Author's Note: This story is set in a parallel universe with less advanced technology than our own. For the most part, about 1930s level. They have not managed to split the atom or make a working rocket.
Josh was woken the next morning by the feel of Lottie's clammy alien hand on his cheek. He opened his eyes. She was standing over him, her smooth, green face shiny in the early morning sunlight. She leaned close to his ear.
"Did you dream, brother?" She had become very interested in the subject of his dreams during their long conversation the previous night. He could not think why, but she had pestered him for details on a dream he had had about the time he had lost his first baby tooth.
"Not last night," he said, sitting up with a groan.
"Too bad… too bad that I can't share your dreams. Now we use the bathroom again, yes?"
Mum had been firm that he show Lottie how to use the bathroom stage by stage. This morning she had to disguise herself as an Earth girl. While he brushed his teeth, she stared into the mirror and ran her fingertips over the broad bridge of her nose. "I can change it."
When he had finished brushing his teeth he was annoyed by her clammy touch on his cheek again. "Have you seen my nose?"
He looked up and jumped to see Lottie's face now without a nose at all, just blank, smooth green skin. She reached into the sink and fished out a bright green object. Somehow she had detached her nose from her face. "Don't worry brother, we lose and then reattach body parts all the time. I'm working on my look. I want to be pretty on my first day of school."
"OK… I hope you know what you're doing."
Josh cringed as Lottie pushed and kneaded her face this way and that, crumpling it up like green putty and causing her dark eyes to bulge alarmingly. He had to look away.
"You do not like to see this? It is done now." Lottie rumbled. Her features were definitely finer now. "Just my… skin." She took a prosthetic mask, just like the one Leo used from under her night dress and pressed it against her face. There was an unpleasant squelching and scrunching. "I hope my face doesn't sag. Go and breakfast, brother. Don't let me keep you."
Mum reproached Josh almost as soon as he got downstairs. "You were supposed to show Lottie how to use the bathroom!"
"She said I should go and have breakfast. Probably needs her space."
Mum frowned. "You understand that we don't start until she comes down?"
Josh nodded listlessly. Life was already very different.
"And another thing," said Mum, "you have to look after Lottie at school. She'll be in the same classes as you."
"Isn't that throwing her in at the deep end? She's never been to school on Earth before."
"You don't have to worry about that, Josh. You do have to worry about staying close by her at all times. Who knows what kind of problems an alien girl might face?"
"Good morning. Will I ever get used to the sun so near?" Lottie had entered. She was wearing the prosthetic mask, but for all the world it looked like she now had pasty human skin. To complete the effect, she had a red wig. She turned to Mum. "You are putting pressure on my brother, Robyn? There is no cause for concern. He has a sense of…" She hesitated. "I think the right word is 'duty.'"
Lottie did look like a human girl now, but the way her face moved was still a little strange. Somehow slow and elastic.
"Oh, well…" Mum appeared a little flustered. "You can call me, 'Mum,' dear."
"Then I will, Mum" said Lottie. She picked up a cereal box.
"There's a free gift inside," said Josh. He reached in and took out a tiny crayon in a tiny cellophane bag and unwrapped it. Lottie took it enthusiastically and shoved it into her mouth and swallowed.
"We draw with those," said Mum with what Josh recognised as determined jollity. "It's a fun way to play."
"They do look like the bricks for the playtime towers in the crystal cities, back on Aetherium. But smaller. And they don't glow," said Lottie. "They had not found me a brother yet, so I was in charge of the hatchlings' play time. All those great, glowing towers I built for them…"
"Wow. Wish I could have seen it," said Josh.
Lottie poured porridge into a bowl. "I wish that too. I think my nest queen would have liked you…" she suddenly looked uncomfortable. "When I say 'nest queen' I suppose I mean 'mother.'"
"How was breakfast time on Aetherium?" Asked Josh. "Was it very different."
Mum tried to shush him, but Lottie's face stretched slowly into a grin. "Hardly. It was just sitting and eating. Not like the ancient times when my ancestors had to fight …" she waved her hand in the air, clearly struggling to find the right word "… had to fight giant sea monsters among the icebergs on the equatorial sea." She leaned towards Josh so that her icy breath tickled his cheek. "Imagine having to fight a monster bigger than this house with pointed teeth and hungry tentacles, just to get meat for the deep winter. No, I can't imagine it either."
