No Matter How Hard I Try
Clare sidled up behind Derik as he took the last shuffling step to his apartment door. Dirty snow clung to his boots and dripped off his shoulders. He pressed his print-identifier key and pushed the door open with his boot while balancing two bags of groceries in his arms.
Clare frowned as she tapped him from behind. “Hey, where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for half an hour.”
Derik jerked, peered at Clare, and sniffed. “How was I supposed to know? Did you message me?”
“I tried but your datapad must be broken. Anyway, it was a sudden thought. We need to talk. Can I come in?”
Derik shrugged and stepped aside, letting Clare march ahead. He strode around the counter, placed the bags aside, checked his datapad, frowned, and then opened his freezer. He tossed items in haphazardly.
Clare stared wide-eyed. “You only buy frozen food?”
“I’m not much of a cook, but Taug showed me something—” Derik colored. “Never mind.”
“Taug? The Cresta who wants to kill you, Taug?”
Derik threw the last item on the frozen pile and balled up the shopping bags, flinging them into a hamper under the sink.
“Look, you don’t know anything about him. I do.” He strode to the couch, heaved himself down with a relieved sigh, and gestured to another chair. “Go ahead, sit. Tell me why you’re here.”
Clare eyed Derik darkly. “How very Cresta of you.”
“The commanding tone, the sharp gesture. Who made you boss?”
Derik tapped his fingertips together. “You’re in my apartment. You said you were going to help me, but in the end, I had to help myself. I know who I am and why I was created. I even know who wants to kill me. I’ve got my life under control, so there’s no great need for your services anymore.” Derik assumed exaggerated, professional politeness. “But I still need to pay you, right? You haven’t done much, but I’ll count your generous intentions.” He sat up and started tapping on his datapad. “Working, see?” He shook his head at Clare’s obvious incompetence.
Clare folded her arms across her chest as she stood in front of Derik, who though seated, could still glare intimidatingly. “You’re too kind. Listen, Derik, I may not have accomplished much, but I did listen to you, and I’ve always been willing to help.”
Derik nodded, his eyes returning to his datapad. “What account do I send it to?”
Clare stomped around the room, her hands clenched on her hips. “Would you stop? I’m not interested in getting paid at the moment. I don’t get compensated until the job is done, and I haven’t finished yet. You still don’t know the truth.”
Derik kept his finger poised over his datapad. “I know I’m thirty-percent Cresta and that Taug and I are friends. I’m helping him understand crossbreeds better, and he’s invited me to live at his lab, though I have other plans. So, I think I know the score pretty well, don’t you?”
“You don’t know everything.” Clare stopped pacing and leaned in. She stared Derik in the eye, one hand braced on the back of the couch. “Justine is an android. She’s a hired gun. I don’t know if she’s been hired to kill you or not, but it’s what she does for a living—if you can call being a robot, living.”
Dropping the datapad, Derik flew off the couch and smashed Clare against the wall, squeezing her neck.
She gasped, wrestled his bulging arms, and kneed him in the groin. They fell together across the coffee table and onto the floor.
Derik rolled on top of Clare and pinned her, choking the breath out of her.
Clare, wide-eyed, smashed Derik’s chest with her fists, attempting to shove him off, kicking and squirming, trying to roll to a more advantageous position, but Derik’s combined weight and strength were too much for her. In desperation, she bit his arm.
Derik slapped her across the face. “Stop it! Just stop.” His breath rose in great huffs as he blinked away tears. Sweat broke across his forehead. “I didn’t mean… I don’t want to hurt you!” His gaze lifted to the ceiling as his voice rose. “But you had no right to say that about her!”
Clare raised her hands protectively, turning her red-splotched face away. “Okay, you made your point. I was rude. Now think about what you’re doing. I’m a detective; you’re assaulting an officer. Twenty years…if you’re lucky.”
Derik rolled to the side, releasing Clare. “I could just as easily kill you, stuff your body in Taug’s incinerator, and no one would ever be the wiser.”
Clare scrambled to her feet, her eyes dark and narrow. “You are not the man I knew.”
Derik climbed onto his knees and rocked back and forth, hugging himself.
His raspy chuckle ascended into hysteria. “Of course I’m not. Neither of us knew who I was. And no one on Newearth knows what I’m becoming. Even Taug. I may surprise him yet.” Derik huffed to his feet and towered over Clare. “You don’t know Justine, either.”
Clare darted a look at the door and edged nearer. “I told you the truth, whether you want to believe me or not. She’s an android created with human DNA.”
Derik froze, his eyes strained and bloodshot. “Justine’s a crossbreed?”
“Something like that.”
“Then she’s perfect for me.” Derik dropped back onto the couch. “You’ve no idea how terrifying this whole thing’s been. Finding out that I’m not fully human, that I’m part Cresta, and just for added entertainment, someone wants to kill me. It’s enough to drive a man crazy.” Derik rubbed his face as if to wash away the horror. “But Justine is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not totally blind. I wondered… But I didn’t care! It’s like you said, she’s not attracted to my biology but my humanity.”
