That was the thing about Canberra winters – those brittle blue skies masked the truth of the cold. Joy was down to her cardigan in the warmth of the car but out of the window she could see the morning’s frost still lingering in the shadows under the trees even though it was late in the afternoon. The rough surface of the Hume highway changed abruptly to smooth bitumen and she saw the ‘You are now entering the Australian Capital Territory’ sign flash past. Roger slowed to sixty as he veered left onto a newly-made side road. She checked the time again on her phone.
Roger glared at her.
‘Yes, I know.’ She parroted him, ‘Plenty of time. They don’t close till five.’
When they had tried to visit earlier in the year, the queues had been so long – even with pre-paid tickets – that they’d ended up staying the night in the caravan and had gone back home the next day without seeing the spaceship. However, their son Cameron had stuck it out when he’d gone with some of his uni friends. He had kept going on about it so much that she’d wanted to broach with Roger the idea of going again. When their refund request was returned with an offer of free tickets instead, she’d managed to talk Roger into a detour on their annual trip to the snow.
It was a year ago that the spaceships had landed – one in each capital city of every country in the world. People had started to calm down when nothing much had happened. Fears settled about the prospect of mounting a whole new type of border security to stop shiploads of illegal aliens. When the aliens started offering guided tours, people came in their thousands. Of course, the governments charged an entry fee. Apparently aliens didn’t find the local currency of any use, so the governments were using the funds for their own purposes – some for defence funding, some for research into outer space and others for charity.
By the look of it, the Australian government had used the money to build car parks. Roger found a parking spot easily, right near the souvenir shop that marked the exit. She didn’t bother looking about for a glimpse of the spaceship. She knew from last time that the ship itself was further down the slope out of sight – that had been yet another disappointment back on that stinking hot day. Roger took three goes to back the caravan into a space. That was better than usual. On this occasion, he’d only had to fuss about leaving enough space for the SUV next to them. Why they still bothered with the caravan, she didn’t know. Roger only ever wanted to do their trip to the snow – he liked having a definite itinerary with everything pre-planned. As they climbed out of the car, their involuntary groans came in unison as they eased the stiffness from their legs. She grabbed her coat. Roger reached into the back of the car.
‘You’re not going to wear that old thing are you?’ she said.
He retrieved his yellow cap. ‘You wouldn’t want to lose me in the crowd, would you?’
He began patting his pockets, searching.
She gritted her teeth. ‘You did remember to bring the tickets, didn’t you?’
‘What do you mean, what tickets? What’s with the whole pocket hunting thing then?’
‘There are no tickets.’
‘The email tickets. The ones they sent us. The ones you printed out.’
‘Ah, here it is.’ He pulled out a much-folded square of paper. He stabbed with his forefinger at each of the words, ‘this email admits two to visit Viridian, the alien spaceship. See, an email, not tickets. You’d think that someone who trained as a speech pathologist would be more precise with her language.’
The queue was so short that they could have walked straight up to join the few people in front of the security checkpoint. However, the presence of several bulky men in army uniform cowed them so they walked along the empty race, which snaked back on itself repeatedly, until they reached the back of the line.
Roger looked at his watch. ‘See, I told you. Not quite four. Plenty of time.’
The queue might have been short but it was moving very slowly.
‘I had that dream again last night,’ said Roger.
Joy didn’t need to ask any more. It was one of those recurring dreams. He’d told her that in the dream they were sitting in a plane when it suddenly began to plummet straight down towards earth. He was slipping from his seat, his arms outstretched, reaching up to her for help. In the dream, she was sitting belted into her seat, looking down and saying to him, ‘Well, why didn’t you have your seat-belt on?’ And at that point he would wake.
They shuffled a few more steps in the queue.
‘Well, next time you begin to dream it, put on your seat-belt,’ she said with a thin laugh.
When they reached the trestle table, Joy held out her bag for the grim-faced soldier to search. He poked about with the detector wand and motioned them through to the body scanners. She stood, arms raised – she repressed the impulse to say ‘hallelujah’ and to shake her hands. It wasn’t as if she and Roger looked like terrorists, after all.
Once through, they found themselves standing before a high counter looking up at an officious female soldier. Roger handed up the email.
‘Where’s your ticket?’ she snapped.
‘It said that all we needed to do was to bring the email.’
‘Not another one. Wait here a moment.’
