Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty Part II

Max Wheeler stepped off the intergalactic carrier amid a crowd of urbanites and, as an android accustomed to the isolation of a prison transport, he stared in wide-eyed wonder. Turning on his heel a complete three-sixty, he used every scanning device at his command, searching through the crowd.

“Max?” Someone tapped his shoulder.

Max didn’t jump. He stiffened like a rabbit caught in the glare of a hound. “Yes.” He scanned Cerulean’s face and an automated smile broke the line of his tight lips. “Cerulean.”

Cerulean grinned. “I’m glad you made it on time. What, with all the extra traffic—”

Max had not moved a millimeter.

Cerulean nudged him on the elbow and nodded toward the street crossing. “There’s a diner across the way. You want to get something?”

Max tilted his head. “I do not depend on human food. What would I get there?”

The grin was joined by a glimmer in the eye that Max didn’t understand.

“Coffee?”

A passerby jostled Max and scrunched around Cerulean in his hurry. Max accepted the inevitable. “If it would make you happy.”

Upon sliding onto a bench in the Breakfast Nook, Cerulean waved to the hostess. The large, bio-armored Ingot wearing a blue sprigged, calico apron grunted, slapped her datapad against her palm, and charged toward them.

Max watched her approach, scanning her features, clothing, and behavior in order to classify her into a recognizable category. None.

The Ingot’s gaze swept over Max and stopped. “What’d you want?”

Cerulean lifted two fingers. “Two coffees and a couple of sweet rolls.”

Ignoring Cerulean, the hostess offered another appraising glance at Max, huffed her martyred patience, and tromped off.

Max, sitting ramrod straight across from Cerulean, stared unblinking. “It was my understanding that you were Luxonian.”

Cerulean fiddled with the saltcellar. “Still am.”

“As a Luxonian, you do not need human nourishment.”

“Humans could take nutritional pills, but instead they still practice the culinary arts. Why?”

“Is this a test?”

Cerulean sighed.

Max shrugged. “It is a habit they cannot break. Like a drug.”

Cerulean chewed his lip. “Just a small point, Max. Use contractions. You’ll fit in better. It’s more natural. Right now, you sound like you just swallowed an antiquated database.” He leaned forward. “As for food, humans enjoy—”

The hostess slapped two hot coffees on the table and swished a metal plate with sticky buns in the middle. She tilted her head and appraised Max again, slowly. “Got back problems?”

Max glanced at Cerulean.

Cerulean spoke more quickly than he had earlier. “In the war. Never been the same—eh, Max?”

Max stared at Cerulean, unblinking.

The hostess relaxed. “Huh. So was I.” She leaned in conspiratorially, her softened gaze joined by the hint of a smile. “I got a brace that helps when the load is heavy. Want me to show it to you?”

Coffee sprayed across the table as Cerulean choked.

Max tilted his head toward the hostess, meeting her gaze. “How kind of you. But, no. Thank you.”

She recomposed her wide shoulders and tapped her datapad against her thigh. “Well, let me know. The name is Sal. I’m always here.” She lumbered off.

“I didn’t know it was possible.” Cerulean’s voice had grown thick and raspy as he wiped the table. “You’ve woken the passion of…an Ingot.”

Max could feel the satisfied grin slide across his face. “Contractions, eh?”

Cerulean rubbed his forehead with a groan and nudged the coffee and plate of sticky buns toward Max.

As if the bun might explode, Max hesitantly lifted it. He carried it to his mouth and took a tiny bite.

Cerulean sipped his coffee and watched Max, his eyes wide. “Don’t you ever eat diner fare?”

“Of course. Just rarely in public and never covered in—” Max tapped his sugar-coated fingers together. “—goo.” Licking his lips, he took another bite and sipped the coffee. “They go rather well together.”

Eyeing the hostess who kept swiveling her gaze in Max’s direction, Cerulean leaned forward. “Time to get to business.” He laced his fingers together. “You’ve heard of an android named Justine—Justine Santana?”

Max didn’t swallow the bite in his mouth. He simply stopped chewing.

Cerulean shook his head. “That’s not an answer.”

Max gulped the unchewed bit, pushed away from the table, and rose. “Where is she?”

Cerulean waved his hand, his gaze tracking the Ingot’s interested stare. “Sit down. It was a question. I need an answer before I can tell you anything.”

Max leaned across the table and lowered his face within a few centimeters of Cerulean’s. “If you know where she is, tell me now or I’ll—”

The hostess appeared at Max’s back and leaned over his shoulder, peering at Cerulean severely. “Problem here?”

Cerulean knew when he was beaten. He raised his hands and shifted off the bench. “Everything’s fine. Max and I are done— here.” He stepped up to the cashier.

Sal maneuvered aside while glancing at Max. “You’ll be sure to visit us again… soon?”

Max considered the Ingot standing before him, all seven biomechanical feet of her. “I will—I’ll—make every effort.”

Cerulean nudged Max forward. “Oh, don’t worry; he’ll be back. Max loves your sticky buns.” He motioned toward the door. “Come on. We’ve got visits to make.”

Max offered a parting smile to the blushing Ingot and traipsed after the odd Luxonian. “Where?”

Cerulean stepped out into the crisp winter sunshine and rubbed his hands together. “A prison and a morgue.”

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”
~Lao Tse

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/diner-nostalgia-retro-bright-4539948/

With or Without the Pits

Eugene closed the oven door and faced his wife. “I hope I got all the pits out, or the boys will break their teeth on my cherry tarts.”

Samantha didn’t smile.

It was pouring rain and though the weather forecaster hadn’t suggested building an ark, her longed-for vacation at the lake seemed like a fading vision. A swampy muck of floodwaters hardly encouraged suntan-by-the-shore-eat-drink-and-dance-dreams.

With his hands on her shoulders, Eugene tried for a half-caress-half-shake. “I was only kidding. No deep metaphor of the state of the universe.”

Like a rusty robot, Samantha rotated to the French doors off the kitchen. The hanging plants sparkled with raindrops while a pair of red slippers she’d left by her favorite chair appeared as droopy as her spirits. “Summer will end, and I’ll be as exhausted as ever.”

Eugene didn’t know what to say. Cherry tarts seemed inconsequential. Like war humor—it just wouldn’t work as planned. Some things weren’t funny.

Devon, their six-foot-three and two hundred pound son, loomed into the room. His shadow entered first. He stopped, glanced from one parent to the next, and then shuffled his feet—indecision warring with better judgment. “Hey, just to let you know, I got the job. They want me to start next week. So—”

Though his heart soared with pride, Eugene’s stomach plummeted. Not for a minute could he glance at his wife and deal with her emotional mash-up. No, he’d go it alone. He threw his arms wide and embarrassed the hell out of his eldest with the tightest bear hug he’d given since Devon fell out of the treehouse at four and managed to walk away unscathed.

Doing a darn good impression of a startled linebacker with no ball in sight, Devon let himself be hugged. Then he hugged back.

Samantha stayed on the sidelines. Silent. Stoic. It took a full two and a half minutes before her composure crumbled, and she charged into the hug. Her muffled, “I can’t believe you’ll be leaving us…I’m so proud, but I can’t believe…” reverberated against the men’s You-Know-What-I-Mean eye lock.

Eugene pulled back and sniffed, fear reverberating through his body. “The tarts!” A quick U-turn.

Samantha tossed him the oven mitts.

Their youngest son, Kris sauntered in with the grace of a gangling teen that has outgrown every bit of his summer clothing. “Hey! You hear about Devon?” His gaze shifted from his mom to his brother. “I’ll get your room, right. It’s bigger than mine and besides, you can sleep on the couch if you ever come to visit.”

Samantha slapped her little boy’s arm and pooh-pooed the very idea. “Wait till he’s out of the house before any formal take over.” She leaned in and stage-whispered. “I have a whole house re-do that’ll cost a fortune, and I don’t want your dad to suffer cardiac arrest before I get a good contractor set up.”

Eugene waved a succulent, cherry popover before his wife’s face. “No goodies until you behave.”

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled over the celestial landscape.

Not to be held back by the threat of burned fingers or tongue, Kris attacked the hot cookie tray with the gusto of a starved rhinoceros.

Devon lowered his gaze.

Samantha accepted her husband’s offering and held it out to her eldest. “You first, Sweetie. The man of the hour.”

Eugene wrapped his arm around his wife and together they watched their sons partake of his latest culinary delight. He tipped his head, touching hers. “So the lake is out—but a cave tour would be pretty cool. Literally and figuratively.”

Samantha shrugged, her gaze wandering the room and out the door. Soothing drops fell in a steady rhythm while the fields and trees glowed, revitalized. “After we see Devon off…No hurry.”

