Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty Part II

Max Wheeler stepped off the intergalactic carrier amid a crowd of urbanites and, as an android accustomed to the isolation of a prison transport, he stared in wide-eyed wonder. Turning on his heel a complete three-sixty, he used every scanning device at his command, searching through the crowd.

“Max?” Someone tapped his shoulder.

Max didn’t jump. He stiffened like a rabbit caught in the glare of a hound. “Yes.” He scanned Cerulean’s face and an automated smile broke the line of his tight lips. “Cerulean.”

Cerulean grinned. “I’m glad you made it on time. What, with all the extra traffic—”

Max had not moved a millimeter.

Cerulean nudged him on the elbow and nodded toward the street crossing. “There’s a diner across the way. You want to get something?”

Max tilted his head. “I do not depend on human food. What would I get there?”

The grin was joined by a glimmer in the eye that Max didn’t understand.

“Coffee?”

A passerby jostled Max and scrunched around Cerulean in his hurry. Max accepted the inevitable. “If it would make you happy.”

Upon sliding onto a bench in the Breakfast Nook, Cerulean waved to the hostess. The large, bio-armored Ingot wearing a blue sprigged, calico apron grunted, slapped her datapad against her palm, and charged toward them.

Max watched her approach, scanning her features, clothing, and behavior in order to classify her into a recognizable category. None.

The Ingot’s gaze swept over Max and stopped. “What’d you want?”

Cerulean lifted two fingers. “Two coffees and a couple of sweet rolls.”

Ignoring Cerulean, the hostess offered another appraising glance at Max, huffed her martyred patience, and tromped off.

Max, sitting ramrod straight across from Cerulean, stared unblinking. “It was my understanding that you were Luxonian.”

Cerulean fiddled with the saltcellar. “Still am.”

“As a Luxonian, you do not need human nourishment.”

“Humans could take nutritional pills, but instead they still practice the culinary arts. Why?”

“Is this a test?”

Cerulean sighed.

Max shrugged. “It is a habit they cannot break. Like a drug.”

Cerulean chewed his lip. “Just a small point, Max. Use contractions. You’ll fit in better. It’s more natural. Right now, you sound like you just swallowed an antiquated database.” He leaned forward. “As for food, humans enjoy—”

The hostess slapped two hot coffees on the table and swished a metal plate with sticky buns in the middle. She tilted her head and appraised Max again, slowly. “Got back problems?”

Max glanced at Cerulean.

Cerulean spoke more quickly than he had earlier. “In the war. Never been the same—eh, Max?”

Max stared at Cerulean, unblinking.

The hostess relaxed. “Huh. So was I.” She leaned in conspiratorially, her softened gaze joined by the hint of a smile. “I got a brace that helps when the load is heavy. Want me to show it to you?”

Coffee sprayed across the table as Cerulean choked.

Max tilted his head toward the hostess, meeting her gaze. “How kind of you. But, no. Thank you.”

She recomposed her wide shoulders and tapped her datapad against her thigh. “Well, let me know. The name is Sal. I’m always here.” She lumbered off.

“I didn’t know it was possible.” Cerulean’s voice had grown thick and raspy as he wiped the table. “You’ve woken the passion of…an Ingot.”

Max could feel the satisfied grin slide across his face. “Contractions, eh?”

Cerulean rubbed his forehead with a groan and nudged the coffee and plate of sticky buns toward Max.

As if the bun might explode, Max hesitantly lifted it. He carried it to his mouth and took a tiny bite.

Cerulean sipped his coffee and watched Max, his eyes wide. “Don’t you ever eat diner fare?”

“Of course. Just rarely in public and never covered in—” Max tapped his sugar-coated fingers together. “—goo.” Licking his lips, he took another bite and sipped the coffee. “They go rather well together.”

Eyeing the hostess who kept swiveling her gaze in Max’s direction, Cerulean leaned forward. “Time to get to business.” He laced his fingers together. “You’ve heard of an android named Justine—Justine Santana?”

Max didn’t swallow the bite in his mouth. He simply stopped chewing.

Cerulean shook his head. “That’s not an answer.”

Max gulped the unchewed bit, pushed away from the table, and rose. “Where is she?”

Cerulean waved his hand, his gaze tracking the Ingot’s interested stare. “Sit down. It was a question. I need an answer before I can tell you anything.”

