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Chapter Twenty-one

Misty grey buildings loomed and flickered. They bounced up and down in a highly embarrassing way.

What sort of buildings were they?

What were they for? What did they remind her of?

It's so difficult to know what things are supposed to be when you suddenly turn up unexpectedly on a different world which has a different culture, a different set of the most basic assumptions about life, and also incredibly dull and meaningless architecture.

The sky above the buildings was a cold and hostile black. The stars, which should have been blindingly brilliant points of light this far from the sun were blurred and dulled by the thickness of the huge shielding bubble. Perspex or something like it. Something dull and heavy anyway.

Tricia wound the tape back again to the beginning.

She knew there was something slightly odd about it.

Well, in fact, there were about a million things that were slightly odd about it, but there was one that was nagging at her and she hadn't quite got it.

She sighed and yawned.

As she waited for the tape to rewind she cleared away some of the dirty polystyrene coffee cups that had accumulated on the editing desk and tipped them into the bin.

She was sitting in a small editing suite at a video production company in Soho. She had `Do not disturb' notices plastered all over the door, and a block on all incoming calls at the switchboard. This was originally to protect her astonishing scoop, but now it was to protect her from embarrassment.

She would watch the tape all the way through again from the beginning. If she could bear to. She might do some fast forwarding here and there.

It was about four o'clock on Monday afternoon, and she had a kind of sick feeling. She was trying to work out what the cause of this slightly sick feeling was, and there was no shortage of candidates.

First of all, it had all come on top of the overnight flight from New York. The red eye. Always a killer, that.

Then, being accosted by aliens on her lawn and flown to the planet Rupert. She was not sufficiently experienced in that sort of thing to be able to say for sure that that was always a killer, but she would be prepared to bet that those who went through it regularly cursed it. There were always stress charts being published in magazines. Fifty stress points for losing your job. Seventy-five points for a divorce or changing your hairstyle and so on. None of them ever mentioned being accosted on your lawn by aliens and then being flown to the planet Rupert, but she was sure it was worth a few dozen points.

It wasn't that the journey had been particularly stressful. It had been extremely dull in fact. Certainly it had been no more stressful than the trip she had just taken across the Atlantic and it had taken roughly the same time, about seven hours.

Well that was pretty astounding wasn't it? Flying to the outer limits of the solar system in the same time that it took to fly to New York meant they must have some fantastic unheard-of form of propulsion in the ship. She quizzed her hosts about it and they agreed that it was pretty good.

`But how does it work?' she had demanded excitedly. She was still quite excited at the beginning of the trip.

She found that part of the tape and played it through to herself. The Grebulons, which is what they called themselves, were politely showing her which buttons they pressed to make the ship go.

`Yes, but what principle does it work on?' she heard herself demand, from behind the camera.

`Oh, you mean is it something like a warp drive or something like that?' they said.

`Yes,' persisted Tricia. `What is it?'

`It probably is something of the kind,' they said.

`Like what?'

`Warp drive, photon drive, something like that. You'd have to ask the Flight Engineer.'

`Which one is he?'

`We don't know. We have all lost our minds, you see.'

`Oh yes,' said Tricia, a little faintly. `So you said. Um, how did you lose your minds, exactly , then?.'

`We don't know,' they said, patiently.

`Because you've lost your minds,' echoed Tricia, glumly.

`Would you like to watch television? It is a long flight. We watch television. It is something we enjoy.'

All of this riveting stuff was on the tape, and fine. viewing it made. First of all the picture quality was extremely poor. Tricia didn't know why this was, exactly. She had a feeling that the Grebulons responded to a slightly different range of light frequencies, and that there had been a lot of ultra-violet around which was mucking up the video camera. There were a lot of interference patterns and video snow as well. Probably something to do with the warp drive that none of them knew the first thing about.

So what she had on tape, essentially, was a bunch of slightly thin and discoloured people sitting around watching televisions that were showing network broadcasts. She had also pointed the camera out of the very tiny viewport near her seat and got a nice, slightly streaky effect of stars. She knew it was real, but it would have taken a good three or four minutes to fake.

In the end she had decided to save her precious videotape for Rupert itself and had simply sat back and watched television with them. She had even dozed off for a while.

So part of her sick feeling came from the sense that she had had all that time in an alien spacecraft of astounding technological design, and had spent most of it dozing in front of reruns of M*A*S*H and Cagney and Lacey. But what else was there to do? She had taken some photos as well, of course, all of which had subsequently turned out to be badly fogged when she got them back from the chemist.

Another part of her sick feeling probably came from the landing on Rupert. This at least had been dramatic and hair-raising. The ship had come sweeping in over a dark and sombre landscape, a terrain so desperately far removed from the heat and light of its parent sun that it seemed like a map of the psychological scars on the mind of an abandoned child.

