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 Twenty-Six

An Honest Fool

Taug had used not a smidgen of hyperbole when he described Mitholie’s suite. It was the finest set of rooms available on Crestar. A full wall tank undulated with colored lights at one end while creeping vines and swaying foliage draped every centimeter of surface area not designated for sitting, walking, or working. Lab equipment held their proper station against one wall, spilling into a neighboring wing, while an ample food station and accompanying attendant waited for orders against another wall. Comfortable chairs, a widescreen, and plenty of room for guests completed the luxurious setting.

Taug stood with his tentacles clasped in an attitude of contemplation, his gaze lowered until Mitholie should deem to speak.

Mitholie deemed. “The android’s not quite what I was expecting, but she’ll do.” He strolled to the food station, motioned, and waited while the attendant splashed a dark liquid into a tall glass and handed it over with a proud bow. Mitholie swirled it playfully. There was not a hint of an offer. “With her technology, I’ll live forever.”

Taug peered up but remained expressionless.

Mitholie tossed a glance at Taug. “I suppose you know how to turn the damn thing off?”

Taug swallowed. “It is not easily done.”

“I could blast a hole through its middle or its synthetic brain. Would that help?”

Taug lifted one tentacle beseechingly. “If you damage her—”

Mitholie inhaled a long slurp and grinned over the glass. “I have a backup. Governor Right sent a message. Apparently, there’s another one, and it’s coming here. To affect a rescue, no doubt.”

The yellowish tinge drained from Taug’s features. “Alone?”

“Who knows? Who cares?” Mitholie surveyed Taug’s swaying tentacles. “You’re not frightened of an android? They’re just tools, like any other.”

“Even tools can be dangerous. Especially when they have a will of their own.”

Mitholie chuckled. “So you are completely useless to me, eh? You didn’t take care of the little matter of the crossbreed, and you can’t manage an android. Your father‘s reckless experiment is free, tromping around Newearth like an angry ox. You know, he yelled at me? Actually threatened me.” Mitholie’s face darkened perceptibly.

Taug closed his eyes. “He’s one of our own. At least partially. I could’ve learned a great deal from him.”

“Dark waters!” Mitholie slammed his drink on the counter. “We don’t need him. Androids are stronger and more durable. If the creators could make one, there’s no reason why we can’t. As long as they don’t find out.”

Taug exhaled. “What do you want from me?”

A slow grin played across Mitholie’s face. “Nothing.”

Taug’s eyes widened in alarm.

The door at the far end of the room slid open.

Justine sauntered in, an appraising gaze roving over the two Crestas. “You look like you need to say your prayers, Taug. How does it feel to be expendable? Derik never liked it either…maybe you’re more like him than you realized.”

Taug’s gaze shifted to Mitholie.

Directing the attendant to leave, Mitholie refilled his glass and sauntered to his desk. “I have been informed that a friend of yours is rushing here to see you, Justine. Does the name Max Wheeler mean anything?”

Justine froze. Her gaze shifted from Mitholie to Taug. Her eyes narrowed. “I almost felt sorry for you. Almost.”

Mitholie reached behind the counter and withdrew a Dustbuster. “Don’t bother.” He tossed the weapon to Justine.

Justine caught it and sneered at Mitholie. “You think I need a weapon?”

The corners of Mitholie’s wide lips rose in a flabby grin.

Taug lifted a tentacle. “Before you act on impulse, know this, Justine. I never wanted to hurt Derik. I only wanted to study him. As for this Max Wheeler, I’ve never heard of him.”

Justine circled Taug like a predator eyeing her next meal. “And me? What was I?”

Mitholie wagged a tentacle at Justine. “A useful tool! Now get on with it. I’m not Taug; I don’t like to prolong the inevitable.”

Justine laughed, her eyes sparkling with ironic pleasure. “The inevitable? There is no inevitable.” She swiveled around faster than Mitholie could react, her fingers flying across his console. The widescreen flickered, and she grinned at a screen full of expectant Cresta faces.

“Your brain trust awaits your next move, Mitholie. I informed them that you had a surprise. As a scientist, you surely want every experiment made transparent so others can verify the results. Or perhaps you’d rather create a spectacle?”

Mitholie darted forward.

Grabbing Mitholie by the neck, she splayed his body against the screen. “You use beings for your own purpose. You say it is for the glory of science, for the good of Crestonians, but it all ends up as a matter of entertainment in the end. You don’t need to live longer, Mitholie, you need to live wiser.”

Mitholie’s tentacles flailed as the android lifted him off the ground. His eyes bulged to enormous size as he squeaked. “Kill her!”

Taug remained motionless. Excited murmuring filled the room as the assembly on the screen jabbered their options. Three Crestar guards burst through the door, their weapons ready. Their eyes shifted from Taug to Mitholie to Justine.

In a blur, Taug wrapped his tentacles around their legs and swiped them off their feet. He snatched their weapons out of their grasps.

Justine aimed the Dustbuster and blasted through Mitholie to the screen behind him. With unexpected agility, she tossed Taug over her shoulder and fled.

~~~

Derik slouched against the transport wall and tapped on his datapad. Max sat at the controls and fixed his attention on the dozen monitors arrayed at the front of the craft. Cerulean stood with his arms folded, across from Bala and Clare who sat crumpled in their bucket seats.

Clare groaned. “How long is this going to take? I’m not used to space travel, and I’m not even sure I can handle Crestar gravity. They do have gravity, don’t they?”

Bala huffed. “Really, Clare, don’t be so ignorant! They have an artificial environment that nearly matches ours. How did you ever make it through the academy?”

“I studied about Crestonian environment the night before and—”

Bala covered his ears. “Don’t tell me another word. To think I always held you in such high esteem.”

Clare’s gaze rolled over Derik. “What’re you doing?”

Derik shrugged. “Research. It helps to know the planet you’re invading.”

Bala nudged Clare. “Bet you wish you’d have thought of that.”

Clare shouldered Bala off his chair.

Heaving himself to his feet, Bala sauntered over to Derik. He stretched and tried to look over his shoulder. Suddenly, he shrieked. “Eek! What’s that?”

Cerulean turned sharply while Clare jumped to her feet.

Derik froze. His fingers paused above his datapad. “What?”

Clare inched up. “Is that a… SPIDER?” She raised her hand.

Cerulean jumped forward and grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”

Derik swiveled around and, with a graceful motion, slipped the spider off his shoulder and into his pocket.

Bala’s eyes bulged. “You keep a spider—as—a—pet?”

Clare spoke through clenched teeth. “Bringing unauthorized life forms to another planet is strictly forbidden! All insects die in exit sterilization anyway.”

“Shut up!” Max swiveled in his chair and faced them. “Justine’s in trouble!”

Derik pounded forward, slamming his leg against one of the monitors. “Oh… Ah!” he limped ahead. “What happened?”

“No poetry this time.” Max tapped the console.

Justine’s face appeared on an overhead screen. She huffed heavily and seemed to be carrying a sack over her shoulder. She looked up and frowned. “I’m dropping this off at Bothmal transport baggage department. Land there and pick it up. Then return to Newearth. Don’t look for me.” The screen blinked to black.

“Bothmal!” Max shook his head and tapped the console with alarming speed.

Clare staggered to the console. “What’re you doing?”

Max stared ahead as Crestar came into focus on the main viewer.

“Going faster.”

