Intruder in the Night
Julius was wary that evening when his brother Hein summoned him. Hein had never been the easiest fellow to get along with and now that he was master of the household, he had the whip hand over Julius when it came to any disagreement.
The sun had already set. The Martian lamps floating near the ceiling of the Welcome Hall cast a dim, red glimmer over the marble floor. Hein lay sprawled on a leather sofa. Beside him was a small table with an ornate marble bowl. In the bowl, a bunch of ruby fruits gleamed in the light cast by the Martian lamps.
Julius' heart sank. Since his brother had acquired a taste for this particular fruit, he had become more disagreeable than ever before. It was no fruit really, but a genetically engineered plant, designed for its addictive qualities. Hein's dark eyes already had a glazed look and his black hair, now shot through with grey, was unkempt and straggling. He turned his head as his brother came in.
"What in the Underworld took you so long?" growled Hein, peering at Julius through bleary eyes.
"I came right away, brother," said Julius, careful to keep his voice sounding neutral. Hein could take offense so easily these days.
"Yeaaahhh, I suppose you crawled in," said Hein with a sneer, "I've a good mind to get a Rottweiler to keep you on your toes. How would you like that?"
Julius shuddered and knew he must have blanched, because Hein guffawed.
"You were always the weakling, Julius, scared of dogs, scared of your own shadow," he said with a sneer, but mercifully, he seemed to be in a better humour as he sat up straight. "Now I know there have already been changes since our father died, but I'm going to tell you about other changes I'm making. For the better, understand? Can you understand that?" Hein was trying to do his mock quizzical expression that he had always used when being sarcastic, but his gaze was out of focus. Too much of that awful ruby fruit. Julius gave a small nod.
"Well, this is the change, blondie," said Hein, "I've got rid of that worthless housemaid." This came as no surprise. Hein had quarrelled with the other servants and then laid them off. Julius reflected again on how bitterly he missed their father…
"I'm talking to you, stop living in a dream world!" said Hein. This was a bit rich, coming from one who was completely intoxicated, but Julius nodded again.
"I expect you to help more, now that you've broken up from school for the summer, kind-brother," said Hein and he sprawled himself onto the sofa again. "Oh, one other thing. I heard there's one of those hybrid beings in the neighbourhood now. From London. They're freaks, created by illegal genetic experiments in the 20th century. I don't want you speaking to any of them, for whatever reason, understand? I am your legal guardian and I get to decide these things for you. Even you should be able to spot one. They have bright green skin and they're overall really weird. They threaten the purity of the human race. Now go, I'm busy."
Busy indeed! Busy taking ruby fruit! Julius was not reluctant to leave.
That night Julius stood on his balcony, looking at the stars once more. The night air was cool and clear. In the gardens below, all was silent, except for the chirping of the crickets. If only their father had not been so indulgent and spared his health. Then he would still be there. Hein had always had to toe the line when their father was there. And Julius so missed the old man's calming presence. Once, he had been able to talk to his father about anything that troubled him. Night terrors, bullies at school, his fear of dogs… a father's kind words could always reassure him. But now he had died it was as though a light had gone out and left his life in darkness.
He looked up at the heavens. So many stars on this clear night, like tiny jewels. A tiny comet blazed across the sky, leaving a silvery trail. Julius knew it was no use wishing for things. Wishing did not make anything happen. But if he could not hope, what could he do? Hein was right, he was the weakling. Too passive to change anything without help. So he clasped his hands and wished on the shooting star. He wished for nothing impossible. He knew his father was gone beyond recall. But he wished for a sign, that someone else would help him. Who could hear him? Was there a God? Did the stars have minds? Could his father still help, from wherever he was?
Suddenly there was a rustle in the foliage below. The glimmering star lamps flickered on and floated above the bushes, although their green and purple glow barely illuminated anything at all. There was someone there! Julius had glimpsed the shadow of a man, there could be no doubt about it! The man had darted from the bushes across the rolling lawn and into the cover of the trees…
Julius was paralysed for a moment, feeling an icy thrill of nervous fear. Then he blurted out, "who's there? Stand forth."
