The glowing silver road beneath Orion’s feet was so smooth that he could almost slide from his home in Upper Thrace to the Lancer city hall. It was something he had attempted many times as a young child but, at the age of eleven, he forced himself to act like an adult. Winter was fast approaching and the evening air had a chill to it. The ground usually pulsed with a heat to accompany the ambient glow of light, but things like that had been failing lately. Blackouts were a common occurrence and, a few days earlier, the network of cars constantly whizzing by at break-neck speed had come to a shuddering halt. Lancer didn’t hum quite like it used to.
Orion hugged his coat tighter around him and silently cursed Mother for sending him for groceries. Why is it always me?
He glanced around quickly but no-one spared him a look. He forced himself to calm down; the ectos were a clever breed but they couldn’t read minds. Still, he kept his eyes firmly away from the cages hanging in the distance. Their presence alone was enough to remind him how rebels were treated.
“They think they’re better than us, Ry,” came the quiet voice of Damon Harket.
“Shut up!” Orion whispered, harshly. “Don’t you remember what happened to Kia?”
He wouldn’t normally have been quite so tense, but, just last week, Kia LeFir had been sent to the tree for shouting at her Mother in public. Ry was sure that his Mother would never let that happen to him, she loved him after all, but he was equally sure that he couldn’t rely on the mercy of the justices.
A glance at the younger boy next to him reminded him how lucky he was. Damon was shivering in a thin t-shirt, a couple of sizes too big, and some fine-worn trousers, his teeth chattering manically while he stamped the ground in annoyance.
“I don’t care,” Damon responded, belligerently, though he too was whispering. “It’s not fair.”
It’s how it’s always been, you know that. The humans do the work and the ectos protect us from the coldsuits.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Ry’s reply caught in his throat as the world around them changed. He blinked his eyes to clear them, before realising they weren’t the problem – it was the lights. The soft glow beneath them and the bright orbs that hung above had disappeared without warning.
His heart quickened and he looked over to see the same fear clear on Damon’s face. Then the siren rang out.
The analogue drone seemed off in such a modern city. It meant that something was very wrong. Ry looked up to see the grey sky shimmering as the last of the city shield melted away, leaving them exposed to the horrors that lay beyond. That was when he lost what little composure remained to him. He and Damon turned together and ran.
He was only vaguely aware of other humans doing the same thing. Kids who had barely started school, lanky teenagers and even old Mrs Lucas, in her fifties, fled for the safety of home, while the ecto justices appeared in their hundreds, as if from nowhere. Ry and Damon reached the corner of Main Street together and split without a second glance. Damon skidded to the left while Orion had to spin around an onrushing man as he headed right.
Light spatters of rain came down, threatening to pour, as he turned on to his own street, breathing sharply. He had just about drawn level with his house when the city sprung suddenly back to life. The lights woke from their sleep without a flicker; the city shield erupted from the ground, spreading into a glorious dome, and Ry found himself suddenly alone on his small street. Alone, except for the monster.
The coldsuit was black, as it always was in the stories, and almost human in shape, but several inches taller than any human Ry had ever met. Its skin shimmered like leather in the fresh light and its demonic eyes, each made up of seven blue dots, glowed brightly. Orion stood frozen, every breath a deafening rattle as it crouched by the side of Mrs Vax’s house, its eyes scanning all around until they landed on a young boy of eleven.
Orion held the terrible stare for a few seconds, locked in place by some overwhelming force. It took everything he had to break the spell and run the few yards left to his house. The sounds of the door slamming behind him and the marching of the justices in the distance were the only things that kept him from collapsing in fear.
His Mother came rushing into the room and Ry smiled at her. The pale blue of her skin was calming and her narrow pupils were full of worry and none of the icy sadism of the coldsuit’s. She opened her long arms and he rushed into them, wrapping his own around her slender torso and feeling her scaly hands caress his neck lovingly.
“I saw it, Mother. I saw the coldsuit,” he whispered, as if it was a terrible secret. That he would be hunted for merely laying eyes on the creature.
“It’s ok, dear,” Mother’s voice hissed. “You’re safe now.”
“I heard, if you see a coldsuit, it will come for you that night and take you away.”
Ry knew that he was safe as could be, locked up tight at home, his brother was just trying to scare him. The only problem was that he was succeeding. Yuna’s dark green skin had begun lightening lately, and it wouldn’t be long before it became the same pale blue as his mum’s. Then it would darken again to the midnight of a fully grown male ecto.
With his new skin came arrogance, though. Orion still loved his brother but he was making it hard at times. They were the same age, but Yuna was ordering him around like he was the justice commander.
