Friends from Mars

The images were grainy as the acrobats impossibly jumped from one frame to another. Turner and Angel loved to watch these jerky, ancient films. They had been lovingly transferred to safe celluloid stock by their Uncle Jerome. Their great grandfather had worked in the early moving picture industry and his reels of ageing film had started to disintegrate and, on one memorable occasion, burst into flames. It was decided that the surviving films should be copied onto new celluloid from which they could be more easily digitised. After the promise of funding, Uncle Jerome intended to send them to a specialist technology company which had the software to restore them frame by frame.

Even before that could be done, it was magical, watching the original uncut scenes filmed over a century ago. The whirring of the projector and splash marks of deterioration only added to the strange wonder of the pantomime performances. There were also films of horse drawn carriages vying for space with the newfangled vehicles powered by combustion engines - one was actually steam driven!

Turner’s young sister, Angel, clapped with glee, even more excited than her brother. The Victorian pictures were totally unlike the humdrum images uploaded on social media. They may have been in colour and of exotic places, but these black and white films breathed life into a world the brother and sister only learnt about in class. Although the people had been long dead, they were more real than the idiots doing pratfalls or taking selfies on the edges of cliffs.

“Now would you like to see something really amazing?” asked Uncle Jerome. There was a mischievous sparkle in his eye which made the invitation irresistible.

Turner and Angel wondered what could be more extraordinary.

“Yes please!”

“This is really old. Your great grandfather was only a boy when this was filmed. No one knows who took it, or how, because the cine camera as we know it had not been invented - according to the experts anyway. You must promise not to tell anyone about it though.”

Turner and Angel promised.

“If anyone else finds out it exists things might get complicated,” their uncle went on. “It has been a family secret for a hundred years.”

“Do our parents know about it?” asked Turner.

“No. Your grandparents decided that, because your mother and father strongly believe that there should be no secrets about anything, they might not understand and tell everyone.”

“That's right,” agreed Taylor, “they tell people everything - it can be very embarrassing.”

“You two are the only surviving members of the family. After you have seen this film you will realise why it must be kept secret.”

Uncle Jerome removed a reel of film from a canister labelled, ‘Friends from Mars.'

This was unlike the others. The frames juddered and frequently skipped several altogether.

“There were hardly any perforations in the original film and it was necessary to transfer the frames one by one. It took forever,” explained Uncle Jerome. “Still can't work out what camera was used, though it must have taken these pictures in real time. Nothing like it came up in any of my searches.”

Angel and Turner were hardly listening, too intent on watching the projector screen. Though the images were indistinct, they could make out that a battle had taken place and the dismembered corpses of soldiers killed by cannon fire lay strewn on the ground.

They were horrified.

Having seen the film so often, it hadn’t occurred to Uncle Jerome how shocking the sight would be to someone who hadn't, especially his young niece and nephew.

Then his enthusiasm took over. “This is a really interesting bit.”

The battlefield was suddenly lit up by a bright light.

Turner did not want to admit that he was relieved it had obscured the gory scene. “Is that a fault in the film?”

“I thought so until I saw what came after.”

Angel had the ability to perceive the obvious that adults often missed. “This was taken by a soldier, wasn't it?”

It had taken her uncle much longer to work that out. “Probably a very clever one ordered there as an observer. It was unlikely anyone else realised - or cared - what he was doing.”

The illumination filling the battlefield took on a definite shape. It was oval and probably had flashing lights, though the primitive camera had been too slow to record them.

There was a break in the film. When it continued the huge shape was hovering over the corpses. It was possible to make out the surviving soldiers running for their lives.

“Wicked...” Turner muttered.

Despite her ability to see the obvious, Angel still had a problem with the reality adults took for granted. “It's not real though, is it?”

Uncle Jerome hesitated before telling her, “Oh, it's real enough. No one in the family could have faked anything like this.”

Angel was more familiar with modern cartoons. “But someone must have done. Look, those creatures are like something out of a Pixar film.”

“There was no CGI over a hundred years ago. The zoetrope could create an animation, and the earliest cartoons were pretty simple, albeit beautifully drawn. No, this actually happened.”

