A SNEAKY FANTASY READ

A SNEAKY FANTASY READ

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Are you bored? Want to try out an Irish fantasy novel? This sci-fi fantasy, set in Wicklow Town, might just tick your box. We have been given permission to print the first 7 chapters. You can try before you buy and get a feel for what great modern Irish writing is all about.

MARK STAR – ALIEN INDUCTION

By Stephen Kelly

Published by HotGeekBooks

Copyright © 2012 Stephen KellyAll rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. Published by HotGeekBooks Hot Geek Books. For further information about the author and book email contact@hotgeekbooks.com.

PROLOGUE

High above the Earth, in the very upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the air slowly leaks away into space, a red glow appeared, streaking down through the sky.

The sky is a massive place, and at that very moment nobody was looking at that particular spot. But even if someone looked directly at the red glow with a powerful telescope, they could not possibly see the object that was causing the fiery trail. At the centre of the glow was a spaceship, built by a race of aliens far more advanced than humans. The vessel had been designed to disrupt the air as little as possible, minimising friction with the atmospheric molecules. The glow lasted only a few minutes, flickering out when the ship completed its braking manoeuvre

Travelling at a more leisurely pace of 1,147 kilometres per hour, the vessel smoothly morphed its surface. It changed from an elongated torpedo shape into a perfect sphere and began executing a pre-computed series of manoeuvres. By then it was still a hundred and thirteen kilometres above the surface of the planet. Its course had been carefully calculated before it started on its journey, although continual corrections were being made to ensure that it would land in exactly the right place. Its target happened to be on a small island off the west coast of the European continent.

The spaceship flew down through the air, reaching the level where human-made aeroplanes follow their well-established paths from country to country and city to city. Its speed was now a mere 733 kilometres per hour. As it continued its descent it performed a full scan for 59 kilometres in all directions. The scan not only identified potential collision objects, but also detected and absorbed the humans’ primitive radar signals, ensuring that it was invisible to them.

As it slowed down further, nearing the dense cloud covering frequently observed over this particular area of the planet, it noticed an aeroplane intersecting its own trajectory. It connected to the humans’ computer systems and verified this to be flight EI079, en route from Dublin to Paris, having taken off 29 minutes late. A slight change to its trajectory was calculated, projected and tested in milliseconds, and then executed smoothly.

On the Aer Lingus flight, a ten-year-old boy looked out of the window, fascinated by the clouds floating below. The plane had just broken through them, and the top of the clouds looked like a vast marshmallow carpet, pink in the light of the setting sun. His eyes widened in disbelief as the clouds parted. It looked as though a huge ball was falling through them, but he could see nothing that would make that happen. He rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the hole was already filling up.

Readjusting its course to compensate for the unexpected correction, the spaceship continued carefully and deliberately down towards that one special place on the small island known locally as Ireland.

CHAPTER 1

Mark flicked through a graphic novel to find the page he’d read up to last time. He stood between the shelves of the comic book store, trying to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. The owner kept looking over, a dark scowl across his face – probably getting fed up of the boy browsing but never buying.

But Mark had no choice – his parents totally forbade him to buy comics. It was one of those “not open for discussion” things. They behaved as if he’d get sucked into a world of junkies and gangs, mad scientists, aliens and fiendish plans if he even smelled a comic book.

At least there was a comic book store in this town. There hadn’t been in the last one and he’d had to resort to scraps of free downloads to feed his hunger for PrimeSight.

He found the page and threw himself into the comic, anxious to discover the fate of Sift Prime, his favourite superhero. Page after page, the story drew him into a world of extraordinary powers and thrilling battles hidden from the ordinary people whose very existence was at stake.

Somewhere outside the story a voice broke into his awareness.

“Hey.”

Couldn’t be anyone talking to me, he thought absently.

“You like PrimeSight?”

Mark looked up.

“Hi.” The kid standing in front of him smiled broadly. “I’m Nate. You’re Mark, right?”

Mark frowned. Nobody ever talked to him voluntarily. What did this guy want?

“I’ve seen you in school. You’re in my science class. And history.”

Mark stared at him.

“Not much of a talker?”

“What do you want?” asked Mark, a bit too sharply, he realised afterwards.

“Just talking,” said the boy. He gestured at the comic in Mark’s hands. “PrimeSight … it’s one of my favourites too.”

“Ohh … kay” said Mark.

“Not my all-time number one, though,” continued Nate, unperturbed. “TroubleSward is the best.”

This guy was persistent. He might even be cool, thought Mark. But what was the point? Friends were a luxury he simply couldn’t enjoy. Undoubtedly his parents would drag the family off to another town in a few months. Getting to know people was just a waste of time.

The guy behind the counter coughed loudly making Mark glance up. Nate peered around to follow his gaze.

“I wouldn’t worry about Chewie,” grinned Nate. “What’s he gonna do?”

“Chewie?” asked Mark.

“You know … Chewbacca … from Star Wars.”

Mark pulled a confused half-grin, half-frown.

“He growls a lot,” continued Nate, “but he’s just a big, hairy softie.”

Mark suppressed a smile. The comic-store owner frowned over at them, and Mark nearly burst out laughing.

“You don’t mix much, do you?” asked Nate.

Mark shrugged.

“You got a PSP?”

“Yeah,” said Mark.

“Any good at Wipeout Pulse?”

“Not bad, I suppose.”

“We should play sometime. See who’s best.”

“Maybe,” said Mark.

Nate slung a bag over his shoulder.

“Gotta go. See you at school tomorrow, yeah?”

He sauntered out the door, grinning at the man behind the counter. Mark smiled again at the image of Chewbacca. The owner didn’t seem so imposing any more.

Seventeen minutes later, Mark stepped out of the store and pulled his keying from the depths of his pocket. He leaned over his bike, which was chained to a lamppost, and slipped a key into the lock. The sound of rough laughter made him look up just in time to see the Masher Boys turn the corner.

Matt Stempson and Jimmy King! Nearly the first two names he had learned when he’d moved here two months ago. The school bullies. It was only a matter of time before they’d start on Mark. How did he manage to attract the attention of every bully, jock, punk, grunger and nutter everywhere he went? He was like a magnet.

Mark kept his head down. Just keep going, he chanted silently. Nobody here worth your attention, no point bothering with me. He focused on opening the lock.

“Hello,” said one of the Masher Boys, “there’s that weird one everyone’s talking about.”

Damn, he thought, here we go again, wrapping the chain around the crossbar, still keeping his head down.

“What’s the story, freak?”

Mark lifted his bike away from the lamppost and started walking, keeping his eyes firmly on the pavement in front of him.

A hand pushed against his shoulder.

“I asked you a question, weirdo.”

“Rude little bugger, isn’t he?” said the other bully.

Mark picked up his pace.

“Oi! Where d’ya think you’re going?”

In one swift motion Mark stepped onto a pedal, swung his other leg over the bicycle and pushed off.

“Oi! Come back, you little chimp.”

Mark pumped the pedals, leaning forward on the handlebars to gain as much speed as he could. Behind him the shouts and pounding feet of the Masher Boys receded. He turned a corner into a road lined with big detached houses and kept pedalling. He didn’t recognise this street, but was fairly sure he was heading in the right direction.

Why do they always go for me, Mark asked himself. Have I got a tattoo that says “pick on me” on the back of my head or something?

He ducked down a side road, making for where he thought his house was. He had lived in at least five different towns that he could remember. The longest time he’d spent in any of them had been three years. That place had been good. He’d just been getting used to the bullies and learning how to avoid them when the time came to move. Now he’d have to work it all out again in another new town. And the worst thing was you always stood out as the new boy.

Coming out of the side road, he found himself on a street that looked familiar. This wasn’t too far from his house. Just down the end of this street, turn right and then the hard climb up the hill, wasn’t it? It was so annoying having to work out the best routes in a new town. Why did his family have to move around so often? Maybe his parents couldn’t fit in anywhere either. Maybe it was a genetic thing. Maybe Mark’s family was destined to wander the land, never properly settling – hounded because of some aura or strange smell they gave off. Or maybe his parents were bullied too. Not beaten up or physically attacked. But weren’t there ways that adults pushed each other around?

