Ever My Intention

Samantha Keller just wanted to find a toothbrush. That’s all she asked out of life. Not an unreasonable request. Not considering the fact that she had just bitten into a luscious, though thoroughly deceptive, apple from her neighbor’s tree, which had seconds before had been home to a fat worm. Her frantic attempt at brushing her teeth in a hurry resulted in the toothbrush flipping between her fingers and landing in the toilet.

Hovering in front of the bathroom closet, patting the shelf just above her eye level where she always put the extras, availed nothing but sticky fingers. An empty cough syrup bottle lay like a forgotten soldier on a battlefield before red goo seepage and a decidedly sick-pink cotton ball offering testimony of other clumsy encounters.

Life really shouldn’t be this hard.

“Oh, to heck with it.” She turned to the sink, popped open the mouthwash, did a complete rinse, and considered herself lucky.

She peered into the mirror and saw her mom’s face. Though her hair sported the salt and pepper look of a middle-aged woman who can’t decide if she’s a new 40 or an old 50, the trapped expression of her mother riveted her gaze to the glass. “Ba-ba-ba…” Like a nursery rhyme never finished, Mom couldn’t get her words out, though her eyes pleaded for understanding.

Samantha yanked herself away and refocused. She tromped down the hall to the kitchen and stared at the bowl brimful of beautiful apples. “Tricked me once but not twice.” She snatched the paring knife off the counter.

The phone rang. She checked. A local number.

She answered with all the confidence of a homeowner in good standing, whose neighborhood friends might check on her once in a blue moon. “Hello?”

“As a residential customer, we would like you to answer a few simple—”

Slapping the end button, Samantha frowned. She had answered four scam calls through the week and vowed to let it ring forevermore. If someone wanted to actually talk with her, they’d leave a message, right? Why on Earth did she keep falling for the latest in life’s tricks?

Reaching for the knife, the phone rang again. With a shrug, she insisted on outwitting the maniacal scammers who poured out their lives in demolishing humanity’s trust in the phone system.

It stopped ringing.

She plucked an apple from the mound and made the first cut.

The phone rang again.

Completely against her will, Samantha glanced at the glowing screen and recognized the number. Her sister in Wisconsin. Blanch and her husband ran a dairy farm south of the city and made a decent living while raising the cutest set of twins God ever created.

Rolling every ounce of ill humor off her shoulders and sliding onto a stool, she leaned against the counter and let the apple and the knife fall from her fingers. “Hey, Blanch! I was just thinking of you while—”

A sob choked the line.

Samantha lifted the phone from her ear and stared at it. Had she lost the connection? Another scammer copying her sister’s number?

Sobbing tumbled into crashing thunder. A wail screeched over four hundred miles and smacked Samantha in the face.

“Oh, God, Blanch! What—?”

“She’s dead! I can’t believe it!”

Agony shivered over Samantha as tears sprang to her eyes. “Dead? Who?”

“Mom! She died during the night. I stopped by early to give her some homemade cookies and fresh apples off our tree, but when the nurse went to check on her…” Sobbing rampaged over a cliff.

Tired truisms sprang to Samantha’s lips. It’s better this way…a blessed relief…Mom would want us to live on…to celebrate her life without the all the horrific dementia…

But no words came.

They weren’t truly true. Not yet anyway.

As tears meandered down her cheeks, her husband Elliott wandered into the room. He frowned at her tears, bent low, and took her hand.

She listened to Samantha’s cascading grief, dragged a notepaper and pen front and center and wrote, “Mom died,” and shoved the bald announcement toward her husband.

Wrapping a comforting arm around her shaking shoulders, he offered what he could, a gentle murmur of sorrow.

A week later…

Samantha faced the mound of dirt piled in front of her parent’s headstone. Mom’s nicely dressed body lay four and a half feet under, safely encased in a mahogany coffin inside a cement vault, right next to her dad’s resting place. Samantha’s gaze wandered over the birthdates and death dates, and the scripture quote, “You shall be known by your fruit.” The etching of two apple trees that her mother had insisted mark their last place on earth stood in testimony to lives that never stopped bearing love and goodness even when they couldn’t say a word.

 Elliott edged closer.

Her son, daughter, sister, various friends, and relations had come to the funeral and left shortly after. Samantha had returned for three days in a row trying to understand how something as luscious as life could hold such a worm as death.

Elliott took her hand and said nothing. Wonderful in the mystery of communal silence, he didn’t need to fix her grief. He simply shared it.

Autumn leaves swirled from the colorful trees as black crows perched on mossy gravestones, creating a scene Alfred Hitchcock would’ve been proud to call his own.

“She was a beautiful baby.” Samantha had spent hours reviewing old family photos the night before, sharing her favorites with her patient husband.

Elliott smiled. “She was a good and holy woman with a gentle heart.”

“Though she could be a stickler! Remember how she insisted that every Thanksgiving had to be celebrated at her house?”

Elliot nodded.

“And she never did forgive dad. She held his mistakes up to the light of day every chance she got. Trying to drag him to Heaven, she’d say, but it made life miserable sometimes.”

Elliott bowed his head.

The cell phone rang.

Samantha pulled it from her coat pocket.

Blanch.

After hitting the talk button, Samantha strolled across the graveyard toward a cluster of trees. “Yes, honey?”

Blanche’s voice rose strong and clear. “Just checking in. I made a pie for the kids and thought of mom. I just wanted to hear your voice.”

Samantha stared at the tree in front of her. “Were there any worms in it?”

“Worms? In what?”

“The pie.” Samantha cleared her voice and tried to jiggle her brain into coherent thought. I bit into an apple the other day…and you know…”

A chuckle broke the silence. “Oh, no. The pie looks delicious.” Her voice took on mom’s imperious tone. “You’re supposed to cut the worms out before you eat the fruit, you know.”

Ever my intention.

Samantha took her husband’s hand, meandered to the car, and left the mound of dirt behind.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Oldearth Melchior 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

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/apple-worm-hole-worm-eaten-3650876/

You Know It’s Real

Patrick O’Donnell had been married for eighteen years, and only today did he realize that he loved his wife.

Emily had insisted on an October wedding, though he knew that was ridiculous. Couldn’t trust the weather in October any better than a used car on the highway. Still, rather than listen to her complain every anniversary about how she wished she had gotten to pick the date, he had acquiesced.