There was no response. Julius felt bolder. The intruder had obviously gone. He didn't particularly want to wake Hein up, but he felt he could challenge whoever it was now that they had cleared out.
"It's bad manners not to show yourself. Meet me face to face!" He called. Again, no response. Julius gazed out over the lawns and the peach and nectarine orchards. A slight breeze rippled his hair and brought the mingled scents of the garden to him. Oh well, it was probably time to sleep. Hopefully he could dream of his father at least.
He turned - and then he gave a start. There was someone standing, facing him. A tall someone. A tall, bright green someone, with a startlingly green face and staring, black eyes! Julius froze in shock. The intruder gazed back at him, his black eyes unblinking. Julius breathed quickly, his head still reeling.
"Sorrreee, did I startle you?" asked the green someone, cocking his head to one side. His voice was low and strangely husky. His dark eyes seemed to pierce Julius' mind. He reached out an elegant, green hand, but Julius shrank back.
"Who – How?" He gasped.
"You said to come and face you and that I would be rude if I didn't. And I didn't want to be rude," said the intruder, stroking his green cheek with one hand and looking thoughtful.
Julius got his breathing under control, but his heart was still thumping.
"How did – you get up?" he asked, wondering what on Earth he was going to do.
"Climbed. Why, should I have come another way?" Asked the green one, those dark eyes quizzical. "I do so not want to be rude."
Suddenly, Julius remembered his brother's ramblings against "hybrids" created by 20th century genetic research. Perhaps this was one of those strange creatures. Apparently he had greater than human agility.
"I'm Julius and I'm the master of this house when my brother isn't here," said Julius, more bravely than he felt.
"Is that so? Well you look a decent sort. I'm glad you're master of the house. I'm Romeo," said the intruder.
Romeo? Had this hybrid somehow been born to Shakespeare loving parents? He had a bundle strapped to his broad chest. Julius suddenly noticed that it was in fact a doll, with hair bright as spun gold, bound to Romeo as though it were a living child.
"So why are you here in the middle of the night? And with a doll?" asked Julius.
Romeo looked sad. "I have a doll because I can't have a real baby yet. And I was in the garden collecting moon berries for Tracy – that's my mum, but she doesn't like to be called 'mum' because it makes her feel old. She really doesn't want to feel old."
"Wow ermm, just wow," said Julius. Romeo's dark eyes were downcast. He was sad about something. Julius felt braver. He could take charge of this situation and it was bad manners to keep even an unwanted guest out in the night air.
"Well come in, you may as well take some refreshment before you go," he said, gesturing towards the open double doors. Romeo beamed, his white teeth a striking contrast to his bright green face and they entered the bedroom together. Julius indicated a leather armchair and Romeo plumped down. The warm glow of the Venusian lamp above shone off his green nose and cheeks and caused his sleek black hair to glint with an emerald sheen, as though he had special highlights. He was dressed in black, presumably so as to be harder to spot in the dark, but his own colour was so bright, Julius had to wonder whether his clothes would make any different. He was an even more vivid hue than fresh, spring grass.
"So you were taking moon berries?" Julius asked, "I don't think my brother would approve."
Romeo shrugged. "Take them back if you want them," he said, "I won't steal from a friend," and he took a small, plastic bag from his pocket and plumped it onto a round wooden table beside the armchair. Silvery moon berries gleamed inside.
Oh well, at least this creature wanted to be friendly. Julius thought that his dad would have wanted him to be friendly back. To the Underworld with Hein's order. "A drink?" asked Julius.
"Whatever you're having, Jules," said Romeo and he unstrapped the doll that was bound to him and cradled it in his arms. Now Julius could see that it was a likeness of a golden haired, blue eyed child, with a face like polished ivory. "Isn't he a beautiful baby doll?" said Romeo, grinning, showing his pearly teeth again. "My perfect doll. A real jewel. Looks a lot like you in fact, Jules my friend."
Julius imagined how scornful Hein would be about any boy who played with dolls. It would really strengthen his prejudice against the hybrids. Probably Romeo had been brought up exclusively amongst women, but Hein had such rigid views about how both genders should behave.