"Have you seen the fossils of the sea monsters, Lottie?" asked Mum interested.
"Yes, the equatorial sea shrank into a marsh long ago, but I've seen the bones. The great long skulls were massive. They could have snatched any of us up in their jaws."
Lottie picked up a spoon and nibbled cautiously at the porridge. "Thank you for making breakfast." Josh noticed she was nibbling cautiously at each breakfast item. The porridge, the eggs, the bacon and the grapefruits. If her kind used to eat meat, then their diets had probably not been so very different as he first supposed. He had got the wrong impression when she ate his crayons.
Outside, Lottie kept grimaced and shielded her eyes from the sun, but then she shook her head and kept her gaze fixed ahead. She drew a red lollipop from the front pocket of her school uniform and sucked on it, staining her blue tongue pink.
As they walked up the road to school, Josh heard the bell that sounded before assembly. "We'd better hurry. We don't want to miss prayers."
"This is a part I always understood," rumbled Lottie. "There was still religion on Aetherium for those who wanted it. Our ancestors worshiped the sun. A few of us still did, but not me. I looked at the night sky so I could see the little silver disc of Earth."
This subject piqued Josh's curiosity. "Was there a moon to worship?"
"No, that would have been a big problem for Aetherium." Lottie ran the tips of her gloved fingers over her cheek and her gaze flickered to the paving stones for a moment before settling on his face again. "If Aetherium had had a large moon like Earth has, then it would have stabilised our axial tilt and the whole planet might have frozen over. Maybe think of it like Aetherium was wobbling around all the time like a giant spinning top? A part of the planet was always pointing right at the sun, so it was harder for the whole planet to freeze over. Earth is close to the sun, so the stabilising force of the Moon is a good thing here."
At that moment, Lisa from Josh's form came running up to them. Her blond hair was tied back in a ponytail today, accentuating her pale, aquiline face.
Her face split into a wide grin. Her chin came down to a point, just like her mother's. "Hey Josh, who's your friend?" She beamed at Lottie who stared blankly back. Josh hoped she wasn't going to do anything that would embarrass them.
He quickly introduced her. "Lisa, this is my sister, Lottie. Mum and Dad have uh… just adopted her."
"My biological parents are dead," rumbled Lottie in a dull monotone, her face still as a statue's. "I lost my entire world. Josh is my brother now and takes care of me."
Lisa's brows drew together and she bit her lower lip. "Oh my God, that's awful, you poor dear."
Lottie's face remained immobile and her gloved hands, one still clutching the lollipop, hung limply by her sides as she stared blankly ahead.
Lisa spoke in a rush. "Listen, I really want you to feel welcome so I'll insist to Al that you both come to the seaside with us this evening. He won't ignore me."
A lot of them had planned this seaside trip a while in advance, but Al had not seen fit to include Josh. "We wouldn't want you to go to the trouble," protested Josh.
"If it were too much trouble I wouldn't have suggested it, now would I?" said Lisa sharply. She patted Lottie's shoulder. "Hang in there, Lottie. You'll see that Oyster Bay is a friendly school."
Josh was relieved that Lottie got through assembly alright. She rumbled the words of morning prayers without complaint. First period that day was physics and they had to wait a while for Mr Hughes the teacher and they hung around the entrance to the laboratory building. Lottie stood beside him sucking the lollipop. A number of the girls were standing in a little knot whispering among themselves.
"No way!" exclaimed Ronnie, a member of the group.
"Don't be mean," said Lisa in her stern voice. She turned to Josh and Lottie and smiled. "It's settled. We all want you to come this afternoon." Behind her back, Ronnie pulled a weird face.
At that moment, Mr Bennett, one of the other physics teachers had turned up and was scolding a couple of the boys about something. He went away, but then Steven Brace exclaimed rather injudiciously, "Gordon Bennett!"
Unfortunately, Mr Bennett heard him and promptly came back. Brace protested that he had not meant to be cheeky, but Mr Bennett would have none of it. "I suppose if there was a cuss-word called 'Gordon Brace' then you would have said that?"
"What's that mean?" said Lottie suddenly. Everyone turned to look at her.
"Sorry Sir, my sister's um…" Josh began, but was unsure how to explain.
