Koral squinted through the glass-panelled ceiling. Just a handful of stars shone tonight. The rest were too dull to be visible through the combined light of the four moons. Which one of those dots, out of the hundreds out there, belonged to the humans raising him? They had come from another world, somewhere far beyond the moons and the twin suns of Thardrandia. From a planet called Earth.
He wished the same could be said about him. But then, he had wished for countless things during the past twelve years of his life. None of them had come true.
Caught out of bed. Koral gnawed at his bottom lip and the edge of a fang slid against his skin. Again. Last time, she'd taken his computer privileges for a week. Prepared for the lecture he knew was to follow, Koral turned to face her.
Hands on hips, Amelia stood in the doorway of his tiny room aboard the spaceship. "Get your tail back to bed, mister." The men considered Amelia short, though they weren't much taller than she was. Koral had recently surpassed them all and his latest bio scans showed he was still growing. Guesses as to how tall he'd reach once fully grown was a frequent topic at dinner.
The tip of his tail wriggled between his ankles as his gaze fell to her booted feet. How did she always manage to move so silently on the metallic flooring? "It's too bright to sleep, Amelia. Maybe another story will make me sleepy?" He gave his most winning smile, the one he knew his birth mother could never resist.
"Very well," she said with a sigh, humour tweaking her lips. Even though Amelia indulged him, sometimes he felt certain he saw unease in her dark green eyes. Like right now, just as he smiled. "I suppose, seeing that it is your birthday, I can be lenient. Which one shall it be?"
The battle won again, he dove under his bedcovers and waited while she tucked him in. "I want to hear about the spaceship."
"Koral." She laughed and loose strands of red hair bobbed about her face. "You know that tale by heart."
"I want to hear you tell it."
Amelia smiled and sat on the edge of the bed. "One hundred years from now," she began, her voice taking on the steady tone of an expert storyteller, "or fifty in your time, that is, Thardrandian time, there will be a ship in space as big as any city. Its sole purpose will be to discover whether time travel is possible."
His gaze travelled back to the glass panel as she continued talking. He'd never seen a city in his short life, only images or clips on screens. His cautious guardians never allowed him to venture outside for any reason. The sands were too dangerous.
"Koral. If you want me to tell the story, you could at least listen."
"Sorry," he replied, the claws on his three-digit hands scraping lightly against the sheet as he drew it closer. He attempted to look attentive so she would continue.
"Of course." One ginger eyebrow rose as parental indulgence replaced annoyance. "The experiment will be a huge success. The device they will build enables an entire ship to bounce about time as well as space. They'll…" She stopped, jawline twitching as pain flickered across her face, etching deeper into lines it had previously drawn.
"They'll become conceited," he said, gently nudging her to finish. She wasn't usually so upset about it. Wasn't it just another story about some imaginary ship? She'd shown him numerous recordings of made-up planets and ships. Movies. How he loved them.
Koral would watch each one with horrified fascination. In most, the massive ships sailed off into some adventure, before shattering under the power of another. And the planets… all serene and perfect right until they exploded. Of course, his guardians' then murmured how the loud explosions were ridiculous. Everyone knew there was no noise in space, but that was half the enjoyment of it.
She'd never shown him a movie about a ship that time travelled and exploded.
"Yes, the machine had limits." Her eyes were distant, focused on something beyond the room's metal walls. "They travelled too far back, took too big a leap into space. It exploded. The ship was built to withstand an attack, but not like that. No one expected time travel to weaken the ship's core. So many people died." She blinked back tears and looked around her before giving him a sad smile. "Only this survived."
He frowned, his gaze following her hand as she indicated the ship around them. This wasn't the normal story. She always told him of the ship's creation and of all the wonders the people had seen in their travels. Then it blew up when the captain ordered the jump. Could it be that, all this time, she had really been talking about this ship?
Koral had never known anything beyond this place and he was fast outgrowing his room, which was small enough that it might have once been an isolation chamber. The walls were bare, as was common in all the bedrooms. The furniture consisted of a bed, a chest for his clothes and a mirror. Frequently, he tried to ignore what the mirror reflected.
