The Substitutes: Contract

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The First Battle

The idea of passing the buck of an intergalactic conflict onto someone else should have weighed on Sam’s moral compass more than very little. But as he thought about what Kyu had told him he could figure out exactly what holding onto the Gift meant; a big red flashing target on his sister’s head, even if she had no desire to use it. Random attacks from out of nowhere, perpetual danger from tricks and traps, all sorts of unusual, life-threatening circumstances that would upset her to no end. All in all, needless undue stress and misery for the both of them, and that was without considering the natural conclusion about what the alien activity might mean for Earth itself. The unpleasant line of thinking brewed as he found her where he’d left her, albeit raiding a tube of crisps.

At a sight, there was no denying that the two were siblings, with their shared soft cheeks and sharp green eyes. However, once that was established, it usually took a minute or two for an outsider to confirm that they’d been raised in the same household. While Sam kept his hair cut short and proper, Sara had no concerns for her appearance, with a frayed black shroud running down the back of the pyjamas she wore consistently when not required to go to school. Today was day four of her current set, and both hair and clothes were in dire need of cleaning. Not that she’d take a shower of her own accord, claiming she had more important matters to attend to at any given time of the day. There was a similar lack of shame at subverting his orders as she handed the packet over, only the slightest curling of lips as Sam swiped the last few for himself.

“All gone?”

“The crisps or the ‘rat?’”

“Yes.”

“Sara, that thing in your room isn’t a rat. Did you know what it was when it started talking to you?”

“Obviously. It’s clearly not from Earth. Had no way to classify it. Also, he was being chased by bigger monsters when he ran into me.”

“And you let it drag you into its problems? You’ve been told about touching wild animals, and this is far more serious than that.”

“If he was captured, I was going to be erased. No witnesses, the big one said. Taking the power seemed wise. It made blowing up the big one very satisfying. Also, I got to be a magical girl for a day. Also satisfying, but once was enough. I don’t want to become a witch.”

Sam tried and failed to tame his shock at the idea of waiting at home endlessly for a missing sister that wouldn’t return with no explanation as to where she had gone. It showed.

“Don’t worry, I was fine.”

“That’s really not reassuring when I’m only just finding out about this. You could have been seriously hurt, or even killed, and we wouldn’t have known what happened to you!”

“Don’t shout.” Sara bit back, covering her ears.

“I’m not shouting.”

“You’re getting louder. That’s shouting. Stop shouting.”

Concern was misdirecting him into a dead end. He took a deep breath and bit down harder than necessary on a crisp to settle his nerves.

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Accepted.”

She didn’t lower her hands from the side of her head. Not that it would prevent her from hearing altogether, no matter how she could pretend otherwise. Time to try again, adopting a more tempered tone.

“You can see why I worried though, can’t you? That thing Kyu gave you is dangerous. It’ll end up drawing more of those monsters here, regardless of what you want. Which means more fighting. And they’re not going to wait for you to be ready. They could attack you at school, here at home, anytime. You don’t want that, do you?”

“They won’t be after me though. Kyu told me that they’re following him. So I’ll be fine. Maybe if he stays quiet for five minutes they’ll forget where he is.”

There was a muffled hiss from the doorway as Kyu tried and failed to hide his opinion on that train of thought, leading Sam to realise why Sara had been staring at the space under his arm for the conversation instead of talking to his chin as normal. The alien’s intense need to know everything that was going on had likely flared up Sara’s paranoia and scuppered any attempt at retrieval before Sam had opened his mouth. Nevertheless, he persisted. Casting ill will at the little rat wasn’t going to make them any safer.

“Why do you want it so badly anyway? You don’t like any of the jewellery Mum gives you.”

She was wearing the Gift as a necklace, a small acorn-sized lump under her pyjama shirt that she fished out to show him. The empowering process had given it a silver chain to match, allowing her to dangle it in small pendulum swings.

“Mum gives me jewellery to make me girly. This makes me feel… warm, and all the little grooves are nice too. Here, feel.”

