“If the child is not dead in seventy-two hours, keeping your current rank will be the least of your worries.”
Berian swallowed, his throat bouncing. His red eyes focused on the green fly buzzing against the windowsill behind the general’s desk. Sweat dripped down his lower back beneath the black uniform.
“Sir, permission to speak—”
“No you may not, First Lieutenant Griffin!” General Sitiger shouted. Spittle flew from lips pulled back in a tight grimace.
Berian spared a quick glance at the general. Sitiger’s angry face was a deep red, so dark that the bold, black stripes on his cheeks and neck nearly blended in with the rest of his fur.
“I don’t care if you didn’t personally screw the mission up.” Sitiger’s thick black mane fell forward into his red eyes, “Those were your men, and therefore your responsibility. So I’m sending you to finish the job.”
Berian’s head jerked up, fangs visible beneath slack lips. He took a breath and tried to form words, but nothing came.
Sitiger snorted. “I’ll take your stunned silence as an enthusiastic agreement to this undertaking, despite the fact you don’t have a choice in the matter.”
“Sir, I…” Berian swallowed, his heart racing. “I’m not a…”
“Are you trying to speak against the emperor’s orders, Sergeant?” Sitiger growled low in his throat, baring his fangs. His eyes narrowed and he motioned for the sentry standing in the doorway to leave.
Berian closed his eyes and took deep breath. He waited until the hatch hissed shut behind the sentry and the lock clicked before relaxing his shoulders. It took all of his self-control not to drop to his knees.
“Father, I didn’t—”
“Don’t start, Berian.” Sitiger held up one clawed hand, shaking his head. He sat heavily in the large chair behind the desk. “This order is above me, and whether we like it or not there’s nothing I can do. I know the mission failure wasn’t your fault. Someone from ground control intercepted an encrypted tip about the strike attack and the crew managed to send the escape pod off into a jump before the ship blew. We just now managed to trace its trail.” His face softened. “It’s about time you got away from that desk anyway—the field will do you good. Help you grow up, like your brother.”
“Golian is—“ Berian bit down on his tongue, refusing to open that old argument again. “Have you already selected a team?”
“Me? What do you mean…” His eyes widened. “You mean I’m going alone?”
“Technically… no. The emperor requested that Golian assist you in the mission with a separate landing to avoid notice. The two of you will work independently, only reporting to each other when the child has been dispatched so we can arrange your return.”
“Avoid being noticed? What is the reason for the secrecy? Why can’t you transmit ahead to let the governing body know we’re—”
“Because we haven’t established communication with this planet yet.”
Berian’s heart dropped to his feet as cold washed over him. It took him two tries to speak. “What planet did he land on?”
Sitiger frowned, his red eyes looking away. “Earth.”
“Rescue mission, yes, that’s rough.”
Berian glanced sideways at Serval, curling his lip. “You don’t need to rub it in.”
Serval shrugged and hunched his small, spotted frame over the display. “Just trying to show support. So, Earth, yes. Third planet from the sun in the human-dominated solar system with… yes, one moon and three-quarters covered in water.”
He tapped a section of the screen and the map images rotated out of view to bring up several satellite images of cityscapes. His claws flicked across the glass surface, flinging the images out of the way as he searched the files.
“Yes, here we are. Morro Bay, a small city in the state of California of the country America. Amazing the planet is broken up into multiple governing bodies, yes? So primative.” Serval frowned at Berian’s lack of response, and sniffed through his pinched nose. “Yes, the pod landed in what looks to be some sort of oceanfront nature preserve, see? Yes, and the transmitter in the child’s leg shows that he walked inland for nearly an hour before the pace picked up dramatically, meaning he is probably being assisted by one of the natives.”
“All I care about is where do I find him so that I can do my job and come back home.”
“That manner of thinking could be very hazardous to your health, young sir.” Serval sniffed again, rubbing at his whiskers with the back on one hand. “While a primitive race, the humans wouldn’t hesitate to lock up an alien visitor to study.”
