With a brown bag pressed to his chest, Cerulean savored the sweet taste in his mouth. No matter how long he lived among humans, he never ceased to marvel at the sheer variety of sense stimulations. Oatmeal-raisin-chocolate chip cookies had to be near the top of his personal list of favorites.
The sun lowered toward the horizon, casting long shadows. Gray clouds crisscrossed the sky while gnarled, old trees adorned their leafy tops with shades of pale yellow and brilliant orange. Flocks of geese gathered on the water’s edge and made final preparations for their hurried flights to warmer and sunnier climates.
Relaxing on his porch, Cerulean peered down into the valley and watched the miniature forms of his neighbors chop a felled tree into manageable pieces. The distant echo of the ax thwacking to the rhythmic ebb and flow of their alternating strokes comforted him. No one could be sick on such a beautiful day in such a vibrant world. Especially not him.
As he was one of the founders of Newearth, he’d had the first pick of the land. He had considered settling on Anne’s old homestead, but the emotionally-charged memories overwhelmed him. Instead, he had moved north, into Wisconsin Territory, on property bordering a great lake. It had once been the site of an extensive stone and wood mansion. He had found enough ruins bearing testimony to the past owner’s investment to assure him that he was not the first to value this particular view. The blue lake spread majestically before him, while a verdant valley lay to the east. Thick woods shrouded the northwest.
Cerulean sighed. He had accepted the protector role with weary hesitation, but even in their short acquaintance, he had come to love and respect these honest families and the lives they crafted in natural simplicity. Giving in to the innocent pleasure of a sweet morsel, he leaned back and closed his eyes.
“Hey, handsome. Got time for a world-weary detective?”
Cerulean choked on his cookie as he jerked forward.
Clare, looking not unlike her great-great-aunt Jackie, stared at him through teasing eyes.
Brushing away imaginary crumbs to regain his stricken dignity, Cerulean glared at her. “Why do you always sneak up on me like that?”
“It’s in my job description…being sneaky. How else am I going to find the latest killer?”
Cerulean nudged the other rocker in her direction with his toe. “Yeah, killer-catcher. Here, sit down. Tell me about it. Life has been quiet of late.”
Clare plopped down with a heavy sigh, her gaze absorbing the gorgeous scene. “I wish I had a retreat like this.”
“You can retreat here—anytime. You know that.” Cerulean eyed the dark circles under Clare’s eyes and her furrowed brow. “I thought you loved your work. You’ve wanted to become a Human Services Detective for so long—”
Clare leaned forward, slapping her hands over her eyes and groaned. “Oh, Cerulean, if only you knew!”
Rising, Cerulean shuffled to Clare’s side. “Hey, now, it can’t be that bad. There’s no war declared…that I know of. You’re in one piece.” Cerulean stroked her hair.
Clare sniffed, raised her head, and rubbed her eyes. “Sorry. It’s just that sometimes—”
With a grin, Cerulean waved her explanation aside. “Trust me, I understand—more than you know.” He reached for his paper bag. “Want a cookie?”
Clare sighed and pulled out a sample.
“I can do even better than that. See those fellows down there? Their wives grow the best tea this side of the Divide. It’s great for the nerves and helps you sleep. How about I brew some?”
A flock of birds settled in the trees off to the left, chirping their last songs of the day. The lake turned from blue to gray-black as clouds marshaled their forces overhead and the sunlight faded into twilight.
“Yeah, sure. I could use something.”
Cerulean led the way into a spacious, wood-beamed, country kitchen. He took a canister from the shelf and pried off the top. He motioned to an assortment of cups on the dish rack. “Go ahead; pick one. I’ll get the water on.”
A puzzle lay strewn across a large, oak table, framed by matching benches. After setting everything in order, Cerulean sat across Clare and motioned to the partially assembled picture of the Luxonian skyline. “It helps pass the time. Feel free.”
Clare slid onto the bench and picked up a red border and slid it into an empty slot. It fit perfectly. She shrugged. “Beginner’s luck.”
Cerulean picked up another piece and considered his options. “So, tell me, why can’t you sleep?”
