(Editors’ Note: This is a Middle–Grade story written for children of all ages. If you have come to Uncanny Magazine for the first time to read this story, please note that the rest of the stories, essays, and poems in Uncanny contain very adult elements.)
Alan Thompson was used to looking at radar displays. He knew the shapes of aircraft, advertising balloons, and birds. He’d worked in RAF control towers for twenty years. Right now, he was staring in shock at the green trace on the screen in front of him. He’d stood up, just a little, as if he could get a better view by being half out of his chair.
He’d been watching a series of RAF exercises over the English Channel. A flight of E–3 Sentry aircraft had been testing new anti–submarine gear by trying to find a Royal Navy submarine that was doing its best to get lost.
That’s when the amazing thing had appeared.
The new officer, Wing Commander Devereux, appeared at his shoulder. He’d been poking his nose into everyone’s business, without anyone seeming to know why he was here. “Problem?”
Alan put his finger on the green streak that was moving towards the South Coast of England. “That, sir. It’s been going back and forth. Like an aircraft with engine trouble, looking for a place to land.” Alan was experienced enough to recognise aircraft behaviour, even particular types of aircraft and species of bird. It’s got a radar signature like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
“Could be a meteorite.”
The thing on the screen suddenly changed course. “Or… not.” Devereux suddenly sounded very interested.
“But the really weird thing, sir… It’s the speed.”
“How fast is it?”
“Mach Eight… Nine… I swear it’s hit Mach Ten on some of those turns. Sir, no pilot could survive that. No… human pilot.” He looked up and met Devereux’s stern gaze.
“I’m just going to make a phone call,” said the senior officer. “You keep an eye on that thing. And Thompson—”
“You’ve got a wife and kids, haven’t you?”
“Then remember: this never happened. You haven’t seen anything strange. All right?”
The silver thing shot over the trees and vanished into the distance.
Gary Clark had his mouth open.
He was twelve, always carefully scruffy, with a tie as thin as he could get it, a number two haircut, and his shirt always falling out of his school trousers. He liked to wear the collar of his blazer up.
He was in the woods at the back of the school. It was five o’clock. He’d gone home, chucked his bag onto the bed, told Mum he was going back out. She’d said something in reply, he hadn’t caught it, but it had sounded okay, and she hadn’t followed him out of the door, so he probably wasn’t in trouble.
Not that he cared. Not that she did.
He’d been throwing stuff into the stream, bigger and bigger sticks, making a dam. The dam would stop the stream, then the water on this side would build up. He’d pull out the central stick, and then the water would burst out. He’d tried it before, but he’d never got it exactly right. He liked doing stuff like this, on his own, without a lot of people talking at him. He didn’t really have any mates. He didn’t really want any.
Or maybe… maybe he really did… but…
The sound of a jet had made him look up. He’d just caught the silver thing flashing overhead. Then it had gone.
And now his mouth was open.
Because he was sure that hadn’t been a jet.
He dropped the piece of wood he was holding and started to run in the direction the thing had gone. Then he stopped because it was hopeless. That thing would be all the way to London by now, it was moving so—
The silver shape flashed back above the trees.
Everything in it should have gone splat against the insides. But Gary was sure it hadn’t. It had stopped like a car skidding to a halt right on a kerb. That, Gary was sure, was exactly what the driver had wanted to do.
Gary stared up. He was nearly underneath the thing. It was a perfect silver teardrop, sideways, suspended in the sky. It was reflecting the light of the low autumn sun.
He guessed he should be afraid. But he wasn’t. He’d seen some scary stuff.
He walked carefully, moving from tree to tree, until he was underneath it. The teardrop was giving out a low hum. The hum was pulsing, wowing to itself. Only it didn’t sound good. Something was slowing down. Like the engine was having trouble.
Gary made absolutely sure he could see it perfectly, wiping a bit of gunk from his eye. He wanted to soak up every detail.
A UFO. They were never going to believe him.
He’d always laughed when Rob had shown his pictures of crop circles to the class, because it was so obviously done by some bunch of kids who had, surprise, invented a new way to walk on corn. But this was definitely, one hundred percent, a flying saucer. They were real. He hoped someone else was seeing this, or he might never get to talk about it.
A new sound came from the direction of the school, overlapping with the teardrop’s wupping. A high screech—
Which blasted over his head. Two jets. RAF Tornadoes. Going right over the top of this thing and then gone over the trees.
Right. That was it. They must have seen it. That must be what they were up there for. They’d be back in a minute, and then there’d be the police, reporters, TV crews…
And he was here first! Just for once! This was his thing!
