Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Seven Part II

Padded walls, bright lights, a smooth, gray floor, and equipment suited to different biotypes created an ideal gymnasium for those looking for both recreation and a serious workout. Tumblers practiced their arts at one end, while sleek runners raced each other around the perimeter. Grunts, groans, and sporadic conversations settled into a background murmur with an occasional yelp thrown in for good measure.

Derik, decked out in fencing gear with a long rapier in one hand, swaggered up to Max, also bedecked in fencing apparel. They circled each other until Max raised his sword hand and gestured to his outfit. “Couldn’t you have found something less…involved?”

Even from behind the mask, it was obvious that Derik sneered. “What’s wrong? You can’t handle a little protective gear?”

Max tore off his breastplate and mask and tossed them aside. “I don’t need them. But don’t let that intimidate you.” He thrust out his chest. “If you insist on acting like a barbarian, I can accommodate you. Just remember, Justine is an android. Human chest-thumping and Cresta wrangling does not impress her.”

Derik frowned. His gaze darted from the abandoned gear to Max’s face. “I suppose your modesty is going to win her heart? Just try to keep from being run through, and we’ll see who impresses her. She’s more than an android, tech-head. She’s a woman in the fullest sense of the word.” Lifting his rapier, Derik saluted his enemy.

Max shook his head and returned a half-hearted salute.

Derik charged forward with the first thrust.

With matching dexterity, Max met Derik’s initial blow, and they clashed swords around the fencing ring. A small crowd gathered as the intensity of their flashing blades gathered strength. Neither Max nor Derik would give in. After an hour, the crowd began to seep away from the monotony of their struggle. Finally, Max’s untiring strength began to wear down Derik’s exhausted physiology. With sweat dripping down his face, Derik suddenly did the unexpected. He stopped dancing about and raised his arms. Max halted, letting his sword arm fall to the side. Derik dove in and stabbed Max’s chest with his blade.

Those intrepid souls who had stuck out the extended battle sucked in a collective breath. One human screamed. “Call a medic. He’s hit!”

All eyes darted from one figure to the other.

Derik fell backward, his hand releasing the rapier, shocked by the violence of his own move. The abandoned sword quivered, protruding from Max’s chest like a child’s toy.

Max frowned at the steel undulating from his chest. He gripped the handle and drew it smoothly from his body. “It’s not that easy to kill me, you know.”

All color drained from Derik’s face as he limped to the wall and slid to the floor. Medics rushed onto the scene, stared at Max’s impenetrable expression, turned to Derik’s drooping form, and immediately scrambled to Derik’s side.

A couple of spectators tried to correct their mistake but gave up when Max waved them away.

Max sauntered over, swishing the two rapiers menacingly. He tapped the human medic on the shoulder with the tip of a blade. “Not him—me. But don’t worry; I wasn’t seriously damaged. Only irritated.”

Confused but eager to move away from the rapier-swinging figure, they backed off with the rest of the crowd.

Max sighed at the forlorn figure. He toed Derik’s boot and tossed the rapiers aside. “Come on, idiot. I got a date, and I could use a chaperone.”

~~~

Max sat opposite Derik at a Breakfast Nook booth and twiddled his elongated thumbs. “You’ve got a date—with whom?”

“Sal, the hostess. She wanted me to come by for a sweet treat. Considering her various hints, I think she has… feelings for me. I hate to disappoint.”

Derik gazed at Max through bloodshot eyes. “Aren’t you a mercenary? Killer-for-hire-sort-of-guy? And you’re afraid of—” He rubbed his temple as Sal lumbered into view with a heavily laden tray. He sneered. “Max, your sweeties are here.”

Max stiffened and plastered a happy grin on his face.

Sal sashayed over and placed the tray with extra care in front of Max. She matched his expression, grin for grin. “It’s the best we’ve got. Pecan pie, vanilla ice cream, and an extra-large health drink.” She positively beamed. “Even androids need to take care when indulging.” She leaned in and whispered. “I studied up.”

Derik slapped his forehead, disbelief writhing across his haggard face.

Max became practically giddy. “You are one of a kind, Sal. Not another like you from here to the Divide. Thanks.” He patted the bench. “You want to sit and help me eat it?”

Derik closed his eyes and swallowed something back.

Riko turned from a pie rack and snapped his fingers, his eyes mere slits.

Sal shoved Max playfully. “I know your type. Just because I bring sweets, you think you can have your way with me.” She grinned. “I’m no fool. Besides, I’ve got a price on my head. A working Ingot like me is worth half a million—easy.” Her eyes teased. “Let’s see if you can handle that pie first.” She hurried off at skipping speed.

Derik held his head in his hands as if he were afraid it might fall off and roll away. “What in darkness was that? I don’t know if she’s smitten, looking for an easy victim, or just having fun at your expense.”

Max balanced a spoonful of pie against a dollop of ice cream. He surveyed it like a geologist studying an unusual rock formation. “According to human customs, this is a special treat. But she knows I’m an android, so why bother?”

Derik leaned on one arm, giving into the surreal situation. “She must’ve heard that you have human DNA, and she figures you’d like anything that makes you feel more human.”

Max slipped the dripping spoonful into his mouth, swirled it a bit, and swallowed.

Derik’s gaze followed the pie all the way down his gullet.

“Nothing.” Max sighed and darted a glance across the table. “Does Justine like human food?”

Sitting up straighter, Derik folded his hands. “Yeah. I think so. When she eats with me, she always likes whatever we have. At least, she never complains.”

“You don’t even know what she likes, do you?”

Derik’s hands clenched into one big fist. “Do you? How well did you know her before she was turned off—back in the war years? Trust me, she’s not that person anymore.”

“She killed Mitholie.” Max shoved the ice cream and pie toward Derik. “Despite your feelings, you can’t honestly say you know her well. She’s only been reawakened for a few months and during that time, she’s been living a double life, working for Taug and pretending to love you.”

Derik jumped to his feet, his breath coming in sucking waves. “I’m her fiancé, at least in my heart. She was going to run away with me. We’re going to get married—”

Max rose slowly and faced Derik. “I am sorry. But Justine can’t be anyone’s wife. Her creators think they still own her—like they still own me. She was made to hire out, not to live free. When she killed Mitholie, she was acting according to her nature.”

Derik glared at Max. “I don’t believe that! Justine is not a killer.”

“Why did she kill then? The Inter-Alien Alliance Committee will judge her—again.” Max laid a firm hand on Derik’s shoulder. “You have nothing to offer but a broken, crossbreed heart. But I can offer a way out. I was tried for a crime once, but when I claimed my android nature, I was covered under weapons’ immunity. Justine just needs to claim her true identity, and she’ll be free.”

Derik shouldered Max’s arm away as he pounded to the door. “You’re not free. You’re a slave.”

“It is human nature to think wisely and act in an absurd fashion.” ~Anatole France

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Seven Part I

We’re All One of Us

Bright noonday sun rays shone through the Vandi Interventionist Station windows. A few guards sat at their desks and others stood in small clustered conversations. A barked order broke the low hum—but only for a moment.

Cerulean led Justine forward, barely touching her arm. The rest of the group trailed close behind, bleary-eyed and silent.

A short, thickset human dressed in an official Interventionist uniform with the nametag “Bradshaw” stepped in front of the desk and intercepted Cerulean. He wagged a finger at Justine. “This her?”

The Interventionist snapped his fingers at two other officers standing to the side. “Here’s the Cresta killer. Take her in and make sure everything is done right! I don’t want some Luxonian diplomat chewing my ear off about Inter-Alien Rights.”

The two officers gripped Justine’s arms. One jiggled a pair of manacles in her face. “Try anything funny, and we put these on you, see?”

Justine stared straight ahead.

Bradshaw shrugged at Cerulean. “Thanks. We would’ve had a mess on our hands—her coming from Newearth and killing a high profile Cresta and all.” His gaze swept over her form. “Dang, if she isn’t the prettiest android I ever saw.” He clucked his tongue. “Too bad. Termination for sure.”

As the officers led her from the room, Justine glanced over her shoulder and met Cerulean’s gaze.

Cerulean watched until her perfect form turned a corner.

Bradshaw peered around Cerulean and considered the rest of the forlorn group. “They with you?”

Cerulean peered over his shoulder.

Derik leaned forward, seething.

Max firmly gripped Derik’s shoulder with one hand and steadied the “baggage” over his shoulder with the other.

With disheveled hair and dark circles under her eyes, Clare stared at the floor.

Leaning against the wall, Bala rubbed his gloomy face with his hands. 

Faye stood to the side, elfin and childlike, shivering.

Cerulean sighed. “Yeah. They’re mine.”

Cerulean led the group down the hall and lifted his hands. “I know everyone is upset, but we still have jobs to do.” He surveyed the group. “Listen, I did the only thing I could! She would’ve been hunted for the rest of her days. This way she has a chance to get a fair hearing and possibly be found not guilty this time.”

Bala shook his head. “She murdered Mitholie in front of a lot of witnesses. It’s like she wanted to be found guilty.”

Derik shoved Bala from behind. “There was a good reason! Trust me. I know her better than any of you. She—”

Max poked Derik in the shoulder. “I’ve about had it with you. The fact is, I’ve known her longer than anyone here and—” He shrugged Taug’s slumbering form onto Cerulean’s shoulder. “Here, you carry him awhile. What’d you give him, anyway?”

Cerulean shrugged. “It wasn’t me. Justine must have put him out with something. A right cross is my guess.”

With a quick shake, Max turned on Derik and leaned in. “We need to settle this. Any suggestions?”

Derik sneered. “If you’re man enough. I know just the place.” He turned and started away. “Follow me.” He glanced over his shoulder and called, “And if she isn’t freed, Cerulean, I’m coming for you next!”

Cerulean sighed and ran his hand through his ruffled hair.

Bala sauntered up and shook his head. “And then there were—” He pointed at each of them with his index finger and hesitated. “—does Taug count?”

Cerulean turned toward Faye. “Do you think—?”

Faye nodded. “Certainly. I have a place not far from here. If you would bring him along, I’ll see that he’s taken care of.”

Bala glanced at Clare. “Thank God! I was afraid I’d have to explain him to the kids.” He shivered. “They’ve been through enough. Besides, Kendra would kill me.”

Clare stepped up and placed a hand on Cerulean’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault. You did the right thing. I would’ve had to do it if you didn’t.”

Cerulean nodded. “Doesn’t make it any easier.”

As Clare and Bala turned away, Cerulean called after them. “There is something you can do. Follow up on a lead at the Amens community. A man there has been having strange symptoms. They thought maybe he was a half-breed, but I don’t think so. Contact a guy named Able. Tell him you’re a friend of mine, and see what you can find out.”

Clare sighed. “Sure. Discover the truth. That’s my job, isn’t it?”

Cerulean hefted Taug’s body over his shoulder and traipsed after Faye’s child-like form. He sighed. “All our jobs, really.”

