Alive and Willful

—Newearth—

Like all Ingots, Lang’s body from the neck down was encased in techno-armor, but her form-fitting suit outlined the fantasies of multiple beings

She peered at the photo and had to ask—“Was I ever young?”

Riko, a slim Uanyi, could not say. He sat behind his desk with three saucepans lines up along the edge, a large datapad front and center, a holograph pad on the left, and a half-eaten slice of carrot cake on the right. Two baskets of colorful plants hung in front of a large window that now only reflected the outside security light.

Lang laid the photo on Riko’s desk and stared pointedly at the pots. “You keep your kitchen utensils close at hand, eh?”

With a shrug, Riko stood and strolled over to a small cooler unit. “I’m ordering new. Wendell tries, but the kid is hard on kitchenware.”

“I thought he just worked the tables.”

“He only has to look at a pot and it falls to the ground, dents, cracks to pieces…I don’t know. It’s like the kid has a magnetic storm following him everywhere he goes.”

Lang shrugged. “He was a reject that his mama saved. Few Ingots get through infancy—”

Riko hauled two cold drinks out of the cooler, snapped them open, and handed one to Lang.

Lang eyed the bright blue drink and grinned. “Thanks. I was feeling a little parched.”

“How about you?” Riko snapped up the photo. “This is old. Somebody treasured it. Most people only have digital memories.” One eyebrow rose. “Especially Ingots.”

Lang took a long swallow and leaned on the back of a dark brown office couch. “I was a reject too. You’d be surprised how many of us there are. In my case, I was borderline, and because I had a pretty face, they let me through. Never knew my mama or daddy DNA. That’s why Wendell is so different. His mama should never have known. She must’ve been from one of those back-to-nature groups. They practically stripped themselves naked, then tried to raise their young the old way.”

“But someone took this—” Riko waved the photo and took a swig from the bottle.

“Wasn’t any family relation—”

A knock on the door turned their attention.

Another quick drink and Riko strode over and swung open his office door.

Wendell stood in the hall between the café kitchen and the office, sheepish but smiling. “I fixed the sink. And everything is all cleaned up.”

Riko nodded. “Good.” He jogged to his desk and swiped one of the pots from the line. “Give your ma this. I decided to go with another set, so she can use it. No point in throwing it out.”

Wendell accepted the pot, cuddling it in both arms, a grateful servant of a kind benefactor.

Riko shuffled his feet, awkward kindness hindering his usual impatience. “You can go home now. See you in the morning.”

Reciting from memory, Wendell raised his eyes to the ceiling and pointed emphatically, his voice imitating Riko’s command tone. “Bright and early!”

The two grinned at each other.

The depth of the shared moment almost broke Lang’s heart. As Riko closed the door, still grinning, Lang lifted the photo again. “So tell me again—how’d you get this?”

“It was on my desk this morning.” He took a final swig, wiped his lips, and met Lang’s stare. “Either someone is having a little fun with us, or we’d better keep our eyes open.”

Lang drained the last of the blue liquid. “Maybe both.” She shrugged. “But as a reporter, I’d sure like to know who—” With a staggering step, Lang fell onto the couch. “Oh, God!”

Riko ran to her side, his eyes wide, frightened. “What?”

“There was a man…he looked like a man. But now…I wonder.” She dropped her head in her hands, her gaze roving to Riko’s face. “Do you believe in the supernatural?”

Riko choked. He yanked open the recycle depository and tossed in the two empty bottles. “I believe there’s more to the universe than we see or understand if that’s what you mean.”

A tumble of emotions swirled through Lang’s system. “I mean an intentional being—beings. Alive and willful.”

“Like Omega?”

“Could be…but more.” Lang rose; logic overthrowing confusion. “Like the fact that you and I met, that Faye and Taug are buddies, that Cerulean even exists…the million and one oddities, proving that more than mere chance defines out fate.”

Riko dropped onto the couch wearily. “You asked if you’d ever been young…well, I grew up in a war zone, my ma was killed trying to protect a way of life that no longer existed, and I certainly never felt young.” He met Lang’s eyes. “Never.”

Lang plunked down next to Riko, their shoulders touching. “Me neither. I was plucked out of the Ingot world by some unknown hand and trained as a reporter before my synapses were set. My body has always been my biggest asset, but collected nerves saved my life. Yet, I’ve always felt sad.”

In uncharacteristic generosity and intimacy, Riko clasped Lang’s hand. “Me too.”

For a moment, Lang felt young again.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~William Shakespeare

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

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Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Fourteen

Hope Endures When Doubts Are Few

Bala stood on the transport-docking bay and watched as a massively muscled and well-armed human guard led a manacled Ingot forward. Bala held out his hand and accepted a datapad.

The guard grunted. “This your guy? Just give me your print, and we’ll be on our way.”

Bala studied the Ingot and pressed his hand onto the datapad. “Yep, it’s him.” He pursed his lips as they started away. “Hold on a second; I have a question.”

The guard frowned. “Hurry up, would you? I’ve got a schedule to keep. Bothmal is going to be busy tonight.”

Bala braced himself. “So tell me—why? I got all the evidence I need, but I just don’t get it. You didn’t have any record before this, and your family says that you’ve never been in any trouble before. They insist that you were practically an angel—far as Ingots go. So why hire Cho? Why kill Mrs. Hoggsworth?”

The Ingot shrugged. “Everyone has their price.”

Bala peered into his eyes. “Did someone threaten your family?”

A slight sneer cracked the Ingot’s indifference. “My family has never been safer.”

Bala shook his head. “I could argue that point. So what enticed you to risk spending twenty years at Bothmal?”

The Ingot’s derision was palpable. “I won’t be spending twenty years at Bothmal.”

Bala pursed his lips, tapping his fingers together. “It’s pretty secure. And the records are clear. You’ve got twenty with no chance of parole.”

The Ingot chuckled, swiveling his gaze over to the guard. “We going?”

The guard shrugged. “No time to waste today.” He nudged the Ingot down the long, gray corridor.

Bala stood back, frowning, as the Ingot strode to a corner, flashing back a confident grin.

~~~

Snow had fallen early in the day, but by the late afternoon, dreary, uneven shadows encompassed Clare’s study. Shelves lined with an assortment of trophies, graduation certificates, family photos, Oldearth artifacts, and a shellacked Easter egg stood in silent testimony to a few of her favorite things.

Clare hunched over a cluttered desk, one hand propping her head as she scrolled through files on a screen embedded in the wall.

A black cat sidled past, rubbing against her legs.

Clare lifted the feline onto her lap and stroked it absently. “Dang it! Justine is all over these files but only as a reference. Guess she wasn’t working for Right, after all—” She peered through the gloom at the purring cat. “Are you even listening?”

The cat meowed a long series of vowels.

Clare lifted it to eye level. “I just fed you—” She glanced at her datapad. “Is that really the time?” She stood, dropping the cat unceremoniously. “Come on. Why can’t you just hunt up some mice like all the other neighborhood quadrupeds? I bet they laugh behind their paws at you.”

The cat twirled around her legs, meowing even more plaintively.

“Okay, okay. Don’t trip me.” Clare crab-walked, avoiding the ever-present paws all the way to the kitchen, where she noticed a small mound of clothes stuffed in a corner, wedged between the hamper and the wall. With a frown, she reached down to scoop up the laundry when the cat sprang between her and the mound, a deep-throated yowl issuing from its chest.

Clare jumped back, snatching her hand out of the way. “What the hell?” She sidestepped to the closet and snatched a sweeper. Her attempt to nudge the cat out of the way failed, as the feline sprang to the center of the pile and placed its feet around a wiggling mass. Clare bent in, not too close, but close enough to realize what she was looking at. A smile spread across her face. “Awww! When did the babies come? I thought that was another week away.” She shrugged at the furious mother, who now glared as if Clare had indelicately intruded on private matters.

“Sheesh! You forgot who sprang you from kitty prison? Listen, I’m not the enemy, you know!” She ripped open a feedbag and dumped the contents into a wide dish and stood back as the cat scrambled for the food. Clare’s eyes darted from the mother cat to the kittens. Taking the smallest step possible, she leaned toward the mound. The mother cat sprang with another howl. Raising her hands in surrender, Clare backed off and returned to her wall screen, muttering. “Prison must’ve made you paranoid. Never trust a human—that your creed?” Suddenly she stopped and stared into space, a blush working its way up her cheeks. “Oh hell!”

Slapping the console, Clare worked her way around a series of files. “You know, Justine could tell me everything I need to know about Governor Right, but she happens to hate my guts just now. Justine, not the governor. Though…”

The cat rubbed itself around Clare’s ankles. Apparently, not being in the immediate vicinity of her kittens did wonders for the feline’s attitude.

Clare peered down at the cat and stroked it with her toe. “All friendly now, are we? Do you even care about me? As long as I keep that dish filled, the entire population of Newearth could be planning my demise, and you’d be content.” Clare huffed, paced across the room, and pulled on her shoes. “You think disassembling a robotic brain in the line of duty would be considered murder?”

The cat sat on its haunches, daintily cleaning its paws. A long tail swooshed contentedly around its back legs.

Clare rubbed her chin. “You don’t think it has feelings—” Clare shook her head and stomped back to her computer. She scanned the files once more and frowned. “Cerulean certainly seems to like her. And she looks at him like she might—” Slapping the keypad, the wall screen went blank. “Not my problem. He’s as old as the hills anyway!” She nodded to the cat. “I’ll trust you to keep ‘em safe. She snatched her datapad and dashed out the door.

~~~

The expanse of soft, white snow contrasted beautifully with the black, jagged branches overhead. Derik filled his lungs with the scent of distant pine trees and pristine, wintertime air. He stepped to the park bench and brushed snow to the ground in a fine dusting. His gaze swept the area and found Justine’s figure slowly approaching from the north.

His heart pounded as one hand fingered a small box in his coat pocket. It was the perfect location, the spot where they had first spoken together. Okay, they had actually first spoken in the middle of the Vandi street, but that was no place to propose, unless he wanted to end up in a hospital before she had a chance to say yes. His eyes followed her, fixed like a ship’s captain on the North Star.

Justine ambled forward, a soft smile playing on her lips. “You picked an odd place to meet today. Your apartment is a lot warmer and more comfortable.”

“I have a good reason.” He flourished a gallant gesture toward the bench. “Do you remember?”

Justine nodded. “The bench we shared the day I—”

“It was a fortunate accident that brought us together. I’d thank the driver, if I could.”

Justine shifted, digging her hands deep into her pockets. “Surely, we would’ve met eventually. Vandi isn’t so big.”

Derik placed his hands low on her waist and pulled her in close. “You believe in destiny?”

Justine swallowed, a worried gaze surveying the environment over his shoulder. “‘Faith in destiny, my beloved, entwines us true, for hope endures when doubts are few.’” She pulled back so she could look him in the eye. “Ancient Bhuac saying.” She attempted a smile. “Still, I trust my senses. After all, Vandi is only a few hundred kilometers wide.”

Derik threw back his head and laughed. “You always surprise me. Your brilliance is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met.” He stared into her eyes. “I don’t know another woman alive who’d have loved me, knowing what I am.”

Her gaze sliding over his, Justine leaned in for a kiss. Just before their lips touched, she wrapped her fingers around his neck and pinched him.

Jerking back, Derik grimaced and rubbed his neck. “Ouch! What’s that for?” He turned pale at the sight of blood. “I’ve heard of love bites but—”

Justine held up a tiny, black dot, squeezed between her fingers. “Sorry, an insect of some kind.” She dropped it and ground the speck into the dirt.”

“A bug? Like a tick? I thought those were eradicated.”

Justine turned away, her jaws tight. “Guess not.”

Blinking back his confusion, Derik fumbled with his coat pocket. “Never mind. I’ve got something for you.” Drawing out a small velvet box, he offered it to Justine. “It’s like the one my dad gave my mom. They had to special order it, of course, because no one makes these anymore.”

After one last surveying glance, Justine focused on Derik. An eyebrow rose. “You want to give me a box?”

Derik grinned. “Not the box. What’s inside. Remember, what you said when you told me you knew the truth.”

Justine froze. “What do you mean?”

“Open the box and find out.”