Roger’s face had begun to redden. Not from embarrassment, Joy knew. He was impervious to the gaze of the few people who’d straggled through security behind them. Joy’s heart sank. It must have been a scam – of course they wouldn’t be handing out freebies. She was about to pull Roger away when the woman returned with a more senior officer.
‘What’s this email nonsense?’ he barked, not looking at them, still perusing the email. ‘Do have some ID?’
He examined their drivers’ licences, staring at each of them in turn, comparing their faces with their photos, taking his time.
Finally he said, ‘I’ll just scan a copy of these before you head in. It’s all very irregular. This is the second we’ve had through today.’
The female soldier had continued processing the tickets of the people behind. Their dissatisfaction had been growing steadily more audible.
She called over the heads of the queue, ‘There’s only an hour before Viridian will be closed to visitors. There are no refunds so you’re better to come back tomorrow if you want a really good look around her.’
A few people left but more stayed, perhaps preferring to grumble.
Joy leaned closer to Roger. ‘We could come back tomorrow.’
‘I’m not going to go through this palaver again,’ he hissed back. ‘We’d have to get here at the crack of dawn. The crowds are sure to be huge tomorrow with the anniversary celebrations. All the pollies are going to be here instead of over in parliament house doing their jobs.’
The officer returned their licences and waved them through the scuffed plastic swing doors. They walked along a path made of astroturf, the once bright green now muddied with use. She craned her neck to see over the high metal fencing on either side, hoping to catch sight of the ship. The people ahead stopped and the queue bunched up. They were like sheep in a race – she half expected a kelpie to appear and start hopping over their backs and shoulders.
‘Why are we stopped? Can you see it?’ she asked.
‘Can’t see a thing.’ Roger peered through the shoulders of the people in front – like her, he was shorter than most. ‘We might be able to see it around the bend. It looks like we’re about to head upwards.’
Not stairs, she hoped. She was slow on stairs and everyone was in a hurry. They walked forwards and then, with a start, she found she had to hop in order to get on to a moving walkway. She grabbed the handrail for balance.
‘There it is,’ Roger shouted.
‘Where?’ she looked around in every direction but the walkway slid into a tube of shiny metal and began to ascend.
After the steep ride they emerged into a dark cavernous area. It must have been at least three stories high though it was so dim that she couldn’t make out the ceiling. There were metal balustrades at each level with exposed skeletal lifts every few metres all the way around. The flooring was hard steel mesh and through it she could see the dry winter grass beneath – a long, long way down.
‘This way to the control room,’ said Roger, his hand pressing firmly at the small of her back.
In the dim light she made out some signposts indicating the way to the different parts of the spaceship that were open for visitors. Each sign was in the shape of a hand with a pointed finger, attached to a flimsy rod that was stuck into a square block of styrofoam. The destination was painted on the back of the hand – crew’s living quarters, control room, galley, infirmary.
They were following the line of visitors streaming to one of the lifts to the left. Baa-aa, she mentally bleated.
‘If we’ve got less than an hour then I think I’d prefer to look at the infirmary.’
Roger sighed. ‘You and all things medical. You’re retired, remember. And I hardly think they will have an alien equivalent of a speech pathologist.’
Joy let the silence grow.
‘All right then.’ He pulled up his sleeve to look at his watch. ‘But we’ll meet back here at five to five. Don’t get lost.’
She followed the signpost to the lift and as she came closer she saw more uniforms but she didn’t recognise the country. Early on, there had been a lot of fear that the aliens would favour one country over another, so the United Nations had taken on the responsibility for the organisation of security on board each of the spaceships. There had been endless political wrangling to ensure that each spaceship had representation from different countries. She stopped at another security checkpoint positioned in front of the lift. There was no wand-waving over her bag this time, just the checking of her ID. This time they entered her name into a computer, its screen turned away from her, before letting her move through to the lift. She couldn’t see how they thought she could have become another person in the last ten minutes. She wondered how Roger was managing with the second round of security checks – he must have really wanted to see the ship, since security checks usually set him off about his civil rights.