Clare closed her eyes, clenching her hands. “It’s these dreams. You remember when my parents died? Everyone said it was an accident, but I never believed that. My mom knew her fungi. She’d never make a mushroom soup out of those poisonous things. The whole thing reeked of foul play.”
Cerulean tried to force a piece into place. “Why would anyone want to poison your parents? They had no known enemies. There weren’t any aliens around their place for a hundred kilometers. Frankly, I could never make any sense out of their deaths either. It could’ve been an accident.”
Clare linked three pieces together, puckering her brow as she considered where to put them. “Shortly before their deaths, I started having dreams. Something…someone came to me at night, a mind visitor of sorts. He had a husky voice, like he was using a translator or something. He seemed to want to be my friend—at first. He told me he was lonely.” Clare dropped the pieces and they fell apart. She shuddered. “I was just a little kid; I believed him. My parents used to talk about how Great-Aunt Anne thought you were a guardian angel. And when I asked what an angel was, they described a heavenly spirit. So, I thought—”
Cerulean swallowed. His face paled as he stopped trying to force the piece and considered it more closely. “So, what happened to him?”
Clare fiddled with the pieces she had dropped. “Nothing much. He’d come every now and again and ask me how I felt. Weird. He liked it when I described my feelings. He knew a lot about me, but he always wanted more.”
“No.” Clare shook her head, wisps of disheveled hair falling into her eyes. “He just wanted to know how I felt—no matter how bad. I told my parents, but they thought I’d been dreaming. And I figured they must be right—until the day they died. He hadn’t communicated with me for a while and I’d thought he was gone, but that night, he came back. He wanted to know how it felt to see my parents dead.” Tears slipped down Clare’s cheeks. “I told him to go away and never come back.”
Cerulean’s gaze fixed on Clare. “Did he?”
“He tried a few more times…but I closed my mind. I recited math formulas, sang snatches of songs, prayers…anything to block him out. Eventually he…it gave up.” Clare heaved a sigh as she surveyed the puzzle again.
The kettle whistled. Cerulean rose and poured steamy, hot water into the teapot. He nudged the sugar towards Clare and returned to his bench. “I wish I had something a bit stronger.”
Wearily, Clare poured the fresh brew into her cup. She took a tentative sip and forced a smile. “It’s good.”
Cerulean poured himself a cup and blew a cleansing breath. “So, what’s brought all this back now? Has he returned?”
“Not exactly. It’s just that I’m working for this guy, Derik. He’s supposed to be human but now…well, it looks like he’s the product of some kind of a mixed-race experiment. From everything I’ve discovered, and I’ve been doing a lot of digging, there have been only two other cases of this kind, and they were hushed up real quick. All evidence was destroyed and everyone pretended that it never happened. Lucky for me, I have friends, so I was able to interview some key people.”
“You think this guy is related somehow to the voice you heard?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve carried this secret with me for twenty years, and this guy’s been lied to all his life. As far as some races are concerned, we’re nothing but pests, for others, we’re lab rats.”
“Oh, but it happens. Don’t bat your innocent blue eyes at me. I know you don’t like to think about it, but even Luxonians….”
Cerulean frowned. “That was a long time ago and only some Luxonians.”
Clare picked up another puzzle piece and waved it in the air. “I know, and I’m not trying to be unfair. It’s just that I really want to help this guy, but I’m afraid of what I’m up against.”
Cerulean snapped his piece into place. “Once you have identified his DNA, what more can you do? You figured that out, right?”
“Yeah, he’s part Cresta. Poor guy. I don’t even want to tell him. The lab reports came to my office yesterday. He’s a nice guy, but I wonder what this’ll do to him.”
Cerulean nodded and rose. He peered into a black bay window, which reflected his somber face. “That’s not the worst, I assure you.”
Clare stared at his back. “Why?”
Turning around, Cerulean met Clare’s demanding gaze. “He’s illegal.”
Clare slid off the bench. “Well, that’s hardly his fault. It’s against the law to murder a sentient being, no matter its heritage.”
“I doubt his creators will care.”
“Oh—” Clare’s eyes widened, horror-struck. “If anyone else finds out what I’ve done, and it leads back— I’ve got to warn him!” Clare raced to the door.
Cerulean grabbed her by the arm. “You’ll do no such thing! You’re already in over your head. Wait and let me think. That voice you heard—that scares me more than your friend’s story.“
“But I can’t abandon Derik! He needs me.”
