Chapter 31

I threw open the front door and nervously tripped down the uneven pathway which spiralled back down towards the centre of the village. The gradient was steep and it was hard to control my speed. I wanted to sprint back to Clare but I knew that I had to conserve my energy. I just hoped and prayed that when I got back to her house she would still be there and that she'd be as alert, lucid and emotional as she had been when I'd left her.

It was nine o'clock.

I allowed myself to glance back over my shoulder at my cold, dark house and I was again filled with pain. I knew that I was walking away from the house, and from Rob, for the last time. As I stared another one of the huge black alien ships appeared and flew out from behind my home, over my head and then over the village and out towards the ocean. Then another ship, lower this time and slightly different. This machine had a rounder, more bulbous head than any other I'd seen before and the sight of this new arrival increased my anxiety. The words of the alien I had killed still echoed round my head and the thought that I was of no concern to the invading alien hordes provided little comfort.

How many other people nearby now remained to helplessly watch the alien invaders take hold of our planet and make it their own? Their occupation had been so quick, unexpected and perfectly planned and executed with such precision that there had been nothing anyone could have done to avoid our total domination. By the time that the alert had been sounded and the need for reaction had arisen, those left capable of free thought and rebellion had already been weakened, smashed and shattered to a point far beyond that at which any recovery might ever have been possible. No matter how I looked at it, I was in a hopeless situation.

The ship which had just flown overhead stopped.

Hanging high and motionless above the centre of the village it hovered ominously. It waited there, open and vulnerable but safe in the knowledge that there was nothing left of mankind to attack it. The bastard thing seemed almost to be lauding over the defenceless world that it had helped invade and capture. I, on the other hand, felt increasingly nervous and exposed out on my own. The alien had warned me to keep out of the way of the cull. Was this the beginning that he'd talked about?

I had no option but to keep moving, and whichever way I decided to go I would be walking further into the village and closer to the ship. From ground level it was hard to accurately judge the size and scale of the thing and I couldn't tell whether it was hovering a mile above me or ten. As I watched, a single opening silently appeared from the base of the rounded front end of the machine and, from that opening, a long, stem-like object appeared. From where I stood it looked to be about the length and width of a telegraph pole. I stopped walking and started running and then sprinting, desperate to get out of the way of whatever might come next. Nothing.

I dared to look up again as I ran, just in time to see the stem retract back into the ship. Once it had disappeared inside and the hatch was closed the ship turned and moved on. Confused, I watched until the light from its silent engines had faded from view.

I carried on running.

It was about a minute later when it began.

I became aware of a noise. The world had been smothered by a dense, foreboding silence all morning but now, unexpectedly, I could definitely hear something. It was directionless. It seemed to be coming from all sides. It was the sound of footsteps.

And then I saw the people.

As if they had been perfectly choreographed, the front door of every occupied building for as far as I could see suddenly opened and the people inside stepped out onto the street. They waited outside their homes until, taking their mark from the figures nearest on their left, they walked out into the middle of the street, turned to face the centre of the village and began to march. In less than a couple of minutes a vast column of silent figures had formed and was making its way deep into the village with an unnerving military precision. I stopped running and stood and watched and was ignored.

The endless queue of people that walked past me was geometrically accurate. Evenly spaced groups of four individuals that moved in perfect step and perfect time with all the others. Their faces were blank and expressionless  -  the same vacant look as that I'd seen on Rob's face when I'd left him and just the same as Penny earlier this morning. From side-streets and alleyways more and more people appeared and joined the march onwards.

Instinctively I reached out and grabbed the arm of the nearest figure and pulled it out of formation. It was an elderly man who's body felt withered and dangerously aged. He stopped walking but remained facing in the same direction as the rest of the people. No-one seemed to have reacted to his sudden disappearance.

'Can you hear me?' I hissed, afraid to talk too loudly. The man didn't react. I took hold of his chin and turned his head so that he was facing me. The second I let go he turned back again. I did it again, and again he turned back to face the direction of the snaking column of people. Knowing that it was pointless I let go of him and the man, who was in his late seventies or early eighties at a guess, sprinted back to take his place among the faceless crowd with the speed of a man half his age. Within seconds he was back in formation  -  in perfect position and faultlessly matching the speed and pace of the others.

I climbed onto the top of a parked car and, from there, clambered onto a skip and then onto the roof of a truck. From there I had a clear view of most of the village ahead and much of the surrounding area. I felt uneasy and vulnerable up there. I couldn't see them, but I could sense thousands of aliens nearby. The fact that the creatures were nowhere to be seen intensified my desperate anger and contempt. It was one thing for the despicable bastards to have taken my home from me, but to have done it from a distance was something else. They hadn't even had the decency to show their faces and allow the few of us that remained the chance to exact some ultimately useless but momentarily gratifying revenge.

The level of noise in the village was still low but had increased noticeably over the last few minutes. As I looked down from on high, I saw countless columns of people converging on the centre of Thatcham from all directions. Along every street they marched keeping perfect time. When they reached the exact centre of the village the individual queues stopped and combined to form one single immense formation of empty, expressionless souls. Turning back to face my home I watched sadly as still more figures spilled down the hill. I knew that Robert had to be among them but there was nothing I could do. He was already dead, as were Joe Porter, James, Stephanie and all the other people I knew. Each one of them would now be just another face in this massive crowd or, I presumed, in another similar crowd elsewhere. Even my precious Siobhan would be in there somewhere.

As quickly and unexpectedly as the movement in the village had begun, it stopped. And as soon as the movement stopped, so the sound also died. The entire population of Thatcham now stood in front of me, standing to attention  -  motionless but for a few unsteady movements and sways  -  and completely devoid of all emotion. I stood my ground for a couple of minutes and continued to watch before deciding to move on.

I jogged back along the road that led to Clare's and tried desperately to keep calm and in control. I knew that what I had just witnessed would surely be happening in every town, city and village throughout the entire country, probably the world. And it was obvious why the people were being rounded up in this way. This was the beginning of the cull that the alien had spoken of. Millions of people were being rounded up to die and there wasn't a bloody thing I could do to help even one of them.

So how were they going to be killed? With thoughts of nightmare weapons of mass destruction racing through my mind I forced myself on towards Clare's house. The only thing that mattered was getting back to her and finding her safe.


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