The lift passed one, two, three floors and kept on going. How high was it? She couldn’t see any floor numbers lighting up or any buttons to press. As soon as she’d got in, the lift had taken off automatically, pre-programmed somehow. When it stopped, she spotted another sign with the pointing finger directing her to the left. The corridor led to another sign and so she followed – left, right, right again. Every so often the sign’s direction had swung slightly off to the side, no doubt bumped by a passing visitor. Perhaps she should be leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. She paused, turning slowly around in a circle, trying to spot some landmarks that she could look out for on her way back. The walls were pale, somewhere between white and a dingy cream. The corridor was barely lit and it was hard to know where the lighting came from. She went on, concentrating on memorising the turns – Little Lambs Run Low Like Rebel Rams – she stopped in front of a door where the signpost showed a hand with its palm upright and facing her, labelled ‘Infirmary’. She scrabbled in her handbag for her phone to check the time. Damn – the screen was blank. Was the battery that low? She looked behind for someone to ask but it appeared that no-one else was interested in the medical side of the aliens this afternoon.
When she moved to touch the door, it slid open before her hand reached it. The corridor continued ahead but now, to her left, the wall was transparent. It was a kind of gallery overlooking a large brightly lit room. She strolled along, looking down on the people below, busily moving around from bench to bench or pushing trolleys with people on them. Not people, she corrected herself. Aliens. They looked just like the pictures she’d seen on TV in old B-grade science fiction movies – like people, but taller, thinner, longer arms, bigger foreheads. None of the aliens ventured about in public so, apart from the official photo shoots, the only way to see them face-to-face had been to buy a ticket to visit the ships. Now she was here, they seemed somehow ordinary – just moving about their business quietly. Very quietly, she realised after a few minutes. It wasn’t just that she was behind the glass – she could hear a low buzzing noise that sounded like it was coming from the gadgets they were using. But she couldn’t hear any sounds like talking and she couldn’t see their mouths moving. And yet, as she watched intently, she could see their teamwork was closely coordinated as they grouped around one of the beings on the trolley.
She’d come to the end of the gallery. It was probably time to start getting back – Roger would be waiting. She sensed a movement behind her. She turned to find she was looking into the large round eyes of an alien. She stepped back, bumping against the wall.
‘Sorry to have startled you, Joy. I am Dr Cyan.’
She was startled by the use of her name but then remembered they’d typed it into the computer at the checkpoint near the lift. They must have some kind of communication link between sections of the ship for security.
‘Um, pleased to meet you,’ she went to hold out her hand but opted for a quick nod instead.
‘Not many visitors have come our way today. People seem to be more interested in the control deck,’ he said in completely unaccented English.
Afterwards, when she’d had time to reflect on their meeting, she didn’t know how she had known that Dr Cyan was a ‘he’, but it seemed to fit.
‘Oh, I guess medical things interest me – I used to work on the neurological ward in our hospital. But I’m retired now of course.’ She knew Roger would have said she was prattling on but, after all, this was the first time she’d met an alien. A bit of prattling was surely reasonable under the circumstances.
Dr Cyan’s thin face expanded with his smile and he started to explain what was happening below. She wanted to ask him how they worked together so well without talking but it was hard to slip in a question as Dr Cyan talked without a pause. It was all so interesting and Dr Cyan’s voice was so compelling that somehow the time slipped past.
There was loud siren blast which made her jump. Then came other blast, longer this time, and another one, even longer. Times up, closing time at the zoo. She looked at her phone for the time, forgetting that it wasn’t working.
‘I’m sorry, Dr Cyan, but it sounds like it might be time for me to be going.’
‘A pleasure to meet you,’ Dr Cyan called after her as she hurried back along the gallery.
The door at the end of the gallery opened at her approach. The signs with the pointing fingers had ‘Way Out’ written on the back in large red letters. She laughed at herself for her silly rhyme. She quickened her pace – Roger would be getting tetchy by now. She tapped her foot as the lift descended, willing it to move faster. She took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. The lift settled and the doors opened.
A blast of sound rushed at her – a grinding, metal on metal, shrieking noise. For a moment she thought it was the lift, but then she staggered and realised the whole ship was shuddering. Wildly, she looked around trying to get her bearings in the gloom. At first she thought the entry bay was empty but then she made out figures running towards the walkway. Roger, where was Roger? It was dark – only scraps of light from the souvenir shop below winked through the mesh floor out of the deepening twilight. From what she could make out, the running people were uniformed – had they cleared out all the visitors, was she the last? A flash of red light and she glimpsed a light-coloured cap. Roger? She should run, but her feet refused to move. She made a grab for something to steady her, afraid she’d fall – the floor was tipping and shaking. Her hand fell on one of the signposts but it tipped and she nearly lost her balance. More running figures – aliens – raced across to the bank of lifts behind her. She screamed to Roger but she couldn’t hear her own voice above the deafening cacophony of shouting alien voices, all screaming at once.
