Atmosphere by Chris Morton
It was dusk and a light drizzle filled the air as Tom Crookes exited the office building. Putting on his hat and tightening his coat, he descended the case hurriedly whilst below and around him, a number of umbrellas were one by one opening up.
Sneaking a glance at the large spaceship above, Crookes almost slipped on the steps, though it wasn’t out of surprise.
“Jesus,” he heard when he bumped into a large fur-coated lady for balance.
He apologised and carried on down, looking skywards again, at the saucer of flashing lights and clumpy metal. It’d been there for over a month now, hovering silently – two hundred feet up, they say it covered half the city but somehow the rain managed to fall down anyway.
Reaching the bottom of the case, Crookes’ pace increased as he saw the vacant taxi. Limping through the umbrellas (‘gout’ the doctor had called it), his rather pathetic figure pushed and weaved. Swinging his briefcase, he called out for a ride:
“Taxi,” he sang in a low, dull monotone. A murmur, hardly noticed.
Crookes lacked confidence, but he’d got off early that day. “Family business,” he’d told them. And they’d allowed it, just this once.
The mother, father, two brothers and their android – he watched as they pushed ahead.
Behind him someone was shouting.
They are here. Here to take us …
Closing their umbrellas, the family were already diving into the taxi’s opening doors, out of the spitting rain, and then a sudden breeze blew off Crookes’ hat to the paved curb of the sidewalk.
Make your peace before … salvation …
Bending down to retrieve it, he was knocked sideways by a youth on a skater.
“So sorry,” said Crookes, approaching her in the cafe. His raincoat drenched, there was water dripping from his briefcase and his hair had frizzed into a cone of matted damp.
The woman looked up. Heavy eyes and red lipstick. She was wearing a large green dress that folded over her lap. Black tights and flat shoes.
“You’re late,” she uttered, from behind her steaming cup.
“I know, I … I know,” managed Crookes, placing his hat on the table. Red-faced, he slid onto the booth awkwardly. He took off his coat, picked up the plastic menu.
“I mean, it’s not as if I have –”
“Stop. I’m sorry.” He looked up. “I know. I –”
“You what?” the woman tutted. “You tried?”
There was silence as she watched him study the menu again; as he failed to acknowledge her pain. Returning to her drink, she continued to eye him carefully, not trusting him.
He dropped the menu.
“It’s been a long time,” he said, forcing a smile of strained lines. He stared across at her sadly, at the soft red hair, at the face he’d once loved. It was showing the signs of age now; these past few years, they must have been tough for her.
“A long time,” he repeated, forcing the sad smile again. His blue eyes, faded rather than deep, tried hard to show empathy. His cheeks sagged and he reached for the menu once more.
This cafe was busy, bustling. Around twenty tabled booths and three times that many customers. Hot food was being served.
When the spaceships had arrived there’d been disbelief, denial and then terror and panic which had lasted almost a week. But the spaceships, one over every city, had just hung there, watching.
Panic had turned to inertia, then recline. And life had somehow continued.
“I’ll have a coffee. American. Plus an omelette …”
“Flavour?” buzzed the android waitress, its eyes hovering over the man and woman.
“Yes, yes of course.”
If everything was to be believed, the higher powers had it under control. The presidents, the ministers – negotiations were underway.
“Mushroom with tomato, basil and cheese,” interrupted the woman. Then to Crookes: “I assume your tastes haven’t changed?”
The innuendo intended filled the air, unspoken.
When the waitress was gone, Crookes smiled at the woman again.
“How have you been, then, Ginnie?”
“As well as can be expected,” she answered, eyes falling at her beverage (a steamy almond milk).
“And how are …” the man gazed around. To the left of them was a large window with the blinds pulled down. A floral pattern.
“They’re fine,” she muttered.
“Charlie’s in kindergarten now.”
Crookes placed his palms on the table, coughed. “You know, I was thinking –”
“And Esmeralda,” continued the woman. “She’s reading now.”