He pedalled on, starting to relax now that he knew where he was. Just as he approached one of the driveways, a car reversed out in front of him. Mark pulled hard on the brakes, swinging the back wheel around. The rubber slipped on the gravel making the wheel skid out from under him. He slid along the ground wedging his bike under the still-moving car. It stopped just before the front wheel drove over his bike.

The driver’s door flew open and a man hopped out.

“Hey! What the hell? You came out of nowhere.”

Mark pushed himself up and dusted down his jeans. His arm hurt from elbow to shoulder, sporting a long scrape, but there wasn’t much blood.

“You were on the wrong side of the road. Where were you going in such a hurry?”

“I was just … nothing … sorry,” Mark mumbled.

The man looked him up and down, appraising him.

“You’re Mark, aren’t you? The new kid in Marjorie’s school?”

Marjorie Sinclair, thought Mark quickly. The annoying girl. This must be her house. It was just his luck to be nearly run over by Marjorie’s father.

Mark nodded sullenly as he picked up his bike. Thankfully it wasn’t damaged – just a bit of a scratch on the front wheel fork, and the handlebars had twisted around a little. He straddled the front wheel, holding it between his legs, and twisted the handlebars back.

“You sure you’re okay?” asked Mr. Sinclair. “Maybe you should come inside and we’ll take a proper look.”

“No,” Mark answered quickly. “I’m fine. Thanks.” There was something strange about this man. Mark couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Mr. Sinclair’s concern seemed genuine, but his voice was somehow flat. Mark felt as if he were being sized up by a far more dangerous predator than the bullies he’d just escaped.

He hopped on his bike again and cycled away. Throwing a look back over his shoulder, he saw Mr. Sinclair still standing beside his car watching Mark go.

A device in Mr. Sinclair’s car, no larger than a coin, maintained a constant scan of everything within eighty-nine metres. It had minimal intelligence, merely being a routine sensor, designed to record and relay. However, its detection capabilities included more than the sound waves and simple electromagnetic frequencies that humans had only just mastered. It monitored emanations that most humans hadn’t even heard of. Every detail of the incident with Mark had been recorded, encoded, encrypted and packaged for transmission via an orbiting relay satellite to an alien ship tens of thousands of kilometres from the planet.

Inside the ship, a computer – or more accurately an artificial brain – decoded and analysed the transmission. Every aspect of the encounter was processed from millions of different perspectives. Implications were drawn and conclusions made, which were then presented to the beings who had constructed the computer. There was a seventy-one per cent probability that this boy could provide the answers they were searching for.

The aliens engaged in a conversation that would have been impossible for any human to interpret. Using a combination of sound and light signals they discussed this identification and formed a plan for acquiring their prize. Orders were produced and transmitted back to the Earth for their agent, instructing him as to what was to be done.

Mark had no way of knowing, as he cycled away, that he was now a marked target.

CHAPTER 2

Mark freewheeled down the road and up his driveway. Coasting into the garage, he hopped off the bike and leaned it against the wall beside the electric lawnmower. The car wasn’t there. Dad mustn’t be home from work yet.

Mum was pottering around in the kitchen, moving back and forth in front of the window. Mark went around the side of the house and in through the front door. He took the stairs two at a time.

“Is that you, Mark?” his mum’s voice floated down the hall.

“Yeah,” he replied, continuing to the top of the stairs, further away from the request to do some chore that would surely follow.

In his room he started digging through the clothes that littered the floor, looking for his PSP. Finally he found it under his favourite T-shirt – the one with the old Space Invaders game on the front. He checked that the Wipeout Pulse card was still in it, and slipped it into his back pocket. He was not going to stay in the house to be nagged at by his mum about doing homework and laying the table for tea. He slipped back down the stairs and out the front door as quickly as possible.

The barn was a big wooden two-storey structure in a field at the end of the road. A ladder led up to the top floor, which had a large empty window frame looking out over the wheat. Soft, dry, hay bales made for a comfortable place in which to lounge and daydream. Up here he felt safely hidden away from everything and everyone.

He settled in to some bales beside the window, booted up the PSP and got stuck in. It would do no harm to practice, he thought, in case he ever did play against that guy from the comic store. A few crashes later, he was totally absorbed.

A sudden loud slapping noise made him jump. He looked up through the window. It was just a flock of blackbirds scattering away from a big old oak in the middle of the field.

Mark looked back down at his PSP, but something thrummed at the edge of his awareness, drawing him from the game. He heard a sound like distant voices and looked through the window again, but there was nobody in sight. Then the vibration began. What was that? He pulled his phone out of his pocket – maybe he had left it on silent with vibrate – but that wasn’t it. The sensation was deeper than that – like the whole barn was vibrating, but, weirdly, there was no noise.

In the distance a dog howled and yelped, making him look out the window again. He noticed something strange about the air. About thirty metres from the barn it looked somehow solid, the tree in the field shimmering like it was behind a pane of glass. The wheat underneath the solid mass of air began to flatten down, as if the air itself were squashing down on top of it.

Mark’s eyes widened. He shook his head and looked harder at the wheat smoothing down. It looked as though it were being pressed by a huge invisible iron. Could that be … a crop circle? The wheat flattened down in a perfect circle. It was! But it couldn’t be. Weren’t crop circles a hoax? The vibrations reached a jaw-numbing intensity. Mark held his hand out in front of his face and it quivered so quickly that it blurred.

Then suddenly the vibrations stopped, leaving a feeling as though his whole body had been injected with dental anaesthetic. The PSP fell from his hand, bouncing off a hay bale and clattering onto the wooden floor, but Mark barely noticed.

For a few moments nothing more happened. Everything was motionless, as if time had stopped. Only the tinny sounds from the PSP cut through the stillness.

Mark stood, unmoving, gaping through the window at the frozen mass of air sitting on the wheat.

As he stared, a small circle of light appeared in midair above the flattened wheat. It expanded like an inflating balloon.

Mark’s pulse raced. He took a step forward, leaning on the windowsill, and peered hard at the expanding bubble of light. Looking like a small sun going supernova, it forced him to shield his eyes. But as it grew, it dimmed, until eventually a dark, shadowy shape appeared within. Mark squinted, straining to make the shape out, but the brightness of the light around it made the shadow fuzzy and indistinct.

As he watched, the floating bubble stretched as if it were being blown by a glassmaker. Flowing like thick honey, it curved out and downwards until it touched the ground. Then it solidified, forming a radiant tunnel with ripples of illumination flashing through it in random patterns.

The shadow floated down through the tunnel of light. When it neared the bottom, the end of the tunnel thinned, becoming more and more translucent until it disappeared, leaving a large opening. The shadow stepped through the opening.

Mark nearly fell through the window. It’s an extra-terrestrial, he thought. I’m looking at a real, live alien!

Its head was almost perfectly round like a football, but with three prominent bulges at the top. There was no hair, and Mark couldn’t see any eyes, ears, nose or mouth. How does it see or hear? he wondered. Its two arms hung by its sides so long that they almost reached the ground. And there was something sticking out in front. Two more arms, he realised, much shorter than the others.

He looked again at the bulges on top of its head. There was something familiar about them. What was it? They looked like … frogs’ eyes! As soon as the realisation struck, he saw that they were looking straight at him. He dived to the floor under the window.

Does it know I’m here, he asked himself, his heart banging against his ribs. Did it see me? He took a couple of deep breaths to calm down, then slowly lifted his head up to the window, peeking out over the ledge.

Where had it gone? He lifted his head further. There. Moving through the wheat towards the barn! It was coming straight for him. Should he run? He didn’t feel scared – just excited and awed.

Just then his mum’s voice sounded in the distance.

“Mark! Tea time!”