~~~

After two long showers, Clare ventured into the role of Newearth Human Services detective again. As she tromped along a wooded path, a prickly branch caught her coat, halting her in mid-step. She threw up her hands in frustration. “Oh, help! It’s got me. Bala! Come quick.”

Bala rushed down the wooded trail, huffing, with a strained expression. “If you hadn’t decided to run ahead, you wouldn’t be in this mess!” He stopped and surveyed Clare’s puffy coat sleeve entangled in thorns. He stroked his chin, meditatively. “Well, it looks like the vegetation has taken a liking to you. Either you can slip under it, or I can rip your arm off.”

Clare closed her eyes and counted under her breath.

With delicate fingers and smothered yelps, Bala struggled to disengage the vine. “You might have to leave your coat as a peace offering—”

A laugh made them both turn.

A tall, thin man ambled up the path. He waved Bala off with a grin. “I figured you’d get lost, not caught in the Rubus plant, commonly known as a blackberry vine.” His fingers dexterously disentangled the fabric without a single tear.

Clare’s eyes widened.

Bala stood back and folded his arms, humbled.

The stranger thrust out a work-roughened hand. “The name’s Able. Cerulean sent word you’d be coming.” He patted Bala on the back with a hearty thud. “The first time I got caught in such a vine, I was about four. I’d slipped away for a private need. I ended up in need, all right. Couldn’t sit for a week.”

Bala’s mouth wobbled and his eyes twinkled while Clare’s eyes stretched from amazement to horror.

Able returned down the path he had just come up. “Follow me. The wife has tea and fixings ready for you. I can hardly believe you just got back from Crestar. The whole community wants to hear about it, but I told ‘em that you’re coming to help Jim, not be interrogated.” He tromped along the path with Clare and Bala on his heels. “They’ll leave you alone for a bit… but then it’s every man for himself, if you know what I mean.”

The cabin dominated the top of the hill. Rough-hewn log walls, exposed beams, and the sheer size and sturdy nature of the structure made it appear like an ancient fortress of Oldearth. In the main room, herbs hung from the rafters, while braided rugs lay strewn over the wood floors. A large stove with an attached black pipe thrust through the vaulted ceiling took up an entire corner. A neat stack of split logs lay nestled in a wood box.

Able handed Clare a cup of steaming tea, while his wife handed Bala a plate of fluffy scones. The four were seated around a table that could comfortably seat sixteen.

Bala leaned over his tea and sniffed in glorious appreciation.

Clare sampled a scone and hummed. “Hmm, hmm, I haven’t tasted anything this good since Kendra decided to enter her pies in the Culinary Arts Contest.”

Able smiled at his wife, seated across from him. “We do our best.” As a figure huddled in the doorway, Able sighed and folded his hands. “But our best isn’t always good enough.” He faced the figure across the room, raising his voice as he spoke. “Come on in, Jim! Don’t be shy.”

An emaciated figure with sinewy limbs hesitated and then darted across the floor, finding refuge behind Able. His eyes had narrowed to mere slits and his ears were reduced to dimple holes with crusted edges, while sores and thin scabs covered his mottled skin. He quivered in obvious agitation.

Able reached back and gently led the figure into full view.

Bala’s mouth fell open.

Clare inhaled a shocked breath.

