Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Six

A Small Matter

A sudden cold blast swirled orange and yellow leaves around like a graceful tornado. The leaden sky foretold a storm to come.

Justine strode through gleaming glass doors into the Cresta science building, a stark structure with little ornamentation, aside from brilliant white walls painted with intertwining blue-green waves, undulating in swirls along the corridor.

Justine didn’t try to hide the smirk that broke the usual straight line of her mouth as she entered. Scientists to their flabby cores. Why do they bother with primitive art?

Eschewing the lift to the fifteenth floor, she ascended the steps at a rapid pace. An overweight man with graying temples and slumped shoulders huffed his way down the steps and almost smacked into Justine, forcing her to stop. His dark-circled eyes widened in surprise, and then just as quickly, crinkled into appreciative desire.

Without hesitation, Justine took the steps three at a time, disappearing from view within seconds. By the time she reached Taug’s floor, she looked down the circular staircase and beheld the speck of a man still standing there. Her smirk turned into a headshaking frown.

“Taug?” Justine entered the laboratory and appraised the expensive medical equipment standing, hanging, and lying on steel tables. An examination tube extended from the wall while an obscured dissection victim floated in amber liquid and patiently laid in wait. A Cresta’s vision of Heaven.

A shuffling noise turned her attention to the curved wall that narrowed into a tunnel on the left.

Taug padded into view. He looked up, and his puffy lips broke into a broad grin. “You are on time. Excellent! I should’ve had more trust. I was just pondering what to do if you didn’t show up.”

Justine fingered a long tube that ended in a spray gun, her eyes wandering the length as if to judge how far it would reach. “And?”

Taug lumbered up and waved her hand off the tube. “Careful, that’s not mine. I’m here as a guest. It would cost more than I will earn in a Cresta year to pay the fine if anything were broken.” His winning grin softened the chastisement.

Justine slid her hand down the tube and turned toward a six-foot window facing the bustling city below. “What would you have done?”

Taug shook a tentacle playfully as his watery brown eyes gleamed in appreciation. “You have wit and persistence. Two traits I admire very much.” He turned toward the dissection tube. “I would have sent out a bulletin describing you down to your nano-cells, alerting the public that a dangerous android was on the loose and must be destroyed by order of the Inter-Alien Commission.”

“A lie that you could never explain away.”

“I wouldn’t have to. As far as the Inter-Alien Commission knows, you don’t exist. I could make up an extravagant lie, and they would have no knowledge to refute my argument. I would win by default.”

Justine took a step nearer the bulky form. Her eyes narrowed. “You. Are. Dangerous.”

Taug’s grin twisted, offering a one-shouldered shrug. “True. But that makes two of us. You see now why I’m so happy you came.” He padded to the window and nodded toward the milling throng appearing as multicolored dots to his Cresta eyes. “They mostly do as they are told because they lack the imagination to do otherwise.” His gaze flitted back to Justine. “Not the case with you.”

“You, a Cresta scientist, dare to flatter me?”

Taug’s shoulders shook with mirth. One tentacle reached out and patted Justine’s shoulder. “You delight me.”

Justine rebutted his twinkling gaze with glowering eyes and a set jaw.

“Yes, well.” He waddled to a desk set against the wall and pulled out an extra-large datapad, useful for beings with poor eyesight. “While you were out familiarizing yourself with your new home, I was busy at work introducing myself to my—”

“Victim?”

Taug’s eyes darkened as his fixed smile stiffened. “No, my patient. I intend to study him. My instructions are deceptively simple, but I’m not sure that anyone really understands what they mean.”

“So, why am I here? I have no interest in your studies or your instructions.”

“Your interest is beside the point. I must keep my options open. Above all, I must appear to be following orders. You will assure me of success, no matter what happens.”

“How?”

“If necessary, you will kill my patient.”

“If I would rather not?”

“Why would you not? He’s nothing to you. You care for no one, remember?”

“When did I say that?”

“You have lived that way your whole existence.”

“I might have changed.”

Taug lifted his datapad. “I am not offering you your past. I am offering you a future.” He tapped on the screen and a hologram of Justine appeared in front of them. The spaces designated for name and biography were blank. “Once this task is complete, you will be free to become whomever you wish.”

Justine paced to the window and peered at the milling throng. She could see every grimace, laugh, and furrowed brow. The image of a small crumpled face and wobbling lips forced her to close her eyes.

Taug twitched behind her.

Justine opened her eyes, turned, and locked onto his gaze. “As you say, I do not lack imagination.”

Taug beamed.

~~~

In a calf-length, billowing dress, Justine stood as still as a statue on the Vandi city sidewalk beside a red and yellow lettered sign alerting the pubic to the Book Nook’s “Out of This World Sale.”

Derik bustled by, nearly knocking it into the street.

Justine’s eyes monitored his every move as he neared the busy intersection. Scrolling through a Cresta-sized datapad, he did not see a teen weaving through the crowd in his direction. Suddenly, the boy sprang between him and a waiting Bhuac and then darted forward.

As he was jostled, Derik frowned and looked up in time to see the boy sprint in front of an on-coming autoskimmer. Derik gripped the teen’s arm and yanked him onto his backside.

Justine’s eyes narrowed.

Within seconds, Derik was at the teen’s side, concern etched across his brow.

The teen nodded and bounced to his feet.

Derik patted him on the back. In another moment, the teen was pacing away while Derik’s attention returned to his datapad.

Pursing her lips in determination, Justine marched ahead of Derik, placed herself just within his field of vision, and proceeded to step in front of an oncoming autoskimmer.

Screams set the crowd into action. A Bhuac shrieked for medical assistance, while a Cresta caught the autoskimmer driver—a shaking human with horrified eyes—in a death grip. “Reckless driver!”

The driver protested her innocence, writhing in misery.

Lying prone, Justine looked away and waited.

Derik hobbled over. “Can I help?”

Relief animated Justine’s face. She rose to a sitting position. “I’m all right, just shaken.” She jutted her chin in the direction of the driver and the outraged Cresta. “It wasn’t her fault. I wasn’t looking.” She darted a glance at the driver with a shrug. “Sorry. My mistake.”

The woman huffed, shook off the offending tentacles, and retreated to her vehicle. “Be more careful, would you? Could’ve gotten us both killed.”

Justine nodded. Her eyes skipped back to Derik, and she tilted her head charmingly. She peered into Derik’s brown orbs. Smattered offers of assistance faded into the background. “Could you find me a place to rest?”

Derik glanced about. “Vandi Park is just across the street.”

With a regal-like wave of the hand, she gestured her acceptance. “Please.”

Grinning, Derik led his damsel-in-distress through the gawking crowd. He motioned to a forest-green bench picturesquely placed underneath a golden-red maple tree.

Justine crossed her beautifully shaped legs, threw back her head as the cool autumn breeze caressed her hair, and closed her eyes.

Derik leaned against the tree, his eyes traveling over her perfect form.

Justine opened her violet eyes and caught Derik’s admiring gaze. “You’re a gentleman, sir. Most people get very excited but are of little use in a crisis.”

Raking his fingers through his hair, Derik shrugged. “I like to help when I can.”

Justine’s gaze traveled down Derik’s body, landing unceremoniously on his Cresta-style boots.

After swallowing, Derik coughed and looked away. “I’ve never seen you before. I work in the housing department, so I see almost everyone every couple of years when they renew their permits. You live around here?”

Justine shook her head and searched Derik’s pensive face. “Not yet. I just arrived a few days ago. If you have any suggestions—?”

Derik returned his gaze to her with a twinkling grin. “How about dinner and we discuss possibilities?”

Justine’s eyebrows rose. Yes, she had to agree with Taug, this mixed breed might be worth getting to know.

~~~

A solid knock shattered Derik’s free-spirited humming. His hand froze over the top button of his dress shirt as he darted a scowl from the hall mirror to the new three-paneled door. Five indecisive seconds passed before he marched over and swung the door wide. “What?”

Cerulean, straight shouldered and dressed in a casual jacket and slacks, stood before him, one eyebrow raised. “Please tell me you don’t do that every time someone knocks on your door.”

Derik’s scowl darkened. “What’s it to you?”

Cerulean pointed into the living room. “May I? This isn’t the kind of thing I like to discuss in the hallway.”

Derik threw up his hands. “Why not? Seems like everyone feels more comfortable in my living room.”

Cerulean appraised the large bookshelves, the assortment of Oldearth artifacts, and two very good oil paintings.

“You’re not here to tell me that you plan to kill me? Are you?”

Cerulean spun around. “No. Why do you ask?”

“It’s been done once this week. It’d get boring if we repeated it.”

Cerulean heaved a sigh. “That’s what I was afraid of. I told Clare this was too big for her.”

“You know Clare? The detective for Human Services?”

“She’s a friend of mine. My name is Cerulean.” He offered his hand.

