Word count: 3693
Whilst the selection of the nearby park had been lucky for Will and David, being within a reasonable walking distance from their homes, it was a fine choice of venue for everyone. It was a large facility, providing tennis courts and a football pitch in addition to two wide lawns bordered on all sides by shady trees, with a fenced-in area of play structures of all types for the children. As was usual for such a bright summer day, the place was bubbling with people: joggers on the paths, dog walkers, frisbee tossers on the lawns, kids chasing each other back and forth.
The company had reserved an area near the football pitch, and by the time the two men arrived, the party had already started. The food was set up under a white canopy, and there was a small group chasing the black-and-white ball around the pitch.
As they approached the area, David remarked, "The football's already started. You're missing out."
Will rubbed his hands in eager anticipation. "Not for long. Come on!"
His friend shook his head. "You go on. Enjoy yourself."
He jabbed a finger toward David's shoes. "Don't let those trainers go to waste. Put them to good use."
"I always wear trainers. I use them just fine."
"Bloody hell, mate! You're a hard nut." Will grinned and trotted off toward the pitch, David following at a leisurely pace.
There weren't enough people to make two teams, but the players made do with what they had, and they ran a bit loose with the rules. Will found himself out of breath rather quickly, which was no surprise since his preferred form of entertainment consisted of long periods of sitting still with his only motions that of his fingers on mouse and keyboard, but the activity was exhilarating and he vowed to work on his conditioning to be in better shape for the next year. As more people arrived at the party, more players joined the pitch, filling out two teams and more. Though they weren't turning anyone away, Will decided that a half-hour of running and kicking (and usually missing) was enough for now and used the excuse that the teams were too large to search for refreshment.
After fetching a cup of water and drinking it down twice, he joined David, who he found had acquainted himself with Liz, one of the marketers. The two of them were sitting on a bench, watching over Liz's two daughters and a number of the other children at the play structures, whilst Liz knitted.
"Hoy, Will." David seemed pretty relaxed. "Game over already?"
"Nah." He poked a thumb over his shoulder toward the pitch. "Plenty enough for now. Don't want to overdo it."
"You look a bit peaky. Come sit a spell." Liz patted the bench next to her.
"Thanks." Not wanting to admit how winded he actually was, he sat down carefully next to her.
"David's been keeping me company while I watch the kiddies. Everyone else has run off." She jerked her head toward the canopy as her hands continued to work her needles. "Though I don't mind. That one there's Tom's son, and those two are Patrick's, and they're all sweethearts. I barely need to keep an eye on them."
"Tom's son," David murmured, as if trying to commit the boy to memory. "Josh, right? I like him. He said I look like Spider-Man." Setting fists on his hips, he puffed out his chest with pride.
Both Will and Liz laughed. "I don't know, mate. Peter Parker is kind of a scrawny git."
David continued to show off his silhouette, nose in the air. "I am not 'scrawny'. I am 'trim'. 'Svelte'. 'Wiry', perhaps." He impressed them both with his ability to keep a straight, supercilious face.
"Oh?" Will matched his condescending tone. "Care to prove that on the pitch?"
"Absolutely not. I am far too busy striking poses to awe the masses." He lost it at that point, dissolving into laughter, and the other two joined him.
Finally regaining composure, Will wiped a tear from his eye and sniffed. "Well, for all that I've ragged on you, mate, I've got to say, football may be too much for me. I could barely keep up with all those young ones out there."
"'Young ones'?" coughed Liz. "You can't be more than twenty-five!"
"Hmph." She pointed at him with her knitting needles. "You have no right to complain about your age. You're not the youngest employee, but a lot of us are far older than you."
"Yeah. I just need to get in shape." An idea came to him and he turned to David. "We should go running together, mate."
David stared at him. "What? Now?"
"Are you mental? I mean, set up a time to run every couple of days. What do you say?"
His friend grimaced in distaste. "I don't see the point."
"Health and fitness are the usual ones."
"'Svelte'. 'Wiry'." Waving his hands up and down his torso, he indicated his physique. "Do I need to demonstrate again?"
Will snorted. "We can all use more exercise, mate."
David wasn't convinced. "I'll think about it. In the meantime, I'm famished. Shall we round up the kiddies for lunch?"
