The lights dimmed over the Great Hall and brightened for the rostrum ahead of us. The usual murmur faded away as our school conditioning kicked in. I settled back with my half cup of tea and biscuit hoard. While I was hoping to get some useful information from the big meeting my expectations had been radically lowered by years of management meetings and staff conferences. They usually provided an opportunity for those in charge to feel good about themselves, and if possible con the audience into thinking that something substantial has been said. I hadn’t taken the time to assemble a buzzword bingo card, which normally lightens such occasions. At worst I could circle words on the leaflet. I’m sure I had it somewhere.
The stage was lit up so dramatically that I rather expected a triumphal Star Wars fanfare and lasers scoring the ceiling. The conspiracy theorist fellow beside denim woman smirked a “this should be good” as he too settled back to enjoy the show. The mayor (helpfully identified on the leaflet and by her massive gold chains of office) was a tall lady with an impressive posture. She was unaccompanied by a Watcher, which set a low rumble through the audience. I knew it was possible to temporarily lose your Watcher, but I didn’t know whether anyone else had managed it. I doubted that she had taken the more extreme steps that Alison’s family had. It was more likely that being in charge (if a mayor can ever be said to be in charge of anything, and not just a scissor wielding ribbon snipper) during this Event entitled you to certain privileges. But again, that presupposed that there was a group in charge and in control, so just what was going on? I asked myself many such questions and reminded myself for each one that this was the point of the meeting. The mayor was accompanied by six other figures, none of whom were followed by a Watcher either. I was beginning to feel a little nervous.
The mayor gave a perfunctory greeting and a brief introduction of her fellow frightfully important people. One of them was the police commissioner, and a man with whatever rank it is that you get when you’re properly in charge of the police. The other main public services were also represented – a woman from the NHS Trust, a man from the fire brigade and two military men – one RAF, the other Army. It was an intimidating show of those who nominally run the town. I strongly suspected that there would be some big business or finance people hiding somewhere in the dark. It would be too naive to think that local government plus a couple of soldiers would be the actual movers and shakers of the Event. Either way, we got to see only what they wanted to show us.
“Thank you all for making the time to come here this evening. I know that we are all in a confusing and challenging situation. I would like to take this opportunity to thank and commend you for your attitude and civic spirit on this unusual day. Of course there are many issues which arise, and we would wish to address these in due course. We have anticipated that there are some issues about which you will be most interested and we will endeavour to present these first and so reduce any anxieties you might be feeling.”
It is amazingly difficult to listen to someone who obviously considers themselves to be important. I deeply wished I had taken the time to assemble buzzword bingo, or at least a list of platitudes to tick off. It already seemed to be a speech for raising sardonic eyebrows to. Mostly it was the sheer excess of words that marked this out as a speech by a career politician, even if it was in the provincial mire of local government.
“First and foremost we must recognise the momentous and historic events of the past twenty-four hours. As you will be aware, every person here received a Visitor who manifested in their home at three in the morning precisely. We apologise on behalf of our guests for the surprise and shock which resulted for some citizens. Many residents were unaware of these presences until they awoke to go about their day. Naturally, the emergency services received a very high level of calls between six and ten this morning and I’d like to express my personal thanks for their professionalism and dedication in light of such demands on them. Regrettably a very small number of citizens experienced profound shock which lead to their deaths. Our hearts and sincere condolences go out to their families.”
I’ve never been in a position of authority; I’ve rejected every chance to take on managerial responsibility with the simple explanation that it would be better for me and my underlings if I didn’t. As a result I’ve never understood how those in authority so blithely divorce the individual experience from their helicopter view of proceedings. Maybe it’s a helicopter in Apocalypse Now. I was itching with questions, and I could see that everyone around me was feeling the same. I’ve been at big events before though. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself. This was still far too weird and unknown to want to be identified. Bad enough that they already knew who we all were and that we were here. The only thing worse would be not being here. Specifically, I wanted to know what happened to those citizens in ‘profound shock’. What the hell did that actually mean – heart attacks, or beaten up in a police van? In times of crisis it’s hard to know who to trust, but I’d had some insights for myself that day.
