“Sam, I need you to dispose of a rat.”
A rare and surprising sentence, for two reasons. Firstly, that his sister had wandered downstairs and made a non-monosyllabic demand that didn’t involve food, and secondly that a rat had made its way inside her room to begin with. Being sat out on the edge of suburbia where greenery was permitted to claim territory alongside the pavements, Samuel Bellamy was accustomed to the odd form of wildlife settling down in the family garden to rest before taking off again. But the unifying element of the untamed animals was that they were universally birds, with the occasional stray neighbourhood cat on the prowl after such winged treats. Vermin were unheard off in their entirety, either because they were smart enough to remain out of view or because the neighbours owned a rather excitable dog that jumped at the chance to drag them out of their holes by their tails. And while he could hear lonely howling through the walls, kidnapping your neighbour’s dog is usually frowned upon regardless of the best intentions. And so his homework was abandoned in favour of rummaging through the cupboard under the stairs until he dug out a long-disused fishing net. Pythagoras and his dreary theorem could wait five minutes while he took care of the housework.
“Wait here a minute, I’ll call you once I’ve let it outside.”
“Do it quick. I’m tired of its complaining.”
“It doesn’t stop.”
“I see. In any case, stay out of the biscuit tin. Dinner won’t be long.”
“It’s two hours away. I promise nothing.”
To Sara’s credit, she waited until he was out of sight before the sounds of disobedience followed him up the stairs from the kitchen. This was probably a plan to get him out of the way for the sake of indulging her sweet tooth, although for her to break from schedule and interrupt her precious gaming time meant that there very well could be an intruder of some kind.
That said; there was very little chance that any rat, real or made-up, could actually talk and she’d just spent the past five minutes letting it squeak away pretending to hold a conversation while she played. Which wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility for her usual fantasies, but added a concerning wrinkle to the problem. Sam sighed as he reached the landing, taking care not to scrape the net against the lanky, raven-haired boy stalking alongside him from within the hanging mirror. He’d have to make sure she hadn’t let herself be bitten in the midst of oblivious button-tapping or to appease her new friend. If she had, he’d have to look up what diseases rats carried, how to treat an injury from a wild animal, how to properly disinfect an area contaminated by vermin, check for droppings or if it had invited family along with it, all of which would need to be completed before his mother arrived home and suffered a heart attack from the idea that her expertly-crafted abode had in some way been dirtied. And if this was all make believe as part of a snack heist, he’d have to look into learning how to cook instead, as waiting until seven in the evening was clearly becoming too long for his growing sister to wait after school. Not that either was a problem of any great magnitude. At fifteen he had plenty of time to dedicate to learning regardless of subject. In the short trip to Sara’s poster-branded den his mental do-to list had extended by three pages, but as he reached the edge of the door, worried mutterings from within scribbled over every entry and set the whole lot up in flames.
“If she continues to refuse… no, I must be steadfast. The Prime is enduring far more than this mere setback. A new strategy is required. I’ve appealed to her desires, and the results are more than substantial. These are basic creatures, a system that clearly distributes rewards and punishment based on her actions should be more than sufficient to mould future behaviour. They’re already aware of the phenomenon, I just need to come up with a suitable deterrent to apply the theory. Threatening to withhold information? No, that depends on…”
Caught up in the strangeness of the situation, Sam forgot about the landing’s eternally loose floorboard, and set it creaking with a thoughtless step. Both parties snapped to wide-eyed attention as it came back up, one caught brainstorming, the other hunting the other. If Sam had to describe what sat amongst discarded socks and scattered game boxes, he would not liken it to a rat as his sister had. A closer comparison would be to a very long ferret, the sleek silver body coiled up on itself as it plotted. But the head was longer to the nose and wider near where it joined the torso, almost triangular with snub ears capping the upper points. But the pointed head was odder still, missing a mouth with a black pen-dot nose and taken up mostly by a pair of hexagonal rubies, shining gems Sam could only assume were supposed to be eyes. Those, along with the tails were the biggest hints as to its failed mimicry, nine flat strands fanning out like vines before the creature, twitching to and thro as hunter and hunted sized one another up, frozen in place and waiting for the other to move first. Sam was begging for it to act, to do something dangerous. Reveal fangs, peel the tail tips back to show poison spikes underneath, some show of force to justify maximum retaliation and keep the chimeric beast out the house forever. It took only a few seconds for him to realise that he’d didn’t need it to do so, and already had ample justification for striking first: it could talk, and it could think, and it had been doing so without referring to humans as humans. That made it more dangerous than any feral stray.
