It was a bright and sunny summer day on the private stretch of beach where the Coopers were holidaying. The sea was azure blue and the yellow sands were hot to the touch. Josh Cooper scrambled up the sliding surface of the sand dune to get to the top of the cliff. It was quite a lot of exercise for him and would take him several minutes to reach the top. His leg muscles would definitely feel the effects the next day.
Meanwhile, his sister kept pace effortlessly beside him as he struggled to climb. "This is as fast as you can climb, Josh? Do you want me to carry you?"
Josh frowned at her. His sister was not a normal girl. In fact, she was about as far from normal as it is possible to be. Her bright yellow-green face, a mask of lurid slime, glistened in the sun. The lank strands of her hair hung limply around her shoulders like seaweed. Her wide dark eyes gazed at him through the eyeholes in her slimy mask. Her mouth was a mere slit in her gooey face. She wore a shiny body glove that she had brought with her from her home planet. She gave off an aroma of damp soil, and her breath on his face was as cold as the chill air in the cave nearby where the sun did not reach. Kora was not a human girl. She was from the world of Aetherium, a world that had existed beyond the stars, but that was now destroyed. The Cooper family had adopted her the previous winter.
"No, Kora," he snapped. "I want to do this myself."
He knew she had not meant to taunt him and really did want to carry him on her back. She still made gaffes fairly often. It was part of being an alien. But he was in no mood to indulge her.
"This is an exercise they do in the British army," he told her. "Helps strengthen the leg muscles. Dad said so."
Her face moved weirdly under her mask of slime to form a smile. "That is clever, that you have found something that strengthens your muscles. I'm proud of you." English was not her first language. Until last winter, she'd never even been to Earth, so she spoke in a stilted way.
He gave her a small smile in return, and then put on an extra burst of effort, scrambling onto the cliff edge. Kora stood beside him as the wind ruffled his hair. "The sea is so beautiful on Earth," she said, in her low, raspy voice as she looked at the view. "It is not like the seas on Xarkron." Xarkron was a harsh and primitive world, in the same solar system as Aetherium had been, but it had been the sixth planet from their sun. Aetherium had been the fourth planet. Without Aetherium, Xarkron was presumably the fifth planet now. Xarkron had large oceans, even larger than Earth's. Aetherium had had a network of small, shallow seas.
Josh peered at Kora's green face. "Ohhh look. You've got sand stuck on your nose and cheeks… somehow. Sand gets everywhere. I wonder if Mum'll scold you for it."
Kora smiled. "It will come off when my mask renews itself. That doesn't take long."
"Watch this now, Kora." Josh rolled down the sandy slope of the dune as Kora gave a croak of protest. The roll down a sand dune was always worth the climb. If he wrote about it in decades to come, no doubt Josh would feel nostalgic for the days when he could do it without feeling a lot of aches and pains afterwards. He rolled over and over until he was back on the beach. Kora had leapt down to the base of the dune in an instant, leaning over him as he lay on the soft sand, her dark eyes wide and anxious. She exclaimed something in the guttural language of Aetherium and leaned close to him, so he could see every grain of sand stuck to her clay face and feel her cold breath down his nostrils. "Are you alright, dear?"
He laughed openly at her. "Beat you to the bottom. Are you going to ask if that was as fast as I can roll down?"
"That is not funny," she rasped, glaring down at him through the holes in her slime-mask. "I thought that you could be hurt."
He reached up and touched her green cheek. The cold goop of her face came off on his fingers. "Aw, don't be huffy."
She pouted, sticking out her slimy lip and turned away from him. He sat up and put an arm around her cold, skinny body. "Sand can't hurt us. It's just rock and hard stuff that can. You've been around humans long enough to know that."
She relented and turned her green face to him. "It is difficult not to worry. Humans are so soft and weak."
"Yes, well, now you're reassured. Let's go rockpooling. You can always find interesting creepy crawlies in rockpools."
They scrambled over the rocks to look in the pools, Josh mindful of the rough barnacles, but Kora in her body glove didn't have to worry about them.
"Look, Kora. Here's a crab. Can you call it?"
Kora fixed the crab with an intense stare. She was calling to it with her psychic powers. It sidled out of the rockpool towards her. Kora grinned. "I'm getting better with the little Earth creatures."
Josh noticed a worm with colourful spines on the rocks nearby. "OK… I recognise that. It's a seamouse. The Southend Sealife Centre leaflet says it looks like a colourful hedgehog, but it's just a worm. It doesn't really look like a hedgehog.
"I can call it," said Kora. She stared at the seamouse and to Josh's disgust, the spiny worm squirmed in front of them.
"Oh stoppit, Kora. That thing's really gross."
She looked up at him. Was that a reproachful expression in her dark eyes?
A gull screamed overhead and Kora looked up. Josh could see the gull alighting on a ledge high on the cliff on the other side of the rockpools to the sand dunes.
