I sighed deeply, my breath forming clouds of mist in the cold air. The town was silent, save for the occasional quiet murmur of a car passing in the distance. The street lights shone amber, revealing an empty taxi rank. I glanced at the telephone box, then at my watch, and thought the better of it. I kicked viciously at a discarded Coke can, splintering the silence, and began the long walk home.
I began to question my decision some fifteen minutes later as I walked unsteadily down the deserted road out towards the village. A brisk forty minute walk into the countryside is just the thing for a sunny Sunday morning, but somehow it’s not so much fun at 2:30 in the morning on a Saturday. I had forgotten what it means to live in a small village; the lack of street lighting, the pot-holes in the roads.
Two fields away to the left was my parents’ house; they had said something about a short cut last time we’d gone walking, but I wasn’t about to try and find it in the dark. I’d carry on to the T-junction at the end of the road and head left into the middle of the village, then left again.
My foot hit a loose stone and I stumbled, almost falling.
I peered longingly over the hedge in the direction of my parents’ house, then carried on walking, watching the ground as best I could for further obstacles. After almost a minute, I paused and looked over the hedge again. The shape was indistinct in the starlight. I walked a little further, to where an old wooden gate lead into the field. I halted at the gate, peering into the darkness.
There seemed to be something there. Some sort of vehicle. It was the wrong shape for a bus, and far too big to be a car or a motorcycle. I decided it was probably a combine harvester; I’d seen one going past in the field at the bottom of the garden last summer.
I walked a little further before realizing that it was winter. I don’t know much about farms, but I do know you don’t leave combine harvesters out to rust in the middle of a field in winter. I jogged back to the gate and stared into the gloom.
The field was even more treacherous than the road, though fortunately the icy weather meant the ground wasn’t too muddy. There seemed to be some sort of footpath, and I wondered vaguely whether I was trespassing or not.
Now that I was getting closer to the shape, I could see that it was bigger than I had thought. If this was a combine harvester, it was the sort you might find grazing mechanically in the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest, not the sort you’d use in a small farm in rural England.
Suddenly I noticed that it seemed to have wings. Perhaps it was an airplane. A man in the next village owned a plane, maybe he’d landed it here. It didn’t look like it had crashed, though. And it wasn’t any sort of plane I’d ever seen before.
I was less than twenty metres away when my mind suddenly resolved the shapes. Delta-shaped wings, large protruding exhaust cones at the back and underneath, strange articulated legs instead of undercarriage, lack of windows, bulky and unaerodynamic body. Spacecraft. Not of human design, unless it was some strange top secret MOD project. Which was unlikely, given the absence of soldiers and police to keep the public away from it.
I stood in the dark wondering what to do next. It was, of course, a situation I had thought about on occasion. What exactly should one do if one chances upon an alien spacecraft whilst walking home?
My conclusion had always been that any hostile alien force capable of travelling light years would be quite capable of detecting me before I could detect it. The fact that I was still alive was therefore pretty good evidence that it wasn’t hostile. This argument was, I thought, intellectually convincing, although my adrenal glands remained sceptical. I noticed a faint flickering light emerging from an open hatchway on one side of the ship. I edged closer.
Something was moving just inside the doorway. I wondered what to do next. For some reason I had never considered the obvious follow-up question of how one introduces oneself to an alien race. Eventually I coughed, waved hopefully, and said “Hello?”
The alien stuck its head out of the door and looked at me with curiously circular eyes. I smiled, then wondered whether showing one’s teeth would mean the same thing to it that it did to me. It stared at me, silently. Its face was elongated, like a dog’s, but with a flattened snout.
“Hi,” I tried again, raising my hands to show that they were empty.
“It’s a bit late to be out walking, isn’t it?”
“I said, it’s a bit late to be out walking.” The alien’s voice was rich, with a trace of accent. I realised that my mouth was hanging open.
“I get it. It’s a tape recording. You’re a scarecrow.”
I lowered my arms and tried a sentence. “You speak English.”
“So do you.”
“You’re very good at it.”
“So are you.”
There was another uneasy silence. I’m not very good at starting conversations with strangers, and this one was particularly strange.
“I was walking home. My parents live just over there.” I pointed vaguely in the direction of the village.
“That must be very convenient for you.”
“Well, no, not really, I’m only walking from the station, I got the train most of the way. I had to travel all the way from Cambridge.”
“As far as that?”
I glanced around, feeling foolish. When I looked back, the creature had retreated into the ship.
“Er, sorry, excuse me…”
It reappeared in the doorway. “Yes? Do you want something?”
“Well, I’d rather like to talk to you. If you don’t mind, that is.”
“I suppose you want to come inside, don’t you?”
“Well, sort of, I’m not entirely sure.”
“I’ve got things to do. If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to come in here.”
I somewhat reluctantly followed the creature into the ship. Inside was completely dark, save for a few dim lights from unidentifiable controls, and the starlight entering through the doorway.
“It’s dark in here,” I said nervously.
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?”
“Why is it so dark in here?”
“Because all the lights are switched off.”
“I see. I don’t suppose you could possibly switch one or two of them on, could you? Just a little bit?”
“That’s an excellent idea. While we’re at it, why don’t I send up a couple of signal flares?”
The alien was manipulating some sort of cubic object, prodding it with a pen-like implement. I strained my eyes to make out more detail about the alien’s body. It had a head and at least two limbs, but beyond that it was rather hard to tell. I sat in the dark watching it for about a minute. It ignored me. Eventually I decided to try and restart the conversation.
