The sun had crested the horizon as Derik ran his fingers along the back of the park bench, knocking the melting snow to the ground. He shivered in the morning chill, especially without his heavy coat, but he didn’t care. He wrapped his stiff fingers around the dagger in his pocket, comforted by the smooth handle. It reminded him of the dissecting knives in the lab, and he found this oddly amusing. Starting off at a trot, he jogged across the street, his gaze down, but his mind focused. Someone jostled him roughly. Glancing up, his mouth dropped open. Justine grabbed his arm with more force than he thought necessary. “Justine?” He shook his arm free. “What’re you doing here? I left you a message—”
“Like an idiot. You think you can murder a Cresta and no one will find out? You’ll be hunted to—”
“Can’t you see? It’s the only way. I can’t marry you till I know that we’ll have a chance at living a normal life—even an abnormal life. Taug’s a lying—never mind. It’s over. I’m taking matters into my own hands.”
Justine ran her fingers through her wind-rippled hair with a long sigh. “My perfect plan—blown to smithereens.” Gripping his arm, she nudged him toward the street. “Come with me.”
“To your place. You’re going to pack some necessaries while I shock you with my life story, and then we’re going to the nearest transport and head off-planet.”
Derik stood frozen.
Justine jerked his arm, knocking him off balance. “I’m not in a negotiating mood, sweetheart. Let’s go.”
As soon as Derik opened his apartment door, Justine barged ahead, her gaze sweeping the premises for any sign of intrusion. After a quick run-through, she returned to the living room and plopped down on the couch with a sigh. She patted the cushion next to her. “Sit.”
Derik frowned. “You’re beginning to sound a bit too much like Taug for my taste.”
Justine snorted. “You don’t know the half of it.”
His hands on his hips, his legs braced wide apart, Derik jutted his chin forward. “I’ve already had more than a few shocks today. Go ahead, see if you can surprise me.”
Justine stared at the ceiling. “You’re not making this easy.”
Derik clenched his hands together and wrung them like a towel. “I already had my day nicely planned. I was going to gut Taug like the animal he is, collect you, and we’d head to a Bhuaci settlement.” He thrust a hand deep into his pocket and retrieved a data chip. “See, our transport’s all arranged. But now—”
Justine chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll disarrange all your plans in a moment. But keep the data chip. You’ll need it.” She jumped to her feet. “Give thy soul air, thy faculties expanse; love, joy, even sorrow—yield thyself to all….”
“Forget it. A noble sentiment perhaps but too painful to endure.” She cupped Derik’s hand in hers and stroked it, her voice softening. “I’m not human, Derik. Not even close.”
The smile that spread across Derik’s face morphed into an inane grin. He started giggling and was soon doubled over in hysterical laughter. It took him several moments to gain control of his heaving shoulders. “Really? You honestly think I didn’t know? I figured something…though Clare was kind enough to color in the details for me.”
“Clare told you?” Justine’s confused scowl darkened as she turned away. “That wasn’t her place.”
“Place or not, I’ve known for a while. And what’s more, I haven’t cared for a moment.” He waved an imploring hand at her back. “You seriously believe that I, a mixed-breed, half-Cresta would care that you’re a half-breed, human android?”
Turning, Justine folded her arms across her chest. “You have a delicate way of putting things, Derik.”
Derik plunged across the room and gripped Justine by the shoulders, his gaze delving into hers. “We’re made for each other.”
Justine closed her eyes and leaned in, her forehead resting on his shoulder. “I wish it were that easy.”
Derik rubbed her back, pressing her closer.
Justine pulled away, all business. “Killing Taug won’t help. You need an escape.”
“What’re you thinking?”
“Take that transport. I’ll deal with Taug.”
“Like hell! He’s my enemy, not yours. You don’t even know him.”
Justine’s arms dropped to her sides. “Now’s when I shock you—ready? I knew Taug before you were even born. He was at the Inter-Alien Alliance trial that found me guilty of war crimes. He observed my sentencing and was the one who awoke me seventy years later. Now, he asks only one little favor to keep me out of prison—kill you.”
