It was disturbing to take in the endless, neat rows of empty white seats in the preparation space. There had never been a panic, which made it worse somehow. The O2 dome had been an obvious choice to host such a large gathering of curious people. Some 20,000 had turned up on the day, and what a momentous day it was to be. The creatures insisted that this should be a free event, a lottery for the lucky.
There were other iconic places in the city for first contact that would be perfect for the ceremony and the pomp of the occasion: St Paul’s Cathedral, The Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Richmond Park, but the dome was designed to pack in large numbers of people and there was something about it that felt right, it looked a little like a classic flying saucer, so maybe that was it?
To creep into its enormous spaces felt like trespassing on a crime scene. A child presumably, had dropped a plastic toy alien figure in the gangway and Ed impulsively picked it up and tucked it into his ammunition belt. It was like finding a relic of great value in the dust.
Merchandise like toys had come out almost overnight when the first of the beings appeared on the news streams, their tall, sinewy frames looming over the police officers tasked with escorting them through the streets of London, swarmed by placard wavers and tourists. Their heads were long, like snouts, their eyes were much like ours but more bulbous, either side of their sturdy long skulls, their mouths sweaty and wet, almost disgusting. Bing ruthlessly objective, they were not completely repulsive, they had small tidy crops of hairs on their heads, each a little different, a little personalised in style. It was the thing that made them real, relatable, not just alien, not just creatures. That perception changed, of course.
The vast interior was dim, lifeless and haunted by the dark legacy the small team of resistance fighters knew well. It had been three years since the visitors had arrived in their mysterious vehicles, glitching into reality directly over Piccadilly Circus and Westminster. The streets of London had since transformed. The landmark buildings at every corner were either demolished or replaced with bizarre structures of alien design. They towered into the clouds at angles and glowed with a soft violet sheen at night. There was a constant low humming noise in the air, and beleaguered survivors hiding in the sewers and alleys could not pinpoint where it came from or conclude what it was for. Everything had changed so quickly. Despite the changes, the aliens rarely appeared on the streets. Smaller vehicles with what could only be described as ‘ray guns’ would patrol, hovering over the roads, but it was like the aliens were not that interested in the city itself, they just needed it tailored, for reasons no one could fathom.
Ed signalled silently to his two companions, Elliot and Ryan, pointing to the two shimmering portals suspended mid-air on the wide stage. The trio had only known each other a short while but had become as close as brothers, finding food, helping the helpless and learning what they could about the invaders. Their clothes were lived in, their faces dirty. So many people had simply vanished. They had spent time in basements and abandoned warehouses, covering their faces and clothes with diesel oil to come out at night without being seen.
The three looked every bit the rag-tag band of lonely survivors. They had become a pack through necessity, but they had not been trained formally with any military background. Ryan used to be a plumber by trade, Ed a doorman and Elliot used to work in an office. The guns they had plucked off the dead soldiers, who had been left to wither and rot on the road. Along the way, they met a Private who had fled in battle, and it was he who taught them the basics of tactics. He tagged along with them for a few days but he was deeply depressed and then one morning they awoke and he just wasn’t there anymore. They had no immediate family and had only known each other loosely from visits to the same pub in Canning Town, The Bell and Squire. They would find each other on Friday nights and order pints of overpriced larger and two day old pizzas. That was another lifetime ago. Their lack of families meant they could travel light and hide easy, it gave them an edge and they found they moved well together in the shadows.
The exit signs were still brightly lit over the doorways behind the stage. It was supposed to have been a place to make peace, to cement the welcome between the two civilisations in a historic gesture, but it had all been a lie.
The two strange portals were enticing, beautiful in their vibrant neon colours and swirling movements but they were doorways of another kind, a kind never witnessed before. Everyone who had stepped into those hazy, shimmering discs had not returned. The beings had communicated in the English language through boxy devices surgically attached to their long necks. It was to be a tour of their enormous ships, hovering high over the London skyline, an exchange of trust, an open invitation toward all citizens.
“Be orderly, one at a time. Walk into the portal. Trust us, we want to be your friends,” they had repeated through their robotic sounding language translators.
