Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Four

Good Fortune

Clare shielded the sunlight from her somber brown eyes as she stared in fixed fascination. A Bald Eagle soared into the azure sky with a snake dangling from its beak. Shivers ran through her slim figure. Lord, how awful! And I don’t even like snakes…yet he’s glorious, can’t deny that. The twin sensations of revulsion and admiration warred within until she heard a screech in the distance, forcing her gaze from the sky

Dawn had just broken, and a vast array of beings had already flooded Vandi, ready to face another late summer day. The contrast between the conflicting races, working and living together, each jostling for their place of primacy, filled her with a fresh sense of purpose. She was one of the lucky ones. At least she had a career, something she loved and could devote her life to…not like some of these alien slugs who were merely fulfilling a politician’s promise, a diplomat’s dream, or worse yet, a bureaucrat’s nightmare.

She studied the screeching being. The human wasn’t hurt. The Cresta’s autoskimmer hadn’t even touched him, but you’d think his leg had been taken off by the way he reacted. Such a lot of screaming. A crowd was gathering.

“Creepy Cresta! What’da’ya think you’re doing? Swimming across the street? You can’t fishtail like that and expect—”

With no obvious expectations in mind except to stop the human’s tongue, the Cresta moved in for a grab.

Using mosquito-like quickness, the human offered a stinging slap to the Cresta’s hindquarters and dodged away, whining.

That did it. The Cresta’s usually controlled demeanor devolved into a snorting catastrophe.

The crowd laughed.

Clare strode away from the gathering crowd as the whirling blades of the Interventionists copter approached.

A woman’s voice rang shrill above the noise. “Flip him on his back, boys, then they can haul him off easier!”

Score one for the home team! Clare grinned and shook her head at the irony of it all. She hated mindless blood sports, but she couldn’t help cheering every time a human got the better of an alien.

She sailed across the street, scrolling through her datapad.

Her smile faded. Mrs. Lane Hoggsworth had been found dead in her home late last night, Day 73, Year 53 Newearth reckoning. Clare’s brows furrowed in irritation. If the woman had been more important, Human Services would have pulled in a high-profile investigator, but as it stood, she was only important to her family, and they didn’t have much money or influence. After all, the deplorably dark saying, “It’s only a human,” held sway in a world where humans were the minority and considered, by some, to rate only slightly above their wildlife counterparts—like snakes and eagles.

She checked the time and her scowl deepened. If Bala showed up late for his first big assignment, there’d be trouble. She wasn’t going to blow this case, not for him and his silly-fool addiction to hearth and home. Not that she minded his family-ties mindset. Everyone had a right to an obsession. She planned to build a safe house in the wilderness someday. She had even saved up for flying lessons. But with each new case, she realized there was no escaping Newearth reality. Not even on an island.

Clare rounded the corner and ducked into The Breakfast Nook, nearly colliding with Bala’s skinny frame. “You’re late!”

“Am not!” Bala held up his datapad and smirked. “Thirty seconds to go.” He tapped his finger on his wrist screen, his copper-colored face breaking into a wide smile. “Good thing I have a timer, or I might’ve been. You should have seen Kendra jump when the alarm went off. I set it so loud the whole street could hear it.”

Clare shook her head and waved him through the door. “It amazes me that you manage to keep your head attached. Some folks don’t take kindly to loud noises. How about if—”

A seven-foot Ingot hostess with thick bio-armor and leathery skin ushered them to a booth in the back. “—A Bhuac took offense? You know how irritable they get with high-pitched sounds. One could have slipped over and picked off half of your family.”

Bala grimaced. “You’re always exaggerating! It so happens that we do have a shape-shifter down the way, but we’ve been on very good terms ever since I saved one of their pod-thingys from submersion. How it got in the gutter—don’t even ask— but I was in the right place at the right time and, you know, as secretive as they can be, they really do have a deep capacity for gratitude.”

“Oh, please!” Clare looked up at the impatient hostess. “Coffee, strong as you can make it while still keeping it liquid, a honey-grain bar, large energizer salad, and fruit of the day.”

The hostess turned her full black-eyed glare upon Bala who was perusing the menu as if he hadn’t memorized it long ago. “Coffee, cream, toast and…some bacon and eggs.”

The hostess lunged. She gripped Bala’s heavy plaid shirt and hauled his whole body into the air, leaving Clare stunned into gasping silence.

With arms flailing helplessly, Bala had just enough air to beg. “Just a joke! Really. Kidding. I didn’t mean anything… seriously. Let me down. Please?”

The hostess dropped him and shook her datapad in his face. Her techno-organic armor glistened a reddish-purple as her breathing helm hissed. “You want to order, then order. No sick jokes. Eggs and bacon! What next? You think it’s funny to talk like that, but there are some who wouldn’t mind eating you!”

Bala rubbed his neck and sniffed in a long cleansing breath. “You’re right, it was stupid of me. Really… quite insensitive. I’d just been reading some Oldearth novels, you know. Fiction? Stories? Anyway, they made everything sound so delicious— Sorry! I didn’t mean that. I just—”

Clare’s glare could have melted a polar cap. “Would you order before you get us both killed?”

“Coffee, chocolate pudding, and a raisin-nut bar, extra-large.”

The hostess pounded away, huffing.

“You are such an idiot sometimes, you know that? What was I thinking when I hired you?”

Bala’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Oh, you were thanking God above that I’m going to save you from the hideous fate of trying to solve all of humanity’s problems single-handedly. It is funny how we don’t recognize our good fortune when it’s staring right at us.” Bala’s grin practically engulfed his face.

Slapping her hand on the table, Clare leaned in and hissed, “Good fortune? It was pity, pure and simple. I couldn’t let that lovely wife of yours and your brood of—how many is it now— six? Six helpless humanoids suffer from the sad fate of having you as the head of provisions.”

Bala turned his less-than-symmetrical face aside to display his profile. “At least I’m as handsome as a Greek god, you’ve gotta give me that.”

The hostess returned and slammed down two mugs of steaming coffee, slopping a little on Bala’s hand.

Bala slipped his hand into his lap with a stifled “Ooo-ahh,” looking every which way but at the hostess.

Clare nodded her appreciation and waited till the hostess stomped off.

“As I was saying, we have a job to do. Mrs. Hoggsworth didn’t blow a hole through herself. Her husband is nearly suicidal and her son wants revenge. Neither of them has much money, but the son has connections to the Michigan territories. I’ve got my eye on a little spot over there. If we can work out a deal, I might be able to find a place for my island getaway, and you might get a little stretch in the woodlands on the northern coast. It’d be away from the usual madness, and you could raise your clan in relative safety.” Clare clapped her hand on her forehead. “So long as you don’t go around ordering bacon and eggs.”

Bala leaned in, returning her earlier hiss. “Listen, there are those of us who believe that meat and eggs are not off the menu. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of animal flesh, so long as it isn’t from one of the sentient beings.”

“Tell that to one of the Race Relation Councilors, and you’ll find yourself in treatment, boy-o.”

The hostess slipped two metal plates with their breakfast assortment in front of them and twitched as another customer snapped for her attention.

Bala and Clare stared at the plates, switched them, and began to eat.

Bala talked around chews. “So where do we begin?”

“At the house. The Hoggsworths live on Memory Lane near the shore, right across from the University. I went by there earlier to make some initial inquiries. As I said, Mr. Hoggsworth is near despair while his son, Tim, is ready to kill someone. I promised we’d be back, so I want to swing by first and talk to the neighbors, review the facts, and see I missed any other biosamples.” Dusting away the crumbs from her grain bar, Clare tucked into her salad.

“And me?”

“Oh, this is good!” Clare took a long sip of her coffee. “You’re going to take the samples back to the lab, run them, and do a background check on everyone near the scene. Ordinary stuff. I’m convinced the history professor, Baltimore, is guilty. He got into an exchange with Mrs. Hoggsworth over a history paper he assigned Junior. I guess he’s into revisionist history, rewriting the past age, and making things look nice for the present.”

Clare’s gaze scrolled down her datapad. “Mrs. Hoggsworth apparently took exception. Not surprising, though she was a fool to make it so obvious. Everyone knows that the professors are protected.” She glanced at Bala. “I doubt Old Baltimore killed her himself. He’s human with a bad back and skinny arms. Hardly the type to face an enraged mother one-on-one. ” She wiped her lips and pushed her plate aside. “My guess is, he hired a thug, probably one of those—”

The hostess slammed down a metallic fist and stared at Clare. “You paying?”