The alien stopped short and stood still, seeming to sniff the air.

“Mark,” his mum called, more loudly than before. “Mark!”

The alien turned and moved, surprisingly quickly, back to the tunnel of light. It floated quickly up through the tunnel, and the light tightened in behind it, until it shrank and winked out like a star disappearing.

Mark groaned. His mum’s timing was unbelievable. This may have been his one chance to witness something extraordinary, maybe even to meet an alien. Mark already knew, without having to look, that his mum was standing at the fence, peering into the barn. She knew full well where he was – she had an unreasonable knack of finding him wherever he went. Did she sense he was in danger?

Sure enough, her voice called again, much closer this time.

“Mark, I’ve called you three times already. You get yourself up to the house now!”

He slipped to the barn door and stuck his head out. She stood at the fence, her arms crossed, a dark frown on her face.

“Can’t it wait a few minutes?” implored Mark.

“No! It can’t,” she answered. “And why are you whispering?”

“Mum, please.”

“I’m not having a discussion with you about this.”

“Can I at least get my PSP? It’s in the barn.” If he could just get rid of her, she’d be too busy to come back again.

“You will not get rid of me,” exclaimed Mum. How did she do that? Sometimes she seemed to know exactly what he was thinking. “Go get your PSP – and be quick about it.” She stayed where she was, waiting for him.

Mark dashed back to the window and looked at the spot where the alien had been, willing it to come back out … but  nothing happened. Every heartbeat reminded him that time was passing and his mum’s patience was short.

“Do you want me to send your father down here after you?” her voiced pierced through the barn.

She’d do it too, and that would be the end of any chance of seeing the alien again.

Mark rolled his eyes. “I suppose not.”

Taking one last longing glance through the hole in the wall, he grabbed his PSP and stomped towards the door.

As he climbed the fence behind the barn, his thoughts raced. The alien must have some purpose here. Why was it coming towards him? Did it know he was there? The spaceship was invisible, so it could remain undiscovered in the field for some time. Maybe it would stay until the occupants were sure there was nobody around, so that they could still do whatever they had come to do. If he came back down later, they might still be there!

With that thought, he leapt over the fence and ran up the road. The sooner he got through his meal, the sooner he’d get back down to the barn.

As he ran, another idea occurred to him. He could bring the camcorder back with him, so as to get some evidence of the aliens. His phone recorded video, but only thirty seconds at a time. The camcorder would be better – he could set it up and leave it running.

Though Mark was bursting to tell someone about the alien and the spaceship, he knew better than to tell his mum. First of all, she wouldn’t believe him – she’d just think he was playing some game and give him an earache about trying to delay his tea. If she did believe him, she’d send his dad down to take a look, he’d tell the Gardaí or the government and before you knew it, Mark wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the place again. He wasn’t about to give up so easily on a chance to meet aliens.

At home Mark decided to play the obedient son – to keep the parents on-side and agreeable. It didn’t always work, but it was the best he had right now. As he sat down at the dining table, his dad came through from the living room, carrying his sister, Ella, under his arm. She giggled happily as Dad passed her from arm to arm with a big grin.

“Now where did I put Ella? I’m sure I saw her in the sitting room only a minute ago,” he said, winking at Mark. He could be such a goof sometimes.

As a rule, Mark barely noticed Ella except when he was told to watch her, or to pick her up or to get something for her.

“Keep an eye on Ella for a minute while I get her dinner from Mum,” said Dad, strapping Ella into her highchair and disappearing off into the kitchen.

Mark had too much to think about to waste time entertaining Ella. Mum and Dad were strict about him not going out after dark. Mark had an idea that it was because they were afraid of him being attacked by yobs, but they wouldn’t even talk with him about it. Tonight, though, he had to find a way of getting around that so that he could investigate the spaceship. Plus, if he could get the camcorder from Dad he might be able to film the alien.

Then an idea occurred to him. He knew how to get out after dinner and with the camcorder – simple.

Mum and Dad came back into the dining room, carrying three plates of food and a bowl for Ella.

“Thanks, Mum,” Mark said as his mum put a plate in front of him.

She glanced at him warily.

“You’re not going to complain about the food?”

“No, Mum. We’ve been studying nutrition in science class. The teacher explained about the importance of proper nutritional balance.”

That was clever – getting school into the conversation. That would help with the plan.

Mum looked at Dad, one of their silent conversations passing between them. Mark could tell by the slight turn of Mum’s mouth and the flick of Dad’s eyebrow.

“I’ve been telling you that for years,” she said to Mark.

“Yeah, but you’re not a teacher, Mum.”

“As long as you eat your vegetables, I don’t care who convinces you,” she laughed.

“That reminds me,” Mark rushed on – time to put the plan into place. “In media studies today we were talking about film-making. That was really interesting!”

“I’ll bet it was,” said Dad.

“I’ve got to make a short movie for homework. I need to use the camcorder.”

“Hmmm,” said Dad. “Just be sure not to damage it.”

“What about the kids who don’t have a camcorder?” asked Mum.

Damn, thought Mark, I can’t let the plan unravel.

“The kids who have camcorders were teamed up with kids who don’t.” That was quick thinking. “I was teamed up with Lucy Bright, so I have to go round there after dinner.”

“Awww, I’m not so sure about that,” said Mum.

“She only lives up the road,” he said. “What’s gonna happen to me between here and there? You met her mum last week … remember … she came round to welcome us to the neighbourhood.”

Mum glanced at Dad again. He could get attacked, she’d be thinking. People just don’t like us.

We can’t keep him locked up – he’ll end up hating us, would be his answer.

Mum shrugged. Evidently they’d come to an agreement.

“Fair enough,” said Dad. “Just be sure that you’re back here before dark. What’s the movie going to be about?”

“Aliens!” blurted out Mark. He groaned inwardly.

“Ooooh, interesting,” replied Dad. “You should film those crop circles that have been appearing in the fields down the road. Maybe I’ll come with you.”

“No way, Dad! You’ll just take over and start doing everything,” Mark said quickly. “Anyway, we have a couple of weeks to make the movie, so tonight we just want to film a few things to see how we get on.”

“Okay, okay, you do it yourself, but I’ll be very interested to see the movie when it’s finished. I’ll be invited to the premiere, right?” Dad grinned.

Mark ploughed through his meal. His plan had worked perfectly – his parents had agreed to allow him to go back out, and Dad had said he could take the camcorder.

By the time he’d finished eating, Mum and Dad were only halfway through their own food.

“Can I go now?”

“Alright,” agreed Mum. “Off you go.”

And stay away from trouble, he could almost hear her thinking.

Yeah, I know, was his own silent reply.

Mark hopped off his chair, ran into the sitting room to grab the camcorder and dashed out the front door, slamming it behind him.

 

CHAPTER 3

Mark raced to the end of the road and hopped over the fence. He had about an hour before his Dad would traipse out after him, potentially ruining everything. His parents were so uptight. He had to make the most of this opportunity.

Running into the barn, he quickly climbed to the window that overlooked the field. He looked all round to see if there were any signs that the alien had returned, but was disappointed to see nothing. The wheat was still squashed down, and he could now see that there were, in fact, three flattened circles – the big one he had seen being formed earlier plus two smaller ones on either side.

If I’m lucky, he thought, the invisible spaceship will still be there, and the alien might still venture out. Mark stood a hay bale up behind the window and put the camcorder on top of it. He used some straw to angle it down towards the place where the invisible spaceship should be. After checking in the viewfinder that the crop circle was in full view of the camcorder, he switched it to standby. No point in wasting the battery, filming nothing! Now all he had to do was wait.

Mark waited for ten minutes. Nothing happened.

Another ten minutes passed. The sun was getting noticeably lower in the sky. Still nothing.

Maybe I should go into the field and check it out, he pondered. But then again, that might not be a good idea – it might completely scare away the aliens, if they saw him. He also felt a little nervous about going out there on his own. If he had someone else here, that would be a different matter.

