Zombie Parents From Outer Space
Ten year old Roman realises the world is under threat when his parents, brother and school friends are turned into alien zombies by their cell phones...
My little brother was whining again.
“Pleeeease!” he wailed at Mum and Dad. “Just one more go at Minecraft!”
But Mum and Dad weren’t having any of it. Their arms were folded. They were always unmovable when our screen time alarm went off and our time for the week was finished.
Max didn’t realise it yet because he was only six. But I was ten, and knew the ways of the world. Believe me, there was no hope arguing when our time to play was up. That’s why I already had my zombie book out, and was reading it with half a glance, while eying off Max with the other.
“I didn’t get to finish the Great Pyramid!” he cried. He had collapsed on the floor, because not having the X-Box in his hands had presumably made him unable to walk. What anguish. He looked up at our parents with tear-stained cheeks. But they weren’t buying it.
“You’ve been playing…” Mum checked her smart watch, “one hour. Any more than that and you’ll be impossible.”
“Addicted,” added my Dad.
I saw my Mum’s eyes flicker back down to her smart watch, and at the same time, heard a gentle little buzz.
“Work…” Mum murmured. She looked at Dad. “Can you watch the dinner? I’ve got to answer this email.”
Dad looked at his phone. He pressed some buttons.
“Reminder in twenty minutes,” he said.
Mum went to her study and Dad started reading the news on his phone. The two of them had already forgotten Max and his breakdown.
Max, realising that the conversation was over, decided to forget about his complaining and wandered off to his room. I went back to my zombie book.
That was the last time everything was normal for us. None of us realised what was about to happen to our ordinary family, and how everything would soon be destroyed.
I first realised something was wrong when I woke up the next morning by myself. Usually Mum came and woke me every morning. Then, when I didn’t get up, she’d nag me for a while. Finally she’d dump me out of bed and I’d have no choice but to put my clothes on.
I’d come to the kitchen then, and I’d have toast ready on the table, and my sandwiches already packed in my lunch box, wrapped and ready to go. I just had to swallow my breakfast, go brush my teeth, get my shoes on, and I was done. Ready for school.
But this morning, Mum didn’t wake me. So I woke at the time she’d normally be kicking me out of bed, only to find an ominous silence.
Curious, I got up. The house was silent. There was nobody in any of the rooms. No breakfast on the table; no lunch packed by the door.
I went to Max’s bedroom door and saw a light coming from under the sheets. I went to his bed and pulled the covers back.
There was Max on a tablet, playing Minecraft like crazy.
“What are you doing?” I whispered. “Mum and Dad are going to crack it!”
But Max didn’t answer me. He didn’t even look up. He was so obsessed with his game that all I could hear was his heavy, focused breathing, and the little clicks of his fingers as they pressed the Home screen button. His face was about two inches from the screen.
“Max!” I hissed at him. “Stop! I’ll tell Mum and Dad!”
Max totally ignored me. His eyes were glazed. His finger was moving back and forth.
“That’s it,” I muttered. “You’re in so much trouble…”
I stalked to Mum and Dad’s bedroom. The door was closed. It was only then that I hesitated. Might they be sick? Would I be disturbing them? But it was after eight, and I knew they’d want to know about Max playing the tablet on a Monday morning. Last time he’d played for two hours without them knowing, our parents had cancelled our tablet access for two whole weeks.
I tapped quietly. Then, when nobody responded, I turned the handle and pushed the door slowly open.
What I saw made me gasp out loud. I couldn’t believe my eyes!
Mum and Dad were sitting bolt-upright in bed, playing a game on their phones. Believe me when I say I’d never seen them play games before. I knew some people’s parents played games, but mine said that games ruined your mind.
They didn’t seem to mind using their phones for everything else, mind you – finding good restaurants and reading the newspaper and sharing photos with their friends – but playing a game? In bed in their pyjamas at 8am before school started? Never.
The second shocking thing was that they weren’t just playing the games like you’d think a parent would play. Most parents I’d seen playing Candy Crush on their phone at the playground usually sort of pretended they were doing something else. You know, like with one eye on the screen and another on little Timmy who was about to kill himself hanging upside down from the giant rope spider.
But no, my parents wouldn’t have noticed if I’d come running into the room crying that there was an axe murderer in the house. They were totally enthralled. Like Max, their eyes were wide and round. The blue light from the screen made their faces seem drawn and alien.
They didn’t react when I walked into the room, and still less when I came up close and stood beside them. I reached out and put my hand on Dad’s wrist – they get me to do that when I want to interrupt about something – but still I stood there, my hand on Dad’s wrist, and he didn’t even flinch.
I craned to have a look at the phone screen, but it was just dark with a whole lot of numbers flicking across the screen. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
“Dad?” I said.
There was no reply from either of them. Just the soft tap of their fingers on the screen, and the quiet, almost slumberous breathing of someone who is intensely trying to make it to Level Eleven.
“You know, Mum and Dad, too much playing on your phones will turn you into zombies?”
They didn’t even register. I went to take Dad’s phone, but expertly, he whipped it out of my reach, still playing that weird numbers game.
Well I wasn’t going to climb all over him. I still had my dignity.
I went and made myself breakfast. And as I sat there, chewing, I tried to work it out. Was it something in our air conditioning unit? Had I missed something? The release of some really cool game that I didn’t know about.
I just couldn’t understand it. Something was seriously wrong.
And as I finished my breakfast, I knew. There was only one place I could go to find out what was going on.
School. The kids at school knew all about the games that were just hitting the app stores. It must be some kind of new game. I needed to find out what.
I pulled on my clothes and grabbed my school bag. School was at the end of my street, so I didn’t have to rely on Mum and Dad driving me like some kids did. I could just walk there, in less than seven minutes.
And that’s what I did. I left my family to their gaming, and closed the door behind me.
A few minutes later, I was walking the same old route and starting to feel a bit better. The leaves were starting to change colour, and the air was getting cooler. It felt good on my face.
I got nearly all the way to school when I realised that I hadn’t seen many people on the way there. That was strange.
Then I realised, I’d been running late this morning. My Mum hadn’t woken me up like she usually did. I must have missed the bell.
I picked up my pace a bit.
When I got to the school, I made my way to my classroom. I felt a strange sensation to see that there were hardly any kids in the playground.
Those that were hanging around the handball courts were all playing on their phones. Not taking photos of each other and texting like they usually did. No – they were all in their own little bubbles, eyes wide, faces tinged the same shade of blue I’d seen with Max and my parents.
Well, it wasn’t some kind of school holiday that had stopped my parents from waking me up; I could cross that off the list. There were too many kids here for that.
Before I could wonder any more, I saw my best friend Abhishek hanging out the front of my classroom and walked over.
“Hey,” I said.
As you have probably guessed, Abhishek completely ignored me. I thought that was impossible, at first, because Abhishek doesn’t have a phone. But then I remembered that he had some kind of fancy step tracking watch he got for his birthday, and he was staring into it as though it was a portal to another dimension.
“Hey!” I said again. “Abhishek! It’s Roman!”
That was a big fat Nope. He didn’t turn. He didn’t even blink. Not even slightly. He was just tap-tap-tapping with his finger. Then my heart stopped in my chest. I could see his heart rate and blood pressure were flashing up on the screen. No joke, his heart rate was more than two hundred. TWO HUNDRED! And he wasn’t even moving.
“Hey, Abhishek. C’mon. Stop playing that thing,” I said to him urgently. “We’ve got to get you to the Principle’s office.”
His face was tinged blue. I wondered if he was dying. I had to do something fast.
I’ve never been the type who paid too much attention when the teachers were giving first aid classes at school. So I didn’t know the first thing about what to do with Abhishek, whose face now seemed so blue that it was almost alien-like.
Still his face was still as a statue, his eyes frozen wide. Still his finger was tap-tap-tapping on his step-tracker. Tap-tap-tap. It was creepy. It was wrong.
Then the breeze seemed to die down all of a sudden and I realised that all of the kids in the playground were tapping in unison. Tap-tap-tap. The hollow sounds rang out across the concrete expanse and bounced off the buildings.
Tap-tap-tap. Imagine that. The almost-imperceptible thwock! of hundreds of fingers all tapping their watches and mobile phones at once. The sound rose to a crescendo. It took over the school. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.
I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do it quickly. I grabbed Abhishek under the arms and started to drag him towards the Principal’s office. He felt really heavy and I couldn’t do it easily, not in the least because his body was relaxed like he was slouching in a beanbag, and his arm remained stretched out at an angle in front of him so he could see the screen on his wrist, and he didn’t seem to realise that someone was dragging him at all.
Still, I managed to get him off the bench. I got him off the bench and had just dragged him up the steps started heading towards the middle of the playground when, all of a sudden, everybody’s fingers stopped moving. I knew, because all that tapping suddenly stopped.
The air went silent. Utter silence. Completely silent. Not a bird twittered; not a cricket sang. Not a device buzzed or beeped into the air. It was quiet as though a television screen had just been switched off. As though we were all little robots that had suddenly been unplugged.
Then, in a very freaky fashion, everyone took a breath, at exactly the same time. A big sigh filled the air; the sigh of a hundred kids in unison.
Next thing I knew, a slow whine began from somewhere outside the school, past the school gates and the entrance to the bus stop and the road. It sounded like a whistle – no, a wind tunnel – maybe even the drone of a motor over mountains.
The sound rose and rose. It got louder and louder. It started hurting my ears. I placed Abhishek gently on the ground and put my hands over my ears as the sound got even louder still, and turned into a screech, like a car braking suddenly before it hits a brick wall; like an engine when something has gone very, very wrong.
Then all of a sudden, a bright light appeared in the sky, brighter than I’d ever seen before, and I realised it was coming from the biggest, silver spider I’d ever seen, reaching its mechanical legs across the corners of the sky, looming over the school buildings, whistling and screeching and making a noise like I’d only ever heard in the movies. It was real-life surround-sound. And before it had even sank to the ground, right in the middle of our playground, I realised what it was.
It was a terrifying spaceship.
All the kids in the playground who had been so immobile only moments before, suddenly stood up straight. Then their heads snapped up in unison as they stared at the bright disc that was lowering over their school yard. There they stood, frozen, looking upwards, their faced bathed in a green and purple light.
I was freaking out. There was no way I wanted to be in the way of that great silver shining thing, wailing and shooting out strange bluish sparks.
I tried to drag my friend Abhishek away, towards our classroom, but he surprised me. He suddenly shook me off with a strength I didn’t realise he had. He didn’t even look at me; his face was still craned upwards, staring at the sky.
I tried once more. But he seemed to be possessed with a weird kind of superhuman strength I knew he didn’t have before today. Both of us were usually what you would call weaklings, that no amount of football or wrestling could save us from. But not today. Today Abhishek was as strong as some kind of chubby Hercules.
He pushed me away with a bone-thumping lurch. I fell to the ground. And I could only watch as he began to shuffle towards that great shining machine.
“Stop!” I croaked, because I was terrified, and my voice had dried right up in my throat. But my voice was drowned out by a slow rising murmur as all the kids in the playground started walking towards the spaceship in that same strange, shuffling gait.
Next thing, I saw all the teachers also emerging from their classrooms and joining the zombie throng. I saw my teacher Mrs Rana walking with the rest of them. Only unlike the others who wore a dulled, dumb expression, she had a little smile on her face.