“However, for many citizens, and here I am speaking specifically about those of you who are gathered here now, this has been an Event which although challenging has been embraced. Not everyone has been able to find it within themselves to welcome our Visitors, to you we extend an especial gratitude. As you will undoubtedly have noticed, here this evening are only a fraction of the town’s population. You might feel some pride in knowing that it is your actions today and your compassion which have taken forward relations between ourselves and our new friends. Those who were unable to receive them so warmly are perfectly healthy and safe. A temporary, but strict home curfew has been imposed within the town to protect both residents and Visitors. ”
The conspiracy lunatic leaned across denim woman to hiss at me, “wow, that’s like a whole euphemism soup right there, mmm, enjoy your tasty croutons of careful lies with a spoon of unspoken deceit.”
While I thought he had a point, both me and the denim woman could only stare at him.
“As you know the town itself is presently under the protection of our valiant armed forces. This temporary quarantine is entirely for our protection, both physically and emotionally from the rest of the country. While we seek to fully understand and develop our relationship with the Visitors, we have sought to prevent them from being overwhelmed by the attentions of those outside, and to protect our residents from the scaremongering and inflammatory nature of many of our media networks. We apologise for the inconvenience this currently presents. I can assure you however, that all public services and most shops and businesses are operating, albeit at a reduced capacity. I can further reassure you that every effort has been made to contact the immediate relatives of those currently inside our town to assure them of your health and safety.”
I heard the man behind me cough “bullshit”, with a subtlety I hadn’t heard since Sixth Form. I was right in the middle of open dissidents. I felt very uncomfortable. I did not think they were wrong.
“This brings me to the nature of our Visitors. We are aware of many and inevitable rumours have already been circulated in the national and global news coverage, which we have sought to spare you from. We have given much thought to how we ought to introduce the matter, and in the end, after much discussion, we have concluded that the only sensible course of action which we can proceed with is the truth, and to state it plainly and simply. Even now, I find it difficult to simply express. To that end, we have assembled a small presentation to help convey the news. ”
A projector fired up, throwing a blue rectangle on the wall behind the mayor.
“Dear god, it’s going to be PowerPoint,” the denim woman muttered, “kill us all now.”
“My dear fellow citizens, we are blessed to be the first contact for a truly alien species,” the mayor declared. A wave of incredulity, shock, acceptance and bewilderment rolled across the audience. It was silenced by the arrival of the first slide, a video as it turned out. My denim clad friend’s fears turned out to unjustified.
“As many of you may well have suspected, our Visitors are extraterrestrial in origin. In fact, they hail from this star system,” the projector gave us an image of the Milky Way before accelerating through it until it slowed before a single star, orbited by three planets, “this is the home of the Visitors and they have travelled both long and far to reach us. They are like us in so many ways, which you will have undoubtedly observed during the course of the day. They are intensely curious, wishing to know as much about us as possible, so that relations between our peoples can be happy and mutually beneficial. I believe that we have much to learn from each other, about ourselves and each other.”
The room was silent, dead air just soaking up the mayor’s tactical pauses. She really knew how to work a crowd. For my part, it felt like my mind was blasted open while cold water was being poured into it. Only a few words managed to form: “What. The. Fuck.” It wasn’t even a question, just a simple molten brained statement, unable to accept the premise of a million science fiction stories. ‘Aliens’ is what you remark sarcastically to a weird event somewhere else. For it to actually hit us… Impossible, absurd. I firmly believed in the notion that the universe is so unspeakably vast that there has to be life elsewhere, and that our planet is so ludicrously tiny and irrelevant that such synchronicity as actual First Contact (all capitals required) is so improbable that it could never occur within my lifetime, if ever even in the lifetime of our planet. The mayor had just punched through those big billboard ideas and now there was a gaping hole, the edges of which were flailing, unable to recreate my image of solitary humanity shaking hands with a tentacled friend. And she kept going…
“This will be a testing time for all of us, and for all humanity. Never before have we met another sentient life form, with whom we can communicate and which has traversed the vastness of space to meet with us. I myself am honoured and consider myself blessed to be in a position to facilitate this mutual learning and to represent our species to the stars.”