They explained that they had studied our languages from our television broadcasts, which had been transmitted into space since the early 1900s. They promised wonders, and everyone was welcome. The politicians and armies were nervous, but felt like they had to be careful, observe and calculate, but not provoke. When the deception unfolded, all hell broke loose but the defensive measures were no match for the newcomers and their technology. It had been a swift, unrelenting massacre. Europe’s nuclear missiles fell without drama into ocean waves a minute or so after launch. The visitors were always one step ahead. For them, it had been like a cleaning-up exercise, a dispensing of resistance with a few lethal moves.
In the looming space of the O2, Ed watched the scene unblinking, knowing an unguarded moment could kill them all. He stepped quietly toward one of the portals. It unnerved him they had been kept open. He had presumed initially that such a door would take a huge amount of energy to keep switched on but in the last weeks, he realised, that energy was something that humanity had completely misunderstood. The circular cloud vibrated and swirled with so many colours. Knowing what he knew now, it felt like a trap.
They had had a tip-off from a homeless man who had spent a lifetime understanding how to watch and not be observed. He had seen a woman go into the portal; in the hope of bringing back her son, to shortly witness her emerge alone, screaming, running into the night. What it meant was that escape from the portal was possible, but only when it was blue, which happened once a week for one day only. That day had come around.
Ed stopped in his tracks, waiting and crouched on the floor with his trusted friends, for the phenomenon to unfurl and sure enough, it happened. The portals’ mesmerising colours bled into one, a light azure blue, like the enticing colour of a tropical ocean.
“Ed,” said Ryan in a quiet plea, “I am now, not so sure this is a good idea…”
“We have to see what is behind the curtain. We know nothing until we know the truth. This is the only action we can take to get some facts.”
It was a satisfying answer and the affirmation to proceed. They stepped gingerly toward one of the vibrating lights. This would be strange, like a first skydive, it was about being ready for anything and finding a way to overcome fear.
Walking into a suspended disc of light, aware that one person out of tens of thousands had managed to return, it took ferocious bravery but that is exactly what Ed, Elliot and Ryan did.
There was a tingling sensation that seemed to move like a wave from head to toe and toe to head, not unpleasant but certainly unfamiliar. It was like sand had been sprinkled gently over the skin, and inside the body, almost itching but very brief. The blue light filled the eyes to the point of dazzling and then flickered into a scene in some other place, hazing out into the reality of a dull gold floor and curled walls.
They found themselves transported to a room like a huge egg, cavernously oppressive, as big as a village hall but tall and open, curving to a central point in the ceiling.
“Well,” whispered Ed to his brothers in arms, “No freaks yet. Gotta be a good thing….”
There were two tall, oval doors inset into the adjacent wall, each with angular symbols on them, saying something, but what, who knew? It was alien signage.
Ryan wavered his gun barrel to either door mockingly: “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo….” And pointed to the door on the right decisively.
“Wait!” said Ed, “We should explore both doors, we can’t afford to risk all of us going in just one direction, we need to split up and report back here in an hour or less. All of this is considered recon, intel… Just observe and learn. If you get a chance to cripple the ship, or rescue people, and you don’t compromise yourself, go for it. Otherwise, this is a fact finder mission… Got it?!”
“…Sure,” confirmed Ryan, “Baby steps, right?”
Elliot looked pale. This was terrifying. He decided to follow Ed, much to Ryan’s disquiet but there was no time to quibble about who goes with who, so Ryan pushed open the door and it did not resist. Beyond it was dimly lit plain walls and a dark floor, but still no guards or much of anything, just a tunnel leading to even more unknown. He stepped forward, as if prey stupidly lurking into a lion’s den, and he was out of sight in moments.
Ed and Elliot shuffled through the other door. In contrast, and to their shock, it beeped. This was not good, perhaps an alarm or signal to the beasts that it was opening. They hurried through and sure enough heard the footfalls of tall beings draw closer. There was marginal cover in the form of metal trough-like trenches to the sides of the walkway, so Elliot dived down to the right and Ed took the left. As they cowered out of sight, to their disgust, they both realised they were knee-high in blood, sloshing about in a primitive drainage gully. There was no time to dwell on the grisly discovery. The beings appeared abruptly over them; the darkness of the troughs was just about adequate for the duo’s concealment. The creatures were clad in what looked like flexible green armour, and armed with long, sharp, spear-like devices.
“We know you are here, human… Reveal yourself.”