He sat in their bedroom and rubbed his stubbly chin. At fifty-two he was a relatively strong and good-looking guy. Any woman would be lucky to have him, even now. He certainly got inquiring looks when he was away from home. He’d made a habit of placing his left hand, thus his “owners tag,” in plain sight so whomever he was interviewing would get the hint, and there’d be no awkward moments. Flattered by the shine in a woman’s eyes, he enjoyed knowing that he still attracted women, but he rarely let it go for long before he’d make some obvious comment about his wife and kids, clarifying his position.

Only once did he joke with Em about his magnetic power with women. She didn’t see the humor. She took it like a challenge. The next time they went out, she flirted with every guy in the room, and every time they grinned at her, she sent a beaming smile his way.

He’d come to marriage late in life, at thirty-four his mom had all but given up hope for him. He didn’t date much since the whole asking out and wading through the get-to-know-you process disturbed him.

Emily was a schoolteacher seven years his junior when they met. He was a reporter for the city paper. When he did a piece about their accelerated school program, she was one of the people he interviewed. In fact, he interviewed her three times before he asked her out.

It wasn’t long before he asked her to marry him.

After a church wedding, one of the few times he went to church, he traveled for the paper, wrote articles, took a series of editing positions, did freelance work, studied photography, took yearly wilderness trips with the guys, even did a stint in Guatemala for six weeks one summer.

Em did much the same, living life to the fullest.

Patrick rose from the edge of the bed and faced the open French doors blowing in a gentle breeze. The last day of September. Tomorrow was October first and their eighteenth anniversary. But for the first time in their married life, Emily wouldn’t care.

The process had started so slowly that neither of them thought that anything was wrong. Just an occasional headache. Then the slight trembling. When she couldn’t remember how to get to the grocery store, she had laughed it away. “Too much on my mind, what with violence on the rise, and three kids failing my class. Lucky I can remember my name!”

It seemed mildly amusing, until it wasn’t.

Footsteps padded near. Bare feet by the sound of it. Patrick shook his head. His kids befuddled him. Clare was the more logical of the two, but Tige was easier to handle. Clare had a knack for misunderstanding him while Tige didn’t seem to care. As long as he could see his friends and play games on a regular basis, he’d do whatever his parents asked. A fair trade, he’d say. But Clare classified and parsed everything. Big jobs required big rewards. He asked as little as possible from her.

“Hey, dad?” Tall and lanky at sixteen, Tige stood in the doorway in his baggy black sweatpants and long-sleeved shirt, a set he used as his nightclothes for the last year.

Patrick returned his gaze to the outdoors. The sun had risen but with the heavy mist, a dreary gray hung over the land. He could barely make out the neighbor’s house just beyond the two maple trees.

“Yeah?”

Tige stepped in and stopped just behind Patrick’s right elbow. “Just thinking that mom’d like it if we did something tomorrow. Maybe we could bring her flowers. There’re a few blooms left on the Rose of Sharon.”

A choking ache rose from the depth of his being and flooded Patrick’s whole body. The porch railing blurred.

A higher voice rose from behind. Clare, petite with long blond hair and bright blue eyes, so much like her mother, took charge. “Those’ll wilt before we get there. The cafeteria lady owns a shop that sells decorative arrangements, fake ones that won’t fade. I could get some after school since it’s Friday, and I don’t have to get my school work done in a hurry.”

Annoyance squeezed Patrick’s heart, but he couldn’t say anything. She was right. Fresh flowers, even colorful leaves, would fade and look terrible in a few days. But still—

“Mom hates fake stuff, Clare. We aren’t doing this to save you trouble. We’re doing what mom loved best.”

A tear meandered down Patrick’s cheek. He knew who else loved Emily.

Her voice high and strained, Clare ground her point into their hearts. “Mom won’t know the difference.”

Patrick turned around. “We will.” He clasped his son’s shoulder. “Pick a few just before we leave in the morning. It won’t matter how they look in a week.”

Tige nodded and padded out the door.

Clare’s mouth trembled. “Why not get something that lasts? It’ll look better when she wakes up—”

Patrick held out his arms. No words could explain.

Clare flung herself into her dad’s embrace and held on for dear life.

After the room was clear, the fog had lifted, and the clock insisted that he get ready for work, Patrick closed the French doors.

Love hurts like hell, he realized. He wiped his eyes and faced the day. Maybe that’s when you know it’s real.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction Novel

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/view-window-curtain-sunset-hope-3513705/

Season Glorious

Being the glorious season of scarlet leaves, burnt orange pumpkins, tawny grass, caterpillars seeking the perfect abode to wrap themselves in a snug cocoon for the winter, geese flying low honking encouragement to their fellow travelers, (Though conceivably, they could be telling the last in line, “Hurry up, Bub, or you’ll get left behind!”) and the annual apple harvest for the winter’s supply of apple sauce, apple juice, and apple pie, autumn gets a lot of attention.

Even the bees get excited, hurrying hither and yon, with the inner awareness that the summer supply of nectar is about to crash in a seasonal apocalypse. There literally is nothing left for bees to do but huddle up and survive the coming freeze of all that is good and holy in their universe.

Birds adapt with sensible charm. Some fly off, like the aforementioned geese, honking their goodbyes as if to taunt the fools below. They know cold and snow are coming without a clue that humans and their appointed pets and other citizens of the animal kingdom, including a few feathered friends, have adaptions at the ready.

Critters, flowers, twigs, and trees realize that the game’s up, and the world of sunshine and plenty is about to collapse. They do what they must to either die with dignity or huddle into a catatonic “I’ll come back when things are better” attitude.

I know perfectly well that my son is gunning the mower ready to take down the last of the straggly garden, the porch flowers bend in limp acquiescence to shorter, colder days, the pool must be drained and excused from duty for the next six months, and that fun shorts and t-shirts will soon to be ridiculously inappropriate, but, still, I’m pleased about the seasonal change of guard.

It’s not because I’m skipping pages in the Farmers Almanac, imagining next spring. It’s not because bundling on layers of clothes and scrunching up close to my bedroom heater in hopes of maintaining feeling in my fingers excites my survival instinct, or that a daily tussle between battling the north wind or staying indoors until I resemble one of Count Dracula’s wives amuses my inner drama queen.