‘I can’t hear you.’
‘I can’t stand it.’
‘Make it stop.’
‘Take her off.’
‘We can’t, she needs to stay.’
‘Take off, I tell you.’
She could see Roger, balanced on the metal platform of the moving walkway – one foot reaching back as if he were torn between leaping onto it, the other foot waiting behind. The reverberating roar was even louder now. There was an explosion of sparks behind him as the wall ripped apart and then fell outward. She needed to run – Roger was shouting for her, looking about everywhere. The ship lurched. She fell, her hands and knees skidding hard along the grating. Her fingers curled around the mesh as she grabbed for support – the floor tilted, lifted. A thunderous engine howl, and then a blast of flame. Through the grating she saw paper and plastic bags swirling in the up-draught, caught in the piercing light like moths. She looked up. Roger was clinging to the walkway, his arms wrapped around the rail. For a moment she thought he saw her. Then the ship lifted away. Surrounded by the thudding vibration of the engines, it was as if the walkway was ripped away in silence, swinging outwards, careering from side to side, and she saw his yellow cap getting smaller and smaller below.
* * *
There looked to be about twenty of them in the room. There was a long bench, about waist high, along the side of the room flanked by narrow stools. Joy reflected that the aliens had much slimmer figures than humans – or than she did, at least. Looking around, the other people in the room all seemed incredibly young, tall and fit. Nearly all were in some kind of uniform. The only other civilian visitor left on board apart from her was a geeky looking man. One of those ageless star trek fans, she assumed by the look of his t-shirt which bore the slogan, ‘Beam me up, Scottie’. Well, he’d got his wish, she thought. Perhaps the trekkie should have chosen another T-shirt.
No-one was talking. What they were waiting for, Joy didn’t know. In the bedlam and confusion that had followed their take-off, the soldiers had rushed around and someone had grabbed her, pushed her into a lift. Then she’d been bustled into this room, which had slowly filled up with the others. Some had cuts, roughly bandaged, and swelling bruises were starting to show. Given the state of the palms of her hands, she thought her knees might be worse for wear, but now didn’t seem the time to roll up the leg of her jeans to have a look. One of the soldiers looked like he might have broken his arm – he was cradling it with his other arm, his eyes closed, breathing slow and hard.
The silent wait was getting on her nerves. She wasn’t good with silence. Normally, she would have made some sort of enquiry or tried for a light comment to break the tension – but it was a bit hard to think of something appropriate under the circumstances. ‘Wow, that was some take-off’ didn’t capture it, somehow. Then the doors whistled open and an officer entered. His hair was reassuringly grey at the temples and he had a lot of stripes on his uniform – maybe a colonel or even higher. As he started to speak, she thought he might be from somewhere in middle Europe, somewhere Slavic.
‘If I can have your attention.’
Absolutely unnecessary, she thought. All eyes were on him.
‘The captain has not had a chance to brief me fully as yet but there appears to be an emergency situation. From what I have been able to understand from the second-in-command, Lieutenant Rosso, it seems that an old enemy has tracked them to Earth. So, all the ships have taken off and scattered, hoping to draw the enemy away.’
The trekkie spoke up, ‘So we’re not like, abducted, or anything?’
The soldiers had looked shocked when he’d started to speak without permission but now there was stifled laughter.
One man, sitting near Joy, murmured to the young woman beside him, ‘Probably disappointed at missing out on an anal probe.’
The young woman shot him a warning look, signalling Joy’s presence.
It was something to do with being older, she thought. No more rude jokes for me. As if by some strange magic associated with age, she couldn’t possibly be ribald, or, or…fun. She looked around again. Most people were sweating or looking tense. For some reason she couldn’t fathom, she was calm, as if the flood of fear on take-off was receding. She felt like she was standing on the beach, her feet half-buried in the wet sand, watching the tide ebb.
‘Dr Cyan would like to see anyone with injuries in the infirmary – that includes any cut, no matter how small, whether for service personnel or our civilians.’ He looked around, turning his gaze to the trekkie and, for the first time, to Joy.
