We’re All One of Us
Bright noonday sun rays shone through the Vandi Interventionist Station windows. A few guards sat at their desks and others stood in small clustered conversations. A barked order broke the low hum—but only for a moment.
Cerulean led Justine forward, barely touching her arm. The rest of the group trailed close behind, bleary-eyed and silent.
A short, thickset human dressed in an official Interventionist uniform with the nametag “Bradshaw” stepped in front of the desk and intercepted Cerulean. He wagged a finger at Justine. “This her?”
The Interventionist snapped his fingers at two other officers standing to the side. “Here’s the Cresta killer. Take her in and make sure everything is done right! I don’t want some Luxonian diplomat chewing my ear off about Inter-Alien Rights.”
The two officers gripped Justine’s arms. One jiggled a pair of manacles in her face. “Try anything funny, and we put these on you, see?”
Justine stared straight ahead.
Bradshaw shrugged at Cerulean. “Thanks. We would’ve had a mess on our hands—her coming from Newearth and killing a high profile Cresta and all.” His gaze swept over her form. “Dang, if she isn’t the prettiest android I ever saw.” He clucked his tongue. “Too bad. Termination for sure.”
As the officers led her from the room, Justine glanced over her shoulder and met Cerulean’s gaze.
Cerulean watched until her perfect form turned a corner.
Bradshaw peered around Cerulean and considered the rest of the forlorn group. “They with you?”
Cerulean peered over his shoulder.
Derik leaned forward, seething.
Max firmly gripped Derik’s shoulder with one hand and steadied the “baggage” over his shoulder with the other.
With disheveled hair and dark circles under her eyes, Clare stared at the floor.
Leaning against the wall, Bala rubbed his gloomy face with his hands.
Faye stood to the side, elfin and childlike, shivering.
Cerulean sighed. “Yeah. They’re mine.”
Cerulean led the group down the hall and lifted his hands. “I know everyone is upset, but we still have jobs to do.” He surveyed the group. “Listen, I did the only thing I could! She would’ve been hunted for the rest of her days. This way she has a chance to get a fair hearing and possibly be found not guilty this time.”
Bala shook his head. “She murdered Mitholie in front of a lot of witnesses. It’s like she wanted to be found guilty.”
Derik shoved Bala from behind. “There was a good reason! Trust me. I know her better than any of you. She—”
Max poked Derik in the shoulder. “I’ve about had it with you. The fact is, I’ve known her longer than anyone here and—” He shrugged Taug’s slumbering form onto Cerulean’s shoulder. “Here, you carry him awhile. What’d you give him, anyway?”
Cerulean shrugged. “It wasn’t me. Justine must have put him out with something. A right cross is my guess.”
With a quick shake, Max turned on Derik and leaned in. “We need to settle this. Any suggestions?”
Derik sneered. “If you’re man enough. I know just the place.” He turned and started away. “Follow me.” He glanced over his shoulder and called, “And if she isn’t freed, Cerulean, I’m coming for you next!”
Cerulean sighed and ran his hand through his ruffled hair.
Bala sauntered up and shook his head. “And then there were—” He pointed at each of them with his index finger and hesitated. “—does Taug count?”
Cerulean turned toward Faye. “Do you think—?”
Faye nodded. “Certainly. I have a place not far from here. If you would bring him along, I’ll see that he’s taken care of.”
Bala glanced at Clare. “Thank God! I was afraid I’d have to explain him to the kids.” He shivered. “They’ve been through enough. Besides, Kendra would kill me.”
Clare stepped up and placed a hand on Cerulean’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault. You did the right thing. I would’ve had to do it if you didn’t.”
Cerulean nodded. “Doesn’t make it any easier.”
As Clare and Bala turned away, Cerulean called after them. “There is something you can do. Follow up on a lead at the Amens community. A man there has been having strange symptoms. They thought maybe he was a half-breed, but I don’t think so. Contact a guy named Able. Tell him you’re a friend of mine, and see what you can find out.”
Clare sighed. “Sure. Discover the truth. That’s my job, isn’t it?”
Cerulean hefted Taug’s body over his shoulder and traipsed after Faye’s child-like form. He sighed. “All our jobs, really.”
After two long showers, Clare ventured into the role of Newearth Human Services detective again. As she tromped along a wooded path, a prickly branch caught her coat, halting her in mid-step. She threw up her hands in frustration. “Oh, help! It’s got me. Bala! Come quick.”