“Then how did your grandfather get hold of it?” asked Turner.

“I think it was given to him by someone who decided that the military shouldn't have it.”

The brother and sister watched the willowy aliens pick their ways through the desperately injured soldiers. The survivors were magically floated up into the huge, oval shape.

“What happened to them?” demanded Angel.

“Probably reported as missing in action.”

The film abruptly stopped.

“It happened so long ago. Would it matter if the authorities did find out now?” asked Turner.

“There is no record of that battle ever happening.”

“Where did it take place then?”

“Can't tell you.”

“Have you been there?”

“Several times.”

“What did you find?”

“Nothing.”

“There must have been something there,” insisted Angel.

“A very big hole in the ground.”

“What sort of hole?”

“Quarry.”

“What were they digging up then?”

“No idea.”

“Yes you have.”

“Can you take us there?” asked Taylor.

Uncle Jerome should have known that after telling them so much that they would want to see for themselves. “The army might shoot you.”

“They didn't shoot you. If it happened so long ago, why would they?”

“Dirty secrets.”

“You did find out what the battle was really about didn’t you?” accused Angel.

Uncle Jerome hadn't expected his nephew and niece to be this interested. “All right. There were letters from survivors who didn't disappear. These soldiers had been sent to put down the mutiny by another platoon. The authorities kept the massacre secret.”

“There's no harm in us looking at this quarry though?” insisted Taylor.

“Take us there,” Angel joined in.

Uncle Jerome knew that they would keep on about it until he did what they asked, and even might let slip they had seen the film to their parents if their curiosity wasn’t satisfied. Telling them that he was taking them on a picnic, the brother and sister left with Uncle Jerome in his station wagon. As usual, his old Labrador, Ali Baba, lay asleep in the back all away there. The dog only stirred when the car stopped and waddled after them across a field of wheat stubble.

The quarry on the other side was deep, its walls steep and there was evidence that digging had stopped a long while ago.

“Were they looking for a spaceship?” Angel wanted to go down there. “I can see steps.”

Her uncle should have known that she would notice them. “There's nothing to see, believe me.”

“That's because they had been digging in the wrong place,” she declared confidently.

Uncle and brother did not contradict the young girl. As usual, her guileless view of things enabled her to see the obvious long before anyone else.

Though something did occur to Turner. “What happened to the mutineers the aliens rescued?”

“Probably went into hiding as soon as they were well enough. I know I would have done.”

“And what happened to the aliens?”

“Probably went home.”

None of them believed that an intelligent species would travel across the galaxy just to do good deed and then return home again.

Ali Baba started to wag his tail enthusiastically as Angel pointed to a young man approaching them.

“Hello,” she called. “Do you know what happened here?”

The young man gave a mysterious smile.

“You do, don't you,” she declared. “You shouldn't be here and we shouldn’t be here.”

He nodded.

“Then why hasn't anyone stopped us?”

He smiled again and patted the old Labrador who had padded over to him.

“They daren’t, dare they,” the young girl declared defiantly.

Uncle Jerome was apprehensive. “Angel...”

“It's all right,” she told him. “We're safe enough. No one would dare come after us.”

Turner became frustrated. “What are you talking about?”

“He's our friend, and knows we can keep secrets.”

Uncle and brother were now very worried.

“Come away Angel,” Uncle Jerome told her. “Don't be a nuisance. I'm sure the young man has other things to do.”

Angel stamped petulantly. “Young man? He's not a young man! Why can't you see that?” She turned to the stranger. “Show them who you really are.”

“No!” Uncle Jerome and Turner shouted together.

The shape of the young man shimmered for a few seconds before changing into a slender alien.

With another mysterious smile, the ‘Friend from Mars’ disappeared.

“See what I mean,” Angel said.

Turner was too scared to answer. “Where’d he go?”

“Oh really...” Angel strode off. “Come on Ali Baba, I'm going to find an ice cream van,” and the old dog followed her back across the field.

“As long as it's not from Alpha Centauri,” muttered Uncle Jerome.