~~~

“Okay, everyone, this is where tiptoe practice in kindergarten really pays off.” Bala hunched his shoulders and followed Clare, who followed Cerulean, who followed Max. Derik took up the rear, his Dustbuster at the ready.

Clare glared over her shoulder.

Bala shrugged.

Max whispered. “I see a guard. I think I know him.” Max straightened and motioned for the others to stay back. He sauntered forward and tapped his datapad. “Hello, Thurston. Captain Kimberling sent word that he’d be docking here, and I thought I’d be ready. Any news?”

Bala tapped Clare’s shoulder as they huddled closer to Cerulean and whispered. “He can lie? I thought that was against android code or—”

Cerulean squeezed Bala’s shoulder and glared.

Abashed, Bala swiped a finger over his lips and squeezed them tight.

The guard grinned. “Finally mastered contractions, eh, Max? Good for you.” He shrugged. “Nothing new here.” He scrolled through his datapad and frowned. “You must’ve got your info wrong. Kimberling isn’t due for another month. You mean some other captain?”

Max scrolled through his datapad with a grimace. “Huh? I don’t know how this happened. I got a message saying to pick up a package. I thought it was from Captain Kimberling. I just assumed—”

The guard smacked him conspiratorially on the arm. “Don’t worry about it. We all make mistakes.” He tapped his thigh. “But hey, there is a package here. I don’t know if it’s for you, just says—” He darted away and came back with a data-chip. “An honest fool?” He shrugged and handed it to Max. “I’m not sure if that’s the name of the package or the receiver. Everyone likes to be funny these days. Bothmal! If I had a unit for every idiot—”

Max peered over the guard’s shoulder. “Yes, that’s for me. Though the last time I came, it was anything but funny.” He sighed. “Mind if I take it?”

“Long as you sign for it. I’m not losing my job over a dumb joke.”

Max waved Cerulean and Derik forward. “I have assistants who are working on my transport.” His voice took on an authoritative tone. “Come on! Hurry it up. I haven’t got all day. Take the package.”

The guard beckoned with a wagging finger.

Cerulean, Clare, and Bala trudged after the guard with let’s- get-this-over-with expressions.

Clare nudged her partner. “What do you think’s in the package?”

Bala sighed. “As long as it isn’t Taug.”

~~~

Faye ambled along the corridor ceiling. It was never fun being an arachnid, but it was rather interesting. Everything looked different from the upside-down perspective. She scurried toward a crowd of excited Crestas doing their utmost to hold an enraged android at bay.

A cargo door was at Justine’s back, and her hand flew over the console. Her eyes glowed with triumph. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” Her fingers hovered.

Faye slid down a drop line, morphed into a hulking Cresta, and spoke in a guttural voice from behind the crowd. “…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”

Justine’s gaze fixed on the looming figure.

Faye passed through the crowd as if crossing the Divide and laid a tentacle on Justine’s shoulder. “I have the authority to take this prisoner to her just destination.”

A new voice made the entire crowd turn their heads once again. “But I’m afraid you don’t.” Cerulean marched forward and stared at Justine through forlorn eyes. He slid Faye’s Cresta tentacle off Justine’s shoulder and sighed. “As a representative of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, I’m taking Justine Santana into custody, where she will await a trial at the convenience of the court.” He returned Faye’s bitter gaze. “Nice try, though.” Stepping forward, he led Justine by the arm.

Max, Derik, Clare, and Bala rushed forward in a straggling huddle. Seeing Cerulean and Justine, they bounded to a heaving halt.

Max grinned. “You found her!”

Derik heaved a sigh. “Thank God.”

Clare and Bala grinned.

Justine sighed. “You got the package?”

Derik’s chin rose and Max’s chest swelled as they nodded in unison.

Justine straightened her shoulders and offered her wrists, a prisoner ready for her manacles. “Well, here’s your fool.”

“Human nature will find itself only when it fully realizes that to be human it has to cease to be beastly or brutal.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

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/2OAkDQF

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/spaceship-science-fiction-forward-3628969/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Four

Our Only Limitation

Misty air draped everything in a heavy fog. Taug grunted as he stripped off each section of his bio-suit in the white-walled, laboratory-style cleansing room. Water dripped down the tiled walls. Turning to Justine, he lifted one booted foot and wagged it at her.

“Would you be so kind? These things are worse than Tatarian leeches.”

Justine unfolded her arms from across her chest and bent low. She grabbed the boot heel and jerked, nearly toppling Taug.

“Careful! I don’t want my toes to come off with the boot. They don’t grow back as quickly as the tentacles.”

Wiggling the boot effectively, it squelched off the swollen three-toed foot. Justine wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?”

Taug sighed as he lifted his other boot in her direction. “You don’t want to know. The price we pay to travel to foreign parts.” After Taug was completely free of every article of clothing and well wrapped in a large towel, he tromped over to a shower stall, tossed the towel over the door, and turned the spray on full blast. Shouting over the noisy spray, he waved a tentacle. “Get me that robe hanging to the left. Oh, my! This feels good!”

Justine rolled her eyes. “I’m your servant now?” She threw the swirly green-and-blue garment onto a nearby hook. “I thought you were a water creature. Where’s your ocean?”

Taug scrubbed and giggled. “We’re a bit too advanced to stay in the water all the time. Just for sport and refreshment.” He turned off the shower, snatched up the robe, and, patting his body in the joy of cleanliness and freedom, he stepped back into the room. “You have no idea how good this feels.”

Justine tilted her head at him as if analyzing an insect.

Plodding down a white, rounded hallway, Taug lifted a tentacle and flicked off their itinerary. “First, I’ll have to dress properly, then we’ll attend the banquet, and finally, I’ll arrange matters with Mitholie in his private suite. He enjoys luxury like nothing you’ve ever seen. You’ll—”

“I’ll see for myself. What do I wear?”

Taug stopped and appraised her with a frown. “What you’re wearing will do.”

He started forward again. Humming.

Justine laid a hand on his shoulder. Without the boots, he was much shorter. She peered into his eyes. “I’ve been wearing this for a week.”

Taug shook his head. “No one will know… or care.” Justine squeezed his shoulder. “I know. I care.”

Taug blinked. “I suppose you’ll want your own room? And a shower and new clothes?”

“Your point?

Taug peeled her fingers from his shoulder. “That’s what I keep asking myself.”