“You won’t. We won’t. I have friends too, you know.” Cerulean rescued the puzzle piece from Clare’s hand and placed it on the table. “We’ll figure this out—together.”
Clare sat in her living room in the small farming town of Waukee and stared at the DNA report on her computer screen. Derik Erland: 37% Cresta, 63% human. “Well, at least the human part outweighs the Cresta.” She pounded the desk. “Damn! He might end up all Cresta.”
Blaring music pounded from her neighbor’s house. Clare glared at the open window. Part of the reason she had moved into this ramshackle, country house was to avoid the crush of the city and revel in open spaces. Most of her neighbors were the typical farmer-types, quiet and with little nightlife. She had assumed that also meant little music-life, but this particular neighbor clashed with rural tradition. As a middle-aged musician, she would float strands of haunting Oldearth classical music into the somnolent darkness at midnight, then turn around and blare Newearth jingles by day, and throw in an eclectic mix of alien-tunes at odd moments to startle everyone. Clare sighed.
After striding to the open window, she considered shutting out the sound, but she knew from experience that would only mute the cacophony to an irritating thump. There was no way to solve a stupid neighbor problem, other than put up with it until fate intervened. She hoped that fate had nimble feet.
She shuffled back to her computer and shook her head at the open file. If she abandoned Derik’s case, she might as well abandon a dozen others. None of them were safe. Being human wasn’t safe. So why did she want to let this case slip by? She pictured Derik’s face and smiled, but then she remembered his Cresta DNA and shivered.
Someone outside yelled. “Hey, honey, you keep that music so loud, you’ll attract a nest of Ugani and you’ll have a party on your hands.”
The music stopped.
Clare ran to the front door and swung it open. Bala’s wife, Kendra, stood on the doorstep, a dish pressed to her chest. “I thought I’d bring this back since I was in the neighborhood.” She glanced at the neighbor’s house. “Whoo-hoo! You weren’t exaggerating. I should send Bala over with a warrant. That woman should be locked up in isolation for a month. Nothing will cure a person of foolishness faster than having to keep themselves sane.”
Clare blinked as she relieved Kendra of the casserole dish and squeezed her in a quick hug. “Come on in. I could use someone with common sense.”
Kendra bounced into the kitchen and laughed. “Oh good! You got someone with common sense inside? Can’t wait to meet ‘em…been waiting my whole life.”
Clare shut the door and led Kendra to her small, single counter. “Want something?”
“Water would be a blessing. I thought I’d melt with pity, leaving Bala with the kids. He was being buried under little bodies as I stepped out the door…”
“Bala’s as capable of manhandling that mob of yours as anyone I know. If you’re not careful, he’ll have them all practicing to be good little soldiers in God’s army and have the whole house swept and polished by the time you get back.”
Kendra’s eyes twinkled as she accepted the glass of water.
“It would be like him. Dear, skinny man.” Kendra took a long drink and then ran an appraising gaze over Clare. “So what’s going on with you? Bala said you practically abandoned him, leaving him to handle the Hoggsworth case while you took sole control of this mixed-race—”
“He told you!” A fierce blush ran rampant over Clare’s face. “About Derik being mixed race? He wasn’t supposed to tell anybody!”
“Oh, don’t worry. Bala tells me everything, and I tell him practically nothing. I’m not about to get your poor Derik killed. That’s not why I’m here.”
Clare’s eyes narrowed. “So? Why are you here?”
Pointing to the counter, Kendra sniffed. “Casserole dish.” She clapped her hands, discharging the heavyweight of responsibility. “I hate leftover dishes, especially the Oldearth ceramic kind. I get all paranoid that it’ll break and I’ll have to buy a new one, except they don’t make that kind anymore so I’ll have to take some stupid ceramic class, and it’ll take me about twenty years to figure out how they do that glazing thing, and by then I’ll be in my grave doing time you-know-where for breaking the blinking thing in the first place.” Kendra glanced at her datapad. “Oh, and I have a package to get out. When does your transport close?”
Clare eyed her computer. “In about ten minutes.”
