Maria was not getting any sleep. She sighed and threw back the duvet and got out of bed. She went to the window and looked down at the street outside. It was two o’clock in the morning and it was noisier and more crowded than it had been at two o’clock in the afternoon.
“Yeah, mum, great idea. A quiet weekend by the sea. Because A) it’s February and freezing and B) This hotel is in the middle of Southend-on-Sea’s clubland where everyone gets drunk and stupid at night. And I really should be exposed to the sight of that grown man being sick into the rubbish bin right down there in front of me.”
And it wasn’t as if it was just the two of them. She wouldn’t have minded that. She liked her mum and liked being WITH her mum, even if she was vain and silly a lot of the time.
But she really, really, couldn’t stand Ivan or “Ee-van” as her mother insisted on calling him, making him sound like an exotic eastern European instead of from WALES.
It wasn’t the fact that he was from Wales that bothered her. Nor the fact that her mum dumped her dad for him, although that was bad enough. What bothered her about him was the way he had wanted her mum to move in with him but not HER, because he wasn’t interested in kids, and then whenever they WERE together he tried to act like he was her dad and they were a big happy family.
She could have pointed out that they WERE a happy family until he turned up. Or that she HAD a happy family at home. She and her dad WERE happy. They were fine. And of course she had Clyde and Luke and Sarah Jane.
But this weekend Clyde was in Germany or somewhere watching football with HIS dad and Sarah Jane and Luke had gone away, too. And she was stuck in Southend in a really rubbish hotel that was right on the corner of where the main road joined the promenade. And there was one night club up the promenade and another one down it, and a third one somewhere up the main road. And when they shut everyone seemed to end up on this corner, shouting, fighting, being sick, trying to get taxis to stop and generally acting like primary school children.
Come to think of it, when she was in primary school she would never have been allowed to behave like that. And these people were supposed to be setting an example to her generation!
She felt like opening the window and yelling at them to sit down and put their hands on their heads. Except the window didn’t open. It was sealed shut to prevent people falling out.
She watched the crowds in disgust. She saw one couple, a man and a woman, stumble away from the ‘pack’. The man tried to signal a taxi but it kept going, ignoring them. The woman leaned against a lamppost to adjust the strap of her high heeled shoe.
Then they disappeared.
Maria blinked and rubbed her eyes and wondered if she had fallen asleep without knowing it and the people had just walked away.
But she knew she hadn’t.
She looked at the lamppost. There was a whole row of them along the promenade. they were tall concrete posts with a flat, round light at the top. The glass was white and the light that shone from them was bright - another thing that had bugged her as she tried to sleep with curtains that were really thin and let in the light.
She looked at the lamps closely. From her window she was almost level with them and could see them easily. They looked a bit like flying saucers. Except that she knew for a fact that very few space ships really were saucer shapes.
This one was identical to the others except, maybe, it was a little brighter. She wasn’t sure. It could have been her imagination. Anyway, looking at it for too long left spots in front of her eyes, so she stopped doing that. She looked down again as a drunk man stupidly collided with the lamppost – as if it wasn’t big enough to see.
Then HE disappeared, too. And Maria knew it was no mistake. He dissolved into thin air. For a second or two there was a sort of man-shaped glitter in the air, and then it was sucked up into the lamp.
It WAS brighter than the others. It WASN’T just an ordinary lamp.
It was alien. It really WAS a flying saucer, disguised as a lamp.
And it was taking people.
Was that possible?
Well of course it was. Anything was possible. She’d seen enough weird things with Sarah Jane. An alien ship that looked like a street lamp that disintegrated people, or transported them, or whatever, was perfectly possible.
Sarah Jane would probably know what it was, Maria thought. Or if not, Mr Smith would be able to check his database.
But Sarah Jane wasn’t there. Nor was Mr Smith. She was on her own.
“Oh no!” she groaned as she saw a familiar couple coming along the road. It was her mum and Ivan. She didn’t even know they were out. When she had gone to bed they were in the hotel bar with a couple from Ashford. Ivan was being really boring about Judo and the necessity for men to know self-defence. He was bragging about how her mum was perfectly safe out at night with him because if anyone tried anything they would know a world of pain…. Etc. etc…. Maria stopped listening. She finished her coke and crisps and told her mum she was tired. And if it had been POSSIBLE to sleep with all the noise, she would have done so.