He ran a little further, to get right under it, to see what was on the very bottom of the curve of the underside. He reached in his pocket and realised he’d left his mobile in his bag at home. If only he’d got a camera!
The thing was moving, tilting, trying to turn. It was definitely in trouble.
It was changing, too. Something was happening underneath it. A dark space was opening up, a hatch. He could see it now. And then something was in that dark space—
Gary jumped aside as the thing fell straight at him.
It landed with a crunch a couple of feet away, and rolled into the trees. A black ball. Gary got up and went to it. Still not scared. Something in his stomach was telling him he really should be by now. He’d probably been zapped with enough radiation to turn him into a super hero.
He could hear cars now, or heavier vehicles, over on the distant road that led into the woods. Lots of them. They’d be coming to take away his big story, Boy Finds Aliens. He had to hang on to this at least until the TV news got here. Then he’d be on all the shows, and everyone would want to hear what he had to say. For the first time.
He grabbed the sphere. He lifted it off the ground, nicely light—
The top fell off.
Gary found himself staring into a pair of tiny yellow eyes with black pupils. The eyes were set in a round, dark green, shiny face. The thing had a thin, muscular body and a head like a young bird’s, with a big, beaklike snout. It was covered with scales like a lizard. Its tiny hands were struggling with a panel of small controls in front of it while it looked at Gary.
“Yope,” it said to him.
Gary tried not to swear, because he didn’t want the first contact between aliens and humans to be him doing that over and over again on telly, or on whatever the aliens had instead of telly.
“Gary,” he finally came out with. “We come in peace. I mean, we’re here in peace. So… hey.”
He closed his eyes in shame. If he hadn’t been holding a reptile creature in a black sphere, he’d have smacked his own forehead. So much for his place in history.
A big sound made him and the creature look up.
The silver craft was slowly turning, its surface brushing against the tops of the trees. Wherever it touched a branch, the branch caught fire. It was making a groaning noise, like something very old dying.
The creature let out a yell and hit more controls, uselessly. Whatever it was trying to do, it wasn’t working.
Gary ran back a few metres, carrying it, so they weren’t under the thing any more.
With a great heaving roar the silver ship settled down onto the trees, which erupted in flame around it. They tried to take its weight for a moment… but then they bent and burst aside.
The ship fell.
The creature shrieked something.
Gary thought that was probably the word for “run.”
He sprinted away from the ship.
He felt more than heard the explosion. It hit him across his back like a wave hitting you when you were swimming in the sea. It took him along with it, flying across the forest floor, still holding onto the creature in its black ball, until he hit the ground and rolled, over and over, the sphere hard in his stomach, his body protecting the fragile–looking creature.
He stopped rolling when he was amongst the low bushes and nettles. The creature was yelling things he couldn’t understand, its head buried in his stomach. It jerked itself free and yelled right in his face. That thing that meant “run” again. Hey, they had a word worked out!
He turned as he felt the heat on his face.
The forest behind him was burning, a fireball.
The flames were rushing straight at him.
He gathered the creature back to his chest, leapt up, and ran as fast as he could, heading for the school.
Chloe Dawson hated being here.
She hated being in the small, bare, cream–colored mobile classroom that stood on rusty supports at the back of the school by the woods, that had stood there as long as anybody knew, so how could it be “mobile,” anyway?
It was only her second time here. Mrs. Blake, the biology teacher, had asked her parents to send her along, and they had. She’d pleaded with them, explained to them, yelled at them, refused to eat dinner because her Quorn pasties had been cooked on the same hob as the stew—
Actually that bit was nothing to do with this.
But whatever, here she was at the After School Catch–Up Club. A prison for the brainless. The losers. She did not deserve to be here. All she’d done was turn in a biology homework in the form of a poem. All the answers had been there. All Mrs. Blake had to do was read the poem and treat it like regular homework. She’d explained that to Mrs. Blake. And then Mrs. Blake had sent her here.
She was meant to be re–doing the homework “properly.” So she was. She was writing a better poem.
She put her hand up. “Mr. Hayes?”
Mr. Hayes took science. He was always fair and sometimes he wrote actually funny things beside his marks. And sometimes, okay, he wrote things that weren’t actually funny, but hey, he was doing his best. The only good thing about the whole concept of the Catch–Up Club was that they’d put him in charge of it.
“Chloe?” He looked up from his desk, that surprised look he always had.
“What rhymes with mitosis?”
Mr. Hayes thought for a moment. “Gnosis, roses, osmosis, maybe you could actually use that one. If you were doing English, which you’re not, are you?”
“I’m writing in English.”
