Ethan lay on the floor of his room staring at the ceiling. The light was on despite it being daylight, the yellow bulb fighting against the grey of a sky filled with rain. He hadn’t slept, instead his brown eyes had traced the cracks that cobwebbed across his ceiling, until he noticed the night had crept in to another morning. He was numb, and cold, and yet his t shirt was soaked and his blonde hair spiked from an anxious sweat he’d endured all night.
The lights in the sky. He’d been watching them now for nearly two days, since Tuesday night, after going out with Tom after work. They had ventured to The Weary Traveller to watch a band and have a few drinks. Ethan had first seen the lights when they left the pub, stood in the carpark as Tom rolled a cigarette.
They were dancing. Five, no, six of them, their errant waltz making it hard to keep count. Tom had passed it off as drones. They were really popular now, he said, and there had been loads of sightings of the strange lights at night. They had watched them for a few more minutes, looping and spinning around each other, until they had all suddenly vanished at the same time. The show over, Ethan and Tom had moved on to the Greek chip shop on the corner for a kebab to fill their stomachs and soak up the alcohol on the walk home.
They both had work on Wednesday, but Ethan didn’t make it. He’d slept through his alarm after a night of uneasy dreams, of vivid flashing lights and red clouds that plagued his sleep. He woke an hour after his shift started, and rather than turn up late, he felt it was easier just to call in sick, the bad night’s sleep leaving him nauseous and tired.
He’d seen the lights again from his kitchen window, pale glimmers in the daylight, weaving across the sky just like the night before. They were still there when the sun set, and the astral ballet was joined by the stars as the pink and grey evening turned to black. He remembered Tom’s talk of drones, but wondered if they seemed closer than when they had seen them on Tuesday.
The girl had arrived Wednesday night. She’d shown up at the door around 11, hammering his door, frantic and panicked. Taking one look at her bare feet, her tear stained face a picture of desperation, he’d let her inside. He’d fetched a blanket, wrapped it around her thin shoulders, sat her on the sofa. He asked who she was. Where had she come from, where were her parents? Her answers both confused and bothered him; she was no one, it didn’t matter, didn’t have any. She had something to tell him. She was frantic, her eyes wide, pleading with him to listen.
Ethan was unprepared to hear the ramblings of a clearly unwell child. He picked up the phone to call the police station to fetch the girl, only to be greeted by a recorded message stating that all lines were busy. He tried with his mobile phone and got the same result. Then he tried to call his mother. He figured she’d know what to do about the strange crying girl who turned up on his doorstep. She was oddly silent now, watching while he paced the room, trying to get the phones to work. Her eyes made him uncomfortably, and he got nothing but busy signals and silence on the end of the line. Text messages refused to send. Facebook was not responding. The whole network must have been down.
He got his coat and car keys. He’d drive her to the station. He heard her follow him slowly into the tiled hall as he went to open the door. It didn’t open. It wasn’t locked, he just couldn’t get it open, no pushing or pulling or forcing it with his shoulder would work.
‘It’s too late, Ethan’ her voice was flat, eerily calmer now. ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ She sounded sad and tired. Ethan had tried the door again but it didn’t budge, some unseen force keeping it closed. The back door was the same, even the windows wouldn’t lift in their sashes. It was like someone had sealed all the possible exits with invisible forces. He’d even tried wrapping a hammer in a tea towel in order to break the window in the lounge. The girl watched on in silence, amused as it bounced off the glass like rubber. The hammer flew from his hands and chipping the edge of the coffee table on its journey to the floor.
He stared, bewildered. What was happening? The dancing lights popped in to his head and his gut turned over. He went through to the kitchen, and could see them before he reached the window. They were definitely brighter now, looping and weaving just like before, maybe closer than before.
‘Who are you?’ his voice was sharp. He wanted to grab her and shake her as she entered the kitchen behind him.
‘I said it doesn’t matter who I am.’ She hesitated. ‘I’m here to save you.’ her eyes had moved from him to the lights behind him. Was she afraid?