Berian leaned his head back. “Animals.”
Serval nodded. “Yes. So you would be best to pay attention as we go through the few but very important—yes, very important—notes we’ve managed to collect regarding the human world.”
The debriefing had been quick, and Berian fought to keep a straight face and his hands at his sides as he strode down the base’s wide main corridor to the landing dock. He readjusted the black duffel on his shoulder and reached to his belt for the seventh time to check on his laser pistol.
Primitive beasts. And I’m not to kill a single living creature save for the child—even if it’s to save my own life. He shook his head. He knew if it came to that he’d be dead anyway—because if he went against the emperor’s orders and killed one of the humans the emperor would have him executed as soon as he returned. That was if they even allowed his shuttle to reenter their planet’s atmosphere. Two strikes was something unheard of in Malkin. Two strikes was something his father would never permit.
He had already stopped by the medical ward, where he’d received the bottle of prescribed pain meds and transmutation shots to assist with his overall disguise. The pills clinked against the plasticon bottle in his bag as he walked, reminding him of the doctor’s last words before he left the ward.
“Keep on schedule with the pills. Earth’s polluted atmosphere will quickly take a toll on you, and if you don’t want the analgesic effects to wear off. Trust me.”
Berian paused just outside the hatch to the space transport, peering into the reflective outer windows. He frowned at the image of the Earthling staring back at him. He’d been shaved from head to foot, the doctors leaving only two hand-sculpted lines over his eyes and a short-cropped version of his mane on the top and sides of his head. Colored contacts made his eyes appear dark brown, and makeup smoothed out his dark skin to conceal the few stripes adorning his high cheekbones. He reached up and poked at his cheek with one sawed-down claw. The skin was puffier than it should have been; the pills the doctor gave him made his skin swell to soften his chiseled features and take on the rounder look of the humans. The doctors had said the disguise was near perfect. Berian didn’t hold the same high opinion.
I look like I put on thirty pounds overnight.
“You have ten minutes before launch, First Lieutenant.”
Berian turned away from the window to glare at the saluting corporal. He glared at the man’s brushed pelt and self-consciously rubbed his right hand over the back of his neck, fingers brushing against fine stubble. He swallowed, licking his swollen lips. They hurt.
“Back to your station, Corporal.”
Berian woke upside down with a mouthful of dirt. He coughed and turned his head, wincing at the sharp pain in his neck, trying to locate the seat belt release through the swirling dust. He blinked against the brown cloud, fingers fumbling along the belt, and pushed the catch. He cried out as he dropped onto his shoulders, his legs tangled against the seat, and struggled to crawl out of the busted front windshield. He groaned and dragged himself across the littering of glass and ship parts to roll onto his back against the hard-packed ground. He lay still for several moments, gasping for air and blinking against the bright overhead sun. The hot rays beat down, and he felt the exposed skin on his nose and cheeks redden in response.
“I’m here for three minutes and I already hate this planet.”
He jerked to his feet, swaying with the sudden movement, and looked around. Hi ship had landed high on a rock and brush covered mountain, on the edge of a deep ravine. He shielded his eyes and turned in a circle, his boots scraping against loose rock. To his right sparkled the blue waters of what he recalled to be the Pacific Ocean. To his left the tops of gray multi-story buildings were just visible two ridges over. He glanced from the buildings to his crumbled ship.
I guess I could have landed worse.
He jumped back as a snake curled into a circle by his ankle and shook its tail tip, making a high-pitched rattling sound. He growled low in his throat and bared his filed-down fangs, leaning closer to the rattler’s head. The snake froze, and then uncurled itself and slinked away. Berian snorted, and then ducked back into the small ship to grab his bag and took off down the mountain.
When the ship disappeared from sight he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small remote. He flipped it open and entered a number combination and then tossed it aside into the bushes. Three seconds later a loud explosion boomed behind him, and small pebbles rained down around him. He readjusted the bag strap on his shoulder and picked up the pace.
Won’t be going home that way.