He kept looking at her, as if he would be smiling if he’d let himself. “I want to see a full set of answers to Mrs. Blake’s questions, and that poem for my noticeboard, at the end of the lesson, Chloe.”
She looked back to the paper, angry at how he could twist her around like that. But she was probably going to do it. She just needed to sit and sulk a bit first. She looked around the room. There were only three of them in tonight. Right at the back sat Anand Parashar, from her class. Of course he’d be here. He never listened to anyone, teachers or whoever. He just quietly got on with stuff. He was terrible at maths, but all right at everything else. He was kind of cool, really. She’d never seen him acting like a jerk. He saw her looking and smiled, not one of those mad smiles that boys usually put on, but a quiet one. She smiled back, and then looked across to his sister, beside him.
Now she looked furious. She was scribbling away, moving the sheet of paper with her other hand, concentrating fiercely. Shoma was the most popular girl in the year above Chloe. The whole world just revolved around her: who she hung around with; what her ringtone was today. If you were the sort of person who was into that stuff, Shoma was really it.
Chloe wasn’t that sort of person. She and her mates had their music and their clothes, and it was their own, not the kind of stuff airheads like Shoma listened to or wore.
Everyone in school today had been talking about why Shoma had ended up here. She’d run, they said, into this snotty substitute history teacher and had had a stand up row with him. Nobody really knew what about. It was him that Shoma was probably writing about so fast and furiously.
Mr. Hayes stood up. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” he said. “Remember, you can’t leave without me signing you out, even if you’ve finished. Shoma, don’t wear out the desk.” And he left.
Chloe turned back to what she was writing. They’d be going home soon. She’d better just write down Mrs. Blake’s answers, get her out of this place. It was cool watching Shoma be all anguished, but it wasn’t enough to keep her entertained.
Nothing interesting was ever going to happen at the After School Catch–Up Club.
Gary ran through the trees, clutching his burden to his chest, seeing the school in the distance now.
The creature kept looking round, shouting things he couldn’t understand. Apart from that “run” thing. He was getting good at recognizing that. He didn’t know if it thought he was saving it or kidnapping it. Maybe it didn’t care as long as they were running away from the fire. He broke through onto a road. Only a few hundred meters to the gate at the back of the grounds now. He heard the roar of a car engine coming round the corner and ducked back down into the bushes. The trees here were thin, they’d see him if he kept going.
He peered out of the bushes to see what was coming.
A jeep was approaching, bearing the RAF insignia. In it sat soldiers, two of them in the back with their rifles unslung, looking around.
They’d got here quickly enough. He knew he should step out and wave, hand over the creature to people who knew what they were doing, but he really didn’t want to. What he wanted was to get this thing in front of a camera and make it clear he had found it. That he had greeted it on behalf of the human race. Him. Gary Clark. He would be famous. He’d go on chat shows. Funny story, here’s how me and the alien met. Actually, I saved its life. Even Mum might finally realize he existed.
To his horror, the jeep stopped.
The creature in the sphere crouched down as low as it could go. They both kept silent together as the soldiers got out, started looking around the verges on both sides of the road.
They were going to find them. In about thirty seconds.
Gary made his decision. He grabbed the sphere again, leapt up, and sprinted across the road.
The shot made a partridge burst from cover beside him, crying out.
He glanced back and saw the soldier crouched in a firing position.
Another shot spat mud from the ground near his feet.
They were shooting at him!
They were actually shooting at him!
Okay, now he was scared.
He should really stop and give them the sphere. But they were shooting at him, and now he was angry as well as scared. He was running before he’d even thought about running. He knew these woods better than they did. He crashed his way through the undergrowth, running left and right. They wouldn’t get a clear shot. The creature was yelling again, strident warning cries.
And now the gate was just ahead. Gary grabbed the creature around the beak. “Shut it!” he yelled. “Do you want them to catch us?!”
It took him a moment to fumble with the gate with one hand, holding the sphere on his hip. The gate hadn’t been locked, which it should have been, but no, right, that was because the After School Thing was out this way.
He quickly secured the gate behind him, then looked round. Miles of tarmac between him and the main school buildings. The soldiers would get to take careful aim before they shot at him and they’d have loads of goes.
But right here. A hundred metres away. One of the mobile classrooms was lit up. The After School Thing!
Gary grabbed the sphere in both hands and sprinted for the mobile classroom.
Chloe looked up at the sound of someone running towards the door.
It burst open, and in dived Gary Clark, yelling. He tripped on the top step, fell on his face, let go of whatever he was carrying.
