Chapter 32

It took me the best part of an hour to get back to the little house on the other side of the village. I had given up running soon after leaving the centre of Thatcham. I had travelled the distance once already this morning and I guessed that before the day was out I would be running again. Panic and fear seemed to constantly be forcing me to move faster. It took more determined effort and self-control than I would ever have thought necessary just to keep my pace level.

I walked slowly down Clare's street with my heart thumping in my chest. It was as cold and empty as it had been when I'd left earlier. Looking anxiously from side to side I made my way down the short path to the front door and rang the bell. Fucking idiot. There was no power. I knocked but there was no response. Nervous and feeling increasingly uneasy I tried to force the door open but it wouldn't move. I knocked again and pressed my face to the glass, hoping that I would be able to see Clare walking up the hallway to let me inside.

The house was silent.

I ran my fingers anxiously through my hair and looked around. I felt more exposed and vulnerable than ever. But I wasn't concerned about my safety, instead I was worried that my presence outside the house might alert the aliens to the fact that Clare and Penny were hiding there. And I knew that they were as insignificant as I clearly was, but that didn't stop me worrying.

Still no response from inside.

I walked across the front lawn and peered in through the living room window. I couldn't see anything much through the lace curtain but it was clear that Clare wasn't there. I banged on the glass with my fist and glanced back over my shoulder, frightened that the sudden noise might attract unwanted attention. Lifting my hands to my face to block out the glare and reflections from behind me I stared inside again. Nightmare images of Clare and Penny buried deep among the faceless crowd I'd just seen flashed into my mind.

I climbed over the low gate at the side of the house and crept cautiously into the back garden. As I passed I peered in through the kitchen window but still neither Clare or Penny were anywhere to be seen. Reaching out a cold, trembling hand I tried the back door handle but it was locked. That was a good thing, I decided, because if both the front and back of the house were locked, Clare was most probably still in there somewhere. I took a few hesitant steps onto the back lawn before dropping my shoulder, running at the house and charging into the door. It shuddered and rocked but didn't open. Rubbing my stinging arm, I walked back and tried again. Still nothing. On my third attempt the wood around the lock splintered and cracked and the door flew open, crashing into the inside kitchen wall. I rushed inside and blocked the door shut by dragging a heavy pine table across the room.

After waiting for a second to catch my breath and calm my nerves, I began to walk further into the cold and silent house. Hesitant and reluctant at first, I was almost afraid of what I might find.

'Clare?' I hissed. 'Clare, where are you?'

There was no reply. My voice echoed eerily around the empty and lifeless rooms. I checked the kitchen, the living room, the hall and even the cupboard under the stairs but I couldn't find any trace of either Clare or Penny. Was I too late? Dejectedly I began to climb the stairs.

'Clare?' I hissed again.

Penny's room was empty. I stood next to the little girl's bed and surveyed the devastation around me. In spite of all that I had seen and heard already this morning, I still found it hard to believe that Penny had done so much damage last night. While I was standing there I heard the sound of muffled crying coming from the other end of the landing.

'Is that you, Clare?' I shouted.

Not waiting for an answer, I turned and ran, desperate to see my friend again. Her bedroom was empty, as was the bathroom. I eventually found her sitting in a crumpled heap in the shadows in the darkest corner of the darkest room in the house. She was leant against the side of an empty wardrobe, wrapped in an old picnic blanket. When she saw me she stopped crying momentarily and dragged herself up onto her feet. She staggered over and fell into my arms, collapsing in a mass of bewildered tears.

'Come on,' I whispered softly as I held her tight against me and gently stroked her hair. 'It's okay...'

'I didn't think you were coming back,' she sobbed, forcing out her words between breaths. 'I thought something had happened. I thought I was going to be left on my own here and...'

'I said I'd come back, didn't I?' I smiled, doing my best to hide my own fears from her. 'Where's Penny?'

At the mention of her little girl's name Clare immediately began to cry again. 'She's gone,' she said, her voice full of confusion and desperate emotion. 'I don't know where she went. I was sitting next to the bed waiting for you to come back and...'

'And what?'

'She'd been lying there for ages and she just got up and walked downstairs. I tried to stop her but I couldn't. I asked her where she was going but she didn't answer. She just kept walking...'

'What about the door? I told you to keep it locked, didn't I?'

'It was locked. The key was in the lock and she opened it. Christ knows how she did it, Tom. She's never been able to turn the key before. It's always been too stiff for her.'

'And what happened then?'