Max leaned across the table and lowered his face within a few centimeters of Cerulean’s. “If you know where she is, tell me now or I’ll—”

The hostess appeared at Max’s back and leaned over his shoulder, peering at Cerulean severely. “Problem here?”

Cerulean knew when he was beaten. He raised his hands and shifted off the bench. “Everything’s fine. Max and I are done— here.” He stepped up to the cashier.

Sal maneuvered aside while glancing at Max. “You’ll be sure to visit us again… soon?”

Max considered the Ingot standing before him, all seven biomechanical feet of her. “I will—I’ll—make every effort.”

Cerulean nudged Max forward. “Oh, don’t worry; he’ll be back. Max loves your sticky buns.” He motioned toward the door. “Come on. We’ve got visits to make.”

Max offered a parting smile to the blushing Ingot and traipsed after the odd Luxonian. “Where?”

Cerulean stepped out into the crisp winter sunshine and rubbed his hands together. “A prison and a morgue.”

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”
~Lao Tse

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/diner-nostalgia-retro-bright-4539948/

With or Without the Pits

Eugene closed the oven door and faced his wife. “I hope I got all the pits out, or the boys will break their teeth on my cherry tarts.”

Samantha didn’t smile.

It was pouring rain and though the weather forecaster hadn’t suggested building an ark, her longed-for vacation at the lake seemed like a fading vision. A swampy muck of floodwaters hardly encouraged suntan-by-the-shore-eat-drink-and-dance-dreams.

With his hands on her shoulders, Eugene tried for a half-caress-half-shake. “I was only kidding. No deep metaphor of the state of the universe.”

Like a rusty robot, Samantha rotated to the French doors off the kitchen. The hanging plants sparkled with raindrops while a pair of red slippers she’d left by her favorite chair appeared as droopy as her spirits. “Summer will end, and I’ll be as exhausted as ever.”

Eugene didn’t know what to say. Cherry tarts seemed inconsequential. Like war humor—it just wouldn’t work as planned. Some things weren’t funny.

Devon, their six-foot-three and two hundred pound son, loomed into the room. His shadow entered first. He stopped, glanced from one parent to the next, and then shuffled his feet—indecision warring with better judgment. “Hey, just to let you know, I got the job. They want me to start next week. So—”

Though his heart soared with pride, Eugene’s stomach plummeted. Not for a minute could he glance at his wife and deal with her emotional mash-up. No, he’d go it alone. He threw his arms wide and embarrassed the hell out of his eldest with the tightest bear hug he’d given since Devon fell out of the treehouse at four and managed to walk away unscathed.

Doing a darn good impression of a startled linebacker with no ball in sight, Devon let himself be hugged. Then he hugged back.

Samantha stayed on the sidelines. Silent. Stoic. It took a full two and a half minutes before her composure crumbled, and she charged into the hug. Her muffled, “I can’t believe you’ll be leaving us…I’m so proud, but I can’t believe…” reverberated against the men’s You-Know-What-I-Mean eye lock.

Eugene pulled back and sniffed, fear reverberating through his body. “The tarts!” A quick U-turn.

Samantha tossed him the oven mitts.

Their youngest son, Kris sauntered in with the grace of a gangling teen that has outgrown every bit of his summer clothing. “Hey! You hear about Devon?” His gaze shifted from his mom to his brother. “I’ll get your room, right. It’s bigger than mine and besides, you can sleep on the couch if you ever come to visit.”

Samantha slapped her little boy’s arm and pooh-pooed the very idea. “Wait till he’s out of the house before any formal take over.” She leaned in and stage-whispered. “I have a whole house re-do that’ll cost a fortune, and I don’t want your dad to suffer cardiac arrest before I get a good contractor set up.”

Eugene waved a succulent, cherry popover before his wife’s face. “No goodies until you behave.”

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled over the celestial landscape.

Not to be held back by the threat of burned fingers or tongue, Kris attacked the hot cookie tray with the gusto of a starved rhinoceros.

Devon lowered his gaze.

Samantha accepted her husband’s offering and held it out to her eldest. “You first, Sweetie. The man of the hour.”

Eugene wrapped his arm around his wife and together they watched their sons partake of his latest culinary delight. He tipped his head, touching hers. “So the lake is out—but a cave tour would be pretty cool. Literally and figuratively.”