Clare’s eyebrows rose. “I always do.”

“The cashier’s broken. You’ll have to pay me directly.”

Clare tilted her head sideways and scanned the room. It was nearly empty. Stupid! You’re supposed to be better trained than this! Kicking Bala under the table, she placed both hands on the table edge and the two of them flung the light structure into the hostess’ chest.

Jumping to her feet, Clare called for the owner. “Hey, Riko! Your help wants me to pay her directly. That okay with you?”

Riko, a slim Uanyi marched forward. His soft, rubbery exoskeleton gleamed through a crisp, white shirt. His enormous eyes bulged as his crab-like mandibles twitched under his breathing mask. “I told you last time, it’d be the salvage yard if you tried it again!”

Clare dashed to the cashier in attendance, a pretty, human-looking Bhuac. In a matter of seconds, Clare paid her bill and tugged at Bala’s sleeve. “You don’t want to see this. Really.”

Bala stared, fascinated. “You think he’ll really—?”

“That’s not our concern. We’re humans, remember?”

“Yeah, but where I grew up, we all got along. We helped out when—”

“You were living off-planet in some airy-fairy religious fantasyland. This is Newearth, boy-o, this is the real world, and here, you don’t get involved with other species. Let’s go.”

Bala turned as a loud hiss issued from the backroom, where Riko had ushered the hostess moments before.

Clare stepped on the threshold when a hand stopped her.

“Excuse me. But are you Detective Smith?”

Clare appraised the thirty-something man in front of her. He was tall, with dark curly hair, chocolate brown eyes, a jutting chin, a massive chest, and large hands. He certainly wouldn’t be up for any “ideal specimen” awards, but then again, you never knew. There was that hideous guy from Old-Chicago. Women fell for him right and left. Funny that. Not that I’m looking— Clare shook herself.

“What can I do for you?”

“Can we talk somewhere…privately?”

Clare checked her datapad and flashed a glance at Bala. “We have an appointment in a few minutes, but if you want, I can meet you later.”

“Where?”

“How about the Coliseum? The government types will be leaving about dusk.”

“That’ll work. Could I buy you dinner?”

“I never eat with prospective clients. But I’ll take some coffee—decaf or I’ll never sleep.”

“Fine.”

Clare turned away but then stopped herself. “Is it a murder case?”

“No, a missing person.”

“Okay. You got a name? Maybe I can look something up when I have a free moment.”