Though it was stunned and kind of absorbed, for a moment I forgot my fear, and in my excitement I called out to her. I thought she must be aware of all this like I was, and there was someone experiencing this shocking event who was awake like me.
But she walked right past me, her hand at a strange angle. It was only then that I realised she was taking a selfie, and that’s why she had that weird look on her face.
She was taking a selfie with the spaceship. Intently, like it was no danger to her at all.
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
As the humming intensified once more, I heard a rumble and realised that people were no longer just emerging from classrooms. They were also coming from the neighbouring houses, which were located on the street beside the entrance to our school. Fifty people or more. Nearly everyone in the immediate radius.
That’s when I realised the problem was way bigger than I could ever have imagined. Here were old grandmas and grandpas, people you’d never imagine harbouring a secret desire to play FIFA19 or wear an Apple watch, shuffling out of their houses and making their way slowly towards the school, their faces upturned to the sky, joining the throng of school kids and teachers and neighbours to collect in a weird, intense zombie huddle beneath the great spidery spaceship.
Then, just as suddenly as this whole thing had started, the screeching finally stopped. Once again, that unearthly silence fell over everyone.
I could feel my heart in my ears. A strong sense of dread gripped me. I couldn’t explain it.
And now, in that stillness, there was a brief and horrible moment that everyone actually realised where they were.
It was the quickest of moments. The most split of seconds. Their gait changed; they looked at each other in surprise to find themselves in the playground.
Then they looked up, and saw the giant spaceship, crouched over them like a predatory insect.
Abhishek saw me across the heads of people. His eyes met mine. For a split second, he woke up from everything that was going on and he saw me. His eyes were full of fear.
“Help me, Roman,” I saw his mouth move.
That’s all there was time for.
The bright light flared.
Then everyone disappeared.
My courage left me at that moment. I hardly knew what I was doing. I was alone in the playground. The giant spaceship still squatted above me, humming in a satisfied way. I realised with a heart-dropping certainty that I was now the only person left in the school.
I felt exposed and vulnerable. I wanted to run, but I was afraid that doing so would draw attention to me; that it would make that great metallic monster – or whoever was controlling it – realise that they’d missed someone. That there was someone still alive on the ground.
Should I make a run for it anyway? Was there even a possibility of escaping that thing ? I couldn’t have decided for myself. But something decided it for me. The spaceship seemed to train its great spindly legs in a new direction; my direction.
I scrambled to my feet. Blindly, barely knowing what I was doing then, I ran. Away. Away from the giant spaceship, as fast as my legs would take me, down the steps to the playground and past the library, past the gym equipment and down the hill. And as I made my way helter-skelter towards our sports oval, I heard the spaceship’s humming intensify, and felt it brighten behind me.
Oh no. Not again.
My legs went into overdrive and I pelted for the line of trees on the far side of the oval. I dove behind the biggest one and sat with my back to the trunk, panting, trying to make myself the smallest and most inconspicuous human you’d ever see.
And it seemed to work. The spaceship’s humming died down once more, and as I peered around the tree I saw that the lights had switched off.
Relief flooded my senses. But I didn’t have much time. I knew I needed to help Abhishek. He’d asked me to. It’s what a good mate would do.
But what could I do? Had he completely disappeared? Or was he up in that great big shining thing still crouching over our school playground?
And what about my teachers? All the kids at our school? Were they all up there?
Did they know what was happening? Were they feeling scared?
I wished I had a phone to call my Mum and Dad, but then I remembered that it was lucky that I didn’t.
Then I had that thought again. Mum and Dad. And Max. Oh no!
Mum, Dad and Max. Still at home, still playing their computer games, at least so far as I knew. Were they equally at risk from this great, deadly spaceship?
I felt a flash of guilt that I hadn’t tried harder to get them off their devices before I left for school. Sure, I had tried to grab their phones. But when I couldn’t get a sensible answer out of them, shouldn’t I have just turned off the wifi?
Why hadn’t I thought of something so simple?
I jumped to my feet and began walking as fast and quietly as I could, looping back around to the street using the trees as a camouflage. Luckily they went all the way to the fence line.
But the whole time I was weaving behind the trees, walking quickly and quietly towards the road, I watched the spaceship from the corner of my eye. And it didn’t move. It was like had decided to make my school its new airbase. It did, however, keep flaring up periodically with those strange coloured lights. White and purple and green and blue, like a giant disco ball.
I stopped, just briefly, to have a good look at it. To see if I could see any way of entering the thing, once I’d got Mum and Dad and Max into safety, and had to work out what to do about Abhishek and all the other kids and teachers from our school. Its surface was smooth as an egg, just with these weird projections that looked like a spider’s legs. I couldn’t see any doors or windows. It was now pulsing gently like a luminous flower. It was really pretty, in a freaky kind of way.
Pretty and dangerous, I reminded myself.
And once again, if I could regret anything, it would be that all these thoughts tend to come to me always a bit too late. Like – ten seconds too late. Because as I watched that strange, beautiful machine, there was a hot pink flare, so bright it made my eyes hurt…
And everything went black.
“Hey,” a voice was saying in the darkness. My head was hurting.
It was a girl’s voice. Thin and worried. A voice I’d never heard before.
I tried to open my eyes but they felt melted together.
“Wake up!” the voice said, more urgently now. I could feel something hard beneath my body, and her hands on me, shaking my elbow with some energy.
I tried again. With a monumental effort, I managed to pry my eyes open.
Oh, everything was so bright! I shut my eyes again, and rubbed them with my hands. My head was spinning.
“Are you okay?” she asked now. She could see I was alive, after all. I just nodded.
“Who are you?” I said.
“Who are you?” returned the girl.
“Roman,” I said. “I’m from the school.”
“Me too,” said the girl. “My name is Namor.”
“I haven’t heard of you,” I said.
Maybe that was rude, because Namor said coldly, “Well I haven’t heard of you.”
“It’s a big school,” I said. Then I remembered what had happened just a few minutes before. “Was,” I added.
I realised I was lying straight out on the ground under a tree – the same tree I’d been standing under when I saw that blinding pink flash only moments before. So I hadn’t been taken. That was something, at least. I wasn’t on that giant spaceship twenty metres in the air. Yet.
With some effort, I sat up. Namor just looked at me. I don’t think she liked me very much since I told her I hadn’t heard of her. Come to think of it, I had been kind of rude. But my head was still hurting, and I guess I just came out with it without thinking.
Namor was the palest girl I’d ever seen. Her hair was so light it was almost white, and she had these massive eyes that were green like the bottom of a swimming pool. She was chewing her nails and looking at me, waiting for me to say something. I obliged her.
“So how come you’re awake?”
“You know, like… don’t you have a phone or something?”
“Nah,” said Namor. She blinked once. Her eyes were unsettlingly large.“I’ve never had one,” she said.
“Me neither,” I replied. “My parents reckon that technology fries your brain.”
“That’s a funny idea,” she said. “Why would it fry your brain?”
“Oh, I don’t know. My Mum just says ‘microwaves’…”
Mum was very vague when it came to her explanations. I could picture her now, telling me to turn the wifi off before we all went to bed. “Those microwaves,” she used to say, waving her hand in the air towards some invisible force…
“Microwaves have nothing to do with telephones or computers,” Namor said. “They’re like a radio. They don’t fry anything.”
“Well why aren’t you allowed to have a mobile phone?” I asked. “What reason did your parents give?”
“I just don’t think they’re very interesting,” Namor said. All of a sudden, she became more animated. She almost smiled. “Not when there’s all this other interesting stuff to look at. I mean – look at it. That sky, it’s the craziest blue. And look at your legs. Did you know there’s a eusocial insect climbing on you at the moment?”
“A eusocial … what?” I looked at her and then down at my leg. “Oh, you mean an ant?” I brushed it off. What a freak. Who calls ants a ‘eusocial insect’?’
But Namor kept watching the ant with large and excited eyes. She put her finger out and let the ant climb on it, then gave me the widest, unsettling grin. All this, mind you, while a giant spaceship was pulsing and humming only a few hundred metres away.
“Look,” I said. “You can stay with the ant all you want. But I’ve got to get back to my house. My Mum and Dad and brother are there. They’re in danger.”
“Are they?” Namor said. She suddenly seemed very interested. She put the ant down. “I’ll come with you.”
I suddenly felt oddly protective of my family. I didn’t want her seeing them like that, with those glowing, intent faces, and that weird, absorbed smile, and their fingers tapping frantically on their screens.
And didn’t she have a home to go to?
“What about your house? Are your parents alright?”
Namor just blinked at me. Her face was blank.
“My parents are where I left them,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“I saw them just before,” she said.
“Well I wouldn’t be so sure,” I said. And then I realised the uselessness of discussing this with her. I didn’t care. I just needed to make sure my family were safe.
I rose to my feet. I was still a bit unsteady.
“Ok, I’ve got to go,” I said. “Good luck.”
I started walking away from her. But she was still staring at me. I could feel her eyes on me. And something about her seemed kind of sad.
I took a few more steps, and then, maybe because I regretted my previous rudeness, something stuck in me. I turned around.
“You can come with me if you like,” I told her.
She nodded happily, and just like that, she was standing by my side. I started walking and she followed my pace. We strode away from the playground, as quickly and carefully as we could, to avoid the spaceship seeing us, in the direction of my home.
And as we walked, I thought about this strange new friend of mine. About something that had been unsettling me since a few moments before. After a few minutes more, I realised what it was.
I had a feeling Namor was lying about her parents.
But I had no idea why.
But for the meantime, at least as we quickly walked away from the school, the spaceship didn’t move, and stayed hovering right where it was. It gave me some comfort.It hadn’t started going up and down the street or anything, like some giant vacuum cleaner. I was still nervous though. I picked up my pace. Namor, who had long skinny arms and legs, kept up pretty well.
But as we walked away from the playground and looped onto my street, I didn’t hear police sirens, as you might expect at seeing a huge silver disc lower on a public school and suck up all its inhabitants.
Then I thought, maybe I was the only one who saw it. Me and Namor, that is.
I stole a look at the girl walking beside me. I couldn’t work her out. There was something wrong about her attitude, but I didn’t know what it was. She wasn’t at all looking at the spaceship; it didn’t seem to worry her in the slightest.
Maybe she hadn’t seen what I saw. I hadn’t asked her yet, after all. I decided to ask her.
“Did you see what happened with the spaceship before?” I said. “Did you see all those people disappear?”
“Yep,” she said.
“Anyone you knew?”
“Nah,” she said.
“What do you mean? None of your friends were at school today?”
But Namor’s face went cold. She didn’t seem to want to talk about it. That was weird.
Maybe she didn’t have friends. It wouldn’t be so unusual. Anyone that calls ants eusocial insects probably doesn’t have much experience talking to people.
“My best friend was sucked up into that thing,” I told her.
“Nobody was sucked up,” replied Namor. “They were teleported.”
“I don’t think there’s much of a difference…”
“Yes there is.”
I just looked at her. I didn’t want to argue over the way my best friend had just disappeared into a spaceship. But Namor did.
“If they’d been sucked up, it would have hurt their organs,” Namor said. “Much better this way,” she added.
I had to give her one thing: she’d made me feel a tiny bit better.
“So they might be alright up there, you think…?”
“Oh, they’re alright,” Namor said breezily.
But I wasn’t so sure. I started walking even faster.
