by Ian Williams
Today was to be a good day for the crew of the Earth vessel, Moribus. They had been tasked with a mission of the highest importance, one that could cause a huge instability in a vast region of space if dealt with incorrectly. Two rival alien races, both of which had laid claim to an uninhabited rock that straddled the border between their regions of space, were looking to humanity to host negotiations as a neutral party.
Needless to say, things had to go right from the very start.
The captain of the Moribus, Ernest Hamilton Jnr, stood waiting outside the main airlock as the last of the two alien races arrived. He was nervous. His hands clenched and then unclenched, like he was trying to squeeze a ripe apple between them. Beside him, his second in command, Audrey Bomer, appeared more at ease, although she too had something to be nervous about.
Spying on proceedings from a nearby corner were her two young sons. They had been told to stay out of the way while the negotiations were being held, and as usual they had ignored that order entirely. It wasn’t every day that dignitaries from an alien race visited their home, let alone two at the same time. Both were beyond excited to see something new.
The elder of the two, Riley, stood a good foot taller than his brother, Chris. The difference in height meant both could sneak a peek around the corner at the same time. They waited while a growing anticipation of what strange creature was about to board their ship took their minds on a wild trip. Did these aliens have eyes? Maybe they had loads, like giant spider people. What about limbs? How many legs were too many?
A slight nudge from the docking ship caused Riley to push his brother forward by accident. Chris turned and hit his brother in retaliation.
“Quit it,” Chris protested.
“It wasn’t my fault, numbnuts,” Riley snapped back.
Captain Hamilton saw them messing around at the end of the corridor and immediately ordered them away with a swatting motion. He wasn’t at all interested in their games. They were pests at that moment and nothing more. He spoke quietly to Audrey and she then hurried over to her sons, no doubt to tell them off.
In her full-dress-uniform, she made a big impression. She prided herself in her formal appearance and often spent hours getting it just right. Riley and Chris had watched her the night before as she tended to each tiny crease she found in her uniform, and then proceeded to polish the life out of the buttons after that. With her brown hair in a tight bun, she was ready to impress and dazzle even.
Being forced to deal with her sons at that point was not something she was in any mood to do. By the time she reached them, her face had changed completely, from bright and smiley to hard-as-stone. She took Riley by his arm and marched him down the corridor.
“What did I tell you both this morning?” she said, her tight grip not letting up for a second. “I specifically told you to stay in our quarters.”
Riley skipped along as fast as his twelve-year-old feet could carry him. “Sorry, Mum, we just wanted to see them arrive. Our readers will want to know what the Kilmari look like.”
“Yeah, we want to see if they’ve got tentacles or not,” Chris added, jiggling his arms to demonstrate what he was hoping to see.
“Your readers?” Audrey said, puzzled by the comment. She soon realised what was going on. “I see. So, what are you today, reporters?”
“We’re investa … investig…” Chris tried to say the word, but his tongue always got in the way.
Riley took over. “Investigative journalists.”
“Oh okay.” Audrey sighed. “What happened to being explorers when you grow up?”
“This is more fun. We’re going to write a report about the negotiations.”
“Oh really? Well, that’s great.” She knelt to be roughly level with Chris, and loosened her hold on them a little. Her face softened while she spoke. “Look, I know you two are just curious, but you can’t be here when the Kilmari delegates arrive. You’ll have to go.”
“But you let us watch yesterday,” Riley said.
“I know I did, but this time is different. Those people yesterday were much nicer. Humans get on better with the Hazto people. The Kilmari, on the other hand, only tolerate us. You saw the Hazto come aboard, though; that was fun, wasn’t it?”
“The Hazto are boring.” Chris’ face dropped as he realised his fun was over for the day. “They look like us, but with green skin and ridges on their heads. The Kilmari might look like lizards, or insects, or octopuses. That would be sooooo cool.”
Riley nodded in agreement. He could imagine the Kilmari sliding along the floor, a trail of goo and slime left in their wake like giant snail-like creatures. He had to know what they really looked like, even if that meant defying his mother’s orders, again.
“Listen to me.” Audrey huddled her sons together to tell them at the same time. “These negotiations are far too important. I don’t want either of you misbehaving, understood? That means no sneaking around, no spying on our visitors and absolutely no playing tricks on people. Can you both promise me that?”
Riley looked to Chris, Chris looked to Riley, and they both replied together. “We promise,” they said in the most honest sounding tone they could.
“Good. Now, go to our quarters and wait until I get back. I don’t want to find either of you out here again. If I can, I’ll get a photo of the Kilmari for you. You can use that in your report, if you like.” She left them after that, stopping just before turning the corner to check her appearance. She ran her hand over a stubborn crease one last time, for good measure.
The telling off had done its job. Always the good boy, Chris was already heading toward the turbo-lift, which would take them to the crew quarters level. He dragged his feet and slipped his hands into his pockets.
“Hey, where are you going?” Riley called after his younger brother.
“Mum said…” Chris turned back, confusion all across his slightly chubby face. He had the bright blonde coloured hair of that of their Dad, a fact their mother often mentioned when she reminisced on their good times together. The break-up had been tough on them all.
“I know what Mum said,” Riley replied. “We can still watch. We just need to be quiet this time. We have a duty to our readers to report on this.”
“I don’t know. Mum looked pretty angry with us.”
“She won’t see us this time. Come on. Do you wanna be an investigative journalist, or not?”
The temptation was too much for even the well-behaved Chris to deny. He trotted alongside his brother as they returned to their hiding place, to spy on the new arrivals. When they got there, they were too late, the Kilmari had already boarded the Moribus.
“Can you see anything?” Chris whispered to his brother.
Their view was blocked by Captain Hamilton, who stood with his back turned to them. The three Kilmari were in front of him, but they wore thick robes that covered their bodies from the shoulders down. The material of their robes glistened like diamonds had been sewn into them. It was a dazzling display, but hardly the sight the two boys were almost salivating over seeing.
“I can’t see their faces.” Chris tugged on his brother’s sleeve. “What do they look like, Riley?”
“I didn’t see either. They’re really short, like my height, but I need to get closer to see more. Stay here and take notes.” Riley took a step out into the corridor and peered around the Captain as he gestured for the Kilmari delegates to follow him. From there, Riley got a quick glimpse of the aliens’ faces, or at least what they were wearing to cover them up. “They wear masks. Oh man, that sucks! All I can see is their bald heads.”