~~~

The air was heavy with water vapor as wispy ivies swung from the rafters like algae swaying in the deep sea. The murky green underworld of Crestar swirled behind a massive see-through wall. Various aquatic creatures swam about in placid acceptance of their environment. Pliant green tables and squishy white chairs dotted the floor, while Crestonian youth hustled between persons of importance offering drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

Taug sauntered into the room, positively transformed by his neat, new attire: a well-fitting white, sleeveless shirt and leggings with a long, flowing robe.

Justine trailed after him, unchanged.

A mingling, chattering crowd turned as one and stared past Taug to the android behind him.

A satisfied grin gleamed through Taug’s eyes. Justine may attract stares, but he would demand respect. He plodded forward, scanning the intimate group until he zeroed in on Mitholie.

Mitholie wore a heavy, dark green tunic of shimmering brightness. The thin cilia on top of his head were daubed with blue gel, and his face bore the fancy red stripes of his rank and position. Stepping forward, he stretched out his tentacles in a welcoming gesture. “So glad the prodigal son has made it home at last.”

Taug bowed out of respect and to hide his smirk. “I’m honored you know the reference. Newearth Studies was never one of your favorites.”

Mitholie surveyed Taug only a moment before his gaze shifted to Justine. “Ah, the redoubtable android, Justine Santana. It is delicious to finally meet you.”

Justine tilted her head, frowning. “It’s delicious to meet you as well.”

Titters broke out among the assembly. Tentacles rose to cover uncouth giggles.

Taug winced, but Mitholie reached out and cupped Justine’s hand in a wide tentacle. “Let me introduce you to my brain trust. These are my most intimate associates. They will be working closely with Taug to make your stay on Crestar sheer ecstasy.”

Justine stared at Mitholie’s tentacle as he led her toward a tall Cresta with a high forehead and huge green eyes. She leaned toward Taug and whispered. “Hyperbole doesn’t have the same—”

Taug shook his head in a sharp motion while staring straight ahead.

Mitholie dropped Justine’s hand and offered an introductory wave to the large Cresta. “Meet Zendrox. He specializes in biomechanical advancements. In fact, he was the one to adapt our bio-suits to Newearth terrain. He once worked with the renowned Donadello, who searched the furthest reaches of the universe to discover—” An undertone humming warned him off the topic. He flicked his gaze around the wide-eyed crowd. “—a cure for our weakness on land.”

A chime induced Mitholie to bow benevolently. “Time for the festivities. Let’s get comfortable.” He waddled to a wide table and plopped down on a soft, white couch. The others arranged themselves as close as possible without blocking Mitholie’s view of the runway arranged at the front of the room.

Justine stood to the side, her arms folded. Taug patted the cushion beside himself. With a sigh, she clumped over and sat on the soft material that oozed up around her.

Green and yellow lights swirled around the room as troops of scantily clad beings filed in. There were Bhuacs, Ingots, Uanyi, and three human children. They began to perform various acrobatic games, displaying their species’ best attributes.

Justine’s eyes widened and her breathing quickened. She shot a glance around the room. Every Cresta perspired with pleasure. She recognized Taug’s automatic grin, set in place to cover his thoughts.

Mitholie actually drooled.

Calls and grunts of dissatisfaction urged the players to perform more daring acts of entertainment. One Cresta stood and gestured in such a manner that, even though Justine could not understand the exact expression, she knew the vulgar meaning.

The players halted, confused, sweating and heaving desperate breaths. One of the human children wiped his eyes. His shoulders hunched, despair animating his trembling limbs, as if he knew something was coming and dreaded the moment.

Justine’s eyes narrowed.

Mitholie stood and barked a command.

Taug struggled to his feet and raised a tentacle. He glanced at Justine and then offered an extravagant bow to Mitholie. “The journey was long, and I know Justine would like to prepare herself for tomorrow’s events. We should eat and retire before—”

Mitholie glowered. “You’ve grown insensitive to pleasures of your own kind, Taug. But—” He sighed. “—it’s true, our opportunity is a narrow one.” He dismissed the players and waved the waiters forward. “Bring the food.” Dashing a glance at Justine, he grinned wickedly. “I know you don’t need to eat as we do, but you might enjoy a sustaining meal. We don’t partake of our own kind—but that is our only limitation.”

“…the crux of evil in this world…They consider no cost to anyone but themselves.” ~Erika Johansen

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/2OAkDQF

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/spit-roast-grill-turn-juicy-crust-1713752/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Three

We Fall Into Chaos

Cerulean stepped into the lab and exhaled a long cleansing breath. “Before we go into the details, tell me one thing—where is Justine?”

Derik’s worried gaze flickered around the room. “We were hoping Taug would tell us—” He flexed his long, muscular fingers. “—by force if necessary.” Derik marched up to Cerulean. “Have you heard anything?”

Cerulean’s gaze swerved from Derik to Faye. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

Appearing to float, Faye swayed closer. Her large, almond-shaped eyes peered up at Cerulean. “Many times I’ve wished I could introduce myself, but secrecy has always been my best defense.”

Cerulean offered a gentleman’s nod. “Many the times I wished I could be of service. But your race is very secretive and singularly inventive. I doubted my ability.”

Faye’s gaze glanced off Derik. “I wish to come out of the shadows.”

Stroking his cheek, Cerulean appraised Faye before his eyes strayed to the wall screen. “We need to discuss this further. But right now, Taug must be stopped.”

Derik pushed in front of Faye. “Why? What’s he done?”

“Clare and Bala confronted Taug yesterday and met Justine here. She’s fine… at least physically. She said she was going to return to Crestar with Taug.”

