Chapter 36

Part V

CULL

36

The driving rain and bitter, swirling wind continued with an increased ferocity. The desperate conditions only served to add to the confusion and disorientation of the night. Despite knowing full well that every step we took was pointless, Clare and I continued to press on. More than anything it was the only sensible option - we could keep moving or we could sit and wait for the apparently inevitable. As the world around us began to change and be adapted by the aliens for their own use, I was thankful that I was finally able to recognise the stretch of road that we followed. I knew that it would only be a short while before we reached the ocean.

We eventually left the relative certainty of the road and began to walk along a muddy, uneven and well-used public footpath. We found ourselves walking across the exposed peak of a high hill and, momentarily, we paused to try and get our bearings. I turned to look back towards Thatcham and could see the exact point on the coastline where I had stood and witnessed the arrival of the first alien ship last summer. The village itself - normally an obvious bright cluster of street lamps, car headlights and homes - was hardly visible. Thatcham was as black and lifeless as the rest of the beaten world around it. Save for the gusting of the wind through the trees, the only visible movement came from the alien ships powering through the turbulent sky. The only light came from their brightly burning engines.

Christ, seeing the shell of the village was painful. I felt the same cold and inescapable fear and uncertainty then as I had when I had stared into Rob's dead eyes earlier that morning. Obviously feeling as battered and hurt as I was, Clare moved closer and gently took hold of my arm.

'Come on,' she shouted, struggling to make herself heard over the driving wind and rain. 'Let's keep moving.'

Ahead of us was the ocean. The often still and placid waters were churning and vicious waves crashed against the shore. I could just about make out the shape of the Devil's Peak in the near distance. Although closer than it had been all night it still seemed a million miles away.

'Not far now,' I said, trying to keep us both motivated. Clare's face suddenly froze with fear and I span around to look at whatever it was she had seen. A massive alien ship was drifting over the rolling hills and towards the ocean and, from its vast and sleek belly, a phalanx of silent shuttles dropped into the night sky and tore through the air towards us. We held each other tightly and instinctively braced ourselves for attack. Seventeen ships raced through the sky less than fifty feet above our heads. Within seconds they were gone. We watched them disappear into the distance.

'Jesus...' Clare sobbed, shaken by the alien's sudden closeness.

For the first time that night the myriad of machines around us seemed to have a visible purpose. Rather than just appearing to drift aimlessly to and fro, many now moved with definite and easily identifiable patterns. The fleet of shuttles that had just flown overhead could be seen splitting and either becoming part of one of countless vast convoys or docking with other colossal motherships.

The point on the hill upon which we were standing was one of the highest and most exposed points along that particular stretch of coastline. From our elevated position we were able to look back over miles and miles of undulating countryside. Everywhere we looked we saw the same thing - inky black skies swarming with alien activity. Like deadly beetles, bugs and ants crawling hungrily over a plate of sugary food, the silent machines scurried through the darkness, moving like predators from the stripped carcass of one dead village or town and onto the next. The largest ships - the ones with the rounder, more bulbous fronts - occasionally stopped and hung motionless in the air. Then, just like the machine that had passed us on the road a short time earlier, a single searing strip of concentrated incandescent light and energy would pour down on the defenceless land below. All across the visible landscape this was happening. At one point I counted fifteen such ships firing at the ground at the same time and, if they were all destroying crowds of a similar size to the one we'd seen, then I estimated that I had just witnessed the death of well over fifteen thousand innocent people. And that was only what I could see from where I stood. This relentless cull would surely be happening all around the world. If that many people were being destroyed in a matter of seconds, then how many would be killed in an hour? How long would it take for our entire race to be eradicated?

I grabbed hold of Clare's hand and tried to move. She stood her ground, transfixed by all that she could see. Her face was full of cold pain and utter disbelief and I could see that she felt as empty and betrayed as I did. Was she wondering which one of the mighty machines had killed her daughter? Was it the same machine that had taken Robert and Siobhan from me?

'Come on,' I hissed, yanking her towards me. Hanging onto Clare with one hand and the heavy sports bag with the other, I tried to sprint away. The grass was waterlogged and I slipped, sending both of us careering down the treacherous, greasy hillside. I couldn't stop, and I didn't dare let go of Clare. Out of control we tripped and fell until we reached the bottom of the slope where the ground finally levelled off and we were able to slow ourselves down again.

'You all right?' I wheezed breathlessly as I caught Clare in my arms. I looked her up and down to check that she was okay. She nodded and pushed past me and walked down towards where the sea met the land. The grass beneath our feet gradually began to thin and to become more sparse. Soon it had given way completely to the crunching pebbles of the shingle shore.

'Made it,' Clare gasped.

'Told you,' I smiled. 'I knew we'd do it.' She looked around anxiously.

'So where are we? Where are these boats?'

I looked up and down the length of the dark and desolate beach, shielding my face from the driving rain and sea spray. I didn't know exactly where I was, but I felt confident that we were close to a bay a short distance up the coast where one or two boats were always moored.

'This way,' I answered, pointing up the shingle shore.

'Are you sure...?' she began.