"She's been through trauma, Sir" said Lisa firmly. Josh nodded. Fortunately Mr Bennett seemed satisfied.
Lottie was drawing sniggers and stares when eventually they all took their seats in the lab. A knot of the girls were whispering among themselves as he and Lottie sat down and Josh was rather surprised when one of them named Luca detached herself from the group and plumped down beside him. Luca brushed her long red hair away from her face. "I'll be working with you two."
"Well… good," said Josh.
Lottie looked at Luca askance. Luca scratched her freckled nose and glanced at her. "As you're new here, you'll need to try hard to catch up. We're already half way through the syllabus."
"The physics of this world are primitive. I understand the mathematics are as well," Lottie replied in her monotone.
"Oh well, you're confident," said Luca raising her eyebrows.
The first part of the period did not require group work. It was Mr Hughes telling them things Josh already knew about the solar system. He began to tell the class how rockets that could be fired to other planets were theoretically possible. Josh was somewhat dismayed when Lottie took it upon herself to interrupt.
"That's not how a rocket would work," she said, gazing fixedly at him, "it ignores the basic concept of propulsion."
"So you're a rocket scientist?" said Mr Hughes amused.
"No, this is elementary," said Lottie, gazing at him steadily. "But technology on this planet is so retro. You didn't pinpoint Aetherium until the 19th century and if history had gone differently, you never would have…" She paused, her mouth stretching wide open, then spoke in short, clipped tones. "I am sorry. There is nothing wrong with technology not being advanced. Please continue."
There was sniggering from around the class and Luca was giving Lottie an odd look.
"I am glad it meets with your approval," said Mr Hughes drily.
The second part of the session was an exercise in constructing simple circuits.
"So technology moves too slow for you, Lottie?" said Luca, picking up a bulb.
"No," said Lottie, "I actually think it would have been better if Earth remained a hunter-gatherer society. If you ever get so far as splitting the atom you'd actually be close to self-destruction."
Josh remembered her words that morning about how ancient times on Aetherium and how she admired her ancestors who had hunted sea monsters on their world's chilly equatorial sea.
Luca flicked a strand of her fiery hair away from her face. "Mmm. I understand why you're so morbid. Lisa told us what you've been through. But be careful… acting weird gets you in trouble."
"Yes, try to be down to Earth, sister," said Josh, hoping she would be responsive to being addressed as 'sister.'
"I hear you, brother," said Lottie nodding slowly.
"Girls and boys have games separately," said Luca. "I hope you can keep up at hockey practice this afternoon."
"I've never played before, but it doesn't sound too difficult," said Lottie. "But I'm excited to see the sea this afternoon. I've never seen the sea."
They all got a discounted rate for the bus journey to the seaside that afternoon, working out to ha'penny each. The summer sun shone overhead, sparkling off the golden sands and the deep blue sea. Luca questioned Josh mercilessly about Lottie and how he was finding sharing a room with her.
"She obviously adores you," said Luca frowning, "she was talking about you all through hockey practice and its always 'my brother' this and 'my brother' that."
At that moment, Ronnie's shriek cut through the air. "Hey, who's the weirdo?"
Josh spun round to see that Lottie had wondered off and was gazing up at the seagulls as though enraptured. "Look brother, see what your dinosaurs have come to," she called, pointing up at the birds.
Josh hurried over to her and took her by the arm. "Be careful," he hissed, "Luca's already very interested in you. You don't want to stand out or show off."
Lottie's face stretched slowly into a grin. "You think she questions you because she is interested in me? How do you say it? Luca is from Mars and you orbit Jupiter? No, that's not right…"
"Let's get a hotdog and ice cream," said Josh hastily.
At that moment there were shrieks from their classmates. Lottie tensed. With a dizzy, unreal feeling, Josh saw a distended, oily brown blob the size of a beach ball hovering in the air of its own volition, no more than thirty yards away. It was roughly egg shaped and there was a hole in the small end that sucked in the air with a constant hissing sound.
"It's a gizzard sucker, a horror from Aetherium's entrails," boomed Lottie. "Stand back brother, this is an enemy you cannot fight." Her voice rose to a roar. "GET BACK, ALL OF YOU."
The gizzard sucker swiveled round in mid-air and began to float towards them…