In a near shriek, Derik pulled his hair. “What?”

Peering at the wall, Cerulean marched across the room. He tapped the console and the screen flickered.

Faye faded into the background.

A white square appeared on the screen and then a blurry, shifting body shuffled closer. Gradually, an enlarged, perplexed Cresta face came into focus. “Taug? Is that you? I thought you were on a transport—”

Edging closer, Cerulean stationed himself in front of the screen. “No, sir, Taug isn’t here. I’m Cerulean, a Luxonian on official business. Do you know where Taug has gone?”

The Cresta’s jaw hardened and his eyes narrowed. “This my private address! I don’t know what official business a Luxonian might have with Taug, but he has been ordered home. We have unfinished business he must attend to.”

Cerulean pressed on. “So Taug is on a transport? Alone?”

“Until I understand the circumstance of your inquiry better, I’m not at liberty—”

Derik squeezed between Cerulean and the screen. “Is Justine Santana with him? Did he take her?”

A long, flabby tentacle jabbed at the screen. “Excuse me? Who is this?”

Derik folded his arms high across his chest. “I’m Justine’s fiancé, and I demand that you tell me where she is immediately, or I’ll file charges with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee. Cerulean—” Derik jerked his thumb backward. “—is a founding mem—”

The looming face broke into an impressive smile. “Oh, you’re that Cerulean! I didn’t recognize you. My name is Mitholie. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

Cerulean dragged his wide-eyed glare off Derik and swung it at Mitholie. “Yes, sir. Sterling has mentioned you.” His face tightened. “I’m very concerned about the android Justine, who was recently in Taug’s company. She might be traveling with him to Crestar.”

Mitholie’s wide smile brightened. “If so, we would welcome her with pleasure.”

“I’m certain of that.” Cerulean cleared his throat. “But you can see how distressed her fiancé is.” He dashed a quick glance at Derik.

Derik stood staring up at the screen, his hands wringing an invisible neck. “I want her home at once! You hear me?”

Mitholie edged away from the screen, his disgusted gaze focused on Derik’s hands.

Placing a firm grip on Derik’s shoulder, Cerulean shifted him to the side. “I apologize, Mitholie, but we have our own troubles, and Justine needs to return as soon as possible.”

Mitholie smirked like an understanding patriarch. “Certainly, if she arrives with Taug, I’ll relay your message. But honestly, you’re mistaken. Taug is traveling alone. If you look at the transport manifest, I’m sure that you’ll find that no Justine Santana will arrive on Crestar.” He waved the small end of one tentacle benignly. “I will inform Taug of your concern. He’ll be gratified to know his friends have inquired about him.” Mitholie offered a brief nod to Cerulean before peering narrowly at Derik as if memorizing his features. “Fiancé, eh?” Offering a lopsided smile, Mitholie continued, “My congratulations.” The screen blinked to black.

Cerulean’s head dropped to his chest and his shoulders sagged. Then he swung on Derik in fury. “What the—? You’re supposed to be dead. You want to make absolutely certain the job gets done?”

Derik’s broad shoulders matched Cerulean’s muscle for muscle. They glared into each other’s eyes.

Faye held up her elfin hands and stepped between them. “Please. There is enough anger in the universe. We share a common purpose; let’s not forget that.”

Derik’s face flushed with rage as he peered down at the small figure. “Or what?”

Faye’s eyes brimmed. “We fall into chaos.”

~~~

Max sat upright on the bench in Bala’s brightly lit kitchen and stared at the steaming bowl in front of him. He struggled to process the tumultuous energy bopping all around him. He knew full well that it was considered rude to stare, even at little humans, but it took every particle of his self-control to keep from glaring at his riotous surroundings.

Bala laughed and slapped Max on the shoulder. Leaning in, he sniffed the casserole as if appraising the danger. He shook his head. “Nothing to be afraid of. Go on. Kendra’s got away with rice, beans, and green things. If she didn’t, I’d be dead by now.”

Max swiveled his head, right and then left, allowing himself the luxury of a good long stare. The baby was strapped into a high chair, pounding a miniature utensil on a tray and drooling copiously amid Kendra’s alternate cooing and humming sounds. Another child sat backward, her long hair partially draped over her bowl. She clapped to a rhythm Max could not even faintly discern. A little boy clung to Kendra’s legs, chattering in an alien language as his mother flittered around the large kitchen. With the grace of a seasoned acrobat, she slid a towering bread plate somewhat near the center of the table. An older boy sipped his meal in quiet contemplation, while another scanned his datapad, drumming his fingers on the tabletop.

Max faced Bala, plastering a benign expression on his face. “Are they always this noisy?”

Lounging against the table, Bala surveyed the miniature throng. “Not at all. Sometimes they get into a ruckus and then you hear some real noise, brother.” Bala covered his ears to emphasize his meaning.

Max didn’t have to feign astonishment. “Why in the universe did you have so many? Wouldn’t two offspring continue your species just as effectively?”

Bala scratched his head. “Well, now, I hadn’t thought of them quite like that…”

He smiled as Kendra plopped down on her chair, one arm encircling the now sedate three-year-old. She spooned a mouthful of stew into the little one’s mouth, grabbed a broken piece of bread, chomped, and chewed as she grinned back at Bala.

“Kendra, Max would like to know why we had so many.” With a sweep of his hand, he clarified his point.

Kendra’s nearly frantic chewing slowed to glacial speed as one eyebrow rose. She swallowed, squared her shoulders, and smiled bravely. “Well, you see, it’s our pleasure. We enjoy bringing new life into the world and training them to become wonderful citizens of Newearth.”

Bala stared at Kendra, his eyes rounding into orbs. “The truth? You told him the truth!”

Kendra shrugged and she grabbed another slice of bread, handing a significant chunk to the baby. “I think he can handle it. Besides—” Her gaze rolled around the kitchen. “—it’s what I drill into their heads every day of their lives. Made for a purpose. We all are.”

The room froze as Max jumped to his feet. His perpetually mild expression had drained of all animation and color.

Bala tossed a quick glance at Kendra as he rose and placed his hand on Max’s shoulder. “You all right? We’re just kidding around—sort of.” Running his fingers through his hair, Bala nudged Max toward the door. “Let’s head over to Cerulean’s place. He might have news by now.”

With robotic steps, Max marched through the kitchen doorway.

Bala stopped on the threshold and faced his perplexed family. He shrugged. “So, androids have issues. Who knew?”

Max stomped up Cerulean’s porch steps as a bedraggled, panting Bala took up the rear. “Hey, slow down, would you! I just barely sent word that we’re coming, and you’re ready to break down his door.”

Max promptly smashed in Cerulean’s front door and, standing amid the wreckage, scanned the large, open kitchen-living room.

Cerulean burst into the room, waving a Dustbuster. “What?” He glared first at Max and then at Bala. Lowering the Dustbuster, he shook his head in disbelief. “Max, why did you break down my door? I just got it fixed.”

Max swallowed and spluttered. “I—I got a message from Justine. She’s going to murder Taug.”