Able passed his hand along the disfigured man’s arm, tapping gently. Jim relaxed enough so that Able could press him onto the bench beside him.

When Jim had calmed, leaning like a frightened child into Able’s side, Able faced Clare and Bala. “The changes were slow at first, but then suddenly they quickened. Every day, we noticed more deterioration of his body. He can’t see, except in the brightest light, but that causes excruciating pain. He can barely hear, though his skin is sensitive enough so that I can calm him with a gentle touch.”

Jim rocked, humming under his breath.

Tears filled Clare’s eyes. “He looks so lost and afraid.”

“He is. By God, that’s exactly what he is.”

Bala clutched his warm cup. “So why did you send for us? The poor man needs a doctor.”

Able’s jaw clenched. “A crime’s been committed! Can’t you see?”

Shifting off the bench, Clare stepped carefully to Jim and knelt at his side, her gaze scanning his body. “You think he’s a crossbreed?”

Able shook his head with a shrug. “Don’t know. But he was a perfectly healthy man once. He told me that these changes came on like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky.”

Lifting his datapad, Bala began to tap across the screen. “Derik’s the only crossbreed we know of. Even Taug and Mitholie didn’t seem to think there were any others—still alive, anyway.”

Clare passed her hand over Jim’s head. He shrank back in fright. “Oh, sorry!” She turned to Able. “Could you ask him if he was a part of any test group…had any medical issues before this happened?”

Able tapped Jim and then spoke slow and loud. “Have you had any medical tests, Jim?”

The rocking increased.

Able gripped Jim’s arm, held him firm, and spoke directly into an ear hole. “They want to help. Did you ever have any medical tests?”

Bala rose and slid his datapad toward Able. “Looks as if Jim isn’t the only one with these symptoms.” He nodded toward the shivering man. “Ask him if he was partial to mega-vitamin drinks. Says here that there’s an experimental drug on the market to increase vitality and stamina, except it had the opposite effect on some humans.”

With a shudder, Jim shook not only his head but his whole body.

Able leaned over Jim’s rocking body and asked Bala’s question. This time Jim froze then he nodded.

Clare patted Jim’s thin shoulder and stepped to Bala’s side. “Let me see that.” She scanned the info and sniffed. “Uanyi, I guarantee it.”

Bala retrieved his datapad. “It would fit with the pattern.” He pulled his nose. “I wonder how much Governor Right made on the deal.”

“How about the Bhuac, Faye? You think she knew?”

Bala shrugged.

A low moan from Jim pulled Able to his feet. He gestured to his wife who led the forlorn figure out of the room. Smacking his fist into his hand, Able muttered. “I’m a peace-loving man, but this boils my blood.”

Rising, Clare proceeded to the door. She stopped and faced Able. “We’ll follow up on this mega-vitamin info and any other leads that might explain what’s happened to Jim. I’ll be happy to send the idiots who did this to Bothmal for the rest of their lives.”

Able rubbed his hands together. “Bothmal is too good for some villains.”

“Too true.” Clare pulled her coat tight. “Oh, and thanks for rescuing me from the attacking Rubus vine.” Her eyes glanced over the room one last time. “You certainly have a beautiful home. I can see why Cerulean likes his neighbors so much.”

Able blushed. “It’s us that are the lucky ones.” He nudged a little closer. “He hasn’t been home for a while. Everything okay?”

