According to a particular genre of movies - the kind involving copious explosions and bad guys with no shooting skills - a visiting UFO should fly past the pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge before landing in either downtown Manhattan or a cornfield with a scarecrow and a creaky windmill. The movies got it wrong. The first UFO to visit Earth actually landed on the outskirts of the village of Upper Morecambe, Gloucestershire, England, where it parked itself neatly behind Miss Peabody’s honeysuckle-covered cottage. The little white fence that separated her garden from that of the Chapmans’ suffered the tiniest of scratches but other than that it was a textbook landing. The whirring of the UFO’s engine died down, then there was a clunk, followed by a hiss of steam as a door opened and a ramp came down. Birds chirped, leaves rustled in the wind, and nothing exploded.
Two green creatures, with tentacles and eyes on stalks, came down the ramp to talk to the inhabitants of this strange blue and green world. Again the movies got it wrong. First contact was not with a mad scientist, a lonely janitor or a grizzled old farmer who nobody would believe, but with Dennis Chapman, aged seven and a half. The taller of the two aliens, Captain JX-17-Dot, said something in a curious, warbling language.
Dennis stared up at them without blinking, one finger jammed firmly into his left nostril.
Captain JX-17-Dot turned to her subordinate, Officer S29-M-Dash, and muttered something in a tone that proved that sarcasm was a universal language. Officer S29-M-Dash replied with a series of warbles and clicks. He then took out an electronic gizmo which he pointed at little Dennis.
“Try it now,” he said, sounding suddenly like a mid-twentieth century BBC newsreader.
“Right-ho,” said Captain JX-17-Dot, also in English. She had a faint Welsh accent which was not going to endear her to the people of Upper Morecambe. She crouched down until she was level with Dennis. “Greetings, earthling. We come in peace. Our mission is one of exploration and uh…”
“Science,” Officer S29-M-Dash added helpfully.
“Science, right,” said Captain JX-17-Dot. “We require your assistance, earthling. Our vessel has suffered damage.”
Dennis blinked, then opened his mouth and yelled, “Mum, there’s a spaceship!”
“That’s nice, honey,” said a voice from inside the nearest house. “Now come inside and have lunch.”
If the aliens had come to Earth to learn about intergenerational communication and preadolescent behaviour, their mission would have been successfully concluded then and there. Dennis pouted, kicked the fence and stalked away inside, where he was greeted with an exasperated “Wash your hands first!”
Captain JX-17-Dot turned to her subordinate and raised one eyestalk. “Well? I thought you said they were a reasonably intelligent species.”
“Apparently the individual is still a juvenile.” Officer S29-M-Dash showed her the results of his electronic gadget's analysis. “Look, it’s not even halfway to maturation. The fully grown individuals are around fifty percent taller and have a smaller head-to-body ratio and less prominent eyes. Perhaps we could go inside this dwelling and communicate with the young individual’s progenitors.”
From inside the house there came a a giggle, a crash and a shriek.
“Best not,” said Captain JX-17-Dot. “It appears the juveniles of this species encourage aggression. We should go somewhere else.”
They both considered Miss Peabody’s cottage. In addition to the honeysuckle, there was a large quantity of ivy and a rose trellis. The windows were hung with little lace curtains and it was just possible to make out the interior, which consisted of armchairs upholstered in a floral pattern, little tables with porcelain ornaments, and framed photographs of cats. Officer S29-M-Dash’s gadget bleeped to inform them that the white things draped across the furniture were called doilies.
“Let’s wander around,” he suggested.
They oozed down the lane and came to a large building with a thatched roof and a number of benches outside. Several earthlings were perched on these, drinking amber liquid that the gadget informed them was a mixture of water, ethanol and a variety of esters and acids in tiny quantities.
“It’s toxic to them,” Officer S29-M-Dash said in shock. “Even in small amounts. Why are they drinking it? Do you think they don’t know?”
“I think they do. It must be some sort of initiation rite. We may have found their headquarters.”
With a horrible squelching sound, the two aliens heaved themselves over the threshold and entered the village pub, The Green Man. The earthlings did not seem surprised to see them at all, which Officer S29-M-Dash thought was rather strange. But he didn’t think it was his place to point this out.
The interior of the pub was sleek and shiny, and the barmaid wrinkled her nose as they trailed slime across the floor.
“Costumes outside, if you please,” she said. “I just cleaned.”
“Are you in charge here?” Captain JX-17-Dot said.
“No, love, I just work here.”
“Then take me to your leader!”
She sighed and called over her shoulder, “Rick! There’s two more!”
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud!” A middle-aged man with a beer belly and an impressive moustache came out of the back office. “Can’t you two read? You can’t wear face-covering costumes in here.”