It wasn't that he hated the bipedal lizard he saw, but he did hate the constant reminder that he was… different. Not even remotely human. He was in no way like the woman who had carried and given birth to him; there was no blood link between them. He couldn't help but wish he'd come from the elusive planet Earth like the rest of them. A foolish wish. Koral knew that now. He was a creature of this planet. It did not change him or his appearance.
In his younger years, Koral had tried treating his long snout and sharp fangs as if they were little more than a leathery mask. But the illusion fell away every time he spoke and his two long top fangs brushed against his bottom lip.
"Amelia," one of the other humans called. Koral couldn't tell which one. The men all sounded the same to him. He could identify their faces, but recently, they preferred to keep their distance.
"I'm coming." Leaning over, she gave his blunt snout a small kiss. "Sleep well, my little prince." She snuffed out the sole candle and closed the curtain as she left. The metal doors had long since been sacrificed to repair the hull and he could easily hear their voices from the other side of the curtain.
"I've warned you countless times not to spout the future to him," the man growled. "Putting him to bed with such tales of death can't be good for his intellectual growth. I haven't the data to determine if their level of aggression is biological or cultural."
"Do you expect me to tell him the history of a planet he'll never see? History that hasn't happened yet?" Amelia asked. "I can't teach him local knowledge and Koral can do nothing with what I do tell him. This planet doesn't have the technology for him to build a time machine."
"Can we be sure of that?"
"We've been over this, Jacob." Amelia sighed. "Those readings were false. If they were real, we have no chance of initiating contact with people who are God knows how many miles away. We can barely gather supplies to feed ourselves and rebuild this wreck." Although unable to see her face, Koral was sure she scowled. "With our knowledge, we should be trying to help these people, not living at their mercy."
"Perhaps," Jacob's voice grew fainter. "Or maybe Kyle's right in and we would become a main course if we try. Come on, Mia, you must want to leave here just as much as the rest of us."
"To what?" she snapped. "There's no home to go back to. We're roughly half a century before our parents' births, never mind our own. Even if we manage to get off this planet, we can't reach Earth without the time drive's power. Not to mention, even if it were possible to replicate it, this ship is now considered the most technologically advanced human vessel in existence and will be for decades."
Only the heavy tap of the man's boot reached Koral's ears in the silence that followed her tirade.
You could stop them from making the ship, he thought, struggling to believe the story was honestly true. Something hovering in the back of his mind knew that it wouldn't work, but the full reason vanished as he reached for it. What if he warned them? Was that why she'd told him? He couldn't see how it would be possible. Even if she did want him to send word of the danger to her people somehow, who would believe him?
"Kyle wants a word with you," Jacob said. "I don't think you'll like what he has to say."
"I never do."
Koral frowned into the pallid gloom, wishing he had the courage to sneak after them and find out what the man wanted. None of the men treated him as an equal like Amelia did, and while they spoke respectfully to their geneticist, he had a feeling that she was somehow less in their eyes. Kyle was the worst of the trio. Koral would occasionally hear his birth mother muttering about the man, but never anything specific. Did it involve him?
He lay there, staring at the stars outside the panel before curiosity got the best of him. Slipping from the bed's warm sheets and crossing the room, he opened the curtain as quietly as he could. Peeking through, he found the corridor as dark as his room. He stepped into that darkness, wincing at the click of his talons on the metal floor.
When nobody shouted at him, he crept further along the hall. The darkness stole most of his keen sight, but he knew the webwork of narrow passageways by heart. The laboratory dominated what remained of the wrecked ship, sitting in the centre like a fat spider.
"I cannot believe you're even considering doing such a thing!" Amelia said, her outrage echoing down the corridor. "He's only a child!"
He froze in the middle of the hallway as silence took hold of the room beyond. Holding his breath, he listened for any hint that they'd heard him, releasing it in a soft, drawn-out sigh when nothing came.
Like his room, only curtains screened the entrance to Kyle's chambers. If he could get close enough, he'd be able to see them. Koral glanced down at his talons, lifting a foot as he wriggled the wide-set toes. They would hear him if he wasn't careful, but he had to try.