“You can’t. He’s not missing. Yet.”

~~~

As Derik stood in front of the Oldearth-styled restaurant known as the Coliseum, the city slowed to an evening pace. Derik ran his fingers up and down his arms. The bulges were definitely larger. He wiped sweat from his brow and wondered again about the sea scent that followed him everywhere.

The rosy sunset settled behind the silhouetted trees in the park, sweeping his anxieties aside. He marveled at the simple beauty that arrived with glorious regularity each day. If only—

“Hi! Have you been waiting long?”

Derik nearly jumped out of his skin, though he realized with a tinge of fear that his skin no longer felt like his own. “Uh, no. I’ve— I’ve just been admiring—the sunset.” He waited for the smirk…the bewildered stare.

Clare turned and joined him, facing west. A sudden breeze caught her hair, sending wisps cascading against her pink cheeks.

Derik marveled. How could such stern, uncompromising lips be transformed into such soft, inviting— “Uh? What?”

Clare frowned. “I said, I wonder why God keeps painting such beautiful pictures for such an unappreciative audience.”

Derik swallowed. Had she read his mind? “I was just thinking the same thing. Amazing.”

“Not really. After all, it’s true.” Her gaze rolled over him, apparently making a professional appraisal.

Derik cringed at what those eyes would tell her brain. Yeah, he was a big guy, “relative to an elephant” his foster mother used to say. He felt more related to a mouse.

“Well, for starters, I’d like a name. I can’t just say, hey you, all the time.”

“Yes, of course. My name is Derik, Derik Erland. I’m from the Wisconsin Territories. You ever been there?”

“Yeah, I did some training there. I love the coastal area. So, you want some coffee?”

Derik nodded and led the way up a long flight of stone steps toward the Coliseum’s grand structure with its nine-foot metal doors. Without breaking a sweat, he pulled the door open and stepped aside with a curt bow.

After a moment’s hesitation, Clare strode into the foyer.

A host in his mid-twenties, clean-shaven and with dark hair and darker eyes, wearing a toga-style outfit, ushered up to them. “At your service.”

Clare waved a lazy index finger. “Just coffee, and maybe some of those nut muffins.”

The host bowed and gestured toward a side room. Low tables with enormous pillows were arranged sporadically around the perimeter, while round, dark wood tables polished to a high gloss stood in each corner. A low balcony overlooked a huge sports arena where teams vied for a bloody first-place, day and night.

Derik dashed ahead and nearly knocked Clare down in his effort to pull a chair out for her.

Clare’s eyebrows rose.

Derik heaved a sigh and offered a weak grin. “Sorry. Don’t know my own strength. Still a growing boy, Mom used to say.”

“You? You don’t look like any boys I know. How old are you?”

Derik cleared his throat, pulling on his shirt collar. “Thirty-five.”

Clare sat, her wide-eyed stare appraising his stature. “Your parents had—what? Germanic DNA?”

“Can’t say. I was adopted.”

Clare’s gaze flickered to the sports scene. A hockey game in full swing swirled around the ice, while a five-person fight broke out in the corner. After closing her eyes for a moment, she refastened them on Derik. “Used to?” Clare grimaced. “You said your mom used to say….”

“She’s been gone ten years now. She passed away six months after dad.”

Clare’s eyes softened. “Ouch.”

Derik shrugged away old losses and nodded with a quick smile to a small group of middle-aged men who strolled to a table on their left.

Clare leaned back, apparently relaxed. “You know this place pretty well.”

“My dad used to bring me here when we were traveling. I love Oldearth history, and he thought…well, let’s just say, he always hoped that I’d be inspired by the warrior spirit.”

With a twisted smile, Clare sniffed. “With that body, you don’t need to prove anything.”

A puck slammed into a net, followed by a shout, and ten players pummeled the goalie.

Derik grinned at the players’ antics. “If I were just up against humans, that’d be true. But around here—”

The slump-shouldered host set the platter before them. Clare took a sip, darting a glance at the game as a player was dragged off the floor, a trail of blood streaming behind. She pushed the muffin plate away. “So, you want to tell me about the missing person…who isn’t missing…yet?”

Derik picked a muffin to shreds. With an intake of breath, he steadied himself. “It’s me. I’m the missing person.”

Clare chewed her lip, brushed imaginary crumbs from her fingers daintily, and sighed. “Look, if this is some kind of joke or a really weird pick-up routine, I’m going to be seriously disappointed.”

“I’m not joking and, though you are definitely—well, it’s not that.” Derik wrung his hands in a furious twist. “I need to know who I am. I’m not who I thought I was. Or who my parents said I was. Heck, at the moment…I’m not even sure I’m human!”

As the game ended and the players lined up to shake hands, Clare shook her head. “Oookay, I’ll go along for the ride. But I need more. I feel like I just picked up in the middle—”

“James and Monica Erland adopted me as a baby. The official report said that I was a human abandoned at birth at the Wisconsin Center for Human Services. My parents raised me, even homeschooled me so that I wouldn’t have to deal with all the Exos and their prejudices. My dad studied Oldearth history—a great man.”

“Sounds good. But that hardly explains—”

“I was getting to that. My parents noticed that I grew larger and faster than most kids. They figured I came from some Nordic or Germanic strain. They did a test, but when the results came back, they only joked that my DNA broke their machine. I worried that there was more to it—I was always different.” He rubbed his arms. “A few months ago, I noticed a change—a significant change. I’m long past adolescence, but I feel like I’m just now coming into my own. I feel powerful. And my skin—”

A cleanup crew began mopping up the blood as another team assembled on the stadium floor. This time club-wielding Uanyi players lined up against humans armed with Tasers.

Clare’s wide eyes swiveled from the stadium to Derik. She frowned. “Your skin…?”

Derik pushed up his sleeve and revealed a thick arm coated in what appeared to be a rubbery shell.

Clare reached out a tentative finger and tapped it. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. You see?” Derik leaned in and whispered, huskily. “I’m not human…or at least not pure. I might be a mixed—”

Up flew Clare’s hand. “Sheesh! Keep your voice down. Don’t even say that!” Blowing air between her lips, she ignored the metallic clang announcing the start of the next game. “I see your problem. I’m just not sure how I can help. You’re not really missing. You’re clearly not dead. Perhaps you should see a doctor. This might just be some kind of odd skin condition.”

Derik shook his head like an obstinate ox. “I can’t show this to a doctor! They’d be bound to report it to the authorities.” He leaned back and slouched. “How about if I am…mixed? I’m not supposed to exist.”

Clare frowned, rubbing her eyes. Screams echoed from the side as cheerleaders from opposing teams tried to outshout each other. “I’m just not sure what to do.”

“You’re an investigator. So—investigate. I have a little money. I’ll pay you myself, and once I know the truth…”

Clare sighed heavily and clasped her hands together. “Listen. No one else knows about your little problem, right? Why not just ignore this? Keep your irregularities a secret and pretend you’re human. You’ve made it this far thinking that.”

“I can’t ignore this!” Derik hissed. “How about if I’m an Ingot or a Uanyi? Do you think I’ll be able to keep that a secret? Or worse, how about if I’m a Cresta or some off-world creature I don’t even know about?” Closing his eyes a moment, Derik clenched his hands so tightly they shook. “I’ve always wondered if—”

“Don’t! Don’t go there! By the Divide, you want to get experimented on, killed…and then experimented on some more? I’ll tell you right now; nice beings don’t do that kinda stuff. Finding out who’s behind this could be very risky.”

Derik threw up his hands in surrender. “You’re right. I should never have asked you. This is too dangerous, and I’ve no right to involve anyone else.” Derik looked away, blinking back despair. “I’m just glad my parents are gone.”

Clare rolled her eyes. “Oh, please! I feel guilty enough. Common sense tells me to run out that door.” She waged a finger at the nearest exit to make her point abundantly clear. “Still, I’ve never been one to shirk a challenge.” Clenching her jaw against a deep okay-I-give-in sigh, she straightened and pulled out her datapad. “But listen, if I don’t discover anything helpful within a month, I’m dropping your case. I might know someone else who could take it, but he’s…well, he’s kind of—” Clare reached across the table and patted Derik’s hand. “I’ll do what I can—promise.”

As Derik returned her smile, a Uanyi player clubbed a human across the back. Another human rushed in and started Tasering the Uanyi long past the three-second limit. Whistles blasted from all sides as referees struggled to separate the furious players.

Derik and Clare stared, dumbfounded.

The host returned, his depression replaced by rage. He glared at Derik’s arm and pursed his lips.

Derik straightened his sleeve and huffed back. “My account, please.”

“…despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” ~J. R. R. Tolkien

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Three

The Mingling Throng

Cerulean stared up at the lofty two-storied cabin with large gabled windows and wide surrounding porch and grinned. It was everything he had dreamed of and more. Turning his head, his gaze swept over the lofty panorama, skimming across the waters of the great lake. Huge, white geese flew high above the bubbling crests that rolled up on the shore on this fine, summer evening.

He was exhausted, but he was getting used to that sensation. Ever since he won his last great tussle with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, he had promised himself a retreat and a rest to build up his depleted reserves. He had been fighting Luxonians, humans—and pretty much everyone else—for far too long.

Even as his shoulders relaxed, shuffled footsteps forced him to turn his gaze from the blue-green water, across the pine-strewn forests, and back to the front of his cabin. There, on the dirt trail, a small assembly of men and women came to a huddled stop. His whole body stiffened and he frowned. Who the—?

The eldest figure spoke first. “Excuse us, sir. We hate to bother you, but are you Cerulean, the Luxonian leader of the Inter-Alien—?”

Cerulean sighed, his shoulders drooping. Oh, God. He peered into their tanned faces, appraised their homespun clothing and work-roughened hands, and repented his impatience. Give me strength. “I’m not the leader of anything anymore. I’ve retired.”

A tall, extremely thin representative of the group stepped forward. He strangled a straw hat in his hands and shuffled his feet. “But you are that Luxonian?”

Cerulean shrugged. “I helped patch together the Inter-Alien Alliance on Newearth, yes.” His gaze roved over the group as a baby, hidden from sight, squalled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

The tall man took another hesitant step forward, his brown-eyed gaze looking up the slope and into Cerulean’s piercing eyes. “My name is Able, and you see, we’re settlers here, neighbors, kind of. We call ourselves the Amens. Separatists. We want to return to the ways of our ancestors and live in union with God’s created world.”

A wavering grin played on Cerulean’s lips. “The Bhuac would love you.”

Able’s face brightened as a smile broke the straight line of his mouth. “Yes, sir, we know of them, and they do support our dream, but they have their own struggles. They’ve been persecuted too.”

“Someone’s persecuting you?” Cerulean pursed his lips. “Listen, this is no way to get acquainted. Please, step up here. The porch is large enough, and I have a few chairs. I’ve even got some food inside if you like.”

The two women offered sidelong glances and grinned as the elder one shifted her baby from under a blanket onto her hip. The other men started forward. Able put up his hand. “We wouldn’t think of disturbing you, but it would be a kindness to speak in the shade. The sun is hot, though the breeze you have up here is a real blessing.”

Cerulean opened his hands in a welcoming gesture, and the group filed past and climbed the four wooden steps. In quick jerking motions, he dragged chairs forward. “I just moved in, and I haven’t gotten everything set up yet.”

Able waved his hand anxiously. “Please, we only want a few moments of your time to explain our mission and why we need your help—if you don’t mind.”

Cerulean leaned against a post, suppressed a sigh, and nodded.

The three men moved into the background, while the two women settled into the available chairs. The mother rocked her baby with a relieved smile.

Able continued to wring his hat as he focused his attention on Cerulean. “You see, we were granted immigration status four years back, but it took time to organize our people and buy the right plot of land. We don’t want to trouble anybody, and we have no prejudice against any race, but we do have rules we must abide by. We choose to live simply and in union with nature. That’s why we moved into this wilderness over a year ago. At first, everything went along as planned. We built homes for our members and worked the land so that we could plant, and we even made a few contacts with businesses in Waukee.”

Cerulean saluted Able with an appreciative nod. “Sounds like you’re a marvel of planning and industry.”

Able accepted the compliment with a shy smile before his face sobered. “Well, we aren’t afraid of hard work, but we are afraid of death threats.”

“Death threats?”

“About six months ago, a mob of Uanyi showed up and told us to move on, that we’re not welcome in this district. I told them that we had the authorization of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee to buy land here and that we have full human rights to form our own society as we see fit. I even showed them our data chip authorizing—”

“They ignored it, didn’t they? Uanyi don’t much care for humans. They’ll continue trying to intimidate you if they think they can get away with it.”

“They did a whole lot more than intimidate. They beat three of our men senseless and threatened to come back and kill our women and children if we didn’t leave.”

Cerulean’s frown deepened as he pushed off from the post. “Did you inform the Human Rights Bureau? Get any Interventionists out here?”

Able sighed. “A couple of Interventionists flew in and took down our complaint. But they told us that since we didn’t have any hard evidence, it’s going to be difficult to follow up. I went all the way to Vandi and issued a formal complaint, but the Human Rights detective I met said that threats against humans were too numerous to deal with. Humans are the minority and what with the Cresta, Uanyi, Ingot, and Luxonians—pardon me, sir, but not all Luxonians are like you—we find that we have very few rights and even fewer friends. At least not anyone who can help to defend us against a band of unruly Uanyi.”

Cerulean sat on the top step and rubbed his hands over his face. He let his gaze absorb the vast beauty before him and took a deep breath. Craning his neck, he looked back at the assembly.

Able blinked and glanced away. “You can’t help us?”

Cerulean rose and strode to the woman and the now sleeping infant. He smiled at the bright pink face nestled against his mother’s enfolding body. With a gentle finger, he caressed the tousled, straw-colored hair and peered into the mother’s eyes. “I’ll do everything I can. I have friends. Just give me a few days to track down these Uanyi idiots, and I might be able to convince them that it’ll be in their best interests to leave you alone.”

Relieved smiles broke across every face. The mother’s eyes filled with tears as she reached out and gripped Cerulean’s hand, her voice a shy whisper. “Thank you.”

Cerulean nodded. “Well, I don’t know about you, but solving problems makes me hungry. How about you come in and I’ll scratch up…something?”

A burst of laughter followed this as the two women shuffled to their feet. Able gripped Cerulean’s shoulder. “On the contrary, you’ll be our guest tonight, if you’ll do us the honor. My wife is one of the best cooks on the planet, and her sister can brew the finest tea this side of the moon.”

Cerulean grinned at Able’s soft, delighted eyes. “I can hardly wait to meet them.”

Perching his rumpled hat jauntily on his head, Able grinned back. “You already have.” The small troop shuffled down the steps with Able guiding the woman and baby. He looked back at Cerulean as he stopped on the trail, the rest of the group traipsing down the incline. “I’ll come back at sunset and lead you over. We’ll gather everyone to celebrate.”

Cerulean sighed. “I hope you aren’t counting on me too much. I’ll do the best I can, but you know, trouble is part of life here on Newearth.”

Able bobbed his head in agreement and turned away with a wave. “True, true, but we’ve got the best reason in the universe to be glad. It isn’t every day that you meet a new friend.”

Cerulean’s gaze followed the small group as they traipsed away.

An odd sensation made him look down. His legs were shaking. In fact, his whole body shook. Collapsing on the bottom step, he held his head in his hands and groaned.

