The Xarkron Malice
Josh felt Kora's grip around him tighten and then the sensation of them both soaring upwards…
They sat up in Kora's bed, but something was wrong… Josh could see that everything was suffused in a greyish light.
Then he gasped as something terrible appeared above them. Two great, glaring eyes. Bright red, with slits for pupils hovering above them. They were almost transparent and Josh could see the bedroom through them, but they were swivelling around as if searching for Josh and his sister.
Kora swept aside the duvet with one hand and moved herself in front of Josh. "Grab my shoulders, Josh. Now!"
Her voice trembled with urgency. He put his arms over her shoulders, clinging tight to her cold body as he realised her intent. In a single bound she was out of the bed and onto the floor, Josh on her back and in another bound she was out of the door.
Null's hiss cut through their minds: "Where are you, alien scum? I'll find you?"
God, it was nerve-wracking. Kora leapt down the stairs about six at a time and he could only cling to her as Null's evil voice followed them down the stairs: "There's no escape, spies. I'll chase you to the ends of this dirtball of a planet."
Kora kicked open the door to mum's lab. It looked weird… everything was tinged in a lurid grey light… were they even awake, or what?
"Please let go, Josh."
Josh slipped off Kora's back and she knelt by the safe. She was typing a combination into the safe. Josh supposed she had been watching when mum opened it that afternoon. How would mum like that? The safe door swung open and now Kora withdrew the carved skull.
At that moment, the demonic eyes materialised right above them, glaring down on them with a lurid light and Josh's stomach clenched in fear, his heart thudding in his breast.
"I SEE YOU…!"
Kora gave a hoarse cry and brought her gloved fist down heavily on the skull, smashing it to splinters.
The red eyes floating above them flickered and vanished and at the same time there was a sound like a hiss retreating into the distance.
Kora cupped his face in her gloved hands, staring into his eyes. God, she looked awful, with her face all squashed like that from where she'd pressed it against him earlier. He wondered if he'd ever get used to how weird her eyes were, with the whites all tinged with green like that…
"Come, brother. Now we wake…"
He felt his head spinning and then the light around them seemed to change. The greying hue around everything was gone. As he looked into his sister's eyes he felt as though his mind brushed hers, though just for a moment. He winced. Now he could really feel how sad she was. The emotional pain and grief that she had to live with was like a raw wound inside her. He didn't like the feeling at all. As a matter of fact, he almost wanted to cry.
"You OK?" she rasped.
"Yes, um… were we dreaming? What was going on?"
"Not dreaming, Josh. We were in the umm… I don't know an English word for it. Aetherials and Xarkrons can reach a world that is between dreaming and being awake. We were here in this room, but we could see Null's psychic projection. In between."
"Now he knows where we live?"
Kora shook her head, the lank strands of her hair jiggling. "I think not. I am an Aetherial and I can tell these things. I smashed the skull in time. I should have done it earlier. I'm sorry. Come."
She wrapped her arm in his and led him to the kitchen where she bustled around with the cupboard and kettle. "Robyn said hot chocolate helps you relax."
Josh wondered if he should say something about feeling her sadness for that moment. He really hadn't got it before. But he wasn't sure how, so instead he spoke of the less painful subject. The Xarkrons.
"Kora, how do you know that Null couldn't really see us?"
She poured some hot chocolate into a mug and then poured a bag of mini-marshmallows over the mug, spilling a lot onto the table. "The link was two-way, Josh. I could sense his thoughts while he was groping for us." She screwed up her gungy face in a grimace. "Null's thoughts are really twisted and nasty. How could he find it funny when his henchman disembowelled himself? What a monster." Kora shook her head, the strands of her hair jiggling. "He could not really see us. And I know something else. He has something horrible planned."
"I suppose you don't know what?"
Kora shook her head again.
The first faint streaks of dawn were visible through the kitchen window. Josh sipped at the hot chocolate. "We certainly manage to find trouble, don't we? Or it finds us. What a team. It's something superheroes do, isn't it? Get in trouble?"
Kora's gungy face rearranged itself and her slit of a mouth twitched to form a smile and she sat beside him. He would be glad when she put her face back into shape, so she didn't look so scarily ugly as this.