It’s because I’ve been endowed with a fairy-like fancy—I love autumn. I enjoy the slow decay of grass stems, the crumbling of the garden’s glory, sweeping grey clouds hovering with a threat of rain, chilly mornings ordering me to tug on long pants and a heavy sweater, bracing myself with stinging cheeks against a biting frost, the perfect rhythmic reality of change involving loss and endurance.

I’ve never had a relationship’s springtime last more than a few months. At some point, a misunderstanding sneaks in like a cold wind, or a different opinion edges it’s way to the surface, crumbling the green garden of interpersonal contentment. Culturally, nationally, historically—anyway I want to view my world—spring and summer never last. God, in His wisdom, prepared a place in me not only to accept the inevitable challenge of change, loss, exasperation, and suffering but to welcome the fullness of the natural life cycle. To accept that which I cannot change through the grace of a soul in love with more than what the birds know, the bees expect, and the decaying plants offer.

I am content at the sight of scarlet leaves and a well-stocked woodpile. I know my own autumn days draw near, and that thought should haunt me. But it doesn’t. My soul rejoices in the spirit of endurance and the welcome dawn of each new day, no matter how cold winter might get.

True light, beauty, and the joy of life emanate from inside—making every season glorious.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction Novel

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/autumn-avenue-away-leaves-tree-3186876/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter 17, Part II

I Was Just Considering My Options

The sun had crested the horizon as Derik ran his fingers along the back of the park bench, knocking the melting snow to the ground. He shivered in the morning chill, especially without his heavy coat, but he didn’t care. He wrapped his stiff fingers around the dagger in his pocket, comforted by the smooth handle. It reminded him of the dissecting knives in the lab, and he found this oddly amusing. Starting off at a trot, he jogged across the street, his gaze down, but his mind focused. Someone jostled him roughly. Glancing up, his mouth dropped open. Justine grabbed his arm with more force than he thought necessary. “Justine?” He shook his arm free. “What’re you doing here? I left you a message—”

“Like an idiot. You think you can murder a Cresta and no one will find out? You’ll be hunted to—”

“Can’t you see? It’s the only way. I can’t marry you till I know that we’ll have a chance at living a normal life—even an abnormal life. Taug’s a lying—never mind. It’s over. I’m taking matters into my own hands.”

Justine ran her fingers through her wind-rippled hair with a long sigh. “My perfect plan—blown to smithereens.” Gripping his arm, she nudged him toward the street. “Come with me.”

“Where?”

“To your place. You’re going to pack some necessaries while I shock you with my life story, and then we’re going to the nearest transport and head off-planet.”

Derik stood frozen.

Justine jerked his arm, knocking him off balance. “I’m not in a negotiating mood, sweetheart. Let’s go.”

As soon as Derik opened his apartment door, Justine barged ahead, her gaze sweeping the premises for any sign of intrusion. After a quick run-through, she returned to the living room and plopped down on the couch with a sigh. She patted the cushion next to her. “Sit.”

Derik frowned. “You’re beginning to sound a bit too much like Taug for my taste.”

Justine snorted. “You don’t know the half of it.”

His hands on his hips, his legs braced wide apart, Derik jutted his chin forward. “I’ve already had more than a few shocks today. Go ahead, see if you can surprise me.”

Justine stared at the ceiling. “You’re not making this easy.”

Derik clenched his hands together and wrung them like a towel. “I already had my day nicely planned. I was going to gut Taug like the animal he is, collect you, and we’d head to a Bhuaci settlement.” He thrust a hand deep into his pocket and retrieved a data-chip. “See, our transport’s all arranged. But now—”

Justine chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll disarrange all your plans in a moment. But keep the data-chip. You’ll need it.” She jumped to her feet. “Give thy soul air, thy faculties expanse; love, joy, even sorrow—yield thyself to all….”

Derik blinked.

“Forget it. A noble sentiment perhaps but too painful to endure.” She cupped Derik’s hand in hers and stroked it, her voice softening. “I’m not human, Derik. Not even close.”

The smile that spread across Derik’s face morphed into an inane grin. He started giggling and was soon doubled over in hysterical laughter. It took him several moments to gain control of his heaving shoulders. “Really? You honestly think I didn’t know? I figured something…though Clare was kind enough to color in the details for me.”

“Clare told you?” Justine’s confused scowl darkened as she turned away. “That wasn’t her place.”

“Place or not, I’ve known for a while. And what’s more, I haven’t cared for a moment.” He waved an imploring hand at her back. “You seriously believe that I, a mixed-breed, half- Cresta would care that you’re a half-breed, human-android?”

Turning, Justine folded her arms across her chest. “You have a delicate way of putting things, Derik.”

Derik plunged across the room and gripped Justine by the shoulders, his gaze delving into hers. “We’re made for each other.”

Justine closed her eyes and leaned in, her forehead resting on his shoulder. “I wish it were that easy.”

Derik rubbed her back, pressing her closer.

Justine pulled away, all business. “Killing Taug won’t help. You need an escape.”

“What’re you thinking?”

“Take that transport. I’ll deal with Taug.”

“Like hell! He’s my enemy, not yours. You don’t even know him.”

Justine’s arms dropped to her sides. “Now’s when I shock you—ready? I knew Taug before you were even born. He was at the Inter-Alien Alliance trial that found me guilty of war crimes. He observed my sentencing and was the one who awoke me seventy years later. Now, he asks only one little favor to keep me out of prison—kill you.”

Derik fell back against the sofa and slid to the ground.

Justine knelt beside him. “You can still escape. I’m not going to kill you. I never was—”

“You stepped in front of that autoskimmer on purpose. I remember…I wondered…I didn’t care.” Derik’s shoulders shook as he dropped his face into his hands. “If I were dead—” He looked into Justine’s eyes, tears running down his cheeks. “Kill me.”

