Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Sixteen

A Moral Choice

Clare drifted away from the barred cell where Bala sat in slumped resignation. She stopped by a large, steel door and pressed a button.

A voice responded, “Yeah?”

Clare tried to speak but no words came. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’m ready.”

The door slid open. Clare crossed over the threshold with one backward glance.

Bala sat staring at the floor, his head propped in his hands.

Clare closed her eyes at the reverberating clang as the door slammed shut. A hand gripped her shoulder. Clare spun around.

Cerulean opened his arms, and she stepped into his embrace. Hugging her, he nuzzled her head with his chin. “Even world-weary detectives need a hug now and again.”

Clare rubbed her reddened eyes against his chest, mumbling.

Cerulean frowned. He pulled her back and looked into her eyes. “I’m not familiar with that particular dialect. Here—” He put his arm around her, led her down the corridor, and pointed to a bench. “Tell me what you found out.”

Clare dropped onto the offered seat as Vandi Interventionists bustled about with official business. She spread her arms and then dropped them. “What’s to tell? I’m a complete failure, and I ought to quit before anyone else gets hurt. Lord, I hate my job.”

Cerulean scratched his head. “Self-pity isn’t going to help anyone.” He straightened. “What we need is more information. I tried to bring you the best resource on the planet, but you—”

Clare’s head snapped up. “Justine? That unfeeling piece of bio-mechanical—”

“Whoa! Stop right there, Clare. You’ve taken your animosity about as far as I can stand it. Honestly, I’ve never seen this side of you. Your parents would be horrified. They were two of the most accepting—”

Clare jumped to her feet, her gaze darting around the room and swinging back to Cerulean. Her tone lowered to a hiss. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. They hated robots. They always said that combining human DNA with AI was asking for trouble. It’s immoral—”

Cerulean’s jaw jutted forward as he leaned in close. “You think Justine is immoral—as if she had a choice? Put down your rage for just one second and think, would you? Justine is the product of a laboratory conception. I doubt her biological parents ever knew or cared about what happened to their donations. No one cared about Justine, not as a person. They only cared about her as a source of profit, a point of reference in an argument, or as an excuse to play god. You’re angry at the wrong person, Clare.”

Clare fell back onto the bench and rubbed her face with her hands. Her voice became leaden. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Cerulean shook his head as an Interventionist stepped up and handed him a datapad. He pressed his palm onto it and handed it to Clare who did the same. Cerulean nodded to the guard and steered Clare toward the exit. “There’s more to this than your parents’ aversion to artificial intelligence.”

Clare shrugged as she trudged along at Cerulean’s side. “She reminds me of that voice I used to hear. Her smug perfection, her assumed superiority, it all feels familiar somehow, like she and he…it…are connected.”

Cerulean marched to the door, swung it wide, and gestured for her to hurry along. “Well, they’re not. Justine is a victim as much as Derik, except she’s learning to deal with her problems. Derik is just beginning to discover his.” He waited, holding the door open.

Clare stepped out into the frosty night air. “Derik’s gone over to his Cresta side. I don’t even know him anymore. He nearly throttled me when I told him that Justine is a robot.”

Cerulean stepped along beside her, looked up into the black, star-burnished sky, and sighed. “Frankly, if you don’t quit calling her that, I may throttle you yet.”

Clare looked askance at Cerulean. “Really?”

Cerulean dropped his gaze. “Yes.” He gripped her arm and stared her in the eye. “Look, you’ve got to get it through your head that even our enemies are—”

“If you say ‘our friends,’ I’ll throw up all over your polished boots.”

Cerulean snorted. “I’m not that naïve. What I was going to say—before you so rudely interrupted—was that even enemies are worthy of hope. No one sees the future. You can’t trust everyone, but you can’t decide you know other people’s ultimate fate either.”

“If it came between a human and a Cresta, I’ll choose a human every time.”

“Really? How about if it were an innocent Cresta and a guilty human? Think about it. You decided that Justine was guilty, so you never even gave her a chance to defend herself.”

Clare leaned into Cerulean, shivering, hugging his arm. “I looked through everything we have on her. She killed a lot of beings on more than one occasion. She was a very effective hired gun, and she always walked away unscathed—until she was caught.”

Cerulean stopped, pulled his arm free, placed both hands on her shoulders, and held her steady. He lowered his head so their eyes were level and their gazes interlocked. “Do you know why she was caught?”