Come to think of it, he’d told his parents that he would be with Lucy. If they cross-checked with her mum – and he wouldn’t put it past them to do that – they’d find out he wasn’t. Maybe he could get Lucy to come and help him. Plus, it’d be a chance to get to know her better than just the few awkward moments he’d had with her at school.

Mark peered out again over the field. There was still no sign of anything happening. Lucy’s house was only up the road, but what if he missed something in the field? It’d take about three minutes to get to there, five minutes to explain everything to her and then another three minutes for the two of them to get back to the barn – surely nothing much could happen in eleven minutes. If he set the camcorder to record, it’d catch anything that might happen.

Mark turned on the camcorder and set it to record, jumped down the bales and sped out the back door. Running back past his house, he ducked beneath the top of the garden wall to make sure his parents wouldn’t see him. But after that, he was away again at a sprint to the top of the road.

Lucy’s mum opened the front door.

“Hello?” she said. “Ahh, you’re … Mark, aren’t you?” Good memory, thought Mark. “You just moved in down the road. Come in.” She ushered him through the door.

“Hi Mrs. Bright,” Mark said. “Is Lucy here?”

“Sure,” she said. “Lucy,” she called, looking up the stairs.

“What?” Lucy’s voice floated down from her bedroom, along with the sound of a song that Mark kind of liked, even though he would never admit to it.

“Will you please turn down that racket? Mark’s here to see you.”

“Who?” called Lucy. Mrs. Bright glanced apologetically at Mark. “Go on up,” she said.

“Thanks, Mrs Bright,” said Mark, bounding up the stairs.

“Third door on the left,” she called up after him.

Lucy’s door opened as Mark reached the top of the stairs.

“Oh,” she exclaimed. “You? What are you … ?”

Mark gulped. Now that he was facing her it wasn’t as simple as he’d thought before.

“Ummm …,” he said.

She gave a half smile, raising her eyebrows.

“Ummm …” What could he say?

“Is there something you wanted?”

“Have you ever seen an alien?” he blurted.

“What?” Lucy pulled a ‘weirdo’ face.

Damn, why did I say that? That was so dumb!

“Ummm … I mean I think I saw an alien.” Inside he groaned. Stop talking now, he admonished himself.

Lucy’s eyebrows rose. “Tell me you’re on something and this isn’t some weird chat up line.” She laughed nervously.

“Sorry … yeah … look, I need your help.”

“Go on,” she said.

“Right … well … I kind of had to tell my parents that I was doing a school project with you.”

“Why?”

“So they’d let me out,” he grimaced.

“For what?”

“Well …” Mark knew he’d get all tied up in knots if he tried to make something up now. Maybe if he told her the truth she’d believe him. It was worth a try – she probably couldn’t think any worse of him than she already did. He quickly told her what he’d seen.

“Look Mark,” she said, when he’d finished, “I don’t know what happened to you down at the barn, but don’t you think it’s more likely that you dozed off and had a dream?” Mark felt his face begin to glow. “If your parents ask I’ll tell them you were here and we talked about making a video, alright?”

“Yeah … ok … thanks.” He looked at his feet. “I don’t suppose you want to come back down with me and take a look?”

“Ehhh … no … I’ve got better things to do than stand around in some dirty barn looking at a crop circle.” Just then Lucy’s mobile phone rang. “Hang on,” she said, touching the screen to answer. “Hey Marjorie.”

Time to make an exit, thought Mark. The longer he stayed trying to persuade Lucy to come with him, the greater the chance he’d miss something happening with the UFO. He wanted to find a way to convince her he wasn’t mental, but the pull of the alien encounter was too strong.

Bounding down the stairs and out the front door, Mark barely heard Lucy’s mum calling out, “Goodbye, Mark!” As he ran back down the road, he checked his watch to see how long he’d been gone. Only seven minutes. He was sure he couldn’t have missed anything in that time. He ran down to the barn, faster than he’d ever run before, and vaulted over the fence, almost flying up the ladder into the upper level of the barn. He raced to the window where he had set up the camcorder.

Everything was just as he’d left it. Nothing had changed at all – there was no sign of the light he’d seen earlier, no sign of the tunnel, no sign of any aliens. He hadn’t missed anything. Mark turned off the camcorder to save the battery.

He stared intently down at the field.

No movement.

He checked his watch again. Only two minutes had passed. There was still plenty of time for something to happen.

He continued staring at the field.

Nothing.

This was getting boring. Maybe he should go down and take a closer look. He was still a little nervous, though. He wished Lucy had come with him – he would have been a lot less nervous with her there. He sat watching the field, checking his watch every so often, as the light gradually faded.

His parents would be expecting him home now, and would probably call Lucy’s mum. They’d find out he wasn’t there, and then Dad would come looking for him and spoil everything. He could hear his mum’s voice in his head, telling his dad that Mark had better be home soon.

A sense of urgency came over him. He had to do something. Looking around, he noticed a stone lying on the barn floor. He slipped down the ladder, picked it up and climbed back up to the window overlooking the field.

Here goes nothing, he thought, chucking the stone at the place where the UFO should be. It arced through the air, a perfect aim, right to where the light bubble had appeared.

Any second now, there’d be a clang.

Any …

Second …

Now …

Nothing. The stone just kept sailing on, landing on the ground smack in the middle of the flattened circle of wheat.

The UFO had gone.

He dashed out the door of the barn and over to the crop circle. Staring hard at the air above the flattened wheat, he could see nothing unusual. Lying on the ground nearby was a stick. He picked it up and started slowly approaching the circle, swinging the stick in front of himself like a blind man. By the time he was standing with his toes right up to the edge of the circle the stick hadn’t touched anything.

He stepped into the circle. Still nothing.

The spaceship had definitely gone.

Mark kicked the stone, blaming it for the absence of the spaceship. Then he threw the stick down, turned around and plodded back towards the barn to get the camcorder.

Precisely 17 metres above the spot where it had landed, the ship reconfigured its surfaces in preparation for the trip back into space – the flat base dematerialising, its energy being redistributed to other parts of the ship. It remained completely undetectable to the humans below.

A high-energy beam tracked the figure as it moved from the barn up the road towards one of the houses. As the ship began to mould the space around itself, allowing it to move away from the planet as if there were no gravity, another energy beam leapt ahead of it, carrying a report.

The language of the report was not a human one and contained ideas and expressions that would be beyond human comprehension. If it had been translated into English, it would have read something like the following:

“Initial message / greeting / plea left.

“Introduction assured.

“Subject / human gender 1 / special potential being will retrieve contact device.

“Subject / human gender 1 / special potential being will respond.

“Contact device educated / programmed / configured for maximum success and retrieval of subject / human gender 1 / special potential being.”

In the field below, the contact device, standing unseen and unseeable in the wheat, maintained its own surveillance of the area, paying careful attention to the house into which Mark now walked.

Back at home, Mum was just putting Ella to bed. Dad was stacking away the last of the dishes from dinner.

“Alright, son? How’d it go?” asked Dad.

Mark didn’t answer.

“Show us what you’ve filmed so far, then.” Dad’s boundless enthusiasm was so annoying sometimes.

“Not yet, Dad. I want to do it properly first, okay?”

“Fair enough.”

His dad’s comment prompted Mark to think that perhaps he should check the camcorder himself, just in case something had happened while he was away. He went upstairs to his bedroom to have a look at the footage in private.

Closing his bedroom door and sitting down on his bed, Mark opened the view screen, rewound the tape and pressed play. The screen showed the field with the big circle and two smaller ones quite clearly. The sounds of hay rustling came through the speaker – that’d be him jumping on the hay bales as he ran off to Lucy’s. The tape played on for another couple of minutes, the scene unchanging.

Just as Mark decided that nothing had happened, there was a flash of light followed by an eerie blur. What was that? Mark stared unblinking at the view screen.

Suddenly something appeared on the screen. Mark fell off the bed, knocking the camcorder to the floor.