With a flick, the box opened, revealing a golden band. Molded symbols curved around the edge. Justine picked the ring out of its nest and held it up to the failing light filtering through the winter sky. Hearts intertwined with ivy leaves wrapped around the outside. Etched lettering spelled the words, Derik and Justine~Forever.

Derik’s eyes glowed in reflected glory as he watched Justine’s eyes fill with tears. He smiled as he drew her into a tight embrace. “Don’t cry. It’s our future. Together.”

Justine let the tears slip down her cheeks. She was not surprised at the ring or the offer. She was surprised at the tears.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~C.G. Jung

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Thirteen

Long Past Trust

Justine stood in the middle of the pristine laboratory, analyzing Taug, her legs wide, her arms folded across her chest, and one eyebrow raised, marring her symmetrical face. She spoke with forced precision. “You-want-me-to-kidnap-Derik?”

Taug’s tentacles spread in acceptance. “You’ve accomplished far more difficult tasks. This shouldn’t prove much of a challenge.”

Justine swatted a mosquito on her arm and frowned. She darted a look from Taug to the sterile room and back to Taug. “Why?”

Taug slapped at the buzz of an insect in his ear. He waddled over to a small tank, lifted the lid, peered in, shook his head, and replaced it. “He hasn’t been answering my messages. The last time we spoke, I urged him to move in—”

“You want him to live in the lab? Why?” Justine squared her shoulders and unfolded her arms, fists ready for hand-to-hand combat.

Completely ignoring Justine, Taug’s eyes followed a buzzing insect around the room. “He might get hurt out in the open.”

Justine snatched the fly from the air and held it by the wing. It dangled, buzzing even more furiously. She pounded forward, staring Taug in the eye. “Tell me the truth.”

A tentacle flew at Justine. In a second, her legs were wrapped in a tight squeeze. Taug flipped her across the room.

Justine regained her footing and barreled forward, her head down in ramming position.

Taug’s body quivered on impact. He grabbed a tentacle-full of hair and pulled Justine’s head back so that she could see him. One tentacle held a Dustbuster while another tapped a small, black sphere on his belt.

Justine froze, her gaze fixed on the belt.

Taug shoved her back and gestured with the Dustbuster. “Stand by the wall.” He circled her as he held the weapon leveled at her chest. “When it comes to telling the truth, you’ve not been particularly forthcoming.” He nodded at the micro-recorder on his belt. “You’ve seen this before? I implanted a matching one on Derik; it looks like a mole on the back of his neck. I dare say he hasn’t noticed, but you have.” A snide grin slithered across his face. “With this little ear, I’ve heard every conversation he’s had. I must say, he’s not an original lover but at least he seems sincere.”

Justine’s jaw clenched, fitting her rock-like stance. “None of your business.”

Taug chided her with a waving tentacle. “Oh, but Derik is my business. As he is supposed to be yours. No good ever comes from mixing business with pleasure, I always say.” Taug aimed the Dustbuster as Justine’s hand quivered. “Don’t even think about it. I’m not a fool. It would only take one mark to have you disassembled for spare parts. My notes, available to every Cresta upon my death, would identify you as my murderer. Your memories are not so valuable so as to save you a second time.”

Justine threw back her head, defiant. “What do you want?”

“Retrieve Derik. I want him here, in my lab, tomorrow. And I want him to know that he needs to cooperate with me or—”

“You’re threatening me?”

“Very effectively.”

Justine strode to the wall-tank and ran a finger across the glass. She stared into the murky depths with studious indifference. “What are you planning to do, long term?”

Taug lowered his tentacle, relaxing the Dustbuster against his side. “If it was necessary for you to know, I’d tell you, but it’s not. All you need to know is that his life depends on how efficiently you obey me.”

Justine’s splayed hand stiffened. “I’m your slave now?”

“The term slave involves the possibility of freedom; you don’t have that, so you are not a slave.”

Justine turned, her gaze frozen, and stepped toward Taug. “What am I, then?”

“A tool.”

“You cold-blooded, inhumane—”

Taug chuckled, his bulbous eyes gleaming. “Trust me, being human isn’t quite as charming as it’s made out to be. I’ve had a lot of experience, and humans are often every bit as cold-blooded as a Cresta. The difference is that I work in accordance with my nature; therefore, I’m perfecting myself. Humans have no such hope.” Taug meandered past Justine toward the wall. “I’m going for a swim. Mention that to Derik. It’ll make your task a little easier.”

Justine strode to the door but before crossing the threshold, she stopped. She looked back at Taug. “And the insects? What are they for?”

Nodding in approval, Taug slid the Dustbuster back into a sleeve pocket. “I knew you’d ask. They are a part of my studies. Insects have some rather startling qualities that I might find useful.”

Justine grunted her agreement as she stalked out of the room. “You’d make a good insect yourself.”

~~~

Justine chopped carrots at lightning speed. Her fingers swept the assembly of other vegetables into a waiting pot, swiveled to the sink, and added water. Faster than a human eye could follow, she dropped in spices and a variety of mystery ingredients.

As the spicy aroma pervaded the room, Derik shuffled into the kitchen. He hugged her from behind and kissed her neck. “Hmmm, hmm, that smells good! How did you manage to put that together so quickly?”

Justine leaned back into the hug and reached behind to ruffle his thick hair. “I already had it prepared. I just needed to warm it up.”

“Gorgeous, intelligent, and a good cook. Is there another woman like you on the planet?”

Justine’s lopsided smile wavered. “Not likely.”

A ting sent her into her living room. Ivy stenciling meandered across the upper walls while baskets of hanging plants brightened the corners. Oldearth-style paintings hung strategically throughout the room. Justine ignored it all as she retrieved her datapad. Taug’s face rose into view. Justine slapped the datapad against her thigh as Derik ambled into the room.

Justine shook her head and flipped the pad over on her desk. “Just a reminder.” She stepped over to a wide couch and patted the seat next to her. “We need to talk.”

Derik grimaced. “Something important?”

Justine interpreted his expression and grinned winningly. “Not that kind of talk.”

“Ah, good!” Derik slid onto the couch beside her, one arm swinging up and around her shoulders.

She caressed one of his legs with hers. “I met a friend of yours, a Cresta named Taug.”

Derik jerked, but Justine held him back with a comforting touch. “Don’t worry. He told me everything. About you and his father. It was a relief, really. I knew there was something different about you, but I just never imagined—”

Derik closed his eyes and leaned back with a strangled sigh. “Why did he have to tell—you?”

“He cares about you.” Justine stroked Derik’s cheek. “For a Cresta, that’s a high compliment. He said he could help you adjust to all the changes. But you need to trust him.”

Derik opened his eyes and stared at Justine. “Did he tell you that he considered killing me?”

Justine shifted closer and breathed into his ear, stroking his cheek. Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “He told me everything. He needs you, and I want you to be happy.”

Tears brimming, Derik leaned forward. “I’m a mixed breed, illegal, and unwanted by every race in the universe. I should’ve had the courage to tell you. It’s been hell trying to hide my deformities, but I was afraid—”

Justine ran a finger across his lips. “Don’t. I have eyes; I already knew…some things. But it doesn’t bother me. The man I care about is on the inside. Not the shell on the outside.”

Derik’s delicate composure fractured. He dropped his face into his hands and sobbed. “I don’t deserve you.”

A twisted smile shadowed Justine’s face. “Maybe not. But you’ve got me just the same. And Taug. Question is, will you trust us?”

Derik wiped his eyes and leaned into Justine’s comforting embrace. “It’s gone long past trust.”

~~~

Derik removed the swimming mask from his face and pulled a large towel from a rack above his dripping bodysuit. The suit didn’t cover his Cresta anatomy, which allowed him to absorb the nutrients and experience the intoxicating sensation of revitalized Cresta skin. He had little to compare the sensation to, but he openly admitted that it was addictive. This month he had gone swimming with Taug nearly every day.

Taug donned his bio-suit in calm dignity. His eyes flickered over Derik’s human-Cresta body, and he pursed his puffy lips. He no longer shuddered at the sight of Derik’s anatomy. In fact, Derik wondered if he wasn’t just a bit jealous.

Derik had shown that he had the capacity to enjoy Cresta sensibilities with remarkable depth. Yet he also retained the ability to enjoy a fully functioning human body. Though Derik did have to wear bio-suits now, so did everyone in away. Even humans had to wear protective clothing.

As soon as they were dressed, Taug gestured Derik toward a round steel table piled high with instruments, standing in front of a wall of medical scanners. “It’s time.”

Derik shook his head. “I’m awfully tired. Couldn’t we skip it today? I mean, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Taug rubbed one tentacle across his chin meditatively. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.” He padded across the room. “I’m concerned about you.”

Idly lifting one of the medical instruments, Derik peered at it closely. “Me? Why? You’re the only one I know who wants me dead, so I’m relatively safe, don’t you think?” Derik’s accompanying chuckle proved how far their relationship had developed.

Taug appeared to appreciate the joke and offered a thin smile in return. “True, but Newearth is still a dangerous place. Beings get injured all the time; they’re victims of a hundred crimes a day. You never know when something might happen.”

Derik thumped his chest. “No one is going to mess with me.” He wagged his finger playfully at Taug. “You’re in far more danger than I am.”

“That is another consideration.” Taug shuffled closer. “Derik, I’d like you to live here.”

The instrument dangled from Derik’s hand. “At a laboratory?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you live here?”

“I have a small room in the back, but I would install separate quarters for you, a nice apartment, better than what you have now. That way you won’t have to travel back and forth, and we can continue working—”

Slapping the instrument on the table, Derik pouted. “But I have a job and a life! I’m not just your pet project, you know. I have a relationship and my job is very—”

“Low paying. I could pay you five times as much.”

Derik shuffled across the room, curiosity getting the better of him. “You never offered to pay before.”

“I was still deciding.”

Stopping in mid-stride, Derik turned and unrolled a heart monitor from the wall. He darted a glance at Taug and twirled the tip between his fingers. “So if I take your offer, you’re certain you won’t kill me?”

Taug hesitated for just an instant. “Yes.”

Derik dropped the heart monitor. “I don’t know. I like your offer, but I need to think about it. I want to talk to Justine.” Derik smirked and tilted his head back, appraising the figure before him. “So, are you considered good looking, on Crestar, I mean?”

Taug wiggled, a humorous gleam in his eye. “I was what you would call ‘quite the catch.’ In fact, I had so many Crestar females asking to be my mate that my parents held an auction.”

Derik swallowed, his eyes bugging as he stumbled forward. “What? Your parents auctioned you off?”

Taug nearly fell backward in a spasm of delight. “No, no. You are such a hatchling! I forget. No, they auctioned for the female to be my prize.”

Derik rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as if to wipe away a bad taste. “That’s sick! I thought males and females had equal status in your culture.”

Taug shook his head impatiently. “They do, but you misunderstand. Equal does not mean the same. We have rituals for mating and procreation, much like you humans. There was once something humans called the bride price, was there not?”

“In our barbaric past.”

“Perhaps, but for us, the bride price is not barbaric. It shows how much the family wants the match and the worth of the female. You can trust that we do not waste our families. Males, females, and hatchlings each have an important part to play in our culture, and we do not treat any of them as expendable.” Taug looked away.

Derik reached for the heart monitor again, as if clinging to a lifeline, and pulled it free of the wall. “But you’re scientists. You experiment on everyone. If you experiment, someone has to be expendable.”

Taug stood frozen. His gaze returned to Derik, appraising him anew. “It’s intriguing, the way you think. But still, you don’t understand. Science is our greatest good. To further science is the highest call, and therefore, no one is expendable.”

Derik shook his head and stepped to the door. It slid open automatically. “Well, for a while there, I was pretty expendable. Maybe I’m not now, but seeing how things can change, I’d rather keep my options open.” He trudged across the threshold.

Taug shuffled over, picked the heart monitor off the floor, and clutched it to his chest, his gaze never leaving the doorway.

“Ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” Desmond Tutu

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/2OAkDQ

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/glowing-uv-luminescent-luminescence-2245832/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twelve

So Small on the Inside

The Newearth Museum of Human History was still under construction and probably always would be. It was five stories high and delved three stories into the ground, making a total of eight floors. Since it was built directly over the site of an Oldearth museum and had transported a significant number of artifacts from other ancient sites around the planet, it was the greatest collection of Oldearth history anywhere in the universe.

