Chapter 12

Part II

RELEASE

12

The last Wednesday in August. Almost a month to the day since the aliens had first arrived.

I got up at eight. I had a shower, got dressed, and then ate some breakfast sitting on a deckchair out on the lawn. Robert was already up and about. He was hiding indoors in the shadows, glued to the television. There was an early morning discussion programme on which I couldn't bring myself to watch. The subject of debate was the release of the aliens from their camp at Brymer.

It felt like the last three weeks had passed by in three minutes. Looking back, the days and hours seemed to have disappeared in a continual whirlwind blur of new alien revelations and cascaded information. Every newspaper I'd picked up, every poster I'd seen, every television programme I'd watched, every radio programme I'd listened to and every website I'd visited seemed to have mentioned the aliens. Just after his youngest daughter had been born I remembered my friend James telling me that he had stood there one night watching her sleeping in her cot, and it had seemed impossible to believe that there had ever been a time when she hadn't been there. In a strange way I felt much the same about the alien visitors today. It was like they'd always been with us. The very idea that we had ever considered ourselves as being alone in the universe now seemed as preposterous and far-fetched as the prospect of alien contact itself had done just five or six weeks ago.

Within a week of the visitors settling into their temporary home at Brymer it had been announced that they were to be released. Enough tests had been run and enough checks carried out to ensure that their presence amongst us caused no threat to any life on Earth. They carried no germs, bacteria or disease that would harm us.

Within two weeks the first official human-alien summit had taken place and the results of all discussions held were quickly made public. A comprehensive and far-reaching consultation and education programme was immediately drawn up and put into place to educate the masses and prepare them for the very real possibility of direct and individual alien contact.

Within three weeks further communication had been made with the alien homeworld and the key principles, strategies and objectives of an ongoing relationship were clearly identified, defined and agreed upon.

Yesterday the aliens were released.

The programme that Rob was watching with fanatical interest was being broadcast from Dreighton, a small town some twelve miles north of Thatcham which had, by fate, been chosen to be the first place in the universe where aliens and humans were able to freely coexist. I caught brief snatches of the programme as I walked in and out through the room, and the town appeared to be busy but calm. There hadn't been any trouble overnight.

We had both sat and watched live coverage of the alien's release yesterday. They had been presented as heroes and accorded an unexpected celebrity status. There had been thousands of men, women and children of all ages gathered at the re-enforced gates of the holiday camp at Brymer. They had waited for hours in the blistering sun to be among the first humans to get a good look at the unique visitors in the flesh. We had all heard more than enough about their incredible technology, their mothership and their sleek shuttle crafts, now it was time to get a good look at the aliens themselves.

The first figures had emerged from the shadows of the complex just before midday. The creatures marched - almost strutted - out into the bright sunlight with an impressive poise, dignity and pride which seemed to me to border on arrogance and superiority. There was not the slightest sign of any nervousness or trepidation as they walked towards the vast crowds which had gathered to greet them. I tried to imagine how I might have felt in their position. Not only was this a foreign land to them, there were also thousands of people crowded around to watch their every move. Even more daunting was the probability that there were hundreds of millions of people also watching on television from every country around the world and, possibly, even beyond.

There were three hundred and sixty-eight aliens on the crippled mining ship and three hundred and sixty-eight of them left the camp yesterday afternoon. Some of the higher ranking visitors were seconded to work with the authorities but most - their equivalent of workers and the labourers perhaps - were given the freedom of the country. Generally choosing to remain in small groups of three, four or five, they mingled freely with the humans who had gathered to see them. The atmosphere seemed light and good-natured. The creatures even stood and posed for photographs which would take pride of place in otherwise 'ordinary' family albums. They seemed happy and relaxed and well-suited to their sudden superstar status.

Today the morning sun was bright and warm and I didn't yet feel fully awake. I went inside. The shadows made the light in the living room seem comparatively dull.

'All right?' Rob's voice asked from somewhere in the gloom.

'Fine,' I replied. 'You?'

He grunted.

'Anything happened?' I asked.

'What do you mean?'

'Anything happened with the aliens? Has there been any trouble?'

'Trouble?' he repeated, surprised.

'Yes, trouble.'

'Not that I know of. Why, were you expecting any?'

'Don't know. There are a lot of people around Dreighton, and I guess most of them are there just to see the aliens. In just about every science-fiction film you see you expect someone to...'

