Mixing More Than Metaphors
Justine stood in front of a large female chimpanzee and stared into its black eyes. A wall of windows separated them. Unimpressed, the monkey sat slumped in a corner, occasionally yanking on a chain suspended from a tall branch. A baby chimpanzee scampered about in the background.
Justine’s gaze shifted to the baby. The mother’s eyes shifted in accord. The baby trotted over, lurching between two legs and four. It stopped when it saw Justine and then scurried up its mother’s arm, chattering and clinging to her. The mother glared at Justine.
Justine slowly lifted her hands and placed them, palms up, in full view. She lowered her head, letting her gaze drop to the ground.
The mother twitched and swung her baby high onto her other hip. With one last glare, she tipped her nose into the air and swung up into the nearest tree. The chain jangled as she flew by.
“Interesting creatures, aren’t they?”
Justine swiveled and faced Cerulean, her look of concentration morphing into a twisted grin. “Yes, I feel strangely at home here. In a cage that pretends it isn’t a cage.”
Cerulean offered his arm as he glanced toward the door.
“I’m glad to see you again. I’ve thought of you often.”
As Justine took his arm, her grin faded. “I can’t say the same since I only awoke a few weeks ago. But I’m glad to see you now.”
Cerulean patted her arm as he directed her toward a butterfly garden. “Well, tell me about your awakening. Who rescued you and why?”
Justine strolled to a quiet corner and perched on a bench stationed against a life-like diorama of prehistoric insects. “I can’t betray professional secrets, you understand. Suffice to say, my mind is intact, and I have learned from my previous experiences.”
“So you aren’t planning on repeating—”
“I have no certain plans at the moment.”
“Ah, yes, I was wondering when you’d ask.” Justine uncrossed her legs and rubbed her hands together. “It’s a little chilly in here. Do you mind if we walk out into the sun?”
Cerulean’s brows furrowed as his eyes darted around the tropical setting, but he merely offered his hand. They strolled out of the exotic building and into the sunlight that shone on every visible food station and playground. Children swung from ropes and vines in a jungle gym not far from where the monkeys gamboled in their own sport.
Justine stopped and pointed. “They are not so different, human children and monkeys.”
“Except the monkeys are in cages and the humans are free.”
Justine peered at Cerulean. “Depends on how you define the word free.”
“Not being locked in.”
Justine sniffed her approval. “Yes, there is that.” She strolled over to a popcorn stand and ordered a bag. Upon obtaining her prize, she meandered back to Cerulean, nibbling each kernel like a squirrel working on a nut. She passed the bag over.
Cerulean took a handful and chewed meditatively. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Why should I? Can’t a robot have a personal life?”
Cerulean stared into her eyes, his voice softened to just above a whisper. “Justine.”
Refusing his intimate gaze, Justine glanced away and started toward a herd of lumbering elephants set beyond a wide cavern. “I don’t want to remember. I just want to start over.”
Cerulean sighed as he kept pace. “Sounds like a wonderful idea. But to do that, you have to be free. Are you?”
Justine gripped the guardrail before the cavern and leaned over the wide abyss. Black streams of hair curtained her face.
With a gentle touch, Cerulean tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. “Who awoke you?”
“A Cresta named Taug.”
Cerulean’s hand dropped to his side. He shook his head at the elephants. “Damn.”
“He’s not so bad. He told me more than he should’ve. It seems that every biological creature thinks that robots have no moral code.”
“You’re not a robot.”
“I am—to Taug.”
“Not to me. You know that.”
Justine leaned in, her lips only centimeters from Cerulean’s.
“Derik thinks I am real.”
“Derik cares about you.”
“Will that make me real?”
“To him? Or to you?” Cerulean raked shaky fingers through his hair. “Listen, Justine, you have nothing to prove. I care about you, too. You’re a desirable woman who happens to live in a mechanical body. I could kill the mind who decided to put your being into a killing machine, but that wouldn’t help, would it? You have to decide who you are.”
Justine reached over, her fingers searching, and placed her hand in his. Her gaze turned to a group of children tagging behind their mother. “You’ll help me?”
Cerulean wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “If you let me.”
The orange harvest moon glowed big and round through the lace-curtained windows as Bala slouched in the back booth of the Breakfast Nook, reviewing his datapad. The Breakfast Nook belied its name since it served meals from early morning to late at night and offered everything from human breakfast fare to Uanyi appetizers.