~~~

Stopping just outside the Vandi Transport Center, Justine stared. Her eyes dilated for maximum reception. Humans wearing every assortment of casual and formal attire, insect-like Uanyi with their soft, rubbery exoskeletons, Ingots in their bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms, Crestas with their tentacles and mechanical exoskeletons, and Bhuacs, appearing like fairies from an Oldearth storybook, all bustled about, intermingling on an ordinary city street.

So this is Newearth? Justine smiled to herself. At least I am free of Taug for a few hours. Pity the universe hasn’t improved its business class accommodations. Still, I won’t complain. I am alive, after all.

Moving forward, Justine fell into step with the scurrying mix of life forms. Her heightened sense of hearing and sight allowed her to absorb vast and complex information with relative ease. After crisscrossing the main sections of the developing city, she recorded a perfect map of each of the important structures: hospitals, schools, shops, assorted businesses, and government buildings. Each alien race had an embassy suited to its specific needs.

The Crestar structure enclosed a two-hundred-meter pool filled with imported Crestonian water and loaded with the best livestock that Crestar officials could afford.

The Uanyi embassy was built half-underground with a smooth, rounded surface, which appeared much like an enormous anthill, meeting the needs of the insect-like race perfectly but sending their human neighbors into fits of disgust.

The Ingots, being fond of straight lines and geometric shapes, devised their structure so that it looked very much like a computer chip, which created a startling contrast to the rest of the Vandi environment.

The Bhuacs’ obsessive devotion to nature compelled them to build their embassy on the outskirts of the city, imitating the trees and hills so perfectly that many citizens simply passed by, never realizing that the structure was anything more than the natural environment.

At Vandi Central Park, Justine stopped at the sound of laughter. A small group of children swung on a swing set that allowed them to fly high into the air, jump, and fall into a safety net. An older boy encouraged a younger child to let go and free fall.

“It’s safe. You saw me do it, Joe. Go on. Let go! You’ll love it.”

Two younger girls watched in mesmerized fascination as Joe flew higher and higher, his grip tightening on the swing.

Justine’s gaze swept the assembly. A mirrored smile crept across her features at the children’s enthusiasm. It did look like fun.

Suddenly, Justine’s eye caught the glint of a ragged piece of metal. She focused her gaze on the top bolt that held the structure together, attaching the swing structure to the welcoming net. Snap!

Pounding across the short grass, Justine reached out for the child just as he finally gained the courage to let go. As he flew up, Justine dived. With her arms outstretched, she slid across the gravel towards the small falling body. A snapping crack rent the air as the structure broke completely. Shrieks filled the park, and Justine felt the heavy thud as the child landed in her arms. She leaned into the fall and allowed its momentum to skid her further along the gravel. She’d have to make repairs before she met with Taug this evening.

When the last pebble skidded to a halt, Justine gazed into the small crumpled face, the eyes squeezed shut, lips wobbling. She folded her arms protectively around the child. His piercing blue eyes opened wide, startled, amazed. His expression of gratitude touched the depth of her being.

A pudgy, tanned hand pressed on her shoulder.

Justine, forced to unlock her gaze, glanced back, following the trail of the arm, the shoulder, and then another face, wide-eyed and blanched with fear. She sucked in a breath and offered a small grin. Straightening, she shifted the boy from her arms onto his own shaky feet.

His hand gripped hers tightly, squeezing her thumb.

With a comforting pat, she rose to her knees and looked him in the eyes again. “You’re okay. That was a close call. Lucky I saw the hinge break.”

The older boy pressed closer, putting his arm around little Joe. He peered deep into Justine’s eyes, shaking his head. “You moved so fast. It was—I don’t know. I never saw anything like it. He could’ve broken his neck if you hadn’t caught him.”

Justine quickly brushed her pant legs, covering the tears and the lack of blood. She straightened to her full height and tilted her head as she appraised the elder boy. “You would have done the same, if you had seen it in time.”

The elder boy shook his head again. The girls shuffled closer, their gazes shifting between Joe and Justine. The smaller girl touched Joe’s arm, stroking him like a cat, while the other pointed to Justine’s legs.

“That must hurt. You want to go to a doctor and get it looked at? My mom’ll pay. You saved Joe.”

Justine’s face twitched in the glimmering, late afternoon sunlight. The sounds of the bustling city carried on as usual. “I’m fine. A little scrape doesn’t bother me.” She stepped away from the small group and glanced back. “Glad to help.”

She turned and, sweeping her long legs across the street, entered the mingling throng.

~~~

“There’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple…” ~Scott Adams

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Two

For One Purpose

Slowly, deliberately, a light scalpel moved over cold flesh. “Tell me, do you fear death?” Mitholie, a brilliant Cresta renowned throughout the interplanetary scientific community, fixed his companion with a hard gaze as they stood in the bright-lit Crestar laboratory.

Taug, an up-and-coming apprentice, let a tentacle drift through the warm salt water of his bio-suit. His large, golden, watery eyes gazed coolly at the specimen lying suspended in the examination tube. “No. Why should I fear a void?” His eyes slowly rose to meet the elder’s scrutiny.

“Well—” Sensitive tentacles curled about the delicate equipment as Mitholie’s green eyes returned to the subject of their examination. “—your sociological profile says you…dislike death.” The light scalpel cut deeper, revealing bone. Mitholie’s mouth orifice lit up in a pleased smile.

Taug moved his bio-suit slightly nearer, bending over the examination tube. His eyes, lit by the dim, icy-blue lighting, flickered over the specimen. “I don’t fear death. I see it as a waste.”

“A waste?”

“Yes. I calculate waste on how hard it is to retrieve lost data.” Taug sucked in water letting it drift slowly over his gills. “A brain sack once destroyed is gone, forever beyond our reach.”

Mitholie scanned each of the specimen’s organs carefully, individually. “But what if I no longer need that mind?”

“It’s hard to tell when and how something might be useful, or even worse, necessary.”

“You have an…intriguing mind.” Mitholie turned a lump of flesh in his tentacles.

Taug watched intently. “Beyond that, there is a practical reality. I’m neither a trained soldier nor an assassin.” He gestured with waving tentacles, “Like you, science is my passion.”

“Your father’s pet project has been identified—alive.” Mitholie’s eyes remained fixed on his work, ignoring Taug.

Taug slowly exhaled water. “I would say that was impossible, but I know the High Tribunal must be certain or else you wouldn’t have told me.” His mouth orifice remained in a fixed smile. “Is this a favor? Am I being offered a chance to commit suicide before the messy business of torture, trial, and execution?”

Mitholie spasmed, his long body wiggling with glee, “No such dramatics, no.” His tentacles released the delicate equipment; he looked Taug in the eye. “The High Tribunal simply wishes you to…purge your father’s unfortunate experiment. That done, I’m sure this messy business can be consigned to the dark waters.”

Taug’s tentacles curled thoughtfully. “Forgotten?”

“And forgiven.”

“I’ll need its location.”

With a flick of a tentacle to his bio-suit, Mitholie effected a transaction. “I’m transferring the data now. By the way, hiring another Cresta to kill it is…unadvised. The High Tribunal wishes the waves of the ‘humons’ to be kept tranquil, at least for now. Besides, you have contacts? Yes?”

Taug’s eyes moved swiftly, scanning the long streams of data crossing before his eyes. “Yes….”

Mitholie laid down his knife and stepped back. “Very good. I’ll go with you to the harbor dock.”

Taug stepped aside. “Thank you.”

Together they moved down the sterile, rounded, white hallway, deep in secretive conversation. Plugging their bio-suits into the wall jacks, they shed them, and came out on the other side of the wall free, gliding through the dark water.

The human specimen floated in the examination tube, alone.

