Clare shielded the sunlight from her somber brown eyes as she stared in fixed fascination. A Bald Eagle soared into the azure sky with a snake dangling from its beak. Shivers ran through her slim figure. Lord, how awful! And I don’t even like snakes…yet he’s glorious, can’t deny that. The twin sensations of revulsion and admiration warred within until she heard a screech in the distance, forcing her gaze from the sky
Dawn had just broken, and a vast array of beings had already flooded Vandi, ready to face another late summer day. The contrast between the conflicting races, working and living together, each jostling for their place of primacy, filled her with a fresh sense of purpose. She was one of the lucky ones. At least she had a career, something she loved and could devote her life to…not like some of these alien slugs who were merely fulfilling a politician’s promise, a diplomat’s dream, or worse yet, a bureaucrat’s nightmare.
She studied the screeching being. The human wasn’t hurt. The Cresta’s autoskimmer hadn’t even touched him, but you’d think his leg had been taken off by the way he reacted. Such a lot of screaming. A crowd was gathering.
“Creepy Cresta! What’da’ya think you’re doing? Swimming across the street? You can’t fishtail like that and expect—”
With no obvious expectations in mind except to stop the human’s tongue, the Cresta moved in for a grab.
Using mosquito-like quickness, the human offered a stinging slap to the Cresta’s hindquarters and dodged away, whining.
That did it. The Cresta’s usually controlled demeanor devolved into a snorting catastrophe.
The crowd laughed.
Clare strode away from the gathering crowd as the whirling blades of the Interventionists copter approached.
A woman’s voice rang shrill above the noise. “Flip him on his back, boys, then they can haul him off easier!”
Score one for the home team! Clare grinned and shook her head at the irony of it all. She hated mindless blood sports, but she couldn’t help cheering every time a human got the better of an alien.
She sailed across the street, scrolling through her datapad.
Her smile faded. Mrs. Lane Hoggsworth had been found dead in her home late last night, Day 73, Year 53 Newearth reckoning. Clare’s brows furrowed in irritation. If the woman had been more important, Human Services would have pulled in a high-profile investigator, but as it stood, she was only important to her family, and they didn’t have much money or influence. After all, the deplorably dark saying, “It’s only a human,” held sway in a world where humans were the minority and considered, by some, to rate only slightly above their wildlife counterparts—like snakes and eagles.
She checked the time and her scowl deepened. If Bala showed up late for his first big assignment, there’d be trouble. She wasn’t going to blow this case, not for him and his silly-fool addiction to hearth and home. Not that she minded his family-ties mindset. Everyone had a right to an obsession. She planned to build a safe house in the wilderness someday. She had even saved up for flying lessons. But with each new case, she realized there was no escaping Newearth reality. Not even on an island.
Clare rounded the corner and ducked into The Breakfast Nook, nearly colliding with Bala’s skinny frame. “You’re late!”
“Am not!” Bala held up his datapad and smirked. “Thirty seconds to go.” He tapped his finger on his wrist screen, his copper-colored face breaking into a wide smile. “Good thing I have a timer, or I might’ve been. You should have seen Kendra jump when the alarm went off. I set it so loud the whole street could hear it.”
Clare shook her head and waved him through the door. “It amazes me that you manage to keep your head attached. Some folks don’t take kindly to loud noises. How about if—”
A seven-foot Ingot hostess with thick bio-armor and leathery skin ushered them to a booth in the back. “—A Bhuac took offense? You know how irritable they get with high-pitched sounds. One could have slipped over and picked off half of your family.”
Bala grimaced. “You’re always exaggerating! It so happens that we do have a shape-shifter down the way, but we’ve been on very good terms ever since I saved one of their pod-thingys from submersion. How it got in the gutter—don’t even ask— but I was in the right place at the right time and, you know, as secretive as they can be, they really do have a deep capacity for gratitude.”