With a long, drawn out sigh, Clare gripped the door handle. “You’re not the only one upset lately. If Cerulean had blood, it’d sure be boiling by now.”

~~~

Faye propped up Taug’s limp body with a large pillow. A flutter of his eyelids alerted her to his imminent recovery. She scooted across the room, opposite her round couch, so that she could observe him from a safe distance.

Turning to her game table, she languidly shuffled the figures around on the board. The small, dark figure with large ears and round eyes stood safely ensconced in the back row. She tapped him on the head and placed a huge, fanged creature defensively in front of him.

A low moan made her turn from the engrossing activity. “Are you awake, then?”

Taug raised a tentacle and rubbed his head, adjusting his breather helm in the process. “How long have I been out?”

Faye considered his greenish tint, sunken eyes, and rasping breath. She glided forward and felt his head with her slender hand. “Long enough to become dehydrated.” She clapped her hands.

Gabriel appeared like magic across the threshold.

Faye pointed to the distressed Cresta. “He’s not feeling well, dehydrated, I suspect. Do we have anything?”

Gabriel’s icy smile broke wide enough to allow a soft murmur. “I’ll check.”

Faye turned back to Taug. “Don’t try to get up. You need to rest. When Justine wants to knock someone unconscious, she does a thorough job.”

Taug groaned. “I remember being lifted up and jostled down the corridor. She was saving me…I thought.”

“Oh, she saved you, most certainly.” Faye’s gaze darted away. “Mitholie took her rage instead.”

Taug squeezed his eyes shut. “Mitholie—”

Returning to the game board, Faye moved another figure to the back row and finished his sentence. “—is dead. She obliterated him and the wall-screen behind him. A very useful friend but a dangerous enemy.”

Silence filled the room as Taug covered his face with a shriveled tentacle. Faye moved another figure to the back of the board. When Gabriel presented Taug with a bag of murky liquid, he opened his eyes and smiled weakly.

With a stiff bow, Gabriel murmured. “It’s the best I could obtain on such short notice.”

Without further ado, Taug punctured the seal and poured the liquid into his breather helm. A deep sniff brought forth another groan, but this time, one of relief. He peered up at Gabriel through tearful eyes. “It’s very good. Thank you.”

Faye watched Taug with cynical amusement. “I won’t bother to ask why you betrayed her. I know too much about protecting my own to be even slightly curious.” Her gaze returned to the board once again.

With a less icy smile, Gabriel nodded and left.

Taug’s eyes followed her. “Governor Right sent you?”

An off-key, tinkling laugh bounced around the room. “Heavens, no! I tell her what to do. She has no power over me.”

Taug patted the mountainous pillows and then surveyed the room. With a raised brow, he shifted off the bed, wobbled, steadied himself, and then toddled over to the game table. A gleam entered his eyes. “I used to have something like this as a hatchling.”

Faye fingered one of the pieces. “Yours were sea creatures, no doubt.”

Taug lifted a tentacle and darted a question. “May I?”

Faye tipped her head graciously.

Swirling his quivering tentacle across the board, he stopped at the fanged creature. He held it up for inspection. “We use figures of all the known races. But never Crestas.”

Faye blinked. “Why not? Don’t you like to be a part of the game?”

Taug sobered as he placed the creature behind the round-eyed figure. “Only as the masters and movers. We don’t like to be played.” He stepped back from the table and folded his tentacles, appraising Faye carefully. “You’re a Bhuac, obviously. Who do you work for? Ingots? Uanyi?”

Faye sighed and drifted toward the large window overlooking the bustling city. “I work for no one and everyone.” She turned and faced Taug, a scowl marring her symmetrical beauty. “Don’t you realize that you were a fool to trust your own kind?”

Taug shrugged. “It comes as no surprise. Crestas never trust anyone, especially our own kind.”

Pained, Faye closed her eyes. “Foolish and terrible.” She pointed back at the crowd below. “So why do you bother to live?”

Taug ambled closer and shared the view. “Survival is an inherent quality in us all.”

She darted a glance at him. “My family was killed in the Telathot incursion, and my planet has been decimated more times than I can count. I became strong, so they could remain weak. But—”

Taug was watching her closely, holding his breath.

“It’s killing me.”

Taug shifted aside. “You are much like Justine, then. Like Derik even. Perhaps even a bit like—”

“You?” She strayed back to the board, surveying the multitude of figures. Suddenly, she slashed the board with the back of her hand, sending the pieces flying across the room, rolling into corners and under the bed.

Gabriel practically flew into the room, alarm written across his face. Darting to Faye’s frozen side, he laid a hand on her shoulder.

She didn’t move, not even to glance at his hand.

Taug stood back; his tentacles hung limp at his sides.

Finally, Gabriel nudged Faye toward the bed. “You need rest and—” He glanced at Taug. “—he needs to leave. You can do no more for now.” He helped Faye perch on the edge. “The android’s trial is set for next week. The Inter-Alien Alliance has decided that it must be dealt with swiftly in the face of a rash of violence sweeping across the planet.”

Taug jerked out of his stupor and lumbered forward. “What’s happened?”

Gabriel darted a questioning look to Faye.

Faye waved his secrecy away. “Taug’s one of us. We’re all one of us. Except, of course, for those who aren’t.”

With a frown, Gabriel sent Taug a questioning look, but then he cleared his throat. “Apparently, Human Resources has discovered that Uanyi have been using humans in a secret drug testing scheme. Fifty-one deaths have been attributed to a health drink they sold as a cover in their experimental study.” He strode to a circular, wall-sized screen and tapped the console.

The blank whiteness blinked to a riot scene with red and orange fires burning out of control in the Uanyi business district while crowds of weapon-wielding humans screamed at the citizens defending their wares.

Gabriel folded his arms across his chest. “As long as they fight each other, they won’t fight us.”

Taug shook his head. “Not necessarily. Chaos begets chaos.” He padded over to Faye’s stiff form. “You appear ill. You need to rest.” He plumped up the pillows and bunched them around Faye.

Gabriel’s eyes followed him closely.

As she leaned back, Faye looked Taug in the eye. “Why did you bring Justine to Crestar? Surely you knew it was a trap.”

Taug’s shoulder’s drooped. “Only for her. I hoped, in time, to convince Mitholie of her worth and to return to Newearth to continue my studies with Derik. They both have a lot to offer the scientific community.”

As Gabriel hesitated over the threshold, Faye’s sad expression turned introspective. “You’re unique. I never would have guessed such a thing possible—in a Cresta.”

Taug stroked his chin. “May I ask you a question as well?” To her assenting silence, he bent down, retrieved one of the figures, and placed it on the game table. “Why did you inform Governor Right about the other android? You must’ve known she would inform Mitholie.”

“I directed her too. I wanted to see if—” Her voice cracked, but she held up her hand and recovered herself. “—if an android would rescue another of its kind. I needed to know how much he would risk.”

“For self-preservation?”

“By sacrificing self.” She dropped off her bed and scooted to a corner. Retrieving the figure with large ears and round eyes, she placed him on the game board—facing the fanged creature. She glanced from Gabriel, still hovering on the threshold to Taug standing firmly before her. “We all have our trials to face.”

“I have always considered it as treason against the great republic of human nature, to make any man’s virtues the means of deceiving him.” ~Samuel Johnson

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Five

Taug Will Feel My Blade

Cerulean paced in front of Governor Right while Max stood sentry at the door. Bala and Clare stood like mismatched statues on either side of her well-appointed desk.

Cerulean wagged his head like a disappointed father. “I’m surprised you’ve been so sloppy, governor. It wasn’t easy to discover your connection to the Uanyi Utopia Empire—their drug-running schemes have been a bane to Luxonian interests for eons—but it was possible. You left quite a trail.”

Governor Right squared her shoulders and sniffed back a twisted smile. “You think you know something? Fine, go to the Inter-Alien Committee and file charges. Bring your evidence. They will nod their various bulbous heads and intone how grateful they are… and they will do nothing. Because they have no power. They are totally incapable of changing anything!”

Swinging around her desk and brushing past Clare, the governor marched to the door, opened it, and flung out a dismissive hand. “Leave before you find out who has the real power here.” She flicked a glance at Bala. “You were in prison.”

Bala rubbed his forehead. “I was, but I didn’t like it much. You have a lot to learn about hospitality.”

“Ha!” She shook her head as she tapped on her datapad. “You have a lot to learn about prison. Bothmal has enough cells for you all.”

Max unfolded his arms, strode into Governor Right’s personal space and, grasping her by the shoulders, lifted her off the ground. “You have a lot to learn about androids.”

Cerulean shuffled forward and tapped Max on the shoulder. “Remember what I said?”

Max dropped the governor unceremoniously.

Clare tapped her datapad. “Thanks, Max, but we only have a few minutes.” She grinned at him. “Faye and Derik can only keep everyone busy for a limited time.”

Cerulean took the governor’s arm and strolled with her to an intimate corner. “What is Taug’s plan? Why does he want Justine?”

The governor’s eyes strayed toward Max and then returned to Cerulean. She shrugged. “Taug’s nothing. It’s Mitholie who wants her. He’s got plans of his own. The Divide knows what. I’m not his confidant. Ask—” She froze and her eyes widened. Her gaze scoured the room.

Cerulean lowered his voice. “Ask who?”

Governor Right shook herself. “No one. Nothing. Just leave. I don’t have anything to give you. Taug’s gone with the android and that’s the end of them. Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned.” Her brows knit. “What happened to the mixed breed? I had him in prison too….” She flicked a glance at Bala.

“Someone freed him.”

“Treacherous Cresta! Damn—”

Max stepped forward.

Cerulean held up his hand, forestalling any dramatic moves on the android’s part.

The governor shuddered, recomposing herself. “Be interested in a trade? I could ask Mitholie if he’d take that one instead.” She nodded to Max. “He doesn’t seem too bright, but I don’t think Mitholie’s looking for intelligence.”

Cerulean’s eyebrows rose. “No? He’s a bigger fool than I thought.” He glanced around at the various faces, each trying to appear to not be soaking up every word. He refocused on the governor. “How much are the Uanyis paying you to cover for them?”

Governor Right stiffened. “If you had a modicum of intelligence yourself, you’d leave now and drop this whole matter. Some enemies can’t be destroyed.”

Cerulean sighed and straightened. “Some enemies are not meant to be destroyed—only endured—so as to outlive them.”

With a smirk, Governor Right chuckled. “You don’t have enough lifetimes.”

Cerulean strode toward the door. “We have a decision to make, Governor, and you have an appointment to keep.”

The four friends ambled over the threshold. Bala turned with a courtly nod.

Governor Right furrowed her brow as she darted to her datapad and scrolled through. She bit her lip and leaned against her desk. The door opened with a hiss and a looming shadow entered.

Governor Right reached for her desk drawer but Faye, under a swirling black robe and four times her usual size, seized the governor’s hand and gripped it like a vice. “You don’t have time for that. You have a mission to accomplish.”

Governor Right was in no position to argue, but she tried anyway. “Do I?”

The shadow tightened its grip. “You will contact Mitholie and let him know that an android, Max Wheeler, is on his way to rescue Justine.”

With her teeth clenched, the governor nodded. “Certainly. I enjoy keeping Mitholie happy.”

Faye dropped the hand and floated back to a dark corner.

Governor Right darted to the wall screen and tapped the console. As the screen flickered, she glanced back to the dim outline. “Good to know we’ll be working for the same purpose. Androids should be kept under our control.”

Faye held her peace as the governor reported the news to Mitholie who accepted it with unperturbed grace. When the screen blinked to black, the governor sidled to her cabinet. Lifting an ornate container, she poured a drink and then another and held it out to the shadowy corner. “Let’s drink to our continued—”

The governor stepped forward, her eyes scanning the darkness. Nothing.

Silence.

She lifted the glass in a salute and then proceeded to gulp the amber liquid. Returning to the cabinet, she swallowed the second and slammed the glass on the counter. “No loss. I saw your eyes this time—Bhuac.”