He really wanted to say something to her about the pain he knew she was in. Now that he had felt it, wasn't that only right? But it was so awkward.
She gazed at him, her dark eyes wide in her slimy face. "Yes, Josh?"
He blushed a little. "Can't say."
She touched his arm lightly with a gloved hand, but made no reply.
As expected, Kora was ready to take the heat and explain to mum why she had ransacked her safe. Josh wondered whether she would be able to make mum understand the strange, alien goings on of the previous night.
Mum listened, tight lipped. Her expression was almost stern, but Josh thought not quite. "I will have to think further on what to do. In the meantime, we're still going to the Zoo today, as I have planned all week. Your first visit to an Earth zoo Kora! Exciting, eh?"
London Zoo was a happy, bustling place at high Noon on a Sunday. Kora wore her human disguise and wondered with Josh around the primate enclosures.
"This chimpanzee is supposed to be humanity's closest relative on Earth or something," said Josh, pointing at one of the monkeys. "But I don't see a resemblance."
Kora gazed at the chimp, her dark eyes more weirdly intense than usual. "Poor thing. He wants to get out."
"I bet he does."
"His thoughts are very clear. I'm not very well at the moment, my psychic sense is not at its best, but I still get everything he's thinking. He's thinking, 'let me out, now.' Now he's thinking, 'what're you staring at?'"
"Hang on, you're reading his mind? How are you doing that?"
Kora giggled and scrunched her nose, her black eyes sparkling. In her human disguise, her eyes did not look tinged with gunge. She lightly touched his arm with her gloved hand. "I'm psychic Josh. We're all psychic. Any Aetherial child could listen to his thoughts."
"Wait, so you can read anyone's thoughts? Are you reading mine?"
Kora blinked. She looked hurt at this suggestion. "That would be rude, wouldn't it? I don't go around reading people's thoughts without their permission. I wouldn't ever do that to you."
"OK, you won't read people's thoughts then. Only animal thoughts."
"Well I wouldn't know about stuff like this. It's like a whole sense you have which I don't. It's a sense like sight or hearing. A sixth sense. I only have five."
She smiled. "If you were psychic, you wouldn't be you, Josh. I wouldn't change anything about you."
"Well that's good. I'm never going to be psychic."
They went to the reptile house next. Josh had enough change to buy a taffy snake. He dangled it in front of Kora, remembering the way mum had tested her reflexes the previous day. "How are your reflexes. Kora? Try to catch him. Catch him or he may bite." She grinned and grabbed hold of the snake as he tried to snatch it away from her.
They bit into the snake, Kora biting the head and Josh the tail end. They tugged in opposite directions, making it stretch. Then Kora swallowed the head.
"OK, you've got the snake's head. You win," said Josh. He gestured at the cobra tank. The cobra lay just lay there, coiled up. "Can you read the cobra's thoughts? Is he thinking anything?"
"He doesn't think a lot, but he does think. Only about his hunger, though. Honestly… the snakes barely have minds at all."
Josh smirked. "They're not like the snakes in Harry Potter then?"
Kora grinned and shook her head. "Oh no. If we did not have reptiles on Aetherium, I would have got the wrong idea from reading about that lovable Brazilian Boa Constrictor. Should the author have written a disclaimer for her fans on other planets? Maybe something like this: "Don't worry - Earth reptiles are not really different from yours."
They walked over to the crocodile enclosure where the crocodile was sitting immobile in its pool of water. Josh remembered her telling him something about swamp hoppers and blobs on another planet in Aetherium's solar system.
"In Aetherial zoos, could you see blobs and swamp hoppers?"
"Yes! We did have some in our family's private zoo. The hoppers are cute little things. They love bouncing about when it's feeding time. They'll snatch the food if you have it on your fingertips."
She stared into the crocodile enclosure, apparently lost in thought. Suddenly she stuck out her bottom lip and spoke, her husky voice shaking. "I still wish I was the one showing you around my zoo. I should be the one showing you a new world. How in the cosmos did it get to be this way round?" She sniffed. "We'd both be so happy with mum and dad on Aetherium. We'd never be homesick then."
