something might be happening,' I said under my breath.

'What can you see?' Rob asked.

I put the glasses down for a second and they were immediately snatched back by their owner. He quickly lifted them up to his own eyes and stared out to sea.

'The ships are moving back towards the shore,' I answered, 'and the shuttles have stopped flying. Looks like they've finished packing!'

The sudden change in the behaviour of the aliens was also noticed by some of the many other people in the vast crowd who were also using binoculars or, in one or two extreme cases, telescopes. Once again an unstoppable wave of contagious excitement and interest swept through the massive gathering with the deadly speed of a bush fire tearing through a tinder-dry forest.

'They must be taking everything to their new base,' the man who still perched between my brother and I said under his breath. He watched transfixed as the line of ships snaked away from the shadows of the belly of the alien craft. 'Did you know that they've constructed a safe area near here for them?'

'I had heard something,' I replied, suddenly a little more interested in the conversation. 'I was wondering where they were going to go. You'd have thought they'd have been carted off and hidden somewhere well away from...'

'Not at all,' he interrupted. 'There's a disused holiday camp near here...'

'Brymer Sands,' Rob piped up.

The man continued.

'That's right. It's been refurbished and security has been tightened so that they can stay there.'

'But will they stay there?' I wondered.

'Why should they?' Rob snapped, sounding strangely defensive. 'Bloody hell, it's not their fault they're stuck here, is it? Christ, remember when Mum and Dad took us to Brymer Sands when we were little? We were hard pushed to spend a week there. You can't expect bloody interplanetary travellers to be locked up there for a few months, can you? No, they said on the news this morning that they were going to be free to travel.'

Was there anything that my brother and the irritating, annoying little man who had joined us didn't know about the aliens? They seemed to know everything about their needs and their plans, far more than I would have expected them to. But then information didn't seem to be very hard to come by. Every time I turned on the television or logged onto the Internet I saw nothing but alien news and updates. I guess my problem was that I didn't have the same rabid interest as everyone else seemed to. Their arrival was interesting and had changed the course of human history for sure, but my life was still the same. Nothing much had altered.

'Is it a good idea to give them freedom?' I asked.

'Why not?' questioned Rob. 'We all know so much that there's nothing left to hide. And if the authorities did an about face and closed ranks on us now, what would it achieve? If people don't get told the truth, they'll invent their own version, won't they? If the flow of information was cut-off now it would only be a matter of hours before the papers would be full of stories about little green men and ray guns and crap like that...'

I understood what he was saying but something didn't ring true. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, and I couldn't begin to explain how I felt because I wasn't really sure myself. Something was definitely eating at me. Everything seemed inexplicably simple and uncomplicated. In a sense it felt as if every question I could think to ask about the aliens had been answered for me before I'd even had chance to speak.

At seventeen minutes past eleven the last human ship reached the shore and, for the first time since the aliens had arrived, the skies over the ocean were almost clear. A hushed and expectant silence swept through the enormous (and still growing) crowd that had gathered to witness the final few moments of the mighty machine. People scrambled further up the hillside and balanced themselves precariously on the obliging shoulders of friends, stretching and craning their necks so that they could get a clear view of the release of the ship.

Without warning, in a fraction of a second, the sea for miles around the rear of the immense alien machine was suddenly illuminated by a flood of searing, incandescent light which poured out from the powerful engines. The ship remained bewilderingly silent and I watched in wonder as it graciously turned full circle and began to glide back towards the shore. Billions of pairs of eyes stared out from every last corner of the globe to watch as the beautiful black machine gently lifted its nose to the stars and then blasted out into space, soaring straight over my head. Less than two minutes had passed before the incredible machine had disappeared completely from view.

A sudden wave of spontaneous cheering and applause echoed through the warm summer air. I stood up (my view had been good enough for me to remain seated throughout) and then reached back down to help pull Rob up onto his feet.

'Bloody hell,' he said with a vacant grin of disbelief plastered across his face. 'That was incredible. Did you see the size of that thing?'

I nodded and yawned and began to walk back up the slope of the hill towards home. Hordes of excited, chattering people swarmed around me.

'Impressive, wasn't it?' I said sarcastically, trying unsuccessfully to hide the unexpected disappointment that I was feeling. The ship had been an amazing sight to behold but, now that it had gone, I was left filled with a sense of anticlimax.

Rob was ignorant to my feelings and carried on talking regardless.

'How could something so big be so quiet?' he wondered enthusiastically. 'And the light from those engines! Jesus, I've never seen anything like it!'

I weaved my way through the sea of vast, meandering figures. Some of them were still fixed to the spot, staring up into space transfixed and hoping to snatch one last glimpse of the awesome alien ship.

We reached the top of the hill and I looked down towards Thatcham. Even from a distance I could see that the village streets were heaving with cars and people.

'We could have made a bloody fortune tonight,' I mumbled, stifling a tired yawn.

'How?'

'I've never seen so many people,' I explained. 'I could have hired out the spare room or let a couple of them put tents up in the garden...'

'It's not too late.'

'Suppose.'

'You could still do it, there's plenty of time. There are still people arriving. I bet there's going to be hundreds of people sleeping in the back of their cars tonight.'

'More fool them,' I grumbled.

'Don't worry,' Rob continued. 'It's going to stay busy round here for a long time yet.'

'You reckon?'

'Course it is. Bloody hell, we've got aliens living thirty miles up the coast. Everyone's going to want to see them.' He was right. As we stumbled on towards home I glanced back over my shoulder. I could just about make out the twinkling lights of the camp at Brymer.

The aliens were close. Damn close.

I wasn't overly concerned or worried that they were near, but I still couldn't bring myself to match the euphoria which seemed to have consumed just about everyone else.

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