TAC 28 Index
FROM HIGH on the shoulder of Meall Chuaich, Lachlan's camera flashed out briefly over the darkening Badenoch vista.
The day had started with a thin layer of cloud hanging around the tops, just above the snow-line, and we had hoped that it would clear by midday. Instead, thick dark cloud was sliding up the glen from the west, trailing little turbulent streamers of downdraught; thundery-looking stuff. So we had stopped, rather sadly, for a bite to eat before the view disappeared entirely.
Lachlan peered dubiously into the business end of his tiny camera. "Did that just flash?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, unclipping the plastic lid of a Marks and Spencer's ploughman's lunch. (What would we do without M&S?)
"Bugger," said Lachlan. "It's always doing that. I don't know how to stop it. It's one of these idiot-proof cameras."
"That certainly goes some way towards explaining your difficulties," I said. And then, puzzledly: "Why did you bring it? You don't usually take photos.
"Lachlan fished out his sandwiches (cold vindaloo and pineapple rings, or I miss my guess), took a bite, and then waved the remnant in the general direction of Dalwhinnie: "For the UFOs, man," he said, around a pungent mouthful. "Big UFO area, this. Ley lines and stuff, all round here, they say. A good UFO snap's worth a bomb, you know."
I stared at him. "Oh, Lachie. You don't believe in flying saucers, do you?"
He stared back. "There's nine thousand Americans abducted every year by flying saucers.
"I mused on this. "That certainly seems like a good start."
"No, ya numpty, they get brought back again. They're returnees."
"One can hardly blame the aliens. But why, then, do they abduct them in the first place?"
"Tests," declared Lachlan darkly. "They put probes up their bums and shock their prostate glands.
"I considered a pickled onion sadly, then tossed it away. "And why do they wish to electrify so many American prostates?"
Lachlan glanced from side to side, as if in fear that there might be ladies present. "Samples," he hissed. "They want samples."
"I see." Dejectedly, I returned a yoghurt to my rucksack.
"Is that you finished already?" asked Lachlan, incredulously.
"I believe so."
"He stuffed the remainder of his sandwich into his mouth. "Right. Let's go on, then. We're going to see something today. Some alien visitant. I feel it in my water."
Gagging quietly, I heaved my rucksack on to my shoulders, and we set off.
THE THICKER cloud had yet to reach us, and we climbed instead into the thin, bright cap that had lain on top of the hill all morning. Old, compacted snow crunched beneath our boots, and ice-crystals whirled stingingly into the air as the wind freshened against our backs, until we moved through a strange, contrastless world of eye-aching brightness. Neither of us had thought to bring sunglasses, and we soon found our vision dappled with ephemeral grey blotches. Although visibility reached out to twenty yards or so, we might as well have been moving through a white-out for all that we could see. I began to muse on the topic of snow-blindness.
Belatedly, I dug out my compass to check the direction of our blind uphill progress. I squinted at its face, and then felt the hair stand up on my neck as I watched the needle swing in leisurely circles.
"What?" He followed my gaze to the compass, and then gave vent to an inappropriate whoop of joy. "Oh man, will you look at that. They're here!"
"The aliens. They've always got mighty magnetic fields. They stop clocks, interfere with electrics and stuff. It happens to all the abductees, just before they get nabbed. Oh man, oh man, they're here." And he swung around, scanning the mist with every appearance of enthusiasm.
"Lachie. Be reasonable. There's a thunderstorm coming. That's what's confusing the compass. You saw the clouds earlier." I glanced around nervously, to find that the sky behind us had turned a grim, threatening grey, in contrast to the blinding whiteness of the view ahead. "Look, Lachie. Look how dark it's getting. We've got to get down before the lightning starts.
"Lachlan scowled. "What? Go down and miss the Close Encounter of a lifetime?" He considered the blackness to the west. "OK. You think that's going to turn to thunder. So we don't want to go back into it. Let's just crack on eastwards instead, along the ridge. Then when we get to the top, we bale out south into Coire Chuaich, so we're low and safe on our way back. We can keep our directions straight because the wind and the dark cloud are coming from the west. And we get to the top of this damn thing so you get to put another wee pin in your big map. And ..." (he took a deep, shuddering breath) "... if they're here, we get to meet them.
"I reasoned thus: if we followed Lachlan's plan, we would avoid potential danger from lightning strike, while risking prostatic stimulation by aliens. I believed in lightning, but not in aliens. Lachlan's plan therefore seemed sensible to me. Only one question remained to be answered: "So why do you want to be abducted by aliens, Lachie?"
He eyed me in astonishment. "But they'll not abduct us, man! We just have to demonstrate that we're members of an advanced civilisation, and they'll welcome us to the Galactic Federation."
"But that's not what they've been doing to all these Americans ..." I began, and then considered what I was saying.