Justine stood in the enormous entrance hall, a reconstructed prehistoric cave-dwelling, and soon became absorbed in analyzing the primitive wall paintings.

“Hey, Justine! Here you are. I was looking all over.” Derik trotted to her side and stared up at the beautiful figures of ancient animals. “Yeah, my Dad liked these too. He said that the cave dwellers weren’t nearly so primitive as we like to think. They just had underdeveloped superiority—something like that.” He nudged Justine in the ribs with a grin.

Justine grinned back automatically and linked arms with her date. They strolled through the cave into further timelines denoting major ages of human development. “I like it here. It reminds me of something I can’t quite remember.”

Moving toward a life-size diorama of a medieval castle with a moat, drawbridge, keep, and battlements, Derik grinned. “Now this is where I’d like to live. Right here.” He pointed to the center of the castle where a cutout portion exposed the main hall replete with roasting venison and long, trestle tables lined with warriors enjoying a feast. The lord of the manor wore a circlet of gold and a warm smile as he lifted a goblet in a feudal salute.

Justine’s fixed smile faded as she tilted her head, first one way, then another, considering the diorama. “I don’t see any of the women smiling. Why?”

Derik shrugged.

Strolling forward, Justine stopped at the thick doors of an ancient abbey. A life-sized chapel stood to the side. Justine circled around and entered the small church arranged with wooden benches, kneelers, a confessional, and an altar at the front. Flames on wax candles wavered in the breeze she carried into the still space. A veiled figure rose, bowed toward the altar, turned, and passed them with a gentle smile and a nod.

Derik stepped aside as she passed, tucking his hands under his armpits. “It’s cold in here.”

Justine padded to the altar, caressed the cream-colored stone, and paused, her gaze fixed on the crucifix hanging above the door. “This place is alive.”

Derik shook his head. “Probably just paid actors.”

Justine gazed around the room, inhaling a deep breath. Crossing in front of a diminutive statue, she caressed the metallic face of a young woman holding a sword. Justine swallowed, blinking back a sudden, unfathomable emotion. She strolled toward the stained-glass windows, lifting her hand as if to trace the detailed pattern of colored glass. “I could live here.” Traipsing over to a side panel tucked in a recess, she tapped the “Explore” button.

A black-robed figure, who appeared to have stepped out of an Oldearth monastery, began to speak. “Welcome to St. Joan of Arc’s Chapel, originally situated in the village of Chasse in the Rhone Valley, France…”

Derik tapped his foot.

Justine stared at his foot, pressed the end button, and stopped the exploration. “Another time, then.”

Derik hugged her arm and led her toward new adventures. “There’s so much to see here. We’ll have to come again. But I really want to show you my favorite place—the dinosaur exhibit. You like dinosaurs?” Without waiting for an answer Derik pulled Justine tighter and leaned in close. “I don’t care what I see, as long as I’m with you. It’s so wonderful to—”

Justine kissed Derik, causing more than a few pairs of eyes to turn in their direction. Releasing him with a playful shove, she turned and started down the exhibit hall, pointing to a sign: “Dinosaurs: Their Rise and Demise.” She grinned.

~~~

Dressed in a form-fitting sweater, long pants, and stylish boots, Justine traipsed up the dirt path to Cerulean’s cabin. Near the top, she stopped and gazed over the great, bluish-green lake. Foaming whitecaps furiously slammed against the ice-encased coast. The green, pine-forested vista fell away behind her. She sighed, her white breath blown into the breeze, and marched the final steps to Cerulean’s cabin. A quick tread behind made her stop. She cocked her head and peered around with a furrowed brow.

From the distance, Clare called. “Hey, Cerulean, wait up a sec—”

Justine stood her ground, her bare fists on her hips.

Well bundled in a white, fluffy winter coat, thick pants, and a red tasseled hat, Clare rushed forward with her head down, fighting the cold wind. She pummeled into the silent figure like a ball bouncing off a wall. Her head jerked up, her wide eyes, startled. “Oh, you. I thought Cerulean—”

Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Seems we’re both looking for him.”

Clare stepped back on the path, wiping her pink, frozen nose with the back of her gloved hand. “Yeah, well. I need to talk to him about something important.”

Clare rolled her eyes. “What could be so important to a robot?”

“Me too.”

Justine stomped a large, menacing step forward. “I’m getting tired of your attitude. I’ve known Cerulean far longer than you.”

Clutching the ends of her coat sleeves, Clare sneered. “What? Since your prison days?” She practically danced like a squirrel taunting a wolf. “Please tell me that you’re reformed and hope to start a new life—” She underestimated Justine’s reach.

Grabbing Clare by her jacket-front, Justine pulled her close, glaring directly into her eyes. “I could crush you.”

Pretending that she was not trembling, Clare clipped her words. “How. Like. A. Robot.”

Justine dropped Clare, brushed passed, and strode a few steps down the path.

Clare called. “I know you’re a hired gun and that you have a connection with Governor Jane Right. I also suspect that you tried to kill my partner, Bala, when he got too close to the truth.” Clare crossed her padded arms high over her chest, her tone just as high and mighty. “You wouldn’t mind replacing all of humanity with machines, would you?”

Justine spun around and spat out her words. “Your jealousy blinds you. I thought humans knew how to separate fact from fiction, but apparently, that is another art you have yet to master.”

A flame rose in Clare’s cheeks. She stomped up the porch steps and then turned and peered disdainfully down at Justine. “Jealousy? I have nothing to be jealous—”

Justine jabbed a finger in the air. “You have feelings for Derik and Cerulean, but you can’t have either. Derik is more man than you can handle. Cerulean merely pities you.”

“You wretched—”

Justine waved her off as she turned. “Don’t be so easily insulted. It’s not your fault that you’re born weak. The fact that you even try to protect humanity is rather remarkable, pathetic but—”

“When I get enough evidence to tie you to that nefarious Cresta or Governor Right, I’m going to shut you down—or recycle your machinery—whatever they do with useless robots!”

Justine shook her head as she snapped branches out of her way. “Go ahead and try. But you’ll have to get in line.” Justine disappeared out of sight.

Clare stood on the porch, staring after her, blinking back tears of rage.

~~~

Governor Right tapped her fingers together pyramid style. The shadow towered above her, but she held her pose unperturbed. She had dealt with this kind before. They always make themselves appear big because they’re so small on the inside. “So you need my help, is that it?”

The ultra-luxurious office signaled her importance to the beings of Newearth. A vast majority of citizens had voted her into office, though she owned a great number of the voting machines, while the humans who managed them owed her. Sitting at her artistically fashioned desk with an inlaid marble top and hardwood legs carved into snakes and other beasts of the jungle, she waited patiently. She had all the time in the world. Well, until her next appointment. A quick glance at her desktop datapad informed her that she had room for negotiating.

The shadowed figure pronounced each word distinctly. “Like you, I wish to rewrite history. But unlike you, my history will reveal the truth.”

The governor tapped her fingers, bored. “I suppose you believe that. It always helps to believe our own lies.” The disembodied chuckle surprised Governor Right. She didn’t know any other thugs with a sense of humor.

“I don’t need to lie. Besides, I have friends, very powerful friends who agree that my service is invaluable.”

“Oh, we’re all invaluable, certainly. And what, pray tell, is my invaluable service going to include?”

The shadow glided to a dim corner as if to distance itself from the message it had to convey. “Certain associates have been experimenting with a new drug, which could assist several races in their district; their biology is similar to humans. Naturally, they want to test their product first, without repercussions.”

“Naturally.” The governor knew it was stupid to ask, but her curiosity was piqued, and she never liked nebulous details. “So why don’t you just pay for volunteers?”

“That would cost a great deal and take time. Besides, humans become unreasonable if something goes wrong. They tend to ban all further testing if too many subjects die.”

The governor waved her hand eloquently. “Your associates, on the other hand—”

The visitor’s dead tone snapped. “Could spend the entire human race and not blink an eye.”

Governor Right stiffened. “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” She tapped her ample bosom. “I have some sensibilities, don’t you know.”

The shadow loomed closer. “You’ll be well paid. And there is the matter of history…”

Rising, the governor shifted her large body and passed the mysterious figure. “You care about human history?”

“I find it fascinating, as do many on the Inter-Alien Committee. They have a fondness for accurate records.”

Governor Right grinned as she poured herself an amber drink, never even considering a polite offer to her guest. “Ah, yes, a fondness. I have a fondness for units, don’t you know?”

The figure floated near. “Would an extra million make you happy?”

“Delighted, would be more accurate.” The governor saluted her guest with the drink-holding hand.

The figure retreated to the door, but Governor Right waggled a bejeweled finger in the air. “Just a thought, before you go to wherever it is shadows descend—Bala.”

The shadow twisted. “Bala?”

“You know who I am talking about.”

“I would like to know more, though—”

“Please, don’t tell me that his innocent heart touches your spirit or some such drivel. After all, I don’t believe you have a heart, and I doubt anything could quench your spirit.”

The shadow grew, engulfing Jane Right in complete blackness. A strangled cry pierced the air.

The shadow receded.

Governor Right staggered. Her amber drink spilled across the smooth, tiled floor, the glass rolled out of sight. She grabbed the corner of her desk and leaned heavily against it. For several moments, she breathed, in, out, trying to steady herself, shaking off a blackout. With stiff-willed control, she raised her head and stared at the shadowed figure. “You shouldn’t have been able—I don’t believe in devils.” Reassembling her shattered dignity, the governor squared her shoulders. “You can go. I have no other questions.”

“Neither do I.”

The shadow quivered. “And Bala?”

Governor Right waved her hand weakly. “Forget it.”

“I would like to leave him intact. I enjoy studying him, but I had to teach him manners.”

A feeble nod assented. “If anyone could.”

The shadow loomed closer. “Married men with children are easy to tame.”

Governor Right chose another glass from her cabinet.

“Lucky for me—”

The shadow rose, darkening the glorious office into the premature night. “Women who want to live are equally easy to tame.”

Jane Right’s hand froze. She bowed her head. “I’m rather ashamed.”

“You should be. There is a reason I never bothered to study you.”

Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult ~Anne Rice

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

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Science Fiction Novels

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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

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Let’s Keep Talking

I don’t write to tell the world something. I write to figure out what the world is trying to tell me.

I’m nearly finished writing the last book of the OldEarth Encounter Trilogy, ending with OldEarth Neb Encounter, about a son who recounts the story of his grandfather, fully aware that—for good or evil—inheritance isn’t everything. Terrible history may haunt us, but it does not have to inhabit us.

It has taken me years to get that message.

I’m also posting the chapters of Last of Her Kind on Medium’s Illumination publication. When I originally wrote the first version of the story, I was a young mother trying to figure out my place in motherhood and wifedom.

When I wrote the second version, my husband had died, and I was a single mom raising a large brood of kids, awesomely aware of my limitations. The wider universe comforted me. Though lonely, I was never really alone. A message I needed to incorporate into every cell of my being.

Just when I thought I had my feet under me, and the world lined up according to a well-considered plan, along comes a pandemic and the whole planet is tossed into turmoil. Last of Her Kind looks different from this perspective.

But the message is the same. Just louder.

I think about what Harriet Beecher Stowe learned from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What the world discovered from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What Jem shared with humanity in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Life informs or deforms. Art—like faith—transforms.

To write is to see what the soul believes but the finger can’t quite touch.

Each reader brings his or her world to the page. I write the word “table” and it isn’t my kitchen heirloom that gets transported into a reader’s mind. It’s their kitchen table. In every word, we see what we know. Our version of humans and aliens. Life and death. Good and evil.

Yet perhaps…we also glimpse something new. Something more. We let God out of our brain box, and we consider a wider, vitally alive Universe. Possibilities as yet undreamed of.

A fascinating conversation the world and I are having. As long as words appear on pages—let’s keep talking.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

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Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

 

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eleven

Disaster Original

The snow-covered houses along the dark, quiet street appeared to slumber like their inhabitants, resting up for the next day’s adventures. Sleeping birds rested their tiny heads under spread wings to keep out the winter chill. Even the trees stood like silent, still guards, perhaps meditating on their long years of service while their sap slowed in a well-earned hibernation.