“They might only take humans, but the coldsuits still kill ectos. If I’m in danger, then so are you and Venu.”
It wasn’t fair to include their younger brother, he was half their age, and Ry regretted it immediately as Venu started bawling loudly.
“Take that back, human!” Yuna shouted.
Ry had been about to take it back, but the way Yuna had spat out the word human made the blood boil beneath his skin. “No!” he shouted back. “It’s the truth. You better sleep with one eye open tonight, or you might miss it climbing in your bedroom window.”
Venu was crying louder than ever now and Yuna looked an acid mix of shocked and furious. He took one step forwards and backhanded Orion across the face. His cheek stung and his eyes teared up, but he was in no mood to lie down. He tackled the young ecto to the floor.
They were about the same size and Ry had taken Yuna completely by surprise. They wrestled for dominance, clawing at whatever they could reach and fighting to get on top. In the end it was Orion that won out, pinning his brother’s arms to the floor, his weight pressed down heavily and a satisfied smile on his face.
“Get off,” Yuna growled, but Orion was not about to give up his position that easily. “I command you to get off!”
Ry’s smile fell off his face like a boat slipping off a waterfall. It took him a few seconds of staring down at the righteous anger on his brother’s face, before his behaviour lessons came back to him and he remembered the consequences of disobeying a worded command. He rolled off Yuna and to his feet, vaguely aware that Venu had stopped crying. No one in his family had ever given Ry a direct command before.
“I command you to stand still, arms by your side,” his brother spoke again, fury still clear in his voice. Orion did as he was told, unable to look either of his brothers in the eyes. He felt the fist ram into his stomach, though, and doubled over in pain, trying to catch his breath. “That’s what you get when you attack an ecto. You’re lucky that I love you, otherwise I’d give you straight to the justices.”
Ry dropped to his knees, tears welling up, as Yuna strolled out of the room. He stayed like that for several moments before he met his younger brother’s eyes. Venu didn’t seem to know what to do; he merely stood there staring at him. Ry could only take the gaze for a couple of seconds before it became too much and he looked away. He did his best to compose himself and walked with his head held high to his bedroom.
He had planned on lying on his bed, wallowing in self-pity, but he found that even his own bedroom felt too small, too close to Yuna and the shame. So he walked straight to his window and flipped the old-fashioned catch. It sprung open and the window swung on its hinges.
The cold night air cut through him once more as he climbed onto the sill and dropped silently to the floor. He felt a sudden need to be with someone who might understand, to be with a human. The walk to Damon’s house normally took less than five minutes, but the constant ducking into the shadows behind houses and bushes to avoid the patrols more than tripled that time. The night held the smell of the earlier shower and the temperature had dropped a couple of degrees.
Ry was breathing heavily when his friend’s house finally came into view. He knew something was wrong immediately. It wasn’t that there were justices around the house, there were justices everywhere, it was the way they were acting. They were not on guard, scanning every inch of the city for the coldsuit, nor did they have their weapons drawn. Instead they had the air of official business about them as they spoke to Damon’s mother, outside her front door.
Ry skulked forwards another ten yards or so, perching just in front of a house so that, if an ecto were to glance his way, he might assume that the glow of a warm body was coming from inside. He arrived in time to see another ecto disembark from a sleek silver van – not a justice this time, but definitely someone in an official position.
The two rear doors slid silently apart automatically as the ecto approached, and two justices stepped forwards to haul something out of the back – a plain, navy blue bag with a zip running down the full length. It was a bag just about large enough to hold a ten year old boy. Ry had seen the bag before – when they had cut Kia down from the tree and shortly after his year 3 history teacher, Mrs Daly, had started shouted nonsenses. So he didn’t need to watch as the justices laid the bag gently on the ground and the official-looking ecto unzipped it. He still did though. There was a big part of him that was sure it wasn’t so; the same selfish part that prayed that it was someone else’s friend and not his. His stomach still dropped when he saw the pale visage of Damon, lying peacefully still, as the living boy never had. Damon’s mother gave the boy the merest glance and nodded her head sharply.
He should have been crying, wailing and sobbing like an infant; he had just witnessed the dead form of his best friend. Instead he felt like someone had reached into his brain and flipped the switch labelled emotions. He willed himself to process the news, to realise that he would never talk to his friend again, but nothing would come. He didn’t even blink when a justice looked him square in the eyes. He didn’t run or hide; he just stood stock still while the ecto grabbed him round the scruff of the neck.