Clare shrugged and looked to the side. “Some stupid mistake—”

Cerulean turned her so she could not escape his gaze. “She saved two men’s lives. Against orders and against decades of training, she did the unthinkable; she made a moral choice. At that moment, she chose to stop being a killer.”

With a moaning breath, Clare’s head fell against Cerulean’s chest, and she sobbed.

~~~

The bright, winter sun sparkled on the ivy-covered bungalow, and Clare whistled. A low, thatched roof drooped over twisted grapevines, which in turn wound around the windows. Front beds planted thick with red-berried evergreens offered a colorful contrast, while a snowy path veered toward the back. She sucked in her breath and meandered toward the front entrance of Justine’s house.

A wooden door etched with acorns and oak leaves opened wide. Justine stood on the snowy welcome mat, one hand holding the ornate, iron knob, the other resting on the frame as the cold wind whistled past. She pursed her lips like an irritated teacher just waiting for the next infraction.

Clare halted in her frozen tracks. “Cerulean said you’d be home.”

Justine’s eyebrows rose, apparently surprised that the delinquent before her could speak coherently. “He told me you were coming. I almost left.”

“But you didn’t.”

Justine shrugged. She swept her hand through the doorway. “Cerulean has a way with words.”

Clare sighed through a puff of air. “He sure does.” She stepped in with Justine watching her every move.

The inside of the bungalow shrieked of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dust had not a particle of business here.

Clare dared not lower her gaze to her snow-caked boots.

Justine looked for her. Her eyebrows appeared frozen in the up position.

With a grimace, Clare unlaced her boots and peeled them off. After stepping into the living room, she let her eyes roll over the intimate space. Clare sucked in her breath. “You rob a museum?”

A crooked smile tugged at the corner of Justine’s mouth. “I’d tell you, but I don’t want to make you angry…again.”

Clare felt magnetically pulled toward a painting of a mother and child, blues and reds vying for the eye’s attention. They both wore golden crowns. Her eyes widened. “Did you—?”

Justine shrugged. “I only copied it. The original was lost long ago, but there were over a million electronic copies left on an Oldearth database called Facebook.”

Clare hugged herself. “I’d love to get a look at that.”

Justine padded over to an easel with a half-finished painting of a little boy with piercing blue eyes. She picked up a wet brush and dabbed it in the paint. “I’d pass it along, but it’s restricted, addictive as opium they say.”

Clare’s eyes bugged, attempting to take in everything at once.

Justine smirked as she waved the paint-laden brush indulgently. “Well, possibly….”

Sidling up to the work in progress, Clare appraised the picture. She wagged her finger. “Cerulean—?”

“No one you know. Just a child I once helped—in a time of need.”

Clare lifted her hands in an attitude of surrender. “Okay, sorry isn’t good enough. I wasn’t exactly reasonable. Can’t say exactly what got into me.”

Justine stroked her chin. Apparently deciding that there was hope for delinquents, after all, she laid her paintbrush aside. She strode across the room to a circular table. A screen rose from the center. She tapped rapidly on a soft pad. “Cerulean told me about your dreams—night visitor—whatever. Must be disorientating. I can’t say I understand, but as they say: ‘to err is human’—forget it.” Her eyes scanned multitudinous files flying across the screen.

Clare strolled to her side and watched Justine’s hand move so rapidly that it seemed to blur. “I thought you considered yourself human.”

“Only on odd days when the moon is full.” Justine straightened and looked Clare in the eye. “What do you need to know?”

Clare leaned over the desk and peered at the file. She pointed to a single line. “I have that one. Bala showed it to me. He said you have other files that he couldn’t get access to. I need to get to those.”

Justine rubbed her chin. “Why?”

Folding her arms, Clare leaned against a chair. “Listen, there’s a secret here that Mrs. Hoggsworth stumbled onto and Bala inadvertently tripped over. She’s dead, and he’s in prison. They both discovered something.”

Justine offered a sad shake of the head at Clare’s apparent return to stupidity. “There’s no evidence to support that. Maybe someone simply hated Mrs. Hoggsworth enough to want her dead.”

“And Bala?”

Justine maintained a steady gaze. “How do you know he’s not guilty?”

Clare bolted forward. “What? You seriously think that Bala would beat his wife, abuse his kids, and trash his own house?”

Justine turned back to the datapad. Her hand blurred again. Up popped 5,764 files on wife battery and child abuse. “Those are the ones from this year alone. Don’t tell me that they’re all innocent.”

Clare pressed her hands to her head as if trying to keep it from exploding. “Holy Saints in—”

A white cat meandered between Clare’s feet and meowed.

Clare stared down, her eyes widening. Without a blink, she glanced up at Justine.

Justine scooped the cat into her arms. “Come here, Theodora. You might get stepped on.”

Clare waved Justine off and stretched out her arms, wiggling her fingers towards the cat imploringly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I love cats. My own is about this size, but she’s black. Just had kittens. Maybe you’d like one.”

Justine passed the cat into Clare’s arms and observed Clare rub her face in the cat’s fur. She grimaced. “That unhygienic.”

“Ah, but they love it.” Clare’s tone dissolved into a purr.

Justine’s eyebrows returned to the up position.

As Clare continued to nuzzle the cat, her voice became soft and coaxing. “You’ve got files no one else has, and Bala’s an innocent man. His family is miserable without him.”

Justine exhaled a long breath. “Oh, all right. I guess even a robot can have a heart.”