Bala rushed down the wooded trail, huffing, with a strained expression. “If you hadn’t decided to run ahead, you wouldn’t be in this mess!” He stopped and surveyed Clare’s puffy coat sleeve entangled in thorns. He stroked his chin, meditatively. “Well, it looks like the vegetation has taken a liking to you. Either you can slip under it, or I can rip your arm off.”
Clare closed her eyes and counted under her breath.
With delicate fingers and smothered yelps, Bala struggled to disengage the vine. “You might have to leave your coat as a peace offering—”
A laugh made them both turn.
A tall, thin man ambled up the path. He waved Bala off with a grin. “I figured you’d get lost, not caught in the Rubus plant, commonly known as a blackberry vine.” His fingers dexterously disentangled the fabric without a single tear.
Clare’s eyes widened.
Bala stood back and folded his arms, humbled.
The stranger thrust out a work-roughened hand. “The name’s Able. Cerulean sent word you’d be coming.” He patted Bala on the back with a hearty thud. “The first time I got caught in such a vine, I was about four. I’d slipped away for a private need. I ended up in need, all right. Couldn’t sit for a week.”
Bala’s mouth wobbled and his eyes twinkled while Clare’s eyes stretched from amazement to horror.
Able returned down the path he had just come up. “Follow me. The wife has tea and fixings ready for you. I can hardly believe you just got back from Crestar. The whole community wants to hear about it, but I told ‘em that you’re coming to help Jim, not be interrogated.” He tromped along the path with Clare and Bala on his heels. “They’ll leave you alone for a bit… but then it’s every man for himself, if you know what I mean.”
The cabin dominated the top of the hill. Rough-hewn log walls, exposed beams, and the sheer size and sturdy nature of the structure made it appear like an ancient fortress of Oldearth. In the main room, herbs hung from the rafters, while braided rugs lay strewn over the wood floors. A large stove with an attached black pipe thrust through the vaulted ceiling took up an entire corner. A neat stack of split logs lay nestled in a wood box.
Able handed Clare a cup of steaming tea, while his wife handed Bala a plate of fluffy scones. The four were seated around a table that could comfortably seat sixteen.
Bala leaned over his tea and sniffed in glorious appreciation.
Clare sampled a scone and hummed. “Hmm, hmm, I haven’t tasted anything this good since Kendra decided to enter her pies in the Culinary Arts Contest.”
Able smiled at his wife, seated across from him. “We do our best.” As a figure huddled in the doorway, Able sighed and folded his hands. “But our best isn’t always good enough.” He faced the figure across the room, raising his voice as he spoke. “Come on in, Jim! Don’t be shy.”
An emaciated figure with sinewy limbs hesitated and then darted across the floor, finding refuge behind Able. His eyes had narrowed to mere slits and his ears were reduced to dimple holes with crusted edges, while sores and thin scabs covered his mottled skin. He quivered in obvious agitation.
Able reached back and gently led the figure into full view.
Bala’s mouth fell open.
Clare inhaled a shocked breath.
Able passed his hand along the disfigured man’s arm, tapping gently. Jim relaxed enough so that Able could press him onto the bench beside him.
When Jim had calmed, leaning like a frightened child into Able’s side, Able faced Clare and Bala. “The changes were slow at first, but then suddenly they quickened. Every day, we noticed more deterioration of his body. He can’t see, except in the brightest light, but that causes excruciating pain. He can barely hear, though his skin is sensitive enough so that I can calm him with a gentle touch.”
Jim rocked, humming under his breath.
Tears filled Clare’s eyes. “He looks so lost and afraid.”
“He is. By God, that’s exactly what he is.”
Bala clutched his warm cup. “So why did you send for us? The poor man needs a doctor.”
Able’s jaw clenched. “A crime’s been committed! Can’t you see?”
Shifting off the bench, Clare stepped carefully to Jim and knelt at his side, her gaze scanning his body. “You think he’s a crossbreed?”
Able shook his head with a shrug. “Don’t know. But he was a perfectly healthy man once. He told me that these changes came on like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky.”
Lifting his datapad, Bala began to tap across the screen. “Derik’s the only crossbreed we know of. Even Taug and Mitholie didn’t seem to think there were any others—still alive, anyway.”
Clare passed her hand over Jim’s head. He shrank back in fright. “Oh, sorry!” She turned to Able. “Could you ask him if he was a part of any test group…had any medical issues before this happened?”
Able tapped Jim and then spoke slow and loud. “Have you had any medical tests, Jim?”
The rocking increased.
Able gripped Jim’s arm, held him firm, and spoke directly into an ear hole. “They want to help. Did you ever have any medical tests?”
