Chapter 17

At seven-thirty on Tuesday evening Rob brought an alien home with him. He'd been shopping in Dreighton when he'd met the visitor. The novelty of their unexpected arrival on our planet and their unusual appearance had long since worn off, but I still found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that an alien had just walked through my front door.

'This is a friend of mine, Tom,' Rob said as he introduced me to the tall and gangly figure standing next to him. 'I met him while I was in town. I didn't think you'd mind if he came back for a drink and something to eat.'

'Pleased to meet you,' the visitor said, confidently reaching out a spindly hand in front of him. I took hold of it and shook it firmly, staring down as the long extended fingers wrapped around my hand and wrist. 'I hope you don't mind my being here...'

I shook my head.

'No, it's fine...' I mumbled, still shocked.

'You okay?' Rob asked, immediately picking up on my obvious unease and surprise.

'Fine,' I replied.

I really didn't mind the visitor being there, I was just struggling to get over the sudden shock of the unannounced arrival. It would have been okay if I'd had a little time to prepare. It was one thing seeing the aliens on television and even passing them in the street, but in my hallway...?

'There you go,' Rob said to his new friend. 'Told you he'd make you welcome.'

The three of us stood there for a few long seconds in an uncomfortable, awkward silence. As the host (no matter how surprised or unwilling) I took it upon myself to try and break the ice. I stood to one side so that the alien had a clear view through to the living room.

'Go on through,' I said, gesturing deeper into the house.

Rob led the alien down the hallway. Ignorant to his arrival, Siobhan stepped out of the kitchen just in time to see our guest's wiry frame disappear through the living room door.

'Was that...?' she began to ask.

I nodded.

'Certainly was. Rob brought him back with him from...'

I didn't bother to finish my sentence because it was obvious that Siobhan wasn't listening. Like one of the children of Hamlin following the Pied Piper she quickly wandered down the hall and peered round into the living room. I followed at a cautious distance. By the time I had reached the three of them the introductions were already being made. 'This is Siobhan,' Rob said. 'She's Tom's girlfriend. Bloody beautiful, isn't she? Christ knows what she sees in my brother...'

'She must like him,' the alien said quietly and factually, completely misunderstanding Rob's pathetic attempt at being funny.

'Hello,' Siobhan mumbled, uncharacteristically timidly. She squirmed and smiled like an embarrassed teenager being introduced to their favourite pop star.

'So what's your name?' I asked from the doorway. A perfectly reasonable question.

'I can't say it,' Rob replied.

The alien turned round to look at me.

'You wouldn't be able to pronounce it.'

'Try me,' I snapped. I didn't like being told that I wouldn't be able to do something by anyone, certainly not by an alien.

Rob seemed to pick up on my irritation and immediately did his best to try and diffuse the situation.

'I've been calling him John,' he said. 'You don't mind that, do you John?'

'John' shook his bulbous head.

'I don't mind. It doesn't really matter. Popular name, isn't it?'

'Used to be the most popular name,' Siobhan said.

The alien managed a thin-lipped smile.

'Thought so.'

'Why?' asked Rob.

'Because a lot of my friends have been given human names by the people they've met. Not including me I know of seventeen Johns, four Stevens, three Christophers and one Thomas!'

That really annoyed me. I didn't know why, but it did.

'Who wants a drink?' I grumbled.

'Beers for us two please, Tom,' Rob answered.

'And me,' added Siobhan.

'Can you have beer?' I asked, nodding in the general direction of the alien.

'I'm old enough, if that's what you mean,' he replied, deadpan.

The supercilious tone of his voice was infuriating. I couldn't tell if he was intentionally trying to wind me up or whether he was just doing it by chance. I walked out to the kitchen and fetched four bottles of beer.

By the time I returned to the living room the others had dragged three chairs out onto the front lawn. I grabbed another one (nice of them to think of me) and sat down next to Siobhan before passing the drinks around.

