Sister from the Stars
It was a bright summer day and Josh stood in the front yard singeing the weeds that grew up between the paving slabs. The air was hot and muggy and he was looking forward to finishing. The weed burner ran out of fuel on the last dandelion, so he laid it against the wall and went back into the front hall. The cool and dark were a welcome relief.
The television was blaring and his mother was chopping vegetables. The TV news announcement caught Josh's attention: "Teramaiden has saved the day once again, foiling an armed robbery. This should convince skeptics that she is a super-heroine…" the view cut to a scene inside a poky general store, where Teramaiden confronted an armed robber. She cut a strange figure, but Josh knew her in real life and the sight of her always reassured him. She was a tall woman, wearing a very tight, silver one piece garment. Her skin was a lurid yellowish-green and her face looked unnaturally smooth and shiny, something like that of a shop window mannequin; the way her features moved was weird and rubbery. Her lips were greenish blue and the inside of her mouth looked very dark blue, almost black.
The robber pointed his gun at her. She spoke and her voice was strangely low and deep for a woman's. "I know you don't want to do this. You are better than this. I don't have to fight you." Josh caught his breath, but amazingly her words had hit home. The robber slowly handed her his gun.
"Leo's good at PR," said mum, glancing up. Leo was Teramaiden's real name. She had talked about PR before. 'PR' meant how good Leo was at showing the public that she was a heroine.
"Do you think she'll visit again soon?" asked Josh. He welcomed her infrequent visits. Leo was always in a good mood and often had a gift of some sort for him.
"Who knows? She has a busy schedule now with her job and being a super-heroine. Perhaps she can squeeze us in sometimes, perhaps not."
After lunch, Josh took out the rubbish bag for collection the next day. As he replaced the lid on the bin, he heard the clatter of stiletto heels on the paving stones behind him and whirled round. Leo stood there, her rubbery, green face stretching into a wide grin.
"Leo! I was just asking when you would visit again."
She laid a hand on his shoulder. Her hands were always very cold even in summer. She wore gloves, but her touch felt like she had had just come out of a freezer. "Hello, darling," she rumbled in her strange, low voice. "Lovely to see you again. Here." She handed him a sapphire bar which he unwrapped right away.
Leo placed an index finger over her mouth. "I haven't told your mum and dad I'd be visiting and I do have to tell them something very important. It's a bit naughty of me."
Josh followed her into the cool and quiet of the hallway where Leo called out his parents' names. "Robyn! Cedric!"
Josh's mum came into the hall. "Leo! Well this is a pleasant surprise."
"I've got more than one surprise," Leo replied and for some reason, she grimaced.
"Okay," said mum. "Josh, perhaps you could go into the garden and gather the spinach?"
"No," Leo put an arm around his shoulder. "Sweetie, it concerns you just as much."
Having accepted the offer of refreshments and taken a bowl of ice cubes heaped in syrup, Leo sat with them while they waited for Dad, spooning the pieces of ice into her mouth, her green cheeks distending quite a long way. It made her face look very strange.
"He won't be a minute," said Josh. Leo smiled and patted him on the shoulder. When Dad arrived she swallowed. "My dears," she began, but then she paused and chewed her bottom lip, leaving teeth marks.
"Is something the matter, Leo?" asked Dad.
"Sorry Cedric, but yes, quite a lot is wrong. Where to begin…" she pressed her hands together, gazing at him intently across the table and then she spoke in a rush. "The world of Aetherium is dead."
Josh felt a jolt of shock. That was the world Leo had come from. "I'm so sorry…" he blurted.
She laid a hand on his shoulder again. "Dearest boy," she rumbled softly.
"Oh Leo, that's terrible," said Dad. Mum put her hands over her mouth.
"This is … bizarre for me…" said Leo. "I was born on that world, but was never of it… I was fired in a cylinder as a tiny infant from the surface of Aetherium and then raised here on Earth, by my true mother and father… I've never actually set foot there and now it's destroyed… so is a part of me that I never knew…"
She sat down abruptly and pushed the strands of her lank, seaweed coloured hair away from her face. The sunlight shone off her green nose and cheeks. "My dears… I brought virtually nothing from that world. Just recordings that were in the cylinder."