While Eugene scrubbed the cookie trays, his wife chatted on the phone, spreading good news along the family gossip chain. A send-off party with matching luggage was in the works.

Once he slid the trays into place, Eugene eyed the last popover. He hadn’t even had one yet. He refilled his coffee cup, pulled out a chair, and plunked down for a well-earned respite. He took a bite. Wow! Better than he realized. He chewed and savored, and finally licked the last crumbs from his fingers. Not one pit.

With a sigh of contentment, he returned to the sink, washed his cup, and reset the coffee machine. He poured the spent grounds into the compost container and froze. There was Devon’s napkin with the red insignia of his new company—his mom had forgotten which job he had applied for. There, on the napkin, lay a cherry pit.

The silent accusation stared at him. He hadn’t gotten them all. Devon had never said a word. Eugene glanced at his wife. Did she know?

Samantha caught his gaze and frowned.

What should he do? Pretend it didn’t exist?

Samantha hung up and sauntered over. Wrapping her arm around her husband, she nuzzled his neck. “Say, how about we celebrate our successful launching of son number one into the world tonight?”

Eugene held up the cherry pit pinched in his fingers. “I missed one.” Blinking back ridiculous tears he fought the hammer blows pummeling his heart. “He could’ve broken his tooth and then—”

Samantha nudged her husband aside and practically sat in his lap, her arm still around his neck. “There are always cherry pits, honey. We’ll never get them all. Or stop rainy-day blues. Some things aren’t possible.”

Eugene nodded. She was right. But still, his heart ached. Damn cherry pit.

Footsteps approached, and Samantha practically fell on the floor in her haste to get on her feet. She stroked her husband’s cheek and then patted Devon’s arm as she headed out of the room.

Devon leaned in the kitchen doorway. “Hey, dad, before I go…just wondering…”

Eugene climbed to his feet and met his son’s bashful gaze. “Yeah?”

“Could you give me the recipe for your cherry tarts?”

Eugene smiled. He didn’t have to ask if his son wanted them with or without the pits.

They both knew.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/cherry-berry-spring-summer-garden-2363739/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty Part I

An Inconvenient Truth

Marching across the Luxonian Supreme Council Tower courtyard, Cerulean kept his gaze focused straight ahead and his expression neutral. The fewer hurdles between him and his appointed meeting, the better.

But no…

“Hey, Cerulean! Is that you?” Roux, in his athletic form, which he wore like a favorite fashion, jogged across the colorful, fauna-strewn square. His dark skin, well-set black eyes, and muscular body set him apart from the other guardians who usually chose less outstanding physiologies. Roux skirted a sparkling fountain and grasped Cerulean’s arm in an old-chum- it’s-nice-to-see-you greeting.

Cerulean swallowed and fixed a pleasant expression on his face. Roux was a good friend; at least it felt that way it felt every time they met. But he knew too much about Judge Sterling’s deceptive nature and Roux’s ambition to ever be at ease.

“Hi, Roux. It’s been a while.”

“I’d say. Given up the native shore, eh?”

Tendrils of vines wafted in a gentle breeze, reminding Cerulean of an ocean current. “Not quite. I just hoped to move onto—” With a sigh, he dropped his gaze. “You know.”

Roux nodded. “Sure.” He shifted his stance and shrugged away an unpleasant memory. “So, what’s up? You here to see Sterling?”

Darting a glance at the tower, Cerulean hunched his shoulders. “There’s been some trouble on Newearth—”

Roux snorted. “When isn’t there trouble on that planet? By the Divide, they’re as bad as Bhuacs for getting into black holes.”

“Not always their fault.”

“No, but then again, they ask for it more often than not. Take their new android initiative. You really think humans should be trusted with—”

Cerulean stiffened. “Their what?”

“You know. Surely you’ve heard of it. One of their governors, Bite or Right or something, she announced that they have broken the barrier between human and android—”

“Hell!”

“It will be if she loses control of those things. I was on a transport with one named Max. Creative, eh? Anyway, he was built like a super-transport, had the mental capacity of a Cresta but not a particle of social graces. And not much of a moral code. Units were his guiding force. The more units, the stronger the force.”

Stunned, Cerulean returned his gaze to Roux. “Would you know how to get in touch with him?”

Roux scratched his jaw. “Now, why in the universe would I want to do that?”

“As a favor to me.”

A suffering sigh signaled Roux’s consent. “He works for RunaWreck. They own nearly all the services in and out of Bothmal. It’s a busy place, and Max is an able security officer. Try contacting their supervisor, Kingman. He’ll put you in touch. If you make it worth his while.”

“Any suggestions?”

Roux chuckled. “Pay Kingman a thousand units, and tell Max that you know an android named Justine. She’s a legend that just won’t die. He’s obsessed with her.”

“I know Justine. I was at her trial. She was shut down.”

Roux’s smile died. “Oh, well, even androids can be stuck on stupid.” Roux’s gaze shifted to the fountain. “And about Sterling and me, I never spied for him—it wasn’t what it sounded like.”

Cerulean’s gaze joined Roux’s at the fountain. “Good to hear.”

Roux swallowed a bitter grin. “It’s been good to see you. Don’t be a stranger, or I might be forced to return to Earth, and you remember how that turned out.”

Cerulean raised his hand and patted Roux’s rock-like arm— once, twice. “Newearth now.”

Roux paced away. “Humans are human. Some things never change.” He looked over his shoulder. “And good luck with Sterling. You could do worse.”

Cerulean blew air between his lips. He’d need to do better.