Was that a face?

He scrambled off the carpet and picked up the camcorder again. The film was still playing, but it now looked like it had at the start – everything the same.

He rewound the tape and pressed play again.

This time he was ready when it happened. There was the flash, the blur and ­ Yes! – a face appeared. He stabbed the pause button.

It was an alien face – the same one he’d seen earlier! Mark shook his head. It really was true. Some part of him had previously been assuming that it had been a daydream before, but now the evidence was right here. He had it on tape!

He examined the image on the screen. Now he could clearly see a mouth, although it had no lips.

Mark pressed the play button. The alien’s mouth moved and Mark could hear a high-pitched scratchy noise through the speaker. It only lasted about five seconds before the face disappeared and everything went back to normal.

Mark rewound the tape about ten seconds, pressed play, then pressed slow. After a few seconds he saw the bubble of light appear where he had seen it earlier. The light tunnel came out and the alien came down through it. Even in slow motion, it all happened very quickly.

The alien moved rapidly towards the barn until it disappeared from view. After another second or so, the alien face reappeared, looking directly into the camera. It moved its mouth, but there was no sound.

Of course, Mark thought in exasperation. The sound didn’t work in slow play. He’d have to download the tape onto the computer and use that to slow it down. He’d seen Dad do that before, when the camcorder was new, using a tape in which Mum was laughing and telling his dad to film someone else. Dad and Mark had played around with the short clip, speeding it up and laughing at Mum’s quickened gestures and high pitched voice. Then they slowed it down and laughed even more at her deep, man-like voice and slow movements. He would have to do the same with the alien clip. He dashed downstairs and into the study.

Dad was at the computer, playing Unreal Tournament online.

“Dad, I need to use the computer,” said Mark.

“Hmmmm?” His dad was engrossed in the game.

“I need to use the computer!”

“Give me a minute,” said Dad, ducking involuntarily as another player shot at him onscreen.

Mark squirmed. He wouldn’t get on for ages, if at all.

“Da-a-ad!!”

CHAPTER 4

Mark awoke to the sound of his mum’s voice.

“Mark. You’re late. Get down here for breakfast – now!”

Dad had played on the computer all evening despite Mark’s vociferous protestations. Mark had watched the clip over and over on the camcorder, running down the battery, but couldn’t make out what the alien was saying.

There wouldn’t be time now to use the computer. Maybe he could feign sickness so that he could stay home. Nah – he had tried that only last week and Mum hadn’t been fooled for a minute. There was no choice but to leave it until after school. How was he going to be able to wait that long?

If I have to go to school, he thought, I’d better take the tape with me. It wasn’t very likely that his mum would look at it – she was always saying that she was hopeless with things like the camcorder and the computer. But she was mostly pretending. She didn’t go to work at the moment because of Ella, but she used to work in marketing with computers and tablets and editing studios, so she was perfectly capable of using them if she wanted. Mark didn’t want her to see his recording before he had a chance to find out what the alien was saying. He ejected the tape and slipped it into his schoolbag.

Climbing up into the school bus, Mark looked down the aisle and spotted Lucy. Now that he had proof, Lucy would have to believe him about the aliens. He started to make his way down the bus, but stopped short when he noticed Marjorie in the seat beside her. There was no way he wanted Marjorie to know about this. Maybe he should wait until break time and try to talk to Lucy then. But he was bursting to tell someone, so he took a deep breath and kept going.

“Lucy, can I talk to you for a minute?” he asked.

“I think you’ll find she’s talking to me,” snapped Marjorie.

“Please Luce,” he said, ignoring Marjorie.

“What is it?” asked Lucy.

“I need to talk in private,” he replied. “Look, there’s a free seat over there.”

“Ooooh,” cried Marjorie, “I think he has a crush on you, Lucy!”

Mark felt his cheeks burning and was just about to snap back at Marjorie, but quickly realised that anything he said would only be laughed at even more. He kept his mouth shut.

Lucy glanced at Marjorie. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Okay, Mark.”

Lucy got up and followed Mark to the free seat. Marjorie frowned, giving Mark the evil eye.

Once they were sitting down, Mark pulled the camcorder tape out of his bag and showed it to Lucy.

“What’s that?”

“I got the aliens on tape.”

“Awww, Mark, is this some kind of joke?” she groaned.

“No it’s true. I really do have video of an alien. I can show you. He’s saying something.”

“What’s he saying?” sighed Lucy.

“I don’t know yet. He’s speaking too fast – I have to slow the tape down.”

“Yeah, right, of course.” Lucy stood up to go back to her seat with Marjorie.

Mark grabbed her arm and whispered. “Please, just come over to my house later and take a look.”

“Okay, okay,” she replied, “I’ll come over after school.” She pulled away from him and sat down again with Marjorie.

The morning moved like a toy robot with worn batteries. Finally, the bell rang for lunch. Mark stood and braced himself for the canteen ordeal. From experience, he knew that it was best to get it over with quickly. He had to get there before the line had built up, get a small lunch and eat it while most of the kids were busy lining up for theirs. Usually he could get outside before he was noticed and people started making fun of him.

As he slipped along the corridor, nipping past the chattering knots of boys and girls, he thought he heard someone calling his name. Nah, he thought, must be another Mark, and kept going.

The queue at the dinner counter was short. Mark grabbed a tray and started studying the menu board.

“Mark.”

He looked around.

Nate jogged up to him.

“What’s the hurry? Didn’t you hear me calling?”

“Oh, hey … sorry … thought it was some other Mark.”

“You wanna get lunch together?”

Mark shrugged. “Sure.”

They got their meals and sat at a window table. Out of habit, Mark checked around to make sure that none of the obvious bullies were nearby.

“You been practising, then?” asked Nate.

“Maybe.”

“Me too,” Nate laughed.

They ate for a while in silence.

“So, what’s your story, then?” asked Nate.

“What d’you mean?”

“Well, word is you’re a bit strange.”

“Yeah, I know.” It was the same story everywhere.

“Well, are you?”

Mark grimaced. “Who isn’t?”

“Yeah, that’s true.” Nate laughed.

“So why are you eating with me?” asked Mark.

“’Cos normal’s boring.”

That’s easy for him to say, thought Mark.

The canteen buzzed with kids filling up the seats, tucking into their lunches, laughing and generally mucking around.

“I’ll tell you about someone really strange” said Nate. “My uncle knows this guy who says he was abducted by aliens.”

Mark’s eyes jerked to Nate’s face. “Abducted by aliens?” he squawked.

“Yeah, like, the whole bit, bright lights, super advanced UFO, flown up into the sky.”

Mark gulped. “Where?”

“Here.”

“What Wicklow?”

“Yep. My uncle didn’t say who it was, but he said the guy used to be pretty normal. But there really is something different about him now.”

“Do you believe it?” Mark asked.

“Nah,” laughed Nate. “Like seriously!”

“Right,” said Mark, half-laughing back. “Seriously.”

CHAPTER 5

The school bus pulled to a stop and Mark jumped off. He glanced at his watch for the hundredth time that day. 4:21. Just over an hour and a half before his dad got home. He’d have the computer to himself.

He jogged down the road towards his house.

As the barn at the end of the road came into view, something tugged at his attention. It was like hearing distant music – just loud enough to know it was good. Maybe I should run back down for another quick look, he thought. Maybe the UFO would be back. Or maybe he’d find something he’d overlooked the day before.

He returned to the barn, climbed to the upstairs window and peered out. Everything looked pretty much the same as it had the previous evening. The wheat was still flattened in one big circle with two smaller ones at the sides.

A quick scan around the inside of the barn revealed nothing. Mark went down into the field to take a closer look. Holding his arms out as if playing a game of ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’, he carefully felt the air as he got closer to the circle. He took slow, sliding steps up to and then all the way into the circle. Still nothing there – the UFO had not come back. Damn.

