The air didn’t smell right. The musky scent of the trees was there, as was the earthy undertone of the damp ground, but it was all dulled by a tasteless extra layer. The woods shouldn’t smell like that.

In Lucy’s list of complaints, however, that was barely in the top five. Her boyfriend Matthew’s idea of a fun hike in the Forest of Dean had already presented her with cold, hunger, and a generous amount of pain at the back of her right heel. It all was made even worse by the daunting awareness that whatever distance she hiked forwards, she’d have to hike back.

Even Frank hadn’t been too convinced about going in the woods on a muggy November day, despite his general enthusiasm for whatever Matthew suggested. Looking at him, Lucy sometimes wondered if it shouldn’t be her brother dating Matthew after all. It had become an inside joke.

Leaning against a tree to catch her breath, Lucy looked ahead. Frank was waiting for her by a giant oak tree. “Are you alright back there?”

Not surprisingly, it was her brother who turned to check on her. After her powerful morning display of passive aggressiveness, Matthew was keeping his distance. She could barely spot him further ahead amongst the fir trees, a smudge of red waterproof fabric amidst the grey hue of the woods on that muggy day.

She still wasn’t going to apologise. She was never going to fall in love with hiking boots and muddy trails just because her boyfriend’s mum had suddenly shown up with a tip on a new trail in the Wye Valley – and she still thought it was rather odd how insistent Mrs Cavell had been about them going that very weekend.

“Is there a reward at the end of this pain or is he leading us to starvation?” she asked as she joined her brother and leaned heavily against the oak trunk.

He raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Are you asking for a piggy ride?”

Lucy glared at him. “Fuck you,” she said, raising her favourite finger, lest he misunderstood her tone.

He laughed at that, and she couldn’t hold back a smile herself. Then Frank’s grin waned, and he cocked his head in that condescending way of his. “Seriously, though, we can stop for a bit, if you need to rest.”

How she hated that tone. “Frank, I can walk.”

He turned away, hands thrown high in a gesture of surrender, but she could still see his eyes rolling.

Annoying tone aside, she was glad he had agreed to join them. He was a buffering force to Matthew’s sulky mood.

Then he tilted his head up, sniffing the air. “Do you smell that?”

“I know, it’s weird.”

“Maybe somebody’s having a bonfire somewhere nearby,” he guessed.

“Why would you think it’s a bonfire?”

“Because it smells like burning, and bonfires are famous for that.” His smirk was infuriating.

She limited her reaction to a dull gaze. “I’m humbled by your superior wisdom, milord.”

He was about to reply when something else caught his attention. Further up the path, Matthew had stopped walking. Standing a few feet off the track, he was gazing at something in the distance. Lucy squinted to catch what it was and for a second the odd scent felt a bit stronger, as if electricity was burning up her nostrils. As if a storm was coming and they were walking amongst the charged clouds. It made her want to sneeze.

Past Matthew, something large and dark nested amongst the trees.

Ignoring the persisting pain up her calves, Lucy scurried forward until she reached the edge of the clearing. Even from there, it didn’t look like anything she’d seen before, starting from the colour – a shade of black that wanted to absorb all the light around it, so much so that a halo of darkness seemed to envelop the whole thing.

The metal structure – because it had to be some kind of metal – took up most of the space, and it seemed to have knocked down a few trees as well, as if it had crashed into them while parking itself there. Something that looked like a wing spread out from a thicker and rounder main body. Aside from that, there was no other indication of what it might be.

“What the hell is that?” she managed, while her brain kept on processing.

“Holy moly,” whispered Frank as he stepped next to her.

She glanced sideways at him. “Frankie, your non-swearing attitude is getting ridiculous. This is clearly a holy fuck kind of moment.”

The only one of them to remain nonplussed seemed to be Matthew. “There’s a few old and new RAF bases in the region,” he said as he walked up to their side. “This is probably one of their prototypes. It must have gotten lost in the woods.”

“Because that sounds likely,” commented Lucy.

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“Better than the army losing their new toy in the middle of a national park? Yes, I think I can come up with something.”

Before Matthew could retort, Frank jumped in between them. “Who wants to go and have a look?”

Bless his heart – or his scientific curiosity, as he liked to call it. Give him a weird shiny trinket in the middle of the woods, and Frank would revert to the recklessness of a six-year-old on a sugar rush, to the point where Lucy had to be the sensible one getting him out of trouble. Given that she was the one with a criminal record, the irony of that wasn’t lost on anybody.

Matthew, on the other hand, wasn’t keen on running towards the flame. “I don’t think so. Better stay away and call the authorities on this one. It’s clearly none of our business.”

Lucy gave him a condescending look. “Are you scared of meeting the little green passengers?”