And in a hurry.

~~~

Sterling sat ensconced in a large, overstuffed chair, leaning back, snug, plying a small tool about a ball of fluffy yarn. He crossed a long, luminous fiber around the hooked needle, lifted another thread over the hook, twirled the thread around again, and repeated the process. His eyes squinted in child-like concentration.

Cerulean entered the office silently and observed the surprising dexterity of his superior’s thick human fingers with fascinated abandon. “You’ve taken up—” He had to search for the word. “—crocheting?”

With his head bowed in studious determination, Sterling’s rumbly voice rose to the occasion. “Therapy—to calm my nerves.”

“You don’t have nerves, sir.”

Sterling let the tapestry of riotous colors fall on his lap as he glared at Cerulean. “Now you tell me!” He shook his head. “I have to reside in this human form so often and manage every new Newearth crisis with such resplendent dignity—my nerves are completely shot.” He picked up the needle again.

Cerulean bit his lip against the tumult of incongruities that ricocheted around his mind. In the spirit of “If-you-can’t-beat- them, join-‘em,” Cerulean edged closer. “Could you show me?”

Sterling glanced up. “Your nerves giving you trouble?”

Cerulean stepped back. “No, sir. My nerves are fine.”

Slapping down his temporary insanity and rising to his feet, Sterling gestured with a stiff jaw. “I discovered a new drink. It’s called brandy, and it has a wonderfully surprising effect.” He strode toward a back wall and waved his hand, obviously confident that the wall would know exactly what to do. “Try some. It’s Governor Right’s favorite.”

Scratching his head at his superior’s current level of crazy, Cerulean stayed put. “I’m not very fond of alcohol. Or Governor Right, for that matter.”

Sterling chuckled as he lifted a golden bottle from a rack unveiled by the sliding wall. “She’s a remarkable woman. There’s only one other I’d say could stand in her light, an Ingot named Lang from Universal Reports. Know her?”

“Never had the pleasure.”

“It’s never a pleasure. An experience but never a pleasure.” Sterling swirled his drink and ambled toward Cerulean, gesturing again, this time with a glance. “Sit down. You always stand so erect, like a guard waiting for the next attack.”

“Probably because I am.”

“You’ll wear yourself out. Look at me…and my nerves.” Sterling plopped himself down into his well-padded chair, shoving his crocheting aside. “Remember the day I visited you and that little girl got injured in a car wreck?”

Cerulean’s jaw clenched. “She almost died.”

“But you saved her, didn’t you? And I was furious. Being in human form was so foreign. I hated it.” He took a tender, loving sip. “You know I sent Roux to keep an eye on you.”

“Spy on me.”

Sterling pointed to the open wall. “Really, you should have one. It might mellow your heightened sensitivities. Humans do have some wisdom, after all. Being a nervous wreck isn’t all that helpful.”

“Am I a nervous wreck?”

Sterling sucked in a long breath. “No. And that surprises me. You should be. How was I to know that you wouldn’t break under all that pressure and go native? We’ve lost others under less trying circumstances.”

“By all accounts, I have gone native. I’m always in my human form.”

Sterling nodded. “And by the Divide, I understand. There’s something rather stimulating about the human body. Of course, being able to regenerate at will adds a pleasant security.” He chuckled. “If humans could become Luxonian, we’d be overrun. Experiencing a bit both worlds is rather addictive.”

“Yet most Luxonians forego the pleasure.”

“Most Luxonians don’t like a challenge. Or self-control. You have abundant self-control, Cerulean.”

Cerulean folded his hands together. “You asked me here for a reason.”

“Certainly. And you’ve answered all my questions, for the most part.”

“This was a test? To see if my nerves were shot or if I had turned to drink?”

“To see you. You look good.” He paused and scrutinized Cerulean’s face. “Perhaps a little worn around the eyes, though. You’re not seething over that absurd leak about Roux, are you? Why anyone thought it was helpful to bring that to light now, I can’t imagine.”

“Someone thought they’d make our leadership more honest by showing us how often they lie.”

Wagging a finger, Sterling chuckled. “Uh, oh. Now there’s the first sign of weakness I’ve seen. Bitterness does not become you. But, I’ll put it aside.” Swallowing his last gulp of elixir, Sterling rose unsteadily. “Now, tell me, what can I do for you—Newearth—that is? This part of the universe won’t remain calm for long without our mutual support.”

Cerulean let his eyes roam the room before settling back on his superior. “There is the matter of Taug, the Cresta who’s targeted a crossbreed named Derik. He either wants him as a specimen or dead.”

“Yes, I’ve heard. Governor Right told me that she has the matter in hand. She was shocked to learn of Taug’s duplicity. Mitholie, one of Cresta’s finest, has assured us that Taug will be punished most severely.”

“And Derik?”

“Who?”

“The crossbreed.”

“Oh, sorry. No. Crossbreeding isn’t allowed by the Inter-Alien Alliance, so there are no crossbreeds. A mistake.”

The guard in Cerulean stiffened to formal attention. “Derik is not a mistake. And he’s not the only crossbreed.”

Sterling poured himself another drink. “You know, if I do become an alcoholic, the blame will fall at your feet.”

“About Derik?”

“Damn it, Cerulean! Derik can’t exist. If he does, we are bound by the terms of our treaty to charge the Cresta government and expel the entire race from Newearth. But they’re not about to go anywhere without a fight. And they won’t be fighting alone. Do you really want another intergalactic war on your hands?”

Cerulean strolled to the open wall and lifted a glass from a hidden shelf. He poured himself a healthy serving and tossed it back in one swallow. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he glared at Sterling. “We can’t hide from the truth. Crossbreeds exist. Killing an inconvenient truth isn’t an option; it’s suicide.”

Sterling strolled back to his chair and picked up his crocheting needle. “This wasn’t just for show, you know.”

“Can’t we amend the Inter-Alien Alliance agreement to allow for…certain irregularities? At least we can allow the crossbreeds that do exist to live and demand complete transparency. Cresta scientists will still experiment—evil exists—but at least we can call it what it is and embarrass those who do it with the reality of what they’ve done.”

A bellowing laugh burst from Sterling. “And what exactly would they be embarrassed about? They’ve succeeded in crossbreeding two very different races. Cresta citizens will burst their bio-suits with pride.”

Cerulean shook his head, staring at his empty glass. “Not when they realize that their brilliant scientists just created a race of beings stronger and smarter than themselves.”

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” ~ Isaac Asimov

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/drink-glass-pouring-bar-pub-ice-1870139/

Possibilities

Living in a fantasyland is fine. So long as I remember it’s not real. As a writer, I get to legitimize my role-playing, living the adventure of hero or villain as the case may be. But I’m not quite so dense as to believe that much of what I spend my cranium capacity on is little more than imagined reality.

Today, I’m sitting outside the local high school while my two middle daughters finish up their Drivers Ed classes. A gentle breeze blows and softens the intense heat of this summery day.

The last time I sat in this spot, I had plans well laid—practically none of which actually happened. I went from knowing my life trajectory to not being certain of anything. Even longstanding traditions—like going to Mass on Sunday—jumped the tracks and entered a new reality. One I never imagined.

Some people have told me that they just want things to go back to normal. While others have suggested the possibility of accepting a new normal. My guesstimate would be that we’ve always lived in a world of possibilities. The surprise is not that we live in fantasylands. The surprise is when we are shaken out of them.

Yesterday, the girls and I went to pick cherries from a neighbor’s tree. My friend had invited us several times, but I wanted to wait until she got all she wanted first and the luscious fruits were fully ripe. So, with a beautiful breeze blowing, the kids and I arranged to stop by with buckets in hand and harvest what we could. I knew what to expect—green leafy boughs bountifully speckled with ripe cherries.

But that’s not what we found. The tree was smaller, older, and there were few cherries among the sparse leaves. Where had the image in my mind come from? Experience, I told myself. History. Years of picking cherries off that same tree.

Only it wasn’t that same tree. It was older and worn and not so fruitful.

Long years ago, when my dad and mom divorced, I decided in a fit of self-preservation that I had no dad. I would expel his existence from my mind and cleanse my heart from the hurt of longing for a “real” father figure. But adulthood, a chance meeting (Actually after several grace-filled meetings), we developed a relationship. Though it wasn’t an ideal father-daughter-thing, it became a source of mutual kindness—love without counting or defining. As he nears his end—and at 91, I know he can’t go on forever—I look back on a friendship that could not have existed outside the grace of God.

Even my kids challenge my preconceptions. My older daughters tend to push the limits—managing things ahead of their age groups, amazing friends with their proficiency and abilities. So when my youngest came along, I naturally charged ahead, figuring that’s what she wanted. Guess not.

So as I think about it on this bright, blue-sky day, my ability to judge people and situations knows no bounds. I decide I know stuff not because I have amazing powers of forecasting, inside information, or unlimited spiritual insight, but because I simply want to get a handle on my life and decide between making a hot stew or cold egg salad sandwiches for dinner. Between calling a friend who hasn’t responded back in weeks and accepting the inevitable valley in our friendship. Between letting the poison of media-gossip roll off my shoulders or hugging it like a snake that strangles all hope of sincerity.

Accepting the mysteries of life and their involved vague possibilities mean that sometimes I get things wrong. I do have a dad, and I love the man more than words can say—partly because I have had to fight every demon in hell to hang onto our fragile relationship. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, what will happen with my friends, if the apples will ripen or rot, but I do believe that possibilities exist. That hope is not fantasy. That telling people what I “know” puffs my ignorance rather than fuels the informed.

Turns out that I won’t make a cherry pie, but we’ll have ice cream with a few cherries on top as a treat this week. A possible new friend asked if I wanted to meet for a cup of coffee. Recent media-gossip died a couldn’t-be-soon-enough death.

And I called my dad on Father’s Day.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/iced-coffee-cherry-cream-ice-cream-3429495/

The Wheel or the Ball

“This town is teeming with eligible bachelors. If you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Cindy nodded, though her gaze stayed fixed on the hamster cage. She hadn’t honestly been listening. Of far more universal importance was whether Fred was sleeping…or…Gasp! Quite dead. There was no way on earth that her little girl was going to buy the I-don’t-know-what-happened—he-just-died excuse. Though the truth remained, Cindy really didn’t know what happened. Heck. He was a rodent after all. Rodents don’t live forever. Just seems like it when you’re a parent.