"If you need to talk, we're here for you," said Dad.
She stretched her rubbery features into a smile. She smiled differently to ordinary people. Her face stretched slowly to form the expression. "There is a lot to this story, dear Cedric. I must tell all. I suppose it starts with the story of Aetherium. The world had a different name in its own language… from what I can piece together from the recordings, it would probably translate to "Ideal Place," although that would be far from the truth. When they sent me away, their whole world was dying. The ecosystem that produced their greenhouse gases had been failing for a long time. There wasn't much moisture left in the atmosphere. The rivers had dwindled into rivulets and the seas into vast, shallow marshes. Earth and Aetherium both lay in our solar system's habitable zone, but Earth lies near the inner edge and Aetherium lay close to the outer edge, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Being a lot further from the sun, the surface of that world received only about an eighth of the solar energy we get, and the inhabitants had already worked out ways of drawing this to their crystal cities and collecting and preserving it beneath their domes. Outside these cities stretched a universal desert, where life was no longer possible. Although… I have now learned that certain horrors dwelt beneath the planet's surface."
She paused and flicked a thick strand of her hair away from her face.
Josh was intrigued. "What sort of horrors, Leo?"
She grinned at him. "Creatures typical of that world, darling. Biology there was different. My physical frame is flexible." She pulled off a glove revealing a slender, green hand. Then she squeezed it with her other hand and it bent out of shape like play-dough. Josh winced as Leo scrunched her hand into a green ball which she brandished in the air.
"Aetherium produced life forms who can easily adapt and change shape. The surface-dwellers were just like me, but the core-dwellers had no shapes of their own. It turns out that they were shapeless parasites that fed on other beings."
"How terrifying," said Josh, wide eyed. "Could the core-dwellers have reached Earth as well?"
Leo gave that strange rubbery grimace that meant she was uneasy. "I hope not, my sweet. Truly, this was all news to me. I have no memories of that world. None at all. My only home was Earth." She shook her head as if to clear it. "I understand that the surface-dwellers of Aetherium were a clever people, but limited. Insular. They had advanced technology, but most of them believed Earth to be beneath their notice, so they made no real attempt at contact. And now they have overreached themselves. In an effort to exploit the expiring natural forces of their world, they harnessed the store of heat at the planet's heart, which rendered it highly unstable… Some horrible cataclysm took place, causing that whole world to shatter."
"To shatter?" Mum looked startled.
"My impression is that it imploded," said Leo sadly, her eyes downcast. "So many lives lost…" Her right hand was still scrunched into a ball, but Josh took her left hand in both of his.
"But how terrible!" said Mum. "No one really knows how such a thing could effect the solar system."
Leo rubbed her cheek pensively, leaving the impression of her fingers in her green flesh. "I really and truly hope that it will not affect Earth. Hopefully the combined gravitational force of the fragments will make up for the loss of the planetary body and the balance of the solar system won't change. But listen… before the planet died, another cylinder was fired from its surface. There was a passenger on board. A refugee in the form of a young girl. I opened the cylinder myself and lifted her from it. She's older than I was. Quite a bit older. She spent her childhood on Aetherium. She's lost her parents… her whole world." Leo grimaced. "This is impossible for any of us to imagine. It would be like us losing the Earth. I sincerely believe that she deserves the chance I had. To be brought up as part of a nice, Earth family. There can be no better start in life." She turned her piercing, dark eyes to each of them in turn. "You are the best people I know for the job. Robyn, your expertise in exobiology is a part of it, but the main reason is that you are wonderful people. I love the three of you and have always admired how close knit and loving you are…"
Josh was confused. What exactly was she asking?
"We will help the poor mite in any way we can," said Mum.
"We'll decide when it's best to take her in," said Dad.
"I have complete faith in you all," said Leo solemnly.
Josh was uneasy. Take her in? A strange girl? An alien girl? Really? For how long and what exactly would it involve? He had to get this clear. Questions buzzed around in his brain as he accompanied Leo to the door. When they were in the front yard again he fully intended to confront her about it, but then she squatted down so that they were face to face and placed her hands on his shoulders. The fingerprints she had left on her cheek were gone and her shiny face was seamless again. Her dark eyes were wide and unblinking. "Darling, I put my trust in you most of all. You are such a good boy… The lost child of Aetherium would have the best chance on Earth with you as her brother."