Bala rose and slid his datapad toward Able. “Looks as if Jim isn’t the only one with these symptoms.” He nodded toward the shivering man. “Ask him if he was partial to mega-vitamin drinks. Says here that there’s an experimental drug on the market to increase vitality and stamina, except it had the opposite effect on some humans.”
With a shudder, Jim shook not only his head but his whole body.
Able leaned over Jim’s rocking body and asked Bala’s question. This time Jim froze then he nodded.
Clare patted Jim’s thin shoulder and stepped to Bala’s side. “Let me see that.” She scanned the info and sniffed. “Uanyi, I guarantee it.”
Bala retrieved his datapad. “It would fit with the pattern.” He pulled his nose. “I wonder how much Governor Right made on the deal.”
“How about the Bhuac, Faye? You think she knew?”
A low moan from Jim pulled Able to his feet. He gestured to his wife who led the forlorn figure out of the room. Smacking his fist into his hand, Able muttered. “I’m a peace-loving man, but this boils my blood.”
Rising, Clare proceeded to the door. She stopped and faced Able. “We’ll follow up on this mega-vitamin info and any other leads that might explain what’s happened to Jim. I’ll be happy to send the idiots who did this to Bothmal for the rest of their lives.”
Able rubbed his hands together. “Bothmal is too good for some villains.”
“Too true.” Clare pulled her coat tight. “Oh, and thanks for rescuing me from the attacking Rubus vine.” Her eyes glanced over the room one last time. “You certainly have a beautiful home. I can see why Cerulean likes his neighbors so much.”
Able blushed. “It’s us that are the lucky ones.” He nudged a little closer. “He hasn’t been home for a while. Everything okay?”
With a long, drawn out sigh, Clare gripped the door handle. “You’re not the only one upset lately. If Cerulean had blood, it’d sure be boiling by now.”
Faye propped up Taug’s limp body with a large pillow. A flutter of his eyelids alerted her to his imminent recovery. She scooted across the room, opposite her round couch, so that she could observe him from a safe distance.
Turning to her game table, she languidly shuffled the figures around on the board. The small, dark figure with large ears and round eyes stood safely ensconced in the back row. She tapped him on the head and placed a huge, fanged creature defensively in front of him.
A low moan made her turn from the engrossing activity. “Are you awake, then?”
Taug raised a tentacle and rubbed his head, adjusting his breather helm in the process. “How long have I been out?”
Faye considered his greenish tint, sunken eyes, and rasping breath. She glided forward and felt his head with her slender hand. “Long enough to become dehydrated.” She clapped her hands.
Gabriel appeared like magic across the threshold.
Faye pointed to the distressed Cresta. “He’s not feeling well, dehydrated, I suspect. Do we have anything?”
Gabriel’s icy smile broke wide enough to allow a soft murmur. “I’ll check.”
Faye turned back to Taug. “Don’t try to get up. You need to rest. When Justine wants to knock someone unconscious, she does a thorough job.”
Taug groaned. “I remember being lifted up and jostled down the corridor. She was saving me…I thought.”
“Oh, she saved you, most certainly.” Faye’s gaze darted away. “Mitholie took her rage instead.”
Taug squeezed his eyes shut. “Mitholie—”
Returning to the game board, Faye moved another figure to the back row and finished his sentence. “—is dead. She obliterated him and the wall-screen behind him. A very useful friend but a dangerous enemy.”
Silence filled the room as Taug covered his face with a shriveled tentacle. Faye moved another figure to the back of the board. When Gabriel presented Taug with a bag of murky liquid, he opened his eyes and smiled weakly.
With a stiff bow, Gabriel murmured. “It’s the best I could obtain on such short notice.”
Without further ado, Taug punctured the seal and poured the liquid into his breather helm. A deep sniff brought forth another groan, but this time, one of relief. He peered up at Gabriel through tearful eyes. “It’s very good. Thank you.”
Faye watched Taug with cynical amusement. “I won’t bother to ask why you betrayed her. I know too much about protecting my own to be even slightly curious.” Her gaze returned to the board once again.
With a less icy smile, Gabriel nodded and left.
Taug’s eyes followed her. “Governor Right sent you?”
An off-key, tinkling laugh bounced around the room. “Heavens, no! I tell her what to do. She has no power over me.”
Taug patted the mountainous pillows and then surveyed the room. With a raised brow, he shifted off the bed, wobbled, steadied himself, and then toddled over to the game table. A gleam entered his eyes. “I used to have something like this as a hatchling.”