“Oh, glory! Come on. It’s a wedding present…and the wedding’s tomorrow. My name will be synonymous with mud if I don’t hold up the family’s honor with the perfect gift. You know.”
Kendra rushed out of the house, snatched a package out of her autoskimmer, and looked wildly for the Trans-station.
Clare hustled out the door after Kendra. “Down one block, on the right. Here, I’ll show you. Stop floundering and hurry.”
Kendra jogged in step with Clare, who frowned in concentration as if thinking about it would get them there that much faster.
Matching her frown to Clare’s, Kendra waved her free hand. “Dark skies, you look sour! My name might be ruined, but that’s no reason for you to look so grim. What’s going on?”
Clare slowed her pace and nodded to the yellow stone building in front of them. “It’s Derik. I like the guy well enough, but I’d rather not deal with this mess. After all, he’s over thirty percent Cresta. Who knows—?”
Kendra’s eyebrows rose as she took the steps two at a time. “You want to restate that?”
Clare kept pace. “Don’t worry, they’ll stay open for us.” She pushed open the door and entered the Trans-station.
A Bhuac looking very much like an enchanted fairy stood behind the counter.
Kendra deposited her package, allowing the Bhuac to calculate the cost. She turned and faced Clare, her raised eyebrows returning to their previous subject.
Clare leaned on the counter. “Oh, come on. We’ve been dealing with Crestas all our lives. They’re not misunderstood good guys. When we finally find a case where a Cresta is actually innocent, I still wish I could arrest him since I know that he’ll probably commit a crime first chance he gets.”
The Bhuac cleared his throat. “That’ll be 1.23 units.”
Kendra grinned. “Better than I hoped. It’ll get there tomorrow?”
The Bhuac nodded. “By sunrise.”
“You just saved my life.”
The perfect, almond-shaped eyes twinkled. “Glad to be of service.”
Kendra winked at the Bhuac as she left. Sauntering down the steps, she whispered, “They are so cute! Don’t you just want to pick them up and hug ’em?”
“I don’t think that would be…understood.”
“Oh, you know what I mean. They’re so adorable—”
“Bhuacs love idealized forms of creation. They discovered an equivalent tendency in our Oldearth fairies, nymphs, and elves. So, whenever they take on human form, they maintain a bit of the fairy-tale style. Haven’t you ever noticed? You can always tell a Bhuac that way.”
Kendra slapped her face in fascination. “The things you learn as a detective! But—clue me in—when, exactly, did you get infused with the wisdom of God?”
Clare stopped mid-step and turned to face Kendra. “What?”
Kendra mimicked Clare’s inflection perfectly: “After all, he’s over thirty percent Cresta.”
“I’m just telling it like it is.”
Kendra nodded and strode toward her autoskimmer. “So, Derik’s guilty by DNA?”
“You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“I’d rather put sense in your head. Look, Clare, I understand your aversion to Crestas. I feel it too. But I fight against it. Crestas have formed agreements with us and, for the most part, they’ve kept up their end. There are traitors. There’re always traitors, but that’s not the point.”
Clare crossed her arms over her chest. “What is the point? What makes me unfit to judge another race?”
“Free choice? That’s what gives me the right—”
“Condemning a whole race is easy, a lunatic’s response. Only the best of us remember our humanity.”
Clare stopped beside Kendra’s autoskimmer and sighed. “Maybe you’re right. My DNA isn’t so perfect. Only human, after all….”
“Aw, you just need to find the right match. Nothing does so much for a woman’s good sense as looking after a husband.”
Kendra hugged Clare, climbed on her autoskimmer, and slipped a pair of pink goggles over her eyes. “Now, I’d better hurry back to my match…and see if I can scrape him off the floor.”
Standing in his apartment bathroom, Derik peered at his reflection in the mirror and appraised what he saw in cold honesty. He had no doubt the DNA reports were correct. Surely his parents had suspected. Why didn’t they tell me? He rubbed his weary, puffy eyes. They probably hoped it would stay dormant so I’d go to my grave never knowing.
A scuffle outside his door made him turn and frown at the offending sound. After a brave attempt to fix his autoskimmer nearly blew him to bits, he realized that he’d best not attempt any serious home repairs. So he had chosen to live on the second story of a well-managed apartment building. All had gone well, until recently.
