A Hallowe’en story by LtCdr
‘Debris. That’s all. We’ve searched the whole area. They must have been in the UFO. There’s no trace of any survivors.’ Foster knew there was no point in making excuses. The UFO had managed to land despite everything that SHADO had thrown at it, and now, three hours after a massive explosion reduced the alien craft to shards of metal, the combined forces of SHADO were unable to find any trace of aliens. Dead? Or at large in the darkness. The thought was unpleasant to say the least.
‘Is the area clear yet?’ Straker said.
‘Civilians, yes. The police are doing a final sweep checking for stragglers. It’s a bad night.’
‘There’s never a good night Foster. Not when aliens are involved.’ Straker’s voice was muffled by the engine of the helicopter. ‘Tell Mobile Control to extend the perimeter by another kilometre in all directions. Get the teams in place in the next ten minutes and start a second search. I want those aliens. Alive if possible. But I want them found.’
There was no answer to that. Foster handed the radio back and grimaced. ‘You heard the boss. Another ‘kay’ out. Better get moving.’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘A filthy night like this, you’d expect everyone to be at home.’ He looked up as a policeman approached. ‘All clear yet?’
‘Nearly sir.’ The broad Lancashire accent suited the burly policeman who was standing there drenched and miserable. ‘Just a couple of my lads, making their way down now. Should be out of your way pretty soon. The vicar’s the only person up there now, but he won’t leave the church. Not tonight of all nights.’
‘Surely sir. Hallowe’en. You know. Pendle Witches an’ all. Popular place here, on Hallowe’en. We usually have a couple of lads stationed in the village, just to keep an eye on things. Stop the troublemakers messing about with the church and so on.’ He gestured at the dark hill looming behind village. ‘Pendle. Load of rubbish if you ask me, but..’ He shrugged his shoulders and moved away, soon hidden in the heavy downpour. Foster wiped rain from his face and began the extended search.
The small village of Sabden, in the shadow of Pendle Hill, had been cordoned off, no cars allowed through, and all residents advised to remain inside their homes while special armed forces hunted for an escaped criminal, whose light aircraft had crashed on the hill earlier that evening. It was a good enough ruse. The local police were keeping the village locked down while SHADO scoured the countryside. With luck, no one would ever know the truth.
Twenty minutes later, a SHADO helicopter, floodlights strobing the lines of rainfall, lowered itself to hover a couple of feet above the school playground. Foster waited as a slender figure dropped to the ground and, head lowered, hurried over to the Mobile Control Centre.
‘Anything?’ Straker shook water from his greatcoat and brushed aside the offer of a dry towel.
‘No. They can’t have got past the outer ring. We’ve gone over the whole area, and there’s nothing.’
‘But you said yourself there were no bodies. And you haven’t found any proof they were in the UFO when it exploded? So they have to be out there.’ Straker studied the map. ‘I need a closer look. Have the nearest mobiles move over to this side of the reservoir and tell the crews to go carefully. If our friends out there are still alive I don’t want any unnecessary bloodshed.’ Straker fastened his coat before stepping out into the rain He looked back at Foster. ‘This immediate area is cleared? No one left?’
‘Only the vicar. He refuses to leave the church.’
Straker nodded. ‘Call me when the mobiles get into place. I think our aliens might be hiding near the reservoir.’ He walked away, hands deep in his pockets, as Paul Foster turned back to the console and began relocating the mobiles once more.
The steep lane up to the church was muddy and treacherous, and Straker found himself regretting his impulsive decision. But he was here now, and once past the farm the path was easier. The rain lashed down, blinding him at times as huge spatters flung themselves into his face. They did not have very long to find the aliens, not alive at any rate. A few more hours maybe before they aged and died. But if they could get one alive, keep it alive, interrogate it, learn about it – Straker grimaced. There was little chance of that happening. He was realistic. He had to be. The best he could hope for was that no innocent humans would die tonight.
He walked on, avoiding the dark shadows of the yew tree close to the lych-gate, taking care on the slimy and moss-covered pathway that led him onwards, with the church on his left. Stone built, although he was not sure of its age. An old building, that was evident, with a small rose window above the double oak doors. Water splashed down from leaking drainpipes and he saw, in one corner, a small and rather dejected looking gargoyle, its open mouth spewing water onto the ground.
The graveyard was close behind the church, the memorials in grey millstone grit now blackened by the water pouring over them and leaning at uncomfortable angles. An old cemetery. Soft light from stained glass windows cast a faint illumination over the stones. No modern granite or white marble gravemarkers here. Weathered statues, faces worn to blank masks, watched him as he edged the church. He shivered with something akin to fear, or irrational dread.
‘Widdershins. That is a foolish path to take, young man.’