Derik’s gaze shifted aside, passing up the offer. “Yeah, well, she’s a friend of mine too, but she can’t help me now.” Reflexively, Derik smoothed down his shirtsleeves.

“Why is that?”

“Listen, you just barge in here acting like you know all about me and—wait, what do you know?”

Cerulean nodded toward the couch. “May I?”

Waving his hand in impatience, Derik tramped across the room. “Just sit, would you? Now talk!”

With an ill-boding creak, the couch sagged as Cerulean sat precariously on the edge and laced his fingers. “It’s not complicated. Clare told me about your predicament. She’s gotten the DNA results back and—”

Retreating to the hall mirror, Derik made quick adjustments. He sucked in his gut, tucked his shirttails, and straightened his collar. “I got the results too. Some Cresta brain created me in his lab, and it turns out that his son—Taug by name—has been sent to eliminate his father’s—shall we say—indiscretion.”

Cerulean rose, his face flushed. “How’d you find out about Taug? I had to pull a lot of strings to learn that. It was a Taugron who created you.”

Turning from side to side, Derik nodded approval at his appearance. “Well, Taugron must be Taug’s dad because he told me that his father created me.” A quick run-through with the brush and Derik stood in front of Cerulean. “He explained the whole thing very nicely…considering.”

The sun could have just imploded from the expression on Cerulean’s face. “Taug was here?”

“Sat on that very same couch. He was actually pretty nice, even bandaged—anyway, he’s not planning on eliminating me—today.”

Cerulean slapped his hand to his cheek and paced across the room. “I don’t understand. Why reveal himself?” He spun around. “What did he want?”

White knuckling the edge of the couch, Derik tried to pass off a lighthearted shrug. “To tell me the truth. He figured that if I understood why I was created, maybe I’d be able to accept the need to eliminate me.”

“What?” Cerulean gripped Derik’s arm. “And you believe him? He’s a Cresta!”

His affected composure failing, Derik jerked his arm free. “He cares about me!”

Cerulean snorted as he backed off. “Crestas don’t care about anyone outside their own race.”

Pulling himself up to full height, Derik rolled up one sleeve and revealed his darkened, enlarged arms. “I’m Cresta, remember?”

“Only thirty-seven percent—remember?”

A sharp knock on the door froze them in place. With a shake, Derik glared at Cerulean and marched to the door.

Cerulean stepped in his way. “Be careful. You don’t know who’s out there.”

Derik nudged Cerulean aside. “My days of being careful are over. Besides, I have a date, and I’m not about to be late.”

Derik flung open the door and faced Justine’s perfect face and form.

Her violet eyes peered into his. “I thought we were supposed to meet at the Coliseum an hour ago. You didn’t show up so I—”

“An hour ago?” Derik fumbled to retrieve his datapad from a deep pocket. His eyes widened. “It’s dead! I thought these never died. I mean—sorry, come in. I appreciate your concern.” He glared at Cerulean. “Some other day, eh?” He flashed a lopsided grin at Justine. “I’ll just grab my jacket.” Derik hurried down the hall, speaking over his shoulder. “Bye, Cerulean.”

Cerulean wandered closer to the woman, mesmerized.

Justine stood her ground, her gaze roaming freely over Cerulean. An image of him standing over her filled her mind. She felt the warmth of his touch—“Cerulean?”

“Justine?”

Derik reentered the room glancing from Justine to Cerulean. “Still here?” He sidestepped the older man. “If you want to stay, fine. There’s not much to steal but lock up when you leave.” He took Justine’s arm. “Let’s go.” Suddenly he frowned and stopped in mid-step. “Wait. How’d you know where I lived?”

Justine smiled brilliantly as she wrapped his bulky arm around hers. “You said you worked at the Housing Department. I looked you up. Easy.”

Derik continued his forward momentum. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Getting paranoid.”

Justine glanced into Cerulean’s eyes as she passed. “Bye, Cerulean”