She wasn’t wrong about that. Sam could feel the power of the otherworldly technology the second it brushed against his palm, an electric pulse that spread out until it filled him with warmth from tip to toe. It was almost a disappointment when Sara withdrew it and began to play with it, running her fingers all over the lines and grooves with a goofy, off-centre smile. He knew then that he’d be unable to deny her anything that made her happy, as usual.

“I suppose if you’re not planning on using it to blow anything up it’ll be fine. Just keep it out of sight, okay?”

“Okay. I’ll go back to playing now.”

She took off at that, clearly thinking the matter done with. They took the stairs together but split up at the landing to disappear into their respective rooms, allowing Sam blessed peace and quiet for all of a minute before he closed the door behind him and Kyu kicked off.

“That was, without a doubt, the most pitifully handled, feebly worded, absolute worst bartering I have seen in all my days, and I’ve existed twice as long as the oldest human you could place before me. A blind Greasian would clean you out selling you oxygen and charge you double for the air you inhaled during the conversation.”

“I thought we agreed you’d shove off if I couldn’t get your cat toy back.”

“I’ll be taking my leave in a second, as much as I’d like to persist after witnessing what you consider a retrieval operation. The honour of the Kyu demands that I must follow my agreements. It also obliges me to inform you that you will be receiving unwanted company later this evening. As I mentioned earlier, the pursuers that engaged me here on Earth and started this whole blasted mess were a pair, and your sister only disposed of one of them. Terratsar employs from a great number of species, in this case the deceased Ranraq and the hunting beast that it was partnered with. The hunting beast that was able to track me in spite of what little scent this form produces. And I have dwelled here far longer than intended.”

The view outside had suddenly become rather interesting, and Sam had to examine every little nook and cranny of his neighbour’s driveways and all the way up and down the road, just to make sure that any other interesting things weren’t coming towards them or hiding in the spaces between the bricks.

“No need to stress yourself now, the… Ranthe, I believe it was called? It’s a nocturnal animal that was gang-pressed into service. With the owner dealt with it fled the scene, presumably to rest. I’d estimate that it shan’t arrive here until midnight if at all, so you have until then to prepare yourself to be assailed by a rather vexed ball of teeth.”

Kyu stood up and made for the window as if he hadn’t causally informed Sam that a literal monster was coming for him and his family while they slept.

“In any case, I thank you for your hospitality and now and future assistance in retrieving the Gift. As we were unsuccessful today I’ll utilise my time away to draft up a new argument to present upon my return. I assume that reconvening this time next week is acceptable for you?”

“Wait a minute, you can’t just leave!”

If Kyu’s face could form an expression that wasn’t blank analytic gazing, at this time it would be a cocked eyebrow of dry amusement. As it was, his tails showed the same emotion by curling into hooks.

“Really? But you were so determined to be rid of me.”

“That was only when you signed my sister up for a potential war, and she sorted that business out in the way she usually does. Ignoring that you seem to have dragged this planet into that war by proxy, there’s a wild alien out to break into this house and maul us all for coming into contact with you! No witnesses Sara said, and I’m betting that this… Ranthe isn’t going to be concerned one way or the other. You’re taking responsibility for this situation and helping me stop it.”

“I’m not the one living with the newly created girl of mass destruction. Just point her at it and watch it vanish. Maybe the experience will remind her of the responsibilities she owes me.”

“Okay, A: Midnight is long past Sara’s bedtime. Past when I normally go to bed as well, but I can deal with it. Even if I manage to keep her awake, she’ll be so tired she’s more likely to make the house vanish with it. B: if we go back to her today and tell her a monster is coming, she’ll think we’re just trying to trick her into giving up the Gift, and you know first-hand how stubborn she is. You’ll add two months of waiting to any timetable you’ve already written up in that supposedly clever little head of yours. And C: assuming we pull off that miracle, I’d have to explain all this to my parents, which will probably lead to me getting thrown in the nuthouse if I’m lucky, which means you’ll lose the only way to convince her of giving you the Gift back if you don’t get caught in the process. That means we’ve got to take care of this thing, and as you can’t, you can at least tell me what makes its tick so I can. You’re the walking encyclopaedia of the universe, that should be easy enough, right?”

“I should have kept running until I encountered a world government.” Kyu grumbled to no-one in particular, giving Sam a sideways glance he couldn’t quite decipher.