“These are not -” began Captain JX-17-Dot.
“What are you supposed to be, anyway?” Rick the barman continued. “It’s not the green fella from Star Wars, is it? Are you from Doctor Who? I gotta say, I really prefer the old Doctor Who. The modern one is too much CGI and too little storytelling, if you ask me.”
The barmaid rolled her eyes.
“Anyway, either take ‘em off, or get out.” Rick made shooing motions with his hands. “The village green is down the street and to the left. You can’t miss it.”
Officer S29-M-Dash’s electronic gizmo was a surprisingly sophisticated piece of equipment, capable of analysing cultural references and non-verbal communication. It didn’t know what to make of the phrase “Doctor Who” and the arm-flapping though. The screen flickered and Captain and Officer peered at its suggestion for getting out of this situation: Just nod and smile.
So they bobbed their eyestalks, bared their teeth, and oozed out again.
“Nice costumes!” one of the earthlings outside shouted after them, as they headed down to the village green, which turned out to be a large open space in the middle of the village. It was also very green, on account of the numerous tiny chlorophyll-containing plants that the gizmo identified as grass. More than a hundred earthlings were gathered on the green. The gizmo had some trouble processing all the input. Its analysis circuits flickered and hummed and came up with half a dozen possible explanations, which ranged from witch burning to peace negotiations before eventually settling on village festival. After a moment, it added all proceeds to the church roof.
“I think it is some kind of social event,” said Officer S29-M-Dash, as they wandered among the stalls selling cake and dented copper pots pretending to be antiques. “They’re not very aggressive are they, these earthlings?”
“I don’t think we’re the first to visit this planet after all,” said Captain JX-17-Dot, as they rounded a corner and found themselves staring at a bizarre collection of creatures that could not all have originated on this planet. Most looked like earthlings with strange forehead ridges or pointy ears, but some had extra limbs.
“They’re all earthlings, even that one,” Officer S29-M-Dash said, as a metal cylinder came whizzing past, shouting happily about extermination. “The costumes seem to have social or religious meanings. That one, with the long textile coverings, is called jedi, although the quantum-cultural scanner can’t seem to make up its mind about the significance of the term.”
He gave the electronic device a few angry whacks, until Captain JX-17-Dot put one tentacle on his to stop him.
“Never mind the costumes,” she said. “Let’s look around.”
They oozed across the green, stopping once because Captain JX-17-Dot wanted to try a slice of Victoria sponge and once because Officer S29-M-Dash thought that if the Captain could eat cake, then he could have a go at the coconut shy.
“We can’t keep it!” hissed Captain JX-17-Dot, when Officer S29-M-Dash successfully knocked one of the coconuts down and was given it as a price. But the old man in striped textiles who was running the stall didn’t want it back.
“Oh no, sir!” he cried. “You won fair and square! You wouldn’t want people saying that Colonel Fobster deprived anyone of his prize, now would you? No, sir!”
So they graciously accepted the coconut, and Colonel Fobster waved them off.
“It is edible,” Officer S29-M-Dash said, after scanning the hard and oddly hairy sphere that the earthlings called a coconut. “It requires some preparation, though. We could take it with us.”
“It’s a biological hazard, and strictly forbidden under intergalactic law, article seventeen, subsection two dash a.”
“Oh, all right then.”
He gave it away to a small group of earthlings who, according to the scanner, were fully grown but not fully matured. They wore blue textiles on their lower bodies. Around their torsos they wore a different sort of cloth, with tubes for their appendages and hoods to cover their heads. They promptly began to kick the coconut around.
“It appears to be some sort of adolescent bonding ritual,” said Officer S29-M-Dash. “Fascinating. Is there time for us to do a more detailed cultural study?”
“Let’s get the ship fixed first. What is this pointy building? It looks significant.”
They stood in front of St Mary’s church and read the information the scanner gave them. It supplied them with a condensed history of the building, the Church of England in general, and even found a grainy photo of the current vicar.
“This earthling is a religious chief,” said Officer S29-M-Dash, tapping the screen with one tentacle. “He may not have access to the technology we need, but he may be able to assist us.”
The church was cool and quiet after the bustle and noise outside. They oozed down the aisle towards a low table that was set under a stained glass window. A female earthling was busy there, putting colourful vegetation in a glass container.
“Greetings, earthling,” said Captain JX-17-Dot.
She gave a small squeal and dropped several pieces of the vegetation. Officer S29-M-Dash extended a tentacle to pick them up.
“Oh, goodness. Thank you. So sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“What is the significance of this vegetation?” asked Officer S29-M-Dash.
“It’s my turn doing the flowers this week, dear. I do think the roses are lovely, don’t you?”