~~~

Standing in his employer’s personal recreation room at the Vandi Country Club, Eric handed a club to a waiting hand and snapped to attention. His shoulder-length blond hair, tied in a smooth ponytail that hung down his back, matched his bright yellow eyes, which he had altered as soon as he had enough money for the procedure. Altering eye color to unnatural hues had come into fashion only recently, but he was never one to lag behind a new trend. His stylish bodysuit and slip-on footwear fit his trim form like surgical gloves. His eyes roved over his employer, Simms, with a covetous longing.

Simms, a human with more replacement parts than he liked to admit, could not hide his boxy shape, though he tried. His hair—not his own—appeared thick and black. The mustard-colored shirt and trousers he wore complemented his olive skin tone. A gold pendant hung at his neck, and ornate rings bejeweled his fingers. Simms cleared his throat and swung the club over his head in a couple of practice moves. He frowned and handed the club back with a polite sniff. “Not this one. Give me the thirty-four.”

Eric searched through the club bag and found the one mentioned. He pulled it forth, mesmerized by its polished gleam. Simms had the best set of clubs on the planet and a wall of prizes to attest to his award-winning skill at Zinzinera. Though the Ingoti game had been adapted to Newearth sensibilities—the losers did not have their heads knocked together, and they counted score with points rather than injuries—everyone still took the game seriously and none more so than Simms himself. Eric had noticed that Simms took everything seriously—especially himself.

Eric observed his employer closely. There was more to this man than met the eye. He clasped his manicured fingers behind his back.

“Take this.” Simms held out the club with a firm hand.

Eric reached and—Simms grabbed his hand and twisted it behind his back painfully. “I know what you’re thinking.”

Eric strained to keep his composure. “That would be?”

“You want what I have.”

Eric considered his options and chose unprecedented honesty.

“Is that so wrong?”

Surprisingly, Simms grunted and released his grip, shoving Eric forward. “Not at all. In fact, I was kinda counting on it.”

Eric rubbed his wrist and raised an eyebrow.

Simms grimaced. “I have a job for you. Real simple. Knock a certain mixed-breed’s head in or blow him to bits—whatever’s easier. Take what’s on his body and ransack his place. He managed to escape from certain death once; don’t let it happen again.”

Remaining unmoved, Eric considered his options again. “Why should I?”

“Because I said so. Because an important somebody wants it so. And because you don’t get to be like me unless you have powerful friends.”

“I’m not a killer.”

“Sure you are.”

“Someone might find out. Human Services will—”

Simms blew air between his lips, swinging his club. “Look, he’s a mistake. Mistakes aren’t human.” He tapped his club against Eric’s head. “Like idiots who don’t know a good opportunity when it comes along. No one will care.”

New options danced before Eric’s yellow eyes.

“…in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.”
~Robert Louis Stevenson

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Two

A Worthy Goal

The evening’s winter wind had settled to a mild breeze as Derik jogged hunch-shouldered at Faye’s side. Slugging his chilled hands deep into his coat pockets, he frowned at the memory of Faye’s unblushing impersonation of a guard, allowing her to affect his release. Though he towered above her slight form, her prancing step kept him lumbering along at a quicker pace than was comfortable for his Cresta-booted feet. Tripping over a clump of ice, he nearly sprawled onto the sidewalk.

Faye reached out and steadied him. “Don’t slip. I can’t change out in the open, so I wouldn’t be much help if you got hurt.”

Derik pulled his hands out of his pocket to maintain his balance and nodded. He darted a quick look at the little Bhuac. “You’re amazing. I still don’t understand how your race can be at risk. You just sprung me from the clutches of Governor Right! You could use the same tactics everywhere and no one could touch you.”

Faye glanced up at Derik’s large brown eyes. “Have you never yearned to be free—to be yourself? Freed from the secret bonds necessary to keep you safe?”

Derik shrugged. “Beyond my boots, I don’t have many protective bonds. In fact, if you hadn’t saved me from my last fall, even these boots wouldn’t have saved me.”

A curious half-smile played around Faye’s lips.

Derik grabbed her arm and pulled her under the shelter of a weeping willow. The long tendrils swept around them like a lacy curtain as busy pedestrians hurried by. “What? There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Faye’s almond-shaped eyes danced at Derik. “There is a great deal I’m not telling you. But to keep you happy and in the interest of building trust, I will share this particular incident.”

Derik wiggled his fingers like a child waiting for a ball to come his way.

“When I learned of your existence, I was quite interested to learn more about you, which meant I had to learn more about Taug. So, on occasion, I would investigate his laboratory. Not long ago, I became so perplexed by one of his experiments that I did not notice his return—until it was almost too late.”

Faye blushed a bright pink and covered her cheeks with her petite hands. “This is very embarrassing.”

Derik’s grin widened.

“I reacted on instinct. I don’t know why, exactly, but I changed into a small dog, one of those yapping little quadrupeds that like to chew and snarl at everything.”

Derik shook his head and snapped a weathered twig off the tree. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice.”

“Certainly. If I had been prepared or thinking clearly…but I was so concerned by what I saw that I lost all reasoning.”

“What did Taug do when he saw a mutt in his immaculate laboratory? Oh, I wish I had been there!”

Faye blushed harder. “He did what any irate scientist would do. He tried to shush me away. But I was annoyed and—” She dropped her gaze.

“You’ve come this far. Tell me everything.”

“I attacked his boots. I nearly shredded them before I ran away.”

Derik let out a yelp that turned heads. One passerby stopped and peered between the swaying branches. “You okay in there, little Miss?”

Derik cupped his hands over his laughter.

Faye smiled brightly at the concerned face and nodded like a six-year-old. “I’m fine. My dad’s having one of his spells. Just give him a minute. He’ll come out of it.”

The stranger grunted, dropped the trailing vine, and turned away.

