An excerpt from

The Third Wheel

Michael J. Ritchie

What appears to be a door on the side of the craft slides open and there are immediately two figures present in the gap. They appear vaguely human, although very tall, but they are mere shadows due to the way the lighting falls. Cameras are too far away, but the BBC cameraman, hands apparently shaking like an aspen in a high wind is trying to zoom in.

“What the actual…” begins Alex, but Ruby shushes him, and the three of us (four if you include Catsby, who seems to sense that something strange was happening) stare open-mouthed at the screen. The aliens – they had to be aliens – are still several feet from the ground, and it is now clear that they are wearing some sort of spacesuits. As they take one step forward to the very edge of the door, something else becomes clear.

It isn’t two figures, it’s one. What I had taken to be the two large round heads of a pair of aliens belonged to the same creature, one with – apparently – two arms and two legs, but also two heads, each encased in its own helmet. The streets around these events – taking place in the coastal Norwegian town of Moss – are packed with people but absolutely silent. You could’ve heard a photograph cough.

The world freezes and then there is a little flicker of something bottle green in the corner of my eyes.

“Did you just…”

“Yes,” says Ruby-and-Alex. The bottle green is replaced with the turquoise of Caribbean oceans, which slides seamlessly into onyx. The figure steps from the door and floats down to terra firma, landing silently on asphalt. The heads don’t look at one another, but nonetheless you get the sense they are communicating. Occasionally I see flashes of colour – maroon and cream, chestnut and tangerine – but the planet is, for the most part, silent.

The cameras have zoomed in as far as they can, but what the alien actually looks like under its suit remains a mystery. The helmets have small black visors in a position that suggests their eyes are located in the same place as ours. The alien reaches for a silvery pack on its chest and holds it up to one of the visors, apparently looking at something. It thumbs at something on the pack and then clips it back onto its chest.

“What’s it doing?” whispers Ruby.

“Might be reading the atmosphere for breathability, or something,” I murmur back. There is another flash of colour, mint green this time, but with flickers throughout of the same dark yellow of the night before, although this time we don’t pass out. Surely it would be easier for the invasion – if that’s what this is – to occur if we’re all comatose? I mean, I’m grateful that we’re not, but still. If you’ve got a Planet Buster Weapon, then you use it, right?

The alien reaches up and grabs at one of the helmets, the left one and, without much fanfare or notification, pulls it off. The world, as one, gasps.

The head beneath is human only in that there appears to be two eyes and a mouth. It has very little colour, slightly blue perhaps, almost a translucent sheen to the skin, behind which are thin veins and what I assume is the brain, a fleshy mound of mushroom in the top of the head. The eyes are thin but wide, barely open and very black. There is no nose, or external ears, but a wide mouth with no lips. The expression is impossible to read; it’s the sort of face that doesn’t move around too much.

The second helmet is removed and the second head looks out onto the world and the gathered Norwegians. This one is similar to the first, but not identical. The head shape is different, thinner and with a pointier chin. Behind the spot where the right ear would be, a thing that looks oddly like a feather protrudes a few inches, the colour undulating between red and gold.

“So,” I say. “That’s an alien, then?”

“Better than Jar Jar Binks,” says Alex.

“And less terrifying than a Dalek,” says Ruby, her voice cracking.

It might not be a Dalek, but it’s still pretty damn scary. Here is undeniable proof of alien life, and none of us know what we’re supposed to do about it. I can barely cope with the regular pitfalls of adulthood like rent and taxes – there’s absolutely nothing in any self-help book I’ve ever read about what to do in case of first contact.

A couple more bodies appear at the open door of the spacecraft and then in turn float down to join the first, removing their helmets and revealing more of the weird heads. On one of the pairs, both of them have the weird feather, again in red and gold. Six pairs of eyes look out, but seem somewhat unseeing.

The first alien steps forward to approach the nearest humans, who back away slowly. The cameras can’t show us their faces – we’re looking at the wrong angle – but I’d put good money on the nearest faces being slightly disgusted. There is still silence. A few of the Norwegians at the front of the crowd grab one another; husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, I imagine. Despite the events, I still take it as a personal affront and bitter reminder that I’ve no one here to grab.

There are a few more bursts of colour – green, gold, green, and then shades of blue slide around the edges of our vision.

What happens next happens quickly.

The first alien withdraws something small and silver from its belt and fires it above the crowd. A small grey cloud hovers and then, as if sentient, descends on the nearest couple. In righteous fear, they cling to one another but the grey cloud surrounds them and the sight is almost impossible to explain adequately.

The cloud slides up and down the bodies; everyone is screaming and some people have turned to run but many more stare on open-mouthed. Ruby, Alex and I have all leaned forward intently staring at the screen; even Catsby has jumped off my lap and is sat in front of the television in rapt concentration.

And then a leg falls out of the cloud. It’s neatly severed and coated in blue denim, but it is undeniably a leg and it is bleeding profusely across the ground. An arm flies out next, followed by scraps of clothing. Perhaps thirty seconds later, the cloud disperses and returns to the device held aloft by the alien. Where the couple stood previously, now stands something that brings bile up to the back of my throat and yet, if this was on a film, I would laugh at how outlandish it is.

The couple have become one being, much like the two-headed alien, although with much less precision and cleanliness. Blood and bodily fluids leak over the remaining clothes and the human now has two heads, connected clumsily in the middle, the woman’s eye stitched to the man’s cheek. The torso is twice as wide, sandwiched together with three arms sticking out from odd angles – one appears to have been removed and reattached just below the waist on the man’s side. With the legs, too, there are now three, although one is all but ripped open, just flesh clinging limply to bone, the actual meat scattered around the floor like a butcher’s offcuts.

The faces try to look at each other, try to scream, but there is just the look of trauma on each face. The now-joined body falls, dead.

And then panic.

The screen is momentarily filled with the sight of Norwegians fleeing in every direction, tripping over one another, more grey clouds following some of them or honing in on those couples paralysed with fear. It’s immediately noticeable, to me at least, that the clouds only gather on pairs. Then, quite suddenly, the screen restores the image of a news studio, although one with no newsreader and, behind the glass at the back of the studio, people in smart shirts and professional dresses running back and forth in panic clutching paper, phones and each other.

“Fuck!” says Alex, standing up abruptly, hitting his shin on the coffee table and releasing a second, “Fuck!” This stuns Catsby who turns and leaps back up onto the top of my chair and looks at me with an expression that seems to say, “Well, what are you going to do about this?”

“Did you see that?” whispers Ruby, the words catching in her throat like they’re wool snagging on barbed wire. “They put them together. And they died. The blood… the leg…” She’s lost, muttering and then a few seconds later begins screaming in a torturous way that I never would have believed possible from her. She’s usually so calm, but I guess everyone has their limit.

Someone appears on the screen. It isn’t one of the regular newsreaders, rather appears to be a cameraman wearing a bulky headset and a grey jumper with a prominent toothpaste stain on the chest. He doesn’t sit down, just looks pleadingly out of the screen.

“If anyone is there,” he says, breathless, “more are landing, all over the world. They … they must have been watching and waiting. The cameras from Norway and Portugal show more and more of … them … coming out, they’ve already landed in Scotland. They’re taking over the world.” He rips the headset off and then disappears.

Ruby has stopped screaming, Alex holding her tight to his chest. She burbles and sniffs wetly into his jacket. Alex looks at me helpless, and I stare back, unable to comprehend what has happened.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it,” I say.

But I don’t feel fine.