A black half–ball with some sort of puppet in it bounced across the floor, knocking the toy about, until it rolled up against Shoma’s legs.
The puppet opened its eyes and screamed at her.
Shoma screamed back.
Mr. Hayes finished his allotted amount of what the machine hopefully called tea, and dropped the paper cup into the recycling bin. He wandered out of the corridor with the kids’ paintings on the wall, back into the playground, and sniffed the air.
Fire. A big one. Nearby.
“We’ve got to hide it!” Gary was yelling. “The soldiers! They’re after me!”
All Chloe knew about Gary Clark was that he always seemed to look hurt and kind of tough at the same time, and that he didn’t seem to have any friends. Right now, the look on his face said he desperately needed someone to believe him.
Chloe looked at the ball, looked at Gary, then leapt up and ran to where the door was flapping in the evening air. She slammed it closed. “Put it on the desk!” she said. “What is it?!”
Shoma had taken two steps back from the creature and had stopped screaming. Now she just had a hand over her mouth.
Anand quickly went to do as Chloe said, hefting the sphere up onto the desk a moment before Gary got to it.
“I found it, right?” Gary insisted, a little defensively.
“Hey, you win a prize,” said Anand.
Everyone clustered round and stared at the mobile, quivering, boggling creature that was looking around at all of them, clearly scared out of its wits.
“Well,” said Chloe. “That looks like an alien to me.”
Shoma just shook her head. Then she shook it again, like her brain couldn’t believe what her eyes were seeing.
“Of course it’s an alien!” said Gary. “It came from a spacecraft! I saw it land! Well, crash. It’s started a fire in the woods! And soldiers shot at me, and they’re coming here after it!”
“Yeah, right!” said Shoma.
Gary pointed at the creature. “Alien. Real life alien. Not a puppet. Not a special effect. Not something I found in a chocolate egg. Compared with that, why do you find the bit about the soldiers hard to believe?!”
“We have to save this little guy from them!”
“Assuming it’s real,” said Shoma, “why do we have to do that?”
“Because they shot at me!”
“If it’s an alien, they’re the experts, it’s probably planning to invade Earth or something!”
“Does it look like it’s planning to invade Earth?”
“Okay, unlike you, Gary, I can’t tell what an alien’s plans for Earth are just by looking at it.”
Chloe stepped between them. “We’ve got to be quiet,” she said. “The soldiers will hear us if they’re nearby. We’re the only place with a light on on this side of the school. Who votes for giving this thing up to the soldiers?”
The creature looked at them in alarm, obviously getting what they were thinking about doing.
Shoma put her hand up, then realised she was the only who had. She put it down again. “You lot are going to be in so much trouble.”
“Right,” said Chloe. “We have to hide the alien.”
She looked around the room. Behind the teacher’s desk there was a cupboard. She flung it open. Piles of paper, markers, supplies, and stuff. There was nothing on the bottom shelves, but no room to put the sphere.
She put her boot on the lowermost shelf and stamped on it until it slammed down to floor level. She was pleased to hear Shoma gasp at this terrible destruction of school property. “In here,” she said.
Gary grabbed the creature’s sphere and placed it in the cupboard where the bottom shelves had been. The alien looked pleadingly at them, like it was going to go along with this but wished they could have come up with something a bit better.
Chloe shrugged at it, then closed the door and bolted it. “Okay,” she said, “here’s the plan…”
The RAF Regiment squad had fanned out to cover the wooded area. They’d had no idea what was through here. Now they’d all reached the gate at once.
Orders came through on the radio. They stopped and waited. Moments later, another jeep arrived, bringing their commanding officer with it.
Wing Commander Devereux was the sort of man who was given great secrets, in the certainty that he would keep and protect them. Right now it was his job to find out more about the greatest secret he’d ever been trusted with. He’d been told that certain “long range detectors” had indicated an object might be arriving from deep space and he had used his authority to get into the right air traffic control tower at the right time. Now he was leading the hunt on the ground.
He slid the bolt on the gate, then walked in slowly, looking toward the empty school buildings. “According to the satellite maps, this is St. John’s Comprehensive School and Sixth Form College. We have all the exits covered. Could the intruder have got past you?”
“No sir,” said one of the soldiers. “We closed the net tight, sir.”
“Was it humanoid?”
“Yes sir, although visibility was limited. It was about the size of a child. Round head, wearing the remains of some sort of uniform, carrying equipment of some kind.”
“And a boy was carrying it?”
“Yes sir, about twelve years old, sir.”
“Let’s assume for now that was a real child, and not another arrival in some sort of disguise. What the hell was he thinking?” Devereux gazed around the silent school buildings. So close now. It had to be inside here, somewhere. There was a light on in a mobile classroom.