They must have been for a romantic late night walk, she thought. To prove Ivan’s point about how safe it was walking in his company. Perhaps he was hoping somebody would try to mug them so he could show off how good he was. Since her mum still had her handbag Maria guessed nobody HAD tried anything.
“No, mum!” Maria called out as she saw her mum stop by the lamppost. She seemed to be looking in her handbag for something. The room key, maybe. Maria banged on the window and called out, but there was too much noise.
And she vanished. So did Ivan because right at that moment he had reached out and touched her on the shoulder.
“No!” Maria screamed. “No, mum!”
She turned from the window and grabbed her coat, putting it over her nightdress and jamming her feet into her trainers. She snatched up the room key from the dresser and ran. The hotel was quiet. It had no night staff on duty. Nobody stopped her. The door swung shut with a snick of the lock as she ran out into the street.
Some of the crowds of clubbers noticed her. A girl in a nightie, coat and trainers was a BIT odd, after all. Most didn’t. She didn’t care either way. She ran to the lamppost, noticing that there was a whole lot of glass around the base. Tiny shattered pieces of white tinted glass like in a street lamp.
“Give her back!” she yelled, kicking the lamppost so hard that it actually wobbled slightly. “Give her back you alien things. Right no…ww…www!”
Then the world around her began to look and feel strange and insubstantial. The noisy crowd seemed far away.
“Maria!” she heard her mum call out to her and she was embraced in the kind of over the top hug that always felt as if it was going to end in a broken rib or a collapsed lung. “Oh, sweetheart. What happened to you? Why are you here, too? Why are you dressed like that? Oh, was the hotel on fire? Did you get killed trying to get out?”
“Mum, what are you talking about?”
“Well, we’re dead aren’t we?” I mean… what else could it be? We must have been hit by a car or something. Can’t remember it hurting. But one minute we were there and next here. And it looks sort of like heaven….”
“Mum, we’re not dead,” Maria told her. “Why would you think we’re dead?”
“Well what else is it? Look at this place.”
Maria looks around. They were in a huge, half circle shaped room that was empty apart from the dozen or so puzzled people, most of them still drunk, lounging on the floor. Floor, walls and ceiling were a brilliant white as if they were lit from the inside and there were no corners. The floor curved into the wall and the wall into the ceiling.
“We’re in the lamp,” Maria said to herself. “This is what it looks like inside.”
“What’s that?” her mum asked.
“Nothing,” she answered. “Where’s Ivan?”
“He’s over there. Meditating. He says he needs to prepare his Chi for the next world.”
“Chi is Chinese,” Maria answered with an exasperated sigh. “He’s Welsh and JUDO is Japanese. Ivan wouldn’t know a Chi if it jumped up and bit him. And anyway, the Chinese that do that stuff believe in re-incarnation, not the afterlife.”
“Are we being re-incarnated then?” her mum asked, wide eyed.
“We’re not DEAD,” Maria insisted. “We’ve been abducted by aliens.”
“Oh, sweetheart! Don’t be silly. As if that’s likely. That’s the sort of thing that Cindy Lou talks about.”
“We’re IN a spaceship disguised as a street lamp.”
“Well that really IS silly. How would we fit?”
“EITHER we’ve been shrunk by the transmat that brought us here, or the ship is bigger on the inside. I saw one once that was. But it looked different than this.”
Usually she wouldn’t talk like that, of course. But seeing as they HAD been abducted by aliens there was no point in pretending any more. Now her mum knew that these things happen. Or she would know if she would accept that it was more likely than them all being reincarnated.
“Oh, my GOD! We’ve been abducted by aliens,” screamed one of the drunk women who stepped back, tripping over Ivan. He said a word that had nothing to do with a calm and balanced Chi. Maria looked around and saw that a door had slid open in the straight wall of the semi-circle. Two aliens stepped through and it closed again, merging with the wall.
Unless their Christmas cards had been lying all these years, they definitely were aliens, not angels admitting them to heaven. They had very round heads with big, staring eyes like fish and no noses, just nostril slits in their faces. They had no mouths and pointy chins. They were grey-white skinned and wore white-grey body suits. Maria watched as they walked through the crowds and stood before her. Her mum whimpered and tried to hide behind her, which obviously wasn’t going to work. Ivan was making a really annoying gibbering noise behind the two aliens. So were quite a lot of other people. Some were just crying loudly.