“Earthling,” said Captain JX-17-Dot. “We wish to speak to your leader. The one you call vicar.”
“He’s around somewhere. Or perhaps he’s already gone outside…”
“No, he hasn’t!” said a sharp voice behind them. They turned to see a middle-aged earthling female walking towards them. Her shoes were slightly higher at the back and made of some material that clacked as she walked, and her outfit was as different from the fluttery jedi robes as it was possible to be. Officer S29-M-Dash wondered how she managed to make something as soft as textile look so sharp. His electronic gizmo, meanwhile, had discovered the internet. It had analysed the plots to all Midsomer Murders episodes and concluded that this woman, while not technically in charge of anything, was nevertheless the real power in the village because of her terrifying personality. It also informed the aliens that she was likely to be the second murder victim, but not to worry because the festival would go on. Neither Captain JX-17-Dot nor Officer S29-M-Dash knew quite what to make of this.
While they were trying to wrap their heads and tentacles around this cultural tidbit, the sharp woman snapped at the vegetation-arranging woman and stormed off to another room from which she returned a moment later with an elderly man in tow. He wore black robes with a patch of white on the front.
“Come on, vicar,” she said. Her eye fell on the two aliens. “And you two. There’s absolutely no reason for you to be in church dressed like that. Tourists, are you?”
“Er,” said Officer S29-M-Dash.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Captain JX-17-Dot said.
The sharp woman sniffed. “Welsh! Well! Go on, then, outside. That’s where the fancy dress judging will be. Where’s your number? Haven’t you been registered yet? Deirdre, why can’t you do your job?”
The last comment was evidently aimed at the vegetation-arranging woman, who shrank down and muttered something about arranging flowers. The sharp woman chivvied them outside to a nearby stall, where she proceeded to ask questions in a way that reminded Captain JX-17-Dot of the Imperial Secret Police. Officer S29-M-Dash answered the questions with a little help from his electronic gizmo, which was still stuck in the whodunit genre and happily suggested Mr Poirot and Miss Marple as suitable names for earthlings. The sharp woman then fastened a piece of paper to Officer S29-M-Dash’s upper left tentacle with a pin. He suppressed a yelp with some difficulty. She pushed them towards a group of earthlings in colourful costumes. All had papers pinned to their front.
“I have changed my mind,” Officer S29-M-Dash said when she finally left them. “These earthlings are very aggressive.”
“What do the squiggles on the paper mean? Is it their script?”
Officer S29-M-Dash scanned it. “It is the number forty-two. It seems we are participating in a contest.”
“That could be dangerous. What if we lose?”
They both contemplated the infamous contests of Taurugon Alpha Four, where the losers were dunked in sulphuric acid and those who survived that were made to work as chartered accountants for eternity. The electronic gizmo beeped to draw their attention to the fact that it had successfully translated the terms and conditions of Upper Morecambe’s Science Fiction Festival All-Ages Costume Contest. It contained no mentions of sulphuric acid, but featured a slew of prizes, ranging from one of Miss Peabody’s knitted jumpers to a tarot reading by Janice from Sacred Crystalz on the High Street. The grand prize was an electric hedge trimmer.
A trio of earthlings with clipboards approached and Captain JX-17-Dot lost no time in explaining to them that the hedge trimmer was exactly what they needed for their quantum spatial hyperdrive junction.
“Goodness,” one of the earthlings said. “What realistic costumes! However do you move them around?”
Officer S29-M-Dash twirled his tentacles and tried to look like the green thing from Star Wars, whatever that was.
A moment later the vicar announced that Farmer Giles had won the hedge trimmer for his rendition of Spock, while the tentacled whatsits with the number forty-two had won a bottle of Mrs Gilchrist’s sloe gin. Officer S29-M-Dash’s gizmo suggested a few colourful Earth swearwords. It then warned them of all the possible health effects of Mrs Gilchrist’s sloe gin, some of which sounded rather fun.
Farmer Giles, who looked like a regular earthling except for his vaguely pointed ears, approached the two aliens cautiously. “Arr. You wouldn’t mind tradin’ that there bottle for this ‘ere ‘edge trimmer, would ya?”
“Gladly,” said Captain JX-17-Dash.
And so Captain JX-17-Dash and Officer S29-M-Dash obtained a replacement part for the quantum spatial hyperdrive junction. They conferred briefly and decided that while interesting, this planet was too volatile and unpredictable for an official first contact mission. And so they patched up their UFO and whizzed up through the atmosphere, leaving the good people of Upper Morecambe to enjoy the school band’s rendition of the Imperial March and completely ignorant of the vast wonders of intergalactic politics.