He turned to his team and pointed at one of them. “Saunders, you take a squad and open everything that’s not locked. Bates, your squad’s with me. We’ll take that mobile classroom.”
“Absolutely not,” Shoma was swiftly packing her things into her pink, high fashion backpack. “This is nothing to do with me. I’m not going to get you into trouble, mind. I didn’t see that monster –”
“This monster?” Gary had been pacing. Now he opened the door to the cupboard, making the creature shriek in fear once more, then closed it again.
“Gary, don’t,” said Chloe.
He looked hurt again. “It’s mine,” he said.
“It’s… not anyone’s. It’s its own—”
“I want to help it, to keep it safe. I want to go on TV with it, and not get it… captured to have experiments done on it or something. But I found it. Nothing good ever…” He seemed to realise that wasn’t the sort of thing he could say in front of other kids and shut up.
“You found it and you want to look after it,” she said. “I get that.”
He looked hard at her, like he was wondering if she was going to play a trick on him. Then he nodded.
“That monster,” said Shoma, pulling the zip closed on her bag, “is exactly what I didn’t see. I’ve finished my work, and I want to go home.” She picked up the paper from where she’d been working and put it on Mr. Hayes’ desk. “Anand, are you coming?”
Anand shook his head. “I want to see how this works out.”
“Okay.” Shoma turned to head out. “Then I’ll see you at home.”
Chloe couldn’t quite believe she was doing this, but she stepped into Shoma’s way. “No,” she said. “I’m sorry, but you can’t.”
Shoma looked at her with the icy contempt of someone who had never met a Goth she didn’t loathe. “Excuse me?”
“There isn’t time for you to go. They’ll be out there right now. You’ll bring even more attention to this mobile classroom.”
“What interesting theories. But I so don’t care.”
“And you’ll have left before Mr. Hayes let you, which will earn you another night in here. Especially if we tell him you couldn’t be bothered to wait for him.” Chloe went to the desk at the front and plucked up Shoma’s vast, angry essay in tiny handwriting. “Especially if this went missing.”
Shoma opened her mouth, about to emit the loudest possible shriek. Then she closed it again, her eyes blazing. She nodded slightly at Chloe, as if mentally noting this outrage. She flung her bag onto her desk and sat back down, her arms folded.
“Yeah, do be ready to scream,” added Chloe, quietly. “Like you were about to, but on cue. Okay?”
Shoma ignored her.
Devereux marched up the steps of the mobile classroom, three soldiers with him. He made hand signals that indicated one of them should kick open the door, while the other two stood ready to give covering fire.
He drew his own automatic pistol.
He signalled the man at the door. The soldier thumped down the door handle and kicked the door open. The two other men and Devereux followed him inside at speed.
There were children screaming at him. He swept the room with his gun. No targets. Two girls and a boy. None of them fitted the description of the boy who’d taken the creature.
“It’s okay!” one of the schoolgirls was shouting to the others. “It’s not that horrible thing, it’s soldiers!”
“Where did it go?” Devereux asked the girl.
She pointed. “Round the corner of the school. With this kid!”
“We’re here ‘cos we’re useless at school,” shouted the boy. “We don’t want any trouble!”
“Right,” Devereux gestured to his men again. “Follow.” He grabbed his radio on the way out and advised all units to move in on the other side of the school.
As he sprinted across the playground, an odd thought came into Devereux’s head. One of those puzzles of human nature you sometimes see in combat. Those kids had looked terrified… apart from one of them. She’d just been looking straight ahead like there was a bad smell in the air.
Even in a group of self–confessed “useless kids,” you got one who had their head screwed on.
He put the thought aside and continued the chase.
Gary waited huddled in the corner, behind a pile of chairs, until the sound of the soldiers’ boots had faded into the distance. He emerged cautiously and looked to the cupboard, the door of which was still, thankfully, shut. What was he going to do? Only the four of them knew about this thing. Could he ask for one of their phones and call the BBC or something? Like they’d believe him. And was he on the run now? Was it an actual crime to help an alien? His Mum would definitely notice that, if soldiers came knocking on her door. She’d probably tell them exactly where to find him.
Anand had gone to the cupboard and was pointing at it like he was pointing at what he knew to be inside it. “I think that’s an ablation shield,” he said.
“A what of what?” asked Gary, going over. Chloe and, with a reluctance she made sure to display, Shoma, joined them.
“A heat shield for spacecraft as they re–enter from orbit. That’s what the black stuff on the ball is. It’s supposed to boil away.”