The woman’s gaze rose to meet Crookes’ hesitant expression.
“Those little pads they had in first grade. The Trafalgar series, do you remember them?”
“The Trafalgar …”
“Hop and Fig. And their dog … what was its name?”
Crookes glanced over to the right. A large family sharing a pizza.
“You don’t, do you? Remember them, I mean.” He was like a child, she thought. She wanted to take his hand and for an instant she almost did. But no, she’d made that mistake. Trust – she’d trusted him before, and that trust had been betrayed.
“Yes, er, no, I …”
“The same as we had. In our grade one,” she continued. “The syllabus, it doesn’t seem to have varied much. But of course …” the woman paused, gazing at him some more and remembering. “That’s what alcohol does to you, doesn’t it?”
“All those … those brain cells. They say it hits worst at the memory.”
The waitress had returned and the two humans were silent as Crookes’ coffee and omelette were placed on the table.
“Ginnie, I’ve –”
“Changed?” The woman laughed coldly. She took a sip of her drink, remembering her ex-husband.
For a few minutes neither said anything.
“Ginnie, I’ve been thinking. What with, what with the way things are now. Out there … that …”
“That spaceship?” The woman scoffed. “The end of the world …”
“Yes, I …”
“Armageddon.” The woman smiled ironically. “You think now that those things are here, I’ll come running back into your arms?”
“No, of course not. But I …”
Crookes put down his fork and knife.
“You’ll what, then? Tell me.” The woman’s red lips were pouting. “Tell me what you want, Tom?”
Knives and forks cluttered. There was soft music, the odd laugh or two mixed with murmured chatter.
“Another chance,” Crookes mumbled, grasping for confidence, for composure. “Another chance to … I’d like to see them –”
“Well, you can’t,” she clicked, straightening her body in defence.
But Crookes carried on: “My God, Ginnie. You must have known why I came here.”
“You’ve something to say, that’s fine. But I’m not letting you –”
“But, Ginnie,” Crookes pleaded, his right fist now tightening. “It’s only a matter of time. Why do you think they’re here?” he rationalized. “The size of that thing. You think they’re interested in negotiations? In a few months, weeks, even days, we won’t even … and you can’t let me –”
Their eyes locked together.
“I just want to say goodbye.”
Crookes’ fist hit down on the table. The plate and knife clattered. His coffee spilled and the fork fell onto the floor.
“You’re making a scene,” she hissed.
But now Crookes was standing.
“What difference does it make what I do?!”
His voice had risen to a shout. Around them the other customers began to murmur in awkwardness.
A service waitress came over.
“Is there a problem, sir?”
“You’re goddamn right there’s a problem!”
The cafe had become hushed. All were now watching.
“Take a look outside!” Crookes bellowed. “You think they’re here to make friends?” Swinging his arms madly, he raised his voice even higher: “You think they’re here to negotiate?!”
“Put a sock in it, Mister!”
“Tom, sit down,” the woman snapped. Her hands were shaking. “Just … sit down, you’re embarrassing me, embarrassing all of us.”
He fell back angrily, his face a look of mock exasperation. Still half-standing, he leaned forward clumsily, scrambling at his hat and coat. He picked up the dripping briefcase.
“See you in hell, Ginnie.”
There were heckles as Crookes stormed through and to the doors. Outside, the lights and shadow of the spaceship hung there in the night, laughing down at him, blinking in victory. Through the panorama of advertisements that hovered from each and every building, life went on in the city, dancing its way towards the inevitable end.
“We’re all going to die!” Crookes screamed. Again and again, he was unable to stop. “We’re all going to die! To die!!
To die,” he sobbed. Tears mixed with rain, and then a hand upon his shoulder.
He dropped the briefcase and turned.
“I know …”
“Tom, it’s okay.”
Both were now crying, falling into each other’s arms.
Around them, the pedestrians swerved.
Chris Morton is the creator of this blog.
He has released six sci-fi books.
You can find his amazon page here.