The walk back home was a slow and torturous one and the ecto kept a firm grip on him the entire way. Making a run for it did briefly occur to Ry, when his sense of self-preservation finally achieved dominance over his grief, but it would do no good, even if he could wriggle his way out of the iron grasp. He was pretty sure that Damon’s mother had seen him and, if she didn’t take steps to protect her own son, then he could hardly believe she would lift a finger to help him. Instead, he muttered half-formed excuses that mother had sent him out on an errand, vagueness his only hope until his mind returned to him.
It was only when his front door came into view that Ry realised that the long walk back wasn’t long enough, and the knot in his stomach was pulled even tighter. The door opened only a few seconds after the justice’s firm knock and the surprised face of his Mother greeted them. It took only a glance towards the justice and then to Ry for a semblance of realisation to dawn in her eyes. “Orion,” she said, and the justice finally relinquished his grip on Ry’s collar.
He ran to his mother like a four year old child, burying his face in her side. “The boy says you sent him out,” the male ecto rumbled. “Is that true?”
His Mother spared only a fleeting glance down at the boy clutching at her dress before nodding her head. “Yes, I sent him to see if the coldsuit had been captured. He was seen not far from here and I was worried about my sons,” she replied before turning to Ry. “Go to your room.”
He scampered away gratefully as the ecto admonished his Mother for not waiting for the siren to sound again. He paid no heed to the stares of his brothers, using every bit of his self-control not to turn his quick walk into a run. He threw himself onto his bed and thrust his face into the pillow.
The door behind him creaked as it opened and he forced himself to turn to the visitor. He wasn’t sure if he’d fallen asleep or not but the tears on his pillow were still damp.
“They killed him,” he said, simply. “They killed Damon.”
“I know,” his Mother replied, sitting on the bed and bringing his head to her chest. “I’m sorry they killed your friend dear, but the justice told me what happened. He didn’t just run away, he yelled at his Mother. He said that he hoped the coldsuit killed them all. They couldn’t let him live, it would put the whole city at risk.”
“Mum…” the droning voice of Venu filtered through the door before the five year old appeared, rubbing his eyes. “…Yuna ate my coca bar.”
“Mum said they were for everyone,” Yuna interjected from the living room.
“Orion will fetch you some more chocolate from the shop tomorrow,” his Mother said, leaving no room for argument. “If you’re hungry…” she added, sparing Ry a glance. “…then I’ll make you a sandwich in a minute. Just give me some time with your brother.” She smiled kindly down at Ry when the young child left. “You get some sleep,” she said.
“Do you love me?” Ry’s words were barely a whisper, but they made his Mother stop in her tracks as she was standing up to leave. She turned around and looked at him in surprise.
“Of course I love you, sweetie. I always have and I always will.” She smiled down at him and he smiled back.
Her smile flickered ever so slightly; if Ry didn’t know her as well as he did, he might even have missed it. “It’s Mother, dear.”
She turned gracefully on her heel and swept out of the room, her hand lingering long enough to find the light switch and Ry was plunged into darkness.
The reddish tint of dawn light crept through Ry’s thin curtains. He was used to waking early to start making breakfast for the house, but this was early even for him. Or it could equally have been considered late, seeing as he’d never actually managed to fall asleep.
He reached a weary hand above his head and yanked the curtain to the side. The effect was not quite as grand as he envisaged. First of all, the curtain only came half the way open and, secondly, instead of being flooded with dazzling light, the room merely became a few shades brighter. Still, he willed himself to see the dawn as a new start; a chance to move past what had happened. He’d done it before. Kia had been hanged in front of him, sobbing her young eyes out. Mrs Daly had been dragged out kicking and screaming in the middle of a class. And, during an attack a few years ago, his neighbour Mr Simon had completely vanished, whether killed by the justices or taken by the coldsuit, no one was quite sure. Ry didn’t know which fate was worse.
This time felt different though; it felt more like an end than a beginning, and the delicate rays of beautiful sunlight did nothing to loosen the fist around his heart. It took an act of willpower stronger than any he had needed before simply for Ry to pull himself into a sitting position. He rubbed his tired eyes with his hands and stared out at the peaceful morning outside, trying desperately to come up with a reason to get up and go on with his life.
Outside, the barked orders and heavy boots of the justices could no longer be heard. Attacks by coldsuits usually lasted only a couple of hours and, if they hadn’t caught it yet, then it was likely long gone. The searches would gradually be reduced until they went back to normal in a few days. Ry guessed the siren would sound later that morning and the whole city would go back to how things were before – as if Damon Harket had never existed.