'So, how are you enjoying yourself here?' Siobhan asked the alien. Although she was sitting just inches away from me she had managed to angle herself so that all I could see was her back. 'Are you getting used to being here yet?'

I watched John the alien and smiled inwardly as he struggled to open his bottle of beer with those long, slender fingers. Siobhan reached across, took the drink and did it for him.

'I wouldn't say I'm enjoying it,' he answered, sniffing and cautiously sipping his beer. 'It's adequate for now.'

He shuffled in his seat, looking distinctly uncomfortable. His body was too long for the seat.

'Looking forward to getting back?'

'Of course I am.'

'You must miss home,' Siobhan continued.

'I do,' he replied. 'I knew I was going to be away for a long time, but this is going to take much longer than any of us expected.'

'So what exactly happened?' I asked.

'What? Happened when?'

'When you were out there on your ship. I can't imagine what could have happened to cripple something as big and complex as your ship.'

'We were mining minerals in an asteroid field and we were hit by debris.'

'Debris!' I exclaimed. 'Fucking hell, must have been a bloody big bit of debris to do so much damage.'

He fixed his baby-blue eyes on mine.

'It was.'

His voice was icy cold and devoid of all emotion. Although I had no way of knowing whether the aliens normally used the same expression and intonation in their voices as we did, I sensed that was his way of telling me to piss off.

While I stared at the alien and wished that he would fuck off back to wherever it was that he had come from, Rob and Siobhan continued to bombard him with a barrage of questions.

'So how did you feel when you stepped out of the ship?' Siobhan wondered. 'What were your first impressions?'

'First impressions of what?'

'Of everything. What did you think of the planet, our cities, our people?'

He thought carefully for a few moments and finished his beer. He was drinking at an impressive speed. I had only just started mine.

'If I'm honest,' he began, 'arriving here was a very strange experience.'

'Strange?' I asked. 'In what way?'

He thought again before replying.

'Strange in that being here is like being in a living history book. There are some major differences between our planets and our people, but generally your technology and way of living is similar to the standards we had on our planet a considerable time ago...'

'When you say considerable,' I interrupted, 'just how long are we talking about?'

'You are about three hundred years behind us.'

'You're that far ahead?' Siobhan gasped.

'We're that far behind?' I mumbled.

He nodded.


A moment of silence passed while we all individually stopped to consider the alien's apparent superiority over our race.

'So what did you do on your ship?' Rob asked, effortlessly restarting a conversation which I silently hoped had finished.

'I worked in the Storage and Gradation team. I looked after the machines that graded the ore before it was passed to the refinery.'

'The refinery?' I said, surprised. 'Bloody hell, just what did you do on that ship? I thought you just mined for whatever it was you needed and transported it back to your planet.'

He shook his head.

'Because we'd used up pretty much all of our planet's resources we had to start mining further and further afield. And because of the length of time it took us to travel to these places, we prepared the ore en route so that it was ready for use when we got back home. That also avoided polluting the planet with the by-products of our operations.'

'So you just polluted space instead?' I snapped.

He nodded again.

'That's right.'

'So how did you do it? How did you mine? Did you have machines with hammers and pickaxes or...?'

'We took most of our minerals from asteroids and small moons. We'd locate the source, attach the ship to it and then extract whatever it was that we needed to take.'

'You mined asteroids?' Rob asked, his eyes like saucers. 'Jesus, how dangerous is that?' 'Dangerous enough to mean that I'm sitting here with you tonight,' he replied. 'The asteroid we were working on had an undetected flaw. Our machines tapped into the wrong place and the whole mass disintegrated.'

'Disintegrated?' I pressed.

'Exploded,' he explained. 'That's where the debris I was talking about came from. It damaged the engines and breached the hull.'

I nodded and thought for a second.

'So where exactly did you stand on board?' I then asked. He didn't answer immediately - did he think I was asking where he physically stood on the ship? I elaborated. 'There are about three hundred and seventy of you here, right?'


