A Rude Awakening
He was going to die.
Of that, he was pretty much certain.
He was, not to put too fine a point on it, completely stuffed. Knackered. Washed out. Had it.
That, and the small matter of a homicidal alien nutcase that was stalking him, pretty much meant it was game over for Mr William Aldgate Twigg.
Another lightning bolt cracked open the sky like a window shattering. A bright sheet of light flashed and rebounded off the surrounding grandiose marble buildings, followed a second later by an almighty bang that echoed around the square. Undulating sheets of heavy rain pounded the paving slabs and bounced back up into the electrified night air, creating a fine haze.
There was an uncanny glow to the abandoned landmark, caused in the main by flickering, unreliable street lights and numerous fires that had escaped the rain so far.
Billy was lying on his back amongst the rubble of a smashed fountain, squinting through half-closed eyes at the hammering downpour. Thunder rumbled through the enclosed city space and, high above him, thick black clouds swirled in an unnatural manner, their edges occasionally sharpened by blood-red crackles of light from deep within.
His organic metal armoured suit was now torn, burnt and pretty much useless. Even his helmet had been smashed and no longer offered any protection – the only vestiges being a few jagged fragments of glass poking out of the collar where the dome had once been attached. Broken electronics hung from wires around his face, occasional sparks and flickers of light from the mangled apparatus illuminating his tired, yet resolute, countenance.
On a normal day, Billy Twigg was a handsome thirteen-year-old boy, with a kind, narrow face framed by unruly blond hair and set with hazelnut eyes. But today was not a normal day. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Today, Billy looked haunted and gaunt. His eyes were grey and his hair was matted down with congealed blood. He looked like someone who’d seen and done things they wished they could forget all about, but knew would haunt them until their dying day. Still, if there was a plus side to any of this, that dying day was here. Now.
Billy called out a girl’s name – Laura – but it was lost to the cacophony of the storm. He yelled it out a few more times in a wavering voice that betrayed his declining health. It was useless. Nobody could hear him. Nobody was coming to his aid. He could taste blood in his mouth too, which, in an oddly poetic moment, he concluded was what defeat must taste like.
He tried to stand up and yelped in pain. He was trapped across his shins by a heavy, larger than life bronze sculpture of a mermaid clutching two dolphins. How had it got there? How had he got there?
The best he could manage was to sit up, which in itself was surprisingly hard work due to the large amount of rainwater that had poured into his suit through the exposed neck ring – making it several kilograms heavier.
When he finally sat upright, his heightened posture offered him an improved view of his surroundings. It was complete carnage.
Overturned vehicles, including black cabs and red double-decker buses, lay strewn amongst scattered rubble and broken masonry in every direction he looked. Some vehicles had fires blazing inside, where rainwater hadn’t managed to seep in and extinguish them, making them glimmer like surreal lanterns.
There were no people, anywhere. Not even bodies. Everybody had vanished into thin air. Everybody except Billy, that was.
The boy was tired and in considerable pain. He slumped back down, a couple of litres of water sloshing out of the suit’s neck hole and over his face. He was breathing hard and despite the acute pain in his legs, he tried to wriggle free of the obstruction. But try as he might, he was stuck fast.
He gazed up at one of the enormous bronze lion sculptures around the base of the decapitated commemorative column and wished it would come to life and rescue him. It ignored his mental pleas and gazed stoically into the distance from its lofty stone plinth. Another lightning crack split the sky in half and accentuated the masterful curves of its imposing muscular form.
‘I’ll give you one last chance, Twigg,’ rasped a slow and sinister male voice from behind him, only just audible above the noise of the continuing storm. ‘Tell me where it is. I’ll end your suffering quickly.’ Deep, hacking laughter then followed.
Billy sat back up instantly and twisted his body painfully around to look behind himself. An impossibly tall, spindly man was hovering off the ground nearby, his feet together and arms outstretched. His body was twisted and malformed, as if he’d been walloped with hammers – one shoulder poking up too high and a knee at an awkward, broken angle.