As we walked, I practiced in my head what I needed to do once I got home. I just needed to see Mum, Dad and Max, I told myself. Turn off the wifi, tell them what had happened, and get them to drive to the police station. If the spaceship was still there, the police could surround it with their helicopters. I had no idea how they’d get in, but that’s why they were the police and I was just a clueless boy. Let the experts take care of it.
I saw with relief that we’d now crossed two streets and were almost at a big curve in the road where my street went around behind a large pine tree. I knew that once we passed it, we’d see my house.
“We’re almost here,” I told Namor.
She didn’t nod or say anything, just kept walking beside me – right beside me – as though she’d been glued to my side. She was so close I could smell her shampoo, which was a weird smell, like strong plastics.
“You wait outside when we get there,” I added. “I just need to talk to my Mum and Dad for a second before you come in.”
“There’s a swing under the front tree you can hang out on,” I added belatedly, feeling a bit rude all over again.
It’s just that I didn’t want anyone seeing my parents and brother as zombies. I didn’t want Namor looking at my family with her cool eyes, thinking they were weird or something.
My Mum was the greatest – she was so funny, and was always inventing jokes around the dinner table. My Dad was really good at kicking a soccer ball with me. My brother Max was awesome at baking cakes. You wouldn’t know it by seeing them addicted to their devices.
It was stupid, I realised, but I just wanted Namor to think my family were as good as they were. Even if she was just some strange kid who didn’t really know how to talk to people properly.
We turned the corner and then I breathed a giant sigh of relief. Everything was as it should be. There was no giant spaceship parked out the front, or anywhere on the street that I could see. There was nobody around, granted, but it was a school morning, and everybody would be at school or work, and that was normal.
One hundred percent normal. Right. It was time to move into my plan.
“Here’s the swing,” I told Namor.
She sat down on it. I left her and walked up to the front door.
I took my key out and went to put it in the lock.
That’s when I saw the lock had completely melted. It was a hard, molten mass.
Then I looked down.
And my heart froze.
There was a puddle of something lime-green and gooey, sitting on the doorstep. It was glowing like nothing I’d ever seen on earth, and humming in the same pitch that the giant spaceship had been humming at back in the playground.
I jumped when I saw it, and took an automatic step backwards. But the goo just stayed where it was, shimmering in a luminous, dangerous way.
It didn’t seem alive. But I didn’t want to touch it.
But I could just lean over it…
I leaned over and pushed hard on the door, but it was sealed shut. I tried jiggling it but it wouldn’t budge. I knew I had no hope of getting in with the key, because there wasn’t even a keyhole anymore.
I needed to know if my parents and brother were in there.
“Mum! Dad!” I started yelling at the top of my voice. I tried this a few times, and jabbed over and over at the doorbell. But no-one came. The house was deadly silent. Like the rest of the street, and the neighbourhood. And Namor, who was just swinging on the swing, blank-faced, studying the sky.
“They’ve been here!” I shouted towards her.
Namor seemed to wake up.
“Who? The aliens!”
Namor shrugged and went back to her swinging.
I couldn’t believe it. What a friend. I didn’t even know why I’d brought her along. As far as I was concerned, she could fend for herself now. I had more immediate things to worry about.
Think, I told myself. Think.
There was a door out the back, but it was glass and had an automatic lock. All our bedroom windows would be closed because it was Mum who usually opened them in the mornings, after we’d left for school, and she wouldn’t have done that today.
How could I get in the house? There must be a way.
Then I remembered. There was an old disused dog-door that the previous owners had put at the side of the house, leading into the laundry. Dad had been worried about it for ages, and had asked the landlord to seal it shut. But as far as I knew, it hadn’t happened yet.
I ran to the side of the house, plunging through the camellias and spiderwebs, past the water tank and around to the laundry entrance. Sure enough, there was the dog door, and it only took a second to confirm that it hadn’t been sealed shut yet. My heart leapt with relief.
Crouching down on hands and knees, I knew I could make it through. My head made it through no problems; my shoulders took a bit of wiggling but eventually, clumsily, I made it in and found myself akimbo on the floor. It was strange. Here I was now, in my perfectly ordinary house, lying on the laundry floor amongst the wet socks and dirty shorts. I stood carefully and listened. Still not a sound emanated from the house; not even the sounds of computer games anymore.
But while I was pretty certain I already knew what I would find, I hesitated before I turned the handle to let myself out of the laundry. I didn’t want to meet any aliens. If they had my Mum, Dad and Max, I wanted to at least have the advantage of surprise.
C’mon Roman, I told myself. Just do it.
My heart beating thick in my ears, I slowly – slowly – turned the handle. It made a slow, long squeak, but that was inevitable. I paused, hardly daring to breathe, but when nothing else happened, I gave the laundry door the gentlest push, and let myself into the hallway.
Everything was neat and quiet. There were no puddles of glowing green, or blood spatters, or signs of a struggle. I went to Max’s room first.
I passed the kitchen. Nobody had eaten any breakfast. There were no bowls or cups in the sink.
I went to the lounge room. The TV was turned off. The curtains were still drawn.
Feeling a greater-than-ever sense of dread by now, I went into my parents room.
What was even weirder was that the beds were made, like they’d never even been there.
Like they’d never existed.
I could hear my breath very loud in my ears. My hear was making a drum-beat that I thought the neighbours would know about. But they probably weren’t there. There was just me and Namor, so far as I knew.
I went to the bedroom window, to see if she was still on the swing, and perhaps by now even wondering enough about me to have been even a little worried.
But when I looked outside, Namor was gone.
I left Mum and Dad’s bedroom then. I ran to the front door and unlocked it. Outside, I realised that the air felt cold, colder than it had before, and there was an odd smell in the air that I hadn’t noticed until now. A kind of pervasive rubbery smell.
I stayed in the doorway so I wouldn’t touch that weird green stuff, which was still glowing and humming. Only the hum had since grown more off-pitch, like a tune that leaned into the silence rather than cut into it.
“Namor!” I yelled over the sound, into the front yard. But out there, only silence greeted me. The empty swing was motionless.
I turned back into the house. I shut and locked the front door once more. What was out there? What had taken Namor?
I felt a sudden chill pass over me. What if the spaceship had come back to life, and was now working its way up the street, sucking up everyone it could find?
A panic gripped me then, and I went from room to room, checking all the doors and windows were closed and locked. Finding them all tightly sealed, I shut all the curtains then, and sat in the corner of the loungeroom, knees pulled up to my chest, feeling my heart pound my knees as I wondered what to do.
I was alone in the house. For all I knew, I was alone in the whole world. I didn’t want to go back outside. But how long could I stay in the house? My parents usually did the groceries on Tuesdays, which was tomorrow, so I knew we didn’t have all that much stuff in the pantry.
And I didn’t know how to cook – not really. I could bake a cake if it was a cake mix. I could make a sandwich. But that was about it. And what would happen when the food ran out?
As I sat there thinking about all my options, which were not many, I realised that I could now hear the humming of the green goo on the front doorstep from inside the house. It had gotten so loud that I could hear it even though the door was closed.
It was freaking me out. I got up and ran to the toilet at the back of the house, because it was the furthest room away from the front door and the street and that weird green goo.
I sat down on the toilet seat. My head was starting to feel tight and my temples thudded. I started to imagine my epitaph. Dead on the toilet. Sucked up into space from the sewer.
Then I heard it. A strange, wheezy sound. Rhythmic. Persistent.
And then a slow tapping, almost hesitant at first. A tapping that grew louder in increments. Tap-tap-tap. It was on the door to the toilet.
Tap-tap-tap-tap-TAP. And the crazy heavy breathing kind of sound grew closer, and I knew there must be some kind of giant beast behind the door, because it breathed like something living, something large and hungry, something large and hungry and laborious, something that was hungry and knew I was in here and was tapping its nails on the wood of the door, finding the flimsiest part, preparing to tear into it…
I was rigid on the toilet seat. I couldn’t move a muscle. I was terrified. There was that rubbery smell again, and I realised it had permeated the tiny bathroom, and was probably some kind of poisonous gas and I was either going to be eaten by this wheezing monster or choke on whatever that green goo was shooting out through my house, and both options were not what I would have chosen. I would have chosen to die from overeating chocolate. Definitely overeating chocolate.
I started to wonder if there was any way I could escape from my ill-thought-out prison. Who wants to die on a toilet? I wondered if I could just jump up and push the door open as fast and suddenly as I could, and catch the creature by surprise, and send it spinning down the hall with the force of the door. It seemed like an okay plan. Not the best. But I grabbed the toilet brush, which was a good hard metal one, and planned how I would stab it towards the creature.
Oh man, though, I was just a boy, and I was coming up against some kind of crazed space creature that wanted to kill me with… a toilet brush?
I didn’t have time to think much more, because all of a sudden the creature must have gotten sick of tapping, and it started to make long scratching sounds up and down the length of the door. There was a sudden judder, and the whole door rattled in its hinges.
I couldn’t help it. A voice tore out from my throat.
“GO AWAY!” I shouted.
There was a silence. Then the door started rattling again, more forcefully this time, because the creature now knew I was in the toilet, and was prepared to meet me head on.
The humming sound from the green goo on the doorstep was now audible in the toilet, which meant that its volume was rising. And I could still hear that horrible heavy breathing, animal-like, and the scratches and thumps and the door shuddered once more in its hinges.
That’s it, I thought. I wasn’t going to die like this. I was going to try and face the monster.
I would unlock the door and shove it open in one swift motion.
I would try and stun whatever it was with my toilet brush.
If that failed, I would just make a break for it out the back door and run for my life.
I crouched before the door, one hand on the lock, the other on my weapon.
I was ready, I told myself.
The creature groaned and thudded into the door once more, rattling it in its sockets.
I turned the handle, and pushed open the door.
There was a strong feeling of force. I pushed through the resistance.
And then something let go. Whatever it was was sent spinning through the air and down the hallway. It landed on the floorboards with a heavy bang. I rushed out and faced it.
It was a boy. A boy I’d never seen before.
The boy had long hair that fell into his eyes, and glasses. He was wearing a green windcheater and shiny nylon pants that was long out of fashion. He was flat on his back, rubbing his eyes, as if he didn’t know how he had gotten there.
He looked a touch younger than me. All my fear disappeared as quickly as it had come. I noticed he had a wheezy kind of breathing, and right as I noticed, he fished around in his jacket pocket and brought out a puffer.
He took three quick sucks.
I folded my arms and glared at him.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “What are you doing in my house?”
“I- I don’t know,” he said. He looked sideways at me, as if worried that I would do something else to him. I guess that was normal when I’d just sent him flying into the hallway.
“You don’t know who you are?” I pressed him incredulously.
“Ahh..” he said, confused. He sat up and shook his head. “Let me think a bit.”
I stayed where I was as I saw him stare at the walls for a few moments. Then something seemed to pass his features, and he perked right up. He looked at me, beaming.
“I think I know who I am,” he finally said.
“Jason,” he said.
“That’s all I’ve got.” He shrugged apologetically.
“Jason, how did you get into my house. All the doors and windows are locked.”
“I don’t – really know…” he said. “I was out the front of my house, and then suddenly I was here.”
“Well why were you trying to get into the bathroom?”
“The bathroom? I wasn’t!”
“Yes you were! You were scratching at the door!”
“That wasn’t me!”
“Who was it then?”