'So how far up in the chain of command are you? Do you sit at the captain's table or are you...?'

'Am I what?'

'Bottom of the heap?'

He shook his head.

'We don't have rankings as such in our society, there isn't any need. I was trained to do my job and I did it to the best of my abilities, as did the pilots, the technicians and the maintenance staff.'

'So who's fault was it that your ship got damaged?'

'No-one's fault. It was a freak accident.'

'Shouldn't you have been prepared for freak accidents if you were all so highly trained and effective?'

I was conscious that both Rob and Siobhan were glaring at me but I wasn't interested in anything they felt or had to say. I wasn't particularly interested in what the alien had to say either. I just found myself feeling particularly territorial and awkward.

'It was a freak accident,' he repeated quietly.

I didn't believe him. How could they have been so advanced and yet have left themselves so exposed? Surely they must have had contingency plans and safety measures to prevent such accidents from happening? Or perhaps I was just being overly critical for no better reason that I didn't like this alien. Or any alien for that matter. More to the point, it wasn't that I didn't like them, it was just that I couldn't be bothered with them. I resented the fact that to everyone else I knew, these uninvited guests had suddenly become the be-all and end-all at the expense of absolutely everything else.

'Do you like what you do?' I wondered. Now I was the one asking the incessant stream of questions.

'There's no point liking or disliking it, is there?' he replied. 'It's what I was trained to do. It's what I always knew I would be doing. I know everything there is to know about my job...'

'And you know exactly how long you'll be doing it for, don't you?' 'That's right.'

'But don't you ever yearn to do anything else?'


'Haven't you ever looked at the bloke who lives next door to you and felt like you wanted to do what he does? Or have you ever liked the look of someone else's wife or house and...'

'I'm not even going to bother answering your questions. I've already told you the answers.'

'Is there anyone you don't like?' I pressed.

'My race or alien?' he sneered.

'Your race,' I sneered back. 'Alien.'

He shook his head.


'Any one ever pissed you off?'

'Pissed me off?'

'Got on your nerves?'

'You're the first for a while.'

'Any of your kind?'


'So you live in this perfect world where everyone gets on and there's no resentment and no discrimination and...'

'Give it a rest, Tom,' pleaded Siobhan. I ignored her.

'...and you all do everything for the good of everyone...'

'What's your point?' Rob butted in.

'My point is I find it hard to believe any of this bullshit.'

'Believe what you want to believe,' the alien said softly. 'The fact is it's true. We work together because it is the collective effort of each one of us that keeps the structure of our society intact. We are all equal.'

'Do you feel superior?' I asked.

'Superior to what?'


He thought carefully for a moment, still staring at me with those piercing blue eyes.

'Yes,' he said simply. Conceited bastard, I thought. I got up from my chair and went to fetch more beer. I could feel Rob and Siobhan's mood physically lift as I walked away. I guess that if I had been in the alien's shoes then I would have probably felt the same way about our backward society as he did. But this was my backward society and my home and I loved it. How dare he think himself above us? Technical knowledge and skill was not all that success and advancement was measurable by. What did his kind know about art and music and other, less regimented pursuits?

I could hear the conversation continuing outside without me.

'So,' Rob asked, seemingly unaffected by my outburst and my exit, 'tell us more, will you? If everything's so structured back where you are, how do you deal with illnesses and accidents?'

'We don't have illnesses,' he replied.


'We've eradicated them all.'


'Remember your computer revolution when the silicon chip was invented?'

'Yes, why?' Rob answered.

'That was a fundamental technological change that enabled a thousand other technologies to advance, wasn't it? About fifty years ago we entered a similar kind of phase on our planet.'

'How do you mean?'

'We made a discovery that changed everything.'

'What discovery?'

'We discovered how to take apart and reassemble the smallest atoms and electrons. We're able to modify them, control them, change them, rearrange them, destroy them, create them...'

