Toshiko stepped into Hub Central with Etsuko toddling by her side and Genkei in her arms. Owen crossed the floor to embrace them all reassuringly.
“There was nobody at the nursery,” she said. “Even if there had been, I don’t think I’d have left Etsu there. Not... not with that...”
“You did the right thing,” Owen assured her. “We all need to be together right now.”
He looked around the Hub. Darius and Shona had been there all night. Like Owen, Dougal had been on his way in when it happened. His partner, Sandy, was there, too. He was carrying a tray of coffee, making himself useful. In the rest area, Marcia, one of the girls who ran the tourist office upstairs was crying softly. The other girl hadn’t come in at all and she had been too scared to stay up there on her own. Sandy pressed a cup of coffee into her hand and touched her on the shoulder comfortingly. She thanked him through her tears.
“Boss, I’ve got through to Munroe,” Dougal said passing the phone to Owen. It had taken the best part of an hour to get a connection to his mobile phone. The systems were in meltdown. Everyone who owned a phone was calling somebody else.
“Munroe is at Inverness with his family,” Owen reported after talking to his oldest and most experienced team member for a few minutes. “He was going to head back today after the weekend. But I told him to stay put. He’s safe there with the people he loves. That’s the best any of us could hope for today.”
“The day the world ends,” Shona said.
“There’s enough of that kind of talk going on outside without you adding to it,” Owen said. “We all need to keep calm and be professional.”
“What are we supposed to be professional about” Shona demanded. “What is there left to do?”
“We’re Torchwood,” Owen replied. “This is the day we’ve been preparing for. The Twenty-First Century is when everything changes. And Torchwood is supposed to be ready. We’re still monitoring? There are no transmissions, no communications of any sort, on any frequency or by any method whatsoever?”
“Nothing from the aliens,” Dougal reported. “Unless they’re trying to use mobile phones, too, and can’t get through.”
“I wouldn’t rule it out at this stage,” Owen said. “How the hell were we caught out like this? It IS what we’re here for. How did the International Space Station, U.N.I.T, Jodrell Bank, ESA, NASA, bloody CETI all miss this until it was right on top of us?”
Nobody had any answer to that question. Owen didn’t expect them to. He sighed and accepted the cup of coffee Sandy gave him. He drank it in two gulps without even tasting it as he looked at the three TV screens in front of him giving the BBC, ITN and Sky News versions of the biggest news item any of them had ever covered. Then he shook his head and turned away. He walked out of Hub Central and up the stairs to the empty tourist office. The door was unlocked. The open sign was turned out. But unsurprisingly nobody wanted to book holidays in Wales today.
He stepped outside. The street was noisy. There wasn’t very much traffic this morning, but there were people milling about all over. Some of them were screaming. Some of them were crying. Some were shouting at each other. There was, perhaps inevitably, a man holding a Bible aloft and proclaiming that this was God’s judgement on a world that allowed gays and blasphemers to go unpunished.
Even more inevitably, there was a crashing, splintering noise as the plate glass window of the H. Samuels across the road was smashed. After the first looter had filled his pockets and run, it quickly became a free for all. Ordinary people who would never, on any other day, have considered becoming jewel thieves grabbed rings, necklaces, gold watches and walked away. Nobody stopped them. The police were busy elsewhere in the city. On the news bulletins it said that the army were being mobilised, but they hadn’t reached the city centre, yet.
Owen looked up. The alien space ship still blocked out the sun. By midday it probably wouldn’t. It was only covering about half the sky above Glasgow. It was round – a stereotypical flying saucer of the sort science fiction writers had described time and time again throughout the twentieth century. It was completely smooth on the underside, a dull copper colour with no marks of any sort. There was certainly nothing like an engine that he could see.
He knew from satellite images that were now coming in thick and fast to Torchwood that it was exactly the same on the top side. He knew from various data coming in from all sorts of sources that it was about the height of a two storey house and something like fifteen miles in diameter.
He knew that it had moved into Earth’s atmosphere at just after eight-thirty this morning and settled into that position, hanging over Glasgow. How it was hanging there, clearly only a few hundred metres above the city, well within the gravitational pull of the planet, he had no idea. Nobody knew. He was, for the time being, pretty much glad it WAS hanging there. If whatever was holding it up failed, it would smash most of the city into the ground with it.