As Liz agreed eagerly and began packing away her knitting, Will shrugged. David was never hungry and so he knew he was using lunch as an excuse to drop the conversation. He resolved to bring up the idea later, and couch it in terms of having one more thing to do with his friend. That was the way to get David to agree.
The three adults corralled the children, delivering the extras to the correct parents, and after fetching their food, David and Will sat down to eat with the group David had first met at Marco's. They ate and chatted for over an hour, until Will's yen for football overcame him again, and he persuaded all the men except David to join him out on the pitch; Amy didn't like the sport and Mary, who had spent the time before lunch mixing it with the blokes, decided she'd had enough for the day. The three were happy to find a grassy spot on the sidelines to watch the fun and chat.
With rest and renewed energy from food, Will gained his second wind, playing a lot better than he had the first time, even managing to execute a rather flawless drive (well, flawless for him, anyway) and scoring a point for his team. As he jogged back down the pitch, Michael came up alongside him.
"Hey, Will, you looking for a team? We could use you."
Surprised by the offer, Will grinned. "Me? What kind of team?"
"Pub league. Bottom of, mind you, but you gotta start somewhere." Michael shrugged in embarrassment. "We're... enthusiastic?"
"My kind of team!" Will pounded Michael on the shoulder as they ran. "When do you practise, and when are the games? I'm mostly open but there's a couple of -"
An enormous BOOM overhead stunned the two men, sending them sprawling on the grass. Clapping his hands to his deafened ears, Will rolled onto his back and nearly choked as his stomach convulsed in awe. A gigantic grey metallic disc with four blue blossoms of light in a square on its surface hovered high above him. He rubbed at his ears to try to clear them, and in a moment, behind the screams and shouts coming from all directions, he could hear a distant but steady roar of powerful engines. Aliens! Real aliens! Jumping to his feet, he kept an eye on the disc and concluded that it was descending. It was slow, but it was coming down, right on top of him.
Most of the people in the park were running, terrified. The football players were already scattering, and Liz and her husband had scooped up their two children and were fleeing for their lives. A couple of foolhardy folk had their phones out, recording the descent of the flying saucer, while a few others stood stunned. Will saw David, standing ten metres away on the forgotten sideline, gaping at the disc in disbelief. "You are kidding me!" he finally coughed out. "This... this is not my fault!" His incredulity suddenly transformed to utter seriousness, and he spun slowly in place, surveying the area. "Get them away. Far away." Spotting his friend, he sprinted to him, waving to secure his attention.
"Will! Tell people to get out, to run as far as they can. Don't stop running!"
"They are! Can't you see?"
"No! They're going to think they're safe when they reach the houses. Tell them don't stop until they're at least two blocks out. That ship is too big. The thrusters will burn up the trees and maybe the houses on the edge. Everyone's got to keep running! Go! Go!" Without stopping to verify that Will understood, he dashed off to the nearest stunned person, grabbing her hand to coax her into fleeing.
While he might not know what David was talking about, Will knew people needed to flee and followed his friend's example. The closest person was a phone jockey. "Hey, mate, you've got to run! That thing's coming down right on top of us!" he yelled as he ran up to him.
The man dismissed his warnings. "We've got time. This is going to be the greatest! Alien ship right here in town!" Will grabbed the man's arm that was holding the phone to pull him into running. "Hey, shove off! I'm making my fortune here!"
"You're not the sharpest knife in the drawer, are you? What's the point of the video if you're dead?" Will snatched the phone out of the man's hand and, throwing it into the dirt, ground his heel into the touchscreen.
"Oi! That was my phone!"
"Oh, just shift!" He wasn't going to waste any more time on that moron and dashed off in search of the next person that needed motivation to save themselves. By this point, most people were either gone or fleeing, but many had stopped at the edge of the park, peering around the corners of the terraces to watch the disc descend. There was no way he and David would be able to warn everyone off, but they could reach at least some of them. He sprinted off toward the nearest street.
As he approached the first group of gawkers, their awed expressions made him glance up at the descending disc, and for the second time in the last few minutes, he stumbled over his own feet, this time catching himself before he hit the pavement. The craft was not a flying saucer, but a tall cylinder, panelled on its sides and capped on its ends. From his oblique angle, he couldn't tell how big the craft actually was, but it was certainly multiple times taller than any building in town. A woman's sobbing, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod," jolted him back to his task.