But the eyes. It was his eyes that mesmerised. They were ablaze like twin suns, searing a hellish memory into Billy’s mind. The devilish creature’s entire body was wrapped in a dense, black, bandage-like material that made him look like a silhouette. Behind him, several lengths of jet-black cloth formed a tattered-looking cape, but one that seemed alive – the strips bobbing in the air like charmed snakes.
‘Go to hell. I’m not scared of you,’ shouted Billy, spitting a gob of blood at the aberration, before collapsing painfully onto his back again, exhausted.
He lay there panting for a moment or two and then leaned his head as far back as he could until the world appeared upended. The abomination came back into view, looking like a charred, inverted crucifix.
‘I almost feel sorry for you, actually,’ said Billy. ‘You’re wretched and pathetic.’ He laughed back at him in defiance.
‘So be it,’ growled the ancient traveller. ‘We’ll do it the long way and kill your entire planet. You can die knowing you murdered them all.’
He motioned his hands towards the boy, an action that was immediately mimicked by his threadbare, writhing cape. Nine bands of fabric extended from his shoulders and quickly slithered through the air towards Billy, transforming into snakes of dense black smoke as they gathered pace.
The boy could see blood-red veins glowing inside their undulating forms as they grew ever nearer. Then when they were close, they stopped, recoiled back slightly, and sprang their attack.
Billy closed his eyes, resigned to his fate, only for recent incidents in his messed-up life to flash before them like hyper-fast-forwarding video. Three moments leapt out at him in particular: a comet smashing into the moon, telling a girl his big secret, and the day he met Sal …
Billy awoke with a jolt, one of his arms flicking out and knocking over a salt cellar. He blinked his eyes a few times to try and focus, but all he could make out was a blurry condiment rolling across the tabletop. He stopped it just before it fell over the side and placed it back upright next to what appeared to be pepper and sugar dispensers. He rubbed his eyes hard for several seconds and then looked around.
He could see he was occupying a dimly lit café booth, and was slumped over the table. It was set for one, with a knife and fork wrapped in a paper napkin lying to his right. Strangely, the handle ends were levitating about a centimetre off the surface and swinging left and right like a slow-motion metronome. Music was playing in the background, an old rock ’n roll track vaguely familiar to him. A Bill Haley song, he thought.
He sat up slowly, rubbing the back of his neck – stiff as if he’d been lying at an uncomfortable angle for a while. His booth was the middle one in a row of nine running flush against a wall on his left. There were large windows above every table, each with rounded corners, framed by riveted chrome. It was dark outside apart from blinking, gaudy colours that suggested neon lights might be flashing somewhere out there.
To his right was a narrow strip of linoleum flooring and then a long thin counter that ran the full length of the room. In front of it were at least twenty chrome stools bolted to the floor and topped with round, burgundy, cushioned seats that matched the upholstery in the booths.
Overall the decor was a mixture of aluminium and stainless steel. It looked very much as though he was inside a vintage railway carriage refitted as a diner – like the ones you sometimes see in old American movies.
At the end of the room nearest him was a very sturdy looking double-glass door with a large red illuminated box above it. A white icon of a hand, palm outwards in a stop gesture was printed onto it. It didn’t fit in with the rest of the 1950s period surroundings at all. It looked peculiar, as though it belonged in a modern airport. But, then again, peculiar things had become something of the norm for Billy lately.
During the last few months he’d become quite the international traveller. To begin with he’d been all over Britain. Then to Paris, Sydney, Toronto and New York. All for free and without needing to pack a passport or even catch a plane.
More remarkable still was that this feat had been achieved while asleep – for his journeys had all been in dreams. Incredibly vivid, lifelike dreams. Dreams which at first happened in a conventional manner, during the night – when normal people slept.
Lately, though, things had taken a slightly awkward turn. Now his dreams were capable of sneaking up on him completely unawares in the daytime. One minute he might be playing football in the park. The next he could be lying flat on his back, completely out cold, while his mind took a short vacation up the CN Tower, or went for a walk along the Champs Élysées, or decided to wander over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
As romantic or fun as these little excursions sounded, the reality of suddenly collapsing asleep in front of your mates was not fun. Collapsing asleep in front of people you didn’t like was even less fun. And collapsing asleep in Mr Hagnaby’s double maths lesson was just plain and simple asking for trouble.