The original human owner planned a country diner serving humans with a hunger for rural Oldearth, but as Newearth’s population changed to reflect more diverse inhabitants—few of whom hungered for anything reminiscent of Oldearth—he soon found himself unable to pay the bills.
Riko sauntered in one morning, saw possibilities, and saved the day—or at least the restaurant. The original human, Mr. Gilbert, long since disabled by old age, still received a healthy percentage of the profits and a certain level of Riko’s unpredictable generosity in free meals whenever he managed to hobble into town. He always nodded approvingly that the lace curtains and Oldearth décor had remained intact even if the menu had drastically changed. Riko always shrugged the old man’s gratitude away. Customers came for the food. It could look like the inside of a Bhuac cave for all he cared. As long as everyone paid in proper Newearth units.
At present, the diner was deserted except for a gangly human teen wiping down the last of the tables. After whistling a free-flowing Bhuac hymn, he slapped the counter with his towel and nodded his approval. He waved a cheerful goodnight to Bala as he passed into the backroom.
Bala grinned and returned a salute.
The door chime tinkled and a poorly attired, slump-shouldered Uanyi shuffled in, his eyes searching the environment.
Bala stood and squared his shoulders.
It was getting late, and Riko had told him he’d wait for his guest to leave before closing up. “But if you could hurry things along—I’ve got my own affairs to tend to, see?”
Bala tried not to cringe at the approaching spectacle. He considered few aliens beautiful and this specimen of Uanyi maleness slouching toward him left him in a cold sweat. Riko was the only Uanyi he’d ever felt comfortable around and even then, he had little desire to get on Riko’s bad side. Bala tried on a smile, stared at the huge, bulbous eyes and the hissing breathing helm, and decided a cold frown might be more appropriate. “Zero, I assume?”
“Idiot, I assume? Don’t use no names.”
Bala sat down as the Uanyi slid into place. The alien’s sibilant hissing made Bala’s nose wrinkle. “Yeah, right. I just—”
A meaty palm slapped the table. “Get on with it. Don’t got all night.”
Bala considered asking Zero if he learned English at Bothmal. But he refrained. “Yes, well, I need to ask you some important questions, and I expect honest answers. I work for the—”
The meaty palm was at it again, slapping the table. “You brought my stuff?”
Bala ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. “Yes, but I’m not about to give you anything until you tell me what I need to know.”
“Huh! Human, you brute.” Apparently, even Uanyi thugs liked to apply understated sarcasm.
Bala squared his shoulders and spoke through clenched teeth. “You haven’t seen anything—”
A puzzled frown crossed Bala’s face. “Excuse—?”
“You waste my time. I make you pay extra.”
“The deal was three hundred, and I’m not about to—”
Zero moved faster than Bala had thought possible. Lurching across the table, he pulled Bala up close and personal, Bala’s small, black eyes nearly touching the Uanyi’s enormous, bulging orbs. “Do what I say—”
To Bala’s utter relief and eternal gratitude, Riko suddenly gripped Zero by the back of his rubbery neck. His large, bulging arms flexed till they seemed like they would burst either his immaculate white shirtsleeves or Zero’s neck.
Zero released Bala as he tried to pry himself free from Riko’s grip.
Riko squeezed harder. “A deal is a deal, trash, now tell the man what he wants to know.”
Bala stared at Riko, a delighted smile tugging at his lips.
Zero squirmed like a fish out of water, but Riko reached over and grabbed Zero’s breather helm, hissing something in Uanyi, which did not sound one bit nice by Bala’s estimation.
Riko blinked his huge eyes with a deadpanned expression, his head tilted toward Bala. “What’d ya want to know?”
Amazed at his piece of unprecedented good fortune, Bala jumped in. “Right, yes! I want to know who killed Carol Hoggsworth.” He dragged his charmed smile off Riko and replaced it with his formal interrogation glare, one he had practiced in the mirror at home until Kendra told him to stop. “I know the murderer was part of a Uanyi gang, and I suspect he was one of your—”
Zero’s breathing grew ragged as he struggled to get his words out. “Cho. His. Name. Was. Cho.” Riko loosened his grip and Zero sucked in a shuddering breath. “But you can’t have him. Someone else got him. Last week.”