~~~

“I’m going.” Max stood even straighter and squared his shoulders.

“No, I’m going.” Cerulean blew air between his lips and grimaced.

Clare waved them both off. “No, I have more official authority than either of you.”

Bala wiggled one finger in the air. “How about we all go? Could be fun. A quick trip to Crestar on some broken-down transport. Stopping a murderous android. International spectacle. We might even make Universal News.”

The four sat tightly packed in a booth at the Breakfast Nook. Despite its name, patrons swarmed through at all hours. Riko had waved to the group when they entered. He sauntered over when Cerulean nodded in his direction.

Appearing as meek as possible, Cerulean peered up at the formidable Uanyi. “I know it’s late, but do you mind? I’m afraid we might be—”

Riko shrugged. “Say no more. My hostess is smitten—” He tipped his head to the side indicating Sal hovering in the background. “—with your friend here.” His gaze swept over Max in puzzlement. “Besides—” He placed a meaty hand on Bala’s shoulder. “I enjoy assisting those in dire need.”

Bala blushed.

Clare pursed her lips and drummed her fingers on the table. “Hey, I always leave good tips. And to be quite honest, I bring in a lot of business.”

Riko sniffed. “I won’t say what kind of business.” He turned and gestured to the hostess.

She bounded forward like a happy elephant.

Passing her, Riko snapped his fingers. “Give ‘em whatever they want, but the Luxonian pays for all.”

All eyes shifted away from Cerulean.

Sal’s beaming grin zeroed in on Max. “What can I get you?” Her husky tone spoke volumes.

Max started to rise, but both Clare and Bala pushed him back onto his seat.

Clare matched the Ingot’s beaming expression. “He’d love some of your coffee mocha. In fact, we all would.”

When the Ingot remained stiff and staring, Max lifted his eyes enough to graze her face, offered a tremulous smile, and nodded.

Satisfied, Sal bounded away.

Rubbing his forehead, Cerulean hunched over the red tabletop. “We’ve got to make a decision quickly. Max, you got the message, what did Justine actually say?”

Four Uanyi patrons settled into the booth next to them. They made a point of flexing their arms as they positioned themselves so that they could watch the small group in their deliberation.

Bala tensed. “I think I might know one of those chaps—”

Clare hissed, elbowing Bala into silence. “Not now! Go on, Max, what did Justine say?”

Max peered at his folded hands. “Many years ago, we worked closely together. This is the first time since—you know—that Justine’s reached out to me.” He paused and sighed. “On our last mission together, we got into an argument. It was stupid; we had different ideas on how to handle our identity. Justine always leaned toward a romantic view—”

Clare scoffed. “Justine romantic? I’d never have thought that.”

The front door clanged and flew open. Derik tromped in, huffing and sweaty. His gaze did a quick rotation of the room and, spying the group, he pounded over. “Sorry it took so long. You wouldn’t believe what that little Bhuac can do—”

Clare gripped Derik’s sleeve and pulled. “Shush, you idiot!” She glanced at the neighboring booth of open-mouthed Uanyis. “Grab a chair and—” She speared him with a glare. “—don’t talk so loud!” The room fell silent at her last word. She plastered a grin across her reddening face.

The hostess appeared at Derik’s back with a loaded tray. She scowled at Derik. “Suppose you want one too.”

Derik blinked at her.

Clare stood and passed the mugs with alacrity. “No, he doesn’t touch the stuff. But Max really appreciates your efficiency.”

The hostess beamed and practically skipped away.

Bala glanced at his datapad. “Before my next birthday, which happens to be arriving with alarming speed, could we decide our next step?”

Max swiveled toward Bala. “Your birthday?”

“No!” Cerulean clenched his hands together as if in desperate prayer. “Focus, Max. What did Justine say?”

Max grabbed Bala’s datapad and tapped it systematically for a moment. “Here, I downloaded it.” He shoved the screen toward the center of the table.

“‘…lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down. And saved a great cause that heroic day.’ Taug will feel my blade!”

Silence.

Cerulean laid his chin on his clasped hands. “I thought we were past this stage.”

Max rose. “Up until a short time ago, I thought Justine was lying inert in a morgue. I’ve fought alone for seventy years and if I can fight at her side once again, I will.” His gaze swept the assembly. “I don’t care what the rest of you do. But I’ve got a transport waiting.”

Derik swung out and gripped Max by the arm. Rising slowly, his voice lowered to a growl. “I’m her fiancé.”

Clare jumped to her feet with a puzzled expression. “Can androids even get married?”

Bala sighed. “Clare, let’s just keep Justine alive before plumbing the depths of her capabilities, okay?”

Cerulean slipped out of the booth and lifted his hands in surrender. “Bala’s right, and we’re running out of time.”

The Uanyis were staring wide-eyed at the group while Riko barely restrained Sal.

Cerulean turned to Max and swept his hand toward the door. “Lead the way.”

“You shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart.” ~Wystan Hugh Auden

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Four

Our Only Limitation

Misty air draped everything in a heavy fog. Taug grunted as he stripped off each section of his bio-suit in the white-walled, laboratory-style cleansing room. Water dripped down the tiled walls. Turning to Justine, he lifted one booted foot and wagged it at her.

“Would you be so kind? These things are worse than Tatarian leeches.”

Justine unfolded her arms from across her chest and bent low. She grabbed the boot heel and jerked, nearly toppling Taug.

“Careful! I don’t want my toes to come off with the boot. They don’t grow back as quickly as the tentacles.”

Wiggling the boot effectively, it squelched off the swollen three-toed foot. Justine wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?”

Taug sighed as he lifted his other boot in her direction. “You don’t want to know. The price we pay to travel to foreign parts.” After Taug was completely free of every article of clothing and well wrapped in a large towel, he tromped over to a shower stall, tossed the towel over the door, and turned the spray on full blast. Shouting over the noisy spray, he waved a tentacle. “Get me that robe hanging to the left. Oh, my! This feels good!”