Kendra jerked up like a marionette immersed in blackness. Her heart thudded against her chest. She cocked her head and listened. One of the boys was snoring. Other than that, she couldn’t hear anything unusual. She blinked in puzzlement, then sighed and leaned back against large, welcoming pillows.

A chair scraped across the floor.

Kendra sat up again and kicked Bala’s foot under the covers. “Wake up!”

Bala stirred, licked his lips, and moaned.

Kendra offered a full arm wallop on his blanketed body before she slid out from under her warm covers. She reached for the lamp. Click. Click. Click-click-click. Damn!

The faint hissing of a breather helm slithered through the house.

“Bala, if you want to live through the night, I suggest you get up. Now!” Kendra pounded Bala on the chest.

Bala leapt out of bed in one fluid motion and promptly fell to the floor with his foot tangled in the sheets. “Oweee, oooh, ahhh.” He regained his balance and fluttered to his dresser where he pulled forth a dented, second-hand Dustbuster and a flashlight. As he aimed both the gun and the light at the door, it flew open.

Two enormous Uanyi entered the bedroom. Shocked hesitation cost all. In a flash, one intruder lunged forward, knocking Bala’s weapon to the side and crushing him in a decidedly unfriendly hug, while the other Uanyi thrust Kendra into a corner.

Enraged, Bala fought back, kicking and punching, in a vain attempt to reach Kendra.

Changing tactics, the Uanyi flung Bala like a toy onto the bed, where he slapped, punched, and shook the man until Bala’s teeth-rattled, and he finally stopped struggling.

Kendra screamed. The children wailed from different rooms in the house.

At the sound of heavy, clomping steps, the two Uanyi jumped away from Bala’s groaning form and stood at attention.

An enormous Ingot strode into the darkened room. “Enough. Next time, maybe. Just finish the job.”

The two Uanyi then proceeded to do a fair imitation of trolls having temper tantrums, breaking everything in the room, including the windows and walls. The Ingot merely folded his bulky arms and watched, his eyes gleaming.

Kendra struggled to the door, begging to be allowed to go to her kids, but the Ingot sent her sprawling back to the corner with a swift kick. The other intruders grunted in exertion as they continued their thorough devastation.

Unseen intruders smashed their way through the other rooms, forcing panicked groans from Bala; “Oh, God, oh God,” his whole body curled up in pain.

After an eternity, the intruders couldn’t find anything else to break. The Ingot raised his arm and waved carelessly. “Done. Let’s go.” He led the others out of the bedroom and headed toward the front door, which hung by one twisted hinge. Clomping noisily down the steps, they mounted waiting scooters.

The houses, birds, and trees frightened into eerie silence acted as if they had heard nothing.

Bala slowly uncurled and slid to the floor, weak with shock-shivering pain.

Kendra scrambled from the room and was met by an onslaught of sobbing children. She knelt and hugged them, crying, calling them each by name. “Rachel, sweetie, you hurt?” Kendra took a screaming baby out of the girl’s arms. “Barni? David?” She rubbed the little boys’ tear-stained faces. “How about you, Seth?” Seth clutched a whimpering three-year-old and mutely shook his dark, curly head.

Her eyes widened in fresh terror. “Veronica?”

Bala thrashed his way into the hallway and limped to the last bedroom, calling, “Veronica!”

Streaky tears streamed down Kendra’s face as she and the children slowly hauled themselves en mass towards the last bedroom. “Oh, God, no…please, not one of my babies….”

Bala sat huddled on the floor with a small child cradled in his lap, his arms encircling her hunched form. She buried her face in his chest, as he lay collapsed against the cracked wall. “She was in the closet, hiding under luggage. She’s… okay.”

Kendra fell to her knees, all the children crumpling with her. “Lord, save me now, save me.”

Swallowing against the pain, Bala rocked his shivering child. “He—just—did.”

With a trembling finger, her face contorting in agony, Kendra wiped tears from her baby’s face. “Not from this hate.”

~~~

At the first light of dawn, Clare dashed across the muddy, scarred lawn, jumped the porch steps two at a time, and banged ferociously on the front door. She hopped from foot to foot as she waited, peering through a cracked window into the living room. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Please—” Shuffled footsteps pinned her to the floor. She braced herself, ready to rush in.

The broken door complained feebly and was shoved aside.

Bala stood there, his black and blue face testifying to his current state of health. One eye had swollen shut. He gripped the doorframe for support.

Clare jumped forward and squeezed him in a hug. “Oh, God! Bala, it’s worse than—”

Kendra’s groan called from a back room. “No visitors, please. The place is a mess.”

Bala managed a strangled, “Just Clare, honey. Go back to sleep.” He stepped aside, releasing his neck from her suffocating embrace and gestured toward the living room. He shifted the door back into place, limped to his broken couch, and braced himself. With one hand, he flourished a mocking bow. “New decorating scheme. Disaster original.”

Clare fought back tears. “How can you joke at a time like this?”

“It’s either laugh or cry and my eyes hurt, so I figure—”

Clare paced the room, her hands clenched into fists. “I’ll get her; I promise. I’d like to wring her thick, flabby neck with my own hands!”

Bala slumped onto the broken couch. It tipped at a precarious angle. Ignoring the danger, he rested his head on his hand, leaned back, and raised a swollen eyebrow at Clare. “Who, exactly, are you planning on strangling on my behalf?”

Clare stomped around the room, groaning at smashed family pictures, tendrils of shredded plants, ripped curtains, and all the mind-numbing destruction. “I can think of two.”

Bala rubbed his chin, and it started to bleed. “Aww, darn. I thought I stoppered all the leaks.” He tried to heave himself off the couch but fell back with a pained squeak.

Clare ran to his side. “Stay put. What do you need?”

Bala pointed a nervous finger down the hall. “In the bathroom, the cabinet was left intact. Missed it in the dark, I suppose. Sloppy of them.”

Clare scurried down the hall and bumped into Kendra with a shriek. “Kendra! Oh, Lord!”

Kendra waved Clare down the hall. “Bandages to the right. I’m just going to order something to eat. Can’t fix meals in this—looks like a couple hurricanes came through.”

Clare’s eyes widened in alarm as if Kendra’s sending a message would drain her last vestiges of strength. “No, let me! I’ll call. I’ll take care of everything. Just go sit with Bala. His chin is bleeding.” Proof enough that the universe tottered on the edge of an abyss.

Kendra shrugged one shoulder and nodded her acceptance. “Sure. Fix everything.” She rotated a limp hand in the air. “Play Fairy Godmother—long as you want.” She stumbled down the hall.

Clare dashed into the bathroom. A moment later, she scampered back into the living room, brandishing a bandage. “Here, I’ll just wrap your—” She stared.

Bala lay crumpled into Kendra’s embrace. She rocked him like a baby.

Clare’s eye filled with tears, and her lips quivered.

Kendra stared up through dry, vacant eyes. “Don’t start.” She peered down at Bala’s blood-caked chin. “Let him sleep. He’s been watching over us since this whole—insanity—happened. The Interventionists came, did their thing. Amazing the house is still standing.”

Clare slid to the edge of the couch, bracing one hand on the wall to keep it from falling over. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“Bala didn’t want to wake you in the middle of the night. Told ‘em to wait till morning.”

Clare shook her head. “Idiot. I’m supposed to be called first. I could have helped. Plus, I need fresh evidence. He knows that.”

Kendra shrugged. “He wasn’t thinking too clearly. Having your head bashed in and your family terrorized does funny things to a man.” Kendra smoothed Bala’s disheveled hair. “Look, you said you want to help, well, then go ahead. Order something. We need to eat, no matter how sick we feel. And then you go ahead and get these—” Kendra’s voice dropped to a shaky whimper.

Clare fell to her knees and knelt at Kendra’s side. “Don’t let them get to you—not on the inside. Please. Hang on to the Kendra I know and love, the one who hasn’t a mean bone in her body.”

Kendra stroked her husband’s head. “My kids wouldn’t agree.” Kendra leveled her gaze at Clare’s teary eyes. “But I won’t let this happen again. We’re gonna protect ourselves. No one had the right to terrorize us. God! We’re human beings!”

Clare rose, sniffed back impending tears, and started tapping on her datapad. “As soon as I get some food on your table, I’m going to call everyone I know to see that your family is protected.”

A child called from the back room. “Maaaa-ma!”

Kendra sighed and laid Bala’s limp form gently on the couch. She smoothed his hair away from his eyes as she called back. “Coming, honey.” She straightened and gestured vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. “Sounds good. But please don’t lay anything on the table just yet—it’s scattered all over the floor.” Rubbing the small of her back, Kendra limped out of the room.

Clare faced Bala and knelt by his slumbering side. Her voice lowered to a husky whisper. “We’ll get them, Bala. Promise.”

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Ten

Mixing More Than Metaphors

Justine stood in front of a large female chimpanzee and stared into its black eyes. A wall of windows separated them. Unimpressed, the monkey sat slumped in a corner, occasionally yanking on a chain suspended from a tall branch. A baby chimpanzee scampered about in the background.

Justine’s gaze shifted to the baby. The mother’s eyes shifted in accord. The baby trotted over, lurching between two legs and four. It stopped when it saw Justine and then scurried up its mother’s arm, chattering and clinging to her. The mother glared at Justine.

Justine slowly lifted her hands and placed them, palms up, in full view. She lowered her head, letting her gaze drop to the ground.

The mother twitched and swung her baby high onto her other hip. With one last glare, she tipped her nose into the air and swung up into the nearest tree. The chain jangled as she flew by.

“Interesting creatures, aren’t they?”

Justine swiveled and faced Cerulean, her look of concentration morphing into a twisted grin. “Yes, I feel strangely at home here. In a cage that pretends it isn’t a cage.”

Cerulean offered his arm as he glanced toward the door.

“I’m glad to see you again. I’ve thought of you often.”

As Justine took his arm, her grin faded. “I can’t say the same since I only awoke a few weeks ago. But I’m glad to see you now.”

Cerulean patted her arm as he directed her toward a butterfly garden. “Well, tell me about your awakening. Who rescued you and why?”

Justine strolled to a quiet corner and perched on a bench stationed against a life-like diorama of prehistoric insects. “I can’t betray professional secrets, you understand. Suffice to say, my mind is intact, and I have learned from my previous experiences.”

“So you aren’t planning on repeating—”

“I have no certain plans at the moment.”

“And Derik?”

“Ah, yes, I was wondering when you’d ask.” Justine uncrossed her legs and rubbed her hands together. “It’s a little chilly in here. Do you mind if we walk out into the sun?”

Cerulean’s brows furrowed as his eyes darted around the tropical setting, but he merely offered his hand. They strolled out of the exotic building and into the sunlight that shone on every visible food station and playground. Children swung from ropes and vines in a jungle gym not far from where the monkeys gamboled in their own sport.

Justine stopped and pointed. “They are not so different, human children and monkeys.”

“Except the monkeys are in cages and the humans are free.”

Justine peered at Cerulean. “Depends on how you define the word free.”

“Not being locked in.”

Justine sniffed her approval. “Yes, there is that.” She strolled over to a popcorn stand and ordered a bag. Upon obtaining her prize, she meandered back to Cerulean, nibbling each kernel like a squirrel working on a nut. She passed the bag over.

Cerulean took a handful and chewed meditatively. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Why should I? Can’t a robot have a personal life?”

Cerulean stared into her eyes, his voice softened to just above a whisper. “Justine.”

Refusing his intimate gaze, Justine glanced away and started toward a herd of lumbering elephants set beyond a wide cavern. “I don’t want to remember. I just want to start over.”

Cerulean sighed as he kept pace. “Sounds like a wonderful idea. But to do that, you have to be free. Are you?”

Justine gripped the guardrail before the cavern and leaned over the wide abyss. Black streams of hair curtained her face.

With a gentle touch, Cerulean tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. “Who awoke you?”

“A Cresta named Taug.”

Cerulean’s hand dropped to his side. He shook his head at the elephants. “Damn.”

“He’s not so bad. He told me more than he should’ve. It seems that every biological creature thinks that robots have no moral code.”

“You’re not a robot.”

“I am—to Taug.”

“Not to me. You know that.”

Justine leaned in, her lips only centimeters from Cerulean’s.

“Derik thinks I am real.”

“Derik cares about you.”

“Will that make me real?”

“To him? Or to you?” Cerulean raked shaky fingers through his hair. “Listen, Justine, you have nothing to prove. I care about you, too. You’re a desirable woman who happens to live in a mechanical body. I could kill the mind who decided to put your being into a killing machine, but that wouldn’t help, would it? You have to decide who you are.”

Justine reached over, her fingers searching, and placed her hand in his. Her gaze turned to a group of children tagging behind their mother. “You’ll help me?”

Cerulean wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “If you let me.”