"Keep running, everyone!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. "You've got to run. The ship will smash this far out. Keep going into town!" Sweeping his arms in the direction he wanted them to go, he ran up to anyone who wasn't moving and pushed them to get them started. Those who resisted, he left; he didn't have time to argue.
As he ran, Will noticed that the windows in the nearby houses had been blown out by the sonic boom, their curtains flapping in the chaotic wind raised by the currents of the spaceship's blasters, and he wondered just how far out the damage had spread. It also brought to mind the last time he'd seen sonic shattering of windows, all across London at Christmastime, going on four years before, when the Sycorax ship, a monstrosity that looked like it was carved from an island, had attempted to control the world. Will hadn't been a walker and so had gotten a good look at that alien craft, hanging in the sky, cold and silent. It hadn't descended to earth, rumbling and threatening to scorch the town, like the one above his head. This one was a direct threat to his life, and yet he wasn't fleeing in panic. How exactly did that work?
After two long blocks of clearing people out, Will stopped to catch his breath, panting heavily as he leaned against a low wall. He suspected that if he hadn't just been chasing a ball up and down the pitch, he wouldn't be so out-of-breath. However, glancing around as he rested, he saw that others had taken up his torch, passing on his message and spurring more people to flee further, and he smiled. Perhaps he could get himself out of the danger zone now. He started walking in the direction he'd been sending everyone else, his hand on his chest as it heaved.
Half a block later, his phone chirped. Stopping and fishing it out of his pocket, he thumbed the button and held it up to his ear as he panted. "Will?" It was David.
"Yeah. People are getting out."
"Good, good. Where are you?"
He spun to spot the street signs. "Bailey and... Bennett."
"Okay. I'll be right there."
"But -" Click.
Will didn't want to stay in the danger zone, but David obviously expected him to be there. He glanced up at the ship, noting that the roar of the engines was louder but not yet deafening, and, deciding he still had a few minutes to escape being roasted, sat down on a curb to wait. There was nothing to do but watch the craft descend. Impossibly steady for such a large, unwieldy object, it floated down slowly, its progress almost unnoticeable from this angle, except that it seemed to grow ever larger. With a sudden mechanical clunk that reverberated over the town, three panels, equidistant around the bottom of the craft, opened and extended, transforming into claw-like landing legs.
Will barely heard David's voice over the roar of the engines, and he looked up to see the man approaching from the park: he'd actually run across the landing zone to get to him. His heart clenched, and he leapt up and prepared to sprint off, beckoning his friend to move faster.
"David!" he called back. "Come on! Let’s go."
"Oh, no, no. We're safe here." David jogged up. "The ship is actually smaller than the park. I said two blocks just to get people further out. It's better that way." He spun and looked around. "We can see what's going on from here. But over there, behind the wall, so they don't see us." He trotted off to his indicated spot, and Will followed him in bemusement.
"Just in time," David murmured as they concealed themselves behind a wall in the first terrace by the park, giving them a good view of the spacecraft. At first, Will had no idea what he was talking about, but then he realised that the immense size of the ship distorted his perception of its speed: it was much nearer to touching down than he had estimated. The thrusters, which had at first appeared shaped like stunted eggs, were now obviously long blue torches. As their tips approached the surface of the park, the radiating heat burned off the vegetation, a circle of flame expanding outward, reducing the green lawn and the bushes and trees in its path to grey ash in an instant. Will shuddered to think that the blasts of warm wind in his face, smelling of smoke and some kind of alien fuel, might soon turn into a melting gale.
His hand over his mouth, David mumbled to himself as they watched. "What are they doing here? Why do they think they have the right? Oh, this is a nightmare!" Will tried to pay attention to what he was saying, but he was mesmerised by his front-row view of an alien landing. The thrusters were now blasting house-sized divots in the ground, ruining the football pitch Will and his friends had been playing on only minutes earlier. David was right: the ship's circumference was smaller than the park, though only just, and the ring of fire had reached the windbreak in places, individual trees now giant torches. As Will blocked the increasing heat on his face with an arm, the ship's landing claws hit the ground and its full weight settled, the ground trembling and the body of the craft groaning mechanically as it adjusted to its landing position. Dust sprinkled over the watchers as the house above them shook. The thrusters cut out with a final puff of air, strong as a gale, which nearly knocked the two men over and snuffed out the flaming trees, though they continued to smoulder.
