by Geoff Nelder
Ken looked up at the black autumn sky. He smiled at stars behaving properly in their constellations. Then a light slowly lined from the east. A satellite or the latest Shuttle? A door opened behind him flooding the garden with annoying light, blotting out the stars.
“What the bloody hell are you doing out here?”
“Keep your hair on, Angie, I’m trying to get a signal on this new phone your brother gave me.”
“Your parents are fighting, if my scowling mother folds her arms any tighter she’ll crush her ribs. Derek keeps putting the TV on, and I need another red opening.”
Ken looked back up to the sky one last time before rejoining his thirtieth birthday party. His parents were tug-of-warring over a long packet wrapped in shiny red paper. As soon as his mother saw him, her scowl transformed to a toothy smile. “Kenneth, come and get your present.”
He hesitated. Clearly there was a problem, judging by his father’s tormented face. He assumed they hadn’t divorced years ago for the sake of their children, but Ken wished they had. There they were, competing to be the one to give him his present of socks, slippers, a tie — whatever. They’d never given him the present he’d really wanted: peace, and genuine smiles for each other. Oh well, he’d never change their lifestyle pattern now.
He strolled over with his hand out when his jacket pocket jangled into the phone version of The Stripper, making his brother laugh. Ken shot an evil-eye look at him, but he laughed all the more.
He waved the phone at his parents to indicate he was taking it into the peace of the garden. He was glad for the interruption, though puzzled; no one knew his number — except his brother.
The display didn’t help. It shone its electric blue light with the words “Incoming call from Gobowen.”
“Call from a girlfriend already?” said Angie from the doorway.
“It says Gobowen. Who or what’s that? Sounds familiar.”
“A hospital in Shropshire.”
“It should be — to want you — but it’s orthopaedic. Probably someone’s name.” She took it from him and held it to her ear for a few seconds. “Maybe they do have a psychiatric unit. Sounds like gibberish.”
Ken took it back for a listen. “Ku four-five-six. Toggle seven-eight-nine. Frequency twelve-point-one Gigahertz.” Then hiss. He laughed. “It might as well be gibberish. It’s some radio frequency testing routine. It’s not my girlfriend, love, you know I’m more careful than that.” He hoped she knew he was joking. Having an affair would be as safe as playing football on a busy motorway.
Angie pecked him on the cheek before rejoining the melee. Anyway, he did love her, her perfume, her cooking, and he refused to think outside that box.
Shouting from the party and a turned-up stereo shook him out of his reverie. He looked again at the phone and pressed reply. Gobowen showed again as the ID for the other end. Hissing, then a Deep South U.S. accent: “Hey, Alice, I told you not to call me while I’m up here.” More hissing and some clicks.
“Hello, who’s that?” said Ken.
“Hank Gobowen, now buddy, who the hell are you?”
“Hang on, not the Hank Gobowen, astronaut, raconteur, voted number one guest on TV talk shows?”
“You’re not a booking agent?” “No, I’m a wrong number. Are you at Houston? Ah, no, you’ll be in a TV studio.”
“Hah. No, I’m on comms watch on Discovery. You know? The shuttle up in orbit since last Tuesday. Anyway, buddy, I can’t keep chatting. My pay-as-you-go is running up a bill. Goodbye, whoever you are.”
“I’m Ken Stones... hello? Damn he’s gone.” His one chance of fame and he blew it. He imagined all those talk shows Hank’s going to brag on that he used his cell-phone to chat to a Brit back on the planet but he didn’t know the idiot’s name.
He dared himself to redial, but resisted. Angie stood hands on hips in the doorway. “This is your birthday, come inside and enjoy it.”
“Really, have our relatives gone?”
“Idiot. I’m fed up playing at referee. Do your bit.”
“Angie, you’ll never believe who I’ve just been talking to on this phone.”
“It could be the man on the moon for all I care.”
“Close. Real close. Oh no, why have all the lights gone out — and the smoke alarm going berserk? Derek! Ah, birthday cake with thirty bloody candles.”
* * *
Next morning the bedside clock alarm penetrated Ken’s thumping head. His arm lashed out to sweep the bedside table but missed the vibrating clock, which joyfully travelled out of his reach, toppled over the edge and turned itself off, buried in the waste-bin. Only then could he hear Angie crashing around in the kitchen and the television belting out breakfast news.
The door was kicked open as Angie staggered in with a full laundry basket. “Sundays you make breakfast. Why are you still in bed?”
“I’m at a difficult age.”
“You’ve always been at a difficult age, what’s different now you are thirty?” She laughed and launched herself onto the bed. Rising to her change in mood, Ken laughed too and grabbed, but missed as she twisted. He froze mid-play as a word from the TV news shocked him. “...shuttle...”
He threw Angie off and ran into the kitchen, his face a blue sheen as he stared at the screen.
“...Houston admits they have lost all radio communication with ... ”
“Don’t think you can come back to bed!”
“...even instrumental telemetry is spasmodic although... ”
“Birthday or not.”
“Bloody hell, Angie. I was talking to them last night, and now they’ve lost radio contact.”