“I was only asking about the light because it’s a bit hard to see you.”
“I can switch the lights on if you like, but I’ll have to close the door.”
The alien tapped some sort of control. The door slid shut with a scarcely audible humming noise, and the interior of the spaceship gradually brightened as a white but slightly greenish light shone from panels in the roof.
“So you see the same frequencies as me?”
“Yes. Imagine, we could have evolved to see radio waves through eyeballs a metre across, but instead we evolved to see the sort of light emitted by our sun and yours. Who’d have thought it?”
“Well, I thought maybe you saw ultra-violet or something. I mean, you’re obviously quite, ah, different to me. For instance, your tentacles are… er…”
“You look weird to me too.”
“No, that wasn’t what I meant. It’s just it’s a bit of a cliché. Aliens with tentacles.”
“We were tree-dwellers, like some of your evolutionary cousins. Instead of a prehensile tail, we had two tentacle-like limbs as well as our arms and legs.”
“So you kept the tentacles because they were useful for other things, whereas we lost our tails.”
“Do you have two sexes, then?”
“What do you eat?”
“Large bipedal mammals.”
The creature had opened its mouth slightly, and I could see lots of small sharp teeth gleaming inside. I had a sudden, almost hypnotic desire to look at the door. I fought it off, and tried to feign nonchalance.
“Yes. Especially ones that keep asking stupid questions.”
“Why is it a stupid question to ask what you eat?”
“What do you eat?”
“Well… Plants. Fruit. Nuts. Milk. Bread. Rice. All kinds of things, really.”
“That’s why it’s a stupid question.”
“Yes, but I don’t eat other animals. I wondered if you did.”
There was another awkward pause.
“So, where have you come from?”
“Oh. That’s funny. There’s a place called Windsor not too far from here.”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“No, when I say ‘not too far from here’, I mean it’s a few tens of kilometres. It’s an old town with a castle.”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“No, when I asked where you had come from, I meant originally. What planet. What star system.”
“You know NGC 891?”
“I’ve… heard of it.”
“Wonderful. It’s near there.”
“And you travelled here alone?”
“No, there are two others of us with me.”
“Oh… So where are they?”
“They’re off mutilating cattle.”
“That’s why you’re here? To experiment on cattle?”
The alien made a noise which might have been a sigh.
“We’re working on a film.”
“Oh. A documentary?”
“Well… A comedy documentary.”
“Yes. It’s called ‘Humans: The Little Clowns of the Milky Way’.”
“You humans are funny. You’ll believe anything.”
“Yes, but… Hmm.”
I dug through my satchel for a few moments as the alien fiddled with some sort of keyboard. Finally, I took out my camera and cleared my throat.
“Would you mind if I took your photograph?”
“I suppose you’d like to saw off one of my legs too?”
“Well, you don’t think your scientists will settle for a lousy photograph do you?”
“Well… they might.”
“They’ll just say I was created for a movie.”
“I could take a picture of the ship as well.”
“Your camera has a wide-angle lens and a tiny flashgun. It’s completely dark outside. You’ll either take a picture close-up and get a few square metres of hull that could easily belong to a jet plane, or you’ll end up with the usual picture of a tiny fuzzy blob in the distance.”
“Well… it’s worth a try.”
“Indeed it is. Which is why I have no intention of letting you try it.”
“Does it look like I’m here for the publicity?”
“Why the secrecy?”
“We want to film you acting naturally.”
“What about when you’re finished?”
“We might want to do a sequel.”
“Yes, but this is more important than a bloody TV programme. You should land in the middle of London and announce your presence to the world.”
“And what would that achieve?”
“Well… Maybe people would realise that there was more to life than wars.”
“But… If you helped us, we could get out there and explore space.”
“Or fry the entire planet to a cinder.”
“So the SF authors were right. We’re being ignored by intelligent races because we’re not civilized.”
“Oh, you’re civilized alright. You have cities and factories and everything. It’s just…”
“Well, you’re such arseholes, you know?”
“Not all of us.”
“Not you, you mean.”
“How modest of you.”
“Look, I didn’t come here to be the butt of your jokes.”
“What did you come here for, then?”
“Well… I was curious. I wanted to meet you. I thought maybe you’d have some information for me, a message or something.”
“Klaatu barada nikto.”
“Ha bloody ha. You watch too much TV.”
“It’s my job. I’m a film producer.”
“Why couldn’t you have been a scientist? Then I could have asked you important questions.”
“Like… Is P equal to NP? How do you travel interstellar distances when Special Relativity says it’s impossible to travel faster than light? That sort of thing. I mean, why a TV crew and not a scientific expedition?”
“They can’t get the funding.”
“So what you’re saying is that great interstellar civilizations spend all their time and money making documentaries about each other.”
“It beats killing each other.”
“That’s not the point. You could be educating us. Teaching us the right things to do.”
“You know how to make documentaries.”
“Ha ha. You know what I mean. Helping us to cure disease, end world hunger, bring about peace.”
“Or we could be teaching pigs to whistle.”
I shot it a look of anger. It made a strange gesture with its hands. “We’re not Gods.”
“I know, but…”
“But that’s what you want, isn’t it?”
After a few moments I stood up and walked to the door. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” The alien tapped a control; the lights winked out and the door slid open. I stepped out into the cold night air and began trudging back towards the road.