Why was it here? That was another question everyone was asking. And Owen was starting to get tired of them asking him. Why would he have an answer? Torchwood was just as much in the dark as anyone else. They constantly monitored the skies for exactly this sort of thing. So did all those other organisations he had thought of before. None of them had any warning whatsoever. It came onto all their radar screens only thirty minutes before it became visible to everyone in the greater Glasgow area.
He jumped as a shotgun blast echoed louder than all the other noises in the street. He looked around and saw a man aiming at the space ship in the sky as he fired the second cartridge. Then he reached into his pocket and reloaded the two barrels. Owen was a split second too late realising what he meant to do next. By the time he pushed his way past the screaming, panicking people the man had turned the gun on himself and blown half his head off.
He wasn’t the first suicide of the day. He probably wouldn’t be the last. Owen glanced at his watch and noted that it was only half past nine. The day was hardly started.
Would he be standing here to see it end?
“Boss.” Dougal’s voice in his earpiece summoned him from such speculations. “Jack Harkness is calling, from Cardiff. He got through on a secure line.”
“Patch him through,” Owen answered. The sound of Jack’s voice was comforting. It reminded him of when he used to take orders from him. for all that he sometimes resented that, it was considerably easier than being the one who had to give the orders to others.
“We’re keeping an eye on you from down here,” Jack said. “The city generally. Are you all safe and well?”
“Toshiko and the kids are down in the Hub,” he replied. “They’re safe.”
“Good. I’m pulling every string I have to find out what the military intend to do... and to stop them doing anything precipitous.”
“Oh, shit, you don’t mean to say they might try attacking this thing?” Owen groaned. “That would be insane. We don’t know what they want. We don’t know if they’re hostile or friendly. Attacking them might just prove that WE are the hostile ones and start an interplanetary war.”
“Those are the arguments I’m using,” Jack told him. “For what it’s worth, the Prime Minister is of the same mind. But until it communicates with us... until we know how to communicate back....”
“We’re waiting for them – whoever or whatever they are - to make the first move. If it’s friendly, we can respond in kind. If it’s hostile... well, we have no way to respond in kind. Look at it. Technology way beyond anything we can imagine. The sheer size of the thing, the ability to hang there defying gravity. They have to have way better weapons than we have. If this is the start of an invasion, then we’d better find a way of finding out how to communicate with them so we can surrender unconditionally and beg them not to hurt us too much. Because that’s our only option.”
Owen didn’t listen to Jack’s reply. He dashed across the road to a woman who had stepped out of a doorway opposite. There was blood all over her dress. He lifted her in his arms as she swooned weakly. As he turned and dashed back into the Welsh tourist office, he noted two things about her - firstly that she was pregnant and secondly that the blood came from a slashed wrist.
He stopped the bleeding and bandaged her wrists. One had a deep cut, the other a shallow one, as was customary with that method of self harm. He sat her in the rest area with Marcia and made her drink a cup of hot sweet tea. The sales girl promised to look after her.
“Why did she do it?” Toshiko asked.
“Same reason it’s been happening all over the city,” Dougal said. “People are scared. They’re doing all sorts of crazy things. I’m picking up police reports of murder suicides... people doing in their kids... It’s bloody awful.”
“I can’t believe she’d risk her baby, though.” To everyone’s surprise it was Shona who said that. “I didn’t want to be pregnant. And I’m not sure what sort of future my child has... I don’t even know what it’s going to turn out to be...” She glanced meaningfully at Darius as she spoke. “But... I wouldn’t...”
“Too many people are convinced there isn’t going to BE a future,” Darius said in a mournful tone. “I can feel them. So many people out there all with the same thought, the same emotions. It’s overwhelming. They think this is the end of the world.”
“I never expected the end of the world to start in Glasgow,” Sandy commented. “There is only the one ship, isn’t there? It’s not like... I don’t know... like Independence Day, with the ships over every major city in the world.”
“So far as we know it’s just Glasgow,” Owen confirmed. “At least so far. We don’t know if this is the first of many.”
“If it is... why choose Glasgow?” Darius asked. “Why not New York or Washington, London, Paris.... It makes no sense. Glasgow has no strategic importance.”
“Maybe they don’t know that,” Toshiko suggested. “They might have made a mistake. Or...”
“Maybe it’s because of us?” Dougal added. “Torchwood. Perhaps they came here because we’re here.”
