We Still Have Free Will
Zuri hated emotional chaos. He clumped to the base of the cave and plunked down on a rock. Propping his head on one hand, he stared at the creek rippling by.
A squirrel hippity-hopped along the water’s edge, then scrambled in the dirt, discovered a half-buried nut, and leaped forward. It dug furiously. A darker squirrel scampered from behind, chuckled, and sent the first squirrel, humpbacked, straight into the air.
Zuri laughed. “So, little quadrupeds, who’s stealing from whom?”
Ark meandered forward, rubbed his bulbous eyes in the bright light, and harrumphed. “Not me. Certainly.”
Zuri peered over his shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “You’d think we were all planning to kill each other the way Sienna acts.” He rubbed his neck. “I wish Sterling would send her back to Lux.”
“He would, if Teal would let him. Ungle would love to end her searing glares.”
“She’s only mad because he shot at her.”
“Yeah, but she never actually got shot—whereas Ungle—” Zuri dropped his gaze and sighed.
“You didn’t know.” Ark wrapped his tentacles across his lap. “Ungle justified his actions under the Crestonian rule of law—extreme measures are acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge.” He shrugged. “Hardly Sienna’s chosen creed.”
Zuri shifted and clasped his hands. “Are females on Crestar as…you know—?”
“I was going to say unpredictable. On Ingle, our girls are raised so much like the boys, that we’re almost interchangeable. They’re as strong as we are and have all the same technological advantages. There was a time when our race almost did away with sex types altogether.”
Ark’s eyes rounded. “You don’t say? I never read that.”
“It’s not one of our happier chapters. We almost killed each other.”
He prodded Ark. “Like when Crestar did all that cloning—”
“Miserable affair.” Ark lifted a tentacle as if reciting a pledge. “Mutations are our salvation.” He chuckled. “How could we have been so naive?”
Zuri wiped his face and slipped off his helmet.
Ark nearly fell backward. “Oh, seamuck! I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you were losing your head.”
Zuri ran his fingers over the blond fuzz crowing his cranium. “I’m trying to grow hair.” He looked around. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“Why? For darkness’ sake, your race advanced beyond body hair ages ago.”
His gaze darting to the cave entrance, Zuri practically tiptoed to Ark’s side. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “There’s this Ingot woman—”
Ark frowned. “I thought you said there’s little discernible difference?”
“I said interchangeable—in respect to our professional life.” He sucked in a deep breath. “When it comes to our personal life…there’s a big difference. Trust me.”
Ark nudged him playfully, his smooth eyebrows waggling. “You like her?”
Zuri sunk onto the boulder next to Ark. “Passionately. She’s intelligent and funny…and very unpredictable.”
Ark leaned in, his gaze watery. “And beautiful?”
Zuri shrugged. “I don’t think about that. We’re all assembled parts…natural and otherwise.” Heat rose to his face. “The only thing that really matters is what’s inside— you know what I mean?”
Ark nodded. “I do. Unfortunately, I only experienced an attachment once…and it nearly killed me.”
“She left you?”
“Poisoned me.” Ark shook his head. “I gave up such associations after that.”
A shuffling near the cave entrance sent Zuri scuttling back to the other side of the cave, frantically tugging on his helmet.
Ark turned, his tentacles crossed just so.
Sterling staggered forward, bumbled to the creek fully clothed, and waded in.
Zuri straightened, his mouth dropping open. He started forward.
Ark reached out and held him back. “Let him be. Water is very soothing to a troubled soul.” He glanced at his terrestrial boots. “I should know.”
Sterling flopped down in the water, let it rush over his whole body for the space of twenty heartbeats, and then rose and straggled back to Ark and Zuri…dripping with each step. “I needed that.”
Ark waddled to the water’s edge. “I might join you, if only—” He peered back at Zuri. “You’ll help me get them back on?”
Feeling very much like an over-indulgent father, Zuri waved the Cresta to the water. “Go on. Get wet. I know you’ve been dying to.”
Ark beamed as he tugged off his boots and tossed them aside. He waddled forward and plunged in.
Sterling stood, still dripping, next to Zuri, and watched Ark splash around like a dolphin. “He’s really a child under all that blubber.”
Zuri glanced aside. “And you?” He leaned against the cave wall. “What’re you?”
Sterling raised a finger. “Just a moment. I can’t stand another drip. He shimmered and disappeared. Then he reappeared in exactly the same clothes, now perfectly dry. “Much better.”