“Oh, please!” Clare looked up at the impatient hostess. “Coffee, strong as you can make it while still keeping it liquid, a honey-grain bar, large energizer salad, and fruit of the day.”
The hostess turned her full black-eyed glare upon Bala who was perusing the menu as if he hadn’t memorized it long ago. “Coffee, cream, toast and…some bacon and eggs.”
The hostess lunged. She gripped Bala’s heavy plaid shirt and hauled his whole body into the air, leaving Clare stunned into gasping silence.
With arms flailing helplessly, Bala had just enough air to beg. “Just a joke! Really. Kidding. I didn’t mean anything… seriously. Let me down. Please?”
The hostess dropped him and shook her datapad in his face. Her techno-organic armor glistened a reddish-purple as her breathing helm hissed. “You want to order, then order. No sick jokes. Eggs and bacon! What next? You think it’s funny to talk like that, but there are some who wouldn’t mind eating you!”
Bala rubbed his neck and sniffed in a long cleansing breath. “You’re right, it was stupid of me. Really… quite insensitive. I’d just been reading some Oldearth novels, you know. Fiction? Stories? Anyway, they made everything sound so delicious— Sorry! I didn’t mean that. I just—”
Clare’s glare could have melted a polar cap. “Would you order before you get us both killed?”
“Coffee, chocolate pudding, and a raisin-nut bar, extra-large.”
The hostess pounded away, huffing.
“You are such an idiot sometimes, you know that? What was I thinking when I hired you?”
Bala’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Oh, you were thanking God above that I’m going to save you from the hideous fate of trying to solve all of humanity’s problems single-handedly. It is funny how we don’t recognize our good fortune when it’s staring right at us.” Bala’s grin practically engulfed his face.
Slapping her hand on the table, Clare leaned in and hissed, “Good fortune? It was pity, pure and simple. I couldn’t let that lovely wife of yours and your brood of—how many is it now— six? Six helpless humanoids suffer from the sad fate of having you as the head of provisions.”
Bala turned his less-than-symmetrical face aside to display his profile. “At least I’m as handsome as a Greek god, you’ve gotta give me that.”
The hostess returned and slammed down two mugs of steaming coffee, slopping a little on Bala’s hand.
Bala slipped his hand into his lap with a stifled “Ooo-ahh,” looking every which way but at the hostess.
Clare nodded her appreciation and waited till the hostess stomped off.
“As I was saying, we have a job to do. Mrs. Hoggsworth didn’t blow a hole through herself. Her husband is nearly suicidal and her son wants revenge. Neither of them has much money, but the son has connections to the Michigan territories. I’ve got my eye on a little spot over there. If we can work out a deal, I might be able to find a place for my island getaway, and you might get a little stretch in the woodlands on the northern coast. It’d be away from the usual madness, and you could raise your clan in relative safety.” Clare clapped her hand on her forehead. “So long as you don’t go around ordering bacon and eggs.”
Bala leaned in, returning her earlier hiss. “Listen, there are those of us who believe that meat and eggs are not off the menu. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of animal flesh, so long as it isn’t from one of the sentient beings.”
“Tell that to one of the Race Relation Councilors, and you’ll find yourself in treatment, boy-o.”
The hostess slipped two metal plates with their breakfast assortment in front of them and twitched as another customer snapped for her attention.
Bala and Clare stared at the plates, switched them, and began to eat.
Bala talked around chews. “So where do we begin?”
“At the house. The Hoggsworths live on Memory Lane near the shore, right across from the University. I went by there earlier to make some initial inquiries. As I said, Mr. Hoggsworth is near despair while his son, Tim, is ready to kill someone. I promised we’d be back, so I want to swing by first and talk to the neighbors, review the facts, and see I missed any other biosamples.” Dusting away the crumbs from her grain bar, Clare tucked into her salad.
“Oh, this is good!” Clare took a long sip of her coffee. “You’re going to take the samples back to the lab, run them, and do a background check on everyone near the scene. Ordinary stuff. I’m convinced the history professor, Baltimore, is guilty. He got into an exchange with Mrs. Hoggsworth over a history paper he assigned Junior. I guess he’s into revisionist history, rewriting the past age, and making things look nice for the present.”