But Jason’s face fell.
“I don’t remember anything,” he said. “Like I said, I was just playing my phone out the front of my house, and next thing I knew I was here.”
I almost jumped on him.
“Your phone? You were on your phone?”
“Yeah. At least, I think so,” he said sheepishly. Then he added, “I usually am.”
“Aren’t you kind of young to be on your phone all the time?”
“Mum says it’s alright,” he replied. “I develop apps. She says it’s kind of like a job.”
I’d never heard of a kid developing apps before. He must have been pretty smart. I looked at him appraisingly, and as I did, I realised he was about the luckiest person I could have met right now. All those games you play around the campfire where people say if the last two people on earth were you and someone else, who would you choose….?
Well in the circumstances, when the whole world had gone mad for their digital devices, I reckoned being stuck with a computer programmer was not my last choice, not by a long shot.
Even if he couldn’t exactly remember much right now.
“Jason,” I said suddenly. “You must be hungry. Do you want some biscuits?”
Because I knew it would be important now to get his memory back up to scratch. Glucose could do it. Food for the brain.
“Sure,” he said.
And then I thought, if he was on his phone and he wasn’t taken, then maybe there was something different about his phone, from the phones of everyone else. I needed to have a look at it. It might contain a clue as to how everyone disappeared and he didn’t; yet how inexplicably he landed up in my hallway when all the doors and windows were shut.
I helped him up and he followed me, still looking a little dazed, into the kitchen.
“And where’s your phone?” I casually asked, when we sitting at the table and Jason was crunching into some chocolate-chip cookies
“Right here,” he said. And he put it on the table.
It was the weirdest phone I’d seen in my life.
That’s when I knew we were really in trouble.
Comparing Jason’s phone with those of everybody I’d ever seen in my life was like comparing apples and oranges. I couldn’t see how Jason’s device had anything to do with a normal phone. It was backlit with a screen that kind of bubbled like hard lava, and there were hundreds of zeroes and ones racing over the screen in what seemed like random patterns.
“What kind of phone is this?” I asked him.
“It’s a new kind of beta model,” he replied, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I don’t know much about it. It came in the mail last week. I was still learning to use it.”
“But how do you use it? It doesn’t look like any phone I’ve ever seen before…”
“Oh, it’s connected to the internet; you can surf the web like with any smart phone.”
And he tapped the screen a few times and Google did come up, only noticed it was on a glowing blue background, and it was spelt a little wrong. Gogol instead of Google.
“It’s not real Google,” I said, pointing it out.
“It works just the same,” he said, a bit defensively. “Anyway.”
“Check the news,” I said. “I want to see if they have anything about the spaceship. We need to start gathering information.”
But Jason just looked at me, surprised. I’d forgotten that he didn’t know anything about the spaceship. As far as he was concerned, he’d just teleported from wherever his front yard was, all the way to my hallway. It must have been a bit confusing for him, actually. So I realised I needed to fill him in.
“I know this is going to sound unbelievable,” I said. “But a giant spaceship just landed in my school yard and sucked up all the school kids and teachers. Every one of them except for me.”
I didn’t think it was worth mentioning Namor, now that she’d disappeared.
“Whoa,” said Jason. “Why not you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But why are you here too? That’s what I want to know.”
A strange look passed over Jason’s face.
“I already told you I don’t know…”
“I know you don’t know,” I reassured him quickly. I didn’t want to alienate him like I had Namor. “I just think you need to tell me everything you know that might help me understand how you got here,” I continued. “Because I think you must have been teleported here by those aliens. I can’t work out any other way to explain how you got into my house – can you?”
“Not really,” Jason admitted.
“And if we could pool our information,” I said. “We might be able to get somewhere. I need to find a way to get into that spaceship. My best friend and family are on it.”
“There’s nobody you know left here?” Jason asked.
“Well all the kids and teachers I know have disappeared…” I said. “And the weird thing is, that they were all playing on their mobile phones and devices right before it happened. They were totally addicted to their screens. I’d never seen that happen before.”
“In my opinion,” Jason said. “If you want it…”
“I doubt they were all playing the same thing,” he said.
“I agree,” I told him. “My best friend Abhishek was playing on his step tracker. There’s not the same apps on a tablet and a step tracker…”
But a look passed over Jason’s face then that was strange. It almost seemed like he was bored of the conversation.
“Anyway,” he said suddenly. “You want to see if there’s anything on the news about the spaceship?”
I nodded. He indicated that I should come sit next to him at the table, so I did. Once I was beside him and gazing at that weird mobile phone once more, he tapped at the screen.
I leaned over a little more so I could see the screen better. A whole lot of numbers started flashing up on the screen. They were hypnotic… I felt a slight pull towards them, as though they were feeding my eyes. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I had started to realise the flaw in my plan.
What if we started looking at his phone and became zombies too? Shouldn’t I have taken steps to protect myself?
I wrenched my eyes away. And saw then that Jason wasn’t looking at his phone. He was watching my face. That was weird.
“The internet’s down,” he said. He tapped some buttons and the screen switched off. He seemed annoyed.
“Well what can we do?” I asked. My head was hurting a little now. “Can you make it go back on? What if I switch the server off then on again? I know where it is…”
“I’m not hooked in to your wireless,” he said. “This is 4G. The whole network is down here. I can’t even make a phone call.”
Frowning, he placed his phone back on the table between us. Back on its screensaver, it was still glowing and making those bubbling shapes. It was the weirdest design I’d ever seen.
“Well, what if we go back to your house?” I said. “Might it work better closer to your house?”
I knew it wasn’t a perfect plan. I just couldn’t think what else to do. How would we find out what was going on if we couldn’t read the news and work out what was happening?
“Sure, we could go back to my house,” said Jason. “But what if the internet’s down there too? Don’t you think it’s better if we try and find some other people? I mean, if you think there’s anyone still down here…”
I didn’t know how to start doing something like that. Would I knock on everyone’s door? When that big spaceship was just looming up at the end of the street?
Jason seemed to sense my hesitation, because he added:
“Because the big question is, are there any other people like you?” Then he blinked. “I mean, like us.”
“Awake, you mean?”
“Yeah,” he said. “People who aren’t in the spaceship.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I was remembering Namor now. “There was one girl…”
Jason looked intently, almost eagerly, at me.
“She was with me before, but she’s gone now.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
Jason sat back in his chair with an exasperated sigh.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to go out and look for them.”
But there was something wrong with his plan.
“How do we know there’s anyone else?” I asked him.
Jason looked up at me and smiled. “I don’t think the spaceship would have had the capacity to get everyone at once,” he said. “Not everyone in the whole town.”
“That’s just the thing. What if it did?”
Jason shrugged. A silence fell over the two of us. Outside, not a bird twittered. The air was starting to feel heavy and late, as though it were almost dusk and not the middle of the day.
I shifted in my seat, because my bones had started to hurt in a dull ache. I thought I must have injured myself when I fell in the playground.
“I just think we should get together – all humans together – so we can work out what resources we have,” said Jason finally. “Whether we can fight, or whether we should just embrace these visitors and go quietly with them…”
“Quietly with them? Are you kidding!” I replied.
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “It’s not logical if you’d rather die. I’m presuming you only have food for two weeks maximum. The electricity and the shops and the buses and the police… none of it’s going to continue for long if everyone’s gone. Do you know how to live by yourself? What would you eat?”
That was true. I had no idea what I would eat. I mean, I guess if I walked around the city I’d find a handful of shops with food in them, cans and everything, and that would last me a while. Maybe a few years. But eventually I’d have to do something for myself.
But I’d be older then. Maybe I’d have worked it out…
But hang on, what was I doing? I was totally getting ahead of myself. I didn’t believe the whole human race had been sucked up into that one spaceship…
“And what if the beings up there aren’t so bad?” Jason’s voice continued reasonably. “What if they offered you a warm bed and food on tap, and you were having the best dreams ever, and you never missed being back on Earth a bit?”
“Look, let’s discuss that when we get to it,” I said. “For now, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying I think we should go out and find some other humans,” said Jason.
“Hmm,” I said. I went back to the window and looked at the street.
And I couldn’t believe what I saw out there this time. It was incredible.
It was Mum and Abhishek, standing under a tree.
I dropped everything and ran for it. Out of the kitchen and down the hall, I flung open the front door and leapt over the green goo in a single bound. Mum was pushing Abhishek on the swing, and he was loving it, and she was laughing and Abhishek was laughing too.
They both looked up as I ran outside and, without saying a word, threw my arms around my mother and hugged her as tight as I could.
Mum laughed a bit in protest as I pressed my face to her shoulder, but I couldn’t help it; I felt like crying.
“Oh Mum,” was all I could say. “Mum, you’re here… and you’re ok…”
Mum just patted my back.
“Of course I’m here,” she said.
“But where were you? Where’s Dad? And Max?”
“We went shopping.”
“You went shopping? Argh Mum, you scared me!”
Abhishek turned his smiling face to me and I noticed something weird. He usually has this little mole on one side of his mouth. I could have sworn it was the left side. But today it was on the right side.
“And Abhishek, what are you doing here with my Mum?”’
“I came here looking for you,” he said. “Why weren’t you at school? We had sport today.”
I felt a bit confused, but what could I say? Mum and Abhishek were here. That was the best news ever.
“Umm….” I said. “I… I just had to come home.”
I was starting to doubt everything that had happened. Have you ever had a situation where everything you thought was true wasn’t true at all, or at least nobody seemed to see things in the same way? Standing here, with Mum and Abhishek in front of me, normal and smiling, Mum with her hand comfortably on Abhishek’s shoulder, I felt decidedly strange.
Had I even seen the giant spaceship? Was something going wrong with my mind?
“But where’s Dad and Max?” I asked.
“Dad?” Mum asked vaguely.
“Yeah. He was here when I left this morning…”
“Oh! Dad. He’s… gone. Gone out.”
“Gone out where? Our car’s still here?”
As it was. Our van hadn’t moved since this morning.
An expression seemed to pass Mum’s face. It was almost as though she was listening to something. Then her face changed, and she nodded.
“He’s gone for a walk,” she said. “He took Max with him.”
“But shouldn’t Max be at school?” I asked.
Again that strange, absorbed look passed over my Mum’s face. She paused, as though listening to a little voice in her head. Then she nodded again.
“He should be. That’s where Dad’s walked him to. To school.”
I felt an old panic rise. Late! I must be late for school! But Abhishek was here, and I was still jittery, and I just couldn’t face going back to school right now.
“Are you okay Romal?” asked Mum, her face a picture of concern.
“Sorry?” I asked.
Mum reached out and brought me in for a hug. She had a strange plastic smell.
“I said, are you okay Romal?”
Romal. She said Romal.
I pulled back from her embrace and looked at her carefully.
“You called me Romal.”
Mum gave a twittering kind of laugh.
“Oh I’m so silly!” she said. “Come on. Let’s invite your friend Abhishek inside for a drink. And your other friend too, who is she…?”
“Namor,” Mum said lightly. “That’s who it was. I remember now. Where is she? She should come in and join us.”
I stood on the lawn, watching my Mum. She looked like my Mum. Exactly like her. Only I hadn’t told her about Namor. I’d never met the girl before today. How did Mum know about her?
I looked over at Abhishek, and I realised then that he had the strangest expression on his face. Like he’d gone into a sleep mode. But at the instant that I looked over, the moment passed, and he jerked into life again and smiled at me. He poked out his tongue.