Gary wiped his hands on his trousers. “I thought it was a bit sticky.”
“That pod must be designed to save the alien if his ship is in trouble.”
“We don’t know it’s a he,” said Chloe.
It was at that moment that the door opened again. They all jumped. But it was just Mr. Hayes. He looked very worried. “Okay,” he said, “we’re done for tonight. I’ve just been told by some soldiers that there’s a major emergency in the woods behind the school, so please collect your bags. We’ll be assembling in front of the school and doing a head count.” Gary felt his chest tighten in fear. He was sure soldiers would be there, looking out for a kid of his description. “I’ll take in the work you’ve done so far… Gary, what are you doing here?”
“Mr. Hayes,” said Shoma, a look of evil innocence on her face. “This lot have been messing about in that cupboard and tried to blackmail me not to tell you about it.”
Gary took a step forward, wanting to make her shut up, but a look from Chloe made him stop.
“Messing about in—?” Mr. Hayes looked angry at them. “We don’t have time for games. What have you been doing? Gary, is this you she’s talking about?”
“It’s just her being stupid, sir,” said Chloe.
“I asked Gary.”
Gary desperately improvised. “Like you said, we have to get out of here, I’ll stay behind for a second and switch the lights off if you want—Sir!”
Mr. Hayes had had enough, and had marched to the cupboard.
He flung it open.
The first blast of silent multicolored light went over his left shoulder. The second one sliced through the material of his jacket, a centimeter from his ribs.
He threw himself backwards and landed on the floor.
Gary dived for cover, yelling. He looked up a second later to see everyone had done the same. He looked over to the walls to see two perfectly round holes had appeared in them.
He looked back to Mr. Hayes, who was staring in disbelief at what was in the cupboard.
The alien had found what it had been scrabbling at its controls in search of: a gun as big as its head. “Yope,” it said. Only this time it sounded less like a name, and more like a term of abuse.
It swung the gun to cover Mr. Hayes, its finger tightening on the trigger as it aimed its killer shot.
“Hoi!” Gary leapt between them. “Just… hoi!”
The alien kept its gun pointed exactly where it had been.
“Okay,” said Gary, hopping out of the way again, “not that brave.”
The alien and Mr. Hayes looked at each other. Then the alien lowered its gun.
Mr. Hayes pointed at the alien. Then he looked at the kids.
It looked like it was going to be a while before he was going to be able to say anything.
Twenty minutes later, they all stood around the alien, which had been placed on a table again. Anand had been to get cans of drink. Mr. Hayes, having heard Gary’s story blurted out at high speed, had, to his relief, given in to his desperate requests and called the Headmistress to say he’d already let the Catch Up Club go home, so they wouldn’t be at the assembly point.
“There’s nowhere we can take it that’s going to be safe,” said Chloe. “Nobody we can hand it in to.”
“These are things I would also have said,” said Mr. Hayes. “Being in charge here and everything.”
Gary felt himself getting angry. “I found it,” he said.
Mr. Hayes actually put a hand on his shoulder. Gary found he liked the feeling of support and appreciation, but he didn’t like the being told what to do that was about to come with it. “Gary—”
“No! We get it on TV, they couldn’t do anything to it then!”
Mr. Hayes got down to his level and looked him in the eye, like he was a little kid. “I think they could stop any TV company from ever broadcasting this. Don’t you think that’s true? And wouldn’t it be better to do whatever this creature wants to do? Don’t you think, if it’s possible, that it’d prefer to get straight home?”
“Gary—” Chloe began.
“No. Let him decide.”
Gary had often been asked by adults to “decide” when there was only one choice. “What happens if I say no? If I still want to go for the TV thing?”
Mr. Hayes took a deep breath. “Then we wait until it’s safer, let you take it out of here, and say nothing”
Chloe looked astonished. Shoma slowly shook her head in awe. That was the most out of order thing she’d ever heard a teacher say. Anand actually laughed. But Gary knew, this being Hayes, that it was true. That he’d actually do that. That he had a real choice.
This feeling was… weird. And good. Actually, it was better than going on TV. And Hayes was right. Gary knew it. He had to do the right thing for the little guy, who was in his care. “Okay,” he said. “But what can we do?”
Chloe was looking at him like she hadn’t expected him to do that. She had a surprised smile on her face. Gary liked how she seemed to be considering him a bit differently now, like he was better than she’d expected him to be.
Anand nudged him and pointed at the alien. “It’s not looking happy,” he said.
“How do we know how it’s looking?” said Chloe. “It’s like Shoma said—”
“Hey,” said Shoma, “respect at last.”
