Chapter 3

I sprinted down from the cold and exposed hillside and then tripped and stumbled through the rain-soaked streets of the village. The holiday season was almost over and the summer crowds had begun to subside. There seemed to have been more tourists than ever this year but now only a determined minority of the annual sun-seeking invasion force remained.

I ran down the main promenade and followed the cobbled street which ran parallel with the curve of the shingle beach. There was a long and irregular line of shuffling figures gathered along the arc of the grey sea wall. They were all stood with their backs to me, every last one of them staring out over the ocean and out towards the dark horizon. Families stood together in bright waterproofs talking, for once, to the normally insular and reticent locals. It was obvious that they'd all seen the same incredible sight that I'd just witnessed. No-one could have missed it. Even though I was only there for a few breathless seconds, I could sense a peculiar unease and uncertainty hanging in the air. The locals, the tourists and myself were united in the fact that none of us had a bloody clue what had just happened.

The heavy black clouds had smothered the afternoon with a murky darkness. I glanced up the hill towards home and could see my cottage. Bright yellow electric light was shining out from the living room and, standing in the window, I could see Robert's silhouette. He too was staring out towards the horizon hoping to catch sight of the awesome thing (whatever it was) that had silently flown by a couple of minutes earlier.

I took another deep breath of damp, electrically-charged air and followed the road round the hairpin bend and then up towards the cottage. The final hill usually hurt more than any other part of my run. I was so preoccupied thinking about what I'd seen that I didn't even notice the pain.

'Fucking hell, Tom!' Rob yelled as I crashed clumsily through the front door. 'Did you see it?' For a few seconds I couldn't breathe, let alone speak. I swallowed, slowly lifted my head and nodded. Coughing to clear my throat, I stumbled into the kitchen to get a drink.

'I saw it,' I managed to gasp between breaths.

'And?' he pressed, obviously keen for me to expand.

'And what?' I replied, still struggling to force enough oxygen into my body to prevent me from passing out. Now that I'd finished the effort and pace of the final mile of my run was starting to hit home.

'I don't know,' Rob continued, oblivious to my suffering, 'what do you think it was? Where the hell did it come from?'

I shrugged my sweat-soaked shoulders and peeled off my sodden T-shirt. I leant against the nearest unit for support, kicked off my muddy trainers and looked up at my brother and shook my head.

'You tell me,' I mumbled, still finding it difficult to talk. He walked away and I slowly followed him back into the living room.

'I can't believe it,' he babbled excitedly, 'I mean, for bloody years we've been talking and dreaming about something like this happening and now it has. More than that, it's happened here! Christ, the most important event in the history of bloody history itself and we're smack bang in the middle of it!'

I really did want to match Rob's obvious enthusiasm and excitement but at that moment in time it was impossible. I had a thousand and one questions running through my tired brain but I didn't have the energy to even try and answer any of them. My mind was willing, but my body was most definitely still weak.

'I was in the kitchen when I heard the jets,' he continued regardless. 'I heard them fly over and I came in here to see what was going on. I thought we'd gone to war or something and then I saw it. Bloody hell, it flew right over the village! It must have been a couple of miles long...'

Robert didn't stop talking but I stopped listening. I walked across to the wide bay window on the far side of the room and, dressed only in my shorts and muddy socks, I looked out towards the horizon and then down onto the busy village below. The streets which had been relatively empty for much of the day were suddenly teeming with figures and there was still a decent sized crowd gathered by the sea wall. The storm was finally passing and moving out to sea and as the heavy clouds began to creep away the low light of the afternoon gradually began to improve.

'So what was it?' I asked, inadvertently cutting across my brother and repeating his earlier question. I hadn't actually meant to ask it, I was just thinking out loud.

'For Christ's sake,' Rob sighed, 'what do you think it was?'

'I think it was a spaceship,' I muttered, unable to think of a more impressive way of describing the most incredible sight I (or anyone else) had ever witnessed. 'But it can't have been. That's ridiculous.'

'Why is it?'


'Why is that ridiculous?'

'A spaceship?! Come on, we don't...' 'We've been sending people out into space for decades, haven't we? If we can do it then...'

'Yes, but...'

'But nothing. Just accept it, Tom, this afternoon we were visited by bloody aliens!'

Regardless of what I knew I'd seen, the reality was too incredible to believe.

'Aliens? Fucking hell, there's no way that...'

'So what was it then?'

'I don't know. It could have been a prototype for a new type of plane or an airship or something like that?'

'Bollocks,' he snapped.

I knew he was right but I still instinctively tried to find an alternative explanation. It just sounded so damn implausible. I mean, aliens and spaceships for Christ's sake? And anyway, why would any alien in its right mind choose to make its debut appearance here out in the back-end of nowhere on a miserable Friday afternoon?

'Thousands of people must have seen it,' Rob continued. 'There's no way the authorities can try and keep this quiet, is there? They're not going to be able to come up with a good enough story to cover this up. How can they expect...'

'Bloody hell, be quiet will you?' I snapped. My brother was getting on my nerves. Whenever he became excited he would talk incessantly, and that really pissed me off because my natural reaction was to do the opposite - I just wanted to shut up and concentrate and try and make some sense of what was happening. I switched on the television and sat on the floor in front of the screen.

'Jesus...' Robert whispered as he sat down on the sofa behind me.

'It doesn't look like they're even going to bother trying to hush it up, does it?' I said.

