Derik sat across from Justine, marveling at the vision of loveliness before him. His hand trembled as he laid it on the immaculate tablecloth in front of hers.
A crowd roared in the background. Three opposing teams rushed onto a hard floor, swinging metal balls at the end of stout poles.
Justine flicked a glance at the game before returning to Derik’s gaze.
Derik shakily touched her fingertips.
Justine observed his imploring hand, mesmerized. Slowly, she extended her hand and intertwined her fingers with his.
Inside the Breakfast Nook, the Ingot hostess pounded across the room. Clare, settled at a long bench, scrolled through her datapad and tapped her fingers on the smooth tabletop.
Derik bustled through the doorway, dark circles under his eyes, searching the room. When he saw Clare, he exhaled in relief and rushed over. “Here you are. I woke up late and couldn’t find this place again. I thought I’d miss—”
The hostess clumped back to the table. “Order?”
Derik swallowed as he appraised the huge Ingot. “Just coffee and a sweet roll—please.”
The hostess charged off.
Derik shook his head. “Is she always so charming?”
“Only when she doesn’t know you.”
Derik tugged at his collar. “You have something to tell me?”
Clare sipped her coffee, assessing him over the lip of the cup. By the time she leaned back, she had made a decision. “You got the report I sent about your DNA results and the ramifications?” Returning his nod, she continued. “You’ll have to deal with some heavy Cresta fallout. You’ll likely be a pretty smart guy as your brain capacity increases, and you’ll live a whole lot longer than the rest of us.”
Derik shrugged. “Yeah, I read all that. But it doesn’t really change anything. I’m still Derik Erlandson. As a matter of fact, I’ve met someone. She’s…well, she’s beautiful, brainy, and has a working knowledge of Oldearth poetry. Wild, eh? But what’s really weird, she likes me.”
“I take it, you like her.” Clare’s expression remained neutral, an impartial judge assessing the latest case.
A nonchalant wave of the hand and an airy tone understated his exuberance. “We’re going out again tonight.”
Clare slapped down her mug and leaned forward. “Listen, I don’t want to make you paranoid or anything, but just so you know, there’re a lot of female hired guns. They get close to their victims and then—”
As if jolted by lightning, Derik jerked forward. “Justine isn’t a hired gun!” Taking a deep breath, he scrambled for a hold on his emotions as his gaze ping-ponged off the walls. “She’s wonderful and beautiful and perfect in every way. So what if she has a mysterious past?”
Derik rubbed his chin nervously. “I tried looking her up, and I couldn’t find anything.”
Clare’s eyebrows rose. “That does not bode well. You checked everywhere?”
Derik bit his lip. “Everywhere that’s legal.”
Clare flicked out her datapad. “Well, just to be on the safe side, let me look into it. What’s her name?”
“Just Justine. She said she didn’t believe in last names.”
“Better and better….” Tucking a wisp of hair back into place, Clare stared into Derik’s eyes. “Okay, I had every intention of telling you that I can’t help you because, to be honest, I don’t think I can. I asked a friend about you, and he wasn’t too happy. Good guy, just a little protective. Don’t worry, he’s old country, a Luxonian from way back. Anyway, he advised me to drop the case and let him look into it. Last time I talked with him, he gave me the most annoying answers, full of tell- me-nothings. But I trust him. He’d warn me if—”
“Cerulean, right? I met him. Nice enough, but the guy has really bad timing. You talk about me a lot?”
“You met him?”
“He came by my place, warned me to be careful. Like I needed a warning.”
Clare folded her arms across her chest, ready for her next lecture. “Listen, Derik, Cerulean’s a pretty important man— Luxonian—I mean. He pointed out—”
“The one who pounded together the Inter-Alien-Alliance.”
“He’s either as brave as an intergalactic trader or an utter fool.”
Clare smashed her hands together into one clenched fist as her tone rose in intensity. “Anyway, he told me that it’d be in everyone’s best interest if I try to keep you alive and well.”
“What do you mean ‘why?’”
“Taug has a point—”
“Perhaps you should have your head examined! Don’t confuse me! I had this all figured out. Do you remember the old stories about when Oldearth was being polluted, these environmentalists convinced people to change their ways by showing them how a healthy planet would help everyone?”
Derik raked his fingers through his hair as he dropped his weary head onto his hand. “Your point?”
“Well, if the world isn’t safe for you—is it safe for anyone?”
Derik tilted his head in a reflective attitude. “Am I worth all this trouble? I just want to be happy a while and let fate have its way. I’m tired of fighting this.”