“Save me from what?” Ethan felt afraid himself, fear crawling up his back.
‘The end of the world. We’ve come to take it back. Start over.’ Her eyes looked past him again to the lights he knew were dancing in the sky behind him.
‘Who’s come to take it back? Who are you? Where did you come from?’
‘Up there.’ She pointed, and he followed her finger to the lights. ‘From the sky.’
‘Aliens? You want me to believe you’re an alien? That those things are spaceships?’ he realised he was gripping the counter for support. It was like a bad dream. It was madness!
‘Not really aliens. We’re like you. You’re like us, just… different.’ She shrugged. ‘But it’s ok. I was sent to make sure one of you survived.’
‘One of us? Why me, what did I do?’ his voice was losing its calmness. What madness had this day turned in to?
‘You were the first one to open the door’ was the reply. ‘I tried five before you but no one answered.”
Ethan’s head began to hurt. He let himself sink to the floor with a groan, his brain couldn’t process what was happening, what had happened. What was going to happen. He closed his eyes, screwed up his fists and pushed them against his temples. This was ridiculous. There was an alien in his kitchen telling him the world was going to end and he was the lucky one because he opened the door to the strange girl with no shoes.
‘It’s ok’ the girl soothed, approaching him, placing a hand on his head. ‘The new world will be better. They’re going to fix things.’ Her hand was cold, as if whatever planet she came from had carved her from ice, but she repulsed him. The bile rose in his throat and for a brief moment he thought he might be sick. He stood up and pushed her away, pawing where her hand had been like she’d left a mark.
‘What about everyone else?’ it dawned on him, ‘All the people?’ his first thought was of his mother. Then his brother, his niece and nephews. Tom. The old lady who lived at number 54. What was going to happen to them? If this nightmare was real then all these people would die. He would be alone. He felt he should cry but no tears came.
‘I’m sorry’ was all she said, and moved past him to the window, not looking out but looking down at the sink where the dishes still sat from lunch.
Not knowing what else to do, Ethan went upstairs to his bedroom. His head still hurt and he wanted to lie down. She had followed, matching his silence, and when he had got in the bed, burrowing in the sheets like he did as a child to make the monsters go away, she had sat next to him. She remained there even when he took the blankets to the floor, not wanting to be so close to her. Through the night he pressed redial on the phones, the busy tone sounding from the tinny speaker like a warning that had come too late.
And there he lay in the late morning, trying to understand happened the night before. He looked for the girl. She was still sat there on the bed, looking out through the window at another grey morning. Her arms were wrapped around her legs, her pale skin almost luminescent against the dull day. Her hair was long, dark, and tangled like little birds had nested in it. And her eyes, so big and doleful and the brightest, lightest blue he’d ever seen. Like they were made of starlight.
Questions turned over and over in his head endlessly. So much to know, but was any of it any use? Would any of it make it stop?
‘Will it hurt them?’ he finally asked out loud.
‘No. No one will know. They’ll just stop. It will all just end. All at once.’ She moved towards the window. When he looked, she had her palm pressed to the glass, looking at the lights. He thought she was crying, or was it the rain on the window reflecting off her pale cheeks.
‘When will it happen?’ he stared at her back, fighting the lump in his throat.
‘Soon. Today. You’ll know when.’ She dropped her hand and watched the ghostly print of condensation fade away to nothing. Then she went back to her seat on the edge of the bed.
‘Your whole world is going to change, Ethan. Nothing will be the same for you ever again.’ It was strange he couldn’t remember telling her his name.
He couldn’t remember falling asleep either, but when he woke, the cloud had thinned, the rain had stopped and the lights were brighter than ever before. He got up, gathering the sheets about his shoulders, and went to the window. Why had no one else noticed the light show in the sky, their pending doom dancing right above their homes? No one walked past, no traffic went by. The world had come to a standstill.
