Of all the things ten-year-old Cory Wilson expects to do when he moves to Midway Space Station, saving aliens from humans isn’t one.
An important conference is about to start at the station, not usually the sort of thing kids care about, not even when the conference is between humans and aliens, and half your family is alien. However, when bullies tease Cory, he ends up in a prohibited area where he overhears some men planning to plant a bomb at the conference.
Because the terrorists hide their messages in computer games, no one believes Cory, not even his father, the station director. Kids at school think he’s crazy, some even think aliens should be bombed.
The conference starts, the aliens have brought a very important person, and Cory’s teacher, one of the terrorists, locks Cory in the classroom.
Can he get out in time? If he does, will anyone listen?
Cory ran, clutching the flapping sides of his uncomfortable jacket. The flower pinned to his breast pocket hung askew. Up the stairs between the townhouses, across the road to the park.
How could his father be so silly to leave the wedding rings on the kitchen table?
Panting, he stopped at the security checkpoint. Many people already waited, seated in rows on the slope between the road and the lake. Part of the lawn had been fenced off with posts and white ribbon. Small signs saying Private Function flapped in the breeze.
A security guard passed a metal detector over Cory’s back and sides. He patted the jacket’s pocket. ‘Excuse me, you have a metal object in here?’
Cory took out the box. ‘Just the rings.’
The guard’s face cleared. ‘Ah, you’re John Wilson’s son.’ He stepped aside.
Cory padded down the red carpet, which felt kind of springy because the grass on this side of the lake was really thick.
Wow, he didn’t know his father knew so many people. There was the director of the Space Training facility. In the second row from the back sat their doctor, and there was Mr Symonds, Cory’s teacher–
Garreth waved at him from between his parents. Cory wished he could sit next to his friend, but his father waited in the front row of seats. ‘Got the rings, son?’
Cory held up the box.
His father gave a sheepish grin, making the skin around his eyes crinkle. He put an arm around Cory’s shoulder. ‘I’m lucky to have you. I’ll be lucky to have both of you. I love you, Cory.’
Cory didn’t meet his father’s eyes.
His father’s left hand was bare; he had taken off his other wedding ring, the one that had his mother’s name inside.
In the past two weeks she had barely left his thoughts. His mother sitting in the garden, a blanket over her knees. His mother in the kitchen, seated on her high stool, cutting vegetables. His mother, hollow-cheeked and giving a weak smile, in her hospital bed. Somewhere in the room behind him, a nurse was lighting the eight candles on Cory’s birthday cake. He remembered the smell of the burning match. He remembered staring at his mother’s bone-thin hands while the nurses sang Happy Birthday. Those hands were holding a present, but trembled too much to give it to him. Those hands he had touched for the last time three weeks later, the skin cold.
That was only two years ago.
Driving home from the funeral, his father had allowed Cory to sit in the front seat for the first time. He had said, ‘You’re a man now, and life will be about the two of us.’
Two weeks ago, his father had told him that he would marry Erith before they were to leave for Midway Space Station. As if his father had already forgotten his mother, forgotten the words he had spoken during that drive.
The hum of an electric motor drifted over the crowd.
‘Ah, there she is.’ His father sprang to his feet. Cory rubbed the warm spot his father’s hand had left on his shoulder.
Security guards swarmed around a black car that had stopped on the road. Both doors opened.
Harvey McIntosh scrambled from the front passenger seat. Even though he was their neighbour, and his father’s friend, Cory had never seen him in a black suit, with a flower at his breast, his wild mop of blond hair flattened down.
A pair of feet emerged from the back seat, clad in high-heeled sandals, and with toes so long they carried several silver rings. The frills of a silvery dress swished around long legs, the skin slightly grey.
Erith rose from the car, took Harvey’s outstretched arm, her hand slender with the thumb, index finger and middle finger much longer than the others. A spray of white flowers contrasted with her black curls. From under her heavy brow, her eyes rested on Cory’s father, eyes like a tiger–yellow with a black rim; she was a tiger, sneaking up on him like this. A tiger who had hypnotised his father.
The violins launched into a solemn tune.
Harvey led her down the aisle in slow steps.
Cory wished he could stop them. By tonight, she would have moved into his house, an ethie – Extra-Terrestrial Humanoid–an alien, making comments on everything he did, talking about nothing except his school work. His father had explained how study was very important in her world, but that didn’t make her sound any less like his teachers. She would never replace his mother, never, never.
He fiddled with the box on his lap, and started when Harvey McIntosh sank down on the empty seat next to him, spreading a smell of hair gel. Harvey’s blue eyes met Cory’s, and without a word, he put a hand on Cory’s knee. Cory looked away. A lump rose in his throat.
Were you allowed to hate your father’s new wife? He thought not. He pushed the thought away, because it would do him no good. His father would be angry and would call him selfish, and Erith would still stay, and she would be angry, too, as well as picking on his school work.
The celebrant climbed the few steps to the podium, adjusting his microphone. ‘Friends, we have gathered here today for this extraordinary event: the joining of one man and a woman. This marriage is all the more special because it joins cultures and worlds. It extends the hand of peace across the universe. In this day and age, peace is a valuable thing. Come forward, my friends who take this courageous step.’
Cory’s father climbed the podium, leading Erith by the hand.
A few people on the other side of the aisle started clapping, and the wave of applause spread throughout the audience.