"OK. Fair enough. Let's go."
FIVE MINUTES later, as we breasted a slight rise, we saw it: a low, grey shadow on the thin, glarey edge of visibility. As one man, we threw ourselves flat in the snow, exchanged glances (one of alarm, one of exultation), and then wormed forwards slowly on our elbows until we could see without being seen.
"Oh ya beauty," intoned Lachlan.
It was a conical, two-level affair, resting its wide, flat base on the snow. It was grey against the prevailing whiteness, and saucer-shaped.
I moaned a little. Around the saucer, perhaps twenty silver-clad beings moved on short, stumpy legs, walking in a wide circle around the craft. Beneath their bulging silver headgear their faces were grey and featureless, apart from narrow, slit-like mouths and huge, black, oval eyes with which they seemed to be scanning the snow intently. Faintly, against the wind, we could hear their voices: twittering, bird-like voices, speaking a high-pitched alien tongue.
And to one side, apparently directing operations, there stood a monstrous black figure; at least twice the height of its companions, broad-shouldered and square-headed.
Lachlan turned bulging eyes to mine. "Gort," he whispered.
"What?" I croaked.
"Oh, man. D'you know nothing about UFOs? The Day The Earth Stood Still. 1951. Yon big robot in the film was called Gort. This'll be one of them."
"That was a film, Lachlan. This is ..." (I swallowed dryly) "... real life." I noticed that he was wriggling out of his rucksack straps. "What are you doing?"
"Getting my camera out," he hissed, rummaging feverishly. "Got to have a photo. Ah, here we go."
"No," I hissed, but too late. He raised the camera, pointed it, and pressed the button. Blue light flickered briefly across the scene. "The flash, Lachie," I moaned.
Twenty pairs of dark eyes lifted and turned in our direction. The huge, dark figure whirled to face us, paused for a moment, and then began to stride purposefully in our direction. I whimpering something along the lines of nonononononononono, and began to dig a quick, informal snowhole.
Lachlan, however, rose composedly to his feet and raised his hands, palms forward, in a universal gesture of peace. He began to speak (apparently) in Hungarian. "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!" he cried, with some authority. And the huge robot lurched to an uncertain halt, twenty feet away.
I paused in my frantic burrowing, illuminated by a tiny ray of hope. "What did you say?" I whispered.
He answered from the side of his mouth, his gaze fixed on the silent robot. "Dunno. It's from the film. Means something like, 'Gort, do not destroy the Earth."
"Good sentiment," I concurred, rising warily to my knees. "Carry on.
"Lachlan coughed uncertainly. "Em. We come in peace," he said at last, with a certain forced brightness. "Please take us to your leader."
"I am the leader," said the robot. Horribly, its voice appeared to emanate from somewhere in the centre of its chest. I squinted into the white glare, trying to make out some detail within that dark silhouette.
"You, um, you speak English very well," said Lachlan, somewhat losing the initiative in the exchange.
"Of course I bloody do," said the robot, in a Fife accent. "I'm from Ballingry.
"It was at this point that my watering eyes made out the head and shoulders of a man within the outline of the dark figure. The huge robotic shoulders and head then resolved themselves rather quickly into a towering high-loader rucksack with a saucepan tied to the top.
Lachlan's voice faltered a little. "But who are your ... companions?" he asked, indicating the twittering silver figures who were now beginning to stray hesitantly towards us.
"Exchange students from the Hokkaido Junior Military Academy," said the man from Ballingry, despondently. "I'm up here in a whiteout with twenty Japanese eight-year-olds, and my compass has gone on the blink. We've been walking round and round the cairn looking for our own footprints so that we can back-track, but the snow's too hard. You can't see a bloody thing in this light.
"I glanced towards the flying saucer. It was clearly a rather fine summit cairn, fashioned in two levels. Walking towards us were several children wearing identical hooded thermal suits, pale grey ski-masks and Vuarnet sunglasses.
"Oh bugger it," sighed Lachlan, kicking bleakly at the snow.
Behind us, the first peal of thunder rolled along the ridge.
"Oh bugger, bugger, bugger."
One of the tiny silver figures approached him, bowed from the waist, and then lisped in carefully-prepared English: "Good afternoon, sir. Greetings from Hokkaido Military Academy."
I don't believe that Lachlan actually intended to strike the child, although at the ensuing court case I was obliged to testify that he raised the back of his hand in a threatening manner. Perhaps he should have considered the martial skills likely to be taught at a Japanese military school.
The child swung up a protective arm, pivoted on one heel, emitted a high-pitched cry, and then kicked out in the manner popularised by M. Jean-Claude van Damme. A plastic-shod, steel-cramponed foot struck solidly home, and Lachlan folded, wheezing, into the snow.
The sensation was, perhaps, a little reminiscent of an electric shock to the prostate gland.
TAC 28 Index