On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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Preston was only about ten miles from home now, and he was exhausted.

The drive south to visit his sister and her family had been a long one, and then a full day of activities with the kids and general catching-up, then the same long drive back, all made him feel a kind of tiredness he’d rarely experienced before. He’d be very glad to get into his bed and sleep for about ten hours.

It was a clear night, so he turned the radio up yet again and lowered the window even farther, willing himself to stay awake. The presenter’s voice filled the car, saying something about local elections somewhere or other, and Preston was just about to switch stations when the sound began to crackle.

Driving an electric car in the twenty-first century and the radio still cuts out between the hills, he thought, but he was too tired to really be annoyed. He could really do with some coffee, but that would be madness when the end of his journey was almost in sight. It was better to just push on and get home, then go to bed.

The sound from the radio became solid static now, and Preston grimaced as he reached to turn the thing off. A moment later, all of the car’s systems shut down.

As the vehicle lost speed, Preston first tapped the accelerator and then the brake, feeling how heavy the latter pedal was now. His heart rate increased, and he found himself fully alert for the first time in several hours. Thankfully the road was deserted, and he didn’t have to wrestle the wheel — no longer power-assisted — too much to get the car over onto the verge, where it quickly came to a stop.

“Great,” he said aloud into the silence. “This is just great, thanks.”

He tried pushing the start button a couple of times, but it didn’t even click. The whole digital dashboard was dark, as was the main display above the tunnel console. Lights, windows, wipers; none of it responded at all. He pressed the switch to activate the hazard lights, but nothing happened, and he belatedly became aware of the theoretical danger that he was in.

Checking his wing mirror first, he got out of the car and moved around the front of it to the passenger side, now safely a couple of metres off the road itself. With no way to warn any fellow late-night travellers of the breakdown, it was better to be well out of the path of traffic. He pulled his phone from his pocket, and that’s when he discovered his second problem.

“Huh,” he said. The phone wasn’t responding either. The screen was completely black, and no amount of holding down the power button could reawaken it. He was also still almost ten miles from home, on a country road, in the dark, with no-one else around.

Preston had grown up during the Cold War, and his childhood fears of nuclear attacks had persisted into adulthood. He was just trying to remember whether the electromagnetic pulse from a blast came before or after the shockwave, when suddenly the sky was filled with light.

He actually fell backwards onto the damp grass, but only from fright. There was no explosion, no heat, no shockwave. No mushroom cloud on the horizon. The light was directly above, and it was unlike any illumination he’d seen before. Definitely neither the sun nor reflected moonlight, but also not any of the sorts of artificial light that could be found everywhere. It had the odd quality of seeming less like projected light and more like a thing with substance of its own, coming down from above in a curtain. Preston couldn’t really see anything beyond and above it, but for a fleeting moment there was a suggestion of something blotting out part of the sky overhead. And then he felt himself lift off the ground.

He cried out, but somehow made no sound at all, as if the air directly in front of his face was being held so still that it couldn’t carry the vibrations. He drifted upwards, and he found that the light was like a mist, and strangely warm. It had a contradictory feeling of rigidness alongside its insubstantiality, and he knew immediately that it was the light itself that was carrying him upwards. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t scream, and a tiny voice in his mind wondered if he had died — or if he was about to — but the larger part of him knew exactly what this was. He’d seen it in so many movies. There were several terms, but some didn’t bear thinking about. The only one his mind was able to fasten onto was close encounters.

A few moments later the light expanded above him, or perhaps he was just nearer to its source, and then he passed through the brightness and was suddenly in what seemed to be complete darkness. Still warm, and still immobile, and then he felt something beneath him, and all at once there was more light, but this time it was subdued and it was coming from points around him. He was in a chamber, clearly artificial, and then he became aware that he wasn’t alone.

The shapes were indistinct, particularly since he couldn’t turn his head to look directly at them. Preston was looking directly upwards into a pool of darkness with a ring of lights around the periphery, and the warm, static, heavy air pushed him down onto whatever surface he was resting on. He wasn’t in any pain, but he was completely paralysed.

A movement off to one side startled him, and a primal part of his brain could read the truth even in vague suggestion of motion.

Not human.

Now he felt a more profound fear than he’d ever experienced, but just as quickly as it had arrived, it was gone, replaced by an eerie and almost chemical calmness and clarity. He wondered for a moment if he’d been sedated, but then he felt or heard or saw the scratchings and flutterings within his own mind. Despite the sensation being entirely new, he understood it immediately, and that fact was the most troubling part of it. Preston knew that one of the beings that stood around him in the chamber was now communicating with him, directly within his own mind.

The words weren’t words, and the images weren’t images, but their mode of speech was somehow both and neither. He received perfectly-formed sensory packages of understanding, which approximated concepts or even sentences. It seemed that he was already capable of interpreting them without needing to try.

In his mind, Preston saw appallingly vast distances within the cold blackness of interstellar space. He saw agonising aeons of time, and a journey that was already in its advanced stages when Earth was young. Then a brief flash of a physiology so different from his own that even its barest outline was like ice water poured down his spine.

He thought-asked a question, and it was a combination of who and what and where, but really it was why; why him, and why now, and why had they chosen this world. The answer came just before he’d finished the question, overlapping, voiceless and silencing.

We have come home.

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