And yet, there was still the sensation of being drawn here. Something tugged at him, as though he were swimming in a whirlpool. He moved around the circle aimlessly in the hope of spotting something – a piece of material, a ray gun … anything alien. But, there was nothing. He walked over to one of the two smaller circles on the off-chance that there might be something there. Of course there wasn’t.

As a last resort, he went over to the other smaller circle and … BANG! There was a bright flash and Mark found himself on the ground with a sharp pain in his head. Putting his hand to his forehead, he could feel a lump already forming. He had bumped into something, and it was something that he hadn’t seen. Something invisible. Growing excitement and trepidation coursed up within him.

Mark leapt to his feet and put his hands out. He edged forward, waving his hands to and fro.

His fingers brushed something!

He edged forward a little more. His palm rested against something solid. Moving his hands around, he began to feel the mysterious object. It was cold and very smooth. He realised that he must look like a mime artist pretending to be stuck behind a wall.

Feeling up and down and stepping slowly around it, he worked out that the invisible object must be spherical and was probably about 12 feet around. It was about a foot taller than he was, curving in to form a rounded top that he could just about reach. All the time, he could see straight through the object as if there were nothing there. As he continued exploring it, a big bumblebee flew straight into it, bouncing off and buzzing away angrily.

What was this thing and why was it here? Maybe it was a damaged piece of the UFO. Maybe that’s why they had landed here and the alien had been coming out to fix it. But then why would it have left a message on the camcorder?

He pulled his hand back, making a fist, and thumped the object. There was no sound. How could that be possible? There should at least have been a thud. He tried slapping it. Still no sound. He couldn’t tell whether it was hollow or solid.

Feeling carefully all around the object again, but more methodically this time, he found that the surface was completely smooth. There was nothing that felt like a handle, knob or switch.

What should he do? Should he hide it in case someone else found it? It was too big and too heavy to move somewhere else.

Maybe I could pile up some hay from the barn to cover it, Mark thought. No that’s just stupid – it’s invisible, so it doesn’t need to be covered up. Anyway, a big pile of hay in the field would only be suspicious.

The farmer who owned the field wouldn’t be cutting the wheat for another couple of weeks, so the strange invisible object would probably be safe where it was for now. There was only one thing to do. It was time he took a closer look at the video to see if that gave him any clues.

Tearing himself away from the mysterious object, he headed for home.

Mark dashed into the house, letting the front door slam behind him.

“Oi!” called his Mum from the kitchen. “Leave the door on its hinges, please.”

Making straight for the study, he barely registered her voice. Mark logged into the computer, connected the camcorder and started the video upload. After all the waiting, the ten minutes of upload time seemed interminable. He drummed his fingers on the desk, egging the machine on.

Finally, it was ready. He pulled a slider on the video editing programme and watched the computer speed through the first few minutes of the video. When he neared the frame where he thought the alien would appear, he moved the slider back a bit to slow down the playback. He had chosen almost exactly the right spot: the flash appeared within a couple of seconds. Mark slowed the playback down and watched as the alien appeared from the tunnel of light that had extended from the spaceship. Now the alien moved at a more human speed. It walked towards the barn and disappeared from view. Within another couple of seconds, the alien appeared in the frame. Mark heaved out a huge breath that he had been subconsciously holding. The alien did indeed have three eyes, bulging high up on its head. It would, he figured, be able to see all around itself. There didn’t seem to be a nose or ears, which made the head look very plain. The overall impression was of a bowling ball with extruding nodules instead of holes.

As Mark watched the clip, the alien opened its mouth – a lipless slit about halfway down on the front of its face – and began to speak.

“Mark?”

He jumped almost clean off the chair.

“Cool alien!”

It was Dad talking, not the alien.

“Dad!” exclaimed Mark, “I told you not to look until it was finished.” Mark quickly shut down the video window.

“I wasn’t looking. Just saw it over your shoulder. Where’d you get the realistic costume?”

“Da-a-ad!”

“Alright, alright,” muttered Dad, walking away.

Mark closed the study door, sat down again, plugged headphones into the computer and put them on. He restarted the video editing programme and fast-forwarded again to the alien. There was the alien’s face. It opened its mouth to speak.

“Mark.”

He looked around again, but Dad wasn’t there – Mark was alone in the study. He looked back at the monitor.

“Aid help you.”

Mark’s eyes widened. He rewound the video a little and listened carefully again. It was true, the alien had called him by name! How on earth did the alien know his name? Or rather, how in space did the alien know his name?

The video continued.

“Aid help you. Landing zone area proximate human structure secure communications pod. Personal vocal identification three times for access. Complete secrecy essential.”

Then the alien face moved off screen and a few seconds later Mark saw it approach the spaceship and re-enter the tunnel. The light faded behind it until the whole UFO was once again invisible.

Mark sat back in the chair, his mouth hanging open. What did that all mean? The words were English, but they were put together so strangely. It was definitely a message for him – he just had to decipher it.

He slow-played the tape a couple of times again, listening carefully to each sentence.

“Aid help you.”

Were they asking for his help? That didn’t seem likely. The aliens had such incredible technology: they could fly through space, make their ship invisible and move at unbelievable speed. What could he possibly do to help them?

“Landing zone area proximate human structure secure communications pod.”

He knew where the landing zone was – the crop circle. Obviously the barn was the human structure. The invisible object! It had to be the communications pod. For him to use to communicate with the aliens?

“Personal vocal identification three times for access.”

Now he was getting the flow of it. To open the pod he needed to repeat some form of identification three times out loud. A password?

“Complete secrecy essential.”

That was easy – the alien wanted him to tell no-one.

He watched the video on the computer one more time to make sure he had heard everything properly, then logged off, pulled the tape out of the camcorder and darted out into the hall. Just as he approached the front door the bell rang.

“Lucy!” He’d forgotten she was calling round.

“Hey, Mark.” She walked through the door. “You wanted to show me the video.”

“Ummm … yeah.” What should he do? The alien had said that secrecy was essential. If he told Lucy, would the alien somehow find out? Would the pod be taken away? But this was his chance to prove to Lucy that he wasn’t some kind of weirdo. He decided to risk it.

“Follow me,” he said. “I’ve got something even better than a video to show you.”

CHAPTER 6

Mark brought Lucy down to the field and into the barn. Leading her up to the window overlooking the field, he gestured towards the wheat.

“What do you see?”

“A crop circle,” she said. “So?”

“There was a UFO in there yesterday.”

“Is that all you wanted to show me? Everyone knows crop circles are a hoax!”

“Right,” he said, grinning, “a hoax. Follow me.”

“Maarrkk,” she moaned as he jumped down onto the bales below.

He led her out into the field to the middle of the largest circle.

“Take a good look around,” he said. “Do you see anything unusual?”

Lucy threw her eyes up and pulled a face, but looked around the circle.

“No,” she said.

“Nothing strange or odd?”

“Mark!”

He sauntered over to the smaller circle where the invisible pod stood. With as much nonchalance as he could muster, he turned and leaned back against the pod, crossing his arms and legs.

“Mark, what are you …?” Lucy’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “How … ?” She walked towards him, her face wearing a look of pure astonishment.

Slowly she reached her hand forward, fingertips extended, past Mark’s shoulder. Then, as if she had touched an electric fence, she jerked her hand back.

“Mark, there’s something there.”

“I know.”

“But I can’t see it!” she exclaimed.

“I know.”

She reached out again to touch it.

“What is it?”

“A communications pod,” replied Mark, pushing himself upright.

“How do you know that?”

“The alien on the camcorder said so.”

“Oh my God! You really do have a video of an alien?”

Mark nodded.

“What does it look like? What did it say?” Lucy gushed. “Can I see it?”

“It looks weird,” he replied. “I’ll show you the video later. It said I could open the pod by repeating a password of some sort three times.”

“A password? What is it?”

“I don’t know. I think I have to work it out.”

“Well, go on, then.”

“Okay.” Mark stood back, drew a deep breath and said, “Open, open, open.”

Nothing happened.