“No, no. I’ve already told you. I don’t know where he… Yes.” Karen covered the mouthpiece and shook her head at Matt. “The receptionist is not being very helpful. She said the office closed at five, and there’s no one in that can do anything until Mon—yes.” She turned away from her husband, her attention back to the phone. “Yes, I would like her number. Thank you.”
Matt frowned and pushed his chair back from the kitchen table and walked into the small living room. The TV flickered and cast a blue hue over the darkened room, the low sound of cartoons drifting across the shag carpet. He craned his neck to peer over the leather sofa back as he stepped around the side table. The young boy was still curled up on the sofa, wrapped in the blue and green-checkered blanket Karen had knitted four years ago in preparation for the birth of their son—which never came. It was the first time she’d pulled the blanket out since locking the upstairs room.
I almost hope they don’t find his parents. He crossed his arms and leaned against the oak entertainment center as he stared at the sleeping boy. I haven’t seen her so animated in… I can’t remember the last time she had smiled like she does at him. I miss it.
His head jerked up as something dark moved outside the front bay window. He pushed away from the wall and passed the sofa to open the blinds wider and stare out into the fading light. His eyes roamed over the row of tall flax and bordering palms. Nothing moved.
“Probably just a stray cat,” he muttered, shutting the blinds.
“Honey?” Karen called from the kitchen. She appeared around the corner with two steaming mugs in her hands. “They said they can meet us tomorrow afternoon at the clinic to take a look at him.”
Matt turned from the window. “What about his parents?”
“The police are still researching, but they haven’t found any matches in the missing persons database.”
“We have him for the weekend. We have a meeting with a social worker on Monday. Guess that’s a small town for you.”
Matt nodded and smiled as she handed him a mug. He smiled and leaned closer, giving her a kiss and pulling her into a hug. They turned as one to stare down at the sleeping child, his tiny, clawed fingers twitching as he dreamed.
Berian growled and crouched lower behind the row of plants. A cricket jumped high near him, and he flinched away from it. Cursing under his breath, he readjusted the pistol from his side to his back and lay farther down in the tall flax, propping himself up on an elbow. His complaining stomach threatened to give his cover away; he hadn’t eaten since landing this morning, and he’d been putting it off hoping to simply finish the job and go home.
Seeing that the brat has been taken in, this won’t be as easy as I’d hoped. He gritted his teeth. I just want this kill before Golian finds him—I want the credit when we get home.
He shifted against the ground in the darkness, glad that night had finally fallen. He didn’t understand how killing off the eight-year-old son of the deceased emperor would benefit Lyon; he was already first in line and had taken the throne—what would he gain by dispatching his kid brother? He shook his head and stood.
If I can’t kill the humans then tonight’s a waste. I’m going to find something to eat.
Berian stretched his arms and then shucked into the long overcoat he’d snagged from an outside display from one of the tourist shops lining the beachside boardwalk. He grinned and ran his fingers down the fine suede, admiring the texture. It was much softer than anything they wore at home—especially compared to his standard issued uniforms.
He stepped through the line of flax and over the small row of yellow flowers onto the front lawn of the two-story house. He hunched his shoulders, and with a last glance at the closed bay window stepped onto the pebbled walk. An overhead light mounted above the garage flicked on, and he dropped his duffel into the flowerbed and froze in the spotlight. He turned at the screech of the front door opening.
Berian swallowed and turned at the male voice, jaw tight. His fingers inched toward his pistol.
“Can I help you?” the brown-haired human asked. He scrunched up his face to peer at Berian, his posture radiating distrust. “Were you just out front our window?”
“I…” Berian hesitated, mind racing. He picked up his duffel to waste time. They’ve already seen me, why walk away? “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you. I’m just… I’m looking for my little brother.”
The man’s eyes widened, and his lips parted. He blinked and glanced over his shoulder into the house, then back at Berian. He reached around the inside of the house and flicked on the porch light. He looked at Berian as if seeing him for the first time.