“We’re not from the same planet, but we look at that face and we know it’s not happy. What’s that about?”
“Maybe it’s messing with our heads,” said Anand. “Just enough so that we can read its expressions, but not enough for words. Maybe if we concentrate—”
“Can we all concentrate?” said Chloe, glancing at Shoma.
“Sure. I’ll pretend it’s interesting.”
Mr. Hayes had stood up again, but was looking at Gary, as if waiting for him to lead. There was another weird but good feeling. “Just… come on, okay?” he said. “Just, join hands… okay, you don’t have to join hands, but… look at him. I know it’s a him. Concentrate on hearing what he’s got to say. Right? Right!”
“Ow!” yelled Shoma, slapping her hands to her ears.
“Quieter!” Gary said to the creature, speaking over the words that were bursting through his head without the alien moving its lips. “We hear you!”
“And please, language!” said Mr. Hayes.
“He’s angry,” said Gary.
“Well,” the alien put his hands on his hips. “Excuse me so *%$%&^^ much!” Part of the sentence had been a blur of static.
“He’s not quite getting through…” said Anand.
“I’m censoring him,” said Mr. Hayes.
“I assumed you were friendly military forces of some kind,” continued the alien. “Not some &%%&^ just out of their eggs!”
“Where… are… you… from?” said Chloe.
“None… of… your… business. In the event of a crash, there’s a protocol to follow, and item one is don’t tell the primitives anything.”
“Primitives?” Anand loomed over the alien. “Okay, we’re going to give you to the soldiers now. Have a nice life.”
“I don’t believe your threat.”
Anand gave the alien a look that would melt concrete. Then, before anybody could stop him, he’d grabbed the sphere, and was marching towards the door. “Hey, RAF dudes, got a live one here!”
Gary held himself back, let his thoughts say Yeah, let’s do that.
The alien screamed again. “Stop!” he yelled. “Stop! All right! I come from a planet called Earth!”
Shoma gasped. Then realized nobody else had and pretended it had been a cough.
“Everyone comes from a planet called Earth,” sighed the alien. “Or Soil. Or Mud. Or Ground. Or sometimes Lots Of Water. Nobody gets together and names their own planet. By the time it’s important, it’s usually been decided for centuries, and it’s usually whatever the opposite of sky is.”
“Okay, the important thing is,” Chloe reached out and took one of the alien’s hands in hers. It looked at her with a puzzled, pleased expression. “How do we get you home?”
The alien gently removed its hand from hers and hit a control on its pod. “I’ve activated a beacon. There’s a standard procedure.”
“A standard—” Mr. Hayes was boggling again. “So you lot have been coming here for—”
“For the scenery, okay? I just… like this place. Somewhere to… to get away from everyone and think.”
“Yeah,” said Gary. “I get that.” He saw Chloe looking at him and found he had to look away. He didn’t like it when people thought they’d worked something out about him.
“All right,” continued the alien, “some of us were interested in invading. For a while. That thought went away as soon as we got a good look at your technology.”
“You were afraid of us,” said Anand.
“No, we didn’t like the idea of conquering you then having to explain things all the time.”
“Oh, well,” said Shoma, folding her arms, “that makes everything all right.”
“There is an awful lot I have to ask you,” said Mr. Hayes. “About faster than light travel, about how many alien species there are, about how long you’ve been coming here…”
“You’ve got half an hour to get me twenty or so miles,” said the alien. “Can we talk in the car?”
RAF radar operator Alan Thompson saw the new object appear on his radar screen and he knew exactly what he had to do.
He remembered what Wing Commander Devereux had said about his wife and children.
He picked up his newspaper and headed for the bathroom. He was going to be gone, he reckoned, about half an hour.
It turned out that Mr. Hayes had a car that could fit himself, four kids, and an alien in the boot. Just about.
He brought it round to the mobile classroom, made the kids all hide under window level, then drove at a normal speed toward the main school buildings. He stopped beside where the assembly of pupils was breaking up, the kids being allowed home. Gary risked looking out of the car window and saw soldiers still waiting at the gate. Mr. Hayes actually went over to where the one who seemed to be in charge was talking with the Headmistress and spent way too long nodding along before finally heading back to the car.
“They’re saying it’s a crashed aircraft,” said Mr. Hayes as he closed the door. “Let’s see if me having had that little chat gets us out without being searched.”