~~~

Floating in deep space, Bothmal Penal Internment was left deliberately unmarked on any space charts. Its layout was confusing and disorienting; carved from an asteroid, it stood as a grim reminder of what could happen to one if you angered enough powerful beings. Many sentient races held a similar vision of hell, and those imprisoned at Bothmal all agreed that if it wasn’t hell—it was right next door.

Zenith stood beside the docking bay port, scanning a list of names being streamed to him. Long ago, he had been fully human, but the allure of immortality had led him to enhance most of his body with synthetic replacements, including his eyes. He would celebrate his four-hundredth birthday this year, if he continued the practice. A heavy trans-platinum chest guard protected his vital organs. Over this, he wore a synth-weave robe with a hefty handgun resting on his hip.

As the Chief Warden of Bothmal, Zenith knew the tangled structure like the back of his bio-metal hand and had several backup maps downloaded to his brain, just in case.

An interstellar ship, several times larger than the skyscrapers of Oldearth, docked nearby with its boarding tube neatly extended. Only one passenger exited the ship.

Taug moved slowly down the platform, flexing his tentacles in his new bio-suit. Biomechanical three-toed feet moved him smoothly over the floor, keeping his center of gravity low.

“Ah…Taug.” Zenith deftly pronounced the name that popped up in his holo-vision. “Pleased to meet you.” He inclined his head, motioning with his arm. “This way, if you please.”

Taug mimicked the bow and moved silently after his host.

“I hope you’ll forgive us for giving you this guided tour rather than allowing you to down-stream your own maps.” Zenith turned slightly. “Security, you know.”

Taug spoke, his voice synthesized. “I do.”

“You’re here on business?”

Taug’s brow furrowed.

Zenith’s grin turned malicious, “You’re not here to visit a relative…?” 

“Certainly not! As you say, it’s business. I simply need to see if someone is still…available.”

The burly, six-foot human guard was not happy to see the large, soft-bodied Cresta in a gleaming black mechanical exoskeleton lumber toward him. His squint-eyed frown kept pleasantries to a minimum.

Taug strode forward. His tentacles arched stiffly at his side as he assumed the air of a harassed official, which was not off the mark. The journey to Bothmal had been long and exhausting. He hated the tough, unrelenting metallic form that allowed him to move and breathe on land, but he had little choice. Terrestrials dominated the universe. He felt out of sorts and hungry, but this part of his plan could not be delayed.

“I have an appointment.” Taug pinched a computer chip with his tentacle and dropped it on to the guard’s palm.

The guard inserted it into his datapad. Scowling, he jerked his head toward the back room. “Oh, it’s you. I was wondering who in darkness would want it. After all these years, it’s probably not any good. I’d start fresh if I were you.”

Taug shook his head, the water in his breathing helm swishing with each motion. Water dripped down the side of his face. “Good thing you’re not me.”

The guard sneered his reply.

The two shuffled through the doorway into a back room where Justine lay immobile on a steel table, the same table where she had been turned off. Taug stared at the figure and appraised its strength, noting its perfect symmetry and conjecturing on its intelligence. He turned to the guard.

The guard hesitated. “Like I said, it’s probably no good, but if you want to waste your time—”

The guard punched some numbers into his datapad and swiped it with two fingers.

The guard jumped back but threw out his hand protectively in front of Taug. “You never can tell how these things’ll react. She could go bloody ballistic, if you know what I mean.”

“Now, please.” Taug cleared his throat.

Justine jerked.

Taug stood motionless. His eyes narrowed as he studied Justine’s response.

She opened her eyes, turned her head, and stared first at Taug and then at the guard.

Taug nodded. “She is awake. Everything looks fine. You may leave us.”

The guard shook his head. “You sure? She could sit up and throttle you as soon as I walk out the door.”

“Will you throttle me, Justine?”

Justine sat up, her gaze fixed on Taug. “Should I?”

The guard stifled a laugh.

Taug ignored the guard and returned Justine’s intense stare.

“No.”

“Then I won’t.”

Taug’s gaze shifted back to the guard. “Thank you. You may leave.”

With a shrug, the guard shuffled to toward the doorway. “Okay, it’s your neck. If I hear a scream…or something…I’ll—”

Justine flicked her gaze to the guard. “You wouldn’t have time.”

The guard stalked out the door.

Taug stepped back, allowing Justine room to shift herself off the bed.

She stood and appeared to be appraising her internal workings.

“Are you all right?”

“It appears so.”

Taug meandered toward a conference table and a pair of comfortable chairs. “Please, let’s sit. You can hardly imagine what I’ve been through to get here. Interminable bureaucrats…but, never mind.” Taug lowered his stiff body onto a chair and sighed. He sniffed into the breathing helm and allowed the briny liquid to play over his face.

Justine strode over and stood by him. “I’d rather pace if you don’t mind. I’ve been lying around for…how long?”

“Approximately seventy years, give or take, depending on whose calendar you use these days. Since we’ll be settling on Newearth, you might as well get used to their systems of measurement.”

“Why? I mean, why have you…?”

“Turned you back on?”

“I would have said awakened.”

“Yes, I suspected as much. You seem to consider yourself…human. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

Justine did not break her stride. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“I awakened you because I need you.”

Justine paced across the cylindrical room.

Taug’s eyes followed her. “What do you know about Crestar?”

Justine stopped and peered inward. She refocused her gaze on Taug. “Apparently, my databank remains intact. No memory wipe of any kind?”

Taug shrugged. “A very persuasive advocate advised against it. A Luxonian, I believe.”

With a stiff nod, Justine clasped her hands behind her back and resumed a professional mode. “Crestar, home of over twenty-seven billion life forms. A water planet ruled by a coalition of seven leading scientists called the Ingal. Notorious for unprecedented experimentation on other beings—”

Two tentacles admonished Justine into silence. “Stop. You’ve been brainwashed by those on the Inter-Alien Alliance—”

Justine leaned forward, her eyes flashing. “No!” She glared down at Taug. “I am incapable of being brainwashed. Especially not by the very beings that nearly destroyed me.”

Taug nodded. “Good to know. Please….” He nodded toward the chair. “Sit.”

Justine perched on the edge of the available chair, her back straight and uncompromising.

Taug sighed. “You must understand my position. I am a Cresta caught between worlds. I believe in my culture, but at the same time, I fear we are heading to our doom.”

Justine pursed her lips. She folded her hands in her lap, her gaze fixed on Taug.

“I have a plan to assist my race, but I need your help to see it through. During your long sleep, a new force has arisen in the universe. It is called by the remarkably unimaginative name ‘Newearth.’ Do you happen to know anything about Oldearth?”

Justine’s gaze hardened. “I am partly composed of human DNA.”

“That was not my question.”

“I know everything about their history and downfall up until I was shut down.”

Taug nodded and struggled out of his chair. “That would be year twenty-three of what the human remnant calls their ‘Hidden Years.’” He padded to a wall screen and pushed a button. A light flared and the screen illuminated the starry universe.

“They stayed on Lux for forty years, resettled Newearth, and lived in relative obscurity until our leadership recognized an opportunity.” Taug tapped a keypad and the image zoomed through space until it focused on Newearth spinning in all its blue-green glory. “We invaded successfully until the Luxonians took the humans’ part and negotiated a peace treaty called the Inter-Alien Alliance.” He tapped again and the image refocused on a human city. Low lying buildings dotted the landscape, and humans bustled about in self-made importance.

Justine stared at the screen in unblinking fascination.

Taug looked from Justine to the image. “I’ve been ordered to serve in a city called Vandi and accomplish a, shall we say, delicate task. It is hoped that I will learn ways to secure a stronger position for my government in the alliance.”