“My God, were you in an accident?”
The whole reason I’m here is because of a damn accident. Berian had forgotten about his crash landing, and was sure he looked a wreck. He licked his bottom lip, tasted old blood.
“Yes. I was knocked unconscious and when I woke up he was gone.”
A short, petite female popped her head around the man’s shoulder, and her blue eyes went round. She pushed the man aside to get a better look at Berian.
“He said he was in an accident,” the man said slowly. “He’s looking for his brother.”
The woman let out a gasp, her hands flying to her mouth. “What… how old is your brother?”
“Eight,” Berian said. He held up one hand near his midsection. “He’s about this tall, with brown hair, kinda hairy, and… and the tips of his fingers are…” He paused on his recount of the description he’d been given of the boy, unsure how much of the boy’s body they had seen. “Well, he’s got tiny…”
Berian looked up at the woman. I guess you could call them that—for now until he hits puberty. “Yes. Have you seen him?
“Oh, Matthew!” Her face nearly crumbled in distress, and she pulled on his sleeve. She looked from Berian to Matt, and then finally settled on Berian. “We found a little boy this morning. We already contacted social services this morning to see whom he belonged to, but so far they haven’t turned anything up.”
“We’re not from America… we’re on holiday.” Berian shrugged, trying to look nonchalant.
“You do sort of resemble each other. Come inside.” Matt motioned to Berian and stepped back. “You look like you could use some rest and a shower.”
Berian hesitated, and then pulled the jacket closer around his body and strode up the walk. He kept his eyes down as he passed the man in the doorway and paused, hands in pockets, in the small foyer. He started at the sight of himself in the framed mirror on the right wall.
His left eyebrow was swollen and bruised purple and green. Several scratches lined his chin and bridge of his nose, the dried blood flaky over his sun burnt skin. Dust was smeared across his face and clothes, and he stank of sweat and wet fur.
Despite his sorry state, after seeing the humans up close himself, Berian knew the disguise worked; he looked just like one of them.
“Oh, you poor thing!” the woman cooed. She stepped away from her husband and gently touched Berian’s cheek. “You look terrible. Did you call the police to report the accident?”
Berian’s hackles raised at the thought of local authorities. “Uh… no. I couldn’t.”
“You don’t have a cell phone?” Matt crossed his arms.
I don’t know what that is… “No.”
“Forget about that now.” The woman waved the man away. She put a hand to her chest. “My name is Karen Rightfield, this is my husband, Matt. We just finished dinner, but the food’s still warm. Are you hungry?”
“No, no I’m fine.” Berian’s stomach growled, gaining a quirked eyebrow from Karen. “I…”
Damn my stomach.
“Nonsense. Why don’t you go shower and clean up while I make you a plate. Matt, can you show him where the bathroom is?”
“I would like to see my brother…” Berian fought the urge to bite the man’s hand on his shoulder. “Please, I’m worried about him.”
“Oh, of course.” Matt steered him around the corner into the dark living room.
Berian’s eyes narrowed as the top of the child’s head over the sofa back became visible.
It’s him. No doubt.
His shoulders tensed as he stepped closer to the sofa, his hand sliding inside of his jacket. The boy stirred under the blanket, but slept on. Berian took a long breath and let his hand drop from his belt, and then knelt beside the couch. After only a moment’s hesitation he pulled the blanket farther up around the boy’s neck.
I can’t while the human is watching.
“I’ll let him sleep.” He looked up at Matt and smiled. “Thank you for taking care of him.”
I will wait until they’re sleeping and then smother him with a pillow on my way out the window. I’ll be back home before they even know I’m gone.
“It was no problem,” Matt said. “Karen and I don’t have any kids, so it’s nice having a little one in the house. By the way—what’s his name? He doesn’t seem to understand English.”
Berian snorted, and covered it with a cough. Then he doesn’t have a translator. Perfect. He won’t be able to tattle on me should he wake before I kill him. “Calic.”
“Where did you say you were from again?”