Cerulean nodded. “Justine.”

~~~

Mitholie’s relaxed, dripping face appeared on a wide holo-screen. His tentacles rested on the hard edge of a murky green pool. He beamed. “Hello, my friend! How do you like your new home?”

With aching feet and chaffed skin, Taug stood stiffly in front of a stark wall-sized screen in the laboratory and smirked in re- retaliation. “Newearth has been very pleasant, though it’s always a challenge getting accustomed to the necessary adaptations.”

“Ah, yes. I hate the suits. Life out of water.” The smug grin widened. “But never mind; you were made for adventure. I assume you have news?”

Taug huffed through his breather helm, his tentacles clenched around his middle as if holding back spontaneous combustion. “I have made contact and arranged for a skilled professional to attend to the situation.”

Mitholie’s upper body wiggled in exuberance. “Wonderful! Wonderful! The dark waters will converge, covering everything. Your father’s memory will be only that—a memory.”

Taug’s tentacles squeezed tighter. “Thank you.”

A grand wave dismissed Taug’s humility. “Don’t thank me. I just want to see you home again. Soon. There are changes planned.” Mitholie’s eyes glittered, reflecting rainbows dancing off the gentle waves.

“I will see to matters.”

“Good! Very good! I know it’s annoying, but the High Council—”

“Understood.”

Mitholie readied himself for an exuberant dive. “After all, it’s a small matter.” He nodded to the pool. “The water calls.”

Taug unwrapped his tentacles, spreading them wide in obeisance as he bowed his head.

The screen blinked into blackness.

As he stood alone in the dry, dark room, Taug’s head rose, his shoulders straightened, and a gleam sparkled from his half-lidded eyes.

“More important than finding the truth—is finding the reason why one needs to lie.”
~Mystqx Skye

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Five

Who Cares?

With a brown bag pressed to his chest, Cerulean savored the sweet taste in his mouth. No matter how long he lived among humans, he never ceased to marvel at the sheer variety of sense stimulations. Oatmeal-raisin-chocolate chip cookies had to be near the top of his personal list of favorites.

The sun lowered toward the horizon, casting long shadows. Gray clouds crisscrossed the sky while gnarled, old trees adorned their leafy tops with shades of pale yellow and brilliant orange. Flocks of geese gathered on the water’s edge and made final preparations for their hurried flights to warmer and sunnier climates.

Relaxing on his porch, Cerulean peered down into the valley and watched the miniature forms of his neighbors chop a felled tree into manageable pieces. The distant echo of the ax thwacking to the rhythmic ebb and flow of their alternating strokes comforted him. No one could be sick on such a beautiful day in such a vibrant world. Especially not him.

As he was one of the founders of Newearth, he’d had the first pick of the land. He had considered settling on Anne’s old homestead, but the emotionally-charged memories overwhelmed him. Instead, he had moved north, into Wisconsin Territory, on property bordering a great lake. It had once been the site of an extensive stone and wood mansion. He had found enough ruins bearing testimony to the past owner’s investment to assure him that he was not the first to value this particular view. The blue lake spread majestically before him, while a verdant valley lay to the east. Thick woods shrouded the northwest.

Cerulean sighed. He had accepted the protector role with weary hesitation, but even in their short acquaintance, he had come to love and respect these honest families and the lives they crafted in natural simplicity. Giving in to the innocent pleasure of a sweet morsel, he leaned back and closed his eyes.

“Hey, handsome. Got time for a world-weary detective?”

Cerulean choked on his cookie as he jerked forward.

Clare, looking not unlike her great-great-aunt Jackie, stared at him through teasing eyes.

Brushing away imaginary crumbs to regain his stricken dignity, Cerulean glared at her. “Why do you always sneak up on me like that?”

“It’s in my job description…being sneaky. How else am I going to find the latest killer?”

Cerulean nudged the other rocker in her direction with his toe. “Yeah, killer-catcher. Here, sit down. Tell me about it. Life has been quiet of late.”

Clare plopped down with a heavy sigh, her gaze absorbing the gorgeous scene. “I wish I had a retreat like this.”

“You can retreat here—anytime. You know that.” Cerulean eyed the dark circles under Clare’s eyes and her furrowed brow. “I thought you loved your work. You’ve wanted to become a Human Services Detective for so long—”

Clare leaned forward, slapping her hands over her eyes and groaned. “Oh, Cerulean, if only you knew!”

Rising, Cerulean shuffled to Clare’s side. “Hey, now, it can’t be that bad. There’s no war declared…that I know of. You’re in one piece.” Cerulean stroked her hair.

Clare sniffed, raised her head, and rubbed her eyes. “Sorry. It’s just that sometimes—”

With a grin, Cerulean waved her explanation aside. “Trust me, I understand—more than you know.” He reached for his paper bag. “Want a cookie?”

Clare sighed and pulled out a sample.

“I can do even better than that. See those fellows down there? Their wives grow the best tea this side of the Divide. It’s great for the nerves and helps you sleep. How about I brew some?”

A flock of birds settled in the trees off to the left, chirping their last songs of the day. The lake turned from blue to gray-black as clouds marshaled their forces overhead and the sunlight faded into twilight.

“Yeah, sure. I could use something.”

Cerulean led the way into a spacious, wood-beamed, country kitchen. He took a canister from the shelf and pried off the top. He motioned to an assortment of cups on the dish rack. “Go ahead; pick one. I’ll get the water on.”

A puzzle lay strewn across a large, oak table, framed by matching benches. After setting everything in order, Cerulean sat across Clare and motioned to the partially assembled picture of the Luxonian skyline. “It helps pass the time. Feel free.”

Clare slid onto the bench and picked up a red border and slid it into an empty slot. It fit perfectly. She shrugged. “Beginner’s luck.”

Cerulean picked up another piece and considered his options. “So, tell me, why can’t you sleep?”

Clare closed her eyes, clenching her hands. “It’s these dreams. You remember when my parents died? Everyone said it was an accident, but I never believed that. My mom knew her fungi. She’d never make a mushroom soup out of those poisonous things. The whole thing reeked of foul play.”

Cerulean tried to force a piece into place. “Why would anyone want to poison your parents? They had no known enemies. There weren’t any aliens around their place for a hundred kilometers. Frankly, I could never make any sense out of their deaths either. It could’ve been an accident.”

Clare linked three pieces together, puckering her brow as she considered where to put them. “Shortly before their deaths, I started having dreams. Something…someone came to me at night, a mind visitor of sorts. He had a husky voice, like he was using a translator or something. He seemed to want to be my friend—at first. He told me he was lonely.” Clare dropped the pieces and they fell apart. She shuddered. “I was just a little kid; I believed him. My parents used to talk about how Great-Aunt Anne thought you were a guardian angel. And when I asked what an angel was, they described a heavenly spirit. So, I thought—”

Cerulean swallowed. His face paled as he stopped trying to force the piece and considered it more closely. “So, what happened to him?”

Clare fiddled with the pieces she had dropped. “Nothing much. He’d come every now and again and ask me how I felt. Weird. He liked it when I described my feelings. He knew a lot about me, but he always wanted more.”

“Comforting you?”

“No.” Clare shook her head, wisps of disheveled hair falling into her eyes. “He just wanted to know how I felt—no matter how bad. I told my parents, but they thought I’d been dreaming. And I figured they must be right—until the day they died. He hadn’t communicated with me for a while and I’d thought he was gone, but that night, he came back. He wanted to know how it felt to see my parents dead.” Tears slipped down Clare’s cheeks. “I told him to go away and never come back.”

Cerulean’s gaze fixed on Clare. “Did he?”

“He tried a few more times…but I closed my mind. I recited math formulas, sang snatches of songs, prayers…anything to block him out. Eventually he…it gave up.” Clare heaved a sigh as she surveyed the puzzle again.

The kettle whistled. Cerulean rose and poured steamy, hot water into the teapot. He nudged the sugar towards Clare and returned to his bench. “I wish I had something a bit stronger.”

Wearily, Clare poured the fresh brew into her cup. She took a tentative sip and forced a smile. “It’s good.”

Cerulean poured himself a cup and blew a cleansing breath. “So, what’s brought all this back now? Has he returned?”

“Not exactly. It’s just that I’m working for this guy, Derik. He’s supposed to be human but now…well, it looks like he’s the product of some kind of a mixed-race experiment. From everything I’ve discovered, and I’ve been doing a lot of digging, there have been only two other cases of this kind, and they were hushed up real quick. All evidence was destroyed and everyone pretended that it never happened. Lucky for me, I have friends, so I was able to interview some key people.”

“You think this guy is related somehow to the voice you heard?”

“I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve carried this secret with me for twenty years, and this guy’s been lied to all his life. As far as some races are concerned, we’re nothing but pests, for others, we’re lab rats.”

“Very illegal.”

“Oh, but it happens. Don’t bat your innocent blue eyes at me. I know you don’t like to think about it, but even Luxonians….”

Cerulean frowned. “That was a long time ago and only some Luxonians.”

Clare picked up another puzzle piece and waved it in the air. “I know, and I’m not trying to be unfair. It’s just that I really want to help this guy, but I’m afraid of what I’m up against.”

Cerulean snapped his piece into place. “Once you have identified his DNA, what more can you do? You figured that out, right?”

“Yeah, he’s part Cresta. Poor guy. I don’t even want to tell him. The lab reports came to my office yesterday. He’s a nice guy, but I wonder what this’ll do to him.”

Cerulean nodded and rose. He peered into a black bay window, which reflected his somber face. “That’s not the worst, I assure you.”

Clare stared at his back. “Why?”

Turning around, Cerulean met Clare’s demanding gaze. “He’s illegal.”

Clare slid off the bench. “Well, that’s hardly his fault. It’s against the law to murder a sentient being, no matter its heritage.”

“I doubt his creators will care.”

“Oh—” Clare’s eyes widened, horror-struck. “If anyone else finds out what I’ve done, and it leads back— I’ve got to warn him!” Clare raced to the door.

Cerulean grabbed her by the arm. “You’ll do no such thing! You’re already in over your head. Wait and let me think. That voice you heard—that scares me more than your friend’s story.“

“But I can’t abandon Derik! He needs me.”

“You won’t. We won’t. I have friends too, you know.” Cerulean rescued the puzzle piece from Clare’s hand and placed it on the table. “We’ll figure this out—together.”

~~~

Clare sat in her living room in the small farming town of Waukee and stared at the DNA report on her computer screen. Derik Erland: 37% Cresta, 63% human. “Well, at least the human part outweighs the Cresta.” She pounded the desk. “Damn! He might end up all Cresta.”

Blaring music pounded from her neighbor’s house. Clare glared at the open window. Part of the reason she had moved into this ramshackle, country house was to avoid the crush of the city and revel in open spaces. Most of her neighbors were the typical farmer-types, quiet and with little nightlife. She had assumed that also meant little music-life, but this particular neighbor clashed with rural tradition. As a middle-aged musician, she would float strands of haunting Oldearth classical music into the somnolent darkness at midnight, then turn around and blare Newearth jingles by day, and throw in an eclectic mix of alien-tunes at odd moments to startle everyone. Clare sighed.

After striding to the open window, she considered shutting out the sound, but she knew from experience that would only mute the cacophony to an irritating thump. There was no way to solve a stupid neighbor problem, other than put up with it until fate intervened. She hoped that fate had nimble feet.

She shuffled back to her computer and shook her head at the open file. If she abandoned Derik’s case, she might as well abandon a dozen others. None of them were safe. Being human wasn’t safe. So why did she want to let this case slip by? She pictured Derik’s face and smiled, but then she remembered his Cresta DNA and shivered.

Someone outside yelled. “Hey, honey, you keep that music so loud, you’ll attract a nest of Ugani and you’ll have a party on your hands.”

The music stopped.

Clare ran to the front door and swung it open. Bala’s wife, Kendra, stood on the doorstep, a dish pressed to her chest. “I thought I’d bring this back since I was in the neighborhood.” She glanced at the neighbor’s house. “Whoo-hoo! You weren’t exaggerating. I should send Bala over with a warrant. That woman should be locked up in isolation for a month. Nothing will cure a person of foolishness faster than having to keep themselves sane.”

Clare blinked as she relieved Kendra of the casserole dish and squeezed her in a quick hug. “Come on in. I could use someone with common sense.”

Kendra bounced into the kitchen and laughed. “Oh good! You got someone with common sense inside? Can’t wait to meet ‘em…been waiting my whole life.”

Clare shut the door and led Kendra to her small, single counter. “Want something?”

“Water would be a blessing. I thought I’d melt with pity, leaving Bala with the kids. He was being buried under little bodies as I stepped out the door…”

“Bala’s as capable of manhandling that mob of yours as anyone I know. If you’re not careful, he’ll have them all practicing to be good little soldiers in God’s army and have the whole house swept and polished by the time you get back.”

Kendra’s eyes twinkled as she accepted the glass of water.

“It would be like him. Dear, skinny man.” Kendra took a long drink and then ran an appraising gaze over Clare. “So what’s going on with you? Bala said you practically abandoned him, leaving him to handle the Hoggsworth case while you took sole control of this mixed-race—”

“He told you!” A fierce blush ran rampant over Clare’s face. “About Derik being mixed race? He wasn’t supposed to tell anybody!”

“Oh, don’t worry. Bala tells me everything, and I tell him practically nothing. I’m not about to get your poor Derik killed. That’s not why I’m here.”

Clare’s eyes narrowed. “So? Why are you here?”

Pointing to the counter, Kendra sniffed. “Casserole dish.” She clapped her hands, discharging the heavyweight of responsibility. “I hate leftover dishes, especially the Oldearth ceramic kind. I get all paranoid that it’ll break and I’ll have to buy a new one, except they don’t make that kind anymore so I’ll have to take some stupid ceramic class, and it’ll take me about twenty years to figure out how they do that glazing thing, and by then I’ll be in my grave doing time you-know-where for breaking the blinking thing in the first place.” Kendra glanced at her datapad. “Oh, and I have a package to get out. When does your transport close?”