Damon had always been a trouble-maker; he was the one who moaned longest and loudest about the ectos, the one who said what everyone thought. That was probably why Ry liked him so much. Damon was like the part of himself he tried to ignore; the part that didn’t want to do what his Mother or the other ectos ordered him to do. Damon’s death should have taken that part of him with it, but, as he stared at the glistening utopia he called home, his rebellious side sparked and fired into life. And it was at that moment, that peace of the morning was broken by the staggering, ungraceful and decidedly unmonster-like movement of the coldsuit, barely ten feet outside his window.
He was moving before he’d realised he’d made the decision. The exhaustion of the night’s unrest entirely forgotten by the time he had vaulted through his window and onto the stone floor below. The creature had gone by the time his feet had touched the floor, but he had left something behind.
On the usually faultless, glassy white pavement were three drops of blood. Not the vicious green blood of an ecto though; the bright red of a dog, or a bird, or a man. Ry rushed around the nearest corner in the direction he’d seen the creature go. He skidded onto the next street in time to see a flicker of movement disappear once more around a corner. He was about to take off after it when rough, scaly hands caught him by the back of the neck.
A moment later he found himself tumbling to the floor, face-first. He quickly regained his feet, ready to flee, but this time the hand clasped around his throat, cutting off his air. His back exploded in pain as he was forced harshly against the wall and he looked up through teary eyes at the same justice that had caught him last night. The grip on his windpipe released just enough that he could suck in raspy breaths, but this did nothing to quell the fear beating through every nerve and vein in his body. One night breaking curfew was bad enough, but the ectos didn’t do coincidences, and they certainly didn’t give third chances. A human wandering alone twice during an attack would be deemed to be collaborating with the coldsuit – and there was only one punishment for collaboration.
These thoughts and more raced through Ry’s mind in the few seconds he was held under those unforgiving eyes. But then the eyes were gone. Without the hands holding him up, Ry sank to his knees, just thrusting his arms out in time to prevent him hitting the road face-first. The sounds of a fight were enough to convince him to get back to his feet.
Whenever he had pictured a battle between the justices and the coldsuits, they had always involved epic gunfights, flashes of explosions and intricate battlefield tactics. The fight in front of him looked more like a schoolyard brawl. It was only the intensity of the ecto’s eyes and the ferocity of the blows rained down by both sides that convinced him that a couple of teachers would not rush out to separate them.
Neither had had chance to reach for their weapons and they seemed evenly matched as they wrestled, clawed, punched and kicked at whatever they could get their hands on. After what seemed a lifetime of stalemate, the coldsuit was slammed heavily against the wall, just as Ry had been. This time, though, the ecto was not feeling so merciful and smashed his enemy’s head into the wall twice, before unleashing a savage punch to the gut.
All Ry’s life he’d been told stories about the coldsuits – merciless monsters that kidnapped and ate humans; that stole children from their beds and whisked them away, never to be seen again. But, as he looked between the two combatants and searched for the right thing to do, he saw only one monster.
His feet covered the five yards or so in barely a second and, before he had time to change his mind, he launched himself onto the justice’s back. The ecto was almost two feet taller than the eleven year old boy and must have weighed thrice as much, but he wasn’t expecting the attack and reeled back in panic.
It took only a few seconds for the brawny justice to throw Ry to the ground, but it was enough. He turned his narrow eyes back toward his enemy just in time to see a knife slice through the thick muscle around his neck. The ecto gurgled noisily, before slumping to the ground, hands grasping at the wound, as green blood seeped through his fingers. The coldsuit slid to the ground as well, though its fall was more controlled and he landed softly on his backside. It took several deep breaths, before lifting its head to look at the child. Ry’s initial instinct was to run, but the longer he stared at the creature, the more his fear began to ebb away, replaced instead by curiosity and wonder. They held eye contact for several moments, the coldsuit’s blue dots blinking in and out of life unpredictably, before the monster lifted its hands towards its face and peeled back its mask.
It came away to reveal blonde hair, blue eyes and a face teeming with sweat and tinged red with effort, but unmistakably human. A million questions whirred through Ry’s mind but he only vocalised one – “Why?” before the sounds of hurried movement reached both of their ears.
The coldsuit sprang into action, tapping furiously at his left forearm before scampering over to the confused boy. “We don’t have much time,” his surprisingly gentle voice said, quickly. “I know this is a lot to take in but everything the ectos have told you is a lie. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be; humans aren’t supposed to serve ectos. They aren’t even from this planet.”
