The quiet was eerie and the orange street lights bathed everything in a sickly glow. Here and there the remnants of the storm ran over blocked drains, tiny weirs that glinted in the artificial light.
Further down the street the hill on which Terry walked levelled out and the streams of rainwater met in a small lake that covered the road from footpath to footpath.
Terry stopped and looked up at the starless sky. One single point of interest hung in it, hovering over the city like a sentinel. From the ground the army searchlights arced over the sky around it, occasionally catching the departing or arriving ships that buzzed around the strange craft.
When the lights had began to be seen in the skies months before people had dismissed them; as they did the strange sounds that followed, noises that sounded like a whale cry, or a long off moaning of pain.
The lights were understandable, people had been seeing them for generations, but the sounds were a mystery within a mystery. Millions heard them and millions ignored them: moans that filled cities as if the Earth itself was crying out in pain; or perhaps fear.
Another sound drew Terry back from his reverie and he shielded his eyes from the approaching duo of lights.
“Hold still,” an amplified voice barked, “show me your hands.”
Terry was still already, but obediently he raised his hands to shoulder height as the army vehicle approached, pulling to a stop beside him. In the passenger seat a young soldier who did not look old enough to shave lowered the megaphone from his lips.
“You realise theres a curfew?”
“What are you doing out then?”
Terry lowered his hands and he heard someone in the vehicle chamber a round. He thought for a moment about this and found that he didn’t care.
“Visiting my Grandmother” He nodded up the hill to a house sitting by itself between a park and a building site. The soldier glanced in the same direction for a moment then snapped his attention back to Terry.
“…At this time of night?”
“Yes, at this time of night.”
The soldier chewed his lower lip for a moment and glanced into the back of the vehicle. Someone back there muttered something that Terry didn’t catch and the soldier looked back at him.
“We’re going to have to take you in.”
The door on the far side of the vehicle opened and Terry saw a figure emerge from it, followed by another figure dropping from the back of it.
“No you’re not.” Terry answered simply and the soldiers all paused, one of them levelling his weapon in Terry’s direction.
Terry’s eyes didn’t leave the soldier in front of him, and he saw a bead of sweat rolling down the young mans cheek despite the cool night air.
For the longest moment no one moved, and Terry felt multiple eyes inspecting his own lack of movement.
No one knew what the thing in the sky meant, there had been no demands, there had been no requests; but there had been many, many questions. People hypothesised, while others simply prophesised. People were frightened and fear made people do strange things. Everyone had heard the reports of suicide and psychosis and Terry knew what these soldiers must be thinking.
The soldier licked his lips and took a deep breath.
“Now listen up…”
“No,” Terry interrupted him, keeping his voice low and even, “I think you should listen to me for a moment before you decide what to do.” He paused to let this sink in to the young mans scared mind before he continued. “Could you do that for me please?”
Terry noticed the slight twitch as his use of the word “please” and knew the young soldier had been taken off-guard. The young man nodded.
“Thank you.” Terry kept the same even tone in his voice, in the corner of his eye he saw the soldier with the levelled weapon move a little closer.
“What I want to do is to visit my Grandmother; I want to spend about an hour there with her so that I can tell her that I love her and that things will be okay. Then I intend to go back home to my wife. My home is down the hill a ways, on the right hand side of the road. Then I’ll climb into bed with my wife, hold her close and fall to sleep hoping that we’ll all wake in the morning.”
Terry watched the soldier eyes as he spoke, feeling a tear trickle from his own eye before realising it.
“But we have orders…”
Terry looked up into the sky once more, search beams swept over the underbelly of the craft that hung there, casting shadows that Terry knew were holes from which the smaller vessels would sometimes emerge, floating on the air for a moment before moving away so fast the eye could not see them.
When he looked back the young soldier was staring into the sky with wide eyes. His lower lip trembled like a child on the verge of tears.
“If they decide to hurt us we’ll be hurting, you know that don’t you?”
Without looking back the soldier nodded and Terry saw a tear start to form in his eye.
The soldier’s eyes moved back to Terry, completely unaware of the tear tracks that now decorated his face.
“If that happens I want to have made peace with the people I love. When that happens I want to be holding my wife close and telling her I love her.”
The soldier swallowed and took another deep breath.
“And I’m sorry but to stop me doing this you’re going to have to kill me. Do you think you can do that?”
Terry was acutely aware of the weapon aimed at him but he felt a calm that was as eerie as the night surrounding them.
A frown flickered across the soldiers face, his eyes flickering first to the ship above them, and then to the weapon his companion held.
Terry waited, his eyes followed the headlights of the army vehicle to the pool of rainwater that had replaced the road some way down the hill. Raindrops were falling in it; to begin with they were slow and sporadic but steadily they gained momentum as the heavens opened and the rain began to fall afresh.
He imagined the soldiers opening fire and his blood running down the hill to meet that tiny lake of water, in the daydream they climbed back into their vehicle and left him to die in the rain.
Then he found, with a happy kind of shame that the daydream held not horror for him, but peace instead.
“We’ll be back in one hour.” The soldier said.
Terry was once again brought back to the moment. The levelled weapon had been lowered and the men were climbing back into their transport.
“Make sure you’re back at home by then.” The soldier called as the vehicle pulled away. Terry watched it plough through the lake of rainwater then disappear into the darkness at the foot of the hill.
For a while he just stood there, feeling the leaden weight of his legs slowly coming back under his control before he slowly made his way up the hill towards the house standing between the playground and the building site. The quiet felt peaceful now, the eeriness he felt earlier had evaporated. The garden gate in front of him was low enough that he could almost step over it but out of years of habit he leaned down and swung it open instead. It squeaked in response, then did it again as it was closed. The flowers beside the path smelled sweeter than he could ever remember and, even though he knew that the smell of them shouldn’t reach him through the pouring rain, he knew it all to be true.
Slowly his legs began to work at their normal pace and he fished in his pocket for the key to the front door, it was golden in colour and where the teeth fitted the lock the gold had worn off to tarnished silver.
For a moment he looked at it as if he had never seen a key before.
Then for the last time of the night he looked up at the strange ship in the sky and he wondered.