Justine’s jaw tensed. “Shut up!” She jumped to her feet. “I have a plan. And it doesn’t involve killing anyone. You’re going to take that transport, and I’ll take care of Taug—”

A snort made them turn around. Taug shuffled through the doorway. Three Crestas stood guard behind him. “No need. Taug can take care of himself.”

~~~

Governor Right smirked at her datapad, elbows propped on her desk. “Screwed up didn’t you, little fellow? So, you weren’t as smart as your specimen. Funny, how that always happens. We think we have our options covered, then along comes a surprise element.” She tapped her datapad, and her secretary’s face appeared on the wall screen. “Cancel today’s appointments. A private matter, so you don’t need to tell anyone. Just say I’m indisposed. Let ‘em chew on that.”

She gathered a couple of small objects from her desk and placed them discreetly within easy reach on her person. She patted her hip with a flicker of a smile and headed out the door.

Ambling down the hallway, she nodded at a few faces, her glazed expression denoting her disinterest in conversation. As she reached the elevator, she waited for it to empty and then started forward. Turning around inside, pleased with her isolation, she was startled by a whoosh just before the automatic doors closed. Without turning her head, she knew exactly who occupied the small space with her. She trembled.

“No greetings?”

With a swallow, Governor Right tried to make her voice sound natural. “I avoid all unnecessary pleasantries. It takes too much time.”

“This won’t be pleasant, so you won’t lose a moment.”

Governor Right closed her eyes.

~~~

Vandi crowds bustled about in a holiday mood. The next day would begin the Inter-Alien combined Winter Festival and Religious Observation Season. The fact that it began nearly at the same time as the Oldearth Christmas Season irritated some, but since a lottery determined the date, few beings felt the need to argue the point. After all, every day was meaningful to someone. Christians considered it a sign from God. Others smirked at the very idea. The rest simply enjoyed the opportunity for paid leave and a few days of fun.

As Taug slogged through the wet snow behind Justine and Derik, he kept his weapon hidden from view. His three well- paid guards shuffled behind, their tentacles hidden under shapeless capes meant to appear inconspicuous. Only a few distracted stares came their way, which they ignored with icy politeness.

As they reached the middle of the main street, Justine scanned the environment. The streets were packed. Her heart froze. A group of children huddled outside a shop in serious consultation. Her gaze zoomed in. She instantly recognized the little boy’s face. Glancing at Derik, she wondered what he had looked like as a child. She blinked in the sudden realization that she had never been a little girl. The loss hit her like a Dustbuster blast to the chest.

Taug stepped between them. “This’ll do.” He gazed innocently at Derik. “I’m sorry. But I was always honest. You know why you were created, and you know why you must die. It’s as simple as that.”

A figure strode forward.

Taug’s eyes narrowed at the daring approach.

“Not so simple.” Wearing little more than a short-sleeve shirt, a pair of jeans, and slip-on shoes, oddly incongruous to the surrounding pedestrians bundled in heavy winter clothes, Bala stopped in front of Taug. He merely glanced at Justine and Derik. With a wave, he motioned Taug’s weapon aside. “Cerulean sent word that Derik was in trouble. Clare’s busy getting warrants and all that legal stuff. I’m here to see that no one gets hurt in the meantime.” He pointed to the shuffled Cresta footprints and nodded. “You made it pretty easy to follow you.”

Taug aimed his Dustbuster at Derik. “He’s is past all trouble. Even he agrees. Don’t you, Derik?”

Derik stepped away from Justine and thrust out his chest, making an easy target. “It’s better for one man to die than for the innocent to—”

Bala shot a glance at Justine. “Oh, brother! Any other ideas?”

Justine shook her head. “I had planned the perfect escape when Taug showed up.”

Pulling a dented Dustbuster from his back pocket, Bala shrugged. “Well, let’s see if we can work together. Back off, Taug, and tell your—”

Taug’s warning shot flew wide, blasting an innocent tree to bits. Bala rolled to the ground as shrieks filled the air.

Justine shoved Derik to the side and then lunged at Taug, but Derik gripped her foot from behind, and she slipped in the mushy snow.

Bala slapped his weapon free of snow, using words that would have shocked his mother.

Derik released Justine’s boot and scrambled to his feet, ready to tackle Taug.

Sirens screamed their pulsating warning as a sleek, well-armored vehicle skidded to a stop. The door flew open, and Governor Right stepped out, her arms raised dramatically. Her gaze raked through the frightened crowd.

Taug’s guards melted into the throng.

Bala lowered his weapon and stared, open-mouthed, as if the governor were a mirage.

The governor’s voice rang over the cacophony. “It’s all right, citizens. I’ll protect you. Please, go about your business. This incident is well in hand.” Her stiff smile matched her glassy stare.

When the crowd shook off its fright and began to circulate again, she dropped her gaze and glared at Taug. “Idiot.”

Taug shuffled forward. “Hardly. If you hadn’t interfered, at least some of us would have died, and Justine would have taken the blame.”

Her eyes roved over the small assembly. “Which one?”

Taug shrugged. “Which one which?”

Governor Right’s eyes flared. “The crossbreed, fool.”

Derik stepped forward, his expression haggard and lost to the world. “That would be me.”

With a snort, the governor marched forward and dug her fingers into his shoulder. “A prisoner is as good as dead in my book.” Governor Right shoved Derik toward the open car door.