~~~

The orange harvest moon glowed big and round through the lace-curtained windows as Bala slouched in the back booth of the Breakfast Nook, reviewing his datapad. The Breakfast Nook belied its name since it served meals from early morning to late at night and offered everything from human breakfast fare to Uanyi appetizers.

The original human owner planned a country diner serving humans with a hunger for rural Oldearth, but as Newearth’s population changed to reflect more diverse inhabitants—few of whom hungered for anything reminiscent of Oldearth—he soon found himself unable to pay the bills.

Riko sauntered in one morning, saw possibilities, and saved the day—or at least the restaurant. The original human, Mr. Gilbert, long since disabled by old age, still received a healthy percentage of the profits and a certain level of Riko’s unpredictable generosity in free meals whenever he managed to hobble into town. He always nodded approvingly that the lace curtains and Oldearth décor had remained intact even if the menu had drastically changed. Riko always shrugged the old man’s gratitude away. Customers came for the food. It could look like the inside of a Bhuac cave for all he cared. As long as everyone paid in proper Newearth units.

At present, the diner was deserted except for a gangly human teen wiping down the last of the tables. After whistling a free-flowing Bhuac hymn, he slapped the counter with his towel and nodded his approval. He waved a cheerful goodnight to Bala as he passed into the backroom.

Bala grinned and returned a salute.

The door chime tinkled and a poorly attired, slump-shouldered Uanyi shuffled in, his eyes searching the environment.

Bala stood and squared his shoulders.

It was getting late, and Riko had told him he’d wait for his guest to leave before closing up. “But if you could hurry things along—I’ve got my own affairs to tend to, see?”

Bala tried not to cringe at the approaching spectacle. He considered few aliens beautiful and this specimen of Uanyi maleness slouching toward him left him in a cold sweat. Riko was the only Uanyi he’d ever felt comfortable around and even then, he had little desire to get on Riko’s bad side. Bala tried on a smile, stared at the huge, bulbous eyes and the hissing breathing helm, and decided a cold frown might be more appropriate. “Zero, I assume?”

“Idiot, I assume? Don’t use no names.”

Bala sat down as the Uanyi slid into place. The alien’s sibilant hissing made Bala’s nose wrinkle. “Yeah, right. I just—”

A meaty palm slapped the table. “Get on with it. Don’t got all night.”

Bala considered asking Zero if he learned English at Bothmal. But he refrained. “Yes, well, I need to ask you some important questions, and I expect honest answers. I work for the—”

The meaty palm was at it again, slapping the table. “You brought my stuff?”

Bala ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. “Yes, but I’m not about to give you anything until you tell me what I need to know.”

“Huh! Human, you brute.” Apparently, even Uanyi thugs liked to apply understated sarcasm.

Bala squared his shoulders and spoke through clenched teeth. “You haven’t seen anything—”

“Four hundred.”

A puzzled frown crossed Bala’s face. “Excuse—?”

“You waste my time. I make you pay extra.”

“The deal was three hundred, and I’m not about to—”

Zero moved faster than Bala had thought possible. Lurching across the table, he pulled Bala up close and personal, Bala’s small, black eyes nearly touching the Uanyi’s enormous, bulging orbs. “Do what I say—”

To Bala’s utter relief and eternal gratitude, Riko suddenly gripped Zero by the back of his rubbery neck. His large, bulging arms flexed till they seemed like they would burst either his immaculate white shirtsleeves or Zero’s neck.

Zero released Bala as he tried to pry himself free from Riko’s grip.

Riko squeezed harder. “A deal is a deal, trash, now tell the man what he wants to know.”

Bala stared at Riko, a delighted smile tugging at his lips.

Zero squirmed like a fish out of water, but Riko reached over and grabbed Zero’s breather helm, hissing something in Uanyi, which did not sound one bit nice by Bala’s estimation.

Riko blinked his huge eyes with a deadpanned expression, his head tilted toward Bala. “What’d ya want to know?”

Amazed at his piece of unprecedented good fortune, Bala jumped in. “Right, yes! I want to know who killed Carol Hoggsworth.” He dragged his charmed smile off Riko and replaced it with his formal interrogation glare, one he had practiced in the mirror at home until Kendra told him to stop. “I know the murderer was part of a Uanyi gang, and I suspect he was one of your—”

Zero’s breathing grew ragged as he struggled to get his words out. “Cho. His. Name. Was. Cho.” Riko loosened his grip and Zero sucked in a shuddering breath. “But you can’t have him. Someone else got him. Last week.”

Riko dropped Zero back into the booth and released his breather helm. “See, that wasn’t so hard. Next time, be quicker, and you’ll find things go easier.” Riko raised an eyebrow at Bala, tapping his foot.

Bala straightened and dug into his pocket. “Oh, yes!” He pulled out a small computer chip and slid it across to Zero. “Three hundred, just as we agreed. Thank you.” He leaned in, folding his hands as if they were buddies having a friendly chat. “Now, would you happen to know about someone named Jane Right?”

“Never heard of her.” Zero rubbed his swollen neck.

“How about Justine?”

“Listen, you only paid for one—”

Riko slapped Zero across the head with the back of his rubbery hand. “If you don’t want my prints all over your body, you better get generous real quick.”

Zero glared at Riko but kept his seat. “Justine? Yeah, heard of it. Big gun, they say. Someone let it out of the freezer. It’s on the loose. If you got Justine working for you… maybe we can make a new deal.”

Bala pursed his lips into a silent whistle and shook his head, darting a glance at Riko.

Riko gripped Zero by the neck again, lifting him to his feet. “Closing time.”

Zero glared at Riko and ambled to the door, tossing back a parting insult. “Humani.”

Exhaling a long sigh, Bala stood and watched Zero lurch over the threshold.

Riko called out after the retreating figure. “Your mother’d be ashamed. Wash up before going home; you smell like a sewer.”

The door chime clanged as the door slammed.

Bala turned to Riko. A handshake wasn’t an option. “Mother?”

Riko shrugged. “My sister’s youngest. Drugs, experiments, idiot stuff. Nothing but heartbreak.”

Bala shook his head, his hands flapping at his side. “I don’t know how to thank you. Really, I don’t have the resources to bargain well. I’ll tell Clare—”