In desperation and panic, Elliot broke cover and fired off a rifle round directly at the nearest creature. The bullet merely ‘pinged’ ineffectively off its armour. The beast hardly moved, no more than a small step back to steady its gait. Ed remained silent. The beast had said ‘human’ in the singular. He would be foolish to compromise himself in the strategic sense after the gunshot had proved so ineffective. He was also scared, his heart pounded like a hammer near his ribs. He resisted doing anything to reveal his presence.
One of the beings glided its bony finger over a symbol on its wrist plate, and carefully aimed at Elliot. There was a pop of energy, released from the plate. In response to the invisible blast, Elliot instantly projectile vomited in the air and keeled over on his side in the trench, like a rat trapped in a gutter. The blood in the gully coated him completely, smothering his face. The blast had been some kind of incapacitating beam, a non-lethal weapon to cripple any foe into a state of instant sickness. A being dragged him out by his leg and he began to yell, more in protest than pain. The strength of the creature was evident, a towering animal packed with lean, toned muscles, like an athlete brought to exquisite form from a highly nutritious diet, it had poise and control.
“Get off me, you freak!”
The animal with his leg in its clutches stopped in its tracks casually, as if to let the feeble human bellow insults without impact. It was as if it were a smirk, before hauling him away up the tunnel to his fate.
Ed was alone in the dark. He waited until he was positive they were out of range of hearing him move and he crawled out of his hiding place to tip-toe after them. Even his breaths seemed too loud, too obvious. He hated it, every little tap of his footfall and rustle of his gun belt. He felt clanky and uncouth at a time he needed to be covert and invisible.
The tunnel opened out into a wider space. It was cold and metallic but divided up into metre wide lanes, sectioned with black ropes, and looked like a place to funnel people, a queuing area. It closely resembled an airport queuing system, no doubt something the invaders had studied, a system that made humans obedient. It was strange to see something so familiar in such an unfamiliar setting. From what he could see, one line was for children, another for men and another for women. There were signs over them with basic illustrations of a person for each line. It was easy to imagine the curious hordes of shufflers in shorts and T-shirts, beaming with excitement and wonder, with their camera phones up, their eyes wide, guessing what would be around the corner at the end.
There was more evidence of light up ahead and he could just make out the faint screams of his companion still enraged and terrified in equal doses, but as he scrambled closer, it was like something had changed. There was more panic in the grunting and shrieking noises. Ed crouched behind what looked like a large caravan sized container which smelt terrible, clearly harbouring something raw and organic inside it. He peered around the side, trying to be slow and unnoticeable.
He strained to fathom what was ahead in the dim steaming room and began to comprehend a scene that was almost too much to take in, too much to believe.
“Shit…” he heard himself whisper.
There were hundreds of carcases, dangling upturned human cadavers, headless, hung, split open wide and suspended on hooks in the ceiling. People were being farmed for food. So primitive and simple a purpose. The visitors’ goal was revealed, it had nothing to do with experiments or slaves, or even domination, as the first TV reports has assumed, it was just about food. It made a crude sense. Travellers needed feeding, a planetary replenishment, like a service station on the longest deserted road, with an ‘all you can eat’ buffet. The main source of meat on Earth was obviously humans. Humans were a plentiful bounty, a food source ripe for herding. Then it occurred to Ed, that perhaps that was what humans were for? It had always seemed strange to him how humans had evolved so differently, to expand so rapidly, so pervasively. If Earth was a farm, then it made sense, people were the cattle, billions of animals proliferating every corner, engorging on all the resources to multiply and spread into every corner of the land. Now the farm was running at its capacity, it made sense that the harvest had begun.
Ed could just about see Elliot’s writhing body as it was fixed into position, stuck into some kind of crude grill and viced into it. Elliot, his friend, his brother in the resistance, he stopped screaming just before he died, like he was thinking about it – preparing for it. A simple spike descended from a ceiling mount into his brain, another blade appeared automatically from the side wall to sever his head clean off, and his remains were duly processed on a conveyor. And that was it. One more piece of meat on a hook for the cold room. The two beings slouched off, like they had just tidied off an irritation, discussing something in their own language, their translators turned off to their relief. It was clear to Ed, probably the best he could hope for was hiding down on Earth. His gun was useless on them, with their bodies clad in their strange alien armour. They seemed to look upon humans like flimsy, pathetic creatures, at their worst an annoyance.
