Chapter One - Roses

“It is not known precisely where angels dwell—whether in the air, the void, or the planets. It has not been God’s pleasure that we should be informed of their abode.” —Voltaire

The Drac had grown weary in its new human body. Taking it had been somewhat challenging.

As he drove, the human consciousness within professed its newly found loyalty.

Truth resides in the Shadow of the Seventh Aspect.

The human’s mind had fully succumbed to his corruption, accepted his embrace.

“Yes, my love,” the Drac said.

As he turned the car onto the suburban street, a clichéd scene welcomed him into yet another fragile human sanctuary. Neat rows of squared lawns with darting sprinklers and pruned trees faded into the distance. Even with their opulent variety, the well-kept homes still managed to all look the same. It unsettled him that adult humans insisted on creating such a childish fantasy of a life. It was a tableau of dishonest happiness, a façade shrouding collective delusions of safety. We’ll enlighten them all soon enough, he thought.

A couple with a stroller came down the sidewalk toward the oncoming car and waved. Their bleached smiles flashed like gleaming beacons of their superficial acknowledgement. The Drac turned to avoid the salutation, leaving them to enjoy their offense at the snub.

They’ll wonder why I didn’t wave back. We’re going to dinner at their house next week.

“You needn’t worry about that, my love. We have more important things to do right now." 

He pulled the car into the driveway, his fingers clenching the steering wheel to steady his trembling hands. The home dwarfed those around it. A cobblestone walkway and columned porch invited visitors into the gratuitous symbol of wealth. A typical display of unjustified, upper middle class hubris, he thought.

Why are we home? I’m not supposed to be back until tomorrow.

“I told you. We’re here to surprise your wife and children.”

A glance at the rearview mirror revealed his shifting appearance. As predicted, his presence had begun to distort the man’s body at a much faster rate than normal. The area around his eyes had darkened, and his skin had lost its flush. A small patch of black had already started to emerge on his cheek. He was quickly depleting the sustenance the man’s essence supplied.

"I wish you could see how finally beautiful we would become, my love. Such a beautiful creature we would be together. Pity. Now where are the flowers?” He stretched toward the backseat to retrieve a bundle of fresh roses.

Cathy loves roses.

“She does, my love," the Drac said. "Now remember what we discussed. Killing your family today will bring you The Shadow’s love. Ignore their screams.”

* * *

As Sam reached for the bell, the door gave way with a light breeze. Cassie searched his face for instruction. He lifted his finger to his lips in response, squinting as he stepped forward and peered through the crack. A reflexive surge in glutamate rushed through his body—fear. He closed his eyes and mentally submitted his biological request. Adjust. His nanites responded, gradually lowering the unwanted neurotransmitter and increasing his adrenaline. Cassie rose onto her toes behind him. He threw back his hand. “Stay here,” he said, as he slowly pushed the creaking door open and stepped inside.

The home was a victim of rage. The white sofas were raked with long slashes, their stuffing strewn about the room. Dander floated in a haze of sunlight pouring in through the arched windows. Picture frames with cracked glass and the splintered remnants of a coffee table littered the floor. The house was silent, save the clinking of wind chimes and the chirping of birds outside.

Sam made his way past the wrecked living room down the hallway. “Hello? Cathy?” His voice echoed through the home’s lofted ceilings. A deep, glottal hiss responded from the rear of the house. The primal sound confirmed what he was about to face. He crept to the end of the hall as the sound grew louder, now punctuated with retching and gurgles. Blood laid a path on the floor around the corner into the kitchen. A large family portrait hung on the wall next to him. Smeared, bloody handprints lay over the smiling faces.

Sam paused, adjusted the lapels of his suit, and straightened his tie. He let out a slow breath and whispered, “Fuck,” and turned the corner.

The massive span of white cabinets and granite countertops were streaked with blood. Craig Stevens stood at the far end of the room near the sink, his dress shirt and trousers coated with blood and entrails. A fresh scar at the base of his neck confirmed his tracking implant had been removed. A serrated carving knife lay in one hand. The other grasped the neck of a teenage boy, lifting his body into the air. Chase Stevens’ head was awkwardly tilted to the side. Blood from wounds in his abdomen dripped into a pool at his father’s feet.