She waved Bala’s approach away and glanced at Taug, sweeping her eyes toward Justine. “Do with it as you will. Take it apart if it pleases you. Just never let it rise again.”

~~~

Justine stretched her legs at an angle as she leaned back on a padded chair in front of a well-appointed desk. A pull-down electron microscope specially fitted to Cresta physiology hung directly overhead. She toyed with a bio-sample box as she watched Taug divest himself of his heavy coat. “Does it bother you that badly? The cold, I mean?”

Taug shivered. “Horrible! It never drops below freezing on my planet. The average temperature is biologically perfect and the range is slight, so we rarely worry about seasonal preparations. Just wet and dry as the rotation determines.”

“Lucky you.”

His eyes glowed softly, curiously. “You feel cold, then?”

“Not like most people. But I have sensors that tell me what I’m feeling. I react according to my host’s expectations. In winter, I wear sweaters and a coat to blend in.”

“Lucky you.” Taug plopped down on a couch across from the desk. He pushed a button and a wall section slid away, revealing a small fireplace. He tapped his datapad and colorful flames burst forth, undulating with glowing heat.

Justine grimaced. “A bit showy, don’t you think?”

“Nothing like your paintings and Oldearth decor.”

Justine pursed her lips. “You’ve been to my home?”

“When you weren’t there, naturally.”

With a dramatic yawn and a stretch, Justine rose and paced across the lab. She circled back and stopped, staring at the wall tank. “So, I want him alive and you want him dead. In either case, we need to get him back. Any way we could manage this without killing anyone or setting off an interplanetary war?”

Taug stroked his chin with the edge of his tentacle. “Yes, I was just considering my options. Mitholie will send someone to collect me soon.”

Justine spun around. “Collect you?”

“Derik and you are not the only ones being threatened with annihilation. I’m beginning to think—we all are.” Leaning back, he closed his red-rimmed eyes. The next moment, he opened them sleepily and swerved his gaze to Justine. “Governor Right knows things without my telling her, and she appeared a bit worried, did she not?”

“Your government—”

“Oh, dark waters, no! They’re doing their best to appear shocked by every new event. No, I think we have a player in this game we know little about.”

Justine stiffened. “My creator?”

Taug sucked in a breath and frowned. “I hope not.”

Justine strode across the room and bent over Taug, staring into his golden eyes. “Why?”

“Because then we’d all be as good as dead.”

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Seventeen, Part I

Miscalculation

Justine turned the lock and stepped away from the door. Pressing the wall panel, the lights turned on all over the small bungalow. Theodora trotted up and swirled about her legs with a demanding meow. Justine nudged the cat to the side with a wet boot. “In a minute, cat.”

The feline nudged back and meowed louder.

“You better watch yourself. I’ve had an offer to introduce another of your kind into this abode. Will it be a rival…or replacement?” With a deep sigh, Justine dropped down onto a bench and tugged off her boots. Slush dripped on the hardwood floor. Without a backward glance, she tiptoed over the melting pool and headed to the kitchen.

A single chime forced Justine to change course and plod to her computer screen. After tapping the keypad, she straightened her shoulders.

The cat sashayed behind.

Taug’s bland face appeared larger than life in her living room. “Glad to see you, Justine.”

“It’s rather late for a social call, don’t you think?”

Taug’s face remained impassive. “I need you here—in person.”

Justine shook her head, rubbing one damp foot against her leg. “Now?”

“Immediately. It’s urgent.”

“And if I decide to wait till morning?”

“You won’t live to see the sunrise.”

~~~

Justine strode into Taug’s brilliantly lit lab, her shoulders back and her attitude marching before her. “This had better be good.”

Taug limped across the room, meeting Justine halfway. “It’s not. Trust me.”

Justine’s attention zeroed in on Taug’s shredded boots with a snide smirk. “What? A dog attack you? An Ingot—?”

Taug flicked a tentacle toward the wall screen where a Universal Reports clip played on a continuous loop.

“The Newearth Inter-Alien Alliance Committee has been warned of a secret weapon placed somewhere in the Central Basin, ready to be discharged at a moment’s notice. Both the Supreme Council and the Crestar authorities insist that they know nothing about it, while the Ingoti and the Uanyi ambassadors have yet to respond. Newearth citizens in the area are advised to stay close to home and only venture out if absolutely necessary until this threat has passed. If you learn—”

Justine stiffened, her hands clenched. She turned to Taug. “Why?”

“I have to be sure that you’ll do exactly as I say.”

Justine marched to the wall-pad and slammed her fist on the console. The screen blinked to black. “What do you want?”

“Kill Derik. Publicly. It has to be witnessed by every race, and it has to look like you saved Newearth from utter destruction.”

Justine pounded over to Taug and pushed her face within centimeters of his. “Why?”

Taug pulled back and sauntered over to the pool wall. “Because it’ll be true. Due to some unforeseen circumstances—” His tentacle splayed across the glassy surface. “—the Inter-Alien Commission has become aware of certain Cresta activities that strain our relationship. If they learn of Derik’s existence, of his origin, it would set into effect a rather grave chain of events.”

“Why should I care? I can always leave—”

Taug turned and faced Justine, his bulbous eyes gleaming. “Two reasons. First, you would be hunted to your destruction and second, Derik would be forced to accept your guilt—before he dies.” Taug retreated to a dissecting tube and swirled a tentacle in the murky water. “There are other reasons, of course, but I think those will do.”

Justine folded her arms high across her heaving chest. Her voice rose like a hissing whisper. “You never planned to save him. He was always a tool, a specimen to dissect and study.”

Taug glanced at Justine. “At your trial, you refused to state your beliefs, even about yourself. I reserve the same right. For much the same reason.”

“And that would be?”

“Because no one would believe me.” Taug sighed as he twitched a knife off the metal table and twirled it. “Time waits for no man…or Crestonian.”

Justine’s gaze fixed on the knife. “I’ll bring him. Kill him yourself—if you can.”

“Not good enough. I awoke you for a simple purpose, to do this one, small service. Either you do it, or you face extinction.”