'But this isn't science-fiction,' he interrupted.

'I know, but...' 'But what?'

I thought for a moment.

'I don't know. I'm just an old cynic at heart. I never expected things to go this smoothly, that's all.'

'What do you mean? Christ, sometimes you sound as if you want something to go wrong. You've got to get rid of your attitude problem and give the aliens a chance. The rest of us intend to...'

'I haven't got an attitude,' I snapped. 'Listen, I want this to work just as much as you do, it's just that...'

'Do you really? You don't sound like you do.'

The venom in my brother's voice was bitter and unexpected.

I could have responded but there didn't seem to be much point. He seemed convinced that I wanted the aliens to disappear back to where they'd come from but that really wasn't the case. I genuinely wanted things to work out. Although I didn't think that they would gain much from us, it was obvious to me that our species could benefit immeasurably from the experience and knowledge of the visitors. But their arrival had brought a change to my world. A change which, without directly affecting anything, seemed somehow to gradually be altering everything.

In an attempt to convince Robert of my good intentions and feelings towards the aliens, I agreed to go with him into Dreighton that evening. It was about half-past seven when we arrived there and the late summer sun that had lasted all day had finally begun to melt and fade away into darkness.

The town was just as busy as I had expected. There were film crews and reporters on every street corner. At least one reporter and cameraman from every television channel in the world and a photographer from every newspaper seemed to have set up camp somewhere in that normally grey, lifeless and unimportant place.

'Bloody hell,' Rob yawned as we drove around aimlessly. 'Are we going to get parked anywhere?'

I shrugged my shoulders and continued to look from left and right then back again for a place to leave the car. Every single space (virtually every spare inch of pavement in fact) was taken. After driving in circles for almost half an hour our luck changed when an elderly lady (who had been shopping and who had obviously not expected any of this mayhem) reversed her little car out of a supermarket car park and trundled out onto the road ahead of us. I quickly squeezed my car into the gap she'd left.

'Thank God for that,' I sighed as I turned off the engine and stretched in my seat. With my legs stiff and heavy from having been sat in the same position for so long, I clambered out of the car and yawned. Even though the sun had almost completely disappeared the late summer heat was still close and formidable. The back of my shirt was soaked through with clammy sweat and clung to my skin.

'So where do we go then?' Rob asked, sounding almost as if he was expecting to have found signs saying 'Aliens, this way,' on every street corner.

'Don't know.'

'There must be something...' 'What, a map? You are here, aliens there or something like that...?'

'Piss off!' he snapped.

I glanced around to get my bearings. I didn't come to Dreighton often because, to be frank, there was bugger all there. Just a moderately sized shopping area which I instinctively began walking towards.

'If they're going to be anywhere,' I said as we headed up the street, 'they're going to be up here.'

We walked along a steep and narrow pavement at the side of a road which ran parallel with, and eventually merged into, the town's busiest thoroughfare. The brilliant coloured lights from shops which were usually shut at this time of night still shone out brightly, illuminating the pavements and the swarms of people that had gathered there. I noticed that everyone seemed to be constantly looking from side to side, hoping for a glimpse of one of the three hundred or so aliens that had suddenly arrived in town.

'Christ, this place is packed,' Rob said as we merged with the milling crowds. His razor-sharp perceptiveness had obviously not been blunted by the heat.

The traffic travelling along the dual carriageway which bisected the town was nothing more than four motionless lanes of overheating vehicles. No-one was going anywhere. Rob spotted a pub over the road and began to weave his way through the virtually parked cars to get to it.

'I need a drink,' he said, talking to me over his shoulder as he walked. 'Got any money with you?'

The large pub was as busy inside as the streets were outside. The air stank of stale smoke and spilled beer and every room was filled to capacity (and probably beyond) with tightly-packed punters. I pushed my way through the heaving throng and managed to worm my way into a gap at the bar. I then stood and waited for almost fifteen minutes before being served by a stressed-out and sweat-soaked member of staff. I bought a drink for Rob and one for myself (because I was too tired and thirsty to wait for him to offer to buy a round) and then looked for somewhere to sit.

'Cheers,' my brother gasped as he lifted his hand and took his pint from me. He knocked back half of his drink, wiped his mouth and stifled a belch. 'Too bloody busy in here,' he grumbled. 'Shall we go back outside?'

I nodded and began to push my way back towards the door. By the time we'd fought our way out most of my beer had been spilt but I didn't even contemplate trying to get back to the bar to get a refill. Tired and strangely dejected I found a space and sat down on a low stone wall.