She leaned close to whisper in his ear and her breath was as cold as air from a freezer. "It hasn't always been an easy role, being a super-heroine, but one of the reasons I keep doing what I do is to defend boys as pure of heart and mind as you are."
Josh swallowed, feeling a little overwhelmed at her flood of emotion. At that moment, he could not bear to disappoint her. Not when she trusted him this much. "I - I will do my very best, Leo," he murmured.
Next week, he returned from school to find Leo back with them, this time accompanied by a girl like herself, but clearly younger; Josh would have guessed around his own age. She was dressed in a one-piece silver suit, like Leo and the strands of her lank hair hung loose. She had piercing dark eyes, like Leo's he noted, except that hers were wide and fearful. He doubted Leo was ever frightened.
Leo grinned as he entered. "Ah, Josh darling, this is Lottie. We've already picked out an Earth name. Aetherial names are very difficult to pronounce with human vocal cords."
"How do you do, Lottie?" said Josh, extending a hand. Lottie gazed back at him with wide dark eyes, but made no response.
There was an awkward pause.
"Aw, she's just shy," said Mum.
"Now Lottie," said Leo, "our people were good at disguises. This is how I fit in." She held up a prosthetic mask to the light. It looked uncomfortably like real skin. Leo pressed it to her face and there was a weird squelching and scrunching sound and then when she took her gloved hands away, her face was flesh coloured, but still unnaturally smooth, like a mannequin. This was how Leo disguised herself for her day job when she was not a super-heroine. Josh liked her better with her mask off and thought it a shame that she had to hide who she really was. She was only truly herself when she stepped into the role of heroine.
"I have one just for you, Lottie," said Leo, the lips of her prosthetic face moving as she spoke. "You can wear it for school tomorrow."
Lottie beckoned to Leo who leaned down as if to listen to her whispering, but then the strands of her seaweed coloured hair snaked up and tangled into Leo's. Leo's dark eyes widened for a second, then she stood up. "Try to speak in English and use your vocal cords, Lottie. I fully appreciate how frightened you must be, but you have a big brother to take care of you now. Something you never had on Aetherium." Josh smiled and blushed. Lottie fixed her wide, dark eyes on him.
Mum suggested that Josh show Lottie paper and crayons to start out with. Sounded fair enough. Josh certainly had no idea how to amuse an alien and perhaps she should be shown basic things to start out with. He placed a piece of paper in front of her and laid out a set of crayons in a row.
"Alright, Lottie, here is a set of crayons … um… in all the colours of the rainbow. And now what we do with them…"
Lottie picked up a pink crayon. "Brick?" she said aloud. Her voice was deep and rumbling, somewhat like Leo's.
"No, definitely not a brick. Hey, what are you doing?" Lottie pulled at her lower jaw, causing it to distend grotesquely. Her blue tongue lolled out of her mouth and she stretched it until the end of it came off in her fingers, then she smeared it over the crayons before shoving them all into her mouth.
Mum came into the room at that moment. "Well you must be hungry, Lottie. How about we make some popcorn?"
Mum switched on the microwave and soon the corn began popping.
Lottie gave a hoarse cry and jumped under the table.
"Oh dear, just go under there and reassure her, Josh," said Mum.
Josh crawled under the table. Lottie shrank away from him, her eyes wider than ever.
"Don't startle her, now," urged Mum.
Josh forced a smile. "There's nothing to worry about, Lottie. It's just the microwave."
She stared at him blankly. "Danger?"
"No nothing to worry about." He paused, wondering what on Earth he could say. He remembered Leo's words. "I'm your big brother now. I'll look out for you. Don't worry about the silly microwave."
"Brother?" Lottie reached out a cold, clammy hand and wrapped it around his, consenting to being drawn out from under the table.
When the popcorn was ready, Lottie did not seem interested in it and gazed at it dully when it was put in front of her.
"Perhaps you should go outside while it's still light out?" said Mum.
"Please, not yet?" said Lottie. "The… Sun?" she pointed upwards at the ceiling. "The Sun is too bright here. I want to stay under the roof. With my brother."