Clare’s gaze scrolled down her datapad. “Mrs. Hoggsworth apparently took exception. Not surprising, though she was a fool to make it so obvious. Everyone knows that the professors are protected.” She glanced at Bala. “I doubt Old Baltimore killed her himself. He’s human with a bad back and skinny arms. Hardly the type to face an enraged mother one-on-one. ” She wiped her lips and pushed her plate aside. “My guess is, he hired a thug, probably one of those—”
The hostess slammed down a metallic fist and stared at Clare. “You paying?”
Clare’s eyebrows rose. “I always do.”
“The cashier’s broken. You’ll have to pay me directly.”
Clare tilted her head sideways and scanned the room. It was nearly empty. Stupid! You’re supposed to be better trained than this! Kicking Bala under the table, she placed both hands on the table edge and the two of them flung the light structure into the hostess’ chest.
Jumping to her feet, Clare called for the owner. “Hey, Riko! Your help wants me to pay her directly. That okay with you?”
Riko, a slim Uanyi marched forward. His soft, rubbery exoskeleton gleamed through a crisp, white shirt. His enormous eyes bulged as his crab-like mandibles twitched under his breathing mask. “I told you last time, it’d be the salvage yard if you tried it again!”
Clare dashed to the cashier in attendance, a pretty, human-looking Bhuac. In a matter of seconds, Clare paid her bill and tugged at Bala’s sleeve. “You don’t want to see this. Really.”
Bala stared, fascinated. “You think he’ll really—?”
“That’s not our concern. We’re humans, remember?”
“Yeah, but where I grew up, we all got along. We helped out when—”
“You were living off-planet in some airy-fairy religious fantasyland. This is Newearth, boy-o, this is the real world, and here, you don’t get involved with other species. Let’s go.”
Bala turned as a loud hiss issued from the backroom, where Riko had ushered the hostess moments before.
Clare stepped on the threshold when a hand stopped her.
“Excuse me. But are you Detective Smith?”
Clare appraised the thirty-something man in front of her. He was tall, with dark curly hair, chocolate brown eyes, a jutting chin, a massive chest, and large hands. He certainly wouldn’t be up for any “ideal specimen” awards, but then again, you never knew. There was that hideous guy from Old-Chicago. Women fell for him right and left. Funny that. Not that I’m looking— Clare shook herself.
“What can I do for you?”
“Can we talk somewhere…privately?”
Clare checked her datapad and flashed a glance at Bala. “We have an appointment in a few minutes, but if you want, I can meet you later.”
“How about the Coliseum? The government types will be leaving about dusk.”
“That’ll work. Could I buy you dinner?”
“I never eat with prospective clients. But I’ll take some coffee—decaf or I’ll never sleep.”
Clare turned away but then stopped herself. “Is it a murder case?”
“No, a missing person.”
“Okay. You got a name? Maybe I can look something up when I have a free moment.”
“You can’t. He’s not missing. Yet.”
As Derik stood in front of the Oldearth-styled restaurant known as the Coliseum, the city slowed to an evening pace. Derik ran his fingers up and down his arms. The bulges were definitely larger. He wiped sweat from his brow and wondered again about the sea scent that followed him everywhere.
The rosy sunset settled behind the silhouetted trees in the park, sweeping his anxieties aside. He marveled at the simple beauty that arrived with glorious regularity each day. If only—
“Hi! Have you been waiting long?”
Derik nearly jumped out of his skin, though he realized with a tinge of fear that his skin no longer felt like his own. “Uh, no. I’ve— I’ve just been admiring—the sunset.” He waited for the smirk…the bewildered stare.
Clare turned and joined him, facing west. A sudden breeze caught her hair, sending wisps cascading against her pink cheeks.