“Luce, this doesn’t look like a joke. It might be dangerous.”

Once again, Frank stepped in to quell the argument and rested a hand on Matthew’s shoulder. “Ten minutes,” he pleaded.

Lucy grinned at him, in spite of everything. She wasn’t excited about following him into a mysterious and quite certainly dangerous metal container. “Yeah, ten minutes,” she said, then turned to Matthew. “Fifteen tops, then I’ll bring the baby back to the pram, and you can go ahead and call James Bond to examine the relic.”

Frank was already a few steps ahead, waiting for Lucy to join. Matthew sighed. “No way to stop him, is there?”

“You know him. Not a chance.”

She rushed to join her brother, spikes of pain forcing her to slow her pace as she got closer. She was really going to feel it the next day, she thought. She leaned on Frank once she was close enough.

“You really should stop hopping around like that,” he scolded her.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Are you going to be okay walking back?”

She shrugged. “Unless we fly this thing out of here, I’ll have to.”

As they walked closer, they tried to stay clear of the overhanging wing-shaped structure, the electricity in the air around them getting stronger, much like how the light of day seemed to be getting dimmer.

When Lucy reached out a hand to touch the metallic surface, she almost expected to get zapped by an electric discharge. She didn’t. It felt warm to the touch.

A layer of dirt covered it. She wiped some off with her hand, then stared at her darkened reflection on the shiny material.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked. Her voice came out muffled, the air as thick as cotton candy as she spoke. She turned to Frank, worried he might not have heard her at all. “We should probably go back,” she said, a bit louder this time. “I have a bad feeling about this.” Her own voice sounded like it was coming from miles away.

Frank scoffed. “Calm your nerves, Han. It’s not like we’re looking at an actual spaceship.”

It would have been a funny Star Wars reference, if Han Solo’s instinct hadn’t been so good at spotting life-threatening danger.

She took a step back, wondering if she was overreacting, and if the Royal Air Force could really have lost something like this and left it to dust. The surface looked smooth from end to end, a master-size metal origami.

“Luce, come look at this.”

When she turned, Frank was standing so close to the surface, his nose was almost brushing against it.

“Have you thought it might be better not to stick your nose in the shiny thing?” she reproached him.

“Yeah, but this is interesting. Come look.” He cocked his head and brushed his thumb against it. “It’s like a panel or something.”

He picked at it with his fingernails, trying to tear it open, but it was no use.

“Let me see,” she said, giving him a slight shove.

He moved aside to make room for her.

The gap was maybe a millimetre wide, barely visible. She ran a finger alongside it, then swung her backpack forward to get her keys out.

“What are you doing?” asked Frank.

“Trying to get this over with, so we can get out of here.”

“I mean with the keys.”

“Oh, that. Leverage – you heard of it?” she replied. “And here was me thinking you were good at science.”

“You think too highly of me,” he joked. “I do chemistry, remember? No need for leverage when you’re distilling vodka from potatoes.”

She picked the smallest and pointiest key, the one to lock the chain of the bike she never used, and started working at the gap, blushing slightly at the pink sloth keyring dangling by her wrist. The colour was faded after years spent in Lucy’s pocket, but the flash drive still worked. It was filled with videos and photos of her childhood, carefully curated by her brother, and gifted to her the night before she left home and never spoke to her parents again. Since then, that well-worn plush toy had been her most valuable possession.

“You’re still carrying that around,” said Frank, noticing the pink fluff.

Lucy shrugged it off. Then, before she could say anything, something went click somewhere behind the panel, which slid aside, opening a square-foot gap into nothing.

She jerked away, holding her hands up. Hairs rose on the back of her neck. “I didn’t do that.”

Frank peered at the dark opening. For him, Christmas had arrived early. “Maybe you hit a switch or something.”

“I don’t like this, Frankie,” she whispered.

They held their breath, and it seemed the woods did too, as if waiting for something to crawl out of the open panel.

Seconds passed, however, and nothing happened, yet Lucy could sense something was waiting just around the corner.

She took a couple of steps back and checked on Matthew. He was facing the other way, probably on the phone with the police. How odd that she couldn’t hear a word he was saying. Sounds carried differently in the woods, she knew that, but she was sure they weren’t standing that far apart.

The sound of feet shuffling by her side startled her – there was still sound in the world, then. Frank had moved closer to the small dark window and was trying to peer inside.

“Frank,” she said, her voice hollow in the padded air. She should have pulled him away, yet she found she couldn’t move. She saw him squinting at something, then leaning closer. “What is it?”

“I’m sure there’s something down there,” he said, as he grabbed the edge of the opening. He looked ready to jump inside.

“Don’t do anything stupid. Whatever it is, it might be dangerous.” She felt it was.