~~~

Justine wrapped her fingers around the prison bars and observed Bala with a long, cold stare.

Bala sat upright on his cot and glared back. “So, you’ve come to observe the monkey in the zoo?”

Justine shrugged. “You could say the same about me. Except I don’t need a cage to be locked in.”

With a sigh, Bala slumped against the wall. “Everyone has troubles.”

“Not you. Your prison days are over. Cerulean has cleared your name. You’ll be free to go once we get the final reports in and signed off.”

Bala strode to the bars in the cell door, his eyes narrowing. “Really? How?”

“It was easy. The case crumpled against all the evidence Cerulean brought to bear. He provided ample proof that Ingots had broken into your house and there was not a shred of evidence that you ever harmed your family. Quite the contrary. You’re a model husband and father by all accounts. I congratulate you; your reputation shall shine down through the ages.”

Bala gripped the bars. “Having fun, are we?”

Dropping her gaze, Justine shook her head. “I’d never tease a prisoner.”

Bala flapped his arms as he shuffled back to his cot. “So, how did I end up here? And how do I keep from being sent back the minute somebody starts tossing accusations my way?”

Justine turned at the sound of footsteps. She stepped aside as a guard sauntered down the corridor. After he passed, she returned to Bala. “In your investigation, you reviewed Mrs. Hoggworth’s research of Oldearth records. Most of them have become corrupted or lost, but she somehow learned of my existence and that I have records going back to—”

The guard returned with a prisoner in cuffs. Bala’s and Justine’s eyes followed their passage down the corridor in silence. Bala shook his head. “I could bet a steak sandwich that this all ties in with our illustrious Governor Right.”

Justine paused, her eyes glazed as if searching interior files. “I don’t understand the allusion to food.”

Bala hung his head. “Never mind.”

In response to a buzzing sound, Justine pulled out a datapad and tapped its surface. “Cerulean’s here.” She peered into Bala’s wide eyes. “In any case, I’ll have to do a comparative study of my original records with what’s now reported on the official Newearth data files.”

Rubbing his hands together, Bala perked up. “Sounds good, I’d love to see the results.” His eyes roamed toward the door. “It’s getting late. Any chance that I’ll get out of here before Kendra puts the kids to bed?”

Cerulean stepped to the door, offering a nod to Justine before focusing on Bala. “How’ve you been doing, ol’ man?”

Bala lifted his arms, indicating the small space. “Look around and take a wild guess.”

Cerulean grinned as a guard strode up behind him. “Well, your time is up… in here, I mean. I just sent Kendra word. You’re free to go—”

“Excuse me.” The guard shouldered his way past Cerulean. “You’ll have to sign a release before you walk. I go off in fifteen, so if we could hurry this up….” He pressed his hand against the electronic key. At the sound of the latch unlocking, he swung the door wide.

Bala nodded stiffly. “Certainly, anything to accommodate.” He stepped in line behind the guard, next to Cerulean. They marched down the corridor, shoulder to shoulder.

Justine followed behind, her gaze turned inward, scanning unseen files.

Unfortunately the innocent are always involved in any conflict. Always, everywhere, there is some voice crying from a tower.  ~Graham Greene 

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