Ed swiftly and silently made his way back to the egg-shaped room they had teleported into and without hesitation accessed the other door. It was time to find Ryan, if he was still alive. After a length of darkness, the tunnel revealed a spawling hall, which was, he could not deny, a beautiful environment. It was in stark contrast to the slaughterhouse he had witnessed. It didn’t make sense at first. He scrunched up his forehead in confusion.
It had holographic lights dancing in patterns around the ceiling and gentle, harmonious music weaving through the air – a clear gesture to put guests at ease. There were long banquet tables here, adorned with tall goblets and large dinner plates. He could see roast chickens, wood baskets full of plump roasted vegetables, all of which were half eaten and now stone cold. This had been a welcome feast, a deception, a fattening up.
There in the centre of the room was Ryan, sitting on one of the benches and unapologetically tucking into cold chicken wings with greasy fingers. After scavenging and dining from tins down in the streets of post-war London, this was an opportunity, and it took Ed signalling to him with a two-fingered whistle, for Ryan to snap out of the trance of eating.
“Hey mate, tuck in, the freaks have long gone. This is good food.”
“Ryan, we need to exit, right now. In case your IQ has dropped, this was all a trap, they’re eating us, those freaks are eating us, like we’re livestock.”
“What!? Hey, where’s Elliot?”
Ed made a motion with his finger across his throat and Ryan’s mood changed instantly. He grabbed his gun and double-timed it to where Ed was standing.
“It’s identical to the way we kill cattle. I mean identical. They may have even copied that from us, who knows? We just need to get out of here. Elliot shot one but it did nothing, not even a scratch.”
Ryan turned on his heels to inspect the banquet with a dirty look.
“We came here,” he spat, “at great risk, we need to get some payback… Might be the only chance we get!”
“We’ll die, we are not equipped to fight these things, not yet. This is just recon, we have to get back.”
As if a decision had been made for them, there were footfalls from the tunnel directly at their backs, blocking the only way to return to the surface.
“Run!” hissed Ed, picking up the pace and sprinting alongside Ryan to the other side of the room. They managed to swing into another tunnel, heading deeper into the ship, just as the creatures emerged into the banquet hall. It was alarming to hear them communicate in their odd dialect, and this time, they sounded angry.
The tunnel stopped abruptly, with a door. It flashed red – a sign it was locked, a warning not to proceed. In the corner was something that resembled a manual lock, so without hesitating, Ed shot it, forgetting all attempts to be stealthy. The shot was effective. The lock exploded and the door seemed to depressurise and slump. The men kicked it open and piled inside the room. It was startling to see that a single beast was in there, sitting at a long metal desk, staring at them, gaping with its big sloppy mouth in shock. It had no armour or helmet, just a silvery, loose, fabric garment, like nightwear, and a plate with a severed and seasoned human foot upon it.
As it scrambled for its translator switch, Ryan pushed the nozzle of his gun in its eye and without so much as blinking, pulled the trigger firmly. The head erupted with gore and the remains splattered liberally about the walls.
Ed wiped some of the beast’s face flesh off his brow with the back of his hand.
“One all!” he growled at the oozing stump in front of him. “That is for Elliot!”
“Mate, this is a monitoring station! Maybe some kind of control centre even.”
Ryan felt a surge of rage and excitement, recognising good fortune.
There were suspended holographic images of all kinds of locations around the ship, flicking in and out of the air, as if CCTV was in a cyclic rotation. The two men realised that the only reason they hadn’t been caught straight away was because the headless being before them, had been distracted with sorting out its supper.
“What now?!” screeched Ed, scanning the walls frantically.
His eye caught sight of a control, a large one, which was lit up. Instinctively he hit it, it looked like it was for emergencies or at least important for some reason. It stood to reason, this was an emergency so why not try anything?
“I like big red buttons,” he said, “you just know they are dangerous!”
Outside in the banquet room, they could see from the monitors a gas was being pumped into the hall in great quantities, mighty flumes of pink cloud cascaded over the scene of abandoned dining tables. The two beasts began to flail in desperation, dropping their spears and clutching their necks. They tried in vain to back peddle to the door but before they reached it they were flat on their backs, sprawled and unconscious.