Lights blazed through the frozen darkness and guided the ship into the mouth of some kind of cave that seemed to bend itself open to accept the small craft.

Unfortunately, because of the angle of their approach, and the depth at which the small thick viewport was set into the craft's skin, it hadn't been possible to get the. video camera to point directly at any of it. She ran through that bit of the tape.

The camera was pointing directly at the sun.

This is normally very bad for a video camera. But when the sun is roughly a third of a billion miles away it doesn't do any harm. In fact it hardly makes any impression at all. You just get a small point of light right in the middle of the frame, which could be just about anything. It was just one star in a multitude.

Tricia fast-forwarded.

Ah. Now, the next bit had been quite promising. They had emerged out of the ship into a vast, grey, hangar-like structure. This was clearly alien technology on a dramatic scale. Huge grey buildings under the dark canopy of the Perspex bubble. These were the same buildings that she had been looking at at the end of the tape. She had taken more footage of them while leaving Rupert a few hours later, just as she was about to reboard the spacecraft for the journey home. What did they remind her of?

Well, as much as anything else they reminded her of a film set from just about any low-budget science-fiction movie of the last twenty years. A lot larger, of course, but it all looked thoroughly tawdry and unconvincing on the video screen. Apart from the dreadful picture quality she had been struggling with the unexpected effects of gravity that was appreciably lower than that on Earth, and she had found it very hard to keep the camera from bouncing around in an embarrassingly unprofessional way. It was therefore impossible to make out any detail.

And now here was the Leader coming forward to greet her, smiling and sticking his hand out.

That was all he was called. The Leader.

None of the Grebulons had names, largely because they couldn't think of any. Tricia discovered that some of them had thought of calling themselves after characters from television programmes they had picked up from Earth, but hard as they had tried to call each other Wayne and Bobby and Chuck, some remnant of something lurking deep in the cultural subconscious they had brought with them from the distant stars which were their homes must have told them that this really wasn't right and wouldn't do.

The Leader had looked pretty much like all the others. Possibly a bit less thin. He said how much he enjoyed her shows on TV, that he was her greatest fan, how glad he was that she had been able to come along and visit them on Rupert and how much everybody had been looking forward to her coming, how he hoped the flight had been comfortable and so on. There was no particular sense she could detect of being any kind of emissary from the stars or anything.

Certainly, watching it now on videotape, he just looked like some guy in costume and make-up, standing in front of a set that wouldn't hold up too well if you leant against it.

She sat staring at the screen with her face cradled in her hands, and shaking her head in slow bewilderment.

This was awful.

Not only was this bit awful but she knew what was coming next. It was the bit where the Leader asked if she was hungry after the flight, and would she perhaps like to come and have something to eat? They could discuss things over a little dinner.

She could remember what she was thinking at this point.

Alien food.

How was she going to deal with it?

Would she actually have to eat it? Would she have access to some sort of paper napkin she could spit stuff out into? Wouldn't there be all sorts of differential immunity problems?

It turned out to be hamburgers.

Not only did it turn out to be hamburgers, but the hamburgers it turned out to be were very clearly and obviously McDonald's hamburgers which had been reheated in a microwave. It wasn't just the look of them. It wasn't just the smell. It was the polystyrene clamshell packages they came in which had `McDonald's' printed all over them.

`Eat! Enjoy!' said the Leader. `Nothing is too good for our honoured guest!'

This was in his private apartment. Tricia had looked around it in bewilderment that had bordered on fear but had nevertheless got it all on videotape.

The apartment had a waterbed in it. And a Midi hi-fi. And one of those tall electrically illuminated glass things which sit on table tops and appear to have large globules of sperm floating about in them. The walls were covered in velvet.

The leader lounged against a brown corduroy bean bag and squirted breath-freshener into his mouth.

Tricia began to feel very scared, suddenly. She was further from Earth than any human being, to her knowledge, had ever been, and she was with an alien creature, who was lounging against a brown corduroy bean bag and squirting breath-freshener into his mouth.

She didn't want to make any false moves. She didn't want to alarm him. But there were things she had to know.

`How did you... where did you get... this?' she asked, gesturing around the room, nervously.

`The decor?' asked the Leader. `Do you like it? It is very sophisticated. We are a sophisticated people, we Grebulons. We buy sophisticated consumer durables... by mail order.'

Tricia had nodded tremendously slowly at this point.

`Mail order...' she had said.

The Leader chuckled. It was one of those dark chocolate reassuring silky chuckles.

`I think you think they ship it here. No! Ha Ha! We have arranged a special box number in New Hampshire. We make regular pick-up visits. Ha Ha!' He lounged back in a relaxed fashion on his bean bag, reached for a reheated french fry and nibbled the end of it, an amused smile playing across. his lips.