“Yeah, where’s Namor?” he asked.
There was a strong smell of plastic starting to surround us. I took one cautious step backwards, back towards the road.
“Who’s Namor?” I asked.
“You know Namor!” Abhishek replied.
“Yes, but how do you know her?” I asked suspiciously.
“We’re friends, aren’t we?”
That was enough for me. I knew there was something wrong. It might have been me, or it might have been them, but I wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
I sprang to life. I broke into a run. I pelted to the front door and leapt inside, shutting the door behind me.
“Jason!” I cried out, hoping he’d hear me in the house. The lock wouldn’t work anymore, being all melted, and I didn’t know where I should go. I just acted on instinct. But I knew Mum and Abhishek would be coming up behind me, and I only had moments to decide what to do.
I ran to the kitchen so he could join me, I wanted him to be safe too. But he was no longer in the kitchen, and I had no time to waste in looking for him.
“Jason, hide or run!” I shouted to the empty house. “There’s dangerous beings on our front lawn. Don’t trust them? Just run!”
And I sprinted down the hallway, burst through the back door and ran two steps at a time down into our garden. I weaved through the trees and made my way towards the back fence. I would jump the fence, I decided. I would jump it and then change direction and backtrack towards the main road and find another place to hide. A place where they’d never expect me to be.
But I never got that far. Because as I reached the edge of the garden, the back fence rising before me, something crashed into me so hard it winded me.
I landed flat on my back on the grass. And as I wheezed and tried to get my breath back, three faces appeared above me. Jason, Mum and Abhishek.
“There’s no need to run,” Jason said calmly. “We won’t hurt you.”
“Yet…” said Abhishek.
Well, one thing was for sure. Jason, Mum and Abhishek were not feeling themselves.
If they even were Jason, Mum and Abhishek.
That’s not to even mention where Dad and Max might be.
I started to realise that I was in pretty big trouble when they reached out and hauled me up. Abhishek was still as strong as a horse. Meanwhile, Jason had completely recovered from our earlier crash in the hall, because you wouldn’t have thought it was the same kid. I could feel his steely fingers gripping into me like a metal trap, and they weren’t even flexible.
Mum, too, was hard as a rock. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before.
My first thought was androids, because it really was like they were human-robot combinations. They seemed to be made with some tough kind of metal, underneath the warm and human stuff, and you could feel the unnatural tension underneath.
Together, the three of them dragged me to the nearest tree.
Jason pulled a weird, pink rope out of his satiny jacket. It was all shining and warm, like metal. They clipped it in place. I tugged at it with my wrists, but it was like it had been locked. It wasn’t going anywhere. It attached my wrists together, and I was stuck to the tree.
I could now hear the green goo at the front of the house just about going crazy, whistling and humming, so that the sound filled the backyard. The air had a strange, clear quality, like a photo where the light has gotten in, and it made everything look too-white, as though I was staring permanently into a flash. I wondered if I had hit my head on the way down.
“So Roman,” said Jason, smiling. “You’re onto us.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. “I’m not onto anything. I just don’t know what’s happening. Where’s my Mum? And Dad, and my brother? And Abhishek?”
“I’m here,” said Mum pleasantly. Abhishek didn’t say anything, just smoothed the hair out of his eyes and grinned at me.
“You’re not my Mum,” I said. I was sounding braver than I felt. “And you’re not Abhishek,” I told the other one.
“An approximation,” the Not-My-Mum said. “Monkeys will hug a wire frame surrounded by a blanket. Ducks will follow a moving robot. Why are humans so complicated? I went to so much trouble to match… not many would!”
And as she did a little twirl I realised that she had copied a photo we had in our study. It was a photo of Mum at a wedding, because here was this – this thing, I was going to take stab and say alien – wearing the same outfit as my Mum had in that photo, right down to the shoes.
“You might look like her, but anyone could see you’re not,” I told her.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “I only did it not to scare you.”
“We won’t change back into our normal forms,” added Jason, smirking. “You’d die of shock!”
My heart was beating thick in my chest. I still didn’t know why they had tied me up. But I knew they could teleport me in a flash. Why hadn’t they done that yet?
“Why are you here?” I asked. “What have you done with the people at my school? And my parents?”
“We’ve taken them,” said Jason. “They’ve come to no harm. We don’t intend to kill them…”
“Only use their brains,” said Abhishek.
“What! No!” I couldn’t help crying out. They were taking my parents brains? And my brother’s? And everyone else’s? What kinds of monsters would do that?
“You make us sound like zombies!” Mum laughed. “Jason, be serious. Ha, don’t you like the sound of that? Jason. So funny. They have the cutest names on this planet…”
“We’re using the storage space,” said Abhishek. “We’ve run out of our own.”
“What storage space?” I said. “I don’t understand!”
“The human brain,” said Jason, interjecting. “It’s an impressive thing. We have our own brains, of course, but nothing like your kind’s. We’ve been watching you for a long while, and waiting for the point in time when your knowledge has expanded, and your brains along with it. The kind of capacity we get from organic brain growth is exponentially greater than any kind of artificial hard drives we have developed…”
“We treat the humans well,” said Mum. “They’ve just been hooked up to a great big server. We’re going to use them all like a giant supercomputer. And once we get into space and back onto our planet, we’ll wipe everything that’s on everyone’s minds and use the space for ourselves. A nice large planet like yours should give our civilisation enough memory to last us a few decades at least. Maybe more.”
“And when the memory runs out?” I couldn’t help but exclaim.
“Well. It costs money to keep all those humans alive. We’re not in the business of – how do you say on Earth? – throwing money down the drain…”
I suddenly understood Jason’s words a little while before. They were basically planning to hook everyone up, wipe them clean, use their brains, and just keep them alive while they were useful. And then..? They’d just get rid of them. In space somewhere. Maybe millions of light years from home. Would they dump them on a hostile planet? Or just let them die?
And what if they woke up before that happened? I couldn’t forget the look on Abhishek’s face in that instant before he’d been teleported. It was like he knew what was in store for him. I couldn’t bear the thought that they were scared up there. Or cold, or hungry, or confused.
I tugged again at the ropes that were binding my wrists. They felt like they had stretched a little. I pulled again. But still they stayed locked.
“Well what do you want me for?” I said, more boldly than I felt. If I could distract them and keep pulling at the ropes, I thought, perhaps they’d loosen even more.
But I noticed something weird after I asked this question. The three of them all paused a moment. Their bodies went still, their heads sitting on an angle as though they were listening to something. It was only for a fraction of a second. Then they looked normal once again.
Mum murmured something to Jason. Then they remembered me, and looked at me for such a long time that I worried they had noticed me still working away at my wrist-tie, stretching it more and more… I knew I needed to project some confidence.
“You might catch me, but there will be others,” I said suddenly. “My friend Namor is out there. I’m just one human of many. Are you really going to waste your time with all the ones that got away?”
The three of them looked stunned for a moment. Then they all laughed at me. All of their laughing faces, so familiar and yet so alien.
“Not exactly,” Mum said.
“Don’t get us wrong,” added Jason. “We like your brains. But we’ve got most of them. We can’t waste time, you know, gathering the last of them up.”
“It’s much more efficient for us to just scoop in, grab as many humans as we can, and go,” added Abhishek.
I decided to be bold. I had nothing to lose.
“Well what then?” I said. “Why are you here, and not up in that spaceship, carrying out your plans?”
Abhishek went to reply, but I saw Jason give a very slight shake of his head. So it was Mum who said it.
“One of our kind has escaped,” she told me.
“And you’d better help us,” added Jason.”Or you won’t like what we do to you.”
The missing alien was a girl called Tial – who’s heard of a girl called Tial? – and she was the daughter of the spaceship’s captain.
“If one of our own kind are left on this planet,” said Mum. “You don’t want to know what it’s going to do.”
“What do you mean?” I asked him. “What can it do? You’ve taken nearly everyone.”
They all paused again. Then Jason said suddenly, as though coming back to life,
“Bacteria,” he said. “We’re teeming with interstellar bacteria. Get that into your ecosystem, and you can say goodbye to plant and animal life on this planet.”
That sounded terrible! But I was still suspicious.
“Why do YOU care…?”
Again that strange pause. There was no doubt in my mind now. They were listening to someone.
“For the future,” all three of them said.
In unison. The exact same words.
I knew then that I needed to know who was talking to them on the other end.
“Who are you talking to?” I accused them boldly.
“Talking? Oh, nobody. We’re listening,” said Mum.
“Listening to who?”
“To our captain. The reception is terrible on this planet,” she replied.
“And he’s instructing you what to say…?”
“She,” said Mum. “And none of us speak English, Romal. We have an app that translates those strange sounds made by your mouth, but the captain is telling us how to talk to you.”
“To the three of you?”
“To everyone, all at the same time. She’s not linearly restricted like you are.”
Linearly restricted? What was that supposed to mean?
“She can talk to lots of beings at once,” said Jason. “Just because we need more brain space, don’t make the mistake of thinking that your brains are superior to ours. We are using you as an external hard drive, that’s all…”
But Jason became almost dreamy then, and an utterly alien expression drifted across his features.
“Tial,” Mum said, as if reminding him about something.
I was still working away at my wrist bindings. They were feeling distinctly looser. Meanwhile the three aliens seemed to have lost their sense of purpose. It was like they were wilting.
And almost at the instant I thought it, they dropped their heads a little, as though they were tired, and their limbs seemed floppy too. Abhishek even sat down on the grass.
I noticed that the wail from the green goo out the front was quietening too. Everything was growing quieter, becoming hushed. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew I had to take advantage of it. I kept pulling and tugging at the cord binding my wrists, and I felt it starting to slide in directions it hadn’t slid before.
“How many people can your captain talk with at once?” I asked them, to keep them busy than anything else.
“People,” Mum eventually offered, half-heartedly. “Well that’s a funny thing to call us…”
“There are currently five thousand, two hundred and seventy eight aliens here on the ground,” Jason murmured. “And in exactly three minutes, we’ll release ten thousand of our humans. Programmed to find anyone who doesn’t have the software installed. If that doesn’t find Tial…”
Then his voice stopped completely. All three of their faces went completely blank.
They fell face-first into the grass.
I wasn’t going to wait to find out why. I tugged and tugged. Then I gave a giant YANK and something clicked from around my wrists. The cord came sliding off. I was free.
There were humans around. The aliens had confirmed it. I was going to the place where I was surest that humans would congregate that was close to my house.
The shopping mall.
I ran for my life to the shopping mall.
I didn’t even worry about hiding. I ran as fast as my legs would take me, down to the end of my street, through the set of lights, which were blinking purple…. purple? It must have been the light. It was still really bleached and weird. Then I ran past the bus stop, down another street, and at the end of that one, I turned into the entrance of the shopping mall.
The whole time I was running, I felt like I was on a movie set, and not on my own planet at all. For a start, there was barely anyone on the street. Jason might have told me there were aliens and zombie humans being put back on Earth to find this Tial, but if that was so, they clearly didn’t think she’d be hanging out beside the parked cars and zebra crossings, because there wasn’t a soul around.
I darted across the street and didn’t slow down even a bit as I approached the entrance. It was lucky too. I was just about to push open the glass doors to the shopping mall when everything behind me exploded.
