A Small Matter
A sudden cold blast swirled orange and yellow leaves around like a graceful tornado. The leaden sky foretold a storm to come.
Justine strode through gleaming glass doors into the Cresta science building, a stark structure with little ornamentation, aside from brilliant white walls painted with intertwining blue-green waves, undulating in swirls along the corridor.
Justine didn’t try to hide the smirk that broke the usual straight line of her mouth as she entered. Scientists to their flabby cores. Why do they bother with primitive art?
Eschewing the lift to the fifteenth floor, she ascended the steps at a rapid pace. An overweight man with graying temples and slumped shoulders huffed his way down the steps and almost smacked into Justine, forcing her to stop. His dark-circled eyes widened in surprise, and then just as quickly, crinkled into appreciative desire.
Without hesitation, Justine took the steps three at a time, disappearing from view within seconds. By the time she reached Taug’s floor, she looked down the circular staircase and beheld the speck of a man still standing there. Her smirk turned into a headshaking frown.
“Taug?” Justine entered the laboratory and appraised the expensive medical equipment standing, hanging, and lying on steel tables. An examination tube extended from the wall while an obscured dissection victim floated in amber liquid and patiently laid in wait. A Cresta’s vision of Heaven.
A shuffling noise turned her attention to the curved wall that narrowed into a tunnel on the left.
Taug padded into view. He looked up, and his puffy lips broke into a broad grin. “You are on time. Excellent! I should’ve had more trust. I was just pondering what to do if you didn’t show up.”
Justine fingered a long tube that ended in a spray gun, her eyes wandering the length as if to judge how far it would reach. “And?”
Taug lumbered up and waved her hand off the tube. “Careful, that’s not mine. I’m here as a guest. It would cost more than I will earn in a Cresta year to pay the fine if anything were broken.” His winning grin softened the chastisement.
Justine slid her hand down the tube and turned toward a six-foot window facing the bustling city below. “What would you have done?”
Taug shook a tentacle playfully as his watery brown eyes gleamed in appreciation. “You have wit and persistence. Two traits I admire very much.” He turned toward the dissection tube. “I would have sent out a bulletin describing you down to your nano-cells, alerting the public that a dangerous android was on the loose and must be destroyed by order of the Inter-Alien Commission.”
“A lie that you could never explain away.”
“I wouldn’t have to. As far as the Inter-Alien Commission knows, you don’t exist. I could make up an extravagant lie, and they would have no knowledge to refute my argument. I would win by default.”
Justine took a step nearer the bulky form. Her eyes narrowed. “You. Are. Dangerous.”
Taug’s grin twisted, offering a one-shouldered shrug. “True. But that makes two of us. You see now why I’m so happy you came.” He padded to the window and nodded toward the milling throng appearing as multicolored dots to his Cresta eyes. “They mostly do as they are told because they lack the imagination to do otherwise.” His gaze flitted back to Justine. “Not the case with you.”
“You, a Cresta scientist, dare to flatter me?”
Taug’s shoulders shook with mirth. One tentacle reached out and patted Justine’s shoulder. “You delight me.”
Justine rebutted his twinkling gaze with glowering eyes and a set jaw.
“Yes, well.” He waddled to a desk set against the wall and pulled out an extra-large datapad, useful for beings with poor eyesight. “While you were out familiarizing yourself with your new home, I was busy at work introducing myself to my—”
Taug’s eyes darkened as his fixed smile stiffened. “No, my patient. I intend to study him. My instructions are deceptively simple, but I’m not sure that anyone really understands what they mean.”
“So, why am I here? I have no interest in your studies or your instructions.”
“Your interest is beside the point. I must keep my options open. Above all, I must appear to be following orders. You will assure me of success, no matter what happens.”
“If necessary, you will kill my patient.”
“If I would rather not?”
“Why would you not? He’s nothing to you. You care for no one, remember?”
“When did I say that?”
“You have lived that way your whole existence.”
“I might have changed.”
Taug lifted his datapad. “I am not offering you your past. I am offering you a future.” He tapped on the screen and a hologram of Justine appeared in front of them. The spaces designated for name and biography were blank. “Once this task is complete, you will be free to become whomever you wish.”
Justine paced to the window and peered at the milling throng. She could see every grimace, laugh, and furrowed brow. The image of a small crumpled face and wobbling lips forced her to close her eyes.
Taug twitched behind her.
Justine opened her eyes, turned, and locked onto his gaze. “As you say, I do not lack imagination.”
In a calf-length, billowing dress, Justine stood as still as a statue on the Vandi city sidewalk beside a red and yellow lettered sign alerting the pubic to the Book Nook’s “Out of This World Sale.”
Derik bustled by, nearly knocking it into the street.