"Birdy!" said Kora brightly. She had always been curious about birds. There had been none on Aetherium.
In a single bound, she leapt right over to the base of the cliff, looking a bit like a huge green grasshopper wrapped in silvery tin foil.
But she was already scrambling up the sheer cliff face, grabbing onto tiny chinks and toeholds in the rock. Her agility was awesome, but uncanny to watch. No human could climb like that. Not even a monkey could climb like that. When she was at the same level as the gull's ledge, she swung herself round so her back was to the cliff and her bright, green face was easily visible, a lurid dot against the grey stone. She still clung on with no trouble, even though she seemed to be holding on with her fingertips.
Josh tried reasoning with her again. "Kora, you'll scare them. Come down and we'll find some sea anemones. You know you like slimy things."
The sea breeze carried her husky voice to him. "Don't worry, dear. I won't get too close. Come. Come to me, my feathery friends."
Josh groaned. What did she suppose she was going to do if the gulls flew at her when she was clinging to the cliff like this? What if she did something dumb? He didn't like to see her hanging precariously like that.
He walked over to the cliff base. "Kora, get down. I can't follow you up there."
He jumped as she landed right next to him. She leaned down and planted a wet, slimy kiss on his cheek. Fortunately her slime dried and flaked off whenever she got it on him. "I am sorry, dear. I know, it's too dangerous for me to carry you up there. But I can carry you on the beach."
Josh waved this idea aside. "It's stupid, climbing the cliffs. You can't communicate with the gulls like that.
She shook her head, the strands of her lank hair flapping. "I can. They don't want me nearby. They have chicks. The gull is a fierce mother, I think."
"You're just showing off, not talking to the gulls."
"You want to say that I am showing off? Josh, look at me." He looked up into her shiny green face. She put her gloved hands on her hips. "I was not showing off. I am interested in birds. I would be happier if we could climb the cliffs together, but we cannot." She put her slimy face close to his so that her muddy stench invaded his nostrils. "But I think that you were teasing me on the sand dunes. Did you not stop and think how that would worry me?"
Josh wasn't interested in her scolding him. He took her gloved hand in his. "Sorry. Come on, let's watch the porpoises. They're more interesting that the gulls."
"Ooh yes," said Kora brightly.
They sat by on the edge of the rocks, legs dangling over the edge to watch the porpoises frolic and play. Kora unpacked their sandwiches. "Ahhh… Josh. I've got a bit of myself in your sandwich."
"You've got slime in it? Thanks a lot."
"Take my sandwich instead."
Kora's sandwich was not all that appetising either. She had a real sweet tooth and had asked Mum to put honey and marshmallows in it. Josh took a bite and swallowed. Gross. He leaned against his sister and she put an arm around his shoulders.
The porpoises bounced around in the blue waves. "They're so beautiful," said Kora brightly. "And humanity is beautiful too. There is so much beauty on Earth." She gazed at the porpoises. "I want to call to them."
"I don't know about that… you can still only call little things."
Kora scanned the water with an intense gaze. "Oops." An eel of some sort had jumped out of the water and wrapped itself around her leg. What was it? A small dogfish?
Kora gently pulled it off her and released it back into the water. "Sorry, little friend. I still cannot do it right."
Next they went hunting for weird rocks. Josh found one with a yellow stripe and held it up. "This one's a little weird."
"What is weird for an Earth rock?" asked Kora. She gave a husky chuckle. "I feel like an Aetherial robot probe. They used to search around for minerals in other systems. Ah, I like this one. I'm going to carve it into a souvenir to remember out trip by." Kora scooped some green slime from her cheek, leaving deep finger tracts in her face, and then smeared it all over the stone she had found. So much for looking for weird rocks. There was enough weirdness in their family already.
They had holidayed on this stretch of beach the previous Summer, before they adopted Kora. Josh pointed out the arch to her. He'd been waiting to do so. Kora never called him a nerd like the human kids did when he showed he could remember stuff. And all kinds of things seemed to impress her. "See the arch, Kora? They're created when the sea wears all the way through a cliff. They start out as caves, then they become arches. When the arch collapses it will be only a stack, which eventually gets worn into a stump. It's like an evolutionary process."
"I can carry you over, so we can have a closer look," said Kora.
Josh frowned. "That's the third time you've talked about carrying me. What do you mean by it?"
She moved her glistening green face into a weird expression, like she was embarrassed or something, biting her slimy lip. "I want to give you a piggy back ride. Or is it a horsy ride?"
"Oh…" she liked giving him piggy back rides, although she had used to call them horsy rides. Josh thought it was a bit embarrassing if anyone was watching, but as the beach was private, why not?
"All right. You can be my squishy, green steed."