Samantha shrugged, her gaze wandering the room and out the door. Soothing drops fell in a steady rhythm while the fields and trees glowed, revitalized. “After we see Devon off…No hurry.”

While Eugene scrubbed the cookie trays, his wife chatted on the phone, spreading good news along the family gossip chain. A send-off party with matching luggage was in the works.

Once he slid the trays into place, Eugene eyed the last popover. He hadn’t even had one yet. He refilled his coffee cup, pulled out a chair, and plunked down for a well-earned respite. He took a bite. Wow! Better than he realized. He chewed and savored, and finally licked the last crumbs from his fingers. Not one pit.

With a sigh of contentment, he returned to the sink, washed his cup, and reset the coffee machine. He poured the spent grounds into the compost container and froze. There was Devon’s napkin with the red insignia of his new company—his mom had forgotten which job he had applied for. There, on the napkin, lay a cherry pit.

The silent accusation stared at him. He hadn’t gotten them all. Devon had never said a word. Eugene glanced at his wife. Did she know?

Samantha caught his gaze and frowned.

What should he do? Pretend it didn’t exist?

Samantha hung up and sauntered over. Wrapping her arm around her husband, she nuzzled his neck. “Say, how about we celebrate our successful launching of son number one into the world tonight?”

Eugene held up the cherry pit pinched in his fingers. “I missed one.” Blinking back ridiculous tears he fought the hammer blows pummeling his heart. “He could’ve broken his tooth and then—”

Samantha nudged her husband aside and practically sat in his lap, her arm still around his neck. “There are always cherry pits, honey. We’ll never get them all. Or stop rainy-day blues. Some things aren’t possible.”

Eugene nodded. She was right. But still, his heart ached. Damn cherry pit.

Footsteps approached, and Samantha practically fell on the floor in her haste to get on her feet. She stroked her husband’s cheek and then patted Devon’s arm as she headed out of the room.

Devon leaned in the kitchen doorway. “Hey, dad, before I go…just wondering…”

Eugene climbed to his feet and met his son’s bashful gaze. “Yeah?”

“Could you give me the recipe for your cherry tarts?”

Eugene smiled. He didn’t have to ask if his son wanted them with or without the pits.

They both knew.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/cherry-berry-spring-summer-garden-2363739/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty Part I

An Inconvenient Truth

Marching across the Luxonian Supreme Council Tower courtyard, Cerulean kept his gaze focused straight ahead and his expression neutral. The fewer hurdles between him and his appointed meeting, the better.

But no…

“Hey, Cerulean! Is that you?” Roux, in his athletic form, which he wore like a favorite fashion, jogged across the colorful, fauna-strewn square. His dark skin, well-set black eyes, and muscular body set him apart from the other guardians who usually chose less outstanding physiologies. Roux skirted a sparkling fountain and grasped Cerulean’s arm in an old-chum- it’s-nice-to-see-you greeting.

Cerulean swallowed and fixed a pleasant expression on his face. Roux was a good friend; at least it felt that way it felt every time they met. But he knew too much about Judge Sterling’s deceptive nature and Roux’s ambition to ever be at ease.

“Hi, Roux. It’s been a while.”

“I’d say. Given up the native shore, eh?”

Tendrils of vines wafted in a gentle breeze, reminding Cerulean of an ocean current. “Not quite. I just hoped to move onto—” With a sigh, he dropped his gaze. “You know.”

Roux nodded. “Sure.” He shifted his stance and shrugged away an unpleasant memory. “So, what’s up? You here to see Sterling?”

Darting a glance at the tower, Cerulean hunched his shoulders. “There’s been some trouble on Newearth—”

Roux snorted. “When isn’t there trouble on that planet? By the Divide, they’re as bad as Bhuacs for getting into black holes.”

“Not always their fault.”

“No, but then again, they ask for it more often than not. Take their new android initiative. You really think humans should be trusted with—”

Cerulean stiffened. “Their what?”

“You know. Surely you’ve heard of it. One of their governors, Bite or Right or something, she announced that they have broken the barrier between human and android—”

“Hell!”