All the while, the man was glancing all around him as the sounds of onrushing ectos approached. His face softened a little when he saw the look on Ry’s face, though he unslung the gun from his back. “This is all you’ve ever known but it isn’t all there is. The ectos came to earth to make it their own, they took it from us. There was a war, a war some of us are still fighting. I know this is all happening fast, but you have to trust me.”
A chunk of the wall behind him exploded into fragments as it was barraged with gunfire. The man spun his weapon round in an instant and returned fire. The ecto fell a second later, but they both knew that every justice in the city was heading their way. The coldsuit dropped to one knee, his gun swivelling from side to side and his voice quickening even further. “In a few seconds the power to the city will go down and the shield will drop. When it does….” He spared the boy a kindly glance. “…You have to go. Run and don’t look back. There are people outside the city helping me; they’ll get you to safety. You don’t belong here, not with them.” He released another bout of gunfire and the ectos ducked back behind the corner.
Ry’s mind once again raced with possibilities. He thought of people in charge of themselves. Then his mind turned to his life in Lancer and Upper Thrace, to every insult and command, before changing again, this time to his brothers and his Mother, to the friends he’d have to leave behind. “But -” His objections were cut short by more deafening gunfire. This time it was accompanied by a scream as a bullet sliced through the man’s leg. Ry knew he couldn’t stay here, even if he wanted to. “-What about you?”
At that moment, the hum of the city was silenced and Ry looked up to see the shield melting away. The man looked him in the eyes and smiled through his pain. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Even to Ry’s young ears this sounded like a lie, but he had no other choice; his time had run out. He lurched to his feet and ran. The gunfire behind intensified even further now, but none was aimed at him. All the same, he kept his head down as best he could while he sprinted through the familiar streets. The city was surrounded on all sides by a ten foot wall. His mind flickered back into the past once more, this time to when he and Damon had finished their chores early and had sneaked away to explore. Of course, the city wasn’t enough for Damon; he’d wanted to see what was beyond their little world. So, with Ry complaining all the way, they’d found a house that was close, only a few yards away from the wall.
The house came into view now, with the sounds of fighting quickly fading behind him, and Ry locked his eyes firmly on the privacy wall that surrounded it. It was only a little taller than he was and Ry threw himself up it, grasping at the top and pulling himself up. When he had come here with Damon, they had spent a long time debating who should make the leap first, each insistent it should be the other. This time, Ry hurled himself over the narrow gap.
For a fraction of a second he flew through the air before he impacted into the wall, struggling to get a grip on the top, while the air was forced from his lungs. He allowed himself only the tiniest of moments to recover before he clambered his way upwards. When he reached the top, he couldn’t help but pause, the enormity of his situation fully dawning on him. He looked below to see a barren wasteland, with only a speck of something in the distance and then back at the city he had grown up in, with the people he loved. And then he jumped.
The ground greeted him like he was its worst enemy. His legs gave way, but he scrambled to his feet immediately and set off at a dead sprint, trying to ignore his already burning lungs and the foreboding sound of the opening city gate. He took the coldsuit’s advice – he didn’t look back. He stared ahead at the ever-growing shape, beckoning him in like a Mother’s open arms. Tears stung his eyes but exactly why he couldn’t say, so much had happened within the last few minutes. The sounds of vehicles behind were enough to convince his exhausted legs to keep stamping away at the rocky ground, despite being unused to such uneven terrain.
Ry soon saw that the shape was a vehicle – a long and sleek craft, hovering a few inches off the ground and heading straight for him. He was about to throw himself to the side, when it suddenly veered to his left and spun around him in a tight circle. Four arms reached down and hauled him into the sand-coloured vehicle. Ry gasped as he was pulled inside and immediately pushed to the floor. He lay on his back, thankful for a moment of rest. He looked up at the clear blue sky before it was blotted out by two coldsuits looming over them, blue dots staring down at him. His stomach turned and he had to remind himself that they were humans.
“Where’s Tom?” one said, and Ry was surprised to hear a feminine voice behind the mask. It took him a few moments to realise who she was talking about.
“He… he said he’d be right behind me, but he was hurt.
The coldsuits exchanged a long look before the one who had yet to speak nodded towards the front of the vehicle and the barely audible engine whirred to life.
“Stay low,” he boomed.
Ry had no time to look back, as he was whisked away from his home. For several, long moments the monsters were all he could see, before a blanket, made from the same material as the cold suit, was suddenly in their hands and he was thrust into darkness.
Thank you for reading. Please leave a comment below to tell us what you think of the story. Andy Wright
Check out our other Sci-Fi short short story *1979.