“In that case, we have to ask whether they want to communicate with us because we’re the people who understand about extra terrestrial life,” Owen poined out. “Or destroy us because we represent Earth’s first line of defence against this very kind of thing.”
“Some first line of defence,” Shona said caustically. “We’re just sitting here drinking coffee and waiting like everyone else.”
“We’re doing more than that,” Toshiko told her. “We’re listening in on every possible radio frequency for the first whisper of a communication of any form. We’re hacking into every satellite and radio telescope currently focussed on the ship to compile information about it. We’re doing everything possible to find out what we’re up against... if we ARE up against it, and its intentions aren’t peaceful.”
“Why send a ship that big on a peace mission?” Shona asked. “It’s the first wave of an invasion. And we need to stop sitting around. Why don’t the military do something? Why haven’t they put fighter planes up there to attack it?”
“Because they’ve seen Independence Day,” Sandy replied. “Look what happened then.”
“Be serious,” Shona snapped. “This is real life, not some stupid American film. We shouldn’t be waiting for them to blow Glasgow off the face of the planet. We should be fighting back.”
“And if it turns out to be a ship full of refugees from a doomed planet looking for a safe place to land...” Sandy countered. “And we kill them...”
“Then that sends out a clear message. This planet is full. No new arrivals,” Shona replied. “Don’t all look at me like that. You know it’s true. We have no room for aliens to move in. They can piss off and leave us alone.”
Sandy argued the humanitarian viewpoint against her closed door policy for several minutes before Shona finally lost her cool altogether.
“You’re not even a part of this team,” she told Sandy. “You’re just Dougal’s fuck buddy. Why don’t you go back to making coffee and stay out of the serious business.”
“Ok, that’s enough,” Owen declared. “Shona, that comment was uncalled for. I gave you an assignment an hour ago. Get on with it. Sandy, you can make yourself useful by sitting down at that terminal. Toshiko’s accessed Glasgow Central Traffic Control. See what it tells us about the mood of the population.”
It didn’t take Sandy long to find out what Traffic Control could tell them. The population of Glasgow, at least that portion of it with access to a vehicle, was leaving in droves. All of the main arterial roads were full of traffic. And it was something more than the usual daily rush hour. Cars were dangerously overloaded with passengers and luggage. They were taking little notice of speed limits or traffic lights. Accidents were occurring every minute. That was slowing the traffic down to a crawl, but slowly the city was emptying out.
“There are still enough people left to cause trouble, though,” Dougal reported, looking at the scrolling pages of police reports on his own screen. Looting, fighting, and more murder-suicides were happening all over. “The suicides aren’t confined to Glasgow, either,” he added. “People all over the UK are panicking, thinking they might be next. The whole ‘end of the world’ thing is catching.”
“Anyone would think this is the first time aliens have been here,” Owen retorted with a deep sigh. “Maybe this is the big snag with always covering these things up. The space ship in the Thames, way back in 2005... my first week at Torchwood, when I’d only just started believing in the things myself... the whole fucking world saw it. The government said it was a hoax and the population swallowed that bloody lie. But they couldn’t keep doing that. London’s had three major alien incursions since then – the sort of thing NOBODY could call a hoax. Why are people so bloody surprised by this one? If we didn’t keep lying to them... maybe if they knew the truth... I mean, yes, they’d be scared. But no more scared than people were in the 1950s when they expected to get nuked by the Russians. At least they’d have the facts. And they’d know we weren’t helpless. They’d know there were organisations like Torchwood, U.N.I.T, that we’re here to defend them.”
“Except we’re not defending anything,” Shona again reminded him. “We’re sitting here debating the issues. We’re no more defending the Empire than if we were an ordinary bunch of alien conspiracy twats sitting in a pub talking out of our arses about UFOs.”
“We’re waiting,” Owen insisted. “We don’t make a move until we know there really is hostile intent.”
“And then what?” Sandy asked. “I know I’m not really a member of Torchwood. And there are secrets that I’m not supposed to know. But... right now... especially after what you just said... I’m one of those ordinary people who’s seen all of those things happening in recent years. The space ship in the Thames. The one on Christmas Eve the year after, the Cybermen and what happened at Canary Wharf... that other space ship the Christmas after... and that’s only the things they really couldn’t cover up. I know enough now from being here with Dougal to know... aliens are coming all the time. So... so what CAN Torchwood do to defend us if this thing turns out to be able to blow this city to pieces above our heads?”