He hoped she wasn't going to cry or break down. He took her gloved hand in his. "Hey don't worry, Kora. Anything's possible. I didn't used to think there were really aliens, but then there was Teramaiden. Wormholes in space were only supposed to be real in stories and now you've travelled through one. Who knows what's really possible or impossible? People who say they know everything are usually wrong about that."
She turned to gaze at him. Her black eyes were very wide in her pale, human-skinned face. "You think anything is possible? C-could I ever see my mum again and be on Aetherium?"
Oops. The conversation was not really going the way he wanted. He shouldn't be getting her hopes up.
"Um… I don't know, of course… I'm not even psychic."
"No." She bit her lip and then swallowed. "In the old days on Aetherium, they used to say that a world could only live in the light of a star like Akkhrrrool and that stars like Earth's sun were too big and too hot. Shows what my ancestors really knew. They didn't even think twice before strangling our world's resources and breaking its heart."
She breathed through her nose. It was weird that she thought of Aetherium's core as its heart.
"You are wiser than that, Josh. You don't have our strength or psychic powers, but I you have so much I admire."
He blushed. He did not like boasting, so he really didn't want to be misleading her like this. He had to change the subject. He remembered how much she'd liked seeing birds yesterday, because there had been none on Aetherium.
"Let's go and see the birds. There's lots of interesting ones here."
As he hoped, Kora was delighted to see the parrots. "They're so beautiful. See, that one has bright red feathers. Bright, like your hair. But not the same red."
Josh wasn't sure what his red hair had to do with anything. "Mm hm."
Josh pointed at the toucan. "Look at the size of his beak. There was a story about why he's called a toucan. We have a picture book somewhere… It was about his being able to carry two cans of paint in his huge beak, but then trying to carry three and spilling paint on himself. So 'two cans.'"
She grinned. "Sounds like the Just So stories. Mum and I both loved those. We wished we had birds in our zoo."
She spoke more on her family's zoo as they looked at the tiger enclosures. "We had a type of big cat called a Hackkhahh."
The Aetherial language was difficult to pronounce. "A hacka…? A Hacka-cat?"
She gave a small smile. "You could call it a Hacka-cat if you like. They were the size of tigers, but they had black and white stripes and they could make themselves invisible."
"I could still sense them. I milked them."
"You milked them? You're brave." Josh watched the tiger, which just lay, lounging around its enclosure.
"Well, thank you, Josh."
"How does milking even work with these things, anyway? I didn't know it could be done."
"Oh, it can be done. You just have to be able to sense whether or not they will let you."
For more weirdness they visited the Invertebrate House. The creepy-crawlies were all weird.
Josh pointed at the leech tank and was going to ask her if there had been leeches on Aetherium, when she gave a start and a little, hoarse cry.
"What is it?"
The dim lights of the Invertebrate House played weirdly over her pale face. "Something's wrong, Josh."
He took her gloved hand in his. "No, everything's normal. This is the bug house."
"There's something else here though. Something's wrong…"
Nearby there was one of those zoo experts giving a lecture on spiders. Josh shuddered to see he was holding a great, grey spider in one hand. He beckoned to them, leering in a way that showed all his teeth. "Come and look at this, kids."
His voice was weird and grinding, like a dentist drill. He was staring right into Josh's eyes and Josh could see himself reflected in them…
No! He could see grinning skulls reflected in the strange man's eyes!
The lights in the Invertebrate House dimmed.
"I have an informative lecture for you all, human scum. The Malice will suck you dry, like the insects you are!"
He hooted with demented laughter and his outline seemed to burn and blur as though he distorted the air around him! He was another Xarkron then. Josh felt fear well up inside him. The others in the Invertebrate House cried out, but their cries echoed strangely, as if they were in a dream and Josh's head spun…
As the Xarkron's laughter resounded in their minds, the Malice coalesced in the air before them. A leering, demonic face, truly a thing of nightmares, made entirely of vile writhing bodies with hairy, spider legs sprouting through its blank eye sockets…
"Your doom is at hand, feeble scraps of bone and flesh!"
As the Xarkron gloated, the Malice sprouted wrongly jointed limbs of its own and scuttled towards Josh and Kora like a spider on legs that might have been arms, all the while hissing like a susurration of cockroaches.