Derik marveled. How could such stern, uncompromising lips be transformed into such soft, inviting— “Uh? What?”
Clare frowned. “I said, I wonder why God keeps painting such beautiful pictures for such an unappreciative audience.”
Derik swallowed. Had she read his mind? “I was just thinking the same thing. Amazing.”
“Not really. After all, it’s true.” Her gaze rolled over him, apparently making a professional appraisal.
Derik cringed at what those eyes would tell her brain. Yeah, he was a big guy, “relative to an elephant” his foster mother used to say. He felt more related to a mouse.
“Well, for starters, I’d like a name. I can’t just say, hey you, all the time.”
“Yes, of course. My name is Derik, Derik Erland. I’m from the Wisconsin Territories. You ever been there?”
“Yeah, I did some training there. I love the coastal area. So, you want some coffee?”
Derik nodded and led the way up a long flight of stone steps toward the Coliseum’s grand structure with its nine-foot metal doors. Without breaking a sweat, he pulled the door open and stepped aside with a curt bow.
After a moment’s hesitation, Clare strode into the foyer.
A host in his mid-twenties, clean-shaven and with dark hair and darker eyes, wearing a toga-style outfit, ushered up to them. “At your service.”
Clare waved a lazy index finger. “Just coffee, and maybe some of those nut muffins.”
The host bowed and gestured toward a side room. Low tables with enormous pillows were arranged sporadically around the perimeter, while round, dark wood tables polished to a high gloss stood in each corner. A low balcony overlooked a huge sports arena where teams vied for a bloody first-place, day and night.
Derik dashed ahead and nearly knocked Clare down in his effort to pull a chair out for her.
Clare’s eyebrows rose.
Derik heaved a sigh and offered a weak grin. “Sorry. Don’t know my own strength. Still a growing boy, Mom used to say.”
“You? You don’t look like any boys I know. How old are you?”
Derik cleared his throat, pulling on his shirt collar. “Thirty-five.”
Clare sat, her wide-eyed stare appraising his stature. “Your parents had—what? Germanic DNA?”
“Can’t say. I was adopted.”
Clare’s gaze flickered to the sports scene. A hockey game in full swing swirled around the ice, while a five-person fight broke out in the corner. After closing her eyes for a moment, she refastened them on Derik. “Used to?” Clare grimaced. “You said your mom used to say….”
“She’s been gone ten years now. She passed away six months after dad.”
Clare’s eyes softened. “Ouch.”
Derik shrugged away old losses and nodded with a quick smile to a small group of middle-aged men who strolled to a table on their left.
Clare leaned back, apparently relaxed. “You know this place pretty well.”
“My dad used to bring me here when we were traveling. I love Oldearth history, and he thought…well, let’s just say, he always hoped that I’d be inspired by the warrior spirit.”
With a twisted smile, Clare sniffed. “With that body, you don’t need to prove anything.”
A puck slammed into a net, followed by a shout, and ten players pummeled the goalie.
Derik grinned at the players’ antics. “If I were just up against humans, that’d be true. But around here—”
The slump-shouldered host set the platter before them. Clare took a sip, darting a glance at the game as a player was dragged off the floor, a trail of blood streaming behind. She pushed the muffin plate away. “So, you want to tell me about the missing person…who isn’t missing…yet?”
Derik picked a muffin to shreds. With an intake of breath, he steadied himself. “It’s me. I’m the missing person.”
Clare chewed her lip, brushed imaginary crumbs from her fingers daintily, and sighed. “Look, if this is some kind of joke or a really weird pick-up routine, I’m going to be seriously disappointed.”
“I’m not joking and, though you are definitely—well, it’s not that.” Derik wrung his hands in a furious twist. “I need to know who I am. I’m not who I thought I was. Or who my parents said I was. Heck, at the moment…I’m not even sure I’m human!”