Justine’s eyes monitored his every move as he neared the busy intersection. Scrolling through a Cresta-sized datapad, he did not see a teen weaving through the crowd in his direction. Suddenly, the boy sprang between him and a waiting Bhuac and then darted forward.
As he was jostled, Derik frowned and looked up in time to see the boy sprint in front of an on-coming autoskimmer. Derik gripped the teen’s arm and yanked him onto his backside.
Justine’s eyes narrowed.
Within seconds, Derik was at the teen’s side, concern etched across his brow.
The teen nodded and bounced to his feet.
Derik patted him on the back. In another moment, the teen was pacing away while Derik’s attention returned to his datapad.
Pursing her lips in determination, Justine marched ahead of Derik, placed herself just within his field of vision, and proceeded to step in front of an oncoming autoskimmer.
Screams set the crowd into action. A Bhuac shrieked for medical assistance, while a Cresta caught the autoskimmer driver—a shaking human with horrified eyes—in a death grip. “Reckless driver!”
The driver protested her innocence, writhing in misery.
Lying prone, Justine looked away and waited.
Derik hobbled over. “Can I help?”
Relief animated Justine’s face. She rose to a sitting position. “I’m all right, just shaken.” She jutted her chin in the direction of the driver and the outraged Cresta. “It wasn’t her fault. I wasn’t looking.” She darted a glance at the driver with a shrug. “Sorry. My mistake.”
The woman huffed, shook off the offending tentacles, and retreated to her vehicle. “Be more careful, would you? Could’ve gotten us both killed.”
Justine nodded. Her eyes skipped back to Derik, and she tilted her head charmingly. She peered into Derik’s brown orbs. Smattered offers of assistance faded into the background. “Could you find me a place to rest?”
Derik glanced about. “Vandi Park is just across the street.”
With a regal-like wave of the hand, she gestured her acceptance. “Please.”
Grinning, Derik led his damsel-in-distress through the gawking crowd. He motioned to a forest-green bench picturesquely placed underneath a golden-red maple tree.
Justine crossed her beautifully shaped legs, threw back her head as the cool autumn breeze caressed her hair, and closed her eyes.
Derik leaned against the tree, his eyes traveling over her perfect form.
Justine opened her violet eyes and caught Derik’s admiring gaze. “You’re a gentleman, sir. Most people get very excited but are of little use in a crisis.”
Raking his fingers through his hair, Derik shrugged. “I like to help when I can.”
Justine’s gaze traveled down Derik’s body, landing unceremoniously on his Cresta-style boots.
After swallowing, Derik coughed and looked away. “I’ve never seen you before. I work in the housing department, so I see almost everyone every couple of years when they renew their permits. You live around here?”
Justine shook her head and searched Derik’s pensive face. “Not yet. I just arrived a few days ago. If you have any suggestions—?”
Derik returned his gaze to her with a twinkling grin. “How about dinner and we discuss possibilities?”
Justine’s eyebrows rose. Yes, she had to agree with Taug, this mixed breed might be worth getting to know.
A solid knock shattered Derik’s free-spirited humming. His hand froze over the top button of his dress shirt as he darted a scowl from the hall mirror to the new three-paneled door. Five indecisive seconds passed before he marched over and swung the door wide. “What?”
Cerulean, straight shouldered and dressed in a casual jacket and slacks, stood before him, one eyebrow raised. “Please tell me you don’t do that every time someone knocks on your door.”
Derik’s scowl darkened. “What’s it to you?”
Cerulean pointed into the living room. “May I? This isn’t the kind of thing I like to discuss in the hallway.”
Derik threw up his hands. “Why not? Seems like everyone feels more comfortable in my living room.”
Cerulean appraised the large bookshelves, the assortment of Oldearth artifacts, and two very good oil paintings.
“You’re not here to tell me that you plan to kill me? Are you?”
Cerulean spun around. “No. Why do you ask?”
“It’s been done once this week. It’d get boring if we repeated it.”
Cerulean heaved a sigh. “That’s what I was afraid of. I told Clare this was too big for her.”
“You know Clare? The detective for Human Services?”
“She’s a friend of mine. My name is Cerulean.” He offered his hand.
Derik’s gaze shifted aside, passing up the offer. “Yeah, well, she’s a friend of mine too, but she can’t help me now.” Reflexively, Derik smoothed down his shirtsleeves.
“Why is that?”
“Listen, you just barge in here acting like you know all about me and—wait, what do you know?”
Cerulean nodded toward the couch. “May I?”
Waving his hand in impatience, Derik tramped across the room. “Just sit, would you? Now talk!”
With an ill-boding creak, the couch sagged as Cerulean sat precariously on the edge and laced his fingers. “It’s not complicated. Clare told me about your predicament. She’s gotten the DNA results back and—”
Retreating to the hall mirror, Derik made quick adjustments. He sucked in his gut, tucked his shirttails, and straightened his collar. “I got the results too. Some Cresta brain created me in his lab, and it turns out that his son—Taug by name—has been sent to eliminate his father’s—shall we say—indiscretion.”