Owen looked around at the two civilian women in the rest area. The pregnant lady was sleeping. Marcia was sitting next to her. She looked calmer now. Having somebody more desperate than she was to look after seemed to help her cope. He turned and looked at his team.
“Torchwood isn’t defenceless,” he said. “Remember the Christmas Eve spaceship. When Harriet Jones was still Prime Minister. It was blasted out of the sky. That was us. Torchwood. Back then there was Torchwood One in charge, in London, and us in Cardiff, and the loopy McLeish Brothers up here. Each active Torchwood cell had a part of a code that activated a weapon... remote located in a bunker in a top secret location in the middle of the UK. I don’t even know exactly where. I think Jack might, but only because he sleeps with an MI5 man. Anyway, that night, we got the go ahead from the Prime Minister, and we launched the weapon. Since then, of course, we lost Torchwood One. Jack has both the London and Cardiff launch codes now. I have the other. If the threat is established, if the Prime Minister gives the go ahead... or if central government is taken out and Jack and I decide to strike back under the Emergency Jurisdiction given to us by the 1879 Charter, then we can strike at this ship. And believe me, it will only need the one shot. The weapon we’ve got... alien technology... salvaged from a crashed ship. It will turn that bloody thing to shrapnel.”
“So why wait?” Shona asked. “Get on with it.”
“I’m surprised you ask a question like that, Lieutenant,” Owen responded. “First of all, because there IS still a chain of command, with the Prime Minister at the top. As a soldier, you of all of us ought to understand that. Second, because it MIGHT still turn out to be a peaceful diplomatic mission making First Contact with us idiot humans despite our short-comings, or refugees, like Sandy suggested. And however overcrowded we are, our solution to asylum seekers isn’t to murder them, whether they’re from Eastern Europe or... I don’t know, bloody Alpha Centauri. Or a space ship full of research students studying the intelligent life of this god-forsaken planet. What do you think would happen if we shot down a ship like that?”
Nobody spoke, but they looked as if they were thinking about it.
“What do we do if Libya or Syria or some rogue Arab nation shoots down a civilian planes and claim they thought it was a spy plane? We get seriously pissed off and blow up an air base in their country, calling it a proportional response. Do we really want to find out what Alpha Centauri’s proportional response is if it turns out we can’t tell their 747 full of civilians from a Stealth Bomber?”
Even Shona Stewart accepted that point.
Besides, even if it IS hostile, we can’t attack it, yet. It’s inside our atmosphere, directly over this city. What do you think will happen to Glasgow when thousands of tons of radioactive burning metal debris rains down on it?”
Their imaginations filled in the picture.
“Even if people keep pouring out of the city, there will still be thousands left behind. Those who can’t get away, or won’t. So far all of the hospitals are fully staffed and taking care of patients. They can’t go anywhere. Even if every ambulance in the city joined the traffic queue there would still be those who can’t be moved. Intensive care patients, premature babies, Christ knows who else. We can’t condemn them to death unless it really is the last resort. And... we’re not there yet.”
That answered all the questions for a little while. The Hub quietened as everyone returned to their appointed tasks, mostly monitoring the different kinds of communications that were overlapping each other in this crisis. Sandy continued to concentrate on the traffic centre, Dougal keeping an eye on the police messages. Shona was doing the same for the military efforts. Darius was monitoring commercial and citizen band radio transmissions while Toshiko was listening out for that all important communication from the aliens themselves. Owen had nothing to do except give everyone else orders and wait for the call he expected to come at any time. Meanwhile he watched seven TV screens at once that were all broadcasting rolling news stories about the Glasgow crisis.
Then at a little before half past eleven, all of those TV screens blanked out at once and everyone’s mobile phones bleeped. The screens almost immediately changed to an emergency testcard telling the viewers to stand by. Darius reported that all of the radio stations had done the same. The mobile phones, meanwhile, were registering out of range. The networks had all been blocked.
“It’s the government,” Owen said before anyone began to speculate. “They’ve taken emergency measures. The phones are blocked to anything other than essential services. Loose Women has been replaced by a national emergency broadcast.”