Sam pushed aside the disturbing thought of the boy’s final moments. He had to find Cathy. Her tracker showed she was still somewhere in the house. He wanted to imagine a scenario where the boy had died protecting her. But knowing she would never leave her son to such a fate, his hope for her safety faded.

“Hey!” Sam shouted. “This is a great tableau, but I’m pretty sure he’s dead, so…” Levity was a wonderful coping mechanism.

The boy’s body thudded to the floor as Craig released his grip and turned, his eyes meeting Sam’s with a gaze of confident evil. His ghostly skin was mottled with blood. Dilated pupils and dark bruising around his sockets accentuated the whites of his crazed eyes. Telltale patches of black scales had begun to appear on his cheeks and hands. It was an advanced stage two possession.

“Hi, uh…is Craig home?” Sam approached with careful steps.“If he is, can you ask him where Cathy is? We kinda had an appointment this afternoon.” The man stood motionless, not replying. Sam knew Craig was gone, and that a familiar creature stood before him—a creature that drew strength from fear. He adjusted his neurochemistry again. It already had enough strength to make the man kill his son. He wasn’t going to give it any more.

The Drac gave a lingering hiss. Its black lips parted into a smile, and it slowly wagged a chastising finger. "Cave adsum...Curator," it said. It raised the knife and dragged the blade down its forearm from the wrist to the elbow. As the web of blood wrapped around its arm, it lowered the blade to its inner thigh and swiped. The pulse of blood from the severed femoral artery splattered the side of the kitchen island in a slow rhythm, mirroring the Drac’s sluggish heartbeat. The demented smile on its face held firm.

His emotions held in check, Sam feigned indifference. “Seriously?” he said. “Why’d you do that? You just ruined a perfectly good body.”

“Sam, are you alright? What was that noise? Who are you talking to?” Cassie was jogging down the hall.

“I told you to stay back!” Sam barked. Cassie gasped and whipped her hand to her mouth as she entered and saw what the Drac’s love had made of Mr. Stevens.

The Drac threw back its head and unleashed a thunderous wail, two voices entwined, crying out in rage and agony. It ripped the blade across the side of its neck. A jet of blood burst over the kitchen with another severed artery. Cassie’s scream was followed by a loud crackling sound. A flurry of white beads of light flew from behind her, pelting the wailing creature and flinging it backwards in violent convulsions. The writhing body crashed against the sink and fell, hitting its head on the edge of the counter with a loud crack. As it lay on the floor, the pulsing of its wounds subsided, the twitching gradually slowing until it lay motionless. A light smell of ozone filled the air.

Sam turned to find Mr. Black towering behind them with his plasma taser drawn. His latest form, Hispanic, early forties, was a disarming image of power and beauty. Dense eyelashes floated from his face, giving his deep-set eyes the appearance of permanent eyeliner and mascara. The strikingly feminine feature perfectly complimented the severity of his rigid bone structure and razor sharp jaw. His jet black hair was conservatively trimmed and styled as always. He reeked of vanity and a palpable, intimidating self-confidence. His presence was one of a man with a firm grasp on his unbridled authority.

“Why’d you do that?” Sam said. “I was handling it.”

“You’re welcome,” Mr. Black said. “He was stage two. It just made him kill his own son and slash his own fucking arteries. You know he wasn’t coming back from that.” He slipped the weapon under his fitted black suit, back into the holster around his chest. “I’m gonna go find the subject," he said, and headed down another hallway.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Sam couldn’t help but find the sight of Cassie amusing. Her childlike eyes wide, she clutched her chest with her mouth still agape. A few droplets of blood had made their way onto her white blazer and blue jeans. She had somehow managed to pull her hair into a bun before following Sam into the house, sparing it from a similar fate. It was unclear if she was more shocked at what she had just witnessed, or how Mr. Black had just addressed a Curator. After millennia of friendship, the two Arcturian men had abandoned all the formalities of rank—not that Mr. Black had ever cared in the first place.

Sam concluded that her chosen form of an athletic, white female in her twenties had been wise. Crystal blue eyes and naturally bleached blonde hair completed her customized look. Humans were far from conquering racism and superficial judgement. Her appearance would go a long way in making her immersion easier.

“Is he dead?” Cassie said.

Sam put his hand on her shoulder. “Yup. Electrified plasma is quite effective. You alright?”

