She had always enjoyed looking up at the stars.
There was something strangely comforting about them, something wondrous about the way they glowed, the way they lit up an otherwise pitch black sky. Since she was a child, she had loved finding out about constellations; what stars they consisted of, the patterns they made, the myths behind them. Every evening, she'd drag her telescope – a thirteenth birthday present – out into the garden, set up and sit there, studying the stars in a way she just couldn't achieve with the naked eye.
Her parents and grandparents indulged her hobby; her aunts and uncles questioned what good it would do in the long run. Her cousins, when they stayed over, would let her show them the stars, would listen patiently for a while as she pointed out the big dipper or Orion. At various times of the year, she would show them their star signs. But, often, they would put up with her for maybe little more than half an hour, before complaining of the cold or of boredom and demanding to go back inside.
As they grew older, they became less interested in the distant stars and more interested in things closer to home. Her female cousins would insist on doing makeovers and talking about boys. Her male cousins would set up whatever video game console they had and play that.
But she never grew fed up.
So, on the day when the stars changed colour, the family went to her.
"What's going on?" her mother whispered, sinking to her knees beside her daughter and the telescope. "What's happening?"
"I don't understand," one of her cousin's whimpered behind her. Her aunt reached out, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her close.
All of them stared upwards, eyes fixed on the sky. Instead of their usual white or yellow colour, the stars were red, blinking pinpricks of blood looking down on them all.
She frowned, before looking through her telescope and scanning the sky.
"They're all like it," she whispered, as her mother reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "Every single one. They're all red."
"That one isn't!" one of the boy's cried, a young lad. She turned to see him pointing upwards, his finger shaking. She couldn't help it. Despite the strangeness of whatever was happening, she smiled.
"That's not a star. It's a planet."
"Oh," he sighed, hand dropping as he gazed at the ground. "Mummy, I'm scared."
Another aunt stepped forward, scooping him up in her arms and holding him tight to her body. "It's okay," she cooed in his ear. "It's okay."
She stood up, stepping away from the telescope and surveying the sky with nothing but her eyes. For the first time in her life, the stars scared her. Whereas before, the secrets they held seemed marvellous, now she trembled at the thought of them.
"Perhaps we should go inside," she suggested. "Mother, hot drinks?"
"Yes," her mother replied, though she seemed distracted. "Yes...hot drinks."
X X X
The stars remained red the next night, and the night after. No one seemed to know what was going on. Astronomers and scientists reported theories on the news, Government officials urged the people not to panic. But always, the reports ended the same way; thisisspeculation,wehavenothingconclusive,yet.
On the third evening, one of her cousin's brought a cup of hot chocolate out to the garden. She smiled gratefully at him as he handed it over.
"They think it's aliens," he announced, sitting on the grass beside her chair. He was near enough the same age as her, one of the few cousins who had indulged her interest the longest.
"People on the internet," he replied. "Everyone's posting articles on Facebook, and Strange Times have offered evidence that it's aliens. 4Chan is going crazy with theories."
She nodded, slowly. Most of the names, with the exception of Facebook, meant nothing to her. She spent very little time on the internet, unless it was on star gazing forums or for homework. "Why would aliens turn the stars red?"
He shrugged. "A warning? A message? Who knows? But it's more believable than half the stuff they're saying on the news. Don't you have any theories?"
They fell silent, as she adjusted the telescope and scanned it across the sky. She wondered how much belief her cousin really had in aliens; perhaps that was why, out of all of them, he had been most willing to stick his eye to it and look through when they were kids?
"Do you believe in aliens, then?" she asked, drawing back from the telescope and turning to face him. He had a deep, thoughtful look on his face, as he leant back and pushed his palms into the grass, his eyes fixed on the stars.
"How could you not? We can't be the only things in this universe."
"I guess. Unless it's all an illusion."
"Yeah, like maybe God just made us think there were planets and stars so we could keep ourselves entertained. If He – or She – exists, then they'd know that one day, people would stop believing in Him. Or Her. Because God is all knowing. Right?"
A strange smile crossed his face. "I guess. So do you think that if aliens arrived on Earth, it would disprove the existence of God?"