A twitch of the net, and the battle of wills was lost. The invader broke, bolting for the escape route between Sam’s legs, only to be redirected as he whipped back and slammed the door into place, locking them in together. Initial plan scuppered, it turned on the spot and went back the other way, jumping from desk to the window, only to realise that it was an exit rarely opened by the room’s introverted inhabitant. However, at that last moment before the head-on collision with the glass it twisted up into itself and shot away at a ninety-degree angle into the air, aimed squarely at the heating vent above the bed. What it found instead was the back of the net, held out less by intent and more in stunned surprise at the way the creature had defied gravity and the momentum of its charge, an ability it demonstrated again to avoid being caught, shooting back the way it had come. This time Sam was ready, seeing the trajectory of the new path unfold before it moved, stepping into the space it was aiming for as he traded in the net for a more suitable container to catch the rampant blur. As it came at him the wastepaper bin came up, an unintentional bullseye it was aimed squarely at. Once again it tried to turn away, but with one hand free Sam got a grip on what felt like the scuff of its neck and wrestled it towards the bin. Despite the creature’s slightness, it pulled away with far greater strength than he would have thought, almost straining his fingers loose in sheer resistance. The tug-of-war was not helped by how strange the body felt under his fingers. There was no muscle or bone pushing back, only wispy, spun-sugar fur that belied how much of a struggle he was making just to hold on. With an all-or-nothing surge, Sam whipped down with all his strength and dunked it to the floor, immediately slamming the bin on top and trapping the living cloud among used tissues and screwed up papers, a fate it immediately began complaining about.
“Release me at once you reprobate! This is a thoroughly indecent manner to treat a Kyu of the Ninth Stratum!”
There was no spoken word in this demand, only a faint ringing in the back of his head and the rattling of the upturned basket, shaking like a primed champagne cork on the brink of popping. Vibrations threatening a break to freedom, Sam sat on top to provide the finishing touch to the prison.
“You’re awfully well spoken for a rat, Cue of the ninth stratum. More importantly, what well spoken words have you been putting in my sister’s head?”
“A rat! Excuse you and your entire race for such insults!”
The voice that spoke without sound was high-pitched, effeminate and cutesy, flaring his increasing annoyance that he’d been afraid of the coward in the first place. It spilled out as a back-heel kick to the basket, but he knocked it too hard and the spun-sugar ferret poured out from the gap like smoke from dry ice, swooping low across the floor and reassembling itself into a sitting position as Sam scrambled to his feet to correct his mistake. With the net full of holes for it to escape from even if he managed to scoop it up again, communication became the new trap to keep the creature in place.
“You heard me. A rat. Sneaking around my home, scurrying for the window rather than answer me. What else could you be?”
The Kyu pulled itself up as much as it could, as though an inch of height would make it seem more impressive. Barely coming up to Sam’s shin did little to improve its presence.
“Like I said, I am a Kyu of the Ninth Stratum of the Solidary of the Kyu. Of Son and in Service to The Prime Kyu, the Pursuit of Knowledge and the Ideal of Peace. I am a Master of Matter, Emissary to the Universe and an Agent of the Saviour Forces. And…”
The torrent of heavily capitalised titles trailed off with the deflating of the once pride-filled chest, tips of the whip-fan tails falling still.
“And a miserable failure unable to coerce a child of a lesser species into fulfilling her end of an arrangement or relinquish gifts rendered as part of that arrangement.”
“But what are you? Lab experiment, weird evolutionary offshoot? Wait, you said Emissary to the Universe. Are you an alien? As in, not from Earth? I mean, I can understand you. You speak English?”
His questions were scattershot, and honestly, rather stupid ones if he slowed down to think about the altercation that had unfolded between them, but he needed the confirmation to settle his suddenly frantic heart, riled up not from the chase but in curiosity. Wanting to know if humanity was alone in the universe was one of the biggest questions they had as species, and the answer was sitting before him, hiding behind nought but a fixed frown and a sigh.
“By the definition of your human languages, yes, I am an alien but no, I do not speak English. I communicate in whichever tongue is required via telepathy and receive what I need in return. English, Japanese or Russian, it matters not what is spoken to me or how many I face in a room. But we’re digressing, although I understand your desire to learn. I imagine this must be an experience akin to a religious fervour for your kind.”
“Don’t get too ahead of yourself. Angels don’t come down to preach with snotty tissues stuck to their backs.”
The Kyu’s face didn’t move or show emotions, but by the way it curved over backwards to search for the attached debris and the way its tails went jagged at the sight of the paper lump glued there, it was likely showing disgust. The tissue popped away without being touched, leaving only a snotty stain that began to hiss and bubble away, the rippling fur cleaning all on its own.
“We’re getting away from the thrust of the matter. I lent your sister an item of great importance on the condition that she would use it to assist me on a task that I am unable to complete alone. As we currently stand, she’s reneging on her side of the deal, both in terms of work output and in willingness to return the aforementioned item.”
