Garbage. That was all that was left now. We’d picked over the scraps, sent anything of any useable size back to HQ for analysis, cleared the site, written the interim reports. But there had been very little to retrieve. Disintegrating alien craft tend to be fairly destructive and this was not just one exploding UFO. There were several of them. It was a miracle that any buildings had survived, that anything, indeed anyone, had survived.
Foster had flown back with the worst casualties, Alec had gone to HQ to take command. I stayed behind. Someone has to. Someone has to take responsibility. And after all I am the one in charge.
It’s a vile job. Walking up strange paths, knocking on doors and then standing there, waiting. The door opening with anticipation and then I have to step forward. I have to tell them the news.
I do it alone. No police with me, no colleagues. I have to show my fake ID, explain why I am there and what has happened and then tell them, whoever they are, a pack of lies. The truth stays hidden. It has to. For the sake of everyone. They can’t ever know. Can’t ever find out that their son, or daughter, husband, lover, whoever, was slaughtered. Slashed open like an animal, ripped apart still while alive. Or even worse, has disappeared without trace and with no hope of ever being found.
I tell them the usual meaningless and trite clichés. You know the words; quick, painless, unconscious. The words I have spoken so many times over so many years. You’d think I would have become accustomed to it by now but somehow I don’t think I ever will.
Please God I hope I don’t.
The team had set up temporary base in the village hall, a drab, utilitarian hut built near to the local church. I’d spent enough time in that hall in the last thirty-six hours, overseeing the operation. It was the last place I wanted to be right now, but there was nowhere else, apart from sitting with the crew in one of the mobiles, or the other option of going into the small stone-built church itself. I wanted to be alone, to think, without the chatter of communications in the background, or people worrying whether I am alright. The church was deserted, which was all that I needed just then.
I walked away from the guards and followed the stone wall around to the main entrance. There was a notice board there, its paint peeling a little and the beading around the edge starting to warp.St Joseph of Cupertino. Sunday Mass at 11a.m.
The lych gate creaked as I pushed it open, crushing the fallen autumn leaves that had been trapped in its small sanctuary into an untidy heap of red and russet. The colours reminded me of drying blood. There was no one around, no priest waiting to shake my hand, no sidesman handing me a prayer book, no-one else assembling for a morning service. Leaves blew around my feet as I walked up the path to the heavy oak doors with their huge black hinges.
God. The memories flooded back.
I was raised a Catholic. Church schools, First Communion, Confirmation, church every Sunday and every Holy Day. Confession every fortnight, fasting on Fridays, abstinence at Lent. The works. You name it, I was dragged along. You know what it’s like. You do what you are told, believe what you are told to believe in. A bit like following your local team. I used to watch ice hockey at home, when I was a child. Religiously. But I grew up, moved away, moved on and lost interest. I took up golf instead. It’s less stressful, and gives me a chance to get some exercise and to get away from it all occasionally.
The church was unlocked and I twisted the circle of iron that was the handle and heard the latch on the other side lift with a loud ‘clack’. A soft squeak of old hinges as I pushed open the heavy door and stepped into the little porch. The floor was paved with uneven stone flags and a narrow wooden bench ran along each side, under arched windows. I could have sat there, unseen, silent, but I wanted space to walk, to breathe, to be utterly alone. And the porch was too claustrophobic.
The inner door, untouched by wind and weather was a gleaming golden oak colour, varnished and studded as much as the outer one. It, too, swung open with a gentle push to admit me into the main building. I closed it, reluctant to let anyone come up behind me unannounced or unheard.
Inside, the nave was larger than expected, and I looked up at the tall vaulted ceiling with its network of dark wooden beams and ornately painted bosses crossing and interweaving over the main aisle. There was a church leaflet on the table at the back with parish notices, the readings for the next service and a brief history of its patron saint. I took one and slipped it into my pocket to read later.
The stone flags on the floor had a narrow strip of well-worn red carpet up the nave between the rows of pews. I walked up, just half-way, well, not even that really, and slid into one of the benches, sitting at the end, leaning back into the corner. An arrangement of flowers on the pulpit caught my eye, bright autumn chrysanthemums with branches of copper beech leaves. So this was not a neglected or dying church; it was used and cared for, and probably loved.
I wondered if any of its congregation would be missing at the next service. If any had died in these last hours, while we fought against the intruders.
The narrow shelf that protruded from the bench in front held a pile of hymnbooks, their green covers slightly battered and worn and I picked one up, just out of interest more than anything. Thin paper, tissue thin almost, the familiar words coming back to me as I flicked through it.
