Hope Endures When Doubts Are Few
Bala stood on the transport-docking bay and watched as a massively muscled and well-armed human guard led a manacled Ingot forward. Bala held out his hand and accepted a datapad.
The guard grunted. “This your guy? Just give me your print, and we’ll be on our way.”
Bala studied the Ingot and pressed his hand onto the datapad. “Yep, it’s him.” He pursed his lips as they started away. “Hold on a second; I have a question.”
The guard frowned. “Hurry up, would you? I’ve got a schedule to keep. Bothmal is going to be busy tonight.”
Bala braced himself. “So tell me—why? I got all the evidence I need, but I just don’t get it. You didn’t have any record before this, and your family says that you’ve never been in any trouble before. They insist that you were practically an angel—far as Ingots go. So why hire Cho? Why kill Mrs. Hoggsworth?”
The Ingot shrugged. “Everyone has their price.”
Bala peered into his eyes. “Did someone threaten your family?”
A slight sneer cracked the Ingot’s indifference. “My family has never been safer.”
Bala shook his head. “I could argue that point. So what enticed you to risk spending twenty years at Bothmal?”
The Ingot’s derision was palpable. “I won’t be spending twenty years at Bothmal.”
Bala pursed his lips, tapping his fingers together. “It’s pretty secure. And the records are clear. You’ve got twenty with no chance of parole.”
The Ingot chuckled, swiveling his gaze over to the guard. “We going?”
The guard shrugged. “No time to waste today.” He nudged the Ingot down the long, gray corridor.
Bala stood back, frowning, as the Ingot strode to a corner, flashing back a confident grin.
Snow had fallen early in the day, but by the late afternoon, dreary, uneven shadows encompassed Clare’s study. Shelves lined with an assortment of trophies, graduation certificates, family photos, Oldearth artifacts, and a shellacked Easter egg stood in silent testimony to a few of her favorite things.
Clare hunched over a cluttered desk, one hand propping her head as she scrolled through files on a screen embedded in the wall.
A black cat sidled past, rubbing against her legs.
Clare lifted the feline onto her lap and stroked it absently. “Dang it! Justine is all over these files but only as a reference. Guess she wasn’t working for Right, after all—” She peered through the gloom at the purring cat. “Are you even listening?”
The cat meowed a long series of vowels.
Clare lifted it to eye level. “I just fed you—” She glanced at her datapad. “Is that really the time?” She stood, dropping the cat unceremoniously. “Come on. Why can’t you just hunt up some mice like all the other neighborhood quadrupeds? I bet they laugh behind their paws at you.”
The cat twirled around her legs, meowing even more plaintively.
“Okay, okay. Don’t trip me.” Clare crab-walked, avoiding the ever-present paws all the way to the kitchen, where she noticed a small mound of clothes stuffed in a corner, wedged between the hamper and the wall. With a frown, she reached down to scoop up the laundry when the cat sprang between her and the mound, a deep-throated yowl issuing from its chest.
Clare jumped back, snatching her hand out of the way. “What the hell?” She sidestepped to the closet and snatched a sweeper. Her attempt to nudge the cat out of the way failed, as the feline sprang to the center of the pile and placed its feet around a wiggling mass. Clare bent in, not too close, but close enough to realize what she was looking at. A smile spread across her face. “Awww! When did the babies come? I thought that was another week away.” She shrugged at the furious mother, who now glared as if Clare had indelicately intruded on private matters.
“Sheesh! You forgot who sprang you from kitty prison? Listen, I’m not the enemy, you know!” She ripped open a feedbag and dumped the contents into a wide dish and stood back as the cat scrambled for the food. Clare’s eyes darted from the mother cat to the kittens. Taking the smallest step possible, she leaned toward the mound. The mother cat sprang with another howl. Raising her hands in surrender, Clare backed off and returned to her wall screen, muttering. “Prison must’ve made you paranoid. Never trust a human—that your creed?” Suddenly she stopped and stared into space, a blush working its way up her cheeks. “Oh hell!”
Slapping the console, Clare worked her way around a series of files. “You know, Justine could tell me everything I need to know about Governor Right, but she happens to hate my guts just now. Justine, not the governor. Though…”
The cat rubbed itself around Clare’s ankles. Apparently, not being in the immediate vicinity of her kittens did wonders for the feline’s attitude.