“Wait, how long exactly has this been going on for, and what have you been asking of her?”
Tails flicked sharply and the Kyu turned inward on himself, muttering away in irritated tones.
“Be pleased with the willingness to learn, be blessed to teach, be willing to- by The Prime, this is a pain.”
“I’ll start from the beginning. Once again.”
Attempting to regain control over his muffled outburst, the Kyu leapt to Sara’s desk once more, settling on the many random papers that made up her schoolwork and were in no doubt need of attention, given her habit to invert the correct balance of work and play. Pin-prick lights ignited in the back of his gem-eyes, outputting into full beams to project the image of a dull peach planet of swirling clouds.
“As previously established, I am indeed an alien. More than that, I am a refugee on this world, as my own has been overrun by a terrible menace. If you’ll turn your attention to the wall, you’ll be able to appreciate the splendour of Sanctum, home to the Kyu, the grand centre of all gathered knowledge in the universe and the most plentiful birthplace of new thinking. Don’t bother asking me where it’s located, humanity has yet to chart any region of space even remotely near to our galaxy, let alone the star system. Given the humility of The Prime and his pure desire to live in peace with his experiments and philosophies, it was supposed to remain untouched by all other species. Alas, that dream has been ruined.”
His eyes flickered, flipping the view from above the cloudbank to below at ground level, the peach sky lit up with shots of red and green where it wasn’t poisoned by twisting columns of black smoke pouring out from the shattered holes in once pristine crystal buildings, built as if grown from the ground upwards fully formed. As they watched, the view swung down to follow the backs of a pack of eight other Kyu, fleeing into a crevice to immerge in an underground cavern, carved out for the purpose of housing a great arc built from the same glassy material. One Kyu squirrelled away into a dome besides it, causing the centre hole to light up as he commanded the rest to move. Two vanished into what Sam assumed to be a portal of some kind but the others were not to be so lucky as the ceiling exploded above them, chunks of rock crushing three of their companions and another two dispatched into wisps of fur by the barrage of lasers that rained down to ensure no survivors remained. The sole exception was that of the ‘camera’ showing the events and the leader, still hiding to power the device with the closest expression to a grimace they could show. With a shared nod, the last Kyu bolted from behind their hiding places; one leaping upwards and vanishing, the one providing the viewpoint barrelling towards the portal, diving through into brightness so blinding Sam had to look away, missing where exactly the cameraman had ended up on the other side. Not that it required much thought to connect the dots, given Kyu’s presence on Earth. The alien’s eyes dimmed with the ending of the projection.
“You were unable to see them due to my focus on the objective, but my comrades were ended by the minions of Terratsar, an infamous tyrant who rules over countless planets across hundreds of galaxies. Defying all sense of law and decency, she’s waging war against my people in order to rob us of our countless achievements and acquire them for herself. The Ninth Stratum was mobilised to spread out into the universe and call for aid from our allies to fight back against the invasion. Unfortunately, due to my superior’s sacrifice the Universal Evacuation Transporter lost the coordinates I was supposed to be sent to and I wound up here instead. On the bright side, once the war is over I’ll undoubtedly be credited with finding a new star system, including the introduction of a new species into the universal community. You know, if you don’t end up ruining this planet in the next few decades. Seriously, a world with this much water mass and you humans pollute it endlessly. How foolish.”
“Foolish enough for you to ask us for help. What’s this deal you made with Sara?”
“I’m getting there. See, the point of sending the Ninth Stratum out is because we Kyu are unable to engage in acts that would bring harm to another sentient being. Given our vast intellects and study of the sciences, it would be child’s play for even a newly created Kyu to bring an end to entire ecosystems if they wished. If we begin to embark upon a task that we know would cause a negative outcome, our bodies rebel against it and are wracked with pain so excruciating I can barely bring myself to imagine one one-thousandth of how it would feel. As such, we conscript from those of our allies willing to repay prior services rendered by giving them this.”
A new image was displayed on the wall, that of a silver seed inscribed with many twisting patterns and runes, overlapping so tightly that Sam couldn’t distinguish from one another.
“This is the Empowering Gift, a device designed to make protectors of any who would join our cause. The exact process will be beyond you, so to put it simply: it links to the consciousness of those that accept the contract and allows them to externalise a body more properly suited for combat, utilising various abilities based on the will of the user. On a side note, it also serves as a beacon, so that I may teleport myself to anyone empowered by it to provide tactical assistance as the situation demands.”
“Hold it. You were going to send my eleven-year-old sister to war. Halfway across the universe. Without seeking a word of permission at all.”
“She would not be alone in the endeavour. Fellow conscripts from other races would come together under the supervision of the Kyu who had enlisted them. And besides, I’ve already added human medicine and biology to my knowledge banks, so she would return in one piece if nothing else.”