“We have scanned all the test subjects. You are the only one with an intelligence high enough to make communication with,” said one of the aliens. It had no mouth, but it definitely spoke. She wasn’t sure how unless it had vocal cords in its nasal passage.
“Er… what?” Maria managed. “Me, but… these are all grown ups. I’m 14.”
“I am honoured to meet you, 14,” replied one of the aliens. “I am 7.4. This is 6.01. We are from the planet D’yu’85 in the T-9-7U sector. Our mission is to seek planets which have intelligence enough to have trade and diplomatic links with our world. Unfortunately, your world does not qualify. This representative sample failed completely. And despite evidence of higher intelligence it appears that it peaks during adolescence and then deteriorates as the species ages. It would be impossible to maintain any kind of links with such a difficult species.”
“But… it’s not like that,” Maria protested. “Not all adults are…” Then she looked around at the ‘representative sample’ and sighed. “Ok, whatever. But you know you had no right to TAKE any of these people. Put them ALL back right now.” She thought about that for a moment. “No, don’t put them all back at once. It would get crowded. But put them BACK.”
“All test subjects will be returned to the place where they were taken very shortly,” said 7.4 in a reassuring tone. “Their memories will be erased of this experience. They will not have come to any harm. You, as the most intelligent will not have your memory erased. You will be charged with conveying our apologies to your world’s central government or authority. We regret that this planet is too primitive yet, and will return in 2,000 of your solar cycles to see if it has matured enough.”
“You must put this on,” said 6.01, handing her what looked like a length of negative from a pre-digital camera. “It is a self-attaching wristband. It will prevent your memory from being erased and contains a written copy of our report on this planet’s status for you to give to your central government.”
“Whatever,” Maria sighed, deciding that it wasn’t worth explaining that Earth didn’t HAVE a central government. She put the wristband on.
“Goodbye, 14. And thank you for your co-operation.”
“My name isn’t 14,” she yelled as the space ship, aliens and test subjects began to look and feel unsubstantial and she suddenly felt broken glass under her foot. She looked up at the space ship and wondered if she HAD been miniaturised or if the ship was bigger on the inside.
Either way, she was back and normal sized. She ran quickly back to the hotel, unlocking the front door with the night key that was on the same clunky plastic keyfob as the room key. She ran upstairs and looked out of her window just in time to see the first pair of drunken clubbers re-appear and stumble away looking more dazed than ever. They all came back in ones or twos. Finally, to her relief, she saw her mum and Ivan appear. Her mum looked cross. And she was sure they were arguing as they continued on towards the hotel. A few minutes later she was sure of it when she heard them on the landing and in the room next door. Then her mum knocked on the connecting door and came through without even waiting.
“Hello, sweetheart,” she said. “How come you’re not asleep?”
“Too much NOISE,” Maria answered.
“Oh, I suppose it will quieten soon. I was thinking, maybe I could sleep in this room with you. There’s two beds after all. Tomorrow, we’ll go shopping together, just me and you. Ivan has to go back to London all of a sudden. So anyway, that’s ok isn’t it?”
“It’s fine, mum,” Maria answered and turned and hugged her tightly. Her mum didn’t even ask why she was wearing her coat and trainers over her nightie. She threw them off and got into bed and put her head under the pillow to drown out the noise. “Night mum.”
They didn’t get back from Southend until late that Sunday evening. Maria saw lights on in Sarah Jane’s house but she really couldn’t go round there at that time. In the morning, though, she grabbed her school bag and kissed her dad and told him she was going to have breakfast at Sarah Jane’s.
Over breakfast Sarah Jane and Luke told her about their weekend and she told her story. Sarah Jane and Luke both laughed. So did she.
“They don’t sound as if they were very intelligent themselves,” Luke commented. “How could they tell if humans were clever enough?”
“I wonder if we WILL be ready in 2,000 years time?” Maria said.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Sarah Jane answered. She looked at the wristband that Maria had showed her. “I wonder if Mr Smith can make anything of this. I’ll let him analyse it later. It’s rather a sad souvenir of your adventure, isn’t it? Luke got the better deal, I think. He got that lovely snowglobe over there on the windowsill. But your adventure is definitely the funniest.”
Maria laughed and agreed with that assessment of her weekend compared to Luke’s.
“I just hope Clyde had a nice normal time at the football,” she added. “One of us had to!”