“What colour is their skin? And do they have tentacles or not?”
Riley slipped back around the corner and leant against the wall behind him. The disappointment was a heavy feeling. “No tentacles at all, not even a tail. Just more boring looking purple aliens. Unless…”
“Unless what? Riley, tell me?”
“They might have something under their masks, like three eyes or a vertical mouth. We should follow them and find out.”
Before Chris could remind his brother again of what their mother had said, Riley was away and sneaking down the corridor. He passed the airlock and stopped at the viewport, where he saw the Kilmari ship undock and fly off into space. The ship was smaller than the Moribus, but it made up for its size with enormous plasma canons dotted about its messy hull. Riley thought it resembled a flying trashcan, with bits seemingly stuck to the outside of the ship in a random pattern.
He waited for Chris to catch up before he set off again. As they made their way along the corridor they passed members of the crew, who smiled and even shook their heads when they realised what the two boys were up to; curiosity didn’t just kill the cat, it killed the boy with the overactive mind too.
They lost sight of the Kilmari as the group turned another corner at the end of the corridor. By now Riley and Chris were becoming rather impatient. If they didn’t get a good look at the aliens’ faces before the negotiations started, they might never get another chance. So Riley sped up, leaving Chris to catch up on his own.
“Riley, slow down,” Chris said.
But nothing could stop Riley’s pace. He was like a wild animal on a hunt for hidden prey. There was something he had never witnessed before only meters away from him and he had to see it, whether Chris was with him still or not. He would share every gory detail if he saw it alone.
He grabbed the wall and slid around the corner, his feet losing grip on the smooth surface of the gravity plating beneath him. He soon found himself unable to stop. What he had not noticed was that the Kilmari group, led by his mother and Captain Hamilton, had decided to stop for a moment. They were there as he appeared at full pelt. They were still there when he slammed into the back of the main Kilmari representative, Re Varin.
Riley let out a grunt as he landed heavily on his backside. Then he saw the faces staring back at him, and they were not happy. Captain Hamilton’s face had turned a shade of red and his teeth were showing in a tight grin that caused more wrinkles to form around his eyes. While Audrey could only shake her head in response.
“What is the meaning of this?” Re Varin said, turning around to see what had hit the back of him. The impact had removed his mask, which now hung around his neck from a golden chain. He looked down at Riley with two eyes the colour of hot magma.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Silence,” Re Varin barked. As he got angrier, his face became even darker in shade, making his eyes appear to glow even more. But what demonstrated his feelings the best, was the shivering of his three facial sacs, which dangled from his sharply shaped chin. As the sacs vibrated they made a sound similar to a snake hissing.
Captain Hamilton yanked Riley up off the floor. “Dammit, boy. You shouldn’t be here.” He turned back to Re Varin. “Please, accept my sincerest apology for this. The boy was only playing around, he meant nothing by it.”
“I don’t care for your excuses, Captain.” Re Varin replaced his mask finally, hiding his face away again. “I wear this mask to avoid your human stench. It is bad enough that we are forced to take part in these negotiations aboard your vessel. If I have to smell your primate scent too I fear I may snap and kill you all.” He looked down at Riley as he spoke. “You people are not equals here. You lived in caves only 30,000 years ago, while the Kilmari were expanding out into the galaxy. You are nothing compared to us. You and your Hazto pests have no place here at all.”
“Please, let’s stay calm. This was just an accident, no need to become nasty,” Audrey said, taking Riley from the Captain. She whispered to Riley, “Go home now. I’ll deal with you and your brother later.”
Riley took one last look at Re Varin, who hissed at him and exposed a row of razor sharp teeth in anger. Riley then ran for the corridor. He grabbed Chris along the way, not stopping to listen to the argument still going on with the grown-ups behind him. The raised voices carried all the way along the corridor as they walked in silence, both with frowns upon their faces.
Neither of them were looking forward to the telling off that evening.
At the dinner table that night conversation had been kept to a minimum. Riley and Chris sat eating their food, well aware that their mother was preparing to deal out punishment for their misbehaviour at any moment. If anything, the waiting was always worse.
Audrey carefully placed her knife and fork neatly together on her plate after she finished off the last bite. She then looked to her two sons, her eyes already telling them off before a single word had left her mouth.
“Now,” she said, pushing her plate away. “I think, after your disobedience today it’s only right that I ground you both for the next week. Or at least until these negotiations are over.”
“But, Mum, what about our report?” Riley began.
“Don’t start, I don’t want to hear it. I gave you both one simple instruction and you ignored it. You really annoyed Re Varin when you ran into him.”
Chris crossed his arms and frowned. “I don’t like Re Varin, he’s nasty.”
“No one likes him, Chris. Unfortunately, we don’t have any choice but to try and be nice to him and his people. If we can’t manage that, then there will be no solution to the dispute his people have with the Hazto race.”
“What are they arguing about anyway?”
“Does it matter?” Riley’s interruption garnered a strained look from his mother. He shut up quickly after that.
“Maybe, if you were as interested as Chris, you might understand how important this visit really is,” she said, pointing at Riley. “Both the Hazto and Kilmari people claim ownership of a small planet that sits between their regions of space. Whoever has that world will have an advantage over the other. Now, the Hazto people are pacifists, so their interest in the planet appears to be a defensive action. Whereas, the Kilmari are almost certainly looking to set up a military presence on that world. So, our job is to find a solution that suits both parties.”
“How long will that take?”
“I don’t know, Chris. Maybe a week, maybe more.” Audrey gathered up the plates from the table and took them over to the sink. “I’ve got an early start tomorrow, so I want you both ready for bed in ten minutes, Okay?”
Chris nodded. Riley stared at the wall instead.
The clock showed three in the morning when Chris stirred suddenly in his bed. His dreams had been full of boyish wonder until the Kilmari had arrived, with its giant teeth all brazen and glowing in the dark. He had run from the ever changing–the image could never settle on one terrible creature–and always frightening figure for what felt like days before he woke himself up.
He sat up and fumbled for the on switch of the lamp above his bed. When he found it, he clicked it on and took a quick sip of the ice-cold water his mother always put on his beside cabinet each night.
“Bad dream?” Riley asked from the next bed.
Chris was startled by the question a little. He turned to his brother, who was still dressed and sitting on the outside of his cover. “Riley, what are you doing? We should be asleep.”