“Nice! You got em’ Ed, you got em!”, announced Ryan.
After a moment or two, a loud vacuuming sound erupted as large fans sucked the gas away into hidden ceiling filters. A new horn-like sound alerted them from the controls that the room beyond was safe again, but the two guards were clearly out for the count.
With a moment free to assess their surroundings, they scanned the room closely and noticed another door led out from the monitoring room.
“We won’t get another chance to see!” said Ryan, almost prematurely angry in case Ed didn’t agree with him and wanted out immediately.
Ed realised it would only take a moment to peek around another corner and they had already come this far. They pushed the door open to see that it led to a raised walkway in a deep silo of some sort, with tall glass walls. It was a viewing area, way up high over a tremendous storage space. Down below, there were frozen human bodies, lined up like sardines, coated in ice flakes. A freezing gas clung to them and bubbled over the floor. They had not been processed yet, they still wore everyday clothes, and spectacles and held objects like handbags and mobile phones. The expressions on their faces betrayed their fear in their last moments.
“I guess some were sent directly for slaughter and others for fattening and freezing. This ship is a factory farm, simple as that,” said Ryan in disgust.
“…And we just found the freezer…” mumbled Ed.
The sight was overwhelming. It was hard to tear their gaze from the sheer spectacle of it, the scale of the horror below them. When they did, they both noticed something, something significant.
On the walls above them were twisted hoses pinned loosely into place, not sturdy but lightweight and flexible with high-pressure gases flowing through them.
“Looks like they haven’t thought of everything, after all,” quipped Ed.
“Reminds me of Star Wars films, like those Death Stars always had a badly plumbed bit that could blow the whole place, you know what I mean?”
Ed almost laughed. It was a relief to know these hideous creatures were not as clever and meticulous as they assumed they were. The two guessed that as soon as a gunshot tore open a hose, that could be the end for anyone or anything in the viewing area and beyond.
“You go,” said Ryan, “I’ll do it. You can make it to the portal and tell people what I did, it will give them more hope than there has ever been since these things arrived…”
Ed thought about refusing but his will to survive was strong, almost palpable. He had already let Elliot die, partially through his own survival instinct not to intervene. He knew he could not pull the trigger if it guaranteed his own death, he was not that kind of man, as much as he would like to think he was stronger.
It was obvious how Ed felt.
“It’s okay…” reassured Ryan. “If you get off this ship, that’s a successful recon mission. A very successful mission… I don’t want to risk being food for the freaks anyhow… It might blow, it might not, I’m willing to chance it… I’ll give you three minutes… You better run…”
Ed hugged Ryan briefly, looked him in the eye, exhaled, nodded and ran, fast and without pause. He made it to the portal of blue light just in time before the crack of the explosion ripped open a hole. The chain reaction of fire chased his tracks back through the ship, the flames exploring every inch of the spacecraft, roasting the meat, burning the beings, tearing through the circuitry in the walls. With it came a monstrous roar, the heat releasing its ferocity on anything in its path.
Ed launched himself in the air and swan-dived through the blue disc. The tingling sensation was less pleasant this time, it felt in reverse like it was wrong. But after a couple of seconds, to his relief, he was back in an ungainly lump, sprawling on the stage in the O2. A few fingers of hot flame poked through with him before the portal dissolved forever, vanishing into nothing.
Somewhere above him, somewhere out there in the night sky, an alien spaceship was burning and falling to Earth and great hangers of stored meat were cremated mid-air.
Ed gathered himself up, brushed himself down and noticed the deep red stains on his trouser hems, the blood of families, the blood of the innocent. That’s when he noticed the alien toy hooked in his gun belt. With an unexpected smile leaking over his face, he gripped its little plastic body with one hand tightly and plucked it out to inspect it closer. He felt momentarily like a Greek god with the talisman of a mortal in his fist, it was charred and blackened where the fire had licked it.
Hope was real, after all, and he had an appetite to fight that was swelling up in his gut. Once you know you can affect change, you can begin. They would not expect their food to be dangerous, to be their demise. The deaths those freaks of nature had endured on that ship, that would be a wake-up call for the aliens. That one act of sabotage might even make them rethink their food source, thought the lone survivor on the stage.
“Eat this!” Ed said through gritted teeth, and dropped the toy on the ground to crush it with his bloodied boot.