Justine rolled her eyes. “I’m your servant now?” She threw the swirly green-and-blue garment onto a nearby hook. “I thought you were a water creature. Where’s your ocean?”

Taug scrubbed and giggled. “We’re a bit too advanced to stay in the water all the time. Just for sport and refreshment.” He turned off the shower, snatched up the robe, and, patting his body in the joy of cleanliness and freedom, he stepped back into the room. “You have no idea how good this feels.”

Justine tilted her head at him as if analyzing an insect.

Plodding down a white, rounded hallway, Taug lifted a tentacle and flicked off their itinerary. “First, I’ll have to dress properly, then we’ll attend the banquet, and finally, I’ll arrange matters with Mitholie in his private suite. He enjoys luxury like nothing you’ve ever seen. You’ll—”

“I’ll see for myself. What do I wear?”

Taug stopped and appraised her with a frown. “What you’re wearing will do.”

He started forward again. Humming.

Justine laid a hand on his shoulder. Without the boots, he was much shorter. She peered into his eyes. “I’ve been wearing this for a week.”

Taug shook his head. “No one will know… or care.” Justine squeezed his shoulder. “I know. I care.”

Taug blinked. “I suppose you’ll want your own room? And a shower and new clothes?”

“Your point?

Taug peeled her fingers from his shoulder. “That’s what I keep asking myself.”

~~~

The air was heavy with water vapor as wispy ivies swung from the rafters like algae swaying in the deep sea. The murky green underworld of Crestar swirled behind a massive see-through wall. Various aquatic creatures swam about in placid acceptance of their environment. Pliant green tables and squishy white chairs dotted the floor, while Crestonian youth hustled between persons of importance offering drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

Taug sauntered into the room, positively transformed by his neat, new attire: a well-fitting white, sleeveless shirt and leggings with a long, flowing robe.

Justine trailed after him, unchanged.

A mingling, chattering crowd turned as one and stared past Taug to the android behind him.

A satisfied grin gleamed through Taug’s eyes. Justine may attract stares, but he would demand respect. He plodded forward, scanning the intimate group until he zeroed in on Mitholie.

Mitholie wore a heavy, dark green tunic of shimmering brightness. The thin cilia on top of his head were daubed with blue gel, and his face bore the fancy red stripes of his rank and position. Stepping forward, he stretched out his tentacles in a welcoming gesture. “So glad the prodigal son has made it home at last.”

Taug bowed out of respect and to hide his smirk. “I’m honored you know the reference. Newearth Studies was never one of your favorites.”

Mitholie surveyed Taug only a moment before his gaze shifted to Justine. “Ah, the redoubtable android, Justine Santana. It is delicious to finally meet you.”

Justine tilted her head, frowning. “It’s delicious to meet you as well.”

Titters broke out among the assembly. Tentacles rose to cover uncouth giggles.

Taug winced, but Mitholie reached out and cupped Justine’s hand in a wide tentacle. “Let me introduce you to my brain trust. These are my most intimate associates. They will be working closely with Taug to make your stay on Crestar sheer ecstasy.”

Justine stared at Mitholie’s tentacle as he led her toward a tall Cresta with a high forehead and huge green eyes. She leaned toward Taug and whispered. “Hyperbole doesn’t have the same—”

Taug shook his head in a sharp motion while staring straight ahead.

Mitholie dropped Justine’s hand and offered an introductory wave to the large Cresta. “Meet Zendrox. He specializes in biomechanical advancements. In fact, he was the one to adapt our bio-suits to Newearth terrain. He once worked with the renowned Donadello, who searched the furthest reaches of the universe to discover—” An undertone humming warned him off the topic. He flicked his gaze around the wide-eyed crowd. “—a cure for our weakness on land.”

A chime induced Mitholie to bow benevolently. “Time for the festivities. Let’s get comfortable.” He waddled to a wide table and plopped down on a soft, white couch. The others arranged themselves as close as possible without blocking Mitholie’s view of the runway arranged at the front of the room.

Justine stood to the side, her arms folded. Taug patted the cushion beside himself. With a sigh, she clumped over and sat on the soft material that oozed up around her.

Green and yellow lights swirled around the room as troops of scantily clad beings filed in. There were Bhuacs, Ingots, Uanyi, and three human children. They began to perform various acrobatic games, displaying their species’ best attributes.

Justine’s eyes widened and her breathing quickened. She shot a glance around the room. Every Cresta perspired with pleasure. She recognized Taug’s automatic grin, set in place to cover his thoughts.

Mitholie actually drooled.

Calls and grunts of dissatisfaction urged the players to perform more daring acts of entertainment. One Cresta stood and gestured in such a manner that, even though Justine could not understand the exact expression, she knew the vulgar meaning.

The players halted, confused, sweating and heaving desperate breaths. One of the human children wiped his eyes. His shoulders hunched, despair animating his trembling limbs, as if he knew something was coming and dreaded the moment.

Justine’s eyes narrowed.

Mitholie stood and barked a command.

Taug struggled to his feet and raised a tentacle. He glanced at Justine and then offered an extravagant bow to Mitholie. “The journey was long, and I know Justine would like to prepare herself for tomorrow’s events. We should eat and retire before—”

Mitholie glowered. “You’ve grown insensitive to pleasures of your own kind, Taug. But—” He sighed. “—it’s true, our opportunity is a narrow one.” He dismissed the players and waved the waiters forward. “Bring the food.” Dashing a glance at Justine, he grinned wickedly. “I know you don’t need to eat as we do, but you might enjoy a sustaining meal. We don’t partake of our own kind—but that is our only limitation.”

“…the crux of evil in this world…They consider no cost to anyone but themselves.” ~Erika Johansen

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Three

We Fall Into Chaos

Cerulean stepped into the lab and exhaled a long cleansing breath. “Before we go into the details, tell me one thing—where is Justine?”

Derik’s worried gaze flickered around the room. “We were hoping Taug would tell us—” He flexed his long, muscular fingers. “—by force if necessary.” Derik marched up to Cerulean. “Have you heard anything?”

Cerulean’s gaze swerved from Derik to Faye. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

Appearing to float, Faye swayed closer. Her large, almond-shaped eyes peered up at Cerulean. “Many times I’ve wished I could introduce myself, but secrecy has always been my best defense.”

Cerulean offered a gentleman’s nod. “Many the times I wished I could be of service. But your race is very secretive and singularly inventive. I doubted my ability.”

Faye’s gaze glanced off Derik. “I wish to come out of the shadows.”

Stroking his cheek, Cerulean appraised Faye before his eyes strayed to the wall screen. “We need to discuss this further. But right now, Taug must be stopped.”

Derik pushed in front of Faye. “Why? What’s he done?”

“Clare and Bala confronted Taug yesterday and met Justine here. She’s fine… at least physically. She said she was going to return to Crestar with Taug.”

In a near shriek, Derik pulled his hair. “What?”

Peering at the wall, Cerulean marched across the room. He tapped the console and the screen flickered.

Faye faded into the background.

A white square appeared on the screen and then a blurry, shifting body shuffled closer. Gradually, an enlarged, perplexed Cresta face came into focus. “Taug? Is that you? I thought you were on a transport—”

Edging closer, Cerulean stationed himself in front of the screen. “No, sir, Taug isn’t here. I’m Cerulean, a Luxonian on official business. Do you know where Taug has gone?”

The Cresta’s jaw hardened and his eyes narrowed. “This my private address! I don’t know what official business a Luxonian might have with Taug, but he has been ordered home. We have unfinished business he must attend to.”

Cerulean pressed on. “So Taug is on a transport? Alone?”

“Until I understand the circumstance of your inquiry better, I’m not at liberty—”

Derik squeezed between Cerulean and the screen. “Is Justine Santana with him? Did he take her?”

A long, flabby tentacle jabbed at the screen. “Excuse me? Who is this?”

Derik folded his arms high across his chest. “I’m Justine’s fiancé, and I demand that you tell me where she is immediately, or I’ll file charges with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee. Cerulean—” Derik jerked his thumb backward. “—is a founding mem—”

The looming face broke into an impressive smile. “Oh, you’re that Cerulean! I didn’t recognize you. My name is Mitholie. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

Cerulean dragged his wide-eyed glare off Derik and swung it at Mitholie. “Yes, sir. Sterling has mentioned you.” His face tightened. “I’m very concerned about the android Justine, who was recently in Taug’s company. She might be traveling with him to Crestar.”

Mitholie’s wide smile brightened. “If so, we would welcome her with pleasure.”

“I’m certain of that.” Cerulean cleared his throat. “But you can see how distressed her fiancé is.” He dashed a quick glance at Derik.

Derik stood staring up at the screen, his hands wringing an invisible neck. “I want her home at once! You hear me?”

Mitholie edged away from the screen, his disgusted gaze focused on Derik’s hands.

Placing a firm grip on Derik’s shoulder, Cerulean shifted him to the side. “I apologize, Mitholie, but we have our own troubles, and Justine needs to return as soon as possible.”

Mitholie smirked like an understanding patriarch. “Certainly, if she arrives with Taug, I’ll relay your message. But honestly, you’re mistaken. Taug is traveling alone. If you look at the transport manifest, I’m sure that you’ll find that no Justine Santana will arrive on Crestar.” He waved the small end of one tentacle benignly. “I will inform Taug of your concern. He’ll be gratified to know his friends have inquired about him.” Mitholie offered a brief nod to Cerulean before peering narrowly at Derik as if memorizing his features. “Fiancé, eh?” Offering a lopsided smile, Mitholie continued, “My congratulations.” The screen blinked to black.

Cerulean’s head dropped to his chest and his shoulders sagged. Then he swung on Derik in fury. “What the—? You’re supposed to be dead. You want to make absolutely certain the job gets done?”

Derik’s broad shoulders matched Cerulean’s muscle for muscle. They glared into each other’s eyes.

Faye held up her elfin hands and stepped between them. “Please. There is enough anger in the universe. We share a common purpose; let’s not forget that.”

Derik’s face flushed with rage as he peered down at the small figure. “Or what?”

Faye’s eyes brimmed. “We fall into chaos.”