Frank stepped back with a chuckle, then turned towards her. “You’ve seen way too many alien films, you know?”

And you haven’t seen enough, she thought. “Still, you don’t know what’s in there.”

He gave her a cocky smirk. “Precisely. Mine is scientific curiosity.”

There it was again, his favourite line. Even Lucy’s scoff was half-hearted. “We should get back. Matt’s already called the men in black.”

She made to leave, but Frank was once again staring into the dark gap.

Something was going to happen, she could feel it. Part of her wouldn’t have been surprised to see Frank hit by a laser beam, or teleported to a galaxy far, far away.

She swallowed her fear. “What’s wrong, Frankie?”

His response was somewhat absent. “I don’t know.”

Then it happened.

A flash.

A blink-and-you-miss-it sort of event.

Something had shot out of the opening and straight into Frank’s jacket. Lucy shrieked and stepped away, ending up flat against the metal wall behind her.

Frank had bolted away from the opening as well – one springing step – and was now standing still, as if he had forgotten what had made him jump in the first place.

Matthew’s voice reached them from another world on the edge of the clearing. “Guys, is everything okay? What happened?”

Lucy waved at him, opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything. She had no idea how to answer the question.

“Help is on the way!” he shouted. Bless him, he was trying to be reassuring.

She didn’t know what to do. If she raised the alarm and Matthew rushed down to help, he’d be in just as much danger as Lucy and Frank were.

Eventually, she raised her hand and gave him a thumbs-up. Then, under her breath: “Shit.”

Frank still looked as if he had gone into standby mode, a videogame on pause, his gaze unfocussed and his arms hanging limp from his shoulders.

“Frank?” she tried. “Are you okay?”

He tilted his head upwards towards the sky, then lowered it to look at her. For a second, Lucy doubted he recognised her, until the whole system went back online. He gave her the fakest smile in the book and said, “Of course I’m okay. Never been better.”

He was still breathing and talking, so that was a good sign. Whatever animal crept out of the hole didn’t have to be bad news. It could’ve been a squirrel, she thought. Please let it be a squirrel.

“Matthew called the police. They’ll be here any minute,” she said.

The fake smile was still hanging on Frank’s face. He looked okay, and at the same time as far from the shores of Okay Land as a man could be.

She stole another glance at Matthew, who was on the phone once again and looking away from them. Lucy had never liked the police, a feeling she knew was reciprocated, yet this time she felt like throwing them a welcome party.

“I need more time.”

She flinched at Frank’s words. “What do you mean?” she asked, but he was again in standby mode, gaze unfocussed and chin down. Her brother was in front of her, yet it wasn’t her brother looking through those eyes.

Whatever jumped onto him was still hidden somewhere in his jacket. She stepped forward and felt her firsts clenching as a wave of frustration gripped her throat. She was ready to punch whatever worm was crawling over her brother.

“Frank, what’s going on?” she demanded, her voice shakier than she had expected it to be. “What do you need more time for?”

He shook his head slowly, methodically. “There’s too much to learn. I need more time,” he murmured.

“Frankie, this is not funny. You’ve managed to scare me, if that’s what you wanted. Now, please stop.”

“Why are you scared?” he asked.

“Because you’re re-enacting a cheap horror film scene, that’s why,” she replied, her voice rising to a screech. She checked her nerves and tried again. “The police are almost here. They will have it all figured out. Just stop being creepy, okay?”

Her brother turned to glance at Matthew, and Lucy allowed herself a moment of optimism, until he spoke again. “Not the police,” he said. “Does Frankie have a safe place to go? Can you take me there?”

The world stopped turning for a moment. Lucy felt her knees giving in. “Frankie? You are Frank. Are you?”

It couldn’t possibly be, yet either Frank had lost his mind all of a sudden, or a mind-controlling squirrel had jumped out of a mysterious spaceship-looking structure and brainwashed him – or possessed him. No, that was crazy.

“What are you?” she asked. “How are you doing that – how are you talking through my brother?”

Another pause for thought – or whatever else was happening in Frank’s head during that pause – then he said, “This body is not suited to pronounce the name of my kind, but you can call me Gwyn. My species are called Skaara. You wouldn’t be familiar with our solar system, so I won’t waste time explaining where that is.”

Before she knew it, Lucy had stepped forward. “Don’t you dare patronise me, you space leech,” she burst out, reaching to grab her brother’s jacket, eager to get a glimpse of the parasite and a chance to snatch it away.

It was her brother’s arms that stopped her, as he gripped her wrists and kept her away. She had never realised he was so strong. “This body can easily overpower you,” he said calmly. “I suggest you desist and cooperate.”

She sure as hell wasn’t going to desist. “Cooperate with what, you psycho?”

