Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it beyond Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you describe in your reports?”
Shoving loose soil aside, Sterling nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”
He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.
A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.
Sterling glanced at Teal.
Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips. Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”
Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console. Hard.
High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists.
“Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” Sterling eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”
Teal snatched a blue-green oval fruit from a bowl on an end table and chomped. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”
Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressuring everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around Zuri too much. I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You’re glaring like he does.”
Teal finished chewing and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”
Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.
The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.
Teal stepped up and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”
Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip. A chime sounded.
Teal and Sterling turned to the door.
Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.
“Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything…worthwhile.”
With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall, square glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.
The door slid open and Ark ambled in. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”
Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.
Ark eyed the glass, his brows rising, a smile quivering on his thick lips. “Having liquids, are we?”
Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”
Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. And taking copious notes, I hope.”
Teal chuckled. “And taking a few ore samples, if I know him.”
Sterling lifted two full glasses and strolled across the porcelain tile flooring to Ark. “Here, you can have these since the Ingot isn’t coming.”
Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”
Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured himself a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out. You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there” —he nodded toward a vessel on the counter— “that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “They do have feet—don’t they?”
Ark poured both drinks into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal who placed the water glass in the sink, pointedly ignoring the swill.
Sterling harrumphed and tossed back his drink in one swallow. He closed his eyes. Picture the sea. Calm waves rolling on the shore. He held the moment and then, opening his eyes, he peered ahead. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”
Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned. When he faced Sterling, his smile vanished. “Someone is trying to kill me.”
Sterling shook his head and marched directly to the cabinet. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He turned around swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”
Ark’s golden eyes rounded on Teal. “Or me.”
Teal rubbed the back of his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window and sighed. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”
Ark choked. “I left him alone on the planet!” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discreet distance.”
Sterling slapped his glass on the counter, his composure cracking. His imaginary rolling waves rose to pounding surf. “Do you mean to tell me that you have Sienna watching Zuri who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”
Teal stepped forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want the three of us to return to Earth, undetected, and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”
Ark tapped Teal on the shoulder and imitated his whisper. “Don’t bother. I already know.”
Sterling froze. His body actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot’s afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his empty pot, yanked it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit, and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”
Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and wrapped all four tentacles around his thick waist. “How did you know we’re focusing on Ishtar?”
Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile— He glanced at Teal.
Teal stared him into the ground.
If that were possible.
“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” After pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down on the sofa and stretched out. “Mind if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”
Teal sauntered over and perched on the arm of a chair opposite his superior.
Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He stared at Sterling. “Ungle?”
Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”
Ark waved the question away. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”
Rubbing his brow, Sterling realized that he felt completely drained. Maybe I’m not suited to this line of work. “Can’t I just say that Teal put it in his reports?”
With a grim expression, Teal slipped onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”
As if ready for his analyst session, Sterling lay back, crossed his feet, and placed his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb in this position. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth.”
Bright sunlight filtered through the window and the purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. A spicy scent wafted through the air.
Teal’s voice seemed to echo across a vast distance. “From Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”
Sterling tapped his fingers together and relaxed, seeping like a puddle into the ground. “Yes. This mystery race has surprising abilities. They engineer new life forms, terraform entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While we Luxonians and our sometime-allies have our own unique abilities, these beings can do everything we can— but better—with more flare.”
“Truth is…they’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbowroom. We’ve only discovered a few pockets of their kind. The ones your people irritated” —he swiveled a glance at Ark— “must’ve been rather high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep Earth in the dark.”
“What does this have to do with—?”
Ark speared Teal with a frown and nodded to Sterling. “Go on.”
“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn everything they do…and more. Apparently, your studies caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”
Teal jerked to his feet and paced across the room. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”
Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Evil like Ishtar?”
Freezing, Teal glared at Ark. “Ishtar isn’t evil. He’s just—”
Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb? You called him evil.”
“I can’t debate that now. I want to know why Ungle wants to kill me. Or Zuri. We’re the ones investigating—”
Sterling sighed, swung his legs off the couch, and sat up. “He isn’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they really are?”
Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants your work to continue—” His pink cheeks blanched as he sat bolt upright. “Uh-oh.”
Sterling jumped to his feet.
Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark’s shoulder.
“Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted by anything…or anyone.”
“Zuri is annoying, but he’s not a distraction. He’s—”
Sterling closed his eyes. His throat felt very dry. “Not Zuri. Sienna. He wants her to leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”
Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”
“I tried to arrange a little accident. So, she’d go home.”
“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and that wasn’t a natural lightning strike.”
“She’s Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner by the way—it was hers.”
Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.
Ark sprang forward. Slapping Teal’s hands off Sterling’s neck with three tentacles, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”
Glaring, Teal jerked away and spat his words. “How could you? Sienna is completely innocent. I thought we trusted each other.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ll know better from now on.”
Ark shoved them further away from each other and glanced from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand. Ungle has a very persuasive nature. He can make a person’s life remarkably challenging. He’s quite capable of creating an interstellar incident and making it appear that a certain judge” —his eyebrows wigged in Sterling’s direction— “is long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”
Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that Ungle wouldn’t be far behind.”
Ark laughed. “Perhaps. But our Crestonian leadership has legitimate concerns. This mystery race will dictate the Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened as his voice rose. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put your planet in the dark?”
Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really will have a heart attack.”
Teal shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Not possible. Though, I rather wish…”
Sterling peered at Teal. “All right! I should’ve told you. Ungle’s talk of good and evil…a life of heaven or hell. I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”
“Easy way to lose a friend.”
Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to Earth now—won’t I?”
“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”
Ark swung his tentacles in various directions, clearly facing an impossible reality. “How will I ever keep you all in line?”
Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment.”
Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”
Sterling closed his eyes.
Ark poked him in the back. “What?”
“Ungle warned me that if I failed, he’d take care of the matter himself.”
With a long huff, bubbles swarmed through Ark’s breather helm.
Sterling stood and pressed Teal’s shoulder, meeting his gaze. “Sienna is safe. Really.” His eyes wandered to the purple vine; it appeared to be waving goodbye.