“Guarantee my safety during the encounter, and I suppose we have an arrangement.”

“I promise I won’t let it eat you. Now, let’s make sure it doesn’t do the same to anyone else.”

***

The sole advantage of having workaholic parents was that they dosed themselves with sleeping pills and put themselves to bed not long after dark set in so that they could be up and ready to go to the office at the first creeping beams of the sunrise. So when Sam snuck downstairs at an hour before midnight it was with no fear of repercussions, even if he’d stamped down on every loose floorboard in the house. As such, he was able to clear the house of what little floor debris there was relatively quickly and had the dining room chairs sat on the table in under half an hour. No thanks to Kyu of course, who spent the time complaining about being dragged into the mess he’d caused in the first place, a feeling that was more than mutual on Sam’s part. With pathways cleared for easy retreat, traps set and the fishing net returned to the cupboard in exchange for a rather more solid cricket bat, the pair settled down to stakeout the estimated arrival. Adding to Sam’s ever-lengthening list of household talents, he took advantage of the situation to try his hand at brewing coffee to keep himself awake, easy enough with only instant granules stocked in the kitchen. Black with two sugars, a proper adult’s drink. If Kyu noted the disgusted twist that formed with each bitter sip he elected not to comment. Not that Sam was willing to give him the chance, pushing the alien onto his favourite subject; himself.

“You wish to know about the Kyu?”

“You might be a pain in the backside but you’re still an advanced alien. You can’t blame me for being curious about what’s out there.”

“Very well, I suppose we have time. Where to start? Ah, of course, with the Prime and his grand works, of which we Kyu are the greatest.”

And so Kyu filled the time with history, starting with The Prime. The first of the Kyu, hence the name. Every other member of the two million-strong race was a copy of the original, mass-produced in batches and imprinted with the collective knowledge of the species before being assigned to one of the nine sectors of society – the stratum – and forming as an individual from there. Other than their self-proclaimed vast intellects and deep memory banks, they were also shapeshifters of unlimited scope and had some alchemical control over elements, a feat Kyu demonstrated by turning a breadknife into gold and back again. If Sam came across another member of the species, he hoped that aloof haughtiness wasn’t another part of their imprinted schooling. Being talked down to by adults was irritating enough, having a mutated ferret do the same made him wish the Ranthe would turn up and end the conversation.

His wish was granted just as he was about to ask about other species in the universe, a chill running a cold finger up his spine completely out of the blue, tinged with fear. On any other night he’d put it down to not wearing a dressing gown, but tonight he was both the hunted and a hunter, giving the chill a primal edge he couldn’t ignore. Hushing Kyu, he slowly padded to the threshold between kitchen and dining room, just in time to watch a living tumbleweed enter the house through the window they’d deliberately left open and roll into the centre of the room, where it began to taste the air about it.

Like Kyu, the Ranthe could be described as a fur ball, but in this case it was less of an insult and more a literal image. It was a shaggy football-sized sphere devoid of any features, making no sound as it begun sniffing at the furniture, thick strands of dark hair shifting in tidal waves with each silent snort. There was a tap on his shoulder, a signal from Kyu as though he wasn’t aware of the situation already. Nevertheless, he moved into action, taking slow, creeping paces towards the creature. It took no notice, distracted as it was by the defrosting steak left out on the one chair not bent over the table. He could have made haste, but the slow steps were as much for himself as they were for the advantage of surprise. Despite knowing the dangers, the idea of harming an animal of any form filled him with uneasiness. But it had to be done, and so he readied himself over and over again until he was hanging right over the beast. Not allowing any time for distaste to hold him in place, he swung hard and fast, aiming to knock it out in one strike. But life wasn’t going to accommodate his desire for a quick, thoughtless fight, his newest tool maintaining the same success rate as the old one as it slammed down into carpet. Through some strange sense the Ranthe noticed him, folding into a boneless heap and shooting back between Sam’s legs, fast as a gunshot towards the kitchen and the spectator that was its target.