Jan stomped over, bent low, and added her gaze to the scene. “What we are looking at?”

Fred emerged from his wood-shaving encrusted boudoir. His whiskers twitching and his beady black eyes sparkling with a mischievous “Thought I was a goner, did ya?” expression.

Cindy sighed. Extravagantly. The munchkin drama wasn’t quite over. This tamed vermin would haunt her nights running the wobbly wheel of life a little longer. Oh well. He was rather cute for a critter with no tail and an independent personality.

She glanced at her desk. The jury duty summons sat next to her computer, which edged a stack of notebooks arranged for her convenience. She ignored them in order of importance. At the bottom, her house repair list. On top sat a list of dinner options. Grilled tuna and cheese sounded amazingly good right now.

“So, are we going out or what?”

“I’ve done my shopping, and church isn’t till Sunday. I’m not sure what going out would accomplish at this point.”

Eye roll. Jan had mastered it to a scintillating art form. “Just get out of the house, see something different. Maybe meet some new people. You know. Live-a-little.” Jan’s bug-eyed expression conveyed the theory that living involved effort beyond breathing and sustaining life functions.

Cindy begged to differ. “I’m still working on my lesson plans for next week, and the hens have taken up squatting rights in the garage. It’s time I gave them due notice.”

Thigh slap accompanied by yet another eye roll. Jan had it down. “Woman! You are so boring. All you ever do is work.”

Perhaps a change of location would ricochet the conversation into the outer atmosphere. Cindy swiped her muffin recipe book under her arm and charged into the kitchen. It was only two in the afternoon, and Patrick and Kelly loved muffins. Why not make them happy? Why not tilt the whole universe toward muffin-induced-joy?

The fact that the baking tins slammed on the counter like bullets discharged from a WWII blunderbuss did nothing to deter Jan’s train of thought. “We never have any fun!”

Apparently whining didn’t stop when one reached middle age.

Jan plopped down on the kitchen stool and proper her head on her hands. A picture of disconsolate teetering on the edge of depression. “I’m divorced, and you’re a widow. Men are a pain in the…well…you know, but we can’t live without them. Well, we can, but we’d rather not. Still, even though I’ve given up any hope of ever finding a decent guy, it’s still fun to look around and see what’s out there. Just for old time sake.” The fact that her voice had risen three octaves was duly noted.

Cindy sucked in a fresh breath of oxygen.

The ingredients practically assembled themselves. Wheat flour, oats, sugar, eggs, oil, baking soda… Cindy tapped her foot. Oh, yeah, the recipe! She flipped open the tattered book to her last concoction—Queens Muffins, which the kids had devoured last week in unscrupulous haste. On the next page sat a close up picture of molasses-raisin muffins. Oh boy!

A heart-stopping moment. Did she have molasses?

“Are you even listening?”

Yes! Molasses to the rescue, right next to the Karo syrup. Cindy eyed the half-full black bottle with a practiced eye. It would do. A little brown sugar could make up for any deficiencies. She rolled up her sleeves and dove into baking mode.

“News around town is that John and Megan have split. You know anything about that?”

Cindy’s eye twitched. Three friends had politely informed her of the shocking news. How shocking could it be in a world with a divorce rate running faster than the national debt clock? She tossed a prayer to Heaven. God, help John and Megan. Even more importantly—help their kids.

She preheated the oven, sprayed the muffin tins with olive oil, and poured her friend a glass of iced tea. “You sneer at every man you meet, tell your mom that you’re entering a convent at the next summer solstice, and cater to your kids like they own the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jan actually frowned. Umbrage incarnate. “Do you have a point you’re trying to make?”

After a you-know-darn-right-well wave, Cindy scooped up gooey spoon-fulls and filled two muffin tins. “Dear-heart, you have a nasty habit of dipping into poisoned wells, and then you wonder why you feel sick.” She popped the trays into the oven.

Time to clean up.

Violins ready? Jan clasped her hands in pitiful desperation. “I just can’t give up on love.”

Cindy wondered if Elon Musk would allow her on board a spaceship heading—anywhere. “For God’s sake. Give love a chance—by all means. But love is a universe apart from happiness and romance.” She wiped her hands on a dishrag. Vigorously.

“Love is scrubbing the bathtub and getting off the grimy rings, making fried egg sandwiches for kids who seriously believe that they’re starving when they have no clue, filling in paperwork with black ink and writing legibly, doing your civic duty even when it means you can’t bring electronics into the courthouse, stopping at red lights, and not racing around tractors on a hill.”

Cindy tossed a drying towel to her friend.

Jan caught it handily.

Patrick jogged into the room. He jogged everywhere. If he wasn’t jogging he was eating or asleep. “Hey, Mom, I’m starving.” A statement of fact. Nothing more.

A frantic screech. Kelly skedaddled into the kitchen, arms circling, ready for takeoff. “Fred’s gone!”

Starvation would have to wait. Duty called. With an authoritative slouch, Patrick nudged his sister in the arm. “Naw. I just put him in his ball to roll around the house, so he won’t spend the whole night on that rickety wheel.”

Jan snorted. “With so much exercise, that rodent will outlive us all.”

Kelly sniffed. “What’s cooking?”

Cindy took a sip of tea and wondered which Fred liked better—the wheel or the ball.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

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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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Sixteen

A Moral Choice

Clare drifted away from the barred cell where Bala sat in slumped resignation. She stopped by a large, steel door and pressed a button.

A voice responded, “Yeah?”

Clare tried to speak but no words came. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’m ready.”

The door slid open. Clare crossed over the threshold with one backward glance.

Bala sat staring at the floor, his head propped in his hands.

Clare closed her eyes at the reverberating clang as the door slammed shut. A hand gripped her shoulder. Clare spun around.

Cerulean opened his arms, and she stepped into his embrace. Hugging her, he nuzzled her head with his chin. “Even world-weary detectives need a hug now and again.”

Clare rubbed her reddened eyes against his chest, mumbling.

Cerulean frowned. He pulled her back and looked into her eyes. “I’m not familiar with that particular dialect. Here—” He put his arm around her, led her down the corridor, and pointed to a bench. “Tell me what you found out.”

Clare dropped onto the offered seat as Vandi Interventionists bustled about with official business. She spread her arms and then dropped them. “What’s to tell? I’m a complete failure, and I ought to quit before anyone else gets hurt. Lord, I hate my job.”

Cerulean scratched his head. “Self-pity isn’t going to help anyone.” He straightened. “What we need is more information. I tried to bring you the best resource on the planet, but you—”

Clare’s head snapped up. “Justine? That unfeeling piece of bio-mechanical—”

“Whoa! Stop right there, Clare. You’ve taken your animosity about as far as I can stand it. Honestly, I’ve never seen this side of you. Your parents would be horrified. They were two of the most accepting—”

Clare jumped to her feet, her gaze darting around the room and swinging back to Cerulean. Her tone lowered to a hiss. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. They hated robots. They always said that combining human DNA with AI was asking for trouble. It’s immoral—”

Cerulean’s jaw jutted forward as he leaned in close. “You think Justine is immoral—as if she had a choice? Put down your rage for just one second and think, would you? Justine is the product of a laboratory conception. I doubt her biological parents ever knew or cared about what happened to their donations. No one cared about Justine, not as a person. They only cared about her as a source of profit, a point of reference in an argument, or as an excuse to play god. You’re angry at the wrong person, Clare.”

Clare fell back onto the bench and rubbed her face with her hands. Her voice became leaden. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Cerulean shook his head as an Interventionist stepped up and handed him a datapad. He pressed his palm onto it and handed it to Clare who did the same. Cerulean nodded to the guard and steered Clare toward the exit. “There’s more to this than your parents’ aversion to artificial intelligence.”

Clare shrugged as she trudged along at Cerulean’s side. “She reminds me of that voice I used to hear. Her smug perfection, her assumed superiority, it all feels familiar somehow, like she and he…it…are connected.”

Cerulean marched to the door, swung it wide, and gestured for her to hurry along. “Well, they’re not. Justine is a victim as much as Derik, except she’s learning to deal with her problems. Derik is just beginning to discover his.” He waited, holding the door open.

Clare stepped out into the frosty night air. “Derik’s gone over to his Cresta side. I don’t even know him anymore. He nearly throttled me when I told him that Justine is a robot.”

Cerulean stepped along beside her, looked up into the black, star-burnished sky, and sighed. “Frankly, if you don’t quit calling her that, I may throttle you yet.”

Clare looked askance at Cerulean. “Really?”

Cerulean dropped his gaze. “Yes.” He gripped her arm and stared her in the eye. “Look, you’ve got to get it through your head that even our enemies are—”

“If you say ‘our friends,’ I’ll throw up all over your polished boots.”

Cerulean snorted. “I’m not that naïve. What I was going to say—before you so rudely interrupted—was that even enemies are worthy of hope. No one sees the future. You can’t trust everyone, but you can’t decide you know other people’s ultimate fate either.”

“If it came between a human and a Cresta, I’ll choose a human every time.”

“Really? How about if it were an innocent Cresta and a guilty human? Think about it. You decided that Justine was guilty, so you never even gave her a chance to defend herself.”

Clare leaned into Cerulean, shivering, hugging his arm. “I looked through everything we have on her. She killed a lot of beings on more than one occasion. She was a very effective hired gun, and she always walked away unscathed—until she was caught.”

Cerulean stopped, pulled his arm free, placed both hands on her shoulders, and held her steady. He lowered his head so their eyes were level and their gazes interlocked. “Do you know why she was caught?”

Clare shrugged and looked to the side. “Some stupid mistake—”

Cerulean turned her so she could not escape his gaze. “She saved two men’s lives. Against orders and against decades of training, she did the unthinkable; she made a moral choice. At that moment, she chose to stop being a killer.”

With a moaning breath, Clare’s head fell against Cerulean’s chest, and she sobbed.