Uh, yah. My brain was slowly re-coalescing around a solid core of denial, just to save itself the extra work. Even in such an unfettered state, I was still asking myself – where is her Watcher?
“You are probably wondering what this means for you, for us in this town – this point of first contact. It places certain responsibilities upon us. We are effectively the ambassadors of our species, and you in particular are those whom the Visitors have chosen to learn from, to learn our culture and values. We represent the people of Earth. The quarantine will remain in effect for the present, to allow our Visitor friends to acclimatise to our world and people, and for the rest of the world to acclimatise to their presence and existence. This is a thrilling time to be alive, and we – you are special. Each one of you has some unique quality that has intrigued our Visitors, and the relationships that you develop with them will establish the relationships between our species’.”
It all sounded so reasonable. That’s the beauty of speeches, an elegant elision of truth, all tailored to slide smoothly into the audience’s ears. So why was it all ringing false to me? It could be just because of the experiences I’d had with my Watcher – making a book case, finding a dead Watcher in the wheelie bin and that amazingly cathartic hug. I could go along with intrigued, but it didn’t feel like the Watcher had a choice. They’d been dedicated to the individuals in this room – I’d seen no evidence that they could just walk away if they felt like it. Alison’s Watchers would have simply left. Where were all the other people – we few were those who had accepted them. Everyone else – thousands of people were not here. What reaction had their Watchers got from them that they were now imprisoned in their homes?
“I know that today has been at times frightening and confusing, and I apologise on behalf of our guests and our government for being unable to share with you this information before now. Again, I salute your bravery and compassion in receiving our Visitors into your homes. The future is very much being built today.”
The use of phrases like ‘Visitors’ and ‘guests’ felt wrong. We hadn’t invited them, they had just appeared. It was like describing a burglar as that nice chap who’s going to sell my television and DVD player.
“We would like to take a few moments for you to consider what questions you may have and to absorb the information we have shared with you. We appreciate that it may feel like a lot to take in, but you have already done much of the hard work. Thank you.”
Well, the room went nuts. It seemed we’d formed a little collective knot between us – the elderly lady, the denim woman, the conspiracy lunatic, the large gentleman behind us and me. I’m not one for socialising in large groups – once out there I’m fine, I perform tolerably well in conversation and general babbling. I just wouldn’t choose to be in that situation normally. I was also extremely aware that the mayor and her six power-goons still stood on the stage, both watching us all and awaiting our questions. Never ask questions. It’s the same as ‘never volunteer’. These activities place us firmly on the radar, attention pinging off our all too easily identified profiles. There wasn’t much I could do with it. At best, our little gang of dissidents would be drowned out by the roar of voices.
“Well, that was all bollocks,” stated the man behind me, “I don’t believe a word of it.”
“What else is there that makes sense? Aliens… I mean, it’s hard to take seriously, but really – it’s the only thing that answers all the questions.” Said the denim woman.
“Why would an alien look like my Vanessa?” asked my elderly companion.
“That is an excellent point,” chipped in the conspiracy guy, “if they are aliens, what is their natural form? How is a species dependent solely on mimicking another species – what did they do while they were on the way here- were they just rubber blobs rolling around the floor?”
The woman in front of me turned around at that point, “don’t assume it’s either the whole truth or a complete lie.” She had startling green eyes.
“Huh,” I managed to contribute to the discussion.
“Look – even if they are aliens, why would they give a toss about cooperating with a bunch of local councillors and cops? They can travel light years, they can do what the hell they want.”
“What is this arrangement between the council, police, military and the ‘Visitors’?”
“You know, I don’t even like that name. Are they just visiting, or are they here to stay?”
“Seems like we’ve been given more questions than answers,” said the denim woman.
The lights dimmed again and the mayor stepped forwards once more.
“At this point we’d like to open to the floor for any questions you may have.” She peered around the dimly lit space.
I was grateful that they hadn’t snapped the lights back on in full. I stage whispered to my newfound allies: “just – let someone else ask the questions alright? I think it would be prudent to continue to be compliant and receptive citizens.”
That worked out fine – a forest of arms filled the air. The mayor peered into the gloom. The lights came up enough for her to be able to point at individuals. I’d no doubt that their names and queries were being noted by the administrative staff who had signed us in and now leaned on the refreshments table. Most of the questions were predictably anodyne – questions about the quarantine and road block, when Twitter service would resume and was the cafe round the corner going to be open in the morning. There were no substantive answers, exactly as we’d expected. In part that was fair enough – how much of a plan could you possibly have for such a sudden event? They would be winging it, much as we were. After a while pertinent questions did start to emerge.
“You call them Visitors – when did you know about them? Was it before three AM?”
That was a good one. I was especially pleased that it came from the front – a young man with long blond hair who seemed vexed by the timeline in particular.
“We were aware of their presence, but the exact time of their arrival and how they manifested was a surprise to all of us. If we had had any inkling that their arrival would be so dramatic and pervasive we would have taken steps to inform the town as best we could. In the Event, we were all taken by surprise and we regret that it has taken all day to coordinate such responses as this.”
Once you’ve decided that someone is spinning you a fiction it is very difficult to believe anything they say at all. They are discredited in every act and statement, no matter how reasonable it sounds. Each speech is accompanied by an image of them laughing behind their mask at the absurdities we will accept. And that was a damned fast response. I’d wondered about the miles and miles of fencing and military availability at such short notice. Sure, it was possible that they drill and stock for this kind of thing every day, but it fit even better if they were simply waiting with it all.
The big guy behind me leaned forwards and said quietly, but loudly enough to reach our little coterie, “I drive for a living. The last six weeks they’ve been marking road works out and stacking up containers all around the outskirts of town. This is definitely bollocks.”
We attach all confirmatory concepts to our web of reality and discard those that don’t fit.
“What happens if we don’t want a Visitor?”
It was a bold question, and had to be the one on all of our tongues. For all that we’d apparently gotten on with our Watchers, we hadn’t been asked, we hadn’t chosen. I did feel attached to my Watcher; I felt that we’d shared quite a lot in so short a time. But I also knew what the questioner was asking. I was fascinated to hear the answer. The mayor withdrew slightly to confer with her policeman and one of the military guys, possibly the RAF one.
“Thank you for your question. It’s important that we can all voice our concerns in so challenging a situation as this. We advise you to be tolerant and compassionate towards your Visitors. They are our guests, and I say that in a political capacity as well as a personal one. Our relationship, while strong and strengthening by the hour, is a new one and we would not wish to disturb that young friendship. I must say though, that violent actions towards our guests will be taken very seriously indeed. I would counsel forbearance.”
That was the answer I had expected. Not the words of course, but I already knew what happened if you really didn’t want a Watcher in your home. I didn’t quite know how I should feel about Alison and her family. I was concerned for their wellbeing, and I wanted to know that they were alright, wherever they were. It was something I thought I needed to find out, but had no idea how to. Certainly this was not the place for such a question, and I felt bad for those individuals who had asked awkward or pressing questions. I did not feel that their safety was guaranteed either. Should I have done more for Alison? And had the shit kicked out of me on my doorstep? Is that what the right thing is – you do the right thing and are punished for it? I didn’t know how to feel about it.
The mayor announced that the meeting was over, but that more information would be forthcoming – there was much to do and learn about living together with our new friends. The meeting shut down and the entire audience rose simultaneously. We turned to edge awkwardly down the rows of chairs towards the exits. The crowd of Watchers at the back of the room slipped into sudden, graceful motion. It was a bit of a shock and many people visibly flinched. It was quickly clear that they were heading for the humans they watched, and the crowd relaxed. As we waited to escape the Great Hall I took a deep breath and then took a chance.
“Hey, um, do you guys want to grab a drink or something.” I said it in a way that somehow included only those of us who had been semi-conspiring during the meeting. It felt both tentative and like a massive undertaking, ridiculous in its normality but was something I’d not had for some time.
I received a chorus of “okay”, “sure” and “just for one”. As we left the Great Hall our Watchers slipped in beside us. As mine approached and slid in by my side I released an extra bit of tension that I hadn’t known I was carrying. My new friends looked equally comfortable, despite the mixed messages and dubious information we’d received.
“Come on, there’s the Moon and Pygmy round the corner,” said the denim woman.
We filtered out of the great stream of people and their Watchers into the darkening evening.