The TV screens flickered and then the Prime Minister appeared on screen, with the First Minister of Scotland in an inset picture in the corner showing his compliance with the Westminster leadership. The Prime Minister made a short speech telling people to be calm, assuring them that there was no reason to assume the visitors who had appeared in the sky above Glasgow were hostile, and that everything was under control. He then announced that he was placing Glasgow under martial law and urged the population to obey any and all instructions from the military. He reminded those watching that martial law gave the military authorities the right to arrest on sight anyone suspected of looting or other forms of law-breaking and urged Glaswegians not to take advantage of the situation in that way. Then he repeated his assurance that there was no need to panic and that the public would be informed as soon as there were any further developments.
“Did things just get better or worse?” Toshiko asked. Nobody felt qualified to answer her. Owen moved to his own desk where his computer was bleeping. He noted that it was a communication on the subwave network. He keyed in his password and noted that the screen was split two ways. Jack Harkness was on the right hand side and the Prime Minister on the other.
His heart sank. Was this it?
“Not yet,” Jack Harkness told him as if he had guessed what he was thinking. “But the Prime Minister thought you ought to know what’s going to happen next, seeing as you’re there in the hot zone.”
“What is going to happen, next?” Owen asked warily.
“The Valiant is going to intercept the alien ship and attempt communication,” the Prime Minister told him. “It will be there in approximately forty-five minutes.”
“What do you mean, attempt to communicate?” Owen asked. “How do you know what to say to it? How do you know it will be interpreted as friendly?”
“I’ll be aboard,” Jack said. “I’ve been into space – real space, not moonwalks and Earth orbits. I know intergalactic symbols and signs for peace. I can help. In case it doesn’t work... in case our efforts are misinterpreted, or rejected, and the Valiant is attacked... I’ve designated Gwen in command of Torchwood Three. She has the codes to launch Enola Gay.”
“Who’s idea was it to call it that?” Owen asked.
“Mine,” Jack answered. “An historical reminder of what first strike policies can lead to.”
“Good name,” Owen decided. “Anyway, good luck to you. All of you. We’ll be praying for you... or something.”
“And we for you,” The Prime Minister told him. “Doctor Harper, you will realise that evacuation of the city by road is almost at a standstill, and for obvious reasons no air traffic is being allowed into the affected area. But... there is a train at Central Station. It’s going to leave in half an hour. You have time to get any of your non-essential personnel to platform seven.”
“Do you think the Valiant’s mission will fail?” Owen asked. But he knew nobody would answer that question. They were offering him a privilege not given to the vast majority of people in the city. He had an obligation to share it with his team.
“It makes sense,” he told them. “There’s no need for you all to be here. I have to be here. And Darius can’t go anywhere until nightfall. Everyone else...” He looked at Toshiko. She wouldn’t leave him in a million years if it was only her own life on the line. But there were the children to think of. She nodded silently, blinking back tears.
“I’m military,” Shona pointed out. “Surely I should...”
“You’re carrying our kudikis,” Darius told her. “Protecting the child is your duty now.”
“I agree,” Owen said. “Dougal, I know you’re going to pull the military card, too. But I need you to look after the women. Not Shona. She’s quite capable of looking after herself. But Toshiko and the kids. Marcia and... I never asked that poor woman what her name was. But she’ll be going, too. Take care of them all, please.”
That settled it. Everyone was leaving except Owen and Darius. The parting was a painful one. Owen held Toshiko and the children tightly and held back his emotions. Toshiko tried not to cry in front of the little ones, too.
“We don’t even know for sure we will be safe. If it IS a worldwide invasion, then we’re no better off outside of Glasgow.”
“But if it’s anything else, you can be fifty miles away by the time the Valiant gets here. You’ll be safe.”
“I’ll miss you,” Toshiko told him. “So will the kids.”
“I’ll miss you all. But this is for the best.”
Darius and Shona had an intimate few minutes together, too. Nobody listened to their conversation. Nobody speculated about what they said to each other.
Just as they were about to set off through the underground passage that conveniently led to Central Station the pregnant woman began to cry out incoherently. Owen ran to her.
“On the monitor there,” Marcia said, pointing to the screen that showed images of the street outside the tourist office. “She said that’s her husband.”