“I can’t sleep, I’m too pissed off.”
“So,” Riley replied with a dangerous tone of defiance. “I can’t stop thinking about Re Varin. He was so mean to us. If he hates humans, then we should hate him too.” He slid himself to the edge of the bed, letting his feet gently touch down on the metal floor plating. “Hey, Chris, do you remember what we did to that kid that was bullying you in class?”
“We got in trouble for doing that, though. I don’t want to get into trouble again.”
“Calm down. All we did was teach him a lesson. We glued his shoes to the ground so he would fall over when he stood up. And he did too, right on his stupid face.” Riley was lost in the memory for a moment, one that made him smile to himself as he pondered. “I’ve got the perfect idea.”
Chris took another sip of water and then sat on the edge of his own bed, mimicking his brother’s position opposite him. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“No, I think it is. Just hear me out, will ya? It doesn’t have to be anything big, like a fart bomb or reversing the gravity plating. But it has to be cool.”
“Like…” Riley snuck over to the door of their room and opened it ever so slightly. “Mum’s got to be asleep by now. Come on, I’ll tell you on the way. Get dressed.”
Choosing not to argue with his brother, Chris threw on that day’s clothes, just a t-shirt with his favourite comic book character on it–Zombie General in space–a pair of grey cargo trousers, and trainers he had begun to grow out of. He joined Riley in the hall, where his brother was already creeping out the front door of their quarters.
“Hey, wait for me.”
“Shhhhh, keep your voice down,” Riley replied.
At that time of night, the ship was always quiet. The night-shift crew were spread out across the Moribus’ main departments and rarely left their posts. During the day, the corridors were bustling thoroughfares of activity, with crew members passing by each other and exchanging the odd hello and catch-you-later. At night, they were eerily empty.
Riley led the way. He stopped at the end of every corner, to check for anyone that might spot them and end their plans prematurely. They had important business to attend to, business they had to finish that night. They could not afford a single set back. If they were caught, then being grounded for one week would quickly turn into a month, maybe even two.
At the turbo-lift they had to refer to the small map on the screen beside the door to find their way. When the route had been found that would take them where they wanted, Riley produced a handheld device and downloaded the map to it. The device bleeped once the download had completed.
Following the route carefully, with the odd stop to wait until the way was clear, took them up two levels to where the guest quarters were situated. Here was where they would enact their teenage revenge. All that was left now was for the plan to be explained to all conspirators involved.
“The map says that Re Varin’s room is halfway down this hall,” Riley said.
Chris had to stand on tip-toes to see the map on his brother’s handheld screen. “What are you going to do?”
“First, we need to knock on his door.”
“What, that’s all?” Chris could not hide his disappointment very well. For someone so worried about getting into trouble, it didn’t take much to drag him into another scheme.
“No, that’s just to get a recording of Re Varin’s voice. I’ll need it to trick him.”
“How do we record his voice?”
Riley pressed a button on his handheld device and waited as it repeated Chris’ sentence, ‘How do we record his voice?’ it said, in a slowed down voice. “Neat, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s cool.”
“You wait here while I get the recording.” Riley pushed his brother further around the corner of the corridor and then wandered over to Re Varin’s room.
With the handheld device rested on the floor to the side of the door, Riley readied himself to tap on the door and then run for all his worth. He counted to three in his head and then slapped the door with his palm. His heart skipped ahead of him as he then made tracks for the end of the corridor. He almost knocked Chris over when he arrived at speed.
From their hiding place, they waited for someone to answer the door. And, to their joint pleasure, Re Varin appeared less than a minute later, his face still covered by his mask and his entire body beneath his robe. He wore a long and flowing shawl over his shoulders now too.
“Who dares disturb my slumber?” Re Varin began to say, but the forcefulness of his voice teetered as soon as he realised there was no one at his door. He stepped into the hall, his yellow eyes easy to see through the mask as they scanned the hallway for the one responsible for the noise. “You will pay for this insult. I order you to show yourself to me immediately.” When he couldn’t find anything, he slowly moved back inside his room and shut the door behind him.
The first part of Riley’s plan had gone exactly as he wanted. Re Varin had completely missed the small recording device on the floor.
“Now what?” Chris asked his brother.
“Now, we can set up the main prank.” Riley dug his right hand into his trouser pocket and produced three tiny speakers, each no bigger than a coin in size. “I got these from Robbie; his dad works in the requisitions department. These are lapel communicators, like the crew use. I’m going to connect them to my handheld and set them to repeat a sound or a message.”
Riley smiled a cheeky smile, one full of mischief and naughtiness. “We’re going to get Re Varin to follow the noises these speakers will make, all the way to the airlock.”
“Then what are we going to do?” Chris said, with an impish look quickly overtaking his face.
“Then we’re going to lock him in there, and we’re not going to let him out until morning.”
“Won’t he be cold in there?”
Riley gave a sidelong glance at his younger brother. “He’ll be fine. Come on.”
They proceeded down the corridor and placed the three lapel communicators on different walls along the way. Riley being the tallest of them, meant he would be the one to do this. Although, he still had to jump to reach high enough up the wall to get the speakers out of sight.
By the time they got to the airlock, their plan was ready to enact.
“Right, here we go,” Riley said, his device standing by. “Once Re Varin gets to the airlock, I’ll open it from my device and then I’ll close it again when he goes inside to look.”
“Oh, I’m still not sure about this, Riley. Do you think this is a good idea?”
“Quit worrying so much. He started this.” Riley hesitated with his finger above the activate button flashing on his screen. For a short while even he appeared unsure. The moment soon passed. “Done,” he said as the confirmation was sent.
They waited, with a little apprehension mixed with a lot of excitement, for the first speaker to begin making its noise. The second it did, they were about ready to explode with joy. ‘Show yourself immediately!’ the recording of Re Varin’s voice said. It repeated the message over and over, until a door swished open.
Riley froze, grabbing his brother on the shoulder to keep him still. From where they hid they could not see who had answered the door this time. They only hoped it was their target, otherwise the prank would have to be postponed.
Again the message called out from speaker number one.
“What is the meaning of this?” Re Varin said to the empty hallway.
The boys sniggered quietly.
When speaker number two took over from the first, they knew it was only a matter of seconds before Re Varin would be heading their way.