“Can you get me to Frank’s safe place?” he repeated.

Lucy felt her eyes sting with warm tears. The cops couldn’t arrive any faster. She straightened and snatched her hand out of Frank’s grip. Bottling up her emotions, she said, “That depends. Can you explain to me what’s happening, and what you’re doing to my brother?”

The way Frank paused wasn’t hesitation. He was calculating the options. Lucy could see it in his eyes, locked onto hers as if trying to read her mind. He even squinted a little, trying to read it better maybe. She allowed herself a smirk. “What, telepathy doesn’t work at a distance?”

It was a wild guess, firmly belonging to the realm of science-fiction stories. When Frank didn’t react to her words, she knew she hadn’t hit far off the target.

Finally, he said, “Take me there, and I’ll explain.”

No, not yet. She took a step back and squared her feet, trying to convince herself she still had some control over the situation in spite of the lump in her throat. “No deal. Tell me what you’ve done to my brother, or I’m not taking you anywhere.”

There was that stare again, drilling into her forehead, close to a physical assault, a violation of her space, as if hands were jutting out of his eyes and prying her mind open, one brain cell at a time. She turned away.

At the tree line, Matthew was looking at them. She waved again.

“What’s the deal then?” she called out.

“They’re sending a team,” he confirmed. “They locked onto my GPS; they won’t be long. Is your brother okay?”

His words came to her loud and clear, as if normality was restored, at least as far as sound was concerned. Lucy wasn’t sure what that meant for Frank, though. When Lucy looked at him, he hadn’t moved a muscle, gaze still locked on her. She turned back to Matthew, and once again didn’t know how to answer his question.

No, he wasn’t okay. He was being possessed by an alien critter that called itself Gwyn, of all names. He was far from okay.

“How long is a while?” asked Frank.

Lucy tried to ignore his gaze on her. “Don’t know. Ten, fifteen minutes maybe.” A wild exaggeration – or at least she hoped so. “What are you?” she then asked.

He pulled aside his unzipped jacket to show the grey hoody underneath. A small, snake-like creature poked out of his armpit. It wasn’t the whole thing, and Lucy wondered how much more of its body was hidden by the jacket.

“I wished so hard for you to be a squirrel,” she murmured.

If he caught her words, he didn’t catch her meaning. “I mean no harm,” he said.

“Are you saying that with my brother’s mouth?” Lucy scoffed. “You’ve got nerve.”

Her hands itched to grab that thing away from Frank and rip it in half. She couldn’t do that, though. Even if Frank’s arms hadn’t stopped her, she was too afraid to hurt him. Too afraid it would take control of her mind as well. Too afraid of becoming a puppet to some alien overlord, or even just an alien creeper.

“What are you doing to him?” she asked instead.

“He’s fine, only tucked away. You don’t have to worry about him.”

“You’ll have to elaborate on that.”

The alien sighed through Frank’s lips. “I’m only using him to communicate with you. Once I leave him, he will come back to himself.”

“Plus the trauma of having a critter talking through his mouth.”

Frank shook his head. “He won’t remember anything.”

There was still no sign of the police. She had to keep him talking, just for a little bit longer. “Why did you come to Earth? And how many of you are hidden in there anyway?”

Waving at the metal wall, she only realised she had stepped forward when Frank raised an arm to stop her. It was an odd gesture, as if the creature was testing how to move the puppet’s limbs. “It’s only me,” he said. “Nobody else is in the vessel.”

That didn’t sound right. “An alien invasion of one?”

“Invasion,” he muttered. “No, we don’t use that word.”

“What word would you use, then? Holiday? You should have landed in Florida; they’ve got Disneyland.”

There were a couple of seconds of consideration, then he said, “No, that’s beyond my area.”

The alien’s sense of humour was disappointing, yet that wasn’t the most alarming part. “You mean another one is in the States? How many of you have landed?”

Whatever response he was planning to give was cut short as a distorted voice boomed out of a megaphone. “You two over there, don’t move! Hold your hands up and turn your faces towards the wall.”

The man was standing at the edge of the clearing, way too close to actually need a megaphone. A dozen more men were with him, weapons holstered, yet visibly ready to engage. Every one of them was dressed in black, and not one bothered identifying themselves. They didn’t look like police, and it wasn’t the army either, Lucy was sure.

She turned around, ready to do what they said, and by doing so noticed that Frank had barely reacted to the intromission, as if what was happening had nothing to do with him.

“You should do what they say, space genius,” she told him.

“Those are contradicting orders,” he commented.

Lucy threw her eyes to the sky. “Just raise your hands and turn around.”

After a whole year out of trouble, it had taken a spaceship for Lucy to once again be in handcuffs. What a spectacular way to break such a good run.

Click here for Chapter 2

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