They crouched down again as the car approached the school gate. Gary tried to make himself as small as he could get. A dark thought in the back of his mind was saying that he could still be famous in school if he got out of this car and yelled to the soldiers that he knew where the alien was. He shook his head, almost as angry at that thought as he was at the soldiers. No. The alien just wanted to be left alone. He’d just come here to get away for a while. Gary was making sure he got home, back to whatever mates he had.
He looked over to Chloe and saw she was smiling at him, trying to say they’d get through this. He wasn’t used to having anyone on his side. Now not only was Mr. Hayes, but she seemed to be, too.
The car came to a halt at the gate. The shadow of a soldier approached the driver’s window. Then there was a sharp knock on the roof and the shadow was waving them on. They could go.
Mr. Hayes drove out at normal speed, turned the corner, stopped and then looked back over his shoulder at them. “Seatbelts on,” he said. “This is going to be a bumpy ride.”
The little car sped through the back lanes, heading for the destination the creature had given Mr. Hayes as GPS coordinates. Shoma, in the front seat, which she’d grabbed, turned out to be a bit of an expert at finding places on her phone. She kept calling at Mr. Hayes to go left or right. She also, at Mr. Hayes’ insistence, called her parents, and Chloe’s, and left a message on Gary’s Mum’s answer phone, saying they were being kept late at school. The messages she left were so utterly convincing that Gary wondered how often she’d done that.
Suddenly, he realised he could “hear” the alien talking to him again. He twisted in his seat to get his head closer to the boot, and the voice got louder. “It’s saying thank you,” he said. “And to drive faster.”
“Ask it about faster than light drives!” Mr. Hayes yelled, as they skidded round a corner.
“Now he’s saying,” replied Gary, feeling a bit awkward about what the alien had just told him, “that he likes the taste of spare tyre.”
The car skidded and screeched along the back roads, occasionally with tractors appearing in the headlights and then disappearing with yells behind them, until they finally found a long straight road into the middle of the forest. Shoma fell back in her seat, sighing with relief.
They screeched to a halt on the gravel of a picnic area car park, two minutes late.
There was an urgent banging from the boot. The alien was also yelling into Gary’s head. Chloe and the others leapt out. Gary, car sick and scrunched into an odd shape, fell out and lay on his back, looking up into the clear night sky.
There it was.
He grinned at it.
They expected a tractor beam, or a teleporter, they said to each other afterwards. Instead, the teardrop spaceship slid down the sky and touched the ground. A circle of blackness appeared in it, and the alien, with one look over his shoulder and a curt nod, hit a control on his sphere and flew inside.
The ship immediately shot up to the height Gary had first seen it at and halted there for a moment. Gary heard in his head a distant, heartfelt “thanks.” He looked at the others and saw they’d heard it too. But it had been directed at him.
The ship turned until it was point upwards, then accelerated impossibly to a dot and was gone.
Mr. Hayes drove really slowly on the way back, as if doing that would make up for going so fast the other way. He kept laughing to himself, as if he couldn’t believe what they’d just done. Shoma raised a finger over her phone at one point and then said none of her mates would ever believe her and lowered it again.
Mr. Hayes dropped her and Anand off at their house and got out to explain to their parents on the doorstep that there’d been a fire near the school that night, and that the kids had volunteered to help him secure the building and sort everything out.
Gary watched Shoma and Anand’s parents being proud of their kids.
“Don’t look so sad,” said Chloe. He turned to look at her. “We did a good thing. Some day you’ll get on TV for something.”
Gary wasn’t sure he wanted that any more. He just wanted to go home like the alien had gone home, to someone welcoming him.
Mr. Hayes dropped Chloe off next. “See you tomorrow,” she said, and she sounded like she thought that would be a good thing.
“Yeah,” he said, and without knowing why, reached out a hand to her.
She slapped palms with him, then went to see her Mum and Dad on the doorstep, Mr. Hayes again explaining beside her. Gary watched them for a moment. She looked back to him and winked. He’d made a friend there. A friend who was a girl. That was different. That was good.
Mr. Hayes stopped the car outside Gary’s house. Like Gary had expected, the lights weren’t on. Maybe Mum hadn’t heard the news about the aircraft crash and the fire. Maybe she had and had gone to bed anyway.
Gary found his house key in his pocket and opened the car door. He was surprised to see Mr. Hayes getting out too. “Your Mum always likes to hear about what you’ve got up to,” he said. Gary was amazed. But Mr. Hayes always told the truth. “Which is why I feel able to wake her up.”
And before Gary could stop him, he’d gone to the door and rung the bell.
As he waited for the door to be opened, Gary looked up at the clear night sky. So many stars. So many possibilities. Today had left everything feeling a bit… bigger… than it had before. Including him.
© 2015 Paul Cornell