'I can't get over how busy it is,' Rob said.

'What, the pub or the town?' I grumbled under my breath. He scowled at me.

'The town, you idiot,' he snapped.

'What did you expect?'

'I didn't think it would be as bad as this. Still, there's a good atmosphere, isn't there?'

He was right. Even though I was in a bad mood, most other people seemed to be enjoying themselves. For once there was no sign of the tightly-packed population being anywhere near as volatile, harassed or bad-tempered as it normally was. But having said that Dreighton somehow didn't feel right to me. Maybe it was just me being miserable. Most people were acting as if it was carnival day, but as far as I could see no-one was wearing any costumes, I couldn't hear very much music and the stationary traffic jam running the length of the main road wasn't much of a parade.

'Think we're going to see one tonight?'

I shrugged my shoulders.

'Don't know,' I replied honestly. 'You'd have thought so. There are over three hundred of them, aren't there?'

'Yes but they're surrounded by about six million of us!'

I turned and looked at him. He was talking rubbish. Nothing unusual in that, but this was rapidly becoming relentless, high-speed rubbish. He was genuinely excited like a kid on the morning of their birthday.

'What do you think they make of this place?' he asked. 'Wonder what their towns are like? Do you think they have pubs like this or...'

'I expect they think Dreighton's a shit-hole,' I sighed, interrupting and hoping to stem the flow from his mouth. 'I do.'

'I bet they don't have shops. Bet it's all done from home on an Internet kind of thing. I bet this is like taking a massive step back in time. This will seem all dirty to them. They'll be used to sterile conditions I expect. When you think about the technology they've got...'

He stopped talking.

I looked up to see what was wrong and saw that he was staring further along the street. There was a huge crowd approaching.

'Fucking hell,' he gasped, 'this must be it. Bloody hell, this must be it! I bet there's one of them in that lot.'

We looked at each other for a fraction of a second before putting down our glasses and jumping up. The mass of figures was now only some ten or fifteen metres away and I could see that as they moved down the street in a huge wave, more and more onlookers were picked up and carried along with the flow. From where I was standing all that I could see was heads. I climbed up onto the wall we'd been sitting on and then jumped over onto a wooden table, landing right in the middle of someone's round of drinks.

'Bloody hell,' a man's annoyed voice spat from below me. 'What the hell are you doing...?'

He immediately stopped speaking when he became aware of the approaching noise. He looked over his shoulder momentarily (he had his back to the road) before clambering up onto the table next to me. I lost sight of Rob for a few seconds before spotting him shinning up a lamppost.

There must have been around a hundred to a hundred and fifty people walking towards us. They seemed generally well ordered and, although obviously excited by everything that was happening around them, they also seemed calm and even-tempered. There was no jostling or fighting for position as far as I could see.

At the very centre of the crowd, standing slightly taller than most of the assembled humans, were two aliens. From where I stood I could see little more than the tops of their large, white-haired heads. As they approached, however, they gradually came into view. I glanced across at Rob but he didn't look back. He was transfixed. His eyes were fixed firmly on the visitors.

The people moving along with the aliens had formed a deep and protective circle around them. As they neared I was able to see slightly more of the creature's tall, gangly bodies. Although appearing willowy, slight and long of limb, they walked confidently and with clear strength and poise. They carried themselves with impressive dignity and composure and did not seem at all fazed or pressurised by the relentless curiosity of the humans gathered around them.

They were level with the front of the pub when the man appeared.

At first insignificant and looking to all intents and purposes like just another member of the vast alien appreciation society, he stood motionless in the middle of the pavement and waited for the advancing crowd to swallow him up. With his arms folded defiantly across his chest he stood and waited. The people moved around him - like water flowing round a boulder in the middle of a stream - but when the aliens reached him they stopped. The crowd fell silent when the aliens stopped moving.

'I want to ask a question,' the man spat venomously, loud enough for everyone nearby to hear.

'Ask,' replied the first alien in a medium-pitched, slightly monotonous voice.

'I want to know why you're here?'

'You know why we're here.'

'What do you want?'

'You know what we want.'

The man stared into the alien's face and continued to stand his ground. The second alien remained silent. It pushed out its chest and lifted its head, making it appear a good six or seven inches taller than it had done originally. Other than that no-one else moved. There was a brief moment of silence and unexpected, almost unbearable tension.