Clare eyed her computer. “In about ten minutes.”

“Oh, glory! Come on. It’s a wedding present…and the wedding’s tomorrow. My name will be synonymous with mud if I don’t hold up the family’s honor with the perfect gift. You know.”

Kendra rushed out of the house, snatched a package out of her autoskimmer, and looked wildly for the Trans-station.

Clare hustled out the door after Kendra. “Down one block, on the right. Here, I’ll show you. Stop floundering and hurry.”

Kendra jogged in step with Clare, who frowned in concentration as if thinking about it would get them there that much faster.

Matching her frown to Clare’s, Kendra waved her free hand. “Dark skies, you look sour! My name might be ruined, but that’s no reason for you to look so grim. What’s going on?”

Clare slowed her pace and nodded to the yellow stone building in front of them. “It’s Derik. I like the guy well enough, but I’d rather not deal with this mess. After all, he’s over thirty percent Cresta. Who knows—?”

Kendra’s eyebrows rose as she took the steps two at a time. “You want to restate that?”

Clare kept pace. “Don’t worry, they’ll stay open for us.” She pushed open the door and entered the Trans-station.

A Bhuac looking very much like an enchanted fairy stood behind the counter.

Kendra deposited her package, allowing the Bhuac to calculate the cost. She turned and faced Clare, her raised eyebrows returning to their previous subject.

Clare leaned on the counter. “Oh, come on. We’ve been dealing with Crestas all our lives. They’re not misunderstood good guys. When we finally find a case where a Cresta is actually innocent, I still wish I could arrest him since I know that he’ll probably commit a crime first chance he gets.”

The Bhuac cleared his throat. “That’ll be 1.23 units.”

Kendra grinned. “Better than I hoped. It’ll get there tomorrow?”

The Bhuac nodded. “By sunrise.”

“You just saved my life.”

The perfect, almond-shaped eyes twinkled. “Glad to be of service.”

Kendra winked at the Bhuac as she left. Sauntering down the steps, she whispered, “They are so cute! Don’t you just want to pick them up and hug ’em?”

“I don’t think that would be…understood.”

“Oh, you know what I mean. They’re so adorable—”

“Bhuacs love idealized forms of creation. They discovered an equivalent tendency in our Oldearth fairies, nymphs, and elves. So, whenever they take on human form, they maintain a bit of the fairy-tale style. Haven’t you ever noticed? You can always tell a Bhuac that way.”

Kendra slapped her face in fascination. “The things you learn as a detective! But—clue me in—when, exactly, did you get infused with the wisdom of God?”

Clare stopped mid-step and turned to face Kendra. “What?”

Kendra mimicked Clare’s inflection perfectly: “After all, he’s over thirty percent Cresta.”

“I’m just telling it like it is.”

Kendra nodded and strode toward her autoskimmer. “So, Derik’s guilty by DNA?”

“You’re putting words in my mouth.”

“I’d rather put sense in your head. Look, Clare, I understand your aversion to Crestas. I feel it too. But I fight against it. Crestas have formed agreements with us and, for the most part, they’ve kept up their end. There are traitors. There’re always traitors, but that’s not the point.”

Clare crossed her arms over her chest. “What is the point? What makes me unfit to judge another race?”

“Free choice.”

“Free choice? That’s what gives me the right—”

“Condemning a whole race is easy, a lunatic’s response. Only the best of us remember our humanity.”

Clare stopped beside Kendra’s autoskimmer and sighed. “Maybe you’re right. My DNA isn’t so perfect. Only human, after all….”

“Aw, you just need to find the right match. Nothing does so much for a woman’s good sense as looking after a husband.”