"He's a monster," Kyle replied, clipping each word. "We can't let him live. They'd kill us if they knew he wasn't pure. You knew that and you made him anyway. I should've made you terminate him! That's all this is, the termination of a monster before they find out he lives."
What? Koral inched closer while the man spoke, shuffling on his heels in an effort to keep his claws free of the metal. The hand he'd extended towards the curtain shook. He knew the man didn't like him, he had thought it was a soldier thing, that anyone who'd spent a long time defending his people would be loath to extend friendship to others. But it had never once occurred to him that Kyle would want him dead. And why now? He'd never given them a reason to distrust him.
"A monster," she echoed wearily as if they'd had this conversation before. "And how shall you do it, my dear sergeant? Smash his head with a rock? Strangle him?" Her cheeks glistened in the dull candlelight, eyes shining with more unshed tears. "As gentle as he is, he won't let you touch him if he thinks you mean him harm." Arms folded, her smile was both proud and sad. "You've more chance of drowning a man in a desert than harming my Koral."
Kyle gave a disgusted snort. "How many times must you be reminded that he is not yours? You were nothing more than a vessel. Do you not see his tail and snout? His fangs? The claws?" He ran his gloved hand ran over his head, brushing back his bedraggled hair. "We already have the materials we bartered for. Why should we adhere to any agreement we've made with these primitives?"
Agreements? What agreements? He'd never seen anyone leave the ship long enough to even talk to the natives. But Amelia had once mistakenly mentioned something about needing to tweak his genes. She'd gotten flustered when he asked about it. Told him he was hearing things. Was altering his genetics part of some agreement the humans made with his people? Did that mean there were others like him?
"We're supposed to be better than that." Amelia slammed her hands down on the wooden crate between them. "How can you think of killing him after you helped raise him? You even agreed with the decision to keep him here."
"Unlike you, woman, I don't get emotionally attached to lower life-forms."
"How could I not 'get attached' when I created him?" she asked, her voice trembling with her body. "I poured over their genetic coding for hours. And when they would not send a surrogate, I took the risk of bearing him. In his heart, in his soul," she thumped her chest, "he is as human as you or I."
"He is no more human than a gnat. But you're right." Kyle smiled, but his brown eyes showing no warmth. "You know his genetic code—you know him in and out. You are the one who knows the best way to kill him."
"You think I would design him with flaws? That I would tell you if there was one?" Her lips pulled back in a snarl, but her teeth were too small and blunt to seem like much of a threat. "I made him tough, a survivor." Tears flowed down her face. "He is my son. I will not let you take him from me."
"Then I'll have to find out just how tough he is."
Koral slowly let the curtain fall and leant against the wall, his gaze drifting to the external door that lay at the other end of the corridor, only a short sprint away. He shivered, convincing himself it was because the coolness of the metal had seeped through his clothes.
There was no doubt Kyle meant what he said. The man desired his death, even if it came to slaying him like an animal. No, he thought, determinedly brushing away gathering tears. Not an animal. A monster.
Amelia's voice came again. "He'll kill you, Kyle, and I won't raise a hand to stop him." Those words were as cold and unyielding as the metal at his back, yet stronger than steel in their surety. "And when that time comes, neither Tamati nor Jacob will stoop to help you. Don't force him to become a murderer."
Koral waited for a response, his chest tightening as the silence continued. Kyle's failure to reply did little to settle his discomfort. He couldn't risk his life on the chance that Amelia's wishes would prevail over Kyle's desire to be free of him. There had to be another way. The lure of the external door beckoned him forward.
Outside is dangerous. The warning rang in his head as he ran down the corridor. The door banged hollowly against its frame as he pushed it open and stepped into the cool sand. The desert wind stung his face, but he ran on. He would rather take his chances with whatever awaited him out here than wait for certain death.
At least it wasn't dark. Light from the four moons twisted the desert shadows into a turbulent sea of sand. The stifling heat of the day was gone and he shivered as, above his head, his breath hung in a flimsy halo. Still, he stumbled along, trudging up the dunes and flinching at every icy step. The bulk of the ship fell away, leaving him in the dangerous realm of outside.