I don’t know how long I sat there, giving myself permission to be idle for once, leafing through the pages, those old tunes resonating in my head. Strong melodies, powerful words, all designed to reinforce that one fundamental creed. I remembered kneeling in church as a child, barely able to see over the back of the pew in front, knees hurting on the thinly padded leather runner that extended the length of the bench, my fingers tracing the cutwork patterns, my eyes roaming, staring at the man in front, the fleshy neck with folds of skin tight over his collar.
The noise startled me into wakefulness. I had dozed off, which surprised me. I don’t often sleep like that. Tiredness no doubt. And stress. It’s been …hard… these last two days. The hymnal had dropped from my hand onto the floor, open and with crumpled pages. With a feeling of guilt I picked it up, smoothing the creased tissue-thin sheets back into place, then stacking it with the others on the narrow shelf. I hadn’t sung in church for years now. Hadn’t been into a church either, for years, apart from attending funerals. And they don’t really count do they?
I tend to stay at the back of the church out of the way. It’s not that I don’t care, I do, more than people give me credit for, but funerals are family occasions. No one really wants the boss there. So I go, and keep out of the way. No singing, no talking afterwards, no tributes. I miss it I suppose, the formality and the traditions, that sense of belonging to a family. But I simply don’t have the time anymore.
Christ, I was tired. The last two days had been hell. And it wasn’t over yet. I had the final reports to write, some personnel still to interview and debrief, and some personnel to bury.
I walked up to the chancel steps and stood at the polished communion rails looking up at the altar with its white shroud. A recollection of rice paper sticking on my tongue, of wine sweet and thick on my lips, of muttered and incoherent words as the priest paused in front of me, the smell of incense, and having to wear uncomfortable Sunday best clothes.
No smart suit today though. My clothes were contaminated with blood and scorch marks and other nameless foul stains. An evil reminder of what had happened here. I would throw them away later, when this was all over. When I had left this place, with its memories, with its pain.
There was a crucifix hanging on the wall next to the richly ornate East window. Jesus stretched out, nails in his palms, suffering, dying. I stood and stared up at him. At that face, that expression, that look of almost sublime acceptance, of submission. What did he know, I wondered. What did he really know?
Had he ever seen an alien? Seen the carnage, the blood, the devastation? If God existed wouldn’t he have visited their world as well? Wouldn’t he have died there, to save them? As he was supposed to have done for us?
And don’t give me that crap about allowing mankind to have free will, giving us the right to live our lives as we see fit. What rights does a child have, under the blade of an alien’s knife? What free will does a man have who has been put into one of their capsules for transport back to god knows what nightmare existence?
Oh, no doubt there will be those who say that Jesus weeps for us when he sees the mess we have made of the world, but I know the truth. It’s all false, all those trite banalities, the easing of consciences, the reassurance of an eternal life after death.
Garbage. That’s all. Lies told by those people in control, lies to make us feel better, to stop us from searching for the truth, to give us hope where there is none. Just as I give those comforting platitudes to stop people from discovering the reality. But the truth is quite simple. No afterlife, no awakening to whatever it is that your god offers you.
Life is what we make it. Good or evil. Here and now. And when it ends, whether at the bloody blade of a stranger’s dagger, or under the wheels of a car, or out in space, gasping for air, it ends right there. Nothing afterwards. Nothing.
Just darkness. Peace. At last.
I had wasted enough time here. I was needed out in the real world.
I walked out, not bothering to close the doors. There was nothing of any value in there, nothing that needed to be safeguarded. I had the whole of humanity to protect. That was more important than anything else.
The leaves rustled around my feet. I took the leaflet out of my pocket, crumpled it up and tossed it away with the rest of the garbage.
LtCdr. March 2011
This started following a conversation which discussed Straker’s religious beliefs. Ed Bishop depicted Straker as a man who was almost asexual, and that portrayal seemed to fit in with Straker being not merely an atheist, but a man who had totally lost his belief in God.
So this is the result. After a UFO incident out in the wilds ofScotlandor somewhere equally remote, Ed Straker seeks refuge in a small church, and comes to a realisation.
One thing that I consciously tried to do was to include ‘religious’ references where appropriate; e.g: Christ, I was tired. I needed to make the reader think that Straker was a believer and that he found some solace in prayer and the trappings of religion, but he doesn’t.
I enjoyed writing in first person, and as I have been working more or less constantly on ‘The Shepherd Parts 2 and 3 ’ since January, (apart from articles for the Herald, Room 101, Rules and Regulations) I decided to treat myself to a little story about my favourite character.
Stand alone. One shot.