“If there’s a password, it’s not going to be as simple as that,” declared Lucy.

“Right,” he said. “Pod, pod, pod.”

Still nothing.

“Let me try,” said Lucy. In a loud voice, she said “Welcome, welcome, welcome.”

The invisible object remained completely silent and unmoving. For the next few minutes, the pair continued to try word after word until they found themselves saying stupid things like “Hey, hey, hey.”

Finally, Lucy turned to Mark.

“What, exactly, did the alien say?”

“It said ‘personal vocal identification three times for access.’” The voice still played clearly in his head.

“It’s obvious,” said Lucy, slapping him on the shoulder. “It’s not a password – it just wants you to say your name three times.”

“Of course!” He turned again to the object and said “Mark, Mark, Mark.”

The pair watched and waited. There was still no response.

“I don’t understand,” said Lucy.

Uh-oh, thought Mark. The alien had said that complete secrecy was essential. Was Mark supposed to be doing this alone? Did the pod have some way of knowing that Mark had someone with him? He took Lucy’s arm and led her away from the pod.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Where are we going?”

Putting his finger to his lips, he continued to lead her out of the field and back to his house. He didn’t say anything until they were back in the study with the door locked.

“Why did we leave?” asked Lucy.

“I think I’m supposed to be there alone. The alien said complete secrecy was essential. I don’t think it’ll open unless I’m alone.”

“Ohhh … right.”

“Here, I’ll show you the video.”

He logged into the computer and browsed to the folder where he had stored the video download file.

“That’s strange,” he said, his brow creased.

“What?”

“The download file’s not here. I thought I saved it.”

Mark took the tape out of his pocket and slipped it back into the camcorder to upload again. Within seconds the upload program showed an error: “Invalid Media”.

“What the …?”

He opened the view screen on the camcorder and pressed play. The screen showed only static.

“It’s gone!” he exclaimed.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. The tape is wiped. And the file is gone from the computer.”

“You think the aliens somehow deleted the video?”

Mark scratched his head. “I guess so … but … that’d be pretty incredible. I mean, the tape has been in my pocket since I last watched it. And I don’t see how they could have gotten into the computer.” This was a little freaky. He already knew they were incredibly advanced, but for them to be able to do this was stunning. Was he being punished for telling Lucy?

“Listen, Luce,” he said, “you’ve got to promise not to tell anyone about this, okay?”

“Of course,” she laughed. “They’d think I was mental anyway if I did.”

“I’m serious, you’ve got to tell nobody. I might be in trouble already for telling you.”

“Okay, don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. I promise. So what next?”

“I think I have to go back to the pod alone.”

“I could come and hide in the barn or something,” she suggested.

“No … I think I have to be there completely alone. I think they’d detect you.”

Lucy looked disappointed. “Will you call me after and tell me everything?”

“Depends on what happens. Maybe the pod will have gone.”

They walked together to the front gate and Lucy headed towards her own house. After a few steps she turned around and looked at Mark.

“You know, everybody says you’re strange,” she said. “But you’re not. I think you’re extraordinary.”

CHAPTER 7

Mark stood alone facing the pod. Despite his fears that bringing Lucy would mean that the pod would be taken away, he knew it was still there. Even though he couldn’t see or hear it, he felt its presence in the solidity of the air in front of him. And there was something else – something tickling at the very edge of his awareness, like a whisper through an open window, urging him to go ahead.

Lucy was right, of course, all he had to do was say his name three times. With her beside him he hadn’t even thought beyond getting into the pod; the excitement of finding out what it was, showing it to Lucy and getting her to believe him had swept him along. Now that he faced it alone, he hesitated. Opening the pod would be a step into the unknown. It might be a step he couldn’t take back.

But then, what did he have to lose? His life was rubbish – being dragged from place to place, branded a weirdo and bullied wherever he went, never having the chance to make lasting friends. Inside this pod could be answers to all sorts of questions. He had been singled out by the aliens. Was that because he was weird? Would the pod contain the answers to why he was different – why his family were different? There’s only one way to find out, he thought.

“Mark. Mark. Mark.”

There was a low beep, then silence for a second before a dot of light appeared in the middle of the air right in front of his face. The dot grew, becoming a disc, then elongated to form an ellipse. It continued to grow until it was precisely as tall as Mark. An opening, he realised, reaching his hand out.

It looked like pure light, yet it felt solid. It buzzed with energy under his hand – rippling with a feeling of static charge. How was that even possible? From science class, he knew that light had no mass, no substance – it was just energy. He shouldn’t be able to feel it. But then he thought about the sensation of light on his skin on a sunny day. He imagined the feeling of the billions of particles of sunlight pressing against him. Maybe the aliens could control light – mould it and shape it and use it like plastic. But how to get through the opening? He pressed against the light-filled oblong, leaning his weight against it. The light began to dim and thin out until he pitched forward through the doorway …

… and landed somewhere else. Mark jumped to his feet and looked around for the doorway. It was gone. Fear gripped his chest. Everything was dark. He couldn’t see the barn, the wheat, the trees, the sky. Where was he? It was as though he had fallen into a deep well.

A bubble of light appeared directly above his head. It was a piercing blue colour, but didn’t illuminate anything around him. It stretched and flattened like a balloon being squashed underfoot. Then a hole appeared in the middle, widening until the bubble was like a doughnut. It started to drop towards Mark. He tried to duck and hop aside, but found that he couldn’t move – he was paralysed. The fear pitched into panic, making his heart pound like an engine.

The doughnut-shaped light moved down over him, circling his head. As it passed his eyes, he saw bands of colours moving back and forth within it, like wiper blades on a windscreen. Another bubble of light coalesced in front of him and began to mutate and change shape. As it morphed, the shape became suggestive of something familiar. A head, he realised. It looked just like him. His head!

Writing appeared, floating beside the head.

Mark Star

Earth age 14 years, 2 months, 7 days, 5.27 hours

Earth height 1.347 metres

IQ 146 normalised for Earth population

Current heart rate 127

Beside the English writing was something else … strange looking symbols. Alien writing! Did it say the same thing? Or something sinister?

A voice came out of the darkness, making his heart leap again. It sounded calm and gentle, although it filled the space around him.

“Identity confirmed. Mark Star; Earth age 14 years, 2 months, 7 days, 5 hours and 13 minutes; Earth height 1.347 metres; IQ 146 normalised for Earth population; Current heart rate 127 …”

It continued listing statistics as they were added to the floating writing. Finally the doughnut of light reached his feet and disappeared, leaving only the image of his head floating in front of him, the writing hanging beside it.

The voice stopped listing statistics.

“Welcome, Mark.”

His eyes darted left and right.

“Please be calm. You have nothing to fear.”

“If I have nothing to fear, then why can’t I move?”

“You can.”

He lifted his hand experimentally. It felt normal again. An instinct to turn and run gripped him. But where would he go? Where was he now? Was he still in the pod or had he been transported away somewhere? Kidnapped?

“Where am I?”

“You are in the communications pod.”

Mark couldn’t decide whether the voice was male or female. But, he felt no threat or malice from it.

“How do I get out?” he asked.

To his left a glowing oval of light appeared. The doorway. He took a step towards it and stopped. He had come this far.

“Okay,” he said, his heart slowing. The pod or the voice would let him out if he wanted. “Is there any light in here? I feel like I’m in a cave.”

A gentle green light banished the darkness around him. There seemed to be no source for the light; it was coming from every direction. Mark looked around and could see nothing. There was no sense of size or space, no indication of the walls of the pod. He had expected it to be filled with complicated equipment – flashing lights, screens and control panels – but there was nothing here. Just the head – his head – floating in midair in front of him.

“Where are you?” he asked the voice. “Who are you?”

The floating image of his head began to change, becoming less detailed – just basic features: eyes, a nose, ears. Its hair disappeared, leaving a smooth head. The now-blank face opened its mouth.

“I am your synthetic assistant.”

“My what?”

“Your synthetic assistant.”