Unfortunately, the last thing Billy could remember was double maths. Now he wasn’t in double maths. Now he was in an American diner, probably in America too, given his recent track record. Since, as far as he was aware, teleportation was the stuff of science fiction TV shows and didn’t actually exist, it could lead to only one inevitable conclusion: he had fallen asleep in maths and was dreaming yet again. And not just that, but in the classroom of a teacher renowned for his grumpiness and penchant for underhand violence.
A pained expression found its way to Billy’s face and he let out a long, exasperated sigh. If such a thing as a sigh-reading machine existed, it would have translated this one as ‘Oh no, I’m going to get detention again for this.’ He then inhaled deeply to fill up his depleted lungs and in the process got an unexpected whiff of a wonderful, greasy fast-food smell coming from somewhere behind him.
He then noticed his stomach was rumbling and realised that he was absolutely starving. He turned to see what was cooking, the burgundy plastic-cushioned bench he was sitting on squeaking as he twisted around.
At the back of the long, narrow room was a stainless-steel kitchen area and serving counter. Working the grill was a chef who made Billy’s jaw slacken and droop open.
The short-order cook looked up. It was a flabby green creature, wearing a baggy old Star Wars movie T-shirt covered with food stains and stretched over a full bosom. It was mostly bald except for a sprout of purple hair that rose vertically from the centre of its overly large head, tied at the top with a red ribbon. The creature’s skin was lumpy and blotchy and wet-looking. It was wiping down the counter with one hand, turning down a gas hob with another, and selecting music tracks on an old Wurlitzer jukebox with the other one.
‘Well, I’ll be darned, you made it,’ it said, in an unlikely American cowgirl drawl. ‘I have no idea how you did that, but I expect you’re hungry, right? What can I get you?’
The strange green creature stared at Billy. After an uncomfortable few seconds it nodded its head slightly, in a gesture that clearly meant, ‘Come on, your turn to speak.’
Billy stared at it in silence.
‘Darn, this is a little awkward. Ahem, you okay, sonny?’ enquired the cook.
Billy’s eyes remained frozen wide open, unblinking. He was quite literally dumbstruck at the sight before him. A three-armed alien was talking to him, as if this was a normal, everyday situation. And it apparently wanted to cook him a meal.
‘Come on, sunshine, what’ll it be?’
After a pause that felt like an age but was in reality just a few seconds, Billy whispered, ‘A cheeseburger would be nice.’
‘Coming right up. Want fries with that?’
‘Er, yes please,’ croaked Billy, feeling rather ridiculous.
‘No thank you.’
‘I got Coke, 7-Up, Dr Pepper, Hires, or Squirt. Or you can have one of my pretty darn amazing milkshakes. What’ll it be?’
‘What kind of milkshakes do you have?’
‘Pretty darn amazing ones. Ain’t you listening too good? I got raspberry or raspberry. Oh, or I could do you a raspberry one … if you ask real nice.’
‘I’ll try one of those then, please,’ said a bemused Billy.
‘Er, the raspberry one … please.’
‘Right you are.’ The strange cook turned away and began collecting ingredients: a bun, two slices of cheese, a meat patty, two lettuce leaves, a dill pickle, half an onion, and mustard and ketchup bottles. She got the patty sizzling immediately on the hot plate with what looked like a large lump of lard and then glided over to a big fridge-freezer and pulled out some milk, ice-cream, and a big tub of fresh raspberries.
‘So what brings you to these parts,’ said the slippery-looking cook, a small puff of green smoke wafting out of a dribbly nostril.
‘I have no idea,’ replied Billy, feeling extremely awkward and rather out of sorts.
‘Just passing through, then?’