Riko dropped Zero back into the booth and released his breather helm. “See, that wasn’t so hard. Next time, be quicker, and you’ll find things go easier.” Riko raised an eyebrow at Bala, tapping his foot.
Bala straightened and dug into his pocket. “Oh, yes!” He pulled out a small computer chip and slid it across to Zero. “Three hundred, just as we agreed. Thank you.” He leaned in, folding his hands as if they were buddies having a friendly chat. “Now, would you happen to know about someone named Jane Right?”
“Never heard of her.” Zero rubbed his swollen neck.
“How about Justine?”
“Listen, you only paid for one—”
Riko slapped Zero across the head with the back of his rubbery hand. “If you don’t want my prints all over your body, you better get generous real quick.”
Zero glared at Riko but kept his seat. “Justine? Yeah, heard of it. Big gun, they say. Someone let it out of the freezer. It’s on the loose. If you got Justine working for you… maybe we can make a new deal.”
Bala pursed his lips into a silent whistle and shook his head, darting a glance at Riko.
Riko gripped Zero by the neck again, lifting him to his feet. “Closing time.”
Zero glared at Riko and ambled to the door, tossing back a parting insult. “Humani.”
Exhaling a long sigh, Bala stood and watched Zero lurch over the threshold.
Riko called out after the retreating figure. “Your mother’d be ashamed. Wash up before going home; you smell like a sewer.”
The door chime clanged as the door slammed.
Bala turned to Riko. A handshake wasn’t an option. “Mother?”
Riko shrugged. “My sister’s youngest. Drugs, experiments, idiot stuff. Nothing but heartbreak.”
Bala shook his head, his hands flapping at his side. “I don’t know how to thank you. Really, I don’t have the resources to bargain well. I’ll tell Clare—”
“Forget it. I didn’t do it for you…particularly. It was just something that needed to be done. The right thing. You know.” Bala swallowed. He did know. He was just surprised that Riko knew.
Dry winds rustled across the harvested fields on the outskirts of Waukee. Weak rays of sunlight spread out like a heavenly fan, making a brave pretense of warming the land.
As he strode along, Cerulean attempted to soak in the Newearth scent, but he shivered. He felt weak and washed out, like paints with too much water added. He had never felt like this before. Luxonians didn’t ordinarily get sick. The illness that had nearly decimated the female population a century before had been easy to fix, once they knew what was wrong. Similar to the effect penicillin had on human illness in Oldearth history. Patting his arms, Cerulean considered the possibilities. He could simply be exhausted. Or he might have picked up some foreign illness during his work among aliens. Perhaps he had attempted to maintain his human form for too long. Or maybe…he was dying.
He sniffed again, worried. But with some relief, he realized that there was nothing to smell. All living organisms had hidden themselves deep in the soil or slept in organic repose. A picture appeared in his mind: snow swirling from a white sky as he guarded Anne’s sleeping form on a long winter night. So long ago. A searing pain shot through his chest. A human body told his Luxonian mind things he didn’t want to know.
Justine, apparently indifferent to the stark beauty of a Newearth winter, swayed easily at his side, moving as naturally as any woman he’d ever seen. His gaze flickered over her. She could never be Anne or Clare, yet she was refreshingly desirable, something he couldn’t explain to himself. Her body was a biomechanical hybrid created by a race that remained utterly mysterious and ominously dangerous.
Justine stopped and tapped Cerulean’s arm. Her brow furrowed as one hand rested akimbo against her hip. “Before we get there, I want you to tell me the truth.”
Cerulean closed his eyes so as not to roll them in exasperation. He had just spent a couple hours with Bala and his family; the eye roll was becoming second nature. “As I pointed out earlier, Clare is investigating Derik’s case, and I think she could benefit from your…wisdom.”
Justine’s penetrating stare surveyed his face, searchlights looking for any hint of a lie. “What am I going to get in exchange?”
“Do I need another friend?”
“No one has too many friends.”
Justine’s gaze fixed onto Cerulean’s, unabashedly, hauntingly.
Cerulean’s heart thudded against his ribs. He rubbed his temple and flicked a glance across the street at the transport station. A Bhuac wearily climbed the steps. He knew how he felt.
“Listen, Justine, I can’t help Clare help Derik without your help… if that makes any sense. People do better when they work together. Everyone sees a different part of the picture, and we’ll put the puzzle together piece by piece.”
Justine’s chin jutted forward. “I believe you just mixed your metaphors.”