In a formal manner, Derik took Faye by the arm. “All right, daughter, you and I have a mission to accomplish. Let’s go find Taug and free Justine. If he gives us any trouble, you can turn into a poodle and shred his bio-suit.

~~~

The cold, sterile laboratory appeared ashen in the dim light, echoing only dead silence as if it knew it had been abandoned and could not bear the truth.

Faye entered first, one thin-fingered hand lifted in front, probing for danger. Not a whisper or a swirl of movement responded to their approach.

Derik marched stiff and hunch-shouldered behind, ready for anything. Not ready for nothing. “I wish I had a Dustbuster.”

Faye halted and looked back at him. “Why? No one’s here.”

“One never knows when Taug’ll show up. Remember the incident with the boots? Besides, I’d dearly love to blast his equipment to smithereens. It would serve him right. Double-crossing me!”

Faye circled the empty room, tapping and touching various instruments. “He never lied to you, Derik. He told you that he might have to kill you. It wasn’t exactly his choice.”

Derik tromped over to the pool wall, splayed his fingers across the glass, and stared into the murky depths. “You sound like you sympathize with him…your enemy.”

Faye lifted the top off the dissection tube and shuddered. “I sympathize with all trapped beings. I know how it feels.”

Derik slapped his forehead. “You’re—”

The sound of someone clearing his throat made Faye and Derik freeze. Slowly the two turned in unison, like ballet dancers thawing from a deep frost.

Cerulean stepped over the threshold and folded his arms across his chest. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this.”

~~~

Taug groaned as he leaned against the hard, uncompromising transport chair, his tentacles limp at his side. He squeezed his eyes against the discomfort of the harness that kept him from sliding off the seat, while his ample middle bulged unceremoniously at droopy angles.

He choked out a ragged whisper. “I deplore space travel.”

Justine, sitting ramrod straight with her feet firmly set on the smooth floor, crossed her arms languidly over her unharnessed lap. “It could be worse. You could be traveling in the baggage compartment.”

A mere flicker of a glance indicated Taug’s awareness of Justine’s dry sense of humor.

Four other travelers sat strapped in their own ample seats. Two humans, well equipped with state-of-the-art headsets, tapped their datapads while their eyes scanned invisible screens. Two Crestas, younger and more robust than Taug, strained against their harnesses and leaned over to whisper to each other.

A loud buzz announced their entry into space and freed the occupants from their unnatural positions. The humans unbuckled and left without even glancing at the other passengers. The Crestas grunted with relief as they rose and passed into the passage. They studied a map highlighting the ship’s points of interest, including the dining section.

Tapping her thigh, Justine rose and ambled across the small space.

Fumbling with his straps, Taug’s grunts sharpened to disgust.

Unmoved, Justine faced him. “So tell me more about your planet…your people. What is the plan?”

Taug jerked fiercely at his strap, which nearly choked him. He gasped. “Get this damn thing off me, or you’ll be arriving with a dead body.”

Justine frowned but stepped forward. “Is that how you see yourself? I thought you considered yourself a scientist of the highest order, nothing less than a brilliant mind—”

“Hurry! I can’t breathe!”

Justine jerked the strap so that it loosened the clasp and pulled it free from Taug’s body. She stared down at the threadbare material. “Primitive. I wonder why they haven’t come up with something better.”

Taug staggered to his feet and wiggled his tentacles to reanimate his circulation. “The captain knows that the few travelers between Crestar and Newearth are either desperate or preoccupied. Humans don’t go to Crestar unless they are ordered there on business, and Cresta scientists would rather keep our monetary resources for our work. No incentive for comfortable seating.”

“But you like padded chairs and easy comforts.”

“I’m high enough in the food chain to be used to such things. But I like to appear before my superiors as an earnest scientist who happily endures simple hardships without complaint.” He flicked a grimaced smile at Justine. “You won’t give away my little secret, now, will you?”

Justine tilted her head and gestured toward the dining section. “We all have our secrets. How about you teach me the fundamentals of Crestonian cuisine? After all, I intend to be at the top of your food chain, and I’d hate to eat anyone out of order.”

As they settled into their dining booth, Taug waved a tentacle and alerted the host on duty.

A Cresta youth ambled over, looking eager to please, his golden eyes large and watery. “We’re honored to have you onboard, Taug. I’ve been told to offer you the best we have—” He bent down and whispered in an awestruck tone. “—no matter the cost.” His fleshy eyebrows wiggled to underscore the momentous news.

Taug glanced at Justine and then offered a rewarding smile to the young, obviously aspiring Cresta. “I’d like to introduce my protégé to our finest selection. How about we start with—”

As Taug gabbed on about Cresta food options, Justine scanned the dining room. The two other Crestas were bent over sloppy bowls of sticky goo, though they hardly seemed to be eating. She watched as they made every pretense of conversing and enjoying a good meal. She smirked. Apparently, Taug’s own kind didn’t trust him either.

The host practically skipped away.

Justine eyed Taug as he leaned back in the padded booth. Burns, rips, and more than one dent in the furnishings attested to the lack of luxury. But it would hold together for their quick trip. “Happy now?”

Taug closed his eyes and sighed. “Until landing, I’m free and I’ve ordered the finest meal available this side of the Divide. I always like to look on the sunny side.”

“Sunnyside? A rather human sentiment for a Cresta, isn’t it? You like to dive into deep water and surround yourselves with murky gloom.” As Taug did not respond, Justine laced her fingers together, propped her elbows on the table, and leaned in. “Tell me your plans so I know what to expect. I’m not particularly confident that we’ll meet a happy reception.”

Taug opened his eyes and let a lazy gaze rove over Justine. “Why are you worried? I politely informed Mitholie that I was bringing home a prize worth uncountable units.” Taug grinned. “Trust me, he’s waiting with bated breath.”

Justine pursed her lips in the direction of the two other Crestas. “So why did he send guards?”

Taug’s gaze rolled across the room. He shrugged. “I’m always watched. It’s part of the Cresta Code. Watch your back and watch everyone else too.”

“You’re not a very trusting race, are you?”

“Should we be? We value science, and we value advancement. We do not suffer fools.”

“So what am I? Besides a prize, I mean.” Justine’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to be experimented on?”

The host appeared with a large tray, which he set to the side. With skillful motions, he set the table with bowls, utensils, and drinks. Using padded mitts, he placed a steaming bowl in the center. “Watch yourselves now, it’s as hot as it looks, but the cook says it’s the best batch he’s made in eons.” With a sharp bow, the youth smiled, his eyes desperate for approval.