“Trust you to mess things up. With who? I’m not sure I want you to have a mobile phone. You might start that affair up again with Teresa.”
“I didn’t have an affair. Anyway, this is important. Where’s my mobile? I put it on the table last night.”
He looked at Angie who looked at the floor.
“Come on, Angie.”
“I said I don’t want you to have it.”
“Good grief, woman, you haven’t binned it!”
A fruitless search in the tipper-lid bin made him look at his wife, scrutinising her face for clues. In spite of her womanly skills, Ken spotted her eyes flick to the fridge, in which he found his mobile phone pretending to be a pack of Silver Maid butter. After he dried the condensation, he dashed outside, found Gobowen and hit Call.
After the hissing and assorted clicks: “Kgorrrha uochxa grrr-eouwa.”
“Sorry, Hank, were you eating your tea? Hello?”
“Arrchx cooroo snigurghghz.”
“I’ll try again later, Hank, bye for now.” Ken looked at his phone for a few moments as he thought about the news broadcast and the garbled speech from Hank. Was it messed up because of some signal breakdown on the Shuttle? Maybe the signal became scrambled for security reasons. Ken had a twitching stomach muscle telling him that neither was true and that something more sinister was going on.
“Ken, get in here, it’s raining,” shouted Angie.
Ken looked up for confirmation and was rewarded with a raindrop into his right eye.
“I knew that phone would be a bad idea,” said Angie. “You’ll be phoning that weird woman. What’s her name?”
“Funny — not. What is her name, Hannah?”
“No, Hank is the astronaut I’ve talked to...”
“You’ll need a hanky if you’re lying. And you’ll get RSI from too much texting.”
“Texting? Now, that is a good idea. Text messages can often sneak through problem signal areas when voice mail can’t.”
He followed Angie back into the kitchen, scraped the terracotta tiled floor with his chair as he sat at the laminated oak table and found the text option. “Hi Hank. Hp ths gts 2 U. Hustn sez U hv a coms problem. Can this hlp?” He pressed the Send button and watched the animated graphics whiz it off to space.
He sat at the table, elbows either side of his mobile phone, resting his face in his hands. Ten minutes later. “Come on, Hank.” Another thirty minutes and he lifted his face to allow blood circulation.
Angie threw him her exasperated face. “Are you coming with me to mother’s for dinner?”
“I’ll give it a miss this week, love. I don’t want to miss this call. It could be more important than you can possibly imagine. Even more than when your sister rings to tell you about a sale at Debenham’s.”
“Why can’t you bring it with you? I thought that was the point of mobile phones.”
“I need it plugged in, dear. It’s a bit low on charge. You go and give them my best wishes.”
“Yeah, right. While you arrange a rendezvous with Hannah. She is an ex, isn’t she?”
“Yes, but no. Stay here if you are so sus.”
The phone sprang into a wolf-whistle, simultaneously vibrating itself into a spin on the polished table top. Angie went for it but Ken grabbed it first.
“What?” said Ken, then looked at Angie, wondering if she was more text abbrev-savvy than she made out.
“She wants to meet you at the Hypermarket coffee shop,” she said, with a face that clearly read not joking.
“Sweetheart, that’s where you and I meet. If I tried to arrange an assignation with another woman it would hardly be where we might bump into you.”
“Where else then, that could be Hp?”
“I don’t know. Hendon Park?”
“There. You admit to having an affair.”
“What? No I don’t. You tricked me. Good God, woman, there’s a shuttle crew in trouble up there and they’ve sent me a message. I ask for help and all you do is accuse me of philandering.”
“Help,” she said, waving her hands in the air to accompany an obvious remark.
“Of course. You’re a genius. A suspicious one, but never mind. I’ll send another text asking for clarification.”
“You don’t think I meant it, did you?”
“Hank. How cn I hlp?” He punched the send button. “Meant what?”
“If you think I believe you are in contact with an astronaut you’re more crazy than I thought. It’s me that needs help. To be rescued from you.” She slammed the door on her way out.
The phone wolf-whistled again and was in Ken’s hand before it finished.
“Cal Nasa Pic.”
Ken tried to call using voice. “Hank, are you there?”
He was rewarded with a cacophony of hisses and clicks before he heard: “—gent. Not to return. Aarrgh eeeuugh!” A ten second pause followed while hot perspiration stung Ken’s eyes yet a cold shiver travelled up and down his back as if his long-dead grandfather had materialised through the tabletop. His phone sounded again with the strange gutteral voice he heard yesterday. “Kgorrrha uochxa grrr-eouwa. Kgorrrha uochxa grrr-eouwa.”
He tried to recall what Hank had said before his agonising cry — call NASA pic. Obviously he was being asked to let Houston in on his mobile phone experience. The pic must mean picture, but which, and where? He looked through the recent Internet news pictures of the shuttle flight until all radio and telemetry abruptly ended yesterday. Hank’s smiling clean-shaven face drew Ken’s attention. A typical all-American guy looked through the screen at him, no indication of any problem.