The colonel went on to describe where those without injuries should go but the deck numbers and room codes didn’t mean anything to Joy. From their nods, she assumed the soldiers knew and they filed out past him. The colonel beckoned and she followed the trekkie out after him.
It was a long walk, turning this way and that, and after the third lift, Joy gave up trying to make up a rhyme to remember.
‘I’m Joy,’ she said to the trekkie.
‘JT,’ he answered.
‘Not JT for James T. Kirk?’
JT looked pleased and surprised.
‘I’m old enough to have watched the original series. I was a bit of a fan too, back then.’ She paused as they entered the infirmary. The buzzing noise was louder than when she’d been looking down from the gallery level only a couple of hours before. ‘Mind you, being in on the real thing is a bit different, isn’t it?’
JT nodded, swallowing hard as an alien led him over to a trolley.
She sat on a stool by the entrance – she was used to being yelled at by fierce nurses if she dared to get in the way when observing surgical procedures when she worked at the hospital. All the injured were humans. Perhaps the aliens had been seen to first, while they waited. There were five aliens looking after those in uniform, spraying cuts with a dark blue liquid. It reminded her of the blue antiseptic wound sealer she’d seen used on the sheep in the shearing competition at the show. Dr Cyan was working alongside another alien attending to the soldier with the broken arm. The soldier was white with pain but was stoically silent as Dr Cyan and his assistant manoeuvred his bones back into position.
‘Can’t that be done under anaesthetic?’ Joy blurted.
Dr Cyan looked around, his lids falling over his large eyes. ‘Why?’
‘Because it’s hurting him.’
Dr Cyan’s eyelids slid shut briefly and then opened widely. He went over to the wall and touched what seemed to Joy to be a perfectly blank spot. A panel slid back to reveal row upon row of containers. He busied himself for a few moments and then came back to the soldier with a syringe prepped and injected it into his shoulder. The soldier opened his eyes for the first time and, looking to Joy, mouthed, ‘thanks’. She wondered whether it was like some people treated animals and babies – as if somehow they couldn’t empathise with their pain. Maybe we’re like animals or children to aliens, she thought.
Eventually, a female alien – again, Joy couldn’t have said how she knew – came over and applied the blue spray as Joy held out the palms of her hands and rolled up the leg of her jeans to show her knees. She wondered whether the alien medic hadn’t learnt a human language or was shy around humans since she carried out her work silently, avoiding eye contact, before moving on to the next patient. The humming noise was getting louder and more annoying. The infirmary slowly emptied – the soldier, now strapped into a harness, lay on a trolley by the far wall. Sleeping it off, she presumed. Joy shifted uncomfortably on the narrow stool.
Dr Cyan looked in her direction and the buzzing suddenly stopped.
He scrutinised her for several seconds, then said, ‘Come over here – I think you may be more comfortable sitting on the trolley.’
Joy didn’t know if she’d imagined it but was there a hint of humour in those large eyes? She took up his offer and suppressed a sigh of relief as she wriggled herself up to sit on the trolley.
‘Anything else hurt?’
She shook her head. ‘Just stiff, more than anything. Nothing a long hot bath wouldn’t sort out. I don’t suppose you have any of them.’
Shaking his head, Dr Cyan tried again. ‘You were very frightened. But you didn’t run to get off the ship.’ He seemed to be making factual statements, not seeking a response. No, she didn’t run – but she couldn’t run. Should she have run? Or, a small voice from the corner of her mind asked, did she not want to get off the ship?
‘You’re sure you’re not in shock? Aren’t you worried at all – about what has happened to your husband?’
It was only then she realised that she hadn’t thought about Roger at all since the take-off.
‘But he would have been okay, wouldn’t he?’ She fought back the rising guilt. ‘He made it to the walkway and he was hanging on. They would have got him down.’ She thought of him, holding on as the walkway swung away from the spaceship. He would have been all right. She was sure he would have been all right.
Dr Cyan made a movement that could have been the alien equivalent of a shrug and began to walk over to the soldier on the trolley.
From over his shoulder he said in his query-that-wasn’t-a query tone, ‘So, I wonder why it is that you do such a lot of thinking about sheep.’
She continued to watch him as he tended the soldier, turning over the implications of his question. It was looking like this trip might have a very indefinite itinerary indeed.