“I am warning you, whoever you are, this will not be tolerated. Show yourself.” Re Varin’s voice was getting angrier and louder all at the same time. He was getting close to the airlock too. “Where are you leading me? Is this how you humans treat your guests?”
The last of the speakers then began to chime in with its own little message. ‘Where are you leading me?’ it said in a high-pitched squawk, like a straining bird. This was Riley’s cue to open the airlock door. He palmed the screen of his control and watched, from around the nearby corner, as the airlock swished open.
They could just about see the hem of Re Varin’s robe as he stepped through the open airlock door. They made sure they weren’t seen while their target searched the small room.
“Here we go,” Riley whispered, right before he brought the airlock door slamming shut again. He then leapt out from cover, whooping with glee at having successfully taught their enemy a lesson. “Ha, take that!”
Chris joined in the celebration, albeit with less enthusiasm and a whole lot more concern for breaking so many rules. He jumped up and down, caught up in the joy, but he didn’t feel it inside. Was it that they were breaking the rules, or was it something else that had him this worried? He quickly realised it was the latter of the two.
“Depressurising,” an automated warning system said, while a red light flashed above the airlock door.
“What!” Riley raced over to the airlock, slamming his chest into the thick metal door and arching his head up to the porthole. He had to jump to see through the window to where Re Varin was now in a huge panic to get out.
Re Varin’s voice was heavily muffled by the steel and glass that separated them. “Open this door, Boy. Open it now and let me out.”
Before Riley could even think of what to do, a loud hissing sound interrupted him. The next time he managed to look through the porthole, it required the use of his brother as a ladder to achieve the height. He balanced on Chris’s small shoulders and stared at Re Varin as he staggered around the airlock, clutching his neck and clawing at the air around him.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no…,” Riley said, climbing off his brother’s unsteady frame. He sent his fingers racing across the tiny screen of his device, swiping through menus and clicking on the correct option to open the airlock again.
“What happened, Riley? What did you do?”
“I didn’t mean to do that, I swear.” Eventually he found the right option and slapped it with his thumb. The red light above the door turned to green and the door gracefully opened.
Re Varin stood in the doorway, his eyes seemingly glued open and his body a perfectly straight line. His mask had fallen off completely and sat on the ground between his feet. He didn’t move at all, just remained in position like he had been frozen in place.
Chris was weary of the stillness, in case the Kilmari was going to attack him suddenly. He kept his distance as he asked, “Are you okay, Mister?”
Re Varin’s response was entirely involuntary, only a lurch forward, a rock backwards, and then a final tipping over completely. He fell forward, toppled like a felled tree, and landed on his face without a single cry of pain or anger.
“Do you think he’s alright?” Chris asked his brother this time.
“No, Chris. I don’t think he’s okay. I’m pretty sure people breath when they’re okay.”
Chris knelt and gently poked Re Varin in the back. When there was no response he moved his poking finger to the three dangling sacs on Re Varin’s chin. He was soon transfixed by this one task and inched his finger closer, closer, closer still, until he was less than a centimetre away….
“Will you leave them alone,” Riley ordered. “We’ve got a serious problem on our hands. I think we need an emergency meeting. But first, let’s get Re Varin back to his room.”
It took Riley and Chris’ combined strength just to drag the unresponsive Re Varin back down the corridor and to his room. His robes were constantly getting caught beneath their feet and occasionally tripped the smaller of the two up. They were doing their best not to freak out too loudly along the way too. The problem was, Chris’ tears were always noisy.
“Oh, we’re going to prison. They’re going to lock us up forever,” Chris balled, trying his best to sniff quietly, which only made his nose stream faster. He took a handful of Re Varin’s robe and wiped his wet nose as they made it the last few inches to the room. “They’ll send us to a mining colony somewhere and we’ll never see our mum ever again. I can’t even pick up a pickaxe, Riley, I’m too small.”
“Hey, will you just chill out for a second,” Riley replied. “And keep your voice down. We’re not going to prison. Help me get the door open.” He again referred to his trusty handheld device, this time for the purpose of hacking open Re Varin’s door. After locating the correct menu, he activated the voice recording. ‘Open this door, Boy!’ the device said, in a perfect Re Varin impersonation.
The door flung open for them after that. They dragged Re Varin inside and bid the corridor farewell. Now they could really panic, and without the worry of being overheard too.
“Did we kill him?” Chris soon began with. “Please tell me he’s just sleeping.”
Riley lowered himself to the floor and placed his head on Re Varin’s chest. “I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. I can’t feel him breathing, though.”
“What about a heartbeat? Do Kilmari’s have hearts? Oh crap, I don’t know what they have.”
“If you’d stop talking for minute, then maybe I can find out.”
Finally, Chris became silent and allowed his brother to listen for something beating inside Re Varin’s body. But after a minute or two Riley had to give up. If the Kilmari did have a heart, then it either beat much quieter than a human’s did or it was not in the same place. That left them with only one conclusion.
“I think he’s dead,” Riley said, sitting up.
“Oh god, we’re murderers, and murderers go to prison.” Chris suddenly stopped, straightened his back out and looked to his older brother with soaking wet eyes. “We’ll be executed for sure, just like they tried to do with the Zombie General on the prison planet.”
“Stop it, Chris, you’re going silly. It was an accident. They won’t do anything to us.”
“But how do you know that?”
Riley’s eyes squinted as he thought over yet another of his schemes, this one the craziest he had ever come up with. “Because, I have a plan.”
“A plan! No more plan’s. A plan is what got us in this mess.”
“Just listen for a minute.” Riley began to walk up and down the room as he thought aloud. “No one knows what happened. They’ll know when Re Varin doesn’t turn up at the negotiations. So, we just need to make them think he is there.”
Chris stopped his crying and wiped his eyes clear of moisture. “What are you saying?”
“Re Varin has to go to that meeting. But, since we can’t tell if he’s even alive right now, I guess that leaves us instead.”
“How are we going to do that? We don’t look anything like a Kilmari person.”
Spinning on the spot to face his brother, Riley answered. “We’re going to pretend to be him. This could be the greatest story in human history; the day two human boys saved the negotiations between our allies.”
The idea didn’t sit right with Chris, who began tearing up again. “Oh, we’re doomed, we’re doomed. That idea is the worst ever. We should tell Mum. She might be able to help, if we just tell her what happened.”
“No, we can’t. We might get her into trouble too. We can handle this, we’re investigative journalists. We’re trained to deal with bad situations.”