Cerulean stalked forth again, his hands clenched. “Oh, hell, I’m mixing more than metaphors!”
Justine’s long skirt rippled in the winter breeze, outlining the perfect shape of her legs.
After another long block and across a quiet street, Cerulean led Justine to Clare’s porch. Vibrations of Mozart’s Ninth Symphony poured forth from the neighbor’s house. Cerulean appraised Justine with a quick breath. “Just act natural. Be yourself. You’re here as my friend, and you want to help. That’s all that Clare needs to know. Really.”
Justine squared her shoulders. “I don’t want to help her. I want to help you.”
“Same thing.” Cerulean pressed the doorbell. Nothing. He knocked. Nothing. He rapped his knuckles loudly on the doorframe. Nothing.
Justine tilted her head, appraising the structure before her. “Let me.” She gripped the doorframe and shook it till the whole house rattled.
Cerulean’s shoulders slumped.
The door swung open. Clare’s wide-eyed expression nearly engulfed her face as she peered out the door. “What the—?”
Her gaze flew to Cerulean and then swept over the tall, shapely, well-dressed woman in front of her.
Cerulean leaped into the breach. “Hi, Clare. I thought you were expecting us?”
Clare looked from Cerulean to Justine.
Justine mouthed the syllables, “To-day” without uttering a sound.
Clare stared down at her stained sweatshirt, baggy pants, and fluffy slipper-clad feet and stepped aside, her folded arms pressed against her chest. “Well, in any case, it’s nice to see you. Welcome to my humble abode.” Clare smothered her grimace with a tight smile.
Cerulean marched in. Justine swayed in. Clare stumbled up behind.
Reviewing the assortment of artifacts on the shelves, new paintings on the walls, and a speckled Cresta fern in the corner, Cerulean offered a low whistle of approval. “You’ve been delving into the world of alien art and culture?”
Her arms cemented to her chest, Clare glowered a low glance at Justine. “Yeah? So? I decided to try and understand the Cresta mindset a bit better. That so bad?”
Cerulean turned and frowned. “No, not bad. Just not something I’d expect from you.”
Hustling to the center of the room, her stance wide, ready for a fight, except for the fact that her hands were still stuffed under her arms across her chest, Clare huffed. “Why not from me?”
“Well, for one, you’ve never shown any appreciation of art before, and two, you have no great love for Crestas.”
With a dramatic unfolding and accompanied fling of her freed arm, Clare gestured to the room as if giving testimony. “Can’t you see? I’m growing—okay?”
Justine sauntered over to a half-finished clay statue on a pottery wheel, listing precariously to one side. She peered at it critically. “How primitive.” She batted her innocent eyes at Cerulean. “You never told me Clare had children.”
Clare’s jaw jutted out as she blew air between her teeth. “No, that’s mine. I know it’s not very good, but I’m just learning. Kendra calls it art therapy.”
Justine’s brows furrowed in concern, still focused on Cerulean as if Clare were deaf as well as blind. “You didn’t tell me that she was impaired.”
Clare stomped her slippered foot, the fluffy ends wafting in the sudden breeze. “Cerulean!”
With a shake of his head, Cerulean lifted his hands. “Stop, you two! We’re here to help Derik. Remember?”
A crimson blush spreading over her cheeks, Clare tossed a bag over the statue. “Thanks, but I’m the official detective on his case, and I’ve decided that I don’t need your help.” She turned back to Cerulean. “I know you mean well, but I work best alone.”
“What about Bala?”
“I have him on another case. Besides, I need to keep my professional life separate. I shouldn’t have told you my troubles. You’re a great person—Luxonian, I mean—but you can’t possibly understand.”
Cerulean clasped his hands and bowed slightly. “I defer to your superior wisdom. But the truth is, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Justine is more involved than you realize, and I don’t think you can help Derik without hearing what she has to say.”
Clare’s expression frosted as her voice grew icy. “I don’t need help from an ex-convict. I’m dealing with a crime against humanity by a Cresta, and no robot—no matter how well… endowed—is going to be able to help me. It’s going to take every bit of my training to—”
The front door slammed in the wake of Justine’s departure.
Cerulean exhaled a long, weary breath and raked his fingers through his hair. “Good job, Detective. You just made an enemy of Taug’s hired gun.”
“Even God doesn’t propose to judge a man till his last days, why should you and I?” ~
A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.
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