~~~

The bright, winter sun sparkled on the ivy-covered bungalow, and Clare whistled. A low, thatched roof drooped over twisted grapevines, which in turn wound around the windows. Front beds planted thick with red-berried evergreens offered a colorful contrast, while a snowy path veered toward the back. She sucked in her breath and meandered toward the front entrance of Justine’s house.

A wooden door etched with acorns and oak leaves opened wide. Justine stood on the snowy welcome mat, one hand holding the ornate, iron knob, the other resting on the frame as the cold wind whistled past. She pursed her lips like an irritated teacher just waiting for the next infraction.

Clare halted in her frozen tracks. “Cerulean said you’d be home.”

Justine’s eyebrows rose, apparently surprised that the delinquent before her could speak coherently. “He told me you were coming. I almost left.”

“But you didn’t.”

Justine shrugged. She swept her hand through the doorway. “Cerulean has a way with words.”

Clare sighed through a puff of air. “He sure does.” She stepped in with Justine watching her every move.

The inside of the bungalow shrieked of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dust had not a particle of business here.

Clare dared not lower her gaze to her snow-caked boots.

Justine looked for her. Her eyebrows appeared frozen in the up position.

With a grimace, Clare unlaced her boots and peeled them off. After stepping into the living room, she let her eyes roll over the intimate space. Clare sucked in her breath. “You rob a museum?”

A crooked smile tugged at the corner of Justine’s mouth. “I’d tell you, but I don’t want to make you angry…again.”

Clare felt magnetically pulled toward a painting of a mother and child, blues and reds vying for the eye’s attention. They both wore golden crowns. Her eyes widened. “Did you—?”

Justine shrugged. “I only copied it. The original was lost long ago, but there were over a million electronic copies left on an Oldearth database called Facebook.”

Clare hugged herself. “I’d love to get a look at that.”

Justine padded over to an easel with a half-finished painting of a little boy with piercing blue eyes. She picked up a wet brush and dabbed it in the paint. “I’d pass it along, but it’s restricted, addictive as opium they say.”

Clare’s eyes bugged, attempting to take in everything at once.

Justine smirked as she waved the paint-laden brush indulgently. “Well, possibly….”

Sidling up to the work in progress, Clare appraised the picture. She wagged her finger. “Cerulean—?”

“No one you know. Just a child I once helped—in a time of need.”

Clare lifted her hands in an attitude of surrender. “Okay, sorry isn’t good enough. I wasn’t exactly reasonable. Can’t say exactly what got into me.”

Justine stroked her chin. Apparently deciding that there was hope for delinquents, after all, she laid her paintbrush aside. She strode across the room to a circular table. A screen rose from the center. She tapped rapidly on a soft pad. “Cerulean told me about your dreams—night visitor—whatever. Must be disorientating. I can’t say I understand, but as they say: ‘to err is human’—forget it.” Her eyes scanned multitudinous files flying across the screen.

Clare strolled to her side and watched Justine’s hand move so rapidly that it seemed to blur. “I thought you considered yourself human.”

“Only on odd days when the moon is full.” Justine straightened and looked Clare in the eye. “What do you need to know?”

Clare leaned over the desk and peered at the file. She pointed to a single line. “I have that one. Bala showed it to me. He said you have other files that he couldn’t get access to. I need to get to those.”

Justine rubbed her chin. “Why?”

Folding her arms, Clare leaned against a chair. “Listen, there’s a secret here that Mrs. Hoggsworth stumbled onto and Bala inadvertently tripped over. She’s dead, and he’s in prison. They both discovered something.”

Justine offered a sad shake of the head at Clare’s apparent return to stupidity. “There’s no evidence to support that. Maybe someone simply hated Mrs. Hoggsworth enough to want her dead.”

“And Bala?”

Justine maintained a steady gaze. “How do you know he’s not guilty?”

Clare bolted forward. “What? You seriously think that Bala would beat his wife, abuse his kids, and trash his own house?”

Justine turned back to the datapad. Her hand blurred again. Up popped 5,764 files on wife battery and child abuse. “Those are the ones from this year alone. Don’t tell me that they’re all innocent.”

Clare pressed her hands to her head as if trying to keep it from exploding. “Holy Saints in—”

A white cat meandered between Clare’s feet and meowed.

Clare stared down, her eyes widening. Without a blink, she glanced up at Justine.

Justine scooped the cat into her arms. “Come here, Theodora. You might get stepped on.”

Clare waved Justine off and stretched out her arms, wiggling her fingers towards the cat imploringly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I love cats. My own is about this size, but she’s black. Just had kittens. Maybe you’d like one.”

Justine passed the cat into Clare’s arms and observed Clare rub her face in the cat’s fur. She grimaced. “That unhygienic.”

“Ah, but they love it.” Clare’s tone dissolved into a purr.

Justine’s eyebrows returned to the up position.

As Clare continued to nuzzle the cat, her voice became soft and coaxing. “You’ve got files no one else has, and Bala’s an innocent man. His family is miserable without him.”