Justine’s gaze slid to Taug’s face. Her lips stiffened. “I am not for hire.”

Taug shrugged. He flicked off the image, breaking the trance. “I didn’t say you were. I simply have plans for myself…and Newearth.”

“What plans?”

“They can’t be shared at this early stage. I just need someone with your abilities at my disposal.”

“Why?”

“I may be forced to kill someone, a mixed-breed accident, but I’m not particularly suited to committing acts of murder. Especially since no one can discover an association between me and the—”

“Object?”

“Yes, I guess you could say that. Though he does have a name.” Taug folded his tentacles together in a meditative motion. “You see, he does not appear to be a threat at the moment, but he could become one. I need to consider the situation carefully. In the meantime, I must be ready to act—if necessary.”

“What’s its name?”

“He is not an it, though I suppose… Still, I object. His name is Derik Erland, and you are to treat him with respect. He is part human, part Cresta.”

“So, I’m an assassin—again?”

“If need be.”

Justine tapped her thigh as she circled the room. “Why not make it easy on yourself? Give me a description and its location, and I’ll take care of it. After all, you just gave me back my life. I ought to do a little…something.”

Taug chuckled. “You’ll have me convinced that you are sentient before long. No, I can’t simply kill Derik. After all, he may be worth more alive. My father, Taurgon, created him. He believed, quite naively, that once races begin interbreeding, then divisions melt away. I’m not such a fool.”

“So? What’s the mixed-breed worth to you?”

“He might be the answer to every Cresta’s deepest aspiration—immortality and nearly infinite power. Once we are able to successfully graft our intellect onto other beings, we can simply regenerate ourselves as often as need be.”

“There are creatures that do something similar. I believe they are called parasites.”

“Ah, but there would be a difference. We would not simply live off our host; we would become more…a greater being in our own right. We might even rival the creator in time.”

“Who?”

Taug raised a tentacle. “I’ve already said too much.” He rose stiffly to his feet. “I have awakened you for one purpose: to be of service to me. At some point, the High Council might have decided that they needed your bed, and then where would you be? Recycled perhaps? That would be a shame. You have a lot of history tucked into that synthetic brain of yours. You might become much more than an assassin. Again, I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, come with me.”

Taug led the way toward the door where the guard snorted with irritation.

Justine took one final glance at the abandoned, steel bed and marched after Taug. “Where are we going?”

“Newearth. It’s my home for now. You may call it what you wish.”

~~~

“Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” ~Lao Tzu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Seven

—Lux—

Boiling Lava Rocks

Sienna studied a large hologram rotating before her. Rainbow-colored disks spread across the universe. She tapped the console and squinted. One sector magnified a thousand percent, rolling closer like a storm. She bit her lip and tapped the magnify button again and again. Beyond the Divide! Where are you?

A chime rang.

Sienna frowned and turned. “Come in, Kelesta.”

The door slid open and the Bhuaci clerk ambled in, a smile wreathing her petite face. “Any success?”

Sienna shook her head. “They’re gone…as if they never existed.”

Her lips puckering in a childish pout, Kelesta stopped at Sienna’s side. “They’re just hiding.” She waved a languid hand. “They can’t hide forever. At some point, their curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll expose themselves to us…or to someone.”

A doubt shivered through Sienna. Her gaze slid over to her friend. “Have they shown themselves to you recently?”

Her body stiffening, Kelesta frowned. “Not really. The one who contacted me originally pretended to be human…an old man. I knew, of course.”

“And why did he contact you?”

“He said he needed help.”

Sienna waited.

“He knew we needed help.”

Pacing away, Sienna crossed her arms. “An exchange of assistance?”

“We would be each other’s ears and eyes.”

Sienna turned, her anger building. “And were you?”

Kelesta sighed. “I told Sterling—I told you all—the truth. I thought they were going to protect us…that was the arrangement.”

“So you haven’t had any contact with them—lately?”

Kelesta crossed her arms, her body enlarged and hardened, and a menacing scowl rolling over her face. “No! And I’m not looking to contact them.” She reverted to her former petite shape. Sidestepping Sienna, she wandered around the revolving hologram. “There’s only one way to keep an eye on such a powerful enemy.”

Sienna’s eyes followed the Bhuaci. She titled her head. “How?”

“Let them keep an eye on us.” She arrived at Sienna’s left and tapped the console. The universe dissolved and reappeared with Earth in the center. “Let’s return and discover what it is about humans that fascinates Ungle and the Ingilium so much.”

“Crestas are obsessed with science, and Ingots only care about trade.”

“More than that…” Kelesta grinned and cast a side- glance at Sienna. “Besides, I’d like to understand Zuri better.” She licked her lips. “He’s unlike any Ingot I’ve ever met.”

A hot flush worked up Sienna’s cheeks. “You’re interested in Zuri?”

Kelesta straightened her tunic and tugged at the collar. “Professionally. Certainly. The more I understand our enemies…the safer the Bhuaci will be.”

With a shrug, Sienna turned toward the door. “Teal seems to trust him.” She stopped. “But Teal wants me to bring information about the mystery race—”

Kelesta nudged her forward. “And you will. Once we get back to Earth and discover what all the fuss is about.”

—OldEarth—

Teal, dressed in a patched, sleeveless shirt and gray leggings, stood on the brow of the hill and glanced back at Ark and Zuri. “You two, stay here. I’m going in.”

Ark blinked as sweat dripped down the side of his face. “Is that wise?”

Zuri scratched his short blond hair. “You look human enough, but up close…someone might notice differences.”

“No one ever has before.” Teal peered around. “Where’s Sterling?”

Ark glanced at Zuri.

Zuri shuffled his feet. “He’s with Ungle.” He pointed to a rocky outcropping. “But I don’t think Ungle—”

Glowing at the edges, Teal frowned. “I’m tired of tiptoeing around that Cresta’s sensibilities.”

His eyes alarmingly wide, Ark waved a tentacle. “You may not want to get irritated in front of humans…you’re glowing—”

In an instant, Teal returned to his human state—sans the bright outline. He stomped to the enormous boulders.

Sterling sat on a jagged ledge, his hands clasped like a contrite child.

Ungle paced before him, waving his tentacles. “Lux cannot afford to indulge—”

Teal clambered the rest of the way up the incline and glared at Ungle.

Ungle stared back. “This was a private discussion.”

Pointing to the stone city below, Teal shrugged. “I don’t think they care.”

His jaw rotating and bubbles rising, Ungle hissed through his breather helm. “Bothmal was created for such—”

Teal threw up his hands. “Please. No threats. No lectures.” He turned and faced Sterling with his hands perched on his hips. “If we’re going to learn anything useful, we’d better get down there—now.”

Sterling blinked like a mystified child. “We?”

Rubbing his neck, Teal kept his eyes fixed on Sterling, dearly wishing he could knock him backward with the force of his gaze. “It’ll be a lot easier to pass myself off as a merchant if I have a slave to sell.”

Jerking to his feet, Sterling choked. “A slave!” His whole body shimmered. “I never!”

Rejecting Sterling’s idiocy, Teal stomped over to Ungle and leaned in close to Ungle’s watery orbs. “Do you—or do you not—want to learn about Chai?”

A grin slid over Ungle’s face. Wrapping a tentacle around Sterling’s shoulder, he led him to the brow of the hill overlooking the city. “If there’s a Luxonian alive that can take us beyond murky waters into clear pools, I believe it’s you, Sterling.”

Sterling’s shoulders slumped. With a long shuddering sigh, he shrunk and shriveled, losing stature and weight. His clothes dissolved into mere rags and his gorgeous locks of hair turned stringy-brown, matted with dirt and lice.”

Ungle stepped back hastily, flipping his tentacles out of reach.

Teal frowned. “Don’t overdo it. Lose the lice. I want to sell you not drown you.”

Grinning, Ungle waddled down the hill and turned toward Zuri and Ark at the bottom. He waved a tentacle in salute. “I’m returning home, so you’ll be on your own.” He glanced at Sterling. “I want details, Sterling. Colorful details!” He passed Zuri, who stood frowning and merely patted Ark on the shoulder.

Ark called. “Leaving so soon?”

Ungle chuckled as he headed to the hills. “Mission accomplished!”

Teal nudged Sterling toward the city. “Ours has just begun.”