She shrugged. "If it's not an illusion, then how do we know Jesus wasn't just an alien who crash landed on Earth? How do we know that Egyptians and the Greeks weren't worshipping a group of space men who accidently landed here?"
He laughed, then, shaking his head. "You always were an odd one. But you didn't answer my question."
"No, I don't think it would. What's to say that God didn't create aliens?"
"Good point." He stood, brushing his hands on his jeans as she sipped at the hot chocolate. "Guess we'll just have to wait and see."
X X X
And on the sixth day, they arrived.
Dusk was reaching out, grasping the world in its hand. Once more, with a cup of hot chocolate in her hand, she left the house and walked to the telescope in the garden. Gently putting the mug on the floor, she lowered her head and pushed her eye against the 'scope.
It took her by complete surprise.
The stars almost seemed to be winking; they flashed from yellow to red and back again, and after she'd watched it for a while, she spotted the strange shapes descending from the sky. The ground around her began to shake, and she heard, up and down the street, doors opening and closing. When she pulled her head away and looked up, she saw the shapes were close enough to see with just her eyes.
Sweat formed on her brow. She turned her head to see the neighbours standing in their gardens, staring upwards at the approaching shapes. Behind her, the door to her own house swung open. Out tumbled her parents and her cousins, her aunts and uncles, those who had stayed since the stars turned red, seeking comfort in the family.
None of them were able to count the number in the sky. There seemed, at first, to be only a few; after fifteen, she lost count. They weren't huge, but they blocked out the stars in the sky and stretched for miles. The door behind her slammed, and she turned to see the adults piling back inside, pulling the younger kids with them. The older cousins gathered around her, staring open mouthed. Five of them in all, five teenagers who couldn't believe how quickly their world had changed.
"We should go inside," one of them, her mother's sister's daughter, muttered. "We should go inside," she repeated, shivering in the cold. Her brother, the one who had said about aliens and Strange Times and 4Chan, put his arm around her. His eyes fell on the girl by the telescope.
He said nothing, but the look said it all; Itoldyou.
"You're right." She stood, glancing at the telescope. "Come on." She led her cousins back into the house, where they found the adults gathered around the television. The children were not in sight, and when she enquired where they were, her mother told her they had sent them to bed.
"They shouldn't see this," she whispered.
They could try to protect them all they wanted, but they all knew it wouldn't be long before they realised that everything was not fine. One of the uncles left the room, to check on the children and perhaps read them a bedtime story. Ease their fears and whisper them to sleep.
"...unbelievable sight across the world. The ships have descended and, as of yet, we have no word of their inhabitants..."
The newsreader was visibly shaking, his skin pale as sweat fell over his face, creating an odd sheen, emphasised by the lighting in the studio.
"In London, the mayor stands under the largest ship, posed above Buckingham Palace and...news just in, the Queen has emerged from the Palace with her family..."
Minutes later, the Prime Minister was at the scene. A cold fear washed over her, as she turned to the adults in the room.
"The most powerful people in the UK are all in the same place," she whimpered, only to be shushed by her mother.
"They know what they're doing," her mother replied, although she still reached out and put a hand on her daughter's shoulder, squeezing it gently.
"Look!" her cousin cried, and it struck her suddenly how child like he sounded. When he'd discussed aliens with her, he had sounded like an adult. Now, fear seeped into his voice as he pointed at the TV.
They all watched as the ship above the palace seemed to open, a hole forming in the bottom.
"Oh, shit," he whispered, and she couldn't help but agree with his sentiment.
She could feel everyone tense up in the room, as something shot down, hitting the Palace Gardens, where the most powerful people were gathered.
As light blinded them from the TV set, silence fell over everyone; not just in the house, but those crowds gathered outside the palace, too. The overwhelming feeling of a tragedy occurring, right in front of them, overtook them all. Suddenly, the light cleared, to reveal...
Wailing built up from the crowd, as her aunt began to cry. Her mother tried to comfort her sister, but it was no use.
"We're doomed," her cousin muttered, and she knew, without a doubt, that he was right.