Tricia could feel her brain beginning to bubble very slightly. She kept the video camera going.

`How do you, well, er, how do you pay for these wonderful ...things?'

The Leader chuckled again.

`American Express,' he said with a nonchalant shrug.

Tricia nodded slowly again. She knew that they gave cards exclusively to just about anybody.

`And these?' she said, holding up the hamburger he had presented her with.

`It is very easy,' said the Leader. `We stand in line.'

Again, Tricia realised with a cold, trickling feeling going down her spine, that explained an awful lot.

She hit the fast forward button again. There was nothing of any use here at all. It was all nightmarish madness. She could have faked something that would have looked more convincing.

Another sick feeling began to creep over her as she watched this hopeless awful tape, and she began, with slow horror, to realise that it must be the answer.

She must be...

She shook her head and tried to get a grip.

An overnight flight going East... The sleeping pills she had taken to get her through it. The vodka she'd had to set the sleeping pills going.

What else? Well. There was seventeen years of obsession that a glamorous man with two heads, one of which was disguised as a parrot in a cage, had tried to pick her up at a party but had then impatiently flown off to another planet in a flying saucer. There suddenly seemed to be all sorts of bothersome aspects to that idea that had never really occurred to her. Never occurred to her. In seventeen years.

She stuffed her fist into her mouth.

She must get help.

Then there had been Eric Bartlett banging on about alien spacecraft landing on her lawn. And before that... New York had been, well, very hot and stressful. The high hopes and the bitter disappointment. The astrology stuff.

She must have had a nervous breakdown.

That was it. She was exhausted and she had had a nervous breakdown and had started hallucinating some time after she got home. She had dreamt the whole story. An alien race of people dispossessed of their own lives and histories, stuck on a remote outpost of our solar system and filling their cultural vacuum with our cultural junk. Ha! It was nature's way of telling her to check into an expensive medical establishment very quickly.

She was very, very sick. She looked at how many large coffees she'd got through as well, and realised how heavily she was breathing and how fast.

Part of solving any problem, she told herself, was realising that you had it. She started to bring her breathing under control. She had caught herself in time. She had seen where she was. She was on the way back from whatever psychological precipice she had been on the brink of. She started to calm down, to calm down, to calm down. She sat back in the chair and closed her eyes.

After a while, now that she was breathing normally again, she opened them again.

So where had she got this tape from then?

It was still running.

All right. It was a fake.

She had faked it herself, that was it.

It must have been her who had faked it because her voice was all over the soundtrack, asking questions. Every now and then the camera would swing down at the end of a shot and she would see her own feet in her own shoes. She had faked it and she had no recollection of faking it or any idea of why she had done it.

Her breathing was getting hectic again as she watched the snowy, flickering screen.

She must still be hallucinating.

She shook her head, trying to make it go away. She had no memory of faking any of this very obviously fake stuff. On the other hand she did seem to have memories that were very like the faked stuff. She continued to watch in a bewildered trance.

The person she imagined to be called the Leader was questioning her about astrology and she was answering smoothly and calmly. Only she could detect the well-disguised rising panic in her own voice.

The Leader pushed a button, and a maroon velvet wall slid aside, revealing a large bank of flat TV monitors.

Each of the monitors was showing a kaleidoscope of different images: a few seconds from a game show, a few seconds from a cop show, a few seconds from a supermarket warehouse security system, a few seconds from somebody's holiday movies, a few seconds of sex, a few seconds of news, a few seconds of comedy. It was clear that the Leader was very proud of all this stuff and he was waving his hands like a conductor while continuing at the same time to talk complete gibberish.

Another wave of his hands, and all the screens cleared to form one giant computer screen showing in diagrammatic form all the planets of the solar system and mapped out against a background of the stars in their constellations. The display was completely static.

`We have great skills,' the Leader was saying. `Great skills in computation, in cosmological trigonometry, in three-dimensional navigational calculus. Great skills. Great, great skills. Only we have lost them. It is too bad. We like to have skills only they have gone. They are in space somewhere, hurtling. With our names and the details of our homes and loved ones. Please,' he said, gesturing her forward to sit at the computer's console, `be skilful for us.'

Obviously what happened next was that Tricia quickly set the video camera up on its tripod to capture the whole scene. She then walked into shot herself and sat down calmly in front of the giant computer display, spent a few moments familiarising herself with the interface and then started smoothly and competently to pretend that she had the faintest idea what she was doing.

It hadn't been that difficult, in fact.

She was, after all, a mathematician and astrophysicist by training and a television presenter by experience, and what science she had forgotten over the years she was more than capable of making up by bluffing.