“Forget it. I didn’t do it for you…particularly. It was just something that needed to be done. The right thing. You know.” Bala swallowed. He did know. He was just surprised that Riko knew.

~~~

Dry winds rustled across the harvested fields on the outskirts of Waukee. Weak rays of sunlight spread out like a heavenly fan, making a brave pretense of warming the land.

As he strode along, Cerulean attempted to soak in the Newearth scent, but he shivered. He felt weak and washed out, like paints with too much water added. He had never felt like this before. Luxonians didn’t ordinarily get sick. The illness that had nearly decimated the female population a century before had been easy to fix, once they knew what was wrong. Similar to the effect penicillin had on human illness in Oldearth history. Patting his arms, Cerulean considered the possibilities. He could simply be exhausted. Or he might have picked up some foreign illness during his work among aliens. Perhaps he had attempted to maintain his human form for too long. Or maybe…he was dying.

He sniffed again, worried. But with some relief, he realized that there was nothing to smell. All living organisms had hidden themselves deep in the soil or slept in organic repose. A picture appeared in his mind: snow swirling from a white sky as he guarded Anne’s sleeping form on a long winter night. So long ago. A searing pain shot through his chest. A human body told his Luxonian mind things he didn’t want to know.

Justine, apparently indifferent to the stark beauty of a Newearth winter, swayed easily at his side, moving as naturally as any woman he’d ever seen. His gaze flickered over her. She could never be Anne or Clare, yet she was refreshingly desirable, something he couldn’t explain to himself. Her body was a biomechanical hybrid created by a race that remained utterly mysterious and ominously dangerous.

Justine stopped and tapped Cerulean’s arm. Her brow furrowed as one hand rested akimbo against her hip. “Before we get there, I want you to tell me the truth.”

Cerulean closed his eyes so as not to roll them in exasperation. He had just spent a couple hours with Bala and his family; the eye roll was becoming second nature. “As I pointed out earlier, Clare is investigating Derik’s case, and I think she could benefit from your…wisdom.”

Justine’s penetrating stare surveyed his face, searchlights looking for any hint of a lie. “What am I going to get in exchange?”

“A friend.”

“Do I need another friend?”

“No one has too many friends.”

Justine’s gaze fixed onto Cerulean’s, unabashedly, hauntingly.

Cerulean’s heart thudded against his ribs. He rubbed his temple and flicked a glance across the street at the transport station. A Bhuac wearily climbed the steps. He knew how he felt.

“Listen, Justine, I can’t help Clare help Derik without your help… if that makes any sense. People do better when they work together. Everyone sees a different part of the picture, and we’ll put the puzzle together piece by piece.”

Justine’s chin jutted forward. “I believe you just mixed your metaphors.”

Cerulean stalked forth again, his hands clenched. “Oh, hell, I’m mixing more than metaphors!”

Justine’s long skirt rippled in the winter breeze, outlining the perfect shape of her legs.

After another long block and across a quiet street, Cerulean led Justine to Clare’s porch. Vibrations of Mozart’s Ninth Symphony poured forth from the neighbor’s house. Cerulean appraised Justine with a quick breath. “Just act natural. Be yourself. You’re here as my friend, and you want to help. That’s all that Clare needs to know. Really.”

Justine squared her shoulders. “I don’t want to help her. I want to help you.”

“Same thing.” Cerulean pressed the doorbell. Nothing. He knocked. Nothing. He rapped his knuckles loudly on the doorframe. Nothing.

Justine tilted her head, appraising the structure before her. “Let me.” She gripped the doorframe and shook it till the whole house rattled.

Cerulean’s shoulders slumped.

The door swung open. Clare’s wide-eyed expression nearly engulfed her face as she peered out the door. “What the—?”

Her gaze flew to Cerulean and then swept over the tall, shapely, well-dressed woman in front of her.

Cerulean leaped into the breach. “Hi, Clare. I thought you were expecting us?”

“Tomorrow.”

“No…today.”

Clare looked from Cerulean to Justine.

Justine mouthed the syllables, “To-day” without uttering a sound.

Clare stared down at her stained sweatshirt, baggy pants, and fluffy slipper-clad feet and stepped aside, her folded arms pressed against her chest. “Well, in any case, it’s nice to see you. Welcome to my humble abode.” Clare smothered her grimace with a tight smile.

Cerulean marched in. Justine swayed in. Clare stumbled up behind.

Reviewing the assortment of artifacts on the shelves, new paintings on the walls, and a speckled Cresta fern in the corner, Cerulean offered a low whistle of approval. “You’ve been delving into the world of alien art and culture?”

Her arms cemented to her chest, Clare glowered a low glance at Justine. “Yeah? So? I decided to try and understand the Cresta mindset a bit better. That so bad?”

Cerulean turned and frowned. “No, not bad. Just not something I’d expect from you.”

Hustling to the center of the room, her stance wide, ready for a fight, except for the fact that her hands were still stuffed under her arms across her chest, Clare huffed. “Why not from me?”

“Well, for one, you’ve never shown any appreciation of art before, and two, you have no great love for Crestas.”

With a dramatic unfolding and accompanied fling of her freed arm, Clare gestured to the room as if giving testimony. “Can’t you see? I’m growing—okay?”

Justine sauntered over to a half-finished clay statue on a pottery wheel, listing precariously to one side. She peered at it critically. “How primitive.” She batted her innocent eyes at Cerulean. “You never told me Clare had children.”

Clare’s jaw jutted out as she blew air between her teeth. “No, that’s mine. I know it’s not very good, but I’m just learning. Kendra calls it art therapy.”

Justine’s brows furrowed in concern, still focused on Cerulean as if Clare were deaf as well as blind. “You didn’t tell me that she was impaired.”

Clare stomped her slippered foot, the fluffy ends wafting in the sudden breeze. “Cerulean!”

With a shake of his head, Cerulean lifted his hands. “Stop, you two! We’re here to help Derik. Remember?”

A crimson blush spreading over her cheeks, Clare tossed a bag over the statue. “Thanks, but I’m the official detective on his case, and I’ve decided that I don’t need your help.” She turned back to Cerulean. “I know you mean well, but I work best alone.”

“What about Bala?”

“I have him on another case. Besides, I need to keep my professional life separate. I shouldn’t have told you my troubles. You’re a great person—Luxonian, I mean—but you can’t possibly understand.”

Cerulean clasped his hands and bowed slightly. “I defer to your superior wisdom. But the truth is, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Justine is more involved than you realize, and I don’t think you can help Derik without hearing what she has to say.”

Clare’s expression frosted as her voice grew icy. “I don’t need help from an ex-convict. I’m dealing with a crime against humanity by a Cresta, and no robot—no matter how well… endowed—is going to be able to help me. It’s going to take every bit of my training to—”

The front door slammed in the wake of Justine’s departure.

Cerulean exhaled a long, weary breath and raked his fingers through his hair. “Good job, Detective. You just made an enemy of Taug’s hired gun.”

“Even God doesn’t propose to judge a man till his last days, why should you and I?” ~Dale Carnegie

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Nine

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

Bala leaned over the professor’s ornate, Oldearth-styled desk and pounded his fist. “Stop lying!”

Professor Baltimore, a connoisseur of ancient civilizations with a decided bent toward OldEurope, was dressed in a tweed jacket, a white collared shirt, and black slacks. Since he was spindly, pallid, and had a voice that shrieking birds might covet, apparel and atmosphere would have to suffice for intimidation purposes. He sat back and pursed his lips in a petulant sneer. “Don’t try to frighten me.”

“I wouldn’t have to if you would stop playing games. We both know that you had an argument with Mrs. Hoggsworth the night before she died, and we both know that it had something to do with the paper you assigned—”

“To blazes with you!” Stretching every millimeter of his skinny frame, the professor shot to his feet. “That woman could argue a Cresta to the Divide and back! She liked to argue. She just happened to pick me to argue with that fateful day because her son, Timmy the Terror, complained that I was unfair. So like the youth of today. They’re always complaining! If you really want to know who killed her, you might try asking that miserable wretch of a husband of hers. Poor man, tied to that volcano. There are probably hundreds who’d love to carry her casket to burial, just to be sure that she’s in the ground, never to raise her voice again.”

Bala straightened and chuckled. “You’re rather good at this.”

Professor Baltimore glared through his ultra-fashionable, Oldearth wire-framed spectacles. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“You maneuvered the argument away from your lies and onto Mrs. Hoggsworth’s personality. Very neatly done. I can see why the students fear you.”

Professor Baltimore smirked as he swaggered around his desk. “Flattery won’t get you anywhere.”

Bala paced over to the classroom chalkboard. “You still use one of these? Why not a holo-screen?”

“This is a history class. I like to bring the past to life. Besides, holo-screens don’t have the same effect when you run your fingernails across them.”

Bala nodded. He picked up a piece of chalk and started writing awkwardly. His body blocked the professor’s view. “Wow, I haven’t done anything like this since Sister Mary-Origen took us to an Oldearth exhibit and let us play with the replicas.”

In silent retaliation, the professor inched his way around the table, shuffling a few papers as he did so. His glance darted to the chalkboard. He lunged for the eraser, but Bala was faster.

“Tut, tut, professor! Don’t be in such a rush to erase my masterpiece. I never get a chance to create art, at least not with chalk.”

Professor Baltimore cocked an ear to the quiet hallway, then rushed to the door and shut it with a sharp click. He strode back to the front of the room and snapped out his hand.

Bala held the eraser aloft. “First tell me what you don’t like about my work. After all, I might learn something. You’re a smart man with many years of education. In fact, how old are you?”

“That is none of your business. Now erase what’s on that board or—”

“What? Granted, you might be a few milligrams heavier than me, but I’m faster and if it comes to that, I can outrun you the livelong day. Now, tell me—” Bala turned to the chalkboard where he had scrawled, “Governor Jane Right is….” in huge letters. “—what’s so wrong with my work?”

“You think you’re clever, but you have no idea who you are playing with.” Professor Baltimore stroked his beard. “You’re like the students, children really, who come in here day after day, thinking they’re ready for the knowledge that I can impart, but they have no idea of the responsibility involved. Studying history is very much like absorbing an attribute of God.”

Bala clapped his chalky hands dramatically. “So, as you play God, do you help out a few illustrious friends and write new histories, new family trees, impale the past with your chosen glory?”

The professor’s eyes lit up, blinking in watery admiration. “Lord, that’s a good line! I think I’ll steal it.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Perhaps not. But that is quite beyond your scope of understanding.” The professor returned to his desk and tapped on the computer console embedded on the surface. “You’re a detective, and you want to find a murderer. Fine. I will tell you everything I know about Mrs. Hoggsworth’s death.”

Professor Baltimore darted around the desk, snatched the eraser, and began brushing away the offending words as he spoke. “She came in here, shrieked at me in an incomprehensible rage for twenty minutes, and then stalked out into a dark and dangerous city.” His glare darted over his shoulder at Bala. “Likely as not, she screamed at some poor unfortunate thug who happened to be on his humble way to pillage or burn the nearest town.” He slapped down the eraser, raising a cloud of dust. “In any case, she annoyed someone who followed her home, blew a hole through her middle, and walked away undoubtedly feeling quite refreshed by the experience.”

Stroking his chin, Bala considered the possibilities. “So, I am looking for a petty thief?”

“Someone for hire, most likely.”

“And my artwork?”

Professor Baltimore appraised the blurry smear on the board. “There was nothing there.”

As Bala opened his mouth, a bell clanged and hundreds of hurrying footsteps flooded the hall.

Professor Baltimore smiled serenely. “Ah, saved by the clang.”

~~~

The Hoggsworth house was old, for Newearth that is, and exuded the dignified charm of a well-kept manor. It was situated on a comfortable corner lot in an upper-class, tranquil neighborhood inhabited by professional families who lived well and undoubtedly expected to die that way. They were a rare community of open-minded beings who mixed freely with others of their elevated social status. Crestas with advanced degrees and Ingots in government positions, especially diplomacy and political affairs, were accepted by the human inhabitants and in turn tolerated the Bhuacs and Uanyi hired for their discreet services in the area of child care and domestic duties.

In the somnolent living room, Bala stood awkwardly, first on one foot and then shifting to the other. He folded his hands and tossed a beseeching look heavenward. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just hoped—”

“You hoped what? That you’d solve my wife’s murder by asking for details that tear me up inside? Frankly, I don’t give a damn anymore. It could’ve been a Cresta, a mindless Uanyi, or one of Baltimore’s students hoping for extra points. Nothing is going to bring Carol back. God, can’t we let it go?”

Bala flicked his gaze to the ceiling again, asking for guidance from an unseen source. “Look, someone killed your wife, and it’s in humanity’s best interest if we find out who. Otherwise—”

Mr. Hoggsworth slumped deeper into his overstuffed chair. “Oh hell. I’m not usually so selfish. But it’s been a trying week.”

Bala knelt and laid his hand on the gentleman’s arm. “I am sorry about your loss. I love my wife too, and if something happened to her, I’d go crazy. But Carol Hoggsworth deserves justice, and she can’t be at peace with her murderer running free.”

Mr. Hoggsworth’s eyes filled with tears. “I had to send Tim off to my sister’s place up north. He nearly lost his mind—plots of revenge. Look, you’re a decent fellow, Mr.—”

“Just Bala. My last name is a tongue twister. I had to spell it three times before the registrar would sign my birth certificate.”

A snort wrestled a grin free from Mr. Hoggsworth’s grief. He took a deep breath and sat up straighter. “To begin with, I think you need to understand who my wife really was.” Mr. Hoggsworth heaved himself out of his chair and ambled over to a roll-top desk. He shuffled through several tiny drawers until he found a miniature key. Beckoning Bala with the tiny, metal piece pinched between his fingers, he started forward. “Now, I’ve never shown this to anyone except my son, so I expect you to keep this a professional secret.”

Bala’s eyebrows rose as he followed Mr. Hoggsworth to a small bookcase on the back wall. A few tattered copies of ancient reference books and the usual Oldearth décor ornamented the shelf. Mr. Hoggsworth pulled out a faux Webster’s dictionary and pressed the key into a hidden wall hole. A click and a snap made Bala step back. One section of the wall opened, revealing a second bookcase stocked with a variety of books, all ancient and authentic.

“These were my wife’s treasures. They’re real history books that refer back to the Greeks and Romans and detail archeological finds with photos of ancient excavations and reference charts that illuminate the who’s who of history. Carol was extremely proud of our heritage. One thing she could not abide was this recent trend of changing historical records to make certain personalities appear better than they really are. It’s like how certain socialites claimed to be descended from the original Mayflower. All a bunch of hullabaloo.”

Bala tapped tentatively on one of the leather bindings and grinned. “I wish you had a cookbook among these treasures.”

Mr. Hoggsworth pursed his lips. “Well, if you’d like to know about the diets of Native Americans, Chinese, or Celts, there are recipes here. Carol once made a dish of roasted pork with fruit and wild rice that was absolutely delicious.”

Bala gulped for air. “Heaven, help me. How—?”

“She never told, but I believe that was the year when she and my son went on a three-day trip to the International Wildlife Center. Their bags bulged suspiciously when they returned.”

“I wish I had known her.” A beeping from his datapad forced Bala to check his message. “My wife would like help getting the kids in bed. All in caps.” Bala sighed and refocused on the case as he caressed a thick book. “So you think that Carol recognized a misrepresentation in Professor Baltimore’s work, confronted him, and he killed her?”

“I don’t think he did, but I think he alerted someone who did. Professor Baltimore is a mouse, but he’s clearly acquainted with a lion or two.” Mr. Hoggsworth retrieved the volume from Bala’s hand and pressed it back in the case. He relocked the cabinet.

Bala stepped back amiably enough, his mind shifting to new questions. “When I was reviewing your wife’s files, I found several articles about Governor Right.”

“Jane Right?”

“You know her?”

“I know of her… well, actually, we went to school together. Carol was her classmate. First, they were friends. Then, they were rivals. By the end, they were enemies.”

“Could she have discovered something that would rock the governor’s world?”

“Possibly. But Governor Right is not one to get her hands dirty. Not her. Besides, even if Carol knew, she wouldn’t bother with Jane. She couldn’t care less about politics. She wanted her son to trust his teachers, to know that they were telling the truth. Hence, the argument with Old Baltimore.”

“I see. Well, thank you. You’ve been most helpful.” Bala turned to go but then stopped mid-step. “Oh, I also noticed a few references to someone named Justine. I wasn’t sure if that was a file name or a person. Do you happen to know?”

“Justine? Doesn’t ring a bell. But, you know, Carol collected friends. I hardly knew them all.”