To his credit, Kyu acted with no complaints about failure, shrugging free of gravity’s influence and launching himself into the air to avoid the flying tackle aimed at him. The Ranthe kept going until it crashed into the fridge, stretching into a puddle of hairy ooze on impact. It recovered quickly, bouncing back up into a ball and rolling up the smooth surface with similar disregard for what was physically possible, all the way up until it met the wall behind and kept going so it could roll along the ceiling instead. A game of mid-air dodging began as both aliens darted back and forth; guessing where the other would move to so they could mount an attack or avoid in kind, only to be broken up by the lone human in the equation sprinting through and spiriting Kyu away. A wet thud trailed them out the room as they went from kitchen to dining room to living room to conservatory and out into the garden. For the younger generation that preferred to stay inside all day and the older one that was never at home it normally wasn’t suitable for anything other than providing a pleasant backdrop to the house, but for combating an alien it was perfect. No walls or floors to climb, and the only trees it could ascend were behind the human and his weapon. Not that the Ranthe knew this as it burst out the house and onto the patio, stopping only to spin around and lock them in its sights once again. It wasn’t still for long, as it began to rotate in place, spinning up faster and faster as the previously flat-laying fur rose up into stiff spikes.

Had Sam been inclined to poetry, he might have described the standoff as happening in a single heartbeat, time drawn out until it reached a breaking point where everything snapped into motion. But judging by the jackhammer-kick of his own heart beating in his throat, and it took far more than that as the Ranthe spun up to maximum speed and shot straight at them. Even then, he felt too slow in yanking the tightly-wound rope he’d concealed in the long grass, every second passing by in fitful bursts. He could practically count every dew drop transferring to the beast in motion, making the points glisten like bloody sabres right up until it ran over the trap and knotted snares jumped up around it, forming a compressing net that dug into fur and turned the attack into a confused flip, spin and thud at Sam’s feet, who wasted no time in finishing the job and tightening the rope ball over the fur ball. Such was his disbelief at having survived the encounter that he didn’t know what to do next, standing stock still until he turned to look at Kyu, perched upon his shoulder. The slow stare to each other and back to the catch sunk in what they’d done, and it transformed awkward stillness into hushed joyful thrashing in celebration, Sam having to slap hands over his mouth so that he didn’t crow his achievement to the heavens and ruin everything.

“I can’t believe I did it.”

“I can’t believe you did it.”

“Hey!”

“Cut me some slack, humans haven’t done much to earn my belief in them recently. More than that, I wasn’t expecting an unempowered adolescent to match even the weakest of Terratsar’s forces. Make no mistake however, it’s fortunate you had to contest the tracker of the two and not the hunter, otherwise you’d have been painted across the walls. Well, best give it a good whack to finish it off, there’s a good lad.”

“Aww, come on, finish it off? Do we need to go that far? I mean, it seems pretty harmless all things considered.” Sam teased, scooping up the strangely still Ranthe and smiling at it condescendingly. It smiled back.

Like a zipper pulled back on a high-class coat, the mass of hair had been split by rows of jagged fangs, spreading further apart as the jaw began to open. Dropping it in panic did nothing to slow it, bear-trap teeth opening wider and wider until the ‘lips’ of the Ranthe reached all the way back and met again on the other side, unhinged far past the point of breaking on any Earth creature. So unnatural was the sight that Kyu’s calls to smash it were lost on fear-deafened ears as the ropes unravelled and sunk into the endless black void that had been hidden within. Freed from the feeble bonds, the Ranthe snapped back with a sickening crunch of bone on bone, showing its appreciation for the meal by continuing to smile its dread smile. It popped up on the spot, sending Sam scrambling for safety back to the house, only to be stopped by pinprick claws on his neck.

“Stop running you fool, it has the advantage inside!”

A flare of animal instinct heard the words and put them into action, Sam rolling sideways as the Ranthe leapt past, dripping saliva in anticipation of the end. The pinch on his neck grew stronger as Kyu corrected his path.

“We can win this, just aim for the side of the jaw. It can’t open up if you break it.”

“But what if it bites me?”

“Then you lose an arm instead of your head. But if you don’t fight you can’t win, and if you can’t win then defeat is the only outcome, and neither of us can afford to be devoured here. Your family will follow us into that void, followed by the rest of this world and mine as well. Stop running from its fangs, bare your own and bite it first!”