Cassie straightened up. “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. Sorry about that.” She looked down and discovered the blood stains. “Shit. This is brand new!”

“Never wear white to the demon fight,” Sam said, smiling. Her frown told him she lacked appreciation for his quip.

“I’m sorry I screamed,” she said. “I just…that was a lot.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Sam said with a forgiving pat. “That was some freaky shit. Stage two is when they get dramatic. Remember to use your biosuppression. Your nanites are your best friends.” He gestured back at the bloody scene. “Some first day on the job, huh?”

“Sam!” Mr. Black’s voice bellowed from down the hall. “Sam, get in here! Now!”

“Cassie, get a quick scan of the body,” Sam said. He ran to Mr. Black, not waiting for her response.

Catherine Stevens lifeless body hung on the dining room wall. Her arms splayed outward with a sharpened table leg driven through each hand. Her broken legs were beveled to the side with another shaft of wood driven between the tendons of bare feet. Her head lay tilted toward her shoulder, wrapped in fresh rose stems. The still intact flowers tangled with her auburn hair in a bloody bohemian crown. Wounds from the thorns in her forehead wept trails of blood down her face. A large wound on her abdomen bled down her blouse onto her skirt. Bruises of strangulation circled her neck - a dark comfort that the horror before them had occurred postmortem…maybe.

Cassie walked into the room. “Sam, should I…” She gasped and turned away. “Oh, God,’’ she whispered under her breath. The Arcturians stood silent as the clinking of wind chimes and the chirping of birds serenaded from an open window.

Sam ached at the site of yet another human he had failed to protect. The awful moment evoked the empathy he shared with human caregivers in animal sanctuaries—the death of any rescued and released animal no less painful than if they had lost one of their own children. He often wondered what the human’s reaction would be when they learned that they were also being poached and conserved.

He placed one of the dining room chairs in front of Cathy’s body and stood on it to meet her face to face. He refused to suppress the overwhelming guilt that threatened to crush his resolve. I deserve to feel this, he thought. He whispered to her, gently stroking her hair. “You were right, Cathy. You weren’t crazy, not at all. I’m sorry you ever had to feel like that.” An echo of the regret he carried rang out in his mind, the responsibility for the doubt and stigma extracted humans faced returning to haunt him.

“We did come to see you. We came to see you, and we took you with us, and you always loved it so much. And I don’t know how you figured out you weren’t actually on a spaceship. I almost thought about letting you remember that one,” he chuckled. He let out a long sigh, attempting to stop his emerging tears."We were gonna tell you everything. We were gonna let you remember it all, tell you all of it. Tell you that we’re real. Tell you that we’re not all bad, just like you always said. You really were special to us. You were gonna help save the world.” She deserved to know what it felt like to be a savior, he thought, not tortured into the mocking image of one.

Sam allowed the determined tears to flow. "I’m gonna get ‘em Cathy. I’m gonna make all the bad aliens go away, just like I told you when you were little. I promise," he said. "I’m so sorry Cathy. I’m so sorry.” He stepped off the chair and stood, his head lowered like a punished child.

“The Source will accept her, Sam,” Mr. Black said.

Sam sniffled and wiped the tears from his face before turning around. He felt his blood pressure spike, and the inevitable wave of catecholamines flood his brain. He knew he should suppress his emotional response for Cassie’s sake. That he should set a better example. But the rage was too intense, too justified. He wanted to feel it. “FUCK!” he yelled and kicked the chair, shattering it into pieces.

Cassie winced and jumped back, staring in awe at Sam’s uninhibited display of emotion and physical strength. He avoided her gaze, ashamed at his blatant act of hypocrisy in front of a new trainee. He calmed his brief insecurity by reminding himself that she would remember her orientation. That the experience of human emotion was an unavoidable component of immersion. He ran his fingers through his hair and paced as his nanites struggled to control his agony and frustration, decades of his work and care displayed on the wall in an act of taunting carnage.

“Sam, why did it do this?” Cassie said.

Sam stopped pacing. “It’s a message.”

“A message for who?”

Sam forced himself to examine the tragedy on the wall again. “It’s a message for me,” he said, ignoring her silent plea for an explanation.

A tiny voice pierced the tension. “Mommy?"

Next Chapter: Chapter Two - Black Tears