Clare stood before the door. “I remember. But I also remember telling you that she’s not the only one who cares for you. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“I know. But I’m not your enemy. At least, I wasn’t.” Clare rubbed her sore neck. “Now, I’m not so sure.”
Derik’s eyes flashed as he heaved off the couch again. “What does that mean?”
“If you can fly across a room and nearly strangle someone who’s only trying to help—the Cresta in you might go deeper than thirty-seven percent.”
Derik stepped closer, his eyes bloodshot and swollen. “If you ever insult Justine again or try to hurt her in any way, you’ll find that both the human and the Cresta in me can be very dangerous, indeed. Your work here is over.”
Clare nodded as she yanked open the door and straddled the threshold. “I work for humanity. If you become a threat, we’ll meet again.”
Cerulean stood against the wall as human workmen dressed in gray, durable clothes carried new furniture into Bala’s refurbished living room.
A mover grunted his question. “Where’d ya want it?”
Bala pointed to Kendra who immediately passed baby Martha to him and scrambled over the rolled-up carpet, directing the workers.
Cerulean leaned in, jiggled Martha’s finger, and grinned idiotically.
The baby wailed.
Bala passed Martha off to his son, who had just ambled innocently into the fray. “Emergency mission, Seth.”
Seth swooped the baby into the air, playing ‘space mission.’
“Keep the landings gentle, son,” Bala advised with a deceptive grin. “Or you’ll see her breakfast again in a distinctly unpleasant form.”
Cerulean grimaced as his eyes followed the two children from the room. “I wish you hadn’t put that image in my head. It’ll be with me all day.”
Bala shrugged. “Sorry. Life with kids. They do the darndest things.”
Cerulean nodded. “True. Amazing how well they recovered from their shock.”
Stroking his marred face, Bala concurred. “Yeah. Resilient. They take after their dad.”
Cerulean’s eyes twinkled as Bala affably gestured two heavy-laden movers toward his wife. “The boss is over there.” Leading Bala to a quiet corner, Cerulean lowered his voice. “Listen, I have a certain amount of influence in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee. I can make a formal complaint for you. This was clearly an Ingoti incursion on a human domain.”
Bala jumped forward and assisted one of the movers who nearly dragged one end of a large couch. “Steady there. I paid a top price at a half-off sale for these.” After the workmen unceremoniously plopped the couch against the back wall, Bala turned to Cerulean. “Nah. Don’t worry about it. After all, I did solve the Hoggsworth case, sort of. I tracked down the killer’s killer and, for what it’s worth, he’s on his way to Bothmal as we speak.” Bala scratched his chin. “At least, I hope he is.” He patted Cerulean’s arm and squinted. “You lost weight?”
Cerulean opened his mouth, but a baby squalled at the same moment.
Bala waved the answer off. “Silly me. Luxonians don’t lose weight. Light beings and all.” He surveyed Kendra’s frantic efforts to keep the movers’ work undeterred by the three-year-old, who apparently thought that furniture was to be sat on even when it was still in motion. “Listen, I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I just want to put this behind us.” Bala strode over to the child-laden couch and centered it.
A shadow filled the open doorway as an Interventionist stepped over the threshold. The three movers dropped what they were doing, pushed past the Interventionist, and retreated to their vehicle.
Cerulean sighed as he leaned against the wall. “Looks like you’ve got company.”
Bala turned. His mouth dropped open.
Pushing himself forward, Cerulean took charge. “Something I can help you with?”
“Only if you are Bala Impala and want a warrant for your arrest.” The Interventionist held a datapad at arm’s length.
Bala’s eyes grew wide as he tripped over the couch.
Cerulean snatched the datapad and scrolled through. “What’s this about?”
The Interventionist stiffened. “I was just told to bring Mr. Impala in on charges of domestic abuse.” He pointed to Bala. “You Mr. Impala?”
Bala swallowed and nodded. His gaze flicked over to his frozen wife and family. Kendra held a chair in one arm and the baby in the other. No one moved.
The Interventionist deadpanned his recital. “I hereby inform you that you have been charged with wife-beating, child abuse, and home-wrecking. Your human rights are guaranteed by the Inter-Alien Alliance, but anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. Will you come with me peaceably?”
Bala tapped his ears as if they were water-clogged. “I didn’t quite catch that. What—?”
Cerulean lifted his hand. His voice grew incredulous as his gaze scrolled over the datapad. “Someone is accusing Mr. Impala of abusing his family and destroying his own house?”
Bala muttered. “Why would—?”
The Interventionist threw up one protesting hand as he plucked back the datapad. “Don’t ask me. Why does anyone commit crimes?” He slapped the datapad against his palm. “Look, there’re witnesses. Pretty reliable sources, too. You’re going to have to sit in the tank till we get this sorted out. Now, just come along—”
“Bala!” Kendra plowed across the living room like Moses parting the Red Sea and threw her arms around her husband. “No! Not this!”