Which was a long-winded way of stating the obvious. If Sam ran now, everything he’d be worried about would come to pass. The reminder was all he needed, imagining the Ranthe sneaking into each bedroom in turn and opening wide. More than that, it made Kyu’s bluster sink a little deeper. He’d run from a war that had reignited on Earth, and Sam had volunteered to fight in it, however temporarily to protect his family. Injury was to be expected, plans never survived contact with the enemy. The Ranthe wheeled around again, mounting another charge with mouth agape to display the infinite abyss he had awoken, longing to be filled with human flesh and whatever Kyu was made of. The only sound in the night was a deep breath, and a soft-spoken word.

“Idiot.”

Teeth came down to punctuate Sam’s self-deprecation, chomping shut with all the force of a motorway collision. All they tasted was thin air as Sam ducked under the arc of the Ranthe’s pounce, performing a spin of his own as he kicked off the ground and swung up into the side of gritted teeth. A solid crack of the bat impacting was his reward as he landed not ten feet away on his back, jumping up immediately to brace himself for a second swing. There was a sticky peeling sound as the predator came away from the fence it had crashed into, hair spikes back to unkempt waves as it rolled over, the formerly frightening teeth embedding into the dirt to keep the segmented rows separated forever. Sam advanced with bat notched, but was held once more by pinpricks on his neck.

“No need to put ourselves at risk. It’s done for. You broke the jaw with that strike, so now it’s useless to Terratsar.”

As Kyu finished explaining, the whimpering Ranthe burst into white flame, the sudden incineration taking only scant seconds to consume it and leave no trace it had been other than some singed grass about the fence.

“What use is a tracker that cannot hold prey in place? Such worthlessness cannot be abided by one who seeks to control every star and lord over all living beings.”

“That’s awful.”

“Now imagine the fates of those ruled by her. Why do you think I so dearly require help?”

Kyu left his perch to examine the scorch mark, not looking at Sam as he continued.

“I’ll leave as per this afternoon’s agreement, but I’ll return as and when I see fit. Once a week to discuss any ongoing progress made in regards to the Gift, but also in times of peril. As an extra courtesy I’ll be sure to inform you of any extra-terrestrial activity that it not my own. Going by human fiction and history, your species will respond poorly to alien invasion, so we’ll have to consider how we’re going to keep any further attempts quiet.”

“You might as well stay if that’s the case. Otherwise I’ll have to install a cat flap to keep up with your coming and going.”

Kyu bobbed up from his task with his tail tips curled into question marks.

“Well, that is quite a surprise, given your earlier demeanour. What’s with this turnabout?”

“Put it this way. I’d rather you were here to annoy us than out on your own where you might not be able to tell us trouble is brewing.”

“A pragmatic attitude. I trust that any further members of Terratsar’s motley crew will have you to answer to if your sister continues to deny us?”

“Honestly, given what this thing nearly did to us, I’d much rather she didn’t have to put herself in danger. Someone’s got to defend Earth, and it’s not like anyone else will want to assist you without your Gift. That someone might as well be me.”

“Another turnabout, given how badly you were shaking a moment ago in the face of such danger.”

“I’ll be ready next time. And I won’t do anything as stupid as turning my back on a hostile creature again. It’s bad enough to react like that with regular wild animals, let alone something that could have swallowed me whole. I’ll be better next time. No mistakes.”

His grip tightened on the bat, the tempting idea to knock that nail of a lesson into him if need be. It was put out of his head as Kyu reclaimed his shoulder perch, although it did nothing to stop his hands from shaking.

“We’ll see about that, especially once you’ve come down from your current adrenalin surge and wiped that smile off your face. Regardless, I accept. Thank you for your future contribution to the Kyu reclamation effort.”

“Whatever. Just make sure you stay out of sight if we’re not planning something. There’s a space under my bed you can sleep in. If you even sleep at all that is.”

“Last week I was at the forefront of scientific advance and now I’m taking refuge under a teenager’s bed in the backend of the universe. Wonderful.”

Sam smothered the complaint behind a yawn as they padded back to the house, looking up with relief at the still blackened windows where an undisturbed and uneaten family slept soundly.

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