An eerie silence fell over the park, broken only by the creaking of the ship's structure. Will gazed up at the silver cylinder, towering immobile over the surrounding town, and imagined gun ports opening in the sides, blasting everything to dust. Grabbing David’s arm, he tugged hard. “Let’s get out of here before the aliens come out. It's not safe.” He was proud that he managed to keep his voice from squeaking.
Watching the spaceship intently, David didn’t even turn. “Nah. They’re Judoon. They don’t do anything without filling out permission forms in triplicate. They’ll be out in - ah! There!”
With a sound like the opening of a giant deep freezer door, a panel in the bottom of the ship detached, lowering to form a ramp to the ground. As soon as it stabilised, bulky soldiers in skirted matte black armor tramped down in perfectly-aligned dual columns. Will blinked and stared as he realised that they appeared to be humanoid rhinoceros.
“Space rhinos?” This time his voice cracked on the words.
“Yup. Space rhino police, to be exact. But why are they here? They don’t have jurisdiction on Earth.” David scrubbed a hand down over his jaw as the rhinos, still spilling from the ship, marched to form four perfectly ordered platoons, a rectangle of rectangles. One soldier stood in front of the array.
Will’s hand tightened on David’s arm. “What are you talking about? You know what those things are?”
His friend ignored his questions, his attention on the lone rhino. “Come on, come on,” he murmured. “What do you want?”
At that moment, the opening bars to the Indiana Jones theme filled the air, and Will clapped his hand to his pocket to muffle it. "That's Ben," Will whispered as he pulled out his phone and put it on silent. "He probably wants to know if we made it out."
"Call him back later," David hissed, holding a finger to his lips without taking his eyes off the aliens. Exasperated, Will declined the call and stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
As soon as the fourth platoon assembled, the lead rhino turned to face away from his army. “Mo! Go! Fo! To! Ro! Sho!” His deep guttural voice boomed across the empty park. “O bo flo!”
Pulling at his hair, David groaned in frustration. “Oh, you’re so thick! They're not going to understand you.” He slapped his hand to his forehead as the leader continued to shout his nonsense syllables to the air.
Abruptly, the leader did an about face and started shouting toward his troops. David nodded. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Will’s jaw dropped. “You understand them?” Incredulous, his voice was an octave higher than normal.
David shushed his friend with an impatient wave of his hand. “That first stuff was just a standard announcement of arrival and a request for a representative. Now these are troop orders, which will be more informative.” He held a finger up to keep Will quiet. “Bring back a human for interrogation, of course, yeah. And then search the town and… ‘Find it’? ‘It’? What’s ‘it’?” At one last booming command from the leader, the platoons turned to march off in perfect lines streaming out of the park. “Oh, don’t leave me hanging!” He punched the air in frustration, then beckoned “Come on!” to Will before striding off behind the house.
Will trotted to keep up with his friend, who was muttering wildly to himself. “What is ‘it’? Is that all I have to work with? How am I supposed to do anything with that? Doctor, where are you?” He halted suddenly, such that Will almost crashed into him, and grabbed at the clasp of his necklace, undoing it and holding the chain in his hand, the medallion dangling as he gazed up into the sky.
Inhaling to protest, Will grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. "Come on, mate. We've got to run. They'll be here any minute."
"No, no, no. You don't understand." He flung an arm towards the park. "Those rhinos, they're police, and they're looking for something. If they don't find it, they'll assume that the humans are hiding it from them. That's obstruction of justice at best, or they might judge the earth as guilty of possessing illegal property, or kidnapping if 'it' is a person. Either way, the sentence is execution."
Will frowned in mocking disbelief. "Of who?"
"Of the town. Perhaps the country if they can make it stick." He gazed around at the houses, thinking. "Thing is, this is a level five planet. Why do they think they have the jurisdiction? We've got to find out what 'it' is."
"Level five planet?” Will was on the edge of hysteria. “What in the bloody hell are you talking about?" The tramp of heavy boots approaching caught their attention. Will hissed at his friend, "Let's go!" but David shook his head.
“There's got to be something we can do. We'll think of something, won't we, Will? Until then, we’d best stay out of their way." He glanced around them, then nodded. "Back to the house. Best place for us to hide. Come on.” Stringing the necklace back around his neck, he broke into a run, and Will had no choice but to follow.