Virtually every channel carried the same picture - a direct live feed from the bobbing deck of a boat which swayed and rocked with the waves of the sea some fifty miles off the coast. The unsteady camera work revealed the huge ship we had seen in all its dark glory. Enormous and impervious, it hovered silently hundreds of feet above the restless water. A fleet of boats were dotted around the scene. Countless helicopters and planes buzzed and fluttered relentlessly through the swirling skies on all sides of the mighty craft. When one of the helicopters flew towards the camera from close to the hull of the ship its relative insignificance made the massive machine's vast proportions instantly and incredibly apparent. The camera pulled back again to show more of the ragtag flotilla of cruisers, ferries, tugs and other ships (most obviously military, others apparently more industrial in their design) that had gathered in the shadows of the mysterious titanic.

'I just don't believe this,' Robert mumbled under his breath. 'They're here. They're actually here...'

I had given up trying to shut Robert up and I turned up the sound to try and compensate. The unsure voice of an obviously dumbfounded commentator was speaking.

'...just to remind you that for the time being we'll be staying with this live coverage,' the woman's voice said, 'and to repeat once again that these are genuine pictures. This is not a hoax.' I looked over my shoulder. Robert had a dumb, childish grin plastered across his face. I turned back and continued to stare into the screen, hypnotised by a combination of bewilderment, disbelief, nervousness and utter amazement.

It was one of those life-defining moments.

Like watching the Gulf wars kicking off live on TV.

Like watching the space shuttle explode in the sky.

Like hearing that the princess had died in the tunnel.

Like watching the World Trade Centre collapse after the terrorist strikes.

I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same again.

A stream of information ran across the bottom of the television screen which read; 'Confirmed arrival of alien ship. First official word from the Government due shortly. Downing Street spokesman advises population to remain calm. No evidence of hostility...'

'Can you imagine what Dad would have made of all of this,' Rob whispered. I nodded and smiled. My brother's fervour and wonder would have paled into insignificance next to that of our dad. He had been a keen kitchen-sink scientist and amateur astronomer for as long as I could remember. He'd always seemed to be more interested in what was happening in space than in his own home and I would have given anything to have had him sitting next to me and watching the television now. He would have been so bloody excited. It all would have meant so much to him.

'So what do you think the politicians are going to say?' Rob asked.

'Don't know,' I replied. 'You would have expected them to try and play things down but I don't see how they can now.'


'Because so many people have seen so much, that's why. They've got to come clean and tell us everything they know.'


'Well they've got to make the population believe that they've been told everything, haven't they? They'll do more harm than good if they don't. The more they tell us, the less there is for people to make up for themselves. And the less people make up the...'

The picture of the ship on the television screen disappeared and was replaced by a news reader's face. The Government's announcement was imminent. The speed of events only served to emphasise the potential gravity and scale of our situation. For me the appearance of the first grey-suited politician on the screen instantly took away the edge of excitement and replaced it with a sobering degree of nervous uncertainty. I sensed that the words I was about to hear would set an important tone. Any hostility or fear in the diplomat's voice would indicate that our safety was not as guaranteed as we might naively have presumed in the bewilderment of the afternoon.

The official walked towards a speaker's plinth and as he did so he was showered with a relentless stream of light from a hundred camera flashes. He paused for a second to collect himself and then cleared his throat before speaking. 'Earlier this morning,' he began, his voice initially unsteady, 'various observatories and scientific outposts around the world and in space were made aware of the presence of an unidentified object on the outskirts of our solar system. As the progress of this object was tracked it changed course several times before finally heading towards Earth.' He paused for a moment and shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot. 'Although no direct contact has been made as yet, the ship has broadcast a continual signal which, to all intents and purposes, seems to be a distress transmission.'

A second pause, this time long enough to allow the assembled reporters to fire off a volley of desperate questions at the politician while their associated photographers launched another barrage of flashes. The defenceless spokesman lifted his hands in an attempt to restore some order.

'The ship has been led away from land and is currently holding a position some fifty miles from the east coast of England . No resistance was offered to the armed air escort which guided it out over the ocean and, despite continual attempts, no contact has been made with whoever, or whatever, is piloting it. There's really nothing more I can tell you at the present time...'

As the spokesman was hit with another barrage of camera flashes and questions I stood up and walked over to the window again. There were still flurries of activity in the village streets below. It had stopped raining and the crowds around the sea wall remained. They seemed surprisingly happy and relaxed. Even from a distance I could see that there was a surprisingly calm and peaceful atmosphere in Thatcham.

I could identify with the people outside. Strange and pretentious as it might have sounded, each one of them was suddenly a friend and an ally. The unexpected arrival of a new and previously unknown life form to the planet already seemed to have made the indigenous human population subconsciously bond closer together. I could see it happening everywhere I looked. People were standing and talking and laughing with people they wouldn't have even looked at yesterday. Already there were no longer black people and white people or Muslims and Christians and Jews or men and women or upper class and working class. There were just people.

'Where do you think Dad would be now?' Rob asked. I glanced over at him sitting cross-legged on the sofa. He had a deadly combination of concentration, fascination and excitement fixed on his face. If I half-closed my eyes I could see a five year-old Robert watching Star Wars, not a twenty-four year-old watching footage of man's first confirmed contact with an alien intelligence. I half expected Dad to come into the room.

'Knowing what he was like,' I eventually replied, 'he'd either be out there on a boat trying to get as close as he could or he'd still be up in the attic trying to find his binoculars.'

Rob laughed.

'I'd go for the boat,' he smiled. 'He'd have been first on the scene.'

I'd have given anything for him to have been there watching the world change with us.

Cold and shivering, I forced myself to move and dragged my tired body into the bathroom.


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