The Sussex Invasion
It had started well enough, as press conferences go; everyone was in their seats in plenty of time for the initial briefing, and security had nothing to report. They were all accredited and, for the most part, well known to us. Two or three were worth watching, but we were watching them, and Dr Blezard knew not to take their questions. They weren’t malicious or even antagonistic, but there are sections of the media that, for some reason or another, aren’t too hot on science, and aren’t above sending a lifestyle correspondent to a rocket launch. It didn’t do much harm, but it’s tedious if we have to explain the basics every time. Anyhow, this wasn’t a rocket launch – quite the opposite – and we couldn’t have explained much of it at all. But, by that stage, we weren’t in charge.
The alien (or aliens) were in charge. At least, we thought they were. That was definitely the impression we imagined we’d been given, and nobody was in a mood to challenge it. The base was abuzz, understandably, there was little chance of us keeping things under wraps, and so we had to go public. Or, at least, let the alien (or aliens) go public, which seems to be what they wanted.
There had been discussions, naturally, over how the event would be managed. Which of our partners would be notified first, what should we try to find out, whether we should send a press release or organise a conference. The ethics committee, who might have helped, possibly for the first and only time, were all at a conference in Saskatoon, a twelve-hour flight away, and the only person with anything like an informed opinion was a visiting astrobiologist from Krakow who had given us to understand, in as far as we understood him at all, that he’d like to run some tests, but also wouldn’t. I could see his point. The first thing a physiologist would want to do to an alien is stick it in a scanner, assuming it would fit, but that would be the last thing on an ethologist’s mind. A general-purpose biologist might, therefore, easily find themselves conflicted.
We did a little phoning around. I was asked to call Saskatoon and, without giving her any details, try to persuade our star philosopher to return in as much of a hurry as she felt like. She didn’t. I can’t believe the bars in Saskatoon are any better than they are here, but debauchery’s always more fun when you’re with people you don’t know. Which is why, I guessed, the nicest people can behave appallingly on holiday. Or was that just me? I didn’t know, but as long as it wasn’t aliens, it didn’t matter.
We were, in a real sense, running blind. All we knew is that we had a suspected alien (or aliens) on the base. We had no idea where they’d come from, or when or how they’d arrived. They’d just turned up at, or rather slumped against, the wrong side of the security door, on the wrong side of the security fence, without the security cameras picking them up at all. It was a cleaner who’d noticed first, and he hadn’t stopped screaming yet.
Although the first first-contact had run away, others were a little bolder and, after a while, a couple of guards had ushered the creature (or creatures) round to the interview suite and locked them in while they went to get help. Eventually, someone persuaded the clean-room engineers to have a look, and they went rustling off in their paper bunny-suits to see what they could find. I wouldn’t have thought of them. Somehow, they’re not quite part of the team, tucked away as they are in the high-pressure building, but nobody was asking me.
Soon enough, though, they came back, flapping along along in a cluster, escorting the little alien (or aliens) between them, right past my office. It, or they, are difficult to describe. There’s no symmetry at all. There’s no front or back or up or down, but it’s not a blob, either. It’s more like a changeable shrub of metallic clay, constantly altering its height and width, with fingers or limbs or lobes that continually emerge and disappear. It moved along the floor with no apparent difficulty, but how it moved I had no idea. I didn’t know if it was one or many, either. Anyhow, they all marched off toward the director’s office and I started drafting the first of a few speculative press-releases, on the off-chance that one might be right.
Aliens had always been a possibility, but we kept nothing on file. Asteroid strikes were different; there were plans and contingencies for those, and a network of agencies and a bunch of protocols, religiously reviewed, for sensitively alerting the public to their imminent demise. Aliens, on the other hand, were left to others to worry about. This was mostly because they were very unlikely, and not worth the effort. And partly because we had, on occasion, to disclose what we were up to, and there was a strong chance that someone might read too much into them, which would waste a lot of time. We have the Americans to thank for that lesson. Their Area 51 would be an efficient facility if it wasn’t for all the lawsuits and conspiracy theories spawned by the combination of some intriguing public documents and a climate of excessive secrecy. Our place is secret, too. But we keep it that way without the need for exclusion zones
and military patrols. Instead, we have a public museum that thousands would freely visit, if it wasn’t so deliberately dull.
I was working on the third of the releases (the one that assumed it had hostile intentions), when the phone rang. It was Clive, the director’s PA, asking, more politely than usual, if I’d get things ready for a press conference. I bristled a little. Strictly speaking, the press office has no authority over facilities management, and it can be tough work to get them to shimmy chairs and set out tables at the drop of an unauthorised hat. Strictly speaking, they’re only answerable to the Office of the Director, and more specifically, to Clive. But it was not the time for a demarcation dispute, so I went in person to plead for pads and pencils and, if they could manage it, coffee. Sometimes I wonder if my children, who tell all their friends I work at the Space Research Centre, have any idea of what it’s like.