He clung to her back and she propelled herself across the sand at high speed with her long legs, taking huge bounds at a time. She was something like a green, dinosaur girl. Their cheeks were mashed together. Hers was coming off onto his. The strands of her lank, seaweed hair streamed out behind them… Then she was splashing around the stone arch. The icy water lapped around Josh's legs. "Um… see Kora. The arch is a gateway to nowhere now."
"Cooollll." Kora had started saying 'cool' in that weird drawn out way last term. Probably, she liked the way some other girl said it. She splashed around the rocky outcrop and through the tunnel like archway. The waves splashing through the tunnel resounded in the close confines.
"It could be like a tunnel to another world. Like the wardrobe that led to Narnia. But now we know that gateways to other worlds are wormholes in space."
Kora gave a husky chuckle of appreciation. That was another good thing. She always made the attempt to get his humour, where a not so nice girl would have groaned.
"Alright, horsy. Gallop back. It's getting dark."
Kora made the gallop up the grassy hill to their rented house in record time, leaping over the fence at the end.
Josh had a sunburn on his back where his vest had not been long enough. Kora wanted to be the one to apply the after sun ointment. She put a thin layer on her gloved fingers and spread it gently over the burned skin. It felt weird. "There you are, my dear," she rumbled in her husky voice. "I hope that feels better." She turned to Mum. "I still think that my own body produces better ointment than this stuff, Robyn. I can scoop some off my face in a second. I am his sister after all."
"And I am the paediatrician," said Mum with a wry smile.
Josh thought that was all kinds of weird. Kora wanted to doctor him by putting her slime on the sunburn?
That evening, they watched Moonraker with Mum and Dad, Kora wrapped up in a plastic sheet so she wouldn't drip on the sofa.
Josh pointed at the screen. "See, Drax is even worse with his laborious expositions than other Bond villains. He actually turns Jaws, his giant henchman, against him. Jaws wants to be good, simply because he can see how awful Drax is now." He thought of the Rogue Xarkrons Kora had battled the previous winter. "Remember Null and the Skull King? It's a bit like that, only Jaws turns over a completely new leaf right away."
Kora gazed at him with unblinking dark eyes. "Uh huh. Uh huh." That meant she was listening to him.
"And then he fell in love with that tiny woman. That helped. Don't they look different to one another? He's a giant and she's a midget."
Kora grinned. "That's so sweet."
While Josh took a shower, Kora had to shed and replenish her outer layer of slime outside – this old house didn't have all the modern technology they did at home. Their bedroom did however have to be covered in plastic so that Kora wouldn't slime everything up.
Josh could hear her light tread coming up the creaking stairs as he sat up in bed reading.
Her mask-like face moved to form a grin as she entered the room and loomed over him. The lamplight shone off her green nose and cheeks. "You're reading the Adventure series, Josh? Which one is this?"
"Diving Adventure. I'm finding Hal Hunt a bit annoying, to tell you the truth. He's too perfect… too goody-goody. I dunno, it's not realistic. He's decided to give the gold he found to that strange deep-sea ghetto. Why…?"
Kora stared at him. It was hard to tell what she was thinking. "He should not have given it?"
"No, I mean it's not something a normal person would do."
She leaned close. "I want to ask…" she bit her slimy lip and shifted rather awkwardly on her feet. "I know it's dark outside, but that doesn't stop us going out to play."
"Oh – you want us to leave our bodies and go flying. Why didn't you say so?" Josh thought for a moment. "Alright. It's been perfectly safe ever since Null's defeat."
Kora grinned. "I would not go without you. I like to carry you."
She certainly did. This was different from a horsy ride though. They lay on her plastic sheets and looked into each other's eyes. Her piercing, dark eyes filled his vision and he felt the arms of her psychic power wrap him in a warm embrace. Next thing he knew, they were ascending, above the walls and roof and into the night. The clear sky was lit up by a myriad of twinkling stars and the Moon cast a silvery path of light over the calm surface of the sea.
Kora was with him. It was like she was holding him very tight. She was the only one who could move out here. The warmth of her feelings for him enveloped him like a duvet. "Let us fly, my love."
They soared out over the sea. There was a ship far below, cruising along.
"Let's go closer?" suggested Josh.
Kora took them swooping down so as to be on a level with the ship. It was some kind of passenger cruiser. They could see the passengers through individual portholes. No one could see them, of course. There physical forms were lying on Kora's bed, to all appearances fast asleep. Then Kora took them soaring high into the sky, higher and higher…
Josh could see an object twinkling that looked closer than the stars. It looked like it was directly above them. "What's that, Sis? A shooting star?"
"No brother. That is human made. It may be an Earth probe coming home. It is just above us. In the upper atmosphere." She paused. "I sense something else about it. Something alive. It's carrying something. I don't know what."
"It's bringing another alien to Earth?"
"Yes. I wish I knew what kind, but I don't. Sorry."
In the starry sky they hung suspended as the probe brought an unknown alien to Earth. What did it mean and what was going to happen?