Kendra hugged Clare, climbed on her autoskimmer, and slipped a pair of pink goggles over her eyes. “Now, I’d better hurry back to my match…and see if I can scrape him off the floor.”

~~~

Standing in his apartment bathroom, Derik peered at his reflection in the mirror and appraised what he saw in cold honesty. He had no doubt the DNA reports were correct. Surely his parents had suspected. Why didn’t they tell me? He rubbed his weary, puffy eyes. They probably hoped it would stay dormant so I’d go to my grave never knowing.

A scuffle outside his door made him turn and frown at the offending sound. After a brave attempt to fix his autoskimmer nearly blew him to bits, he realized that he’d best not attempt any serious home repairs. So he had chosen to live on the second story of a well-managed apartment building. All had gone well, until recently.

A noisy pair of Crestas had moved in on the floor above, and they had a never-ending stream of late-night visitors. If he believed Crestas capable of romance, he would have smiled the incidents away. But Cresta mating procedures were legal affairs and occurred at set times in very specific locations. Midnight interludes with a lady friend simply didn’t enter the Cresta imagination. Though… Derik riffled through some books he had ordered on Cresta life and culture. He had read something about it being a very passionate, almost deadly event. Apparently Cresta females—Derik closed his eyes. No. He didn’t want to think about it.

Tiptoeing to the door, he pressed his ear against the thin wood and listened. The hissing of a breather helm was plain. Someone, probably a Cresta, stood right outside his door. Derik closed his eyes. Dang! Dang! Dang!

A muffled tap startled him.

In a sudden fit of passion, Derik kicked the door. The armored shoe he had taken to wearing to protect his now nearly boneless feet bashed right through the thin composite door.

“Hello?” The mechanical voice sounded curious.

Derik tried to extricate his foot, pushing on the frame as the hinges loosened. “Dang, cheap stuff! I pay good rent and—” With a quick, furious jerk, Derik stood before a wide-eyed Cresta, the door still attached to his foot, hanging at a crazy angle. He chose to ignore the door and struck a casual attitude. “Yes? Can I help you?”

The Cresta barely suppressed a smile. “I believe you can. But may I help you first?” He gripped the door and held it steady.

Derik jiggled his foot until it was free. A long bloody smear showed where a splinter had scratched his leg.

The Cresta pointed with a tentacle. “That looks painful…and dangerous. We should do something.”

Derik backed up, nearly tripping. “Ah, no, it’s nothing. I get scraped all the time. I just ignore it.” A clown would have envied his lopsided grin.

The Cresta lumbered into Derik’s apartment, neatly sidestepping the splinters. “Definitely a bad idea. Infections can lead to sepsis and that will cause death. I’ve seen it before. That’s why I wear this.” He gestured forlornly to his bio-suit. “You see; I know how it feels to be vulnerable.”

Derik propped himself against his bookshelf, clasping his shaking hands. Sweat trickled down the side of his face. “Do I know you…from somewhere?”

The Cresta stumped to Derik’s enormous fish tank and with a wide, childlike grin, he dipped a tentacle into the water. “Beautiful! I should’ve thought….” He turned and faced Derik. “But no, you don’t know me. I, however, know all about you.” The Cresta waved a tentacle in the air. “Please, let’s sit. Something this important should not be rushed.”

Derik’s eyes darted to Cresta-shaped shadows in the open doorway.

“Don’t worry. I asked a couple of my associates to see that no one interrupts us.” The Cresta waved his tentacle again. “Please sit. You’re like an unschooled hatchling.” He chuckled, softly.

Derik stood immobile, his fingers white and bloodless. “Look, I hate to be rude, but I don’t particularly like it when people show up at my door uninvited and then—”

“You had better see to that cut. You will bleed all over your clothes.”

Derik pulled up his pant leg and forced back a gasp. Closing his eyes he swayed and then sat down. He squeezed his hand over the wound.

The Cresta gestured airily with a tentacle. “Where do you keep your bandages?”

Derik winced and nodded to the left. “In the bathroom.”

The Cresta shuffled off.

Derik studied his leg. “Great! Clumsy as a Cresta, but I bleed like a human.”

The Cresta returned with a white package and a small scissors in its tentacles. “Here we are. We’ll have you fixed up in no time.” He motioned for Derik to move over on the couch.

Derik did as directed and looked away during the procedure. He hated to see the tentacles working across his bare flesh, though he had to admit that the Cresta’s touch was very light, and he felt not a particle of pain.

“Done! Good as new.” The Cresta’s golden eyes glowed with the pride of a job well done.

Derik remembered his manners. “Thanks.”

Depositing the last of the bandage roll on the coffee table, the Cresta leaned back and folded its tentacles. “My name is Taug, and I’ve been sent here to kill you.”

Derik’s whole body jerked, his eyes wide and staring.

Taug reached out protectively. “Don’t. There’s no need to panic. I haven’t decided to follow orders—yet.” Taug resituated his tentacles on his lap, attempting to find a comfortable position for what promised to be a serious chat. “You see, you are the result of my father’s dream. But Crestas signed an agreement years ago with the Inter-Alien Commission to never perform crossbreed experiments. That doesn’t mean we don’t perform other experiments, but it does mean that obvious proof of our breaking the law would put us—shall we say—in dark waters. So, you, as a mixed-breed human, are in need of aid and advice. I am here to give that.”

Derik was trying hard not to swallow his heart, which had somehow managed to climb into his throat. “Mr. Taug, I appreciate—”

“Just call me Taug.”

“Well, Taug….” Derik wrapped his arms around his body and tried not throw up. “I appreciate what you are trying to do—I think. But the fact is—” He jumped to his feet and winced.

Pacing around the room, he hugged himself to keep the shakes from rattling him into a million pieces. “Humans won’t accept me and, as you say, I’m an embarrassing mistake to Crestas.” He stopped and stared at Taug defiantly. “If I had an ounce of courage, I’d drown myself.”

“Ah, that would be difficult. You’re growing gills—the Cresta in you, I’m afraid.”

Derik hung his head. Tears welled in his eyes, but he forced himself to maintain control with a violent shudder.

Taug appraised Derik with concern. “You are unwell. I understand that this is a shock. Though you must have known that you were not fully human for some time now. Crestas begin to mature at about thirty.”

“I’m thirty-five.”

Waving the difference away like an indulgent father, Taug attempted a soothing tone. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. Some develop a little slower than others.”

“Oh, God.”

Taug blinked as he turned his full gaze upon Derik. “I came here to appraise the true situation. It’s not your fault that you were created by a well-meaning being who misjudged the generosity of his race.”

Derik raised his head. “Excuse me?”

Taug’s tentacles spread benevolently before him. “That’s why I’ve come. You have a right to know. Even if we are forced to…eliminate you, at least you have a right to understand why you were created, and perhaps, why you must die.”

A tear slid down Derik’s cheek. “You know, it sounds awful when you say it, but in a way, I’m relieved. I wanted to know. And I appreciate the decency in you to be willing to explain.”

Taug bowed his head and tapped two tentacles together meditatively. “My father was a scientist and a dreamer. My mother found certain aspects of his personality…challenging. She said he ought to write fiction.” Taug wiggled gleefully. “They were like that, playful insults swirling through the water at all hours. But I digress.

“My father believed that Newearth embodied the ideal experimental environment. He knew, all too well, that inter-alien conflicts waste tremendous resources. He felt that there had to be a better way. So, he approached our scientific leadership with the idea of creating crossbreeds to ensure better relations, but the Inter-Alien Commission had just signed a treaty to desist from crossbreeding with humans. Seems that humans can’t see protein for what it is…but that’s another debate.

“My father decided to create one crossbreed in secret, hoping that if he could raise the thing, it would prove his theory. Apparently, two others, quite inferior, were created, soon discovered, and quickly destroyed. Then you were created, but not long after, my father died. I have always wondered if—but, again, I digress.

“Someone—I have long suspected my mother—stole you away and placed you in an adoption agency. You have lived, hidden in plain sight these thirty-five years. Only recently were we made aware that you were beginning to develop. My superiors approached me with clear instructions.”

“To kill me.”

“To eliminate my father’s mistake.” Taug patted Derik on the knee with one tentacle. “But you know, there are many ways to approach the word eliminate. Now that I’ve met you, I want to consider matters more deeply before taking action.”

“You mean—you’re not going to kill me?”

“Not today.” Taug rose to his feet. “You must understand. If it gets out that we broke our word and, worse yet, that we kept the result hidden after we discovered our mistake, it would look very bad, indeed. No one would trust us again. And trust is what makes the world go round, they say.”

Derik’s eyes begged. “But I’m an innocent man.”

“Yes, there’s that too.” Taug lumbered toward the broken door. “I have much to consider. There are more beings than myself involved. You understand?”

Derik shuffled in step with Taug. He stared absently at the splintered frame.

“You’ll need to get that fixed. Oh, and take care of that wound. We don’t want that to fester.”

Derik ran a finger along the ragged edge. “Who cares?”

Stepping through the doorway, Taug murmured. “I do.”

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ~Mother Teresa

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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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.

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

Once Upon A Time They Were Here

Sometimes life just turns pure strange, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I received an email this week from someone wanting to know where three bodies were buried.

Now before you jump to unholy conclusions, I happen to be the cemetery secretary for our little town. So the question was perfectly legitimate. Though—it turned out—not so easy to answer.

The woman asking was kind enough to send copies of three obituaries so I knew that the deceased persons in question were, in fact, former residents and buried at our cemetery.

So far so good. Just look the names up in the official cemetery computer file, which was crafted a few years ago, so it only goes back so far and then…well…good luck, buddy. Search the paper files and maps.

I did both and came up with four sites bought in their names. Boy-o-boy, I felt good. Nancy Drew had nothing on me. In a fit of generosity, I decided to go out and take a picture of the tombstone to send the family.

I get to the right place…find the right section and site…and match up all the tombstone names for the area. Except for the ones I am looking for. I find grass. Lots of green grass where the bodies should be. At least, where a particular tombstone should be.

Nada.

So a few more phone calls, pleas for assistance from previous cemetery secretaries. And as Luck-Would-Have-It, One-of-the-Knowledgeable-Ones just happens to be driving by. Divine Intervention? Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking too.

So I meet him and tell him my quandary. He steps out of his truck. Takes a long look. I explain that since there isn’t any tombstone, the family wants to place one on the right site. But, here’s my fix, where are the bodies…exactly?

So he steps back to his truck and takes out Divining Rods. Uh…oh… Then he paces up and down the area, and the rods move as he steps over two of the gravesites, but stay still over the other two. Now, I’m really in a fix. There are supposed to be three bodies. And I don’t know who the two are and where the third is…or what might have happened.

Besides that, I don’t believe in diving rods so the whole thing is ridiculous anyway.

Apparently, my face must’ve shown some level of doubt.

He handed me the rods and told me to try. Bloody heck, I insist that I don’t have the power…but he just waves me on. So I hold the durn things in my hands, letting them rest there, (making sure I’m not moving my hands) because I know perfectly well I’m going to be condemned by both science and religion for this one.

I pace across the grass. Those blamed things moved every time I stepped over a grave and over the two grassy sites where I’m wondering who’s on first. Or in graves numbered 4 & 5, as the case may be.

So there you have it. Ann Frailey’s leap into the deep end of strange. I did let the family know that, as best I can tell, we can place a stone at the head of sites 4 & 5. Yes, I did tell her how I “know” someone is buried there. Or don’t know. As the case may be. Funny, but she never responded back…

I can’t blame her.

I don’t know what to think about the matter. I’m perfectly well aware that scientists are laughing and any serious religious person has stepped a safe distance from the bolt of lightning that ought to be hitting me any time now.

All I do know is that three people are buried in unmarked graves…and someone hasn’t forgotten them entirely.

Next time I’m out there, I’ll probably stop by. Because the more I do this job, the more I appreciate gravesites. Not that I think anyone is there waiting for a chat. I know they have moved on.

But because once upon a time they were here. With us.

And that still matters.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

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

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter 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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

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Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter One

All My Sins Remembered

“We have definite…” The Luxonian Supreme Judge in a trim human form and dressed in a dark blue robe, stirred in her seat, “…proof that you assassinated well over a hundred and fifty beings on the troop transport called…” She glanced down at a datapad, “…the Generous Sharon.” She fixed her black-eyed gaze on the lone figure standing on the floating dock with narrowed eyes.

Well over fifty delegates had gathered at Bothmal Criminal Court and sat on comfortable chairs, each tailored for a particular species. Every sentient race on the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, including Ingots, Uanyi, Crestas, Luxonians, Bhuacs, and humans had at least one representative in attendance. No race wanted to be absent from this trial. Hundreds more sat in the court’s upper wings, savoring the spectacle while millions watched the unfolding drama on holoscreens.

The figure standing silently at the center of this hurricane of watchful emotion was a biomechanical hybrid, an android built in female form, in this case, human. Long black hair fell like a cascading waterfall down her back; her blue eyes stared straight ahead, peering into shadows. Massive cuffs, secured with powerful magnets and chains, were locked tightly about her wrists and ankles.

The android moved slightly, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. An expectant hush settled over the assembly. The silvery rattle and clanking of chains broke the quiet.

“Well?” The Supreme Judge leaned forward in her chair, fixing the prisoner with narrowed eyes and lowered brows.

“Yes.” The word was a sigh, not of regret, but of weariness or boredom. “Yes, I killed them.” She glanced up at the massive holoscreen hovering over the assembly. On its curved surface the security recordings from the Generous Sharon played on a constant loop. “My guilt is…pretty obvious. There’s no point denying it.” A small smile curved at the corners of her lips.

Cerulean shifted to the edge of his seat and coughed lightly into his hand. “If I may ask, why?”

Pondering a moment, the android straightened. “They were in my way.” Her musical, almost bell-like voice would have been lost in the echoing chamber if not for the amplifiers.

“Justine, correct?” Cerulean folded his hands into his long robes, leaning forward.

“That is my name.”

“It was necessary, you say. Did you feel no…revulsion? Pity? Empathy? How could it be necessary to end the lives of over a hundred beings?”

Justine placed her shackled hands on the dock’s rails. “You work in this hall. Did you ask the building permission to occupy it? What its feelings were?”

Two delegates, a Cresta and a human, spoke at once.

“So, you compare yourself to an inanimate object?”

“Are you suggesting that you, as an android, cannot be sentient?” The human representative’s fingers nervously played with a datapad.

Cerulean raised his hand. “Justine, I’ve read the reports, your psychological profile.” He cocked his head. “You’ve made jokes, noted ironies—shown a full range of emotions. Are you suggesting that, like an inanimate object, you can’t feel or rather, that you had no choice?”

Justine looked at the human, turning slightly. “The Inter-Alien Commission declared that it is impossible for a robot to be sentient. That is your belief. I say nothing about my own.” She fastened her cold, blue eyes on the Cresta. “I am the product of fetal tissue and a computer. How much choice do I have?” Her lips curved mockingly.

“Well, we know she appreciates sarcasm.” The Cresta’s dry wit drew a chuckle from the crowd.

The Supreme Judge rapped her gavel on the metallic podium. “Order! Order!”

Silence fell as the Cresta representative raised his voice to speak once more. “What are we doing here?” The silence continued as the Cresta chair detached from its mooring and floated before the assembly. “Does no one here appreciate the irony that we are, in fact, holding a trial for a gun?” The chair slowly revolved as the Cresta looked at each of the delegates in turn. “Thousands of machines, robots, and androids were used on both sides of the late Oskilth Civil War. This particular gun,” The Cresta gestured with a free tentacle, “just happened to kill its targets more effectively than most.”

The android remained still, her mouth drawn in a hard line.

“No, the real reason we’re here is because the ringleaders of the war escaped, and now, like hatchlings, you stage an elaborate show, desperate to vent your frustrations on something.” The Cresta floated back, locking his chair in place, his tentacles wiggling smugly.

The courtroom erupted into roars; many in the assembly leaped to their feet.

“Bold words, coming from you who never suffered an invasion!” The Bhuac representative shimmered as he struggled to maintain his human form.

The Cresta snorted water through his breathing helm dismissively. “To be frank, I don’t care what you do with it. Let’s wipe its memories and be done with it.”

“Memories make us who we are! Wiping her memories is a death sentence.” Cerulean’s voice reflected stern determination in contrast to the discord all around.

“Order! Order!” The hard smack of the gavel echoed over the uproar. “Any further disturbance and this courtroom will be cleared!” The noise subsided as the judge’s sharp gaze scoured the room. “The fate of the accused will be decided by the jury at the proper time.”

“If I may speak before they adjourn?” Cerulean rose to his feet.

The Supreme Judge nodded.

“Thank you.” Cerulean’s chair floated before the assembly. He paused a moment. “Fellow beings, I have studied many different sentient races, my own included.” He looked down at the android, who continued to stare off into space.

“I believe that this being calling herself Justine Santana is both sentient and aware, although,” he raised his hand as the human delegate jumped to her feet, “I’m also aware that this is only my opinion. I believe that she was not fully responsible for her actions. My argument against the death sentence, or memory wipe, is not based on opinion, however.” His back straight, he gazed into the throng, his hands gripping the guard- rail. “Once destroyed, her memories are gone—forever beyond our reach.”

The Cresta representative’s tentacles gently caressed his bio-suit, his eyes fixed intently on the Luxonian, his tendrils wiggling thoughtfully.

“Who knows when, or how, the data stored in her brain could benefit one of us.” Bowing, Cerulean returned his chair to its original location.

No one in the massive courtroom noticed the subtle flicker in Justine’s eyes as she appraised the Luxonian before he sat down, storing his features in her data files.

Many of the delegates muttered and whispered, while expressions of indecision crossed their faces.

“If no one else has anything to say….” The Supreme Judge’s head swiveled, appraising the vast crowd. “No one? Very well—” she pointed to the assembly of six beings representing each race sitting at her left, “the jury may now adjourn.”

~~~

Justine sat alone in a Bothmal holding cell, lit only by a dim, red light. Her chains had not been removed, but they did not hinder her as she dabbed paint, faster than the eye could follow, on a bare, whiteboard.

With a hissing squeak a small, thickly barred window opened in the fat cell door.

“You.” Her hand continued to flicker over the whiteboard. She remained focused on her work.

“Yes, me.” The Luxonian tilted his head, peering down through the bars. “You draw?” He nodded at the rapidly filling canvas.

“Paint.” She tilted her head, lips pursed. “It helps pass the time. A cheap means to keep the prisoner quiet. You have the advantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Cerulean.”

“Thank you, Cerulean.”

“You’re thanking me for…?”

“I may be an unrepentant murderer, but I still appreciate those who aid me.” Her brush paused mid-stroke. “Your speech out there is the only reason they’re having any discussion about my fate at all.” Her brush continued to dance across the board.

“I read the full reports.”

“Really?”

“I was probably the only one to do so.”

Justine’s sigh was barely audible. “This trial was pure politics.”

Cerulean wrapped his fingers around the bars, tilting his head to view as much of Justine’s face as possible. “Your objective was to disable the troop carrier?”

She shrugged. “Yes.”

Cerulean’s voice rose slightly. “I’ve seen the carrier’s blueprints. Deck forty-two A and rooms thirty-two C and B were nowhere near the command room. I saw where you breached the ship. You doubled back and deliberately searched those rooms. Why?”

Justine smiled coldly, her hand moving a bit faster, the tip of the brush a blur. “Maybe I just like to kill.”

Cerulean pursed his lips. “Then why were troopers Alex and Jerrod left alive?”

Her mouth drew into a tight line. “Maybe I missed them. Maybe I thought they were already dead.”

“I read your specs. Enhanced senses, hearing, sight… You can hear a heartbeat from a hundred meters away.”

The brush moved faster.

“Trooper Jerrod thought it was a miracle that the escape pod managed to fire on autopilot.”

Justine’s mouth twisted into a mocking smile. “So, what’s your explanation?”

“You resent humans, hate them, and by extension their allies. You saw it as payback, didn’t you, as justice? But when you saw trooper Jerrod trying to stanch his comrade’s wound, even as he was bleeding out himself, you couldn’t bring yourself to press the trigger. Even though it went against orders, you lowered your gun.”

“A charming story. But why wasn’t that…story used to play to the court’s sympathy?” The brush tip filled in tiny details.

“Unlike the Cresta, I don’t see a gun. I don’t see a cold, calculating machine.” His voice softened. “I see a very scared woman who desperately wants to seem strong in her final moments.”

The brush froze. Justine’s head lowered, and for a second, the proud shoulders sagged. The moment passed as her head lifted again, a confident smile playing on her face. “Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She carefully laid the brush aside. “It’s finished. What do you think?” She displayed the panting in the crook of her arm.

His eyes widening, Cerulean stared into a portrait of himself, true to life on even the tiniest of hair ends. “It’s…beautifully done.”

“Thank you. Keep it.” She set the painting aside before making eye contact with Cerulean for the first time.

Cerulean swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what to say. I’m honored.”

“You can hang it on your wall or throw it in the trash. Whichever you prefer.” Justine rose. “Anything else?”

Cerulean stood thoughtfully before he shook his head. “No.”

“Then goodbye.”

Cerulean turned to go. He closed his eyes as a sudden wave of dizziness swept over him. Squaring his shoulders, he forced open his eyes and marched down the long, dim hall.

Justine called after him. “You know, if I had killed them and blown up the ship, there wouldn’t have been anything to identify me. I wouldn’t be here right now.” Justine’s voice echoed down the tunnel, her face and hands pressed against the bars. “No good deed goes unpunished, right?”

Cerulean stopped in midstride and looked back. “Everything we do has consequences. Alex and Jerrod are still alive.”

Silence.

“I hope you find happiness.” Justine’s fingers rubbed against the bars as the window slowly moved.

“You too.”

“Not likely.”

The window shut with a clang. Cerulean stood in the dim, red light, his hands clasped, his head bowed.

~~~

“This jury has found you guilty.” The Supreme Judge craned her neck.

Justine stood alone on the floating dock, her wrists and ankles bound with chains.

“Do you have anything to say?”

A mocking grin formed at the corners of Justine’s lips. “I regret nothing.”

“Very well.” The Supreme Judge frowned. “I will read your sentence. You are to be turned off, and your body will be locked in Bothmal Penal Internment forever or until such time as the information encrypted into your brain is deemed useful. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

Two security drones placed heavy hands on Justine’s shoulders and led her from the room.

One by one, the delegates filed out and the vast wings emptied. The courtroom grew dark as millions of holoscreens switched to yet another stream. Within a few days, the delegates and judge would relegate these memories to deep storage or utter forgetfulness.

~~~

Cerulean stood at the head of a large, metal table. He was the only one in the small, red-lit room that wasn’t a prisoner, guard, or a technician.

“You came.” Justine lay flat on the table. Large metal bands secured her legs, arms, and neck. She twisted her head slightly, smiling crookedly at Cerulean. “To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub…all my sins remembered.”

“Oldearth poetry?”

“A point well made. ‘To be or not to be….’”

Cerulean patted the helpless hand. “It’ll be…all right.”

A frown puckered Justine’s brow. “Being turned off isn’t like going to sleep, you know.” She turned away. “When a human sleeps, their mind is turning, working, dreaming. When a robot is turned off, its mind is completely inert. Dead.” She gazed fixedly ahead, her mouth set in a grim line.

Cerulean sucked in a breath. “But this way, there’s at least a chance…for you to…come back.”

“Thanks.”

A technician cleared his throat. “It’s time. Sorry.”

Justine’s fingers gripped the air, her hand opening and closing, her jaws clenched. Her voice became a whisper. “I’m… scared….”

Cerulean placed his hands on hers.

The technician swiped a bar on his datapad.

Cerulean watched Justine’s eyes widen and freeze, her mechanical body jerking against the restraints like a living thing. Her hand fell limp and no longer gripped his. His jaw clenched as he swallowed hard. “Goodbye, Justine.”

“Sir?” The technician looked up from his datapad, a puzzled frown on his face.

The table slid into a receiving hole in the wall.

“Nothing.” Cerulean turned away.

“It wasn’t human. Sir…?”

The door clanged behind Cerulean.

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Eight

If You Dare Enough

—Grassland—

Namah watched a spider weave its web in the corner of her home while the sun set in crimson and gold. A conviction that she would never see such a sight again spread through her.

After an uneventful night’s sleep, she stood in the doorway and watched the morning’s sunrise, feeling mildly surprised that she had lived to see a new day. She glanced in the corner. The spider was nowhere in sight, but the web sparkled in a shaft of a sunbeam.

She stepped outside and began her morning routine. Pouring water from a large basin, she washed her hands and face and then stirred the outdoor fire and added kindling to the pink-centered coals, drawing life from the gray heap.

After a simple breakfast of mixed grains and goat’s milk, she called next door for her daughter, Gizah, to attend her. Living with her sister, Bethal, and her brother, Bararam, Gizah fit herself to the role of servant to all. She hurried to her mother with a beaming smile and clasped her hand. “Morning!”

Namah’s heart clenched and then expanded as she smiled back. Squeezing her child’s hand, she peered into the young woman’s laughing eyes. “You are the treasure of the family, child.”

Gizah giggled. “Treasure that some lucky man is just waiting to possess, no doubt!”

“No doubt, indeed. Your line will prosper like no other. I’ve seen it in my mind’s eye.” A return of foreboding clutched at Namah’s chest. “Tell your sister and brother I want to see them. I have things to give them before I go.”

All hint of laughter fled from Gizah’s face. “Why? Where are you going?”

“Not for me to say or you to know just yet. Do as I say, girl. Tell them to come before sunset, or it’ll be too late.”

A frown flittering over her face, Gizah turned and entered her sister’s home.

Namah returned to her own home and poked among the shelves. She found a clay pot with an intricate design fashioned along the sides. She laid it aside and then tugged at her finest cloak until it fell free from a high hook and landed softly in her hands. Caressing the fine fibers, she eyed the bright colors and detailed edging that made it one of the finest wraps in the whole village. She had made it for Aram. He had told her to keep it for her burial.

Shaking her head, she mumbled under her breath, “And you were buried in nothing but your tunic and that old wrap with the torn edging.” She sniffed and chuckled. “I wanted to disobey you, but I didn’t. I loved you that much.”

Rubbing her back, she rifled through her possessions again, fingering toys for the children—and grandchildren—she hoped. She set certain objects to the left and others to the right and only two lay on the ground before her feet.

When the sun had risen to its peak, Bethal and Bararam appeared in her doorway.

Namah beckoned them forward, her gaze darting to Gizah, who shuffled in behind them. Stepping back, she opened her arms to the objects laid before them. “Today you must take what I give you so there will be no confusion after I’m gone.”

Tall and muscled with a head of rich black hair, Bararam towered above the women, but his surprised grin hinted at his mischievous side. “Where are you going, mother, that you offer us such gifts?”

“I go where you cannot follow…at least not yet.” She pointed to the pile on the left. “These are for you two and your families when you have them.”

Bethal gasped and knelt before a decorated pot, a pile of colored beads, and a sharp knife. Picking up the child’s toy, she caressed it in her fingers. “I remember this. It was my favorite.” She glanced up. “Why give us these now? Why not wait until I’m married and settled?”

“I may not be here then. And I want you to know…I offer these with all my love.” She nodded to the right. “And you, Gizah, will take this house and these other things: the pillow, the blanket, and my best rope for your own.”

Opening her mouth but unable to speak, Gizah stepped toward her mother and stopped suddenly at the middle pile. Her eyes widened as she stared at the fine cloak and the carved figure of a man.

Namah lifted the cloak and the wooden figure and pressed them into Gizah’s hands. “Wrap me in this, as was your father’s wish, and lay Tobia’s gift in my hands when you bury my body.” A smile quivered on her lips. “I know well enough that it is not my husband but only a likeness of his figure. But Tobia comforted me during my loss, and I want to comfort him. We will always be together like good friends.”

Voices rose across the village, and mothers called little ones to supper.

Bethal glanced at her brother.

Bararam gathered the objects in his arms and shook his head. “There’s no hurry. You’ll live many long years yet. But we’ll keep them safe in our house—until you wish them back again.”

Namah raised her eyebrows in command to her youngest daughter.

In shy obedience, Gizah bundled her gifts in her arms and followed her sister to the doorway.

Stopping on the threshold, Namah called after them. “Remember, the greatest treasure I have given you—is each other.”

Namah watched them pace to their home next-door and returned to her own abode. Fixing a light supper, she sat outside and enjoyed a cool breeze that rose with the night. A distant bird warbled and two owls hooted back and forth as in their usual evening conversation.

Memories of her first journey to the lake made her gaze shift over the water. Twinkling lights flickered in the last sunbeams as they slanted across the rippling surface.

When her chest tightened, as it usually did at night, Namah pulled herself to her feet and dragged herself to her bed. Laying her weary head on her pillow, she remembered Aram’s face, Barak’s stern countenance, Irad’s last words, her fall from the cliff, meeting Jonas for the first time, her daughters’ births, her son’s laughter, Aram’s hand clasping her own, and her trust in the unseen God. She closed her eyes and sighed in contentment.

~~~

Gizah tiptoed into her mother’s house with a bundle in her arms. She laid it aside and knelt at the bedside. She clasped the old woman’s cold hands and pressed them to her cheek. Then she kissed the gnarled fingers and held them against her breast. “Best of mothers, I will miss you forever.”

Namah did not stir.

Bowing her head, Gizah reached back and tugged the cloak free. She unfolded the cloth and laid it gently over her mother’s body. Then she reached deep into a pocket of her tunic and drew forth the wooden figure. She kissed it and laid it on her mother’s breast.

~~~

Barak exhaled a long breath and wrapped his arm around his wife as they lay in bed.

Milkan rolled onto her side and peered into Barak’s eyes. “You miss her so very much?”

“I miss many people.”

Milkan snuggled closer, drawing the blanket over her shoulders. “I wonder…is she with Aram now?”

His eyes widening, Barak stared at the thatched ceiling. “I don’t know.”

Milkan laid her head on his chest. “I wonder which of us will die first.”

Spluttering, Barak coughed. “I can’t say.”

“Well, anyway, I’m glad I knew Aram and Namah, and I’ll always miss them, but I can never be too sad when you’re with me.”

As if grief had been shoved to the side, Barak’s heart stirred with overwhelming love. Warmth spread through his body. He wrapped his wife in his arms. “I am blessed among men.” He leaned down to kiss her.

A baby cried out and an older child whined, “Mama!”

With a low groan, Milkan threw the blanket aside, heaved a deep breath, and rose to her feet.

Barak watched her, his heart swelling.

Milkan turned back and laughed. “You’re much too comfortable!”

“I will be—as soon as you return to bed.”

The cry rose a decibel to a high-pitched shriek.

Milkan stumbled away.

The crying stopped abruptly.

Milkan plodded back to bed and plunked the baby on Barak’s chest.

A whimper broke the still air.

Milkan paced away and returned with a whimpering little boy. She tucked the child under Barak’s arm, swung the baby to her chest, and lay down in bed, nudging Barak over a bit. She glanced at him. “Comfortable?”

“Not in the least.”

Milkan stared and opened her mouth.

Barak leaned over and kissed her. “But happy nonetheless.”

~~~

Jonas watched Onia saunter out of the village with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder, and her heart soared. No anxiety tugged at her heart as he wandered away to trade among their neighboring clans. He was so well-liked and trusted that Obed said he could trade a sunbeam for a loaf of bread. Jonas didn’t doubt it.

Laughter turned her attention. Mari helped one of Ishtar’s men string the day’s catch of fish on the line. The girl was always laughing—too spirited for her own good. Jonas shrugged. She had her father’s nature.

Her gaze wandered to the edge of the village, to where her first husband’s grave had melted into the earth and could only be seen by the mound of stones on top. “You are not there, love.” She placed her hand on her heart. “You’re right here.”

An arm slid around Jonas’ middle, and she shivered. She peered into Obed’s alert, sober eyes.

Obed glanced from the grave to Onia. “He’s off again?”

Jonas nodded. “He’s taking some of Tobia’s carvings this time. Said there’s a growing market for such things.”

With his shepherd’s staff clutched one hand, Obed led Jonas toward the shady side of their house. “Sit and rest a moment. You rose before the sun.”

Jonas perched on the edge of a bench. “Only to catch up with you.”

His gaze traveled around their neat and prosperous village, Obed sighed as Tobia strode toward him with Kamila walking at his side. “I’m glad that Tobia’s settled into married life and started carving again. He seems too old for one so young.”

Tobia stopped before his mother and nodded respectfully. Kamila did the same but with a smile spreading across her face.

Obed scrunched his brows together. “Where’s that figure of Caleb you made? I want Jonas to see it.”

Tobia shrugged. “I gave it to Ishtar.”

“Oh.” Disappointment washed over Obed’s face as he leaned on his staff.

Her heart bursting with joy, Jonas clasped Obed’s hand. “But I did see it. Ishtar carries it everywhere, and he showed it to Eoban. Eoban told me about it, and when I saw Ishtar, I asked about it.” Pride swelled in Jonas as she nodded at her son. “It’s your finest work yet.”

Obed glanced from his wife to Tobia. “I never saw a man change as much as Ishtar. I thought that once evil had hold, there was no turning back.”

A hot flush worked up Jonas’s cheeks.

Obed pressed her hand playfully. “But I’ve learned.”

Jonas peered into her husband’s eyes. “What have you learned?”

Obed gripped his shepherd’s staff and looked to the hills. “If you dare enough—there’s always hope.”

~~~

Lud paced silently through the wheat field, slicing weeds at their roots. As sweat poured down his face, he straightened, wiped his brow, and glanced at Dinah and the children working in their garden patch. He smiled.

The sun blazed with mid-day strength. Thirst stung his throat. Time to go home and rest. Swinging his hoe over his shoulder, he started down the incline.

A flock of birds sailed before him, twisting and turning, and then fluttering high into the sky.

Lud shook his head. The vision of Pele’s face as she peered at the wide blue expanse flashed before his eyes. He never could see what she saw. He stopped and wiped his brow again. He didn’t have to. He had seen her, and that was enough.

Gilbreth called, Dinah grinned, and Lud’s heart soared like the birds.

~~~

Eoban perched on the edge of a log as a full moon floated overhead, shrouded in wispy clouds. A fresh breeze rustled the high branches of distant trees. Lud and Gilbreth sat cross-legged on each side, while Deli dangled on his left knee, and Ham nestled contentedly in the crook of his arm.

Dinah bustled before the fire, preparing a dinner of spiced rice and rabbit with vegetables and fresh bread.

Eoban’s mouth watered.

Gilbreth glanced over. “Any stories to tell, Eoban?”

Shifting to keep his blood in circulation, Eoban met the challenge. “Well, once on a night very much like this one, there was a boy about as big as Gilbreth there, named Kilbreth.”

Deli gasped and turned wide-eyes on her brother.

Eoban patted her arm reassuringly. “Yes, similar names. Hadn’t realized. Anyway, this boy was brave and strong, but no one knew it because he never left his parents’ sides. He pined to see the world, so he left home and traveled far and wide. Time passed quickly—as it does in stories—and after many years, Kilbreth returned home much bigger and swaggering with a bounty of knowledge. The whole village welcomed him with a grand feast.”

Deli wiggled. “Like we’re going to have?”

Eoban nodded and pressed on. “But tragically, he’d forgotten everyone. His mother and father tried to pretend it wasn’t so, but he called everyone by the wrong name and, worst of all, he spent the whole night telling his family about all the fine people he met, and he never once asked about his own clan.”

Ham yawned, and Deli kicked her legs.

Lud shook his head in definite admonishment. “Foolish boy.”

Gilbreth peered through the darkness. “What happened to him?

Eoban straightened up. “Well…one dark night, he fell into a hole. He called and screamed, but no one came—remember—he had forgotten all their names.”

Deli smacked her hand against her cheek. “Uh-oh.”

Eoban shifted. “Right. Eventually, his father heard him, got the neighbors, and they hauled him out.”

Gilbreth’s eyes twinkled in the firelight. “Did Kilbreth learn his lesson?”

Eoban laid Deli in her brother’s arm and scooted Ham to the ground. “From then on, Kilbreth traveled the world, telling everyone about his own marvelous clan—and he called them each by name.”

Dinah raised her head and smiled. “Supper is ready.”

Shuffling to his feet and rubbing his back, Eoban glanced at Gilbreth. “Thank the stars above. I’m about worn out. Now let’s do justice to your mother’s cooking. There’s no one who can make a feast as well as she.”

Dinah waved Eoban along. “Come eat then.”

As they crossed the threshold, Lud chuckled. “And no one tells a tale like Eoban!”

As he stepped inside, Eoban grinned. “And later, we’ll all sing!”

~~~

Ishtar stripped to the waist and wrapped a cloth tightly around his head, holding his hair away from his face.

In the pre-dawn light, a fire blazed before him with a tripod fixed over the flames. Nearby, perched on a flat rock, sat bowls filled with different colored substances. A cauldron hung from the center of the tripod.

Working methodically, Ishtar sifted the ingredients and poured a little of each into the pot. After it melted, he tugged a mold into place and poured the mixture into it. Then he added another substance, waited for it to melt, and poured the thick liquid into a second mold. After he had several molds lined up beside the fire pit, he sat back and wiped his forehead.

The sounds of the waking village drew his gaze. Two of his men passed and nodded. He nodded back.

When the first mold cooled, he took a hammer and knocked the frame away. Then he peered at the metal piece narrowly, looking for tiny bubbles and weak spots. Satisfied, he laid it on the flat rock and hammered it until it fell apart. He gathered up the pieces and threw them back into the cauldron. As he reached for one of the bowls, Amin shuffled by.

Ishtar sucked in his breath. “Amin, come and help me a moment.”

With his head down and his shoulders drooping, Amin took the necessary steps and halted before Ishtar. “Yes?”

“Help me sift the ore. I’m trying different kinds and amounts…your sharp eyes would—”

“I’m not a metal worker, Father.”

“You could be.”

“I don’t care to be.”

“What do you care to be?”

Amin shifted from one foot to another and glanced aside.

Concerned, Ishtar stood and motioned his son to the fire pit. “Sit with me and watch awhile. You might find it interesting.”

“I won’t find metal work interesting any more than I found trading and traveling interesting.”

Ishtar’s jaw clenched. “Why are you still angry at me?” He swallowed hard and blinked as he stared at the glowing horizon. “He was my son as well as your brother.”

“You’ve found other things to interest you. I’m not so easily amused.”

With a swift motion, Ishtar swept up a handful of the dirty ore. “Do you see this?”

Stiff and unyielding, Amin merely raised an eyebrow.

“It’s what the Creator gives us to work with. Dirt. And with this dirt” —Ishtar snatched up a metal tray behind him and held it out— “we can make beautiful things.” He tossed the dirt and tray aside. “But it’ll never happen without a willing mind and a dedicated heart to shape it.” He peered into Amin’s eyes. “The tray is worth nothing if no one cares for beauty.”

Amin spat his words. “Caleb was worth more than a tray!”

Ishtar leaned in. “But Caleb would’ve seen the beauty and cared.” Ishtar waved a broken piece of metal before Amin’s face. “Impurities must be driven out by fire and hammer.” He turned and peered at the mountains “Like ore, we are shaped by things that burn and beat us, and we think we’ll never recover. But in the end, we’re transformed.”

Amin closed his eyes, his lips trembling. After a moment, he met Ishtar’s gaze. “Without Caleb, I feel so…dead.”

Ishtar gripped Amin’s shoulder. “Hold on—even in the depths of despair. Only then can true faith be born.” Wrapping his arm around his son, Ishtar turned the boy from the mountains and the fire. Together, they faced the rising sun.

“Time heals some wounds, but love heals them all.” ~Matshona Dhliwayo

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