“But we’re not trained. We were only playing a game … weren’t we?”
Riley paid no attention to his brother. “If we can get through the first meeting then we’ll have a whole day to figure something else out. Re Varin might even wake up–if we haven’t already killed him. But think about, we’d get the best seat in the house, the best any journalist will get.”
The only reaction Chris could manage was a roll of his eyes. He then knelt beside Re Varin’s head and gently ran his hand over the eyes that had haunted his dreams, to close them out of respect. “Sorry,” he said. When Re Varin’s eyes flicked open again, he leapt back. “Crap.” He tried once more, and yet again they opened up, exposing the yellow eyes to them both. It sent a shiver down Chris’ spine.
“Right,” Riley said, snapping out of his daydream. “Here’s the plan…”
Chris moaned, then sat on the edge of the sofa behind him.
“Please, take a seat, Ambassador,” Audrey said, gesturing to the table taking up the middle of the meeting room and spanning the entire length. So far, she had shown five people to their places, each from the Hazto delegation, who were always a pleasure to deal with.
When Captain Hamilton arrived, she immediately addressed him. “Good morning, Sir. I trust you slept well.”
“As well as can be expected, I suppose. And you?” he replied.
They stood by the double doors and watched while those already inside conversed discreetly. The Hazto were a smartly dressed people, who took pride in how others saw them. They wore suits of varying colours, many of which appeared to have been as well put together as their impressive ships. They were a reasonable race to deal with.
“Any issues with our guests?” Captain Hamilton asked.
“None so far, Sir. The Hazto delegation had some dietary requirements that we hadn’t known about in advance, but they were happy to help us make the necessary changes. They really are the nicest people I think I’ve ever met.”
“Well, get ready for the worst.” Captain Hamilton flashed Audrey a glance to draw her closer. “Have the Kilmari been a problem?”
“We’ve not heard a peep out of them, Sir. They’ve kept themselves to themselves. Can’t say I’m unhappy about that.” Audrey stopped speaking when she noticed another delegate approaching, this one also from the Hazto team. His suit was a single piece of material that clung tightly to his body and revealing every bulge. “Good morning,” she said, trying not to stare too much.
Captain Hamilton shook his head humorously at his second in command. “Careful, your eyes might pop out if you look too long.”
“Sorry, Sir. I wasn’t entirely sure where to look,” Audrey said. “Shall we?”
“Lead the way.”
They joined the six Hazto delegates at the table, taking their seats at the left end. With the Hazto on one side of the table, the Kilmari would have the other to themselves. It had been decided the day before that the Kilmari should be sat nearest the door, as they were the most likely to storm out during the negotiations. They were far more volatile a race than the Hazto after all.
While they waited for the Kilmari delegates to arrive, Audrey took the time to break the ice with the Hazto. “So,” she began nervously. “Were your accommodations satisfactory?”
The leader of the Hazto group, named Shrila, answered through the widest smile Audrey had ever seen. “We have been very comfortable, thank you.” He bowed his head to firm up his gratitude.
“Excellent, excellent.” Audrey ran out of conversation much quicker than she would have liked. The Hazto may have been nice people, but she had no idea what topics of conversation would be acceptable to them. She left it at casual pleasantries instead. There would soon be lots to talk about.
All they needed was for the Kilmari to finally show up.
Captain Hamilton leant in his seat and spoke quietly to his second in command. “The Kilmari are late. Is this some kind of tactic, do you think?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me, Sir. The Kilmari are known for their expert manipulation skills. It’s either that or they’ve gotten lost somewhere on the ship.” She laughed, then considered the possibility. Negotiations would not get far if one of the parties was wandering the engineering deck by accident.
A long, flowing robe swept across the open doorway a moment later, to Audrey’s immense relief. Unfortunately, the Kilmari missed the entrance completely and carried on down the corridor, followed shortly after by two more. The two Kilmari behind the first had to turn their leader around and guide him inside the room.
“Here we go,” Audrey said, standing in readiness. “Good mor…”
The Kilmari in the lead walked straight into the door frame. He straightened himself out quickly and then held out his hand, ready to shake the hand of the person that had greeted him. The person he shook hands with was a little surprised, though, seeing as he was there to serve drinks. Audrey was not even close to where the Kilmari had aimed.
“It is this way, Re Varin,” one of the other Kilmari said.
The leader turned to face his men and waved his finger at them. No words followed at first, there seemed a delay before he said anything. “I order you,” he said. The sentence made little sense, but it came with enough anger to sound exactly like Re Varin.
“Of course, your excellency,” his helper replied, before speaking to the room. “I present to you, Ambassador Re Varin. My name is Ras Toom.”
Captain Hamilton stood and smiled. “And who is your friend here.”
Ras Toom looked to the last remaining Kilmari and then answered, “He is of no concern to you.”
The three Kilmari eventually found where to sit, although one of them struggled to keep himself from tripping on the hem of his robe as he took his seat. He almost fell off it twice before finding a position that worked for him.
This was Captain Hamilton’s moment now. “First, I would like to thank you all for coming to this table today. These negotiations mark a momentous change in relations between our three races. I am confident we will find a peaceful solution today. Now, would anyone like to speak before we begin?”
A Kilmari delegate spoke as soon as Captain Hamilton had finished. He seemed as surprised as everyone else as the words exited his own mouth, which was hidden behind the usual Kilmari mask. “Disturb my slumber, you insult.”
The room fell silent.
“Pay yourself immediately,” the Kilmari went on, to everyone’s shared confusion. He then added, “Boy.”
“What is going on here?” Shrila, The Hazto delegate said. He remained in his seat, as standing would have been far too aggressive an action for someone of his race.
Another of the Kilmari took over, leaving his leader to sit in silence. He looked to his leader as he spoke. “I believe Re Varin is feeling ill. I will speak for him instead, and on behalf of the Kilmari people, I thank you for inviting us.”
Now Audrey knew something was definitely wrong; Kilmari’s never thanked anyone.
As the Kilmari now in charge began to speak of his people’s claim on the small planet in question, the leader stood and pointed back toward the hall. He didn’t speak, just waved at the door and nodded, all while he crept closer to the exit.
Everyone else chose to ignore the strange behaviour.
As soon as Riley had made it back into the hallway–without tripping himself up on Re Varin’s clothing this time–he began to lay into his brother. He pulled his lapel communicator out of the overly large pocket and held it to his mouth.