The voice startled him and he spun around, reaching for his gun, but it was tucked away beneath the layers of sodden overcoat and drier jacket. He could do nothing but stand there and make the best of it. ‘Widdershins?’ He tried to keep his voice calm.
‘Yes. Have you not heard the old saying? Never walk widdershins around a kirk?’ A figure stepped forward from the shadows of an ornate gravestone with carved turrets and angels and cherubs. The rain eased up, and in the coloured rectangles of light Straker saw a tall man, thin and pale, dressed in black.
‘You must be the vicar? I hope this hasn’t caused too much disruption.’
‘This?’ The vicar tilted his head and ignored Straker’s outstretched hand.
‘The search. It shouldn’t be much longer now.’ He could hear mobiles in the distance, heading for the reservoir at the foot of the hill less than a kilometre away.
‘Good. I have things that need doing tonight.’
‘You refused to leave the church. May I ask why?’
‘You may.’ The vicar perched on a convenient slab of carved rock and folded his arms. The silence hung there, punctuated by splashes of water from the gargoyle and the creak of the yew tree at the gate.
Straker unbuttoned his coat, flicking water from the collar. The ground was sodden, the trees dripping, and the freshening wind was busy tearing the clouds into tattered shreds before dispersing them altogether. A full moon peered back at him, half-hidden by the church steeple. That would help the search he thought. He waited.
‘So?’ The voice was amused. ‘Are you going to ask me?’
‘You can tell me if you want. It’s not important.’ It was Straker’s turn to fold his arms and tighten his lips with amusement.
The gargoyle spluttered his last dregs and was silent, the final drops spattered from leaves. Straker stood there, chill fingers of water trickling from wet hair to soak his neck.
‘You interest me young man. And that is a rare thing. I find myself more and more at odds with the people of this world. For the most part they are shallow and selfish. They seek only pleasures for themselves, without any thought for others. I see something else in you though. Tell me honestly. What do you desire most? If you could have one wish? Just one? Anything?’
The gargoyle ran dry. Straker turned his back on the priest and stared at the rectangles of coloured glass. One wish. Just one. John? To have John again. Alive. To talk to him, teach him baseball, do all those father and son things. And yet he knew. It hurt like a knife though, to reject his son.
One wish? Earth. Safe. That was all. He held his breath.
‘One wish? Perhaps my sins forgiven? ’ He turned around to face the other. ‘You’re a priest. That would be easy. But no. Something more useful, I think.’ He stared at the dark man. ‘A dry neck?’ He ran a finger around the inside of his collar and scowled.
Laughter rippled through the darkness. ‘Amusing. And also clever. You keep your secrets well hidden. There is more to you than meets the eye. Would you indulge an old man with your name?’
The sound of footsteps interrupted Straker’s reply and he turned to see Foster hurrying up the path towards them.
‘Excuse me.’ He walked over, intercepting the younger man at the lych gate, out of earshot of the sombre priest with his intrusive questions. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘Your radio wouldn’t work for some reason. Came to tell you, mobiles are in place. Infra-red and thermal show nothing. But –‘
‘- aliens can jam those.’ Straker finished the sentence. He sighed. ’Very well. Tell them to use depth charges. Ten second count. If they’ve taken cover in the reservoir itself, we might be able to flush them out that way. But keep the rest of the teams searching.’ He listened as Foster relayed instructions to the mobiles. There was a hiss in the distance and he counted off the seconds. 6…7…8…9…. The dull booms were followed by silence. Just a case of waiting now. Nothing else they could do until the mobiles had finished scanning. That would take time. He looked at his watch. Quarter to midnight. A long day.
Foster nodded towards the church. ‘Was that the vicar you were talking to?’
‘Yes. One of those old-school philosophers,’ Straker said. He turned back to look for the priest. There was no one there. ‘He’s probably gone inside. I need to finish speaking to him. Tell the mobiles to retreat when they’ve finished, and send the ground crews in. I’ll be down in a few minutes.’
The yew tree creaked in the wind and there was a sudden flash. Not lightning. That was gunfire. The accompanying crack was enough to confirm that the aliens were here and heading for them. He had one brief moment of concern for the priest, hoping that the man was safe in the sanctuary of the church. ‘This way.’ He ran for the shelter of a small mausoleum, just tall enough for them both to crouch behind.
Foster flung himself down with a grunt. ‘What now?’
‘Keep your head down. They might not find us.’ A desperate hope. The enemy were approaching. Straker could hear soft footsteps, the rustle of feet in the long wet grass of the graveyard, the click of metal. There was another burst of gunfire, splinters of grey rock stinging his face, cutting his cheek, his scalp. A deeper grunt of pain from Paul and then the weight pressing down on him as Foster slumped sideways.
‘Paul.’ Straker’s hiss brought no response. He lowered the man to the ground. Unconscious, or dead? There was no chance to feel for a pulse. He fumbled for his gun, hampered by his coat, and he knew that there was no time before the aliens would be on them. The support team would have heard the gunfire. They would be on their way. He just had to keep Paul safe until then. A minute maybe. Too long.