Faye fingered one of the pieces. “Yours were sea creatures, no doubt.”
Taug lifted a tentacle and darted a question. “May I?”
Faye tipped her head graciously.
Swirling his quivering tentacle across the board, he stopped at the fanged creature. He held it up for inspection. “We use figures of all the known races. But never Crestas.”
Faye blinked. “Why not? Don’t you like to be a part of the game?”
Taug sobered as he placed the creature behind the round-eyed figure. “Only as the masters and movers. We don’t like to be played.” He stepped back from the table and folded his tentacles, appraising Faye carefully. “You’re a Bhuac, obviously. Who do you work for? Ingots? Uanyi?”
Faye sighed and drifted toward the large window overlooking the bustling city. “I work for no one and everyone.” She turned and faced Taug, a scowl marring her symmetrical beauty. “Don’t you realize that you were a fool to trust your own kind?”
Taug shrugged. “It comes as no surprise. Crestas never trust anyone, especially our own kind.”
Pained, Faye closed her eyes. “Foolish and terrible.” She pointed back at the crowd below. “So why do you bother to live?”
Taug ambled closer and shared the view. “Survival is an inherent quality in us all.”
She darted a glance at him. “My family was killed in the Telathot incursion, and my planet has been decimated more times than I can count. I became strong, so they could remain weak. But—”
Taug was watching her closely, holding his breath.
“It’s killing me.”
Taug shifted aside. “You are much like Justine, then. Like Derik even. Perhaps even a bit like—”
“You?” She strayed back to the board, surveying the multitude of figures. Suddenly, she slashed the board with the back of her hand, sending the pieces flying across the room, rolling into corners and under the bed.
Gabriel practically flew into the room, alarm written across his face. Darting to Faye’s frozen side, he laid a hand on her shoulder.
She didn’t move, not even to glance at his hand.
Taug stood back; his tentacles hung limp at his sides.
Finally, Gabriel nudged Faye toward the bed. “You need rest and—” He glanced at Taug. “—he needs to leave. You can do no more for now.” He helped Faye perch on the edge. “The android’s trial is set for next week. The Inter-Alien Alliance has decided that it must be dealt with swiftly in the face of a rash of violence sweeping across the planet.”
Taug jerked out of his stupor and lumbered forward. “What’s happened?”
Gabriel darted a questioning look to Faye.
Faye waved his secrecy away. “Taug’s one of us. We’re all one of us. Except, of course, for those who aren’t.”
With a frown, Gabriel sent Taug a questioning look, but then he cleared his throat. “Apparently, Human Resources has discovered that Uanyi have been using humans in a secret drug testing scheme. Fifty-one deaths have been attributed to a health drink they sold as a cover in their experimental study.” He strode to a circular, wall-sized screen and tapped the console.
The blank whiteness blinked to a riot scene with red and orange fires burning out of control in the Uanyi business district while crowds of weapon-wielding humans screamed at the citizens defending their wares.
Gabriel folded his arms across his chest. “As long as they fight each other, they won’t fight us.”
Taug shook his head. “Not necessarily. Chaos begets chaos.” He padded over to Faye’s stiff form. “You appear ill. You need to rest.” He plumped up the pillows and bunched them around Faye.
Gabriel’s eyes followed him closely.
As she leaned back, Faye looked Taug in the eye. “Why did you bring Justine to Crestar? Surely you knew it was a trap.”
Taug’s shoulder’s drooped. “Only for her. I hoped, in time, to convince Mitholie of her worth and to return to Newearth to continue my studies with Derik. They both have a lot to offer the scientific community.”
As Gabriel hesitated over the threshold, Faye’s sad expression turned introspective. “You’re unique. I never would have guessed such a thing possible—in a Cresta.”
Taug stroked his chin. “May I ask you a question as well?” To her assenting silence, he bent down, retrieved one of the figures, and placed it on the game table. “Why did you inform Governor Right about the other android? You must’ve known she would inform Mitholie.”
“I directed her too. I wanted to see if—” Her voice cracked, but she held up her hand and recovered herself. “—if an android would rescue another of its kind. I needed to know how much he would risk.”
“By sacrificing self.” She dropped off her bed and scooted to a corner. Retrieving the figure with large ears and round eyes, she placed him on the game board—facing the fanged creature. She glanced from Gabriel, still hovering on the threshold to Taug standing firmly before her. “We all have our trials to face.”
“I have always considered it as treason against the great republic of human nature, to make any man’s virtues the means of deceiving him.” ~Samuel Johnson
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