Clare put her hand over Derik’s. “How about Justine?”
“She doesn’t need me.”
“She’s already perfect. I’m only a mixed—”
“Maybe she needs someone to love. Maybe she isn’t attracted to your biology but your humanity.”
Derik snorted, his gaze turning inward. “Depends on how you define humanity.”
Clare slid off the bench and stared down at Derik. “My point exactly.”
The sun slipped behind the horizon hours ago, but Bala wasn’t ready to return to hearth and home quite yet. A single lamp pooled light on a large, mahogany desk. A framed lace embroidered with the words “Hoggsworth Family” hung at his right. Bala accidentally tilted it as he leaned over, searching through Mrs. Hoggsworth’s computer database.
Governor Jane Right? What about Jane Right? A bigwig in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, she had recently made a splash on Universal News by discovering a cache of old files that proved that her already illustrious family had a new cause to strut their stuff. He scrolled through the information and frowned. But here was a completely different take on that particular family history from a source named Justine. Hmm…
Bala sat down and ran through the files again, mumbling to himself. Who’s Justine? Whoa, if this little lady were alive today, she’d be a cache of information. Governor Jane Right better not believe in ghosts.
Bala ran at full speed, his lungs ready to burst from the effort. He slid past playing children, a speeding autoskimmer, and an amorous Uanyi couple before he reached home. He slammed through the door, skirted past a tail-waving dog, and just managed to slip onto his chair before Kendra placed a steaming plate of rice and vegetables on the table.
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Man-of-mine, if you insist on being late to everything, including my fine dinners, I’m going to tie a string to you and yank when I want you home.”
Bala surveyed the table full of wide-eyed children, his eyes twinkling as he mimicked being yanked by an invisible cord. He fell to the floor, writhing, sending the children into fits of laughter.
Kendra nudged him with her foot, her eyes rolling. “Get up before it gets cold.”
Bala returned to his seat, but his bright eyes dimmed at the sight of vegetables and rice.
Kendra lifted her hand in warning. “Don’t start with your steak and egg fantasies. I’ve got young-uns to raise. You want us to get hauled before an Inter-Alien Sensitivity Commission? No, siree!”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking it and that’s just as bad.”
Bala gripped his fork like a warrior facing a battle and set his jaw. He peered at the table full of children. “Remember, I’m doing this for you.”
Bala leaned back against a maple tree aglow with fiery autumn colors and wrapped his arms around his knees, studying the sunset through falling leaves.
Kendra strolled over.
Bala’s gaze stayed fixed straight ahead. “They in bed?”
With a muted groan, she slid down next to him. “Every last, blessed one of them.”
Bala put his arm around Kendra and drew her close. “You’re one fine mama.”
“That I am.” She appraised his somber profile. “You’re not a bad papa.”
Kendra shared the sunset. “What’s it this time?”
He turned his gaze, and the failing sunlight played hide and seek over his features. “Hmmm?”
Caressing Bala’s furrowed brow, Kendra locked onto his gaze. “That expression. I’d know it on the dark side of the moon. You’re worried about something.”
Bala sighed and played with Kendra’s fingers, lacing his with hers. “You know, I like puzzles as much as the next man, but sometimes I hate the picture after I’ve put it all together.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“I want to, but I’m not sure I should. Some pretty important people might be involved.”
“By important, you mean….”
“They have resources. I don’t.”
Kendra leaned in so that their noses almost touched. “In all the time I’ve known you, Bala, you have never shirked from a challenge. Remember the First All-Species Olympics?”
A half grin peeked out of Bala’s crooked smile. “That was only in fun.”
“You almost killed yourself. Iceberg climbing, they called it; idiotic, I called it. And you all scared the penguins witless.”
With a deep breath, Bala blinked back the sudden moisture in his eyes. “Back then, I didn’t think about it. I was just playing. But now—”
A child’s wail pierced the evening.
Kendra shot to her feet nearly as fast as Bala. She patted his arm in restraint. “You’re worried about us. I understand; I worry about us, too. But, man-o-mine, you’ve got to live. If you tie your spirit to safety, you’ll have to lock yourself at home. Not that you’d be safe here—”
The crying rose a decibel. Kendra strode forward. “Coming, baby.” She peered over her shoulder at Bala’s barely discernible outline against the falling night. “God made us of strong stuff. But remember, you got to the top by building steps.”
Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched Kendra retreat inside. When the shrieking stopped abruptly, a slow smile spread wide across his face.
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go. ~T. S. Elliot
Science Fiction Novels
Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg
Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN
Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend
OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF