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.

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Let’s Keep Talking

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

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

It has taken me years to get that message.

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

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

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

But the message is the same. Just louder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eleven

Disaster Original

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

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

A chair scraped across the floor.

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

Bala stirred, licked his lips, and moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes widened in fresh terror. “Veronica?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

The broken door complained feebly and was shoved aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Ten

Mixing More Than Metaphors

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

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

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

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

“Interesting creatures, aren’t they?”

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

Cerulean offered his arm as he glanced toward the door.

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

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

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

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

“So you aren’t planning on repeating—”

“I have no certain plans at the moment.”

“And Derik?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not being locked in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Cresta named Taug.”

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

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

“You’re not a robot.”

“I am—to Taug.”

“Not to me. You know that.”

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

“Derik thinks I am real.”

“Derik cares about you.”

“Will that make me real?”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

Bala grinned and returned a salute.

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

Bala stood and squared his shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Four hundred.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about Justine?”

“Listen, you only paid for one—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door chime clanged as the door slammed.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A friend.”

“Do I need another friend?”

“No one has too many friends.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerulean’s shoulders slumped.

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

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

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

“Tomorrow.”

“No…today.”

Clare looked from Cerulean to Justine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Bala?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Rest Awhile

Elise loved the universe—and Beyond. It was mutual.

But the facts remained. Her friends and relations contradicted nearly everything she said, and her husband grinned wickedly whenever she used the words, “I’ve been thinking…”

Yet the oaks and maples swayed in exuberant joy whenever she strolled near the tree line bordering their property. Almost as if they spoke through motion, “Welcome, friend. Lay down your burdens. Rest awhile.”

If only—

A small body barreled into her. Jody, her youngest, was master of the yard and could roam from the front lawn to the back barbecue with complete freedom. Still, once she stepped off the porch, he inevitably pelted her direction and threw his arms around her legs as if he had not seen her for—what? How do six-year-olds measure time? Hours? Days? Clearly not years since he believed that she was older than the moon.

“Mom?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Can you play with me?”

Her shoulders sagged. His plea weighed on her shoulders like a boulder carried over a turbulent stream. The clicking-clacking sound of the drier rolled in the background. Must’ve left Clifton’s belt on his pants… She winced at the image of metal scraping metal.

“Deb?”

Her husband stood on the porch.

Deb shaded her eyes from the bright May sun. “Yes, honey?”

“You seen my belt?”

A number of lies jumped to the tip of her tongue. Would evasive half-truths work? “Uh…”

“It’s in the drier!” Jody beamed, proud of the “eagle eye” Daddy assured him he was born with. “Mom threw it in there.”

Caught like a rat in a trap.

“Hon-eeey!” That last drawn-out syllable said it all.

In desperation, Deb glanced at the trees. The maple branches swayed wildly though the wind wasn’t strong. Their offer of friendship stretched across the yard in a valiant attempt to calm her turbulent stomach.

She patted her son’s head. “I can’t play now; we’ve got company coming for dinner. But Uncle Ben is always up for a game of catch.”

Jody’s eyes widened. Uncle Ben—like superman—flew in, amazed anyone under the age of seven, and then flew away like a superhero ready to accomplish his next mission.

The gleeful little boy shouted and frightened a robin from her nest. She fluttered to a higher branch while the boy dodged around his dad intent on serious matters. Perhaps he’d clean his room? Fling his books and toys on the floor looking for a treasure to show his uncle more like.

Clifton plunked down the steps. His irritation over the belt forgotten in light of this newest doom. “Ben? Tonight?”

The branches slowed, subdued by the grim news. Another robin fluttered near and chirped a brave song of defiance.

There was never a good night for Ben, according to Clifton. Opposites on politics, religion, and how to properly open a can of beer, they saw eye-to-eye on absolutely nothing. Except mutual distrust bordering on hate. On that, they might actually agree.

“He asked if he could come by… What could I say? He wants to see Jody.”

Clifton gave her THE LOOK—head down, eyebrows up, eyes searing her brain like laser beams. “It took the man three years to realize that his nephew’s name isn’t Joel.”

The maple limbs drooped. A few baby leaves quivered. The joy of living barely vibrated in the still air.