“It will be if she loses control of those things. I was on a transport with one named Max. Creative, eh? Anyway, he was built like a super-transport, had the mental capacity of a Cresta but not a particle of social graces. And not much of a moral code. Units were his guiding force. The more units, the stronger the force.”

Stunned, Cerulean returned his gaze to Roux. “Would you know how to get in touch with him?”

Roux scratched his jaw. “Now, why in the universe would I want to do that?”

“As a favor to me.”

A suffering sigh signaled Roux’s consent. “He works for RunaWreck. They own nearly all the services in and out of Bothmal. It’s a busy place, and Max is an able security officer. Try contacting their supervisor, Kingman. He’ll put you in touch. If you make it worth his while.”

“Any suggestions?”

Roux chuckled. “Pay Kingman a thousand units, and tell Max that you know an android named Justine. She’s a legend that just won’t die. He’s obsessed with her.”

“I know Justine. I was at her trial. She was shut down.”

Roux’s smile died. “Oh, well, even androids can be stuck on stupid.” Roux’s gaze shifted to the fountain. “And about Sterling and me, I never spied for him—it wasn’t what it sounded like.”

Cerulean’s gaze joined Roux’s at the fountain. “Good to hear.”

Roux swallowed a bitter grin. “It’s been good to see you. Don’t be a stranger, or I might be forced to return to Earth, and you remember how that turned out.”

Cerulean raised his hand and patted Roux’s rock-like arm— once, twice. “Newearth now.”

Roux paced away. “Humans are human. Some things never change.” He looked over his shoulder. “And good luck with Sterling. You could do worse.”

Cerulean blew air between his lips. He’d need to do better.

And in a hurry.

~~~

Sterling sat ensconced in a large, overstuffed chair, leaning back, snug, plying a small tool about a ball of fluffy yarn. He crossed a long, luminous fiber around the hooked needle, lifted another thread over the hook, twirled the thread around again, and repeated the process. His eyes squinted in child-like concentration.

Cerulean entered the office silently and observed the surprising dexterity of his superior’s thick human fingers with fascinated abandon. “You’ve taken up—” He had to search for the word. “—crocheting?”

With his head bowed in studious determination, Sterling’s rumbly voice rose to the occasion. “Therapy—to calm my nerves.”

“You don’t have nerves, sir.”

Sterling let the tapestry of riotous colors fall on his lap as he glared at Cerulean. “Now you tell me!” He shook his head. “I have to reside in this human form so often and manage every new Newearth crisis with such resplendent dignity—my nerves are completely shot.” He picked up the needle again.

Cerulean bit his lip against the tumult of incongruities that ricocheted around his mind. In the spirit of “If-you-can’t-beat- them, join-‘em,” Cerulean edged closer. “Could you show me?”

Sterling glanced up. “Your nerves giving you trouble?”

Cerulean stepped back. “No, sir. My nerves are fine.”

Slapping down his temporary insanity and rising to his feet, Sterling gestured with a stiff jaw. “I discovered a new drink. It’s called brandy, and it has a wonderfully surprising effect.” He strode toward a back wall and waved his hand, obviously confident that the wall would know exactly what to do. “Try some. It’s Governor Right’s favorite.”

Scratching his head at his superior’s current level of crazy, Cerulean stayed put. “I’m not very fond of alcohol. Or Governor Right, for that matter.”

Sterling chuckled as he lifted a golden bottle from a rack unveiled by the sliding wall. “She’s a remarkable woman. There’s only one other I’d say could stand in her light, an Ingot named Lang from Universal Reports. Know her?”

“Never had the pleasure.”

“It’s never a pleasure. An experience but never a pleasure.” Sterling swirled his drink and ambled toward Cerulean, gesturing again, this time with a glance. “Sit down. You always stand so erect, like a guard waiting for the next attack.”

“Probably because I am.”

“You’ll wear yourself out. Look at me…and my nerves.” Sterling plopped himself down into his well-padded chair, shoving his crocheting aside. “Remember the day I visited you and that little girl got injured in a car wreck?”

Cerulean’s jaw clenched. “She almost died.”

“But you saved her, didn’t you? And I was furious. Being in human form was so foreign. I hated it.” He took a tender, loving sip. “You know I sent Roux to keep an eye on you.”

“Spy on me.”

Sterling pointed to the open wall. “Really, you should have one. It might mellow your heightened sensitivities. Humans do have some wisdom, after all. Being a nervous wreck isn’t all that helpful.”

“Am I a nervous wreck?”

Sterling sucked in a long breath. “No. And that surprises me. You should be. How was I to know that you wouldn’t break under all that pressure and go native? We’ve lost others under less trying circumstances.”

“By all accounts, I have gone native. I’m always in my human form.”

Sterling nodded. “And by the Divide, I understand. There’s something rather stimulating about the human body. Of course, being able to regenerate at will adds a pleasant security.” He chuckled. “If humans could become Luxonian, we’d be overrun. Experiencing a bit both worlds is rather addictive.”

“Yet most Luxonians forego the pleasure.”

“Most Luxonians don’t like a challenge. Or self-control. You have abundant self-control, Cerulean.”

Cerulean folded his hands together. “You asked me here for a reason.”

“Certainly. And you’ve answered all my questions, for the most part.”

“This was a test? To see if my nerves were shot or if I had turned to drink?”

“To see you. You look good.” He paused and scrutinized Cerulean’s face. “Perhaps a little worn around the eyes, though. You’re not seething over that absurd leak about Roux, are you? Why anyone thought it was helpful to bring that to light now, I can’t imagine.”

“Someone thought they’d make our leadership more honest by showing us how often they lie.”

Wagging a finger, Sterling chuckled. “Uh, oh. Now there’s the first sign of weakness I’ve seen. Bitterness does not become you. But, I’ll put it aside.” Swallowing his last gulp of elixir, Sterling rose unsteadily. “Now, tell me, what can I do for you—Newearth—that is? This part of the universe won’t remain calm for long without our mutual support.”

Cerulean let his eyes roam the room before settling back on his superior. “There is the matter of Taug, the Cresta who’s targeted a crossbreed named Derik. He either wants him as a specimen or dead.”

“Yes, I’ve heard. Governor Right told me that she has the matter in hand. She was shocked to learn of Taug’s duplicity. Mitholie, one of Cresta’s finest, has assured us that Taug will be punished most severely.”

“And Derik?”

“Who?”

“The crossbreed.”

“Oh, sorry. No. Crossbreeding isn’t allowed by the Inter-Alien Alliance, so there are no crossbreeds. A mistake.”

The guard in Cerulean stiffened to formal attention. “Derik is not a mistake. And he’s not the only crossbreed.”

Sterling poured himself another drink. “You know, if I do become an alcoholic, the blame will fall at your feet.”

“About Derik?”

“Damn it, Cerulean! Derik can’t exist. If he does, we are bound by the terms of our treaty to charge the Cresta government and expel the entire race from Newearth. But they’re not about to go anywhere without a fight. And they won’t be fighting alone. Do you really want another intergalactic war on your hands?”

Cerulean strolled to the open wall and lifted a glass from a hidden shelf. He poured himself a healthy serving and tossed it back in one swallow. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he glared at Sterling. “We can’t hide from the truth. Crossbreeds exist. Killing an inconvenient truth isn’t an option; it’s suicide.”