An enormous shattering sound rang out, like thunder and something smashed. It was like the air was made of crystal and someone dropped it. I didn’t even need to look behind me to feel a blast of hot air melt my neck. I didn’t know what it was, but I wasn’t about to look. All I knew was that I needed to run, run as fast as I could, and put as much space between me and the aliens who knew me. Get inside and away from the spaceship and whatever that huge explosion was.
If there were other aliens or zombie parents in the shopping mall, I would just need to find a way to fit in.
So that was the plan, but I didn’t mean to make such a fancy entrance. I was pushed by the force of the explosion into the doors. They swung open when I hit them. I skidded on my butt into the cool, slippery floor of the shopping mall.
As I did so, I saw about three human-looking beings (which I had decided they all were now, until proven otherwise) who were sitting on one of those recreational areas in the middle of the mall look up at me in interest. It must have looked weird to anyone to see a kid slide into the mall at high speed, legs and arms flying all over the place. I landed with a grunt, jumped up and sprinted away before they could say anything or ask any questions. When I rounded the corner, I slowed to a fast walk.
I was dismayed to realise that those three weren’t the end of it. There were a lot of people in the shopping mall. Human-looking beings, I reminded myself. Because any of them could have been aliens like the ones who’d just tied me up, zombies sent down with their brains reprogrammed to find Tial, or humans like myself, totally freaking out. How would I know the difference?
It was going to be like trying to find whether a species of shark was friendly or dangerous by counting its teeth. You wouldn’t know what kind it was until its mouth was already open.
I saw old people, young people, kids. People in work clothes and yoga clothes. People in school clothes. I even saw someone in my school uniform. I knew enough to steer well away from that one. That would almost definitely be a zombie.
Mostly everyone was walking around like people usually did in shopping malls. Just walking around casually. But I had the horrible sensation that they were all looking at me.
And when I got to the food court, lots of the people were just staring at the tables, as though they didn’t know how to eat anything.
I sucked in my breath. Where could I go to think a bit? Somewhere where I could be away from all these – human-looking beings? I passed a big department store and then I knew the answer. I’d go to the change rooms. The chances of aliens or zombies trying on clothes was very, very slim.
At least that’s what I thought, anyway.
So I went to the men’s department – where I knew practically no-one ever went to try on clothes, even on a good day – and found the row of cubicles.
Every one of them was empty. That was good. I went into one, closed and locked the door, and sat down.
What would I do?
I needed to find humans. The aliens must have some kind of weakness. They’d said it themselves that our brains were impressive. So we must be able to match them.
And I had the feeling there was something they weren’t telling me about this Tial girl they were looking for either. The fact they hadn’t teleported me straight up to the spaceship when they saw me – as well as the fact that they had seemed to want my help – made me think that they weren’t as strong as they seemed.
All I needed was a few more humans to talk to, I told myself. Together we could pool our information and work out what to do.
But there was the matter of time as well. Suppose they couldn’t find Tial? They had every intention of flying back to their home planet with a spaceship full of the human race. My Mum, Dad, brother and best friend along with them. How could I solve this problem before they gave up on the idea of looking for Tial? What if they’d found her already?
I remembered my watch, for probably the first time that day. I looked at it, having no idea what the time must be. But it had stopped outright just after 9am. It must have been around the time I heard that first explosion in the playground, and then I met Namor.
Namor. What was she doing? Where had she gone?
My thoughts were interrupted by a sound outside the cubicle. Instantly, I held my breath and pulled my feet up in the air so they wouldn’t be visible from the outside.
The footsteps kept making their way towards me. Slowly, somebody’s feet walked down the row of cubicles. When they came into sight, all I could see was that they were a pair of woman’s feet, in red shiny shoes.
There was also a strong smell of plastic, like Namor’s shampoo had smelt like. Like the Mum-alien, and the Abhishek-alien, and the Jason-alien too.
I held my breath, hoping the feet would walk straight past me. But they didn’t. They paused right outside my cubicle.
And then I knew.
Namor had been an alien.
And now there was an alien outside, too.
And it was waiting for me.
“Can I help you?” said the alien sweetly.
I didn’t answer.
“Can I get you any sizes?” said the alien again.
I tried to make my voice gruff and man-sounding.
“No,” I told her. It was all I dared say.
But the feet did not go away. The smell of plastic was overpowering now. I didn’t know what to do. Could I try and slide under the neighbouring cubicle, and then the next, like this all the way to the door? And then run out of the department store and find somewhere else to go?
It wasn’t ideal but it was all I could think of. The only problem was that I didn’t know which way the alien would look when I stopped replying to her questions.
I had a better idea. I took off my watch. It wasn’t working anyway.
I leaned down, and as hard as I could, I threw it in the opposite direction to where I wanted to go, under the rows of cubicles. Luckily I had a good arm, and it went the whole four cubicles under, and hit a wall at the end with a satisfying thwack!
The alien hesitated. Then I saw the footsteps continue towards where my watch had made the sound.
That was my key. I hopped down and rolled under the first cubicle, then the next, then the next. I was like a human tumbleweed. Rolling like I’d never rolled before.
When I got to the third cubicle and my head was spinning like a disco ball, I broke out and escaped through the door.
Crashing right into the alien.
She was a dark-haired woman, smiling sweetly at me. Her teeth a little luminously green.
I wanted to scream with shock. But my voice dried up in my throat. I wasn’t capable of making a single sound. I only choked.
I instead went to run, but she reached out an iron hand, like it was nothing, and held me by the forearm. Her skin was warm and moist, like a snake in a bath. I got goosebumps all up and down my arm just feeling it. And smelling her, all plasticky.
“Hey there,” said the alien woman. “Now where are you going so fast?”
I couldn’t reply even if I’d wanted to. But when I didn’t reply, the alien woman tipped her head to one side, and I could see that she was listening to the spaceship captain, and he was telling her something.
When she listened, her attention went off me. Just for a fraction of a second. I remembered then, that I could use this to my advantage. This was a weakness. Their reception was like 3G. The transmission speed was just really, really slow.
I could say something to confuse her. And then maybe I could make a run for it.
I thought in a flash. What was the most complicated thing I could ask her?
And then it hit me.
“You have a 3 and a 5 litre water container. None of the containers have any writing on them. You have to use the containers to make exactly 4 litres of water. How do you do it?”
That was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in maths class. Even my parents couldn’t work it out when I took the question home.
The alien hesitated, and I saw her starting to listen to the reply.
I knew it was going to be long and complicated.
And that was my chance.
I jerked my arm out of her grasp and it worked.
I slid right out of her fingers. I hit the ground fast and was already running by the time her eyes lost that glazed expression and she realised what I was doing.
And it seemed she couldn’t run all that fast in those shiny red shoes, or maybe she was just dazed by the complicated answer, because she took one ginger step towards me, and then just shook her head.
“Fill the 5 litre container…” she began, I think because she didn’t know what else to say.
I didn’t care to listen. I knew the answer.
I pelted out of there like I was made of wind.
Through the racks of clothes and past the perfumes, I burst out of the men’s bags and into the socks department.
And also burst slap-bang into another human-looking being.
“Ow!” she said, rubbing her elbow where I’d banged her into a wall.
“Wait…” she said then, before I could sprint away again.
Our eyes met.
She didn’t smell like plastic.
She didn’t act like a zombie.
“Are you… a human?” she asked me.
What did I say?
Well what would you say?
I had to trust my gut. If I was going to find humans, I needed to believe there were some, somewhere.
“Yes I’m a human,” I told her. “Are you?”
The girl nodded. Then without saying anything else, she grabbed my hand. Just like that, we were running.
We escaped the men’s socks department. The alien lady in red shoes was long behind us, and I hoped we’d never see her again. But there were so many more all around us. I didn’t know how we’d keep away from them for long.
We weaved through the racks of clothes and luxury products until we escaped the department store entirely. We burst out into the main section of the shopping mall where everyone was still standing around in a kind of dumb, scary way.
The human girl kept running and dragged me behind her. Nobody really looked at us, but that kind of felt worse. It was almost like they weren’t watching us because they had other ways of seeing us, and that was a seriously creepy thought.
Meanwhile, I didn’t know where the girl was taking me, but she seemed to know what she was doing. That was good. We went down a side section and then she was pushing open a door that said STAFF ONLY.
“It goes to the car park,” she said. We were now in a dimly-lit stairwell and we ran down them two at a time. “You alright?” she added over her shoulder as we ran.
It was true that I was starting to puff. I’d run all the way from my house to the mall, and had barely had time to catch my breath.
“I’m fine,” I said. “But do we have to keep running?”
“Zombies are slow,” said the girl. “But aliens are fast. We want to put as much space between you and them as possible.”
“Are there none where we’re going?”
“None,” said the girl. “For now.”
I noticed her hand wasn’t sweating at all. That was strange. Usually people’s hands became clammy when you held them as long as she’d been holding mine. But maybe she just wasn’t the sweaty type.
We went down about three levels and finally hit the basement. She opened the door at the bottom and then we were in the car park. All the lights had gone out, and there were only the emergency ones still lit. They made everything seem smoky. The shapes of parked cars looked like sleeping monsters.
But the girl didn’t seem to mind. She dragged me past them all. Then at last I saw there was a dingy car wash at the end of the parking area. Still underground, it was a kind of room built into the wall, with a few smeary windows, some chairs, magazines, and a drink dispenser, where I guess customers usually waited until their car was clean.
Through the dim windows I could see the shadows of about six or eight people – human-looking beings, I still had to remind myself – although judging by the girl’s reaction, they must have been humans.
“Is that where we’re going?” I said, still breathing heavily.
“Yep,” said the girl. “Headquarters.”
Finally, she slowed down and released my hand.
“What’s your name?” I asked her, because she still hadn’t told me anything about herself.
“Ruby,” she said. “And yours?”
“Roman,” I told her.
“Well Roman,” said Ruby. “You’re going to have a lot of names to remember in a second, because there’s a few of us here. My brother Emerson, for a start. He’s going to be really happy to meet you. He was starting to think the rest of the humans were all gone…”
“Why would he think that?” I asked.
“We heard a big explosion about half an hour ago.”
“I heard it too,” I told her. “I felt it.”
“You felt it?”
“Like hot air. It blasted the back of my neck.”
“Show me,” Ruby said suddenly. She spun me around. Then she made a weird sound through her teeth.
“Your skin is totally blue.”
“Like it’s been burnt blue.”
I put my hand up to feel it, but it wasn’t painful. Still, I worried a bit. What did it mean to my body? Was it permanent?
We had now reached the doors to the car wash. Before I could ask, Ruby told me.
“Zombies can’t stand water,” Ruby told me. “It turns them into green goo…”
“So we’ve barricaded ourselves in the car wash,” said a boy’s voice suddenly. He was standing in the doorway, watching me. He was smiling. “Another human. Welcome to our humble abode.”
He shook my hand in a very grown-up way. This must be Ruby’s brother Emerson. I shook his hand too, but I was still thinking about his water comment. Green goo? Well what had been on my front step then? The remains of… a zombie? A poor, human zombie?
And that started me down a whole other path of thinking. Had Mum or Dad or Max tried to fight off the aliens? Is that why there was a puddle of green goo sitting on our front doorstep?
And if so, who was the zombie that had turned into green goo?
Every inch of my soul hoped that it wasn’t Max or my parents…
But for now, Emerson was still smiling in the doorway.