'Jesus...' Siobhan whispered.

'And once you have the ability to do all of that,' the alien continued, 'you can look at everything in a new way. You're able to do just about anything.'

'Such as?'

'You mentioned medicine? We can now look at our bodies in a whole new light. We can break things down to the very lowest level imaginable. In the same way that you might repair a complicated computer network with a single new chip or a change of software, we can repair our bodies by forgetting about limbs and bones and organs and thinking in terms of individual cells.'

'I don't follow,' Siobhan mumbled, already feeling the effect of her first bottle of beer.

'A diseased cell was probably once a healthy cell, agree?'

She nodded.

'Yeah...' 'So what we're able to do is reverse the process that caused the cell to become diseased. We can rearrange the component parts of the cell in order to return it to a healthy state. By learning the precise role of the smallest parts of even the smallest atoms of the smallest cells it's been possible for us to identify and isolate the base cause of every physical problem. And as our technology has continued to improve, so we've been able to cure those problems and, eventually, prevent them from happening in the first place.'

'So what are you saying?' I asked, entering the room in much the same mood as I had been in when I had left.

'What do you mean?' the alien sighed, obviously tiring of me.

'Does this make you all powerful?'

'You could say that. There's very little that we can't do...'

'So why do you die?'

'Because it's part of the plan. There has to be progression.'

'Why bother? You all look the same, there doesn't seem to be much progression to me...'

'Bodies age...'

'So reverse the ageing process.'

He shook his head.

'We have very strict ethics that control the use of this technology.'

'Are you controlled?'


'You mention computers - you can erase a computer's memory and reprogram it. From what you say it sounds as if you're able to do that with your memories and brains.'

'The technology exists, yes.'

'So you could delete memories, change personalities, suppress emotions...'

'We could, but we don't.'

'You're programmed to tow the line, aren't you? You don't deviate from what you've been ordained to do because you've been programmed not to.'

'This is bollocks,' spat Rob.

'No it isn't,' I protested. 'Come on, can you tell me with any certainty that no-one's messed with your mind? Are you sure that you're not just a worker drone that's been sent out into space to do the work of who knows what?'

'It just wouldn't happen,' the visitor sighed. 'Listen to yourself, will you? You're talking about 'us' and 'them' all the time. In our society we only talk about us. Everything is done for the common good.'

'It's all wrong,' I insisted. 'It's all fucking wrong. You're talking about a technology that allows you to control everything - even the most basic thought processes.'

I noticed that Rob and Siobhan were looking at each other. They appeared awkward and uncomfortable. I felt frustrated and angry, but I wasn't completely sure why. I was getting nowhere and all it was doing was winding the others up.

I got up, walked to the end of the garden and stared out over the calm, dark sea. A brisk, cold wind blew in from the coast and chilled me to the core.

The things that I had heard that evening rattled round and round my head for hours. I couldn't sleep. Siobhan lay in bed with her back to me, sleeping soundly. I had really pissed her off with my behaviour tonight. She hadn't spoken to me since the alien had left the house just after midnight.

I just couldn't accept what I'd been told. The alien had asked us to believe that he came from some utopian paradise billions of miles away - a place where people lived predestined lives without question or complaint; a place where individuals worked together selflessly for the common good. Someone once said that we only see things from our own perspective. I could only base my judgement on what I knew of myself and the rest of the human race, and that experience made me doubt that this paradise could ever have existed. What about character and personality? What about creativity and spontaneity? None of those qualities could possibly have been allowed to exist on the alien homeworld. Such attributes would only serve to disturb the precious status quo.

If what I had heard was true then the options were limited. Either this place was a shining example to the rest of the universe, a cold, anodyne hell that no-one in their right minds would want anything to do with, or it was simply the most dangerous mind-fuck in existence. My gut reaction was that this alien 'John' and the rest of his blissfully happy species were being controlled like puppets by some godlike being who's purpose I didn't even want to think about.


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