‘I guess, that might be the best way to describe it,’ said Billy, suddenly having a thought. He felt around his waist. He didn’t have any money on him. In fact, he didn’t even think he had pockets. His clothes felt weird, too, but it was difficult to see what he had on in the dingy booth. ‘I’m sorry, you’d better stop,’ he said hesitantly. ‘I don’t have my wallet with me.’
‘No worries, kid,’ said the cook before switching on a very loud blender. She then glided over to a fryer and pulled out a mesh container full of fries; she stood them on a drainer with one arm while expertly chopping an onion and tossing the rings onto the hot plate next to the burger with the other two. ‘I’ve started now. We can come to an arrangement over payment later.’
Billy sat and watched the cook in silence. She was zooming about the kitchen almost in a blur, arms flying all over the place grabbing, chopping and pouring things. He’d had some pretty remarkable dreams over the last few months, but this one was unlike anything he’d ever had before.
‘Shoot, where are my manners,’ said the alien. ‘My name is Sally Magmajude. Folks around here call me Sleepy Sal, on account of my place rocking to and fro.’ She paused a tick, and gestured an arm to her surroundings. ‘Folks have a tendency to nod off up here, you see? I don’t mind it. I owns this joint, so let me welcome you to Sleepy Sal’s Star-Plucked Café’.
She glided out from behind the counter and across the chequered floor, carrying a round tray laden with food. Her podgy legs were stuffed into roller skates, allowing her to make unsteady pirouettes as she went. She drew to a stop beside Billy, slid the tray onto his table, curtsied, and pulled a grimace that he assumed was meant to be a smile – instead, she looked as though she’d strained something.
Billy studied her up close. She had a wide, frog-like mouth with only a few square teeth in it. Her nose was a small, pudgy, upturned thing and she wore very vivid blue eyeshadow around her bulbous eyes. Her ensemble was completed by angular glasses and a small apron tied around her flabby waist that was far too small for her build.
‘Eat it while it’s hot, sonny,’ said Sal, making an unintentional whistling sound on the ‘s’ of ‘sonny’.
Billy had gone starey again.
‘Try the milkshake. They’re amazing, even if I do say so myself.’ Sal then grabbed one of the two she’d brought over and slurped half of it up a stripy straw. ‘Hmmm, that is so good.’ She then burped loudly and apologised with a little giggle.
Billy slowly picked up his drink and took a cautious slurp. It was absolutely delicious. Quite possibly the best milkshake he’d ever had. He took another, bigger slurp. Yup, it was definitely the best milkshake he’d ever had. He smiled.
Sal smiled back. ‘Best milkshake you’ve ever had?’
Billy was starting to feel less alarmed. It was, after all, just a dream, albeit a really, really weird one. He may as well enjoy it before waking up in his maths lesson and getting into a heap of trouble from Hagnaby, and being made to feel a complete idiot by the rest of the class. ‘It is fabulous, Sal. Absolutely delicious.’
Sally beamed. ‘I knew it would be. So, what’s your name, son?’
Billy had just taken a big bite out of his cheeseburger and so had to wait a moment while he chewed. Once he’d swallowed it, he said, ‘I’m Billy Twigg.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Billy Twigg,’ said Sal, warmly. ‘Where you from?’
‘Snotton,’ said Billy. ‘It’s a small town near Cambridge, in Britain.’
‘Wow,’ said Sal. ‘You’ve come a ways.’
‘Where are you from, Sal?’ asked Billy. ‘I don’t think you’re American, even with that accent.’
Sal frowned briefly and said, ‘Oh, I ain’t American, Billy, no matter how I sound. I’ve lived there though at the, er, well, er, shoot, let’s just say I was a guest of the marshall for a few years.’
Billy snorted a little laugh. Sal had a really strange way of speaking, like an old-fashioned cartoon character or someone in an old cowboy movie. Sal went on, ‘Originally, I came from a town called … well, there ain’t a way of saying it for human ears. I came from a planet orbiting a star you guys call Vega, in what you guys call the Lyra constellation.’
Billy choked on a french fry and had to take a swig of his drink to recover. ‘You … you really are an alien?’
‘Hey, that’s rude, Billy,’ said Sal, sounding a bit peeved. ‘You’re an alien too, you know? Out here in the wilds, we’re both aliens.’