As the game ended and the players lined up to shake hands, Clare shook her head. “Oookay, I’ll go along for the ride. But I need more. I feel like I just picked up in the middle—”
“James and Monica Erland adopted me as a baby. The official report said that I was a human abandoned at birth at the Wisconsin Center for Human Services. My parents raised me, even homeschooled me so that I wouldn’t have to deal with all the Exos and their prejudices. My dad studied Oldearth history—a great man.”
“Sounds good. But that hardly explains—”
“I was getting to that. My parents noticed that I grew larger and faster than most kids. They figured I came from some Nordic or Germanic strain. They did a test, but when the results came back, they only joked that my DNA broke their machine. I worried that there was more to it—I was always different.” He rubbed his arms. “A few months ago, I noticed a change—a significant change. I’m long past adolescence, but I feel like I’m just now coming into my own. I feel powerful. And my skin—”
A cleanup crew began mopping up the blood as another team assembled on the stadium floor. This time club-wielding Uanyi players lined up against humans armed with Tasers.
Clare’s wide eyes swiveled from the stadium to Derik. She frowned. “Your skin…?”
Derik pushed up his sleeve and revealed a thick arm coated in what appeared to be a rubbery shell.
Clare reached out a tentative finger and tapped it. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. You see?” Derik leaned in and whispered, huskily. “I’m not human…or at least not pure. I might be a mixed—”
Up flew Clare’s hand. “Sheesh! Keep your voice down. Don’t even say that!” Blowing air between her lips, she ignored the metallic clang announcing the start of the next game. “I see your problem. I’m just not sure how I can help. You’re not really missing. You’re clearly not dead. Perhaps you should see a doctor. This might just be some kind of odd skin condition.”
Derik shook his head like an obstinate ox. “I can’t show this to a doctor! They’d be bound to report it to the authorities.” He leaned back and slouched. “How about if I am…mixed? I’m not supposed to exist.”
Clare frowned, rubbing her eyes. Screams echoed from the side as cheerleaders from opposing teams tried to outshout each other. “I’m just not sure what to do.”
“You’re an investigator. So—investigate. I have a little money. I’ll pay you myself, and once I know the truth…”
Clare sighed heavily and clasped her hands together. “Listen. No one else knows about your little problem, right? Why not just ignore this? Keep your irregularities a secret and pretend you’re human. You’ve made it this far thinking that.”
“I can’t ignore this!” Derik hissed. “How about if I’m an Ingot or a Uanyi? Do you think I’ll be able to keep that a secret? Or worse, how about if I’m a Cresta or some off-world creature I don’t even know about?” Closing his eyes a moment, Derik clenched his hands so tightly they shook. “I’ve always wondered if—”
“Don’t! Don’t go there! By the Divide, you want to get experimented on, killed…and then experimented on some more? I’ll tell you right now; nice beings don’t do that kinda stuff. Finding out who’s behind this could be very risky.”
Derik threw up his hands in surrender. “You’re right. I should never have asked you. This is too dangerous, and I’ve no right to involve anyone else.” Derik looked away, blinking back despair. “I’m just glad my parents are gone.”
Clare rolled her eyes. “Oh, please! I feel guilty enough. Common sense tells me to run out that door.” She waged a finger at the nearest exit to make her point abundantly clear. “Still, I’ve never been one to shirk a challenge.” Clenching her jaw against a deep okay-I-give-in sigh, she straightened and pulled out her datapad. “But listen, if I don’t discover anything helpful within a month, I’m dropping your case. I might know someone else who could take it, but he’s…well, he’s kind of—” Clare reached across the table and patted Derik’s hand. “I’ll do what I can—promise.”
As Derik returned her smile, a Uanyi player clubbed a human across the back. Another human rushed in and started Tasering the Uanyi long past the three-second limit. Whistles blasted from all sides as referees struggled to separate the furious players.
Derik and Clare stared, dumbfounded.
The host returned, his depression replaced by rage. He glared at Derik’s arm and pursed his lips.
Derik straightened his sleeve and huffed back. “My account, please.”
“…despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” ~J. R. R. Tolkien