Sterling strolled back to his chair and picked up his crocheting needle. “This wasn’t just for show, you know.”

“Can’t we amend the Inter-Alien Alliance agreement to allow for…certain irregularities? At least we can allow the crossbreeds that do exist to live and demand complete transparency. Cresta scientists will still experiment—evil exists—but at least we can call it what it is and embarrass those who do it with the reality of what they’ve done.”

A bellowing laugh burst from Sterling. “And what exactly would they be embarrassed about? They’ve succeeded in crossbreeding two very different races. Cresta citizens will burst their bio-suits with pride.”

Cerulean shook his head, staring at his empty glass. “Not when they realize that their brilliant scientists just created a race of beings stronger and smarter than themselves.”

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” ~ Isaac Asimov

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/drink-glass-pouring-bar-pub-ice-1870139/

The Wheel or the Ball

“This town is teeming with eligible bachelors. If you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Cindy nodded, though her gaze stayed fixed on the hamster cage. She hadn’t honestly been listening. Of far more universal importance was whether Fred was sleeping…or…Gasp! Quite dead. There was no way on earth that her little girl was going to buy the I-don’t-know-what-happened—he-just-died excuse. Though the truth remained, Cindy really didn’t know what happened. Heck. He was a rodent after all. Rodents don’t live forever. Just seems like it when you’re a parent.

Jan stomped over, bent low, and added her gaze to the scene. “What we are looking at?”

Fred emerged from his wood-shaving encrusted boudoir. His whiskers twitching and his beady black eyes sparkling with a mischievous “Thought I was a goner, did ya?” expression.

Cindy sighed. Extravagantly. The munchkin drama wasn’t quite over. This tamed vermin would haunt her nights running the wobbly wheel of life a little longer. Oh well. He was rather cute for a critter with no tail and an independent personality.

She glanced at her desk. The jury duty summons sat next to her computer, which edged a stack of notebooks arranged for her convenience. She ignored them in order of importance. At the bottom, her house repair list. On top sat a list of dinner options. Grilled tuna and cheese sounded amazingly good right now.

“So, are we going out or what?”

“I’ve done my shopping, and church isn’t till Sunday. I’m not sure what going out would accomplish at this point.”

Eye roll. Jan had mastered it to a scintillating art form. “Just get out of the house, see something different. Maybe meet some new people. You know. Live-a-little.” Jan’s bug-eyed expression conveyed the theory that living involved effort beyond breathing and sustaining life functions.

Cindy begged to differ. “I’m still working on my lesson plans for next week, and the hens have taken up squatting rights in the garage. It’s time I gave them due notice.”

Thigh slap accompanied by yet another eye roll. Jan had it down. “Woman! You are so boring. All you ever do is work.”

Perhaps a change of location would ricochet the conversation into the outer atmosphere. Cindy swiped her muffin recipe book under her arm and charged into the kitchen. It was only two in the afternoon, and Patrick and Kelly loved muffins. Why not make them happy? Why not tilt the whole universe toward muffin-induced-joy?

The fact that the baking tins slammed on the counter like bullets discharged from a WWII blunderbuss did nothing to deter Jan’s train of thought. “We never have any fun!”

Apparently whining didn’t stop when one reached middle age.

Jan plopped down on the kitchen stool and proper her head on her hands. A picture of disconsolate teetering on the edge of depression. “I’m divorced, and you’re a widow. Men are a pain in the…well…you know, but we can’t live without them. Well, we can, but we’d rather not. Still, even though I’ve given up any hope of ever finding a decent guy, it’s still fun to look around and see what’s out there. Just for old time sake.” The fact that her voice had risen three octaves was duly noted.

Cindy sucked in a fresh breath of oxygen.

The ingredients practically assembled themselves. Wheat flour, oats, sugar, eggs, oil, baking soda… Cindy tapped her foot. Oh, yeah, the recipe! She flipped open the tattered book to her last concoction—Queens Muffins, which the kids had devoured last week in unscrupulous haste. On the next page sat a close up picture of molasses-raisin muffins. Oh boy!

A heart-stopping moment. Did she have molasses?

“Are you even listening?”

Yes! Molasses to the rescue, right next to the Karo syrup. Cindy eyed the half-full black bottle with a practiced eye. It would do. A little brown sugar could make up for any deficiencies. She rolled up her sleeves and dove into baking mode.

“News around town is that John and Megan have split. You know anything about that?”

Cindy’s eye twitched. Three friends had politely informed her of the shocking news. How shocking could it be in a world with a divorce rate running faster than the national debt clock? She tossed a prayer to Heaven. God, help John and Megan. Even more importantly—help their kids.

She preheated the oven, sprayed the muffin tins with olive oil, and poured her friend a glass of iced tea. “You sneer at every man you meet, tell your mom that you’re entering a convent at the next summer solstice, and cater to your kids like they own the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jan actually frowned. Umbrage incarnate. “Do you have a point you’re trying to make?”

After a you-know-darn-right-well wave, Cindy scooped up gooey spoon-fulls and filled two muffin tins. “Dear-heart, you have a nasty habit of dipping into poisoned wells, and then you wonder why you feel sick.” She popped the trays into the oven.

Time to clean up.