“Chris, what the heck was that?” he said, pushing Re Varin’s mask aside. “You made Re Varin sound like an idiot. We’re supposed to trick them, not make them think he’s stupid.”
Chris’ voice came back through the communicator sounding strained. “I’m sorry, Riley, I keep pressing the wrong buttons.” He was back in Re Varin’s room and trying desperately to operate Riley’s handheld device. “We only have a few different things we can say. We should have recorded more phrases.”
“We recorded enough to make some sense. Maybe we should swap places, and you could pretend to be Re Varin?”
“No, no, no,” Chris protested. “I’m not tall enough to wear that robe thingy. It’s got to be you. I’ll just try and pick better sentences.”
“Okay, I’m going back inside then. If they think Re Varin is sick then they shouldn’t ask him anything. We can get through this without speaking at all. I’ll try and make notes for my report.”
“Good luck,” Chris added at the last moment.
Riley then pushed through the double doors and quietly stepped into the room. He arrived just as the two sides were beginning to lose their tempers with each other. This would work in his favour, because they were less likely to have noticed his very odd behaviour.
He sat as the two Kilmari delegates stood suddenly.
“This is preposterous,” one of them said. “I refuse to listen to any more of this nonsense.”
Captain Hamilton tried his best to interrupt. “Please, Ras Toom, calm yourself.”
“Yes, there is no need to become enraged.” Shrila, as usual, was hiding his annoyance with his more emotional counterparts.
“Really?” Ras Toom was having none of it. “You humans are taking the Hazto’s side once again. How can you sit there and tell us that we have no claim on the planet? Why don’t you go back to your blue world and leave the negotiations to us?”
Riley felt a little out of sorts sitting in his seat while the two Kilmari’s beside him stood and argued their side. But he chose not to stand, just in case they wanted him to join in. The only problem was, he was making Re Varin look weak by not speaking. His dilemma kept him quiet for the time being.
Shrila finally had heard enough to make him react with a slight change in his tone. “The last time we tried to negotiate with your people, you had the Hazto representatives arrested and imprisoned.”
By removing his mask and exposing his face, Ras Toom demonstrated his feelings clearly. He hissed, while his chin sacs rattled in anger. “They were spies. We dealt with them accordingly.” His yellow eyes stared straight into Shrila’s.
The Hazto representative turned his attention elsewhere, while Ras Toom found his composure again and replaced his mask. “And what about you, Re Varin?” Shrila said. “Do you condone such an aggressive action?”
Ah crap, Riley thought as everyone in the room looked to him. He just hoped Chris could make a sentence out of the recordings they had, and that it made some form of sense too.
“You dare insult me?” The words came through Riley’s lapel communicator loud and clear, he only had to act as if he was speaking to trick those around him. He pointed his gloved finger at Shrila. “Show me out, immediately.” Nice one, Chris, end the meeting before they notice what’s going on.
“I agree,” Ras Toom said, leaving the table a moment later.
As the three Kilmari’s walked toward the door, Audrey pleaded with them to stay. “There is so much we still have left to discuss. Please, don’t give up on the negotiations.”
Ras Toom stopped after opening the door for his colleagues and looked back to the table. “We will continue again this evening, when you are more willing to listen.”
“You will pay,” Riley’s communicator said. Woah, Chris, don’t get them angry again.
After that the three Kilmari’s left the room. In their wake, there was an uncomfortable silence that suggested the other side had wanted a break too. Riley followed as the other Kilmari headed back toward the turbo-lifts.
Ras Toom spoke while they walked. He had a fierceness to his voice that scared Riley a little. “This was always going to be a waste of time,” he said. “The humans cannot be trusted. We should not bother with them anymore. We should carry out our original plan, the one you came up with, Re Varin. The Hazto/Human alliance must be destroyed.”
“Immediately,” Riley’s communicator said.
As with most of Riley’s responses, it elicited an unexpected look from Ras Toom. They were getting close to being discovered. It was time to get away from the other Kilmari. But as he went to deviate around a corner and slip away quietly, Ras Toom took him by the left arm and stopped him in his tracks.
“Please tell me, where is the rage you’ve held in your belly for these past few months? Are you having doubts? Do you believe we will find a solution through peaceful means? Well, speak, Re Varin.”
There was no reply, Chris was struggling to find one that worked again. Instead Riley could only shrug his shoulders.
“What has happened to you, Re Varin? Since we arrived you have hardly spoken,” Ras Toom said, letting Riley’s arm go. “Perhaps you would like to join me for a drink in my quarters? We should discuss our plan in private.”
“I will slumber.” The reply made Riley shake his head in disagreement with his own words. He waved his hands too.
“Well, which is it, do you wish to sleep or not?”
“Immediately.” Again, Riley shook his head.
“I do not understand.”
There was something Riley needed to sort out quickly, but he could hardly do it in front of the others. So, he held his stomach and pretended to feel ill. It gave him the chance to step away, far enough that he could talk to Chris. He let the other Kilmari call the lift as they waited for him to return.
“Chris, listen to me,” Riley whispered, his mask turned away from the lift.
“Did I do it wrong again?” Chris answered.
“No, you’re doing fine. But I think we should go with Ras Toom.”
“That’s a crazy idea, Riley. What if they figure out what’s going on?”
Riley looked to Ras Toom, who had taken to watching everything he did. He turned to the side and continued his conversation as the lift arrived. “They won’t. Look, they said they’ve got another plan, one to destroy the Hazto/Human alliance. I think they’re going to do something terrible. I want to find out what it is.”
“Oh, Riley, we’re going to get into so much trouble for this.”
“Just stay calm.”
Ras Toom called to him from the lift. “Let us return to my quarters, Re Varin.”
With a nod to agree, Riley then entered the lift behind the others and was taken to the guest quarters level. On the correct floor, they exited the lift and walked towards Re Varin’s room. Riley felt himself sweating as they neared the room where Chris was still hiding. He prepared himself to leap in front of the door to keep them out. If they found the real Re Varin sprawled out on the floor naked, then things would get very bad, very fast.
Thankfully, Ras Toom continued passed the room and stopped outside his own. He opened the door and ushered Riley inside. With his arm across the entrance he prevented the last Kilmari from entering; this meeting was just between the two of them.
“We will summon you when it is time,” Ras Toom said, before closing the door behind him.