He did the only thing possible. He stood up. They would concentrate on him, would ignore Paul.
He spun around, not caring that the aliens were on the other side of the small tomb, guns pointed at his chest. ‘Get down you fool.’
The priest hitched himself up, perching on the edge of a plinth with a weeping angel leaning over him, stone wings curling round in protection. ‘Fool? You dare to call me a fool? And yet you stand there waiting for death. Is that what you really want?’
There was no answer to that question. No time to answer it anyway. Straker heard the guns lock and he faced them once more. They would not shoot him in the back like some coward. But even as he prepared himself he was aware of a movement. The priest was beside him. Straker turned. ‘I told you. Get away from here. You have no idea what they can do.’
The aliens were still now, watching the battle of wills taking place between the gravestones.
‘These?’ The priest waved a casual hand at the three red-suited intruders. ‘I know full well. Death and destruction and cruelty. They are filled with nothing but contempt and brutality and selfishness. Oh I know these sort better than you will ever know.’ He spat on the ground and turned to face Straker as if the aliens no longer existed. ‘Well, Commander Straker? What was your wish?’
‘How do you -?’
‘Know your name? I know everything Commander. I know about you and SHADO and Colonel Foster here.’ He waved one elegant hand at the crumpled body . ‘He will survive. A mere flesh wound. Painful, but not life-threatening.’
‘Listen to me. You have to get away. Into the church. You’ll be safe there. I’ll try to distract them. Go.’ Straker reached out to push the man, but the priest evaded him with a quick sideways step.
‘Widdershins, Commander. Remember?’ The aliens stood there. Unmoving. Frozen. The priest stepped forward, silver moonlight revealing his face for the first time. A beautiful face, yet also terrifying. The eyes full of dark intelligence and something more besides. ‘Tell me your wish. Then I will do as you ask.’
The man was insane. But there was something intense about him, something so compelling that Straker forgot his concerns about how a village priest could know about SHADO. He could only tell the truth. ‘My wish?’ He looked at the aliens, still motionless, as if caught in a fragment of time. ‘I want Earth safe. Paul and you safe. I want them to go and never come back.’ There. He swallowed his regret. John.
‘An unusual request. People tend to ask for wealth or power. But I see that you understand the realities of command, Ed Straker. You have seen where power can lead.’ The priest sighed. ‘Very well. One wish. Unfortunately I cannot save Earth. That is not in my own interests to grant. But I can save your friend. Will that suffice?’
Straker saw the aliens shake their heads as if waking from a trance. Paul was stirring and Straker bent down to drag him upright and shove him towards the priest. ‘Get him in the church. Help should be here soon.’ He turned one last time to lunge at the nearest alien.
The gun went off.……………………………..
‘Commander?’ The priest was kneeling beside him on the grass. Paul was hunched up, leaning back against a weathered memorial, head down as if he was asleep. Straker sat up, one hand touching his chest where…
‘I remember….’ The bullet tearing into him, falling to the ground, the priest leaning over and touching him with a burning hand. Being able to breathe again. The absence of pain.
‘Do you? The memory will fade soon. You are not the only one with the ability to erase memories.’ The priest stood up. ‘Goodbye Commander Straker. The day draws to its close, and I must thank you for an entertaining and profitable evening. I have new companions on my journey home. I cannot save Earth, but these three will not come back to trouble you further.’
Straker pushed himself upright. The aliens were huddled on the path. He could see them flinching as the priest moved closer to stand beside them. ‘Wait.’ Straker called.
‘One last question.’ The priest grew taller, darker; the silhouette of the angel’s wings merging with his own elongated outline. Or were they shadows?
‘Who are you? What did you do?’ Straker was not sure if he wanted the answer, but curiosity forced the questions from him.
‘Me? You should know Commander. You asked me to come here. Remember?’ There was a final echoing laugh which chilled Straker to the bone. ‘Never walk widdershins around a kirk, lest the devil do his work. This is Hallowe’en. It is not yet midnight. You called. I came. I enjoyed our conversation, although had you wished for anything else, anything else..’ and there was a terrible knowledge in those two words, ‘ you would also be accompanying me. You will be safe now.’ There was the sound of voices, flashlight beams lighting the darkness. The support team. Safety. ‘Goodbye Straker. I doubt if we will ever meet again. At least I hope not, for your sake.’ He crooked one long finger at the aliens as his voice resonated in the churchyard. ‘Come my children. Egrediamur tellure.’
The darkness blossomed and Straker saw a flash of incandescent crimson like a slash in the fabric of the universe and four figures tumbling through, before it closed and let the welcome darkness return. When his vision recovered, the man, and the aliens, were no longer there.