Derik fell back against the sofa and slid to the ground.
Justine knelt beside him. “You can still escape. I’m not going to kill you. I never was—”
“You stepped in front of that autoskimmer on purpose. I remember…I wondered…I didn’t care.” Derik’s shoulders shook as he dropped his face into his hands. “If I were dead—” He looked into Justine’s eyes, tears running down his cheeks. “Kill me.”
Justine’s jaw tensed. “Shut up!” She jumped to her feet. “I have a plan. And it doesn’t involve killing anyone. You’re going to take that transport, and I’ll take care of Taug—”
A snort made them turn around. Taug shuffled through the doorway. Three Crestas stood guard behind him. “No need. Taug can take care of himself.”
Governor Right smirked at her datapad, elbows propped on her desk. “Screwed up didn’t you, little fellow? So, you weren’t as smart as your specimen. Funny, how that always happens. We think we have our options covered, then along comes a surprise element.” She tapped her datapad, and her secretary’s face appeared on the wall screen. “Cancel today’s appointments. A private matter, so you don’t need to tell anyone. Just say I’m indisposed. Let ‘em chew on that.”
She gathered a couple of small objects from her desk and placed them discreetly within easy reach on her person. She patted her hip with a flicker of a smile and headed out the door.
Ambling down the hallway, she nodded at a few faces, her glazed expression denoting her disinterest in conversation. As she reached the elevator, she waited for it to empty and then started forward. Turning around inside, pleased with her isolation, she was startled by a whoosh just before the automatic doors closed. Without turning her head, she knew exactly who occupied the small space with her. She trembled.
With a swallow, Governor Right tried to make her voice sound natural. “I avoid all unnecessary pleasantries. It takes too much time.”
“This won’t be pleasant, so you won’t lose a moment.”
Governor Right closed her eyes.
Vandi crowds bustled about in a holiday mood. The next day would begin the Inter-Alien combined Winter Festival and Religious Observation Season. The fact that it began nearly at the same time as the OldEarth Christmas Season irritated some, but since a lottery determined the date, few beings felt the need to argue the point. After all, every day was meaningful to someone. Christians considered it a sign from God. Others smirked at the very idea. The rest simply enjoyed the opportunity for paid leave and a few days of fun.
As Taug slogged through the wet snow behind Justine and Derik, he kept his weapon hidden from view. His three well-paid guards shuffled behind, their tentacles hidden under shapeless capes meant to appear inconspicuous. Only a few distracted stares came their way, which they ignored with icy politeness.
As they reached the middle of the main street, Justine scanned the environment. The streets were packed. Her heart froze. A group of children huddled outside a shop in serious consultation. Her gaze zoomed in. She instantly recognized the little boy’s face. Glancing at Derik, she wondered what he had looked like as a child. She blinked in the sudden realization that she had never been a little girl. The loss hit her like a Dustbuster blast to the chest.
Taug stepped between them. “That’ll do.” He gazed innocently at Derik. “I’m sorry. But I was always honest. You know why you were created, and you know why you must die. It’s as simple as that.”
A figure strode forward.
Taug’s eyes narrowed at the daring approach.
“Not so simple.” Wearing little more than a short-sleeve shirt, a pair of jeans, and slip-on shoes, oddly incongruous to the surrounding pedestrians bundled in heavy winter clothes, Bala stopped in front of Taug. He merely glanced at Justine and Derik. With a wave, he motioned Taug’s weapon aside. “Cerulean sent word that Derik was in trouble. Clare’s busy getting warrants and all that legal stuff. I’m here to see that no one gets hurt in the meantime.” He pointed to the shuffled Cresta footprints and nodded. “You made it pretty easy to follow you.”
Taug aimed his Dustbuster at Derik. “He’s is past all trouble. Even he agrees. Don’t you, Derik?”
Derik stepped away from Justine and thrust out his chest, making an easy target. “It’s better for one man to die than for the innocent to—”
Bala shot a glance at Justine. “Oh, brother! Any other ideas?”