A noisy pair of Crestas had moved in on the floor above, and they had a never-ending stream of late-night visitors. If he believed Crestas capable of romance, he would have smiled the incidents away. But Cresta mating procedures were legal affairs and occurred at set times in very specific locations. Midnight interludes with a lady friend simply didn’t enter the Cresta imagination. Though… Derik riffled through some books he had ordered on Cresta life and culture. He had read something about it being a very passionate, almost deadly event. Apparently Cresta females—Derik closed his eyes. No. He didn’t want to think about it.
Tiptoeing to the door, he pressed his ear against the thin wood and listened. The hissing of a breather helm was plain. Someone, probably a Cresta, stood right outside his door. Derik closed his eyes. Dang! Dang! Dang!
A muffled tap startled him.
In a sudden fit of passion, Derik kicked the door. The armored shoe he had taken to wearing to protect his now nearly boneless feet bashed right through the thin composite door.
“Hello?” The mechanical voice sounded curious.
Derik tried to extricate his foot, pushing on the frame as the hinges loosened. “Dang, cheap stuff! I pay good rent and—” With a quick, furious jerk, Derik stood before a wide-eyed Cresta, the door still attached to his foot, hanging at a crazy angle. He chose to ignore the door and struck a casual attitude. “Yes? Can I help you?”
The Cresta barely suppressed a smile. “I believe you can. But may I help you first?” He gripped the door and held it steady.
Derik jiggled his foot until it was free. A long bloody smear showed where a splinter had scratched his leg.
The Cresta pointed with a tentacle. “That looks painful…and dangerous. We should do something.”
Derik backed up, nearly tripping. “Ah, no, it’s nothing. I get scraped all the time. I just ignore it.” A clown would have envied his lopsided grin.
The Cresta lumbered into Derik’s apartment, neatly sidestepping the splinters. “Definitely a bad idea. Infections can lead to sepsis and that will cause death. I’ve seen it before. That’s why I wear this.” He gestured forlornly to his bio-suit. “You see; I know how it feels to be vulnerable.”
Derik propped himself against his bookshelf, clasping his shaking hands. Sweat trickled down the side of his face. “Do I know you…from somewhere?”
The Cresta stumped to Derik’s enormous fish tank and with a wide, childlike grin, he dipped a tentacle into the water. “Beautiful! I should’ve thought….” He turned and faced Derik. “But no, you don’t know me. I, however, know all about you.” The Cresta waved a tentacle in the air. “Please, let’s sit. Something this important should not be rushed.”
Derik’s eyes darted to Cresta-shaped shadows in the open doorway.
“Don’t worry. I asked a couple of my associates to see that no one interrupts us.” The Cresta waved his tentacle again. “Please sit. You’re like an unschooled hatchling.” He chuckled, softly.
Derik stood immobile, his fingers white and bloodless. “Look, I hate to be rude, but I don’t particularly like it when people show up at my door uninvited and then—”
“You had better see to that cut. You will bleed all over your clothes.”
Derik pulled up his pant leg and forced back a gasp. Closing his eyes he swayed and then sat down. He squeezed his hand over the wound.
The Cresta gestured airily with a tentacle. “Where do you keep your bandages?”
Derik winced and nodded to the left. “In the bathroom.”
The Cresta shuffled off.
Derik studied his leg. “Great! Clumsy as a Cresta, but I bleed like a human.”
The Cresta returned with a white package and a small scissors in its tentacles. “Here we are. We’ll have you fixed up in no time.” He motioned for Derik to move over on the couch.
Derik did as directed and looked away during the procedure. He hated to see the tentacles working across his bare flesh, though he had to admit that the Cresta’s touch was very light, and he felt not a particle of pain.
“Done! Good as new.” The Cresta’s golden eyes glowed with the pride of a job well done.
Derik remembered his manners. “Thanks.”
Depositing the last of the bandage roll on the coffee table, the Cresta leaned back and folded its tentacles. “My name is Taug, and I’ve been sent here to kill you.”
Derik’s whole body jerked, his eyes wide and staring.