I tried to put the dreadful thought from my mind. I had no evidence that my parents were the goo. I just needed to work out how to save them, now more than ever.
I saw Emerson was still waiting for me to respond. And I knew I needed to be friendly to these humans. I would need them.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Roman.”
“Well come in Roman,” said Emerson. He ushered me inside and introduced me to everyone else. There were eight other humans in all: three women, two men, and a handful of babies.
The babies surprised me. Seeing my reaction, Emerson said,
“There are a whole lot of babies on the surface we need to rescue. We’re doing it one by one.”
“Why so many babies? Because their brains aren’t as big? Are they not as useful to the aliens?”
“No,” said Ruby. “It’s just because they don’t generally use electronic devices.”
Of course, I thought. And I guessed it wasn’t for lack of trying. I knew some parents gave their phones to their babies as soon as they possibly could. But human babies seemed to have a natural protection against aliens. They just weren’t interested in watching stuff, as a rule. The human world was much more interesting to them than watching a cartoon or playing on an app.
It reminded me suddenly of Namor, and how interested she’d been in the blue sky and the ants. No wonder. Being new to the planet, she had been almost exactly like a baby.
“Lucky babies,” I said wryly.
“Lucky all of us,” said Emerson. “I don’t think there’s anyone here who uses electronic devices. That’s what’s saved us.”
“So why didn’t you use electronic devices…?”
“Our parents don’t let us,” said Ruby.
“Huh. Me too,” I said regretfully, through force of habit. Then I realised I should be proud. I’d sometimes felt annoyed that I couldn’t just use a tablet or a phone whenever I’d felt like it, but now I still had a brain that could think for itself. That was such a precious opportunity. And I needed every bit of my brain to save my family.
“I was speaking to an alien right after this all happened,” said one of the women whose name was Joanna. She was a youngish kind of woman with purple hair. She was sitting by the far side of the waiting room, near a window, eating a chocolate bar.
“It had locked me in my car,” she continued. “And it wanted me to come out. It told me that I’d be able to have the life that every person loved, if I just came out.”
There was an odd thump somewhere out in the car park. But nobody seemed to notice.
“It told me that it was painless to harvest our memory space,” Joanna continued, oblivious. “And it said that we’d be entertained by some pretty cool games, and they’d feed us up there too. And then it said that they had been responsible for developing computer games in the first place.”
Apparently the alien told Joanna that they first came to Earth in the mid eighties to prepare our brains for ultimate entertainment. They gave the plans for computer games to some of the big companies at the time. Humans started playing Atari and Commodore-64. Then the aliens went further than that: they began designing the games themselves… Alex Kid in Miracle World, Mario Brothers, Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego… Each game was specifically designed to stretch the brains of humans in one very important way: they wanted us to be addicted. They wanted us to gradually pull away from the real world so that by the time they came to collect us, we’d go without a peep. We’d be really happy to hand over our brain power in return for some Tetris… for eternity.
There was another dull thud outside. This time everyone heard it.
Emerson’s head snapped up. He looked out the window and then leapt into action.
“The zombies,” he said. “They’ve found us.”
The humans in the room instantly stood up. Ruby ran to the front counter and produced a jar of coins. She shook them in the glass.
“These babies should keep them back for a bit.”
“Right,” said Emerson. He put his hand out. “Open it! And give a handful to everyone.”
Ruby expertly unscrewed the jar and started handing out coins.
“What are these for?” I asked, confused. I could hear a moaning sound growing louder now.
“Why do you think we’re in the car wash?” Ruby replied. “With these coins, we can make the water jets start. When they get close enough, we’ll turn on the spray. It’ll keep us safe in here.”
Right. I took a handful of coins. I saw now that there were heaps of different coin-operated machines arranged around the room, and they seemed to align with various car-washing equipment outside.
I took a post by a coin machine located next to the far window.
And then, peering through the dark glass, I saw them. They were shadowy and purple in the gloom of the car park. They were advancing slowly – so slowly! – with a shuffling walk, just like the pedestrians you sometimes see reading the newspaper on their phones as they go about their business. The zombies were advancing on our little human headquarters.
But unlike the telephone zombies you sometimes see down the street, these zombies advanced with a clear sense of purpose. And what was most terrifying was the number of them. It was going to be a zombie war, there was no doubt in my mind. They were lined up like soldiers. I don’t even think they cared about looking for Tial. It was as though some base trigger in their brain had been lit. The possibility for a real-life computer game. Them against us. It was senseless. And terrifying.
There must have been more than a thousand of them. All shuffling towards us. They had the power of numbers. But we had the coins and the water…
There was a dreadful moaning in the air as the first of them struck. Emerson had everyone hold off until they got close enough for our jets to squirt them.
Then – GO! With a big rattle, we all put in our coins, all at once. The water jets spurted and then rose into action. It was beautiful. With no-one to hold them, the hoses stiffened and then whipped around as they shot a spray of pure water in every which direction. The giant soapy bristles started turning, and churned out a thick deluge of water as wild as a waterfall. The fine spray designed to moisten windows filled the air with tiny droplets. I saw the first of the zombies fall. The ones closest to us folded over and then slopped into the concrete, quickly turning into glowing green puddles that ran all over the outside area of the car wash. Another row of zombies came up behind.
I knew we had to protect ourselves, but as I went on, slipping one coin after the other into the coin dispenser before me, I realised that I didn’t feel good about liquefying the zombies. After all, the zombies were just humans like us. Humans like my Mum and Dad and Max, and Abhishek and Mrs Rana.
I saw some of their faces as they advanced, and they just looked exactly like anybody. They looked like teenagers and kids and teachers and mums and dads, and grandparents and aunties and uncles. Normal people who this morning, like my family, had just been looking at their phones or watches when all this happened. It was horrible. I was beginning to feel sick to my stomach.
“Go on!” urged Joanna, sensing that I was losing my will to do it. And so I did. What was the alternative? Let the zombies swarm us, and do… who knew what?
And so I kept slipping the coins in, and the green goo kept getting higher and higher, and was making that high-pitched whistling sound which I now hoped wasn’t a sign of something terrible, like a communication with the aliens, or that we were hurting them…
Joanna saw that something serious was wrong. She stopped putting the coins into her machine and ran over.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“The zombies!” I sputtered. “We’re killing them all! And they’re just humans like you and me…”
Joanna looked concerned, and put her arm around my shoulder.
“They’re not humans,” she said. “They’re avatars. The real humans are still up in the spaceship, safe as can be. That’s why they’re so slow. They’re being controlled by the brains of the trapped humans, but the reception isn’t very good…”
“Like the aliens,” I said.
“Yes,” said Joanna. “But the aliens are made of a type of neoprene – you know, like a wetsuit material, that enables them to shapeshift. That’s why they have that funny smell. And the aliens have their own brains, they just communicate back to the spaceship to talk. These avatars, on the other hand, can’t get anywhere without being controlled, every single step, every movement. The avatars are made of – well, I guess it’s like an interstellar wax. They look like their human controllers but they’re not. Don’t worry,” said Joanna. “It’s really like they’re playing a computer game up there. They have no idea that what they’re doing is real. And nothing you can do can hurt the real humans.”
“But can they hurt us?”
“Absolutely,” said Joanna. “If they touch us, they can take over our body. They’ll use us as an avatar. And with all the benefits of a real body – fast movement, immunity to water…”
“But all they have been sent down to do is find that Tial girl!” I cried, confused.
“Who?” said Ruby over her shoulder, still loading her coins into her dispenser.
“The alien who escaped. They’ve lost one of their own. They told me that’s why they were sending down the zombies. To try and find this missing alien.”
“I think the aliens underestimated how much they’ve primed humans to play computer games,” said Emerson. “Maybe they came here to find the alien, but once they got here, they thought if they took over the last human bodies, they could do it so much better. We’ve just become another computer game for them. Another level to complete.”
I had no worries now about using the rest of my coins. I slipped the last of them into my machine and watched as the zombie avatars melted into green humming puddles by my window. But there were still so many more coming up behind. I couldn’t see an end to them. The car park was dark with human shapes, all shuffling slowly towards us, in grim, organised lines.
“Give me some more coins!” I called to Ruby.
“There’s not many left!” she said worriedly. “Emerson, I think we’ve already used about half of the coins!”
“Are there any more jars?”
“None,” she said. “I just had one big jar.”
Emerson paused. All around us, the zombies were moaning, the green goo was puddling and humming, and the sound of coins was clinking steadily into our dispensers while the wild waters raged.
“Someone is going to have to go out there,” he said. “We need to find more coins. Without them, we’re lost.”
Ruby looked over at me.
“I will,” I said, barely believing my own words.
“I’ll come with you,” said Emerson. “It will be safer with two.”
Looking out into the gloom, the glowing green puddles and the advancing zombie shapes shuffling out of the darkness, I found it hard to believe that we could be safe at all.
“But we won’t go out the front,” Emerson said. “There’s a door at the back. It leads out to a staff area and to the back of the Woolworths. We can let ourselves into the grocery store through the goods lift. There will be coins in the registers.”
“Have you got any bags?” I asked. Then I remembered. There would be hundreds of bags there. We didn’t need to bring our own during a zombie apocalypse.
We left our fellow humans still fighting the zombie hordes, and slipped out the back door without a moment to lose.
On this side, the air was dank and still, as though no living person had passed this way for decades. Emerson led the way. Like his sister, we climbed the stairs two at a time and just as he said, we found ourselves at the goods lift. We took it. When the doors opened we were in a storage room at the back of Woolworths. We raced straight through it and into the shop. We couldn’t waste an instant.
Thankfully there was no-one at all in the Woolworths. I couldn’t imagine why, until I thought that perhaps all the zombies had congregated on the car park. And maybe the aliens had worked out the zombies had gone rogue, and were down there too, trying to stop them from wasting all their avatars in the carwash when there was still Tial to find.
So we ran really fast through the empty aisles and got to the cash registers. I had no idea how to open them but we banged on a few buttons and eventually they slid open. We left the notes and scooped all the coins into the plastic bags we found at the counter. One-by-one, we went from register to register, collecting as many coins as we could.
We had just got to the end of the row of registers when Emerson looked over at me.
“Have you got enough?” he asked. I nodded.
Then something terrible happened.
There was a click, and all the lights went out.
It was pitch black in the Woolworths and we were stuck here. I had no idea how to find the milk aisle at the best of times. Let alone now, when there were still zombies and aliens out there somewhere, and we needed to find our way back to the storage area and the goods lift, and I hadn’t even thought to count how many steps we’d taken in getting from there to here.
“What’s happened?” I groaned. “Not the lights!”
Emerson didn’t say anything for some moments. He sounded like he was thinking. But then he said,
“I think the electricity’s gone down. I was waiting for something like this to happen. There’s no one to maintain the grid. All the humans are out of action. Who keeps on the services when everyone’s been taken by aliens?”
“No-one,” I said grimly. But then I realised what that meant. “But… the car wash…!”
“Battery operated,” said Emerson. “But I don’t know how long the batteries will last without a generator.”
“We’ve still got to get back fast then,” I said. I was thinking of Ruby, and Joanna, and all the others. I wanted to make sure they were safe.
