Taug, an up-and-coming apprentice, let a tentacle drift through the warm salt water of his bio-suit. His large, golden, watery eyes gazed coolly at the specimen lying suspended in the examination tube. “No. Why should I fear a void?” His eyes slowly rose to meet the elder’s scrutiny.
“Well—” Sensitive tentacles curled about the delicate equipment as Mitholie’s green eyes returned to the subject of their examination. “—your sociological profile says you…dislike death.” The light scalpel cut deeper, revealing bone. Mitholie’s mouth orifice lit up in a pleased smile.
Taug moved his bio-suit slightly nearer, bending over the examination tube. His eyes, lit by the dim, icy-blue lighting, flickered over the specimen. “I don’t fear death. I see it as a waste.”
“Yes. I calculate waste on how hard it is to retrieve lost data.” Taug sucked in water letting it drift slowly over his gills. “A brain sack once destroyed is gone, forever beyond our reach.”
Mitholie scanned each of the specimen’s organs carefully, individually. “But what if I no longer need that mind?”
“It’s hard to tell when and how something might be useful, or even worse, necessary.”
“You have an…intriguing mind.” Mitholie turned a lump of flesh in his tentacles.
Taug watched intently. “Beyond that, there is a practical reality. I’m neither a trained soldier nor an assassin.” He gestured with waving tentacles, “Like you, science is my passion.”
“Your father’s pet project has been identified—alive.” Mitholie’s eyes remained fixed on his work, ignoring Taug.
Taug slowly exhaled water. “I would say that was impossible, but I know the High Tribunal must be certain or else you wouldn’t have told me.” His mouth orifice remained in a fixed smile. “Is this a favor? Am I being offered a chance to commit suicide before the messy business of torture, trial, and execution?”
Mitholie spasmed, his long body wiggling with glee, “No such dramatics, no.” His tentacles released the delicate equipment; he looked Taug in the eye. “The High Tribunal simply wishes you to…purge your father’s unfortunate experiment. That done, I’m sure this messy business can be consigned to the dark waters.”
Taug’s tentacles curled thoughtfully. “Forgotten?”
“I’ll need its location.”
With a flick of a tentacle to his bio-suit, Mitholie effected a transaction. “I’m transferring the data now. By the way, hiring another Cresta to kill it is…unadvised. The High Tribunal wishes the waves of the ‘humons’ to be kept tranquil, at least for now. Besides, you have contacts? Yes?”
Taug’s eyes moved swiftly, scanning the long streams of data crossing before his eyes. “Yes….”
Mitholie laid down his knife and stepped back. “Very good. I’ll go with you to the harbor dock.”
Taug stepped aside. “Thank you.”
Together they moved down the sterile, rounded, white hallway, deep in secretive conversation. Plugging their bio-suits into the wall jacks, they shed them, and came out on the other side of the wall free, gliding through the dark water.
The human specimen floated in the examination tube, alone.
Floating in deep space, Bothmal Penal Internment was left deliberately unmarked on any space charts. Its layout was confusing and disorienting; carved from an asteroid, it stood as a grim reminder of what could happen to one if you angered enough powerful beings. Many sentient races held a similar vision of hell, and those imprisoned at Bothmal all agreed that if it wasn’t hell—it was right next door.
Zenith stood beside the docking bay port, scanning a list of names being streamed to him. Long ago, he had been fully human, but the allure of immortality had led him to enhance most of his body with synthetic replacements, including his eyes. He would celebrate his four-hundredth birthday this year if he continued the practice. A heavy trans-platinum chest guard protected his vital organs. Over this, he wore a synth-weave robe with a hefty handgun resting on his hip.
As the Chief Warden of Bothmal, Zenith knew the tangled structure like the back of his bio-metal hand and had several backup maps downloaded to his brain, just in case.
An interstellar ship, several times larger than the skyscrapers of Oldearth, docked nearby with its boarding tube neatly extended. Only one passenger exited the ship.
Taug moved slowly down the platform, flexing his tentacles in his new bio-suit. Biomechanical three-toed feet moved him smoothly over the floor, keeping his center of gravity low.
“Ah…Taug.” Zenith deftly pronounced the name that popped up in his holo-vision. “Pleased to meet you.” He inclined his head, motioning with his arm. “This way, if you please.”
Taug mimicked the bow and moved silently after his host.