Billy looked down. ‘I’m sorry, Sal. I didn’t mean anything by that.’ He looked up again and met her eyes. ‘I’m just confused by this nightmare I’m having, that’s all.’
‘Oh, shush your mouth, Billy,’ tutted Sal. ‘This ain’t a nightmare, honey.’
‘Okay, if you say so,’ he replied. He paused a moment and added, ‘Where are we then? And why is that fork floating?’ He jabbed a finger at the odd cutlery on the table that was still swinging left and right – seemingly mostly weightless.
‘Your cutlery is floating on account of us having a little gravity problem up here. The darn stuff used to slide all over the place, especially in summer when the sun-pull is at its worst, so I had it all magnetised. Shoot, if I can’t be a real smart ass sometimes, heh, heh! You see?’ Billy didn’t see.
Sal expanded. ‘The ends of the cutlery are magnetised so they stick to the metal tables. Now they don’t slide about. I thought it was pretty smart, myself.’
Billy raised an eyebrow but remained quiet. Contemplative. He was enjoying his meal.
Sal added, ‘And where we are is about halfway between Vega and your Earth – about twelve light years away from Earth. My humble little rock, called Balta. Been here forty-odd years running this here eatery. It ain’t a big earner or nothing, but it keeps me going.’ She smiled at Billy and took another drink of her milkshake. ‘How’s your burger?’
Billy smiled and made a thumbs-up gesture, which seemed to please her. They didn’t speak for a couple of minutes. Sal let Billy eat most of his food before saying, ‘So, you ain’t got no money to pay for this here dinner you’re having, right?’
Billy gulped and blushed. ‘No, I don’t. Sorry about that.’
‘Yup, well that’s okay, I guess. But on account of me getting no coin from this transaction, maybe we can play a little game instead, you and I? I ask you some questions. You give me some answers. After that, we’re evens.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ said Billy warily. ‘That sounds a bit dodgy’.
‘You don’t have to do anything unpleasant … or stupid … or painful. In fact, you don’t even have to leave your seat. How about it? Shake on it?’ Sal extended a hand comprised of three fingers and a thumb.
Billy thought about it for a moment. Why was he even being cautious? It was a dream. It didn’t matter. ‘Okay, Sal,’ he said, and shook her hand. Her skin might have looked wet, but it felt dry, like a snake’s.
‘Excellent,’ said Sal, making an unfortunate squelchy-squeaking sound as she forced her considerable body mass into the small booth seat opposite his. ‘I want you to try this: close your eyes and tell me if you can remember anything unusual. Any memories that maybe don’t feel quite like they belong to you.’
‘I dunno,’ said Billy apprehensively. ‘That’s a weird question. What are you trying to do?’
‘Just humour me,’ soothed Sal. ‘Close your eyes and imagine you’re opening a door into your own memories. See if there’s anything unusual in there that you haven’t noticed before.’
Billy’s heart was starting to beat a little faster. He felt a bit sweaty. Reluctantly he closed his eyes and quickly tried to remember something unusual. But how do you do that? You can’t just say to your brain, ‘Find something unusual that I didn’t know was there.’ It was a silly question. It couldn’t work. He tried anyway but drew a blank.
Sal seemed to be able to tell he wasn’t finding anything but must have known that he wasn’t really trying. She said, ‘Remember and imagine the big door opening.’
Billy did as he was asked and imagined a big door. He made it a very tall, old, heavy oak door with a large iron ring for a handle, right in the middle. He imagined pulling on it hard and heaving it open, its old hinges creaking in protest. Inside, it was dark and empty. The creaking noise echoed away into a vast void. Billy stared into the abyss and the abyss stared right back at him. Nothing. No miraculous flood of memories. Just a sickly, empty, lifeless feeling.
Billy gulped on a dry throat, then suddenly he saw something. A faint glimmer of recognition far away in the distance, like a muted sparkle. It was accompanied by the echoing voice of a girl saying, ‘Come on, Billy, I’ll chum you home.’ It sounded like his neighbour Ellie’s voice. She had a fairly distinctive Canadian accent. Relatively so for a small town in England, anyway.