“Grab my hand,” said Emerson. And when I felt his fingers, we gripped on tight and walked slowly, gingerly, through the empty space, waiting to collide into anything at any time, not knowing where we were going, not really, but trying anyway. Trying to retrace our steps and find the storage room and the goods lift. I was beginning to hear a dull kind of roaring sound coming from underground. I hoped it wasn’t the zombies, finally getting into the car wash. I hoped they still had enough coins, and batteries, to last until we got there and could help them.
Somehow, by some kind of miracle, we made it back to the storage area. I could hardly believe it.
“Good,” said Emerson under his breath. I got the impression he was better at finding his way around than I was. That was a relief. We were stronger when we could benefit from everyone’s different skills, together.
Emerson released my hand.
“Have you still got the coins?” he asked.
But before I could reply, there was a strange sound, and suddenly a blue glow lit up the room.
There in the storage room standing before us was Namor. She blinked those spooky alien eyes, just once.
“Roman,” she said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
With everything that had happened, I was pretty much on edge. I screamed!
The sound of my screech startled Emerson, who must have suddenly realised that Namor was not just some human friend I’d just come across.
He jumped into action. He threw one of his bags of coins at Namor’s head.
She blinked and caught it with one pale hand.
“Don’t freak out,” she said calmly. “I don’t want to hurt you guys.”
“Don’t freak out!” I shouted. “You’re an ALIEN!”
“Yeah, so what?” Namor said.
“Well you’re trying to capture us all!”
Namor looked annoyed.
“Not all of us.”
“Not all of us?”
“No,” Namor said again. “Not all of us aliens are trying to capture you. I, for one, don’t care a bit about you. I just came here for a holiday.”
She’d obviously been thinking about this for a while, because she suddenly burst out,
“You have no idea how boring it is on my planet! There are tall buildings everywhere, and the sun is like billions of kilometres further away from our planet than yours is, and it’s so cold all the time. And dark! And there are no birds or animals or anything because we destroyed them all. And all we have to do all day is collect information about other ecosystems and file it and categorise it and all the while we never actually see what’s going on because all we have is the information, not the reality…”
Something was beginning to dawn on me.
“Your name’s not Namor, is it?” I said.
“I just invented it in the moment. It’s ‘Roman’ backwards… I don’t know much about human girl names,” she said.
“Your name’s Tial.”
“Well your parents and everyone are looking for you.”
“I know,” she said. “I can hear them all talking about trying to find me…”
“Hear them all?”
She tapped the side of her head. Of course. She was hooked up to the same system as the other aliens had been.
“But I’ve turned my speakers to mute,” she said. Only her eyes smiled. She was still a weird girl – alien – whatever.
“Well they’re all turning everything upside down looking for you,” I said.
“I’m not going back,” she said.
“You can’t stay here!”
“Why ever not? I don’t eat much.”
Again that smile that only reached her blue, liquid eyes.
“Interstellar bacteria, for one thing,” I told her.
That did it. She scrunched up her eyes and gave a big hearty laugh.
“Is that what they told you?!”
I didn’t know what to do with her laughter. I folded my arms over my chest and glared at her. Emerson was looking confused. I remembered that he didn’t know anything about Tial.
Well, he was getting a quick lesson.
“Here’s the truth,” Tial said. “I don’t want to go home. I don’t have any interstellar bacteria – or whatever they told you. And I should know – we’re like the interstellar librarians of the universe. We know everything! Except real things, like how people react to different things in the environment, and why someone like me wouldn’t want to go back to their own planet.”
“So no interstellar bacteria?”
“Absolutely none,” said Tial firmly. “They just said that to get me back.” She folded her arms, unselfconsciously copying my action.
“And here’s some real knowledge for you – I’m not going back,” she added. “I just want to be left alone. I love the blue sky here, and the clean air, and the animals and the sun. They just exploded a giant dust bomb in the atmosphere – did you hear it? A giant dust bomb! They hoped to jam up my navigation device. And they didn’t care what they wrecked. I’m tired of my parents ruining everything. They just want to be powerful at all costs. They’ve ruined their planet. Now they are ruining yours too.”
“My neck went blue from the dust bomb…” I told her.
“It will fade,” she said. “Everything will recover.”
“But it won’t,” I said. “Your people can’t take all my friends and family. I’ll never recover from that,” I told her. “I love them.”
“Love,” Tial said. Her mouth quirked at the corner. “That’s something I need to learn about.”
Emerson looked agitated. He was clearly still thinking about his sister and the other humans we’d left down below, fighting the zombies. He was worried that they might be getting hurt.
“Please,” he said to Tial. “My sister is down in the car park being attacked by the zombies. We haven’t got time…”
Tial turned her gaze to him. She blinked her large eyes once more.
“They’ve caught them,” she said calmly.
“The – us. The aliens. The aliens got them before the zombies did.”
Emerson cried out.
“Where have they taken my sister?”
“Up to the spaceship with the rest. Don’t worry, we’re librarians, not warriors… she won’t be hurt.”
“That’s what you always say!” I cried. “Look, Tial. Maybe you don’t want to fix what’s wrong with your planet and your people. But if you don’t, who will? They’ll just keep on destroying everything for their own purposes and will never do any better. Do you really want to stay on this planet knowing that your kind have ruined everything for us? And for any other planet they happen to come across?”
Tial made no reaction. In that infuriating alien way she had, I couldn’t tell if she was listening or if she even cared.
“Tial, if there’s anyone who can make a difference, it’s you,” I continued. “Please. Only those who can see a better way have the ability to change it. You’re young. You could be a leader one day! You could make your planet better, and everyone else’s too.”
Tial blinked. She looked at me. She looked at Emerson. Then she looked at me again, and sighed.
“I just like it here! So much!”
“You could still visit,” I told her. “When it’s better, and back to normal. It would be more fun for you then, anyway…”
Tial shook her head as though clearing away her thoughts.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go back. But on one condition.”
“You go back with me,” she said.
I didn’t have to think twice. Stay on an empty planet with none of the people I loved? Or go onto the spaceship with Tial, and hopefully free them, and the rest of humankind to boot.
For me, there was no question.
“Sure I’ll come,” I said. “And you’ll free the humans?”
“If I can,” she said. “I’m just a kid, you know.”
But didn’t kids hold the keys to the future? The power to change things for the better? I knew they did.
“You don’t have to come,” I told Emerson. “Just wait here. I’ll get your sister back.”
“You can eat all the ice-cream you want while you’re waiting,” Tial said, as if reading his thoughts. “They’re only going to melt anyway.”
I stood forward and Tial took my hands. Her palms were chill, and kind of firm now that I noticed it, a bit like a robot; a bit like the other aliens had been. But I guess that wasn’t what they looked or felt like when they were on their own home planet.
Tial said softly, “Shut your eyes.”
I shut them. Through the lids I saw a very bright flash. Then all of a sudden, everything changed.
We were in the shining hull of a great big dome-shaped room, with silver walls and transparent screens lighting up like smooth Christmas lights. I breathed out in amazement. There was all of human knowledge, skitting across the screens, as though the programs were flicking through the pages of a huge encyclopaedia, but for topics that I had never ever dreamed existed – calculations for the length of time that someone will taste a biscuit, and the classification of space dust.
I could feel Tial beside me, but when I turned to look at her she was no longer in the human girl shape that she had been. Instead she was a glowing, ghostly creature with luminous arms and legs, like a sweet-faced octopus.
As I looked at her, she wafted up to one of the screens and began operating it with her many arms. She switched and moved and slid the screens around, until I could see a room as long as earth itself, filled with comfortable beds, and in every bed, a human her kind had stolen. They were surrounded by stars and dreaming. I knew they weren’t unhappy, but I knew they’d be happier on Earth, tasting food and breathing clean air, dancing and running and thinking the thoughts that they decided they wanted to think.
“See,” Tial’s voice floated up to my ears. “They’re fine.”
“Good,” I said. “Can you show me my Mum and Dad? And Max? And Abhishek?”
I was still worried about the green goo I’d seen. Tial moved her misty limbs once again, and then the screen was zoomed up on my family. They were sleeping deeply and their cheeks were pink. Then Tial tapped the screen again and Abhishek appeared. He was fine. They were all fine.
“Oh thank goodness,” I said. “Please, Tial, please let them come home.”
“Just wait a moment,” she said now. “I need to tell my parents. But…” and here she hesitated, wafting up and down in front of me as though uncertain.
“What is it, Tial?”
“I want them to see inside your mind, too,” she eventually said.
My mind! They would plunder my mind?
I was silent, thinking it all over. She added,
“Would you let them? I know they’ve been frustrated because there were some humans they couldn’t understand. I wonder if you’d let them see inside your brain, they might understand you better. And they’d see why you would prefer to live your own life on your own planet, than hooked up to their computers…”
I had gone through all stages of trusting Tial, and everything told me I shouldn’t trust her, because she was an alien, and I was basically giving her the keys to my mind. My own thoughts and feelings, that I owned, and I didn’t want to ever give away.
But I knew what she was saying. It would help if her parents could see my perspective. And I wanted to help.
I nodded. And Tial settled her great smoky octopus-like body over my brain as though it was a cap, and I fell into a dreamy state for I don’t know how long. I saw alien planets and cold suns, strange trees and creatures. And eventually I found myself stirring again, and I was back in the shining dome room, and Tial fluttering gently beside me.
“It’s okay,” she said. “They’re going to release them all.”
I felt a sense of relief flood over me.
“Oh that’s wonderful Thank you. Thank you so much…”
“They’ve had some other ideas for making more storage anyway…” she added. “Ideas that don’t involve using organic brain memory. So they didn’t need to do all this. I guess my Dad just got an idea in his head and thought he had to see it though. Sometimes people are like that.”
I thought it was funny that Tial called herself a person. I guess that the word alien was always used by others; a person never thought that they themselves were an alien to somebody.
“Thank you,” I said again.
I moved in for a hug. Tial hugged me back. She had so many arms and legs it was like being wrapped in a bunch of smoky rope.
“Take care, Roman,” she said. “I’ll see you again some day, when I’m older.”
There was a gradual brightening of the room until it turned so bright that I shut my eyes. And then I felt a falling sensation, and I found myself back in my front yard. Sitting cross-legged on the grass. Everything was very still and quiet.
Then – gradually – as though the sound were slowly being turned back up, I heard a bird twittering. I blinked again as my eyes adjusted. The sun was behind me, which meant that it was late afternoon. I jumped to my feet and ran to the front door.
No green goo. The lock wasn’t melted in any way. I pushed on the door and it easily clicked open. I walked quickly through the hallway, then found myself on the back deck.
Mum, Dad and Max were sitting around our outdoor table, eating afternoon tea. They all looked up at me.
“You’re home!” said Dad. “We wondered where you were!”
I opened my mouth to start to explain. But before I could start talking, I heard a beeping sound.
Mum’s mobile phone. She had received a message.
But she didn’t read it. She switched her phone off with her free hand, and smiled at me.
“Now,” she said. “How about you have a nice cool drink and tell me about your day…?”
1. Roman does a lot of courageous things in this story. Can you think of some? Why do you think they were courageous?
1. Roman and Tial both wonder if they can change things because they’re only kids. But Roman knows “kids have the power to change things for the better”. Do you agree? How do you think kids have the power to do this?
1. When Tial’s parents first come to Earth, they see humans just as components of a giant supercomputer that they can use for their own benefit. But when Roman lets the aliens see his mind, they understand how this feels for the humans who love each other. How do you think understanding the minds of others can help us treat each other better?