“Honey,” Karen poked her head around the corner. “Let the poor boy shower so he can eat.”
Berian sat on the edge of the bed in the spare bedroom, letting the darkness surround him. He clasped his hands together and leaned his elbows on his knees, closing his eyes.
What is the matter with me? I’m not going soft, am I?
The shower had been wonderful, and much needed, and the leftover meatloaf Karen had heated up had been nothing like he’d ever tasted. Though he’d been equally surprised as his hosts sat with him at the table, smiling and telling stories of their past and the local area—useless conversation that was looked down upon back home.
And their smiles were real.
Berian hadn’t seen anyone—especially two together—smile so much in his life. Even outside his military duties, laughter was normally reserved for private moments or milestone celebrations. Rarely ever just expressed on such a casual level, and rarely so genuine.
He looked down at the bed on his left where his laser pistol lay charged and ready. He reached out and touched the silver-plated trigger guard, testing the cool metal.
And they really like him...
By the next evening, Berian still had not managed a moment alone with the boy, and the assignment was starting to wear on him.
Calic had slept in the room with Matt and Karen, and when they came downstairs for breakfast he had stopped at the edge of the kitchen with wide, red eyes. Berian ground his teeth and did his best to plaster a smile across his face. Calic had simply stared at him, his face solemn.
He’d known Berian’s purpose. The reserved look on his face made it obvious.
At least the kid’s smart enough to know what’s going on, Berian had thought. Unfortunate as it might be for him.
Berian had given Calic a hug, smiling at the human couple, and pulled the child by the wrist around the corner into the living room. Calic had given a half-hearted resistance, dragging his feet but otherwise following placidly toward the front door. With his hand on the doorknob, Berian suddenly paused at the sniffle beside him, and then let go of the thin wrist. Calic scurried back into the kitchen, tiny claws clicking against the tile flooring. Berian stood for several long moments looking from the door to his empty hand, before pulling his coat closed tighter and trudging back into the kitchen to spend the day in silence in the company of the threesome.
The evening air on the back porch was cool and crisp, and the light breeze ruffled Berian’s short-cropped mane. He tilted his head back and breathed in deeply, enjoying the smell of salt, gulls and fish. He swished the tea around in his glass, the ice tinkling. He let out a heavy sigh and closed his eyes. He scratched the back of his neck, feeling the stubble that was quickly growing back across his skin, and knew his time was running out. Even with the pills the filthy air was getting to him; he wheezed like an old man on his deathbed. He couldn’t understand how the kid had been running around the back yard chasing butterflies all afternoon.
Berian felt something move in the darkness, just outside the low back fence. His eyes popped open and he sat up, ears alert. He set his glass down and reached inside his coat.
For a moment he was unsure what to do. He wanted this kill; he wanted to get the credit and earn his stripes.
The humans are sleeping. If I move now, I can be in and out before Golian gains entrance.
He hesitated. Eyes darted from the darkness to the back screen door. Golian’s shadow disappeared around the front corner of the house. Berian drew his pistol.
He whirled and ran up the two concrete steps and jerked the door open, sprinting through the kitchen. He heard the front bay window creak open, and he leapt over the sofa, landed on all fours, and brought up his pistol, aiming it at Golian. Golian’s eyes went wide, and his face blanched, before bringing up his own gun. Berian flicked off the safety on his pistol but rolled to the right as he saw Golian’s laser charge and fire. The light beam cut through the leather sofa and burned a hole the size of Berian’s fist into the wall. Berian crouched and ran around the corner into the kitchen, putting his back against the refrigerator and charging his weapon. He started to peek around the corner but stopped as a beam cut through the edge of the drywall, singing his right ear.
What the hell am I doing? He’s just a damn kid. Why do I care?
Berian growled low in his throat and dropped to one knee, staring at the reflection in the black dishwasher. He couldn’t see much, but the angle caught the blue glow from Golian’s pistol. Berian took a deep breath, shifted his grip on the gun, and then spun around the corner, firing. Golian roared and returned the fire, light beams ripping through the darkness, illuminating the toppled furniture and charred walls.