Riley found the room a bit stuffy for his liking. Incense candles were burning in each corner of the room, sending tall trails of smoke up to the ceiling. The smell reminded him of the sea, with a hint of saltiness he quite liked. It was far too strong, though, and caused his nose to become aggravated.
“Please, sit.” Ras Toom walked over to a small table in the corner, where his computer was already on and displaying a diagram of something.
Taking the seat closest to him, Riley tried his best to look natural. He was careful not to get close enough for Ras Toom to see his very human eyes behind the mask.
“Here are the schematics of the Moribus that you asked for.”
A long sheet of paper was rolled out in front of Riley showing the layout of the ship he’d called home for many years. The diagram showed every vital part of the ship, from the engines to the life-support system. But all the focus of Ras Toom’s scribbled notes–in a language Riley could not recognise–was around one area of the Moribus. Something had been drawn in place of the ship’s main reactor.
As Ras Toom took the seat opposite, Riley leant forward and studied the schematics in detail. He knew it spelled danger for his ship, but he had no idea in what form; was it a bomb or sabotage? He had to find out. Even if that meant using his own voice.
“What’s that?” he said in a muffled voice, at a very low volume too.
Ras Toom sighed. “You must forgive my messy presentation.” He ran his hand over the sheet to flatten it out. “As you requested, I have planted the explosive device just here, behind the main reactor.” He pointed to the position on the schematic. “It is a Hazto device, so the humans will suspect them and not us. This will end the humans’ interference and they will blame the Hazto. After that we will take the planet for ourselves, instead of wasting time with talk.”
Clearing his throat as he spoke, Riley asked, “What about the Moribus?”
“It will undoubtedly be destroyed, but casualties will be minimal. We will evacuate the ship with everyone else, and they will never know it was us.” Ras Toom stopped speaking and became interested in his leader’s lack of reaction to the plan. There was concern in his eyes, and probably on his face too. “You must be ill, Re Varin. I have never seen you so quiet before. What is wrong?”
Riley kept his mouth shut and was thankful to find Chris had not chosen now to make him speak in Re Varin’s voice again. He lowered his face when he saw he was being watched more closely than before. His silence was drawing even more unwanted attention. But he dared not speak, he dared not breath either.
Eventually he found he had to move, only not for the reason he wanted. The strong smell in the room had been wafting passed his face and tickling his nose with the faint scent of the sea. Now it was threatening to make him sneeze.
Ras Toom was becoming visibly agitated by the realisation that things were not as he thought. He slowly reached a hand toward, who he had believed, was his leader. He reached closer, until he could touch the hood of the robe and pull it down.
Of course, by this point, Riley was about ready to eject the contents of his face across the room. He let rip with an almighty sneeze, sending Re Varin’s mask hurtling to the floor and the hood flying backward in one extravagant motion. In one move he revealed his true identity and covered Ras Toom in mucus.
Understandably bemused by the sight, Ras Toom sat frozen in place, his wide eyes not sure where to look first. What he saw soon made him mad. Mad enough to grab at Riley’s shoulders and hold him there, as though making absolutely sure of what he was looking at.
“A human child,” Ras Toom said, utterly shocked and disturbed. “Where is Re Varin? What have you humans done to him? Answer me, Boy.”
“I … I … I’m sorry,” was all Riley could say in reply.
“You will pay for this deception, Human. To guarantee your silence, I will take your life. But first, tell me where my commander is?”
“I … I mean we…” Riley stared into Ras Toom’s eyes and became fearful of the anger that resided behind them. Where before they were yellow, now he swore he could see a little red in them too. “Help.”
“Help? No one is coming to help you, Boy. Now, answer my question or I’ll slit your throat.” Ras Toom’s grip tightened as his prisoner squirmed.
Chris burst through the door of Re Varin’s room, tears running down his face and snot dripping from the tip of his nose. He raced down the corridor, away from Ras Toom’s quarters and straight toward the turbo-lift. His intention was to find help. He knew he could do nothing for his brother by himself. The time had come to tell their mother.
He crashed into the lift as it arrived and slapped the button for the correct level, where he hoped his mother was still at the negotiation table. If she was not there then her duties as second in command of the Moribus could put her anywhere on the ship. That would be no good for him. He needed her now.
The lift arrived and Chris departed at speed, or at least as fast as his small legs could move. He took each corner like a sprinter leaning into a bend. A couple of times he had to skid on his knees to get passed those walking in his way. By the time he reached the meeting room, he was exhausted.
His mother spotted him arrive, out of breath and red in the face, and instantly ran over to meet him.
“Chris, what’s the matter? Where’s your brother?” she asked. If not for his panicked state she would certainly have scolded him for not staying in their quarters; they were supposed to be grounded, after all.
“Riley … trouble…” He filled his chest with air before he continued each time. At this rate, he was managing one word per breath. “Re Varin … hurt … need … help…”
Audrey lowered herself so she was at Chris’ height and held him by his shoulders–a technique she always used to get Chris’ full attention. “Take another breath and calm down.” She made him copy her as she slowed her breathing, until they were both in perfect sync. “Now, start from the beginning. What’s been going on?”
“We and Riley played a trick on Re Varin, because he was horrible about humans.”
“You’re kidding? Go on.”
“And it went wrong. Re Varin isn’t moving, but we think he’s still alive. So, Riley pretended to be Re Varin at the meeting.”
“You mean that was Riley at the negotiation table, and not Re Varin?” Audrey closed her eyes briefly and then refocused on her son. “What happened next?”
Chris was starting to cry now. It was a relief to confess, but Riley urgently needed help. “Ras Toom took Riley to his room and told him about their plan. He thought Riley was Re Varin still. He told Riley that there is a bomb on the reactor. The Kilmari are trying to make it look like the Hazto are behind it, but they’re not. Now he’s threatening to hurt Riley.”
That was all Audrey needed to hear. She took Chris’ hand and led him out the room. Along the corridor, they passed an armed security guard, who carried a hand weapon for the meeting. She grabbed the weapon and ordered the guard to gather together more men. She also spoke into her lapel communicator as she and Chris headed for the lifts.
“This is Commander Audrey Bomer requesting a security team to Ras Toom’s room. Inform the Captain too,” she said.
“Please, don’t hurt me.” Riley was standing behind the sofa now and trying hard to keep himself away from Ras Toom’s blade.