Cerulean rose, his face flushed. “How’d you find out about Taug? I had to pull a lot of strings to learn that. It was a Taugron who created you.”
Turning from side to side, Derik nodded approval at his appearance. “Well, Taugron must be Taug’s dad because he told me that his father created me.” A quick run-through with the brush and Derik stood in front of Cerulean. “He explained the whole thing very nicely…considering.”
The sun could have just imploded from the expression on Cerulean’s face. “Taug was here?”
“Sat on that very same couch. He was actually pretty nice, even bandaged—anyway, he’s not planning on eliminating me—today.”
Cerulean slapped his hand to his cheek and paced across the room. “I don’t understand. Why reveal himself?” He spun around. “What did he want?”
White knuckling the edge of the couch, Derik tried to pass off a lighthearted shrug. “To tell me the truth. He figured that if I understood why I was created, maybe I’d be able to accept the need to eliminate me.”
“What?” Cerulean gripped Derik’s arm. “And you believe him? He’s a Cresta!”
His affected composure failing, Derik jerked his arm free. “He cares about me!”
Cerulean snorted as he backed off. “Crestas don’t care about anyone outside their own race.”
Pulling himself up to full height, Derik rolled up one sleeve and revealed his darkened, enlarged arms. “I’m Cresta, remember?”
“Only thirty-seven percent—remember?”
A sharp knock on the door froze them in place. With a shake, Derik glared at Cerulean and marched to the door.
Cerulean stepped in his way. “Be careful. You don’t know who’s out there.”
Derik nudged Cerulean aside. “My days of being careful are over. Besides, I have a date, and I’m not about to be late.”
Derik flung open the door and faced Justine’s perfect face and form.
Her violet eyes peered into his. “I thought we were supposed to meet at the Coliseum an hour ago. You didn’t show up so I—”
“An hour ago?” Derik fumbled to retrieve his datapad from a deep pocket. His eyes widened. “It’s dead! I thought these never died. I mean—sorry, come in. I appreciate your concern.” He glared at Cerulean. “Some other day, eh?” He flashed a lopsided grin at Justine. “I’ll just grab my jacket.” Derik hurried down the hall, speaking over his shoulder. “Bye, Cerulean.”
Cerulean wandered closer to the woman, mesmerized.
Justine stood her ground, her gaze roaming freely over Cerulean. An image of him standing over her filled her mind. She felt the warmth of his touch—“Cerulean?”
Derik reentered the room glancing from Justine to Cerulean. “Still here?” He sidestepped the older man. “If you want to stay, fine. There’s not much to steal but lock up when you leave.” He took Justine’s arm. “Let’s go.” Suddenly he frowned and stopped in mid-step. “Wait. How’d you know where I lived?”
Justine smiled brilliantly as she wrapped his bulky arm around hers. “You said you worked at the Housing Department. I looked you up. Easy.”
Derik continued his forward momentum. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Getting paranoid.”
Justine glanced into Cerulean’s eyes as she passed. “Bye, Cerulean”
Cerulean nodded. “Justine.”
Mitholie’s relaxed, dripping face appeared on a wide holo-screen. His tentacles rested on the hard edge of a murky green pool. He beamed. “Hello, my friend! How do you like your new home?”
With aching feet and chaffed skin, Taug stood stiffly in front of a stark wall-sized screen in the laboratory and smirked in re- retaliation. “Newearth has been very pleasant, though it’s always a challenge getting accustomed to the necessary adaptations.”
“Ah, yes. I hate the suits. Life out of water.” The smug grin widened. “But never mind; you were made for adventure. I assume you have news?”
Taug huffed through his breather helm, his tentacles clenched around his middle as if holding back spontaneous combustion. “I have made contact and arranged for a skilled professional to attend to the situation.”
Mitholie’s upper body wiggled in exuberance. “Wonderful! Wonderful! The dark waters will converge, covering everything. Your father’s memory will be only that—a memory.”
Taug’s tentacles squeezed tighter. “Thank you.”
A grand wave dismissed Taug’s humility. “Don’t thank me. I just want to see you home again. Soon. There are changes planned.” Mitholie’s eyes glittered, reflecting rainbows dancing off the gentle waves.
“I will see to matters.”
“Good! Very good! I know it’s annoying, but the High Council—”
Mitholie readied himself for an exuberant dive. “After all, it’s a small matter.” He nodded to the pool. “The water calls.”
Taug unwrapped his tentacles, spreading them wide in obeisance as he bowed his head.
The screen blinked into blackness.
As he stood alone in the dry, dark room, Taug’s head rose, his shoulders straightened, and a gleam sparkled from his half-lidded eyes.
“More important than finding the truth—is finding the reason why one needs to lie.”
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