Justine stalked to the door. “When I called you an insect, I had no idea how insulting to the creepy, crawly world I was being. I repent my miscalculation.”

~~~

Darkness shrouded the quiet cabin while a waxing moon peeked between through bare branches. A single owl hooted in the distance.

Cerulean lay on a rumpled bed, his eyes closed, one arm thrown over his face in an attitude of peaceful repose. His bare upper chest peeked out from the silky white sheets that covered the rest of his body.

A pounding on the door forced him to drop his arm from his face and issue a groan from the depth of his being. “Who the heck—?”

The cabin began to shake. Thrusting the sheets aside, Cerulean shot forward and grabbed yesterday’s pants and sweater. “Hold on! I’m coming. Sheesh, you’d think the—” He staggered into his pants.

Justine was caught in the act of attempting to put the door back in its natural position, though the jagged hinges screamed a different truth.

Using his sweater as a pointer, Cerulean demanded, “What’d you do to my door?”

Justine tapped it into place. “I’ll replace the hinges later. Right now, we need to talk.”

Cerulean flicked the sweater over his head and pulled it into position. Padding barefoot over the cold floor, he gestured abruptly toward the kitchen. “Coffee, first.”

As she perched on a tall stool, Justine gazed around the herb-strewn room. Bunches hung ornamentally from the rafters while others lay like fallen soldiers in neat rows next to carefully labeled jars. “You make your own teas?”

“I’m learning.” He flicked the coffee machine on and grabbed two mugs. “The Amens community grows everything from anise to wintergreen, and they know a thing or two about soups too. One of these days, I may open a little shop like the one Alcina used to have.”

Justine’s gaze turned inward, scanning unseen files. “Alcina?”

“You wouldn’t know her.” He splashed steaming coffee into the cups with reckless abandon. “She was one of the early settlers, before your time—here—I mean.” He blew rising curls of steam off his mug and took a sip. Nodding to her untouched cup, he sauntered to the table and slouched onto the bench. “I assume you didn’t get me out of bed at the ungodly hour of—” he flicked a glance at an old-fashioned clock on the wall. “It’s only three-fifteen?”

Justine slid off her perch and strode to the table, the steaming cup in her unscathed hand. “While you were slumbering in ignorant bliss, I was constructing a plan to save Derik and scanning through multitudinous files.”

Cerulean’s eyes twinkled and his lips twitched. “Multitudinous? I’m impressed.” He shoved a chair out with his foot. “I don’t usually do anything multitudinous until I’ve had at least two cups of coffee.”

“You don’t need coffee. You’re just lazy.” She sat in the offered chair, her back straight and uncompromising, though she tapped her knee with a nervous finger. “I know the mystery.” Cerulean sat up, his gaze glued to hers.

“Governor Jane Right is older than the hills. In fact, she shouldn’t even be alive. And she wouldn’t be—if she were human.”

Cerulean leaned back with a low whistle. “What is she?”

“Either a Cresta experiment gone right, an alien we don’t know about, or—” Her gaze wandered toward the black window. “—she’s an android, like me.”

Clasping his fingers together, Cerulean appraised Justine. “And who are you?”

Justine dropped her gaze. “You mean, what am I?”

“No. Who are you?”

Looking up, Justine blinked back unaccustomed tears. “A mystery. No one knows.” She shrugged. “There are others like me. I worked with one on a transport; the captain needed protection in a dangerous world.” A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “A Mr. Max Wheeler—as naïve as a newborn babe.”

Cerulean shook his head. “Naïve is not the word that comes to mind when I think of an—”

“Android? No. Well, that just shows how much you know.” She rose and meandered to the window, her reflection in the black frame appearing like a ghost. “We were created by a race you know little about. Even the Luxonians don’t have much interaction with them. They are secretive by nature, but they’re also immensely advanced. Few races dare to challenge their closed-door policy.” She reached up and traced her face on the glass.

“Many generations ago, the Cresta leadership approached them, offering their abundant scientific skills in exchange for information. Soon after, a mighty plague swept through Cre- star, decimating over a third of their population. No one knew for certain who sent the plague, but no one had a third of a population to spare in discovering the truth.” She turned and faced Cerulean. “So, you see, there is much you don’t know.”

Cerulean rose and stepped to Justine’s side. He traced her chin with a soft touch. “I know a woman who lay helpless on a steel table and did not regret her decision to save two human lives.”

Justine held his gaze a moment before breaking away. “In that case, it may interest you to know that Governor Right has also been involved in several cases where questions about unlawful experimentation have been brought before the Inter-Alien Commission and were summarily dismissed. Apparently, the Ingoti ambassador has some interest as well, for he appeared at each hearing to see the evidence first hand.”

Cerulean refilled his coffee mug. “So, what do you think?”

“Crestas simply like to experiment. It’s in their blood or ooze, whatever you want to call the sap that flows through their veins. Ingots have a long history of drug running. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have a profit margin to protect.”

“And the illustrious governor?”

“Who doesn’t like to rewrite history for personal glorification?”

Cerulean leaned against the counter. “You’ve done well. This answers a lot of questions. I can see how Mrs. Hoggsworth’s questions and Bala’s investigation upset the delicate balance that has kept Newearth in blissful ignorance.”

“Except for the unfortunate casualties.”

Cerulean’s gaze strayed to the herbs. “Yes. Except for them.” He frowned and thrust a finger forward. “And Derik? Where does this leave him?”

Justine drained the last of her coffee and placed the cup gently in the porcelain sink. “Oh, did I fail to mention that I have been ordered to kill him in a public spectacle, or I’ll be hunted to my destruction?”

~~~

Derik tapped at his computer console, the blue light reflect- ing off his face. A half-eaten sandwich and a small, green drink lay at his right. He frowned at the archived reports scrolling down the screen in front of him. Holographic images created years earlier popped from the surface, including one with the subtext: “Tarragon, scientist of unparalleled ability, honored for his exceptional service to Crestar.”

Derik studied the hologram. The slump-shouldered, bulbous-eyed Cresta had a wise but somber look about him. As if he knew better than to trust accolades and honors. Taug resembled his dad a bit, especially around the eyes.

Continuing his search, Tarragon’s name appeared again, highlighted this time under a bold heading: “Traitor in our midst!” Followed by reports of Tarragon’s disappearance, and just a short time later, the appearance of his body—“Discovered by his son, Taug.” This time the hologram showed a broken Tarragon, his face distorted with anguish.

Derik’s hands shook as he considered the holographic image before him. He blinked back tears. His hand, poised above the off button, froze when he caught sight of a short, highlighted statement a few lines below: “Taug appointed to Second Degree, in grateful recognition for his valuable service to Crestar.”

Stunned, Derik stared at the rotating image of a young Taug, a tentacle raised in a wave, wearing a bemused smile.