Owen took one look at the man standing in the middle of the now quiet street turning around helplessly and calling out a name – his wife’s presumably. He ran for the turbo lift. Marcia watched him run out into the street and grab the man by the shoulder. He spoke quickly, then the two of them ran back into the building. They arrived in the Hub a few moments later and there was an emotional reunion before Owen told the husband that he and his wife were about to be evacuated from Glasgow together. Then Dougal, with Sandy at his side, took charge of the party.
It was disturbingly quiet after they had gone. Owen and Darius both sighed with relief when they received a simple text message on the subwave network that said the train had crossed the Clyde rail bridge. It would be in Carlisle by the time the Valiant arrived.
“I’m going out to watch,” Owen told Darius. “I think I owe it to Jack. If... something happens... something so fast that I can’t get back down here...”
He wrote a long alphanumeric code and a series of numbers, arranged in pairs, on a piece of paper and gave it to Darius. He was handing over the ultimate decision that could mean life or death to thousands – if not millions – to a vampire. But curiously enough, right at that moment, apart from Jack Harkness who had already handed over that same authority to Gwen, there was nobody else he trusted that much. Darius was Undead, but he had as much at stake as anyone else. He would do what he had to do.
The street was deserted. It was a disaster area of crashed cars, broken windows, looted goods strewn all over and just as far as he could see, three dead bodies. They included the man who had shot himself hours ago. Nobody had seen fit to move him. Owen didn’t know who the others were or how they had died. But he was glad he had managed to save one desperate life. He was glad that woman and her husband were on the same train with his wife and children and Shona with her own unborn child. If he never saw any of them again, if this was it for Glasgow and everyone left in it, then he had that much comfort.
“Bollocks,” he told himself. “I never intended to die like this. Standing around doing fuck all.”
But there was nothing else to do except wait.
The Valiant arrived on schedule. It was an impressive sight, the biggest flying machine mankind had ever built, the size of a seaborne aircraft carrier, but kept in the sky by twenty-six huge jet engines. It was a triumph of British engineering that pissed the USA off big time because they didn’t think of it, and even Jack Harkness who had some American blood in him somewhere appreciated that. Owen felt a little bit proud as he watched it move into position. And also a little dismayed when he saw how small it looked next to the alien space craft. The biggest flying machine humans were capable of building was a sparrow next to a pterodactyl.
He watched the flashes of light as the Valiant sent messages using sequences of lights on an electronic board mounted on its prow. That was where Jack Harkness came in. His promise that he knew intergalactic languages might stand between them all and annihilation. He watched hopefully for a response from the alien ship.
There was none.
He watched for nearly an hour, hoping, actually praying at one point, something he hadn’t done for a very, very long time in his cynical and unbelieving life. He wanted to see a positive response from the alien ship.
After a while he thought he would have been relieved to see even a negative response. ANY acknowledgement at all that the Valiant was there, that they were all there, waiting for them, even a death ray that turned the U.N.I.T ship to dust would have been something.
But there was nothing.
After another twenty minutes the Valiant reversed its engines and backed slowly away. Owen watched until it disappeared from view then turned and went back downstairs. He sat at his desk and accepted the coffee Darius gave him. He drank the coffee while his vampire comrade drank bottled mineral water and waited to hear from somebody.
Jack Harkness came back onto the subwave network.
“We got nothing,” he said. “Not a flicker of a response. It was as if it didn’t even notice we were there.”
“At least it didn’t vaporise you,” Owen replied. “Are you going back to Cardiff?”
“Eventually,” he answered. “There’s a meeting at Whitehall that has far too many gung ho types in military uniforms for my liking. I’m going to hold them off from taking precipitous action for as long as I can. I’m also going to suggest to them that they try contacting the one man who might know what the fuck this is all about. You know who...”
For a moment Owen didn’t. Then he recognised a glint in Jack’s eyes.
“Oh, him! Do you think he’ll come?”
“He might... for me,” Jack answered. “It’s worth a try. Our last resort before the VERY last resort. Apart from anything else, I think he’d rather we tried everything else before we use these damn launch codes.”
“I’d rather we tried everything else, first,” Owen admitted. “I’ve never been comfortable with that kind of responsibility. And since I’m sitting under ground zero this time, I’m even less happy about it. So... good luck, Jack. And... I hope I get to talk to you again.”
He closed the communication and sat back in his chair staring at the desktop wallpaper image of his children until the screensaver kicked in. Darius said nothing. He knew this wasn’t the time to speak.