His legs trembling, Cory rose from his seat. The box with the rings lay heavy in his hands. He shuffled forward, his mind fighting his feet every step of the way. He didn’t want this to happen, he didn’t want to be here, he wanted his father back. He wanted his father to stop listening to every word she said, he wanted them to stop holding hands–
The marriage celebrant continued, ‘When John came to me two weeks ago, I knew him only through his reputation at the Space Training Centre, in training for the position as youngest ever director of the Midway Space Station. I knew John as someone driven by his work. It turns out I only knew part of him. In John’s heart, there is a place for everyone, there is a place for peace–’
‘There will be no peace as long as ethie scum walk the surface of the Earth!’ A rough voice shouted at the back of the audience. Cory whirled around, but he only saw a raised fist. ‘No peace. No negotiations. Not here, or on Midway. No peace between Earth and the Union. Ever! Death to the ethie scum!’
Someone yelled, ‘He’s got a gun!’
Next thing, Cory was on the ground, his nose in the carpet and Harvey’s jacket over him. A thought slipped from that part of his mind where he kept things you weren’t supposed to say. I hope he shoots her.
That was so horrible it chilled him. He remembered his father’s face as he stood, for what seemed forever, looking at his mother’s unmoving face in the coffin, flowers clutched in a white-knuckled hand. He remembered tears running down his father’s contorted face and Uncle Peter having to force his father to come with the rest of the family. He never, ever wanted to see his father like that again.
There was shouting and screaming, the clanging of chairs and thudding footsteps, but nothing happened and Harvey released him. Cory pushed himself up.
A group of security guards pushed a man up to the road, his wrists bound. Cory had never seen him before.
At the podium, his father held Erith tightly. The marriage celebrant scrambled from behind a chair abandoned by the violin players, his face pale. The sound system rustled and squeaked when he hoisted his microphone back up. ‘Do you want to move the ceremony inside?’
His father took Erith’s hand and stepped onto the podium. People applauded. He shouted, ‘I won’t back down. I am a free man. Erith is a free woman. We believe in progress. Continue.’
* * *
Harvey McIntosh faced Cory on the dark porch. A lamp cast a pool of bluish light on the pavement. In the playground outside the unit’s entrance, tangled shadows of a bench and a swing looked like a huge spider’s web.
Faint light came from the doorway, where they had left his father and Erith at the candle-lit table in the living room, gazing into each other’s eyes.
‘Are you sure you’re all right, Cory? You have been very quiet today,’ Harvey said.
Cory nodded, but a lump formed in his throat. All day, people had congratulated him with his father’s marriage. He had smiled and wondered congratulations with what? Having his house invaded by a woman who two weeks ago he didn’t even know his father liked?
Harvey passed an arm over his shoulders. ‘It’s all right. We were all shaken by that man.’
Harvey didn’t understand either; Harvey couldn’t understand all the wrong thoughts in Cory’s mind. For a split second he had hoped the man would shoot Erith. ‘Did he really have a gun?’
Harvey shook his head. ‘He couldn’t have, with all those security guards.’ He sighed. ‘But still . . . the fact that he got in at all . . . The guards were supposed to check invitations.’
‘Was he from the same people who attacked the assembly last year? The Earth Front?’ Cory often wondered what Harvey had seen when the bomb went off in the assembly hall. He had asked, but Harvey had never answered that question.
‘Who knows? There are many lunatics out there who don’t want Earth to talk to the Union, and who think people like Erith are animals.’
No, Cory didn’t ethies were animals; he just didn’t like having one of them in his house. That was different, wasn’t it?
Harvey clapped him on the shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t worry too much about those idiots. Hey, you’ll be off the day after tomorrow.’
Cory smiled; he did look forward to going into space; he and his father had prepared for it for a year.
The smile must have come out wrong, because Harvey ruffled his hair. ‘Cory, I know what you’re feeling. My parents divorced when I was little and my mother re-married. For a long time, I hated my new father.’
‘Was he an alien, too?’ The words came out far too nasty. Alien was a bad word to use for people like Erith. He mumbled, ‘I’m sorry.’
Harvey shook his head. ‘No, I am sorry. I don’t know what I’m talking about. No, of course we were not a cross-species family. You and your father are pioneers.’
Cory shrugged. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a pioneer.
‘Anyway, I’ll see you again at Midway.’
‘Are you coming on the Venture as well?’
‘I’ll be on the next passenger ship. The next Earth-Union conference will be held at Midway. I’m one of the delegates.’
‘You mean the same conference where all the people were killed?’
He still remembered how he and his classmates had been locked up in school until after dark, until security had made sure no anti-Union terrorists remained in the Nations of Earth compound. He still remembered how the teacher had cried. Everyone at school had known at least one of the dead. Seven children had lost a parent.
Harvey nodded. ‘Nations of Earth assembly has decided to have the conference at Midway instead. It’s safer, easier to protect. This conference is really important, Cory. It will be interesting for you as well.’ He winked. ‘I better let you get to bed.’
‘Good night.’ Cory remained on the porch while Harvey crossed the playground to the next porch, jingling his keys. The door opened, light blinked on, showing Harvey’s collection of African statues in the hall, and then the door shut again.
Cory leaned against the wall. A faint glow radiated from the open door behind him. He couldn’t hear voices. Did that mean his father and Erith had gone to bed? Or worse, were kissing each other?
He wanted to stay out here, but he was getting cold.
A piece of paper hung from the opening of the letterbox. Half-interested, he pulled it out and unfolded it.
Bold print read, You consort with the devil. Don’t think you are safe. Wherever you go, we will follow.