Justine shook her head. “I had planned the perfect escape when Taug showed up.”
Pulling a dented Dustbuster from his back pocket, Bala shrugged. “Well, let’s see if we can work together. Back off, Taug, and tell your—”
Taug’s warning shot flew wide, blasting an innocent tree to bits. Bala rolled to the ground as shrieks filled the air.
Justine shoved Derik to the side and then lunged at Taug, but Derik gripped her foot from behind, and she slipped in the mushy snow.
Bala slapped his weapon free of snow, using words that would have shocked his mother.
Derik released Justine’s boot and scrambled to his feet, ready to tackle Taug.
Sirens screamed their pulsating warning as a sleek, well-armored vehicle skidded to a stop. The door flew open, and Governor Right stepped out, her arms raised dramatically. Her gaze raked through the frightened crowd.
Taug’s guards melted into the throng.
Bala lowered his weapon and stared, open-mouthed, as if the governor were a mirage.
The governor’s voice rang over the cacophony. “It’s all right, citizens. I’ll protect you. Please, go about your business. This incident is well in hand.” Her stiff smile matched her glassy stare.
When the crowd shook off its fright and began to circulate again, she dropped her gaze and glared at Taug. “Idiot.”
Taug shuffled forward. “Hardly. If you hadn’t interfered, at least some of us would have died, and Justine would have taken the blame.”
Her eyes roved over the small assembly. “Which one?”
Taug shrugged. “Which one which?”
Governor Right’s eyes flared. “The crossbreed, fool.”
Derik stepped forward, his expression haggard and lost to the world. “That would be me.”
With a snort, the governor marched forward and dug her fingers into his shoulder. “A prisoner is as good as dead in my book.” Governor Right shoved Derik toward the open car door.
She waved Bala’s approach away and glanced at Taug, sweeping her eyes toward Justine. “Do with it as you will. Take it apart if it pleases you. Just never let it rise again.”
Justine stretched her legs at an angle as she leaned back on a padded chair in front of a well-appointed desk. A pull-down electron microscope specially fitted to Cresta physiology hung directly overhead. She toyed with a bio-sample box as she watched Taug divest himself of his heavy coat. “Does it bother you that badly? The cold, I mean?”
Taug shivered. “Horrible! It never drops below freezing on my planet. The average temperature is biologically perfect and the range is slight, so we rarely worry about seasonal preparations. Just wet and dry as the rotation determines.”
His eyes glowed softly, curiously. “You feel cold, then?”
“Not like most people. But I have sensors that tell me what I’m feeling. I react according to my host’s expectations. In winter, I wear sweaters and a coat to blend in.”
“Lucky you.” Taug plopped down on a couch across from the desk. He pushed a button and a wall section slid away, revealing a small fireplace. He tapped his datapad and colorful flames burst forth, undulating with glowing heat.
Justine grimaced. “A bit showy, don’t you think?”
“Nothing like your paintings and OldEarth decor.”
Justine pursed her lips. “You’ve been to my home?”
“When you weren’t there, naturally.”
With a dramatic yawn and a stretch, Justine rose and paced across the lab. She circled back and stopped, staring at the wall tank. “So, I want him alive and you want him dead. In either case, we need to get him back. Any way we could manage this without killing anyone or setting off an interplanetary war?”
Taug stroked his chin with the edge of his tentacle. “Yes, I was just considering my options. Mitholie will send someone to collect me soon.”
Justine spun around. “Collect you?”
“Derik and you are not the only ones being threatened with annihilation. I’m beginning to think—we all are.” Leaning back, he closed his red-rimmed eyes. The next moment, he opened them sleepily and swerved his gaze to Justine. “Governor Right knows things without my telling her, and she appeared a bit worried, did she not?”
“Oh, dark waters, no! They’re doing their best to appear shocked by every new event. No, I think we have a player in this game we know little about.”
Justine stiffened. “My creator?”
Taug sucked in a breath and frowned. “I hope not.”
Justine strode across the room and bent over Taug, staring into his golden eyes. “Why?”
“Because then we’d all be as good as dead.”
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page
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