Violins ready? Jan clasped her hands in pitiful desperation. “I just can’t give up on love.”

Cindy wondered if Elon Musk would allow her on board a spaceship heading—anywhere. “For God’s sake. Give love a chance—by all means. But love is a universe apart from happiness and romance.” She wiped her hands on a dishrag. Vigorously.

“Love is scrubbing the bathtub and getting off the grimy rings, making fried egg sandwiches for kids who seriously believe that they’re starving when they have no clue, filling in paperwork with black ink and writing legibly, doing your civic duty even when it means you can’t bring electronics into the courthouse, stopping at red lights, and not racing around tractors on a hill.”

Cindy tossed a drying towel to her friend.

Jan caught it handily.

Patrick jogged into the room. He jogged everywhere. If he wasn’t jogging he was eating or asleep. “Hey, Mom, I’m starving.” A statement of fact. Nothing more.

A frantic screech. Kelly skedaddled into the kitchen, arms circling, ready for takeoff. “Fred’s gone!”

Starvation would have to wait. Duty called. With an authoritative slouch, Patrick nudged his sister in the arm. “Naw. I just put him in his ball to roll around the house, so he won’t spend the whole night on that rickety wheel.”

Jan snorted. “With so much exercise, that rodent will outlive us all.”

Kelly sniffed. “What’s cooking?”

Cindy took a sip of tea and wondered which Fred liked better—the wheel or the ball.

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/woman-coffee-cup-morning-hands-2289453/

Kingdoms of Our World

Of late, I’ve waged a war on carpenter bees, which seem heck-bent on burrowing holes throughout my porch to the point where I have to sweep sawdust off each morning. My attempts at repairing and staining only appear to alter their trajectory, not their aim. Little do they care how much time, money, and energy I’ve put into keeping this house standing.

So I bought carpenter bee traps. I hung the traps and discovered that apparently these flying critters aren’t just battling me—they are battling each other. And they’re battling wasps and flies. Which would be fantastic—if they weren’t turning my porch into kindling.

So I know that once I get the carpenter bees under control, some other bug will come along and fill their nefarious shoes. How ironic is that?

I turn from their incessant buzzing and focus on other winged critters. I love our birds. We have a larger variety this year than ever before. Indigo bunting made nests here, as have swallows, oriels, robins, redwing blackbirds, sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, and a host of other aves friends.

But guess what? They have their battles too. Eagles and hawks dart into ground nests, stealing eggs and hatchlings, vultures crowd around road-kill snipping and snapping, blackbirds chase sparrows from the bird feeder, hummingbirds flit in aeronautic genius, aiming their spear-like beaks at any competition for the nectar supply. And then there are the bird hunters—cats. My fluffy, plaintively-purring-beg-for-a-belly-scratch, quadrupeds turn into malicious bird-killers when I’m not looking.

To be honest, I can’t even count on the weather. I see black cloud mounting in the west, and I think it looks like rain. My 81-year-old-neighbor wrinkles her nose, looks about, and tells me, “Na, it’ll pass by.” She’s been right every time so far this summer. My kids advise me to forget the weather station and just ask Darlene the daily forecast.

When the human race gets me down, I turn to nature for rest and reprieve. But it’s a mixed bag-reality. Like everything else.

Honeybees pollinate, but boy they can sting if I get in their way. Carpenter bees burrow, but they chase away the hornets and flies. The birds chirp, waking me at an hour earlier than I really want to open my eyes, but their colors, air-dances, and musical abilities fill my soul with awe.

There isn’t any part of this earthly kingdom that doesn’t involve a battle—for the lives of nestlings, food supplies, homes, and even a little peace and quiet. The cicadas will start this summer—they could rival a jet engine when they’ve got a mind to.

If I were a beast, bug, or bird, I suppose I’d alternate between fear and fury most of the time. But lucky me—I get to be human. And I have the option of being humane.

When the worst of the human kingdom seems to out-battle the animal kingdom, I can stop and consider options. I can admire glorious majesty and deflect danger, repair damage, bury the dead, pray for peace, and soak in beauty.

I’ll head out to the garden now. God help me. There’s another whole kingdom just waiting…

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

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/woman-human-sensual-cave-mountain-4261102/

Funny How Life Goes

Who knew that staring at the neighbor’s backyard, watching for signs of life could be considered nosey?

I wondered if the whole concept of “Mind your own business” was carried just a tad bit too far. After all, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of the old man for weeks. He could’ve been dead for all I knew.

Or worse.

He could’ve turned into something… Okay, that image stemmed from last night’s horror flick that my teen son had insisted wasn’t scary. It all depends on if scary meant I freaked out on the couch or simply spent the entire day picturing my eighty-something neighbor as an alien experiment.

“Can I help you?”

Oh, great. The son. He caught me red-handed…actually wide-eyed. I turned from the fence amazed that he had snuck up so close. Gravel roads usually gave people away. And where were my lousy dogs? I gazed around. Sure enough. Napping in the sun…probably didn’t even lift their heads as this veritable stranger strolled up the driveway.

I faced the fifty-something gentleman and smiled brightly, frantically thinking up a good lie. Unfortunately, my mouth tends to leave the station before my brain is finished giving instructions.

“I just wanted to see if Mr. Jacob is still alive.”

