~ Chapter 1 ~
Aiden woke to the sound of Aunt Del clattering about in the kitchen, and a few moments later heard her climbing the stairs.
“Boys, are you up?” she called through the bedroom door. “Aiden, don’t forget you have work experience today. I’ve made pancakes for breakfast. Come down while they’re still hot.”
“I’ll be down in a minute,” Aiden replied, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
He listened to a truck struggling up the hill outside his bedroom window as the sun’s warm rays streamed in. It was Friday, one week from the end of term and then summer holidays. He had finished his exams yesterday. Now, he had only work experience – what a bludge!
He shot a glance at his window to see if he could catch that odd black cat peering in at him. He had noticed it the first day he arrived at Aunt Del’s. It shocked him at first, a pair of bright green eyes staring down at him from up in a tree. It was unlike any cat he had ever seen – it didn’t land on its feet. He had seen it fall out of a tree and land awkwardly on its head. It had even slipped off the windowsill. Who owned it, and why it kept visiting him, was a mystery. He had tried to coax it into the open with a tin of sardines once, but it wouldn’t come. It remained elusive, never making a sound or getting too close. He had decided to call it Shadow, and its presence, whilst strange, was more welcome than that of the mangy squirrel that had also taken to hanging around in the crannies of Aunt Del’s garden. The squirrel had burning red eyes.
A muffled whimper made Aiden turn and look at his younger brother. “It’s all right,” he whispered.
Last night had been another long one. Drew had woken distressed and it had taken Aiden a good hour to calm him. Aiden himself woke in a state of panic later on, from the same dream he had most nights. His parents were calling him, but he couldn’t see them. Then there was the familiar sensation of falling endlessly into nothingness. Blackness pressed against him, choking him. It was an unnerving dream and left him feeling helpless and alone. Part of him felt it was nothing less than what he deserved. But last night had been different. As he had gazed into the night from his bedroom window, trying to forget his nightmare, he had felt a presence watching him from amongst the stars. It was like a spider hiding, waiting for a fly – and he was the fly. After closing the curtains and pulling the bedcovers tight around him, he eventually found sleep. He had not told anyone about his nightmares, and this latest episode would be no different. They seemed trivial when Drew was so sick.
Drew’s health had been poor since the accident that killed their parents. He was ten, and thinner than he should be. His brown hair had lost its sheen and his eyes no longer sparkled. He used to be a ball of boundless energy, nicknamed Roadrunner because he would go ‘beep, beep’ behind Aiden when it was least expected, then run for his life. Mum and Dad had always been telling Drew to slow down. The accident had changed all that. Drew had been out of hospital for three months now and there had been little improvement. He still didn’t remember anything. To Aiden’s shame, the accident would not have happened if it had not been for him.
He dragged himself out of bed. Most of his things were still in boxes stacked against the wall. He made a mental note to unpack this weekend. This was his home now. He wondered what he should wear for work experience at the hospital. Would he be doing bedpans, laundry, mopping floors, delivering meals, running messages? He was only fifteen, so what else could they let him do? Whatever it was, it was bound to involve running around. He thought it was unfair that he started his work experience on a Friday when everyone else started on Monday.
He picked out jeans, runners and a T-shirt, threw them on the end of his bed and headed downstairs in his pyjamas. The pancakes were plentiful and delicious. Like his mother, Aunt Del had a knack of knowing what food he felt like. Neither could understand where his lean frame stored all the food. He wolfed down a whole stack, plus a glass of juice, before noticing Aunt Del. She polished the kettle and then climbed on a kitchen chair to wipe down the light. She was a tidy person, but never this obsessed. This morning she seemed preoccupied, fidgety, and nervous.
“Isn’t the game on?” asked Aunt Del.
Aiden leapt from his chair and ran to the couch in the next room. He cursed himself for his stupidity – he had slept in – he was missing the World Cup, and England was playing France. He sighed as he saw the game was in overtime.
“Who’s winning?” called Aunt Del.
“It’s a draw, one all, and they’re about to have a penalty shootout.”
Aiden cursed himself again. How had he let himself sleep in?
The players converged around the goal. Aiden stared at the television, not allowing himself to blink. The stadium was deathly quiet. One by one, the players took their shots at goal. The crowd erupted into deafening roars each time a shot found the back of the net. The first four players on each team scored without problem. Aiden was on the edge of his seat. The fifth Frenchman strode to the box. After a teasing feint towards the ball, he caressed it past the English keeper, who stood bamboozled and flat-footed in the centre of the goal. The English captain stepped up next, ignoring the self-satisfied, jeering smile of the French scorer. Aiden watched the captain prepare, looked at the French keeper and then at the faces of the anxious English team. Not waiting for the kick, he turned off the television and trudged back to the kitchen. He couldn’t bear to see England lose, and to his core he knew the shot would miss the goal completely.
He slumped into his chair. “France won the shootout, five to four.”
“Maybe next time,” said Aunt Del.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Aiden, not convinced. “I’d better go have a shower.”
“I’ll wake Drew,” said Aunt Del, as she finished wiping the refrigerator handle. “He has the clinic visit this afternoon so he needs to eat something.”
Drew made regular trips to the clinic, for dialysis and numerous blood tests to check on his damaged liver and kidneys. The test results were not improving.
When Aiden returned, dressed and clean, he wandered over to the sink with his empty glass and looked out the window at the park across the road. A white van with tinted windows stood there. He had a feeling the van was there for him. He had always had a sixth sense – a knowingness – and it was right often enough for him to take notice. At times it was so good it scared him.
Just last week he had gotten up early to fetch the morning paper for Aunt Del. As he tossed it onto the kitchen table he noticed a picture of a missing five-year-old girl. Typical, he had thought, when his parents died they didn’t even get a mention, but a girl goes missing and it’s front page news. Without meaning to, an image of the girl shivering in a large concrete pipe popped into his head – and he knew the pipe! He rang the number given in the article and started to leave a message when someone answered. After dodging questions about his name, his address and phone number, he blurted out where the girl was and hung up. He did not want to answer questions about how he knew.
He had paced around nervously for a few minutes not sure if they had understood or even believed his message. Unable to stand not knowing, he left the house on his bicycle and pedalled furiously to the top of a hill from where he could view the pipe entering the sea. There, to his relief, were a number of police scrambling down the embankment. He saw the girl carried to safety and returned home before anyone even knew he was gone.
That day was a happy one. One of the very few since his last birthday, the day his parents died. That day still haunted him. A sickening feeling had been with him all day, and at mid afternoon his blood turned thin and watery, a wave of fear speared him, and he collapsed. Later he found out that his parents had died in a car crash. Although Drew survived, he spent the next six months in hospital. It was the worst birthday Aiden had ever had.
Aunt Del had taken in Aiden and Drew after their parents’ death. She had no children of her own, and her husband had died some ten years ago. She and Aiden’s mother were twins. Even though they were not identical, they had many similar features and mannerisms – so much so that from time to time Aiden and Drew mistook her for their mother. Aiden felt a great sense of betrayal whenever this happened.
Aiden’s wrist buzzed. He glanced down at his most treasured possession – a Personal Digital Companion embedded in a brown leather wristband the size of a business card, a birthday present from his parents. He only took it off when he showered. It played movies, music, connected to the web, had diary and calendar functions. He could even make and receive video phone calls. The alarm was his reminder – his lift would be here soon.
The white van shook a little. Aiden leaned forward and peered at it. It reversed, paused at the car park entrance, then crossed the road into the driveway. A portly man with grey hair and a charcoal suit manoeuvred himself out of the van.
Aunt Del and Drew appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “Your ride’s here,” said Aunt Del, peering through the blinds. She thrust some bills into his hand. “Lunch money,” she added, and kissed him on the cheek. Drew sat at the table, still in his pyjamas.
“Aiden, can you get a couple of those big syringes at the hospital... big enough for water fights?”
“He will do no such thing!” declared Aunt Del.
Aiden gave Drew a wink and opened the door just as the man was about to knock.