Justine exhaled a long breath. “Oh, all right. I guess even a robot can have a heart.”

~~~

Justine wrapped her fingers around the prison bars and observed Bala with a long, cold stare.

Bala sat upright on his cot and glared back. “So, you’ve come to observe the monkey in the zoo?”

Justine shrugged. “You could say the same about me. Except I don’t need a cage to be locked in.”

With a sigh, Bala slumped against the wall. “Everyone has troubles.”

“Not you. Your prison days are over. Cerulean has cleared your name. You’ll be free to go once we get the final reports in and signed off.”

Bala strode to the bars in the cell door, his eyes narrowing. “Really? How?”

“It was easy. The case crumpled against all the evidence Cerulean brought to bear. He provided ample proof that Ingots had broken into your house and there was not a shred of evidence that you ever harmed your family. Quite the contrary. You’re a model husband and father by all accounts. I congratulate you; your reputation shall shine down through the ages.”

Bala gripped the bars. “Having fun, are we?”

Dropping her gaze, Justine shook her head. “I’d never tease a prisoner.”

Bala flapped his arms as he shuffled back to his cot. “So, how did I end up here? And how do I keep from being sent back the minute somebody starts tossing accusations my way?”

Justine turned at the sound of footsteps. She stepped aside as a guard sauntered down the corridor. After he passed, she returned to Bala. “In your investigation, you reviewed Mrs. Hoggworth’s research of Oldearth records. Most of them have become corrupted or lost, but she somehow learned of my existence and that I have records going back to—”

The guard returned with a prisoner in cuffs. Bala’s and Justine’s eyes followed their passage down the corridor in silence. Bala shook his head. “I could bet a steak sandwich that this all ties in with our illustrious Governor Right.”

Justine paused, her eyes glazed as if searching interior files. “I don’t understand the allusion to food.”

Bala hung his head. “Never mind.”

In response to a buzzing sound, Justine pulled out a datapad and tapped its surface. “Cerulean’s here.” She peered into Bala’s wide eyes. “In any case, I’ll have to do a comparative study of my original records with what’s now reported on the official Newearth data files.”

Rubbing his hands together, Bala perked up. “Sounds good, I’d love to see the results.” His eyes roamed toward the door. “It’s getting late. Any chance that I’ll get out of here before Kendra puts the kids to bed?”

Cerulean stepped to the door, offering a nod to Justine before focusing on Bala. “How’ve you been doing, ol’ man?”

Bala lifted his arms, indicating the small space. “Look around and take a wild guess.”

Cerulean grinned as a guard strode up behind him. “Well, your time is up… in here, I mean. I just sent Kendra word. You’re free to go—”

“Excuse me.” The guard shouldered his way past Cerulean. “You’ll have to sign a release before you walk. I go off in fifteen, so if we could hurry this up….” He pressed his hand against the electronic key. At the sound of the latch unlocking, he swung the door wide.

Bala nodded stiffly. “Certainly, anything to accommodate.” He stepped in line behind the guard, next to Cerulean. They marched down the corridor, shoulder to shoulder.

Justine followed behind, her gaze turned inward, scanning unseen files.

Unfortunately the innocent are always involved in any conflict. Always, everywhere, there is some voice crying from a tower.  ~Graham Greene 

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Fifteen

No Matter How Hard I Try

Clare sidled up behind Derik as he took the last shuffling step to his apartment door. Dirty snow clung to his boots and dripped off his shoulders. He pressed his print-identifier key and pushed the door open with his boot while balancing two bags of groceries in his arms.

Clare frowned as she tapped him from behind. “Hey, where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for half an hour.”

Derik jerked, peered at Clare, and sniffed. “How was I supposed to know? Did you message me?”

“I tried but your datapad must be broken. Anyway, it was a sudden thought. We need to talk. Can I come in?”

Derik shrugged and stepped aside, letting Clare march ahead. He strode around the counter, placed the bags aside, checked his datapad, frowned, and then opened his freezer. He tossed items in haphazardly.

Clare stared wide-eyed. “You only buy frozen food?”

“I’m not much of a cook, but Taug showed me something—” Derik colored. “Never mind.”

“Taug? The Cresta who wants to kill you, Taug?”

Derik threw the last item on the frozen pile and balled up the shopping bags, flinging them into a hamper under the sink.

“Look, you don’t know anything about him. I do.” He strode to the couch, heaved himself down with a relieved sigh, and gestured to another chair. “Go ahead, sit. Tell me why you’re here.”

Clare eyed Derik darkly. “How very Cresta of you.”

“Huh?”

“The commanding tone, the sharp gesture. Who made you boss?”

Derik tapped his fingertips together. “You’re in my apartment. You said you were going to help me, but in the end, I had to help myself. I know who I am and why I was created. I even know who wants to kill me. I’ve got my life under control, so there’s no great need for your services anymore.” Derik assumed exaggerated, professional politeness. “But I still need to pay you, right? You haven’t done much, but I’ll count your generous intentions.” He sat up and started tapping on his datapad. “Working, see?” He shook his head at Clare’s obvious incompetence.

Clare folded her arms across her chest as she stood in front of Derik, who though seated, could still glare intimidatingly. “You’re too kind. Listen, Derik, I may not have accomplished much, but I did listen to you, and I’ve always been willing to help.”

Derik nodded, his eyes returning to his datapad. “What account do I send it to?”

Clare stomped around the room, her hands clenched on her hips. “Would you stop? I’m not interested in getting paid at the moment. I don’t get compensated until the job is done, and I haven’t finished yet. You still don’t know the truth.”

Derik kept his finger poised over his datapad. “I know I’m thirty-percent Cresta and that Taug and I are friends. I’m helping him understand crossbreeds better, and he’s invited me to live at his lab, though I have other plans. So, I think I know the score pretty well, don’t you?”

“You don’t know everything.” Clare stopped pacing and leaned in. She stared Derik in the eye, one hand braced on the back of the couch. “Justine is an android. She’s a hired gun. I don’t know if she’s been hired to kill you or not, but it’s what she does for a living—if you can call being a robot, living.”

Dropping the datapad, Derik flew off the couch and smashed Clare against the wall, squeezing her neck.

She gasped, wrestled his bulging arms, and kneed him in the groin. They fell together across the coffee table and onto the floor.

Derik rolled on top of Clare and pinned her, choking the breath out of her.

Clare, wide-eyed, smashed Derik’s chest with her fists, attempting to shove him off, kicking and squirming, trying to roll to a more advantageous position, but Derik’s combined weight and strength were too much for her. In desperation, she bit his arm.

Derik slapped her across the face. “Stop it! Just stop.” His breath rose in great huffs as he blinked away tears. Sweat broke across his forehead. “I didn’t mean… I don’t want to hurt you!” His gaze lifted to the ceiling as his voice rose. “But you had no right to say that about her!”

Clare raised her hands protectively, turning her red-splotched face away. “Okay, you made your point. I was rude. Now think about what you’re doing. I’m a detective; you’re assaulting an officer. Twenty years…if you’re lucky.”

Derik rolled to the side, releasing Clare. “I could just as easily kill you, stuff your body in Taug’s incinerator, and no one would ever be the wiser.”

Clare scrambled to her feet, her eyes dark and narrow. “You are not the man I knew.”

Derik climbed onto his knees and rocked back and forth, hugging himself.

His raspy chuckle ascended into hysteria. “Of course I’m not. Neither of us knew who I was. And no one on Newearth knows what I’m becoming. Even Taug. I may surprise him yet.” Derik huffed to his feet and towered over Clare. “You don’t know Justine, either.”

Clare darted a look at the door and edged nearer. “I told you the truth, whether you want to believe me or not. She’s an android created with human DNA.”

Derik froze, his eyes strained and bloodshot. “Justine’s a crossbreed?”

“Something like that.”

“Then she’s perfect for me.” Derik dropped back onto the couch. “You’ve no idea how terrifying this whole thing’s been. Finding out that I’m not fully human, that I’m part Cresta, and just for added entertainment, someone wants to kill me. It’s enough to drive a man crazy.” Derik rubbed his face as if to wash away the horror. “But Justine is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not totally blind. I wondered… But I didn’t care! It’s like you said, she’s not attracted to my biology but my humanity.”

Clare stood before the door. “I remember. But I also remember telling you that she’s not the only one who cares for you. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Too late.”

“I know. But I’m not your enemy. At least, I wasn’t.” Clare rubbed her sore neck. “Now, I’m not so sure.”

Derik’s eyes flashed as he heaved off the couch again. “What does that mean?”

“If you can fly across a room and nearly strangle someone who’s only trying to help—the Cresta in you might go deeper than thirty-seven percent.”

Derik stepped closer, his eyes bloodshot and swollen. “If you ever insult Justine again or try to hurt her in any way, you’ll find that both the human and the Cresta in me can be very dangerous, indeed. Your work here is over.”

Clare nodded as she yanked open the door and straddled the threshold. “I work for humanity. If you become a threat, we’ll meet again.”

~~~

Cerulean stood against the wall as human workmen dressed in gray, durable clothes carried new furniture into Bala’s refurbished living room.

A mover grunted his question. “Where’d ya want it?”

Bala pointed to Kendra who immediately passed baby Martha to him and scrambled over the rolled-up carpet, directing the workers.

Cerulean leaned in, jiggled Martha’s finger, and grinned idiotically.

The baby wailed.

Bala passed Martha off to his son, who had just ambled innocently into the fray. “Emergency mission, Seth.”

Seth swooped the baby into the air, playing ‘space mission.’

“Keep the landings gentle, son,” Bala advised with a deceptive grin. “Or you’ll see her breakfast again in a distinctly unpleasant form.”

Cerulean grimaced as his eyes followed the two children from the room. “I wish you hadn’t put that image in my head. It’ll be with me all day.”

Bala shrugged. “Sorry. Life with kids. They do the darndest things.”

Cerulean nodded. “True. Amazing how well they recovered from their shock.”

Stroking his marred face, Bala concurred. “Yeah. Resilient. They take after their dad.”

Cerulean’s eyes twinkled as Bala affably gestured two heavy-laden movers toward his wife. “The boss is over there.” Leading Bala to a quiet corner, Cerulean lowered his voice. “Listen, I have a certain amount of influence in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee. I can make a formal complaint for you. This was clearly an Ingoti incursion on a human domain.”

Bala jumped forward and assisted one of the movers who nearly dragged one end of a large couch. “Steady there. I paid a top price at a half-off sale for these.” After the workmen unceremoniously plopped the couch against the back wall, Bala turned to Cerulean. “Nah. Don’t worry about it. After all, I did solve the Hoggsworth case, sort of. I tracked down the killer’s killer and, for what it’s worth, he’s on his way to Bothmal as we speak.” Bala scratched his chin. “At least, I hope he is.” He patted Cerulean’s arm and squinted. “You lost weight?”

Cerulean opened his mouth, but a baby squalled at the same moment.

Bala waved the answer off. “Silly me. Luxonians don’t lose weight. Light beings and all.” He surveyed Kendra’s frantic efforts to keep the movers’ work undeterred by the three-year-old, who apparently thought that furniture was to be sat on even when it was still in motion. “Listen, I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I just want to put this behind us.” Bala strode over to the child-laden couch and centered it.

A shadow filled the open doorway as an Interventionist stepped over the threshold. The three movers dropped what they were doing, pushed past the Interventionist, and retreated to their vehicle.

Cerulean sighed as he leaned against the wall. “Looks like you’ve got company.”

Bala turned. His mouth dropped open.

Pushing himself forward, Cerulean took charge. “Something I can help you with?”

“Only if you are Bala Impala and want a warrant for your arrest.” The Interventionist held a datapad at arm’s length.

Bala’s eyes grew wide as he tripped over the couch.

Cerulean snatched the datapad and scrolled through. “What’s this about?”

The Interventionist stiffened. “I was just told to bring Mr. Impala in on charges of domestic abuse.” He pointed to Bala. “You Mr. Impala?”

Bala swallowed and nodded. His gaze flicked over to his frozen wife and family. Kendra held a chair in one arm and the baby in the other. No one moved.

The Interventionist deadpanned his recital. “I hereby inform you that you have been charged with wife-beating, child abuse, and home-wrecking. Your human rights are guaranteed by the Inter-Alien Alliance, but anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. Will you come with me peaceably?”

Bala tapped his ears as if they were water-clogged. “I didn’t quite catch that. What—?”

Cerulean lifted his hand. His voice grew incredulous as his gaze scrolled over the datapad. “Someone is accusing Mr. Impala of abusing his family and destroying his own house?”