But then, aliens. And even if I did have to grit my teeth and break my nails unfolding those damnably awkward chairs (we can see a matchstick on Pluto, but can’t invent a a decent chair), it was something they’d be able to boast about, and that made me happy.
The alien (or aliens) turned up almost as soon as I’d finished, along with the Director and two of the engineers, still in their bunny-suits. It seemed to be leading the group and made its way calmly through the room and up to the dais at the end. Almost at once the press, with visitor’s badges dangling from their necks, began filing in, politely nodding but otherwise uncharacteristically quiet. It was strange they were here already. I hadn’t called them, and there were several who weren’t at all local. Derek from the Advertiser wasn’t a surprise, but we had Chloe Mullins of the London Echo and Andy Spratt from the Edinburgh Times. They must have both set out before we even knew the alien (or aliens) was there.
And then, before anyone had time to point out the fire exits, they were off. The Director stood up and said, to the crowd staring at the alien, that he had a momentous announcement, as if it were still a surprise, and then, somehow, the alien took over. I don’t know if it made a noise. Perhaps it was telepathy. But it seemed to tell everyone the same story, a story of a long journey and getting lost and now wondering where it was. It wasn’t a great story. Perhaps aliens aren’t good at explaining themselves. But that didn’t seem to matter, and everyone was scribbling away as usual. And then there were questions.
Andy was the first to ask, and he asked the obvious questions all at once: where had the thing come from; where it’s home had been, and why it had left. I felt a twinge of professional anxiety, worrying that the alien (or aliens) might not understand his accent. It was a silly fear, really, as there was no reason why the alien (or aliens) would understand English. Either way, it was certainly clever enough, or sufficiently telepathic, to cope. Though not, sadly, clever enough to answer the question. It was understandable, really. The universe is a big place and if you’re lost, you’re lost. Give a human a map of Ecuador and ask them to find Dunstable, and they’d be just as stumped.
Derek asked the next: “Are your intentions friendly?” He actually asked that, as if diplomacy wasn’t a thing, and the room went icily quiet. It was a bold move for the Advertiser. But the alien (or aliens) didn’t flinch. They just sat (or stood, or whatever) on the dais, protruding things and unprotruding them, and giving the distinct impression it didn’t understand. Nobody was writing anything, now.
And then one of the engineers, standing at the back of the platform, moved forward a little. Although I was at the other end of the room, I could see everything clearly, and a shiver of horror travelled up my spine. In the hand of the engineer was a tinfoil dish, and in the tinfoil dish was what looked like shaving foam.
I wasn’t the only one who had noticed, and almost as soon as I’d seen the flash of metal, the security guard was sprinting to the front. The engineer raised his hand directly above the alien (or aliens) and as I watched, the bogus pie descended. The next second, the security guard had tackled the engineer, bringing him to the ground while the Director, with extraordinary calm, retrieved the dish and, tidily, disposed of it. For a moment, the only sound was a thrashing of limbs, and then the security guard stood up, leaving the engineer groaning on the floor.
And that was it. That was the end of the conference. The Director left, the journalists filed out and the remaining staff loitered only as long as was decent. I couldn’t believe it, and just stared at the whimpering engineer, who eventually hauled himself to his feet and sauntered off. I followed, wondering what had happened, and expecting to find a gathering in the corridor or atrium. But there was nothing. Everyone, as far as I could tell, were back at their posts. I went to reception and asked the receptionist what had happened. She was very polite, but clearly had no idea what I meant and, when I mentioned the alien, looked irritatingly concerned. I went to the Director’s office, and talked to Clive, with much the same result.
“What happened to the alien?” I asked.
“Alien?” he replied.
“You were there”, I said, “in the press conference.”
“Press conference?” he said, “today?”
I couldn’t think of an answer. So I went back to the briefing room and started folding the folding chairs. I took a moment to look in the wastebin, but apart from paper, and a clean tinfoil pie tin, there was nothing in it. No foam, no alien.
In my office, I checked the news online. There was nothing, nowhere, that day. Nor the next. Nothing on the radio, on the television or in the papers. Nothing at all. And nobody at the centre ever referred to it again. It was if it never happened. As if they’d all had their memories removed. All of them, except for mine.
I don’t know why I remember it. Sometimes I wonder if I do remember it, and whether it wasn’t entirely a dream. But then there are the press releases, the two and a half rough drafts, drafted just in case. The two and a half rough drafts that aren’t supposed to exist. Maybe that’s why I remember. Or maybe the alien (or aliens) deliberately chose to leave a trace. After all, it’s something to tell the children and perhaps it knows, or knew, just how much they love a good story.