‘Nope, I can’t remember anything unusual, Sal,’ he said, opening his eyes. ‘I just heard my neighbour’s voice speaking, that was all.’ He didn’t know why, but this was making him feel very uncomfortable. ‘I know I’m dreaming, Sal. Can’t we just move this bit along? I know that in reality, I’m probably asleep at my desk at schoo—’
Suddenly a batch of fragmented, abstract images flashed into Billy’s head: laughing school children; trying to protect Ellie on a narrow bridge; hiding from a monster in a tiny cave; flying through Saturn’s rings; a car exploding; warplanes crashing in flames; burning buildings and a flaming red sky; something painful tearing into his chest; the silhouette of a willowy man with a dozen limbs; a strange dark pit hiding in space; a brilliant white explosion.
Billy gasped out loud and opened his eyes, shaking his head. ‘I was in school,’ he panted. ‘I saw my friend Ellie. We were in danger. I saw planets. Fire. A weird slender man with lots of arms. Creatures falling into a terrible dark hole.’ Billy felt sick, and took a sip of drink to try and calm himself.
Sal regarded him, a concerned but unsurprised look on her face. It was as if she knew unpleasant memories were buried inside him and needed to come out. She said, ‘It’s okay. Take your time.’
Billy was about to say something when he heard the sound of knocking on wood in his head. He closed his eyes again and saw the great oak door. It was closed but something was knocking on it from the other side. He again imagined himself heaving it open.
This time, standing directly behind, it was Ellie Roundtree, the same cute Canadian girl he liked from next door. Behind her, the vast deep abyss remained a black nothingness. She looked alarmed and was mouthing something, but no sound was forthcoming. Billy tried to force the memory into sharper clarity.
A shape was starting to materialise from the inky black background. It was hazy and impossible to make out at first. Ellie looked behind her and then back to Billy, a look of fright on her face. She tried to run towards him but it was as if she were running on a treadmill, unable to close any distance. Billy went to step towards her but he was stuck, as if he were knee-deep in mud.
Behind Ellie, a vague form was slowly taking shape. The darkness was altering and turning a flickering reddish-yellow. Upon it was a blurry silhouette that reminded Billy of an octopus. Dark tentacles writhed and squirmed, reaching out into the air as if seeking prey.
Ellie stretched out her arms to Billy, her mouth agape and eyes pleading. In the distance he thought he could hear faint screams of anguish, like a crowd panicked by something terrifying.
The obscure vision was slowly sharpening into focus. The rippling tentacles that were bobbing up and down like a sine wave were beginning to look like … fabric – like torn strips of undulating black cloth. They appeared to emanate from the silhouette of a tall, thin man who was calmly walking towards them. Behind him, distant flames were licking into the air.
Ellie turned back again to look at what was advancing upon her and let out a silent scream. She looked back to Billy with resignation on her face, and stopped trying to run as if she realised the futility of her actions.
Behind her the shadow man had stopped moving as well, but the tentacles seemed to have sensed her presence. They paused for a moment, recoiling slightly, and then rushed forward towards her. As they neared, they morphed from strips of tattered black cloth into thick, writhing snakes of smoke. In a matter of seconds they were upon her, smothering her body from the ground up.
Ellie stared out impassively at Billy, tears in her eyes, as the churning mass of smoke consumed her small form. Everything turned to darkness again and the great oak door slammed shut with a bang.
Billy snapped his eyes open and let out a long, slow gasp. ‘I saw … Ellie. She was being smothered in black smoke. It was wrapping itself around her. She was terrified and calling out to me for help but I didn’t do anything. I just stood there,’ cried Billy.
‘Oh my,’ muttered Sal, pausing to reflect for a moment. ‘It’s been a long, long time since he was around these parts. But I had a bad feeling in my gut that something nasty was heading our way. I’d hoped it wouldn’t be him. I’m afraid it sounds like he’s heading to Earth. I think we need to get you prepared. And fast.’