No Doubt At All
Teal stared at a cluster of luminescent red blossoms in a field of yellow stalks and shook his head. Why? Who planted them didn’t bother him so much as why they planted them. He lifted his gaze and considered the expanse before him. A whole field of Calif, enough to feed the entire Luxonian capital, stretched out before him. Then, in one corner of the field, a bunch of unrelated red flowers—as unexpected as a fully armored Ingot in a Crestonian pool.
He bit his lip and started down the path that led back to the bustling city and Sterling’s high-rise. Loneliness enveloped him. In such a busy world, no one would even notice such an oddity. And if they did…no one would care to wonder why.
With his head bowed, he trudged along and hoped the suffocating ache in his heart would lighten and allow him a little breathing room.
Teal’s gaze flickered to the purple vine on the windowsill as he entered Sterling’s office. He froze. The effervescent fronds had grown to a mammoth size and fluttered in a gentle breeze. When he bypassed Sterling standing at his white oval desk and strode to the window, the plant seemed to wiggle its stalks in welcome. A tiny spark of joy kindled deep within him.
Sterling stopped at his side, nearly touching his elbow. “Oh look. She’s happy to see you. Waving like an old friend.”
Teal glanced aside at Sterling. Irritated or pleased? Irritated. Teal patted the fronds, shouldered his duty, and faced his superior. “You asked to see me, sir.”
“I had to. It’s been over three cycles, and you’ve hardly spoken to me.”
“There didn’t seem to be anything to discuss, sir.”
“Stop with the sir. I’m rising but not so high that you can’t talk to me without using a formal address to punctuate every sentence.”
“Yes, s—” Teal swallowed and peered at the frond. He could swear that it humped in indignation. “So, is there anything to discuss?”
“You need to go back to work.”
A lightning bolt of hope shot through Teal. “I can return to Earth?”
Sterling waved his hands as if terrified by hasty assumptions. “Now, don’t zip off just yet. I told you that this whole Crestonian cold war was a mere bluff, but even bluffs can have disastrous consequences if not treated respectfully. In order to settle matters to our satisfaction, we need a few friends on our side first.”
“As in a certain Uanyi representative who just happens to enjoy OldEarth delicacies—delicious broiled vegetables with cracked wheat bread and virgin olive oil.” Sterling licked his lips, emphasizing his point.
An involuntary cringe curled inside Teal. “Uanyi are insectine, correct?”
Sterling waved a hand over his desk console and a holographic image of a large-chested, small-waisted Uanyi male dressed in a white one-piece bodysuit rotated on the surface before them. “They have rubbery exoskeletons and internal bones.” He leaned in, enlarged the face, and glanced at Teal. “How do you like those eye bulbs? Bigger than Cresta orbs aren’t they?”
“I can see why certain races use them in precautionary tales to scare their young into good behavior.” Teal envisioned a particularly gruesome large-eyed arachnid that tormented his dreams as a child. He shivered.
Sterling chuckled. “Those mandibles aren’t for eating people, my friend. They’re nearly all vegetarians, though some have adapted to a more varied diet. I’ve heard they’ve taken a liking to boiled sea urchins.”
Teal winced. “And the breathing mask?”
“After so many civil wars, they’ve nearly decimated their homeworld, certainly the air. So breathing masks are a part of everyday wear at home or off-planet.”
Teal flicked a glance at his superior. “So why are you show—?”
“Because I need you to go to Sectine and make friends with the Ultra High Command.”
“Why would they listen to me? I’m hardly an expert on their culture, and I have no associations with any of their kind.” Teal shrugged. “I don’t even know one word of their language.”
“Ah! Don’t worry about that. Despite their appearances, Uanyi are exceptionally bright and have a gift for communication. They’re highly proficient in every known language this side of the Divide.”
“Speaking of the—”
“We weren’t—so drop it. Focus, would you?”
Teal worked his way around the desk and returned to the window. He stared at the glorious Luxonian sunset. “I still don’t see how I’m going to convince them to work with us.”
“You probably won’t, but I’m sending Ark with you. He can be very persuasive.”
Rounding on Sterling, Teal stomped back to the desk, his mood rumbling like an active volcano. “He’s still on Lux?”
“You think he wants to return to Crestar for execution?” Sterling held Teal in a steely gaze.
Teal broke away first. “Fine. Ark and I’ll go to Sectine and try to negotiate an agreement. You have any idea of the conditions for this supposed treaty?”
Sterling tapped the console and drew up a holographic document image written in five languages. “Certainly. Zuri has it all written down and translated perfectly.”
“Only fitting, since you three were best buddies on Earth. Besides, he can represent Ingilum interests, and Ark can work in possible arrangements for Crestar that might allow him—one day—to live among his own kind again.”
“The Bhuaci spy?”
“She wasn’t a spy…for long.”
Sterling chuckled and ambled away. “We’ll see about her…but in the meantime, let me tell you a little story.”
Teal squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his hands.
Sterling stepped to a desk drawer, opened it, and made a snipping sound.
Teal opened his eyes.
Waving a scissors, Sterling chuckled. “A few days ago, I went to the open-air Bhuaci music festival. I thought a little amusement after all that brouhaha with Crestar would do my circulatory system good.” He ambled to a large wall cabinet, flung open a large door, and started shuffling about, pulling red and green objects aside and shoving something decidedly pink to the back.
“I missed the first song, but the second…do you know what the gloriously handsome Bhuaci lead sang?”
Teal sighed and continued to watch Sterling’s haphazard trail through the cabinet.
“Well, it started…‘I woke up and my head was a mess, so I combed my hair. Then I felt my insides rumble, so I drank some Shang Slew.’” Sterling frowned like a seriously disturbed beverage authority. “Do you have any idea what Shag Slew will do to a person early in the morning?”
Teal swallowed back bile.
“I doubt he’d live to see the afternoon. Not sober and alert anyway. That stuff will muddle the mind no matter how carefully you try—” Sterling waved the thought away. “And then another singer started in. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”
Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can only pray that there’s a point—somewhere.”
“Ah-ha!” Sterling lifted a white pot from the cabinet and cradled it in his arms like a newborn. He grinned. “There’s always a point to my stories.” He strolled to the window. “Despite the absurdities, I couldn’t stop myself. I tapped my toes and swayed to the rhythm. I was taken in. Completely. I adored those singers.”
“But you hated the lyrics?”
“Every nonsensical word.”
Halting before the window, Sterling drew a small table close and placed the pot in the center. With precise movements, he cut a slender rectangle of dirt from the windowsill pot.
The purple plant practically stood up as its more- developed tendrils swung like enraged trees in a hurricane.
Alarm ripped through Teal’s body.
Sterling dug out tiny clusters of roots and gently nestled them in the bowl. He smiled like a loving father. “Sweet thing. But you’ve got to let your little ones go, so they can grow big like you.”
With a choking gasp, Teal peered at Sterling’s handiwork. “What are you doing?”
Sterling pressed the white pot into Teal’s hands. “It’s a parting gift.” He led Teal to the door. “Humanity will be fine while you go to Sectine and find a way to protect Earth from a universe they’re not ready for.”
“And the Bhuaci singers?”
“Oh, that. Yes.” Sterling swayed his hips and hummed. “Just remember, your words won’t convince an audience as much as your passion.”
Teal strode along the Sectine walkway with Ark on his left and Zuri on his right.
A brilliant orange sun hung in the pale green sky, without a cloud in sight. Huge reddish anthill-like buildings rose from the sand-colored environment.
Uanyi bustled from one establishment to another over well-trod roads, scampering on their long legs or using scooters that hovered just over the hard-packed surface.
Zuri wiped beaded sweat from his reddened face. “It’s dry, but the heat’s enough to kill me.”
Teal considered Zuri’s beautiful shoulder-length locks of blond hair, his ocean-blue eyes, and the mechanical outerwear ending in sandaled feet. “You’re still going forward with the return-to-nature scheme?”
Ark gurgled. “Kelesta convinced him to hold on to what technological advantages he has.” Ark peered around Zuri as he padded forward, his eyebrows wiggling, and his words laden with heavy emphasis. “Her entire family has a thing for mechanical exoskeletons.”
Teal snorted. “That’s so counterintuitive, I don’t even know where to start.”
Zuri shrugged. “She’s a good woman, working from home to convince the Regent of Song that Lux has a more sensible plan than Crestar. After all, quarantine only lasts as long as everyone obeys the rules. But without the mystery race in the game…there’s no telling.”
Teal sidestepped a mother Uanyi pushing an infant in a stroller. He glanced at the baby, frowned, and blinked back to Zuri. “So you and Kelesta are still together?”
Ark rolled his eyes. “Like stanzas of Bhuaci poetry.”
Zuri shoved Ark off the path and glanced at Teal. “You and Sienna?”
Teal picked up his pace. “Don’t ask.”
Zuri pulled a tottering Ark back onto the path and held his gaze.
Teal glanced from one to the other. “What?”
Zuri ducked his head and nudged Ark.
Wrapping his tentacles behind his back like a well- behaved pod, Ark shrugged. “Nothing. Especially. We’re just glad to be with you on this mission.”
Teal stopped and glared from the Cresta to the Ingot. “What?”
“Well, we happened to get a little, tiny—” Zuri pinched two slender fingers within millimeters of each other— “preview of the Uanyi representative we’re meeting today.”
“How’d you manage that? Sterling wouldn’t give me anything but her name. Jasmine. Of all the ridiculous—”
Ark slipped his tentacle around Teal’s arm. “You never know what’ll happen when you open negotiations. Things can get interesting. Very interesting, indeed.”
Exhaling a long, drawn-out sigh, Teal fell in step with his two friends. “With you two along, I’ve no doubt. No doubt at all.”
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~Anais Nin
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