“Yeah, but what is that?”

“I am an artificial intelligence designed to guide and help you in any way that I can.”

An AI? Whoa!

“I do so hope that we will get along,” continued the AI. “I will try to be your best friend.”

“Ummm … Okay.” Pretty dorky for an AI. Shouldn’t it be more powerful and forceful?

“So, let’s get to know each other a little,” said the AI.

“What?”

“Don’t you think it would be nice to get to know each other?”

“I’m standing in an invisible alien communications pod, talking to an AI that’s a floating head, and you want us to be friends?”

“Why, yes, exactly.”

Mark shook his head. Was this real? Maybe he had knocked himself out and was dreaming.

“Look, can you tell me what’s going on? Where are the aliens? What do they want with me?”

“Of course I can. But all in good time. First, let’s take a deep breath and relax.”

The floating head closed its eyes and emitted the sound of a deep breath through its nose. Mark’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“Come along,” said the head. “Take a deep breath … in through the nose.”

How bizarre was this? All he could do was what the AI asked.

“Good. And again.”

He breathed deeply again, feeling his body relax.

“Excellent. You’re so good at that,” pronounced the AI. “Now, how would you like me to look?”

“What?”

The floating head changed into that of an elderly man, not unlike his grandfather. Then it became a little girl, then a baby, then a boy. After a few moments of changing it reverted back to the original blank face.

“I can look however you’d like me to.” It changed again, this time into a dog’s head with a lolling tongue. Mark nearly burst out laughing.

“I think a person would be best, though,” said the AI changing again into a human face. This one was a nice looking woman with a warm smile. Somehow it looked like all the nice teachers Mark had ever known rolled into one.

“That one,” said Mark. It seemed the right face.

“Very good, Mark. A wonderful choice.”

Mark wondered if it could change its personality as easily.

“Now,” it continued, “what would you like to name me?”

“You don’t have a name?”

“Not yet. You can call me anything you like.”

A teacher who had been one of the few nice ones sprang to mind. What was her name? Judy. Yeah, that would fit.

“Judy,” he said.

“Yes, I like that,” it – or rather, she – said.

“Now, will you tell me what this is all about?”

“It would be my pleasure,” said Judy, “We need your help with our mission on your planet.”

“You need my help?” Mark raised his eyebrows.

Artificial Judy nodded.

“Umm … I … but …”

Judy waited.

“Well, who are you? And what mission?”

“We are from a planet about 76 light years from here, in the direction of the Earth constellation called Lyra.”

As she spoke, points of light appeared in the air in front of Mark’s face. The stars in the night sky. There was the Plough and there was Orion, but he had never heard of a constellation called Lyra. A red circle pulsed around a small group of stars.

“Our mission is to protect and nurture budding civilisations to a mature and productive understanding of time, space and the universe.”

“Huh?”

“I know – it is a bit extravagant.” The floating face blushed and put on a coy smile.

“How, exactly, can I help you protect and … nurture ….” Mark trailed off.

“… budding civilisations, or in this case the human race, to a mature and productive understanding of time, space and the universe?” prompted Judy.

“Yes, that.”

“You have special abilities that most humans lack. These abilities can be developed and trained to make you into a powerful agent for good” – she paused – “… or evil.”

She must be mistaken. “What special abilities? What makes you think I have them?”

“Do your parents sometimes seem to know what you’re thinking without you saying it? And do you sometimes seem to know what they’re thinking?”

“Yeah, of course!”

“That’s a special ability.”

“What?” There was nothing special about that. Couldn’t everyone pick up on other people’s thoughts, especially if they were family?

“Do most people find you strange? Do they avoid you or bully you?”

“Yeah.” It was the story of his life.

“It’s because they’re afraid of you and don’t know why.”

Afraid of me? he thought. They don’t act like it.

“If you agree to become an agent for us,” continued Judy, “then you will be fully briefed on who we are and what we are doing. You will be trained to use your remarkable talents in the ongoing struggle for the future of your planet.”

“Ongoing struggle?” Mark’s voice rose in pitch.

“We are not the only ones who have taken an interest in the development of your planet. There are others – a race from a different star system – whose goals are less compatible with a positive development of the human race.”

“You mean they want to destroy us?”

“Not exactly. They want to enslave humans.”

“Why?”

“To mine the planet’s resources. They find civilisations developed enough to do the work involved in mining and processing their planet’s resources, and enslave them.”

“Hang on!” This was all too much. “You’re telling me there’s a race of aliens who want to take over the world and then there’s you guys who want to stop them? And somehow I can help?”

The floating head of Judy smiled calmly at Mark. “You don’t realise it yet. But, yes, with your remarkable abilities, you could become a very useful agent in protecting the world.”

Mark frowned. “What happens if I agree? How do you train me to use these ‘special abilities’?”

“We have an education and training facility at which you will learn a great deal more than you could at your school.”

“You mean you’d take me away to a different school?”

“In a way, yes, for a while,” answered Judy.

So many questions were running through Mark’s head.

“Why do you need me? Why don’t you use adults to help you?”

“As is the case with your Earth schools, we need to teach humans when they are young, because there’s a lot to learn. And the struggle to protect the planet is a continual one, so a supply of fresh talent is imperative.”

A special training school? An ongoing struggle to save the planet? He was just Mark – an ordinary guy in an ordinary family – wasn’t he? How could he fight aliens?

“It’s a lot to take in. We don’t expect you to answer straightaway.”

Mark shook his head in wonder.

“But we do need you to decide quite quickly whether you will help us,” she continued. “Just like us, the others realise the importance of certain individuals in achieving their goals. We’ve recently discovered that they, too, may be interested in using you to help them. There have been certain activities in your area to suggest that they have an agent in this location. We are concerned that this agent may try to target you. That’s why it became urgent for us to contact you and recruit you.”

Two more bubbles of light appeared in front of Mark. Simultaneously, they both cracked open at the top, and the light peeled down until they formed floating trays. Sitting on one of the trays was a small metal sphere the size of a pea; on the other was an ordinary-looking belt.

“The buckle on this belt contains an apparatus that links directly to this pod,” explained Judy. “Put the belt on and wear it always.”

Mark picked up the belt and slid it through the loops in his trousers.

“The small metal piece is a communications device. Put it into your ear. Anything you say I will hear and you will also be able to hear me.”

He hesitated for moment before putting the metal pea in his ear, then shrugged and popped it in. This was an opportunity not afforded to many others. At first it was a little cold and weird, but after a second he couldn’t feel it at all.

Is it comfortable? Judy’s voice came into his head. The sensation surprised him. It wasn’t like hearing someone else’s voice; it was like listening to his own inner voice.

He nodded.

<Outside of this pod you’ll have to actually say something for me to hear. I won’t be able to see a nod. Okay?>

“Oh, yeah, right,” replied Mark.

Take some time to think about what I’ve said. You can talk to me at any time and when you’re ready, if you decide to join us, I’ll make the arrangements.

A doorway shimmered into existence beside him again. It became translucent, revealing the field and barn. He stepped out through the crackling light and turned to watch the doorway fade back into existence until the pod was completely invisible again.

“Can you still hear me?” he asked.

Perfectly came the answer in his head.

A low humming noise, like the one he’d heard when the UFO had first landed, vibrated through him. The solid mass of air, where the pod had been, wavered and seemed to rise.

“What was that?”

The communications pod is being removed to a safe location. When you’re ready to use it again just ask me and I’ll bring it back.

“Right …. cool,” said Mark, feeling the space where the pod used to be, just to make sure. He found that he had lost the ability to be amazed – this was just another thing that had happened.

He turned and walked slowly back up towards his house, his mind a torrent of thoughts. The sun setting behind his back stretched and distorted his shadow on the road ahead, making him look like a very thin giant.

Want to read more? The ebook is available here for just $2.90. The paperback is available here for $9.99

 

Do you know of a great modern Irish novel?  Email us editor@oldmooresalmanac.com

 

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