It took Sam a moment to respond, stunned by the causal coldness being displayed.
“Wow. You managed to give me every detail and yet I’m no closer to being assured. And you still didn’t point out who gave you permission to kidnap a child in the first place.”
“I had her permission, as part of the contract. All I required was the agreement of the individual, which she gave happily. All terms and conditions were stated, no trickery. We Kyu are above half-truths and underhanded tactics.”
Sam cupped his face, breathed in deeply to vent his frustrations.
“Okay, let me try this a bit slower. Do the Kyu have children?”
Kyu cocked his head to one side, which Sam took as a sign of confusion.
“I’m not sure how that pertains to the conversation, but yes, we do, although none have been created in two hundred years.”
“So you get how a young Kyu might not understand the implications of being asked to fight in a war, right?”
“Hardly. They would have received proper learning and comprehend completely.”
“Yeah, well, human children wouldn’t. And Sara definitely doesn’t, so can’t you cancel this contract of yours?”
Kyu’s tails began twitching again, rather less controlled than before.
“I could disconnect it from her forcibly, that would cause the Gift to suffer a system malfunction and deactivate permanently. Given the domestic problem that has unfolded, I think even you will find no reason to complain about losing it.”
“I’m already afraid to ask, but what domestic problem?”
“As you saw, I escaped into this solar system by chance. What you didn’t see was the aftermath. Against all odds, I was followed.”
“Which is where Sara comes into this mess.”
“Exactly. I assume a couple of Terratsar’s subordinates were able to trace the last recorded coordinates of our escape, which led to my pursuit and subsequently, running into your sister, who was on some sort of educational trip at the time. I gave her the rundown and passed on a portion of power, which she used to great effect to dispense of the ringleader. Now, here’s where things become troublesome.”
“Only here, huh?”
“Quiet. The Gift is a relatively new tool, but I was under the impression that I’d be able to spread its power out to empower one hundred individuals, but it would seem that volunteers require far more energy than I was initially informed. That, or your sister has a stronger self-actualisation ability than most, as once the dust had cleared I found that the Gift was no longer in my procession. Either way, it seems that the human imagination, combined with your species’ love of violence, creates quite the efficient conscript, as displayed by the substantial energy bursts utilised during the opening skirmish. Unfortunately, the underling of the one she evaporated got away from us, and when pressed to follow it, she instead returned back to the trip. I pursued her back to this abode and began negotiations, which is when you intervened. To summarise this report: your sister refuses to either return the Gift or join me in liberating my home out of pure stubbornness and addiction to her entertainment devices, and I can’t reclaim the Gift until it runs out of power. Given my projections for its current lack of use, she will be long deceased before that happens, and I do not have time to wait eighty or so Earth years for that to occur.”
“I’m weeping for you. Absolutely heartbroken. But as far as I’m concerned, you brought this on yourself by pushing this contract of yours on the first person you saw, hoping to whisk them out of their life into your problems.”
“I was under- “Kyu bristled, about to protest until Sam put up a hand to stop him.
“I’ll have a word with her. I can’t promise anything, because once Sara finds something she likes she refuses to part with it even if it’s worn out and useless. She’s... well… different.” He said, looking over to a clashing patchwork blanket on the bed sewn together out of five differing designs, none of which matched and, in many cases, contrasted horribly with one another.
“I gathered. Based on my observations between her and her classmates, and the research I was able to perform on psychological variance and welfare thanks to your digital hivemind, I would diagnose her as what you humans refer to as a ‘high functioning autistic’.”
Sam’s posture tightened subconsciously, ready to repeat an old argument. Not everyone took to his sister’s condition cleanly, especially if they’d been bombarded with her bluntness beforehand.
“It’s not a bad thing.”
“I never implied that it was. However, she isn’t functioning in a manner that helps me. If you could retrieve the Gift I’ll be most grateful. Every minute it’s not being used correctly is a minute my home is left in further peril.”
The rim of the wastepaper bin was biting terribly through his jeans, so it was somewhat of a relief to end the briefing and stand up again.
“I imagine I already know the answer to this one, but I don’t suppose you can just make a new Gift?”
“The production methods are strictly on a need-to-know basis. None under the Third Stratum have been deemed reliant on knowing. However, even if I did know how to create a second Gift, I’m certainly not going to abandon the original. Can you imagine the laughing stock I’d become upon my return, to be held hostage at the whims of a child?”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured. Like I said, I’ll have a word but I promise nothing. If I get it back, all’s fine and dandy and you can drag some other poor soul into your mess. But if I can’t, I don’t want to see you hanging around and whining at her. If anything, she’ll double down on not returning it.”
“What exactly do you expect of me otherwise? I need that Gift back.”
“That’ll depend on how negotiations go. Wait here.”