"I'm sure babies are over rated. Aren't they noisy and messy?" said Julius, already exhausting his limited repartee about babies.
"I've always felt I wanted to look after something like a baby," said Romeo shrugging, "but the scientists say it's in our nature. Part of what we are."
"I'm sorry, but did scientists make you then?" asked Julius. Did Hein really have any idea what these strange hybrids were?
"The truth is weirder than that," said Romeo. "I would almost prefer it if a scientist made me."
"Anyway, the doll is just porcelain or plastic," said Julius, "it doesn't prepare you for what a real baby would be like."
"True. Flesh and blood perfection is better than plastic perfection," said Romeo and his gaze had an unnerving intensity to it. One had to appreciate how flawless his green skin was. Not a blemish, not a pore visible. As though it were plastic or something else synthetic. Julius felt himself flushing a little although he couldn't quite say why. He began to prepare a pair of emerald squishies on the marble counter nearby.
"How much syrup?" he asked.
"Oh 100%, absolutely 100%," said Romeo.
"Well if you say so," said Julius, although he did not think such a thing would be palatable. He watched with dispassionate interest as Romeo buried his face in the squishy, making loud slurping sounds. Ugh, how could he stomach such a lot of sweetness?
"You keep a lovely room, Jules. It's bigger than our whole place. We've never been rich," said Romeo, looking up and glancing round at the marble room with the oaken furniture and four poster. Smears of the emerald syrup adorned his face, especially round his dark green lips. What manners. Still, he had a rather handsome look, in a green sort of way. Even with smears of squishy around his mouth, Julius still had to notice his strong jaw and finely formed cheekbones and straight nose…
"Ach, the room's not at its best. I've had to tidy it myself, now my brother has sacked all the servants," said Julius, shrugging and trying to appear modest.
"Tracy says boys are untidy, but you're not," said Romeo. "And you've even got a VP?"
"You can watch it if you want, but with no sound. My brother wouldn't like to be disturbed," said Julius. The chances of Hein hearing from the East Wing or the Welcome Hall were remote, but Julius did not want to run any risk at all.
Romeo nodded and beamed again. Julius switched on the VP and images emanated forth. The volume was set to one bar and Julius could not hear it himself, but Romeo sat to attention.
"A very low volume is enough for me," he said, "Tracy says my hearing is a lot better than hers."
The image was of some rather plain news presenter. Julius supposed she had known someone in the media industry to get her job – look at the size of her nose!
But then the image changed. A snarling wolf, rearing on its hind legs. Its front paws had an almost hand like appearance and were clawing out as if reaching for Julius. Ropes of bloody saliva hung from its slavering jaws. Its eyes seemed to gleam red from within with a hellish light. Julius stood frozen
Romeo leapt up and switched of the VP. He put his arms round the other boy. Julius could smell the heavy scent of squishy on his breath. "Of all the horrors in the world… a wolf…" said Julius.
"Just a picture, and probably fake," whispered Romeo, his warm breath tickling Julius' ear. "The presenter lady was talking about werewolves. Sounded really far-fetched. But as far-fetched as hybrids would sound? I don't know… hmm did I say that?"
His embrace felt so warm. His whole body seemed hotter than that of a pure human. They stood there for a moment, the hybrid's arms clasped protectively around the human's skinny frame. But then Julius realised he must show some grit.
"It's late now and your mum will be worrying, whether or not she wants to feel old," he said firmly, "and my brother can't find out I've had an uninvited guest. He'd knock me flat if he knew you were here."
Romeo's dark eyes hardened for a fleeting moment. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said, his husky voice still soft.
"We should really meet again," said Julius, wanting to be polite.
"We will meet again, but I'll be careful and your brother will not see," said Romeo.
As Julius lay down to sleep, Romeo stole away, onto the balcony and then out into the night. Thinking of him, Julius was able to forget the image of the wolf. He remembered the husky words in his ear, "we will meet again."
Kind-brother: Kid brother - in this timeline, the upper classes still attempt (to a small extent) to express themselves after the Germanic style of the royal court.
VP: Virtual Projector - like a 3D TV.