Not ordinary footsteps - footsteps that were synchronised and regimental in their pace. Footsteps that were programmed, planned and controlled. Thousands of involuntary footsteps directed with a cold, emotionless precision. Footsteps that were getting closer by the second.
The ominous marching sound could clearly be heard through the churning, blustery air and I knew immediately what was coming towards us. Clare looked confused. She'd heard me talk about the vast columns of people I'd seen but she hadn't seen much of them yet for herself. It was what couldn't be heard that unnerved me. Other than the muffled sound of countless pairs of feet dragging themselves over the hard ground there was nothing else. Not even a single whimper or moan of protestation could be heard.
Just ahead of us the road curved round tight to the right.
'Wait here,' I whispered and I gestured for Clare to press herself against the hedgerow and camouflage herself as best she could.
'Where you going?' she asked nervously, her face suddenly filled with fear and uncertainty. 'What's the matter?'
I shook my head.
'It's nothing,' I lied. 'Look, I just want to check round the corner. I'll be back in a couple of seconds.'
I was gone before she had chance to protest. I sprinted a short way further up the road. There was nothing there - the road straightened again and seemed to run on for another half mile or so - and I quickly turned back. I ran past Clare, doubling-back on myself, and carried on back down the road until I could see the heads of the first few approaching figures. The hedge was low at that point and I was able to see a fair way into the distance. A seemingly unending line of figures were moving towards us relentlessly, still marching in their unnaturally precise formation. I had seen all that I needed to see and I ran back to Clare.
'What?' she demanded. She was standing in the middle of the road with her hands on her hips. 'What's going on?'
'It's like I saw earlier,' I replied. 'Bloody hundreds of people heading our way.'
'What are they doing out here?'
'No idea. There's nothing round here for miles.'
She wasn't listening. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that the beginning of the vast column of people had come into view. Four figures with their faces fixed dead ahead, followed by four more, then four more and then more after that... I could tell from the expression on Clare's face that she knew something was wrong.
'Just keep out of the way,' I whispered. 'They won't even notice us. Just get back against the hedge.'
This time she did just as I asked and she shuffled back into the undergrowth. I stood in front of her, trying to block and protect her from the advancing people. They began to pass us.
'Can you stop one of them?' she asked from behind me.
'Not worth it. I tried earlier. Pull one out of line and they'll just merge back into formation as soon as you let go.'
'Is this what you saw in the village this morning?'
'Similar. Same formation.'
She knew I couldn't answer.
'So where are these people from?'
'Where are they going?'
'Don't know,' I snapped, now not bothered if any of the bodies heard me. 'Fucking hell, how am I supposed to know the answer to that?'
'I'm sorry,' she mumbled. 'I just needed to ask. I've got a thousand and one questions in my head and I just needed to...'
'Forget it,' I interrupted, turning round to face her. 'Just forget all your questions because there's no point. There's nothing we can do about any of this.'
'But why are they out here? There must be a reason...?'
'What does it matter?'
I turned back to look at the bodies walking down the middle of the road. By now the first few were following the tight curve of the road perfectly.
'But what about Penny?' she asked. I could hear her sniffing back more tears. 'What about Rob and Siobhan and...'
'Gone,' I replied, trying desperately to hide my emotion and disguise my pain. 'My guess is they're all in one of these queues somewhere. Might even be here for all we know.'
'Do you think so?' she said, suddenly more alert. I instantly regretted my words.
'Forget it,' I said again as the vast procession continued past us. 'There must be something we can do.'
'Like what? What are we going to do to help the millions of poor bastards like these?'
'I just can't believe that there's nothing we can do.'
'Get it through your head, Clare,' I sighed, 'it's too late. The time to act was months ago when those fucking aliens first arrived here.'
Another wave of brilliant light distracted me. An alien ship appeared overhead. It was flying ominously low.
'Shit,' I hissed.
'That thing,' I said, glancing up at the massive black machine.
'We've seen a hundred of them. What's different about this one...' She was silenced when her question was unexpectedly answered. The ship suddenly stopped dead. It hovered low in the sky just a short distance away.
'I think we should get out of here,' I mumbled nervously.
We turned and ran in the opposite direction, retracing the route of the bodies in reverse. We sprinted for all we were worth until we couldn't go any further and then stopped. The road had climbed slightly and from our elevated position the alien ship didn't seem to be any further away.
Clare was fighting to catch her breath. She retched with exhaustion, fear and mounting panic. Doubled-up with pain, she dropped to her knees.
'You okay?' I asked, crouching down next to her.
'Sorry,' she wheezed. 'Can't go any further.'
I stood and turned back to look towards the ship. I could see the part of the road we'd just run along and, further in the distance, I could see the tight corner and the stretch of straight road beyond that. I could also see the bodies. Clare dragged herself back onto her feet and stood next to me.
'What the bloody hell is happening now?' I heard her ask although I did not answer.
As we watched the crowd of figures left the road and entered a large square field through a single narrow gate. Bizarrely, they then formed themselves into perfectly straight lines across the width of the field. With equal distance between the bodies on all sides, the people stood motionless. Many of them were half dressed, and all of them were soaked to the skin. But still they didn't move. Each individual remained upright and impassive. In just a couple of minutes the field was full. I quickly counted thirty-two rows of thirty-two people.
The alien ship was hovering directly above the centre of the field. A single opening appeared towards the front of the vessel and from it emerged a long, dark stem. This ship was identical to the one I'd seen in the skies over Thatcham hours earlier. 'What's that?' Clare asked nervously, grabbing hold of my arm.
I was about to tell her that I'd seen something similar when it happened. In a fraction of a second the field (and just the field - not any of the surrounding countryside) was filled with a precise square of intense blue-white light. Far brighter than the light from the engines of any of the alien machines, it scorched our skin. We turned away instinctively. Another fraction of a second and it was over. The world was suddenly drenched in a deeper darkness than before.
Almost too afraid to look, I cautiously stared into the field again. The alien ship was already on its way, soaring effortlessly above the countryside.
The field was empty.
Clare and I walked back down the road and cautiously approached the entrance to the field. As we walked I tried to explain to her the little I understood of what had just happened.
'It's a cull,' I said simply.
We stood at the edge of the field and stared at the empty space where just over a thousand people had been standing minutes earlier.
'I said it's a cull,' I repeated. 'I found out about it this morning. I didn't bother telling you...'
'You didn't think you should tell me that those bloody things up there are planning to get rid of us all? You didn't think that I might have needed to know what's going to happen to...'
'I didn't tell you because there's fuck all you or me or anyone can do about it. The aliens need the planet but they don't need us. It's as simple as that.'
'But they can't. They just can't...'
'They already have.'
Too tired to argue I dropped the heavy sports bag and leant against a metal gatepost.
'But those people were...'
'Save your breath,' I sighed. I pointed up into the sky. 'Go and tell them how pissed off you are about the whole thing if you want to, but it won't do you any good. You do well if you manage to find one of those cowardly bastards.'
I picked up the bag and started to walk again.
'We'll be okay if we keep out of their way. We'll keep our heads down and keep out of their way.'
I took one last look at the field as we carried on down the road. It looked perfectly normal - untouched and unspoilt as if no-one had ever been there. One thing was certain, there were no hidden escape routes and no alternative explanations.
Over a thousand people had been destroyed in seconds.
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