Bala’s head jerked back on impact. Hugging her and rubbing her back in large circles, he spoke over her shoulder. “You were right, honey. I can’t be tied to safety.” Responding to the Interventionist glare, he pulled away and muttered, “No matter how hard I try.” He faced the Interventionist and raised his limp hands. “I’ll behave myself.” With a nod to Cerulean, he shrugged. “Oh, about that offer—”
The Interventionist clasped manacles around Bala’s wrists and led him to the door. Bala looked back, tears welling in his eyes. “Keep the kids back. I don’t want them to see—”
Cerulean nodded as he put an arm around Kendra’s shivering form. His eyes followed Bala out the door.
Wearing a thick sweater and weathered jeans with snow-encrusted hiking boots, Cerulean trudged up his porch steps. Snowdrifts appeared flat and gray in the elongated shadows. He turned at the sounds of running steps and a voice calling his name.
Able, wrapped in a heavy coat, huffed into view. “Hey, Cerulean. I was praying I’d find you. I’m on my way to Vandi. There’s been an accident.”
Cerulean retraced his steps and stopped in front of Able, a weary frown shadowing his expression. “What happened?”
“Jim, one of our new members, got hurt, bad. He came to us last fall, insisting that he didn’t feel human anymore. He wanted to get back to nature and rediscover his true identity.”
Cerulean rubbed his forehead. “And did he?”
Able shrugged. “Hard to tell. Seems like a nice guy and all, but he’s different all right. We had some roofing fly off in yesterday’s storm, and against everyone’s advice, he scaled the ladder to fix it. He was just about done when he slipped and fell.”
Cerulean closed his eyes. “Lucky he’s alive.”
Able shook his head, his brows lowered. “Lucky isn’t the word. He fell twenty feet and landed badly. He should be dead or paralyzed.”
“Even I don’t believe that. When I saw him scrambling to his feet, I went over and gripped him by the arm.” Able leaned in and whispered, “His skin is cold and hard, like some kind of flexible-metal. He doesn’t wear a bio-suit or anything. He’s not human. At least not fully.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth.”
“So what are you going to do? Take him in?”
Able sucked in a deep breath and raised his gaze skyward.
Small flakes of snow swirled around them. “I offered to take him to the hospital, but he got upset. You should’ve seen the terror in his eyes. He’s not well, his skin color was off before he even slipped, and he says he blacks out sometimes. Probably why he fell.”
Cerulean watched the flakes disappearing into the white ground, joined in anonymity, and sighed. “If he’s sick and needs treatment—”
Able rubbed his hands together. “Look, I’m not turning the guy over to authorities. He’s a serious mystery and might even be considered illegal.” He looked Cerulean in the eye. “There are worse things than death, you know.” Able stomped his frozen feet. “Anyway, I’m going to Vandi to pick up some supplies, but I just wanted you to know. I figure if something goes wrong, you’d—”
Cerulean sniffed and rubbed his frozen nose. “What could possibly go wrong?”
With a twitch of a smile, Able shuffled toward the trail.
“Yeah. Great minds think alike. Thanks, Cerulean.”
Staring at the footprints leading from his porch into a black night, Cerulean shivered.
Alone in the room, Taug stood before the image of his superior on the holo-screen. With head bowed and tentacles wrapped behind his back, he slouched like a hatchling being chastened by his elder.
The laboratory resided in solemn dimness, while the crescent windows near the top revealed the merest glimmer of dawn.
Mitholie shook a tentacle at Taug via the screen, his head and shoulders resting on the edge of a murky pool. “It’s not just your father’s mistake that’s a risk now. Other complications have come to light. Do you realize what this scandal could entail? Crestas would be ordered to leave the planet. There’d be interplanetary warfare—”
Taug looked up.
“Yes, I said warfare! We wouldn’t leave Newearth peaceably, of course. We’d be forced to take over the whole planet, which would set off a nasty chain reaction. Ingots and Uanyi, even Bhuacs would be furious. You know how many innocent lives would be lost and how expensive the whole process of re-stabilization would be? It would run into the quadrillions.”
Mitholie splashed his tentacle into the pool, sprinkling water across the screen. “Dark waters! I won’t have it. I gave you a direct order, and I have been more than patient while you played with your specimen. But it’s time that this matter was settled!”
Taug nodded. “I understand. Derik—I mean, my specimen— slipped away, but I have—”
Mitholie interrupted. “No more excuses! Your father’s mistake must be disposed of quickly before it’s discovered. Or I’ll be forced to send someone to dispose of my mistake. Do you understand?”
Taug’s head lowered, pressing against his chest.
“Good! I have a meeting with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee soon. I’d hate to inform them that they have a traitor in their midst.” Mitholie plunged and millions of bubbles surfaced.
The holo-screen blinked into blackness, leaving Taug in the dark.
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”– Francis of Assisi
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