'I don't trust you,' he hissed at the aliens, still glaring intently into the face of the first creature. 'I don't care what you say or what you do, I just don't fucking trust you.'

The alien slowly lifted a single hand into the air and uncurled its unnaturally long fingers.

'Stop,' it said, quietly and calmly. 'Just stop talking and take a look around you.'

Obediently (perhaps instinctively) the man slowly and cautiously turned to look into the faces of the vast crowd which surrounded him on all sides.

'What?' he mumbled anxiously.

'Take a good look around. How many other people are objecting to us being here? How many other people don't trust us? We don't want anything from you. We're stuck here until we can get home and that is all there is to it. We're sorry if you take objection to our being here, but there's really nothing we can do about it.'

The stand-off lasted for two or three seconds longer.

'I just don't believe you...' the man muttered again.

'Go home,' the second alien said in a softer, more soothing tone than that of its colleague. 'Please go home. We don't want any trouble.'

Rather than wait to see if there would in fact be any trouble, the two aliens instead neatly side-stepped the lone protester and continued to move down the street. All at once the crowds of people began to babble and chatter again. Less than half a minute later and the man was left standing alone on the pavement, arms hanging down by his sides dejectedly, the sound of the passing crowd still ringing in his ears.

'Shit,' Rob yelped as he slid down the lamppost and ran over to the table where I stood. 'Did you see that?'

'What was the matter with him?' I wondered. 'Poor bugger, I guess he just wanted to...'

'Not him,' Rob snapped, annoyed, 'the aliens. We saw one!'

'We saw two,' I corrected.

'I don't believe it,' he sighed, grinning from ear to ear. 'I just don't bloody well believe it!'

I climbed down off the table and picked up the remains of my pint.

'Shall we head home then?' I asked. I felt suddenly overcome by a sense of anticlimax. So I had seen an alien. Big deal. I had already seen a hundred of them on TV. And as easy as it seemed to be for Rob, I was also finding it difficult to simply ignore the unexpected defiance of the single man we'd just watched.

'What's the matter with you?' Rob asked. 'Christ, it's not even nine o'clock yet.'

'I'm tired.'

'No you're not, you're just a miserable bastard.'

'I'm not, I just...'

'Yes you are, you're a bloody miserable bastard.'

Suddenly extremely fed up and not wanting to fight, I began to walk back towards the car. My brother reluctantly followed. By the time we'd left the main street he had caught up and was at my side again.

'Pretty amazing though, weren't they?' he said, his mood seemingly unaffected by mine.

'Suppose,' I grunted.

'I just can't get over how similar to us they are. I mean, they've come from millions of miles away and yet they've got the same basic features as us - two eyes, two ears, a nose...'

'I know.'

'And they even walk the same way too. Did you see the length of their fingers though? I suppose that they...' Realising that I wasn't saying much he stopped talking momentarily. 'What's wrong?' he asked.

'Nothing.'

'Come on, tell me for God's sake. Something's not right, is it?' I didn't really know what to say. I shrugged my shoulders.

'I just feel a bit odd, that's all.'

'Odd? Was it the beer or the heat or the crowds...?'

'Don't know.'

That was the truth. I didn't know why, but I suddenly felt uncomfortable and unnerved. Was it because of the man on the street? None of it made sense - he was only asking questions that I had also wanted to ask. He was only speaking out and saying what was on his mind and there was nothing wrong in that. But in today's strange environment the man and I seemed to be in the minority. The aliens were right of course - the vast majority of people didn't seem to have a problem with them being there. Perhaps I just needed to be more trusting.

We were quickly back at the car. I unlocked the doors and got inside.

We drove back towards Thatcham and continued the one-sided conversation that we had begun after seeing the aliens.

'How must they be feeling?' Rob wondered. 'They're millions of miles from home. It might be years before they get back. Christ, it must be hard. I remember when I went on my first cub camp - it was only down the road but it felt like we were a hundred miles from home, remember?'

I nodded and managed half a smile.

He had a point. How would I feel if I ever found myself in their position? How would I feel trapped some immeasurable distance away from everyone and everything that I held precious? How painful and frustrating would it be knowing that there were people back at home waiting for me? How would Siobhan feel? How would I feel waiting for her?

After the shock of losing Mum and Dad my life had finally begun to regain some semblance of order and normality again. I was damn sure I was never going to let that control go.

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