'There was nothing I could do. I kept trying to stop her but I couldn't. I shouted and screamed at her but she didn't even hear me. I grabbed hold of her arm but she was too strong for me. I followed her out of the house and it was the craziest thing I've ever seen. Everyone was out there. Everyone who lives in the road just walked out of their houses and went down towards the village. And you should have seen it. They were in perfect fucking formation! Penny just joined the line and marched with them like she'd been rehearsing for bloody days.'

'When was this?'

'About an hour ago,' she replied. She was beginning to sound calmer and more lucid. 'Did you see anything while you were out there? Do you know where they went because we might be able to...?'

I shook my head sadly and Clare's voice trailed away.

'I saw the same thing in the village. That's where they all are, but there's nothing we can do...'

'There must be something?'

'There's nothing. Believe me.'

The conversation died, and for a while the only sound was that of Clare's constant tears.

'What's wrong with your car? Why did you walk?' she suddenly asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.

'Don't know. Wouldn't start.'

'Did you see Siobhan?'

'How could I? I couldn't get to her house without the car. It was all I could do to get back home.'

'And what about your brother? Was he there?'

I nodded but didn't want to speak.

'Why didn't you bring him back with you?' she pressed.

'Because he was in the same fucking state as Penny,' I interrupted. 'He was just a fucking shell. And now he's stood there in the middle of Thatcham with the rest of them and they're all fucking comatose.' Silence.

'What's happening?' Clare asked minutes later, finally plucking up the courage to ask the ultimate obvious question of the morning.

'Don't know,' I answered awkwardly. Much as I didn't like lying to Clare, I couldn't see that any good would come of her knowing the truth. She was terrified and heartbroken already and there didn't seem to be any point in adding to her pain and confusion. In many ways I wished that I hadn't spoken to the alien and that I was still ignorant to the hopelessness of our situation. It reminded me of something I remembered reading at school that said animals don't fear death because they don't know it's coming. I wished I knew less than I did.

'I want to go and look for her,' she said suddenly. 'I want to go and find Penny and bring her back here.'

'There's no point,' I replied.

'But I can't just leave her out there, can I? She's just a child, for God's sake. She's on her own.'

I shook my head and held her tight.

'Believe me, Clare,' I sighed, 'there's no point. If we find her we won't be able to do anything. You won't be able to bring her home, she won't come. You've got to accept it, Penny's gone.'

'But she's still out there...' she sobbed.

'Penny's long gone, Rob's gone, Siobhan's gone, they're all gone. We're just about the only two left.'

I knew that I would have to explain everything to her at some point, but my instincts told me to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. I wrapped my arms around her as tightly as I could and stood there with her while she tried to make some sense of our nightmare. My loss was still raw and painful. I couldn't even begin to imagine the level of torment and anguish that Clare was suffering. She had been Penny's sole guardian and the care of that little girl had been the prime focus of her life from the moment she'd been born. Now, through no fault of her own, her precious daughter was lost forever.

For a long time we held each other and silently remembered all that we had lost.

We did nothing for almost three hours. Just under one hundred and eighty minutes of silence which felt like one hundred and eighty years. I felt like a convict sitting on death row, waiting for the execution order to come through. And there was nothing I could do. And there was no point in doing anything.

Clare and I sat together in a corner of the spare room. From our position we were able to look out of the window but it was impossible to see very much of what was happening to the world outside. I could see the tops of trees being blown around in the breeze and, occasionally, birds would fly in and out of view. With increasing regularity I also watched countless silent alien ships busily drifting to and fro through the swirling clouds.

Shortly after three o'clock an unexpected noise came from outside the house. Clare was the first to react.

'What was that?' she asked, jumping up anxiously. 'Don't know,' I answered truthfully.

'Sounded like a gunshot,' she whispered. She walked away and I followed as she crept through the silent house towards one of the front bedrooms. Taking care to hide behind the curtain at the side of the window, she peered down onto the street below.

'Bloody hell,' she hissed. 'Come here and look at this, will you?'

I stood behind her and looked down over her shoulder. A single figure was stumbling breathlessly down the dotted white line which stretched along the middle of the road below. It was a ragged man, perhaps in his late-thirties, and as he moved he looked constantly from side to side. In his arms he held a heavy rifle. It was obvious that, like Clare and I, here was another human who had refused to succumb to the subliminal alien reprogramming that had systematically destroyed the rest of mankind. I wondered how much he knew.

A silver shuttle craft flew overhead. The man lifted his rifle to the sky and fired off a single badly-aimed shot.