The man was taller than Aiden had first thought. He had a bulbous red nose to match his large girth. A hospital photo identification card was pinned to his lapel.
“Good morning,” he said cheerfully, filling most of the doorway, both in width and height. “I am Doctor Peter Hudson, and I take it you are Aiden Dempster?”
“Yes, Sir,” said Aiden.
“Good morning, my lady,” said Doctor Hudson, looking past Aiden to Aunt Del, “you must be... Ms Delaney Coleman?”
“Yes. Please come in. The place is quite a mess. You’ll have to excuse us,” she said, ushering him in.
“I wish my house was this messy,” said Doctor Hudson, looking around. “What’s that delightful aroma – pancakes?”
“Yes,” she replied, her cheeks flushing. “It’s a special treat to celebrate the end of exams and Aiden’s first day of work experience.”
“I wish my day had started this well, Aiden. I only had porridge.”
“Hi,” said Drew with a single wave from the kitchen before pouring more maple syrup on his pancakes.
“Ah, another lucky boy,” Doctor Hudson said, and chuckled.
“What sort of a doctor are you?” asked Aiden.
“A retired one. I was a general practitioner – a family doctor. Now I do consulting and research work for the government.”
Aunt Del peered out of the window at the van. “Are there no others going?”
“No, just Aiden. I suspect the others will be at various places in the mall. Hospitals are not normally considered exciting enough.”
“Aiden wants to be a doctor,” said Aunt Del, running her fingers through his short, wavy dark brown hair. “His marks are pretty close.”
Aiden winced. He had toyed with the idea about being a doctor, but it was only one of many things he was considering. He wished Aunt Del had not said anything. Now they would be judging him. So he wants to be a doctor, does he!
“We always need good doctors,” said Doctor Hudson. “We had best get going, you have a lot to do today, lad. My lady, I will have him back by four.”
“Bye,” yelled Drew through a mouthful of pancake.
“Try and pass some tests this time!” Aiden called back.
“Have fun,” said Aunt Del, her voice higher than normal, as Aiden and Doctor Hudson walked through the front garden. Aunt Del’s garden was the envy of all Hastings. The flowers, bushes and trees flourished and the assortment of scents lifted the spirits of everyone who walked through it. Everything Aunt Del touched blossomed.
“Marvellous,” said Doctor Hudson, as they walked along the narrow path.
As they travelled, Doctor Hudson spoke of some colourful local history he had recently read about, and Aiden half listened as he sought to identify the source of his uneasiness. Every now and again he would chime in with a nod or an acknowledgement that would keep the conversation going. It was only when Doctor Hudson mentioned the football that Aiden gave him his full attention.
“Did you catch the game this morning?”
“The last minute,” Aiden admitted, feeling his disappointment again.
“I listened to it on the radio,” continued Doctor Hudson. “Can you believe we lost in a penalty shootout – we had our chances in the game, we should’ve won, and then to lose like that! They should sack the captain – fancy missing! If Scotland don’t beat Norway next week, there will be no one to barrack for in the final.”
“The Scots will beat Norway,” said Aiden. “I watched both of their last games. The Scots want it more.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Doctor Hudson. He looked sideways at Aiden, twice, before talking about his younger days playing football for his school. Midway through an account of the time his school played in torrential rain and could barely see the ball, Doctor Hudson paused.
“Aiden... this hospital thing...”
“You mean the work experience?”
“Yes, that... we won’t be starting it today. There’s something else we’ve lined up for you. It’s an aptitude test... of sorts.”
“What sort of aptitude test?” Why would he need to do an aptitude test to do work experience?
“We need to test your... natural aptitudes, nothing you need to have prepared for.” Doctor Hudson glanced at Aiden. “Have you ever thought about the stars – you know, what’s out there, are we alone?”
“Not really,” said Aiden, still trying to digest the news of the aptitude test.
“Your father and I were friends. You have his eyes, you know.” Aiden nodded. He and his father did have the same deep blue eyes. “We shared an interest in the stars. He would be very proud of you today. Did he tell you anything about the stars?”
Aiden hesitated. “We used to sit outside in the evening and he would watch the stars. We never really talked about them, though.”