"That's nice," Mum replied. "Josh, why don't you teach your sister how to play Draughts."
Lottie picked up the rules of Draughts very quickly, but she was not impressed with the game. She kept comparing it unfavourably to an Aetherium game, the name of which was an unintelligible garble of syllables. Later, Mum told Josh to show Lottie how to use the bath. He showed her how the taps worked and he was just mixing in some cold water with his arm when she touched his cheek with her cold, slippery fingers and made him jump.
"Brother, on Aetherium they brought up heat from the heart of the planet."
Josh wasn't sure why she was telling him this. "Did they?"
"Now it's gone."
He put an arm around her shoulders. "I'm so sorry." He wished he could say something more profound. He could not even begin to imagine the extent of her loss. Neither could any of them really, not even Leo.
"The world had cooled and the … what's the word? … the volcanoes which used to warm the air had died off," rumbled Lottie. "So they dug deep."
"You know so much English already," said Josh, hoping he could lighten the mood. "Did you have an English class on Aetherium?"
"They got Earth radio and TV signals and some of us studied them. I was interested in Earth, but most thought it a primitive planet. I liked to watch Earth in the sky. I enjoyed playing at being an Earth girl. I wanted to visit…" Her voice trailed off and she would not speak anymore for a while.
Later Mum dropped the bombshell that Josh would no longer have his own room. Lottie would be sharing with him. He had always had his own room. It had seemed like his own private sanctuary. Having to share it with a strange, alien girl… he gritted his teeth and remembered his resolve not to disappoint Leo and to try and make Lottie feel welcome after all she had lost.
"Alright Mum," he replied tonelessly.
"She insists on it. She keeps saying she wants to be near her brother. You must realise how much she has lost," Mum glared at him as though he had denied how much Lottie had lost.
"I know that as well as you do, Mum."
"Don't be cheeky."
Josh forced himself to smile as Lottie crept into his room, looking a bit strange in a pink night dress, her seaweed hair hanging limp about her. Her gaze wondered to the shelf with his collection of model dinosaurs.
"See these, Lottie? Earth used to be ruled by monsters like this." He had set the dinosaurs out in chronological order and now he picked up the model Tyrannosaur from the end of the shelf.
"Not now though," said Lottie, shaking her head. She ran the tips of her bright green fingers over the model brachiosaur in the middle of the shelf. "The core-dwellers were worse than this."
Perhaps this was a safe topic. The way Leo had spoken of the core-dwellers, Josh was sure that no one would mourn them. "What were they like?"
She turned her gaze to him. "Many of them came to the surface towards the end. There were the mind parasites. They had no shapes. They were like shadows that stuck to our people and took away their free will. There were the gizzard-suckers that floated through the air and stuck to our people, sucking out their insides. Then there were the worst core dwellers of all."
Josh was intrigued. "What were they?"
Lottie shook her head, the strands of her slimy looking hair flapping around her. She plumped herself down on the side of his bed. "I don't even want to talk about them. Just stay with me tonight, brother. I don't want to feel alone in the universe." He sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders, trying not to shudder at how cold her skinny form felt as she leaned against him.
She turned her head to him and the slippery strands of her hair brushed his cheek. "The sunset here is incredible. Almost too much to bear."
"Leo said it was an eighth the size in Aetherium's sky."
"The Aetherial sunset had less colour too." She pointed out of the window at the night sky. "That's the planet Venus. It's so bright now. Must be in conjunction. I always thought it strange that you named it after a goddess. It's a burning ball of death."
"Mars was closer to Aetherium than Earth. If Aetherium and Earth were at opposite ends of the habitable zone, then Mars was closer to its middle. Is there life on Mars?"
Her rubbery face stretched slowly into a grin. "No, there is not. Mars has no magnetosphere to keep a substantive atmosphere. You're so curious about things when the rest of Earth knows so little. I see why Leo loves you. Wish I could impress her like that."
Josh felt himself blush. "Well…" he didn't quite know how to respond. "We've been through stuff together…"
"You can ask me anything. But not about the core-dwellers. Or not tonight anyway."
"Not tonight," he agreed. Lottie wrapped her clammy hand around his.