A low whistle.

Well, I hit the prize impression with that one. “I mean…I haven’t seen him for a while, and he’s been on my mind.”

“He’s fine.” The man’s eyes stared at me as if an interrogation room was being contemplated. Dang, but he’d have the whole alien experiment thing outta me before I could get properly tied to the chair.

So what now? The guy is standing between me and my back door. I could skirt around him, pretending that I’m just ambling toward my garden to pick— Heck it’s full of seedlings too young to touch and with my daughter’s ruthless war on weeds, there wasn’t even a stupid dandelion to hide behind.

He clasped his hands and continued to stare as if he wanted to talk. Probably not about aliens.

The only decent thing to do was stand there and take it. Yes. I’ve been nosy. I’d imagined gosh-awful possibilities all day until I just had to sneak over and see if poor Mr. Jacob could still walk…or crawl…around his place. And no, I wouldn’t appreciate it if someone else was watching me with an overloaded imagination ignited by horror movie scenes.

Thoroughly ashamed was I.

He cleared his throat. Always a good sign. It meant he’d like to tell me off but was holding himself back.

“Dad’s been off his feed for weeks. My sister is spent taking care of her daughter who broke her leg and has three little ones to corral. I’ve got to go out of town for the weekend, and I was just wondering if you’d keep an eye on him for a couple of days.”

My brain couldn’t back up fast enough. For a moment, I actually believe I lost the power of speech. Which is darn unusual for me. “Uh…well…sure…I’d…be happy…to.”

“Pa thinks he can manage everything himself. But you know, he watched some scary movie last night and thought you were coming to get him for some kind of alien abduction thing.” The guy actually laughed.

At me!

I could’ve wept in relief.

“Oh, how silly!” I grinned good-naturedly. After all, I am a decent human being. From planet Earth no less. Heck, I now imagined baking this man the nicest pie in creation—after I fed his dad a delicious non-alien dinner.

Funny how life goes. When I sopped by over that first evening, Mr. Jacob backed up against the wall, apparently expecting my pie cutter to slice through more than crust, but when I unveiled the cherry pie, all was well.

Now I go to the fence nearly every day and stare until Mr. Jacob or his son comes out to chat. Occasionally I call ahead. But usually, they seem to just feel my presence. We meet up and talk. I might bring a pie. The son might bring a couple of beers. Mr. Jacob brings his smile.

And so far…no aliens.

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

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eleven

Disaster Original

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

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

A chair scraped across the floor.

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

Bala stirred, licked his lips, and moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes widened in fresh terror. “Veronica?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

The broken door complained feebly and was shoved aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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 Ficthateion Blend

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

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

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Ten

Mixing More Than Metaphors

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

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

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

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

“Interesting creatures, aren’t they?”

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

Cerulean offered his arm as he glanced toward the door.

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

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

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

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

“So you aren’t planning on repeating—”

“I have no certain plans at the moment.”

“And Derik?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not being locked in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Cresta named Taug.”

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

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

“You’re not a robot.”

“I am—to Taug.”

“Not to me. You know that.”

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

“Derik thinks I am real.”

“Derik cares about you.”

“Will that make me real?”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

Bala grinned and returned a salute.

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

Bala stood and squared his shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Four hundred.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about Justine?”

“Listen, you only paid for one—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door chime clanged as the door slammed.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A friend.”

“Do I need another friend?”

“No one has too many friends.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerulean’s shoulders slumped.

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

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

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

“Tomorrow.”

“No…today.”

Clare looked from Cerulean to Justine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Bala?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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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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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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

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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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