Taug accommodated the juvenile with a smile and a nod.

“I’ll check on the main course and be back shortly.” A quick turn sent the young Cresta on his way.

Taug delicately ladled soup into Justine’s bowl and handed it over. “Ah, I wish I were trying Samong for the first time with you. It’s a true delicacy.” He leaned in and whispered. “One of the ingredients is only found on a reclusive mountaintop. Though researchers have tried for years to duplicate it, they can’t get the subtle flavor that makes it so unique.”

Justine took a tentative sip. She shrugged. “It tastes a lot like the tomato soup that Cerulean makes.”

Taug sniffed the wafting aroma and grunted. “Cerulean! Don’t ruin my appetite.” He sipped from his spoon and hummed. “It is a good batch.”

Justine laid her spoon aside and folded her arms. “I have serious questions, none of which you are answering.”

Taug slurped another long draught, his shoulders relaxing. “I told you, Derik will be safe until your return. I offered Governor Right a deal she couldn’t resist.”

Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Such as?”

“She holds on to Derik, unharmed, until your return, and I’ll pass our android findings onto her—to do with as she wishes.”

“You’d do that? Give Newearth and that self-serving liar android—”

Taug lifted a tentacle. “You forget yourself. Remember, you’re serving your own interests as well. We all are.” He took another happy sip. “Besides, it’ll take her eons to decode it.” He leaned back and patted his stomach. “All you need to do is let a few select scientists study you—nothing invasive—and you’ll be free to return to Newearth under a new identity, collect Derik, and go wherever you wish.”

“You won’t need Derik—ever? You’re giving up your crossbreed studies completely?”

Taug grinned. “What do I need with a crossbreed when I have a much better alternative? An android with Cresta DNA will be a far more worthy goal. We’ll become like gods.”

Justine shoved her bowl away. “They will be, anyway…”

“Unless we learn to know ourselves, we run the danger of destroying ourselves.”
~Ja A. Jahannes

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-One

The Human Experience

Bala ran around the outdoor Waukee middle-school track with his skinny arms bent at the elbows, moving like the pistons of an Oldearth engine. His breath floated into the frozen air and wafted away.

Clare leaned against the woven metal fence while the sky darkened. An ache built behind her eyes. Hugging her winter coat around her slender waist did little to diminish the cold that seeped into her shaking bones. She was frozen to the core, and no coat in the world could warm her.

Bala turned aside at the entrance and swung his pounding footsteps in her direction. Panting, he heaved up next to her and bent over in an attempt to regain his exhausted breath. “What’cha doing here? I thought we’d meet at the Nook for something sweet and hot.”

Clare forced a grin. “Always thinking about food, aren’t you?”

Bala puffed smokestacks in her direction and wobbled a skinny arm. “If you were born with this metabolism, you’d be obsessed with keeping body and soul together too, you know.”

Clare threw an arm around his heaving shoulder, not so much to give him strength as to steal a bit of the steam pouring off his body. “Come on, oh-buddy-of-mine. We’ve got work to do. I stashed my larder with enough goodies to last you through another ice age.”

Bala loped along at her side, wiping a wisp of curly hair out of his eyes. “Oh great. Another ice age. You have a dark mind, lady.”

Clare shoved her frozen hands into huge, fluffy pockets, and they strode along the snowy sidewalk in silence. After a bit, she frowned and looked askance at Bala. “What’re you doing out here at the track, anyway?”

Bala shrugged one lopsided shoulder. “Working off a little steam.”

“Ha, ha!” Clare pummeled his left side down another notch. “So, tell me. How are we going to get Derik out of Governor Right’s prison and Justine out of Taug’s morgue?”

Bala glanced up at the first star twinkling in the sky and pointed. “Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish, I wish tonight.”

Clare stopped and joined in. “What’d you wish for?”

Bala hurried down the lonely sidewalk. “Can’t tell. It’d break the… whatchamacallit.”

Eyebrows rising, Clare laughed and bellowed frozen air in front of her face. “You’re superstitious?”

“Not at all. I just don’t want to lose my wish.”

“Seriously?”

Bala sighed and stopped. He tipped his head back and stared wide-eyed into the blue and lavender sky. “I believe in more than the eye can see.”

With easy dismissal, Clare waved him on. “So does everyone, I imagine. After all, we can’t see everything. There’s a lot we haven’t explored and don’t know.”

Bala shook his head. “Naw. That’s not what I mean.” He hurried across a silent street and looked over his shoulder. “I hope you left a light on. My shins are still healing.”

Twinkling windows illuminated the rural neighborhood. Clare huffed forward. “It’s automated, idiot. Like your house should be. First wrong tip-toe around my place and lights and alarms go off.”

Bala wrapped his quickly chilling arms around his lanky body and jogged ahead. “I got kids. Tip-toes are a security nightmare.”

~~~

Once ensconced in Clare’s largest and comfiest chair with a cup of hot cocoa in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other, Bala leaned back and grinned. “You do love me.”

Clare sat cross-legged on the couch with a mug of steaming tea. “What are we going to do? I’ve been formally ordered to stay out of all political messes and concentrate on cases with legitimate humans.”

“The boss knows about Derik?”

“Someone whispered enough in his ear to scare him witless. He told me to drop Derik’s case and forget I ever heard of Mrs. Hoggsworth.”

Bala whistled under his breath. “But we’ll need Justine’s help to free Derik, and she’s a legitimate human, sort of. And after all, an unfriendly alien is holding her by force.”

Clare shook her head. “I doubt she could be held by force… unless she thought she’d save Derik by offering herself up.”

A swarm of kittens clawed their way up the side of Bala’s chair. One nosed the plate of cookies near Bala’s hand.

Bala sipped his cocoa. “Governor Right can’t afford to leave evidence around that might bite her in the back someday.” He chomped a huge bite out of his cookie.

Clare wrapped her fingers around her mug and stared at the rising steam. “And Taug’s probably in hot water with the Crestar leadership. They hate looking like the bad guys. The veneer is everything to them.”

“I disagree. Science is their god. They’d sell their offspring for a crack at new technology. But given the Inter-Alien Alliance agreement, they’re caught between science and diplomacy. The question is: how do we convince Taug that he can have both?”

“We want to do that?”

“Sure, on condition he gives Justine her liberty.”

Clare’s eyebrows scrunched in indignation. “Taug is a lying, murderous cheat who’ll use anyone and everyone to further his own ends. And you want to offer him a way out?”

Bala leaned back and took another glorious sip of cocoa. “I said offer. I didn’t say deliver.”