Bala bowed and swept out the door.

~~~

Clare stood outside Cerulean’s cabin on a patch of well-tilled soil and watched him scatter seeds in a wide arc from a bag looped over his shoulder. The sun shone down from a clear sky, while birds chirped encouragement from distant branches.

She tapped her foot. “You’ve taken up gardening?”

“It’s winter wheat. I’ll harvest it next summer.”

“Really?”

“And I’ll make the best bread this side of the Great Divide.” Clare pursed her lips. “Why?”

Cerulean looked up, shading his eyes from the bright sun behind Clare. “Why not? Bread is more than a staple for—”

“You know, I’m here on official business, and I don’t have time to watch you act out some antiquated Amens’ tradition.”

Cerulean tossed the last handful and patted his flattened bag, a frown darkening his face. “You’ve got an attitude.”

“Nothing new.” Clare padded across the lawn.

Folding his arms across his chest, Cerulean didn’t budge. “No, but I don’t happen to like this one.”

“Come on, Cerulean! I’m in a hurry. I have a supervisor who thinks that life is too short and wants every case solved yesterday.”

“Which case?”

“The Hoggsworth murder. I’ve got Bala going over things, but I’m not about to give up on Derik. You said you knew something. Tell me, so that I can go dig Bala out of whatever hole he’s gotten himself into.”

“Bala is a very competent detective.” Cerulean looked at the rectangular field and scratched his jaw. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to eat this much bread. You think Kendra would want some?”

“Kendra loves any sustenance, any time. Now, hurry up and talk!”

Cerulean strolled to the porch, pointing west with the folded pouch. “The strawberries will be ripe by then. I’ll try my hand at jam to go with the bread.”

Clare shook her head. “The Amens have turned you into a nature freak.”

Cerulean’s eyebrows rose as he looked back at her. “I’ll have you know, I was working on a farm generations before you were even born.”

Clare stopped at the bottom porch step and tapped her foot.

Cerulean heaved himself to the top step and sat. He looked Clare in the eye. “I went to Derik’s apartment to see how he’s getting along. I met someone I didn’t expect.”

Clare threw her hands out. “So? Is there a reason I should care? Wait. You didn’t meet his new love interest—Justine?” Clare kicked the step. “Poor, stupid guy. Is he in love with an old flame of yours? You never tell me much about your…life.”

Cerulean huffed. “That’s because there isn’t anything to tell. I wish you’d listen before leaping. How do you ever manage to solve a case?”

“End of lecture. Go on.”

“Yes, it was Justine, but Justine isn’t a love interest of mine, she’s a…person I met a long time ago. She was on trial.”

An I-knew-it eye-roll accompanied a puff of breath. “Uh-huh.”

“I was surprised to see her—alive.” Cerulean clasped his hands and stared off into the distance.

“Alive?”

“Last time I saw her, she was on a steel table being turned off.”

Clare’s mouth dropped open. “As in a robot?”

“She’s an android. A very advanced android. You’d never guess, unless you knew her history. Even then, you might not believe it.”

Clare slapped her forehead. “So, Derik is in love with a robot?”

Cerulean bounded to his feet. “Justine is not a robot. She’s a person, a combination of modern technology and fetal—”

“Don’t give me that! She’s one of those… those things that go around pretending to be human but are hired out for every dirty job under—”

“Stop! Listen to yourself. You’re not even giving me a chance.” Cerulean clambered down the steps, pushed past Clare, and pounded down the path to the woods.

Clare hustled after him. “Okay, okay! Don’t get angry. But you gotta admit; this is pretty bad. I mean, Derik’ll be crushed.”

Cerulean pivoted and faced Clare. “Human beings are quite resilient. Trust me, I ought to know.” He hustled down the path again, allowing room for Clare to keep pace at his side.

Ignoring the branches scratching against her jacket, Clare glanced at Cerulean. “So, is this Justine a nice robot-person? I mean, she isn’t a hired gun or anything.”

Cerulean paced further into the woods. “Well, actually, she was a hired gun. That’s why she was on trial. But it was a long time ago; she’s changed.”

“Terrific, just terrific! How long ago?”

“Seventy years, give or take….”

“Lord, she’s twice Derik’s age!”

“Three or four times, I’d imagine.”

“Then what is she doing? It’d be like my great-great-grandmother trying to date you. Oh, except—”

“I’d still be older by a millennium.”

“Geesh, you non-humans really mess up the romantic time-line.” Clare kept in step with Cerulean as they wound between trees. A vine clutched her pant leg and forced her to stop. “Dang these prickles. Why didn’t you eradicate them when you bought the place?”

“I like nature and all her wild and prickly personalities.” Cerulean stared down at Clare and a smile softened his features. “One of the reasons I like you.”

Sucking a pricked finger, Clare glowered. “If you like me so much, help me get unstuck. This thing is cutting me to shreds.”

Cerulean gently lifted the vine off her leg and tossed it aside. “See, you just need to know how to handle nature.”

Clare blushed. “Stay on topic.” She started forward again. “Shouldn’t Derik know? I mean his heart’s beating pretty fast for a woman who’s not even human, and who might be planning to dig him a grave so she can rack up some extra units.”

Cerulean peered up at the mottled sunlight pouring through the trees. “Things are rarely what they seem—except when they are.”

“Is that supposed to help?”

Making a one-eighty turn, Cerulean started back up the path. “I’ll talk with Justine. She trusts me, and she owes me a favor. If she’s been hired to kill Derik, she’ll tell me.”

Clare flapped her arms and skipped aside to avoid a scampering chipmunk. “Why should she talk to you? Didn’t you say you were at her trial, where apparently, she was found guilty?”

“Yeah, but thanks to me, she still has her mind.” He darted a meaningful look at Clare. “After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. ~William Shakespeare 

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eight

Just the Beginning

“Come along, big fellow, keep up with me. For your large size, you take such tiny steps.” Governor Jane Right forged ahead of Taug down the long, bright hallway of the Territorial Capitol.

Taug’s somber gaze dropped to the floor. “It’s the boots. They aren’t built for a quick pace.”

Austere nameplates with gold lettering testified to the worthiness of the inhabitants secreted behind ornate doors on the top floor.

Taug ignored the doors and concentrated on his balance as he tried to stay close enough to the governor to have a word with her. “I thought I was going to meet you inside your office.”

She didn’t bother looking back as he trailed along behind. “What? And have every tongue wagging about Governor Right’s private meetings with an unknown Cresta? No, that wouldn’t do. It’s much better that you state your business out here while we walk. Keep your secrets in plain sight, I always say.”

“But couldn’t someone—”

“Eavesdrop? In the office, more likely. Listening devices planted from floor to ceiling, I’m sure. No one ever thinks of bugging the hallway. Besides, until I know what you want, I can’t waste my time.”

“A laboratory.” Taug huffed, attempting to adjust his breathing helm. Never in all the deepest waters…

“A laboratory? What for? We have plenty of labs in the hospitals, and I believe Central University has the best on the planet.” A simper twitched across her face. “Being a bit greedy, aren’t you?”

Taug slowed his pace as they neared a narrow, circular stairway extending from the blue, star-spackled, domed ceiling down to a brightly lit, green-tiled floor, creating the illusion of descending from a brilliant night sky to sunny Newearth.

One tentacle stroked Taug’s chin doubtfully. “Not at all. I have an idea that cannot be shared, except with a chosen few.”

“Huh.” Governor Right pointed to the steep steps. “Can you handle these?”

Taug hesitated. “Possibly, if we go slow enough.”

“Here give me your hand… or a tentacle. Whatever.”

Taug placed a tentacle inside Governor Right’s surprisingly strong grip and held on for dear life.

Concentrating on Taug’s every step, like a mother taking her toddler into deep waters, the middle-aged woman furrowed her brow. “I need to know who’s giving the party and why.”

Taug laid each mechanical boot firmly on the step before lifting the other free. A sudden flashback of struggling onto land for the first time as a hatchling flashed through his mind.

“There is no party, I assure you. Only me and one other. I will have to hire a few assistants, but they will be completely in the dark as to the grander purpose.”

“So what’s the grand purpose?”

“To create crossbreeds.”

Governor Right shook her head apparently at both their slow descent and the comment. “Whatever for?”

“To become invincible. Why else?”

The governor’s eyes never strayed from his boots as Taug inched himself down. “Invincible? How?”

“If I can blend Cresta intelligence with human, terrestrial capability, I can cultivate the brilliance of each species in the service of those who know how to manage a planet.”

“Any others?”

Taug glanced up, an eyebrow raised, his mouth orifice puckered.

An eye-roll communicated the governor’s impatience with Taug’s obtuse understanding. “Why not Cresta with Uanyi? Or human with Ingot?”

Taug shrugged off the governor’s unbounded ambition. “There are no limits to the possibilities, but Cresta and human would be the best combination to begin with.”

Governor Right’s hand flew out protectively as Taug stumbled. Her voice hardened. “Something could go wrong, and we’d have a mess on our hands.”

The green-tiled floor was only one step away and Taug beamed. “Many things could go right, and we’d have the most versatile, powerful beings in our grasp.”

The governor’s tight lips broke into a mirrored grin as she assisted Taug onto solid footing. “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Taug wiggled his tentacle free of Governor Right’s grasp. “Thank you.”

Glancing around before starting forward, Governor Right beckoned him to stay close. “What’ll I get?”

“Whatever you need.” Taug wrapped his tentacles around his middle as he negotiated his way across the crowded floor. Even a minor slap with a tentacle could have serious consequences.

Her grin turned ironic. She glanced back. “Your Cresta word of honor?”

Taug offered a slight bow as he hustled out a wide doorway behind her.

A cool breeze played havoc with the governor’s coiffured hair. “Thought as much. I want a full report each month, in person. Nothing written, of course.” Halting on a busy sidewalk, she scanned the street.

Pedestrians rushed at a city pace on either side as the Vandi traffic roared in urbane, noonday routine.

“Naturally.”

Never taking her eyes off her environment, Governor Right leaned over and whispered. “Oh, and I want to meet one, as soon as you have it ready.”

Taug stiffened. “Would that be necessary?”

“No. But it’d be thrilling. Everyone needs some excitement now and again.”

Taug bowed to the inscrutable.

With a new light in her eye, the governor lifted her arm and waved with broad, commanding strokes. “Ah, here comes my secretary. I have a meeting with the Inter-Alien Alliance committee in a few minutes. Pay attention now.” She wiggled two beckoning fingers at a man crossing traffic. “George! Here!” She again leaned toward Taug. “My private secretary. Contact him when you need something.”

Taug extracted a datapad from his bio-suit. “I have a list.”

Snorting back her laugh, the governor beckoned George again. “How very efficient of you. So Cresta.”

A snappy dresser with black hair, brooding eyes, and squared shoulders sprang across the street and lightly stepped forward.

“George, this is Taug, a special ambassador from Cresta. We are assisting him in a private matter. You’ll see that he gets everything he needs.”

George appraised Taug in a sweeping and ever-so-disdainful glance. His voice was as dry as the sidewalk he stood upon. “Certainly.”

“Thank you.” Taug turned to Governor Right. “It has been an honor.”

Governor Right grinned, grasped one of Taug’s tentacles, and shook it formally. “Just the beginning, I’m sure.”

Taug stood back as George led the governor towards a waiting vehicle. The patient Cresta cradled his aching tentacle close to his body, his half-lidded eyes glowing like embers.

~~~

Curved walls glowed white against state-of-the-art, red shelving units packed with pristine lab equipment. An unoccupied dissection tube extended from one wall, while medical instruments stood lined up on neat tables like soldiers ready for the next battle.

“Do you like it?” Taug’s usual confidence expanded as he waved a tentacle in an arching manner, encompassing the vast room in one magnificent sweep. “I always wanted to follow up on my father’s work, and now I have my chance.”

Derik took a tentative step into the massive laboratory. “But where… how? Did the Cresta government give you all this?”

Taug lumbered closer, a sheepish grin spreading his puffy lips wide. “Ah, no, that would be most unlikely. The Cresta High Council would like nothing more than to see me safely returned to Crestar. They have plans. I have plans. At some distant point, the two shall meet.”

Derik appraised the expensive bio-scanners, surgical tools, the specimen containers, steel tables, bright lights, tubs of various solutions, and the central dissecting tube with miniature tubes, like petals, jutting from the wall. The entire room was bathed in a soft, white glow. In the back, a transparent wall offered a view into an enormous aquarium.

Derik stepped closer, his jaw dropping and his eyes widening. “You keep fish—in your own Cresta pool?”

“Just for eating, when I get hungry after a hard day.”

“Why not just keep them preserved, frozen or something?”

Taug followed Derik’s astonished gaze and burst into giggles, his tentacles writhing in mirth. “I forget; you are as ignorant as a hatchling.”

Derik itched to take off his mechanical boots. He couldn’t account for this sudden longing to jump into the Cresta-sized aquarium.

Taug scooted closer and, with a tilt of his head, appraised Derik’s gaze. “Yes, you feel it, don’t you? The pull of water? Once you’ve been trained, we’ll go in together. It’ll be fun. It may be the most pleasant thing you’ve ever done.”