Berian cried out as the laser cut through his left arm, and he dropped to all fours as another went through his right knee. He lifted his gun with one arm and fired again, but realized he didn’t need to; Golian lay sideways across the back of the sofa, his eyes open and blood seeping from his open mouth. His pistol lay in a puddle of blood on the floor.
The lights flicked on, and footsteps pounded down the stairs. Matt and Karen appeared midway down, Matt holding a wooden baseball bat and Karen a cell phone. They stared wide-eyed at the scene, Karen dropping the phone and her hands flying to her mouth. The bat trembled in Matt’s hands as the color left his face. Calic’s tiny footsteps broke the silence as he hurried downstairs, pushed past the two gawking humans, and slowed as he neared the kneeling Berian. His eyes were wide, but it seemed to Berian more out of curiosity than fear.
The boy clicked his tongue and tilted his head to the side. His red eyes blinked long and slow. The tiny lips did not move as he said, Why did you do that?
Berian started. He thought only the true emperor was able to mindspeak. He grimaced and coughed, cradling his left arm. Blood seeped through his fingers and dripped down his elbow.
I changed my mind, he projected back, testing.
Why? The small face crumpled with uncertainty.
Berian let out a sigh and shrugged. Hell if I know. You’re just a pain in the ass kid…
Calic stepped up to Berian and touched his cheek. As your future emperor, whatever you need I shall grant in return for your saving my life.
Future… what are you…
The resistance to my brother’s crowning is strong. His rule will not last long. A few years here and I will be strong enough.
Berian blinked and looked away. His heart beat in his ears. Did I just unknowingly aid in a revolution?
Calic smiled, tiny fangs peeking below fine lips. Perhaps.
Berian couldn’t find his breath. What have I done? They’ll label me as a traitor; the emperor will cut off my head…
If you go home, that is.
Berian’s head jerked up to stare into Calic’s suddenly solemn face. He blinked and rubbed at his left eye, bit his lip when he realized he rubbed out the contact. He glanced up at the staring humans, noting their shocked reaction.
“Where else am I supposed to go?” he whispered, looking down at his hands.
A tiny, clawed hand slipped into his. The thin fingers squeezed gently.
They have great meatloaf here, don’t they?
“Will you please explain what the hell is going on?” Matt yelled suddenly, his voice cracking.
Berian looked up at the humans, swallowing. He didn’t know where to start.
Calic patted his cheek. Don’t worry, they like me. Together we can help them understand.
It’s not like I have much of a choice, do I? Berian frowned.
“I um…” he started. He grimaced and shifted to sit on his butt, easing the weight off his injured knee. “He… we…”
All heads turned to Calic as he shuffled around to sit in Berian’s lap. He rubbed his cheek against Berian’s chest, purring.
Karen reached out and pushed the bat in Matt’s hands down. Her face was blank but there were tears in her eyes as she looked up at him.
“Please, Matt. Can’t we just…”
“How are we supposed to explain this to the police? How are we supposed to explain them?” He motioned to the two Malkins. “I don’t understand what…”
Berian licked his lips. “It’s a long story. We’re not… They won’t find us in any of the databases…”
Matt shook his head and slumped against the stair railing. He stared at Berian for a long moment and then down at Calic. He sighed. “I knew we were getting into trouble when we took in a kid with claws and red eyes. I just had no idea how much.” He waved his hand at them. “Go clean up and do whatever you need to do with…” He waved in Golian’s direction without looking that way. “I don’t want to know.”
Berian nodded and struggled to his feet, pushing Calic off of him. Calic jumped up and down and ran in circles around Karen. She managed a shaky smile, patting him on the head.
“Well,” she said after a while. “I doubt anyone’s going to bed anytime soon. Is anyone hungry?”
“Meatloaf!” Calic chirped, purring against her leg.
Berian smiled as he shouldered Golian’s body and headed out the front door.