Skidding his chair backward, Derik jumped forward and leaped for the door, leaving his heavy, winter coat draped over the back of the couch.

~~~

Once inside Taug’s dark, silent laboratory, Derik inched his way across to the desk by the west wall. Heavy fog shrouded the nearly full moon. Glowing red monitors and reflected light from other Vandi offices made it possible to sidle across the room without crashing into anything.

Sliding into Taug’s unadorned office chair, Derik tapped the computer console embedded in the desk. It blinked to life, a blank space awaiting the necessary print to unlock its secrets. “Dang!” Muffling his irritation with his hand, he considered his options.

“Perhaps I can help.” Taug padded into view from the dark recess of the room. “You should have called. I wasn’t sleeping.”

Derik jumped to his feet, sending the chair slamming against the wall. “I—” Derik maneuvered around the desk and faced Taug, his bright eyes gleaming at the Cresta. “I’ve got to know. Did you—kill your dad? For the good of…so you could get…a raise?”

Taug shuffled around Derik, pulled the chair from the wall, and fell into it wearily. With a tap, a thin beam of light brightened the west end of the room. “It’s been a long night, and it’ll be a long day tomorrow.” He rubbed his dry, cracked lips with a tentacle. “I guess there is no harm in your knowing— now.” He gestured to one of the chairs at the far end of the room. “Make yourself comfortable. This could take a while.”

Derik shivered as he paced like a caged animal. “Just talk! Explain things to me—so that I don’t hate you.” Glancing at Taug, Derik’s face distorted as if pleading for his life.

Taug leaned back and wrapped two of his tentacles like a cradle behind his head. “My father, Tarragon, was a brilliant scientist, as I told you. But he had one weakness. He believed that he was right, even when it was not safe to do so. Stubbornness, plain and simple. He created three crossbreeds in all. Two met their demise early on, but you were his pride and joy. I think he really cared about you—as if he had spawned you himself.”

Derik halted, darting a look of horror at Taug, but the Cresta’s gaze was considering images of long ago and far away.

“When his activities were discovered, the whole family was disgraced. I had worked terribly hard to earn a position of relative safety within the scientific community. Suddenly, all my efforts were compromised. I became a pariah overnight. You can imagine my shame.”

Derik hugged his arms around his waist, his voice rising like a howl. “So you turned traitor? Against your own father?”

Taug glowered icily at Derik. “It was him or me—”

With a snarl, Derik fled the room.

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” ~William Blake

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Thirteen

Long Past Trust

Justine stood in the middle of the pristine laboratory, analyzing Taug, her legs wide, her arms folded across her chest, and one eyebrow raised, marring her symmetrical face. She spoke with forced precision. “You-want-me-to-kidnap-Derik?”

Taug’s tentacles spread in acceptance. “You’ve accomplished far more difficult tasks. This shouldn’t prove much of a challenge.”

Justine swatted a mosquito on her arm and frowned. She darted a look from Taug to the sterile room and back to Taug. “Why?”

Taug slapped at the buzz of an insect in his ear. He waddled over to a small tank, lifted the lid, peered in, shook his head, and replaced it. “He hasn’t been answering my messages. The last time we spoke, I urged him to move in—”

“You want him to live in the lab? Why?” Justine squared her shoulders and unfolded her arms, fists ready for hand-to-hand combat.

Completely ignoring Justine, Taug’s eyes followed a buzzing insect around the room. “He might get hurt out in the open.”

Justine snatched the fly from the air and held it by the wing. It dangled, buzzing even more furiously. She pounded forward, staring Taug in the eye. “Tell me the truth.”

A tentacle flew at Justine. In a second, her legs were wrapped in a tight squeeze. Taug flipped her across the room.

Justine regained her footing and barreled forward, her head down in ramming position.

Taug’s body quivered on impact. He grabbed a tentacle-full of hair and pulled Justine’s head back so that she could see him. One tentacle held a Dustbuster while another tapped a small, black sphere on his belt.

Justine froze, her gaze fixed on the belt.

Taug shoved her back and gestured with the Dustbuster. “Stand by the wall.” He circled her as he held the weapon leveled at her chest. “When it comes to telling the truth, you’ve not been particularly forthcoming.” He nodded at the micro-recorder on his belt. “You’ve seen this before? I implanted a matching one on Derik; it looks like a mole on the back of his neck. I dare say he hasn’t noticed, but you have.” A snide grin slithered across his face. “With this little ear, I’ve heard every conversation he’s had. I must say, he’s not an original lover but at least he seems sincere.”

Justine’s jaw clenched, fitting her rock-like stance. “None of your business.”

Taug chided her with a waving tentacle. “Oh, but Derik is my business. As he is supposed to be yours. No good ever comes from mixing business with pleasure, I always say.” Taug aimed the Dustbuster as Justine’s hand quivered. “Don’t even think about it. I’m not a fool. It would only take one mark to have you disassembled for spare parts. My notes, available to every Cresta upon my death, would identify you as my murderer. Your memories are not so valuable so as to save you a second time.”

Justine threw back her head, defiant. “What do you want?”

“Retrieve Derik. I want him here, in my lab, tomorrow. And I want him to know that he needs to cooperate with me or—”

“You’re threatening me?”

“Very effectively.”

Justine strode to the wall-tank and ran a finger across the glass. She stared into the murky depths with studious indifference. “What are you planning to do, long term?”

Taug lowered his tentacle, relaxing the Dustbuster against his side. “If it was necessary for you to know, I’d tell you, but it’s not. All you need to know is that his life depends on how efficiently you obey me.”

Justine’s splayed hand stiffened. “I’m your slave now?”

“The term slave involves the possibility of freedom; you don’t have that, so you are not a slave.”

Justine turned, her gaze frozen, and stepped toward Taug. “What am I, then?”

“A tool.”

“You cold-blooded, inhumane—”

Taug chuckled, his bulbous eyes gleaming. “Trust me, being human isn’t quite as charming as it’s made out to be. I’ve had a lot of experience, and humans are often every bit as cold-blooded as a Cresta. The difference is that I work in accordance with my nature; therefore, I’m perfecting myself. Humans have no such hope.” Taug meandered past Justine toward the wall. “I’m going for a swim. Mention that to Derik. It’ll make your task a little easier.”

Justine strode to the door but before crossing the threshold, she stopped. She looked back at Taug. “And the insects? What are they for?”

Nodding in approval, Taug slid the Dustbuster back into a sleeve pocket. “I knew you’d ask. They are a part of my studies. Insects have some rather startling qualities that I might find useful.”

Justine grunted her agreement as she stalked out of the room. “You’d make a good insect yourself.”

~~~

Justine chopped carrots at lightning speed. Her fingers swept the assembly of other vegetables into a waiting pot, swiveled to the sink, and added water. Faster than a human eye could follow, she dropped in spices and a variety of mystery ingredients.

As the spicy aroma pervaded the room, Derik shuffled into the kitchen. He hugged her from behind and kissed her neck. “Hmmm, hmm, that smells good! How did you manage to put that together so quickly?”

Justine leaned back into the hug and reached behind to ruffle his thick hair. “I already had it prepared. I just needed to warm it up.”

“Gorgeous, intelligent, and a good cook. Is there another woman like you on the planet?”

Justine’s lopsided smile wavered. “Not likely.”

A ting sent her into her living room. Ivy stenciling meandered across the upper walls while baskets of hanging plants brightened the corners. Oldearth-style paintings hung strategically throughout the room. Justine ignored it all as she retrieved her datapad. Taug’s face rose into view. Justine slapped the datapad against her thigh as Derik ambled into the room.

Justine shook her head and flipped the pad over on her desk. “Just a reminder.” She stepped over to a wide couch and patted the seat next to her. “We need to talk.”

Derik grimaced. “Something important?”

Justine interpreted his expression and grinned winningly. “Not that kind of talk.”

“Ah, good!” Derik slid onto the couch beside her, one arm swinging up and around her shoulders.

She caressed one of his legs with hers. “I met a friend of yours, a Cresta named Taug.”

Derik jerked, but Justine held him back with a comforting touch. “Don’t worry. He told me everything. About you and his father. It was a relief, really. I knew there was something different about you, but I just never imagined—”

Derik closed his eyes and leaned back with a strangled sigh. “Why did he have to tell—you?”

“He cares about you.” Justine stroked Derik’s cheek. “For a Cresta, that’s a high compliment. He said he could help you adjust to all the changes. But you need to trust him.”

Derik opened his eyes and stared at Justine. “Did he tell you that he considered killing me?”

Justine shifted closer and breathed into his ear, stroking his cheek. Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “He told me everything. He needs you, and I want you to be happy.”

Tears brimming, Derik leaned forward. “I’m a mixed breed, illegal, and unwanted by every race in the universe. I should’ve had the courage to tell you. It’s been hell trying to hide my deformities, but I was afraid—”

Justine ran a finger across his lips. “Don’t. I have eyes; I already knew…some things. But it doesn’t bother me. The man I care about is on the inside. Not the shell on the outside.”

Derik’s delicate composure fractured. He dropped his face into his hands and sobbed. “I don’t deserve you.”

A twisted smile shadowed Justine’s face. “Maybe not. But you’ve got me just the same. And Taug. Question is, will you trust us?”

Derik wiped his eyes and leaned into Justine’s comforting embrace. “It’s gone long past trust.”

~~~

Derik removed the swimming mask from his face and pulled a large towel from a rack above his dripping bodysuit. The suit didn’t cover his Cresta anatomy, which allowed him to absorb the nutrients and experience the intoxicating sensation of revitalized Cresta skin. He had little to compare the sensation to, but he openly admitted that it was addictive. This month he had gone swimming with Taug nearly every day.

Taug donned his bio-suit in calm dignity. His eyes flickered over Derik’s human-Cresta body, and he pursed his puffy lips. He no longer shuddered at the sight of Derik’s anatomy. In fact, Derik wondered if he wasn’t just a bit jealous.

Derik had shown that he had the capacity to enjoy Cresta sensibilities with remarkable depth. Yet he also retained the ability to enjoy a fully functioning human body. Though Derik did have to wear bio-suits now, so did everyone in away. Even humans had to wear protective clothing.

As soon as they were dressed, Taug gestured Derik toward a round steel table piled high with instruments, standing in front of a wall of medical scanners. “It’s time.”

Derik shook his head. “I’m awfully tired. Couldn’t we skip it today? I mean, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Taug rubbed one tentacle across his chin meditatively. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.” He padded across the room. “I’m concerned about you.”

Idly lifting one of the medical instruments, Derik peered at it closely. “Me? Why? You’re the only one I know who wants me dead, so I’m relatively safe, don’t you think?” Derik’s accompanying chuckle proved how far their relationship had developed.

Taug appeared to appreciate the joke and offered a thin smile in return. “True, but Newearth is still a dangerous place. Beings get injured all the time; they’re victims of a hundred crimes a day. You never know when something might happen.”

Derik thumped his chest. “No one is going to mess with me.” He wagged his finger playfully at Taug. “You’re in far more danger than I am.”

“That is another consideration.” Taug shuffled closer. “Derik, I’d like you to live here.”

The instrument dangled from Derik’s hand. “At a laboratory?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you live here?”

“I have a small room in the back, but I would install separate quarters for you, a nice apartment, better than what you have now. That way you won’t have to travel back and forth, and we can continue working—”

Slapping the instrument on the table, Derik pouted. “But I have a job and a life! I’m not just your pet project, you know. I have a relationship and my job is very—”

“Low paying. I could pay you five times as much.”

Derik shuffled across the room, curiosity getting the better of him. “You never offered to pay before.”

“I was still deciding.”

Stopping in mid-stride, Derik turned and unrolled a heart monitor from the wall. He darted a glance at Taug and twirled the tip between his fingers. “So if I take your offer, you’re certain you won’t kill me?”

Taug hesitated for just an instant. “Yes.”

Derik dropped the heart monitor. “I don’t know. I like your offer, but I need to think about it. I want to talk to Justine.” Derik smirked and tilted his head back, appraising the figure before him. “So, are you considered good looking, on Crestar, I mean?”

Taug wiggled, a humorous gleam in his eye. “I was what you would call ‘quite the catch.’ In fact, I had so many Crestar females asking to be my mate that my parents held an auction.”

Derik swallowed, his eyes bugging as he stumbled forward. “What? Your parents auctioned you off?”

Taug nearly fell backward in a spasm of delight. “No, no. You are such a hatchling! I forget. No, they auctioned for the female to be my prize.”

Derik rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as if to wipe away a bad taste. “That’s sick! I thought males and females had equal status in your culture.”

Taug shook his head impatiently. “They do, but you misunderstand. Equal does not mean the same. We have rituals for mating and procreation, much like you humans. There was once something humans called the bride price, was there not?”

“In our barbaric past.”

“Perhaps, but for us, the bride price is not barbaric. It shows how much the family wants the match and the worth of the female. You can trust that we do not waste our families. Males, females, and hatchlings each have an important part to play in our culture, and we do not treat any of them as expendable.” Taug looked away.

Derik reached for the heart monitor again, as if clinging to a lifeline, and pulled it free of the wall. “But you’re scientists. You experiment on everyone. If you experiment, someone has to be expendable.”

Taug stood frozen. His gaze returned to Derik, appraising him anew. “It’s intriguing, the way you think. But still, you don’t understand. Science is our greatest good. To further science is the highest call, and therefore, no one is expendable.”

Derik shook his head and stepped to the door. It slid open automatically. “Well, for a while there, I was pretty expendable. Maybe I’m not now, but seeing how things can change, I’d rather keep my options open.” He trudged across the threshold.

Taug shuffled over, picked the heart monitor off the floor, and clutched it to his chest, his gaze never leaving the doorway.

“Ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” Desmond Tutu

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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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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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