By the time I woke up next morning it was almost the next afternoon. I was more tired than I had been before I'd gone to bed. I also had a chronic (but not totally unexpected) hangover. It was almost as if the beer I'd drunk last night had been on a time delay. I'd felt fine when I'd fallen into bed in the dark but now I felt like death warmed-up. Siobhan had got up and gone to work early and I hoped that she was feeling better than I was. My head was thumping and my stomach was so sickeningly sensitive that for a few minutes the nausea was all that I could think of. It took a while before I remembered anything of what had happened yesterday.
The heavy curtains were still closed but I could tell from the shadows and the heat in the room that it was a bright day outside. I glanced up at the alarm clock and saw that it was almost midday. I couldn't remember anything much after getting home last night. I remembered getting undressed and falling into bed with Siobhan but that was about it. It had been cold last night. Now the temperature in the room was stifling and the bedclothes were soaked through with sweat.
Suddenly deciding that it was time I made a move, I sat up quickly and swung my feet out over the side of the bed. A big mistake. A tidal wave of sickness washed over me and for a few seconds I thought I was going to pass out or vomit or both. Once the bile and disorientation had settled I pushed myself up off the bed and stumbled naked towards the window. I drew back the curtains and winced as the room was filled with brilliant, warm sunlight. Outside the sky was a deep, clear blue and the sun danced and played on the calm surface of the ocean beyond the land. The village itself was teeming with activity. There were more bodies outside than I'd seen all summer. There were queues of cars and queues of people everywhere. It was as if the entire population of the country was trying to cram itself into Thatcham. It was then that I remembered what had happened.
The door creaked open behind me and I turned round to see Rob shuffling into the room. He looked as bad as I felt. He kicked his way through the piles of discarded clothes on the floor, mumbled something unintelligible, and then handed me a mug of hot black coffee.
'Thanks,' I croaked, my mouth dry. 'How you feeling?'
'Fucking awful,' he muttered before turning round and stumbling back out again. I pulled on my jeans and a T-shirt and followed him out.
'Seen how busy it is out there?' I asked, gesturing back over my shoulder.
'I know,' he replied, 'it's been like that for hours.'
'Has it? How long you been up then?'
He managed half a smile.
'I haven't been to bed yet.'
'Twat. Why not?'
Rob shrugged his shoulders, scratched his unshaven chin and ruffled his already matted hair.
'I dunno. I wasn't tired. When you two went to bed last night I sat and watched television for a bit. I must have fallen asleep for about half an hour, but then I woke up and started watching the news again.'
He shook his head.
'Not that I know of. Christ, I sat here and watched that bloody ship for hours last night and nothing happened.' He sat down on the sofa in front of the television and rested his head in his hands.
'Are you okay?' I asked, concerned.
'No,' he said quietly.
His skin was grey and his face was getting greyer by the second. He suddenly pushed himself up from his seat and rushed towards the bathroom. I heard the door slam and then, after much moaning, groaning and retching, the toilet was flushed.
'Been sick?' I asked stupidly as he staggered back into the living room.
'Well I wasn't cleaning my fucking teeth, was I?' he spat.
I switched on the television and the fixed plastic grin of a news reader stared back at me. In a box in the top-right corner of the screen was an image of the huge, dark alien ship.
'I still can't get my head round all of this...' I said, talking to myself.
'Neither can I,' Rob replied.
'Something must have happened since last night.'
'Oh yeah, there was something.'
'Just a press conference or something like that.'
'And what was said?' I pressed.
'What do you mean, you don't remember?' I snapped, irritated by my brother's nonchalance. 'Bloody hell, the single most important event in history and you can't remember what's happened.'
'Listen,' he hissed through clenched teeth, 'this is the worst fucking hangover in history. How do you expect me to keep you up to date with the news when I can't even focus on the fucking screen?'
I said nothing. I just waited for the headlines to come on.
It was almost half-past twelve.
By half past one I'd seen everything I needed to see. The press conference gave me all the information that was available, and that was a surprising amount. I supposed that in these days of the Internet, digital television and mobile phones and the like, there wasn't much that could be kept hidden. With so many means and methods of communicating, how could anyone keep anything quiet anymore?
So these were the facts as I understood them; an observation station in South Australia picked up a distress signal from an unidentified ship of unknown origin on the outskirts of our solar system early yesterday morning. The vessel was tracked, visual contact was made and it was guided towards the planet and, eventually, out over neutral waters off the coast of England . At one o'clock this morning (our time) one of the occupants of the ship voluntarily allowed itself to be taken into custody to explain their sudden and unexpected arrival here.
That was the point where I'd had to stop and try and get my head around what I was hearing. These really were aliens - that was the hardest thing to accept. Okay, so I'd seen their ship arrive and it was obvious that their intelligence and capacity were far beyond anything we humans had managed to do, but it was still difficult to try and come to terms with the fact that alien contact had finally been made. So how did they communicate with us? How come they could speak English? Apparently they could speak all our major languages. That didn't ring true. It reminded me of the way all aliens in the original Star Trek series were always just humans with different coloured hair, skin, costumes or all three. It seemed a little far-fetched to believe they could speak our language word-perfect but, then again, they were obviously so technically advanced that maybe they really were capable of anything. If we could decipher ancient hieroglyphics when there was no-one left using them, why shouldn't they be able to work out what we're saying to each other when there are billions of us talking, writing and broadcasting all round the planet every minute of every day.
So why were they here?
Again, what I heard was plausible. It seemed that the massive ship was used primarily for mining and that the engines or reactors or something were damaged towards the end of the aliens' present mission. They couldn't get home, it was as simple as that. Our planet, I learned, was the closest with an atmosphere capable of sustaining them temporarily but what was close I wondered? A billion miles? A hundred billion miles? And I found myself wondering why, if these creatures really were so advanced, couldn't they just patch up their ship and limp home?
So they were stuck here. That was the short and the tall of it, they were stuck here with no means of getting back. Apparently they had called for help, but that help would be at least several months in arriving.
When the people on the television started harping on about the scientific importance of the visit and how mankind's destiny had been forever changed I got bored and switched the television off.
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