Bala muttered. “Why would—?”

The Interventionist threw up one protesting hand as he plucked back the datapad. “Don’t ask me. Why does anyone commit crimes?” He slapped the datapad against his palm. “Look, there’re witnesses. Pretty reliable sources, too. You’re going to have to sit in the tank till we get this sorted out. Now, just come along—”

“Bala!” Kendra plowed across the living room like Moses parting the Red Sea and threw her arms around her husband. “No! Not this!”

Bala’s head jerked back on impact. Hugging her and rubbing her back in large circles, he spoke over her shoulder. “You were right, honey. I can’t be tied to safety.” Responding to the Interventionist glare, he pulled away and muttered, “No matter how hard I try.” He faced the Interventionist and raised his limp hands. “I’ll behave myself.” With a nod to Cerulean, he shrugged. “Oh, about that offer—”

The Interventionist clasped manacles around Bala’s wrists and led him to the door. Bala looked back, tears welling in his eyes. “Keep the kids back. I don’t want them to see—”

Cerulean nodded as he put an arm around Kendra’s shivering form. His eyes followed Bala out the door.

~~~

Wearing a thick sweater and weathered jeans with snow-encrusted hiking boots, Cerulean trudged up his porch steps. Snowdrifts appeared flat and gray in the elongated shadows. He turned at the sounds of running steps and a voice calling his name.

Able, wrapped in a heavy coat, huffed into view. “Hey, Cerulean. I was praying I’d find you. I’m on my way to Vandi. There’s been an accident.”

Cerulean retraced his steps and stopped in front of Able, a weary frown shadowing his expression. “What happened?”

“Jim, one of our new members, got hurt, bad. He came to us last fall, insisting that he didn’t feel human anymore. He wanted to get back to nature and rediscover his true identity.”

Cerulean rubbed his forehead. “And did he?”

Able shrugged. “Hard to tell. Seems like a nice guy and all, but he’s different all right. We had some roofing fly off in yesterday’s storm, and against everyone’s advice, he scaled the ladder to fix it. He was just about done when he slipped and fell.”

Cerulean closed his eyes. “Lucky he’s alive.”

Able shook his head, his brows lowered. “Lucky isn’t the word. He fell twenty feet and landed badly. He should be dead or paralyzed.”

“A miracle?”

“Even I don’t believe that. When I saw him scrambling to his feet, I went over and gripped him by the arm.” Able leaned in and whispered, “His skin is cold and hard, like some kind of flexible-metal. He doesn’t wear a bio-suit or anything. He’s not human. At least not fully.”

“Oh, Lord.”

“You took the words right out of my mouth.”

“So what are you going to do? Take him in?”

Able sucked in a deep breath and raised his gaze skyward.

Small flakes of snow swirled around them. “I offered to take him to the hospital, but he got upset. You should’ve seen the terror in his eyes. He’s not well, his skin color was off before he even slipped, and he says he blacks out sometimes. Probably why he fell.”

Cerulean watched the flakes disappearing into the white ground, joined in anonymity, and sighed. “If he’s sick and needs treatment—”

Able rubbed his hands together. “Look, I’m not turning the guy over to authorities. He’s a serious mystery and might even be considered illegal.” He looked Cerulean in the eye. “There are worse things than death, you know.” Able stomped his frozen feet. “Anyway, I’m going to Vandi to pick up some supplies, but I just wanted you to know. I figure if something goes wrong, you’d—”

Cerulean nodded.

Cerulean sniffed and rubbed his frozen nose. “What could possibly go wrong?”

With a twitch of a smile, Able shuffled toward the trail.

“Yeah. Great minds think alike. Thanks, Cerulean.”

Staring at the footprints leading from his porch into a black night, Cerulean shivered.

~~~

Alone in the room, Taug stood before the image of his superior on the holo-screen. With head bowed and tentacles wrapped behind his back, he slouched like a hatchling being chastened by his elder.

The laboratory resided in solemn dimness, while the crescent windows near the top revealed the merest glimmer of dawn.

Mitholie shook a tentacle at Taug via the screen, his head and shoulders resting on the edge of a murky pool. “It’s not just your father’s mistake that’s a risk now. Other complications have come to light. Do you realize what this scandal could entail? Crestas would be ordered to leave the planet. There’d be interplanetary warfare—”

Taug looked up.

“Yes, I said warfare! We wouldn’t leave Newearth peaceably, of course. We’d be forced to take over the whole planet, which would set off a nasty chain reaction. Ingots and Uanyi, even Bhuacs would be furious. You know how many innocent lives would be lost and how expensive the whole process of re-stabilization would be? It would run into the quadrillions.”

Mitholie splashed his tentacle into the pool, sprinkling water across the screen. “Dark waters! I won’t have it. I gave you a direct order, and I have been more than patient while you played with your specimen. But it’s time that this matter was settled!”

Taug nodded. “I understand. Derik—I mean, my specimen— slipped away, but I have—”

Mitholie interrupted. “No more excuses! Your father’s mistake must be disposed of quickly before it’s discovered. Or I’ll be forced to send someone to dispose of my mistake. Do you understand?”

Taug’s head lowered, pressing against his chest.

“Good! I have a meeting with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee soon. I’d hate to inform them that they have a traitor in their midst.” Mitholie plunged and millions of bubbles surfaced.

The holo-screen blinked into blackness, leaving Taug in the dark.

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”– Francis of Assisi

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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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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Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/man-bridge-lonely-walk-wintry-1156619/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Fourteen

Hope Endures When Doubts Are Few

Bala stood on the transport-docking bay and watched as a massively muscled and well-armed human guard led a manacled Ingot forward. Bala held out his hand and accepted a datapad.

The guard grunted. “This your guy? Just give me your print, and we’ll be on our way.”

Bala studied the Ingot and pressed his hand onto the datapad. “Yep, it’s him.” He pursed his lips as they started away. “Hold on a second; I have a question.”

The guard frowned. “Hurry up, would you? I’ve got a schedule to keep. Bothmal is going to be busy tonight.”

Bala braced himself. “So tell me—why? I got all the evidence I need, but I just don’t get it. You didn’t have any record before this, and your family says that you’ve never been in any trouble before. They insist that you were practically an angel—far as Ingots go. So why hire Cho? Why kill Mrs. Hoggsworth?”

The Ingot shrugged. “Everyone has their price.”

Bala peered into his eyes. “Did someone threaten your family?”

A slight sneer cracked the Ingot’s indifference. “My family has never been safer.”

Bala shook his head. “I could argue that point. So what enticed you to risk spending twenty years at Bothmal?”

The Ingot’s derision was palpable. “I won’t be spending twenty years at Bothmal.”

Bala pursed his lips, tapping his fingers together. “It’s pretty secure. And the records are clear. You’ve got twenty with no chance of parole.”

The Ingot chuckled, swiveling his gaze over to the guard. “We going?”

The guard shrugged. “No time to waste today.” He nudged the Ingot down the long, gray corridor.