“I hope you’ll forgive us for giving you this guided tour rather than allowing you to down-stream your own maps.” Zenith turned slightly. “Security, you know.”
Taug spoke, his voice synthesized. “I do.”
“You’re here on business?”
Taug’s brow furrowed.
Zenith’s grin turned malicious, “You’re not here to visit a relative…?”
“Certainly not! As you say, it’s business. I simply need to see if someone is still…available.”
The burly, six-foot human guard was not happy to see the large, soft-bodied Cresta in a gleaming black mechanical exoskeleton lumber toward him. His squint-eyed frown kept pleasantries to a minimum.
Taug strode forward. His tentacles arched stiffly at his side as he assumed the air of a harassed official, which was not off the mark. The journey to Bothmal had been long and exhausting. He hated the tough, unrelenting metallic form that allowed him to move and breathe on land, but he had little choice. Terrestrials dominated the universe. He felt out of sorts and hungry, but this part of his plan could not be delayed.
“I have an appointment.” Taug pinched a computer chip with his tentacle and dropped it on to the guard’s palm.
The guard inserted it into his datapad. Scowling, he jerked his head toward the back room. “Oh, it’s you. I was wondering who in darkness would want it. After all these years, it’s probably not any good. I’d start fresh if I were you.”
Taug shook his head, the water in his breathing helm swishing with each motion. Water dripped down the side of his face. “Good thing you’re not me.”
The guard sneered his reply.
The two shuffled through the doorway into a back room where Justine lay immobile on a steel table, the same table where she had been turned off. Taug stared at the figure and appraised its strength, noting its perfect symmetry and conjecturing on its intelligence. He turned to the guard.
The guard hesitated. “Like I said, it’s probably no good, but if you want to waste your time—”
The guard punched some numbers into his datapad and swiped it with two fingers.
The guard jumped back but threw out his hand protectively in front of Taug. “You never can tell how these things’ll react. She could go bloody ballistic, if you know what I mean.”
“Now, please.” Taug cleared his throat.
Taug stood motionless. His eyes narrowed as he studied Justine’s response.
She opened her eyes, turned her head, and stared first at Taug and then at the guard.
Taug nodded. “She is awake. Everything looks fine. You may leave us.”
The guard shook his head. “You sure? She could sit up and throttle you as soon as I walk out the door.”
“Will you throttle me, Justine?”
Justine sat up, her gaze fixed on Taug. “Should I?”
The guard stifled a laugh.
Taug ignored the guard and returned Justine’s intense stare.
“Then I won’t.”
Taug’s gaze shifted back to the guard. “Thank you. You may leave.”
With a shrug, the guard shuffled toward the doorway. “Okay, it’s your neck. If I hear a scream…or something…I’ll—”
Justine flicked her gaze to the guard. “You wouldn’t have time.”
The guard stalked out the door.
Taug stepped back, allowing Justine room to shift herself off the bed.
She stood and appeared to be appraising her internal workings.
“Are you all right?”
“It appears so.”
Taug meandered toward a conference table and a pair of comfortable chairs. “Please, let’s sit. You can hardly imagine what I’ve been through to get here. Interminable bureaucrats…but, never mind.” Taug lowered his stiff body onto a chair and sighed. He sniffed into the breathing helm and allowed the briny liquid to play over his face.
Justine strode over and stood by him. “I’d rather pace if you don’t mind. I’ve been lying around for…how long?”
“Approximately seventy years, give or take, depending on whose calendar you use these days. Since we’ll be settling on Newearth, you might as well get used to their systems of measurement.”
“Why? I mean, why have you…?”
“Turned you back on?”
“I would have said awakened.”
“Yes, I suspected as much. You seem to consider yourself…human. I hope that won’t be a problem.”
Justine did not break her stride. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“I awakened you because I need you.”
Justine paced across the cylindrical room.
Taug’s eyes followed her. “What do you know about Crestar?”
Justine stopped and peered inward. She refocused her gaze on Taug. “Apparently, my databank remains intact. No memory wipe of any kind?”
Taug shrugged. “A very persuasive advocate advised against it. A Luxonian, I believe.”