~~~

All the snow had melted into rivulets of a late winter thaw. The sun shone mildly warmer, though it made no promises. The trees seemed to think that they had outlasted the worst of the season, and their branches thickened, the tips showing the tiniest swellings, hinting at future hopes.

Pedestrians plodded through the melting icy muck while those on autoskimmers raced above the mess, undaunted by nature’s challenges. Bala marched across the street and held the door of the nondescript office building open for Clare, who glanced around nervously.

When they reached the desired floor, Bala stood back and let Clare take the lead, though he covered her with his well-aimed Dustbuster. They entered Taug’s laboratory. Finding it empty, they both sighed.

Clare appeared to be dancing backward as she turned about the immaculate, white-walled room. Bala edged nearer the furthest glass wall, his gaze sweeping right and left in wide arcs. Finally, Clare unclenched her fingers around her own Dustbuster and let out a long breath. “I guess he isn’t here.” She shook her head. “Though from everything I gather, he isn’t anywhere else. I wonder—”

A sudden splash and a quick flash of tentacles swirling through the water forced a squeak from Bala. Clare clamped her hand over his, stopping him from blasting the wall to oblivion and drowning them in Crestonian fluids in the process.

Taug’s eyes peered at them through the murky green swirl.

Clare frowned at his sudden smile. It almost looked like he was glad to see them. He couldn’t be…could he?

Taug flashed out of sight.

Bala and Clare waited, their Dustbusters ready.

In a surprisingly short time, Taug’s bio-suit encased body waddled around the curved wall and into the central laboratory.

Bala was busy inspecting every container and had just lifted the lid on the dissecting tube. He paled and clutched his stomach. Wagging a shaky finger, Bala croaked. “What the—Who the heck do you have in there?”

Taug grinned mischievously. “No one you know.”

Bala raked his throat clear. “How do I know?”

“Hello.”

The familiar voice made Bala swing around.

Clare gasped.

Justine stepped forward, wringing her wet hair in a long towel. “I would’ve killed him if it was human—or any sentient being—for that matter.” She tossed a sinister smile at Taug.

Taug reflected the sentiment and opened his tentacles as if to embrace his long-lost family. “Come, let’s make the most of this opportunity. It’s not often that we gather without the express intention of killing one another.” He gestured to an alcove off to the side populated with padded chairs, a sofa, and a couple of ornate tables.

Bala’s eyebrows rose. “I had no idea that Crestas had a taste for comfortable furnishings.”

Taug lumbered ahead and plopped down with a sigh on a cushy sofa. “After living in water, you don’t think we’d prefer your hard, unrelenting wood and steel? No, there is much you do not understand about us. We are not as barbaric as you think. Your prejudice blinds you to our better qualities.”

Clare huffed. “Honestly, it’s your war crimes that blind me. But let’s not get off-topic.” She folded her arms across her chest.

Bala leaned against one of the empty chairs, his eyes roving over to Justine, who seated herself across from Taug as if they were having an intimate moment together. Bala shook his head. “Okay, Justine, what’s going on? You’ve become best buddies with your lover’s would-be killer?”

Justine combed out strands of her wet hair with her long, slender fingers. “You do rush to rash judgments, don’t you?”

Clare opened her hands beseechingly. “We came to rescue you!”

Justine flicked her hair over her shoulder and glanced at Taug before turning her full gaze on Clare. “Silly of you. I hardly need to be rescued. Thanks, anyway.” Justine rose, towered over Clare a moment, then moved past her and strolled around the small space. “Remember in my apartment, when you apologized for being a judgmental idiot?”

Clare stiffened, only her eyes glowering.

“And you simpered all over my cat?”

As she flushed, Clare lowered her gaze.

Justine stopped in front of Clare and held up her hand to forestall any possible interruption. “I knew then that I had misjudged you.” Justine stepped into Clare’s personal space. “I couldn’t embrace my human DNA, but I couldn’t ignore it either.” She tapped Clare’s shoulder. “When you humbled yourself before me, you brought me the first real joy I’ve ever felt.”

Clare turned away. “Happy to be of service.” Her irony bounced off Justine like water off Taug’s glass wall.

Justine’s eyed followed Clare’s pacing form. “It’s all about choice, you see. My creator never gave me an option. I was caught between worlds. No human could really love an android, and technology has no heart to offer.”

Bala slapped the back of the chair, startling Taug. “That’s not true! Derik loves you. He offered his life to save you.”

Justine shook her head. “Merely sentiment. He loves the idea of me.”

Taug’s eyes ping-ponged back and forth between the speakers.

Bala clapped his hands together in impotent fury. “If sacrificing yourself for another isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.”

“Sharing yourself completely. Something I can never truly do.”

Clare lifted her hands in apparent surrender. “I’m lost. How did I help?”

“You humbled yourself. You even hugged my cat!”

Clare glared at Justine. “Okay, fine. Fairtrade. You come over and hug my cat sometimes, and we’ll be even. You’ll be as humble as me.”

Taug grunted at Clare, a tentacle waving in admonishment. “You’re a stupid woman.” He heaved himself to his feet. “Justine is humble enough.” He glanced at Justine. “She was never a child and can never have children. A vital part of the human experience—lost to her.”

Justine smirked. “But not so vital.” She glared at Clare. “I don’t need to be a child, a mother, or even in love to experience humanity. You humbled yourself for a cat.” She turned on her heel. “I was never so glad to be an android in all my life.”

Bala stood back and gripped his Dustbuster as he glared at Justine. “So you’ve sided with Taug—against us?”

Justine laughed as she pounded to the doorway and turned on the threshold. “I’m not against you. Just not one of you. I don’t need you anymore. Taug’s helped me understand that my uniqueness is my greatest asset. He’s sent a message to his superior; I’ll be returning with him.”

Clare’s eyes widened. “To Crestar? You’re crazy. They’ll dissect you!”

Bala waved his Dustbuster at Taug. “Right after they kill him.”

Taug chuckled. “They won’t kill a hero bringing home their salvation.”

“Emotion without reason lets people walk all over you; reason without emotion is a mask for cruelty.” ~Nalini Singh

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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

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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.

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

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

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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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

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/2OAkDQF

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/hooded-man-mystery-scary-hood-2580085/

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

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

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