Zuri flung his hand into the air. “So why the dramatic dunk—?”
“You need to look beyond the surface, Ingot.” Sterling started for the woods, glanced backward, and beckoned Zuri with a curt wave.
Zuri followed, uneasiness bubbling like a lava flow in his middle.
“I want to speak to you alone.” Sterling jutted his jaw toward Ark. “I knew the sight of dripping water would break his resolve.”
Tempted to take off his helmet again, if for no other reason than to unbalance Sterling’s perfect demeanor, Zuri scratched his exposed neck. “What do you want?”
Sterling frowned like a misunderstood child. “It’s not always a matter of want. Sometimes it’s a need. I need you to make Sienna leave—today.”
Crossing his arms, Zuri straightened. “I want her to leave as much as anyone, but she won’t listen to me. She thinks she’s protecting Teal—”
“She’s more likely to get Teal killed.”
Zuri tilted his head and waited. His scalp itched like crazy.
“Ungle is not one to be beaten at his own game. He’s deadly serious about studying the interaction between Ishtar and that bloody Chai. He’s practically leaking fluids to see them meet the first time.”
Zuri rolled his eyes. “I can’t stand it!” He swiped his helmet off.
Sterling’s gaze snapped to Zuri’s head, and he staggered. “By the Div—?”
Zuri gripped him by the arm. “I’m growing hair to impress an Ingot female who thinks that we should return to a more natural state.”
Sterling squared his shoulders and tugged his arm free. “Thank you for sharing that with me.” He ran his fingers through his own luxurious white locks. “Back to reality, shall we?”
Zuri tucked his helmet under his arm and twirled his hand in the air. “Go on.”
“The point is—I want Teal to see Chai and Ishtar up close and personal when the meeting takes place. And I don’t want him distracted. That’s why I went along with Ungle’s suggestion in the first place. But now—”
Walking backward, Ungle plodded into view slightly off-balance with his one shortened tentacle. His gaze fixed on Ark plunging in the creek like a salmon trying to swim upstream. He turned, ran into Sterling, and frowned. “Oh, there you are.”
Sterling gestured to Zuri. “Here we are.”
Ungle heaved a disgusted breath. “Yes, of course.” He peered at Sterling. “I’ve told them both—there’s no other option. Either she goes or I’ll—”
Zuri snorted. “I thought you were worried about that mystery race, the ones who wiped out a third of your planet.”
Ungle’s face tightened. “Who wouldn’t be?”
“Since Sienna supposedly worked for someone who worked for them…maybe you should send her—”
“She says that she was used by the Bhuaci, and she won’t make that mistake again.”
“Tell her that she’s going to get her revenge. She’ll use them this time.”
Ungle’s gaze slipped from Zuri to Sterling and back to Zuri. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected such duplicity from you. I thought all Ingots were bred to obey.”
“We may have been bred…so to speak. But we still have free will.”
“Do you? News to me.”
Zuri stomped forward, fury flushing to the roots of his fuzzy, blond hair.
Sterling swept between them, his arms outspread. “Oh, no, you don’t! I’ve got enough on my mind with Teal besotted by that—”
Teal sauntered around the corner, his gaze fixed on Sterling. “Besotted is a strong word…don’t you think?” He glanced at Zuri and frowned. “What happened to your—?”
Ungle waved a tentacle. “We’re wasting valuable time. Ishtar could be anywhere by now.”
Zuri scowled and pulled a datapad from his sleeve. “He’s still at the same location.” He held the pad up, facing the others. “I’ve been monitoring him.”
Sterling glared at Teal. “That’s your job.”
Teal folded his arms. “I know exactly where Ishtar is. And I know where Barak, Obed, and Eoban are too.”
Ungle swept a tentacle in the air dismissively. “Who cares about them?”
Teal stepped forward. “I think you would—if you really want to understand Chai.” He glanced around. “They’re heading directly for the stone city—Chai’s hometown.”
Sterling pursed his lips, his gaze flickering to the cave. “And Sienna?”
Teal turned and started back toward the creek. He called to the water-happy Cresta. “Ark! Time to go!” Glancing back he met Ungle’s intense stare. “I sent her back to Lux. She’s going to do research.”
Sterling closed his eyes and sighed in obvious relief.
Ungle nodded, a glint of pleasure sparkling in his bulbous eyes.
Zuri frowned. “Research—what?”
Teal jogged forward and helped Ark stagger out of the water. He called back. “The origin of our mystery race.”
Zuri dropped his head to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut.
“What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”
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