~~~

Zuri scanned through his datapad, scowling in the bright afternoon light.

Ark flopped down and poured a green liquid into his breather Helm. “By the Divide, I hate waiting.” He glanced over to Zuri. “What’s wrong?” He nudged Zuri. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Sienna’s gone. Ungle’s gone. Granted, we still have to deal with Sterling, but he’ll leave as soon as this temple business is taken care of.”

Zuri’s gaze stayed fixed on the datapad. He rubbed his hand over his short hair. “Oh, blast!”

Ark frowned. “Naughty girlfriend?”

Zuri glanced over. “She liked the picture I sent.” He wiggled his eyebrows and pointed to his head.

Ark licked his lips. “That’s good, right?”

Zuri sighed. “Now she wants to see my hands.”

Tentacles flying to his face, Ark looked every millimeter the blushing, scandalized matron of every-world. “What next I wonder? Your…do we dare think it?” His voice lowered as he leaned in, his gaze dropping to Zuri’s mechanical boots.

Zuri dropped the datapad aside. “This could go places I’m not really prepared—”

A shuffling noise stiffened them both into statuesque poses and complete silence.

A goat trotted forward, sniffed, and bolted back the way it had come.

Ark thrust a tentacle over his chest. “That was too close.”

Crouching, Zuri scrambled to the outcropping and peered over the edge. In the distance, three children and a flock of goats ambled in their direction. “Boiling lava rocks!”

Ark edged closer. “Please, no ugly images.” He peered over the edge. “They’re between us and the cave.”

“Bet they bring those quadrupeds up here for the season and use that cave for…” His eyes widening, Zuri scrambled for his datapad.

Ark peered at him. “What’re you—?”

“Creating a diversion.”

An explosion blasted from inside the cave.

Screaming, the children darted down the hill with the goats close at their heels.

Crouching over, Zuri skedaddled for the cave entrance.

Ark lumbered behind, huffing, his gaze searching the perimeter. When he stopped next to Zuri just inside the cave, he patted his chest as if to keep his organs safely inside. “I’m a scientist…not an explorer. I tried to tell them.” He glanced at Zuri. “Teal would never’ve made that mistake. We were just sitting out there for all the world— ”

Zuri clambered to his ship, pressed the datapad, and waited while the hatch fell open. “I’ve been distracted.” He climbed the ramp and huffed. “What’s your excuse?”

Ark padded behind. “Touchy, aren’t we? Just because your girlfriend wants to see you au natural—it isn’t any reason to—”

On the main deck, Zuri turned and faced Ark. “I can handle that. One article of bio-ware at a time.” He shifted into the helm’s seat.

“What then?”

“Sienna’s coming back…and she’s bringing her Bhuaci friend.”

“Boiling lava rocks!”

“Like I said.”

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~Aristotle

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Two

—OldEarth—

We Still Have Free Will

Zuri hated emotional chaos. He clumped to the base of the cave and plunked down on a rock. Propping his head on one hand, he stared at the creek rippling by.

A squirrel hippity-hopped along the water’s edge, then scrambled in the dirt, discovered a half-buried nut, and leaped forward. It dug furiously. A darker squirrel scampered from behind, chuckled, and sent the first squirrel, humpbacked, straight into the air.

Zuri laughed. “So, little quadrupeds, who’s stealing from whom?”

Ark meandered forward, rubbed his bulbous eyes in the bright light, and harrumphed. “Not me. Certainly.”

Zuri peered over his shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “You’d think we were all planning to kill each other the way Sienna acts.” He rubbed his neck. “I wish Sterling would send her back to Lux.”

“He would, if Teal would let him. Ungle would love to end her searing glares.”

“She’s only mad because he shot at her.”

“Yeah, but she never actually got shot—whereas Ungle—” Zuri dropped his gaze and sighed.

“You didn’t know.” Ark wrapped his tentacles across his lap. “Ungle justified his actions under the Crestonian rule of law—extreme measures are acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge.” He shrugged. “Hardly Sienna’s chosen creed.”

Zuri shifted and clasped his hands. “Are females on Crestar as…you know—?”

“Emotional?”

“I was going to say unpredictable. On Ingle, our girls are raised so much like the boys, that we’re almost interchangeable. They’re as strong as we are and have all the same technological advantages. There was a time when our race almost did away with sex types altogether.”

Ark’s eyes rounded. “You don’t say? I never read that.”

“It’s not one of our happier chapters. We almost killed each other.”

“Ah.”

He prodded Ark. “Like when Crestar did all that cloning—”

“Miserable affair.” Ark lifted a tentacle as if reciting a pledge. “Mutations are our salvation.” He chuckled. “How could we have been so naive?”

Zuri wiped his face and slipped off his helmet.

Ark nearly fell backward. “Oh, seamuck! I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you were losing your head.”

Zuri ran his fingers over the blond fuzz crowing his cranium. “I’m trying to grow hair.” He looked around. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“Why? For darkness’ sake, your race advanced beyond body hair ages ago.”

His gaze darting to the cave entrance, Zuri practically tiptoed to Ark’s side. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “There’s this Ingot woman—”

Ark frowned. “I thought you said there’s little discernible difference?”

“I said interchangeable—in respect to our professional life.” He sucked in a deep breath. “When it comes to our personal life…there’s a big difference. Trust me.”

Ark nudged him playfully, his smooth eyebrows waggling. “You like her?”

Zuri sunk onto the boulder next to Ark. “Passionately. She’s intelligent and funny…and very unpredictable.”

Ark leaned in, his gaze watery. “And beautiful?”

Zuri shrugged. “I don’t think about that. We’re all assembled parts…natural and otherwise.” Heat rose to his face. “The only thing that really matters is what’s inside— you know what I mean?”

Ark nodded. “I do. Unfortunately, I only experienced an attachment once…and it nearly killed me.”

“She left you?”

“Poisoned me.” Ark shook his head. “I gave up such associations after that.”

A shuffling near the cave entrance sent Zuri scuttling back to the other side of the cave, frantically tugging on his helmet.

Ark turned, his tentacles crossed just so.

Sterling staggered forward, bumbled to the creek fully clothed, and waded in.

Zuri straightened, his mouth dropping open. He started forward.

Ark reached out and held him back. “Let him be. Water is very soothing to a troubled soul.” He glanced at his terrestrial boots. “I should know.”

Sterling flopped down in the water, let it rush over his whole body for the space of twenty heartbeats, and then rose and straggled back to Ark and Zuri…dripping with each step. “I needed that.”

Ark waddled to the water’s edge. “I might join you, if only—” He peered back at Zuri. “You’ll help me get them back on?”

Feeling very much like an over-indulgent father, Zuri waved the Cresta to the water. “Go on. Get wet. I know you’ve been dying to.”

Ark beamed as he tugged off his boots and tossed them aside. He waddled forward and plunged in.

Sterling stood, still dripping, next to Zuri, and watched Ark splash around like a dolphin. “He’s really a child under all that blubber.”

Zuri glanced aside. “And you?” He leaned against the cave wall. “What’re you?”

Sterling raised a finger. “Just a moment. I can’t stand another drip. He shimmered and disappeared. Then he reappeared in exactly the same clothes, now perfectly dry. “Much better.”

Zuri flung his hand into the air. “So why the dramatic dunk—?”

“You need to look beyond the surface, Ingot.” Sterling started for the woods, glanced backward, and beckoned Zuri with a curt wave.

Zuri followed, uneasiness bubbling like a lava flow in his middle.

“I want to speak to you alone.” Sterling jutted his jaw toward Ark. “I knew the sight of dripping water would break his resolve.”

Tempted to take off his helmet again, if for no other reason than to unbalance Sterling’s perfect demeanor, Zuri scratched his exposed neck. “What do you want?”

Sterling frowned like a misunderstood child. “It’s not always a matter of want. Sometimes it’s a need. I need you to make Sienna leave—today.”

Crossing his arms, Zuri straightened. “I want her to leave as much as anyone, but she won’t listen to me. She thinks she’s protecting Teal—”

“She’s more likely to get Teal killed.”

Zuri tilted his head and waited. His scalp itched like crazy.

“Ungle is not one to be beaten at his own game. He’s deadly serious about studying the interaction between Ishtar and that bloody Chai. He’s practically leaking fluids to see them meet the first time.”

Zuri rolled his eyes. “I can’t stand it!” He swiped his helmet off.