Bala stood back, frowning, as the Ingot strode to a corner, flashing back a confident grin.

~~~

Snow had fallen early in the day, but by the late afternoon, dreary, uneven shadows encompassed Clare’s study. Shelves lined with an assortment of trophies, graduation certificates, family photos, Oldearth artifacts, and a shellacked Easter egg stood in silent testimony to a few of her favorite things.

Clare hunched over a cluttered desk, one hand propping her head as she scrolled through files on a screen embedded in the wall.

A black cat sidled past, rubbing against her legs.

Clare lifted the feline onto her lap and stroked it absently. “Dang it! Justine is all over these files but only as a reference. Guess she wasn’t working for Right, after all—” She peered through the gloom at the purring cat. “Are you even listening?”

The cat meowed a long series of vowels.

Clare lifted it to eye level. “I just fed you—” She glanced at her datapad. “Is that really the time?” She stood, dropping the cat unceremoniously. “Come on. Why can’t you just hunt up some mice like all the other neighborhood quadrupeds? I bet they laugh behind their paws at you.”

The cat twirled around her legs, meowing even more plaintively.

“Okay, okay. Don’t trip me.” Clare crab-walked, avoiding the ever-present paws all the way to the kitchen, where she noticed a small mound of clothes stuffed in a corner, wedged between the hamper and the wall. With a frown, she reached down to scoop up the laundry when the cat sprang between her and the mound, a deep-throated yowl issuing from its chest.

Clare jumped back, snatching her hand out of the way. “What the hell?” She sidestepped to the closet and snatched a sweeper. Her attempt to nudge the cat out of the way failed, as the feline sprang to the center of the pile and placed its feet around a wiggling mass. Clare bent in, not too close, but close enough to realize what she was looking at. A smile spread across her face. “Awww! When did the babies come? I thought that was another week away.” She shrugged at the furious mother, who now glared as if Clare had indelicately intruded on private matters.

“Sheesh! You forgot who sprang you from kitty prison? Listen, I’m not the enemy, you know!” She ripped open a feedbag and dumped the contents into a wide dish and stood back as the cat scrambled for the food. Clare’s eyes darted from the mother cat to the kittens. Taking the smallest step possible, she leaned toward the mound. The mother cat sprang with another howl. Raising her hands in surrender, Clare backed off and returned to her wall screen, muttering. “Prison must’ve made you paranoid. Never trust a human—that your creed?” Suddenly she stopped and stared into space, a blush working its way up her cheeks. “Oh hell!”

Slapping the console, Clare worked her way around a series of files. “You know, Justine could tell me everything I need to know about Governor Right, but she happens to hate my guts just now. Justine, not the governor. Though…”

The cat rubbed itself around Clare’s ankles. Apparently, not being in the immediate vicinity of her kittens did wonders for the feline’s attitude.

Clare peered down at the cat and stroked it with her toe. “All friendly now, are we? Do you even care about me? As long as I keep that dish filled, the entire population of Newearth could be planning my demise, and you’d be content.” Clare huffed, paced across the room, and pulled on her shoes. “You think disassembling a robotic brain in the line of duty would be considered murder?”

The cat sat on its haunches, daintily cleaning its paws. A long tail swooshed contentedly around its back legs.

Clare rubbed her chin. “You don’t think it has feelings—” Clare shook her head and stomped back to her computer. She scanned the files once more and frowned. “Cerulean certainly seems to like her. And she looks at him like she might—” Slapping the keypad, the wall screen went blank. “Not my problem. He’s as old as the hills anyway!” She nodded to the cat. “I’ll trust you to keep ‘em safe. She snatched her datapad and dashed out the door.

~~~

The expanse of soft, white snow contrasted beautifully with the black, jagged branches overhead. Derik filled his lungs with the scent of distant pine trees and pristine, wintertime air. He stepped to the park bench and brushed snow to the ground in a fine dusting. His gaze swept the area and found Justine’s figure slowly approaching from the north.

His heart pounded as one hand fingered a small box in his coat pocket. It was the perfect location, the spot where they had first spoken together. Okay, they had actually first spoken in the middle of the Vandi street, but that was no place to propose, unless he wanted to end up in a hospital before she had a chance to say yes. His eyes followed her, fixed like a ship’s captain on the North Star.

Justine ambled forward, a soft smile playing on her lips. “You picked an odd place to meet today. Your apartment is a lot warmer and more comfortable.”

“I have a good reason.” He flourished a gallant gesture toward the bench. “Do you remember?”

Justine nodded. “The bench we shared the day I—”

“It was a fortunate accident that brought us together. I’d thank the driver, if I could.”

Justine shifted, digging her hands deep into her pockets. “Surely, we would’ve met eventually. Vandi isn’t so big.”

Derik placed his hands low on her waist and pulled her in close. “You believe in destiny?”

Justine swallowed, a worried gaze surveying the environment over his shoulder. “‘Faith in destiny, my beloved, entwines us true, for hope endures when doubts are few.’” She pulled back so she could look him in the eye. “Ancient Bhuac saying.” She attempted a smile. “Still, I trust my senses. After all, Vandi is only a few hundred kilometers wide.”

Derik threw back his head and laughed. “You always surprise me. Your brilliance is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met.” He stared into her eyes. “I don’t know another woman alive who’d have loved me, knowing what I am.”

Her gaze sliding over his, Justine leaned in for a kiss. Just before their lips touched, she wrapped her fingers around his neck and pinched him.

Jerking back, Derik grimaced and rubbed his neck. “Ouch! What’s that for?” He turned pale at the sight of blood. “I’ve heard of love bites but—”

Justine held up a tiny, black dot, squeezed between her fingers. “Sorry, an insect of some kind.” She dropped it and ground the speck into the dirt.”

“A bug? Like a tick? I thought those were eradicated.”

Justine turned away, her jaws tight. “Guess not.”

Blinking back his confusion, Derik fumbled with his coat pocket. “Never mind. I’ve got something for you.” Drawing out a small velvet box, he offered it to Justine. “It’s like the one my dad gave my mom. They had to special order it, of course, because no one makes these anymore.”

After one last surveying glance, Justine focused on Derik. An eyebrow rose. “You want to give me a box?”

Derik grinned. “Not the box. What’s inside. Remember, what you said when you told me you knew the truth.”

Justine froze. “What do you mean?”

“Open the box and find out.”

With a flick, the box opened, revealing a golden band. Molded symbols curved around the edge. Justine picked the ring out of its nest and held it up to the failing light filtering through the winter sky. Hearts intertwined with ivy leaves wrapped around the outside. Etched lettering spelled the words, Derik and Justine~Forever.

Derik’s eyes glowed in reflected glory as he watched Justine’s eyes fill with tears. He smiled as he drew her into a tight embrace. “Don’t cry. It’s our future. Together.”

Justine let the tears slip down her cheeks. She was not surprised at the ring or the offer. She was surprised at the tears.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~C.G. Jung

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/eye-rock-waters-tear-longing-3314176/

Funny How Life Goes

Who knew that staring at the neighbor’s backyard, watching for signs of life could be considered nosey?

I wondered if the whole concept of “Mind your own business” was carried just a tad bit too far. After all, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of the old man for weeks. He could’ve been dead for all I knew.

Or worse.

He could’ve turned into something… Okay, that image stemmed from last night’s horror flick that my teen son had insisted wasn’t scary. It all depends on if scary meant I freaked out on the couch or simply spent the entire day picturing my eighty-something neighbor as an alien experiment.

“Can I help you?”

Oh, great. The son. He caught me red-handed…actually wide-eyed. I turned from the fence amazed that he had snuck up so close. Gravel roads usually gave people away. And where were my lousy dogs? I gazed around. Sure enough. Napping in the sun…probably didn’t even lift their heads as this veritable stranger strolled up the driveway.

I faced the fifty-something gentleman and smiled brightly, frantically thinking up a good lie. Unfortunately, my mouth tends to leave the station before my brain is finished giving instructions.

“I just wanted to see if Mr. Jacob is still alive.”

A low whistle.

Well, I hit the prize impression with that one. “I mean…I haven’t seen him for a while, and he’s been on my mind.”

“He’s fine.” The man’s eyes stared at me as if an interrogation room was being contemplated. Dang, but he’d have the whole alien experiment thing outta me before I could get properly tied to the chair.

So what now? The guy is standing between me and my back door. I could skirt around him, pretending that I’m just ambling toward my garden to pick— Heck it’s full of seedlings too young to touch and with my daughter’s ruthless war on weeds, there wasn’t even a stupid dandelion to hide behind.

He clasped his hands and continued to stare as if he wanted to talk. Probably not about aliens.

The only decent thing to do was stand there and take it. Yes. I’ve been nosy. I’d imagined gosh-awful possibilities all day until I just had to sneak over and see if poor Mr. Jacob could still walk…or crawl…around his place. And no, I wouldn’t appreciate it if someone else was watching me with an overloaded imagination ignited by horror movie scenes.

Thoroughly ashamed was I.

He cleared his throat. Always a good sign. It meant he’d like to tell me off but was holding himself back.

“Dad’s been off his feed for weeks. My sister is spent taking care of her daughter who broke her leg and has three little ones to corral. I’ve got to go out of town for the weekend, and I was just wondering if you’d keep an eye on him for a couple of days.”

My brain couldn’t back up fast enough. For a moment, I actually believe I lost the power of speech. Which is darn unusual for me. “Uh…well…sure…I’d…be happy…to.”

“Pa thinks he can manage everything himself. But you know, he watched some scary movie last night and thought you were coming to get him for some kind of alien abduction thing.” The guy actually laughed.

At me!

I could’ve wept in relief.

“Oh, how silly!” I grinned good-naturedly. After all, I am a decent human being. From planet Earth no less. Heck, I now imagined baking this man the nicest pie in creation—after I fed his dad a delicious non-alien dinner.

Funny how life goes. When I sopped by over that first evening, Mr. Jacob backed up against the wall, apparently expecting my pie cutter to slice through more than crust, but when I unveiled the cherry pie, all was well.

Now I go to the fence nearly every day and stare until Mr. Jacob or his son comes out to chat. Occasionally I call ahead. But usually, they seem to just feel my presence. We meet up and talk. I might bring a pie. The son might bring a couple of beers. Mr. Jacob brings his smile.

And so far…no aliens.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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