Then in yesterday morning’s shuttle picture Ken spotted a mobile phone in Hank’s hand. The screen glowed. Of course! It was a picture phone. He snatched his new phone off the table and eagerly pressed buttons. It was a dodgy gift from his low-life brother. No instruction book and no helpful sibling words. Ken didn’t believe it would come to life when he first tried it, and hadn’t got round to exploring its multiple functions such as video and picture phone.
There; he found the right combination of buttons and hit receive. The screen fluoresced through pastel rainbow colours until the signal became stronger. A face stared at him. The most beautiful person he’d ever seen. He couldn’t tell if it was a perfect woman or a young man. Ken laughed. This must be a joke. Maybe Hank had saved this image on his phone pre-mission because none of the crew looked anything as beautiful as this.
But the image changed. Only subtly, such that the person looked away and turned a few degrees. It was enough to tell Ken that he was looking at someone on the shuttle. He put the phone up to his ear and said, “Hello, who are you?”
“Kgorrrha uochxa grrr-eouwa.”
“Sorry miss, or sir, that comes through scrambled. Are you using some encryption coding?”
“Kgorrrha uochxa grrr-eouwa.”
Ken looked again at the image. From the previous smiling lovely came a twist in its mouth. He felt that shiver in his back rising up to his neck again, only this time he felt his hairs standing up. He dropped the phone just as the image changed again. The phone spun upside down on the table as if daring him to pick it up. He hesitated but had to snatch it and steeling himself, turned it.
The smile had transformed into an ugly snarl, but the eyes worried him more. The iris had narrowed to pinpricks. Then nothing. The signal had not only gone but the phone became warmer, then too hot for Ken to hold onto. He dropped it again as smoke wisped away from the speaker and mike orifices. Damn. He knew he was losing evidence of what he now realised Hank was trying to tell him.
The shuttle had been invaded and taken over by an alien, maybe several. He felt his face heating too. His worry hormones were surging through his veins. His phone seemed to be melting on the table. It would burn the wood laminate and Angie would blame him. Using the kitchen tongs he gingerly placed it in the sink, but didn’t want to pour water in case there was still a chance of rescuing something.
His own logic circuit spurred him to reach for the landline phone but he stopped. How did he phone Houston mission control from a kitchen in Hendon, UK? It wouldn’t be in the phone book and Internet search engines took him twenty minutes to accumulate dozens of possible but unlikely current numbers for the command centre. So he called an old school friend who had sucked up through the ranks to become a police inspector.
“What can I do for you, Ken? Driving too slowly on a motorway, again?”
“Please, Ed, this is important. You know that NASA has lost contact with the shuttle Discovery?”
“Don’t tell me it’s your fault?”
“Ed, I have been able to talk to the shuttle on my mobile phone.”
“Of course you have, Ken.”
“I don’t know how the signal reached my phone but it did. They are in big trouble, Ed. Hank Gobowen asked me to contact NASA, but I don’t know how.”
“Ken, assuming you haven’t been drinking, where did you get this phone from?”
“Why is that relevant, Ed? Aren’t you listening to me?”
“Your brother, wasn’t it?”
“Ed, you are not going to believe what I have to tell them.”
“Since it was your brother who gave you the phone, I would believe it.”
“Damn it, Ed. I am really worried sick over this. Please be serious.”
“Go on then. As long as it isn’t about little green men.”
Ken froze. What could he say that didn’t make him seem a blithering idiot? Seconds went by.
“I take it your message is to be about aliens, then?”
“Ed, suppose you were the only one to know something that meant the shuttle cannot return to Earth.”
“It is returning, there’s a failsafe autoreturn routine that will kick in tomorrow morning.”
“My God. They have to stop it. Ed, I really did talk to Hank on the shuttle and then someone — something else. I need to tell them.”
“Stay there, Ken. I’ll get things in motion. Expect visitors in an hour or so. Bye. Take care.”
His fear lessened by a degree from sharing his information with a police inspector. Ken put the kettle on. Angie returned, banging the door open, dropping bags of shopping.
“What’s wrong with you? Your face is purple. Have you been at those funny ciggies again?”
“No, it’s Hank, you know, on the phone.”
“You mean Hannah. Wouldn’t she play with your ball?”
“He changed into a woman. Rather he didn’t but the image did. It was horrible, Angie.”
“I told you Hank was a woman. You can’t fool me. Idiot. There’s more shopping in the car, go fetch it.”
He went out towards the car and stopped. Armed men in black balaclavas lay on his lawn.
* * *
It wasn’t right that he should be held in a police cell. Grey walls, a concrete floor and a damaged black rubber-foam bench. Some anti-terrorist charge had been brought against him to hold him while a phalange of different accents asked him over and again what he’d experienced. As the time crept by and the disbelief continued, he knew it was too late. He had a chance to save the world and he blew it.
“Come on, Sir, out we go,” said the sergeant, to take Ken for a photo and fingerprint session. As they passed the custody officer’s table, among the small collection of his pocket contents, he spotted his mobile phone, damaged but still working. The incoming call light was flashing...
Copyright © 2005 by Geoff Nelder