“He wants to care.” Weariness enveloped Deb. The drier stopped with a long screech like a train arriving at the station. She could retrieve the clothes, return the missing belt, and lift one guilty burden off her shoulders. Jody would play with Ben and—whoosh—another guilt-rock would roll away. For a few minutes.

Her husband snorted.

Her spirits smashed to earth. She stared at the ground. Or was it quicksand?

“Well, if he’s coming, I’m going. I’ve got some work I can do at dad’s.”

Deb nodded. It was the most reasonable solution. “You want me to send some of the fried chicken over? You two could make a—”

“Naw. I’ll get pizza. We’ll be fine. He’ll scream at the politicians on TV and then fall asleep after a couple of bites.” He shrugged. “You know how he is. Never happy. But at least I can fix the bathroom sink in peace and quiet.”

Torn, Deb knew that Clifton would mutter under his breath when he couldn’t find some tool or another, but he’d get the job done. He always did.

The phone buzzed in her pocket. She grabbed it. Lia? Deb tensed, ready for anything between a molehill and an atomic explosion.

Clifton frowned.

She showed him the name and then plastered the phone to her ear. “Hey, Lia!” Her tone sounded much too cheerful.

Three states away, Lia could still moan like a cow mooing directly in your ear. “I’m soooo siiiick! Mom’s taking me to the doctor.” Sniff. Cough-cough. “I just want you to know that if she crashes us or something, it isn’t my fault.”

After living a thirty-year soap opera, Deb knew her lines perfectly. She used the right pitch, oohhed and awed appropriately, and hit the end button as soon as decently possible.

She looked up. The real world still existed. Except, now her husband was stomping away from the fence bordering the Chelsea Estate. Or such was the name etched into an enormous boulder at the base of their neighbor’s fifteen-foot driveway.

“Something wrong?”

“That witch says Jody plays too loud in the morning and wants us to keep him inside till ten so she can get her beauty sleep.”

Deb winced. “Well, he does get rather loud—inside or outside. I’ll have a talk with him and find something quiet he can do till mid-morning.”

“No wonder she’s always running to a therapist after every breakup. No sane human being would put up her with.”

“She’s had a hard life.”

Clifton slapped his hand against his cheek, his eyes alarmingly wide. “Of her own making.”

There was no point in denying the obvious. “I’ll get your belt.” Deb sighed and clasped the porch railing.

Rolling his shoulders, Clifton clearly wanted to start the day over. He stepped in front of her. “It’s okay. I’ll get it.” His face flushed pink. “I spilled some taco sauce on it the other day—it needed a wash.” He patted her arm, a quick massage with his thumb. A smile twitched, his eyes laughing. “I don’t know how you do it.”

A gust of wind sent delicious shivers over her skin, and the rustle of leaves tickled her ears. “What?”

“Put up with us.” Her husband chuckled. “Your brother’s an idiot and my dad’s a tyrant.” He climbed the porch steps. “Your sister’s crazy, the neighbor has a screw loose, and the world’s going to hell.” He stopped in the doorway and grinned back at her. “Yet you never seem to care.”

Deb watched her husband saunter into the house. He whistled a happy tune. All his irritations blown away like dust on the wind.

The tree limbs begged with frantic waves for her to come and visit.

She strolled over. Reaching up, she stroked the smooth bark and soft leaves. The rustling leaves danced in frantic joy.

Her spirit responded in kind.

Lifting her face to the sun, she closed her eyes and abandoned herself. Every sense in her body—and Beyond—filled with peace. “I do care.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Nine

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

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

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

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

“Someone for hire, most likely.”

“And my artwork?”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jane Right?”

“You know her?”

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

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

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

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

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

Bala bowed and swept out the door.

~~~

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

“Nothing new.” Clare padded across the lawn.

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

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

“Which case?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“End of lecture. Go on.”

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

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

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

“Alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Terrific, just terrific! How long ago?”

“Seventy years, give or take….”

“Lord, she’s twice Derik’s age!”

“Three or four times, I’d imagine.”

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

“I’d still be older by a millennium.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that supposed to help?”

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

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

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eight

Just the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

“But couldn’t someone—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s the grand purpose?”

“To create crossbreeds.”

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

“To become invincible. Why else?”

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

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

“Any others?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Naturally.”

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

Taug stiffened. “Would that be necessary?”

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

Taug bowed to the inscrutable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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

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

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