Derik’s eyes remained fixed on the pool, his tone apathetic. “I’ve been swimming before, but I never liked it much. It was okay—”

“But it never felt right. Of course not. A Crestar pool is quite different. A human would no more enjoy a dip in a Crestonian sea than he would like to splash about in a bowl of vegetable soup. But for us, it’s magnificent.”

Derik slid his hands across the thick glass. His splayed fingers caressed the surface. His voice grew husky. “When?”

Taug nodded, a gleam in his eye darting from the pool to Derik. “Soon. But first I need to understand you better. You are unique in a universe of unique beings. That said, I must understand how to best adapt you to Cresta life.”

Never shifting his gaze off the pool, Derik hunched his shoulders. “Cresta life? Why? Newearth is my home.”

“Someday you may wish to visit our…your world.” Taug’s golden eyes appraised Derik’s form. “It would be a shame if that visit were hampered by poor adaptations. Once we understand your biology better, we can fashion appropriate gear to make your visit on Crestar most enjoyable. I assure you, many Crestas will view you as a hero. You will swim everywhere acclaimed—”

“I’m no hero!” Derik’s voice sharpened as he slapped the glass. “Just a mixed-breed, nobody.”

Taug laid a tentacle around Derik’s arm and gripped it firmly. “One thing you must learn now, before anything else: Crestas are scientists. We have inquisitive minds that never rest. No Inter-Alien Alliance or planetary treaty can keep us from our natural right—to pursue knowledge. Anyone who assists us is a hero.”

Derik’s gaze bore down on Taug’s face. “How?”

“Allow me to study your biology and learn how my father created you. Then, perhaps someday, you will not be alone.”

Turning from Taug back to the pool of murky green water, Derik’s voice fell to a whisper. “I’m not alone.” He darted a quick glance at Taug. “What’s in it for you—personally—I mean?”

“Success brings many rewards. Don’t worry; I’ll be well compensated, in the end.” Taug padded to a wall on which hung a variety of breathing apparatus. “Though I planned on waiting, I think you need a little reward now. Here, put this on and come with me.”

Derik held the apparatus at eye level, scrutinizing it. A quizzical expression spread across his face. “What is it?”

“It’ll help you breathe while we swim. I’ve been adapting it, just for you. I want to see how well it works before we begin our studies.”

“So, you’re not going to kill me—ever?”

“I have no immediate plans to kill you.” Taug lumbered toward a side hallway.

Derik trailed along behind. “Somehow, that didn’t sound as comforting as I hoped.”

Taug and Derik disappeared into the dark hall, leaving the laboratory silent and empty.

Suddenly the waters in the tank were stirred and millions of bubbles floated in an arc toward the surface. Taug, swimming as gracefully as a porpoise, flashed by. His feet, free of the mechanical boots, paddled like luminescent fins. He circled up and around, dashing about like a child at play, swirling bubbles in his wake.

He dove away and returned with one tentacle wrapped around Derik. The breathing apparatus with attached goggles was strapped tight across Derik’s face. His wide eyes stared straight ahead, frozen in panic. Despite Taug’s support, Derik remained as limp as a noodle.

Taug began stoking Derik’s arm with a free tentacle.

The anxiety in Derik’s eyes faded. He began kicking his legs and stroking the water with his arms. Slowly, but more confidently with each movement, he began swimming…free as a fish in the green, Cresta sea.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Seven

Humanity

Derik sat across from Justine, marveling at the vision of loveliness before him. His hand trembled as he laid it on the immaculate tablecloth in front of hers.

A crowd roared in the background. Three opposing teams rushed onto a hard floor, swinging metal balls at the end of stout poles.

Justine flicked a glance at the game before returning to Derik’s gaze.

Derik shakily touched her fingertips.

Justine observed his imploring hand, mesmerized. Slowly, she extended her hand and intertwined her fingers with his.

~~~

Inside the Breakfast Nook, the Ingot hostess pounded across the room. Clare, settled at a long bench, scrolled through her datapad and tapped her fingers on the smooth tabletop.

Derik bustled through the doorway, dark circles under his eyes, searching the room. When he saw Clare, he exhaled in relief and rushed over. “Here you are. I woke up late and couldn’t find this place again. I thought I’d miss—”

The hostess clumped back to the table. “Order?”

Derik swallowed as he appraised the huge Ingot. “Just coffee and a sweet roll—please.”

The hostess charged off.

Derik shook his head. “Is she always so charming?”

“Only when she doesn’t know you.”

Derik tugged at his collar. “You have something to tell me?”

Clare sipped her coffee, assessing him over the lip of the cup. By the time she leaned back, she had made a decision. “You got the report I sent about your DNA results and the ramifications?” Returning his nod, she continued. “You’ll have to deal with some heavy Cresta fallout. You’ll likely be a pretty smart guy as your brain capacity increases, and you’ll live a whole lot longer than the rest of us.”

Derik shrugged. “Yeah, I read all that. But it doesn’t really change anything. I’m still Derik Erlandson. As a matter of fact, I’ve met someone. She’s…well, she’s beautiful, brainy, and has a working knowledge of Oldearth poetry. Wild, eh? But what’s really weird, she likes me.”

“I take it, you like her.” Clare’s expression remained neutral, an impartial judge assessing the latest case.

A nonchalant wave of the hand and an airy tone understated his exuberance. “We’re going out again tonight.”

Clare slapped down her mug and leaned forward. “Listen, I don’t want to make you paranoid or anything, but just so you know, there’re a lot of female hired guns. They get close to their victims and then—”

As if jolted by lightning, Derik jerked forward. “Justine isn’t a hired gun!” Taking a deep breath, he scrambled for a hold on his emotions as his gaze ping-ponged off the walls. “She’s wonderful and beautiful and perfect in every way. So what if she has a mysterious past?”

“Uh-huh.”

Derik rubbed his chin nervously. “I tried looking her up, and I couldn’t find anything.”

Clare’s eyebrows rose. “That does not bode well. You checked everywhere?”

Derik bit his lip. “Everywhere that’s legal.”

Clare flicked out her datapad. “Well, just to be on the safe side, let me look into it. What’s her name?”

“Justine.”

“Justine what?”

“Just Justine. She said she didn’t believe in last names.”

“Better and better….” Tucking a wisp of hair back into place, Clare stared into Derik’s eyes. “Okay, I had every intention of telling you that I can’t help you because, to be honest, I don’t think I can. I asked a friend about you, and he wasn’t too happy. Good guy, just a little protective. Don’t worry, he’s old country, a Luxonian from way back. Anyway, he advised me to drop the case and let him look into it. Last time I talked with him, he gave me the most annoying answers, full of tell- me-nothings. But I trust him. He’d warn me if—”

“Cerulean, right? I met him. Nice enough, but the guy has really bad timing. You talk about me a lot?”

“You met him?”

“He came by my place, warned me to be careful. Like I needed a warning.”

Clare folded her arms across her chest, ready for her next lecture. “Listen, Derik, Cerulean’s a pretty important man— Luxonian—I mean. He pointed out—”

“He’s Luxonian?”

“The one who pounded together the Inter-Alien-Alliance.”

“He’s either as brave as an intergalactic trader or an utter fool.”

Clare smashed her hands together into one clenched fist as her tone rose in intensity. “Anyway, he told me that it’d be in everyone’s best interest if I try to keep you alive and well.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why?’”

“Taug has a point—”

“Perhaps you should have your head examined! Don’t confuse me! I had this all figured out. Do you remember the old stories about when Oldearth was being polluted, these environmentalists convinced people to change their ways by showing them how a healthy planet would help everyone?”

Derik raked his fingers through his hair as he dropped his weary head onto his hand. “Your point?”

“Well, if the world isn’t safe for you—is it safe for anyone?”

Derik tilted his head in a reflective attitude. “Am I worth all this trouble? I just want to be happy a while and let fate have its way. I’m tired of fighting this.”

Clare put her hand over Derik’s. “How about Justine?”

“She doesn’t need me.”

“Doesn’t she?”

“She’s already perfect. I’m only a mixed—”

“Maybe she needs someone to love. Maybe she isn’t attracted to your biology but your humanity.”

Derik snorted, his gaze turning inward. “Depends on how you define humanity.”

Clare slid off the bench and stared down at Derik. “My point exactly.”

~~~

The sun slipped behind the horizon hours ago, but Bala wasn’t ready to return to hearth and home quite yet. A single lamp pooled light on a large, mahogany desk. A framed lace embroidered with the words “Hoggsworth Family” hung at his right. Bala accidentally tilted it as he leaned over, searching through Mrs. Hoggsworth’s computer database.

Governor Jane Right? What about Jane Right? A bigwig in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, she had recently made a splash on Universal News by discovering a cache of old files that proved that her already illustrious family had a new cause to strut their stuff. He scrolled through the information and frowned. But here was a completely different take on that particular family history from a source named Justine. Hmm…

Bala sat down and ran through the files again, mumbling to himself. Who’s Justine? Whoa, if this little lady were alive today, she’d be a cache of information. Governor Jane Right better not believe in ghosts.

~~~

Bala ran at full speed, his lungs ready to burst from the effort. He slid past playing children, a speeding autoskimmer, and an amorous Uanyi couple before he reached home. He slammed through the door, skirted past a tail-waving dog, and just managed to slip onto his chair before Kendra placed a steaming plate of rice and vegetables on the table.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Man-of-mine, if you insist on being late to everything, including my fine dinners, I’m going to tie a string to you and yank when I want you home.”

Bala surveyed the table full of wide-eyed children, his eyes twinkling as he mimicked being yanked by an invisible cord. He fell to the floor, writhing, sending the children into fits of laughter.

Kendra nudged him with her foot, her eyes rolling. “Get up before it gets cold.”

Bala returned to his seat, but his bright eyes dimmed at the sight of vegetables and rice.

Kendra lifted her hand in warning. “Don’t start with your steak and egg fantasies. I’ve got young-uns to raise. You want us to get hauled before an Inter-Alien Sensitivity Commission? No, siree!”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking it and that’s just as bad.”

Bala gripped his fork like a warrior facing a battle and set his jaw. He peered at the table full of children. “Remember, I’m doing this for you.”

~~~

Bala leaned back against a maple tree aglow with fiery autumn colors and wrapped his arms around his knees, studying the sunset through falling leaves.

Kendra strolled over.

Bala’s gaze stayed fixed straight ahead. “They in bed?”

With a muted groan, she slid down next to him. “Every last, blessed one of them.”

Bala put his arm around Kendra and drew her close. “You’re one fine mama.”

“That I am.” She appraised his somber profile. “You’re not a bad papa.”

“I try.”

Kendra shared the sunset. “What’s it this time?”

He turned his gaze, and the failing sunlight played hide and seek over his features. “Hmmm?”

Caressing Bala’s furrowed brow, Kendra locked onto his gaze. “That expression. I’d know it on the dark side of the moon. You’re worried about something.”

Bala sighed and played with Kendra’s fingers, lacing his with hers. “You know, I like puzzles as much as the next man, but sometimes I hate the picture after I’ve put it all together.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

“I want to, but I’m not sure I should. Some pretty important people might be involved.”

“By important, you mean….”

“They have resources. I don’t.”

Kendra leaned in so that their noses almost touched. “In all the time I’ve known you, Bala, you have never shirked from a challenge. Remember the First All-Species Olympics?”

A half grin peeked out of Bala’s crooked smile. “That was only in fun.”

“You almost killed yourself. Iceberg climbing, they called it; idiotic, I called it. And you all scared the penguins witless.”

With a deep breath, Bala blinked back the sudden moisture in his eyes. “Back then, I didn’t think about it. I was just playing. But now—”

A child’s wail pierced the evening.

Kendra shot to her feet nearly as fast as Bala. She patted his arm in restraint. “You’re worried about us. I understand; I worry about us, too. But, man-o-mine, you’ve got to live. If you tie your spirit to safety, you’ll have to lock yourself at home. Not that you’d be safe here—”

The crying rose a decibel. Kendra strode forward. “Coming, baby.” She peered over her shoulder at Bala’s barely discernible outline against the falling night. “God made us of strong stuff. But remember, you got to the top by building steps.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched Kendra retreat inside. When the shrieking stopped abruptly, a slow smile spread wide across his face.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go. ~T. S. Elliot

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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