“So, you thought you could trick us all? Tell me, what was the humans’ plan here? Were you going to kill us before we could kill you?” Ras Toom said. He jabbed his blade in Riley’s direction. “Come here, Boy. I’ll make it quick.”
They both ran around the sofa like they played a game of musical chairs. Only the loser was to get a pointy surprise at the end, if they were too slow. When it became too much of a pain for Ras Toom to keep up, he lunged forward and stuck his knife into the bottom of Riley’s robe.
The material tightened suddenly, snapping Riley backwards. He landed on the floor and became entangled in a ruffled mess. Somewhere inside the dark covering was a way out, a hole he could crawl through and make his escape. He clawed at the floor and dragged himself forward until he could feel his way to freedom.
When he’d made it out, he ran in the direction he hoped would take him to safety. Instead he ran headfirst into Ras Toom, who had no idea what was going on. The impact knocked the knife out of Ras Toom’s hand and sent it halfway across the room.
“I see you are a well-trained fighter, little one. Are you a child assassin, like all Kilmari children?”
“No,” Riley said, regaining his composure. “I’m an investigative journalist!”
“Whatever you are, you will not be a threat to me any longer.” Ras Toom pulled a small firearm out of his pocket and took aim.
Riley stood still, closed his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. He expected a loud pop to follow, but that was all he could think of. He hadn’t seen any violent movies, so his only reference came from his favourite read; Zombie General. The worst he saw in that would not compare to the truth of a gunshot.
Although, after a second or two to contemplate what being shot might feel like, he realised nothing had happened. He remained still, with all sound blocked out by his stubby fingers jammed tightly into his ears, and waited. There had to be something going on, he decided.
He opened his eyes and was surprised to see his brother standing in the open doorway and smiling proudly. After that, he spotted his mother kneeling down on Ras Toom’s struggling body. She had overpowered him and pinned him to the floor, and all without knocking a single one of her hairs out of place.
Chris was saying something, but Riley still had his fingers in his ears. He took them out and listened.
“You did it, Riley. You stopped them.”
Audrey was next to speak. “You both did. I can’t say I’m happy to have you two getting involved in something like this. But if not for you, we would be in serious trouble.”
“Did they stop the bomb?” Riley asked.
His mother nodded. “They did indeed.” She dragged Ras Toom to his feet and handed him to the security guards waiting in the corridor. “Take him to the brig. Someone needs to notify the Hazto delegates too. They should know what happened here today.”
The guards hauled Ras Toom away, his arms hooked behind his back and his body bent over. As he disappeared down the corridor he called back to Riley. “Mark my words, Boy. This is not over. You have made an enemy of the Kilmari here to…”
“Ah shut up,” one of the security guards interrupted with.
Audrey joined Riley and drew him close for a rib-crushing hug. She reached for Chris too; he wasn’t going to escape the embrace. “Promise me, you won’t ever do that to me again. I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to either of you.”
“We’re sorry, Mum,” Chris said. “We won’t do it again.”
Riley snorted loudly. “I won’t promise that.”
“Why not?” Audrey asked.
“Because it can be dangerous being an investigative journalist.” Riley leant away from his mother and showed her his cheeky smile. “Kidding.”
Audrey huffed. “Come here,” she said, pulling him closer for another hug.
Riley and Chris stood proudly to attention in front of the negotiating table, with their mother behind them. They had been called before Captain Hamilton and the Hazto delegates, all of whom were talking among themselves. While the others were deep in discussion, the two boys waited patiently to be addressed.
When Chris went to wipe his nose on his sleeve, Audrey stopped him. “Use a tissue,” she whispered.
“Yeah, snotbag,” Riley said with a chuckle.
Chris kicked his brother in return, a move which caused the Captain to raise an eyebrow.
Once the conversation had come to an end, Shrila, the lead Hazto delegate, stood and immediately bowed for the two boys. “You have my most heart-felt of thanks for what you have done for us today.”
The comment made Chris stand taller than he had ever managed before, like he had gained an extra few inches in height. He puffed out his chest and raised his chin as the praise continued.
“If not for your bravery, the Kilmari would have caused a devastating amount of damage to your ship and our peaceful relations. Because of your help, we now know that the Kilmari can never be trusted. But more importantly, the Kilmari have been taught an important lesson here today; that we will not tolerate their deception and manipulation any longer.”
The rest of the Hazto delegates all stood and made their way around the table to Riley and Chris. Each of them, beginning with Shrila, shook hands with them and bowed in respect. One even gave them both a kiss on the cheek–they guessed that one was a female, although they looked exactly alike.
After that it was Captain Hamilton’s turn. With the Hazto on their way to the airlock, where they would depart for home, it was time for a more formal thanks. He stopped by a small table in the corner of the room and picked up a wooden case, which he then took back to the table.
Riley and Chris watched with wonder as their Captain produced two small medals.
“These,” Captain Hamilton began, “are only awarded to the bravest of crewmembers. To be giving one to two civilian children is not only unusual, it is unprecedented. But I absolutely agree that you deserve this honour. There is a career aboard this ship for you both, when you are old enough.” He attached a medal to each of the boys’ shirts.
“What do you say, boys?” Audrey said, gently nudging her sons.
They replied together, and with the exact same tone too. “Thank you, Captain Hamilton.”
“Junior,” Riley added with a smirk.
Before the Captain could say anything in reply, Chris had a question he needed answering. “What about Re Varin? Is he…?”
“Don’t worry, he isn’t dead,” Audrey said. “The Kilmari hibernate twice a year and can survive in low energy states. After your prank, he fell into a deep sleep. He was breathing, but very, very slowly. He’ll be dealt with too, when he finally wakes up.”
“Now, is there anything else?” Captain Hamilton went to leave, but Riley prevented him by raising his hand to ask a question of his own. “Yes, what is it?”
With his handheld device ready and recording, Riley began the interview. “Today, two human boys saved the Moribus and negotiations between the Hazto and Kilmari. Do you have a quote for our readers about that, Captain Hamilton?”
“What’s going on?”
Audrey had to explain it to him. “I forgot to say, Riley and Chris want to be reporters now.”
“Oh, I see. Well then, let me just think about the question for a moment.”
“Can we take your picture too?” Chris asked.
“Absolutely.” Captain Hamilton took a pose half sitting on the edge of the table. “How’s this?”
“Great.” Chris then pressed a button on his own small device and waited for the click. “Our readers will love it.”