'Just move,' I snapped, sensing that we were wasting precious time.

Together we tripped through the shale and cold waves as we made our way towards a dark and shadowy headland which jutted out into the ocean. As we neared I knew that there was no way we could climb over the massive obstruction. We had little option but to work our way around the side, staying as close to the water's edge as we dared. I dropped the sports bag and clambered up onto the rocks. Turning back, I hauled Clare up after me. She clung onto the slimy, mossy-covered rocks for dear life and followed me as I began to shuffle around the headland. A momentary distraction and I was knocked off my feet by a sudden icy wave that crashed over me, soaking me to the skin and forcing the air from my lungs with shock. In a fraction of a second I was under.

'Tom!' I heard Clare scream. Instinctively I reached up towards where I thought she was and she grabbed hold of my arm. As the water washed away I managed to scramble back onto my feet, frozen, shocked and with salt stinging my tired eyes. Clare pushed me on.

With my hands numb with cold I carefully felt my way along the precarious rock face. In daylight it might have been easy but tonight, with the wind and the rain and the fear to distract me, every shuffling step took real effort and determination. I could see it in Clare's face too. When I dared to look back at her I saw that she was struggling to keep moving forward just as I was.

We slowly rounded the most exposed part of the headland. The dark had exaggerated the size of the rocks.

'Over there!' Clare yelled. I looked back again and saw that she was pointing past me. 'A boat!'

She was right. There, just a few hundred yards away, was a small rowing boat. Hardly the fishing boat that I had hoped to see, but I knew that it would do. It didn't have an engine or a cabin for shelter but it would be enough. With a renewed energy and determination I forced myself along the last few feet of the rock face and then jumped down onto the sandy beach below. Clare wasn't far behind.

'Nearly done it!' I yelled, virtually dragging her along the sand. 'One last push!'

Together we ran on, fighting against the bitter gale and icy, spiteful rain. But then it stopped. Like someone had flicked a switch, the wind and the rain just stopped. Dumbfounded, we stood motionless and looked at each other. Bizarre as it seemed, it also began to get lighter. It was still dark, but I was sure that it wasn't as dark as it had been a few minutes earlier. It wasn't even midnight. How could it be getting lighter?

'What the fucking hell is going on?' Clare mumbled.

'No idea,' I replied quickly. 'Come on!' Grabbing her hand again I ran with her to the boat. We threw our bags into the little vessel and began to push it down the beach towards the sea. Now that the wind had died it was quieter. In fact it was too quiet. I looked up and saw that the ocean had suddenly become as flat and calm as a boating lake in summer.

We ran through the still water until it was deep enough for the boat to float. Clare jumped inside and I continued to push for a little longer until I was sure that we wouldn't be grounded. I dragged myself up and in and steadied myself as the boat lurched and rocked from side to side.

The biggest alien ship I had ever seen suddenly appeared on the horizon. Easily ten times the size of most of the other ships, this one was moving slowly and methodically across the water. As it moved a steady stream of light trickled down from its immense belly - like a brilliant curtain of energy - and I guessed that it was cleansing the land. The machine seemed to be acting like a cleaner of sorts, burning away every last trace of mankind from the surface of the planet. Although all I could do was guess that this was its purpose, I didn't want to take any chances. The ship was moving towards us with an ominous speed.

There was a single oar on the floor of the boat. I grabbed it and began to dig into the water, on one side and then the next, one side then the next. The ship and the curtain of burning light was getting closer by the second. Clare lay slumped at my feet, her head buried in her hands, waiting. I looked up again and dived over to the right. I shoved the oar down and pulled hard against the still water, forcing the little boat to turn and lurch over to the side. Again and again I dragged the oar through the water, watching over my shoulder constantly as the alien ship approached. The curtain of light was now painfully close. For all I knew it would just wash over us but I couldn't take the chance. With the muscles in my arms screaming for me to stop I rowed further and further away. The light passed us by, just missing the end of our little boat by inches.

'It's gone,' I spat, gasping for breath as I collapsed down next to Clare. She looked up but her face was expressionless, drained of all emotion. I watched the alien craft continue on its way towards the shore.

A little victory was mine.

It wasn't much - it wasn't anything in the scheme of things - but I had managed to avoid the aliens and get off the mainland.

For the first time that day I felt almost alive again. It didn't matter how long we had left, we were still ourselves and we still had some control. It was getting hotter by the minute. I stood up and took off my jacket. A single alien shuttle swooped down over the water just a short distance ahead of us.

'Tom!' Clare screamed. 'Get down!'

I didn't move. A single little act of defiance which meant everything now that I had nothing. I stood there and stared at the ship which turned and began to fly right towards me. It ducked and bobbed and flew over me just a few feet above my head but still I didn't flinch. I wanted the alien bastards to know that I wasn't afraid. They didn't care about me and I didn't care about them. I wanted them to know that they'd never be able to control me or frighten me or reprogram me or twist or manipulate me.

I am Thomas Winter. I will always be Thomas Winter.

Batter me and beat me and wear me down for a hundred fucking years and I'll never give up. I'll never give in.

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