“Do you know our galaxy has billions of stars with their own orbiting planets, much like our own? And our galaxy is only one of billions in the universe. It wouldn’t make much sense if we were the only intelligent life, would it?”
“I suppose not,” said Aiden, thinking, if he tells me he’s been kidnapped by aliens I will jump out of this van, moving or not!
For the next ten minutes Doctor Hudson talked about the wonders of space, the awesome powers of the sun and the magnificent australis aurora light shows put on by the solar winds crashing into Earth’s magnetic field. Aiden wondered where this was going. Something was not quite right, although he sensed he could trust the doctor.
To his surprise, the van slowed and turned onto a narrow disused road. Patches of grass grew through the asphalt. Waist high grass stretched on either side of the road. The van bumped along the road and Doctor Hudson didn’t stop talking, even to explain the detour. Aiden grew concerned. No work experience, an aptitude test, aliens, and now a trip down an old dirt track. What was happening?
“Sir, where are we going?” he demanded, sitting up straight, eyes searching the horizon.
“It’s not far now. Today will be one of those days you will remember forever.” Aiden turned and studied Doctor Hudson. “I guess it’s time to explain a few things,” said the doctor, noticing Aiden’s concern. “We are not alone, Aiden. There are planets out there with life. We have proof – living proof! We’ve been in contact with intelligent beings from outer space for a number of years. Only a few select people know this, although a number of others suspect. People tend to panic when they hear about beings from outer space. So it’s a bit hush-hush.”
Aiden eyed Doctor Hudson suspiciously as the man continued. “The beings you are about to meet are very friendly and peaceful. They’ve passed on truly fantastic technology and medical breakthroughs to us. They have amazing natural abilities that we would typically view as supernatural, if not magical. And - this is the good part - they believe some of us possess the same abilities. We simply need to know how to access them. Perhaps the most important thing for you to know is they believe you have these powers. They’ve asked to see you!”
Aiden gulped. Was Doctor Hudson mad or playing some weird game? “What do you mean? Aliens want to meet me?”
“I can’t be any plainer, son. They’ve asked to meet you.”
Aiden blinked. Was this a bad dream or was this man a lunatic? “Sir, I don’t understand... are you serious?”
“Yes, very serious. This is a great opportunity for you, Aiden.”
“What do they want? What have I got?”
“You have in your genes special abilities. They will help you unlock them.”
“How do they know what I have in my genes?”
“They did a search on the Global DNA database.”
Noticing Aiden’s puzzled look Doctor Hudson continued, “It’s a database held by western governments. It contains the DNA of everyone in the developed world. Your DNA told them about your abilities.”
Aiden’s mind raced. This couldn’t be. He knew he had a special intuition others seemed not to have, but it wasn’t that special!
“What abilities did they find?” he said, still trying to make sense of the last few minutes.
“I don’t rightly know. If it’s anything like theirs, you’re in for a treat! You’ll like them. Their names are Bajool and Gibber – absolutely delightful! There it is, Aiden!”
In front of them was a large, ordinary warehouse and, to Aiden’s relief, no spaceships in sight.
“Sir, I’m not sure I have these abilities... I think there’s been a mistake.”
“Look, they don’t bite. They will not take over your body or wipe your mind. We’ll meet them, talk, put you through your paces, and have you home in time for tea. It’s all quite exciting. I understand it’s a bit of a shock and you haven’t had much time to get used to the idea. We couldn’t give you any warning, as it’s too... well... unbelievable, I guess. Don’t worry. I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Still not convinced, Aiden could think of nothing else to say. Although he had severe doubts as to Doctor Hudson’s sanity, he still sensed no danger. Doctor Hudson was certainly excited about it all. Aiden, however, was more edgy than he had been before his exams.
He was about to ask why they wanted to test or unlock these hidden abilities he was supposed to have, and what these intelligent beings looked like, and hundreds of other questions, when Doctor Hudson parked the van alongside the warehouse door.
“We’re here!” he said, beaming.
“Brilliant,” said Aiden, without any conviction.
* * *