Taug reached out protectively. “Don’t. There’s no need to panic. I haven’t decided to follow orders—yet.” Taug resituated his tentacles on his lap, attempting to find a comfortable position for what promised to be a serious chat. “You see, you are the result of my father’s dream. But Crestas signed an agreement years ago with the Inter-Alien Commission to never perform crossbreed experiments. That doesn’t mean we don’t perform other experiments, but it does mean that obvious proof of our breaking the law would put us—shall we say—in dark waters. So, you, as a mixed-breed human, are in need of aid and advice. I am here to give that.”
Derik was trying hard not to swallow his heart, which had somehow managed to climb into his throat. “Mr. Taug, I appreciate—”
“Just call me Taug.”
“Well, Taug….” Derik wrapped his arms around his body and tried not throw up. “I appreciate what you are trying to do—I think. But the fact is—” He jumped to his feet and winced.
Pacing around the room, he hugged himself to keep the shakes from rattling him into a million pieces. “Humans won’t accept me and, as you say, I’m an embarrassing mistake to Crestas.” He stopped and stared at Taug defiantly. “If I had an ounce of courage, I’d drown myself.”
“Ah, that would be difficult. You’re growing gills—the Cresta in you, I’m afraid.”
Derik hung his head. Tears welled in his eyes, but he forced himself to maintain control with a violent shudder.
Taug appraised Derik with concern. “You are unwell. I understand that this is a shock. Though you must have known that you were not fully human for some time now. Crestas begin to mature at about thirty.”
Waving the difference away like an indulgent father, Taug attempted a soothing tone. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. Some develop a little slower than others.”
Taug blinked as he turned his full gaze upon Derik. “I came here to appraise the true situation. It’s not your fault that you were created by a well-meaning being who misjudged the generosity of his race.”
Derik raised his head. “Excuse me?”
Taug’s tentacles spread benevolently before him. “That’s why I’ve come. You have a right to know. Even if we are forced to…eliminate you, at least you have a right to understand why you were created, and perhaps, why you must die.”
A tear slid down Derik’s cheek. “You know, it sounds awful when you say it, but in a way, I’m relieved. I wanted to know. And I appreciate the decency in you to be willing to explain.”
Taug bowed his head and tapped two tentacles together meditatively. “My father was a scientist and a dreamer. My mother found certain aspects of his personality…challenging. She said he ought to write fiction.” Taug wiggled gleefully. “They were like that, playful insults swirling through the water at all hours. But I digress.
“My father believed that Newearth embodied the ideal experimental environment. He knew, all too well, that inter-alien conflicts waste tremendous resources. He felt that there had to be a better way. So, he approached our scientific leadership with the idea of creating crossbreeds to ensure better relations, but the Inter-Alien Commission had just signed a treaty to desist from crossbreeding with humans. Seems that humans can’t see protein for what it is…but that’s another debate.
“My father decided to create one crossbreed in secret, hoping that if he could raise the thing, it would prove his theory. Apparently, two others, quite inferior, were created, soon discovered, and quickly destroyed. Then you were created, but not long after, my father died. I have always wondered if—but, again, I digress.
“Someone—I have long suspected my mother—stole you away and placed you in an adoption agency. You have lived, hidden in plain sight these thirty-five years. Only recently were we made aware that you were beginning to develop. My superiors approached me with clear instructions.”
“To kill me.”
“To eliminate my father’s mistake.” Taug patted Derik on the knee with one tentacle. “But you know, there are many ways to approach the word eliminate. Now that I’ve met you, I want to consider matters more deeply before taking action.”
“You mean—you’re not going to kill me?”
“Not today.” Taug rose to his feet. “You must understand. If it gets out that we broke our word and, worse yet, that we kept the result hidden after we discovered our mistake, it would look very bad, indeed. No one would trust us again. And trust is what makes the world go round, they say.”
Derik’s eyes begged. “But I’m an innocent man.”
“Yes, there’s that too.” Taug lumbered toward the broken door. “I have much to consider. There are more beings than myself involved. You understand?”
Derik shuffled in step with Taug. He stared absently at the splintered frame.
“You’ll need to get that fixed. Oh, and take care of that wound. We don’t want that to fester.”
Derik ran a finger along the ragged edge. “Who cares?”
Stepping through the doorway, Taug murmured. “I do.”
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ~Mother Teresa
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