Clare peered down at the cat and stroked it with her toe. “All friendly now, are we? Do you even care about me? As long as I keep that dish filled, the entire population of Newearth could be planning my demise, and you’d be content.” Clare huffed, paced across the room, and pulled on her shoes. “You think disassembling a robotic brain in the line of duty would be considered murder?”
The cat sat on its haunches, daintily cleaning its paws. A long tail swooshed contentedly around its back legs.
Clare rubbed her chin. “You don’t think it has feelings—” Clare shook her head and stomped back to her computer. She scanned the files once more and frowned. “Cerulean certainly seems to like her. And she looks at him like she might—” Slapping the keypad, the wall screen went blank. “Not my problem. He’s as old as the hills anyway!” She nodded to the cat. “I’ll trust you to keep ‘em safe. She snatched her datapad and dashed out the door.
The expanse of soft, white snow contrasted beautifully with the black, jagged branches overhead. Derik filled his lungs with the scent of distant pine trees and pristine, wintertime air. He stepped to the park bench and brushed snow to the ground in a fine dusting. His gaze swept the area and found Justine’s figure slowly approaching from the north.
His heart pounded as one hand fingered a small box in his coat pocket. It was the perfect location, the spot where they had first spoken together. Okay, they had actually first spoken in the middle of the Vandi street, but that was no place to propose, unless he wanted to end up in a hospital before she had a chance to say yes. His eyes followed her, fixed like a ship’s captain on the North Star.
Justine ambled forward, a soft smile playing on her lips. “You picked an odd place to meet today. Your apartment is a lot warmer and more comfortable.”
“I have a good reason.” He flourished a gallant gesture toward the bench. “Do you remember?”
Justine nodded. “The bench we shared the day I—”
“It was a fortunate accident that brought us together. I’d thank the driver, if I could.”
Justine shifted, digging her hands deep into her pockets. “Surely, we would’ve met eventually. Vandi isn’t so big.”
Derik placed his hands low on her waist and pulled her in close. “You believe in destiny?”
Justine swallowed, a worried gaze surveying the environment over his shoulder. “‘Faith in destiny, my beloved, entwines us true, for hope endures when doubts are few.’” She pulled back so she could look him in the eye. “Ancient Bhuac saying.” She attempted a smile. “Still, I trust my senses. After all, Vandi is only a few hundred kilometers wide.”
Derik threw back his head and laughed. “You always surprise me. Your brilliance is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met.” He stared into her eyes. “I don’t know another woman alive who’d have loved me, knowing what I am.”
Her gaze sliding over his, Justine leaned in for a kiss. Just before their lips touched, she wrapped her fingers around his neck and pinched him.
Jerking back, Derik grimaced and rubbed his neck. “Ouch! What’s that for?” He turned pale at the sight of blood. “I’ve heard of love bites but—”
Justine held up a tiny, black dot, squeezed between her fingers. “Sorry, an insect of some kind.” She dropped it and ground the speck into the dirt.”
“A bug? Like a tick? I thought those were eradicated.”
Justine turned away, her jaws tight. “Guess not.”
Blinking back his confusion, Derik fumbled with his coat pocket. “Never mind. I’ve got something for you.” Drawing out a small velvet box, he offered it to Justine. “It’s like the one my dad gave my mom. They had to special order it, of course, because no one makes these anymore.”
After one last surveying glance, Justine focused on Derik. An eyebrow rose. “You want to give me a box?”
Derik grinned. “Not the box. What’s inside. Remember, what you said when you told me you knew the truth.”
Justine froze. “What do you mean?”
“Open the box and find out.”
With a flick, the box opened, revealing a golden band. Molded symbols curved around the edge. Justine picked the ring out of its nest and held it up to the failing light filtering through the winter sky. Hearts intertwined with ivy leaves wrapped around the outside. Etched lettering spelled the words, Derik and Justine~Forever.
Derik’s eyes glowed in reflected glory as he watched Justine’s eyes fill with tears. He smiled as he drew her into a tight embrace. “Don’t cry. It’s our future. Together.”
Justine let the tears slip down her cheeks. She was not surprised at the ring or the offer. She was surprised at the tears.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~C.G. Jung
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