~~~

Max sat upright on the bench in Bala’s brightly lit kitchen and stared at the steaming bowl in front of him. He struggled to process the tumultuous energy bopping all around him. He knew full well that it was considered rude to stare, even at little humans, but it took every particle of his self-control to keep from glaring at his riotous surroundings.

Bala laughed and slapped Max on the shoulder. Leaning in, he sniffed the casserole as if appraising the danger. He shook his head. “Nothing to be afraid of. Go on. Kendra’s got away with rice, beans, and green things. If she didn’t, I’d be dead by now.”

Max swiveled his head, right and then left, allowing himself the luxury of a good long stare. The baby was strapped into a high chair, pounding a miniature utensil on a tray and drooling copiously amid Kendra’s alternate cooing and humming sounds. Another child sat backward, her long hair partially draped over her bowl. She clapped to a rhythm Max could not even faintly discern. A little boy clung to Kendra’s legs, chattering in an alien language as his mother flittered around the large kitchen. With the grace of a seasoned acrobat, she slid a towering bread plate somewhat near the center of the table. An older boy sipped his meal in quiet contemplation, while another scanned his datapad, drumming his fingers on the tabletop.

Max faced Bala, plastering a benign expression on his face. “Are they always this noisy?”

Lounging against the table, Bala surveyed the miniature throng. “Not at all. Sometimes they get into a ruckus and then you hear some real noise, brother.” Bala covered his ears to emphasize his meaning.

Max didn’t have to feign astonishment. “Why in the universe did you have so many? Wouldn’t two offspring continue your species just as effectively?”

Bala scratched his head. “Well, now, I hadn’t thought of them quite like that…”

He smiled as Kendra plopped down on her chair, one arm encircling the now sedate three-year-old. She spooned a mouthful of stew into the little one’s mouth, grabbed a broken piece of bread, chomped, and chewed as she grinned back at Bala.

“Kendra, Max would like to know why we had so many.” With a sweep of his hand, he clarified his point.

Kendra’s nearly frantic chewing slowed to glacial speed as one eyebrow rose. She swallowed, squared her shoulders, and smiled bravely. “Well, you see, it’s our pleasure. We enjoy bringing new life into the world and training them to become wonderful citizens of Newearth.”

Bala stared at Kendra, his eyes rounding into orbs. “The truth? You told him the truth!”

Kendra shrugged and she grabbed another slice of bread, handing a significant chunk to the baby. “I think he can handle it. Besides—” Her gaze rolled around the kitchen. “—it’s what I drill into their heads every day of their lives. Made for a purpose. We all are.”

The room froze as Max jumped to his feet. His perpetually mild expression had drained of all animation and color.

Bala tossed a quick glance at Kendra as he rose and placed his hand on Max’s shoulder. “You all right? We’re just kidding around—sort of.” Running his fingers through his hair, Bala nudged Max toward the door. “Let’s head over to Cerulean’s place. He might have news by now.”

With robotic steps, Max marched through the kitchen doorway.

Bala stopped on the threshold and faced his perplexed family. He shrugged. “So, androids have issues. Who knew?”

Max stomped up Cerulean’s porch steps as a bedraggled, panting Bala took up the rear. “Hey, slow down, would you! I just barely sent word that we’re coming, and you’re ready to break down his door.”

Max promptly smashed in Cerulean’s front door and, standing amid the wreckage, scanned the large, open kitchen-living room.

Cerulean burst into the room, waving a Dustbuster. “What?” He glared first at Max and then at Bala. Lowering the Dustbuster, he shook his head in disbelief. “Max, why did you break down my door? I just got it fixed.”