With a stiff nod, Justine clasped her hands behind her back and resumed a professional mode. “Crestar, home of over twenty-seven billion life forms. A water planet ruled by a coalition of seven leading scientists called the Ingal. Notorious for unprecedented experimentation on other beings—”
Two tentacles admonished Justine into silence. “Stop. You’ve been brainwashed by those on the Inter-Alien Alliance—”
Justine leaned forward, her eyes flashing. “No!” She glared down at Taug. “I am incapable of being brainwashed. Especially not by the very beings that nearly destroyed me.”
Taug nodded. “Good to know. Please….” He nodded toward the chair. “Sit.”
Justine perched on the edge of the available chair, her back straight and uncompromising.
Taug sighed. “You must understand my position. I am a Cresta caught between worlds. I believe in my culture, but at the same time, I fear we are heading to our doom.”
Justine pursed her lips. She folded her hands in her lap, her gaze fixed on Taug.
“I have a plan to assist my race, but I need your help to see it through. During your long sleep, a new force has arisen in the universe. It is called by the remarkably unimaginative name ‘Newearth.’ Do you happen to know anything about Oldearth?”
Justine’s gaze hardened. “I am partly composed of human DNA.”
“That was not my question.”
“I know everything about their history and downfall up until I was shut down.”
Taug nodded and struggled out of his chair. “That would be year twenty-three of what the human remnant calls their ‘Hidden Years.’” He padded to a wall screen and pushed a button. A light flared and the screen illuminated the starry universe.
“They stayed on Lux for forty years, resettled Newearth, and lived in relative obscurity until our leadership recognized an opportunity.” Taug tapped a keypad and the image zoomed through space until it focused on Newearth spinning in all its blue-green glory. “We invaded successfully until the Luxonians took the humans’ part and negotiated a peace treaty called the Inter-Alien Alliance.” He tapped again and the image refocused on a human city. Low-lying buildings dotted the landscape, and humans bustled about in self-made importance.
Justine stared at the screen in unblinking fascination.
Taug looked from Justine to the image. “I’ve been ordered to serve in a city called Vandi and accomplish a, shall we say, delicate task. It is hoped that I will learn ways to secure a stronger position for my government in the alliance.”
Justine’s gaze slid to Taug’s face. Her lips stiffened. “I am not for hire.”
Taug shrugged. He flicked off the image, breaking the trance. “I didn’t say you were. I simply have plans for myself…and Newearth.”
“They can’t be shared at this early stage. I just need someone with your abilities at my disposal.”
“I may be forced to kill someone, a mixed-breed accident, but I’m not particularly suited to committing acts of murder. Especially since no one can discover an association between me and the—”
“Yes, I guess you could say that. Though he does have a name.” Taug folded his tentacles together in a meditative motion. “You see, he does not appear to be a threat at the moment, but he could become one. I need to consider the situation carefully. In the meantime, I must be ready to act—if necessary.”
“What’s its name?”
“He is not an it, though I suppose… Still, I object. His name is Derik Erland, and you are to treat him with respect. He is part human, part Cresta.”
“So, I’m an assassin—again?”
“If need be.”
Justine tapped her thigh as she circled the room. “Why not make it easy on yourself? Give me a description and its location, and I’ll take care of it. After all, you just gave me back my life. I ought to do a little…something.”
Taug chuckled. “You’ll have me convinced that you are sentient before long. No, I can’t simply kill Derik. After all, he may be worth more alive. My father, Taurgon, created him. He believed, quite naively, that once races begin interbreeding, then divisions melt away. I’m not such a fool.”
“So? What’s the mixed-breed worth to you?”
“He might be the answer to every Cresta’s deepest aspiration—immortality and nearly infinite power. Once we are able to successfully graft our intellect onto other beings, we can simply regenerate ourselves as often as need be.”
“There are creatures that do something similar. I believe they are called parasites.”
“Ah, but there would be a difference. We would not simply live off our host; we would become more…a greater being in our own right. We might even rival the creator in time.”
Taug raised a tentacle. “I’ve already said too much.” He rose stiffly to his feet. “I have awakened you for one purpose: to be of service to me. At some point, the High Council might have decided that they needed your bed, and then where would you be? Recycled perhaps? That would be a shame. You have a lot of history tucked into that synthetic brain of yours. You might become much more than an assassin. Again, I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, come with me.”
Taug led the way toward the door where the guard snorted with irritation.
Justine took one final glance at the abandoned, steel bed and marched after Taug. “Where are we going?”
“Newearth. It’s my home for now. You may call it what you wish.”
A. K. Frailey is the author of 17 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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