The computer she was working on was clear evidence that the Grebulons came from a far more advanced and sophisticated culture than their current vacuous state suggested, and with its aid she was able, within about half an hour, to cobble together a rough working model of the solar system.

It wasn't particularly accurate or anything, but it looked good. The planets were whizzing around in reasonably good simulations of their orbits, and you could watch the movement of the whole piece of virtual cosmological clockwork from any point within the system --- very roughly. You could watch from Earth, you could watch from Mars, etc. You could watch from the surface of the planet Rupert. Tricia had been quite impressed with herself, but also very impressed with the computer system she was working on. Using a computer workstation on Earth the task would probably have taken a year or so of programming.

When she was finished, the Leader came up behind her and watched. He was very pleased and delighted with what she had achieved.

`Good,' he said. `And now, please, I would like you to demonstrate how to use the system you have just designed to translate the information in this book for me.'

Quietly he put a book down in front of her.

It was You and Your Planets by Gail Andrews.

Tricia stopped the tape again.

She was definitely feeling very wobbly indeed. The feeling that she was hallucinating had now receded, but had not left anything any easier or clearer in her head.

She pushed her seat back from the editing desk and wondered what to do. Years ago she had left the field of astronomical research because she knew, without any doubt whatsoever, that she had met a being from another planet. At a party. And she had also known, without any doubt whatsoever, that she would have made herself a laughing stock if she had ever said so. But how could she study cosmology and not say anything about the single most important thing she knew about it? She had done the only thing she could do. She had left.

Now she worked in television and the same thing had happened again.

She had videotape, actual videotape of the most astounding story in the history of, well anything: a forgotten outpost of an alien civilisation marooned on the outermost planet of our own solar system.

She had the story.

She had been there.

She had seen it.

She had the videotape for God's sake.

And if she ever showed it to anybody, she would be a laughing stock.

How could she prove any of this? It wasn't even worth thinking about. The whole thing was a nightmare from virtually any angle she cared to look at it from. Her head was beginning to throb.

She had some aspirin in her bag. She went out of the little editing suite to the water dispenser down the corridor. She took the aspirin and drank several cups of water.

The place seemed to be very quiet. Usually there were more people bustling about the place, or at least some people bustling around the place. She popped her head round the door of the editing suite next to hers but there was no one there.

She had gone rather overboard keeping people out of her own suite. `DO NOT DISTURB,' the notice read. `DO NOT EVEN THINK OF ENTERING. I DON'T CARE WHAT IT IS. GO AWAY. I'M BUSY!'

When she went back in she noticed that the message light on her phone extension was winking, and wondered how long it had been on.

`Hello?' she said to the receptionist.

`Oh, Miss McMillan, I'm so glad you called. Everybody's been trying to reach you. Your TV company. They're desperate to reach you. Can you call them?'

`Why didn't you put them through?' said Tricia.

`You said I wasn't to put anybody through for anything. You said I was to deny that you were even here. I didn't know what to do. I came up to give you a message, but...'

`OK,' said Tricia, cursing herself. She phoned her office.

`Tricia! Where the haemorrhaging fuck are you?'

`At the editing...'

`They said...'

`I know. What's up?'

`What's up? Only a bloody alien spaceship!'

`What? Where?'

`Regent's Park. Big silver job. Some girl with a bird. She speaks English and throws rocks at people and wants someone to repair her watch. Just get there.'

Tricia stared at it.

It wasn't a Grebulon ship. Not that she was suddenly an expert on extraterrestrial craft, but this was a sleek and beautiful silver and white thing about the size of a large ocean-going yacht, which is what it most resembled. Next to this, the structures of the huge half-dismantled Grebulon ship looked like gun turrets on a battleship. Gun turrets. That's what those blank grey buildings had looked like. And what was odd about them was that by the time she passed them again on her way to reboarding the small Grebulon craft, they had moved. These things flitted briefly through her head as she ran from the taxi to meet her camera crew.

`Where's the girl?' she shouted above the noise of helicopters and police sirens.

`There!' shouted the producer while the sound engineer hurried to clip a radio mike to her. `She says her mother and father came from here in some parallel dimension or something like that, and she's got her father's watch, and... I don't know. What can I tell you? Busk it. Ask her what it feels like to be from outer space.'

`Thanks a lot, Ted,' muttered Tricia, checked that her mike was securely clipped, gave the engineer some level, took a deep breath, tossed her hair back and switched into her role of professional reporter, on home ground, ready for anything.

At least, nearly anything.

She turned to look for the girl. That must be her, with the wild hair and wild eyes. The girl turned towards her. And stared.

`Mother!' she screamed, and started to hurl rocks at Tricia.

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