Max swallowed and spluttered. “I—I got a message from Justine. She’s going to murder Taug.”

~~~

Standing in his employer’s personal recreation room at the Vandi Country Club, Eric handed a club to a waiting hand and snapped to attention. His shoulder-length blond hair, tied in a smooth ponytail that hung down his back, matched his bright yellow eyes, which he had altered as soon as he had enough money for the procedure. Altering eye color to unnatural hues had come into fashion only recently, but he was never one to lag behind a new trend. His stylish bodysuit and slip-on footwear fit his trim form like surgical gloves. His eyes roved over his employer, Simms, with a covetous longing.

Simms, a human with more replacement parts than he liked to admit, could not hide his boxy shape, though he tried. His hair—not his own—appeared thick and black. The mustard-colored shirt and trousers he wore complemented his olive skin tone. A gold pendant hung at his neck, and ornate rings bejeweled his fingers. Simms cleared his throat and swung the club over his head in a couple of practice moves. He frowned and handed the club back with a polite sniff. “Not this one. Give me the thirty-four.”

Eric searched through the club bag and found the one mentioned. He pulled it forth, mesmerized by its polished gleam. Simms had the best set of clubs on the planet and a wall of prizes to attest to his award-winning skill at Zinzinera. Though the Ingoti game had been adapted to Newearth sensibilities—the losers did not have their heads knocked together, and they counted score with points rather than injuries—everyone still took the game seriously and none more so than Simms himself. Eric had noticed that Simms took everything seriously—especially himself.

Eric observed his employer closely. There was more to this man than met the eye. He clasped his manicured fingers behind his back.

“Take this.” Simms held out the club with a firm hand.

Eric reached and—Simms grabbed his hand and twisted it behind his back painfully. “I know what you’re thinking.”

Eric strained to keep his composure. “That would be?”

“You want what I have.”

Eric considered his options and chose unprecedented honesty.

“Is that so wrong?”

Surprisingly, Simms grunted and released his grip, shoving Eric forward. “Not at all. In fact, I was kinda counting on it.”

Eric rubbed his wrist and raised an eyebrow.

Simms grimaced. “I have a job for you. Real simple. Knock a certain mixed-breed’s head in or blow him to bits—whatever’s easier. Take what’s on his body and ransack his place. He managed to escape from certain death once; don’t let it happen again.”

Remaining unmoved, Eric considered his options again. “Why should I?”

“Because I said so. Because an important somebody wants it so. And because you don’t get to be like me unless you have powerful friends.”

“I’m not a killer.”

“Sure you are.”

“Someone might find out. Human Services will—”

Simms blew air between his lips, swinging his club. “Look, he’s a mistake. Mistakes aren’t human.” He tapped his club against Eric’s head. “Like idiots who don’t know a good opportunity when it comes along. No one will care.”

New options danced before Eric’s yellow eyes.

“…in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.”
~Robert Louis Stevenson

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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

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

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

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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eighteen

Two Hundred Years Ago

Bhuaci Planet Helm

Save Us If You Can

Faye loved to appear in various aesthetically pleasing forms, but once she learned about human fairy tales in her Spectrum of Cultures class, she adopted a fairy figure and insisted on the name Faye, meaning loyalty. Her mother, in her more mundane form of a gnomish, blue-green woman appeared almost human, though she literally did have eyes in the back of her head and an extra set of arms.

As far as either of them—or any Bhuaci for that matter—was concerned, Helm was the perfect planet and they, as harmless shape-shifters, were the perfect race. Unfortunately, they were not alone in thinking so.

The morning of the Telathot incursion began much like any other. Faye was heading out to class, but her mother called her back for an extra hug.

“Don’t know what’s gotten into me today. Your father thought I was coming down with something.”

“Well, you’re not exactly known for your impetuous nature, Mother.” Faye’s eyes twinkled at the understatement.

Her mother’s gaze delved into her daughter’s eyes and, with a clouded expression, she placed a small chip into her hand. “You know I’ve always had the gift of foresight. I can see things—just a bit. I’ve seen something.”

Faye’s crystal eyes grew wide. “What?”

“Utter destruction.”

Faye shook her head.

Her mother squeezed her slim fingers over the chip. “I may be wrong. I hope—but just in case, take this and if there is trouble, head to docking bay one-one-four. They’re—”

Sirens ripped through the early morning. Faye trembled, her eyes grew even wider.

Her mother shoved her toward the door. “One-one-four. Remember. Go, now!”

“But, Mother! Father and…everyone!”

“Come back when you can. Save us if you can. But at least one Bhuac must survive. And it must be you!”

~~~

Present Day

Newearth

Faye slipped out of the black cloak that covered her from head to toe, her body shifting from a large, monstrous being into her preferred, petite form, and stepped away from its smothering embrace. Her dance-like steps propelled her to the circular living room couch, which lay against a large window overlooking the bustling city.

Stretching her body full length, she lay sprawled across the comfortable cushions until she heard the soft padding of feet and a polite, “Ahem.”

She sat up and leaned back against the glass wall that revealed a half-mile drop to the pavement below.

A Bhuac male in a light green sweater and black slacks with a handsome, elven face, padded forward. “All well?”

Faye shook her head. “It’s never really well, Gabriel.” She peered at the holiday throng below. “You know that as well as I do.”

“And the governor?”

“She’s scared witless. That’s something.” She looked up at the figure in front of her. “I wish I didn’t have to be evil.”

Gabriel snapped to her side. “You’re not evil. You’re just doing as your mother asked. You’re surviving. You’re helping us all survive.” He stroked her platinum blond hair and rubbed her cheek with his hand. “Remember what they did. Remember what Crestas and Ingoti really are.”

Faye snorted her disdain. “My current allies.”

“Best place for your enemies is at your side—where you can keep your eye on them.”

Falling back onto her couch, Faye sighed. “Remind me, what am I getting out of all this?”

Gabriel stiffened, his handsome body rigid, in perfect control. “As long as they fight among themselves, they grow weak, while we grow strong.”

Wrapping her fingers around invisible bars, Faye stared into the air. “Ah, yes. Glorious, isn’t it? Caged by unnatural ambition.”

Gabriel scowled. “What’s gotten into you?”

Her hands dropped from the dramatic pantomime. “I’m not sure. Self-pity, maybe.” Faye scooted off the couch and wandered over to a table covered with ornamental figures in battle formation—not soldiers but fairy-tale dolls and animals of various descriptions—lined up against each other. She shoved a small, dark figure with large ears and round eyes closer to the front. “I like Bala. He’s an interesting human. The most interesting I’ve ever come across, in fact.”

“Bala? He has only a small part to play. All you must do is keep Governor Right dancing to your tune, which keeps Taug nicely in check and—”

Faye blew air in exasperation, like a child hundreds of years younger than herself. “There’s always an and. The Ingoti drug-runners are not toys. They kill. Often.”

Gabriel took the figure that Faye had moved forward and sent him in retreat to the back row. “All the more reason to keep them looking over their shoulder.”

Faye flicked the figure flat on his back and spoke without looking up. “They think I am one of the Creators.”

“Better and better.” Gabriel sauntered to the doorway. “As long as they remain frightened, they won’t attack anyone important without your permission.” He turned and stared at the petite face. “Our people have been safe since you grew into power. Not one Bhuac has died under mysterious circumstances on Newearth, and Helm has remained untouched for years. You’re doing your job.”

A feeble smile arched Faye’s lips. “You want my job?”

“Not on your life.” Gabriel padded out the door.

Faye scooped up the toy figure and dropped him on the front line. “Pity.”

Security is no replacement for liberty.   ~Martin Firrell  

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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

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