'Come on you fuckers,' he shouted, his voice dry and hoarse. 'Show yourselves. Fucking show yourselves!'

'I know him,' Clare mumbled.

'What? Where from?'

'I've seen him before. He's here every Saturday afternoon with his family. I think he visits his parents over the road.'

She jumped with surprise as he fired another shot. As I watched the man picked up his pace slightly and jogged towards a house a few doors up from Clare's. Still looking around nervously, he pushed the door open and disappeared inside. For a minute or two there was silence and, occasionally, I could see his shadowy figure moving from room to room, obviously searching for missing relatives. Surely he knew as well as Clare and I did that they wouldn't be there.

'Should we call him over,' she wondered. 'The house is empty. His family will have gone wherever Penny went to...'

I watched with mounting unease as the man ran from upstairs to downstairs and back again, eventually stopping in the front bedroom corresponding to the room in Clare's house where we were standing. He staggered back and leant against a wall, holding his head in his hands. As we watched he loaded the rifle, put the barrel into his mouth and fired.

Clare slid down the wall next to me in disbelief and sat on the floor with her head held in her hands. It seemed to take forever for the sound of that final gunshot to fade away.

She was crying again.

'What's going on?'

I sat down next to her and held her tightly. It was against my better judgement but I felt that I had to say something. It wasn't fair to keep her in the dark any longer. Another ship passed overhead, casting an ominous shadow over the house. I waited until it had disappeared before speaking.

'I know what's happening,' I whispered. 'So why didn't you tell me?' she sighed, looking up at me with red, stinging eyes.

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

'Didn't want to,' I answered. 'There's nothing either of us can do so I didn't think it would do any good to...'

'You should have told me,' she sobbed. 'You should have fucking told me.'

I nodded, closed my eyes and cleared my throat before starting to explain.

'When I got back to my house this morning, that alien was there. Remember, the one that Rob hung around with?'

'I remember. Why?'

'Said he was recording.'

'Recording what?'

'My home, the way we lived. For their history books I think.'

'But we haven't seen another one of them all day...'

'I know. Makes me wonder whether it was more than coincidence.'

'So what did he tell you?'

'He told me everything.'


'And it's too far-fetched to believe. I've been thinking about it for hours and I still can't get my head around it all...'

'Will you just tell me what the hell is happening?' she demanded.

'Okay. Since they found us, they've been reprogramming the entire population of the planet.'

'Reprogramming?' she laughed. 'What are you talking about?'

'Sounds stupid I know, but it's true.'

'Sound fucking ridiculous...'

'The alien told me that they've been using television, radio and just about every other medium you can think of to brainwash the whole bloody human race. He told me weeks ago that their technology was so advanced they can do virtually anything. The aliens themselves didn't know why they were here at first.'

'You mean the story about the damaged ship was bullshit?'

'That's what he told me.'

'But what about us? What about you and me? How come we're so different?'

'He said that it didn't work on everyone.' 'So how many are left?'

'Don't know.'

'Well is it a hundred or a thousand or...'

'He said half a million.'

She looked up to the ceiling and rubbed her eyes.

'I always knew you and I were different. I never trusted those bastards and neither did you. I always thought something wasn't right.'

She stopped speaking and asking questions for a couple of seconds to take stock of all that I had told her. Once she had taken it all in and made as much sense of it as she could, she began to ask more.

'So why have they done this?'

'That's the killer, isn't it?'

'What do you mean?'

'They want the planet. Their population is too much for their own planet, so they're moving on. And it looks like our planet is just what they were looking for.'

'And how are they going to take it?' she asked, an expression of utter disbelief fixed on her face. 'What are they going to do with the billions of people here? Use them for slaves or...?'

I knew full well what was going to happen but I couldn't bring myself to tell her and I answered with a dumb shrug of the shoulders. She was an intelligent woman. She'd work it out for herself eventually.

'So what are we going to do?'

'I'm not sure,' I sighed. 'Don't know if it's worth doing anything. The alien told me that we're not a threat so they've got no interest in us. He told me we could watch.'

'Watch what?'

'Watch them take the planet.'

'But we can't just sit here and wait. There must be something we can do?'

'What? Where can we go? They're everywhere.'

Clare remained surprisingly calm. Maybe she had picked up on the hopelessness that I felt and which I'd obviously failed to hide from her. She cuddled up close to me and buried her frightened face in my chest. I gently kissed the top of her head and wrapped my arms around her.

Our options were limited. We could stay where we were and wait or we could run and run until it was over. The end result would inevitably be the same. But it wasn't like either of us to just sit still and wait.


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