The afternoon dragged slowly on and nothing more happened except, about three o’clock Jack called again to say that the meeting with the gung ho types was pretty much as he expected and that the American Ambassador had tried to demand that negotiations with the aliens were conducted by a neutral representative. Jack repeated the undiplomatic response the Prime Minister had given before retracting it in favour of a polite refusal. Owen laughed. It was the first thing he had found remotely amusing all day.
After that, nothing happened for another four long, anxious hours. Owen walked upstairs every so often, just to exercise his limbs and to remind himself that it was really there, and wasn’t just some hallucination.
Jack called again. He wasn’t happy.
“Those stupid cunts want to attack the space ship,” he said. “With fighter planes, armed with air to air missiles.”
“Have they seen Independence Day?” Owen asked caustically. “What the fuck do they think they’ll achieve?”
“The Prime Minister is refusing to give the go ahead, so far,” Jack added. “But it can only be a matter of time. The less peaceful options we have, the more they’re pressing him to try the military ones.”
Owen swore all the swear words he couldn’t usually use with Genkei in his cot in the corner of the Hub.
“If that fails, they’ll want us to activate Enola Gay.”
Owen swore again.
“Owen... listen... in emergency, we’re bound by certain rules. To refuse to activate when we’re ordered to by the Prime Minister is treason. But... I’m going to do just that. I won’t shoot first. Not when we know so little about the ‘enemy’. I... I’m telling you this... so that you know my mind. But I want you to act according to your own conscience.”
“I’m a doctor,” Owen told him. “My conscience doesn’t come into it. The Hippocratic Oath does. I’m not helping launch that weapon unless it will save lives or relieve suffering. But is it a good idea for us to declare our intent to commit treason on a communication that could be monitored?”
“I’ve scrambled the signal,” Jack replied. “This is between you and me. And... I’m glad we’re in agreement about this. Christ knows there have been times when we’ve opposed each other in the past.”
“It’s starting to look like we’re the only two sane men in this fucking country,” Owen answered him. “We have to stick together. We’d better cut this call, soon, though. Somebody will be trying to unscramble it and listen in. Contact me again if...”
Jack stopped talking mid-sentence. He turned as somebody spoke to him beyond the range of the webcam. At the same moment Darius called out urgently and distracted Owen’s attention. Then he jumped up from his desk and ran up the stairs. He looked up into the sky that had been darkened for so long by the alien ship.
It was moving away, ascending through the atmosphere, getting smaller as it got further away.
He watched for several minutes then ran back downstairs. Jack still hadn’t returned to the subwave conversation, but Darius was at his workstation with satellite images showing the ship leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
“It could be moving a safe distance before melting the whole planet with its death ray,” Owen suggested. He wasn’t ready to celebrate, yet.
After another twenty minutes, though, it certainly looked as if the ship was leaving the solar system.
“So... what...?” he asked Jack as he confirmed that the ship was gone. “It just turned up, sat there all day, causing panic and chaos, ruining lives, ignoring all our efforts to communicate with it... and then pisses off again. No explanation, no nothing.”
“It seems like it.”
“Well, did it spend the day scanning us to find out our weaknesses, our military capabilities, to report back to its commanders or... was it just admiring the scenery...”
“I don’t think we’ll ever know,” Jack answered. “The military are going to be in the highest state of readiness for months to come, in case there is some follow through. Though what the fuck we can do... if that was a scout class craft, I don’t want to see its mothership. Glasgow will remain under martial law until the civil authorities are ready to resume normal responsibilities. Life will go on.”
“Nobody plans to pass this off as a publicity stunt for Irn Bru or anything pathetic like that?” Owen asked. “People have died here. They didn’t have to. At least the public ought to remember what happened even if they don’t know why.”
“I don’t think they could cover this one up if they tried,” Jack answered. “I’ve heard all the major soaps are planning to include ‘space invader’ plotlines in the next week or so. After that, it will just fade into the collective memory just like the ATMOS thing two years ago. People just seem to have their own built in defence mechanism.”
Owen knew he was right. They’d seen it happen often enough. Within a few months, there would even be people denying it happened at all, claiming it was mass hysteria or some sort of nonsense.
“I still want to know what the fuck it was about,” he said.
The story ends there, with Owen none the wiser. But if you want to know more, here are three alternative endings to choose from….