Sterling’s gaze snapped to Zuri’s head, and he staggered. “By the Div—?”

Zuri gripped him by the arm. “I’m growing hair to impress an Ingot female who thinks that we should return to a more natural state.”

Sterling squared his shoulders and tugged his arm free. “Thank you for sharing that with me.” He ran his fingers through his own luxurious white locks. “Back to reality, shall we?”

Zuri tucked his helmet under his arm and twirled his hand in the air. “Go on.”

“The point is—I want Teal to see Chai and Ishtar up close and personal when the meeting takes place. And I don’t want him distracted. That’s why I went along with Ungle’s suggestion in the first place. But now—”

Walking backward, Ungle plodded into view slightly off-balance with his one shortened tentacle. His gaze fixed on Ark plunging in the creek like a salmon trying to swim upstream. He turned, ran into Sterling, and frowned. “Oh, there you are.”

Sterling gestured to Zuri. “Here we are.”

Ungle heaved a disgusted breath. “Yes, of course.” He peered at Sterling. “I’ve told them both—there’s no other option. Either she goes or I’ll—”

Zuri snorted. “I thought you were worried about that mystery race, the ones who wiped out a third of your planet.”

Ungle’s face tightened. “Who wouldn’t be?”

“Since Sienna supposedly worked for someone who worked for them…maybe you should send her—”

“She says that she was used by the Bhuaci, and she won’t make that mistake again.”

“Tell her that she’s going to get her revenge. She’ll use them this time.”

Ungle’s gaze slipped from Zuri to Sterling and back to Zuri. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected such duplicity from you. I thought all Ingots were bred to obey.”

“We may have been bred…so to speak. But we still have free will.”

“Do you? News to me.”

Zuri stomped forward, fury flushing to the roots of his fuzzy, blond hair.

Sterling swept between them, his arms outspread. “Oh, no, you don’t! I’ve got enough on my mind with Teal besotted by that—”

Teal sauntered around the corner, his gaze fixed on Sterling. “Besotted is a strong word…don’t you think?” He glanced at Zuri and frowned. “What happened to your—?”

Ungle waved a tentacle. “We’re wasting valuable time. Ishtar could be anywhere by now.”

Zuri scowled and pulled a datapad from his sleeve. “He’s still at the same location.” He held the pad up, facing the others. “I’ve been monitoring him.”

Sterling glared at Teal. “That’s your job.”

Teal folded his arms. “I know exactly where Ishtar is. And I know where Barak, Obed, and Eoban are too.”

Ungle swept a tentacle in the air dismissively. “Who cares about them?”

Teal stepped forward. “I think you would—if you really want to understand Chai.” He glanced around. “They’re heading directly for the stone city—Chai’s hometown.”

Sterling pursed his lips, his gaze flickering to the cave. “And Sienna?”

Teal turned and started back toward the creek. He called to the water-happy Cresta. “Ark! Time to go!” Glancing back he met Ungle’s intense stare. “I sent her back to Lux. She’s going to do research.”

Sterling closed his eyes and sighed in obvious relief.

Ungle nodded, a glint of pleasure sparkling in his bulbous eyes.

Zuri frowned. “Research—what?”

Teal jogged forward and helped Ark stagger out of the water. He called back. “The origin of our mystery race.”

Zuri dropped his head to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut.

“What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”
~Madeleine Albright

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Legitimate Concerns

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it past Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you described in your reports?”

He shoved loose soil aside and nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a sterile surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips.

Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists. “Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” He eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched and an oval blue-green piece of fruit from a bowl on the coffee table and chomped a big bite. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressure everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around him too much. “I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You glare like he does.”

Teal chewed and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up behind and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip.

A chime sounded. Teal and Sterling turned to face the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged. “Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything. Worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass. “Having liquids are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched over to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. Taking copious notes.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted the full glasses and strolled across to Ark. “Here. You can have two since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out.” He nodded to the counter. “You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “Or do they have claws?”

Ark poured the drink into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed his entire drink down his throat in one swallow. Stay calm. Right. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned and turned abruptly. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and headed for the cabinet again. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He stopped and turned, swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “And I left him alone on the planet.” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discrete distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter. “Of all the—” He felt his composure cracking. “Do you mean to tell me that you have someone watching Zuri, who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and waved Sterling and Ark closer. “I want to return to Earth undetected and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark shook his head and tapped Teal on the shoulder. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. In surprise, he realized that his fingers actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot is afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his pot, pulled it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands, free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and perched all four tentacles onto his thick waist. “How’d you know we’re focusing our attention on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile made up of the same—Uh oh. He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground. If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” Pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down and stretched out. “Mine if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the edge of a chair.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He glanced at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal tented his fingers before his face. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark wiggled a tentacle in the air. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Sterling rubbed his brow, he felt drained. “Can’t I just lie and say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark and Teal glanced at each other and shook their heads.

Teal slipped back onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

Sterling lay stretched out as if ready for his analyst session, crossed his feet, and placing his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb like this. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth—you know what I mean.”

Teal glanced at the bright sunlight filtering through the window. The purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. “That from Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers steeple style. “Yes. They’re a super race. They can create new life forms, terra-form entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While Luxonians, Crestas, Uanyi, Bhuaci, and Ingots each have our own unique abilities, this race can do all we do, but better…with more flare. They’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbow room, so to speak. We’ve only discovered a few of their kind. The ones the Crestas irritated must have been a bit high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep entire worlds in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark frowned at Teal. He tapped Sterling on the shoulder. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn as much as they do…and more. Apparently, your studies on Earth caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Perhaps evil like Ishtar?”

Teal stomped across the room. “Ishtar isn’t evil…he’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb. You called him evil.”

Teal stopped. “But why kill me? Or Zuri? We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed and swung his feet off the couch. “They aren’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants you to continue your work so that—” Ark’s pink cheeks blanched. “Oh, no.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark by a tentacle. “What?”

Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted…by anything…or anyone.”

Teal shrugged. “Zuri is annoying, but not really a distraction. Usually, he’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. “Not Zuri. Sienna. That gorgeous Luxonian. He wanted me to make her leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and I don’t believe that was a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s a Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner—it was hers by the way.”

Teal sprang at Sterling and wrapped his fingers around his neck.

Ark’s tentacles peeled Teal’s fingers away. Slapping Teal’s hands away with one tentacle, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “How could you? Sienna is innocent. I’m a Luxonian guardian, and I thought we—” He spat his words. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark waddled between them, shoving them further away from each other. He turned from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand Ungle’s persuasive nature. He can make life on Lux much more challenging—if he wants. He can create an interstellar incident and make it look like Sterling’s long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that he knows quite enough about evil already.”

Ark laughed. “Very observant. But Ungle has legitimate concerns. The mystery race will dictate the entire Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put the entire planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really am having a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head. “Not possible. In your case, I wish it was, though.”

Sterling peered at Teal. “You’re right. I should’ve told you. I was wrong. But Ungle…all his talk of good and evil…I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna into leaving seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to that stupid planet now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in all directions. “I don’t know if I have enough to keep everyone in line.”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment. I’m not feeling well.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed—he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

Ark slapped Sterling on the side of the head.

Sterling stood and placed his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “I know you have feelings for her. I’d spontaneously combust if it’d make you feel better.” His gaze wandered to his vine.

It appeared to wave its purple fronds at him.

Oh hell.

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

By Nature Fleeting

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter…

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. The hot sun beat down on them. He held himself above her, propped on his arms, his knees dug into the grass, the length of her body below him.

Sienna waited. A grin hovered on her lips.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over her face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and rolled to the side sprawled flat like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Climbing to his feet, he slapped dry stems from his grey tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his hand over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced himself to stop. He lifted his gaze to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna’s gaze followed his. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren land. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “Who?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are there none-the-less.”

With a snort, Sienna tossed the rock to the side. “You’re a regular Bhuaci with all your riddles.”

 I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through Teal’s chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest.

Teal peered down, clasped one of her hands, and examined it. “Never any jewelry. Why?”

With a smug grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his gaze with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

 Ark sat on a log next to a stream and slapped his three-toed feet into the flowing water. He shivered in delight.

Zuri crouched on a boulder and hunched over a handheld screen. His gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and slapped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode over to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00