‘They’re trapped, like you. All of them.’ She spoke as if she knew what he was thinking. ‘The whole world is locked down. No TV, no radio, no phones.’ She turned away, lying upon the bed with her hands under her head and her back to him. Ethan’s stomach grumbled in the silence. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, and walked to the door, wondering if she would follow. She shook her head, watching him through the strands of hair that covered her face.
‘We don’t need to eat. Not like you.’ She closed her eyes, the conversation had ended. He waited for a moment, making sure that was all she had to say. Then Ethan went downstairs to the kitchen.
He didn’t want to eat, but his stomach hurt with hunger. He found a tin of soup and a heel of bread, drank some juice from a carton in the fridge. He didn’t dare leave the kitchen window, instead ate with his elbows on the counter, watching the lights. They were moving faster now, more erratic, more eager.
He tried the front door again, glancing up the staircase. Slowly, quietly, if she was sleeping he didn’t want to wake her. His breath caught as the door opened a fraction. He carefully pulled it towards him, trying to avoid the creaks and whispers of the hinges until unseen hands snatched at the door and slammed it shut. She was at the top of the stairs watching him. He made to run after her, taking the stairs two at a time, having had enough of these games and these aliens, when the stairs shook and a fierce red light stopped him before he’d even figured out what he would do.
It filled the room, as if a floodlight was right outside the window. It reminded him of when they did Macbeth at school, the red lights drowning the stage as Lady Macbeth wrung her hands to rid her of the damned spot. The girl froze before the window, watching the lights that had formed a uniform circle and were swarming in synchronisation. The red light seemed to come from the space between them, like the vortex created around a plug hole, only backwards. He joined her at the window, his heart in his chest. Was this it? Was this the end?
‘It’s time.’ she said. She looked afraid, and angry, but she reached out and took his hand. He let her, realising how cold it was against the wave of heat that seemed to be filling the room through the window. He felt the sweat trickle in an uncomfortable line down his back. The light grew brighter, so bright he couldn’t look at it straight on. His eyes were forced to look upon the vacant streets and darkened windows. The light reached everything, every crack and crevice, like someone had enclosed the world in strawberry jelly. Then the thin glass began to vibrate, and then to shudder as the light and the heat got fiercer. He felt his skin begin to prickle in the heat, any hotter and he swore it would begin to blister.
‘We should move away from the window.’ she said, her face wet with tears. Her pale skin was doused in red, and the starlight was gone from her eyes. All that was left were two angry, inky black pools scowling at the sky. She didn’t let go of his hand as she turned away from the window, and Ethan let himself be led away from the world drowned in red light. He let her lead him to the other side of the bed, where they sat together and waited for the world to end.
* * * * * *
High above the world, on an observation deck of a pointed star ship, two tall pale figures watched as the Planet Earth was engulfed in red clouds. The executioner was dressed in ceremonial black, his thin white face half hidden by a hood. He removed his hand from the panel at his side and took a step back.
‘It is done.’ He remarked, folding one hand over the other in front of him. The Empress nodded. Dressed in robes of royal purple, her face remained emotionless, the unearthly features thrown in to shadow by the red glow from the planet below.
‘And the girl?’ the Empress questioned, watching as the mist began to thin, the blue and green of the world beneath bleeding through the gaps.
‘Dead.’ the executioner confirmed.
‘Very good. You can release the time stops once the mist has cleared. Ensure the ships are out of the atmosphere before any humans are released from stasis. They must never know we were here.’ the Empress, satisfied the mission was complete, turned to leave the deck.
‘Were there any casualties?’ she asked, stopping before she reached the doorway.
‘One. We couldn’t save him.’ the executioner lowered his eyes. ‘She locked herself in with him.’
The Empress nodded sadly and left. They had chased a terrorist half way across the galaxy to stop her destroying everything they had nurtured on this tiny blue planet. The girl was dead, and another life had been lost. One life for the protection of seven billion more. A hero the planet would never know they had.